Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Audience, and Nixon in China, and the Dissonance canard

I ran into fellow composer Michael Fiday at Lisa Moore's fabulous concert a few weeks ago and buttonholed him about one of his recent Facebook posts quoting Peter Gelb to the effect that composers were finally again writing music that audiences want to listen to. Michael's point was that this has been going on for a long time, but even better was one of the comments consisting of a link to an article in the San Diego Reader discussing the difficulties of the San Diego Opera which said:

It is doing John Adams’s Nixon in China next year. But this is risky. These works may be on contemporary themes, but they feature dissonant music.

And at the Opera Conference in Vancouver in 2013, a man in the back stood up and said that it was a mistake for opera companies to try to modernize by playing pieces like Nixon in China, since, like all modern operas, there was not one memorable or singable tune in the entire piece. I looked across the room and caught Kent Devereaux mouthing the words News news news news, matching exactly what I was thinking, along with the now-part-of-the-standard-aria-repertoire piece I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung, which consists almost entirely of simple triads and the outlinings of those same triads in the melodic line. 

Next story: when I was an graduate student, I was hanging at my research advisor Al Despain's home, a brilliant man with simple musical tastes, one who listens to what he likes, and he was at that moment playing some music he liked, some light jazz, some jazz with a touch of the electric, maybe a bit of rock fusion, music I thought simple and straightforward to listen to, and I attempted to join with him in the clear enjoyment of his simple musical pleasures. Whereupon, one of his other students entered and said What is this, John Cage? 

An even earlier story: when my college roommate and I were both taking various composition classes and raiding the local record stores for music that pushed the edges of the world we had known, I picked up a copy of Pierrot Lunaire, and that first time I listened it to I found it very strange and unappealing, mostly the vocal style, but really almost everything about it, and I thought to myself, when I eventually love this music, which I somehow knew I would, I will have to remember this moment, and remember how far my tastes have traveled, how distant they are from even those of other sophisticated listeners, as I was, having for many years listened to just about everything I could get my hands on. 

But all this, and the conclusions therefrom, are obvious. When the reviewer said 'dissonant' he just meant unfamiliar. Clearly any kind of semi-scientific Helmholtzian or musico-historical Tenney-ian Dissonance Meter's needle would remain during Nixon in China on the low end of the scale, most assuredly lower than Wagner and lots of popular others. And my fellow student meant by "John Cage" the whole incomprehensible world of music that lies outside of  the ten corporate-sponsored tunes of the moment. 

Is there really music that is inherently popular or elitist?  Or is it all just about what the populace is conversant with?  If the mass public hears something a hundred times, it can become - by that process alone - likable. If not, then why does each generation seem to love the music they grew up with and find the music of the succeeding generation unapproachable?  Why do those growing up in different cultures by and large love the music of their own culture and find the music of other cultures incomprehensible?  Clearly popularity is learned. 

So, when one is asked take the audience into account, one has to respond, which audience? Not me, obviously, as my tastes have long since departed this realm.  And if I am not the audience, then how can my tastes be relied upon to judge whether other audiences who are not me might respond?  Almost surely I'll get it wrong.  There is nothing sadder than the composer who gives up her own tastes and desires to attempt to connect to the audience and who fails in this attempt.  Oh to be a composer most fortunate - financially fortunate - whose musical tastes happen to coincide with that of the largest and most well-heeled audience. 

A couple new scores

A couple of new short simple pieces here and here, two that I played at the show with Laura Bohn last week. From the notes:

As I was just telling Beth Levin a few minutes ago, there are few dynamics and few indications of tempo, but they are flexible. I personally played the first piece moving the soft pedal very slowly, and in synchronization with my own small dynamic movements, giving the feel of an organ crescendo pedal. The third piece can be even slower than indicated, and quieter, and una corda. The last should have some frenzy, wide dynamics fine, a caesura before the change to the soft part.

Kyle Gann has spoken about this on his blog - the skepticism of the new music community at music they perceive to be understated.  I thank him his clarity on the issue.  And yes, I agree with him.  I'm happy if someone tries to control every aspect.  I myself used to do tape music, and that's a highly controlled medium, except for wires and speakers and amplifiers and the room in which one listens, but I also think that performers - including myself - should be able to mangle my pieces any way they wish.  They do anyway, so why not just acknowledge it?

