April 30, 2007

The Song Is You

Gil Alterovitz, a research fellow at the Harvard Medical School, has devised a way of musically representing genetic sequences.* Alterovitz hopes to use the technique as a real-time health monitoring tool. As reported in the Harvard Crimson, Alterovitz presented some of the tunes as part of the Cambridge Science Festival last week:
While showing protein structures on a screen, Alterovitz played the compositions made when he matched up certain instruments to protein structures, creating harmonious melodies for healthy patients and atonal ones for sickly ones.
Now, is that really accurate? Every time I've watched a consumptive perish on the operatic stage, it's always been to the accompaniment of ringing triads. (Although all those "classical music is dying" types will probably accuse Alterovitz of swiping their diagnostic tool.) On the other hand, I do like the idea of a hospital ringing with the cacophony of hundreds of genomic melodies in Cagean counterpoint.

Alterovitz may end up with a hit on his hands, according to this report:
By turning the components of genetic and proteomic data into musical notes, he was able to represent biological networks such as gene regulation and protein interaction in a way that sounded exciting to a broad audience of all ages.
Hey, if he can make proteomic data sound exciting to any age group, the sky's the limit.

*Update (5/1): Dr. Alterovitz notes in the comments that it's the genetic expression (for example, the resulting manufactured proteins), not the sequence itself, that's being musicalized.

April 27, 2007

Dreams of night, lost in shade

The admittedly parochial thing that always amazed me about Mstislav Rostropovich, who died today, was that, even if he had never picked up a cello or a baton, he probably could have still been world-famous as an accompanist. As it was, he only ever really showed this talent in recitals with his wife, the formidable soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. The pair premiered a number of works written for them, including a personal enthusiasm, Benjamin Britten's Pushkin cycle The Poet's Echo—which I continually, and so far unsuccessfully, have attempted to foist on many a singer. (They also started their own foundation dedicated to improving the health and plight of children in the former Soviet Union.) Here's the pair performing the "Elegy" from Mussorgsky's Sunless.

Dreams of night are lost in shadow.
Through heaven's misty clouds,
A pale, lonely star keeps watch over the earth,
While far below, in the distant valley,
The tiny bells of roaming sheep sadly echo.

Why We Fight

... with the piano, that is. It's a practice day, which, seeing as how I played a recital last night, will require extra motivation for my default-lazy fingers. (Spring can really hang you up the most, once it gets to end-of-the-semester juries.) Anyway, this is what'll keep me going today: Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Roy Eldredge, and a whole bunch more, giving "Fine and Mellow" a bluesy workout. If practicing is all about being ready just in case lightning strikes, this is a musical anvil cloud. (Via Hester, who writes about it beautifully.)

I'll add another: one of my favorites, the late British virtuoso John Ogdon, making a portion of Liszt's "Après une Lecture de Dante" look way too easy.

April 26, 2007

R.O. Morris momentarily indulges his inner Vorticist

I'm addicted to antique textbooks, so, looking to brush up on some basics, I naturally ended up with a 1922 copy of Contrapuntal Technique in the Sixteenth Century by the British composer and educator R.O. Morris. Morris was in the vanguard of teaching counterpoint as an exercise in style rather than rote memorization, and thus the book has a certain verve: nothing inspires a Brit quite like disparaging his academic predecessors. When he gets to the section on parallel intervals, Morris liberally boils his strictures down to three. The first:
1. Consecutive fifths (and a fortiori consecutive octaves) are forbidden between any two parts if no other notes intervene, no matter what the value of the note.
Pretty obvious. Here's the second:
2. Consecutives on successive semibreve beats are broken by the intervention of a minim if it is a harmony note, but not if it is a passing discord. Consecutives on successive minim beats are similarly broken by the intervention of a crotchet if it is a harmony note; not otherwise. (This is the doctrine of Morley, and it is in every way substantiated by sixteenth-century practice.)
Morris throws students a lifeline by letting them finesse parallels via consonant escape tones. (I don't have a problem with this, but I'm pretty sure I have at least one other textbook that does.) But then we get to his third rule:
3. A suspension may be said to temper the wind to the shorn consecutive.
The what to the what now? What he's getting at is that it's OK to use a suspension to avoid parallel fifths even though they're technically "still there" (i.e., they show up if you move the suspended note onto the beat). But that's pretty Modernist-enigmatic for a counterpoint rule. It's practically a haiku.
The note, suspended,
Will temper the wind to the
Shorn consecutive.
Ezra Pound would have slapped an ideogram on that and sent it to Harriet Monroe. I need to hunt down Morris's book on keyboard harmony; I'm hoping for an Imagist evocation of the various semitonal alterations available on the subdominant.

Update (4/26): Joshua Kosman reads more than I do (see comments).


(Click to enlarge.)

Update: Joshua Kosman reveals the thought process.

Disclaimer: to the best of my knowledge, the concertmaster of the NY Phil does not actually have a mistress.

