Classical Music Critics on the Future of Music
Friday, August 6
The Purpose of Music
posted @ August 6, 2004 10:46 am
During two years as General Manager of Soundstreams Canada, a new music concert presenter in Toronto, Canada--the conversation we hosted that most animated the music community here was a lecture given by Sir John Tavener. He was in town at our invitation for a concert we were presenting of his music. It might be added that unlike the small attendance at most new music concerts, this was an SRO concert. We crowded about 1200 into an 1100 seat cathedral and had to send hundreds home in disappointment. Clearly this is a voice that is reaching people musically.
Prior to John's arrival, he and I had discussed by phone, the fact that both the music community and the theological community wanted to sponsor a lecture and there was insufficient time in the schedule for two such events. At his suggestion, and with the cooperation of the two sponsoring faculties, we had combined the two into a lecture entitled, "The vocation of the sacred artist".
In the lecture Tavener presented the view that music had a purpose and that purpose was to reach the soul of individuals in an uplifting, encouraging and enobling way. The purpose of music was fulfilled when the audience left the concert hall feeling troubles lifted and with a desire for a better world, filled with beauty. He continued in voicing the opinion that music had lost its way when composers began to use music as a way to express their personal tragedy and turmoil, unloading that depression and tortured visions on the audience. In so doing, he continued, the composer was contributing to a negative world-view and the entropy of a corrupted civilization.
Although I found myself uncomfortable with a certain black-and-white nature to his arguments, I found myself fundamentally agreeing. The idea that "if the world is to be saved, it will be saved by beauty"-- a Tavener quote that so struck me that I made it the featured quotes in our marketing campaign--was certainly the central theme to my own love of music and what I want to achieve in music and also what is at the root of my own assessment of "good music" and "bad music". I don't necessarily want music to make me "feel good" but I want to leave the concert hall with the sense that my soul has been touched and nourished.
Thank you to all
posted @ August 6, 2004 10:10 am
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Critical Conversation has truly been a fascinating read. Thank you all for your thoughts and observations...you have really made me think. And though I refer to give my answer in the music that I write, I was reminded of a recent concert at the Caramoor Festival, in which both John Rockwell and myself were participants. At this concert, he expressed his concerns about the lack of a Big Idea. I had responded that I find this actually exciting, because I can get up everyday and try something new or different in the music that I write.
I realized about a day after that concert, that I actually do have a Big Idea in my composing, and I just didn't think to say anything in our public forum...this might be because I was thinking of styles when he made this comment.
But my Big Idea is more of a philosophy: I want the music to be interesting and to communicate...which doesn't rule out any "isms" but generally acts like a guide in my composing. It sounds simplistic and it's definitely not unique, but it is for me of paramount importance. So thank you all for your wisdom, experience, and wit. It is much appreciated by many folks.
To Corey Dargel and Kyle Gann
posted @ August 6, 2004 10:00 am
Corey, I realize that young composers, such as yourself, may feel that this
conversation has only touched upon a few of your immediate interests, and concerns, as working composers today. I wish that you had encouraged some of your under - 30 colleagues to participate here, along with you. There is still time.
On the other hand, a few younger, still emerging composers were mentioned above — Lera Auerbach by Alex Ross (she has also been championed by John
von Rhein, in the Chicago Tribune, less than a year ago); and Matthias Pintscher (1971), Michael Hersch (1971), Liza Lim (1966), and Torsten Rasch (1965), by myself. None of these highly expressive composers uses the idioms of pop music, although Torsten Rasch, from Dresden, sets controversial lyrics from German rock music. All are expert orchestrators. (I realize now that I had heard of Ms Auerbach previously — but had not heard her work. I very much look forward to hearing it.)
Music critic Justin Davidson also mentioned (8/3), that he was assembling a "listening list of [his] own". That list, when contributed, may include further names of composers under the age of 40.
As to Kyle Gann's post "Final Disinformation", I would like to ask for his source
of (dis)information that "when composers get together to discuss the problems
of music today ... [t]heir major proposed solutions are most often ... [t]aking
the idioms of pop music as a basis for composition ..." While this may be true
for the hundreds of composers he champions, I do not believe that this statement holds true for the remaining thousands of composers in American or worldwide.
I am very much looking forward to hearing Joan La Barbera's opera on the life
of Virginia Wolfe. Pretty amazing that there has never been an opera about Ms Wolfe, isn't it? Are any critics, or readers, aware of one?
re: Where Are The Young Voices?
Andrea La Rose
posted @ August 6, 2004 9:21 am
I hope at almost 32 that I still possibly qualify as a young(ish) voice. Here's a letter I wrote to Alex Ross not too long ago in response to a New Yorker article, that I think addresses Mr. Dargel's question:
Dear Mr. Ross,
As an emerging student composer, I'd like to commend you for paying attention to the future of classical music: student composers. We are largely ignored by the media, while we watch our rock'n'roll peers get all the attention. I urge you, however, to follow up this article with two more installments: public university music departments and young composers working outside of school. Everyone knows about the music departments at Juilliard, Yale, Columbia, Mannes, NYU, and so on. A portrait of music students in the New York City area is hardly complete with private schools alone. CUNY and SUNY schools in the area have several fine music departments with student composers just as exciting and edgy as their private school counterparts. Furthermore, there are several groups in the area comprised of young performer-composers working outside of the academic arena: Anti-Social Music, Wet Ink, Common Sense Composers Collective, Vox Novus, to name but a few, and new ones are popping up all the time. All of these groups and students would love to see you at one of our shows and hear your opinions, whether or not they turn into a New Yorker article.
In short, we young composers are out there and we are getting our music heard; the critics aren't showing up to hear us. I suspect their bosses aren't interested in letting them explore the "underground" classical world, because they think their readers aren't interested.
As a member of the aforementioned Anti-Social Music, here's what I see are the big ideas in classical music: --a d-i-y attitude: put together your own shows with your own music. --think like a rock band, not an orchestra. --don't be ashamed of what you listen to, everything is potential creative fodder; if Josquin can use drinking tunes in his music, so can I. --don't wait for your audience to find you, go out and find your audience; lots of people are interested in more "difficult" or "challenging" music that you can't dance to.
Classical music is not dead or dying any more than punk or disco or bluegrass. It's just not your grandmother's classical music, anymore.
To Justin: Art can be entertaining, but it is notentertainment
Arthur J. Sabatini
posted @ August 6, 2004 8:42 am
"But one thing classical composers could learn from pop is a sense of fun...Mozart thought of himself as an entertainer as well as an artist.." Justin Davidson
No. Unlike in Mozart's era, in 20th century America - and now in the rest of the world - entertainment is a business and an industry, and except for a few powerful artists (often for a short amount of time), it the business of entertainment that determines its rules, reception and quality, at the center of which is the most researched, defined and marketed product: fun. That is why the "fun" most entertainers produce fades when a new concept of "fun" arises, one version of which is "pop" entertainment.
Although he has his moments, T.S. Eliot is not fun in entertainment terms; Andrew Lloyd Weber is. How about asking Aavo Part to lighten up? I recall an incident a few years ago with a composer commissioned by Disney. In a final rehearsal, a Disney executive tried to have the last movement of the piece, which was an elegy or requium, become more lively. After all, why make death something so sad? It won't play in the 'burbs.
There are some artists who can do business and entertain, not a problem. And some whose work, uncompromisingly, can flourish in the two domains (e.g., Glass). But fun and entertainment should be left to those who do it best and the meaning that artists convey should not be entertaining when it
needs to be.
Where Are The Young Voices?
posted @ August 6, 2004 8:20 am
At the risk of coming across as ageist, I want to point out that this
conversation on the Future of Music is missing a vital element --
contributions from young people. Granted, I don't know exactly how old
everyone is, but with the exception of a very few Reader contributions, I
have infered that most of the contributors are at least ten years older than
I am (I am 26). The future of music is in the hands of the younger
generation, and if this conversation is to be "Fair and Balanced," it should
include their perspectives. If they're not participating voluntarily, then
perhaps ArtsJournal can seek out composers, critics, and performers under
the age of 30 (give or take) and offer them the same status as the Critics
for the purposes of these Future of Music conversations.
Don't misunderstand me: I believe the majority of critics and contributors
in this conversation are progressive and aware of many of the most recent
trends in music, and I am thoroughly interested in what they have to say
(well, most of them anyway); but there's no denying that my peers are more
aware of what my colleagues and I are up to than a critic from the previous
generation. With the exception of my appearance on Kyle Gann's Listening
List, I don't believe I've seen the names of any young and emerging
I hope some of you will join me in encouraging Mr. McLennan and the
ArtsJournal staff to officially include young people in future Future of
Music conversations, not as merely "Readers" whose comments are abridged
unless you click on the separate Readers page, but as contributors whose
opinions are expected (required) and not just hoped for without
solicitation. I can think of a few active critics under 30, but if it is
not possible to find young critics, please consider composers and
performers. I don't mean to exclude critics who compose, but performers and
composers are the Future of Music, and most of us don't look to critics for
advice about what to do next. I don't think it would kill the concept of
Critical Conversation to have one or two non-critics officially involved.
Thursday, August 5
posted @ August 5, 2004 9:26 pm
Reading through this super-blog, some things seem clear:
--On the one hand, there are in fact plenty of compositional Big Ideas out there--postminimalism! just intonation! neoromanticism! whatever--if you just look around you a little bit.
--On the other hand, it may be that with Big Ideas in abeyance, individual sensibilities are coming to the forefront more than ever before.
--Then again, what do you listen to classical music for--Big Ideas or individual sensibilities?
--If individual sensibilities count for more than Big Ideas, then how do you describe them, let alone sell them, to a non-specialist audience?
--Contrariwise, if Big Ideas count for more than individual sensibilities, then how do you convince a non-specialist audience that these Big Ideas matter as much to them as to the music?
--For that matter, now that classical music has definitely lost its former prestige to pop, what is there left about it worth listening to? What has it got that pop hasn't got? And how do we write about what's worth listening to about it now that we can't depend on prestige to buoy us up?
--For that matter, does even pop music have the prestige it had, say, even fifteen years ago? And what does that say about what we think about music in general?
P.S. to Scott Cantrell: Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmelites came out in 1957, and has today at least as much of a place in the international operatic repertory as Billy Budd.
Classical Music Doesn't Fit The PR Mold
posted @ August 5, 2004 9:18 pm
I don't think talking about marketing is off-thread as Andrew Druckenbrod suggested. Here is why I brought it into this discussion: Cultural Big Ideas simply aren't Big if what they affect is a diminishingly small part of the culture. There just aren't enough ideas to go around. They all feel equally interesting in their small way.
Because I'm not a critic, but a composer and radio show host, I am unable to draw the fabric together tightly. Also, being a composer, I am living through the process of (possible) Big Ideas developing, and so am unaware of them as we are unaware of our own human changes until we have a perspective.
Even so, what we have witnessed, I think, is a narrowing of the receptive audience in halls and on recordings (and even on line) such that the old feedback mechanisms are totally broken. Composer, critics, and performers don't make much of a cultural pool. Whereas a band coming out of the midwest can have news travel first through an underground/subcultural press and then, together with touring, reviews, television appearances and recording releases -- all with audiences aplenty -- where is the nonpop equivalent?
When the underground/subcultural nonpop press covers an new nonpop event, and even major critic writes about it, the process stops there. There's hardly a tour -- what ensemble can to do that in today's culture? Where are the club circuit? Where are the compositions passed from orchestra to orchestra? The joint commissions and second and third and touring performances? Where are the television appearances? Where is our nonpop personality on Letterman or Leno? The closest on Leno was composer Wendy Mae Chambers, but that was for her car horn instrument. A lot of fun, but no Big Idea there.
The celebration is missing, the publicity madness, the very new nonpop meme doesn't exist. The filtering that takes place, good or bad, is missing -- there's no critical mass, no standard deviation, no statistical minimum sample.
The cultural catastrophe for Big Ideas is evident: We cannot find any because there is no context within which they can be Big. Critics write lukewarm praise or dismissal, audiences (as was mentioned) have been trained to quash their reactions, and fiscal circumstances have relegated the enthusiasm-engendering pieces to be played out of town or at the academy or in the countryside -- where they are guaranteed to be forgotten. And, in the end, there is no risk (particulary an economic one) which demands return on investment. (Though our own online site carries risk for us, it's only thousands of dollars --not the tens of millions that would get an accountant's attention.)
There is an active community on line, but it suffers from the same lack of marketing and effective presentation. Even a Big Idea magazine like Salon never carries articles about new nonpop.
I hate to be critical without a solution, so let me try. I think that solution is found in part within the community of educated critics and writers. You have to seed the meme -- contact every critic you know, and then take this discussion public, in a coordinated way, in *all* your publications. Your jobs ultimately depend on the field's survival, unless you enjoy being part of a withering community.
So -- like the coordinated sermons from the diocese pulpits, like the advance publicity and product tie-ins for movies, and like the pundits who hammer an idea from right-wing cable and radio -- make a case and bring that case public over and over and over again. Make the case to your editors, make the case to publications who no longer cover new nonpop, make the case so that those with economic influence will hear you, make the case so that Letterman and Leno will give five minutes for some EAR Unit madness or one of Kyle's Custer songs or the Beglarian/Kline Bilitis project over the course of a week, just as Conan O'Brien gave a week to the White Stripes.
No, it isn't an intellectual pursuit. It is not a Big Idea. But eventually, if there is enough noise or a wide enough ground, the Big Idea will be the audible signal or the visible figure.
Eclecticism Is Better Anyway
posted @ August 5, 2004 7:40 pm
I am painfully aware that as a young person, I have not the expertise
of all of you, nor such solidly-formed opinions, but I’ll jump in
anyway before it's too late, because the perspective of a young person
seems to be missing in this conversation. I suppose that’s not
altogether too shocking, but we are talking about the future, right?
The question before us makes the situation sound grimmer than it
Are there really clear advantages to being in a period of music
characterized by a big idea? One might say that when musical language
is more unified, critics and scholars have an easier time determining
and rallying behind standards as they decide what music deserves
attention and praise. Also, composers can attain greater recognition as
members of niches. And finally, audiences can attend concerts with the
comfort of knowing what to expect.
If these things only vaguely sound positive, then I am afraid I can't
answer my question. I have grown fond of the idea that we are living in
a time without a universally-understood, glaringly-obvious big idea. It
doesn’t mean that we suffer from a dearth of salient ideas. The future
of music in the past has been driven by the younger generation’s
reaction to established practices. I would like to think that the
current atmosphere is an appropriate (and apparently effective)
reaction to this classifying and labeling tradition. It reminds me of a
tactic we used to employ in high school to ditch campus during lunch.
