Davide Verotta
Musica

 

 


I

In Progress ... Il Ponte project is finished and now concentrating on solo piano-percussion, voice and percussion and possibly a string quartet.

Latest News ... Short interview with David Latulippe at KALW Open Air, Plenty new live recordings for piano, percussion, trio, sextet and orchestra can be found in the Composition page. As well as some a bit less recent: Trio for violin cello and piano, Invitation, for piano solo, Ultramarinus I. Ceruleus, and Ultramarinus II. Aquaticum with the Berkeley Symphony, of The Sofa for percussion quartet, Dances to Mytilini for piano, flute/alto-flute, cello, violin, Solar Wind II for chamber orchestra



THE BLOB (not a blog)

Thoughts about some life, art and stuff like that ..

How and What. Reading Cloud Atlas I am stroke by a couple of comments about art. That art is about the how not the what. The what has been said in all possible ways many times before, the how, the presenttion, the revisiting, is what art is concerned with.. It reminds me of a question Arvo Part asked a Christian Orthodox monk. Something, if I recall correctly, about the role of art and the need to create. The Monk replied that everything that needed to be said had already been said. Which is an even more radical statement than claiming that art is basically refined craftmanship (the how). But then if that is so why do art at all? It is very tempted to think, paraphrasing another thought found in Cloud Atlas, that we are sinply acting like long forgotten people: drawing figures on rock walls to keep the darkness and oblivion a bit longer at a distance. Nothing depressing about it: it can be very "dance-ing" (danzante).

Odd. And it somehow feels odd that people age ... and simply disappear from life.

The Hill. There is a place on top of a hill where one can go back to, singing ... the music lifting to the stars to be heard.

Transcendence.I think that the redeeming quality of art is that the final product is capable of transcending the all too human pitfalls of their creators. Back stubbing, egos the size of a small mountains, prima donnas, childish behaviors, "me-me-me look at me", alpha males and females, all are forgotten when the curtain rises and we watch and listen and are transfixed by the a dance, a musical composition, a play, a painting.

We are all in this together.Some recent personal interactions and book readings made me realize how frequently artists, composers in particular, seem to be eager to use an axe and a knife to cut down their collegues. There is a long tradition in doing so, and there are probably a number of different reasons why people go for the jugular: pumping up ones ego, demonstrating superiority of judgment and taste, competition, fear, sheer meaness. It has been instructive because it is actually an infectious malaise. Something to watch, and to counteract with big doses of the empathy elixyr: we are all in this together, we all try to create something beautiful, or to say something that we think is interesting and worthwhile, and when doing so we all stand on each other shoulders and learn from one anothers.

Musical Composition seems to live at the intersection and tension between what is relatively fixed (pitches and scales, chords, rules,(bricks and mortar at different levels of organization) and things that are comparatively free (the use of alternative bricks & mortar in the same piece, motives and movement and their variations, structures and biforcations, possible paths, repetitions and changes, hints, deceptions and revelations). The hardest thing to accomplish is to somehow make the intersection to mean something ... where I am not so sure what I mean by "to mean something": coherence, unity, beauty?

Music, in a way, is one of the closest things we have to magic in our lives. We are logical beings, concentrated on understanding our surroundings, making tools, and forming the world to our advantage using precise language and mathematics and science. And here comes this strange and imprecise language, this mysterious art form that can move, terrify, and take us to faraway places: music, living in the cracks of reality, like magic would if it existed.

0.01% It is quite amazing to think that the amount that Romney declares as a tax "loss" for his Olimpic dressage horse ($77,000) is what 3.5 families of four make in a year, when they are under the poverty line threshold. Still Romney manages to insult those families because they "believe that they are victims, that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, you name it".

Form in Music! The container: where things happen. A couple of semi-serious examples: to the left is the first attempt at finding a form for the quintet Memory, and to the right the final form of the Orchestral piece Ultramarinus. Both are based on the classic idea of repetition and change.

We are sooooooo small. This color image of the Earth, dubbed 'Pale Blue Dot', is a part of the first ever 'portrait' of the solar system taken by Voyager 1. The spacecraft acquired a total of 60 frames for a mosaic of the solar system from a distance of more than 4 billion miles from Earth. From Voyager's great distance Earth is a mere point of light, less than the size of a picture element. That little dot, circled in red, is us, if you travel at about 15,000 miles/hour for 31 years ... and you would still be just exiting the Solar System ...

There it is: Mars! Hard to believe we were barely able to fly a hundred years ago and now we can send a car with cameras and much other stuff to our nearest planet. A small step, but it is so fascinating to watch an alien landscape. One wishes that the robots we'll eventually send to explore the deep of space will have a sense of wonder as we do when watching these photographs: they are the strongest reminder that entire planets, billions of them, exist and thrive outside of our small horizon.

"For an adult, the world is constantly trying to clamp down on itself. Routine, responsability, decay of institutions, corruption: this is all the world closing in. Music, when it'is really great, pries that shit back open and lets peope back in, it lets light in, and air in, and energy in, and sends people home with that, and sends me back to the hotel with it. People carry that with them sometimes for a very long period of time" Bruce Springsteen

A wonderful evening walk at Land's End. Warm and sunny with a little breeze. So majestically beautiful, with the Pacific Ocean, and is promises of never ending horizons, entering the Bay, and the bridge that seems to be put there just as a memento of human presence. I spent half an hour seating on the earth of a look out projected over the cliff. Pelicans, looking preistoric, flying by, and some red tail eagles and a few seagulls. The place seems out of a Science Fiction movie. And it is: planet earth cruising the periphery of the Milk Way, carrying oceans, mountains and life with it. How so very strange: we are all captive but, relatively speaking, quite happy passengers of this beautiful space ship.

The purity of Islam, this is a photograph of the Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, has always fascinated me. Of the three monotheistic desert religions it comes the closet to an ideal one.

An ideal religion that might want to concentrate on the essence of the mystery surrounding us, and leave to the side all the unknowable details (hell and heaven, angels, trinity and the devil) ... and give up churches, mosques and temples, and avoid the often arbitrary and oppressive moral and social precepts that fill the sermons in those places.

Too bad that instead organized religions come to resamble parasites: hitching a ride on our desire for explanation, to sprout complex networks of rules and social conditionings.


Composing for Marimba. In Italy, the ‘horns’, i.e., the stretched fingers, are surreptitiously placed behind someone’s head, or explicitly pointed at a person, the conveyed meaning is that that person is being cheated on by his wife or (more rarely) her husband. Hence the Italian cornuto, that translates literally to having horns, but figuratively means cuckold. But the 'horns' have another very useful function. Used in both hands on a keyboard they transform into organic devices to mimic four mallets playing on a Marimba. For a composer a useful mean to avoid writing impossible music for the instrument.

Rossini! I am listening and studying Giacomo in these days. The "Italian Mozart" who took Europe by storm with his gift for rhythm and melody. The overtures alone are worth gold and are such a refreshing reminder of what music can be: beautiful and exciting, fresh and inventive, cleaver but not cerebral.

 

Nowegian Wood. Beautiful film by Tran Anh Hung based on the novel by Haruki Murakami. One of those fortunate instances in which an adaptation gives a complementary look into a work of art. The emotionally relatively restrained writing trasforming into a powerful and emotionally engoulfing cinematic narration. Time to read the book again, to keep moving on the spiral ... and talking of which: I just finished IQ84. I am not really sure exactly what to make of it, besides the obvious celebration of love that is at its core, but I did like it a lot. Some images, and the characters, are going to stay with me for a long time.

John Cage 100th birthday anniversar! A popularizer of certain themes that were floating around in the fifties and sixties, he achieved a guru-like status with the intelligentsia, helped by writings that were often quite confusing and, often unfortunately, rather pompous. Some of his early compositions are nice, Sonatas and Interludes comes to mind (any section, taken at random of course, makes for pleasant music). In American colture Cage is a bit of a counterpoint to the desolation of the serial music of the 50's and 60's. Looking back it is interesting to note how the bottleneck created by the rather toxic mix of modernism, avant-gard and academia seemed to produce two conflicting compositional approaches that christallized in the 50s to 80s before finally bursting open. One relied on complete organization, the serial, the other was based on "chance" and fundamentally aleatory; one dominated composition orthodoxy for almost 40 years, the other was always on the fringe but it was still very influential. The two currents mostly did not talk to each other, but still managed to produce some of the most uncomprehensible music of the 20th century!

“That the potential arise you need to dare the impossible.” A quote by Hermann Hesse that is a good reminder to aim high: our built in limitations will lower the aim quite a bunch all the way to the realm of possibilities.

The aristocratic artist, just to bring in some semi-Marxist cathegory, does not consider himself a member of a professional category like the bourgeoisie artist. In this it is similar to the academic artist, another type that unlike most of the famous artists we are familiar with since the Renaissance, does not need to make a living with the products of his/her art.

Myself? My life journey leads toward the aristocratic path ... fortunately, and I say fortunately because it would appear that aristocratic artists, and even more so the academic ones, are not held is particular high repute, all artists are at the end judged by their products. In this respect it does not matter what class one fells into: aristocratic artists might be fewer and looked upon, but some are really quite good (from Petronio to Giuseppe Tomasi da Lampedusa to Scelsi). Even more reassuring is that most artists have actually little choice but to produce art: aristocratic, bourgeoisie, academic, folk they most do art out of need. They stop being artist, un-respective on how their results are judged, simply when the need is no longer there.

The god of the Internet. A week in Rome makes one think about religion, since Rome is one of the most important places in the Western transition from paganism to the single, universal, god of Christianity. It a transition that lasted centuries, sprouted Islam, and succeeded where the tribal god of the Jewish tradition could not: a case of refining the message if you wish. I am here, in Rome, and being what is called an atheist, wonder what will come next. Hopefully the resurgence of orthodox Christianity and Islam is just a momentary hiccup, a small convulsion, in historical terms, of traditions that are losing their broad appeal. Many of us need a different religion, something that is rooted in the spirit of the modern man and science and humanesim and ethics, not in obsolete shepperds' tales, rethorical argument, and sets of rules somehow written by god.

The curiosity is about where will religion be in a few centuries. Maybe be back to a universal pagan religion? Is this what the Internet has in store for us? Are we witnessing the early birth of a religion that recognizes the diversity of the human experience and represents it in a kaleidoscopic array of metaphors? A new place, where we can reflect on us and the cosmos with the help of the change of vision and scale provided by un-thought-of-yet tools?(No, I don't mean twitter, but something like that.)

Art for art sake. Instead of Art for Art sake modern art might be better received, and find a better societal purpose, if it decided to have a specific purpose. Nothing too ambitious perhaps just finding ways to make us a bit more sane, or a little bit wiser, or kinder, or less selfish ... as Alain de Botton reminds us for centuries Christian art never left any doubt about its purpose: it tought how to live, what to love and what to be afraid of. And out of very simple messages the masters of past centurius managed to create wonderful pieces of art that speak clearly and directly to wide audiences ... if maybe a bit boringly so: there are just so many Virging Mary's with upturn eyes one can look at!

Progress. It would appear that there is no progress in art, in the same way that that there is no progress in loving or hating. There are just many different ways to do art, or to love or to hate.

Falling asleep. Plato, in the Phaedo, makes an analogy between the immortality of the soul and the every day cycle of sleep and waking. As evertyhing that as an opposite is generated by that opposite, so waking comes from sleep, and the living come from the dead. Both are examples of cycles that are necessary to the permance of the world: without cycles, Plato argues, the world would just be in one state: asleep or awake, dead or alive. One wonders if this should apply also to my Mac Book Pro, that each day dutifully shuts off at midnight and wakes up at seven in the morning. Does the Mac book reincarnate every day? Where does it go at night?

Melancholia by Lars von Trier ... a masterpiece? Formally close to perfection: an overture followed by two acts following a similar path but culminating with two distinct climaxes. Thematically it mixes, with incredibly sure hands, motives of depression, family disfunction, real love and affection, and the fundamental question of our place in the universe. Enough? Well, the acting is fantastic. An incredible tour-de-force. Few directors in this league: perhaps more beautiful, but not as tight formally, La dolce vita, by the great Fellini comes to mind.

I am an Atheist! Or a party pupper? The problem with atheism is that one often feels like the bull in the china shop: clumsily shattering the tales of the judeo-christian-islamic traditions, and leaving the fuzzy reassuring feeling of the afterlife to vanish like interstellar dust.

A. Dutilleuz. I am studying quite a lot of the French master. Metaboles, Mistère de l'Istant, fascinating works from a composer that was straight out of the French tradition, with generous contributions from Stravinsky and Bartok, and worked his way through the dark compositional ages of the 50's, 60's ... and 70's.

Art is not the domain of logic ... and often not even of common sense.

Virtuosity. Why be involved with "virtuosity"? It is not as if writing difficult to execute music somehow gives a composer more cachet. or prestige ... it is not as if it would make him, or her, a virtuoso! A performer feels accomplished for having mastered a difficult piece, but I am not sure why a composer should be proud of having strung together a lot of notes that are difficult to play. Still, the admiration for composers that write "difficult" music seem to be rather widespread in music schools and composers' circles. The perils of virtuosity for the sake of virtuosity! The great Frantz Liszt was often, and quite rightly so, criticized for his virtuosic indulgence, but at least he could play his music! It would appear that it is actually quite easy to write difficult, or close to impossible to execute, music. To the contrary it seems very hard to write simple music that is also very effective.

More Stravinsky. Another famous quote "Immature Artists Imitate. Mature Artists Steal". Stealing is taking possession, that is, for a conceptual object, thoroughly understanding what makes the object work or doesn't. To the contrary imitation is superficial: it misses the reasons why certain events are where they are, patterns evolve in certain ways, and why certain details are added to complete the picture. Imitation is often a dead-end, unless one learns from it rises up the ante and learn out to steal.

Novelty! Novelty! One of the tendencies of modernism and its offshoots is to twist the fundamental desire of self-discovery into an obsession for novelty. Self-discovery ceases to be the drive to artistic production, and is substituted by a rather arid search for new forms and techniques. The irony that goes together with this attitude of obsessive search for the new is that because we are all, to a point, different from each other, an unflincing look into ourselves would be enough to produce new pieces of art, or at least honest ones.

