Saturday, October 27, 2007

Less Than The Paper It Isn't Written On


Composer Daniel Wolf, whose blog Renewable Music survived the recent cut of my blog reading list, has broached the idea of writing a daily series of short pieces of music for posting online. He asked if anyone objected.

My initial impetus for Mixed Meters was to create a place to post my own short pieces. So, even though I present my pieces as audio files while Daniel would give us pdf scores, I've got opinions on the subject. To read everything he had to say plus all the comments (including mine) click here.

My quoted comments begin after the picture.

metal furniture in front of brick wall (c)David Ocker
I say "whatever turns you on, Daniel." Writing a large number of short pieces can be a very good thing - something I've learned directly from my own experience.

In my opinion, however, your plan is already lumbered with a forest of precomposition. Why do you have to decide ahead of time to write "one piece per day for a month"? Why not two pieces on average per week until, I don't know, you tire of the formula or think of a better one?

And (also in my opinion) your pre-chosen title is overly pedagogical. I don't know who is having these "assorted musical problems" of which you speak, but they also could be writing a passel of short pieces.

My suggestion to you (which of course is worth less than the paper it isn't written on) would be "write a short piece in the next day or two. If you enjoy doing that, write another one pretty soon afterwards. Repeat."

The quote from Lou (or is it from Virgil) seems right to me depending on the exact meaning of regular appointments. I would prefer to base them on social periodicities rather than astronomical ones.

When you've finished a "bunch" of pieces, you might review them as a group. Maybe you'll notice similarities which you wish to avoid in future short pieces. Or maybe those very similarities will inspire you to some new intensity of composition.

Trying to create an exhaustive compendium of styles or solutions is going to make writing the last piece of your "book of etudes" excruciatingly difficult. I would suggest approaching each new piece with the same open mind and blank paper. Or with both blank mind and paper.

Creating an online library of new pieces unmediated by "traditional publishing institutions" seems like a fine idea. Good luck getting the people to browse the stacks.

Having written a half dozen paragraphs for your blog, maybe I should plunder them as filler for for my own. My own little bits of composing time have been drained by a 25 minute five movement behemoth. When I finally am happy with the sound of that beast ("real soon now") I fully intend to return to writing short pieces. They're easy and fun. And no one ever need know about the failures.

brick building facade with light fixture shadow (c)David Ocker

I believe there is absolutely NO reason for anyone to compose music unless they have a good time doing it because there are already so many composers cranking out so much music (not to mention all those classics and oldies haunting us from the past). Forcing oneself to compose for anything but the simple joyous experience of making the air vibrate seems simply irresponsible to me.

I once heard Frank Zappa say he wrote music because he liked to stick it in his ear. I've always assumed that means pretty much the same thing I'm trying to say here.

Paper Tags: . . . . . . . . .

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Christmas in October

This story also discusses the root causes of Halloween, stuffed penguins, various types of snowmen and green table grapes.

It all began nearly 2 weeks ago when I walked into my local Vons supermarket and was confronted by this small choir of snowmen.

marketing Christmas in October Snowman Choir (c)David Ocker
Seeing this full-frontal Christmas marketing before I had yet come to terms with Halloween silliness was disconcerting. I'm glad there was no Christmas carol playing. Hearing "It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas" at that same moment would undoubtedly have given me a seizure.

But it IS beginning to look a lot like Christmas. In spite of the two major national holidays we will yet celebrate before Christmas, corporate America seems to be doing everything it can, as early as it can, to ensure a good bottom line at the bottom of its stocking. (Here's an article.)

And, of course, when big business prospers everyone benefits. Uh-huh. Higher corporate profits mean working people get bigger bonuses and longer vacations. More taxes are paid so welfare checks increase and more guns are shipped to Iraq (which eventually are stolen by terrorists so replacements can be ordered from defense contractors.)

As an article of faith, retailers believe that next year's Christmas season will be the most profitable ever. So they increase orders for shoddy Chinese merchandise and sweat shop workers in lead-paint factories can buy motor scooters and raise the demand for gasoline worldwide.

Christmas marketing makes it just one big win-win world.

