Category Archives: Music Contemplations

Contemplations on Music

Solaris – Stanisław Lem

I finished reading Stanisław Lem’s Solaris this weekend and was just so completely drawn into the work.  The Solaris ocean, the idea of encountering life that existed truly outside of human experience, the exploration of man’s coming to some terms with understanding what it is, and through it learning something of themselves… I had seen the 1972 Tarkovsky film adaptation some time ago, but remembered very little of it except that I thought it somewhat surreal.  I’d like to revisit the film now, and perhaps even watch the 2002 version as well.  
One of the things that I am still thinking about now is the ocean as something somewhat unaware of the humans, something that is reacting to but only mildly curious of them.  Something that just is, going on about itself, and the humans there observing, pondering. It made me think too of music, one that was not in dialogue with an audience, but something that moved along freely in time, existing, simply being, and an audience there as observers, listening and pondering the piece. In this the piece could move along in its own time, by its own set of rules, perhaps ones by which listeners may or may not understand.  
I think the music I have found most connection with has had these kinds of qualities. A co-existence in space and time, breathing and moving along, unaware of those around.  A freely living sound. 
I imagine I will revisit Solaris more than a few times in my lifetime.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book and am still very much deeply contemplating it…

Generative Music and Distribution

I have been working on some iOS audio programs lately and the topic of generative music came up for me. Some 10 or 11 years ago, I remember thinking about the issue that generative music–or music that was not fixed in performance–did not have a means of content delivery. At that time, I imagined some form of meta-music player that would have plugins that could read Csound, PD, and other kinds of projects, yet could be queued up in a playlist much like you would find in something like WinAMP or VLC Player. The idea was that composers could then distribute their works in a standardized format, and consumers could then queue it up to listen to in the same manner they might load up an MP3 or CD.

Back in the mid 90′s, Brian Eno had done some generative music work with the Koan Music Player, releasing an album that would be performed differently each time by the player. The Koan Player though never really caught on, and since then the format and program have died off. What a shame it is to me that musical work can be tied to the life of a commercial program.

These days things like Bjork’s Biophilia for iOS start to renew an interest in generative music. However, the distribution scheme here is a custom application for a closed platform (iOS). I wonder too if the kind of thing that happened with Eno’s album and Koan might not happen once again with custom formats and distribution means.

What I would love to see is a generic means of distribution for both fixed and non-fixed works. Such a system would allow meta-data to describe what plugins would be required, as well as what hardware requirements would be necessary. So, for example, if your work required an 8-speaker octagonal cube or a video camera feed, that could be marked up in the distribution meta-data. That way, the distribution format would then be usable not only for consumers at home, but also as a means for concert delivery or generic installation setups.

Thinking about this all again, I think the idea still has merit and that developing a standardized distribution package could expand the audience for such work as well as create a platform that promotes longevity of work.

Max V. Mathews (1926-2011)

I was very sad to read on the Csound mailing list that Max Mathews passed away this morning.  It is hard to imagine how computer music today would be without his pioneering work in creating the first computer music software and work with composers and others. His contributions are truly immeasurable.

Beyond the work he contributed, he was a truly inspiring with his joy and passion for computer music.  I don’t believe I have ever met Max Mathews in person, though I was at a number of events where he was featured in some way or another (a fond memory is from last year’s Bohlen-Pierce Symposium, seeing Max on the big screen performing and giving talks over Skype…).  I always got the impression that he was a person of great character, passion, and joy…

From the people I’ve known who have known him personally, Max seems like someone who truly gave a lot of himself to others.  I will always have nothing but kind words to say about him, and if that is any barometer by which to measure a man’s life, then I would say he was as successful a human being in life as one could be. I will certainly miss his presence in this world, and hope only to be able to learn from his great work and life and maybe be a better person for it.

Nixon in China in Toronto

Lisa and I just saw a performance of Nixon in China by the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto: Amazing!  The performance as a whole was very strong, with the stand out moments being:

  • Madame Mao’s Aria at the end of the 2nd act – Marisol Montalvo’s performance was stunning, and I think for me the most enraptured moment of the night
  • The ensemble singing of the 3rd act – stunning precision and clarity by Madame Mao’s and Pat Nixon’s characters
  • Pat Nixon’s scenes in the 2nd act – Maria Kanyova performed it beautifully in singing and acting, a wonderful scene
  • Chou En-Lai’s aria in the 3rd act – Chen Ye-Yuan‘s singing was impressive throughout, with this precious meditation being extremely memorable

I really loved the staging of this opera with its period footage from Nixon’s visit via the use of televisions, the lighting, costumes, etc.  It really reminded me of the many wonderful productions of operas I saw in San Francisco during Pamela Rosenberg’s tenure there. Just perfect.

