Nathan's blog

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Three Cheers for a Career

Thesis: Careerism helps a composer write better music.

Argument: A careerist composer finds ways to promote themselves and their music. Through such promotion, their music gets performed more frequently. Hearing one's music performed is one of the best ways to learn and grow as a composer -- that is, to learn to write better music.

The argument could afford to be fleshed out more, especially the last sentence. And exactly what is meant by writing "better" music can be a huge point of contention. But, at its basic level logic is pretty sound.

So often "careerism" is thrown around as an negative thing, especially among composers. For example, a review (by Allen Gimbel of the American Record Guide) of a recording of John Corigliano's Circus Maximus and Gazebo Dances states, "[the Gazebo Dances] serve to remind us of this composer's youthful genius before careerist distractions set in." But what, exactly, is so distracting about careerism? I suppose if your idea of a career in composition is to get a professorship somewhere so you don't have to care whether your music gets played, then maybe this would detract from the quality of the music-making, but seriously, who does that?

There's also the notion of the careerist composer who writes works specifically designed for audience appeal rather than artistic merit, or who capitalizes on the success of an early work by churning out countless other works in imitation of that breakthrough work. And I suppose there are composers who work like that, though they will generally tell you they write only to satisfy themselves or some similar nonsense. But even in that case, if that is your musical goal, then certainly careerism will advance your goal.

But even if your goal is simply to write music that is the best expression of your artistic ideals that you can muster, a little careerism can go a long way. As long as you do not lose sight of your musical ideals, self-promotion can only help. Obviously it will help your career, and if you are dependent on your music to make a living, then this is a basic necessity. But it will also help your music, in the long run.

Now, the idea that hearing your music performed helps you to grow as a composer may be debated. Certainly there are counterexamples in the form of composers who wrote wonderful music without hearing much of it performed -- Ives and Scelsi both come to mind. To be fair, Ives and Scelsi have both had their share of detractors, decrying their music as amateurish, but I think each of them has left an enduring legacy of important works displaying a great deal of originality and creativity. Perhaps if your musical ideas are as revolutionary as theirs, you too can afford to languish in obscurity for most of your musical career (provided as well that you are independently wealthy, whether by virtue of your success as an insurance executive or your station in Italian nobility). But in general, learning to effectively channel your creative impulses into a finished composition takes a lifetime of work, and there is much to be learned from hearing your own work. Thus, a healthy dose of careerism will improve your musical output.

This is all well and good, but often I wish it were not so. I'm just not good at promoting myself, for a variety of reasons. In college, my preference for hanging out with the math nerds meant that I didn't form useful contacts among my fellow musicians, one of the first steps in building a network. My social anxiety makes it excruciatingly difficult to even send an email to an unfamiliar director, and working by phone is harder still. And for a long time -- even to this day, to a degree -- I clung to the idea that if my music was good enough, it would get out into the world without my having to work at it. As a result, my musical career has had a hard time getting off the ground, and what's more, my music has suffered. I don't mean to say that it has gotten worse -- I consider myself a better composer than I was five years ago -- but I haven't developed my skills as well as I might have. I'm trying to make improvements, both musically and professionally, but I have quite a way to go, and when I compare myself to other composers near my age, it often feels like I'll never catch up. Building a career won't be easy, but it will definitely be worth it.

Now Hear This: Two Chaconas

For the second time, I have had to change the name of my irregular blog posts featuring other people's music. I gave up on "Tuesday Feature" when it became clear that I wasn't able to stick to a Tuesday schedule, and adopted "Listen to This" in its place. Now Alex Ross, classical music critic for the New Yorker and author of The Rest is Noise, who I wrote about in my post about the MacArthur Fellowships, has released a second book, based on his writings for the New Yorker. The title of the book? Listen to This, of course. I heartily recommend the book to anyone interested in music in general, but I am shocked that Ross had the temerity to steal my title1. Nevertheless, I defer to his authority, and my features will hereupon be known as "Now Hear This" -- at least, until I change my mind.

Today's issue of "Now Hear This" is in fact inspired by Listen to This, specifically the second chapter, "Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues." In that chapter, Ross traces the lineage of a couple of musical patterns throughout history, drawing connections between Baroque madrigals, Bob Dylan, and many things in between. I frankly expected the chapter to be somewhat dry, but as usual, Ross finds ways to bring the material to life. I especially enjoyed his account of the chacona, so today you will get to hear two chaconas, each with a decidedly different character.

The chacona is a dance of Hispanic American origin, which enjoyed great popularity in Spain around 1600. It is in triple time, and has an emphasis on beat 2. It was said to be so catchy that the laws should ignore whatever mischief was caused by people dancing the chacona, for they surely could not help themselves. Juan Arañés (d. 1649) captured the spirit of the early chacona in "Un Sarao de la Chacona," and here Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI do a brilliant job of recapturing that spirit:

If the guitar introduction2 doesn't have you tapping your toes, well, there's not much I can do to help you. The infectious rhythms are taken up by the band and singers in turn, and the lyrics tell of an extravagant party, at which a vast and varied assortment of guests all show up to enjoy "la vida bona" and dance the chacona.

