Friday, March 30, 2007


One of the advantages of living in a university community where the university has an excellent music school is an ensemble like the University of Arizona's HarpFusion Ensemble. The group gave a concert last night with 15 harpists, with members ranging from full professors to music school freshmen. The theme of the concert was The Cosmos, and the group's response was to play inspirational pieces from many different cultures, such as Japan, Egypt, Native American, Ireland, South America, China, a couple arrangements of western Classical music (Villa-Lobos, Chopin, and Holst), even a Christian pop song. During the opening procession, the performers entered the fog-filled stage playing handbells while one of the group members sang a Gregorian Chant. There were also several guests, including six Japanese dancers, an Arapaho medicine chief who played Native American flute, a theramin (I had never seen one live before), a four-piece traditional Chinese ensemble, and a ten-piece flute choir. The guest performers provided a lot of spice to the beautiful sounds of the harp ensemble.

An evening devoted to The Cosmos needed more than sound, so the troupe provided a dazzling visual display as well. There were two large video screens on each side of the stage whose display included pictures of the different locales, close-ups of the performers from a live video feed, and additional staged material. During the Egyptian segment, for example, the screens projected what was in essence a music video to accompany the segment, where the live ensemble mirrored the action on the video, but the video was set in an Egyptian temple. During one of the pieces, the ensemble wore white gloves and black dresses (the ensemble was entirely female), and the stage was bathed in black light, which gave the impression that the harps were played by disembodied hands. In addition, the harps were wrapped in a shiny, gauzy material that not only reflected the stage lights back in different colors, but had twinkle lights wrapped inside the material that showed through during the finale (an arrangement of Holst's Jupiter movement from The Planets).

Putting all of the music into perspective, Dr. Richard Poss of the UA Astronomy Department gave a very cool presentation about Astrobiology, showing slides with pictures from the various southern Arizona observatories and presenting the latest information on other planets (204 planets are known today, with more being discovered each week), stars, and galaxies. An extremely tantalizing presentation, with my only complaint being that the slides contained a fair amount of written information that went by too quickly to digest, especially since his talk was so interesting. I would not intuitively have expected that an astronomy lecture would be work in a musical context, but an astrophysicist from the Hubble Telescope team recently introduced a concert by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Apparently, music and space really aren't that far apart.

HarpFusion has a huge amount of talent among their membership. One of the members didn't play at all during the concert, but has spent most of the last year designing the show. Different ensemble members did all of the arrangements and some of the compositions (the piece for theremin and harp ensemble and the pop song were both original compositions). When Dr. McLaughlin introduced the group members, we discovered that not only were they accomplished harpists, but some of them are getting multiple doctorates at the university (harp performance and pharmacology, for example)! The concert was a unique experience that existed in a genre of its own, a real pleasure to experience.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007


Last year, my sister launched a project to take a photo every day. She enjoyed it so much that a number of us have signed on to the same program this year, and we're posting the pictures on the web. Every month, the photographs have a different theme. In March, it was architecture, in February, the color red, and in January, macro photography. I only participate as the occasional substitute for my wife's page — she's the photographer of the family. So today, I added to my blog a section on the right of links to each family member's page. There are some great pictures here, and it's been interesting to follow along.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Piano technicians—fiction

Occasionally an interesting novel about music crosses my path, and most recently I finished The Piano Tuner, a first novel by Daniel Mason. The protagonist is Edgar Drake, specialist in Erard pianos, who is summoned by the British War Office to tune an Erard belonging to Anthony Carroll, an unorthodox officer deep in the jungles of Burma. Although the novel is set in the late 1880s, at the conclusion of the Third Anglo-Burmese War, when the British Empire was finally consolidated and the current boundaries of Burma (now Myanmar) were set, the main characters and settings are completely fictional. Carroll has set up shop in eastern Burma and has established friendly relations with the local tribal leaders, and some time before the beginning of the novel, has requested and received an Erard piano. However, the jungle humidity and the difficulties of transport have taken their toll on the piano, so Carroll has requested a tuner. The War Office selects Drake, and Drake agrees to the trip.