Halloween Decoration - Pumpkin Snowman (c)David Ocker
Meanwhile I've been trying to suss out why Halloween has become such a huge adult holiday in recent years. Some of the solutions I've suggested to myself are:
  • Adults really truly DO believe in witches and goblins and ghosts.
  • Adults really don't believe in witches and goblins and ghosts but their irrational fears are alleviated by giving candy to children.
  • Adults are jealous of their children getting all the goodies.
  • Adults need a chance to get drunk and/or act silly.
  • Adults need one (more) night a year to believe in pre-Christian paganism
  • Adults are not happy with their own personalities and need a chance to pretend to be someone else.
  • Halloween is one big practice party for Christmas and New Years - minus gifts and you spend it with friends instead of family.
  • Adults are just being manipulated by retailers to waste money on Halloween junk.

Halloween Decoration - Inflatable Pumpkin Snowman (c)David Ocker
I think the last one is the most realistic. Halloween really IS Christmas in October if you're a retailer - another chance to separate us suckers from our money over a Pagan-inspired holiday. According to the National Retail Federation, Halloween spending in the U.S. will top Five Billion Dollars this year. (Click here.)

Please notice the two Pumpkin Snowmen in the pictures; both are denizens of front lawns in our immediate neighborhood. Next year will we be seeing Halloween polar bears and reindeer as well? Or maybe ghosts of polar bears and skeletons of reindeer? I hope so.

Stuffed Christmas Penguin 1 - (c)David Ocker
Meanwhile, Mixed Meters' favorite crypto-zoological beast - the Christmas Penguin was out in full force in a Southern California drug store recently. I found three different soft cuddly Christmas penguin toys.

Stuffed Christmas Penguin 2 - (c)David Ocker
Here is a previous MM post Stalking The Christmas Penguin explaining why I'm so amazed by Christmas penguins.

Here is a positive-spin article about the Polar Bears Meet Penguins Coca-Cola Commercial which I discuss in that posting.

Here you can watch that very commercial online.

Here you can read about a musical for kids entitled How The Penguins Saved Christmas. The penguin has a great future as a Christmas animal when those kids grow up. Be sure to listen to some musical samples at the bottom of the page.

Stuffed Christmas Penguin 3 - (c)David Ocker
There's more to my story about the Vons supermarket.

After I controlled my surprise at the snowmen I shopped and purchased food. One thing in my basket was a 2 pound plastic box of green table grapes. The price was very reasonable. Here's the label on the box. Click it for enlargement.

label for Frankenfood grapes from Vons
When I got home I read the label more closely. Notice the line "UNITED STATES PLANT PATENT NO:PP17504". The grapes were uniformly large. They lasted a long time without spoiling. They had an intensely crispy crunchy consistency. They were ever so slightly, just barely a little tiny bit sweet - sorta, if you used your imagination. I hated 'em!!

"Yeah, so?" I hear you say ...

What better way to celebrate Halloween than by eating FRANKENFOOD.

The organic grapes I bought more recently from Whole Foods were completely delicious.

Here's the full text of the franken-grape label:


Green Seedless Table Grapes
Raisins Verts De Table Sans Pepins

Product of U.S. / Produit des E.-U.
Net Wt. 2 lbs. (907 G) / Poid Net 2 lbs. (907 g)

Distributed By/ Distribue Par:
Sun Fresh International
Visalia CA 93291-5143

Grown and Developed by
Anton Caratan and Son

Treated with sulfer dioxide for fungicde use / Traites ave dioxyde de soufre comme fungicide.

Here's an article about these grapes which indicates they probably aren't genetically modified. Even so they are clearly an engineered product, created more for the producers benefit than for the consumers. Here are two descriptions of the little beasties from the article:

large, crispy grapes that have characteristics retailers covet, including long shelf life.

the taste profile -- starting with a sweet vanilla streak and ending with a zesty Granny Smith apple finish -- is unique.

.Franken-Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Mister Composer Head Goes Solo

Mister Composer Head, for whose blog "Mister Composer Head" I've been serving as amanuensis, has mastered the art of posting his own writing to his own blog (thereby avoiding the bottleneck created by his amanuensis).

