Monday, January 18, 2010

Another view on composition

An ongoing theme of this blog is the nature of a musical work, especially in light of the radical modifications to that concept since World War II. Most of the musicians I've discussed in this context so far have come from the classical tradition, with its strict dichotomy of score and performance. Jazz comes from a completely different background, yet its contrasting compositional practice has approached a parallel that has much in common with Cage and Wolff, despite obvious differences in musical language and instrumental techniques. Graham Collier's recent book, The Jazz Composer: Moving Music Off The Paper, acts like a frame for a consideration of classical open form works, a boundary between two completely different traditions that reveals an unusual perspective on graphic and open scores.

One shared characteristic is that compositions are written with specific performers in mind. Jazz band leaders starting with Duke Ellington (Collier's pioneering example of a jazz composer) wrote their music with the individual characteristics of their players in mind. Similarly for the classical avant-garde, many composers had performer-muses whose unique musical talent contributed to some kind of virtuosic breakthrough (Cage and Tudor, Berio and Berberian). We wouldn't have anywhere near the amount of piano music from the avant-garde of the 1950s and 1960s without David Tudor. But the downside was that the composer wouldn't always get the imagined and desired results. Stockhausen wrote his open works in the 1960s with his ensemble in mind, and complained when his intuitive music was performed badly by others. Morton Feldman reportedly quit writing scores on graph paper because they were so often poorly interpreted.

Feldman's experience is a reminder that music is created by the people playing it, that it can be played well or poorly, but it must be performed to be experienced. While this statement may be a tautology to a jazz fan, it's one of the biggest differences between jazz and classical composition; the latter grants compositions an independent existence and generally higher value than performances thereof. It's true that classical compositions have an intricate set of relationships that can be expressed notationally, and studied both as a compositional example and for spectator appreciation. Open form compositions are often closer to the jazz perspective than the classical one, where the audible results are all there is, without some imagined ideal creating the shadow on the wall. The classical paradigm permits these scores to be published and thereby made available to other performers, who may have no direct connection to the composer. Having improvisation at its core, jazz has not progressed down the publication path, so our only examples of jazz scores are those that the composers choose to share, generally on his or her website. Transcriptions of jazz performances are very common, but not to be confused with the original compositions, and meaningless for an understanding of the nature of the work itself.

Collier states at the outset that for jazz composers, all that matters is the performance. Some classical open scores are beautiful pictures in and of themselves — I have pages from Cage's Concert for piano framed and hanging in my studio. But despite admiration for visual scores like Takemitsu's Corona, the whole point is to inspire the performer to create a performance that could not be obtained any other way. Cage deliberately composed so that he could be surprised by the results, accepting the risk that the surprise might not be pleasant. We're also distracted by looking for form in open scores, when the form is what is audible in the results. In jazz as well as contemporary classical, the target audience of an open form composition is the performer, who must put his own substantial creativity and vision into the results to create a meaningful statement for an audience (even if the audience is only the performer himself).

Some of Collier's other elements, such as appropriate space for musical events, and levels of interaction that divide the listener's attention, are applicable to a lot of the music on my shelves. Markedly, they don't apply to testosterone-laden bop solos, always in the same order and over an unvarying rhythm section, designed to show off instrumentalist's technical chops. He has considerably more sympathy with classical composers than a jazz language that was surpassed definitively in 1959 when Miles Davis released Kind of Blue, epitomizing what Collier calls "the revolutionary decade." Gil Evans, Ornette Coleman, and Charles Mingus are the other stars from this seminal period. Collier acknowledges their influences for his own compositions, which he uses to illustrate some of the specifics (with audio examples at the book's website). Paralleling his disdain for most contemporary mainstream jazz figures, few other living composers other than Coleman and himself get more than a passing allusion.

In addition to the technical material, The Jazz Composer is entertaining because of Collier's polemics. He despises the reactionary jazz stance taken by Wynton Marsalis and others connected with the uptown Lincoln Center version of "Jazz," and anyone who wants to put jazz performances in a museum. He tackles jazz education as one of the primary culprits in maintaining bop in its privileged position. He confronts many of the jazz prejudices head on, addressing biases against Europeans, gays and women. Amusing sidebars aside, Collier writes as a practitioner, from the inside, addressing musical topics beyond the insular world of jazz.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Suite Concrete

From the earliest examples of musique concrète, practitioners have started from instrumental rather than environmental sounds, taking samples from sympathetic performers as the origin for their electroacoustic works. Although environmental and field recordings become more prevalent in recent years, in the mid-1990s composers like John Wall re-initiated the use of instrumental fragments. Wall's earliest work originates almost entirely with short, nearly recognizable snippets of commercial recordings, as if his compositions sought a performance practice that the diverse set of sampled musicians could not produce together. Partially because his methods inadvertently lumped him with plunderphonics, his more recent releases have avoided pre-released material, or at least made it completely unrecognizable and unacknowledged, in favor of live recordings which he then manipulates in the studio.

