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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Monday, November 5, 2012

Finger Painting

The notion that music is a uniquely multidimensional art-form revealed itself to me rather early in life. Mrs. Biller, my first grade teacher at Springhurst Elementary School in suburban New York, was an accidental catalyst that brought this heady issue to my attention over a half century ago.

I have no lost love for Mrs. Biller. I flunked her class and had to repeat first grade again. She was a nervous, rigid, and inexperienced public school teacher who didn’t know how to deal with kids that were outside of the box. But unknowingly she presented me with an intellectual challenge that I’m still grappling with today.

It’s not a simple matter if you think about it. The issue broaches root-concepts such as time, space, multiple dimensions, and the essence of reality itself – all heavy stuff for a first-grader who could barely tie the shoe laces on his filthy Converse sneakers.

Mrs. Biller laid out a large, coarse sheet of white construction paper on each student’s desk. Her class was instructed to put on smocks and open a collection of finger paint jars before us. When everyone was ready, Mrs. Biller walked over to the phonograph, picked up a record album, took the LP out of its sleeve, and carefully placed the shiny black vinyl disk on the turntable. She did not announce what was about to play.

“Now class, listen to the music and paint what you hear.” Mrs. Biller nervously dropped the needle somewhere near the beginning of the first track on the album and music began to pour out of its tiny internal speaker. We heard the sound of a symphony orchestra, scratchy and without much bass, but it was the recording of an orchestra nonetheless.

First graders usually go with the flow. Nobody questioned who the composer or conductor was, or which orchestra was performing it. In retrospect, it was most likely the first movement of a Beethoven Symphony – something with a discernible pulse as I recall. I don’t think Mrs. Biller cared one iota about the music. She most likely selected the composition randomly and thought that “classical music” was beneficial for our developing little brains (a notion that educators maintain to this day). For her this was an experiment of sorts or a way to preoccupy her adorable students for a few minutes with an activity other than pelting spitballs at each other projected through drinking straws.

The music that blared from the phonograph was really inspiring, intense, quite beautiful, and full of emotion. It penetrated my soul. My colleagues around me were already hard at work sticking their fingers into paint jars and (more or less) randomly slopping large globs of paint onto the virgin pages of pristine paper sitting before them.

I paused to listen, and to think.

How should I attack this problem: “to paint what you hear?” I knew that this was going to be a very subjective exercise. I hoped that whatever artistic “solution” I choose was not going to be meticulously scrutinized or end up jeopardizing my forthcoming academic career. Given the limited number of options available within the medium of finger-paint; I didn’t fear that I would fail the exam, but I was also a bit timid, concerned, and hesitant about the prospects of a promising outcome nonetheless.

However, this hands-on exercise did force me to confront (on some level) a key issue about how ideas are communicated by their particular medium, and how music is distinctly different than visual arts (and vice versa).

As I listened I could hear the raw elements of musical sound before me: pitch, rhythm, tone color, dynamics, and their multilayered, entwined, and interlaced internal dance over the course of musical time. It’s a complex pattern and the brain has to work at full utilization to keep up with the rapid-fire, real-time unfolding of auditory signals. Music is complex and multi-dimensional, if nothing else.

Finger painting on the other hand is a bit more limited. Visual art (and photography) is not prone or designed to represent the flow of ideas intuitively across a designated span of time. It generally captures snapshots of an event, and freezes a single image into a momentary, static memory. The continuum of organized sound on the other hand relies on time to make its case. Other than the example of a musical score which mechanically represents musical information in arcane symbols and instructions to be realized at a later stage, in performance the flow of time is a non-negotiable prerequisite for musical communication. How could one possibly paint a complex musical work on a static page of paper using nothing but your fingers? What’s a first-grader to do?

Listening to what was probably a Beethoven symphony, I knew intuitively that the composer was speaking a different language. The composers’ composition evolved in a logical progression of musical phrases, ideas, and form. All of these interdependent musical elements are at the core of its discourse. I immediately realized that ideas of this magnitude would not easily translate into a primitive finger painting limited to just two dimensions on the single piece of paper.

The complexity of Mrs. Biller’s assignment didn’t faze my fellow classmates. They were already hard at work on their mini-masterworks, busy moving their little arms back and forth according to the musical ictus, and enjoying every moment. As the music got louder, they would mash the paint deeper into the page. Growing bored, they would reach for more water colors to add into the mix, subconsciously searching for visual analogs to represent strings, winds, brass, and percussion. It seemed that their earnest fingers attempted to find true expression in Beethoven’s magical notes, but failed in vain.

I sat alone, staring at the empty page of paper in front of me. The jars of finger paint on my miniature desk beckoned for attention. Out of the corner of her eye Mrs. Biller noticed my hesitation. She smiled in her uniquely annoying way and sternly encouraged me to dive in… “Go ahead Jimmy, it’s not so difficult.”

Looking for a way out, I scanned around the room for encouragement, helpful hints, or a creative solution that I could potentially borrow or outright steal from a fellow classmate.

By now Beethoven’s music was getting more intense. It was still early in the symphonic work, and the movement had not yet reached its development section. Yet, by now all of my classmates had literally covered their pages with thick amounts of paint. Not only was their artwork generously coated, but the different colors of their paint had thoroughly mixed and their pages were quickly transforming into similar shades of United Parcel Service brown.

Mrs. Biller didn’t seem to notice. While the narrative discourse of the music was clearly far from complete, most of the artwork was over-done. The increasingly earthly tones of my classmate’s creations indicated the broad stroke marks of their busy little fingers. Their movements were now occurring with one large hand gesture at a time. Each successive wave of their hand over-wrote the preceding image that previously existed on the page.

