Sunday, April 26, 2009

Scriabin the miniaturist

My recently confessed immersion in Alexander Scriabin's music is because he, like Federico Mompou, is one of the great composers of miniatures for piano. The Russian composer-pianist wrote a large number of miniatures, atmospheric little pieces that presage Stockhausen's moment form better than Mompou's. Scriabin's various extra-musical activities may be better known, such as the development of a color keyboard and the grandioise, mystical musical apotheosis that remained in sketches at his death. Musically, a handful of large-scale pieces, ten sonatas and a half-dozen large orchestral works, gets the most attention from critics and virtuoso pianists, but his short works are technically accessible, musically very interesting, and have the additional advantage of being somewhat outside the standard repertoire (unlike the Chopin preludes, the easiest of which are among the first real pieces that piano students are taught). Except for the orchestral works and a couple of juvenilia that were never published during his lifetime, everything he wrote was for piano.

Scriabin's definitive biography in English, Scriabin: A Biography of the Russian Composer, 1871-1915 in two volumes, was published in 1969 by Faubion Bowers, who also saved the Kabuki theater in Japan after World War II. Its writing style is a throwback to an earlier era of scholarship, with virtually no footnotes and a minimum of jargon. Bowers describes Scriabin's life in all of its soap-operatic detail, and he includes extended translations of Scriabin's notebooks and mystical poetry, but there isn't much in this book about the music or Scriabin's relationship in the turbulent culture of his time (the book clearly predates the cultural studies fashion). But in Scriabin's centennial year, the Soviets opened up some of his archives to western authors, and in 1973 Bowers published a second and much shorter book, The New Scriabin: Enigma and Answers. Only 200 pages instead of the biography's 650, The New Scriabin skims Scriabin's life in the first half, then spends the second half on his mysticism, his commentators and his music.

Unlike Mompou, Scriabin concertized throughout his life, playing his own music across Europe and even for an American tour. My speculation about moment form for Mompou's small pieces was much more of a reality for Scriabin. Although most of his published opus numbers were collections of short pieces, only one of them (opus 11) was a recognizable cycle, and he seems to have published collections based on financial need rather than anything inherent connecting the pieces. On his concert programs, Scriabin treated each piece as an individual to be juxtaposed freely with any other piece, intermingling the sketches with one or two sonatas over the course of the concert. All-Scriabin Russian concert recordings from the 1950s and 1960s suggest that the groupings of short pieces were treated as multi-movement works, and that breaks for audience applause occurred only after larger works such as the sonatas. This practice can create a pleasant sense of drift, as each piece has its own self-contained atmosphere. In my own playing, I combine Scriabin's miniatures with Mompou's and Stockhausen's (the Tierkreis zodiac melodies).

The turn of the 20th century was a pivotal moment for western art music when the late romantic harmonic language lost all tonal bearings. Scriabin's music exemplifies this shift, from his early works which are very much in Chopin's mold, to his late works which are among the first atonal compositions. He claimed to have a complete harmonic system all worked out, but scholars still debate what's going on harmonically in Scriabin's late work. Although his tonal works have attractive melodies, I find myself drawn to his middle period, when there was still enough tonality to have a resolution, but the coloring is so languid that fatigue doesn't set in. When I hear too many of the early preludes strung together, there's too much tension and resolution, and I find myself rapidly weary. With too much from the late period, I don't hear any points of reference at all. His harmony has a lot in common with jazz, and I stumbled across a big band inspiration from some of Scriabin's late pieces that is a much better album than the name (Scriabin's Groove) and label (Super Bad Trax) would suggest.

I noted a while back that classical albums aren't sequenced for the best listening experience, but act instead as an encyclopedic reference. This is especially true for a composer like Scriabin. There are a number of complete sets available of Scriabin's sonatas, but they are such dense and complex pieces that I can't listen to 70 minutes of them back to back. The miniatures are grouped together and presented as units as well. Often this circumstance drives me to the download sites, but the miniatures are so short that they are a pretty bad deal on emusic — I would spend my entire monthly allowance on one and a half CDs worth of material. So Scriabin remains somewhat of a guilty pleasure, a composer for performing more than for listening, for savoring in the privacy of my studio.

