Thursday, December 27, 2012

Santa's twelves

Every year the parents opened Christmas Club accounts for us kids. Or maybe it was just one Christmas Club account, for me. Every week of the year, I was given fifty whole cents to deposit — half a buck! — in my very own account, with the reward that at the end of the year, I had accumulated 25 bucks — 25 1966 smackeroos! — or 1967 smackeroos — of 1968 smackeroos — to spend freely on Christmas presents for the family! I suppose the bank marketed the Christmas Club accounts as, among other things, ways to teach kids how slow and steady investing grows actual wealth and all. What I got out of it, though, was free money. Also, the bank got a pile of cash it could invest and not pay interest on.

Thus did I have an average of 5 bucks to spend for Christmas presents for each family member. And I almost always did all my shopping at once at one of those secret code catalogue stores that used to proliferate in those parts. You went into the store, picked up a catalogue, and looked at the available items. Maybe five percent of what was available was actually on display in the store, one of each item, and surrounded by lots of space — it was quite an antiseptic feeling inside. You shopped sight unseen (very amazon dot com except thirty or so years earlier), though they always had everything in the catalogue in the secret (presumably) gigantic back room.

And the catalogue had secret code. The price listed under each item was not what you actually paid. You had to be smart enough to know that in the secret Helvetica Narrow Extra Bold gobbledygook at the bottom of each entry was your price. Hence, your item would be listed at $12.99, and the code would read XHC194783PB979. Your price: $9.79. It was Dick Tracy-style sleuthing. Even though there was a big sign in the front of the store that explained the secret code, with the number circled in red and "This is what you pay!" in a handwriting font.

And almost every year I settled on a cheap music box to give to mom. The $7.99 XCH3779483BX559. Which was close to my budget. It was a cheap plaster of Paris thing, hastily painted, with generic looking happy people on a disc that rotated when the music box played. You started it by turning those happy people clockwise a few turns, then standing back, and oohing and aaahing as the magic unfolded. Mom always opened it, ooohed and aahed, played it once, and then it lived out of sight, where I would play it maybe twice during the year before it seemingly disappeared without anyone noticing.

One of those music boxes played Edelweiss, whose title I didn't know at the time (until someone later in the year said, and here's how I heard it, "Hey, that's Aydel Vice.") Later the girl's chorus in elementary school would sing it in concert, and I wasn't expecting it, since on the program it said, and here's how I thought it was pronounced, eddel wice.

It never occurred to me exactly how the music box worked. You just spin the generic people, and they make generic music, and they never get dizzy.

So imagine my surprise — and delight — when my father brought home a little cylinder operated by a tiny crank, attached to a piece of metal with slits cut into it. When you turned the cylinder, it played — like a music box! Duh. It was a music box. It just didn't have the hastily painted happy people who don't get dizzy interface.

And now I could see what was under the front end: pimples in the cylinder essentially plucked the metal slits, each of which was tuned to a particular note. The faster you cranked, the faster the music went, and you could make it go all wonky and uneven, and you could even make it go backwards, and ... well, of course, the first thing I figured out was that music boxes had the same slitted pieces of metal, and it was the cylinder that changed for a new song. My state of mind briefly went from music box consumer to music box engineer. Although that never did anything for me in the long run, and I was hungry. And, most likely, wet.

It didn't have to be a cylinder, either. Bob Ceely, my first composition teacher, has a bigass music box from the Victorian era that plays 18- or 20-inch discs with pimples on them. Being that the player is bigass, the slitted metal can be longer and thus has an actual low register. And obviously the people who manufactured the discs with songs on them were at the front of the gravy train on the economic end of that device (past the original point of sale). And if I had the patience to figure out the rules for where to put the pimples on the disc to play at a certain prescribed time, I could have been on that gravy train. Except that I was born half a century after that market collapsed.

What brought all these silly memories rushing back was hearing Edelweiss a few nights ago as Beff was watching The Sound of Music on TV. And it occurred to me, for the first time (since I don't ever think about that song otherwise), that the opening three note pattern of the tune— rising minor third followed by rising perfect fifth —is the same as the incipits of Close to You, Pure Imagination, and On A Clear Day. Update (thanks to Kenneth Sears for noting it) and What The World Needs Now.

