Saturday, January 31, 2009

An inside look at musical collaboration

Susan Tomes is a leading chamber music pianist, with several award winning CDs on her resumé, and who has also published a couple of books about chamber music. The first one, Beyond the Notes: Journeys with Chamber Music, consists mostly of tour diaries dating from her earliest chamber group, Domus, formed in 1979, up through an Australian tour of her current Florestan Trio in 2001. Her ruminations read like extended blog posts, and indeed, she currently writes the occasional column for the British newspaper Guardian.

Beyond the Notes is loaded with reflections on music and musicians, most of them tantalizingly mentioned only in passing. For example, on a break during the Florestan Trio tour in Japan, she goes to a porcelain museum, where an exhibit proclaims that it should ideally be viewed 'at ten o'clock in the morning, on a sunny autumn day, in a room facing north, with one "shoji" sliding paper door.' This leads to a short meditation on whether a musical piece can also have its ideal listening circumstances. Is this the curator specifying these instructions, or the thing itself? And does music have an ideal way that it wants to be expressed, a view from the inside out? Or does the performer find the ideal expression, a view from the outside in?

Such meditations are more focussed in the last quarter of the book, a collection of articles on various topics, including two which describe the process of recording chamber music. Phrases over which the group agonized seem inconsequential on the record. Nothing is recorded in a single pass; instead, the producer tells them that a certain span of measures is acceptable, so on to the next. Releases are pieced together in the engineering room, and a performer's brilliant and sublime performance may be discarded because a colleague missed a note, or worse, a noisy truck drove by the studio.

But the majority of the book is the tour diaries in chronological order, starting with the idealistic musicians testing their mettle against the marketplace. Not all of them succeed in remaining professional musicians, as some of Tomes' colleagues drop out of music to pursue more lucrative careers. They spend a lot of time trying to decide who they want to be, torn between improvisation, entertainment, and the more serious western art music. Keith Jopling at Juggernaut Brew has a recent post directing "pop musicians who are not yet popular" to ask the same questions, leading to the biggest one, their long term plan, whether to focus on the quick deal or sustainability. The search for a musical identity seems common to all small groups, not just chamber music.

The tour diaries demonstrate how Tomes answered these questions, moving from a young musician, open to all kinds of music, to an acclaimed specialist in the core 19th century classical repertoire. Part of this shift was the result of a few years as the pianist in the master classes of violinist Sandor Végh, where he spoke constantly about the great Germanic classical music traditions, how important it was to maintain them, and how they were in danger of being lost. During the early 1980s, Domus played children's concerts, improvisations, a fairly large variety of music. They were counselled to restrict their playing if they wanted to be taken seriously by the classical music establishment, and Tomes apparently took the advice to heart. By the end of the tour diaries, spanning a period of twenty years, she expresses disappointment at audiences who cannot distinguish between her group and other live performances of the same works, despite her acknowledged scarcity of such audiences. (I'm certainly not one. I can count the number of classical works of which I own more than one recording on the fingers of one hand.)

Despite this small touch of disenchantment with her audience, there is a lot to ponder in Tomes' reflections. The conversational tone of her writing, along with relatively few technical sections, make the book a quick read, with pauses only to consider the issues she raises, issues which go beyond genres, to the heart of what drives people to be musicians.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Sounds of silence

Since I returned from the week-long SICPP last summer, my piano practice has tapered off in exchange for studying computer music, so I have gravitated toward shorter and somewhat easier pieces. I have always enjoyed the music of 20th-century Spanish composer Federico Mompou. His most well-known works are probably a series of Song and Dances (Cancion y Danzas) which he wrote at various times throughout his career, and one of which I included on my audition tape for SICPP. But lately I've been playing the first of four books entitled Musica Callada.

Composed over several years starting in 1951 when Mompou was nearly 60, the twenty-eight pieces in Musica Callada are succinct miniatures that sum up Mompou's aesthetics. Nearly all of them are in a slow (and sometimes very slow) tempo, and all are fairly short, most of them under three minutes duration. Mompou is often compared to Erik Satie, whose charming Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes remind me of Mompou's songs. But Mompou's harmonies, especially in his later compositions like Musica Callada, are considerably less tonal than Satie, and being a generation younger than Satie, his music was deliberately closer to the Impressionism of Debussy and Ravel. In fact, as Mompou wrote in the work's introduction, Musica Callada is "an endeavour to express the idea of music that was the very sound of silence. Music keeps its voice silent, that is, does not speak, while solitude has its own music."

