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…

Springtime Moon

The weather changed this past weekend as did the time and with it all came a sense of Spring’s arrival.  The day was filled with a welcome light and now late into the night, the half-moon shines brightly through the clear sky. Sitting quietly here, awaiting the early morning to once again go out to travel, I am pondering the arrival of Spring and with it what will come of the life ahead.

While peering at the moon I had the thought that the greatest human joy comes with the satisfaction in one’s existence, and the greatest human despair comes with dissatisfaction with one’s existence. There are many events and experiences in one’s life which elicit this joy or despair, and of these they can be said to be equally effective in their impressions, though with very different results. For music, I find myself pondering not only of its efficacy to impress but also of its quality of impression, and find myself as deeply as ever pondering the quality of the experience of the music I am listening to, whether it is mine or others’.

I am looking forward to when my daily life can quiet down once again, to when the days go by more simply, and to again get in touch with the musical world of the pieces I am so attracted to…

Notes on Change

It’s snowing outside, a dim light, the sky gray… walking outside, the temperature was a little below 0 C though it felt warm relative to the -15 C a few days earlier.  It’s interesting how perception changes, for when it first hit 0 C it surely felt “cold”, but after getting accustomed to it it felt just “normal”.  When the temperature further dropped it felt “cold” again, though now that it is 0 C again it feels “warm”…

When change happens gradually and at a constant rate it doesn’t seem so different, just at some point you look at before and after and realize it has indeed changed.  Sort of like if you gently decelerate a car by braking at a constant level it feels just fine but when you brake suddenly it is quite jarring…

Stockhausen once discussed interest in music as a result not in change itself but the rate of change; that was an idea I found very interesting at the time and still do.  I remember a time when I was living in New York and attending a number of new music concerts and found that a number of pieces had flat moments in them. Even though the lines were very active and changing rapidly in a very complex rhythm, the change was constant and held too long for my taste and I lost interest in the pieces…

In music by Webern and Feldman, change occurs but on a different scale. I find that the relative degree of change to be quite large compared to music which has a lot of motion but little change in proportion to other material.  That is something I think is often overlooked in Feldman, how much things really *do* change when you look at it at the right scale…

I remember when I wrote “Four Quarters” a long time ago that there was a flat point.  In the original it went from 1 to 2 to 3 to 4 quarters and then back.  I later read something by Xenakis talking about perception of density as not being linear but logarithmic, which influenced me to change the progression from 1 to 2 to 4 and back.  I think it made a big difference…

I am as fascinated by the I-Ching as I have ever been, yet feel as though I understand as little of it as I did before even coming across it.  Yet, even in the study of digrams (a part of the meditation in creating Etude), I felt there were many lessons in those four symbols of change.  How many lessons there are in thinking of the hexagrams, all possessing qualities unto themselves and differing qualities when in context to the other hexagrams…

In the end though, when one steps away from it all at a great distance, there is a great balance between all of the myriad changes… one of the greatest ideas I had learned when studying and observing Macrobiotics was the idea of “dynamic homeostasis”, that things were ever changing yet always in balance…

Understanding Ideas, Same But Different

The process of working on the current piece has been incredibly interesting to me as I am employing scripts for the first time to help analyze and understand the material I am working with.  I remember back in college I used to analyze my material in a very similar way though mostly by hand.  Then for some time I either worked out ideas mostly in my head or vaguely on paper.  Now I find myself working in ways familiar to me from my earlier days as a composer, this time though with slightly different tools.

Same but different.

I am finding these tools that I have built for myself to be very useful indeed, instantly doing the things I used to do by hand but with much quicker feedback and less margin for error. I find myself fascinated with the information I am seeing; I think this may very well become integrated into my composing process into the future…

The Time It Takes for an Idea to Speak…

While at the Warsaw Autumn I was reminded of a lot of compositional ideas that I had not thought about actively in quite some time, some as back as far as when I was first seriously starting to compose in college. One observation that was particularly influential for me was in considering harmonic and inharmonic sounds and how that works on higher scales of time (or levels of form). In thinking about inharmonic and harmonic sounds, I found that they are really not so different, just that with harmonic sounds the fundamental frequency is audibly present, while with inharmonic sounds the fundamental frequency is audibly missing.

