Category Archives: Music by Michael Winn Myrow

Recordings, albums, pieces, music philosophy

PANDEPHONIUM

Pandephonium is music for a dance based on the story of Orpheus and Eurydice; a ballet that incorporates Chinese and Western musical forms and instruments. The protagonist, Arnold, is a photo journalist from Cincinnati. He and Weixia, a dancer from Shanghai, China, meet at Carnival in Bahia. Arnold follows Weixia to Beijing to negotiate marriage with her father, who lets her leave with Arnold on condition that Arnold may not utter a single word in English before he leaves China.

The score incorporates traditional Batucada and Chinese dance and musical forms, reflecting emerging global culture; honoring western and eastern sensibilities with an orchestra of western instruments as well as Guzheng, Xiao, Djembe, Tabla and a samba bateria. There are Samba and Chinese classical dance costumes and choreographic elements. There’s a choir of actors, who can be heard shouting, singing and applauding in the recording at the above Soundcloud.com link

The 25-minute piece posted on Soundcloud is both an overture and summary of the full score; outlining scenarios in which a company of dancers elaborate on Batucada and Chinese dance rhythms; at times with spectators in scenes, where audience members join in musical celebrations, singing verses and dancing. 25 minutes of music in the posted recording contains elements for solo, pas de dieux and ensemble dances and several transitional orchestral elements.

Quotations in the opening section reference traditional western classical and popular motifs, with flavors of Ives, Copeland, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Debussy along with rhythms of the West African diaspora (samba). Traditional Chinese melodies and harmonic rhythm underly the whole.

For more information about performances, please, you may contact me at Michael@michaelwinn.org

Musical Expression – The Unrecognizable

For the first time in the history of man and/or music, after many millennia, we can learn how music works harmonically, including a myriad cultural conventions of notation and theory, without running scales on an acoustic instrument–we have an app for that.

Running scales can be charming and beneficial when artfully invented and performed: Bach, Mozart, Ravi Shankar, etc. But many of us, who learned by playing scales as children stopped playing because we were either not gifted in this way or were bored stiff with soul-less instruments. Many were forced by parents or teachers or peer competition to do something we didn’t enjoy with instruments that would challenge the sanity of a virtuous performer. Some early scale-runners applied their limited knowledge and experience in garage bands; some became rock stars and/or stars of jazz. So few have composed a single masterpiece that we must admit the conventional approach, though effective for a few, may actually foreclose possibilities for a much larger number of those who love music and could do well, if they could learn some other way.

Logic Pro – Arrange Window, C-Minor Progression. (v9j)

Today, using off the shelf music technology and their own musical sensibility, anyone can learn to distinguish nuances of musical relationship with finer resolution and better technical understanding than they could by running scales. With a little guidance from midi interpretations of scores by Mahler, Bartok, Beethoven, etc., they can understand music as well as former scale-runners who became music teachers. Unfortunately, midi performances using the best samples can’t now come close to acoustic performance by a gifted musician. I doubt that will ever change. I don’t expect it will and I feel that when it does, it will be only because our ability to hear music will have become less acute.

Shortly after I started working with digital composition and production, I wrote a scene for a sort of feel-good movie, to be called, “The Schoenberg” and I realized it wasn’t a movie I had written but a future I unknowingly predicted and that particular future may now be emerging.

Playing with their ideas, I’ve learned to follow musical narratives of the amazing Russian, Italian, French, Hungarian, Czech, German, Austrian, English, Spanish composers of the last millennium and those who came to America: Copeland, Ives, Berg, Schoenberg, Adorno, Korngold and Goldsmith.

Composing, for me, is self-rewarding, while my satisfaction from writing occurs when the work is read. Narratives of any kind satisfy our need for connection and its ironic that media us a surrogate for real connection. And since commercial media narratives aims to please an “average” human being–an abstract notion; imaginary, the value of media is limited.

Our actions and inactions are responses to our feelings and as we’ve seen in cinema, music can alter perception without logical reason. Logical explanations follow our actions–interpretations of prior performance. Wisdom is emotional: we feel what we feel.

