Friday, September 25, 2015

Timeless Music

Dear Readers - this post, Timeless Music, was written sometime in the autumn of 2009.  I suppose that I was not quite finished and intended to make changes or add further thoughts.  In the six intervening years I've apparently forgotten what those changes or additional ideas were going to be.

What follows is, word for word, exactly the way I abandoned this article back then - although I've updated links and added the pictures.  Only the last picture is relevant to the subject matter while the others are from a series called Half Grassed.  I'm sad that the argumentative and occasionally bigoted comments on the LA Times story Loving Wagner Anyway don't seem to be available anymore.  At the end there's something I labeled "Footnote".  I'm guessing that was a sidetrack I'd cut out of the essay but hadn't yet gathered enough courage to delete.

In honor of Mixed Meters' Tenth Anniversary which was on September 16, I'm rescuing this and a couple other pieces from obscurity.  While I doubt they will get much attention on the Internet, they certainly will get more than they do in my draft folder.

Six years is the briefest of instants in the realm of the timeless.  This subject matter still seems relevant to me at the moment thanks to the Los Angeles Philharmonic's current Immortal Beethoven promotion.  Go ahead, call him immortal, I don't much care anymore.  Back in 2009 I cared a lot; that was a Wagner thing.

As always, many thanks for reading Mixed Meters - or at least for skimming through quickly.


How long is "timeless"?

Timeless could mean existing, without change, from the very creation of the universe (whenever that was) until the very end (if it happens). Actually, something that lasts longer than the universe would be truly timeless. Not a useful definition.

How about a geologic timescale? Could Mount Everest be considered timeless? Or, closer to home, the San Andreas Fault? Both features might last only tens of millions of years.

Billions of Years or Millions of Years? I can't grasp much difference. Both are incomprehensible. Understanding a millennium - a mere thousand years - is daunting by itself. And I've lived in two of them.

I'm bothering you with this silly bullshit because the phrase "timeless music" pushes my buttons. I've run across it several times lately in various forms. Anyone can claim that certain music is timeless because choosing which music is timeless is a personal decision. Timeless implies that anyone, in any decade, any century, any millennium, will find the music meaningful. A genuinely timeless work ought to remain so regardless of changes in culture, economics or politics. It's a tall order.

Mostly I hear the phrase used about so-called Classical Music, a term less than 2 centuries old. (Centuries!) Some people claim their favorite, most comfortable, friendly and meaningful Classical music is timeless. They assume others will agree thoughtlessly.

People with similar musical tastes, possibly the result of similar musical education, tend to gather together and agree about which music they think is timeless. That's great. But when they start suggesting that their music will bring personal, civic or cultural improvement to outsiders, I become upset. Such proselytizing does nothing good for the world of classical music.

I ran across a button-pushing use of the phrase "timeless music" recently in a Los Angeles Times letter to the editor. Someone named Mark A. Overturf wrote a response to this editorial about elitism, ethnicity, race and Gustavo Dudamel:

Or why not stop reading race into something as beautiful as classical music? Try going to a concert some night and listening to a world-class orchestra in a world-class venue performing timeless music -- hence the name "classical."
If the author is suggesting that it doesn't matter whether or not Beethoven was black, I'm in full agreement.

I suspect Mr. Overturf is really saying that matters of social class distinction will be more easily overcome if people would only listen "to a world-class orchestra in a world-class venue". His utopian ecstasy is available to anyone if they only have ears to hear. Certainly has a religious ring to it. Religion is an important element of timelessness.

Here's something I wrote in an online discussion about another L.A. Times article. I was responding to a writer named MarK who called Wagner's operas "timeless and universal". (I can't deal with "universal" right now. Please wait for the next rant.) I wrote:

Timeless? How can an opera that was barely begun 150 years ago be considered timeless today? Religions which are millennia old with billions of adherents might, just barely, be considered timeless. But the Ring could completely disappear from the culture in another century.
Needless to say, MarK was not swayed by my argument. (If you read "Loving Wagner Anyway" by Mark Swed, be sure to read all the comments. One rarely encounters such blatant old-fashioned, dare I say timeless, anti-semitism.)

