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About Barbara White

A composer and scholar on the faculty of Princeton University since 1998. And including contributions from Rose Marie McSweeney and Charlotte Jacobs.

Musical Malpractice

To the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Biological Sciences:

B. D. Charlton’s article, “Menstrual cycle phase alters women’s sexual preferences for composers of more complex music” (Proc R Soc B 2014), claims to provide “empirical support for the sexual selection hypothesis of music evolution by showing that women have sexual preferences during peak conception times for men [sic] that [sic] are able to create more complex music” (1). This bold claim is entirely invalidated, though, by an lack of musical competence.  Indeed, the notated examples provided in the article are arguably not music.  To be clear, I would count  John Cage’s “silent” 4’33 as music, alongside Earle Brown’s drawings, John Zorn’s games, and any number of controversial avant-garde experiments.  The problem with Charlton’s examples is that they call upon materials that carry musical implication without engaging with those implications—in fact, without any apparent understanding that there are such implications to be embraced.  These fragments are notes without a language, betraying no indication of having been authored by a sentient musical consciousness of any sort. Hearing these examples and choosing amongst them, for the subjects, must have been akin to being presented with an optometrist’s examination chart and being asked to choose which row they preferred: the one at the top with the single, strapping, big “E”? Or the one on the bottom with the dozen or so coy mini-characters.  What Charlton calls “complexity”—he correctly identifies syncopation as a possible facet, but that is not enough—is merely a presence of more unrelated items, as if five arms were more attractive than two.

The first, simplest, example is built from two chords: G in second inversion and F in first inversion, both doubled in the right and left hands of the GarageBand Grand Piano.  These chords are repeated, then rhythmically augmented, and then the augmentation is repeated.  Next, the left hand plays the G chord again, while the right hand enters a half beat later and introduces a syncopated scalar motive.  A reduction:

Royal Image 1

Overall, we hear that alternation from G6/4 to F6 eight times, and each iteration of each chord is inverted.  There is no root position chord, as would be expected when these harmonies are invoked; there is no rationale for the inversions; no syntactical relationship between the scalar figure and the block chords; and no formal sensibility whatsoever.  The material is built of sound without content; it signifies nothing.  Imagine placing a number of three-letter words side to side without any attention to sense or structure; this “music” is something like that.

The ensuing examples are said to be increasingly complex.  However, the material still fails to exploit any sort of musical syntax, offering instead a string of successive but unrelated stimuli.  It’s not until the third example that we hear a root position harmony,—one of the crucial signifiers to be expected when composing with such triads as these—and there are two in a row, going right from A major to F major, still doubled in both hands, moving downward in the same direction.


This sort of “parallel everything” would be grounds for failure for any first-year music theory student; indeed, it’s the sort of transgression that got Debussy kicked out of the Paris Conservatoire, but he knew how to shape the sounds in the service of musical expression, so that their difference from the norm engendered meaning.  His parallelisms derived from musical sensibility, not ignorance.  He was conversant in a norm, which enabled him to transgress against it.

The fourth and ostensibly most complex example has harmonies that rub up against one another, as a sixteenth-note A chord sounds in the right hand before the left hand catches up.  (There is also the not-unheard-of but apparently unmotivated root movement of a tritone and a sudden embrace of quartal harmony.)


Continuing on then, to examine the complexity of this fourth example:


Following upon the by-now familiar, syncopated G6/4, D6/4, G, and A, we suddenly hear a truly complex sonority.  However, I imagine it was intended to be a D major triad and the F’s sharp was applied to the A by mistake.  Whereas the earlier harmonies were basic ingredients used in incongruous ways, here we have a chord that is itself illogical.  (Were this the intended sonority, it would best be notated as a B-flat Major triad.  There is no apparent reason to spell this chord enharmonically, with an A-sharp.)

A beginning composition student who submitted any of these examples, even as a first draft, would receive heavy critique and little encouragement to continue composition.

Charlton’s article raises many other questions, some of which may be resolved by those who work, unlike me, in the intersection of science and art.  He explains that the musical examples were created in GarageBand and were provided in MIDI format.  As common as MIDI is, it is questionable whether the stimulation from a computer generated sound—especially given the vacuity of the material and the lack of nuance (dynamics, articulations, etc.) evidenced by the notation—is sufficient to complete such an experiment.  The listening situation appears to bear little relationship to any situation in which a listener would be turned on my masculine musical prowess: listening to four MIDI-generated fragments, lacking communicative import, one after another, with the composer and performer nowhere in sight?  I was not able to find any identification of the composer; do I take this to mean that the author of the article authored the music as well?  A composer whose method of rendering music complex is to insert more attacks of insensible sounds?

The irresponsibility of a publication such as Charlton’s is significant and has spread beyond a small audience of hermetic academics.  The article was covered, with approbation, in The Atlantic, and some of my folk-music colleagues, who have not enjoyed the sort of training and research support I have, took the second-hand claims in the Atlantic at face value.  I would love to be as enlivened as they have been by Charlton’s publication, but I know better.  It’s an instance of musical malpractice.

Barbara A. White
Professor of Music
Princeton University



Dona Nobis Quatuor—Or, “F The Dominant”

[Eine kleine Festschriftenfantasieblöggen for Paul Lansky, on the occasion of his retirement]

May 2014.  I walk in the door to see eight or ten people I have never met before, gathered around a coffee table covered with neatly stacked piles of paper.   I exclaim, “Wow, you guys are hard core!”  One man says, “Who is this nice lady?  I bet she is a fine soprano.”  (Yes, I hope, and no, I lament.)  Jay, who until now have I known only aethereally, introduces me to each person by voice type.   It is a gaggle, a bevy, of serious singers, many with advanced degrees in fields other than music.  We spend hours with Finck, Obrecht, Byrd, and—my favorite, Josquin.  We sing his “De Profundis.”  One of them.  (Is it still his?  Let me know.)

Don’t worry; we’ll get to Paul in a moment.  There is plenty of time.

The singers debate politely about various translations of German texts and the symbolic significance of hyssop.  Judy quotes the opening lines of the Aeneid, in the original and from memory (which I do not understand), and there is an in-joke about Gesualdo (which I do).  We sing, “suscipe deprecationem nostram,” and I begin to think of tekka maki.  It is the first time I have ever attended a birthday party where I needed my reading glasses.  Departing, I say, “I have not done this in thirty years,” but later I realize I have never done this.  Ever.  I haven’t been this sound-silly since I was last in Cape Breton.

