Thursday, June 30, 2005

Untold Treasures from Saturn Needing to be Unearthed

Today's New York Times has an article about 81-year-old Marshall Allen's struggle to keep the Sun Ra Arkestra intact and active a full 12 years after Ra departed this world and 10 years after the passing of Arkestra tenor saxophonist John Gilmore. (Gilmore is often cited as a major influence for John Coltrane).

Deep appreciation is due for Marshall Allen's efforts to keep this incredible ensemble going. He has been living in the same Philadelphia townhouse that Sun Ra lived in (communally, with the Arkestra back in their prime) and it sounds like a museum of this living body of music. The world is simply a richer place for his efforts. At the same time, it seems like a cruel injustice that this labor of love should be such a struggle at this point in his life. This is the music and legacy of Sun Ra that he is an important part of. It is a substantive and important part of American music history. This music is a valuable cultural contribution.

Here's a line from the article that really got my attention: "In another corner was a tall wardrobe cabinet containing hundreds of Sun Ra's original music scores, much of them never recorded." There remains a body of Sun Ra compositions that have never been recorded?????? How can this be???? The mind reels at the prospect of such an untapped, unknown wealth of new music yet to be heard from this outstanding creative mind. This wardrobe of scores sounds like the musical equivalent of a chest of unknown Shakespeare manuscripts. How is it that there's no army of Sun Ra scholars pouring over these scores, preserving them and actively promoting performances and recordings of them? How can Marshall Allen be facing such financial struggles with this kind of treasure around? There really needs to be an initiative to correct this injustice. If money can be raised to build presidential libraries then surely something could be done to properly honor the legacy of Sun Ra.

Something else I learned from this article is that Marshall Allen has also written music and at 81 he continues to compose prolifically. I'd love to hear his music. This man has experienced the beauty of Arkestra life since 1958 and he's still carrying on.

I fear that it will take far too long before the real value of Sun Ra is understood. And by that time Marshall Allen will no longer be with us and too many of these unrecorded scores will be lost. Sun Ra is an outsider in death much as he was in life. He was a master of writing a great melodic line. He was a fantastic orchestrator, leader and composer who oversaw a tremendous period of advancement in jazz as it became an art music over the course of the 20th century. His persona is a poignant commentary and empowering gesture to define his own identity outside the narrow confines of a culture and planet that could not absorb, appreciate or contain his imagination. His fleeting terrestrial presence will have reverberations for generations to come.

Scale of the Day: E Flat Dorian augmented 4

The E Flat Dorian augmented 4 Scale as you would find it on any conventionally tuned equal tempered instrument. Posted by Hello

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Scale of the Day: G Sharp Aeolian 1% wide

The G Sharp Aeolian 1% wide Scale. Posted by Hello

Suppressed Octaves

Tickling my auditory processing system.... Posted by Hello

In much 12-tone music composition a great deal is made about suppressing octaves. The extreme 'consonance' of this interval class (the unison sharing the same interval class identification) is widely regarded as (a) being devoid of any new harmonic information as the mere duplication of the same pitch class adds color without harmony and (b) runs the risk of sounding like a reference to tonality as a cognitive "center" by placing additional weight/gravity on a single pitch class. This isn't necessarily unique to 12-tone music. Many jazz pianists learn that avoiding octaves when voicing harmonic changes makes for a more "sophisticated" sound.

Recently I've become interested in tuning systems that naturally suppress octaves. Most scales repeat an ordered set at each octave (i.e., the "major scale" is the ordered sequence of [Major 2nd, Major 2nd, Minor 2nd, Major 2nd, Major 2nd, Major 2nd, Minor 2nd] repeating every octave between tonic pitch classes). I've been experimenting with scales that repeat at the triative (an interval 1901.96 cents wide, approximately the size of a perfect 12th) or the just perfect fifth (a 3/2, which is 701.96 cents).

I currently have my main keyboard tuned to a 3/2-based scale that sounds promising. There are a few 2/1 octaves here and there, but most of them are "off" and sound deliciously 'dissonant.' But every perfect fifth is exactly 3/2 and things resolve to that interval nicely. "Inversions" take on an interesting sonic quality as they invert relative to the perfect fifth. The major third inverts to a minor third, the inversion of a major second is the perfect fourth, etc. It's disorienting at first, but sonically logical and pleasantly other-worldly. Chromatic runs are a blast.

One of the things that makes this system intriguing is that there are many "familiar" sonic reference points. There are several 5-limit major triads (1/1, 5/4, 3/2) and 5-limit minor triads (1/1, 6/5, 3/2) mixed in with some less familiar harmonic revelations. In particular, the root position A minor triad above middle C is intoxicating (the A is tuned to an 11/8 relative to E flat, but treating the A as 1/1 the sounding triad is: 1/1, 96/77, 3/2).

