Atonal Composers Gather For Atony Awards

Jul. × ’11

Award season is picking up, but everyone knows the best parties are after the Microtonys.

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The Declaration of Independence

Jul. × ’11

No, seriously. When was the last time you actually read the thing?

Happy Fourth of July.

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Teleology, Always You Wrestle Inside Me

Jul. × ’11

Last weekend I went to Boston to endorse the wedding of two good friends (Congratulations again Andrew and Erica) and while Angela is off in Rome I took the opportunity to briefly live the bachelor life with my friend, composer Joe Colombo, who himself is shortly off to San Francisco. As a musicologist and composer, our carousing took a decidedly pretentious turn as we decided to go see Terrence Malick’s bewildering new movie The Tree of Life. Don’t worry, this was immediately after Joe chatted up a girl by dropping the sultry sounds of Iannis Xenakis.

The one art-house/independent theater around me closes up during the summer1, and it has been a rare movie critic that seem to be capable off keeping it in their pants about this capable film so I figured I had better take the opportunity when it’s given to me. I, for one, thought the movie was okay, which is about the wrongest reaction one can have apparently. Neither sacramental revelation or masturbatory pretension, I found it often beautiful and occasionally engaging. So why am I writing about it, other than those couple film classes I took in undergrad? Upon later reflection (as one should always do with these sorts of movies) I’ve come to the conclusion that Tree of Life, as much of music I’ve been studying lately does, defies genre conventions more than any other American movie I can think of.

One way to cop out of this is to say that Malick has spent his career developing the oxymoronic genre of the “big-budget experimental film.” As this spoilerrific guide to the movie by Matt Zoller Seitz often mentions, Malick gets to use techniques rarely seen at this pay grade since (everyone say it with me) Stanley Kubrick. So an audience enters with two necessarily incongruous sets of expectations that

  1. This is a non-linear experimental film that when I ask people who have seen it what it’s about they have to think for a second.
  2. This is a movie by a director I’ve heard of, starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn2

Unsurprisingly, rather than coalescing these two sets of expectations, Tree of LIfe subverts both. A lot of the European art film tradition (e.g. Godard), much like American minimal music, spent a lot time in the 60s and 70s trying to escape the linear teleological forms dominant in music and film. Unfortunately for the underdogs, these forms are placed upon these media by time itself, so it’s an uphill battle. However, this artistic tradition was successful to the point that once a movie eschews normal cinematic grammar long enough, an audience will relax and accept the “meaning” of the film is oblique at best and discerned through the juxtaposition of visuals presented to them by the director.

A lot of provocateurs would likely be outraged by this sort of passive approach, but I don’t think its quite that simple. The dominance of narrative forms leads most viewers to believe that the director does have a single “solution” that will be revealed once the entire movie is shown. The game then becomes to speculate on the answer as evidence is slowly presented (over time! See, teleological.) This is where the analogy to minimal music starts to break down, as the default state is to “bliss out” and quit speculating as to the next motion.

As opposed to the jump cuts, POV shots, and incongruous visual symbolism popular amongst the French New Wave, Malick’s direction looks a lot more like the standard grammar of a modern film. (Well, except for the symbolism. But that’s been absorbed into modern filmmaking technique.) Tree of Life stays on this knife-edge for opening 20 minute sequence in which the primary cast is introduced in a relatively non-linear fashion. At least when I saw it, this was the movie that the audience was expecting.

The opening sequence ends with the much heralded “creation of the universe” shots. From here we see a sequence of events from the Big Bang to dinosaurs for some reasons to the birth of our protagonist Jack to the birth of his younger brothers. After a reel and half of secretly trying to divine what Malick’s artistic statement is, the audience how has something it recognizes as a chronology and the desire for a narrative form becomes insatiable.3 The problem, of course, is that no questions are answered and there is no underlying “moral.”

Judging from Malick’s earlier movies, this crossfade of “big-budget experimentalism” is an intentional part of his aesthetic. As such, I am increasingly impressed with how inconspicuous this intentionality is. Compare that to, of all things, The Hangover Part II, which I think is one of the most self-conscious sequels ever made. I don’t mean this as any sort of slight, but simply that its makers never lost sight that they were making a sequel. Every part of that production was either the diametric opposite or doubling-down on what they did the first movie.

I think that I would probably enjoy Tree of Life much more on a second go round, hopefully being freed from the constant urge to figure out the story. I’m not entirely sure, however, that I want to give it another two hours. While the cinematography was stunning, it certainly wasn’t to the level of a Kubrick and I felt little of the nostalgic pull that so many critics exalted. (Who knew my parents were mystifying an entire class of art to me by not being assholes?) In a potentially cynical but not untrue take, Joe said it seemed like Malick tried to find the average age of the major film critics and strike them in heart. Nonetheless, it is a beautifully crafted film that anyone interested in challenging and evocative cinema should see. Just no matter how much you may want to, don’t try to figure it out.

