Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Text setting

Clark Suprynowicz and I were talking opera libretti recently at a fundraiser for the John Duykers and Miguel Frasconi work-in-progress, Hand to Mouth: The Journey of the Seed from Soil to Plate, a opera-ette which draws on John's other career as organic farmer and nearly-organic beekeeper, and the fact of our divergent approaches made got me to thinking. I'm a prose man, and believe in the sanctity of the language, which is typically my entrée into a text-based piece. To reiterate, language is the key to an opera composition, the way in, containing something that strikes me as being musical, in whatever sense one takes that. I've been considering Queer again lately, as we are planning to remount that in the Spring of 2011 as the 10th anniversary of the premiere and the 25th anniversary of the book's publication. Burroughs's writing is very musical, its flow and lilt and repetitions and its connection straight to the gut, not poetic in the old-fashioned sense of meter and foot, but its music inspired my own. In comparison, Clark's cavalier attitude to what his librettists have written down, and the fact that he bends their words to fit his tunes, seem quite sinful. For me, tunes and music spring from the words, although I hope that the music isn't simply painting colors over the words and that the music that comes from this interaction can stand on its own. I remember being asked once by a singer during the development of an early piece which sections were recit and aria and I realized it hadn't even crossed my mind. I was presenting the text, and I suppose some sections fit one label or the other, that some were internal monologue, outside of the action, and some were more action oriented, but I didn't stop somewhere along the way to sing a song, a song with a melody upon which the words were hung.

When I first studied composition, way back when, the very first exercise we did was to set a text and I've realized this may have shaped my approach early on. We each chose a poem and analyzed it, reciting it several times, writing down the rhythmic result in sprechstimme form, trying to capture the prosody and also the pitch contour of our recitation. The teacher's idea was that this was necessary to understand simply where the musical stresses should fall, and what the melodic pitch contour should be to properly capture the sound of the poem. But I realized in a moment of youthful revelation that this scribbled down proto-setting was the nut of the piece to come, that I could distort this pitch function of time in a number of ways, stretching it and shrinking it uniformly or non-uniformly in either axis, translating it, a whole series of affine and even nonlinear transformations, but that this would really be the piece, what the audience heard, my translation of the poem to sound.

When a composer sets text, the composer is the actor, is the reciter, and no matter who performs the piece thereafter, even though they may emote and express, they are fundamentally locked into the actor-performance of the composer herself. The composer locks down the basic timing and puts the reaction of one actor to the other into the mouth of each. The funny thing is, very few composers are taught acting or reciting or anything remotely theatrical or dramatic. We could ask, why should their conception of the text become the one true path through it?

I noticed something in my first piece which had real actors, A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil. Professional actors, who had no problem memorizing long monologues from traditional plays, were suddenly thrown off balance when they had to say their piece over a fixed length of time - to fit with some music and arrive at some dramatic point at the right moment. They stumbled and forget their lines and couldn't remember their stage business or act natural. Their whole acting lives had been all about the fluidity of time and expression and reacting to the moment, reacting to other actors, working in a development process, sometimes over a long time, sometimes with a director, to figure out their best pacing and timing and then to improvise some of those things further during performance, like real life. But the simple request to fit that expression into a certain stretch of time, combined with fighting against the rhythms of the music behind them, broke them down. So what to say about opera singers for whom almost all of these actor-ly expectations are subverted? Does this explain why opera in its heyday, pre subtitles, fascinated by its golden age, almost ignored the text completely, concentrating on the beautiful line, the voice, all the actors standing on the edge of the stage singing to the audience and ignoring each other, the audience swooning and crying, only knowing what is going on from the fact that they had seen the piece over and over and over and had the story synopsis in their program?

I tried to do something different in Mordake to alleviate this, playing with a technological solution, where John could sing a line freely - where he could act - and I would have fiddle with the knobs of the accompaniment, lengthening and shortening the music underneath to fit. I failed to achieve what I wanted, partially because I'm into dominance and control, but also because I think it would have required some more radical changes to my own compositional process. The fragment at the top of this post is typical for me, meters changing to fit the textual rhythm, and that has defined so much of who I am compositionally. I was recently reading an article by Kirke Mechem on choral setting, which is a different animal than opera, as the audience's understanding of the words being not so critical. In this piece, he talks about the importance of musical form, and once I got past my usual reaction in hearing the phrase "musical form," which is to release the safety on my Browning, I realized that I agreed with him, text setting shouldn't be, as he says, the musical equivalent of painting by numbers, but I also realized that all the text setting I have done has changed my notion of musical form. My later instrumental works sound to me like little operas, not that they actually have an underlying story, say Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, but they seem dramatic, wandering along and telling a tale, the music unfolding from what has come before, with asides and interjections, and me making the same kind of dramatic decisions: should there be a climax here, time for the intermission, or for the audience to relax and whisper and kiss their neighbor, am I going to go for the slam bang ending or the whimper, is it time for love interest to arrive? But Kirke did walk out in the middle of my opera Sub Pontio Pilato, brought there by his son and my good friend Ed, whose birthday was yesterday, and with whom I made out briefly for the amusement of his girlfriend and other guests on Sunday, me always willing to give a hand up to my friends, so maybe he didn't agree with my approach and thought my form was lacking, and who can see into the heart of another?

an UPDATE from Ed:
Just for the record, I believe (and I *was* sitting there with him) that he 'walked out', ahem, during intermission, because his back was hurting him. If you want to, ahem, add a little footnote to your post, detailing the dry boring reality (in contrast to the dramatic characterization!) -- feel free :)
OK, well, that is much drier and less colorful so not as interesting, but is the truth.