Drake is a sensitive individual and considerably more aware of his surroundings than most of the military men with whom he shares his trip. With his background as a piano tuner, he is also acutely sensitive to the sounds of the trip. He meets the Man with One Story, who travels the Red Sea seeking the music which he heard once, and from which he awoke completely deaf. He wanders the streets of Mandalay and finds puppet theaters, complete with otherworldly songs. But Drake identifies most closely with Bach's music, in particular the Well-Tempered Clavier, which he learned as an apprentice, and whose great melodies of worship and faith "are named after the act of tuning a piano." Bach's music contains a world of beauty found in order and the laws of counterpoint. This contrasts not only with the disordered beauty of the unexplored Burmese jungle in which Drake finds himself, but with the hidden and unnamed song that lies inside each piano. Another lesson for the apprentice: we must tune pianos so that something as mundane as muscles and tendons and keys and wire and wood can become song. In the jungle, it seems like the instrument eventually follows its own path and finds its own song, despite Drake's best intentions.

In the same way that melodies recall other melodies, The Piano Tuner reminds me of many other stories. For a long part of the novel, Carroll is like Colonel Kurtz from The Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now. The Man with One Story recalls another traveler, Odysseus, in his encounter with the Sirens (Carroll explicitly reminds Drake of the Lotus-Eaters, another tale from the Odyssey). Without revealing too much of the ending, Drake succeeds in finding and tuning the piano, and even manages to cross over from tuner to finding his own music and becoming a performer, playing his beloved Bach to tribal royalty.

Mason trained in biology and spent a year in the region studying malaria, so he brings considerable local color to the novel. Most of the reviews emphasize the locale more than the music, but it was interesting to me because of the musical connection, how would a man steeped in music change the basic heart-of-darkness plot? And besides, even though the Library of Congress has a heading for fiction about piano technicians, how many novels like this are there, really?

Thursday, March 22, 2007

But I'm not dead yet!

Alex Ross has an interesting post on classical music's oft-reported demise (and Daniel Wolf has an equally interesting response). Money quote:

The neverending "death of classical music" talk is the wishful thinking of the culture industry. But the fact that orchestra subscriptions, opera ticket sales, and, possibly, record sales have gone up in the last year or two suggests that music from Hildegard to Anna Clyne can still find its audiences without help from TV, magazines, and commercial radio.

Check it out.

From Vilnius to Tucson

The Arizona Friends of Chamber Music showed that they are also the Arizona Friends of New Music this week when the Vilnius String Quartet played in Tucson. The Vilnius Quartet specializes in music from Lithuania (of which Vilnius is the capital), and brought Tucson a program where the first half was all Lithuanian composers: Ciurlionis, Balakauskas, and Rekasius. Heard of any of them? Me either. One of the discussion forums I follow on the net had a long thread this winter about composers from this part of the world, briefly mentioning Balakauskas, so I was very excited about the program, and my expectations were in every way fulfilled by the concert.

The opening piece was a fragment of a quartet in C Minor by Mikalojus Konstantinus Ciurlionis (1875-1911). The fragment consisted of three out of an original four movements (the closing fugue has been lost), a late romantic work, very pretty and genteel. The highlight for me was the second movement, marked Andante Pastorale. In the middle of the movement, over a bed of murmuring, sustained tones, the cello played a beautiful, long melody, joined at the end by the first violin who broke away from the accompanying chords and turned the solo into an ethereal duet. After a minuet and trio, the work sounded a bit unfinished without a closing movement.

Both of the pieces on the remainder of the first half were composed in the 1970s, a period of great exploration and change in classical music. The program notes namecheck most of the big names from the period (Stockhausen, Xenakis, Cage, etc), but neither piece seemed terribly "difficult". Both works used extended techniques (e.g., harmonics, glissandi, col legno) and contrasting textures to maintain interest and forward motion. Certainly the textural sounds made the structural changes much more audible than in more melodic works. And I find myself more and more drawn to live performances because the visual cues provide a lot of information about the structure. In addition, our ears can easily process the sounds of the four instruments separately, yielding musical secrets that would be much more difficult to uncover from the sounds of two stereo channels. Finally, since neither work is recorded, I found an excitement and a desire to listen more intently because I wanted to absorb as much as possible of these works that I may not hear again any time soon.