The magic of Practise. I am going back to the piano due to a number of engagements and the marvel of it strikes me anew. It is the marvel of practise. One approaches something unknown, and with a little discipline and attention there it is ... a few days later (well ... maybe weeks) it is in your muscle memory and you know the piece. What our mind can do is quite misterious. We are very used to it, we learn things, discover, understand all the time, and scientist have surely started to figure out how learning works. But in a way, as a passenger looking at the results sort of from-the-outside, the whole process feels almost like magic.

Emotional Landscapes. I am not completely sure of what I mean by "emotional landscape", but the idea is that a sequence of emotional states, expressed in a musical piece, can drive the form to such an extent that the end result emerges as a separate entity. And this "entity" can be recognized as distinct from the temporal unfolding of the piece we just listened to. The notion came to my mind when listening to one of my favorite Beethoven Piano Sonatas Op.31 No.2, The Tempest . There the emotional sequence is so well defined that it plays out with the clarity of a landscape. It is as if, whatever we are hearing and whatever its meaning, we can look at it as if it was a three dimensional object. The problem, from a composition view point is probably two-fold: to imagine an emotional landscape and then translate it into music.

Live to ... The painter Lucian Freud died this week and of the many commentaries a simple one stroke me as particularly significant: "He lived to paint". There is something very human in living to do ... something, with passion, or simply because it is felt as necessary. And maybe with a stroke of amazement, as in the following poem by Mary Oliver:

When Death Comes

When it's over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it is over, I don't want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument.
I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

Constraints. Igor Stravinsky, in the Poetics of Music, is quoted as saying "My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength." Constraints force the agent upon which they are acting to find alternative solutions, they are one of the engines of change and variety. Compare the two tree sections below. To the right a tree that grew in relatively stable, constraint free, environment: its growth rings show relatively small departures from perfect circles. To the left (in a shot taken at the shopping center of Larkspur Landing) a very different situation: with time, after a period of uniform growth shown at the center of the section, obstacles limited the growth of the tree. Three main forces are at play: the radial, annual growth of the rings, the constraints (rocks, soil), and the stresses induced when the inner rings die, generating the cracks in the wood. The result is a very complex structure: the overall irregular cross section, the beautifully varied shape of the rings (that are close, with smaller cells, where constraints were stronger and larger otherwise), and the cracks that add yet another element of tension, with the big ones pointing to the main axes of growth and the moltitude of smaller ones following the differential growth rates of the rings. So constraints! in this case building up a structure that we might find much more interesting and "dramatic" than the one to the right.

Consonanza from the latin consonare, "suonare insieme", "to play together". The idea of being alligned, to fit, to make something that falls on a path that is perceived as congruent, harmonious, in balance. Regular proportions, harmonies built on columns of resonance, interlocking and temporally clear patterns. Dissonance is a polar opposite: each element plays separately, or is perceived as so doing. The patterns of balance are broken, the rules not understood.

Fibonacci. 0 1 1 2 3 5 8 13 21 34 55 89 ... is famous sequence that, in the west, goes back to 1201 and Leonardo da Pisa (nicknamed Fibonacci). It is related, among other mathematical objects, to the Golden Ratio (that is approximated by the sequence 3/2 5/3 8/5 13/8 ... that converges to 1.6180...). It was proposed to represent an idealized model of growth in rabbits: suppose pairs, male and female, that live and reproduce (within a couple) forever, and that it takes two months to go from conception to reproduction, then the number of pairs at any given month is given by the Fibonacci series. The model is, of course, completely unapplicable due to its unrealistic assumptions. In music the Fibonacci series and the Golden Ratio have been related to some works of Bartok, Debussy, and others. In general the explosive growth of the series precludes its sensible use within a musical composition, unless one limits the application to the very first terms of the series. By itself the Golden Ratio can serve as a rough approximation to narrative proportions that go back to Aristotelian theory of tragedy. Many musical pieces can indeed have the peak of the musical narrative occouring roughly at two thirds of the duration of the piece, or close, in some sense, to the reciprocal of the Golden Ratio: 1/1.6180=0.6180.

It is a curiosity that the Fibonacci series, in a mapping in frequency domain, spells out the luminous chord of the harmonic series .. but unfortunately, or fortunately, there is nothing very special about the Fibonacci series or the Golden Mean: for the numerology inclined there are more than 100,000 catalogued mathematical series to pick from, a never ending source of merryment that might be explored for possible applications!!!!!!

Life forward.It would be nice to live forward and avoid actions motivated by regrets, desires and fears.

Wasted youth. I never fail to be surprised by how many composers are so taken in by the allure of basically trivial arithmetic. It would seem that anything would do. A Golden Ratio (generally measured by counting measures or beats, in itself a rather strange approach to measuring musical time), a Fibonacci Series (truncated quickly ... it does grow pretty fast), some vaguely "fractally inspired" kind of operation, "laws of proportions", strange "theorems", down to totally bizarre rules derived in the most arbitrary and un-systematic and un-organic ways. "Give me something I can count and I will write a piece" seem to be the teaching and philosophy behind this approach to composition. The results are often, and quite predictably, dismal. When they are not it is because the compositional straight-jackets so gallantly and abstrusely devised have been fortunately broken down: the composer recognizing soon enough their irrelevance to the dynamics, architecture and effectivness of a piece.

Multichotomies. One of the most poignant photographs from World War II: Dresden, in Germany, after the fire bombing by the allies ariforces. 6,500 airplanes dropped undred of thousands of bombs and incendiaries and killed an estimated 35,000 to 150,000 people. The exact number will never be known: the city was filled with hundred of thousands of refugees from the eastern front, and tempetures in the center of the city reached 1600 degrees making recovery and counting of bodies all but impossible.

Dismay? Revenge? Our desire for transcendence violated? Icarus dream carrying the seeds of distruction. Compassion? Ghosts? Screaming? Loss? So many layers in this photograph.

What? What is an artist supposed to do nowadays? Reflect some cosmic order we do not even beging to understand? Generate some reality or mithology according to his/her fancy and inspiration? Be new? and for what? for the sake of releasing objects into the artistic free market? Reflect society? Interpret it? Be important? irrelevant? ... Maybe it is just a choice of stringing together the pretty notes, and reach for what is the best in us?

Geometric Memories. The ancient Roman temples had a rectangular or circular plant. The stunnig Pantheon (the Temple of All Deities) is probably the most famous and best preserved example of circular plant structures. Rebuilt by the emperor Adriano in 118-125 C.E. over the original rectangular structure built by Agrippa in 27-25 B.C.E., it is capped by a huge emi-spheric dome. A dome bigger than St. Peter's, almost twice as big than the White House.

A recent trip to Rome made me think about those large geometric shapes, dominating the landscape of worship. And it is interesting to follow the evolution of the architecture of the Christian churches, which came to oblitarate the Pagan places of devotion. At first pagan places of cult were simply taken over and one finds christian places of cult litterally, and exactly superimposed to the original architecture. Then, with the centuries and millenia, things start to change a bit. The rectangular with emicycle, already present in antiquity, start to sprout sides, the symbol of the cross starts to emerge in the planimetry. But the cupula never leaves: it dominates Christian architectures to this day.

 

It is as if the simple geometric shapes used for places of cult and devotion, slowly, very slowly change into something else. It takes litterally millenia to do so. It is as if those shapes impose their presence in the memory of the builders. And one can actually make the case that the circle, the rectangle, the emi-sphere are still with us: they have not changed. Only the object they contain changes, from a statue of Giunone to one of Christ, indicating, perhaps, the transitory nature of our attempts to understand the divine.

1, 2, 3, 4 ... counting, up to 10? most times up to 4, 5, 6, maybe 7. This is pretty much all the math I end up using when composing. Maybe this will change, but I still have the impression that all the math one needs to know to compose music can be done using the ten fingers. (Twelve tone composers are the exception) It is kind of nice when one thinks about it: some very simple relationships can serve as scaffolding for beautiful pieces of music.

Jean Cocteau's Testament of Orpheus. I just finished to watch the last movie of Jean Cocteau and I thought the best line was "poets only ever talk about themselves". Is it a daunting truth or something to trying to overcome? Can we actually communicate, can we actually see anything other than a confused mirror of our misterious insides? ... the movie made me also realize how much I missed those places ... the south of Europe, the landscapes of sun and sea ...how much I miss the ghosts of gods from ancient Greece and Rome and the mediterranean: they do not inhabit the shores I currently walk on ...

Composing at the Piano. I really enjoiy the mornings, and the quiet time spent with the piano, listening to the notes.

Opera. After my first incursion into Opera probably the most interesting insight I gained from the process is that one does not need to say anything partcularly deep and complicated to interest people. A simple story seems to be all is required to make us think about our human condition and get some entertainment.

Experimental Music and a bit of John Cage. I am reading Michael Nyman's Experimental Music (from 1974! gee time passes by). It is such a nice book, written with enthusiasm and with a degree of objectivity that is refreshing. It reads almost as a diary from a leading composer of his time looking at new music surrounding him. It is also a good occasion to revisit a bit of John Cage ...and well, I was hoping to find a way into appreciating a bit more his contributions but I cannot avoid my usual feelings. Every time I read JC I find a mixture of strongly worded doctrines supported by statements that at closer examination seem most of the time self-contraddicotry and don't stand up very well to even a cursory analysis.

For example: 'I do not like when a particular thing is a symbol of a particular other thing. But if each thing in the world can be seen as a symbol of every other thing in the world, then I do like it.' It sounds sort of good, in a we-are-all-in-this-interconnected kind of way but, if one thinks about it for a moment, it does not really means much (and it has very little to do with composition). It does allow one thing that seems ot be often very important: to divide between the bad (those clumsy single-symbol-focused symbolists composers) and the good ones (those enlightened global-symbolists, whatever that means). But things change, and one wonders where M-brane-symbolists enter the picture. Paraphrasing, my current standing on the issue is as follows: I do not like when each thing in the world can be seen as a symbol of every other thing in the world, but if each symbol acts as a graviton, and it can move freely from membrane to membrane in the M-brane space: then I do like it!

More seriously, it is hardly conceivable to have any form of expression that does not revolve around the use of symbols, and music has of course used symbols for ages, perhaps implicitly (the tune of any folk song) or explicitly, as in the sixteenth-century madrigal "tone -painting" in its relationship with the text (onomatopoetic imitation of natural sounds, chromaticism employed to depict sorrow), to J.S.Bach's use of christologycal symbols, or the uncountable musical symbols found in Wagner's operas, Debussy's direct use of specific symbols in most of his compositions (and of course his relationship with the Symbolist movement in poetry, where the idea of symbol is contrary to the specific but is used to suggest and evoke). Is it possible to write something in which everything can be a symbol of something else? Or to turn it the other way around: is it possible to write something where a particular thing is a symbol of (only) a particular other thing? Isn't already present in any of our creations a kaleidoscopic chain of symbols, some more and some less important depending on perspective?

Katsushika Hokusai's print, The Great Wave off Kanogawa, which appears on the front page of Debussy's La Mer score.

War and Peace. I am reading again War and Peace by count Tolstoy. What a wonderful book. I do not remember which famous writer said that he read it eleven times. I can see why, it is a book about life, and like life it is so full of details, corners you want ot explore, so many thoughts and events and situations which need be considered with care. Ah ... what a sweet thing about literature: we can live it again and again, a bookshelf reincarnation that can happen (if you have my reading habits) every night.

More Emotions? Talking about expressing emotions, I just ran into a supposedly famous aria from the opera Agogne. Of all things it is about the benefits of prunes for corporeal functions. The lyrics (translation is mine) are a bit baffling:

O prugne!
che meglio del lesso
voi mandate l'Agogne
a passar meno tempo sul cesso
Oh prunes!
that better than boiled meat
you send Agogne
to spend shorter times on the toilet

Opera can be a bit strange at times.

Emotions? the music I am getting most interesting in is one that tries to say something, and explores the emotions going around the saying. Unfortunately, instrumental music is an awfully complicated tool to do this.

Math ad Music? ... a good many book have been written on this topic, but I always found somewhat of a little misconception at the root of the question. It is as if one were confusing music with acoustics. Acoustic phenomena can be described, up to a certain point, using mathematics, but when it comes to music, that is how we organize those sounds, the suspicion is that ‘math’ can be as poor a descriptive tool as it is for literature, painting, or other art forms. To draw a parallel: it is as if we were to establish the marriage between Architecture and Math because we can describe (very accurately) bricks and mortar. We can actually very well describe the physics of a building, and buildings must obey some very specific laws, which is not the case for the structure music. But those laws have little to do with architecture: they are at most formalized description of physical constraints.

What would be interesting is to build a dynamical model of a whole composition ... but I suspect we just do not have yet the methodology to do so, especially the software. And it gets even more complicated if one tries to describe the creative process. Probably, when we will have those tools we will be close to make a quantal leap forward in nothing less then our evolution as a species: if you build a successfully model of the creative process you are very close to realize true Artificial Intelligence.

Music? Music, as any Art, is a way to explore my self and my relationships with others, and to reflect on reality. It is a highly metaphorical way, which gives only hints, intuitions, and often, especially if one is honest, some surprising and disconcerting insights. As all arts, it is a vague, mysterious, and sometimes confusing endeavor: a mirror of our life that might bring some light on it, or cast more shadows.

A short review of the Tanakh and the Bible. The Tanakh describes the relationship of a a god and a tribe, about 2500 years ago. The god is not particularly nice: he does not refrain from genocide toward other tribes, and he is often very cruel toward its own, if his laws are not followed. The tribe seems to be mostly concerned with shepparding, rising crops, and fighting other tribes. By the time we reach the end of the book, the god seems to become more tolerant, although he appears to devise and carry over a plan to sacrifice his own son to promote the spread of his cult to larger tribes. (There is quite a disagreement between the Tanakh and the Bible on this). The very last chapters are seemingly a mix of down to earth organizational suggestions, and rather dark apocalyptic visions.
A rather disconcerting book, although it seems to generate a large following. Unfortunately, but perhaps not surprisingly given its premises, this often translates in a variety of justifications for intolerance, persecution and wars. Overall rating: baffling.

