Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Donald Cobb

photo: The Willits News
I met Don Cobb in 1967, when the soprano Carole Bogard sang his Crazy Jane Songs at the Cabrillo Music Festival on August 26, with Gerhard Samuel conducting a chamber orchestra. Over the years since he drifted across my sight very occasionally and I never got to know him well — he always seemed a little guarded. He wasn't the only one; I'd found that a number of composers — artists too — seemed a little guarded in conversation. I worked as a critic at the time, on the Oakland (California) Tribune, and people don't always trust newspaper critics. Nor is there any reason they should.

He and I shared a few enthusiasms, but were divided by others. I'm a committed Modernist; he wasn't. He like the poetry of Edgar Lee Masters and James Whitcomb Riley and Vachel Lindsay; I preferred Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore. He was particularly fond of the symphonies of Roy Harris; I was never interested in them. We were both dedicated Regionalists, I think; but for me Regionalism is a matter of terroir, genius loci; for him it had to do with vernacular.

What we had in common, I think, was preference of one's own way, whatever that was and wherever it might lead, to conformity to successful conventions. That, and a fondness for conversation.

Don taught at various places, always rather on the margin I thought. He seemed rootless to me: you never knew when he might turn up. He liked to spend weeks on the road, when he'd crash with friends, I think, or camp out, or perhaps sleep in the car in bad weather.

A year ago a score arrived in the mail: his Crazy Jane Songs, the accompaniment arranged for piano, in a beautifully printed edition. I wrote him congratulating him on the publication, and told him how much I liked the songs; and I sent him four little songs of mine, to poems of Lou Harrison's — I thought he'd like their style, and Lou's poems. But I never heard from him, and thought perhaps I'd offended him by suggesting, inadvertently, that they might somehow stand comparison to his songs.

Poor Don complained of feeling tired last summer. When he visited a doctor — unusual for him — he was diagnosed with acute leukemia. The end came quickly, and he didn't complain. A friend e-mailed me about his death, and then a couple of weeks ago, at the Milhaud concert at Mills, I learned of a memorial service that was planned.

A couple of days before the service I was working through a stack of long delayed paperwork at my desk and ran across the envelope with my songs and letter to Don: I'd neglected to mail it. He never received it; never knew how much I'd appreciated his letter and his songs.

The memorial service was held in a community church in the Mendocino County town he's settled in. It was jammed. A number of his childhood friends from San Leandro were there, with fond and funny reminiscences. An even larger number of recent friends from Willits, where until nearly the end he was used to singing, teaching, playing his various instruments, delighting in folk music, old songs, bluegrass. He was a true Gebrauchmusiker, a maker of music for any kind of occasion, but above all for social occasions, where music provides a lubricant, a glue, a medium whose purpose it is to bind people into a community.

As I've posted on the website that's being prepared in his memory: I liked Don. He seemed like a man who knew how to be boisterously gentle, or gently enthusiastic, while still maintaining a critical and analytical mind. Above all he seemed honest and forthright, in his opinions, his music, and his conversation. He was in every sense authentic. I’m sorry we fell out of touch — my fault — and I'm sorry he’s gone.

An obituary appeared in The Willits News, posted to the Internet on Oct. 3.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Pauline Oliveros at Mills

Canfield in Mills Pavilion. (Pauline's white head in audience, lower right.)        Photo: Lindsey Shere
Eastside Road, October 7, 2012—
ANOTHER QUICK REPORT from Mills College: we returned last night for the second, concluding concert celebrating Pauline Oliveros's eightieth birthday. The program began with Jonas Braasch, a sound artist and acoustician whose work, new to me, is apparently centered on that area involving the physical neurology, you might say, of sound, as it informs and is informed by essentially musical considerations.

In the old days it was enough to be a musician, to sing and play instruments, to know and respect the repertory, and perhaps to add to that repertory, thereby becoming a composer. If instead — or, in some cases, if as well — you also thought about all this, and perhaps studied its history and speculated on its present and maybe even (though this is essentially stupid) its future, why then you were a critic. That was what I did, in a simple-minded, journalistic way, for a number of years.

