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.

Seriousness of Composition, the Composer, Xenakis

Yesterday I finished reading a two part interview with Xenakis, Reynolds, Lansky, and Mâche (Part 1 and Part 2) and found myself once again encountering Xenakis’s views on composition and music, ones that I had found a deep connection with before and now once again. I’ve always felt a depth of seriousness in his work and in his approach to composition and found a great deal to appreciate. I have noticed that regardless of the style, technique, or character, all of the composers and pieces of music I’ve strongly connected with share a certain seriousness to them. Listening to the music, I always felt a certain sense that there was a great deal of the composer in the work, not necessarily something expressive (and more often the case no sense of expressionism at all), but rather… as if the composer had put a lot on the line for this work, that the work in itself means a great deal to the composer and they exposed something very essential of themselves in bringing the work about.

Thinking about Xenakis and all of this as I am starting to focus on my musical work again, I feel there is a great deal to consider and to learn from…

Hans Otte – Aquarian Music

I’m sitting here late into the night working away on some writing, listening to some of the loveliest music I’ve heard in quite some time, Hans Otte’s Siebengesang and Wassermanmusik from his album Aquarian Music (also listenable on Rhapsody). Such lovely harmonies and colors, I’m looking forward to getting to know these pieces much better over the next few weeks…

Quebec City and the AMS

The past Thursday through Sunday I went to Quebec City for the first time to take a little bit of a holiday as well as to go along with Lisa to the American Musicological Society’s National Conference.  The last time I was in Canada was maybe six years ago for a weekend trip to Montreal, back when I was living in New York; I remember having had a good time and was quite looking forward to this trip. 

Of the city itself, I had two opportunities to walk around the city.  The first was on my own on a particularly beautiful morning: the light was clear and vibrant in the cool air, the colors of leaves were rich for the Autumn changes, and the quietness of the city of refreshing.  Walking around the old town I remember walking down one street that reminded me very much of when I used to walk down Polk Street to get to work in San Francisco and as you went North and got over the hills and started to walk down towards the water, on a sunny day you would be greeted by just the most wonderful sight of the bay.  The image in Quebec looking down this street had a similar feel, and although instead of the bay one saw more city, it was still nice to have been reminded of my San Francisco experiences and to have a familiar experience nonetheless.

The second time I went to explore the city with Lisa it was a very solid gray, windy, and cold out.  It certainly showed the city in quite literally a very different light. The old town felt like a nice place to see and visit but not one where one would live in if one were to live in the area.  Lisa and I did have a nice meal at a creperie that day, and it was nice just to be walking around with her and to spend time together there away from the conference.

As for the conference, I did attend a few of the sessions and found I had a very different impression from this conference than the one we went to in Seattle a few years back.  I found a number of the papers to be quite interesting, especially the ones on Ligeti and Stravinsky.  The one Stravinsky paper discussing finding a very strong numerical relationship between the intervallic structure of chords and the rhythmic structure in the Rite of Spring was really quite exciting and probably the paper that most left an impression on me; I will certainly be looking forward to finding time to go through the score to the Rite of Spring when I have a chance!

More than anything it was quite nice to see friends and acquaintances I have met through Lisa over the years.  It’s really great to think back and see how everyone’s careers have developed, from their concerns over their dissertations, to publishing, tenure, and building families.  I am sure it will be nice to continue to see everyone as time goes by and to see how life unfolds for us all.

Overall it was an excellent trip for both visiting a lovely city and for being around a very good conference.  I will be looking forward to both when next I’ll be able to visit Canada and to the next AMS I’ll have a chance to be around (which will most likely be next year’s in Nashville!).

One last note: I did manage to go and try the three things which I had heard quite a bit about: poutine (french fries with gravy and cheese curds), sugar pie (tarte au sucre) and Tim Horton’s (coffee, sandwich, and Canadian Maple doughnut).  I can say that I enjoyed all three as much as I thought I would! ^_^

Bob Snyder – Music and Memory

A month or so ago I had borrowed Bob Snyder’s “Music and Memory: An Introduction” from the library’s LINK+ system and realized now that I had not gotten around to writing about it. What a great book! I have long had many thought about time, particularly the experience of time, and reading the information presented by Snyder in the book were as if reading many of my own thoughts but done much more deeply and clearly than I had ever taken them. I felt really quite lucky to have come across this book when I did.

