Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

Oh... to have an American holiday in the UK. We made turkey dinners, complete with Stove Top for Thanksgiving.



Oo! And here's all the other American stuff we also got at Partridge's, the American grocery store. Mmmm it's tasty to have a holiday.



We didn't have any family with us, though. We miss everyone! See you soon!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Breakthroughs

Eureka moments don't happen for me.

I've always read about them: the moment you reach the summit of a mountain, the moment a great truth is revealed to you. It is a painfully common cliché for a composer to describe in his or her biography the 'moment' when he or she first heard a recording of a symphony or the throbbing of a rock band, and viscerally describe how in this orgasmic, watershed apotheosis, the meaning and order of life was unveiled.

But the ideas that matter to me in my life grew over time; it would be impossible for me to pin down precisely when I realized they had taken form.

For example, my belief that morality is independent of religion was not sparked by any particular piece of reading or event but by many. Religion presented enough of a problem for me when I was 15 or so that I have amassed, again out of years of reading and thinking, a worldview that makes more sense to me out of philosophy and anthropology. My love of composition did not overwhelm me on any particular day, but grew out of years of enjoying tinkering around on the piano and more years of learning the joys and frustrations of twisting and mashing those tinkerings into music.

Part of these latest musings can be attributed to the fact that, after a considerable period of busy pragmatism (which, oddly enough, coincides with a scarcity of compositional output), I have recently begun to both read more and pay more attention to my own intellectual values. Maybe I'm inspired by Barack Obama's intellectualism — clearly, he is a man who spends time formulating his beliefs with reason (here's a great article about this subject). Or maybe reading about Stravinsky and John Adams and how wide-ranging their reading interests were has reminded me of the value of keeping the philosophical fires stoked.

Whatever the case, my latest idea that I think will be useful to me in the long-term is the answer to the age-old question: what is the definition of music? Most often, musicians consider the answer to be 'organized sound'.

This definition is common currency among composers. I always thought it was appropriately liberal (certainly to say that pitch alone makes music is somewhat elementary) but it seemed a bit incomplete and I was never quite satisfied with it. 

Consider the following:

What we recognize as pitch is actually the vibration of a sound wave a certain regular (that is, periodic) number of times per second. A above middle C, for instance, is a sound wave that vibrates 440 times a second. A sound wave is an awkward thing to visualize so consider this: it is possible in a computer program to establish a pulse — a virtual metronome emitting a clicking sound. The lowest audible pitch humans can detect pulsates around 20 times a second (the wavelength is more than 50 feet) which means that if you gradually made the virtual metronome click faster and faster, when it clicked 20 times a second (roughly), you would no longer perceive it as a series of pulses and would instead perceive a very low pitch. Likewise if you continued to increase the speed of the metronome, the pitch would rise. 

In other words, pitch is created out of periodicity. Sound waves that vibrate periodically (at a constant rate) are perceived as pitch, while those that are aperiodic (speech, a door closing — anything, really) are not.

It is therefore not surprising that music should be based on pulses (tempo), recurring ideas, and periodic phrases, which are all macrocosms of varying scale of the waveform itself. Even if someone starts to speak in meter or with a regular pattern of inflections, as in poetry, it starts to sound musical. The periodicity of inflection, like pulse or phrase, is fundamentally related to the periodicity of pitch.

Therefore I have a new definition: music is periodic sound.

This is a crude first-scrawling of this concept, but I hope to bore you further with it soon. In particular, this idea has opened up new meaning for me in terms of what I believe constitutes good music and good compositional craft. I have examples and the like but all that will come later — that is, after a bit of sleep.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

At Last: Good News

Lately, I haven't been doing so great on the whole composition-as-a-career thing. 

2007 was a great year: I participated in (that is, was accepted to) three summer festivals, was very productive (Sonatina, Intervals of Flight, and Thanatopsis were all composed in 2007), and was accepted to three of the five schools to which I applied for graduate school. There were twelve performances of my music (including an ASU faculty concert, an ASU orchestra concert, my first international performance, and a recital consisting of only my works), and in general, things were looking up.

2008 has not been so fruitful. It has been consummately more enriching in other areas of my life — say, for instance, getting married and moving to another country — but has been relatively slow-going in the career department. It looks as though this year will finish out with nine performances, I didn't win anything per se to go on my CV (though not from a lack of trying), and — most importantly — I suffered a kind of compositional rough patch for most of the year, a hangover from Thanatopsis, out which I have only in the past few weeks begun to drag myself. Consider that while I completed six works in the first nine months of 2007, in the next year I wrote only two simple choral works, the first two movements of an as-yet-unfinished violin sonata, and a small piece for solo violin, Postcard, as a going-away present for Taylor (he's quite the celebrity: here's his bio page on Barrage, and here's his blog).