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.

Monday, October 19, 2009

to those who are of god's chosen

I've embarked on a new opera project, even though I was feeling like I was a bit fagged out after the difficulties of the last, but once again hath the candle singd the moath, and I find myself in familiar territory, exploring the viscous friction of sense and nonsense at the boundaries of religion. It all started when I ventured to see a bit of a new Deborah Slater piece at the Traveling Jewish Theater and watched some of my most favorite dancers move gorgeously across the stage. Later, outside, Lynne and Deborah and I were talking, the Medea story came up and Lynne asked if we remembered how, a few years back, a woman threw her three children in the bay. Of course we did and, for memory's sake, here is the news item:
A 23-year-old woman who said she was hearing voices stripped her three small children naked Wednesday and threw them off a San Francisco fishing pier into the bay, authorities said. - San Francisco Chronicle, October 20, 2005
In fact, I remembered it very well, because Lynne and I happened across the makeshift memorial a few days after it occurred: flowers, stuffed animals, notes, photos, candles; all left in a vain attempt to palliate the horror of the crime. The story rolled around in my head for many days after that discussion, and I ended up buying a small notebook and some pens on a visit to Lynne's family

and I started writing something and had some very clear images of the look of it and that my dancer friends would be acting out the parts, maybe singers off stage, don't know, but when I started writing, I immediately mixed together the mother's thoughts and mine so that, in the end, there is definitely more of me than of her in it, but I started from the point that God and the mother really were talking and, like Abraham and Isaac, God really did tell her to kill her children, and that there is something compelling about her certainty, a religious certainty that many people crave. The text consists mostly of her internal monologue, but God speaks, and the children appear as well. She speaks like me, the version of me that graces many of these blog entries: a bit supercilious, a few too many five dollar words, but of course it really is me, my religious upbringing (although the mother was quite religious herself), my fascination with the non-rational, the ecstatic, my fear of insanity, my fear of a lack of ability to discern what is real and what is not.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Of nieces

I was eight years old when I first became an uncle, in this case to a niece, the scion of my brother and his wife, themselves begotten of so and so, the seemingly infinite regress of humanity, and I felt suddenly so much older, rushed into a maturity for which I was not quite ready. One of my first memories of the little tyke is a scene that would evoke a sense of responsibility in any parent: her standing still in the doorway to my bathroom, not quite making it to the goal, an outpouring of urochromic fluid rushing from under her skirt, not sure to go forward or back but stuck in place. But as she got to be an actual kid, I was more of a big brother than a parent, looked-up-to in that way, required to tease and frolic and rassle and horse about as kids do, a play preparation for one's true transition to adulthood through the wrestling which creates us all.

Two years after I achieved this coming-of-age, I discovered what, at that time, was called modern music, through the vehicle of Stanley Kubrick's 2001, and was taken up by it. Although Ligeti sued, and rightly so, as his music was irreparably damaged, turned to kitsch (as he pointed out), it led me to all his other music, to the music of his colleagues and others, burning much of my paper route money over the years on vinyl and leading me to my chosen profession. And, as I don't want to be misunderstood, I want to say that I loved the movie too. In fact, I went back to see it again and again, and each of Kubrick's films over the years held sway over me during their reign, and each was a revelation. I remember my poor preacher father, forced to escort me to A Clockwork Orange and, as we were late to the theater, walking in at the moment of the first rape, followed soon after by the dancing Jesus scene, but as I was so earnest and excited, he stayed with me, watching it all, even allowing me to stay to see the beginning again so I would not miss a moment. My original artistic desires, in fact, veered toward film, and that interest in the great film auteur and his gesamtkunstwerks is surely why I've chosen music-theater, a live synthesis of all the arts, akin to movies, cheaper and more ephemeral.

When I mentioned to a friend that I was working on a new piece, they asked whether it dealt with the Nazis. It's a sensible question given my interest, an interest that I also shared with Kubrick, as he tried a number of times to develop movies about the war and about the Holocaust, deciding eventually that the latter was uncapturable, and all this even more interesting given that his wife, Christiane, whose artworks appear in a number of his films, and whom he met while filming Paths of Glory (she plays the German girl who sings at the end and reduces the soldiers to tears), was born Christiane Susanne Harlan, the niece of Veit Harlan, most beloved of Joseph Goebbels, the maker of the infamous and notorious anti-Semitic propaganda vehicle Jud Süß. An aside from theauteurs.com website:
The pornographic element is apparent early on, when a cheering woman at the Duke's inaugural parade loses her top, to the Duke's leering satisfaction. One is reminded of all the women who bared their breasts at Hitler, a strange phenomenon hinting at the hidden psychosexual nature of fascism.
And this one, the most famous of them all, the younger Schicklgruber, carried his romantic fascination with his niece, the even younger Geli Raubal, much further, and so many stories have been floated about his complicity in her apparent suicide that it is hard to discriminate fact from fact. It is true that she was found dead in her room, locked from the inside, shot through the lung by his gun, a Walther, that she had been dead since the previous day; but it is not so clear that she was arguing with Hitler, that she was pregnant by a Jewish art teacher in Linz, that he was jealous, angry; but it again is clear that he was devastated by the death, that he threatened suicide, that he stopped eating animal flesh forever after, that he was in love.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Sweet Encumbrance

