Monday, May 31, 2010

Nineteen Years and a Couple of Months

Today is Memorial Day, in which we remember those who have died in wartime.

I took this picture in South Pasadena. There are plaques for servicemen who died in Vietnam just off Fair Oaks Boulevard in War Memorial Park. Terry Brooks Dyer appeared to be the youngest of a small handful.


This man was less than one year older than I.  He was killed less than one year after he would have graduated high school.   Of course I didn't know him, but seeing this memorial to him made me very sad.   War is followed by lifetimes of might-have-beens.

Someone needs to remind me why we fought in Vietnam.   Would anything today be different if we had won?

Memorial Tags: . . . . . .

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Listen to Wagner's Entire Ring Cycle in One Second

Today is the first performance of L.A. Opera's complete production of Richard Wagner's endless four-opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelung.

Yesterday L.A. Opera announced that ticket sales for the Ring cycles are not meeting expectations. Their overall budget is falling another million dollars short.  Maybe a million and a half.  Their excuses include the volcano in Iceland.  Personally I think the Gods must be angry.  (Read the financial story at the L.A. Times)

The Opera is also holding Ring Festival L.A., a favorite topic at Mixed Meters. You can read about it here and here and here and here and here.  Or not.

This post is my contribution to Ring Festival L.A.  They're not likely to be thrilled.  It is inspired by the work of one California composer who, almost 50 years ago, dealt conceptually with the problem of Wagner's Ring.  I gather that his idea was never completely realized in sound. Maybe this is the first time.


BACKGROUND

From 1962 through 1966 there was a flowering of avant garde music right here in California at a place called the San Francisco Tape Music Center.   It was a labor of love by a small group of young composers who existed in the vortex of counter-culture energy and revolution which, only a few years later, would give us Flower Power, the Summer of Love and the Grateful Dead.

One of the founders of the SFTMC was Ramon Sender.  As a student I remember reading how Sender had used a tape recorder to reduce all of Wagner's Ring to four short clicks.  I assumed he would have done this by recording at a very slow speed and playing the tape back very fast.  Unfortunately, I don't remember where I read this; it was just a short reference.  Clearly the idea stuck in my brain.  (Update: See note from Sept. 2012 below.)

Recently I discovered a fascinating book called The San Francisco Tape Music Center, 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde edited by David W. Bernstein.  It includes interviews with the principals of SFTMC:  composers, performers, equipment designers, dancers and light show artists.  Here's part of the interview with Ramon Sender.  He is discussing a very early three-head Ampex tape recorder:
I discovered that there was a tension adjustment on the reels.  You could actually put it in "record" mode, not turn on the track to travel, but just put on the tension adjustment, and the tape would creep very slowly.  That was when I started doing things like putting all of a Wagner opera on an eighth of an inch of tape.  I thought, wow I could sell this to conservatory students to help them do their assignments.  You want to listen to the Ring of the Nibelung?  Here, you can do it in a quarter of a second.
Fascinating!  Of course it's not as simple as he makes it seem.    First of all, tape moving that slowly on an analog tape recorder, the equivalent of 1 inch per day, would have no usable signal recorded on it.  When playing it back there would be all noise, a signal to noise ratio of zero.

Given the limited frequency response of his equipment, Sender's comment about helping students is an obvious joke.  In my mind, however, it is an admirable goal.  The students probably didn't really want to listen to the Ring in the first place.  I say hooray for audio Cliff's notes. 

Sender is also careful to say he did this only with "a Wagner opera" not with the entire Ring.   My best guess is that reducing the Ring of the Nibelung to four clicks, as reported in that book I read, was always a concept.  Sender's conceptual piece is easy to imagine and very communicative artistically, but at that time it was probably not worth the energy to turn it into actual audio.

As you can well imagine, I really like Ramon Sender's idea of compressing the Ring until it simply evaporates into a whiff of meaningless noise.  The problem of Wagner's excessively long music is solved.


THE ENTIRE RING IN FOUR CLICKS

In the sixties creative forward-looking musicians worked with early analog tape recorders and even earlier analog synthesizers and dreamed of an entirely new type of music.  In nearly every respect the music they dreamed up was completely unlike Wagner.