We read from scores made with software John invented; we are unencumbered by unwanted barlines.  There are sophisticated discussions about ficta.  I hide behind the skirts, metaphorically speaking, of an adept alto and join in when I can.  Every flatted note we sing feels like a warm bath.

But still moves delight,
Like clear springs renew’d by flowing.

June 2012.  I learn the tune “Frieze Britches,” also known as “Cúnla,” and I marvel at its Mixolydian flavor.  I travel from the southern tip of Cape Breton up to the Highlands, and I can’t stop playing it on my tin whistle, except when I grab my shakuhachi to record a second part to “She Moved through the Fair,” to accompany Riley’s recording of the tune he sent me from Kyoto.  I send Riley an email with a .mp3 of our disembodied duo attached.

I return to St. Peter’s, my “Frieze Britches” transcription in hand, and a guy says, “Look at that!  You can write it down?”  “More like, ‘have to,’” I say, in order to keep up and keep my memory straight.  (Today on FaceTime™ Charles rummaged around for my transcription, but it was not to be found.  It reminded me how inefficient notation is.  Eventually I found it in a pile of papers at my own place.)

The flat seven is so marvelous, the way it just tucks itself into the second bar of the tune without incident, radiating warmth.  It’s a note with humanity and humility.

Frieze With Key

“Frieze Britches” reminds me of the first movement of Op. 130, to which (to whom?) Elliot Forbes introduced me in 1983.  I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of that F-natural in the cello that brings us from G major into a dalliance with C minor,—and then, whoa!—without warning, everybody slides back into B-flat.  (My Lea pocket score from El’s class is far away [in the next room]. . . .  Oh, look!—imslp has the first edition!)


It’s like a filmic dissolve, a maneuver Paul and I both recognized in Dichterliebe one day in the Cone Room.  (—“Meanwhile, back in the disillusioned and lonely present . . .”)

Dichterliebe Fuck Dominant

Already in the downbeat of m. 9, after a few elevated and pointy G-sharps, the bass lumbers down to the subtonic, deflating any hope one could possibly take from an excited heart.

These dull notes we sing
Discords need for helps to grace them;

Spring 2006.  At Lincoln Center, I sit next to Paul for a performance of Eliot Feld’s Backchat, which he choreographed for Mandance using Paul’s Idle Chatter Junior.  It is so different from anything I would ever think to do, stunning in a way that makes my eye and ear both work new muscles.  The dancers all face the back and engage with a wall upstage.  There is something about the fixity of the recorded sound and the property line enforced by the wall, as well as the men facing away, that suggests a mysterious and allusive sort of vertical boundary, and the photographic quality of the music makes the visual, too, seem like a picture—a moving one.  Later we chat in the lobby about the way music touches choreography, and Paul says that it is less like counterpoint of two voices than like a sort of multiplication.  I have just published an article that says exactly that, and I think, perhaps I did not need to go to all that trouble of writing it down.

After intermission, back in our seats with Hannah, Paul and I discuss some department lore, and he says, “I’ll tell you that story sometime.” Maybe I’ll hear that one on Tuesday.

WTF License Anon

Somehow we get on to functional harmony and modulation—à propos of what, I forget—and Paul says, “Fuck the dominant.  I like the flat side.”  (I wonder whether I need to bleep, or bloop, or -F-, the F-word?  It’s a quotation, though . . .)

What is it about the flat side?  The same year as that conversation, I was attending Susanna’s tai ji class.  Paul had told me about her years earlier, and I think he said Hannah learned the sword form.  (Did their young sons go too?  I think so.)  It’s as if the emphatic, bright, five, the yang, causes the four to seem even more itself, more steady.  This stable, imperturbable yin has no need to hit you over the head to show its strength.  (I remember what happened when my boy dog was joined by a new younger female: she played alpha, and he just sat around and snorted as if he could not be bothered.)

Four, five: could we have one without the other?  Could it be that the harmony that can be harmonized is not the true harmony?

Ever perfect, ever in them-
Selves eternal.

That same month as the Lincoln Center performance, Lisa sits for her General Exam and tells us some things we don’t know about the different versions of Petrushka.  We all vow to save the handouts.  I still have mine.  In the course of the exam, which also concerns Stravinsky and Balanchine’s Agon and Orpheus, as well as the theme of “memory in music,” Paul has occasion to ask Lisa about gender in music. (In one of the ballets?  I am not sure.)  He turns to me, and since it is Lisa’s exam, I ask, “Why do you ask?”  Paul replies, “Well, you’re the gender.”  I’m told this Lacanian exchange is still talked about among the graduate students.  (Well, I was told that, back then.)  Later, Lisa writes about Antony and the Johnsons, relying on recent and sophisticated theory of transgender (and other) identity.  So, now Paul and I can ask students about transgender matters too.  (Way back when, Walter was described as having a “sex change.”  More recently this has been called “sex reassignment surgery.”  Just recently I heard the term “sex affirmation surgery,” which sounds so much nicer.  It’s fascinating how things change.)

Rose-cheek’d Laura, come,
Sing thou smoothly with thy beauty’s

1985.  It’s Killian Hall, I think.  (Can someone remind me?)  In those days, such concerts formed the electric ghetto within the new-music ghetto; but back then we (we?) felt happy to be off the menu, misunderstood.  And (parenthetical) redfish were nowhere on the horizon.  This is before MIDI, before the laptop, and before the return of the turntable.  The posters advertising “electronic music” attract the usual group of Cambridge/Boston eggheads.  We ride our bicycles to M.I.T. and leave our right pants legs bound through the evening (why not?).  Soon the DX7 will make itself available for us to eschew.  We furrow our brows in consternation and discuss the intricacies of FM synthesis and the LPC we are all waiting to try.  (Actually, I won’t learn about all that until the following year.)

