Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Nostalgia Unvanquished

When I was in high school and college, the bees’ knees in the English Department was William Faulkner. Accordingly, I acquired paperback editions of everything of his that I could, even shelling out larger percentages of smaller allowances for hardbacks for the works that weren’t available in paper. And, since most of Faulkner’s novels take place in the fabled Yoknapatawpha county in northern Mississippi, and took as their subject a small number of families, I wanted to read them in chronological order, that is, the order in which the novels had been published.

Nineteen novels is a lot to read in one sitting, and, perhaps inevitably, I stopped about half way through, having read some of Faulkner’s more obscure works, and leaving some of his greatest works on the shelf. When we moved to Tucson last year, I drastically reduced the size of my bookshelf, and got rid of nearly all the fiction I had read. Which leaves me with a half-dozen or so Faulkner novels sitting on the new bookshelf, all in thirty-year-old paperback editions, their pages yellow with time. The books come from an age when blurbs weren’t necessary, so there’s no description of the novel anywhere, only “William Faulkner”, as if this were enough. It makes me nostalgic simply to look at it.

The writing also belongs to another time. It isn’t that nobody is writing challenging fiction today, or long rambling sentences (Infinite Jest, anyone?). It’s more the view of the South that Faulkner expressed in the mid-1930s. The novel I chose is The Unvanquished, which is set at the end of the Civil War, and it’s about as far away from contemporary Civil War novels as ribs from tofu. Faulkner’s stories reflect the ambivalence and confusion that must have been present, when people weren’t sure exactly what was happening. The scenes of slaves moving along the road at night, following Sherman’s march to the sea as if for salvation, and the Yankees who are omnipresent one day and completely gone the next, made The Unvanquished a moving read. And quite frankly, it probably took me thirty years to forget all of the Faulkner scholarship that was so much a part of the English Department all those years ago.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Around the blogosphere

I've mentioned the Lefsetz letter before, and his latest talks about the decline of the album format, largely because the iPod has changed our listening habits. Digital Audio Insider adds an additional factor that seems paramount to me: there is an endless supply of music to discover and explore. I'm absolutely sure that I could get every purchased CD for free on the various file sharing sites, and there's not that much music that I need to hear multiple times. I've already noticed that when songs on commonly played playlists on the iPod get a play count over about seven, I'm starting to get fairly tired of them. I'd love to find a way to refresh the playlists with new but similar music, without going out to get all new CDs.

Speaking of refreshing music, Eliot over at the Wired Listening Post offers a serious suggestion of how licensing might work in an environment that would support more unfettered downloading.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Music in motion

The contemporary dance troupe Pilobolus came to Tucson last night, courtesy of UA Presents, and performed a show that was by turns breathtaking and light-hearted. Pilobolus was founded in 1971 as an improvisational troupe at Dartmouth College, and has grown to include two touring companies, an educational institute, and a commercial structure that has made commercials, including a widely-seen commercial for Hyundai (below). Their movements are fluid, organic, and very impressive.

The opening and closing numbers had the largest number of dancers and presented the most serious side of Pilobolus. The opener, Aquatica, is a 2005 commission from Dartmouth College, and told an impressionistic tale of a girl at the beach who finds a companion in the waves. The two women frolic in the water, swimming under rocks, riding horses and dolphins, all of which were performed by the four male dancers. At the end, the tide rolls back in and takes the companion back to the waves. It was a beautiful and exhilarating piece, set to the music of Brazilian film composer Marcelo Zarvos. It also set one of the themes of the troupe, which was how two or more bodies can come together to create shapes that are organic but not at all human (the Flash display that introduces their web site contains a number of these shapes). The closing number, Day Two, from 1980, also required six dancers, again, two women and four men, and contained a number of set pieces for three pairs of dancers. There were amazing human sculptures as the mixed couples performed nearly identical movements at the front of the stage, while the remaining couple slowly moved back and forth at the back of the stage in the most unusual poses. The music was from the Talking Heads' Remain in Light, Byrne and Eno's Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and some of Eno's solo work from Another Green World. The numbers set to the Bush of Ghosts music were closely tuned to the religious overtones of the music, even including a stylized and ecstatic call to prayer over a worldbeat reading of the Koran.

