Thursday, November 29, 2012

Out with the old, in the old

Robert Beaser writes about his formative moment in Rome as a composer. For a flavor of his work, influenced by pop, jazz, and folk sources, here is a video of a performance that he supervised.

On one hand he criticizes the late hyper-modernity of his youth, that of precomposing complexity, and its orthodoxy, even as he admits both an affection for some of it's figures, such as Elliot Carter, and that there were places to escape the orthodoxy even then – the 1970's were already a place where several post-modern movements were taking root. On the other hand he criticizes what came afterwards as "de-skilling" and the use electronics:

When I go around the world giving master classes, I see every premise of composition practice under siege. Why do I need to write my piece short score before I orchestrate? Why do I need to learn counterpoint? Why do I need to listen to Toru Takemitsu? I write it this way because I like the way it sounds. How do you answer that?

The answer is that the tools will have to run riot, because what is happening is not just a post-literary world, something I penned a thesis on so long ago that I forget that post-literate society is something new to people – as was the assertion that Iliad is a post-literate work, and indeed the seminal works of Western literature are brought about by the emergence from a post-literate dark age that divided middle antiquity from late antiquity – both the Greeks and the Hebrews were people of this age, and their traditions have similarities to our own, in that the fragments which came to them were not embedded in a written literary culture.

To unpack this for a moment: classical Greece wrote in a script they adopted from Phoenecian, an abjad – consonants only – system. However this was the second time they had learned the art of writing, the first time the wrote in what we call "Linear B" – a syllable based script, which is descended from Linear A, which has a much wider range of symbols, and which we still cannot read, or even identify the underlying language, this in turn was predated by another system of writing, called the Minoan hieroglyphics, which, alas, we also cannot read.

This world came to an end with a series of disasters, and the subsequent collapse the the middle Bronze age system of trade. No trade, no tin, no tin, much less bronze, and not the good stuff. No bronze, very little manufacture and a dying world. This "bronze age collapse" saw the end of what is called "the palace civilization." This age lasted roughly three hundred years, and we conventionally date it 1200BC to 900BC. During these centuries, what would become classical Greek and Hebrew civilizations cobbled themselves together against the twilight of the middle Bronze age.

The Greeks who lived in the palace age are the sources of the stories that Homer rhapsodized about, but Homer did not write. So Homer is a post-literate figure, living in a  post-apocalyptic world: rougher, cruder, more violent. So the rhapsodes, of which the traditionalized figure we know as "Homer" was one, took bits that had a certain rhythmic and sonic shape, and built them into lines, lines into verses. Different heroes might have the same bit attached to them, based not on their characteristic per se, but where they were in the line. This discovery is Millman Perry's worl.

This means that what we think of as "remixing" with our technical tools, was also their technique as well. Fragments were made to be fitted together – loops in our time, epitaphs in theirs. Genre provided iconic pathmarks, and there was a distant memory of a once written world, which had been lost and remade.

Post-literate? Yeah, we've seen that before. It's called "The birth of Western Civilization."

This allows us to turn to the answers: one doesn't need to write a short score or piano reduction: just write on the staff, this isn't new to the electronic age, followers of Benjamin Britten would have said the same 50 years ago. One doesn't need to learn counterpoint, one should, one can, but it's not necessity if one has the sense for it. A great deal of contrapunctal music is made by people who don't know formal counterpoint. One doesn't need to listen to any particular composer, and particularly it is difficult to point to where Takmitsu – an autodidact by the way – in particular is essential. Composers should listen to everything, but there is nothing in particular – and in this I include Beethoven, et al. – that it must be. How do you answer that you like the way it sounds? By saying the obvious "so did the guy who actually wrote it."

These aren't compositional practice of long standing – Mozart didn't short score, and didn't learn counterpoint in the mode of Bach until later – they are conventions of teaching, and that is something that electronica does change, because a quarter of what composers once needed to learn how to do – that is find an effect in someone else's score, and the take it apart using counterpoint and harmony as guides, to be able to use it as a template –  can now be done by searching, and another quarter – keeping track of voice leading and flexes is done by software.

But we have not suffered a Dark Age of loss, but instead, a transition from one period of evolution in techne to another. The arc to the end of the medieval collapsed with the complexities of music aficta, the arc that began with the renaissance collapsed, in part, when the complexities of the late baroque gave way to a simpler gallant style. However the classical age that rose from this did not completely forget the older era, and rebuilt the architecture leading to the modern, which reached its endpoint with the high moderns.

