Musings


This is my write-up of the research I did at the Paul Sacher Stiftung back in ’08. It’s been twice rejected by academic publications and at this point I’m too lazy to submit it to anyone else. Posting it here on the very off chance someone finds it useful. Enjoy!

Wilhoite_Feldman FJC

I’ve had the privilege to listen to some pretty awesome music lately:

From bachtrack.com

Dreams and anxieties, religious and otherwise, were the dominant themes at Thursday night’s New York Philharmonic performance.

The concert program worked backwards in time, starting with Phantasmata by composer-in-residence Christopher Rouse (completed in 1985), followed by Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo (1916), and finishing with Brahms’Symphony no. 1 (published in 1877). The effect was such that the newness of the first piece conferred upon the following pieces a sense of freshness; the Bloch and Brahms felt just as “now” as the Rouse…

From OUPblog

In December I blogged about composers whose works challenge listeners to reconsider which combinations of sounds qualify as music and which do not. Interestingly, The Atlantic recently ran an article relating the details of a study that tested how much of our perception of what is “music” – in this case, pleasant, consonant music – is learned (and thus not innate). For me (and perhaps for you) there is nothing too surprising about this — there are far too many types of music in this world of ours for the perception of consonance (or, what is pleasing in music) to be innate — but it serves as a fine backdrop for what I’m about to write…

And another from bachtrack.com

“Wheel: mechanical, circular motion. The brake was invented later.”

Enno Poppe’s words about Rad(“Wheel”), the first piece on his Composer Portraits concert at Miller Theatre on Saturday night, express well the experience of listening to it. With their two keyboards connected to computers that allowed them to play a huge array of scales in multiple tunings, Laura Barger and Ning Yu of Yarn/Wire gave a dizzying, athletic performance of the piece, which Barger related afterwards left her and Yu feeling almost like madwomen…

Last year I posted an interview with Ekmeles director Jeffrey Gavett, which included a clip of a recording made by Ekmeles of the first movement of Kaija Saariaho’s From the Grammar of Dreams. A reader promptly emailed me to ask why I hadn’t gone into any detail about the Saariaho piece, as it was a challenging listen for her. Well, here’s my very belated response to that reader!

Background info: Kaija Saariaho is an internationally acclaimed Finnish composer, born in 1952; you can get a quick rundown of her life and work on her wiki page. From what I can gather on Google–and please, readers, correct me if I get something wrong here–From the Grammar of Dreams began as a five movement work for two sopranos, written in 1988 (you can see a page of the score here). It has since developed into a sort of mini-opera, with the original five movement work at the heart of a larger work that also involves instruments and electronics (see this track listing for example).

Back to the original 1988 work. The texts come from Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar as well as her poem Paralytic; Saariaho has fragmented these texts and distributed the fragments between the two soprano lines in an arcane manner.

Yes, Meg, but why does it sound like that? my reader seems to ask. Well, without having studied the score, I can say from listening to Grammar that it seems like Saariaho is channeling the troubled mind of her author, Sylvia Plath, in two ways: 1. Fragmentation: I especially like that she’s not only fragmented the text, but she’s fragmented the voice itself by splitting the text between two different sopranos, and 2. Extended Techniques: Saariaho is exploring the capabilities of the human voice beyond what is traditionally considered “singing.” My guess is that Saariaho, as a composer, wanted to challenge herself and the performers to come up with some unique sounds, and that the Plath texts served as a kind of springboard for this challenge. The extended vocal techniques Saariaho uses in this piece definitely bring to my mind the oppressive psychoses that Esther endures in Bell Jar.

Enough of my speculation, what do you think? Here’s the clip again:

By the way, you can hear Ekmeles perform live at NYU on Feb. 4  They are definitely worth the trip.

Being an avid attender of both indie and new music concerts in NYC, I’ve noticed these two beginning to share the stage at shows.  I experienced this just the other night at Zebulon, a no-cover venue in Brooklyn (employees come around with wicker baskets after each group plays to collect donations).
The show opened with Kidambi/Bracken Ensemble, performing voice and percussion works by Cage, Feldman, Polanski, and Brooklyn composer Dave Ruder.  All of the pieces Kidambi/Bracken played seemed to share a pursuit of the unpredictable, and it definitely took guts to perform such sparse, often very quiet music in front a large crowd in a leisurely bar setting.  Tartar Lamb followed, an electric violin and electric guitar duo, with trumpet, clarinet, and electronic manipulation/effects, whose “long-form” songs painted sprawling, Siberian landscapes.  Then finally there was Seaven Teares (a Charlie Looker project), opening with a “cover” of John Dowland’s “Flow my tears”; with guitar and two-part vocal harmonies playing central roles, instruments such as a hand-held Renaissance-style organ, bowed vibraphone, and timpani were also used.  Interestingly,  the vibe morphed from “new music concert” to more “indie-rockish concert” as each group took the stage.
I wonder if this kind of thing is just an NYC phenomenon, or if it’s happening elsewhere in America, too…anyone else come across this, in NYC or elsewhere?
Until next time,
Meg

Hello everyone; my name is Dillon and I’m a new contributor here. Inspired by Meg’s most recent post, I’d like to suggest another pair of categories, having to do with the environment and situation in which music is perceived.

