Saturday, December 30, 2006

charming little ditty

Well, so much for that being the final post for 2006…


Anyway, not that I believe in aesthetics, or want to claim that beauty is the be-all and end-all of music, or that the value of art/entertainment is found through some kind of nonsensical list-making big-dick daftness, but… just have a listen to an ol’ YouTubified clip, and maybe I think it’s one of the prettiest things I’ve encountered in a while.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

what I learned from my students

I’m still in the middle of my ‘real’ writing, thus the paucity of entries of late, but I could hardly leave 2006 like that, so, due to popular demand (or singular demand anyway) I’ll let you in on what I learned from my students.

A lot of us have ‘played tag’ in the context of improvisation. It’s very simple, if you’re not playing, or you’re off stage, you can ‘tag’ a player out and take their place. A simple scheme for rotating players and a performer-centered way of altering orchestration.
I’ve encountered this being done between ‘pieces’ (i.e. the tagging takes place when the performers are not playing). I’ve also encountered tagging during the ‘piece,’ but in large scale, long-duration performances where the ‘frame’ boundaries (beginning and ending) were insignificant. Both these lead me to presume (without evidence, anecdotal or otherwise) that the changeover of players during a small scale, short-duration (less than 5 minutes) performances would be unworkably disruptive.
I’m glad, despite my protests, that the students (VT in particular, who was largely responsible for devising the scheme) stuck to their guns.
Well, not only does it turn out I was wrong about the disruptiveness of the scheme, but the results (‘disruptive’ or otherwise) have interesting/creative possibilities in regard to, for instance, ending, structuring, and in terms of thinking about responsibilities (or lack there of), and the consequences of actions.
I’ll return to some of these issues in the future, but I’ll leave this post by saying that the results of this scheme were really interesting from the point of view of the performers (those being tagged out, those coming in, and those unchanging), and from the point of view of the audience. Additionally, those habitual set of tactics I carry around with myself (and it’s only under these unfamiliar circumstances that you realize how much baggage you carry around) just didn’t work, or needed major re-engineering.

Friday, December 15, 2006

locating the music: past|present|future tense

Still being distracted from that ‘real’ writing I should be doing, but….

This started at surviving the crunch. Well, the entry ‘the past sure is tense’ had this interesting phrase:

At some point in antiquity music only existed in the present tense.
Which is what I queried about. Ted Reichman posted an entry as a reply, and here’s my own response (and some clarification of my short and vague original query).

I understand that TR was “making up these terms as [he] went along,” but sometimes hiding away in little slips like these are the stuff of our culture—how we think about, categorize, and order. It is the kind of thing that, on one occasion, I might say, and, on another occasion, I might question. I queried the statement not because I have any answers, but because it intersects with issues that I’m interested in. Furthermore, since we’ve been handed down a set of beliefs, frameworks and vocabularies to talk about music that might not be one hundred per cent applicable to a given musical practice (in improvised musics, for example), these may be issues that radically affect how we practice and discuss music.
Much musicological discourses, for instance, depend the ‘work’ concept, and values teleological structures. It strikes me, however, that performance, and improvisation in particular, can mess with our ‘normal’ notions of causality and temporality, and question (at the very least) the discrete, autonomous nature of the ‘work.’

