26 April 2011

Remembering Peter and Lorraine Lieberson: True Love as a Practice for Awakening the Heart

Peter & Lorraine, ©2006, Emil Miland

O    ihr Zärtlichen, tretet zuweilen
in den Atem, der euch nicht meint,
laßt ihn an eueren Wangen sich teilen,
hinter euch zittert er, wieder vereint.

O ihr Seligen, O ihr Heilen,
die ihr der Anfang der Herzen scheint.
Bogen der Pfeile und Ziele von Pfeilen,
ewiger glänzt euer Lächeln verweint.

Fürchtet euch nicht zu leiden, die Schwere,
gebt sie zurück an der Erde Gewicht;
schwer sind die Berge, schwer sind die Meere.

Selbst die als Kinder ihr pflanztet, die Bäume,
wurden zu schwer längst ; ihr trüget sie nicht.
Aber die Lüfte ... aber die Räume ...

[O you Tender Ones, you will walk, persisting
Through the cold breath that was not breathed for your sake,
Your heedless cheeks oblivious to its trembling.
Blowing as it does, the wind coalesces behind you after you've passed, without trace.

O Blessed Ones, healthy and whole though you be now,
Who seem to be enveloped and self-sufficient, the epitome of life and the heart's beginning.
Bows are there for each conceivable arrow and a target for all arrows:
Logical correlates of the perpetual brilliance of your pulsatile smile.

Fear not the pain and sorrow and stillness that will inevitably come,
Consign all of that back to the heavy Earth who knows good and well what to do with it:
Heavy are the mountains, heavy the seas.

Even as a child, you planted these trees:
Already they are awfully heavy, beyond belief really.
Despite this persists the pervasive space ... the ubiquitous breezes ...]”
  —  Rainer Maria Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus, VI.
P eter Lieberson died of sepsis, a complication of his lymphoma and treatment for lymphoma last Saturday, at age 64. Lieberson gratified our ears not only with composerly talent but with a humor and warm personality that do not require atmospheric ‘soft-focus’ photos like the one above to convey the inner gentleness.

P eter’s wife, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, died of breast cancer at age 52, in 2006. She was a mezzo-soprano, known for her dramatic power and raw virtuosity as well as her artistry performing Baroque era and new compositions. Her career path to becoming a singer was unconventional. Formerly a professional violist, Lieberson changed her full-time focus to singing when she was around 30 (1985 and beyond). As violist she played in the Orchestra of Emmanuel Music in Boston under conductor Craig Smith and later sang in the chorus. For a time, she was also principal viola in Berkeley Symphony.

I n re-listening to recordings I have of Peter’s later compositions, Lorraine’s influence on Peter’s soul and heart becomes evident… how she provided him with insights and renewal. This is an undeniable element in Peter’s writing after 1997. Lorraine’s influence is diaphoric, trans-illuminating—an emblem of spirit-in-matter. Must be why he fell in love with her… good reason why anyone would fall in love with anyone.

    [50-sec clip, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson & Peter Serkin, Peter Lieberson, ‘Rilke Songs’, ‘O, ihr Zärtlichen’, 1.6MB MP3]

L ieberson was expert at syllabic setting and pitch repetition: the vocal part centers on particular notes for considerable proportions of passages. These songs are predominantly recitative. They have suspended accompaniment and rubato manifestations of the singing part.

W   hen I was growing up, my mother, whose first language was German, would often quote lines from Rilke. I have been drawn to his poetry ever since. Rilke evokes feelings, states of being that are at the edge of awareness, mysterious but close to the heart. One can’t always understand exactly what he means. I believe this is a deliberate elusiveness in order to provoke our intuition. The Rilke Songs were written for my wife, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. I think of them as love songs even though the poems themselves are not overtly about love. They are about being childlike and open in ‘O ihr Zärtlichen’; in ‘Atmen, du unsichtbares Gedicht!,’ they are about the breath being a complete exchange between our own essence and the universe. They are about how the breath seems to go out into space like our wandering son; the mysterious way in which we might transform ourselves: ‘If drinking is bitter, turn yourself into wine’ (‘Stiller Freund’). To me these Rilkean insights are a gift of love..”
  —  Peter Lieberson, program notes.
K atherine Kelton maintains that Peter Lieberson “learned about the complexity of the human voice and the multitude of intricacies of which it is capable” through Lorraine. “Much as Robert Schumann’s love for Clara Wieck inspired him to compose in a genre he had previously disregarded,” so too Lorraine propelled Peter in directions that were, up to then, unfamiliar.

M aybe this is so; maybe a ‘push’ theory is right.

B ut it is also possible (and, I think, more likely) that it was a matter of ‘pull’, of natural attraction. In fact, it is hardly plausible that the diverse nuances of the voice could have been novel for Peter in 1997. If anything, his many years leading Shambhala sessions led him to develop acute sensitivity to myriad manifestations of ego/self and selflessness. And there was Lorraine, an eager collaborator, able to animate a composition so as to lead to discoveries for both, on the part of both.

