Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Scale of the Day: E Flat Pythagorean Lydian diminished 5

The E Flat Pythagorean Lydian diminished 5 Scale.

This is a particularly interesting scale for a number of reasons:

This is a Lydian scale that has both an augmented 4th and a diminished 5th. That would be impossible to accommodate in a standard 12-tone equal tempered system because those intervals physically occupy the same space (600.00 cents, the square-root-of-2) as enharmonic equivalents. But just systems - and the Pythagorean system is a 3-limit just system - do not accommodate enharmonic equivalency. The augmented 4th and diminished 5th are different interval classes. The augmented 4th is an otonal interval and the diminished 5th is utonal. (The 729/512 augmented 4th is said to be "otonal" because the integer with the largest prime factor -which happens to be 3- is found in the numerator. The 1024/729 diminished 5th is said to be "utonal" because the integer with the largest prime factor - which is 3 in any Pythagorean system - is found in the denominator).

Another interesting quality of this scale is that the augmented 4th degree is physically "higher" than the diminished 5th. The Pythagorean augmented 4th being 611.73 cents and the Pythagorean diminished 5th is 588.27 cents. This is the first "scale of the day" with an adjacent pair of ascending scale tones that actually descend. This gives this scale a delicious ambiguity.

Also worth noting is that the interval between the augmented 4th and diminished 5th has a frequency ratio of 531441/524288. Which is 23.46 cents wide and is commonly referred to as the Pythagorean Comma. Commas are found between any pair of otonal/utonal intervals that would pass for enharmonic equivalents in equal temperament (such as an augmented 2nd/minor 3rd or major 7th/diminished octave for example). But the Pythagorean Comma is unique in that it forms between intervals that are inversions of one another. It is also an interval of enormous historical significance in intonation theory as the presence of commas pose a dilemma for tuning keyboard instruments or modulating between key centers.

The fact that enharmonic intervals are glossed over as "equivalents" in equal temperament is just a hint of the sense of the otonal/utonal tapestry that is obscured in the drive to suppress or eliminate commas. Subversively, I find these "problem intervals" fascinating and choose to dwell upon them or feature them prominently in my own compositions. The trick is to structure a composition so that commas and other intervallic anomalies fit as a focal point. That requires developing a sonic environment around it and working melodic lines that logically turn upon themselves as such. This allows a composition to orbit around its own inner logic without simply sounding "out of tune."

Monday, November 28, 2005

Scale of the Day: F Ionian 2% wide

Text Support

The text/music issue remains steady in the front of my thinking. Perhaps because the combination is so compelling when it works and yet it works so infrequently. When it doesn't work my ears can be intolerant. Especially when the baggage of syntax is given short shift. Heather Heise of In The Wings strikes at the heart of the matter in this recent post.

A couple of excellent text/music collaborations that I've raved about in this space are ITSOFOMO by Ben Neill & David Wojnarowicz and A Short History of Vodka by Elliott Sharp & Ronny Someck. In both of these works there is a close collaboration between the poet and the composer. And significantly, the text is performed by the poet. In the case of ITSOFOMO a recording of David Wajnarowicz is used as an unsettling voice from the angry departed. The quality of the text as stand alone poetry is substantial in both of these works. But the authenticity of the authors' voices in these works is what delivers the much needed intensity to these words.

Another pair of great text compositions I've mused about are Pierrot Lunaire by Arnold Schoenberg and The 17 Lyrics of Li Po by Harry Partch where the sound of spoken language becomes the model for intoning rhythm and harmony. I view that as a significant compositional solution to the pacing of text in music. Though again, these works have the benefit of some incredible source poetry.

Celeste H offered a helpful comment to my Bob Ashley Conundrum post. Celeste is a composer who works with text head on as she manipulates it electronically. I had a chance to hear her "Coulter Shock" as a podcast a while ago. It's entirely a different animal from the text works I've been considering as direct audio manipulation and appropriation of this kind of fabric takes on dimensions I've barely considered. Celeste admits that "words are indeed difficult." But then goes on to state the attraction: "it's so primary. Everyone can relate to speech and our brains are hard-wired to recognize it and decode it. I think this gives the composer more power to manipulate, although in different ways." Well stated. I'd say I'm particularly sensitive to the difference between listening to de-code the concrete meaning of words versus listening to the more abstract qualities of instrumental music.

