Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Academic Welfare

Call me responsible, but I prefer the dependability of an academic position over the unreliability of a career as a professional composer. It seems that many nomadic young people have a deep distrust of artists like me, so let me take this opportunity to defend myself and extol the virtues of my Composer Isolation Chamber.

I like to think of my full-time tenure position salary as a kind of welfare for a starving composer. You see, even though I make a good living as a Professor, I am still discriminated against in our society as a composer, so I can relate to the plight of other disenfranchised groups, such as black people and the handicapped, who also need welfare from time to time.

My income is primarily from my work as the TANDY Professor of Electronic Music (for an additional fee, I will teach acoustic music via MIDI realizations.), but I do manage to get a little composing done between classes and when I can close the door during my office hours. My compositions are performed quite often by student and faculty ensembles and by my TANDY computers. And I even get grants once in a while when committees have sense enough to reward fiscally responsible tenured Professors over freelance moocher composers.

My students arrive to study with me hoping that their music will make them rich and famous. They think that I should teach them how to expose audiences to their work, how to disseminate their music beyond Professors and students. I explain to them that their music does go beyond me and the students. For example, sometimes their parents attend recitals, and the recitals are occasionally broadcast on the Hotel Cadillac’s student-run radio station.

I don’t have the power to make the whole world listen to their music. I certainly cannot undo hundreds of years of historical oppression. As I tell my students, our society isn’t going to seek out your music, and you shouldn’t be thinking about such vulgar issues as marketing, promotion, image, and distribution! Those are the kinds of things that popular musicians think about, not serious composers. Composers should behave responsibly and accept handouts from the Universities, the Conservatories, and the Hotel Cadillacs. These institutions help keep our traditions alive, and through them, we shall overcome!

Friday, August 25, 2006

Prof. McJeebie - REJECTED!

Well, dear readers, alas I have again been rejected by the Aaron Copland Fund for Recording Digital Music. I am dismayed that the list of awardees includes such troubadour vagabonds as Anti-Social Music and Pat Muchmore (Both of those names sound as though they were given by gypsies, if you ask me!); sophomoric whippersnappers like Alarm Will Sound and Derek Bermel, both of whom are more suitable for halftime shows than concert halls; and composer Ken Ueno, who trained to write beer commercials at the Berklee College of Music. But then I suppose I shouldn’t be too critical of Ueno, who also studied with Harvard Professors Mario Davidovsky and Bernard Rands. After all, Ueno’s work has been recognized by the Fromm Music Foundation with a prestigious commissioning award made by a distinguished advisory committee of Harvard Professors.
There are a few disappointments, but I am for the most part satisfied with the list of awardees, which illustrates a noble intent to allow dead composers to keep living through new recordings of their music. A good number of the awarded living composers have already proven their music worthy of recording, with many CDs under their belts.
Speaking of what’s under their belts: to this Professor’s ears, masculine compositions have always sounded extraordinary on digital CDs, whereas feminine music is better suited for cassette tape. While a few women composers (possibly lesbians?) did manage to penetrate the list of awardees, it’s safe to say that digital recording will continue to serve those composers whose music it is most suited for.
In spite of my constant rejections, I am nevertheless determined to maintain the production of homemade recordings with my temperamental TANDYJAM - an external, slot-loading, touch-sensitive CD burner available at Radio Shack. What would the Copland Fund know about CD recordings, anyway? Certainly not as much as a Professor of Electronic Music! In fact, rumor has it that Mr. Copland himself did not particularly care for CDs. So maybe my rejection is a blessing in diguise.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

E=mc2, and You Couldn't Just Make That Up

After my interview with Darcy James Argue, some of my readers have asked me, "Esteemed Professor, what is your stance on improvisation?" I often respond curtly as I am very busy preparing for the fall semester, but it turns out that I needn't alter my lesson plans from the last five years, so I thought I'd use some of my spare time to briefly explain my take on musical improvisation.

My experience with improvisation includes six months of lessons from the Hotel Cadillac's Professor of Guitar Tablature, Dr. Fretler Fendless; five years as musical consultant on the "Choose Your Own Adventure" children's book series; and my ongoing development of the Predictaphone – a TANDY recording device that records an improvised melody, filters out the "accidents," and replaces them with more appropriate notes and rhythms.