Anyway, in that quote I was trying to compare the relative time spans of a much beloved religion (such as Christianity, now two millennia old and counting) to that of a much beloved classical composer (Richard Wagner - less than two centuries and counting).

Does 2000 years qualify Christianity as "timeless"? It might. Will Christianity still exist in any recognizable form in another 2000? Will any of the basic principles remain unchanged? Possible. But without an argument based on faith no one can be certain.

Similarly, can anyone say that Wagner (or Beethoven or Bach) will still be revered or performed or even remembered after 20 centuries? To suggest such a thing requires a good deal of that pure simple faith.

Personally, I wonder if the talents needed to perform 21st century classical music will even be taught in the year 4000? I suppose that aspiring musicians then, just as now, will want to study what they need in order to get work. Will they have violins to play? Will people listen to mp3 files? Will the army of musicologists have grown enough to determine definitively if Wagner was an anti-semite?

Back here in the present, musical timelessness appears - hardly noticed - in curious corners, often part of a marketing campaign. I guess timelessness sells music with a familiar notion: "this music is good for you."

For example, I received a print brochure for the upcoming season of Los Angeles' own Monday Evening Concerts. It includes this anonymous audience member's quote:

It was really something that could not be described. And for me it verged on a religious experience.
There's no indication what indescribed music is being discussed. But apparently suggesting that an epiphany might be had by buying tickets is good marketing.

Recently I noticed the concept of timeless music at Starbucks. Starbucks once fancied itself a music store but today hawks only a few CDs. Right now they're selling albums by those immortal artists Barbra Streisand and Michael Buble displayed under a placard reading:

Music made to stand the test of time.
I wonder if "standing the test of time" is the first step canonizing "timeless music"? Will MarK or Mr. Overturf agree that Michael Buble might someday become "timeless". (I'm pretty sure they won't.)

I wish the idea of "timeless music" didn't bother me. It does because I am someone who searches for novelty in music. Novelty is getting harder and harder to find. These days I rarely hear anything new that does not remind me of something I've heard before.

There are a few pieces I enjoy hearing repeatedly. I would never suggest that others will react the same way. Certainly my all-too-unique listening habits plus my unusual educational and career background color my opinions about what music is good and which isn't.

I also wish that promoting music with religious overtones didn't bother me. I believe everyone should belive what they want - and everyone else should leave them alone.

Sometimes it is suggested that certain composers are inspired by God. In reality, composers are insecure, neurotic people, working under a deadline, trying to guarantee that each new piece sucks less than the previous one. God has nothing to do with it.

As my friend Armen said once: "I don't believe in Beethoven because there is a God. I believe in God because there is Beethoven." That's his choice, of course - and, because he has flipped the normal cause and effect, I find it a beautiful sentiment. Would that more of the classical music audience thought along these lines.

Personally I believe that the meaning of classical music comes not from the composer but, instead, from each individual listener. Through a process of consensus, so-called timeless music has achieved a kind of default meaning over the years. Eventually people begin to mistake the origins of that default consensus. They imagine it comes from out there, somewhere. In reality its real source is deep within each of them.

I believe that the consensus about classical music needs to be challenged. I hope what we have now is not permanent. I hope new meanings will be found for old pieces. I hope new pieces will find new meanings as well. I hope more of the audience will think independently. I hope fewer people will suggest that their favorite music is timeless. I hope they spend their time enjoying it and being moved by it right now.

I hope for utopia.


Only old pieces, the ones heard over and over again, become timeless. New pieces are never timeless. ("Never timeless" is quite a concept.) New pieces must be vetted over time to achieve their certification.

Long unchanging drone pieces might seem timeless - but the mere act of lasting a long time is not what is being discussed here. In today's musical climate a piece might last six hundred or a thousand years without the slightest claim to being timeless. There's even a Timeless Music Festival.

Often "timeless" music is actually "timely", meaning it is still relevant in society. Beethoven's Ninth is timely because there are those who need to hear the message of universal brotherhood. Suppose humans actually survive until an age of universal brotherhood. Will anyone have reason to bother with the Ninth again?

