Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Boulez Remains

As I write this, Pierre Boulez turns 90. The enfante terrible of new music is now the grand old figure. It's startling to realize that, of course, both for ourselves as well as for history itself. Not only has Boulez changed, aged, and matured, but so have we. There are many that will declare him out-dated,a remnant of earlier times. He is, after all, the sole significant survivor of the Darmstadt generation.

For too many of us, we first encounter Boulez as the creator of dense serial works such as the massive Structures, which is often quoted in music theory texts. It is, after all, a total serial work, and the opening of Book 1 is fairly easy to analyze from that perspective. Most students then proceed to "le marteau sans maître, which is notoriously difficult to analyze. And, that's where way too many students stop.

 For me, there are two works (I'll qualify that shortly) that continue to astound me. First, there is Éclat/Multiples, in particular, the Éclat section of the work. I first came across it as an undergraduate, and was immediately transfixed. The opening piano cadenza is a tour-de-force, yet this is not a piano concerto as the pianist eventually settles into the role of another member of the ensemble. But what follows is even more breath-taking: the passages at the center of the work when Boulez seems to stop time. Thus, we get a journey from the volcanic opening to the ever-still center, which eventually builds back up to the more strident Multiples portion of the work.

 In 1972, Boulez was asked by Tempo magazine to contribute to their issue memorializing Stravinsky. His submission was essentially a construction kit given the title explosante-fixe. At the time, it may have been perceived as a toss-off; why couldn't Boulez write a little piece like others had done? Yet, from so many accounts, this little set of instructions has provided the basis for most of Boulez' output from that time forward. From the fragments here, he was able to construct works like Messagesquisse, both Dérvies, Répons, Anthèmes 1 & 2, and, of course, the full version of ...explosante-fixe.... And, this is really what amazes me about Boulez: his ability to extend material, to develop large amounts of music from tiny ideas, and to do so with clarity and cohesiveness. One can also see this in the orchestral Notations, which are expansions of early piano works of the same name written 40 years prior. The piano works are miniatures, fleeting images, many lasting under a minute. Their orchestral counterparts are greatly expanded versions of these pieces, yet the relationships between the two are apparent on a casual listening. It's as if Boulez took his concept of chord multiplication and brought it forth on to the largest scales of a work. For me, that is the Boulez we should be praising.

 This year, Pierre Boulez turns 90. The enfante terrible of new music is now the grand old figure.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Older pieces on DAT

While preparing for my on-air interview this week, I realized that a LOT of my older pieces (from the 80s and 90s) are still on DAT. It was a decent format, but it's kind of annoying. For one thing, you need to constantly clean the heads of the DAT player, or else you get no sound. I don't mean that the sound is bad, I'm talking about dead silence.

And, that's where I'm at now: waiting for the head cleaner to arrive. DAT head cleaners are also annoying, since you can only use then a set number of times.

So, my goal is to get these early pieces off the DAT, and then not use the DAT player again...

Saturday, July 30, 2011

On-air interview this week!

On Wednesday (8/3), I'll be interviewed on WHUS from 2-3 PM. I'm not sure what direction the interview will take, but I will discuss the recording I'm working on.

Those of you in CT can listen at 91.7 FM, and the rest of you can hear it streaming at I'll see if there will be an archived version of the show.

More info to follow!

Thursday, July 21, 2011


Last post, I mentioned that was starting a new piece. I neglected to mention that I was also rewriting an older piece.

Okay, it's not that old- it is from 2009. I'm revising Mirrors from my "Interactive Piano" series. That piece was originally written for the Yamaha Disklavier, and now I'm reworking it for acoustic piano and Max/MSP, for Keith Kirchoff. At first, I thought it would be a simple revision.

Well, I've got a good pitch-to-MIDI converter, so that is not a big problem. Mirrors is based on the idea that e pianist plays a note, and Max processes it, usually returning a few notes. Sometimes Max plays a few notes, sometimes runs. A lot of it is based on analysis of incoming data.

Well, it has gotten complicated. Some of the patches that worked well with pure MIDI data don't work well here, so I'm rewriting those. I've got to rework the random generators as well.

Recently, it occurred to me that since I'm not trying to have Max play notes on a keyboard, I can make use of microtones. And that has opened up a whole new world.

To do: devise new sounds. Right now, I'm using a generic Karplus-Strong module to make struck string sounds, like a piano. That will come later, I think.

And to think - I haven't even tinkered with any of the notes yet!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Starting a new piece

Sometimes, I just hate starting a new piece.

