Postscript to Rzewski

Many years ago, I met a very young pianist, Frederik [sic] Rzewski, and he said with the peace of mind available, he said, “You know that canon for two pianos?” Canon, me, my canon? Oh yes, that free-durational piece. It was a canon, I suppose. To tell you the truth, if I’d thought it was a canon, it would have caused me to commit suicide.

Morton Feldman, “Darmstadt-Lecture” from Essays

Some thoughts on conformity


When you do something against a rigid system, the product loses its authenticity. Rather one has to act as though the system doesn’t exist at all. That’s the only way music continues to be viable in the longer term.

Alfred Schnittke, “Between Hope and Despair” in The Voice of Music by Anders Beyer


“They believe it,” the Constable said, “because they have been indoctrinated to believe it.”

“Yes. Some of them never challenge it—they grow up to be small-minded people, who can tell you what they believe but not why they believe it. Others become disillusioned by the hypocrisy of the society and rebel—as did Elizabeth Finkle-McGraw.”

“Which path do you intend to take, Nell?” said the Constable, sounding very interested. “Conformity or rebellion?”

“Neither one. Both ways are simple-minded—they are only for people who cannot cope with contradiction and ambiguity.”

Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age

Xenakis on a Dialectic

“At each reproduction of an entity, the entropy of the entity increases according to a certain delta—that is, the information describing the entity degrades partially at each renewal, irretrievably. It becomes the job of the composer to master, with intuition and reason at the same time, the doses of these entropy-deltas circulating through all the macro-micro-intermediate levels of the musical composition. In other words, one establishes an entire range between two polesdeterminism, which corresponds to strict periodicity, and indeterminism, which corresponds to constant renewalthat is, periodicity in the large sense. This is the true keyboard of musical composition. Thus we emerge in a domain of multiple scientific and philosophic resonances. The continuity and discontinuity of the mathematicians and of the time-space of quantum physicists are such resonances.

“The question that arises in all its generality is to know which mathematical construction to specify to the computer so that what is heard will be as interesting as possiblenew and original. Without dwelling too long on this, I will cite an interesting example belonging to a case I was able to discover sometime ago by using the logistic probability distribution. For certain values of its parameters α and β and its elastic barriers, this distribution goes through a sort of stochastic resonance, through a most interesting statistical stability within the sound produced. In fact it is not a sound that is produced, but a whole music in macroscopic form. This form is the result of rhythmic transformations, giving a polyrhythm of events with variable timbre, changing pitches and intensitiesin short, rhythmic strands of meeting and jostling sounds. I have used this procedure in the music of the DIATOPE at the Centre Pompidou.

“To show to what extend this duality (that is, the entity and negation of the entity by varied reproductions at each step) is important, I put forward again and more explicitly the following question in the specific case of sound synthesis by computer and digital-to-analog converter: how can one obtain a rich, living, previously unheard-of sound? Does one start from an entity and its reproductions and inject probabilistic variations, creating greater and greater deviations from the initial entity, which tend toward a stronger negation? Or, on the contrary, should one start from an absolute negationin other words, a Brownian curve containing absolutely no germ whatsoever of an entityand inject more or less varied reproductions of fragments of this curve, so as to engender progressively or explosively, an unheard-of, rich, living sound? In the first case, one would define the entity by strict periodic functions (trigonometric, for example) stacked or adroitly combined, then inject probabilistic perturbations at each reproduction of the entity. For the second case, one would define a set of functions of probability functions describing a specific Brownian movement that would constitute a furthermost negation. Then one would inject reproduction laws for connected or unconnected fragments of the Brownian curve to define the entity corresponding to these laws. These are two pathways, opposite and symmetrical, to rich, living, unheard-of sound. Naturally there is no exclusivity of one pathway over the other, and the results can be extremely interesting and strikingly different in the two paths.

