Saturday, March 8, 2014

Almost-Greatness and Instrumental Inherence

By way of composer Eric Whitacre, I came across two articles on the Telegraph's musical section: Why Ravel is Almost a Great Composer and Is the Sound of the Saxophone Ugly?, both written by Ivan Hewitt, and both a little surprising in how problematically antiquated, uninteresting, and unsupported the premises and arguments are. Hewitt's articles would be a little cute and funny if they were attempts to replicate, for fun, the tones and perspectives of musical criticism from a century or two ago, with the intent that the views therein did not represent those of the author -- but, no: we are faced with sincere proposals, in 2014, on capital-g Greatness as a coherent and necessary qualitative standard (and something that can be made distinct from "almost-Greatness"), and the "inherent" properties of instruments.

Hewitt's article on Ravel suffers a little less (and causes us to suffer less, too) than the latter piece partly because there are few things more dull and headbanging than trying to turn intuitive sonic preference into a sustainable form of criticism; there's a possibility for dialogue within the topic of Greatness (even if the topic is more or less irrelevant to anyone aside from academicians with canonical concerns). But Hewitt stumbles into an intellectual mire through two big errors: turning biographical criticism into a paralleling musical criticism, and using words in a qualitative sense when there are no clear connections between the words and those qualities.

There is a popular attraction to using psychological assumptions or biographical details of composers as bolstering units for interpretations of these composers' work -- it feeds into a desire for connectedness, for relations, and it can be a way of asserting dominance over a person (as one might detect in writings that "balance" the perceived quality of Mozart's music with the claim that Mozart was forever a child) -- but such readings can take the strange shapes of kinds of hindsight biases, all the stranger when no confirmation has really taken place. Hewitt introduces a list of characterizations of Ravel's person, enumerated in a vaguely pitying tone, and then slips right into musical criticism, hoping that our subconscious biases of human behavior will put us on good terms with his psycho-aesthetic, correlative judgment. The wobbliness of this argument is blindingly apparent if one allows an alternative reading that blocks out those biographical details or the musical judgments that follow from them. What we are left with, in that case, is hardly a condemnation of any sort.

Past that, Hewitt has a strange attachment to Modernism -- to risk, danger, transgression, shocking novelty -- with which he associates creative success, at least when 19th/20th century composers are involved. It's an attachment that casts the entire article under the unflattering, ruddy light of early 20th century aesthetic criticism, when manifestos were sprouting up everywhere and sentencing anything that did not meet a quota of contemporaneousness, of a type of radicalism, to, if not damnation, at least a reduced existence or history. Hewitt never does explain what exactly a modern (Great) Ravel would be, and so again relies on the hope that our associations with "oldness" and "riskiness" will prompt us to mentally shake our heads and tsk tsk poor, stunted, anachronistic Ravel. Most subtly and importantly of all, we're never told what the problem with the proverbial mechanical birds is.

Reading Hewitt's article on the saxophone (and piano and harp) inspires that blessedly rare anxiety that comes from being assaulted by so much densely packed nonsense that one can hardly do more than attempt to rebuke it all at once via a gurgling scream. One large, tumescent problem underlines the whole article, and has already been mentioned: that the hyper-subjectivity of talking about the quality of instrumental sound itself rules out a future dialogue that can grow beyond "Nuh-uh!" and "Yuh-huh!" This is taste at its most basic and least interesting level, yet Hewitt insists on using it to construct (using, as it were, wet cardboard) a performative narrative and assign roles of suitability. Making it worse is his assertion that certain sounds can be categorized as "intrinsically beautiful" -- as if these are sounds that, were they to exist unto themselves, would carry a qualitative element (who are the people testing this out?) -- and that a "beautiful" sound is a thing separate from a "personal" sound (any guess as to what "personal" means is likely to be as good as another; Hewitt never says).

