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Gentle Reminder

These could all be yours!

These could all be yours!

The Big City is fundraising and will continue to do so through the Winter. Modest means ensure every donation matters,  even coins in the couch cushion help. If you spend money on cultural writing elsewhere, consider a donation here. If you’re not getting what you’re looking for elsewhere, consider again.

And for donations of $20 and up, you’ll get something in return, from a great book to great music. See this post for details, and just hit the button below:

Thanks

Stuff That Stocking

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Are you a musician, or do you know any musicians?

My Moleskine music notebook is one of the two most valuable tools I have. I’ve got a bunch of different music notebooks, but this is the only one I carry around with me—the hard cover protects the interior, and the paper inside is nicely printed with light, thin ledger lines. Indispensable. The one above fits into a bag or backpack, there’s also a pocket size version that you can carry in a jacket, or cargo pants.

Of course, you need a writing instrument. I use and strongly recommend the Tornado Stealth mechanical pencil.

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I’ve been using one for over three years, and I’ve used nothing but this in all that time. Very sturdy and well-made (it’s metal, not like so many plastic ones) with a nice thick, soft lead that does everything. I love this and have given it as a gift, and will keep doing so. If you don’t like the basic black, you can get various colors and designs, including one with Einstein’s formulas for getting to the equation that energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared.

Stuff That Stocking

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For anyone who listens to music through smartphone or tablet, these Bluetooth headphones are an exponential upgrade over earbuds. The sound is excellent, close to that of my Sony studio monitor cans, and you can’t quite imagine how wonderful it is to be free of those danlings wire until you actually try it. Pairs with my iPhone immediately just by turning them on (no fussing with the system application) and they recharge via included USB cable. Once you have them, you will have a hard time imaging how you did without them.

Tip Jar

A gentle reminder, there is an ongoing fundraiser here at the Big City. Every little bit helps, even tiny donations.

If you can give more, I have many of what the public broadcasters call “premiums.” Since I’m below even subsistence level, your donation means a lot more to me, and if you can’t give any more to NPR since they got rid of jazz coverage, consider helping out here.

Hitting Amazon links for purchases helps, a few pennies go to me instead of their company. You can also buy my excellent book!

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Even more, treat yourself or a loved one to a signed, personalized copy. A donation of $20 (add $5 for expedited mailing if you need this in time for Christmas) gets you a copy with the inscription of your choice. It’s a way to give and get.

Thanks.

Where It’s At

My transfer back to WordPress.com is fundamentally complete, though cleaning up graphics and taxonomy on the back end is an ongoing project. As great as my previous host, WPEngine, was, I just can’t afford it; freelance writing produces a below poverty level income, and this blog has never produced any income.

As for the lack of writing here—it was summer! My life is, after thirty years, once again organized around the school calendar, and I had a slow summer, concentrating on my little girl’s fun and on writing music—like Mahler except happier (I hope) and far less competent. I did cover a few concerts at the New York Classical Review, though.

Labor Day is past, and I’m back at it. This new article at New Music Box was written into the summer, and it was difficult to think about music after it was done. The subject is what sounds might be left behind after civilization falls apart, or is inundated, and how future peoples’ idea of what our music was will be nothing we expect:

“This haunting, wrenching, agonizingly complex concept of a post-apocalyptic cultural legacy has certainly existed in music for thousands of years. Fragments of Medieval music concerned with the End of Days have come down to us, and apocalyptic thought began neither in Europe nor with Christianity. But the context of that music is the Second Coming, a redemptive and transformative event. And with no means to preserve the sounds of what was the present in the 10th century, nor that advantage of a post-Cageian concept of what constitutes music, there was no thought toward what the past might sound like to those who might come after.”

Read the rest here

My book Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew is currently available, and you can order it directly from the publisher at a currently discounted price. The New York Review of Books reviewed it in the latest issue (article is behind a paywall), and critic Adam Schatz took it authoritative:

“… a perceptive new monograph by George Grella Jr. in the 33 1/3 series…”

Lastly, for this post, the September installment of the Rail Tracks podcast is up, check it out for some selected 2016 releases, and read out whole excellent issue here.

Early Summer

On mental vacation—in case you hadn’t noticed already. Left things to read elsewhere: a profile of composer Alex Mincek at Music & Literature, pointing out that there’s no bullshit with the blues over at one of my posts, and the usual accumulation of concert reviews at the NY Classical Review.

June will deliver something I’ve been working on for New Music Box that has been difficult, in that the topic is hard to face, but hopefully will be meaningful. And I’ve got Recordings of the Week to hip you to. In the meantime, enjoy this extraordinary piece I heard in concert last night.

Is This Thing On? Miles Davis' Bitches Brew News

Mic check, mic check … Apparently, it’s on now.

As you can see from the timeline, it’s been several months since my last post, I confess. While I have written tens of thousands of words on music, none here. But there will be more forthcoming, starting with this post (and you can keep track of recent work here and here).

First, some news about myself and my work: my 33-1/3 series book on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew is in production and will be available October 22, pre-order now!

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Looks like there will be a couple (at least) book events in New York City, and one in Montreal, those are in the administrative stages and I will update when there’s anything specific to report. I will sign any copy of my book that you present to me!

And on Miles related news, the next installment of the Bootleg Series is due July 17. This new, 4-CD set is all live performances from the Newport Jazz Festival, with appearances spanning 1955-75. There’s a substantial amount of electric Miles on it, including Bitches Brew material and later music. It’s redundant to recommend this, because Miles’ music should be a part of everyone’s collection. Pre-order it for the best price.