The second work on the program was Osvaldus Balakauskas' second quartet, dating from 1971. According to the program notes, this quartet is a serial piece, but it didn't sound much like French or German serialism. The first of three unidentified movements almost sounded canonic, with textures starting in one instrument and being taken up at very short intervals by the others, separated only by a beat or two. The second movement went by too quickly for me to take notes, but the third movement was lough-out-loud funny, fast moving sections of contrasting textures, interrupted periodically by massive C Major chords.

The final work in the first half was Antanas Rekasius' Third Quartet, written in 1976. Although the program notes emphasized his use of aleatoric and chance operations, I heard nothing overt to support this suggestion. The score did contain some graphic notation for some of its more unusual sounds, but the work seemed focussed in a way that aleatoric music is not. The first movement, marked Largo, was a long, sustained, intense chord, where one instrument at a time changed a note, generally at the beginning of a measure. It created a slowly evolving harmony until the end of the movement, when the first violin's and cello's music changed more often, becoming a duet on either side of the slowly moving chord in the second violin and viola. The Lento second movement split the quartet into two groups, two violins and viola/cello. Each group took a turn in the lead role, but in two contrasting textures, while the other group played a very quiet, slow moving accompaniment. The movement closed with a gorgeous chord played in harmonics, so rich in overtones it almost sounded like a shortwave radio. The final Allegro was very fast, very short, and blisteringly loud (for a string quartet), a perfect conclusion to a very entertaining work.

After the intermission, the group played Ravel's Quartet in F Major, and the music returned to the appealing and dignified late romantic sound world with which it opened. This was my first time hearing this quartet, associating Ravel more with piano than chamber music. After the challenging and exciting new music in the first half, the Ravel soft and gauzy, a beautiful impressionist work to round out the concert.

I applaud the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music for its commitment to new music. The auditorium was nearly full, and the series of concerts is sold out every year (fortunately for me, subscribers do give their tickets back if they are not attending). Although the lady sitting in front of me didn't like the new music, my seat neighbor and I walked up to the stage together at intermission to look at the scores, and she seemed very open to the repertoire. The organization sponsors new compositions every year during their winter festival, and releases live recordings on (not available in iTunes or emusic at this time). The concerts are a real asset to the community, and I look forward to attending them in the years to come.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Rachmaninov had big hands!

This has been circulating around a couple of music blogs. I can't even remember where I saw it first, but it's really funny. Since I keep telling all my friends about it, I thought I should post it here for an even narrower audience...

Saturday, March 17, 2007

A Jazz Composers Collective

If you'll forgive me for stepping outside of my primary area of expertise (such as it is), I'd like to talk a bit about jazz. On March 15, under the auspices of UA Presents, the SFJAZZ Collective came to Tucson, including Dave Douglas on trumpet. I've followed Douglas at a distance for some time because of his association with John Zorn, with whom he played in Masada. I've also got a couple of albums with Douglas as a leader, and have consistently found him to be an interesting composer, arranger, and performer. This group was of the same consistently high quality that I have heard with some of his other projects. However, the rest of the performers were all new to me (you'll see now to what extent I don't follow jazz): Joshua Redman on tenor and soprano sax, Miguel Zenón on alto, Andre Hayward on trombone, Bobby Hutcherson on vibes, Renee Rosnes on piano, Matt Penman on bass, and Eric Harland on drums.

The Collective gathers for a few weeks each year, where they choose a modern jazz composer to investigate, along with preparing their own compositions. Last year they played Herbie Hancock's compositions, and this year they chose Thelonius Monk. The group played for nearly two hours without an intermission (including one encore), and of the ten pieces, six were by Monk. I didn't catch one of the titles, but the other five were Brilliant Corners, Ugly Beauty, San Francisco Holiday, Oscar T., and Bright Mississippi. The compositions by the group were a three-part San Francisco Suite by Dave Douglas, Peace Offering by Andre Hayward, Union by Eric Harland, and a piece whose title I didn't catch by Matt Penman. The Collective takes jazz composition seriously. Considerably more than simply heads and solos, these were detailed and complex pieces.