I hope this is okay with TR, but I’m not going to reply directly to his entry, but instead use small sections of it as a bounce off point for examining some of these issues, and maybe clarifying (to myself) why I might have asked the question in the first place.
…Until people invented any forms of musical notation, recording etc. and thus became able to fix music, or at least an abstracted representation of music, into a durable physical form, if a specific piece of music, or even a way of making music, faded from the memory of every individual who ever knew it or heard it, poof, it was gone.
As a practicing improviser, I’m pretty sure TR doesn’t mean it in this way, but if we accept this at face value, we’re only a stone’s throw from saying what the very old edition of the Grove Dictionary said:
It [extemporization or improvisation] is… the primitive act of music-making…. Among all primitive peoples… musical composition consists of extemporization subsequently memorized, and the process can proceed no farther until some method of notation is devised to record the composer’s musical thoughts independently of his musical performance. [my emphasis]
entry on ‘extemporization or improvisation’ in Eric Blom ed. (1954), The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians 5th ed. vol. II, 1975 reprint, (London: MacMillan Press), p. 89.
I wonder if we’ve all been brainwashed here. As performers (and improvisers) do we want to accept these terms? Is improvisation a “primitive act”? Is the recording process the route towards progress/evolution?
Having said all this, I think TR articulates the core issue in the following statement:
We wouldn't be able to do this historical examination without the recorded evidence.
True, true, true, but the most basic recording device/technology in this case has nothing to do directly with those that we have been citing (audio recording and notation). The “applying [of] a set of contemporary ideas, canonizing, critiquing in hindsight” can be done with just two things: Memory and language (floating in a soup of society and culture).
…but I still remember the musical material of this concert (and so do John and Matt because we still talk about it)…
All of which is activated by memory and language (feeding-off of, and feeding-back on, society and culture). You are, in more than one sense, ‘re-experiencing it’ and ‘re-creating it.’ TR is in this case, perhaps, “applying a set of contemporary ideas, canonizing, critiquing in hindsight.”

some unanswered questions:

Am I asking if recording is constitutive or constructed?
Does ‘recorded’ music have “meta-existence”?
I am saying that it existed at that historical moment, and not at others, as molecules vibrating either in the air (active expression), or in peoples' brain cells (memory).
How about if I paraphrase this thus: All music (including ‘recorded’ music) exists at a historical moment as molecules vibrating either in the air, or in peoples’ brain cells.
…a piece of music has been fixed in a physical form that will outlive the people who performed and heard that piece of music, it exists in the past tense. Not that it _existed_, which assumes that at some point it ceased to exist, but that it's simultaneously existing NOW, in physical form, and THEN, in the act of composition (in the case of notation) or performance (in the case of recording).
Okay we need to extricate a couple of (interdependent) issues here.
1. What is “a piece of music”? Does this construction depend on the ‘work’—non-real-time, finite length, single author, autonomous—concept? Or can we define a ‘piece’ to encompass, say, improvised musics as well? In which case, is that redefinition of boundaries unproblematic? If it is problematic, what are the consequences of accepting this redefinition of boundaries?
2. What do we mean by the past and present tense? What are we assuming about causality?

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

engineering ritual: a curious case of the body in concert

I came across this interesting entry at Mixed Meters. The performance in question is by Debora Petrina—a self-identified ‘polymorphic artist.’ (Incidentally there’s an un-YouTubified version of the video in question on her site. YouTubified video.)
I’ve got no special insight into the specific whys or whats of Petrina’s performance, but what I find fascinating about this is the idea of self-consciously engineering the body and movement into the (concert) performance ritual.

Much of performance ritual gets handed down, and, perhaps in European Concert Music more than in any other tradition, without thought or critique. “Well, that’s how we’ve always done it”—never mind that, as anthropologists will tell you, such statements are (powerful) fiction. A stark example of this might be in acousmatiques in which the concert hall context and metaphor was accepted and (super-)imposed without, apparently, discussion or dissent.
I’m sympathetic to the idea that these rituals and context can (should?) be (re)examined, and the process of opening up these black boxes might reveal the unfamiliar, the unorthodox, and the complex (all good creative stuff).
I also find the self-conscious visibility of the body in this performance compelling—the body in motion as a site of creation, maybe. As discussed by Suzanne Cusick, European Concert Music has come to value the mind over the body, attempting to exorcise the body out of the Concert Hall:

The ideology of listening… strongly discourages physical engagement when listening. Even more, it discourages identification with the bodily work of performers. [my emphasis]
Cusick, 1999, p. 495.
Again, think of the ‘all ears,’ discorporate, mind-to-mind model embedded in much acousmatiques.
As each discouragement draws the listener’s identification away from the physical, it directs it towards the imaginative mastery of all possible combinations embodied by ‘the music itself’. Socially mobile, freed from physical work, seeming to encompass all possibilities in a unified whole… a sonic experience of the middle-class self.
Ibid., p. 495.
By making the body invisible, we’re positing a vanilla, mayonnaise, ‘universal’ human, but the result is, ironically, very much gender, race, class and culture specific.
I’ve briefly touched on the body in performance, and also on the hegemonic, European musical orthodoxy, so I won’t go into much more detail here other than to add that the West European Concert Music Tradition “is suspicious of the body, of real-time movement, and of the possibility of creation taking place during performance or reception.”

Okay let’s get a few things out of the way before I end up playing critic…. I have no idea if any of this is necessarily what Petrina is attempting to do, and there’s plenty of cool things about the performance. Additionally, I don’t know these Feldman scores at all. But this performance (at least this isolated sample) is interesting: It brings up issues that are significant to those of us who do want to (re)examine and (re)engineer performance rituals, and it also flags up potential pitfalls in trying to (re)introduce and (re)activate the body into these contexts.
Here’s what I find problematic about Petrina’s performance: The dance is basically auxiliary to the movement (sanctioned to be) necessary for the ‘music itself’—that which is “free of any verbal or dramatic association or explicit social function” (ibid., p. 493). I don’t mean that the whole should be unified or anything as silly as that. Nor do I have problems with juxtapositions and contrasts (hey, I’d use the word ‘dialectical’ if I knew what it meant). However the relationship between the ‘music itself’ and the performer remains largely uni-directional. In other words, the ‘music itself’ is allowed to dictate the parameters of movement (when and how much bodily movement is possible/practical) while the body remains servant and passive to the dictates of the ‘music itself’.
Ultimately it leaves intact the orthodoxy of European Concert Music; leaves unexamined the single-author, non-real-time, autonomous work. Rather than blowing open the Concert Hall ritual, rather than problematizing the score or the ‘music itself,’ it reinforces these elements (in a similar way to Cage’s 4'33") by allowing the corporeal infection to be carefully quarantined to those areas that do not affect performance practice or the ‘music itself.’

I wonder, in a sense, if it is no more or less transformative than the (gentle) irreverence of Victor Borge (I don’t mean that as an insult at all).

…Hey, but I could be wrong. (Boy, do I hate playing critic.)


Cusick, Suzanne (1999), ‘Gender, Musicology, and Feminism’ in Nicholas Cook and Mark Everist (eds) Rethinking Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press).


03–28–07: Add link to YouTube video.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

solo: writing about music is like…

Other things have conspired to keep me away from this blog (not least having to do some ‘real’ writing this month), but also one of those brick walls has hit on the blog as well….

Having, optimistically, kick-started this thread on the solo context, I thought I could separate the various elements—the various techniques and tactics—that I enroll when solo. I would talk about, say, the lexical model, the cyborg aspects, the pianistic transpositions in their own corresponding entries. Well, at least that was the scheme I proposed in that first entry.
Things, however, never work out quite how you expected, and as I tried to formulate these ideas in my head, they started unravelling. Or, more accurately, the opposite of unravelling—elements started to fuse together. Or, better yet, I realized that these discrete categories were a lazy dogma that I carried around without thinking about its unworkability.
I couldn’t figure out how to talk about one element without another infecting it. Couldn’t figure out how to maintain the ‘purity’ of the ideas (yet more blurry boundaries, but this time in regards to writing and thinking music). Thinking about pianistic transpositions, for instance, would intersect with notions of the vocabulary, which, in turn, seemed to be connected with the cyborg dialogs.