Continuing with the treacly investigation of romance and its elations, its euphoric pleasures, begun with Two Orchestral Waltzes for Lynne, the current work, Sweet Encumbrance, makes manifest, in sound, the joyous warmth, the sweet iron fetters and the small panics which flow from hogtying oneself together with one's chosen helpmeet and companion. In this piece, it is demonstrated in some detail how much one can gain in life simply by giving up one's philandering, and, while still given license to strut and flirt and still authorized to play the dandy, one must now, for the foreseeable future, festoon one's costume with the leash and collar and electronic ankle bracelet, sometimes visible but most often invisible, like the line that one might be enticed to cross save for the memories of the previous attempts' resultant truncheoning and electric shocks. But let us not dwell on such past pains, but please to look to that bright future world illumined by the brightest and whitest of most pure light where, joined in glory and set upon one's throne just to the right of the Empress, in a new Sagrada Familia, happily holding court, happily holding the hand of the one most beloved.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Missa fictus Missa ficta

Jay Cloidt and I have been editing together the two nights' recordings of the Missa. It's tremendously thrilling to create such a fiction, something that never was, weaving the different performances, different microphones, different audiences together into one. We've added a few synthetic overlays where a few notes were missing, even recreating one whole section of the postlude. We've discovered once again the joy of reverb in absolving the recording of a great many sins confessed to us under the harsh scrutiny of his monitors, reverb that Jay had foresworn ever since hearing Blood Sugar Sex Magik.

One interesting set of audio interjections comes from a large belled clock in the sanctuary, which goes off from time to time during the recording, especially during the Sanctus, a highly synchronistic event, as the use of bells during the Sanctus goes back almost a millenium. Bells and the Bible go hand-in-hand, like love and glove, and the union produces such poetic gems as those found in Exodus 28:
And beneath upon the hem of it thou shalt make pomegranates of blue, and of purple, and of scarlet, round about the hem thereof; and bells of gold between them round about:

A golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, upon the hem of the robe round about.

And it shall be upon Aaron to minister: and his sound shall be heard when he goeth in unto the holy place before the LORD, and when he cometh out, that he die not.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Teddy's biff

My cross-dressing Teddy has a new best friend, seen here in her finery, harnessed safe and secure in the bosom of fellow pulse modulator and amateur Ruxpin engineer Mike, with whom I've been corresponding about the ins and outs of our little friend and his/her sensitivity to radio interference. I had planned to take my act to Burning Man a few weeks back to help investigate the Doors of Perception with the various misfits freaks and weirdos of which I am proud to call myself a member, but work in all its aspects has been impeding my fun lately. This must stop of course, and the prevailing winds are beginning to change, to blow to leeward, so soon maybe Teddy and I can appear in public again together. Meanwhile, li'l red above will have to take our place in the world.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Tabla lessons with Harihar Rao, with a side trip to Richard Feynman

One day in tabla class - I studied on the side back in my scientific days at CalTech - some progressive-minded classmates and I, looking for a bit of spice and a bit tired of the (while often interestingly subdivided but still) powers-of-2 meters, goaded our teacher, Harihar Rao (top right), into amusing us with some rhythmic fireworks. Like all Westerners, we were always looking for something new and more exciting than what he was actually teaching us, never really willing to spend the time to learn the details of anything, like dancers seeming to hold their partners close but really looking past, scouting the next liaison across the room. But he had been teaching gringos like us for many years and so was used to this blasphemy and, with a weary acceptance, proceeded to teach us a somewhat complex 7 beat pattern. We then tried, a bit shakily, to keep this going, as steady as we could, as he straddled it with an 11 beat pattern, his beat effortlessly 11/7ths faster. It was a sweaty and joyous bit of concentration, collapsing and coming back together as we tried vainly to hold the two opposing rhythms in our head, to achieve what he could seemingly without thinking.

For the few years I studied with Harihar, I couldn't walk anywhere without tabla rhythms appearing over the pulse of my step. It was an obsession, a compulsion. I would practice the patterns as I walked, like all drummers I have known since, making approximations of the sounds with my body, trying to fly each pattern against 3 beats, 4 beats, and 5 and 6 and on. The important thing - or what seemed so at the time - was to be able to perform it consistently while shifting one's concentration from one pulse to the other, flickering between views as with the Necker cube. Relative prime rhythms were of course the only ones that were interesting, like the relative primes that defined the intervals of which I was just becoming aware, and these rhythmic practices spilled out into my pianism, forcing me to play scales in polyrhythms, to add or subtract a beat or two or three to each measure of the left or right hand parts of just about anything to squeeze or expand them just a bit, a pleasant flurry of notes not quite lining up, like the middle bit of the first of the op. 28 Chopin préludes where the right hand switches from 6 to 5. [A note to the reader trying this at home: better is to move the right or left hand up or down a bit as well, a fifth or a third or whatever, and then, even better, to just stop playing other people's music as it's easier on the stereo anyway.]

I was lucky enough to attend CalTech when Richard Feynman was still teaching Physics X, and my friends and I would hang out there too, asking questions about the Moon and the blue sky and rainbows and gravitation and electron spin and DNA and the structure of the eye, learning more about science and its cousins in the barest refractions of light in the few smallest drops distilled from the great man's essences than in all of our more formal studies. The class wasn't really a class at all, but an informal seminar, held in the basement somewhere, maybe Lauritsen, where the students would ask questions about anything, attempting and failing to stump the great man, and where Feynman would always cut through to the heart of each issue, bringing an oh-so-pleasant shock of illumination and intuition.