Then we jump ahead nearly 400 years, from the beginning of the 17th century to the end of the 20th. For a long time, composers have taken the repeated bass line of the chacona and turned it into a vehicle for melodic variation, abstracting the form from its terpsichorean origins. The most famous example of this practice is almost certainly the chaconne from J.S. Bach's second partita for solo violin, which is about as far removed from "la vida bona" as can be imagined, but that's not what I want to share with you today. Rather, our second chacona of the day is the second movement of John Adams' Violin Concerto, "Chaconne: Body Through Which the Dream Flows." Here, Gidon Kremer is the soloist, and Kent Nagano conducts the London Symphony Orchestra. The movement is over 11 minutes long, so it has been broken up into two videos:

The subtitle for this chaconne (the French spelling) is apt, as the effect is somewhat dreamlike, with amorphous rhythmic figures and searching melodies. And although it may bear no superficial resemblance to Arañés' chacona, the two pieces do share a bit of musical DNA. If we put the bass lines of "Un Sarao de la Chacona" and "Body Through Which the Dream Flows" side-by-side, we see that the latter bass line is in effect a simplification of the former:

Two Chacona bass lines

Here, certain notes in "Un Sarao de la Chacona" (the top line) have been highlighted to show how they relate to "Body Through Which the Dream Flows" on the bottom. "Un Sarao de la Chacona" is a lot more elaborate and rhythmically active, but they both stress a lot of the same pitches. This is no accident; Adams said that he examined a number of chaconne bass lines, and selected one that he felt was a sort of ur-chaconne, from which the others could be derived. Adams also said that at the time he was working on the concerto, he remained unaware of the connection of his ur-chaconne to a more famous bass line, that of Johann Pachelbel's Canon in D:

Pachelbel's Canon in D

Even if he had been aware of this connection, Adams' chaconne would hardly be a Pachelbel rip-off. The melodies and harmonies are far too abstracted, and even the bass line itself undergoes transformations which change the individual notes, but leave the overall shape intact. You may not be able to dance the chacona to "Body Through Which the Dream Flows," but it is a beautiful reinterpretation of a classic form.


1 Actually, I probably stole the title from Ross, even though my blog entries predate his book. The first essay from Listen to This, which is the source of the book's title, has been online for years, and it made a big impression on me when I first encountered it.

2 At least, I think it's a guitar. I may well be wrong.


Listen to This: Winds of Nagual

I've been writing a fair bit of music for concert band/wind ensemble lately, so I thought I'd delve into some more wind ensemble classics, the previous one being Karel Husa's Music for Prague 1968. Today I want to introduce you to Winds of Nagual, by Michael Colgrass.

Michael Colgrass composed Winds of Nagual in 1985 for the New England Conservatory Wind Ensemble. The work is based on the writings of anthropologist cum shaman Carlos Castaneda, and has seven programmatic movements:

  • "The Desert: Don Juan Emerges from the Mountains"
  • "Don Genaro Appears"
  • "Carlos Stares at the River and Becomes a Bubble"
  • "The Gait of Power"
  • "Asking Twilight for Calmness and Power"
  • "Don Juan Clowns for Carlos"
  • "Last Conversation and Farewell"

The improbable mysticism of its inspiration notwithstanding, Winds of Nagual is a fine work in its own right, and can easily enjoy it (as I do) without being familiar with Castaneda's writings (as I am not). The style of the music ranges from visceral primitivism, à la Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, to lush diatonicism. Here, the introduction, with its high Eb clarinet solo, is paired with the comparably stratospheric (for their respective registers) bassoon solo from the introduction to The Rite of Spring:

Winds of Nagual: Introduction
Rite of Spring: Introduction

Winds of Nagual, being largely programmatic, features a number of recurring motives to designate characters or settings. Further on in the opening movement, we are introduced to Carlos. The hesitant clarinet solo indicates his trepidation at meeting the sorcerer Don Juan, while the misterioso passage for alto flute which follows is labelled in the score as "Don Juan shows Carlos a new side of himself."

Carlos's Theme

Winds of Nagual also contains two of the most sensuous movements in the band literature, the twin meditations of "Carlos Stares at the River and Becomes a Bubble" and "Asking Twilight for Calmness and Power." Here I have included "Asking Twilight" in its entirety, along with the end of "Gait of Power," to give some context to "Asking Twilight" and further illustrate Stravinsky's influence. Also note the further transformations of Carlos's theme: the forceful brass chorale in "Gait of Power" (marked "Carlos exerts his will" in the score) and the saxophone and flugelhorn solos in "Asking Twilight."

Gait of Power/Asking Twilight for Calmness and Power

With "Don Juan Clowns for Carlos," Colgrass injects a bit of levity into this otherwise quite weighty work. Here, a folklike dance is turned on its ear:

Don Juan Clowns for Carlos

In "Last Conversation and Farewell," Colgrass nearly overstays his welcome. The diatonic harmonies cross the line from straightforwardly affective to overtly sentimental, and the music is rescued from schmaltz only by pushing past the breaking point:

Last Conversation and Farewell

While an excellent piece of music, Winds of Nagual is not without its flaws. In some ways, the strengths and weaknesses are two sides of the same coin: Colgrass occasionally goes too far with his diatonic harmonies, passing from lush to cloying. Similarly, I wish that the Stravinskian moments of the piece were less blatant, but I can't deny their effect. As a result, I don't think these issues would greatly affect the general audience reception. Nevertheless, Winds of Nagual, while fairly well established by reputation in the wind ensemble literature, is not that widely performed. One reason is its technical difficulty, which in my partly informed opinion (I have listened to Winds of Nagual with score in hand, but have never performed it) exceeds that of Music for Prague 1968. The other primary reason is its idiosyncratic instrumentation: 