Knowing that doesn't necessarily make you smart (although it made an exception in my case). But it can and does lead to fun nerdgames like switching the beginning words of all the songs willy-nilly, and even following through by moving all the lyrics of one song into the tune of another one.

Or like shifting the syllables of Take Me Out to the Ball Game by phasing them — starting the song on its second syllable, for instance — for instant nerdy fun. Not to mention, then the song is then forced to end on the leading tone ha ha ha ha ha ha!

Bwa ha ha ha ha ha!

Thank you, one sentence Italic paragraph guy.

It also occurred to me in that nerdly way that Edelweiss is different from the other three in one important way: it begins on the song's metric accent, whereas in the other three, the first two syllables are upbeats to the stressed third syllable, which carries the metric accent. Which means, of course, that there's less sleight of hand available when substituting lyrics — but possibly compensating by being funnier still. Go ahead — sing Come with me and you'll be in a world of pure imagination to the tune of Edelweiss. You won't regret it (at least not until you're 65). Now to the tune of Close To You. Now On a Clear Day. This is how to become a hastily painted happy person that doesn't get dizzy.

So why is it so cool knowing all this stuff? Or is it cool knowing all this stuff at all? I dunno. It mostly resonates with others who value the same sort of nerdliosity that I value. Which is why the nerdlious tend to stick together.

The same people who get all nerdly over those things also enjoy knowing that the opening three notes of Marian the Librarian is the retrograde inversion of the opening phrase of Density 21.5. Bwa ha ha! Seriously, now that I know that, what do I do? I imagine to most people, this is what a conversation among C++ programmers would sound like to me.

Okay, so when I was a consumer of cheaply painted music boxes, I didn't need to know what was going on under the Undizzy. And as a consumer of music, I don't care that those four five openings are the same.

But when I started turning myself into DavyComposer, I shonuff had to figure out just how it was that music worked, in order to write music that at least made sense. Even if it sucked rocks. Even if rocks were sucked by it. Even if the list of what it sucked began with rocks. Somewhere I have a solo trombone piece I wrote when I was maybe ten or eleven. The only thing I can say about it is that there is the correct number of notes and rests in each bar. Otherwise, it doesn't even make sense. On the other hand, I wasn't trying to compose. I was just writing stuff down.

Oh, sure. I knew about chords and rhythms and all that stuff, and I could play a Fake Book admirably. And I knew a few classical pieces. But it took a while for me to figure out what the good ways were to organize the notes so that they made sense as music. Naturally, I poured through a bunch of music theory textbooks, and I found out things about different scales, and leading tones, and all. I also had developed my ears enough to figure out some of the cool sounds in the more mod pieces I'd played in band (parallel sharp-nine chords? What a great idea! That is now my idea! Worship me!)

And one of those textbooks (as they all tend to do nowadays) had a brief glossing over of more recent developments in how music is put together. Naturally, as I was a budding composer whose music either imitated slavishly or made no sense, these more recent developments interested me greatly.

In particular, I remember the brief explanation of the rules for composing with twelve tones related only to one another. It wasn't called that in the textbook — it was called twelve-tone composition, and the rules were easy to remember. And my still-tiny (even to this day) brain enjoyed the calisthenics of doing exact inversions and retrogrades and all.

I knew nothing (or more accurately, I was acutely unaware) of phrasing and cadences and all, but apparently I didn't need to: that wasn't part of the method. I could apparently stop and start as I wanted, and use my innate ... my innate ... okay, my innate ignorance at this point ... to guide how the stream of notes that the method was giving me (I should have written how the stream of notes that the method was shitting out at me) would be expressed in time. Note how I did not say would be expressed musically.

