Sunday, December 26, 2010

From my deathbed

Out to lunch with the boys, I posed the following question: As some fields of endeavor, such as Spelling, are arbitrary and make no bones about it, and other fields of endeavor, such as Science, hope to be non-arbitrary and even verifiably so, then where does the judgment of rightness and wrongness in music lie?

I was surprised to hear both of them answer, immediately and in chorus, that musical judgment is completely arbitrary.

To set the stage, the conversation had begun with my prediction that "you're" was quickly being replaced by "your", that this trend was clear to see in text messages and Facebook threads, for example the future president's daughters' friends' discussion here.  I had also complained that my phone's automatic spell checker attempts always to change "its" to "it's" regardless of the change's grammatical correctness, and it was with these two prologues that the question was posed. To reiterate and expand: is there a way to judge whether a musical moment, an event, a pitch, a sound, a timing, a whatever, is correct in its context?  Is there a way to judge the making of one musical choice over another?

Again, these two wise men say no.

As the 'boys' in question, let's call them 'Doug' and 'Thom', are current and past editors of the Computer Music Journal, and as one of them is a composer of Tape a.k.a. Fixed Media music - a species of composition where every detail of the final sound is chosen by the composer and there is no performer intermediary - and moreso is a composer who agonizes over each of these aforesaid details, I was quite surprised. And disappointed too, as in reality I was baiting them, as I knew that they would both inwardly bristle at the aforementioned changes to the language, as much as they know suchlike changes are inevitable, and I thought that the linguistic setup - the bristling - would force them into a conservative proscriptive stance, leading them to take a strong position against the arbitrariness of music and art.  This would allow me to then spend the next hour getting the better of them, comfortably chipping away at their position, one which is in reality quite difficult to defend.

So I pressed the point. "But as a fellow electronic musician you must have had the experience where moving an event a few milliseconds made all the difference between a musical passage being successful and not, the musical equivalent of the 'For the want of a nail' proverb?"  "Yes," he replied, "but it really is completely arbitrary. The importance of my choice may seem that way to me, but the next person could make the opposite choice and find that to be perfect."

I can't really make a rational argument against this.  But I don't believe it passes the common-sense test.  While all combinations of sounds may be interesting in some ways, some combinations do appeal, do have value beyond others.  In my heart, I know there is a certain rightness to my musical decisions. Maybe I have to think that way.  Maybe if I did not, it would call too much into question my whole choice of artistic career and lead me to tuck my head into the oven, a note left behind, upon which is scrawled a crying out against an Existence Too Evil.

But I do believe in the Composer's Hand which, like the Hand of God, touches those things that need to be touched, a Hand that is able to work in a world full of contradiction and pain and randomness but can craft something out of that muck that transcends it. We hear it in the work of performers, where the nuances that separate the merely great performance from the life-changing performance are very small to the oscilloscope, but are very large to the human heart.

A tangential point

When Everett and Brian and I lived together, we built many instruments.  A number of these had arbitrary tunings.  We scoured hardware stores and the like for scraps of sheet metal of varying thickness and size and arranged these in approximate pitch order - as the pitch of vibrating plates can sometimes lead fair women and men to disagree - placing their vibrational nodes carefully on felt supports. When one began to improvise on such an instrument, certain combinations of tones would quickly appear as meaningful, and sometimes one would feel drawn to a particular sequence, almost as if the allegedly arbitrary tuning would suggest a certain piece of music that was innate in it. Similar statements have been made about pieces arising from particular Indonesian gamelans, each of which feature a tuning that is consistent among the instruments of a single orchestra, but which is always distinct from that of the orchestra down the street.

The winds of history have blown in all of the givens with which we start any piece: the pre-existence of certain sound generators, the limitations of human hearing, the accidents of standards of notation, of performance practice, and maybe those are deeply arbitrary, but from those we must choose, and we must believe we can build.

Why I want to fuck John Adams†

I moved to Berkeley in the Fall of '78 to go to graduate school, a letter of introduction to Andrew Imbrie in my pocket, two friends in tow: Everett Shock and Brian Woodbury, sharing dreams of the fires of fame with which we were sure we would soon be anointed. That first Fall, walking up College Avenue to campus from Brian's mother's basement, I saw two posters announcing events to come: (1) John Duykers performing George Coates' Duykers the First at Intersection for the Arts and (2) a performance of Shaker Loops at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, composed and conducted by John Adams.

I knew John Adams' name from the Brian Eno release of American Standard, a piece I admired a great deal, but knowing this did not prepare me for the experience. In my memory, as it stands today, the performance was electrifying. I had only recently become aware of the Reich/Riley/Glass consortium, and had only recently spent an evening listening to the Tomato Records Vinyl Release of Einstein on the Beach twice straight through, the too-short LP sides ordered, as vinyl box sets often were, so that the work could be played on a semi-continuous-play phonograph with center spindle with only one flip, i.e., 1-6-2-5-3-4. While it played, I could do nothing except listen, neither speaking nor seeing. So I had only the briefest preparation for the musical language of Shaker Loops, and I was entranced by it in, as I remember, a very small hall or, maybe, a very small world, very close to the players, looking up at John Adams conducting, listening closely as the harmonies unfolded. I came home to a darkened house and ran through the piece in my mind again and again, trying to capture it, this wonderful sound. I repeated the experience at the premiere of Phrygian Gates by Mack McCray, before which Adams came to speak to a class I was taking with Richard Felciano, and after which I retreated to the practice rooms in the basement of Morrison Hall, pounding out patterned scales against each other, holding crashing chords against fast pulses counted in my head. And again, years later when I first heard Nixon in China, I felt that thrill during the beginning, as the orchestra opens up after the chorus. I know now that hearing his operas and those by Glass began my journey back to the theater.

