Monday, December 31, 2007

Looping guitars

I've always felt a strong connection between the electric guitar and loops. Starting with the pioneering work of Fripp and Eno's 1973 album No Pussyfooting, many different artists have used guitars and loops to support many different creative styles. In the ambient vein, guitar artists like Andrew Chalk, Jeff Pearce, or the group Stars of the Lid have manipulated the guitar with nearly infinite sustains and created slow blissful drones that completely mask their origins in six strings. By contrast, the Swiss group Pedaltone puts the physical aspects of playing the guitar right out front, capitalizing on the vocabulary of the electric guitar to create an album that is both rhythmic and unruffled. The two-person group, Michael Bearpark and Bernhard Wagner, play guitars, effects and loops on their 2005 self-titled album, composed of two long multi-part suites, Overwritten and Der Doppelgänger.

Overwritten opens with a short, gentle melodic fragment that almost instantly is transformed with various rhythmic distortions. Sustaining tones appear in layers through the drifting ambience, occasionally with an attack, but mostly soft entrances in a cloud of notes. It builds using various rhythms, vamps, using melodic and harmonic fragments to tell its story, eventually fading out with relatively vigorous chords.

Der Doppelganger's opening gesture is a riff that lasts almost ten seconds, alternating between two suggestive harmonies that will color the rest of the piece. Ethereal melodies intertwine with the languorous rhythms as they slowly recede into the background, leaving only the harmonic underpinnings. One of the performers solos without any looping or echo processing underneath all the layers a couple of times during the suite. The overall tone becomes a bit more abrasive and buzzing as the suite progresses, but the harmony is almost always present while the rhythmic underpinning mutates into a pulse with soft accents, probably from tapping on the guitar body.

One of the most appealing aspects of this album is its tactile nature, that you can imagine two people playing it. It has a live, improvised quality that doesn't sound like most computer-based work, where the instruments are often no longer recognizable, and players seem to be mysteriously absent. Although there are occasional solos, most of the time the performers build slowly evolving textures with understated rhythms and enough of a suggestion of a primary loop to hang the suite together. The recording keeps all of the different layers clear and impeccably captures the performers' interaction, both live and through subsequent studio manipulations. Pedaltone is an excellent album of guitar-based ambient music, balancing drifting with rhythms and distortion with clarity.

Pedaltone is available directly from its label, Burning Shed.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Hans Otte, 1926-2007

Another passing this month was the German composer, pianist and radio producer Hans Otte. Born in 1926, Otte studied with Paul Hindemith and Walter Gieseking. He recorded Hindemith's Four Temperaments for piano and strings back in the 1950s, but made his primary career as a composer. There isn't much information about him readily available in English, but apparently he was strongly influenced by Cage. This influence is audible in his most well-known work, the piano cycle Das Buch der Klänge (The Book of Sounds).

A set of twelve pieces, The Book of Sounds is one of the great works of piano minimalism. For some of the pieces, Otte defines a rhythmic pattern on a particular chord at the beginning, then merely notates the notes that change in the chord. "It is up to the player's creativity to introduce the sound figures which are to be repeated with such diversity that their nature develops freely" (from the introduction in the score). The set follows Cage's suggestion, and lets the sounds be themselves, filling the time and space without directing the listener's attention to a goal. The pieces are fun to play, without being overly virtuosic, and perhaps less well known than comparable pieces by Glass and Adams.

The Book of Sounds has two releases on CD, one performed by the composer on Kuckuck, and by the eclectic German new music pianist Herbert Henck on ECM. In addition, Sarah Cahill played one of The Book of Sounds at the first New Music Seance in 2007, which is available for streaming at the Internet Archive. The score is available from Celestial Harmonies, which is coincidentally right here in Tucson.

Photograph of Hans Otte by Silvia Otte.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Computer woes

A few days before taking a week vacation, I attempted upgrading my computer to the latest version of its operating system. What a disaster! Two days later, with all due thanks to Apple support (who were really very helpful — I just wish I hadn't needed them), I had my system back, but the computer spent a couple of days thinking it was 1976. In addition, I had to perform an archive-and-install, which lost all user information. I hadn't considered the effect that all of this would have on iTunes, namely, that it no longer recognized my computer as being authorized to play the songs I had bought from the iTunes store, so it deleted them from the iTunes library and my iPod as soon as I attached the latter.

My backups were intact, so it was no problem to retrieve the music files, but after spending another couple of days trying to restore the iTunes library metadata, I've given up and created a new iTunes database. I have a couple of 'smart' playlists that use the least-recently-played field — toast. I'm hoping this solution solves the many problems I've had with my old iTunes database, but I won't be able to work on it any more until after vacation.

The whole affair makes me rethink the digital music solution. Although I like iTunes well enough, when it goes to the dogs, I realize how fragile the whole setup is. I've decided that the fragility is underemphasized in all of the debates about CD vs. digital. I was planning to buy a couple of new (digital) albums for the trip, but decided against it until I can satisfy myself that the system is stable. I'm still pulling data from the backup iTunes library, and don't have room on the hard drive for a backup of the new library in addition to the live copy and the original backup. Fortunately, iTunes didn't harm any of my original CDs, but then, I'm running out of room for them too. Maybe I need to stop acquiring new music (wait, didn't I say that a year ago?).

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Karlheinz Stockhausen, R.I.P.

I saw in the news today that Karlheinz Stockhausen passed away on December 5. It is difficult to overstate how important and formative Stockhausen was for me, although now it is difficult to put my reflections into any kind of organized form.

A late night (and consciousness altered) listening to his big electronic work Hymnen turned my listening tastes forever away from the saccharine pop music that was so prevalent, then and now. Never before had I heard such a large scale work that used so many different kinds of sounds. I thought it was a movie for the ears, and had a flash recognition many years later at Jérôme Noetinger's series of that name on the Metamkine label. Stimmung was a relatively late acquisition, and demonstrated that he still had the capacity to astonish. The quiet vocals on the overtone series of a single note were one of the earliest drones I had ever heard. The two works represent two poles of my current listening tastes.

His book-length interview with Jonathan Cott, Conversations with the Composer, was my constant companion for a couple of years, to the point of pushing it on people who had no interest at all. I made my own index of the book so I could quickly track down references to specific works.

Back in the vinyl days, I had more albums by him than by any other composer, seeking out missing recordings for years, my own search for various holy grails. I didn't complete the set of intuitive music, From the Seven Days, until the advent of CDs, when I ordered a set from the composer directly. This was before the internet, when I had to request a catalog through the mail, but he accepted checks drawn on US banks (but not a credit card). The other grail recording was the two-lp set of Kurzwellen, which I finally found at a library and taped, writing out the extensive liner notes by hand.

I traveled to New York to see a New York Philharmonic concert where they played his Jubilee Overture, a work so minor in his output it still hasn't been recorded. In later years, I lost interest in Light, his big opera (which takes seven days to perform). But his use of a wide variety of different sound sources within the same piece, his acknowledged (albeit uniquely personal) spirituality, his pioneering use of mobile forms and improvisation with live electronics, all are threads that I continue to follow, in music that I play and music that I hear.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Spanish piano

On Sunday, courtesy of the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music, the Spanish pianist Daniel del Pino played a virtuosic recital, tearing up the piano with works by Albeniz, de Falla, and Liszt. As exciting as these pieces were, the highlight of the concert was a world premiere of Francisco Lara's Cuarto Invenciones. Lara is a young composer (born in 1968) who divides his time between England and a tiny village in northwestern Spain. Del Pino added a spoken introduction to the piece, where he related the harsh environment in Lara's isolated location to the piece. Indeed, the first invention combined a delicate whirling in the right hand with an irregular chordal melody in the left, which del Pino compared with the constant wind and the more solid features in the landscape. The four inventions were composed as a tribute to the memory of the pianist Miguel Frechilla, and in the second invention, this took the form of a spiritual conversation with the departed. The first half of the invention was played conventionally, but during the resonance of a thundering chord, del Pino inserted a strip of Blu Tack onto the middle register strings, which muted the pitches and turned the piano more into a percussion instrument. As the invention progressed, more and more of the notes gravitated to this region of the piano, so that by the end of the piece, the sound was like the knocking during a seance, amplified by the resonance of the instrument. It was an uncanny and electrifying effect. The third invention was short and ferocious, leading to the finale, which del Pino compared with the last movement of Chopin's second sonata. The whirling movements from the first invention returned, creating a short but dizzying effect. Throughout all four inventions, each hand played a completely independent line, using flexible rhythms and fluid melodies. It was a beautiful piece, which I'd love to hear again. Lara is definitely a composer worth watching.