Their visual solution did not appeal to me, nor did it represent the music as I heard it in any way. I felt that they were all headed down the wrong path - effectively turning Beethoven’s amazing symphony into mud. All I remember about their finished work is that everyone else in the class came to the same collective result. Miraculously, they arrived at similar variations of the same artwork – “Brown on Brown.”

With an informed feeling from the musical form that the music would continue on, I took my time to think about the sounds, the possibilities of visual expression, and considered an array of images that seemed to express similar feelings as the music. I began creating something with bright colors that was totally abstract, and which seemed entirely appropriate to the situation at hand.

Mrs. Biller was in a quagmire. She could either turn off the music before the movement had ended, or let her students continue to make a mess with brown paint. She decided to let them make a mess and post the results on the bulletin board after the thick crusty brown paint had dried.

In the end I enjoyed listening to the music. I also enjoyed creating a finger painting that was loosely “inspired” by the music. I did not attempt to record, translate, or notate sounds in a visual or graphical way since that would result in what seemed to be an inherently flawed exercise that would never come to fruition. But I did return home after school that day with a better understanding of the differences between music and visual art. These differences are quite profound, and they at the heart of human perception, art, and our interpretation of reality.

On that day I found music to be the more complex of the two art forms. Music contains mysteries that even a first grader will marvel at, if you are wise enough to leave them to their own devices.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Serenade Edaneres

I composed Edaneres (Serenade spelled backwards) in the spring of 1981 as an experimental study in sound.  It’s a piece where I tried out a technique of large-scale pitch construction and layering.  The background harmony of the work pulsates cyclically between two poles.  In-between these two points of reference span a series of intervening hexachordal harmonies that gradually traverse and eventually terminate on one pole or the other - only to loop back and do it all over again. I chose pitch-class sets at each pole for maximum intervallic contrast between the two extremes, but along the way, change happens in gradual steps.

After the scaffolding of an underline background harmony was designed, I constructed a matrix extracted from pitches available in the current base harmony while looking closely at each register along the horizontal line.  I chose appropriate pitches in each register while aiming for (but not dogmatically insisting upon) aggregate completion within every octave span across what I anticipated would ultimately result in coherent musical phrases.  Care was taken to carryover (or “suspend”) available common tones between hexachordal intersections that resulted naturally between the measured, but gradually evolving harmonic changes.

Several longer lines of canti-firmi were then crafted and extracted from the otherwise saturated background pitch-texture of the grid based on potential melodic character and contour.

This overall compositional process became the basic structure for the pitch-based instrumental layer of this short musical experiment.

To make things a little more interesting, I added a mildly hyperactive piano part on top of the orchestral accompaniment to function as musical antagonist.  Its layer of music invokes contrary ideas as it sounds in opposition the primary oscillating six-note harmony. The piano part plays off against the orchestra by articulating the other six notes (or set complement) throughout the work’s internal discourse.  The piano as an instrument is uniquely suited for this opposing role because of its unique timbre, ability to play thick chords, broad dynamics, and wide register.

After the musical roadmap was in place, I worked out the surface-level music for Edaneres in a manner similar to any other traditional piece – paying special attention to musical gestures, individual lines, and contemporary instrumental techniques: not to mention adding in a few jazzy riffs t'boot.  I also strove inject a spontaneous yet discernible musical narrative into the music that would enable the musicians to metaphorically surf along the waves of the constantly-evolving underline harmonic progression.

In retrospect, I consider Edaneres to be a student work.  It’s also relic from a bygone era of musical thought and out-of-fashion musical aesthetics. I composed it as a sound experiment essentially to hone  (what was for me at the time) a still-emerging musical language and new technique.

Edaneres was professionally sight-read in a laboratory setting where I was graciously supported by my mentors and peers.  In addition to myself, the group of Fellows that summer included what would turn out in time to be a very impressive list of composers.  They were (not listed in any particular order): James Primosch, John Watrous, David Felder, Yinam Leef, Michael Gandolphi, Rand Steiger, Gudmunder Halfsteinsson, and Ronald Caltabiano.  Also present that summer were Susan Blaustein and Robert Beaser.

Not only did I get to hear my piece realized at the Yale Norfolk Summer School of Music under the coaching and baton of new music champion Arthur Weisberg (1931-2009), but I received some valuable feedback from master musicians and composers in residence that summer.  

In particular, I recall some of the comments and reactions by my musical mentors.  Elliott Carter (b. 1908) beamed and said, “I like it.”  He thought that the little tag at the end signified a potential continuation or new section.  Don Martino (1931-2005) thought that the dynamics needed more refinement in order to profile the various layers of musical idea amidst an otherwise complex texture. Specifically he thought that the long sustained tones of the canti firmi could have been notated mezzo piano.  Jacob Druckman (1928-1996) commented on orchestration and about my use of surface-level gestures - correctly pointing out that I over-used certain modes of attack in the piece.  Later, while listening to Edaneres on tape, Milton Babbitt (1916-2011) commented generally about the use of rhythm - on a macro and micro scale - suggesting that I might consider a more-rigorous organization of the time dimension in my work.  It was all great feedback, and I learned a great deal from the combined experience and collective, constructive criticism.

The history surrounding the reading of Edaneres also sticks in my memory for extra musical reasons.  I crammed to get the ambitious piece done on time, and slipped into a state of sleep deprivation from working non-stop on copying orchestral parts for the pre-scheduled reading session.  The ink was still wet on the page.  I actually fell ill from dehydration, the hot weather, and fatigue.  After my piece was played, I crashed mentally and physically from exhaustion.


Wednesday, January 11, 2012


World Premiere of my
Chamber Symphony
January 29, 2012