All these memories gained presence for me a couple of weeks ago as I listened, and while Lynne played solitaire on her iPhone, to that same string septet version of Shaker Loops, the piece again conducted by the composer, here at Davies Symphony Hall. My fascination has been tempered by time and my own jaded sensibilities and, in all honesty, by the fame of the composer. Yes, I do want to take him, the pensive and soft-faced artist, his bedroom eyes and his bed-tousled hair, but I want him in an angry and dominating way, where he is reduced to tears as I persist in forcing my attentions on him. I confess I am wholly small-minded when it comes to the fame of other composers. My vanity demands that they be destroyed and destroyed utterly, without humanity, yet I also desire with all my heart to be one with them, to follow them about, to lick the spoons they have left in their chili bowl at the diner. I crave their celebrity, and I spend untold hours making myself crazy, picking through the minutiae of their lives and scores as one would through an owl pellet, looking for a key, the secret to drawing their status onto myself.

† With apologies to the late J.G. Ballard, from which whose prescient piece I now quote:
Patients were provided with assembly kit photographs of sexual partners during intercourse. In each case Reagan’s face was super imposed upon the original partner. Vaginal intercourse with "Reagan" proved uniformly disappointing, producing orgasm in 2% of subjects. ... In assembly-kit tests Reagan’s face was uniformly perceived as a penile erection. Patients were encouraged to devise the optimum sex-death of Ronald Reagan.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Il ritorno d'Queer in patria

My opera on William Lee's quest for love in return will be remounted in May of 2011 at the Southside Theater at Fort Mason.  Proposed dates and times (look carefully!) are:

First Weekend 20th May 9pm,  21st May 9pm, 22nd May 7pm
Second Weekend 27th May 8pm, 28th May 8pm, 29th May 7pm

The 25th anniversary edition of the book just came out - see the photo on the right, edited by Oliver Harris, who mentions my 'superb operatic adaptation,' in his informative foreword, p. xlii.

More to come of course, just making sure to scribble it down before I forget. From the reviews of the original production:

Wold crafts music whose delicate beauty glides in just below the listener's critical consciousness. ... At the heart of the production is a virtuosic, utterly hypnotic performance by a singer-actor with the improbable sobriquet of Trauma Flintstone. As the magnetic but pitiable Lee, Flintstone embodies all of the character's swirls of conflicting emotion -- and does it while singing superbly and commanding the stage for the entire evening. - San Francisco Chronicle.
Brilliance characterized every facet of Erling Wold's Queer on opening night at ODC Theater in the Mission. From conception through execution, the chamber opera based on the William Burroughs novel more than did justice to Burroughs' spirit. It rekindled that spirit vividly for the audience, a sophisticated crowd that paid rapt attention to every nuance of inflection and expression from orchestra and actors alike. - Bay Guardian

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Sounding Plunge

As composers, we are supposed to construct worlds in sound, finding our own way through this evanescent art form, following no rules except the not-often-enough-written truth that [ahem] a sound may occur in any combination with any other sound preceded by and followed by any other sound or combination of sounds. As composers, we see ourselves primarily as architects, as sculptors, making objects not of clay and metal and wood, rather out of the ephemera of sound itself. But sometimes we see ourselves as writers and, like writers to the printed page, to the glue of the binding, to the musty smell of the reading room, we are attracted to the object of the score itself, a beautiful thing, expressed through a beautiful symbology. The making of a score is a private pleasure for me, one of the things that most attracted me to being a classical music composer, that music could exist as a quasi book, a book written especially for instruments played by performers who can actually read the instructions contained therein. 

But composers are not writers. Our medium is not the word. We are artists who have chosen sound as our medium, and who revel in sound short-lived nature and, as such an artist, I had little patience for in my youth for words.  I was angered by requests for words to explain what I did in words. I care not for words.  I spit.  The music is my art, the art is sound, the art is music, why should I have to translate my beautiful sets of sounds into the coarseness and baseness of language, convincing others of its goodness so? Language is about communication, and maybe music isn't even about communication. Someone who is interested in the possibility of giving money to composers should just listen to a piece or two, they should come to a performance and sit there and listen. Maybe a recording is acceptable as at least an ersatz facsimile of that experience, but words have no relation to it.

You have been to an art gallery, yes?, and you have noticed how the eager-to-learn supplicants attending the art spend more time reading the title cards that are placed next to the painting than looking at the painting itself? I find myself doing it, I find myself ensnared by those words. I understand that it makes me feel that I am learning something about the work, but that's not really true. I am merely learning something about the curator. I've seen many cards with descriptions that are outrageous, consisting of turgid, pompous nonsense. Unfortunately, the prostrated communion of the art goer to those descriptions, and the weight given to narrative expressed by them, is something that seduces artists themselves. Artists begin to create pieces of art that lend themselves to descriptions that will impress. Such seduction is rife in the new music world as well. Before I became a jaded old man, I would read the program notes and think: my, this is so interesting, I'm so looking forward to hearing this, and then I would once again be disappointed, left at the altar, wondering where that piece had disappeared to that was promised to me. Had it slipped past without my noticing? Had I missed the glorious audible representation of the lovely ideas which were so lovingly presented in the program notes? 

So - can we simply take all the labels off the paintings?  Giacinto Scelsi, that wonderful swindler and possible composer would send, when asked for program notes, a drawing of circle.  I can't say that I really know what he meant by that circle, or whether it had a meaning at all, but I hope that it read as something to the effect of shut up and listen, shut up and write music, and stop describing.

