August 05, 2016

148, 149, 150

Recent Score columns:

July 22, 2016: Remembering Justin Holland

A sketch of the guitarist, pedagogue, and activist (and birthday buddy).

July 29, 2016: George Butterworth, composer and casualty

Killed a century ago today, leaving a catalogue small, singular, and intense.

August 5, 2016: Beethoven's op. 11 (and Joseph Weigl)

And, for the 150th of these efforts, a look at the milieu of what is still (perversely, I know) my favorite Beethoven piece.

June 04, 2016

This I know

It seems that this space is destined to be updated only in transit. The last post (five months ago?! yikes) was written in the midst of a change of abode, and now we are preparing to move Soho the Dog HQ yet again. It's like our own Year of the Three Kings, except, instead of monarchs, it's places to live. Which means we're about to start living in the residential equivalent of... Richard III? I think that analogy ran off the rails somewhere.

At any rate: as proof that I have not been completely idle, the list of Score columns over on the sidebar there has been finally brought up to date. That's 141 installments (and counting) of oblique musicological speculation for your summer reading entertainment. I should also link to this article that Molly coaxed out of me for NewMusicBox, which ended up with a pleasant amount of break on its curve, I thought. Plus, there was this Messiaen introduction for Red Bull Music Academy Daily, which led me down the garden path of echoes between Messiaen's idiosyncratic theology and that of the Flemish mystic Jan van Ruusbroec.

Oh, yeah, and this went down, which at least resulted in some flattering sympathies from smart and nice people—thank you! Like I've said before: I have a knack for getting into careers in their categorical twilight. On the other hand, it does leave more time for composing:

Guerrieri: Shining Throne (Prelude on "Jesus Loves Me") (2016) (PDF, 48 Kb)

And a low-fidelity phone recording:

The registration is only a suggestion, i.e., what happens to work on my particular church organ. (I am, now and forever, a sucker for a good—or even not-so-good—celeste stop.)

And with that, it's northern-hemisphere summer. Whatever critical scrapes I manage to get myself into will be duly noted here. Or not—I picked up some Apuleius for a dollar at a library sale today, and, I have to say, it's a better-looking prospect than a lot else that's going on out there. But Apuleius probably always is.

January 12, 2016

Thanks for hesitating

I spent last weekend packing up our house so we could move, listening to David Bowie the whole time, beginning with the new album, Blackstar, then following the hard drive on its automatic pilgrimage through the rest of his catalog. Then I woke up on Monday, saw that Bowie had died, and continued packing, and listening. And I thought about rubato.

Bowie's rubato, the way he expressively pried melodic phrases loose from the underlying rhythm, was, I think, an expression of the old-school pop singing in his genes. It could be flamboyant, particularly in ballads—Bowie's soaring 1976 cover of the Dmitri Tiomkin-Ned Washington standard “Wild is the Wind” practically never touches rhythmic ground—but more often, it was subtle. In his lower, baritone range, he would make consonants heavy and long, stickier than most, the gravity tugging the melody into his own orbit. (“I Can't Give Anything Away,” the final track on Blackstar, is elegantly saturated with this.) Sometimes he would keep the rhythm crisp until the very end of a phrase, the melody suddenly turning louche. Consider, in “Golden Years,” how Bowie's repeated, offhand punctuation—“wop wop wop”—is never quite in time.

The earliest, classical rubato was a scrupulous give-and-take: if you took extra rhythm in one place, you had to give it back somewhere else. Pop and rock's underlying rhythmic grid likewise squares rubato's demonstrative distortion. Bowie made great use of that. On “V-2 Schneider,” the Kraftwerk homage/critique from the 1977 album Heroes, Bowie's saxophone is off-beat the entire time (a dubbing error Bowie left in), flesh-and-blood at constant odds with the machine-like drive. Bowie's vocal for his 1983 hit “Let's Dance” similarly slips the bonds of its pinpoint dance rhythms. Throughout the 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, such tension echoes that between the rock-star Ziggy persona and those around him, the singer incurring debts the band necessarily pays back. Bowie's rubato always pulled the spotlight onto the individual, true to his most longstanding artistic concern, stretching from “Space Oddity” all the way through Blackstar: the human need, for good or for ill, to assert one's significance in the face of fleeting time.

