Sunday, August 29, 2010

In Season

Back in the days when I was a Serious Composer (not that I'm not any more), Earplay programmed my Serious Beyond Reason (SBR) Duo for violin and piano. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Earplay's flyer for that season (1988-9) gave their slogan as Fresh New American Music, and there were worthy descriptions of the pieces on the season: dynamic, energetic, effervescent, powerful, etcetera. The text attached to my Duo was a thoughtful work.

A thoughtful work.

Full of thought. Thinking was done by me, and to its fullest.

I myself might have described the Duo as passionate if overwritten and inordinately fussy and besides, it became the third movement of a totally bitchin violin concerto, but that doesn't sell tickets any better than thoughtful.

It also shows why composers should be discouraged from self-describing in public.

So I thought of that when I looked up the online presence for the concert for which I am currently writing a piece (working title: Right Wing Echo Chamber; eventual title: likely Talking Points. It beats woikin'). Where I am called a seasoned composer.

Not thoughtful?

As a seasoned composer, I suppose it's my duty to rush out a cavalcade of jokes about it. Starting now.
  • Rakowski's just the flavor-of-the-month. He's never really in season.
  • I guess Rakowski's music sounds okay. But he lacks taste.
  • Tarragon but not forgotten.
  • Oregano deposit, no return.
  • Come on and rosemary me, Bill.
  • Rakowski's the salt of the earth.
  • You'll love the way he works with thyme.
  • Pepper? I hardly know her!
  • Coriander beat goes on.
  • Everything's cumin up roses.
  • Clove your eyes and I'll kiss you.
  • Savory the date. 

Thursday, August 26, 2010

How do you write down this joke?

There's no "I" in Oedipus.

There's no "eye" in Oedipus.

... in Œdipus.

What's it all about — Bobbie?

Wouldn't It Be Nice starts out by pulling a fast one.

There's a happy little vamp in A major, perfectly suitable to accompany, say, a performance of Heart and Soul, that gets intruded on by a loud snare drum stroke with lots of echo. And the verse starts — in the key of F major. F major! The wrong key.

Wait. Introductions to pop songs establish the mood and the key, right? So there's a strange disconnect between the introduction and the actual song. Especially given the happy, carefree feeling of the introduction. That single snare drum stroke and what follows it flouts convention.

My friend Stu is fond of saying that the introduction here is the singer's dream world, and the song itself is the singer's reality. Oh good, crank up the metaphor engine. 'cause then we get to invent a reason for that snare drum stroke: it's the sudden intrusion of reality; it's a slap in the face. While we're cranking out the metaphors. The song fakes left and goes right.

Oh, that Brian Wilson guy. So provocative, so original. So metaphorical.

I think Schumann must have been thinking of this song when he set out to write Dichterliebe in 1839. He knows how the entire set of sixteen songs of Dichterliebe is going to turn out, and he wants to set the proper mood at the very beginning. Reader's Digest™ version of the whole set: I (poet) have a love, it is unrequited. Sturm. Drang. I won't complain. I won't do anything but complain. Okay, you're dead.

So in setting the stage for the first songit's a beautiful day and I just told her of my longing and desire — Schumann also starts with a repeated vamp. Whereas Wouldn't It Be Nice starts with a circular progression, Schumann repeats a Phrygian half-cadence in F-sharp minor, twice.

Weirdly, the song begins with a sixteenth note upbeat C-sharp, harmonized immediately with a D. It's not like that's a prepared dissonance, in the manner of fourth species counterpoint. No, instead there's a feeling that we're walking in on something that's been going on since before the music started. In medias res, as they say in Latinville. Like on the old Liberace show when the camera would enter the room, Liberace was already enraptured in something he was playing, he flamboyantly notices the camera, smiles, and invites the audience into his ... into his ... drawing room? Into the expensive television studio made up to look like a drawing room.

So the poet (the "dichter" of "dichterliebe") starts by inviting you into his, um, drawing room, I guess. And he's waiting for something to happen, waiting, waiting. The repeated Phrygian-cadencing, and the leading tone unresolved ... here comes the tonic F-sharp minor!

Which, given that we know the song already, would be fraught with profound disappointageness.

What Schumann did to break the logjam of repeating Phrygian cadences is much, much better. The voice joins the piano on the sixteenth-note C-sharp upbeat and drags the piano along to a happy little ol' cadence in A-major. Whoa, how does he do that without us noticing, so much?

Sleight of hand. The b-minor first inversion harmony — the first chord in that pesky Phrygian cadence thing — is recontextualized as ii6 in A major, a common-chord modulation that is breathakingly quick. Thus, the third time around, the Phrygian half-cadence thing in F-sharp minor is abandoned — leaving E-sharp unresolved — and the phrase resolves in the "wrong" direction, to a very strong perfect authentic cadence in A major.

Wow. So the intro is the poet's dream world and the first vocal phrase is the real world? Brian Wilson, you are a genius! Oh, I mean, Bobby Schumann, you are a genius!

But seriously, since there's no authentic cadence in the opening key, the beginning and its hanging, unresolved E-sharp represent some serious unrequitage. If it were requited, there'd be a bass line of D-C-sharp-F-sharp, or scale degrees 6-5-1 in minor — the principal motive, incidentally, of the famous C-sharp minor prelude of Rachmaninov.

I hate to break it to you, but there won't be any requitage in (what we presume is) the home key. The unresolved Phrygian reverie thing is a framing device in this song. Which goes Reverie, Verse, Reverie, Verse, Reverie (ends on V7). Ending a song on a half-cadence is okay when it's just one of many songs, and more are to follow. It's an appropriate way to portray the expectation latent in "I just told her ..."

No requiting today, come back tomorrow. Or you can turn the page.

But wait. Getting back to the verse. Two strong perfect authentic cadences in A major, followed by a rising sequence. Rising sequences are perfect for portraying expectation and heightened excitement, yes?

Said sequence tonicizes B minor and then D major, with — ooh, ooh! — parallel Phrygian approaches, for lack of a better term. The bass line each time is 6-5-1 in the tonicized key, and in the case of the D major slice, it's flat-6, borrowed from its parallel minor. Flat-6? A G minor triad in an F-sharp minor song? That's nutty!

Well, looky here. We're denied the closure of a 6-5-1 bass line in the song's home key. But we can shonuff have that closure in other keys, but only in the verse — temporary closure at that, within a rising sequence.

Hmm, I'm starting to think that ... given the text ... the intro is the poet's real world and the verse is the poet's fantasy world. Bobby, you've switched up on us. You are a complete and total nut.

For you see, now in the fantasy world, the poet gets to cadence on the note F-sharp, the real world's tonic. Woo hoo! Oh, but it's the wrong tonic. It's the third of a D major, freshly tonicized. Real closure would have to be F-sharp heard in the tonic triad, and resolving an E-sharp, yes? I am reminded of Woody Allen's Manhattan when Diane Keaton says, "I finally had an orgasm, and my therapist told me it was the wrong kind."

Yes, the wrong kind. G-natural to F-sharp is the wrong kind of tonic resolution. Note how the piano immediately "corrects" the singer by repeating the figure with G-sharp. And when the piano does that, it recaptures a bit of ... its beginning! ... and with the harmony lingering on D major, it's pretty simple to slide right back into the Phrygian vamp. It's almost as if Bobby knew he was going to do that.

Second verse, same as the first. Though with different words. So again, the happy shift to A major. Again, the rising sequence. Again, the wrong kind of orgasm. And again, the rêverie, never resolving. The last note in the piano? Well, not only is that E-sharp just a-hanging there — now there's an unresolved tritone to go with it.

So the next song resolves the E-sharp, right? Uh, go back up and look at the story of the song cycle again. The next song abandons F-sharp minor entirely and goes back to A major.

From my tears many blossoming flowers shoot ...