The photograph of Scriabin at his piano is by Alexander Mozer, the physicist who worked with Scriabin developing his color keyboard.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Works around the blogosphere

Earlier this week, Phil @ DialM posted a meditation on the nature of the performing self that disappears into the flow of the performance, leading Phil to question the nature of the decisions that comprise a performance, and wonder to what extent these decisions are conscious. Composer and part-time blogger Douglas Boyce took Phil's performance thoughts and related them to composition, moving the consciousness of the decision further into the background:
Either one is forced to considered every sound-event is the consequence of a choice (conscious or other wise) by a single composer, or consider the composer as part of a tradition of musiking of which this work in its particulars and similarities to other works as a particular instantiation or draft.
I've posted about the nature of works a couple of times. I can appreciate that musical decisions come from a ground of possibilities, just as the fact that I'm using American English here sets the range of possible utterances in this blog. But our musical intentions, why we decide to play this piece and not that one, how we choose from an infinite set of possibilities to this specific instance, is a choice for which I take responsibility, which I own. There are many factors involved in this decision, some of which I made recently, some of which I made years ago, and some of which no doubt I would be unable to articulate.

One of the reasons I pursue music is exactly this state of flux. Music is the most participatory art because of these ambiguities. When I study and learn to play a piece by Morton Feldman, I establish a communication with him that is stronger than listening to a CD or reading an interview. Does it matter that my performance of Feldman's won't be as authoritative as Aki Takahashi's, or that her performance will be heard by thousands of people whereas mine will be heard by only a few? The range of performances that will be recognized as "Morton Feldman" is very wide (even including a reduction of an orchestral work to a "power trio" of electronics, piano and percussion), and therein lies the mystery and the joy of music.

Douglas's comment brought to mind a recent post from Matthew Guerrieri on the famous Either/Or by Søren Kierkegaard, which identifies the decision as the discontinuity that separates faith from despair. Given the irrational understandings that let me play and compose, and even though I don't consider myself to be a religious person, Kierkegaard's perspective illuminates why I need to keep paddling even though I'm adrift in a pretty big body of water.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Scriabin the mystic

Lately I've found myself immersed in the music of the Russian composer-pianist Alexander Scriabin lately. Born in 1871, Scriabin flourished at the cusp of tremendous musical and social changes before he died somewhat prematurely in 1915. His earliest compositions are very much in Chopin's shadow, including Chopin's favorite genres of the etude, prelude, nocturne, waltz and mazurka, and even a polonaise. But later he became interested in mysticism, specifically the Theosophical Society and the writings of Helena Blavatsky, and his music increasingly diverged from even the loose tonal standards of the late romantics. He continued writing preludes and etudes, but increasingly he called his short pieces poems or gave them unique and sensuous titles (e.g., Desire, Strangeness).

Faubion Bowers, his biographer, compares his mysticism with offhand remarks from the famous classical composers, but even more, his mysticism reminds me of Stockhausen. To be fair, Bowers wrote in the 1960s before Stockhausen's extra-planetary leanings became so pronounced. Nevertheless, Scriabin envisaged an orchestral work that included an airplane propeller in the percussion section, and Stockhausen composed a string quartet with helicopters. Scriabin's unfinished magnum opus Mysterium, based on Theosophical teachings, took a week to perform, incorporates incense into the stage settings, and ends with transfigured mankind immersed within the birth of a new God, creating a new race of spiritually advanced men. Stockhausen's magnum opus, the opera Licht, based on the Urantia Book's teachings, takes a week to perform, disperses fragrances into the audience, and is a summation of musical and religious thought, intended to "train a new kind of human being … who has never before existed on this planet."

