31 December 2008

Chamber Music of Charles Ives: Authenticity Of, Necessity Of, Aberrancy Of

 Magee book

L   ong before his death in 1954, at 80, Charles Ives seemed less like the father of American music than an eccentric uncle whose antic behavior and uncensored opinions at birthdays and funerals conscript his relatives into manufacturing an endless series of apologies and disclaimers... During the past decade, the picture of Ives has metamorphosed from eccentric uncle into cagey impresario and entrepreneur, a process explained by Gayle Sherwood Magee in her aptly titled ‘Charles Ives Reconsidered’... Magee’s book is a model of contemporary musicology—sympathetically sober in its judgments and interdisciplinary in its methods… Ives may have experienced every sound he perceived and every emotion attendant upon those sounds … as music. If we imagine this differently-eared, alternatively-wired Ives, a lot of what critics have found problematic about his music and career falls away. He probably possessed an acute and unaccountable impulse to use sounds expressively. As he matured, he had to balance the need to acquire skills through musical education against the preservation of this impulse.”
  — David Schiff, review of Gayle Sherwood Magee’s Ives biography, ‘Charles Ives Reconsidered’, in The Nation 05-JAN-2009.
W   hy do I work in this way and get all upset over what just upsets other people? No one else seems to hear [the music] in the same way [that I do]. Are my ears on ‘wrong’?”
  — Charles Ives, response to violinists’ criticism of his Violin Sonata No. 1.
T he current issue of The Nation has a wonderful review by David Schiff, of the Charles Ives biography/musicological analysis by Gayle Sherwood Magee. Magee’s book is a delight. Schiff’s review is a delight as well.

 Gayle Sherwood Magee
A t its best, good criticism genuinely returns the [Foucault-ian/Adorno-ian] ‘gaze’ of the subject whose work is reviewed. Not content to merely be constructive in explaining or characterizing what the work is/was, the best criticism is deeply original in its own right. It is no way ‘derivative’ or predictable or fashionable, nor does it parasitize the reviewed work by way of using the review as an occasion to massage the egos of others.

F  ashion is fraud.”
  — CrimethInc, Recipes for Disaster.
 David Schiff
D avid Schiff’s essay is a wonderful example of excellence in criticism. He commends Gayle Sherwood Magee for her musicological scholarship and explains in detail the merits of her new book and the rationale for his judgment. These are not so much features of a distinctive authorly ‘voice’ but of an engaging authority—the friendly and well-tuned mind behind the voice.

W   hat has been lost [in journalism in recent years] is the authority of the critic - his/her strength of voice. In an age where every opinion is valid, there are no more great critics in the mould of Bernard Shaw, Tynan, and Toynbee.”
  — Mark Ryan, former Director, Institute of Ideas, London.
W   ell, only if you ignore the work of David Schiff, Arthur Danto, and quite a few others.”
  — DSM.
S chiff goes (in the last page of his essay) well beyond the idioms of ordinary ‘review’ or criticism to reflect on the problems of doing biography and biographical musicology, including the vagaries of elusive personalities—subjects who [deliberately, cagily] left fragmentary and conflictual evidence, as a means of manipulating their own legacies and public personae. He poses additional novel possibilities that might account for Ives’s unusual career(s) and compositional output—stimulated in part by David’s recollections of his own father’s idiosyncrasies. He suggests entirely new avenues for medico-musicological exploration. He does this casually, in a three-page review, with a conversational style that reads like a letter from a friend or a transcript of a conversation in your living room.

In other words, Schiff’s review starts out reading like an excellent-but-conventional piece of criticism but gradually takes on some of the qualities of a Borges short-story—with conjectures that may or may not be feasible to pursue but are nonetheless captivating in their intriguing ‘No rules! Question everything!’ possibilities.

Charles Ives, Piano Trio, ‘I. Moderato’
    [50-sec clip, Bekova Sisters, Ives, Piano Trio, ‘I. Moderato’, 1.2MB MP3]

Ives pallido ci dice di iniziare ‘ma deciso a non mollare’ ... Okay. We begin playing decisively but mezzopiano then, as instructed, and without ‘letting go’. Wow. What an amusing notation in the first bar!