We can’t question the economic value of music: the music industry rakes in hundreds of billions. In view of this, that public education in the United States abandoned music (to be fair, with the rest of the arts) in the 1980s and now our university classes are led by musicians who are unable to support a lifestyle plying their craft. Most of us teach for a living, not artistic commitment. We gave up artistic ambitions to become carpenters, real estate brokers, educational administrators, and so on, and now we pay begrudging respect to those who achieve commercial success and we tend to focus on recording and production technologies rather than artful expression. Educators haven’t yet seen the possibilities of emerging music technology.

For most of history, children who had excellent support and musical ambition, might become virtuosic performers and composers by applying knowledge of traditions by rote. American jazz musicians had family and peer support in their cultural tradition. Musical development of many popular performers: Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin was only informed by rudiments of the canon but they were typically supported by traditionally trained musicians and song writers. Popular music composition doesn’t rely heavily on the canon but it does rely on common practice conventions of 17th century notation and harmony and most of the $100s of billions is for recordings of popular music.

In the 21st century, we can make complex, articulate and emotionally powerful compositions without ever learning to play an instrument. Moreover, we may better understand, compose and produce music of any tradition and complexity. As a young man, I learned to play classical guitar when I stumbled into buying a concert quality instrument from my flamenco teacher. It was a 1962 concert model made by José Ramirez. In 1970, I traded it for a bass viol made in Czec by another famous instrument maker. I sold it not knowing that great bass viols are even more rare than great guitars. At the time, though I spent countless hours practicing, I hadn’t a clue about harmony. In Canada, for a while, I lived in a small rural village. I had five pianos in my home and played them all by ear. Today, I have a Yamaha Motif 8 professional electronic piano, which interfaces with my digital audio workstation and it was using this technology that I was able to study and understand the finest distinctions of music theory, art and practice.

The term, “Digital Audio Workstation” means, a computer program (software) that processess digital representations of sounds. I use an app called, Logic, sold by Apple, installed on a Macbook. I’ve purchased a library of instrument voices from Vienna Symphonic Instruments, an Austrian company that makes high quality samples by recording instrument sounds performed by competent artists in a nearly completely dry environment. (Dry means without reverberations (reflected sounds reflecting from surfaces or the room). I also use several software synthesizers and digital signal processors that can emulate analog, digital and acoustic instruments and add reverberation and other effects.

Vienna Symphonic Instruments – VI Pro Graphic Interface – Several Iterations (Voices)

A sample is a compressed digital recording of a sound made by an instrument or group of instruments playing a single note. When performers play notes on acoustic (real) instruments, their technique shapes the sound of each note. The DAW can sound that note and the DAW musician can adjust its sound in real time by programming nuances of timing, attack, sustain, pitch, volume, timber, decay, release, reverb, for each note. We program automated changes in the sound of each sampled note, following a pattern using the software’s intuitive graphic user interface. Algorithms can modify sounds to create a humanizing effect. Those who use sound and music technology make use of the same fuzzy distinctions that characterize acoustic music, even though the CPU rounds down computations and is highly precise.

Music technology is probably a lot more important to the future of humanity than we typically understand. We think music is unnecessary but if it is necessary, the reason why this is so is a defining characteristic of human being. You could organize your life to not include the function of depth perception and do away with an eye. You could live without color and remove that part of your brain’s function. You could live without intimate human contact. But when you evaluate things we give our time to for the sake of quality of life, we see that music has a humanizing effect and for the listener, this is without effort. Would we still be human without the ability to enjoy music?

Now, since music technology makes it possible for anyone to learn, regardless of previous experience, without practicing scales on mediocre instruments, the possibility of engagement with music is, for the first time in history, available to everyone. There’s a learning curve that requires commitment but its difficulty is in proportion to the complexity of music you would like to hear.

