Sunday, September 30, 2012


Would you be surprised if I described a book about medieval history as a page turner?  Specifically a book about the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman army.  I certainly would have found such a description suspicious - until I read 1453 by Roger Crowley.

The book's title, 1453, is the year when the 21-year old Sultan Mehmet II besieged the fortified capital of Byzantium, remnant of the long-since faded Roman Empire.  Mehmet augmented clever military and political strategy with the latest high-tech weapons systems, namely huge bronze canon, up to 27 feet long and 30 inches in diameter, which fired half-ton boulders over a mile.  It was history's first artillery bombardment.  The story has twists and turns, colorful characters, intense religious superstition and even a volcanic eruption half a world away.

These events were well documented by contemporary writers who witnessed both sides of the fight, although it should come as no surprise that later historians muddied the facts.  Crowley's book, amazingly, is totally footnote-free.  If you want, you can look up sources in an appendix using the incipit of quotes.  He occasionally suggests that certain writers might have had reason to shade the truth and isn't afraid to speculate on questions history hasn't answered.

The outcome of the story is never in doubt: Mehmet wins, the city falls.  Thanks to careful narrative practice and exceptional descriptive writing Crowley keeps things moving.  I was completely caught up in it.

Oh,  yeah, one more thing.  It's still relevant in 2012.  The fall of Constantinople is one very ancient chapter in the ever-unending cultural conflict between fanatical Middle Eastern Muslims and fanatical Western Christians.  Today the news is still filled with twists and turns, colorful characters, intense religious superstition and the latest high-tech weaponry.  (Happily big volcanic eruptions are pretty rare these days.)

Here is a quote from near the end of 1453 which describes European reaction to the devastating news that Constantinople had fallen.
If there is any moment at which it is possible to recognize a modern sensibility in a medieval event, it is here in the account of reactions to the news of the fall of Constantinople.  Like the assassination of Kennedy or 9/11 it is clear that people throughout Europe could remember exactly where they were when they first heard the news. ... The news radiated outward across Europe as fast as a ship could sail, a horse could ride, a song could be sung.  It spread outward from Italy to France, Spain, Portugal, the Low Countries, Serbia, Hungary, Poland, and beyond.  ... The diplomatic channels between the courts of Europe hummed with news and warnings and ideas for projected Crusades.  Across the Christian world there was a huge outpouring of letters, chronicles, histories, prophecies, songs, laments, and sermons translated into all the languages of the Faith, from Serbian to French, from Armenian to English.  The tale of Constantinople was heard not just in palaces and castles but also at crossroads, market squares, and inns.  It reached the farthest corners of Europe and the humblest people: in due course even the Lutheran prayer book in Iceland would beg God's salvation from "the cunning of the Pope and the terror of the Turk."  It was just the start of a huge renewal of anti-Islamic sentiment.

Don't forget what President George W. Bush said, on the south lawn of the White House, Sept. 16, 2001
This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while.

This is not the first book related to medieval history which Mixed Meters has reviewed.

Middle Age Business Man - The Merchant of Prato by Iris Origo  (This post also discusses the fall of Enron.)
"Francesco's personality shines through all this too. He was a man I would probably not like. A micro-manager who ignored advice, who wanted only the most expensive stuff just because it cost more, who adhered uncritically to the superstitions of his day and who seemed to enjoy nothing much beyond his work."
The Merchant of Prato is also mentioned in In Which Using Your Head Has A Medieval Meaning about certain bizarre forms of entertainment of the time.

In Which David Finishes Reading a Book - Baudalino by Umberto Eco
"In all this I find parallels to our time. Religous belief in "what is written" makes people do strange things now, too. Eco reminds us that history is what the historians say. Is telling history the same as telling the truth? These days people who disagree with our accepted story are regarded with suspicion."
Other very tangentially related posts:
Magazine for Renaissance Brass Players?
In Which Music Moves Slowwwly

The painting came from here.

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Saturday, September 22, 2012

Summer 2012 from The Seasons

Today is the Southward Equinox, an astronomical mid-point and the designated start of Autumn in my hemisphere.

This event also marks the end of summer and the completion of the latest segment of my ongoing work The Seasons. Predictably, this one is entitled Summer 2012. (click that link to listen)

Here's how The Seasons works:

Every day I write a very short "piece" of music, often no more than a few seconds.  These events are separated by longer silences.  The daily alternations of music and silence are gathered into "seasons" arranged to correspond with the astronomical seasons. As each astronomical season ends I post my musical analog of it here on Mixed Meters.  This takes the form of an audio file somewhere around an hour in length.  For example Summer 2012 is 4397 seconds long.  About 78% of that is silence.  The sounds in Summer 2012 are restricted primarily to unpitched percussion just as Spring 2012 used mostly string sounds.

Would metaphors help you understand what's going on?

You might compare this project with a personal diary in which I jot down a short reflection every day.  Only I use music instead of words.  Or, you might think that The Seasons is like a calendar.  Imagine one of those "thought for the day" jobs where you rip off each page precisely at midnight to reveal today's provocative new idea.  Only with my "calendar" the thought enters your brain through your ears instead of through your eyes.  Sadly, my version fails completely to tell you what day of the month  or even which month it is.  That's okay because the particular days which these sounds represent are now long gone.  These are old calendars.

