Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

Random Rambling & Questionable Commentary

Archive for May, 2010

Mixed Feelings

Posted by midiguru on May 31, 2010

As a musician, I purely hate powered gardening devices. The excuciating sound of a power mower is enough to give me homicidal impulses. I also avoid yard work whenever possible, which is almost always.

So this morning I sit down to practice the piano, and shortly I hear that dreaded “hrm-hmm-hrm.” It’s louder than usual, too. I look out the window … and my around-the-corner neighbor is mowing my lawn! Purely because he wants to. I did not request that he do this, nor even hint about it.

What could I do? I put on my cap and gardening gloves and went out and pitched in a little. And thanked him profusely, of course. The lawn badly needed mowing.

Now my left arm is a little sore from pushing the broom, which gets in the way of sitting back down at the piano for an hour or three. (This thing where you’re over 60 — it’s not a lot of fun, trust me.) But how can I be pissed off when the guy did me a huge favor?

Life is not always black and white. Not if you’re paying attention.

Posted in music, random musings | Leave a Comment »

Extra! Extra! Read all about it!

Posted by midiguru on May 27, 2010

I’m having a stab at learning Dreamweaver, Adobe’s complex and sophisticated website design system. And in idle moments, I’m asking myself why I should be doing this.

I think I know why.

It’s not just that I enjoy learning new software. It’s not just that I’m the new webmaster for Friends of the Livermore Library and may need to know more about web development than I do now. It has more to do with a line from a Buffalo Springfield song — “Somethin’s happenin’ here, what it is ain’t exactly clear.”

Something is indeed happening here, and I don’t think any of us yet knows exactly what it is, or what it will become. What is becoming clear to me is that the Internet — or, to be more specific, the Web — is at least as fundamental a change in how people disseminate and access information as the invention of the printing press.

A. J. Liebling, who wrote for The New Yorker, said, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” But that was in 1961 or thereabouts. The ability to disseminate information to the public was not restricted to people who owned presses — you could own a radio station or a television station — but it required, in any case, an enormous capital investment.

Today, the required investment has shrunk by at least three orders of magnitude. Buy a modest computer ($1,000 or so), a fast Internet connection ($25 per month), and space on a server (another $20 per month, or less), and you have your own printing press. Getting anyone to read your stuff is a separate problem, but what you write is available to be read. If writing is too much trouble, skip the space on a server and upload videos of your craftily considered babbling to YouTube.

That’s revolutionary enough, but it’s only part of the story. The Web is also changing the manner in which information is presented and absorbed. The cost of paper and the cost of shipping chunks of paper has always limited, and sharply, the number of words and images that could be used. Hyperlinks in a book (also known as cross-references) are cumbersome to use, and footnotes and a bibliography (external links) are much, much worse. So a Website can present more content than a book, and can organize it in more effective ways.

And then there’s the sense-o-rama. As I learn Dreamweaver, I’m turning to Lynda.com, a site packed with tutorial videos. Learning from a video, I’m finding, is quicker and easier than learning from a book. It’s like having a college lecturer who demonstrates stuff on a big screen, except that you can rewind the lecture and watch it again whenever you need to. And seeing how the screen changes when the lecturer clicks on it is an experience that sinks into the brain in a different way than if you read about the same feature. Sure, I can buy a book on Dreamweaver (and I probably will), but I’m a print-oriented guy. Many people will learn from videos who would have trouble digesting information in book form.

I spent more than 30 years writing for music magazines. I still do, though not as often as in former times. The magazines have shrunk dramatically in the past decade. Some have gone under. And the Web is why. The monthly magazine is no longer the most effective or efficient method of disseminating information. I may mourn (if a bit prematurely — Keyboard and Electronic Musician are still gamely trudging on, though with skeleton staffs) the demise of the music magazine as I’ve known and loved it. But I’m not ready to have them put me in a pine box quite yet. I plan to remain active in the publishing industry. Hence: Dreamweaver.