Besides the slow pace, how else does Mompou try to capture music of silence? One of the ways people can lead silent lives is through religious contemplation, and the opening piece in Musica Callada strongly recalls plainsong, the monophonic, unmeasured music of the early Catholic Church. It has a single melody, accompanied by single chords that sound like bells. Bells show up often in Musica Callada, perhaps reflecting their ubiquity in Catholic Spain, filling the air with their resonance at all hours of the day and night, as well as sounding the liturgical hours. Even the miniature form itself is a manner of approaching silence.

Most large form classical music requires a well developed short term memory. Symphonies and sonatas have primary and secondary themes, development sections where these themes are chopped up into little motifs and reworked, and recapitulations where listeners are expected to recognize not only when the themes return, but the fact that they are in different keys the second time around. The short duration of miniatures like Musica Callada accepts forgetfulness and encourages a simple awareness of the moment. If my mind wanders listening to one of the pieces, I can return my attention later and not have missed some crucial fragment that will supply a musical epiphany. In The Time of Music, Jonathan Kramer discusses moment form, a term popularized by Stockhausen, as an intermediary between the sonata's directed time and the timelessness of drones. Musica Callada isn't strictly moment form, but the pieces are often too short to stand on their own, so it shares many of moment form's characteristics. Especially in the first two books, which contain the shortest pieces, the suite provides a succession of disconnected pieces without an overarching emotional trajectory, without noticeable formal connections between the pieces. Unlike Chopin's preludes, another collection of very short pieces, there is no underlying unifying harmonic scheme — most of Musica Callada isn't even tonal.

Awareness of and immersion into the present provides the appreciation of drone music as well, so there is a common thread to the music I perform as well as the music that occupies much of my listening. It's an interesting question for long-form music generally: how much short-term memory is required, how much do I need to retain from what has already happened to appreciate what lies ahead? Moment form is a different solution for eliminating artificial drama than Kramer's vertical music or Kyle Gann's Absolute Present, but it's all a way to honor perception over memory. In his book Haunted Weather: Music, Silence and Memory, David Toop points out that "the withdrawal of noise is replaced by a louder phenomenon, a focussing of attention, an atmosphere, which we mistakenly describe as silence." In Mompou's case, the attention and atmosphere are unmistaken, and the voice of silence makes itself heard in the focussed tranquillity of his miniatures.

The score for Musica Callada is published by Editions Salabert, either each book separately or all four books in a very nice, reasonably priced album along with several other works. There are several recordings of Musica Callada on compact disc and through iTunes and emusic. The phenomenal 20th century specialist Herbert Henck recorded a beautiful version for the ECM New Series, which I can recommend highly. He also wrote a personal essay for the booklet, but the music is available at iTunes (without program notes). Martin Jones (for Nimbus) and Jordi Maso (for Naxos) have also recorded Mompou's complete works, including Musica Callada, both available at iTunes and emusic. Finally, Mompou himself recorded his complete works in 1974, i.e., at age 80! His rhythms are occasionally a bit idiosyncratic, but the interpretations are authoritative.

The photo of Federico Mompou with his daughter at the piano taken around 1955 is from the official Federico Mompou web site. I would have provided a link in the main text, but the site uses Flash exclusively, and I am unable to get any language except Catalan. The usual starting composition date for Musica Callada is 1959, but the biography at the official site says (based on my parsing of the Catalan) that he started its composition in 1951, and published the first volume in 1959. Given the absence of any available authoritative biographical material in English, I have used the earlier date.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


I've had a couple of positive attentions recently. First, Distance Learning Net has included Classical-Drone among the top 100 musicology blogs. It's an august group overall, including nearly everybody in my blogroll and some sites that are new to me (and which I'll be perusing). In addition, Distance Learning Net has lots of information about online education, and their blog has other interesting productivity posts, well worth tracking and a good resource for future endeavors.