Memory. Without memory the human experience disintegrates into a void. As impermanent as events and individuals are, their recollection constitutes a thread that binds together otherwise disconcerting realities.

Music and Magic. A quotation from the magician Ian Swiss that applies well to music and performance: You cannot cross into the world of magic until you put everything else aside and beside you, including your own desires and needs, and focus on bringing an experience to the audience. This is magic. Nothing else. The artistic event is first and foremost an experience, and the focus has to be on its delivering.

There is a time for everything. Ogni cosa a suo tempo.

What time is this?
It's the time of birds, of long breaths
and breeze carrying tears of rain

Trans-human. Jorge Borges (Otras Inquisiciones) quotes Shelley (In defense of Poetry , 1821) arguing that all individual poems, past, present and future, are actually fragments of a universal infinite poem. Our fundamental unity is reflected in any category of our productions. Poetry, literature, music are not a historical sequence of individuals' contributions but a single manifestation of an inquisitive universal spirit. (The same could be said of science and religion or any activity that involves bringing forward unformed matter or ideas into some reality.) Are we uno or disconnected fragments or both?

Art and Metaphor. Art can be considered as the exploration of the place of metaphor and simile. Art therefore is not? since arguably reality just is? Or reality just appears to be and what is is the metaphor? (Vaguely inspired by Neil Gaiman Neverwhere).

Lavoro. The italian word for 'to work', lavorare, has the flavour of the daily activity of the prestinaio (the bread maker). Every day, with the exception of sunday, tu lavori e sudi (you work and sweat). There is something very reassuring about having a daily activity - like working every day at an instrument, like having a table to go back to every morning.

Composition and Science. I had conversations with academic composers actually comparing their activity to that of a scientist that does research. Having been a scientist for long years I generally avoided to make comments. More honestly (and in the privacy of a web page) I think that these ideas are based either on a misuse of words or in a misunderstanding of what the scientific method is. It is a bit of an unfortunate position: while there is no doubt that artists are not doing science, the misunderstanding might trap the metaphor maker in a place not so conductive for creativity.

Technical secrets. A quote from Heinrich Neuhaus:

There are no technical secrets to become great pianists.The only way is to work with patience, intelligence and tenacity.

Which might sound too easy, but it is also one of the best encouragements I could find: if we apply our human qualities, greatness, in a human dimension of course, will follow.

Art and Being. Inspired by Martin Heidegger (The Origin of the Work of Art)

Reflection of what art and art making is may be linked with the relation of being and human being. Art, that is beauty in a metaphysical sense, unconceals the truth of being. The apparition of truth in the art work might be related to our own, temporary, unfolding as parts of the universal Being. Our own art making might be related to the truth of our identity, but it is also moved and motivated by the desire for transcending ourselves for the truth of being. Perhaps in its most clear examples it is guided by, or resonates with, it.

Does this make any sense?

 

Marker Art and Necessity. Inspired by Federico Fellini. In a perhaphs humbler way, Art is a necessity. The necessity is to try to make sense of a reality that otherwise, taken at face value, would be monstrous. Art frames reality in a reassuring, familar, more comfortable place, a place that is less overwhelming then the incomprehensibly colossal size, and apparent blindness, of the materiality surrounding us. The act of threading some simple beads is an attempt of bringing order and perhaps some form of understanding,

beads

Successful or not it requires consideration and attention: it takes us away from our corporeal reality and leads us in a place of thought, wander and imagination. It is built in us, it seems to be a necessary condition of our being, or simply to make our life more bearable.

Marker Art and Motivation. (Elizabeth Gilbert) Art is a path for the courageous and the faithful. One must find another reason to work, other than the desire for success or recognition. It must come from another place ... similarly for science? certainly for spiritual quests. Possibly art - science - spirituality share the idea of searching, and the motivation to search cannot be that of success and recognition.

Soft-heartedness. From Zen & Japanese Culture by Daisetz Suzuki (Chapter VIII, Zen and the Art of Tea):

Soft-heartedness is "tender-mindness" or "gentleness of spirit".
Generally we are too egotistic, too full of hard resisting spirit. We are individualistic, unable to accept things as they are or as they come to us. Resistance means friction, friction is the source of all trouble. When there is no self, the heart is soft and offers no resistance to outside influences.

"Things" are both good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant. For example, during any kind of performance one does not rejoice for a successfully completed section, nor despair because something has gone wrong. Things unfold in front of us and there is no judgment.

Soft-heartedness and practice. It would appear that somewhat as a corollary of the previous thought,one should consider dividing practice in at least two parts. The first is the usual, analytical part of practice. It involves analyzing and decomposing, taking apart and putting together, training the muscles and tendons involved with the physical aspect of the execution. The second is the training of the clear mind. Here one trains to be an observer, or better a listener, as opposed to an evaluator and a judge. Again, there is no rejoicing nor disappointment. It is interesting that in all these years of learning and instruction very little attention, if any, has been given to this important side of performance. It is quite strange, if one assumes, as I am more and more lead to believe, that this superficially mysterious capacity is all important for an organic performance. (Where by organic I mean in-one-piece, such as an organism under the guidance of its autonomic nervous system.)

A four steps recipe, with all the limitations of a recipe, that can be adapted to any endeavor:

Show up

Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention
Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention
Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention
Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention
Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention

Don't be attached to the outcome

Share your work

Beauty. Parvathi Naryan (a nine year old student of my friend Amy Billheimer)

Sometimes playing is very difficult but if you keep trying it sounds very pretty

Is this not a complement to the Neuhaus quote at the beginning of this page? From a young child: keep try and it will sound pretty. We all can, it is built in with us.

Meaning in Music. The good thing about doing and thinking about art is that it forces to think about life. For months I have been struggling with the problem of meaning: what do I try to say in the pieces I compose. Do I have something to say? Perhaps not. Kurt Vonnegut, in an interesting section of A man Without a Country discusses stories that oscillate the narrative between well defined good and ill fortune and stories that don't. Cinderella in the first category. Good fortune is well defined: seemingly out of reach for Cinderella it is nonetheless the goal of the tale and it is eventually accomplished forever thereafter. Hamlet is in this second category, and the idea is that in real life often is very hard to define good or il fortune: "But there is a reason we recognize Hamlet as a masterpiece: it's that Shakespeare told us the truth ... The truth is, we know so little about life, we don't really know what the good news is and the bad news is." Telling the truth is very hard in a tale of good and bad fortune, and it is so easy to slip and make it a shallow fairy tale. What this has to do with meaning in music? We know so little, maybe more then spelling out meaning we can only show and ask questions, and instrumental music might be a medium that has built in such indeterminacy.

dragon

More Political Considerations

Tax breaks for Luxury Yachts! Just in: the "Tea Party" dominated Texan legislation cut the State budget by 25%. Schools, clinics, parks you name it will close ... in the same evening they pass a tax-deduction for people buying Luxury Yachts worth more than $250,000. As Rep. John Davis (R-Houston) put it: "$250,000 does not buy you very much nowadays". A real gem brought to you by the o-so-grassroot populist movement of America.

Majority in Poll Back Employees in Public Sector Unions. Which is great! It gives one hope that the American public has not been completely kidnapped by the propaganda of the ultra-right-wing Republicans and Fox News! Can we now have an opinion pool asking: "Are you in favor of rising taxes for the top 1% incomes, to solve the budget problems of the Nation". And let's see how many are in favor (more than 80% is my guess).

The struggling democracy. It seems quite clear that the pendulum democracy - plutocracy is now swinging decisevely toward the plutocrats. Since Mr. Reagan, money has been massively redistributed upward. Untill our political system is re-formed (providing public funding of campaigns, third-party access to the ballot, an end to the filibuster, and so forth), it will remain foolish to expect a different face in the White House or majority in Congress to get America back on track.

Fox News. Can you believe this: as of Oct 2010 every single republican candidate for the 2012 presidency is on the payrol of Fox News.

Snotty comments about President Obama. Can i get the money I gave for his campaign back?

Health Care. It is quite amazing that a proposal that could be easily been put forward by, say, a Nixon administration, is labeled as socialist by the current Republican elected officials. The absurdity of the "argument" gives quite a measure of how far the coorporate ideology of imbridled capitalism has come, and how much it dominates the discourse of the right. It is too bad that as a policy it is as destined to fail as its opposite, centralized stalinist economy. A good rehearsal was the 2008-2010 economic melt-down.

Populist movements. Populist rage of sort on the rise. Embarrassingly named Tea Parties, they seem to be characterized, as it is quite usual, by a rush toward simple solutions for difficult problems. With a touch of violence, racism, and Fox News financing added in the mix.

Oh my, oh my, oh my. A democrat in the White House! Maybe things will change a bit.

More torture. Fast forward a year and few months and you have Judiciary committee hearings where the future Attorney General refuses to call water boarding torture. One of the leading democrats in the Senate, Dianne Feinstein, gives him her vote thus guaranteeing his confirmation. It looks like the barbarians have entered the city and are comfortably established in the pretty houses off the main streets.

Now we torture and are proud of it (2006). Just a few months after I wrote the previous note. The President and Vice-President can go on TV and say that there is nothing wrong with applying torture to prisoners. They still do not use the word "torture" but claim that practices defined by international law as torture are not so, and can and should be used. The usual verbal trickery does not matter much: the slippery road away from a civilized society is getting steeper. One wanders what next?

Reality driven by fantasy. It is so strange that in just a few years, staring around 2001, it is now 2006, discussions about the legality of torture have become common place. Leaving aside the sadness and repulsion generated by this state of affairs, it is interesting to notice how parts of the debate offers an insight into a fundamental human capacity. One of the main arguments in favor of torture is the "finger on the trigger" scenario: "would you torture a person if you knew that she knew where a terrorist attack would take place in the next 24 hours". The gut-feeling reaction to such question is that "of course, yes, we would, we should do so to save innocent lives", and there is the strength of the argument. (Apparently there is even a TV show depicting such scenarios, I think that it is called 24 hours). What is interesting, again leaving sadness to the side, is to see the impact that such a fantasy can have on reality. While proponents of the argument seem to be unable to produce a single real example of the scenario, torture is now very real for thousands of people under the control of a variety of USA military and secret services branches. This is a, very dark, reminder of the power of our imagination in shaping reality.

Literature and Tolerance. Northrop Frye

Literature encourages tolerance - bigots and fanatics seldom have any use for the arts, because they're so preoccupied with their beliefs and actions that they can't see them also as possibilities.

mark Anger. For years, it is now 2005, and especially during the recent turn of our policies to the right, I spent a lot of time being angry. Angry at the president, at the administration, at the lies, at what I perceive as a loss of our values as a civil society. For a while I was so angry that I could not listen to the news: I was certain that I would find more reasons to feed my anger. After a while I decided to try to stop, feeling that my anger served no purpose other than possibly shorten my life, I am, after all, reaching an age at which it is better to keep one's blood pressure down. And then I found this:

Why should I give them my mind as well?

spoken by the Dalai Lamawhen asked if he wasn't angry at the Chinese for taking over his country. And this colored the whole episode as a possible beginning of a personal spiritual quest, or more simply the beginning of an understanding of how our mind works.

What is most illuminating about the citation above is not so much that t appears as a very good attitude, to use such an abused word. What is most interesting it that it brings home the idea that the mind might be an object that is not necessarily "ours". It has a life of it own, and it can be occupied and infected very easily.

 

 

It is quite amazing to think that the amount that Romney declares as a tax "loss" for his Olimpic dressage horse ($77,000) is what 3.5 families of four make in a year, when they are under the poverty line threshold. And still he manages to insult those families, because they do not pay taxes. Greed seems to become almost like a vengeful beast if kept unchecked. It is something to watch out for, because I am sure it is infective.

It is quite amazing to think that the amount that Romney declares as a tax "loss" for his Olimpic dressage horse ($77,000) is what 3.5 families of four make in a year, when they are under the poverty line threshold. And still he manages to insult those families, because they do not pay taxes. Greed seems to become almost like a vengeful beast if kept unchecked. It is something to watch out for, because I am sure it is infective.

Music, in a way, is one of the closest things we have to magic in our lives. We are logical beings, concentrated on understanding our surroundings, making tools, and forming the world to our advantage using precise language and science. And here comes this strange and imprecise language, this mysterious art form that can move, terrify, and take us to faraway places: music, living in the cracks of reality, like magic would.

We are sooooooo small. This color image of the Earth, dubbed 'Pale Blue Dot', is a part of the first ever 'portrait' of the solar system taken by Voyager 1. The spacecraft acquired a total of 60 frames for a mosaic of the solar system from a distance of more than 4 billion miles from Earth. From Voyager's great distance Earth is a mere point of light, less than the size of a picture element. That little dot, circled in red, is us, if you travel at about 15,000 miles/hour for 31 years ... and you would still be just exiting the Solar System ...

There it is: Mars! Hard to believe we were barely able to fly a hundred years ago and now we can send a car with cameras and much other stuff to our nearest planet. A small step, but it is so fascinating to watch an alien landscape. One wishes that the robots we'll eventually send to explore the deep of space will have a sense of wonder as we do when watching these photographs: they are the strongest reminder that entire planets, billions of them, exist and thrive outside of our small horizon.

"For an adult, the world is constantly trying to clamp down on itself. Routine, responsability, decay of institutions, corruption: this is all the world closing in. Music, when it'is really great, pries that shit back open and lets peope back in, it lets light in, and air in, and energy in, and sends people home with that, and sends me back to the hotel with it. People carry that with them sometimes for a very long period of time" Bruce Springsteen

A wonderful evening walk at Land's End. Warm and sunny with a little breeze. So majestically beautiful, with the Pacific Ocean, and is promises of never ending horizons, entering the Bay, and the bridge that seems to be put there just as a memento of human presence. I spent half an hour seating on the earth of a look out projected over the cliff. Pelicans, looking preistoric, flying by, and some red tail eagles and a few seagulls. The place seems out of a Science Fiction movie. And it is: planet earth cruising the periphery of the Milk Way, carrying oceans, mountains and life with it. How so very strange: we are all captive but, relatively speaking, quite happy passengers of this beautiful space ship.

