19 February 2012

Konstantin Lifschitz: Collaborative Poesy of the Goldberg Variations

Konstantin Lifschitz, (c) Froede

A  passage of music could have a ‘semantic range’ that is essentially the same as that of any word in a language, only much broader in scope—sharing the same kind of elasticity but of a much greater degree than is typical in language... Choosing whether the French overture [Var. XVI] in Bach’s Goldberg Variations connotes ‘sublime confidence’ or ‘deep despair’ is easy because the semantic fields of those expressions are so completely separate. One seems coincident with the music—and the other, far from it!”
  —  Joseph Swain, p. 55.
T  he hypothesis that syntax mediates tension—and its corollary, that if there is no sense of tension and resolution then there is no sense of syntax—do not entail that all tension is ‘syntactic’ in origin... The tension and resolution of this passage depend more on harmonic progression and meter than on the variety of rhythmic durations and texture.”
  —  Joseph Swain, p. 32.
K onstantin Lifschitz’s performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations BWV 988 last night was staggeringly beautiful, unified in conception and spiritually cohesive all the way through the Variations to the reprise of the Aria at the end.

T he left-hand/right-hand equality of voices that Lifschitz maintains is astounding—that it is biomechanically/anatomically very difficult goes without saying, but it is conceptually/expressively exceedingly difficult as well. (The intentions of the composer—and of the performer, and, now, of ourselves—are complex and tremendously varied through the course of this work. And they must emerge in the performance as fresh and totally genuine—a factor that learning and technically mastering and memorizing the musical text threaten to a degree, as anyone who has ever memorized and performed music in recital knows well...)

I  ntentionalism [in music]... not so much a coherent philosophical position but rather a kind of ‘antidote’ to hermeneutic analytic approaches that treat musical works as ‘organic matter’—in short, like vegetables—rather than as products of thinking [,feeling] people. Ideally, this means encouraging analytic results that might please composers if they were told about them... Intentionalism is meant as a heuristic device that asks that we pose the question: What might the composer have thought about this composition and its sense? It has become common practice for musicologists to invoke the warning of the Intentional Fallacy as if it were law accepted by everyone. In fact, the entire hermeneutic tradition stands opposed to this doctrinaire apologia for New Criticism, so that merely calling the quest for intentions structuring a work of art a ‘victim’ to a fallacy does not make it so.”
  — Laurence Dreyfus, p. 171.
T he interplay between the rhythmic, metric, melodic, harmonic, and textural tensions in Goldberg variation—notably in the French overture (Var. XVI)—was fascinating. When harmonic tension predominates, it “frees-up” the melodic syntax and vice versa. The realism of the multi-line, multi-voice dialogue or story-telling is enabled and augmented by the parity/equality of the hands, each tension-generating modality taking its “turn” and providing scope and opportunity for other modalities to express things freely.

L ast night our imaginations were permitted to run, taking all the “rope” they could, until close to the end near the 70-minute mark, when we realized in retrospect that the “story” explored by Bach (and Lifschitz) through all of these Variations is our very own. We had not only understood the story; we had in a palpable, true sense ‘said’ [to ourselves] the things that Bach—and Lifschitz—had just said. The story and these thoughts had come a huge distance to find us, as if meant (intended) to be found by us.

W e were inscribed by them, but we found that we, too, were, in a real sense, inscribing/authoring the thoughts. The attentiveness, the transcendent wide-awakeness that Bach has impelled us to with these Variations: like a newly-discovered, implausibly effective form of prayer. An unforgettable performance and a really wonderful evening.

A  poem as a persisting manifestation of language—and, therefore, essentially ‘dialogue’ [that can be indefinitely-extended, with unnamed or yet-to-be-named respondents]—can be a message in a ‘bottle’: sent out in the not-always-greatly-hopeful belief that somewhere and sometime it might wash up on land—on some heartland. Poems [and music] in this sense, too are ‘under way’: they are making toward something... Wirklichkeit ist nicht! Wirklichkeit will gesucht und gewonnen sein! [Reality is nothing apart from our individual construction of it. It must be sought and won!]”
  — Paul Celan.
I ’ve come to feel over the years that a musical work, however long it may be, ought to have basically—I was going to say ‘one tempo’ but that’s the wrong word—one ‘pulse rate’; one constant 'rhythmic reference point'. Now, obviously, there couldn’t be anything more deadly dull than to exploit one beat that goes on and on and on indefinitely. That’s what drives me up the wall about rock and about minimalism. Anyway, I would never argue in favor of an inflexible pulse. That just destroys any music. But you can take a basic pulse and divide or multiply it—not necessarily on a scale of two, four, eight, sixteen, thirty-two, but often with far-less-obvious divisions—and make the result of those divisions or multiplications act as a subsidiary pulse for a particular movement or section of a movement... So in the case of the Goldbergs, there is in fact one pulse, which, with a few very minor modifications—mostly modifications that I think take their cue from ritards at the end of the preceding variation, something like that—one pulse that runs all the way throughout.”   — Glenn Gould, 1982 radio interview with Tim Page.