I find this proudly esoteric brain-collective enticing and exciting.  Occasionally, one or two “outsiders” show up, expecting something else from the term “electronic music,”—Tomita?  Walter/Wendy? “The Popcorn Song?*”—and they usually start to giggle when the bleeps and bloops start, as if it’s the rest of us who don’t understand.  Perhaps they’ll turn out to be right.  Meantime, I like thinking that I am in the know and that they are unsophisticated: they are outsiders to the outsiders.  This music is reserved for just a few of us.

Back to Killian Hall.  Who is this Paul Lansky?  “As If” begins.  It sounds as if the string trio is tuning up.  The sounds relate to something I have heard before, something I hear at all the other concerts I go to, except these electronic ones, since the speakers are already calibrated. (Except there was that concert where the piano was a quarter-tone away from the tape and we had to wait for them to be brought into agreement.  This made Miller chuckle.  Which one adapted?)  For the “tape pieces,” an obsolete term we hang onto sentimentally, the house lights go down, and each twin speaker gets a spot.  This is romantically austere, but some prefer to include “real” musicians in order to liven things up.  (Many years later, Eric will note how many pieces from those days were composed at quarter note = 60, since we were thinking in seconds—that is, durational seconds.)

Soon after, I go to Briggs and Briggs (R.I.P.) to buy the album Computer Directions, which pairs Paul Lansky’s Six Fantasies on a Poem of Thomas Campion with James Dashow’s Second Voyage.  I hear the Fantasies (and Campion’s poem) for the first time, and I am stilled.  It gives birth to an ear-what?  It’s not a worm, because this is good.  An ear-worm is when someone says they want a Coke™ and my inner voice starts to teach the world to sing, or when I meet someone named Laura and get distracted by the theme from Preminger’s film starring Gene Tierney.  I hear someone say, “Don’t worry,” and depending on the inflection, I may or may not hear Bobby McFerrin rev up.  Paul’s Campion, though, creates something more like a blossom, but I cannot call it an earbud, can I?  Perhaps an ear-gem.  It stays in my memory and imagination over twenty-eight years, so far.  I still have the LP (actually, I am afraid not), and I am still, now, listening to it for the first time.  I’m not sure I even need to hear it from outside my own imagination.  Sometimes I worry about experiencing for a second time things I have been so taken with on first meeting: it’s Mark Epstein’s Lobster Roll Phenomenon.  Like ordering Shahi Paneer in Allston, being overwhelmed with contentment, and never quite finding the same masala again.  Or a flavorful red wine that enthralls at first, but later merely pleases.  Six Fantasies, however, has no such problem; inside or out, then and now, its sheen and richness, its elegance and grace, resound.

Six Fantasies sounded entirely different from those dispersive, confounding pieces I loved to listen to (and perform, and compose).  I don’t think those uninitiated spectators would have giggled at Paul’s Campion.  It was unlike anything I had ever heard, new or old, electronic or acoustic.  It began with a rich yet digestible D, gleaming, sounding a bit like a horn, Paul’s instrument.  Ooh, there’s the flat seven above: it seems to open up the airspace for a bionic woman’s voice to travel through, and she names, simply but sublimely, “Laura.”  The sounds go deep, but some come closer, and some lay back.  How can this “fixed” music have so many dimensions?  There is the horizontal trajectory of the poem, its setting, and its variations; the vertical window of the seventh and its transformations; and the perspective extending all the way from here to there and articulating all the places in between.

At any point in my life, I can exorcise “It’s the Real Thing” by thinking of this synthesis of “her song”:

Her Song

Of course, this is not how it goes.  But I remember those first two words, those four notes, and I cannot possibly forget what comes next.  You’ll have to check it out for yourself though: it’s Paul’s.

It seems both impossible and perfect.  How did he think of that?  And had he not, what else could possibly have gone there?

Again, there is something I recognize, though I would not dream of calling it the “I Got Rhythm” set.  It’s one of my own favorite patterns, though I prefer the inversion.  And when he gets to the gritty part, “her ritual,” it seems to make sense for it to be fragmented, filtered (is that right?), percussed, grained—groaned and moaned.  The Fantasies do not start here, inside a ruin, though; instead they grow and decay, so I know how they have arisen and descended from something I used to know.  There’s something that has been broken down, so you can listen backward and remember what it was once was.

Lovely forms do flow
From concent divinely framed;

The speaking gradually emerges, becoming itself, undressing, so that in the final fantasy—so to speak—I hear at last the unadorned, unfettered voice.  I wonder, who is this Hannah MacKay, who is reading the poem and whose speech is being transfigured into these fantasies?  (I’ll find out in 1998 and will talk to her about her studies in classics.  But first, in 1987, I will sit in Betsy Jolas’s seminar at the Conservatoire, and one of her most insightful students will describe Debussy’s etude “Pour les sonorités opposées” [no copyright infringement intended] as music that comes closer and recedes, rather than propelling one forward in time.  That seems about right.)

Only a year later will Barry teach me Music 11.  A veteran will warn, “Just you wait for the digital filters lecture. . . .”  Leaving that lecture and all the others, I will ride back up Mass Ave., right pants leg bound, camping-size backpack attached, back to Harvard Square to serve as waitron (I am not making this up)—at Souper (ditto) Salad.  Bob Lobel is a frequent customer.

The year after that, Ivan will initiate me into the wonders of reel-to-reel and a blade, then the Serge, then the Moog.  Each student will complete a realization of Douglas Leedy’s Entropical Paradise, and Ivan will assign us readings from William Burroughs, alongside an alchemy textbook.  Twenty-six or so years later, I will run into Mark Janello, or his avatar, again.  (Yes, I am moving backward in time.)  I remember asking Ivan whether he thought my disassembly of Lester Young and Billie Holiday had too much of an air of “musica reservata” about it, and he said no, he liked that aspect.

Back in 1985, I study Six Fantasies on a Poem of Thomas Campion in Peter Lieberson’s class, and without any particular rationale or even a trumped-up excuse, I write to this Professor Paul Lansky at Princeton.  I figured that when you study people’s music, you talk to them about it.  (Maybe it is a girl thing; they say we like to converse.)  I had to look him up in that old directory of college music departments, and, within a week, in what we then called simply “mail”—no gastropodular modifier was necessary, though at M.I.T. we did send aethereal communications back and forth, again feeling exhilaratingly disembodied—Paul sends me a nice note, enclosing “a couple of pages from Charles Dodge’s book,” Computer Music: Synthesis, Composition, and Performance, which was not yet published.  (Any Resemblance Is Purely Coincidental will turn out to be another piece that has something identifiable about it.)