True, most Websites are designed to sell products. But I’m sure when the printing press was invented, the pressmen put food on the table by printing handbills. We also have thousands of sites, from wikipedia on down, that are primarily or entirely informational. I turn to them constantly! The Liebling quote, above — I thought it was from H. L. Mencken, but I had sense enough to google it. Finding it in the library, unless it was in Bartlett’s, would have taken at least an hour, and the search might have been in vain.

It wasn’t too long after the invention of the printing press that people started writing novels. Most of them were trash, but we also got Don Quixote. I haven’t seen much yet in the way of websites whose intentions are purely artistic, but I’m sure they’re out there. I’m sure thousands of tech-savvy young people are hunched over their laptops far into the night, discovering ways to dazzle us with their creative vision. I might even want to have a go at it myself. Hence: Dreamweaver.

Posted in media | Leave a Comment »

Burnin’ Down the House

Posted by midiguru on May 20, 2010

Today I saw a bumper sticker that said, “Fight Socialism!” That and the Ronald Reagan bumper sticker made it crystal-clear that the owner of the car must be of the conservative persuasion.

My question for this addle-pated individual is this: When your house catches on fire, what private fire company are you going to call to put out the fire?

What? You mean to tell me you don’t subscribe to a private fire company? You’re not planning to call the 100% socialist public fire department, are you? I sure hope not.

I seem to remember that they taught this lesson in history class in high school when I was but a wee sprat. Maybe it’s not in the curriculum anymore. The thing is, we used to have private fire companies in the United States, back in the bad old days. And what would happen was, when a house caught on fire (which happened quite a lot, because lamps and stoves and candles all used open flames), the wagons from two or three local fire companies might show up.

These companies were rivals: free-market capitalism at its finest. So if you weren’t already a subscriber to one of the companies, you’d have to negotiate a price (while the fire was burning) for them to put it out. The price would be exhorbitant, naturally, since the fire chief knew you were in a big hurry, but precious minutes would be wasted while the various companies bid against one another. If you did happen to already be a subscriber to one company, the firemen from another company might engage in various sorts of sabotage so that later they could say, “See, Bob Smith was an XYZ Company subscriber, and they were on the scene, but guess what? His house burned down before they could put the fire out. Their pumper didn’t pump out but a trickle, haw-haw-haw!”

The system was broke. So what happened was a government takeover. Now there’s only one fire department. It’s run by the government. It’s paid for with your tax dollars. It’s socialism, weenie-breath. And it works just fine, and nobody complains about it.

Oh, and in those days there were no regulations on how food could be packaged or labeled. Quite a lot of babies died from being fed stuff that was supposed to be milk, and looked like milk, but wasn’t. So today we have (in theory, at least) intrusive bureaucratic government regulations. The kind of stuff conservatives love to ridicule and whine about. But the number of babies dying from tainted milk dropped dramatically when the regulations were written into law.

Conservatism — a sure-fire recipe for burned-out houses and dead babies. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Posted in politics, society & culture, Uncategorized | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Bad Examples

Posted by midiguru on May 17, 2010

Sometimes the best way to learn is by watching others fail.

When we read, view, or listen to a work by a master, a work we admire for its perfection, the craft that went into it is not always apparent on the surface. The master makes the process of creation appear effortless. When we attempt, in our own work, to emulate that seeming effortlessness, we may feel (perhaps because we put so little effort into the work) that we have succeeded. The differences between our clumsy efforts and the work of the master may remain entirely invisible to us. We may think, “I did pretty much the same thing he (Updike,  or Picasso, or Prince) did, except for some details.”

How much more painful, yet revealing, to check out works by a few amateurs. The ways in which their technique is inadequate, their clumsy groping palpable, their excesses painful, are likely to be obvious. And again, if we’re honest, we may find ourselves, realizing, “Yeah, I did the same thing he did, except for some details.”

