Thursday, June 21, 2007

Miscellaneous playlists

Back from vacation! Now that southern Arizona has gotten to triple-digit heat, a picture like this one is an reminder of cooler climes.

For most of our recent driving trip, we mostly listened to playlists on our iPod. I like the playlist concept; it's like a radio station with no commercials. I download new songs to our driving music playlist, including new music that my wife has chosen, so I get to hear music I've never heard before. In case you're interested, our driving music playlist has 1661 songs, 206 of which have a play count of zero. Not all of the songs are completely new because I have a tendency to transfer new pop music CDs directly to the playlist, but I did have new albums from Wilco and Bjork to accompany us.

I've gotten used to the playlists in shuffle mode, to the point where I find that many albums are fairly boring to take in a single sitting*. I grabbed a small stack of CDs for the trip, and at one point we put on Bill Frisell's album The Willies. I like Frisell's music, but found this album as a whole to be underwhelming. It's a collection of sixteen very subdued, mostly acoustic instrumentals, and it simply didn't hang together for me as an album. We have other Frisell albums in our rotation (Good Dog, Happy Man in particular), but we probably won't include this one.

Playlists (and iTunes in general) provide considerably more flexibility than the CD format. Smart playlists can even use metadata associated with the songs to update themselves dynamically. We like to play music late at night, so we have a smart playlist that looks for two hours of slow ambient and classical music based on the least recently heard field in the iTunes database. Our iPod has a handful of Takemitsu and Feldman pieces, a small subset based on the same criterion. The ability of iTunes and the iPod to use a larger set of metadata, and to let me as the user define my own tags, is one of the great strengths of the program.

The different ways people use metadata is the subject of a recent essay, Everything is Miscellaneous, by David Weinberger, an information society guru with credits for NPR, Wired, Harvard Business Review, etc. He describes a third-order organization, another level out from the organization of things (first order) and a physical catalog of things (second order), as the metadata tags that can be applied to digital things, thus making them available for any conceivable sort or search order. In the first-order time, the keepers of the organization were the specialized caste who were the only ones who could retrieve the knowledge (think of medieval libraries in monasteries). When catalogs came into being, the ones who defined the categories used in the catalogs were the definers of our knowledge. The catalogs were still limited by physical constraints, so the knowledge pattern that created them was the way humans tended to categorize reality. By the end of the essay he has extrapolated digital organization to our understanding of knowledge.

The third order organization is the beginning of the recognition that reality is more complex than the knowledge systems that we have tried to impose on it, that reality contains a great deal more of the miscellaneous. It's up to us as individuals to filter the vast quantities of 'knowledge' out in the world, and to recognize the patterns that make the most sense to us. Weinberger takes his examples from many different fields, and is entertaining and educational on the development of libraries and other classification schemes. He uses tagging (and cites the success stories of huge web sites of user-generated content all held together by tagging, such as the photo sharing site, the social bookmark site and other social networking sites, YouTube, and even Wikipedia (Weinberger's take on Wikipedia is considerably more bullish than Kyle Gann's). His unbridled optimism overlooks some casualties (he states that record labels benefit from meta-businesses like iTunes and implies that brick-and-mortar stores are "middlemen who provide no value"), but I found his overall conclusions to be generally spot on.

Perhaps musicians and other artists have already discovered that knowledge doesn't really keep itself to the categories that we've inherited from previous lawgivers. Although the essay was entertaining enough, and the examples were new for me, it seemed like Weinberger was articulating something already in our zeitgeist. Scandals and calculated irrelevance in the news media have undermined our trust in the keepers of the story of our times. The public's confidence in the government and our elected officials is at a historical low. Although Weinberger's interests are oriented more towards business than art, the grey area of knowledge definition is at the heart of the artistic endeavor.