12 February 2012

John Bischoff: Audio Combine, Modal/Bispectral Discoveries, Post-Human Futures

John Bischoff, Audio Combine

L   ocal color’ features synthetic bell-like tones, sustained tonal clusters, and computer-triggered acoustic bells struck in complementary patterns that are sometimes random, sometimes human-triggered, and combinations of both... It is enough to reference the idea of a tactus, but not enough to be [understood as] an organizing [meaning-generating/insuring] element.”
  — Audio Combine, liner notes, Ed Osborn, Brown Univ, 2011.
T he music comprising John Bischoff’s new CD ‘Audio Combine’, just released on New World Records, is beautiful, fascinating, thoroughly enjoyable. Philip Perkins’s engineering and production values are superb.

T he five tracks on the disc are diverse, representing Bischoff compositions from 2004 to mid-2011. The third track ‘Local Color’ evokes traditional chinese zhong bells, but also especially calls into question the ‘who’ of music performance [in asmuch as some of the bells are computer-triggered, randomly and deterministically, while others are played by Bischoff from his score] and other limits of performance identity [insofar as the bell modes and timbres evolve after the bell is struck—on the rim; on the bosses/nipples; on the wall; etc.—in aleatoric/random ways that the musician-computer can neither predict nor control]. Of course, all music emerges in less-than-predictable/controllable ways—just less obviously so than bells.

    [50-sec clip, John Bischoff, ‘Local Color’; (track 3), 2012, 1.4MB MP3]
T   he pieces were all recorded in live performance with minimal editing and no over-dubs. Philip Perkins recorded direct from Bischoff’s setup and also from three pairs of microphones placed at various points in the concert hall. The mix heard here switches between these four perspectives as the pieces are played. The distance and pace incorporated into the recordings from various mic positions give a clear sense of the space of the performance, and of the object-ness of the sounds. That space and our place within it become the final part of the ‘material’: when the listener has no fixed point of perspective, then the position from which the listening/understanding is done becomes one of the elements of counterpoint.”
  —  Audio Combine, liner notes, Ed Osborn, Brown Univ, 2011.
T here are a few excellent books that empirically measure the modal vibrations of bells... He & Fu, for example. And some books on bispectral analysis—mainly used today in aerospace engineering and vibration-management engineering of turbines and other structures. Useful to explore if you are a composer/performer wanting to know more about how to more reliably utilize distinctive bell harmonics in your work. Links to some of these at the bottom of this post.
Fu-He book, p. 276
[Modal Analysis, Fu & He, 2001, p. 276]

    [50-sec clip, Wang Yuanping & Hubei Chime Bells Orchestra, ‘竹枝词 (Zhu-zhi-ci) Bamboo-pole Love Poem’; (track 1), 1989, 1.5MB MP3]

T he substantial rhythmic independence of the parts in the ‘Local Color’ bell quartet is part of its distinctive Asian beauty. Because each bell projects its sound clearly, each individual bell can easily be heard over the rest of the bell ensemble, and yet the ensemble—the ‘community’ of bells—remains the primary subject. This is dissimilar from other voiced percussion like a timpani choir, performing a ‘programmatic’ role, where the effect of four or more timpani playing together is treated more as an ‘effect’ than as harmony. It is instead quartet ‘orchestration with Chinese characteristics’!

W ith computer-triggered sticking, the timing of the ring-down and the pitch-bend are the same, but the kinematic nuances of human left-hand/right-hand mallet or sticking patterns are gone. But the electromechanical linear actuators for the computer-controlled bells have their own kinematic constraints, in terms of speed of resetting for the next stroke, and so on. They have their own unique, finite kind of ‘embodiment’ just as we humans have ours, and we can hear this in these wonderful Bischoff compositions and this excellent recording of them being performed ‘live’.

