Yes, my voice is terrible. Sorry for the sometimes intonation problems.
For students of counterpoint, this piece, which I resolved to study hard, is a bit like being a painter and studying the Sistine chapel. This is only the first segment of it. Please do get listen to the recordings of his Viol Fantasies by Jordi Savall or Les Voix Humaines. Anyway, in this piece Purcell chooses a wild motif to develop involving two rule-breakers right off the bat–a leap of a seventh and a prominent use of a tritone. To create a piece, as he does, with it, is an almost appalling display of technique and proof that always, in the beginning, he hears the end. That is the only way to do it.
First Section of Purcell’s Fantasia VII in 4 parts:
Gibbons: Counterpoint more or less in the style of the great master, with Nick and Will soloing.
Nick Sanders (keyboard), Fausto Sierokowski (tenor sax), Andrew McGovern (trumpet), Will Slater (Bass–subbing for Jon Lee, who had a terrible leak calamity befall his house)
Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625) was a late composer of the English Renaissance, preceded by the likes of William Byrd, John Dowland, and Christopher Tye and succeeded by his son Christopher Gibbons and Henry Purcell and then a more-or-less cavernous emptiness where could be heard the clang of the cotton gin. 1625 was the prime of English musical life, and Orlando Gibbons was the end of the Elizabethan era and also the embodiment of it—cosmopolitan, Protestant, and supported by a rich musical heritage and the English monarchy. He never set a word that wasn’t English, and in this he is sharply distinguished from his great predecessor William Byrd. Like Purcell, he was from an esteemed musical family; his dad was a choirmaster, his son Christopher would go on to carry the craft of complex polyphony through the purges of the Interregnum. A pupil of Orlando’s–John Hingston–would later become Purcell’s godfather and master, training him in Organ building and tuning. It is not hard to imagine the young Purcell hearing stories of both Gibbon’s and Gibbons time; he was definitely acquainted with his music. Orlando Gibbons’ music is incredibly expressive, melodic, and well-paced. His music for the Anglican church is generally regarded as some of the best ever composed, and in incredibly fertile musical ground.
Gibbons and Byrd are incredibly different as composers. Gibbons music had a sense of immediate on-the-surface expressiveness that is unequaled, his music moves quickly and flowingly, and he has little time for any unusual experiments and variance of style–all his work by and large is stamped with his characteristic melodic flow. Byrd, on the other hand, varied considerably from piece to piece (consider, for instance, the wild contrapuntal techniques of his earlier music contrasted with the sparse mystical austerity of the Masses), and you never knew what each piece would be. He is grave, inward, serious, Catholic, above all–it seems–an artist pursuing only his own interests. He did not have much fondness for “light” music such as madrigals (and yet, in an incredible feat of badass mastery, completely mastered and dominated even the forms he didn’t naturally like), his chosen musical flow was a stately sort of churning that boiled. His music often told a story with marked word-painting and a constant turn of new ideas and novelties. For instance, his famous “Easter Anthem” shows a huge repertoire of word-painting techniques, and several explosive, special cadences that Gibbons could never match (for instance, on the word “death has no power upon him”).
Gibbons is, by contrast, the consummate professional. He was the organist of the Chapel Royal, and organist at Westminster abby among other positions. In other words, he presided over the musical life of Britain. There is not a sense of any questioning or serious “themes” in his music, it is always a mixture of his complete grasp of polyphonic technique and his unique musical intuition (which few would argue had any rivals). There is not this endless variance of style that is in Byrd. He simply set the music he needed to (somewhat like Purcell), and it speaks to his colossal talent (again like Purcell) that this alone has immortalized him in history. At his worst, his pieces suffer from a jejune aimlessness, pieces–in the words of Grove dictionary–”driven by their own facility and little else”. His best is arguably the expressive equal of Byrd, but with a dashing, sensitive feeling all his own, and none of the mystic Catholic austerity that characterized Byrd and Tallis. Like Purcell, his death at 41 cut a wound in English music. A shadow would fall at his death 1625 that would not dissipate for 25 years.
Gibbons melodies are like waterslides. The “!” moments of Gibbons are frequent; he has a knack for amazing cadences and resolutions–which you’ll hear soon. They are also, by and large, entirely modal. In my listening, I haven’t heard a single piece of chromatic movement in Gibbons, as if the idea simply never enters his head to expand his tonal palette of gorgeous major flourishes. His sense of rhythm and proportion are forceful, driving forward with a sense of quickness and motion. He thought of melody (or seemed to judging by his music) in multi-part “phrases”, as opposed to the little gems pervading Byrd. More Mozartean than Beethovenian. In this piece, Gibbons, you can see clearly all the elements that define his style. His cadence on “a sojourner like all my fathers were” is typical and could only have come from Gibbons.
Notice the rhythmic subtlety: it’s “so-jou-er-er-ner”, not “So-jou-er-er-ner”.
