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Australia Under the Influence

from Friday, June1st of the year2012.

A point of order: this post was written both before, during, and on the way home from a trip to Australia, so if it’s more disjointed than usual, that’s why.

I write this from a plane en route from New York to Sydney, Australia. My neighbour (does one say row-mate?), who is finally sleeping after a rather anxious taxi process, is an Italian immigrant to Australia from Calabria. After a spatially awkward few minutes, (his wife and dóttir are seated behind us) he and I started speaking in Italian, and despite my thick Roman accent tempered by an affected Siennese faggotry, we managed to establish a basic communicatory structure in English and Italian during which I established that people who learned English in Australia totally have Australian accents in English. I don’t know why this is so shocking to me, but Calabrian Dude speaking essentially cracked, but not broken, English with an Australian accent is insane to my ears, and gorgeous. Some idioms roll off his tongue with an antipodean joy, whereas others remain rooted in an ESL word-to-word translation. He is just back from a fortnight’s vacation in New York City, and we spoke about his experiences dining in Little Italy; his immigration experience in 1952 from Calabria to Italy is rather different from the experiences of the children of immigrants he met in New York; all of this is wildly fascinating. We talked about the impossible regional Italian snobbery, in which people south of [x] place are basically African, and what that means for children growing up in the age of globalisation. I was also fascinated to learn that this dude has taken several cruise-ship tours of Italy, and occasionally, he’s been the only Italian speaker on the boat.

I travel a lot, and I try to work on planes. I usually manage to squeeze in a movie or two, but I have a nasty confession: I have watched the movie J. Edgar in like, nine installments over the last three months while simultaneously reading a sort of tabloidy biography of J. Edgar and (who is presumed to be) his man Clyde Tolson on my eReader iPad eBook situation. The movie is beautifully lit, and mannered, and just a li’l bit gay, whereas the book contains such phrases as, “they were raped by two big mandingos,” which is an entirely different set of information. (One also wonders about the correct plural of “Mandingo.”) The book has a lot to say about J. Edgar & Clyde Tolson’s escapades in Latin America, which I presume to be simultaneously outrageous and unverifiable. Also: j’adore Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover. I solves the problem of “people who look like a boston terrier” portraying “people who look like an English Bulldog” in one gesture.

I’m excited about being in Australia; I have a few days to myself during which I’m hoping to finish the major combat on Gait, the piece I’m writing for the wonderful National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. I think I became a musician in the presence of people who played in youth orchestras, so I know how important (or irrelevant) a new piece can be for these young musicians. I’m trying to write something that’s simultaneously challenging and awesome, which is sort of a change from the normal process of writing orchestra music. Even if you write for a professional orchestra, you get about six hours of rehearsal, which is not the same thing as the two weeks, give or take, that I’ll get with the NYO. I can afford to write music that requires internal chamber music, which is my favorite orchestral trick, but one that I daren’t employ in the usual schedule of orchestral seasons and their rehearsals. I’ve been heartened by the online presence of the musicians on Facebook and twitter, and I’m going to write them something tricky, crabwise, and, I hope, excellent for them, which, for me, is kind of the point. If the piece makes them look like the genius young musicians that they are, I have done my job right. It shouldn’t have anything to do with me; this is sort of the argument for the Byrd-Gibbons model of composers…

Australia! My thoughts, as somebody who has not been, are complicated. I have a zillion friends from there, but surely expats are not the people who can teach you about a place? My few Australian friends live in Iceland. evincing a desire to move as far from their natal zone as physically possible. Occasionally, they rant about Australian racism or provincialism or whatever else, but still, they make it back there once a year. Obviously it had been an English prison colony; it’s conwicts all over the place, or at least they ancestors. But it seems to be a place of roti canai, haemul pajun, and other délices d’asie. It feels like an immigrant community not that unlike America. I am wildly excited. I took out a sort of open call for food recommendations and have received hundreds of pieces of advice: it seems as if I am going into a form of culinary paradise!