It would also seem that Hewitt carries a fear and/or disgust of being reminded that instruments are played by humans, as he implies when he says, "Of course there are players who make the most wonderful seductive creamy sound, like Johnny Hodges. But even with him you’re aware of the 'noise' element of the sound, the brute fact of breath passing down an airway, agitating a reed that‘s often remarkably reluctant to speak" (the metaphoric appeal of that last bit obscuring the fact that all instruments are remarkably reluctant to speak). In another part, we're fed the claim, "It’s the insinuating curves joining up Hodges’ notes that are so beautiful, rather than the sound itself." But what could this possibly mean? It's a sentence of empty specificity, counting on its vagueness to win; Hodges' notes would not exist were it not for the sound itself. Once more, Hewitt appears to refer to an ethereal zone of abstract shapes existing elsewhere, detached from the musculature of music.

Stopping here doesn't mean that this is where all critiques end. It only means that I've exhausted myself just trying to turn my mess of objections into things that can be written. Many immediate responses to Hewitt's articles will probably try to contend with them by offering statements opposite to the article' titles; but, in my opinion, trying to contend with an article that asks whether or not saxophones sound ugly by saying, "Saxophones can sound beautiful, and here are some reasons why!", or contending with another that declares that Ravel was almost-Great by saying, "Ravel was Great, and here are some reasons why!" are contentions best left alone, at least for a little while, because they play into the argumentative hands of articles whose pieces are much more ripe for critique than their headlines, and much more revealing of absurdities. Don't attack the top first -- pick at the foundations, and the rest will fall into itself.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Notes on Bach 2

J. S. Bach is the Greatest Composer of All Time, a maker of timeless music, we say, even though he died only a small handful of healthy lifetimes ago and even though he wasn't rediscovered until the 1800s -- and, some argue, not authentically rediscovered until the 1900s. What utility does the Greatest [x] of All Time designation have? And if the comment about rediscovery confuses: how embedded is the idea of posthumous appreciation in our modern conception of genius/greatness? We like the archaeology of Bach's music not just because it is interesting (it is interesting) but also because it romances a greatness that takes decades, centuries to be "properly appreciated."

Bestowing the designation of ultimate greatness upon any composer carries with it the thought that So-and-so (if I may use boring metaphor) swam the depths and hiked the heights of emotional-imaginative invocation and performative possibilities so thoroughly that all or most efforts since have fallen short. Regardless of the level of his craftwork, Bach lived in his time and was variously affected by the limits of that time. It is a mistake to say that because Bach so thoroughly explored the architecture of his musical language that he somehow charted the entire affective potential of music. Bach's music cannot specifically express whatever it is that Debussy's, Reich's, Metheny's, Coltrane's music so specifically express: it is bound to its own language and rhetoric, and the social and personal attachments which that language and rhetoric brings to each of our dispositions. To say that Bach takes us to the "pinnacle of joy" is a misdirected claim because it assumes that "joy" can be brought under a singular house. Yet there are species of joy, just as there are species of every other emotion.

If Bach is the greatest composer to have ever lived, what does that mean when it comes to the question of what (kind of) music could surpass or equal it? Would one need to continue Bach's compositional means and somehow improve upon them; and, if so, would one be able to escape accusations of anachronism, of all-pervading indebtedness, of non-genuine effort? Bach's musical language was particular, and it is important to remember that historians have marked the death of Bach as the end of the so-called baroque era and the start of the so-called classical era. This boundary-making does more than create categorical ease: it effectively shuts us off from Bach, makes him even more untouchable. The Master Passed Away, and with his death a spirited Greatness was relinquished unto the universe, its empty host committed to the Earth -- and thus was the temple built and its doors closed and its perimeters surrounded by the bowed heads of adulators. Of course, these constructs were posthumous, for Bach was unfashionable by the time of his death, and still only mostly known for his improvisational abilities.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Notes on Bach