April 25, 2007

Ink-Stained Wretch

I've once again been thinking about getting a tattoo, after my genius friend Jack Miller reminded me the other day that I once had a plan to get a tattoo on my back saying, "If you're a heart surgeon, flip me over." Anyway, I started trolling the Web for designs related to classical music, and came up with, well, next to nothing. I mean, I wasn't expecting a full-sleeve portrait of J. S. Bach with a flaming skull (although that would be pretty lovely), but given the predominance of popular music logos, lyrics, and album covers I've seen permanently disfiguring various club denizens, I was hoping that at least a few adventurous souls were holding up the highbrow end. (Frank Zappa did turn up, as did La Divina—we'll give Nietzsche an honorable mention.)

The most common classical tattoo seems to be the music itself: This guy opted for a Bach suite, and here's an interesting cross between the Ravel Pavane and an Earle Brown score. Also Brahms 3, although if you're going to ink up your foot, Winterriese might be a wittier choice. My favorite is this guy, who will never, ever forget the fingering to the Chopin First Ballade. (All links via the inexhaustible BMEInk.)

Guidonian Hand
I considered tattooing my hand in a Guidonian manner, but palm tattoos are, from what I hear, comparatively excruciating. Maybe I'll go with the lion from Marc Chagall's Zauberflöte poster.

Chagall Zauberflöte detail
Ah, maybe not—that face kind of creeps me out. See? This is why I still don't have a tattoo.

April 23, 2007

Cover Version Cage Match

Jascha Heifetz vs. Cher in "It Ain't Necessarily So." Seems like a bit of an unfair fight, but before you wager: Cher's got harmonica legend Larry Adler in her corner. And a motorcycle.

Your celebrity referee: Paul Whiteman himself, in the over-the-top trippy Rhapsody In Blue sequence from the 1930 film King of Jazz.

April 20, 2007

I would've settled for pawning one of them shoes

The Academician of the Week here at Soho the Dog HQ is David Grazian, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, for his paper "The Production of Popular Music as a Confidence Game: the Case of the Chicago Blues" (originally published in Qualitative Sociology in 2004). Grazian takes a look at the way electric blues has thrived in Chicago, in large part due to the city's marketing it to tourists and visitors as an authentic Chicago experience, and points out that it's strikingly similar to the way large-scale con games have historically been run.
The similarities between confidence games and rock concerts, discos, jazz clubs and even hootenannies are represented by much more than simply their reliance on general tactics of impression management, rhetoric and performativity. Rather, in the context of such enterprises a cultural ecology of deception entwines proprietors, promoters, performers, support personnel and patrons in a set of relations that bear an even closer resemblance to the confidence games played by traditional grifters and their marks. Specifically, the successful production of live popular music and cons both rely on (1) a set of structural relationships in which operators, ropers, insiders, shills and victims are enmeshed; (2) the deployment of carefully planned strategies of deception; and (3) a pattern of success owed in part to the moral and financial motivations of insiders, the willingness of the state to assist in the enterprise, and the desire among victims to be swayed by the production.
In Grazian's calculus:

  • Club owners = operators
  • Media oulets and civic boosters = ropers
  • Musicians = insiders
  • Bouncers, bartenders, servers = shills
  • Patrons (particularly out-of-towners) = marks

  • Each step of the way, the players engage in various subtle deceptions to convince the mark that the experience they're paying for has the requisite veneer of "authenticity."

    The great thing about Grazian's analogy is that it can be adapted to almost any performing situation. Classical music breaks down in almost the exact same way, except that the "authentic" experience being promoted isn't gritty and "working-class" one, but plush, refined, and "upper-class." And the downside is the same: an ossified repertoire. Grazian quotes one musician:
    What happens on Friday and Saturday night when it’s like, you know, packed full of tourists who really don’t know anything?... You know, they want to hear, I mean, I can just list for you the “set list from hell”: “Every Day I Have the Blues,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Mustang Sally”... and, you know, those other f--king songs, you know, “Kansas City,” and f--kin’, you know, “Johnny B. Goode” and s--t. You know, how are you supposed to play those songs for ten years, twenty years?... But that is what these people wanna hear! Like, go to B.L.U.E.S. or Kingston Mines, or wherever.... The two blues songs everybody knows are “The Thrill is Gone” and “Sweet Home Chicago.” And what does everybody sing along to? “Mustang Sally.”
    Most classical musicians could probably imagine a similar "set list from hell."

    Grazian's is one of the most entertaining sociological papers I've come across in a while (and I'm a big enough library nerd that I can make that assessment). Looking for more? He's written one book (Blue Chicago) on the same milieu, and a forthcoming tome looks like an expansion on the con game idea.

    April 19, 2007

    Funky Fresh for 1803

    I've been meaning to post this all week: it's 1) a rap version of Wordsworth's "I wandered lonely as a cloud" 2) performed by a guy in a giant squirrel costume 3) so as to promote tourism in England's Lake Region. If that description isn't enough to get you to follow this link, then honestly: what are you doing on the Internet?

    (Thanks to Lisa at Exploding Aardvark.)