A major. The poet's fantasy world? And F-sharp minor? Never to be heard from again. The unresolved E-sharp? Unresolved forever.

Sounds like some heavy metaphors going on, huh?

Well, you can go to the twelfth song. It begins with a G-flat major chord. Close enough? Ah, but it has an E-natural added to it, for extra flavor. Yeah, by now F-sharp is G-flat, and it's the German augmented sixth in the key of B-flat major. And what's happening now? The flowers are talking to the poet. Literally. But only in G major. In a B-flat major song. If you're a big fan of anthropomorphization, this song cycle is definitely for you.

Oh yeah. And that G-flat moves to F, supporting a cadential 6/4, and then to the tonic, B-flat. Here, eleven songs later, is a normal 6-5-1 in minor. Uh, except that the song is in major.

Wouldn't it be nice for that E-sharp in the first song to resolve? Sometime? Dude, it's 1839. And why is there no big echo-laden snare shot to separate fantasy from reality? Dude. It's 1839.

Monday, August 23, 2010

What's it all about — Wolfie?

When I begin serious musical analysis with my undergraduate theory students, I always invite them to ponder the root of the word "analysis".

The ice thus broken, the games begin. A former teacher and then colleague of mine used to say that conventional musical analysis usually didn't go much further than "making a list of things in a piece that resemble other things in the piece." Yeah, that's about as far as I got in my undergraduate theory. Lists — good. But when you talk about a novel, you don't stop after you count the number of chapters and make a list of the characters. At the very least, you talk about how the form and the interaction of the characters make for a good story, right? Just for starters, anyway.

And so with musical analysis, yes, it's very important to note all of the technical features like keys, harmonic progressions, phrase lengths, odd phrase lengths, types of cadences, relative strengths of cadences, thematic and motivic transformations, formal divisions, modulations — just doing all of that is a buttload of work. It is to living in a house what drawing a picture of a house is.

It gets to the next level when you identify that, for instance, at a certain articulative point the cadence is strong and then ask questions. Why here? Why this cadence? Why not this other cadence, which would on the surface seemed to have worked just as well?

It eventually leads to questions that become progressively more cosmic. With any luck, there will be enough evidence in the piece to form a hypothesis to answer "what is this piece about?" You need pretty good analytical chops to go up the food chain just to get to the point where you can ask such a question.

Consider the slow movement of Mozart's 23rd Piano Concerto. Here are some statistics: it's in F-sharp minor, which is the relative minor of the key of the whole concerto. It is in an A-B-A form with codetta, with the B section in the key of A major. It's in compound time, and takes about 7 to 9 minutes to perform. It is one of only a very few pieces Mozart ever composed in the key of F-sharp minor.

I'll bet you can't wait to go out and listen to it, right?

Let me add some information: it's one of my desert island pieces. It's sad, wandering, gorgeous, and when it's over I always want to hear it again.

A good analysis should try to bridge the two descriptive paragraphs, don't you think? If you really love the music, find a way to show me in the music what makes it sad, what makes it wandering, what makes it gorgeous. What makes it a piece you want to hear over and over again? And if you're a composer — what is worth stealing here?

Well, since we are talking about music — there's not enough hard disk space in the world to hold the complete answer to that question. I've got a few partial answers that I've taught a few times, but of course they can't do much more than scratch the surface.

One of them has to do with a story and a few things that would go into the list of things that I think are true about this piece. Here's something that may be odd, may be not. After the luxuriant chromaticism and lush textures at the beginning of the movement, at the end the movement textures get simpler, and the complex melody of the opening is nowhere in evidence, instead replaced by a bunch of repeated notes.

So how do we get from



One response is tradition and function: the first excerpt is an opening, the second is an ending. Bravo! Brava! Bravi! You're well on your way. Why this ending? Why those repeated notes? Hypothesis: they sound good. Well, yes they do. They sound good an octave lower, too. Repeated D's sound good there, too. Response: it has to be C-sharps. It's the ending, so the note has to be in the tonic triad. Bravo! Brava! Bravi! Why not repeated A's? Or F-sharps? Response: because of what's in the piece that happens before? Okay, let's keep that thought as a metaphorical ball in the air. Response: could it be the, um, apotheosis of that simplifying of texture thing you mentioned before? It sure could. In fact, you seem to be implying that the textural simplification is there to call attention to the repeated C-sharps (by calling it an apotheosis). Response: okay, I guess so. So the gesture itself — triumphal or celebratory in nature? Is that even an affect?

Response: hey, I just noticed. C-sharp is the first note of the piece. The first melody note, that is. Bravoai! But that's not the same C-sharp as at the end of the piece, right? Didn't we decide that the repeated C-sharps "sound good" an octave lower, too?

Okay, let's connect the dots and see if we can follow whatever story is being told, or concluded, by those repeated notes at the end.

Those opening 12 bars: a 4-bar phrase that half cadences, followed by an 8-bar phrase, in which normally there are two harmonies per bar except for a pause before the final cadence where the Neapolitan sixth lingers for two whole bars, supporting an upward arpeggiation of that triad.

Oh yes. The opening passage is for the soloist only. The orchestra sits out until they join in at the final cadence. The orchestra's response is different music, much more regularly phrased.

The opening melody is a compound line, essentially two lines moving in parallel sixths for a while. And the general trajectory of the upper line is downwards, usually moving by step, spanning a tenth in the course of the whole passage.

And in the first four-bar phrase, the upper voice of the compound line drops out at the half-cadence. Why? Here it is greatly simplified:

At the half-cadence, the upper-line's note should be C-sharp. But Mozart withholds that note from us. We don't get to hear it, instead wondering why the D in the previous bar hasn't correctly moved down. Why would he do such a thing? It's obviously the next note of the upper line. And it's a chord tone if this is really a half cadence.

Sleight of hand. The upper line isn't ready to move, and indeed, the second phrase begins on that same D — and that means that line never moved, it's just being picked up exactly where it left off. So the half-cadence resolves from V to vi6? My theory textbook told me never to do that for a deceptive cadence because it ... let me get the tone right ... sounds dumb. Silly, it's not a deceptive cadence — cadences are endings, not beginnings. This is, instead a phrase that begins deceptively. But for what reason? Why all this sleight of hand?

Wait, what about those repeated C-sharps at the end? Aren't we trying to explain those? Be patient, my liege. But I'll return to your point that C-sharp is the first melody note of the piece. You must agree with that because 1) you said it already and 2) it's true.

So consider how Mozart opens on that C-sharp by ornamenting it with an upper neighbor, D, with what came to be known as the "Siciliana" figure — the Siciliana being a kind of dance that also was often associated (ironically) with the Neapolitan harmony.

Mozart being the proud contrapuntalist that he was, he naturally imitated it in another voice — in augmentation! Immediately afterward it happens in the left hand, played by the thumb.

Great, but what does that have to do with the price of eggs in China? And what the heck kind of question is that, anyway?

Maybe Mozart is setting something up. Wouldn't you say that C-sharp to D and back to C-sharp is being established as an important motive here? Response Yes, but what does that have to do with the top voice dropping out at the half-cadence?

Well, let's just say that maybe, just maybe, the reason that D doesn't move correctly down to C-sharp is that it's part of yet a bigger augmentation of the Siciliana motive. Voilà!
Response I think you're onto something. I think it's cool that the left-hand sonority, F-sharp and A, is exactly the same for all three of the notes in what you're calling the "middleground Siciliana figure." So that weird deceptive thing after the half cadence is part of a larger scheme, huh?

As far as I can tell, yes. And note that I already put into this phrase's list of statistics that the harmony changes twice per bar, except on the Neapolitan, which lingers four times as long as "normal". Any idea why? Response I think I see it. While the general trajectory is down for the melody here, there's an upward arpeggiation to the highest note of the whole piece so far, just before it settles much lower, on the tonic.