Bach's music was seldom appreciated in his lifetime; and it seems an opinion of 20th/21st century musicologists that his pieces, even once they began to be posthumously performed, did not receive admiration in a manner relative to, as it were, an original performative character until arguably the late-19th/20th century. This topic interests me, because I think the popular consciousness often assumes that, based on his current standing, Bach was a contemporary star, or that, upon his death, the European world suddenly wept for its own ignorance and maltreatment of a treasure and inserted Bach into the musical canon. A weak, although doable, parallel to this in the visual arts may be the person and work of Leonardo da Vinci. Today, Leonardo stands upright among culture as a legend, yet when alive he completed very few projects (rather than his art, I think the more impressive legacy is his observational writings), and even fewer of those projects remain for us now. We understand Leonardo to be a legend because his personhood has been branded as such through a vox populi loop: he is "a legend because he is a legend." This is the real parallel between the two -- only, with Bach, the loop of legend-status erroneously folds back hundreds of years.

Bach was an anachronism in his own time. Although he was respected as an organ player, his music, an elaboration on the blending of North-European/German music & Italianate elements, was treated with condescension and hand-waving. After Bach died, his music lived on only through his sons and fringe musical groups or single persons with deviant taste. The most well-known of Bach's sons, C. P. E. Bach, did not play his father's music, outside of borrowing parts for a Mass. C. P. E. subscribed to the style of the day, and was critical of his father's material. As Glenn Gould put it, Rationalistic music took pleasure in the cadence, in termination. Bach's music was tirelessly unfolding and unresolved, too "irrational" and "complex" for the Age of Reason. Its time came upon the advent of the Romantic sentiment, one that prized the ineffable and the sublime. Exposure started with vocal music and motets; then, cantatas, Masses, and Passion music. Note, though, that Goethe was one of the first and few people in this period to try and come to terms with Bach's art in a way that did not judge it for not being "modern" -- even the so-called romantics tried to remove Bach's pieces from the astringent rigidity of the clavier, coupling them instead with the lush emotionality of strings and making "palatable" compositional adjustments.

As the 18th century came to a close, the bourgeoisie started to become the bearer of culture. Here, the citizen was the interpreter of their art, assuming the roles of the musician and singer. One such example would be the Berliner Singakademie, founded by Carl Friedrich Christian Fasch. This development illustrates music's evolution from an occasional and privatized existence to something that increases in dissemination. Looking at history, one notes that art of every kind detaches more and more from its marriage to religion. Bach's music was written as church music, and Bach was a dogmatic Lutheran, lending the angle that Bach's music was to be for the glory of God, and that Bach wished for this glory to be filtered through a Lutheran perspective. But the religious standards changed, and so too did the musical practices. Bach's music, in part, was passed down through amateur enthusiasts. Today, as far as church is concerned, Bach's music is performed in a variety of denominational settings. Past the religious housing, our most popular conception of Bach's music is as concert music, where it takes the shape of a secularized (and, in a way, museum-ified) music of the cultured.

To form a fuller picture of where Bach's music was taken, and to really substantiate my claim of others' claims re: the arrival of an "original performative character" in pieces' renderings/playings, more reading and thought on my part is required.
Until then, these notes (yes, brisk) are incomplete.

Thursday, May 23, 2013


Stephen Hemstritch-Johnston's greatest success on his album, Motorway (released under his alias, Fearofdark), is a breathtaking ability to make happy music that is profound. Very often, I think our go-to emotional or descriptive pairings for aesthetic depth lean toward the problematic, the furrowed brow, the shattered pane of glass; and while these reflexes and expressions are fine and admirable, it seems that types of luminous joy are underrepresented. In the most powerful of Motorway's pieces and moments, joy is made more joyful by a melancholic silver lining -- there is a narrative of transience (and what better medium for that than the most transient one of all?), and an understanding of the strange, unexpected joy that can develop out of one's understanding of what is temporary. Melodies at once sing out enthusiasm for their ability to simply be alive and also contemplate, welcome, as if with hot tears, their own tender, fading substances. And even with all that the music invents, it yearns for an expression, a state of unnamed happiness that's extra-unknown. Motorway is an album of sensucht. 