L orraine’s performances of Peter’s compositions evoke what Mircea Eliade once called ‘dialectique du sacre’ and ‘hierophanies’. Sacred portrayal is realized as an individual creative act—one that embodies both spiritual insight and sensual perception. The relationship ceases to be merely ‘of-the-world’. It achieves transcendence, a dimension of sacredness. That, I believe, is what we hear in these wonderful recordings. The feeling conveyed is one of consummate ‘hereness’, ‘thisness’—a kind of presence, of living entirely in the present.

I    think of my Rilke Songs as love songs even though they are not overtly about love. They are, for example, about being child-like and open, as in “O ihr Zärtlichen;” about the breath being a complete exchange of our own essence with the universe in “Atmen, du unsichtbares Gedicht;” about the mysterious ways in which we might transform ourselves in “Stiller Freund” . . . To me, these Rilkean insights are gifts of love.”
  — Peter Lieberson, program notes to ‘Rilke Songs’.
T   he act of singing... when my voice is feeling free and soaring... it is a wonderful, healing experience.”
  — Lorraine Hunt, interview with Terry Gross, NPR, 1996.
T    he spelling sgra bla (‘la of sound’) found in the ancient texts as a matter of fact is based on a very deep principle characteristic of the most authentic Bön tradition. Sound, albeit not visible, can be perceived through the sense of hearing and used as a means of communication, and is in fact linked to the cha (the individual’s positive force, the base of prosperity), wang tang (ascendancy-capacity), and all the other aspects of a person’s energy, aspects that are directly related with the protective deities and entities that every person has from birth. Moreover, sound is considered the foremost connection between the individual himself and his la.”
  —  Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, Drung De’u and Bön, translated by Adriano Clemente, Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1995, p. 61.
T o me, Peter Lieberson’s later compositions embody Shambhala texts that reveal and test our relationship to the “material world” and our sense perceptions. They teach the practice of enriching presence—the ability to instantly envision the inner wealth within oneself.

T   o compose ‘Neruda Songs’, I responded to the words and to the emotional tone of the poem. I heard notes when I read the words. Generally I like the tactile feeling, the sensual feeling of being at the piano, so I compose there. I listen very, very carefully to the words, and the harmony is very intuitive. The great period of jazz, that’s how I learned harmony, Bill Evans and Miles Davis. That was my ear training. Orchestrations come easily to me, and I often hear which instrument should be playing. It’s constant responsiveness; it’s somewhere between improvising and strategizing.”
  —  Peter Lieberson, interview with Pierre Ruhe, 10-JUN-2010.
T here is, to me, a cinematic quality to the songs—as though the composer were a cameraman.

C amera placement distinctly influences our perception of the world that’s portrayed and the characters in it. Shooting down at a seated character can diminish her presence and stature; it may make her seem submissive or even supplicative. Filming up at a character provides a sense of the figure’s power and command. By contrast, in Rilke Songs it is as if Peter Lieberson’s ‘camera’ is placed at eye-level, making the perspective like what we would see while sitting across from Lorraine having a conversation. The character isn’t ‘owned’ by the camera/cameraperson nor is she sensationalized by it.

C    ombien qu'a nous soit cause le Soleil
Que toute chose est tresclerement veue:
Ce neantmoins pour trop arrester l'œil
En sa splendeur lon pert soubdain la veue.
Mon ame ainsi de son objiect pourueue
De tous mes sens me rend abandonné,
Comme si lors en moy tout estonné
Semeles fust en presence rauie
De son Amant de fouldre enuironné
Qui luy ostast par ses esclaires la vie.

[Much as the Sun causes each thing
To lie so clearly before our eyes:
To linger too long in its splendor
Is to be suddenly made blind.
My soul and its object
Now abandoned by all my senses,
As if, within me, and to my great surprise
Semele were ravished in my presence
By her Lover [Zeus] who, with his thunderbolts,
Snatched her life in a flash of light.]”
  —  Maurice Scève, Délie, v.443.
T here is an interview that Lorraine did with NPR’s Terry Gross back in 1996, in which Lorraine confides her fascination with identity-bending, gender-bending roles—the journeys of self-discovery and transcendence that are made possible through these. Beyond angle, camera placement also affects the view that we have onto the action and the resultant meaning we can derive from a shot. On the surface, the Rilke Songs setting of several Rilke poems celebrate the then-undersung life and burgeoning talent of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. That her belated decampment from viola to singing was what vaulted her to international fame was an oddity: here was the soul and and the propensities of a string player inhabiting an operatic singer’s body.

P eter leveraged Lorraine’s enthusiasm for transcendent experiences to honor her. In Rilke Songs, it is as though composer Peter were a filmmaker choosing to shoot in a long profile ‘take’. The placement of the voice-leading/camera here and the accompaniment there; the choice to let the ‘shot’ play out as it does; these reveal the nuanced components, not only of composition but of microphone placement and physicality that Lorraine so deftly crafted in the use of her vocal instrument. No other ‘camera’ position and mic position could have permitted such insight into her craft, nor into the craft of the composer who created this vehicle for shared expression.

