Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Like a Leslie Goes

Fast or slow, like a Leslie goes.

Those seemed like familiar rap lyrics. But from what song? I could hear the heavy backbeat, the overuse of the syn-bass drum. You know what it's like, right? You hear something that is or that reminds you of music you know, and you wrack your brain to figure out exactly which piece, and nothing comes until you stop thinking about it, and you blurt out the answer in the middle of an ordinary conversation as a non sequitur.

... so then I was trying to decide between the blackberries and the raspberries, which weren't on special, and SHE'S COME UNDUN BY THE GUESS WHO! That's what it was!

I call these songs brain wrackers.

Well, no I don't. I only do now that I'm on the subject. I don't call them anything. Or I didn't use to.

Last March I went to Bard College for the first time in my life to be in the audience for a performance of several of my hand-wrecker 'tudes. Once I figured out where to park, and that things on map are much smaller than they appear, I approached what might have been the building with the concert hall, and I heard some hardass Modernist music faintly coming through a couple of windows. I got closer to the windows and heard a piano getting the crap pounded out of it — assuming there was crap in it to begin with.

It was my own Fists of Fury, which was to be performed that night.

How 'bout that? My first time at Bard, and the sound associated with it is me.

Hee hee.

The concert that night began with a big ensemble piece by John Hallé called Structural Adjustment. It was a very cool piece — a raucous affair with repeated upwardly-mobile overlapping scales and arpeggios, among other things. And it was a brain wracker. Those scales with those particular syncopations reminded me of something in some other piece I knew, but what?

At intermission I told John I thought his piece was great, and that I thought that his scale figures might have also been in an Earth Wind and Fire tune. Just which tune, I did not know. Repeated brain-wrackage yielded nothing. John acknowledged that he could have unconsciously used something in Earth Wind and Fire. Don't everybody?

I obsessed.

The next day, back at my own computer, I brought up the considerable EW&F playlists in iTunes and methodically went through them until — voilà! I found which tune it was. I hadn't heard the tune in many a year, which is probably why there needed to be so much wracking. And the scale figures are in the introduction.

And so in trying to think up a devastatingly clever title for this post, I got that little bit of rap stuck in my brain. Fast or slow, like a Leslie goes.

Aha! I thought. I often think in exclamations. It's Prince, or maybe TAFKAP in a rap break of some song. Those syn-bass drums make it kind of early, pre-lamo introspective Prince. And the voice doing the rapping was not that of Prince. Hmm, maybe NPG and Gett Off?


Defeatedly, I googled the phrase. Bullseye. It's Love Machine, performed by The Time, and on the Graffiti Bridge soundtrack.

Beff and I actually paid money to see Graffiti Bridge in a theater in Worcester, where there were maybe six of us in the audience. The music was great. The movie was awful. It seemed like because Purple Rain practically printed money for the movie people, they let Prince have two more movies, on the house. It appears they then cut him off, and rightly so.

Good soundtrack, though.

Fast or slow is like Davy goes, too. If you have a bookmarks folder of examples of awkward segues, you'll probably want to bookmark this post.

The common prototypes for fast and slow composers are Mozart and Beethoven. Whereas Mozart would hold whole pieces in his head (if one of his letters can be believed) and the act of writing them down was a time-consuming nuisance, Beethoven labored and labored over his music, crossing out stuff and reworking it obsessively until he was satisfied with it.

A friend swears this is in an early sketch of the slow movement of Beethoven's fifth — which I can't verify since I don't have access to any of those sketches. But if it is so, looky there — that glorious singing 'cello tune with its quirky turns and fabulous shape — started as an ordinary rising sequence? Get outta town!

This isn't a binary argument; composers work at all speeds. The Mozart-Beethoven binary is often invoked to show that the speed at which a piece of music is written is not a good predicter of its quality. Mozart wrote great first drafts and rarely revised: Beethoven wrote lousy first drafts, but was a great reviser. It's also a bit ironic that Beethoven made a name for himself as an improviser, yet he slaved away endlessly at his written-down stuff. Perhaps it was the lead in his beer mug.

Schoenberg seems to have been a pretty fast composer, too — the first five of the Op. 19 piano pieces were written in one day (February 11, 1911). And Verklärte Nacht was written in three weeks. Both of them are pretty complicated stuff. In his article Heart and Brain in Music, Schoenberg uses a 2-bar passage of complicated 4-part counterpoint, containing a leitmotif together with its inversion, twice, as an example of something that was so hard to write it took about an hour. And to think, he could have had hand-crafted lenses made while he wrote the passage. Or his holiday snaps developed.

I cannot think of anyone in my circle of friends that could have written the Schoenberg example in less than four hours. Admittedly, it's not a big, big circle. More like an oval, really. With a slight bulge on one side. And peanut butter.

Compare to Webern, whose entire life's work fits on three CDs. Well, at the tempi that Boulez takes, it fits onto three CDs.