One of the characteristics of the arrangements that really impressed me was the variety of voicing that the group achieved. During Ugly Beauty, the melody statement was passed around from one horn to the next, where the last few notes of each phrase were overlapped simultaneously by two horns as the melody was passed, but most of the melody was performed by one solo instrument or another. Throughout the performance, the number of different instrumental combinations was a measure of the arrangements' ingenuity. A common device was for a soloist to be joined by members of the ensemble around the midway point, at first with short chordal interjections, to a fuller texture by the end of the solo. Hutcherson had a great solo going on Oscar T., a wonderful blues song named for the great Cincinnati jazz poet and DJ, Oscar Treadwell. By the end of his solo he was undiminished but nearly inundated by the horn section — great stuff! Redman and Hayward got the same treatment on San Francisco Holiday and Brilliant Corners. The group played closely from music for every piece. While score reading in jazz concerts is unusual in my experience, it gave the performance a sense of a high-wire act and imparted an urgency and excitement to the performance. I get the same frisson from seeing classical chamber musicians play from a score, some kind of imagined performance anxiety.

I have a couple of Thelonius Monk albums (one on the iPod) and the great Hal Willner tribute That's The Way I Feel Now (ditto), so I had some awareness of Monk's music before this concert. But as great as the Monk arrangements were, for me the musical highlight was the new compositions. The first new composition presented was Douglas's San Francisco Suite. Its three movements (Alcatraz, Amoeba, and Assisi, after three great San Francisco landmarks) followed a fast-slow-fast pattern overall and featured outstanding ensemble writing. Penman's composition (perhaps Hospice? I didn't hear the title clearly) opened with a vibes solo, then to a vamp with the a duet between the piano and the trumpet. Then, Zenón gave his most impassioned solo of the evening before a short drum solo concluded the impressive piece. Peace Offering was the only tune where Redman played soprano sax, and he wove around the other horns with a delicate filagree of melody. Union had a beautiful long passage for the two saxes without any other accompaniment, keeping a steady, almost minimalist rhythm, and was a great closing piece for the program.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

CD Moribundus, continued

Once again, the Lefsetz letter is spot on with its analysis of why CD sales are tanking. The problem that Lefsetz identifies that strikes home for me is, how do we discover new music? The new broadcasting royalty rules are designed to kill internet radio, which currently has enough niches for me to do some fruitful discovery (I like Post-Classic and the ambient station Drone Zone). Lefsetz's point about embracing indie stores is also true; I like Aquarius, Mimaroglu, Forced Exposure, and Erstwhile distribution, and I have a relationship with all of them. I've mentioned before (here and here) how much I'd like to eliminate the CD, and still believe that there is ample opportunity for a new business model that reflects how listeners really want to listen to music, and not how corporate beancounters think we should help their bottom line.

Drone Classics — Ora

One of the first albums that got me hooked on drones was by the elusive British group Ora. Amalgalm was a 2-lp set released in 2000, sometimes called Amalgam, but the Ora discographies at both Brainwashed and ICR use the former — FWIW, the label website says Amalgram. I should say a word about the packaging — two clear lps, each in their own clear plastic sleeve, and both lps in a larger clear plastic wrapper, along with a full-size double-sided color insert that went between the two lps. Naturally, the pictures available on the internet don't do any justice, and I had to sell all of my vinyl when we moved to Arizona, so I can't produce a cover scan any more. The work was released on editions …, a label based in Georgia (USA) which released a number of treated field recording works, but which appears to be dormant for the last couple of years. The label's motto is "...we are not cognizant of the state of our own surroundings," and works like Amalgalm help make us cognizant by introducing a degree of strangeness into our natural surroundings.

The group for this collection included Ora stalwarts Colin Potter and Darren Tate, with the participation of Michael Northam. This album was probably my first exposure to Northam, about whom I'll have more to say in a future post. Northam brought to Ora a consciousness about place for this one release in which he worked with them. Even though Potter and Tate are both pioneers in using field recordings to create drone pieces, I have no other release by either one where the locations of the field recordings are provided on the album. On Amalgalm, each field location is identified by a Greek letter, and the letters are then keyed to each piece. For example, the piece "Crop" has the symbols θ and ε. Checking the key tells us that θ means "Inside a watertower in Lancashire" and ε means "Under the water table of the glacial lowlands west of the White River". (Every piece on both lps uses θ; the Watertower is the name of Potter's studio in Preston, Lancashire.) Interestingly, all of the locations mentioned have a connection with water, whether it's the watertower in Lancashire, a location near a river bank, or other large body of water (Gulf of Finland and Puget Sound are mentioned).

