Modern “classical” composition informing Jazz Beyond Jazz

Commenting after my Cecil Taylor postings, correspondent “Jake” reports

Alex Ross “publicly champions
Cecil Taylor . ..  lists the rather obscure FMP big band record
“Alms/Tiergarten (Spree)” as among his favorite pop/jazz recordings and wrote an
appreciation of the maestro (paired with Sonic Youth) in The New Yorker way
back in ’98 . I wish
more classical critics and fans would deal with avant-garde jazz and
vice-versa. These musics have much in common and it seems a bit arbitrary to
choose one absolutely over the other. Howard, I’d be curious to know how much
you seek out modern classical and what you make of it. 

Well, it’s like this . . . 

I have in my possession but haven’t yet read Ross’s The Rest Is Noise, and I do intend to; I’m interested to hear he’s a fan of Cecil Taylor’s and believe that makes sense from what I’ve read of his in The New Yorker. As for myself, I don’t make great claims of expertise in music of “classical” lineage, but I’ve had some interest and exposure, and continue to be open to it. I bet my background has been similar to that of many jazz listeners and maybe contemporary classical listeners, too — to test the case:

I’ve listened to contemporary composed music since high school. Having heard some basic classical works on the handful of records of that genre my parents owned (pre-teen I was excited by Khatchaturian, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, a little later intrigued by Bach and Bartok). Around 1967 I was especially drawn to electronic music by Morton Subotnick, Tod Dockstader, Iannis Xenakis, and also investigated Penderecki, Cage (attended a Merce Cunningham performance w/sets by Rauschenberg and Cage’s music, a Cage piece performed by the Chicago Symphony and later Cage meeting Sun Ra in Coney Island — I wrote about that — as well as Cage reading from Finnegan’s Wake at MOMA; my favorite Cage music remains Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano), through records Charles Ives and other American “mavericks”, the flutist Severino Gazzelloni, the percussionist Mauricio Kagel, quite a bit of other new music (mostly recorded by Nonesuch and other independent record companies — Time? Mainstream?). I recall attending a Tashi quartet performance of “Quartet for the End of Time”, I think at University of Chicago. 

At Syracuse University I was able to create music in a nicely equipped Moog studio, and later rented time on Arps and Buchlas at Mills College and also wormed my way into Saturday morning hours at Roosevelt University’s electronic music studio, sometimes collaborating with keyboardist Jim Baker. I was also in an improvisation workshop at the Art Institute led by Fredric Rzewski. I listened to the 3-lp Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music anthology, Messiaen and avant-garde percussion music (Black Earth Ensemble, Max Neuhaus). I liked Wuorinen’s The Grand Bamboula and Time’s Encomium quite a bit, tried to get into Boulez, Stockhausen, Schoenberg, Mahler, Berg, Webern, Varese, George Crumb, various others, with inconsistent success (pleasure).

The processed flute pieces that Harvey Sollberger recorded were not music to me like Eric Dolphy, Jeremy Steig, Rahsaan‘s or Yusef Lateef‘s flutes, but I listened to that, and further into Mario Davidovsky’s “synchronisms.” Terry Riley’s Rainbow in Curved Air bewitched me on first hearing; I already liked In C. Through Down Beat I met, dined with and Blindfold Tested Steve Reich, also heard Philip Glass perform on organ at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art in the mid ’70s, Maryanne Amacher, Pauline Oliveros, etc.

When I first moved to NYC in the early ’80s I heard Peter Kotik‘s S.E.M. Ensemble fairly frequently and became friendly with Phill Niblock, meeting many musicians in their circles, and also composers collaborating with choreographers via Dance Theatre Workshop (I’d had affi
liations with artists across genres in Chicago, producing an electronics soundtrack for a multi-dancer evening way back circa 1975). Even before I moved to NYC I attended and wrote up the first New Music America festival held at the Kitchen on Broome Street; in the ’80s I reviewed new music for Down Beat, included it in columns I wrote for Jazz Life (Tokyo) and The Wire (UK), kept attending and eventually advised on the New Music America festivals, also was on panels for Meet the Composer and Arts International. Not least as a senior editor of Ear magazine, I met and worked with new music instigators such as Charles Amirkhanian, Joseph Celli, Tania Leon, Paul Dresher, David Weinstein and Jim Staley of Roulette, producers at New World and CRI Records, critics including current fellow Art Journal bloggers Kyle Gann and Greg Sandow.

That was an interesting time — new music from the AACM composer-performers such as Leroy Jenkins, Roscoe Mitchell, Muhal Richard Abrams was rubbing up against Lower East Side improv and comprov by people such as John Zorn, Wayne Horvitz, Elliott Sharp, Butch Morris, and also took on some rockin’ elements and minimalism (Lamont Young’s blues band comes to mind, so does Ornette’s Prime Time circa Of Human Feeling). Aspects of traditional, vernacularly commercial and popular and through-composed music from other parts of the world were in the mix, and there was a lot of technological breakthrough that was one with esthetic breakthrough (shoutout to Richard Teitelbaum with Anthony Braxton and without him, and Musica Elettronica Viva, George Lewis, Anthony Davis). It felt for a while like the genre divisions were being rendered irrelevant. That development seems to have slowed, if not stopped. It’s my impression market forces including academic considerations have pushed jazz, contemporary composition, “world music,” all varieties of funk and “pop” apart, each further distinctly appealing to its own presumed, secured audience.