They were inspired by the new electronic tools at their disposal.  Maybe in their wildest, wildest dreams they imagined analog equipment would someday be supplanted by digital devices.   Could they have imagined that digital technology would become so ubiquitous and so portable and so powerful that anyone could accomplish the most complex audio editing almost anywhere.  If they did imagine that, then they probably didn't believe they'd live to see the day.  Turns out, they did.

In 2010 speeding up the entire Ring until it becomes four quick clicks is a rather trivial exercise.  I did it - and so could you - using the free program Audacity (highly recommended).  I repeatedly doubled the speed of each opera.  Just as with an analog tape machine, each doubling halves the length of the music and doubles the frequency, raising the pitch by one octave.  After about six octaves all resemblance to the original music disappears and only noise created by the inherent limitations of the equipment remains. 

I repeated this process sixteen times.  The final length is 1/1024th of the original.  Each opera lasts about a quarter of a second.  You'll be able to hear all four clicks in one second.  Theoretically the notes are sixteen octaves higher than the original.  With perfect fidelity the lowest audible frequency would have been transformed to over a half million cycles per second.  That is in the range of AM radio.  In reality nothing of Wagner  remains.  Instead of a time-saving subliminal way listen to Wagner, this process has simply removed all the content from his music.  Another problem solved.

Click here once to hear the entire Ring cycle as four clicks.  It'll only take a second.




THE ENTIRE RING, AT PITCH, IN SEVEN MINUTES

Recreating the tricks of old analog tape equipment is far from the only use for digital audio.  You can also manipulate sounds in ways which were inconceivable with analog equipment.  For instance, with digital audio you can change the pitch of music without changing the duration.  A good example of this, from pop music, would be AutoTune.  You can also change speed without changing pitch.  Making music slower is the idea behind 9 Beet Stretch which turns a seemingly interminable piece into an unbearably interminable one.

And, by making music faster, you can compress all of Wagner's Ring into a few minutes leaving mere hints of the original content.   That's what I've done.  Naturally a tremendous amount of musical information has been lost but you can still hear Wagner in there somewhere. 

For this realization I did seven halvings of the length of the Ring, making it 1/128th the length, keeping the pitches unchanged.  The result remains well within the frequency response of modern technology.  You can identify the occasional tonality, distinguish voices and instruments, hear loud and soft sections and generally get a feel for the flow of the music.   But it remains gobbelty-gook.  No way to solve that problem.

Click here to listen to the entire Ring cycle in seven minutes.


THE PROBLEM OF WAGNER'S RING 

Wagner's Ring is not a "problem" for opera queens and ring nerds.  More power to them.  But it can be a huge issue for an avant garde composer trying to face the unknown future of music who resents being pursued from behind by the continuing popularity and influence of this massive and vicious Romantic era monster.  Not all composers acknowledge the problem; not all composers are interested in the future.  Many are happy to imitate Wagner as best they can in hopes of getting their own operas performed.  Or of getting work writing movie scores.

Actually, I suspect most composers are simply oblivious.  They don't care about Wagner at all.  Much more power to them.

I'd like to end with a quote about Wagner's excessive influence as expressed by a composer who lived much closer to Wagner's time and is now regarded as one of the all-time greatest creative musical minds.  It was a time when Wagner was at the peak of his musical importance and the problem of finding a new non-Wagnerian future was most acute. 
The thing, then, is to find what comes after Wagner's time but not after Wagner's manner. 
Claude Debussy said this in his letters.  I found it quoted in Peter Yates' 1967 book Twentieth Century Music.

=-=-=-=-

After Leslie listened to the four clicks she remarked that some people might find even this version too long.

The transformational idea behind multiple octave changes reminds me of Frank Zappa's Big Note.

My own deconstruction of Wagner - or at least his one and only real contribution to pop culture - is called Wagner and Schubert Have Intercourse

Read about Burlesque of Nibelung which apparently happened a little over a month ago in downtown L.A.  Billed as "a naughty night of mythology, opera and high-brow burlesque hi-jinks", I suspect it's another unauthorized Ring Festival L.A. celebration.

ADDENDUM: I confess, the "Four Clicks" are not so much clicks as bursts of white noise.  But I distinctly remember that early book reference called the sounds "clicks" and I have kept the term.



September, 2012 ADDENDUM:  Thanks to Tom Service of the Guardian for linking to this post.