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How Composers Learn, Part 2

(For the season, and my Winter Fundraiser, I’m reposting some old favorites.)

They read, and they write, and not music. They read books about all sorts of things other than music. They gather material, experience, knowledge, ideas. They react to these things. And they write.

Composers are, generally, excellent prose writers. This isn’t a surprise when one considers that the way to learn to write well is to read and write – read good writing, and write and rewrite your own. Composers already work towards clarity and precision in a difficult and abstract language, so writing in their own vernacular usually comes fluidly. The goal in both music and prose is clarity and precision of expression, exactitude. Composers get a lot of practice at that, moving slowly from incoherence to coherence, which is both a short-term and a long-term project. The latter covers a career, and former projects such as this, where I write in main part to bring out and stitch together some coherent voices from the riot going on in my mind.

And that’s the fundamental issue; how are ideas made to cohere, particularly complex ideas, because music, even at its seeming simplest, is a language of complexity. And nothing is more complex, not a novel, not computer code, not a credit default swap, than an opera. So John Adams has produced a great opera and a great book.

The striving for coherence also means exploring the way get from here to there, no matter how short the journey may be. For myself, and this post, the journey begins during the live HD broadcast of Dr. Atomic, last Saturday. After seeing the premiere in San Francisco, a dress rehearsal last month and now this broadcast, I am confident of my knowledge and memory of the work (this was also the first Met HD broadcast I’ve seen, and it was a great experience – excellent sound, interesting and intimate backstage views, documentary material added for the movie theater audiences. While I don’t know how well a spectacle like Aida would come across, the ability to experience Dr. Atomic close-up gave emphasis to how fine the production was, and also the overall excellence of the cast).

I was impressed with many things during this performance, beyond the almost overwhelming emotional impact the opera has. There is something powerfully exciting in being a living witness to a work that will last in the literature, and to seeing true, long-term greatness develop in an artist. Adams has gone from being an interesting associate of the American Minimalist style, to a developing Neo-Romantic composer, to a fine American contemporary composer, to a truly great national and international artist who has subtly but effectively pioneered ways to make music fresh in the 21st century. How this all happens is a mystery in some ways, but clear too. While his memoir cannot describe how his craft improves through work, it can describe how his ideas and style change, both serendipitously and willfully. He is asking important, coherent questions about the American experience, as he alluded to in a backstage interview with Susan Graham; he sees the important questions of today as being about politics, terrorism and science. I don’t think he’s wrong.

Like learning to write by reading great writers, Adams has also learned to make a new style by synthesizing those of other composers. It’s not copying or stealing, it’s more like reverse-engineering, taking something apart to see how it works and putting it back together to see if you can make your own version. This is one of the features of Dr. Atomic, which creates the musical drama through standard means – particular phrases that are matched to characters and dramatic moments – and by conveying different styles for different dramatic purposes, very much in the Romantic operatic style and especially taking after the methods of Berg. All this synthesis mates the means of other composers with Adams himself to produce something new; the bustle of activity around the Trinity project comes by way of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, intimate moments between Oppenheimer and Kitty are in the manner of Ravel’s Daphnis et Cloe, while a great deal of the slow rise in tension in the second act comes from lessons Adams has learned from his own music, especially Shaker Loops and his underrated El Dorado.

If composers learn by reading and writing, and writing conveys a sense of thought and knowledge, what to make of the contrast with people who are, astonishingly, paid to write? What to make of this:

I like Sarah Palin, and I’ve heartily enjoyed her arrival on the national stage. As a career classroom teacher, I can see how smart she is — and quite frankly, I think the people who don’t see it are the stupid ones, wrapped in the fuzzy mummy-gauze of their own worn-out partisan dogma. So she doesn’t speak the King’s English — big whoop! There is a powerful clarity of consciousness in her eyes. She uses language with the jumps, breaks and rippling momentum of a be-bop saxophonist.

I make it out as someone who knows nothing about music, and can’t think or write coherently. So, no surprise that it’s by Camille Paglia. I read Sexual Personae oh those many years ago, and was struck immediately then, as now, by how she knows nothing at all about music. I don’t mean facts and figures, I mean she can’t listen, she can’t hear it. In that book, she belabored her point by claiming that jazz musicians didn’t dig Debussy because it’s too feminine, which means she’s never heard La Mer or Maiden Voyage. And now this latest drivel. I would say there is a fundamental difference between Sarah Palin and Charlie Parker, and it has to do with intelligence. Parker’s “jumps, breaks and rippling momentum” are impeccably clear and coherent, even at the superhuman speed of his thoughts, even when he was fucked up, which was frequently. My partisan dogma is that I work with language, and like to see it used coherently to convey meaning. Sarah Palin speaks in gibberish, almost randomly tossing out words. She literally makes no sense – I have no idea what she thinks because she cannot say anything that has meaning, so she practically is not thinking anything at all. But that’s okay with political writers like Paglia, or Palin’s sponsor Bill Kristol, another example of how lack of ideas and convictions leads to incoherence. I usually cannot understand what he is trying to say, although it frequently appears to be completely wrong. How’s that new century going, Bill? Strange how this incoherence leads to professional gigs, especially now that I’m unemployed again, and still trying to write whatever I write – essays, music, code – better and better. But then I come from the arts where, like science, bad ideas are left to die, while in politics, we are cursed with them seemingly forever.

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