Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Stravinsky: On the Cover, Computerized and Out to Stud

Stravinsky: On the Cover
Skip to Stravinsky: Computerized
Skip to Stravinsky: Out to Stud

I ran across a Time Magazine cover from July 26, 1948 featuring Igor Stravinsky.

Time Magazine with Igor Stravinsky on the cover

It shows Igor's disembodied head and neck over a piano keyboard with a firebird whose body seems to have holes like a flute.  There's also a bear and a clown.  I wonder if his face increased news stand sales.

You can read the entire Stravinsky cover story at Time Magazine's Archive.  Here are some random quotes:
After the Rite of Spring: If Stravinsky had never put another eighth note on paper, he would still have been a greater innovator than Jean Sibelius, now 82, and Richard Strauss, 84, both of whom barely got into the century musically.
In the years since The Rite, Stravinsky has turned out some 60 works . . . All are as precisely and beautifully made as a fine watch—and, say his critics, most are about as emotional.
A U.S. citizen since 1945, he likes to be known as a "California composer."
He usually eats breakfast on the sunny red-tiled loggia, practically naked ("not just in shorts, but often just wearing a handkerchief or something," says Vera).
Here's another story about near nudity at a composer's home told by Steve Martin.

Apparently Time Magazine hasn't put a composer on its cover for over twenty years.  But at one time composers appeared with some regularity.   Here's the list, as best I could discover from their archives, of Time's cover composers (and a few conductors) plus the year of their non-covert appearance.
  • Fritz Kreisler (1925)
  • George Gershwin (1925)
  • Pietro Mascagni (1926)
  • Richard Strauss (1927)
  • Leopold Stokowski (1930)
  • Joseph Deems Taylor (1931)
  • Noel Coward (1933)
  • George M. Cohan (1933)
  • Irving Berlin (1934)
  • Jean Sibelius (1937)
  • Richard Strauss (1938)
  • Rogers and Hart (1938)
  • Ignace Paderewski (1939)
  • Sergei Prokofiev (1945)
  • Oscar Hammerstein II (1947)
  • Benjamin Britten (1948)
  • Igor Stravinsky (1948)
  • Cole Porter (1949)
  • Gian-Carlo Menotti (1950)
  • David (sic) Brubeck (1954)
  • Leonard Bernstein (1957)
  • Lerner & Loewe (1960)
  • J.S. Bach (1968)
  • Mistislav Rostropovich (1977)
  • Andrew Lloyd Webber (1988)
    Richard Strauss twice?  He really rated, huh?

    Stravinsky: Computerized

    Someone named Jay Bacal has realized Stravinky's The Rite of Spring on a computer.  The project was designed to show off a $12,460 collection of nearly 800,000 sampled sounds called the Vienna Symphonic Library. (Go ahead, buy your own copy of the library here.  Everyone should have one.)

    This took a lot of time to create and it sounds remarkably good - good enough that you can listen to it and think about how Stravinsky's music is being interpreted rather than to the limitations of the computer.   If you crank the volume and listen critically you'll notice giveaways - like moments when the horns in the high register sound just like a pipe organ.  Most people will have no trouble suspending their disbelief.  Orchestra purists and players will feel threatened.  To them I say "Welcome to the club."

    Visit this page at the Vienna website to hear for yourself.  You can stream the piece or choose mp3 or 24-bit wav file formats to download.  Also available are the midi files themselves.

    OR better yet, here's a YouTube video showing the first 8 minutes scrolling by on a computer screen. Three other sections are on YouTube somewhere.

    Via a link from that VSL page, Jay Bacal describes his working method. One paragraph jumped out at me because it coincides exactly with my experiences composing on a computer.
    The final challenge for me in the process was deciding when the project was officially done. Every time I listened to my performance, something seemed too fast or too loud, or too wet or too mechanical. The finish line kept moving into the future. But eventually I just had to force myself to say – it’s done.
    This is absolutely an issue for anyone creating music on a computer.  By "creating music" I don't mean composing music which will be performed later by live musicians.  I do mean a process where the final result is a sound file output from the computer, ready for listening.   No live musicians - or live anything - is involved.

