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Rambling Man
Written by Ava

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Tim's not a guitar player. But please don't let that dissuade you from reading this piece, because you'll surely regret it.

That's because Tim knows what he's talking about when it comes to modern classical music, including the presence of guitars in this genre. His musical influences include everything from Miles Davis to Monteverdi, but just as well, he's also a passionate classical music aficionado, a freelance writer and editor, and a blogger. He's putting together a manuscript for the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music and somehow manages to find time in his incredibly busy schedule to write for his blog, The Rambler, which he's had online since 2003.

A guitar player, he's not, but he's surely a music expert.

What began your passion and involvement for music?

My love of music has been there as long as I can remember, going back to when I was very young and would hear my dad (a piano teacher) practising in our living room. That was mostly Beethoven, Chopin and Debussy, all of whom are still very important to me, but my musical tastes have gone through a lot of changes since then. The first 'modern' music I was into was Bartók and Messiaen (thanks to a brilliant teacher at school), and I got deeper and deeper into new music through them.

When you say you're into contemporary composition, experimental music, and the implosion of Western classical tradition, some of us may not know what you are talking about. Explain what you mean.

Haha! That's my way of describing what other people might call modern classical music. So music written by people who call themselves composers, for other people to play, usually in concert halls, usually on acoustic instruments, usually playing from a written part (although not all of these things are necessary). No one really knows what to call this music any more - 'new music', 'avant garde music', 'modern composition' are other terms - so this is my way of trying to describe it.

That includes reasonably well-known composers like John Adams and Arvo Pärt, but also much less well-known names like Antoine Beuger, Enno Poppe or Wolfgang Mitterer. Fifty or sixty years ago, people used to know what 'classical music' was, and living composers (like Stravinsky, say) still sounded identifiably part of the tradition that stretches back through Wagner, Beethoven, Mozart and Bach. Now everything about that tradition has come under question - because of pop, technology, globalisation, all sorts of things - which is why I refer to it as an 'implosion'. There are still hundreds of really interesting composers writing fantastic music, but it has become much harder to pin them down to a particular genre label now.

Who are your musical influences?

Lots of musicians have been really important to the way I think about music, not all of them classical. They include: Sonic Youth, Jason Pierce, Richard Barrett, Richard James, Miles Davis, Claudio Monteverdi, John Cage, Christopher Fox, Olivier Messiaen ... Not many guitarists in there, but Sonic Youth in particular have always been special to me.

Do you play any musical instruments?

Oboe pretty badly, piano much, much worse. I used to own a guitar, but never got further than strumming chords and playing around with various harmonics!

As a freelance editor and writer on contemporary music, what do you get out of listening to it and writing about it, that maybe someone who performs it wouldn't see?

I don't know if I get something out of music that someone else couldn't hear. I work harder at listening than some people, perhaps, and try to keep my ears open - that's part of the job, but it's not something that I'm uniquely privileged to do. It's a bit like commentary on televised sports - in a way you're only telling people what they're able to see/hear for themselves. Hopefully what I can do is condense that shared experience of a piece of music into something that provokes people to think about a wider context, or perhaps encourages them to listen again for something that they might have missed.

What do you need to know to write/prepare the 6th edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. How is that going?

It's going OK. I've got about 18 months more to finish the manuscript. I've been asked to focus on the contemporary music coverage, so obviously lots of specialist knowledge is useful there, but in general a good editorial eye is more helpful. There's very little space in a single-volume reference book, so you're always looking for the most succinct way of saying things that doesn't sacrifice clarity or accuracy. That can be quite difficult when trying to sum up a composer's career in a couple of sentences!

Tell me about your blog, The Rambler and what you hope to bring to the table with it.

I started The Rambler in 2003 as just another pontificating blog, but quickly realised that if it was going to go anywhere it had to have a focus. So I made contemporary music that focus and, at the time, it was almost the only blog in the world to do that (Kyle Gann's Postclassic started at about the same time, but as far as I know we were the first two). What I hope to bring to the table - and I think in the best phases of the last 7 years I have done this - is connect a community of new music listeners and practitioners, give them a small presence on the web, write about their music and get it out to people who might not be aware of it otherwise. It has also been - and was always intended to be - a space for me to practise writing, rehearse my thoughts, tackle ideas that I'd never have a hope of writing in a more formal publication. So it's a two-way thing, and I think many of the best blogs work like that.

You say you have a "frustrating fascination with the workings of the modern intellectual property industry and its impact on contemporary music making." Explain what you mean.

Where to start? Copyright law is a massive battleground at the moment, and has been for at least a decade now. In the music industry it's a particularly tricky problem because the internet has made music incredibly portable. Of all the popular art forms it is probably the most susceptible to illegal copying: mp3s are of acceptable quality, the music players are widely available and excellently designed, mp3 files are small enough to be quickly downloadable and stored, and so on. Books and films are still behind music in that respect. Music is also much more complicated because of the relationship between composers, performers, publishers and so on - it's often hard to define who 'owns' what in a piece of music at any given time.

So all of that is intellectually quite interesting anyway. But once you factor in the corporations who control most of the music industry - dinosaurs who have huge political lobbying power, but have failed time and again to keep up-to-speed with the major technological advances in their own industry - you get a never-ending cycle of stories of greed, mismanagement and misinformation. It's a very tasty story to write about. It's particularly poignant in terms of new music, because this exists right on the fringes of the corporate majority of what people think of as music, yet these are the sort of artists who could be hardest hit by draconian developments in copyright law as the few channels for them to freely promote their own music become closed. Even more worryingly, some of those proposed developments threaten our ability to preserve that musical culture for future generations. If we're not careful, the late 20th century and early 21st century could look like the Dark Ages to our descendants because the law has made it impossible for us to properly preserve our culture.

How strong is the influence of guitar in contemporary and/or experimental music?

There are a good number of composers who have written for guitar, including Richard Barrett (transmission, for electric guitar and electronics, 1996-9), Peter Ablinger (1-127 for electric guitar and CD, 2002), Tristan Murail (Vampyr!, electric guitar, 1984) and Brian Ferneyhough (Kurze Schatten II, guitar, 1988 and no time (at all), 2004). György Kurtág's Grabstein für Stephan, 1978, pits a single acoustic guitar against a very loud orchestral ensemble. There are also groups like Bang on a Can, ELISION, Icebreaker and Plus-Minus who include guitarists in their core membership. So there are plenty of pieces and plenty of players. Even more influential, however, has probably been the idea of amplification - lots of pieces call for amplified acoustic instruments, using contact mics etc. Some composers have also used foot pedals to change the sound of an instrument like electric guitarists do: Ferneyhough's Time and Motion Study no.2, 1973-6, for cello is the classic here - as well as playing an amplified cello (and vocalising too), the cellist controls various electronic effects such as decays using a pair of pedals.

How has the role of guitar changed in contemporary and/or experimental music since you first started writing/editing.

I don't think I've been working long enough to have seen much of a change, but I'm confident that guitars - both acoustic and electric - are here to stay in contemporary music, and there's a lot more great music to be written for them.
 
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