There are other incomparable anthems. “Oh, Lord in thy Wrath rebuke me not” is one. This features an almost inexpressibly somber and pathetic setting of the words “o save me…” that belongs among the great moments in polyphonic music. The freedom of the voices, especially how the bass plods down a huge cadential fifth that seems truly tired, heavy, and helpless on “oh—save—me” and how the tenor holds the “oh” looking out on the balcony of the cadence. The sense of imploring feels personal. How the soprano articulates 4 simple quarter notes on one pitch to end…”for mercies sake”. This setting, in my mind, challenges the listener suddenly with it’s emotional intensity. And far from the lofty inwardness of Byrd, these are feelings represented as if penned in blood, not feelings seen through a cipher. What do you hear in it? Listen at 2:58:
Other masterpieces include the famous “Hosanna to the Son of David” and the spiraling “See, See, The Word is Incarnate”. His famous short madrigal “The Silver Swan” is remarkable for it’s majestic melody. It could only have been written by Gibbons:
His instrumental work contains some classic keyboard pieces, dances, fantasias, and In Nomines. For instance, here is a short piece for two “trebles”; the sprightly movement and natural melodic phrases mask, as all good counterpoint does, the technical brilliance of such a canon:
Or this piece, the Fantasy in C, as immortalized by Glenn Gould. One of his favorite cadential motions strikes at 2:05–the surprise cadence followed by a strong plagal motion. The final cadence, built up from the new theme taken up at the golden ratio (a little more than 2/3rds through) and features contrary motion to great effect. He couldn’t find a better champion than Glenn Gould, who memorably stated on many occasions that Gibbons was his favorite composer:
In general, they are deftly made confections of counterpoint, but sometimes lack depth. For instance, his Viol Fantasias are works of refined, smooth polyphony that distinguish themselves by their masterful pacing and expert polyphonic writing. Moments of comparative banality, however, are not rare; likewise, moments of inspiration are. He apparently did not feel the need to plumb his artistic depths for works of such slight character as viol fantasies.
Couple things to point out. The sudden cadence 0:48, which immediately changes the mood from virile canonic invention to lofty reflection, like a warrior pausing in the middle of a hunt to reflect on the wonder of the forest and the shining sun–with a spur it playfully presses on at 1:38. The gangster moment at 2:27 where the time feels shifts towards the end (right at the Golden ratio). It’s such a confident moment, creating a little fanfare to end the piece; again the part of the piece where the composer suddenly steps out of the shadow and winks.
His services deserve special mention. They are, from what I’ve read, regarded as arguably the finest in existence. [/audio] Honestly, my favorite part of this is the serene and worshipful opening, coming in natural phrases that seem like the composer simply breathing. Perhaps it is a little more typical after about 1 minute in, although the several canons he has in the piece are admittedly, while sort of bland, expertly placed. The nice time shift at “and ever shall be” is an effective one, albeit one that had been used by Byrd and others for those words.
If I could, I would upload 20 pieces, because many of his works are masterpieces. I would also point out Glorious and Powerful God, Great Lord of Lords, Out of the Deep, O God the King of Glory, Lift up your Hands, The Cries of London (with an adventurous and mostly successful depiction of London “Fish-mongers”), and others.
At the end of the day. His was a swan song for an entire epoch of music, which seemed to convey by it’s very character the words of the swan in his famous madrigal “The Silver Swan“: “more geese than swans now live, more fools than wise”. The poor dude’s head exploded with black bile when he was 41.
In writing this, I hope to at least have placed more gems in your eyesight on the great canon of music. The quality of music in Britain (and elsewhere) at this time is truly remarkable, and it is one of the foibles of history that the expressive and artistic heights of later centuries as represented by pick-your-favorite 18th century composer onward so pushed the glories of polyphonic tradition from our collective consciousness that it is now hardly taught except as a special interest. In reality this music– like the art of Titian, Veronese, Durer, and El Greco–represents some of the finest welding of craft and art human dignity and consciousness has ever produced. It is everybit the equal of later composers, and yet simply cannot be compared to them because the restrictions and expectations of their times were so different. And yet, in a different way, from the lattices of polyphony they speak just as directly to the human soul, and simultaneously do provide strong evidence of its existence. Just use your ears.
Guess what. Purcell is a shining beacon of musical light. His welcome odes are among his finest works, even mired as they usually are in texts of sycophantic drivel. The slavish flattery of whatever monarch or royal is ever-present, even if it’s a six-year-old boy (ode to the young duke of gloucester). Purcell seems not to have even noticed in the music. Every ode is filled with delightful, inventive melodies and clever musical devices. As is typical with Purcell, the artifice of the time and place (British restoration music: French fawning creamy powdered mannerisms+Italian “expressiveness”+ self-congratulatory British pomp+amazing British polyphonic tradition) which is ruinous to lesser composers, becomes an entirely organic flow of musical thought from Purcell. The image of Purcell as the ultimate working composer/genius persists. He casually sets texts of the purest shite to music of startling life and inventiveness, in evident good humor. Anthems, rich with musical pathos and brilliance, if also laden with silly instrumental “symphonies” intended to keep Charles’ toes a-tapping, are composed for liturgical purposes. He becomes the heir to William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons through them. Music for plays, random songs, music for private functions, are composed consecutively. Welcome odes, designed to keep a Monarch rooted to his seat in musical rapture, are also composed. In all of them, there are infinitesimally few lapses of musical judgement: never is his superlative mastery of craft forgotten, and he always has an unexpected idea. John Blow, the grand old man of English music of the time, is left in the unfortunate position of having his best works hesitatingly compared to Purcell’s worst. And, of course, they simply can’t.