This is not to say that Stockhausen is channeling Scriabin. The differences between the two composers are profound, and we should not be diverted by the connections between them, amusing as they may be. Scriabin's music inhabits the equal tempered musical world of western art music, dominated by the piano, perhaps the central instrument of this tradition. He ended up finding ways to stretch the vertical, late romantic tonal system into new shapes, harmonic chords that analysts still disagree as to their nature, or even their spelling. Stockhausen had the much finer gradations of the electronic studio at his disposal, so he went beyond harmony and sought the nature of music in time, looking at horizontal time scales that were inconceivable to Scriabin. And where Stockhausen sought to connect with the vibrations of the universe, Scriabin thought that he was the vibration of the universe, more of a megalomaniac than Stockhausen at his most extreme. Arguments in favor of understanding the composer's intent fall short when the intent is so clearly over the top, and as listeners, it is our responsibility to find for ourselves a spiritual message to sober and quiet the mind.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Recent orogenetic activity

If the genre "world music" wasn't already defined as pop music from different cultures, one might be tempted to use it for the ever traveling Michael Northam, whose sound composting methodology has created some deep and resonant drone pieces over the past decade. A look at his discography, approaching three dozen items from nearly twenty years, shows a blend of solo work with a changing group of collaborators, with barely two albums released on the same label. For a pop musician, this would indicate serious interpersonal difficulties, but in Northam's case, it signals an openness to situations and relationships from the most diverse possible origins. Three of his recent releases offer examples of this wide range.

Late last year, the Faria label in Russia released An Opening of the Earth: Recovered, a collaboration with Martin Franklin. Of all Northam's collaborators, Franklin is one of the furthest from Northam's usual environmental and electroacoustic methods. Franklin is a percussionist whose best known project is Tuu, a tribal new-age group with several releases on ambient boutique labels such as Waveform, Amplexus, and Fathom (a sublabel of the seminal new age radio show, Hearts of Space). Northam and Franklin's album predates all of this and is the earliest material that Northam has released. The original session was a three hour improvisation in September, 1991, and this material has been the source for three different versions of the album, all entitled An Opening of the Earth. For the Faria release, Franklin went back to the original source tapes and constructed what appears to be a brand-new release, reputedly incorporating some elements that have not been released in previous versions. In the liner notes, Northam seems to express some surprise at the difference between "the rawness and sustained states" of the original session, compared to shorter events and other (unspecified) characteristics.

Despite its undoubtedly primitive origins and rudimentary recording, the first impression of the recovered album is how contemporary, crisp and clear everything sounds. Although I haven't heard either of the two early versions of this material, I would have expected less than stellar original masters not necessarily preserved with the highest archival standards. While the album doesn't sound much like later work of either musician, in hindsight one can detect the directions that each performer would take. Franklin sets up sustained backgrounds and modal melodies with various synthesizers, a trope that became a staple with Tuu, and which provides an aura of prevailing calm. Northam punctuates the proceedings by tapping, scraping, brushing, and crunching various metal objects, creating intuitive and arhythmic metallic gestures that bring to mind his more recent improvisational work. One of Northam's credit is feedback loop, which perhaps accounts for the occasional squalls and the more noisy static and naked input jack episodes that echo repeatedly into the distance. Each of the eight excerpts (all with titles like Tape 1, Part 1) has its own moods and atmospheres, mysterious combinations of the raw and the cooked.

If Martin Franklin represents a new-age pole for Northam's musical partners, avant-noise percussionist Seijiro Murayama is at the opposite end of the musical spectrum. Murayama was the original drummer in Keiji Haino's seminal noise rock/free improv/psychedelic group Fushitsusha, and has since formed a long-term association with multi-instrumentalist K. K. Null in the group Absolut Null Punkt. Early in 2009, Murayama and Northam released Moriendo Renascor on Xing Wu, an experimental music label from Malaysia, based on recordings and meetings between 2003 and 2004. Moriendo Renascor is their second release together, although the exact chronology is somewhat conflicted. Northam's current web site says that they first met 2003, but the information from their first release together, a mini-CD and download entitled They Stood Around and Watched says it was recorded in 2001. In addition, the music on the earlier release is considerably less processed, exhibiting layers of percussion and flute that could have been the raw feed from a live improvisation. No such clarity is present on Moriendo Renascor, which steers much more towards Northam's composted sound, where layer upon layer is turned, seeded, and activated to become a set of murky, atmospheric electroacoustic pieces.

