The Marrow Of The Device

Avant garde and experimental music, composition, percussion, and maybe a tidbit or two about food and/or classic European cars.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Welcome to the Research and Development Department

Most people who compose or play challenging new music (or serious music, avant garde, experimental, what-have-you) have had to endure repeated questioning of the value of their music by friends, family members, co-workers, and the rest. Not to mention possibly trying to build a career and a body of work in a capitalist society that devalues non-commercial music (that is to say, unpopular music). Academia and the non-profit sector are the traditional means of support for adventurous musical endeavors, but even these are tightening up and shifting focus to more crowd pleasing forms of music. At the same time, paradoxically, presentations of new music are getting mainstream attention and large crowds. For instance Stockhausen at the Park Avenue Armory, Michael Gordon's Timbre. Though you could make an argument for the crowd-pleasingness of those two pieces. But it is still crucial to repeat some of what Milton Babbitt wrote in "Who Cares If You Listen" way back in the day. Note that there is some controversy over that title and over Babbitt's claims that he did actually care if you listen. Of course composers care if you listen. But we also don't care if you don't. The music still needs to be made because, as Babbitt says, it is essential to the progress of the art form. He talks about new music, or "serious" music as he calls it, as an area of research on par with advanced mathematics and physics. I like to think of serious music as the Research and Development Department of Global Popmusic Corp. Usually there is a roughly 10-20 year lag between advancements in serious music and their apparent influence on popular music.

Sound collage, aka musique concrete? Pierre Schaeffer in the late 1940's, Beatles in the late 1960's.

Of course there is always Les Paul messing with tape speed in 1950's pop music.

Synthesizers? Milton Babbitt in the early 1960's, The Byrds in the late 1960's.

Turntables as instruments? Paul Hindemith and John Cage in the 1930's, DJ Kool Herc and Grandwizard Theodore in the late 1970's.

I could go on. The mainstream music audience gets their ears adjusted somehow.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

I've got to learn irrational tuplets

To quote The Onion's Jim Anchower, I know it's been a long time since I rapped at ya...

One of my main preoccupations over the last 15 years or so has been the division of time. For the most part I'm talking about musical time here, although lately I've realized how much I actually conceive of clock time and the distribution of everyday tasks in relation to musical time (but that's another story). I got a fairly late start in music, playing snare drum in grade school and drum set in high school but with no real training. I didn't learn to read beyond simple percussion music until my first year of college when I happened to be accepted  into a very small state university music program. My two first points of contact were Stuart S. Smith, a highly uncompromising Free Jazz drummer turned Avant Garde composer; and Ken Anoff, a former protege of Smith's turned New Age/Hippie percussion guru. These guys were the main tributaries to my rhythmic approach. Anoff defined "rhythm" in the simplest of terms: the placement of events in time. This idea really stuck with me and helped forge my twin-pronged approach to rhythm. First, is the understanding that it doesn't necessarily mean musical events in musical time. Second, that it doesn't suggest equidistant placement. So from a very early point in my serious musical life I was interested in complex rhythms, from both "inside" and "outside" of music. Anoff's music is informed by  the rhythmic languages of Indian and African music. Smith's music is riddled with tuplets, especially the dreaded irrational ones - eg., 7:5. The stuff of the so-called "New Complexity" (Brian Ferneyhough, Michael Finnissy, Richard Barrett, etc.). Though I think Smith's formulation of these rhythms is more aligned with speech rhythms and Free Jazz temporal flow than any post-Serial number crunching. Smith is more like Finnissy (not coincidentally another one of my teachers) than Ferneyhough.

As I stumbled my way through three degrees in Music Composition, I realized that I was in a minority as a composer and a performer in my interest in these sorts of rhythms. In fact, dealing with audience and performer response to these rhythms has been a salient feature of my career, certainly even after my student days. I could tell a lot of stories, but this one is my favorite and gets right to a certain point. During a reading of a piece of mine in grad school, the horn player of the ensemble attempted to use my music as way to take young composers to task for their rhythmic ambition/incompetence (in his estimation). One thing he suggested is that students challenge themselves by writing a piece in common time. Okay, fair enough, but he was talking to a room full of PhD composers in a very forward thinking department. Collective groan as we all thought "yeah, we did undergrad, let's move on." Then he singled out a particular rhythm he was having difficulty with in my piece. It was 5:3 eighth notes. He said "why don't you just write eighth notes and then a note saying to play them a little faster." I was kind of speechless in that 5:3 is kind of kids' stuff. My friend and classmate Evan Johnson (himself a master of the division of time) piped up and said, "he did that, and told you exactly how much faster to play: five thirds as fast." I have to say the rest of the scenario is a bit unclear in a fog of vindication. But if it played out the same way similar exchanges have, it ended in me showing the guy how to play 5:3. And now we get to the point of this post. It's easy, I'll show you how!

Take the main pulse of the tuplet - the consequent number of the ratio - and divide it into equal divisions of the antecedent number. In this case three eighth notes, each divided into five 32nd notes. Then play every third one of those fifteen 32nd notes, counting like this: 1-2-3-4-5, 2-2-3-4-5, 3-2-3-4-5. Below is a sloppy little diagram I made, maybe next time I'll be more pro.