One of the most powerful characteristics of this music is its polyphony. On a piece like "Crop", for example, there are four distinct layers, all moving at their own pace. The first sound we hear is a kind of white noise. It could be ocean waves, although this is understood more because of the rhythm of the oscillation rather than its actual sound. Then, a much slower and deeper oscillation starts, rich in overtones, more of a proper drone, which underpins the remainder of the piece. A third voice is mysterious but fairly rapid, almost functioning like a lead voice except that its pitch content is microtonally centered around a tight frequency range. Its rhythmic contours suggested an origin in human speech, but if so, it is so altered that no specific vocalizations are recognizable. Finally, a second long-running drone, similar to a cymbal roll, rumbles in, eventually replacing the oceanic oscillation that opened the piece. Ora gives each of the layers some time to itself, so they remain perceptible throughout. This pattern extends to most of the other pieces on the album, where a layer of sound will be set into play with other layers. Some of the layers are pretty static, and some have quite a bit going on. Ora's artistry is that the resulting piece is a sculpture in sound, giving the listener enough time to wander around the piece and hear it from multiple angles.

Amalgalm was a personal harbinger for drones made from field recordings. I was marginally aware, by reputation only, of R. Murray Schafer and the soundscape artists primarily located in Canada, their pioneering efforts starting in the late 1970s and their work in the acoustic ecology field. I was enough aware to join a Yahoo discussion group for "phonographers" that kicked off in 2000, which was one of the first serious attempts to gather up field recording artists into a wider community. The phonographer aesthetic was somewhat different from soundscapes, based more on Cage than on Schafer, and thus more closely aligned with my own interests (southern Ohio didn't have many interesting soundscapes). As for Amalgalm, despite the list of recording locations, there isn't that much in this album that says "soundscape" aside from some sheep on "Pan". But there's enough of a suggestion of the world in Ora's music to direct my attention outward, but enough resonance to tune into the frequencies and become immersed in the music.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Sunday afternoon chamber music

The Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival is in its fourteenth year, and we attended the final concert of the festival this afternoon. It featured music from four different centuries, and the first half (featuring the two most recent centuries) was music by Czech composers, which seems to be a popular motif for the local chamber music group (they featured a Czech pianist playing all Czech repertoire in the fall, and the commission this year was from a Czech composer). The chamber music series works very well because each piece in the program is for a different set of instruments, which provides more variety than would be available in an orchestral or solo program.

For me, the first half of the program was by far the more interesting. The opening work was a string sextet by Ervin Schulhoff, a composer from Prague whose main body of work is from the 1920s and 1930s (he died in a concentration camp in 1942). Written in the early 1920s for pairs of violins, violas, and cellos, the sextet uses the expressive chromatic harmonic language associated with early Schoenberg. The first movement, marked "Allegro risoluto" but much more subtle than the risoluto implies, contained beautiful but tortured melodies, passed around from one set of instruments to the next. The two slow movements were exquisite, especially the second with its slowly descending six-note motif that ran all the way through. Marked "Tranquillo," the second movement contains many very quiet passages and made very expressive use of silence, and closes with an ethereal chord held by all six instruments. The third movement was a brisk burlesca in 5/8, very virtuosic. Then, starting in the low instruments with dark and muted tones, the last movement, marked "Molto Adagio," was another beautiful and ethereal work. This was my first introduction to Schulhoff's music, and I look forward to hearing more of it. The sextet is available on the Chamber Music's CD series, which is unfortunately not available in iTunes or emusic.

