I'm running a pretty serious backlog here, but just a few items from the list.
1) Yeah, fine, I'm an improvisation guy, and I like steel-string fingerpicking, and if I wrote an article for High Fidelity it'd probably be called "The Composer as Mountain-Town Bum," but the passing of Milton Babbitt really struck me. This is a major, major event in American composition. One author made the argument that Babbitt's rhetoric was more damaging to perception of his music than that of any other composer--maybe true. So I decided to remove myself from the language and get back into his music, and I found it as baffling as ever. I don't mean that as a criticism; I'm aware I haven't given this music the study and repeated listening that it deserves. The real question is whether it just deserves that sort of study or actually requires it. People who are big fans insist on the former, but they're the kind of people who usually have done the study. I'm going to stop there, as this discussion is a can of worms I don't feel like opening right now.
I doubt there was another composer alive who thought about music in a way so diametrically opposed to my own, but Babbitt was a brilliant musician and by all accounts a true mensch, not to mention--for better or worse--a spokesman for a whole branch of composing. We have few figures these days who stand unproblematically as the figurehead for a movement, and that's worth cogitating on.
I even dedicated a tune to him, in a backwards kind of way. It's an energetic piece with a driving ostinato in straight-ahead 4/4. I called it Generatrix -- in geometry, a point that moves to form a line or a line that moves to generate a surface. Also the title of an early, unfinished Babbitt orchestra piece.
2) I had the wonderful opportunity last night to perform said tune with Phil Dwyer and Mark Fewer. These guys are truly world-class musicians, and the experience of bringing a brand new piece of music to them and seeing them bring it to life is worth a hundred lessons. There's no substitute for witnessing directly, as a collaborator, the energy musicians like them bring to a performance. With that sort of mastery of the instrument comes a deeply organic physical approach.
See, music is ultimately kinetic, which I realized is one of my issues with composition study. Obviously there are myriad theoretical and technical things you can discuss in music, but there are some things you can't learn by sitting in a chair talking about ideas -- because music is not ideas, music is sound, and sound is ultimately physical, not rhetorical. We like to make rhetoric out of it, but when you got into the business because you love sound, rhetoric can get a bit tiring.
One of my teachers at UT, Dan Welcher, loves to read four-hands piano duets with his comp students. If your lesson finishes early or you didn't write much music that week, you'll quickly find yourself playing through a Beethoven quartet. I was blocked and frustrated one week and we jumped into Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream -- and that cleared things up in a way no amount of discussion could have. Sometimes you have to quit talking about music, Dan said, and actually play some.
On that note.
10 Best of 2014
January: Wyoming and the Open
February: New Mexico and the Holes
Notes on The Accounts