Friday, January 30, 2009
First night of the SF Tape Music Festival tonight. My colleague Thom Blum premiered a fantastically beautiful and nuanced piece, a state of grace. Aaron Ximm, recent father and former director of my favorite concert series in San Francisco, presented a painfully lovely modification of recordings made of Southeast Asian orchestras.
Overall, a lovely mix of modern fixed media works and some of the more famous works from the early days of electronic music, many from the first concert of musique concrète - the Concert du Bruits of 1958, my birthyear (and here today is my birthday). Sadly all of the old guard seem to have died in recent years: Pierre Schaeffer, György Ligeti, Vladimir Ussachevsky, but it was surprising to me how similar the old and new pieces were. The rhythms and the range of the sonic variations were quite alike, more amazing given the painstaking methods available in those heady early days: the razors and the tape and the wires and the bouncing and the fiddling with the oscillators, compared with the whiz-bang point and click technologies available to the sound-composer of today.
But what struck me the most was that the aforementioned rhythms, like the rhythms of the classical-to-modern instrumental music that preceded, fell into the range of speech rhythms, nothing happening too slowly or too quickly developing, all of medium tempi. It reminded me of a discussion in Gérard Grisey's composition seminar. It had been noticed that the tempo dimension had been woefully unexplored. But why was it that the European modern music of that time - the mid-80s - was pushing only towards a slower tempo? The harmonic rhythm of his music, like all the spectralists, was by its nature very slow, examining the intra-harmony of all the pitches of a single tone under a time-microscope. Why was no modern music fast? I answered immediately: because that would require a pulse, and pulses had been rejected by the modern musical establishment at the time. It took the music of the minimalists and maximalists and totalists to go back to fast.
When I was writing Little Girl and using bits of pieces of the minimalist language, I noticed the fact - and I wasn't the first, ok? - that passages of eighths could seem much faster than passages of sixteenths, and that the pulse depended on the perceptual rhythmic groupings or perceptual chunks of time. How we perceive these chunks are under the control of any good composer, but these issues stand out very quickly in patterned music, e.g., the Alberti-like arpeggios that attract so many of us. The problem with fast say, totally serialized music, is that without pattern or regular repeated rhythms, even as the notes whiz by ever faster, the brain keeps chunking bigger groups of them to bring the perceived tempo down into familiar territory. It has to be led by the hand into very fast tempi by the use of lots of patterned cues. House music does it, easily hitting 180 bpm, the distinction of genre sometimes falling almost exclusively to the tempo range, but within the limitations of extreme repetition and audiences under the influence of very particular drugs.
And, what is even more interesting about this speeded-up dance music is the concomitantly slow or even nonexistent harmonic rhythm. When writing my orchestral waltzes mentioned in recent posts, I realized that the harmonic rhythm of the famous old 19th century waltzes, e.g. those of the junior Strauss, was much slower than what I typically succumbed to in a waltz feel. Satie-influenced, I've tended to believe in the doctrine of one chord per measure, but that's clearly not the way the Kaiser liked it. But still, the Kaiser and I favor a harmonic rhythm that is within the normal range, that doesn't raise too many skirts up to allow us to see the brutish realities of nature beneath. I remember a composer friend being scolded back in college for too fast of a harmonic rhythm. That struck me strange back then and it still seems odd now. It's easy to make your harmonic rhythm slow - lots of music does that - but it's actually pretty hard to make it fast, and too fast? Well try it - it's not easy. At some point, the brain re-chunks the music to bring it back into the normal range. And, in the tape concert, you could hear an analogous timbral rhythm in all the pieces, old and new, again often falling into the same range.