For the frequencies given in an inharmonic sound, one normally states them as being a fundamental with non-whole number or irrational multipliers to show the relationship of other frequencies present. However, one can see them in a different light as a sound where the fundamental isn’t present.

Let’s say a sound is broken down into frequencies 500, 700, 1300. This can be stated as a fundamental of 500 and then harmonics at 1.399 and 2.6 times the fundamental: a common way to state the present frequencies when working with additive synthesis. However, to look at it as a sound with the fundamental frequency missing, one can state it as the 5th, 7th, and 13th partial above a missing 100 hertz fundamental.

With a harmonic sound, the period in which the content of the sound repeats is audibly present and is the duration of one cycle of the fundamental. If one considers all of the frequencies each as an identifiable pattern, then the total pattern will repeat itself every period of the fundamental, regardless of phase of frequency.

However, for the inharmonic sound, the period in which the content of the sound repeats is not present and will always be a duration longer than any of the periods present in the audible frequencies. In the inharmonic example above, the pattern of the frequencies repeats every period in the 100 hertz missing signal.

This way of looking at sounds greatly affected my way of working with music on all levels of time. In my listening experience, I found that harmonic sounds naturally spoke more quickly than inharmonic sounds. I found that with sounds like bells or gongs, that the natural thing when hitting them was to let them ring and have a long decay, and that it would take longer for my ear to adjust to really hear the sound of the bell than it did for harmonic sounds.

Taking this observation and applying it to higher levels of musical time structures, I found that harmonies which were complex were dissonant when held short amounts of time but became softer in quality (more consonant) when they were present for a longer amount of time.

On a different level which I’ve been most involved with, for complex time relationships and layers of time to speak, I found that using simpler material and at slower rates allowed establishment of different temporal layers to occur, while not giving ideas enough time for the layer of time to speak would result in the composed layers to bind together into a single layer perceptually.

The observation on harmonic and inharmonic sounds has long held an impression on me and continues to affect my own way of working with music today. This observation has not lead to the formulation of hard rules to music, but rather has acted as one of a number of guiding impressions for me when composing music. (Afterall, rules derive from taste, do they not?)

Warsaw Autumn 2006 – Festival Retrospect

The past week at the Warsaw Autumn was really a fantastic experience: 16 concerts in 8 days, a wide variety of modern music, and a great deal to think about. I was very glad that the focus of this year’s festival was on Polish Music as I have been very interested in a number of Polish composers for quite some time and had wanted to become more familiar with the music going on in this country. It’s really amazing to me to think about the festival as an institution, as something that has been going on here every year, how composers here have opportunities in not only getting performances but also to hear a great deal of new music from both within the country and abroad. It was great seeing the composers who would have their pieces performed also showing up to just about every concert as well, just as interested in hearing these concerts as everyone else.

Speaking of everyone else, how great is it to see not only younger people at these concerts but also women and men of all ages, including many older people as well as children! Not only that, to feel a real genuine interest in the music as opposed to the pageantry of being at a classical music concert. I imagine some of the older people may very well have been attending these concerts for the past 50 years…

Thinking about the Polish composers specifically, I found that most of the composers had a really good taste for extended techniques and thought how the composers learning composition here must have access to a great deal of knowledge and experience from the older generations. It was interesting to see how a lot of the composers seemed to greet and know each other and how that there was a sense of community. I never felt that sense of a real music community anywhere else where composers, performers, and listeners seemed to be in tune. (It may very well be just an impression really and I do not know if that is how it is, but even if not, it was a very nice impression to have…)

Regarding the music, looking back and reviewing on a piece by piece basis, there were only a handful of pieces where I felt a really strong listening experience. However, overall I think the quality of composition and technique was on a high level, and if anything found that a good number of the composers weren’t playing it safe and were really pushing for something in their work and had a lot of great moments in them. Also, I think some composers may very well have achieved exactly what they were trying to achieve, but perhaps simply not what I am interested in exactly. I think when you can go to concerts and hear pieces where you’re not spending most of your time criticizing compositions on basis of form and technique but rather spending time contemplating aesthetic values and the efficacy of music, it’s a good place to be.

