Anonymous yet personal, this Blog chronicles
the daily events and musings of Jim.
It provides an easy way for his friends and family to check in on him,
and serves as a online repository for his random
thoughts, kaleidoscopic flashbacks, and writings on an array of diverse topics.
“Deconstructing Jim” is simply here to
entertain you, but not intended for college credit.

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Chapel Hill, NC, United States

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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Musical Interude

and now for a little flute music...


Friday, October 1, 2010

Concert schedule

Harold in Italy (2008)
for Alto Saxophone and Piano

Rachel G. Cox, saxophone
Robert Jeter, piano

October 2nd, 2010 7:30 PM
Composers Forum
ETSU Music Dept., Mathes Hall
East Tennesse State University

Johnson City, TN

Soliloquy (2010)
for solo flute

Willemien Insinger, flute

Music to Cure MS Benefit Concert
Oct 24th, 2010 3 PM
Park Ave Congregational Church
50 Paul Revere Rd.
Arlington, MA

Song without Words (2005) for Piano

I-Yun Chung, piano

November 18th, 7 PM
Steinert Hall, Boston MA

November 19th, 7:30 PM
The Lily Pad, Cambridge, MA

Three Perambulations (2010)

for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion

Collage New Music

David Hoose, Music Director
Sunday, March 6, 2011 at 8pm
Pickman Hall
Longy School of Music, Cambridge MA

Song without Words (2005) for Piano

..."an evocatively musing and third-laden essay subtly tinged with early Berg" -

Cathy Remus Shefski, piano

Saturday, March 19th , 2011 (Revised Date!)
2011 Salon Concert Series

The Music Studio
Clarks Summit, PA

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Upcoming Performance

I'm honored to have an upcoming performance
at ETSU (East Tennessee State University)
on October 2nd, 2010
of my piece for Saxophone and Piano titled
Harold in Italy.

The performers will be...

Rachel G. Cox received a Master’s Degree in Saxophone Performance from the University of Georgia and a Bachelor’s Degree from East Tennessee State University, where she was a student of Thomas Crawford. She plays bass clarinet and saxophone in the Symphony of the Mountains and the Johnson City Symphony Orchestra. In the past, she was a member of the nationally recognized Watauga Saxophone Quartet. Ms. Cox was also a semi-finalist in the Kingsville International Young Performer’s Competition. The Floyd Cramer Scholarship and the Frank E. Little Outstanding Student Award were among her academic awards. In addition to working as a postal clerk in Jonesborough, Tennessee, Ms. Cox directs the orchestra and Selah Brass quintet at Central Baptist Church in Johnson City. She also performs in the Johnson City Community Concert Band.

Robert Jeter received his Master of Music degree in piano performance in 2006 from the Manhattan School of Music in New York City, studying with Phillip Kawin. He earned his Bachelor of Music degree from East Tennessee State University in 2004 studying piano with Dr. Lynn Rice-See. Mr. Jeter has served as adjunct faculty at ETSU since 2006 teaching in the Music Theory department.

Program Notes:

My sonata for alto saxophone and piano “Harold in Italy” has nothing to do with Berlioz’ work of the same name. The title refers to the American neoclassic composer Harold Shapero with whom I studied with at Brandeis in the early 1980’s. Harold Shapero is a musical institution that made an indelible mark on the modern music of his generation. He kept students engaged with his seemingly endless stories about the important musical figures that he was so closely associated with: Igor Stravinsky, “Lenny” Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and Nadia Boulanger – just to name a few.

Harold strived to pass down to his students the fundamentals of music making, including the elements of traditional fugue, tonal harmony, and sonata form. His admiration of select popular music and the great classical composers – Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven – was inspiring.

So, when I had the opportunity of writing a piece celebrating Harold Shapero’s birthday, I felt it would be interesting to abandon my usual “modernist” style and attempt to compose a piece in a language that would more appropriately reflect an aspect of my student experiences. For example, towards the end of the Divertimento, my sonata combines a jazzy sax “improv” accompanied by an extended verbatim excerpt from the Andante movement of the Mozart A Major Piano Concerto Nr. 23 K.488. The slow second movement is an attempt at a musical theme for an imaginary Italian art film. In the final movement, I “deranged” the Presto of Haydn’s Sonata No. 43 in E Flat Major (Hob.XVI:28) and turned it into a Latin American Tango. These disparate influences conspire to form the intentionally jovial nature of the work.

Finally, the title also refers to the historical fact that in 1941 Harold Shapero won the prestigious Rome Prize at the American Academy in Rome, but had his residency cancelled because of World War II. Fortunately, in 1970 he was able to belately claim his trip to Italy in the capacity of Composer-in-Residence at the American Academy in Rome.

The piece was first perfomed by Kenneth Radnofsky (sax) and John McDonald (piano) on April 29th, 2007 at a LUMEN Contemporary Music concert held on Shapero’s 87th birthday.


Saturday, September 11, 2010

Thin Ice

The new music group Sequitur has released a CD of Concertos that offer reassurance, if not absolute proof, that the modern Concerto (as an art-form) is alive and well [Albany Records, TROY 1181].

The CD includes fine works by Ross Bauer, Steven Burke, and Martin Matalon. All three are composers of exceptional talent and formidable skill, but the piece that stands out in my mind is Thin Ice by Ross Bauer.

Bauer's piece is a Concerto for cello and chamber orchestra. The work is elegant, precise, and razor-sharp in its execution of logical and dramatic form. Thin Ice draws me in, seducing me to listen to what the soloist and orchestra have to say. It's not a "one idea" work, but rather an extended multi-leveled narrative with an internal dialogue that promotes thought, excitement, and repeated visits to the CD player.

This Concerto, and the language Bauer has carefully honed over the course of decades of professional practice, resonate with me in ways that I can't fully explain. It's as if his music speaks for me, on my behalf, with a clarity and sentiment that I can fully relate to. It's so convincing that I'm solidly on board for the voyage, wherever it may lead.

Bauer's music is all about content; not novel gimmicks, sensational effects, or unusual devices. From the outset, Thin Ice presents a consistent and unified harmonic language that lays a groundwork for the progress that both folds and unfolds - not unlike the age-old practice of Japanese Origami in the hands of a master.

Lasting nearly 24 minutes and organized into four contrasting movements, Thin Ice enlists the extraordinary abilities and talents of the Violoncello soloist (Greg Hesselink). From a performance perspective, Hesselink performs acrobatics that truly push the envelope of what's possible on his instrument to the edge. At times, especially when he plays high in the stratosphere, we really do feel as if he is an Olympic skater performing feats of dazzling acrobatic wonder on ice. Working collaboratively, Bauer's writing and Hesselink's performance maintain our long-term interest and undivided attention. Although this is a sizable work, time passes quickly.

The sound of the chamber orchestra is not shabby either, and the members of Sequitur under the direction of conductor Paul Hostetter sound agile and confident in this recording. Sequitur, from their home-base in NYC, is led by co-Artistic Directors Harold Meltzer and Sara Laimon.

Check it out.