CalTech was a strange and insular place, a tremendous opportunity for those who were prepared to take advantage of it, suicidally difficult for others, stocked with children who had been locked away, sequestered from society from birth by the nature of their interests and their antisocial smarty-pants disposition. But, even in that rarified place, where Nobel Laureates were dime-a-dozen, Feynman was an icon who floated a bit above the rest. When he showed up to our tabla class one day, we were suitably star-struck and tongue tied, unable to respond to his easy manner. His bongo playing was well-known to us, and well as some of his other idiosyncrasies - one I remember well is when he showed up at a meeting of the CalTech Christian students simply to point out what idiots they were for believing against all facts and logic - but in the end the instrument was beyond him, and he an old dog trying to learn a few last tricks, the sounds too subtle and he too impatient to coax them out of the hide.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

This year's CDs

The compact disc of my Missa, although wholly encapsulating a sad and dying medium of auditory exchange, is at least visually luminous and beguiling thanks to Karen and should be available quite soon, as soon as I can bring myself to go through all the recordings of both performances in some detail and make a final determination of what is the best and what is not. The chalice awaits the thick nectar of the reverb-heavy-laden music decanted, then held to the lips to succor those in spiritual need. Although I have attempted to interest a few of the typical classical music vendors in the product, it will be a vanity press item, made simply for the delight of my fans and so that I can continue to gaze longingly at my own reflection.

The Mordake CD, on the other hand, is mixed and packaged and has obtained the all-important record deal, only now awaiting approval from a thousand bureaucrats, dressed each identically in their identical indigo Mao costumery, soon to be unfettered, alive and on its own in the uncaring world.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Bunnywhiskers once again

My dear friend Bunnywhiskers has moved her radio show to a new time and a new location and has asked me to ennoble her and her program by appearing, tonight, the 12th of August, 2009, two days past the Perseid peak, on FCC Free Radio at 107.3 on your FM dial here in San Francisco, or streaming online at the address you just passed over. We will talk of many things, surely including music and love and grace, and read excerpts from favored books and maybe the libretto from my upcoming production, possibly even giving away a free CD. All is possible. For those of you coming across this entry in the future, there may be a link to a recording of the show here.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Bletchley Park etc

As a former mathematician and reputed engineer, I've shared the recent nerdish interest in the true idea that World War II was really won by the boy and girl geeks who prodded and cajoled roomfuls of vacuum tubes and who lovingly sharpened their No. 2 pencils and who, on their long walks home, flirted and kissed furtively against romantic revival gingerbreaded walls, and that we Anglo-Americans, by our braininess alone, knew all the Axis powers' plans and played the war like a great chess game, not through the efforts of the poor filthy pawns who slogged through the mud and death and blood to capture and hold bits of land, captives of that distasteful space.

The reality is somewhere in between of course, although I did always wonder why it took so long for the engineers' roles to be understood. The truth was quite slow to arrive, and not until the 70s did the British government allow publication of Bletchley Park's breaking of the Enigma codes, for many reasons, my favorite of which is the fact that the Brits had sold the rotor machines to their former colonies throughout the world and hoped to continue to read all their diplomatic traffic. The secret business is a set of wheels within wheels, and there is great fascination in the work of statisticians deciding which bits of intelligence to follow and which to ignore, which will show the enemy too much knowledge of our knowledge and which can be safely hidden, possibly in other obfuscating and pointless missions, and who will be allowed to be killed by enemy attack, and who will be saved.

Outside of the rarified air of Bletchley Park there were also other, lower tech operations, some chronicled in the fascinating book Between Silk and Cyanide by Leo Marks, who tells stories of encryptions in the field, used by operatives behind enemy lines, some using bits of one-time pad sewed into bits of silk parachute material, others using memorized poems, the most famous of which is his own romance The Life That I Have, perhaps made more poignant by the context, where Nazi handlers may have beaten this poem and others like it from those they captured, turning them as agents to work against the land and people they loved:
The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
Is yours

The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.

A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause
For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The youth

from Conversations with Igor Stravinsky, late '57:
I have all around me the spectacle of composers who, after their generation has had its decade of influence and fashion, seal themselves off from further development and from the next generation. Of course, it requires greater effort to learn from one's juniors, and their manners are not invariably good. ... The very people who have done the breaking through are themselves often the first to try to put a scab on their achievement. What fear tells them to cry halt? What security do they seek, and how can it be secure if it is limited? How can they forget that they once fought against what they have become?
I have to admit that it is v. difficult for me to learn from my juniors. My typical reaction to the artistic successes of freshly minted composers is envy and jealousy tempered only by rage, depression and frustration, and although, in my case, I really have very little that I am fighting for, except my own self-aggrandizement, as I am an eclectic and polyamorous lover of styles and ideas and threads of artistic development, it's hard for me to get past the pettiness that so pervades my soul. But in deference to the idol of my youth, I resolve to try.

And I was intrigued to recently discover the brief affair between the young Igor and Coco Chanel, now a motion picture, see above.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

More on Teddy

Since some have asked, here's what I know about reverse engineering the original Teddy Ruxpin®. The original bear used normal compact audio cassettes, but with an opening along the top, where the metal tape indicator tab was later located. This way it could detect the difference between its own cassettes and commercial audio tapes, which would play out the speaker but not control the servos. The Ruxpin cassettes were recorded with a cloyingly mawkish story and music on one of the stereo tracks, the kind of music you can never get out of your head no matter how many emetics you ingest, and a control track comprised of a series of audio-level pulses on the other.