Celeste also recommends a number of works familiar to me by Ashley, Amirkhanian and De Marinis that successfully drain words of meaning through extreme repetition, made-up languages or deliberately obscuring or blurring to the point where only the intoning sound is left. These are incredibly attractive techniques and yet the result is often brilliant yet unsatisfying. At any rate, these techniques feel like short-term solutions to the larger text issue.

I dug "Coulter Shock." In this case the source material is anything but poetic and that in itself opens up the text to all kinds of deliberate sonic distortion as the source is already intended to function as a social distortion. I'm enormously sympathetic to the political impulse to engage so directly with the right-wing noise machine. Particularly the despicable Ann Coulter and her outrageous hate-driven punditry. It must take a strong constitution to willingly expose one's ears to such source material.

Another text work dealing with a similar part of the political spectrum that I enjoyed recently was John uTopian Shaw's "The Aspens Will Already Be Turning" as performed on NPR. It's a setting of the now indicted "Scooter" Libby's near-cryptic letter to Judy Miller in prison. Here the source material is unintentionally poetic as a thinly veiled and clumsy call for perjury. This recording by Shaw at the piano calls to mind the wonderful Charles Ives recording of "They Are Here." A composition Ives wrote in response to the politics behind the outbreak of the first world war. I hear a similar idealism animating both the spirit of the performance as well as in the details of the composition itself in "The Aspens Will Already Be Turning." (Being compared to Ives is about the highest praise I can imagine. Good work uTopian one.) Despite Shaw's anxieties about the music humanizing a such a deeply disturbed individual I find that it actually exposes the inner thoughts of a complete moron through humor. And that's one example where a direct collaboration with the "poet" or even a recorded performance of the "author" isn't really called for.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Scale of the Day: E Flat Ionian 1% wide

The intervallic content of the E Flat Ionian 1% wide Scale.

Wisps of Accelerated Ghost Trance

Don't miss this review of a recent Anthony Braxton concert in Philadelphia. I wish I could've been there to hear that one. It's a long write up that goes into some wonderful detail on the sonic qualities and ideas behind Braxton's current "Accelerated Ghost Trance" music. It would be nice if more writings about Anthony Braxton were as intelligent and honest as Michael Anton Parker's passionate posting. This one leaves the mind and ear deeply thirsty to experience this current strain of Braxton's music.
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Thursday, November 17, 2005

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Scale of the Day: F Pythagorean Ionian mapped to the Square-root-of-2

The F Pythagorean Ionian mapped to the Square-root-of-2 Scale.

The NL MVP

So this year's NL MVP was awarded to Albert Pujols. Not a big surprise even though it seemed like there was a crowded field of candidates. Not too many Cardinal games get broadcast in my local market but I did catch his big swing in the 9th inning of game 5 of the NLCS. That was about as clutch as it gets. He clearly earned this honor with his numbers for the season. This way the Cy Young and MVP go to guys from the Cardinals.

Derrek Lee was third in the voting. He would have been my pick. And I'm an impartial observer of the whole Cubs-Cardinals rivalry so I'm not playing favorites on that one. Not having Barry Bonds in the mix made the NL MVP selection interesting this year. I look forward to next season.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Scale of the Day: E Flat Pythagorean Ionian

The intervallic content of the E Flat Pythagorean Ionian Scale.

A Short History of Vodka

I just heard A Short History of Vodka by Elliott Sharp and Ronny Someck for the first time today. I'm going to have to spend some more time with this one. It is outstanding.

I've long been a fan of Revenge of the Stuttering Child. It's on my short list of great text collaboration works as Someck's poetry is incredible and Sharp backs it up with an intensity that matches the stories and episodes of the poems perfectly.