* * * * *

That all being said, can I now say that I love words, that I love to read them and write them and feel the way they feel passing by my lips? A few days ago, I had a visceral reaction, literally deep in my guts, upon hearing Michael Krasny say the word confabulate, and this is a common experience for me. I love my friend Jim Bisso's blog on words and grammar and language, the wonderfully punctilious EPEA PTEROENTA. And I've wanted to be a writer since I was a precocious child, the one who carried around the complete works of James Joyce in his briefcase, letting himself be seen kissing them in public.

Given this, maybe it's not so strange that words have stolen away my heart from my chosen art form of the construction of sound.  I am surrounded by English, and I myself am a carrier of it. It is one's duty as a speaker of a language to be part of the mix, to eject those bits that no longer express what you wish to express and to create new language that expresses what you do wish to express.  Like a composer, this should come from the sound up.  We should each be inventing new phones and phonemes, new words, new phrases and new architectures of speaking and writing and expressing.  I am happy with misunderestimate.  It's a great word that expresses something that can't be expressed without it.  Although at first my fellow liberalists used it only to make fun of George and his malapropisms, I've noticed that, now that some time has past and it's not so funny anymore, it is still being used, a jestful usage that has become real usage as people realize the word really might have what it takes to join its fellows, journeying up the ladder from the Urban Dictionary to the OED.  We artists know that mistakes are a great generative tool across all creative endeavors. [Ed: this particular verb may be a bad example, as according to wiktionary it can trace its lineage back:
1897 almost sure to misunderstand and misunderestimate the significance of the question at hand. — The Outlook, American Diplomacy on the Bosphorous April 17, 1897]
Another malapropic and fellow target of my fellow liberals' ire, the late governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, tells us we should all invent words, and on this one point I agree.  We overeducated folk are too nervous about our speech, we should allow for mistake. I know this is hard. It is hard for me personally. When I commit a verbal gaucherie, the embarrassment lingers.  I wish I had the Oxford-or-equivalent background that is given to the Brits when they are born, allowing their even the most casual sentences to be constructed perfectly. My first wife once told me a story of how, in England, she saw two very young British Children standing outside a country house gazing across the grounds. As she watched, one said to the other: "Oh, what a marvelous garden, let us go get lost in it."  If I could speak like that, I would die happy. But I fear that, when one hasn't learned a language when one is three years old, and I mean really learned it, one can never catch up, and real mastery shall always elude. But I soldier on anyway, doing my bit, correct and uncorrecting here and thre as I see fit. 

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Excerpts from DieciGiorni:10DAYS

The opera was a collaborative piece and these are my bits, so don't hold them against my colleagues, they are my responsibility. We start with a section of Boccaccio's Proem, a difficult-to-stomach description of the terrors of the plague in Florence spoken by the master actor Robert Ernst. Interspersed between is my commentary, sung by the identical twins William Sauerland and Crystal Philippi.

And then, a contemporary description by Gabriele de' Mussi, in an edited translation by George Deaux.

With Roham Shaikhani looking on, it is followed by a short poem of mine about the finality of death.

An exact transcription of a dear friend's bachelorette party in Las Vegas is then somehow shoehorned into the opera, but a beautiful story it is, and look at those wigs.

The whole mess was directed by the fabulous Jim Cave and conducted by the master Martha Stoddard.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

What we learned

The most important decision of the morning, heading toward the bath or other consecrated ablutionary functions is to choose what to read. This forenoon, eschewing the usual potboiler or periodical, I peeled Ernst Toch's The Shaping Forces of Music from the bookshelf.  Peeled, I say, as it was stuck to the plastic and fluid-repellent cover of Joan Sinclair's Pink Box. But, once extricated, and once I was myself floating in my quasi-womb, I cracked open the book, blew the moths from the pages and plunged.

First, the tragedy of his life: escaping from Nazi Europe, the loss of his friendly European audience, the fear that he had misspent his musical talents in Hollywood, the heart attack, his late rebirth as a true composer only to be felled by cancer of the stomach. Maybe not the ne plus ultra of the standard composer story, but a romantic tale nonetheless. Second, the published letter from Thomas Mann rejecting his request for a foreword but providing one through his rejection.  Third, the book itself, starting with a long apologia for a naive modernism in music, a modernism of the immediate post-war, the acceptance of chromaticisms and pantonally or polytonally stretched harmonies in the harmonization of some standard chorale melodies, the now familiar explanations of how the standard harmonic rules did a pretty piss-poor job of explaining the triple pedal tones and atonalities of presumed common-practice music. I remember these arguments as so important in my youth, and the arguments, though true, are now just quaint, e.g.:
So far it may be concluded beyond any discussion that no sound, considered by itself and detached from any context, can under any circumstances be other than neutral and meaningless, just as no letter of the alphabet can be anything but neutral and meaningless. To divide any kind of sounds, be it tones, intervals or harmonies, into one category of consequences per se – white sheep – and another one of dissonances per se black sheep – is as absurd as it would be to divide the letters of the alphabet into consonances and dissonances.

The sooner we discard these two coddled pets of theory, the sooner we will discard with them an unending source of confusion. The future will look back at this doctrine of consonances and dissonances with the same pitying smile which we bestow upon the once-upon-a-time belief in witches and evil demons living inside certain individuals.
One wishes that the belief in witches and evil demons really had been set aside, especially by likely voters, but luckily the coddled pets have been set aside, in large part, and now we live in a world where a puzzled Matt Ingalls can say to me during one of my digressions on intonation: "are we talking about pitch?" But back then, in my youth, such now quaint concerns were important. I remember also Jim Tenney's lovely book that considered the changing aspects of the terminology itself: A History of 'Consonance' and 'Dissonance'.