I started thinking about this a lot after my senior year at Ithaca College. I was a composition major, and at the end of every semester our teacher would have a dinner party at his house for the studio. As an after-dinner activity we were asked to bring recordings of music we liked to share with the rest of the students.

So at one of these parties, we had our dinner, and then we gathered around as students took turns putting on recordings of their favorite music. After we had politely listened to stuff like Berio, Stockhausen, and Furrer, my best friend in the studio got up to put on his then favorite jazz album, the none-too-generic “Sky Blue” by Maria Schneider.

Almost instantly, people started talking again; someone got up to get more cake and Sprite; a ping-pong game resumed. Back to the party.

My friend and I were both pretty bewildered. The point of this activity is that students from a wide range of backgrounds and interests share something that inspires them. So I felt for my friend when his favorite music was instantly and unanimously turned into background music.

But then it got me wondering whether there’s anything we can (or should) do about a situation like this.

So here are my two categories. More accurately it’s a spectrum and these are the far ends of it:
1. Experiencing music with our full attention.
2. Experiencing music in conjunction with other activities.

The examples of category 2 are countless: Jazz to set a mellow and sophisticated tone at a party or restaurant. Light rock in the deli to make waiting in line more bearable. Techno at a club, (even at an absurdly loud volume it still has quite a bit of competition for your attention). And category 2 isn’t just the music which is externally pumped into our lives against our will – just count the pairs of ear-buds in a subway car.

Some composers intend for their music to be wallpaper – this music often calls itself “easy listening.” Others find that notion unsettling or maybe even a little despicable. Still others are in the middle – they take a tack of “there’s no wrong way to listen to my music.” This attitude sounds attractive, but I wonder if anyone actually means it. But it is true that composers don’t have much control over how people listen to our music. We’re at the mercy of cultural norms.

It’s self-evident that listening to music as just one of several things perceived at a time has a big cultural and historical advantage. The notion of getting together in a space, just to revel together in single-minded uninterrupted music-listening, is a pretty new idea, and staggeringly less common than the other ways that people listen.

In fact, this talk of staggering unpopularity is starting to sound pretty familiar, so let’s just simplify our terms: The only music that gets category 1 treatment as a rule is concert music. Everything else is usually listened to category 2 style.

I think we composers, performers, and scholars of new concert music are so used to the experience of a concert that we sometimes forget how much it actually resembles a religious ritual. The concert hall, or any other space in which we get together to listen exclusively and single-mindedly to music becomes a sacred environment. We assume that this is a natural way for everyone to perceive music, and not the highly specialized and obscure activity that it actually is. And this influences the music we write, as well as the way we talk and think about it.

But I need not make the case for the advantages of the sacred environment. As a composer, I try to put a lot of effort into every sound. It’s bad enough to think about the fact that each sound is going to pass into our ears and be gone a moment later; I’d at least like to imagine that it’s passing fully into our ears at all! Writing for a captive audience allows composers and performers to explore forms, sounds, and ideas that demand our full attention in order to work. To put it another way, I often wait until I’ve heard a piece of concert music twice to decide if I like it or not, especially if I can’t give it my undivided attention the first time I hear it. But this is a situation unique to our sacred environment.

Take Cage’s 4’33”. Okay, I know, cliché to even mention it, but that’s kind of why I bring it up: This piece simply wouldn’t work in a strictly category 2 setting. If I stood up at a crowded restaurant (where, no doubt, music is already playing) and performed this piece, people would more or less just ignore me. Yes, Cage has an essay in which he describes his solitary performance of 4’33” in the woods. But there’s a difference: Since he was the only audience, he created his own sacred environment. Once you’re dealing with an audience of people with free will, then you lose that. I could call my restaurant performance of 4’33” an authentic performance, if I really wanted to, but it still wouldn’t have any effect on the room full of people eating their dinner. If you don’t have a captive audience, you can’t convince them to frame an experience. So 4’33” is born entirely out of a sacred listening environment we’ve created, and depends on such an environment in order to exist.