The Lara piece was third on the program, after two dances by Granados, the second book of Iberia by Isaac Albeniz, and preceding Manuel de Falla's Fantasia Baetica. The Albeniz and de Falla pieces are both virtuoso showpieces, late romantic works with strong Spanish colors. Even though the Lara was not easy, it was a welcome contrast from the rippling effects and impressionistic harmonies. The second half of the program was all by Franz Liszt, starting with the three Petrarch sonnets from the second book of Années de Pélerinage, and concluding with the Spanish Rhapsody. Années de Pélerinage is a beautiful set of pieces, contemplative and passionate. They were a relative oasis of calm before the sparkle and thunder of the Spanish Rhapsody, one of Liszt's showpieces, which he wrote after a successful tour in Spain. As an encore, del Pino played one of Chopin's Études, a cycle which he has recorded.

I also had the good fortune to participate in a master class with Mr. del Pino on Saturday, where I played Federico Mompou's Cancion y danza No. 5. Del Pino was a very gracious teacher, combining technical specifics on topics such as fingering with more expansive suggestions on phrasing, and even biographical information on Mompou that I hadn't uncovered previously. He pointed out that Mompou, like Bartok, collected folk songs from various regions of Spain, and even though Mompou's harmonies are a bit softer, the dance of the piece will end up sounding more like Bartok than it did before. The dance has a clear alternation between I and V harmonies, which it signals with open fifths in the bass. Del Pino compared these fifths with the sounds of bagpipes and suggested that they ring out accordingly. His emphasis during the session was on the colors of the piece, and making sure that the unexpected elements were, well, unexpected. His work with two other students on a Chopin waltz and a Beethoven sonata was equally illuminating. Thanks to Chris Tanz for the photo, which indeed proves that I was there.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Three ways that music isn't like a car

Morton Feldman: 'My past experience was not to "meddle" with the material, but use my concentration as a guide to what might transpire. I mentioned this to Stockhausen once when he had asked me what my secret was. "I don't push the sounds around."Stockhausen mulled this over, and asked: "Not even a little bit?"'

Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu: 'I gather sounds around me and mobilise them with the least force possible. The worst is to move them around like driving an automobile.'

John Cage: '…one may give up the desire to control sound, clear his mind of music, and set about discovering means to let the sounds be themselves rather than vehicles….'

Friday, November 30, 2007

Not enough listening

I realize that I haven't reviewed as many CDs this month. I seem to be a bit unfocused in my recent listening, and, based on recent posts, I seems to have spent more time reading. I hope to rectify this situation in the coming weeks. In the meantime, I have a review of a new dark ambient work, Music for an untitled film by T. Zärkkof by the Spanish artist Lngtché over at

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A new classical web store

The venerable Deutsche Grammophon, premier classical music label for decades, has opened a web store that comes pretty close to doing everything a classical music store should do. First, the files are 320kbps mp3 files, without any DRM. The interface is pretty good, and when you buy an album (generally priced at $11.99), you can download the tracks individually or in a zip file. Finally, and best of all, many of the albums come with the original CD booklet as a PDF. This may not matter as much for Beethoven symphonies, but for new music, such as DG's excellent 20/21 series, the liner notes are very valuable. The iTunes store sometimes has digital booklets, but only for hot new releases. The 20/21 albums are available in iTunes, but at lower bitrates and without the booklets. The additional value here is tremendous. I wish all new music labels would include the liner notes with the digital releases.

In order to make the store really killer, DG should release their immense back catalog. As far as I can tell, they are only releasing items that have appeared on CD. Except for an odd track, such as Gerd Zacher's recordings of Ligeti's organ music (which were re-released as part of a bunch of Ligeti albums), I can't find any trace of the superb Avant-Garde recordings that DG released back in the 1960s. Other works which haven't had a CD reissue are not to be found as well. I had a record of two Luigi Nono works, Como una ola de fuerza y luz and Y entonces comprendio, one of which featured a hot, young, up-and-coming pianist named Maurizio Pollini. Como una ola... has been reissued on CD twice as part of various Pollini editions — both albums are in the web store — but Y entonces comprendio, which was for six female voices, chorus and tape and which didn't feature any stars, still languishes. Nevertheless, this is a great start, currently the best source for downloading classical music.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

As a matter of fact, it's all noise

The big event this fall in the classical music blogosphere is the October publication of Alex Ross's book, The Rest Is Noise. Ross has had a blog since 2004, and was one of the inspirations for this (and probably many other) blog. His book is extremely entertaining and not especially technical, a history of the twentieth century as told through its music. It's already made the New York Times's list of notable books for 2007. I can only add my voice to the chorus of praise. I found the book irresistable, and only put it down long enough to pull out the music that Ross discusses for another listen, or to search the internet for interesting sounding pieces that aren't already in my collection.

Although the book starts off on extremely well trodden territory with Debussy and Ravel, it quickly veers off into seldom charted backwaters of twentieth century music. In so doing, Ross uses several themes to structure his history. I especially loved the way he used Thomas Mann's fictional Adrian Leverkühn, from the novel Dr. Faustus, as a recurrent foil to the varioius trends of the musical century. The confluence of classical and popular music is introduced early, primarily through the influence of American jazz. Jazz was a critical component not only in American composers such as Gershwin, but through the American presence in World War I, for a number of European composers as well. From Darius Milhaud and Les Six through Stravinsky's Ebony Concerto and into the late 20th century with Steve Reich's acknowledged influence of Miles Davis, jazz and classical music played off each other in a myriad of interesting ways.

Another theme that Ross uses to structure his narrative is the interaction of politics and music. Politics comes to the fore in his central section on music from 1933 to 1945, in three superb chapters on Russia under Stalin, the USA under Roosevelt, and Germany under Hitler. But he continues the discussion even outside of this area. One of the interesting tidbits was about the founding of the international school at Darmstadt, which was funded by the American military operation in Germany after World War II as part of a psychological warfare and information control effort. This is the first time I've seen in print anything mentioning the hostility between the French and the German composers in the years after the war. I've always assumed that the teapot tempest between musique concréte (music made using samples of real world sounds, championed by Pierre Schaefer in Paris) and elektronische musik (music generated completely from electronics, championed by Herbert Eimert in Cologne) was a lingering hostility from the war, and Ross confirms this supposition. But what I hadn't considered was how much the severity of the Darmstadt music was seen as a moral imperative, an attempt to regain some kind of control after the devastation of the war. Stockhausen and Boulez were formative composers for me — listening to Hymnen all alone in front of a fire one night was akin to a conversion — and Ross provided new perspectives on this subject already close to my heart.

The last section of the book covers 1945 through 2000, and Ross is pretty successful in capturing the diversity of compositional approaches. One might consider it to be too diverse, since the only composer to get most of a chapter to himself is Benjamin Britten, while some of those I consider to be giants, such as John Cage, only get a couple of pages. But the book's subtitle, Listening to the Twentieth Century, provides the key. The Rest Is Noise doesn't pretend to be a reference work, but a subjective traversal of twentieth century music. Granted, Ross is in a privileged position. He's the classical music critic of the New Yorker magazine, so not only does he reside in one of the world's musical hubs, he's paid to attend all of the major concert events (talk about a dream job!). Classical music's major genre is opera, so opera is one of the recurrent themes of the book. Ross quotes Cage's comparison of contemporary music to a river delta, so many different streams that they can't be enumerated. Most readers will probably wish Ross had placed different emphases here and there, but I think of Ross as a consummate music geek, sharing some of his favorite music, connecting points between genres and with events in the world at large, and ultimately sending us all back to our record collections to listen again. Only now, we're hearing the music differently because of the way it fit into a larger story, which in turn helps us reflect on why we listen to music in the first place.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Extended jazz compositions

Several years ago, I hung out on a mailing list that discussed John Zorn and his various projects, including the various artists that he produced on his nascent Tzadik label. This essentially meant that we could discuss just about anything, since Zorn either played in or produced many flavors of jazz, classical, and the more outside forms of rock. I learned a lot about different kinds of music there, and have continued to follow other writers that hung out there as well. In addition to Brian Olewnick, whom I've mentioned before, one of the other seminal voices was Steve Smith, who has since graduated to the big time, writing for Time Out New York and the New York Times. Steve's tastes were extremely wide ranging; if I've finally learned that our tastes in metal don't always overlap, over the years he introduced me, through his entertaining and extremely literate writing, to classical works like the Shostakovich symphonies, as well as several creative improvising artists.