The recital included one other new commission (also from Dartmouth College), a duet entitled Memento Mori. A suite of pieces with music ranging from Debussy to Bjork, the two dancers represented an elderly couple looking back on a lifetime together, and was by turns touching and comical. The show was rounded out with two shorter works from Pilobolus' early years, both of which emphasized vaudeville roots in their movements. For the curtain call, they flooded the stage with water and came sliding across the stage in various poses, extending the dance movements even to the most mundane of theatrical activities.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Just Plain Sound

For those of us versed in the vocabulary of western art music, Bernard Parmegiani's music is extraordinarily difficult to write about. There isn't even a commonly accepted name for the genre, which is sometimes called electroacoustic or acousmatic music (music designed for playback through loudspeakers, as opposed to music played live by instrumentalists), or musique concrète (music which was completely comprised of samples of sounds from the real world, as opposed to sounds which were electronically generated). Parmegiani studied directly with Pierre Schaeffer, musique concrète's inventor, and his early work is musique concrète in the strict sense. But now he is a ProTools user, and some of the sounds in his recent work are almost certainly generated electronically. For some reason, the genre is peculiarly French, with nearly all the major practitioners located in France or Montreal. Similarly, all of the major theoretical writings on musique concrète are written in French, virtually none of which have been translated into English.

Parmegiani's most recent release, entitled Plain Temps (which is sometimes hyphenated Plain-Temps on the cover, and sometimes not) is a suite of three pieces on the subject of time composed in the early 1990s, with the first and last pieces in the suite revised in 2006. The first piece, Le Présent Composé was released on his Violostries album a few years ago, but the other two pieces have not been previously issued on CD. The liner notes are in English and French, but the French texts are impressionistic and poetic, and the English often badly translated (e.g., "Things we do automatically or deliberately, the aim of which is the inflect the instant towards a composed continuity." Clear?) It might be more helpful if the English-language notes explained some of the peculiarities of the titles. The title of the first movement might be translated as The Composed Present, the second movement as In the Meantime, and the third movement (and for the suite as a whole) as Just Plain Time. But there are all kinds of additional meanings. The passé composé, or composed past, is one of two primary grammatical tenses in French to indicate an event in the past, and it is used to refer to events that took place at a particular moment in time (as opposed to the tense used to describe trends that took place over an indefinite period). And the title for the suite, Plain Temps, is a homonym for Plein Temps, which means a full day's work.

The earlier version of Le Présent Composé on Violostries was subdivided into four named sections, but all mention of the subdivisions have been removed on the new release, even though the silent separations still exist. After an annunciation chord, we hear a door opening and creaking on its hinges, with the last squeak prolonged and resonating as the annunciation is repeated, adding more and more overtones to the drone. The squeaking door is not only an auditory cue to enter Parmegiani's sound world, but is a reference to one of the pioneering works in the genre, Pierre Henry's Variations on a Door and a Sigh from 1963. The door will return throughout the piece, as the listener goes from one of Parmegiani's cinematic rooms to the next. The movement gets quite thick, with the high-pitched whistling layered on top of electronic percussion sounds. Very otherworldly, and it doesn't really sound like anything else. I hear several different layers in the music, but I can't relate it to any kind of human agency, but little sound figures recur often enough to keep the music from being completely disorienting. Parmegiani's music isn't disorienting, exactly, but I can't imagine humans playing it. A number of different groups have experimented with transcribing electronic music for acoustic instruments (such as the Italian musician Marco Lucchi, Bang on a Can with Eno's Music for Airports or the London Sinfonietta's work with Aphex Twin's music), but I can't imagine what instruments or notation that one might use for this.