E   very 24-hour day is a tremendous gift to us. So we all should learn to live in a way that makes joy and happiness possible. The first miracle of mindfulness is our true presence—being here, present, totally alive. If you are really here, the other will also be here. Loving? It is recognizing the presence of the other with your love... Dear One, I am here for you... A human tendency is to see spirituality as a process of self-improvement—the impulse to develop and refine the ego when the ego is, by nature, essentially empty. The problem is that ego can convert anything to its own use, even spirituality.”
  — Thich Nhat Hanh.
N o atmospherics or sentimentality in this long ‘take’. Her delivery is straightforward and expository, articulated calmly and directly to the listener. Knowing as we do that these performances were sung—the compositions were composed—when Lorraine was already afflicted by breast cancer, the récits produce a kind of uncanniness; produce narrative convergences between Peter and Lorraine; they embody a tantric, elliptical concentration; they are an Unheimlichkeit, a Verklärung, eine Vorahnung.

T hese wonderful specimens of humankind will be deeply missed.

  • The Heart of Warriorship
  • Level I: The Art of Being Human
  • Level II: Birth of the Warrior
  • Level III: Warrior in the World
  • Level IV: Awakened Heart
  • Level V: Open Sky

  • The Sacred Path
  • Great Eastern Sun
  • Windhorse
  • Drala
  • Meek
  • Perky
  • Outrageous and Inscrutable
  • Golden Key

19 April 2011

Save The Music!: Writing Refactorable Compositions and ‘Refactor’ Methods

IRCAM tweetsI n my previous CMT post, I confided a genuine ‘worry’ about the perishability of computer and electroacoustic compositions. And people laugh at this.

N otwithstanding the half-jesting comment above that delights in the fact that computer/electroacoustic works may become unperformable due to technology change, and notwithstanding that some musical works are written deliberately to be topical/of-a-time/perishable. They do not aspire to 200-year or 500-year relevance. Further notwithstanding that some composers’ goal is such prolific runtime indirection and aleatorics that there is no possibility of ‘rehearsals’ in the conventional sense, only performance—and ad hoc ‘thrownness’. Notwithstanding the fact that ‘you-shoulda-been-there!’ installation art and ‘one-time happenings’ may be a legitimate aim for some.

N otwithstanding these things, it is sad that works’ performance life ends needlessly, prematurely. Sad when all that is left of them is a recording or two, and no one will ever again hear them performed ‘live’, interpreted by different performers and realized in different settings than the ones on the recordings. Sad unless the expressive intent is to make an object-lesson of senseless carnage, waste, loss.

S orry, but a major facet of the hideous perishability of present-day computer music has to do with the fact that most musicians and composers do not have—nor do they have much desire to acquire—adequate expertise in engineering and fluency in refactoring code. On the one hand they will spend decades mastering multiple instruments and acquiring skill in orchestration, but on the other hand they will not spend a moment acquiring or maintaining skills in engineering that are needed to support preserving their achievements as computer musicians and composers. Boggles my mind.

S o what kinds of software tools and environments, if any, might be adequate for composer/users who lack technical knowledge in programming and software engineering, to enable their works to be performable ‘live’ 20 or more years from now, on different hardware and software than they were composed on? Or, given that computer and electroacoustic compositions involve multiple, complex, heterogeneous embedded (pervasive, ubiquitous) and parallel computing systems, is it even realistic to think that a ready-made end-user integrated development environment (IDE) is even feasible to create—one that would effectively immunize such musicians and their compositions against the ravages of time and technology obsolescence?

M y answer, as one who has lived for 25+ years as a professional software developer in a U.S. health informatics firm whose current-generation of applications comprise more than 37 million lines of sourcecode, is “I do not think so.” I do not think that any tool can comprehensively automate the porting and refactoring, now or ever.

I nstead, I believe that composers who want their works to remain performed and performable will either (a) have to acquire some skills of a code-refactoring engineer and suck it up and spend a modest part of their creative hours doing actual refactoring work, or (b) outsource those refactoring tasks to service contractors who do have those skills.

I n the (b) case, the composer needs to be knowledgeable enough about refactoring to be able to perform quality-assurance checks, to see that the contractor has done the job right, and to be sure that the new version does accurately reproduce the aesthetic choices of the original. Regression testing!

T he “Oh, yes, it [obsolescence, no refactoring, perishing] is wonderful!” quip on the iIRCAM twitter feed (jpeg above) [backhandedly?] feeds a kind of ego-centrism and sensation-mongering. I would love to think it’s harmless snark, a carefree “Here today, gone tomorrow, fine by me!” answer. Probably, that’s all that it is.