Friday, September 10, 2010

On Originality

One of the more perplexing questions that looms underneath the hood of creativity is the notion of originality. Every time I begin a new work, internal voices of discontent rise to contradict a slew of emerging ideas put forth by my personal Muse. The voice of Mr. Antagonist is often louder than that of Mr. Muse, who tends to be a rather loosy-goosey naïve chap who doesn’t care much about practical matters such as follow-through and delivery. One of the nagging questions that my Antagonist keeps harping on is a Big Kahuna: the big fat question about originality. Now, if I or any of my immediate colleagues were to pre-screen our ideas against the body of musical work that has been produced to date, we would probably find a lot of precedents for what we are writing. As much as we would like to think we are original, we very often draw upon the stored memory of works that reside in our collective past experience, works that have influenced us profoundly in one way or another. From that wellspring, we remodel those techniques, patterns, and sounds into a seemingly new framework that (one hopes) will reflect our thoughts and ideas within the context of our uniquely personal tone of voice. I am not one of those composers who has an ambition to invent a brand new syntax, create an entirely new musical language, or start a brand new artistic school or movement. I’m too preoccupied just writing down what I hear. That task tends to be challenging enough and a full-time job in itself. But as a composer of comparatively conservative tastes, I my internal Antagonist occasionally asks the question about the relevance of my work. Seeds of doubt are sown throughout my psyche. The basic set of standard resources of contemporary classical music have been rather consistent and surprisingly static over the past 100 years or so. The primary materials are about as generic as they can get. I work with 12 pitches to the octave, rhythms that are easily played, and instrumentation that hasn’t changed much since the good ol'days of Papa Haydn. A lot of other composers work within the same baseline of raw materials. In other words, we design sound-art to be implemented with vocal cords, drums, pianos, flutes, and assorted strings. You can't get more fundamental than that. It's not unlike banging rocks together for entertainment while sitting around the campfire at night. Primitive, but timeless fun. When it comes to musical form, there is also a predisposition on my part to lean toward structural patterns and musical dialogs that have been hanging around for a while. For example, something as banal as ABA’ form seems agreeable enough to most, and apparently is still possible within a contemporary modernist context. To take this not-so radical idea to another level, there is almost an expectation by the audience that some sort of musical “return” should occur – at least somewhere in the overall design of the musical work. One law that my Muse and Antagonist can agree on is that "Contrast and Unity are polar opposites." The problem is that they can't agree on what the proper balance and middle ground for Contrast verses Unity should be. The New Complexity school advocates information overload and maximal contrast. The Orthodox sect of the Minimalist party seems to advocate minimal contrast as their overriding virtue (hence their label). I'm in neither camp. Sometimes I succumb to the voice of negativity in my head and give in to my Antagonist. For example, I had been working on an orchestral piece this summer but shelved it because it just didn’t seem original enough. Following my intuition, I was experimenting with rich chords drawn from late 19th century harmony along with grand orchestral clichés and gestures. But after many weeks of struggle, it finally occurred to me that my audience would be so much better off listening to Richard Strauss or one of David Del Tredici’s lush Alice pieces from the 1980s instead. My Antagonist regularly attends concerts with me, and is not shy about offering harsh criticism of the works on the program. I’m quite use to his brash cynicism, and sometimes agree with what he says about individual works. His nihilistic attitude about what is considered to be state-of-the-art in this sometimes hokey pokey world contemporary music makes me grin. I can't fire my Muse or Antagonist. This is a profession I did not volunteer for, and they are necessary partners in crime. I was drafted into this wacky business against my will. I'm incapable of doing anything else, so I better make the most of it. Mr. Muse and Mr. Antagonist are like annoying but unavoidable co-workers assigned to the cubicle next to mine. One particular example of 21st century self-consciousness arises in the area of musical form. For instance, the concept of the Concerto seems to retain durability in modern times. Yet some composers, such as Boulez, have abandoned the concept entirely. For them it is an impoverished art form, a legacy of past centuries - although their music is clearly virtuosic in every degree. In contrast, many other composers have embraced the Concerto idea and have chosen to run with the ball. Master American composers such as Peter Lieberson, Elliott Carter, Martin Boykan, and Yehudi Wyner all come to mind as composers who have adopted the Concerto form rather successfully. They have done so even though the classically-derived concerto is probably not up-and-front in the minds of our 21st century European counterparts. It could be that Concertos are just another “American” fetish. My Antagonist is unrelenting in his brutal analysis of contemporary musical discourse. Just the other day he said that nothing new can be written within the existing framework of standard musical materials (I’m paraphrasing). In other words, I’m redundant and should retire ASAP. Concertos are old hat, and chamber or orchestral works written for traditional instruments using traditional notation and traditional tuning systems are hopelessly old school. To use a metaphor borrowed from the business of Information Technology, it’s like writing code in “COBOL” when the industry has migrated to “dot NET” or “JavaScript.” Now and then I sit down with my Antagonist and try to prove him wrong. “Originality is not equivalent to Change!" I scream. I go on to make my case... "Salient examples of new and original music are created all the time in our present culture. These works still blow my socks off – even though they are by common standards of measurement neither radical nor revolutionary. A composer does not have to create a paradigm-shift for every piece they write. As Charles Wuorinen once famously said, 'How do you create a revolution when the guy before you said anything goes?'" My Antagonist looks up at me with a Devilish grin and blurts out, "You are an idiot." My Muse sits by silently, paralyzed and afraid to say a word while holding back tears.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Taking (in) the Fifth

I spent some quality time yesterday with a recently released CD from Albany Records.

Donald Martino – later works (TROY1167 - ASIN: B00005RGK9) is a professionally produced and exquisitely performed collection of four very significant works composed by Martino in the few years before his untimely death in 2005. The disc includes two Trios: one for Clarinet, Cello, and Piano (2003); and another for Violin, Violoncello, and Piano (2004). The recording is rounded out with the Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano (2004) and Martino’s Fifth String Quartet (2004).

As a disclaimer, I should mention that I have closely followed this composers’ music, and over a period of time lasting nearly three decades had been amongst Martino’s circle of friends and former students. I’ve always considered him a grand master and I have tried to advocate for his work in whatever ways I could. In fact, two of the pieces on this CD (Sonata No. 2 and the Trio for Vln, Vlc, and Pno) received their first public performances shortly after the composers’ death at a concert sponsored, curated, and organized by my group the LUMEN Contemporary Music Ensemble. The concert at Harvard University’s Paine Hall was originally intended as a 75th birthday tribute. Sadly, it turned out to be a memorial concert, and Don never got to hear these two works performed live.

For me, as I listen to the new CD on Albany Records, it evokes multiple layers of experience, personal history, context, and emotion – all of which are inexorably entwined and complex in nature. After all, I was in frequent contact and relatively close to the composer personally when he created these amazing late works and was privileged to witness first hand his penultimate burst of musical creativity even as his physical health was in steady decline. I recall visiting him at a Boston rehabilitation hospital where he was recovering for one of his many surgeries and wondered to myself how long he would survive his ordeals. Yet Martino somehow found clarity of strength, focus, concentration, and mustered enough physical energy to compose some of the finest work of his long and distinguished career.

