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
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