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.

A little about me

My photo
Chapel Hill, NC, United States

Blog Archive


Art (27) Birthday (3) Book Review (4) Boston (39) CD Review (2) Celebrations (10) Concert Review (39) Dreams (4) Education (5) Employment (11) Factoid (26) Family (28) Flashback (40) Flying (6) Food (22) Friends (8) Fun (14) Health (3) Holland (5) Movies (9) Music (261) Nature (12) NY (8) Obit (8) Poetry (6) Random thoughts (99) Science (12) Sports (6) Tech (34) Travel (27) Weird stuff (28) Woodwind Quintet (1)

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.



Sunday, March 7, 2010

A Concert of Spectral Music

On Friday evening March 5th, 2010 the sounds of Spectral Music could be heard at Boston University's Marsh Chapel. That's where the Xanthos Ensemble presented a program featuring music of four composers whom - each in their own way - represent a unique approach to this still emerging movement of contemporary musical composition.

Spectral music is a hard to define. The term was coined by the French composer/philosopher Hugues Dufourt. Dufourt used his term Spectral music in an article published in the early 1980s, and the label caught on. The Spectral music movement has evolved into a bona fide musical trend. It has functioned as an aesthetic school of thought since the late 1980s.

Composers working in this methodology typically embrace the framework of a generalized musical approach rather than a specific style or "ism." Spectral music does not espouse any particular technique, but rather is passionately indicative of working methods that are rooted deeply in current scientific research, psychoacoustic theory, as well as digital sound analysis and synthesis.

Today, Spectral music - at least in the United States, is still a sub-genre of the overall mainstream new music scene. Practitioners of this art form appear to be united, organized, and well-placed. They seem to have plenty to talk about, and easily quote from scientific studies or cite from memory passages of Hermann von Helmholtz's classic treatise On the Sensations of Tone.

It seems at times as if they view musical instruments as sound generating devices that can be scientifically manipulated to realize interesting and novel spectral patterns. In their world, cellos and pianos function as hardware that can be called up to execute the coded instructions of their creative software.

The Spectral music concept has some merit. Many important discoveries about the nature of sound have emerged in recent decades. Scientific resources and acoustical data are more available to composers today than ever before in history. With the help of ubiquitous software programs for spectral analysis, composers can study sounds, and then re-generate those very specific overtones in a musical work using a combination of traditional instruments and extended performance techniques (such as wind instrument multiphonics and microtonality).

Composers working in this discipline could in theory make a cello sound like a screaming chicken, or replicate the hum and buzz of a modern factory - using only traditional musical instruments as their sound generation equipment.

But rock solid technique does not automatically translate into a viable artistic movement. Does Spectral music have feet to walk on?

It seems to me that the relative success of the Spectral music movement has more to do with filling a void. The public's desire to move on from the staid and entrenched (albeit broadly misunderstood) period of musical exploration that dominated the 1950s and 60s could have been fulfilled by any "ism." According to Wikipedia...

Spectral music represented an alternative to the prestige of the serialists and post-serialists as the vanguard of serious musical composition and compositional technique.

In the mid-1980s, Spectral music was new, cool, and very European. It engendered an aesthetic predominance practiced by a slew of followers led and inspired by the French composer-conductor Pierre Boulez. They were a new generation of composers, theorists, scientists and technicians who worked at the famed research institute in Paris known as IRCAM.

Perhaps too Spectral music replaced Serialism as the latest nexus between musical and scientific thought. It became a space for composers to exercise their proclivities of rational thinking and scientific method in service of their more primitive musical instincts. It allows composers to "bang on a can" while at the same time rationalizing the sound using a host of convincing algorithms, formulas, and/or spectral diagrams.

Spectral music seems to play by a slightly different set of rules than traditional modernist music. It avoids traditional notions of form. Pitch and melody tend to function secondarily to the parameter of timbre. Spectral music is obsessed with the micro-events of acoustical phenomenon over the role of traditional musical narrative and development.

I did not follow the progress of Spectral music too closely when it hit the music scene with a vengeance in the 80s and 90s. So, as you can imagine, I was interested to hear a concert dedicated to this musical genre. The Xanthos concert was an opportunity to hear four mature pieces by skilled composers working in this specialized field for some time.

The composers Xanthos Ensemble program were Tristan Murail (b. 1947), Ronald Bruce Smith, Joshua Fineberg (b. 1969), and Gérard Grisey (1946-1998). Murail and Grisey are two names closely associated with this movement.