Compost is an apt metaphor for this collection, whose title means "In dying, one is reborn," a sentiment common to many religions as well as gardening, and here expressed in a nearly extinct French dialect. The album is full of complex ambient drones, barely audible voices and little murmurings occasionally audible, but mostly exhibiting gentle undulations of natural processes brought out through Northam's composting. These drones provide the backdrop for wooden rustlings, stone scrapings, high-pitched whistlings and swishing, occasional bells, and various small details extracted from field recordings. There are few traces of overtly electronic sounds; even these may dissolve into a more natural provenance. The pieces have their own internal cycles, not exactly a narration, but movement from loud roars to very quiet, with sharp internal transitions that belie the track separations (which are inconclusive anyway, with four tracks identified as I, IV, III and II, and ordered differently on the back cover and the inner sleeve). Murayama and Northam use these quiet ambient drones to focus the attention on mysterious foreground activities, whose origins defy elucidation even as they draw in the listener. Drones drift through the pieces like streams through a forest, creating a remarkable sonic environment that reflects the natural ones in Jura and rural France where Murayama and Northam created the work.

January 2009 also saw the release of a solo piece entitled Memory of A, a mini-CD on the Parisian label Taâlem. This is Northam's first solo release since Go in 2006, a tribute to his father, which was also his last release using the mnortham alias which graced nearly all of his previous work. Memory of A is based on recordings that Northam made on a "microtuned tubular zylophone" at the Adishakti Center in Pondicherry, India, in December, 2007. It feels like a new direction for Northam, where the original unaltered recordings intermingle the composted sounds. The dramatic opening, an intense buzzing vibration, is pure timbre, not clearly tied to a zylophone, but it evolves into a full, quietly evolving harmonic drone, with the first unprocessed tones showing up about five minutes into the piece, just as the buzzing is fading out. Northam comments on the unusual winter rain during the recordings, so doubtless this became part of the constant background drone. Crows and crickets show up, giving a sense of space to the music. The relatively constant zylophone tones, alternating the stereo field and hanging limpidly like a mobile, act as the background to a brief sections of unrecognizable origins, scrapes and a rush of tumbling white noise, eventually luxuriating in a series of low tones that seem to resonate forever. The harmonic spectrum widens in the last few minutes, including what sounds like some kind of primitive horn. The progression of the piece from the initial harsh tones through the drifting middle section to the annunciation of the horn provides a sense of narrative, rooted in Northam's own experience but open for the listener's personal illumination.

An Opening in the Earth: Recovered is limited to 500 copies and comes in a full color wallet with three postcard inserts. Faria has somewhat limited distribution, but I got mine from and/OAR. Moriendo Renascor is available from many of the usual suspects (and/OAR, Erstdist, Mimaroglu, etc.) and comes in a gatefold sleeve made from recycled paper. Due to a printing problem, a handwritten poem by Lionel Marchetti on the inner sleeve is virtually invisible, but is available as a jpeg at Xing Wu, or in plain text at Northam's site. Neither of these releases is available as a download, but with their first releases of 2009, including Memory of A, Taâlem is making their releases available in lossless FLAC format, with full artwork.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Haptic review at furthernoise

I have a new review of a recent release by a live drone trio from Chicago, Haptic, up at

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Sound art at the academy

Leigh Landy is a composer and scholar interested in the accessibility, or rather its lack, of electroacoustic music. Several years of performing and study have led him to the creation of an all-encompassing web site, EARS (the ElectroAcoustic Resource Site), and the publication of a recent book, Understanding the Art of Sound Organization, that introduces the site. Landy believes that electroacoustic music (the term he prefers is sound-based music) would be much more accepted among a serious listening audience if there was more agreement among its devotees on categorization and terminology, as well as a more common foundation among its scholarly advocates. To this end, Landy has written a short but comprehensive overview of the state of sound-based music studies.