I will get back to this, but the process of writing about this might be a little bit more haphazard, a little bit tentative and aimless (hopefully in the best sense of the word), than I had initially sketched out.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

learn a few moves, and make up the rest

One chilly winter’s night, some years ago, in a city under the sea (well, almost), AMC (who appeared in these pages before) and I were walking from a salsa club run by one of AMC’s friends and colleagues.
“I don’t think I’m built for that. I mean—how do you do that?” I said, recalling of the movement of limbs and hips at the club. Neither of us know how to salsa, but via unplanned meanderings, detours and parenthetics, our conversation turns to another dance we are incapable of—the tango.
“Whenever I meet an Argentinian, someone from… Like C or E, I ask them if they can tango, and they say yes, and I just ask how? How do you do it? And they say it’s easy—just learn a few moves and make up the rest….”
AMC interjected, “but that’s the description of anything that’s really, really hard!” Adding, “think about improv. Think about how many classical musicians can’t improvise. I’ve met classical musicians—with beautiful, beautiful technique—but can’t improvise. And, all I can say is you learn a few things and make up the rest.”

Monday, December 04, 2006

playing in position pt. 7b: learning the geography (again)

Let’s continue where we left off last time:descending major scale patternthree corresponding hand shapesAs we’ve already covered, when you play in position all fingers behind the stopping finger should be touching the strings. So, for instance, in the case of the first three notes of pattern A the resulting fingers on the ’board should be finger 1 (C#), fingers 1+2 (D), and fingers 1+2+3+4 (E).
In line with our last excursion in learning the geography, let’s repeat the patterns going down, but this time following the major mode’s (A major’s, in this case) arrangement of intervals.exercise, descending, treble E stringContinue the process across the strings:exercise, descending, B and G stringsIncidentally, note how the three patterns that we marked A, B and C (and the corresponding hand shapes) recur. There’s nothing particularly magical about this, it’s simply a side effect of how a major mode is constructed, but it does make your life a little easier.
Now ascending:exercise, ascending, bass E and A stringsTry different scales/patterns, and, as with the last time, once you’re comfortable with this, fire up the metronome, vary the rhythms, articulation and phrasing, add a little swing, etc. Be creative.

By the way, in addition to making reasonable warm-ups (but only in moderation and in combination with other tasks), these exercises are also an effective tools for getting acquainted with new or non-standard tunings.

Friday, December 01, 2006

society-in-miniature: diplomacy

Group improvisation is much more (a performative, structuring) diplomacy (including the cyborg variety) than the ordering of truth. It is not so much about empathy (and thus speaking on behalf of ‘those without voices’), but creating a social environment in which no one can be voiceless.
Let me return again to the quote that I opened this blog with:

What happens is what happens; is what you have created; is what you have to work with.
Anthony Frost and Ralph Yarrow (1990), Improvisation in Drama (London: MacMillan), p. 2.
However much we may desire the world to be a certain way, however much we want others to be like us, to like us, and live like us (although without coming over our borders for fear of replacing us), we cannot do this without one party doing violence onto another.
…avoid the reflex of trying to make it into somthing you think it ought to be, rather than letting it become what it can be.
ibid. p. 3.
To improvise in a collective context requires you to understand your own desires, understand that others have autonomous desires, yet know that together we share the same space and time—the same resources. We all have to compromise. We need to understand that the results may not resemble anything that you, or anyone else, initially dreamed of. The resulting settlement may be inelegant, ugly, and may have to be renegotiated periodically. The result will probably be a place of conflict and mutual misunderstandings, but violence done by one against the other can nevertheless be minimized.
If this sounds negative, it’s maybe because we were all brought up with the Field of Dreams notion that we will, despite insurmountable barriers, overcome and achieve our desires. It’s a classic story. Unfortunately, some of those insurmountable barriers may be people and their own dreams and desires. Accept that particular story as just a fairly tale (enjoy it, or not, for what it is), and you will find that there are richer, more complex, confusing, contradictory stories to be experienced in its place.