The purity of Islam, this is a photograph of the Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, has always fascinated me. Of the three monotheistic desert religions it comes the closet to an ideal one.

An ideal religion that might want to concentrate on the essence of the mystery surrounding us, and leave to the side all the unknowable details (hell and heaven, angels, trinity and the devil) ... and give up churches, mosques and temples, and avoid the often arbitrary and oppressive moral and social precepts that fill the sermons in those places.

Too bad that instead organized religions come to resamble parasites: hitching a ride on our desire for explanation, to sprout complex networks of rules and social conditionings.


Composing for Marimba. In Italy, the ‘horns’, i.e., the stretched fingers, are surreptitiously placed behind someone’s head, or explicitly pointed at a person, the conveyed meaning is that that person is being cheated on by his wife or (more rarely) her husband. Hence the Italian cornuto, that translates literally to having horns, but figuratively means cuckold. But the 'horns' have another very useful function. Used in both hands on a keyboard they transform into organic devices to mimic four mallets playing on a Marimba. For a composer a useful mean to avoid writing impossible music for the instrument.

Rossini! I am listening and studying Giacomo in these days. The "Italian Mozart" who took Europe by storm with his gift for rhythm and melody. The overtures alone are worth gold and are such a refreshing reminder of what music can be: beautiful and exciting, fresh and inventive, cleaver but not cerebral.

 

Nowegian Wood. Beautiful film by Tran Anh Hung based on the novel by Haruki Murakami. One of those fortunate instances in which an adaptation gives a complementary look into a work of art. The emotionally relatively restrained writing trasforming into a powerful and emotionally engoulfing cinematic narration. Time to read the book again, to keep moving on the spiral ... and talking of which: I just finished IQ84. I am not really sure exactly what to make of it, besides the obvious celebration of love that is at its core, but I did like it a lot. Some images, and the characters, are going to stay with me for a long time.

John Cage 100th birthday anniversar! A popularizer of certain themes that were floating around in the fifties and sixties, he achieved a guru-like status with the intelligentsia, helped by writings that were often quite confusing and, often unfortunately, rather pompous. Some of his early compositions are nice, Sonatas and Interludes comes to mind (any section, taken at random of course, makes for pleasant music). In American colture Cage is a bit of a counterpoint to the desolation of the serial music of the 50's and 60's. Looking back it is interesting to note how the bottleneck created by the rather toxic mix of modernism, avant-gard and academia seemed to produce two conflicting compositional approaches that christallized in the 50s to 80s before finally bursting open. One relied on complete organization, the serial, the other was based on "chance" and fundamentally aleatory; one dominated composition orthodoxy for almost 40 years, the other was always on the fringe but it was still very influential. The two currents mostly did not talk to each other, but still managed to produce some of the most uncomprehensible music of the 20th century!

“That the potential arise you need to dare the impossible.” A quote by Hermann Hesse that is a good reminder to aim high: our built in limitations will lower the aim quite a bunch all the way to the realm of possibilities.

The aristocratic artist, just to bring in some semi-Marxist cathegory, does not consider himself a member of a professional category like the bourgeoisie artist. In this it is similar to the academic artist, another type that unlike most of the famous artists we are familiar with since the Renaissance, does not need to make a living with the products of his/her art.

Myself? My life journey leads toward the aristocratic path ... fortunately, and I say fortunately because it would appear that aristocratic artists, and even more so the academic ones, are not held is particular high repute, all artists are at the end judged by their products. In this respect it does not matter what class one fells into: aristocratic artists might be fewer and looked upon, but some are really quite good (from Petronio to Giuseppe Tomasi da Lampedusa to Scelsi). Even more reassuring is that most artists have actually little choice but to produce art: aristocratic, bourgeoisie, academic, folk they most do art out of need. They stop being artist, un-respective on how their results are judged, simply when the need is no longer there.

The god of the Internet. A week in Rome makes one think about religion, since Rome is one of the most important places in the Western transition from paganism to the single, universal, god of Christianity. It a transition that lasted centuries, sprouted Islam, and succeeded where the tribal god of the Jewish tradition could not: a case of refining the message if you wish. I am here, in Rome, and being what is called an atheist, wonder what will come next. Hopefully the resurgence of orthodox Christianity and Islam is just a momentary hiccup, a small convulsion, in historical terms, of traditions that are losing their broad appeal. Many of us need a different religion, something that is rooted in the spirit of the modern man and science and humanesim and ethics, not in obsolete shepperds' tales, rethorical argument, and sets of rules somehow written by god.

The curiosity is about where will religion be in a few centuries. Maybe be back to a universal pagan religion? Is this what the Internet has in store for us? Are we witnessing the early birth of a religion that recognizes the diversity of the human experience and represents it in a kaleidoscopic array of metaphors? A new place, where we can reflect on us and the cosmos with the help of the change of vision and scale provided by un-thought-of-yet tools?(No, I don't mean twitter, but something like that.)

Art for art sake. Instead of Art for Art sake modern art might be better received, and find a better societal purpose, if it decided to have a specific purpose. Nothing too ambitious perhaps just finding ways to make us a bit more sane, or a little bit wiser, or kinder, or less selfish ... as Alain de Botton reminds us for centuries Christian art never left any doubt about its purpose: it tought how to live, what to love and what to be afraid of. And out of very simple messages the masters of past centurius managed to create wonderful pieces of art that speak clearly and directly to wide audiences ... if maybe a bit boringly so: there are just so many Virging Mary's with upturn eyes one can look at!

Progress. It would appear that there is no progress in art, in the same way that that there is no progress in loving or hating. There are just many different ways to do art, or to love or to hate.

Falling asleep. Plato, in the Phaedo, makes an analogy between the immortality of the soul and the every day cycle of sleep and waking. As evertyhing that as an opposite is generated by that opposite, so waking comes from sleep, and the living come from the dead. Both are examples of cycles that are necessary to the permance of the world: without cycles, Plato argues, the world would just be in one state: asleep or awake, dead or alive. One wonders if this should apply also to my Mac Book Pro, that each day dutifully shuts off at midnight and wakes up at seven in the morning. Does the Mac book reincarnate every day? Where does it go at night?

Melancholia by Lars von Trier ... a masterpiece? Formally close to perfection: an overture followed by two acts following a similar path but culminating with two distinct climaxes. Thematically it mixes, with incredibly sure hands, motives of depression, family disfunction, real love and affection, and the fundamental question of our place in the universe. Enough? Well, the acting is fantastic. An incredible tour-de-force. Few directors in this league: perhaps more beautiful, but not as tight formally, La dolce vita, by the great Fellini comes to mind.

I am an Atheist! Or a party pupper? The problem with atheism is that one often feels like the bull in the china shop: clumsily shattering the tales of the judeo-christian-islamic traditions, and leaving the fuzzy reassuring feeling of the afterlife to vanish like interstellar dust.

A. Dutilleuz. I am studying quite a lot of the French master. Metaboles, Mistère de l'Istant, fascinating works from a composer that was straight out of the French tradition, with generous contributions from Stravinsky and Bartok, and worked his way through the dark compositional ages of the 50's, 60's ... and 70's.

Art is not the domain of logic ... and often not even of common sense.

Virtuosity. Why be involved with "virtuosity"? It is not as if writing difficult to execute music somehow gives a composer more cachet. or prestige ... it is not as if it would make him, or her, a virtuoso! A performer feels accomplished for having mastered a difficult piece, but I am not sure why a composer should be proud of having strung together a lot of notes that are difficult to play. Still, the admiration for composers that write "difficult" music seem to be rather widespread in music schools and composers' circles. The perils of virtuosity for the sake of virtuosity! The great Frantz Liszt was often, and quite rightly so, criticized for his virtuosic indulgence, but at least he could play his music! It would appear that it is actually quite easy to write difficult, or close to impossible to execute, music. To the contrary it seems very hard to write simple music that is also very effective.

More Stravinsky. Another famous quote "Immature Artists Imitate. Mature Artists Steal". Stealing is taking possession, that is, for a conceptual object, thoroughly understanding what makes the object work or doesn't. To the contrary imitation is superficial: it misses the reasons why certain events are where they are, patterns evolve in certain ways, and why certain details are added to complete the picture. Imitation is often a dead-end, unless one learns from it rises up the ante and learn out to steal.

Novelty! Novelty! One of the tendencies of modernism and its offshoots is to twist the fundamental desire of self-discovery into an obsession for novelty. Self-discovery ceases to be the drive to artistic production, and is substituted by a rather arid search for new forms and techniques. The irony that goes together with this attitude of obsessive search for the new is that because we are all, to a point, different from each other, an unflincing look into ourselves would be enough to produce new pieces of art, or at least honest ones.

The magic of Practise. I am going back to the piano due to a number of engagements and the marvel of it strikes me anew. It is the marvel of practise. One approaches something unknown, and with a little discipline and attention there it is ... a few days later (well ... maybe weeks) it is in your muscle memory and you know the piece. What our mind can do is quite misterious. We are very used to it, we learn things, discover, understand all the time, and scientist have surely started to figure out how learning works. But in a way, as a passenger looking at the results sort of from-the-outside, the whole process feels almost like magic.

Emotional Landscapes. I am not completely sure of what I mean by "emotional landscape", but the idea is that a sequence of emotional states, expressed in a musical piece, can drive the form to such an extent that the end result emerges as a separate entity. And this "entity" can be recognized as distinct from the temporal unfolding of the piece we just listened to. The notion came to my mind when listening to one of my favorite Beethoven Piano Sonatas Op.31 No.2, The Tempest . There the emotional sequence is so well defined that it plays out with the clarity of a landscape. It is as if, whatever we are hearing and whatever its meaning, we can look at it as if it was a three dimensional object. The problem, from a composition view point is probably two-fold: to imagine an emotional landscape and then translate it into music.

Live to ... The painter Lucian Freud died this week and of the many commentaries a simple one stroke me as particularly significant: "He lived to paint". There is something very human in living to do ... something, with passion, or simply because it is felt as necessary. And maybe with a stroke of amazement, as in the following poem by Mary Oliver:

When Death Comes

When it's over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it is over, I don't want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument.
I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

Constraints. Igor Stravinsky, in the Poetics of Music, is quoted as saying "My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength." Constraints force the agent upon which they are acting to find alternative solutions, they are one of the engines of change and variety. Compare the two tree sections below. To the right a tree that grew in relatively stable, constraint free, environment: its growth rings show relatively small departures from perfect circles. To the left (in a shot taken at the shopping center of Larkspur Landing) a very different situation: with time, after a period of uniform growth shown at the center of the section, obstacles limited the growth of the tree. Three main forces are at play: the radial, annual growth of the rings, the constraints (rocks, soil), and the stresses induced when the inner rings die, generating the cracks in the wood. The result is a very complex structure: the overall irregular cross section, the beautifully varied shape of the rings (that are close, with smaller cells, where constraints were stronger and larger otherwise), and the cracks that add yet another element of tension, with the big ones pointing to the main axes of growth and the moltitude of smaller ones following the differential growth rates of the rings. So constraints! in this case building up a structure that we might find much more interesting and "dramatic" than the one to the right.

Consonanza from the latin consonare, "suonare insieme", "to play together". The idea of being alligned, to fit, to make something that falls on a path that is perceived as congruent, harmonious, in balance. Regular proportions, harmonies built on columns of resonance, interlocking and temporally clear patterns. Dissonance is a polar opposite: each element plays separately, or is perceived as so doing. The patterns of balance are broken, the rules not understood.

Fibonacci. 0 1 1 2 3 5 8 13 21 34 55 89 ... is famous sequence that, in the west, goes back to 1201 and Leonardo da Pisa (nicknamed Fibonacci). It is related, among other mathematical objects, to the Golden Ratio (that is approximated by the sequence 3/2 5/3 8/5 13/8 ... that converges to 1.6180...). It was proposed to represent an idealized model of growth in rabbits: suppose pairs, male and female, that live and reproduce (within a couple) forever, and that it takes two months to go from conception to reproduction, then the number of pairs at any given month is given by the Fibonacci series. The model is, of course, completely unapplicable due to its unrealistic assumptions. In music the Fibonacci series and the Golden Ratio have been related to some works of Bartok, Debussy, and others. In general the explosive growth of the series precludes its sensible use within a musical composition, unless one limits the application to the very first terms of the series. By itself the Golden Ratio can serve as a rough approximation to narrative proportions that go back to Aristotelian theory of tragedy. Many musical pieces can indeed have the peak of the musical narrative occouring roughly at two thirds of the duration of the piece, or close, in some sense, to the reciprocal of the Golden Ratio: 1/1.6180=0.6180.

It is a curiosity that the Fibonacci series, in a mapping in frequency domain, spells out the luminous chord of the harmonic series .. but unfortunately, or fortunately, there is nothing very special about the Fibonacci series or the Golden Mean: for the numerology inclined there are more than 100,000 catalogued mathematical series to pick from, a never ending source of merryment that might be explored for possible applications!!!!!!

Life forward.It would be nice to live forward and avoid actions motivated by regrets, desires and fears.

Wasted youth. I never fail to be surprised by how many composers are so taken in by the allure of basically trivial arithmetic. It would seem that anything would do. A Golden Ratio (generally measured by counting measures or beats, in itself a rather strange approach to measuring musical time), a Fibonacci Series (truncated quickly ... it does grow pretty fast), some vaguely "fractally inspired" kind of operation, "laws of proportions", strange "theorems", down to totally bizarre rules derived in the most arbitrary and un-systematic and un-organic ways. "Give me something I can count and I will write a piece" seem to be the teaching and philosophy behind this approach to composition. The results are often, and quite predictably, dismal. When they are not it is because the compositional straight-jackets so gallantly and abstrusely devised have been fortunately broken down: the composer recognizing soon enough their irrelevance to the dynamics, architecture and effectivness of a piece.