Steve also has a blog, and last week he posted an impassioned article about a forthcoming reunion of Tim Berne's group Bloodcount, where he reiterated his position that Berne is one of the leaders in extended jazz compositions. I've always been curious about jazz composition. I've played classical music most of my life, and dabbled in country and rock for a while in my younger days, but I have no experience performing jazz. My understanding of jazz composition is pretty much that jazz songs are pop tunes, and that performers generally play the song together once, then take turns improvising over the chord changes, and then make a final tutti statement at the end. But Steve always seemed to allude that Berne's compositions were somehow more than this, so I asked him for some additional information in a comment to the post above. But it's outside Steve's scope, and probably outside his interest, so I decided to listen again to one of the three Bloodcount albums that were recorded during a stint at Les Instants Chavirés, a tiny jazz club outside Paris (recently available again after being out of print for more than a decade) with an ear toward deciding what was composition and what was improvisation. Or really, since improvisation is simply composition on the spot, what part of these pieces did Berne compose alone in his studio, and what part got formed in rehearsel, and what part got formed the night it was recorded live?

The volume of the Bloodcount Paris Concerts entitled Poisoned Minds has two pieces: The Other, which clocks in at 27:29, and What Are The Odds?, which takes 41:28. The ensemble is Berne and Chris Speed on sax (with Speed playing clarinet on The Other), Michael Formanek on bass, Jim Black on drums, and Marc Ducret on guitars. Ducret plays a minor role on the album, never soloing, and not even audible until twenty minutes into The Other. So we're essentially listening to a quartet. I imagine that writing for a jazz quartet requires considerably less detail than for a larger ensemble; a horn section particularly seems to call for a more fully notated arrangement. The jazz rhythm section is probably never notated. Published "arrangements" in fake books and the like have a melody line and chords, nothing else. Presumably Berne's charts have no more detail than this, since the goal is to create a framework for improvisation.

The Other opens sounding like other jazz pieces. It's a slow, impressionistic melody in long phrases played by the group, led by Berne on alto, accompanied by a harmonic line on the clarinet and a bowed line in the bass. Both of the harmonic lines generally move more slowly than the primary melody, but I don't get a sense that the harmony is specified. Berne's music seems like it's based on melodic gestures and textures, and not a pop song structure. Berne probably composed the melody, or the opening melodic fragments in the studio, and the group may have composed the harmony lines in rehearsels -- it doesn't sound fully composed. A couple of minutes in, the rhythm section drops out, and we have a brief wind duet, but the other instruments come back to close the section. Then there's a bowed bass solo, with a sparse accompaniment on the drums, clearly improvised on the spot, but accompanied at the end by the wind instruments with a slow harmonic movement, which in turn gives way to another duet section that sounds more composed. The rhythm section gathers itself into a groove, and the wind lines build slowly to a climax, which disintegrates into two fast moving improvised lines. This section concludes with a unison statement from all the melodic players, then splinters off again into a drum solo. All of this takes about the first half of the piece.

There's not much point in describing the remainder of the album in detail, but it's probably safe to guess that Berne composes the melodic kernels and phrases, and the overall structure of the piece. This structure probably includes the textural character of the transition sections, where the solos occur, and how to get into and out of the solo sections. I don't imagine that each player would need more than a couple of pages of sheet music per piece, but I imagine that some sheet music would be present, at least for the melody players.

Berne's narratives come from the variety in the textures, along with hearing the melodic lines evolve and mutate over the course of the piece. The musicians in the rhythm section are equal partners to the melodic players, and Berne isn't afraid to rock out once in a while. Ducret is a great foil, and even if his role is fairly minor here, on some of Berne's other albums, such as Caos Totale's Nice View (with a full brass section of Steve Swell on trombone, Herb Robertson on trumpet, and Django Bates on alto horn) and his Julius Hemphill cover album, Dimunitive Mysteries (with David Sanborn on second sax), his noisy solos are an integral part of the experience. Part of what I like about Berne's albums (and after Steve's article, I've gone back and listened to every one I have) is that they don't sound like "jazz," but a hybrid where jazz is only one of the elements, sitting comfortably alongside classical and the occasional rock.

All of the albums mentioned in this post are currently available from Winter & Winter. And, as I discovered after this article was more or less complete, Berne's sells some of his scores from his label's web site, although not for any of the music I've discussed here. There's a sample page that shows notations for alto sax, guitar and keyboard, but which doesn't include any chord changes.

Friday, November 16, 2007

You're a genius!

Here's a fun little meme traveling around the blogosphere. It tells the reading level required for this blog. So congratulations, you're a genius!

Of course, it doesn't say what you have to be to write the blog. Excuse me while I consult with the twelve monkeys hammering away back here…

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Linear music explained

Karol Berger's book Bach's Cycle, Mozart's Arrow sets as its task the origins of musical modernity, specifically from the perspective of musical time. Berger carefully distinguishes modernity from modern music, where modernity is a fissure in a continuous historical lineage, generally located around the Industrial Revolution (with the French and American revolutions as the political counterparts). In pre-modern times, time was viewed as a cycle (e.g., of the sun and the seasons). By the end of the 18th century, time was viewed as progressive, a linear history moving from the past toward the future. Berger chooses Bach and Mozart as musical illustrations of these two perspectives, and Augustine and Jean-Jacques Rousseau for philosophical background.

His chapters on Bach deal primarily with the St. Matthew Passion (which it has been a pleasure to hear again), with a short interlude on the first fugue from the WTC. The most illuminating section on Bach was on the fugue, which points out that the events in the fugue do not depend on one another in any meaningful way. Given the subject of a fugue, a certain number of "demonstrations" of the way the subject(s) may be harmonized and combined, each demonstration being independent of all the others. The demonstrations are essentially in an unordered set. Bach of course does combine them in a meaningful way according to a tonal plan, but in Berger's estimation, this combination comes later, and is of lesser importance than the demonstrations themselves.

I was much less moved by his discussion of the Passion, where he shows how Bach musically represents the Christian belief that our finite human time is enmeshed in the infinite time of God. While I don't doubt that this was indeed Bach's intent, the Christian story was considerably more real in Bach's time than it is in ours, where it has become more metaphorical (this is part of the transition to modernity that is the overall subject of the book). I don't believe one needs to be a devout Christian, versed in the arcane details of 18th century theology, to appreciate this magnificant work.

Undeniably, by the time of the Viennese classics, a listener was certainly expected to remember various events that occurred in the course of a piece. The classic sonata form, with two themes, a development and a recapitulation, all on a fairly standard tonal plan, makes little sense without some kind of short term memory to understand the structure of the piece. Berger demonstrates musical linearity with detailed examples from Mozart and Beethoven, but in both cases already showing how the conventions of the sonata form become expectations to be subverted.

A long interlude in the center of the book describes in some detail the philosophical changes that underpin Berger's arguments. Both the theological arguments behind the eternal time that precedes and follows the insignificant human time scale, as well as a summary of Rousseau's philosophical positions on our rational self-determination, are presented in some detail. Berger's intent is to show the philosophical changes that were current during the late 18th century, and which informed both the composers and listeners. If the arguments seem a bit esoteric and irrelevant today, an awareness certainly can inform contemporary interpretations of the music.

Granted, the classical concert repertoire is often too heavily invested in the Viennese classics that form the primary focus of this work. But when Berger says that "the Viennese classics have shaped our musical expectations and values to such an extent that we expect these values to inform any music we encounter," well, I'm sorry, but Berger needs to get out more. Discontinuity and various kinds of nonlinearity have been part of classical music since Schoenberg and Stravinsky — are there corresponding changes in our views on time? What perspective change do we need to appreciate a mobile form work like Cage's Atlas Eclipticalis, where the linearity is subverted from one performance to the next? Unfortunately, Berger's steadfast refusal to consider modern music (as opposed to modernity in general) makes the book somewhat less interesting to the general reader.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Birthday swag

Birthdays are a time for renewal, upgrading, taking stock, making plans and goals for the year to come, and of course a celebration with appropriate snacks and beverages (yum!). Along with renewing the contents of the sock drawer, I also upgraded the top bookshelf with the long out-of-print The Time of Music by Jonathan D. Kramer. I've mentioned this book a couple of times in passing, and it will be a real treat to be able to refer to it at will, rather than having to trek down to the UA library, where the copy might be checked out, or worse, missing. All thanks are due to my loving partner, who gave me permission to track down a copy.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Hilliard Ensemble