In fact two weeks ago he added 5 (count'em, five) new posts to M.C.H. Nothing since then. The ball's in his court.

I created a Feed Digest feed to automatically announce recent M.C.H. posts here at Mixed Meters. Look over in the left column not too far from the top. (You can also click on Mister Composer Head in the M.M. Index at the top of the left column.)

For each C.Head post you'll see the title, the date and the first hundred characters of the text - sometimes cutting off abruptly in the mid...

Click on any title to be taken to that particular post.

interlocking green plants in Hawaii (c)David Ocker
Mr. CoHead asked if I'd add some of my pictures to his posts - but I begged off by suggesting that he could easily learn how to embed pictures directly from my blog(s) into his. Here's hoping he takes the bait and learns the trick of web plunder.

(In fact, if anyone else wants to use some of my pictures, please get in touch.)

Meanwhile, I saw the Composerheads in person at a recent avant-garde function. I can report that they seemed well and in good spirits and were enjoying the program considerably more than I was.

Feed Tags: . . .

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Artistic Politicians

I came across this Life magazine in a Pasadena antique store Saturday. I showed it to Leslie who literally gasped at the picture. Yep, Richard Milhouse Nixon, age 14, holding a violin.

The Young Nixon - cover of Life Magazine November 6 1970
Click to enlarge the picture. Curiously, he seems to be wearing a wedding ring. Here's the text of the cover for Mr. Google's robots:

November 6, 1970 50 cents
  • His career as an actor
  • The steady girl he didn't marry
  • Breaking into the dean's office
  • Poker champ of Green Island atoll
and the caption of the picture:
"At 14, Nixon played second violin in his high school orchestra"

Inside the magazine, which contains actual cigarette advertisements, the article about pre-political Nixon (who was of course POTUS in November 1970) is set off with these call-outs:
  • 'He wasn't a boy that you wanted to hug'
  • He ran for student body president - and lost
  • The symbol of his club was a wild boar.
  • 'He was a brute for discipline. He couldn't get enough of it.'
  • 'He sounded like he was close to quitting law school'
  • He helped break into the dean's office
  • He asked Pat to marry him the night they met
  • 'He was the finest poker player I ever played against'

Meanwhile, one or two of my three readers may remember that I've been reading The Third Reich In Power by Richard J. Evans. Here are a couple passages that caught my eye about another young artist who became a wildly successful politician whose career ended in disgrace:
Hitler toured the [Degenerate Art] exhibition before it opened to the public, and devoted a major part of a speech on the eve of its inauguration to a ferocious denunciation of the works it showed. ... He even instructed the Reich Interior Ministry to investigate the defective visual capacities he thought had partly led to such distortion. They were, he thought, inherited. Cubists and others who did not stick to slavishly accurate representations of their human subjects were to be sterilized.
This is on page 172. The footnote to this passage, which also includes a bit of Hitler's speech, is as follows:
142. Merker, Die bildenden Kunste, 148-52. The instruction does not appear to have been carried out.
Hitler was, of course, a failed artist. (Just like I'm a failed composer.) Here and here you can see Hitler's own work. This not entirely agreeable site has more pictures including the Hitler drawing above.

On page 298 of Evans' book we read:
In November 1938 Hitler launched a furious attack on intellectuals, amongst whom there was little doubt that he included university teachers and professors. He declared that intellectuals were fundamentally unreliable, useless and even dangerous, and contrasted their irreducible individualism and their constant critical carping with the instinctive and unquestioning solidarity of the masses. 'When I take a look at the intellectual classes we have - unfortunately, I suppose, they are necessary; otherwise one could one day, I don't know, exterminate them or something - but unfortunately they're necessary.'
What a different world we live in - where cigarettes are not sold in magazines and artists need not fear for their reproductive abilities. And teachers need not fear for their lives except when a student brings a gun to class.

Click here for a previous MM post about cigarettes, another artistic Republican president and my mother.

Here's another Mixed Meters' post about republicans and Hitler.

Here's where Mixed Meters asks who is giving the Nazi Salute.

Click here to hear two songs sung by another mass murderer.