  1. I’d love to be proven wrong, but I far as I can tell it’s not showing anywhere in the state of Iowa. 

  2. By the way, Sean Penn getting second billing on this movie is total bullshit, amirite? 

  3. This attempt to juggle linear and non-linear forms reminds me a lot of Reich’s addition of a bassline in Music for 18 Musicians

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The “Strad” Is Not a Comic Journal

Jun. × ’11

Instrumentals journals of the late 19th century, much like movies taped off of cable in the 1980s, are almost as valuable for the advertisements as for the main content.

(via A Close Shave, conductor Timothy Verville’s new blog which seems set on angering people in a very intellectually sound way. He also provides this service in person.)

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Matchmaker Matchmaker

Jun. × ’11

Even the silly number of Mac pundits that I follow have had a difficult time comprehending the sheer breadth of information that was thrown at them during last Monday’s WWDC keynote. Analysis has come out in drips and drabs, some about iOS 5, some about Lion, and terribly few about iCloud. All of this was accompanied by a lot of handwringing that everything was different now, as though Steve Jobs had singlehandedly ushered in the Singularity. Needless to say there will be more and better speculation by more informed minds than I, especially now that they are all getting their hungover shells back from San Francisco. What I am interested in, at least from this perspective, is how the new service iTunes Match is going to affect the starving, scrappy, and clever that make up the contemporary art music community.

Match in the whatnow?

(Point of order: I haven’t seen any breakdowns of how iTunes Match works on the side of the artist/producer. This is total speculation/thought experiment.)

iTunes Match, in a nutshell, allows a user to stream their music to any iOS device or Mac as long that as that music is available on the iTunes Music Store, irregardless of how it got in your library in the first place. Once the service rolls out, I can stream Queen II to my iPhone no matter if I bought it from iTunes (or Amazon!), stole it off of Pirate Bay, or ripped it from a CD I bought in Norway. The immediate uptake on the artist’s side is that there is now a tremendous incentive to have one’s music available on iTunes, as it adds this sort of functionality to every copy sold. The downside is that, to my knowledge, you can’t opt out of this streaming. Given Apple’s predilection for simplicity and the standing agreement with the major labels, I would be shocked if these sort of exceptions were possible.

The first wave of commentary has revolved around this input agnosticism as legitimizing piracy.1 People tend to go to Pirate Bay or a variety of even less savory websites for two reasons: they don’t want to pay for something, or it is not (or with great difficulty) available through legitimate channels. Thinking back to what music piracy meant when you were a kid/before you were born, the albums behind the record store counter were live bootlegs, short run B-sides, and studio outtakes. None of these appear on the iTMS without authorization. Now if you downloaded the new Battles album because you didn’t want to pay for it? Something tells me that you also find the $25/year premium2 Apple wants for the service to be about $25 too much.

So What Does This Mean for the Oshkosh Contemporary Chamber Players?

Let’s say you are the music director for a underfunded but plucky band of new music performers. Your debut CD is coming out on one of the various Naxos imprints featuring the Debussy sextet (you know what new music is, right?), an oboe quartet by some guy from Missouri, and a piece for a clarinetist in a leotard by a man who thought he was from Sirius. Now, with this iTunes Match business, were the rights for streaming including in the recording rights? Whose responsibility is it to fix this? You’re a hip, young director who knows about the Mytweets and the Facetube so you’re okay with it, and the Missouri guy is also hip and young but he wants a cut now. (He has a wedding to pay for after all.) Luckily, the Frenchman is racist and dead so no one cares what he thinks. Unluckily, the man from Sirius is freshly dead, and his estate is pretty skeptical about this whole Interwebs thing. In between all of these hammer blows in your head, the second violinist muses aloud whether the whole Naxos catalog will get yanked since iTunes Match might be competing with the Naxos Music Library. Uuuuuuggggghhhhhhhh…..

This scenario just points out what many of us already know, ever since the Sixties art music has been an edge case at best for how the music industry is set up. A more straightforward example of this is what a calamity the metadata for a classical CD is. The composer tag, when used, helps matter but beyond that consensus is rare. If I were to put a CD of the New York Phil playing Mahler 7 under Bernstein into my computer to rip it, I could see any of the following as the artist.

  • Leonard Bernstein
  • New York Philharmonic
  • Gustav Mahler
  • New York Philharmonic (Bernstein)

And all of those are right, sort of (except for the third.) I showed my preference for punctuating the last one, but there are millions of variations. This isn’t including further flies in the ointment, like the addition of soloists or choirs. If iTunes Match is going to operate on metadata, then we are screwed.