We would gather as a mass on the corner, and on the count of three,
take off running in every direction so that it was impossible for the
lone school administrator to chase after all of us at once. Music
history textbooks relate a similar scenario for the latter half of the
twentieth century, when composers followed no logical course (as they
supposedly had before), but instead split off in numerous directions,
leaving the writers of history scrambling to follow the threads and
make sense of it all. But isn’t it more fun this way? The thrill of the
chase as we try to catch up with what is happening beneath the surface
of pop culture. What a feast there is, and if we are willing to taste
something more than once, we may even find something we like. My
sincerest gratitude to the critics who have abandoned the "golden age"
rhetoric in favor of optimism and faith in the next generation.
What Is Live Performance, Anyway?
posted @ August 5, 2004 7:34 pm
To John Shaw:
The ascendancy of recorded music for our picture of classical music, both new
and old, is definitely a "big idea" worth paying attention to. Yes, it's been
going on for a while now. But not only does it continue to increase its
dominance over how we get to know the whole historical tapestry laid out behind
us, as well as how we experience much current acoustic music (it's the only way
I can know almost any Grisey, Rihm, late Feldman or Cage, etc.), it's creating a
whole form of music that *intentionally* exists nowhere else.
Sure, that's also as old as Pierre Henry, but there's something that goes beyond
typical definitions of "electronic" or "electroacoustic". Some of it might even
be considered by the composer as "acoustic", no different than traditional
classical performance. But it's primary classification is *recorded*; that idea
becomes an integral part of the realization of the piece, not as documentation
but rather a fundamental part of the composer's realization. Some might utilize
live performers, some wholly digital means, some "found" recorded sound; the
score might be fully notated (though there are now a number of options other
than standard traditional notation), or crafted more through things similar to
classic "studio" techniques. But the question of whether this piece can be
performed "live" becomes irrelevant (even when the possibility might exist); the
the piece primarily or essentially IS the recording, score, performance... and
Some of it might be in the same terrain as a Bayle or Subotnick or Curran, but
there's something else at work here that subsumes a Stravinsky or Part into the
same mix; it's the composer's piece from inception through realization, and that
realization is the "masterpiece" (in the best sense of the craftsman). Part
comes from new technological possibility, part from pure real-world
practicality. But its evolution eventually leaves all its "born of needs"
behind, to become its own raison d'être.
Some Simple Gratitude
posted @ August 5, 2004 4:06 pm
Having just returned to the Motor City from a Maine vacation - where my wife and I were forced by state officials to leave after it was discovered that we had, apparently, eaten every single lobster in the Penobscot Bay - I just wanted to express my gratitude to my colleagues (and Doug) for such a thoughtful and stimulating discussion. How the most prolific of you managed to get any other work done in the last week is a complete mystery to me. I am still too busy catching up after two weeks away from the office to venture into the fray in any substantive way, but I did want to say that collectively your posts have clarified my thinking on key issues, reaffirmed my own prejudices at times, convinced me I was horribly misguided at other times, introduced several new and intriguing composers to me and opened many synapses along the way. (I suppose marijuana would have the same effect, but my source has dried up. Um, if John Ashcroft is snooping around here, that's a joke.) Anyway, thanks gang. I appreciate it.
Editor's Note: The author is the classical music critic for the Detroit Free Press.
But What of the Squeakfartists?
posted @ August 5, 2004 2:42 pm
Taxonomy is messier in music than in the other arts, particularly as regards recording technology. When film came along, nobody was under any illusions that film was the same as theater, because talkies didn’t even come along for many years. Reproductions of paintings are never promoted as substitutes for the real thing. The distinction between live music & recorded is fuzzier. (Things are fuzzier in theater now, and in my view a lot of mainstream foundation-supported big city theaters now serve actors and writers as the “minor leagues” for film and TV.)
Pop is clearer about this than classical. Records influenced pop almost from the get-go; the limitations of the 3-minute side of a 78-rpm disc dictated form. Pop has evolved such that records are primary, live performance secondary. (In jazz, less so; if you live in NYC, maybe *much* less so.) Classical, that’s not the case. Live is primary, and most sound systems can’t even cope with the wide dynamic range of Ravel’s “Bolero,” to pick an obvious example.
Except. Except for the tape collagists and Squeakfartists and others who rely on high technology. Recordings are primary for most of them. And except for lots of lots of classical listeners, like me. Live is better, but I hardly ever go.
Sorry we haven’t heard from the Squeakfartists and tape collagists in this dialogue.
Who Said Anything About Pop Musicians?
posted @ August 5, 2004 11:43 am
"I thought we were invited to learn from the pop musicians"
- Kyle Gann "Leave No Term Unstoned"
"This is not a challenge but a query about how you [Kyle] do it or might recommend we write about new music -- the more ideas here the better."
- Andrew Druckenbrod "Reality Bites"
Gentlemen, may I respectfully Recall the Question:
THE QUESTION BEFORE US
If the history of music is the recorded conversation of ideas, then where do we find ourselves in that conversation at the start of the 21st Century? In the past, musical ideas have been fought over, affirmed then challenged again, with each generation adding something new. Ultimately consensus was achieved around an idea, and that idea gained traction with a critical mass of composers.
Now we are in a period when no particular musical idea seems to represent our age, and it appears that for the moment, at least on the surface, that there is no obvious direction music is going. So the question is: what is the next chapter in the historical conversation of musical ideas, and where are the seeds of those ideas planted? Or: Is it possible that, with traditional cultural structures fragmenting, and the ways people are getting and using culture fundamentally changing, that it is no longer possible for a unifying style to emerge? Is it still possible for a Big Idea to attain the kind of traction needed to energize and acquire a critical mass of composers and performers?"
I see no reference to you being invited to learn from pop musicians. [ArtsJournal managing editor] Douglas McLennan, in fact, in his "No Apocalypse Now", and in his cited "Newsweek" column, asked the musical community to learn from the research and development structures of the technology, business, medical, and film and publishing creative communities. I recall no mention made to learning from pop musicians.
Mr Druckenbrod, I believe that there will be numerous future critics roundtable occasions for you to ask Kyle Gann your question.
Gann's Got It Right
posted @ August 5, 2004 8:33 am
A message to Kyle Gann:
Regarding your entry titled Leave No Term Unstoned: What a
great post, especially for us non-specialists.
I was also pleased -- and surprised -- to see your mention of Alison Knowles
and Yoshi Wada. You didn't mention the composer Philip Corner, but given
your breadth of previous references and your familiarity with Fluxus, I
presume you know of him, too.
Once upon a time, back in 1971 I think it was and in another life, I
published a little book called "The Identical Lunch," which is based on a
musical score by Knowles. The amusing text by Corner is about a tunafish
lunch and its variations. Along with that was the "Journal of The Identical
Lunch," which Knowles edited. The lunch itself was a tunafish sandwich on
wheat toast, lettuce and butter, no mayo, and a large glass of buttermilk,
or a cup of soup and was performed by many well-known artists and writers.
I have no idea what "ism" applies, but maybe you or someone else could come
up with one. If Dick Higgins were still alive, he could doubtless name it.
(He was married to Knowles and published many Fluxus pamphlets as well as a
reprint of Henry Cowles's "New Musical Resources.")
Anyway, it seems to me your post pretty serves as a CC capper.
Editor's Note: The author is an ArtsJournal blogger.
Big Ideas? How About Melody?
John N. McBaine
posted @ August 5, 2004 7:20 am
Dear Fellow Classical Music Lovers:
In answer to ArtsJournal.Com's apparently serious, and thus pretentious
question "[W]hether or not it is still possible for a Big Idea to
animate classical music" may I offer the following as a possibilty:
Melody.........singable, danceable, hummable, organ-grindable,
uplifting, happiness-making, inspiring, lasting and eternal Melody.
Thank you for your consideration.
Wednesday, August 4
so what's the big idea?
posted @ August 4, 2004 4:28 pm
I may have missed something, but here’s the tally of Big Ideas so far:
1. There is no big idea.
1.A. Fragmentation, or the lack of a big unifying idea, is the big idea.
1.A.i. The individualism of composers going their own way is the big idea.
1.B. Critics worrying about whether there is a big idea is a big new phenomenon.
2. Polyrhythmic expansions on the rhythmic complexities of the classic minimalists is a big, or at least a medium-sized, idea.
3. Intersection of the European-derived Institutional musical tradition (my pet pedantic name for Classical) with demotic and un-notated musical traditions is a big idea (the so-called “high/low” nexus).
3.A. Intersection of ditto with music from radically different cultural-musical traditions is a big new idea.
3.A.i. Composers from radically different cultural-musical traditions coming to the European-derived tradition and bringing some of their local style with them constitute a big idea (a permutation of 3.A.).
4. New performance practices, such as those regarding staging of operas, or talking to the audience between numbers at symphony concerts, or performing in non-traditional venues, constitute a big new idea.
5. Classical music has lost its cultural prestige, and therefore its use in our culture, and the resulting status-anxiety is a major cause of its current funding and marketing troubles; and this constitutes a big new reality. (Reader and new-music-ensemble leader John Harris wrote about this on July 29, and Wynne Delacoma seconded at least part of it.)
No consensus as to which of these is really big, or really new. But an interesting list!
The “future” sounds more exciting than the present, but what we’re really talking about, mostly, is the present. Which, as the composers who have chimed in have insisted on, is all that matters.
Point of Clarification
posted @ August 4, 2004 2:41 pm
As happens so often, I find I need to clarify my thoughts. I didn't mean to imply that I think it's wonderful that someone is thrown into a violent rage by a new piece of music they didn't like just because it shows that they have a pulse or that they're obviously engaged, as Kyle pointed out I did (can't seem to attach a hyperlink; it's Nothing to Do with Big Ideas). I was thinking more along the lines that I'd rather have someone disappointed and saying so about a new work rather than having them A) Feel they're not smart enough to express their opinion or B) Think they have to like it but don't know why they didn't. Of course I don't want anyone ever to be so upset by a new piece that they're furious at the creator(s) and performer(s). Disappointment is fine, outrage is not. Sorry for misreading Wynne Delacoma's post.
A Little of This, A Little of That
posted @ August 4, 2004 2:20 pm
If, in the past, composers have used their knowledge of audiences expectations to help make their creative decisions (in which case, composers with similar audiences would have a similar set of expectations against which to respond), then perhaps a new "big idea" or unifying idea will not be possible until a new creative directive (something that takes the place of the past's known quantity of audience expectations) emerges that can be responded to by multiple composers during a similar period in time.
In respect to music education, I wonder how many Contemporary Music survey courses at even the best music schools would even touch on more than two of the composers that [Kyle Gann] mentioned. How can we expect any one outside of elite musical circles to have any familiarity with these composers?
I really enjoyed [Greg Sandow's] comments on performance trends, though I would point out that not everyone in the audience shares [his] views on performers' freedoms and choices. While I prefer to defend performers choices (having once been a performer myself and love performance history due to the fact that performances of a single work have changed tremendously over time), I have heard emotional and lively performers such as the pianist Lang Lang criticized heavily for "pushing" the limits of what a composer intended.
To tie this in with new composers, I would like to see more of the trend of composers developing relationships with performers and ensembles that they respect. I think this makes for a really interesting dynamic when introducing a new work to the repertoire.
Paging Arthur Sabatini...
posted @ August 4, 2004 2:18 pm
Can you expand on "artist-oriented" critical writing? You used Alex
Ross's very fine writing in the New Yorker as an example.
Lists, Categories, & Big Ideas Miss The Point
Joan La Barbara
posted @ August 4, 2004 2:09 pm
As a neophyte blogger, I must admit I don't know how one manages to read all of this and still get any work done! Having said that, I'll also admit I haven't read every comment but Nicholas Kenyon finally hit it on the mark! The "Big Ideas", "isms" and named categories happen afterwards and, while it is interesting to see what name critics apply to certain groups of individual composers, many of those composers eschew the categories anyway, preferring to simply do their own work and get on with it. Sometimes being included in a particular category has had an inhibiting effect on the expansion of the musical output of certain composers. And for those of you who seem to need to make lists of the "great composers" of the day, please remember the lessons of Mozart and Salieri, Beethoven and Hummel ...
Nicholas, hope you can make my performances October 25 & 26 at Royal Festival Hall, and to my critic friends and everyone in NY, hope you can make my performances October 11 at NYU's Frederick Loewe theatre (an evening of my music, presenting work-in-progress on my new opera about Viriginia Woolf's extraordinary mind) and on October 17 as part of the "Sounds Like Now" festival at La Mama.
Since you were all tooting horns, thought I'd toot a bit, too.
Education & Audience Engagement
posted @ August 4, 2004 1:59 pm
Maybe it’s a function of growing up in the provinces (Kalamazoo, Mich., in my case), but I’ve never known people not to be confident in their dismissal of modern arts. My pianist grandmother (B.A., piano, Northwestern, some time in the ‘20s) didn’t like the Schoenbergian strain and one year for Christmas bought me Henry Pleasants’ amusing diatribe “The Agony of Modern Music.” (A friend promptly stole the title for the free-jazz-influenced folk album he was recording at the time, which I played on.)
Kalamazoo has in recent years hosted an international piano festival. My semi-pro pianist mom catches a few concerts every year, and when she can’t get someone else to go she takes my dad. Dad’s musical sensibility doesn’t run far beyond swing-era pop, bawdy songs, singing in church, football fight songs, and patriotic songs and marches, so I was interested to hear that he liked the new compositions at the concert he attended this year. He didn’t remember the composer, but he liked it that the percussionists moved around a lot and switched instruments – it was interesting. The 19th century standard repertoire on the program was boring to him, and he said so, without rancor. (Again, didn’t get the composer(s) name(s).)
I agree with Beata, that arts education would be good for people and for art. Forgive the excessive Seattle talk, but when Paul Allen opened his interactive rock museum and called it “Experience Music Project,” the pretentiousness and bad faith of the name rang out loud and clear. If he were serious about wanting people to experience music, he would put his money into public school music education – super-cheap subsidized instrumental rentals for everybody who wants it. When people learn to do something, they get more interested in seeing the pros. Speaking here as a terrible but formerly enthusiastic basketball player myself, who’s sad that my friends’ pick-up game died out. (Charles Rosen has written a lot about this.)
A Matter of Education
posted @ August 4, 2004 8:41 am
How can we improve music education? I think Kyle’s point about American audiences not feeling competent to respond to music is an important one.
