Not infrequently, I have the feeling that when I wasn’t looking, somebody took away the planet I was supposed to be living on and substituted a really sad satirical parody.

Tonight I thought I’d poke around and see what’s happening in electronic music in the SF Bay Area, which is where I happen to live. There’s plenty of dance music suitable for partying, which interests me not even a little tiny bit. There’s also a fair amount of avant-garde bullshit. I’ve given up trying to dial up a friendly euphemism; I’m going to stick with “bullshit.” This is the kind of music where nobody knows what’s going to happen next, least of all the performers; where painstaking rehearsal and proficiency on one’s instrument are anathema; where communicating a sense of beauty, symmetry, or emotional drama with an informed audience would be considered selling out.

I’m off in an odd corner of the music universe, you see: I happen to use synthesizers and software, along with drum sounds, bass lines, funky syncopations, tightly crafted melodies, unusual time signatures, and exotic microtonal tunings; yet my aesthetic is informed principally by Bach, Haydn, and Brahms. Plus maybe a little Scott Joplin. Whatever planet my people are hanging out on, it isn’t this one.

While looking around, I stumbled on this description of a recent concert at the Lab in San Francisco, which fortunately I missed. I quote:

“In a two-part concert, cellist Charles Curtis will present solo works created for and with him by Éliane Radigue, Alvin Lucier and Alison Knowles. Radigue’sNaldjorlak (2005) is a nearly hour-long, continuous exploration of the acoustical properties of the cello, centered around a tuning of the cello to its own intrinsic resonance. All of the strings are brought into alignment with the cello’s ‘wolf tone’; the entire corpus of the cello is engaged to elicit a complex, closely related spectrum of harmonics and resonances. Lucier’s Slices for Cello and Pre-recorded Orchestra (2011) sets the solo cello against a sustained chromatic tone cluster in 52 orchestral instruments, arrayed as a Supercollider patch. By outlining the cluster in various melodic orderings, the solo cello erases and re-inscribes the orchestral cluster in a slowly unfolding process. Alison Knowles’ Rice and Beans for Charles Curtis (2008) is a graphic score made of hand made rice paper, beans, lentils and bits of fabric and string. Curtis interprets this work of visual art in a performance analogous to the making of the score, working over the ‘score’ of the instrument in several passes, seeking out unsuspected resonances by tapping, rubbing and stroking the instrument with bare hands.”

Non-cellists may not know what the wolf tone is. It’s the natural vibratory resonance of the body of the instrument, and it’s an annoyance. It’s something you have to manage, something that you try to avoid. Since the wolf is usually near the F below Middle C, it’s a bit difficult to guess how all four strings could be “brought into alignment” with it. If you try to tune the low C string up a 4th, to the F an octave below the wolf, you’re going to break the string. Ditto for bringing the D string up a minor 3rd to the wolf — but if you tune the D string down a major 6th so it’s an octave below the wolf, it’s going to flop around like a loose piece of rope. Also, to be honest, if what you’re seeking is “a complex, closely related spectrum of harmonics and resonances,” the cello is not your best choice for a sound production device. Personally, I’d recommend a good computer. But what do I know? I only play both the cello and the computer.

What we have here, in short, is a concert in which listeners were treated to ugly resonances for an hour (bound to be boring), a sustained and slowly unfolding chromatic tone cluster (bound to be boring), and a graphic score made of lentils, which is performed not by bowing the cello but by hitting it (boring, unintentionally humorous, and insulting to the listener, all at the same time).

You may say, “But Jim, you didn’t hear the concert! It may have been grand!” Well, no, I take it back. I’m sure you’re not stupid enough to say that.

Apparently, Curtis teaches at UC San Diego. God help his students.

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5 thoughts on “Who Stole My Planet?

  1. While this piece seems unhappy, and I did not hear, nor can imagine, the piece written about, honesty is the best policy. I found the wry words easy and fun to read.

    Lately I tend to prefer Asian inspired, or Asian written and performed, modern music performed by artists who are likely to have recorded a few movie tracks, like Yoshida Brothers, ES Posthumus, Jef Stott, Beats Antique, and Thievery Corporation, but I also have tastes both esoteric and entirely mundane, like Nickleback, Kid Rock, or Style Council and Hawkwind. While my taste has traditionally run towards heavy metal and or blues and art rock, and I play no instrument well, being untrained unpracticed and practically tone deaf, I understand perfectly what you are saying, and I would probably have suffered as miserably having had to observe it as well.