I confess that George II makes me nostalgic for Richard Nixon. Hitler makes me thankful for George Bush. Here's one of the cigarette ads from Life which may awaken your own feelings of nostalgia if you're of a certain age. (Note that the cigarettes and the steam from the cups all point towards the girl. I'm sure that's some sort of graphical accident not subliminal manipulation. Yeah.)

L&M Cigarette advertisement November 1970

2nd Violin Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Kraft's Encounters

The musical style called minimalism has done a great disservice to the music of William Kraft. Long waves of music history do not carry every composer along with identical speed and energy. And several of the most essential musical elements of Kraft's music have not found congenial support in our current minimalist ecology.

I came to that conclusion Monday evening while listening to the first of several concerts devoted to Kraft's cycle of chamber works called Encounters. Jerry Zinser wrote this excellent review about what actually happened. You should read that since I'm not going to cover the details.

The concert was downtown at Zipper Hall - a fine focus point for our naturally uncentered new music community - even if its interior decoration does remind me of a birthday cake. The entire Encounters cycle will require several concerts. It is being produced by Southwest Chamber Music who will record the entire series as well. That's important.

The stage of Zipper Hall filled with percussion prior to the concert
Kraft grew up in Southern California and obtained his musical education in a large eastern metropolis. He has been a leading figure in Los Angeles' new music scene pretty much since he joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic as a percussionist back in 1955. Yes, over fifty years ago. He's now 84 and going strong.

Eventually he became timpanist, associate conductor, and then composer-in-residence of the orchestra - founding the Phil's New Music Group. He was active in the Monday Evening Concerts during the halcyon Stravinsky days and in its current post-LACMA reincarnation. His last job was holding down the Corwin Chair of Music Composition at the University of California Santa Barbara.

Now he's retired and he continues to compose - sometimes complaining of overwork. Here's his bio at the website of his publisher Theodore Presser.

Bill Kraft at his composing desk
I met Bill in the mid-70s when he was a guest teacher in my graduate composition seminar. I remember gathering around him on the floor while he sang poly-rhythms from an Elliott Carter score the Phil was performing.

I've worked for Bill as music copyist for well over 20 years, starting right after I left Zappa. That's longer than any other of my clients. He and his wife Joan live not far from us and lately he and I have started getting together just to talk about music.

I know a lot about his compositions in that curious way that a music copyist studies scores. And there are a lot of other things I don't know - in that not so curious way a copyist ignores the obvious while obsessing over details.

Bill Kraft on stage during preconcert talk
And believe me - there are a lot of details in William Kraft's music. He rarely writes a repeat of anything without specifying a variation of some aspect of the sound. For example, on Monday at the beginning of Encounters III, I was amused to watch the trumpet player change his mute for each of the first four long notes. In many ways he completely eschews the idea of repetition in music.

Kraft carries the art of delicate musical coloration to new heights when he writes for a multiple percussion setup - meaning one player surrounded by (and sometimes hidden behind) a specific "architecture" of percussion. A setup is usually anchored by a mallet instrument (probably a vibraphone) plus various ranks of wood, metal or skin instruments (graduated groupings of similar sounds.) The idea is to allow many different sounds to be alternated quickly or combined simultaneously.

This adds an element of "choreography" to Bill's writing. Different than the stylized choreography I witnessed in the taiko ensemble on Sunday, the percussionist in a Kraft work must carefully plan every movement in advance. Bill might specify which style of mallet the player will hold in each hand, when to flip the mallets and use the other end. Since the choice of mallet can greatly change a sound Bill gives many instructions on their use. Padded tables for easy mallet access is an essential element any Kraft setup. The trick for the performer is to prepare for the next sound while the last one is still ringing.

Bill Kraft entertaining the audience while the performers change stage setup
I enjoyed watching and hearing several specific percussion techniques that are typically Kraftian (David Raksin would have called them "Krafty"). Examples include:
  • bending a note on a vibraphone, usually a fixed pitch instrument.
  • Bunker Trill Slow, a unique vibraphone "wah wah" effect created by fiddling with the internal moving parts.
  • cluster mallets - designed to hit a dozen or more vibraphone or chime notes simultaneously.
  • And a truck suspension spring which makes a fine gong.