A Short History of Vodka is a different experience from the overdub-rich Revenge of the Stuttering Child. Each poem receives two tracks. The first is a brief reading by Ronny Someck with Elliott Sharp providing a matching texture on acoustic guitar. The second track is then a longer solo guitar composition/improvisation that spins off from the energy of the poem. This format works well. The words are allowed to unfold at a natural, spoken pace that preserves a natural intensity that then feeds into some exquisite guitar textures. Elliott Sharp has developed a fantastic sonic vocabulary for the acoustic guitar. The mismatched pacing required for the text and music is preserved with this format. The result is immensely satisfying.

The 6 poems on A Short History of Vodka are all in Hebrew. English translations are provided in the liner notes and well worth reading and savoring. Not being fluent in the spoken language I can't say whether or not the lack of immediate understanding of the recorded sound bypasses my normal text composition anxieties. The intensity of the delivery carries the feeling almost as if the language was native to my ears.

The AL MVP

So Alex Rodriguez took the 2005 American League MVP award today. I can't really argue with that decision. He is easily the most talented players in the major leagues and the numbers are all there from last year. Having seen him warm up and play at game 1 of the ALDS this year I can honestly say there's an intensity and intimidation factor with A-Rod that I don't see in many other players. Some incredible batting practice swings. Some incredible warm-up tosses and just a frightening level of seriousness and professionalism.

But I also remember seeing him play with the Mariners back in better days for that team. And the old Mariners fan in me has a couple of habits that die hard. One is a reluctance to root for a Yankee. An incredible team, great players, great history, etc. I'm still inclined to root against them. It's an underdog impulse. The other Mariners habit is the undeniable joy of the inspired boo's and catcalls that A-Rod induces back at Safeco Field as Monopoly money comes cascading out of the stands.

The NL MVP award will be announced tomorrow. There's no clear front runner on that one. Though I'm leaning toward Derrek Lee.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Scale of the Day: F Ionian augmented 5

The F Ionian augmented 5 Scale as one would find it on any conventionally tuned, equal tempered instrument.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Scale of the Day: F Sharp Mixolydian mapped to the Square-root-of-2

The intervallic content of the F Sharp Mixolydian mapped to the Square-root-of-2 Scale

The Bob Ashley Conundrum

I've been meaning to comment on this post from Kyle Gann ever since he posted it way back on February 28. Recently there have been some entertaining posts regarding Robert Ashley at The Standing Room and The Fredosphere that helped stir up my conflicted feelings on the music of Robert Ashley.

Kyle Gann concisely sets up four pillars for an American musical revolution:
Conlon Nancarrow for rhythm; La Monte Young (or alternatively, Ben Johnston) for pitch; Morton Feldman for texture and continuity; and Ashley for the relation of text to structure and music.
This hit pretty close to home for me and I've been mulling it over for months. I have enormous enthusiasm for Conlon Nancarrow. I love those player piano works as well as the handful of chamber works I've heard. His rhythmic ideas are a rich vein of ideas yet to be fully mined. So far I'm on board with the revolution. In case you haven't noticed the "Scale of the Day" posts all over the place I'll just state that I'm a nut for alternative intonation. So LaMonte Young and Ben Johnston are big in the HurdAudio universe. The revolution keeps sounding better all the time. Morton Feldman is another significant influence. Particularly for texture and continuity. So at this point Gann has called out some figures near and dear to my aesthetic sensibilities. Then he has to throw Robert Ashley into the mix.

I really want to have the same kind of enthusiasm for Ashley that I have for the other three-quarters of the American musical revolution. I am familiar with his work. I've seen it performed live and I periodically give it another chance from time to time. But it plays right into my difficulties with text and voice in music. I admire that he's striving to solve the text/music conundrum but I'm left feeling like he addresses the issue by compounding it. I can't quite put my finger on what exactly rubs me the wrong way because it often seems like he's "doing everything right." Yet I'm reluctant to embrace both the sound and the aesthetic.

To my ears the relation of text to structure and music is a riddle yet to be worked out. Harry Partch hit on a nice track by bending music to fit the natural rhythms and harmonies of spoken prose. But the larger issue for me is content. Words carry such heavy baggage that seem to drain the contrast out of most sonic environments. The missing leg of this American musical revolution seems to call for a different kind of poetry that I have yet to encounter.