Monday, July 28, 2014

Our love runneth over: a summer’s eve most dearly spent

The most excellent Laura Bohn is coming to town, and we've talked for years about doing something with just the two of us so now we are: songs and scenes from my operas and solo piano, August 9th at 8pm at the Center for New Music, 55 Taylor Street in San Francisco, a lovely space at the edge of the Tenderloin, near Pianofight's about-to-open theater. Tickets only at the door: $15 general / $10 members.

Included are the flashy Veracity; the "big and gorgeous monologue of Wagnerian intensity" aka the killing scene from Certitude and Joy; Brightness, on Dan Bellm's poem; the brand new solo work The Knife Thrower, inspired by Erin Langley's poem inspired by the Steven Millhauser book of the same name; and at least the First Prayer (the bandage hour) from A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil. There will be food and drink and time to hang out, and if there is any money left over it will go toward the upcoming US premiere of УКСУС (UKSUS (vinegar)).

Saturday, May 31, 2014

There are no rules

There are no rules. Really, there are no rules. It's a hard thing to accept, but it's true, and the difficulty of accepting this simple truth is because most of us really do want there to be rules, and that maybe by following those rules we will insure that everything works out OK.

I'm sitting downstairs on the patio at the Empress's parents' home looking out over the harbor, a cool breeze blowing off the water, activated by the wind so that it sparkles in the sun, the slight tang of diesel, the planes rocketing off in their high-G noise abatement pattern while her father dies upstairs. When someone dies, there are always questions: how old is he, what did she die of, did they eat too much meat, did they drink too much, did they love the wrong person, attempts to look for answers that will give us the rules of life that will guarantee that we never ever die.  My mother believes it, that she won't really die. At 95, she believes she will see my father again, and I don't know what that would be like: an eternity where there is no hope for the future, no ambition, no pain, no fear of death.

When a beautiful piece is made, there are always questions about process, about the tools used, about how to analyze the sounds or the chords or the way the melody peaks or troughs. These questions are an attempt to understand what makes something good or bad or effective or full of longing.  We hope that knowing the answers will give us the rules that will help us create, but they don't.

The Empress says I would be a bad teacher because, being in close contact with a class full of fresh-faced and excitable young people I would surely be arrested for something. But I know I would be a bad instructor because I would stand at the front of the lecture hall and simply say "Hey, guess what, there are no rules" and then I would sit back down and wait for something to happen, and that's not what they are looking for.  They want someone to be their guide, to help them through, and I suppose I do know something: I can tell them if they want to sound exactly like someone else to study what that person does or did and to imitate it.  That works, and it's what harmony and counterpoint books assemble: simplistic and descriptivist rules developed after the creative act, that explain some small average aspect of the group behavior of a set of composers culled from a particular time and place, aspects that are actually unimportant, beside the point, at least when it comes to the Ineffable Wonder of Composition.

Really, I'm serious, there are no rules, say it to yourself 100 times each day.

Friday, May 16, 2014

The idiocy of 'finding your voice'

The delicious dogs and cakes by P. Amblard.
The Empress' friend and fellow peinture décorative Pascal Amblard and family were visiting the Palazzo Rutter-Wold née Valori in the waning days of our Firenze adventure, and at one point he said that he had listened to the works on my website and wondered at the fact that my music didn't seem to be of one style or another but rather wandered around like the doomed sinner who taunted Christ and was forced to potter about without rest or respite until the end of the world or sometime near that. I felt like I should respond, to defend myself against what I perceived as a jab of the hated ἐκλεκτός but the shock of it struck me dumb. Why, haven't all my friends ridiculed me for writing the same music again and again? And aren't we, in the modern art world, supposed to do exactly that, aren't we supposed to have a voice that is so obvious and so marketable and so succinctly expressible in a single sentence that everyone knows before they've heard the tune what it will sound like? 

But then, I thought, isn't even your voice not somehow the human voice, the voice of everyone? As many before me have said, we live in the eternal now and the everywhere, the world of fixed media where all things are available to all, and isn't it true that there are no distinct cultures anymore, and thus no cultural appropriations possible?  I think it was Henry Cowell who said - that I first noticed anyway - that there are no pure cultures and that was many years ago and now it's so much more true, as all artistic space and time is all there from the moment one appears on the Earth or at least the Internet.

