Sundance 2018

Here are my short, pithy, mostly useless reviews of ten films I saw at Sundance. Ratings are out of 10 stars. (I reserve the right to change these stars at any time.) Check out Variety for more thorough reviews, most of which I disagree with, and all of which contains gigantic spoilers. Based-on-a-true story was the clear theme of the festival.

A Futile and Stupid Gesture (biopic)

Will Forte is what Martin Mull would have looked like at 27 (#insidejoke). They both play Doug Kenney, the creator of National Lampoon--in different dimensions. It's a loving tribute that makes the medium the message by sending up the biopic in a National Lampoon sort of way (despite what Variety thinks, the filmmakers got that right). A lot of actors playing a lot of famous people (Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, Harold Ramis, Lorne Michaels, etc.) without ever trying to look like their real-life counterpart. Domhnall Gleeson is brilliant as Kenney's writing partner Henry Beard (apparently, he wrote all the LOTR puns, which you will get to see if you watch it on Netflix).  7 stars.

The Catcher Was a Spy (biopic)

Paul Rudd plays Moe Berg, a catcher for the Boston Red Sox, who had graduate degrees, knew seven languages, and volunteered to become a spy to keep the Germans from developing an atomic bomb in the early 1940s. Ok. Sure. It's pretty fun, actually, and Rudd is one of my favorites. 6 stars.

White Rabbit (based on the work of a real person)

LA-based, Korean-American performance artist Vivian Bang tries to get a dialogue going between the Korean and Black communities and mistakes one woman's friendliness and transparent t-shirts for love. Millennials. 5 stars.

Blaze (biopic)

Actual outlaw country singer and Merle Haggard wannabe Blaze Foley falls in love with Maebe Funke. A good story, well-done by Ethan Hawke. Amazing music performed by actual singer and first-time actor Ben Dickey as Blaze (he won the Sundance best actor award.. which I totally called) and actual singer and experienced actor Charlie Sexton as Townes Van Zant. I've been listening to Blaze's album Live at the Austin Outhouse and Merle Haggard for the past few days. 8 stars. (I'm going to go ahead and call Dickey's nomination for the Oscar right now. Probably the only Oscar-worthy performance I saw.)

Clara's Ghost (loosely based on the Elliott family)

The guy under the seats had kids and moved to a haunted mansion in Connecticut. His real life daughter Bridey wrote and directed this movie, in which she cast her entire family, in which former-child-star daughters bring over the kid from The Sixth Sense for a crazy night of drinking and attention whoring. You just know someone's going to get lost, wandering naked in the woods, but who will it be? 7 stars (though I'll grant that's probably too high for most people)

Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot (biopic)

Alcoholic John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix) gets in a car driven by a drunk Jack Black and ends up paralyzed. He finally discovers AA sponsor and life coach Jonah Hill, becomes a cartoonist, and learns how to forgive himself while falling in love with his physical therapist Mara Rooney. 6 stars (because Gus Van Sant). Would have been higher, but it's slow in the middle and there's too many close ups of Joaquin's face.

An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn

Finally. The opposite of a true story. This one is completely bonkers. It's set in either the 70s when everything-Scotland was in, or in Scotland where most people have American or New Zealand accents. It takes so many turns that you wonder how you got to the end from the beginning. Here are just a few completely disjointed things that I loved: Jemaine Clement is a terrible hit man, Craig Robinson is.. Frankenstein?.. and his apparent creator is Matt Berry (Douglas Reynholm in the IT Crowd!), Aubrey Plaza has a secret, and there's a ton of plaid and inexplicable Aberdeen references. Finally, the greatest question of all: Is Beverly a man's or a woman's name? I'll leave that up to you. 7 stars.


The only Midnight series film I saw. A suburban Arizona man has a nervous breakdown and goes on a gory killing spree when he realizes he's going to lose his house during the housing crisis of 2008-09. Here's the twist, though: That man is Danny McBride. In all his Danny McBride-ness. I've never felt some bad for laughing at something so awful. 6 stars. (This sort of has the same genre-blending problems as Colossal, though it's ultimately a lot tighter than the latter.)


US Documentary winner. Documents the efforts of Kailash Satyarthi, an anti-child-slavery activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. He's doing God's work, for sure, and we get to follow him and his team as they raid child-slave-labor factories and sting child traffickers in India. We also get to see some of his school that helps rescued children transition back to freedom, which is tougher than I would have guessed. I can't rate this because the subject matter dwarfs any criticism of the film. Please pay attention to the origins of the things you buy, people.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post (based on a book)

US Dramatic winner. Jack Donaghy's nemesis (Chloë Grace Moretz) gets caught fooling around with the prom queen and is subsequently sent to a gay conversion camp by her Evangelical stepmom. I actually like Variety's take here, which is basically that it's important subject matter, but it's treated without much nuance in this film. I loved the characters she encounters at God's Promise (that's the name of the camp). But otherwise, this film says exactly what you would expect, and hopefully, exactly what you would say about conversion therapy. Also, there's pot being hidden in a prosthetic leg... so there's that. Surprised that it won; it's not as good as Blaze. I'll give it 6 stars.