Ives’s 4 violin sonatas (1908, 1910, 1913-?14, 1906-?16) and 3 piano sonatas (1905, 1909, ‘Concord’ 1915) are well-known. There are good recordings of them; the pieces are relatively often performed—more often in conservatory recitals maybe than other programs or concert series, but still... The San Francisco-based Ives Quartet and Blair String Quartet do regularly perform Ives’s string quartets, as do others. The Miró Quartet will perform Ives’s Quartet No.1 on Friday 23-JAN at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie in NYC...

T   he Second Quartet is Ives in his early maturity, written between 1911 and 1913. The perplexing and sudden conjunctions, conflations, revelations, quotations and miasmic cuts are all firmly evident. But the somewhat tersely romanticised opening doesn’t quite prepare one for the fulminous writing to come: unceasingly powerful chromaticism. Here the quotations abound in tense, often hallucinatory rapidity... The [Blairs’] playing is involved and involving and conveys Ives’s journey from late Romanticism to modernism with conviction.”
  —  Jonathan Woolf, Musicweb International, FEB-2007.
B ut Ives’s piano trio does not receive so much attention as it deserves.

A nd if your taste runs to the exotic or experimental, then there are other pieces of Ives’s chamber music that you may like to be aware of. Ives’s throw-down Fugues in B-flat and D; his bombastic Fugue in phrygian, hypolydian and dorian modes; his contemplative Largo for violin, clarinet and piano, for example.

O r his ‘Largo for piano quintet’, subtitled ‘Law of Diminishing Returns’? Quirky finance inspiration for an insurance-man-cum-composer! What the heck does that sound like, I wonder? Go to the Yale University library and check out a copy and find out! Or go to PeerMusic Classical who publish these unusual Largos Risolutos Nos. 1 & 2.

Charles Ives, Largo ‘Law of Diminishing Returns’ for Piano Quintet, 1908-9; M.S. at Yale Univ
I   ves in his last works finally regained his undiluted, uncompromised, uncontentious, and un-ironic compositional voice—the voice of innocence that he had left behind so long ago.”
  —  Gayle Sherwood Magee, Charles Ives Reconsidered, p. 162.
S chiff exposes impolite tastes, judgments and ideas for what they are. He lets the reader infer how unjust or ill-founded our received prejudices may be. In Schiff’s elegant 3-page essay, the indeterminate nature of Truth is laid a little barer than it has ever been, barer even than Magee has done. Without doubt, bare, original Truth is more beautiful than pretty verisimilitude. It is especially beautiful and surprising to find such beauty in a short review/criticism article in a publication for a general audience. Bravo!

M agee’s efforts to debunk the medicalization/psychiatrification of Ives’s emotions are praised and synopsized in Schiff’s essay. But [‘It takes one to know one’] composer Schiff goes still further in normalizing Ives’s experimentality within the diversity of mainstream-composer personalities. To Schiff, every last one of us has his/her own unique ears and inspirations and obsessions, each her/his own skills and gifts and blind-spots. Not one of us is exactly like Ives, Schiff says, but neither was Ives any more aberrant or less aberrant in the spectrum of humanity than any of the rest of us is, lest auld acquaintance be rudely forgot.

H appy New Year! Peace!

 Differently-eared Charles Ives, engulfed by coat, (c) Naxos
D   on’t pay too much attention to the sounds, for if you do you may miss the music.”
  —  George Ives, remarking to son Charles about the proper way to conduct hymns at a revival meeting.

 Different Ear, of Anyone, of Everyone


21 December 2008

Six-Mallet Marimba Technique, Sparkling Transcriptions

 Kai Stensgaard
M ore suggestions from readers of the previous CMT post about transcriptions… thank you! The Bach pieces transcribed for marimba, especially. Bach himself transcribed one of his cello suites for the lute, so we guess that gives encouragement to everyone to try her/his hand at it. Without doubt, Bach’s music transcribes well to marimba, although works by Pleyel and Albeníz and other composers do nicely, too.