My memories of those final years are bitter-sweet. The four works on this CD were composed from 2003-2005, yet only the earliest - the Trio for Cl, Vlc, and Pno - was actually requested by an ensemble and commissioned. All of the other works from this period were labors of love, composed with little more than a hope that they might be performed by competent musicians: somehow, somewhere, someday. At least to me, this seemed to be surprising and unjust predicament for an Internationally-known Pulitzer Prize-winning composer to find himself in. By most standards of measure, he should have been entering the pinnacle of his career. And yet, while coping with ill health, Martino crafted his final masterpieces undeterred by an apparent lack of interest in his work. He avoided being distracted by the noise around him.

It’s really a sad state of affairs that Martino’s late music wasn’t performed in his lifetime. Although this wonderful CD on Albany Records goes a long way to makeup for the transgression, there is still an important piece of recent music history that in my view is waiting for the light of day. Martino’s last completed work was a Concerto for Orchestra. In my view it is a piece of music equal in quality and significance to Béla Bartók’s work of the same name. Martino’s Concerto was not commissioned by any orchestra, is ready to go, but for reasons that I don’t fully understand - has yet to be programmed and performed. To this day, I find this odd. Compared with some of the new works that have been commissioned and performed by major orchestras in recent years, it seems strange indeed that Martino’s remarkable Concerto is still sitting idle in the drawer of his publisher. The work is a hidden treasure, and my hope is that an enlightened music director with a first-tier symphony orchestra will in time make the discovery and give Martino’s Concerto for Orchestra its just due.

However, there are also reasons for fans of Martino’s music to be optimistic. The Albany CD by the Group for Contemporary Music is one such example. We should be grateful for the sensitivity, dedication, and skill of the performers who perform on this recording. Chris Finckel (cello), Stephen Gosling (piano), Gregory Hesselink (cello), Margaret Kampmeier (piano), Aleck Karis (piano), Alan R. Kay (clarinet), Curtis Macomber (violin), Lois Martin (viola), and Fred Sherry (cello), and Carol Zeavin (violin) all perform Martino’s music with an informed sensibility and artistic grace. Martino surely would have been overjoyed and thrilled with the quality of their astute performances.

Donald Martino – late works is the brainchild and polished product of Howard Stokar – who served as the project instigator and executive producer. He deserves much credit for bringing this important CD to the public. It’s a recording worthy of a Grammy Award in the new music category for 2011, and I sincerely hope that it wins one.

While I know all four works on this recording from score (published posthumously by Dantalian), and have a sense about their place in the trajectory of Martino’s impressive body of work, I’d like to focus the rest of this blog post on one particular piece - The Fifth String Quartet since I can offer some anecdotal information that may be of interest.

Don Martino composed his Fifth String Quartet in 2004. Unlike his earlier work in this medium composed more than twenty years earlier for the Juilliard Quartet, his Fifth was not written with any specific group of musicians in mind. As with other works from his late period, the Fifth bares no explicit dedication. However, the work was programmed by the Lydian String Quartet and premiered on their concert series at Brandeis University early in 2005 on a concert that included another work with similar characteristics: Beethoven’s C-sharp minor Quartet, Op. 131.

I recall the first performance of Martino’s Fifth String Quartet rather well. The Lyds are an excellent ensemble, and draw large and dedicated audiences – although not necessarily from the ranks of the small but committed new music crowd. In fact it was not easy to obtain tickets to the concert since it was part of the Lyds regular subscription series. Fortunately I had a connection with the Chair of the Brandeis Music Department at the time, and responding to my desperate inquiry, he magically pulled out of his desk drawer a secret stash of VIP tickets and handed them over to me (thanks Davy!). Aside from a few members of the Brandeis composition faculty, there were very few composers present in the audience. I’ve rarely missed a premiere of any of Don Martino’s works over the past three-plus decades, and this is one that I really enjoyed. Martino’s music is often hard to take in on the first hearing, but to me the Fifth Quartet sounded rather classical – and in some ways the musical language seemed to reflect the influence of Arnold Schoenberg.

At this point I need to indulge in a quick digression about my studies with Martino and the influence that Arnold Schoenberg had on a significant number of composers spanning over a period of several generations. Clearly the 12-tone “system” was central to Martino’s thinking. In the mid-1950s Martino studied 12-tone techniques with Milton Babbitt at Princeton, and later as a Fulbright student studying in Italy, he would develop his own comprehensive indexed catalogue of pitch set types listing all of their properties, interconnections, and combinatorial characteristics. This work was not unlike what many composers have done in the past – including what has been referred to as Elliott Carter’s “Harmony Book.”

In the classes he taught at New England Conservatory and at Brandeis, Martino would often bring up and discuss the Schoenberg Fourth String Quartet - often playing themes from the work on the piano from memory. I’ve seen his personal copy of the score to Schoenberg’s Fourth Quartet, and it is heavily annotated in colors from front to back and filled with analytical markings and indications that aim to explain the derivation of every note in the work.

At least in the 1970s and 80s (and perhaps in the 50s and 60s), Schoenberg seemed to be a composer that Martino not only respected, but looked up to as a source of inspiration. Sure, Martino’s music was quite different in many ways, but I’ve always felt that there was a musical connection of sorts.

My perception - as ill-founded as it may have been - turns out to be not mine alone. In the detailed, eloquent, and informed program notes for the Albany Records disc, Robert Kirzinger (who is a composer and a writer/editor for the Boston Symphony Orchestra) makes a number of observations that are similar to mine...

“Martino was deeply concerned with the continuity with his predecessors; his conversation about music, and sometimes the music itself, often related to specific musical examples from the great tradition, and he was himself involved in teaching this tradition for many years. He shared this position with regard to the past with his most important mentors...”

Kirzinger goes on to observe...

“The most substantial piece on the disc is the Fifth String Quartet, a four-movement work of over twenty minutes’ duration. In some ways it’s the most clearly traditional of the pieces. The prevailing texture is contrapuntal, and there is little doubt that Beethoven’s late quartets and the quartets of Schoenberg lie somewhere in this work’s ancestry.”

But it appears that Kirzinger and I got it wrong!

In the brief moment I had to talk to Martino after the premiere of his Fifth String Quartet, I uttered something to affect, “Parts of your new work remind me of Schoenberg.” I truly meant it as a compliment.

My impromptu, off-the-cuff, and possibly naive statement would ultimately turn out to be the source of a rather interesting point of contention.

A few weeks after the concert I received the following email from Don Martino:

Was it you who suggested that my quartet sounded Schoenbergian? I know the music of Schoenberg very well and I know of no scherzo or slow movement that even remotely resembles mine. This is also true of the first and last movements. Throughout the work the textures, sonorities, even the types of surface gestures and attendant expressivities are so very different. Is there any work or works that you might have had in mind?
best, Don

I cautiously replied by email to my former teacher and esteemed mentor. I wrote that I sensed a vague similarity in the harmonic flow, phrase structure, use of repeated notes, and rhythmic texture between his new piece and some of Schoenberg’s works - such as the Op. 29 (which I had just heard Gunther Schuller conduct in a performance with the Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble). Perhaps all of this discord could have been avoided if I had kept my mouth shut and asserted my Constitutional right to remain silent, i.e. taken the Fifth (amendment) on the subject of his Fifth.

In July Martino replied...

