30 March 2012

Kinesthetics/Biomechanics of Instrument Design governs the music that comes out

Zankel Hall – Partch instruments

S  ome works begin their performance life in a shocking way but, with further performances, come to feel ‘more normal’. Not so with David Del Tredici’s ‘Syzygy’. It was composed in 1966, yet it retains all of its novelty and magic. It continues for me to be a source of wonder … and terror…”
  — Michael Tilson Thomas, introductory remarks, Zankel Hall, 29-MAR-2012.
A  fine program at Zankel Hall last night! Excellent New York premiére of Mason Bates’s 2011 ‘Mass Transmission’ for choir, organ, and electronica. A chamber orchestra comprised of members of San Francisco Symphony members gave a stirring account of Lou Harrison’s 1973 ‘Concerto for Organ and Percussion Orchestra’. And Del Tredici’s 1966 ‘Syzygy’ was just as disturbing as Michael Tilson Thomas promised (esp., the pyrotechnics by soprano Kiera Duffy and Nicole Cash, French horn).

B ut the highlight of the program for me was the 8-person ensemble who performed Harry Partch’s 1958 ‘Daphne of the Dunes’, using Partch’s original one-off, home-made instruments that had been shipped cross-country in two semi tractor-trailers for Carnegie Hall’s ‘American Mavericks’ programs. (Performed by Dean Drummond, harmonic cannon & spoils-of-war; Joe Bergen, harmonic cannon & chromelodeon; Charles Corey, kithara, surrogate-kithara, harmonic cannon; jeffery irving, surrogate-kithara & harmonic cannon; Jared Soldiviero, boo, spoils-of-war, kithara; Bill Ruyle, diamond marimba; Joe Fee, cloud chamber bowls; Greg Hesselink, tenor violin, gourd tree, missile-cone gongs, pre-recorded tape.)

T he spatial arrangements of the instruments’ parts give rise to a spectrum of motions that lie well under the human hand. The physical distances between the strike-positions that produce the notes; the non-monotonic relationship of the parts’ positioning to their pitches; the practical biomechanics of what it is feasible for human arms, and fingers, and feet to do; the sensitivity of the parts, namely, how much force is required to generate a particular sound intensity: all of these contribute to the sonic qualities and musical tendencies of each instrument. The geometries of each instrument are associated with patterns and playing motions and sounds that are natural or characteristic for the instrument and the music to which it contributes. This is true of all instruments, of course; but we tend to under-recognize the fact when we listen to or observe performers of ‘normal’ instruments. With Partch’s compositions, the kinesthetics and biomechanics of the user interface are in our face.

F or example, plucking vertical strings that descend down by your knees, where you have difficulty seeing the strings in the shadows—leaning forward, bending down, and plucking them while standing, perched on a tall, narrow, possibly-catastrophically-tippy bench—while the music is located on a frail, kludgy stand way up above your head—these features impart an inherent, peculiar urgency and anxiety to the playing, which on account of these reasons is very different from the sound of a harp played by a performer who is comfortably and safely seated. The emotional quality of the sound is dramatically different, despite the fact that the mechanism of sound production is substantially the same in the two instruments.

W hat an evening!—showcasing compositions that have their own internal reasons for being, mostly refusing to cater to any external audience! And, with the exception of the Mason Bates piece (commissioned by San Francisco Symphony, with support of Michele and Laurence Corash), innovating things with slim expectation of popularity or compensation within the composer’s lifetime. Price of vision.

28 March 2012

Gotham Chamber Opera: “Lexapro… for anxiety, fictional and non-fictional!”

Gotham Chamber Opera

B  ecause you're so close you have no choice but to feel a part of it... It’s really visceral!”
  — Neal Goren.
A ttended the 10th anniversary celebration performance of Gotham Chamber Opera last night, at Le Poisson Rouge. Founded in 2000 by Neal Goren, Gotham Chamber Opera is dedicated to producing rarely-performed chamber operas from the Baroque era to the present (including Piazzolla’s 1968 tango opera, Sutermeister’s 1935 ‘Die schwarze Spinne’, Britten’s 1947 ‘Albert Herring’, Haydn’s 1779 ‘L’isola disabitata’, and Handel’s 1733 ‘Arianna in Creta’). As last night’s performance demonstrated, GCO is also dedicated to new music combined with a hefty dose of comedy. Their concert included the première of a new work by Gabriel Kahane, ‘You left me, Sweet, two legacies’, a setting of the Emily Dickinson poem with that first line, performed by soprano Jennifer Check and pianist Neal Goren.

