Month: November 2006

The Price Is Right


Looking for a choral introit, cheap? The rest of the above (representing the last of my Advent composing and arranging obligations) is now available for free—for free—at the Choral Public Domain Library.

I have a fair pile of choral music that’s accumulated over the past few years, and every so often, I’ll send it off to publishers here and there, just to see the season’s new rejection letters. My favorite is from one of the local concerns, who were kind enough to tell me that their refusal to publish my music “was in no way a reflection on the quality of [my] work.” Really? How are you guys making your decisions over there—running hamsters through mazes? Darts? Haruspicy? Anyway, their loss is your gain. (If anybody uses it, let me know how your choir likes it. My choir did so much moaning and groaning over my Lenten introit last year that I’m currently trying to squeeze my budget enough to commission a new one from Dennis Báthory-Kitsz. Not free—but still a steal.)

Ora labora

The church musician part of me has been in overdrive this week, gearing up for Advent, which starts Sunday. I’d be the first to admit I’m a fairly unlikely church musician, all the more so since what I get less of a charge out of the spiritual effects of music than its more complicated, fallible human side. I’ve rationalized this into a virtue: my job (I tell myself) is to make sure the music is performed as well as it possibly can be—if I take care of the nuts-and-bolts end of the music, it provides the opportunity for the spiritual end to happen on its own. (I wouldn’t claim any advantage for this approach; I’ve seen music directors who do the exact opposite, and it works just fine.)

An unfortunate combination of insomnia and the necessity of a lot of driving this week led me to throw a few gospel CDs in to the car; they do a good job of keeping me awake, and having some lady shout at me that Jesus died for my sins tends to make instances of road rage too ironic to perpetuate. Anyway, as of this week, Sister Rosetta Tharpe is now my favorite gospel singer ever. Here she is doing what she did best.



Why does this little detail move me so much? It’s a reminder that Tharpe was a pro first and foremost, and that in order to get at the spiritual aspect of music, there’s an awful lot of worldly work that has to be done first. That’s the work I love. Is it going to save my soul? Probably not. But if I can ever make it look as effortless as Sister Rosetta, it might save somebody else’s.

"Who can turn a can into a cane?"

It seems the idea of a composer has become so vague for many English speakers that the word itself is being co-opted as a sort of discount substitute for composure. (The proper term for this is an eggcorn, coined by the fine minds over at Language Log.) Google turns up the following:

  • “regained his composer”: 203 hits
  • “regained my composer”: 137 hits
  • “regained her composer”: 102 hits
  • “keep your composer”: 50 hits
  • “keep my composer”: 89 hits
  • “regain his composer”: 107 hits
  • “regain her composer”: 50 hits
  • “regain my composer”: 74 hits
  • “maintain his composer”: 31 hits

  • (All the other permutations I tried had at least a handful of examples.)

    A number of these come from lyrics to hip-hop songs, but I’m nowhere near cool enough to know whether it’s an actual variant in the urban lexicon or just bad transcription. “Maintain my composer” (30 hits) appeared in an unusual number of NC-17 sources, which I suppose could be considered either flattering of frightening. As far as I could tell, only this was consciously making a pun.

    On the plus side, our friend Mark Meyer noted in a comment that his computer’s spellchecker keeps insisting that “Poulenc” should be “opulence.” So there’s hope.

    "Can it be that it was all so simple then?"

    Over the weekend, the Globe‘s Jeremy Eichler looked at Boston, looked at Steve Reich, and asked, “Where is the love?” It’s true, the town I call home (but which will never be my hometown—non-native New Englanders know what I’m talking about) hasn’t exactly been clearing the shelves at iParty in honor of the man’s 70th. Truth be told, though, I hadn’t noticed. In fact, I don’t listen to a whole lot of Reich’s music anymore.

    Now, I have nothing against Reich’s music; I liked it when I first heard it, and I haven’t stopped liking it, but I haven’t needed to hear it for a while. I think it’s when I first heard it that’s important. Reich entered my consciousness in my late teens—right around the time, in fact, when I first got hooked on Richard Strauss. Don Juan and Music for a Large Ensemble both got many a spin on my turntable (and lest you think that turntable makes me even older than I am, keep in mind that I didn’t even buy a computer until the late 90’s). I still have my copies of Different Trains and The Desert Music, and like Zarathustra and Sinfonia Domestica, they don’t get a lot of play.