Multichotomies. One of the most poignant photographs from World War II: Dresden, in Germany, after the fire bombing by the allies ariforces. 6,500 airplanes dropped undred of thousands of bombs and incendiaries and killed an estimated 35,000 to 150,000 people. The exact number will never be known: the city was filled with hundred of thousands of refugees from the eastern front, and tempetures in the center of the city reached 1600 degrees making recovery and counting of bodies all but impossible.

Dismay? Revenge? Our desire for transcendence violated? Icarus dream carrying the seeds of distruction. Compassion? Ghosts? Screaming? Loss? So many layers in this photograph.

What? What is an artist supposed to do nowadays? Reflect some cosmic order we do not even beging to understand? Generate some reality or mithology according to his/her fancy and inspiration? Be new? and for what? for the sake of releasing objects into the artistic free market? Reflect society? Interpret it? Be important? irrelevant? ... Maybe it is just a choice of stringing together the pretty notes, and reach for what is the best in us?

Geometric Memories. The ancient Roman temples had a rectangular or circular plant. The stunnig Pantheon (the Temple of All Deities) is probably the most famous and best preserved example of circular plant structures. Rebuilt by the emperor Adriano in 118-125 C.E. over the original rectangular structure built by Agrippa in 27-25 B.C.E., it is capped by a huge emi-spheric dome. A dome bigger than St. Peter's, almost twice as big than the White House.

A recent trip to Rome made me think about those large geometric shapes, dominating the landscape of worship. And it is interesting to follow the evolution of the architecture of the Christian churches, which came to oblitarate the Pagan places of devotion. At first pagan places of cult were simply taken over and one finds christian places of cult litterally, and exactly superimposed to the original architecture. Then, with the centuries and millenia, things start to change a bit. The rectangular with emicycle, already present in antiquity, start to sprout sides, the symbol of the cross starts to emerge in the planimetry. But the cupula never leaves: it dominates Christian architectures to this day.

 

It is as if the simple geometric shapes used for places of cult and devotion, slowly, very slowly change into something else. It takes litterally millenia to do so. It is as if those shapes impose their presence in the memory of the builders. And one can actually make the case that the circle, the rectangle, the emi-sphere are still with us: they have not changed. Only the object they contain changes, from a statue of Giunone to one of Christ, indicating, perhaps, the transitory nature of our attempts to understand the divine.

1, 2, 3, 4 ... counting, up to 10? most times up to 4, 5, 6, maybe 7. This is pretty much all the math I end up using when composing. Maybe this will change, but I still have the impression that all the math one needs to know to compose music can be done using the ten fingers. (Twelve tone composers are the exception) It is kind of nice when one thinks about it: some very simple relationships can serve as scaffolding for beautiful pieces of music.

Jean Cocteau's Testament of Orpheus. I just finished to watch the last movie of Jean Cocteau and I thought the best line was "poets only ever talk about themselves". Is it a daunting truth or something to trying to overcome? Can we actually communicate, can we actually see anything other than a confused mirror of our misterious insides? ... the movie made me also realize how much I missed those places ... the south of Europe, the landscapes of sun and sea ...how much I miss the ghosts of gods from ancient Greece and Rome and the mediterranean: they do not inhabit the shores I currently walk on ...

Composing at the Piano. I really enjoiy the mornings, and the quiet time spent with the piano, listening to the notes.

Opera. After my first incursion into Opera probably the most interesting insight I gained from the process is that one does not need to say anything partcularly deep and complicated to interest people. A simple story seems to be all is required to make us think about our human condition and get some entertainment.

Experimental Music and a bit of John Cage. I am reading Michael Nyman's Experimental Music (from 1974! gee time passes by). It is such a nice book, written with enthusiasm and with a degree of objectivity that is refreshing. It reads almost as a diary from a leading composer of his time looking at new music surrounding him. It is also a good occasion to revisit a bit of John Cage ...and well, I was hoping to find a way into appreciating a bit more his contributions but I cannot avoid my usual feelings. Every time I read JC I find a mixture of strongly worded doctrines supported by statements that at closer examination seem most of the time self-contraddicotry and don't stand up very well to even a cursory analysis.

For example: 'I do not like when a particular thing is a symbol of a particular other thing. But if each thing in the world can be seen as a symbol of every other thing in the world, then I do like it.' It sounds sort of good, in a we-are-all-in-this-interconnected kind of way but, if one thinks about it for a moment, it does not really means much (and it has very little to do with composition). It does allow one thing that seems ot be often very important: to divide between the bad (those clumsy single-symbol-focused symbolists composers) and the good ones (those enlightened global-symbolists, whatever that means). But things change, and one wonders where M-brane-symbolists enter the picture. Paraphrasing, my current standing on the issue is as follows: I do not like when each thing in the world can be seen as a symbol of every other thing in the world, but if each symbol acts as a graviton, and it can move freely from membrane to membrane in the M-brane space: then I do like it!

More seriously, it is hardly conceivable to have any form of expression that does not revolve around the use of symbols, and music has of course used symbols for ages, perhaps implicitly (the tune of any folk song) or explicitly, as in the sixteenth-century madrigal "tone -painting" in its relationship with the text (onomatopoetic imitation of natural sounds, chromaticism employed to depict sorrow), to J.S.Bach's use of christologycal symbols, or the uncountable musical symbols found in Wagner's operas, Debussy's direct use of specific symbols in most of his compositions (and of course his relationship with the Symbolist movement in poetry, where the idea of symbol is contrary to the specific but is used to suggest and evoke). Is it possible to write something in which everything can be a symbol of something else? Or to turn it the other way around: is it possible to write something where a particular thing is a symbol of (only) a particular other thing? Isn't already present in any of our creations a kaleidoscopic chain of symbols, some more and some less important depending on perspective?

Katsushika Hokusai's print, The Great Wave off Kanogawa, which appears on the front page of Debussy's La Mer score.

War and Peace. I am reading again War and Peace by count Tolstoy. What a wonderful book. I do not remember which famous writer said that he read it eleven times. I can see why, it is a book about life, and like life it is so full of details, corners you want ot explore, so many thoughts and events and situations which need be considered with care. Ah ... what a sweet thing about literature: we can live it again and again, a bookshelf reincarnation that can happen (if you have my reading habits) every night.

More Emotions? Talking about expressing emotions, I just ran into a supposedly famous aria from the opera Agogne. Of all things it is about the benefits of prunes for corporeal functions. The lyrics (translation is mine) are a bit baffling:

O prugne!
che meglio del lesso
voi mandate l'Agogne
a passar meno tempo sul cesso
Oh prunes!
that better than boiled meat
you send Agogne
to spend shorter times on the toilet

Opera can be a bit strange at times.

Emotions? the music I am getting most interesting in is one that tries to say something, and explores the emotions going around the saying. Unfortunately, instrumental music is an awfully complicated tool to do this.

Math ad Music? ... a good many book have been written on this topic, but I always found somewhat of a little misconception at the root of the question. It is as if one were confusing music with acoustics. Acoustic phenomena can be described, up to a certain point, using mathematics, but when it comes to music, that is how we organize those sounds, the suspicion is that ‘math’ can be as poor a descriptive tool as it is for literature, painting, or other art forms. To draw a parallel: it is as if we were to establish the marriage between Architecture and Math because we can describe (very accurately) bricks and mortar. We can actually very well describe the physics of a building, and buildings must obey some very specific laws, which is not the case for the structure music. But those laws have little to do with architecture: they are at most formalized description of physical constraints.

What would be interesting is to build a dynamical model of a whole composition ... but I suspect we just do not have yet the methodology to do so, especially the software. And it gets even more complicated if one tries to describe the creative process. Probably, when we will have those tools we will be close to make a quantal leap forward in nothing less then our evolution as a species: if you build a successfully model of the creative process you are very close to realize true Artificial Intelligence.

Music? Music, as any Art, is a way to explore my self and my relationships with others, and to reflect on reality. It is a highly metaphorical way, which gives only hints, intuitions, and often, especially if one is honest, some surprising and disconcerting insights. As all arts, it is a vague, mysterious, and sometimes confusing endeavor: a mirror of our life that might bring some light on it, or cast more shadows.

A short review of the Tanakh and the Bible. The Tanakh describes the relationship of a a god and a tribe, about 2500 years ago. The god is not particularly nice: he does not refrain from genocide toward other tribes, and he is often very cruel toward its own, if his laws are not followed. The tribe seems to be mostly concerned with shepparding, rising crops, and fighting other tribes. By the time we reach the end of the book, the god seems to become more tolerant, although he appears to devise and carry over a plan to sacrifice his own son to promote the spread of his cult to larger tribes. (There is quite a disagreement between the Tanakh and the Bible on this). The very last chapters are seemingly a mix of down to earth organizational suggestions, and rather dark apocalyptic visions.
A rather disconcerting book, although it seems to generate a large following. Unfortunately, but perhaps not surprisingly given its premises, this often translates in a variety of justifications for intolerance, persecution and wars. Overall rating: baffling.

Memory. Without memory the human experience disintegrates into a void. As impermanent as events and individuals are, their recollection constitutes a thread that binds together otherwise disconcerting realities.

Music and Magic. A quotation from the magician Ian Swiss that applies well to music and performance: You cannot cross into the world of magic until you put everything else aside and beside you, including your own desires and needs, and focus on bringing an experience to the audience. This is magic. Nothing else. The artistic event is first and foremost an experience, and the focus has to be on its delivering.

There is a time for everything. Ogni cosa a suo tempo.

What time is this?
It's the time of birds, of long breaths
and breeze carrying tears of rain

Trans-human. Jorge Borges (Otras Inquisiciones) quotes Shelley (In defense of Poetry , 1821) arguing that all individual poems, past, present and future, are actually fragments of a universal infinite poem. Our fundamental unity is reflected in any category of our productions. Poetry, literature, music are not a historical sequence of individuals' contributions but a single manifestation of an inquisitive universal spirit. (The same could be said of science and religion or any activity that involves bringing forward unformed matter or ideas into some reality.) Are we uno or disconnected fragments or both?

Art and Metaphor. Art can be considered as the exploration of the place of metaphor and simile. Art therefore is not? since arguably reality just is? Or reality just appears to be and what is is the metaphor? (Vaguely inspired by Neil Gaiman Neverwhere).

Lavoro. The italian word for 'to work', lavorare, has the flavour of the daily activity of the prestinaio (the bread maker). Every day, with the exception of sunday, tu lavori e sudi (you work and sweat). There is something very reassuring about having a daily activity - like working every day at an instrument, like having a table to go back to every morning.

Composition and Science. I had conversations with academic composers actually comparing their activity to that of a scientist that does research. Having been a scientist for long years I generally avoided to make comments. More honestly (and in the privacy of a web page) I think that these ideas are based either on a misuse of words or in a misunderstanding of what the scientific method is. It is a bit of an unfortunate position: while there is no doubt that artists are not doing science, the misunderstanding might trap the metaphor maker in a place not so conductive for creativity.

Technical secrets. A quote from Heinrich Neuhaus:

There are no technical secrets to become great pianists.The only way is to work with patience, intelligence and tenacity.

Which might sound too easy, but it is also one of the best encouragements I could find: if we apply our human qualities, greatness, in a human dimension of course, will follow.

Art and Being. Inspired by Martin Heidegger (The Origin of the Work of Art)

Reflection of what art and art making is may be linked with the relation of being and human being. Art, that is beauty in a metaphysical sense, unconceals the truth of being. The apparition of truth in the art work might be related to our own, temporary, unfolding as parts of the universal Being. Our own art making might be related to the truth of our identity, but it is also moved and motivated by the desire for transcending ourselves for the truth of being. Perhaps in its most clear examples it is guided by, or resonates with, it.

Does this make any sense?

 

Marker Art and Necessity. Inspired by Federico Fellini. In a perhaphs humbler way, Art is a necessity. The necessity is to try to make sense of a reality that otherwise, taken at face value, would be monstrous. Art frames reality in a reassuring, familar, more comfortable place, a place that is less overwhelming then the incomprehensibly colossal size, and apparent blindness, of the materiality surrounding us. The act of threading some simple beads is an attempt of bringing order and perhaps some form of understanding,

beads

Successful or not it requires consideration and attention: it takes us away from our corporeal reality and leads us in a place of thought, wander and imagination. It is built in us, it seems to be a necessary condition of our being, or simply to make our life more bearable.

Marker Art and Motivation. (Elizabeth Gilbert) Art is a path for the courageous and the faithful. One must find another reason to work, other than the desire for success or recognition. It must come from another place ... similarly for science? certainly for spiritual quests. Possibly art - science - spirituality share the idea of searching, and the motivation to search cannot be that of success and recognition.

Soft-heartedness. From Zen & Japanese Culture by Daisetz Suzuki (Chapter VIII, Zen and the Art of Tea):

Soft-heartedness is "tender-mindness" or "gentleness of spirit".
Generally we are too egotistic, too full of hard resisting spirit. We are individualistic, unable to accept things as they are or as they come to us. Resistance means friction, friction is the source of all trouble. When there is no self, the heart is soft and offers no resistance to outside influences.

"Things" are both good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant. For example, during any kind of performance one does not rejoice for a successfully completed section, nor despair because something has gone wrong. Things unfold in front of us and there is no judgment.

Soft-heartedness and practice. It would appear that somewhat as a corollary of the previous thought,one should consider dividing practice in at least two parts. The first is the usual, analytical part of practice. It involves analyzing and decomposing, taking apart and putting together, training the muscles and tendons involved with the physical aspect of the execution. The second is the training of the clear mind. Here one trains to be an observer, or better a listener, as opposed to an evaluator and a judge. Again, there is no rejoicing nor disappointment. It is interesting that in all these years of learning and instruction very little attention, if any, has been given to this important side of performance. It is quite strange, if one assumes, as I am more and more lead to believe, that this superficially mysterious capacity is all important for an organic performance. (Where by organic I mean in-one-piece, such as an organism under the guidance of its autonomic nervous system.)

