The Still, Small Note (II)

Part I

Later, while an undergraduate, I discovered the music of Morton Feldman and Elliott Carter. The experiences described in the first part of this essay occurred over a period of about 18 months in the first half of the 1970s. The cultural moment embodied in these musical encounters now seems incredibly remote and as though they had happened yesterday. My memory is that I found them on my own, without direction from a teacher or a peer, though that is hard now to credit.

At any rate, I did find them, and the experience was galvanic. I found, in their very different musics, a fulfillment of the promise of the initial encounters with Satie, Cage, and Stockhausen. When I mention Feldman and Carter as my two favorite composers, and, more important, as the two composers with the most direct influence on my own music, people are puzzled. I understand this, as it puzzles me sometimes.

The first pieces of Feldman’s that I dug into were The viola in my life and False Relationships and the Extended Ending. What I found there was what I’ve found in all of the composer’s music I’ve heard—a strong sense of color and a keen awareness of how music works in time.

With Carter, it was the Piano Concerto and the seventh Etude from Eight Etudes and a Fantasy. In these pieces, and in Carter’s other music, I found the same strong sense of color I had heard in Feldman’s music and an awareness of how time passes that was just as keen as Feldman’s but expressed in a very different rhythmic environment.

What these pieces had in common for my ears at that time (and this is really the whole point of talking about the subject) was an insistence on the expressive power of single notes, repeated, sustained, or recurring.

Feldman’s music is replete with this emphasis on single, recurring notes. To a great extent, it is a central feature of his style. In False Relationships, the opening chord reverberates in waves over the course of the piece, with notes from the chord coming back at unpredictable times, as the instruments go their separate ways (the “false relationships” of the title). The viola in my life includes almost obsessive repetitions of chords and melodic fragments. These melodic fragments were to become the means the composer used to create the vast pieces of the late part of his career.

Carter’s seventh etude is the “one note” piece whose expressive structure comes from changes in color, dynamics, and attacks. The passage in the Piano Concerto that is relevant to this discussion is towards the end of the second movement. The orchestral strings play monolithic chords that get ever thicker, taking up more and more space. As the strings appropriate new notes, the space for the piano to move expressively in is gradually reduced, so that finally the piano is reduced to one note (the F natural above middle C, to be precise), surrounded by the string cloud. Further study of Carter revealed that he uses pitches in fixed registral positions (like the F in the piano) in many ways in almost all of his pieces since the Concerto.

All of this came to the surface in my music in the first piece I wrote after Feldman died.


The Still, Small Note (I)

(A great deal of my music over the last 18 years has been conceived out of a desire to explore the expressive possibilities of extremely limited amounts of material. To my mind, this dovetailed closely with an interest in exploring the relationship between sound and silence, and between stasis and change. In looking back over what now seems like a group of pieces, I can see where they came from (influences) and where I might be going as a composer. The following is the first of an as-yet-to-be-determined-number part essay on the subject.)

The most striking moment of a performance of Erik Satie’s Pages Mystique comes at the end of the second movement, “Vexations”. “Vexations” consists of 640 repetitions of a minute-and-a-half of tonally-ambiguous music and lasts about 18 hours. The roaring silence that followed the end of the movement at a performance I heard as a student was shattering and profoundly unsettling.

I’ve seen a good number of performances of John Cage’s 4’33”. As I described here, performances of this piece can vary in quality and effect:

If a performer camps up the beginning and ending of the movements, the effect is lessened, much as the effect is lessened in a performance of Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata if the important structural points aren’t articulated, for example. I’ve seen such a performance, and the piece is reduced to an undergraduate prank.
I got a copy of a DGG recording of a couple of the pieces in Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Aus den sieben Tagen (From the Seven Days) after having heard recordings of the composer’s Hymnen and Stimmung. The way the composer used electronics combined with instruments and voices was fascinating to me at the time, and I was also very interested in improvisation in both performance and in composition. Shortly afterwards I found the score to Aus den sieben Tagen and came across this piece (marked “for ensemble”):


play a sound
with the certainty
that you have an infinite amount of time and space

This piece is a great centered listening experience/exercise, even if you never play or hear of it.