*For some reason, the exceptions that come to mind are all prog rock. We had a great time listening to classic albums like In the Court of the Crimson King, Lark's Tongues in Aspic, and Wish You Were Here.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Weekend garden blogging

Composer Daniel Wolf occasionally blogs recipes, so I thought I'd have another outdoors break. We're traveling the next week or so, so probably not many posts for a bit.

I'll leave you with a mountain fern meadow that we took on Mt. Lemmon last week.

Minimal music is like advertising...

I love culture studies books. Robert Fink's recent book on American Minimalism, Repeating Ourselves, connects the works of Philip Glass and Steve Reich with a number of other, and unlikely, cultural practices. He organizes the book around Eros and Thanatos, mythological Greek figures of love and death, but avoids any kind of psychological overtones in his interpretations.

In the first half of the book, he collects three examples of minimalism and a culture that creates desire (Eros): disco music, whose repetitive nature shares linear and harmonic structures with concert minimalism; repetitive marketing strategies developed after WWII as a method to increase consumer desire, which was in turn brought about by the increase in mass produced goods; and the application of these repetitive marketing strategies to television, whose repetitive nature was most fully developed in the mid-1960s, exactly when American minimalism initially flowered. The juxtaposition of these concurrent trends in different segments of media makes for fascinating reading, even though my value associations for the two poles of the metaphor could not be further apart.

One of the appealing aspects of cultural studies books is how they examine how layers of our cultural life, such as television and advertising, actually work. Fink provides detailed examples that show the relationships that he describes. The two chapters on minimalism and advertising were the most instructive in this regard. I had not previously considered music as an instance of creating and managing desire, but it is an excellent metaphor for the experience of music. Fink is careful to point out that the minimalism in question is the particular kind of pulsed, rhythmic minimalism from composers like Reich, Riley and Glass, and not the more continuous drones from someone like La Monte Young. But Fink's interpretation will provide more nuance to the way I listen to music, minimal or not.

In the second half of the book, Fink relates minimalism to aspects of the opposite trends in our culture (Thanatos), controlling attention and mood regulation. Here he brings in music used for ambient purposes, concentrating on the barococo revival in the 1950s and 1960s; and repetitive music as meditation, using the Suzuki method for teaching violin as the primary example set. One of his theses is that the path to repetitive minimalism was prepared by mechanical performances of baroque music that was widely released on LPs, which shared some common musical parameters with pulsed minimal music. These includes not only the constant motoric rhythm, but the way that listeners developed repetitive listening habits for background to other life activities.

Another attraction to cultural studies books is that I have lived through a lot of the events they discuss, so the book helps provide a context for my own early memories. To choose one of Fink's examples, I remember the advent of long playing records, how many early music albums there were on labels like Nonesuch and Vox (labels that also released lots of new music), and that the sides were arranged for stacking on a record spindle for hours of continuous play. My parents subscribed to a huge Beethoven set that delivered box sets of five LPs per box, and the discs were arranged with sides 1 and 10, side 2 and 9, 3 and 8, and so forth, so that you could put all five lps on the changer, hear sides 1-5, then turn the whole stack over and hear sides 6-10. A fun part of Fink's examination is to understand how all of this fits into some larger picture (and with cultural studies books, every author has a different larger picture).

Repetition is a highly charged topic, one of the biggest points of tension in my life. How much repetition is too much? When I practice piano, I am most productive when I'm on a cycle, practicing for two hours in the morning and another one or two in the afternoon. In a practice session, I repeat certain passages over and over to get the sounds I want. But life has to reserve a certain spontaneity, or the productive repetition turns into unproductive habits. Time and repetition have a conflicting relationship, which I hope to say more about in another post.

