Skid Row

Serialism (12-tone composition) was Arnold Schoenberg’s attempt to unfetter classical music from the bonds of chord progressions. It could only have arisen, one imagines, in an era when the unfettering was already well under way, when the harmonic bonds that remained were less like handcuffs than like well-cooked spaghetti.

Though many composers dabbled with serial techniques, ultimately serialism was a failure. The music from the 20th century that has gained a lasting place in the concert repertoire — for instance, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra or Barber’s Adagio for Strings — is not serialist.

It’s a pity Schoenberg didn’t have access to instruments that could play microtonal scales. He could have entirely burst the bonds of conventional harmony without needing to resort to cold mathematical processes. I’ve read (can’t remember where, but it may have been in a letter Wendy Carlos wrote to the New York Times) that a statistical analysis of serial works reveals a strong preference for Read more

Picky, Picky, Picky

Two weeks after my piano tuner’s $140 visit, I was hearing some rather rambunctious beating in certain of the unisons. Nothing against the tuner, who is well qualified and conscientious. It’s this darn rainy weather.

If I could afford to have him tune the piano every two weeks, I would. But given my budget, investing in a $50 kit (wrench, mutes, and a roll of felt) seemed a better option. Tuning a piano from top to bottom is not a chore to tackle lightly, nor is it something I would willingly attempt, but I figured I might be able to tame a few of the unisons.

I have now learned several things.

First, a cheap Korg chromatic tuner is plenty good enough to tell me which string in the middle octaves is wandering flat or sharp.

Second, after ten or fifteen minutes, my back starts to get tired.

Third, you can mute either one string or two with one of the long-handled mutes, depending on how you use it.

Fourth — hey, I really did smooth out a couple of the unisons! This may turn out to be a good investment.

Fifth, based on the sound of the beating, you can sort of tell whether the out-of-tune string is flat or sharp. As time goes on, I’m sure I’ll get even more sensitive to the variations in timbre that come from wandering unisons.

It remains to be seen whether the pins I moved will stay where I put them. If there are tricks to using the wrench, I don’t yet know what they are. But I seem to be off to a good start.

In answer to the question you haven’t asked — no, I’m not planning to tune the whole piano to just intonation. If I want to play music in JI, I have some very nice synthesizers I can call on. The piano is for Bach, Haydn, Clementi, Grieg … and that very tricky Brahms Intermezzo I’m starting to work on.

The Impenetrable Veil

What is the essential difference between agnosticism and atheism? People sometimes make silly assumptions about these things. My tongue-in-cheek definition has always been, “An agnostic is a person who is afraid that if he admits he’s an atheist, God will strike him with a bolt of lightning.” In plain language, the professed agnostic is avoiding a commitment to his own covert beliefs out of a fear that he might be wrong, and it might be important.

Look: If it’s important, God has totally fucked up and fucked us over by not explaining the situation more clearly. We’re not responsible for God’s fuck-ups. If you think the Bible provides a clear explanation, what can I say? If the Bible is indeed the Word of God, then God is obviously a sadistic monster. Vigorous atheism is the best and most healthy alternative. But really, we need say no more about the Bible, a very old book that is of lasting interest only to the culturally challenged, the emotionally tattered, and the mentally defective.

There may, nonetheless, be some value in exploring and articulating the varieties of non-belief.

Among the religiously inclined, there’s a popular misconception to the effect that the atheist flatly asserts that there is no God. I’m certainly capable of asserting that, and from time to time I do so. But my assertion is not intended to be a rigorous statement of principle. It’s intended merely to puncture the bubble of some religious delusion that I happen, at that moment, to find irritating.

The core principle of atheism, as I stated in another post earlier today, can be set forth as follows: We have Read more

More Krasnyisms

As I doggedly plow through Michael Krasny’s Spiritual Envy, I continue to stumble upon bizarre assertions. Not to overburden my previous post, which has at least the virtue of shape, if not brevity, I thought I’d collect a few of them here.