I learned this lesson years ago, in a critique group for writers. I once read, for instance, a detailed outline of a novel in which all of the interesting action was taking place offstage. The plot moved forward as the main characters, who were marooned on a planet, made brilliant guesses about what must be transpiring in orbit thousands of miles overhead. The lesson: Put the action onstage, and keep it there!

This week I’ve been listening to a few amateur electronic music tracks on Broadjam. It’s a great site, if a bit commercial. Founder Roy Elkins laid a membership on me last year (thanks, Roy!), but I drifted away from it. Now I’m back, drawn in by (among other things) the fact that members can upload hi-res mp3s at 192 or 256kbps, and Broadjam will stream them without dropping the bit rate back to 128. SoundCloud stomps on the bit rate, so goodbye, SoundCloud.

So now I’m checking out the new music on Broadjam. The most pervasive flaw I’m hearing is, I suppose, lack of imagination. I might hear what seems to be a great intro, for instance … but it isn’t the intro, it’s the main subject of the piece, and the composer hammers on it again and again and again, never taking it anywhere.

Repeating a two-bar phrase four times does not produce an eight-bar phrase. It produces a two-bar phrase that’s repeated four times. Repetition, while highly regarded in pop music, is basically an awful thing, to be avoided. But random variations aren’t enough. When you change something, the change has to be meaningful. Lazy composers repeat; industrious composers always have more things to say.

Melody? Don’t ask. In most of the electronic tracks I’m hearing, there is no melody, just a rhythm groove. If there’s a high figure, in the melodic register, it’s repeated without variation. Chord progressions are not as rare as melody, but the progressions I’m hearing are pedestrian or disorganized.

Contrary to popular belief, adding a new layer of rhythm groove on top of an existing groove does not make the music more exciting. It just makes it busier (if you’re lucky) or hopelessly cluttered (if you’re not).

Predictable breaks are a constant hazard in bad dance music. The kick drops out for eight bars, and then it comes back in, and that’s supposed to give the music a dramatic lift. But it doesn’t, because we’ve heard the identical strategy employed about a thousand times before.

The point of subjecting myself to this torment is, now I’m listening to my own work-in-progress and thinking, “Is this boring, or what?” I need to become more imaginative. I need to stop relying on stock progressions and repeated phrases. I think I’ve got the melody and intro thing mostly under control, but I need to become daring.

That’s it. Become daring.

Fortunately, I’ve just ordered a dozen classic CDs by Frank Zappa. In a few days I’ll be up to my elbows in daring.

Posted in music | 2 Comments »

R U A UU?

Posted by midiguru on May 16, 2010

I’d like to have a better network of social contacts. Friends, I think they’re called.

Church attendance is rumored to be a way to build a social network. My choices in this arena are limited, as I’m an atheist. The Unitarians (also known as Unitarian Universalists, primarily for administrative reasons) have no theology or dogma, so they’re my best shot. For four Sundays now, I’ve been showing up, sitting there, singing, listening, chatting with a few people after the service.

So far, I’m failing to see anything that would attract me. The minister’s sermons are okay, and the congregants are my kind of people in a general sort of way — intelligent, liberal, polite. The services barely mention God or prayer, so I don’t have to grit my teeth. But there’s nothing positive about the experience. I’m not feeling, “Wow, this is a great place to hang out.” I’m not thinking, “Hey, these are cool people. I want to talk to them about stuff.” It’s all sort of blah.

Blah is not, I think, what one hopes to get from church attendance.

Posted in religion, society & culture, Uncategorized | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Goats in the Machine

Posted by midiguru on May 14, 2010

I have a talented cello student, a sophomore in high school, who on his own initiative found and started learning Mark Summer’s “Julie-O.” Summer is the cellist with the Turtle Island String Quartet, and “Julie-O” is his big unaccompanied solo spot. (If you’re curious, there’s a video of him playing it on YouTube.) It’s quite a fine piece, in a loose and jazzy way.

Yesterday one of my Facebook friends turned me on to the Avant-Garde Project, a downloadable collection of rare recordings (mostly from LPs, I believe) of important avant-garde music from the ’70s and ’80s. So I started grabbing a few files. They’re in .flac format, but Audacity (a free, cross-platform audio editor) loads and plays .flac files.

