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  • dtoub 12:33 am on Friday, November 30, 2012, 12:33 am Permalink | Reply
    Tags: composition   

    yet another piece composed in two days in a palo alto hotel room 

    I will release it soon, but last night I finished (I think) a work called two voices, for keyboard or any two instruments. It started as an experiment I was playing with three nights ago, in which one voice plays all the black keys and the other plays all the white keys. There are five black keys and seven white keys, so one has all 12 tones to play with. I wanted to see, just out of curiosity, if I could take some very banal themes and make them at least somewhat interesting. I was also curious how long this nonsense could go on.

    I imposed another constraint: each measure had to have each voice play all of its assigned notes. And no chords.

    If you haven’t figured out by now, I was really unsure of this approach, since it doesn’t seem entirely conducive to improvisation, which is how I generally compose and thus manage to avoid systems and processes, which are the bane of folks like me who hate academic and mechanical methods to write music. Surprisingly, one can actually manage to improvise within these constraints, and even make what I think is a pretty good piece of music.

    To balance all these formal requirements, I wanted to provide a lot of choice for the performer, so that each performance would be unique. There are no dynamics, nor is there any tempo indicated. Each measure gets repeated a minimum of eight times, so that if one really likes a particular measure, knock yourself out and repeat it even more times.

    There are a few measures in which both instruments (or hands on the keyboard) are in different tempi, since the upper voice is playing five notes in the same time as the lower voice plays seven. Otherwise, it’s pretty straightforward.

    UPDATE: The score is here. MP3 audio is here.

  • dtoub 12:06 am on Wednesday, April 8, 2009, 12:06 am Permalink | Reply
    Tags: composition   

    virtual music 

    picture-6I decided to keep my trusty M-Audio portable 88-key MIDI controller in its box back in the office while I’m out here in the Bay Area this week, so I’ve been doing some work on two new (and brief) synthesizer improvisations in Reason 4.0.1. I’ve finally figured out how to add measures to sequencer data I’ve inputted previously using the keyboard, so that I could make some minor tweaks to the improvisations. I’m thinking that these will not be notated conventionally nor intended for acoustic instruments; for a change, I’m going to leave these as essentially electronic pieces. I suppose I could post the Reason or MIDI files, and might do that.

    Anyway, the first piece found its way into my last work  zichron, but started life as a synthesizer improvisation, and that’s how it will end up. The second piece I improvised last week on my Ensoniq synth back home in Wyncote and am tweaking now in Palo Alto so that hopefully it will be ready for JC Combs’ great ImprovFriday event on twitter/facebook/blip.fm later this week.

  • dtoub 3:45 am on Wednesday, January 7, 2009, 3:45 am Permalink | Reply
    Tags: composition   

    another year, another birthday 

    I’m not a big fan of birthdays. They remind me that I’m getting older, not necessarily wiser, and I end up lamenting all the things I still haven’t accomplished. But whether or not I care to admit it, every year at this time I gain another year in my chronological age. Yes, our new Wii indicated that my fitness age is really 39, but I’m not sure it’s good policy to listen to a video game.

    So I’m spending my 48th birthday on the left coast taking care of work and spending evenings working on a new piece for saxophone quartet that Brian Kauth requested. Now that I’m older and presumably a tad wiser (or at least more honest), I am willing to admit to myself that I don’t really like to write for woodwinds. Even brass instruments, as much as I like the bass trombone, give me pause. It was easier to write for winds back when I wasn’t writing music that was pulsatile, at times continuous, since I have to reconcile my ”mature“ style (now that I’m nearing 50, I probably qualify as mature) with the fact that wind players have to breathe. I’ve made this mistake at least twice—my brass piece for arielle victoria and alto flute work for roger copland will probably never be performed by human beings because few brass and flute players do circular breathing. I have yet to see any brass or flute player who didn’t look at those two works and instantly declare them impossible to play without suffocating, all while silently thinking to themselves that I’m either an idiot or an asshole for writing such unidiomatic music for their respective instruments.  