Bonus. Best story I heard at the festival (at the last screening, the woman sitting next to me told me this story):

Woman "Do you ever watch Game of Thrones?"
Me: "No."
Woman: "Well, there's this actor, Peter Dinkel or something." [holds her hand about knee height]
Me: "Peter Dinklage."
Woman: "Yes. Well he sat in front of me at a movie a few days ago. And at first I was really excited because I knew I'd be able to see over his head. But then, it turns out that he has a tall sitting height."
Me: "I'm sorry.. a what?"
Woman: "A tall sitting height. So, I was surprised that he still sort of blocked my view. I was going to tell him that he has a tall sitting height after the movie--I thought he would get a kick out of that--but then I thought that might be weird to just say."
Me: "Yeah. Probably."

On Serendipity and Inventing Music

According to a Facebook post I wrote on December 9, 2012, the composer John Eaton once said, "Some composers write what they hear. Some composers write in order to hear." (I didn't cite it, and a quick Google search tuned up 0 results.)

I noticed a pattern early in my master's program that sometimes things would happen in performances of my music that I wasn't expecting but that were ten times better than I imagined. I'd been working with some really good performers who had brought things to my music pleasantly surprised me. I asked a professor something like, "Do good composers ever have happy accidents?" or "Can a composer rely on serendipity?" The answer was a swift "no." I was taken aback at the swiftness of the response because my own music had definitely surprised me.

I've thought about that exchange probably weekly for more than ten years. I don't think my professor understood what I was asking, and I don't think I really did either. Of course, as a composition teacher, you don't want your students to think they can fake their way through composing. And you don't want to give the impression that great composers didn't know exactly what they were doing. But I was thinking along the lines of chance music--music that the composer can't anticipate or hear, at least not with great detail, before the performance. I was asking if it were possible to cultivate a style of composition that would foster as many of these moments of serendipity as possible. I think it is, and I'm still in the middle of figuring it out.

I've always felt uncomfortable with the label "composer" because original music doesn't usually flow spontaneously through my mind as is the common perception. (Likewise, I've noticed when my wife and I talk about decorating a room in our house, that she seems to be able to see in her mind what everything will look like, while I have no idea.)  I like building and design metaphors because I need to prototype a thing before I can comprehend it. So much of my music is an experiment of some kind--not that it aspires to be highly original necessarily, but that it tests a concept to see if it would work. (Maybe inventive is better than experimental since inventors seem more fundamentally creative than experimenters, though also more flighty...) For example, most pieces I write are modeled on visual art, text, a mathematical function, or some other process that I find interesting and wonder what it would sound like. So, as Eaton said, I write in order to hear some soundless phenomenon.

And I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels overly burdened by the 19-century idea of the composer-genius, a conduit of the divine, and really just wants to tinker with sounds.

I was thinking about Legos this morning. You can make some cool stuff with Legos (though nothing cooler than the Millennium Falcon), but ultimately the play impulse seems to be keep seeing what else you can build--the process of discovery and building. That was my impulse in my first semester of music theory. When I realized there were component building blocks to the Beethoven, Chopin, and Debussy that I loved to play, my instinct was to play with those block to build something myself. I've been tinkering around with sounds for most of my life now, and it still feels like play. And it still feels like serendipity whenever I hear my compositions.

Geryoneïs Outline

I. Geryon (tutti)
Forceful introduction of what I think of as Geryon's theme. Influenced by my perception of the color red--angry. This theme is cut short and replaced by a static kind of texture that will come back a few times. It represents stability.

II., III., IV., and V. overlapping
II. Meanwhile He Came (bassoon)
The beginning of the red thematic idea. Long notes broken up by jagged rhythms.

III. Geryon’s Parents (clarinet and saxophone)
A static duet representing what I think of as the parent gesture. Unchanging and stubborn.

IV. Geryon’s Death Begins (bass clarinet) I need some recommendations for multi phonics.
The second step in the evolution of red.

V. Geryon’s Reversible Destiny (English Horn)
The parent gesture inverted.

VI. Meanwhile in Heaven (tutti)
Heaven is open fifths. G's and D's fading in and out... glistening?

VII. Geryon’s Weekend (tutti)
Another take on the stability texture from the first module. Everything's fine.

VIII., IX., and X. overlapping
VIII. Geryon’s Father (bass clarinet and bassoon)
Single parent, but two instruments. One is used as a drone or to simulate reverb, then their roles change. The opening motive is a quote from "Everything in Its Right Place" by Radiohead.