    Glenn Gould once divided the world into two camps: those who outgrew their youthful enthusiasm for Strauss, and those who didn’t. The implication was that there’s a certain age at which all listeners (all boys, at any rate) who come into contact with Strauss’s music become infatuted with it, and that age usually falls around late adolescence. Gould was on to something, I think: there’s something about Strauss’s music, a talent for turning the raw materials of nerdishness and awkward enthusiasm into the most grandiose of triumphal statements, that’s irresistable to the teenaged mind. But even more than that, there’s the sense that Strauss had figured it all out, that he had cracked the code, that this was the way music was supposed to sound.

    I remember thinking that when I was 16 or 17. For a while, I thought that, like Gould, I would be in that minority that didn’t outgrow their Strauss-o-philia, but my ardor cooled, and now my fondness is limited to his songs. That’s not to say I don’t relish a nice Heldenleben when the opportunity presents itself, but that pleasure is in large part nostalgic: for a little while, I can remember what it was like to blast it through my headphones late at night (the Karajan recording, the one where the trumpets cack on the high note), reveling in the hedonistic glory of a wildly over-orchestrated 6/4 chord.

    Reich’s music doesn’t have very much in common with Strauss, with one exception: to my not-quite-adult ear, it sure sounded like he had squared the circle, that this was a way of making music that had worked out all the 20th-century kinks. I don’t think that anymore—I don’t think any less of the music, it’s just that I’ve wised up about things a little—and I have a suspicion that, if I had encountered his music later, when my mind was more attuned to possibilities than solutions, I’d probably hear it much differently (and would have continued to hear it in new ways for a much longer time). But, like Strauss, it was a particular type of music at a particular time, and that initial impression was indelibly strong. I still enjoy a serendipitous chance to hear it; maybe Boston, it its curmudgeonly way, will celebrate Reich’s 71st birthday just to reassure everyone that they’re not jumping on some passing fancy of a bandwagon. If they do, though, some tangle of hard-wired teenaged neurons will insist on making it into a trip down memory lane.

    "It might be that you / are in need of a clue"

    Thanksgiving sure ends abruptly, doesn’t it? We were planning on staying home all day Friday, but as it turns out, we needed this and that, so out we went. And the holiday season seemed to have dropped onto the world en masse as if it were the marshmallow avalanche crushing the EPA guy at the end of Ghostbusters. It’s full-metal Christmas out there, all goodwill and happy thoughts and twinkling lights and reindeer and novelty swag and you name it.

    It’s like of some horrible plague! But worry not: our anti-social friend Kid Seditious has the cure. Head over to his MySpace page (zero friends as of yesterday; glad to see he’s keeping up appearances) and click on “Insensitivity (Wishing a Jew Merry Christmas).”

    Get a Job

    help wantedIf you’re unemployed or just underemployed….

    Pseudoxanthoma elasticum: the Opera! Or maybe Tourette Syndrome. Or possibly Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease. UK-based Santé Communications is being coy on the subject, but they’re looking for a composer “capable of penning a 20-30 minute opera (possibly for a few principles, small choir and instrumental accompaniment of sorts) around an extremely medical theme”. Imagine the possibilities: a minimalist portrayal of obsessive-compulsive disorder! An aleatoric masterpiece depicting ataxia! The mind reels—although that could just be a subfrontal meningioma.

    On the other hand, if those voices in your head are unremittingly paranoiac, you might just be the person Universal Music Group is looking for to be their new Associate Manager for Digital Rights Management. Requirements: a lack of any sense of irony, an essentially Hobbesian view of human nature, and the ability to see the hardened criminal lurking behind a baby’s eyes. All applicants will be required to submit to a criminal background check and a drug test, even though we already know what they’re going to say, you coked-up little thief.

    Speaking of thievery, if those pesky notes are eluding you, how about words? This guy would like you to write new lyrics to a catchy jingle by that mainstay of the charts, Antonio Vivaldi. With a few changes, of course.

    As the song is written now, single words are sustained for many notes and I would like it broken up with more words so that it will be easier to sing, and also, so that modern audiences will relate to it better.

    So that’s what’s alienating modern audiences—melisma! Somebody tell Norman Lebrecht!

    But if you’re really desperate, you could try this.

    What I am seeking quite frankly is a mate that is tall, slender, blue eyed. I want to pro-create the blue-eyed human being. This is not hate, just preservation of the vanishing blue.

    I am seeking you my darling Goddess. You may look here just for fun, but are now perplexed at this opportunity and are even moved to respond even though you would never do that anyway. Yes this is real. We are the Golden ones. We must be proud and preserve our ways.

