Tuesday, December 31, 2013

David's 2013 Year End List

Many news organizations save themselves work at the end of the year by publishing "best of" lists. Presumably the items are chosen because someone - either writers or readers - particularly liked those things.

Unfortunately, this scheme has never worked well for me at Mixed Meters.  I'm not good at liking things.  This year I decided to apply the Mixed Meters philosophy ("do the exact opposite") to the year-end list idea.

Here is the result:

Things I Hate
  • I hate it when the weather is really hot (or really cold).
  • I hate shredded coconut.
  • I hate waking up early.
  • I hate my ISP.
  • I hate Internet flash mob videos where orchestras perform classical music in public places as if "by accident".

  • I hate that the commercials are louder than the programs.
  • I hate it when the news makes me feel that there is no hope.
  • I hate that the average American watches 5 hours of television per day.
  • I hate any television show or movie which features zombies.
  • I hate discussions, movies, scientific theories and religions on the subject of how the world will end.

  • I hate companies that use automatic dialing devices to spam my telephone.
  • I hate mega-corporations, Walmart in particular.
  • I hate it when someone says that corporations are people.
  • I hate that businesses have become so big that they harm individual Americans.
  • I hate that copyrights have become corporate assets.

  • I hate that politics has become mostly lying.
  • I hate noticing similarities between the actions of the US and those of the Empire in Star Wars.
  • I hate that the election of the first black US president has caused a resurgence of overt racism.
  • I hate neo-liberals.  Also neo-conservatives.
  • I hate the way Republicans in Congress behave.  Other Republicans too.

  • I hate that some rich people have become too rich and too powerful.
  • I hate that separation between church and state is decreasing.
  • I hate that so many people can't find a balance between god and science.
  • I hate the philosophy of Ayn Rand.
  • I hate the notion that a gun makes you safe.  Also that more guns make you safer.

  • I hate it when the value of things is confused with their cost in money.
  • I hate when people make belonging to (or rooting for) particular teams part of their identities.
  • I hate it when someone acts like they know everything about anything.  (Double for radio announcers on classical music stations)
  • I hate all the loopholes.
  • I hate hate.

The pictures above are some of my personal 2013 faves which I posted on my picture blog Mixed Messages.  Here's Mixed Meters' 2012 end-of-year "list":

Friday, December 27, 2013

The William Bell Overture (Jingle Tells)

Traditions are a bitch.

I've created some traditions while writing this blog and these have become my own little bitches.  I'm completely responsible for them.  No one else will celebrate them for me.  They're my personal sacred rituals.  Obsessive compulsions.  They demand fulfillment.  They will be served.  If I miss a year, these observances will haunt me for ignoring them.  I just know it.

One such Mixed Meters tradition is the yearly Jingle Bells piece.  These have taken various forms since 2006.  I take pride in making each new one as different and unexpected as possible.  As this autumn wore on, closer and closer to the winter solstice, I searched for a musical idea which would be both new, to me at least, and also include the trope known as Jingle Bells.

At one point I was driving while thinking on this issue.  The announcer of our local classical radio station introduced the overture to Gioachino Rossini's final opera William Tell.

If you had been with me in the car you might have seen the proverbial compact florescent bulb light up over my head.  I had had an idea: I could combine the music of the William Tell Overture with the melody of Jingle Bells.  I knew instantly that this idea would work.

Ideas are a bitch.

At least the good ideas are.  I suspect that is how you know that an idea is a good one, by how it behaves.  Bitchy ideas, like bitchy traditions, will grab your brain with their soft little fingers and not let go.  Later, if your final product is not good, blame will not rest with the idea.  The culprit will obviously have been an insufficiently talented composer.  Good ideas, by definition, are blameless.

Here is a video about an artist who has been very successful in the art of having ideas (John Baldessari) narrated by a musician with the most gravel-toned voice (Tom Waits).  Why am I including it here?  Because much of the soundtrack is from the William Tell Overture.  Duh.  (Fun video.)

You might already know the William Tell Overture.  It is the epitome of a music appreciation course curriculum, a classical warhorse, a trite chestnut, a hackneyed tone painting that needs no description because it describes itself.  I bet it would be hard to find someone so musically illiterate, so tone deaf that they can't hear the musical depictions of a storm, birds singing or horses galloping.

The last section - the horse business - now apparently known to online music databases as "the finale from the William Tell Overture" - was for decades the theme of a radio and television show called The Lone Ranger.  That's how a bit of the opera William Tell, part and parcel of the European white-guy classical music canon, became an inextricable element of American culture.

The overwhelming majority of Americans have no interest in Italian operas written in 1829 about sharpshooter Swiss patriots.  Heck, most Americans have no interest in the first half of the overture, the part which doesn't sound like a horse.  Most Americans are not fans of classical music.

Classical audiences do seem to enjoy having a laugh at the expense of their favorite music.  People like Gerard Hoffnung, Victor Borge, Peter Schickele and Igudesman and Joo have given them the chance.  It's gotten to the point where making fun of classical music has its own long and hallowed tradition.

Another famous musical comedian, Spike Jones, didn't play to a classical audience the way the others did.  He played to a pop audience who actually were familiar with some of the classics.  I guess times have changed.  Here's his classic William Tell parody:

Apparently the tradition lives on elsewhere.  I discovered this on YouTube:

Here's a fun anecdote, found in the L.A. Times, about Arnold Schoenberg and the Lone Ranger:

Nonetheless, Schoenberg adapted to California life with surprising ease: He listened to UCLA football on the radio, wore wacky polka-dot ties and once made fun of a student's composition by galloping around the room and shouting "Hi-yo, Silver!"

And here's an article about a major orchestra performing live during a horse race.  Can you guess which piece they programmed?

Meanwhile of course there's also Jingle Bells.  It is only a few decades younger than the William Tell Overture - but still pretty old and even more a part of our culture.