IX. Geryon’s War Record (saxophone)
The third step in the evolution of red. Becoming angrier, desperate, more dangerous.

X. Schooling (clarinet)
This one actually enters briefly before IX. A kind of false entrance. It's the parent texture again--stubbornness still prevailing over all the red flags.

XI. Right (oboe and clarinet)
I think of this as an interlude. "Everything in Its Right Place" is quotes pretty extensively, though in fragments. I wasn't thinking of the name of this module when I decided to quote, but rather was thinking about how all these modules need to fit together--each one in its right place. There's also Morse code in this module--text from the poem. The clarinet asks, "Are there many little boys who think they are a monster?" The oboe replies, "But in my case I am right."

XII., XIII., and XIV. overlap. They are nearly identical--all red--but played at points of imitation, creating a building wall of noise. 
XII. Wings (saxophone)
XIII. Herakles’ Killing Club (bassoon)
XIV. Herakles’ Arrow (bass clarinet)

XV. Total Things Known About Geryon (tutti)
The order of entrances is prescribed. Each instrument plays a short asynchronous loop, independent with regard to tempo, fading in and out, moving to the next module, etc.

XVI. Geryon’s End (tutti)
A reprise of VI., but different voicing--Geryon in heaven. Nothing is coordinated. The piece is over when everyone has stopped.

Geryoneïs (The Song of Geryon) - Overview

I've been working on a new piece for about a month for reed quintet, and I decided to model it on the fragments of poetry about the mythical monster Geryon upon which Anne Carson's novel Autobiography of Red is based. Carson translated these bits of ancient Greek poetry by Stesichoros which survive only in fragments. Her novel is an altogether different thing, but I kept finding myself being drawn back to these sixteen fragments and trying to fill in the missing pieces. And in some loose way, I felt a kinship between my recent method of composing in modules and these modular pieces of a story.

Initially, I considered composing sixteen solos--one for each fragment. Any chamber group of three to five players could divide the solos among themselves and play them simultaneously without any coordination. I also considered making available two transpositions of each solo, allowing each player to choose which "key" to play each solo in, in order to diversify the harmony. 

Ultimately, I found myself unable to let go of the overall plan of the piece. Much like what I did in Sunken Monadnock and Aubade, I sketched a few modules, and now that I have enough material to popular the entire piece, I have planned for certain specific relationship and intersection. Aside from those particular instances, however, within the modules there will still be a high degree of individuality (i.e., non-coordination between players).



The material is very loosely based on the text. I began to see certain gestures relating with certain ideas in the text. I used the recurrences of these ideas as the basis for when to reprise the associated musical gestures and textures.

There are four ideas that occur at least twice, which I tentatively call red, parents, club, and heaven. Red is discordant, harsh, violent, and ragged--torn was a key word in the text. Parents is harmonically more consonant with tertian chords in a kind of stunted or broken pandiatonicism. Club is sweet and texturally static. (I might have used the word friend except that I liked how club might mean the bar where the friends drink and/or the club that Hercules wields. It doesn't really matter--I'm just talking to myself in these notes anyway.) Heaven is crystaline, transparent--open fifths that glisten.


Sketches of red stage 1 in Meanwhile He Came and stage 2 in Geryon's Death Begins. In the former it is improvised and in the latter it is notated specifically.

Red  at the beginning, orchestrated. 

Red at the beginning, orchestrated. 

Sketch of the  parent  texture. Cells are labeled by letters, which are used as shorthand. Another line (usually up a 3rd) will be added.

Sketch of the parent texture. Cells are labeled by letters, which are used as shorthand. Another line (usually up a 3rd) will be added.


Here's a sketch of the formal plan for the piece.

Click for larger image.

Overthinking my 20th High School Reunion

This past weekend I went to my 20th high school reunion in Pilot Mountain, North Carolina (East Surry High School, class of 1996). It was great. I loved seeing everyone. I couldn't believe how much everyone looked like they did in high school. My high school was small, and the class of '96 was only 98 or 99, I think. We all knew each other. About 30 came to the reunion. We talked about our kids, our jobs, and tried to identify the others from our class who weren't there. I had been anxious because it was my first reunion ever--I hadn't seen most of them in over 20 years--and I wasn't sure what the dynamic would be. Well, it was the same as ever. I was right back in high school, and it was especially fun to introduce my wife to all my old friends and let her see what I was like high school. It was non-stop catching up for four hours.

Then we left, and the next morning everything felt wrong. Had I said goodbye to everyone? I mean, I won't see most of them for at least five years. My memory of the previous evening began to feel more and more surreal--like a trip in a time machine, or a ghost showing me what my life was/might have been like if I hadn't left Pilot Mountain. I had just told someone before the reunion that high school was at least three lifetimes ago. Afterwards, it felt like I had been dropped into a different life, and then plucked out just as quickly. It was jarring and depressing.

