Thursday, April 6, 2017

A follow-up (Post-Electronic)

So, in my last blog, I revealed that I'm moving away from electro-acoustic music, and I'm quite happy about the decision.  What, then comes next?
I do need to preface the next part of this monologue:  I actually like a lot of electro-acoustic music. I'm still enamored by lots of Manoury's music, and find that Répons (Boulez) is one of the most intriguing pieces of the later 20th century.  I've just lost patience with my own production efforts.

Charles Baker mentioned that Paul Lansky is also taking a similar route, moving towards acoustic works.  And, it has been noted that the late Gérard Grisey had done that quite some time ago. Actually, a lot of composers have done so!  But, all of them have take different routes, depending on their relationship to the medium.

There are a lot of composers who wrote a few electronic pieces and then returned to their other work. Jacob Druckman and Ron Perera certainly fall into this category.  For them, having created a significant contribution to the field (Druckman's Animus series of works, and Perera's textbook) seemed to, for the most part, quench their thirst for electronic timbres.  The bulk of their work since then has been largely unaffected by their work in the studio.  [Druckman's Valentine, which is a masterful of timbres and effects for solo bass, was written during the same time as the Animus pieces, exhibit an influence of electronic music, but the same cannot be said of the works of the 1970s.]

Then there is the case of Charles Wuorinen, who has produced two significant electronic works during his prolific career  (Time's Encomium and the tape part to Bamboula Squared).  In both works Charles viewed these as extensions of his own compositional practices rather than forays into new timbral horizons, although both pieces make use of some fantastic antiphonal effects.  The tape part for Bamboula Squared is now in a 4-track version (I actually re-synthesized it in csound).

I don't see myself as going on either of these routes.  What has always attracted me to electronic music was the new timbres, the spatial aspect, the bending of acoustical principles. Grisey (and others) discovered how to accomplish all of that without electronics. Listen to his Partiels, and you'll know what I'm talking about.  There are long passages where the timbres are comprised of multiple extended instruments, and you'll swear that there is a tape part for the work.  Okay, he 'cheats' by using an accordion (which has such an unusual color) and a Hammond organ, but still...

So, the big question: where to go next?  Incorporate or reject?

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Why I'm not writing Electro-Acoustic pieces (for now)

I'm quite happy to be writing music again these days. It's been a while, and it after a few false starts, I was able to produce the Concerto for Four, written for the Hartford Independent Chamber Orchestra. The piece will be performed in April, 2017, and I'm exhilarated.

Part of the reason of my joy was the ease of it all. You see, for the last number of years, I've been writing electro-acoustic pieces. That meant that a considerable amount of my compositional time would be dedicated to creating an Max patch: deciding upon the effects to be utilized, integrating them all into a single patch, tinkering with the settings until the results were to my liking. That last step was where I spend most of my time, often up to the dress rehearsal.

But for this piece, I finished my composing, edited the score and parts, and I was done. There was a bit of unease - shouldn't I be doing something right now? Isn't there something I should be worrying about?

Now, this is where it gets interesting. You see, the Concerto for Four will be performed in April, and hopefully afterwards as well. I may make some changes after the first performance, and that information will be entered into the Sibelius files. As with any composition, someone will request the score and parts, and they'll be printed out and sent off to wherever the performers are. I don't have to really do anything to the parts.

And here's why I'm backing away from Max pieces. When I get a request for an older Max piece, I most likely have to recompile the software. The OS changes frequently, which means that some features don't function any longer. And, since Max itself has changed, I now have to update a number of drivers and objects. Sometimes, I have to substitute new objects for old, discontinued objects, which means that I now have to re-write a number of settings. Hence, I'm back to tinkering - on a 'old' piece.

This is where it gets frustrating. You see, if someone asks me for, say, my Improvisations for Alto Flute, I'm quite confident that the Alto Flute has not changed much since I wrote the piece in the late 1980s. And, if it has changed (instruments are always being modified), the new flute would incorporate all the features of the old flute. That is, the 'new' alto flute would be able to play more (not less!) than the 'old' alto flute. In other words, I'd send off my piece to the flute player and it would be performed.

In short, the electro-acoustic pieces are never really 'finished'. There is always some work to be done, and it turns into an awful cycle. At least that has been my experience. For now, I'm going unplugged.

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...