The first work, "Seven Lakes Drive" (2006) by Tristan Murail was for flute, clarinet, horn, piano, violin, and violoncello. According to the composers' program notes, "The material of the piece is built on the natural resonances of the French horn and the piano." I noticed that the cello often played in the stratosphere, in a register well above the violin. The French horn explored the overtone series, and much of the music resonated in the piano's open shell.

The second work on the program was a Boston premiere by the Canadian composer Ronald Bruce Smith. He is currently on the faculty at Northeastern University. His piece Remembrances of a Garden is inspired by paintings and concepts found in painting - namely Paul Klee and Claude Monet. The work is scored for flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, percussion, piano, violin, and violoncello. Remembrances of a Garden is a formative work, full of rich detail and interesting sonic occurrences. It presented well in the acoustical space of Marsh Chapel.

Joshua Fineberg
's Veils for solo piano was a real discovery. The shimmering sounds of the piano filled the air with vivid colors, vibration, and a blanket of interesting musical objects flowing through time. The composer wrote in his program notes, "It is not the notes (or not only the notes) which draw me to the piano; rather, for me, the real magic of the piano is its resonance." For me, Veils makes a convincing argument in favor of timbre over pitch. Eunyoung Kim was impressive and commanding at the piano, attacking the keyboard at times with Zen-like force and an intuitive conviction about the notes. She can make the piano sing, like a chorus of 10 thousand voices.

The concert ended with a Spectral music classic, Talea by Gérard Grisey. Grisey died in 1998 at the age of 52, so we will never know where the trajectory of his music development would have eventually led. But his work Talea (1986) seemed rather traditional to me in many ways. It contains a primary motif in the form of a well defined (but not-pitch specific) gesture. That central idea is developed and transformed in ways that remind us of music of the past. That's not so revolutionary!

The musicians of the Xanthos Ensemble met and exceeded my already high expectations of this Boston-based new music sensation. They played with grace and panache. Joanna Goldstein (flute), Alexis Lanz (clarinet), Brenda van der Merwe (violin and viola), Leo Eguchi (cello), Joseph Walker (French horn), Eunyoung Kim (piano), and George Nickson (percussion) were directed by conductor Jeffrey Means.

A nice reception followed the concert. Most of the Boston University music department composition faculty were there in force.

I look forward to hearing what the Xanthos Ensemble dreams up for concerts in the future. They are the real deal.

Xanthos Ensemble
Presented by the Boston University College of Fine Arts - School of Music
Marsh Chapel, Boston University
March 5th, 2010



Friday, March 5, 2010

Musical Palindromes

I just finished a new work for flute, Bb clarinet (doubling on bass Cl.), piano, violin, cello, and percussion. It's a pretty big piece - in three movements and lasting over 15 minutes in duration.

The first movement exploits a musical technique that I've always wanted to experiment with, but never got around to. It plays with palindromes. I've titled this movement Immagine Speculare.

While the musical flow of Immagine Speculare tosses around large phrases of its' thematic material within its' multi-dimensional mirror-image layered texture, the music on the surface progresses in a continuous and transparent way that should appear to the listener as logically constructed and naturally derived. It's also a fast and furious work that demands a lot of physical and mental energy, not to mention calorie expenditure on the part of hard-working performers.

But I'm certainly not creating anything original by using this technique, since musical palindrome has been around for a long time. It goes back to at least the "crab canon" where one voice is reversed in time and pitch from the second voice (Crabs walk backward).

Haydn's Symphony #47 has a minuet and trio in musical palindrome.

Mozart's Scherzo-Duetto plays this game too.

One of my favorite musical palindromes is from Alban Berg's opera Lulu. He was influenced by the technical possibilities that were emerging in the avant-garde silent film industry at the time. His opera used palindrome on the level of drama and within the structure of the music. In my view, the interlude contains some of the best music in the opera.

Béla Bartók too was very fond of "arch form" which allows the composer to frame the structure of a movement (or the larger work) according to a palindromic pathway of musical association. For example: A B C D C' B' A'.

Anton Webern is another shinning example of someone who liked this structure. Webern is one of my musical heroes, but his music at present seems to virtually ignored by the reigning musical establishment. Yet he never met a palindrome that he didn't like. You could say that Webern was symmetry obsessed - choosing symmetry to organize every structure imaginable in the time and pitch domains of his musical works (both vertically and horizontally). His beautiful Symphonie Op. 21 (second movement) has a cool palindrome right near the beginning.

Igor Stravinsky's rendition of Edward Leer's famous nonsense poem, The Owl and the Pussy Cat is another good example of palindrome. The composer scored it for boy soprano and piano in 1966 when he was 84 years old, and it turned out to be his final original composition. The music uses the 12-tone technique, yet it is tuneful enough for a child to sing (with some practice). And of course The Owl and the Pussy Cat music utilizes palindromic structure.