So far I've been improvising with some spare, Feldman-esque textures. This is unfamiliar harmonic territory marked with several familiar-sounding landmarks so it seems natural to slowly unfold the harmonic palette over time so one can perceive the peculiarities of this other-worldly sound. The objective is to compose something that "fits" the system. Otherwise it ends up sounding "out of tune."

Having these intervals replicated at every 3/2 perfect fifth makes this system easily adaptable to non-fretted string instruments within a comfortable range of scordatura options. I could easily imagine tuning the open strings of a cello to match the notes on the re-tuned keyboard and improvising over a texture of natural glissande. Natural harmonics at 1/2, 1/4 or 3/4 of the string length would need to be "suppressed" as those are natural octaves. But the nodes at 1/3 and 2/3 would sound great.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Scale of the Day: E Flat Aeolian mapped to the Square-root-of-2

The intervallic content of the E Flat Aeolian mapped to the Square-root-of-2 Scale. Posted by Hello

The Sonic Gem of San Buenaventura

Ventura New(!) Music Festival. Posted by Hello

So HurdAudio finally got out for some live music tonight. Jeff Kaiser currated the Ventrua New Music Festival at Ventura City Hall and I was off to get acclimated to this corner of Southern California. There's some big ears down here as these improvising composer/performers have a great focus on timbre.

In particular I was impressed by missincinatti. The duo of Jeremy Drake on acoustic guitars (and live electronics) and Jessica Catron on cello built up some exquisitely delicate textures made by amplifying quiet extended techniques on their respective instruments. Alternate methods for vibrating strings were explored as Jessica Catron used vibrating tuning forks applied to open strings to trigger sympathetic vibrations and Jeremy Drake used a short bow and twisted tuning pegs. This duo is mining some particularly fertile territory within this pianissimo landscape.

Many Axes, the trio of Brad Dutz (percussion), Scott Wilkinson (Tuba, various flutes) and Susan Rawcliffe (instrument builder, winds) explored improvisational territory by mixing instruments from different geographies, intonation and cultures. Susan Rawcliffe's Harmonic Bass Flute was especially cool. The odd shape of multiple cylinders with a single stop and a hole at the end had me puzzling out the physics of such an instrument (all those vibrating columns air joined together at such odd angles). By having a low fundamental, Wilkinson could change the pitch by overblowing, underblowing and stopping or opening the single stop or hole at the end. It would be great to hear a piece that multi-tracks that instrument.

The final performance of the evening was Jeff Kaiser (trumpet, electronics) and Jim Connolly (acoustic bass). This duo had a nice sense of contrast as Jeff Kaiser had a nice instinct for when to serve up an aggressive blast from the electronics and when to pull back and let the acoustic sounds stand on their own.

Overall it was deeply encouraging to find so many musically adventurous souls just down the 101. I look forward to more sonic events from the pfMENTUM roster of artists.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Natura renovatur

Giacinto Scelsi: Natura renovatur. Posted by Hello

There's something about having this disc on as the daylight seeps away. The sense of transcendence that Scelsi was probing for in these compositions seems to complement the encroaching darkness of evening. Scelsi's music is deeply appealing for me. Especially the string quartets (I recommend sitting through them all at some point... Arditti has a good recording). Opening with the Fourth String Quartet is a welcome prelude to hearing some of his other pieces for string instruments.

"Maknongan" for Contrabass in particular is a revelation. Written in 1976, late in Scelsi's output, it's a brief utterance that seems to breathe a solitary chant through the body of this large instrument.

Scelsi's chamber music seems to paint with long, carefully sculpted strokes of sound with enormous detail along dynamic and timbral parameters. Single tones seem to reveal a rich sonic climates contained within a delicate frame. I may have to try this disc at the other side of night. With these sonic glimmerings running along side the opening rays of sunrise.

Scale of the Day: G Sharp Pythagorean Aeolian

The G Sharp Pythagorean Aeolian Scale. Posted by Hello

Monday, June 20, 2005

Scale of the Day: E Phrygian diminished 4

The E Phrygian diminished 4 Scale as you would find it on any conventionally tuned equal tempered instrument. Posted by Hello

Sunday, June 19, 2005

The Peculiar Tour of Great Text Compositions

I have this love/hate relationship with text and music. I love the abstraction of instrumental composition and often profess to feeling scorn for the mere sound of the human voice. But this mostly stems from overexposure to bad songs in public spaces. Aesthetically I feel at odds with having the vocals front and center bullying the rest of the performers into an invisible, subservient supporting role. My inner anarchist wants to level the sonic field and do away with the predictability of song forms.

