The Scaffolding of Theory

My favorite internet comment of all time was one I saw way back in middle school, or possibly my first year of high school. It was in a music discussion forum the name of which I am too lazy to recall, and it read simply “Remember everyone! Music theory is a theory and not a fact!”, as tho someone somewhere out there was taking a valiant stand against the forces of analysis in favor of some kind of sonic creationism.

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Music Monday: Flanigan: Glacier

For most composers and audio engineers, speaker feedback is something to be ardently avoided. Not so for Lesley Flanigan, who builds her own assemblages of speakers, electronics, and wood, then carefully layers feedback from them to build hazy, beautiful soundscapes that often incorporate her own voice. She can do all this live in real time, and many of her works were conceived as site-specific installations for various museums and performing spaces, putting her somewhere in the nebulous overlapping regions of electronic composition, noise music, and performance art.

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Some Distractions

This has been a tough week. Trump’s victory in Indiana and Kasich and Cruz’s subsequent exits from the race have set the stage for one of our two main political parties to nominate a demagogue with worryingly fascistic tendencies and the open support of white supremacists as their candidate for President of the United States. I have nothing to say about this that hasn’t been said already with more eloquence and knowledge of political theory and history, but it’s loomed large in my mind all the same, draining my ability to sustain thought on other things. In addition, I’ve also been battering my head against several personal downers that, while thankfully not rising to the same level of threat to our polity, I still have no desire to discuss anywhere outside the confines of my private diary. So this week, instead of my usual essay, I’m going to share some of the media I’ve been consuming of late to help take my mind off things.

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Music Monday: Rzewski: The People United Will Never Be Defeated!

Zingers aside, tho, it’s hard not to get the sense from looking at Rzewski’s list of works that he has longstanding left-wing and anti-statist views. In addition to The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, for example, he has also written pieces about the 1971 Attica prison uprisings and a version of the Antigone story that emphasizes the title character’s role as a principled resister of an unjust government. So even if he’s deliberately fuzzy about them in interviews, I suspect that there are genuine leftist views lurking there in the background. Born in 1938 in Westfield, MA, Rzewski was not wanting for a traditional education. He attended Phillips Academy followed by Harvard and Princeton, where he studied with Roger Sessions, Milton Babbitt, and other modernist luminaries on their respective faculties. In 1960, he went to Italy to study with Luigi Dallapiccola and also to further his career as a contemporary pianist (he’s been playing since he was five years old, and has worked to a place of ferocious, if controversial ability (he sometimes improvises cadenzas in the middle of Beethoven piano sonatas, which some people are . . . less than excited about.).). While there, he was one of the co-founders of Musica Elettronica Viva, one of the first groups to experiment with live improvisation using electronic instruments, a group that is still active today, some fifty years later.

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Infinite Canvas

Late in season 9 of the United States version of The Office, there is a scene where Oscar Martinez, a gay accountant, comforts Angela Martin, another accountant, who is sobbing in his car over the ruins of her love life. On its own, with minimal setup, it would be a moving scene, but coming as it does after nearly a decade of storytelling, it has a depth that can only come from layers and layers of backstory. Oscar and Angela have been bouncing off each other for years, sometimes as friends, more often as enemies, and the accumulated weight of that past gives the scene in Oscar’s car an oomph that would be impossible to attain otherwise.

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Clever Accidents

I’m in the middle of writing an oboe sonata! And I really do mean in the middle — I’ve gotten past the initial stages of figuring out the opening and the basic musical materials, and now I’m in the messy central stretches of picking those materials apart and recombining them into a compelling path to the double bar. Sometimes I sit down beforehand and hammer out intricate plans for the innards of pieces like this, but sometimes I just dive in and figure out what the piece wants to be in the process of writing the thing. This piece very much falls into the latter category.

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Music Monday: Sheng: Clarinet Concertino

So had things gone a little differently, I could have wound up studying with the composer of the piece we’re featuring today. Bright Sheng* has been on the composition faculty of the University of Michigan since 1995, and his presence there was one of the many things that attracted me to that program. Still, getting rejected didn’t change my musical tastes, and I still find Sheng’s music as compelling as ever. Born in Shanghai in 1955, Sheng got his first musical training at the age of four when his mother began teaching him piano. During the Cultural Revolution, he spent seven years serving as a pianist and percussionist in a provincial theatre in Qinghai [Wikipedia], where he also found time to study the region’s folk music. When the Revolution ebbed and the universities re-opened, Sheng enrolled in the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, studying there from 1978–82.

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An Update on Pronouns

I generally don’t talk about the specifics of my personal life all that much on this blog, mostly because I think my actual life is pretty uninteresting. I mean, I’m obviously very free with my opinions on the media that I consume, but there’s a difference between knowing I had a lot of feelings about The Woman in Gold and knowing how many dates I’ve been on in LA, and with whom. I think I’m kind of a boring person, and I also put a pretty high value on privacy, at least as far as bloggers go. But this is one of those times where I need to step out from behind my veil of passwords and address something explicitly:

I’m trans. Specifically nonbinary, more specifically agender. They/them/theirs is the only correct set of pronouns to use when referring to me in the third person. This is not optional.