Last week, I met an educator whose company promotes the use of graphic digital processing as a way to help develop creativity in students who have had difficulty mastering verbal languages. She uses Adobe collection of Creative Suite apps. Comic books often include images to evoke anger, frustration and desire though not as effectively as music, which can contextualize any object within it’s emotional envelope. Music, however, can also be triumphant, fearful, ecstatic, dangerous, remorseful, fraternal, etc. I explained this to the educator I met last week; the idea that sound, unlike graphic technologies, doesn’t even require that viewers pay attention, much less, make rational sense of what they are present to, to get the feeling: reading images or language, we discern and then assess the meaning of prominent features and process our optical perceptions though a grid of that which we recognize and so view the world evoked by the graphic as a recreation of what we already know. In contrast, music directly stimulates emotional assessments and even digitally produced music allow us to directly express emotions without using language or symbols.

Of what use are emotional assessments evoked in music? In films, they tell us how to feel about what we’re seeing. A song, piece or sequence of pieces is also a narrative, imagined by listeners, often unrelated to a visual or verbal image because we understand sound emotionally, independent of rational ideas about source or subject. Music creates an emotional context in which we behold the emotional world, analogous to physical space within which we perceive the physical world and, when composers describe their musical stories with titles like, “Prelude to Afternoon of a Faun*, its unrecognizable.

Musical Expression

Some time ago, In 1989, I was invited to observe San Diego Symphony rehearsals for a series of performances by means of which, the Symphony’s Orchestra Committee hoped to choose a new conductor from a select group of invitees. I was the only person in the audience (musicians were paid a lower fee for private rehearsals, according to the AFM Local 325 union contract) to witness the selection process as well as the conductor’s craft, when. over several weeks, the 80-odd symphonists ambled onto the stage carrying their instruments, found their appointed chairs before their specified music stands, and sat quietly in a semi-circular formation. Promptly at 9:55, a woman or man they’d never before seen walked up to the podium, uttered a few words advising where they were to begin in the score, raised a baton, and as if by magic, the assembled lot, were transformed into a symphony, simply by playing notes printed on their score parts. I remember in particular, a part from Prokofiev’s Suite for Romeo and Juliet in which the tonal harmony rises from chaos. On another day, they attacked Dvorak, cajoled Beethoven, led Britten, engaged with Sibelius, and so on. It wasn’t lost on me that the ideas of these composers were enduring in global human memory by means of an arcane and complex set of traditions and conventions that span many cultures through time and distance.

I was there simply because I’d asked a neighbor, who I knew was the operations director of the symphony, to allow me observe the conductor try-outs, which were held the day before the public performances, at ten on Thursday mornings. As it turned out, the symphony was unable to hire a conductor because it was bankrupt, as the Board had refused to continue funding. However, I did two things I hadn’t previously considered. First, before I began to study music (and recently earned a master’s degree education in composition), I outlined a series of video programs for use by educators in San Diego’s public schools and with the support from local foundations and the assistance of a conductor I’d met during the rehearsals, I produced The Nature of Sound, which was the first in the series of educational videos I’d outlined in which elementary school students are given the basic distinctions about music and the science of sound. (Teachers in every school in San Diego Unified School District have shown it to countless students since 1989.)

 

The Moz – Piano & Cello and Guitar & Cello

Guitar & Cello

(The photo was made in Venice, California, in 1974)

Voices and range of guitar and cello are similar. This developed from piano; an “imputed” melody was expressed in the cello voice.  Replacing piano with guitar allowed the cello more prominence.

Piano & Cello Version

(Photo c. 2010, Fort Bragg, California)

 

With a second section in response to C Minor Progression-II.

(The photo was made in San Diego, California, c. 1992)

Below, is the next iteration, a trio,  adding a bass trombone voice to both polyphonic and harmonic rhythm in the piano/cello duet.

Someone asked how I became a composer so late in life.

Caveat: Work in Progress! Biographic material subject to revision as things appear differently sometimes, when looking back, as time, unfolded, reveals me to me, as if I’m elsewhere and then it seems that I-today remembers me differently. I-today wasn’t present and what was sometimes humiliates me to consider. This line leads me to why am I here now? I have a human need for creative projects. I’m loved by my daughter, who is almost a sister.