The second movement, Entre-temps, opens with an amazing interplay between a ticking clock, turning pages, and background noise from general human activity. The middle of this movement is a long meditation developing a sound that reminds me of a wooden ball in a spinning roulette wheel. But the page turns again, and we're back in a world of whistling sounds, perpetually rising and fading away. In the climactic last minutes of the movement, all of the preceding sounds come together and in a mysterious blend over a slow heartbeat before the ticking clock returns at the very end.

The eponymous third movement opens with sounds that remind me of seagulls circling overhead, and perhaps these were the whistling sounds in the second movement. Several of the sounds introduced in the earlier movements reappear here, reminding me of a passage from Harry Mulisch's novel The Assault:

Whenever he thought about time,... he did not conceive of events as coming out of the future to move through the present into the past. Instead, they developed out of the past in the present on their way to an unknown future.

Although the third movement is generally quieter than the preceding two, the work closes with the resonating squeaking door that opened the first movement, tying all three movements together into a unified whole.

In Parmegiani's music, the traditional musical elements of pitch, harmony, and pulse are replaced by a play of dynamics, gestures, timbres and resonances. His sounds extend themselves in unique and remarkable ways, as with the squeaking door whose resonance grows to fill the entire sound spectrum, or the wooden ball skittering over the pockets on the roulette wheel. These elements take the place of melodic themes in orchestral music, but retain the same degree of complexity and interest for the listener.

One of the aspects of drone music that most appeals to me is the absence of a pulse, or at least of the binary pulse that stems from activities that we undertake as symmetrical beings, such as walking and dancing. One of musique concrète's epiphanies was the combination of removing the attack from a sound and putting the resonance in a locked groove, which enabled the listener to hear the inner workings of the sound during its potentially infinite repitition. Parmegiani's squeaking door and other drones extend this same insight. The sophistication of his tools permits not only a deeper investigation into a sound's resonance, but also provides the ability to layer many different sound objects in a much more polyphonic fashion than he could on his earlier works.

He also manages to put percussive and rhythmic events in his music without adding a pulse. Inevitably, something of the event persists and resonates, which gives his music a sense of space that I find exhilarating. His drones are more investigations and prolongations of the resonance of his sounds, but his percussive sounds are fascinating in themselves as they provide melodic and rhythmic contours to the music.

Parmegiani's music, like much of the musique concrète genre, is cinematic in the way it uses time. Most pop music, with its rock steady beat, moves at a fairly consistent rate. By combining silence in a sparse listening field with sound objects of great rhythmic flexibility and sophisticated melodic contours, Parmegiani slows down our perception of time, makes it seem to move more slowly, so that our senses are heightened waiting for the next sound events. Music psychological studies have shown how sensitive human hearing is for discrete sound events and different reverberations, and in Plain Temps Parmegiani spreads around his sounds in space and uses the objects' reverberations as compositional elements so our hearing becomes more acute, with listening and understanding following close behind.

Plain Temps is available from Forced Exposure and better music stores.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Pop goes the iPod

The iPod discussion that started over at Dial M has continued. Apparently some people are surprised that classical music lovers have pop music on their iPods. The iPod is merely the most recent step in music reproduction devices towards increased convenience and decreased sound quality. There are plenty of times that these two factors are desirable, e.g., during exercise, in the car, providing low volume background music at gatherings with friends, or late at night preparing for sleep. But often when I listen to classical music, I'm often following along in the score or desiring a more close listening session, and as long as I'm in my studio anyway, I'll listen to the CD because the sound is better. Professor Gann uses his iPod to hold every piece he's ever mentioned in class, so his iPod would probably have a lot of classical music, but it is most likely the convenience factor that leads him to use this tool. For all I know, he has a completely different iPod to hold his vast collection of microtonal speed metal.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Dennis Riley

A while back, I mentioned that while my piano was being rebuilt, I would work on a computer prototype of a new piano piece. The work I selected was Dennis Riley's Canonic Variations (Piano Piece No. 1). Riley was a professor at Columbia, but his compositions are poorly represented on recordings. He wrote three piano pieces fairly early in his career, all from the early 1960s when he wrote in a post-Webern style, using serial techniques. He died in 1999. There isn't a lot of information about him on the web, but there's a short CV here, and his papers are at the University of Colorado's American Music Research Center (Riley got his B.Mus. at Colorado).