And so I wrote my first, now lost, twelve-tone piece. It was a short piece in three movements for three clarinets, called Intrada, for three clarinets. It was never performed, and I'm pretty sure it didn't make a lick of sense musically. But I got some chops out of it. And I got to write some truly weirdass things, like all three clarinets having a grace note into a rest. At least I learned the discipline of inverting and retrograding. And, me being me (how could it be any other way?), I immediately applied that discipline to writing out Happy Birthday inverted, and to learning how to sing it backwards.

So in the year I spent in Rome (1995-96), I got to hang a little for a few days with George Rochberg and his wife when George was there for some performances by Sally Pinkas at the American Academy. I lent him an umbrella, and I also ordered dried prunes for him at the local deli (he thought he didn't have enough Italian to do it on his own, but he had to tell me the Italian word for prunes — I asked for prugni secchi, and guess what I got? Dried prunes!) He told a few great stories about his time in Rome in the early 1950s, including when he finally gave in and adopted (and he spoke it in Italics) the method. Because apparently all the cool kids were doing it. I already knew — since the story was in all the music history textbooks I'd ever seen — that 20 years later he made a clean and very public break with the method. It's amazing how he was able to speak in Italics.

What's so amazing about that?

Pipe down, one sentence Italic paragraph guy.

Since that happened before being born was done by me (and my progenitors), we only have the stories of them what were there to corroborate what was happening then, and of course they vary wildly depending on fading memories, axes to grind, and rain in which to sing. This was, as they called it, a time of international serialism, and a) it represented a clean aesthetic break with a corrupt world that could get us into WWII b) it was liberating in the extreme c) it was pointlessly artificial and took complexity too seriously as a feature rather than as a bug d) it was a great method for inveterate puzzle solvers e) it represented a possible new lingua franca for composers and audiences given the demise of tonality f) nobody actually cared about it g) everybody cared about it h) you had to care about it to get stuff i) lots of truly glorious music was written in the method (Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Dallapiccola, Berio, Stockhausen, Boulez, Babbitt, Martino ...) j) the worst dreck imaginable was written in the method. And, just as Nixon, having spent a whole career as a fervent anti-Communist was the most appropriate person to open the US up to mainland China in the 70s, some of the most accomplished composers in the method were the perfect ones to break free from it. Hey, listen to the first movement of Rochberg's second symphony — it's terrific. Despite the silly this is my twelve-tone set laid out for you as a tutti opening.

I suspect there were a lot more layers to the alphabetical narrative above, not the least of them the beginning of the awarding of PhDs to composers in 1967 and the requisite explaining that composition is like research only different to University administrators.

And so after my little experiments in twelve-tone composition (I wrote a lot of Hindemith style fugues, too), I entered college (Conservatory!) at the long tail of the method. I encountered that long tail in two ways: composers five to fifteen years older than me who would universally characterize their music as a mild, semi-violent, or violent reaction to what their teachers told them they had to do; and some pretty hot shit twelve-tone music that I totally loved. Indeed, there were legions of not the method composers, more willing to chraracterize what it is they were not rather than what it is they were. And meanwhile, I didn't think I had enough chops yet to write seriously in the method. So I farted around with silly putty-like manipulations of groups of pitches. What did I know about making musical phrases with those groups of pitches? Not a thing.



And so in them so-called formative (so-called because that's what they were) years, I was exposed to lots of cool music without tonal centers. I presumed most, if not all, of it used the method, because, well, you know, just because. In particular, I really got attached to Notturno and Triple Concerto by Donald Martino — and not just because he happened to be on the faculty of the very school I was attending to learn how to be a composer. It was visceral, on the edge, colorful, exciting music that spoke to me. The phrasing was clear, and there was an expert sense of pacing; there was clear voice-leading and directionality to the phrasing; the harmony made perfect sense, even though there was nary a recognizable sonority in any of it; and — especially — the way the instrumental color shifted so boldly, so mercurially, so kaleidoscopically was something I wanted to steal. The idea of creating giant composite gestures out of a great group of instruments, and thus creating weird and scary superinstruments — cool beyond belief.