Pictured at the top is a detail of two quasi-periods of the control track, consisting of a set of nine positive-going pulses. Each pulse is about .25 msec wide, actually .27 for the 'blue box' I built so many years ago, and the time between pulses is what controls the servos. That is, the time between pulse 0 and pulse 1 in each group of nine controls one servo, and the distance between pulse 1 and pulse 2 controls the next, and so on. The time between pulses from a fully open to a fully closed servo varies from about 1.25 msec to 2 msec, measuring from leading edge to leading edge. The leading edge of pulse 0 of next group of nine is about 6.5 seconds from the leading edge of the last pulse of the previous group of nine. The total period of the groups is not fixed - you can hear the overall pitch change as they move. My main bear is one of the two servo variety, and for that animal the interval from pulse 1 to pulse 2 controls the eyes and from pulse 2 to pulse 3 controls the mouth. Later bears had a separate control for upper and lower jaw, and if you hook Teddy to Teddy's friend Grubby®, a pleasantly disgusting and seemingly out of scale and of a different cartoon aesthetic big grub-like creature, you will find that the other pulse to pulse modulations come into play to control him as well.

Originally I sent the control signal in using a CD to cassette adaptor and then recorded actual cassettes, but as I've resurrected the project in more recent days I decided to do some surgery (note crime-scene-like photo above) and bypass the heads on the crappy built-in cassette player. I attached a mini phone jack directly past the play heads and it seems to work to send the signal in from a dime-a-dozen mp3 player. One has to be a bit careful of the levels - too high or too low on the control track and the bear becomes subject to a variety of muscle spasms or alternately is sent into a catatonic state. Also, running the low-level wires out of the bear makes it subject to radio interference, and cell phones held close to the bear can also elicit the abovementioned palsies. I went a little further and hooked up battery powered amp/speaker combination inside since the built in speaker is also pretty bad. It's meant to be heard by a small child sitting in a quiet room alone with the somewhat scary bear toy and is not quite up to entertaining a packed opera house.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Duncan Wold's score for In Residence

My son, showing that he is a child of the same Adam, has constructed a heavenly collection of musical fragments, a Soundscape for a Nonexistent Motion Picture, but which, by its synopsis, makes one strongly wish for its actual production:
This haunting film is not for the faint of heart — or the claustrophobic. We are presented with Jane, an artist who begins a residency at a strange home filled with junk. Her goal is to fashion the detritus into a piece of artwork speaking to the theme of recycling and ‘green’ building practices. But things get twisted when the junk compels her to construct an elaborate and, at times, beautiful trap for herself, which she slowly begins to realize is locking her in, pressing her downward into infinite, interlocking chambers. Even as she becomes more entangled in the web of the house, it begins to provide her with sustenance necessary to continue her work.
— Dina Bloomberg, Down the Rabbit Hole Zine
Tuning in the radio station here, at about eleven and half megaHertz on the dial, we are transported into Jane's world, fading into an imagined natural ambiance, shifting, drawing us into a composition where an ebowed guitar caresses a set of melancholy changes. Of course I'm proud of him, and I tear up a bit when I think of my polymath heir, creator of so many beautiful things, another being Shit Show V, soon to be revealed.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

I have nothing to wear and I am wearing it

and that is poetry, in this case the poetry of Bunnywhiskers resting her tired coney body after a day's hunting and being hunted, me the eternal gentleman.

Saturday, July 4, 2009


I have been fortunate enough in my career to have a few people get very excited about a few works of mine, an heartwarming occurrence. Although, two people that I respect awfully have chosen atypical and offhand works of mine from the mid 80s as their favorites. One was a theatrical work based on a game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Denver Broncos during the Joe Montana glory years, written with Everett Shock, and featuring a recitation of a declaration, aided by an overheard projector on which the declaimer laid out an Xs and Os play-by-play, in the style of the Declaration of Independence (a memory fitting this day of all days), but commencing with the line "when, in the course of a football game, it becomes necessary for one team" and so on.

But the other venture, which has been favorited by more than one of my erstwhile fans, was a small piece done in a small venue in Oakland, where I performed a duet with a Teddy Ruxpin® which centered on themes of objectophilia and robot sex in the modern world. In fact, the exact animatronic doll sitting on my desk today in the photo above being prepared for a comeback tour of sorts next month. You can see the blue pulse timing modulation box I built back in my 'maker' days to control its servos and to allow me to make my own, more sophisticated control tapes. My son, who was about 2 at the time, loved it, although it's possible that some of the themes may have gone over his head. He giggled all through the preceding performance that evening, in which a topless and somewhat buxom young butoh dancer, powdered in white, completed, in about ten minutes, a short walk down an incline.

Since the script was quite short, I reproduce it here for your amusement. As my wife was the voice actor for the bear, I performed a small transgendering of Teddy to Trary, and put a bit of ribbon in his hair.

(Sings) Come dream with me tonight. (Speaks) Hi, my name is Trary Razkovky. Can you and I be friends? I really enjoy talking to people. In fact, some people have told me I have a problem that way, but I don't count these people among my friends. And I do have many many friends.
I would very much like you to meet one of my very good friends. Say hello to everyone, Erling.


What do you have there with you, Erling?

It's an accordion, Trary.

It is a very fine looking instrument, Erling. (Pauses) Can you come a little closer, my friend?

Sure. (moves closer)

(After a while) I'd like to talk to you about something, Erling, if that's all right.


I read a story in the newspaper.

What was it about?

A very fine car dealership in St. Louis, Missouri had a contest. The dealership was to give to the winner a brand new Toyota. The single rule of this contest and the objective of those who participated was to kiss the car longer than anyone else. Of course, I was concerned for these people. How would they go to the bathroom? How would they eat or drink? People need companionship too, but I guess they were kissing the car, after all. Luckily, the very wise people at the car dealership had thought of this. They gave each person a few minutes off every hour to take care of the things that they had to.