A lso on the program were Opera Company of Philadelphia composer-in-residence Lembit Beecher’s dark, poignant and beautiful ‘Heart Rhythms’ 2008 trio for bass clarinet (Amy Zoloto), violin (Nurit Pacht), and cello (Sophie Shao); Mozart’s ‘Quercia annosa su l’erte pendici’, aria No. 7 from ‘Il sogno di Scipione’, K. 126; Ravel’s ‘Chansons Madécasses’; George Lam’s and Benjamin Rogers’s ‘Variations’; Purcell’s ‘Sound the Trumpet’ 1694 aria/ode celebrating the birthday of King James II [Maeve Höglund, soprano; Gennard Lobardozzi, tenor; Keun-A Lee, harpsichord; Sophie Shao, cello]; Richard Strauss’s ‘Wie schön is doch die musik’ [Benjamin LeClair, bass] and ‘Marie Theres! Hav’ mir’s gelobt’ from ‘Die Rosenkavalier’ [with Eve Gigliotti, mezzo-soprano]; and ‘Les vents furieux’ from Rameau’s 1745 hit ‘La Princess de Navarre’. Gabriel Kahane and ensemble Miracles of Modern Science (MoMS) [Evan Younger, vocals/double-bass; Josh Hirshfeld, vocals/mandolin; Kieran Ledwidge, vocals/violin; Geoff McDonald, vocals/cello; Tyler Pines, vocals/drums] contributed comic and atmospheric pieces as well.

O ne of the works, George Lam’s and Benjamin Rogers’s ‘Variations On’, incorporated fragments of ambient/overheard conversations in public spaces combined with satirical quotes from recent pharmaceutical advertisement voiceovers. The latter were sometimes edited or transformed slightly (as, for example, with the one in the title of this blogpost, for Forest Laboratories’ Lexapro® escitalopram SSRI antidepressant), which makes the quoted material function as commentary on contemporary society—in a manner that is only incrementally more disturbing than the original ad.

T he audience in the sold-out LPR club loved the whole evening. Bravo! Happy GCO 10th anniversary! Many happy returns!

Gotham Chamber OperaGotham Chamber Opera

27 March 2012

Musicians’ Focal Dystonia: Immunogenicity of Conventional Botulinum Toxin vs. Xeomin®

Dystonia Foundation

T  he ability of botulinum toxin to inhibit acetylcholine release at the neuromuscular junction has been exploited for use in medical conditions characterized by muscle hyperactivity. As such, botulinum toxin is widely recommended by international treatment guidelines for movement disorders and it has a plethora of other clinical and cosmetic indications... The chronic nature of these conditions requires repeated injections of botulinum toxin, usually every few months. Multiple injections can lead to secondary treatment failure in some patients that may be associated with the production of neutralizing antibodies directed specifically against the neurotoxin. This is because [conventional formulations of—] botulinum toxin type A [are] a 150 kD protein produced by Clostridium botulinum, which exists in a complex with up to six additional proteins. The complexing proteins may act as adjuvants and stimulate the [undesired; immunotoxicity; hypersensitivity] immune response.”
  —  Reiner Benecke, Dept of Neurology, Univ Rostock.
T here have in recent weeks been a variety of inquiries from CMT blog readers about whether there are new developments in the treatment of focal dystonia in musicians. Specifically, the inquiries have concerned two things: (1) the recent FDA approval of a new formulation of botulinum toxin by Merz Pharma, called Xeomin®, and (2) recent clinical trials of an antibiotic, minocycline, that crosses the blood-brain barrier and is known to have certain neuroprotective properties in preclinical in vitro testing and animal models.

T here is not yet enough evidence regarding minocycline’s efficacy in neurological conditions—and no controlled studies of it at all yet in musician’s focal dystonia. Nonetheless, I include some links below, to make it convenient for you to explore on your own, or keep tabs on the clinical trials’ status via the ClinicalTrials.gov website.

H owever, there is substantial published evidence regarding Xeomin®, the new formulation of botulinum toxin—one that does not contain significant amounts of complexing proteins and that therefore does not elicit undesired antibody production over the months that are required for effective dystonia treatment.

C ompared to the 10% to 40% or higher secondary failure rates due to immunogenicity experienced with BoTox® or Dysport® conventional formulations over periods of 2 years’ treatment or longer, the rate for Xeomin®is significantly lower—apparently less than 7% based on the past 2 years’ observational evidence that has accrued thus far in a U.S. datawarehouse that I use in my health informatics “day job”.

