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I’d totally cat-sit for Charles Wuorinen

from Saturday, July28th of the year2007.

picture-2.pngA quick note to everybody ““ if you’re interested in music, you should all check out this NewMusicBox interview with Charles Wuorinen. It is completely fascinating; I found myself agreeing with him on a lot of things. Like a lot of composers of that generation (Reich, et al), he turned out to be also what we used to call A Big Meanie. duane.jpgThat’s sort of part of his charm, though, and he is one of the few people willing to aggressively and undiplomatically address issues in the classical music scene, such as it is. He is also charming because he poses with his cat, although I think our cats are way hotter (see Duane, at left). Listen to this pretty concise explanation of his pitch material:

Often the actual sets I use are, in some sense, scalar, or interpretable in a scalar fashion, so when I want that kind of thing, it’s at my disposal. I also often use what essentially are rings, rather than sets, that is to say, orderings that, at the most fundamental level, return to the beginning, which is perfectly in keeping with everything else I’ve said. So, I don’t know how helpful any of these designations or descriptions are, in a broader notion of music, let’s say, that uses the total chromatic.

misenplace.jpgSee, if he sets his mind to it, he could be such a great model for younger composers; who doesn’t want to hear about rings of notes? Totally fascinating. A lot of what makes serial music so interesting is the mise-en-place required to make it go; you have to figure out the order in which you are going to need which ingredient, and you really need to have your technique for chopping up pitches in good shape or it’s going to fall flat on the page. imodium.jpgSay what you will about the taste combinations (…is that organic candied dust?) ““ Wuorinen’s music is always brilliantly prepped. I’ve heard a lot of 12-tone music made with gritty leeks and garlic germ left-in and let me assure you that There Is No Imodium Strong Enough (for lion’s roar and antiphonal brake drums).

That opera of his, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, was way more awesome than I expected. It was also littered with diatonic harmony nuggets, an issue he addresses in the interview (although not specifically in the case of the opera). He says, “I found a lot of inspiration, as I’m sure you know, in the late works of Stravinsky, which were full of diatonic puns, or puns on diatonicism, and I’ve continued to incorporate those both in the surface of my work and in the fundamental materials for any given piece.” idared04.jpgWhat he means is that his music sounds like you’re in Mathmagic land, and then suddenly there’s a Bright Red Apple, or a slice of Apple Pie or some other iconic thing that we remember from childhood. I vacillate between thinking that this is “genius” or “cheating;” it doesn’t really matter, though, because it works.

Really do check out the interview even for a brief skim. (NewMusicBox is so great; the questions that Frank Oteri asks are really appropriate. When they interviewed me last year I was really impressed with the questions). Parts of Wuorinen’s are spot-on, other parts are a little bit “Bitter, party for one? Bitter, party for one?” and other parts are 100% over the top. I totally agree with him that big institutions need daring 117_jameslevine.jpgstewardship; I am conceptually excited by what Jimmy is doing in Boston even though I’m not crazy about the way it’s turned out. It’s better to have something to think about, I think, than the body-temperature bath of boring programming. I like Wuorinen’s arguments about pop musicians (“…no recognition of any sort of higher forms of musical discourse or musical practice…”) because they are actually quite airtight but completely disconnected from reality. I wonder what he’s listening to, actually. Do you think somebody is sending him examples and counter-examples?

This one’s for you, CW. This is Smog’s Teenage Spaceship. Listen to the lyrical trick: the verslets end with a note, and then an awkward, voice-cracky angled gesture downwards. Emotionally, this is most effective on the lines, “people thought my windows were stars” but also, “teenage smog.” Good stuff.

[audio:05 Teenage Spaceship.mp3]
Smog Teenage Spaceship
from Knock Knock


  • So I start playing your counter-Wuorinen example and my bf inadventertantly starts playing “Window” by The Album Leaf. Creepily enough, the songs not only completely matched, but created some very interesting pedal points, which got me to thinking perhaps the crankiness coming from his generation of composers is not only to do with the general-malaise caused by the slavish and over-the-top worship of the Darmstadt school but also a whole generation of pop music after them that only knew root position chords (and a very few at that). Without “dissonances” where is the context for consonance? Melody is all well and good but counterpoint and harmony is really where it’s at (or at least makes melody more exciting to me). It also gets quite boring (although Janis Joplin becomes more and more intriguing to me as time goes on, por ejemplo). Just my 2 farthings….

  • I appreciate your open and inclusive spirit, Nico (something you know I’ve been trying to learn), but I’m genuinely curious – with what did you find yourself agreeing? I suppose I agree with Mr. Wuorinen – obviously – that musicians and other people in the music industry should have personal integrity, and I also agree that most classical music criticism out there is quite uninteresting (same for most criticism in general). And yes, I agree that we shouldn’t cut ourselves off from the past. Are these controversial points? Are they in play? I’m not even trying to be flip, it’s just that they seem like no-brainers, and so general as to not really be saying much, even if they are said with a more acerbic tone than we usually get, which I agree is refreshing.

    The real problem for me, speaking of acidity, is that all those general points turn totally sour in my mind (stomach?) when they are paired with all this talk of The West, casual put-downs of “popular music”, easy categorizations of What is Art and What is Entertainment, and above all, statements like “the composer’s role is to write music. I don’t think the composer has any social obligation whatsoever”, which doesn’t actually seem to me to be a coherent statement, but that’s just me, I guess (as in, what does it mean to have a “role” if you have no “social obligation”? I’m going to have to go write about this separately. See what you’ve done?).