Of course, the meaning people find in the Ninth is largely based on its text. Maybe it's Schiller who is actually timeless, not Beethoven.

The one creative artist closest to achieving timeless status is Shakespeare. His plays have the advantage over abstract music because words have more specific meanings than notes. To my knowledge, no one ever suggests that watching Shakespeare can solve the world's ills. I suppose there are people who attend theater with the same fervor of the Bayreuth audience. People seem to need to believe.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Finale - Summer 2014 (short version)

(If you'd rather just listen to Finale, click here.)

Sometimes I have to wait for the forgetting before I consider a work to be finished.  It took almost one year for Summer 2014 from my The Seasons to be sufficiently forgotten.  I no longer remember precisely why I was unhappy with it.

When I finished composing it on September 22, 2014, I decided it needed revisions.  I listened to it every few months.  I was less unhappy with it each time.  Eventually I realized I no longer wanted it hanging over my head.  After a while it seemed okay, I guess.  Good enough.  It is what it is.  No worse than my other music.  Better than some.

So this summer (the one in 2015) I mixed the tracks and produced an audio file.   Now it's available online and you can listen to it and I can attempt to forget it again.

The conceit of composing The Seasons is that I write a little bit of music for each day of the calendar.  I try to actually write one every day.  The mistake I made with this piece, I think, is that I had too many ideas upfront about what I would compose.

This daily composing scheme seems to produce better results if I just make sure each segment flows out of the previous day.  Occasionally I check to make sure each week hangs together.  When I try to make grand overall form or concept ahead of time, the way I was taught back when I studied composition, trouble ensues.  I'm not that kind of composer.

The grand form I imagined this time was a finale to a five-movement romantic symphony.  Mahler's Seventh would be a good example.  Mind you, I would not be writing grand romantic five-movement symphonic music.  Instead I would merely hint at the overall form of a five-movement symphony.   Each movement would be one season.  I would call it The Five Seasons - going Vivaldi one better.  I'm still going to call it that.

The five movements, composed in consecutive seasons, are:
  1. Caprice (Summer 2013, short version)  (June 20, 2013 through September 21, 2013)
  2. Nocturne (Autumn 2013, short version)  (September 22, 2013 through December 20, 2013)
  3. Allegro (Winter 2013, short version)  (December 21, 2013 through March 19, 2014)
  4. Minuet (Spring 2014, short version)  (March 20, 2014 through June 20, 2014)
  5. Finale (Summer 2014, short version)  (June 21, 2014 through September 22, 2014)
As you can see everything was composed consecutively.  The final result allows you to listen to 15 months of my musical ideas in order.  They come and go, ebb and flow, wax and wane.

I hatched this plan about the time Minuet completed.  At that point, early June 2014, I envisioned the last season/movement would be a loud bang-up conclusion.  I had already given the four seasons single word musical terms as titles so the name Finale sprang easily to mind.  I set out to write music which rushed headlong to an obvious, inescapable and completely blatant final chord.  I wanted an ending no one could miss.

Yeah, it does that.

Yeah, there's more.

I decided the music would be based on a fragment from the Egmont Overture by Ludwig van Beethoven.  In the five movement form this would balance the first movement written in Summer of 2013.  I called that one Caprice because it is based on the 24th Caprice by Nicolo Paganini.  Formal structure, huh?

The Beethoven and Paganini pieces were written at approximately the same time (roughly 200 years ago) and both inspired compositional ideas in the student me decades ago.  It has taken me more than 40 years to get around to using these ideas.  I'm old now and I'm allowed to dig around in my past without good reason.  I must have had lots of other ideas back then as well.  These two were never forgotten.

I remember that the Beethoven idea happened in a momentary flash the very first time I heard the Egmont Overture.  I was in college, studying classical music and hearing recordings of famous repertoire for the first time.  It happened at a specific point in the music, let's call it the "inspirational moment", not too far from the end, at bar 309 to be precise.