And then there is the famous example of Der Mondfleck, the 18th movement of Arnold Schönberg's history changing Pierrot Lunaire op. 21. After the piano introduction, the music is palindromic. Here is a spirited performance of Der Mondfleck conducted by Pieter van der Wulp with Ensemble 88 in Holland. The soprano is Bauwien van der Meer. Enjoy...


Thursday, March 4, 2010

A few palindromes


Yo, banana boy!

No lemon, no melon.

No cab, no tuna nut on bacon.

Dammit, I'm mad.

Dennis and Edna sinned.

As I pee, sir, I see Pisa.

Anne, I vote more cars race Rome to Vienna.
A Toyota. Race fast, safe car. A Toyota.

Devil lived

Boston did not sob.

Not so, Boston!

If I had hi-fi.

Paris, I rap.

Nina Ricci ran in.

Can I attain a "C"?

"La" - not atonal.

Satan, oscillate my metallic sonatas!

Air an aria.

In Italian...

odo (to hear)
ossesso (obsessed)
ottetto (octet)
animina (little soul)
onorarono (to honor)
ingegni (ingeniousness)
otto (eight)
ala (wing)

In Dutch...
Legovogel (Lego bird)

Today's Google Doodle

Today's Google Doodle celebrates the birthday of a great Venetian baroque composer. Thank you Google for bringing a composer to our attention. Happy Birthday Antonio!

Q: How old are you now?

A: 332

That's old!



Going Rogue

Waves are everywhere.

Most of the time they are very predictable. The mathematics of probability theory show that the size of waves fall within a very clearly defined window of measurable and predictable amplitude.

But is size everything?

Earlier this week a 26-foot rogue wave came out of nowhere to hit a cruise ship in the French Mediterranean. Two passengers were killed and six people injured.

The study and science of "rogue" or "freak" waves is rather new. It's really in the past decade that researchers have had the tools to study the phenomenon in depth. Many didn't even believe that the phenomenon existed, since there was no clear scientific evidence on record.

The entire world-wide shipping industry has evolved on the assumption that waves will never attain a height beyond 50-feet. Ships are designed to withstand that "worst case" scenario, but anything taller is likely to inflict damage or disaster. But in the last two decades over 200 supertankers and container ships exceeding 200 metres in length have been damaged or were sunk by this random and freakish act of nature.

Then on New Year's day in 1995, the Draupner platform in the North Sea was pounded by one of the mysterious rogue waves. It was massive, and oddly enough, it was the first time a rogue wave had ever been recorded.

A rogue wave is not the same as Tsunami. They come out of nowhere, and can occur anywhere in the sea. They also defy our assumptions about how waves are created.

The new paradigm regarding rogue waves utilizes a different mathematical model, one that is associated with quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics does not neatly conform our old rules of classical physics. Rogue waves are not possible in Newton's world

In a nutshell, rogue waves are thought to be nonlinear.

If you are the sort of person that needs an equation to explain the ocean surf, then you will be comforted to know that the nonlinear Schrödinger equation (NLS) does the job.

For those of us who are math-challenged, all you really need to know is that rogue waves start off as a "normal" wave, but then suck up energy from its' adjacent neighbors. The waves just before and after the emerging rogue wave are demoted to mere ripples. Their energy is transferred to the rogue wave, and it becomes a solid wall of moving water.

The upper limit is not known, but past encounters have shown that rogue waves can attain a height of well over 100 feet. Think about that the next time you book a vacation cruise.

As someone who in inclined to think defensively, I began to wonder if the nonlinear Schrödinger equation might apply to other areas of the physical universe. For example, is there such thing as a rogue sound wave? Is it possible that a non suspecting audience at Symphony Hall attending a concert by the Boston Symphony might be subjected suddenly to a "death wave" of sound emerging randomly from a performance of Beethoven's 5th symphony?

I've heard a lot of rogue pieces of music in my life, but so far the random killer piece of music has resulted from acts that are purely human in origin. But it does beg the question since this nonlinear phenomenon is proven to be fact (albeit relatively rare): Is there even a remote possibility that a freakish synergy created by some strange combination of audio frequencies could behave in this deadly fashion?

To be honest, I wouldn't rule it out.



Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Thoughts about Novell

There's a little M&A activity to report in the news, and I'm not talking about Music and Art.

Yesterday after the stock market ended its session, a NY-based hedge fund firm called Elliott Associates offered to buy out the software and networking company Novell for an even $2 billion dollars. It was an unsolicited bid (aka hostile takeover).