The NL Pitch

So Chris Carpenter was announced as the National League Cy Young Award winner today. Just edging out Dontrelle Willis for the honors. The numbers were pretty similar between these two starters and there's no question they had Cy Young caliber performances this past year.

The D-train would have been my pick if it were up to me. Chris Carpenter had 21 wins on a club that won 100 games. For a starter who starts every 5th ball game that's about right. Dontrelle Willis had 22 wins on a club that only won 83. That's over a quarter of the total for a single pitcher of record. And that's one more win than Carpenter. Willis had the better ERA of 2.63 versus Carpenter's 2.83. Both pitched 7 complete games (outstanding in this day and age) while Willis had 5 shutouts versus Carpenter's 4. Extremely close number-wise. Chris Carpenter did have a lot more strikeouts with 213 compared to the D-train's 170 and he did play for a much better team. But Willis is a lot of fun to watch.

Two outstanding performances. Congratulations to both and I look forward to next year.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Scale of the Day: E Flat Mixolydian

Audio synthesis of the E Flat Mixolydian Scale.

See also:
E Flat Mixolydian Scale notated.
Interval analysis of the E Flat Mixolydian Scale.

The AL Pitch

The American League Cy Young Award was handed out today. This year it went to Bartolo Colon of the Los Angeles Angels. This was a pretty easy call and I couldn't agree more. In 33 starts he had 21 wins and 8 losses along with 2 complete games in 222 and two thirds innings of work. I happened to attend one of those 8 losses.

The National League Cy Young will be announced on Thursday. There's a little more competition for that one but I'm pulling for Dontrelle Willis.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Monday, November 07, 2005

Scale of the Day: A Pythagorean Mixolydian

The A Pythagorean Mixolydian Scale.

Music History and Its Discontents

A provocative trail of blog posts has pooled into this entry from Robert Gable's aworks. Hucbald ponders music evolution and argues the merits of understanding the tradition that has elapsed before one's point in the time continuum and approaching composition as a summation of all that has preceded it. An impossibly tall order, but I share Hucbald's impatience with those who choose not to explore the rich sounds from time elapsed. Why deprive one's self from so many compelling sounds and ideas? Even the most distasteful music is informative.

Composing involves a deeply personal sense of history and it's important to continually enrich and reevaluate that sensibility. It can be humbling to come back to a composer one had previously dismissed only to find something valued that was missed with younger ears. After enough rounds of that one learns not to be easily dismissive of composers, styles and eras. The ability and/or experience of writing a good fugue and working through proper voice leading technique is almost as valuable as mature humility in the face of a vast ocean of musics. There are more traditions than can be absorbed in a single lifetime let alone individual works.

Gable hit upon a particularly interesting query:
Do composers like Phill Niblock or La Monte Young consider themselves part of the tradition? Do they even care?
I constantly feel like I'm late to the Phil Niblock party. I haven't yet saturated my ears with his work but plan to do so. What I've heard so far has been outstanding. Is he part of the tradition or an evolutionary outgrowth of it? Certainly, and a valuable part of it.

LaMonte Young is an obsession in both sonic and conceptual territories for me. Would he consider himself part of the "tradition?" It goes back to that personal sense of history. He's carved his own tradition from some deep roots. His study of East Indian music with Prandit Pran Nath is a significant component of his aesthetic. And this can be traced to a significant body of "Pacific Rim" composers who turned to Asian traditions to enrich their "Western" origins. Young's music is a rich part of an evolving American music tradition.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Friday, November 04, 2005

Scale of the Day: E Dorian diminished 4

The E Dorian diminished 4 Scale as one would find it on any conventionally tuned, equal tempered instrument.

Interpreting Instrumental Philosophy

Here is a flash heavy, intriguing and unsatisfying explanation of Harmolodic Philosophy. I love harmolodic theory. I love Ornette Coleman's music. I've watched this thing a few times and find it lacking. It's like an animated series of chapter titles or bullet points that desperately need to be fleshed out (and not so animated). This may be one theory that is best appreciated in application and best learned through reverse-engineering.

