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The Whistling Blackbird

The Whistling Blackbird: Essays and Talks on New Music

Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: NED - New edition
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 442
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  • Book Info
    The Whistling Blackbird
    Book Description:

    The Whistling Blackbird: Essays and Talks on New Music is the long-awaited book of essays from Robert Morris, the greatly admired composer and music theorist. In these essays, Morris presents a new and multifaceted view of recent developments in American music. His views on music, as well as his many compositions, defy easy classification, favoring instead a holistic, creative, and critical approach. The Whistling Blackbird contains fourteen essays and talks, divided into three parts, preceded by an "Overture" that portrays what it means to compose music in the United States today. Part 1 presents essays on American composers John Cage, Milton Babbitt, Richard Swift, and Stefan Wolpe. Part 2 comprises talks on Morris's music that illustrate his ideas and creative approaches over forty years of music composition, including his outdoor compositions, an ongoing project that began in 1999. Part 3 includes four essays in music criticism: on the relation of composition to ethnomusicology; on phenomenology and attention; on music theory at the millennium; and on issues in musical time. Threaded throughout this collection of essays are Morris's diverse and seemingly disparate interests and influences. English romantic poetry, mathematical combinatorics, group and set theory, hiking, Buddhist philosophy, Chinese and Japanese poetry and painting, jazz and nonwestern music, chaos theory, linguistics, and the American transcendental movement exist side by side in a fascinating and eclectic portrait of American musical composition at the dawn of the new millennium. Robert Morris is Professor of Music Composition at the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester.

    eISBN: 978-1-58046-766-7
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Robert Morris
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Overture: Some Issues Facing the Contemporary American Composer
    (pp. xv-xxvi)

    What does it mean to say, “I am an American composer”? At the time of this writing—eight years into the twenty-first century—this seemingly simple assertion is fraught with ambiguity. Consider the word “American.” First of all, “America” usually stands for the United States, not all of the Western hemisphere.¹ Apart from the fact that I might not have been born in the United States (which is the case) or that I am not a United States citizen (which is not the case), being an American composer could mean many different—even conflicting—things. For what is American music?...

  6. Part One: Essays on Composers

    • Chapter One Cage Contemplating/Contemplating Cage
      (pp. 3-26)

      This essay appeared in 2000 in theOpen Space Magazine.¹ Benjamin Boretz, the main editor and founder of the journal, asked that I write something to be published in Volume 2. I had written a piece about the ways in which we might divide “musicking”—into music, talking about music, and talking about talking about music. I showed Ben a draft, and he said he liked it all right, but I could tell he didn’t think it was my best work.² A few days later, a week before I left on a trip to India, I found myself spontaneously writing...

    • Chapter Two Some Things I Learned (Didn’t Learn) from Milton Babbitt, or Why I Am (Am Not) a Serial Composer
      (pp. 27-84)

      Like the Cage essay, this text was also written for theOpen Space Magazineat the insistence of Ben Boretz.¹ While written in the first person, it is somewhat dialogical; the two sides of the conversation are what I learned from Babbitt solely from his music and writings and what that meant to my own growth as composer and musical inventor. Unlike many of the other writings in this book, this essay stands on its own since whatever contextualization I felt was necessary to frame its issues and content is written directly into it, including autobiography and anecdotes. Therefore, I...

    • Chapter Three Not Only Rows in Richard Swift’s Roses Only
      (pp. 85-111)

      Although I Had Encountered The Music Of John Cage, Milton Babbitt, And Stefan Wolpe In My Late Teens, I Didn’t Know Of Richard Swift Until After I Finished Graduate School, And I Didn’t Listen To His Music Until The Late 1970s. In The Early 1990s, We Became Friends, And I Got To Know A Good Deal Of His Music, Which Shared Some Compositional Principles With Babbitt’s And Mine. I Chose To Include My Article On Swift In This Book Not Only Because I’d Like To Introduce His Music To Those Who Have Not Yet Encountered It, But Because It Documents...

    • Chapter Four A Footnote to Hasty, Whitehead, and Plato: More Thoughts on Stefan Wolpe’s Music
      (pp. 112-116)

      It’s interesting to know that in the 1950s John Cage and Stefan Wolpe spent time together exchanging ideas at Black Mountain College and in New York City. Milton Babbitt and Wolpe also interacted in New York during the same period. In some ways Wolpe was more traditional than Babbitt or Cage, in others he was surely more eclectic. In any case, Wolpe taught and influenced many of the most important American composers of the next generation—composers of many different stripes: Charles Wuorinen, Ursula Mamlok, Morton Feldman, M. William Karlins, Ralph Shapey, and Harvey Sollberger, to name only a few....

  7. Part Two: Talks on My Music

    • Chapter Five Composing Each Time
      (pp. 119-183)

      I delivered this talk to the composition students and faculty at Eastman in the winter of 2006. It is the most recent of the talks in this section of this book, but I’ve put it first since it gives a somewhat rounded description of my composition practice. It also provides a more leisurely introduction to many concepts and aesthetic principles that inform the rest of the talks and my work as a whole.