B ut the reality is, there’s a lot of remarkable, beautiful music—the result of countless hours of effort and musicianly skill—that today is being allowed to go headlong toward oblivion, all because nobody cares enough to engineer it in such a way as to prevent that. The book links below provide some useful sources that can guide you—that can enable you to learn how to do refactoring of your own compositions to future performance platforms, or to hire somebody else to do this.

Y es, some composers, by their own choosing, will simply decline to preserve their work, or preserve it only temporarily. Sort of like Damian Hirst and his infamous shark in formaldehyde or rotting copulating cow and bull. “Posterity? Not my problem! I won’t be alive then!” That’s fine. Being a Damian Hirst is not a disgrace. Transience is even an enviable fate. I like the idea of cremation, for example. I understand the wish to become atoms, dust.

B ut if you don’t mean to be a Damian Hirst, though, then implementing your version-to-version ‘uplifts’ changes without having to manually rewrite each and every data structure and interface design requires support by another goal: Clean separation and ‘pluggable’ pattern-based interfacing. If one has a synthesis algorithm that plays a particular soundfile or patch in a certain way and with certain timing and through certain channels, then a refactoring should allow that soundfile or patch to be accurately and consistently rendered in the new configuration, through the same or equivalent channels and with the same or indistinguishably different timing and processing, without having to manually reverse-engineer and manually specify each and every detail on the new config.

A ll of this requires an ontology for mapping synonymy of synths and waveform samples and libraries and channels/layers (and modules fan-ins and fan-outs topology, and inter-platform clock timedivision-resultion, and inter-platform sampling-freq and bit-depth skew, and EQ and reverb and other processing idioms, frequencies and pitch-bends, vocoder and compander FX, attack/decay envelopes, and timing, etc.) on different configs…

M ight be done in OWL/RDF or other environments, but such ontology does not yet exist so far as I am aware. Current-generation mapping paradigms range from 2D graphical ‘wire-patching’ of Max/MSP and Pd, to primitive source-code ‘text-based patching’ as in SuperCollider or ChucK, to WorldofWarcraft (and others’) OpenGLES patching of urMus elements, to Marsyas’s Qt4-based patching.

A s things are right now, you do in-line modding of your sourcecode, encapsulating the syntactic result of your work, but not the behaviors of your work. By contrast, true refactorings capture the behaviors and port those behaviors correctly to the new platform(s), not just the syntactic synonymy.

M any refactors that I do in Java/Eclipse are manual, really tedious. There is a refactor to convert an anonymous datatype to nested, and then nested to top-level, but there is nothing to convert a top-level type to anonymous (or nested). Lots of cut-and-paste required. Ultimately, you write your own source-modifying refactors. Chaining other refactors together into a script is only a start.

T ake Max/MSP, for example. Max is a data-flow procedural programming language in which programs are called “patches” and constructed by connecting “objects” within a “patcher”, the 2D Max/MSP GUI IDE. These objects are dynamically-linked libraries, each of which may receive input (through one or more “inlets”), generate output (through “outlets”), or both. Objects pass messages from their outlets to the inlets of connected objects.

M ax/MSP supports six basic atomic data types that can be transmitted as messages from object to object: int, float, list, symbol, bang, and signal (for MSP audio connections). A number of more complex data structures exist within the program for handling numeric arrays (table data), hash tables (coll data), and XML information (pattr data). An MSP data structure (buffer~) can hold digital audio information within main memory. In addition, the Jitter package adds a scalable, multi-dimensional data structure for handling large sets of numbers for storing video and other datasets (matrix data). Max/MSP is object-oriented and involves libraries of objects that are linked and scheduled and dispatched by a patcher executive. Most objects are non-graphical, consisting only of an object’s name and a number of arguments/attributes (in essence class properties) typed into an object box. Other objects are graphical, including sliders, number boxes, dials, table editors, pull-down menus, buttons, and other objects for running the program interactively. Max/MSP/Jitter comes with hundreds of these objects in the standard package; extensions to the program are written by composers and third-party developers as Max patchers (e.g., by encapsulating some of the functionality of a patcher into a sub-program that is itself a Max patch) or as objects written in C, C++, Java, or JavaScript. And those, too, require refactoring from time to time, just like your compositions do.

Refactored DSP Pd-Max/MSP code, PullUpMembersR efactoring can change program behavior. For example, a ‘PullUpMembers’ refactoring changes this Max DSP method that previously was encapsulated in and extends a class ... pulls it up into the class that was previously its parent: that is the example that the A-to-B refactoring above illustrates.

B ut PullUpMembers refactoring causes concurrency bugs when it mishandles the ‘synchronized’ method. When that happens, methods in the parent and child can be time-interleaved in arbitrary ways by the operating system, different from what was the case in the original composition. It messes up the sound. You don’t want that. You need to take special engineerly steps to prevent it. You can’t just ‘plug-and-play’.