Like harpsichord, the intimacy and timbre of marimba are in some ways more conducive to the ‘confessional’ Bach—more congenial to a posture of reverence or genuflection than piano is. Modern marimba has five full octaves, but I suppose you might wish that the high register of a marimba had more sparkle. Maybe the origin of such a wish is undervaluing the skill of the transcription and the artistry of the percussionist. Following the advice of an emailer, I listen to Kai Stensgaard. His six-mallet technique accommodates more complex contrapuntal writing than four-mallet could do. Kai’s work is wonderful. Speed is not a limiting factor per se, but it’s extremely difficult to play with 6-mallet polyphony completely relaxed, without fatigue. The tiny, highly personal deviations from perfect synchrony lend a shimmering, human aspect—revealing an aspect of our humanness as we ‘hit a wall’ in our attempts to synchronize events with a time resolution much below about 100 - 120 msec (mm = 400 - 600) [see Bruno Repp's paper here (500KB pdf) ]. It is still computationally difficult for virtual instrument software to emulate this biomechanics with believable realism… Kai’s technic is virtuosic—and the relaxed, earthly, biomechanics-constrained humanity of it is part of the beauty we hear in his performances. There are many other beautiful transcriptions and performances/performers, too.



[ Kai Stensgaard, marimba; Ramirez, ‘Missa Criolla—Gloria’, video 2008 ]



[ Kai Stensgaard, marimba; Albeniz, ‘Asturias Leyenda’, video 2008 ]

For sacred and classical compositions for marimba, you may also like to try Cambridge, Massachusetts based Thomas Oboe Lee’s pieces. For example, his ‘Prelúdios’:


    [50-sec clip, Thomas Oboe Lee, ‘Prelúdios’, Mvt. 1, 1.2MB MP3]


    [50-sec clip, Thomas Oboe Lee, ‘Prelúdios’, Mvt. 2, 1.2MB MP3]


    [50-sec clip, Thomas Oboe Lee, ‘Prelúdios’, Mvt. 3, 1.2MB MP3]


    [50-sec clip, Thomas Oboe Lee, ‘Prelúdios’, Mvt. 4, 1.2MB MP3]

Bach at Christmas. Warm fire in fireplace. Mulled cider. Friends and family visiting. Cheers!


    [50-sec clip, Ed Hartman, Bach, ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’, 1.2MB MP3]

 Kai Stensgaard


 Thomas Oboe Lee, Preludios page, AMC


20 December 2008

Matthusen: Biblical Imagination, Deep Play, and Theology in Chamber Music

 Mary & Gabriel, Annunciation

A  nd in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said, ‘Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.’ And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said unto her, ‘Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.’ Then said Mary unto the angel, ‘How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?’ ”
  — Luke 1:26-34, KJV.
I  t is a rather firmly patriarchal and relatively transcendental notion of Deity that sets the grisly logic of sacrifice in motion in the first place.”
  — Ivan Strenski, Professor of Religion, Univ California Riverside.
A s I was talking to a software engineer friend at work, he mentioned that the minister in his church had given an Advent sermon/homily about ‘emergence’. I confided that I was (am) skeptical about ‘innovation’ in the context of organized religious practice and theology. I averred that innovations/neologisms seem to me often to be a sign of predatory marketing, a pastor’s ego needs rampant, or even a sign of cultish heterodoxy and obfuscation. But, given that he and I both write code, I did recommend to him a couple of recent books on emergent architectures for software game design, especially massively multi-player online games. I suggested that he might read those and use them as comparators, to gauge the soundness and completeness of the ideas that his pastor had been putting forward. After all, if you are writing game software, the game gets played; the software either works or it doesn’t. You get to find out pretty quickly whether the features and behaviors that are supposed to be supported are real or vapor.

Other parts of our experience and belief-states are also amenable to good-hearted experimentation.

In that regard, I recently had the opportunity to hear some of Paula Matthusen’s electroacoustic compositions. Her works typically explore multi-vocality—multiple conflictual types of evidence; discrepancies in perceptions of space and timbre; the vagaries of imperfect memory; reconciliations between corroborating and discorroborating views; the evolution of who we understand ourselves to be; the real, imagined, and remembered changes that happen to us over the course of our lives; the impossibility of ever really controlling anything, even our own bodies.

For solo performer, live-electronics, quadraphonic sound, and eight mini-speakers, here is an MP3 clip from Matthusen’s ‘and believing in…’ meditation on Mary, on the occasion of the angel Gabriel visiting her, to tell her that she is to bear the baby Jesus:


    [50-sec clip, Paula Matthusen, ‘and believing in…’, 1.2MB MP3]


    [50-sec clip, Paula Matthusen, ‘rosenthaler’, 1.2MB MP3]

M atthusen’s ‘and believing in…’ composition was commissioned as part of the ‘Re-thinking Mary’ project led by Eve Beglarian and in collaboration with Corey Dargel, Joseph Hallman, & Joshua Palay at the Atlantic Center of the Arts.