Speaking of reverse-engineering the music of Ornette Coleman. Every fan of his work has a gaping hole in their collections. Even if one has every commercial release. Ornette Coleman has long maintained that his best work was in 1973 when he recorded with the Master Musicians of Joujouka in Morocco. These recordings remain unreleased. Which label controls these and how can one go about petitioning to get these out?
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I'm still chewing on this Composer's Forum entry regarding Ellie Hisama's charge that John Zorn writes music that is overtly sexist and racist in her essay: "John Zorn and the Postmodern Condition" published by Wesleyan University Press. Over the years I've heard plenty of rumors of Zorn's misogyny and his use of extreme visuals is well known. I'll have to read the essay in full but the quotes in the entry raise some red flags for me. In particular this critique of Torture Garden:
'“male-identified figures (the voice and the saxophone [Zorn'’s instrument]) can be heard as having an emotional outlet and freedom to play and do whatever they want, the women remain mute and thus uncomplaining about whatever is done to them'” (79-80).
Reading gender roles into instrumental music and extrapolating an agenda from that is dubious to say the least. I know Torture Garden well. I've seen it performed more than once and have a copy in my collection. I can't imagine what mute "female" roles she could possibly be referring to within this instrumentation if the saxophone is somehow "male." Is there some latent sexism for not scoring the work for "female" instruments? How does one extrapolate gender roles from an instrumental work in the first place and why? Are there gender roles in other instrumental works that need to be examined for latent "incorrect" tendencies? Is the Firebird Suite, Aaron Copeland's Sextet, John Coltrane's A Love Supreme or Olivier Messian's Quartet for the End of Time? Is that really how one is supposed to perceive instrumental music? I'm no expert in "postmodern theory" but it strikes me as being more of a MacGuffin than harmolodic theory is.

Hisama may have a better case when evaluating Zorn's visuals. There is much less interpretive leeway and they are admittedly abrasive and deeply disturbing. Much of the music in that packaging is excellent so I try not to dwell on the images but I understand it as a visual punch toward evoking an emotional response parallelell to the abrasive sonic textures and dark territory he's exploring. Though I really wish he'd let the music stand on its own it's his call to mingle the concrete and the abstract as he sees fit.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Scale of the Day: B Aeolian

The B Aeolian Scale as one would find it on any conventionally tuned, equal tempered instrument.

"...but I don't work in America... Without the support of the Europeans, I would have had no music so-called career..."

I was reading this short interview with Anthony Braxton written up as a preview of his first Boston performance in a decade. Along with this long, intelligent interview with Matthew Shipp and the recent uptick in Ornette Coleman press surrounding his current tour the common thread running through these is the continuing role of Europe in consistently supporting American music. This is a phenomenon that stretches all the way back to the 1960s with Albert Ayler if not even further.

American culture does competitive sports well. People appreciate it and collectively spend a fortune on it. When it comes to non-spectacle offerings of art music and free jazz it needs to be exported to survive. For whatever reason there is less domestic curiosity for music that falls outside some pretty narrowly marketed and proscribed definitions of "entertainment." Not that there needs to be sold out stadium tours of avant jazz and chamber music. The European support network isn't a one-to-one mapping of pop cultural trappings.

One of the better live music experiences I've had the pleasure of experiencing is George Lewis with the NOW Orchestra. It was so good I've seen them perform twice in two different countries. In Seattle the audience was somewhat cold and seemed to treat the experience as if it were bitter medicine even though the actual performance was possibly the more transcendent of the two I saw. A couple years later this same set of performers was eagerly received in Vancouver, British Columbia by an enthusiastic audience that spent the intermission engaged in a number of intelligent discussions about the dynamics of group improvisation. My perception was that of a vast cultural chasm between two cities just two hours apart with only an international border between them.

Matthew Shipp is again threatening to retire from recording. I hope it's only a much needed vacation. Anthony Braxton, Matthew Shipp and Ornette Coleman are active practitioners of a music I find enormously transcendent. I guess we have "the support of the Europeans" to thank for it.