M oveMethod refactor methods can cause deadlock and starvation, with mutex and lock conflicts. Other refactoring can give rise to other sorts of bugs. The up-shots of this are that (a) creating an automated-unsupervised refactoring engine for any of the current-generation computer composition IDEs and the scripts/patches they emit would be incredibly difficult and nobody has yet done it [because there’s not enough money in it to make a viable business-case], and (b) doing it auto/semi-supervised or, worse, manually is a tough slog, mitigated only by some considerable skill and fluency in the tools and coding, hence, my remark above that it ain’t gonna happen unless you become a decent engineer as well as musician.

A   ny program feature without an automated test simply doesn’t exist.”
  —  Kent Beck, Extreme Programming Explained, p. 57.
T he video game Half-Life 2 (HL2) uses realtime sound event calls to Pd as its sound OS. Game events are sent from HL2 to the Open Sound Control (OSC) engine, which triggers the sound by Pd via the network. Pd has the sample data and the specified sound-behaviors in-memory and can be instructed to modify those in realtime (perhaps by other game events and other processing of those) without recompiling. WorldofWarcraft uses Lua and Max/MSP.

T hink about it: if composers who are writing and maintaining video game scores across multiple years’ releases and across various gaming platforms do refactorings of their compositions out of economic necessity, why not you? Is your music any less deserving of future live performances than video game music?

W ould IRCAM or conservatories with computer music curricula please add some courseware by engineers who are knowledgeable about refactoring? Save the Music!

T   he secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources [and efficiently refactor them in perpetuum].”
  — Albert Einstein, amateur violinist.

17 April 2011

Kari Johnson & Robert Burke: ‘Unity’ Concert

Robert BurkeM any things to be enthused about last night, regarding Kari Johnson’s and Robert Burke’s KCeMA performance at Unity Temple.

  • Christopher Biggs – The Ends of Histories (piano, electronics, and video, 10-min)
  • Peter Swendsen – Nothing that is not there and the Nothing that is (instrumented bass drum and electronics, 8.5-min)
  • Jeff Herriott – Velvet Sink (piano and electronics, 13-min)
  • João Pedro Oliveira – Liquid Bars (vibraphone and electronics, 12-min)
  • Scott Blasco – Queen of Heaven (piano and electronics, 23-min)
C hristopher Biggs’s ‘The Ends of Histories’ for piano, digital video and audio represents ideas regarding how history must end—any history, all Histories—including religious ones, socio‐political ones, geological histories, all of them. A primary-color-heavy, apocalyptic video of watery scenes and splotches of color is displayed on a screen adjacent to pianist Kari Johnson. The high-contrast, posterized quality of the video’s color palette adds to the non-human, bichromatic wolf-vision, Terminator-vision, Predator-vision, insect-vision viewpoint of the camera/cameraperson. The piano part is full of sforzando emphases, a hyper-percussive quality that is meant to mate with the punctate, unforgiving synth and cosmically abject waveform-samples on the digital audio tracks. Ms. Johnson provided a spirited, empathetic reading, flawless.

T   he materials represent the following conceptions of the end of history: (1) a polarized religious End Time whereby everyone either ascends into a Pleasant World or descends into Fire—a prophetic, spiritual, transcendent End that has appeared in many forms throughout history and is currently represented by the idea that there will be some kind of cataclysm at the end of the Mayan calendar in 2012; (2) a sociopolitical End in which capitalist democracy supplants all other ideologies...; and (3) ‘scientific’ Ends... mass-extinctions.”
  — Christopher Biggs, composer.
P eter Swendsen’s ‘Nothing is not there and the Nothing that is’ for miked/instrumented bass drum and electronics draws its inspiration from violent forces of wind and weather. Forces of Nature are the architects of the sonic space and textures, and humans are compulsory respondents to natural events that are not of their choosing. The majority of the piece consists of canticle-like ‘verse-and-responsory’ segments, each about one minute in length. The human percussionist (Robert Burke) is entrained in Nature’s mesh (electronics, plus waveforms captured by mics—his own playing, digitally processed, delayed, pitch-bent, filtered, and replayed through monitors adjacent to him on-stage). The piece is written in such a way that the performer becomes progressively more mindful of the sonic consequences of each gesture, each mallet stroke, for what the future will become—and we in the audience experience this sense of the long-term impact that we have, on each other, on other species, and on the planet as a whole. Burke’s finesse with extended mallet techniques—including inducing aeroelastic drum-head vibrations with his hypothenar eminence and including wiping a stick fitted with a red silastic scrubber on the drum-head to evoke wild-animal growls and anguished roaring—were ‘Never-heard-anything-like-that-before!’ breathtaking.