Thinking back, I also noticed that for pieces that used electronics, I found that as a general trend I did not care for pieces which involved live processing of performers, those with tape parts could go either way depending on the content, and those where electronics parts were used more like instruments left the most impression on me. I think it’s just a matter of my personal taste, but it was interesting for me to put it so concretely to myself and to get to know my own taste a bit better. Of course this is just a general trend for myself and tastes change, but good to know nevertheless.

Being at these concerts reminded me a lot of being back in college when there were far fewer distractions and music really was more omnipresent in daily life. Spending a week doing almost nothing but listening to concerts and really listening to music (as opposed to just casually listening) made me feel very opinionated but also very focused, rejuvenated, and inspired to work.

I think it’s a very good thing to listen carefully and to expose one’s self to as much music as possible, even if one finds it flawed or completely flat in experience, as one often learns a great deal from these pieces and about one’s own self. It’s good to think the experience all the way through too, that if you did like a piece or if you didn’t like a piece, to think why you did or didn’t like it, why someone may have wrote it, to try to think of the piece and the experience of the piece from a different point of view, from a different person’s shoes.

Overall I found the Warsaw Autumn to be a really fantastic and inspiring experience. A wide variety of wonderfully performed music, great venues for listening, and a great deal to think about. I am sure that the experience will stay with me quite some time and hope that we will have more opportunities to attend this excellent festival in the future.

Warsaw Autumn 2006 – XVI

The final concert of this year’s Warsaw Autumn festival was orchestral music at the National Philharmonic Concert Hall. In the end it was sort of a very strange concert and for me a rather anti-climactic way to end the festival. The pieces performed were:

  • Roman Haubenstock-Ramati – Symphonie ‘K’
  • Juraj Beneš – Piano Concerto No. 3
  • Eugeniusz Knapik – Introduction to Mystery

Some notes on the pieces:

Haubenstock-Ramati- incredible writing, very physical sound, string glissandi writing particularly excellent, great sense of timing and form; end felt little flat; would have liked to have heard it in a louder hall as the sound felt muted and wondering if it’s inherent to the writing (frequencies canceling out) or just that our seats weren’t in the best place for acoustics(more likely I think); didn’t have a strong listening experience but recognized there was a lot there and the listening situation sub-optimal; want to listen to this piece again

Beneš-circus of a piece, number of quotations; not serious in tone but not very entertaining either; not really sure what this piece is after and even if it achieved it if it’d do much for anyone; orchestra often covered the piano (partially the performer but I think more so in the writing), was not very interested in the piano part and was more curious about the cimbalon than anything else; did not find the form well shaped; seemed trying to be witty

Knapik- mostly tonal, lots of big chord progressions of full orchestra and choir; seemed to keep on going but without draw to do so; lot of ideas reminded me Stravinsky “Firebird” and Wagner in general; didn’t like text setting for baritone(English sounds strange sung in most cases for me though), could have been performer as he seemed a bit out of tune at times; some parts had Hollywood film-score feel

Not much to say on this concert except I’d like to listen to the Haubenstock-Ramati again (and more of his work in general, it’s been a while since I heard much of his work and even then I didn’t spend enough time with it or learning about him). After so many concerts this week where I felt there was a lot to think about I felt strange to leave a concert pretty unmoved.

Overall though I found the festival a very successful one with a great deal to think about, but will reserve that for another entry when I have a little more time to review and contemplate…

Warsaw Autumn 2006 – XV

The 12:00pm concert (well, 12:30pm, as it was delayed due to the traffic from the construction on the main street in Praga) yesterday at the Koneser Vodka Distillers was all for percussion quartet or trio. I have to say that before going to the concert my expectations were not so high as I had never really been into percussion music but this concert really changed my mind as it was a truly excellent concert performed by a fantastic group (Schlagquartett).