The second work on the program was a repeat performance of the series' commission from 2003, a Piano Quintet in two movements by Czech composer Jiri Gemrot (Gemrot's Clarinet Quintet received its world premiere this year). This was also the kind of work that I'd like to hear again. The first movement, marked "Allegro Vivo," was a strong rhythmic work, reminding me of the best music of Stravinsky and Bartok. The passion among the players was evident, especially the first violinist in the Prazak Quartet (who premiered the work back in 2003). The second movement started slowly, and was a combination of a slow and fast movement, but returned to the original slow material before a brief, fast coda. An excellent work, and the composer was in the audience. It was especially gratifying to see that the contemporary works get repeat performances — sometimes composers comment that it's harder to get second performances than premieres.

The second half of the concert included works by Mozart and Mendelssohn. The Mozart was a chamber arrangement of the aria "Parto Parto" from La Clemenza di Tito, featuring soprano Jennifer Foster with Richard Stoltzman on obbligato clarinet. I'm not an ardent opera fan, so this work did fairly little for me, although it was nice to hear Stoltzman again. The Mendelssohn was a youthful work published posthumously, the Sextet for Piano and Strings in D Major. Written when he was only 15, it is scored for a complete string section with an extra viola. Although the work was very pleasant and excellently performed, I would have been hard pressed to identify the work as Mendelssohn except for some passages in the Minuet. I did enjoy the way he divided the players into three groups: violin/viola, cello/bass, and piano, and the sound was very full (probably due to the inclusion of the bass).

The sponsoring organization records all of the concerts and releases a single CD containing highlights of the festival. The CD from the 2003 session includes Gimrot's Piano Quintet, and the CD from 1998 includes the Schulhoff Sextet. The Arizona Friends of Chamber Music does a superb job at promoting new music and puts on very interesting and successful concerts. Since this afternoon's performance was the last of the series, the director, Jean-Paul Bierny, thanked all of the festival musicians, and commented how difficult the rehearsels were for this festival because of the large number of new works. The hard work paid off well, and I look forward to next year's festival and the regular concerts from this organization.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Mute Hummings and Scribbles

Ex Ovo is a relatively new entrant to the drone boutique label set, founded in January 2006 in Germany. The label's second release is a compilation with the odd title, I, Mute Hummings, subtitled 'A Collection of Drone Music and Dulcet Atmospheres.' The first hundred copies are accompanied by a limited CD-R entitled Mute Scribbles. The primary CD has a lot of the big names in the drone world. Paul Bradley and Keith Berry both contribute fairly short quiet drones. Both of these artists have released CDs with a single long piece, so to hear abbreviated versions is kinda comparable to the thirty-second snippets you get in eMusic or iTunes, but they are still very nice. Polish artist Dronæment includes a third installment in their hitherto vinyl-only Phonorecord series, which incorporates loops from the intro and outro sections of old vinyl, apparently because this compilation was originally slated for a vinyl release before switching over to CD.

There is also representation from the guitar drone school, where the primary sound source is electric guitar. This compilation contains my first exposure to Dirk Bogarde's Fear Falls Burning project, which apparently is consuming more of his recent creative energies than Vidna Obmana, which is where I first learned of him. The duo Troum has done a number of guitar-based ambient projects before, most notably their Tjukurrpa trilogy. Their piece 'Thrausmata Enos Eneirou' on this album wouldn't be out of place on the Tjukurrpa Harmonies, with the addition of some open field recordings of wind and voices. Finally, an artist on I, Mute Hummings who is completely new to me is bassist Jeffrey Roden, a former chamber jazz player whose most recent solo work is a series of short improvisations which has recently been released on new music label New Albion. Here, one of these short improvisations has been remixed by the German artist Feu Follet (who also has a piece on Ex Ovo companion album). Although it starts out recognizably as a bass guitar, the instrument loses its identity, as the music slowly builds through a series of loops that fade in and out across eleven oneiric minutes.

There are also a couple of electronic music pioneers who are represented. Richard Lainhart has long been a favorite of mine from his double album retrospective on XI, Ten Thousand Shades of Blue. Here he provides a short remix of his 1974 work White Night that successfully captures the feeling of the original and inhabits the same slow, shimmering sound world as the long works on his retrospective disk. Steve Joliffe, an early member of the proto-ambient group Tangerine Dream, provides the source for a 'redundant minimal development mix' from label boss Mirko Uhlig, which opens and closes with two unprocessed flutes, but whose central section, watery and grainy, might have used the flutes as source material (who really knows?).