These sounds take time to appreciate. Their position in time is critical to keep them from blurring together and obscuring one another.

I feel that Bill's music is often played too quickly - not allowing a listener the chance to appreciate or even to distinguish the constantly shifting sonorities. Small constellations of notes, like sparks from a firework, cannot be well appreciated if they are played as a musical "lick". I have hopes that the recording of the Encounters series will highlight this pleasant, timeless, floating quality.

Of course a recording will also remove the visual element - and I look forward to that as well. In Encounters I for percussion and tape, during a tape interlude, the player mutes specific individual bars of the vibraphone with C clamps and then further mutes the entire instrument with a blanket. I suspect that the audience was more involved watching this process and wondering what would happen next than they were with listening to the taped sounds.

Bill Kraft and performers at the end of the concert
So what does all this have to do with minimalism, the reigning musical aesthetic of our time? Nothing. Absolutely nothing at all. That's my point.

Many of these musical ideas, so important in the music of William Kraft, were discarded by the minimalists. In the multiple exact repetitions, phasing, process-controlled forms and aggressive, inflexible timbres of so much minimal music it just didn't make sense to wait around to hear the overtones of a truck spring fade away. In our rush to hear music that goes du-ee du-ee du-ee du-ee du-ee, many of us seemed to forget that other solutions hold great beauty.

Kraft's activities as a composer began in earnest in the 1960's about the same time as the first rumblings of minimalism. Terry Riley's In C predates the start of the Encounters cycle by several years. Since that time Minimalism has come and ... er, well - it hasn't gone yet has it?

But during the same years, the heyday of minimalism, William Kraft, in his chosen role as a composer, has honed his ... craft. He's created a body of work that deals with time itself on his own terms while not adhering to the fashions of the time. And because of that I think he deserves a little more respect.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Makoto Taiko

Pasadena is having a festival. The theme is "skin". No kidding.

"Skin" is sponsored by the Art and Ideas Festival. Read all about it here.

Complete this sentence: "Skin and Pasadena go together like ..?.. and ..?.." No, I can't do it either. At least the participating organizations get to pool their marketing efforts.

Via this website I discovered this press release announcing a free concert Sunday afternoon by this Japanese taiko drum ensemble. The group is called Makoto Taiko.

If you're not familiar with Taiko drumming, they put great emphasis on playing loudly, no doubt as a result of the style's origins in Japan. The performers use a lot of energy. There's a reason you never see an overweight taiko drummer.

Koji Nakamura performs solo on a taiko drumset (c) David OckerI arrived after the concert had begun. For me (and for many others as well if overheard comments count) the most memorable moment was the very first drum note a person heard. This drummer, Koji Nakamura, carefully choreographed the silence before striking the drum the first time; an excellent lesson on how to focus attention on a single note. Could be a good idea for lots of Western performers.

Mercifully the concert also included quiet musical moments - I heard performances with both a shakuhachi and a koto. But, to be honest, they couldn't compete.

I noticed that one of the smaller drums caused an actual physical sensation in my body - somewhere on my left side just below my heart. Maybe the drum was tuned to resonate with the whole room or with the spot I happened to be sitting or maybe it was amplified somehow by the iPod in my pocket (which was off). Whatever the reason something about that one drum and something about me met on the same frequency. (I know what you're thinking. No, that's too metaphysical.)

I used my pocket point and shoot to video the last minute of the last piece. I managed to get it on YouTube (a first for me). Here it is. It'll give you an idea.

(Click here if the embed thing isn't working.)

After the concert I asked a member of Makoto if the rehearsals were always as loud as the concert. "Pretty much." was her answer. I also asked if it would be okay to post a video online. She seemed to think that wouldn't be too much of a problem.