In or about the 1970s a relatively small number of avant-gardists began to move everything into a much more advanced, complex, even rarified atmosphere, intrigued by the new discoveries being made, largely due to increasingly fine and quickened tools, into what I think of as physics. The physics of natural things may help us consider this: with better rules, lighting, and arithmetical processing we can learn more about, say, the way sound bounces between walls. Clear enough. If you apply the results you may be able to build better concert halls, meaning halls whose surfaces interfere with the hearing of performances in more beneficial ways than disadvantageous ones — particularly if you analyze already present halls, like say the Concertgebouw or Boston's concert hall, already known to be effective.

So far we're dealing with engineering. A generation of musicians became entranced with such matters, thanks no doubt to modern education and increased intercommunication between artists and technicians generally — the "Experiments in Art and Technology," pioneered in the 1960s, were only one of many investigations into such fields — and where in centuries before musicians were primarily mediating between their personal expressive needs and desires and the delights and rewards of dealing with those desires in such social situations as chapels, court orchestras, dance bands, and parlor musicales (or their equivalents in cultural contexts other than European ones), it was now becoming possible to deal with them in laboratories.

At about the same time the grammar of western music had begun to give way. It's something like what happened to language during the Dark Ages: as the complexities and subtleties of Latin fell into disuse, because of geographically widespread centers replacing the monolithic center that had been Rome, other kinds of complexities and subtleties replaced them, largely expressive ones, in the new Romance languages, and entirely new poetic forms and techniques evolved, many of which were adopted over the years.

So the late Twentieth Century: and the wonder is that the process, and the events marking its progression, and the marvelously gifted and disciplined men and women involved, were so little noticed by the general public — including the critical establishment and the press, among whom only their own similar subset seemed either interested or, more significant, provided with platforms from which to announce their interest, to present and celebrate the activity they were lucky enough to witness in so historic a moment.
The San Francisco Bay Area was at the center of one of these moments, and at the center of one Bay Area phenomenon of the time stood the San Francisco Tape Music Center, which itself centered, at first, on Pauline Oliveros, Ramon Sender, and Mort Subotnick. A few years after its inception at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (though without much support from that institution at the time) the SFTMC set up shop at 321 Divisadero Street in San Francisco, sharing the rented building with the Ann Halprin Dance Workshop and radio KPFA. (I was music director at KPFA shortly after this took place, and am writing most of this out of my memory; I may get a few names and dates wrong.)

A few years later the Tape Music Center received a sizable grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, which required them to have some affiliation with an accredited educational institution, and Mort Subotnick, who was then on faculty at Mills College, helped finesse the installation of the TMC there, with Pauline Oliveros as the director. The centrality of Mills College and especially its music department to the significant history of musical progress in the Twentieth Century can hardly be overstated.

Well: This is why Pauline Oliveros was recognized on this significant occasion, on the same terms as was John Cage whose centennial shared the bill Friday night. Last night's concert began, as I say, with Jonas Braasch, who walked onto a nearly bare stage carrying a soprano saxophone. To his right was a chair next to a trombone on its stand; to his left another chair held a red accordion. He ignored them, standing well upstage, and began to play, his sound picked up and processed electronically.

It's a long time since I've listened to live electronic music — a medium, by the way, with which I first became familiar in this very concert hall, when a group visiting from the University of California at Davis presented its First Festival of Live Electronic Music here in the late 1960s. (In those years UC Davis was one of the few other establishment Bay Area institutions willing to grant such music the time of day.) I found Braasch's performance fascinating, rich, subtle. His tone is very pure and clear, and the processing did not interfere with it. We heard what seemed a perfect balance of acoustical and electronic sound, the latter at the service really of the former. The texture was even, rarely busy, rarely loud. Braasch called this performance System Test, and perhaps systems of some kind — whether technological or compositional — were being tested: but we in the audience were not; we were being rewarded.

Shortly before the end of this Test Pauline Oliveros entered from stage left, Stuart Dempster from stage right; they walked in quietly and gracefully, took their seats, and took up their instruments, listening to Braasch and entering, I think, the "spirit" of the moment — the spirit, or the method, or the quality; I hardly know what kind of word to use.