I myself have inhabited both fast composer body and slow composer body, and let me tell you they are the same body. The biggest difference between the two, in my case, seems to be two things: secureness with technique and familiarity with other music. And as a secondary factor, willingness to work without a net. Any factor can be both a laxative and a binding agent, depending on how it's used and where it's applied.

The laxative effect is also contingent on how many movements you are writing, and whether they are attacca. Couldn't resist that one.

When someone tells me hey you wrote that fast, my response is sometimes something like well, I didn't write all spring semester, so it was like diarrhea waiting to come out.

Sometimes I'm just not into the subtle thing.

Most of the time I'm just not into the subtle thing.

Both ASCAP and BMI have published handy helpful guides on how much you should be prepared to spend to commission a composer, based on duration and size of performing forces. There is no similar guide for BMI or ASCAP composers advising how long a composer should be prepared to spend writing a piece based on duration and size of performing forces. Suppose there were a guide and it said a four-movement symphony for full orchestra lasting a half hour should take eight months to write. So do I get paid half if I write it in four months? Do I get double for taking a year and a half? Why do union piano movers get paid minimum two hours wages to take ten minutes moving a piano from one side of a room to the other?

One of these things is not like the others.

My first piece (Opus 3) was written for band — my high school band, you go with what you know, dontcha know — February 16-20, 1975. Five days, seven minutes of music. I wrote directly onto the final score. The reason I could write so much so fast was that I didn't know anything. I was completely unaware of — or didn't care about — conventions, what was good, what was being stolen (all of it). I was just enraptured by the exercise of putting notes on the page. Nobody was judging me. Except, perhaps, the students who played it and hated it.

Within a month of entering college, I slowed down considerably. The ISCM World Music Days were in Boston, and school was cancelled so that we could go to the concerts. Heck, I was in one of the concerts — the chorus for Shifrin's Chronicles with the BSO and Ozawa. A whole week of just 'bout everything can certainly mess a young composer up. So I shifted gears entirely and played with motives and homely-to-ugly harmony.

Within a year I was writing a piece a week. Perhaps I was trying to get all my bad music out of the way so that only good music would be left to write, but that turns out not to have worked. I was writing solos and duos for all my friends, making checklists of cool effects I wanted to use, and every other week's composition lesson went like this. "I wrote another piece." "Is it finished?" Yes." "You don't want me to criticize it?" "No." "Lunch?"

By the end of my sophomore year, my teacher had had enough. It's time for you to start writing slow, tortured music. Be more thoughtful and critical. Let's look intensely at the music and see what could be improved.

It was good advice. I was more critical, more scared to put down something that wasn't like totally awesome. Scared, too, to revise. If I like what happens in bar 5 and bar 8 but not in bars 6 and 7, how do I rewrite 6 and 7 to make 8 still work? Because, you know, 7 8 9.

So in my junior year and the first half of my senior year, two of three composition lessons went like this. "Any new music this week?" "No." "Lunch?"

Pieces written in freshman and sophomore years: about 35. Junior and Senior years: 1.33.

But they were pretty good pieces. The ".33" is even published, along with the other .67.

Through grad school and at least six years following, I wrote very slowly. On the one hand, the example of Berg's Lulu was a pretty formidable one, and the music therein had the key to what I thought I wanted to do. On the other hand, I was attracted to the spiky instrumental writing of the so-called Uptown composers. Combining or reconciling spiky and Romantic seems to be what I was trying to do. Perhaps they really are two great tastes that taste great together? Or is it more like ginseng tea and melted cheese?

Plus, I had a pretty severe working method of using complementary all-combinatorial hexachords, and modulating from hexachord to hexachord by using common trichords. Which was a lot easier to do than it sounds. Like any technique, and like learning a language, once you've done enough of it, it's second nature.

And sometimes I played hooky from that particular method, and felt guilty.

Nonetheless, my list of compositions from about 1979 to 1991 mostly have composition dates begun and completed in different years.

I have to write my dissertation was a significant factor in that slowness. But not a huge one.

Then it snapped. After laboring eleven months over that first symphony, which I am fond of disparaging in these blog posts, I got to Yaddo with the intent of writing a celebratory piece fast, and there you go. Winged Contraption, full orchestra, 9-1/2 minutes, 23 days to write.

I had decided screw the charts and screw justifying every note — the polite connotation of screw, that is. I've got a vocabulary of harmonies that work just fine for me, and if I just loosen up a whole lot and stop fretting, I can write music faster, and perhaps it will even be better music. A-splode!

A partner to the newer, fresher, faster outlook was the étude project, which had a strict time limit of 6 days and no revisions allowed. Wow, seat of the pants stuff, refreshing, invigorating. It was as if after studying a language for eleven years, I was now speaking in it. Olé! Empfindsamkeit! Triceratops!

I also discovered how much work you get done at artist colonies. To top it all off, I began to give myself a measure quota per day while at colonies. For big pieces, 15 measures per day. For 'tudes, 20 bars per day. Always with the understanding that anything written can be discarded, of course. It turns out not much ever is.