Taiko Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Friday, October 12, 2007

Bird Brains of Pasadena

Here are a bunch of recent photos of our avian friends, all taken in my immediate environs of Pasadena California. The first shot, pigeons in a light pole line up, is one I've wanted to take for a long time but it had to wait until I got the new higher-zoom point and shoot.

pigeons line up on lamp post (c)David Ocker
I've also wanted to use the camera for pictures of the crows because they won't let humans get close to them. I haven't seen many around lately. It would be really cool to capture a flock of wild parrots flying in bright sunlight. All those flashes of green are impressive. Probably never happen.

a hawk on a traffic signal (c)David Ocker
Yesterday I saw a hawk fly out of a tree, cross a street and land on a traffic signal pole. It ignored me, right below it, as it scanned the area for a juicy pigeon. I waited for a chance at another of my most-wanted pictures - a hawk in flight.

tail of the hawk in flight (c)David Ocker
I was lucky to get just the tail. Maybe I'll get the whole bird next time.

The bricks in the picture below are actually painted plywood - a phony facade to hide cellphone antennae. The fake owls are to keep pigeons away. Certain pigeons, however, are fearless.

fake owl and stupid pigeon (c)David Ocker
Several days ago I noticed this little colorful ball of fluff in a small lawn sprinkler excavation next to the sidewalk. I stopped to take a picture of it.

ball of feathers next to the sidewalk (c)David Ocker
To my surprise it moved and out popped a head. I thought it was a parakeet but Leslie says it's a Lady Gouldian Finch - obviously an escaped pet. A trio of these birds is the logo for Viewsonic (as displayed on my own computer monitor.)

Lady Gouldian Finch on ground (c)David Ocker
This tiny bird was somewhat the worse for wear - lethargic and missing a lot of red head feathers. I suspected it was on the ground because it couldn't fly. While pondering whether I should leave it to its fate I stepped back as a gaggle of high school students passed by.

Lady Gouldian Finch missing head feathers (c)David Ocker
One student (the absent-minded tall one) noticed the bird. Another (I guess a future mass murderer) said "Kick it." There was a small chorus of female voices saying "No". The gaggle walked on forgetting.

Lady Gouldian Finch on ground (c)David Ocker
I poked birdie with a small stick and was relieved that it had functioning legs and wings. It flew into a nearby tree. Here's my last view of it, blending into the surroundings but almost certainly just waiting to be some predator's dinner. When I looked at this picture I noticed bands on its legs - white on the left, black and red on the right.

Lady Gouldian Finch in tree with leg bands (c)David Ocker
Our outdoor cat, MacTabby, has never brought us presents before. But this dead bird appeared on our front porch recently. A few hours later it disappeared. I don't want to know.

dead bird on our porch (c)David Ocker
Finally a bird inside our house: a statue of a pelican with a bromeliad growing on the base. Leslie won this at a meeting of LAUPS. I liked it enough to add it to our Kitchen Kitsch Korner.

Kitchen Kitsch - pelican statue (c)David Ocker
The pictures all get bigger if you click on them.

Pasadena may have birds, but not the dumbest birds. Here's an amusing bird brain post at Alex Shapiro's green-colored blog about making music with seaweed.

Here, here, here and here are previous M.M. posts with pictures of birds. Here's my first and only backyard hummingbird picture - posted last August on Mixed Messages.

Brain Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Composers About Composers: Richard and John and Richard


It may be as much of a surprise to you as it is to me: I've been reading an actual book: The Third Reich in Power by Richard J. Evans It's the second book of a trilogy and it covers the Nazi dictatorship during peacetime, 1933 until 1939. Evans' prose is a surprisingly easy read.

Under the grander topic of propaganda is a chapter about music. Classical music was considerably more important there in Germany then than it is here in the U.S. now. Richard Strauss, Germany's most famous living composer, became President of the Reich Music Chamber, the organization responsible for unifying the music world according to Nazi ideals. (Here's some background.) Strauss, to his credit, didn't have the cajones to play hardball with the Nazis - but apparently he did have plenty of composerly ego.

Here's a short excerpt from page 203 of the book, ending with a quote from old Richard himself:
Great orchestras continued to perform great music under the baton of great conductors, although the range of music performed, and the number of prominent conductors who directed it, were both smaller than before 1933. Yet many considered that there were no new great composers. Strauss himself took this view. If anything, it even increased his already unshakeable sense of his own importance as the heir of the great tradition of German composers. 'I am the last mountain of a large mountain range, ' he said: 'After me come the flatlands."