Students and other young people believe that improvisation is a kind of composition. That couldn't be further from the truth. Composers don't get their ideas from making things up on the spot. We establish systems, structures, patterns, and pre-determined progressions. We do not subject ourselves to the whim of the "spirit;" that type of performance, dear readers, is for gospel choirs, not for learned professors.

Composition is an intellectual pursuit, and as such, it should not be polluted by the dangerous white-waters of improvisation. Improvisation is not done with the brain, but rather with the gut, or the pelvis.

I'm not going to stand here at my blog and disallow my readers to improvise, but I will say this: Once you start making music on the spot, you may not be able to create music on the page. Keep that in mind, dear readers. And remember, you may have a hard time earning a doctorate, since most institutions of higher learning do not allow students to just come up with their dissertations on the spot.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Interviews with Young People #2: Darcy James Argue

The young composer Darcy James Argue conducts Secret Society, an ensemble of urban hippies who perform his original compositions at various underground locations. On August 26 and 27, Secret Society will perform in various outer-boroughs of New York City. I recently spoke with young person Darcy via my MIDI dictaphone.

Professor Heebie McJeebie:
After listening to a few minutes of your music, I would categorize you as a "jazz composer," yet you have studied with at least one composer of serious music, and you are very skilled at music notation. As someone who thinks carefully about writing things down, where do you draw the line between improvisation and composition?

Darcy James Argue:
Some jazz musicians feel that improvisation is just composition in real-time. I don't actually buy this. Open-ended improv is really its own thing, and it creates a very different set of expectations and reactions in the listener than a pre-structured piece does.

As for my own process, I find improvisation can be a great way to generate or mess with raw materials -- to fill up the sketchbook with ideas, to assist with the pre-compositional work, and the like. But then I have to hunker down and figure out how to structure those ideas. It's like what the faculty are always telling the kids at jazz camp: "play drunk, write sober."

Professor Heebie McJeebie:
As you know, most jazz composers compose melodies and chord changes... but they seem to have no interest in counterpoint. What are your feelings about counterpoint?

Darcy James Argue:
I agree with Jon Stewart that shows like "Counterpoint," "Hardball," "I'm Going To Kick Your Ass," etc., are hurting America.

Professor Heebie McJeebie:
I know you jazz composers love to inject heroin and smoke LSD, but let’s try to stay on topic here. You conduct your ensemble in performances... Now, I've seen many jazz conductors break into convulsive dancing fits and visceral finger-snapping while directing their big band ensembles. Will you be doing this in your performances? What is it about jazz music that awakens such primal bodily movements in conductors?

Darcy James Argue:
If I could dance like Cab Calloway, I probably would. Maria Schneider has developed this unique language of incredibly fluid and expressive gestures for conducting her band. I'm not a naturally gifted conductor by any means, so I'm generally happy if I can just cue the right people at the right time and not fuck up any of the metric modulations. I do, however, encourage the audience to get their freak on, especially when we play tunes in 13/4, the people's meter.

Professor Heebie McJeebie:
After listening to the first minute or so of your composition "Desolation Sound," I was reminded of the movie-music composer Michael Nyman. Do you ever think about movies while composing your music?

Darcy James Argue:
I appreciate the comparison to Michael Nyman as I'm a big fan of the Portsmouth Sinfonia. I think about film a lot, both in terms of the narrative techniques (especially transitions and large-scale structure) and the cinematic techniques (framing, camera movement, lighting, editing, etc). For a while, I was a little obsessed with the conversations that would take place on screenwriting blogs, all these heated debates about the merits of the three-act structure versus the sequence model.
Professor Heebie McJeebie:
Which movie would you most like to compose a new score for?
Darcy James Argue:
I think it would be great fun to write a new score for The Piano in the style of Cecil Taylor.

Professor Heebie McJeebie:
As is typical of Canadian composition students, you have also worked as an arranger of other composers' music. What have you learned from your "work" as an arranger?
Darcy James Argue:
Whenever my mentor, Bob Brookmeyer, is asked to arrange an existing tune, the disclaimer he gives is: "I cannot guarantee one recognizable note." If you've heard his versions of "My Funny Valentine" and "King Porter Stomp," you know he's not kidding. I've learned that this is not necessarily the optimal strategy for the young arranger to adopt if he ever wants to get hired again.