    On the Pulitzers

    Let's get this disclaimer out of the way: I think it's cool that Ornette Coleman won the Pulitzer prize. I'm a big fan—the disappearance of my Free Jazz LP in a move was a sad, sad day. (Yes, there's a CD. But I had it on vinyl, man.) And if the jury wanted a controversy-free non-classical pick, they couldn't really have done better. Coleman's earned respect across genres in way that almost no one else can. Maybe that's why the announcement has seemed rather anti-climactic. Then again, maybe it's because the non-classical nature of this year's prize was almost certainly a foregone conclusion.

    What do this year's Pulitzer music jury and the Supreme Court have in common? That one's easy: they're both stacked decks. And, coincidentally, they both delivered this week exactly what their selection was intended to deliver. The A.K.s who give the O.K.s started to chip away at Roe v. Wade, a reversal which should come as a surprise to exactly no one: when the last two justices were put on the court, this was what their supporters were aiming for. And a look at the Pulitzer jury makes it pretty clear that this was going to be a non-classical year, come hell or high water. Coleman, in fact, hadn't even been nominated. Justin Davidson reports:
    As jurors huddled for a weekend in March to go through the hundred-plus scores and recordings, someone noticed that despite the official desire for submissions in jazz, film music and other genres, Coleman's latest CD, "Sound Grammar," wasn't in the pile. Another juror, ex-Timesman John Rockwell, sent someone out to scare up a copy.
    (That's got to rankle all those other composers who forked over fifty bucks with their nominating applications.) Jazz belongs in the mix, but do you get the feeling that prizes are going to start being passed around from genre to genre every year? It's like instead of a de facto lifetime achievement award, it's a de facto stylistic affirmation award. The politics around the Pulitzers will be the equivalent of the 19th-century Parisian Prix de Rome. (In as much as they aren't already.) Here's something else: for the drama prize, the board rejected all three of the jury's recommendations and gave the hardware to David Lindsay-Abaire's non-finalist Rabbit Hole. I'll bet that within a decade, they'll pull the same thing with the music prize, ignoring the jury and opting for a board member's no-doubt-persuasive argument for some pop-jazz equivalent of Profiles In Courage, one handily available for purchase or download. (Historically, this has been bad news for composers: in 1965, the jury recommended Duke Ellington for the prize—it was the board that decided to give no award that year. Same in 1992: any committee that can screw over both the Duke and Ralph Shapey in the exact same way is something special.)

    I don't think awards are all that important, but the mechanisms behind them are interesting for what they say about the field. And it seems pretty clear that, at the moment, the outside perception of art music has become as much an exercise in stylistic categorization as it is in popular music. Staking out a genre is as important, maybe more important, that the moment-to-moment, note-to-note discourse, or the structure and rhetoric of an individual piece. For over a decade, I've been hearing new music that gleefully jumps the lines between various schools and styles, and I've never been of the opinion that there are musical goals that are limited to one genre or vocabulary only—I'm a confirmed eclecticist. But for now, we may be in for some historical housecleaning, celebrating more stylistically extreme composers and performers as critics and observers make an effort to fix points on the cultural landscape. I guess it's a certain kind of entertainment to watch awards committees try and bend their heads around issues that the practitioners worked out for themselves years ago.

    April 18, 2007

    Career objectives

    Sometimes, Moussorgsky is whole civilizations discarded by life. Sometimes, he is whole cultures from under which the earth has rolled, whole groups of human beings who stood silently and despairingly for an instant in a world that carelessly flung them aside, and then turned and went away. Sometimes he is the brutal, ignorant, helpless throng that kneels in the falling snow while the conquerors, the great ones of this world, false and true alike, pass by in the torchlight amid fanfares and hymns and acclamations and speak the fair, high words and make the kingly gestures that fortune has assigned to them. Sometimes he is even life before man. He is the dumb beast devoured by another, larger; the plants that are crowded from the sunlight. He knows the ache and pain of inanimate things. And then, at other moments, he is a certain forgotten individual, some obscure, nameless being, some creature, some sentient world like the monk Pimen or the Innocent in "Boris Godounow," and out of the dust of ages an halting, inarticulate voice calls to us. He is the poor, the aging, the half-witted; the drunken sot mumbling in his stupor; the captives of life to whom death sings his insistent, luring songs; the half-idiotic peasant boy who tries to stammer out his declaration of love to the superb village belle; the wretched fool who weeps in the falling snowy night. He is those who have never before spoken in musical art, and now arise, and are about us and make us one with them.

    —Paul Rosenfeld, Musical Portraits
    (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Howe, 1920)

    April 16, 2007

    If you build it, they will hum

    The irrepressible Elaine Fine discovers Internet treasure in the form of old "Popular Science" and "Mechanics" magazines. One great photo after another. (By the way, you can put me on the waiting list for a brand-new Heifetz.)

    Watch-Case Phonograph photo

    Strauss and Mahler Re-Enact Your Favorite Movie Moments

    (Click to enlarge.)