In musing about change, a constant process that to the believer is at least partly explicable (as a manifestation of God’s will), Krasny says this: “To the atheist, change is simply change and randomly occurs as a result of no higher or invisible purpose, unless it is Darwinian natural selection.” This is wrong in two distinct ways. First, the scientifically inclined atheist understands that there are many natural forces in the universe — gravity, for instance — which operate in non-random ways to produce change. If I drop a bowling ball, its position changes. But the change is certainly not random. Second, natural selection (which is, by the way, only one of two types of selection discussed by Darwin, the other being sexual selection) is not Read more

Agnosticism Unzipped

A friend loaned me Michael Krasny’s new book Spiritual Envy. My friend and I share a reluctance to buy into any of the conventional religions with which the human race has saddled itself. I consider myself an atheist, while my friend considers herself an agnostic. But I try not to be dogmatic about the schism (if there is one) between atheists and agnostics, so I felt I should give the book a try.

As a boy, Krasny believed fervently in the Jewish faith in which he was brought up. By the time he graduated from college, he had lost his faith — or at least, he had lost the feeling of certainty that had underpinned it in his younger years. He is now among the uncertain: He belongs to the vast and rootless tribe that asks difficult, and indeed unanswerable, questions. He considers himself an agnostic.

Yet, for all his doubts, Krasny remains obsessed with Judaism. The book is full of references to the Ten Commandments, to Moses and Abraham. It’s hard to avoid the feeling that he looks at the absence of God Read more

Is Talent Irrelevant?

Being an insider in the music technology community has a hidden down-side. A couple of years ago I had occasion to be discreet about my feelings. Richard Boulanger, whom I greatly respect for his work championing Csound, was raving about the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program. After looking into it a bit, I concluded that OLPC was a pathetic farce and a boondoggle. But I didn’t want to offend Richard. I think I may have written a blog post about it, but I certainly wouldn’t have said anything to him directly.

This week I got an announcement from a friend, Peter Gorges, about his new venture, I like Peter and have the utmost respect for him as a music technology expert. (Peter headed the AIR group at Digidesign for several years.) But here’s what the shiny new ujam website says: “Now everyone can make great music.” Then it says, “Compose — no musical skills required. Sing a tune or follow a simple step-by-step process to produce a professional-sounding , impressive piece of music.”

We can interpret these outlandish claims in one of several ways. Perhaps the entire community of professional musicians has been slacking off for the past 20 years, so that an untrained amateur can actually sound as good as a professional. Or perhaps the technology has gotten so advanced that talent and skill can be entirely automated.

Having raved, in print, about some of the advanced percussion software that Peter had a hand in developing, I’m quite willing to admit that some aspects of musicianship can indeed be Read more


Music has been described as a universal language. This is a nice way of saying that people all over the world play music. But as a practical matter, every culture develops its own music. When a European or American listener, steeped in pop or classical music, listens to a Balinese gamelan, the nuances of the language are entirely lost. We can tell that it sounds weird and exotic, but we don’t know what’s being said.

Certain aspects of our music perception, such as the ability to perceive and remember a series of pitches, appear to be innate. Other aspects are surely learned. If you’ve been raised on music in the European tradition, you’ll have no trouble following the logic of a I-vi-ii-V7 progression. To an Indian who had never listened to anything but the classical tradition of his culture (music for sitar, tabla, and so forth), this chord progression would have no meaning.

I’m still exploring, in a desultory way, the harmonic resources of 31-note equal temperament. The exotic intervals and bizarre chords are intellectually appealing to me — and yet, I’m not finding it easy to build up any enthusiasm for writing actual music using this scale.

The perception of the new pitch intervals in this tuning is not difficult to master. The problem, I’ve started to think, is that I don’t have Read more

Blind Alley

When my cello is making funny noises, I like to remind myself of the adage, “It’s a poor workman who blames his tools.” On the other hand, when I finally got around to getting my bow rehaired, the squeaky noises stopped. Sometimes it is the tools.

I’ve been contemplating, in a vague, fuzzy sort of way, the possibility of composing some synthesizer music in a more open-ended, less pop-based style. Music that’s shaped more like clouds, or flowers, or the stones in the bed of a mountain stream. My usual impulses, the unconscious promptings that produce bass lines, chord progressions, and alternating verse/chorus/bridge structures, seem to be leading me down a blind alley.

At this point, I confront the stark fact that sequencer software is designed for composing and recording pop music. Whether we’re talking about Cubase, FL Studio, Reason, Live, or some other program, it’s the same deal. These programs make some basic assumptions about your music that, while valid for 99.9% of the folks who use them, are quite limiting should you want to go off in a different direction.

One big assumption is that your music will be Read more