One technology not so easily available to the old school concrète folks was the multi-speaker spatial diffusion on display, the performance aspect of the fixed media world that also gives us as the audience, sitting in the almost-dark, at least something to watch. The diffusion tended to coerce the primeval recordings into the same sonic world as those more recent. Sometimes, most noticeably for me in the Ussachevsky, it was a bit garish, pushing that piece in particular into a faster spatial rhythm that gave the whole thing a jazzed-up feel. But again, the spatial rhythms never seemed too fast. Even when there was a quick ping-pong-like panning, it was perceived as a gestalt, as a sound with a complex spatial quality, not leading us to tap our toes, not pulling us towards speed and all its dangers.
M. Josh aka fognozzle sent me the following greeting today for my birthday. I have not yet today received quite this level of adulation, nor a shovel-salute from a bevy of topless and tow-haired boys, seen near the end of the video, just before the windows open on the bright and glorious future of the Fatherland.
Editor's aside: it seems to be impossible to use the word Fatherland, translated literally from Vaterland, without conjuring an image of the Nazis. The German word was used to innocuously mean homeland, although some in my country find an uncomfortable connotation in that word in the title of the US Department of suchsame Security. And there does seem to be a parent-gender-role association that colors Fatherland vs. Motherland: that of the stern dad who argues with his fists vs. the mom that coos and suckles at her teat. Although the Russian/Soviet use of Rodina-mat, translated to Motherland, still gives me a sense a hawkish xenophobia. I have to admit I come from a certain hippy-dippy-we-are-all-one background that bristles at the thought of God and the Kindly Ones choosing any particular people and/or country over any other and so may explain my overreaction. Homeland, motherland, fatherland, ancestral home and land of my birth. Creepy.
Saturday, January 24, 2009
There are several circumstances that help fuel my Nazi-interest addiction: (1) the fulsome record-keeping, film-making, accounting and cataloguing of the Dritte-Reichists themselves (2) the dumping into the public domain of the above by the Allied conquerors (3) the hundreds of thousands of post WWII memoirs by and interviews with and trials of combatants and non-combatants. So we do really know what happened, OK?
And yes, they, the National Socialists really did kill a whole heck of a lot of people, Jews and Romanis and Slavs and Gays and Jehovah's Witnesses and the Infirm and Intellectual and Freethinking, and they really did run the exhaust into the back of the transport trucks and they really did slaughter them wholesale in gas chambers and they did machine gun them while standing in their self-dug graves and they did work them to death to build weapons and vengeance weapons and did inject them with diseases and decompressed and pickled and chopped up and tortured and starved and killed in every way imaginable. And such behavior naturally upsets those who remember or are related to those who remember.
And thus, the denial of the same is a reasonable symptom of a certain type of mental illness, a lack of willingness to accept reality, the real reality that is, i.e., our consensus hallucination of the way things actually are. I personally think that one needs to suffer from this particular illness to accept the Catholic Church's teachings and behaviors through the centuries, from the Assumption of Mary to the Cadaver synod, so maybe it isn't hard to understand that a Catholic bishop might believe that "the historical evidence" was hugely against the Holocaust, but still, for a Church and a Pope that suffer from too close a connection to the above, one would think they would be sensitive to the unbelievable awfulness of the whole situation, bending over backward to salve and soothe the wounds so recent and so deep.
But no, today we see that Benedict XVI doesn't get it, reinstating Richard Williamson and other right-wing bishops. The story in the NY Times here. Yes, these are "declarations that we don't share in any way," well, except that we have brought these declarations back into the Church. Gott im Himmel.
Thursday, January 22, 2009
From Hitler's Death Camps: the sanity of madness, by Konnilyn Feig:
Today the hotel has recovered its prewar fame. Its dining room is in demand for fancy wedding parties by the elite of Strasbourg and surrounding towns. A visitor sees wedding parties drive up to the hotel and park in front of the gas chamber. The wedding guests walk into the hotel dining rooms, sparing not a glance for the gas chamber, clearly marked only a few feet away. And they dine and celebrate a new marriage - so very close, so very, very close to that spot where many human beings lost their lives. Hotel guests during the war had perhaps a more unnerving experience, because the men and women to be gassed stood nude outside that plain building across from the restaurant, in full view of the luncheon patrons and the visiting professors. The victims' screams in the gas chamber were easily heard in the hotel and provided the background noise for the diners and sleepers.