After high school, I began to seek out experiences that would take me far from my hometown--both physically and culturally. I wasn't trying to get away because I didn't like it--in fact, I never connected with movies or songs about kids who just wanted to break out of their hometowns--I was just curious. I ended up living in South Korea for two years as a Mormon missionary. I got married and spent ten years in grad school in Utah and Texas. It's not an especially adventurous résumé, but compared to the religiously conservative, rural South, I got pretty far afield.

My accent changed. Through learning Korean, with its pure vowels, I lost most of my Southern diphthongs. My politics changed as I lived poor in big cities; I started to see the role of government differently. I began to prefer Asian food and TexMex as much as pintos and cornbread. Megan says--and I take it as a compliment--that most people aren't as open to adapting themselves to new things as I am. I certainly think that clinging to tradition (whether it be guns, religion, or whatever) is a spectacularly bad way to live life. Finding the best part of everything is the most efficient way to become a better person! Anyway, I've taken bits of philosophy and culture from everywhere I lived, everything I studied, and every professor and colleague I've worked with--hopefully the best parts--all without giving up any of who I am and who I've always been.

Except it didn't feel that way after my reunion. It felt like I had lived three lifetimes since high school, but everyone else was the same. Then, of course, I realized I probably hadn't changed all that much either. So is it more depressing to think you haven't changed in twenty years or that you've become a completely different person?

I've had this recurring... not really a nightmare... but a very unsettling dream ever since Isabella was born. In it, I am asked to go on a mission for my church to Korea. It's always funny to me how my subconscious has to rationalize this since we don't do second missions, and we don't go on missions when we're married. (I think there's part of my subconscious that remembers learning that in the early days of the church, men were called to leave their families to go on missions.) Anyway, in the dream, I both want to go and desperately don't want to leave. I'm not sure I ever actually get there, although the long trans-Pacific flight is always a central element. The anxiety comes from knowing I can never really go back to the same experience, partly because that place has changed, but mainly because I've changed (I think that's what my family symbolizes in the dream).

The feeling I had the morning after my reunion was eerily similar to way I feel in that dream. I was going home again, and yet knowing I can never go home again. Anyway, looking forward to seeing everyone again in five years!


Guitar thing

I've been wanting to write for guitar for a long time, but the instrument intimidates me. I won't get into the issues of performer/composers//composer/performers, but it seems fair to say that composing for the guitar is often the domain of guitarists. It makes sense when one considers the conceptual basis of the instrument as six overlapping lines of pitches. Most of our traditional western instruments, except strings and valved brass, have a single linear sequence of pitches. The piano and harp are clear examples of pitches arranged in a line from low to high. Woodwinds have sort of wrap-around sequences, but basically continue to be a single line from low to high, using a register key to double the length of the line. Orchestral strings have four overlapping lines, providing multiple options for most of the pitches. These options, of course, facilitate a variety of performance patterns (i.e. fingerings), but this multiplicity of patterns confuses my simple linear mind, and I have a tough time conceptualizing which notes can be played simultaneously and which patterns are idiomatic. The guitar is exponentially more complicated in my mind.

Anyway, I decided to avoid all of my paralyzing concerns about which harmonies and chords are possible, and compose a mostly melodic piece, using rhythm and register to create interest instead of harmony (check out Ligeti's Musica Ricercata to see a brilliant example of this sort of thing). So I'm going to just string a bunch of notes together in sequence. I'm going to make the guitar monolinear so I can understand it.

I'll write more about it as it takes shape, but it's been a long time since I composed and the shape is pretty foggy right now. The process--and the music--feels stiff, but today--the third straight day of composing--the feeling is starting to come back.

Teaser: it's 12-tone minimalist. Maybe. I'm thirty seconds in and have only used one pitch class so far (see the first movement of the Ligeti mentioned above).

Sundance 2016

Here are brief reviews on the six films I saw at Sundance, and then some general thoughts about the festival, etc. below. I'm not giving full plot synopses (I hate those, and didn't read any before I saw these films), but just some salient things that stood out to me. I'll link each title to a longer review if you want to know more.

Captain Fantastic

My initiation to my first film festival was this world premiere from writer/director Matt Ross. The 1200-seat theater was packed with VIPs, press, industry types, etc. We couldn't get tickets to this show, which quickly sold out, but I luckily got #18 on the wait list. I was one of the last ones let into the theater before the film began.