Another few years later, I have a friend in the graduate program at Princeton, and he ushers me into Woolworth, where we peek in the door to gaze at the legendary NeXT computers.  (It’s before the renovations, but I later realize it’s the same room where the graduate students—actually, what do they do in there now?)  I spy Paul in the corner, working with a student, and I think, “Wow, that’s the real Paul Lansky—the one whose record I have.  He sent me those pages from Charles Dodge’s book.”  Of course, I would never have dreamed of saying hello.  Before we do finally meet, in 1998, Mathew informs me that Paul has a new CD out.  I zip over to Audio Options to pick up Things She Carried.  There’s Hannah again, and she is speaking in a more everyday manner now, describing “a comb with several teeth missing,” “five credit cards,” and a “Social Security card.”

Paul’s is music of relationship: things meet up and talk to one another, whether remotely or face to face, whether, as he says, silicon or protein.  There is specialness made out of ordinary things: shiny pots and pans, distant casual conversation, even a reading of the utilitarian alphabet, and even the too-familiar sounds of the highway.  (This one says “I do not own any right.”  What about this one?”  Accidentally, I just let them play at the same time, a bit out of sync.  The colliding highways sounded pretty great.)  And there is the music of music: Andalusian-inspired piano filigree, the Baroque suite, and even a fragment of Isolde (whose modified form will be famously mutated by a few members of a younger generation).

These are all his.

I migrate to Paul’s schoolyard, and I hear the clock tick as a dancer explores the floor.  (There’s also the bunny with the vacuum cleaner.  I have scoured with Google, and it seems to be the only thing missing from the Internet.  I found Grady’s video imagery inescapably gynophobic . . . but that’s a different story.)  And later, music for horn, piano, percussion,—the kind that needs people to get on stage for us to hear it.  There are even, despite what even he might have predicted, songs:

I thought I’d write a song or two, so I tried, and tried again. It seemed like a perfectly natural thing for a young composer to do. Everyone else was doing it, so why couldn’t I? But nothing worked, it felt wrong, it sounded bad, awkward, self-conscious, pretentious, even ugly.

(It’s fascinating how things change.)

Paul often proposes,“let’s burn that bridge when we come to it.”  Or when I ask how he’s doing, he’ll say, “I’ve been worse.”  Last week, as he graduated from the ritual of administering graduate exams with the rest of the composition faculty, I finally dared to ask if I knew him well enough to inquire as to what he means when he asks students about orchestration in piano music.  He remembers my old silvertone email address and occasionally calls me babz.

1998. Paul suggests that I serve as Mary’s dissertation advisor and adds, “I hope you don’t think I’m just sending all the women students to you.”  I say that’s good to know, but I might not mind if he did; there is research that suggests same-sex mentorship to be of great value.

May 2014.  We lost Mary to cancer thirteen days ago. 

Only beauty purely loving
Knows no discord,

1985. In music history class, I learn about Josquin and become addicted to his Missa Fortuna Desperata.  (Is it still his?  Let me know.)  Like Paul’s Fantasies, the Agnus Dei is something I can conjure up without hesitation—not the piece itself, but specifically the Boston Camerata recording.  There’s this intoxicating, addicting riff, on the first syllable of “mundi”:

Josquin Mundi

It seems Josquin was drunk on this too, for he swims around in it for a while. A bit later, we hear the second syllable, and an inner voice sings:

Josquin 4th

I can’t imagine a more beguiling leap of a fourth.  But of course, this is not the music.  It’s more magical than that.  (Paul once asked me whether I ever cast spells, but that too is a different conversation.  [I don’t.])   It’s a stunning homophonic moment, where the voices join together, a congregation of mortals addressing the one who “takes away the sins of the world.”  Check it out and see where it goes next.  (“Miserere” is the text, so I’ll leave that aside for now, since this is a celebratory occasion.)

Heav’n is music, and thy beauty’s
Birth is heavenly.

(When he heard my “Sin,” a memorial to my mother that fantasizes on the old song Tain’t No Sin, Paul told me about some then-new-for-me things he heard.  One was “anger.”  He was right.  I was touched that he noticed.  A couple of years later, he delivered a compliment, something about sneaking up on a groove, or something like that.  I hadn’t thought of it that way.  Even later I visited his “pitch freak” seminar, and it seemed we both liked to maintain a distinction between white and black notes [transpositions allowed].)

Having had my first splash with Josquin last week—well, it was more like treading water—I thirst to sing this Mass, to hear the sweet discords and divine graces fill up the space between and around a circle of voices.  (I’ll just send this hint out into the  aether and see if anyone notices . . . )

A few years ago I caught the Boston Camerata recording of the Missa Fortuna Desperata on the radio.  I put it on in two rooms, one the “real” radio and one streaming, and as I walked between rooms, I noticed they were a couple of beats apart.  Another kind of swim.  This week I looked on the Internet for the Boston Camerata recording.  It has not been re-released?!  How can that be?  I listen to the Tallis Scholars, but their recording just will not do.  Fortunately, this one is one of the LPs I have kept on hand.  (This is true.)  I ask Dan and Darwin to help, and Dan digitizes it for me in a flash.  He says he’ll have a scan of the score for me next week.  I have the .ra files, but I hesitate to listen to it.  The memory is so good already.

Silent music, either other
Sweetly gracing.

I’m not sure I’ve kept my tenses straight, but then, that tends to happen when there is so much to remember.  So many gems and fancies to discover, hold, gather, drink in again, and cherish.  So, this has gotten sort of long. But then, so has our association, and Paul’s works list even more so.

Congratulations on your graduation, Paul.  I’ll see you Tuesday for sushi.  Please let me treat this time.

[Quotations are from Thomas Campion’s “Rose-Cheek’d Laura” and from Paul Lansky’s “I Thought I’d Write a Song or Two.”]

The Mouth of the Bell

The Mouth of the Bell
Saturday, November 9, 2013, 8:03 p.m. 