But then I remembered that Donald Aird told me that we can't not write The Music of Our Time, since we are of our time, and formed and shaped by all that exists around us  Even this above-mentioned washing over us of all things is different than what has been before, and none of us now or before perceive it like any other, as even the frameworks through which we perceive and approach the universe are of our time and no other and it's hard for us to think past that. Which reminds me of the story where Wittgenstein asks why do we believe it was more natural to think that the sun went round the earth than the earth turned on its axis, whereupon his friend replies that it is because it looked as if the sun went round the earth and at this point Wittgenstein says "Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as if the earth turned on its axis?"†

And I wonder sometimes why it is that what I listen to is not what I write: Ligeti's Lontano or his Kyrie, Chiyoko Szlavnics' Gradients of Detail, John Luther Adams' Dark Waves. I feel a deeper personal connection to that music than my own, and, as wonderful as the latter may be, the former has a perceived ineffability - I can't touch it; it is just out of reach.

† An introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus, Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Everything








Three months is hard to summarize, but if I don't try I will forget what has happened, and Firenze will fade further into a dream, a dream of Donatello's TransDavid, named by Shaunna, at the Bargello just around the corner from our palace, and the cat Lorenzo, who visited us on his rounds from roof to roof, who might also have been a girl, and so much more drinking than I do in my normal life. When we came to Florence, the Empress had a clear mission - to write her book on ornament and to photograph every square centimeter of Tuscany that had been touched by a painter's brush - but I had no plan except to drink it in and to cry for all those who had died there before me. And this I did each night, on the roof terrace, the wind and rain and sun and clouds riding over the city laid gloriously before me, the Duomo so close I would find myself reaching toward it, reaching with the hand that didn't hold the glass of honey grappa bought from the Badìa just around the corner from our palace, the same place we went for vespers, thick with incense and with the pure voices of those who, one wishes to believe, have no doubts about this world and the next.

While the empress pursued her course, I drifted about, washing ashore in Klagenfurt to record the UKSUS band, the Talltones Extended, for example the third of the Boeuf Bub interludes:



and the Divan Song:



While in Carinthia, I started on another project, a commission from the Klagenfurter Ensemble, to do a piece around the sinking of the Szent István, with Peter Truschner as the librettist. I've taken it on faith - I really have no idea how the subject will be handled, but I love the KE, and I trust that I can take whatever is given to me and turn it into something wonderful, and starting an opera in the birthplace of opera - well, isn't that a portent?

But the best part of the trip were the visits from many lovely people: my son Duncan and his girlfriend Bill, who mostly slept through the Florence days, venturing out only at night; Bunnywhiskers, with whom we and our friend Alison went to see Silvia Colasanti's beautiful opera of La metamorfosi; our more-or-less daughter and collaborator Laura, who connected us with the tenor Gregory Warren, who snuck us into a rehearsal of Tristan, and who lent his voice to the videos I was making with the beautiful dancers pictured up top, Elizebeth and Shaunna - I'm pretty sure more will be seen here about what we all are working on - with whom I went on a tremendously drunken trip to Panicale and stayed in an almost-as-ridiculously-beautiful-as-our-palace villa that overlooked everything, from the lake to Assisi and across the farms of Umbria; and meeting up with some San Francisco costume friends in Venice for Carnivale; and more and more I'm sure I'm forgetting.

Oh well. The end has come more quickly than I thought it would, and I knew before we left that the time would disappear. As always, one has only memories and hope for more to come.

Arrivederci Firenze

Goddamn you Florence, feckless lover, not able to manage even a drizzle, this morning dampened by crocodile tears you bring to your beautiful eyes while already turning away, already welcoming to your bed: the Dutch ladies; the next boatload of earbud linked tourists from China or the US or Germany following an unopened umbrella; the American students; the pilgrims and gelato eaters. You take them all, your beautiful eyes sparkling with each union, no matter how hurried, your bright light impinging on a hundred thousand silicon slabs each most sensitive to light, each made by light themselves in the hot foundries of Korea and Taiwan.

In my jealousy, while you sleep, I kiss your cheek and, pulling the covers down, expose your skin of cool marble, shot through with veins, blue and white, and take my unconsented pleasure, and then, childishly, pilfering from your nightstand into my carryon bag: a bust of Papa Francesco, two pairs of stockings, inhaled dove rocket smoke, all the truffled pizzas I could ever eat, a cake, much chocolate, an injured leg, music and - what I will miss most - the unbridled joy of our guests, who, seeing you from the terrace crowning our palace said what and what and what and laughed in your pleasure.