Dear Jim, I know you have a vast record collection-- I do not. Is there any chance you might have a score of Schoenberg Op 29 and/or a CD that I could borrow for a few days? Is there any way you can send the recording via e-mail? If so that would be a quick way to do it and after I listen to the piece again I may not need the score. All best, Don

This was a bit of a surprise. Martino’s basement music room was full of scores, and I would have thought he’d have a copy of Schoenberg’s Op. 29 – or at least a recording. I promptly sent him a copy of my score and a CD of the Boulez performance of the work on Sony.

Don replied a week later...

Dear Jim, AS arrived this afternoon and I have had my way with him. I will return materials on Monday if I get a chance to get out of the house.
Many Thanks Don

Another month passed, and I received this long email [excerpt]...

...As to the Schoenberg Suite -- it has nothing to do with our concert. I am still pondering with wonder your comparison of my new work with him. I have most of the scores but I wanted to refresh my memory of the Suite. My work is different from his in so many ways, I can't find a single similarity. My music according to A. Porter is lyric even when it is edgy -- S's music is to my ear (after Pierrot) uniformly ugly and pedantic with the countenance of stale and heavy German pastry. Our concepts of form, melodic shape, gesture, harmony etc. are totally dissimilar. I haven’t got time to detail it but let me point to just one aspect: rhythm. In most cases in his music after Pierrot he uses repeated notes (usually two but sometimes they grow) and repeated two note interval figures (like c up to Bb)(usually in 16ths) to excess in his accompaniments as well as the repeated note anticipation in his melodies. Brahms -- and I learned from him--always ties the anticipation to the main note and slurs the entire figure. In that way he avoids the march-like quality that is to me so much a part of S's stuff. What’s more, he tends to do this in every movement, except the slow movement (and he often can't avoid the repeated tone temptation even in a slow movements as the movement unfolds, of a single piece so that all the movements have a sameness about them regardless of whether he uses the movement description Allegro, Comoro, Intermezzo, Rondo... You find this in the Wind Quintet, the third quartet...and just as I had recalled, the Suite is perhaps the worst offender. By contrast I hardly ever use repeated tones. IN THE NEW SONATA THERE IS NOT ONE INSTANCE OF REPEATED TONES OR REPEATED FIGURES. That does not make my music better than his but it sure makes it different. I hasten to add, for what it's worth, that if I found this tendency to do the same thing in every movement in a student's work, I would sharply criticize it and I'd send him/her back to the drawing board.

I find this discourse via email about the relationship between Martino’s and Schoenberg’s music to be highly intriguing. His comments should be of interest to anyone interested in tracing the roots, connections, and influences that exist between significant composers working in the 20 and 21st centuries. Clearly, Martino and Schoenberg shared a common musical ancestry: namely the masterpieces of Beethoven, Brahms - and perhaps more generally to the works of 19th century Romanticism as a whole. As an example, I recently observed how Martino’s piano writing in Fantasies and Impromptus for solo piano (1981) utilize trills in the same way that Beethoven did in his late piano sonatas (Op. 109 was one of Martino’s favorite works). Perhaps that is the reason why some of us intuit a similarity of style between Schoenberg and Martino. The great classical tradition served as a common wellspring for both of these composers, and each in their own way drew inspiration directly from it, and independently from one another.

In the end, the fact that Schoenberg and Martino both used the 12-tone system is an insignificant detail and an irrelevant fact. The fact that their music is closely attuned to and solidly grounded in the same venerable tradition of Western classical music is undeniable. Regrettably there are those who don’t harbor a respect for music history, and they won’t appreciate the weight of this similarity.

The music of Martino’s late period does in fact mark a departure for a composer who was beginning to venture into new and fertile ground. Perhaps it was the onset of the new millennium that instigated it. Or perhaps it was his failing health and a growing sense of his own mortality that triggered his shift in perspective and attitude. In the few years before his untimely death in 2005, Martino had rekindled an interest in one of his early musical inspirations: the music of Béla Bartók. It is not surprising that given his quickly evolving and transformative musical language born late in life, that Schoenberg would be seen by him as overtly square and reactionary. When one considers all five of Martino’s String Quartets as an expansive collection, his compositional evolution becomes clearer. His quartets numbers Two and Three were composed in 1952 and 1953 respectively. As a self-publisher, Martino revisited his early work, and added these non-serial pieces to his published catalog. In some sense, as a composer, he was completing a great circle when he wrote his Fifth String Quartet.

One bright light regarding the Martino’s Fifth String Quartet is that the world-renown Juilliard String Quartet has adopted it for their 2010-2011 concert series. It will be on one of the pre-set standard programs that the esteemed group will take on its’ world concert tour. It will likely be performed hundreds of times for thousands of people who are not associated with or incessantly entrenched in the usual new music ghetto. I’m glad to see this composer finally gain the worthy recognition that he deserves with new recordings and major-league performances – although it is a shame that he spent the last years of his life working in relative isolation and without much notice. I hope that the broader public will be drawn to this unique composers’ music and that the labors of his perfected craft will in time become a mainstay of the musical tradition he himself so adamantly admired.



Monday, June 7, 2010

Conducting the Rite

This 5-year old makes it look easy...


Friday, May 7, 2010

The Best Parsifal Ever

In the Spring of 1985 I was semi-homeless. I had given up my tiny studio apartment in the North End of Boston and was traveling around like a hobo staying with every friend and/or relative who had an available couch to sleep on. It was after I had finished my classes in grad school, but before I was able to secure respectable employment or establish an address to call my own.

My way of dealing with this tenuous status was to take in as much high culture as possible - but on a shoe-string budget.

While visiting my Aunt Helen in NY, I attended concerts every night. But the one I recall the most was a production at the Metropolitan Opera of Wagner's Parsifal. The Metropolitan Opera House was then, as it is now, a major venue with about 3,800 seats. The premium seats in the orchestra cost a small fortune, but there are also 195 "standing room" tickets that can be purchased on the day of the performance for small change. It's a popular option for students and opera enthusiasts who don't mind standing for long durations.

Parsifal is over five hours long. As it turned out, on the week night I was there many of the patrons sitting in the orchestra section didn't have the stamina to hang in there for the duration. After the first act many prime seats became vacated. From the back of the hall I could see that two front-row center seats were empty, and I made my move.

I like seat #108. It's kinda like being in virtual reality. It's also as close as the general public can get to sitting "in" the orchestra, or being up on the stage with the singers. I was literally inches away from Maestro James Levine, and could read the notes of his musical score. I was tempted to reach out and rub his bushy head, but restrained myself from doing so.

The sound was superb too. To be able to observe the expressions on the faces of the singers adds a dimension to the live opera experience that few people are ever able experience.

When sitting in that comfortable seat, the 3,800 people sitting behind me simply vanished. They were out of sight and out of mind. That night, Wagner's final opera was presented to me as a private performance - and I loved every second of it. Oddly, it warped my perception of time. It was perhaps the shortest five hours of my life.

I believe the members of the cast were as follows:

at the Metropolitan Opera
opera in three acts
words and music by Richard Wagner

Conductor: James Levine
Production: Nathaniel Merrill
Set and costume designer: Robert O'Hearn
Stage director: Bruce Donnell
Choreographer: Milenko Banovitch

Parsifal: Peter Hofmann
Kundry: Kathryn Harries
Amfortas: Simon Estes
Gurnemanz: Martti Talvela
Klingsor: Franz Mazura
Titurel: Julien Robbins


Thursday, April 15, 2010


Here is an interesting fact that I just came across...