I didn’t understand the longterm impact of an emotion of disgust in the presence of an older person, a not wanting to be them; that I couldn’t imagine becoming old and I didn’t want to. I also feared I would die very young. Thoughtlessly, I found myself on the threshold of my own age bias. Perceptions of age in this culture reflect the relationship of erotic love to power and it’s not a sliding scale.

My feelings and the empirical evidence presume that life means something, I’ve given it thought and I rationally choose it despite the evidence. That I wait for things to change is a prayer. Then, there’s music and reading and for some, who can afford it, whoring. The world would change direction if we subsidized sex work. A voucher system. There are epic possibilities for corruption. Expressions of anger and revenge would show up in new ways. A mini series.

My character’s genetic structure must reflect at least a couple centuries of music and theatre. However,  the creative process is a form of madness and I had experiences of abandonment at unusual events in the early years. I’m always editing names. Memory delivers images of events that I describe using words, sometimes  imagined events. It’s helpful to know the difference and many times it’s hard to say. Memory is not the interpreter but it remembers interpretations associated with emotions in different ways depending on the experience and awareness of the rememberer.

I remember when she went to work as a typist at the Philadelphia Navy yard in 1940, placing me in Loretta’s hands. But I didn’t know where she went nor what people did there. Yet I got how she felt about working at the place. She had literally left the house she and my father rented in Hollywood with my brother, who was 3 at the time. I was born in Chicago on a stop-over to Philadelphia. I met my father finally at the age of 35, when I was on or just over the brink of divorce. He said he married, in sequence, three women, producing two children with each. I’m afraid that’s in the genes. I’ve felt the weight of karma, which endorses my underlying Jewish mentality.

Mother had no time and less energy nor a great desire to oversee temperamental talent but she understood and even felt compassion for its provenance, everything about her experience of my father disgusted her, including the music profession. I get the efficacy of practicing scales but I don’t do it well enough to be profitable. In my world, we have technology that has allowed me to make distinctions in music with as much if not more attention, to hear the Bach in Mahler and v.v. Where would we be with technology if we couldn’t make it possible for a composer to create a symphony without his becoming a skilled performer of an acoustic instrument? This is one of the reasons why I had to wait so long, longing sometimes for the day to come, surrounding myself with instruments I learned to make lovely sounds on but not to play. I avoid playing with others and am generally, uncool. I’ve been a demon for getting jobs done when I’m called upon to do and I’m mostly useful in creative work. I’ve been prescient as a writer, taking things to logical conclusions and remaining alert to changing circumstances.

When I was four years old, she had farmed my brother out to live with our uncle and moved us into the large flat above the store her mother’s second husband owned in Camden, New Jersey and I got to know black people when I wandered away when grandma was inattentive. My brother was unwanted by his aunt having to do with my brothers effect on his cousin, her son, who became the chief administrator of a significant psychiatric hospital.

So she moved us from my grandmother’s flat in a Jewish ghetto on Kaighns Avenue to a flat in a brownstone on North 15th Street in Philadelphia. The three-story house was a long block north off Allegheny, on a corner of a cultural vortex at the intersecting boundaries of black, Irish Catholic, Protestant and Italian Catholic communities. No other Jews lived here. Kids played in their own communities and learned a xenophobic interest in those of other communities but there was no Jewish community in this intersection. I felt it was safer to be invisible. It was a strategy to disappear, like a chameleon, hiding in the background, as I passed from world to world to world  walking to and from school.

With the experience of a chameleon not unlike Felix Krull, I commenced a life and even though it included assumptions of privilege of race and intellect and  even though fortune presented opportunities and even though I can’t avoid accomplishing whatever is set before me to do, I have felt compelled to deprecate my natural talent and move forward as if methodically. In a high school, in Norwalk, California, I was identified by a perceptive teacher as a clever communicator and my mother began collecting trophies I’d win in forensic contests. It was thrilling to be emotionally committed and emotionally detached in the performance. At Long Beach State College, I continued to compete and discovered sculpture and radio theater. I directed two and wrote two for the college radio program. I was in love but introduced to sex by a sexually avid 19 year old theater student from Santa Ana. I was grateful also for the degree because I was starving at the time until a girlfriend arranged for me to get a job as a social worker, providing I got the diploma.