I was sitting in our backyard a few weeks ago reading.  We live on a corner so that there's a sidewalk on the other side of the hedge.  People walk up and down but can't see into our yard.  As I was reading I could hear a young girl's voice.  She was singing Jingle Bells to herself as she walked down the street.  She seemed very happy.

Her happiness now is the formative stage of her Christmas nostalgia later in life.  Nostalgia is powerful magic and seems like an essential part of both Christmas music and Classical music.  Here's the definition of nostalgia:

a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations

Nostalgia is what advertisers evoke when they use Christmas music to sell us stuff.  Someday that girl will wonder why she can be manipulated into spending money so easily when she hears Jingle Bells and other Christmas tunes.

Here is Jingle Bells being used to sell sexy underwear for men.  I'm guessing that this ad is designed to convince mostly women, not men, to buy these as gifts.

Here's a chart (from here) which encapsulates the interaction of the Christmas music industry with Baby Boomers' nostalgia for their childhoods.

The Baby Boomer part of the hypothesis is probably wrong simply because everyone, not just Boomers, has nostalgia.  These songs have been part of every subsequent generation's childhood.  Still, for all the harm we Boomers have actually done to our society over the last few decades, we might as well take responsibility for screwing up Christmas music too.

One thing to remember about these twenty songs is that they are all under copyright.  Someone - probably big corporations - owns them.  The corporations receive money each time they are played. It would not be surprising to learn that the same corporations own many of the radio stations surveyed for the data behind this chart.

The William Tell Overture and Jingle Bells are still in the public domain.  I expect Disney Corporation is probably busy trying to bribe congress into changing that.  Until they succeed, however, I am free to combine those tunes in any manner I want and even claim my own copyright over the result.

What I have actually done is to make an "arrangement".  My William Bell Overture (or you can call it Jingle Tells if that pleases you) is not really an original David Ocker composition.  Younger generations might prefer to call it some sort of old-fashioned classical music mash-up.  Science Fiction geeks might enjoy the image of creating a hideous musical mutant by splicing the melodic genes of Jingle Bells into the harmonic and formal structures of William Tell.

Whatever name you give the final piece, my original idea did in fact turn out to be a bitch.  And I have managed to celebrate another year of my personal, bitchy holiday tradition.  Also, please forgive the cheap synthetic orchestra sound.

Click here to hear The William Bell Overture (Jingle Tells) - © 2013 by David Ocker 390 seconds

I do sort of wish that I had waited a few more days before starting on this project.  I might have come up with a better idea.

P.S. There is no truth to the rumor that this piece was once entitled "I Saw the Lone Ranger Kissing Santa Claus".

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Autumn 2013 from The Seasons

First, here's an opportunity to listen to my newest season Autumn 2013.

Next, if you need to catch up, some quick explanatory flashbacks about my series The Seasons:
  1. I write one short bit of music for each day in the calendar.
  2. I try to actually write these on the day itself.
  3. I separate all the bits of music with long periods of silence.
  4. I start a new "season" on every solstice or equinox.
  5. As each season is completed I post it to Mixed Meters
  6. Links to each season can be found on The Seasons page.
  7. Many seasons have Garbage Day Periodicity, sometimes audibly, other times not.
Now, new information:
  1. Today, December 21, 2013, is yet another Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. 
  2. Later today I will begin composing a new "season", Winter 2013.  
  3. Before that, however, I'm posting the newly completed season Autumn 2013.  
  4. Autumn 2013 is my eighth season, my second Autumn, the end of the second year.
  5. I will post the short version of Autumn 2013 in a few weeks.  That's like real music.
  6. Autumn 2013 uses piano sounds and hand drumming sounds (both with much stereo antiphony) plus lots of filter sweeping.
Suggestions for listening to The Seasons:
  1. Listen to one season all by itself.  I find this good when I need to concentrate on something else.
  2. Listen more than one season simultaneously.  Go here, quickly click on a few different "listen" links.
  3. Listen to one or more seasons simultaneously with any other music.  Expect the unexpected.
  4. Please leave a message if you know a good program which plays multiple audio streams at the same time.  
I have spared you from the following rants which might filled this space:
  1. There are too many Winter Solstice Holidays.  A little consolidation would be nice.
  2. There is no war on Christmas except the one started by the Christians themselves.
  3. Sunlight at this time of year is precious for someone like me who stays awake all night.
Click here to hear Autumn 2013 from The Seasons
© 2013 by David Ocker, 3974 seconds

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Fan

The Fan is a short piece of music composed in NotateMe, "performed" in Sibelius and used as a soundtrack for a video of the ceiling fan in our sunroom taken in September 2009.  Like my previous video, Baby Elephant Seal Walk, the music was completely finished before I sought out any visuals.  I didn't select a title until I knew what the visuals were.

Astronomical scenes, flickering as if in an old movie.
Lunar landscape, vaguely changing focus.
Circumnavigating an unseen sun.

It must mean something.
Figure out what, exactly, by yourself.
Good luck with that.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Playing a C Major Scale with One Finger

Mixed Meters' readers with good memories will remember that I once composed all my music on a laptop PC while drinking coffee at Starbucks.  That era ended about four years ago when I acquired an iMac.  An iMac makes music making much simpler.  Alas, it's not very portable and I stopped composing at Starbucks.

A year ago I purchased an iPad Mini, my first ever tablet device.  I like it so much Leslie calls it "my precious".  I wanted it for two reasons: one was to waste copious amounts of time surfing the Internet and the other was to once again compose music away from my desktop.  The iPad instantly fulfilled my first goal, wasting time online.  That was simple.  Composing music, however, was a different story.  Finally, a couple weeks ago, I found an iPad app which seemed to meet my requirements for composing on the iPad.

