On Reading

He talked to her occasionally about books, pictures, music. Dimly she learnt one of the most important of all lessons, how art can console. She read fewer magazines and more books.

Iris Murdoch, An Accidental Man


Serious reading often starts from a deep frustration with living

Mark Greif, “The Concept of Experience” from Against Everything


Three Views of Madrid

I’ve been reading some somewhat depressing Spanish-language literature lately. It seems they all agree on the subject of Madrid.

The city is so stunted, so lacking in historical substance, treated in such an offhand way by arbitrary rulers, capriciously built in a desert, inhabited by so few families rooted in its past, far from the sea or any river, ostentatious in the display of its shabby poverty, favored by a splendid sky which almost makes one forget its defects, ingenuously self-satisfied like a fifteen-year-old girl, created merely for the prestige of a dynasty, endowed with hidden immaterial treasures which cause one to forget its material deficiencies, lustfully thrusting toward the future, bereft of an authentic nobility, people by its slum-dwellers who can be so heroic on occasion in an elemental and physical way, like a young peasant who jumps across a river in one leap, enraptured with itself though in fact the liquor which intoxicates it is not in the least intoxicating, surprisingly superior in times past to foreign cities which could boast two cathedrals, several collegiate churches and haunted palaces (one haunted palace for every century), incapable of speaking its own language with the correct intonation as it is spoken in villages a hundred miles to the north, overwhelmed by the influx of gold which could have been converted to stone, but which become instead carriages and teams of horses with gold and black trappings, having no authentic Jewry, but filled with men who are grave when important and friendly when unimportant, oblivious to everything (at least until the electric train and funicular chair-life were invented elsewhere), torn by ecclesiastical tribunals which burn their victims over to the secular arm, seldom visited by persons of authentic Nordic rave, rich in dull theologians and poor in splendid mystics, teeming with cabaret singers and writers of comedies of manners, cape-and-sword plays, café plays, point-of-honor plays, plays about sequestered beauties, plays of the lower depths and French drawing-room comedies, filled with snorting two-decker buses spouting clouds of black smoke over the pavements where people walk with raincoats on days of cold sun in this city with no cathedral.

Luis Martín-Santos, Time of Silence (1962) trans. George Leeson


A grandson of Spaniards who hailed from somewhere between Colmenar de Oreja and Villamanrique del Tajo and for that reasons spoke glowingly of the land they left behind, the master had pictured Madrid otherwise. To him, raised amidst the opulence of Mexican silver and red lava stone, the city appeared drab, gloomy, and mean. Except for the main square, all was narrow, dirty and squalid when one considered how broad and richly ornamented the streets at home were, with their tiled façades, balconies aloft on the wings of cherubs between cornucopias pouring forth fruits carved out of stone, and signboards the very models of fine painting whose lettering entwined with vine leaves and ivy proclaimed the attractions of jewelry shops. The inns here were poor, with a smell of rancid oil that seeped into the rooms, and it was impossible in many of those hostelries to sleep as one would like because of the din set up by street players—bawling the verses of loas or bellowing at Roman emperors, changing from togas fashioned of bed sheets and curtains to costumes of buffoons and Basques—whose entremeses had musical accompaniments which, although enormously entertaining to the young black for their novelty, quit irritated the master because they were so out of tune. As for the cuisine, the less said the better. The sight of the meatballs they were served and the monotonous hakes called up remembrance in the Mexican of the subtlety of red snapper and the pomp of turkey swathed in dark-hued sauces rich with the aroma of chocolate and the fires of a thousand spices; the quotidian cabbage, insipid beans, chick-peas, and broccoli moved the black to sing the praises of the full-throated, tender avocado, of malanga tubers which, sprinkled with vinegar, parsley, and garlic, appeared on the tables of his country in the company of crabs, the tawny meat of whose claws was more substantial than the beefsteaks of this land.

Alejo Carpentier, Concierto Barroco (1974) trans. Asa Zatz


By now it was two o’clock and we had to be on our way, so we left Madrid. I said good-bye to him much against my will and made my way towards the city gate. So that I shouldn’t think of things I ought not to, God had me meet a soldier. We started up a conversation straight away. He asked me if I had come from Madrid. I said I had passed through the town on my way.