And so, like many composers almost exactly my age, I imitated it. Without anything near the finesse, panache, and phrasing. But it was a start. How would I get the notes to work right, though? It seemed my silly putty pitch groups were running out of cool things to give me.

So in graduate school, I landed in Method Central. I read the articles that laid the groundwork for the method — The Source Set and its Aggregate Formations, Wintle's article on Semi-Simple Variations ... okay, too much new stuff to keep up with the silly putty metaphor, and wow. The machinations one could do conceptually with notes while keeping within a closed system were pretty cool. I could see how a lot of people could — and did — get obsessed with the machinations alone, sometimes even quitting composition altogether. I wish it had occurred to me to offer them some silly putty.

Phrasing in groups of all twelve notes — well, it had its ups and downs. I was writing pretty chromatic music that my older grad school colleagues presumed used the method (as one of them put it in a highly superior tone, "That's all you're doing, right? Arpeggiating the same cluster over and over?"), but no. However, two particular abstract concepts in the molehill-turned-mountain of writings about the method were intruiguing and interesting to a silly putty composer: all-combinatorial hexachords, and derivation.

All-combinatorial hexachords are, to put it briefly, six-note collections that both transpose and invert into themselves and into their complements (yeah, I know. zz-zzz). Everyone in 08544 were gaga about those properties. I just liked the way they sounded. I could get good tunes by arpeggiating the hexachords; and they sounded great as chords. And there are only six, classified alphabetically, of which my favorite were B (diatonic pentachord plus the minor third), C (diatonic hexachord), D (two 3-note clusters a tritone apart) and E (two augmented triads a half step apart).

Derivation was simply, as I understood it at the time, combining a trichord with one if its inversions to make one of them there all-combinatorial hexachords. It seemed that that ball got rolling with the Webern Op. 24 (a piece I despised because it was artlessly obvious so much of the time) — the row for the piece is a particular trichord followed by one each of its possible the method transforms (in this case, RI, R, I). But I liked thinking about that trichordal derivation thing as somewhat analagous to the common chord in a common chord modulation — A minor, formerly the ii chord in G major, now functions as the vi in C major, the new key after the modulation. Well, Webern's set is a Type E hexachord (the two augmented triads a half step apart, and it sounds scrummy as a chord) and if the second trichord is C#-C-A (the inversion), the hexachord derived is Type A (a chromatic cluster, and not a driven personality type).

Thus did these two things bring out the puzzle-solver in me: I knew how to modulate, in a manner of speaking, from one kind of harmonic color to another using common trichords. Is that all there is to music? Well, of course not. And neither is a common chord modulation simply about recontextualizing the old ii as the new vi. After all, I'm the new me, and that can't be taken lightly.

Thus did my compositional thinking evolve largely into articulating the full chromatic in a systematic/non-systematic kind of way. I had a closed system of relationships — a pool with stepping stones, shall we say — and I had rules for how you could get from one to any other. Cool!

But what the hell does that all have to do with music?

I see your point, one sentence Italic paragraph guy. Just like tonal composers might take a chord progression and solve puzzles by varying it or stretching it out, or take a motive and develop it by stretching the intervals or reharmonizing it — that's just part of the scaffolding — or internal music box machinations — that helps the composer write. That all gets taken down when the structure is complete. I liked having my available notes right there, and then having complete freedom with rhythm, phrasing, texture, and all. After all, I started this all by wanting to steal Martino's licks, and make composite gestures and superinstruments with them. And so I did, and so I ... so I ...

So you got tired of the complete chromatic and got freer with how you chose harmony!

Well, I guess you could say that (I already have said that in other posts on this blog). Even though my puzzle-solving was pretty rigorous, I often felt the musical need to use smaller chords than a six-note chords, or add extra notes to a chord the way you add flour to gravy to get the affect I wanted. And voice-leading became more of a going thing, and, and, then, and then ...

Well, okay. I did hang around a few people who were into the method in a big way, and I can only imagine how they gushed on and on about it in lessons with Milton Babbitt. Some of these guys (and they were all guys) were hardcore. I recall a lunch at the Annex Restaurant in Princeton with Milton, where one of the hardcores from an earlier era was in town and sitting at a nearby table, and the hardcore came over to chat. He said he'd discovered [three paragraphs of description that may as well have been in Sanskrit], and it all fits together without cheating! Without cheating.