This is what music is about, among other things; the neurological and psychological network of perceived and remembered and imagined sounds and the "meanings" we attribute to them as they evolve, privately or through the fiction of shared cultural significances. At some moment Braasch was silent; Stu and Pauline had begun their work; he left the stage as quietly and respectfully as they had entered; and the sound of his saxophone was replaced by those of the trombone and the accordion, again processed, quite subtly and magically, by software Braasch had developed for them.

The result, called Returning, allows them to adapt whatever concert venue they are playing in to a simulation of a unique sonic environment they first visited over twenty years ago, the Dan Harpole Cistern in Port Townsend, Washington, whose 45-second reverberation had inspired their recording Deep Listening in 1989. Long, quiet, flawlessly sustained tones on trombone and occasionally accordion provide the structure of this music, articulated or modulated by fluttering gestures in which Pauline's right hand, flicking buttons on her accordion, trigger changes in the computerized sound-processing, sometimes answered by mouthpiece percussive effects from Dempster.

I could have listened to the result twice as long. I turned my head quietly from side to side, cupped an ear now and then, and remarked internally the acoustical responses of the hall itself to this serene, meditative celebration of sound and its physical and mental presence and effectiveness. You don't want to treat an occasion like this without respect and almost reverence, and I don't want to examine it verbally any further.
From there it was across the road to the Pavilion again, as it had been the previous evening, for a repeat performance of Event with Canfield, choreography by the late Merce Cunningham danced by the Mills Repertory Dance Company, with In Memoriam Nikola Tesla, Cosmic Engineer, the score Pauline Oliveros provided for the 1969 collaboration.

Again, we sat relatively high in the bleachers fronting the performance, this time in the last row audience left. The performance seemed quite different from the previous evening's. The comments among themselves by the sound engineers — John Bischoff, Chris Brown, James Fei, and Maggi Payne — were clearer, more present than they had been as they went about their work of analyzing the pavilion's acoustics with speech, sweep-tones from a slide whistle or the sweep generator, and percussive noises from clapsticks or the popping of balloons. (That latter apparently replaced an intended use of a cap pistol.)

At the same time, the dancers seemed both more relaxed and assured than the previous night but also less precise and crisply effective. The familiar Cunningham repertory of suddenly unpredictable and unconventional gesture and attitude needs objectivity, sureness, and abstraction, I think, even when its "meaning" is inescapably involved with human emotion and social (or couple-based) significance.

Still, the even brought life and energy to Cunningham's bequest. The range of body type, the adaptation of late-Sixties concept to facilities of nearly fifty years later, perhaps above all the new, younger audience — all that seems to restore the bright surprise and awareness of the dance, of Robert Morris's brilliant mechanistic travelling light beam (literally), of Jasper Johns's costumes which reinforce the Degas Spartan Games quality I often associate with Cunningham's work.

The interaction between an artist's privately imagined or conceived visions, the tools and techniques provided him by his art form and its history and repertory, the implications brought to his work by the social and natural context of his life, and the meaning imposed on it by his colleagues and audiences — this is what is at the core of Merce Cunningham's work, and that of the artists and musicians with whom he collaborated. All this remains, for me, the most important, significant aspect of creative art; it explains its function and its relevance, its necessity even, in our time. And I thank Mills College, and its staff and faculty and trustees, for recognizing this and persisting in this important work.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

John Cage, Pauline Oliveros

ANOTHER QUICK REPORT: another concert last night at Mills College, this one celebrating two epochal birthdays: John Cage's hundredth; Pauline Oliveros's eightieth. John, of course, was not in attendance; Pauline was, pretty as a button, full of health and quickness.

We heard a fine performance of a pivotal piece of Cage's, the Sixteen Dances he composed in 1951, at exactly the time he was giving up writing music that was "about things," as he explained, and was turning toward music that simply allowed — encouraged, I would say — the sounds to be sounds, to be free to express the sounds they felt like being, rather than something a composer felt they ought, or might, or could be.