Let me introduce you to NotateMe.  It lets you draw music using a finger, something you always have with you, or with a stylus, something you always forget to bring along.  It plays back whatever you write down.  It lets you keep changing things until you like the music.  When your magnum opus is finished NotateMe will export the piece so it can be imported into other music programs.

I've made two new videos for this post.  One of them shows me entering the simplest musical structure, a C major scale, into NotateMe using only my index finger.  The second one, a 30 Second Spot called Baby Elephant Seal Walk, has a musical score which I composed in NotateMe.  Let's do the second one first:

Once the music for Baby Elephant Seal Walk was as good as I could get it using only NotateMe I exported it to Sibelius using MusicXML (don't worry if you don't know what that is).  Using Sibelius I tweaked the sounds quite a bit because NotateMe sounds pretty tinny right off the iPad.  I changed a few pitches - not many - and adjusted a few tempi, but 98% (or maybe more) of the music you hear in that video is just as I composed it on my iPad

Once I had completely finished the music I decided to add it to a video.  I searched my recent videos for one of the correct length.  This one, showing a small elephant seal lurching across the beach, blowing sand out of its nose and settling down next to another seal (which I suppose to be its mother, although they all look identical to me), fit surprisingly well with the music.  Remember, I had absolutely no idea what the visuals would be while writing the music.

But enough about pinnipeds.  This post is about iPads.  Here's a video produced by Neuratron, the makers of NotateMe.  This is exactly what I watched before buying the app.  It will give you a good idea about the features of the app which seems to work perfectly in this video.

Using NotateMe takes some practice, both for the user and the iPad.  There is a "learning" feature that the program uses to recognize the handwriting of its master.  The help file warns that loaning your tablet to someone else will cause NotateMe to adjust gradually to their hand and forget about you.  As they used to say "If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with."  Or something.

Needless to say, even after several weeks of regular use, my usage is not nearly as reliable as that shown in the Neuratron video.  That's why I decided to make my own video: more "real world".

I chose to enter a C major scale.  Just one octave.  Nothing else.  What musical structure could be more basic than that?  This task turned out to be a small adventure - both in using NotateMe (as you'll see, although in a previous take I did the scale without errors) and also in editing the video.  I photographed myself simultaneously from two angles and then tried to combine the videos.  I've never tried that before.    The video editing results are pretty basic: C major scale basic.

NotateMe may not be perfect but it works pretty darn well.  In fact, it works much better than I expected.  It already has potential for considerably more musical complexity than just a major scale.  For sure it can do more complexity than you can hear in Baby Elephant Seal Walk.  I wonder how far I can push it.

I am using it to write small pieces of music while drinking coffee in Starbucks (and elsewhere) and then exporting the music back to my desktop for finishing.  That's what I wanted all along and I am happy to have that much.  Since the current NotateMe version is listed as a "public beta" I trust there will be many improvements in features and reliability as time goes on.  

Neuratron is on Facebook too.

I shot the beach video at Piedras Blancas beach near San Simeon in Central California.  Here's another elephant seal link.

Here are two of my videos with music which involve coastal scenes: Going Coastal and Going Coastal 2.  The second one has a few quick shots of elephant seals in the waves at the very beginning.  You could also watch Flap which has a couple quick glimpses of sea lions amongst all the birds, but you've got to be alert to see them.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Carnivorous Plants

A few years ago Leslie acquired some strange little plants which get their nourishment by eating insects. She purchased these from a vendor at a local plant show. I was skeptical about them at first until I noticed that the number of flying insects in our yard had decreased noticeably.

The vendor is Don Elkins and he calls his company Mesa Exotics. Last weekend we visited his greenhouse in Arroyo Grande, near San Luis Obispo. While Don and Leslie talked exitedly about the care and feeding of these little meateaters, I amused myself by snapping a lot of pictures.

(Click on any picture for an enlargement. Hover over them for a bit of description)

Leslie was kind of like a kid in a candy shop.  We returned with a car full of bits of unusual and unfamiliar vegetation, all of it designed to make an insect's life a short one.

Outside, next to empty farmland, was a field of pitcher plants.  These plants have a long tube into which unsuspecting insects are attracted by some sort of smell.  Once inside, the little fly can't escape and it gets digested.  How does that work exactly?  I haven't a clue.

Leslie refers to carnivorous plants as CPs.  CPs come with a wide range of techniques for snaring their prey.  Here are some examples beginning with a Pygmy Sundew.

I thought the little droplets on this plant were actually water.  I was informed that it is slime made by the plant.  Somehow this attracts small insects.

This plant is called a Butterwort.  The leaves are very smooth to the touch because they're covered with tiny, slimy hairs which trap small insects.  This particular plant has been dining well lately.

The next two are from the genus Nepenthes.  These produce colorful pitchers suspended on long elegant vines.  The first picture shows a living pitcher, the second shows one which has died.

This is an extreme closeup of the flower of a Bladderwort.  The flower is very tiny.  It's called the Angry Bunny.

The most famous CP is the Venus Fly Trap.  Don had a lot of them in his greenhouse but I didn't snap any decent pictures of them.  Here's one of Leslie's plants which had captured a large scrumptious moth that couldn't get away quite fast enough.

Leslie had clearly found a kindred spirit in meeting Don.  They both have considerable enthusiasm and excitement for these curious species.  We'd like to thank him profusely for sharing his time and expertise and passion for these little carnivores.  Also, thanks for the cool plants.

There's been a recent spate of news about Sheep-Eating Plants. Here's an article which details these and other, even stranger, carnivorous plants.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Frank Zappa's 200 Motels - The Suites

On Wednesday October 23 the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed Frank Zappa's 200 Motels - The Suites, an event marking Disney Hall's tenth anniversary.  It was an elaborately staged, spare-no-expense, more-than-ninety-minute concert version for soloists, actors, chorus and massive orchestra.  It was exceptionally well done. It was great fun.  It was like a rock and roll concert.  Sadly, however, it was sold out and one night only.  Many fans of Zappa's music wished for tickets they couldn't get.