O ut of interest, I used the R statistical software package ‘prodlim’ to prepare a Kaplan-Meier regression for data on patients treated with conventional botulinum toxin formulations. Below is the result: a K-M plot of percentage without secondary failure, as a function of treatment duration in days. Basically, you have treatment failure if in the passing months your body produces antibodies that prevent the botulinum toxin from working and you have to stop the treatment because of the antibodies/hypersensitivity/non-efficacy prior to achieving successful resolution of your focal dystonia. You have “burned a bridge” insofar as the failed treatment has conditioned your body to make those antibodies against the botulinum toxin; in general, you can’t just go off-treatment for awhile and resume it: re-treatment with the drug will cause your immune system to make yet more antibodies and you’ll have treatment failure and perhaps worse immunotoxicity adverse events the next time around. Hence, the vigorous interest and the flurry of recent inquiries I’ve received here at CMT subsequent to FDA’s approval of Xeomin® 2010 and particularly since this month’s publication of Reiner Benecke’s journal article (link and pdf below).

25 March 2012

New Waves in Ferrara: Appealing on Many Levels, Enargeically

George de la Tour: ‘Quarreling Musicians’ (1625-1630)

S  wain argues that in Renaissance music stylized cadences—7-6 suspension cadences, with the penultimate soprano note raised a half-step, where necessary, to create a leading-tone—served to provide an easily recognizable cue to phrase endings. From this developed the V7-I cadence, a gesture whose pitch content was so distinctive that the strict rhythmic conventions of the Renaissance cadence were no longer necessary. He argues that it is no accident that the rise of genres such as the string quartet and the symphony—lacking, as they did, the solo/ripieno contrast of the Baroque concerto—coincided with a new interest in the possibilities of large-scale tonal contrast. With one kind of contrast no longer available, something new had to be found to take its place.”
  — David Temperley, commenting in 1999 on Joseph Swain’s ‘Musical Languages’.
G  esualdo proves [that] ... individual compositions, in the last analysis, count not for what they contribute to the development of a [musical] language, but how they handle their own ‘native’ language [that encompasses expressions and idioms in the broader culture, far beyond music], and it remained for a later perspective to rediscover the intrinsic value... It is a cliché to say of a great composition that it appeals on many levels, but the [inevitably] stratified nature of any musical community makes the cliché a real—almost indispensable—virtue. The health of a musical community depends on great numbers of people who simply listen with sensitivity and intelligence ... plus a few listeners who may attend to the more abstract effects of syntax as well.”
  — Joseph Swain, p. 165.
T he performance last night in Kansas City by Piffaro & King’s Noyse with Ellen Hargis entitled ‘New Waves in Ferrara: Two Bands, Fresh Sounds’ illustrated a number of 16th and 17th Century innovations. “Large-scale tonal contrasts” of the sort referred to in the quotes above and a surprising amount of chromaticism were among them.

T he King’s Noyse consists of five members (two Renaissance-design violins with the neck in-line with the box, two tenor-register violins slightly larger than a viola, and one cello-sized ‘bass violin’) plus Ellen Hargis (soprano). And Piffaro nominally has seven members, but they have on their on-stage table an arsenal of recorders of various sizes/registers, shawms (pre-cursors to oboes, ranging from tiny sopranini ones to giant basso ones), Renaissance bagpipes, sackbuts (trombones), dulcians (precursors to bassoons, in various sizes/registers), harp, lute, guitar/vihuela, percussion instruments). The instrumentation of the ensemble changes with every piece!

I n contrast to the ‘modern’, ‘individualistic’ intimacy that characterizes chamber music from the Baroque forward, the works that Piffaro-plus-King’s Noyse performed (by de Rore, Gesualdo, Luzzaschi, Agostini, and others) reveal the astonishing degree to which each individual musician had to envision and remember and anticipate the voice-leading of others’ parts as well as her/his own part. What I mean is, the kind of intimacy that is evoked in the chamber music ensemble literature from Baroque times onward entails each voice in the ensemble responding to one or more of the others on a relatively short timescale on the order of milliseconds to seconds. By contrast, the kind of intimacy evoked in the ‘New Waves in Ferrara: Two Bands, Fresh Sounds’ program embodies a kind of ‘collective’ intimacy—arising partly from the mostly-barline-less musical text, and from the musicians’ relation to that text, which entails their planning (conceptualizing in advance, and remembering) their playing on a time horizon of multiple bars, multiple phrases, or even an entire piece. The Renaissance ‘evenly-written polyphony,’ orchestrated such that each instrumental part resembles the human voice, compels a collective ‘band-like’ mentality and rhetoric—as David Douglass and Bob Wiemken said during their pre-concert lecture. [There are various writings on Renaissance poetry that characterize this sort of rhetoric as ‘enargeia’—‘to create or energize a communal actuality’ (see Norton, Plett, and Sharpling links below). I don’t notice that this term is used in the Renaissance musicology research literature, but, if it’s true that it’s not already so used, it seems to me that the musicologists might do well to adopt/adapt this expression from their literary colleagues.]

