Tuesday, August 26, 2008

That was then...

Scott @ Musical Perceptions has an interesting meme: what musical performance of the 20th century would you most want to either witness or take part in? I've always had a time travel fantasy of hearing the great composer/pianists play, just wondering what they really sounded like, but since Scott specifies 20th century, I can't go back and hear Chopin or Liszt. Fortunately, for the imaginary traveler if not the real one, there are a number of legendary 20th century performances whose records, for as much as I like them, are a bad snapshot of the original concerts.

Two spatialization events spring to mind, never to be duplicated in a recording.
  • The original staging of Xenakis' Persepolis in the ruins of the palace of Darius, at night, played over a hundred loudspeakers spread through the ruins, with fireworks, choreographed torch runners, natural fire, and huge projectors.  Kinda sticky politically, but still.   
  • Actually, there were several Stockhausen events to make me yearn for time transport.  He played a series of concerts in the caves of Jeita, Lebanon, where he placed 180 speakers among the rocks and played his electronic and intuitive music in the inner dome of the caverns.  Or, the performance of Sternklang, with five groups of musicians spread around a park, sometimes taking musical material from one group to another with torch-lit runners. Gentle Fire, the new music/improv ensemble with Hugh Davies, was one of the groups.  Or the Expo 1970 world's fair in Osaka, where Stockhausen performed daily for a period of months in a special auditorium designed to his specs. 

Friday, August 22, 2008

Friday canyon-blogging (Grand style)

Since I started this blog, I've had the occasion to show some of the canyons that I have explored in southern Arizona. But it has taken us two years to get to The Canyon in Arizona, a wonder of the world, the Grand Canyon. What an amazing place, and we barely scratched the surface. We hiked to Skeleton Point (and speculated that the name comes from the hikers who got there and couldn't make it back), then took a mule trip six miles into the canyon, to Plateau Point, where I took the picture in this post. That's the Colorado River in the distance, still quite a distance away.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The concept of a musical work

An anonymous comment from my post on open forms a while back referenced Goehr for further thought about the specificity of scores and musical works. More recently, Greg Sandow got more specific, recommending Lydia Goehr's book The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works in his series of posts about classical and pop reviews. Talking about musical works seems such an ingrained part of our vocabulary, but it is refreshing and a bit bracing to read a discussion of what the phrase really means. I've always thought about musical works in the same category as Justice Potter Stewart's famous phrase about pornography — I know it when I see it.  Naturally a precise definition is very slippery to grasp, and Goehr's  book is an excellent articulation of all of the subtleties and tensions inherent in the concept or definition of a musical work.

Since Goehr is primarily a philosopher (although she's also the daughter of British composer Alexander Goehr, so she has sufficient musical background for the topic), she discusses in some detail the definitional aspects of a musical work. Her central claim is that a musical work isn't an object that can have a fixed definition, but a concept with both original and derivative uses, all of which are continuously emerging. The work concept functions as an ideal, something that lives out there as a limit but is rarely if ever attained in practice.

The biggest virtue of Goehr's philosophical treatise is that it places the work concept into a historical setting, starting from a time when the concept was not in place and showing the reasons why composers and musicians began to use it. It really comes as no surprise to find that the work concept emerged around 1800 as part of the romantic movement, and was part of an effort on the part of musicians to gain more economic autonomy for themselves. Bach, and to some extent even Mozart and Haydn, were employees, producing functional music on demand (for example, Bach's cantatas were all written for specific Sunday services). There was little consideration that a work had any particular structural or artistic integrity as a whole, so Bach was able to reuse any and all of his material as the occasion demanded, as well as borrow anything that might be useful from other composers (which is why there are so many works of uncertain authorship, in addition to pieces on acknowledged themes from other composers).  Like so much else in the classical music world, Beethoven is the signpost for the changes, a convergence of theoretical and practical concerns around 1800 that set the eternal image of the creative genius who passes on his work, which will survive intact despite the vagaries of specific performances.

But, like so much else in the classical music world, at Beethoven we are stuck. Goehr spends some time discussing recent challenges to the work concept, both from inside and outside the classical music establishment. Cage and Stockhausen are mentioned, briefly, in their roles as theoreticians. But nobody has found a different way to talk about music, so we get the work concept when we discuss improv, pop, and world artists, despite vast differences in historical and cultural background. The romantic ideals have taken over the concert stage, so we get the incongruous spectacle of African drummers recreating indigenous dances for motionless listeners in a darkened auditorium. The issues of artistic autonomy and legitimacy that drove the romantic ideology in 1800 are still with us today. It was sobering to consider that musicians two centuries ago had to persuade the civil powers of their worth, even as music sought to free itself from the spectre of usefulness.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Once again, serious fiction worth reading

I've nearly stopped reading serious fiction since I've acquired a miserable track record picking books that I like. Instead, for the most part I find myself reading crime fiction, which has the virtue of not taking as long to read, or as many brain cells to appreciate (plus, the excellent nearly-local bookstore The Poisoned Pen always has great selections and recommendations). The last literature that I enjoyed was nearly a year ago, which I wrote about here. But a fortuitous impulse purchase a month ago at Moby Dickens, an amazingly good bookstore in Taos, New Mexico, has led me to Marianne Wiggins, whose novels are so enthralling that I've already read two of them, and I'm awaiting delivery of a third.