Right now I’m listening to Morton Subotnick’s “Axolotl,” a 17-minute piece for cello and what Subotnick terms “ghost electronics” — circuitry that makes no sound on its own, but instead processes the sound of an acoustic instrument.

Would I suggest to my student that he track down and learn “Axolotl”? Or even download and check out the recording? No, I would not. I hope he never hears it, but if he does, I’m pretty sure he’ll roll his eyes or crack up.

In 17 minutes of music, “Axolotl” has perhaps 30 seconds of sonority that are not actively obnoxious. For the rest — what on Earth could possibly possess someone to think that this repulsive mess was worth composing, much less recording or performing? I think a brain tumor would probably be needed.

There is no melody or theme. There is no harmonic movement. There is no meter. There is no formal structure. The primary contribution of the electronic “ghost score” is to add a jittery tremolo that turns the tone of the cello into a sad and annoying mess. The cellist in the recording (most likely Joel Krosnick, who commissioned “Axolotl”) flails away at his instrument, producing plenty of scrapes and squeaks. He also grunts now and again. Or perhaps that was the record producer leaning over the wastebasket.

Allen Ginsberg said, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.” He wrote that in 1955, 25 years before the composition of “Axolotl,” but he might have been talking about Subotnick.

In fairness, though, “Axolotl” was premiered in a concert hall at the Library of Congress, so I think we have to admit that Subotnick was far from alone in being starving hysterical naked. This sort of music was, and remains, highly regarded in certain circles.

I’m entirely at a loss to understand why.

Posted in cello, music, technology | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Lost in the Clouds

Posted by midiguru on May 13, 2010

Today I’m wandering around SoundCloud, checking out the electronic music. Here and there I stumble over a piece that’s not so bad that it makes my skin crawl, but they’re few and far between.

The composers (using the term very loosely) of these tracks seem to be almost entirely devoid of intelligence and imagination. But that’s not the worst of it. Their music lacks passion, emotion, drama. It’s dead.

In what follows, I’m going to avoid giving specific composers’ names. I’m not out to slam anybody in particular for their deficiencies. My critique is, rather, of an entire school of music-making; and by implication, I suppose, of the culture that fosters it.

Right now I’m listening to a soundscape recorded recently by an American. It’s more than an hour long. The first ten minutes, which is all I’ve heard and all I’m ever likely to hear, consists entirely of long sustained tones, vaguely stringlike or brassy in character. The tones swell slowly and die away slowly. A mostly diatonic scale in 12-note equal temperament is being used, but I can detect nothing in the way of a chord progression. The succession of tones seems almost random. Sometimes the texture is thicker, sometimes it’s thinner, but there’s never any rhythm and never any voice movement. Each long note is self-contained, with no apparent reference to anything else in the texture. I wouldn’t object to hearing 30 seconds of this sort of texture as an introduction to a piece. As a free-standing piece, however, one that leads nowhere, it’s about as animated and provocative as a dead raccoon lying in the middle of the street.

Another composer, also American, has uploaded a computer-generated piece, similar in shape (to the extent that a pillow can be said to have a shape) to the one described above, but consisting of a gradually thickening texture of microtonally pitched tones that beat against one another. The point of the piece, I think, is that the beats between not-quite-unisons gradually change over the course of ten or twelve minutes. Once the listener has got the idea (which takes a minute or so, because the texture unfolds in such a very gradual way), any further application of analytical intelligence would be superfluous. Of emotion there is not the faintest trace.

This same individual offers us a blessedly shorter track in which a synthesized piano plays an unending stream of eighth-notes. The notes are placed with metronomic precision at a constant tempo, and all have the same attack velocity. At first I thought I was hearing a chord progression, but it soon became apparent that the harmonic motion was somewhat random. The references to standard-practice progressions seem to have been more or less accidental. The piece is at a constant dynamic level and, for the most part, of a constant textural density from one end to the other. (There is a lessening of the density for a while in the middle, at a point where a melodic figure that Chopin might have plinked out at the age of five edges into view, repeats a couple of times, and then dies of exhaustion.) Emotion? None. Intelligence? None. Imagination? None. Beauty? None.