Professor Heebie McJeebie:
I have done some real-time analysis while listening to excerpts of your compositions. I find that your use of repetition is somewhat more practical for jazz music than serious music. As you know, serious listeners don't need to hear the same thing more than once to understand it, but jazz listeners may need a few repetitions before they can appreciate the complexity of your musical ideas. Do you think about who your audience will be, when composing a new piece? If so, how do you pander to them?

Darcy James Argue:
You seem to be aligning yourself with the Scottish-Canadian composer David Byrne, who famously advised his composition students "Say something once, why say it again?" Brookmeyer, on the other hand, always encouraged me to keep talking until I'd exhausted what I had to say about whatever the piece was about. I'm not generally a fan of music that insists on discarding or radically transforming ideas as soon as they are introduced -- that stuff usually ends up sounding like the composer could have benefited from a little Ritalin.

As for audiences, I find there's nothing they love better than walking into a club and seeing nineteen people on stage, only one of whom has a guitar, but all of whom have music stands in front of them. When they find out that I'm the conductor and not the lead singer, that's the point where I know they'll be in the palm of my hand for the rest of the evening no matter what we play.

Professor Heebie McJeebie:
If I were to point my finger at you and yell, "IMPROVISE!" what would you do?

Darcy James Argue:
That depends... If there was a TANDY Virtuoso-M1992 in the room, I'd probably reach for that first.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society performs at the Flux Factory in Long Island City on August 26, and at Union Hall in Brooklyn on August 27. You can download and listen to mp3’s of his compositions from his website. But be warned, dear readers: Jazz compositions are often unpredictable, and one performance may sound completely different than another.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Prof. McJeebie Goes Back to School

I am pleased to announce that in September I will begin my new-music education initiative by visiting local Rochester elementary schools and teaching children about the joy and fun of serious music.
As a first step, I have developed a new and innovative notation system that allows schoolchildren to play music on their TANDY computer keyboards. As you can see in the illustration, staff lines and spaces correspond to different ASCII keys. Each child is given a special floppy disk that contains all kinds of sine wave oscillators and Boolean (true or false) sounds.
Once the children learn to read music, I will ask them to notate a few of their own ideas. I will then take their ideas and flesh them out into fully formed musical expressions, creating a TANDY concerto for each child. We will then have a Concerto Competition, and the most musical students will get to perform my compositions at school assemblies all over Rochester.
It is very important for us to educate schoolchildren in the virtues of classical music. As a composer and Professor, I am not only a role model but also an experienced teacher who knows how to inspire future classical musicians through educational exercises and competitions. The inspiration will encourage these future classical musicians to make a place for serious music in their lives and the lives of all their friends and family.
This, dear readers, is why we must teach schoolchildren about classical music!

Friday, August 11, 2006

American Record Guide Turns 224 Years Old!

Recently I have been enjoying the publication American Record Guide, a wonderful, classical-only, insider, trade magazine with a self-selecting limited readership. After a lengthy evaluation process based on the personal information I entered requesting a sample issue, the ARG sent me an email with a link to download a PDF from the publication’s TANDY-enabled website.

The reviews in ARG are written by a variety of critics with a variety of educational backgrounds, a fact that calls into question my earlier complaint about student reviewers (more on that later). As an example of the publication’s wonderfully contemporary sense of humor and openness, I quote from a column entitled “Meet the Critic:”

Stephen Chakwin has been writing for ARG since at least 1980 and loves doing it because it makes him listen to and think about composers from Schütz to Glass and a lot of others in between. In the last few years he has written mostly about Haydn, Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler, and Schoenberg, which doesn’t trouble him at all... His most interesting current non-ARG writing project is an article for the British Haydn Society on the nicknames of Haydn’s compositions....

What a wonderful idea to allow the readers to “Meet the Critic!” It is especially helpful for me, as a Professor, since I can advise my students, some of whom write very well in the styles of Haydn, Wagner, and Schoenberg, to send their scores and recordings to Mr. Chakwin's personal mailing address.

Most of the reviewers for ARG are trained and educated in the proper musical fashion, but some, according to their bios on ARG's website, are not active music professors. Usually those without music degrees, though, have some otherwise astute relation to music. For example, Gerald Fox is an electrical engineer, but he also serves on the board of directors of a number of orchestras; and Michael Mark is a copy editor with a degree in English and Journalism, but when he was a boy, he “was an opera expert and won a lot of money on television.”