  • 3 Flutes (doubling Piccolo and Alto Flute)
  • Eb Clarinet
  • 6 Bb Clarinets
  • Bb Bass Clarinet
  • Eb Contra-alto Clarinet
  • Bb Contrabass Clarinet
  • Contrabassoon
  • Soprano Saxophone
  • Alto Saxophone
  • 6 Trumpets (2 doubling Cornet)
  • Flugelhorn
  • 6 Horns
  • 6 Trombones
  • Euphonium (2 players)
  • Tuba (2 players)
  • String Bass
  • Celesta/Piano
  • Harp
  • Timpani
  • 5 Percussion

Compared to standard concert band instrumentation, we have no oboes, no standard bassoons, no low saxophones, more clarinet and brass parts than usual, and the presence of several unusual instruments (alto flute, contra-alto and contrabass clarinet, contrabassoon, flugelhorn, celeste). A wind ensemble must therefore have significant instrumental resources to attempt this piece. Despite these challenges, at least four wind ensembles at the university and conservatory level have recorded Winds of Nagual, so it should not be too difficult to find.

Recordings Cited:
Live from Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory Wind Ensemble, Frank Battisti conducting. Albany Records. (Winds of Nagual)
Favorite Stravinsky Ballets, Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwarz conducting. Delos. (Rite of Spring)


Listen to This: Darcy James Argue's Secret Society

Listen to This: Darcy James Argue's Secret Society

Today, I wish to draw your attention to composer, bandleader, and extraordinary gentleman Darcy James Argue. Argue and his 18-piece big band, dubbed the "Secret Society," received a lot of attention from the jazz press last year, centered on the release of their debut album, Infernal Machines. Infernal Machines has a lot to recommend itself to listeners: a tight ensemble, some great solos, and Argue's deft compositional pen. Argue has also been held up as a poster child for establishing a fan base through the internet; long before Infernal Machines came out, Argue was putting up live recordings of his gigs and posting insightful commentary about the New York jazz scene at his site. Throw in a positively ecumenical mix of musical influences ranging from contemporary big bands to indie rock groups to post-minimalist composers, and it's easy to see why so many media outlets are eager to brand Argue's Secret Society as the fresh new face of jazz.

This is all very well and good, but doesn't fully explain why I hold Argue in such high regard. No, I've been harboring a composer-crush on Argue because he's a great composer, great bandleader, savvy internet marketer, and a big ol' geek. He's an avid comic-book reader, taking inspiration for his ensemble from Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. He is unashamed about his enthusiasm for a marginalized and practically obsolete performance medium. And most notably, he turns these potentially stigmatizing attributes into virtues, calling his style "steampunk big band." And he really means it.

By "steampunk big band," I don't mean a big band that performs in Victorian attire with brass accessories, though Argue himself has been known to cut a dapper figure elsewhere. I mean that he has taken the steampunk conceit of using obsolete technology to achieve modernistic ends and applied it to the medium of the big band. In his music for Secret Society, Argue "evokes an alternate musical history in which the dance orchestras that ruled the Swing Era never went extinct, but remained a popular and vital part of the evolving musical landscape." To that end, he draws heavily on indie rock style and compositional practice. He cites as inspirations such bands as Animal Collective and Tortoise, and for the latter inclusion I should take notice simply as a matter of principle. (I should also listen to more Tortoise, as a matter of principle. I haven't heard much, but I like what I've heard.) Which is not to say that Secret Society is a glorified rock band; swinging hard and rocking out both come easily to the group. And if that's not enough, Argue also likes to build compositions around polyrhythmic and metametric techniques inspired by the likes of Steve Reich and the Bang on a Can composers. There's an awful lot going on in a steampunk big band, apparently.

But what does a steampunk big band sound like, you ask? Well, I don't have to try to explain, because Argue has been so generous with his recordings. As I said before, just about all of Secret Society's live performances have been archived online, and Argue's label, New Amsterdam Records, has been equally generous with Infernal Machines, allowing you to preview the entire album. I could easily get lost in the live performance archives, so let me walk you through the tracks on Infernal Machines:

  • Phobos: Argue has said that he made a point of starting the album off with something that didn't sound anything like a conventional big band, and drummer Jon Wikan's intro on digitally processed cajón is a far cry indeed from Count Basie or Glenn Miller. But in my opinion, the highlight of this track comes at the end. In the last three and a half minutes, as Mark Small's tenor sax solo dies down, the horns come in with a gorgeous harmonization of the opening melody, leading into an ending which would suffer from any attempts at explanation.
  • Zeno: This is one of those pieces that draws on the metametric techniques I mentioned earlier. Metametrics, to borrow a term from Dutch composer Samuel Vriezen, refers to the superposition or juxtaposition of rhythms suggesting multiple tempos. In this case, rhythmic subdivisions in 5/4, 12/8, and 6/4 all contend for dominance, creating an illusion of shifting downbeats which is perhaps meant to recall Zeno's paradoxes of motion.
  • Transit: This song hews most closely to the big band tradition -- it is in a straight-ahead 4/4 swing feel most of the way through, and the overall structure is recognizably similar to the standard head-solos-head structure of most jazz tunes. At the same time, Ingrid Jensen's flugelhorn solo illustrates a distinctive feature of Argue's compositions: the use of improvised solos as an integral part of the arc of the piece. In most big band jazz, the arc of the piece is concentrated entirely in the written sections, with the improvised solos standing apart from the continuity. But in "Transit," Jensen picks up the arc and carries it most of the way through. In some of the earlier live recordings, it sounds as though the soloists are unused to this concept, but on /Infernal Machines/, they are uniformly solid in this regard.
  • Redeye: If "Transit" is the most traditional big band composition, then "Redeye" is the closest to indie rock in sound and style. Sebastian Noelle's guitar is front and center almost the whole way through, while Argue engages in timbral explorations with the synthesizer and muted horns. The piece is in 7/4 throughout, but it's so seamless that you wouldn't know it without counting beats. "Redeye" also gets some of the most beautiful melodies on the disc.
  • Jacobin Club: Another piece in a slow 7/4, but that's all it has in common with "Redeye." While "Redeye" is hazily beautiful, "Jacobin Club" is sharp-edged and sinister. The piece opens with tenor saxophone, trombone, and bass clarinet in sinuous counterpoint, and Jon Wikan's snare drum is a menacing presence when the rest of the band comes in. Sam Sadigursky and Mike Fahie improvise a conspiratorial duet together, and the intensity builds up to what I can only presume to be Robespierre's execution.
  • Habeas Corpus: This is by far the darkest piece on the album. Dedicated to Maher Arar, a Canadian national who fell victim to the US's policy of extraordinary rendition, it ranges in mood from somber to desperate. Throbbing repeated notes in the band and James Hirschfeld's raw trombone solo anchor the piece.
  • Obsidian Flow: This is the other heavily metametric piece on the album. Here, the rhythms all center around different subdivisions of 9/8, splitting 9 eighth notes into 3+3+3 or 4+3+2, and occasionally pitting one of these rhythms against a straight 4/4 beat, with a stray beat throw in every other measure to keep things even. And I have no qualms whatsoever with Argue's bass trombone writing, especially prominent in the ending.