B efore attending the concert I looked at my copy of Anne Smith’s book (link below), which contains photomacrographs of original scores of Renaissance ensemble and vocal music. In some scores, 16th-Century composers corrected some notes and made the revisions in the margins or with the correction immediately following the passage as it was originally written. In other words, due to the costliness of paper the composer chose to fill-in empty spaces rather than use a new piece of paper for revision work. In other examples, the parts/voices were not notated in bar-vertical-alignment with each other—again to save paper. The rehearsal and performance consequences of this Renaissance Northern Italian notational practice in terms of performers’ reading and memory and interpretation were (and are!) monumental. And, regardless whether Piffaro/King’s Noyse/Hargis have created for themselves fair-copy transcriptions (using contemporary music software like Finale® or Sibelius®) that conform to modern practices for readability, the inherent challenges and the virtuosic complexity of the parts remain.

O f course, to deliver an emotionally-moving performance and coherent, worthy interpretation of any music requires each performer to have a vision of the whole piece in mind; requires conceiving the trajectory of the whole. Even if there are random/aleatoric/improvisatory elements, you have to have some advance plan or vision or notion of how you will execute those. The distinct or special aspect of this Renaissance music is the long scope this planning has—the autocorrelation and inter-part crosscorrelation with look-aheads/lags of multiple bars, multiple phrases, or even an entire piece. Makes our frenetic little attention-spans of today seem even tinier than usual!

M ore than that, though, these long timescale inter-relationships—and the look of the scores, and the notations’ shapes, and the composers’ revisions in the margins—seem like beautiful schematic diagrams—wiring diagrams!—that specify meditations on courtly love, loss, reminiscence, and how people related to each other (or, how the composer conceptualized those relations, conditioned by the values and morés of their patrons) in the 16th and 17th Centuries. With evocative Italian poetic lyrics (very nice English translations by Hargis and others in the program notes, by the way)— every passage unfolds an ineffable narrative, charting the process, drawing us in, revealing more and more of the human condition—what it means to be human in any Age. Emulating Walt Whitman’s famous phrase “I contain multitudes,” we consider the “you” in this Renaissance music: we imagine that, in this Renaissance music replete as it is with all of these Large-scale Mutual Awarenesses, the “you” of each performer truly contains multitudes. This is why we like serious music of all kinds, and why we love to attend concerts; at least partly why—one major reason among many.

T  he idea ... that one can understand the ratios of musical consonances [in tempered scales] without experiencing them with the senses is wrong. Nor can one know the true theory of music without being deeply versed in its practice.”
  — Letter from mathematician Giovanni Battista Benedetti to composer Cipriano de Rore, 1563.

18 March 2012

Morgenstern Trio: Ravel, the Amateur Mathematician

Morgenstern Trio

P  antoum poetical form—where each subsequent line changes function to become an antecedent line in the next stanza. Ravel’s music shows a love of the musical equivalent of this, playing on in-built ambiguities between antecedent and consequent to build up large-scale forms and at the same time hold our attention by letting the ambiguities surprise us.”
  — Roy Howat, 1993.
T he Morgenstern Trio (Catherine Klipfel, piano; Stefan Hempel, violin; Emanuel Wehse, cello) have a uniquely intense, incisive style, as was abundantly demonstrated in their performance of Debussy, Mozart, and Brahms in a Music Alliance Series program Friday evening.

T he trio also have a characteristic, wry sense of humor, as befits the eponymous Christian Morgenstern, a German poet who was born in 1871 and died of TB in 1914.

T he Trio’s whole performance was superb—fresh; exciting; technically flawless—no surprise, given the many prizes they have received in competitions.