November 1 was Hilliard Ensemble Day in Tucson. The renowned vocal group came to the University of Arizona, courtesy of UAPresents and performed a wonderful concert, consisting mostly of new music interspersed with a couple of 15th century songs, as well as some traditional Armenian pieces as arranged by the monk Komitas. Most of my experience with the Hilliard Ensemble comes from their work as part of larger groups (such as their wonderful recording of Arvo Pärt's Passio, but the spare textures of the vocal quartet were enchanting. The ensemble also spent some time with UA's choral conducting students in an afternoon session, which I was fortunate to be able to attend.*

The theme of the program was Arkhangelos, a collection of sacred texts with roots in the Greek, Russian, Roman and Anglican church traditions. Perhaps because of the religious subtext, most of the pieces were slow and majestic, but the group obtained considerable variety through different numbers of voices. The concert's opening was …here in hiding… by James MacMillan, a Scottish composer who has composed several sacred works, including a mass commissioned by Westminster Cathedral. The opening alarum of the work was probably the most dissonant chord in the entire program, like a trumpet call announcing a great prophecy. The text was from Aquinas, but MacMillan intermingles the Latin with an English translation by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. The gradual appearance of English created a feeling of gradual enlightenment as the piece progressed. They followed this contemporary work with the oldest piece on the program, an eleventh century chant sung solo by David James, the group's countertenor. From there, they alternated between 15th century material, traditional Armenian chants, and more contemporary works (where the composers were Arvo Pärt; Jonathan Wild, a graduate composer from their Harvard residency in 2001 and Hilliard Summer School composer-in-residence in 2002; and Alexander Raskatov, a Russian composer born in 1953). The entire program, along with complete notes, is available as a PDF at the Hilliard site.

The discussion with the choral conductors brought some interesting topics to light, one of which was tuning (where tenor Steven Harrold took the lead). They universally decried using the piano (a "monster with white teeth") for anything other than to get the initial tuning for a single note because the piano's equal temperament corrupts the ear's best instincts. They recommended that choral conductors start with a single note, than build all of their intervals from there, culminating in a chromatic scale that is a combination of large and small intervals (the distance is different between D and D-sharp than between D-sharp and E, for example). They sing nearly everything in just intonation, except for Machaut and plainchant, which uses a Pythagorean tuning. The different intonation was quite audible during the concert, where some pieces had intervals that would never be heard on a piano. They also noted that when they rehearse with orchestras, tuning is one of the issues that inevitably arises (and generally resolves in their favor — as one would expect, given that just intonation is a more natural sound).

In a program like this, where some of the compositions are by seldom heard contemporary composers, it is sometimes difficult to grasp more than fleeting impressions on a first hearing. The ensemble has worked with Pärt on several pieces, but this new work (written in 2006) is the only piece he has written for the ensemble without other instruments or voices. His use of silence is exquisite, but the piece was also memorable because of the very simple materials from which it was built — a single phrase "Most Holy Mother of God, save us" — repeated over and over, taking on greater urgency as the piece progressed. Raskatov's multi-movement piece, which closed the program, was the most overtly avant-garde in the extended techniques, without being as dissonant as MacMillan's. It alternated several different kinds of vocal textures, incorporating sprechstimme (somewhere between singing and speaking), glissandi, and other techniques to provide texture variation. The entire program was a superb blend of early and contemporary music.

*Full disclosure: my wife and I sponsored the concert courtesy of a small foundation where I serve on the board.

The photograph of the Hilliard Ensemble is by Friedrun Reinhold.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The rhythms of the stars

Brian at Just Outside had a post a few weeks ago on the recent Mode re-release of John Cage's Atlas Eclipticalis. He found the performance a bit dry, and one of his comments was that he could "easily imagine this being performed by creative improvisers and working exceedingly well." His remarks sent me to the Mode release, as well as one from 2000 on the Asphodel label.

Cage composed Atlas Eclipticalis in 1961, a commission from the Montreal Festival Society. At the time, it was the biggest piece that Cage had composed, both in terms of orchestral forces and sheer length, his earlier forays into orchestral writing being more for a chamber ensemble. He generated the notes by tracing them from a map of the heavens (whence the title) in combination with I-Ching operations. The piece consists of solo parts for 86 orchestral instruments, where each part is identical in length and format, and it is most often performed in short excerpts and with smaller groups. Each part has four pages with five systems per page, and each system should be played within a predetermined duration, specified by Cage to be no shorter than two minutes. Like the score for Winter Music, which may be performed simultaneously with Atlas Eclipticalis, each system contains a number of events, which may be single tones or aggregates. Even though the events have a clear musical notation, they are sufficiently unorthodox to require significant interpretation on the part of the performer. The conductor is merely a timekeeper, moving his or her arms around in a circle like the second hand on a clock.

The Mode and Asphodel releases are the only ones currently available that are complete both in respect to the number of players and the number of systems. The Mode set contains three recordings of the piece, of which the two complete ones date from 1983 and are conducted by Cage (the third is from 1988, is conducted by Melvin Strauss, and includes all parts but not all systems). The Asphodel release is conducted by Petr Kotik, and is from 1993, repeating a performance from a Cage memorial concert the previous year in Carnegie Hall. The 1983 and 1993 performances both include Winter Music (the latter performed by David Tudor). Both releases contain nice sets of liner notes. The Mode release has short essays by Cage, Matthew Kocmieroski, Don Gillespie (whom we've met in this blog before — he was the interviewer on Mode's DVD release of George Crumb's Makrokosmos), and pianist Stephen Drury. The Asphodel release has a longer essay by James Pritchett (author of an excellent monograph on Cage's music) and Petr Kotik.

One of the first aspects that a student of Atlas Eclipticalis confronts is its obscurity. Unlike other large symphonic works, there is no master score, only the individual parts and a conductor score. Each individual part is published separately. Edition Peters web site sells each individual part for $8.95, which means an investment of over $750 for the entire work. This precludes all but the most serious users and libraries from acquiring the complete score. The conductor score, which is what most libraries have, is one of the most arcane documents I've ever seen. It documents more of the compositional process than anything directly related to a performance. As Cage wryly notes, "these pages may not be useful."

The instrumental parts which have been widely reproduced raise a number of questions. The Mode release includes a reproduction of page 181, one of the Flute 1 parts, and Pritchett's book includes a reproduction of page 133, one of the pages for Cello 1. I've reproduced one of the cello events here. As with Cage's other notational experiments, his explanatory notes (reproduced in the Mode liner notes) don't quite explain everything. For example, the cello part in Pritchett has no clef -- should the performer use a tenor clef or a bass clef, and does this decision remain for the duration of the piece (the conductor's score helpfully mentioned that the part "may be read an octave higher ad lib")? Where the aggregates are numbered (one number for tones "as short as possible", the other for tones with "appreciable duration"), which notes get which duration? The individual notes from a chord can be performed in any order. Cage's instructions don't explicitly address stems that aren't straight -- is there any significance to curved stems? Cage specifies circumstances under which notes may be repeated -- how does the performer decide when to apply these rules?

So without having recourse to the score(s), we're left with the recordings. The ones from 1983 are very sparse. A lot of the subtleties are lost, buried in tape hiss and audience noise. There are few occasions where more than a couple of instruments are audible without close headphone listening. The 1993 recording, especially by contrast, is lush. It's a better recording, with less audience noise and more audible instruments. Kotik seems to have allowed for longer durations (his version is almost twice as long as Cage's), which create musical gestures that have both foreground and background aspects, where the tones with appreciable duration expand to fill the sonic horizon, leaving the short tones to pepper the sound and provide intimate details. Kotik's version sounds more like an group performance rather than 86 people making occasional sounds with their instruments. Cage commented that when he first composed Winter Music, each sound was widely separated in space, but after several performances, it almost seemed melodic. Perhaps I hear the same transition between the performances of Atlas Eclipticalis.

It is Cage's genius to have created such a rich foundation, allowing for so many different sonic realizations. Is it a coincidence that the longer orchestral realization sounds fuller? As the piece stretches out with longer and longer durations, at some point it nearly approaches the scale of the maps on which it was based. Does a connection between the star maps and the piece take place only in the mind of the listener? In some way, I hear the immensity of the cosmos in Kotik's rendition, points of sound corresponding to points of light, with constellations visible only because of the observer's perspective.