Some of my first experiences in music outside of school and pick-up bands of various kinds involved these close encounters with Satie, Cage, and Stockhausen. Then came the music of Morton Feldman and Elliott Carter, which have been constants at the center of my musical life and thought ever since.


Keeping Score

I received the following press release from Kimberly Harding of the San Francisco Symphony:

I work with the San Francisco Symphony and wanted to let you know that its interactive Keeping Score web site just launched. The web site, www.keepingscore.org, is a companion piece to the San Francisco Symphony’s Keeping Score television series on PBS which explores the stories behind classical music; the series features works by Beethoven, Stravinsky and Copland.

The web site allows you to dig into the score, listen as musicians share their insights, and learn about the lives of the composers, music theory and keys. The site gives an understanding of classical music thru the dissection of a score and the examination of the history, personal lives, and politics that created the music. You have to play with it to get a true sense of the capabilities, but here are some highlights from the section on Beethoven’s Eroica:

Learn about key, themes and markup – as the Eroica Symphony score plays you can choose to show keys, themes and markup on the screen. A video of the San Francisco Symphony in concert plays in tandem while you explore the score.

Beethoven’s deafness story – two video clips of Dr. Goodhill, from Hope4Hearing Foundation, simulate what Beethoven heard as he was going deaf and describes Beethoven conducting the 9th Symphony after he was deaf. Also included is a musical excerpt of how the 9th Symphony possibly sounded to Beethoven.

Each composer’s section on the Keeping Score web site launches a week before the program featuring them airs on television (Beethoven is already up and running as Keeping Score begins airing on PBS stations nationwide next week).

I spent a little time surfing around the Beethoven portion of the site and found it fascinating and very informative. I'd love to see the same treatment given to recent pieces!



I've added the blog of composer and man-about-Boston Matthew Guerrieri to the blogroll. Check him out.

I was going to post an e-mail I got about a film on Beethoven's Ninth, but Jerry beat me to it.

Early voting (for the 7 Nov general election) is beginning in various parts of the US, so vote, dammit!


Per Nørgård, Bent Sørensen, Steve Reich

Review of pieces by Per Nørgård and Bent Sørensen.

David Schiff makes a strong case for Steve Reich. (h/t to Alex Ross for the link to the Reich site.)


Sir Paul and the BeeDude

Greg Stepanich of The Palm Beach Post on Sir Paul McCartney's "strange, mystical attachment to his inability to read music or notate it":

Go ahead and learn how to read and write music, Sir Paul. It won’t hurt your talent one little bit, and you might find you’ll get more inspiration from the simple act of putting the notes on paper. I promise you it’s happened before.

Pliable, of On An Overgrown Path, has some suggestions for Sir Paul and Sting regarding their recent efforts in "classical" music:

If Paul McCartney really wanted to put communication centre stage he could have underwritten a performance of a little known and deserving contemporary choral work (let's take Rudolf Mauersberger's sublime Dresden Requiem as an example) in London, he could have made sure the hall was full by promoting it in the media, and he could have persuaded his record company, EMI, to record and really market the results. That way new audiences would have experienced real creativity, conviction and communication. Meanwhile [Mr.] Sting could have put his efforts behind persuading (and funding) an online archive of the BBC's contemporary music riches similar to that hosted in Finland by YLE, and he could have persuaded some of his super-rich rock buddies to fund the first year's composer royalties to allow free downloading - now that would be breaking the mould.


Of Powers and Electricity

Greg Sandow finished reading Richard Powers' novel The Time of Our Singing this weekend and posts about it here. I finished it this weekend, too, and my take on Mr. Powers' view of the future of concert music is less pessimistic than Greg's.