My original encounter with the idea of reducing Wagner, including the word clicks, is now available online.  It was from an article by Pauline Oliveros entitled Some Sound Observations, published originally in issue 3 of Source: Music of the Avant-Garde, 1966-1973 (page 136 of a 2011 reprint by UC Press and readable on Google.)  Here's what she wrote:
One's ideas about music can change radically after listening to recorded works at fast forward or rewind on a tape recorder. Ramon Sender arranged Wagner's Ring Cycle by a series of re-recordings at fast forward to four successive clicks.

3-Head Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Saturday, May 22, 2010

A Combination of Jingle Bells and The Internationale

Mixed Meters returns to the airwaves with my Jingle Bells-related musical offering for the 2009 holiday season. Listen to A Combination of Jingle Bells and The Internationale by clicking here.  Or keep reading.


It has become a yearly Mixed Meters holiday tradition to compose and post a piece of music based on Jingle Bells.  The previous pieces are

Why Jingle Bells?  Because it's simple, everyone can identify it instantly and it has an unassailable association with our greatest annual holiday of corporate marketing and excess consumption.


Why Christmas?  Because, as a non-Christian, every year Christmas music makes me feel isolated and this is my way of taking a bit of control over it.  If you like traditional Christmas music, seriously, you won't like these pieces.

Why am I posting this in May?  Because here at Mixed Meters time has no meaning and the new piece wasn't finished until the end of January anyway.  Things happen when they happen.


What's with the title? The title  A Combination of Jingle Bells and The Internationale directly reflects the structure of the music.  These two familiar themes are presented prominently (but not lovingly) within the texture of the music, in combination.

Why two themes?  By combining two famous themes, which I chose more for their cultural references  than for their musical content, I hope to create some sort of meaningful dialogue expressed through music.  It's an audacious attempt and not entirely successful except for the occasional listener who cares passionately about the themes themselves.   Most often a composer who wants to convey meaning just adds text or lyrics.

Anything else besides the two themes? Yep. There's plenty of my original material as well.  The most notable being a melodic fragment which reappears several times.  You'll hear that first at 2 minutes 19 seconds.

Previously I did a similarly two-themed piece called Wagner and Schubert Have Intercourse.


What's The Internationale? The Internationale is a musical anthem of socialist and communist movements.  At one time it was the national anthem of the Soviet Union.  It is not as universally recognizable as Jingle Bells unless you happened to grow up in a Communist country.  If you're not familiar with it, I suggest you listen to one or two of the mind-boggling number of recordings found at a website called Russian Anthems Museum.

The Internationale appears first in A Combination of Jingle Bells and The Internationale at one minute and 17 seconds.  All the music up to that point is my own.

Here are a few lines of lyrics, with which no real American could ever agree, from verse 3 of The Internationale:
The state oppresses and the law cheats
The tax bleeds the miserable
No duty is imposed on the rich
'Rights of the poor' is a hollow phrase

What other melody did The Internationale remind you of? As I was composing I couldn't help but notice similarity to a theme by Johannes Brahms.  The Brahms will be familiar to ex-clarinetists everywhere.  What the heck, I put that in too.  (No idea what I'm talking about?  Listen to the first 10 seconds of this and then listen to A Combination of Jingle Bells and The Internationale at 3'38".)

Why The Internationale?  Because, as an anthem of godless communism, it seems like a good opposite to the anthem of godly capitalism, Jingle Bells.  And having it be in the public domain helps me avoid any capitalist guilt.


What does Sergei Kuryokhin have to do with this piece?  Kuryokhin was a Soviet pianist, composer and avant-gardist who passed away in 1996.  Last December, when I was casting about for a theme to pair with Jingle Bells (and also planning to write my post Sergei Kuryokhin - Pianist of Anarchy) I heard The Internationale referenced in two of his large ensemble performances recorded in 1988.  "Perfect," I thought.  The words "A Combination..." in my title are a small homage to Kuryokhin's wonderful solo piano album Some Combinations of Fingers and Passion.


What does Che Guevara have to do with this piece?  Nothing.  But I needed pictures for this post and Che, an icon of communism, has become a potent icon of capitalism.  That duality seems to reflect the two themes in my piece.  I previously discussed Che-based marketing in my MM post Che's Brand.