I'd like to thank the Philharmonic, and especially conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and also Chad Smith, Philharmonic VP for Artistic Planning who shepherded this project from the beginning, for allowing me to observe all the orchestra rehearsals.  Remarkably, there were only three.  It was a wonderful thing to see this music prepared and performed with such precision and positive professionalism - qualities often missing in large orchestra productions during Frank's lifetime.  Watching this production come together prompted a lot of thoughts and emotions in me.

Gail Zappa, Frank's widow, and her team, also deserve thanks for putting Frank's music into a performable format. They chose the name "200 Motels - The Suites". There are 13 suites, played continuously, some of which are further divided into smaller sections.  They selected an order for the suites which is reminiscent of the movie.  There's only a faint semblance of story line.

I haven't been so excited about a live music event in a very long time.  I found the execution and performance of 200 Motels - The Suites thrilling.  It was a performance to remember.

Los Angeles Philharmonic performs Frank Zappa's 200 Motels - The Suites - October 23 2013

The action is seen through the eyes of a touring rock band.  Frank seemed to think that everyone would be interested in the grueling aspects of his life on the road.  He toured a lot, traveling from town to town, each night searching out decent food, a clean shower and, apparently, someone to screw.  He cast himself and his fellow band members as characters in the story and assembled his loose libretto around the tribulations of touring: clueless interviewers, hostile local residents and bad drug trips.

In "I'm Stealing the Room" (Suite X). band member Mark (or is it Howard) wants to bring Jeff, the bass player, down from a bad trip caused by sniffing a mildewed bath towel.  Zappa wrote this dialogue:
We gotta get him back to normal before Zappa finds out and steals it and makes him do it in the movie. 
Yes, the action in 200 Motels is completely self-referential.

Frank uses the unlikely medium of symphonic composition to complain about the tribulations of being a rock star.  It's hard to feel too sorry for him.  I wonder if he ever gave a second thought to the notion that almost no one else in the universe could relate to his life.  A lot of people were probably downright jealous of him for exactly the things he was complaining about.

Could he have come up with better subject matter?  Maybe there is no better subject for an evening of musical entertainment than the life of the composer.  Frank's creative output almost never touches on the eternal verities.  He liked to use the small realities of life for his inspiration - for example, the cleanliness of his kitchen or the stupid things Jimmy Swaggart did.

I feel that lyrics and plots were not Zappa's creative strength. What he did best was turn out a stream of exceptional music, much of it very advanced and challenging.  His bands were monumentally tight.  He knew how to craft first-rate albums.  He managed to do these things in many different musical styles during his career.  He was a great musician.  A genius.

an example of an orchestra score in Frank Zappa's own manuscript - Tuna Sandwich Ballet

As you know, most rock stars have not been inspired to the life of orchestral composition by the music of Edgar Varese.  And of those that have been so inspired, apparently only Frank Zappa spent his free time while on tour writing gargantuan orchestra pieces.  Frank used his on-the-road compositional activities as the premise for the introduction to "The Pleated Gazelle" (Suite IX).

"The Pleated Gazelle" begins with a spoken narrative by the character called Frank (or is it Larry the Dwarf, the two looked identical) :
One night I couldn't get any action after the concert.  I went back to the hotel by myself.  I made some instant coffee and I took out the music I'd been working on, a piece for voice and small ensemble.  It was called "I Have Seen the Pleated Gazelle".  Some people might wonder why a person might want to write something like this.  It's not pretty and I don't think that it's sensible. But that didn't matter to me while I was writing it.  I just wrote down whatever came to mind.  I figured I'd never get to hear it anyway.  It occurred to me that night that if the piece was ever performed the audience might like it better if it had a story.  So I made up a story.
Here Frank is painting a clever portrait of how he composed.  He starts by implying that he only wrote music when he couldn't get laid.  He then tells us that this music was not for everyone and that he knew he was asking for impractical resources and stratospheric levels of musicianship.  Only later did he add plot lines, however surreal, in hope of giving more people a chance to relate.  I saw this happen directly in the music of A Zappa Affair, the large puppet and orchestra production produced by the Berkeley Symphony in 1984.

It's important to remember that all the music of 200 Motels - The Suites (and much more) was composed before Frank turned 30.  Also that he was largely self taught.  Also that these scores performed last week reflect exactly what he wrote back then, still very much a young inexperienced composer.

The performances of this music which he heard in the seventies were nowhere near as good as the one I heard in Disney Hall.  The orchestras back then had neither the resources nor the musicianship of today's Los Angeles Philharmonic.  They also lacked the positive attitude.  If by some chance Frank had gotten a performance this good, he might have grown as an orchestra composer in a way we can only imagine.

Los Angeles Philharmonic performs Frank Zappa's 200 Motels - The Suites - October 23 2013 - Frank hold foaming broth

Frank follows the compositional confessional in The Pleated Gazelle with a story about a girl who falls in love with a newt rancher.  Her love, alas, is unrequited because he is attracted to an industrial vacuum cleaner.  I can imagine that story is something you might find in, say, a surreal opera.  In fact Schott, the publisher of this music, lists 200 Motels - The Suites  as an opera.

200 Motels?  An opera?  That must annoy "real" opera fans, the ones who repeatedly attend Ring Cycles and Rigolettos.

There had been some question of how regular Green Umbrella subscribers would react to this production of 200 Motels - what with all the absurdity and profanity.  I did see only a handful of people walking out mid-Suite.