Landy has been concerned about accessibility for several years, and in the early 1990s he investigated the "something to hold on to" factor before launching a more thorough investigation in the Intention/Reception project. Here, he played sound-based music three times in a laboratory setting, providing a little bit more information for each subsequent listening, and followed by various questions for the listeners. The book goes into considerable detail about these topics, including a complete set of questionnaires for the project.

The real meat of the book is the long second chapter, where Landy tackles the current state of theory of sound-based music. Occupying almost half of the book, the survey is a more comprehensive overview of scholarly literature than anything else I've found. In nearly every section, I found myself flipping back and forth between the text, the end notes and the bibliography, trying to follow references for more information. It's a staggering amount of food for thought, and summarization is impossible. Highlights include:
  • Musique concrète and the solfege of sounds originating with Pierre Schaeffer and continuing through Michel Chion, François Bayle, and Denis Smalley. This is an extremely well developed body of theory, but little of it has been translated into English. Canadian Denis Smalley has continued work in this vein, and fortunately he writes in English (even if it's published in obscure journals and academic books). Schaeffer created a detailed taxonomy of sound objects that I've always found tantalizing, although I've never actually tried to apply it.

  • Soundscape composition, originating with R. Murray Schafer and continuing with Barry Truax. In his accessibility studies, Landy found that the presence of recognizable real-world sounds created a focus for listeners. Similarly to the musique concrète composers, soundscapers work from the material up, but the soundscapers attention to ecology and the environment is a substantial difference between the two groups.

  • The search for new sounds, including microsound and noise. Microsound's primary theoretician is Curtis Roads, but the examination of different timescales in music is very broad. New sound discovery also leads to a brief discussion of noise (mostly because of Paul Hegerty's work) and lowercase artists.

  • Formalist approaches, where the composer has a preexisting model for the music, which can range from a strict serial approach (early Stockhausen, for example) through Xenakis' mathematical models to spectralist and algorithmic models.
Landy acknowledges two different origins for sound-based music when he follows German critics with E-Musik (Ernst, or serious music, i.e., high art) and U-Musik (Unterhaltung, or entertainment, i.e., popular music). But even though he admits the lines between the two have become blurred, since few U-musicians write scholarly articles, the emphasis here is clearly on E-musik. Performers and composers outside the academy are relegated to short blurbs or the end notes. Similar concerns arise for electroacoustic improvisation (EAI), to my mind a substantial and important genre, but completely overlooked here. Landy's only source for improvisation is John Bowers, an academic associated with the Sonic Arts Network, primarily because he published an ethnograpic of his own performance experience. As one example, Keith Rowe has written very perceptively on his improvisations, and certainly EAI has provided several examples that will rank with the best sound-based art. Finally, Landy alludes briefly to valorization, how to decide whether a piece is "good" or not. He doesn't cite any relevant work, and indeed, the term doesn't even appear at the EARS site. Although people bandy about the quality of various works, I'm unconvinced that these discussions reflect anything more than the taste of the viewer. As Landy points out, even in traditional classical music, a violin interpretation can be a delight to one person and irritating to another.

From a primary goal of setting out firm theoretical foundations, Landy's oversight of non-academic sound-art practitioners is understandable. Academia takes a long time to digest current practice, given an unremitting lack of resources for theory and analysis and a burgeoning set of new approaches to sound-based music. Landy's book contains a wealth of information and is a superb resource and incitement for further study. But active musicians, unconcerned with the articulation of their psychologies in favor of creating the next musical piece, progress much faster than careful and methodical professors, leading to an inevitable and widening gap between the two.