    Every detail of such a file is there in the computer ready to be changed - and I do mean EVERY detail.  After each change, no matter how small, further listening in context is required to determine if that change is really helpful.  The smallest changes have an annoying habit of jumping out of the mix and distracting a listener.  Eons can be wasted obsessing over small things which no one will ever notice.

    There's a big difference between recreating a familiar piece and creating an entirely new one.  Bacal had Stravinsky's score and innumerable recordings of the The Rite for reference.  Even from within the deep dark forest of multi-faceted sound (Is it too fast? Too loud? Too wet? Too salty?) he didn't have to worry about whether the Rite of Spring would sound better if the melodies or harmonies or rhythms were altered (Is it too long?  Too short? Too complex?  Too ugly?).  

    And Bacal certainly didn't have to think about formal structure.  Stravinsky did that already; everyone agrees Rite of Spring is a good piece the way it is.  Not to say someone couldn't remix it - alter the music itself, reshuffle the sections, etc - to produce an even better piece.  Maybe I should take Bacal's midi file and run it through Sibelius' random pitch generator.  Hmmm?  Cool.

    I wonder why so much energy of the marketplace goes into using our vast computer capabilities to reproduce the sound of a symphony orchestra.  Orchestras still exist even if their audiences aren't much interested in new things.  Once composers pay for the entire 800,000 samples plus the equipment to use them and spend months on a short piece of music, are they saving any money over hiring an orchestra to record the music?  If it's just a background score for a TV show or cheap movie, will anyone notice the difference?

    Someday, I hope, virtual orchestras will be geared not so much towards recreating but instead towards fostering new things which can't exist anywhere else.  Wendy Carlos' Switched-On recordings seem technically antiquarian by today's standards but they did actually suggest new ways of thinking about Baroque music.  That's a lot more than Jay Bacal has done for Stravinsky.  Can we please stop asking ourselves if computer generated audio sounds like real performance and instead start figuring out what nifty new stuff this musical instrument can do? 

    Thanks to John Steinmetz for alerting me to this recording. You probably won't have enough time to read an early MM post about listening to The Rite of Spring while driving.  Or this other MM post about the ecstasy of hearing Esa-Pekka Salonen lead the LA Phil in The Rite of Spring in Disney's hall (plus pictures of dinosaurs from Disney's movies).

    Stravinsky: Out To Stud

    This Stravinsky is a horse.  A race horse.  Apparently a very good race horse although he no longer races.  He's found a new line of work - he's a stud.  His owners charge $35,000 for his, um, services.  Read about Stravinsky here

    In articles about Stravinsky I noticed other musical horse names: for example Mozart and Miss Scarlatti.  And, believe it or not, a horse named DoReMiFaSaLaTiDo. Sa?

    Igor Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

    Wednesday, February 17, 2010

    A Windfall of Musicians

    Last August I wrote a little about Dorothy Crawford's very interesting book A Windfall of Musicians, Hitler's Emigres and Exiles in Southern California(Now $27.90 at Amazon.)  I was moved by her description of Arnold Schoenberg's life here in the paradise of sunny SoCal.  That post is called Schoenberg In Hell.

    A Windfall of Musicians by Dorothy Lamb Crawford

    I've long since finished the book and then her previous one, Evenings On and Off the Roof, which describes the first thirty years or so of the concert series now known to us as Monday Evening Concerts.  MEC was once widely regarded as the single most important venue for new music anywhere in the US.  The combination of some of Europe's greatest musicians with two local music enthusiasts, Peter Yates and Lawrence Morton, turned L.A. into the bloodiest cutting-edge music scene anywhere for many years.

    Of course not much is directly left of that brilliance these days, so many decades later, beyond the general notion that the best conductors and the best composers and best music all come from somewhere else.  But remembering these events should be essential to anyone currently active in new music in Los Angeles.  Her two books are important links to our past and they go a long way towards illuminating aspects of the current scene.