What is that highest note? Response high D. What does D in the melody do in this piece? Response it resolves downward, by half step, to C-sharp. Where does it do that here? Response It doesn't. Oh wait ...

No, that's correct. That D, unresolved, is hanging there for a very long time. Mozart has already shown the D resolving in three different time spans. This one is part of a fourth, far longer time span. And the resolution of that D – or maybe what we'd call the psychological need for the resolution of that D — causes a very strange anomaly when the opening music returns.

For you see, much later in the piece, the whole beginning is restated, without a single variation, thus restating the problem of the unresolved high D. But this time there is actually a deceptive cadence where there was the final cadence before, seeming momentarily to tonicize the Neapolitan (i.e. VI of F-sharp minor is also V of G, the Neapolitan of F-sharp minor). Oddly, it's the winds that intrude with VI where i was expected, and when they land back on the Neapolitan, the piano is forced to go back in time and repeat what it had played before — down to the Siciliana figure decorating G-natural and the upward arpeggio to D.

But this is not what it plays here. This time Mozart leaves out the arpeggio altogether and isolates the high D that's been causing all these problems, without letting any other notes get near it.

Then the final cadence for this section finally happens properly. So this time in this music, Mozart adds four bars for the express purpose of doubly calling attention to that pesky unresolved high D.

So without even looking at what happens between here and what we know happens at the ending, let's restate the question from earlier. Why this ending? Why those notes? Why not other ones, or the same ones an octave lower?

Response okay, now it's easy. It's that high D finally resolving, which must resolve in its own register, and the gesture is triumphal or even overstated because it has taken so long for the resolution to happen. And perhaps, just perhaps, that texture simplification thing is there so we really, really notice the resolution.

And maybe the textural simplification thing is part of another story, too. Remember when I said that the tutti music that followed the piano solo was different music? We haven't even brought that into the argument yet. It must be important, since Mozart has no other slow movements in his piano concertos that separate the thematic material this way. Response I'll work on that on my own. Any hints?

Yes. Look up the Hegelian dialectic. And when you're done with that, show me what makes this piece so full of sadness and longing. Response Hints? Yes. Start with the fourth species of counterpoint.

Update: I wrote a follow-up to this post.

Briggs and Mortar

I wasn't always this famous.

I know it's hard to believe, but I used to be less famous than I am now. And for a very long time.

And so there I was, minding my own business ... actually, I wasn't minding my own business. I was eating a meat dish with gravy at a dark brown table in a formal 1890's dining room and sitting at a chair made of dark wood, with action figures carved onto it. All around me were visual artists, poets, novelists, composers. And nobody asked me to pay for dinner, either before or after. I didn't get the available dessert. I never do.

I may have been sitting at a table with Ingram Marshall. Or Tamara Jenkins. Or Greg Djanikian. Or Gardner McFall. Or Marilyn Chin. Or Jeannine Herman. Or Rick Moody. All of whose names only fractured slightly when they got dropped by me right now.

A nice teenage woman wearing a white shirt called to the gathered throng, "telephone for David Rakowski!" Much later I thought the appropriate reply to that would be "that's not a very even trade!" Ah, l'esprit d'escalier, why do you torment me so? Unexpectedly, l'esprit answers: "You aren't as clever as you think, my liege."

I press on. It was early June, 2000, I was at Yaddo, and I had to make it to the very dark telephone booth in the Yaddo mansion. Very. Dark. Dark wood, bare lightbulb. It was someone at the Chicago Symphony: "Augusta Thomas has programmed four piano études of yours for our Music NOW concert next May 2. She asks that you choose four and have your publisher send them to us and bill us. Bye."


I was pretty sure Peters could find the mailing address of the Chicago Symphony.

Wait ... the Chicago Symphony has a pianist?

I had thirty existing études from which to choose, written over the previous twelve years. And Ooh! Ooh! Marilyn Nonken had recently premiered Martler, the hand-crossing one, and it looked good. Actually. It looked amazing. And there was this Dirty Rag one I thought was cool, at least in MIDI. This Fourth of Habit one seemed pretty cool when Martler and Geoffy played it. And with three very technical ones in the pot, I guess I should add a slow one; The Third, Man. Okay, that's a fine program, and a-fine with me — practically a-fine romance. Really, really hard program, though. And who knows, Martler just looks so cool, maybe I could find a way to borrow someone's camcorder and make a movie of it. If whoever they get to play it is good.

Fast forward. I finish writing Ten of a Kind at Yaddo. I have a dance party. Beff and I take a vacation in a cabin on a lake in Maine. We house shop in Boston exurbia. We buy a house! Harvard hires me to teach an intermediate composition course in the spring for too much money.

In mid-fall I got an e-mail from my homey David Smooke. It had the subject Amy Dissanayake. The body of the e-mail simply read "... is the pianist playing your études for Music NOW. You'll love her. She's great, and a good friend."

Around the turn of the year, I e-mailed my friend Stacy in Chicago to ask to stay with her for a few days in early April so I can hear the pianist play my pieces. The same day, I got an e-mail from Amy Dissanayake reading, "I'm the pianist playing your études this May. I'll be visiting my family in New Hampshire in early March and I'd like to play them for you while I'm around. Is that okay?" Is that okay? Uh, well, if she turns out to be not up to these pieces — like not a few pianists had been already — what will I be able to say ... twice? Amy also mentioned that she played jazz as well. That was an extremely good sign.

Between Yaddo and early March I wrote four more piano études.

Amy came to my house in a vehicle of unusual size at the appointed time, and we talked a bit about being native New Englanders and our respective histories. I apologized for choosing such hard pieces for her to learn and she said they were challenging, but unlike some other pieces she had been playing lately, they fit under the hands. L'esprit, don't say that fitting over the hands would be weird. Thank you. I took a picture with that weird iZone camera that Polaroid had staked its future on. We went to Brandeis, where I had reserved the concert hall and the concert grand soon to be known as "Tubby" for her to play.

She started with You Dirty Rag, and wow.

My expression mutated rapidly from game face to shit-eating grin, and after I picked my jaw up from the carpet and made a few rather minor comments, Amy played it again. During the second runthrough, Eric Chasalow happened into the hall. When Amy was done, Eric exclaimed, "Who is this? Davy, you know her? You simply must give a concert here!" Eric was the Chair, so what he said, goes.

Amy played through the other three and I was learning what I liked so much about the playing. It was accurate, it was fierce, it was incisive, but mostly it was passionate and individual. The subtle inflections and accents made me think a little of jazz, and so I asked her how much jazz she played. She said not a lot, but she loves doing it. And taking a cue from Ross Bauer many years earlier, I asked the ultimate jazzer question: can you play the changes in break of Night in Tunisia? Without hesitation, she played the passage in question. Yup, Amy was a jazzer, too.

In the car on the way home, Amy asked how many of my piano études had been recorded. I answered that Marilyn had recorded five of them on CRI, and that they had gotten tepid to good reviews (I may have mentioned that it was said they had an energy that looks to the future. L'esprit, whatever it is, don't say it), and that three more recorded by Teresa McCollough (one a duplicate) were in the works. There weren't currently any plans in the works to record more of them.

A month later I was in Chicago, staying with Stacy, and the weather was gorgeous. I always remember when weather is gorgeous. David Smooke had secured me a gig giving a colloquium at U of Chicago when I was to return for the Music NOW gig, and I may have done something at Roosevelt University for Stacy, and Amy and I did a little thing for one of David's classes at the Merit School of Music. And Stace and I took advantage of one gorgeous day to walk from her apartment along the waterfront to the Navy Pier. And we splurged on fresh-squeezed lemonade. Because, you see, it was very nice weather. And we were worth it.

Meanwhile, Amy had memorized the études. And she started to speak effusively about them. Then she dropped a bomb on me. "These pieces should be recorded. I'm going to record all of them. We have to figure out how to get that done." Wow, great idea. When I'm back in a month we'll talk about it.