So who won, Trary?

A woman won. Her name was Ellen J. Twaddle. She won by kissing the car for 110 hours, longer than anyone else who tried.

That's an amazing story, Trary.

Um, why did you bring it up?

Well, I began to wonder. How does she feel about the car she has won by kissing it for so long?

I don't know.

Well, wouldn't she be more attracted to it?


Maybe it would seem a little more animate? Wouldn't there be, well, a cognitive dissonance in kissing something for so long that one saw as inanimate?

Yes, I think you're right, Trary. If she had seen it as inanimate, she would be repulsed, not attracted.

That's right, Erling. But she stayed. She even lost her job. Her company was upset with her when they found out why she had been calling in sick for five days.

That's quite a sacrifice.

Would you kiss me, Erling?

Sure. (Erling kisses Trary for a long time)

(mumbling through the kiss) I hope you see me in a new light.

(drawing back) What was that?

I said, "That was nice."

I think I am in the mood to sing a song for all the people here. Could you accompany me on the accordion, Erling?

Sure. (Trary and Erling perform The Second Prayer from A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil.)

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Denisova-Kornienko Duo

I met Elena and Alexei when they performed in the 2001 Austrian production of A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil, Alexei on the podium and Elena covering the viola, my favorite bit of which is the brief and registrally displaced but oh so beautiful solo here:

I had promised them a piece in their roles as the members of a violin-piano duo, and this for many years, giving them only one small number that was a simply bit of program music, an old man dies, a vision of my own death as an old man, gasping for breath but all the while still dreaming of a breast, the iconic breast of a woman. However, I finally forced myself to sit down and write something, not asking them if they still cared or wanted the heavy responsibility of another piece dedicated to them, this one not quite so simple. This spicy opus, The Secret of Success, a reference to a blog entry here by the same name, is subtitled a chaconne, because it is, at least a bit, and in the modern meaning as a set of variations on a repeating harmonic progression, in this case a series of chords rooted on Bb, a combinatorial set that treads between major and minor, similar to those I have used before: once in The Bed You Sleep In and once in the Cotter episode in Queer. The piano plays incessantly, often verbosely, and typically the harmonic changes happen right on the measure line, one per measure, violin and piano almost always changing together, something that Kyle Gann would probably find crazy making. From a recent post of his that was on my mind while I was scribbling:
When I see a kid composing in units of measure, measure, measure, with a new impetus, new phrase, new harmony on every downbeat, I start in with my wheedling tone (every experienced composition student will recognize the sound): "How about a triple upbeat to start that melody off a little more gracefully?" "How about we vary the harmonic rhythm here?" "You think the audience can't hear where your bar-lines are if you don't accent every one?"
Luckily we live in an artistic world where there is no wrong or right, where we each do what we like, even though it might drive our colleagues to distraction. The whole score is on my website, but here's a bit of it:

Serb Cutter

My beloved foreign correspondent sent me a note this morning reminding me of some of the more brutal of the brutalities of the last Great European war. He found it as he was researching a new novel which has something to do with the concentration camps in the Balkans, but it also reminded me of a story. Around the time when the event more recent troubles began in the region, my friend Mark Dippé was visiting some Serb friends in Sarajevo. At the moment they heard that their Serb brothers and sisters had launched a campaign of slaughter against their Croat brothers and sisters, he said that they, seemingly modern and reasonable people up to that point, literally jumped up with joy at the opportunity to grab their weapons and get to killing. It is of course hard for us, civilized with our mountains of McDonald's and hundreds of channels of TV, to understand such depth of hatred, but my correspondent's link did explain just a bit of it. It's just a small thing, the above device, a Srbosjek, or "Serb cutter," but it represents so much, and was invented by the Ustaše - Croatian Revolutionary Movement - as a way to efficiently slit the throats of captured Serbs, of which there were very very many, while engendering in the murderer as little fatigue as possible.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Night and fog

Tonight is the night, and the SFCCO players are sounding good. A few complaints and threatened defections from the orchestra over the fog, but they are into it, what started as a stretch has now become commonplace. And I'm so happy to get my noise self out. Michael Cooke has told me it's his favorite piece of mine ever, and he's heard a lot. It is to go on the shelf with other obscure pieces of mine (the 49ers opera, the Trary Ruxpin accordion duets) that have become my friends' favorites?

The Artist as a Young Whore

I was asked to participate this morning in a paid interview - in cash, in the form a single piece of currency: the bill with the drunken general and the corrupt president - by the San Francisco Foundation, and it got me to thinking about my whorish nature, a term I use with the ultimate in positive connotations, as many whores are counted among my best friends, and I can only aspire to such clear thinking and take-charged-ness.

Anywho, getting to the point, it's clear that artists have always been quick to leech onto whomever is in power, regardless of their goodness or badness, in order to live their lives of dissipation, shrouding their selfish wants in pseudo-mystical-art-feeds-the-soul bologna. I'm reminded how, in de imperio tertio, we find the same willingness to suck at the monied teat of the all-father to further one's career, although, in the case which came to mind, it may not have been the best choice career-wise. Heinrich Hoffman, who became more-or-less the official photographer of the Führer, took the photograph above and many others, note especially those Hitler suffering the little Aryan Children to come unto him, but who, after the war, was imprisoned for profiteering and who had all his photographs seized and put into the US National Archives, the images themselves consigned to the public domain.