Second symphony, 28 minutes, 3 months to write. Third symphony, 30 minutes, 2 months to write. Persistent Memory, 23 minutes, two writing bursts of 2-1/2 weeks each, 14 months apart. Piano Concerto, 34 minutes, two weekends followed by a year hiatus (I was The Chair), and two months of writing time.

Not every piece goes so swimmingly, of course. This spring, I had a Sondheim arrangement for solo piano to do — part of Tony de Mare's Liaisons project — and I convinced myself I'd get it done in a fraction of my February vacation. Nope. Once I started it I realized I was at sea. It wasn't finished in the February vacation, or in the April vacation, or by the end of the semester. It was finished a week after school ended. It is about 6 or 7 minutes and occupied me for almost three months. Talk about working without a net.

My colleagues, and some students, think I write blazingly quickly. It never feels that way. It feels more like slow and steady winning the race. Plus, there's that quota thing. And a solemn promise never to miss a deadline.

I will, however, own up to having written this one in 75 minutes. It was fun.

Davy, do you write intuitively or rationally? A subject for another blog post, not this one. But those are two more great tastes that taste great together.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Jazz do it!

The "No pulse" buttstick was really hard to extract. 'cause, you know, the motor rhythms and toe-tappin' thing just weren't a part of serious music and I was serious composage guy. Not at all. They did not belong. Witness, say, the finale of Beethoven's Eighth. And the Schönberg Serenade.
I got pretty good at writing irrational rhythms with every imaginable tuplet, and if I had been obliged to pay for every off-the-beat note that I wrote, I would have been bankrupt early on. Nonetheless, I could vary the harmonic rhythm very nicely (note the clever use of homonyms, which is very varied), and create a good sense of pacing. Even with so much happening off the beat.

I just couldn't write music that sounded fast.

And boy, did I want to.

One friend (whatever happened to old what's-his-name? I'll never forget him) made an astute observation: Your fast music sounds like your slow music sped up. My response was probably the familiar I should probably use the bathroom now. Because I knew he was right. And I did have to go to the bathroom.

But Davy. You are well known for your headlong, eventful, riotous fast music. How can you say that you couldn't write fast music?

Well, things weren't always this way. I also used to have hair. And by the way — riotous?

I had written a monstrously difficult piece for Speculum Musicæ with lots and lots of stuff happening (a Boston reviewer said it had Roger Sessions syndrome) and what could only be described as a cavalcade of notes without end. The only "fast" music that actually sounded fast was a few brief passages with an actual pulse. The piece had a slow ending, which at the premiere sounded completely wrong. Wrong, as in stupid. Wrong, as in I should probably use the bathroom now. The Speculi programmed it a second time, for which I wrote a completely new headlong fast a-splode ending with a fierce pulse, thus recasting the story of the whole piece: it's about finding the pulse. Well, okay, I didn't say it was a sexy story. But it's better than the original story the eight soloists gradually learn to work with each other. The gagging sensation is palpable whenever I read that. The original story may have also included Tra la la at the end.

In 1988, Ross Bauer asked me to write a Pierrot ensemble piece for the group he was directing at Stanford, which he requested not be so damn complicated rhythmically because some of the group was students. Fair enough. It was a simpler piece with a few pulsed passages, and when I was looking to write music of rare excitement for the final section, out came a torrent of repeated sixteenth notes in the piano. Repeated sixteenth notes! In the piano! Repeated! Sixteenth! Notes in! The! Piano!

It seemed, uh, exciting enough, those repeated notes, and I was intrigued to think about what it would be like to write substantial machine-gun passages of them with constantly shifting accents and groupings. Downbeats might then sound like syncopations, syncopations like downbeats, and with the right treatment and attention to harmony, it could sound ... fast! So I wrote my first piano étude around that notion. My first! Piano! Étude! My!

And it sounded fast.

Syncopations? Wait ... I was the King of syncopations. All the syncopes, all the time. Le syncopation, c'est moi.

Well, gee, it's like Syndrome says in The Incredibles: "When everybody has super powers, nobody has super powers!"

When everything is syncopated, nothing is syncopated! Ah hah. The pulse isn't there to make mod music seem less serious. It's there to give the composer something against which to syncopate. Cross accents. Give the music a real life. Phrase thingies. And then, and then ...

The buttstick came clean out. When I say clean, I mean something else.

And so what did I write shortly thereafter? A 28-minute symphony without any pulse whatsoever. Not even in the scherzo — which plodded and gave the listener the impression of swimming in liquid dark chocolate. Tasty chords, many of them very loud, but not going anywhere very fast. You know when you dream and are trying to run but you don't get anywhere? That's the scherzo of my symphony.

As an official antidote to the completion of said symphony, I was writing vocalises for Judy Bettina. Since she pretty much had made Uncle Miltie's Phonemena her own — it sounds like scat singing from the polar regions of Mars — one of the vocalises was faux scat (I seem to do a lot of faux) on her and her husband Jim's name.