It’s too sentimental to admit to having watched.  There are deaths, tragedies.  The majestic soundtrack promises that these are noble sacrifices for the sakes of those who remain, those who keep the peace, who persevere week after week as others drop around them.  Could this be a lesson that some lives are more valuable than others?  And if that is the case, then whose are which?  Does it depend on when the trumpets come in?

Now that the orchestra has turned in for the night, a mask has been removed.  Outside, in the distance, there are bells.  It is eight o’clock plus three minutes.  Did it begin on the hour?  Usually I hear the carillon at six in the summer (an hour earlier in winter), and while the archaic method of calling out to a congregation is enchanting in principle, over time the daily hymns have begun to grate as I’ve found myself singing along mindlessly with the secondary dominants.  They always fall in the same places, and they always go exactly where expected.  They’re too much like music.

I’ve never been entirely sure where the carillon lives, though I think it is across the cemetery on Witherspoon Street, to the west, and I consider setting out some evening at 5:45, hunting my prey, but I always forget to go, and once “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” begins, I’ve missed my chance yet again.  I wonder where tonight’s metal is striking, and from the front walk I think it may be at Saint Paul’s—that’s south.   At least I think it is.  One or several centuries ago, citizens would have known which direction was which, would have known from how far the bells sang and shook and rattled, would have known which faith the metallic voices called out to, would have been able to interpret their language.  The bell was, along with thunder, one of the loudest sounds many generations ever heard.

I wonder what the typhoon sounds like.  I have only heard a little bit, from a distance.

Two notes: they seem to call out that something important is happening, right this moment, even as they make time stop.  Staying put while moving forward: the two sounds alternate, but the rhythm is always changing, and it’s much more interesting than downbeats and measures and chord progressions.  It takes me a moment even to wonder about the source: there was a time when certain sounds always signaled agency and effort, someone or something making it happen, whereas now, it can run on automatic.  There is something alluring and hypnotic about the irregularity, which keeps me listening for whatever might be new within the repeats.  Are there two people? Are they pulling big ropes like Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, using their whole bodies in an inefficient economy to make just one sound each?  Are they trying to stay together, or are they aiming to strike in one another’s silences?  Either way, they’ve got it half right in their lopsided diligence.  The mouths sing, together and apart, meeting up and swinging away from one another again.  Two voices make a duo.  They need only one note apiece.

What important message am I hearing? A storm?  A funeral?  An observance for veterans a day and a half early?  Without knowing what I am being told, I am unable to craft a response.  Should I be heading south, or in whatever direction the bells live?  Am I needed at the church, or somewhere, and if so, for what?

Only later, when I hear the familiar neighborly train whistle, will I wonder whether the tolling might have masked something too.  What did I miss once the trumpets gave way to the bells?

I’ve left the door open to listen.  The heat kicks in.  Warm breath takes over, the outside fades, and the bells are quiet again.  I’ll remember them for days, trying to imagine not knowing that together they sang a major second.


Zero, One: Empty Cookie, Lobster Roll.

Zero, One: Empty Cookie, Lobster Roll.  July 10, 2012.

On my way to meet Dean for the first time, I listen to his From Square One on the train.  It is not, he has told me, an audio book, but a musical composition.  He says, “Time ruins everything.  Because of it, food spoils, breasts sag, loved ones die.”

(Yes, a breast sags, sometimes.)

Later: “Whether focusing our attention on om or on 6-Down, we take control of that part of the brain that is normally hijacked by the voices telling us we’re not good enough, smart enough, attractive enough.”

And later: “There are so many nonnarrative ways to engage the mind, and still our culture puts stories front and center.  We are drowning in stories, whereas poetry subsists in the margins.”

He also speaks of loss, of longing, of compulsion, of limitation.  Of Manhattan, of Brooklyn, of Vermont, of Brigadoon.  His avowedly unpolished rendering of Joplin’s “Solace” is more engaging and touching than a rehearsed performance.

I stop at Ollie’s for lunch.  I remember coming here—that is, the one near Columbia; now I am over near Merkin Hall—for the first time, in 1996.


While I eat, I chew—as I often do—on Mark Epstein’s discussion of the ever-receding pleasure of the lobster roll, of the interrelationship of experience, memory, desire, and experience again.  Epstein is a Buddhist as well as a therapist.  Lunch is completed, and my check comes:


There is nothing inside.

Ollie’s has bestowed upon me The Fortune Cookie of True Emptiness.  Such luck!

Up and Down. January 30, 2013.

January 30, 2013. Up and Down.