When he composed this music Frank certainly was not writing for opera devotees or for symphony fanatics.  He never showed much respect for the long classical tradition which weighs on contemporary composers these days.  The traditions which force composers to share programs with the masterpieces by revered icons of classical music did not mean much to him.  Frank, after all, was an iconoclast.  He was good at breaking icons.  Very good.

In the blue-hair department, I found one reviewer who vented his unhappiness with this production, someone named Rodney Punt.  Here's a sample bit of screed from that online review.
I thought the work a pretentious, puerile, extravagant bore. The libretto (too kind a word) was wretched and trite but it thought itself clever and witty. The music was gauche, boring, and proceeded from one unmerited climax to another. Zappa certainly had ambition and all the documentary evidence suggests he worked hard on this work. But inherent musical value? Not there. I don't see creative or organizational talent in this score.
On the road Frank certainly encountered people who didn't like his music.  We know this because he added such a character to 200 Motels.  In this production Lonesome Cowboy Burt was portrayed as a gun-totin' blusterin' bully who terrorized the band members and dumped a wheelbarrow of faux shit on the stage.  The wheelbarrow had the logo of the LA Phil on it.

Later Burt meandered through the orchestra improvising insults.  "You donated money for THIS?" he asked the audience.  Burt ends up center stage pointing his pistols at the unflappable Esa-Pekka Salonen with the demand "Hey Twerp, why can't you play something I can enjoy?"

Since 200 Motels comes with its own built-in unhappy critic, it needs no more.  Superfluous unhappy critics might have done a good deed by giving up their tickets to some eager Zappa fan.

Los Angeles Philharmonic performs Frank Zappa's 200 Motels - The Suites - October 23 2013 - Lonesome Cowboy Burt

A much better online review by Richard S. Ginell has this description of the problems Zappa's music encounters in the classical music world.
What makes Zappa’s unique world as a whole so difficult for some to accept is that you have to buy the entire package – the salacious along with the serious; the relentless political, religious, and social satire; the musical references to his heroes in the classical and rock worlds; the cynicism and ultimately encouraging humanism – in order to get the message. It’s all of one piece, one vision, and you can take it or leave it.
That struck me as a fine summation of the problems facing a classical music fan sitting through an evening of Zappa for the first time.  I suspect Frank wasn't really expressing "encouraging humanism" in the finale "Strictly Genteel" (Suite XIII).  I've always felt that the message of that tune was "everyone should get laid".  That notion is less humanistic and more Zappaistic.

In Disney Hall in 2013 at the end of this particular Green Umbrella concert, however, even the smallest droplet of humanism was grasped at and probably much appreciated by many in the audience.

Los Angeles Philharmonic performs Frank Zappa's 200 Motels - The Suites - October 23 2013

That Schott web site link I mentioned will also let you read the complete instrumentation list of 200 Motels - The Suites.  Frank asks for a lot of instruments.

The principal percussionist of the Philharmonic, Raynor Carroll, told me that this piece required him to provide the longest list of percussion instruments he had ever seen.  I learned elsewhere that there were 164 performers in total.  This figure would have been hard to verify independently because they were packed so tightly onto the stage.  And because there wasn't enough light on them.

To accommodate such a huge orchestra, the stage was completely flat instead of slightly raked.  This, along with the amplification of chorus and soloists, plus the mighty sound of all the percussion, made orchestra balances problematical.  In Strictly Genteel (Suite XIII) I noticed one familiar spot where 9 French horns and 4 trombones had trouble being heard.  It was a noisy evening.

There were plenty of quiet moments - for example music passages for three classical guitars.  Unfortunately, in both dress rehearsal and performance I found it was often hard to concentrate on the music because of the staging.  I felt that the music was often "covered" by the visuals.

Huge amounts of talent went into this production.  The most dazzling of all was that of Esa-Pekka Salonen who showed great courage by stepping outside his standard area of expertise in agreeing to conduct 200 Motels.  He kept things moving along and tightly focused far beyond what might have been expected.  He was almost too cool about it.  I hope he can conduct this piece again someday under conditions which will allow him to shape the music more carefully.  Curiously, at one of the rehearsals, he seemed to have trouble saying the name of Suite XII out loud.

The concert was obsessively recorded on audio but not video.  Each string player had an individual microphone.  We are told it will be for iTunes release.  I hope that does happen.

The Philharmonic, to their credit, provided every performer Frank asked for in his score except for one small group of boy sopranos.  They are marked "optional".  Their part was sung by actual adult sopranos.  I remember, when I worked for Frank, asking him whether he thought he'd get an orchestra to bring in children for so small part.  His memorable reply "It doesn't hurt to ask".

It's fair for us to wonder what Frank was thinking when he dared to write for such an impractical ensemble.  My guess is that he was thinking of all these instruments as a very large rock band.

In a 1966 interview (later published in the magazine Hit Parader) Frank described his perfect rock band.
The instrumentation of the ideal Mothers rock and roll band is two piccolos, two flutes, two bass flutes, two oboes, English horn, three bassoons, a contrabassoon, four clarinets (with the fourth player doubling on alto clarinet), bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet, soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass saxophones, four trumpets, four French horns, three trombones, one bass trombone, one tuba, one contrabass tuba, two harps, two keyboard men playing piano, electric piano, electric harpsichord, electric clavichord, Hammond organ, celeste, and piano bass, ten first violins, ten second violins, eight violas, six cellos, four string bass, four percussionists playing twelve timpani, chimes, gongs, field drums, bass drums, snare drums, woodblocks lion's roar, vibes, xylophone and marimba three electric guitars, one electric 12-string guitar, electric bass and electric bass guitar and two drummers at sets, plus vocalists who play tambourines. And I won't be happy until I have it. 
I was impressed that Frank's humongous rock and roll band functioned really well.  That was not so during his lifetime.  I've been told many times that at the infamous 1970 Pauley Pavilion concert and at the recording of 200 Motels - the Movie in England the moods were tense and the music imprecise.