    Comic: Strauss and Mahler Re-Enact Your Favorite Movie Moments

    April 13, 2007

    Medium Well

    Ever wonder what Chopin's speaking voice sounded like? A lot like Jacques Cousteau, as it turns out. And heaven looks like Versailles. That's at least on the evidence of this 1955 recording (auto-loading flash file) of the composer communicating through the late British medium Leslie Flint. Chopin describes his sensations of death, and his transport to an afterworld community of artists and musicians. He doesn't like much modern music, although he respects some unnamed practitioners who are "sincere," but then again, he's been spoiled by music of the higher plane, which doesn't even require instruments. (Wonder what he thinks of the video game.)

    (A more reliable resource: the Chopin Early Editions collection from the university of Chicago.)

    April 12, 2007


    In My Merry Oldsmobile sheet music coverHow did I miss this? On Tuesday, students and faculty at the University of Maine in Farmington premiered Philip Carlsen's "Car Life: A Traffic Jam Session for Automobile Orchestra." (Enthusiastic article here; skeptical article here.) The ensemble? Forty-five cars spread across three parking lots, conducted with a big red flag by Carlsen's fellow professor Steven Pane.
    Carlsen's automotive orchestra used subtle and not-so-subtle harmonies, cascading and alternating a cacophony of horns, radios, warning beepers, revving engines, slamming car doors and human voices. It was all part of an eight-page, detailed musical score that had drivers keeping one hand on the wheel and the other on the radio dial, ignition key or door handle, anxious to honk their horn at the requisite times and blast WKTJ or WUMF at just the right moment.
    Carlsen himself missed the spectacle, laid up with a bad back, which just means that there'll have to be a repeat performance. I can't wait.

    (Appropriately tangential tribute: the late, great Kurt Vonnegut, car salesman.)

    April 11, 2007

    Berkshire beak-wetting

    Let's say you're a good-hearted animal lover without a whole lot of money. You go down to the local shelter and offer to volunteer to do some work for them, and they say, sorry, in order for you to volunteer, you'll have to make a cash gift.

    Sound dumb? Well, replace "animal" with "music" and "shelter" with "Tanglewood," and you'll get the gist of this story from the Berkshire Eagle, which reports the Boston Symphony Orchestra telling its summer volunteers that they'll have to pony up at least seventy-five bucks for the BSO's Annual Fund before they'll be allowed to work. Huh? Let me read that again. Nope, my bafflement still stands. Huh?

    The BSO administration is crying poor, saying that Tanglewood loses money every year. So, of course, the people you take that out on are the ones already working for free. Oh, they're also cracking down on the free passes that volunteers are entitled to in return for their efforts. Used to be, you'd agree to work eight hours, and you'd get a pass (that's for a lawn seat, by the way). Now, no pass until you've already worked the eight hours, which kind of stinks if you're only out there for a weekend or two. They're also restricting the transferability of said passes.
    At the informational meeting, which was held Monday at the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, a BSO executive referred to the "egregious abuses" of the companion passes in past seasons, and told of one former volunteer who was surreptitiously leading friends through the gate "nine times an hour."
    I realize that most of the Tanglewood volunteers aren't starving students—they're retirees and vacationers looking for a good deal. And it is a pretty good deal: put on a name tag, point a few patrons in a few directions, hand out programs, and get to hear the concert for free. But, come on, they're volunteers. The BSO may need new revenue streams, but the people who have spent years giving you free labor is probably not the best place to go looking for one, not from a morale standpoint, not from a staffing standpoint, certainly not from a PR standpoint. BSO development operations director Mia Shultz called the changes "a new definition of commitment." It's also an old definition of foolish.

    Update (4/13): Geoff Edgers has lots more information, including a BSO assertion that Tanglewood loses $3 million every summer.

    Variations (4): half empty, half full

    Messiah: The people that walked in darkness, bars 51-53

    —G. F. Handel, Messiah
    (Coopersmith edition)

    Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive, bars 40-43

    —Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen,
    "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive"

    April 10, 2007


    The Red Sox finally open at home today, inspiring this tangential, wow-that's-ridiculous-but-this-is-a-blog-so-why-not question:

    What if orchestras were run more like baseball teams?

    Collectively, that is—what if baseball’s system for identifying, signing, and grooming talent were adapted for symphony orchestras? In baseball, there’s two paths to the major leagues. If a scout thinks you’re unusually talented, you’re drafted by a major league team out of school (usually college, but sometimes high school), after which you hone your craft on a series of minor league farm teams owned by the major league organization, hopefully getting to the point where you’re called up to the big show. If you’re not drafted, you can audition your way onto an unaffiliated minor league team, and try and work your way up the ladder from there.

    Notice how similar this is to the current breakdown of orchestras in the United States, at least structurally. There’s conservatory and college ensembles, there’s smaller, regional orchestras, and then there’s the big city “major league” groups. And, for the most part, that’s the career path, with one crucial difference: for an orchestral player, there’s a blind audition at every step of the way. In actuality, most players in major orchestras have regional experience, and all of them, I would guess, have college degrees and/or stints in advanced training programs on their résumés—the experience, on paper, looks a lot like the college-minors-majors setup. But what if that progression were more formalized?