Once again we come fact to face with the great question: how were so many so easily inured to the sufferings of others? And well we might ask it of ourselves.
Saturday, January 17, 2009
Two Orchestral Waltzes for Lynne
1. Ludmilla Waltz
2. Empress Waltz
"The waltz, in fact, is magnificently improper - the art of tone turned bawdy. I venture to say that the compositions of one man alone, Johann Strauss II, have lured more fair young creatures to lamentable complaisance than all the hypodermic syringes of all the white slave scouts since the fall of the Western Empire. There is something about a waltz that is simply irresistible. Try it on the fattest and sedatest or even upon the thinnest and most acidulous of women and she will be ready, in ten minutes, for a stealthy kiss behind the door - nay, she will forthwith impart the embarrassing news that her husband misunderstands her, and drinks too much, and cannot appreciate Maeterlinck, and is going to Cleveland, 0., on business to-morrow..." from H.L. Mencken, Prejudices, Second Series.
The two waltzes here are written for my inamorata, and reflect two of her most beguiling facets, the first: as the fallen Russian aristocrat, the woman of a certain expectation lacking the allowance that would sanction it; the second: as the haughty and dominating sovereign, unwilling to brook any usurpation of her ultimate and crushing authority. Popularly, waltzes are thought of as dances in 3/4 time, but the word waltz merely means a revolving dance, as both words come from the same root, and many dances named waltzes over the last few centuries have been in a variety of meters: 2/4, 3/4, 6/8, 5/4. But in the end, composers get to call their works whatever they want, so, while the first soi-disant waltz is in 3/4, it is hardly a dance at all, more a concert statement of unbridled passion, discords and all, and the second, while primarily in a fast 3/4 with shifts to 2/4, carries us away in a whirl, a flash of ankle as the ball gown spins up, bodies pressed against each other, a fevered head falling to a shoulder in a swoon of sweet and utter surrender.
Friday, January 16, 2009
My enviably witty friend Dave Ginocchio of the Russian River Wine Co (highly recommended), upon hearing of all this during this last Xmas season, replied "Feliz Nazi Blog," a saying I wish I had invented, but also made me promise to, at some point, connect Seven of Nine to the Nazis, not actually that difficult since the Star Trek franchise is such a sprawling monstrosity that it has touched on just about everything, and the reference is already there, ripe for the picking, from the Voyager series (VOY to those in the know):
I don't recognize this program.
I do. He's wearing a Nazi uniform. We're on Earth, during the Second World War.
SEVEN OF NINE
Totalitarian fanatics bent on world conquest. The Borg of their day ... no offense.
SEVEN OF NINE
All this being only one of many Nazi references throughout the various incarnations. The picture above being from the visit of Adolf in an alternate 1944 (one many alternate WWIIs where the Nazis prevail) to the occupied US of A, this from ENT, Storm Front Part II (again, to those in the know).
But, in both cases, 7 of 9 and the NS, the uniform is the thing.
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
After a weekend's nose-grindstoning, I dashed off a second waltz and an OK orchestration of both: the Ludmilla Waltz and the Empress Waltz, named after two of the formal natures of the most lovely and admirable Lynne R. It was easier to orchestrate the new one since it was conceived from the start as an orchestral being, whereas the older one had gotten into my head a bit too much as a piano work with its piano sensibilities and pianistic tendencies. But the two together are a good match. Once again, I had a grand plan to write of every moment of the great creation, but that again proved elusive. I'm in a difficult-to-verbalize place when I work, and each decision seems either too small, too arbitrary, or too suddenly insightful. And it's hard to glean something that is good enough to pass down to the younger generation. But I have discovered one thing: the more I write these chamber orchestra pieces, the more I yearn for the subtler timbres of a larger orchestra, a much larger orchestra.