But I wonder: are they still teaching the harmony and counterpoint which, even before I was born, was already ridiculous and long discredited? Googling around for Musical Composition curricula at our popular universities, the search results returned oh-so-quickly seem to indicate that they are. Even Schenkerian Analysis, for the sake of Pete. One of my favorite quotes on this pseudo-scientific balderdash, which should have found its way to the rubbish heap along with water divination by crooked sticks, is by Fred Everett Maus who, in his article Sexual and Musical Categories said:
Schenker's creation of an elaborate tonal theory in response to post-tonal music resembles, to some extent, sexologists' back-formation of the concept of heterosexuality as a complement to their new concept of homosexuality. In both cases, a conceptualization of the normative or unmarked category follows awareness of an alternative. Schenker's attack on some music as unnatural recalls, of course, similar attacks on homosexuality.
Here, here. Let us please put an end to the teaching of rules created by wannabe prescriptivists who find themselves in a world now scarily unfamiliar, which would lead, if applied vigorously, to the creation of only the most normative (read bland) and uninteresting of musics, even for those who believe that music died in one or the other of those fin-de-siècle brothels or absinthe parlors.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


It was pointed out to me a few mornings ago that my name had appeared on the list of Notable Libertines in the Wikipedia article on such.  It's unfortunately gone now, the change labeled by an irritated comment, replaced by Jim Morrison, another questionable entry given the true nature of the article itself, a figure who has been found misplaced there before. While I clearly can't pretend to be as Notable as the Notables listed beside Jim and myself, I thought it might be time to explain my feelings on the topic, and my masthead, which my friend Madeleine B. now repeats whenever speaking my name: Maestro Erling Wold, composer, producer of operas, libertine, the list of honorifics extending. Going back through the edit history - in my opinion an invention second only to the talk page - we see that the only others who have been awarded the honor and then stripped of it are three: Peter Doherty, Russell Brand and Carl Barât, all of whom were associated with the band of the name of the article, to wit, The Libertines, whose names were removed with a comment weighted with equal irritation to my own disbarment. 

Most of those on the list are famous for being ancient, since the past, the more distant the better, confers a certain weight and nobility to the members of whatever class of which one speaks. And let us also be clear what we mean of libertine. In the argot of today's common folk in the US of A, libertine equals rake or maybe slut, if that perfect word were to be applied to men, since we note immediately that all those on the list, and all those who have been on the list, are men. The word carries another meaning, and even another undercurrent in its sexual application, i.e., that the reason for the libertine's sexual excesses is that he is a freethinker, a person that rejects regular old European Christian proscriptions on sexual behavior. 

Ami Perrin predates the others and was not so much a libertine in our current sense of the word, not a fucker of goats and a drunken vomiter to excess, but the leader of group of German anti-Calvinists, a group who followed the reformation of Guillaume Farel, who carried to an extreme the theological notion of Sola Fide that my Lutheran father taught me, that we are saved by faith alone and not by our works, in that they were exempt from all temporal laws, be they of the church or of the state. He and his wife were accused of moral turpitude and in one case, that of the sin of dancing, ad even admitted their freedom to partake of such fruit.  From the 59 volume set of the works of Calvin himself, we find such salacious hors d'oeuvres as:

8 April 1546 - Register of the consistory. The wife of the sieur Ami Perrin appeared and was accused of having danced at Belle Rive and at the house of the sieur Antoine Lect. She denied it, although she admitted that she had seen others dancing and that she enjoyed dancing herself. ... She was again asked to name those who had been dancing, and she replied twice that she would prefer to be corrected by the city magistrates and face civil justice rather than the consistory court.

for which terrors, and for his attempt to overthrow the government and slaughter all the French, he was convicted and sentenced to the removal of his hand, a sentence made in absentia and thus of little consequence. 

The antinomianist idea that the post reformation man - and woman in this case - was freed of the shackles of civil and ecclesiastical law  became more popular during the period that the rest of the Notables are from, the 17th to the 19th centuries. Sade almost defines the modern notion of the term Libertine, having written the definitive manuals on the topic, some of which have been covered here before, Justine, Juliette, 120 Days of Sodom etc. But, as Simone de Beauvoir points out in her better-than-the-book introduction to the last work, he hardly actually did much of anything, nothing that would raise more than the slightest stirring in the chair of a daytime TV viewer today, hiring a few prostitutes who complained of mistreatment, using a Mickey Finn on another, sodomizing his manservant, ho hum. But he may have earned the title since he was arrested and sentenced to death for it (in absentia) and did bounce around from prison to prison, liked and disliked by the French governments who were at the time, blowing in the wind. I'm sure more happens in one San Francisco S&M club on one evening amongst those who need to get on with it and get back to their babysat children and their web design jobs. 

John Wilmot is famous mostly for being played by Johnny Depp in the movie of the name of this article and his one crappy childish play on the topic featuring characters with names like Fuckadilla, who at least defrauded young woman and their families by posing as a gynecologist and sometimes the matronly nurse Mrs Bendo, where one assumes that the intent was to apply what later became known as a treatment for hysteria, sans batteries and electric motors. That, the fact that he did seem to go both ways and acted in that regard with some gusto, and that he again, like Sade, was a vocal advocate for libertinage, may in fact earn him the title.  

