When Pianos Ruled The World

Thursday 16 July 2009

Now that I’m the proud custodian of a piano, I’m starting to notice more pianophernalia in my neighbourhood. Down the street a way is this fine old advertisement for Boyd Pianos, one of many defunct piano companies, from the days when piano merchants hawked their wares on walls and billboards.

The Ghost Signs blog has a more thorough analysis of this rather unusual sign, and comments:

In addition to their main piano business Boyd also had a sideline in theatre box office ticket sales. Perhaps this relates in some way to them supplying pianos to theatres and this being a natural bolt on service they could offer to the theatres and the public?

When I saw the phrase “Box office for all theatres”, I thought it was mid-century adspeak meaning that theatre owners could pack in the punters if they have a piano; but maybe that turn of phrase was too American to make sense to the English.

There’s another, less elaborate wall advertisement for a piano store in Willesden Green. This became the inspiration for my composition St Paul’s Pianos.

All Kinds of Awesome: Ashley, Maxfield, Riley, and Young

Tuesday 14 July 2009

I’ve probably said it before somewhere, but the Other Minds Archive is an invaluable treasure trove of recordings of the musical avant-garde for the past 50 years or so; and it keeps on getting better. I was stoked when I checked the updates today to find they’ve just uploaded:
  • Terry Riley performing his Two Piano Pieces (1958-59) – this is Riley before he became the hippieish minimalist of In C, A Rainbow in Curved Air etc.
  • Three pieces by Richard Maxfield: Amazing Grace (1960), Structures for 10 wind instruments (1951), and Piano Sonata No.2 (1949). Maxfield was a brilliant composer who has fallen into obscurity since his early death. Best known for his electronic music, his body of work for conventional instruments has gone largely unheard.
  • Early music by Robert Ashley: The Fourth of July (1960) and Heat (1961) for tape, and the piano sonata Christopher Columbus crosses to the New World in the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria using only dead reckoning and a crude astrolabe (1959-61). Ashley’s reputation rests on his extraordinary series of operas begun in the late 1960s, so this is a rare glimpse into his early work.
  • La Monte Young’s B Flat Dorian Blues (1963) – a chunk of Young playing sopranino sax, backed by Tony Conrad, John Cale, Angus MacLise, and Marian Zazeela. This program also includes one half each of the Black Record and Dream House albums. Somewhere in the Archive is a radio broadcast of the rest of the Black Record.
Young’s music is notoriously hard to find, and apart from Amazing Grace I don’t think any of the pieces by the other composers has been made available anywhere before. So yeah, I’m stoked.

More details about these recordings, and access to other materials, can be found at radiOM.org.

Please Mister Please

Sunday 12 July 2009

Autechre, “Uviol” (2001).
(8’35”, 10.37 MB, mp3)

Thanks for Asking

Sunday 12 July 2009

For the sake of closure this weekend: England just scraped through with a draw against Australia in the first test, I’ve finished that piece of music (not a masterpiece, but it does what I set out for it to do), and I still have heard back from Mr Scout (his friends call him Stave). I guess he got those DRILLS he so urgently needed from somewhere more handy than randomly emailing blogs.

Upside of Mediocrity

Saturday 11 July 2009

For those of you who asked if I was alright after Wednesday’s post: much better now, thanks. To summarise: the idea for a piece I was working on proved to be impossible. From working on that first idea a second, different but related idea for a piece came to mind. Work on this second idea progressed and expanded until it became thoroughly confused and unworkable.

In the last few days I’ve figured out an alternative way of going about realising the first idea, and have nearly finished it. Then I have the second idea to go back to. I’m trying to remember who said that every good idea is really three ideas – I usually think of it as the other way round, where I need at least three ideas put together to make one good idea. The last few days seem to have demonstrated a perverse corollary, that any half-assed idea can be broken down into multiple half-assed ideas.

Anyway, England are 2 wickets down and 219 runs behind Australia going into the last day at Cardiff, so I’d be feeling pretty good in any case.

Going Back to Riga

Thursday 9 July 2009

I’m excited about making another visit to Riga; only this time it’s not for a holiday. I’ve been chosen to perform in a new production of Hamlet that’s going to tour there. The main reason I got the job is because of this jacket I have which has a papier-mâché puppet of Maxim Gorky sewn onto the left shoulder. He cuts a rather louche, melancholy figure with his Brylcreemed hair and waxed moustache. I’m not quite sure how my part fits into the play but they want me to appear onstage and engage in dialogues with Gorky, who will make sardonic comments on the action and the society depicted at Elsinore. I have to hunch over to the left to play this part because the puppet is sewn on crooked. We’re going to be performing in an abandoned warehouse so at the moment we’re rehearsing in an underground car park and it turns out I’m not going to Riga after all it’s all a dream it’s just another bloody dream.