But then I'll hear some incredible text composition that works and I'm a believer in the co-existence of words and music again. On the playlist on my portable player at the gym this past week I happened to run through a particularly cool sequence of great text compositions of different stripes:

Nicolas Collins: It Was A Dark And Stormy Night. Posted by Hello

I've long had a fondness for this disc. The opening track: "Broken Light" for string quartet accompanied by a modified (skipping) CD-player is an excellent piece filled with all the textures that have me addicted to the Soldier String Quartet. But the text odyssey really begins with the final track that fills the final half hour of this disc.

"It Was A Dark And Stormy Night" is scored for a wide range of "downtown" performers (including the much missed Tom Cora on cello) and a series of voices that tell a cyclical series of stories that begin with the phrase: "It was a dark and stormy night...." The text, and much of the audio content, dwells on the theme of copies, forgeries, derivative ideas and imitation. Amazingly, this piece never collapses under its own self-referentiality. As a composer and electronic musician, Nicolas Collins has a wonderfully subversive streak. The climax of this piece is when he turns David Moss loose with one of his insane vocal improvisations that randomly quotes portions of all the stories told so far. Like much of Collins' music, the concepts seem susceptible to gimmick yet never fall in that direction.

Then the playlist turned toward something completely different....

Johnny Cash: The Essential Johnny Cash. Posted by Hello

My ears took one of those rare, choice-driven turns toward a commercially viable genre (the extremely rare subgenre of Country Music even). This music would seem to violate all my "anarchist" sensibilities and yet the quality of Cash's voice and delivery along with the outstanding quality of lyrics and story telling win me over every time.

"The Ballad of Ira Hayes" is timeless and deeply moving. And always an important story to remember whenever greed sends the young and poor off to fight wars. I also dig the whimsy of "One Piece At A Time" or the sentiment of "Man In Black." Much of these recordings are such a great example of what song can be and what pure charisma can bring to the troubadour art.

Steve Reich/Alarm Will Sound: Tehillim/The Desert Music. Posted by Hello

The Standing Room sends word of a certain Mademoiselle T who can sing the entire theme from part I of "Tehillim" from memory from having learned it from a recording. Damn! I hope she's available for parties.

"Tehillim" is a great piece and this particular performance is outstanding. And it also serves as another angle on the successful text composition. The Psalms are a rich source for musical setting and I love the combination of voice and percussion.

"The Desert Music" used to be an all time favorite composition for me. I'm deeply familiar with the orchestral version conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. This revised chamber version falls short for me. The voices seem too exposed in the smaller setting and the delivery style feels off to me. The grand, sweeping message for humanity in the William Carlos Williams poetry seems to beg for a larger ensemble sound. The harmonic progression is fantastic and a major draw for my ears.

Iannis Xenakis: Kraanerg. Posted by Hello

After all those hours of text music it was time to retreat in a refreshing bath of European avant garde aggressive dissonance the way Iannis Xenakis' instrumental works can deliver it. Ahhh... now that's refreshing listening.

Scale of the Day: C Locrian

The C Locrian Scale as you would find it on any conventionally tuned equal tempered instrument. Posted by Hello

What Should've Been

... Posted by Hello

Tonight I'd hoped to blog about the Paul Bailey Ensemble's performance this evening at Whittier College. Due to an unfortunate sequence of events I was unable to attend as the snarl of LA traffic turned a prior commitment into a much longer, more involved procedure than I'd planned. Keep me on that mailing list, Paul. I still want to see this band and I'm going to be all over that CD when I can apply ears to it. I hope there will be another gig this summer.

Skulking in the door in my disappointment at missing the show I see that Mr. Bailey had answered my meme gauntlet earlier. Quite thoughtfully too. When mentioning pieces that he listens to or mean a lot to him he hit on several significant works that I also hold dear.

Like 8 Lines by Steve Reich. I first heard that work as Octet (same piece, alternate title). It was the first piece of minimalism I'd ever heard. It was the first music I'd ever heard that opened my mind to music beyond mainstream radio. It riveted me and led me to devour Reich's music. Of which, Music for 18 Musicians is also a treasure. Ultimately it was Desert Music that made me conscious of my desire to compose music. Then came a spell when I worried that my creative ideas would always sound derivative of Reich's phase-heavy music. After working with atonal composition, free improvisation and keeping an open ear for all kinds of sound I managed to develop a wide array of influences and feel like my music sounds like me now. But I have a great fondness for Reich and the ideas he opened me up to.

And Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass. Growing up in Portland, Oregon, KBOO was my lifeline to hearing "new music." And I remember the late night with headphones on taking in that opera for the first time. The final act was like arriving at a surprising location after an unbelievable journey. I promptly made a cassette copy from vinyl and proceeded to wear those poor tapes out. My ideas about opera have changed a great deal as I attempt writing my own. But I also have a high regard for the experience of hearing Einstein on the Beach.