The whole mood regulation discussion was another point of resonance. Mood regulation, for all the sinister sound that the phrase carries, is one of the primary uses I have for recorded music. I remember a big Wire interview ten years ago with Coldcut and the other electronica artists on the Ninja Tune label, where they discussed the ability of portable music devices (they mentioned the Walkman, actually) to enable us to have a soundtrack to our lives. The iPod does a better job of providing my own soundtrack than a mix tape ever did. I think a lot of people play music all the time. Virtually every issue of the Wire has a section on Office Ambience. When I wrote software, I wore headphones virtually the entire time I sat at my desk. On a good day, I would play five entire CDs, many of which were musique concrète and electroacoustic improvisation, two genres I found especially conducive to maintaining sanity in a multi-national corporation. (I listened to a lot of drones, too.) I never listened to pop because the lyrics got in the way of the words I had to write. This listening pattern was a major influence on the makeup of my record collection, which has only recently started including new and interesting pop artists.

Virginia Postrel wrote a wonderful, short book,The Substance of Style, about how we navigate the barrage of choices we face in the mass-produced consumer market using a personal aesthetic to construct our identity. Our aesthetic choices apply to our soundtrack as well as our appearance and the other material things that we choose to bring into our life. Another culture studies book -- ain't it grand?

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

eDistribution observations

A couple of thoughts and observations on internet music distribution.
  • Coolfer and Digital Audio Insider both have discussed the new Paul McCartney album offered through all the usual outlets, plus through eMusic. For the inaugural release on their new music label, Starbucks is releasing Memory Almost Full in a regular and limited edition, where the limited edition includes an extra disc with three additional songs and a half hour of Sir Paul talking about the album. Seeing what outlet has what version is interesting. eMusic only has the regular version. Starbucks' music store only has the regular version. Amazon has both, plus a statement from Sir Paul. Their description of the limited edition says that it includes additional artwork and the complete lyrics. iTunes also has both, and both versions come with a digital booklet (no clue as to whether the booklets are different — there is no sampling of artwork). The banner ad on the iTunes store takes the user to the limited edition version. Amazon matches iTunes price on both versions. In another twist, iTunes UK only has the limited edition.

  • This isn't the first time iTunes has offered multiple versions. Björk's album Volta is also available in two versions. For an extra two dollars, you get a video and a digital booklet.

  • The digital booklet that accompanied the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society's iTunes release of music by Debussy, Stucky, Saariaho, and Dalbavie is a great example of what can be done. The release comes with a 13-page PDF with excellent notes about the artists and composers.

  • I've mentioned the digital booklets, because they are the solution to the single biggest problem I see with digital distribution, especially for classical music. After seeking a copy of Marilyn Nonken's release of Tristan Murail's complete piano music for several months on Amazon, it turned up today on eMusic. Everything would be grand, except that eMusic doesn't include any kind of liner notes. Naxos, the classical music label most often touted as most likely to succeed in the digital era, includes liner notes for all their releases at their web site. This is a super friendly approach that I wish all classical labels would adopt, and doesn't penalize customers for purchasing the digital artifacts rather than the compact disc. The web site British label for the Nonken/Murail release, Metier, has no information but redirects users to a store. Lack of liner notes wouldn't be a problem for some classical releases of better known works (although a number of artists, including Angela Hewitt, Alfred Brendel, and even Glenn Gould can be very entertaining writers), but it's especially unfortunate for new music releases.

It's a positive sign that one of the major labels has finally agreed to provide music to the iTunes store at a better bitrate (and without DRM). Hopefully the music industry will start wooing their customers back, by providing features that they want.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Indeterminate Tudor

For the composers in both the New York and Darmstadt schools in the 1950s and 1960s, David Tudor was the interpreter for all new music written for the piano, and we undoubtedly owe Tudor credit for the large amount of piano music from the hands of Cage, Feldman, Boulez, Stockhausen, and their contemporaries. In later years, Tudor turned his attention more to electronics, but he remained committed to Cage's music throughout his life. His last piano recording, made in 1992, was a recording of Cage's Concert for Piano, a work he had recorded several times previously, starting almost immediately after the work was written in 1958.

