John Wilkins’ An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, published in 1668, proposed the existence of a universal language, written and spoken, which could communicate experience without mediation. It was believed this language could reconstruct the order of nature that God had revealed to Adam, before confounding man’s language at Babel.
Many people have claimed that music is the true universal language. (The first modern artificial language was Solresol, which can be transmitted musically as well as verbally.) Unforunately, this particular species of musical fundamentalist is most likely to insist that some types of music are more natural than others*, when in reality all music is, essentially, as arbitrary as any language.
Real Characters and False Analogues is a set of twelve pieces for microtonal piano I wrote in 2004, then revised extensively in 2009. It is a sequel to Stained Melodies, adapting the compositional premise of the earlier work, that of simultaneously performing isolated pitches from different, unrelated pieces of music. Real Characters develops this idea by imposing a series of transformations to the sources’ rhythm, tempo, dynamics and pitch, producing a greater variety of harmonies and textures.
In keeping with the ultimately arbitrary nature of supposedly universal languages, all compositional choices were governed by a set of chance operations; and although the piano is tuned to a special 22-note scale, only 15 notes are decided by chance to appear in any given piece. Each of the twelve pieces is named after one of the myriad artificial languages invented over the past century.
* According to Nicolas Slonimsky, “The American pedagogue Percy Goetschius used to play the C major scale for his students and ask them a rhetorical question. ‘Who invented this scale?’ and answer it himself. ‘God!’ Then he would play the whole-tone scale and ask again, ‘Who invented this scale?’ And he would announce disdainfully, ‘Monsieur Debussy!’”
Forget random.org; if you want true chance operations à la John Cage, for years the go-to source has been ic, the little DOS program written by Cage’s assistant Andrew Culver. It imitates the I Ching‘s method of producing random numbers without all the original’s tedious poetry and oracular pontification.
Now that command-line programs are a dying breed for the general computer user, it’s great to see that Culver is keeping the program alive by putting a beta of a new, user-friendly, web-based ic on his site. If it was good enough for Cage…
An old man is walking slowly through the room. At one end of the room a bird is twittering. Not a real bird; it’s an electronic bird call. The man walks slowly towards where the sound seems to be coming from. We can hear the bird, but we can also hear what the man hears: he’s wearing microphones over his ears. The sounds he can hear are played through loudspeakers in the room, so that we can hear the bird from our position, and the bird from his position, as projected from a third position. The man can also hear what he hears relayed from those loudspeakers. Inevitably, feedback occurs.
The feedback produced is a high, whistling sound which complements the bird nicely. The man tilts his head a little to one side, or hunches down a fraction. The feedback shifts to a new note, the tone becomes reedier. The slightest adjustment to how the man listens can completely change the sound we hear. Even the bird’s repeated call changes: its chirping amongst the feedback causes heterodyning, creating the illusion of other, differently voiced birds chirping in chorus.
On the weekend I got to see and hear Alvin Lucier perform his 1975 piece Bird and Person Dyning, as part of the Cut and Splice festival at Wilton’s Hall. The above description gives some idea of how a simple setup can create a complex sonic environment. In a single, unified action it reveals how the subtleties of sound depend on how we listen, our position in space, the size and shape of the room. There were some good pieces on the weekend, and more poor pieces, but Lucier’s music still stood out for having both a depth and a transparency that the others lacked.
(Video and audio of Bird and Person Dyning is on UbuWeb.)
This blog doesn’t get much mail, except for some crazy oboe-playing guy who writes in every six months or so to complain about a passing comment I made about a music critic several years ago. So I was quietly excited to discover that a lonely missive had dropped into my inbox today.
That thrill turned to disappointment when it turned out to be be from Web Sheriff, an apparently legitimate company that perversely tries to make their emails look like spam by putting “EXTREMELY URGENT” in the subject line and using an embarrassing, fakey old-west style sheriff’s badge as their logo. Best of all, despite the company name and logo, they’re British; and there’s nothing funnier than the British pretending to be cowboys (except for Germans pretending to be American Indians.) I guess the old company logo of Robin Hood being persecuted by Lily Allen’s dad didn’t inspire as much confidence.
Anyway, this EXTREMELY URGENT email from Deborah Sykes was a “DMCA REQUEST” to “remove Infringed Title(s) from Infringing File Location(s)” I thought the DMCA was an American law, so I’m not sure why a British company is so keen on enforcing it. I haven’t bothered to look this up because the file in question had already been taken down, so I guess their urgency wasn’t extreme enough.
You’re probably wondering what file on my website the sheriff (head office in Wiltshire, not Nottingham) was so exercised about. It was because I had briefly included a copy of that massive Van Morrison hit, “Thirty Two” – all sixty-one seconds of it – in Please Mister Please. Van’s time here has come and gone, but you can recreate the magic of the song in your own homes by strumming any old chord on an acoustic guitar and reciting over the top these deathless lyrics:
I see, you see, we’ll get a guitar,
yeah, we’ll get a guitar
and, oh, we’ll get, we’ll get three guitars,
No!, No!!, we’ll get four guitars
and we’ll get Herbie Lovelle to play drums,
and we’ll do, the
We’ll do the sha-, sha-la bit.
“Sha-la, sha-, sha-la, sha-la”, we’ll do it,
we’ll get together, uunghh, we’ll get
uunghh, ttcchh, uugnhh-uunghh-uunghh, like that,
and we’ll do the sha-la bit and then,
then, then, and we’ll get, we’ll get sixteen guitars,
and then, then we’ll play it,
and then we’ll do that one, yeah.
Let me hear ya’ do that again.