    About me. Beautiful Blue eyes that can see right into your soul. Young looking. light brownish golden hair. Tantra connection. Tall medium build, strong. Enough income to support babes and us. Extremely knowledgeable in healthy living. Hands on construction and auto mechanics. A ballroom dancer and composer.

    Percy Grainger is still alive?

    Holiday (II)

    The Plymouth Rock sheet music coverTomorrow is Thanksgiving Day in the US, which supposedly commemorates the Pilgrims and the Indians getting together for a feast in 1621. Let’s be honest: if you know anything about history, you know that the mythology behind Thanksgiving is pretty sketch, and if you live in New England, you know that the people who were here before you were don’t think much of the entire holiday. But I’m not going to bad-mouth Thanksgiving; for most people, it’s just an excuse to get together with family and friends and eat way too much food, and, if anything, the world could use a lot more excuses for that sort of behavior. Now, if you’re a pessimistic sort, you might think that there’s a lot of people out there who have neither friends, family, or food—but that’s just because they haven’t met you yet. So introduce yourself already: click on over to the nearest food bank (around here, it’s the Greater Boston Food Bank; you can search here to find your local equivalent) and give ’em a few bucks. (You’d be surprised how far they can stretch one of those new metrosexual-Hamilton ten-dollar bills.)

    And since it’s all about the food, here’s some appropriate dinner music: the DJ Food masterpiece Raiding the 20th Century, the meta-mash-up to end all mash-ups (via UBUWEB). I’ve been listening to this all week. It’s so much fun I can barely stand it.

    The missus and I (and Moe, of course) will be mooching of off friends this year, but there’s one thing we won’t share, and that’s a big batch of my Mom’s stuffing.

    Mom’s Stuffing

    1 lb. pork sausage (like Jimmy Dean)
    1 lb. Italian sausage
    8 cups unseasoned bread cubes

    Sauté the meat in a large skillet, stirring and breaking up. When browned, add the bread. Stir well to mix and let the bread absorb the fat. Remove to a large bowl. In the same skillet, melt:

    ½ cup butter

    Add:

    2 cloves garlic, crushed
    2 cups finely chopped celery (stalks and leaves)
    1 cup chopped onion
    2 cups shredded almonds
    1 cup coarsely chopped mushrooms
    ¼ cup finely chopped parsley
    ¼ cup finely chopped green pepper
    2 tsp. salt
    1 tsp. poultry seasoning
    ½ tsp. ground pepper
    ¼ tsp. ground nutmeg
    pinch cayenne pepper

    Cook gently until the onions are soft. Add:

    ½ cup condensed beef consommé
    ½ cup dry sherry

    Cook until everything’s hot, then add to the sausage and bread mixture, tossing lightly. (If it looks a little dry, add more consommé and sherry.) Pour into a buttered baking dish and bake at 350º until it’s done to your liking. (Or, cool the mixture and then stuff your bird with it.)

    Holiday (I)

    Maderno sculpture of St. Cecilia

    Stefano Maderno (1576-1636). St. Cecilia. Marble, 1600.
    Church of St. Cecilia in Trastavere, Rome.

    In 1599, the tomb of St. Cecilia, martyr and patron saint of musicians (feast day: November 22), was opened during a renovation of the church. Before it was closed again, so the story goes, Pope Clement VIII commissioned Maderno to sculpt a reproduction of the miraculously preserved body inside. Image via the Web Gallery of Art.

    Qui sème le vent récolte le tempo

    My current reading is the fancy new reprint of Leszek Ko&#322akowski’s Main Currents of Marxism. Terrific book, although I kind of wish they had kept the original three-volume division—trying to keep this thing propped open on my lap is like a Pilates workout. Anyway, Ko&#322akowski sets the stage for Marx’s appearance with a quick history of the philosophical traditions that fed into his thinking. This includes Neo-Platonism, so he discusses Plotinus, generally considered the first Neo-Platonist (and no, not because it’s kind of a pun on his name). Here’s how Ko&#322akowski paraphrases Plotinus:

    The attenuation of existence is measured by the descent from unity to multiplicity, from immobility to motion and from eternity to time. Movement is a degradation of quiescence, activity is enfeebled contemplation, time is a corruption of eternity.

    To which, as a musician, I can only respond oh, great—no wonder we’re always the red-headed stepchild of the visual arts. Let me explain.