    So that's Infernal Machines, featuring Darcy James Argue's Secret Society. I hope you enjoyed the tracks, and if you did, I hope you will support Argue by purchasing the album. If you look at the performance archives, it is clear that Argue and the Secret Society easily have another album's worth of material ready, and I for one would like to hear their sophomore release. But Infernal Machines was an expensive venture for Argue, and it would take a lot of support to make a second album a reality. Another way to show your support is by seeing Secret Society live in concert. They play a lot of gigs in New York, but this Thursday they are making their Boston-area debut at Regattabar in Cambridge. I'll be there; will you?

Not Dead Yet

Apologies once again for the long silence. Fortunately, I'm doing much better than I was when I wrote my last post, both emotionally and musically. In fact, I am putting the finishing touches on a 15-minute work for concert band, tentatively titled Siren Fantasy. I started right around Thanksgiving, arrived at a double bar a few days ago, and will be editing like mad shortly. I hope to get it wrapped up by the end of the month, and if I'm lucky, get a performance by the end of the semester. After having made many abortive attempts at writing for band, I'm very excited to have this one under my belt.

But for now, I am too busy to savor that feeling. I have been gearing up for the MIT Mystery Hunt, which starts tomorrow, and today I have a lot of packing to do. Puzzles are perhaps my greatest vice, and the Mystery Hunt is a weekend-long all-you-can-solve buffet of 100 or more delightfully difficult puzzles, perfect for a junkie like me. My team, Just for the Halibut, is in no danger of winning -- rather fortunately, as the winning team must then write the next year's Hunt -- but we have a lot of fun nonetheless.

The puzzles at the Mystery Hunt run the gamut from crosswords to logic puzzles to trivia to everything in between, including a fair number of music-related puzzles. Most music puzzles are centered around pop song identification, which I leave to my teammates, but there have been a few puzzles that skewed more towards my areas of expertise:

  • Go Bye-Bye, Whinging Muchacha! is a neat little puzzle from 2002, the year before I started Hunting. It hinges on recognizing a particular thing, but that thing is reasonably well known in the classical music world. The answer to this puzzle is a single word.
  • Stairway to Heaven is a puzzle from 2003 which draws on a good deal of musical trivia. The final solution -- which is not a word but an object or image -- hinges on knowledge of the MIT campus, but the relevant information can be found from within this virtual tour.
  • Having Fun, from 2004, is the only jazz-themed puzzle that I can think of. I single-handedly nailed that one, making my team one of only three to get it. I will say that I found the clue phrase very frustrating and misleading -- at one point the organizers informed me that the last word of the clue should be "TITLE," instead of what was given -- but the two-word answer is certainly apropos for the title.
  • Concerto Delle Oche Volanti eluded me in 2005 -- I assumed the puzzle involved much more sophisticated musical knowledge than was actually required. I have an unfortunate tendency to overthink puzzles with simpler mechanics sometimes.

If I ever get to help write the Mystery Hunt, I have some ideas for music-related puzzles I'd like to try, but I have to show some restraint. While I could easily write a 12-tone composition which encodes the letters of the answer in the different row operations, I can't imagine that being fun to solve for most teams. But I have other tricks up my sleeve...

In any event, I should go finish packing. And don't be surprised if I wind up gushing about the Mystery Hunt sometime next week. And yes, I will try to write about music, too.

Drought and Depression

You may have noticed that I haven't posted anything in a while. There hasn't been much to talk about, unfortunately, as I've been in a creative dry spell for a while. I've been working at composing, but at the end of the day, very little that I come up with seems to be worth keeping. It's not a good situation for a composer to be in, but it's really a symptom of a larger problem: my chronic struggle with depression.

I bring this up not because I want to whine about it, but because I feel that depression is not often discussed seriously, particularly among creative artists. It's a very real problem for a lot of people, but societally it seems like we are encouraged to ignore that reality, or, if you are suffering from depression, to medicate until the problem goes away. For many, depression and other mental illnesses carry a stigma. And for artists...well, it's tricky.