Rimbaud and Verlaine?  Oh come now, a little love triangle gone bad, hardly the stuff of a medium-quality hard-boiled mid-century paperback, even the attempted murder mundane gunplay, no wheelchair-down-a-staircase or stabbing-in-the-eye-with-a-stiletto-heel. And Byron, the pederast and home-wrecker?  The only aspect of his romantic life that rises above tedium was that the married Lady Caroline Lamb lost so much weight in her despair that in stalking him could realistically pass as a young page boy. Casanova?  Most of those, myself included, that deign to wear the mantle of libertinage are truly just poseurs, like AC Swindburne, who Oscar Wilde famously called "a braggart in matters of vice, who had done everything he could to convince his fellow citizens of his homosexuality and bestiality without being in the slightest degree a homosexual or a bestializer."

The reader may at this point say that I am being unfair, that I am viewing these old folks from the vantage of my modern and urbane and laissez-faire period, post sexual revolution, post Wilt Chamberlain's claim of 20000 bedded, post the rockstar lifestyle, where even those who commonly call themselves monogamist are really serial polygamists, maybe waiting until the third date or the second or not and thinking not twice of it. This is a true condemnation. I myself, hardly an athlete of Wilt's stature, have probably had wilder, more public, and more frequently complex sexual incidents and relationships in my life than some of the Notables, and who, when I walk through the Folsom Street Fair can be happily recognized by one of the men in a public speed masturbation contest, who, when I enter a costumed sex party, just to press the flesh, to keep my name in the papers, can cause a ripple of recognition to spread through the crowd, reminiscent of the Leopold scene of Long-Haired Hare. But I am afraid that in the new world, the subsidence of religion as a civil force, the rise of sexual permissiveness, the decriminalization of pursuits long considered unacceptable, the golden championship belt of the World Champion Libertine must be put in its glass case, gathering dust slowly, pushed back bit by bit until it can no longer be seen behind the collection of Liberace rhinestone rings, as much as I wish I wish that I could be presented it. 

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Big Big

I've been asked to write a piece for the Sofia Philharmonic next year, 2 June 2011 that is, and  the headlining piece on the program is the Ives 4th Symphony: a big fistful of music, a gorgeous piece full of quotations, overlapping themes, sometimes requiring a second conductor, and which includes a lovely setting of "Watchman, tell us of the night."  The orchestration calls for major forces, and I wonder if I'll be able to use them all myself. Probably not, since one typically wants to save the laser show and the back surround speakers for the headlining act, but let's for a moment dream of this, my own fantasies played out over such a major ensemble of

2 piccolos 3 flutes 2 oboes 3 clarinets 3 bassoons alto, tenor, baritone sax (optional) 4 horns 6 trumpets 2 cornets 4 trombones tuba timpani snare drum bass drum tom-tom triangle cymbals 2 gongs bells glockenspiel harp celesta orchestral piano (4 hands) quarter tone piano solo piano organ mixed chorus strings plus 5 violins, 1 viola, 2 harps and "ether organ"

OK, I'll let you have the choir Mr Ives, but I want all the rest. 

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

DieciGiorni 10DAYS about to appear in all its glory

Starting next week, the 10th of September, continuing Fridays through Sundays until the 19th of September, at Thick House, 1695 18th Street, San Francisco, a collaborative opera between Jim Cave, Lisa Prosek, Davide Verotta, Martha Stoddard and myself.

Tickets are at Brown Paper Tickets.

a big cast

Maria Mikheyenko, Soprano
Crystal Philippi, Mezzo
William Sauerland, CounterTenor
Wayne Wong, Tenor
Sascha Joggerst, Baritone
Robert Ernst, Narrator
Roham Shaikhani, Etc

from the opening

From time to time, even here in the countryside on a beautifully crisp and sunny day, we hear the quiet sobbing of those left alive, embarrassed by what they have done, a husband who has stepped out, promising a doctor for his stricken wife, but in truth fleeing the city, condemning her and her children to a lonely and frightful death.

from the five bachelorettes

We shopped, blew threw this mall with the highest high end, where every designer imaginable has a boutique.
I’ve never tried on a pair of Giuseppe Zanotti shoes before.
Leopard print shoes with red patent leather heels and red shoes with cheetah print heels.
Naomi bought some boots that she still wears all the time.
Breaking open a case of whip-its that were ordered online, that she had delivered to the hotel, she told us a story how she had a friend that worked at someplace, maybe Airgas, and they found a canister and would get it filled there, but he got fired, and now they have to get food grade nitrous in those little chargers, which can be recycled, but still, you have to wonder what the garbage man thinks when he picks up the trash and all those little metal canisters are clinking around.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Bunnywhiskers Reducere

Appearing on Radio Valencia tomorrow at 10 am PDT as the "witty and wonderful Erling Wold" with my favorite radio host, the inimitable Bunnywhiskers (whom I happened to see on the street today) broadcasting from Chicken John's building. Listen on the web at or live on an actual FM device at 87.7 in San Francisco. We'll be talking of many things: of the opening of the DieciGiorni collaborative opera next week, of the recent releases, of the events of the world and beyond.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Certainty and Doubt

I'm consistently fascinated by nonsense, drawn again and again to the brainsqueezings of my religious youth, to insanity, to speaking in tongues, to intuition run amok. I work in a world of certainties, where the integral around a closed path of a function holomorphic everywhere inside the area bounded by the closed path is always zero, but I reside in another place, where all things are possible, where I've taken to heart so many more than six impossible things before breakfast, where art comes unbidden from the gods, channeled through us mortals during the brief period of our existence, our last gasping breath exhaled onto those who will next receive their curse.