This was our first time attending a performance at the Four Seasons Centre and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I loved the hall’s design throughout, and really enjoyed the intimacy of the smaller stage and hall.  I will be looking forward to the next time I have a chance to attend a performance here!

Farewell Henryk Gorecki

I woke up this morning to read the sad news that Gorecki has passed away (NYTimes Article). I remember when Symphony No.3 became extremely popular in the 90′s and having quite a fantastic experience listening to it while driving down Riverside Drive on my way back to school.  A beautiful day, listening to the 1st movement at full volume, driving through fall colors…

I had read a book on Gorecki around that time, and it was his description of going to his composition lessons on a train and seeing the Polish countryside that originally seeded the desire to visit Poland. A few years later I managed to make my first trip to Poland, staying on my own for seven weeks in Krakow, one of the most fruitful experiences in my life.

I also remember an amazing concert of Miserere at the Warsaw Autumn in 2006.  In a church in Nowy Miasto, I remember an issue that they wouldn’t be singing it but then they ended up doing so and it was just wonderful.  The acoustics of the room with the delay of the sounds that came strongly from up above was excellent.

I am sad to hear Gorecki has passed away.  I have and continue to enjoy his music from his avant-garde days to today, and will I know I will continue to listen and think about his music and his life well into the future.

Standing in line, curious once again

I was standing in line at the grocery store today and found myself focused outside of myself, looking around at the store, and seeing how strange large grocery stores are. It was fascinating to be standing there, looking around with people wandering around the store, standing in line, talking, all amongst the countless number of items on the shelves, the unnatural light, the artificial floor…

While I was standing in line I found myself tapping into a musical sound world within my mind that I had not been in touch with in quite a while, filled with slow and gentle melodic fragments and quiet tones, rich and present, all floating by in their own time.  I have not been working on much music recently, finding daily life going by quickly with one thing or another.  Beyond all that, I have been thinking about the state of the musical world (from pop to dance to classical to computer to…), how it lives in society today, as well as my own connections with music, whether it be the music of others or be the music of my own creation.

So there I was, standing in a long line at the grocery store, and there I found myself once again in a state of experiencing things in a way that was familiar but also strange.  It had been a long while since I can remember last being in that state of curiosity and observation.  I think it was important to have made that connection to that experience today, even if briefly, to remember all the other experiences, to reconnect with the impressions and memories from the past, and to once again be in touch with that world of sound…

Gubaidulina, Bruckner, and Kurt Masur

On Friday, we had a chance to hear Kurt Masur conduct Sofia Gubaidulina’s "The Light of the End" and Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4.   Regarding the Gubaidulina, I found that I didn’t quite get into the general writing with mostly a singular line being moved around the orchestra with ostinatos being performed, and things which I thought were supposed to be somewhat dramatic felt flat to me (i.e. loud stabs of brass).  There were certainly some brilliant moments, of which I found myself really quite involved (the passage near the end with the tuba, cello, and horn was quite excellent).  Throughout the piece I kept thinking of Bartok’s "Duke Bluebeard’s Castle" and Bartok in general, and perhaps that interfered with listening to what was there. It may have been that my own taste lately has been for music with more individual parts, or that the piece was simply new to me, but overall I didn’t find myself that into the piece.  I would like to hear the piece again in the future though to see what my impressions would be on a second listen.  I do have to say, it really was neat that Gubaidulina was in attendance, and I still have the utmost respect for her and her work.

As for the Bruckner, I had not heard the 4th in quite some time and never live.  Quite a bold piece! The symphony really did play out with great effect, but I found that the timing of the more fragile exposed sections were problematic.  Granted, the offset in the parts are a bit tricky to keep in time, but I think my expectations were quite high, especially since the bolder sections were done so well.  Sitting behind the orchestra in the center terrace afforded a great view of the conductor and I felt that during the more fragile sections that Masur could have done more to keep the timing more precise. If it weren’t for these sections slightly tugging at themselves in time, I think it would have been a phenomenal performance.  I think it is my own deep concern for time that makes me a bit sensitive to these things, but it really did stick out to my ear. 

Regardless, I was glad to once again be at the symphony listening to the orchestra.  I think it would be nice to attend the symphony as much as possible before we move later this year.

Philip Glass – Music in Twelve Parts

Last night, Lisa and I went to the performance of Philip Glass’s “Music in Twelve Parts” performed by Philip Glass and his Ensemble at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco. I was very excited to be going to this performance as I had missed an opportunity to hear a full live performance in New York when I lived there.  Overall, I enjoyed the performance very much and had a wonderful time, though it also brought up many questions I have been asking myself lately.