Listen to This: The Same Sky

Today's feature is The Same Sky, by Carolyn Yarnell. I learned of this piece some 5 years ago via Kyle Gann's PostClassic blog, and heard it shortly thereafter on his sadly defunct PostClassic Radio stream. While The Same Sky gripped me when I heard it, it lamentably fell off my radar for some time. Recently I was reminded of the piece, and was thrilled to find a video of pianist Kathleen Supové performing it. It would be terribly selfish of me not to share my find with you, so here it is:

Kathleen Supové-THE SAME SKY by Carolyn Yarnell

While The Same Sky largely speaks for itself, I want to provide a bit of explanation. What you are hearing is not entirely Ms. Supové's piano playing. The piece is for piano and electronics -- some of the electronics consist of delays and other manipulations of the piano, while others are independent lines which are triggered by Supové's playing. The visual portion of the performance is being projected onto the open piano lid. It's a nice combination of elements, and I imagine that a live performance would be quite an immersive experience.

If this piece strikes your fancy, a recording can be found on Supové's CD Infusion, along with works by Marti Epstein, Elaine Kaplinsky, and Randall Woolf. An all-electronic version of The Same Sky also exists on Yarnell's own CD Sonic Vision, though Gann says that this alternate version lacks the punch of the piano+electronics.


The More You Toot, the More You Eat

Lately, I've gotten a little dissatisfied with my flute playing -- I have never intended for the flute to be my primary instrument, but I do perform several of my own compositions on flute, and occasionally other people's compositions as well. But recently, when hearing a much better flutist play a piece I didn't much care for, I realized that their tone quality was significantly better than mine. Their sound was clearer and more penetrating, and they had a much greater range of dynamics in all registers. It was like comparing a powerful laser to a cheap flashlight with dying batteries. I didn't care if my fingers couldn't keep up with theirs, but I sure wouldn't mind improving my sound.

After consulting with one of my flautist friends -- who now specializes in the baroque flute but still knows a thing or two about these newfangled metal monstrosities -- I acquired Trevor Wye's practice books for flute (I'm not linking to Wye's own site because he renders most of his text as images. So inaccessible it hurts!) and have started working my way through Book 1(Tone). This is actually the first time I've received any significant instruction -- written or oral -- on playing the flute. When I first decided to try my hand at my dad's old flute, he showed me where to put my fingers, but didn't remember much about the fingerings. I worked out fingerings (not always the ideal ones, it turns out) for the first couple octaves on my own, and just started playing around. A couple of times I have asked other flutists for help fingering a particular note, but aside from that I am completely self-taught on the flute. I am still going through Wye's exercises on my own, but just having those exercises in front of me is more guidance than I've ever had in the past.

So far, I think those exercises have been a great boon. I haven't been practicing a whole heck of a lot -- maybe an hour and a half per session, two or three times per week for the last couple weeks -- but already I'm hearing an improvement. My sound has a lot more presence in the lower and middle register, though the very bottom of my register is lagging. I also think I'm getting more of a consistent sound between different parts of my range. I haven't worked on the upper register just yet, and once my tone in the lower register is solid throughout I'd also like to start working on technique. Keeping my own music in mind, I have a few particular goals:

  1. Work up my tone to make "Morningsong" (from Three Blues Moods and Doina sound more polished. These pieces are not technically challenging for me, but in light of that I want to get a really good sound. I'd also like a better sound on "Moanin' Low" (also from Three Blues Moods), but the multiphonics respond much differently than ordinary flute playing, so I don't know if Wye can help me on that. But I think I'll be quite happy with how I sound on "Morningsong" and Doina in another week or two.
  2. Work up my technique to nail the two or three runs I always stumble over in "Mr. Monk," the third Blues Mood. I've never performed Three Blues Moods by myself because of the 5% (if that) of "Mr. Monk" that I can't quite hit. I've played "Moanin' Low" in concert since the flutists I've worked with couldn't play the multiphonics, but have usually left "Morningsong" and "Mr. Monk" in more technically competent hands. Which is also problematic, since most flutists can't swing to save their life, and step all over "Mr. Monk" as a result. Also, if I can get to this level of technical competence, then I could play some more interesting ornaments and elaborations in Doina. I don't know how quickly my technique will improve, but this goal is only just out of reach of my current abilities, so I hope it would only take a few weeks after I hit the first goal.
  3. Get my technique, upper register, and stamina up to the point where I can play Triple Point. While less than 5% of "Mr. Monk" is beyond my current abilities, and that 5% is only just beyond those abilities, more like 15-20% of Triple Point gives me problems, and I'm much further from surmounting those problems. This is not surprising, as "Mr. Monk" (along with the other Blues Moods) was written with my own flute-playing abilities in mind, while I did not want to limit myself so in Triple Point. There are more runs, and they are faster (but usually not in strict time, which ameliorates things somewhat). Triple Point spends much more time in the upper register; I would guess that 10-15% of Triple Point is higher than 98% of "Mr. Monk." And one of the highest of those notes -- a third-octave G# that is difficult for me to sustain at mezzo-forte when I am properly warmed up at the beginning of a session -- occurs 12 times, piannissimo, in the last 2 minutes of a 12-minute piece that has already been stretching my limits over the previous 10 minutes. I can fumble my way through those first 10 minutes and at least leave you with a good idea of what it would ideally sound like, but I can't come close to a credible rendition of those last 2 minutes. Given the magnitude of these challenges, I have no idea how long it would take me to reach this point, if ever. My optimistic guess would be 3-4 times as long as it takes for me to reach the second goal.