A couple years later, I met Anne Webster; shortly before I was fired from my job as a probation counselor by the new manager of an LA County probation camp for emotionally disturbed male juvenile delinquents. They brought in Ira from Israel where he’d worked in a  military boot camp. He wore khaki and introduced the camp to the Israeli tough love approach to behavior modification. Since I had  more in common with the juvenile charges we oversaw, I didn’t fit Ira’s pictures. I was in angst over a woman I adored, who didn’t want to know I existed, not that I could have changed that then.

Had I read Don Quixote then, as my girlfriend’s mother suggested, I wouldn’t have recognized myself anyway.  I don’t remember what inspired it but I went to Puerto Vallarta  by train and bus and when I returned, I moved into a house in Santa Monica with Anne. 1967 was not a bad year, give or take Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam war.

Anne introduced me to Buñuel, Bergman, Kurosawa, Fellini and so on. It occurred to me that, if a storteller can show photographic images in addition to the audio, making a narrative fiction in film is a piece of cake and the universe smiled and agreed. I began making films first for use in elementary school classrooms. Viewers followed my stories, young children and black people; especially. When I was 11 years old, I was the only white male at Gillespie Junior High School, which later led to a connection with John Birks (Dizzy)  Gillespie and a tour to Upsala with him and Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, Thelonius Monk, Ben Webster, Don Cherry, Sahib Shihab.

Several years later, after Anne and I had split up and I was in LA and she and my daughter lived in Oakland, I had an idea for a movie based on a  magic building but, instead of producing the story, I got Xerox to help me make the building. My chameleon act: “Can you do that?” “Sure I can do that”” The media called the building the most intelligent building in the world, an oxymoron. McGraw Hill published my book about it, called, Architectonics. I discovered that I can write pretty good.  I then led a new nonprofit corporation in San Diego and before I knew it, I’d developed hundreds of homes affordable to families of people with whom I have nothing in common but my human physical form, not unlike those around whom I grew up in Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey.

In the morning of February 17, 1997, during my daily 7 A.M. run on the beach, I fell unconscious into the Pacific Ocean due to oxygen starvation in my brain when the aortic valve didn’t open sufficiently. I regained consciousness as the blood rushed to my head when I was floating face down in the water. For a few minutes, although I was, in a sense, awake, my eyes took in the view of sand settling below the surf, I had no memory.. “I” simply didn’t occur. Nothing occurred. I felt nothing but a sense of awe. No desire, no regret, no pain, no judgment, I felt lucid, satisfying sensation. As my eyes scanned  trees and residences along the bluff above the beach, I felt vague familiarity and curiosity. My attention came to rest on a large, round window in the gable of a grey clapboard house. It’s peculiar shape connected with the name of the neighbor who designed that house. As her name occurred to me, my life came tumbling back to me through that round window like a tornado in reverse motion. I thought, in the words of Jackie Gleason, “Pow! Right in the kisser!”

 Following a “pulmonary autograft procedure” (open heart surgery), my heart was successfully reconstructed. The medical profession is unable to acknowledge the post traumatic stress disorder created by terrifying medical procedures, leaving parents to their psychological fate, which varies depending on the patient’s immediate family and I had none. Systematically, I gave up everything, though I tried to keep my dignity. I gave up human relationship. I gave up my home and I drove off, heading north from Del Mar in an old pickup truck with a camper shell, with a dog and a cat. A year later, when I was camping alone, in a 1973 Southwind RV, in a redwood forest 13 miles from Ft. Bragg in Mendocino County, first the cat and then the dog died. I then truly had nothing and it wasn’t any better that I knew I had nothing, however, there was a stark authenticity about it that reminded me of my experience on the beach in Del Mar that day when I didn’t remember anything.