Wall retained connections with the British free improvisation community, so his musician sources perform on piano, double bass, and trumpet. Adam Sonderberg (also a member of Haptic) and Salvatore Dellaria's project the Dropp Ensemble also works with musician sources, but the credits on their recent album Safety also include open circuits, oscillator, treatments — obscure and elliptical sounds from the outset. Their stable of fifteen contributors (plus six more musicians credited for "Research and Development") includes noted improvisers Jason Kahn, Tomas Korber and Christian Weber. For the various and sundry electronics and synthesizers, one is hard pressed to identify any individual contribution on the four tracks that comprise this set. But one of the unifying factors is how Sonderberg and Dellaria incorporate acoustic instruments, often leaving them identifiable, anchors that focus the listeners attention amidst the background noise. The authors are reticent about their methods as far as I can find, but the album notes that the contributions were recorded around the globe, and they confirmed to Richard Pinnell that the musical fragments were assembled in their studio, solely by the duo.

The four pieces pace themselves together extremely well, starting a trajectory from the amuse-bouche Inlet leading to the slow pace that begins Everywhere Present and Nowhere Visible. Levels of activity bubble up to the surface, each level with its own rhythm and frequency level, and each has its own story to tell. There are three fairly distinct sections, and it almost sounds like the same source with different treatments underpins each one. What sounded like fast drum beats gets progressively slower and drier, until the last silence leads to Vernacular Rooms. Here, the frequency spectrum is much wider, a clattering, rich sound with hidden layers of static. As Weber's bass was briefly identifiable on Inlet, so Jason Stein's bass clarinet becomes a focal point guiding the listener through the abstract rattling. The clarinet's long, sustained tones provide a slow moving harmony at the piece's core, but the outer layers are very active throughout. The noise and static suddenly become background, revealing the previously hidden gentle murmuring.

The suite's conclusion, Forget Collapse, starts with a thunderclap, a wide hissing environment like the rain, and high pitched sine waves from Everywhere Present circle the sound field. Individual percussion strokes on bells, sticks and drums, appear like beacons in the mist, adding an urgency mitigated by the occasional lingering gong or cymbal stroke. A transitional hihat stroke extends endlessly to an extended white noise with individual elements and frequencies gradually isolating themselves. Slowly evolving into a metallic and noisy drone, a brief window shows the quiet white noise and tape hiss that has been subliminally present all along, and to which the suite will slowly ebb.

Besides the integrating presence of acoustic instruments, I hear these pieces as a suite because of sound elements that recur across the set. As shimmering high sine waves in the finale recall the earlier suggestives ones in Vernacular Rooms, a few persistent sounds provide a foundation for the countless sonic variations and unique, abstract gestures. The relatively short length, just over a half hour, gives Safety an opportunity to be heard as a whole, more than a collection of four disparate pieces, a rare example of an electroacoustic suite that really hangs together. Safety is available directly from and/OAR as well as creative distributors worldwide.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Adios 2009!

It's that time again, to look back and reflect on the music and events from the past twelve months. Staggeringly, I acquired almost twice as much new music this year compared to 2008, largely through the discovery of web sites and blogs that make available bootleg radio broadcasts. This had the unfortunate side effect of reducing the number of netlabel releases that I was able to absorb, because there are only so many hours in the day. However, it also had the impact of increasing the amount of contemporary classical music I heard, since most of the boots were otherwise unrecorded new music. A somewhat depressing consequence is that I looked over the list, and several times asked myself, what's that? I don't remember anything about that one!

Another shift in my listening habits, especially in the last quarter of the year, is that I've started listening more to CDs than downloads. I've been a staunch advocate for downloads for years, and even got into a bit of a flamefest on the ambient mailing list on the subject. And yet, it bothers me that I listen so much to downloaded music in preference to recordings that cost considerably more than the downloads, and which sit largely forgotten on the shelf. This change in attitude is perhaps a response to emusic's two-pronged price increase, not only charging 40% more per download, but forcing the use of twelve credits for an album if the album has any tracks longer than ten minutes. Even though I've kept my subscription, and even though I recognize that paying a quarter for an album is unfair, the luster has fallen off the pumpkin with this service.

Albums that made an impression this year (album links to reviews I wrote) include:

I eagerly look forward to the new music of 2010, and wish everyone a happy and safe new year.