Composing With The Radio On

Wednesday 8 July 2009

I’m beginning to doubt whether the new way of making music (computers, synthesisers, MIDI sequencers giving instant feedback of what you’ve just done) is such a great idea after all. Hearing every little thing go wrong, time and time again, has the effect of grinding down your confidence and your will to finish the thing you’re working on. There’s too much room for experimentation, tempting you to drift away from your original thoughts, leaving you lost in a maze of dead ends.

Perhaps it is much better to write and finish a piece in blissful ignorance and only then, upon hearing the first rehearsal, realise how badly it stinks. At least then you could identify and fix only what is broken, to justify all your efforts so far.

I try to have an idea of what I want to achieve before I begin, but lately I’m finding that these ideas are neither solid nor clear enough before I start working, and I lose my way.

Also, The Ashes have started so I can’t give anything else my undivided attention.

And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it wasn’t for you meddling kids!

Monday 6 July 2009

Three quotes from Harry Halbreich’s sleeve notes for the album Iannis Xenakis: Chamber Music 1955-1990:

Kottos for cello (1977)
Later, the music returns to extremely high registers, the toccata proceeds with double stops, but after a short recall of the opening sounds, the piece unexpectedly ends by dissolving into gossamer glissandi in the highest register.

Embellie for viola (1981)
And the work ends in the same manner, slipping away to the extreme high glissando harmonics on the edge of audibility.

Tetras for string quartet (1983)
The eighth section, a metrically complex tutti, leads to the ninth, which serves as a coda and which, after a display of strength in tremolos, dies away in a surprising manner with pianissimo glissandi.

The Boring Like A Drill Mailbag

Sunday 5 July 2009

A mere two weeks after that friendly missive from Suzanne Somers, I’ve received another email from an admirer:

X-Mailer: YahooMailWebService/
From: Stave Scout
Reply-To: stavescout@yahoo.com
Subject: ORDER
To: drills2001@aol.com
Dear sir/madam

My name is stave scout and urgenly need some DRILLS to order from your company.please email with the types of DRILLS you have in stock for sale now.and the price and i will like to know what type of credit card do you accept. I will be looking forward to hear from you soon.


Always willing to assist, I immediately sent a reply.

Dear Sir/Madam,
Thank you for your enquiry about DRILLS. I have a wide selection of reconditioned DRILLS and DRILLBITS for sale – from the most delicate surgical equipment to heavy machinery for vast construction projects (laparoscopy, shipping canals). Please inform me of what type of DRILLS you need and I’m sure I can arrange prompt delivery. I accept Mastercard.
Kind regards,

I’ll let you know when I receive a reply. I’m sure it won’t take long.

Please Mister Please

Friday 3 July 2009

Roman Haubenstock-Ramati, “Pour Piano” (1973). Carol Morgan, piano.
(5’17”, 7.25 MB, mp3)

AudioMulch 2.0 Released

Wednesday 1 July 2009

AudioMulch, a program I’ve used in a number of my compositions, live gigs, and installations, has now been upgraded to version 2. I’m pretty excited about this, particularly because the revisions to the interface and work flow are expected to make future upgrades and additional features quicker and easier. The program is intended for novices as well as specialists. Info and 60-day demo here.

Housekeeping in The Listening Room

Wednesday 1 July 2009

As mentioned before, all 12 pieces from Real Characters and False Analogues can now be heard in The Listening Room. However, I’ve been having trouble with some of the mp3s: Redundens 4 and all of the Stained Melodies come out distorted when I try to play them.

I’m figuring out how to fix this, but in the meantime if you have the same trouble then try the player on my NetNewMusic page.

This Is The New Music! Real Characters and False Analogues

Monday 29 June 2009

12 mp3s for download or streaming.

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.

The entire set, along with detailed composition notes, can be downloaded from its page on the music website, or heard in streaming audio at The Listening Room.

* 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!'”

Everybody’s I Ching

Friday 26 June 2009

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…

Please Mister Please

Thursday 25 June 2009

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, “Sue Egypt” (1980).
(2’58”, 3.38 MB, mp3)