    Just last week, I was getting some comedic mileage out of the Virginia Beach Symphony’s attempt to generate more marketing impact by changing their name to “Symphonicity”—I still think the name’s a mistake, but that shouldn’t distract from the fact that regional orchestras like Virginia Beach have a constant financial wolf at the door. An MLB farm-team model would make explicit what big orchestras take for granted: that the talent pool they’re able to draw from is largely dependent on the existence of mid-level, local, what would be in effect double-A and triple-A orchestras. It’s in a major’s interest to ensure that such smaller-scale ensembles stay in business—first of all, the current résumé-screened blind-audition process would otherwise be even more of a crapshoot than it already is: without enough "minor league" positions out there to give applicants an imprimatur of orchestral experience, the chances of landing someone who sails through excerpts like a dream but has no idea how to play in a large ensemble goes up. More important are the long-range consequences: if smaller groups go belly-up, then the talent needed to keep the tradition alive and viable is more economically likely to abandon music before it even gets a chance to be heard.

    A large-market orchestra financing a small-market one seems rather goofy on the face of it, but keep in mind that a couple of them are already spending money in similar ways, in the form of advanced training programs. To name a couple, the Boston Symphony has the Tanglewood Music Center, which fields a full orchestra; Ravinia, the Chicago Symphony's summer home, has the Steans Institute—which doesn't. (Other organizations, like San Francisco and Chicago, sponsor orchestras at the pre-college and pre-professional levels.) There's even programs that seem like distant echoes of an athletic draft, finding individual young musical talent and using the organization's resources and reputation to offer encouragement and practical experience—see, for example, Chicago's Diversity Fellowship Program, an interesting try at increasing minority representation and visibility in the orchestra world without sacrificing the integrity of blind auditions.

    Is making the step from those sorts of programs to full-scale farm-team orchestras highly unlikely? You bet. But as smaller groups face increasing danger of folding up shop, it's possible that, a couple generations down the line, industry groups like the American Symphony Orchestra League will turn to collective fundraising to keep the base of the pyramid healthy. (Again, not unlike Major League Baseball—I mean, if Steinbrenner's willing to go along with revenue sharing, anything's possible.)

    Just so long as we don't have to sing the National Anthem before every concert. I'm all for reasonable patriotism, but remember Karl Muck.

    April 09, 2007

    Signal to noise

    The Joshua Bell as subway musician story has made its way around most of the musical blogs already, but I'll join the fun and link to it as a service to those readers who don't always frequent other sites (like, say, my mom).

    Personal analogue: my college roommate Mark used to have a gig playing lounge piano in the lobby of a fancy-schmancy apartment building in Chicago, and I would sub for him every now and again. How little attention was being paid? I could leaven my directionless Dukelsky-esque noodlings with entire pieces by Schoenberg and Feldman with nary a raised eyebrow from the residents. Ignoration has its perks.

    (Actually, there was one guy living there who did pay attention. Whenever Michael Morgan walked through the lobby, Mark would segue into the most incongruous bit of operatic repertoire he could think of. There's a certain unique fun in pitching your act to the farthest corner of the room.)

    The merry-go-round, broke down

    Stephen Thaler is a computer scientist whose St. Louis-based Imagination Engines, Inc. builds electronic neural networks that are designed to generate new ideas based on pre-existing parameters. He's been training his Creativity Machine network to write music. Thaler feeds a bunch of music into the network, then perturbs the electronic neurons so they start reassembling the material into new combinations.
    Basically one neural network, called the imagitron, is bathed in simulated heat. It generates new ideas. The other, called the perceptron, monitors the first. It has opinions and governs the amount of heat stimulating the imagitron.... I would smile or frown as the machine generated sound and the perceptron could see my reactions. If I liked something, it would remember that and map a pattern of how I would rate a song, freezing in memories of likable tunes.
    Thaler plans to release an album of machine-created music on iTunes in the near future.

    This isn't Thaler's first foray into composition. In 1994, he claimed U.S. Copyright no. PAu-1-920-845 on 11,000 "musical hooks" generated by the Creativity Machine. From the company's history:
    October, 1995 [sic], Most Prolific Musician of All Time. A Creativity Machine, trained on top-ten melodies over the preceding 30 years proceeds to invent 11,000 new musical hooks that are promptly copyrighted. Interestingly enough human musical artists disdain the copyright, protesting that "only human minds can conceive music!" Thaler holds back on a million song database generated via Creativity Machine in view of the spirited response from human artists. ...On the flip side, computational musicians don't get it either, feeling that they can do the same thing, spending months or years concocting new works of art via computer. What they don't realize was that only a few hours had been spent by Thaler in translating sheet music to a representation more conducive to neural nets. Beyond that, Creativity Machine function was spontaneous and voluminous.
    Just in case you weren't sure that Thaler was prone to confuse quality with quantity, he's also copyrighted (no. TX-5-725-954) a million new machine-generated English words.

