Sunday, May 6, 2007


Interactive map of the Lower East Side lets you control the superposition of interviews, music and field recordings from places inside. Really beautiful.


Where, exactly?

Interesting -- after spending all afternoon thinking about my last post I put on Berio, Notturno for string quartet, and it sounds exactly like what I was arguing for -- a music that warps the grid that engenders it. I'm suddenly skeptical of my ears. Do I often hear exactly what I want to hear? Or is that idea old news? -- probably some of both.

Grid Music

Music is too easily reduced to positive space: music is stuff, arranged in a particular order, with particular relationships. But so much of music's effect is in its negative space -- syncopation's invisible beats, the implied harmony in a solo line, the remembered head behind a jazz solo, sonata form or Bob Dylan (or where I'm from, Townes Van Zandt), abstract and looming.

The grid, as a feature in negative musical space, is endemic to our tradition. It is traditional notation's first axiom -- to map pitch on one axis, rhythm on another, with regular intervals and a 'snap to' default gives us enormous leverage to understand and organize, just as perspective revolutionized painting, and the Cartesian plane revolutionized, by way of mathematics, most everything we do. It's all one idea.

It makes me uncomfortable, though, when I'm writing music without a pulse. It feels unethical, somehow, to start the page "quarter equals sixty" and then fill it with ties, fives, threes, grace notes, dotted, shifted, irregular everythings. And it comes out sounding stiff -- I can hear the grid in there, despite what I've done to hide it. I've posed this question of conscience to my teachers, and I've often gotten some variation of Stockhausen's response -- I'm thinking of the story where Stockhausen is shouting at Morton Feldman that he "cannot live in the sky:" a sound either lands (while pounding time on the table) "here, here, or here." I disagree. Who the hell are you? Where did you come from? And why are you pounding the table through my piece?

I'm not arguing that it's a prison. That's an old saw -- most every composition teacher I've had has told me, at one time or another, to scoot this over an eighth, tie it over the barline, and hip people everywhere groan about obvious beats. And there's plenty of unabashedly gridded music that's fantastic too.

But the grid -- the idea of the grid -- has changed. The parade of ideas that gave it to us has moved on, and we should pause to consider the consequences.

Traditional notation locks us into a Euclidean geometry in that it is based on an immobile, transcendent frame of reference (give me a place to stand and I will count to four). To describe any form, you need to embed it in a larger box with fixed values (pure invention) and plot it according to correspondences between the two. Eventually, this method proved unsatisfactory to mathematicians who, like me, probably felt a little guilty about depending so heavily on something so arbitrary. We were all eventually liberated from that box by Gauss and then Riemann, who invented a way to describe forms without it. As I understand it, they used a continuum of differential equations to describe change from one point to another as the form is traversed. Bingo -- we can exhaustively define anything by relating all of its points to one another -- no grid.

[Almost a century later Schoenberg introduces his method of composing with "all twelve notes related only to one another." I'll have to think about it for a while, before I get too excited, but what an analogy! Only his grid wasn't the grid, it was tonality. Taken together these describe a kind of liberation strategy.]

Then, working out Riemann, Einstein: matter curves space. IF you were to draw a grid, its lines could not be perfectly straight. They cannot be indifferent to what they traverse. Motion too, will warp even the emptiness around it.

While I don't think we are required by Progress to imitate science, I do find it beautiful that ideas transcend discipline, and I think connections like these are worth pursuing. It's not clear how to begin applying this to music. I suppose one route is Riemann's escape -- find a way to describe the shape and placement of sounds through self-reference. Goodbye notation as we know it. Another approach would grant a grid but allow it to be warped by the music embedded in it, just as it shapes that music. It would require a new musical math, a counterpoint of space.

Counterpoint already does all this, just on a different scale. In counterpoint, every change shapes the environment that shaped it -- general relativity. Events don't warp the pitch/rhythm grid, but they do warp the grid that describes each line's possible paths. It's a nonlinear dynamical system, de Landa would say, and, as such, is an organically generative machine (like CI). I want to apply the same to the physics of music. (See Sower) An explosion in the brass? How could the winds not be shaken from their tune?

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Two Routes to Unity

1. A few materials subjected to many transformations.

We hear a lot about this one. In school, economy is paramount -- everything must be connected to one chord, one melody. It doesn't seem to matter whether these connections are audible. If they're on the page, you can't argue -- they're coming into your ears. It adds up to a kind of modernist's mysticism: you can't hear its unity, but once you know its there, can't you feel it?