So often have I witnessed children responding intuitively to classical music only to have their responses quelled by the adults (either classroom teachers or parents in this case) telling them that they should or should not react in a certain way. Unfortunately, most of us are made to feel that we don’t have enough knowledge to respond to classical music (new or old), or that classical music should evoke only certain emotions and responses.
I think we need to find ways not only to bring back music education in the schools, but ways to improve the music education that currently exists in the schools. Children are taught at an early age not to trust their instincts when it comes to classical music.
Justin questions whether ignorance causes indifference or the other way around. If children are encouraged to compose, experiment with sounds, if they had teachers who acted as facilitators rather than lecturers, I think that music would play a prominent role in society.
Back to Big Ideas
posted @ August 4, 2004 8:31 am
So we're back to big ideas... you mean like having American composers team up with distinguished, and popular, poets and writers to write new operas and choral works for American opera houses and concert halls? ... Glimpses of this idea include John Adams's "El Nino", and his, and Peter Sellars's, "Doctor Atomic" (though I'm already intrigued by the fact that poet Alice Goodman declined the project, and no alternative librettist was brought aboard); Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon, David Lang, DJ Spooky, and Deborah Artmann's "Lost Objects" oratorio, premiered in Dresden, Germany; and Aaron Jay Kernis's upcoming opera, based upon Ann Patchett, "Bel Canto". This idea, of course, has a strong history in England, with such examples as Harrison Birtwistle's operas and his dance-oratorio, with American poet, Robin Blaser, "The Last Supper"; and Michael Berkeley's oratorios and operas with Ian McEwen and David Malouf. ... I will not go on.
However, I will second reader Nicholas Kenyon's comment, here, that it is probably "beyond belief" to expect a stylistic synthesis to appear, world-wide, in the next generation. Musicologist Richard Crocker thought that he glimpsed a stylistic synthesis at the beginning of the 1960s, and his prediction did not prove accurate ... to date.
[Stuttgart had its Bach Commemoration Project in 2000, which yielded major works by Penderecki, Rihm, Gubaidulina, Golijov, and Tan. One of the beauties of the project, in my opinion, was that it celebrated musical stylistic diversity in the year 2000 C.E.]
Perhaps, the assembled critics could mention opera, or oratorio, subjects that they would like to see Philip Glass, John Adams, Laurie Anderson, Stephen Hartke, and others, invited to create. Or is it inappropriate for critics to do this?
[I personally would like to see Alvin Curran write a new J.M. Coetzee opera or oratorio; for Mr Hartke to set Taslima Nasrin, as well as Old English texts; and for Eve Beglarian to be invited to write an opening choral piece for the New York Philharmonic's 2005-06, or 2006-07, Season.]
How about major American institutions in New York, Washington, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles developing an "Animating American Opera and Oratorio" project based upon unifying themes such as "American Opera and Oratorio in an Age of Terror"? The new General Directors of the MET and the San Francisco Opera could serve as Co-Chairs of the project.
Another Composer's Viewpoint
posted @ August 4, 2004 6:37 am
As a composer and performer (see Kyle Gann's list of postminimalists), I know that when I compose, I am not trying to follow a musical trend or style, nor am I aiming to create a new one. I want to write music that will speak to all listeners; music that is true and sincere.
As artists, we each bring our individual histories, whatever that may be, to our work. Because I was classically-trained as a pianist and didn't start composing until after college, my musical influences growing up were dominated by the Western, traditional piano repertoire. I didn't even know that living composers (let alone women composers) existed until college.
Regardless of style or genre, I think music with a strong, sincere voice will be heard and most likely will endure. My question is how can we make new music relevant in today's society?
As Greg wrote, we are suffering from a disconnect between classical music and the rest of our culture. Wasn't there a time in this country when everyone shared common classical musical references? Household names included not only performers and conductors (like Horowitz, Heifetz and Toscanini) but composers and music educators like Leonard Bernstein, Deems Taylor and Sigmund Spaeth.
We live in such a different world today, and I think the lack of acceptance of new music in American society has a lot to do with the decline in music education throughout the nation (in addition to the kind of world we live in - faster-paced, technology-driven with overwhelming amounts of information, all competing with one another to distract and entertain us).
Look at Finland, for example. New music flourishes because music education is an integral part of their society. Some Finnish children learn to read music before they even learn to read words. Talented musicians continue to come out of Finland - Kaija Saariaho, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Magnus Lindberg. see article
If everyone in this country had music education that was thorough and more open-minded in its teachings, I believe they would be able to connect and relate to more of the music that is being written today.
Since unfortunately this is not the case, composers and performers must reach out to audiences beyond the traditional way of doing things. I commend cellist Matt Haimovitz's efforts to reach out to broader audiences by performing both traditional and contemporary works in unusual venues.
I'm at work on my second disc of original chamber works, Earthshine, (due out in the fall) and I aim to promote my CDs by selling them at solo piano recitals. Nowadays, we composers must do it on our own. Since the support isn't out there, we have to be innovative and think like entrepreneurs.
I'm proud to say I produced this upcoming disc, as well as my first one, Perigee & Apogee, through funds raised from private donors. This time around, I am launching Earthshine on my own label so as to sustain funds for future projects.
Getting new music out there is an uphill battle, but I am hopeful. I work with many children and adults of all backgrounds as a music teaching artist with Lincoln Center Institute. I know that they, the children especially, are so open to new music when they are exposed to it by someone they can relate to and trust.
Audiences need new music guides they can trust, and I donï¿½t think critics are always looked upon as reliable sources. Composers and performers need to work together, regardless of style or genre, to invite others to join us in our diverse musical worlds.
It's not unlike the lobbying efforts of the politicians today. Composers need to reach out and connect with people outside their field, their potential audiences, and convince people why they should listen to us.
Tuesday, August 3
posted @ August 3, 2004 11:14 pm
To Wynne Delacoma's mention of concert-goers who are upset when they hear a new piece and don't like it, I say, "That's great!" It means they're involved, that they care, that they wanted to have an experience they could remember. And remember positively, moreover. If it happened to be a piece that I or another critic thought was actually very good or good but not up to the composer's other works, that's OK, too. I'll take a passionate insult over an indifferent shrug any day.
It's been said by some critics that the music audience, compared to other arts audiences, tends to be too passive and not willing to trust itself enough. If people hear a new piece and don't like it, they tend to blame themselves for not being smart enough to "get it." The reaction Wynne Delacoma describes contradicts this mealy-mouthed attitude, and I think it's fine, so long as the person comes back again. Which they probably will, if they like music enough.
I've heard audience-members complain about new pieces at intermissions in Chicago, and had their friends tell them that people said the same things about Mahler when he was still alive. These discussions are welcome and bode well for the future, for composers and orchestras, as well as for critics, who need an audience too, after all.
On a less-exalted plane, the insulted concert-goer may simply feel gipped out of a lot of money spent on a ticket.
As to what has happened to create an intimidated music audience, I think it goes back to the Second Viennese School. And I admire the Second Viennese School! But there was a break with the audience in that time period and people ceased listening to them. By the time Boulez and Stockhausen came along and decided to build on and expand the ideas of the Second Viennesers, by way of Messiaen (greatly simplifying here), enough people had ceased listening to what came before the Darmstadt group to be thoroughly flummoxed by them.
It could be argued that the reaction against the Darmstadt group by the neo-Romantics, Minimalists, post-minimalists and everyone else led to the lack of attention they perceive today because they're trying to move away from a group that a large part of the audience doesn't appreciate. (For what it's worth, I'm of the opinion that appreciating the Darmstadt group and others like them is not hard to come by. If it's presented well and without condescension and scare-tactics, the audience will come along.)
posted @ August 3, 2004 7:11 pm
Scott Cantrell wrote: "I'm apparently not alone in feeling that too much of this has degenerated into one-upsmanship and looking down noses. Let's have disagreement, fine, but the condescending tone of at least one contributor hardly illuminates anything except--well, we won't go there. No wonder readers don't like critics."
And John Rockwell commented: "And I definitely agree with Scott's latest posting, about civility."
Interesting. That fraying of the edges of civility among the professionals here seemed to me a most welcome sign of critical good health, and the very thing that made this symposium's exchanges (among the professionals) so encouraging.
Time enough for dispassionate civility in your print columns, gentlemen (and ladies), where y'all are peddling learning and wisdom to the Great Unwashed. Here, among yourselves, it seems to me, is the place for the free and forthright expression of your informed passions and prejudices, and their justifications.
It's the lack of that free and forthright expression in print that makes what should be a vital and vigorous public conversation in the media among professional music critics seem instead (to quote myself), "...[arguments] more appropriate to genteel luncheon and dinner parties where it's considered the height of gauche to argue in any manner that might upset the digestion of those seated at table. Arguing in that dispassionate, genteel way makes members of [the mainstream critical fraternity] feel they've been informative and reasonable, when all they've managed to be is glib...while at the same time keeping hands clean, hair un-mussed, and digestion undisturbed -- theirs, their fellow music critics', and their readers'."
posted @ August 3, 2004 7:10 pm
I agree with Scott Cantrell too, and apologize for my sharing my misplaced, presumptuous anger about Mr. Rockwell’s presentation in Seattle a couple months ago. His graciousness in response humbles me.
If the cultural ground has shifted – probably not 180 degrees, true – Mr. Rockwell would probably not be remiss in thinking his work had something to do with that shift. Which seemed to be at least part of his goal in the book.
We’re all here because we love music. As Ms. Delacoma has pointed out in her post about listener anger towards Music-One-Dislikes, music goes deep into people’s hearts and souls. It’s hot stuff. I, for one, need to make my peace with the truth that different people deal with it differently.
Arthur J. Sabatini
posted @ August 3, 2004 7:09 pm
Well, admittedly, John Rockwell, I do not read everything you write, so I will defer to other commentators. But, while you might think you are Mr. Context, your reviews, not feature writing, too often become strongly evaluative. I think Gann & Ross are more artist oriented in their writing. That is not a problem, however, unless your intent is to be more historical than judgemental, etc. In any case, I still do not see the basis for stating that Gann (or anyone of the principle writers involved in this discussion) do not hear enough or write about a breadth of music.
All American Music
posted @ August 3, 2004 2:40 pm
John Rockwell’s book meant something to me when I read it 20 years ago, as a music-poetry-theater obsessed college student for whom high-low distinctions had never existed, growing up in a bourgeois family where my mom and my grandma were equally enthralled by the classical music and the show tunes they played on piano. I read about Ives and Varese in books on my parents’ shelf, took piano lessons, played punk rock, loved Ornette Coleman & Ellington & N. Young & L. Anderson & Art Ensemble & John Cage & Nancarrow & Mozart & J. Strauss & Sousa, and all of this was normal to my family and my friends (well, few friends dug Sousa or Strauss); Rockwell’s book confirmed my experience.
I tried to re-read it a few years ago & just couldn’t get into it. Probably not Rockwell’s fault – he was intervening in a high-low culture war whose terrain has shifted big time in the years since. At that time, for 50 or 60 years, jazz partisans and then rock partisans had been banging on the door of high culture, saying, hey, we’re valid too! Rockwell was in a powerful position to say, Yes!, and he said it, and that is very cool.
20 years later, the roles are somewhat reversed. Rock is ascendant (rock, not pop – I’m talking about cultural prestige, not money). Jazz is still on the ropes & frankly needs the institutional-educational-repertory support that classical enjoys. Rock, in its ascendancy, more-or-less doesn’t care about classical, and as Wynne Delacoma pointed out, showing up at the symphony is not a requisite of prestige with anybody. So now some of the classical-ists want some of rock (or pop’s – hell, anybody’s) juice. (I said SOME of the classical-ists; and I honor those who stubbornly go their own way.) The roles are reversed, and if an update to Rockwell’s book were needed, it would need to come from a rock-ist, saying, hey, some of this ivory tower stuff is pretty cool.
Living in Seattle, I had the opportunity to hear Rockwell speak at the recent rock conference (they call it a pop conference, but Rockwell and Ross are right to mis-call it a rock conference). And he really upset me. He prepared no remarks and boasted about not even taking up all of his allotted time. He coasted. Oh well. Then, in the Q & A, he even mildly dissed a fellow critic on his panel for being too reverential toward music. That upset me. It made me mad – still does – but thinking about it now, it makes me sad. For Rockwell.
"Big Ideas" - Which Direction?
posted @ August 3, 2004 2:28 pm
Random aesthetic questions (wrapping a few assumptions) that I've been turning over ever since reading Leonard B. Meyers' "Music, The Arts and Ideas" many years ago:
Which metaphorical direction do ideas have to be in to become "big"? "Up"? "Out"? Against"?
We can call anything a work of art; what kind of attribute are we imbuing it with, that a moment before the same object wasn't given?
The Earth is only so big; given enough time running around the surface of it, we end up never able to climb a new mountain, discover a new island, etc. We still create new, important, personal experiences, but the direction is different. Is there something similar in Aesthetics?
What happens when we include ideas in the artstic "sphere" that were excluded before? More specifically, what happens when we finally allow the last door in the sphere to be opened, that includes everything in the sphere? Where do we "go" then for the next big idea?
Is Aesthetics in the big sense, like the universe itself, a kind of finite-yet-unbounded place? If it is, how do we come to terms with it ? Where do we find the same level of value and importance when the direction can only go "back", around", "through"?
Seeking: Multiple Judgments
posted @ August 3, 2004 2:26 pm
I must admit to being irked by Kyle Gann's comment about many American music critics limiting their interests to "the 40 guys [sic] who get orchestra commissions". I hardly believe this to be true. Is it?
And what is wrong with Lou Harrison, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, John Adams, Ingram Marshall, Gloria Coates, Tan Dun, Anne LeBaron, Wynton Marsalis, Susan Botti, and many other American musical creators receiving major orchestral commissions following long years on avant-guard new music circuits [or jazz circuits]? I only wish that major American avant-guard creators, such as Alvin Curran, Frederic Rzewski, Gloria Coates, and many others, would receive more opportunities to write orchestral and choral works in America.
Does Kyle Gann believe that Philip Glass's Symphony #5 (Choral) "Requiem, Bardo, Nirmanakaya", Ingram Marshall's "Kingdom Come" [dedicated to his brother in law, a journalist killed in Bosnia], and John Adams's "On the Transmigration of Souls" [we all know, or should know, its dedication] is selling out, by these distinguished American creators, to the establishment? Many of these superb American creators were just as classically trained as other American composers who were embraced much earlier by the American musical establishment.