Even though Cage loathed improvisation at the time he composed Atlas Eclipticalis, Brian had an interesting idea about using today's creative improvisers to create a version. The Amplify festival in 2002 had a session where seven improvising guitarists created a realization of Cornelius Cardew's Treatise, a famous graphic score from the early 1960s. The German new music ensemble Zeitkratzer has performed pieces by composers as far afield as John Duncan, Keith Rowe, Lou Reed and Merzbow. Ulrich Kreiger, the ensemble's saxophonist, has recently released a solo (probably multi-tracked) version of Atlas Eclipticalis. Certainly classical musicians have a difficult time with Cage, whose music often demands a new kind of performer in order to bring to the surface the new kinds of sounds.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Pie Town

We've been on a short driving trip through western New Mexico and eastern Arizona, so I haven't blogged much lately. However, for those of you who like pie (and isn't that everybody?), I can heartily recommend a tiny whistle stop, Pie Town, New Mexico. The town, which has a population of 55, was named for the pies made by one of the original settlers. When the post office came to town, they wanted to name the place after the settler, but he wisely insisted that it be named Pie Town, or the post office could take their letters and go home. Seriously though, the pies were great. We each had a slice, blackberry and cherry, topped with a big scoop of vanilla and a great cup of coffee, chatting with a trucker from St. Johns, AZ. The cafe's web site has a recipe for their specialty, a Mexican Apple pie. A little slice of heaven.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Fallen asleep

Sad news from the blogosphere today. The marvelous resource, the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP) has closed up shop after a couple of cease-and-desist letters from Universal Editions. IMSLP (fondly called I'm by Kyle Gann) was a treasured resource for sheet music lovers, with all kinds of public domain scores, and even the occasional enlightened contemporary composer (including Frederic Rzewski) who made some of his or her music available under the Creative Commons license agreements. My piano teacher asked me to look for a waltz by the romantic composer-pianist Mischa Levitsky. It's completely out of print from every source I searched, but it was available at IMSLP. Reading an article about a Beethoven cello sonata and want to look at the score? I could drive to the local university library, pay a couple of bucks to park and spend a couple of hours round trip, or I could just go to IMSLP. It was a tremendous resource, but essentially the work of only one person (although there were a number of editors and admins who helped). There are discussions in the various IMSLP forums about what happens next, and hopefully it will resurrect itself with some kind of institutional support.

Hat tip: Daniel Wolf.

Update: ongoing coverage at the Rambler.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The rhythms of the earth

Some recent sound artists have explored infrasound, or sound waves with a frequency too low to be detected by human hearing. Scientists first became aware of infrasound during major seismic events, but many of them now theorize that it occurs many other places in nature. In order to make infrasound audible, it needs to be sped up or otherwise transformed. With the advent of digital sound technology, it is possible to transform virtually any kind of data into sound. For example, several composers have used fractals, neural networks, cellular automata, and genetic algorithms to generate music, all of which are a natural application of digital synthesis.

Recently I've been listening to John Duncan's 2003 release Infrasound — Tidal, which uses sound sources from Australian sound researcher Densil Cabrera. The album contains a single track, but with a number of divisions for tidal, seismic, and barometric data. It's easy to understand Duncan's fascination with the material. The tidal section is a near constant pitch, but with a rich set of overtones and placements in the stereo field. It compresses nearly 300 years of tidal data into just under twelve minutes. The seismic section sounds mostly like white noise, with some occasional ripples like the runoff area of a vinyl record along with some ghostly little chirps and booms. The longest portion of the recording, the seismic data covers about a month, with some of the sonic events mapped to earthquakes and nuclear tests from the Pacific basin. The final section, based on 48 years of barometric data, again is centered around a constant pitch, but is a much bigger sound, with an undulation like ocean waves moving across the stereo field in the background.

The album fits comfortably in Duncan's discography, which in recent years has moved away from his early noise releases to an investigation of different kinds of drones, as well as finding music in a variety of non-musical sound sources (his album Palace of Mind, for example, uses unspecified "data files" as a sound source). It's unclear to me exactly how the data was transformed into sound, but Cabrera, who created the original sound files which Duncan used as sources, is a sound artist in his own right. His web site includes a hidden page that documents a number of his installations, including tantalizingly brief snippets of the raw sound sources that went into Duncan's release.

Of course, Duncan and Cabrera aren't the first sound artists to use infrasound. One of the other interesting ones is Felix Hess, a Dutch physicist and artist. Hess created a number of small devices sensitive to air pressure fluctuations (another application of infrasound). He developed microphones that could record these fluctuations, then ran a tape recorder outside for five days, with the microphones places 64 meters apart, then sped up the recording to 360 times its original speed, compressing five days into twenty minutes. The results sound vaguely similar to Duncan and Cabrera's seismic data, albeit with a great deal more detail. His recording of Air Pressure Fluctuations was released both as a standalone CD and included in a book about his work.

In the Infrasound — Tidal liner notes, Duncan describes how he met Cabrera on the net and Cabrera provides more technical notes about the pieces. Duncan, perhaps somewhat disingenuously, professes interest in the work simply as sound, rather than for whatever value there might be in the scientific data, and claims to have destroyed the inherent linearity of the data (a claim not entirely commensurate with Cabrera's notes, which include specific events for the seismic portion of the recording). For despite the similarities between this music and other instrumental music, there remains a basic non-intentionality here that would not be present in more composed music. John Cage made a career out of composing without his ego getting in the way, and there is a similar impulse at work here (even if the sonic results are completely different). Listening to this music opens up new levels of perception, an awareness of the timeless patterns of the earth that continuously surround us, to which we ordinarily remain oblivious.

In addition, infrasound music operates at yet another timescale beyond the normal linear perspectives where music typically operates. Rather than simply seeking to evoke a feeling of timelessness like most drone music, these infrasound recordings work on a concrete timescale that is simply larger than humans can comprehend. The intent is the opposite from efforts to take relatively short pieces and expand them to the limits of comprehensibility. The best known example is probably Leif Inge's expansion of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to fill a 24-hour period, 9 Beet Stretch, but the topper here is the John Cage Organ Project, which presents a relatively short keyboard composition entitled ASLSP (As SLow aS Possible) over a period of 639 years. The music from Duncan, Cabrera and Hess takes a natural process that spans a long period of time and compresses it into a human timeframe, and thereby evokes the mystery and majesty of our planet's geological rhythms.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Drone Classics — Cake

Jonathan Coleclough is one of the names most often dropped when vendors seek comparisons for drone artists. A search for "Coleclough" at the wonderful San Francisco record shop, Aquarius Records, returns 130 hits, but Coleclough himself has released only six full length solo albums and about that many in collaboration. At Aquarius, the remaining hits are all in descriptions for other artists (e.g., "fans of Coleclough should definitely check this out"). While part of this attraction is simply mystique, Coleclough's beautiful and often pastoral soundscapes are a preeminent combination of field recordings with electronics.

One of Coleclough's other characteristics is that his pieces generally exist in multiple versions. It's fairly common in today's digital world for artists to release remixes, but Coleclough takes this further than most. His most recent release, Torch Songs, a collaboration with Andrew Liles, is available in two editions: a double LP, and the same with a CD of additional material. Both were released in editions of 300. A 2006 collaboration with sound artist murmer was released in three different versions: the standard edition CD of 700, the standard plus a bonus CD of 200, and a standard plus bonus plus a unique bonus CDR (i.e., every instance of the edition has a different third item), released in an edition of 47. This isn't a recent phenomenon; Coleclough's first solo album, Cake, released in 1998, had a second version released four years later, with virtually identical packaging, down to the label serial number (the booklet was the same, but turned inside out). He must have planned for the alternate release, as the inside cover of the original release has the album and title perfectly placed for the alternate cover.

The original version of Cake is a very quiet affair. Starting with a series of untreated field recordings, there is an initial buildup that sounds like a processed piano, climaxing in a metallic swoosh that launches a long decaying resonance that takes nearly half of the piece. From the near silence at the mid point, Coleclough slowly builds the piece back to its initial sound level. Underlying most of the piece is a deep bass drone and a slow undulation in the upper registers, while the field recordings mutate into electronic versions of the same. In some ways, it's similar to the centerpiece of Olivier Messiaen's monumental pianistic Catalogue d'Oiseaux, La rousserolle effarvatte, which represents a complete nocturnal/diurnal cycle, including the silence of the birds at midday. Cake presents a similar cycle, from the complex initial events to the central tranquillity and back.

The alternate version bears some similarities in sound materials, but the shape of the piece is nearly reversed. Both versions have an underlying deep drone, a slow undulation, and various segments of field recordings. But instead of having loud points at both ends of the piece, the alternate builds from a near silence to a center which is quite loud. Coleclough uses feedback and complex overtones and nearly buries the deep drone. Instead of wispy little birdsongs, there is a regular refrain of chittering, a continuous insect-like noise that is absent from the initial version. The whole piece has a completely different shape in the alternate version, which leads to questions about the identity of the piece.