One more time I proofread my article concerning good fortune and misfortune and the music of what happens and determine to send it off to Ben.  Later, though: it’s unseasonably warm: worrisome for the planet, but conducive for my running.  Parking my Insight at the canal, I notice a somewhat shifty-looking (why?) guy; I size up the situation as best I can, pronounce myself safe, and head for the trail.  In order to ensure I don’t overdo it, I run three minutes exactly and then make myself turn around to run the three minutes back.  I feel blessed to visit my favorite spot in town and to reorient myself at last toward running, another intangible possession, alongside Weakness, that I want to reclaim after the bedlam of the previous year.  I lament that I cannot run my desired forty-five minutes yet, but I feel lucky to be starting again, and I am uncharacteristically relaxed as I approach my car.  There is no reflection in the driver’s side window.  Could I have left it down?  Unlikely.  But I must have; what else would explain what I see?  As I approach my car, the guy in the truck drives off, and I realize that my window has been smashed in; I might have been able to catch him, but it’s too bad I was so blissful and unsuspicious.  On the other hand, it’s a good thing I was unable to run longer, since I seem to have interrupted him by returning so soon.  It’s also unfortunate that I am without a phone: when I run at the canal, I always leave it at home with my purse just in case my car ever gets violated, even though I know the likelihood of that happening is small.  So, on the other hand, it’s a good thing I have foregone my phone, for if I had brought it, I would likely have lost it.  Feeling grateful that I’m strong enough to run another few feet, I race off and ask a stranger in the furniture store parking lot to call the police for me.  Somehow the police have never heard of the furniture store, which is on—Main Street.  Gabby kindly offers to walk me back to my car to inspect the damage.  I am kicking myself for being slow to perceive a problem and for missing my chance to chase after the “perp,” but Gabby reassures me that it may be better that I did not run after the pickup truck—“what if he had had a gun?”  I observe, bemused, the safety whistle on my lanyard, designed for the trail—“good thing I am so careful!”—but not much use against a getaway pickup truck.  Unfortunately, the police are slow—an hour, perhaps longer—but luckily, Gabby’s name suits him in the most delightful way.  He describes his work as a upholsterer and laments youngsters’ attraction to new and rickety furniture, but he brightens when I tell him mine was fashioned in Denmark in 1960.  He tells me about swimming across Lake Carnegie, down the road: “that was not so smart; what if there had been alligators?”  We agree that people in this region are proportionally pushier than in some other places and wonder together whether that may be because there are proportionally more people to push: “it’s just one God, why fight over black or white or different religions?”  We ponder the relative advantages of more homogeneous and more heterogeneous societies.  He talks about raising four children on his own after his wife left without explanation, and he wishes we would all treat one another better.  He never solved the mystery of his wife’s departure, but he observes that one finds a way to keep going even when difficult things happen, that it’s all just part of life, and somehow he sounds more wise than denying, more philosophical than macho, more Pema Chödron than Ayn Rand.  I wonder whether his vocation nurtures his ability to recover things; to join and stitch and seal; to render a dispersable object contained, connected and whole.  Having learned that he emigrated from Thailand at age fifteen, I wonder aloud whether a Buddhist consciousness may nurture his ability to practice acceptance, and he says yes.  Marveling at how fortunate I am, since I almost never leave valuables in my car, even though my friends tease me about my caution, I suddenly remember that I was so organized earlier that I remembered to change out of my expensive eyeglasses with their canal-unfriendly Transitionsâ lenses, trading them for the spare pair I keep in the glove compartment.  How lucky I am to have an extra pair—but the extra pair is what I am wearing, and so the thief has taken off with my “real” glasses.  What a loss!  They are only three months old, but I realize that fortunately the turn of the year has just rendered me eligible for a new pair through my insurance.  However, it is unlucky that I will be unable to use that benefit for the new reading glasses I also need.  At least, though, I’ll be able to decline the unappealing Transitionsâ option this time around.  It’s an expensive revision, to be sure, but I feel fortunate that I have a vision plan at least.  Then, when Officer Mohan arrives and asks for my license and registration, I explain that I tend to leave my purse at home when I run, that therefore I have only a photocopy of my license to offer, and I am grateful that he accepts that.  But I notice, unfortunately, that my registration and insurance card appear to be missing.  I remember that there may have been a spare house key in the glove compartment (or was it to someone else’s house?), next to the eyeglass case, and I begin to worry that I have spent the last hour contentedly chatting with Gabby while the thief may have been availing himself of the possessions I so wisely left safe at home.  I ask officer Mohan to help make sure my cottage is secure.  He suggests that I call the Princeton police, but I remind him that I am fortunate to be phoneless, and so he calls them for me, and within ten minutes, when I arrive home, they are standing guard at my front and back doors.  When I escort the officer inside, I gather the mail, which includes a replacement credit card, which I am happy to see arrived so quickly after I learned yesterday that someone stole my information to buy video games.  (I felt lucky then that Citibank texted me about the anomaly.)  I apologize to the officer for the untidiness of my house and explain that the pile of rocks just about blocking the front door is part of my work, and he replies that he has four kids and that this mess is nothing.  Then he asks how the rocks are part of work, and I explain that I am a composer and I am recording them.  He asks, “How do you record a pile of rocks?!”  I say, “Oh!  I have to play them.  I don’t record them at rest.”  After the officers depart, I realize that it is two o’clock and that I have not yet had breakfast, so I am feeling light-headed, but I am grateful to find a locksmith who can come by three, though I am disappointed to have to wait even longer to shower, though it’s just as well, because when I finally get warm and wet, enthusiastically soaping and scrubbing, a virtuosic runaway pinky gives me my first ever hygiene-induced nosebleed.  Bummer; but once that is attended to, I am pleased to wolf down my sandwich, and the doorbell rings.  I’m in luck!  But wary: this is not the first time I have entrusted my safety to men who—knows how to change locks.   The Second Locksmith—who, if it were not inappropriate, I would describe as “played by James Purefoy,” who also made a compelling Mark Antony —inspects, and I worry that he is casing the joint.  After a while, he says, “cute”; and I ask, “The house?”  “Yes.”  Later I tell the two, “I’ve been trying to hear what language you are speaking—Arabic?”  They reply, “Hebrew.”  I say, “Well, I was close,” and they smile indulgently.  I am grateful that they have not gouged me (the window and nostril were enough slashing for one morning), though I have meantime learned that my car window will not arrive for four days, unless I pay extra, which I do, since I am fortunate to be flying to Cape Breton in a week.  However, I did not know I would have all these expenses when I booked my flight last night, and although I have yet to rent the car that will cost more than the plane ticket, I begin the process of feeling insolvent.  Window, locks, eyeglasses, planes, hotels, rental cars, upgrades to four-wheel drive in anticipation of a blizzard.  (A week later I will find my insurance card and registration and reflect that shelling out for new locks was unnecessary, but I am pleased to have one key for both front and back doors at last.)  In any case, as I watch the locksmiths tend the boundary between outside and in, I feel lucky that my person is unharmed and that I have nothing planned for my car for a few days.  Later I will observe that over the course of a few hours, I have interacted with six considerate men—and this isn’t even Canada!  There were three very professional and helpful police officers, two very professional and considerate locksmiths—and, of course, Gabby, who is as least as reflective as my lost window.  (If I include remote interactions, there is also the very helpful Jeff at Honda.)  The Second Locksmith says, “I really like the lavender in that vase on the mantel.”  I thank him.  He says of the vessel, which is made of glass and rests in a rustic iron housing,  “It would look even better if you put rice in the bottom to fill in the space.”  “What a good idea!” I exclaim, tickled that he has continued to case the cute details of my once-again protected joint; and I explain that the lavender has followed me from home to home and predates my good fortune in owning a cottage with space for a perennial outdoor lavender garden.  The First Locksmith interrupts to say that I’ll have to pay 10% extra if I use a credit card, and I have $280, so I am about twenty short.  Oh well.  I hand him my card and say, “Next time my car gets broken into unexpectedly and I have to change my locks on a half hour’s notice, I’ll make sure to plan ahead and have three hundred dollars in cash on hand.”