Paula Matthusen, who currently resides in Brooklyn, is noted for her electroacoustic and acoustic music and multimedia sound-art installation pieces. She’s collaborated with choreographers and theater companies and has written for widely-imaginative and eclectic orchestrations … “run-on sentences of the pavement” for piano, ping-pong balls, and electronics, for examle. Her music has been performed by Alarm Will Sound, International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), orchest de ereprijs, Ballett Frankfurt, noranewdanceco, Kathryn Woodard, Diesel Lounge Boys, and Jody Redhage. Her work has been performed at Merkin Concert Hall, WAX, Judson Dance, Joyce SoHo, the Construction Company, Das TAT, the Aspen Music Festival, Bang on a Can Summer Institute of Music at MassMoCA, Aural Tick Festival, the Gaudeamus New Music Week, SEAMUS, NWEAMO, and the Florida Electroacoustic Music Festival, among others. She performs frequently with the electroacoustic duo ouisaudei, Groundwave New Music Collective, Object Collection, and recently winter company. Paula is the recipient of a Fulbright Grant, ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composers’ Award, First Prize in the Young Composers’ Meeting Composition Competition, and a MacCracken and Langley Ryan Fellowship. Matthusen has also held residencies at create@iEar at Rensselaer Polytechnic, STEIM, and the Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida. Matthusen did her doctoral studies at NYU and has recently joined the faculty of Florida International University in Miami, as Asst Prof of Music Technology and Composition.

Revelation 12 talks of the ‘sign of the woman’ ??

A    nd there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars: And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.”
  —  Revelation 12:1-2, KJV.
Pope Benedict (Ratzinger) in his recent book describes the Church’s biblical positioning of women (Gen 3:15), the so-called ‘Protoevangelium’ where, even as early as the Fall in the Garden of Eden, there is the promise of Christ “in chiaroscuro ... a promise to and through Woman” (p. 52). “Revelation is a way, [but] it does not speak its message until the whole is present.”

M atthusen begins with the proposition that there are experiences, both ones that are intentional and conscious as well as ‘revelatory’ ones that are happenstantial, unbidden and undeliberated. She projects herself into imagining Mary as a woman— as a woman who has a stream of experiences, experiences having ordinary intentional content; as a woman who has coherent notions of what those experiences are about. The content of Mary’s experiences is distinct from the experiences themselves: the content could exist or not, or could be true or not, regardless of whether her experiences occurred to her, regardless of whether or not she were alive to experience them.

And then the angel Gabriel appears, radically altering the fabric of reality, the coherence of it, the ‘aboutness’ of it. The musical gestures that Matthusen’s composition puts forward amount to an electroacoustic chamber music essay on the necessity of Mary’s experiences, both at the Annunciation and subsequently. It is a radical sort of ‘deep play’ that Matthusen engages in. ‘Deep play’ is a phrase coined more than 30 years ago by anthropologist Clifford Geertz—referring to a complex topography of perception and decision-making and belief; cultural loci where multiple levels of structure, explanation, and meaning interact and establish the regimes in which will, reason, and language operate. In objection to Brentano’s assertion that intentionality is the hallmark of human personhood and identity, Matthusen argues (in the music) that there are without doubt conscious, mental experiences which are not intentional. Zen-like transcendental receptiveness—this seems to be the state that Matthusen implies as characterizing Mary’s disposition toward the angel Gabriel and, later, toward Jesus after he is born.