      At the outset, I submit that I rarely describe my work to others to this degree of specificity; in fact, I tend not to reveal such things...

    • Chapter Six Why Not Lilacs
      (pp. 184-212)

      This text is a written version of a talk I’ve delivered on at least ten occasions in various forms and venues since 1974 when I first presented it to my graduate class on twelve-tone music at Yale University.1 While I reveal some of my experiences and knowledge of modern and free jazz in the talk, here I will recount a few more personal experiences that greatly affected my appreciation of jazz as a young man.

      As a teenager in the late 1950s, I took piano lessons in New York City in both Steinway Hall and Carnegie Hall. I would travel...

    • Chapter Seven Cold Mountain Songs
      (pp. 213-233)

      As I say in my talk on nature and my music later in this part, I encountered haiku poetry in the late 1950s. It had a purity that attracted me because it was not about people or ideas but about the act of perception itself. It was wonderful to find out a little later that Mel Powell had set a group of haiku in hisHaiku Settings(1960), sung marvelously by Bethany Beardslee on a Son-Nova LP recording, along with hisFiligree Settingfor string quartet and works of Milton Babbitt. Over the years I returned to haiku in my...

    • Chapter Eight Music as Poetry: A Talk on My Fourteen Little Piano Pieces
      (pp. 234-258)

      This talk was delivered to the composers at Eastman in a composition forum in 2004. It is a talk with didactic aspects about a piece that was written both to teach and to please. I spend some time revealing many intracompositional references. In this I have ambivalence, since I’d prefer the listener or performer to discover such references on his or her own. The references are to other twelvetone pieces by other composers. References to tonal music would have to be translations across different musical languages, except in the case of quotation, which rarely occurs in the music I have...

    • Chapter Nine Nature, Music and Nature, My Music Outdoors
      (pp. 259-300)

      This “talk” was more or less written to be part of this book. Some paragraphs come from a brief essay I wrote on request from the Web magazineNew Music Box.¹ It appeared with other articles on the topic “How do music and nature connect in your work?” A few other paragraphs—some explicitly quoted—come from program notes for the outdoor pieces. Notes for an introductory talk before the performance ofOraclewere recast for inclusion here. And some of the material onSound/Path/Fieldis adapted from a PowerPoint presentation on that composition I have presented here and there...

  8. Part Three: Essays on Criticism and Aesthetics

    • Chapter Ten Aspects of Confluence between Western Art Music and Ethnomusicology
      (pp. 303-312)

      This essay represents a turning point in my writing on music.¹ Up to this time, I had written mainly technical papers, reviews, and books on music theory. Of course, in classes and convention talks I had discussed the relation of the study of non-Western art music to recent concert and electronic music. In fact, some of the ideas of this text were tried out as early as 1984 at theSociety for Ethnomusicology’s national convention at the University of Florida in Tallahassee.

      The kind of activities and interests that I identify as an “ethnomusicological perspective” to composition have become commonplace...

    • Chapter Eleven Musical Form, Expectation, Attention, and Quality
      (pp. 313-326)

      This essay presents a poetics of music that brings much of my thinking about music into one field of inquiry, attention.¹ As a result, it overlaps with many passages in the other texts in the book. For instance, it literally returns to Cage’s idea about deceptive cadences and the emptiness of cognition in music, amplifies my take on Wolpe’s music, and connects into my talk on nature and music via the Wordsworth quotation at the end of the essay. The term “suchness” is of Buddhist extraction; the term gestures at the experience of perceiving things as they are, without mental...

    • Chapter Twelve Autocommentary: Thoughts on Music Theory at the Millennium
      (pp. 327-335)

      In 1998 I was asked by the editors of the music theory journalIntégralto consider writing an essay on the state of music theory at the turn of the twenty-first century.¹ I had been similarly asked in 1996 to write on the major trends in music theory for a special plenary session celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the Society for Music Theory at its national convention held in Phoenix, Arizona in the fall of 1997. Rather than read a text, I selected thirty-five quotations, one per author, from music theory texts from 1987–97 to be read over a...

    • Chapter Thirteen Thinking about Musical Time
      (pp. 336-356)

      There has been much writing on time in philosophy, physics, anthropology, and to some extent, in the arts. The literature is diverse, often complex and abstruse, sometimes very insightful, yet somehow unsatisfying when one tries to apply it to time in music. Perhaps this is because studies on the concept of time, the phenomenology of time, and the role of time in cultural and social practice do not fit together well at all. And it might also be that musical time might be a very special type of time, not altogether found in the arts or other forms of experience....

  9. Appendixes

    • Appendix A Some Serial Music Terms
      (pp. 357-358)
    • Appendix B Set-Class Table
      (pp. 359-366)
    • Appendix C Hexachordal Combinatoriality
      (pp. 367-367)
    • Appendix D Two-Row Combinatoriality
      (pp. 368-368)
  10. Notes
    (pp. 369-394)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 395-402)
  12. Index
    (pp. 403-416)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 417-419)