With. Out. Cheating.

Davy, you just said you were a cheater.

I never knew he actually knew my name.

I never knew you knew my gender.

I'm pretty sure that whatever Sanskrit was happening in that conversation never actually made it into a piece of music. Because, you know, what would be the point? No music ever could be as cool as something that you can do without cheating.

Yes, I was a cheater. But then again, I didn't aspire to steal Martino's notes. I only wanted the superinstruments. And the gestures. And the unfailing sense of timing. Okay, and the voice leading. It turns out the notes were his business, not mine. I was just the consumer cum thief.

So several times after graduate school I had the pleasure of hearing Martino speak about his music. Actually, I think I heard pretty much the same lecture every time, especially the part where he talked about how he wrote Notturno. And that part went something like ...
I noodled around a bit and came up with a tune I liked, and it had all twelve notes. It became a set I worked with. I noticed that the last note was a perfect fifth higher than the first note. So I was working with a circle of fifths, and by continuing in this manner with the first note of the new set overlapping with the last one of the previous set, every overlapping note would be a perfect fifth higher than the last one, and eventually I'd traverse all 12 pitch classes and get back organically to the first one.
Ah, a composer talking about the scaffolding. The secret code! Do go on.
And that became one structural section. I did different things for the next section, and of course the circle of fifths comes back loosely retrograded as way to close off the first movement.
This all sure did sound familiar as a way of proceeding. Thing is — I didn't hear or care about the circle of fifths thing. That's not how the music goes. How it goes is the flute hands off a nervous line to another instrument, and at a cadence there is a tremulous sound feeling foreboding and implying more yet to come, and the flute comes back in a more timid way, and, and ...

The scaffolding is not the music. It's the composer's way into the music, and even other composers such as myself who love the music don't get a single thing from learning about that part of the process.

And so — how composers get their notes is their business. I can get down and dirty with the pitch class set crowd, but how did you get this note? is almost always the furthest thing from my mind when I am teaching an advanced composer. And yes, I have taught composers who told me they were writing using the method, and never have I cared about what set or what transformation is happening when. If something doesn't work, I say it doesn't work and ask them to fix it. Explanations of but, but, but, this set and this transformation is structurally important is as convincing as students saying their dog ate their homework. The music and the picture of the music are not the same thing. The concert hall is not the classroom.

Oops, metaphor overload. Backing up.

So it turns out I did write one more piece using the method, for fun, and I did it mostly without cheating. And I pretty much stole the method of using the method that Uncle Milton used in his second string quartet (an early favorite) — unfold a set, break it into its constituent parts, derive different stuff with those constituent parts, and eventually build the set back up. Eventually all sections (trumpets, trombones, saxes) have their own trichordal derivations in parallel in a double fugue (!) and the rhythm section recaptures the set. Why else would I call it Overderive? Don't answer that. I will. It's because I'm hastily painted and never get dizzy. Except for vertigo once in a while.

And by the way. It was for the Brandeis jazz ensemble, in 1985, with considerable badassery by Ross Bauer putting it together.

This is a 12-tone piece tells me nothing about it if I know nothing about the composer. And look! it's a naked music box apparatus! tells me nothing about what song it's going to play. Nope, I don't use the method. But damn, I sure learned a lot by studying pieces that do.

And when I teach undergraduate composition, one of the units is always the method. Explaining the method is easy, especially since I can leave out all the fancy stuff you can do without cheating. What I love is the attitude of the students once they've spent time working with the method; most of them find it dull, boring, pointless and stupid. But a few — always at least a few — find it liberating. And occasionally, one or two of them will say that in their final project they got some of their ideas from the sounds they created when working with the method.

And by the way. To end with a non sequitur; my music is very chromatic, but tonal. It's up to you to prove otherwise. Use whatever method you want to do that.