In 2013 the LA Philharmonic players' mood was quite good and the musical precision was damn close to what the composer intended.  If Frank had witnessed something similar, especially in 1970, he might have mitigated his well known dislike of orchestra players.

These musicians actually did the crazy stage antics Frank wrote into the score (sadly these were hard to see because of the lighting).  They shouted out every last "blorp".  They also clowned around onstage before the music started, taking to heart their instruction to dress in concert black but with a disheveled look.  They did The Wave onstage.  When was the last time you saw that?  To be fair, many of them were probably quite relieved to see standard repertoire pieces on their music stands later in the week.

Frank Zappa in 1967 at Lumpy Gravy session - at the piano Mike Lang

Anyway, Frank wrote his music for his own fans.  He had plenty of fans.  And he had a good idea of what they liked.  The 1966 quote above continues:
I think people are entitled to hear that kind of music live. Kids would go to concerts if they could hear music that knocked them out. If the concert halls would change to a more modern programming, they would find the place crawling with kids. Something like this won't happen overnight and I know it. But I've studied my audiences carefully enough to see that we're making some headway in that direction.
Today Frank's audience remembers and misses him. They knew the significance of this event not as the tenth anniversary of a concert hall, but as the long overdue realization of an important work by a toweringly creative artist who has been dead for nearly 20 years.  The Zappa fans filled every available seat of Disney Hall for this event and they were loud and noisy.  Before the  music started I found myself wondering if someone would shout out "What's the secret word for tonight?" or maybe start a pile of panties on a corner of the stage.  These fans went home happy.

It's too late to develop the sort of orchestra music for the "kids" which Frank dreamed about in 1966.  Those kids were part of the baby boom generation.  Boomers, like me and presumably Rodney Punt, are all grown up now and we are set in our musical tastes.

It was fun to witness this concert and wonder what might have been.  I found the evening quite touching because, had Frank lived to see this (and had he stayed relaxed enough to let everyone do their jobs), he would have loved it.  At least I think he would; it was always impossible to predict what he might think about anything.

And so, at the end of 200 Motels - The Suites I found myself with tears in my eyes.  Not just at the concert but also at the dress rehearsal.  Not because this is emotional music (which it absolutely isn't) but because I was able to witness the work of someone I consider to be a great composer and creative spirit, someone I knew and respected and feel privileged to have worked for, finally taken seriously and performed with great precision by one of the foremost musical ensembles of our time.

One of the few rewards of getting old is the ability to see how history turns out.  I personally am interested in tracking how music history gets written, how it develops a cultural memory of some of the people, like Frank, whom I have known.

Frank Zappa created his own unique music, sometimes baffling and bizarre, other times exciting and electrifying.  This event is a major milestone in our collective efforts to place him and his music in the ongoing chronicle of music.  It was an honor to witness this concert.

Los Angeles Philharmonic performs Frank Zappa's 200 Motels - The Suites - October 23 2013 - curtainless calls

Yet more comments which I couldn't work into the above essay:

200 Motels - The Suites was performed a few days later with different forces, without the staging, at the Royal Festival Hall in London.  Frank had wanted to perform 200 Motels in 1971 at the Royal Albert Hall, but the concert was canceled by authorities because it was thought to be "about sex".  That was pretty much true.  On November 9, 2013, the RFH concert will be broadcast online.  (Try this link.)

Also this week, another piece of Franks, Bogus Pomp, which is derived from some of the 200 Motels music, received a rare performance.  The Montreal Symphony Orchestra was led by Kent Nagano who led the premiere in England in 1983.  Here's a review.  That was one of the pieces I worked on during the years I was employed by Frank.

Hila Plitmann was the soprano in the L.A. performance and she stood out by a mile.  Frank, I think, would have loved her because she sang the music exceptionally well and she can act.  And also because she took off most of her clothes on stage.

Morris Robinson, the bass soloist, had a wonderful voice but a much smaller part.  His part cracked me up when in Penis Dimension (Suite XII) he sang a very low, slow rendition of the theme from Lumpy Gravy.  The old black and white picture of Frank Zappa is, I think, from the Lumpy Gravy sessions in 1967 at which point he must have been working on 200 Motels music.  The pianist in that picture is Mike Lang, who I saw at the 200 Motels concert.

"You donated money for THIS?"  The concert program had this line: This evening's performance is supported in part by a generous gift from Christian and Sutton Stracke.   Let's all give those two a big round of thanks.

The two actors who were identically made up to look like Frank really did remind me of him.  They were skinny enough (i.e. very skinny) and their hair looked just right.  However, when sitting onstage watching quietly, something Frank really did during rock concerts, he would have been smoking a cigarette.  The actors should have been sucking on a glowing e-cigarette. The Mark character (or was it Howard) did that at one point.  Frank should have also.  Then again, that might have been just too eerie.

Thanks to Charles Ulrich for locating the "ideal Mothers rock and roll band" quote.

The LA Philharmonic Facebook page is the source of most of these pictures.  The picture of the score of Tuna Sandwich Ballet came from here.


At the end of the 1960's interview quoted above, Frank talked about how the Mothers created their musical sets:
Each set that we do is conceived of as one continuous piece of music, like an opera. Even the dialogue between numbers is part of it. Some of our sets run an hour and a half, when we get carried away. That's about opera length.
Kent Nagano said (from here):
History will be kind to Frank Zappa.

Did you skip to the end?  Here's a selection of other Mixed Meters posts you may not have time to read either.