Hmm. Would a fake camera take fauxtographs? If I had total recall that was defective, would that be fauxtographic memory?

I knew to ask the players to swing (here's what I said: swing the eighths), that's about all. Everything else was cheap imitation. I was clever enough to give Judy leeway to make up her own scat syllables, overriding the cheap imitations that up had been made by me.

Then along came the Itzkoff-Shapiro-Rider trio, who persuaded me to use my Fromm commission to write them a piece. I started work on it at the Bellagio Center, without a clue as to what piano trio writing was if it wasn't Haydn or Beethoven. I realized that this was the first real chamber music I had written — that is, music not to be conducted — in, like forever. How do I write something fast that won't give the players fits trying to stay together?

Gee, Davy, you sure are dense. Use the damn pulse, f'cryin' out loud!

I had started my time at Bellagio by writing my second piano étude, sort of a supercharged version of the first one. I wrote it outside, and enjoyed watching and listening to the birds flying over Lake Como. One flock of them flew overhead in perfect formation, and then split into two formations when one bird apparently miscommunicated, and then got right back together. It was a cool visual effect, and it made me think that something similar would be good for a piano trio. Start everybody on unisons and have the unisons break apart into counterpoint and harmony. And then get them back together. Repeat. Stop.

Yes, this was the beginning of my jittery unison period. Or more precisely, my jittery unisons breaking apart and coming back together period. The jubaacbt period, as it were.


The rhythmic strategy then was simple meters and fast syncopations against them. And in writing music that was truly fast, I figured out ways to get the meters and accents to interact to make that headlong fastiness that is apparently part of my brand.

And how did the players describe the piece once they'd learned it? "It sounds like the dark side of jazz".

Jazz has a dark side? Jazz? Has? A Dark? Side?

Well, there's the beginning of Caravan, and, and ...

This trio, eventually called Hyperblue — I called it that because it felt like blues recorded at 33 and played back at 78 — yes, I am old enough to make vinyl references, and I'll do it whenever I want to — got a great performance that yielded a recording that was, for a while, my greatest hit. Apparently I'd done something that people thought was original. And dark. And really fast. And "jazzy".

So quickly my brand was becoming jazzy guy.

And when jazzy guy started at Brandeis, it was suggested that he would be the perfect guy to give independent studies in jazz composition to students who'd been asking for them. Whoa, I accidentally find the, um, dark side of jazz, and for violin, cello and piano!, and suddenly I'm qualified to teach jazz comp? Hee hee, that's funny.

I gave the independent studies. I had no idea what I was doing. Syncopate more! I probably said a lot.

For you see, jazz bears the same relationship to jazziness that truth bears to truthiness. And don't get me started about cats and cattiness.

At the American Academy in Rome, when we were putting together the composer concerts, it was decided that there needed to be more stuff with clarinet and more with voice. So I did a go-to to my go-to guy Joe Duemer for a few tailor-made — actually, poet-made — texts on an emergency basis. Emergency only in the sense that the performers would probably like to have their parts well in advance of the show. Almost immediately he came through, and just as almost immediately, I embarked on some songs for voice and clarinet.

They were great texts, but one was particularly irksome to me (even to the point of being irkful) — called Burning Woman Blues. Containing the text of unusual irksomeness How can I be holy/When I feel like this/Oh how can I be holy/When I feel/Like this like this like this like this?

Uh huh. I put myself in weird challenge mode, improvised some generic blues licks, and lo and behold, I managed to shoehorn some of them same blues licks into my song and shape them such that it still kind of sounded like me. With the clarinet doing a kind of compound line that had a faux bass line embedded. So here I was, doing an ironic take on the blues — thus beginning a tug at the Shun Vernacular Music buttstick. I was sure that pretty soon vast riches would await me. Real riches, metaphorical riches, either would be cool. Hey, even Ruffles have riches.

As long as I don't somehow acquire the bluesy guy brand. That one out for which I am not cut — I never pay more than a dollar for sunglasses.

For my next trick, I responded to a request for a celebratory piece for the 50th anniversary of Brandeis with a piece that used jazz chords, but with hyperfast Davy licks and no actual jazziness. That's right. Call me hyperfast Davy licks guy. Jazzy is so seven years ago.

Then of course, Geoffy suggested I write him a 'tude on fourths, and as an extra added bonus, I could up and reference modal jazz. Uh huh. Reference, as in, footnote it? Sure. Incidentally, what the heck is modal jazz? Oh, I'll bet it's got stacked fourths and stuff, right? Hence the premise of the 'tude? Okay, I'll write out the swing eighths so it looks way more complicated than necessary (mwa ha ha!) and so it'll look like a whole bunch of extended passages in Carter's first string quartet — which definitely do not swing. Geoffy called it McCoy Tyner on speed.

So thanks to Geoffy's influence, jazzy Davy was back, Whack-A-Mole like.

I still didn't know much of anything about jazz, though. To be fair, I did listen to Weather Report. Which I know some would say is not jazz, but fuchsian. I also visited record stores that filed Earth, Wind and Fire under jazz.