Haven't these orchestral, and choral, works enlivened our public culture? I, for one, think that it is wonderful when a composer such as John Adams's wins the Pulitzer Music Prize. ( I think that it is less than wonderful that American award winning compositions are not immediately and repeatedly broadcast on public radio and television, and issued on disc, perhaps at promotional prices the way EMI marketed some of Thomas Ades's works.)
I wanted to thank Alex Ross for bringing to my, and our, attention Lera Auerbach's "24 Preludes for Violin and Piano." While I know Magnus Linberg's "Aura: In Memorium Witold Lutoslawski"; Thomas Ades's "Asyla", Osvaldo Golijov's "St. Mark Passion", Steve Reich and Beryl Korot's "Three Tales", and John Adams's "Naive and Sentimental Music" — and other works by John Moran, Helmut Oehring and Iris ter Schiphorst, and Lou Harrison — Lera Auerbach was a new name to me. A recommendation, for listening and performance, coming from Alex Ross is indeed exciting.
I wanted to list here my quickly compiled list of a baker's dozen listening bets — not necessarily "best bets", but hopefully some that other readers will consider "interesting bets".
Thank you for sharing the road.
John Adams "On the Transmigration of Souls"
Harrison Birtwistle "Theseus Games" or "Pulse Shadows";
Gloria Coates "Symphonies";
Philip Glass "Symphony #5: "Requiem, Bardo, Nirmanakaya",
Sofia Gubaidulina "St. John Passion";
Stephen Hartke "Symphony #2";
Toshio Hosokawa "Memory of the Sea" and "Vision of Lear";
Hanspeter Kyburz "The Voynich Cipher Manuscript" and "Malstrom";
Ingram Marshall "Kingdom Come";
Wolfgang Rihm "Deus Passus";
Peter Ruzicka and Peter Mussbach "Paul Celan";
Matthias Pintscher "Five Orchestral Pieces"
Valentin Silvestrov "Symphony #7" and "Requiem for Larissa".
John Rockwell on Gann and Ross, and Greg, too
Arthur J. Sabatini
posted @ August 3, 2004 10:08 am
When John Rockwell gripes that Kyle Gann has devoted his career to certain composers and suggests that he pick up on the composers Alex Ross mentions, he indirectly brings up a point regarding musical worlds and critical positions that needs further discussion. From my reading over decades, I find Gann to have a far more thorough social and historist sense of contemporary composer's careers and the specific trajectories of their music than John Rockwell.
Rockwell is the type of critic who seems far more willing to hear (and judge) music piece by piece and not as part of an artist's life's work. I often stop reading him when I discern that he fails to place music he is writing about in any context, as if just the sound and performance of one piece on one night were enough to know what a work may mean or what a composer's ideas are. Unfortunately, I think that has something to do with the uptown/downtown and NYC vs. non-NY music worldview, not to mention academic/non-academic approaches.
That last comment also pertains to Alex Ross' work. Nearly all of the compositions Ross mentions are by composers-who-need-no-introduction and whose works are presented in major, oh well, uptown venues. Ross, for the most part, generally contextualizes the work he reviews in the New Yorker, but he rarely ventures into Gann's musical neighborhoods. This is, in some sense a good thing; and thank-you, Greg Sandow, for being all over the place. (Sandow, by the way, recently had a perceptive AJ Blog on the different audiences & the places in NYC they hear and respond to music). This is all not meant to be personal, each writer represents a "type" and, in a way, an aesthetic that could be addressed.
Points of discussion: there are no transcendent ideas without history and context, which audiences bring to work and is sanctioned by the institutions and discourses that surround productions. To respond to music or art without contexts is to buy into (sorry for this old term) anonymous commodification of material and denial of individual creative evolution. This is especially significant when writing about living composers whose work or ideas are not known.
Second, as Alex Ross points out, there are no ideas without accounting for artistic lives and careers. This applies to critics as well, who need, as Gann often does (following Virgil Thomson, for one), to declare their positions and allegiances. Purely "detached" or "objective" critical writing is credible only up to a point, which is nevertheless generally determined by the publication (like one that would hold to the convention of such form of address as "Mr. Ice Cube.") This is, of course, not to argue for impressionistic responses; there is much more at stake.
John Rockwell advises Gann to spread his wings, to which, I would suggest Rockwell grab a Metro Card to visit more composers at work, pick up his his walking stick, and use his expense account to get on the road and not just in the concert hall.
Glad to be that somebody
posted @ August 3, 2004 7:14 am
"The musical equivalent would have been a composer who, in a white heat of creation, spewed out music -- but writing it down, not improvising it in concert. (Of course, somebody's sure to point out some composer who did just this." - Greg Sandow
I'd like to be that somebody - Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (1892 - 1988) an enormously prolific composer, who completed more than one hundred works between 1915 and 1984. Many are for piano solo; some are of enormous dimensions. He wrote over 10,000 pages of manuscript. His works are fearsomely complex, through composed with no direct repetition of any kind. They where written from top left to bottom right at break neck speed with no pre-sketching and virtually no correction after the event, even the two massive symphonies for huge orchestra and chorus, 824 and 1001 pages of A2. Those who actually saw him compose (which were very few indeed) said that he indeed "spewed out music*in the white heat of creation".
Very much a minor figure (indeed a non-figure) during his lifetime entirely by choice and the thought of being part of any "idea" let alone a "big idea" would have been completely repugnant to him. Sorabji was himself a prolific critic and music journalist. One of my favourite Sorabji quotes was directed against his fellow critics "Insects that are merely noisome like to think that they can also sting."
Big Idea? Not
posted @ August 3, 2004 7:11 am
Whether or not I qualify (as an ex-music critic) to contribute to this fascinating discussion, let me just make one comment: it is absolutely inconceivable that there could or should any longer be a ‘big idea’ or a prevailing musical mainstream. A century of recording and broadcasting, increasingly making all musics available to all, has completely changed our concept of musical tradition and influence in ways it is impossible to underestimate.
It is now generations since there has been a single idea or mainstream for any composer to react to or develop or fight against. Creative decisions today take place in an utterly different context from those in the past.
Director, BBC PROMS
Monday, August 2
Big Ideas... Who Needs Them?
posted @ August 2, 2004 11:26 pm
While my background is in the visual arts, I am an accomplished guitarist. As Wynne Delacoma accurately points out, none of us are ever going to become capable of predicting the "next big" anything. Worse yet, while John Cage's incorporating Zen Buddhist practices to composition and performance may still have a strong potential, his 1962 "Silent piece 0' 0" personifies Delacoma's statement:"...schools of thought that stifle creativity rather than stimulate it."
Whenever mediocre thought and subsequent performance are elevated to the level of being news worthy based on timing rather than content, a glaring problem exists. The hell-bent attempts to periodically merge "art and technology" into some magical Disneyesque experience for artdom to celebrate, has most always resulted in shallow, human removed exercises that the advertising industry thrives on to reach their mass of consumers. Rauschenberg's "Mud Muse" is a case in point, what is even the intended content of that piece? Computer-generated imagery on the same level of accomplishment and/or content as the Chauvet cave horse paintings.
Sorry, does not compute. Former U of M artist/instructor John Link, once astutely observed: "Art doesn't give a damn who creates the next masterpiece, just so long as someone does." I think music will continue to operate under that same decree.
To Greg, Justin: Hermetic Music
posted @ August 2, 2004 7:30 pm
Greg: I've read your 3rd point, where you ask why improvisation, as manifest in the 1950s and likened to the procedures of Pollock and Kerouac, seemed to be rejected by the musical mainstream, in favor of a kind of musical formalism.
The idea that improvisation can be handily introduced into classical concert music has been largely built on a misunderstanding of the nature of both of those great processes. Each requires far different musical skills, and more importantly, each requires a dedication to a unique sensibility that transcends the skills themselves. It seems to me that on balance, the separation between traditional Western improvisational and interpretive forms has proved to be a healthy one. Much of the enjoyment of hearing fine musicians lies in the appreciation of the dedication to a particular point of view come to life in a specific performance. And I'm sure we've all had our disappointments with hybrids that end up at best as a musical "surf 'n turf."
Improvisational forms are present in much experimental music of the last few decades. If the likely roots for this are in jazz, it has certainly moved into procedural realms that are as far-removed from those origins as they are from so-called concert music. There's your "third stream" - at this point, a wholly different genre, much more open to the changeable ideas of the Art world at large, and much more able to participate in that change. Whether it's part of the NY Times-reading mainstream or not, is (to me) beside the point: It is the life work of musicians more interested in creating the present than connecting to the past.
A Problem of Marketing
posted @ August 2, 2004 5:59 pm
I have been following the Critical Conversation discussion, and I would like to offer my contribution:Compared to the NYC new-music scene, the NYC independent (pop) music scene consistently draws a wider demographic and larger pool of listeners to hear its emerging artists. The venues and the artists themselves take a more proactive role in marketing emerging composers, songwriters, and musicians, so the interesting things that are happening in the pop music world are heard about and talked about a lot (and by a lot of different people).
Interesting things and Big Ideas are certainly happening in the concert music world, but they're not being heard about or talked about because concerts are not being marketed well. New music promoters should focus on attracting young audiences and emerging composers before we all become completely jaded.
Here are some ways we might achieve that: Composers and new music presenters should market their work more actively and with more innovative thinking. Composers can't realistically expect to reach beyond their circles of friends and colleagues without some sort of marketable identity. To create these identities, composers and performers could join forces to create a collective, like Meme Music for one example (http://www.mememusic.com). Alternatively, individual composers/performers could each cultivate a "persona" that manifests itself in performance and gives listeners a reason to attend live concerts *in addition to* listening to recordings, promoting the concept that a recording is not the "complete" portrait, and that going to a concert is necessary to experience the whole. I have always thought of people like Robert Ashley, Eve Beglarian, Pauline Oliveros, and Amy X. Neuburg in this way.
Music critics should write more PREview articles, in an effort to bring more audiences to upcoming events. Positive REviews of one-time concerts of music by emerging composers may be forgotten by the time the composers' music is performed again. [Nobody take this personally please!]
Finally, venues/presenters that tend to present established artists should host events in which a collection of emerging artists are presented (on one bill) with the same courtesy, production values, quality performers, and publicity that established artists enjoy. I believe it would not be difficult to find funding for such an "outreach" event, and it truly *could* strengthen the community, if it were handled with genuine and professional care. The Kitchen (NYC) may claim to do this with Kitchen House Blend, but KHB usually features established and semi-established composers, not truly emerging composers.
I've had a lot of support from composers, performers, and some smaller presenters in the concert-music world, and this support has been invaluable to me. That is why I strive to advocate change in the concert-music world rather than just removing myself from it. But the support I've experienced from the independent (pop) music world brings with it the potential for my music to reach a broader and more diverse audience, and sadly I can't imagine such potential in today's concert-music world. How jaded am I?
Of Sheep Heads And Music
posted @ August 2, 2004 5:56 pm
When I put on concerts, one of the main obstructions to bringing in an audience is marketing. The amount of money spent to promote the LA Phil and related organizations gives many people a sense that it is the "thing" to do. The practicality of putting on a concert in an alternative venue (church, art gallery, museum) can limit the exposure and coverage of the event. In Los Angeles, the official Green Umbrella "New Music" Concerts are really setup to promote the direction of the LA Phil and the orchestra as a whole. Their mailings, posters, radio ads and banners give the public a sense of confidence in the quality of the presentation. Of course when you attend the concert you realize that you might have been swindled. Or feel that you are not smart enough to "understand" the music.
So the problem for any alternative ensemble, is that unless we are playing in an establishment venue or concert series then we can only bring in the same 50-60 people (heavy on friends and family) that come out to our concerts on a consistent basis.
I recently met a music producer, Ronan Murphy, who I found out I had much in common with. Although he makes his living making punk, and progressive rock records, we both could talk in detail about early Glass and Reich records that we really love. Knowing this I wondered his views on why they had not "caught on" more. He said it was like teaching the public to eat sheep heads.
He was recording an album in Iceland and having a dinner with a Afghan and a Swede. They saw that there was sheep head on the menu and ordered it immediately. He was horrified, but decided to try it. Of course it was wonderful, but it was not something he ever thought he would like. So our goal is getting people to like sheep heads. Maybe, with the right marketing campaign...
Through marketing we could get there, but who will pick up the cost? I feel that whoever gets some traction and gets halfway their will open the door for the rest of us.
Until then we push on.
Re: Kyle's Listening Examples
posted @ August 2, 2004 9:51 am
Yes, that's helpful, and a nice list (though not terribly "new" to anyone paying fair attention over the last couple decades). For a really broad slice of the current spectrum, including much fine work by people that don't even begin to approach the fringes of the "official radar", I'd like to recommend two sites:
www.kalvos.org is the home of "Kalvos and Damian's New Music Bazaar", a composer-run (Dennis Báthory-Kitsz and David Gunn), Vermont-based radio program that's closing in on show #500. Besides offering both interviews and examples of all kinds of music being made today, both here and abroad, they early on took the visionary step of archiving virtually ALL of these programs online (even including at least one with Mr. Gann himself), available to anyone literally anywhere, 24/7. It's an amazing resource, and a fantastic introduction to the wide world of what's being created in the name of Art Music.
The second resource is www.netnewmusic.net, a site created by my fellow composer/pal Jeff Harrington, and which I'm happy to help out with. At the heart it's simply a nexus of links to online musicians worldwide, each producing Art Music that we personally have listened to and happen to find interesting. Equally important there is that the vast majority of these links offer a number of full-length pieces freely available for listening, so direct from the artist to their audience.
In both of these cases, What becomes important is not the name, affiliation, publisher/label, awards, reputation, "buzz", etc; rather it's simply do they make good music?
posted @ August 2, 2004 9:26 am
Is it too much to expect that nearly the entire significance-sickness in nonpop has to do with the dearth of effective investment and imaginative marketing -- as well as, to some extent, the noose of intellectual property laws that strangles compositions that might use popular work as source material?
As for marketing, I don't think my (our) ears are exceptions. My wife was a blues and rock listener before she met me. Yet she has developed not only a discernment but also a true enjoyment of new nonpop because of its presence in the home, and my own enthusiasm for it. My one-on-one marketing has expanded my friends' listening habits. Our tiny radio show has developed a local audience that faithfully listens every week -- an audience of largely 'naive' listeners that is very different from our much larger on-line listenership. Our local audiences *and* critics have grown into nonpop over the past decade in live concerts as well; Vermont is small, so change can be more easily effected, but after 15 years of our composers working together in promoting and marketing our work, nearly every Vermont nonpop ensemble includes new compositions in its concerts ... *and* an audience eager to hear them.