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Music Monday: Du: Kraken

Described by the New York Times as “an indie pop diva with an avant-garde edge”, Du Yun makes a point of being hard to categorize. Born in Shanghai in 1977, Du was drilled in the Western solo piano tradition from an early age, but in her own words she was “not your typical Chinese good student at all”. Her inclination towards the subversive was only amplified when she began studying composition at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. It was rapidly becoming easier to access 20th–Century Western culture, but she describes the music as coming over in a wash — without Western contextual frameworks in place, Penderecki seemed on an equal footing with Pink Floyd, with everything up for grabs. Du embodies this eclecticism herself, being an active performer as well as having written everything from chamber operas to electroacoustic pieces to uncategorizable performance art spectacles. (She also has a dance pop album out called Shark in You which I have not listened to yet but am very eager to.)

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Music Monday: Mehmari: Villa-Lobos Variations

Many composers over the years have written variations on other composers’ themes as an homage to their friends and predecessors, and that tradition is alive and well today. André Mehmari was born in 1971 in Niterói, Brazil, and began studying music with his mother at the age of five. A precocious youth, he taught himself jazz improvisation by ear, and had established himself as a piano and organ teacher by the age of fifteen, with several compositions already under his belt. In 1995, he moved to São Paulo to study at the University of São Paulo*, and from there his career really took off, both as an active pianist (in multiple genres) and as a composer and arranger. He tours internationally, and has written works for major musical institutions both at home and abroad; he also enjoys an active life as a recording artist, with some of his albums being entirely improvised.

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Music Monday: Galbraith: Bassoon Sonata

Generally, when I discover a work via a recording instead of a live performance, it’s a recording on Spotify. I still like CDs, but my budget is limited, and if I bought a physical copy of every album I listened to online, I would literally be unable to afford rent or food. (I’d probably be able to build a pretty sizable room from all the jewel cases, tho.) Today’s piece is an exception: I first encountered it on a CD I bought on a whim at the final concert of the 2016 Meg Quigley Vivaldi Competition at the Colburn School, and on my very first listen, I fell in love. When I decided to write about it for Music Monday, I assumed that I’d be able to find it to link to on Spotify. The good news is that there is indeed a recording I can link to, but the bad news is that it’s a different recording, and one that I’m not very fond of. I’m still sharing it, because I think the piece holds up, but if you’re on the fence about it and have $10 to spare, the Nicolasa Kuster recording is superior in every way, and comes with a bunch of other interesting bassoon repertoire to boot.

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Music Monday: Villa-Lobos: Quintette en Forme de Chôros

Very few standard chamber groups are as heterogeneous as the wind quintet. From the brassy outbursts of the horn to the breathy whispers of the flute at the bottom of its range, the ensemble covers a broad timbral range, and one that is not easily unified — even in the most perfectly balanced performances it’s still immediately obvious which instrument is carrying which line. If the string quartet presents a seamless façade of timbral similarity, the wind quintet is more of a menagerie, bursting with brilliant, uncompromising colors. Some people see this as a defect, others as a delight.

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A List

I’m interviewing at Tisch this weekend, so I don't have it in me to write a full post, but given what I’m up to, I thought it might be fun to do something related to that. So here, just for kicks, is a list of every piece or composer that I discussed in my application to that program:

  • Benjamin Britten + Myfanwy Piper: The Turn of the Screw
  • Olivier Messiaen, generally. (link is to the Turangalîla-Symphonie, which i will have seen by the time this post goes live and definitely will not yet be over)
  • Lin-Manuel Miranda: Hamilton
  • Balázs Béla + Bartók Béla: Bluebeard's Castle
  • Scott Frankel + Michael Korie + Doug Wright: Grey Gardens (this used to be on Spotify but it's not anymore, which makes me SUPER SAD. There’s a bootleg recording of it on YouTube, but I’m not going to link to it)
  • Gérard Grisey: Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil (link is to a YouTube recording that I haven’t actually listened to)
  • Nick Mulvey: “Juramidam”
  • Jonathan Larson: Rent
  • James Lapine + William Finn: Falsettoland
  • Duncan Sheik + Steven Sater: Spring Awakening
  • Tom Kitt + Brian Yorkey: If/Then
  • Jeanine Tesori (link is to Fun Home)
  • Various writers under the umbrella of The Industry: Hopscotch (I’m . . . not even sure it’s possible to record this in a meaningful way; the link is to a description of the project)

Say what you will about the application itself, I don’t think anyone can accuse me of an over-narrow focus. The regular posting schedule begins again on Monday!

Music Monday: Orth: Stripped

This week we’re doing something a little different! A few months ago now, Rene Orth, a composer friend I met at the fresh inc festival back in 2013, posted a recording of her new string quartet, Stripped. As soon as I heard it, I knew I wanted to feature it in a Music Monday post, but since she’s a friend, it felt weird to write about her and her work in my usual manner. So instead, I approached her about doing an interview instead, and this is the result!

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Music Monday: Brouwer: Guitar Sonata

Before you accuse me of repeating a composer, today we‘re featuring Leo Brouwer, not Margaret (to my knowledge there is no relation). Leo Brouwer was born on 1 March, 1939 in Havana, Cuba, into a family of music enthusiasts. His father gave him informal guitar lessons, teaching him to pick out pieces by Heitor Villa-Lobos and the like, largely without the use of sheet music. Brouwer started taking formal lessons at the age of 13, and quickly attained a high level of ability on that instrument, making his professional debut at the age of 17.

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