Over and over, Bert Berns song, over…
[clack, clack-clack, clack]
Sorry for the last few days’ silence. I spent a long weeked catching up on some drinking with an old friend who was in town. This means I missed the chance to see some quality busking on Southbank, where The Ramshackle Orchestra for Musequality gave a kerbside performance of Terry Riley’s In C. To quote Petemaskreplica:
It’s immensely satisfying to play. It’s something to do with the autonomy. What you play, and how, and when, is up to you, and it’s thrilling to find all sorts of unexpected combinations emerging as a result of your decisions. You get into the groove, and play around, reacting to what the other musicians are doing, they reacting to you in turn…. The whole 45 minutes or so was filmed, so I hope to add YouTube links soon!
I was warned before moving into my new house that I would be sharing my room; and so I am:
It’s a Kemble spinet piano: a compact piano design developed during the Great Depression, and which pretty much died out by the end of last century as digital pianos became omnipresent. The landlady warned me that it’s never been tuned, as if you couldn’t tell from striking a few keys at random. I doubt that having one end up against the radiator (see left) has been helping it.
It’s times like this I’m glad I don’t play the piano. Never mind how out of tune it is; if I were any good at the piano this thing would also frustrate me with its short, clunky hammer action and other foibles peculiar to this design. They’re also supposed to be real buggers to maintain and repair, because of the cramped and convoluted hammer mechanism packed inside. I’d resent it for taking up valuable space which could be used by a better piano.
Instead, I’m just happy to have a an acoustic instrument to mess around with. I’ve wedged down the damper pedal and am trying it out as a resonant sound chamber (note microphone lead). I’ll have to have another dig around inside to find the serial number and see how old this thing is.
Incidentally, Kemble is the last piano manufacturer remaining in Britain, but not for much longer. They’ve just announced that their factory will close in October.
Like most things in life, it seems, I first came across Joan La Barbara‘s music unwittingly when watching Sesame Street as a kid. Apart from that, although I knew she was a composer I’d never (consciously) heard any of her own music. I suspect I wasn’t the only one in that situation who went to hear her free recital at the ICA the other weekend.
In the introduction to one of her pieces, La Barbara herself made a passing reference to her fame lying elsewhere, as a singer and interpreter of other people’s music (cue the rollcall: John Cage Morton Feldman Morton Subotnick Philip Glass…). Presumably it was a mixture of admiration for her vocal talent and curiosity about her compositional talent that resulted in the little room being filled to capacity on a rare sunny Sunday afternoon, with a bunch of us having to stand. (Including myself: the last available seat was nabbed by my ex-girlfriend.)
Afterwards, I asked the ex what she thought of her comfy concert experience. At first she said it was “a bit hippyish” but then revised her opinion: it’s not La Barbara’s fault that her pioneering work in experimental vocal music has helped spawn a couple of generations of inferior imitators.
There’s also the methodical approach to much of La Barbara’s music that saves it from self-indulgence. She performed two of her earliest works, from the early 1970s, beginning with Circular Song. This piece requires her to sing sliding scales using circular breathing – a technique never really intended for singing – embodies two distinct approaches in her music, exploring new techniques while following a clearly defined process.
Performance Piece played most dramatically with these two tendencies. Essentially it’s a improvisation, with one caveat: whenever La Barbara realised she was thinking consciously of the sounds she was making, she had to verbalise those thoughts. The performance then became a balancing act between sound and speech, one half of the brain holding the other at bay.
Only one piece required anything more than La Barbara’s voice and a microphone. The more recent 73 Poems was a multitracked vocalisation of Kenneth Goldsmith’s poetry, mimicking the overlaying of Goldsmith’s texts. You can see and supposedly hear the collaboration here, but the sound doesn’t seem to be working. Some functional sound examples are here.
The Al Wood Orchestra, “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” (1979?).
(3’56″, 3.60 MB, mp3)
Kyle Gann has been reading the latest collection of Morton Feldman interviews, and discovers that Feldman is a gift to the musical world that keeps on giving. Now, I can listen to Feldman’s music and opinions for hours on end (in the case of the music, it’s kind of mandatory), but then Gann quotes the following passage where Feldman compares the composers Stefan Wolpe and Ernst Krenek:
Wolpe was in the midst of a musical revolution in New York. He was in the midst of the rising young, fabulously talented people coming up in Europe, and he knew it. Krenek never knew it. There’s not an ounce in Krenek’s music, in things that I’ve heard of his late style… But nothing existed, nothing happened. It’s music where nothing happened. It’s the kind of music somebody might write some place in Adelaide, Australia.
Speaking as a native I’d object to that comparison, except I left Adelaide many years ago and so my criticism might look a teensy bit hollow. I wonder why Feldman’s mind alighted on my home town in particular?
Gann comments, “Fascinating and endearing stuff (apologies, though, to any composers in Adelaide).” Mr Gann, you have nothing to apologise for. Mr Feldman, on the other hand…
It’s been a bastard of a week, so no time for lovefun online. I’m firmly relocated back in East London, the world capital for dodgy chicken shops. It’s good to see I’m not the only one with a fascination for these establishments. Now here’s a musical tribute we can all sing along with! (Found via Floccinaucinihilipilification.)
The election for members of the European parliament is on this weekend, so I’ve been getting a motley assortment of pamphlets shoved into my letterbox. I’ve had one from the racist loonies in the BNP, the not-so-racist-but-still-pretty-loony Ukip (apparently that’s how you spell their name), Christian loonies, and the authoritarian control-freak loonies in the Labour Party, who tried to disguise their pamphlet as a community newsletter.
Headlined “Action on Crime”, the blurb boasts about Labour MEPs voting to “ban the import of replica weapons which can all too easily be converted into working firearms”. The accompanying photo shows police posed next to one of the frighteningly realistic weapons which hoodlums have been concealing on their persons while terrorising London’s streets.