Today, the larger consumer world doesn't really care about composers, doesn't know what they do for the most part (as in the term 'songs' in place of 'compositions' in almost every piece of commercial software), and, when nonpop rises at all above the horizon, it's limited to marketing of "The Most Beautiful Music in the World: 99 Classics to Go to Sleep By".
Yet I truly believe that a marketing entrepreneur coupled with a group of serious investors could turn around the public attention, and that would reveal the occasional Big Ideas by sheer mass presence and subsequent mass filtering. A single movie turned enthusiastic public attention back to bluegrass. Yanni dragged the concerto soloist model into the pop world. Sir ALW has skirted the classical model and brought attention to a certain concert-ish sound through spectacle.
I tried to get through to the Spectacle Man himself, Richard Branson. This little Q&A from 1998 is still valid today (though I'm more optimistic about the investment issue). An excerpt:
What is this music?
Once it was called 'classical' music, but that word doesn't fit now. For a while people tried adjectives like serious, avant-garde, concert or art music--a panoply of terms that tried to identify this music as different from entertainment music. Yes, this music is different because it asks the listener's intimate attention and involvement. You might say that entertainment music wears familiar clothes; this music--this art music--simply drops its clothes to the floor, inviting a longer look. It's quite a story. Let's talk about it.
Who cares about this music?
Few enough people, but that's because they don't know much about it. An entire generation--maybe two--simply got out of the habit of listening closely to music. Maybe the music wasn't listenable for a while. Maybe recordings overtook the concert hall. Maybe music became a commodity or a utility. The reasons aren't important, because listeners are ready to re-discover this music-without-a-name.
With so many important causes, why should I care about this? For the same reasons people buy recordings or wear fashionable clothes or fly balloons--because, when the day is done, there's growth and good beyond raw survival. Perhaps, in a world of pain, all pleasure is indefensible. So ultimately, if you don't want to do this, nothing can justify it.
What will I get out of it?
This is not a financial investment. It's an open question whether you will reap a penny. History will hardly know you, any more than it remembers the Margrave of Brandenburg. But there will be Branson compositions and dedications and concerts and recordings. Something will be forever changed in the musical and cultural history of the world. But your own reward will be entirely personal.
Isn't arts sponsorship the government's business?
Hardly. Who knows why they continue funding the arts? Maybe it's a hand-me-down from royal patronage. Perhaps it insulates artists from a commercial world. But I believe--and have lived the belief--that individual risk sharpens appreciation for the imagination of art and music.
But isn't it just charity anyway?
No. Here's the difference. Society pays for what it values, or perceives to have value ... the basics, travel, entertainment, and even one-of-a-kind artwork by the Great Masters. By hiring living composers and paying for their products, you, Richard Branson, assign value--cash value--that others can wonder about, consider, and emulate. Don't call the awards or commissions or fellowships; call them the Branson Positions, where you hire composers as inventors of worthwhile products.
What am I actually doing?
Consider it R&D--I like the research and development analogy. To start, you'll hire 100 composers as 'creative developers' to work in an environment free from outside pressures, perhaps for two years. When they've completed their experimental designs, you'll bring the results in for engineering (rehearsals), improvement (revisions), beta-testing (concerts), and production. Then, with all your enthusiasm behind them, you'll market the products under your own New Virgins label and purchase time on concerts for their performance. Aside from the artistic integrity guaranteed the composers, it will partly be a commercial venture in the public's eyes. If orchestras and chamber groups play the music, they will receive payment, publicity, and your good graces; if they don't, they'll continue to beg for contributions to play more Mozart. Audiences will pack the halls for Branson Concerts.
And then what?
If you've done it up right, others less artistically aware will emulate you--the technological barons, the financiers, the Wall Street investors. Where millions went to purchase paintings of the Old Masters, millions will also go to create new musical masterpieces. You will have met the challenge
Branson didn't answer, of course, but I thought it was worth posing the questions if only to frame them.
There's also the intellectual property issue. With sourcing new tunes so legally complicated and often nasty, who will have the fortitude of a John Oswald? His Pluderphonics, of course, worked in the electronic medium that needed no skittish performer or performance organization base. A set of textural and tonal variations on, to use the current blog-mentioned pop diva, "Oops, I Did It Again" would be a legal navigation nightmare. And speaking of ALW and his hard lock on contracts, what sort of nightmare would result from using his tunes as source material?
This is a major issue, especially considering that nonpop also forms the essential research & development system for the mass-audience arts.
Nonpop by nature will never be popular in the same entertainment-based way as the pop tune, but that does not mean it should lack visibility. Again using a blog example, "Fahrenheit 9/11" transformed (for now) opinion of & attention to the documentary form.
Somewhat as an aside about the local complaint in one comment: From reports I hear from hundreds of our guests, the local audiences are almost always enthusiastic -- outside the provincial cities such as New York, that is. This is personality at work, don't you think? A good marketing scheme to present nonpop composers as personalities is not a bad idea. (As you can guess, I think it's a great idea.)
We're in a golden age of musical composition. Much as I prefer to think that the voices of nonpop art and music can be heard because of their sheer ability to inspire the imagination and participate in a community of cultural growth, I have concluded that the willingness to dismiss (or at least subjugate) all the mechanisms of public outreach -- marketing, IP, R&D investment -- means the Big Idea (or even the Little Ideas that I have dedicated my own life to in creating 650 compositions over 40 years) will rarely be felt in practice. And as I said to Branson, "individual risk sharpens appreciation for the imagination of art and music."
It seems to me a critic's role might include addressing how nonpop has failed to come of age, not as an artform in its own time, but as a vital participant in contemporary enterprise.
Co-host Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar (
A Post-Literate Musical Future
posted @ August 2, 2004 9:12 am
I won't summarize the points here except to note that it is directly responsive to many of the postings here though from a perspective that I don't think has been represented.
Thanks for the excellent discussion.
Sunday, August 1
Where do new musical ideas come from?... Follow the architecture
posted @ August 1, 2004 2:19 pm
Where do new musical ideas come from?... I remember attending a wonderful temporary exhibition, about eight years ago, at the old San Francisco De Young Art Museum, in Golden Gate Park, which featured old and rare Anatolian and Persian kilims from the private collection of a visionary Berkeley-based architect/architectural theorist. I recall that this collection is slated to become a distinguished part of the new San Francisco De Young Museum collection, when that Museum reopens to the public in about a year's time. I also recall that the architect/collector published an exquisite catalogue at the time of the exhibition, entitled something like "Toward a 21st Century Architecture". I remember, later, spending hours in the small bookstore of the Textile Museum, in Washington, DC, studying this wonderful book, which I recall was $100 and well beyond my means. (I was unemployed at the time.)
I remembered that exhibition, and that magical book, this year, and last, when thinking about two "historical" events — the destruction, by nature, of the 1,000 year old Iranian city of Bam, and the destruction, by the Taliban, of two Buddhist sculptures at Bamiyan. I know that music critics must think about such "historical events" as much as do art historians, preservationists, architects, composers, librettists, and other artists. We are all, at core, humanists.
I have not seen mention made here of "neo-Romanticism" — a musical movement which I thought followed upon musical "minimalism" by about 15 years. [Nor have I seen mention here of the "just intonation" movement, despite wide-spread talk on the subject last fall after the premiere of John Adams's "Dharma at Big Sur" in L.A]. One might argue that some of the ideas behind musical "neo-Romanticism" first appeared, in the late 1970s, in
the architecture of Philip Johnson's ATT/Sony building in New York, Michael Graves' neo-Sumerian Portland Municipal Building, in Oregon, or in Gae Aulenti's Musée d'Orsay, in Paris. Jacob Druckman, of course, curated, for two years, festivals based upon this "big idea" with the New York Philharmonic, and that festival, and its wake, launched the careers of several distinguished, now mid-career, American composers such as Aaron Jay Kernis. I also recall that some critics (Andrew Porter) noted Druckman's generosity of spirit which allowed the festival to include Frederic Rzewski playing his beautiful work for piano and orchestra.
If musical "neo-Romanticism" is ended, or nearing its end now that the 1990s are over, what is following? If one turns to architecture, one notes, especially in Europe and Asia, an explosion of neo-modernism. American examples include the Kohn Pedersen Fox World Bank Headquarters in Washington, D.C., the Frank Gehry masterpieces of Bilbao and Los Angeles, the Daniel Libeskind Jewish Museum, in Berlin, and the Getty Museum and Garden by Richard Meier and Robert Irwin, again in Los Angeles. Studying some of the exciting programming of contemporary music at the new Walt Disney Hall, one would think that composers from around the world were looking carefully at the works of Gehry, Libeskind, Meier, and Irwin. Los Angeles has a third new architecural masterpiece — Raphael Moneo's Catholic Cathedral, next to the new Walt Disney Hall, which, in its use of various shades of natural stone, might be considered almost post-neo-modernist. And who are some of the younger composers who would seemto fit into the neo-modernist concept? How about Liza Lim, Torsten Rasch, and Michael Hersch; as well as the more experienced composer Gloria Coates? [Older practictioners of this modernist/neo-modernist aesthetic include, of course, Elliott Carter, Harrison Birtwistle, and Pierre Boulez.]
And what might lie beyond neo-modernism? I read this week that Daniel Libeskind's planned extension to London's Albert and Victoria Museum, a work of neo-modernism, may not be built after all; and we have all read about the changes taking place in Daniel Libeskind's concept for the new World Trade and Cultural Center Towers. Libeskind's London "pure design" is being criticized for its lack of contextualism to the existing building — the same criticism, in fact, as has recently surfaced in regards to I.M. Pei's East Wing of the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C., and his Exhibition Hall extension to the German Historical Museum, in Berlin.
Post-neo-modernism in architecture and music? Two new buildings are soon opening in the United States that I think could both be described as post-neo-modernist. One is Douglas Cardinal's National Museum of the American Indian, in Washington, D.C., slated to open to the public this October. The other is the Herzog and Meuron new De Young Museum in San Francisco, mentioned earlier, which will open in a year's time. Both of these buildings feature fantastically sensitive and sustainable uses of materials, and both are highly sensitive to the ecologies of their sites. These two buildings — circa 2004 and 2005 C.E. — cannot be easily linked to the neo-modernism of Richard Meier's and Frank Gehry's stone and metal art palaces and performance venues in Bilbao or Los Angeles, or Daniel Libeskind's exploded, metallic "Star of David" in Berlin. What is the new music which will soon reflect the sensitivity to world materials and the ecological sustainability inherent in the Douglas Cardinal, and Herzog and Meuron Museums of archaic and contemporary cultures?
Postlude... I read somewhere that young architecture students from around the world are now heading to Chernivitsi, Ukraine, to study the late works of the 19th century Czech architect Josef Hlavka. [After completing about 140 projects in Imperial Vienna, he saved his most imaginative works for the Eastern Provinces to the Empire, where the Romanian influence was strong.] In order to try to stay abreast of what may be an influence on "music of the future", I too headed to Chernivitsi, this past May, to view what is now the University of Chernivitsi and Hlavka's neo-Gothic Armenian Church, now used as Chernivitsi's concert venue, until that city's Philharmonia is modernized. Both of these architectural masterpieces are archaic, modernist, and timeless all at once.
Postlude upon postlude... I hope that music critics, as well as composers and performers, will make every effort — in addition to reaching out to the Muslim world — to reach out to the, largely, neo-Orthodox world of over one quarter billion people living, now, beyond the expanded E.U. in such places as — in addition to Bucharest and Sofia — Moscow, Petersburg, Minsk, Kyiv, Odesa, Yerevan, and Tbilisi. We don't need resentment of "the West" to arise from disenchanted , and impoverished, members of the post-communist, neo-Orthodox world the way it emerged from segments of the Muslim world. [Olivier Messiaen, Arvo Part, and John Taverner have all, of course, taken inspiration from the Orthodox, Christian world.]
How Do Ideas Get Big?
Arthur J. Sabatini
posted @ August 1, 2004 2:14 pm
My apologies if these points have been discussed. If so, just refer back to the letters...
Here are several questions: I think that among of the implicit questions "high art" poses to popular, even folk cultural art forms, musical and otherwise, with regard to Big Ideas, are:
- What does it take, formally, to address a Big Idea? Will there, really, ever be a rock and roll Wagner? How much can three-seven minute songs say, after all?
- Are there limits to forms and genres and artists' careers and choices? Conversely, are not forms and genres (and, even of instrumentation, styles, etc.) tied to history and place? If a Big Idea were to arrive today in the form of a symphony or large orchestral work, would not the very fact that is an orchestral work already inhibit its potential meaning or impact, especially for American audiences?
- Is it enough to address a Big Idea once? Or, does not a Big Idea require sustained investigation, variation, exploration and depth? Is this not the difference between pop cultural production and its demands (which is extraordinary as far as it goes) and what historically has been the domain of artistic work?
The Next Big Idea
posted @ August 1, 2004 2:11 pm
I am a composer who was struck by the comments Colin Eatock made here on 7/29, which I think are very perceptive. I have two degrees in music composition, but have largely ignored the fads and trends over the years and have concentrated on composing music in the manner that most composers throughout history have always been concerned with. And that is - to write music that is based on what has come before, breath new life into old forms and techniques, infuse the result with a personal style, and hopefully end up with music that sounds fresh and original but does not alienate audiences and performers. If there is a "Next Big Idea", I think it will be a return to what I have just mentioned. You may listen at my website: www.johnheins.com. I welcome comments from anyone out there (especially the music critics) as to whether or not I'm successful in realizing what I think Mr. Eatock has alluded to. You may also contact me, if you prefer, at: mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org
Of Social Complexity And Other "High" Arts
posted @ August 1, 2004 8:39 am
Justin and Greg, visual arts and literature have gone through very hermetic periods. Minimalism in visual arts works as almost the exact opposite of minimalism in classical -- it was hermetic and unpopular and mostly about its own history, whereas minimalism in classical music was engaging and popular and had emotional resonance with listeners. Check out some of the work of classic '60s - '70s minimalist artist Carl Andre if you're not sure.
Avant-garde poetry since the beats has taken a serious turn toward hermeticism, emotional disengagement, fierce anti-narrativity, and academic dogmatism. Charles Bernstein will serve as an example. Cogent and derisive polemicist (fun to read!), university-connected, convinced that his hermeticism represents resistance to the capitalist onslaught. (Sound familiar?) Here are two poems, if you don't know his stuff and you're curious.
(And if you dig Andre or Bernstein, please don't get mad at me -- I'd sincerely love to hear why you do love them. And I do like a poem or two of Bernstein's.)
For me, I'd rather listen to the most hermetic of the serialists than read Bernstein or look at Andre.