Riley's three solo piano works are all published by C. F. Peters, and during the idealistic and fairly flush days of my youth (when I was living at home), I picked up the scores for all three. Peters published Cage and Feldman, and had a whole booklet for their contemporary piano collection, which was probably how I picked these up. The first two pieces are collections of very short pieces, Six Canonic Variations for the first one, and Five Little Movements for the second. They are both conventionally notated and published on standard 8x11 paper.

The third piece is completely different. Published more in a landscape format on larger paper, it uses the sostenuto pedal, has no time signature, lots of grace notes and complex rhythmic notations. There are three pages to the score: the first one has two staves that fill the page fairly normally. The second has nine system distributed on three lines, and three clear pieces of plastic with three more systems on each, which the performer should overlay on top of the page. This device provides a certain flexibility in performance, as presumably each performer will place the plastic differently. The use of plastic overlays is unique in my experience, although it's certainly related to some of the unconventional notation that was in the air at the time. The most famous examples are Stockhausen's Klavierstucke XI and Boulez's 3rd sonata, but my personal favorite was Henri Pousseur's Miroirs de Votre Faust, where the score had cutout windows so you could see through to the music behind the page that you were currently viewing.

Anyway, as a fulfillment of the exercise, I've posted an mp3 of Riley's Six Canonic Variations. It's only 90 seconds long. For my part, it was a worthwhile effort, and it might be fun to try something a little more unconventional next time.

Friday, February 2, 2007

The iPod Challenge!

Phil at Dial M challenges:

post a randomly-generated Ipod playlist on your blog, with relevant commentary

The first ten songs in an all-iPod shuffle produced the following:

- Bob James, Fly By. Yes, smooth jazz. I feel somewhat sensitive about smooth jazz from years of abuse of the genre on jazz and improv mailing lists. But my wife likes smooth jazz, and we share much of the music on the pod. I will say that the smooth jazz players really rock when they play live, and that some summer evenings spent at a nice outdoor theater listening to Dave Koz and friends have been among the most pleasant ever.

- Christopher Bissonette, Proportions in Motion. One of my first emusic acquisitions, Bissonette is an artist on the Kranky label who makes glitchy, droney ambient. According to the Kranky site, Bissonette uses piano and orchestral samples, but his sound most closely reminds me of Christopher Willits and other guitar ambient artists.

- Green Day, American Idiot. I got introduced to Green Day's music last summer at a family wedding. There isn't much else like it in our collection. I've never been a huge fan of punk music, and studiously ignore top-40 music by avoiding commercial radio and other outlets where corporate record companies try to part this particular fool from his money. But I like Green Day. Their melodies are catchy, lyrics interesting, and their songs make for great driving music.

- Univers Zero, La Tete du Corbeau. Out of all the pieces selected here, this one takes me the furthest back memory lane. In the late 1970s, a fondness for Mike Oldfield led me to try other artists on the newly-formed Virgin Records, which led me to Henry Cow, which in turn led me to Chris Cutler's pioneering label and distribution operation, Recommended Records. I quickly became an ardent supporter of Cutler's subscription model, and picked up virtually everything he released. One of the albums was Ceux du dehors, released by the Belgian group Univers Zero in 1981 (the catalogue number was RR 10). They're now considered progressive rock, with this album reissued on the great prog label Cuneiform, but the instrumentation here is drums, keyboards, harmonium, violin/viola, and bassoon/oboe (!), and their lineage is usually tracked more to Bartok and Stravinsky than their proggy contemporaries. Their music was dark and scary, and could not have been further from rock in my young adult mind. Their track Combat, from this same album, reminds me of the great battle scenes in movies like Ran.