Because of Tudor's stature in Cage interpretation, I looked forward with some anticipation to a recent two-CD set on Editions RZ of Tudor piano recordings from the 1950s and 1960s culled from the archives of WDR and other radio archives. The Swiss label, Hat Hut, has released a number of David Tudor CDs from the same radio archive, but many of them are now out of print. The new Editions RZ set includes five recordings from Cage's Music for Piano series; three recordings of Christian Wolff's Duo for Pianists I; one recording each of Cage's Winter Music, a realization of a graphic score of Sylvano Bussotti, and Morton Feldman's Piece for Four Pianos; and a reissue of Tudor's recording of Variations II on amplified piano, originally released on the landmark Columbia Masterworks recording of New Electronic Music. All of the individual works recorded here require some degree of realization (in some cases, a high degree) because of the open nature of the scores.

Cage's Music for Piano series consists of 84 unnumbered sheets of music, published in eight different sets (1, 2, 3, 4-19, 20, 21-52, 53-68, and 69-84). Cage generated all the notes from imperfections in the manuscript paper in conjunction with I Ching operations, and the works were to some extent exercises in composing more quickly after the long composition time for Music of Changes, his first major piano work composed with chance operations. Cage eventually found that one of the drawbacks of these pieces was that the music paper imperfections produced only single notes. Here is an example, one system (of four) from one of the sheets. Even though he specified that some notes were to be muted or played pizzicato, single notes still makes for a very sparse texture. To circumvent this problem, Cage allowed for different pieces to be performed simultaneously, by one or multiple pianists. Presumably Tudor's realizations on this set are illustrations of the combinatorial possibilities, but they're all still very pointillistic. Winter Music applies similar techniques, but combines the points into chords, and includes some additional rules about how to disambiguate mapping notes in the chords to different clefs. Compared to the Music for Piano pieces, Winter Music (played here by two pianists, Tudor and Cage) sounds positively lush.

As a bizarre footnote, one of the Music for Piano pieces was previously released on one of the Hat releases with a different title (Music for Piano 21, 22, 26, 29, 34, 36 here is the same recording as Music for Piano 52-56 on the Hat album). It makes me wonder: if the compilers can't decide which pieces are actually being played, what's the difference between these pieces and random notes?

Cage and Tudor must have had a relatively fixed program when they made the rounds of German radio stations in 1960. One of the Hat releases contained two versions of Christian Wolff's Duo for Pianists I, recorded in 1960 for WDR. This album contains two different recordings of the same two realizations, also recorded in 1960 but for Radio Bremen. (Jazz buffs get upset when archival releases don't contain complete discographical information. One might have the same complaint here.) Wolff's piece uses time brackets and fixed pitch classes from which to choose, but leaves many details up to the performer. In this example from For Pianist that uses similar notation, Wolff specifies one sound from pitch class C for 1 and 1/5 seconds, followed by no sounds for 3/5 seconds, followed by three sounds from pitch class C, one of which is played pizzicato, and one of which is lowered by a semi-tone. The whole system should take 2 and 1/10 seconds. Wolff wrote Duo for Pianists I for his own concerts with Frederic Rzewski as an experiment in controlled improvisation. Tudor created fairly strict realizations of the various indeterminate pieces that he played (despite occasional heated objections from the composer), but it's interesting to hear the proof with the comparison of these two recordings. This release also includes a third recording of the same piece, done three years later. By 1963, Tudor was feeling constrained by notated pieces. As he states in an interview fragment included at the end of the second disc, he only felt alive "in every part of my consciousness" when he was called upon to make actions that were "undetermined as to what [sounds] they are going to produce," so it is likely that the later recording was performed more in the spirit of the original composition.

One of the reasons I was excited about this release was that I recently started making a realization of Winter Music. Without going into too many details of the mechanics, I endeavored to understand Cage's egoless musical activity through study of one of his most famous indeterminate pieces. But I find the nearly random nature of the piece almost too daunting. I have a few minutes of music prepared, which I currently play very softly, as if it were a Feldman piece (Tudor peppers his realizations with occasional very loud percussive attacks). But so far I remain unconvinced. I am more comfortable performing music that has patterns that develop or repeat. Cage's indeterminate music deliberately eschews any kind of pattern, so the performer must supply a musical thread that simply doesn't exist in the printed score. It presents a different set of challenges than more fully notated music, a half-way house between composition and interpretation. Cage's systems may have made it quicker for him to compose, but the resulting works put an unusual burden on the performer.