    Let's leave aside the absolute inanity of the Copyright office on this. (Every time I write a new phrase, I'm supposed to check and make sure I'm not infringing on 11,000 randomly-generated variations? Please.) If you get the sense that Thaler has a tendency to indiscriminately anthropomorphize the output of these neural networks, you're right. From the article:
    Q. And music from your computers is different?

    A. It's filled with feeling. It's generated much the same as music from the mind of a human composer. It is spontaneously and autonomously generated by machines, using only raw emotional response from a human being. There are no explicit rules, no databases of prior music and no templates of any kind.
    No database of prior music—that is, except the examples that Thaler's fed into the machine as raw materials. It's not filled with feeling, it's filled with processes gradually filtered out by a feedback loop. The filtering itself, in its speed and efficiency, may be impressive, but all it's doing is throwing sonic spaghetti against the refrigerator door of Thaler's ear and noting which strands stick.

    No doubt Thaler would claim that's all human composers do, and we're just arrogantly attributing it inspiration or whatever because we don't consider the process. The machine, though, doesn't imagine the intended emotional state and then try to realize that state in sound. It's doing what Thaler has programmed it to do, methodically trying permutations until the desired feedback goal—Thaler smiling—is consistently attained. It's the ultimate pop music dispenser: it gives you what you like, and only what you like, all the time. Does Thaler really think this is what composers try to do? (In his patent for the machine, Thaler theorizes that ideas are noting more than "degraded memories," which makes me wonder just what it was, say, Harry Partch was trying to recall.) And note that the computer is beholden to whatever styles are used as examples. As Thaler says: "We put in a wide spectrum—classical, rock, hip-hop." The prospect of an experimental aesthetic only arises if the listener providing feedback has formulated that aesthetic already.

    Don't get me wrong—the technology certainly sounds cool. It's just that Thaler's reading into it something that's just not there. In between programming machines to design warheads or toothbrushes, Thaler has started In Its Image, Inc., a non-profit dedicated to "Raising awareness, through public seminars, of the artificial intelligence technology that promises to be the computational vehicle for immortality." The idea is that we'll all upload our meat-based, decrepit neural networks onto robust Creativity Machines and thus maintain our own unique consciousness indefinitely.

    This sounds suspiciously like a humble cousin to a scenario laid out by physicist Frank Tipler in his book The Physics of Immortality, which proposes the universe evolving into an all-powerful quantum computer that will simultaneously recreate every possible state of consciousness in a perpetual virtual reality. If that sounds fishy to you, well, you're not alone. Thaler doesn't go nearly that far, but reducing human experience to mere neural interaction implicitly devalues the powerful artistic spur of human fallibility, decay, imperfection—the magical, cascadingly fruitful effort of pushing up against the boundaries of time, understanding, and physical ability. I admit, this might just be my own post-Romantic bias against crude 17th-century body vs. soul dualism—an analysis of this blog's archive would no doubt reveal a standing prejudice against the immutably unbreakable. The cultural expressions I treasure are the products of imaginations inseperably bound up with the frustration, desperation, and exhilaration of corporeal existence.

    Besides, the proof is in the pudding, right? Well, if this brief, Mannheim-Steamroller-worthy MP3 sample of Thaler's handiwork is really the music of an immortal future, I have to admit, a mortal opt-out is looking better and better.

    April 06, 2007

    Object lesson

    Two of my greatest music score bargain finds have been Richard Strauss. Back in my Tanglewood days, a field trip to a used book store in northern Connecticut yielded a four-dollar Boosey vocal score of Salome. And a few years back, I rescued this two-dollar treasure from a discard sale at the Boston Conservatory library.

    Die Frau ohne Schatten cover
    That's an original Fürstner piano-vocal score of Die Frau ohne Schatten. I can see why the library was getting rid of it, as it's rather beat up: the spine is falling apart, the pages are brittle, most of the corners are cracked and disintegrating. For cheap score study, though, it's perfectly serviceable.

    Actually, I'm not sure this particular copy ever any shelf time at all. Imagine my surprise when I opened it up at home and this came tumbling out:

    Staatsoper Berlin program with swastika
    The Staatsoper Berlin performed Die Frau on June 22, 1940, and the previous owner of the score, a man named Gustav Grossmann, saw fit to hang on to the program. I'm not sure why—he doesn't appear among the personnel:

    Staatsoper cast list
    (Click on the image to enlarge. The only names I knew are Torsten Kalf and Walter Grossmann; no doubt opera buffs will recognize many more.) Grossmann did work for the Staatsoper, however. He stamped the score with his address:

    Gustav Grossmann address stamp
    Based on the markings in the score I'd guess he was either an assistant conductor or a répétiteur. The only thing I've been able to learn about him is that he conducted the German premiere of Zemlinsky's opera Der Kreidekreis in 1934, shortly before Zemlinsky left Germany forever. (The performance was repeatedly disrupted by a claque of brownshirts.) No reference books, English or German, mention him. He must have survived the war—the score has pencilled notes regarding either a performance or a broadcast of the opera in 1959, conducted by Karl Böhm. (The singers mentioned seem to be the same as those on Böhm's 1955 Decca recording.)

