Friday, November 27, 2009

Patent Microresonators

Happened to receive a note from a fellow traveler along the Engineering path, querying about some work done by me and some friends for Yamaha Music Technologies USA back in the days when Japan was in its tech ascendency. Like a number of other bits of the development of the future of music we did back then, our involvement was by the most part a brainstorming exercise, and a bit before its time, in both a good and bad way, a beautiful fantasy about the way things ought to be, but not so much about the way they really are. The figure below is from a patent discussing the a synthesizer that worked by taking the chipmunk sounds of the nano-world and pitch-shifting them down into the range of human hearing - or dog or bird hearing if such was your audience. It's crazy of course and probably wouldn't even work, but patents are no longer about crating up your better stream-driven wristwatch and taking the long coach ride to the US patent office to show them that it really works. That ended a long time ago, when the real patent system that dealt with real objects was replaced by an intellectual property wrestling ring & roulette table & bathroom scale where companies get together to fight over the vaguest of notions. But this device is what intrigued my colleague, who seems to be building something in the physical world which may actually vibrate and buzz.
Some of the bits and pieces we patented were more feasible, and some were even constructed. The picture at the top right shows a quite reasonable XYZ pitch roll yaw-based musical controller from another expired patent, long predating the Wii and its relatives. But Yamaha was out of the controller business, having sold only a few tens of thousands of some earlier attempts, and really was out of the far future business anyway by the time we came along, so little was realized, a few things finding their way into high-end karaoke machines, downloading updates by satellite.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Greater America

Had dinner with my dear friend and librettist Jacobus Byssus Zanomensis and his lovely and talented wife V_M_ last night. As usual, talk turned to the German Question and how close our American Empire is keeling towards fascist imperialist disaster. On their last trip to the banks of the Meuse, one of his good German friends reminded him of the second stanza of the German National Hymn, which during the Great Hole of Modern Germany History was more or less the only stanza, topped off with a bit of this and that about shooting dead the enemies of the SA, but the section of interest runs as follows:
Von der Maas bis an die Memel,
Von der Etsch bis an den Belt.
meaning that the borders of the true Germany run from the Meuse River (more or less OK) to the Memel River (which, ahem, is way past Poland) to the Adige River (which would give Germany a nice warm water port in the Adriatic) to the strait of the Little Belt (which might require slaughtering a few troublesome people to the North who voted the wrong way in the Schleswig Plebiscites).

Of course, the concept of a border is a bit quaint in these days where the skies are filled with drones piloted by young brainwashed boys with close haircuts enforcing the limitless extent of the American Empire, part of a troubling stew into which we pour a bit of joblessness, hopelessness, rampant Fundamentalist and Patriotic pseudo religion, served up hot with Hellfire missiles, not to mention the heavy trod of the shock troops of the capitalist hordes, kevlar replaced by power tie.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Dresher's Schick Machine

I drove out to the far distant countryside last week, past the manor houses of the 80 corridor, to see Paul Dresher's Schick Machine. As usual, I was in a bit of a funk, but by the end the piece had completely drawn me in. Steven Schick is a masterful percussionist, one of those who I'm sure can elicit a masterful performance out of any old bit of junk, but in this work his talent is allowed to flit across a variety of one-off noise and tone machines, packed onto the relatively small stage. A number of instrument makers were involved in the project, including Paul himself, but also Dan Schmidt, from whom I studied Javanese Music so many years ago, and Matt Heckert of SRL fame. Mr. Heckert's instrument was one of my favorites, just because of its seeming dangerousness, spinning chaotically, almost out-of-control, reminding me of the bowling-ball cannon shooting at the spectators at the first SRL show I saw way back when. But out of this jumble came some beautiful and quite big music, aided by Alex Stahl's loopers which allowed Paul to build up some massive orchestral weaves.