‘That’s the best thing you could have done, pass through it,’ he said; ‘it’s a lousy place. By God, I’d rather be somewhere in snow up to my waist, doing a manly job and chewing wood, than put up with the way they fleece an honest man.’

Francisco de Quevedo, The Swindler (1626) trans. Michael Alpert


Composition Preview: ‘La ſelle d’ærain’ premieres Feb. 13

In my last post I described a large-scale project of which, at the time, I had completed only a few fragments. As I hinted in the last post, I anticipate this that this project will take several years to complete. Lately I have been working on another long-term project: a setting of five Nostradamus quatrains, of which two will be premiered on February 13 as part of the Oak Bay New Music Festival.

When I was 15, I found the ominously-titled Final Prophecies of Nostradamus in a used bookstore called The Flaming Novel. The shop, located in a strip mall parking lot in Apache Junction, Arizona, lived up to its name by falling victim to a fire sometime later.  The book features the text of Nostradamus’ Prophéties (originally published 1555-66), comprised of 941 quatrains organized in ten Centuries, mostly in Middle French. It features uninspired translations and misguided interpretations by Erika Cheetham. Cheetham did write a fairly interesting introduction however, and I learned that Nostradmaus was born Michel de Nostradame to a Jewish family in Provence. Regardless of their reputation as prophecies, most of the quatrains also are of dubious value as poetry; many are lists of 16th century states, cities and towns (e.g. VIII.LII et al). That being said, there are a handful of quatrains that struck me as beautiful when I first read them, especially quatrain VIII.XCVI (the text from this 1566 edition rather than from Cheetham’s book):

VIII.XCVI: La ſynagogue ſterile

La ſynagogue ſterile ſans nul fruit,
Sera receuë entre les infideles,
De Babylon la fille du porſuit,
Miſere & triſte luy trenchera les aiſles.

The sterile synagogue without any fruit
Will be received by the infidels,
The daughter of the persecuted one of Babylon,
Miserable and sad they will clip her wings.

The explicitly Jewish content of the poem and its powerful imagery convinced me to attempt a setting, which I began in late 2006.  The piece began as an attempt to reconcile the traditions of Klezmer and serialism, each of which I was beginning to discover at the time.  I came up with the following piano dyads, which use all twelve notes of the chromatic scale, and derived two tone rows from them:


I ended up setting only the first line of the poem before abandoning it in 2007. The first line of the original version for voice and piano uses a mixture of Klezmer modality and serialism, including this representative passage:


Untilthe end of 2007, I continued setting fragments of several other quatrains, but never completed any of them.

The next step in the development of this project took place in fall 2012 when, as part of Ron Kuivila’s composition seminar at Wesleyan University, we were assigned to write for an ad hoc ensemble of Connecticut musicians: namely voice, tuba, percussion, harp, accordion, viola and double bass. This highly unorthodox instrumentation, particularly the tuba, accordion and bass, reminded me of a Klezmer band, so I decided to complete my earlier setting of La ſynagogue ſterile for the ensemble. In order to emphasize the Jewish content of the work, I decided to intersperse a doina between the lines of the quatrain. The doina stems from sketches I wrote for solo tuba in 2010-11, which I called Der Levoner Doina (The Lunar Doina). I completed this version of La ſynagogue ſterile in November 2012 and it was subsquently performed and recorded at Wesleyan:

I decided to revisit my Nostradamus project recently, because I felt as though La ſynagogue ſterile was not  substantial enough a piece in its 2012 incarnation, and its unusual instrumentation meant that it might not be performed again in the foreseeable future. When the opportunity arose to write a piece for a chamber ensemble of voice, flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano for the 2016 Oak Bay New Music Festival, I jumped at the chance to adapt La ſynagogue ſterile for the new instrumentation, and also to expand the work to include two additional movements. I had come up with the title La ſelle d’ærain (The Brass Saddle/Tripod) when working on the 2012 version. The title comes from quatrain I.I, in which Nostradamus explains his method of divination. The tripod refers to the three quatrains I had decided to set, namely I.XVII (Par quarente ans l’Iris) and I.XXI (Profonde argille blanche), as well as VII.XCVI, which I  had already set.