What I’ve discovered has actually changed my opinion of music critics without doctorates in music. It turns out that such writers can still be very insightful and accurate about the music they review. For example, here are some passages of reviews from my free trial issue:

from a review of Alvin Curran’s Maritime Rites by writer Allen Gimbel: “...[The] anarchic 60s collective Musica Elettronica Viva [was] a group that embraced the Cagean ‘anything goes’ aesthetic and grafted it onto a Marxist ideological world view...”

That’s right! Some people think that John Cage’s music is steeped in discipline and control, but Gimbel gets it right – anything goes!

from a review of Steve Reich’s Different Trains (string orchestra version) by writer Ian Quinn: “...Different Trains was a turn for the worse in Reich’s output; with the piece’s notes and tempos beholden to emergent structures in its oral libretto, there is little in the way of conventional musical logic...”

Quinn eloquently observes that without conventional musical signposts, ordinary listeners are often frightened.

But my favorite review is David Moore’s take on Philip Glass’s Reflections, which I shall quote in its entirety:

Oh, my! Just under an hour of Philip Glass arranged with loving care by Arizcuren and Niko Ravenstijn for an orchestra of cellos. Oompah, oompah, doodledee doodledee, waah, waah! Sorry, couldn’t stay awake!

It takes a very smart reviewer to know when to stop listening and just write. Sometimes it’s not necessary to get through an entire album before knowing exactly how to review it. This is an excellent example of ARG’s contemporary sense of humor and wit, and I strongly recommend that all composers send their CDs along for review.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Student Reviewers

Recently, I presented the world premiere of my piece, Concerto for TANDY Virtuoso-M1992 and Orchestra, as part of the Summer Break Faculty Recital here at the Hotel Cadillac. The concert featured yours truly as TANDY soloist, along with the Virtual Orchestra TIVO ORCH-77 sequencer/synthesizer. Since the composer himself was performing the piece, there was nothing whatsoever in question about interpretation or performance quality, and, until now, I had received nothing but praise.
A very negative, 350-word review was published by the Hotel Cadillac’s student-run newspaper, The Weekly Rate, written by a part-time student named Spiro Fitch. Through the Tenured Faculty Freedom of Information Act, I was able to ascertain that Fitch is enrolled in only four classes this summer. He’s also a kitchen-worker in the cafeteria. Now, I concede that even part-time students are entitled to their opinions, but they should not have the right to publish 350-word reviews in a periodical that is read by nearly all the Professors at Hotel Cadillac.
You can brand me an elitist, but I’ve always assumed that music critics, especially those who write for academic publications, were required to have some specialized understanding of what it means to be “musical,” some expertise based on valid training. We don’t regularly read program notes written by illiterates, do we?! We wouldn’t attend a higher-education seminar led by a high-school dropout! And certainly, student newspapers should not publish reviews by migrant cafeteria workers.
As they say in low-income, hip-hop culture, let’s break it down:
A music critic is supposed to be a discerning listener who knows what comprises a good performance and/or composition. He should have perfect pitch, the ability to sing any melody using solfege with movable “doe,” and the ability to understand how TANDY computers utilize their complex sound vocabularies. Only after he establishes his musical pedigree should he get into more subjective matters such as whether or not he was “moved” by the music.
Most students lack objective knowledge, especially part-time students! That’s why they’re students – they have a lot to learn, and they don’t even know it. Publishing a partly educated student's review of the work of a Professor with multiple doctorates makes a mockery of the whole music-education system. These days it seems anyone with a pair of ears can call himself a music critic. Indeed, The Weekly Rate may recruit its writers from the Salvation Army for all I know. But those of us who are reasoned, educated professionals know better. From the earliest Grove’s to the contemporary Educational Excursions for Music Connoisseurs, music criticism should be by the well-educated, about the well-educated, and in the vocabulary of the well-educated.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Not So New Technique of Sampling

If you are a young composer living in our world today, you most likely have asked yourself this question: What can I do that hasn’t been done before? But young people often don’t realize that their “new” ideas are less than novel. Everything seems new to them because they are young and new to this world, and they have not heard all there is to hear.

Many of my students have brought me compositions in which they use a technique known as “sampling.” They seem to think that sampling is somehow unique and fresh, but it turns out that sampling was invented in 1959, by Dr. Andreas Feryöse.