Unfortunately, the only problem was that I did not have enough time to read the entire book so had to skim through the rest and take notes with pen and paper (which was surprisingly effective for me to do, as taking the notes and speeding through I felt I did cover a lot of the ground and retained a great deal more than if I had not taken notes; certainly will be exploring taking notes more often in this way). One of my favorite lines I read was when he was talking about expectation as “memory cued by present experience but not fully conscience,” Snyder writes:

“With expectations we can “feel” the future in the present.” (p. 49)

I also very much enjoyed reading the section near the end of memory strategies, particularly memory sabotage. The observations about high vs. low information strategies as well as memory length strategies were those which I had thought about a great deal, and I was glad to see in the appendix listing of many of my favorite composers as examples of memory sabotage (i.e. Feldman, Cage, etc.).

It was really quite interesting to learn all about how memory works (or at least how it is currently understood to work), all the different stages and elements involved in the different levels of memory. I would whole-heartedly suggest this book to any person composing and/or analyzing music as I think it can give some interesting ways to think about music, especially as a tool to help analyze in some way how things do and do not work when listening to a piece of music. I will be looking forward to when I will have a chance to read through this text once again!

Philip Glass, Appomattox, and Video at the Opera

Yesterday (Thursday) we saw Philip Glass’s Appomattox at the SF Opera. I had read some lukewarm reviews on the internet and heard similar sentiments from friends which lowered my expectations before attending the performance. In the end I found the opera to be somewhat uneven but alright, and I was glad to have gone as I found myself thinking a lot in the end about the opera itself, Glass’s music as a whole, and the experience of attending the opera with the use of video screens (something that I thought I would abhor but was surprised to find I really liked; more on that below).

Appomattox

I found the opening of the opera and the first 2/3 or so of Act I to be the weakest part of the work. The women singers weren’t particularly strong and that there were many of them with different qualities really accentuated the unevenness of the ensemble. For this first section I found myself hearing narration of lines that were set in a way to fit in to the harmony of that moment but that the words of the singers and the story were dominating the musical qualities of their sung lines. I had found myself a number of times of thinking of opera and when I find myself most drawn to the performance is when there is a really perfect balance of quality of text in conjunction with musicality of the lines. I find I can listen to arias and not understand the words but find the musical qualities of what is being sung to be quite strong to have a response, and I had the feeling that words aside I would not have that draw to the Appomattox for this opening section at all. The orchestral writing in this early section also wasn’t particularly strong to me though it might have been that the performance seemed little loose in timing and the stray intonation here and there did not help so much. (I certainly found the Philip Glass Ensemble live performance of Koyaanisqatsi (or was it Powaaqatsi?) a year or two ago in SF to have had problems due to performance though it was a piece I much enjoyed on recording). Some of the orchestral writing dominated the singers at time as well.

Starting at the destruction of Richmond scene things became very interesting to me. The large ensemble singing with their short gesture of descending seconds together with the staging of the bombing (performers look out on stage, lights glaring for bombs going off was reminiscent of Doctor Atomic though I felt much more effective in this work) was quite strong for me. (Listening to the chorus singing these gestures brought the Sirens movement of Debussy’s Nocturnes to mind, a piece I’m rather fond of…).

I found the second half of the opera much stronger musically and dramatically than the first half. Certainly by this time I found myself very interested in the characters of Grant and Lee, thinking it would be worth while to spend some time reading up on them and perhaps a bit more on this part of American history. The scenes of future injustice were a bit sickening to me and felt at times to be over the top, though I guess you really can’t relay those parts of history in much any other way. The music was generally of a much bigger scope for this second half than the first as was appropriate for the shaping of the drama and the story. I also liked very much how things end with the scene with all the women singing, a very gentle and tender musical moment.

Overall, I thought the work was good but inconsistent work.  There are a couple of pieces within the opera which are true gems, but in its entirety I don’t see it surviving to become a staple in the opera repetoire.

Philip Glass

Watching the opera made me think of Glass’s music as a whole and its development over time.  Within the opera I was impressed by his work in the very tenderest of scenes as well as in the biggest, most dramatic moments.  It’s a credit that he can really touch on that wide a range of human experience.  On the other hand, I also found that the unevenness to be somewhat frustrating too, with Naqoyqaatsi and White Raven coming to mind as other fairly recent works which I found both a mix of the exceptional and the unremarkable.

I found myself comparing Appomattox to John Adams’ Doctor Atomic while watching the performance. I found Glass’s experience in working as Music Theater composer (as I have read him describe himself) really showing itself as I felt the shaping of the experience to be handled much more adeptly than with the Adams work.  I have long felt English not very well suited for opera and neither of the mentioned works succeeded to change that opinion. (It was after learning to speak a little Polish and falling in love with the lyrical quality of that language did I look at English and find its accents and pacing to be so angular and stilted…)

Thinking about Glass’s music I found myself thinking that I most enjoyed the pieces of his which were most abstract (absolute music).  Even in Appomattox, I found myself most taken by the destruction of Richmond scene where the chorus was singing tones and not words. It is the moments like those which make me continue to be interested to hear new works by Glass.  I will be looking forward to experiencing what he works on next.