American casinos pump synthetic human pheromones into the air to encourage aggressive gambling.

"According to a 2004 press release from Enhanced Air Technologies, a firm based in British Columbia, at least one major Las Vegas casino also pumps synthetic human pheromones into the air to increase business. The company claims its 'Commercaire' pheromone instills a sense of comfort and security in humans, which makes them feel more at ease and increases the likelihood of repeat visits."

Who knows what other interesting human emotions and desires can be artificially stimulated this way?


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Food for Thought

On a recent trip on IcelandAir with a stopover in Reykjavík, my wife Willemien ordered a vegetarian in-flight meal. The food wrapper on her veggie wrap included the following tidbit of information:

One of the specialities of the Icelandic cuisine is "Hrútspungar." It's ram testicles pressed in blocks, boiled and cured in lactic acid. While the taste is not particularly distinct, the texture is. Some say the testicles taste sour due to the lactic acid. Others think they're just tasteless, no matter what they taste like. Many Icelanders really have a ball munching on "hrútspungar" at the annual feast called Þorrablót.

Besides Súrsaðir hrútspungar, the cuisine includes many other popular menu items:

Sivð - burned or boiled sheep heads (your choice)

Selshreifar - seal's flippers cured in lactic acid

Lifrarpylsa - a pudding of liver sausage

Also consider, blood pudding, smoked sheep's thoracic diaphragm, or you could just have some fresh whale meat.

I'm seriously considering becoming a vegetarian. :-)



Wednesday, March 24, 2010

How ET Ruined Harmony (and why you shouldn't worry about it)

Yesterday I caught an interesting lecture at the Longy School of Music by musicologist Ross Duffin. He is the Fynette H. Kulas Professor of Music at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

His lecture was about his new book, How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and why you should care), which has been called by his critics as "the most subversive book on a musical subject I've ever read." He refers to Equal-Temperament by the acronym "ET."

I didn't exactly know what to expect from Professor Duffin. Based on the provocative title of his book, I feared that he would rail against all music written after Bach. But in the end it was scholarly, well-balanced, and rather informative.

As a musician who grew up playing keyboard instruments and fretted-string instruments, I never really had to deal too much with subtle tuning issues. In practice, singers and string players had to adjust to me - since I was the one who was "out of tune."

Duffin's research aptly summarizes the dysfunction that has existed regarding tuning systems, theories and performance practice since the Renaissance. Is is clear that virtually all of the solutions that have been proposed over the centuries are messy, ad hoc, and less than elegant.

If you are the sort of person who likes certainty, uniform standards, and mathematical precision, you should avoid Duffin's book like the plague. In this regard the world of musical temperament is similar to law-making in Washington DC: you really don't want to know how they make the sausage.

Here were a few interesting tidbits and takeaways from the lecture...

ET is recent invention in music history - a kind of worst-case totalitarian system that arises when everyone is made to suffer for the common good of uniformity and standardization.

In the 18th century, Mozart, Haydn, and probably Beethoven thought of the octave as having more than 12 notes. For them, D-sharp was a very different note than E-flat. Sharps were LOWER in pitch than flats. For example E-flat was a higher note than D-sharp. Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang's father had published the definitive treatise on violin playing with charts indicating these very distinctions.

And it's not only string players who abided by this system. The flutist, composer, and music theorist Johann Joachim Quantz published a fingering chart indicating different fingerings for enharmonic notes. For him, sharped and flatted notes were quite different.

In the 19th century, some musicians - often virtuoso string soloists who played unaccompanied - reversed the paradigm. As performers they tended to focus on the linear aspects of music. For them, D-sharp was played as a leading-tone and would sound HIGHER in pitch than E-flat because of the voice leading. This was the opposite practice of what was done just a century earlier, and this is the current belief, concept, and standard today. It is the convention practiced by the majority of mainstream classical musicians in the 2oth and 21st centuries - although this norm apparently has little acoustical, historical, or theoretical ground to stand on.

The current practice of tuning pianos with ET seems to be a bit of a fraud too. When one analyses what piano tuners actually do in terms of temperament, the result is somewhat sketchy and amorphous. Find me two different pianos, and I'll show you two different tuning standards. It's the invisible elephant in the room. Good piano tuners and excellent chefs don't share their secrets.

Our contemporary bias in favor of scientific and mathematical clarity with tuning systems too often seems to go against our better musical instincts and natural hearing.

While I found Duffin's talk very enlightening, I'm not a music historian. Overall I consider myself pretty liberal when it comes to performance practice.

For me, music is not the acoustical properties of the sound, but the ideas behind its presumed imperfect acoustical representation. In my mind, the tuning and temperament purity argument is a little like saying it's better to read a book printed at 1200 dpi than 300 dpi. The higher resolution allows for a better and more accurate representation of the typeface.

Isn't that kind of missing the point of what music is all about?

Duffin played a few musical examples to illustrate his points. One example utilized an electronically produced and scientifically accurate realization of a piano work in two contrasting temperaments. While I have to say there was a subtle but discernible difference between them - and that the non-ET version sounded less strained, warmer, and had less beating of upper harmonics - I was not overly impressed with the improved version. It wasn't at all like seeing a movie in 3D for the first time after having only known the standard format.

Given all of the factors that go into experiencing a work of music, the tuning aspect pales in comparison. To my ears, the version of temperament that is used is fairly trivial. I don't go to concerts to listen to intonation, and "imprecision" in performance normally doesn't bother me (unless it is really, really bad).

Another thing I realized from Duffin's presentation is that the social aspects of music making override the theoretical rules that theorists claim exist. It could be that every accomplished musician has their own unique tuning system. This is what makes one great violinist different from another. They just hear notes and intervals differently - as if it were part of their musical DNA or cultural context. In practice the range of expression possible in the production of a major-third, or a perfect-fifth can vary enormously. There are more gradations than even an enharmonic sharp or flat. Ask any microtonalist.

ET is no more than an approximation and a guidepost. It has never been more than a musical version of lane-lines painted on the highway. No musician in their right mind would expect all music to conform to such a limited and restrictive tuning system. It's a framework, not a Draconian pitch-grid where your teacher will swat your fingers with a ruler if you go outside of the lines.

On the other hand, alternative tuning systems to ET that have been (or likely will be) proposed are also a compromise. I hate to break the news, but no tuning-system Utopia exists - at least with the 12-note to the octave standard. In the end, ANY tuning system will only function as a rough and imperfect road map for the fabulous musical excursions that practicing musicians will inevitably take us on.

I don't buy the argument that equal-temperament has ruined harmony, and I don't think we have to worry about it either. There are much bigger bones to pick. You can sleep soundly at night knowing that music will still be there for you the next morning, equal-temperament or not.



Saturday, March 20, 2010

Dutch Invasion

For March Madness, a Sports Factoid...

Towering at 6 feet - 10 inches, Dutchman Kenneth van Kempen plays basketball for the Ohio Bobcats. He is a Senior at Ohio University, but his hometown is Weert in the Netherlands.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Reading Karl Kraus

It's a rainy weekend, perfect for catching up on some reading.