Wow, all the études. No waiting. Wait, how long does it take to play all of them?

I came back to town for the gig, and showed up at U Chicago for the talk. I was a total dweeb about Martler: first I talked about it and how nobody could ever follow the score. Amy played it and nobody could follow the score. Then I invited everyone to stand in back of Amy and just watch. There was a resigned shuffling of feet, and they did so. Then a resigned shuffling of feet back to their chairs. And David Smooke asked a set of prepared questions, and I gave a set of zany answers.

Amy played marvelously at the gig itself, with, as you can see here, the sort of posture they draw in books to show you what you're supposed to look like and which no one can ever actually do. Gusty Thomas and I had a riproaring public back-and-forth before the performance. And Amy and I schemed.

Meanwhile, I never seemed to get around to making a movie of Martler. Drat.

Bridge responded favorably to the prospect of a Davytude CD, and we got the great Judy Sherman to do the recording. We decided it's 22 to 24 'tudes per CD (we're calling them 'tudes or Davytudes now, and I'm calling them Amytudes. For now), meaning I should write some more, especially to Amy's specifications. I want you to write me a stride étude. "I'm thinking of writing a 'tude with music that sounds loud that has to be played soft." You can call it "Silent But Deadly". How about an étude on my favorite chord, the sharp-9 chord?

Okay, wait. What's a stride étude, exactly? You know, stride piano. Oh. Uh huh.

The 'tudes had vanquished a few who had come before. Cancellation notices from pianists who just couldn't get them under their fingers were not uncommon. No problem with Amy, though. She spent two years playing hardly anything but my 'tudes — forty-six of them — and performing them wherever there was an opportunity. I'm not the kind of guy who says things like it was humbling, but it was humbling.

That summer I wrote her a coupla 'tudes, including the sharp-9 chord étude. She decided those two would go onto the first CD.

By December vacation, Amy was ready to air a bunch of them out in an empty concert hall at Brandeis. Finally I pulled the trigger on a camcorder purchase, and I brought it along. Amy was happy to be filmed, and she had about a dozen or fifteen new 'tudes ready to go. I was learning how to use the camera while I was at the same time hearing some of the 'tudes for the first time; and Amy's mom came along for the ride. Tubby was a bit out of tune, but again everything sounded marvelous. And I had my first collection of étude movies. My hard disk overfloweth.

Amy had put Martler aside to learn the new ones — and it was for Martler that I had gotten a camcorder in the first place. Amy had no score with her, but she agreed to indulge me with a runthrough of the first four pages, from the scores we both had at hand. Not bad for a piece she'd not looked at for seven months, no?

By the next month, Amy was ready to go public with the whole collection of 22 for the first CD — the recording sessions were to be early June. Many, many premieres happened in Chicago on January 20 at the Barnett Foundation. Amy asked me to come out to introduce the pieces, which I did. It was the first installment of The Davy 'n' Amy Show, eventually with manifestations in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Maryland, and California.

It was the first time I'd been to a full-length concert with nothing but music written by me on it. I was actually a little nervous that there may not be enough variety, or enough musical heft, to carry the whole concert. But by the end, I was satisfied. I carried a concert; I was ready for the big time, whatever that was. Amy's performances were wowsers, and that certainly had just about everything to do with it. The Barnett Foundation served dinner, and during the course of my introductions I had invited any and all gathered to suggest premises for études. One lovely gentleman, at dinner, suggested I write one called Brahms, utilizing only the top and bottom octaves of the keyboard — the joke being that he got so fat that's the only notes he could reach. I have to say I spent serious time pondering that premise over the years. But I ran out of 'tudes before I could get around to it.

Gusty Thomas and Bernard Rands were at this show, and after it was over, Gusty came up to me to see the scores of the 'tudes she really liked, and to point at the passages she liked the best. That was cool.

Meanwhile, I had burned DVDs of the 'tudes we'd videoed at Brandeis. I'd show them to anyone who wouldn't run away. I had also made a VHS tape of the 'tudes to send to Judy Sherman to prepare for the recording sessions. She loved the movie of Schnozzage.

The 22 'tudes were recorded over the course of three grueling days at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York. Amy was quite well-prepared, so there was no problem with time. Just as we were ready to begin the epic recording of the epic Schnozzage, Judy chimed in with, "And we are rolling." Pause. "This piano smells funny." Riotous laughter.

With the first sessions done, Amy moved on to the second batch of 'tudes for the next year. We did Amy 'n' Davy Show at the MacDowell Colony and the Kosciuszko Foundation and twice at Brandeis, and I really burned some rubber in writing the 'tudes. For those of you confused by that statement, it's a metaphor. Amy's 'tude playing was getting even better, and the new 'tudes seemed to be getting better, too.

I had the fall off on sabbatical and had a commission to write Book V of the 'tudes. Woo hoo! I started in July by seeing if I could figure out what that stride étude thing would be that Amy had asked for. I admit being ignorant about exactly what stride was, except knowing that it had something to do with jazz before the second world war. Or something. I typed "" in a browser, and presto! Such a page existed, and it listed the lions of stride. I wrote on a Post-It "James P. Johnson. Fats Waller" and brought it to Strawberries records (now defunct), who were able to provide me with two CDs of each. Beff will tell you I had one James P. Johnson CD on in the car a lot, and I especially gravitated to Jingles and Modernistic.

Wait. I'm asked to write an étude, this frilly nineteenth century concoction, on a playing style? On a style I have to consult the internet to learn about? Am I ready to go down that long slippery path wherein an étude can be about ... a style of playing?


I may have been way out of my comfort zone here — what the heck do I know about jazz stylings except for this very limited exposure? But hey — Amy knows the changes in the break of Night in Tunisia. And my ears tell me that stride is just ragtime with a right hand that swings. Okay, what the heck do I know about ragtime, then? Who cares? Put my kinda chords into the piano style, figure out a good way to notate the swing, and with any luck it won't be a Frankenstein's monster that emerges. The challenge was invigorating, and during the four days I worked on it, I was on fire — well, almost literally, since it happened to be during the worst heat wave here in decades. It was 98 degrees inside the house, and after each four bars or so, I chilled out in the air-conditioned bedroom a few minutes, repeat. When it was done, I called Martler and yelled I DIDDIT. I WROTE A STRIDE ÉTUDE. The 'tude spent some time with the title Stride Goeth Before A Fall, before I was struck by reason, and it got renamed Strident.

Martler's response: That's very nice, Davy.

Geoff Burleson, knowing I was now in the business of writing style études, immediately requested a piano bop étude. Davy's 'tude styling shop was open for business. Wait ... what's piano bop?

Stride, bop, tango, rock and roll, funk, prog rock ... turns out the slippery slope was a heck of a fun ride. I eventually arranged the first four of those for wind ensemble. Get outta town!

Over winter break, Amy aired out some of the new ones for Tubby and the video camera, and the next round of recordings went even more swimmingly. And finally, Amy was ready for her post-Davy career.

I contributed to Amy's tango project with, well of course, a tango-étude, and for quite some time most of the new 'tudes were written with Amy's playing in mind. And Amy suggested ideas for 'tudes, too, because now it was in both of our bloods. And boy did they come out fast now.

And we talked about Trader Joe's and Tower of Power a lot.

The CDs got rave reviews by lots of people who weren't British. And I found myself being referred to as the étude guy. Pretty impressive, huh?

Amy came for the first week when I was at the Atlantic Center, and she was really good working with the composers, and extremely helpful. Not to mention, fun. She was soon to record the tangos, and she practiced in my studio in the afternoons. It was great hearing all of them, and getting her to contribute to the conversations we were having about piano writing. Her ideas were terrific. And her recording of my tango — smackerific.

