Thursday, November 29, 2007

Not a review of The Rest is Noise

I'm absolutely enjoying Alex Ross's new history of music in the 20th century, viz., The Rest is Noise. It's hitting me at just the right time to be sure: a time of reevaluation of my musical existence and a time of casting back to the composer-idolatry of my youth. But can I quote a bit here without fire and brimstone raining down on me from the Farrar, Straus and Giroux legal department? Not sure, but here goes. In writing of Shostakovich's seventh, we find that:

Besieged Leningrad heard the symphony on August 9, 1942, under the most dramatic circumstances imaginable. The score was flown in by military aircraft in June, and a severely depleted Leningrad Radio Orchestra began learning it. After a mere fifteen musicians showed up for the initial rehearsal, the commanding general ordered all competent musicians to report from the front lines. The players would break from the rehearsals to return to their duties, which sometimes included the digging of mass graves for victims of the siege. Three members of the orchestra died of starvation before the premiere took place. The opposing German general heard about the performance in advance and planned to disrupt it, but the Soviets preempted him by launching a bombardment of German positions--Operation Squall, it was called. An array of loudspeakers then broadcast the Leningrad into the silence of no-man's-land. Never in history had a musical composition entered the thick of battle in quite this way: the symphony become a tactical strike against German morale.

Ach du lieber, how can a petty and petite bourgeoisie composer like yours truly even begin to compete in this real world? To have both the Germans and the Soviets planning their artillery bombardments around the premiere of one's next composition! Obviously life is too easy for me. I need to have a freeway fall on me or have my family die of the plague or something. But the book is rejuvenating me, thrilling me, giving at least for the moment a reason to go on.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Bed You Sleep In: A Warning

A favorite moment from The Bed You Sleep In, where Thomas Morris as the oracle has just hinted at Ray's impending doom. He recites a bit of Revelation 14 and we head off on one of Jon's landscape love-ins. Jon told me that the location of a story was as important to him as plot or character and deserved equal time. The music that starts about one minute into the clip is almost entirely derived from field recordings that Josh Rosen and I made of the local sawmill in Toledo, Oregon, now closed down because, as they discuss in the movie, you can't get any of the big trees anymore. (And why not, you ask? Because they really did clearcut the whole state and ship the uncut trees off to Japan.) But the sawmill was a beautiful aural environment. Walking through it was like listening to a futurist symphony and the raw recordings were beautiful, but of course I felt like I had to prettify it all a bit, and I think I was successful in that. I've bumped up the volume of the music in the clip so that it is a bit more intense, but you can hear the original music here or on the full soundtrack recording here.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Poetry of the Masculine Corset

I can't resist tooting my own horn and licking my own boot and linking to my couturière Kathleen Crowley's mention of my sartorial splendor. I work hard to be a fop, a dandy and a trendoid hipster, a poseur and a coxcomb, and I have gained some small success in this endeavor. Unfortunately such vanity takes a tremendous amount of time, stealing away from my reason-for-living, the music, the productions, the networking cocktail parties and my great 9th symphony, whereafter I die happy. But Kathleen is the best of the best, and she has supplied me with a steady stream of frock coats and corsets and jabots and high waisted pants and other frills and follies. Obviously I was born far too late and into the wrong class anyway but we can please dream of a different life can we not?

Monday, November 19, 2007

undertaking, similitude to painting

Many Western classical composers have became enamored with their scores but, although scores are sometimes very pretty, they aren't really the thing itself, are they? I happened to run across this old and somewhat embarrassing program note of mine in one of my many self-googling expeditions:

"I worry constantly about something Gerard Grisey said to me: 'Our ancestors confused the map for the territory.' Although he was speaking of the way Classical and Romantic composers confused notes for sound, this complaint could just as easily be leveled at composers who are more interested in concept or structure than sound. In fact, I would say that even the sound is less important than the effect, the representation of the work which exists in the listener's mind and body. To gain control over this, one must use the entire language of music available, be very aware of the feelings which develop in one's own body, use systems which give you complete control over all aspects of the sound, and, maybe most importantly, play at high enough volume to shut out all other effects." E.W.

I think most of the music I have written has been more-or-less front-to-back, at least conceived of as a linear structure in time rather than as an object, even if there is some attention to the architecture or foreshadowing of what is to come. Morton Feldman has talked about the influence of his painter friends on his composition and how he approaches a score like a painting, putting up a large gridded paper and skipping about to fill in the details here and there. My friend Craig Harris has pushed for tools to facilitate this kind of work. I'm finding myself doing the same with the latest opera. I've set up a huge timeline inside of Digital Performer and I'm filling it in with orchestral and noisy recordings and electronic this and that as well as synthesized lines. A libretto gives a structure and I'm not sure I could write a large instrumental piece this way; it just isn't the way I think. But as I've been working on this piece I've been expressly thinking of painterly analogies, maybe because I live with a painter and I seem to have more and more painter buddies. Like Lynne, I have been blocking out some sections very roughly just to get an idea of the whole, then going back and refining and painting in the details. Like Amy, I am painting on layer after layer, the final color and rhythmic texture being a rich mix of bubbled up sound. In my electronic works at least, I seem to like a lot of layers, foregrounds and backgrounds and in between.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Touched by greatness