“Here is another expression of this universal duality, this time in philosophy, formed by the entity and its negation: the duality of the conflict opposing the thesis of Parmenides to that of Heraclitus. Parmenides decided that Being must exist always and everywhere, homogeneous without variation. Heraclitus decided that nothing is immutable, that everything changes. Thus expressed, these two positions are not compatible. They become compatible, however, if one decides that the Being of Parmenides is the entity that we invoke at the beginning. But it is an entity that would not lastas if time were formed of strings of cells and the entity inscribed in this bounded set of cells would not be able to avoid disappearance and death, once all the limits were reached in exchange for an imperfect reproduction. Then the perpetual change of Heraclitus is precisely realized by the reproduction of this entity in a chain of renewalsthat is, in periodicity in the large sense. This, in this way, the Being of Parmenides conserves its integrity in the entity but is stained with temporal, spatial and homogeneity limitations. Change, in general, cannot be instantaneous and total but is obtained progressively by a periodicity that is synonymous with varied reproduction, although it can be explosive at times. The universe of genetics is a beautiful and clear incarnation of this marriage between Parmenides and Heraclitus. Music is another.”

Iannis Xenakis, Music Composition Treks in Composers and the Computer ed. Curtis Roads

Upcoming songs after F. R. Scott

Four Moments



Stand by the window, Tyltyl,

Stand still by the old chintz curtains.


Tell the littlest diamond

It has wonder in its eyes.


But leave me to blow smoke rings

In a dusty corner.



Lay your hand, lay it gently on my arm,

For there is no stillness lovelier

Than the deliberate, fond

Reticence of soft fingers on an arm.



The little hump of her body

Untidied the bed.


She heard a chair creak

And a shoe drop.


And after

The wind cooled her.




So close your breath is warm.


While slowly the




Little one,

Little lovely one.

Reading, Structure and the Creative Process

Needless to say, I didn’t have the time or energy to finish my report from the VISI Art Song Lab. But the results of the week’s collaborative process can be found here.  Since then I’ve mostly been doing a great deal of reading while battling my own lethargy and uncertainties.  The fact that I’m leaving the country in 10 days is slowly becoming more and more daunting, and the many tasks I have yet to do before I leave are on the verge of becoming overwhelming.  Despite all of these sources of anxiety, I find great solace in reading; I’ve consumed about 8000 pages since the beginning of June, and I invariably feel more confidant and inspired while in the thick of relevant reading material.

Two sources I’ve read recently have made obvious to me the importance of structural concepts in the music I write (and even more so in the music I want to write).  First there is an exhaustive summary by Robert Wason of a structural scheme devised by Frederic Rzewski:

According to Rzewski (in personal conversation), these six “textures” grew out of a scheme which he had developed as a plan for improvisation while working with Musica Elettronica Viva. In essence, the scheme is based upon six relationships which two musical events may assume in time: in the first, the two events are completely separated and distant from one another (no relationship); in the second, they begin to move closer and to influence one another; in the third, they are contiguous (Rzewski draws an analogy to the traditional texture of “melody”); in the fourth, they overlap (Rzewski’s idea here is “counterpoint”); in the fifth they are coincident, or nearly so (here Rzewski’s thinks of “harmony”), while in the sixth, they pass one another in time, and bring the whole nature of temporal succession into question.

Robert W. Wason, “Tonality and Atonality in Frederic Rzewski’s Variations on ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated!’ ” in Perspectives of New Music , Vol. 26, No. 1 (Winter, 1988), pp. 108-143

This scheme has been particularly important to the composition of my clarinet trio, and so has Chapter Two of Victoria Adamenko’s Neo-Mythologism in Music: From Scriabin and Schoenberg to Schnittke and Crumb, “The Prime Structuring ‘Molds’ of Myth and Music.”  Here, Adamenko gives an exhaustive treatment of two important structural concepts that I embrace in my work: binary opposition, including the use of synthesis or a “mediator” (this was the main concept of Neither/Nor and continues to be basis of much of my personal philosophy, musical or otherwise); as well as variability and combinatoriality, which manifest most obviously in my music as thematic variation (in Six Popular Songs After Lawrence Durrell) and the creation of a contiguous structure from small combinatorially arranged cells (in Loops from Broken Lies and the shuffled file card pieces).  This chapter from the Adamenko definitely deserves a fuller summary and a closer critique, which I hope to accomplish in the near future.