    I could probably find out more about him if I really tried; maybe someday I will. Right now, though, I don't want to know more about him. For me, the power of this particular artifact lies in its mystery. I don't know what Grossmann's personal or professional connection with this particular piece was. I don't know what he did or didn't do during the war. I don't know why he kept the program—an innocent souvenir? A rueful reminder? Secret pride?

    Most importantly, I don't know by what path this score, with its potent accessory, ended up in Boston, Massachusetts. And because I don't know, I'm forced to imagine, which inevitably leads to a consideration of what I would have done had I been in Grossmann's place, in any of the numerous scenarios, charged or benign, that could have transpired. It brings up the very real possibility that, in certain situations, I may not have been as heroic or courageous as I would like to imagine.

    I've been revisiting the life and music of Anton Webern over the past few months. Webern's relationship to the Nazis was, to put it mildly, an unfortunate combination of naïveté, patriotism, and opportunism. He deplored the anti-Semitism, but was entranced by the strong German nationalism, the prospect of German culture once again taking the lead after the disaster of World War I. As his Jewish friends were forced into leave, Webern never could bring himself to denounce the Nazis. Maybe he thought that Kristallnacht and the like was just a phase, that cooler heads would prevail, and everyone would come back. They never did, and the break with his former colleagues (particularly Schoenberg, who had been like a father) must have been distressing. One of the sadder episodes in Webern's life involves the solo piano Variations, written in 1936: Webern dedicated the piece to the Jewish pianist Edward Steuermann as a token of friendship. Steuermann, shortly to flee Europe, never acknowledged the gift, disgusted by Webern's refusal to speak out.

    Of course, Webern's pain is trivial compared with those who were exiled or who perished in the camps. But still, I get the sense that I would have rather liked Webern as a person, and I want to go back in time, shake him by the shoulders, and tell him, convince him, that these people aren't who he thinks they are, that they're not going to change, and that he has to take a stand, that even remaining silent is a stain that he'll never be able to wash away. And then I wonder what someone from fifty years in the future would be shaking my shoulders about. One of the most amazing things about that 1940 program is that it contains absolutely no hint that there's a war on. In the face of even that epochal conflagration, the urge to maintain the façade of a normal, everyday life must have kept many people from refusing to recognize what was going on until it was too late. That's why I hang on to the program, to remind myself that the right thing to do isn't usually the convenient thing, that a path through life that avoids unpleasant obstacles is liable to lead one down dark, dead-end streets. Sunlight can burn, but the alternative is living in perpetual shadow.

    April 05, 2007


    The Virginia Beach Symphony Orchestra has announced that they're changing their name . (Article via ArtsJournal.) The new name, created in consultation with HCD Advertising and Public Relations, is "Symphonicity." Yes, that's the whole thing. Symphonicity.
    "It's a $50 word, that's for sure," said Dan Downing, executive vice president at HCD. "But it's something that you see it, you don't forget it."
    Kind of like a car crash, I suppose. Fifty bucks, eh? One wonders what the going rate is for "Orchestrexcellent" or "Philharmarvelous."

    Now, I really shouldn't make fun of efforts by smaller, regional orchestras to expand their name recognition or media presence—they're feeling the economic squeeze far more than their big-city counterparts. I'm going to make fun of this, though, because that might just be the stupidest name I've ever heard.

    HCD's relationship with the English language does seem to be more that of a distant cousin than a beloved sibling. From their website:
    If marketing is not relevant, it has no purpose. If it is not original, it will attract no attention. If it is not impactful, it will make no lasting impression.
    If it is not a double negative, it will be no harder to read. And there's a circle of hell reserved for non-facetious users of words like "impactful."

    The orchestra announced the change on April 1st. I hope they take the implied out, and say the whole thing was a joke.

    Rewards that will be great somewhere

    Easter-Day measures 1-5
    It's Holy Week, the most important hebdomad in the Christian calendar. Since I'm a church musician, this means that my week has essentially been vacuumed up and pulverized into a fine, delicate powder. Music ministers may vary in piety and theological aptitude, but I'll tell you this much: we all have an appreciation of Ordinary Time that far surpasses those in the pews. (Another church musician I know once referred to the day after Easter as "Good Monday.")

    I chalk this up as another occupational hazard—the fact that performing musicians don't get to enjoy the experience the way audiences do. For example: if we wallow in the sadness of a sad piece, or the exultation of an exultant piece, it's liable to distract us from the things we have to concentrate on in order to communicate that sadness or exultation to the listener. On the other hand, we get the intellectual and kinesthetic satisfaction of building the edifice, rather than just apprehending it. It's more than a fair trade; but it means that we can't share certain, crucial parts of the audience's experience.

    So like Christmas, I'll have my Easter holiday sometime after everyone else's is over. (I wonder if my synagogal counterparts have the same feelings about Passover or High Holy Days. "Why is this night different from every other night?" Because there's no extra rehearsal.) Anyhow, to expiate my sin of blasphemous complaining, you can now download the rest of the Easter introit up there for free—for free—at the Choral Public Domain Library. It's on its third go-round with my choir, and it's unusual in that they actually like it. Wonders never cease.