Viggo Mortensen plays a survivalist raising six children in the Pacific Northwest (the child actors were all wonderful). In a panel discussion the next day Ross called this a film about parenting, and it definitely is, but it's also partially about the absurdity and hypocrisy of contemporary American liberalism. Mortensen's character is a different kind of leftist than we're used to seeing, more academic than emotion-driven. He's well versed in Marxism and celebrates Noam Chomsky Day with his kids (one humorous scene has his teenage son explode in frustration when his dad calls him a Trotskyite instead of a Trotskyist--or was it the other way around?). He also, however, believes in self-reliance, rugged individualism, and meat-eating (the film opens with his oldest son ritualistically killing a deer, which the others skin). The children, in addition to their intense home-school regimen, participate in military-style physical training every day; they are smart and tough. All this is contrasted with the children's cousins, who are lazy, uninformed about the world (they don't know what the Bill of Rights is, for example), and play video games all the time. Their parents protect them by keeping certain information from them, while Mortensen's character answers every questions his children ask in explicit detail (at one point the youngest daughter asks what "rape" means, presenting a thorny situation, but dad doesn't flinch).

The film was my favorite of the six. It made me reflect on being a parent, being truthful with my kids, and being wholly committed to my beliefs.

Manchester By The Sea

Casey Affleck as a guy who's been through a lot, although it takes a long time to put it all together. A very close second to Captain Fantastic as my favorite film of the festival. The pacing of the narrative felt realistic without moving too slowly. This film continued giving exposition in jarring little doses almost all the way to the climax. Many instances felt like punches to the gut, especially as a parent. Very sad stuff. Beautiful composition in almost every scene, and terrific performance by Affleck.


I should have known that this film was about the real-life story of Christine Chubbuck, a Florida TV news reporter who shot herself during a live broadcast, but I didn't. So my experience was not ideal; I thought the film was rambling, rambling, rambling, BOOM. Did not see that coming. I think the filmmakers intended to take viewers on a journey to a destination we all know was coming (except I didn't), and so there was little effort to shape the narrative. Instead, the focus is on Christine's character in the months preceding the incident. Rebecca Hall was terrific as Christine.

Swiss Army Man

A man (Paul Dano) is trapped on a deserted island, about to hang himself when a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) washes ashore and helps Dano in various ways, both physically and emotionally (as the title suggests). So far, all the buzz has been on the bookend extended fart jokes (co-director Daniel Kwan said, "We wanted to start with a fart that makes you laugh, and end with a fart that makes you cry."). In fact a bunch of people stormed out of the premiere after several minutes of a farting corpse. But that impolite bodily function (not to mention extended discussions of masturbation and pooping) stands for lots of things that we humans do but don't want to be caught doing. Much of the movie explores these things that, if made public, would get us labeled as "weird", even though they're common to every human. Ultimately, I thought it was a lovely look at the parts of being human we don't talk about--if you can get past what the Variety review linked above calls "surface scatology."

A note on the soundtrack. There was constant crossing between mimetic and diagetic sounds. Often the on-screen characters would speak or sing, and that would be looped and transformed into music accompanying the scene. For me, this reinforced the likelihood that on-screen events were probably happening in Dano's mind.

Green Room

I exchanged my ticket to Birth of a Nation because I couldn't see both that and Green Room. Since I didn't read any synopses, I had no idea Birth of a Nation would generate so much buzz and sell for over $17 million the next day. I also had no idea how violent and gory Green Room would be. I'm not the kind of guy who needs to see ligaments and intestines to enjoy a film. Oh well. This is the story of a punk band that ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time: a secluded skinhead bar in the Pacific northwest witnessing a recently murdered body. The owner of the establishment, played by a chilling Patrick Stewart, locks the band in the green room while they plot a way out of a mess that won't stop escalating. I'll leave it at that. (Oh, one more thing--SPOILER--Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development's Maebe Fünke) gets eaten by a dog.)

One thing I liked very much was how the characters behaved exactly as you might expect a real person to. Reactions aren't over-acted, no long monologs or stand-offs--just a lot of quick decision-making, trying to get out of there alive.

Yoga Hosers

Kevin Smith spoke for at least half an hour both before and after this screening of his new film. He called it a "kid's film" (promising a PG-13 rating), and acknowledged the similarities with Clerks (when he told his wife he was going to make a movie about two teenage girls who work in a convenience store, she said, "You can't do that--you've already done that."). Smith talked about how his daughter Harley Quinn and her real-life best friend Lily-Rose Depp had played apathetic teenagers in his previous film Tusk so effortlessly, that he wanted to make a whole film based on them. Depp's father Johnny also reprises his role from Tusk, Guy Lapointe.

The girls (both named Colleen) are in a band, practice yoga, sell artisanal maple syrup at a convenience store in Winnipeg (plenty of dumb Canada jokes; for example, all the "ou" sounds are changed to "oo"--like oot for out, aboot for about, etc.), and... well, look. I don't want to get into the plot. I don't think it's Smith's best movie or anything, but as a parent of a (nearly) teenage daughter, I found it compelling and accurate. It also gets weird, and I love when weirdness surprises me, so I'll just leave it at that. #brazis

Final thoughts

I was excited just to be there. There was a positive energy in the crowds on Main Street, in the shuttles, and in the waitlist lines that I rarely see in large crowds. It wasn't the anticipation of seeing a celebrity--as I had expected--but the shared experience of doing something we all loved. As a musician who's been to countless concerts, I was surprised to find these film screenings felt very much like concerts. At the end of each film there was applause for real people who were in the same room. And then they stood up and talked and answered questions.