Amy played the fourths-'tude, which is probably what prompted her to ask me for a stride 'tude, whose story is detailed in this post. To achieve this challenge, I actually had to go out and learn something about jazz. So that after some immersion in James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, I was ready for my Davy-ironic take on the genre.

Geoffy countered with gimme some bop. (I listened to much piano bop)

Amy countered with gimme some tango. (I bought two tango CDs)

Rick Moody countered with gimme some rock 'n' roll.

Geoffy and Rick Moody countered with gimme some funk.
Geoffy countered with gimme some clave.

Rick Moody countered with gimme some prog rock. (I hit my head on the table).

Okay, I'm Davy-ironic take on vernacular genres guy. Try putting that on a business card. And the Shun Vernacular Music buttstick? Clean out. In a manner of speaking.

Luckily ironic vernacular genres was mostly limited to 'tudes, where people would like them. Well, okay — and a piano concerto movement. I had arranged four of those genre études for band, which the Marines peoples played in the City of Broad Shoulders. And stride? Fantastic for piano. Really, really goofy-soundin' for band.

So imagine my surprise when I got an e-mail from Greg Evans, asking if I'd be interested in a commission to respond to jazz with string quartet, woodwind quintet, and piano. He was the director of Merkin Hall, and putting together a season of various takes on jazz; I would write the closer for the whole season, representing the classical composer's take on notated jazz for non-jazz players.

That's a remarkably specific premise, no?

The performers were all superstars, so it was certainly an attractive proposition — and in exchange for half a year's mortgage payments!

Wait — what does "respond to jazz" mean?

Beff posited slyly that perhaps it was like Norton in The Honeymooners: First you address the jazz. ... Hello, Jazz!

And Greg — why are you asking me? I suck at teaching jazz comp!

He said he had been watching and listening to the YouTubetudes and he liked how I responded to each weird genre challenge (he forgot to say I did it ironically), and he thought it'd be cool for me to do the same with a full-length piece. Carte blanche.

Okay, okay. I liked the weird challenge, and the prospect of entering the gap between jazz and jazziness: it was time to do jazzness. There's no "I" in jazzness.

So I did the Davy-mélange of stride, swing, fugue, blues, tango, and bebop and stirred to taste. To my taste. It was really hard. And really fun.

Wait — tango isn't jazz, Davy. It's Argentinian popular music descended from the habañera. Well, Tony was going to play a tango set on this concert, so I wrote a tango. Because in is what I desperately wanted to fit. That, and it's fun typing the ñ character.

Another worthy colleague called the stride piano writing "Art Tatum on an overdose of LSD." So I've gone from McCoy Tyner to Art Tatum. Not bad.

And other than my car being totalled — as it was parked and I was 20 miles away — while I was in town for the premiere — it came off pretty well. Even Gunther Schuller liked it. As did Yehudi Wyner, to whom it was an 80th birthday gift.

So, to sum up: jazziness begets more jazziness, begets disastrous independent studies; second jazziness begets ironic takes on vernacular music begets jazzness. But wait. There's more!

As detailed in this post, a bunch of fabulous military musicians wanted me to steal Beethoven's Fifth (now there's a premise) in a piece that would be stylistically similar to this responds-to-jazz piece, for a children's concert. Stylistically similar because they were going to play an excerpt from responds-to-jazz and then later the new piece, and the kids had to be able to identify the broad strokes of the style.

The broad strokes of the style? When did I become pretentio-man?

So out popped a strange hybrid orchestra piece with stride piano, dreamed music, modernist inside-the-piano swipes, and a big honkin' Beethoven 5 quote. What am I going to do with that piece? Why, surround it with equally bizarre siblings, of course. Especially since I get to use the title Scare Quotes.

Or How about a little fire, Scare Quotes?

So at the moment I'm stuck with jazzness in my brand. And since my secret identity is still serious composer guy, I still feel a teensy bit of guilt about how much fun the jazzness music is.

Well, I guess that's just another one that's going to have to come clean out.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Video shilled for Davy-o's Star

I'm rather mediocre at self-promotion.

Which is a half-truth. I'm not particularly interested in doing it, but I'm not averse to doing some. I'm one of those If You Build It They Will Come kind of guys. I've never looked good going backstage after concerts and passing out free scores to strangers. I never know which mascara to buy for that. Plus, what if they ask me to improvise a mime act?

Admittedly, though, if someone asks where stuff might be found online, I can type the URLs by heart. Not URLs by Heart, though.

A couple of years ago I got an e-mail from someone writing a book about artists and how they brand themselves, how artists build their brands. He said he thought I had an interesting brand, and that he had a bunch of questions for me to answer (apparently the same questions all his victims would get), and that based on my responses he might write something about me and my brand, how I've branded myself, in his book.

Well, I built it. And look who came.

I declined to participate, and said author was surprised. Perhaps at this point he realized that my brand is that I don't have a brand? Or do I have one, without knowing it? What would the logo look like? Is there free pizza?