The Rolex ad shows him wearing a watch that today would cost at least $5,000.  (Anyone want to contribute a translation of the German?)  It came from here.  The Peter Griffin/Che Guevara drawing came from here.  The Mad Magazine cover came from here.  The woman wearing only carrot bandoleros is apparently Che Guevara's granddaughter in an ad for PETA.  Read about it here.  The Photoshopped Che Visa card came from here and the Che Santa from here.


No more delays.  It's now time to listen.  A Combination of Jingle Bells and The Internationale  327 seconds  Copyright © 2010 David Ocker

As an encore here are two non-Jingle holiday related pieces of mine from the first Mixed Meters Christmas season.  They were written in the same Christmas spirit as the others.  (Yes, the first dozen seconds of these two pieces are identical.  The titles are both apocryphal lyrics from the song Winter Wonderland.)
  • And Pretend That It's A Circus Clown (read or listen) 2005, 36 sec.
  • Until The Alligators Knock Him Down (read or listen) 2005, 40 sec.
And then there's this solo bass clarinet arrangement of a piece often heard at Christmas.  The performance is from 20 years before Mixed Meters was born.



Internationale Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Zappa Symphonies

I doubt there is a stranger coincidence among musicians' names than that of Francesco Zappa and Frank Zappa.  Francesco was an 18th century Italian cellist and composer who gathered just enough mentions in history books and left behind just enough manuscripts to avoid being completely forgotten.  The dates of Francesco's birth and death were never recorded.  We only know that he "flourished" between 1763 and 1788 and lived for a long time in the Netherlands.  Frank Zappa was a 20th century guitarist and composer who flourished almost exactly two hundred years later - give or take a few.  According to Frank the two were not related.

I worked for Frank Zappa from 1977 to 1984.  Near the end of that time I was heavily involved in the creation of Frank's Synclavier album entitled Francesco Zappa.  That's the only reason a new commercial release by a period music ensemble of any of Francesco Zappa's music would be of the slightest interest to me. 

Frank Zappa's Francesco Zappa album claimed to have been Francesco's "first digital recording in over 200 years".  But the recent PentaTone album by the New Dutch Academy Orchestra conducted by Simon Murphy really is more deserving of the title "the first recording of the music of Francesco Zappa".  And it too is digital.


I am not certain what the exact album title is.  As you can see from the cover, the phrase Zappa Symphonies gets the most space, but Francesco is only one of five composers.  Francesco gets billing higher than Mozart whose music is also included.  Maybe the name "Zappa" is enough to get this album filed under Rock and Roll in any still-functioning record stores. Or maybe there's a Zappa fan somewhere dumb enough to purchase this disc thinking he was getting newly discovered outtakes from the '88 band.

Printed on the disc itself the album is entitled Symphonies from the 18th Century Court of Orange in The Hague - Zappa, Stamitz, Schwindl, Graaf and Mozart.  That's a pretty good description.  You should know that the Stamitz on this album is not the famous Stamitz, it's his son (who may have been named Dweezil for all I know.)

On the second page of the program book there is an even longer-winded album title:

Crowning Glory
The Musical Heritage of the Netherlands
Dutch Crown Jewels:
Symphonies from the 18th Century
Court of Orange in The Hague
Zappa, Stamitz, Schwindl, Graaf and Mozart

I think we should just call the album Zappa Symphonies.

Zappa Symphonies is a survey of music created at a particular time, roughly defined by Francesco's flourishing almost 250 years ago, and a particular place, the royal court in The Hague.  Clearly The Hague was an advanced center of arts and culture.

Compare that to, say, Los Angeles during the same period.  Around here the natives were just starting to reap the "benefits" of early Spanish missionaries.  The Indians were talked into giving up their earthly paradise in exchange for the promise of another in the next life.  And so the Europeanization of L.A. began.  A long time would pass before Los Angeles started to think it needed classical orchestra music.  And we've happily imported music from Europe ever since. 

As a resident of Los Angeles I can only marvel at what it must be like to live in a place with a such a long local musical tradition as Zappa Symphonies reveals.  It seems entirely reasonable that Dutch musicians would want to preserve their tradition and share it through concerts and recording.  