Further parallel with academic-hermetic music: The university poets (Bernstein is one, and of course he RAILS RAILS RAILS against the "other" university poets) pause in their civil war and unite to condemn slam poetry. You know, the stuff that's passionate, engaged, often political, quite popular, populist, verbally rhythmic & often wildly inventive. Sound familiar?
My point is -- things are just as socially complex in the other "high" arts; there's no need for classical musicians to feel the grass is greener elsewhere. (Fiction has always been a popular art -- the novel didn't get going until after the printing press & it's always had "mass audience" in mind. Though of course there are hermetic fictionalists now too, and have been for 70 years.)
In the spirit of Alex Ross's all-purpose retorts, I will self-retort and say that Monsieur Croche is rolling in his grave that I'm taking part in this discussion at all.
Saturday, July 31
Two Important Threads
posted @ July 31, 2004 5:57 pm
The comments and debate have been flying some fast and furious that it has been hard to catch up with this much needed conversation.
I see two important threads of importance which haven't really been elucidated. One is the actual composer and his/her composing, and new ideas therein. The other is the presentation of new (and old) music to the public, and the currentmusic marketplace, i.e. recording contracts, new music ensembles etc.
What I believe is most important about the situation composers now find themselves in, is that composers really are free to write whatever they want. This really is a big change, as noticed from the continuing talk about serialism in earlier posts. This Theory is easily demonstrated by a visit to your local music school or university, and going to a student composers concert. There is nothing more disconcerting to an audience member to go to one of these concerts, because as soon as some almost dodecaphonic piece finishes, we are suddenly launched into music in D major. Followed, by something with electronic sampling.
This leads directly into the second idea/problem. How and where people actually hear music. It has been remarked upon that new music ensembles have only local interest. Even orchestras when then play newish music, display a regional bias. There seems to be an unspoken assumption that this is not a good situation. I believe otherwise. It seems to me that localism can be the "next big idea" (for lack of a better term).
This idea can educate and create fans in the audience. There is of course the possibility of seeing the composer involved with the performing of the piece itself, of in discussing it. But more importantly, instead of hearing a short overture by a name we will never hear again, we can hear over the course of a season, and several seasons can hear enough music by a single composer that we can come to some understanding about it. Enough to actually be interested in a first performance, and actually understand it, because we know enough about that composer's language, to get a least most of it.
To make an obvious point, it is no longer the case that a 'major' composer could write a work, and it would be played in New York or Chicago, and a recording would appear 6 months later, and within 2 years, all of the major centers of music in the country would put on performances of it. Earlier posts have remarked on one reason. Nobody gets recorded anymore, and those who do, have almost no distribution so no one can find those recordings.
There is another reason, however. The number of places with the high quality performers and audience to hear music of this kind is exponentially higher than it was, say 50 years ago. Perhaps more importantly, the number of composers, many of the well-trained at music schools and universities around the country is exponentially higher than it ever has been. There is simply too much interesting music, not too little.
Again, to illustrate the point from the orchestra world. One reason that the big-time orchestras are having some difficulty is that, besides the fact that touring doesn't make money anymore, they don't need to spread the gospel of music to the frontiers like Atlanta or Denver. They have their own orchestras, thank you very much.
The big idea is that there is no Big idea. Composers have access to 1000 years of musical history, and knowledge of music from any part of the globe. There simply is no one style that can handle that. I see the growth of recognizable local trends being a fascinating and a growth potential development of the near future.
Why Is It "Classical"?
posted @ July 31, 2004 5:56 pm
I've been following Critical Conversation to some extent with interest. A question that has always been somewhere at the back of my mind just popped in: Why is it that we refer to classical music today as 'CLASSICAL' music in the first place? Surely the word 'classical' isn't a generic term for the whole range of music history as we know it...from the Baroque to Romanticism to Modernism etc. This may be a side issue but I thought I'd raise it all the same, considering the topic we're debating, on the whole 'Big Idea' of our time. Hope this generates more thoughts. Would appreciate more comments on this.
Friday, July 30
A Still More Disturbing Question
posted @ July 30, 2004 7:25 pm
"No composer, at least anytime recently, has entered the public
consciousness with anything like the breadth of Ms. Morrison."
For that matter, how many pop musicians have entered the public
consciousness with anything like the breadth of Ms. Morrison? Worse
yet, compare music with movies. Is there any recent music, classical or
popular, which has entered public consciousness to the extent that, say,
"The Passion of the Christ" or "Fahrenheit 9-11" or the Lord of the
Rings adaptations have? Looking at the national media, or at least that
part of it directed towards the sort of smart people we all want in our
classical-music audience, I wonder...
(not to be confused with the radio announcer of the same name)
posted @ July 30, 2004 11:24 am
Wow! That's my one-word conclusion to two days' worth of CC, so much of which is beyond my technical expertise that I hesitate to say anything. But I do detect at last an answer to my question of a couple of days ago: Does it matter whether any of the critics in this conversation are composers? Judging by two of Kyle Gann's postings -- INSIDE A BIG IDEA and COMPOSER BASHING -- it matters a helluva lot.
Please keep it going.
Quit Complaining, Start Writing
posted @ July 30, 2004 10:59 am
I've had it up to here with composers complaining of how they were inculcated into writing serialist music in their student years with a gun pointed at their heads. It runs through so many composers' memories of those evil decades, the '60s and '70s, when people my age weren't around and who are only now coming to grips with the music written then. I waded through too many wails of protest in graduate school to be persuaded that one more person's mention of the Bad Years will add anything new to the conversation.
Kyle Gann's written of composers, including himself, who have thrown off the serialist hairshirt and moved on. That I think there may have been more there to develop through serialism that went unwritten out of totally understandable rebellion is beside the point. And this necessity of some sort of Harold Bloom-esque Anxiety of Influence runs all through music history: Brahms was intimidated by Beethoven, but he moved on. True enough, he complained to his friends of composing in Beethoven's shadow, but now is as good a time as any for composers to move on and stop complaining about Boulez and Co. Boulez is pushing 80, for crying out loud; let it go. Also, Leonard Stein just died, so he can be safely left to rest in peace
And even though it's only on this page and not the main page, to say that Arvo Part has done something new with tonality is simply wrong. Part did something new with the medieval modes, maybe, on a good day, but it's still going way back into history and deliberately affecting an older, comfortable-sounding style. I like some of what Part's done, but he's done nothing I'd consider new. Schoenberg may have said there was plenty of new music to be written in C major, but Part hasn't done it
Also, there has been some work done on the patronage system as it relates to Boulez: Georgina Born's book The Institutionalization of the Avant Garde. The Princeton University Press has also brought on patronage in Mozart's day, Quarter Notes and Bank Notes. I admit I've read neither of these and admit further that they probably don't constitute a critical mass of critical debate and interest. But it's there if you're interested.
Finally, the patronage system must influence the pop vs. classical discussion as to whether classical music will absorb pop styles and vice versa. Anything written with a profit motive will sound different than something that isn't, as one is calibrated to the marketplace and the other is oriented towards a smaller amount of people. That smaller amount of people has its own finicky tastes and politics, as once again Gann's mentioned, but certainly the profit motive influences even the artsy bands mentioned by Alex Ross and Greg Sandow.
And where does the line between thoughtful incorporation and pandering fall?
posted @ July 30, 2004 10:54 am
No, Alex, there is not a smidgen of truth in your accusation that Kyle is dogmatic. He’s championed all sorts of musicians who don’t fit into his “school.” John Oswald (whom he turned me onto), Pamela Z (whom I met on my own), and many many others whom I haven’t followed up on and so whose names I don’t remember. (Update, I see you toned down that accusation, and now simply want to get rid of the stylistic designations. But doesn’t that contradict your previous assertion that pop and classical will continue to have their own styles & traditions? Since you grant that distinction, why does using further designations as explanatory tools imply a dogmatic adherence to one style and tradition over another?)
Alex, you hadn’t explicitly said that pop is better than new classical, but now you have. (Update, I see you took that comment down, that Kyle’s better to read than the music he writes about is good to listen to.) Kyle was right to catch that drift in this whole discussion though. You’ve named by name lots and lots of pop musicians you dig. Have you named a contemporary composer here that you like? Britten isn’t contemporary.
Take away Kyle’s contributions, and the only composer for whom I’ve seen much enthusiasm in this discussion is Golijov. I’ve only heard one piece by him, a bit of Klezmeriana, and while I liked how he stuck to the traditional melodic & harmonic syntax and hopped up the accompanying rhythm in the writing for the string section – I liked it a lot – it didn’t strike me as any better than Britney Spears’ new hit, “Toxic,” which is more sophisticated in the range of referents that it pastiches (‘60s spy-surf guitar, Egyptian disco strings, early ‘80s Prince rhythms – I’ve written about this on my blog), though less original than the Golijov in how it transforms its sources. From what I can tell, Golijov seems like a pasticheur, like Britney and like William Bolcom (whom I like as well, and who is a red-hot pianist – saw him play in a basement bar in a jazz-style cutting contest 20 years ago with a Jelly Roll Morton scholar and a terrific boogie-woogie pianist, and he blew them both away).
Correction: Golijov has an original piece on Kronos’s “Nuevo,” and though I’ve listened to that disc many times I don’t remember Golijov’s piece. His many arrangements for Kronos on the album are terrific.
Un-Self-Consciousness In Seattle
posted @ July 30, 2004 10:51 am
A couple contributors have mentioned they'd be curious to hear from composers themselves. At the risk of making this blog a little Seattle-centric, let me try to describe what's going on in the compositional scene here with regard to the "Big Idea" idea.
Naturally, composers write for the musicians and venues that offer the most encouragement. Seattle has its share of contemporary-music groups, but composers get a gratifying amount of attention from mainstream classical ensembles too. Choirs are a particularly rich source of opportunity; Opus 7, Seattle Pro Musica, and The Esoterics have all staged all-local-composer concerts in the last few seasons. Stylistically, this music tends to be well within the grandstudents-of-Nadia-Boulanger tradition, but stronger and fresher than the word "conservative" might suggest. Community orchestras keep up good relations, and usually offer one or two local pieces in their four-to-six-concert seasons.
There's also a lot of improv going on, from free jazz to real-time electronic collage stuff, with regular performance series in at least three different venues. The Seattle Composers Salon is an open-mike night the last Friday of every other month (i.e. tonight) at Soundbridge, a little pocket recital hall in Benaroya Hall's music education center. It's non-curated-anyone who wants to present a piece can, signing up one or two Salons in advance until an evening's slate is full. Composers arrange their own rehearsals and performances, and there's a Q&A after each piece. (Audience size is gratifying-the 100-seat space is invariably packed.)
At Cornish College of the Arts, there's a lot of interest in jazz-world music-crossover stuff-but not at all to the point of being a party line. There's collaborative new-music activity in the dance world, and composers involved in commercial music, film music, game music. And of course at the University of Washington, all composition students are forbidden from writing anything, ever, for their entire four years, other than strict twelve-tone piano pieces.
What we all seem to share is an almost complete lack of self-consciousness. Composers just do what excites them and gravitate, naturally, toward other musicians who share that excitement, but really don't seem to see themselves in terms of schools or trends (or, God forbid, antagonistic camps). If they do, they're keeping quiet about it; the topic where-is-music-going-and-where-do-I-fit-in almost never comes up in conversation, even at the Salons. We tend to talk about things like inspiration and expressive intent; people seem more interested in tracing a piece's origin and development back into the composer's personal experience, not outward to sociopolitical contexts.
In an odd way, it's almost like a reprise of the 18th-century attitude toward composition. Composers keep a keen eye out for practical opportunities to do what they want to do, and think less about the grand march of music history and the immortality of their art. Used to be that notions of historical style were determined after the fact (as Kyle pointed out, sonata form as a concept wasn't codified until Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven were dead)-we look back at the music written during a given period and try to make meaningful generalizations about what it all had in common. But in the 20th century, historical style became an a priori notion-invent the "ism" first and then work within it.
To me as a composer and a listener, the un-self-conscious approach is a lot more attractive, producing music that's more honest and consequently more interesting. So though the search for a Big Idea makes a fascinating topic for online discussion, when I'm sitting at my desk and making art, it just gets in the way-and my guess is that many composers feel that way.
Kyle, I Hear You!
posted @ July 30, 2004 9:23 am
Kyle Gann calls me out -- I've never heard any of the music of any of his totalists. I get the strong impression that most of the assembled critics haven't heard much of them either. I think he's right about composer bashing, whether people have intended it or not. I am embarrassed to have contributed.
Though I haven't heard any of the music of the totalists, from Kyle's description, I would hesitate to dismiss it as "art pour l'art," as someone here did about minimalism. In Evan Eisenberg's phrase, which I can only paraphrase (not having the book handy), when we listen to music most deeply, we seem to trace with one hand the workings of the universe and with the other the folds of the mind. What's always struck me about Ives's gorgeous polyrhythms and poly-everythings is how they get at the simultaneous polyrhythms of experience. (Cage has written about this in regards to Ives -- more than one thing happening at once.) The universe is heavy polyrhythmic, polycyclic -- the cycles going on now -- breathing, heart pumping, earth rotating, earth orbiting, and on and on and on. And it wouldn't surprise me at all that the totalists get at that. Such relevance may not be relevant to you, but it's relevant to me, to how I feel about life and how I experience it.
Now I need to go track some of Kyle's composers down. He's given me the resources. It's up to me.
Money Vs. "Music that Matters"
posted @ July 30, 2004 7:49 am
Justin is right that Hip Hop and Steve Reich's "City Life" do not equal a parody mass (although maybe the Low Symphony could be somewhere close to one). But I disagree that a flattened history is not terribly useful for critics. It simply means that there need to be different intellectual strategies for evaluating musical composition than those that insist on the primacy of historical progress in assigning critical importance to new works. I am not advocating relativism or even the appropriation of old techniques as a "good" thing: Joe Jackson's fugues were a terrible idea, for example. All I am saying is that it is not terribly useful to point to a trend, or a group of trends, as historically *compelled* in the way that Schoenberg believed that composition with 12 tones all equal to each other was. When the conventional wisdom agrees that tonality has little left to say, along comes Part to tell us otherwise. The moment we think that atonality and serial techniques are dead ends, Die Soldaten rears its head in New York. And as soon as multi-culti eclecticism seems like the harbinger of the future, Marco Polo reminds us how embarrassingly trite such stuff usually sounds.