And, if you want to keep yourself together, please don't look too closely even at that certain world for it too is plagued by doubt. Underneath it all slumbers the Leviathan, who whispers her gentle words into your ear, whispers of the power sets of the infinite and the axiom of choice which, if listened to and her hot breath smelling of the coal furnace ignored, will pull you down like a millstone to a bad place, where you will begin to ponder the Jewish Question and the Book of Revelation and other oft-proscribed lunacies. Be careful navigating these treacherous shoals where so many have wrecked before, the publishers of so many "moderately-loopy-but-eerily-hard-to-disprove Voynich Manuscript theories."

As artists, we must float above all such things, certain and uncertain alike, silliness abounding.  Last night, at a noise show at the Golden Trapper Keeper Lodge, I listened to a litany of movie descriptions, all brutal movies, Russian and Korean, members of subgenres of popular torture porn, during which all those attending, including myself, laughed at the ridiculousness of it all, the reality not ridiculous for those who experience it, those pathetic and poor victims, but the art that comes from it risible and absurd. We can't avoid it, this separation of object and subject, so let us revel in it.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Etymology of 'Nazi'

During a recent yet extended convalescence in my musty sanatorium supraspinatum, post chrurgia, in the prolonged traction of my UltraSling™II, my thoughts turned naturally to the black, and to those naturally redheaded, and the whispers coming from the dark bowels of this blackness. During that time, a time requisite of time while-awaying, hours were spent floundering through my favorite tomes: Bodyguard of Lies, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, the books relating a time better than our own, a time of clarity, of good v. evil, of men that were men. I fantasize about being a man that is a man but I am so far from it: an effete milquetoast-ette, a mama's boy and a milksop.

But in this morning's epost a letter arrived from our foreign correspondent, a man who is a man, our dear ***redacted***, who was passing along some esludge from the net. May I quote a significant part of it?
Long before the rise of the NSDAP in the 1920s, people in at least southern Germany could be called Nazi if they were named Ignatz, or came from Austria or Bohemia (where they apparently had lots of Ignatzes); it was supposedly also used as a generic name for soldiers of Austria-Hungary, like the German Fritz or Russian Ivan. It had to be used with caution between friends, though, since it could also mean "idiot" or "clumsy oaf". That's how it found it's way into politics; the fact that Adolf came from Austria (not Bohemia, though) could have made the pun even better. The Nazis supposedly made attempts to include the N-word in their own vocabulary in order to make it less derogatory, but unsuccessfully; since such a maneuver requires a sense of humor as well as irony, it was probably doomed to fail.
Yes, this maneuver does require a sense of humor, but fortunately we have buckets of that here in San Francisco and thank G-d that all my friends, members of so many persecuted minority groups, have reclaimed all the names hurled at them and taken them to heart, formerly sensitive designations desensitized and reavailable for use by all.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

more on The Ten Days

The Decameron opera project, Dieci Giorni, the ten days, a joint composition with some of my fellow SFCCO composers, The Mighty Coterie of the SF Bay Area, toodles along towards its eventual deflagration. It's been different than I expected, although I don't know exactly how I came to those expectations. It hasn't been as deep a collaboration as I would have hoped, each of us discussing every mark of the score, passing texts around, fistfights breaking out between us, resolved only by drunken tears. But in the end, each of us has trundled off to each of our mountain redoubts to scribble out separately our separate amusements, amusing ourselves but not each other, packing our cannon with the finished goods and blasting them in the general direction of the next stronghold over, whereupon it merely hits the fortifications and skids off into the valley below. It will be up to Jim Cave to assemble the puzzle and test its viability as a living entity, sending back runners to report the results. 

But along the way I have had an opportunity to watch the Pasolini Version again, which is lovely, the image above taken from it. And I've been able to write some texts that I'm proud of, including the story of the five bachelorettes misplacing a box of whip-its, and to remember the ins and outs of the accordion, also lovely.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

walking along the Embarcadero past pier 7 and the flowers

I told myself that I would wait to compose the new opera until we had done something with the words theatrically, that is in a theatrical setting, with the performers and the director, to get a sense of the performance and the direction that those words implied. This I have explained before here, a concept whereby the timings and the delivery of the words, usually fixed by the composer ab nihilo, would instead be approached more collaboratively, and that I would take the results of that process and use it to guide my setting of the words, a fixing in musical form. However, I didn't know what to do with my nervous musical energy, that fever that comes over the artist when the artist has something bubbling up, wanting to burst forth in a spray of brains and blood and to spill itself over the page or, in this brave new world, the computer keyboard. 

So I decided to let it out slowly, ever so slowly, and then to allow it to grow in a direction all its own. The result is the piece to the right, a piece for two pianos, a huge blocky dense work of frenetic activity, repetition, some rhythmic intensity. At the moment, I enjoy it, and so I present it here, in a synthetic form, a simulacrum, but one which I have molded carefully, hand carved out, a memory bittersweet of love lived and love lost, for your pleasure, an mp3 here, and a score here.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Wedded bliss

My wife, The Empress™, published a blog entry recently on her marriage to me and since I have felt a lack of care in not duplicating the effort. The wedding was a ceremony fraught with delight, featuring food and drink and promises and tears, plus performances by many of our friends. The beginning, a topless performance by Tara Jepson and Beth Lisick dressed in boy shorts, prompted my sister-in-law to consider the question: If it begins with a topless lesbian performance, where will it end? This was followed by a rendition of The Rainbow Connection by my now nephew Griffin Runnels, such a tune! and such a showman!  Duncan Wold and his shit-show colleague Roy Hobbs roasted me and Lynne, asking how many midlife crises it takes to write an opera and reminding the bride of her drug-soaked past, following it up with a number of drug-referencing songs. My boy! Igor Finger and Woody Woodman, interpreting Daniel Pinkwater's Devil in the Drain, were preceded by Wendy Marlatt's tribal movements and Sierra and Bronwyn & Ember's dance in stretch metallic latex bags. The whole shebang finishing with Pete von Petrin's remixing of the whole event at maximum volume, distorted and enhanced, a lovely noisy blessing. So many joys, interspersed with all-too-brief moments with so many of our dearest friends.