I finally met my internet friend Amy Crehore in the flesh at the Green exhibition in Santa Monica last night. Her very erotic and luscious layered painting Deja Vu Waltz (detail to the right) was featured in the show, and by *featured* I mean that it was without a doubt the feature attraction. We tried to find the afterparty at Zanzibar afterwards, but it didn't seem that anyone else showed up and, after being told by four ebullient and somewhat scantily clad young women that the club was, well, cough, and sotto voce a bit more for 'younger people' meaning not us, I ended up taking her out to dinner as a postpartum celebration. Let me take an aside here to point out that I had been stricken with a bit of the Irish flu all that day since dear Lynne's dear mother had been attempting to afflict me with alcohol poisoning the night previous, but all indisposition was dispelled as the first cool and healing touch of the hosted artshow bar's Skyy Vodka - which I had sensed from across the parking lot - touched the back of my throat. Not my usual brand as I am a bit of a snoot and supercilious snob when it comes to vodkas but still deserving of the appelation aqua vitae, ever blessed and most pure holy water. Anywho, Amy is a lovely, passionate, talented and unassuming person, deserving of her recent fame and her rĂ´le as the next big thing.

But being here in Malibu helping Lynne with an installation reminded me to call an older and dearer friend Lady Lisa Lyon, one of those people in my life that I can call and and our conversation immediately takes up where we left off even if we haven't talked in ages. I'm so fond of this Mapplethorpe photo of her, which is how we met, receiving a fan postcard from her fronted with the image just a few days after I had stood, tumescing, gazing at a large print of her emerging from the foam like Aphrodite. Her adoptive father John Lilly and I shared an Alma Mater as well as an interest in the edges of experience (and, I suppose, a household full of beautiful women if I had been so fortunate) and he queried me after an isolation tank experience as to whether I had been able to communicate with some of the beings who control our very lives.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Compositional Process

In the afterword to Revenge, Stephen Fry discusses how the author, upon the arrival of the new book, is asked the only questions that matter to the reader:

"Do you write in longhand or on a computer?" If longhand: "Pencil, ballpoint, or old-fashioned ink pen?" If computer: "PC or Mac? Which font do you prefer?" No doubt if you were to reveal that you dictated your work, there would come a fresh slew of questions: "Into a machine or to a secretary?" "Sony or Panasonic?" "Male or Female?"

I'm guilty of this as well, having read in his blog with some delight of his Mac addiction, and I've faced myself this desire for knowledge of the process, the software used, whether one improvises, writes at the piano or on the plane, what you read or listen to, the view out the window while you were writing or composing or painting, the current boyfriend or girlfriend, the day job, the music paper, the scratching out and revising or the acceptance of the first draft. Is it, as Fry suggests, the questioner's desire to find the secret the getting that one novel or symphony or film that everyone has in them out into the world? If one just had the right pen or automatic screenplay formatting program or instrument library, the 36 weeks of gestation would suddenly be up and the great work would appear? I think that, for me, as a creatrix myself, it may be a desire to be normal, to know how to behave, to find the correct religion of artistic production, like the endless letters to sex columnists that start with a confession about one's particular kink, and end by asking whether this is OK, natural, normal but please not ordinary.

My fellow blogger Amy Crehore has been covering the production of one of her new paintings step by step and I have been thinking of doing the same for the new opera, but she can easily take a snapshot of her work and I'm not sure the parallel for music. I believe her motivation really is pedagogic, and I'm not sure of mine and I'm not sure it would be helpful to anyone. But some have complained about the disaster awaiting graduate students of the future due to the computerized lack of compositional notebooks and drafts and tearstained letters to scrutinize, e.g. this lovely examination of fingering in Stravinsky, so maybe we owe it to the future to make the attempt to leave behind a trail of crumbs. And that should be it, I think, just the trail and not the self-examination. On the Kalvos and Damien site, Jacques Baihé has a beautiful rant which captures the compositional process in detail and I quote:

When I write, I sit at the keyboard and hit the keys. If it sounds good, I write it down. Then I go back to make it better -- brilliant even -- and inevitably make a horrid, inscrutable mess. Can’t remember why I ever thought these plinks and diddles and screeching would ever make a piece of music. It’s late at night, yet again, so I keep tinkering. Kids are asleep, wife gave up on me long ago, so they don’t mind. I scribble and hum to myself, and try to remember important clues to the mystery of music I stored away while reading Rameau, Piston, Berlioz, and other wizards. I guess I don’t read accurately cause when I do what I remember they said it sounds absolutely awful. "Place the sixth tone over the ninth and balance two horns in F with obligations of contrabass." Something like that, but it never works, and they never tell me how to get this fizz sound I’m after.
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