Motorway has become one of my favorite albums -- all categories be damned -- since its November, 2012 release, and has allowed me to develop a brand of relationship with it that I'm realizing is all too rare -- yet, all the more wonderful for it. If you haven't, check it out.

A quick look back at Vurgon

Vurgon’s tracks were mostly not written under the idea that such-and-such a piece would be alongside another. The idea did come up, but only near the end as I refined pieces that were basically complete, or close to being such. Selecting the tracks was a matter of finding the material I felt happiest with and which, when brought together, could create some sort of emotional arc. My method of composing tracks followed a fairly standard personal method. I usually start by figuring out a chordal pattern that interests me as an isolated form and as a thing ripe with developmental suggestions. I also tend to treat chords percussively, prioritizing rhythm and voicing over vertical movement (e.g., the nineteen-second mark in “Glaustarr”). I think that this a result both of my own physical limitations and a fondness for Steve Reich’s music. I treat these chords as a bed of implications that can be danced upon by a melody and additionally motored by a bassline. This produces a somewhat fractured effect, since I’m often conceiving of and applying elements in layers.

The mixture of my habit of keeping my hands close together when playing and my love of frictional, dense utterances leads to tone clusters and, sometimes, block chords. It’s almost as if I perceive the chord as a sort of fruit, and the relative closeness of notes is a way of squeezing out the ripest juice and fragrance. Tetrads, historically, have been the minimum for me. More recently, around the time I submitted Vurgon, I realized that frequent clustering may stifle ideas’ expressions, as a huddled voicing can degrade the touchier parts whose context needs finer definition; and also that it’s not right for every situation.

I never wrote any of Vurgon’s pieces with a general structure in mind, although I’m aware of patterns that developed. Composing was pretty much a matter of following each idea into the next and finally reaching that indefensible and temporary (as in, when I listen to the tracks now, I hear all sorts of new possibilities (a common thing among composers?)) point of exhaustion that constitutes the end. The bulk of the pieces have a modest motivic thrust. In “Vurgon”, for example, the melodic “head” that appears at the 1:28 mark continues to return in fragmented ways until its final, most crazed formation – which also includes the hilly motif from 30 seconds – at the 3:00 mark (and is thereafter, at 3:26, usurped by a strange newcomer that adopts and warps a couple of the preceding motivic traits).

Motivic compositions particularly interest me because they seem to bring me closer to perceiving the music as an aural character. By this I don’t mean that I hear such-and-such and have a mental image of a person or creature; rather, that I hear such-and-such and its characteristics contribute to a sense of a being’s, an entity’s presence and unfolding existence. I might also hear a piece of music and interpret it as a gathering of characters in conversation or in the flow of narrative. It’s hard to tell just what exactly produces these phenomena, though my guess is that it involves linguistic corollaries. Let me take this opportunity to say that Final Fantasy Tactics is one of my favorite videogame soundtracks.

As far as writing the melodies went, it was usually a case of improvising, making a false final decision, and then treating that decision as a base that I built off of through mental additions or humming. As a terrible musician, I’ve found humming/wordlessly singing very useful in writing music, especially when it comes to discrete accompaniment, as it’s a way of idealizing content and bypassing the technical constraints of performing on an instrument. Luckily, I’m a decent singer. The challenge upon getting an idea via humming is to hold onto it long enough to insert it into the actual piece (very tough when you’re out and an hour away from home!). Now and then, around, say, thirty-seconds’ worth of material – maybe broadly or exactly – would lay itself out in my head, and all I had to do was transcribe it and fill in the gaps that my head glossed over. This was, for example, how I developed the introductory melody in “Tuulu.”