B ut even their encore—the second movement of Ravel’s piano trio, entitled ‘Pantoum’—delivered more, more than one routinely expects from an ‘encore’. The piano opens with the edgy, intense first theme, and the strings respond in double octaves. The short scherzo and trio ‘A-B-A’ structure makes for a perfect encore-length morsel. But there are ironies and meta-meanings in this piece. The repetitions and surface-level structures of the piece are not as straight-forward as they seem. The structure is like a ‘spell’ cast by a witch in a folktale. The rhetoric is one not of declamation but enchantment.

R avel wrote the trio theme in a completely different metre (4/2) from the scherzo (3/4), and the two time signatures co-exist—a kind of metrical dissonance that adds a lot of drama to an otherwise ‘dèpouiller’ (‘pared-down’, to the level of a children’s fairytale) narrative.

T he ‘piano-against-strings’, ‘4/2 vs. 3/4’ meter switches with the 4/2 that is initially in the piano part later swapped as the strings go from 3/4 to 4/2 and the piano returns to 3/4. The “competing meters” metrical dissonance persists for a long, long stretch: 168 quarter notes at 192 bpm, almost a whole minute’s worth.

Lehmer SieveT he ornaments are ‘reflexive’, as if they are compulsory, happenstantial features of how the music lays under the physical hand for each instrument, and as contrasted with a fully-deliberated, polished, composerly gesture.

T he reflexive, organic sounds wash over us, and we develop a suspicion of ambient, non-human order; a sense of diabolical, out-of-control natural forces at-work; a mix of awe and wonder and foreboding.

T he tension between the different meters—the different time percepts—inducing us to switch between an ‘ensemble algorithmic level’ and an ‘individual voice level’ depending on what is more significant or more commanding of our attention—is the primary reason why this ‘Pantoum’ movement is so exciting, I believe. In the languid section between numbers 11 and 15 in the score, the trio “sound grains” are large, and the listener attends to the ensemble sound and its algorithmic metrical structure.

B ut in the emphatic pizzicato passages, our attention is absorbed in the motion of the individual string parts, and we suspend attending to the algorithmic interactions associated with the metrical dissonance.

T he metrical dissonance persists and “lurks”, though. It is still within our awareness—and we feel apprehensive about the finiteness of our attention and the risks that might come true on account of shifting our attention away from the metrical dissonance “ensemble” features and onto the individual parts, much as a child hearing a fairytale experiences apprehension as her attention is absorbed by some new story development but the wolf is without doubt still in those woods and nightfall is not long off.
O  ne may say that the number of functions is extremely small whereas the number of characters is extremely large. This explains the two-fold quality of a folktale—its amazing multiformity, picturesqueness, and color... and, on the other hand, its no-less-striking uniformity—its repetition.”
  — Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale, p. 20.
I t captivates us—it fully absorbs us, this fairytale-like pantun of Ravel’s—all the way to its ending flourish. We are spell-bound, returned to a primitive state of wonder, feeling much like we felt as children listening to thrilling stories—ones we had never heard before—told to us by belovèd grandparent or parent. You don’t get this entrancing music experience from recordings—not really. You need to attend a “live” performance, like the especially fine one given by Morgenstern Trio Friday night!
L  ass die Moleküle rasen,
was sie auch zusammenknobeln!
lass das Tüfteln, lass das Hobeln,
heilig halte die Ekstasen.

[Let race the molecules,
tossing together what compounds they may!
Let the random tinkering continue; let the atoms’ planes and dihedral angles,
Keep holy the ecstasy.]”
  — Christian Morgenstern, Lass die Moleküle rasen.
[Lehmer Sieve, 1932, solving Diophantine equations] Lehmer Sieve
D  iophantine Pantoum where A=7, B=3

1Lehmer sieve’s ribbon o’er Diophantine field;
2White paper slides to the tune of rods’ switches.
3Sieve sings congruences, linear aria concealed,
4Seeks solutions to be found in theory which, as

2White paper slides to the tune of rods’ switches,
5Ribbon infers nineteen B minus eight A equals one.
4Seeks solutions to be found in theory which, as
6A father’s age AB is one less than twice BA the son,

5Ribbon infers nineteen B minus eight A equals one.
7Polynomial conjecture, in Fermat’s margin centuries’ toil!
6A father’s age AB is one less than twice BA the son
8Yields seventy-three and thirty-seven, algebraically closed foil.

7Polynomial conjecture, in Fermat’s margin centuries’ toil!
3Sieve sings congruences, linear aria concealed,
8Yields seventy-three and thirty-seven, algebraically closed foil—
1Lehmer sieve’s ribbon o’er Diophantine field.”