Okay, so now I’m writing this bit having just been in Australia. The part of downtown we were staying in is basically not unlike that bit of San Francisco by the Embarcadero, is that what that’s called? Like, touristy but ultimately sympathetic. We had an Singaporean friend in who grew up in Sydney, and she curated a series of excellent meals. We were invited to dinner by one of the owners of the restaurant Quay for a fabulous meal: a sort of modern Australian freshy fresh carefully composed plates affair, featuring an outrageously good raw fish course that avoided the sort of Pacific Rim yuzu-squirt dressing normally attendant to such a dish. Love a yuzu-squirt, but one can take only so much. Sydney felt, after a week, like a strange combination of known elements and unknown ones. The strangeness of the placenames is, I imagine, analogous to the ones in New England, where we gloss over words like Woonasquatucket, Chachapacassett, and Moshassuck without blinking. The presence of an aboriginal culture seems unknowably complex and layered; a semi-naked didgeridoo player had to stop playing along to the trance music he was playing because the iphone making the same music received a call. A store with almost exclusively Chinese signage seemed to specialize in “Native Remedies,” including something alarmingly labelled “Essence of Kangaroo.” There was a lot to do with placenta-based hair treatments aimed at Chinese tourists, as well as industrial-sized tubs of royal jelly and petrified koala dung.

We had the luxury of performing this new piece Planetarium three times in a row in the same space: what a pleasant feeling! By the third show, I felt, at least, a sort of comfortable ownership of the stage, which is not something you can really get if you turn up, sound check, and perform and pack up and go. I liked coming back to my little water bottles in the same places, the bits of reflective tape indicating which button to smack on the synthesizer. This must be what it feels like to be an actor in a long-running show, where you establish a relationship with a stage enough to really play there.

I want to talk for half a second about influence. I think I’ve done this before, but it feels urgent again. I’m writing a piece for string quartet and percussion. In my normal way, I’m making a sort of “non-musical” schematic about how the piece is going to be laid out: each section just with verbal descriptions of the goings on, with a map of the sort of emotional scheme of the whole structure. I found myself writing the words, “percussion solo on resonant metals with strings doing tehillim spacings.” Tehillim, for those of you who don’t know, is an amazing piece of music by Steve Reich; in this piece, vocalists perform stylized variations on Hebrew cantillation while several percussionists play tuned drums & strings and winds reinforce harmonics structures and double the voices. For me, “Tehillim Spacings” are something I steal every day. From the minute I heard that music, I was like, “these are chords with serious emotional implications and I am gonna steal them until I can do something better.” And still, I can’t do anything better. It’s highly unlikely that I will ever do better; I’m sure I can do some variations and embellishments, but I’m not going to kid myself. So I still steal them. It’s not necessarily about the chords themselves, but the way they interface with the voices and percussion, and the ingenious use of the bass when it comes in in the special register, and the whole thing is just the best. And until I figure out a way to do it better, I’ma steal Steve’s formula.

I feel like something has gone wrong with the way influence is talked about, to use the undesirable passive voice, publicly and privately. I was once accused of “Reich-aping,” and I was like, yes, that’s literally what I was doing, but I’m randomly human? And I’m addicted to Steve Reich? And the trick he did, I can’t do better. There’s a sense, I think, that journalists “call out” influence as if it were some secret, unspeakable sexual perversion. I’m trying, in my work and public (read: online) life to undo this nonsense. We are all wearing the cloaks of influence all the time, and we should all, as composers, proudly announce the labels on these vestments. When I map out the emotional structure of a piece on a single piece of paper, I think of John Corigliano. When I put a sforzando accent on the and of 4 if in 4/4 time, I pour one out for Christopher Rouse. When I use certain chord structures, I know I’m taking them from Stravinsky. When I do a crazy multi-instrumental smudge of harmonies and their aggressors, I wish Boulez would come over my house. When I use certain harmonic modulations and motoric gestures, I thank, and sometimes email in advance homage, John Adams. I like the idea of being fully transparent about influence, if not even confessorial. I’m so bored with the idea of composers being sui generis romantic geniuses; I am obsessed with the idea of us all being inheritors, mimics, state employees, fonctionnaires, craftspeople. I had a revelation a few years ago: the pieces of music that move me most were written by people in the direct employ of the state or the church. Bach, Gibbons, Byrd, Weelkes, Taverner. With the exception of Britten and Adams, I’ve never been as fucked up by any music by a citizen composer than I have by these employees who didn’t have the time to go into the woods and commune with nature etc. Their asses had deadlines, and the responsibilities of the ecclesiastical calendar, and the choir turning up and whatever o’clock, and the music still hits me in the solar plexus.