    Yesterday afternoon I learned by chance that Dorothy Crawford would be speaking that evening at the Los Angeles Central Library.  They have an ongoing series called [aloud] where she would be in conversation with composer William Kraft, an essential part of the Los Angeles music community since 1955.

    I made a video of the first few minutes of her talk sitting on stage with Bill.  In it she very briefly describes the history of the German artistic emigration to California - beginning immediately with the name Hitler.  She describes this as
    the largest musical migration in Western music history to one place, at one time, for one reason. 
    Then she talks about her how she chose which musicians to include and how her two books relate to one another.

    Other Mixed Meters references to William Kraft:
    His Encounters Series
    Bill Kraft's San Francisco Waltz Toon
    Pictures of his backyard

    Other Mixed Meters references to Monday Evening Concerts:
    Good Riddance to Bad Acoustics
    Mostly Californian
    The Medallion (in which I write music instead of attending an MEC concert.  Read the comments.  Then read this.)

    Windfall Tags: . . . . . . . . .

    Monday, February 15, 2010

    The Walking Fool Takes A Journey of One Thousand Miles

    I know you've heard the phrase. Someone with good intentions has probably said it to you. You might have even offered it as motivation to get a friend up and off their ass.  What advice? This:
    The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
    (Here's a Google search for the phrase. It gets almost 2 million hits.)

    Of course it's a true statement.  Trite.  A logical tautology.  The proper response when someone says it is to roll your eyes.

    But have you ever considered this question: How many more steps, after that first step, will it take for you to traverse one thousand miles? I'm here to answer that question. To learn the answer all you have to do is keep reading.

    My story begins in January 2008 when I received this free pedometer from my doctors office.

    Novo Nordisk pedometer which did work worth shit

    My doctor wanted me to walk 10,000 steps per day.  This is apparently because "they" say 10,000 steps is enough exercise to provoke weight loss and prevent disease.  The actual number was probably not selected by a double-blind research study but more because it's a round, easy-to-remember high number.  I decided to try it out.  The Novo Nordisk unit worked just as well as you might expect a free pedometer to work: Not At All.  It recorded 24 steps, then it stopped.

    But something clicked in my brain.  I thought "maybe a pedometer would spur me get more exercise".  I remembered a review I'd read in Wired Magazine about a spiffy modern high-tech pedometer made by a company called Omron - just the sort of filler article that might set a Wired editor's pulse a-racing.  Importantly, you could carry this Omron unit in a pocket or bag instead of being required to follow exacting restrictions on how to position it - like attaching it to your belt.  I ordered one.   (Buy your own at Amazon.  Right now they cost $23.08.) 

    wonderful Omron pedometer

    My Omron pedometer worked wonderfully.  Bouncing around in my pocket it still seemed to count every step.  Well, it claimed accuracy only within 5% - but that's still pretty good.

    Within a couple of weeks I had gotten into the swing of the thing.  So much walking requires a lot of energy and time.  More time if, like me, you walk to Starbucks where you sit and read for a while before walking home.  But the good news is that I have kept to my regimen ever since - well over two full years.  I've missed my goal less than one day a month.  Really.

    In the beginning it was a numbers game.  How many steps was it from here to the end of the block? (300)  How many steps to the nearest Starbucks? (1600)  If I had gone only 9999 steps at the end of the day then I had failed.  If I had 10,000 I was good.