    Update: The CPDL link has gone dead, so here's the score:

    Easter-Day (2005) (PDF, 2 pages, 115 Kb)

    April 04, 2007

    Back catalog

    A man named George Hargreaves has, once again, decided to run for the Scottish Parliament. Hargreaves is an ordained Pentecostal minister and the founder of the Scottish Christian Party. Hargreaves is going after the Green Party MP Patrick Harvie, mainly on the grounds that Harvie is gay and campaigns for gay rights. As Hargreaves says, "Homosexuality is a sin. I am against Patrick Harvie because he campaigns against Christian teachings on the subject. We have to stop the moral slide turning into a moral avalanche."

    The punch line: Hargreaves has been able to fund his party out of the multiple millions of pounds he made co-writing (with American Idol's Simon Cowell) the 1980s Sinitta flip sides "So Macho" (video here) and "Cruising" (dance mix here), two of the biggest British gay pop anthems of the past quarter-century. Kind of like if Pete Seeger had taken all the royalties from "Waist Deep In the Big Muddy" and donated the money to, say, George W. Bush's re-election campaign. I've said it before: I can't make this stuff up.

    April 02, 2007

    Lieder mit Worte

    I had a chance on Friday to go to a free lunch/press conference with James Levine at Symphony Hall, to coincide with the announcement of the Boston Symphony's 2007-08 season. (Jeremy Eichler explains it all for you here.) Levine must be the easiest interviewee in the world: ask him a question, no matter how innocuous, and he'll talk for fifteen minutes. (He spent five minutes explaining why he wouldn't answer one question.) The big highlight: Berlioz's Les Troyens, presented in two parts for two weekends in the spring—and both parts performed back-to-back on May 4, 2008. If you want to find my Berliozophile self on May 4th, you know where to look.

    But here's something interesting that I noticed later: two out of the four commissions being premiered are symphonies that involve voice, John Harbison's Fifth (with mezzo-soprano and baritone), and William Bolcom's Eighth (with chorus). Obviously the Harbison owes a debt to Das Lied von der Erde (which it's being performed with), and the Bolcom puts one in mind of both Beethoven and Mahler. "Symphonies" that involve voices tend to come at transitional points in music history, but also have a tendency to take on political overtones, even if only by association: Beethoven's Ninth, for example, right on the line between the Classical and Romantic eras, but also, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the unofficial national anthem of anti-totalitarianism. Or think of Mahler's huge vocal symphonies, humanistic paeans to God and nature in the midst of a decaying imperialist world—and the dissolution of Romanticism. Or Shostakovich's Thirteenth and Fourteenth. Or Bernstein's Third (the ultimate 60s happening). It's as if history reaches a point where abstract music just isn't enough, and composers feel the need to tell rather than imply.

    So for fun, let's take the position that the appearance of these two new entries at the same time isn't a coincidence, that it's indicative of some confluence of the zeitgeist that's bubbled up to the surface. What's the significance? Is it political—American artists finally absorbing a) the end of Western hegemony, b) rapidly fraying American imperialism, c) the latest upturn in the historical cycle of violence, d) a pivotal clash of incompatible cultures, or e) the current hell-in-a-handbasket of your choice? Or is it one of those final, grand pronouncements on a fading style? Which begs the question: which style? American academic composition? Eclecticism? The idea of a symphony itself?

    I don't know—maybe no significance at all. But I like to think this way every once in a while. What's the big shift going on in the world right now that, looking back, will sum up the era a hundred years from now? Even better: what if it's something that we don't even notice? (Cue quietly dramatic music from basses and bassoons.)

    Incidentally, if you've ever wondered what they actually feed the press at a press lunch: sandwiches. Dressed with inordinate quantities of mayonnaise. Outstanding cookies, though.

    Care-Charmer Sleep

    What would you do about playing the piano [if you spent a winter north of the Arctic Circle]?

    I don't need to play it. But I'm sure the local bar has got a piano I could noodle on if necessary. Well, to be truthful, once a month or so I've literally got to touch the piano or I stop sleeping properly. That really is true. I was in Newfoundland last summer, just as a tourist, and after about a month I found that I was getting by on three and four hours a night, which seemed ridiculous, because I was doing reasonably energetic things like wandering up and down cliffs and beaches and cuing the surf for all sorts of imaginary documentaries... and this was insane, because I was getting more and more tired every day. And finally I realized that what was missing was the fact that I did need contact with the piano for an hour or so. And literally, that will do me for a month; that's all that's necessary. As it happened I knew of a delightful old German Steinway located at the CBC studios in St. John's, which I discovered when I was down there doing The Latecomers four years before; I asked if I could have an hour with it, which they granted, and the next night, you know—sound as a baby.

    —Jonathan Cott, Conversations With Glenn Gould

    Boy, it was tough getting up this morning.