Leni Riefenstahl, shown naked above, who also had all her work expropriated by the incoming GIs, was never quite able to lie her way out of the stigma of being infatuated with the Nazis and Nazi ideals and, even though she was clearly one of the greatest aestheticians in the early days of the new art form, she was rejected by the world she and her friends had abused, project after project denied after the war. But she saw the slaughter of the Kinsk civilians, she chose the particular slave Gypsies for her films, she allowed them to be shipped to Auschwitz, she knew what was to happen to them but she litigated against all who said so, indefatigably, during her long long life. And who can forget Albert Speer, the one who apologized, but who was also only to eager to be seduced by the power and the money and the evil structure of which he became a part.

But I suppose the difference is that the artists of the US of today are happy to take the blood money and spend it biting the hand that fed them, and feeling entitled to the privilege all the same.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


Bath-time this morning was facilitated by an iPhone 3G® in a Ziploc® bag - thanks to my friend Nicole for enlightening me of this wonderful invention - and a circuitous path through those intoxicating days early in the last century where Hilbert and Brouwer led the fight over the non-finitary law of the excluded middle (see photo) and other such issues.

As a boy, I was so interested in all of this. The issues seemed so important and, later, as I became a composer, I faced them again, feeling a pressure from above to maintain an intellectually rigorous Germanic methodology in all my musical decision making, a certain belief promulgated by my betters that there was a notion of music that existed in a Platonist reality where deep truths live separate from the dirty business of breath and bows and spit and turntables and stylish hairdos, and that compositional progress was in the furtherance of passage toward this Utopian Ideal.

But I was, deep down, more tolerant, and shall we say more Dutch, and believed that music really was purely an act committed by people for their own amusement, that it existed in this world and not the other, and that it had benefits beyond an explication of existence, namely (0) transcendental beauty here on earth (1) encouraging teen pregnancy through passionate embrace (2) a devil-may-care use of drugs (3) hearing impairment in the elderly (4) separation of fools from their money (5) penis casting (6) nonpareil spirituality and mystical joy (7) creative jouissance (8) and so on, and that music was concerned with the grit and chaos and noise of sound, and that it was, at its core, an inexplicable and impenetrable pursuit, evading all attempts to capture it, drop it in the killing jar, and to pin its beautiful wings to the setting board. The theories I learned as a student did not attempt to cover anything except what I found to be the most superficial aspects of music, the voices and pitches and rhythms, and I was left to find the rest myself.

One of the reasons I started writing - English rather than notes - was to try to explain what I did day-by-day during the compositional process, thinking that in so doing I might capture the uncapturable. But I've failed every time that I have tried. I can't really say easily what I do. There is no process to speak of, and the moments spent in the compositional state sneak by unseen to end up in a piece that I no longer feel my own.

Friday, May 15, 2009

"But at least they dressed well"

As a young boy on the Great Plains, gorged on a constant diet of WWII war movies and television, my friends and I would get together with our BB guns and cherry-bombs to be mini-reënactors, and, in our innocence, who would we vie to be? The sloppy GI with perpetual cigarette hanging out of his mouth, unshaven? Hardly! No, we fought for the right to click our heels, to salute, to wear the smartly trimmed Hugo Boss designed and built SS uniforms, to carry an imaginary Feldmarschall's baton, and to speak in a clipped Germanesque pidgin, the hint of a saber cut on our cheek, the monocle, the goose-step.

As children, we could be forgiven, having no idea of the signification of our choice. But many elect to continue this into adulthood, as its very taboo nature titillates and appeals, from the Korean ad above (video here), to Nazi themed restaurants, to the Nazi Chic, to those too interested in the paraphernalia of the Reich. What to make of these fallen and so foolish fellow humans? Have they forgotten or merely never learned that the fascist path, while seeming to wander along an alpine meadow, dotted here and there with some wildflowers, leads to the cliff or to the bear or to both?

Score Directions

The score is done, the parts have been shipped away once again, and, while usually one for absolute control - a chimera at best - I have abrogated my responsibility as a Komponist to allow the so-called performers a bit of leeway, one arm unbound from the straightjacket, a rest from the hamster wheel, the industrialist lightening for the moment the blows on the backs of the restive workers, but this philosophical change of heart, like most, has come from expediency rather than deep thought, as my compositional laziness seems to increase year upon year. I remember a day in the not so distant past where, to begin the simplest of tunes, I first had to build the instruments, sawing and sanding into the wee-est hours to the ire of my roommates, decide on a tuning, and, locked in my slattering studio, learn to play the aforementioned devices or at the least to coax a sound. But now my compositional life has settled into a pattern: (1) agree to a deadline (2) wait until the last possible moment (3) use every shortcut, trick, careless theft and accident to produce something as quick as possible. I had lunch with my friend and co-producer Paul Dresher the other day and had to hide my head in shame after listening to him describe the months of preparation on Shick Machine, building the instruments, learning to ... yes, you get the idea, everything I had been, and revealing to all the shadow I have become.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

In the Stomachs of Fleas

We, that is, fognozzle and Erling Wold, present for you a tale of fear, horror, xenophobia, political posturing and denial, all contained within a musical program piece of sorts, a savage delight for the senses and an allegory for today, this and that and the other thrown into the pot of narrative and boiled up into a scenario as follows:

The Australia steamed into San Francisco in 1899, carrying corpses and rats infected with the plague. Between 1900 and 1904, one hundred twenty-six people contracted the disease in San Francisco and environs. One hundred twenty-two of them died while the governor denied the very existence of the plague and the press blamed the Chinese for spreading it.