All this is to say that when I received a certain e-mail this evening from the Chicago Miniaturist Ensemble, saying that they will be performing Postcard at the Ossia Space on December 4th, it was a welcome sight for sore eyes. Oh, how I hope this is the beginning of another upward trend.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Concert Plans

Things are steadily improving at the College. For some time now I've wanted to start a chamber group to do mostly (but not exclusively) new and unusual music, both for the conducting experience and just for the sheer enjoyment of it (too often it's easy to lose sight of the emotion in music when you're only writing it), and it looks like it's going to happen. I had thought about starting it a year ago at ASU, but between grad school applications, graduation, the wedding, and the move, I decided to hold off on it until London.

Our first concert will be in mid-late February (the date won't be set for another few weeks) and we'll be playing Schoenberg's chamber arrangement (for eight players) of Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and Frederic Rzewski's Coming Together as the second half of a College concert. Ideally, if it works out, we'll do full concerts and more ambitious repertoire later in the year, but just to test the water, we're taking on a half-concert and two slam-dunk pieces.

In fact, these two pieces represent everything that I want to be important for this new ensemble. The Debussy suggests that the repertoire won't be entirely brand new (I think it's usually a mistake to program entire evenings of new music, as you won't draw in the casual listener), but the Rzewski is more or less (in London, anyway) unknown, and is just the kind of visceral, dramatic piece that I really think will connect with people. There's nothing dry or academic about it. For those of you who have access to the Naxos online music library, there's a phenomenal recording of the piece by Eighth Blackbird.

One thing this new ensemble does not yet have, however, is a name. For this first concert, there will be eight of us (plus me conducting and, for the Rzewski piece, speaking), but ideally the instrumentation will be flexible, ranging from 6 all the way up to 15 or 16 players. This suggests something like a consort to me, but the name 'Contemporary Consort' is already taken (in fact, I went to their concert last week).

Any ideas?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Something in the Air

A couple days ago, I found something that made several unrelated items floating around my brain gel. Let me start at the beginning. Here are three of the items:

For some time now, I've noticed how different London smells from Phoenix. Whether Phoenix's dry environment and post-1960s man-made environment makes it odorless or whether I've simply become accustomed and immune to its scents, I don't know, but I do know that London smells different. The train, the train stations, the buildings, the people, even just certain spots on a street or in a park — all of these are far more fragrant (and I do not mean exclusively pleasantly so) than the environment to which I'm accustomed. A particularly vivid example for me is the library at the College, which, housed in a turn-of-the-century building and housing a substantial quantity of turn-of-the-century books, is almost a funhouse of scents. Compare the smell of a new, acid-free book to an aging 1930s edition. Multiply the latter by the thousands and that's what the College library smells like. Nostalgic, the air of learning, but with a hint of carcinogen.

One day, while talking with some composer friends about my disgust with Stockhausen, et. al, and the culture of fantastically bizarre and ugly music, I likened the experience of some of his works with this analogy: if an artist who could control scents subjected someone to, rather than pleasant or interesting smells, twenty minutes of fecal matter followed by an hour of rotting corpses, etc. The premise is absurd, but no more so than the music I was describing.

A friend mentioned to me the relatively recent advance in technology that allows scent to be broken down into three component parts — just as there are three primary colors from which any conceivable color can be created — and thus analyzed and converted into a universal unit (i.e. digitized).

Simultaneously, John Adams' memoir (which I've just finished reading) and the electronic music teacher at College were discussing what it means to be experimental: how, in the good old days when computers were still mysteries — uncharted dark space on the map — it was truly an adventure to see what kind of art would result. 

Right. These thoughts suddenly coagulated when I read an article about scent technology in an Imperial College science magazine (Imperial College is right behind the Royal College). The long and short of it is that it's already underway. 

You can already buy a device that can recreate any scent possible, companies in Japan are already incorporating this technology in their advertising, and Motorola and Samsung are both developing cell phones with scent technology for those 'extra sweet' texts. In 2006, a few theatres in Japan incorporated scent into their screenings of Terrence Malick's The New World and the first scent-enhanced album is already out. The actual article itself is far more exhaustive in terms of ways scent technology is already in use and possible uses for it in the future (say, for the visually impaired).

How fascinating is this!? The possibility to incorporate something truly experimental in music has been missing for decades! There's no longer anything experimental about electronic music: computers have made guesswork about oscillators and filters completely obsolete, and John Cage exhausted the elements of chance in music. What are we left with? What is experimental in the age of computers? It is a possible answer to this question that has me excited.

I don't know yet how scent could be incorporated with music (that's what makes it experimental!) or even if it's practical (would the smell change over time... or linger above the audience?), but isn't the sheer possibility of it fascinating?

I'll leave you with a passage from Aldous Huxley's 1932 novel, Brave New World:

"The scent organ was playing a delightfully refreshing Herbal Capriccio — rippling arpeggios of thyme and lavender, of rosemary, basil, myrtle, tarragon; a series of daring modulations through the spice keys into ambergris; and a slow return through sandalwood, camphor, cedar and new-mown hay (with occasional subtle touches of discord — a whiff of kidney pudding, the faintest suspicion of pig's dung) back to the simple aromatics with which the piece began. The final blast of thyme died away; there was a round of applause; the lights went up."

