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May 26, 2004

Making Music

Morton Subotnick's CD-ROMs Making Music (here) and Making More Music (here) are brilliant music-composition programs for kids that many adults may enjoy too. They're nursery environments for music-making; Subotnick has managed come up with music-making tools that are as simple, basic, and fun to manipulate as building blocks and finger paints.

Subotnick himself is a longtime and terrific composer of electronic music whose best-known piece is probably "Silver Apples of the Moon." (It's buyable here.) You can read an interview with him here. Here's his own site. Here's a site he's organized where kids can play with music. It doesn't work very well on my computer, while the CD-ROMs work flawlessly.

Fair warning: the view of music that Subotnick presents is a Modernist one. You don't learn or experience historical forms; instead, you explore music very abstractly, as sound arranged in time. As it turns out (and IMHO, of course), this is ideal for experimenting, and for taking your first music-composition babysteps. Subotnick describes "Making Music" as a "composing space," and that seems about right.

posted by Michael at May 26, 2004


I owe you, Michael.
Chronic problem with presents for my 4 y.o. nephew's birthday is solved! (at least this year - but I count on you for the next, and the next...)

Posted by: Tatyana on May 27, 2004 09:19 AM

the view of music that Subotnick presents is a Modernist one. You don't learn or experience historical forms; instead, you explore music very abstractly, as sound arranged in time.

Odd that you should write this just as I've finished reading through the notorious mid '80s debate between the historical musicologist Richard Taruskin and the music theorist Allen Forte over approaches to analyzing Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. Especially odd considering that as I was reading it, Michael, several points struck me as resonating with what are hot-button issues for you. Quoth Taruskin:

My chief point [is] that the studied empiricism of Forte's method, based as it is on the assumption of what might be described as a stance of "phenomonological virginity," was not a very effective way of viewing a work like The Rite, which (like all works by all composers) was written against a background of common practice that needed to be taken into account in some way.... I was writing out of a general conviction that music is not written in a historical vacuum, and should not be analyzed as if it were.

Quoth Forte, in response:

in my opinion, extreme historicism is potentially negative in its effect on music theory and analysis. If I were to approach the study of a new repertory of music, one quite unfamiliar to me, I would adopt as an epistemusicological strategy a stance of "phenomonological virginity," as Taruskin wittily puts it, not merely because virginity of any kind is such a rare commodity these days, but because it is often the best way to start out. The tabula rasa has not yet outlived its usefulness, just because it still offers, insofar as possible, a clean slate upon which to draft new ideas.

Some background for you: Allen Forte was closely allied with the American High Modernist composer Milton Babbitt in the '50s, when the two of them worked to inaugurate Ph.D programs in music composition and music theory at Princeton and Yale. Both men took a highly systematized, mathematical approach to their respective fields: Babbitt's compositional method was a further codification of Arnold Schoenberg's modernist technique of organizing music into rows that treated all pitches in the scale equivalentally, rather than as having a natural tonal orientation; Forte's analytical method treated sets of pitches as basic semantic units in music, viewing them as more illustrative of the laws of musical organization than historically inherited large scale forms and procedures. Taruskin, one the other hand, is part of a group of scholars influenced by Joseph Kerman's humane approach to the interpretation of music and the writing of music history; incidentally, he has just completed a sweeping 4500 page history of Western music that will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.

The crux of this debate is really this: Forte wants to demonstrate that The Rite of Spring shares essential "atonal" elements with the Austro-German modernists--Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, like that--and thus exemplifies the "common practice" of early twentieth century modernism. Taruskin, on the contrary, insists that The Rite is umbilically connected to 19th century tonal Russian musical practice--i.e., that Stravinsky was building on his inherited tradition rather than breaking decisively from it. Anyway, just thought this debate played interestingly into some of your own thoughts on modernism and tradition.

Posted by: Mark Dellelo on May 28, 2004 10:16 AM

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