In short, rather than look for trends in an attempt to re-linearize music history, critics might be better off focusing on other things, If you want "big ideas," one of the biggest of all is money vs. "music that matters." It's a subject that is treated as patently obvious by earlier critics like Adorno (mammon always is a bad thing for Real Art) but he is clearly wrong. Zappa is closer to the mark when he said, "My imagination is only limited by the size of my bank account" but even that is a gross oversimplification (and too cynical by half).
Surprisingly little is written or known about how new music is paid for, whether the composer is Mozart or Boulez (I gather that, amazingly, Mozart's finances only attracted scholarly attention in the past 30 years or so).
Another issue is a deeper exploration of the notion of "musical integrity," which like pornography we recognize when we encounter it but is maddeningly difficult to define. It brushes up on the issue of artistic standards - most folks passionate about music make a qualitative as well as a stylistic distinction between, say, Jordi Savall and Neal Sedaka, or Kenny G. and Ornette - and the questions are how, and why? Again, Adorno is hardly the last word.
One more clarification about the flatness of history. It's not that history is bunk, but rather that the standard historicial paradigms of classical music musicology don't apply terribly well to what is going on now in the music that's composed for reasons beyond the enrichment of a company's bottom line or to secure a university professorship.
This seems the case regardless of idiom, be it chamber music, Bulgarian vocal music, or bossa. (BTW, some of the "big boys" of musicology share my dissing of linear, progressive narratives of musical style. In his own field and with far more eloquence, Treitler has made a brilliant case that traditional understandings of chant and early polyphony are woefully inadequate when you carefully look at the evidence. This should come as no surprise, but apparently it does. )
Critics - Flogging For Novelty?
posted @ July 30, 2004 7:45 am
"To thine own self be true" may be a thundering cliche, but cliches are true. When I came in to composing, back in the stone age, you HAD HAD HAD to do serial (or twelve-tone--what a misnomer!) music. (And my freshman college harmony teacher was Leonard Stein, Schoenberg's right-hand man!)This was THE wave of the future, this was THE language of music forever and ever, amen.
Well, half a century later, guess what? Serialism has made its contribution, but it is by no means ubiquitous. Many youngsters were damaged to one extent or another (Lee Hoiby related to me in conversation an incidence of suicide.)
So listening to today's fashion, only too often flogged by critics looking for novelty, is not where it's at.
Jazz - MIA?
posted @ July 30, 2004 7:25 am
One of the words I see conspicuously absent from the conversation on CC over the last few days is "jazz." I'm assuming this is so because nobody wants to open that particular can of worms: it's bad enough to thrash about what "pop" and "classical," high- mid- and low-brow mean, without tossing into the pot another label guaranteed to raise the ire of the readership.
That doesn't mean it mustn't be addressed. The critical contretemps between enthusiasts of jazz and classical musics in the first half of the 20th century mirrors the controversy between pop and classical musics now: the assimilation of traditional folk forms like the blues into a more rarefied, academic concept of jazz composition and improvisation is a case in point. Is it that much different from the discussion of whether or not hip-hop or high-minded populists like Elvis Costello have anything to offer our traditional definition of "classical music," even in a post-Terry-Riley world?
And, tangentially, what of contemporary jazz artists who exist on the fringes of the jazz scene? Even veterans like Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman (and I'd make the argument that Taylor may be one of the most significant composers of any sort in American music today) have a hard time being heard even at Birdland or on more mid-stream jazz stations.
Pop is not off topic
posted @ July 30, 2004 12:29 am
Dear Alex Ross,
Thanks for the early Bjork history. Very interesting! (And thanks for your blog and work in general.)
2 minor points of disagreement with things you've said here:
* I agree that most of the new developments in music of the last 40 years have come from pop, but not all. Minimalism is just about 40 years old (dating it from "In C," when it got its "pulse"), and as you've written, it's a Big Idea. What made minimalism "click" was Riley's decision to have someone hammer the pulse throughout "In C." Steve Reich, a jazz drummer as well as university-trained composer, was in the original ensemble to perform "In C," and -- interestingly -- according to him he made the pulse suggestion. (I believe Reich because the source I got it from would have had access to a rebuttal from Riley if it existed; and my take on the contentiousness of that scene is that Riley would have made one if he had one to make.) The collaborative creative dynamic modeled here is much closer to jazz and rock ensembles than the traditional notion of classical composition, where the composer comes up with the ideas and the players execute. (I've written about this on my blog, utopianturtletop.blogspot.com )
* Just my opinion, but pop is not off-topic in a discussion of the future of classical. Maybe the "In C" story is relevant to why. Maybe more collaborative modes of production have something to offer to classical.
An aside: it seems to me that a discussion of the future of jazz would be just as fraught as this one is. Has jazz had a big idea since Miles Davis hired a Chess Records session man to play electric bass in his band? And -- I wouldn't be surprised if jazz critics were more hostile to pop influences than classical critics.
This is a difficult topic, inherently. And interesting!
Time Is Not Of The Essence
posted @ July 30, 2004 12:13 am
Here's my big idea. The belief that it is somehow significant that we have all the music of the past 500-plus years available to us at the swipe of a credit card is a red herring responsible for a massive fit of cultural self-consciousness. If you really want to think big, then the time span that separates John Adams from John Dunstable is nigh on meaningless- trivial in the scientific sense of the word. In a self-conscious age a time-based art form is bound to give us headaches about the future.
Thursday, July 29
Not one line in the sand
posted @ July 29, 2004 3:02 pm
I have to admit that even though I spend my days writing about the hard to classify "new classical music," I was initially disturbed by the "Classical Music Critics on the Future of Music" premise. At first I thought it was unintentional, this implication that the "next big thing" in all of music will necessarily come out of the concert hall/conservatory (my best guess at what was meant by "classical music" today generally). Some of the subsequent posts seemed to take this to be inherently true, however, even though the unlikeliness of at least the very next big thing to come out of our field was driven home by the fact that the conversation almost immediately turned to serialism! This seemed a dramatic contradiction, even taking the position that big ideas come along less frequently than teen pop idols...but hey, maybe that means we're due.
But after reading through the posts, the big stumbling block was soon obvious if not easily remedied in a "defining your terms" sort of challenge: we can't delineate between "popular" and "classical" music anymore. If we were using the terms to mean Tommy James & the Shondells and Beethoven respectively and nothing more complex, then it works quite well. But just a few steps further and the meaning is hopelessly muddled and the conversation grids to a halt. Commercial and non-commercial break down just as quickly.
Categorization is useful, but classical and pop aren't real categories anymore, they don't square off with the needed specificity, esp. for the conversation that's being attempted here. I tried to come up with definitions and the words slipped through my fingers fast as water. I can't say I feel this as a loss, since when I sit and talk with young musicians in Brooklyn (arguably a good place to look for the NBT) neither category is ever mentioned. The artists creating the most poignant, creative music I have heard recently wouldn't identify with either. There are composers who do command cultural/critical recognition or will (as much as any one person/project can these days), but they've absorbed what they've had the opportunity/desire to from the past of both canons and moved on ahead. Trying to write or talk about their music with depth, let alone the future of music, while at the same time staring from such meaningless generalities seems impossible, doesn't it?
Waiting for Godot
posted @ July 29, 2004 1:48 pm
I don’t know what’s going to happen next – and judging by this blog, most music critics don’t know either.
But here’s what I’d like to see happen. I would like to see the emergence of a music that would be, in our culture’s perception, a new kind of classical music. By this I mean that most people who encountered it would hear in it an ethos that directly connected it to Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Yet at the same time it would sound empathetically contemporaneous, speaking of our times in ways that audiences could understand.
Modernism, in all its various manifestations, did not achieve this. Although clearly connected to classical-music traditions and self-consciously contemporary, it was not a music that many people could identify with. For most folks, it was, and remains, music from another planet. On the other hand, popular music, while embraced by multitudes and widely perceived as infused with a contemporary spirit, is broadly perceived as disconnected with (or even antithetical to) classical music traditions.
And that’s not all. I’d also like the composers who write this Zukunftmusik to have strong personal styles: to write with a clear integrity that says, “This is what I believe in – this is the kind of artist I am.” And if various competing schools emerged (possibly regionally based) attracting slightly different audiences and generating critical debate, that wouldn’t be a bad thing, either.
I think post-modernism – again, in its various manifestations – tried to achieve this, but somehow fell short of the mark. Perhaps the history of classical music is simply “over” – if for no other reason than that our culture has decided it’s over. “Today’s musical public has come to a fundamental decision: it has the music it wants, and it is satisfied with what it has,” as Samuel Lipman bluntly put it.
If so, no new Big Ideas can emerge from what our culture labels as “classical music”: any new musical ideas will, by definition, lie outside this realm. But maybe, just maybe, something surprising will happen – and if it does, we will know. I don’t agree with those who say that we won’t recognize the next Big Idea until it’s past us. If a composer comes along who can write a music that is hailed by our culture as both authentically “classical” and “contemporary,” we will know.
No More Historical Progress
posted @ July 29, 2004 1:44 pm
Most of the writers here assume, with a greater or lesser sense of defensiveness, that distinctions between high and low art are pretty meaningless when you're dealing with great artists (eg, Hugo Wolf and Kate Bush). You'll get no argument about that from me, but I'm not sure there's much more to be said about this. The logical next step would probably be in theory: comparisons of technical means. What, for example, are the stylistic differences in articulation in accompaniment within a Haydn quartet and a Beatles song? How do they affect melody, harmony, beat? Interesting questions!
But back in the land of meta-criticisms, a half-examined assumption remains and that is the notion that "musical history," in the sense in which it is usually invoked -progress, complexity, trends- has any meaning.
Whether a piece was written 600 years ago or 70 or yesterday is the least interesting thing to be said about it, from a composer's viewpoint. The past is an illusion, all musics are entirely present.
Put another way, given the vast repertoire on cd's, the relative ease of finding scores and other study/performance material, and the incredible diversity of music on any single night in a major city like NY, all epochs in all cultures are, for all intents and purposes, equally "relevant" and exciting: Rameau's operas coexist with Berio's, Dowland's songs with PJ Harvey's. The effect is that nothing is obsolete, ancient, or even old-fashioned.
Nor, of course, is anything really that new. With the history of music "flattened" by the sheer availability of musical material for performance and enjoyment, the concept of musical progress really has to take a hit. It's silly to proclaim, say, Ferneyhough THE beacon into the future if you've ever tried to hear - really hear - Ars Subtilior scores; so Brian's work can just as easily represent an atavistic tendency towards mannerism as a progressive New Complexity. Vice versa for Part.
One interesting example of this can be found with electronic music which, because the development of electronic/digital instruments appeared to go hand in hand with the sounds, would seem to date rather quickly. But not so fast. Recently, I heard an amazing set of pieces from '61/'62 by Raymond Scott called "Music For Babies." There are pieces being written and performed today with uncannily similar harmonic, rhythmic, textural, and timbral characteristics. Scott's electronic music hasn't dated at all, even in terms of the timbres.
So I'll go out on a limb and state that there is no genre today that can be said to "progress historically" anymore. There are simply new pieces of music and a composer of any genre is just as likely to cop a riff from Dunstaple as s/he is to spend a few years studying Charley Patton. The date of the music is the most trivial of all concerns.
Re: Pop Innovation (Alex Ross)
posted @ July 29, 2004 1:24 pm
I'm not sure I would agree with you as far as pop music being in the forefront of extending the borders of tonality, but I do concur that elements of pop could be heeded by composers. I believe that most people enjoy listening to what is deemed serious music, it's just that they can only give so much amount of time to it, (alas our attention spans have been unalterably shortened). Art which is complex lends itself --in many cases-- to a greater length in order to work out it's complexities... I believe that if the composers of today and tomorrow can find a way to shorten their pieces, to work within the confines of the average pop song --time wise-- but still retain the intellectual integrity. Mastery of the miniature, I guess.
A Musicologist Crashes The Party!
posted @ July 29, 2004 11:19 am
Big (non) Idea: "Classical Music" is Dead
Yo! Since no full-time musicological critics were invited to the party, and it's such an amazing party, I couldn't resist crashing. This discussion is at such a high level - it proves the hypothesis that in the Darwinian world of classical music journalism, where fewer and fewer critics are allotted less and less space to cover the phenomenon, only the strong survive. Kudos!
So, much of what I might observe, as a music historian and critic, has already been said: Big Ideas were less prevalent (and less salient) in the history of Western Art Music than one might assume; the hope that another Big Idea will arrive and "rescue" our stalled history of "great" music seems kind of like nostalgic, wishful thinking; and, crucially, popular music seems to have taken over the Big Idea carrier function that we once assumed only "classical" music could serve.
Watching pop music seep into the conversation has been fascinating. Many participants in the discussion know it well, write about it, even pioneered critical approaches that allowed some of it to mingle with the contemporary "classical" stuff (shout-out to you, Mr. Rockwell!). But maybe, for once, the ivory tower gives me freedom of speech (and employment): I'm a professional musicologist - I just study "music," and I can write about whatever kind of music I want, whether or not my training was designed to interest me in it.
I think the Big Idea here is the collapse of the biggest Big Idea of classical music: that there *is* such a thing as a single "classical music," analogous to the classical literature of the Greeks and Romans; that it defines the roots of "our" musical civilization the way Homer and Sophocles once did for Western Europe; that every educated member of the society should know at least that this "classical music" exists and that it is more important than ephemeral works in the vernacular; and that any serious contemporary composer has to fit into a canonic narrative selection of "great works" that can be traced back in the classical line to our Homer and Sophocles, .
So, I would submit for discussion the Big (Non) Idea: you cannot understand our culture¹s musical creativity at this moment in time if you persist in splitting the world of music up into "classical" (i.e.: art, serious, etc.) and "popular" musics. "Classical Music" (as a critical Big Idea) is dead.
This leads to some warpage in even the most determinedly ecumenical attitudes on display in this blog, as people struggle to reconcile the way they feel about current music with the ideological need to preserve some domain as "classical" and assert rhetorical control over it.
1. The consistent desire to analogize the current moment to moments in the canonic narrative of classical music from the past. The names of Brahms, Wagner, Beethoven have been invoked, and standard debates like the formal autonomy of great art re-opened. But would we be so sure that "art music" is the "timeless" music that, by definition, has trouble relating to culture outside if our story wasn't so focused on "abstract" instrumental music? Verdi¹s audiences were under no illusion that his art was "classical," or that you couldn't understand what it was "about" in terms of day-to-day political and moral issues.