In this blog, I’d like to give you a little taste of this inventiveness. Welcome to All the Pleasures is one of two odes composed for St.Cecilia’s day, 1684. Purcell was 25 and a shooting star through the musical life of Britain, mentioned in tones of assumed brilliance. St.Cecilia is the patron saint of arts and music, and so perhaps it is not unreasonable that Purcell felt a little attached to material. It is also interesting to note that, in 1683, he published his Sonatas in 3 and 4 parts, an excited collection of Italianate music string pieces, featuring of a cover of a fully dressed Purcell looking boldly at you. Even before these, however, he had mastered, in private, the art of the earlier British polyphony in his Fantasias for Viols; music rarely talked about, yet, for the work of a 21-year old, astonishing. The mastery of counterpoint displayed in these are a trip into his mind’s capabilities ( rarely exercised in the dramatic whipped cream he often composed). The contrast between the older, British style of polyphony and the newer, dramatic, clear and light music of the Italians he imitated with his trios is interesting. The polyphony, played with viols, is heavily canonic, mercurial, emphasizing evenness of voices. The Sonatas, and Italian style, are to be played with Violins–then a rarity, yet a favorite of Charles II–and are distinguished by bold themes and clear patterns, emphasizing the melody and a bass which almost never steps out of it’s ground bass role; and of course, the violin itself–loud, clear, full–is the opposite of the sinewy viol. In these two collections of work for instruments (indeed the most notable instrumental works of Purcell’s career), we see the clearly the music of past and the music of the present, and Purcell’s hunger to completely master and understand them. The viol fantasias display the height of contrapuntal mastery, the equal of Bach in the British tradition, and the Trio Sonatas, while lesser works, a personality, creativity, and a flinty confidence that exceeds the masters he was imitating.
Here is a Viol Fantasia, with a theme those of you who took Lyle Davidson’s counterpoint class will recognize as being from the Cantiones Duarum Vocum of Lassus. I wonder if Purcell was taking this theme (and it is eerily exact, with the canon starting on the same voice as Lassus) intentionally, if it was a typical ubiquitous theme, or if it originates even earlier than Lassus. Hmm:
This is a Trio Sonata. Note the upward rising movement characterizing the piece, and the dramatic cadences (1:15, 2:12). I wouldn’t say this is the best selection from these works, but it is typical:
Yet moving on, we come to Welcome to All the Pleasures, one of two odes composed for St. Cecilia’s day, the other being the marvelous, programmatic “Hail! Bright Cecilia”, a work so full of musicality that its neglect (as much of Purcell’s music suffered) until the Hyperion recording of the odes was simply embarrassing.
Welcome to All the Pleasures is not the equal of that piece, in terms of the whole. The ending, usually a sure-fire win in any Purcell piece, is curiously soft and wispy–the melody lacks force and the echoing ending doesn’t make up for it. “While Joys celestial”, the 4th movement (out of 7) is nice but tame. “Here the Deities Approve”, the 3rd movement, a ghostly ground bass, fares better, simply because it is a ground bass, and nobody can write a ground bass like Purcell (“Britain thou now art Great”, “Now that the Sun hath Veiled his Light” “Prelude while the cold Genius Rises” “Sound the Trumpet til’ Around” etc). The two movements that make me want to write about this piece are the second and the sixth.
The second is this one:
1. The relationship between major and minor is played out in an impish back and forth throughout the whole piece. It starts in a booming, oratorial style, with minor Plagal cadences, a Lydian cadence (at 00:21) and a lovely 9-8 dissonance on “….every sense”. Then suddenly… “of Apollo’s rays” (!) a thudding major cadence. Then we go into canon and a little counterpoint, in a prevailing minor mood, yet ending suddenly on a picardy 3rd (at 0:56). Of special note is how he sets “universal harmony” as “u-u-ni-i-ver-er-sa-ll ha-a-a-mo-o-ny”. (!!) Brilliant! It repeats three times, and he makes the accurate choice to move –ve-er-sa-ll up an octave, further segmenting the word and unleashing it’s energy. Sing it to yourself. “the art of universal harmony”. Try it in different rhythms. That is exactly what he would’ve done. And do you see how, with a quarter note pulse, it becomes plodding and pedestrian? It’s like you’re saying “I ate some dinner then read a book”. His 8th note pulse is playful, yet respectful of what the words mean. after that thrice repeated cadence (he himself is fond of it), we go back to minor for a bit. The strings take up a little mock-serious little melody, and then (!!) the B part of that melody comes in and, surprise, it’s a thrilling, lovable, loving major conclusion, again providing the minor-major alternation seen in macro and micro forms throughout the piece. And what a humorous melody that last line is, releasing all the austerity of the preceding melody as if in a great gust of breath. That same downward loping motion and that same dominant seventh will play a crucial part in the 6th movement.
2. The 6th movement.
We should pause here for a minute to say something. Purcell has these pieces where he creates this mood of tender, almost mystical meaning with relatively simple ground basses and melodies. Whether this is merely accurate text setting or perhaps something heartfelt, we will never know; perhaps with him they are the same thing. I’ve noticed he embraces the use of 9th in some these movements (“Now that the Sun”, “Britain, thou Now art Great”). They are often ground basses (although instances like “Thou Knowest Lord, Lord, the Secrets of our Heart” are different). The rest is that magical musical gift that distinguishes great composers and artists. He often affects this nostalgic, tender, noble mood in songs about Britain or in songs about music, and this movement is the latter. The downward loping motion of the bass is eerily echoed in another of his odes to music “Music the food of love” in Welcome Viceregent of the Mighty King (a work that lacks the programmatic excellence of some of his odes). Indeed the melody is similar. He definitely knew, one way or another, that that was the sound and feeling he wanted when describing music. The minor to major of the 2nd movement is again used to great effect. The minor assuming the ghostly, austere quality, and the major having an almost unbelievably simple, perfect melody, with a swooning descending bass line, an expressive dominant 7th, and a simple, clear, noble melody. In this simple melody, A-B form, I find expressed almost the whole gamut of moods. The beginning is austere, a ghostly uncovering, the middle of A is noble and ends with a sense of ceremony. The b section, in major, is as if falling into the arms of music, with a simple, protective cadence that conveys (to me) so much with so little. Of course, the part that juts out is that expressive D (“I offer with luuuuute…”), forming an a 6/3 B major triad underneath. What?! It is not a prepared suspension, there is no pedal, and there is no precedent for it, there is no mechanical explanation. Just inspiration. That “luuuute” is so pathetic, and somehow expressive of so much, that writing about and analyzing this melody is like frantically trying to grasp thin air. Just a melody and bass line. Why? Why then is it so magnificent, so total. For most of the composers of the time, this would’ve likely been the driest, most contrived of pieces–and yet what Purcell wrote is sotimeless. He seemed to know that even the most distracted Monarch would be in raptures when he heard this, and sets it simply: one time through with the Tenor, and then an extended string echo, with beautiful, crystal clear string writing. Listen to this melody. Can you honestly say that if this melody was played at any new music concert, any concert where music is supposed to be listened to and not felt, that it wouldn’t be as sublime as it was that day in 1684? Seriously, think about it.