These Dances were composed to accompany, and for once this is exactly the correct word, choreography by Merce Cunningham; set for an intelligently chosen instrumental ensemble of piano, four percussionists, and four melodic instruments (flute and trumpet, violin and cello); and made with the help of an elaborate chart generating 64 cells each containing "aggregates" of pitches, intervals, or chords. Sometimes he overrode this precompositional machine, sometimes not. Clearly he was in transition between taste and egolessness, the egolessness that would come to depend on increasing degrees of evasive methodologies — chance, the I Ching, computer routines.

Twenty-five years ago I engaged to write a little book about Cage; it is one of my many major failings that I abandoned the assignment — at the time it seemed unnecessary; plenty of books were appearing about him; another would hardly be missed. I do think there are things still to be contemplated, and one of them is precisely this point, when he moved from "music that is about things" to music that is not. (The phrase set in quotes is taken from a letter he sent me responding to a query: maybe I should simply find that letter, reconstruct its context, post the result here, and let it go at that.)

The Mills Performing Group performed these Sixteen Dances admirably, I thought, dancing around their title-subjects — Anger, Humor, Sorrow, the Heroic, the Odious, the Wondrous, Fear, and the Erotic, the Hindu "eight permanent emotions" that seized Cage's mind in those days, and Tranquility, the fixed center to which they all tend. (The remaining seven dances are Interludes: this composition has affinities with the Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano, as well as the String Quartet in Four Parts; and an ideal concert program would present all three works, preferably on a warm afternoon and evening, with good Indian food and beverage at appropriate moments.)

After the Dances the audience, which had completely filled the Mills concert hall, moved across the road to the Dance Pavilion to see a performance by the Mills Repertory Dance Company, who made a persuasive case for Merce Cunningham's Event with Canfield, for which Pauline Oliveros had provided, in 1969, her score In Memoriam: Nikola Tesla, Cosmic Engineer.

Well: the event was to celebrate the composers, after all, and my attention was fixed first on the sound. John Bischoff, Chris Brown, James Fei, and Maggi Payne managed the electronics, the casual speaking, the balloon-inflation-and-popping, the clapping — and, most importantly, researching the resonant capacity of the geometrically interesting pavilion, whose acoustics provided Pauline's equivalent of John's charts.

Within that sound, and alongside the slowly moving lighting sculpture Ethan Worden provided to Robert Morris's original design, the Mills dancers gave a credible account of Merce's unforgettable moves. Sixteen dancers were credited on the program, and I don't know which of them were the two whose duet was the highlight of the evening. It was fascinating to see a company of students and, I suppose, journeyman dancers taking on choreography familiar from the highly disciplined Cunningham Dance Company. It was a particular pleasure to see that the choreography survives the death of the master.

The program repeats tonight, Saturday, October 6, with Jonas Braasch's System Test and Returning by Oliveros and Stuart Dempster replacing the Sixteen Dances, along with a performance of Cage's Variations IV. I don't know if I can make it; it's a busy day today. I will if I can; it's an event that shouldn't be missed.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Other People's Money

JUST A QUICK COMMENT on the play seen last night, Other People's Money, a comic oleo, I think you could call it, on a very topical subject, by Jerry Sterner, about whom I know only what Wikipedia tells me, which is little beyond the epitaph on his headstone: "Finally, a plot."

The play is equally sardonic. You may know it from its 1991 film version, which starred Danny DeVito, Gregory Peck, and Piper Laurie — strange, how long ago that all seems now! I haven't seen the film, but last night's performance makes me curious to.

Not that the production we saw was deficient, crying out for Hollywood's more lavish resources. This was community theater, though one member of the cast is Equity; but the casting was good, the acting persuasive, the production resourceful given the small house and crowded stage facility.

The play's about a villainous New York corporate raider who's after a midsized Rhode Island factory, publicly held but tightly controlled by the family that founded it many years before. The company's small-town owner, whose father had founded the factory, yields to his second wife's pleas to let her daughter, at the beginning of her law career — his stepdaughter — to try to prevent the takeover.

Further complications involve the family dynamics and various interferences by employees, but the main action is in the emerging duel between the smart and idealistic young lawyer, Kate, and the villain, Lawrence Garfinkle. (Interestingly, his surname was changed in the film to "Garfield.") They are played here by Laura Lowry and Keith Baker, and I thought both were superb.