When Amy was ready to put up her own web page, she wanted to be able to feature some of the 'tood movies, and I was glad to oblige. She was also kind enough to wish me a belated happy birthday on her web page's blog. And returning to all the now-old étude movies on my computer, I was inspired to figure out how to create a YouTube channel and toss all the old movies up there. Immediately, people noticed. Amy even wrote for New Music Box explaining them. Cool. It turns out she's a really good writer, too.

When Amy did a concert at Boston Conservatory that included eight 'tudes, it was like old times, getting up front and doing a brief Amy 'n' Davy Show. I daresay the playing was even better. And when it was time to put Volume 3 together, Amy was busy with her now very big career and she was such a quick study that she didn't have to spend the whole year learning the new pieces. We got a bunch more videos in the can, and we didn't have to use the whole three days to record 24 études, 78 and a half minutes of them... thus saving me a half day's worth of expenses. Woo hoo!

And doesn't this one just look really cool?

More recently, we got to do our show in Baltimore and Fredonia, New York, and it was more old times. We talked about Trader Joe's and Gusty's piano tunes and how cool Eric Moe's piece was and whether the amber was superior to the pale ale...

Amy is a very, very good friend that I'm very lucky to know. Not because she single-handedly changed my career trajectory, although that's nice. And not because I'm a different composer because of her influence. It's all of those things, plus Trader Joe's, and Tower of Power, and she's great to hang with, and to write for ... and then some.

And I really want to write a piano concerto for her.

So I will.

Update: Amy informs that the tango project CD referenced above is imminent from Parma Recordings — more like weeks than months — with a cover featuring a picture by Robert Revere.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Computer Changed Everything. Again. Again.

I've already written sockaliciously here about one composer's (mine) history with the as-they-develop cutting edge methods for producing the on-the-page renditions of our warp-o-mungous imaginations. As they say on the Facetube, it's complicated.

Today's indulge-o-fest brings us to 1964. The Beatles are all the rage, and my sister is collecting Beatles cards, awarding me any of the duplicates. My mother's name is, unfortunately, Barbara Ann, and a lot of the local adults sing The Beach Boys at her. Not to her. And since I am six, I am a prime target of toy purveyors on television, being suckered by creepy commercials such as this one.
The longing for a Penny the Poodle is, these many years later, inexplicable, but it was unquenchable at the time. I pretty much knew my grandmother would get me one for Christmas, so in my letter to Santa, I asked for Johnny Seven O.M.A. — a sort of Swiss Army Knife plastic machine gun toy. I'm pretty sure I never got that (my parents weren't into rôle-playing with guns — I hope you appreciate the circumflex), so I had to settle for the creepy plastic poodle. I think I played with it for a week, and it went into a box.

Penny was pink.

I can verify that Penny the Poodle worked as advertised, and yes, I took her/it for a walk on the iced-over Messenger Street to show to the Gordon family two houses over.

Another new family acquisition right around that time was the newfangled Sony tape recorder. A very big tape recorder. Very big. Just about two-thirds the size of your average styrofoam picnic cooler. It looked a little like this one. It was grayish/silverish with black trim, had VU meters (what was that?) and something with the word "capstan" on it, a speed control, a record button, play, fast forward, rewind, stop, the works. There was a small speaker on either side of the cooler box. We had empty "reels", several reels of blank tape, and two commercially-recorded, commercially produced reels destined for the burgeoning home tape recorder market: the My Fair Lady soundtrack, and something else I forgot. Getting to a favorite song on that My Fair Lady tape was sure cumbersome — thread the tape through the capstan(?), catch it just so in the empty reel, turn the empty reel with your right hand until you are sure it has caught, turn it some more, turn it some more, turn the handle to play, then to fast forward, wait, wait, check where it is, play, fast forward some more, too far, rewind, play, fast forward, play ... pretty much, given current standards, like utilizing a sledgehammer to swat a fly. (as the 1970s RAID commercials would put it, now the fly would be very dead)

Occasionally the above process would result in a misfeed and what became known as tapemangle.

So really, what was this home recording device good for? The vinyl of My Fair Lady was a lot less cumbersome with which to work — you know, we have the expression drop the needle for a reason. But of course. Two accessories which also came with the Sony tape recorder were two slim dark gray microphones. Two! Stereo recording, if you were so inclined!

The tapes were slightly analagous to vinyl. Even though we didn't know what the designation meant, the Sony tape recorder was a quarter-track recorder. A designation that only makes sense coupled with the professional's model, the half-track recorder. Our quarter-track tapes could be turned over and recorded on the other side! Doubling your pleasure! There was no way, however, with this particular technology, to record something and then hear it backwards. Good thing the dwarf in Twin Peaks didn't have only our Sony tape recorder with which to work.

We could have instant cartoon voices, should we be so inclined. For you see, the Sony tape recorder also had two possible speeds: 3-3/4 inches per second, and 7-1/2 inches per second. Record at the slower speed and play it back faster (it's Alvin and the Chipmunks!) or vice versa (it's ... well, an effect to appear as voices of scary characters in horror movies about a decade hence...)! What's more, you could record in mono on track 1, and later record in mono on track 2 without erasing what was on track 1. This feature was used, at the time, to get more stuff on to the tape, before a budding young musician in the family discovered it could be used for sound-on-sound recording.

There was also a pause toggle — instantly stop the tape while recording, instantly start it again.

So just what was this two-thirds of a cooler used for? Well, duh, for recording. All kinds of things to be listened to (lovingly or laughingly) later, or simply erased. Mom singing O Holy Night. Dad reading The Night Before Christmas. Davy playing a recorder solo with piano. Mom and Jane singing Now the Day is Over. Davy reading The Friendly Book ("I like cars. Big cars. Little cars. Big fat .... (mom's voice, gently: limb-o-ZEEN) limb-o-ZEEN cars"). Grandpa Rakowski (Charles, hence the C. in David C. Rakowski) singing old Polish folk songs (when I say "singing" I mean something slightly different). Dad's brother Walter exhorting Davy to sing along with the record of the Beatles' There's a Place (on the flip side of the 45 of Twist and Shout). Davy and some schoolmates singing songs from music class — like Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

The tape recorder would customarily lay dormant — just like our supermarket classical record collection — for months and years at a time.

In the meantime, the home recording market evolved, and smaller recorders, playing at slower speeds, accepting smaller reels, were the rage. We got us one of those suckers, which was about the size of a laptop, though much deeper. It spent much of its time in the basement recording really, really awful jam sessions with me and Jim Hoy. Jim played a toy drum set, and I played a toy guitar. When I say "played" I am being extremely generous. Our big hit was "End of the World", in which I intoned the tune's title repeatedly while Jim sang other stuff. The blackmail quotient on these tapes, were they to be located, is very, very high.

Soon we returned to the Sony tape recorder, now celebrating an amazingly long life, for its pause control. We invented a question-and-answer game in which the questioner controlled the pause, thus being able to edit, in real time, the questions and answers. Hilarity ensued. We also discovered the sound-on-sound capability alluded to earlier, inventing a question-and-answer game wherein the questioner anticipated the response of the questionee, resulting in far less hilarity, but an odd postmodernist irony. Long, long before postmodernist irony was all the rage.

Being the only game in town, reel-to-reel tapes (called just "tapes" before there were competing formats) were the coin of the realm. When I was in sixth grade, the music teacher types decided I'd fit in playing in the band, despite my body size, in the District high school music festival, and I was given second trombone parts. They were by far the most difficult stuff I'd been asked to play at that point, and I practiced them obsessively. When I say practiced, I mean something else. After the festival, my parents scored tapes of the district festival concert, so that I could a) not give back my second trombone parts, and b) play along with the tapes any time I wanted. It wasn't Music Minus One exactly — more like Music Plus Eighty-Five Minus One.