In any case, this movement, entirely occupied with a single melody, captures a pathos and a tenderness that glows brightly behind the gears of the music.
In it is contained the whole essence of why Purcell is without question the greatest composer of his time, and without question one of the greatest composers of all time. For this simple reason: his music is not period music. It is simply Purcell, through any generation or era, it is Purcell, and in Purcell is contained the gift of music. Like Beethoven, the craft of the time is only a means to an end, a means to a soul expressed through music. Listen to Locke, Lully, Blow, Corelli, Buxtehude, whomever from that era you pick, they will be masters of craft with greater or lesser degree of subjective musicality. With Purcell, there is no subjectivity: everything he sets is simply feeling and thought expressed almost unconsciously through the craft of his time. Perhaps, it is more apt to compare him to Mozart, because I think Purcell had no interest in “baring his soul” in an abstract way; he was more than enough occupied with expressing the feeling of text and character, and yet through them, like Mozart, we glimpse his own. And that character has been a constant companion and fascination to me; always on the edge of discovery, always almost grasped, smiling, laughing at you through time, a shadow being who exists through his music, and who, should you ever be in doubt, have only to ask. Like Mozart, his death at the age of 35 or 36 was one of the greatest tragedies in the history of music.
I have never professed an undying love for Christian Wolff. So why do I find myself listening to Burdocks over and over again? Christian Wolff’s music is actually a close cousin to improvised music. In it, players are often operating on their own wavelength, so to speak, and exist as independent sound worlds in themselves. Wolf then decides on a theme they should follow, and they all work in their own unique way towards that theme. In the beginning of Burdocks, a piano runs a quiet chromatic scale, guitar plucks indifferent strings, trombone breathes loudly, violin plays long sustained notes; it is all in the same world, delighting us with it’s variety. Wolf has described this as-to simplify–a recreation of democracy. The fact that there is much left to the performer, and a flexibility in terms of scoring now seems to me unique and interesting. From the Cageian tradition, no doubt, but with a different sense of three things: a) flow of time, b) purpose, and c)harmony. Keep in mind, these are just based on observations I’ve made over the years in both composers, there are multiple instances where I’m sure these rules don’t apply. With the flow of time, Cage conveys, when he wants, a pleasing sense of being outside the flow of time–the String Quartet, the piano Sonatas and Interludes, Music of Changes, Triple Paced. Even when he moves, he moves with repetitive rhythmic cells–think of the prepared piano works, such as Music for Marchel Duchamp. When he doesn’t move, which is often enough, things sort of hover in celestial beauty at best. An exception to this generalization would be stunningly beautiful The Seasons for orchestra, which, to modern ears today, sounds as if from a lost tradition of American romanticism. It is firmly linear and dance-like—which is a good thing since it was music to a ballet. Personally, I would classify his other, later works, as more typical. Then again, nothing is typical with Cage. Wolff seems to think of time in more of the 16th century sense, as a flowing continuum that never fully ceases. His music is also very contrapuntal, where things move against and around one another in rhythm. Cage tended to think of things in terms of a single idea supported by surrounding instruments–whether it’s a melody or a rhythm.The contrast between the two is highlighted in these two small pieces of equal length.
That’s from Wolff’s Trio. Do you hear the 16th century in it?
Played by Louis Goldstein. This is the best recording I’ve ever heard of these, btw.
Do you see how the two treat time differently? Though my internet is so slow as to prevent me uploading other pieces, listen to them yourself and I think you’ll see what I mean.
This plays into both their sense of purposes. Cage had many ideas. Arguably, some of them were a little un-fleshed out. Silence the collection of his writings, demonstrates this. His complete grasp of, well…something, we don’t really know what. He had, for all his modesty, quite big time ideas and philosophies about living. These were all translated into his music. I love this variation. I love that, were one to listen to Roaratorio and thesublime String Quartet back to back, they’d be hard pressed to guess it was the same composer. No such difficulty exists with Wolff, or say, Feldman. That is because Wolff has a very clear sense of craft and purpose: to express the essence of democracy in his music (btw, I’m not just making that up….he has stated it on many occasions). The result of this is a more clear direction to his pieces, there is usually a result at the end of them. For instance , moving back to the actual piece Burdocks, at about the 4.5/7 point of the piece–take note, students of counterpoint, Golden Ratio’s abound–a compelling line occurs first in the piano (it seems like a minor pattern and then ends on the flatted second–so in Bmin, C–changing the orientation to the phrygian mode), and then is taken up orchestrally and played for most of the rest of the piece. It’s a satisfying conclusion. Imagine that.