We went to the play at the suggestion of a couple of friends, with whom we often see theater; they'd heard this was very funny, and after the previous night's presidential debate a funny play was in order. Well, of course, corporate raiders are very much in play these days, and it was perhaps too bad that the one in this production is as funny, as darkly attractive, as he is. Oily, rancid, yes; you can almost see him twisting a Simon Legree mustache as he eyes the sweet young daughter. But his frankness, as he discusses the nasty business he goes about, is refreshing, particularly after the less "transparent" explanations Mr. Romney gave the other night.

Other People's Money, a comedy by Jerry Sterner. With Larry Williams, John Craven, Joan Hawley, Keith Baker, and Laura Lowry, directed by Elizabeth Craven. Main Stage West, Sebastopol, through October 6.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Darius Milhaud

Eastside Road, October 1, 2012—
FOUR AND A HALF years ago I abandoned a project here, a little survey of the eighteen string quartets composed by the 20th-century French composer Darius Milhaud. Just one of a number of half-finished — or, more often, let's be frank, half-begun — projects around here. The Drafts folder in this blogging application (MarsEdit, if you want to know) contains a couple of dozen abandoned posts, and perhaps ten times that many never even make it to the Drafts category. Oh well.

Milhaud was French, Provençal, Aixois, and Jewish, strong of mind and temperament, brisk and alert — deceptively so, for he was confined to a wheelchair for nearly his last thirty years, the victim of brutal arthritis.

Born in 1892, his life coincided with Modernism; but he studied at the Paris Conservatory, where he received solid grounding in conventional harmony and counterpoint. He was greatly influenced by exotic materials, though: from 1917 to 1919 he was in Rio de Janeiro, where he served as secretary to the French Ambassador; in Harlem in 1922, he was overwhelmed by the jazz he heard there.

Milhaud is famous for his polytonal counterpoint. His 14th and 15th string quartets, which though of equal lengths are otherwise quite different from one another, can be played simultaneously as an octet, whose effect is again very different from either of the quartets.

In 1940 he emigrated to the United States, fleeing Nazi-occupied France. He found refuge at Mills College in Oakland, where he joined the music faculty, remaining until 1971, teaching alternate years after his 1947 return to France.

I met Milhaud once or twice, though I can't say we ever had a proper conversation. I participated in a television interview with him on the occasion of his retirement from Mills College — that was in 1970, I think. I recall very little of the interview, conducted principally by Bill Triest, recorded on film, and probably now lost.

In 1995 the Class of 1945 of Mills College established the Darius Milhaud Performance Endowment to mark its fiftieth Class Reunion, and the college continues to produce annual concerts of Milhaud's music. Milhaud was nothing if not fecund: his opus list comprises 443 titles. Further, he composed for every medium, including a number of interestingly configured chamber ensembles. Further than that, his œuvre is remarkably consistent. You get the feeling, listening to his music, that his hand slid effortlessly across the paper, his pen leaving quantities of notes in its wake, each in the right place, though none in a place you'd have predicted.
Last Friday we heard the most recent of these concerts, with faculty, alumnae and alumni, and students of Mills College performing four compositions and excerpts from four others. I was particularly impressed with the relatively early Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, and Piano, op. 47, composed in Brazil in 1918.

What an interesting piece! It opens with a typical Milhaud pastorale: marked "Tranquil," it begins with a foursquare tune over a droning accompaniment; but in a couple of minutes the three wind instruments begin each to go his own way, staking out aural personalities that will become more sharply individuated as the piece proceeds.

I've read somewhere that Milhaud did not care for the music of Maurice Ravel, preferring that of Debussy: but this opening movement occasionally brings the Ravel of L'Enfant et les sortilèges to mind; clearly each composer processes the influence of Debussy, Ravel perhaps in a more urbane manner, Milhaud — here, at least — in a more pastoral vein.

The second movement, "Joyeux," is busier, full of trills and roulades; even the middle section, with longer note-values in the theme, seems driven, until at the end a quieter, darker element seems to wander past, sucking the energy away. Then comes an amazing two minutes, the third movement, "Emporté," a dense exercise in discord. (Milhaud's "tempo" markings are often interestingly idiomatic: this one is best translated "Carried away."