Mixed Meters regulars will know of my relationship with John Adams. Along with allowing me to make a living in music, I get a unique (if somewhat tunnel-vision) look at his scores long before they're performed. I've known him for many years but that doesn't mean we get many chances to talk. So to supplement my from the wings view of THE in-demand living composer, I resort to reading what he says to the media.

Last summer, the premiere of his Doctor Atomic Symphony was broadcast over the Internet by the BBC. Here's a paragraph transcribed from the back announcement (what the announcer said over the applause at the end) :
"Well, I like something John Adams said recently, when he was talking about being a contemporary classical composer in today's American cultures, being pretty much a useless activity even though he's one of the most performed living composers. He says he's off the broad cultural radar in the U.S.A. but that he consoles himself by thinking that Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman were unappreciated and misunderstood in their lifetime and are now feted as amongst America's greatest cultural treasures. "I guess that's why we call it classical", he added "we're buying long term bonds here." (Andrew MacGregor, BBC announcer.)
Recently John has been in Baltimore. The Baltimore Sun website has this article by Tim Smith. John is quoted:
"There are a lot of composers today," Adams said, "just not a lot of original ones. You could count the number of great composers today on half a hand."
Later in the article he names names. Of course John's opinions are filtered through the critic's prose. To quibble about words for a bit, I think John might have been telling us who he thinks are the (other) "good" composers these days, those whose music he himself likes. But the quote and the article seem to confuse "originality" and "greatness" two very different things.

Here's a picture of John posing for a publicity photo in Disney Hall during December 2005.

John Adams @ Disney Hall Dec 2005 (c) David Ocker
Being "great" means being accepted, even revered, by lots of people over a very long time. These days it means competing with guys like Bach or Beethoven. John is indeed a candidate for inclusion someday. Our culture doesn't allow easy entry into this category. Judging by the recent head counts it's easier to become a Catholic Saint than a truly Great Composer.

On the other hand "originality" means breaking barriers, being unique, unpredictable and unclassifiable. There's a whole spectrum of originality ranging from too much ("eccentric" "weird" or "incomprehensible") to not enough ("derivative" "repetitive" or "old-fashioned"). We demand just the right amount of originality from our contemporary music. We want it to be more original than pop music but not so original that we can't enjoy it at first hearing.

As John's elevation among the mountain range of living composers continues to increase he probably gets asked the "who else" question more and more. The question itself and apparently his recent responses tend to focus peoples attention on fewer and fewer candidates. Too bad about that.


I met Richard Emmet long ago at the CIA.1 I worked with him both at the ICA 2 and at the ICA 3. Then he showed good sense, moved away from LA to Portland, where he raised a family and is now finding happiness.

Several months ago he visited Southern California for the first time in a long while. Here's a picture of him at a local Thai restaurant attacking a plate of Mango Sticky Rice with great determination.

Composer Richard Emmet attacks a plate of Mango Sticky Rice (c) David Ocker
While he was here we were able to talk a little about the music we've both been writing lately. I promised to send him a disc of my stuff - which I have yet to do. Until then I suggested that he listen to some of my pieces on this very website (over there in the left hand column). Richard's own website, with samples of his music, is available here.

Richard did find a few moments to listen and he wrote about his reactions.
"Well, it took me awhile, but I finally listened to several of your electronic pieces. I don't think I can fully express how impressed I was. Your music is unmistakably unique: it has attitude, humor, amazing variety and tonal coloring, endless surprises and strange juxtapositions, great use of spatial perspective, and whatever this means, it feels like it could only have come from California. It has echoes of Harry Partch and maybe a bit of FZ [Frank Zappa], but it is completely your own. I hope you continue doing this."
I was flattered. He agreed to let me publish his comments here. Obviously Richard is a man of rare intelligence and perception. I don't really understand why my music could only come from California. Maybe he'll leave a comment and explain.

Meanwhile, here's a close up of that same plate of Mango Sticky Rice. It was very good; this picture is has the more accurate color.

a plate of Mango Sticky Rice at Saladang, Pasadena CA (c) David Ocker

Cultural Radar Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


1 Richard and I met while students at the California Institute of the Arts.
2 Richard and I were both active in the Independent Composers Association.
3 Richard and I were both employees of InterContinental Absurties, Frank Zappa's production company.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Hawaii - Buildings and Decay

I continue to post pictures from our Hawaii trip over at Flickr. Here's a link to all of them.