The second recognition is the inclusion of Cathedral on Mystery Sea's best of 2008 list. I haven't written anything specifically about Mystery Sea yet, but it's one of the top ambient music boutique labels, with an artist roster ranging across the celebrity spectrum. Prolific artists like Celer and Michael Northam have releases alongside relative newcomers. The releases are uniformly gorgeous, all keeping with a subaquatic theme. Their only downside is that each release is limited to 100 copies, and they are not available on any download platform. Their newest releases are generally available through Aquarius or can be ordered directly from Mystery Sea, with relatively quick delivery to the US.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Cathedral remix

Shortly after the Webbed Hand release that featured an excerpt from my electronic piece Cathedral, I got an email from Phil Garrison, who records as Wavespan and who also had a track on the same compilation, expressing an interest in doing a remix. I sent him the original sound files, and we exchanged a couple of other notes. His album Tilling the Soul was released on the ambient netlabel Dark Winter, the label's final release for 2008. It's a nice collection of a dozen pieces, based on field recordings, gongs, household objects, and including a series of four "Piano in Slow Motion" pieces (the fourth of which is the Cathedral remix), and capped with three remixes from Mystified.

More information and download links at Dark Winter.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Other views on 2008

One of the pleasures that occurs this time of year is the best-of-year lists from so many different sources. Music junkies need reliable sources for new music and new artists, and these lists provide a valuable service to reflect on the high points of the previous year. A worthwhile annual review will have enough overlap with material I've heard and enjoyed for me to trust the source, and the best ones provide additional commentary and context (something my own simple list did not). So for my last post looking backwards to 2008, I've gathered some notes on annual reviews that will keep my curiosity piqued.

For many years, my standard source for new music has been The Wire, an eclectic new music magazine from England. I subscribed to Rolling Stone through the election for their entertaining political coverage, but their musical taste is too commercial and too narrowly focused on mainstream pop to have much lasting interest, and I let my subscription lapse. So The Wire the only print source that I still use. Their annual "Rewind" issue lists their top 50 albums overall, and the top 15 within individual genres. I have seven albums from their top 50 (including two in the top 10), two in the Electronica charts, and three from Modern Composition, although we only had one overlap in our annual reviews (Earth). Usually I have a fair representation of their Outer Limits, but perhaps my taste is getting more conservative, or, more likely, their Outer Limits are getting more obscure.

I like The Wire's classical charts because of its contemporary focus, whereas most classical music lists are, again, too narrowly focused on the standard repertoire. Ionarts, for example, includes on his list only one new release of music written since World War II, an album of Peteris Vasks's choral music. He also includes DGG's massive 32-CD set of Messaien's complete works among the best reissues, kind of a slam dunk in this year of Messaien centennial (The Wire included a volume of organ works, its only foray into standard repertoire), but otherwise we have Stravinsky, Mahler, Prokofiev, Haydn, Mozart, etc.

The online zine Textura also had an interesting mixture in their best-of-2008 list, a fine blend of contemporary electronica, pop, ambient, and dub. We shared two items in the top 20 (Jacaszek and Ruhlmann/Celer), and they include some commentary that will prompt me to seek out some of the others.

My fellow bloggers provide some of the most unusual lists. Brian Olewnick gives his top 85 (out of 200), divided hierarchically into the top 10, middle 12, and the rest. There are lots of artists here I don't know, which I find attractive, but I suspect that it's mostly contemporary improvisation, with a healthy smattering of modern composition and drone ambient. Two items from my top 20 made Brian's middle 12 (Feldman and Murray). Robert Kirkpatrick at Spiral Cage had a fascinating approach, a daily series of posts covering twelve interesting recordings from 2008, all with extensive commentary and footnotes. He introduces the project as his personal response to the stream of best-of-the-year lists, and his final post contains an index to each of the twelve pieces, as well as other highlights that he did not cover. Again, heavy on contemporary improvisation, although he includes a Cage number piece and one of Radu Malfatti's very sparse compositions.