Polytonal in the extreme, each instrument takes the texture of the movement into his own key in a joyous cacophony that suggests not Ravel but the Rova Saxophone Quartet.

If the opening movement was a pastorale, the finale, "Douloureux," is a nocturne, the steady piano's rhythms occasionally suggesting a funeral march, though the sinuous chromatic voice-leading also pays tribute, I think, to the close dark Brazilian night. (And to Milhaud's best-known piece, La Création du monde.)

Looking back over the eighteen minutes of so of the piece you have the feeling you've been somewhere, a meaningful event of some kind has taken place; you're not sure what it was, what it means, but it has substance and purpose, and things are not what they were before you heard it.

I've typed the preceding six paragraphs while listening to the recording of the Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, and Piano by the Ensemble Polytonaal (Channel Classics CCS 13998, available at iTunes); and it's a pleasant recording, a useful reminder of the effect of the piece. But what we heard at Mills on Friday was more intense, stronger, edgier. It was driven, you might say, by the piano work of Lois Brandwynne, who never held back, even when touching the softest of notes (those at the ends of the outside movements, for example).

There was more than power in this performance: there was also a great deal of intelligence, of the sort that can only come from performers who know a wide repertory, and somehow let its sounds, probably subconsciously rather than intentionally, speak through the piece at hand. So I heard Stravinsky, Ives, and Messaien in this performance, not only (or not so much) because Milhaud's instrumentation, rhythms, and aural imagination suggests similar qualities in those other composers, but because their sounds are in these instruments, the instruments being played by these musicians.
There were other fine moments on the program. Cheryl Seltzer plunged into the marvelous Trois Rag-Caprices, op. 78, of 1922, with the dry muscle, the romance, and the nervous precision Milhaud asks for directly in the indications at the head of the three movements. The Wong sisters, Betty and Shirley, found and transmitted the simple pleasure contained in piano transcriptions of occasional pieces: a scherzo and waltz from Les Songes, arranged from workaday ballet accompaniments, and the "Modéré" from Scaramouche, characteristically saucy and Gallic.

Lesser moments, because of weaker performances, I suppose, in the Élégie for cello and piano; seven movements from the piano suite La muse ménagère; and three songs from Rêves. But how nice to hear songs by Darius Milhaud! I've been too much bent toward instrumental chamber music; studying the French chanson, say from Debussy through Milhaud, would be as rewarding as concentrating on the stupendous 20th-century cordillera of string-quartet masterworks.

The Milhaud concert ended with the Suite for Clarinet, Violin, and Piano, op. 157b, from 1936. Again, a suite arranged from occasional pieces, incidental music for the play Le Voyageur sans bagages, by Jean Anouilh. The Suite was composed almost twenty years later than the Sonata that had opened the concert program, and perhaps for that reason too, and not only because of its occasional nature, it seems less impactful, less historic. I don't know the nature of Anouilh's play; its title suggests something blithe*. The four movements — Vif et gai; Animé; Vif; Modéré, Vif — often sound, especially the quicker ones, like music for a travelogue, one taking us to America as seen by the French. (It's a reminder that Milhaud was commissioned at some point to write an orchestral A Frenchman in New York, to respond to Gershwin's An American in Paris.)

The Suite was played, beautifully, by Tom Rose (clarinet), Christina Stanley (violin), and Betty Woo (piano); and the nature of the occasion was underlined by the observation, in Tom Rose's intelligent program note, that the Suite was played at a dinner tribute to the composer, forty years ago or so, by Rose, Woo, and the late (and lamented) Nathan Rubin. Christina Stanley was a worthy successor to Rubin: the entire evening was a testament to the endurance of music, which overcomes the mortality of its makers.

The Milhaud quartet survey, as far as it got:
Part 1: Introduction, and Quartet No. 1, Op. 5

Part 2
: Quartet No. 2, op. 18

Part 3: Quartets No. 3, op. 32; no. 4, op. 48

Part 4: Quartets No. 5, op. 64; no. 6, op. 77; no. 7, op. 87
*Since writing that, I've looked it up. Boy was I wrong. What was Milhaud thinking of?