A Canadian offers us a 1-1/2 minute piece consisting entirely of a sort of bubbling, percolating texture — short tones with varying envelopes playing one at a time (no chords) in a rapid and uneven rhythm. The tones are processed by a pleasant reverb. The pitches appear to have been selected at random, so there isn’t even a hint of harmonic intelligence. The density of the texture does not vary during the piece, and no other sonic elements are introduced. I’d be inclined to call the piece a sketch, except that, in the context of hour-long pieces by other composers that exhibit just as little variety or color, it’s a good guess that the composer of this little etude has no intention of expanding it into a more dynamic or emotionally meaningful piece.

Earlier I listened to an hour-long soundscape by an Italian that was constructed (quite painstakingly) out of field recordings made on streetcorners in a city. The result was just as unfulfilling as you might expect, given the source material.

From Germany we have a composer uploading short and frantic noise pieces. The first one is built of layers of machine noise: Tearing sounds, liquid bleeps and gurgles, buzzing, and a dynamo starting and stopping, all of it jumbled together in a thick and incoherent stew. The second piece is even thicker, and has a minor triad hovering motionlessly within it. The third starts out with some nice electronic bell tones, but then the layers of noise pile on. No harmony, no melody, staggering rhythms but no meter — if you put this music on the stereo, your dog would slink out of the room with its tail between its legs. And your dog would be right.

Over on the other side of the aisle we have the dance techno wannabe’s, who exhibit just as little intelligence or emotion while pounding us with a relentless kick drum in 4/4.

I wonder: Has any of these alleged musicians ever mastered a conventional instrument? Played live in a small or large ensemble in front of a paying audience? Studied harmony theory, or listened to the symphonic literature of the 19th and 20th centuries? It seems doubtful. What we’re hearing here is, I would judge, mostly the creation of people who have been allowed or even encouraged to believe that ignorance is admirable, that expertise is irrelevant or suspect, and that all opinions about music are equally subjective, and therefore equally valid. They may sincerely believe that all that matters is originality or innovation.

There is such a thing as thought. There is such a thing as emotion. There is such a thing as structure. There is such a thing as being trained in a discipline. There is such a thing as wanting to communicate in some way with listeners.

It seems rather unlikely that any of these composers will ever understand any of that. But I’d prefer to be optimistic. Someday, they might learn.

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Cage-in-a-Box

Posted by midiguru on May 12, 2010

Tonight I downloaded Richard Devine’s amazing GrainCube, which endlessly spews out a constantly changing stream of provocative, ear-catching noises. It’s the ne plus ultra of abstract, aleatoric electronic music. The connections among sonic events in the slipstream are entirely in your brain; GrainCube knows naught of semantics and even less of syntax; it just tweedles away, inviting you to become hypnotically enmeshed in the endless surprise of the unfolding moment.

For the technically minded, GrainCube is an ensemble (instrument) written for Native Instruments Reaktor, and you have to own Reaktor to experience it. If you do happen to have Reaktor 5, trot on over to http://www.devinesound.net/ and download GrainCube right now. If you also own a Lemur, I believe you can interact with it in real time, though why you would want to I’m not sure. Its hermetically sealed onanistic processes seem quite complete.

GrainCube is either the reductionist endpoint of improvised academic electronic music, or a clever satire of same. It’s John Cage in a box.

David Wessel, the director of CNMAT at Berkeley, has a couple of recent videos up in which he improvises on a multi-touchpad interface. The results are different in detail, certainly, from the output of GrainCube — but would listeners behind a curtain be able to tell which was a human performer improvising abstract curtains of sound, and which was the random number generators in GrainCube? I’m not at all sure … and the very fact that the question arises undermines the notion that David Wessel is doing anything of any lasting musical value.