A   long the coast, this collision is a constant negotiation: the land and sea changing back and forth; the clouds that hover near the shoreline. In the interior, however, wind and weather do not negotiate.”
  — Peter Swendsen, composer.
J oão Pedro Oliveira’s ‘Liquid Bars’ delivers sonic textures that marry live marimba/vibraphone with the electronically-processed signals from two large dynamic ribbon mics positioned at approximately mid-resonator-tube height on the left side and right side of the instrument. The electronically-processed sounds mutate spontaneously under software control, modulated by the mallet strikes. The increasingly complex polyphonies and polyrhythms are fascinating and unnerving—almost like interviewing a person whose acute psychiatric problems have landed the person in your Emergency Room in the wee hours of a Saturday night. The notion of ‘self’ is called into question, not only who the self or ‘selves’ are—the one(s) in front of you—but also whether the whole assumption that ‘who’ any of us are is stable and ascertainable is faulty. The composition has ketamine-like psychotropic properties. Gee, should FDA and DEA regulate this music as a Schedule II pharmaceutical? Powerful! Robert Burke’s 4-mallet technique is superb...

L   et us imagine a Marimba who can produce sound... Let us imagine that the Performer and the Marimba would each have the possibility of dividing themselves into two or more instruments and performers—and imagine that all of these play against each other.”
  — João Pedro Oliveira, composer.
J eff Herriott’s ‘Velvet Sink’ is a piece that explores the possibilities of the piano through both extended performance techniques and the use of digital audio. I worry that technical obsolescence tends to make works like these short-lived. Several works realized on the IRCAM’s realtime audio processor 4X, for example, can no longer be performed, because the equipment and operating-system become obsolete so fast and cannot readily be ‘refactored’ and ported to new configurations that can render the same effects as the old ones. There are maintenance problems even with well-structured software. Pieces for ‘tape’ survive: the process of recording will always be ported to more recent technologies, such as CDs, DVDs, and hard disks. Here, though, Herriott’s Max/MSP scripts and Peak and ProTools elements are fairly portable and are likely to withstand the technology changes of this decade and the next. Kari Johnson gives tactile, delicate treatments of the keyboard passages. Repetitive eighth-note patterns, very insistent, have undulating up-down microtonal bends applied to them, until the patterns feel like waves, a gentle-swell aquatic envelope—the sonic surface is a kind of ‘minimalism-built-out-of-complexity’, sort of oxymoronic jumbo-shrimp. Then she stands up, reaches into the piano and begins plucking strings with fingertips and fingernails; hammering piano strings with percussion mallets; modifying the placements of rubber erasers between strings, prepared-piano-style—at times music-box-like, at times chime-like.

Kari Johnson
S   amples were recorded using both a baby grand and an out-of-tune piano-harp from a destroyed upright piano. Some of these sound snippets were then processed and patched to generate longer sound files that were, in turn, reconfigured with ProTools. Others, notably the plucked gestures in the third movement, sound in performance much as they did during the recording. Ultimately, a unique Max/MSP patch is used in performance to control the playback of the recorded material.”
  — Jeff Herriott, composer.
S cott Blasco’s (b'79) Queen of Heaven, composed for Ms. Johnson and premiered last night, consists of five movements, each conceived as [a religious—] icon, concerning itself with a single idea, turning it over and over, meditating on it from different angles. ‘Queen of Heaven’ is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, “a source of comfort and inspiration to Christians from the earliest years of their history,” in the composer’s words. Blasco’s composition, informed by his Master’s degree in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary and degree in Composition and Music Theory from Calvin College, is a highly personal exegesis. The angels’ ‘greeting’ the Mother of God in the first movement conveys more of a confrontation—as in Awed and Struck Dumb—than a ‘greeting’. Sonority and terror appear linked in other of the movements as well, enough to cause most to have second-thoughts about the appeal of the Pearly Gates.
W   hen I write music, I’m not writing it ‘for me’ per se. I see it as holding out an olive branch to my audience, and offering praise by mirroring the Creator.”
  — Scott Blasco, composer.
K ari Johnson is a DMA student at UMKC Conservatory where she studies with John McIntyre. She holds bachelor’s degrees in Piano Performance and Piano Pedagogy from the University of Central Missouri, a master’s degree in Piano Performance from Bowling Green State University, and a master’s degree in Piano Pedagogy from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Ms. Johnson has won or placed in competitions throughout the Midwest, including the MTNA Steinway Young Artist Competitions in Missouri and Illinois and the Venetia Hall Concerto Competition. An active performer of new music and chamber music, Ms. Johnson’s recent performances include collaborative concerts at the University of Central Missouri and Pittsburg State University, UMKC’s “Carter and Messiaen at 100” festival, and the CMS Great Plains Chapter 2009 Regional Conference. In the coming year she will perform at the 2010 UCM New Music Festival and the 2010 SEAMUS National Conference.

R obert Burke is also a DMA student at UMKC Conservatory. He has enjoyed an eclectic carrier performing, studying and teaching throughout Canada, The United States, Japan and Europe. He is originally from Alberta, Canada although for the last decade has hailed New Orleans as home. A strong advocate of new music, Mr. Burke has commissioned and performed countless solo percussion works in recital and held member ship in New Works Calgary, Syncronia (St. Louis) and Conundrum New Music Ensemble. He has also been a regular member of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, The Calgary Philharmonic and The Louisianna Philharmonic. As a drumset player, Mr. Burke has performed and toured with a remarkable number of recording artists in clubs and festivals throughout the United States and Europe, including Brian Lee, Johnny Sansone, Preston Hubbard, Frankie Ford, Cyril Neville, Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas, Peter Nero, Marvin Hamlish, and Robert Goulet. He holds degrees from University of Alberta and the University of Calgary and has served on the faculty of the University of Calgary, Mount Royal College, the University of Missouri-Columbia and Central Methodist College.