This feeling of unity is faith, though few would call it that, and it profoundly shapes our listening. Analysis class turns out to be primarily a faith-raising exercise -- Boulez sounds illogical doesn't he? Well look, he's not! The details tend to not be important except in that they demonstrate a Deep Unity and Serious Intellectual Rigor, (and we're easily impressed). Put it back on the stereo and, if we bought the analysis, we listen differently, reverently, trying to be open to the Mystery as it pours in.

It's a rare thing to get to be both a humanist and a mystic. I think that's probably why I'm drawn to it. But there are a lot of problems with this model, specifically hylomorphism and essentialism, which I'll outline soon.

2. Many materials subjected to few transformations.

This approach is very exciting to me and, as far as I can tell, underexplored. Transformation is the foreground -- the materials are irrelevant except that, in passing, they describe unseen forces. The music is a river or a whirlwind; leaves, dirt, houses may pass through them, but it doesn't matter which. They can be in any order, have come from any place. All that matters is that they help reveal the whirlwind's form. It's the 'melting pot' -- unity isn't in the ingredients, its in the fact they've all been melted.

Some material can be a description a force -- dirt is great for a whirlwind, anvils are not. But a diversity of materials is best. We need to see the behavior of both dirt and an anvil to know the extent of the whirlwind's power. The greater the variety of materials, the better they describe the unseen force. As a result, it 'works' differently than other music. It works exactly like Contact Improvisation, in which coherent dances are effortlessly created by funneling all freedom through a single constraint.

(This is how I hear James Dillon, and why I'm wild about his music. The details are chaotic but the forces acting on them are clear, effortless to follow.)

So this music's form and construction is in its negative space. The positive space -- the sound -- spontaneously takes on forms generated by (but not simply the inverse of) the negative space.

I suppose you could say that this is how the Boulez-types construct -- the method-machine is the negative space and the music is what happens when you turn it on. But there is a distinction to be made: while the sonic matter of the piece may be an accurate product of the method's generative forces, it does not necessarily follow that they are meaningful description of them.

To be a meaningful description of forces, the forces have to be recoverable -- if you listen and find it impossible to meaningfully abstract, if you cannot take a derivative and see a line -- there has been a rupture, a disunity, between the form of the music and the form of the music's source. This position takes too small a view of music. It's like studying an animal but ignoring its environment. We should take the larger view. Unity isn't a function of numerical correspondence, motivic development, thematic return, arc shape -- although these all may be evidence for it. Unity is continuity between a form and the forces that formed it.

And we learned everything we know about forces from our bodies.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Recital 4/29/07

Notes and recordings from my first recital. Recordings are all hosted at the Internet Archive, where you can also stream smaller versions of these files.

The Parable of the Sower

The first twenty-one notes of the Bach D minor violin partita are imagined as seeds planted in a row. Each seed sprouts and blooms. Each chord-blossom imagines an inner nature of its seed note, based on the quality, tension and direction of that note as it lies in the original line. The line thickens but maintains its continuity and direction.
The chord-blossoms are in their prime in the middle of the piece; after three or four iterations the line is robust and its shape remains clear. Beyond this point, however, are diminishing returns: as harmonies become intrinsically rich they become extrinsically inert. Each new note perturbs the trajectories of its neighbors. Chords no longer want to lead from one to the next. I lose control of the line. Imagine blossoms, over-ripe, one by one quitting the vine.
But even as this happens a second and opposite process is taking place. Not limited by the same diminishing returns, secondary properties – dynamics, rhythm – define their own line with increasing clarity. These properties create, or rather reveal, a kind of physical momentum that originated in the tonal momentum of Bach’s line – the acceleration of the scale, the traction preparing the leap, the weightless denouement of the leap itself, the resulting tumble. As the tonal logic is gradually peeled away, the physical logic is revealed to be freestanding.
A parable, then, about music history.

Quintet for Solo Clarinet

Angelique Poteat, Clarinet
Emily Dahl, violin
Kaoru Suzuki, violin
Karen Raizen, viola
Jay Tilton, cello

Though notes sound like discrete points and lines, they emanate inaudible, but not imaginary, fields. Their fields of tonal influence interact, producing the distinctive sounds of intervals. They generate fields in our memory which interact in much the same way, producing motivic, thematic, or structural resonances and dissonances. There are fields in a possibility-space that describe the likelihood of future events, which inform our expectation.
The Quintet for Solo Clarinet explores this idea. Imagine that the clarinet is alone. The other sounds are fields emanating from her line – memory trails, harmonic implications both real and imagined, unexplored paths, alternative interpretations and consequences. And though the clarinet generates these forms, they aren’t strictly determined. They often diverge from their source and achieve a brief independence before fading, as if swept away by irrational, chthonic forces.