My two favorite moments happened on Sunday afternoon. After attending a panel discussion with the cast and director of Captain Fantastic, I got to talk with Matt Ross for a couple of minutes about the film. It turns out we both have Noam Chomsky posters in our offices (different ones). After that I went to lunch where I ran into Trin Miller, who played Mortensen's wife, and several of the children from the film. I told them how much I enjoyed the film, and they, in turn, complimented my hair (several of them, including Miller, have red hair). And while Charlie Shotwell, who plays the youngest son, didn't actually play the harmonica in the movie (as portrayed), he is a budding composer (his mom said he had just started using MuseScore). These interactions grew organically out of the energy of the place.

I loved the mountains, the snow, the people I went with, and the people I met. I loved thinking about new forms (the jarring flashbacks in Manchester, the sudden climactic ending of Christine, the imagination of Swiss Army Man), and how they can work in music.

The fixed media component

I was almost done with the fixed media component a few hours ago. I thought that it just needed something small but textural. One of the pianos in my office is currently tuned to Ben Johnston's scale from his Suite for Microtonal Piano, and I had sketched two little four-dyad motives a while back (this can be seen below in the Soundcloud link, though partially obscured). I thought I'd record myself playing those and work them into the texture somehow.

To see what this would sound like with the rest of the mix, I added two tracks to my Logic session and looped each file. I had recorded the second line twice, so I added a third track and looped both recordings of the second line, which were not synchronized. I put a little flanger and compression on them and found that this texture held my interest for five for six minutes. Probably self-indulgent, but I hate to use something that I like for a shorter time or a less central role than the material deserves. So now the dilemma is this. Does this piano bit complement what I already have? Or does it overwhelm what I'm trying to do? Tonally it works with the other audio (all of which are bird songs). Let me think about it.

The beginning

The beginning comes from the last few notes of the flute solo at the end of the piece. It is played on the vibraphone. The flute enters at about 1:08 (3rd system in this picture). I'm not sure yet how the piece will begin when it is a flute solo, but probably a shortened arrangement of this vibraphone material (probably will take advantage of the 9th multiphonic--with flutter tonguing on the long notes).

As with the previous post, this is only a sketch.


After a few months of moving, starting a new job, and conducting a major musical production, I finally started a new project this week. I'm composing a new work for flute, electronics, and optional percussion called Aubade. Flutist and poet Wayla Chambo invited me to compose this for her as part of her TranScript project that has composers writing new works based on her poetry. Here's my initial sketch.


This past Wednesday I went into the Memorial Chapel at Sweet Briar College--where the piece will be premiered next spring--and recorded video of me whistling while moving around the space. Today I transcribed a lot of the improvised whistling and tweaked it a little. It will be the final section in which the flute plays alone. She will traverse the space during the piece, ending atop the raised pulpit, where she will play this final section.

Kristen Schaal is still a horse

One of my teachers in graduate school used to say the difference in repetition and reiteration is that repetition diminishes meaning while reiteration increases meaning.

The repetition in musical Minimalism (think Reich's Come Out or Glass's Einstein on the Beach) is my go-to example for evaluating meaning, or the change in meaning, in repetition. In my own experience, my perception changes gradually over time even when listening to this kind of music. First, I sense the repetition on a local level ("Oh, this isn't going to change, huh?"). Second, I become annoyed and impatient (this happens less now than it used to). Third, I give in and slip into a different mode of perception (some people think of this as a trance; it comes with practice)--a mode that allows me to connects dots that are farther apart, so to speak. The big picture comes into focus and time becomes less important--like I'm looking at a picture, with the freedom to direct my intentionality around a space rather than being locked in the moment, as in traditional goal-oriented music.

I heard a Radiolab episode recently called Loops that dealt with a couple of things that reminded me of musical Minimalism and raised a couple questions about the meaning of repetition. One of the vignettes deals with the composer William Basinski's Disintegration Loops, a series of recordings of old, decayed analog tape loops repeating until they literally disintegrate. This certainly follows one common model of Minimalism: A gradually transforms into B. In addition to the listener's perception changing over time, the music changes literally, though almost imperceptibly.