First you hear this theme (measure 307-8):
Then, immediately, this happens:

This was not at all what I was expecting.  I was really surprised.  "Whoa," I thought, "how did Beethoven think of THAT?"   It happens so fast there wasn't enough time to wonder exactly what I did expect.

I began to ponder Beethoven's brain. (Here's a picture of what might be Beethoven's skull.)

Specifically I pondered how he got from the first idea to the second.  I decided it might be interesting to explore that briefest of moments.  Essentially I was interested in what happens exactly at the barline between measure 308 and measure 309.  Barlines are silent things.  They happen between sounds.

I decided to use this mere instant, the "inspirational moment", to generate a piece of my own.  It wasn't the themes that interested me.  I was interested in those mere milliseconds of time during which the idea seems to be created.

I have no idea how, in reality, Beethoven came to juxtapose those particular musical ideas.  Nor do I much care.  He probably worked hard at it.  If you're interested I suggest you ask your Doctor of Musicology.

Initially I imagined a minimalist process piece, beginning with the eight-note theme repeating over and over.  And over.  Repeating things over and over was a radical idea back then.  Slowly and imperceptibly the music would evolve into the second theme.  Somehow my music might reveal Beethoven's thought process.

Had I actually accomplished this, the piece could have been inserted directly into Ludwig's original overture right at the "inspirational moment".  Beethoven time would suddenly stop and the listener would be hurled deeply into the workings of my brain.   Eventually things would return to the Beethoven brain exactly at the same point where I took over.  Egmont Overture would then continue as if nothing unusual had ever happened.

Does this remind you of every movie about a time machine ever?  (This is Beethoven's death mask.)

I never pursued the idea.  Decades passed.  However, each time I heard the Egmont Overture I remembered my unfinished idea.  There could be no forgetting because Egmont is a stirring, heroic concert opener and it gets programmed.  Apparently classical concerts need stirring, heroic concert openers.

Finally on or about Saturday, June 21, 2014, the date I began Summer 2014 from The Seasons, I decided it was high time to try putting paid to this idea once and for all.  I began to incorporate the eight-note theme into the daily fragments.

And of course, the final result of Finale (Summer 2014 short version) bears only a small resemblance to what my imagination was predicting on June 21, 2014.  Finale does end definitively.  I got that right.  There is a lot of Beethoven worked into it.  I got that right as well.  Even the "inspirational moment" happens in my piece just as it does in Beethoven's.

And, as you remember from the beginning of this post, I was never happy with the result.  It's different than whatever it was I had set out to write.  Oh well, it is what it is.  No worse than my other music.  Better than some.

Finale is completely, totally different than the original idea I imagined as a student.  I have not put paid to that idea.  In reality I doubt I could have made an interesting piece, either back then or right now.  I wonder if anyone could, especially without being totally pedantic and boring.

Unfortunately I have made forgetting my idea more unlikely than ever.  I will remember it because now there are two pieces, one by Beethoven and one of mine, that will remind me of how I failed to follow through.

click here to hear Finale (Summer 2014, short version) by David Ocker - © 2015 David Ocker, 720 seconds

You might be interested in the long version (fragments with silences) of Summer 2014 (4106 sec.):    [listen]   [read]

In a hurry: listen to Garbage Days of Summer 2014 (133 sec.):  [listen]  [read]

Here's another piece of mine that required two years of forgetting.

Here are all Mixed Meters posts about poor old Ludwig van Beethoven.

Here's a video of facial reconstruction of Beethoven's face based on his death mask (shown above).

If you must know, the "inspirational moment" in Finale happens at 8'19".  And if you insist on skipping ahead and listening to only that one spot, please do me this favor: leave a comment saying how much you enjoyed the entire piece, even though you only listened to a few seconds.  Just lie about it.  That seems fair.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

In which Mixed Meters Turns Ten

September 16, 2005, was the day I started Mixed Meters.   Ten years have gone by and I'm still writing this blog.  No, this will not be a navel-gazing, soul-searching post in which I ask myself 'Why the hell am I still doing it?'.  Suffice it to say I the hell am still doing it and I doubt I'll stop soon.  Best not to wonder why and just go with the inertia.