    That’s not to say that both works aren’t cool pieces. And I really do think they’re performable. Just not by the average brass or wind player with too little time to learn new music. But even if they just aren’t performed or simply can’t be performed by 99% of wind/brass musicians, both have been realized electronically, and sound pretty acceptable to my ears. I figure, if Nancarrow could get past the rhythmic limitations of human beings by composing rhythmically hypercomplex works for player pianos, why isn’t composing works for brass/wind instruments that transcend or exceed human limitations? Still, it would be nice for them to be performed by human beings. I’m just not holding my breath. I’ve thought of arranging for roger copland for two alto flutes, but I’m not sure that would have the proper end result. I could easily arrange brass piece for other instruments, such as strings (the third section has already been recast for string quartet as the piece mf), but that would make it even more unlikely that the work would ever be performed as originally written, although at least it would be more likely that the entire work would finally be performed in some fashion.

    Which brings me back to my saxophone quartet piece, still in progress and still untitled. It’s going well, considering that I’ve been somewhat lacking ideas lately and I really don’t feel as comfortable writing for winds as I do pretty much anything else, even voice. So I’m looking at it as a matter of discipline, taking into account the possibilities as well as the limitations of the instruments. I like saxophones, but the last time I wrote for one was back in the late 70’s, and my music then was nothing like what I compose nowadays. It’s not going to be a short work, and perhaps not a really long work (”really long“ for me is two hours or more). I’m taking some of it from some recent improvisations I did using Reason 4.0, and that’s part of the problem, since I’m trying to adapt what I did on a keyboard to something that is idiomatic and feasible for a saxophone. It seems to be working so far, though, and what I recently showed Brian Kauth was considered performable, so I haven’t written anything impossible as of yet.

    Now I also have to think of a title. I’d love to do something that references the current tragedy in Gaza, but I try to avoid writing political messages into my music since it might detract from the music, and most political compositions I can think of have great social/political messages but forgettable music. The only exceptions I can think of are several works by Rzewski (I still love Coming Together, which is all about Attica) one or two by Nono and Steve Reich’s Come Out. Then again, these are pretty good works of music, so maybe I need to get over my aversion to political messages in my compositions. I recently read a great article in Ha’aretz by Gideon Levy entitled “And there lie the bodies,” so maybe there’s a title there…

  • dtoub 12:56 am on Thursday, December 25, 2008, 12:56 am Permalink | Reply
    Tags: composition, sequenza 21   

    up the academy 

    It’s been awhile since I’ve had a good brawl on sequenza 21.But there comes a time when you have to defend your principles, and this was one such occasion. The question was put out there: “Does Going to Julliard, Yale or Harvard Make You a Better Composer?” Rather than posing the question of whether or not formal composition education is really helpful, it was a given that it is; rather, the question referred to whether one is a better composer for having gone to an impressive school instead of a lesser one.

    My personal feeling is that it’s the wrong question being posed here. The better question is “Does it matter at all if you get formal composition training in a conservatory or academic music department?” I would definitely answer “No.”

    To make a long story short, the brawl really came into effect when someone opined that composers with nonacademic backgrounds, like Nancarrow and Zappa, tend to lack self-criticism, and really would have benefitted from “some quality editing” by their peers in a music conservatory. Sorry, but those of us who are more or less self-trained in composition really don’t like the idea that we would have been “better” composers had we only gotten a graduate composition degree. 