So I've got a lot of practice sessions on the flute ahead of me. And I need to keep practicing the bass trombone as well. I think two instruments concurrently is about my limit for serious practice, but I long ago accepted that the clarinet would take a back seat to the flute, which in turn would take a back seat to the trombone. But I'm making progress. So far, it's been due to actually doing long-tone exercises. I never really had the patience to practice long tones on the flute, and I probably wouldn't have gone about it in an intelligent manner without having some written exercises in front of me. It's probably obvious to anyone who has seriously practiced a wind instrument that long tones would help improve my tone quality, but I was always more interesting in noodling and composing on the flute than playing boring exercises. Now that I'm sufficiently motivated to play the boring stuff before I have fun, I'm seeing some improvement.

Additionally, these long-tone exercises are having an unexpected side effect. Playing long tones seems to make me hungry. Really hungry. I'll practice for 45 minutes or so and my stomach will increasingly voice its dissatisfaction while my blood sugar starts to drop. Then I say to myself, "Oh, it's the middle of the day; I should go have lunch." (Apparently I am fond of semicolons even when talking to myself; this is not too terribly surprising.) So I'll go and have lunch. And because I'm feeling so hungry, I'll usually have a pretty substantial lunch, like I did today: a thick slice of lasagna, a glass of milk, yogurt, and some trail mix. Then I'll go back to practicing. In another 45 minutes, I'll be hungry again. I'm not sure what's going on here. Sure, practicing takes physical effort, but I've never gotten this consistently hungry practicing the bass trombone, working on long tones or anything else. My best guess is that my body is upping its metabolic rate in response to the increased intake of oxygen, but this still doesn't explain why it doesn't happen when I practice the bass trombone, as the two instruments actually make quite similar demands on one's lungs. But if I keep practicing like this, I may wind up eating myself out of house and home. Let's hope I can make it through the winter.

Listen to This: Leeds United

Since I had trouble keeping a schedule of updating every Tuesday, I have decided to be less rigorous about when I post my feature articles. Of course, I can't call them "Tuesday features" anymore, at leat not without a certain amount of irony. Since I'd rather save that irony for something that really deserves it -- I have no idea what, so maybe it's more of a strategic irony reserve -- the (hopefully recurring) feature articles will now be called "Listen to This." So, listen to this:

That's "Leeds United," from Who Killed Amanda Palmer, the solo debut of Dresden Dolls singer Amanda Palmer. Everything I've heard from the album so far has been great, but "Leeds United" is what first got my attention. And actually, I nearly passed it over. The first time I saw someone post this video, I watched about 30 seconds, and thought "Meh, another stalker song." Besides which, the video was slow to load further, so I gave up on it. Maybe a week or so later, I heard about the flak Palmer had gotten from her record label about supposedly unflattering shots in the video. Sometimes I resist the urge to pay attention to something just because it's controversial, but reading others' reactions I got the impression that Roadrunner Records was trying to step on something good.

And it was good. Quite good. For starters, it's not just "another stalker song." Yeah, there's a stalker narrative, but it's more about the stalker's bitterness than the stalking itself. At least, I think so; I have trouble piecing together the lyrical throughline, particularly in the bridge. As an aside, I have generally been bad at parsing song lyrics, both in putting together the syllables to make words and in putting the words together to make ideas. So I generally don't dwell on the lyrics so much as the music. Thus, let me dwell on the music.

There's a lot for me to like about this music. One of the most obvious for me was the backing horn section, (first entering around 1:50) which may be my favorite since They Might Be Giants' "Museum of Idiots." I love the sound of the horns on this track, from their very first entrance. The horn parts are very much in line with the cabaret style of the song, but the sound itself is more like a college pep band, which adds to the raucous tone in the latter half. That may be a product of engineering and mixing, but the horn tracks were apparently recorded just as a demo that happened to make the final cut, so I don't know how much engineering was feasible in that situation.

The horn section is admittedly a quite conspicuous element on this tune, but there are a lot of tasty tidbits hiding in other places. Two things caught my ear almost at the same time in the refrain during the second verse ("Who needs love..." starting around 1:30). One is the voicing of the bass part. The chord changes in the refrain are pretty simple: Bb/Bb/F/Gmin, repeated. And the bass part conforms to this exactly, hitting the root of each chord on each downbeat with a pickup leading into it. But instead of just parking on Bb and then going up a step from F to G, the bass jumps all over the place:

Refrain from Leeds United

I especially like the third and fourth bars, as the bass jumps down nearly an octave rather than proceeding stepwise from F to G. This downward leap in place of an upward step in the bass is not a new invention; bass players have been using that gesture almost since they were let into the band, and it's not unusual to find whole pieces built around that motive. Nonetheless, it's an effective gesture here, one that gives this section a relaxed feel, setting it apart from the previous eight bars (which used the same chord changes but featured a stepwise ascent at the same point in the bass line) and making the entrance of the horns twelve bars later that much brasher.