- Austere, Puissant (from the Drone Download Project). Stephen Phillips of Dark Duck Records has an project that's starting its fifth year now, collecting tracks from various ambient artists and making them freely available for a short period of time. A very nice deep ambient collection which has pointed me to other releases by the artists involved. Since this is a track by Austere, let me also signal their release Eco, which is in heavy rotation for us at night. A significant portion of our iPod is taken with sleep music, and Eco is designed to be a sleep aid.

- Väinmaa, Lauri, Maja (from Urmas Sisask, Starry Sky Cycle). One of the most interesting discoveries I've made this year has been composers from eastern Europe, including Sisask, Peteris Vasks, Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen (okay, he's from Denmark), up to more prominent composers like Schnittke. Amazon had a fairly cheap compilation called Northern Lights, from which this track is taken. Sisask's Starry Sky Cycle is a set of short works for piano, for which I hope to track down the score one of these days. I've also been impressed with the vocal music from this part of the world, which Paul Hillier has documented on a number of Baltic Voices CDs. A nice way to use up my emusic subscription tracks at the end of the month.

- Mick Karn, Bestial Cluster. I have a history of finding boutique labels and sampling their artists simply based on sharing the label with someone I like. In this case, the catalyst was David Torn, a guitarist prone to electronic extensions and slithery lines, and the label was the recently-resurrected CMP, which carried not only Torn and Karn, but percussionists Marc Nauseef, Glen Velez and Trilok Gurtu, and some of my earliest exposure to Asian music. As it turned out, Karn was the bass player in Japan, whose singer was David Sylvian, of whom I am also a big fan, but Japan wasn't known to me at the time. (Sylvian's first solo album was on Virgin, which was how I discovered him.) Karn plays fretless bass on his two CMP albums, and the music sounds a lot like the kind of twisted pop that I associate with Eno's post-Roxy rock albums (e.g., Before and After Science, 801).

- Murcof, Reflejo. When I visit other hip urban areas around the country, I try to find the interesting independent record stores. I discovered Murcof at the Wall of Sound in Seattle a couple of years ago because they were playing Murcof's Utopia album on the sound system while I was browsing. I had never heard of Murcof, nor of the Nortec Collective in which Fernando Corona played before going on his own, but Murcof plays a very pretty, minimal techno, similar to Frank Bretschneider. He uses piano and string instrument samples to make a very spacious sound. Reflejo is from his most recent album, Remembranza.

- Emmy Lou Harris, Wrecking Ball. Sometimes it's interesting to follow pop producers when they work outside of their usual sphere. Daniel Lanois collaborated with Brian Eno on some classic albums, including The Pearl (with Harold Budd) and Hybrid (with Michael Brook). While I was following Lanois around, he produced this album for Emmy Lou Harris, of whom I was vaguely aware, but never having been a big country music fan, I had none of her albums. This one's very nice with some great songs, and it's been on every iPod we've ever had (we're on our third, having finally graduated to his-and-hers after the death of our 2nd-generation pod), and as a result has the highest play count of any of the tracks listed here. One amusing side note: I worked for a startup software company for a while, which was so small that all of the engineers (four of us) worked together in one room. The architect of the project didn't like headphones, so we had a boombox for the enjoyment of all. Our junior programmer only liked country music, which the architect hated, so the junior never got much of a chance to put anything in the rotation. I tossed this album in one day, and the junior and the architect got into a big argument over whether this album was country music or not. The ambient stylings and sort of rock background was so foreign to the junior that he couldn't hear the clear and unmistakable country in Harris's voice. I guess that makes this album a genre-bender, because I still don't like country music that much (although we did pick up Harris's recent duet album with Mark Knopfler, Roadrunning).

