Tuesday, June 26, 2012

on being prolific

Just read this interesting article in the Chicago Tribune. The subject of prolificacy haunts me a little - I strive to be prolific, yet feel sometimes that 'real' artists take their time. I guess they are just expected to do so, to dip into culture with something profound, then dip out again, as the writer says.

The article discusses Steven Soderbergh, whom I like but frankly have not seen any of his films in the past nearly 10 years (last I saw was his Solaris remake). But I do admire his pace, and his attitude that the article highlights. Many of these films are experimental, are often quite different from each other, and aren't consistently successful - and he is okay with this.

I generally compose 5-6 pieces a year. 2 per semester, or thereabouts. Sometimes more. In some ways I worry that I'm not spending enough time, making them 'profound' enough. But at the same time I have come to realize that I like pieces that have simple, well-developed concepts. I like pieces on the shorter side, in general. But there is a hidden pressure, from teachers, from 'the field,' that each piece have such nebulous qualities as 'weight' and 'scope.'

To which I have jokingly asked to my composer friends: "why does every piece have to be every piece?"

By that I don't mean "why do they all have to sound the same?" What I mean is, why are the first suggestions from teachers or colleagues in seminar or masterclass settings always concerning what one could/should add to the piece? Why not subtract?

Why should you add key clicks to your flute solo? So people know it's contemporary?

Why should you arrange this for concert band? Is brass quintet really not enough volume?

Why should you add more movements? Sure, the piece is 'only' four minutes long, but will it have that much better chance of being programmed if it has 3 more 4-minute movements tacked onto the end?

So all I'm saying is that what I am trying to do is make a bunch of little pieces with clear ideas of their own, that can go out and represent what I was interested in at a certain point of time. I'm not interested in (or perhaps even capable of) creating grandiose emotional 'life-changing' expressions.

Why does every piece have to be like Mahler (who really did want every piece to be every piece)? I'd really rather be like Webern - each piece is a little crystal, and you don't really understand them until you've collected a few in your memory.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Anxiety of ignorance

3 blog entries in a week...I must have something to say, or 'free time.'

Might as well start collecting thoughts here about my impending dissertation...

I've been thinking a lot about instruments as fetish objects - where people "need" particular models (like the Fender Stratocaster, but also from certain years or countries of manufacture), but also how general categories and aesthetics are fetishized, such as circuit-bent toys.

I took a seminar on postmodern music in the spring, and recently read Simon Reynolds's Retromania, both of which brought out some other important thoughts.

First of all, the idea of retromania (revivals of particular cultural aesthetics) is interesting from a generational point of view. My generation (I'm 31 so I'm either a tail-end Xer or an early Millenial) grew up in a postmodern millieu, where all cultures, styles, etc. are constantly and instantly accessible. I sense a tension from the artists of preceding generations, who lived through all these stylistic changes and seek more 'newness' (a modernist trait) and my own generation, to whom all these styles already existed and therefore have yet to become cliche.

Think of analog synthesizers, for example. From what I can sense from electroacoustic concerts and conferences is that these 'old-school' timbres are scorned in a been-there-done-that way. But for a generation who has heard only some of the literature, who has yet to endure twenty years of SEAMUS conferences, these timbres might still be fresh.

It seems like quite a burden for young artists to catch up on everything that had been done before (this is often a prerequisite for doing something new, after all). There is simply too much on which to catch up! Culture and technology advanced so rapidly in the 20th century; it could be assessed if you lived through it, but it's difficult to assimilate it all for someone to whom it is all history.

I read a short article this week about younger people asking "Who is Rodney King?" on Twitter, and I began to think about my own lackluster history education (even in a middle-to-upper-middle class school system). Due to curriculum changes, I learned about the Fertile Crescent three years in a row. I never learned about ancient China, Ethiopia, etc. European history was not required. US History emphasized the Civil War and WWII, and ended around the Civil Rights movement. My formal education barely mentioned that anything happened in the past now 50 years, yet as an informed citizen I'm expected to have a working knowledge of that time period.

The same applies to the arts. Thinking about postmodern classical music (what an oxymoron), it assumes a knowledge of the entirety of the classical repertory, as well as knowledge of pop styles throughout the 20th century and music of non-European cultures. As an exercise, I made this collage. There are 30 pieces used, and I think that it 'expects' a knowledge of various music, from Mahler to Varese to Dave Brubeck to Ravi Shankar.


I recently (finally) watched Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, which is a very postmodern pastiche of styles. And it made me wonder how much the knowledge of those styles is important to the appreciation of the film. Does the viewer need to see The Dirty Dozen first? Seargeant York? What about the Leone spaghetti westerns? Listen to the Best of David Bowie? Is a knowledge of the references, homages, anachronisms, etc. essential to the viewing or does it deepen it? I'm sure this has been written on at length before...

Besides the references, is it essential to see all of Tarantino's films to have an understanding of his latest? Perhaps. Seeing a trailer for Django Unchained, I think you need to understand his aesthetic to see why a late-1800s period film has James Brown on the soundtrack.

That got me thinking, too, about the 'need' to have a knowledge of 'everything.' I am frequently hesitant to declare myself a fan of anything that I don't have near-complete knowledge of. For example, I watched Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method last night. I have seen the majority of his films, but not all, so can I truly call myself a fan? What if someone tries to test me on the few I don't know?

Can I call myself a hip-hop fan? I 'only' own about 20 hip-hop CDs. I remember not knowing this 'smooth jazz' artist Praful and my dad said I wasn't a big jazz fan. I guess a jazz history class and over 30 CDs don't count.

Well this was quite rambly, but I feel better!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

First circuit bent toy

I've been wanting to try circuit bending for awhile, and finally had some time to do so. I bought this and 2 other toys from Goodwill for about 3 or 4 bucks a piece. In the meantime I've invested in a bunch of components for doing such crazy things.

This is a keyboard of sorts, and had 2 settings - one that played songs and one that let you play. I poked around a bit to find some interesting sounds. Not as off-the-wall as some circuit-bending jobs, but still pretty fun. I left in a few moments of the normal functioning of the keyboard for comparison. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

New videos

I thought I had posted these here already, but guess not...

New, shorter and tighter version of fluid dynamics: 

New video Simoom, with sound based on the backing track of a piece of the same name for quarter-tone alto flute and tape. The video has some contrast and color adjustments but otherwise has no editing and was achieved practically.

I have footage for two other videos that I hope to put sound to in the near future.