The New Dutch Academy, as revealed by their recordings and their pictures, is a dedicated group of talented, young, beautiful people.  They call their instruments "authentic", a strange choice of words.  I think I would call the instruments "original" or "period" or maybe just "old".  Listening to this album, however, you could easily miss this aspect.  They clearly have overcome the habitual limitations of authentic instruments and, measured by any contemporary standard, perform at an extremely high level.  You can hear their live recordings on their website.

My biggest disappointment about the album is that the music itself is pretty dull.  Of course I'm comparing these unknown pieces to the great Mozart and Haydn symphonies which appeared just a few decades later - there's no way for me not to make such a comparison.  Unless you are specifically interested in the development of the modern symphony, or music in 18th century Holland, or music by composers with namesakes who lived two centuries later, or in finding out how good performance on period instruments can be, this album falls rather unceremoniously into the category of generic classical instrumental music.  As such, it ought to be a great hit on many of America's remaining classical music stations - especially during drive time.

You might wonder how I could describe any album with music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, one of my favorite composers, as dull.  That would be because the Mozart music in question, a soprano aria plus his Fifth Symphony, was written while he was visiting The Hague - at the age of three.  In a world where so many people have fallen over themselves to believe that playing Mozart to a fetus could make the child more intelligent, it's not so far-fetched that he was only 3 years old.  (Okay, he was actually nine.  Would you believe that he wrote his first piano sonata movement at the age of six weeks?)  In any case, Mozart was young when he wrote his Fifth Symphony and he still had a lot to learn.  (For comparison, Beethoven was 38 when he finished Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. When Mozart was 38 he'd been dead 3 years.)


In the up-coming events list at the NDA's website, they have programmed some of the cello trios by Francesco Zappa on May 29.  These are described as being for three cellos.  This means they are not the same pieces which I entered into Frank Zappa's Synclavier back in the 80s.  Those were scored for two violins and cello.  The sheet music above is the first violin part of one of them. 

The story of how Frank came to discover that Francesco ever existed and how he used his quarter-million dollar Synclavier to create an album, often considered his worst release ever, consisting of nothing but Francesco's string trios and what my part in all that was and what I think of the Francesco Zappa album personally, can be found in the Synclavier Section of the David Ocker Internet Interview.   Scroll down to the line:
A few years before I quit working for Frank a new edition of Groves Encyclopedia...
That's where the story really starts.

One thing I did do for that album was write the program notes - tongue in cheek, of course.  Those notes were edited by Frank and they survived from the LP era to the age of CDs.  But, alas, my album credits disappeared from the CD.  Because I am proud of those credits as Frank wrote them (tongue in cheek, of course), I have reproduced the back cover of the LP and the jacket sleeve.  On the cover it lists  "Synclavier Document Encryption DAVID OCKER" and at the end of the program notes it reads "David Ocker, Assistant Director, Barking Pumpkin Digital Gratification Consort."   (Heck, I wasn't just the Assistant Director.  I was the whole Consort.)  Click on either picture and the text will be just barely readable.  Here's a readable pdf of the program notes.

Obviously the BPDGC never found "a way of liberating some of Francesco Zappa's symphonies from the really dusty libraries in Europe".  We were beaten to the punch, 25 years later, by the New Dutch Academy.   My congratulations go to the victors.



Frank Zappa never wrote anything he called a symphony.  I have suggested in this article that his piece Bogus Pomp could be made more accessible to classical audiences by describing it a Symphony.  I give four possible programs which end with Bogus Pomp.

I write about Frank Zappa on Mixed Meters from time to time.  For example Varese, Zappa and Slonimsky or Paradise, Pomp and Puppets - Performing Zappa's Orchestra Music.   Want to read all my posts which are labeled "Zappa"?  Click here.

If you want to hear the music of Frank Zappa played on old, inappropriate instruments, I cannot recommend the album Ensemble Ambrosius: The Zappa Album too highly. 

Somewhere, out there in the Internet, is a person named Francesco Zappa Nardelli.  He doesn't have anything to do with the subject of this post.

An April, 2010, article in Psychology Today: What's the Size of the Mozart Effect? The Jury Is In.


ADDENDUM

I just discovered that Jacopo Franzoni has created a wonderful Francesco Zappa/Frank Zappa website.  Check it out.

Authentic Tags: . . . . . .