Wolff’s sense of harmony is unique in several ways. First of all, I believe he has a sense for melody that is really special. Cage doesn’t have this. Not many composers have this. I usually don’t hear a Christian Wolff melody and wince. He has a thoroughbred soundworld like Feldman that is entirely his own. Sometimes, with Cage, I get the sense that his Harmony is neither here nor there. Often, in Wolff, there are sweeps of diatonic notes mixed with intuitive chromatic stars like a legend being enameled in a jeweled frame. For all his avant leanings, Wolff, to me, is almost romantic: his melodies point somewhere and carry that nameless feeling that one associates with, you know, music. There is a story, told in harmony, and rhythm. The guy is completely self taught, so it’s lucky his melodies shine so brightly. This is how I hear his music, anyway. Check out Ten Exercises. Here’s an example, Excercise :
Wolff is important for modern jazz. Wolff’s music would be right at home in The Stone. His sense of time and melody is superb, and his ideals share the same space intellectually as some of the great improvisers of in music. In the hands of great improvisers, his music could potentially double in value. We need to listen to Christian Wolff.
The last thing I’ll say is this. How long before we take away the red tape and merge our proud traditions of American composing? How long before Ives, Ellington, Gershwin, Copland, Feldman, Bernstein, Glass becomes Ives, Ellington, Joplin, Monk, Gershwin, Joplin, Mingus, Wolff, Glass, Braxton, Taylor, Mitchell, Wadada-Smith, Crumb, Zorn, Sondheim. We are a nation of inclusivity. Our nation’s music has always reflected everything it wanted to, and its best music has been the result of fearless mixing of influences. This is the spirit of America, it’s the spirit of Jazz, and it’s no joke. And the difference between American music and other cultures music is simple, everything gets mixed up. Finding yourself in the middle of that tangle is the joy, and the salvation, of every American composer.
I’m convinced videogames are, in fact, partially responsible–certainly the sound of titles like Street Fighter, Final Fantasy, Thief,Diablo, Shogun, Bioshock, and Assassins Creed, is generally of a puerile aggressiveness. And when you add a number after those titles–Diablo III, Bioshock 2″, the illusion of immaturity is heightened. ”Final Fantasy Thirteen” screams the pimply, shrill-voiced, dandruffy 14-year old gamer–the smell of cheetos and a cloud of urine baptizing him for society. There is a body of icons and tropes unique to videogames, and these create a surface that appears juvenile. What a non-videogamer sees: a person holding a gun, a torrent of ammo spurting, a female character who looks like a doodle that gothic kid drew in Geography class, jumping, blocks of text, mission completed, mission failed, boxes of dialogue that one can only presume means something to someone within the game. They see weapons and statistics and bosses and doors and keys for the doors. These codes of videogames, which stretch back to their inception in the 80′s, are jarring and bizarre for the uninitiated. ”Why do you pick up bundles of string, medium leather armor, and errant dragon scales from this person you just murdered?”, “Why is Charisma a statistic?”. What they don’t see: the mechanical complexity and strategic depth behind those archetypal tropes. What do dragon scales make, why do I want it, where can I find them? What kind of character am I–charismatic, sneaky, strong, quick, intelligent, gifted in magic? And then your imagination deepens those qualities and combines them–am I a “ranger”, am I a Byronic hero, am I morally ambiguous and pragmatic, or a principled yet aloof knight of the order? More and more, videogames deepen the answer to the question “Who am I?” And often, just beyond these tropes, lies a world of startling artistic vision. The question of artistic worth in videogames is finally starting to be addressed, with recent high profile games such as Grand Theft Auto V , and Bioshock and it’s just released, brilliant-but-linear sequel, Bioshock Infinite. Pause. For the videogamers, read the titles–see how stupid they sound? For the non-videogamers, don’t judge a book by it’s cover. Videogames have soared high, into complexity and artistry never-before imagined, and preserved their history–as all arts do–in the customs and precedents set by their predecessors.
When I was younger, the primary force guiding my life was imagination. All through the day– drawing, writing, playing with toys or outside-it was about living in a different world. Without sounding too much like a 19th century German bildungsroman, I’ll say that this brought me incredible joy. My parents, in a spirit of benevolent indulgence, got me toys, videogames, and drawing materials. They also got me a Saxophone. Videogames often functioned as a catalyst for imaginative romps and obsessions. I didn’t play them 4-hours a day, or even every day; far from it. But But my parents grudgingly acknowledged their continued presence. Now, in my 24th year, I can say that nothing has changed. My parents still grudgingly acknowledge their presence, but more importantly, their ability to inspire hasn’t diminished but increased. Only now, instead of going outside and playing, I pick up that saxophone they got me, and I compose music. “The Tin Drum” and Metroid or Shogun 2 (a feudal Japan, governmental-military simulation) might sit figuratively side by side in my consciousness. A piece I wrote called Neo-Tokyo was inspired,not only by the versions of a futuristic Tokyo as depicted in Animes like Akira, but also by the ubiquitous “neo-tokyo” level seen in many videogames from 1990 till 2013 (Megaman, Shinobi, Ninja Gaiden,Final Fantasy, Strider, etc). A piece called Emphason was inspired by the specific music filling so-called “boss levels”, the level right before the “final boss” in early videogames. Such music might have a sense of heroic fatalism, yes, but also a recognition of the possibility of dying and a sense of looming power; after all, you are at the end of the game here ( except in games where you get destroyed by the final boss early in the game and then finally beat him at the end) and have all your abilities. There is usually some kind of sinister/sad ostinato involved, a melody which already confines your deeds to legend…it’s a distinct thing. King Arthur, another childhood obsession, was the basis for a piece I wrote. I tried to combine both the dark age history(with a drone) and medieval romance of the legend (with a chorale) with an energetic, confident theme that could’ve been on the title screen for a 90′s videogame called King Arthur. It was almost like the theme was in fact the title screen, and then you played the rest of the piece. Videogames are works of creativity and artistry like books or movies, and can inspire as such.