On the performance itself, the concert was broken in 4 sections: Parts 1-3, a 10 minute pause, Parts 4-6, an hour dinner break, Parts 7-9, a 10 minute pause, then Parts 10-12. The first half sounded out of balance with the volume of the synthesizers dominating the hall, making it hard to hear the flutes, saxophones, and soprano.  (This was a bit of a shame as parts 1 and 4 are favorites of mine…)  The balance of the sound in the second half was much better adjusted and really did just sound fantastic.  Beyond the balance, there were a few places where things got off but the performers would recover on the next iteration of the pattern, and overall I was very impressed.  Having listened to recordings of the piece many times, I often forget how athletic a piece it is, and throughout the piece there was energy and attention in the performance.

Regarding the piece itself, I had not listened to it in a long while but I found it pleasantly familiar last night.  Sitting and really paying attention to the piece, beyond the familiar I also enjoyed hearing aspects of the piece I had not noticed before.  I was surprised at how quickly the time went by, the concert starting at 5:00pm and ending around 10:15pm.  I think the pauses and long break were great for absorbing the piece as my ears did not ever feel fatigued and physically I did no feel uncomfortable from sitting long periods of time. (Listening to the music also brought back a number of fond memories of being in college and visiting New York, shopping for CD’s in used CD stores and places like Kim’s and Other Music…)

During and after the performance, I found myself comparing the experience of the piece with the performance of Feldman’s String Quartet II we had heard in New York some years ago.  Music in Twelve Parts has such a physicality to it; certainly the volume of sound had a large presence, as well as did the rush of the constant rhythm in a singular time. In a piece like this I found myself feeling sometimes mesmerized by the rhythms.  In contrast, I think back to String Quartet II, how almost loosely time flowed on, how much the thickness of the silence was felt, and how present the sounds were too, though not from their volume so much as being framed so well to allow observation of their details in the midst of the space around them.  In a music like this I often find my attention very focused, though I never felt a sense of a loss of self in the moment as I did with Glass’s music, but rather a stronger presence of self as well as everything else, and deep sense of observation and contemplation.

I left the performance last night thinking of these two pieces and how both are of value and have very unique experiences. I think these days though I find my own tastes drifting towards more of the quieter, contemplative music than the more physical experiences of sound. Last night was very enjoyable though, and not having gone to see a live performance in quite some time, I was very glad we went and was inspired for music by it all.

On “Lutoslawski on Music” and other Sunday Morning Thoughts

It is Sunday morning in Guerneville after a night of celebration of the 30th birthdays of my dear friends Alex and Julie. I had retired earlier than the rest last night being a bit exhausted from being sick this past week, and consequently I have woken up earlier than everyone. The sun is quite bright this morning, lighting up the fantastic view brilliantly. I sat outside briefly looking out at it all, listening to the sounds of insects all around, watching the bees visiting the beautiful flowers nearby and thinking how lovely it all is.

Inside everyone else is still asleep, so I took out the book Lutoslawski on Music by Zbigniew Skowron, a book Lisa was kind enough to check out for me from the university library. Only 20 or so pages in, having read the introduction and first essay of notes on large-scale form, I am already deeply drawn to Lutoslawski’s thoughts and considerations and have the expectation that this may very well be one of the most important texts I may read about composition and music.

This book is the first full collection of Lutoslawski’s writings and I am excited to be reading it now. In the past there have been a number of occasions where I have come across a book that seemed to have come at exactly the right time and addressed exactly concerns of mine. It has been some time since I had such a feeling but I am struck by this book now in this way.

My mind for composition has felt quite blocked for some time, both in regards to my general view on music and composition and in particular in regards to the concerns of large-scale form of the piece I have been working on, off and on, for the past couple of years. I believe this was in large part a result of the circumstances of our previous apartment, as already in the week since moving to the new apartment I have felt a great joy in being able to really listen to music again. Having mostly settled in to the new place, I have begun to collect myself to work once again on this piece, though I have been feeling a bit slow to engage again with the material and the form.

Reading and thinking about Lutoslawski’s words this morning has my mind racing and feeling a degree of activeness towards music that is exhilarating and refreshing. Recently I have been reflecting quite a bit on my life, about time passing, and composing in general, and many other things. Perhaps too with my friends entering their 30′s–a milestone I will be observing myself at the end of this year–I have been looking at areas of my life that may be taking up too much time and others that may be neglected. This morning, sitting here in the quiet house, I am filled with thoughts on music and composing and am glad to be spending my time on this. I am looking quite forward to reading more of this wonderful book and seeing where all of these thoughts will take me ahead.