A    nd I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel. Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.”
  —  Genesis 3:15-6, KJV.
For Matthusen, if Mary becomes a symbol of whatever is deemed to be the ‘highest’ or ‘best’ or ‘most commendable’ or ‘most womanly’ in a given culture, then she can become a symbol of almost anything. A symbol points to something other than itself; otherwise, it would be the thing signified rather than the symbol of it. The social ‘constructedness’ of the concept of Mary that the Church has transmitted to us is what Matthusen’s work tells us of; that and the necessity of our individually reaching our own understanding—informed by the Church, yes, but also influenced by our other happenstantial (and emergent), non-intentional experiences. Matthusen challenges us to consider critically the views we have received—challenges us to question whether Mary is a symbol of a facile determinism, legitimization of a monarchy, libertarianism, nonconformity, socialism, a force for civilizing humankind, repudiation of one’s own body, renouncing violence, etc.—or something else entirely. For Matthusen, not a ‘waiting for the immanent whole’ as Pope Benedict, anyhow.

 Matthusen True christianity vs. a politicized, relevance-chasing, charisma-obsessed ‘Christendom’ of secular convenience and instant dominion. True christianity vs. instrumental-Mary: the scary cooptation of Mary as an emblem, by a politicized socially-conservative faction that wishes to roll back liberal/progressive trends involving feminism, LGBT rights, women’s ordination, birth control, etc. The conservatives are pugnaciously confident that their Mary, the Mary that is so pwned by them, loathes all of that, so the more prominent this instrumental-Mary’s role in the Church, the better. Conservatives will not like Matthusen’s ‘and believing in…’ very much, I think. Not if they grasp what how it’s constructed and how it works…

A    nd it came to pass, as he spake these things, a certain woman of the company lifted up her voice, and said unto him, ‘Blessèd is the womb that bare thee, and the paps which thou hast sucked’. But he said, ‘Yea, rather, blessèd are they that hear the word of God, and keep it.’ ”
  —  Luke 11:27-8, KJV.
Ever since I was a kid it amazed me that the gospel of Luke doesn’t allow for the possibility of Mary’s refusing the angel Gabriel’s ‘request’. Luke doesn’t seem to consider that Mary is to be commended for choosing the ‘right’ decision. Cynthia Rigby has a nice essay on this in her recent book (link below). Rigby argues that considering Mary’s free will (or Luke’s lack of attention to it) amounts to regarding the relation between Mary and God as a merely instrumental or contractual one. She recommends that it is more productive to consider Mary’s cooperation in giving birth to Jesus as ‘kenotic’ [spontaneous, Zen-like ‘self-emptying’]. ‘Kenotic’: at least Rigby’s use of that fancy word has a few hundred years’ endorsement of theologians and scholars to recommend it, in contrast to this sketchy ‘emergence’.

So Paula Matthusen’s ‘and believing in…’ amounts to a reading of the biblical Mary from the perspective of literary and cultural criticism. It moves away from historical methods of exegesis—the traditional methods that aim at finding the one true meaning of the original actors in their original context. Paula’s contributions are a sort of literary and composerly criticism that engages with the texts as they have been handed down to us—concerned with cultural exegesis of social settings that have influenced the formation of ideas through history.

Joel Green, writing in the book edited by Cynthia Rigby and Beverly Gaventa, holds that Mary’s role—at least in the gospel of Luke and in the writings of Paul—is mostly that of an ‘accessible exemplar’, not just an exemplar of holiness but also an exemplar of discovering and maintaining good ways of thinking. Mary, according to Green, is an exemplar for ways of seeing the world and seeing “beyond the world, whose rhythms and patterns we take for granted; beyond to fresh ways of making sense of our lives, including especially our relation to God and our relationships with one another.”

W hat we have in Matthusen’s ‘and believing in…’ meditation is ‘Mary-as-emblem-of-narrative-theory’—discovering her story; a story that necessarily exhibits strange, surreal ways of the Divine: creatively, responsibly, defensibly generating her own (and, as we follow Paula Matthusen, generating our own) inner disposition towards reality and the Divine, whatever we conceive the Divine to be.

The woman offering the blessing in Luke 11:27-8 is disposed to ‘re-up’ with the patriarchal regime defining the place of woman in society in terms of relatedness to men and children. Jesus’s reply is often read as a rebuke or ‘correction’, but to some it’s more an addendum or poetic decoration than a stern corrective. I think Paul Matthusen would favor the latter interpretation...

A    nd all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.”
  —  Luke 2:18-9, KJV.
I am sure my friend’s faith can stand up to a few MMRPG ‘emergent programming’ books and some hard-core electroacoustic music by Matthusen. Indeed, it could be said that it must hold up against those.

 Kearns book

 Matthusen Resonance CD