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


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.
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