By a stroke of ill fortune, a severe storm is predicted for the night, but I am relieved that, while my outer tarp, weighed down by bricks and paint cans, flies across the yard, the car’s vulnerable opening is successfully sheltered by the garbage bag and painter’s tape underneath.  A few days later, I drive through my neighborhood, noting another breath of early spring, and I feel fortunate to be able to lower the newly installed window.  Later, when I press to close, it rises toward its destination, arrives,  and—bounces off the top of the frame and lowers again.  Up.  Down.  Up.  Down.  It’s unwilling to rest in the closed position: it’s as if my Insight insists on remaining porous, open to the elements.  This machinery seems to have has a mind of its own, to discern what is appropriate for a given moment, even if it is neither what I expect nor what I request.  I’m transfixed by this automated convenience gone awry, like Jean Tinguely’s mechanized paper-demolishing pen, or the Sorcerer’s Apprentice’s broom.  I play my window, marveling at its utterly consistent uselessness, experimenting with varieties of tempo and pressure.  Up, down, up, down.  U-u-u-p—DOWN!—up, up, up, up . . .

Maybe I won’t bother with a repair this time.

“Bach Unplugged”: A Harmonic Distillery

Bach Unplugged, ca. 1941
A Manuscript Unearthed by Prof. Charlotte Jacobs, 2012    

[Peter Lieberson in memoriam]

[Ed note: In late 2012, Prof. Charlotte Jacobs discovered a long-lost manuscript of the familiar, unattributed music theory text Bach Unplugged: Voices Unencumbered by the Voice, known heretofore only through its edited and updated edition disseminated for university use beginning in the 1950s.  The manuscript includes a “Note to the Instructor,” excised in all published editions, which does much to explain the confounding rationale of music theory teaching in the latter half of the twentieth century.  Its writing style, as much early-century dreamy stream of consciousness as mid-century modern streamlined rational, remains a subject of speculation, though it is suspected that its cookbook-like instructions point to a female author, which in turn may explain why the text has for so long remained unattributed.]

Extract chorales from can­tatas from his­tor­i­cal con­text from sacred ritual from specter of anti-Semitism. Strip off texts too and play on piano to obscure any hint of regis­tral iden­tity or tim­bral char­ac­ter or vocal sen­si­bil­ity as well as ille­git­i­ma­cies such as crossed voices or prohibited melodic intervals.  Direct ini­ti­ates to remem­ber con­ceived for voice but con­tinue to play on piano to encour­age con­jur­ing of the voices in the inner ear rather than the audi­tory real­ity of the voice which is too easy and it’s espe­cially good for the instruc­tor to play badly like a com­poser whose cre­ative work pre­cludes get­ting his [sic] hands dirty.  Remem­ber not to men­tion Bach did not write the tunes (it’ll just con­fuse them with extraneous notions of his­tor­i­cal con­tin­gency and under­mine the power of the indi­vid­ual author) and def­i­nitely don’t point out that the tunes are often odd and pre-tonal and demand har­monic real­iza­tions that are less about explicit or con­sis­tent tonal func­tion but are modal and unpre­dictable.  Avoid observ­ing that some of the most inter­est­ing aspects of musi­cal works are ambigu­ous or involve a dia­logue between con­ven­tion and idio­syn­crasy with the ear lead­ing rather than a dog­matic rule­book guar­an­teed to achieve suc­cess by unthink­ing obe­di­ence but instead give them a list of incon­tro­vert­ible traf­fic reg­u­la­tions of what not to do with­out any dis­cus­sion of what is of value and stay away from any acknowl­edg­ment that musi­cal syn­tax is a mar­velous vol­un­tary mass delu­sion, in which we agree to con­spire in believ­ing that the way invis­i­ble pat­terns move in the aether has some sense and order to it and that it is a mat­ter of acousti­cal and aes­thetic virtue rather than con­tin­gent upon envi­ron­ment, train­ing, and idiom.  When you play through chorales in class (badly if pos­si­ble), say, ooh, isn’t Bach a genius for cross­ing voices and frus­trat­ing the lead­ing tone and using those weird unex­pected chords at that spot?

In private lessons, abandon all the above, but ask, “Are you sure you want that octave there?”  (Octaves, in any century, are high-maintenance.)  Listen to your student’s concern about her own creative future, and encourage her to learn by exploring the “resistance” she so fears.  She will.  Remember her when you bump into one another twenty years later, and compliment her graciously on her creative growth and professional accomplishments.

She will learn from you and thank you, she will remember the transcendent cello solo in your Piano Concerto, and she think of you when she in turn mentors the next generation.  She will mourn you when you depart.

Taciturn Tingueling, Freezing Fingerings

[dedicated to Seth Cluett, Ph.D.]

Morning, December 17, 2012
Lawrence Lord’s Old Farm Museum 

Après-Matic Latérale

Relief Meta-Jardinique

Ferme Fermée Installée

Scalia’s Voice-Leading Constitution

This past Monday, Antonin Scalia delivered an address on the Princeton University campus.  While the official title of the Supreme Court Associate Justice’s talk was “Reading Law,” it has since been revealed that Scalia’s text was a coded elaboration of the voice-leading principles used in common-practice tonal harmony.  While Scalia spoke of “statutes” and interpretations, perspicacious spectators detected veiled references to cadences and voicings.  Below is an adulterated text—an interpolated glossary—that shows the hidden meaning behind Scalia’s comments:

“The fairest reading of the text [chorale] is what the law [common-practice tonal harmony] means.  When we read Shakespeare [Bach] we use a glossary [music-theory treatise] because we want to know what it meant when it was written. We don’t give those words [chords] their current meaning. So also with a statute [chord progression] — our statutes  [chord progressions] don’t morph, they don’t change meaning from age to age to comport with the whatever the zeitgeist [iTunes] thinks appropriate.”

Considering whether the Voice-leading Constitution is best construed as “a set of suggestions subject to the morph of the zeitgeist” or a “cemetery of decaying prohibitions ensuring that a dead language remain deceased,” Scalia became playfully severe:

“I have classes of little kids who come to the court, and they recite very proudly what they’ve been taught, ‘The Constitution  [Voice-Leading Constitution] is a living document.’ It isn’t a living document! It’s dead. Dead, dead, dead!” Scalia said, drawing laughs from the crowd. “No, I don’t say that. . . . I call it the enduring Constitution [the foundation of harmonic practice]. That’s what I tell them.”