Both of us had been married before, so inevitably comparisons were made between our first weddings and this one. Lynne's was famous for achieving the highest bar private tab ever seen at the Newport Harbor Yacht Club. Mine featured Carl Ruggle's Exaltation, which we taught to the assembled masses, as well as a short and pretty tune by me entitled Marriage, played by my bandmates Bob Adams and Richard Crawford. I felt I had to do at least as much this time, so I precessed to the stage (above) to the finale of Stravinsky's Firebird, and I wrote the words and music to a tune, recorded here live during the ceremony, with laugh track, performed by Rachel Condry and Laura Bohn.

We find a soft place
of each other
it's just over there
so pretty
when you find it
a careful softness
just there  
each falls into
or, one becomes the other
the swapping of cares 
of life 
of happiness
on which each builds their life

Monday, June 14, 2010

Mordake CD released

The Mordake CD is released, available in so many places large and small, hot and cold and lukewarm, in corporeal form and forme noncorporeable. Amazon, iTunes, Arkivmusic, emusic, 24-7 Entertainment 7Digital Amazon MP3 Bell Mobility Full Track eMusic Gracenote Guvera Hot Topic / Shockhound iSound iTunes Music Store Lala Limewire A La Carte Limewire Subscription LiveWire / Groove Mobile MediaNet Digital mTraks MySpace Music Napster Omnifone Rhapsody SecuryCast Sprint Starzik Thumbplay Full Track Verizon Wireless Zune etc. 

If you love me, you will buy it.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The 10 days

And in this turn of the light from day to day, the days and the days following one to another, and in the darkness settling over us, we see a light. Into our rooms comes a soft suffusion of light, and we are happy, unseasonably happy, in the face of this, our certain death. We relax: a warming oil pouring in through that opening, that soft part of our skull, and we are an infant again, blissful and unaware, that soft part of our skull not yet complete, the vessels that are our bodies filled with a warming oil, these vessels that will pass away - no - shattering, and what we are, spilling out, cascading over the shards. A moment, this moment, of ecstasy, a loss of identity into greater whole, of the universe, of the void, an affirmation of life in the face of our death.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

No Such Thing as Silence

I just finished Kyle Gann's recent book on Cage's 4'33", a book which does a lovely job contextualizing this seminal work, detailing its appearance at an inflection point in the history of western art music, its place in Cage's personal journey as an artist, the philosophical backdrop which Cage (mis)interpreted, and Kyle's own experiences with the piece. It's lovely and highly recommended, especially for those who may not know Cage's work so well, have heard the jokes but want to get past them. Much of the material of the book I knew already quite intimately since I, like Kyle, composers of a certain age, grew up in the world that was framed by this work, in the world where one ran into Mr. Cage, his smile and his soft voice, here and there. We listened to his works, we read Silence and his other books, we wore out our Folkways vinyl of Indeterminacy: New Aspect of Form in Instrumental and Electronic Music, memorizing the stories and wishing our lives would someday produce stories as intriguing, and hoping that, when the time came where it was needed, we would find the strength to face down the world and hold to our convictions. (By the way, one of my favorites is the one about the customs officer and the cigarettes.)

It's interesting that, even though so much came out of the work - its legacy is well detailed in the book - that very little of the long sound-filled-silences that appeared in his pieces and culminated in the 4'33" are found in the works of others after it.  I remember sneaking off and playing Experiences No. 1 with Robert Erickson (this Robert) in my college days, over and over, counting out those seemingly long measures, thinking that this was something important, the pregnant expectation of where the next sound would occur. I guess that silence, like the prepared piano, seemed so Cagean that no one else could take it on without feeling plagiaristic, or maybe that four-thirty-three had put paid to it. Since we can all play the piece anytime, I'll end with another of Cage's prettier works, Sonta V:

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Apollonian Clockwork

Kyle Gann has discussed this book previously, but I finally got around to buying a copy, and, even though I'm only about a third of an inch in (plus a bit of skipping about), I have found in the book all the delights he and his commenters promised. I am an unrepentant disciple of Stravinsky, and I have always felt a kinship with the Dutch minimalists, but the book is loaded with insights, aphorisms and stories which should thrill anyone from any corner of the contentious N-gon which is the new music arena. The two authors are wonderful writers as well. In a section on the improvisational nature of Stravinsky's music, they liken it to a series of anecdotes linked together by a quick-witted speaker, and they in fact make an aside to tell an anecdote, parenthetically expounded:
In 1921 Diaghilev decided to make his contribution to the socializing of the arts. He rented the Gaieté Lyrique, a small theatre in the workers' district of Paris and managed - through publicity in the neighborhood - to attract the local residents into a theatre which put on mostly operettas. That succeeded nicely. After a few performances, the hall was filled with an entirely different audience from the mundane, chic people who usually attended the Ballets Russes. One evening the wealthy Misia Sert came to a performance. When she arrived at her box, she directed her binoculars into the crowded hall, saw no one well known - only unshaven faces - and said, surprised: `There's nobody here!'
But of more interest to us composers are the composerly essays, for the book is really a collection of such, which bring us to desire that more books about composers be written by more composers. Yes, Kyle, your new book is on my to-be-read shelf, unfortunately a linear foot or two in, so be patient.  It is such a joy to  see the compositional and life knowledge the two authors have accumulated brought to bear on the subject, and the fact that they themselves have had to deal with so many of the same issues, and were influenced in their own compositions and the way they perceive the music that preceded them by the choices that Igor made, adds so much to the cross-generational discussion between composers living and dead.