David is a very bright guy, and I’m sure he believes in what he’s doing. He invited me up to CNMAT once and gave me a personal tour, so I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt. I’m not going out of my way to insult him. But the video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nhwVYN6fnCE) in which he improvises with Miya Masaoka (she playing some sort of hammer dulcimer) is unintentionally hilarious. I found myself thinking, “My God — my tax money is paying this guy to develop this stuff?” It’s almost enough to turn me into a conservative.

But now that GrainCube has been released, all of the improvising electronic musicians at universities around the world can safely pack up their gear and go home. You’ve been replaced by a machine, folks. Its output is just as interesting and memorable as yours. You can safely go back to practicing Brahms now. Nobody will laugh at you.

In fact, they might be happy to see that you’ve come to your senses.

I’m not kidding, either. I was looking online at the music curricula for both UC Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara. There’s this weird gap. You can learn species counterpoint (an 18th century composition and theory technique), or you can learn about the latest developments in the compositional use of spatialization, timbre, and computer-generated micro-polyrhythms (okay, I made that last one up, but I’m sure it will be on a syllabus next year). But can you learn how to write a good bass line or a memorable melody? As far as I can see, there seem to be no courses in that. You can learn about Beethoven’s compositional techniques as a historical topic, or if you’re a performance major and want to play Beethoven. But try going into a university music department today and saying, “You know, I think I’d like to learn to write like Beethoven. But modern, you know. Do you have any courses in that?” Go ahead, try it. I dare you.

I’m weird. I want to learn how to write good bass lines and memorable melodies. I’m not interested in playing music that sounds as if somebody brought down a big box of junk from Grandpa’s attic and dumped it out on the sidewalk.

Or … let me qualify that statement slightly. I might be interested, once in a while, in making music that had that kind of sonic vocabulary, if it were composed. If I were doing the music, I would want to sit and listen to the phrasing and the mix and think about them — think carefully, for days or weeks, before challenging my listeners. I would want the listeners to be able, if they’re paying attention, to perceive that someone cared about the music. And if I’m listening to a piece by someone else who uses that kind of sonic vocabulary, I want to know that the person who created the music cared enough to want to perfect it and present a thoughtful, polished recording or performance.

Dumping out junk? Hey, we’ve got a brilliantly engineered computer program that can do that for you.

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Third World Impossible Music

Posted by midiguru on May 12, 2010

When a large, powerful, well-organized force moves into a small, relatively isolated region, sets up camp, and goes about extracting wealth from the locals, we have a name for it: That’s called colonialization.

This is a pretty good description of what the mainstream music industry has done to small-town America. We’re the colonies. The music industry is the colonial power. So we get to sit around in the dust and watch the soldiers drive by in their armored vehicles. Ain’t it swell?

I live in a medium-sized town in Northern California. There is basically no way to earn a living as a musician in this town, because there is no local music scene. If you’re a musician and want to earn a living, you can teach lessons to kids, or you can work in a music store. (And we only have one small music store, and I kind of doubt the clerks there can afford to buy homes.)

When talented young musicians grow up in a small or mid-sized town in America, guess what? They leave. In order to have any hope of earning a living, they have to move to New York, Los Angeles, or Nashville. As a result, the musical life of the local community is impoverished.

It’s not that the people in my town and yours don’t care about music. I’m sure they do. But their music purchasing dollars are all siphoned off by the mainstream music industry. Sammy Hagar reunion concert tickets, CDs you buy on Amazon, iTunes downloads, that type of thing.

Every time you download a song from iTunes, that’s 99 cents that doesn’t go into the pocket of a local musician.

Here’s a shocking idea, one that has no chance whatever of being implemented. We, the people, own the airwaves, right? The airwaves are a public resource. So what would happen if the FCC decreed that a modest 10% of the music broadcast by every radio station had to be music that was recorded within the local area served by the station, and by musicians living within the local area?