The pieces performed were:

  • Nicolaus A. Huber – Herbstfestival
  • Caspar Johannes Walter – Luftspiegelung
  • Guo Wenjing – Parade
  • Younghi Paagh-Paan – Tsi-Shin-Kut
  • Encore: Guo Wenjing – Stück

Some notes on the pieces:

Huber- very nicely composed music, wide range of sounds and all very well used, blanket with water was inventive but also every effective(performer had towel in water and raised it from the water, the water dripped from the towel producing sound); earlier the very quiet sections had to compete with car sounds and sirens from the street but later in the piece I found myself so focused on the piece that I didn’t even hear the street sounds, very serious tone and very controlled/disciplined, very evocative, great contrast of soft and loud as well as movement between sections; very focused and quite nice!

Walter- beautiful piece, gorgeous sound world; primary sounds were bowed vibraphone, stroked wine glasses, blown bottles, whistling and wonderful use of simple electronic (sine and triangle) oscillators that were active for most of piece; oscillators faded in and out(but not completely out, receded into background), holding a pitch, slowly moving to another; very nice blend of sounds, quiet and introspective

Wenjing- fun, very active, lively groove, impressed with variety of sounds; three players around six small gongs on table, often they would play and share gongs using different mallets, seemed tricky for each to get out of each others way; a piece both to hear and to see performed

Paagh-Paan- percussion and electronic tape; not as focused, used a lot of wind chimes(not sure what they are called) made of glass, wood, shell, metal; electronic tape part was alright; didn’t find the ideas had strong enough identity nor felt they were used long enough, having a gestural quality; nice piece but perhaps should have been performed earlier in the concert

Wenjing – short, similar in style to Parade, three performers with instruments crouching on ground; false-ending where they threw sticks in air and covered their heads; audience clapped then funny gestures hitting ground and moving body to make percussive sounds and ends with one person yelling; very fun and humorous ending

It was very interesting to hear such a wide variety of pieces be so well done but each in their very own ways and each creating their own unique experiences. I appreciated both the intense focus of the compositions and what the composers must have put in to create that, as well as the performers ability to not only play the piece but truly perform them to such a high level. Before this concert I found most percussion pieces I had heard to be extravagant and virtuosic but was gladly surprised to hear music with such depth. A wonderful concert of excellent music.

Warsaw Autumn 2006 – XIV

Tonight’s concert was a world premiere of Zygmunt Krauze’s Yvonne, Princess of Burgundy, an opera in four acts based on the play by Witold Gombrowicz.  The performance was at the National Theater, adjacent to the Teatr Wielki.  Our first time to the National Theater, I was stunned by how beautiful the building is, the interior mostly marble accented with gold.  The theater itself was very intimately sized but I think incredible for that reason: the sound was fantastic and it was very easy to see everything going on on stage from our seats (granted we were in the sixth row, but looking around I don’t think there would be a bad seat in the house).  A wonderful theater.

I enjoyed the opera very much: the story was interesting and dark but also at times humorous(hard to explain but Lisa told me that it is very similar to “Pelleas et Melisande”), the performers performed wonderfully, and the music worked very well in framing the work.  The staging was simple but effective and the costumes were fun and also effective (post-modern came to mind but that’s not quite it). The music was mostly consonant but not quite tonal, moving between a number of different moods and styles.  The work was not a very long opera (finished in two hours with an intermission) but I found that a part of why I felt it was short was that it was very well paced and transitioned effortlessly.

Listening to the opera I was once again reminded of how lyrical I find the Polish language and how well I think it works in music.  Hearing it in everyday situations I find it rather musical and even more so when set very well and performed admirably by good performers.

Overall a very enjoyable and entertaining work. It would be nice to see this opera again and they are doing another performance of the opera tomorrow, but tomorrow is also the final day of the festival and the performance is being done at the same time as the final concert at the National Philharmonic Concert Hall.  It seemed like a strong enough work to me to make it into the repertoire (though I’m no opera aficionado…) so maybe we’ll have another chance to see this again in the future.