This is just the tip of the tip of the iceberg and of course you can use this method for any irrational tuplet. I've spent a lot of time working such rhythms out making charts of 5:4, 5:3, 6:5, 7:6, 7:5, 8:5, 8:7, and so on. Then adapting these rhythms to drum set techniques as well as using them in my compositions. I clearly recall learning 13:12 to the four-on-the-floor thump of techno music pouring out of boutiques in London's Camden Town while waiting for my girlfriend (now wife) to do some shopping. It's also great to snap or clap these rhythms out against your walking pace, since your pace will remain quite steady. Though I do have a friend that was picked up by cops for this kind of behavior. It does look odd. But it sounds great.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

concise, unequivocal

a cubist perspective of the history of jazz drumming subject to variation by physical analogues to the techniques modern electronic musics

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Way Music Looks

Art is a network of influences, reactions, meanings, misunderstandings, experiments, best-guesses, thievery, pretension, and desperation. In the end the audience will receive what they receive despite the maker’s best intentions; the math doesn’t always work out. The restoration of a painting – Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d'Avignon by the MOMA, for instance – reveals the subtleties of human touch evident in the original painter’s brushstroke. The painting is now even more Picasso, we see the art of Picasso’s true hand in this painting for the first time in decades.

In music, the score is art and the sound is art: Cardew’s Treatise, Bussotti’s Le Passion selon Sade (see score excerpt below), Crumb’s Makrokosmos, among others. It is representation of the reality of the creative (or created) object and it is a reality itself.

George Crumb: “I feel that all good music looks beautiful on the page.”

Notation is sometimes poetic and dramatic. The poetry and drama assists the performer’s eye and mind with understanding the music. Notational complexes and identities interact visually. And of course the sounds do the same.

The act of composing music can be a performance. An improvisation is a performed composition, or music composed while performing. But the act of composing music in solitude – music that will be interpreted by other musicians later – is also a performance. Albeit one with an absent and unknown audience, or an audience yet to come. The image on the page is a representation of musical ideas and is a result of a creative act.

Michael Finnissy: “The purpose of notation is to provoke sound.”

Both the type and amount of provocation present in the notation lie somewhere on a spectrum: the notation doesn’t always tell everything, nor does it always tell anything in a conventional sense. Notation is flexible. All notation is ultimately merely suggestive. That is to say that it guides the performer toward certain musical ideas. However, in some cases it may not actually or necessarily prescribe the particular sounds to be made. In many graphic or open scores this flexibility of notation (and implied trust in the performer) is overt. Some performers are better at learning to execute difficult passages exactly as written, other performers grasp concepts, shapes, feel, etc., and excel at partially improvising the music from the score.

Cornelius Cardew: “The sound should be a picture of the score, not vice versa.”

The score is a document that describes how to make music and it is also a piece of art in and of itself. This is mostly but not exclusively so when the final published score is the composer’s own drawing. It is especially so when the drawing extends or distorts conventional notation, or when it is a notation of unique design.

The way that music looks on the page is a product of its time and its sound. The sound of course is a product of the way the music looks on the page. Extant sheets of music from the Medieval and Renaissance periods look vastly different from music of later periods before the widespread use of mechanical printing methods. This is true not only because the notational systems differ, but also because the handwriting styles and writing materials differ.


Friday, January 16, 2009

The Beginning Of Weight

And a much earlier take on the idea from the last post – "harmonizing" alien musical/graphic elements...

This trio is in three very short movements with a sort of programmatic element that is actually focused on my own and the perfomers’ reactions to a few instances of superimposed notation - the performers’ role is a dramatic one, whereas mine is behind the scenes trying to “harmonize” these jumbles of music.

This is the one of the first pieces I used that sort of notation in and it is based on music from my solo piano piece Wilderness and Self-Sufficiency (Book takes the idea further but is not based on Wilderness). In The Beginning of Weight the pianist is asked to interpret this superimposed notation in relation to the meter, but is not instructed to perform the pitch material in any particular way. My hope is that different pianists will have different reactions to the illegibility.

Movses Pogosian (vln), Jean Kopperud (bass clar), Jacob Greenberg (pno). This is a recording of an informal reading, but I still think they played the hell out of the piece! MP3 and JPGs of the score below...

Thursday, January 8, 2009

And away we go

Been deliberating about starting a blog. Finally decided to. It is mostly a repository for my compositions and recordings on the web. Here it is: 

One of my new year's resolutions was to get back to composing notated scores. I've been doing a lot of computer composition (Max/MSP, Logic Pro) for the last couple years and only a little bit of composing on paper. One of the main projects that involves both computer and paper compositions is Microkingdom – myself and Marc Miller, usually John Dierker and sometimes other people. We record improvisations and some of my compositions and I sample and edit them into something that sometimes gets referred to as unjazz or spazzjazz or nojazz. I think of it as pop music, but really is most definitely not. More on that group later. 

I've really been interested in regenerative composition. The Microkingdom music is one type of regeneration and my paper scores tend toward another type. So, I finally composed and actually finished a new score for the first time in a while.

The Current Bones Cannot Accommodate for violin, cello, piano and percussion. I extracted fragments from Book and recontextualized them. I like to think of it as forced harmonization of alien events. A formal limit is the page. I like to compose on letter size paper because it challenges my conception of musical time. In this piece there are very short sections only as long as a system or maybe a page, but there are also methods of thwarting the imposed or imagined boundaries. There are questions left unanswered and some passages that seem impossible to read and/or perform. The performers will shape the final interpretation immensely. And yes, the word accommodate is spelled incorrectly on the score...maybe I'll fix it. The first page is below, click here for PDF of the whole thing (about 5MB).