A four steps recipe, with all the limitations of a recipe, that can be adapted to any endeavor:

Show up

Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention
Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention
Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention
Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention
Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention

Don't be attached to the outcome

Share your work

Beauty. Parvathi Naryan (a nine year old student of my friend Amy Billheimer)

Sometimes playing is very difficult but if you keep trying it sounds very pretty

Is this not a complement to the Neuhaus quote at the beginning of this page? From a young child: keep try and it will sound pretty. We all can, it is built in with us.

Meaning in Music. The good thing about doing and thinking about art is that it forces to think about life. For months I have been struggling with the problem of meaning: what do I try to say in the pieces I compose. Do I have something to say? Perhaps not. Kurt Vonnegut, in an interesting section of A man Without a Country discusses stories that oscillate the narrative between well defined good and ill fortune and stories that don't. Cinderella in the first category. Good fortune is well defined: seemingly out of reach for Cinderella it is nonetheless the goal of the tale and it is eventually accomplished forever thereafter. Hamlet is in this second category, and the idea is that in real life often is very hard to define good or il fortune: "But there is a reason we recognize Hamlet as a masterpiece: it's that Shakespeare told us the truth ... The truth is, we know so little about life, we don't really know what the good news is and the bad news is." Telling the truth is very hard in a tale of good and bad fortune, and it is so easy to slip and make it a shallow fairy tale. What this has to do with meaning in music? We know so little, maybe more then spelling out meaning we can only show and ask questions, and instrumental music might be a medium that has built in such indeterminacy.

dragon

More Political Considerations

Tax breaks for Luxury Yachts! Just in: the "Tea Party" dominated Texan legislation cut the State budget by 25%. Schools, clinics, parks you name it will close ... in the same evening they pass a tax-deduction for people buying Luxury Yachts worth more than $250,000. As Rep. John Davis (R-Houston) put it: "$250,000 does not buy you very much nowadays". A real gem brought to you by the o-so-grassroot populist movement of America.

Majority in Poll Back Employees in Public Sector Unions. Which is great! It gives one hope that the American public has not been completely kidnapped by the propaganda of the ultra-right-wing Republicans and Fox News! Can we now have an opinion pool asking: "Are you in favor of rising taxes for the top 1% incomes, to solve the budget problems of the Nation". And let's see how many are in favor (more than 80% is my guess).

The struggling democracy. It seems quite clear that the pendulum democracy - plutocracy is now swinging decisevely toward the plutocrats. Since Mr. Reagan, money has been massively redistributed upward. Untill our political system is re-formed (providing public funding of campaigns, third-party access to the ballot, an end to the filibuster, and so forth), it will remain foolish to expect a different face in the White House or majority in Congress to get America back on track.

Fox News. Can you believe this: as of Oct 2010 every single republican candidate for the 2012 presidency is on the payrol of Fox News.

Snotty comments about President Obama. Can i get the money I gave for his campaign back?

Health Care. It is quite amazing that a proposal that could be easily been put forward by, say, a Nixon administration, is labeled as socialist by the current Republican elected officials. The absurdity of the "argument" gives quite a measure of how far the coorporate ideology of imbridled capitalism has come, and how much it dominates the discourse of the right. It is too bad that as a policy it is as destined to fail as its opposite, centralized stalinist economy. A good rehearsal was the 2008-2010 economic melt-down.

Populist movements. Populist rage of sort on the rise. Embarrassingly named Tea Parties, they seem to be characterized, as it is quite usual, by a rush toward simple solutions for difficult problems. With a touch of violence, racism, and Fox News financing added in the mix.

Oh my, oh my, oh my. A democrat in the White House! Maybe things will change a bit.

More torture. Fast forward a year and few months and you have Judiciary committee hearings where the future Attorney General refuses to call water boarding torture. One of the leading democrats in the Senate, Dianne Feinstein, gives him her vote thus guaranteeing his confirmation. It looks like the barbarians have entered the city and are comfortably established in the pretty houses off the main streets.

Now we torture and are proud of it (2006). Just a few months after I wrote the previous note. The President and Vice-President can go on TV and say that there is nothing wrong with applying torture to prisoners. They still do not use the word "torture" but claim that practices defined by international law as torture are not so, and can and should be used. The usual verbal trickery does not matter much: the slippery road away from a civilized society is getting steeper. One wanders what next?

Reality driven by fantasy. It is so strange that in just a few years, staring around 2001, it is now 2006, discussions about the legality of torture have become common place. Leaving aside the sadness and repulsion generated by this state of affairs, it is interesting to notice how parts of the debate offers an insight into a fundamental human capacity. One of the main arguments in favor of torture is the "finger on the trigger" scenario: "would you torture a person if you knew that she knew where a terrorist attack would take place in the next 24 hours". The gut-feeling reaction to such question is that "of course, yes, we would, we should do so to save innocent lives", and there is the strength of the argument. (Apparently there is even a TV show depicting such scenarios, I think that it is called 24 hours). What is interesting, again leaving sadness to the side, is to see the impact that such a fantasy can have on reality. While proponents of the argument seem to be unable to produce a single real example of the scenario, torture is now very real for thousands of people under the control of a variety of USA military and secret services branches. This is a, very dark, reminder of the power of our imagination in shaping reality.

Literature and Tolerance. Northrop Frye

Literature encourages tolerance - bigots and fanatics seldom have any use for the arts, because they're so preoccupied with their beliefs and actions that they can't see them also as possibilities.

mark Anger. For years, it is now 2005, and especially during the recent turn of our policies to the right, I spent a lot of time being angry. Angry at the president, at the administration, at the lies, at what I perceive as a loss of our values as a civil society. For a while I was so angry that I could not listen to the news: I was certain that I would find more reasons to feed my anger. After a while I decided to try to stop, feeling that my anger served no purpose other than possibly shorten my life, I am, after all, reaching an age at which it is better to keep one's blood pressure down. And then I found this:

Why should I give them my mind as well?

spoken by the Dalai Lamawhen asked if he wasn't angry at the Chinese for taking over his country. And this colored the whole episode as a possible beginning of a personal spiritual quest, or more simply the beginning of an understanding of how our mind works.

What is most illuminating about the citation above is not so much that t appears as a very good attitude, to use such an abused word. What is most interesting it that it brings home the idea that the mind might be an object that is not necessarily "ours". It has a life of it own, and it can be occupied and infected very easily.

 

 

Music, in a way, is one of the closest things we have to magic in our lives. We are logical beings, concentrated on understanding our surroundings, making tools, and forming the world to our advantage using precise language and science. And here comes this strange and imprecise language, this mysterious art form that can move, terrify, and take us to faraway places: music, living in the cracks of reality, like magic would

There it is: Mars! Hard to believe we were barely able to fly a hundred years ago and now we can send a car with cameras and much other stuff to our nearest planet. A small step, but it is so fascinating to watch an alien landscape. One wishes that the robots we'll eventually send to explore the deep of space will have a sense of wonder as we do when watching these photographs: they are the strongest reminder that entire planets, billions of them, exist and thrive outside of our small horizon.

"For an adult, the world is constantly trying to clamp down on itself. Routine, responsability, decay of institutions, corruption: this is all the world closing in. Music, when it'is really great, pries that shit back open and lets peope back in, it lets light in, and air in, and energy in, and sends people home with that, and sends me back to the hotel with it. People carry that with them sometimes for a very long period of time" Bruce Springsteen

A wonderful evening walk at Land's End. Warm and sunny with a little breeze. So majestically beautiful, with the Pacific Ocean, and is promises of never ending horizons, entering the Bay, and the bridge that seems to be put there just as a memento of human presence. I spent half an hour seating on the earth of a look out projected over the cliff. Pelicans, looking preistoric, flying by, and some red tail eagles and a few seagulls. The place seems out of a Science Fiction movie. And it is: planet earth cruising the periphery of the Milk Way, carrying oceans, mountains and life with it. How so very strange: we are all captive but, relatively speaking, quite happy passengers of this beautiful space ship.

The purity of Islam, this is a photograph of the Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, has always fascinated me. Of the three monotheistic desert religions it comes the closet to an ideal one.

An ideal religion that might want to concentrate on the essence of the mystery surrounding us, and leave to the side all the unknowable details (hell and heaven, angels, trinity and the devil) ... and give up churches, mosques and temples, and avoid the often arbitrary and oppressive moral and social precepts that fill the sermons in those places.

Too bad that instead organized religions come to resamble parasites: hitching a ride on our desire for explanation, to sprout complex networks of rules and social conditionings.


Composing for Marimba. In Italy, the ‘horns’, i.e., the stretched fingers, are surreptitiously placed behind someone’s head, or explicitly pointed at a person, the conveyed meaning is that that person is being cheated on by his wife or (more rarely) her husband. Hence the Italian cornuto, that translates literally to having horns, but figuratively means cuckold. But the 'horns' have another very useful function. Used in both hands on a keyboard they transform into organic devices to mimic four mallets playing on a Marimba. For a composer a useful mean to avoid writing impossible music for the instrument.

Rossini! I am listening and studying Giacomo in these days. The "Italian Mozart" who took Europe by storm with his gift for rhythm and melody. The overtures alone are worth gold and are such a refreshing reminder of what music can be: beautiful and exciting, fresh and inventive, cleaver but not cerebral.

 

Nowegian Wood. Beautiful film by Tran Anh Hung based on the novel by Haruki Murakami. One of those fortunate instances in which an adaptation gives a complementary look into a work of art. The emotionally relatively restrained writing trasforming into a powerful and emotionally engoulfing cinematic narration. Time to read the book again, to keep moving on the spiral ... and talking of which: I just finished IQ84. I am not really sure exactly what to make of it, besides the obvious celebration of love that is at its core, but I did like it a lot. Some images, and the characters, are going to stay with me for a long time.

John Cage 100th birthday anniversar! A popularizer of certain themes that were floating around in the fifties and sixties, he achieved a guru-like status with the intelligentsia, helped by writings that were often quite confusing and, often unfortunately, rather pompous. Some of his early compositions are nice, Sonatas and Interludes comes to mind (any section, taken at random of course, makes for pleasant music). In American colture Cage is a bit of a counterpoint to the desolation of the serial music of the 50's and 60's. Looking back it is interesting to note how the bottleneck created by the rather toxic mix of modernism, avant-gard and academia seemed to produce two conflicting compositional approaches that christallized in the 50s to 80s before finally bursting open. One relied on complete organization, the serial, the other was based on "chance" and fundamentally aleatory; one dominated composition orthodoxy for almost 40 years, the other was always on the fringe but it was still very influential. The two currents mostly did not talk to each other, but still managed to produce some of the most uncomprehensible music of the 20th century!

“That the potential arise you need to dare the impossible.” A quote by Hermann Hesse that is a good reminder to aim high: our built in limitations will lower the aim quite a bunch all the way to the realm of possibilities.

The aristocratic artist, just to bring in some semi-Marxist cathegory, does not consider himself a member of a professional category like the bourgeoisie artist. In this it is similar to the academic artist, another type that unlike most of the famous artists we are familiar with since the Renaissance, does not need to make a living with the products of his/her art.

Myself? My life journey leads toward the aristocratic path ... fortunately, and I say fortunately because it would appear that aristocratic artists, and even more so the academic ones, are not held is particular high repute, all artists are at the end judged by their products. In this respect it does not matter what class one fells into: aristocratic artists might be fewer and looked upon, but some are really quite good (from Petronio to Giuseppe Tomasi da Lampedusa to Scelsi). Even more reassuring is that most artists have actually little choice but to produce art: aristocratic, bourgeoisie, academic, folk they most do art out of need. They stop being artist, un-respective on how their results are judged, simply when the need is no longer there.

The god of the Internet. A week in Rome makes one think about religion, since Rome is one of the most important places in the Western transition from paganism to the single, universal, god of Christianity. It a transition that lasted centuries, sprouted Islam, and succeeded where the tribal god of the Jewish tradition could not: a case of refining the message if you wish. I am here, in Rome, and being what is called an atheist, wonder what will come next. Hopefully the resurgence of orthodox Christianity and Islam is just a momentary hiccup, a small convulsion, in historical terms, of traditions that are losing their broad appeal. Many of us need a different religion, something that is rooted in the spirit of the modern man and science and humanesim and ethics, not in obsolete shepperds' tales, rethorical argument, and sets of rules somehow written by god.

The curiosity is about where will religion be in a few centuries. Maybe be back to a universal pagan religion? Is this what the Internet has in store for us? Are we witnessing the early birth of a religion that recognizes the diversity of the human experience and represents it in a kaleidoscopic array of metaphors? A new place, where we can reflect on us and the cosmos with the help of the change of vision and scale provided by un-thought-of-yet tools?(No, I don't mean twitter, but something like that.)

Art for art sake. Instead of Art for Art sake modern art might be better received, and find a better societal purpose, if it decided to have a specific purpose. Nothing too ambitious perhaps just finding ways to make us a bit more sane, or a little bit wiser, or kinder, or less selfish ... as Alain de Botton reminds us for centuries Christian art never left any doubt about its purpose: it tought how to live, what to love and what to be afraid of. And out of very simple messages the masters of past centurius managed to create wonderful pieces of art that speak clearly and directly to wide audiences ... if maybe a bit boringly so: there are just so many Virging Mary's with upturn eyes one can look at!

Progress. It would appear that there is no progress in art, in the same way that that there is no progress in loving or hating. There are just many different ways to do art, or to love or to hate.

Falling asleep. Plato, in the Phaedo, makes an analogy between the immortality of the soul and the every day cycle of sleep and waking. As evertyhing that as an opposite is generated by that opposite, so waking comes from sleep, and the living come from the dead. Both are examples of cycles that are necessary to the permance of the world: without cycles, Plato argues, the world would just be in one state: asleep or awake, dead or alive. One wonders if this should apply also to my Mac Book Pro, that each day dutifully shuts off at midnight and wakes up at seven in the morning. Does the Mac book reincarnate every day? Where does it go at night?