There is no question that the novelist sees that the institutions of concert music have to be more expansive to survive in the future. I find hope in the book's ending for two reasons. I think the participatory "musicking" that occurs near the end to be a possible continuation of concert music rather than a replacement for it. Also, the way that time is treated in the book (I don't want to reveal too much to those who plan to read it) offers a strong hope for constant renewal, of both life and music.

I highly recommend The Time of Our Singing, as well as other Powers, especially The Gold-Bug Variations, which also treats of music and renewal.

* * * * *
I've not commented on the blog-for-all that has erupted in response to this badly-written (What in the name of Sears and Roebuck is a "supersonic" mixing board? Does it fly around the hall faster than the seed of sound or does make the sound emanate from speakers at a faster speed?) article about electronic enhancement of the acoustics in a hall in Berkeley, California.

The response was immediate, as was the response to the response. Before you could say "baffle", those most horrible epithets known to blogo sapiens musicalis were thrown about like "Nazi" and "Commie" at a political site: "postmodern" and "elitist".

Buried in the story itself was the important fact that artists that use the hall will have the option to employ the electronic enhancements or not. This should act as smelling salts to ease the vapors of some. Scott Speigelberg has the authoritative last word: It depends. Put it in a hall, let people who want to use it use it, and we'll see if it can be made to work.

Scott also wants some recommendations for science fiction books. Please reward him with some.

TSO: Shostakovich, Mozart

Miriam Burns makes her debut as Music Director of the Tallahassee (FL) Symphony. Review.


Workshop (VII)

I recently finished Spiral Geometries, for clarinet and alto saxophone. It's a chaconne/passacaglia on a four-note theme (or one-fourth as many variations on a 16-note theme, depending on how you hear it) and will sound like a significant departure to anyone who has heard any of the pieces I've done recently, including for John Boda: What stays with me II.

Next up, a percussion concerto for John Parks of Florida State. Also, the opera is working its way to the front burner.


Audience Building in North Carolina

Barbara Norton, writing in The Independent (Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill, NC), introduces the marketing and programming strategies of the Opera Company of North Carolina:

Its general director, Frank Grebowski, and artistic director, Robert Galbraith, are committed to bringing opera to the people by bringing people into opera. The OCNC's upcoming production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Don Giovanni gives us a glimpse of how the company plans to infuse new humanity and vitality into an art form that has been at risk of becoming the kind of empty shell that blights our cultural landscape.

(I don't know how long the link will be live. I'll see what I can do about keeping the text around if the link goes dead.)


The Joy of Sets

The page behind the "Pitch Class Set Identification" link on the list of resources on the sidebar seems to have disappeared, so I am replacing it with a new one. This one is run by Jay Tomlin. I've used it for a while and seems to work pretty well. As with any such page, don't take the results as gospel without verifying a couple of tests against Allen Forte's list.



I missed posting about Steve Reich's 70th birthday, which was on Tuesday. Or maybe I'm just a little out of phase.

My wife commented on Tuesday that it is kind of weird to notice that the composers we grew up with were getting to be pretty advanced in age. (We did most of our heavy Reich listening between '73 and '79 or so.) It beats the alternative, though.

My favorite Reich:

Come Out
It's Gonna Rain
Clapping Music
Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ


More Powers To You

Greg Sandow joins the list of music bloggers (Marc Geelhoed and yours truly) reading Richard Powers' The Time of Our Singing. Greg's post includes several quotes from the novel. They reminded me of this passage from Powers' The Gold-Bug Variations:

"The trick to listening," he said, lifting me by the hand, "is to hear the pieces speaking to one another. To treat each one as part of an enormous anatomy, still carrying the traces of everything that ever worked, seemed beautiful awhile, became too obvious, and had to be replaced. Music can only mean anything through other music." (p. 377)

The seeds of a way out of the shrinking audience problem, and the style wars that contribute to it, lie in the approach suggested in that quote.