To me, the issue of whether or not videogames “cause” violence is a false one. Works of art and entertainment cannot be held to some kind of moral standard. Art that is designed to express hate and promote violence isn’t art, and should be dealt with like any other free-speech question. Grand Theft Auto is bloody, violent, and crude, but it’s also filled with brilliant writing, a unique brand of satire, and a staggering recreation of a city. Courts throughout time have tried to condemn works of art as “immoral”. Anywhere from Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy to Tropic of Capricorn by Henry Melville to, actually, most great writers: Steinbeck, Faulkner, Ginsberg, Nabokov…Ulysses, a book that many people consider to be, oh I don’t know, THE GREATEST BOOK IN THE 20th CENTURY was banned in the US! My mom is a school librarian, and she more than occasionally–and this was in Liberal Seattle–had parents come and demand her to remove the Harry Potter books from the library. The reason? Witchcraft, of course. Yes, that’s Witchcraft, as in dark magic from Satan’s special place. My point? Even now, those arguments of a few years ago that whined about decay of…well, something… in regards to videogames, now appear positively Prohibition-era. Today, newspapers cover the release of GTA V and Bioshock, and the tone is of awe. Videogames are beginning to be seen as works of creative art, as they should of been from near the beginning. The so-called “moral standard” of society really stays fixed, how confident we are in our own morals varies with the time. Politicians, governments,and religious groups who whine the loudest perhaps are most scared of the fundamental injustice of what they are doing. And terrified we may become confident enough in our society and our morals to progress, invent, and toss out old traditions. In every case in literature mentioned, that was the real scare–moral confidence.
The final point I want to make is this: a person that decides to kill people and also played Grand Theft Auto had crippling mental issues to begin with, and just because Grand Theft Auto was a negative influence on that does not mean that videogames in general are negative. The bible, certainly, has pushed people to do absolutely crazy things as well. Why don’t politicians try to get that censored? Because it’s old. Happy gaming.
Yes, I exist now in the Belly of the Whale, Brooklyn, lost as a loose sprocket in a giant machine. It feels good. I’ve been working hard on a Viola Sonata to be played by the excellent Marina Moore, and have completed the first movement. You all should care. It’s going to be great. It’s inspired by videogames, and this typical prelude story: ”Long ago, a great threat rose up and covered the land in darkness. The prophecies foretold of the coming of a great hero in this time, who would save humanity and lead the world back into the light. With great fortitude, and in the darkest hour, he persevered and vanquished the evil < ____>. World rested in peace for generations, and his memory and suit of armor was presumed lost. We live now in rural tranquility, but with creeping, mysterious threats encroaching”.
Legend of Zelda for one, Secret of Mana, Dragon Quest, and countless others both modern and old have used this potent set up (or, in literature, Lord of the Rings). But the thing is, it actually gives me tingles. I’m not approaching it from a Pyramid of dryness ( “lets examine this trope”), I’m like…super inspired by it n’ stuff. The sense of mystery, of human triumph in the bleakest of moments. The unclear fog that surrounds it, part fact part legend. Another amazing product with this settingis Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind. The potent, ancient opening makes me believe in magic every time. Look at me. It makes me believe in magic. And that amazing string phrase that repeats over and over, ii-V(6-4); I’m using something like it I think in one of the movements, called Chamber of Memory. Then the movie, with the compelling neo-medieval world and backstory. Dealing with a world perched on the brink of time and myth, yet with it’s own myths.
The legend and hotly debated history of King Arthur, in our own world, is no less enticing. I’ve used up my allotted words on that subject for this lifetime, so I won’t say more here. However, for those interested (and trust me, you’d need to be really interested), my first blog on this site was a rambling exposition on King Arthur–history, myth, fact. This is a blog, after all; I’m not beholden to anyone but can simply shout things into the void.
Another aspect of this legend in discussion is the stoic courage displayed by the hero. I was reading recently about Thomas More, and his famous joke upon being led to the platform he would be hanged on: “I pray you, see me safe up, for my coming down let me shift for myself” (or something of the sort). The actual moral character or Sir Thomas More is debated by scholars, with some arguing that he had a rather vicious character as evidenced by his ardent persecution (and sometimes burning) of protestants. What seems to be clear is that, as well as being a true intellect, he believed absolutely in the unity of Church and state providing a moral scaffolding for society; the idea of undermining either of those things sent him into panic mode. Perhaps what looks to us like morally shallow decisions were to him pragmatic, morally righteous ones. This was reinforced by the society which he lived in. Human beings aren’t one way. He was progressive in many ways–a humanist, advocate for women’s education, an advocate of the arts, a committed pacifist, a gentle, gracious man by most accounts (except of course to his enemies)–and uncompromising in others. However, what speaks to me most clearly about his moral character is his refusal of a centrally powerful position within the newly formed “Church of England”; instead, he chose to die. Though he may have sent others to death, he was prepared to face the same for his own beliefs. The courage it took to accept death rather than a comfortable life is what inspires me. While his persecution of protestants shows the limitations of the time (and perhaps his own), his death transcends them.