A psychiatrist by profession and a back-alley cellist by trade, Dr. Feryöse conducted a study in which his subjects were given vast amounts of audio placebos and a box of tissue paper. He discovered that, after about sixteen hours with the audio placebos, 94% of the subjects were deeply affected by the sounds they heard. The experiment proved his hypothesis – that human beings are moved the most by that which they already know.

Many of my pieces from as early as 1971 use TANDY’s QOUDLIB ET200 to sample pure sine waves that occur naturally in outer space. My reel-to-reel tape machine is also a type of sampling device. As a matter of fact, one could consider any cassette tape or CD recording a “sample.” A sample is just a recording of a sound from the past.

In this postmodern climate of making art that refers to the past, sampling might seem like a trendy device, but in fact it is merely a recapitulation – a da capo al fine.




Friday, August 04, 2006

The Professor on MySpace

Dear Readers,

I am pleased to announce my new MySpace page at www.myspace.com/heebiemcjeebie. There you can listen to two of my most uploadable compositions,

"Etude for Computer" (1989, rev. 1993, rev. 1999, rev. 2004)
and
"TANDY Dances" (2004, rev. 2004).

Please do be my "friend." The more friends I have, and the more people who listen to my compositions, the more royalties I will receive.

CREDIT: Professor McJeebie's MySpace page was created by the Professor's teaching assistant, Wanky Auskezer.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

ASCAP vs. BMI

One of the most contentious and thoroughly regulated ongoing debates between composers and publishers is whether ASCAP is superior to BMI or BMI is superior to ASCAP. For those of you oblivious internet surfers who never bother to pay composers for downloading their excerpts from Amazon.com, I'll explain: ASCAP and BMI are organizations that advocate for the royalties and rights of their member composers, writers, and publishers. Every time a composer’s work is performed or broadcast, the composer is compensated. Or at least, that’s the idea. My students have yet to receive the royalties for their MySpace performances.

ASCAP was started by the composer John Philip Sousa, whose patriotic music was often hummed in speakeasies during the prohibition era. The mafia had paid Mr. Sousa a reasonable fee every time one of the drunken criminals would blurt out a melody or a lyric from his compositions. Mr. Sousa spent a great deal of time at the speakeasy, humming his own tunes in order to insidiously implant them in the minds of other clientele, so that they would unwittingly hum them, and he would make more money. When alcohol became legal again, Mr. Sousa realized he could start a legitimate organization to pay composers who frequented bars. (However, there are those who insist that ASCAP and BMI are still run by the mafia.)

At any rate, here are some comparisons from an objective point of view (I am a member of my own performing rights organization, THE NEW-MUSIC ARCHIVES.)
ASCAP and BMI each have their own young composers competition. In one respect, BMI is superior because its panelists judge the young composers based solely on the written score. The panelists do not bother with recordings, saving the young composers from inadequate performers spoiling an otherwise pristine piece-in-theory. On the other hand, BMI does not permit the submission of audio recordings of TANDY computer music (music that is far too technically complicated to represent in notated form; indeed, much of it is too complicated for the human ear to comprehend). ASCAP does permit TANDY recordings, but in the many years of its competition, only three electronic-music composers have been granted an award, and usually it was for an anomalous acoustic piece. This lack of recognition for young TANDY composers is due to the fact that computers are really best understood by adult minds. It is much easier for a young composer to write music in the style of Mozart than in the style of a computer.

Neither ASCAP nor BMI compensate their member composers for performances of music associated with dance or theater pieces. Both organizations score highly in that regard, encouraging their members to avoid the poisonous waters of “interdisciplinary collaborations.”

What it ultimately comes down to is the fact that ASCAP’s New York City office is located about one block closer to the Juilliard School, and every time an ASCAP composer-member visits the New York City office, he is given a coupon to see a concert of music by the Juilliard students at half the regular admission price of $65. BMI, on the other hand, offers so-called V.I.P. admission to pass-the-hat “jazz” concerts, which often take place in bars and clubs. I appreciate the fact that BMI attempts to show the jazz world that true composers are worthy of V.I.P. treatment. However, most serious composers simply do not have time for jazz, and they shouldn't be pampered while listening to it. They need to be encouraged to spend their time more wisely and educationally. You see, jazz is a music rife with inconsistencies, and it tends to affect its listeners viscerally rather than intellectually (though there are some exceptions, mostly at Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall).
There are many more things to say about ASCAP vs. BMI, but if you can't make up your mind, then join them both!