  — DSM.

15 March 2012

Higher-Order Geometry: Murray Perahia and Chopin’s Polonaises

Murray Perahia

M   usically, the most important consequence of the geometry is the following: since a nearly-even N-note chord occupies the same cross-section of the [metric] space as its transposition by 12/N semitones, such chords can be linked by particularly efficient voice-leading. Thus, nearly-even two-note chords are very close to their six-semitone transpositions; nearly-even three-note chords are very close to their 4- and 8-semitone transpositions; nearly-even 4-note chords are very close to their 3-, 6-, and 9-semitone transpositions and so on.”
  — Dmitri Tymoczko, Geometry of Music, p. 97.
M y enjoyment of last night’s excellent concert by Murray Perahia was enhanced by paying special attention to the intervals and root-motions of the chords—especially in the Chopin pieces on the program.

A nd, while Dmitri Tymoczko’s ‘Geometry of Music’ has in the year since the book was published reaped some objections and a certain notoriety (David Headlam and Rob Schneiderman (AMS), among other commenters), I do feel that considering the quantitative and statistical properties of a musical work can help some of us to understand the work better, be moved more deeply by it, and, possibly, learn how we ourselves might compose music more successfully, or measure and figure out how something we have composed compares, for better or worse, to other beautiful and effective compositions.

Chopin, Polonaises, Op. 26, No. 1
F rom the score of the Polonaise Op. 26 No. 1 in C-sharp minor that Perahia performed last night, I transcribed a number of the intervals contained in the 138-bar, 414-beat-long piece. Like Tymoczko and others, I used a root-motion log-frequency representation of intervals in my array, so that distances of notes N-semitones apart are uniform in any octave. I then utilized the ‘phom’ package in the R system to examine the distribution of those intervals in topological S3 space. This relies on theory set forth by Gunnar Carlsson and coworkers at Stanford, on persistent homology. I had occasion to collaborate with Gunnar about 5 years ago on analysis of critical-care ICU timeseries data. Persistent homology computes topological invariants of filtered sequences of simplicial complexes, constructed from my transcribed Chopin Polonaise interval dataset. The relevance of this to music theoretic analysis is that conventional topological invariants are unsuitable for characterizing the geometry of music since they are simultaneously too sensitive, and too weak. They are too “weak” because of their homotopy invariance, such that the underlying harmonic/intervallic structure can be stretched in any way (as long as it is not ripped) without changing its homology groups.

R pkg ‘phom’L ots of additional empirical work would be needed, to accurately and adequately characterize just this one Chopin Polonaise, so beautiful and evocative as performed by Perahia. I leave that to the card-carrying music theorists. But, unlike Professor Headlam and others, I do think that such effort would be rewarded. As an amateur musician, I have no academic career in music theory to advance, no tenure review to worry about, no political axes to grind in my analysis and writing—posting this tiny, speculative blogpost as I am here, and pointing interested readers to a new open-source R package that might aid others’ endeavors.

I n summary, it is simply a deeply pleasurable thing for me, to roll up my own sleeves and bring novel empirical tools and concepts to bear and see what I can learn. And, having corresponded in years past with Dmitri Tymoczko several times by email, I truly believe that his aims and aspirations are as wholesome as this as well, not so cynical or bombastic as Schneiderman and others allege. For some of us, loving something magical like this Chopin music [or, alternatively, loving someone] means, among other things, persistently and deeply wanting and striving to comprehend it [or them], by numerical quantitative means as well as by subjective, qualitative means, that’s all.

B y the way, Gunnar Carlsson’s papers are very readable, if you care to visit the links to them below...

11 March 2012

Savvy Musicianship: Marti Epstein’s ‘Troubled Queen’

Jackson Pollock, ‘Troubled Queen’, 1945

W  hen I am painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It is only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’ period that I see [in the painting-in-progress] what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I just try to let it come through.”
  — Jackson Pollock.
H ave a listen to Marti Epstein’s new composition, ‘Troubled Queen’:

I t’s a 21-minute piece for mixed ensemble consisting of flute, bass clarinet, trombone, 2 violins, viola, cello, piano, and percussion—commissioned by the Callithumpian Consort, and premièred on 19-DEC-2011 at New England Conservatory in Boston.