Melancholia by Lars von Trier ... a masterpiece? Formally close to perfection: an overture followed by two acts following a similar path but culminating with two distinct climaxes. Thematically it mixes, with incredibly sure hands, motives of depression, family disfunction, real love and affection, and the fundamental question of our place in the universe. Enough? Well, the acting is fantastic. An incredible tour-de-force. Few directors in this league: perhaps more beautiful, but not as tight formally, La dolce vita, by the great Fellini comes to mind.

I am an Atheist! Or a party pupper? The problem with atheism is that one often feels like the bull in the china shop: clumsily shattering the tales of the judeo-christian-islamic traditions, and leaving the fuzzy reassuring feeling of the afterlife to vanish like interstellar dust.

A. Dutilleuz. I am studying quite a lot of the French master. Metaboles, Mistère de l'Istant, fascinating works from a composer that was straight out of the French tradition, with generous contributions from Stravinsky and Bartok, and worked his way through the dark compositional ages of the 50's, 60's ... and 70's.

Art is not the domain of logic ... and often not even of common sense.

Virtuosity. Why be involved with "virtuosity"? It is not as if writing difficult to execute music somehow gives a composer more cachet. or prestige ... it is not as if it would make him, or her, a virtuoso! A performer feels accomplished for having mastered a difficult piece, but I am not sure why a composer should be proud of having strung together a lot of notes that are difficult to play. Still, the admiration for composers that write "difficult" music seem to be rather widespread in music schools and composers' circles. The perils of virtuosity for the sake of virtuosity! The great Frantz Liszt was often, and quite rightly so, criticized for his virtuosic indulgence, but at least he could play his music! It would appear that it is actually quite easy to write difficult, or close to impossible to execute, music. To the contrary it seems very hard to write simple music that is also very effective.

More Stravinsky. Another famous quote "Immature Artists Imitate. Mature Artists Steal". Stealing is taking possession, that is, for a conceptual object, thoroughly understanding what makes the object work or doesn't. To the contrary imitation is superficial: it misses the reasons why certain events are where they are, patterns evolve in certain ways, and why certain details are added to complete the picture. Imitation is often a dead-end, unless one learns from it rises up the ante and learn out to steal.

Novelty! Novelty! One of the tendencies of modernism and its offshoots is to twist the fundamental desire of self-discovery into an obsession for novelty. Self-discovery ceases to be the drive to artistic production, and is substituted by a rather arid search for new forms and techniques. The irony that goes together with this attitude of obsessive search for the new is that because we are all, to a point, different from each other, an unflincing look into ourselves would be enough to produce new pieces of art, or at least honest ones.

The magic of Practise. I am going back to the piano due to a number of engagements and the marvel of it strikes me anew. It is the marvel of practise. One approaches something unknown, and with a little discipline and attention there it is ... a few days later (well ... maybe weeks) it is in your muscle memory and you know the piece. What our mind can do is quite misterious. We are very used to it, we learn things, discover, understand all the time, and scientist have surely started to figure out how learning works. But in a way, as a passenger looking at the results sort of from-the-outside, the whole process feels almost like magic.

Emotional Landscapes. I am not completely sure of what I mean by "emotional landscape", but the idea is that a sequence of emotional states, expressed in a musical piece, can drive the form to such an extent that the end result emerges as a separate entity. And this "entity" can be recognized as distinct from the temporal unfolding of the piece we just listened to. The notion came to my mind when listening to one of my favorite Beethoven Piano Sonatas Op.31 No.2, The Tempest . There the emotional sequence is so well defined that it plays out with the clarity of a landscape. It is as if, whatever we are hearing and whatever its meaning, we can look at it as if it was a three dimensional object. The problem, from a composition view point is probably two-fold: to imagine an emotional landscape and then translate it into music.

Live to ... The painter Lucian Freud died this week and of the many commentaries a simple one stroke me as particularly significant: "He lived to paint". There is something very human in living to do ... something, with passion, or simply because it is felt as necessary. And maybe with a stroke of amazement, as in the following poem by Mary Oliver:

When Death Comes

When it's over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it is over, I don't want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument.
I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

Constraints. Igor Stravinsky, in the Poetics of Music, is quoted as saying "My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength." Constraints force the agent upon which they are acting to find alternative solutions, they are one of the engines of change and variety. Compare the two tree sections below. To the right a tree that grew in relatively stable, constraint free, environment: its growth rings show relatively small departures from perfect circles. To the left (in a shot taken at the shopping center of Larkspur Landing) a very different situation: with time, after a period of uniform growth shown at the center of the section, obstacles limited the growth of the tree. Three main forces are at play: the radial, annual growth of the rings, the constraints (rocks, soil), and the stresses induced when the inner rings die, generating the cracks in the wood. The result is a very complex structure: the overall irregular cross section, the beautifully varied shape of the rings (that are close, with smaller cells, where constraints were stronger and larger otherwise), and the cracks that add yet another element of tension, with the big ones pointing to the main axes of growth and the moltitude of smaller ones following the differential growth rates of the rings. So constraints! in this case building up a structure that we might find much more interesting and "dramatic" than the one to the right.

Consonanza from the latin consonare, "suonare insieme", "to play together". The idea of being alligned, to fit, to make something that falls on a path that is perceived as congruent, harmonious, in balance. Regular proportions, harmonies built on columns of resonance, interlocking and temporally clear patterns. Dissonance is a polar opposite: each element plays separately, or is perceived as so doing. The patterns of balance are broken, the rules not understood.

Fibonacci. 0 1 1 2 3 5 8 13 21 34 55 89 ... is famous sequence that, in the west, goes back to 1201 and Leonardo da Pisa (nicknamed Fibonacci). It is related, among other mathematical objects, to the Golden Ratio (that is approximated by the sequence 3/2 5/3 8/5 13/8 ... that converges to 1.6180...). It was proposed to represent an idealized model of growth in rabbits: suppose pairs, male and female, that live and reproduce (within a couple) forever, and that it takes two months to go from conception to reproduction, then the number of pairs at any given month is given by the Fibonacci series. The model is, of course, completely unapplicable due to its unrealistic assumptions. In music the Fibonacci series and the Golden Ratio have been related to some works of Bartok, Debussy, and others. In general the explosive growth of the series precludes its sensible use within a musical composition, unless one limits the application to the very first terms of the series. By itself the Golden Ratio can serve as a rough approximation to narrative proportions that go back to Aristotelian theory of tragedy. Many musical pieces can indeed have the peak of the musical narrative occouring roughly at two thirds of the duration of the piece, or close, in some sense, to the reciprocal of the Golden Ratio: 1/1.6180=0.6180.

It is a curiosity that the Fibonacci series, in a mapping in frequency domain, spells out the luminous chord of the harmonic series .. but unfortunately, or fortunately, there is nothing very special about the Fibonacci series or the Golden Mean: for the numerology inclined there are more than 100,000 catalogued mathematical series to pick from, a never ending source of merryment that might be explored for possible applications!!!!!!

Life forward. It would be nice to live forward and avoid actions motivated by regrets, desires and fears.

Wasted youth. I never fail to be surprised by how many composers are so taken in by the allure of basically trivial arithmetic. It would seem that anything would do. A Golden Ratio (generally measured by counting measures or beats, in itself a rather strange approach to measuring musical time), a Fibonacci Series (truncated quickly ... it does grow pretty fast), some vaguely "fractally inspired" kind of operation, "laws of proportions", strange "theorems", down to totally bizarre rules derived in the most arbitrary and un-systematic and un-organic ways. "Give me something I can count and I will write a piece" seem to be the teaching and philosophy behind this approach to composition. The results are often, and quite predictably, dismal. When they are not it is because the compositional straight-jackets so gallantly and abstrusely devised have been fortunately broken down: the composer recognizing soon enough their irrelevance to the dynamics, architecture and effectivness of a piece.

Multichotomies. One of the most poignant photographs from World War II: Dresden, in Germany, after the fire bombing by the allies ariforces. 6,500 airplanes dropped undred of thousands of bombs and incendiaries and killed an estimated 35,000 to 150,000 people. The exact number will never be known: the city was filled with hundred of thousands of refugees from the eastern front, and tempetures in the center of the city reached 1600 degrees making recovery and counting of bodies all but impossible.

Dismay? Revenge? Our desire for transcendence violated? Icarus dream carrying the seeds of distruction. Compassion? Ghosts? Screaming? Loss? So many layers in this photograph.

What? What is an artist supposed to do nowadays? Reflect some cosmic order we do not even beging to understand? Generate some reality or mithology according to his/her fancy and inspiration? Be new? and for what? for the sake of releasing objects into the artistic free market? Reflect society? Interpret it? Be important? irrelevant? ... Maybe it is just a choice of stringing together the pretty notes, and reach for what is the best in us?

Geometric Memories. The ancient Roman temples had a rectangular or circular plant. The stunnig Pantheon (the Temple of All Deities) is probably the most famous and best preserved example of circular plant structures. Rebuilt by the emperor Adriano in 118-125 C.E. over the original rectangular structure built by Agrippa in 27-25 B.C.E., it is capped by a huge emi-spheric dome. A dome bigger than St. Peter's, almost twice as big than the White House.

A recent trip to Rome made me think about those large geometric shapes, dominating the landscape of worship. And it is interesting to follow the evolution of the architecture of the Christian churches, which came to oblitarate the Pagan places of devotion. At first pagan places of cult were simply taken over and one finds christian places of cult litterally, and exactly superimposed to the original architecture. Then, with the centuries and millenia, things start to change a bit. The rectangular with emicycle, already present in antiquity, start to sprout sides, the symbol of the cross starts to emerge in the planimetry. But the cupula never leaves: it dominates Christian architectures to this day.

 

It is as if the simple geometric shapes used for places of cult and devotion, slowly, very slowly change into something else. It takes litterally millenia to do so. It is as if those shapes impose their presence in the memory of the builders. And one can actually make the case that the circle, the rectangle, the emi-sphere are still with us: they have not changed. Only the object they contain changes, from a statue of Giunone to one of Christ, indicating, perhaps, the transitory nature of our attempts to understand the divine.

1, 2, 3, 4 ... counting, up to 10? most times up to 4, 5, 6, maybe 7. This is pretty much all the math I end up using when composing. Maybe this will change, but I still have the impression that all the math one needs to know to compose music can be done using the ten fingers. (Twelve tone composers are the exception) It is kind of nice when one thinks about it: some very simple relationships can serve as scaffolding for beautiful pieces of music.

Jean Cocteau's Testament of Orpheus. I just finished to watch the last movie of Jean Cocteau and I thought the best line was "poets only ever talk about themselves". Is it a daunting truth or something to trying to overcome? Can we actually communicate, can we actually see anything other than a confused mirror of our misterious insides? ... the movie made me also realize how much I missed those places ... the south of Europe, the landscapes of sun and sea ...how much I miss the ghosts of gods from ancient Greece and Rome and the mediterranean: they do not inhabit the shores I currently walk on ...

Composing at the Piano. I really enjoiy the mornings, and the quiet time spent with the piano, listening to the notes.

Opera. After my first incursion into Opera probably the most interesting insight I gained from the process is that one does not need to say anything partcularly deep and complicated to interest people. A simple story seems to be all is required to make us think about our human condition and get some entertainment.

Experimental Music and a bit of John Cage. I am reading Michael Nyman's Experimental Music (from 1974! gee time passes by). It is such a nice book, written with enthusiasm and with a degree of objectivity that is refreshing. It reads almost as a diary from a leading composer of his time looking at new music surrounding him. It is also a good occasion to revisit a bit of John Cage ...and well, I was hoping to find a way into appreciating a bit more his contributions but I cannot avoid my usual feelings. Every time I read JC I find a mixture of strongly worded doctrines supported by statements that at closer examination seem most of the time self-contraddicotry and don't stand up very well to even a cursory analysis.

For example: 'I do not like when a particular thing is a symbol of a particular other thing. But if each thing in the world can be seen as a symbol of every other thing in the world, then I do like it.' It sounds sort of good, in a we-are-all-in-this-interconnected kind of way but, if one thinks about it for a moment, it does not really means much (and it has very little to do with composition). It does allow one thing that seems ot be often very important: to divide between the bad (those clumsy single-symbol-focused symbolists composers) and the good ones (those enlightened global-symbolists, whatever that means). But things change, and one wonders where M-brane-symbolists enter the picture. Paraphrasing, my current standing on the issue is as follows: I do not like when each thing in the world can be seen as a symbol of every other thing in the world, but if each symbol acts as a graviton, and it can move freely from membrane to membrane in the M-brane space: then I do like it!

More seriously, it is hardly conceivable to have any form of expression that does not revolve around the use of symbols, and music has of course used symbols for ages, perhaps implicitly (the tune of any folk song) or explicitly, as in the sixteenth-century madrigal "tone -painting" in its relationship with the text (onomatopoetic imitation of natural sounds, chromaticism employed to depict sorrow), to J.S.Bach's use of christologycal symbols, or the uncountable musical symbols found in Wagner's operas, Debussy's direct use of specific symbols in most of his compositions (and of course his relationship with the Symbolist movement in poetry, where the idea of symbol is contrary to the specific but is used to suggest and evoke). Is it possible to write something in which everything can be a symbol of something else? Or to turn it the other way around: is it possible to write something where a particular thing is a symbol of (only) a particular other thing? Isn't already present in any of our creations a kaleidoscopic chain of symbols, some more and some less important depending on perspective?

Katsushika Hokusai's print, The Great Wave off Kanogawa, which appears on the front page of Debussy's La Mer score.

War and Peace. I am reading again War and Peace by count Tolstoy. What a wonderful book. I do not remember which famous writer said that he read it eleven times. I can see why, it is a book about life, and like life it is so full of details, corners you want ot explore, so many thoughts and events and situations which need be considered with care. Ah ... what a sweet thing about literature: we can live it again and again, a bookshelf reincarnation that can happen (if you have my reading habits) every night.