    I can think of very little innovative music that came out of an academic music department. Okay, make that none. Zero. Bupkes. I like a lot of Ralph Shapey’s music, but despite his academic wannabe-ness during his career at the U of Chicago, Shapey didn’t have so much as a high school diploma, and his music was anything but academic. Feldman taught at SUNY-Buffalo, but was largely self-taught in terms of composition and was shunned by academia during his lifetime. Conlon Nancarrow, Harry Partch, and even Charles Ives were largely self-taught. Their music could never have been generated in an academic environment. Even Glass and Reich found their major influences outside of the academy (Indian music and jazz/African music, respectively). La Monte Young was certainly university-trained and wrote 12-tone music, but gravitated towards jazz and finally made his teacher, Seymour Shifrin’s head explode when he wrote his novel Trio for Strings in 1958. Most folks in Southern California academic music circles thought Young had lost his mind.

    I get it; studying in a formal setting provides great networking opportunities and the ability to work with fellow musicians. All of that is invaluable. But it’s a Faustian bargain, since one also potentially loses one’s individuality and creative spark. There is a trend towards maintaining a status quo. And that goes against real innovation.

    I really dislike the idea that those of us without significant formal training in composition are less skilled or self-critical than those who go to Yale or Juilliard or Curtis. And I also don’t understand the notion that if someone goes to a less-well-known music school, he or she is not as well trained as a composer, or has appropriate performance opportunities. As Paul Bailey pointed out on Twitter, it isn’t the school that does the education—people do the education. But really, both high-end and low-end schools provide the same outcome: composers who play it safe and who cannot innovate unless and until they find inspiration outside the academy.

    • J.C. Combs 1:49 am on Thursday, December 25, 2008, 1:49 am Permalink

      You are inspired my friend.

    • Kyle Gann 10:29 am on Thursday, December 25, 2008, 10:29 am Permalink

      Merry Christmas, David. Amazing, how someone fresh from grad school (or still in it) can possess such a strong illusion that he understands how artistic careers progress and evolve over a lifetime that he can pass judgment on all possible hypotheticals. Your young interlocutor seems to imagine that, had Nancarrow merely studied with the great composition teachers of his day, like Piston or Sessions, he would have been saved the seemingly superfluous effort of writing the trial-and-error series of unsuccessful studies that eventually led to his greatest works. Oh wait a minute, Nancarrow *did* study with Piston and Sessions – oh well, never mind. Well, when I was 24, I thought I knew everything too.

      But you’re right: like all great artists, Nancarrow only truly learned what he taught himself. A composer who imagines that college taught him how to compose is in big trouble.

      (In case you’re wondering how I have time to peruse blogs on Christmas morning, I woke up long before the rest of my family.)

    • dtoub 1:05 pm on Thursday, December 25, 2008, 1:05 pm Permalink

      Merry Christmas to you too, Kyle. Thanks for stopping by.

      It would be a very boring musical world if everyone had to go to the “right” music schools, or even felt compelled to go to school at all.

    • Tom Izzo 11:30 am on Saturday, December 27, 2008, 11:30 am Permalink


      I have to agree with you on this as well. I did study at a university but I was a bit older than the average student which I think served me in terms of not getting bogged down in questions of aesthetic identity.

      Anyhow, I mention this to point out that a problem with university life is that if you’re still in the process of forming your personality musically or otherwise, you run the risk of losing your voice before finding it.

      Beside the fact that the idea of university sponsored refinement doesn’t thrill me. I tend to value art that isn’t overly polished. I like a few rough edges and maybe even some bad choices, (within reason); this is what makes a piece endure for me and actually give it life. How many times have I heard a piece with a perfect surface that says nothing? I might as well be watching a commercial for Target.

    • dtoub 1:48 pm on Sunday, December 28, 2008, 1:48 pm Permalink

      Tom, obviously I agree with you 120%. Thanks, and happy holidays!

    • Eric Shanfield 5:00 pm on Monday, December 29, 2008, 5:00 pm Permalink

      Hey, Mr Toub; as the “young interlocutor” mentioned above, I don’t know if any of you all saw my later post: “I just want to make clear that, although it might not be immediately obvious, personally I am 100% with David Toub. It’s just that all my close friends went to some combination of Juilliard, Yale and U Mich, and the experience made them better composers and better people without exception. So I’m stuck between defending what I know to be true about them while simultaneously defending my own sensiblilities.”