An example is their brilliant clarification of the prescient nature of the Stravinsky's work, the change-without-change that presages minimalism, the form that follows from the music, the collage cutting back and forth. I've always been aware of the things in some way, ever since hearing Petrushka as a teen, and it's clear that it has informed everything I do, but why was not until this that I really got it?
A thirteen-year-old is capable, while lying in bed ready for sleep, of playing the Schumann Piano Concerto (in A minor) on the record-player of his memory. During the second movement, he will probably fall asleep. If, ten years later, in another bedroom, he tries the same thing with the Stravinsky Concerto for Piano and Wind (`in A minor'), he will, at the very most, if he even gets that far, get stuck at the cadenza of the first movement; or worse, get trapped in a vicious circle of dove-tailing rhythms and snake-like motifs biting at their own tails.
This is in fact what I love in the music that I love. I now see that the piece I'm currently tidying up, my Walking along the Embarcadero past pier 7 and the flowers, owes much to my youthful inoculation with Stravinsky's music, which I didn't see so clearly before. And more revelations lie ahead.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

More on Chosen

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
I grew up in a religious family and, in my youth, longed for the kind of religious experience that would give me the certainty of faith that held my parents. They told me stories: once, when my sister was very ill and a blizzard raged outside, and they were sitting late at night in the living room, not knowing whether to brave the dangerous storm to drive to a doctor and risk all their lives in the process, the room was suffused with a warm and reassuring light, a presence that informed them clearly that all would be well, that they didn't have to worry. They both saw it, they both felt it, they both were sure that their daughter was safe and, as the morning came, my sister's fever broke and all was well. My mother, otherwise a very learned woman who knew Hebrew and Greek, who wrote books and plays, and who would talk to me of philosophy and her passion for feminism, also spoke in tongues, a charismatic babbling of nonsense syllables, an ecstatic experience, one of the gifts given to the apostles in Acts. As a young boy interested in mathematics, a world which I was beginning to look for certitude and intellectual comfort, I also knew of the work of Pascal who, even though a proponent of the Age of Reason, had sewn into his coat a detailed, irrational description of a moment in his life when he was absolutely certain of the truth of the Christian Faith. I couldn't shake the idea that this might be something necessary to survive in this world, an otherwise frightening place of chaos, illness, genocide, war, death, hunger and pain. But at the same time that I lusted after such an episode, I began also to fear it, seeing it as madness, a profound loss of my rational mind which was becoming more and more important to me. My friends in high school, who all sought their own quasi-religious experiences in hallucinogens and the attendant loss of identity, offered them to me, but by then, I could not let go. I felt I was already on the razor's edge between the bright light of sanity and the dark night of lunacy. Neither the faith of my parents or the home-grown sacred rites of my friends were able to convince me to take such a risk and I remained on the side of lucidity and reason, of sound and careful thinking. 

In 2005, a young woman in San Francisco was told by God to throw her three children into the Bay, which she did, undressing them and killing them all in a brief ritual after a day spent in San Francisco, sightseeing and eating hot dogs. I had seen the story in the paper, but had forgotten it among all the other news equally shocking. A few days after, I was riding my bicycle on the Embarcadero and came across an enormous pile of flowers and stuffed animals and notes and candles, damp from a soft evening mist off the water. I stopped and looked at it, not remembering why it was there until I looked up and saw the lamplights of pier 7 receding from where I stood into the dusk over the bay, a corridor of light to another world, and I remembered that this is where she sent her children through that corridor to the other world. I remembered that she had told the police that the children were with their Father, meaning not her boyfriend, their earthly father, but with their Father in Heaven. Later, as I read more about the case, I discovered her clear and childlike faith, e.g, her poignant request to the police psychologist that he take a letter up in a plane to her children in Heaven. Of course she was schizophrenic, with all the clinical signs of the disease appearing in her young adulthood, a typical time of onset. But, when someone reminded me of the story just last year during a discussion of Medea, the images of the pier and the lights and the unspeakable terror of the three young boys being killed by the mother came back to me and I began to wonder. How could she be so certain of God's voice? I had wanted that certainty of faith, I had been afraid of the consequences, like these. I knew of the Abraham and Isaac story too of course, which Christians happily accept as a instructive tale, how we should blindly accept the commandments of God, following His voice without question. We all know that we now live in a world where we focus daily on the terrible actions inspired by religious certitude. 

In writing the libretto, I have mixed her story and mine, accepting that she was in communication with God, that he told her to kill her children, that there is something compelling about her certainty. The piece is an opera, but not in any way a traditional one. The main characters are played by two dancers who dominate the action on stage. A singer is present who mostly takes her place in the orchestra, an ensemble centered around two pianos, who thunder out a music that ranges from dark and dense to the beautiful and serene. There is one actor as well, who moves through the dancers and presents much of the story plainly to the audience. There is no technology in this piece unlike many of my others. It is presented starkly and without adornment, a series of choices made and their consequences, great faith surrounded by our doubt.
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