Oh please, bring back the hail and the rain and the lightning and the thunder, ground all the planes and let the busses and trains have a strike day where they can join us in your bed of stone and mortar and frescoes for one last love making, to smell your sweat and let my tears fall upon you my dear fickle love, la mia vita.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Beauty and light

Half my life is gone, and I have let the years slip from me and have not fulfilled the aspiration of my youth, to build some tower of song with lofty parapet.
Not indolence, nor pleasure, nor the fret of restless passions that would not be stilled, but sorrow, and a care that almost killed, kept me from what I may accomplish yet;

Though, half-way up the hill, I see the Past lying beneath me with its sounds and sights,-- a city in the twilight dim and vast, 
With smoking roofs, soft bells, and gleaming lights,-- and hear above me on the autumnal blast the cataract of Death far thundering from the heights.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Black Mass

In this picture, we see an effigy of the late Adolf Hitler about to be decapitated, or maybe just before the nails were driven into his heart, all in the dark days of January 22, 1941, just a few days before my negative 17th birthday, a picture sent to me by way of a link to a Life magazine article written contemporaneously to the event, a black mass against the well-known embodiment of evil, by one of my foreign correspondents, the regal Bunnywhiskers, AcA, ABe, TEP, DDC, ordine dell'anatra d'oro, and too many other honors to mention.

Unfortunately Satan, or whoever they were calling to action, wasn't as receptive as s/he was hoped to have been, and the war dragged on, Adolf very much alive for the next few years, leaving those at the end of the conflict to wonder what the fuck that was all about. Maybe if the Germans had just gotten all those occult magic weapons built in those secret mountain redoubts under Peenemünde.

But back when I wrote the Missa Beati Notkeri Balbuli Sancti Galli Monachi, I thought I should write a black mass to somehow counterbalance the white one, to keep in the universe in order, and to hedge my bets in the afterlife. The thought  process went something like so:

"Hey Erling, weren't you into all that Aleister Crowley and OTO and Psychic TV and Re/Search stuff?" "No, I think that was Mark Dippé, even though I would look over his shoulder and sometimes we would dress the same and then there was that ritual branding stuff." "But I'm sure I saw all those books on your bookshelf the last time I was over at your house." "Well, I've always believed in being well-rounded."

But my favorite of the Black Mass stories was that which came to light during the trial for the Affair of the Poisons, held for the mistress of Louis the XIV, where she, as the testimony went, laid down on the altar in a space made up as a simulacrum of a regular old Catholic church, but usually seen without the naked mistress of the king as the focal point, in this particular instance balancing the chalice on her naked belly. When my Mass toured to Jona (Switzerland), I remember being tempted to pick up a few consecrated hosts, wondering if they would ever come in useful-like, although I don't really know whether Timmy the Customs Wonder Pup would actually have allowed them back into the USA, and then finding the cabinet behind the altar locked tight, and thinking that, oh yes, right, they probably do that so really awful people like yours truly aren't tempted to do something really so awfully bad as stealing some consecrated hosts and possibly putting their immortal soul in mortal danger, like super 9th circle of hell danger, where the demons have really big cocks and don't think twice about using them. Anyway, so the mistress of the king, Madame de Montespan, talked her friend Catherine Monvoisin and the local not-totally-against-the-black-mass padre Guibourg into doing this thing, something they both came later to regret, he tortured and dying in prison and she burned to death in the place formerly known as Place de Grève, a pretty spot on the river, but a place to be watchful of your wallet and not to get too distracted by the young girls who need help translating a letter.

But in her naked perfection, stretched out on a long piece of black velvet over the altar, she, as the story goes, listened while the padre, dressed in a pretty fancy outfit with magical silver characters embroidered in, chanted some blasphemously altered version of the Latin Mass, and, as was mentioned above, set the paten and chalice on her naked belly and, in the hope of keeping the King's love - ok, this is where one might wonder exactly why this particular ritual was deemed the proper ritual for stoking the possibly fading embers of the King's love, but - a woman assistant to the priest held out an infant whose throat was then slit, dripping blood into the chalice and onto the aforementioned naked and most likely quite fetching body of the mistress of the King.

You know, this is so like scenes from those really cheeseball English dubbed but probably made in Italy or Spain horror movies I used to see as a child, when as son of the local Lutheran pastor I was able to get into the theater for free to get pretty titillated at the naked breasts with theatrical blood washing across them from the vampire bites or knife slashes or other general mayhem, but, according to Catherine Monvoisin's daughter, who testified at trial, "The corpse was handed to la Voisin, who flung it callously into an oven fashioned for that purpose which glowed white-hot in its fierceness" which sounds a little like it was written for her, the whole mess being political in the best sense of the word, meaning who knows what really happened.

But I never did write the other mass, and the texts that I could find were pretty stupid anyway, and I doubt it would have worked for much except maybe remembering those heady days with the branding ceremonies and public piercings. Which wouldn't have been all that bad.

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