I've extended the calendar analogy slightly in two ways.

First, I composed each musical "day" in Summer 2012 to have 24 sounds - more or less.  This is sort of like using one note to represent each hour, although of course my rhythms are musical rather than clock-like.

Also, I've continued Garbage Day Periodicity.  This is also found in Spring 2012.  GDP means that on Mondays, which is the day I take our three dumpsters out to the street for the City of Pasadena's weird trucks to grab and empty using their big metal pincers, I use slightly different musical rules.  In Summer 2012 I celebrated Garbage Day by adding pitched instruments playing the theme BACH.  For one week, mysteriously, the theme transformed into The Musical Offering.

Why did I use Bach?  I don't know exactly.  Maybe it has something to do with this piece.

There is one more important facet to The Seasons.  They are combinatorial.

Combinatoriality is a word I've stolen from musical serialism.  Why should they get all the good words?  In my usage it means that I intend my Seasons to be played simultaneously with other music, especially with other Seasons.  This works because of the long silences.  I have to trust you, my three listeners, to experiment with this.  Now that there are three completed Seasons,  you can go to The Seasons Page and click on the three [listen] links to get the pieces all going together.

I don't know yet how many simultaneously-playing Seasons are optimal.  I quite like hearing the three I've got so far playing together.  I don't know yet how many Seasons I will compose.  At least four, of course, to create one full year.  I hope to continue for more years after that.  Stay tuned to Mixed Meters to find out.  I guarantee you won't get news about The Seasons anywhere else.

Seasonal Tags: . . . . . .

Sunday, September 16, 2012

In which Mixed Meters survives seven years

On September 16, 2005 I posted to Mixed Meters for the first time - 69 words including the title.  I said I would be keeping my posts short.  That worked for about a year.  It wasn't long before I started sharing my short music pieces.  I called those Thirty Second Spots.

My written posts got longer and longer over the years and so did my music.  The name Thirty Second Spots seemed fine up to around 2 minutes.  Then I invented the name Three Minute Climaxes (pieces from 2 up to 8 minutes) and finally Ten Minute Breaks (so far the longest one is 12 minutes.)

These categories are fluid and largely pointless so of course I still adhere to them only when I feel like it.

Online storage space was a problem at first.  Most early pieces disappeared.  Eventually I found more room.  I started uploading historical live performances which document my pre-blog activities (roughly 1975 through 1995).  Within the last year or so I've started posting my recordings with the Peter Schmid Quartet and my very long day-to-day calendar pieces, The Seasons.  (Expect a new one next week.)

AND NOW ... there's a new feature to make finding and playing all those recordings much easier.

Near the top of the right hand column of Mixed Meters you'll see a box marked Listen To Music.  There are six options, each of which will open a page of links.  Each link has a [listen] button (a new window will open and the piece will play automatically) and a [read] button (a new window with the relevant MM post will open).  The Video option takes you directly to a YouTube playlist.

I'm hoping that you, my three dear readers, will find this addition helpful for exploring my music.  I'll be posting more music in the future and will update the links pages as I do.

About Timings

At first, all the Thirty Second Spots were less than a minute long.  I would list the length in seconds along with the copyright notice.  When a piece broke the 1-minute barrier I thought it would be cute to list the total number of seconds rather than use minutes and seconds.  After all, "64 seconds" is no more confusing than "1 minute, 4 seconds".

But I didn't know when to quit.  I've listed the lengths of nearly all pieces as a total number of seconds - no minutes, no hours.  For example I recently uploaded the recording of Vexations. You might think that it's over 6 hours long - but I say it is really 23,085 seconds!

Here is a breakdown as of today of all my musical categories with total timings.

Category Number of Pieces Total Time in seconds
30 Second Spots 34 1,887
3 Minute Climaxes 15 3,900
10 Minute Breaks 4 2,537
Videos 21 3,576
The Seasons etc. 9 11,307
Peter Schmid 5 1,973
Historical Performances 14 8,175
Vexations 1 23,085

That's a grand total of 55,393 seconds.  (Because there are a few pieces listed in two categories, the total is not an exact sum of column three.)

Do you wonder how long 55,393 seconds is in hours and minutes?  Well, go ahead, do the math.

Another post from the first day: In Which David Rewrites The Pledge of Allegiance.  (114 words)

30 Second Tags: . . . . . .

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

John Cage's Second Century

The day on which John Cage would have turned 100 years old was last week.  In certain circles it was a big deal.  (Here's a list of events.)

I am offering two recordings of the music of John Cage.  Both were performed in Los Angeles in the early 1980s on concerts produced by the Independent Composers Association.  I no longer remember exactly why I saved these cassette recordings.  Subconciously, I guess, I knew that I would need material for my blog one day, once my hair turned gray.