Although I played Cake regularly when it first appeared, my fascination grew significantly when the alternate version appeared. I've expressed an interest in this blog in mobile forms, a technique that classical composers such as Henri Pousseur and John Cage used in the 1960s and 1970s to enable a variety of sound pieces from the same score. Generally, electronic musicians don't release "alternate versions," they release "remixes," which extend the life of a piece, typically a pop song, through emphasizing other elements from the original. I've always wondered whether there is some ur-Cake sitting around Coleclough's studio, a master version, or even a score, that precedes both releases.

Sadly, Cake is no longer available through any legitimate channels. The original version was released in an edition of 500, and the alternate version in an edition of 300. One can only hope that Coleclough follows the example of his colleague, the British drone artist Paul Bradley, whose label has a digital store that sells various out-of-print releases. In the meantime, Coleclough's site has a freely available download of a long radio piece, One hour as sixty million years, a gorgeous, slowly evolving drone 'based on data about global sea level changes over the past 248 million years.'

Monday, October 1, 2007

Tom Heasley in concert

Last Friday evening, Tucson had a visit from Tom Heasley, performing on tuba, didjeridu and electronics, without any aid from computers. Heasley plays gorgeous, deep drone music, and at the Solar Culture gallery, Heasley's sounds filled the room. I have been corresponding with Tom for a few months, and serendipitously, have an article about him that was published this past weekend.

The opening act was local artist Kati Astraeir, who played a number of short videos over droney soundtracks from artists such as Matthew Florianz, Igneous Flame, and Raison d'etre. The videos were composed from still pictures cross faded into each other. Some of the images were photographs with various levels of alteration, some were paintings. The juxtaposition of the photographs (which were typically nature) and the paintings (which were more fantasy oriented) showed the degree to which the natural forms showed up in her paintings.

Following a short intermission, Heasley played three extended pieces. The first and last pieces used the tuba as the primary sound source. He opened the concert with a simple breath through the tubing, he added more and more layers until there was finally a big cloud of sound, over which he soloed. The second piece was with a "poor man's didjeridu" (Heasley's words), a handmade instrument constructed from plumbing pipe. Initially he made the deep, rolling didjeridu noises, but often he sang or whistled into the pipe. The gallery is right next to the train tracks, and there were lots of trains, whose whistles and bells added an extra jolt, but which were never picked up into the loops though.

Seeing Heasley perform brought home to me how closely his music is tied to the breath — obvious when I think about the instruments he plays, but not always so obvious when I listen to his music at home. This is the origin of the calming energy that his music imparts. Of course, the other wonderful aspect of hearing him perform is the sound system. It's great to hear drone music played so loud that the room vibrates, bringing out all kinds of partials and overtones that ordinarily get missed.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Tales of a Spanish cellist

Once in a while, I find novels that interact with music in some non-trivial way. My most recent example is The Spanish Bow, a debut novel by Andromeda Romano-Lax. This exotically named author was born in Chicago and currently resides in Alaska. She has been a journalist, and she plays the cello, as does the primary character of her novel. Her Flash-based web site deals exclusively with the novel, and provides maps and other additional background information.

The novel follows the protagonist, Feliu Delargo, from his birth in 1892 through the start of World War II. Drawn to the cello at an early age, he becomes one of Spain's most famous musicians, and his life intertwines with the various rulers, from royalty to Franco. At times, the novel felt like the episodes in Zelig or Forrest Gump where the fictional characters are inserted into historical events, such as the sole meeting between Hitler and Franco, which took place in 1940. But Romano-Lax's choice to put Delargo in the early 20th century lets her use her cellist to examine a time and place of great historical changes, from the failing monarchy and restoration, to the republic, the civil war, and fascism.

A major theme of the novel is the role of art in relation to politics. Feliu is exposed to the dilemma early on, when he is a court musician for Queen Ena. His patron, a count with surprising anti-monarchial sentiments, raises the question of the artist in relation to his world. Feliu's musical partner, the pianist Justo Al-Cerraz, generally takes the position that music and politics are completely distinct. Although Feliu also has this perspective in his youth, his experiences and his memories of his childhood in a small village end up making it hard to separate the two. These were turbulent times, and events catch up with Feliu and Al-Cerraz as they reach maturity. Needless to say, their views become muddied by circumstances, and a retrospective look back at the end of the book doesn't provide any clear answers either.

Of course, there's a love story in the plot as well, with both Al-Cerraz and Feliu courting a young Jewish violinist as they all travel across Europe playing in a trio. If the plot sometimes displays a few clichés, the settings are vivid, and the story moves right along. The historical personages provide an interesting spice, and several times I found recordings of the various musical pieces featured in the book. All in all, The Spanish Bow is an entertaining read.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Music from Comala

Last October, I selected a piano challenge: to learn a new piano work that had not yet been recorded. Blogger Hugh Sung had an article about Charles Griffin, a New York expat currently living in Latvia. I visited Griffin's website and found a short piece entitled Murmuring in Comala, commissioned by pianist Ana Cervantes as part of a project to honor the Mexican novelist Juan Rulfo. Rulfo's sole novel, Pedro Páramo (1955), is hailed as a precursor for the magical realism, such as Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967). Although Cervantes has now released a CD containing some of the pieces (including Griffin's), it wasn't available when I started my own work.

Pedro Páramo is surreal in every respect, and there's not a whole lot of realism, magical or otherwise, to get in the way. The book opens in the first person, with the narrator returning to the village of his mother's youth as a fulfillment of her dying request, specifically to seek out his father, Pedro Páramo, and to collect "what he owes us." But the town is now literally a ghost town, inhabited only by phantoms whose murmurings eventually cause the initial narrator to die from fear about half way through the novel. Brief sections scattered throughout outline the story of an unscrupulous Páramo's rise from poverty to become the largest landowner in the village. First person narration eventually returns, but now it belongs to Susana San Juan, Páramo's last wife, after Páramo sent her father to his death in the mines.

But whatever plot may be present in Pedro Páramo, it's up to the reader to piece it all together, as the novel passes through an array of voices, perspectives and timeframes. Griffin's piece is an interesting commentary on the novel, perhaps not quite program music, but enough for the novel to provide interpretive clues about the music.

Murmuring in Comala revolves around almost a blues riff, a four-bar melody, in the key of A minor for all practical purposes. As one might expect from such a riff, it's set against a walking bass line, except here the bass and the riff are off balance, in a cross rhythm, two against three. The walking notes are seldom in the same key as the riff, sometimes slightly off, sometimes quite distant. The jarring effect becomes more pronounced as the piece progresses, with the riff moving through a variety of key centers, phrase lengths, and shifting modes, and changing hands. Like Rulfo's characters (or like his reader), nothing ever lines up exactly, or quite comes together.

Griffin's program note highlights the ghostly voices and the multidirectional nature of time, both in the novel and in music. I also hear the riff as the eternal purgatory in which the novel's characters all find themselves, not alive but not quite dead either. Salvation eludes them, as the local priest refuses to absolve or bless them, and they wander forever. Griffin's riff rarely harmonizes with the walking figure, leaving the music restless and unsettled, like Rulfo's ghosts. His skewed tonality never permits the theme to find a resting point. The harmony at the "cadences" couldn't be further apart.

Cervantes' performance of Griffin's Murmuring in Comala isn't available from any of the usual online vendors, but there is a Cervantes live performance on Youtube. In addition, his other solo piano work, Vernacular Dances, is on Teresa McCollough's album of New American Piano music, available both at emusic and iTunes. Griffin has an mp3 storefront on his site, where one can also view the Cervantes video, read program notes, and find links to buy his scores.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Altered Realities

In the early days, soundscape music rested primarily in the hands of keyboard players, until Robert Fripp and Brian Eno combined Fripp's guitar with Eno's tape delays and other effects in a couple of classic albums from the early 1970s. Eno went on to work with pianist and composer Harold Budd. Their albums are legendary, comprising Eno's live processing of Budd's piano improvisations, as well as Budd's improvisations with Eno's treatments. Meanwhile, Fripp has developed a healthy side career with his guitar-based soundscapes, and now, thirty years later, it is becoming almost commonplace for guitarists to produce peaceful and serene soundscapes. In almost all cases, it is the electric guitar that provides the source for this music. The electric guitar lends itself to extremes of subsequent processing, and in the hands of artists like Christian Fennesz, the results are barely recognizable as having originated from the guitar. The acoustic guitar's role has primarily been restricted to either new age melodies, of the type associated with the Windham Hill label, or more eclectic but still unprocessed sounds perhaps typical of John Fahey.