A nd so the most amazing thing that we get from Bischoff’s mechatronic compositions like ‘Local Color’ is a vivid glimpse of robotic humanity and machine consciousness, revealed by the beater mechanics and linear actuators... something like an inversion of the ‘human-becoming-machine’ perspective of Ambrazevičius and Balsienė (link below): ‘machine-becoming-human’... a brilliant future of new expressive possibilities, including bionic accomodations for musicians with disabilities. Musical prosthetics? Sonnez les matines! / Din, dan, don!

J ohn Bischoff (b. 1949) is an early pioneer of live computer music. He is known for his solo constructions in real-time synthesis as well as his seminal work in computer network ensembles. Bischoff studied composition with Robert Moran, James Tenney, and Robert Ashley. He has been active in the experimental music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area for over 25 year as a composer, performer, teacher, and grassroots activist. His performances around the US include NEW MUSIC AMERICA festivals in 1981 (SF) and 1989 (NYC), Experimental Intermedia (NYC), Roulette Intermedium (NYC), and the Beyond Music Festival (LA). He has performed in Europe at the Festival d'Automne in Paris, Akademie der Künst in Berlin, Fylkingen in Stockholm, and TUBE in Munich. He was a founding member of the League of Automatic Music Composers (1978), considered to be the world's first Computer Network Band, and he co-authored an article on the League's music that appears in "Foundations of Computer Music" (MIT Press 1985). He was also a founding member of the network band The Hub with whom he performed and recorded from 1985 to 1996.
John Bischoff, Audio Combine

11 February 2012

Konstantin Lifschitz: Ich bin’s; ich sollte zu träumen (I’m the one; it is I who should dream on this)

Konstantin Lifschitz, image ©Felix Broede

M   usical ideas are such combinations of tones, rhythms, and harmonies as to demand/inspire a thoughtful treatment like the main theses of a philosophical tract. [Any non-trivial musical idea inevitably] raises a question—sets up a problem that, in the course of the piece, has to be answered, resolved, ‘carried through’. It has to be carried through however many contradictory situations are plausible; it must be developed by deducing however many inferences there may be from what it postulates; it has to be checked—has to be proved to be true, like a mathematical theorem. And all this, if you are successful, will lead to a conclusion—a ‘pronunciamento’, a fresh new certainty—a beautiful new discovery [that speaks].”
  — Arnold Schoenberg, ‘Beauty and Logic in Music,’ unpublished manuscript.
T he quote above was one we saw in the Arnold Schönberg Center archives, when we visited Vienna a couple of months ago. I was reminded of this insight of Schoenberg’s during Bach’s complete two- and three-part Inventions (Sinfonias), performed by Konstantin Lifschitz last night. Interleaved Invention-Sinfonia-Invention-Sinfonia as they were, in ascending chromatic sequence (as opposed to chronologically; as opposed to rank-order by pedagogic difficulty in Wilhelm Friedemann’s Klavierbuchlein), the pieces led us in the audience to some new insights.

S ome inventions, performed by many at faster tempi, became intense meditations on color and timbre. Other ones, often performed with wider rubato variation, became motoric illustrations of individual conviction and duty. Consider the editorial suggestions of the Alfred or others’ modern editions; consider the ur-texts of Bach himself; but make up your own mind—find your own true story. Which is what Konstantin Lifschitz did for us so wonderfully and spontaneously last night.

T   hese inventions began as [mere] ideas, that Bach conceived [in an improvisational, impromptu manner] and wrote as teaching tools. The complexities of the three-voice Sinfonias make the two-part Inventions seem [simple] when you play them side-by-side.”
  — Cynthia Siebert, founder, Friends of Chamber Music.
I t’s a joy to hear the unfiltered account of a friend’s or lover’s dream. We feel touched and, not just ‘connected’, but also more ‘human’ for the shared experience... ‘included’, ‘alive’. We are included in the ‘action’, and we feel the curiosity and the moral duty to engage with the friend who is relating this dream to us. We sense the truth that arises from the honest synapses firing without the interpolation of an ego in the process. The purity of (absence of—) motives and the transparency count for a lot.

I   st das möglich? Denkt ihr, man kann sich wirklich mit einer musikalischen Idee durch einen Traum verlieben, bzw. kann man tatsächlich träumen, verliebt sich in die musikalische Idee zu sein? Habt ihr sowas schon mal geträumt?

[Is this possible? Do you think you can really fall in love with a musical idea in a dream, or dream you can actually love to be in the musical idea? Have you dreamed something like this before?]”
  — Milton Babbitt.