Her 2007 novel The Shadow Catcher was the impulse purchase. With a blurb promising a mystery and an Edward S. Curtis photograph on the cover, I was taken in with the suggestion of some kind of tale of the old west. Couldn't have been more wrong, but what I found was a Calvino-esque novel where Wiggins is a main character in the novel, one of whose current efforts is to sell her novel about Edward S. Curtis (the very novel we're reading) to Hollywood for a screenplay. (I'm not giving much away here, this is all in a very early chapter.) The writing here is dazzling, turning on a dime from settings across time and space, with digressions that spin off into separate plot lines. Rarely have I read a novel that plays with fairly avant-garde concepts in such a readable and entertaining manner.

Working backwards, the second Wiggins novel I read was Evidence of Things Unseen, a 2003 novel nominated for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Her protagonist here is also a photographer, one Ray Foster, this novel is a much more straightforward narrative than The Shadow Catcher, covering Ray's life starting from his service in World War I and proceeding for the next forty years through his subsequent life around Knoxville, Tennessee.

I don't want to spend any time giving away much about the plots here, because there is a lot of plot in both novels. Despite some implausible coincidences at the ends, they both manage to find a symbolic sense of closure, all the more powerful because my sense of the novels at midpoint was, where the hell is this going? Both novels deal with children whose incomprehension of their parents' behavior becomes part of their personal neuroses as adults. Both novels use photography to meditate on the differences between the photographic art that fixes time in place and the novelistic art that evolves across time. Both novels communicate a specific historical time and place through the accumulation of small details, so that I got a very real sense of what the culture of the time and place might have been. And both novels have very strong characters, men and women, none of them ideal but all very tolerant of their imperfections.  Both novels have reassured me that there is still good writing out there, and good stories worth telling well.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Xenakis realizations

Iannis Xenakis was one of the great composers, along with Stockhausen, Boulez, and the rest of the European avant-garde, when I was first learning about new music back in the 1970s. Dutifully I bought albums of his music and his piano scores. But I was most impressed with his electronic music, not surprising considering where my tastes turned out. There was a Nonesuch LP of his Electro-Acoustic [sic] music that I played until it wore out. The music on the LP has been reissued on CD, and the music is as impressive today as when it was originally released in 1972. His later electronic pieces, Persepolis and La Légende d'Eer, were equally imposing and remain among my favorite musique concrète.

It took several other purchases to make a disappointing discovery, that I didn't really take to his instrumental music as much as his electronics. Even though I picked up a half dozen or so CDs over the years, none of his instrumental music has arrived in my iTunes, which basically means that I haven't listened to it in several years. While I admire and respect his work tremendously, the last Xenakis CD I bought before the one under discussion here was five years ago, one of a set of works for large orchestra conducted by Arturo Tamayo.

What prompted me to buy the recent Neos CD of Xenakis' keyboard works was that instead of being performed in the usual manner, the five pieces on the CD (limiting my discussion here to the three piano works, but there are also two for harpsichord) were MIDI realizations by the conductor Daniel Grossmann. Now, I've done my own MIDI realizations of piano compositions.  I posted one by Dennis Riley here a while back, so I have no inherent bias against the technology. There's even considerable history in recording using MIDI piano. Herbert Henck participated in Klarenz Barlow's album of his piece Çoğluotobüsişletmesi (unfortunately not reissued on CD), where Henck performed the piece on one side, and a computer realization was on the other. More recently, Carolyn Yarnell released a MIDI realization of her beautiful piece The Same Sky on Tzadik, while pianist Kathleen Supové released the same piece played on piano.

Certainly Xenakis's piece are sufficiently complex to warrant a computer realization. The score for Herma contains notations for three different pitch classes, which he uses for set operations (intersection, union, negation), as well as specific dynamic marks ranging from ppp to fff (but not including p, mp, and only one mf), often combining very loud and very soft notes simultaneously. Evryali creates textures from simultaneous but apparently separate lines, often requiring four staves (and even five, in one passage) to clarify the relationships to the pianist. And Mists, which ranks among the largest piano scores simply in terms of physical size, combines Herma's pitch classes with complex rhythmic hemiolas and cryptic pitch class notation. British composer Brian Ferneyhough writes extremely difficult music because he wants the performer's struggle to be audible in the performance, and Xenakis is sometimes in a comparable position.  (I haven't seen any computer realizations of Ferneyhough's music, which might be more appropriate than Xenakis.  But then, Ferneyhough is still around and might choose to prohibit such a development.)  And yet, there are several recordings of live pianists playing all three of these pieces, which suggests that as difficult as they may be, they aren't completely impossible to play.