That attitude of dangerous self-sacrifice must color the final battle between the hero and villain. Musically, I associate boss battle music with rushing, pulsing movement (conveying either great confidence, such as oscillating major chord fanfare stuff, or great energy, such as jagged, atonal lines) with a neon glow of energy, and a dark, almost cosmic tension. Often, it will be a vamp (a repeating sequence of a couple chords). For this movement in the piece, what more apt title than “Boss Battle”? I’m not there yet though, just on the second movement. A single line melody. The first movement is a theme and variations, the theme itself being centered around strong 4ths, 5ths, and 6ths, with a melody that is like carved in stone, in an old language, that tells the tale of the hero….Then the theme, through no intention of my own but rather because I can’t help it, is danced through a Purcellian court (in 3/2 time).
We’re a long way off toward getting a good videogame-like music here, but hopefully this piece goes some way toward correcting that. I’ll post soon about Brooklyn life and, if the reader is unlucky, other things as well.
I’ve been reading Graham Lock’s excellent book on Braxton’s music. One of the reasons it’s so great is that it doesn’t stuff itself full of empty phrases and interpretation; instead, what you’ll find is nuanced analysis, a deferential respect for the musicians and their thoughts, and a fine musical intuition (similar to Alex Ross). His detailed chapter on the mystical influences of Braxton’s music deserves an award for musicology–he conveys fascinating information about the passage of Egyptian knowledge (hint: it all went to Greece), and the mystical affiliations music always had in different ancient cultures, including Europe, until, in his words, it became “concerned only with it’s own internal processes”. Basically, when harmony, proportion, range, counterpoint rolled in in all it’s glory, music ceased to reference the outside world. This isn’t an inflammatory statement, it’s a fact, but one that is only revealed when taking a birds eye view of music development, outside of it’s own chains and cranks. The ancient Chinese, he says, had an intricate referential system: days of the week, moods, political events, and more were all represented in that one pentatonic scale. He goes on to give examples in other cultures. And then, when science developed, and we were able to trace the representations of sound in the external world–tracing brain activity when listening to music, spectral analysis, etc) we discovered that the sense of interconnectedness wasn’t just superficial, it was actually integral to how temperament, tonality, and rhythm worked. He gives a humorous example: the practice in ancient Greece of coordinating the measurements of buildings to music to see if they “sounded” structurally valid.
Listening to Braxton’s music today (Four Quartet Compositions 1983+London 1985), I was struck by how my appreciation had changed. Braxton frequently needs to write down explanations of his musical systems so that he can remember them (his 1600 page Quod Axiom Writings), we are often left in the dark in terms of the fascinating concepts and aesthetics behind them. It’s a shame, because Braxton is undoubtedly a genius, and once those lines he plays and writes dropped their purely musical character, and all of a sudden numerology, astrology, metaphysics, higher planes of consciousness, moods, shapes, and colors became intertwined, I was left feeling buzzing with the enormity of it all. Also, his melodic ability and invention is staggering. When I was in a student ensemble led by the great Joe Morris, we played Braxton tunes all the time (mostly the pulse tracks), and they were always different; I shouldn’t have taken it for granted, it comes from a very very deep place of composition. A place perhaps shorted at times by the purely melodic nature of the pieces. Anyway, in terms of my own stuff, the question was: what’s next? There are so many things to explore in music, and that Braxton’s music is related with extreme rigor to his own systems, which are a move back (thousands of years back) to a geometric, defined interconnectedness with the rhythms of the universe. It doesn’t have to do with itself. And that is why Graham’s book is so amazingly useful for fans of Braxton’s music. Far beyond a well-tuned phrase or Sonata form, there is a simple, demonstrable fact: Music is magic.
So I’ve finally finished a new piece, called Color Prism. It goes with an animation of the artist Joe Holtzmann of New York. While I was working on it, I developed some habits which I’m sure I will stick to. One was the complete absence of Finale during the composing process. Most days, I went to the Brookline library, which was a haven for concentration. Two, writing and working every day, not based on a whim. Three, thinking of composition more as craft, and a little less as art. The Purcell I had studied suddenly came out in cadences and lines and mannerisms–I’ve started to sort of think in that style, or rather, the massive influx of Purcell was slowly being digested into my compositional resources. Four, being diligent about executing ideas. I understand more and more the concept of compositional chops now; it’s about being able to execute what you hear, exactly. Most of the time, I can get a good resemblance of it. But it’s amazing, that translating between what you hear and the paper. An idea might at first be shadowy, just a sort of melodic memory or feeling, or arc or range effect, and then you slowly develop it in your and gradually represent it on paper. Absolute concentration, for me anyway, is a must (and that is why Finale is such a devil; it’s constantly beeping and tempting you to listen back and whining and shrieking. Like using a cotton gin or something). Regarding the piece, it attempts to represent somewhat the emotional core of the painting, which for me was composed of different elements. First, there is a formality underneath seemingly intuitive brushwork and play of colors. An at times almost silly formality. The appearance of a face in the painting is wraith-like and primal, I was imagining one of those scary old woman spirits in Japanese Noh-drama. You see one, and you know you did something to deserve it. Another moment in the animation is when there is a sort of stained glass effect and the image gets partitioned. For this, I was planning to use hyperactively oscillating major triads, to create a rushing, unstable power effect like electricity. There is a mystical quality to the painting at this point. Eventually, I didn’t use this idea as the piece was just too full, and it seemed forced. I’ll write more about where this is going as I record it and match it with the animation.