I meant the idea for the cover art (thanks again to Jason) to be representative of Vurgon’s attributes and general ideas I have about instrumental music. Vurgon’s tracks strike me as having a rigidity to their architecture, and an often mysterious attitude; ergo, the odd façade. More generally, the cover appeals to my belief that instrumental music tells no tales – that it’s a language, a system of ideas, unto itself. In a sense, as Edward Said wrote, all music is really only about music. This is probably why it’s the hardest art form to write about. The cover’s façade is clearly the result of some sort of effort at aesthetic organization, but its window-mouths only offer blackness, the hint of a dark, spacious life within that awaits, yet resists, exploration.

Below are the pronunciations of the track titles, in case anyone was interested and/or having trouble saying them. The phonetics arose in accordance to what their own sound and surrounding sounds implied to me, so you could say that my method was a dribble-free adult version of “baby talk.” “Clankendrung” is a pretty explicable example, I think. That track felt the most metallic and hardy of the pieces, so I led with “clank” (an English onomatopoeia or noun designating a hard, metallic sound), and ended with “drung”, which to me feels like a submerged stressing of the words “drag” or “drug” (not proper past tense, but whatever), implying blunt power or labor. The “en” is a sort of medial connective tissue for rhythm, and also a fun little link to the German term, “Sturm un Drang.” “Mahanambulov” is harder to unpack and perhaps impossible to justify. The reduplication present in “mahanam” connotes to me extensiveness, tying into the spacier arena of the track, and the wide softness of the syllables therein bring out a touch of empathy and embryonic comfort. “Bulov”, for whatever reason, sounds like a circle to me, and – also for whatever reason – ”Mahanambulov” appears (if that is the right word) to me as a circular piece of music. Perhaps it’s the preponderance of that five-note pattern that embeds a cyclical, and then circular, notion.

Vurgon: Vur (R having a retroflex flap) gawn 

Glaustarr: Glau (AU sounding like the exclamation of pain “ow) star (R having an alveolar trill)

Fallaloopavan: Fah lah loo pah vahn 

Terevigliar: Tair (like the ripping action “tear”; R having a retroflex flap) uh vig lee ahr (R having a retroflex flap)

Tuulu: Too (T having a voiced dental fricative) loo 

Clankendrung: Clahn (like the first syllable in “Klondike”) ken droong (R having a retroflex flap)

Mahanambulov: Mah hah nahm byoo (like the first syllable of “beautiful”) lohv (like “loaves”, as in bread)

Friday, March 22, 2013

Misc. Notes for March, 2013

Some of Debussy's characteristics:

1) The predominance of suspended harmonies that he liked to lengthen
2) The resonance of seventh and ninth chords approached without preparation or left without consonant ending
3) A frequent use of the whole-tone scale and of its series of tritones
4) Frequent musical suspensions and appaggiaturas/ornamental notes
5) Avoided resolutions
6) Ambiguous modulations

Some of Messiaen's characteristics (also shared by Debussy):

1) The concept of pure sound in itself as an important creative element
2) The love for successive major ninths
3) A slow harmonic movement created by the use of the modes of limited transposition that produces a static effect
4) Asymmetrical phrase groupings
5) The use of silences
6) A love for poetry


Why is "convincing" such an oft-used complimentary term by listeners of concert (baroque, classical, romantic, etc.) music?


Interesting how the idea of nationalistic music has basically died out, or is now grouped with highly constrictive regimes. What form would unaggressive nationalistic (incompatible?) music take in the year 2013? What would it mean? And who would its composers be? Is John Adams' "On the Transmigration of Souls" a nationalistic piece of music?


A quote by Bartók: "I never created new theories in advance, I hated such ideas. I had, of course, a very definite feeling about certain directions to take, but at the time of the work I did not care about the designations which would apply to those directions or to their sources. This attitude does not mean that I composed without [...] set plans and without sufficient control. The plans were concerned with the spirit of the new work and with technical problems (for instance, formal structure involved by the spirit of the work), all more or less instinctively felt, but I never was concerned with general theories to be applied to the works I was going to write. Now that the greatest part of my work has already been written, certain general tendencies appear -- general formulas from which theories can be deduced. But even now I would prefer to try new ways and means instead of deducing theories."