- Mono, 16.12, from Walking cloud and deep red sky, Flag fluttered and the sun shined. Ah, post-rock! I've become a sucker for this kind of music recently, these epic instrumental tracks played with a standard rock instrumentation, but which seem to me to stem from classical influences just as much. The day we arrived in Tucson last summer, Mono played at the same concert as Pelican, another big name in this area, and to my great regret I was unable to attend (due to just having arrived from a cross-country drive, etc.). Mono's albums are on emusic, and with the length of the tracks, they make quite a bargain there.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Eleven Fingers

Last time I went on a CD-buying binge, one of the items I was seeking was Jenny Lin's recent album, The Eleventh Finger. Two of her previous albums, Preludes to a Revolution and Chinoiserie, were in high rotation in my listening cycle because of their innovative programming and their unusual, and unusually playable, repertoire. As an amateur pianist with an interest in new music, I love to find 20th century repertoire that is within the reach of my technical and interpretive skills. In the 19th century, when recorded music did not yet exist, composers and their publishers actively courted musicians who made music at home. One of the consequences was that published music would cater to musicians of all levels. Chopin's etudes were among the earliest piano works to be published that deliberately targeted more virtuosic players, and with the advent of Franz Liszt and the public recital, composer-pianists wrote flashy showpieces that they could use in concert to dramatize their skills. Virtuosity for its own sake has remained with us, in popular genres such as jazz and rock as well as classical music. In classical music, the most recent culmination of virtuosity for its own sake is the so-called New Complexity movement, whose intent is often to challenge performers to such an extent that audiences can hear the musician's struggles. Sometimes the flash doesn't come off as well in recordings as it does in concert, and generally I have avoided recordings of extremely difficult music, and most of the New Complexity movement generally.

All of this background is merely to point out that The Eleventh Finger is an album of piano etudes. Although both of the earlier albums contained some virtuosic material, these pieces were balanced by more contemplative and less flashy works. Another significant difference from the earlier albums is that both Chinoiserie and Preludes focussed on early 20th century works, whereas the oldest piece on The Eleventh Finger was composed in 1977, and most of the works on the album are premiere recordings. Musical language has changed considerably over the last century, and the works on The Eleventh Finger are representative of many of these changes. Only two of the seven composers represented were born before World War II, Gyorgy Ligeti (whose last three etudes are included) and James Tenney, and their works are the most appealing of the set. Most of the music all sounds very modern and complex to me, even though one of the works (Claude Vivier's Shiraz) appears on Kyle Gann's post-classic piano list.

As long as I'm mentioning Shiraz, let me say that it was one of the biggest surprises here. This album is my first exposure to Vivier, and everything that I've read about his music led me to expect something quite different from this piece. In a Sequenza21 forum, composer Jeff Harrington suggested that Vivier's music was "very slow and weird", but Shiraz isn't like that at all. It opens and closes with repeated chords that almost sound like the beginning of Stockhausen's Klavierstucke IX, but quickly moves on to other textures. Some of the textures are indeed kinda slow, but they don't last long before they're interrupted with something more brassy and assertive.

The Eleventh Finger does share with Chinoiserie and Preludes a successful program for the CD as a whole. The fastest and most dramatic pieces bookend the collection, which starts with Arthur Kampela's Nosturnos and closes with Shiraz. After Nosturnos and the three Ligeti etudes, Lin also includes works that extend the sound world of the piano through external manipulation, from piano preparations at the extreme registers in Stefano Gervasoni's Studio di Disabitudine, to a recording of a second piano part in James Tenney's Chromatic Canon, and electronic manipulation in Elliot Sharp's algorithmic piece, Suberrebus. The remaining work on the album is Detail of Beethoven's Hair, by Randy Nordschow, an arrangement of a work originally for piano and two percussionists.

My lack of enthusiasm for this album should not be taken as a reflection on Lin's playing, which is stunning throughout. As a pianist of middling capabilities, I don't care much for pyrotechnics in general (one of the reasons I don't have many albums by Marc-André Hamelin either). I also realize that I have somewhat less patience for fast, dissonant music than I used to. Maybe I've been listening to Feldman too much. As Kyle Gann pointed out in a recent post, "Feldman discredited, single-handedly and forever, the traditional correlation of dissonance with violence or even anxiety." So I still like dissonance, but the complexity and speed are no longer areas of interest for me.

The Eleventh Finger is available from emusic and iTunes, but the CD booklet has a nice essay by Steve Holtje that provides interesting background on the individual works.