I have a YouTube channel. Is that a brand? Oh crap, the background of the channel is blue, just like this blog. Am I in my blue period? Is Davy's in his blue period my brand? If so, I might need some red roses.

Oh yes. It turns out I've had a web page since 2002.

I seriously need a non sequitur.

So during the Christmas vacation of my first year at Brandeis, Beff and I had fellowships for a residency at the VCCA. At the time we lived in Salisbury, Maryland, where Beff's job was, and that was literally in the middle of nowhere. By middle, I mean it was a two-hour drive to Baltimore, a two-hour drive to DC, a two-hour drive to Norfolk, Virginia, and a two-hour drive to Wilmington, the closest place to catch a train to New York or Boston. Beff's work was a ten-minute walk. Mine was an eight-hour drive.

But, thanks to its exact location, the VCCA was a mere five hours drive away. Since we could drive to it, we got to take our stuff. Thus, Beff got to bring our brand new Macintosh clone to do sound work and the like, while I had an older laptop with an orange trackball for my own use. The clone was our first computer with a built-in CD drive, so we were giddy with the ability to play audio CDs on it.

VCCA is nice in that it has two larger rooms for Fellows that can be used by couples. We got the giant bed and our own bathroom. So we were in woo-hoo land.

I was there to write most of a piano trio for the Triple Helix. They had been playing my caldamerda trio Hyperblue for a while, and had asked for another. I tried to talk them into asking a friend of mine instead of me, but they said we don't want trendy pablum, we want you! I admired but did not understand their directness. So there I was, writing most of a piano trio.

Said trio was finished way, way ahead of schedule, including time spent entering it all into Finale. So, naturally, I moved on to piano études, the Swiss army knife of compositions. I embarked on #13, an inside-the-piano étude, to fill the rest of our time there. And during lunches, Beff and I would eat in her studio and listen to the new Martin Butler CD with Jazz Machines on it. It rocked out.

Martin was our roommate in grad school. We already knew that.

I finished the 'tude with several days remaining and nothing left to write. So with the sound of Jazz Machines in my head, I imitated its spiky and perky perpetual motion texture, but in the low register of the piano. I wrote down the notes that sounded good, but not necessarily right, one after another. It would have been nonsensical, of course, to write down the notes that sounded good one before another. Because time is a one-way street, and we are all players. Then you die.

Hence the sketch, as seen up there to the right. The barlines and time signatures were added later when I was entering the piece in Finale. I wasn't in the habit of putting piano pieces into Finale to listen to them, since at the time all I could get from its MIDI was amoebas arguing. Especially since all I knew was what this piece sounded like. I had no idea what it was about.

Two mornings and one afternoon later, I realized it was about hand-crossing. Cool. And duh. Pianists do crossing hands, and I have hands that can cross, and now my task was to invent cooler and cooler ways for hand to cross. It's ballet! It's choreography! It's mime! Well, no it's not. At one of our lunches, Beff laid down a gauntlet which will be evident when you hear the piece. You can do that right now.

I finished the piece back at my place of employment, and named it after Martin, such as it is. And there it was, one more big honkin' hard-as-hell Davytude to add to the pile. My brand was developing. As was the size of the pile of unperformed 'tudes.

By the way, who the heck was going to play this monster? I didn't have tenure!

Two years later, as part of the big Hyperblue CD project, Marilyn Nonken picked up a bunch of 'tudes, played some around, and recorded them. Martler, this hands-crossing monstrosity, was one of them. She premiered it in Illinois, and then played it for me before she did it in New York.

Are you crazy? That piece looks impossible! How can anybody play it! Man, it sure looks cooooool! Do it again! And again!

That was me, silently. Apparently Silent Davy doesn't use question marks. It sounded good, too.

Owing to the special hand-specific notation, the score was impossible to follow. Even by the composer. Hey, that's me!

I quietly asked all of my friends to sit at Marilyn's New York concert so they could see her hands in Martler. They both complied. We all agreed: sounds good. Looks really cool. And it sounded sufficiently blisteringly hip to begin the CD.

I told Marilyn that if she ever learned and played it again, I'd buy a video camera specifically to make a movie of it HINT HINT HINT. What would I do with the movie? Probably watch it over and over again, and invite all of my friends over to watch it over and over again. I just like the way peoples' lips look when they can't stop saying Coooool!

It wasn't until 2001 that I got to hear and see Martler again, when Amy did it. When I came to Chicago for the gig and Smookarama got me to talk at the U of Chicago, I first had Amy play it to prove no one could follow the score. It was a pointless exercise, but I was on a roll. Then I had all in attendance breathe down the back of Amy's neck and watch while she played it. That was, by contrast, more pointful.

When Amy was learning the first 22 'tudes and was going to play them for me at Brandeis, I finally pulled the trigger. That's a metaphor. Beff and I up and drove to Best Buy, mulled over choices between analog and digital models, chose the Sony DCR-TRV330 for 700 bucks, and were assured by a friendly saleslady that looked at my right ear when she talked to me that we'd be able to hook it up via Firewire to our computer.