I'm enjoying Harry Zohn's biography and critical analysis of the Viennese writer and satirist Karl Kraus (1874-1936). Zohn published his book in 1971, and I was a student of his at Brandeis University where I failed to learn even basic German rather quite miserably. But Zohn, who chaired the Germanic and Slavic Language Department, was a real expert in turn of the century Vienna, and in particular the artistic, literary, and musical movements of that fascinating time.

Harry Zohn (1923-2001) was an excellent translator - bringing to English such works as Freud's "Delusion and Dream," the complete diaries of Theodor Herzel, and some 40 other volumes. He was a violist in the Brandeis Symphony Orchestra, and made all of his students (including yours truly) sing Viennese wine garden songs in class (I still have the sheet music). We also sampled a wide-variety of German Beer and pub food during a research-oriented field trip to Boston's Jacob Wirth House.

Kraus was a creative force of nature who embodied the Zeitgeist of his generation. Today we would probably call him a Performance Artist. For example, he held some 700 recitals in his traveling show billed as "Theatre of Poetry." It included readings of poetry and prose, satire, opera, and lieder. His circle of intellectuals included composers such as Schoenberg and Mahler, painters such as Klimt and Schiele, and scientists and philosophers such as Wittgenstein and Freud.

Kraus was not a musician. According to Zohn...

Kraus's inability to read music was not compensated for by any great vocal resources. His singing voice was really Sprechgesang in the manner of Schönberg or Berg, but it was considerably enhanced by this great intuition and empathy, his rhythmic acuteness, his talent as an imitator, and his pervasive moral fanaticism.

The pianists who accompanied him were among the best, including composers Ernst Křenek and Josef Matthias Hauer. Zohn observes, "In January, 1932, he gave a program of poems and scenes by Bert Brecht, accompanied on the piano by Kurt Weill."

Kraus's 60th birthday was celebrated with a musical-literary matinee and a film about him. Composer Alban Berg was in attendance. Musicians Eduard Steuermann and Rudolf Kolisch were also amongst Kraus's close friends.

In Zohn's concluding statement ends with the following observation"...Karl Kraus may have been a failure. But surely he was one of the grandest failures in world literature."

Zohn's scholarly but assessable book on Kraus ends with "An Aphoristic Sampler." Here are just a few of the choice translations Zohn made of Kraus's work:

I can say with pride that I have spent days and nights not reading anything, and that with unflagging energy I use every free moment gradually to acquire an encyclopedic lack of education.

I dreamt that I had died for my country. And right way a coffin-lid opener was there, holding out his hand for a tip.

Am I to blame if hallucinations and visions are alive and have names and permanent residences?

In one ear and out the other: this would make the head a transit station. What I hear has to go out the same ear.

I ask no one for a light. I don't want to be beholden to anyone - in life, love, or literature. And yet I smoke.

I hear noises which others don't hear and which interfere with the music of the spheres that others don't hear either.

I already remember many things that I am experiencing.

Solitude would be an ideal state if one were able to pick the people one avoids.

Kokoschka has made a portrait of me. It could be that those who know me will not recognize me; but surely those who don't know me will recognize me.

"He masters the German language" -that is true of a salesman. An artist is a servant of the word.

I have decided many a stylistic problem first by my head, then by heads or tails.

Today's literature: prescriptions written by patients.

The superman is a premature ideal, one that presupposes man.

A journalist is stimulated by a deadline. He writes worse when he has time.

Diplomacy is a game of chess in which the nations are checkmated.

A Gourmet once told me that he preferred the scum of the earth to the cream of society.

The devil is an optimist if he thinks he can make people meaner.

Democracy means the permission to be everyone's slave.

Medicine: "Your money and your life!"

I do not trust the printing press when I deliver my written words to it. How a dramatist can rely on the mouth of an actor!

The development of technology will leave only one problem: the infirmity of human nature.

If the earth had any idea of how afraid the comet is of contact with it!

More satirical quotes of Kraus can be found on the web here...

Karl Kraus Quotes



Friday, March 12, 2010


Yesterday at Harvard University, composer Rob Zuidam delivered the second of three lectures on contemporary Dutch music. The ongoing series is presented by the Harvard Music Department in conjunction with the Erasumus Lectures on History and Civilization of the Netherlands and Flanders.

Zuidam focused on what's known as Hoketus - or "ensemble culture" in the Netherlands and how it evolved.

It really all began in 1966 when a group of five Dutch composers organized to protest against the artistic direction taken by the Concertgebouw Orchestra. The group called themselves The Five and led a larger group known as Notenkrakers ("Nutcrackers" - which has multiple meanings, including "note" and "nut").

The Notenkrakers wanted the orchestra to hire Bruno Maderna as a second conductor to work along side with their current Music Director, Bernard Haitink. Maderna was perhaps the leading conductor of contemporary music at that time.

Over the course of the next few years little progress was made by Concertgebouw to purge the conservatism from their programs and inject music composed by the younger generation of Dutch composers (such as members of The Five). The Notenkrakers made little if any progress with the Concertgebouw managements on this matter.

It all came to a head in November of 1969 when The Notenkrakers stormed in and disturbed a concert about to begin in the Concertgebouw. This "notenkrakersactie" (nutcracker action) was a historic event that some say changed level of acceptance of new music in Holland.

Just before Haitink was able to complete his initial downbeat, the protesters had skillfully disrupted the concert with their noise makers and megaphones. The group of students passed out leaflets and confronted the orchestra and audience.

Peter Schat (1935-2003), a member of The Five, used his megaphone to demand that Bernard Haitink come down off the podium and address The Notenkrakers and the audience in an open public discussion. The confrontation instilled a a minor riot, and the police were soon called to eject the protesters from the concert hall.

Besides Peter Schat, members of The Five included Misha Mengelberg (b. 1935), Louis Andriessen (b. 1939), and Reinbert de Leeuw (b. 1938) - all of which had studied with the composer Kees van Baaren.

To the disappointment of The Notenkrakers , their protest was denounced by their philosophical mentor: Matthijs Vermeulen. The Five had held Vermeulen (who was the subject of Zuidam's first lecture) in high regard for his harsh reviews of the Concertgebouw and their lack of interest in performing contemporary music. But to their surprise, Vermeulen released a public statement that The Five was off-base. Vermeulen wrote that hiring Bruno Maderna would be impractical and that Concertgebouw actually supported modern music rather well compared to other international orchestras.

Undeterred, throughout the 1970s and into the early 80s, members of The Five independently formed and led ad hoc new music ensembles throughout Holland. Effectively, younger Dutch composers had largely abandoned the idea of the symphony orchestra as an instrument in favor of more responsive new music ensembles that were fluid and dynamic. Louis Andriessen's group Hoketus is a prime example of the resulting "ensemble culture" which continues on today.

(Link: )

In the end, the incident of the November 1969 notenkrakersactie when The Notenkrakers stormed in at the Concertgebouw resulted in a positive change for musical performance in the Netherlands. The Five has been credited with "shaking Dutch musical life out of its suffocating provincialism."



Thursday, March 11, 2010

Elliott Carter Rocks!