There's a set of panorama shots - mostly from Kiluaea volcano - stitched together with a program bundled with my new camera..

And here's a set of pictures of buildings - both from Hilo and Honolulu.

Rusty Roof at Hilo Jail (c) David Ocker
Hilo seemed like a bizarre combination of small Iowa city and lush tropical paradise. My first visual impression was of rust. The climate causes things to decay in a fashion unfamiliar to someone who has lived in an artificially irrigated desert since 1974.

A Rusty Shed in Hilo (c) David Ocker
Although Hilo is having a drought, an average month of rainfall there is still more than the total precipitation in Los Angeles for all of last year. When I mentioned to a local gentleman that this seemed like a good place to be in the roofing business he said "Termites are even better."

In Honolulu we stayed in just another of a zillion large tall hotels. Although I'm sure my first impression was of bluer water and whiter sand, my lasting impression of Waikiki will be of tall monotonous architecture.

high rise facing Waikiki (c) David Ocker
Yeah, it's a beautiful view. And in an effort to share the view with as many people as they can, developers seem to have told their architects to produce lots of ticky-tacky thereby cheapening the view. Touch the sky with a grid of balconies.

I spent one morning wandering a maze of Japanese-tourist-fueled Rodeo Drives, photographing an endless geometric progression of minimalist skyscrapers.
And new buildings are still going up - so the post-minimalist period may not have yet begun.

high rise facing Waikiki (c) David Ocker
These and other pictures are in my Buildings and Decay set at Flickr.
A few of my favorites were a rusty corrugated roof at the Hilo Jail and some deco buildings in Honolulu.

An older building facing Waikiki beach (c) David Ocker
Meanwhile, this trip was the first time I've traveled with an iPod. I found the experience largely wonderful. On long solitary walks (while Leslie slept or shopped or shipped out), on long airline flights with lousy movies, during interminable airport waits, or just about any other time I was alone, having a choice of my own "hand picked music" was "priceless".

I listened repeatedly to two albums which consistently fit any situation and amplified my good moods: Terry Riley's A Rainbow in Curved Air and Glenn Gould playing English Suites by J.S. Bach. Scarlatti sonatas deserve an honorable mention for breakfasting by the bay in Hilo. Music by Nancarrow and Feldman however struck out big time and have been banished from my little red Nano.

Ticky Tacky Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Every Mixed Meters post about our trip to Hawaii.
Click picture = see it larger.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Creatures - Real and Fantastic

Leslie is on a ship in the middle of the Pacific - somewhere in Hawaii but still in the middle of nowhere. She's working with government agents to identify illegal aliens - little spineless ones. "Introduced invertebrate marine species" she'd probably say.

But being cooped up in her lab in a big tin can tossed about on the endless waves has made her even more homesick than seasick.

Through the wonder of modern technology she's been calling home. The ship is equipped with a satellite phone. They get Internet too and she's been checking Mixed Meters from mid-ocean.

I volunteered to post some recent pictures of the creatures she shares her life on dry land with. Me, the dog, a couple of cats. You know the drill.

To make it a little more interesting for the rest of you I'm also including some fantasy creatures. Some are from our home, two are from Hawaii, others from elsewhere. She'll know.

Yellow Critter with Big Red Mouth (c) David OckerStuffed Frog and Plywood Cupholder (c) David OckerThe Ackles in a Laundry Basket (c) David OckerRide 'em colors (c) David OckerStingers (c) David OckerA Japanese Mole Like Critter (c) David OckerScary Owls (c) David OckerTwo green things with beady eyes (c) David OckerDavid Ocker (c) David OckerOaxacan Frog (c) David OckerA green critter with big eyes and a red star (c) David OckerChowderhead's Head (c) David OckerClick any pic to enlarge it. Besides our house and Hawaii, three pictures were taken at Robocon, a fascinating Japanese toy store near the Empress Pavilion (a fine place to eat dim sum in LA's Chinatown.) I took one picture at my doctors office, another at OSH in Pasadena.