    Gradually I noticed other, more important, reasons for my daily walk: 
    • Walking became my preferred time for listening to music on my iPod.  Of course some music is not appropriate for walking down a noisy street.  But mostly I find it easier to concentrate on music while I'm walking than at any other time, even when I'm at a concert.
    • Walking is also a good way to come across some unexpected photo opportunities that I share here or at Mixed Messages.  Very few of these opportunities have resulted in my getting sworn at by unstable individuals.  The general mental health of Pasadena is exemplary. 
    • Walking is a very meditative activity for me.  When pressed I do admit to having meditated informally for many years.  I think the mental relaxation aspect of 10,000 steps per day is what has turned my walk from mere exercise into the most important part of my day.
    wonderful Omron pedometer

    Besides reporting the total number of steps, the Omron pedometer also measures "aerobic steps".  You must walk steadily for a certain period of time (I think it's twenty minutes) before it starts counting aerobic steps.  If you stop too long you must walk for that period again before the count resumes.  This picture shows that I'd walked 8513 aerobic steps and that they took me 76 minutes.  On the same day I walked 11,826 regular steps, so about 70% of my steps were actual exercise.  Of course on other days I might go for an "amble" instead a walk - walking more slowly and stopping more.  That makes the resultant number of aerobic steps much lower.

    Another screen estimates the number of calories burned.  This number comes out dreadfully low.  I haven't lost any weight from all my walking because I still like to eat like an idiot.  But my Doctor is thrilled with my lower blood test numbers.

    Finally, the pedometer measures distance covered based on an approximation of the length of my stride.   It tells me that 10,000 steps represents over 3 miles per day.  In this picture you can see that I walked 3.71 miles (and that the picture was taken at 11:22 P.M.)

    wonderful Omron pedometer

    So now I'm ready to answer the question I posed at the beginning: How many total steps does it take to walk one thousand miles?  The answer naturally varies according how long your step is.  If you're 6'9" or 5'2 the number will be different.  But for me I need roughly three and a quarter million steps to cover a thousand miles.  This takes me a little less than one year of walking.

    Remember that figure the next time someone tells you how beginning the long journey of one thousand miles requires only a mere, simple, single step.  Pop their meddlesome balloon, they deserve it.

    It's hardest for me to do my walk on rainy days.  Fortunately we don't have many such days here in sunny SoCal.  But last week we had a corker - pouring rain with thunder and lightning.  Much to Leslie's amusement I drove several miles through the maelstrom to the Santa Anita Mall where I managed to put in all my steps.  The mall was dry and it was boring.  One round trip from Macy's to Penny's and back was only a thousand steps.  And I had to avoid all those slow moving shoppers as I zipped along.  To amuse myself I took a few pictures.  Here's one which seems like a good ending twist for this post:
    a baby cart, a man and a kangaroo at the Santa Anita mall

    An L.A. Times article about pedometer use.

    Wikipedia's Pedometer Entry

    Read about how buying an iPod at the Apple Store required fewer questions from the clerk than buying an ice coffee at Starbucks.

    Pedometer Tags: . . . . . . . . .

    Thursday, February 11, 2010

    Where's the head?

    This first picture is a well-known sculpture in downtown Los Angeles. It's called Corporate Head by Terry Allen.


    The first picture came from here.  I found the 2nd, 3rd and 4th pictures via This Isn't Happiness and the last one came from here.

    ADDENDUM: (grabbed from this YouTuba video which was previously referenced in this MM post.)

    ADDENDUM TOO: (Thanks to Mr. Fessler-Bestertester

    According to Don Martin the sound of a tuba landing on a person is "onk" but, alas, that word isn't included in the Don Martin Dictionary.

    Another MM Tuba Post.
    Reflections In A Sousaphone Picture at Mixed Messages

    April 14, 2010 - couldn't resist adding this picture which I took earlier today.

    Old Pasadena trash can is inspected by a homeless person

    Head Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . .

    Saturday, February 06, 2010

    Sergey Kuryokhin - pianist of anarchy

    Sergey Kuryokhin passed away in 1996 at the age of 42.  He was an avant-garde improvising pianist from the Soviet Union.  Apparently he did a lot of other things and was quite well known in Russia.

    Years ago I purchased Kuryokhin's solo album Some Combinations of Fingers and Passion.   Each of the four track titles begins with the word "combination"; for example A Combination of Boogie and Woogie.  The first cut, A Combination of Passion and Feelings, is my favorite.  Another cut based on the Dave Brubeck tune is called A Combination of Power and Passion (Blue Rondo a la Russ - a Tribute to Dave Brubeck).  I don't remember why I originally bought the disc but I do remember how it amazed and impressed me.  It still does.  (You can buy it online here.)