Both concerts were apparently reviewed by the L.A. Times although I don't have access to either article nor to concert programs.  I do remember that the reviewer remarked how Atlas Eclipticalis felt like the 'classical' work on a program of modern music.  Imaginary Landscape was part of a tape music concert which also included pieces by Scott Fraser, Luc Ferrari and Jonathan Harvey.

listen to John Cage Atlas Eclipticalis with Winter Music - 1756 seconds - November 16, 1982 - The House, Santa Monica, California - The Independent Composers Assn. Ensemble, Delores Stevens, pianist, Stephen Mitchell, conductor

listen to John Cage Imaginary Landscape #4 with Radio Music - 497 seconds - May 21, 1983 - Stella-Polaris Gallery, Los Angeles, California - The Independent Composers Assn. Radio Ensemble

(Read about: why I have this flyer and how I know the other composers on the tape concert.  At some point I made a copy of the Atlas Eclipticalis tape at half speed.  I much preferred listening to it that way.)

As someone whose musical thinking was greatly influenced by Cage's work and ideas, I would be remiss to let this occasion pass without comment. On the other hand, these days I'm really more interested in observing how Cage is being remembered by the classical music establishment than I am in the man or his music.

I see Cage as the ultimate 20th century iconoclastic artist, someone who smashed the sacred ideas of the music world. In their place he brilliantly offered indeterminacy, new performance techniques, electronics, wildly inventive compositional systems and a sense of calm, unflappable, detached theatricality.  He leavened this mixture with a galaxy of personal anecdotes, ideas from Zen teachings, mycology and the force of his own personality.

Indeed, I believe that the man himself sets Cage apart from the other composers of his time.  He injected himself uniquely into his music by performing, lecturing or just being charming.   In his second hundred years how essential will his persona be to the continued acceptance of his music?  Eventually everyone who directly knew and revered Cage will be gone.  Time will tell us if his music alone will continue to inspire new listeners.  Or maybe his writings and ideas will motivate future generations to become fans.  

In the coming decades the ears of the audience will, no doubt, continue to blend the music of the entire post-World War II avant-garde into a more homogenous musical experience.  Although there will be plenty of academic types to make plenty of fine distinctions, it will be harder and harder for more casual listeners to choose sides in those ancient artistic conflicts.  Total control via serialism or total randomness using chance operations?  As it turned out, the aesthetics were much the same either way.

The centennial celebrations are heavy with the idea that Cage was a strong artistic wind that will blow through the ages.  I suppose it is possible that Cage, by the year 2112, could land a spot in the pantheon of the greatest dead white male composers.  Even so "Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner and Cage" would be quite a stretch.  I wouldn't be surprised if he comes to be regarded as the essential 20th century serial composer, eclipsing all those famous Europeans and academic Americans of the last fifty years.

Cage made a big deal out of studying with Schoenberg - and spent much of his later career trying to curry the approval of his long-dead teacher.  Here's an excerpt from a fascinating L.A. Times article by Mark Swed about Cage's early life in Los Angeles:
Still the young composer continued to, as he put it, worship Schoenberg like a god. He took away from Schoenberg the idea that a composer always needed some kind of system. And Cage always came up with one.
Schoenberg would likely have said that music needs more than a system of rules.  I'm pretty sure he would have insisted that music also requires meaning and expression.

Recently, in a BBC interview with Norman Lebrecht, John Adams talked about John Cage (This is from the 9/3/12 podcast, starting about 15'48")
Actually there was a four or five year period when I was not that cognizant of minimalism.  I was a real acolyte of John Cage. . . . I knew all my John Cage very well and I was very deeply imbued in John's orthodoxy.  I do think that Cage is a very orthodox composer.  That surprises people because they think of him as an iconoclast but he actually is a strangely intolerant composer in a certain way, when it comes to anything which doesn't fit into his very precise world.  That means most of western music whether it's Miles Davis or Beethoven.  Eventually I just had to throw that out.  Because I had fun doing John Cage and you could talk about it forever but my background and my musical breeding had brought me up to love great music.  Also I keep going back to this experience about music is essentially the art of feeling and Cage had no place in that.  
(Here's a fun anecdote about Cage's intolerance.)

We can argue later about what Cage is and what Cage is not.  After that we can take a swing at what is great music and what is not.  Or we can just agree to disagree.

Right now the question I am more interested in is 'How will perceptions of Cage change over time?'  The best way to find out is to simply wait and see.  It's more fun to guess.

I expect that the great iconoclast will gradually be transformed by his remaining acolytes into a great icon.  He will be revered, Zen-like, in concerts and concert halls.  Cage, I'm sure, would have liked nothing better.  I also expect that the manner in which his music is performed will become increasingly conventional and prescribed.  That's sad, but it is the way of what we call classical music.

Personally, the harder it becomes to experience the music of John Cage on a street corner, the more we will lose what I think is the real value of his work and life.
As John Cage has said, music is all around us if only we had ears. There would be no need for concert halls if man could only learn to enjoy the sounds which envelop him, for example at Seventh and Broadway at four p.m. on a rainy day.
(That quote comes from the spoken introduction to the 1970 Everest recording of Variations IV by John Cage.)

(Seventh and Broadway: 1 2 3 4 5 6)

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