2. The really problematic question of what "popular music" is like, other than a negative reflection of the painful virtues (abstraction, elitism,
unpopularity) of classical music. Somebody ascribes value to jazz and the Velvet Underground‹and somebody else ripostes with Brittany Spears. But what would ever make you put Lou Reed and Brittany in the same category, except for the fact that they share the property "classical = false"? Shouldn¹t we draw the lines so that there is one bucket for Beethoven, Public Enemy, Coltrane, Sondheim, and Stockhausen‹and another for Rossini, the "Macarena," Gilbert & Sullivan, Perry Como, and Celine Dion? [Warning: previous examples drawn off top of head. Your mileage may vary.]
3. The (I hate to say it but it¹s really sort of) colonialist attitude of even some pop music aficionados when it comes to the interpenetration of "popular" and "classical" musics. Even Alex Ross, who I don't mean to pick on, and who explicitly disavows the old Milhaud model of classical music "slumming" with jazz, uses the metaphor of a "goldmine" to describe art music composers' relationship to pop music. Is popular music really just primitive raw material for "real" artists, an unclaimed natural resource to be dug out of the earth and turned into lasting culture? (I think I'm going to start calling this the "Indiana Jones" theory of art-pop interaction.) Isn't pop music more advanced technologically than classical? Why not assume that Beethoven (Mahler, Stravinsky, Stockhausen, Reich) will chiefly be interesting in the future as a goldmine of raw material for (arguably) more advanced musics like hip-hop and techno? I'm thinking here of how Pachelbel functions for Brian Eno; how the sound of a string orchestra sounds in British Garage music; how Schubert shows up in Beck; how Xzibit, Dr. Dre, and Ghostface Killah use Bach.
[Oh, yeah, now I remember why no musicologists were invited to blog; we¹re not used to word limits and we can't shut up. Over and out.]
Classicaly Not Pop
posted @ July 29, 2004 10:49 am
You know, Alex, if the "pop" music you mention is truly as interesting, intricate, and complex as you describe it to be (and I take you at your word concerning that as I know nothing of any of that music), then it's not "pop" music at all, is it. It's in fact "classical" music produced by non-"classical" composers, self-identified, and performed in and through non-"classical" venues. You simply confuse the issue by referring to such music as "pop" music. If your characterization of it is on-target, then it's nothing of the sort.
If Wishes Were Ideas...
posted @ July 29, 2004 7:11 am
Interesting stuff you're all writing. As someone who runs an ensemble that specialises in contemporary music and as one who works directly with composers every single day, I'd like to chuck my tuppence worth in, from a professional point of view.
The trouble with this entire debate is that "analysis (or criticism) is not composition in reverse" - you can't make a Big Musical Idea by talking about it and wishing it would happen. Some poor sucker (composer) has to write it, end of story. And we're all going to have to wait for it, like it or not.
The more we shout and wrangle, anguish even, about the loss of confidence in 'classical' (what is that?) music, the more composers are going to walk away from the heat and noise. Writing music for an orchestra or orchestral instruments within the current scene is akin to trying to write music in the trenches with verbal (critical) shells whizzing overhead, exploding nearby and picking off some other poor unfortunate who had the temerity to commit dots to paper.
When the next Big Idea does appear (it will - but it won't be what we expect, and we may not recognise it for what it is), treat it gently. Don't pounce. It will do better if it's ignored early on, to be honest ... perhaps it's already growing (but no-one's noticed yet?).
I would suggest that a major reason for withering of 'classical' music is that it is music that no longer serves anyone's purpose. It is becoming, literally, use-less music. 'Classical' music is no longer used to symbolise power, status, wealth in the way it once was: anyone who disputes that in the UK has only to note that of the two concerts staged at Buckingham Palace to celebrate the Queen's recent anniversary (one classical music, one rock), Tony Blair et al (and all of the powerbrokers of his generation) turned up to ... the rock concert. And those aspiring to wealth, etc no longer turn to classical music to prop up their image, either. All that is left is the dots, a pile of dust-gathering CDs, and the players. And some film scores (Aha!).
Anyone who wishes to re-juvenate classical music - as it stands - should find a use for it. Fast. (Maybe ringtone concerts are the answer?) Anyone who wishes to find the next Big Idea should get down on the ground and see where players are taking their (frequently valuable, antique) instruments to be used.
Follow the money ...
Paragon Ensemble Ltd
Is Hip-hop The Big Idea?
posted @ July 29, 2004 7:07 am
I'm glad that Alex Ross has brought up hip hop - and surprised that it wasn't mentioned before. If we are to look for a 'Big Idea' in current music - a project that I am ambivalent about - then surely the worldwide dominance of hip hop must be it? Kyle Gann categorises postminimal music as a 'Medium-sized' idea partly because of its reach from "Hawaii to Florida and from Maine to Mexico"; hip hop's reach goes from Los Angeles to Tokyo, via London, Paris and Dakar, and has permeated many other genres and art forms. What is interesting, in conjunction with another point made in this conversation, is that hip hop is at least as self-referential and inward-looking as contemporary classical music. It is extremely rare to hear a hip hop track that does not contain reference, quotation or parody of a single sound, another artist or an entire style. To understand hip hop, as one might wish to understand post-minimal music (for example), one has to come to a similar understanding of the ur-style, in Justin Davidson's words. It is quintessentially 'post' music, and no less vibrant for that.
To come to a point, I think the example of hip hop shows that the self-referentiality of contemporary classical music needn't necessarily be a handicap. It can be a very powerful tool, as it gives musicians a solid material with which to play and react against; the problem that classical music has at the moment is less, I believe, that it has no Big Idea at the moment, but that the previous Big Idea that would constitute this material is so indefintely formed and ill-understood by both composers and audiences
Enjoying the discussion very much.
Wednesday, July 28
What Do The Critics Want?
posted @ July 28, 2004 7:03 pm
It’s interesting to see critics discussing the future of classical composition, because, as Wynne Delacoma and Jan Herman noted, critics almost never can predict the future. The only critics I can think of who’ve kinda sorta done so are R. W. Emerson, who kinda sorta predicted Whitman, and Lester Bangs, who kinda sorta predicted punk rock. I say "kinda sorta" because what they really did was write about the kind of poetry and music they wanted to experience, and then when against expectations it came along they were overjoyed with surprise.
So my question is (and I am enjoying your discussion), what, dear critics, do YOU want new classical music to be? Kyle Gann seems to know best what’s going on now, and I believe him that much of it is lovely. Greg Sandow with the touching Kerouac quote (damn! haven’t read that since I was 18!) comes closest to articulating something he holds dear in other arts that he misses in contemporary classical -- a mad rushing will to experience life life life. I believe him that he didn’t find it there in the ‘50s and ‘60s. But it was in music, big time -- in the music of Mingus, Roland Kirk, Coltrane, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Beatles (my examples may not be yours). And the ‘60s did register in the music of Riley, Reich, and Young.
Since what Sandow was looking for was available in other music (I think he’d agree), what is it in contemporary classical that’s worth preserving? Worth fighting for? I’d say pulse music (minimalism and its posts) and music concrete, and that the latter has plenty of future. (I just picked up the recent David Rothenberg anthology "The Book of Music and Nature" yesterday and I’m all psyched about it -- also, I realized, thinking about this, that the only contemporary classical recording I have by someone younger than John Adams -- the classic minimalists are pushing 70! -- is a really moving concrete collage of field recordings of the 1999 Seattle WTO protests by contemporary music guy Christopher DeLaurenti (www.delaurenti.net), new music critic of my hometown alt paper "The Stranger," who should have been invited to be a charter contributor to this list. Appropos of the Kerouac quote and the WTO protests, my favorite chant at the protests was led by a white lesbian in a flamboyant red wig: "Whadda we want? EVERYTHING! When do we want it? ALL THE TIME!")
I’d love to see new classical music go the folkie route, and organize house concerts of melodically lovely music in rhythmic and harmonic syntaxes that aren’t available or viable in other musics. There’s probably stuff like that out there, in NYC and maybe LA, and probably Kyle Gann could tell me all about it.
Keep on bloggin’!
Ideas From Critics?
posted @ July 28, 2004 1:14 pm
When a composer friend of mine (who is traveling at the moment) heard about Critical Conversations, he wrote me: "If there are big ideas to be discussed, or even the possibilities of big ideas, it is much more likely to come from artists themselves."
This seems to fit what John Rockwell said when he remarked: "Big ideas tend to be backward projections." They're articulated, but not created, by pedants. I don't know who among the critics in this discussion, besides Kyle Gann, is a composer. Are there any others?
Also, does it matter? And further, as my friend also messaged: "Why not have a forum for a few of those kinds of artists who think and articulate themselves?"
Where's Music's Toni Morrison?
posted @ July 28, 2004 1:11 pm
Thanks for posting such interesting comments on music.
Can your critics compare the current state of affairs with music with that of other art forms such as drama or literature? For instance, in the past 25 years I can think of several developments in these fields that percolated down into public consciousness. For instance, I remember how in the 1980s the Latin American literary boom was widely discussed in newspapers and magazines. Or in the 1990s how Toni Morrison became all the rage because she won the Nobel Prize. Or consider the impact of "Angels in America" and Tony Kushner.
By contrast, I can't think of developments in "serious music" that commanded as much attention. Or am I mistaken about this? Is there a Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Toni Morrison in the composing field that I'm missing?
When "Angels in America" premiered in Chicago, the Tribune did a big story about it, interviewed people about the controversy surrounding it, etc. Has the premiere of a new work of music received as press and excitement in the past quarter century? If not, why? Is music, unlike drama and literature, too abstract for most people? Is the music being written today just not as good? Is it failing to connect with people's lives? Or are we just too dumb to get it?
Tuesday, July 27
Where Are The Women?
posted @ July 27, 2004 6:50 pm
How's GENDER PARITY for a big idea in classical music: within performing ensembles, administrative corps, boards of directors, journalists, and... the participants in artsjournal.com's blog?
ABOUT THIS BLOG
There was a time when great cities had multiple newspapers and culture was hashed out daily in the press, strongly-held opinions battling for the hearts and minds of readers. Today it's rare for a city to have more than one or two outlets where culture can be publicly discussed, let alone prodded and pulled and challenged...
THE QUESTION BEFORE US
If the history of music is the recorded conversation of ideas, then where do we find ourselves in that conversation at the start of the 21st Century? In the past, musical ideas have been fought over, affirmed then challenged again, with each generation adding something new. Ultimately consensus was achieved around an idea, and that idea gained traction with a critical mass of composers.
Now we are in a period when no particular musical idea seems to represent our age, and it appears that for the moment – at least on the surface – that there is no obvious direction music is going. So the question is: what is the next chapter in the historical conversation of musical ideas, and where are the seeds of those ideas planted?
Or: Is it possible that, with traditional cultural structures fragmenting, and the ways people are getting and using culture fundamentally changing, that it is no longer possible for a unifying style to emerge? Is it still possible for a Big Idea to attain the kind of traction needed to energize and acquire a critical mass of composers and performers?
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| MOST RECENT POSTS |
READER: The purpose of music
- Linda Rogers (08/06/2004 10:46 am)
READER: Thank you to all
- Jennifer Higdon (08/06/2004 10:10 am)
READER: To Corey Dargel and Kyle Gann
- Garth Trinkl (08/06/2004 9:21 am)
READER: re:Where Are The Young Voices?
- Andrea La Rose (08/06/2004 9:21 am)
READER: To Justin: Art can be entertaining, but it is not entertainment
- Arthur J. Sabatini (08/06/2004 8:42 am)
- Kyle Gann (08/06/2004 8:41 am)
READER: Where Are The Young Voices?
- Corey Dargel (08/06/2004 8:21 am)
Over and out - an anti-rant rant
- Justin Davidson (08/06/2004 7:05 am)
READER: Classical Music Doesn't Fit The PR Mold
- Dennis Bathory-Kitsz (08/05/2004 9:21 pm)
READER: Eclecticism Is Better Anyway
- Hale Jacob (08/05/2004 7:41 pm)
| THE MUSIC CRITICS |
The Wall Street Journal
- To Justin: Hermetic
- Performance ideas
- Truly big classical
- Another view
- Composer bashing, female
critics, form and content
- Big Ideas--Who Needs Them?
The New Yorker
- Clarification, Departure
- The New New Thing
- To AC Douglas
- Pop Innovation
- A Potential Goldmine
- To Rockwell: Styles, Not
- Listening for Passionate
- Listening examples provided
- Queries for John Rockwell
- Unfair on my part
- Composer bashing
- Inside a big idea
- Names & Their Inadequacies
- The Idea & Its Conditions
- The Next Medium-Sized Idea
- Alternate Universe
- Thanks, Kyle
- To Kyle
- Who's saying give up?
- Some Things Are New, Actually
- High/Low Redux
- pop envy
- Where was THAT in Classical
- Apology & Comment
- How Big is a Big Idea?
The New York Times
- Reply to Kyle and a Plea
- Arghhh, or however you
- The Magpie
- Brahms and Wagner
- Question for Kyle
- To Alex, Justin: the pedant
- Initial Entry
Dallas Morning News
- What's success?
- Pop music precendent
- Female Critics
- Movements & Media
- A Blurry Patchwork
- Jotting IV: Grab Bag
- Jotting III: When John
- Jotting II: I'd Rather Not Get
A Call From Stalin
- Jotting I: We Do Have A Big
The New York Times
- What's the big idea?
- A Few Responses To
- Back to Fragmentation
for a Minute
- Gender footnote
- Another preamble
- Composers are Composers
but Distinctions are
- No apology to pop and
- Taking Issue With The
John von Rhein
San Francisco Chronicle
| FROM READERS |
The Purpose of Music
- Linda Rogers (08/06/2004 10:46 am)
Thank you to all
- Jennifer Higdon (08/06/2004 10:10 am)
To Corey Dargel and Kyle Gann
- Garth Trinkl (08/06/2004 10:00 am)
re: Where Are The Young Voices?
- Andrea La Rose (08/06/2004 9:21 am)
To Justin: Art can be entertaining, but it is notentertainment
- Arthur J. Sabatini (08/06/2004 8:42 am)
Where Are The Young Voices?
- Corey Dargel (08/06/2004 8:20 am)
- Brian Newhouse (08/05/2004 9:26 pm)
Classical Music Doesn't Fit The PR Mold
- Dennis Bathory-Kitsz (08/05/2004 9:18 pm)
Eclecticism Is Better Anyway
- Hale Jacob (08/05/2004 7:40 pm)
What Is Live Performance, Anyway?
- Steve Layton (08/05/2004 7:34 pm)
| OTHER RESOURCES |
- Discography of Minimalist and
- Kyle Gann on Post-Minimalism
- Kyle Gann: Following the
| BLOGROLL |
- DJ Spooky
- Tan Dun
- Zhou Long
- Bright Sheng
OTHER AJ BLOGS |