Sixteenth of September, it turns out, is the name of a 1956 painting by RenĂ© Magritte.  I'll let you figure out what the title means.  Here is the painting:

I did the first Mixed Meters' anniversary post at the five year mark.  Back then I added a picture of me on the my fifth birthday.  Here's a picture of 10-year-old me with my birthday cake.  I know it was my birthday cake because the cake says "Happy Birthday David".

These days I don't remember anything about the occasion.   There's no one around for me to ask.   I'm pretty sure this cake picture was not taken on my birthdate because I found another picture of a baseball game with the exact date of my birthday written on it.  It was my Mother's handwriting. 

I remember going to the game in Kansas City. The Internet tells me all the stats: the A's lost to the Boston Red Sox.  I remember the several hundred mile trip on the train.  The train ride has stayed in my memory for over 50 years.  I don't remember the game itself.  Not one bit of it.  Nor do I remember that this happened exactly on my tenth birthday.

Here's some trivia: I don't like baseball and I've always hated birthdays.

Anyway, ever since MM's Fifth Anniversary, I've posted something self-absorbed about Mixed Meters on or near September 16.  Here are the posts:

In which Mixed Meters Turns Five - besides seeing me at 5 years old, you can read the email I sent to my friends when Mixed Meters was a month old.  And there's an annotated graph showing the ups and downs of five years of hit counts.  Here's a quote:
Sometimes I claim that Mixed Meters has only three readers. That's supposed to be a small joke.
A Thousand and One Redheaders -  in honor of the sixth anniversary Redheaders, the random tag lines at the top of every MM page, are explained.  I add more every anniversary.  There are now almost 1400 of them.  Here's a quote:
TagLine[9] = "Mixed Meters - Similar to the intersection of two country roads."
In which Mixed Meters Survives Seven Years - a description of the silly categories I put my music into: 30 Second Spots, 10 Minute Breaks, etc.  And, in a chart, I reveal how many seconds of music I had uploaded for your listening pleasure until that point.  A lot.  Here's a quote:
Do you wonder how long 55,393 seconds is in hours and minutes? Well, go ahead, do the math.
Mixed Meters Is Eight Years Old - without a doubt, my most self-absorbed post ever.  This is where I wondered why I bother blogging.  I discuss expectations, free time, the Four Ws, Garbage Day Periodicity and bucket lists.  There's a whole slough of my pen and ink doodles for you to identify.  Here's a quote:
During my lifetime the U.S. has invented the Tea Party, fracking, Miley Cyrus, megachurches, Shock and Awe, Dick Cheney, Walmart, the NRA, the rapture, Real Housewives, Three Strikes laws, Grand Theft Auto and mass murder in schools - to name just a very few things I would gladly live without.
Nine Years of Blogging - this was MM's 700th post.  I talk about birds, particularly a hummingbird named Red Thor and a nameless crow.  There's a silly moral at the end, it's photography advice.  Here's a quote:
Leslie saw me working on this post and asked "How long have you been married to your blog?
Here's another picture - me again still age ten, about to blow out the candles.  On the left is my Aunt Kate and on the right my Uncle Ben.  We still own the coffee table on which the cake is sitting.

So, that's the past.  And I hear you ask "What about Mixed Meters' future?"  I've hatched a plan for the next four posts.

You see, I have a small backlog.  There are three long essays and one piece of music which I never finished to my own satisfaction.  I never posted them.  These have been languishing in the "I'll get to that someday" pile.  I've decided that it would be a suitable Mixed Meters Tenth Anniversary Celebration to just post them as they are.  This will get rid of them and allow me to stop beating myself up for not finishing them.  Life is too short to have a "I'll get to that someday" pile.