In high school I acquired another use for the sound-on-sound feature — a whole bunch of Davy Plus Davy recordings, showing off my new compositional output, as well as making a whole bunch of unlistenable piano recordings of tunes from Chicago albums (channel 1: the chords; channel 2: the melody). I wrote a slow tune for trombone and piano, which I still have on a cassette transfer, with Davy on trombone, Davy on piano. And my crowning sound-on-sound achievement, possibly lost to history, was a recording of my Opus 8 No. 1, a choral setting of the phrase "Pickles and Ice Cream" several times, and with imitative counterpoint, in A major (slow middle section in compound meter in the parallel minor). The work's title is Pickles and Ice Cream (Op. 8 Nr. 1) and the recording features, according to the announcer (me), David Rakowski on soprano, David Charles Rakowski on alto, David Charles Randolph Rakowski on tenor, and David Charles Randolph Rakowski The First on bass.

So by the time I entered college, I had plenty of experience with the reel-to-reel tape format.

But also a bit of experience with the first serious challenge to the format. For in my freshman year of high school I was given for Christmas a portable cassette tape recorder, along with one example in the format: Stand, by Sly and the Family Stone. I played it a lot without listening too closely. Eventually I also procured cassette versions of Jesus Christ Superstar and Chicago albums, and for the Christmas that followed, Dad got me a stereo Hitachi cassette player/recorder, with two detachable speakers and very long speaker wires — the bulky precursor to the boombox. It was set up in my bedroom with the speakers on the north and south walls, and I was always impressed that in Jesus Christ Superstar, Caiaphas always came out of the north speaker.

The Hitachi thing was quite bulky, but manageable for carrying around without the speakers. I recorded my first mix tapes, with microphones next to the two speakers in our living room stereo system, of Christmas tunes (I could leave out the lame tunes that stunk up the place!), which were impressive — especially given the inability for ambient sounds to be filtered out. When I hear Sleigh Ride at Christmas time, I still imagine I hear my father calling to my mother.

The Hitachi soon graduated from home recording device to surreptitious concert recording device. The parents were just barely sufficiently technically adept to press Play and Record simultaneously, so I could have, say, sound documents of our band concerts. Which was really important, since I was able to listen, over and over should I want, to the performance of the first piece I ever wrote, for our band. It started about ten minutes in on a C-60 (I was starting to learn the lingo). Perhaps five years later, that cassette misfed on a cheap machine, and the repair — necessitating the amputation of a few seconds of music — took forever while also teaching me new skills. That cassette, though — apparently lost. Backing up just wasn't the thing back then.

In college, all our composer concerts were professionally recorded, and for a slightly more than modest fee, we could get cassettes or reel-to-reels (the formats had their own names now) of our own pieces. Cassettes were, of course, more convenient, but word was the reels were of a higher quality. I usually got one of each. I didn't need more than one, because the original recording was always in a clean, well lighted place for tapes, and I could get more.

At this point, it occurs to me that a picture is called for to break up the textual monotony, but I have nothing appropriate for the subject. So here I am in 1975 as Officer Avonzino in a production of a Thornton Wilder play. The pictures the parents took from the audience were about as clear as the recordings they made from the audience.

The electronic music course at NEC was required for composers, and that was a lot of acoustic theory together with hands-on use of synthesizers, electronic keyboards and tape recorders — reel-to-reel only, please, keep that cassette crap out of here. Here we recorded only half-track recordings on Aiwa professional machines — half-track recordings used up the entire tape width, so when you turned them over, they played backwards (with the channels reversed), and much hilarity could ensue. And we had to compose electronic music. To do that, we created, or appropriated, sound sources, using EML or ARP synthesizers, or yelling, screaming, playing, into some microphones, and we ... spliced ... our pieces together. Thus did I become acquainted with the splicing block — a heavy piece of metal that gripped your recording tape and gave you little guide paths for you to cut the tape, either vertically, or diagonally, with a razor (yes, splicing was dangerous!). You could then use the block to join two disparate pieces of tape, using adhesive tape manufactured specifically for this purpose (it was called splicing tape), and voilà! two sounds once separate are now consecutive!

For my composition for this class, I recorded a bunch of disparate sounds and cut them into various lengths on the splicing block. I jumbled them up, and put them back together in whatever order emerged. I then stereo-recorded that sound montage together with itself played backwards. This functioned as a transition in my piece. Other stuff was recorded either in real time, or spliced with actual purpose aforethought.

Meanwhile, with the help of the Aiwa half-track recorders, I had started learning how to say things backwards so that played forwards they sounded correct, but with an unidentifiable accent, and with a dozen years of language skills removed. Those days were later relived with the Yak Bak, a screamingly fun, if limited, toy now alas defunct. The speech of the dwarf in Twin Peaks was accomplished this way.

When graduation was more than a year away and graduate school loomed, two issues presented themselves: massive production of scores to accompany the applications, as well as recorded performances. Recorded performances! I sent no recorded performances with my college applications (though I was required to send a reel-to-reel of myself playing my minor instrument, the trombone, and that was the Hindemith Sonate, with Verne Colburn struggling mightily through the interminable dotted rhythms in the piano part — that tape was returned to me with either "UG" or "VG" penciled onto it), but I shonuff needed some pretty spiffy-sounding stuff if I wanted to go to a good grad school. So an AIWA cassette-dubbing deck was the next piece of major hardware for me (I have not been without a double cassette dubbing deck, ever, since 1978. Though the one I have now hasn't been used for anything but playing Christmas music since we bought this house in 2000). One cassette could record that which was played in the other cassette bay. It could even record and play back in Dolby. Nobody could tell me what Dolby was, except that it was a good thing — better than no Dolby. There was also, eventually Dolby B and Dolby C — but no Dolby A. Woe be it unto him who records a Dolby C cassette with the Dolby B toggle set. Nobody knew what Dolby C was, either, except that it was better than Dolby B. We think.

And for these mammoth applications — I'm talking really mammoth here, since Juilliard required everything you've written in the two years prior to the application, which in my case, given that during my sophomore year I wrote a piece a week ... was a library unto itself (I remember my interview with the composition faculty there and the pile of scores dwarfing Roger Sessions, who didn't say much). So I had to be sure to get the best cassette recordings I could (the order form now included a checkmark for Dolby or not Dolby), and ... well, of course. The best cassettes.

I already knew that cassettes tended to come in lengths commensurate with playing time, which is how they were labeled. A C-30 cassette gave you fifteen minutes on each side. Also available were C-45, C-60, C-90, and for a short time, C-120. In high school I had learned that they made the tape thinner for a C-120 in order to get that much length, and invariably within a week it caused tapemangle. And now I consulted many experts — a lot of them self-designated — as to which brand and variety within the brands were the best (and ... I was so innocent ... which of them were likely to show to a panel or jury that I was actually serious about what I was doing). It boiled down to TDK and Maxell — TDK SA and Maxell XL or XL-II. The Maxell cassettes had black casings with letters printed in gold, so obviously they were the superior ones. And since Roman numerals trump no Roman numerals, it was XL-II. Which soon was itself trumped by XL-IIS. I don't know what the S meant (savory? silly? simplythebest?), but since TDK couldn't keep up in the name length wars (it only made it as far as SA-X), it was Maxell XL-IIS for me, baby. I bought 'em in bulk. Thirty-three bucks for a box of ten, baby.

And now that cassette was, temporarily, the preferred medium to let the world know what a fantastic composer I might someday become if I could only get over this juvenilia thing, I got me a cassette splicing block. Which was to a real splicing block as Rhode Island is to Texas; what a sparrow is to a seagull; what a bookmark is to a novel; what the St. Albans Citizens Band is to "The President's Own". And when the occasional tapemangle happened, I was on the case! I used my $35 splicing block ... once! (I still have it ... somewhere...)