      As for Nancarrow, I genuinely regret the implication he “needed editing” or could have saved himself any “seemingly superfluous effort”, only airing my (undoubtedly unpopular) opinion that, as influential as he has undoubtedly been (and he’s been incredibly influential), I just don’t find his actual work all that interesting, especially the later studies, and my personal feeling is the reason for this is his lack of “perspective” (whatever that means), which I suggest some people (if not necessarily a brilliant guy like Nancarrow), might usefully acquire at a good school. And, as I pointed out in an early post, while I may only be a hoary young thing passing impolitic “judgment on all possible hypotheticals”, John Adams has a lot of the same issues with Nancarrow as I do.

      But I think you’re basically right, Mr Toub, and I myself have avoided the “Faustian bargain” you spoke of. I guess I’m just smarting at Mr Gann’s implication that my opinions can be dismissed because I’m young; in fact I regret accidentally starting another recent contretemps with him largely because although he was basically right and I was basically wrong, I felt he’d dismissed me just as he has above and took offense, and I wish we’d been able to have something closer to our more friendly dialogue.

    • dtoub 8:04 pm on Monday, December 29, 2008, 8:04 pm Permalink

      Thanks, Eric. I did indeed see your last comment and appreciated your explanation. I have absolutely no issue if someone doesn’t like Nancarrow’s music,or anyone else’s (even my own). I just felt it was presumptuous, not because of your age but just because it’s presumptuous, period. But I think we had a very good dialogue, and I’m glad you did not make that Faustian bargain, either!

    • evan blackerby 7:12 am on Sunday, January 11, 2009, 7:12 am Permalink

      Some of the greatest innovators became great by their ‘misunderstandings’ and ‘lack of official training.’

    • Michael Gogins 3:57 pm on Monday, January 4, 2010, 3:57 pm Permalink

      I am now 59 and have a sort of career as a computer music composer. The following is all just by way of establishing some background to make sense out of my final remark below.

      I have exactly one year of formal music education, but I have known and worked with university-educated composers, professors, and composers who were professors. I was briefly married to an MFA composer who studied with Vladimir Ussachevsky (whom I got to know) at the University of Utah, so I certainly saw what that did for her — a lot, as far as I could tell. I myself benefitted enormously from my brief and not very deep acquaintance with Ussachevsky, also from knowing Brad Garton and various people at Columbia University.

      I have become involved with using mathematical music theory to do algorithmic composition. Some pieces have been performed, many of them are on iTunes, and I have published and presented some academic papers.

      I have serious regrets that I did not (a) learn piano as a kid, (b) learn calculus and music theory in high school and college, and (c) get a graduate degree in composition at a decent school. That said, I have been able to do some stuff that I am happy with without a degree in music and without formal compositional training. The main thing I could use is a lot more free time…

      I brought this issue of school up with Brad Garton and some other people in the late 1980s. Brad said, “If you have a gift for teaching you should go back to school and get a Ph.D. Otherwise, you don’t really need it.” Partly as a result of this advice, partly as a result of my own thinking, I did not go back to school.

      Again, I deeply and frequently regret not having more formal education. What I am missing in particular is more knowledge of group theory, abstract algebra, and differential geometry; piano training; a year or so of ear training and dictation; and some well supervised grounding in analysis of music and basic composition.

      But this has certainly not stopped me from doing what I have done. It may have slowed me down. Most of what I really needed to know, in spite of the deeply felt gaps, I did have to create for myself. The main thing that I needed to know that I could not invent myself turned out to be pretty recent work in mathematical music theory by Dmitri Tymoczko (a professor at Princeton) and others that I have been able to learn well enough by reading papers online.

      Two lessons: academia provided the ground in which I have flowered. And I have been able to flower in that ground, to some extent not fully determined yet, entirely on my own time and penny. And I know a few other people in a similar sort of position…..