Beaser belongs to a moment that is similar to Gluck's moment, that of reform of a complex system for the purposes of greater communication: a gallant era. While accepting the music of its moment, it argues that that musical culture's problem has grown divorced from its audience, and a simplification in favor of directness is necessay. Gluckian operatic style continued to be one the drivers of operas through the first quarter of the 19th century, and influenced, in their turn Berlioz and his generation.

One of its more famous exponents was Antonin Salieri, who was not the man in the movie, but a more complex figure, a moderate progressive in music and taste – and through his earlier years politics as well, which caused him some professional grief. He worked with Beaurmarchais, the author of the Figaro plays, and DaPonte, Mozart's librettist, for example, and combined opera and ballet, as well as multiple genres. He's also nowhere close to Mozart's league of ability, but was an able teacher of underlying technique. Another adherent of the new stylistic idea was Mozart's father Leopold.

This digression has a point. Simplification is its own reward, and its own corrective. Mozart's generation largely abandoned the contarpunctal virtuosity, in part because they did not spend as much time working for the Church. Haydn was capable of it, having been trained in the earlier era, as his masses and say Symphony 44 show. But Mozart, was more capable of doing a passable imitation of imitative counterpoint than the real thing. What his generation wanted was greater effect, and greater physical virtuoso display, among a myriad of techniques for delivering it. Yes, as Berlioz would quip, it took time to separate use from abuse, but the only way to do this was, abuse.

The same that was true with the post-gallant generation of Bocherini and Mozart – they had a long list of sounds they wanted, and as yet, no logic, is true now, we have a long list of what we want, but no logic to join all of them. The demand for it will come, when artists and audience start to pick out their rep, the one which needs to be joined together with one logic.

Or, the kids are alright, and in fact, are probably going to do better, in the long run, then the generation which had the misfortune of being neither there nor hear.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

People who don't read enough. Biometric guns were in the Logan's Run novels.  That's 1967.

This would have been a hip article for Rolling Stone, right next to the Beggar's Banquet review.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

American Thermidor Revisited

There has been an American Thermidor:

   There has been an American Thermidor, a counter-revolution, one which is based on the way money and energy relate to one another. The key is not only oil, nor only money, nor only corporate concentration, but how each of these pushes the other along a cycle. Each one maintains the others in place. To understand how, it is important to look at the deficits that America faces.
In the wake of Barack Obama winning a second term in the White House, there is a tide, in part manufactured, in part real, that the cycle of Republican government has been broken by demographics and by personality of the President. While there are things that could be farther from the truth, this isn't particularly close to the truth. There were two theories of Obama, one that he is a progressive giant, the other that he is a liberal Reaganite. With his first order of business being a "Grand Bargain" to slash spending for a small increase in taxes on the wealthy, which theory predicts better?

A summary of the theory: increases in resources prices and static wages lead Americans to use their homes as a casino table, and use tax cuts to offset the lost income. This creates a spiral: the rich demand being richer to stay ahead of the resource barons in other countries, and this means less revenue, which means less ability to change the economy, which means that growth uses more resources, particularly oil. And it starts again. The article praise Rubin in the act of burying him: having cut the Gordian knot of spending by rolling debt to short term, he created a moment where we could have shifted the economy from physical goods to soft goods, from oil based growth, to other kinds. It was Clinton, not Bush, who failed to shift the economy, and Bush exploited that.

Obama has continued the destructive pattern: he started with a "Middle Class Tax Cut," continued with a "Payroll Tax Cut," he has done what he could to prop up housing prices, and privatize everything, shoving wealth upwards. He saved the rich, first.

Why does he do this? One road to a post-Thermidor America is to shift from the sprawlconomy, to a different kind of economy. The other is to extract resources here. The Reagan play is to bail out the rich, check, slow down the economy by austerity, coming soon, and then wait for new extraction to come on-line and bail everything out. The difference between Reagan and George W. Bush is that while Reagan wanted, not a peaceful, but a peacesque route through business, Bush's new extraction was Iraq, and required a war. An actual ground war. This horrified many Reaganites who, burned by Vietnam, wanted a peaceful, though conservative solution.

Bush swapped out waiting for bombing and invading. This is why Webb became a Democrat, and Jude a funder of anti-war causes.

Obama has gone back to the Reaganite architecture: tax cut driven bail out, slow the economy fiscally, while relying on monetary policy to keep enough people afloat, and then go back to waiting.

Oil? You're soaking in it.

Old writing

Project to collect important essays here, because they are slowly disappearing from the places that they were published originally.

E.g. American Thermidor.