A recent release by Istanbul's Erdem Helvacioğlu entitled Altered Realities comfortably sits between these two extremes. Helvacioğlu's previous solo album, A Walk Through the Bazaar, appeared on Chicago's Locust label a few years ago as part of a series of field recordings. It contained two versions of field recordings in Istanbul, raw and treated into a dark dance remix. He is the guitarist for a Turkish post-punk band, Rashit, and he has also won prizes for his electroacoustic compositions. This album shows a completely different side of Helvacioğlu's music, consisting entirely of live, improvised, solo acoustic guitar with live processing (consisting of a TC Electronic FireworX effects box, a Behringer midi foot pedal, and the software AudioMulch. Its gentle and serene character recalls Budd and Eno's work, with perhaps a little more edge (and without Budd's occasionally cloying melodies).

Altered Realities contains seven tracks, all around seven-eight minutes long. The Budd comparison is most apt on the opening track, Bridge to Horizon, where the bucolic melodies set the peaceful drifting tone for the album. Some of his guitar pieces in their raw form, such as Frozen Resophonic, could easily sit alongside works of Michael Hedges, but the real-time processing completely transforms the piece, softening its edges. The treatments can take on a life of their own, as in Sliding on a Glacier where the single notes are sent off into the ether, or Dreaming on a Blind Saddle's distinct, complex gestures. There's an extended section of Shadow my Dovetail where the effects really take on a life of their own, accompanying the guitar whose counterpoint is now something completely different. The album closes with the ominous and theatrical Ebony Remains, which includes the only passage of nearly untreated guitar.

Helvacioğlu plays a lot of different slow arpeggiated patterns whose harmony lingers, recurs, and slowly decays while the music slowly transforms into the next development. His guitar playing throughout is generally delicate, using occasional sharper attacks to create more percussive textures. Altered Realities encourages a quiet drifting state, but listening in close detail is equally rewarding. The album's release on the New Albion label, generally associated with the fringes of contemporary classical music, emphasizes its unique musical vision, somewhere between standardized genres. After the field recordings, electroacoustica and rock, it will be interesting to see where Helvacioğlu goes next.

Altered Realities is available directly from New Albion, from fine record stores, as well as from iTunes and emusic.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Labor Day Canyon Blogging

It's starting to cool off in southern Arizona, with relatively few days in triple digit heat (unlike Phoenix, which has been setting heat records lately). So, off to the mountains again, this time to Seven Falls, a gorgeous spot up Bear Canyon in the Catalina Mountains. The pools make for great swimming holes, fairly deep with cool water. There are a couple of people just in the shade at the right of the picture (I was on the other side of the canyon on the approach), so you can get an idea of the scale.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Harmony in the blogosphere

Scott Spiegelberg at Musical Perceptions and James Cook at Mathemusicality have started a discussion about tonality and harmony, where, to oversimplify, Scott is in favor of chord progressions and James takes more of a voice-leading approach. The discussion continues here (James) and here (Scott). I've never understood tonality, and reading these posts, I see that even the experts don't understand tonality either, at least not in any kind of consistent way. I'm learning a lot from the discussion, but Heather at In the Wings has a serendipitous perspective on the harmony in Brahms that touches on my ambivalence towards tonality.

In my case, very little of the music I listen to, or perform, is tonal. Electronic music gets its tension and release from changing textures and timbres. Most contemporary classical music isn't really tonal either, but even in the tonal pieces that I play (for example, some of Mompou's Cancion y danzas), I can identify the cadences, but not the chords in the middle.

So why am I interested in harmonic theory? I have a number of books that recommend harmonic analysis as a memory aid (and Heather's post alludes to this aspect). And that's ok, as far as it goes. But in late romantic and newer music, does anybody ever listen for these kinds of harmonic progressions? A former piano teacher claimed that he could hear the key shifts in symphonic music, but such skills are beyond me. When I played pop songs on the guitar, I would try to figure out the chords from recordings, but I'm not learning classical music that way. After all, I have the sheet music in front of me. If I'm playing jazz, then it's important to know the harmonic underpinnings of a song so I have a pitch set, and perhaps some intervals, to use in the improvised line. But eventually even jazz pianists take such liberties with the harmony that we get some pretty strange chords (I have one book that shows a B-flat seventh flat ninth flat fifth, or a G major 13th sharp ninth — I mean, really). It would be different if I played much music from the period where tonality was strongest, such as Mozart and Beethoven, but I've never cared that much for the classical period (this kept me out of music school in my younger days). The memory aids that I need for Ravel, Cage and Takemitsu really have nothing to do with their harmonies, and more with what James Tenney, in his wonderful book Meta + Hodos, calls "clangs," sound gestures with several defining parameters. I'm still interested in learning more about harmony, yet another of my extended projects….

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Freely available drones: Uexkull

One of the first sets of CDs that I pre-ordered was when my primary CD dealer was Soleilmoon Records in Portland. I even went to visit them once when I was in Portland on business, and they were the source for most of the odd music I found in those times. The store went on to found its own label, but originally it was only a distributor. Sometime in 1990, they sent out a special flyer advertising a forthcoming 11-CD set, called Anckarström. I can't remember what timeframe they projected, but it ended up being almost a year before the CDs arrived, along with an apology that there were only ten CDs, rather than the promised eleven (the eleventh, a collaboration between Adi Newton and Andrew McKenzie, was released on LP in 1994, nearly five years after the original flyer). But the packaging was great. Each CD was in an oversize cardboard wallet, with only the artist's name in a black banner on the front and a label logo on the back. Inside, each page had a wallet, a vertical one on the left that held a poster or other printed material, and a horizontal one on the right that held the CD. The album credits were printed on the left-hand wallet, and the right-hand wallet had several lines of continuous text, printed as if an excerpt, all in some language I don't understand (probably Swedish).

Even then, from the ten CDs, the ones that appealed to me the most were the drones. A favorite from the set was a long piece by Zbigniew Karkowski entitled Uexkull, and accompanied by a very evil looking photo poster by J. Cynimbo, a sacrifice of a virgin with lots of occult symbolism. The piece itself is a little over an hour long and presents a number of noisy drone scenarios sequentially, four or five for the piece. Each section runs for about 10-15 minutes, then slowly crossfades to the next. Underneath the whole piece is a gorgeous deep resonant drone, with a tone quality almost like a didgeridu, but without any of the rhythms that come from a human performer, just a slight repeating oscillation. This deep drone opens the piece, then appears by itself at various other times. Its recurrence provides a few moments of peace amidst a couple of very rich and noisy blocks. We get air-raid sirens wrapped in buzzing sounds, screaming mechanical birds, and angry mutant insects from a bad sci-fi movie, all processed into a slowly evolving potage. Karkowski studied with Xenakis and created Uexkull in part using the Upic system in Paris that Xenakis pioneered. The influence shows strong similarities to Xenakis' early electronics works, such as Bohor and Concret PH.

Karkowski didn't do a lot of drone pieces (although I have my no means heard all of his work). He participated in a group effort with Bilting and Phauss on a release on Kim Cascone's Silent label, which explores similar ideas (Phauss also had an Anckarström album), but these were among his earliest releases. I have other Karkowski albums that are a very different sort of electronics, and some that are orchestral. He's still very active, now residing in Tokyo, and performs around the world (though I haven't seen him anywhere near Arizona lately).

The Anckarström albums were a one-time pressing. I saw them occasionally for sale as singles in better record stores, but eventually the albums were re-released on other labels or went out of print. The Hafler Trio's and John Duncan's contributions were released on Staalplaat, and Karkowski's was reissued on Audio Tong (whence the cover photo above). It's again out of print, even on Audio Tong, so the label has made it freely available as a high-quality AIFF file, mp3s at various bitrates, and as an Ogg file. It's hosted at the Internet Archive, without the x-rated artwork.

Hat tip: Free Albums Galore.

Monday, August 27, 2007

How to play inside the piano

One of my recently discovered joys-of-Netflix is that they carry new music DVDs released on the Mode label. Mode has long been a premiere souce for new music, with an early emphasis on the New York school composers, and now including many first recordings from across the US as well as Europe and Asia. They have also been one of the first new music labels to release material on DVD, including opera, concerts, and short films. A while back I rented a DVD of four movies by or about John Cage, and currently we're watching Margaret Leng Tan playing and discussing George Crumb's pathbreaking piano suites Makrokosmos, volumes 1 and 2.