Kari Johnson

Like a Splinter in Your Mind: Gen-Xer and Nexter Composers, Emergence, Joy

Fineberg bookJ ustin Davidson published an essay in New York magazine a couple of weeks ago, about the perennial difficulty of trying to make a living as a composer and about the differences he sees between Milliennials (those born after about 1975) and the previous generations.

T he piece has precipitated considerable comment and interest within the U.S., where public-sector support for new music and new composers is scanty and where it has for generations been very hard to make serious music your life’s work unless you have a secure position in academia, in a standing orchestra, or have private wealth and do not depend on music for a livelihood.

O ne of Davidson’s points—and possibly the one that has garnered the most comment so far—is that composers who are Millennials seem to be faring better than their predecessors.

F rom those who I’ve met and corresponded with, I think that—if the difference that Davidson cites is a real and generationally characteristic one—it does not come from any underlying ‘deficiency’ but instead has to do with Millennial composers’ fascination with ‘emergence’... live in the present... see what happens... value whatever happens.

Y ou are only a prisoner if you consider yourself to be a prisoner and have expectancies that conflict with prevailing constraints on what you can do and where you can go. If you have specific goals and if your sense of worth is conditioned upon achieving those and only those goals, then your worldview holds great risk of disappointment. By contrast, many Millennials renounce the notion of setting goals, and they cheerfully ignore most of the constraints.

I  was recently reading Ian Hacking’s 10-year-old book ‘The Social Construction of What?’ (link below) where he disputes the claims of postmodernists who try to fight oppression by showing that race, gender, sexuality, and ‘generation’—far from being legitimate bases for discrimination—are hardly real at all and are instead merely social constructs that can be disposed of at will. Hacking looks at how this kind of argument works, and at social phenomena like child abuse where the constructionist argument undermines a clear sense of what reality is. Is the ghetto-ization of composing in the U.S. a problem that could be dispelled in a moment, like in that quintessential Millennial film ‘The Matrix’? Is this in fact what cheerful composers who are Millennials have done?

C   ypher: You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? ... [Takes a bite of steak]
Cypher: Ignorance is bliss.”
  — The Matrix.
P aul Ricoeur’s insights... the internal relations between recalling and forgetting, and how this dynamic becomes problematic in light of events once present but now past...

A   gent Brown: Perhaps we are asking the wrong questions.”
  — The Matrix.
F urther, a number of the composer Millennials Davidson refers to are also Minimalists. Their chosen expressive musical idioms don’t compel them to have ‘narrative’ aims, only, um, ‘sculptural’ aims. I realize that there are theories of sculpture that hold that sculpture is—or can be—discursive, and that sculpture, specifically in the wake of Minimal sculpture and the artworks inscribed by that category in art critical discourse, relies on an imperative or a corporeal view/interpreter and that significant relations regarding the notion of sculpture are therefore ‘externalities’. But—how convenient!—these Millennials don’t buy those theories. Organic cheerful action-scissors cut theory-paper every time.

S   poon Boy: Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead, only try to realize the Truth.
Neo: What truth?
Spoon Boy: There is no spoon.
Neo: There is no spoon?
Spoon Boy: Then you’ll see... that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.”
  — The Matrix.
M aybe the previous generation(s) were just less-generously endowed with the means to get their stuff ‘out there’, in the epoch before the long-tail of the internets, before iTunes and P2P and InstantEncore and everything—and that lesser endowment made their survival more precarious than it is for Millennials? Millennials can take root in far more places and subsist or even thrive, with lower cost and risk than previous generations have faced.

A   gent Smith: I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another type of organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a viral plague, and we are the cure.”
  — The Matrix.
M aybe Millennials are just succeeding, for now, in asserting that they are different...

R   hineheart: You have a problem with authority, Mr. Anderson. You believe you are ‘special’. You believe that, somehow, the rules do not apply to you. Obviously, you are mistaken.”
  — The Matrix.
W hereas many of the previous generation were abraded and ground-down until they were used up...

C    ypher: I’m tired, Trinity. Tired of this war, tired of fighting... I’m tired of the [serious music] ship, tired of being cold, tired of eating the same goddamn goop everyday...”
  — The Matrix.
M aybe the deal was that serious music needn’t be part of any socially-sanctioned ‘movement’, referencing externalities and depending on external exchange-economy financing. No doubt effective music creates an entirely self-contained world, whose meanings emerge in the performer or audience member. But maybe now the composer must be outside the economy [must be self-financed by other means, private means] and only (a) write what she/he feels she/he must write, because it’s inside and blazing to come out, or (b) must be entirely internal/capitalistic and write what she/he can sell in whatever opportunistic ways possible—or some ad hoc mixture of (a) and (b). That, naturally, is the view of conservative politicians in the U.S., who try to reduce public support for the arts to the tiniest size possible, in a bathtub, and then drown it...