A short little guitar piece by Elliott Carter (b. 1908)...
Shard (1997)
I like the fast music at the end, starting at 1'40"
It reminds me of Jimi Hendrix.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Ralph Towner

Jazz guitarist Ralph Towner (b. 1940) is coming to the Regattabar in Cambridge on March 23rd. He's performing on baritone and 12-string guitars along with Paolo Fresu. The set starts at 7:30 PM, and tickets are $22.

I vaguely remember Towner from his presence as a sideman on Weather Report's jazz fusion album from 1972: I Sing the Body Electric. But his music today is mostly acoustic. When not on tour, Towner lives the good life in Rome.

Here is a YouTube clip of Towner performing the jazz standard I Fall in Love Too Easily by Sammy Cahn. He mentions in his introduction that Sammy passed away just recently, and that the well-known jazz guitarist Steve Kahn is his son. I had studied guitar with Steve Kahn when I was still in high school.

(Link: )



Spread Spectrum Communications

I teach a course in Data Communications (aka Network Standards and Protocols). I enjoy providing a little history when the course gets to the unit covering Spread Spectrum (SS) technology, which has evolved today into Wi-Fi (IEEE 802.11).

Spread Spectrum communications uses wide band, noise-like signals. It's been a favorite technology for the military, since SS signals are hard to detect, hard to intercept, hard to jam, and hard to demodulate.

Students love their Wi-Fi, and look a little puzzled when I explain how that technology was invented by a famous movie actress and an avant-garde composer.

Yeap, that's right.

The story is amazing. If you made it into a movie, nobody would believe it.

Austrian-born actress Hedy Lamarr (born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler) and composer George Antheil are universally credited for discovering and patenting this communications technology.

Hedy Lamarr (1914 - 2000), is better known for the many movies she made at MGM Studios in Hollywood. Lamarr was born to Jewish parents in Vienna, and studied ballet and piano at an early age. She later worked with Max Reinhardt in Berlin, who called her the "most beautiful woman in Europe." Later Lamarr would end up marrying a controlling and wealthy Vienna arms manufacturer who was 13 years her senior. He'd lock her up in the residence, known has"Castle Schwarzenau." Lamarr objected to her husbands' support of Hitler's war machine, but both Hitler and Mussolini were frequent guests at their lavish parties in the castle. It is said that Lamaar dressed as one of her maids and fled to Paris. In 1933 Lamarr created a scandal when she appeared nude for an extended period in the movie "Ecstasy."

George Antheil (1900 - 1959) is know primarily as a daring modernist composer who's music shocked audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. His most famous piece Ballet Mécanique was originally conceived in the 1920s for 16 synchronized player pianos, two grand pianos, electronic bells, xylophones, bass drums, a siren and three airplane propellers. It's often performed today in a scaled down version for percussion, four pianos, and a recording of an airplane motor.

Well-known in both America and in Europe as being an "ultra-modern pianist/composer," Antheil influenced many avant-garde composers, including Edgard Varèse and John Cage. He held wide interests such as publishing articles and books on female endocrinology, and in his spare time wrote a mystery novel (blogs didn't exist yet).

It was Antheil's interest in female endocrinology that brought him and Lamarr together. Antheil had a theory about how men could tell the availability of women based on the glandular effects of their appearance. He consulted with Lamarr on this, and the result of this research was published in his book, "The Glandbook for the Questing Male."

Their research broadened, and after much joint discussion they devised a secret communication system that is now regarded as the predecessor of the today's Spread Specturm "frequency hopping" technology used in communications systems all around the world. Antheil had already applied this technique to control the 88 keys of player pianos in his strange musical compositions.

Lamarr and Antheil submitted their idea to the US Patent office in June of 1941 and were granted a Patent (US Patent # 2,292,387). One of the figures for the patent is show below.

It was clear that they believed their technique could be applied to radio-guided torpedoes and aid the war effort. The US Military took notice, but in 1942 it did not possess the technology to implement Spread Spectrum-based control systems to guide their torpedoes. However, in 1962 during the US blockade of Cuba during the infamous "Cuban Missile Crisis." Lamarr and Antheil's technology was deployed and proven to work (although their Patent had long expired).

Here is a very short YouTube clip about Hedy Lamarr. (Feel free to explore the others posted on YouTube)....

And here is the beginning of George Antheil's Ballet Mécanique in a recent performance by the New Jersey Percussion Ensemble (Peter Jarvis conducting)...



Tuesday, March 9, 2010

CD Review: Sheila Mac Donald

Regular followers of this blog might be surprised to see this CD review, since I don't regularly write about Folk music. But the fact is that I listen to all kinds of music, and at earlier stages in my life as a guitarist I accompanied and performed widely in Rock, Jazz, C&W, and Folk venues.

This review is of a new Folk CD released in January of this year by Boston-based independent recording artist Sheila Mac Donald. The album is titled This Way. She is a songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist.

Mac Donald's new CD is comprised of interesting and mysterious songs with lyrics that hint at harsh realities and matters of personal loss. Yet, at least on the surface, the songs transcend the ordinary to provide a rare insight into the human experience.

(photo by Karen Holland)

There is a high degree of imagination, fantasy, and wisdom in Mac Donald's lyrics. She writes and sings from the heart, even though at times her songs seem deeply philosophical, metaphorical, abstract, or even pensive and dark.

Musically, the melodies and accompaniment are spirited, joyful, and very pleasant to listen to. Mac Donald's songs have a simplicity and honest quality that's clearly hard-earned and rings true. It's hard not to tune into and receive the bittersweet message that this artist portrays in her album of songs.

Her song "The Blue" is a song about workplace imprisonment. It reflects on the psychological mindset of a creative person eking out a living while working in retail. It is a song that I can fully understand and sympathize with.

Mac Donald was born and raised in Quincy, MA, and hails from a combination of Irish and Scottish heritage (her paternal grandparents were from Nova Scotia). This Celtic ancestry can be heard in some of her songs - particularly "Bare Branches" and "Burning Slow" - which have an explicit Irish sound. But the songs are also quite contemporary and individual.

When I inquired about the genesis of her music, Mac Donald provided the following bit of information, "Most of the 14 songs are recent but I pulled some out of the notebooks that were older. I wrote Sarah and Sandra in 1993, Grazna, and Burning Slow in 1998."

Mac Donald has composed many songs, and recorded several of her works for Fast Folk Musical Magazine (organized by Jack Hardy in the early 90s and available on Smithsonian Folkways). Her song "Night Bird's Song" was covered at a Fast Folk Live at the Bottom Line show in NYC and recorded on CD. Mac Donald's "My Wallet" was included on the Chill Out East Coast Edition, Vol. 10 compilation CD (2008).

This Way
is Mac Donald's first full length CD. It was recorded, engineered, and mixed at blue fish sound productions in Marblehead, MA. Mac Donald collaborated with some of Boston's finest musicians on this album, which was skillfully produced and arranged by Raymond Gonzalez. Gonzalez plays guitar, bass, mandolin, and keyboards on many of the tracks. Violinist Pam Kuras joins them for two tracks with her Celtic sounding violin playing. The CD is professionally mastered by Toby Mountain at Northeastern Digital, in Southborough, MA.