... with a Firewire cable, not included, get it from us for 80 bucks was left out of the saleslady's pitch. Thus a second trip to Best Buy. Immediately I went to the backyard and took a movie of our house. Which was not moving, so I moved the camera. If anyone needs to know what our back yard looked like in 2001, I have proof! The Firewire cable hooked the camera to the computer, iMovie received the movie perfectly, and we had our first professional movie of a stationary object. Soon, gravestones. Then the dam! Then, sleeping cats!

When Amy arrived to play the 'tudes, she was only too happy to be filmed. I threw them all up onto the computer, burned some DVDs, and started a collection. A year later, more movies of Amy and Marilyn doing 'tudes were made. And a giant collection was on my hard drives.

Want to watch some 'tude movies? would send people screaming from the room — because they knew I had, like twenty-five. Note that it wasn't Silent Davy speaking. As a presentation my next time at VCCA, I played some 'tude movies, which one visual artist astutely called my slides.

I then got an emergency commission for a quick piece for dance, paying just about enough to get a new laptop. At the time of said laptop purchase, it was possible to buy Final Cut Express bundled for a hundred bucks. So I did. And it was Beff who started using it and me who never learned it. She had started doing some basic video pieces in order to follow through on some multimedia requests, and now that we had both the software and the camera, the sky was (metaphorically) the limit. Beff became a go-to video with live instruments person, and she and I made lots of field trips to make video footage for pieces she was working on. She now has a YouTube channel with a few examples.

Making those video 'tude movies was more cumbersome than I have let on. For you see, the Sony camera is a big noisy piece of equipment with a tape motor, whose voluminous hissy sound is inescapably part of any movie. For instance, this video. For the sake of better sound, when making the 'tood movies, I made a parallel sound recording on my Sony DATman, dumped the sound data to the computer, deleted the camera's sound in iMovie and synchronized the recording with the movie. Much extra work, but worth it. Of course, as in the Marilyn movies of that period, if the DATman got tapemangle, which was not infrequent, you had to go with the camera's raw sound. And as we all know, raw is war.

So one morning at breakfast as I was sitting on my giant pile of 'tude movies — some of them now almost six years old — Beff looked up from the magazine she was reading and said, "Hey!" When she starts stuff that way I always start listening, because, you know, otherwise why would she have said Hey!? That was immediately followed by There's this new thing called a Flip Video, the size of an iPod, that makes digital movies and connects directly to your computer. And because it had internal memory and no tape, there was no tape motor, hence no tape motor noise. And the sound quality was decent.

Oooooh, I said. It looked like I was saying Coooool, but there were no incipit and terminal consonants. Vive la différëncê.

So we got not one, but two of them. Because we have two of lots of stuff. And used them a lot for Beff's work.

Right around then, too Amy was finally getting a web page up and asked how she might get some of those old 'tude movies into it. I suggested I could put some reduced-quality movies into my webspace and she could link to them, and it worked just fine.

Shortly thereafter, I was at the MacDowell Colony with my Flip Video, thinking about the 'tude movies now being online, and wondered if I might be clever enough to figure out how to get them onto this weird YouTube thing. All on MacDowell's available bandwidth! I successfully established a YouTube channel, struggled to get three of the hippest movies into a size compatible, and voilà! Worldwide distribution.

At MacDowell, thanks to the influence of Mark Kilstofte, there were dramatic readings of Mary Worth comics after dinner every night. It seemed such silliness was destined for posterity, so along came the Flip Video. Every night, a new episode onto YouTube. And the weirdness didn't stop there. Mike Daisey was there at the same time, filing his own YouTube episodes.

Once I got the hang of this YouTube thing, you can betcha the whole étude movie pile was up there, and soon. Which made for more comfortable breakfast sitting, among other things.

And so I built it.

Who came this time? Well soon, here and here. Cooooool. Shortly, just about everywhere. Being as it was the intertubes. And the collection grows when feasible: you're playing such and such 'tude, ooh, I don't have a movie of that one. Do you want to be on YouTube?

Just like when I collected Batman cards in 1967, I won't be sated until I have the entire series. Turns out there's lots more 'tudes without videos still. And 'ludes! HINT HINT HINT

So perhaps my brand is I've got a bunch of neat 'tudes you can watch on YouTube. Nah, that's just a factoid.

Gosh, I hope my brand isn't Nose Guy.

What good are movies of piano pieces anyway? The answer is pretty obvious, and if you need me to tell you that in a streaming internet mulitmedia culture, blah blah blah, then I guess I could do that lecture. But it would be heavily footnoted. And each footnote would have to end with What, have you been asleep the last eight years?

In answer to the question you were about not to ask: Yes.

Pianists that I don't know e-mail me, starting with I was trying to choose some of your études to play and was watching a bunch of them on YouTube... but alas, none of them have yet ended with and so I want to give you two hundred fifty thousand dollars. Because you're worth it.