B rooding, dark, and pulsatile... inspired by Jackson Pollock’s brooding, dark, pulsatile 1945 painting of the same name, one of the holdings of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

C allithumpian Consort was founded by Stephen Drury in the 1990s and is dedicated to the proposition that music should be, and is, an ‘experience’. The ensemble is deeply committed to supporting new music. Besides frequent performances of new music, Callithumpian also seeks to foster a vibrant and financially sustainable environment for composers and composing, and has commissioned many compositions over the past 15 years.

I  would say that the composition students here are not composing jazz. Specifically, they’re not composing commercial music; they’re not composing ‘jingles’. They may be composing film music, because we have a lot of dual majors. They’re usually composing music that’s artistically interesting and specifically for the concert hall... To graduate [from Berklee], students have to have a portfolio of pieces and—very important—they have to have a certain number of these pieces performed. Because one of the aspects of a composer’s training is, how do you get people to play your music? So we try to get them to start doing that right away.”
  — Marti Epstein.
I hope her composition students had a chance to attend the première. Epstein leads by example. She doesn’t play musical ‘hardball’ with the listener or with the performers but instead pitches balls that are hittable, ‘accessible’. Not predictable or ‘easy’ pitches, surely. But captivating; natural; intuitive; emotionally moving and ‘fair’, not off-putting. This new ‘Troubled Queen’ is emblematic of the practical philosophy Epstein expresses in her remarks on Berklee’s website (quote above).

W  hen I’m asked the inevitable question ‘What kind of music do you write?,’ I am always embarrassingly at a loss for words. Musicians want to know details of my harmonic language: is my music tonal or atonal? Nonmusicians often ask nervously if it sounds ‘modern’. Here’s the best way I can describe it: it is neither tonal nor atonal; I adhere to no preexisting method of pitch or harmony organization. I am more interested in the use of sounds as organizing musical materials than I am in melody or harmonic relationships. I also do not believe that atonality even truly exists; the term was an attempt to describe the music that broke away from Common Practice Tonality... My music is generally slow-paced. I always tell people that ‘You can take the girl out of Nebraska, but you can’t take the Nebraska out of the girl.’ The wide-open spaces that I experienced as a child, not so much in my living environment, but in the many car trips we took to Colorado to see my grandparents, were—and are—an integral part of my artistic psyche... I love living in the East, but I long for the space and expanse of the place in my childhood memories. I feel like my music is an expression of that longing.”
  — Marti Epstein.
Marti Epstein, photo (c) Bill GalleryL ike the Pollock painting for which the piece is named, Epstein’s ‘Troubled Queen’ ably evokes/represents psychiatric illness-as-storm—these looming clouds; this mixture of scary unrealness and can’t-look-away awe; these oppressive feelings that elude attempts to control them. This dark-grey, nightmarish 4-bpm thunder and lightning—or is it a deranged heartbeat? [bradycardic between 07:09 to 09:01, becoming asystolic at 20:30]

T he self-doubts, the dread and anxiety, the fractured esteem: are these contributing ‘causes’ or triggers of depression, or are they merely some associated ‘effects’ or symptoms of the condition? Chaotic arpeggios in the piano part; strokes of blue and green and yellow in the winds and strings and percussion—random sonic hail pelting us unbidden, as if formed by Pollockian flicking: flung up into the air, falling now under the unstoppable force of gravity. Callithumpian Consort members’ playing is sensitive and inspired in capturing this ‘Nature is not kind’ harshness...

G othic interiority. Obscure totems; we’re not sure what they mean or how we got here.
Reduction of life to crashing, heaviness. Primitive glare, no escape.

T he interleaved string, woodwind, and brass passages around 14:00-15:00 are especially poignant, and contribute yet more evidence demonstrating the ‘organic’/biologic origins of depression, disabusing the listener of any misconception he/she might have held regarding the depressed person’s responsibility to ‘prevent’ the condition or exercise more self-control and simply ‘Get better!’ under his/her own steam.

W hat’s more, the 21-minute timescale of this piece offers enough latitude to explore the wide range of colors and cognitive states that characterize moderate-to-severe clinical depression. In other words, this is the sort of subject that demands considerable scope; a ‘miniature’ would not be right at all, and would at best be pastiche, unless it were a cue in a film score, subject to constraints of the script and action. Fully developed in this 21-minute work, the character/subject becomes very real. The suffering/horror this depressed protagonist experiences is fully animated and convincing, and, through the performance, we can’t help but care about this person and about the plight of other such people in society. In summary, this new Marti Epstein composition is a beautiful work: it illustrates not only wonderful artistry and craftsmanship, but also conveys the political and social savvy that ‘the arts’ (artists/musicians, and the supporters who finance them and commission works from them) can have, to bring about wider and deeper appreciation for socially/clinically important issues and provoke concord and action to make things better.