As Patrick Rhone pointed out in a clairvoyant article published the week before WWDC, all the infrastructure was in place months ago. I presume there were three reasons for the wait. First, iTunes Match would have seemed like an outlier without the rest of the iCloud set up and perhaps tipped their hand.3 Second, Apple may have been playing a very untypical gambit by letting Google and Amazon take the early fire with their cloud music services. It is easier to say that your service is like a pre-existing complex service only better than it is to explain it in the first place. Most likely, as reported in this Ars Technica article, the secret sauce to the matching will not be metadata but instead the technology acquired in Apple’s purchase of Lala some months back.

Will technology be able to tame art music where metadata fears to tread? That remains to be seen. To return to the Mahler example, I have six different recordings of his Seventh Symphony. If the analysis only examines the first twenty seconds or so of each file, ambiguity could certainly still be present. If the analysis goes long enough to tell that Bernstein is fifteen clicks slower and that the mandolin is both miked and dreadfully out of tune, how long will the analysis of an entire music library take?

So, despite my misgivings about how the backend will work with art music, should you, Young and Hip Music Director, do it? Of course you should do it. Cloud music services are clearly the direction of the tide, and you certainly don’t want to be perceived as antiquated in a field that is already thought of as such. Recordings are rarely a substantial percentage of an ensemble’s income, they exist primarily to travel where the ensemble and composer cannot. Jonathan Coulton did not become an Internet demigod by keeping “Skullcrusher Mountain” behind a paywall. Besides, unlike subscriptions services, iTunes Match actually increases the value of a purchased recording rather than devaluing it. Your job is to remember what the large labels have forgotten, that access is king.

  1. In more conservative outlets, anyway. More liberal media were rankling about the possible return of dread DRM to the mix. 

  2. Where is that $25 going, anyway? It certainly wouldn’t cover the bandwidth for streaming 256 kbps music over the course of a year, and I imagine that the resulting gains in revenue from further ingraining the iTMS into one’s lifestyle would offset that cost anyway. 

  3. Well, perhaps no more so than when they let everyone know they registered 

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A Valentine From Your Five Favorite Swarthy Dudes

Feb. × ’11

So you might have heard that Radiohead has wished us all a happy Valentimes. But it appears that The King Of Limbs will be released in a more Reznor-style format than the Bandcamp model of In Rainbows, except with only two gradations rather than eight or something. So what’s a Newspaper Album?

Really guys? The first Newspaper Album? Shouldn’t you guys know this sort of stuff?

Wait, what’s this at the bottom.

Oh, that totally clears it up. I’m sure the album’s going to be great.

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Acousmatic Music at Huddersfield

Feb. × ’11

I originally wrote this several months ago to post after coming back from the Huddersfield New Music Festival, intending to post it to the blog for my post-tonal analysis class. For some reason that didn’t happen, and having just recently ran into a friend of mine who also terms himself an acousmatic musician I figured it would be interesting to post here. Also, Go Packers.

Huddersfield is an unassuming market town in the north of England between Manchester and Leeds that for most of the year is most famous for being the filming location of the interminable BBC show Last of the Summer Wine, if you’re into weepy British television. However for two weeks in the fall it is the home of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, the largest new music festival in Europe. There have been a cavalcade of excellent performances throughout the festival: notably extended performances of John Cage’s aleatoric work in the midst of an exhibition of Cage’s visual art and the Arditti Quartet performing a new quartet by Brian Ferneyhough.

Perhaps what is most fascinating about the festival from an American perspective is what an entirely different ecosystem the European new music scene is. While I recognized some of the more eminent European composers, such as Michael Nyman and Magnus Lindberg, and American composers Cage and Ferneyhough were perhaps the two tent poles of this year’s festival, on the whole composers and musical traditions from France, Norway, and Denmark hailed as seminal were completely foreign to me. For the xenophile inherent in every new music performer and enthusiast, this was like opening the trunk of a Fiat to find it filled with gold doubloons.

The most striking example of this was a concert of electronic music I attended on Wednesday night. I went to the second of a two-part series commemorating the 20th anniversary of French acousmatic label empreintes DIGITALes, the first acting as a retrospective and the later show as the potential directions towards the future. The actual musical material of the works was diverse, ranging from an unabashed programmatic musique concrete work about setting up a sound system to Feldman-esque strictly electronic textures. If any tropes did emerge, it was that a number of the composers would sample at length something unabashed tonal, such as sea shanties or house music breakbeats, before proceeding to musically desconstruct them. I suspect these quotations would seem pedantic or hopelessly backwards, to this crowd anyway, if they weren’t immediately followed by these manipulations.