    Most analyses of Plotinus talk about the three hypostases, or underlying realities, that form the basis of his concept of reality. There’s the One, or the Absolute, something vaguely like either God or a Prime Mover (part of the quality of the One is that you can’t really say anything specific about it)—but since Plotinus says that the One is self-sufficient, that doesn’t explain the presence of non-One reality, so he needs more. He postulates the Intellect as just below the One in his hierarchy; the framework of reality, as we can express it, is the result of the contemplative activity of the Intellect (making the Intellect a creative force in and of itself in this regard was one of Plotinus’s innovations). But the Intellect is merely the foundation of existence, as created by the One. The specific location of that existence is what Plotinus calls the Soul. Although there’s a “higher” part of the Soul that remains in contact with the Intellect, the Soul is the medium by which the Intellect interacts with the physical and the temporal, and it’s corrupted as a result. Here’s how Plotinus lays it out in his main work, the Enneads:

    Now if there is a coalescence, the lower is ennobled, the nobler degraded; the body is raised in the scale of being as made participant in life; the Soul, as associated with death and unreason, is brought lower. How can a lessening of the life-quality produce an increase such as Sense-Perception?

    No: the body has acquired life, it is the body that will acquire, with life, sensation and the affections coming by sensation. Desire, then, will belong to the body, as the objects of desire are to be enjoyed by the body. And fear, too, will belong to the body alone; for it is the body’s doom to fail of its joys and to perish.

    Picking up on this note of transience, Ko&#322akowski does something really interesting: he frames his whole survey of this head-scratchingly esoteric business around the idea of man’s contigency, an Aristotelian term that refers to the fact that even though we exist, it isn’t strictly necessary that we exist. This is bound up with our experience of time; as Ko&#322akowski puts it, “Every created thing has a beginning in time; there was a time when it did not exist, and consequently it does not exist of necessity.” What’s more, the fact of time is what separates us from the One; because time continually passes, we can remember what we were, or imagine what we will be, but we can never know what we are—we’re permanently alienated from a unified sense of our own existence. Hence the relative philosophical shoddiness of movement, activity, and time itself.

    You may be saying to yourself: bending one’s mind around these ideas is perhaps a not unpleasant way of avoiding actual work, but ultimately, why should I care? Here’s why you should care: because St. Augustine read Plotinus. In fact, Book XI of the Confessions is pretty much Plotinus run through a Christian filter. The big difference? Plotinus says that our alienation will end when the contemplations of the Intellect raise the Soul back into unity with the One. But Augustine says that the only cure for the temporal blues is the salvation of a loving God.

    Thus through [the Lord] I may lay hold upon him in whom I am also laid hold upon; and I may be gathered up from my old way of life to follow that One and to forget that which is behind, no longer stretched out but now pulled together again—stretching forth not to what shall be and shall pass away but to those things that are before me. Not distractedly now, but intently, I follow on for the prize of my heavenly calling, where I may hear the sound of thy praise and contemplate thy delights, which neither come to be nor pass away.

    But now my years are spent in mourning. And thou, O Lord, art my comfort, my eternal Father. But I have been torn between the times, the order of which I do not know, and my thoughts, even the inmost and deepest places of my soul, are mangled by various commotions until I shall flow together into thee, purged and molten in the fire of thy love.

    Contemplation of the passage of time has become something that mangles the soul until it can be purified in the Refiner’s fire. Now, Augustine’s writings became the foundation for the entire edifice of Christian theology. And Christian theology was, for the better part of the millenium, one of the driving engines of Western civilization. Even in this nominally secular age, those threads have been woven pretty deep into the fabric of society.

    What does all this have to do with music? Think about it: the fundamental subject of music is the passage of time. I mean, yes, the visual arts are experienced in time, but music actually rubs your nose in it. Paintings, sculpture, architecture—they all create an illusion of timelessness, of being outside our poor alienated sense of the world. It’s all there at once; it provides the comfort of knowing that, at least in theory, there’s a unified reality, even if we can’t quite grasp it. But music is not only not all there, it’s not even there at all. It’s constantly on the move, shifting, disappearing into the past and running off into the future. It not only reminds us of our fractured experience of time, it is our fractured experience of time, made manifest and explicit. It’s a soul-mangling extravaganza.

    My sense is that, throughout Western history, music has been the recipient of an unfair share of pious horror. Whenever you chance across a commentary, old or new, warning you about music because it’s too sensual, or too overwhelmingly emotional, or too likely to corrupt the morals of young people, etc., ask youself: aren’t other art forms guilty of all these sins? What is this really about? I think they’re all distant echoes of an Augustinian big bang. The real scare is this: music is the slippery temporal nature of our worldly existence acknowledged, brought to the fore, and most dangerous of all, rendered damned beautiful.