E very so often, a painter has to ‘destroy’ painting. Picasso did it; Pollock; numerous others, too. And every so often, a composer has to destroy composing. Here, Epstein smashes conventional ideas of a composition—as John Cage and many others have done. But this ‘Troubled Queen’ is very clearly a composition—and a very beautiful, moving one at that.
Stephen Drury

10 March 2012

Higher-Order Virtuosity: Richard Goode and Chopin’s Ballade No. 3

Chopin, Ballade No. 3, Op. 47

I  n everything Chopin wrote, no matter how complex and virtuosic, that powerful simplicity is there at the core. Although he wrote some very difficult and impressive stuff, the ultimate effect of his music, I feel, should never really be to ‘impress’. But that’s exactly what the pianists we usually hear are striving to do: impress the contest judges, the critics, the public. The world we classical performers live in gives us very little room not to play big ‘show’ pieces, or make everything we play into one... Chopin’s third ballade suffers particularly from this problem. The ballades are all difficult, but No. 3 is the easiest of them—sort of like the shortest Himalaya. It seems as though all the star performers I’ve heard end up trying to make it as hard as the others, plowing through it with virtuosic flare, and thus trivializing it. [And how wonderful it is when, instead, someone like Richard Goode plays this piece with selfless transparency. –DSM]”
  — Paul Cantrell blog, In the Hands, 02-MAR-2005..
M y favorite part of Richard Goode’s performance last night in Kansas City [a program that included Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, and Chopin] was the Chopin Ballad No. 3, Op. 47. This 9-minute piece is maybe the strangest of Chopin’s four ballades, on account of its unrelenting optimism. Goode’s expressive dexterity handles the staggering complexity with seeming ease and imparts a vigor suffused with warmth... perfect for this sweet, cheerful work.

G entle A-flat 6/8-meter dolce, evoking donkeys Chopin observed in the hills of Majorca? Donkeys with jobs, but happy jobs that they enjoyed doing.

T  he technique [of musical gesture] is perhaps a musical version of what is referred to as a ‘suture’ in film theory: placing the camera in such a way that it functions as the eye of the protagonist of the film, thereby drawing us, as unwitting spectators, to become the subject of the film ourselves, since we share the same visual field and same [Majorcan] point of view.”
  —  Patrick McCreless, in Almén & Pearsall, p. 13.
W hat a narrative trajectory! What storytelling! Social media of 1841! Our minds engage, imagination runs free, and we ‘friend’ or ‘follow’ this peripatetic, vacationing Chopin voice from the beginning to the end. The feeling is physical, not just emotional; it coheres—for Goode, and for us in the audience—throughout the piece, all the way to the satisfying, happy ending. For example, the motion from C (mm. 230, 232) down to the E-flat (mm. 231, 233) suggests the subsequent plunges to the low A-flat at the end. Energy flows! We “feel” the path that we are on, anticipate things along the way, anticipate them accurately. And this experience of uncanny accuracy is part of what is pleasant and thrilling for us: in material that is this complex and unpredictable, we don’t usually experience ourselves as being so graceful or right as this. We love being unexpectedly better than we are!

U ltimately, our minds and bodies gladly go everywhere Chopin’s and Goode’s narrative aims to take us. Theirs is a higher-order virtuosity that doesn’t strive to impress. It strives only to reveal what’s True, to tell this true story. But it’s not just ‘telling’, not just a musical ‘text’. The human body is involved—fingers, arms, flesh, nerves, mortal gifts, physical mass. The higher-order virtuosity inhabiting the body averts its gaze and embodies Laws of Physics in action—beauty incarnate; a kind of transcendence—something for which we surely hadn’t planned on our Friday night out, and something for which we feel thrilled and grateful. Bravo!

Chopin, Ballade No. 3, Op. 47
V  iewed as a sign, ‘formative repetition’ refers to what is repeated: it is usually a marker of segmentation, a grammatical feature. When a figure is repeated more than once, the attention begins to be attracted by the repetition itself; instead of focusing on the repeated material only, we focus on the act of repetition as an activity signifier per se and seek a symbolic interpretation of it. It is then a sign, not of segmentation or grammar, but of connotative meaning. It evokes extra-musical associations of... emphatically [re-]emphasized speech, dancing, laughing, etc.”
  — Raymond Monelle, p. 88, quoting Lidov.