I’m one of many people who participates in music from both categories, and I’ve noticed that some of my otherwise like-minded peers don’t want to make a distinction. They bear the attitude that it’s all just different paths up the same mountain, that any lines we draw in music are constructs that we can do just as well without. This doesn’t really work for me. First of all, different categories of music are often put into the world with completely different intentions, and, more saliently, their audiences consume them in completely different ways. So I say it’s different mountains, and that the lines we draw have both meaning and importance.

There’s another growing school of thought, of which I am a part, that musics from different categories do still have stuff to say to one another. I grew up playing in rock bands, and I don’t want to just ignore that, even when I write concert music. And most other composers of my generation are also involved in music that happens outside the sacred environment. As we search for honest and artful ways to express ourselves, I think it’s important not to ignore that there is a spectrum of how we perceive music. Keeping the spectrum in mind will necessitate that we find ways to look at different music in different ways, and account for more than just the sound of a drum-beat, or multiphonic, or blues lick, but all of the perceptual norms that these sounds come with. While it isn’t so hard to bring the materials of music from these different categories together, it’s a lot harder to get these two styles of perception to coalesce. But I think it’s a worthwhile challenge.

I’d love to hear anyone’s thoughts on any of the above.

As a music reviewer, I tend to shy away from using genre names; I’d prefer people heard the music for its own qualities rather than because it fit into a certain box.  And the truth is, much music doesn’t fit into a genre-box very comfortably.

But I have to say, when reviewing new music shows and CDs, it would make my job a lot easier if some such commonly known “genres of new music” existed.  Of course we can talk of avant-garde, or experimental, or minimalist, but all of these genre names are pretty broad, and certainly don’t communicate much to someone encountering new music for the first time.

So how would it look if musicians and music lovers alike had a way of quickly describing the overall sound of new music pieces?

Here are two possibilities, for your consideration:

Cinematic music gives the feeling of narrative; the music is telling a story that becomes a part of the listener as s/he interprets its codes.  I’m using cinematic here in the Greek sense of the word: motion, with a dash of the English sense of the word (cinema and movie being generally synonymous): narrative.  Acknowledging of course that the word in English is more literally linked with cinematograph, or, movie-projector.

For example, LAD, pt. 2 by Julia Wolfe

Mediatory music gives the sense that the music is between the composer and the listener.  It is not narrative based, which is probably why many people have a hard time understanding it.  The impression is often of sounds occurring in succession in an arcane manner, and listeners are free to interpret the music in their own way.

For example, Hinterstück by Matthew Hough

Well, what say you?  Let’s ask our resident composer, Michael Andrew Doherty!  What do you think, Michael?  Do new music pieces need these monikers?  Or am I over-simplifying a necessarily complex matter?

Best to all,

Meg

A number of years ago I had had the ear of the Estonia-born composer of Canada, Udo Kasemets.  I had been reading a series of articles he was writing at the time in the periodical, Musicworks, when a question had arisen between a friend and I.  The question had been based in the indeterminate and interpenetrating aspects of Cage’s works (Kasemets being a contemporary of Cage, and some might say a disciple).  I honestly can not remember which side of the argument I was on, but we wondered, together, if John Cage had felt a sense of ownership over his work.  After having written 4:33, for example, was it still “his” composition in his mind, having given so much of what would normally be intellectual property away to the elements.  I had emailed Mr. Kasemets regarding the question.

Mr. Kasemets responded rather quickly, as he always did, that firstly, he didn’t know what I was talking about (having not made myself clear), but that he was going to tell me something about Cage that no one seemed to understand.  I had a sense from his tone that this would be something that he felt had been getting lost as the years grew long.  He said that Cage’s message was that a composer should start from scratch, start with one’s own methods and techniques… and to commit fully (I am paraphrasing here).

Sage advice from both Cage, and Kasemets.  I think about that advice now and again, particularly when I need the courage to continue a line of thought, of composition, that I feel will may not be understood.

I had recently made a trip to the music library where I reveiwed the piano score for Cage’s Concert, for Piano and Orchestra. After about 60 pages of the score, where not one compositional technique had been repeated (or perhaps a limited number of times), it finally hit me.  It seemed perfectly clear to me that Cage had a point here; that he was simply saying that there are a multitude of ways of writing, composing, and reading music.  The sense of freedom inherent in much of what Cage had done was present here as well, for me.  I went home feeling more free, more confident, in my own ways of composing, looking at sound and music, and performing.

Best wishes,

Michael

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