The plague was brought under control in 1904, only to resurface in 1906 as the great earthquake displaced the human and rat population. The response to this second outbreak was dealt with more efficiently as the causes were better understood, but one hundred eighty people died of the plague in San Francisco between 1906 and 1909.

Fortunately, Xenopsylla cheopis (the Oriental rat flea) never secured a foothold in San Francisco, and our dominant flea remained Ceratophyllus fasciatus, which lacked the deep stomach required for effective plague transmission. Many more people would have died if the reverse had been true.

Unfortunately, the rat-eradication efforts during the San Francisco plague outbreaks did not extend to the squirrels of the East Bay. Through them, the bubonic plague established a permanent foothold in the Pacific Northwest, where it lives on today - in the stomachs of fleas.

and Old First Concerts Present:
Saturday June 13th, 2009 at 8 pm
Old First Presbyterian Church
1751 Sacramento Street/Van Ness, San Francisco, CA 94109
$15 General, $12 Seniors (65 and older), $12 Full Time Students

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Hitler fascination

Our roving correspondent Milky recently sent to your faithful editor this well-crafted portrait of an idealized and supah sexy Hitler. As I pondered it, daydreaming of a personal yet elusive fame that would cause someone somewhere and at sometime to render me, even in a fleeting imaginative fancy, with such a magnetic physique, I was reminded of the mystical allure that HH held over his people. Thousands of love letters received during his brief time as the duly elected leader of his fawning people are full of amusing quotes:

I would like to make you my little puppy my dear, my eternal, my lovely Adolf.
I am making you keys to my front door and my room. We have to be very careful. So come early, ring my landlady's bell and ask if I'm at home. If everything works out, my parents (they could be your in-laws) say you can come any time, so we can spend the night together at my parents' house!
They eroticize the relationship we have to power and fame, of the mystical love we shower on iconic figures, our kings and queens du jour, finding ourselves wishing for a Daniel Day-Lewis or a Mary Kate-Olsen to pin us to the floor, us dressed in nothing but a little leather cap and some latex underpants, bringing upon us an orgasmic religious ecstasy quite like that experienced at full tilt towards a passionate Christ-as-not-only-spiritual-husband by St Theresa of the Little Flowers. Although the photo above shows the young sex-kitten-version of the conquering collective cultural hero cum super-ego, we wonder if, as he aged, he took on the immediate character of the father figure, more directly replacing the father- and husband-protectors lost in the seething tides of the harsh and endless war. And, once satiated, bitten, spanked and altogether sexed-up, we might warmly turn over, spooning, and, our minds drifting, light upon the kitler meme and thereupon sleep the blissful and ne'er to be interrupted sleep of those just and unstained.

Friday, April 24, 2009


My follower Milky chided me last evening at the Throbbing Gristle event here in San Francisco for somehow not paying proper obeisance to the event of A.H.'s birthday last Monday, but it's actually quite important for me that this set of notes on a particular cultural preoccupation doesn't become what it purports to analyze, a fetishistic love-fest of a brutal regime, ending in a place I can only just imagine: where the cleaning lady finds me one day, swinging by the neck, raised aloft by an elaborate pulley system, cold to the touch, wearing only a pair of vinyl briefs and a gas mask, surrounded by pornographic magazines open to their most German images. We'll leave that end to those who really do enjoy such things, the likes of Motor Racing Bosses and Princes of the Realm.

But, while on the topic, we find here:
A report by Ofsted, which expressed concern that secondary pupils were repeatedly studying Hitler is part of a wider debate about the nature of Britain's enduring obsession. Those concerned at the ubiquity of the Third Reich in the history classroom and beyond to the nation's bookshops and living rooms fear it stunts understanding of other periods and leads to an unhealthy personality cult.

On the opposite side of the argument there are those who point to the monstrosity of the Nazi regime and its leader, arguing that it is difficult to run out of important issues relating to Hitler to highlight to the wider population.
And to which I can add only that it is difficult to run out of unimportant issues as well.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

JG Ballard, dead today

Crash, a dance written under his influence, the score for the last section above, a recording of the entirety below.

from the book:
I stood with my feet apart, hands on my breast bone, inhaling the floodlit air. I could feel my wounds again, cutting through my chest and knees. I searched for my scars, those tender lesions that now gave off an exquisite and warming pain. My body glowed from these points, like a resurrected man basking in the healed injuries that had brought about his first death.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Georgic for a Forgotten Planet

Lynne Sachs showed one of her latest films, Georgic for a Forgotten Planet, last night at ATA, a cultural icon here in San Francisco. The film, like Vergil's Georgic, is a lovely and meditatively poetic paean to agriculture, although, unlike Vergil, the film's focus is on the separation of our citified culture from the husbandry of the earth as well as the separation of our own persons from what surrounds us. I was struck in particular by a number of plaintive shots of the Moon over the city, hardly visible against the streetlights, ignored by those below, a forgotten deity.

Many of her films center on ecology and our damage of the same and we saw a number of those as well. Also included on the program were the films of her partner Mark Street, including one of his more abstract works titled Winter Wheat, a beautiful bubbling hand-manipulated piece of 16mm art, which took on an environmental urgency in the context of the other films.

But the reason that Georgic is the cynosure of this bit is its use of my first CD in the soundtrack, most noticeably my manipulated music boxes. If memory serves, this is the one that begins the film.

Some of the others from Music of Love are used as well, and some moments of Hagalaz. I'm flattered of course, and happy these sounds have a new life. The actual box, holding the last few guitar picks of a previous life, sits on the piano behind me as I write.

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