More Emotions? Talking about expressing emotions, I just ran into a supposedly famous aria from the opera Agogne. Of all things it is about the benefits of prunes for corporeal functions. The lyrics (translation is mine) are a bit baffling:

O prugne!
che meglio del lesso
voi mandate l'Agogne
a passar meno tempo sul cesso
Oh prunes!
that better than boiled meat
you send Agogne
to spend shorter times on the toilet

Opera can be a bit strange at times.

Emotions? the music I am getting most interesting in is one that tries to say something, and explores the emotions going around the saying. Unfortunately, instrumental music is an awfully complicated tool to do this.

Math ad Music? ... a good many book have been written on this topic, but I always found somewhat of a little misconception at the root of the question. It is as if one were confusing music with acoustics. Acoustic phenomena can be described, up to a certain point, using mathematics, but when it comes to music, that is how we organize those sounds, the suspicion is that ‘math’ can be as poor a descriptive tool as it is for literature, painting, or other art forms. To draw a parallel: it is as if we were to establish the marriage between Architecture and Math because we can describe (very accurately) bricks and mortar. We can actually very well describe the physics of a building, and buildings must obey some very specific laws, which is not the case for the structure music. But those laws have little to do with architecture: they are at most formalized description of physical constraints.

What would be interesting is to build a dynamical model of a whole composition ... but I suspect we just do not have yet the methodology to do so, especially the software. And it gets even more complicated if one tries to describe the creative process. Probably, when we will have those tools we will be close to make a quantal leap forward in nothing less then our evolution as a species: if you build a successfully model of the creative process you are very close to realize true Artificial Intelligence.

Music? Music, as any Art, is a way to explore my self and my relationships with others, and to reflect on reality. It is a highly metaphorical way, which gives only hints, intuitions, and often, especially if one is honest, some surprising and disconcerting insights. As all arts, it is a vague, mysterious, and sometimes confusing endeavor: a mirror of our life that might bring some light on it, or cast more shadows.

A short review of the Tanakh and the Bible. The Tanakh describes the relationship of a a god and a tribe, about 2500 years ago. The god is not particularly nice: he does not refrain from genocide toward other tribes, and he is often very cruel toward its own, if his laws are not followed. The tribe seems to be mostly concerned with shepparding, rising crops, and fighting other tribes. By the time we reach the end of the book, the god seems to become more tolerant, although he appears to devise and carry over a plan to sacrifice his own son to promote the spread of his cult to larger tribes. (There is quite a disagreement between the Tanakh and the Bible on this). The very last chapters are seemingly a mix of down to earth organizational suggestions, and rather dark apocalyptic visions.
A rather disconcerting book, although it seems to generate a large following. Unfortunately, but perhaps not surprisingly given its premises, this often translates in a variety of justifications for intolerance, persecution and wars. Overall rating: baffling.

Memory. Without memory the human experience disintegrates into a void. As impermanent as events and individuals are, their recollection constitutes a thread that binds together otherwise disconcerting realities.

Music and Magic. A quotation from the magician Ian Swiss that applies well to music and performance: You cannot cross into the world of magic until you put everything else aside and beside you, including your own desires and needs, and focus on bringing an experience to the audience. This is magic. Nothing else. The artistic event is first and foremost an experience, and the focus has to be on its delivering.

There is a time for everything. Ogni cosa a suo tempo.

What time is this?
It's the time of birds, of long breaths
and breeze carrying tears of rain

Trans-human. Jorge Borges (Otras Inquisiciones) quotes Shelley (In defense of Poetry , 1821) arguing that all individual poems, past, present and future, are actually fragments of a universal infinite poem. Our fundamental unity is reflected in any category of our productions. Poetry, literature, music are not a historical sequence of individuals' contributions but a single manifestation of an inquisitive universal spirit. (The same could be said of science and religion or any activity that involves bringing forward unformed matter or ideas into some reality.) Are we uno or disconnected fragments or both?

Art and Metaphor. Art can be considered as the exploration of the place of metaphor and simile. Art therefore is not? since arguably reality just is? Or reality just appears to be and what is is the metaphor? (Vaguely inspired by Neil Gaiman Neverwhere).

Lavoro. The italian word for 'to work', lavorare, has the flavour of the daily activity of the prestinaio (the bread maker). Every day, with the exception of sunday, tu lavori e sudi (you work and sweat). There is something very reassuring about having a daily activity - like working every day at an instrument, like having a table to go back to every morning.

Composition and Science. I had conversations with academic composers actually comparing their activity to that of a scientist that does research. Having been a scientist for long years I generally avoided to make comments. More honestly (and in the privacy of a web page) I think that these ideas are based either on a misuse of words or in a misunderstanding of what the scientific method is. It is a bit of an unfortunate position: while there is no doubt that artists are not doing science, the misunderstanding might trap the metaphor maker in a place not so conductive for creativity.

Technical secrets. A quote from Heinrich Neuhaus:

There are no technical secrets to become great pianists.The only way is to work with patience, intelligence and tenacity.

Which might sound too easy, but it is also one of the best encouragements I could find: if we apply our human qualities, greatness, in a human dimension of course, will follow.

Art and Being. Inspired by Martin Heidegger (The Origin of the Work of Art)

Reflection of what art and art making is may be linked with the relation of being and human being. Art, that is beauty in a metaphysical sense, unconceals the truth of being. The apparition of truth in the art work might be related to our own, temporary, unfolding as parts of the universal Being. Our own art making might be related to the truth of our identity, but it is also moved and motivated by the desire for transcending ourselves for the truth of being. Perhaps in its most clear examples it is guided by, or resonates with, it.

Does this make any sense?

 

Marker Art and Necessity. Inspired by Federico Fellini. In a perhaphs humbler way, Art is a necessity. The necessity is to try to make sense of a reality that otherwise, taken at face value, would be monstrous. Art frames reality in a reassuring, familar, more comfortable place, a place that is less overwhelming then the incomprehensibly colossal size, and apparent blindness, of the materiality surrounding us. The act of threading some simple beads is an attempt of bringing order and perhaps some form of understanding,

beads

Successful or not it requires consideration and attention: it takes us away from our corporeal reality and leads us in a place of thought, wander and imagination. It is built in us, it seems to be a necessary condition of our being, or simply to make our life more bearable.

Marker Art and Motivation. (Elizabeth Gilbert) Art is a path for the courageous and the faithful. One must find another reason to work, other than the desire for success or recognition. It must come from another place ... similarly for science? certainly for spiritual quests. Possibly art - science - spirituality share the idea of searching, and the motivation to search cannot be that of success and recognition.

Soft-heartedness. From Zen & Japanese Culture by Daisetz Suzuki (Chapter VIII, Zen and the Art of Tea):

Soft-heartedness is "tender-mindness" or "gentleness of spirit".
Generally we are too egotistic, too full of hard resisting spirit. We are individualistic, unable to accept things as they are or as they come to us. Resistance means friction, friction is the source of all trouble. When there is no self, the heart is soft and offers no resistance to outside influences.

"Things" are both good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant. For example, during any kind of performance one does not rejoice for a successfully completed section, nor despair because something has gone wrong. Things unfold in front of us and there is no judgment.

Soft-heartedness and practice. It would appear that somewhat as a corollary of the previous thought,one should consider dividing practice in at least two parts. The first is the usual, analytical part of practice. It involves analyzing and decomposing, taking apart and putting together, training the muscles and tendons involved with the physical aspect of the execution. The second is the training of the clear mind. Here one trains to be an observer, or better a listener, as opposed to an evaluator and a judge. Again, there is no rejoicing nor disappointment. It is interesting that in all these years of learning and instruction very little attention, if any, has been given to this important side of performance. It is quite strange, if one assumes, as I am more and more lead to believe, that this superficially mysterious capacity is all important for an organic performance. (Where by organic I mean in-one-piece, such as an organism under the guidance of its autonomic nervous system.)

A four steps recipe, with all the limitations of a recipe, that can be adapted to any endeavor:

Show up

Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention
Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention
Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention
Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention
Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention Pay Attention

Don't be attached to the outcome

Share your work

Beauty. Parvathi Naryan (a nine year old student of my friend Amy Billheimer)

Sometimes playing is very difficult but if you keep trying it sounds very pretty

Is this not a complement to the Neuhaus quote at the beginning of this page? From a young child: keep try and it will sound pretty. We all can, it is built in with us.

Meaning in Music. The good thing about doing and thinking about art is that it forces to think about life. For months I have been struggling with the problem of meaning: what do I try to say in the pieces I compose. Do I have something to say? Perhaps not. Kurt Vonnegut, in an interesting section of A man Without a Country discusses stories that oscillate the narrative between well defined good and ill fortune and stories that don't. Cinderella in the first category. Good fortune is well defined: seemingly out of reach for Cinderella it is nonetheless the goal of the tale and it is eventually accomplished forever thereafter. Hamlet is in this second category, and the idea is that in real life often is very hard to define good or il fortune: "But there is a reason we recognize Hamlet as a masterpiece: it's that Shakespeare told us the truth ... The truth is, we know so little about life, we don't really know what the good news is and the bad news is." Telling the truth is very hard in a tale of good and bad fortune, and it is so easy to slip and make it a shallow fairy tale. What this has to do with meaning in music? We know so little, maybe more then spelling out meaning we can only show and ask questions, and instrumental music might be a medium that has built in such indeterminacy.

dragon

More Political Considerations

Tax breaks for Luxury Yachts! Just in: the "Tea Party" dominated Texan legislation cut the State budget by 25%. Schools, clinics, parks you name it will close ... in the same evening they pass a tax-deduction for people buying Luxury Yachts worth more than $250,000. As Rep. John Davis (R-Houston) put it: "$250,000 does not buy you very much nowadays". A real gem brought to you by the o-so-grassroot populist movement of America.

Majority in Poll Back Employees in Public Sector Unions. Which is great! It gives one hope that the American public has not been completely kidnapped by the propaganda of the ultra-right-wing Republicans and Fox News! Can we now have an opinion pool asking: "Are you in favor of rising taxes for the top 1% incomes, to solve the budget problems of the Nation". And let's see how many are in favor (more than 80% is my guess).

The struggling democracy. It seems quite clear that the pendulum democracy - plutocracy is now swinging decisevely toward the plutocrats. Since Mr. Reagan, money has been massively redistributed upward. Untill our political system is re-formed (providing public funding of campaigns, third-party access to the ballot, an end to the filibuster, and so forth), it will remain foolish to expect a different face in the White House or majority in Congress to get America back on track.

Fox News. Can you believe this: as of Oct 2010 every single republican candidate for the 2012 presidency is on the payrol of Fox News.

Snotty comments about President Obama. Can i get the money I gave for his campaign back?

Health Care. It is quite amazing that a proposal that could be easily been put forward by, say, a Nixon administration, is labeled as socialist by the current Republican elected officials. The absurdity of the "argument" gives quite a measure of how far the coorporate ideology of imbridled capitalism has come, and how much it dominates the discourse of the right. It is too bad that as a policy it is as destined to fail as its opposite, centralized stalinist economy. A good rehearsal was the 2008-2010 economic melt-down.

Populist movements. Populist rage of sort on the rise. Embarrassingly named Tea Parties, they seem to be characterized, as it is quite usual, by a rush toward simple solutions for difficult problems. With a touch of violence, racism, and Fox News financing added in the mix.

Oh my, oh my, oh my. A democrat in the White House! Maybe things will change a bit.

More torture. Fast forward a year and few months and you have Judiciary committee hearings where the future Attorney General refuses to call water boarding torture. One of the leading democrats in the Senate, Dianne Feinstein, gives him her vote thus guaranteeing his confirmation. It looks like the barbarians have entered the city and are comfortably established in the pretty houses off the main streets.

Now we torture and are proud of it (2006). Just a few months after I wrote the previous note. The President and Vice-President can go on TV and say that there is nothing wrong with applying torture to prisoners. They still do not use the word "torture" but claim that practices defined by international law as torture are not so, and can and should be used. The usual verbal trickery does not matter much: the slippery road away from a civilized society is getting steeper. One wanders what next?

Reality driven by fantasy. It is so strange that in just a few years, staring around 2001, it is now 2006, discussions about the legality of torture have become common place. Leaving aside the sadness and repulsion generated by this state of affairs, it is interesting to notice how parts of the debate offers an insight into a fundamental human capacity. One of the main arguments in favor of torture is the "finger on the trigger" scenario: "would you torture a person if you knew that she knew where a terrorist attack would take place in the next 24 hours". The gut-feeling reaction to such question is that "of course, yes, we would, we should do so to save innocent lives", and there is the strength of the argument. (Apparently there is even a TV show depicting such scenarios, I think that it is called 24 hours). What is interesting, again leaving sadness to the side, is to see the impact that such a fantasy can have on reality. While proponents of the argument seem to be unable to produce a single real example of the scenario, torture is now very real for thousands of people under the control of a variety of USA military and secret services branches. This is a, very dark, reminder of the power of our imagination in shaping reality.

Literature and Tolerance. Northrop Frye

Literature encourages tolerance - bigots and fanatics seldom have any use for the arts, because they're so preoccupied with their beliefs and actions that they can't see them also as possibilities.

mark Anger. For years, it is now 2005, and especially during the recent turn of our policies to the right, I spent a lot of time being angry. Angry at the president, at the administration, at the lies, at what I perceive as a loss of our values as a civil society. For a while I was so angry that I could not listen to the news: I was certain that I would find more reasons to feed my anger. After a while I decided to try to stop, feeling that my anger served no purpose other than possibly shorten my life, I am, after all, reaching an age at which it is better to keep one's blood pressure down. And then I found this:

Why should I give them my mind as well?

spoken by the Dalai Lama when asked if he wasn't angry at the Chinese for taking over his country. And this colored the whole episode as a possible beginning of a personal spiritual quest, or more simply the beginning of an understanding of how our mind works.

What is most illuminating about the citation above is not so much that t appears as a very good attitude, to use such an abused word. What is most interesting it that it brings home the idea that the mind might be an object that is not necessarily "ours". It has a life of it own, and it can be occupied and infected very easily.

 

 

Davide Verotta is a Fiscally-sponsored affiliate of San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the service of chamber music in California.
 


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