Warsaw Autumn 2006 – XIII

The 4:30pm concert today was at the St. Hyacinthus Church in Nowy Miasto, very close to where we live, and was a concert full of choral music by Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki. Originally they announced at the concert that they were not going to be performing Miserere, but luckily for us they did perform it at the end as an encore, which was a really nice surprise.

Some notes on the pieces I took at the concert:

Totus Tuus – got chills at the opening chords as the sound of the chorus in the church was just phenomenal, the piece seemed a little out of balance formally but I enjoyed the feeling of an extended ending slowly drifting away

Marian Songs – five pieces; the first piece really blew me away, has that sort of modal pulsing that is in the 3rd Symphony, gorgeous undulating chords; the second piece was homophonic, simple divisions of time, harmonies like coloring of single line, a singular presence, reminded me of people singing at a memorial; the next three pieces did not leave as strong an impression as the first two, the ending of the fifth slowly unraveled

Five Kurpian Songs – first piece didn’t leave much of an impression; the second piece had some really nice dark harmonic shadings to a rather sweet color, very nice ending; the third was rather warm and nicely shaped; the fourth had a very interesting strong ritardando at the end to a rather unexpected cadence; fifth had a sort of canon-like feel, interesting pacing of phrase lengths, a weary sound of workers working away, got pretty dark in color, the penultimate chord progression was fantastic but end was just alright; overall thought it was just alright

Miserere – gorgeous, opening section is just phenomenal and very much like the 3rd Symphony where a single modal line goes, then a second line joins in bringing in fantastic colors, then a third, and so-on; each layer added brought wonderful color and when the lines reached the top of their contours and the harmonies opened up it was just phenomenal; later in the piece moves away from modal character to more major mode and seemed to lose a bit of steam; the piece moved from a sort of constant pulsing in the beginning to more pausing on chords; while I enjoyed the shaping of the form earlier, later seemed to stay at thick harmonies a bit too long for my taste; very glad they performed this!

I was very excited to go this concert as I enjoy Gorecki’s music very much; it’s also an interesting thing for me historically as when I first heard the 3rd Symphony it really struck me (I was driving on Riverside Drive in Marietta, GA, it was autumn with the leaves turning colors and I had the music on very loud, driving back to school in Athens…). It was also after reading a book on Gorecki back in college that I had first had the thought that I would like to visit Poland; now it’s my third time here and I will be able to say that I lived here a not insignificant amount of time when all is said and done.

At the concert today I was thinking a lot about the choral sound and why did it work in church when there is such a long reverb and why didn’t other chamber music work for me the other night which had a similar situation of sound be masked. I think that perhaps that with the harmonies being such a strong thing to identify by ear, that pronouncing words really cuts through the sound to help identify the changes, and that the music was mostly homophonic that made the pieces really work and cut through with such a thick reverb. I also felt that the pieces were at their best when they were at their simplest, and that the ones which had more polyphonic textures did not sound so strongly as the simpler textures.

Another aspect of the sound I found myself very interested in was the ambiance of the reverb coming from high above (the church was a tall Catholic church). I don’t remember ever being in a concert at a church and having such a clear sense of the sound, the somewhat glowing quality of it. I was amazed at how very affecting the sound was and thought back to other concerts I had heard in the past few years at churches and how I never had the same sorts of impressions I had today.

I also thought a lot about Gorecki’s music and what I like so much about it. There’s something very serious and contemplative about it but also at times it had a real sense of joy, and I think that is one of the hardest things to accomplish. For a while now I’ve been contemplating ideas on serious music that can be positive as well as ideas on serious music which can be warm in color. I remember something Rothko wrote discussing how fear is something that is easy to identify with in art as it is a common human experience but that other experiences can be much more difficult to create. I think that might very well be one of the most interesting aspects to Gorecki’s music for me.

It’s been amazing to hear so many different types of musics here at the festival, many pieces very serious but in their own way. I think the Gorecki offered a really different approach than most of the other pieces we’ve heard and it leaves its own distinct impression. Leaving the concert, it felt as if there was a sense of energy in the air and the crowd seemed very excited by the music. A very memorable experience…