The upcoming posts are:

Timeless Music (written circa October 2009)- I explore the notion of calling music "timeless".  I suggest religions exist for that purpose.  I mention famous musicians like Richard Wagner and Michael Buble.  Here's a quote:
Anyone can claim that certain music is timeless because choosing which music is timeless is a personal decision. Timeless implies that anyone, in any decade, any century, any millennium, will find the music meaningful. A genuinely timeless work ought to remain so regardless of changes in culture, economics or politics. It's a tall order.
Two LA Philharmonic Festivals of California Music (written circa January 2010) -  in late 2009 the LA Phil did a festival featuring California composers.  In this post I compare that festival to their previous festival devoted to California composers, way back in 1981.  So this is like a review of concerts 28 years apart.   Here's a quote:
Serious music in California desperately needs some sense of place.  My problem with these two Philharmonic festivals has nothing to do with the content chosen for them.  The differences between them no doubt reflect the differences of the times.  The big issue, however, is the length of time separating the two.
The Ring of Klinghoffer (written circa September 2014) - last year the Metropolitan Opera performed John Adams' opera "The Death of Klinghoffer".  There was a public brouhaha about it.  I tried to write a think piece based on the facts behind the opera.  Did you realize there were actually two murders and two hijackings?  I realized that one opera was not nearly enough to cover the subject matter and I started to outline plots for four operas which I proposed calling "The Ring of Klinghoffer".  I completely floundered on this task.  This is the longest and least finished article in this series.  Here's a quote:
Whatever meaning the life and death of Leon Klinghoffer could have had (should have had) for us has been buried by a war, more terrorism, several more wars and endless political and prejudicial propaganda.  Those things are all too real and all too deplorable and all too inevitable.  This can be an awful world.  No part of this story makes anything better.  Only worse.
Finale - Summer 2014 (short version) (composed in Summer of 2014) - this is not unfinished writing.  Instead it is unfinished music.  My series The Seasons in supposed to have one piece for each season on the calendar as the years pass inexorably.  I was never happy with how the music I composed in the Summer of 2014 turned out.  Time heals all ills, right?  Or some of them.  Here's a quote:
It took me more than 40 years to get around to using these ideas.  I'm old now and I'm allowed to dig around in my past without good reason.  I must have had lots of other ideas back then as well.  These two, for some reason, were never forgotten.
It's funny what gets forgotten and what doesn't, isn't it?

Here's another picture of ten-year old me, possibly taken on another night in another place, although I'm wearing the same outfit.  I think the little girl is my cousin Judy; she would have been about two.  The television is a Motorola.  Made in America.

If you've read this far you can congratulate yourself.  You've survived another Mixed Meters Anniversary post.  Expect me to pull out all the stops for the next major MM celebration, the Mixed Meters Centenary on September 16, 2105.  See you then.

René Magritte figured in this Mixed Meters post about rocks.
Here's a post about Ronald Reagan and my Mother.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Garbage Days of Summer 2014

Summer 2014, the heretofore long-lost season in my series The Seasons, is slowly clawing its way into the light of day.

Each Season now has three versions:
  • the Long Version - mostly silence interrupted by short bits of music.  I posted Summer 2014 last month.  Read about it here.
  • the Short Version - same as the long version but without all the silence.  The short version of Summer 2014 is still to come.  It will be entitled Finale.
  • the Garbage Day version - just the music composed on Mondays.  Monday is the day I take out the trash.  You can listen to Garbage Days of Summer 2014 right now.
I'm safe in saying that most composers would not choose garbage as a metaphor for their music.  I however find it an exceptionally pointed image of passing time.  It's a comfort knowing I'm still able to dispose of stuff each week.  Trouble will ensue when I lose that ability.

And waste can be useful too.  Think about those coprolites that help paleontologists determine what dinosaurs ate.   No one picked up the dinosaur's droppings for them.  Here in Pasadena, however, three huge dino-sized mechanical monsters pick up our trash every Tuesday.  They whisk it away somewhere.  As an article of faith I believe they're using it for good.  Hard to know for sure.

click here to hear Garbage Days of Summer 2014 by David Ocker - © 2015 by David Ocker, 133 seconds.

Previous Garbage Days of . .
Garbage Days of Spring 2015
Garbage Days of Winter 2014

A Mixed Meters posts from 2008:
You Can Pet Dinosaurs