Acousmatic music is not a term that is used with great frequency in American electronic music communitites, being a largely Continental phenomenon. Rather than defining a particular musical style, acousmatic music is an attempt to answer two major questions that electronic music has had to tackle with great frequency: the highly idiosyncratic nature of individual sound systems and the lack of a performance practice. Acousmatic pieces are produced with relatively few tracks, often times just in stereo, which are then “diffused” in real time to however many speakers that particular system has. The Huddersfield Immersive Sound System (amusingly acronymed to HISS) that this concert employed consists of 44 speakers placed around the concert hall, but the nearby Birmingham ElectroAcoustic Sound Theater (more amusingly shortened to BEAST) has in excess of 100.

Unfortunately, my limited experience with the idiom doesn’t really let me answer whether the practice of “diffusion” is really effective. The pieces sounded much more spatially immersive than other electronic concerts I’ve attended and spying on the monitor proved that the gent at the mixer clearly had something to do with it. However, all sort of analogies I want to try and make with acoustic performance seem to fall flat. Can there really be a personal style of diffusion that could be recognized across a couple different works? Additionally, the bordering on ludicrous infrastructure needed means that you can’t really record and examine a particular diffusion of a work without also owning a ridiculous sound system. Nonetheless, it turned my understanding of electronic music on its head, and why travel if you’re not going to have something like that happen?

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And What Of His Magic Squares

Feb. × ’11

Milton Babbitt at the Electronic StudioOver the past several days I’ve ran into several people who’ve said they’ve been unexpected shook up about Milton Babbitt’s death. I don’t mean to say that I didn’t expect people to be moved by his passing, he was massively influential figure in basically every academic branch of music in addition to his compositional legacy, but that more than one person didn’t see it coming how much it would affect them. This tweet really crystallized it for me, but I was hit sort of hard myself. Of course I happened to find out while drinking barleywine in a bar in Madison, which I think was sort of fitting.

Plenty of people have made the point that Babbitt was just as famous for his polemic as he was his composing, and I think that’s the basis of this wave of Surprise Grief. Most of these people vehemently disagreed with his philosophies, but could see that he had some sort of point. For every needlessly rigorous work based on a Row of God that’s combinatorial in every possible manner but doesn’t do a damn thing with it like Composition for Twelve Instruments, Babbitt was capable of writing a complicated but sly and honestly pretty good piece like All Set. For a lot of peers, Babbitt’s death is not the loss of a hero or a heel but a truly Worthy Adversary. For a lot of people, his death also marks a tipping point that the Old Guard really does Changeth. With the exception of Charles Wuorinen and the allegedly neutral but apparently immortal Elliott Carter, most of the Uptown stalwarts are gone now. For anyone involved in the Battle of Manhattan or its aftermath it is bracing, especially considering that the old guard of the Downtown are not getting any younger themselves.

The following morning I watched a YouTube video that one of my colleagues had posted, apparently after her fiancée had tried to convince her that Babbitt was still alive. (Whoops!) It was of his Composition for Guitar, which I had never particularly cared for but actually found myself enjoying quite a bit. So was I awash in empathy and giving him the benefit of the doubt, or had my previous political stance blinded me to what was pretty good tunes? This isn’t really a new conversation. It’s the same thing people say about Wagner and it’s not like Babbitt was a Nazi, right? So his irascibility will likely be tempered by history to the subject of vigorous debate rather than the seething rage that occasionally pops up now, which is too bad in some ways. For all the talk of angular objectivity and crystalline structure, even modernist music is not diminished with a healthy dose of passion.

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Videos for Watch Time Enjoyment

Jan. × ’11

Here are a couple videos that I’ve been meaning to post for a couple weeks. This first one is Angela and me performing Andrew Paul Jackson‘s Aphorism I at last month’s IhearIC. Or at least Angela and some guy named Chris HD.

By contrast, this video is me playing with one of my gifts from Angela: a performing score for John Cage’s Indeterminacy. I figured starting one of the stories at a party with no warning was at close to musically indeterminate accompaniment as I was going to get.

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In 2010 I…

Jan. × ’11

Well, this is closer than last year anyway. And it’s always good to improve, right?

  • Presented a paper at a international conference, and it was about video games. Nice.
  • Started home brewing beer, because I have a lot of free time that needs to be filled with hobbies
  • Lost a dear friend, but he will live on through Having Been Awexome
  • Went to Europe, twice, one for each of my hats
  • Began working with some cool guys with a cool concert series
  • Some shadowy machinations which may result in my debut in Printed Word, we’ll see

Resolutions? The usual: blog more, weight loss, take Angela on more dates. Maybe the next place we move we’ll try and live in for more than a year, you know?

See also: 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006.

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