    Training in music is un-needed, or even a barrier, in some of my favorite music, like that in the folk-ways of Africa, Asia, Australia, or US blues, so I have little reason to assume I would like your music all that much more than the concert you describe. Nonetheless, I would rather try the worst music you write based solely on your writing, which I find well reasoned, honest, and securely based in reality. These are things that I prefer in any art form, to beauty or enjoyment, though I prefer to have it all.

    Nothing kills music for me like a mechanical repetition designed for dancing with minimal attention, I like music to challenge me, but to be any good it must do more than just require some attention to dance to, it must also be worth the effort.

    I was up for the concept nonetheless, for a sheer experimental lark, until I read that there would be a score, made, presumably, somewhat randomly, with beans. This seems just plain silly to me, either write a score for it, or don’t. If you’re going to play something random, why not model something real, like space static, traffic patterns, or anything real.

    I have no over attachment to classic western music theory, but harmony and melody are what music is in my opinion. I would much rather hear the birds sing, even sparrows, crows, or pigeons in LA (‘tho I live near the Necedah bird refuge in central WI).

    I also have a preference for the life like variation in the beats of a human percussionist, though when they have sufficient skill to match the consistency of a computer they can bore me just as well. To me much of the vitality of music is in the subtle variations in timing and emphasis that fall within the spaces described by notation. hence, having just listened to some of your samples, I must confess I would prefer to hear you play with some human accompaniment. I do like the playful spirit that comes through in your tones and rhythms however.

    I got a kick out of the results for the strings as you imagine how one would tune the instrument to match the description, though I must admit it sounded interesting to tune the instrument to it’s own harmonics, especially in a solo.

    Truth has it’s value and often can be as wry as this title leads one to believe it could be. Both of us share a probable tendency for others to see our tastes and perspectives as somewhat elitist and exclusionary in goal and effects, but I don’t think all see it that way, for that is just not how it is.

    I for one found this piece worth reading as a humorous piece on the nature of man’s alienation of man, from the receiver’s and lover’s point of view.
    You are never really alone, especially in spirit, and your body is solo, when you have an honest relation with Allnessing.

    As a big fan of SF, it seems I should now track down whatever samples of your fiction I might find. I am particularly fond of material such as that found in Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions anthologies, but preferably with a more current vision of (nano/bio/net)technology’s future.

    Thanks for the wake up smile and inspiration for my manic (profuse) writing.

    1. Thanks for the comments, Monte. The only thing I’m not sure about is this: “Training in music is un-needed, or even a barrier, in some of my favorite music, like that in the folk-ways of Africa, Asia, Australia, or US blues.” Musicians who play in folk traditions seldom go to school to learn their music, that much is true, but the good ones spend countless hours practicing, listening, and learning directly from older, more accomplished musicians in face-to-face discussions and demonstrations (which may or may not be paid lessons). I know almost nothing about the folk music of Africa, Asia, or Australia, but I can assure you that playing the blues well is not easy!

      1. As I’ve clearly said, I am unqualified to disagree. But I would be inclined to adamantly agree with you here anyways.
        To be much more clear, my main point is simply that I have found that the factor that I consider most vital seems unable to be captured on sheet music… whatever it is.

        My postulation that training could be a barrier is in reference to formal training only, and is a second hand acquisition, received from those who have felt that it obscured the abilities of themselves or their fellows in this regard. I have no doubt that practice and study of one’s influences is of utmost importance in either case.

        My favorite music experiences come from the rare times of being the only audience, or when the audience is outnumbered by performers, and when blues musicians that may have admired each other, but have seldom, if ever, played together, are literally playing around. As such, it is seldom that anyone present agrees with me on the penultimate nature of the discourse at hand. So, my tastes are either very refined in this manner and/or simply very unpolished.

        Raw or visceral are good words for what I seek to explain, but do not at all explain it.

      2. I also get the same experience when a tight knit band that is good at improvisation is working out new stuff or playing for the fun of it.
        Also, I have never been told that someone regretted having formal training, despite any misgivings they might have expressed in this regard. To the contrary, it is usually remarked that the course taken would be chosen again.

  2. If you think this planet is an odd satire of what it should be, well we should hope you don’t have my interest in watch-dogging corporate, as in electoral, professional politics. But, I suspect you do, to at least some degree, know exactly what I’m saying.

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