The other thing that struck me during this refrain was part of Palmer's delivery. Not the notes she's singing, but rather the opposite: the breaths you can hear between notes (You can hear her breathing in several places throughout the song, but this is where I first noticed it). A classical singer would take great pains to hide her breathing, but Palmer's gasps are front and center. If she didn't want those breaths to be audible, they certainly could have gotten edited out, but they stayed in, and I think that was an excellent decision. Here, her frequent gasps -- every three or four notes, and it's not like they're particularly long notes -- highlight the desperation behind the speaker's denial. And, I have to admit, Palmer delivers the notes she sings quite splendidly as well. She claims to have been in "NO SHAPE to sing," (emphasis hers; scroll down past the first big group of pictures) and I can believe it, but I wouldn't want it any other way. She starts out as a smoky cabaret chanteuse and is practically screaming by the end, but it's so much more effective than a "properly" polished performance would have been. One of the many advantages singers in almost any pop genre have over classical is the infinitely wider range of "acceptable" vocal qualities. I don't mean that in the sense of "Bob Dylan can get away with sounding like Bob Dylan," but rather that it's perfectly normal -- and often desirable -- to sing roughly, to have more than one sound. Palmer gets a lot of different vocal colors on the other songs from her album, bringing more personality to those songs than any but the greatest opera singers can muster. Again, this is not unusual for singers of her ilk, but I am particularly fond of the colors she chose, even if she couldn't help it in this case. And I can't think of any other song that uses the singer's breathing to such effective ends off the top of my head (but "Runs in the Family" offers an interesting comparison; I think it's closer to indicating emotion rather than embodying it, but I do like it when Palmer's two parallel vocal tracks have breaths in different spots.

If I wanted to, I'm sure I could come up with an awful lot of things I think Palmer nails in "Leeds United," but I'm trying to cut down on the length of these posts. So let me just say that "Leeds United" has been running through my head an awful lot this week, and it rarely fails to bring a smile to my face. The fact that the video is a madcap rumpus doesn't hurt, either. And there's plenty to like in her other songs. "Astronaut" has a wonderfully varied accompaniment, ranging from ambient to driving to pointillistic. "Runs in the Family" scores major points with me for its Glassian touches, especially the ending. Presumably, some props go to producer Ben Folds on those tracks. "Guitar Hero" manages to seriously rock and haunt at the same time, and I'm quite taken with the melodic phrasing in "The Point of it All." A great album, and from a Boston artist to boot.

P.S.: Do you suppose "Guitar Hero" will make it into Rock Band? That'd be a good use of the irony I saved up at the beginning of this post. Given developer Harmonix's interest in local bands, I'd guess that the main thing keeping the Dresden Dolls out of their games has been the dearth of guitar-friendly songs. "Guitar Hero" is actually primarily synth-driven, with some guitar licks from East Bay Ray on top, but that's not such an obstacle for Harmonix, who have included songs by synthpop band Freezepop in all their games.

P.P.S.: There's one thing I forgot to mention in my previous post. Don't listen to Nancarrow while trying to solve crossword puzzles, sudoku, and the like. Sometimes I simply could not think straight enough to fill in the little boxes. Just so you know.

P.P.P.S.: I would also like to point out that the trombonists on the "Leeds United" video are rather brave for marching their horns through the midst of a food fight (3:50 to 4:00 -- it's a planned and presumably somewhat controlled food fight, but there are plenty of projectiles nonetheless) -- particularly the bass trombonist, (freeze it at 3:58) who has quite a nice instrument. I hope no trombones were harmed in the making of that video.

Overdue Notice

It has been far too long since I last posted. Basically, I was working on another Tuesday feature that was slated to appear back on November 4, but got caught up following the election returns. I do not deal with missed deadlines in a healthy manner, so it's taken me quite a while to suck it up and post. I do want to keep doing something like the Tuesday feature, but with a more flexible schedule. We'll see how that goes.

Posting here is not the only long overdue thing I've done recently. In the past week or so, I've also been patching up a couple of glaring gaps in my musical knowledge. For too long, the player piano studies of Conlon Nancarrow and George Russell's Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization have been on my radar, and I'm finally getting myself acquainted with them. How are those projects going? Well, I'm glad you asked.

Nancarrow's studies for player piano are one of the monolithic bodies of work in 20th-century music. Frustrated with the limitations of human performers and following a suggestion from Henry Cowell's New Musical Resources, Nancarrow purchased two player pianos and a machine for punching piano rolls and moved to Mexico City. There, he composed largely in isolation, and drew on the technical capabilities of the player piano to produce music of nearly unheard-of rhythmic and polyphonic complexity. Though Nancarrow received little recognition for his work through most of his lifetime, recordings in the 1970s brought his music to a wider audience, and other musicians realized the importance of his contributions. He was awarded a MacArthur "genius grant" in 1982, which enabled him to write new works for ensemble performance, but the player piano studies remain his most significant output.

I had known about Nancarrow's accomplishments for quite a while, and first encountered his music in 2001. I heard one of his early boogie-woogie-inspired works -- probably one of the movements of Study No. 3, but I don't remember precisely -- and I was astonished and overwhelmed by the sheer level of activity. It hit me pretty hard, but inexplicably I did not delve deeper into the studies. As my own compositional development progressed, I became more and more interested in exploring new rhythmic ideas. One of the most important ideas to come out of American classical music has been the use of rhythm, rather than harmony, as a primary organizational factor. I have gotten to be quite familiar with some of the most prominent sources of rhythmic innovation in American music -- jazz and rock and roll, minimalism, post-minimalism, and totalism -- but Nancarrow remained a glaring blind spot. So a few weeks ago, I finally acquired a recording of his music -- Other Minds' 4-CD rerelease of the 1750 Arch LP recordings from 1977.