There is a bit of a story: the man who has lost his name and given himself over to his plans for a world-changing machine, the Schick machine, and, as it is a crux of the piece, I won't give away what this machine really is. But he is trapped there, inside himself, inside the assemblage of sound, constantly distracted, and those moments of distraction, where he stops to play, are the true center of the piece.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Requiring higher education to comprehend

I recently received a request for submissions for a contemporary music composition concert, which happens to be taking place in the city of Eagle Rock, California, where I once studied the craft. In it was this light bit of manifesto:
The theme of this concert is music, literature, and art that evoke in the listener some aspect of the human emotional experience (i.e., love/pain/sorrow/fear/madness/ laughter/faith/hope/etc.). The key is that this music needs to be emotionally expressive, relatable, and readily accessible to the average listener (this of course doesn’t mean that the music necessarily needs to be programmatic). Avant-garde, atonal, experimental music, or compositions that require higher education to comprehend it are simply not appropriate for the theme of this concert.
I was incensed of course, on finding myself transported to a mirror world where not only left was right but up was down, where all that I knew and loved and up with which I grew was no longer true or meet or right or salutary and that my previous notion, that the music I had listened to from my childhood and thought relatable, expressive and more was actually not so. I trashed the email in a huff, but then, later, I untrashed it, and read and read and dissected it, dwelling on it, working myself into a fit. I googled the composers, the venue, every major noun in it, and brought forth the firehose of data from the net, fascinated.

Was anything learned? Probably nothing of value, but I did stop at some intriguing waypoints. One of the composers had a link to bring up a UI where one could listen to his works, which were divided into categories and from there, subcategories, e.g.: Action/Adventure, Asian, Atmospheric, Ballet, Comedy, ... through the alphabet to Whimsical. In the Asian category: Into the Mists of Asia, where we find the subdescription: From the mists of Asian forest, a hero appears to reunite the Shaolin warriors. In another: Frost Fills the Enchanted Woods, where: Entering an enchanted grove, Aerlyn looks around at the frost that is draped across the wood. Listening, I found a sure hand at the synthesized orchestra tiller, and music which did indeed well match the bromidic descriptions, reminding me of when, working on a Henry Rosenthal production, he showed me the batch of nearly identical cassettes which had arrived through the post after the production was announced in Variety or the Hollywood Reporter or wherever, each bearing on the small label the composer's name and a listing of the contents: (1) action (2) romance (3) ...

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Art Curator as Artist

At the Solomon R. Guggenheim a few days ago, wandering, fiddling with the iPhone, stepping into an annex gallery with an instantiation of the work to the right, surround by customers of the enterprise who, walking too close, were shooed away by the guard, lest they befoul the befouled floor, and, stepping back, looking at the work: a power cable to a bulb of light, once ensconced in a block of frozen ink, now lying at the bottom of a dry black lake, meandering to a puddle against the far wall, struggling a bit to find explication, note the text written by the curator and move quickly to it, presented on the white gallery wall in a carefully chosen and carefully kerned font, spending more time observing it than the forms on the floor, and so do we. Do they find what they are looking for? Let's check. Some quotes, not quite as beautifully presented but nonetheless here they are:
Kitty Kraus (b. 1976, Heidelberg, Germany) ... works in a spare, elegiac vocabulary of monochrome forms ... possess an internal volatility that can prompt their gradual fragmentation or sudden collapse ... The trajectory of dissolution at the heart of Kraus’s work ... a young artist defining her career at the beginning of the 21st century—a time of profound questioning and global crises—Kraus rehearses the trend towards degradation and chaos known as entropy, finding a mournful beauty in the literal and symbolic failure of form.
Probably the curator meant to say something about nature's trend toward increasing entropy, but still, that is a minor point. The writing is lovely, meaningless, mournfully beautiful itself. If I could write half so well I would die this instant just to be sure of my ascension into heaven. Like the new-music program note, it is the work, it is more interesting than the work, the writer is the artist, the writer is the giver of justification to the art-industrial complex for the money they have laid out to purchase that which they don't understand in and of itself.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Silk purse makes sow's ear more ridiculous

Just back from New York City, in a bit of a snarky mood. I love the city and the people and buildings and the park and the overwhelming cultural onslaught, but sometimes find the uptown-midtown-downtown-oh-and-the-rest-of-the-world-but-maybe-Europe's-OK point of view, especially in the music scene, a bit off-putting. We other-coasters do get our dander up about it, but what can we do but sit in our own beautiful city, listening to the other West Coast composers like Partch and Stravinsky and Riley and Milhaud. But my friend and sometimes operatic colleague Laura Bohn dragged us to the Met (the opera one that is) for a performance of Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust, which was touted last year for its interactive video elements, while I was still living in the aftermath of Mordake, so my interests were more than usually piqued. I have to say the sheen is quite beautiful, aided by a perfect projection system applied at the scale of spectacle, reminiscent of the feel of the golden age of stage magic, where storms at sea and horse races were reënacted with gales of wind and rain and treadmills built into the floor, even though this technology is so much cleaner and software-driven. However, the piece underlying all this, this almost-opera, more designed for the concert stage than the opera stage, but that being no real excuse either, is a stinkpile. I may be too kind in that description. Better would be to call it a stinking pile, packaged in a production so clearly expensive and fanciful and dandiful and technologically overwhelming that the whole mess stunk just a bit more to high heaven than it would have if just left to slowly die on its own.