Friday, November 14, 2008

LCO and Beethoven

I have come to realize that there are more second- and third-rate musicians in London than in Phoenix simply because there are more musicians altogether. In fact, I should have figured it out before: the presence of more first-rate musicians necessitates the stragglers.

Just such stragglers (the London Chamber Orchestra) performed a few nights ago at St John's Smith Square (a church near the Houses of Parliament in Westminster). The program included Beethoven's Violin Concerto (a legendary piece, averagely performed), a new piece by Graham Fitkin (nothing life-changing, but a good, pleasant piece), and Beethoven's Fourth Symphony, which was performed as clunkily as the Violin Concerto, but with an added bonus: the last movement was taken so ridiculously fast as to actually make it funny. For anyone keeping score, the last movement is marked Allegro ma non troppo (quick, but not too quick), and nothing could have made Beethoven's marking make more sense to me than to hear this absurd performance; the tempo was no non, all troppo. When the bassoon had a quick line, which should be both playful and playable, the player stumbled all over it (because no human bassoonist could possibly play it at that tempo) and I actually chuckled mid-performance.

In any case, it is nonetheless surprising that I would choose the Phoenix Symphony performances of both Beethoven pieces over those of the London Chamber Orchestra. Go figure.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

First UK Performance

Last night's concert at the National Portrait Gallery was a great experience: all of the music was interesting, there was a larger-than-expected crowd, and both my flutists (both Australians, incidentally — no one's British in London) played the hell out of my piece, which was (admittedly mediocre and) quite technically challenging. You can hear the performance here. It's worth your just-under-four minutes.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Victory

The gravity of the situation is too much for me in my exhausted state. To think that, after more than a year of hoping Obama would be elected, it has actually happened gives me greater joy than I can convey. Quite without hyperbole, my faith in America has been restored.    

Here I Am...

...curled up with my streaming MSNBC and trench essentials: beer and candy corn. I'm not planning on going to sleep until I know who the next President will be.

Quantum of Solace

Tonight we went to see the new James Bond flick; we were filled with anticipation both because it's more than a week before the film is released in the US and because early rumors buzzed that it was better than Casino Royale.

I was deeply, deeply disappointed. Not only because the movie, even if it had nothing to do with James Bond, was a far-below-average action film with unclear, unsatisfying action sequences and negligible character development, but because Bond's character completely lacked any of the charm, humor, or cleverness that made him an icon and separates the character from any generic agent. The writing was overwrought (the hallmark of a Paul Haggis script), the music thin and only begrudgingly referential to the James Bond themes, and the direction and editing bafflingly sloppy and choppy.

It's difficult to find anything positive to say about the film: there was an intriguing opera scene but the filmmakers (writers or director, it's tough to say) didn't make anything of it and the scene, as most of them did, fizzled out.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Conducting in Olney

I spent this weekend at a conducting workshop in Olney. Olney is a small town (circa 6,000 people) a few minutes' drive from Milton-Keynes, a larger town (circa 225,000) about a forty minute train ride north of London (circa 7.5 million). It ended up being a positive experience, but not necessarily for the reasons I had expected.

The course (here's the website) is taught by Michael Rose, a moderately successful and no-doubt very skilled conductor. While his work was/is mainly provincial, he did conduct the BBC Philharmonic and several Proms concerts in days past. While I didn't expect a hardcore, competitive atmosphere (indeed, a laid back approach was what I was looking for), the site led me to believe — mainly by repertoire selection: Mozart 40, Brahms Haydn Variations, and Debussy Prelude to an Afternoon of a Faun — that participants were expected to have at least a basic working knowledge of conducting to build upon. This was not the case. I don't want to dwell on it, but most of the participants were complete beginners. They were terrified of standing in front of the small ensemble and would have a better chance of being struck by lightning on a sunny afternoon than ever have the opportunity — or even the desire! — to conduct one of the works with an actual orchestra. There were, of course, exceptions, but on the whole it offered very meager opportunity to learn from the other participants' time on the podium.

As I said, though, it was still a positive experience:

As a conductor, I learned to rein in my awful habit of bobbing my head and shuffling my feet while conducting, and gained a good deal of familiarity with the selected works.

The people of Olney are wonderful. Because I was lazy in arranging accommodation, the B&B's of dear little Olney were full and I had to be put up with friends of the course organizer. They were wonderful people with a funky sense of style (the staircase to their third floor was a staircase from a decommissioned double decker bus) who cooked me breakfast and refused to take any sort of payment.

Indian curry. I had only had Thai curry thus far, but had a great opportunity to sample a lot of adventurous Indian dishes at the group dinner.

And it was nice to get out to the country. Little towns, roundabouts, suburbs (I saw a Toys R Us!)... all welcome things from crowded, narrow London.

My First Performance...

...in the UK will be this Friday evening in the National Portrait Gallery. Here's a short listing about the event.

Edit: oops, the link was removed and I didn't have the foresight to screen-capture the listing. Oh well. I will for future concerts.