About Frank Zappa:
Zappa Symphonies (that would be Francesco Zappa, mostly)
Frank Zappa and Alcohol (Zappa beer and orchestra musicians who drank)
Frank Zappa's Jukebox (not a great compilation)
Out To Lunch (aka Ben Watson)
Paradise, Pomp and Puppets - Performing Zappa's Orchestra Music (a long one)
Lower Case Zappa  (a short one)
Varese, Zappa and Slonimsky (an early one)
(all MM posts tagged "Frank Zappa" - click here)

About Music Critics
David Ocker, Boy Music Critic (mostly about Domenico Scarlatti)
Combining Four Letter Words: Oboe + Blog
Rich Critic, Poor Critic (that would have been Alan Rich)
Two Marks of Good Music Criticism (one Mark would be Swed)
Who is Philip Hensher Anyway?  (he's English, I know that)
30 Second Spots - The Manuscripts Ends Abruptly, Scherzo for Danny Cariaga
(all MM posts tagged "reviewers" - click here)

Friday, October 25, 2013

John Bergamo

I note, with great sadness, the passing of John Bergamo. John was the percussion instructor at CalArts when I was a student. Here's a picture I took of him the last time I saw him (at the memorial service for Arthur Jarvinen in 2010).

If you're not familiar with John's musical abilities, I highly recommend that you read John Bergamo, Percussive Renaissance Man by B. Michael Williams, an article about his many interests, written when John was added to the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame.

Although I didn't study percussion I was in several ensembles that John conducted. One memorable piece was the Quartet for tenor sax, trumpet, piano and percussion by Stefan Wolpe.  Less memorable was  Concerto for Clarinet and Chamber Ensemble (all brass and percussion) by Alvin Etler.  More memorable was spending the summer of 1976 in Newhall CA watching John and his fellow members of The Repercussion Unit rehearse.  (I just sat and listened.)

In a 1989 LA Times article about The Unit: One Man's Junk is Another's Music John is quoted on the subject of finding new musical instruments:
Members are on a never-ending search for new instruments. Sometimes they turn up during pilgrimages to junkyards ("I usually end up getting ripped off because I'm so excited they can tell I really want it," Bergamo said).
Sometimes they're simply lying in the street. Bergamo found his favorite "bell," a broken pipe fitting, on the ground. "I threw it down and heard it and knew I had to have it," he said, happily tapping it with a mallet.
"I'm so excited" and "Happily tapping it".  No one who knew John would be surprised by such expressions of enthusiasm for exploring the world of percussion.

Here's a 1991 video about The Unit going on tour to Germany.  Lots of shots showing John and also Lucky Mosko, who passed away in 2005.  The other members are Larry, Gregg, Ed and Jimmy.  Here's Part one:

and Part two:

Another music group which formed around John was the Hands On'semble, seen here playing John's own piece Piru Bole:

Here's a picture of John way back in March 1965 (second from the right), part of a group performing György Ligeti's Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes.  That's when he was a member of Lukas Foss's Center for Creative and Performing Arts at the State University of New York at Buffalo. I found this picture in the book by Renee Levine Parker, This Life of Sounds. Evenings for New Music in Buffalo. (available as a pdf)

I had a lot of teachers during my professional education as a musician.  Only two stand out for having consistent positive attitudes towards music and music making.  John was one of them.  John Bergamo will be missed by many but his memory will stick around because he had that rare ability to share his own positive attitude with so many others.

One more thing about my personal relationship with John Bergamo.  After my graduation from CalArts John set the course of my entire career as a musician by recommending me, as a music copyist, to Frank Zappa. I told the story in my online interview with Alt.Fan.Frank-Zappa:
BL: How exactly did you hook up with [Zappa] in the first place?
DO: I was a student at Cal Arts in Valencia CA. Ed Mann was a student at the same time. His teacher was John Bergamo (who I also worked with). John had been hired for some session work with Frank (I think he's one of the nameless musicians on Greggary Peccary) and had gotten Ed the chance to get in the band and Frank hired Ed. Frank was looking for someone to be his "musical secretary" and both Ed and John recommended me to him. Then they both told me that I would be getting a call from Frank Zappa. "Sure" I thought "when pigs have wings."
Bergamo had played the Black Page and had lost a copy of the music which Frank had given him. So John hired me to copy the Black Page to give it to Frank. I figured they had showed that to Frank.
One Sunday afternoon (this was June 1977 - as I was eating a pancake breakfast with my roommate) the phone rang and it was Ed Mann saying "Frank Zappa wants you to work for him." so I called Frank and he told me to come right over. I thought it was a job like all my other work at the time (i.e. "come right now we have music that needs to be recorded at 8 o clock tomorrow morning"). When I got there he took me in the house and showed me piles of music. He started handing me things from the piles and giving me instructions to work on stuff. I asked him if he had seen the copy of the Black Page - he hadn't.
So I had showed up to my interview without the one piece of music that was sure to get me the gig.

Thanks to Steve Layton for the link to Percussive Renaissance Man.

Buell Neidlinger, another member of Center for Creative and Performing Arts and close friend of John's, told me this little annecdote about the performance of the Ligeti:
At the Carnegie Rectal Hall performance, Don Ellis purposely wound his metronome ten extra turns, so the piece became interminable with a single clicking for about 4 mins. extra.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Where you find it

While walking at night I've noticed this bus stop advertisement twice.  Both times I saw it indistinctly from some distance.

Each time I thought to myself "that reminds me of a Mark Rothko painting."  Here's a real Rothko for comparison.

Alas, when I got close enough to distinguish the details I was disappointed to discover that I was not looking at excellent modern art.  Or even a knock-off modern art.  Instead I was looking at a picture of a newfangled tablet computer.  And not just any computer, but one sold by Microsoft, a company I've resolved never to patronize ever again.  (I'll spare you the rant.)

My point is that for a few moments, before I learned the truth, I enjoyed thoughts about the art of Mark Rothko.  Walking down the street I took pleasure in the memory of Rothko's works.  I've found his work meaningful since I first encountered it in the 70s.  I offer thanks to the advertising executives of the Microsoft Corporation for triggering these positive experiences in my mind right there on a Pasadena street.  I'm sure that's what they had in mind all along.