Best Amazon gift card I ever spent. This music is nothing short of amazing. It's taken me over a week to get through all four CDs, as there's a limit to how much Nancarrow I can take in in one sitting, but that has been time well spent. His music has great appeal both viscerally and intellectually: it grabs you by the throat with torrents of scales and riffs, but while so held, you become aware of the many interrelationships between parts. At the same time, I find his music very personable: often, it sounds like something that I might pound out while noodling at the piano, if I had four extra hands and a commensurate increase in processor speed. I have to believe that Nancarrow was sometimes having a laugh as he wrote these studies; I can imagine him saying, "You think that was fast? Well, how about this!" The cartoonish absurdity of yet another tempo layer piled on top of an already turbulent maelstrom cannot have been lost on him, and he seems to have reveled in it. Just try listening to Study No. 29 without cracking a grin (or being driven crazy, I suppose):

Between the twittering sound effects and the precipitous acceleration in the last 30 seconds, it feels like the soundtrack to some bizarro Super Mario game. To me, anyway. I don't know if any of Nancarrow's ideas will insinuate themselves into my own music, but I'm grateful for his music all the same.

George Russell's Lydian Chromatic Concept is, for me, an exploration of a different sort. For all my years of training, my knowledge of contemporary music theory is not so great. I've never formally studied Schenker, Riemann, or Forte; I'm familiar with the basic ideas of each, but I don't think I could undertake an analysis of a composition through any of their means. Also, I don't need to know any of this theory to compose my music. Perhaps I will try to learn more about these subjects someday, but I don't feel any pressing need.

I do, however, feel a need to learn about the Lydian Chromatic Concept. While Schenker, Riemann, Forte, and others have certainly made important contributions to music theory, Russell's work has especial signifance, being perhaps the first codified theoretical framework to arise from the study of jazz, rather than predominantly European classical music. For that alone, the Lydian Chromatic Concept is vitally important if only for historical reasons. But it also seems to be vital for musical reasons; in a recent interview, composer and saxophonist Fred Ho called Russell the most innovative music theorist of the 20th century. With jazz being such a big influence on my own music, a theory of jazz, from jazz, and for jazz should practically be required reading. But somehow, the Lydian Chromatic Concept flew under my radar all through college and grad school; I'm pretty sure I had heard the name somewhere, but it didn't really stick. In fact, Russell's theory first really came to my attention when I was researching the musical history of the MacArthur fellowships -- I guess writing that article provided the spark for me to finally delve into both of the subjects of this current post. I had a friend check the Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization out from Harvard's music library for me, and have been dipping my toe in.

I haven't gotten very far in yet. I'm sure Russell has a lot of valuable insights, but the first couple of chapters are giving me pause. Specifically, he offers a number of specious arguments in support of the idea that the Lydian mode, rather than the major scale, should be the basic mode of tonal organization. To wit:

  • He cites as evidence the fact that the 11th overtone of a C fundamental is 551 cents above C, which is closer to F# (600 cents) than F (500 cents) in 12-tone equal temperament, while completely ignoring the fact that the 7th overtone, at 969 cents above C, is closest to Bb (1000 cents), which is in neither the major scale nor the Lydian mode -- and the 7th harmonic is significantly closer to Bb (31.2 cents) than the 11th harmonic is to F# (48.7 cents). But if you decide you want to hit both the 7th and 11th harmonics as closely as possible within equal temperament, you end up with the Lydian augmented scale (C-D-E-F#-G-A-Bb), which is one of my favorite modes to draw on, along with its close cousin the Mixolydian b13 (C-D-E-F-G-Ab-Bb). Later, Russell does include the Lydian augmented mode as one of the principal "chordmodes" relating to the Lydian chromatic system, but it seems disingenuous to hold up the 11th harmonic as evidence while conveniently forgetting about the 7th harmonic. But really, the 3rd harmonic (the interval of a fifth) is the important interval in establishing the importance of the Lydian mode, and I'd be happier if Russell had stuck with that.
  • He provides an "Interval tonic" justification for the prominence of the Lydian mode: all 12 chromatic intervals (or enharmonic equivalents thereof) occur as intervals above or below the tonic within the Lydian mode, while the major scale lacks a tritone above or below the tonic. Aside from the fact that early music theorists would consider the absence of the diabolus in musica above the tonic a feature, not a bug, there is another mode which encompasses all the chromatic intervals with respect to its tonic: the Locrian mode. I seriously doubt that you could find any music theorist willing to promulgate the Locrian mode as the fundamental basis for much of anything.
  • In discussing the duality (and therefore instability) between the vertical and horizontal aspects of the major scale, Russell writes, "The major scale is truly a diatonic scale, as "di" is the Latin prefix meaning two." But the word "diatonic" does not derive from "di-" at all; "dia-" is the prefix, meaning "across, through." Has Russell's editor not heard of a dictionary? The edition I'm reading was printing in 2001, 48 years after the Lydian Chromatic Concept's original publication; has no one in all that time pointed this inaccuracy out to Russell? Arguments based on etymology are nearly always specious to begin with, but it doesn't help one bit to get the etymology dead wrong.

But Russell's central argument for the primacy of the Lydian mode -- that the tonic of the Lydian mode lies at the bottom of the chain of fifths between its notes, while the tonic of the major scale is only the second-lowest note in the chain of fifths -- is sound, and would on its own provide sufficient justification for at least giving the theory firther consideration. More crucially, the central idea of the Lydian Chromatic Concept as a whole is not so much that the Lydian mode is the most important mode, but that jazz and other music may be analyzed as a progression of modes, rather than of chords, and that's an idea which I think is worth hearing out. I suspect it would do me some good to shake off my misgvings and read further; I have peeked at several pages later on in the book and it looks quite interesting. As with my plan to update this blog more frequently, we'll see how that goes.

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