Two last examples from the blogosphere. The first is from Richard Pinnell, a radio producer who also runs Cathnor Recordings. His year-in-review article is touchstone of this particular genre. His context extends far beyond a simple paragraph about a particular work into a reflection on whole genres of music and modes of listening. And finally, Disquiet's report on the best of 2008 is divided into commercial albums, freely available downloads, and "cultural processes that came into their own in 2008." Marc is the only annual compendium to honor netlabels (my other source, Free Albums Galore, didn't publish a review list). But Marc's comments about drones struck close to my heart:

What elevates one drone above another? Much of the music heard here, from the entirety of Kevin Drumm’s aptly named Imperial Distortion, to several key moments on the equally appropriately titled Ghosts from Nine Inch Nails, to the audio cumulus of Ryonkt, qualifies as a drone. A drone is precisely the sort of sound that is easily dismissible as background noise in our ever more electronically enhanced and mediated society. It is also the artistic territory of a wide range of musicians. The seemingly fungible nature of drones may give the lie to the whole act of distinguishing between (or within) any types music.

This is a question to which I keep returning, as well as the larger one of how to define quality in music. What makes one piece of music "good" and another, less so? Sometimes when I read reviews where the author passes judgment on the artwork, I wonder where the author gets the arrogance to proclaim that a work is "such a dog," when what is really on display is simply the author's taste. Granted, reviewers may have exposed themselves to more examples of the genre, and may have studied various technical aspects of the craft, but one person's endless tangents is another's enriching context. I haven't found an answer, of course; I'm not sure there is one. Blogs provide a democratization of history, so that good listeners can provide their own chains of context, personal highpoints and testimonials, so that other listeners may seek intersections and find their way to new music and new artists.

And finally, this blog is two years old today. Happy blogospheric birthday to me!

Friday, January 2, 2009

Media in 2008

Last year around this time, one of my resolutions was better tracking of the provenance of new music, specifically how much I acquired on compact disc, and how much I acquired from downloads. Glenn at Coolfer noted in a recent post an 27% industry-wide increase in digital track sales, an increase that is reflected in my own purchases in 2008. Simply in the number of albums, legal downloads outpaced CDs by a slight margin, 39% to 33%, with the remainder in bootlegs like the Avant Garde Project and various other media (SACD, mini-CD, DVD-A).

Some purists are still surprised that anybody would buy a download, but the vast majority of my listening takes place either from iTunes or its extension, the iPod, and the price point is considerably less for downloads than for CDs. Even from the music industry majors, such as DGG, the download is a couple of dollars less expensive than the same music on CD. Take into account vendors like emusic and Amazon, and the price of an album goes way down. By cost, CDs in 2008 outpaced downloads 75% to 12%. Granted, there are a couple of ways that the data is skewed. Many of my legal downloads are from netlabels (who have grown in my respect since I now have a release on one ), whose price point is zero. Netlabels and other freely available music accounted for half of my downloads this year. On the other side, although some of my CD purchases were unusually expensive, either because they were multi-disc sets (such as the Parmegiani box), special limited editions, or costly imports, these were offset with promotional CDs I received, leaving my average CD price just under $13.

My biggest regret about the increased downloads is the absence of cover art, which has dwindled to zero after the glory days of the LP. I've noted time and again the classical labels that provide the same CD artwork in PDFs, and iTunes occasionally has a digital booklet with a pop release. I wish that all labels that have a digital presence would do the same. It isn't enough simply to have the front cover, despite emusic's recent upgrade that puts it in a larger format. I realize that cover art is not viewed as often as the music is heard. Even with CDs, there is more effort to extract the booklet than simply to get the CD out of the jewel case. Perhaps this is an opportunity for labels to get more value for CD purchases, although often enough the cover art on CDs is so minimal that I kick myself for shelling out extra when I could have downloaded the same music. Hey, I'm on a budget here!

An interesting solution to the media formats is for labels to bypass the CD altogether. I recently discovered FSS, a label that provides music in vinyl and download formats, but not CDs. The most hard-core audio purists still buy vinyl, and the luxurious artwork is manipulated, even caressed, every time the music is played. If I had the space, I would love to have retained my vinyl collection when we downsized. FSS isn't the first time I've seen this combination, but I find it a creative response, unusual in the music business, and I wish them all possible success.

As for resolutions for 2009, I'd love to play more, write more, listen more, but there is nothing in that list that I don't already seek every day. 2008 was a good year musically, and I look forward to all of the new music that will come my way in 2009.