In terms of improvising, I’m focusing on technicality, and being able to play precisely what you hear. Nothing extraneous. In this way, the problem of playing “too much” and approximating melodic material which for me was a big issue, begins to solve itself. Simply because, you’d be surprised how much is stripped away when you refuse any sort of liberty to your musical mind. We’re used to approximating things, but to be accurate is another sort of joy. To use using only musical building blocks that you understand 100%, so that your lines take on an almost physical presence and force. I keep slipping back and forth across that line, from reality to unreality. Also, I’m focusing on hearing ahead, and really just hearing ideas zoomed out so you see where they’re going as well as the idea itself. It’s tricky, you know? Each line needs to be a key that unlocks the next.
I’m reading Anna Karenina, and I’m just surprised about how completely Tolstoy owns us. We can’t have thoughts, because he already knows what type of person we are and what thoughts we will have. Characters in his books don’t follow plots that he constructs, they follow themselves and the plot constructs itself. In a way, it’s the idea of fate, because they logic of their character leads them irrefutably onwards towards their destination. His sense of psychology is god-like; I read a great scene recently where this woman, a housewife (Darya or Dolly), goes and visits Anna (who at this point is a “fallen” woman–that is, living in sin with Vronsky). On the way there, Darya waxes longingly for the passion and honesty of Anna’s life, and begrudges her own. As she’s there, in opulent, aristocratic surroundings, she gradually sees that Anna has shut parts of herself off from feeling (she won’t speak of Alexei, her former husband, she is uninterested in her baby daughter) and lives an act. Her concerns (pleasing Vronsky, entertaining guests) start to seem selfish and shallow, and Darya now think longingly on her children. She resolves to leave the next day. The coachman, the next morning, grumbles about how the master of the house (Vronsky) gave the horses barely enough to eat; this further reveals the selfish attitude at the manor, that he’s very willing to neglect his guests horses simply because all they care about is one another. On the way back, Darya now thinks fondly and sympathetically on Anna. What? And yet, isn’t it just so? The grass is always greener, and when she’s away from the unpleasantness of Anna, she can think more sympathetically about her situation. This is just one miniscule example of the complexities of these characters. Never have you read something more engaging and interesting, never will you believe more in the reality of characters and thoughts, and never will you be so able to touch a historical time.
I recently listened to an album that knocked my socks off. And there’s no better whitebread saying to introduce it. Liquid Swords, by Genius and GZA (of Wu-Tang Clan), fro 1995. With so called underground rap, often toted as having intellectual underpinnings, I’m often sorely disappointed at the paucity of those underpinnings. Yes, we know that the Iraq war is about oil, that many people live in abject inequality, and that drugs are a huge problem in poor communities. Here, however, is an album that is and was as mainstream as you can get, and yet is so earnest and intelligent that is boggles the mind how we arrived at the Rihanna’s and Soulja Boy’s of today. The beats ooze with a ghostly urban glow, the inventiveness and freshness of the rhymes never cease to inspire. Holy shit. The other thing, is, it’s nice to listen to rap by people who grew up when rap wasn’t such a flaccid commercial phenomenon and in fact lived the life they talk about. What is it with hip hop today, all this wishy-washy drinking Hennessy in my escalade bullshit? So pussy. So complacent. Even Kanye, who has a modicum of musicality and cleverness, now resembles a disgusting Pokemon who only says his own name, over and over. The lyrics by Genius, so fresh, so un clogged with rhythmic non-words (although he sometimes pulls fast ones…”why did Judas rat the romans while jesus slept?”…uhhh, what?), so wide-ranging that and funny that it’s impossible not to see that album as a work of art. It’s inspired a pathetic little white-boy binge on 90′s mainstream rap for me, with Notorious B.I.G (twice as dumb, but fun), Tupac, and Tribe Called Quest. It’s all great. Also, on the Wu-Tang clan, their samples and referencing of Kung-Fu movies is such a great combination; the world of rap, when you look at it a certain way, is kind of like a mythical ancient China with representatives of different styles with wacky names challenging each other and speaking in poorly dubbed boasts that resemble shanks of glazed. ham.
On a different note, I’ve also been listening to 1) Nixon in China which is great, great, fantastic, and 2) a solo Cecil Taylor album, the tracks of which are too long to upload here, called Indent.
Nixon in China, you’ve got great minimalist rhythms and a fantastic sense of harmony. The original reviews of this opera, some of which were scathing or ho-hum, are now simply hilarious. Also, the music is just really American; for instance, the end of Act 1–1-16 Adams_ Nixon In China – Act 1_Sc. 3_ Cheers Those rushing Triads, the wood block (hoof sound), it totally embodied the American myth in my mind. The rich harmonic world of the opera fully convinced me that it was not merely a political event, but already took place in the realm of myth. What about this piece, “News has a king of mystery” the whole sequence starting at “The eastern Hemisphere” going to the resuming of the A material is just amazing writing I think1-06 Adams_ Nixon In China – Act 1_Sc. 1_ News Has A Kind Of Mystery His colorful harmonic world is legendary and kingly. The last thing I’ll mention is his use of Bi-tonality, for instance in the last piece of the opera; 3-13 Adams_ Nixon In China – Act 3_ I Am Old & I Cannot Sleep can you get more expressive than those two minor chords on top of each other? One sees again where post-minimalism gets it’s major/minor harmonic language. THEY TOOK IT FROM THE KING
As for the Cecil Taylor album. Why not? And what is there that needs to be said?