There is only one piece on I, Mute Hummings that doesn't live up to the promised dulcet atmospheres. Column One presents a live recording of piercing metallic scratches that jolts me out of the calm place where the rest of the album puts me. A collective based in Berlin, their work is quite serious, and the group places itself in the information/theoretical space similar to the Psychic TV and Fylkingen group in Stockholm. This is not the first compilation I've heard to put jarring sounds near the end of the album (Column One has the second-to-last track). One of the great Em:t ambient compilations included a sample from a horror movie of a woman screaming in complete fear — guaranteed to wake up the listener from whatever profound slumber the previous hour may have introduced. I've never been the biggest fan of this device.

Mute Scribbles has many fewer big names, but it is every bit as ethereal as the first disk. The only name previously known to me is Emerge, who has a CD on Mystery Sea and a release on Drone Records. As it turns out, Aalfang Mit Pferdekopf is another of Uhlig's projects (he also has a piece under his own name on the bonus disk). The companion follows the strengths of the primary disk.

One of the rationales for compilation disks like this is to expose listeners to new artists and new labels, and these two compilations have succeeded on both counts. It will be interesting to follow Ex Ovo for future releases. Their web site has links for all of the artists on both comps, which in turn have links to the artists' sites.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

So long, song

Scott Spiegelberg over at Musical Perceptions has a recent post on the longest tracks in his iTunes. His two longest are both from Bach's B Minor Mass, but my version (Gardiner's) splits out the choruses and arias into individual tracks, so nothing there is longer than ten minutes. And I have to confess, the majority of longest tracks in my iTunes remain unheard — as Scott also mentions, sometimes tracks are too long.

So the fourteen longest tracks on my iTunes are downloads for a long listening project that I've never actually had the courage to undertake: Leif Inge's 24-hour Beethoven symphony, Nine Beet Stretch. I've listened to the first track only, but the entire thing is still available for download at Inge's site. Most of them are too long to fit on a CD, coming in at 1:23:06.

Then, the next longest is Morton Feldman's Patterns in a Chromatic Field, from the Tzadik release. I've listened to this once, but I have lots of other large-scale Feldman recordings as well. (My most recent long Feldman, which I listened to this past week, was Marilyn Nonken's two-CD recording of Triadic Memories, which I followed in the score.) For a brief moment, this track was available on eMusic, but Tzadik has since removed from eMusic all tracks longer than a certain length, of which this would certainly be a prime candidate. It clocks in at 1:20:42, which is probably the limit of a CD.

Next, I keep sleep music on iTunes and my iPod, and there are a number of CD-length ambient pieces that I use for late-night listening. In this category, I have works by Austere, Steve Roach, Paul Vnuk, Rihmasto, Chris Meloche (I cheated here and joined all six CD tracks on Recurring Dreams of the Urban Myth when I imported the CD) and Tau Ceti, all of which top the 70-minute mark, and all of which have multiple hearings. These artists all use long durations to create quiet musical environments, and some of them have expressly created works for overnight performance and broadcast.

Finally, I have a number of downloads from the netlabel Webbed Hand Records, specifically in their Rain series. These works also attempt to create minimalistic soundscapes that would fill an entire CD, and I have six of them longer than 70 minutes. I would note that not all of the Rainscapes are suitable for sleeping, but they would certainly qualify for other ambient purposes. Some of them have ominous overtones that would introduce nightmares. All are freely available for downloads, and Webbed Hand is one of the more interesting netlabels that I've found. I'm listening to one of them now (Rain 3 by Djinnestan), and it's a peaceful combination of water, crickets, with some occasional drones fading in and out.