In grad school, the preferred medium for concert performances was — you guessed it — reel-to-reel tape. And here there was a special status reserved for how the tape was stored when not in use: heads out or tails out. Heads out was ready to play — but since the part with the music on it was closest to the ... uh, surface, I guess ... it was more prone to printthrough. That was bits of the magnetized stuff on the tape finding sympathetic resonance with the tape right next to it, etc. For a great example of printthrough, check out the original recording of Steve Reich's Four Organs, which has it in generous quantities, and which is available in digital format. Go ahead, I can wait.

I'm back, and refreshed. Tails out meant that the tape was stored on what was functionally the take-up reel. You had to put the reel on the right, and rewind the whole thing before it could be played. More time-consuming, yes. Less printthrough? Actually, the jury is still out on that.

Splicing music
And when the Atlantic String Quartet came in to do readings, I was able to use my considerable tape splicing skills to put together a convincing representation of my Five Bagatelles — a piece that's only half juvenilia (the other half is love). I was pretty zippy at splicing, and I had my own splicing theme music that I hummed while I was doing it — music much revered by Martler and Beff, who witnessed it.

Breathtakingly soon, the preferred medium of sound representation was again the cassette, and so over the next decade and a half I accumulated a vast library of cassette masters. Cassette was the default format for performance recordings coming from the recording engineers, so when I needed to send out samples, I piled up my masters, inserted them one by one into the dubbing deck, and recorded. The time it took thus to make a demo cassette was the time it took to hear the tracks, plus five to ten minutes for insertion and rewinding.

Since the cassette enjoyed a long reign (not in geological time, though) as the default format, anyone who required composer work samples started making up big, hard, and fast rules in order to make their work easier. Imagine you have a 9-minute piano piece, a 15-minute orchestra movement, and a 12-minute piano trio to represent yourself. That fits handily onto one side of a C-90 (XL-IIS, please). Now imagine a panel evaluating you for an award that promises thousands of dollars and a solid Gold resumé line, and it needs to hear bits of all three. The panel also has about eight dozen more packages to evaluate after it is done with yours. If all three pieces are on the same cassette, then to listen to them all, they have to fast forward to where they think the second piece starts, rewind if they overshot it, fast forward again, etc. to find the beginning of the second piece. Then the same again for the third piece. More than half the evaluating time allotted could be spent just finding where the pieces start.

So new rules. Each piece must start at the beginning of its own cassette! And that means this application just got more expensive by $6.60 in materials alone. But on the other hand. When the materials came back, you could tell how far into each piece they listened, if at all. Because who has time to rewind? And when you lost you could tell all of your friends they only listened to the first eighteen and a half bars of your piano trio, way before that masterful transition that everybody except one of your former teachers thought was really great.

Meanwhile, while you weren't looking, the Sony Walkman came into existence, causing a major a-splosion in cassette sales and an equally major a-splosion in hearing loss. Blank cassette sales a-sploded, too, since the mix tape became a genre unto itself (I myself made it to 15 in the Dance Tape series ... ah, but Dance Tape 8 is still the standard by which all other dance tapes are judged). And a few years later, here came the Recording Walkman. Slightly larger than the Walkman, it recorded halfway decently, it had a built-in stereo microphone, and you could sneak it into a concert (tee hee hee). It would even fit into your pocket, thus avoiding detection by they that ush. And it was possible to have a document, however inferior, of once-in-a-lifetime events such as orchestra readings and large ensemble rehearsals. Editing, though ... uh, not really. The CD Walkman came out not that much later, but its sales didn't exactly catch fire, since it was not possible to make a mix tape in CD format. You had to repurchase your entire music collection to use it.

I had made a Recording Walkman recording of some runthroughs in a rehearsal, and I asked one of my students (for you see, the reign of the cassette lasted into my teaching years) if there was a way to splice together the good takes. He brought me into a dingy if technology-advantaged room with a digital editing workstation of some sort. With the speed of a prestidigitator, he converted all the analog cassette sound to digital sound on a hard drive, asked where the edits were to be made, and zoom! produced a nice clean edit. I blinked, so I missed most of it. And when it was all done, I received the sound file in one analog format (cassette) and two digital ones (Hi8 and DAT). Whoa, the next generation is right here in front of me and I don't even know what it is! And I shonuff don't have any hardware capable of playing back either of the digital formats. "That's okay. You'll be able to do a direct digital dump (digital sounds can poop?) onto any hard drive editing console with at least one of those digital formats." Uh huh. If that's not a pickup line, what is?

Well, so it turns out that the digital sound format was slowly gaining traction, especially among those who had the available funds to choose, say, between a digital editing station and a yacht. But the digital format suddenly, and dramatically, became an option when both Casio and Sony (it's always Sony!) started selling portable DAT recorders for less than a grand (the Sony, naturally, was called the DATMan), and Columbia Composers, with a fresh infusion of font money, got itself the Casio version.

Wait...why was DAT better than cassette? Well, a few reasons. Being digital, you can make exact copies — analog copies of analog tape always added noise and brought down the (jargon alert) signal-to-noise ratio. Digital tapes didn't have noise (or at least had much less hiss), and neither did the seventh generation copy of a digital tape. Plus, the tapes can take massive dumps into digital editing stations for augenblick editing. Okay, that sounds reasonable. I didn't really need a yacht anyway.

So when my caldamerda piano trio Hyperblue was getting its premiere in Boston, I asked Columbia composers if they had recording equipment that I could borrow to record it. They bulked me up: I got the Casio DAT, a microphone stand, a stereo digital mike, and a long microphone cable. It was a bit much to take on the train, but all of us made it there, and the extra expense of a taxi to the gig seemed like peanuts compared to the great tape that was about to be made. I set up just as I was supposed to, and nailed that sucker! It was a fantastic performance — Godlike, really — and I had a tape! I had a tape!

DAT/cassette masters
Thus did my giant library of cassette masters begin to be replaced by my giant library of DAT masters. Oh sure, I needed help getting a cassette master out of this Hyperblue DAT, since cassette still ruled. But I now had two DAT masters, superior in sound to their cassette analogs. And, of course, no way at home to hear them. But that wasn't an issue, since I had a cassette master I could use, with only 5dB of StoN lost (or so the geeks told me). And Dolby was not an issue.

But playback soon became an issue. It was clear the DAT format (not the "DAT tape" format, which would scan to Digital Audio Tape tape) was going to rule the world! Since suddenly, and without warning, the recording engineers now handed you a DAT, and not a cassette, of your performance. Uh, 'scuse me, how do I use this? Uh, duh, with a DAT player?

Thus did I get in touch with my homeys at J&R. The DATman was in their catalog, with a "call" price. My man there said it cost 700 bucks, and I said, "Hmmm. I know someone who got theirs for 600". I spoke with forked tongue, but my homey said, "Okay, six hundred." Try doing that kind of haggling with an online form.

The machine wasn't so big, but being digital and very picky, it actually used battery juice to open and close the unit for tape insertion and extraction. Indeed, opening the bay was so noisy I thought the batteries were completely drained every time. But hey — with an extra hundred bucks for a Sony TCS-310 digital mic, the rehearsal recording studio that they who ush won't detect was open for biz.

Too bad, though, that the DATman had tapemangle syndrome. Luckily, it didn't eat any of my prized masters, but I found out that any DAT brand except Maxell made it hungry. So, luckily for us, Sony saw the vast home market for Digital Audio Tape opening up, and we were early adopters of the DTC-670: the now comically-named Home DAT player/recorder.

Sony controlled both the CD and DAT formats, it seems, and they obviously didn't want to make it easy for home recordists to have exact copies of their CDs onto Digital Audio Tape, no, no, no. So the DTC-670 could play back at various sampling rates (how many numbers per second represent the sound, and higher numbers are better) but could record at only 48,000 samples per second. The sampling rate for CDs was, and is, 44,100 sample per second. With the newfangled optical interfaces it was possible to do another one of those data dump things with any digital source, including CDs, but your DAT of your CD would play back a little more than a half-step too high. MWA ha ha, said Sony, and not secretly.