In the midst of  what was, to me, a much less convincing chapter from Neo-Mythologism in Music, “Perception and Critique: Myth as a Figure of Speech in Musicological Discourse,” Adamenko shares a gem with us on the subject of Schnittke’s creative process:

Schnittke’s notes and sketches reveal that in his picture of the creative process, the composer placed the collective above everything.  Schnittke’s archive in London contains a little handwritten diagram, which represents a layered structure.  The top layer Schnittke marks as “super-music” (nadmuzyka), from where one descends through the layers of “hyper-idea” (giperzamysel), “the idea of a work” (zamysel proizvedeniya), to a “rational concept” (razionalnaya konzepziya) and, finally, to the musical text using notation (notnyi tekst).  “The collective” (kollekt[ivnoe]) occupies the highest level in this diagram, while Schnittke separates the stages that lead to the musical text with a line marking all of the lower  categories as “individual” (indiv[idual’noe]).

Victoria Adamenko, Neo-Mythologism in Music: From Scriabin and Schoenberg to Schnittke and Crumb, p. 249

My own conception of music and composition, which I’d largely developed before I was familiar with any of Schnittke’s work, is remarkably similar.  I also think of music in the highly abstract, hierarchical way that Schnittke does, which in some ways has been a barrier of sorts: I often have to spend months thinking about “the idea of a work” and the “rational concept” before I can commit anything to paper, and I think it will be years, if not decades, before I’ve learned nearly enough about music to have an even somewhat complete notion of “super-music,” which I interpret as being the composer’s philosophical outlook on music, sort of a meta-generalization of the ideological trends in their oeuvre (which I would suppose would be the “hyper-idea”).  Not only that, but I also share Schnittke’s Platonic conception of composition, and, like him, I feel as though I am merely the medium through which compositions, which are inherent from the structure of music as we conceive it and exist in an abstract plane, flow.  I will definitely be discussing that topic in the near future as well.

The ideas I’ve been exposed to through reading in the past few months have raised more questions for me than they’ve answered, but that is undoubtedly a good thing. Merely considering these topics on a day-to-day basis has me feeling closer to my work, despite being in a fairly artistically sterile environment until I move to the US.  Also, since Wesleyan’s MA program uses a portfolio-style thesis, and since I want all the compositions and essays I produce over the next two years to be relevant, I feel as though I need to come up with a plan for the topics I’ll be working on now, instead of a year from now, when I would be beginning a traditional thesis.  The readings I’ve been doing have cemented my desire to further develop my ideas in the areas of style, structure and morphology, and to continue to study the works of Alfred Schnittke, especially those from the end of his life.


Posting from Svalbard

Picture music as a map, and musical genres as continents–classical music as Europe, jazz as America, rock as Asia. Each genre has its distinct culture of playing and listening. Between the genres are the cold oceans of taste, which can be cruel to musicians who try to cross over.

There is another route between genres. It’s the avant-garde path–a kind of icy Northern Passage that you can traverse on foot. Practitioners of free jazz, underground rock, and avant-garde classical music are, in fact, closer to one another than they are to their less radical colleagues. Listeners, too, can make unexpected connections in this territory. As I discovered in my college years, it is easy to go from the orchestral hurly burly of Xenakis and Penderecki to the free-jazz piano of Cecil Taylor and the dissonant rock of Sonic Youth. For lack of a better term, call it the art of noise.

Alex Ross, “Edges of Pop” in Listen to This