Crumb has a unique place in the history of post-WWII piano music. I remember when the Makrokosmos series was released on vinyl, and it was a very different perspective on contemporary music from both the Darmstadt and New York composers. I was very excited about Crumb's music, and bought the scores for Makrokosmos II and his earlier Five Pieces for Piano. Makrokosmos is a gorgeous and unique (and oft-reproduced) score. Both volumes are exquisitely drawn, with some of the pieces in non-standard layouts, such as the one on the DVD's cover, taken from Agnus Dei, the last piece in book two. He was the first to popularize, if not introduce, many extended techniques for playing inside the piano, including pizzicato, glass tumblers, sheets of paper, chains, playing the beams, etc. The techniques are related to Cage's prepared piano, but Cage generally modified the piano's timbre by weaving objects between the strings of a single note (such as coins, screws, bolts, bamboo shoots, and pencil erasers), which then stays fixed for the duration of the piece. Crumb's preparations are more dynamic and often require a different sort of performance technique. Crumb's piano works are a sensuous and delicate music that never sounds like anyone else.

Leng Tan is, by her own admission, a virtuoso of extended techniques on the piano. She has previously recorded Crumb's Five Pieces as well as a number of Cage prepared and toy piano pieces. Although here she's in concert dress, the performance seems to have been filmed in a bare backstage room, with breaks between the pieces (which you can see from the presence or absence of scores and various preparations) and no audience. The film's director, Evans Chan, indulges in some occasional trickery, with odd lighting and color effects. But with Makrokosmos, the pianist is always moving, whether to pluck the strings on the inside of the piano or using the various props. So the camera is also always moving, following Leng Tan closely, using frequent double exposures to show her hands and her body simultaneously. The film is a very effective view of Leng Tan's excellent and dynamic performance.

The DVD also includes a 45-minute conversation between Leng Tan, Crumb, and Don Gillespie from Crumb's publisher, Edition Peters. Although it seems pretty ad hoc sometimes, there are some real nuggets in here. Leng Tan provides some context for the extended techniques, comparing the canonical three B's (Bach, Beethoven and Brahms) for classical composition with the three C's for extended piano techique (Henry Cowell, Cage and Crumb). She could have found one more C with Curtis Curtis-Smith, who developed the bowed piano with his 1973 piece Rhapsodies, but that's a minor quibble. There's also a fascinating anecdote about one of the pieces that quotes Chopin's Fantasie-Impromptu. Crumb had originally quoted a Rachmaninoff piece, but he had to re-compose a week before the premiere because they couldn't get the rights to the Rachmaninoff. And we thought sample theft was new to the digital era!

Crumb's piano music remains somewhat controversial, even now, thirty-five years after its first performance. Many pianists, teachers and technicians don't like playing on the inside of the piano, believing that the piano strings will become damaged because of the oils in the pianist's hands. But the pieces have a life of their own, and many improvisational pianist, such as Sophie Agnel and Andrea Neumann, use these techniques in their own work. Mode has done a great job with this DVD, capturing not only the music, but the visual performance as well.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Yes, there is a quiz

Matthew Guerrieri over at Soho the Dog has a quiz in honor of the new academic year.

1. What's the best quotation of a piece of music within another piece of music?

Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in Ives' Concord Sonata.

2. Name the best classical crossover album ever made.

Not a genre I follow very closely, but I like Yo Yo Ma's Obrigado Brazil, where he played tangos with a number of Brazilian classical and jazz musicians.

3. Great piece with a terrible title.

Feldman, I Met Heine on the Rue Furstenberg.

4. If you had to choose: Benjamin Britten or Michael Tippett?


5. Who's your favorite spouse of a composer/performer? (Besides your own.)

Marion Zazeela.

6. Terrible piece with a great title.

Assuming we have to pick a classical piece, which means that Keiji Haino is not a viable source of titles, I'll go with Stockhausen, In the sky I am walking.

7. What's the best use of a classical warhorse in a Hollywood movie?

Blue Danube Waltz in 2001: A Space Odyssey

8. Name the worst classical crossover album ever made.

Anything involving tenors.

9. If you had to choose: Sam Cooke or Marvin Gaye?

Sam Cooke.

10. Name a creative type in a non-musical medium who would have been a great composer.

Ad Reinhardt.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Synthesis from a diary

Most of the time, when I find a new discovery in the INA-GRM sound, a recognizable style of electronic music, often derived from Pierre Schaeffer's first musique concrète in the 1950s, the artist was active in the 1970s and 1980s, but his or her records were released in limited editions back in the day and never received any kind of circulation. The Icelandic label Creel Pone specializes in this mini sub-genre, duplicating the original releases as closely as possible except the LP is replaced by the CD (and the packaging reduced in size). Few are the releases of new work and new composers, but the Italian label Die Schachtel recently released a collection of pieces by Angelo Petronella that sits easily next to the French masters. As far as I can tell, this is his first release under his own name, although he participated in a new music/improv release from 1979 that has been given a deluxe reissue package, also from Die Schachtel.

Sintesi da un Diario (Synthesis from a diary) clearly inhabits the same sound world as Bernard Parmegiani and his colleagues. You can easily hear one big difference between this album and those from the seventies, and that is the precision Petronella gets from his material. This factor alone would make the album worth hearing — it sounds great, way better than most reissues, even after remastering. Razor-sharp sounds are carefully placed in space, even in the two-dimensional stereo reduction that comes on a CD. On headphones, you can hear sound gestures whirling around, coming from all directions. In addition, more than a lot of earlier composers, Petronella combines field recordings with electronic sounds in unusual and creative ways.

The album comprises a seven-part suite Insieme sonoro in quattro tratti e tre innesti (soundwork collection in four sections and three connections), preceded by the standalone piece, Voce e macchina (Voice and machine). Big Tibetan chants open this piece, intercut with delicate typewriters, helicopters, and other mechanical sounds. The two types of sounds carry on a dialogue that ranges in turn from ominous to sultry, sometimes morphing into each other.

In the suite, field recordings play a major structural role. Each of the four sections of the suite (named Tratto 1 through Tratto 4) incorporates the sounds of children playing, and each of the three connections is based around a different thematic, whether it's the illusion in Habitat of opening a window to the sounds outside, the conversations in Lamento, and the vocal phonemes in Un canto. Throughout the suite, the sounds swirl and blend together, precisely placed in space and with different degrees of resonance used to create visions of great depth. Electronic sounds seem to grow out of the field recordings, especially during the sections using the sounds of the children.

Many commentators have dismissed this album as derivative of the INA-GRM sound, but I think this perspective misses the point. Musique concrète remains a viable musical language with many different styles, and currently practiced by several artists (one thinks of Francisco López, Chris Watson, Michael Northam, and Steve Roden, to name only a few for whom field recordings are a rich source of sonic building blocks). Artists like Petronella keep the genre alive, and the technological advances in the studios over the last couple of decades make Sintesi da un diario a superb example of contemporary concrète.

Friday canyon-blogging

We've been traveling again, so I haven't posted much this month. And last week I went hiking up Peppersauce Canyon, where I got the picture above. The mountains are really green — we've had a fair amount of rain this summer (a good thing), and it really shows.

More blogging on music real soon.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Busy seances...

I'm still working my way through all of the New Music Seances I mentioned recently. The Sleepwalker's Shuffle concert was very much in the hypnotic vein for a while, including a beautiful Meditation by Jonathan Russell, a appealing new work by a composer heretofore unknown (at least around here). Then came three Disklavier pieces by Conlon Nancarrow. I've heard Nancarrow's studies for player piano before, but I've never owned any of his records and don't know his music well. It renders dubious my comment in the Ravel post that music that moved on different timescales was rare. Such busy music! Study No. 3 seems to have quite a few different time scales, or at least different tempi, unconnected to each other on any beat, strong or weak. Of course, no human can play this complex music, which is why he wrote the pieces for player piano, (now the Disklavier). But with the player piano's sharp timbres, which serve to keep all of the different lines audible, his work also makes for a very demanding listen. It refuses to stay in the background. Its inhuman virtuosity is dazzling, overwhelming, brilliant.

Kyle Gann has written a book on Nancarrow and mentions him often in his blog. I see a strong parallel between these Nancarrow pieces and a recent Tzadik release by MC Maguire, Meta-Conspiracy. Gann met Magiure at the Atlantic Center for the Arts and was so impressed that he wrote a long post about him earlier this year. I listened to small excerpts, then bought the CD when it came out a few months ago. When I listen to the whole CD, Meta-Conspiracy is just as busy as these Nancarrow pieces. I can see why Gann recommended it. A Short History of Lounge for piano and computer every bit the wild ride that Gann described.