Plus, the tape-load function on the DTC-670 — I swear the lights in the house dimmed whenever it was engaged.

But now we had entered the digital age, and we were fully outfitted to send out cassettes of whatever we needed to — since for applications and the like, that was still the preferred format.

When I changed jobs and had a considerable technology account on which to draw for new computer purchases, I up and called my homey Sean to ask about this Digidesign expansion card I'd heard about, that gave you the ability to do hard disk editing on a Mac, and also allowed for direct digital dumping from DAT. Sean replied, oh no no no, computers are now fast enough and hard drives big enough that you don't need any special extra hardware for that stuff. Sony makes a piece of hardware that interfaces with your computer so you can do digital dumps from your DAT players, and your old pal Sound Edit can handle the big sound files. By the way, CD sound files: 10 megabytes per minute of sound. Sean, how can I handle that? My computer could only handle 8 minutes of sound, even with all the system files and software removed. Gee, Davy, you haven't computer shopped in a while, have you?

Wow. I was able to get a Mac Clone (in that very narrow window when there was such a thing) with a 2 gigabyte hard drive, that weird Sony hardware, and ... yes, I was a very early adopter, in the fall of 1996, of the CD burner. My technology account covered the computer, monitor and Sony hardware. The $900 for the 2x CD burner came out of my own pocket. But it was a CD burner! I could ... burn ... CDs! And the CD blanks were only $74 for a box of 10! Expensive, sure, but they ... were ... CDs.

So now with a very complicated setup, I could do those digital dumps with the DATman, the Sony "Commander" (as we called it), and the Sound Control Panel in the Mac System software. Sweet. Dolce. Doux. And I was assured that there was no loss of StoN in the digital sound file now on the computer.

But hey, my DATs were at a sampling rate of 48k and to burn CDs I had to have the sound files at a sampling rate of 44.1k. Luckily Beff had been using SoundHack (shareware) for several years now, and not only could it handle large sound files, but it could resample them. So Step 2 was firing up SoundHack and resampling, and I accumulated plenty of sound files with the old file name followed by "44k".

What about the home DAT player? After two glorious years of service, and two trips to the Sony service center in Pennsylvania, mothballed. And my vast library of DAT masters? Transferred to backup ... CDs. CDs!

So with this vast array of now-digital sound technology, I was able to ... get this ... record the readings by the Lydian String Quartet of the spring 1997 minuet final projects, edit the ones with false starts, and send a CD to each and every class member. CD! Unheard of! Imagine the parents at home when the CDs arrived. "That's a CD of your final project? How do they do that? Is Brandeis rich or something?"

The wholesale and sudden shift to digital technology was slow to effect those hard and fast submission rules of granting organizations who have thousands of dollars for you and Artist Colonies. Indeed, I applied for a residency at the MacDowell Colony, submitting a tracked CD with the three specimens on it — heck, even the movements of the multi-movement pieces had their own tracks, so it would be simple to find the beginning of any track. For those who haven't figured it out yet, to do that, you press the "Next Track" button (or "Previous Track" to go in the other direction) until you are there. Time spent finding that beginning: 0:00:00.45.

Naturally, the MacDowell Colony wrote immediately to inform me that I hadn't followed the correct format for work sample submission. "The application instructions clearly state that each work must at the beginning of its own tape. We cannot accept media with multiple pieces on the same tape. Please resubmit your work samples following the proper format."

I complied, while explaining patiently that taking a CD out, putting another one in and pressing play took more time than pressing "Next Track", predicted that within five years everyone would be sending work samples on CD, and that they might revisit their submission rules. They did. Being an early adopter sometimes comes with awesome responsibility.

The next stage, now that CDs were possible, was creating templates for hip CD covers. That involved graphics software, of course. And then, for a time, CD labels were all the rage, and I created templates for those, too. Every Rakowski submission had an overkill of design, but the music was okay.

I started getting stuff out onto commercial CDs, thus spending plenty of time in control rooms with the great Judy Sherman. Judy recorded onto two DATs simultaneously, and they were, of course, the high end pro models — Panasonic SV-3800. Judy did her own transferring to hard disk and editing, and one of the editing expenses was an hourly one, to transfer the contents of the DAT to hard drive. After one recording session, she also sent me a small package; when I opened it, a spaghetti of tape emerged, surrounding what was once a DAT tape. There was a little note enclosed: "Hi Davy. Here's why I use two DAT recorders." It seems even the SV-3800 could suffer from Tapemangle Syndrome.

Sony stopped making the DTC-670. And new Sony DATmen were able to record at 44.1K.

New computers started coming with CD burners. CD-Rs came down in price. And magically, the storage limit of a CD-R exploded from 74 minutes to 80 minutes. I think there was some sort of cabal thing going on there.

New Macintoshes chucked the old serial ports in favor of USB and FireWire, making our Sony Commander obsolete. Recording engineers still gave us DATs of our performances, so something had to replace the Commander. Hillary Z showed the way: the MOTU 828, which had lots of options for getting sound onto your computer, including the one from a digital interface (we used as much of the 828 as humans used their brains in Defending Your Life) via the FireWire interface. To complement it, we also got a Panasonic SV-3800 for reliable DAT playback, and we were caught up.

SV-3800 and MOTU 828
...right around the time that recording engineers started giving us burned CDs of our performances as the default, thus relegating the Panasonic and MOTU 828 to very occasional use — only for capturing rehearsals we recorded with the DATman, which was and is still operable. And also for reading sessions in theory classes and composition classes at school.

Consider also now that hard drives are very big. Whereas my drive held two and a half CDs worth of data files when I started the CD-burning thing, now they hold hundreds of CDs worth of full-resolution sound files. So when I need a CD to send out, I fire up a program, drag the data files in from a big folder, click "Create CD" and go and do other stuff — instead of constantly loading tapes. Indeed, my collection of cassette and DAT masters is now only there for sentimental reasons.

The computer gives you a few more capabilities, too. If a performance is under tempo (I ask for a lot of notes, so this happens), you can speed it up without changing the pitch. And if the tape you get is noisy, you can reduce the noise, or take out pops and hiss from analog sources. And appear almost as if your juvenilia phase is over.

Fast forward to just a couple of years ago when Beff reads in a computer magazine about the new handheld flash recording devices. Whoa, this is big — an iPod-size contraption that records onto a digital camera card, and into computer-readable sound files. Directly into the files! No extra interface except a card reader — which we already have because we have several digital cameras. And the card reader is only twenty bucks, anyway. Several companies make them, and the grad students are walking around with their own. We each got an Edirol R-09 from Rick Scott at Parsons Audio, and we've been sated ever since. We've recorded rehearsals and class readings, have been able to post them as mp3s on class webspace, and ... oh, did I mention that the internet kind of took off?

The Edirol records onto SD cards, which are plenty cheap, and, of course, reusable. A cheap 1GB card will hold around 88 minutes of music, and we already have several 2GB and 4GB cards just lying around. So no comparison shopping (Maxell doesn't seem to make SD cards, but I could be wrong).

When my piano concerto was done by BMOP, I recorded the first rehearsal for reference, and so Marilyn could listen during her spare time. So it was simple to transfer the rehearsal takes to the computer, convert them to mp3 and e-mail them to her; thus she could listen in her hotel room and know what to expect in the orchestra around the part she'd already learned. Plus, when Marilyn gave a talk at Brandeis about learning this piece, before the premiere, here was a recording all ready to go. Cool, huh? Beats the heck out of Penny the Poodle.

The last time I had a recording session with Judy Sherman was 2008, and this time there were no DAT players — just a direct dump to a large hard drive. Which also had the capacity to burn CDs of any of its tracks. The bill for editing no longer included the time it took to dump the data onto a computer. Woo hoo!

So with our lovely and versatile Edirols, we are totally set.

Except that Sanyo decided to drop this thing on us. Let the drooling begin anew.