My point here is that the experience of art is where you find it.   It could happen any old place.

One thing I saw online recently was Seat Assignment, a series of pictures by artist Nina Katchadourian.  Apparently she was bored on a long airplane flight and began excusing herself to the toilet to take selfies with her cellphone in the style of old Flemish portraits using items from the plane as costume materials.  For example:

Here's an actual 15th-century painting for comparison:

Katchadourian has taken my Rothko experience up a step.  She imitated an ancient artistic portrait style using materials that existed where she happened to be at that moment, in a bathroom 5 miles high.

Occasionally I pick up random pieces of paper on my walks. Often it turns out to be just trash (which, in a small gesture of civic-mindedness, I carry to a proper receptacle.)  Being near a high school I find a lot of discarded school work this way.

One day I noticed a folded piece of paper which I assumed was going to be more high school homework.  I was surprised to find a printed poem on it.

   Gloves Off

Today I will have salsa
      and wear loud socks.
My tie will clash, a bit,
      with my shirt,
and the watch I choose
      will be seven minutes slow.

One of my pencils
      will be shorter than the others.
I will say "Hello"
      in a louder tone of voice,
read the second section
      of the newspaper first,

and, tonight, approach you
      from the other side,
do that
      before this,

for today
      I have finally discovered
how the mime
      gets out
                  of that box.

Pretty obviously not high school level work.  A surprisingly good poem for a piece of trash.  It seems to be in the voice of a young man making his first very very tentative forays into non-conformity.  Maybe not so young, since the third paragraph reveals him speaking to a significant other and suggests that their lovemaking has been very repetitive.  There was no author mentioned or copyright asserted.  No Google hits.

Later I figured out the source of this poem.

I remembered that several blocks away, on a fence in front of a house, is a small box offering free poetry.  I checked the current offering.  I found the identical page, albeit uncrumpled, with the identical poem.

Is Good For You

Fresh Every Friday.

I'm not too happy with being told that poetry is good for me.  That's a bit too preachy for my tastes.  (I'll spare you the rant.)  What I do like is living in a neighborhood where any little piece of paper I find on the ground might turn out to be a thought-provoking work of art.

Noticing "art" in unexpected places happens to me quite a lot.  I'll often stop to take a picture of whatever catches my eye, often because it reminds me of painting.  I post these shots on my photo blog Mixed Messages.

Rothko paintings have come up in this Mixed Meters post: Cool and Warm, Dylan and Waldo at SFMOMA  (the Rothko is in an animated GIF)

An imitation Rothko came up in this post: The New Yorker and the Hero Composer in Los Angeles (there's also an imitation Jackson Pollock)

MM post: The Plastic Bag as Hat - another modern take on medieval portraiture.

Found objects come up a lot on Mixed Meters - you will see many glove pictures.

Here are some posts which feature found pieces of paper:
Found Cartoon - It Looks at the Atom
Found Cartoon - Fink
Found Cartoon - She's Not a Christian
Old Medical Catalog Scrap
30 Second Spots - A Newspaper in Traffic

Click any picture in this post for an enlargement.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Caprice - Summer 2013 short version

Recently I mentioned (in this post, skip to paragraph 15) my realization that I have a bucket list populated mostly by unbegun musical compositions.   The term 'bucket list' has not been around very long at all.  Less than a decade apparently.  That movie I didn't see popularized the idea. At least according to this article.

However, my list goes way back.  Some of the items date to when I was in college over 40 years ago.  Of course I didn't think of these as "things to do before I die", only as "things to do."  The part about "before I die" sneaks up on a person over the years.

One entry on my list is: write a set of variations on the famous theme by Niccolo Paganini.  That theme would be from his 24th Caprice for solo violin, itself a theme and variations.  Doing such variations is not a terribly original idea.  Many composers have used Paganini's theme before me.  (Find a list here.)

I was originally inspired to this idea by the Variations on a Theme of Paganini of Wittold Lutoslawski, a work for two pianos.  This was one of my introductions to how exciting modern music could be.  I highly recommend it.  He also made an orchestra version which preserves the fury.

Although Wittold called his piece "Variations on a...", it is really more of an arrangement of Paganini's 24th Caprice.  His variations track the original variations one to one.  My piece does exactly the same thing.  Hence it does not really qualify as the fulfillment for my bucket list.  I'll have to wait to do that.  Someday before I die.  Maybe.

Since I worked directly with Paganini's original material and didn't actually write any original variations, I have refrained from calling my piece "Variations on a..."  Instead I have named it Caprice. That's what Paganini called his piece - although he needed to give it a number as well.

It's highly likely that my compositional method is greatly different than Lutoslawski's.  My piece is longer and generally more relaxed than his.  I composed Caprice in approximately 90 short bits separated by silences over approximately 90 days.  These bits became the piece Summer 2013.  Later I removed the silences to reveal this piece.  Of course, I was intending to do this all along and had planned ahead somewhat.  Still, there were surprises.

Summer 2013 is kind of a journal or calendar piece, based on the compositional regimen of "write a little something every day".  Caprice (or rather Summer 2013, Short Version) might be thought of as the time-lapse version of the longer piece.  Soundwise, they are scored for electric violin, electric cello and piano.

 Click here to hear Caprice (Summer 2013 short version) by David Ocker - © 2013 David Ocker, 884 seconds

If Internet search sites are to be believed, the term caprice is associated mostly with either a supermodel or a Chevrolet model.  Both, I dare say, have prominent headlights.

The picture of the college age Witold Lutosławski came from the University of Warsaw website.  He wrote his variations in the early nineteen forties when he might have looked something like this picture.

Caprice Tags: . . . . . .