The hedge fund's modus operandi is to take "an activist approach to investing, frequently amassing significant but minority stakes in distressed or under performing companies and attempting to foment change."

Elliott Associates (and its' parent Elliott International) manage more than $16 billion of capital for large institutional investors and wealthy individuals. They clearly see an opportunity and bargain in Novell.

In after-hours trading Elliott offered to pay $5.75 a share in cash for Novell stock. That's 21 percent higher than Novell’s price at close yesterday. Predictably, there was a upward tick in Novell’s share price: it rose $1.23, or nearly 26 percent, to $5.98 in after-hours trading.

Elliott Associates - an investment firm that specializes in "distressed companies" -currently holds more than eight percent of Novell’s stock. It is offering an additional 1.8 billion to take over the company from stock holders.

Novell’s Board of Directors received a letter from Elliott Associates explaining the rationale for the firm’s bid:

Over the past several years, the company has attempted to diversify away from its legacy division with a series of acquisitions and changes in strategic focus that have largely been unsuccessful. As a result, we believe the company’s stock has meaningfully underperformed all relevant indices and peers. With over 33 years of experience in investing in public and private companies and an extensive track record of successfully structuring and executing acquisitions in the technology space, we believe that Elliott is uniquely situated to deliver maximum value to the company’s stockholders on an expedited basis.

While I do not own any Novell stock personally, I have worked with their products over a period that spans decades, and am quite familiar with the company history. Their corporate HQ is actually nearby in Waltham, MA. I've been to the tech giant's "Brain Share" conference in Salt Lake City numerous times, and know or have worked with scores of folks associated with the company.

I'd be sorry to see Novell bought and cannibalized for it's remaining cash, trademarks, patents, and software inventory (such as SUSE Linux). In this ailing economy, the vultures are having a field day.

There is some truth that Novell has made famous and grandiose mistakes in strategy and marketing over the years, but their technology has for the most part been innovative, ahead of the curve, and rock solid.

I was very hopeful when ex-Sun Microsystems CTO Eric Schmidt took over as Novell's CEO in 1997. Schmidt had a clear understanding of the importance of the Internet and how cloud computing would eventually dominate the industry. At Sun he led its Java development efforts.

I recell being invited to a top-level executive briefing with Eric Schmidt at Novell's office in Wellseley, MA. Schmidt wanted to hear first-hand from Novell's customer base. The international company I worked for at the time (Zurich Scudder Kemper Investments) was a significant corporate client.

The meeting was informative and pleasant. Schmidt had just flown into town on Novell's corporate jet. I recall that he parked his plane at Hansom Field in Bedf0rd, preferring it over Logan International. Schmidt spoke to the small group about Novell's initiatives, listened to our ideas and concerns, and met with us individually. Customers were provided with lunch, and I received a nice leather notebook case and cool ball-point pen with the Novell logo inscribed on it. The future looked rosy.

In 2001 things changed. A local IT consulting company that was heavily invested in Microsoft technology - and who's core business was outsourcing software development - was "acquired" by Novell. It was called Cambridge Technology Partners (CTP), and their offices were in a renovated brick factory building along Memorial Drive in Cambridge across the Charles River from BU. The street talk at the time was that the merger was a good idea, since Novell would benefit from the additional talent of CTP's programming staff. In reality, CTP assumed the upper edge, took over Novell's management team, robbed it of cash, and led the company down a confused and ultimately dire path.

Schmidt left Novell soon after the acquisition of CTP. The rumor was that he found managing the new Novell quite difficult. The remaining senior management of the company was still entrenched in their old business models, and a myriad of complications had been introduced by the merger with CTP. Lingering complications from Novell's prior mergers (such as WordPerfect) contributed to the dysfunction. The magnitude of the organizational turmoil set Novell firmly into a state of classic management gridlock - and for an IT company that is a bad state to be in.

Around this time Google founders Larry Page and Sergy Brin met secretly with Schmidt. They realized that they had a lot in common (such as flying airplanes). The trio hit if off in a way that only geeky software engineers can do, and Schmidt agreed to assist the dynamic duo in transforming Google into a real company. The rest is history.

Novell's loss was Google's gain.

I still have my spiffy black leather Novell executive case and pen. I retain my obscure Novell certifications of CNE and Master CNE. But although Novell's customers still exist, they are much harder to find. I know that from looking at the employment pages.

All of this technology (and the companies that created them) appear to be dissipating into the proverbial "cloud."


Tuesday, March 2, 2010


Japan consumes 10 percent of the world's fish. 40 percent of that is imported.