What would happen would be, first, a mad scramble by thousands of local musicians across the country to prepare good recordings. After which, the people in the local community would get to know who the local artists were, so the local artists would have a better chance of getting paying gigs.

But it will never happen, because the corporations that own the radio stations won’t let it happen. They have the ear of Congress. Musicians don’t. And nobody but musicians cares.

The money you spend on music, be it slight or major, is leaving your community. It is winding up in the pockets of the stockholders of Clear Channel and Cherry Lane Music.

This situation doesn’t just affect musicians. It’s an absolute cultural loss for the local community as a whole. Sure, you get to listen to great tunes — but they’re homogenized to be attractive to as wide an audience as possible. Local concerns are not given voice by local songwriters, because no one is listening. It’s all Burger King music, Wal-Mart music.

The Internet is not a very good medium with which to attempt to address this disparity, because the Internet is inherently non-local. You can maybe get a couple of tracks on a podcast, and maybe some guy in Australia will write you an email effusively praising your genius, but he’s in Australia, so he’s not going to come to your gig. Unless your local gardening shop happens to have a website, you probably never visit a site that’s aimed at a local audience.

On the other hand, it wouldn’t hurt to research the local businesses that have websites, and suggest to them that they add streaming music. You won’t make any money that way — it will still be the online equivalent of setting up and playing for free at the local street fair (which is what you’re doing already, if you can manage to put a band together), but maybe a few more local people will get to know your music.

And then what? Are there clubs you can play in, if you don’t want to play for drunks and do want to play original material? Uhh, probably not. The patrons of those clubs have all driven down to San Jose for the Sammy Hagar reunion concert.

Posted in music, society & culture, technology | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Player Piano

Posted by midiguru on May 9, 2010

Conlon Nancarrow is a covert hero of mine. “Covert” because I’m not sure I actually like his music. He’s a hero because he went off and did what he did. The fact that nobody was paying any attention didn’t stop him.

Or maybe I’m overstating the case. The biographical sketches I’ve read say little or nothing about the correspondence Nancarrow may have had with other composers during the ’40s, ’50s, or ’60s. He was physically isolated, but I don’t know how isolated he may have been psychologically and culturally. One bio says Elliott Carter was a lifelong friend; that would count for something.

The story, in brief: When Nancarrow returned from Spain in 1939, after fighting Franco with a bunch of other American volunteers in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, his Communist views were so unpopular that he was denied a U.S. passport. So he pulled up stakes, moved to Mexico City, and became a Mexican citizen.

He had studied composition with Walter Piston and Roger Sessions in the ’30s, and he became fascinated by complex metric schemes — rhythms that no musician could ever play. So he acquired a pair of player pianos and a piano-roll punching machine. That was his orchestra. (One bio credits him with saying, “As long as I’ve been writing music I’ve been dreaming of getting rid of the performers.” I can relate.)

Were he alive today, Nancarrow could write far more complex and varied music on a laptop, with Csound. The player piano part of the story is very sad. (He could never quite get the two pianos’ mechanisms to synchronize with one another, for one thing. They always drifted apart.)

What interests me, though, isn’t the primitive technology. It’s the question of how he managed to persevere for 40 years, creating esoteric music in almost complete obscurity.

He was married three times, and his father had been the mayor of Texarkana; both of these facts would suggest that he may have had a healthy self-regard. His second wife was part of the circle of Mexican painter Diego Rivera, so he probably wasn’t isolated from other artists in Mexico, even if the Mexican classical musicians were (understandably) unable to cope with his ideas.

So maybe I’m making too much of the fact that he left the country and spent 40 years writing music that nobody was listening to. Maybe people were dropping by the house every week to say, “Way to go, Conlon! You rock, dawg!”

I sure wish somebody would drop by my house every week to tell me I rock, dawg. It’s real hard to keep the player piano cranking along when nobody ever says that.

Posted in music, random musings, society & culture | Tagged: , | 5 Comments »

 
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