The Tourist
1. (Emerging)
2. The Tourist
3. (Submerging)

Cynthia Bova, piano
Dan Sedgwick, piano

Imagine that the music we hear is only a slice of a deep, unbroken continuum, surfacing briefly like a whale, a thread in a tapestry, or incompletely like the tip of an iceberg. Or an animal in a zoo – certainly ours is the domesticated form. How does it behave in the wild, untouched by human hands?
The Tourist is the music – well behaved, presentable, a product of my ear (which is to say, bred in captivity). The surrounding movements imagine states prior and subsequent to its brief incarnation, as if it were first congealing, and then dissolving back into the silent, unbroken line.

Selections from the Origins Etudes
1a. Separation
1b. Sedimentation
2b. Cantus Firmus

Francis Liu, violin
Stephanie Nussbaum, violin
Lauren Magnus, viola
Josh Boulton, cello

“To be original is to return to your origin.”
Narcis Bonet

1a. Separation
A study in musical mitosis. An open fifth is pulled apart; smooth pitch (glissandi) becomes striated (semitones); rhythmic streams struggle for independence; dynamics and articulation, initially mapped isomorphically to pitch, diverge. Then a phase change: pitches solidify into three harmonies (major chords separated by whole steps) which are themselves teased out one by one; those chords diverge, rotating independently through the circle of fifths; rhythmic unisons skew. V I cadence – another phase change: I begin to separate myself from the music by surrendering control of first the rhythms, finally the pitches.

1b. Sedimentation
The registral range of the quartet is treated as a space. The middle of this space, around middle C, is fertile and generative. Half and whole steps pour out. Spontaneous and relentless change in this region pressures the line it generates to adapt. Half and whole steps get pushed outward, with the smaller, lighter half steps drifting to the edges.
Sedimentation is a search process. When loose elements (here, scale steps) freely spread throughout a system and settle, their resulting shape is a description of the relevant constraints of that system. Recall how iron filings describe the shape of magnetic fields, or how trees at high altitudes hug a timberline. In the same way, this sedimentation of notes reveals the shape of my range-space: a single bulge to which volume, tone color and tempo conform.

2b. Cantus Firmus
Cantus firmus technique, in which added parts decorate a fixed melody, was used as early as the tenth century. It was the dominant polyphonic practice for the following five hundred years. I borrow two cantus fermi and treat each with rigorous three-voice counterpoint. The added lines it observe strict rules governing linear motion and dissonance treatment, and only seven pitches are permitted – no sharps or flats. But the quartet does not play this. Instead, they present an analysis of it based on an observation about the composite nature of musical lines:
When a line leaps, it is heard as the abandonment of one line and the introduction of another. The abandoned line does not completely disappear. Its final pitch hangs, lingering in our ear and memory until it is resumed, or another voice merges with it. These hanging pitches subtly influence our sense of harmony, and must be controlled carefully. Bach, for example, fastidiously resolves dissonant hanging pitches before final cadences.
In this movement, one line of counterpoint at a time is systematically broken into its composite lines, which pass between the instruments. Hanging pitches are sustained until they are resolved by another voice.

The Parable of the Sown

Lauren Snouffer, soprano
Katina Mitchell, soprano
Ryan Stickney, alto
Meghan Tarkington, alto
Jacob Barton, tenor
Ross Chitwood, bass
Charles McKean, bass
Daniel McNickle, bass

You, in my garden, in my secret soil! In my sowing I was careful, and yet you are not the seed that I remember planting. Your strange and curled crown – your leaves all twisted round – you seem to find me stunned (but I’ve been cold and kind of breathless in the mornings when I’ve slept too long for dreaming you) –
I’m unsure in my garden, in my secret soil, (growing!) for I know that weeds can flower fair (and yet you’re growing!) – and what about this garden I was charged with keeping? Flowers, dreams and weeds are not the same.

I’ll make some space for you –
if you make some space for me.

String Quartet - "Birds"

Here is my old string quartet (Fall 2005).

From the program: "I like to imagine that music exists whether we write it or not. Like radio waves, it fills the air always, but we do not have the equipment to hear. Writing is the way we listen. In doing the paperwork, we open ourselves to flashes of intuition about how it goes, and slowly wrestle it out into the open. I want my music to describe that drama. From a cloud of bird cries a song is pulled – at first slowly, with great effort, one note drawn out at a time. From more struggle comes more clarity, and then the music is made incarnate and set free. It has a life of its own: it moves of out of its own momentum, developing out of its own needs and tendencies, its underlying structure overgrown with organic details. After it lives out its destiny, it is pulled from us, disappearing back into the air."

Waltz of the Googly Eyed Dog

I'm making my recordings available online. Here's the first. Waltz of the Googly Eyed Dog.

Written for the Fall 06 JUMP! children's concert.