Mac Donald's training includes formal academic studies in music and composition at Brandeis University in the 1980s. At Brandeis, she was awarded two of the music department's most prestigious awards: the Remis and Reiner. She studied composition, counterpoint, harmony, and music theory. I once had her as a student myself. Her avant-garde musical compositions from that period include a wonderful but edgy atonal solo violin work that was performed in concert. But it is in Folk music that she has found her true voice.

Mac Donald is a member of ASCAP.


"This Way" can be purchased directly on CD Baby at: or from iTunes

The Artist's MySpace page provides more information about the singer/songwriter as well as ways to purchase the CD by mail:

Information about Mac Donald's Folkways recording:


Monday, March 8, 2010

The Bohlen-Pierce scale

Boston is hosting an interesting symposium and concert series this week (March 7-9, 2010). It began yesterday and continues through tomorrow evening.

The event is drawing a diverse crowd of composers, musicians, mathematicians, music theorists, computer scientists, researchers, neurologists, and musical instrument builders from all over the world - all because of an intriguing and unifying idea.

The idea that has caught their imagination is a new scale. The scale was conceived independently by two microwave engineers and a computer scientist in the 1970s and 80s. It is now referred to as the Bohlen-Pierce or "BP" scale. Heinz Bohlen, Kees van Prooijen, and John R. Pierce all had a hand in it's discovery.

The BP scale is rather unique. There are several variants, but the primary idea is that BP utilizes the 3:1 ratio instead of the 2:1 ratio that defines the traditional even-tempered scale used in most Western music.

With traditional Western music, the octave is a basic and primary interval. It's derived from the 2:1 ratio, and from that we divide the octave into 12 equal steps. BP replaces the octave with something they call a "tritave." Arriving at the tritave in the notes of a rising BP scale does provide a melodic sense of closure or completion.

With the BP scale, the 3:1 ratio defines the lower and upper degrees of the scale (which happen to be the span of what we usually think of as an octave and a fifth). That range is then divided into 13 steps.

The Bohlen-Pierce Symposium and Concerts are sponsored by the Boston Microtonal Society and Georg Hajdu (Hamburg Hochschule für Musik und Theater) in partnership with the Goethe Institute of Boston, the Berklee College of Music, Northeastern University, and New England Conservatory. The conference website is

I was intrigued by the idea of this new scale, and attended the first concert at the Fenway Center at Northeastern University last evening to hear what composers are doing with it. The concert featured nine pieces - although the BP conference in total will showcase 24 premieres of pieces written by composers from around the globe who are utilizing the BP scale.

My first impressions of this new musical structure are mixed.

While there seems to be a solid theoretical basis for BP, how composers and musicians apply the raw material of sound is the ultimate proof in the pudding. There seems to be a number of aesthetic and logistical issues regarding the execution.

First, it's pretty hard to abandon the interval of an octave. It's so universal and ingrained in virtually all the music we have known up to this point, that skipping over the octave seems strange. In the BP sound world, the octave is an an invisible elephant sitting on the stage.

Electronic realizations of the BP scale sound so much more convincing than realizations produced by singers or instruments. I'm not convinced that musicians have yet attained the needed hearing and performance skills to accurately render the BP scale. Nor have our ears grown familiar enough with it.

For instance, one of the more successful works on the concert was Five Moods by Anthony De Ritis. De Ritis recorded BP clarinetist Amy Advocat and produced a tape piece based on those sounds and pitches. From his piece, I could hear the totality of the scale, and how it has some very consonant properties.

All music is cultural. The basic premise that the BP system seems to ride on is a notion that the current 12-note equal-tempered scale is somehow inferior. The BP scale, while still imperfect, strives (at least theoretically) to make a better map onto the frequencies implied by Nature's Grand Dame - the overtone series.

My beef with that objective is one of personal bias. Who says that musical systems should follow Nature's lead? Why the heck should human-kind not divide musical intervals as they please. I like to hear my music served up on a plate with "in-harmonic" intervals. I like the sound of notes and their overtones beating "out of tune." I like dissonance. I like tone clusters, scalar symmetry, and the certainty of an equally loaded 12-gage keyboard. The traditional semi-tone is one of my favorite intervals, and I don't desire anything smaller - particularly when it is dispersed using octave-equivalence over several spanning registers. Octave equivalence is an amazing property.

As with the Early Music folks, the BP advocates seem to want just intonation and tonal consonance. They believe that the modern day piano is corrupt, evil, and ugly. Frankly, I just don't share that point of view.

I'm a composer who works mostly in an atonal universe. For that sound scape, a 12-note even-tempered scalar system works rather nicely. Musicians are trained to hear it, read it, and perform it. It doesn't require relearning a new system.

A very good notational system exists for the 12-tone system which has evolved through the collective efforts of musicians over centuries of practical use and applicaton.

BP music notation (or the prevailing version of it) uses the standard five-line music staff and traditional clefs that musicians are familiar with, but the seven notes C-D-E-F-G-A-B are augmented with H and J. The thing that throws me off is that while the musicians may be reading the note G - what actually sounds (and the interval it creates with the preceding note) is something entirely different. BP notation and keyboards need to go through a lot more development.

Will BP catch on and become mainstream?

Probably not. It's hard to create a tradition when only six BP tuned clarinets exist in the entire world (four of which are in Boston for the concert series). The BP clarinet should be the hallmark for this scale, since the clarinet is acoustically ideal for it. It over blows in the correct ratio, and it's "square wave" timbre nicely reinforces the gestalt of the scale by providing energy on the odd-numbered overtones.

The bottom line is that composers will end up writing what they want to hear. What they want to hear is, in the end, approximated by whatever system or scale they happen to be using. Musical ideas fall onto a pitch-frequency grid, and while the grid can vary, the musical ideas themselves transcend the surface characteristics of the aural medium. There is no magic bullet, and no substitute for genuine and substantive musical ideas regardless of the tuning system it is constructed on top of. Tuning systems are secondary - almost arbitrary.

There were some pieces on last evening's program that caught my attention. For example Liebesleid (2010) , a short work by James Bergin, seemed classical in conception. Bergin took a rather conservative approach to the BP scale, and worked within the constraints of a simple melodic materials. His piece was straight-forward and elegant. His intervals in the BP language sounded large compared to other pieces that I've heard from him, although the same unique composers' voice still comes through regardless of the underline pitch system.

Julia Werntz's piece Imperfections (2010) was also for solo BP clarinet. It too was short and simple, and to me sounded like a transcription of her 72-note microtonal music. In fact, she converted the BP scale and notation into a subset of the language she usually composes in (a 72-note system devised by Ezra Sims), and back again after the piece was conceived. Having heard her music before, Imperfections sounded like a subset of her normal sound world. The ending of the piece intrigued me. The wide leaps did point to a coherence in the BP scale. It did make me wonder if BP is actually a universal chord, rather than a scalar set of distinct stand-alone pitches related to one-another. When heard as a chord, all the notes seem to be cut from the same cloth, and seem intuitively related - like members of a family.

I want to keep abreast of developments in the BP field. But at present, I don't see it as a new panacea or musical Shangri-La. I'm quite content to keep composing in the system that has done me well over all of these years. I'm find no shortage of relationships to exploit in the 12-pitch even-tempered system. It's not lacking in any way. In fact, 12-pitches per octave is about all that I can handle.