In the on-campus discussion that continued this week, certain exegetes proposed that Scalia’s controversial comparisons of homosexuality to “murder, polygamy, cruelty to animals and bestiality” were intended to indicate the regulations that attend upon the traffic flow not of human bodies but of the individual voices in a Bach chorale, wherein parallels, touching and crossing are prohibited.  Evidence for this interpretation was cited in the use of the terms “morph” and “zeitgeist” (quoted above): in pretending to argue for the importance of the unchanging meanings of the language of the Voice-Leading Constitution, Scalia chose fluid, cross-linguistic, and up-to-date language that wittily subverted his own ostensible ideology.

Justice Scalia was not available for comment.

Shankar’s Fundamental Structure

Shankar’s Fundamental Structure
by Rose Marie McSweeney 

October 1983, Harvard University, Ear Training Class:

“Well, it’s really just a prolongation.”

“Well, Shankar would say it’s even simpler than you have there on the blackboard.”

[In my inner ear, a long sustain appears, followed by a descending sparkle.]

“Yes, he would . . .  but Shankar took it to extremes.”

[In my inner ear, and my retrospective eye, I recall this prolongation.
It was the first orchestral music I ever heard.]

And the delivery system:

A year or two later, I learn about something called the ursatz.

[R.I.P. Ravi Shankar.]

Bicycle Plants (No Fish)

Bicycle Plants (No Fish)
Prof. Charlotte Jacobs 

[dedicated to Annea Lockwood]

Music 500 (Graduate Seminar)
Prose Writing for Composers
Final Exam

Earlier this semester, we all listened to and wrote commentaries on the (then) three most recent CDs published by New World Records. Recently I had occasion to look them up on iTunes.  Results:

  • Presented with a name search of “Mathew Rosenblum,” iTunes showed the new New World CD Circadian Rhythms.

  • Presented with a name search of “Robert Carl,” iTunes showed the new New World CD From Japan.

  • Presented with a name search of “Annea Lockwood,” iTunes showed several other CDs but not the recent New World CD In Our Name.

  • And for “Annea Lockwood In Our Name,” again nothing.

  • Puzzling: Lockwood’s was published in June, the others later.  Why is it missing?

  • Responding to a search for “In Our Name,” iTunes delivers the CD, In Our Name, listed as having been authored “by various artists.”

Essay Question: Explain the above in the space. Be sure to use proper practice for citation and attribution.


[dedicated to Geoffrey Burleson]

Newly invented fingering for Bach chorales.
Please advise on outer voices.


A colleague suggests:
“What about 431 on GFC, 2 on E, 31 on FC?   (And then left 12 on Bb A)?”


Shock and Loss

November 29, 2012: Samson Young, on his Electric Counterpoint,
commissioned by the Hong Kong Sinfonietta:

“I asked, ‘Can I use live electronics?’
And they said, ‘Yes.’
I asked, ‘and a click track?’
They said, ‘Yes.’
‘Game boy sounds?’
‘And I can wear an orange jumpsuit onstage?’

I was very disappointed . . . that I was unable to shock.”



I Am Thinking

Dear Dr. Young:

My name is Charlotte Jacobs, Professor of Meta-Musicology.  I am musing in an office here at the University of Unanswerability about how to analyze your very compelling work I am thinking in a room, different from the one you are hearing in now (Homage to Alvin Lucier).   I would love, with your permission, to include a passage on it in my forthcoming book, Authentic Avatars: True Falsehoods: Successful Failures: Dominant Submissives: Roaring Silences, in the chapter entitled “Australian Male Composers of Asian Descent Tickle Teletubbies in Transgression.”

Do you have any preferences regarding the best analytical approach(es) to your work?  For example, do you prefer close reading or meta-cultural narratives? I would very much appreciate hearing from you if and as time allows.

Prof. Charlotte Jacobs

It’s Certainly a Thrill: Fred Crüger’s Archival Soul

It’s Certainly a Thrill: Fred Crüger’s Archival Soul
By Prof. Charlotte Jacobs

With Thanks to Fred Allen, Princeton Class of 1616

Schmücke dich, Enjoy the show

[Rule No. 451 of College Teaching:
Beware of “optional” assignments.]

Having invited the club to learn, transcribe, and perhaps even complete, a fragment of a chorale melody newly discovered on an archival recording collected in 1649, I ask whether anyone has composed a conclusion.  The lovely audience falls still, and my heart goes lonely.

Then Fred stops the show and raises a smile by offering his conclusion and agreeing to post it, complete with squiggly trillo—especially impressive coming from a post-Baroque clarinetist, for these things go in and out of style—on the blackboard:

Fred’s Third-Degree Trillo

I ask whether Fred would like to sing his song, and he asks his classmates, “What would you think if I sang out of tune?” and registers the counteroffer of a piano interpretation.  I sit back, let the morning go, and observe the following:

  • The astute application of ornaments convinces even the jaded ear that the tune’s author is present;
  • Fred’s closing phrase is nearly identical to Crüger’s, and, indeed, both Fred and Crüger pretty much repeat the second phrase.  Such economy, such restraint.  And who is channelling whom?  To wit:
  • The medallion on the back of Fred’s t-shirt: a Baroque seal of some sort?

I thought you might like to know:

Upon more careful inspection, the graphic reveals itself:


Moreover, as if the preponderance of the mediant third degree in Fred Crüger’s intertext were not enough to suggest a parallel, the texts dispel any uncertainty, and so I conclude that the 1649 tune is a recomposition of the title track from the 1967 album—which, in turn, must have sampled today’s instantiation.  It is, after all, 2012, and we have just stepped in to the teens’ sixties’ forties.

Der Herr voll Heil und Gnaden
We hope you will enjoy the show.
lässt dich iztz zu Gaste laden.
Sit back and let the evening go.

Twenty years ago today all would have been different.
It’s wonderful to be here.
It’s certainly a thrill.

[In our next episode: Gilligan’s Island’s Carmen’s Habañera’s Hamlet’s Soliloquy]