But the creation of a realization of Winter Music isn't really an egoless activity. One of Cage's primary goals once he started composing with chance operations was to make compositional decisions without his ego getting in the way. But compositional decisions are different from performance decisions. When it comes to a performance of these pieces, once the performer has made the requisite decisions to transform the score into an audible piece of music, the performance characteristics aren't that different than for any other fully notated work. Wolff's pieces at least provide a framework for a performer to create a different work at each performance (even if Cage and Tudor opted to fix the performance characteristics for their 1960 radio tour). In this respect, Duo for Pianists I is more like the piano compositions of Henri Pousseur. As Tudor realized in the 1963 interview, the indeterminate nature of the piece should translate to its performance as well, and not simply to the ability to prepare any number of static realizations.

David Tudor's Music for Piano on Editions RZ is available at Erstwhile Records and other fine record stores.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

A Spiritual Drone

Last night, UAPresents and the Arizona Friends of Tibet brought the Gyuto Monks Tantric Choir to Tucson. It was a relatively spontaneous evening as these events go — it was a last-minute addition to the monks' current tour in support of a new center in California, and it filled the main auditorium at the University of Arizona School of Music after a last-minute venue change. As it turned out, Crowder Hall, decorated with prayer flags on both sides of the auditorium, was filled to capacity. Center stage was a portrait of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, flanked by representations of the palaces where the deities for the evening performance resided. Radiating from the central portrait were two carpeted and pillowed areas where eleven monks dressed in beautiful saffron and red robes, adorned with additional vestments, including very ornate head gear, and performed abbreviated versions of ceremonial rites from their monastery.

Before the intermission, the monks performed a Consecration, which consisted almost entirely of a deep drone, chanted using a special method of throat singing that is unique to this sect. It is not like other central Asian throat singers that I've heard, but a deep growling sound. Perhaps because it was sung by a choir, individual overtones were not always evident. It was also very different from the smooth and clear sound of, for example, David Hykes. One of the monks functioned like a caller, chanting short phrases by himself between much longer sections with the entire choir in unison. The only instruments were small hand bells, which the monks shook once in a while. There was also a sparse ceremony where a twelfth monk, dressed simply in a red robe offered tea and fruit to the deities. Because of its nature as a Consecration, the overall tone of the excerpt was peaceful. At the end of the ceremony, the monks stood and chanted a prayer.

The second half was an invocation to calm a wrathful deity, and therefore was a much more noisy affair. The monks incorporated two long horns, two short horns, a number of cymbals, and four large drums in addition to the bells and chants. There was a long section in the middle of the invocation where the monks chanted in a more free-form manner, creating a continuous drone uninterrupted except for an occasional roll from the cymbals. Again, after the invocation, the monks all stood and chanted a short prayer.

One of the younger monks spoke English, so the program concluded with one of the older monks answering questions through the younger interpreter. He explained that the monastery was founded in 1474 and had 900 monks in 1959 when the Chinese closed all the monasteries. The order relocated to India, where they now have almost 500 monks, most of them young refugees from Tibet. All of the monks are trained in the chanting and playing, after a long initiation period where they learn the words of the chants by heart. During the chant, the articulation of the words is deliberately obscured, becoming understandable only after a suitable empowerment. And I thought it wasn't clear because I didn't know Tibetan! In any event, the concert was an unusual opportunity to hear the rich, sacred sounds from one of the world's oldest and most esoteric musical traditions.

Photograph by John Werner from the Gyuto Monks web site.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Sometimes you have to walk away...

We took a break on Thursday and climbed Mt. Lemmon. A view like this helps keep things in perspective.