A bit from the libretto:

Has! Has!
(The demons carry Mephistopheles in triumph.)
Tradioun Marexil firtrudinxé burrudixé.
Fory my dinkorlitz.
O mérikariu O midara caraibo lakinda,
mérondor dinkorlitz.
Tradioun marexil,
Tradioun burrudix?
Trudinxé caraibo.
Fir omévixé mérondor.
Mit aysko, mérondor, mit aysko! Oh!
(The demons dance around Mephistopheles.)
Diff! Diff! mérondor, mérondor aysko!
Has! Has! Satan.
Has! Has! Belphégor,
Has! Has! Méphisto,
Has! Has! Kroïx!
Diff! Diff! Astaroth,
Diff! Diff! Belzébuth, Belphégor, Astaroth, Méphisto!
Sat, sat rayk irkimour.
Has! Has! Méphisto!
Has! Has! Irimiru karabrao!

Proof once again that composers are not great judges of texts (see Beethoven's Ninth Symphony), and probably shouldn't help with their own libretti. Although this is a minor work in the Grand Opera canon, many of the most famous have pretty poor libretti. It's hard to imagine a major highbrow theater with as enormous a budget for talent and equipment constantly dusting off the most middling of the plays of the 19th century year after year and spending such enormous sums covering them in layers of fluff so no one pays too close attention to what lies underneath. Experiences such as this make me understand why so many of my through-composed-music-theater-people-who-put-notes-together colleagues avoid the big O word and separate themselves as much as possible from the big O world.

But H. Berlioz's own very posthumous website has an interesting description of his journey writing the piece and his travails in producing it, which I have to admit endeared me to him a bit and made me feel that he and I share some experience of the world, from his Memoirs:

But writing the work was nothing, I had to get it heard, and this is where my problems and disappointments began. Copying the orchestral and vocal parts cost me a fortune; then the numerous rehearsals which I required from the players and the exorbitant fee of 1600 francs which I had to pay for the hire of the hall of the Opéra-Comique, the only hall available to me at the time, committed me to an enterprise which was bound to ruin me. But I went ahead, comforted by a specious reasoning which anyone in my position would have made. "When I performed for the first time Romeo and Juliet at the Conservatoire, I said to myself, such was the eagerness of the public to come and hear it that tickets had to be issued for the corridors to accommodate the overflow of the audience in the hall; and despite the huge costs of the performance I made a small profit. Since this time my reputation among the public has grown, the echo of my successes abroad has bestowed on it an authority in France that it did not have before; the subject of Faust is as famous as that of Romeo, it is generally believed that I find it congenial and that I must have treated it well. Everything therefore encourages the belief that there will be great interest in hearing the new work, which is on a grander scale and more varied in tone than its predecessors, and that at least I should cover the expenses I am incurring…" Vain hope! Years had passed since the first performance of Romeo and Juliet, during which the indifference of the Parisian public for everything to do with arts and literature had progressed beyond belief. At that time already public interest had waned, particularly when a musical work was involved, and there was no desire to go and spend the day (I was unable to give my concerts in the evening) in the hall of the Opéra-Comique, which the fashionable public does not frequent in any case. It was late November (1846), it was snowing, the weather was dreadful; I did not have a popular singer for the part of Marguerite; as for Roger, who sang Faust, and Herman Léon, who took the part of Mephistopheles, they could be heard every day in the same theatre, and they were not fashionable either. The result was that I performed Faust twice before a half-empty hall. The concert-going public of Paris, which is supposed to be interested in music, quietly stayed at home, showing as little interest in my new score as if I had been the most obscure student from the Conservatoire; the audience at those two performances at the Opéra-Comique was no larger than if the most trivial opera in its repertory was being performed.

Nothing in my artistic career hurt me more deeply than this unexpected indifference. It was a painful discovery, but it was at least salutary, in that I learnt from it, and from then on I have not gambled even twenty francs on the popularity of my music with the Parisian public.

photo by Ken Howard for the Metropolitan Opera.
Related Posts with Thumbnails