      So my final remark is that I feel the dilemma you posed is too simple, since it does not reflect this kind of back and forth between academia and independence that I and others have experienced. I think this is one contemporary form of the age-old dialectic between tradition and innovation.

      Of course there is no way to know now whether I would have made better music or had more success if I had a DMA or something… one can’t go back.

    • dtoub 4:05 pm on Monday, January 4, 2010, 4:05 pm Permalink

      I’m still working on why group theory and abstract algebra has anything to do with composition, apart, I suppose, from computer-generated algorithmic composition, which I don’t dabble with. But thanks for chiming in.

    • Michael Gogins 11:33 am on Tuesday, January 5, 2010, 11:33 am Permalink

      Yes, I use the math for computer-generated algorithmic composition.

      Up until European and American music theorists started to use group theory to analyze serial music in the 1960s or so, “music theory” was reasonably similar for composers and musicologists. This is no longer the case. The musicologists mostly don’t compose (and what they do compose I don’t find interesting, mostly). The composers mostly don’t use the musicology. The theory that composers do use is old and could be called “pragmatic” music theory.

      The exception to this is stuff like what I am doing. In computer-assisted algorithmic composition there is still an organic connection between musicology and composition. There also are a few idiosyncratic composers like Tom Johnson who manifest this connection.

  • dtoub 10:49 am on Tuesday, July 29, 2008, 10:49 am Permalink | Reply
    Tags: composition, finale 2009   

    Finale turns 20 

    Above: Finale 1.0 running under an emulated System 7.5 in OS 10.5.4.

    I’ve been a longtime Finale user since version 3.2, and while there have been speed bumps along the way, it is still my notation program of choice. It is now 20 years old, and it’s interesting to see how much it’s evolved over the many years. I’ve been a beta tester for the past few years and have been running Finale 2009. Quite a difference from the 1.0 days:

    Finale is a lot more powerful. And complicated. It took me a year before I felt truly at home with 3.2 and later versions. While Finale can handle pretty much any notation issue I throw at it (although it still can’t easily handle some things, like big time signatures that replace those on individual staves, or truly independent tempi and time signatures), playback still is more a matter of karma than anything else. I say this after spending several hours last night in my hotel room tweaking an old 2-hour piano work to sound presentable, and I’m still only halfway through it since some things don’t playback reliably. Hoping to have these things resolved before flying back to PHL.

    But faults aside, Finale has come a long way, and without it, I’d still be using paper. While handwriting can handle any notation challenge, I’d like to think we’re in the digital era. And unlike the old days, there are far fewer dialog boxes to navigate when using Finale. I’d hate to have to do all of this to enter a simple dynamic or other expression:

    Very strange to be running System 7.5 on a MacBook Pro. It’s deja vu all over again.

  • dtoub 12:28 pm on Sunday, May 4, 2008, 12:28 pm Permalink | Reply
    Tags: composition, james combs, the meaning of life   

    questions about composing from james combs 

    The composer James Combs shot me an e-mail yesterday asking some interesting questions, such as when did I start composing, how do I find the time (I don’t—it finds me), etc. and he was kind enough to post it on his blog. James is based in Seattle, and has also done a nice interview with my friend Steve Layton. Anyway, James asks some very good and difficult questions, and I’m not sure I had the best answers for them. One question he didn’t ask, and I’m glad he didn’t, is why did I start composing in the first place? I definitely don’t have any good answer for that one, and suspect most of us don’t have any clue why we developed this compulsion.

    James gets it. His music, which one can find on his MySpace page is really nice stuff, and one of the valuable attributes of the Web is its ability to enable fellow travelers to find one another’s work. There is no way that James or anyone else in the new music community would likely have found my music without the Internet, and vice-versa. Makes me wonder if the music of Ives or Scelsi or Nancarrow might have received earlier and more widespread listeners had the Internet existed in their eras.

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