In other news, I challenged a sort of consta-presence on twitter, who has argued for the usefulness of the term “Indie-Classical,” to a little blog challenge. She posits that it’s useful in some way, and I posit that it is offensive and a pain in everybody’s ass. So, look for that in the next few days.


  • “harmonies and their aggressors”

    thank god for you.

  • “Yuzu squirt” sounds like some sort of weird sexual fetish.

    I was watching one of those reality TV programmes a few weeks back (“well-celebrity becomes a conductor”) in which they said orchestras normally only get a few hours rehersal time. I thought they were exaggerating for effect; but here you are repeating the same sort of information. Difficult to believe they expect decent performances to emerge from those sorts of circumstances.

  • @Peter

    Not ridiculous at all. It really is like herding cats when it comes to rehearsing orchestras, and in fact, lots of premieres of new orchestral pieces DO end up leaving much to be desired. It’s just really hard to tell for your average audience member whether or not ‘the weird thing’ in the piece was something consciously decided by the composer or just the artifact of half the brass section being late by half a bar.

    The best orchestras however, usually do sound very good with the standard rep, not because they have hours and hours before each concert to rehearse, but because they’ve (both as a collective and as individual players) played those pieces many, many times under various conductors.

  • ditto grandfather!
    >There’s a sense, I think, that journalists “call out” influence as if it were some secret, unspeakable sexual perversion. I’m trying, in my work and public (read: online) life to undo this nonsense. We are all wearing the cloaks of influence all the time, and we should all, as composers, proudly announce the labels on these vestments.<
    Same thing for choreographers! As if it were shameful to acknowledge Mark Morris' influence on your work.

  • Egbert Canrinus
    June 5th, 2012 at 3:26 pm

    “these employees who didn’t have the time to go into the woods and commune with nature etc.”
    My teachers teacher always said; don’t imagine yourself to be anything different than an office employee, getting a task in the morning wich has to be done at 5 p.m.
    I never understood the idea that a composer should have to be a romantic idiot who at the sight of an ocean surf would run back to work with his heart pouring over with joy. I enjoy watching an ocean surf, but I see an ocean surf, I’m not hearing a symphony.
    I find that “inspiration” lies within the musical idea I get, in the arrangement of the notes and rhythms. My own teacher says that a good musical idea will tell you it wants to be written, and also how it wants to be written. But you’ll have to be sitting at your desk. And who cares how I got that idea? Or where it came from.

  • Your comments about “influences” reminded me of something Roland Barthes said in an interview (when asked what influence his book ‘Critical Essays’ might have) :

    “… Moreover, in general, I’m not sure what an ‘influence’ is; to my mind, what is transmitted is not ‘ideas’ but ‘languages,’ ie forms which can be filled in different fashions; that’s why the notion of *circulation* seems to me more appropriate than *influence*, books are ‘currency’ rather than ‘forces.'”

  • Your New England place name examples are spot on. You could do a Billings-esque set of songs with them as titles.

  • “…written by people in the direct employ of the state or the church.”

    That makes everyone ^but^ them “indie-classical,” no?


  • …journalists “call out” influence as if it were some secret…
    I’m trying, in my work to undo this nonsense.
    Good on ya mate! I’m left with mixed feelings when someone writes/talks about me in terms of Diebenkorn, or Bonnard (both of whom I love), as if my paintings were somehow weakened by their influence. Hell, Diebenkorn also loved Bonnard, and it shows in his work.

  • I was once accused of “Reich-aping,”…journalists “call out” influence as if it were some secret…

    When writing about my painting, critics inevitably talk about the influence of Bonnard and Diebenkorn (I love their work) as if this is a bad thing. Hell, Diebenkorn loved Bonnard, and his work also shows it. Where would we be without our masters shoulders to stand upon?

    I’m trying, in my work and public… life to undo this nonsense.

    Good on ya mate!