Friday, November 18, 2005

writing electronic music for acoustic instruments

I have to say I thought Morton Feldman's 1971 Rothko Chapel was beautiful, though quite different from the limited about of Feldman that I'd heard before. I was especially struck by the fifth movement. One of the many things that I think make it such a successful piece is the way it combines tonal and post-tonal idioms, with the lyrical violin part on top of the vibraphone ostinato creating a rather shimmering tonal background against which the unresolved dissonance and dark texture of the lower and vocal parts rumbled. I say post-tonal rather than atonal because to my ear the dissonant lower parts owe more to electronic music than to any other atonal paradigm such as Schoenbergian or integral serialism. Specifically, the low drones reminds me of Gordon Mumma's 1965 composition The Dresden Interleaf 13 February 1945, written for the bombing of Dresden, which Kurt Vonnegut would immortalize three years later in his book Slaughter-House Five. Richard Taruskin identifies this trend of writing music for actual instruments using techniques from electronic music in his Oxford History of Western Music. Among the examples he uses to illustrate this trend is Ligeti's Atmospheres, in which Ligeti creats real-life analog to filtering white noise in electronic music by having an orchestra play every note in its range simultaneously and selectively "filtering" certain sections of the orchestra in the same way that one filters portions of the sound spectrum out of white noise. I find the the trend of mapping the compositional techniques of electronic music back on to acoustic instruments to be very rewarding. If any of you guys are familiar with the Mumma piece I mentioned, let me know what you think about my hypothesis, and what else you think about this trend in composition.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Usage note regarding 'banal'

ba·nal P Pronunciation Key (b-nl, bnl, b-näl)
Drearily commonplace and often predictable; trite: “Blunt language cannot hide a banal conception” (James Wolcott).
[French, from Old French, shared by tenants in a feudal jurisdiction, from ban, summons to military service, of Germanic origin. See bh-2 in Indo-European Roots.]
ba·nalize v.
ba·nally adv.

Usage Note: The pronunciation of banal is not settled among educated speakers of American English. Sixty years ago, H.W. Fowler recommended the pronunciation (bnl, rhyming with panel), but this pronunciation is now regarded as recondite by most Americans: it is preferred by only 2 percent of the Usage Panel. Other possibilities are (bnl, rhyming with anal), preferred by 38 percent of the Panel; (b-nl, rhyming with canal), preferred by 46 percent; and (b-nl, the last syllable rhyming with doll), preferred by 14 percent (this last pronunciation is more common in British English). Some Panelists admit to being so vexed by the problem that they tend to avoid the word in conversation. Speakers can perhaps take comfort in knowing that any one of the last three pronunciations will have the support of a substantial minority and that none of them is incorrect. When several pronunciations of a word are widely used, there is really no right or wrong one.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

[d] [a]

Clara Schuhmacher
1 November 2005

It is a curious phenomenon – this transformation of a composition into a named object that is no longer heard as a collection of notes and rests but is heard, rather, as a collection of connotations that often has little to do with the original raw material out of which it was composed. A transformation well-illustrated by Wagner’s epic Tristan und Isolde, if not by the entire work then at very least by the Prelude. It is difficult – or perhaps impossible, or perhaps even largely unnecessary – to isolate the moment at which such a transformation occurs, for the transformation is not merely a function of personal familiarity with the work. And yet, somewhere in the century since its 1865 premiere this composition of unresolved dissonance and, to borrow a term from Hanslick, ‘endless melodizing’, ceased to be a mere prelude and become the Tristan Prelude, capital T and capital P inclusive. The act of listening to the Prelude as mere music has become almost irrelevant, for it is no longer the ‘music’ as such that holds any quantifiable value. Is it not true that the music enthusiast and the scholar alike can no longer listen to the work without the burden of its history obscuring the notes with endless connotation?

And more curious still is how this transformation has rendered the piece virtually ignorable. It is almost counterintuitive – one would think that our claiming the work by Name would reinforce its presence within our attention. Instead, by reducing the prelude to a single non-descript phrase – the Tristan Prelude – we allow ourselves the luxury of ignoring any responsibility we may have originally had towards the music. We have here something of a paradox: the famous prelude is of such importance to the history of music that it has become common cultural currency, and yet this transformation has created an object that negates the very importance that motivated that original transformation. Wagner has created a monster – but the true monstrosity is that the listener has learned to tune it out. And thus so unengaged, we are left with a product that, in modern terms, almost seems to resemble – dare I say it – musak.

Well, perhaps not literally. To equate Wagner with elevator music and supermarket white noise is nothing if not blasphemous, and as an aspiring Student of Music I should be shot. Besides, such an equation precludes a compositional genius that even Wagner’s most ardent opponents could not deny. And yet, there is something in the self-indulgent elusiveness of the Prelude, something in our ability to listen to the work without actually listening to the music, that smacks of ambient background sound.

As those who people the future that Wagner invokes in his eight volumes of verbosity, we are charged with evaluating how his works have accomplished the absurd task of outbidding all other attempts at musical production for the title of ‘music of the future’. From our modernistic or perhaps post-modernistic slant the task is less absolutely absurd than it is relatively absurd – in our mess of current cultural fragmentation ensuring that one is a music of the present seems drastically more important that ensuring one’s posterity. But let us, for a moment, indulge the composer who is himself something of a cultural monster. Is Wagner the music of the future, or, as time would have it, the present? And if so, however did he manage?

The answer no longer lies in the music, as Wagner perhaps imagined it would, and his is not the only music of the present, as I am certain Wagner would have preferred. If Wagner is a music of the present, he is so only insofar as he is a music of the background of the present.

Do not be insulted, my dear friend – the genius that has rendered your Tristan Prelude so easy to ignore has, to complicate the paradox, secured you an irrefutable spot in the future you once claimed for yourself. And rest assured that you are in good company – do you not see, over there, Eric Satie with his musique d’ameublement, and next to him the equally musical Sigur Ros and Sander Kleinenberg and Noir Desir? I suppose, in the end, the discourse leaves us nowhere but with the age-old problem: what, and why, is music? A question we would prefer to not answer. And I cannot help but, with a tip of my proverbial Melvillian hat, exclaim, ‘Ah, Wagner! Ah, Humanity!”