There's always tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

VocalWriter reducks

VocalWriter was and is a singing synthesizer. No, that's not the first time in the history of the English language that that sentence was ever uttered or typed. It's not the second, either.

As I recall, it was cool and hip when it was first released, in the mid-90s. It worked only with Mac OS Classic before it was called Mac OS Classic, and it came with a bunch of cheesy instrument sounds. And a vocoder. Which meant you could make it sing stuff. Anything. You could also adjust the pronunciation, make it do glissandi, and detune it by small amounts.

It gave you your own community choir, as it were. Except you knew when, and by how much, it would be out of tune.

You would send 80 bucks to kae labs for a working version, and as much hilarity would ensue as you had time for. Beff and I had plenty of time.

Even more pertinently, it had a Play-to-Disk feature. The program could open your Finale-created MIDI file, make a cheesy midi realization, which could be dumped into a Macintosh sound file. Which, if you were into computer music, you could use as one of your sound sources, quite easily. In Beff's case, since she was writing pieces for computer-synthesized sound with live instruments, she could easily mix the MIDI of the instrumental part she'd written into the the mix to see how things lined up.

When Mac OS X came along, kae labs said bye-bye to VocalWriter. Apparently, it was too much work to carbonize it. The program did not work in the newly-designated Classic OS.

But then we heard that they had done an OS X version! And it was optimized to work best with the Motorola G3, G4 and G5 chips. And we bought it, a second time. All the cheeseball fun was once again available to us. Alas, soon afterwards, Apple migrated to the Intel chips, and kae labs did not rewrite it again. The program does not work with Macs sold in the last three or four years — though you can still buy it online. But you must have an old computer with Motorola chips to use it.

And I do, Oscar, I do.

My Country

So VocalWriter — with judicious, or unjudicious, use of the detuning feature, can answer the pressing question What would 'My Country 'Tis of Thee' sound like with four three very nervous singers?

Paint By the Notes

It also has a "paint-the-notes" edit mode, as most sequencing software does, and if you feel like doing a Pollock spray-paint thing and giving it words, the software does not complain at all. The text thus set below is

Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party. The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. When in the course of human events it becomes clear that the more we get together the happier we shall be. Fourscore and seven years ago our.

A few years ago, I was asked to evaluate a composer for tenure, and one of his pieces sounded a lot like that one. It was definitely created in VocalWriter, and phrased and shaped not much more than that one is. Why write music when you can paint it?

Alpha Spike Blues

A decade ago I was in a faculty seminar based on and around E.O. Wilson's Consilience (it was called The Consilience Seminar) and the idea was very artist colonyish: get people from different disciplines together talking about the same stuff from the vantage point of their own fields, repeat, stir to taste. It met two hours a week, there was a buttload of reading, and we all got one course relief. Wilson's book is about the coming together of all fields of study to one meta-something or other with the ultimate goal of saving the planet. It was an interesting seminar, and I learned a lot. I also had to give a two-hour presentation about my chosen field. Which, at the time, was music.

The week before my presentation was scheduled, Wilson himself visited the seminar, and we asked him plenty of questions about the book and about his outlook. He's really good at sciences, and pretty rudimentary at anything to do with the arts. He had mentioned that when listening to a Beethoven symphony, certain chords would cause alpha spikes. But why? Much of the book looked for epigenetic rules of human behaviour — that which we do because we are hard-wired to do it, in opposition to that which we do because we are culturally conditioned to do so. So, crinkling your nose to a dissonant chord? Go ahead, argue whether the concept of dissonance is epigenetic or culturally programmed. While you're doing that, I'm going out for a beer. The notion that a seventh must resolve to a sixth? So culturally programmed.

And there was apparently an epigenetic rule for art. As follows: 20% redundancy. Old art, new art, fresh art, is considered to have beauty in most cultures if it has around that much redundancy.

How does that work for music? How do you make a list of things and then determine whether they are redundant, and by how much? Is mod music bad when it's almost 100 percent nonredundant? Is minimalism bad when it's 95 percent redundant?

Can I sell my extra redundancy on ebay? Or have I said that already?

My response was a blues tune that I wrote to begin my Consilience presentation. Naturally, I asked VocalWriter to sing it and play it. With this text: Baby you spiked my alpha waves/When you played that chord!/Twenty percent redundancy/Is what I gravitate toward! Which may have been the first faux blues tune in history to set the words redundancy and gravitate.

O Rhode Island

I have gotten a lot of private comments about O Rhode Island since this post. When I say a lot, I mean hardly any. By which I mean, none. Or maybe one, I forget.

It so turns out that O Rhode Island got one of the first VocalWriter treatments once we got the software. It is vastly funnier when a computer does the singing; then it just seems kind of sad. Okay, really sad.

After the song was learned by the masses at Yaddo, various writers and I added more verses. One of these days there may be a post here with the other nine verses. If I can find them.

For now I leave you with — words by Tom Chandler.

That's my story and to it is stickin' being done by me.