The instinctive reaction to Grossmann's album is that he's cheating, that a professional pianist ought to be able to perform Xenakis's piano music without having to resort to software solutions. Grossmann's response is in the liner notes (actually written by composer and Xenakis specialist Tom Sora), in an essay entitled "Complex — Unplayable — Authoritative". I won't go into the details, but Sora gives several rationales supporting the claim staked in his title. (You can find the essay online at Neos.) The question is whether the music is as convincing as other recordings.

One of the major differences between Grossmann's recording and real pianos is the amount of resonance in the sound clouds, where the pianist plays lots of notes, both very loud and very soft, with the sustaining pedal down. In Grossmann's recording, you hear every note, i.e., the resonance is very subdued. In Claude Helffer's recording for Montaigne, the cloud is much more cloudy, with the loud notes poking through the murk and the soft notes merely contributing color. The liner notes refer to one passage (marked "+A nuage 5 s/s" in the score, around a minute into the piece) as requiring staccato notes "to sound simultaneously with another layer containing notes that are to form a compact cloud by means of the pedal," but my score doesn't have any such staccato markings.*

Also, using the computer, Grossmann is able to use stereo effects that a single piano cannot. He uses panning in some of the more contrapuntal sections to help distinguish the various lines, such as in the arborescent sections of Mists. Even though the panning effects are most audible with headphone listening, it contributes to the same ends as Grossmann's resonance decisions. Essentially, Grossmann has opted to emphasize Xenakis' pitch relations instead of the more textural ones that Helffer achieves. This is not necessarily due to the nature of a MIDI realization. His software (unfortunately not credited, but perhaps that's just the curiosity of a former geek) probably has a setting for the amount of sustain resonance.

There is no question that Grossmann's realization plays faster and more precisely than a human, especially in Evryali, which is in fact impossible to play as notated (it includes a high C# which a half step higher than the notes actually present on hardware pianos, although it sounds like Grossmann might have found one). Examples in Evryali abound: the tremolos near the beginning, which are played in canonic imitation a few beats removed from one another, even the overall speed (which is 20% faster than Helffer's). It's one of the few places in the three pieces where you know it's a machine. But the passage is so fast and so precise that it calls attention to itself, look at me, I'm a computer! In Helffer's recording, he fudges over the passage a little bit, creating a more coloristic effect, and one would never know there was canonic imitation. Evryali comes closest to Ferneyhough's ideals, and is for that reason perhaps the best justification for a computer realization.

Each potential listener will come to grips with a MIDI realization of these works. Purists will doubtless avoid the CD altogether since it goes so much against the current performance traditions of classical music. One could argue (as Sora does) whether it best represents Xenakis' intentions. Surely Xenakis knew the range of the instruments for which he wrote, so the difficulties (even the impossibilities) had some other motivation. I've mentioned before my belief that much contemporary music is written for the performer rather than the audience, and this is as true for Xenakis' piano music as for any of the open works mentioned in that post. Grossmann spent years creating his realizations, as a human performer would have to spend a comparable amount of time to solve the difficulties in the score for him or herself. I don't believe that Grossmann's recording is any closer to "what Xenakis intended" than Helffer's or any other performance, but his approach has its unique perspectives on a fascinating body of work.

*A footnote in James Harley's Xenakis monograph alludes to some controversial corrections to the score of Herma, which may account for the difference. In any event, these "corrections" are not widely disseminated.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The voice of reason, receding....

Recorded music has become a battleground with the copyright laws a primary weapon. Even people with a marginal interest in the music business have encountered copyright issues, and with the ubiquity of unlicensed downloads, most of us have had the opportunity to define our position, even if we keep it to ourselves and use it as an internal guide of conduct. One of the more interesting and informed sources for copyright issues has been the Copyright Blog by William Patry, a specialist in the field for more than a quarter century and currently working for Google.

Sadly, Patry is shutting down his blog, both for personal and professional reasons, as he explains in his final post. The sad truth:

Copyright law has abandoned its reason for being: to encourage learning and the creation of new works. Instead, its principal functions now are to preserve existing failed business models, to suppress new business models and technologies, and to obtain, if possible, enormous windfall profits from activity that not only causes no harm, but which is beneficial to copyright owners.

More than ever, I want ever dollar I spend on music to benefit the independent artist, and I have strengthened my resolve to avoid major label releases as much as possible (thankfully a relatively easy task, given the pap that constitutes the bulk of them).