The road into the place, where I camped in Jackson State Forest was an ancient logging road that winds down the side of a canyon from Highway 22 to a tributary of the Noyo. The road is a litany of jarring potholes and bone rattling rocks constantly overturned by logging trucks. Twisting ruts deepened in frequent rains and then filled with dust again when it was dry.  The occasional pile of bear shit and fallen branches added surprise and color each day but I grew to know that road “like the back of my hand”. I timed the four miles of ruts, rocks and hairpin turns above precipitous drops and tried to beat my time from camp to highway and highway to camp.  At speed, sound and movement became rhythmic and, my brain, soaked in adrenalin, gave me a short-lived feeling of being alive. It was at the start of one of these trips, when I was taking Bear (the dog) to a vet, that I first heard the music.

At first I thought I only remembered the Can Can from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman. I was frightened, when I couldn’t make the music stop. Then the music stopped when I stopped the truck at the stop sign at 22, starting again when I turned onto the highway.  I could stop listening to the music by putting my attention on something else, but the music continued. When I focused on the music, I could hear all the instruments and I found I could change the tempo and I began playing with the arrangement and orchestration.

By now, I’ve read Oliver Sacks studies of patients in his book, Musicophilia (Random House,2007) but when this happened, I had a thought that going mad is unfairly criticized that being nuts isn’t so bad. That I heard the Can Can seemed profoundly ironic.  It started at the instant the truck started and it only stopped at the completion of a perfect cadential phrase and I would carefully stop the truck and modify the tempo towards this end.  I experimented with turning the music on and off while imagining driving. Tales of Hoffman was the first piece of theatrical music I heard, when my mother left me in the care of my grandmother and I played with her Victrola records.

I’m astonished and a little bitter thinking about my long unacknowledged capacity for creation of music, like an unrequited love denied through a lifetime of emotional poverty, persisting  through all my careers during my time as a chameleon. How remarkable that during all those years, I’d always owned and toyed with instruments. For several years, when I lived in Canada, there were five pianos in my home and a bass viol, vibraphone, several guitars, flutes and some drums. I played them for fun and relaxation. And I often chose the company of musicians, whom I envied  for making a living doing what they loved to, but also, I envied them their musical ability. I felt intuitively that I could learn to play but I’d never learn to use an instrument like Casals, Miles or Ellington. I was resigned that I wouldn’t make music.

Offenbach’s Can Can is a musical rendering of Hieronymus Bosch’s vision of The Garden of Earthly Delights. When I moved out of the forest and into an RV Park in Ft. Bragg. I also began to suspect that my interest is music was a message. In light of my fascination with music since those early days with my Grandmother’s Victrola,, it seems strange that I avoided taking it up seriously. But it makes perfect sense that I should feel as I do for I knew no other way to develop knowledge and ability with music except by mastering an instrument because this is conventional knowledge. Ask any music teacher in any school anywhere. Nevertheless, my ambition has always been to conduct the philharmonic and while I’d avoided any serious study of music, my experience of the most complex harmony grew intuitively. To not study music now was no longer an option. Offenbach’s high kicking line of dancers launched me into my career.

It seems astounding that five years later, I’ve earned an MFA in composition. I’ve deconstructed and recreated works of Bartok, Bach, Debussy, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Mahler, Brahms, Beethoven and I’ve learned enough about Arabic Maqam, Indian Carnatic and traditional Chinese music to understand and use their idiomatic forms. Most importantly, I feel satisfied when I’m writing music.

Much of what I’ve learned about music has been through reading, taking classes and learning how to listen acutely but my progress has been mostly empowered by new professional audio software for programming midi mainly using samples sold by Vienna Symphonic Instruments. Years of dedicated practice might allow a gifted musician to play in a symphony orchestra but you can learn more about a complex piece when you program the shape of each note by each instrument. This technology allows you to stand on the practice of all music ever by anyone anywhere and anytime.

The best part of this story is my journey in music has only just begun.