I concede: rubato is not the most obvious thing to consider in the wake of Bowie's death, even for someone who, when introduced to Bowie's music (by Jack Miller, my best friend in high school), responded not to the personae, the theatricality, the defiant weirdness (it would be years before I was comfortable enough in my own skin to pursue those virtues), but to Bowie's exquisitely chameleonic technique. Even in that regard, Bowie's rubato is hardly the most distinctive thing about his music. But it felt appropriate. Rubato is, after all, borrowed time—what, it turns out, Bowie knew he was living on when he made Blackstar, what we all live on, whether we acknowledge it or not.

And, besides, its earliest classical practitioners didn't think of rubato as borrowed time; rather, they called it “stolen”—and Bowie stole it the way all great performers do. Like Robin Hood, they take an outsize share of life and give it to us, we who never have enough of it. They redistribute the limited wealth of existence so we all can have a little more. And so I pack boxes, watch my daughter dance around the living room to “Heroes,” and, for a while, believe that, somehow, I can stretch my allotted span on the planet—stealing time, just for one day.

January 06, 2016


Pierre Boulez, composer and conductor, insurgent and praetor, the refiner's fire, died yesterday at the age of 90.

He smashed icons, only to later hold their shards up to the light and reveal how their truest, most elemental natures had been taken for granted. He often and often rudely disdained convention; but convention is, often, rude. In Boulez's music, and music-making, the conventional was steamrolled, superseded by the more advanced metaphysics of music itself.

Clarity is sensual; the recondite is direct and plain; the most intricate technicalities are the most expressive, and vice versa. In an oblique way, it echoed that old Romantic transcendence, transformed into something more extreme (the twentieth century's cataclysms had, after all, left far more to transcend). But, unlike the Romantics, for Boulez, music wasn't a gateway or a symbol or a stand-in for some higher unity, be it philosophical, political, or spiritual; it was the unity, the realm where contradictions were pulverized, burned away, leaving only its own fierce, reproachful beauty.

December 24, 2015

Footsteps here below

Guerrieri: Sonos in Aere (I Love to Hear the Story) (PDF, 46 Kb)

This year's Christmas carol was supposed to be one of two: I wrote a sweet one and a not-so-sweet one, but the text permission for the not-so-sweet one has yet to come through. (Coal in your stocking this year, U.S. copyright law.) So here's the sweet one, at least—it was bumped from my Christmas Eve service, so now it is yours. I have a sneaking, cynical suspicion that the not-so-sweet one will still be pertinent next year.

That said: Happy Holidays! However tenuous your relationship to the season, you can still frolic and play the Adelaide Keen way:

July 14, 2015

Something in the tune

Tangent to the day's research: Jack Berger and His Hotel Astor Dance Orchestra's 1932 performance of "Something in the Night," with a vocal refrain by Jack Pearl, who was born Joshua Perelmuth, and who later changed his name to Jan Peerce.


July 11, 2015


In memoriam Jon Vickers, who forged inimitable dramatic steel from the physical and moral contests of opera.

July 10, 2015

Adventures in postdating

It is time for the quarterly ritual of keeping this space on life support by at least linking to everything I've been doing elsewhere. That's three months of old-new articles to peruse (including a new batch of columns)—along with (as per usual) a compensatory drink:

Slow Watch

Equal parts:
  lemon juice
  peach liqueur
plus a healthy dash of orange bitters

Shake it up with small ice, strain into a rocks glass with big ice.

Sip while reading good stuff elsewhere:

Robin James on the privilege of post-genre and Attali and neo-liberalism.

Ethan Iverson on James P. and also killer robots. (The conscious-to-subconscious progress of Doctor Who fandom described is my experience, too, although the differences between my personality and Ethan's can be pretty efficiently summed up by mentioning that my DW touchstone was not Genesis of the Daleks, but rather The Deadly Assassin.)

Peter Pesic and Axel Volmar on the musical rhetoric of string theory.

Charles Ames on the history of automated composition (including a lead sheet for "Push-Button Bertha").

Felix Arndt, "An Operatic Nightmare (Desecration no. 2)" (1916).