    Some Combinations of Fingers and Passion reveals an obviously classically-trained artist who is free-associating his way through the musical styles of several centuries.  He does everything with tremendous good humor, a complete lack of self importance, seemingly limitless talent and a large well-spring of pure creativity.  His styles range from Mozartian classicism through the most excessive uber-Romantic schmaltz with episodes of pop musics from different eras.  All of this is spiced with bursts of the most atonal free jazz you or Cecil Taylor could imagine.

    Sergey Kuryokhin - Some Combinations of Fingers and Passion

    There is information about him at the website of the Sergey Kuryokhin Modern Art Center in St. Petersburg.  The center organizes SKIF,  the Sergey Kuryokhin International Festival, held yearly in Kuryokhin's memory.  Here are several interesting excerpts from their biography page about Kuryokhin:
    In 1984 he formed Pop-Mechanika Orchestra - a band, a concept and a philosophy. The band, which could be anything from a modest trio to a full blown multimedia extravaganza complete with a full symphony, a brass band, a rock group, a circus, a zoo, a gypsy singer, and whatever else his fantasy could bring up at the moment, subsequently toured most of the world.
    Pop Mechanics was probably perestroika’s most exotic fruit, a big band melding all the typical cliches from dozens of musical styles – industrial music, free jazz, hard rock, operettas, contemporary music, King Crimson, Glenn Branca’s massed guitars and so on and on – into a sometimes sloppy, sometimes feverishly driving pileup. The “pre-Leningrad Cowboys” visuals were an inseparable ingredient part of the concept. They included live goats, pigs, tigers, chicken, dogs, donkeys, monkeys, snakes and ponies onstage, surrealist dresses, and when Pop Mechanics was on its peak in the late 80’s Kuryokhin managed to have a folk ensemble, a KGB employees’ choir, a classic chamber orchestra and an army truck performing simultaneously in addition to the big band itself.
    "We hadn’t even properly heard the music [from the  west], only read about it. For us Western industrial music, Einsturzende Neubauten and all the rest were like a myth, just the same way that it was a truly mythical event when John Cage came to meet us in Leningrad in 1988. Cage’s thinking had influenced very much the concept of Pop Mechanics, especially his idea of all sounds having equal right to exist. Thus we always wanted to have both human and animal sounds in the live show”, [Pop Mechanics' member Sergei "Afrika"] Bugaev says now.
    Sergey Kuryokhin at two pianos - The Ways of Freedom

    Of the discs I own, besides the ones for solo piano, there are performances by Kuryokhin with small groups and with big bands.  One strange disc (I think it's called Introduction in Pop Mechanics; it's number 3 from the four-disc set Divine Madness for which Leo Records annoyingly does not provide a downloadable program booklet) is apparently played with one hand on an organ and the other hand on a sampler keyboard.  It goes for over an hour with only one short contrasting section in the middle.  In other words, the sudden twists and surprising turns which I like so much are not there.

    He did a lot of different things - I said that before.  YouTube might be the best place to get an overview: you can search for Курехин on You Tube.   You'll find many interviews in Russian plus clips of movies for which he wrote the music.  A BBC documentary about Pop Mechanica's trip to Liverpool in 1989 (it's in English; Part One and Part Two) really gives the over-the-top kitchen-sink anything and everything feel of his performances.  I particularly like the scene where Kuryokhin is singing into a microphone while being beaten about the head and neck with bouquets of flowers.

    Contemplating these mad anarchic happenings in small doses from a distance is refreshing, especially since anarchy is so very out of favor in American music lately.  I doubt I'd care to attend a Pop Mechanica extravaganza or any sort of happening at all these days, but, hey, what's wrong with watching a little anarchy, I always say.  Back when happenings were happening in the U.S. their creators weren't known for extreme musical stylistic variety in the way Kuryokhin seems to have embraced so naturally.  Try searching Google for the phrase "David Tudor plays jazz".