For me, every piece evolves differently. Some pieces come out quickly, others gestate for a long time. I often write in spurts: bursts of activity followed by quieter periods. I'm okay with that.

But starting a piece is always difficult! There is always this time where the new piece is this amorphous blob, and I'm not able to bring it into focus. And that's where I'm at right now.

The piece in question is a new piece for piano, percussion, and electronics. Okay, I've written for those instruments before, in many different contexts. I've even written a piece for piano, percussion, and electronics, back in the 1980s. Serigraphs was written in 1986, and played at a new music festival at the time. There were some live electronics (programmed by Charlie Baker, since those were the days long before Max), and some tape as well.

Ever since then, I've wanted to write another piece for the combination. Heck, I've wanted to do that since I first heard Kontakte!

And, here I am, starting it. So far, I have a general outline, and am starting to jot down ideas. And, I'm starting to toy with Max objects. Writing for Max is a lot like writing for percussion: there are an endless supply of objects and techniques, so it can be daunting.

I'm sure this anxiety will pass in a week or so...

Sunday, June 19, 2011

On composer bios

You know, Kyle Gann is right: too many composer bios read like a resume.  Recently, I was at a concert in Hartford, and, amongst other pieces, saw a piece by an unknown composer.   Without getting into specifics, the composer's bio was simply a list of his accomplishments.  Mind you, some of these accomplishments were things of which anyone would be proud.  But, three paragraphs of this was just overkill.  And, some of the listings were a bit dubious.
But, that's besides the point.  I had hoped to learn something about the composer. Does he play an instrument?  Where was he born? Did he study with a well-known composer? These kind of things can be clues to a composer's temperament.  Saying that he (or she) is a percussionist, for instance, who studied with James Woods (not the actor!), would certainly say a great deal about the composer.  Looking at that, I might expect a composer who explores unconventional rhythms and textures.  Hearing that the composer is from NY might set up a different set of expectations than if she is from LA or Tokyo.  Of course, any artist my defy those expectations, but this kind of information would put them in some sort of context.

More to the point, these kind of bios don't give us an idea of what the composer's interests are.  Is he interested in jazz?  Does she incorporate her love of the majestic organ?  This is the first paragraph of my bio:

Composer Anthony Cornicello (born in Brooklyn, New York, 1964) writes music that blurs distinctions between performers and electronics, timbre and harmony, composition and improvisation, and explores the boundaries of what may be considered post-classical concert music.  His music is vibrant and visceral, full of rhythmic energy and harmonic sophistication, and his forays into live electronics have led to exciting combinations of instruments and processed sound.  Cornicello’s background as a jazz pianist is evident not only in the rhythmic activity of his music, but also in his constant investigation of the rich sonorities available from a variety of instruments.

Admittedly, I'm a little biased. But, I'd hope that this bio would give the reader a sense of my music, and pique their curiosity enough to actually listen to the music! After all, I'm trying to 'sell' my music, not my bio.

And, in case the reader is interested, the 'resume' stuff comes later in the bio statement.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Electric Mahabharata

As I'm typing this, I'm sending out the files, to CF Peters, for my piece "I'll Have an Electric Mahabharata, Please."  Yes, the piece with the truly wonky title is getting published by CF Peters.  I know I announced this on Facebook a month or so ago, but now I'm delivering the goods. 

Okay, this is a work for cello and electronics. You can hear it here - scroll down, and there's a link to the MP3 (and a PDF, which I'll need to remove soon).  All the electronics are real-time processing of the cello, and some of the sounds are quite elaborate.  The piece is normally done with a 4-channel sound system, so the sound swirls around the audience.

The title - comes from the idea that I had to turn the cello into a sitar.  Well, not literally.  If you look at a sitar, it has 6 (or 7) playable strings, and then around 15 sympathetic strings that give it its characteristic ringing sound.   I took the idea of the sympathetic strings and made that the basis for the electronic part.  I constructed a few virtual resonant strings and placed them in the electronic 'environment'; as the cellist plays, the sound is routed through those strings and a bunch of other effects.  There's even a computer 'cadenza', where one pluck is answered by hundreds of plucks generated by the computer.

Here's the only dilemma I have with the piece: I'm only able to produce a Mac OS version of the software.  Since I created it in 2003, it looks like some of the components are obsolete or were never transferred to the Windows version of Max.  I'm hoping to construct a Windows version, but I don't know how much time it will take - or if I'll eventually get it to work....