    [Actually, his discussion of the good ol’ days, when non-classical musicians knew their place, is really the lowest point in the whole interview, but it’s just so transparently offensive that it hardly warrants discussion. I wish Frank Oteri, who I also respect a lot, would have pushed him a little more when he went down paths like that, but maybe it’s better just to let someone make their bed, fully and completely.]

    Anyway, I’d love to know what I’m missing – and I grant that I must be missing something, since you obviously enjoyed this interview, and not in the way I am now enjoying it, which is as a straw man come to life!

    Nico responds:
    Judd, my dear creature! So good to hear your e-voice. In terms of stuff of Chazz’s that I liked, here it is, in order (with my annotations)

    – Composer/performer is a good idea. He wouldn’t say it, but of course Reich & Glass are good models for this. Also he speaks to people playing each other’s music, as in, composer-on-composer action, which as you know I am all in favor of. I wish those 12-toners had been more serious about it, but they were too busy suckling at the Institutional Pap to really have to fight their way through the wilderness, for better or for worse.

    – I thought he was very honest (in a good way) about his thoughts about the electronic medium and live players. Of course, he wouldn’t say THIS either, but for me, the relationship between humans and computers is going to be, I think, one of the ways forward, that requires comprehensive mastery of both disciplines (not partial of both, which is sometimes the case.)

    – I liked what he said about Ionisation, “Everyone knows it’s a classic in the medium, therefore it’s easy to put together.” Difficulty is 90% psychological is also true, I think. So is, like, shucking oysters and eating them – you think to yourself, “who thought of this!?”. You & I both know a lot of people who are happy to engage in the difficulty of learning Wuorinen or Jessica Rabbit…it’s overcoming a psychological thing like looking down off of high buildings or something. In all seriousness, though, I saw this Ferneyhough Opera a few years ago that was “hard” but was played, like, perfectly, as if it waarn’t no thing. Hard but Idiomatic – it’s like Yoga or something, where you really get to know your technique as a flexible instrument rather than a blunt object.

    – What I actually admire about this the most is how totally out of control he is about “what defines success” – I feel like his is a viewpoint in which he is simultaneously “the most successful person at the system” and also “misunderstood.” It’s like this Relativism of being Relevant game that take a lot of chutzpah to play. What’s funny is that “indie” people, too, play this game within the pop/rock world, where there is not a dichotomy but a three-pronged balance between “talent” (both perceived and, you know, f’real) and “success” and “cheating” (like, having a great publicist or something). So Chuzzers has more in common with, like, Ratatat than he’d like to admit.

  • OK, yes – you’re right, definitely. His “wondering whether people were paying proper attention to the role of live human beings in the dynamic of performance and in the influence that the fact of live performance had on every composer since the beginning of time.” – that’s very interesting and the rest of what he says about electronics is fairly compelling. I am also, upon re-reading, very encouraged by the warmth with which he mentions the performers who have been committed to his music, and it makes the performer/composer discussion that you liked – and which to me felt too much about Total Control and not enough about Bring It To The People – feel softer and more of a community thing than I’d envisioned. It reminds me of reports from his Miller Theater show this Spring, when his percussion music had the you-know-what played out of it, and everyone was like “it was nice to see CW so happy.” Which, in turn, reminds me that we really do all want the same things, in the end. Even if I believe that he is totally misguided about how we should or can collectively get there.

    I’m less interested in the “difficulty” topic, but I suppose it’s worth noting that it was a much-mentioned subject this weekend at the Marathon in North Adams, where all the Bangers-in-charge were going on about how hard this music used to be for people, and how easy it was for the assembled cast of youngsters (by which I mean our peers) on stage. So I guess everyone agrees on that point, at least.

    As for the last bit, you’re right that it’s very indie, but it’s also totally auteur and mid-century retro, to be the institutionally-supported Bad Boy. What bothers me about this version, rather than the indie version (or even the Bad Boy version, really), is that it’s really about this mythical Past when Everything Was Better, and how it’s someone else’s responsibility to get us back there, but certainly not mine (in this case, Wuorinen’s). And then there’s the blame game, where responsibility is shifted onto the shoulders of, you know, music journalists and orchestra managers in this case, or Welfare Queens in others. Either way, it’s totally ferkakte and grosses me out like little else.

  • what are you, taunting me?

  • Speaking of Judd and Wuorinen and badass young performers, tonight there was a lively discussion with Judd about haircare and Brooklyn stoop-loitering etiquette, immediately followed by Yuki Numata totally owning Wuorinen’s Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra with the Tanglewood fellows at Ozawa Hall. It was all way fun.

  • Great site! I’ve also noticed with amusement that Wourinen loves to plaster his cat all over his PR. One postcard literally had the cat taking up 2/3 of the display space & CW just somewhere in the background — what the DEAL?! Anyway, you’re right, Duane seems to be *much* sexier, studly even. =) Nothing like a cat who know’s he’s hot.

    Must admit I’ve been avoiding Wuorinen’s music for a while, vaguely aware that my initial aversion years ago might not be the entire picture. I do admire his mixing up atonal-isms with tonal-isms, something I’m also a fan of, tho not via any kind of serial route… Bright red apples indeed!

    Um, hi. Perry here. No comp website at present, so the Amazon page will have to do…