N o, I think the difference among composers who are Millennials has more to do with a generational preference for ‘emergence’—with the freedom and responsibility to actively discover whatever meanings there may be in what happens—and for ‘joy’. Those are characteristic, defining features... as opposed to copping to the spectator sport of observing constraint and letting rage against social forces define you. Millennials are clearly power-aware—they could fight—but they won’t. They are, many of them, simply opting not to be antagonism-driven.

F    or decades, New York has been a composers’ playground—or is it battleground? Modernists, hunkered in uptown music departments, developed early electronic tools. Minimalists sat on the floors of downtown lofts and attracted a patient public. Later, Bang on a Can renegades plundered and played for both camps. Now comes a roving band of entrepreneurial composer-performers who go merrily dumpster-diving in styles of the past and of distant parts. Three recent, overlapping festivals—Ecstatic Music at Merkin Concert Hall, Tune-In at the Park Avenue Armory, and Tully Scope at Lincoln Center—offered a portrait of a new New York School, high on amped-up minimalism, percussion-heavy beats, shimmering textures, loops, drones, and washes of electronic color. These composers in their Thirties worry less about categories, narrative, and originality than about atmosphere, energy, and sound. They are not monkish craftsmen assembling 6-minute miniatures, half an agonizing second at a time. Instead they churn out somber symphonies, wry pop songs, laptop meditations, filigreed chamber works, endearing études, and occasional film scores. This cornucopia of new music seems perpetually promising. It bristles with allusions and brims with ambition—yet it somehow feels stifled by all that freedom... We idolize the radical who shreds the previous generation’s conventions, but every aesthetic revolution begets an ardent rigor of its own. The new New York School has a healthy distaste for tired conflicts and old campaigns. Despite their gifts and alertness to the moment, its composers seem muffled, bereft of zeal. What they badly need is a machine to rage against and a set of bracing creative constraints.”
  — Justin Davidson, New York Magazine.
N   ot to say that constraint and/or rage can’t produce great music. An awful lot of the music I love seems to be coming from that place—a sort of punk-ish, in-your-face energy—and it can sometimes buzz the mind to the extent that calmer music fades... But, then again, I’ve heard plenty of music in which having something to prove was a curse, not a charge—all kinds of barely-warmed-over fake Copland that seemed to regard the mere act of having a tonal center as some sort of artistic triumph. Rage and constraint are aesthetic choices, not aesthetic necessities, and, like any aesthetic choice, it’s what you make of the choice, not the choice alone. Anger is not the only kind of zeal there is—and it seems to me that the music Davidson is talking about has plenty of zeal, be it blinding cheer (Tyondai Braxton’s Carl-Stalling-on-a-Skittles-bender ‘Central Market’) or quiet certainty (the scratched-negative vistas of Missy Mazzoli’s ‘Death Valley Junction’). It’s generous, not defiant. Maybe that seems a little weird nowadays. ... When I look at this new New York School, whether I like the musical output or not (though most of it I do), I don’t see a group of composers who are lost, or tentative, or in need of a good old-school chip on their shoulder. I see a bunch of composers writing exactly what they want to write, building their own community of support, and making a go of it. In other words, in at least some partial way, they figured something out that I never did. I’m old enough that I can be happy about that. Because, both dialectically and practically, that’s progress.”
  —  Matthew Guerrieri, SohoTheDog.
O    ne of the reasons I am drawn to a lot of this music (among many types of music) is precisely because anger is not necessarily the motivating force behind it. Nor is blinding cheer in many cases—there is music inspired by loss, heartache, darkness, philosophy, poetry, politics, and yes, sometimes even wide-eyed joy. How exactly is that a problem? It is assumed that many of the composers in this group have blithely shrugged off what it means—in a traditional sense—to be a composer, and what sort of music a composer like that creates (as if there were only one answer!). ... Anger and suffering may bind people together, but in and of themselves they don’t necessarily build lasting change, and I think we can all agree that change and adaptation is needed in order to survive. That concert halls are packed to the gills for performances of, for example, Feldman, Cage, or William Brittelle seems an overwhelmingly positive sign for contemporary music. That the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress, traditionally drawing the most conservative of Washington, D.C., classical music audiences was recently filled with the youngest audience I’ve ever seen, one that jumped to its feet at the conclusion of Tyondai Braxton’s ‘Central Market’, is mind-bogglingly wonderful. And it’s not just about this group of New Yorkers—change is afoot around the country, in Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco, Houston, Seattle, and beyond... I for one am glad and proud, and I believe that they are ultimately helping all of us by spreading their musical wings into new realms, and inspiring others to do the same.”
  — Alexandra Gardner, NewMusicBox.
Minati emergence book