If we accept the definition of instrumental music as "a class of non-verbal languages that use sound to produce narratives (compositions) that are indistinctly symbolic, and therefore do not reference specific material objects or actions," then how do we approach the idea of revulsion as the creative core in a piece of music? How do we benefit from "ugly" music? How do we understand a piece such as Penderecki's "Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima"?

Monday, February 25, 2013


A couple of my previous entries here have made mention of a slight desensitization towards music that I've experienced over the past few years. One of my hypotheses for this was that turning to composition has put me in a competitive dynamic, and that that lessons sensuality. A newer, and probably more obvious, hypothesis I want to propose for a cause of this desensitization is the ease with which I and most everyone else can access and listen to music now. We shouldn't forget that, for the majority of human history, music was a special event -- one that depended upon performers and listeners being physically proximate; and that, say, just two centuries years ago in Europe, it wouldn't have been out of the question to only hear a given piece once or twice in a lifetime. Put simply, if you wanted to hear music, you had to play an instrument/sing yourself, or be in the right place at the right time.

I've refused to use an MP3-playing device while on the go since moving to Boston in 2010. This is not an encouragement to do the same, or a sneering, ludditical sentiment, but an example of one way that I've attempted to control my intake of music; yet, despite this choice and having limited concert exposure, my intake feels surplussed. So I wonder if I'm not properly respecting my habit of focusing on a small range of subjects before moving on. That is: if I enjoy a song by an artist who's new to me, my traditional response is to narrow in on that piece and/or another by the same artist for days, rather than to go ahead and, say, listen to a whole album by said artist. Or if I like an album I'll narrow in on that album. And this tendency seems to have served me well. Making these aesthetic connections on a bit-by-bit level of progress is enjoyable. It gives me time. The idea of mass-accumulating so-and-so's oeuvre after having a good, novel listening experience could not be less appealing. In fact, a big reason why I dropped the website is because it's defined by a constant intake of various musical material.

If I've cited ease of access as a hypothetical, then the means of access should be cited, too. In fact, the sparks for this article were born when I attended a playing of Handel's Messiah late last November. What was surprising about this event was that it excited emotions in me that I've never felt in relation to the work, as familiar with it as I am. As I walked into the upper seating area of Boston's Symphony Hall, I felt that distinct heaviness in the chest and throat that precedes tears; something about the space's beauty, the audience's presence/density, and the real-time actualization of the music (with all of those acoustic particulars arising from composition, ensemble, skill-level, and interior building materials) disarmed me, making what was familiar impressive. On a smallish level, this occasion embodied what I mean when I espouse music's power to dissolve the listener, to make us both profoundly removed and involved. And I believe this effect can more ably arise with live music.

My hypothesis-within-a-hypothesis is that there're a connection between emotional profundity and the lack of control we have over live music. In the cases of MP3 players, phones, laptops, and so on, the control that's granted is close to, if not fully, absolute, and this may color participative experience on an unacknowledged (i.e., we are, or I am, not consciously having these thoughts) level. Live music denies us the option to rewind, or fast-forward, or to pause, or whatever, even as unused possibilities. Furthermore, the song is not, when visually consulted, a bar of literal duration accompanied by a title within a box; rather, the song is an unseen thing that arises out of the living efforts, the breathing intent, of living subjects, and is subject to an immovably constant self-destruction as each fresh moment buries the tones of the last. Today, I was near a classroom in my campus' music building, and heard a person practicing on what sounded like a tonbak; it was such a pleasure to observe that what might have simply distracted me in recorded form was endowed with an alluring vitality as a present fact.

What is this wonderful mystery of presentness?