Kristen Schaal Is a Horse, which is dealt with the episode's first vignetter, on the other hand doesn't change. It is literally AAAAAA.... It's a comedy (or anti-comedy) bit she does with Kurt Braunohler (there's a video below, check it out). But unlike the musical Minimalists, Schaal and Braunohler don't change gradually (except as a result of the physical demands of the performance--hoarse voice (no pun), for example). They seem to undermine even the assumption that something must change, progress, evolve, etc. In the world of comedy this is an extreme version of jokes that run absurdly long on purpose (the giant chicken on Family Guy, for example). My perception of these too-long jokes is analogous to my perception of musical Minimalism (i.e. become aware of the repetition, become frustrated that it's going on too long, then give in), except in this case giving in means to laugh. The transparent, literal repetition in the Schaal/Braunohler gives us a good way to control for the change in perception that occurs (if any). My perception does change; in fact it does all the work. At the end* Kristin Schaal may still be a horse, but the viewer has just experienced a surprisingly rich perceptual journey precisely because nothing happened.

*I understand they have done this bit for up to 10 minutes or more in some performances (or maybe it just felt that way to some people--I haven't seen a longer video).

Walking Dead, season 1

I just finished Walking Dead, season 1. I know--I'm behind. And while I'm probably the last one who cares to finally get around to watching it, there will be spoilers in this post.

I can't figure this show out. The dialog is cheesy, but earnest. The acting, especially the physical acting and fighting, is not even close (how many times will Rick block Daryl's attempt to murder someone with the swim move football players use to avoid being blocked?). I can't tell if it's plot driven or character driven. I think it's just script driven (i.e. x happened because it was in the script). For example, why did they park so far from the CDC? So that when it blew up in the next episode their vehicles wouldn't melt, obviously.

Bottom line? Zombies, I guess. Based on the show's popularity among friends whose opinions in these matters I respect, I was expecting something more well-crafted (i.e. Lost*, Breaking Bad). Oh well, maybe the future seasons will surprise me.

*I did like the shout out to Lost (if this was intentional) in how they find a single person in a hatch, who has been there alone for some time, and who only lasts about an episode.

Everything and Nothing

Jerry Seinfeld did an AMA on Reddit awhile back. Eventually someone asked him about the "show about nothing."

How did Seinfeld come to be? What obstacles did you face when pitching your idea of a show about "nothing"? Who supported you and who didn't?

The pitch for the show, the real pitch, when Larry and I went to NBC in 1988, was we want to show how a comedian gets his material. The show about nothing was just a joke in an episode many years later, and Larry and I to this day are surprised that it caught on as a way that people describe the show, because to us it's the opposite of that.

The opposite of that? So it's a show about something? Everything? Anything? Being? Of course it is. It's a show about the minutiae of daily life--those tiny things that we are so familiar with that we presume we don't need to talk about them. But Seinfeld did talk about those things: the close talker, man hands, the insecurities and neuroses that we all struggle with (double dipping, etc.). Seinfeld was a show about being.

Anyway it got me thinking about the void and nothingness, and I couldn't help remembering the "silent piece" that John Cage wrote, 4'33". Cage uses silence to point our intentionality toward the mundane sounds that surround us all the time. This is like the Sufi idea that the void points us to God. By not saying his name, or painting his picture, we are more aware of his presence. That's a powerful idea. The absence of something forces us to take notice of that thing. A shadow is the absence of light, for example, and a shadow is an immediate sign pointing to the thing that casts the shadow. When Beethoven delays the recapitulation of a symphony movement, the immediate result is the listener thinking about the recapitulation. Nothing always signals something.

Seventh Seal text

I'm working on a song now for mezzo soprano, piano, and interactive computer music. The initial inspiration--which often has little to do with the final product--is the Ingmar Bergman film The Seventh Seal. The text is taken from Revelation 8:1-2.

And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.

And I saw the seven angels which stood before God; and to them were given seven trumpets.

I decided, however, to use Greek text for a couple of reasons. I prefer the original text whenever possible. Of course this often limits the intelligibility for the audience, but in this case that's a good thing. The book of Revelation is highly charged and interpreted in a variety of ways, and I don't want that overshadowing the other themes at work here. The non-English text also mirrors, for me, the Swedish text of the film, which sounds like carefully designed sound art punctuating long silences. Here is the Greek text:

Και οταν ηνοιξεν την σφραγιδα την εβδομην, εγενετο σιγη εν τω ουρανω ως ημiωριον

Και ειδον τους επτα αγγελους οι ενωπιον του θεοu εστηκασιν, και εδοθησαν αυτοις επτα σαλπιγγες.


And here's the film if you're interested.

Noise and meaning

In my mind sound mass music and noise music are similar. I'm not sure if that simply goes without saying or if scholars have already teased them apart in some way, but in both cases there is a kind of semiotic disruption; what we thought we knew about musical meaning (I mean we in the most general sense) is distorted to the point that it doesn't make sense as music. I'm not arguing that it isn't music, but Ligeti's Atmosphères doesn't make sense in the same way as a Schubert song. I'm also not arguing that music carries intrinsic meaning, and I accept that musical meaning is, or could be, the result of cultural conditioning. So, maybe one day someone will hear the Ligeti the way we here the Schubert. I think that will be the case, anyway.