There is certainly a point where long tracks don't get heard as often. Other than the long sleep tracks, there are a lot of long songs in my iTunes that still have play counts of zero. I have some DJ mixes that I've downloaded that have sounded interesting at the time, but for whatever reason still remain unheard. I also have used iTunes to create backups for CD-R releases, but when I listen to the music, it's still through the CD-R rather than iTunes (artists in this category include William Basinski, Michael Prime, and a number of artists on the Mystery Sea CD-R label). I used to download podcasts, but stopped for essentially the same reason — other than sleeping, I don't have many occasions to listen to long musical works. Perhaps our next iTunes analysis exercise should be which tracks have the highest play counts …

Ways of Listening

Eric Clarke's book on musical perception, Ways of Listening, was on my Amazon wish list for some time before I finally checked it out of our university library. Although I can't remember where I originally learned about this book, I was probably drawn to the book because of its topic, the perception of musical meaning. I'm still curious how to articulate musical meaning, so hoped that new ways of perception would lead to a new understanding of its meaning.

Certainly the book proposes ways of listening that are quite different from the way I listen to music now. But I have always had difficulty complying with the reverent, structural listening that seems to be prescribed for classical music. I use music as background for many activities and have difficulty articulating clearly the different structural mileposts (development, recapitulation, etc) when I hear a tonal work of western art music, even though I can see the mileposts when I follow along with the score. So, what are some other ways people understand music besides the structural one? Clarke uses what he calls an ecological approach, which defines a relationship between the music and the listener that causes the listener to engage actively with the musical environment. He contrasts the ecological approach with one that starts from acoustical phenomena and works its way up to complex structures (what he calls an information-processing approach), or which believes the meaning in music is entirely placed there by the composer and that listeners bring nothing to the activity.

The examples from the book's early chapters are from pop music, which uses lyrics to convey meaning and the music to enhance or embellish the primary meaning. But the last two chapters discuss structural, or autonomous, listening, using a movement of a Beethoven string quartet as an example. First, he identifies four factors that play a part: the listening environment, individual predisposition, the characteristics of the music, and the relation between perception and action (essentially, that forced inactivity in a concert setting requires more attentive listening). One of the most interesting insights here was to consider how different it is to play music, even as an amateur, because in playing music, there is an immediate and intimate relation between hearing and action. My previous piano teacher emphasized this point with me (although he was only taking his cue from the material I brought in), that my goal in playing was to expose myself to the literature. He strongly believed that western art music was the best possible music, and that there was a hierarchy of steps in how a listener could gain understanding at the temple. Following with the score is good, but any time spent trying to play it is better.

Another interesting suggestion concerns music's "power to temporally structure the sense of self" (148). Although Clarke discusses physical interaction with the environment, such as dancing or air guitar playing, I believe the choices for our musical environment feed into our self image. Highly rhythmic music provides a backbone to my daily activities. I like more aggressive music for cardio exercise, and more tribal-ambient for contemplative action, such as writing this blog entry. When I drive in heavy freeway traffic, I use music to slow down time so I can pay closer attention to all of the other drivers. I use slow moving drones to stretch out my time before going to sleep. But playing the piano (which Clarke discusses as well) is the ideal way to express physicality as music, and ideally, the sense of self and time disappears when I play. The absence of conscious thought is a primary motivating factor for why I play the piano.

Clarke's approach to instrumental Western art music aligns his ecological approach with musical topics, a theory outlined in the late 20th century by L. G. Ratner and Kofi Agawu that defines topics as cultural entities that would be familiar to listeners of classical musical works. Examples include a recognition of various dance forms (e.g., march, gavotte) and musical styles (e.g., cadenza, learned counterpoint). Although the topic theorists seek topics that would have been familiar to listeners at the time of the original work, Clarke goes further and situates topics that would be familiar to contemporary listeners as well. These topics would include not only how a classical work resonates into the modern period (e.g., how Bartok and Shostakovich mis-heard Beethoven) but also the whole musical-work-as-emotion baggage that we have inherited from the romantics. Clarke also opens up the technical side of music to elements to considerations that have become more prominent in late 20th century music, such as texture, dynamics, and register.

Ultimately, my quest to find new ways of musical perception was different from the goals Ways of Listening sets out, which is a descriptive analysis of how people listen to music. As such, it articulates fairly clearly a number of the different ways that I listen to music, some of which I hadn't specifically considered. I especially enjoyed seeing that my amateur music making had found a place in Clarke's pantheon, but, as always, my personal search for the essence of music continues.