Video at the Opera

SF Opera introduced using a video screen in the upper balcony section which showed video footage from camera zoomed in on performers or on the stage.  When I had first heard about it I thought I would absolutely abhor it but in watching the performance last night I found I really enjoyed it!  Being up in the balcony and watching the performance with my eyes not exactly the best, I found when looking up at the screen and seeing very close up shots of the performers I found a wealth of emotion on their faces and in their body that I would never have seen or experienced without the video.  In addition to the staging of just the work on the stage, I also found myself quite interested in the “staging” on the video and the use of fades from close shots to ensemble shots, pans across the stage, and other effects that framed and shaped a lot of dramatic points in the opera.  I felt that in the same way that television can enhance and offer a more dramatic experience for sporting events, it too–if tastefully applied as I felt it was at the opera last night–could offer something which could enhance the experience.

One note though, I think if I had sat any higher than where I was (which was near the front of the balcony), and had the screen been more in my main view when looking at the stage, I think it would have been too much of a distraction from the live stage.  The balcony area at the SF Opera does rise up fairly steeply, so for future performances I think if they are marked as having video and I was looking to purchase balcony tickets I would look for them closer to the front than to the back.

A Little Each Day

The past few weeks has been very rewarding for me musically as I’ve come to get into the habit of working on my piece just a little each day. I’ve been working between 20-30 minutes in the evening, usually listening or reviewing work and making small progress each time. At the end of each session I’ve been rendering to WAV/MP3 and listening during the following day while working or while out and about. I have to say that I haven’t been able to do this every day but more often than not, but doing just this bit of work and tapping into the creative musical work each time keeps it all very fresh and in the ear. Doing just this has made it easier to start working on the piece during each work session as the music is still on my mind. I’ve also gotten into the habit of writing much more descriptive log entries when committing my work to the Mercurial repository so that I can review where I left off from my last work session and very quickly get back to where I was (a habit of mine from end of day at work, writing down what I needed to do the next day so I could have it quick to recall the next day).

Finding a way to live where I could be working on music more is still on my mind, but this way of working and keeping notes has really been beneficial and I’m quite happy with how it is working out. There is certainly much more work to be done to strengthen my focus while working, but for now I am happy with the progress being made daily. My tai-chi teacher has a few times discussed the value of tapping into our tai-chi daily, sharing the wisdom of it being like adding a sheet of time to a stack and how each individual sheet is not much but over time stacks up to be quite a lot. (A story he was told by his teacher, and I believe by his teacher before him.) As true as it is for tai-chi, I am finding the truth of it now in my own musical and personal work.

sfSound – Small Packages

Yesterday’s sfSound series concert–Small Packages–was one of the most enjoyable concerts I’ve seen done by sfSound.  The 19 3-minute long pieces showed a wide variety of styles and approaches to sound and was well programmed.  While I did not find myself getting into every piece, I did find that the pieces I did find myself enjoying that I enjoyed them very much, and overall didn’t find myself having a really negative reaction to any of the pieces really.  Overall I was very glad to have attended the concert and coming home last night I felt fresh and wanting to work on music. ^_^

It’s been interesting to see sfSound over the past 5 years since living in the Bay Area.  I feel like the past two concerts I’ve seen of theirs since I got back to California were the best I had seen them do and get the feeling that something has clicked for them now.  I’ll be looking forward to seeing what they’ll do for their future concerts.

Music of the Renaissance

I finished reading a short book entitled “Music of the Renaissance” today which I had borrowed from the Berkeley Public Library (I have been trying to make use of the library, inspired by my good friend John. =) ). It was nice to read about that era of music and it has rekindled an old joy of mine for music of that time; how sweet and pure and colorful a music it can be…

I was also quite interested in reading about the culture of music in those times, or perhaps better to say how music was a part of culture. It seemed like both in the secular and the popular musical styles, music had quite an impact as part of the lives of people, that people both really appreciated as well as participated in music making (the idea of a a more social music has been on my mind lately, especially after chatting with Linda from Tai-Chi camp about fiddling and Cajun music culture in Louisiana). It also seemed that although composers were focused in their regional styles, they also kept quite aware and in touch with other composers in different areas working in different ways, with some able to incorporate and master many styles.

My takeaway from all this is not so much in depth knowledge but rather just reopening an old door and beginning to explore once again music of this time. I really enjoyed spending time reading about music like this as it had been some time since life felt settled enough to do so, and am looking forward to listening to Renaissance music once again. It feels great to slowly get in touch again with my musical life and I hope to be able to keep this going by tapping into music daily…