By last November, I had decided to add movements for voice and piano framing the central three ensemble pieces: quatrains V.XCVI (La roſe) and II.XIII (Le verbe) as incipit and ‘excipit’, respectively (the latter term for some reason seems only to have existed in French literary analysis otherwise). I completed La roſe on Christmas Eve, and the final version of La ſynagogue ſterile exactly a month later, and these two movements will be joined by an instrumental interlude for the performance on February 13.


Mallarmé, Mourning and Microtones

After a series of posts about an often difficult past, I thought it would be a welcome change of pace to write about something I’m working on currently. This post is a preview for what is effectively my professional debut as a composer in a non-self-directed or workshop format: Friday Oct. 16, the inimitable Mark McGregor will perform a new piece of mine for flute and electronics at Open Space.


For the past several months I have been formulating a large-scale project based on Stéphane Mallarmé’s Pour un tombeau d’Anatole. After the death of his son Anatole at the age of eight in 1879, Mallarmé attempted to write a memorial poem, but he was unable to finish it and left behind 202 page-long fragments. These were eventually published posthumously in 1961, and are starkly modern in their fragmentary form. Pour un tombeau d’Anatole was translated into English by Paul Auster (whose translation I am not especially fond of) and then by Patrick McGuinness. There also exists an incomplete and fascinatingly non-literal translation by William Marsh.

As can be seen from the last link, the fragments are formatted in a very idiosyncratic way, reminiscent of Mallarmé’s later and more well-known poems such as Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard. However, it is unclear if the work would have stayed in its more unusual format if it had actually been completed, or if its formatting was simply a sign of its provisional nature. There are also a plethora of strange annotative punctuations in the original text, ranging from several styles of brackets to horizontal lines of various lengths to floating numerals, both Arabic and Roman. They seem to strive to fill in the gaps where Mallarmé’s words failed him. The combination of the work’s extreme emotional content and its open-ended layout made it irresistible to work with.

I knew that a setting of the entire text of Pour un tombeau d’Anatole would be far too long, but nonetheless I wanted to set a substantial part of it. This would still demand a very long duration, most likely an hour or more, so I decided to make it a poly-work in the style of Richard Barrett’s Opening of the Mouth (first movement) or Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf’s Hommage à György Kurtág (a solo piccolo fragment),where a large-scale work is actually made up of several smaller pieces for some subset of the instrumentation that may be performed separately. So far the work is in its infancy, but I already have two segments completed: a draft of a setting of the first fragment, en triste existence, for solo soprano and small chorus (which was read at the SALT Festival this July by the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart) and a piece for flute and electronics, «la double à remplir…», which takes its (incorrectly gendered1) title from fragment 9, which will be premiered this Friday by Mark McGregor.

I decided that, following the text, the theme of the whole work will be an exploration of aspects of mourning from music of various traditions, including the ‘lament bass’, dirges, drones, crying, etc. In keeping with this sense of mourning, the pitch content of the work is derived from the undertone series on a high C. For at least the first section of the work, I decided to use an octave-inverted alteration of the series, which is spaced somewhat like the harmonic series. Using only quarter tones and arrows to indicate approximate twelfth-tone inflections, the modified series is as follows:

Mallarme series 1

«La double à remplir…» for flute and electronics is in the form of a doina. Originally a Romanian shepherd’s lament, the doina entered the klezmer repertoire around the turn of the 20th century (a classic example). Doinas typically consist of a highly ornamented solo melodic line that is accompanied by droning chords that modulate over the course of the piece.  In «la double à remplir…», the flute is accompanied by sine tones that play a series of major seventh chords, derived from the constructed series discussed above, that gradually deviate more and more from equal temperament:

La double a remplir chord progression

Chords connected with a bracket alternate freely, since they are roughly equivalent in distance from equal temperament. Over top of this, the flute plays the freely virtuosic trills, arpeggios and scalar patterns of doina repertoire, but microtonally detuned.

I look forward to the first public performance of a project that will be central to my practice for at least the next few years.


1. This mistake is in Mallarmé’s original.

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