    The craziness aside, it is specifically Kuryokhin's solo piano playing which I find inspiring.  Without that, there would be no point in my writing this article.  Alas, there seems to be very little of his solo work available on YouTube.   Here's a YouTube video from the solo piano album The Ways of Freedom, a cut called The Wall Kuryokhin:

    The picture above of him playing two grand pianos is from the same album.  On the record jacket it says:

    Leo Records is grateful to all those people who had the courage to smuggle out the tape from behind the Iron Curtain.
    Some of the playing has a Conlon Nancarrow-ish feel.  Kuryokhin plays blindingly fast on a tinny sounding instrument - or maybe the tape speed has been messed with.

    His solo playing also attracts me because it is so completely unaffected by the "jazz swing" pandemic from which improvised music often suffers.  These days, in certain types of music, swing feel is omnipresent, like it was handed down from God.  Modern jazz seems hopelessly addicted to it.  I'm often annoyed when players can't turn it off.   Kuryokhin almost never turns it on - although other players on his albums do.

    Sergey Kuryokhin - Absolutely Great!

    The seven-disc album Absolutely Great! is fascinating, full of wonderful music.  There are three complete concerts recorded in 1988 in Northern California.  Each concert is on two discs; the first of each pair is mostly Kuryokhin playing alone and the second disc is ensemble music.  (The last disc is a less thrilling commercial release by Kuryokhin and Henry Kaiser.)

    Kuryokhin's solo playing surprises and delights me.  It leaves a very positive feeling.  Of course, as with any improvisations, quality varies; you take each moment as it comes.  Inevitably, some moments are better than others. I like the mix of strangeness and vituosity.  To say that his music is from another country doesn't begin to describe it.  Rather it seems to me like it comes from a different planet.

    I've added the album Some Combinations of Fingers and Passion to David's Favorite Music which you can find in the left side-column of Mixed Meters.  It's my woefully incomplete list of things I like to listen to a lot.

    I don't add music to that list because I think other people will necessarily like it or because I think it will endure through the years.  There are other blogs chasing that fool's errand.  The reason I put music on my favorites list is because it inspires me to create my own music.  That is the highest tribute I can imagine offering to another musician.

    Other Mixed Meters' writings touching on improvised music:
    Art Tatum Plays Live - June 2008
    Mingus Epitaph (if only to see a picture of W playing a guitar)
    The Golia LaBerge Ocker Trio
    A New Rhapsody in Blue (Marcus Roberts)
    A Tradition of Experiment in Los Angeles which comes complete with a collection of reviews, programs and fliers from the late eighties and early nineties.  Get it in pdf or text.

    Sergey Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

    Monday, February 01, 2010

    Lady Gaga's Bird

    Andrew Durkin wrote this article, Coo Coo For Gaga, about pop diva Lady Gaga on his blog Jazz, the Music of Unemployment.

    I realize that the minutes I spent reading his article and watching the embedded video is time I will never get back. To me, the music seems comprised of very standard pop words, pop chords and pop melody dressed up with things very sexy and very glamourous and very flashy, making it irresistable in our culture.   Desire and danger combined sell well these days.

    I was impressed when the Lady held her arm aloft for a period of time with her second finger extended. Yes, she was proudly flipping the bird to a stadium full of adoring fans. Has the meaning of flipping the bird somehow changed since I grew up? Naturally there's a Wikipedia entry about Finger Gestures.  (All the really important stuff is in Wikipedia.)

    I screen captured one of the frames of her salute and edited it using my new photo editor software The Gimp. I've been using Gimp only a couple weeks and this was my first attempt at removing a dark background so I could replace it (in this case with blue sky.)  This process took much longer than reading Andrew's post and watching the video.  The difference is that I don't regret spending the Gimp time because I learned something useful about this excellent free program.

    Here's the picture:

    Lady Gaga flips the bird

    It comes from this video at about 3 minutes 56 seconds. 

    Arm Hair Tags: . . . . . .