I like music with some noise. I think I like it because the meaning is ambiguous; I have greater freedom to interpret it. I also like composing with noise partly because it removes the burden of dealing with universally understood meaning. A film score composer, for example, must be able to convey fairly specific senses or moods with music. I don't have to worry about it in a more abstract setting (i.e. the concert hall) because the listener has more freedom to interpret. I don't think that means noise music, or noise-in-music, is a cop out for the composer. Anyway, it makes sense for me given my formative musical experiences with rock music, with its distorted guitars, scream-singing, and drums. It's a legitimate musical impulse, and can be treated with skill in the same way Schubert, for example, treated melodies and harmonies.


I tend to think of sound mass music in two big styles: Penderecki's static blocks of microtonal clusters and Ligeti's (and Xenakis's) hyper-active surface counterpoint. I recognize there are more than two ways to skin a triad, but when I compose I think in terms of these two polarities. It occurred to me today, however, that I am beginning to develop my own approach. Basically, I layer semiotic music so densely that it can't be heard as semiotic. When I say semiotic I mean music that conveys some universally understood characteristic. (Is that vague enough?) For example if a person hears "I Wonder as I Wander" he or she will have some perceptual response based on previous experiences. Even if the person doesn't know the song, or lives in a non-Western musical culture, it will at least make sense as a melody. If a person hears Schubert's Der Wanderer, there will be a similar response.


In my piece The Wanderer for wind ensemble, I used both of these melodies to create a sound mass near the end of the piece. I layered "I Wonder as I Wander" five or six times in close imitation and transpositions. On top of that (and a lot of other stuff) I added motives from the Schubert. The result was music so dense that it prevented the perception of melodic and harmonic sense. This may not be noise in the strictly acoustic domain, but it is very much noise in the semiotic domain. (For me, it's really a combination of the two.) I think it's important for me to embed more comprehensible music in my noise music (or sound masses), even if they won't be heard as such, because that's what the modern world seems like to me. The metaphorical noise that we deal with on a daily basis (i.e. stress or anxiety) is not abstract or meaningless. Every fragment, every insignificant component part of the stress of modernity is a perfectly comprehensible thing. It is the sheer density of these component parts that makes it incomprehensible.


This is the backdrop against which I need to think about this dissertation. No one will describe this piece with the word "clarity." I've really been struggling as I write the piece and it becomes more and more real because I've been grasping, unsuccessfully, at clarity in the traditional semiotic sense (i.e. "Will this be perceived/easily understood as music?"). However, I don't want to let that struggle for clarity undermine the noise element.

Shepard tones

I've been struggling for a couple of weeks to decide how to end of this piece. I finally took a "just compose" course and started writing out notes. Soon I realized I was doing something like Shepard tones, so I thought, "Maybe I'll do this for awhile and then end it." Then I went through everything I had written up to this point and timed it. The passage shown below corresponds approximately to the jagged, angular section in the sopranos, beginning around 13:30. It ends about 15:30, but is just beginning to pick up some momentum at that point (haven't filled in everything yet in this picture). I began to realize that this could be the way I build to the end. It's a simple way to gradually layer repeated figures to thicken the texture. The timing is almost perfect. But the best thing about the Shepard tone* is its representation of circularity. Considering the selection of the text with its circular form, and that it will become intelligible as language during this passage, I think this is a bit of serendipity to have happened on the Shepherd tone.


*) Of course this isn't a real Shepard tone, but it is a stylized approximation similar to the one found in Ligeti's etude "The Devil's Staircase."

Counterpoint and The Void

"...[A] void exists between musical acoustics and music properly speaking, that it is necessary to fill this void with a science describing sounds, joined to an art of hearing them, and that this hybrid discipline clearly grounds our musical efforts." 
-Pierre Schaeffer

Phenomenology seeks to be this hybrid discipline to fill the void between objectivity (musical acoustics, for example) and subjectivity (music properly speaking). A good musical example of this notion is the difference between frequency and pitch. Frequency is the number of sound waves in a given time; pitch is the way we perceive the frequency. 440 hertz is a frequency; A is the the pitch. Schaeffer's void is the almost ungraspable space between the objective known and the perceived.

It's the space-between that reminds me of counterpoint. Maybe counterpoint is a reflection of the Void, or negative space more generally, and it's the ungraspability of counterpoint that makes it so interesting. Some would argue that it's completely graspable. Indeed, it can be described in great detail. Schenkarian graphs are one example of this description. Species counterpoint captures the essence of a style in order to teach students to emulate that style. But, those examples are akin to the "musical acoustics" of Schaeffer's quotation above. What is less clear is the listener's perception of counterpoint. It's nebulous.


©2017 Joshua Harris