However, my aim has been to listen broadly. In the 1990s and earlier this decade, while married to composer-singer-bandleader-presenter-producer Kitty Brazelton  I attended many performances featuring music by such of her collaborators as Eve Beglarian (and the other Hildegurls), Mary Ellen Childs, Elizabeth Panzer, Randall Wolff, Talujon Percussion Ensemble pianist Kathy Supové, Jerome Kitzke, Derek Bermel, Daphna Naftali, Hans Tammen, Annie Gosfield, many others We went to Sound Symposium in Newfoundland, new music festivals in Minneapolis, Chicago, concerts all over, including several Bang on a Can Marathons. I’d interviewed David Lang, Julia Wolff, Michael Gordon, and knew something of their circle, and at various times have heard Arvo Part played by Guidon Kremer, Lukas Foss conducting the Brooklyn Philharmonic, American Composers Orchestra, Speculum Musicae, California EAR Unit, diverse chamber orchestras and chamber groups (my daughter plays classical cello), composers (Fernyhough) and programs of specific personal appeal. 

This kind of description basically disregards my core identification of the composed and/or improvised musics of Miles, Ornette, Cecil, Mingus, Roach, Muhal, Henry Threadgill, Braxton, Mitchell, Morris, Julius Hemphill, ROVA Saxophone Quartet, Evan Parker, George Russell, Zappa, Zorn, Sharp, Anthony Coleman, John McLaughlin, and many others is contemporary composition; it accepts the genre distinction which is kept alive by funding agencies and a few other gatekeepers of contemporary culture, but mostly dissed by musicians themselves. Among “classical” critics such as Frank J. “NewMusicBox/AmericanMusicCenter” Oteri and Steve “Night After Night” Smith are well versed and appreciative of jazz, but they seem to be among the minority. Among jazz critics, interest and background in classical music varies enormously.

Though I’ve kept up some attention to contemporary “classical composition,” I admit that I’m more often disappointed and feel alienated from what I hear than I am taken with it.  I don’t feel that in general that world embraces many of the values that I’ve discovered are dear to me that I hear in jazz, blues, and musics from other parts of the world. I’d rather listen to raga, gamelan, Sufi music, field recordings from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and South America, Afro-Caribbean music, late 19th- early 20th century composition (Russian, French, Viennese, American, Cuban, South American) than a lot of what I’ve heard presented from the past decade or so. I find there’s a self-regard about so-called “classical” music that means very little to me; there is also a lot of what I think is very thin “performance art” and pretension. I do not tar all current composers with such attitudes. I admire Laurie Anderson

and Robert Ashley, but that’s not thin work!

I was rather put off by Wuorinen’s opera based on Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, didn’t care much about Elliot Goldenthal’s music for Grendel 
— those may be the last big pieces I’ve attended. But I do keep listening, hopefully. I want to hear new directions of musical organization, new sounds, exciting ideas that seem to have implications beyond individual compositions. Having read this far, is there some contemporary composition you’d suggest I might like or should know about?
Subscribe by Email |
Subscribe by RSS |
Follow on Twitter
All JBJ posts |

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. says

    Replying to this blog entry does require life experience and another book.
    Please remember to read George Lewis’s book on the AACM. A Power Stronger than Itself, which is Pulitzer material; not one page can go by without bearing some wonderful information. I just have problems with his kind of “exclusive ending.”
    It should be quite easy to take in “classical” contemporary music, knowing jazz and experimental music intimately. The difference between the two is FORMALITY. Although jazz artists and experimentalists draw on classical music in terms of its basic structure, this does not mean that the restrictions of classical are necessarily folded into their own “literature.”
    When Terry Riley performed with Bang on A Can in concert last summer, an improvisation was scheduled. This I was looking forward to hearing. But I will say that Riley is the only musician of the several BOAC musicians (including Evan Zyporin) who came any where near improvising. Riley built the composition such that it came to amazing piano climax at which point the whole group was meant to “improvise.” I have never seen such suffering from the classical musicians: they had no music to follow and could not make it up…they did not have the riffs.
    Furthermore, classical music today is not ONLY Eliott Carter who is 100 years old. It has progressed a bit. He is almost a precursor instead of a contemporary. Perhaps, it is important for you to know Edgard Varese, Morton Feldman, Milton Babbitt, Christian Wolff, George Crumb, Henry Cowell, Toru Takemitsu, Gregor Ligeti, Arvo Part, John Adams, John Harbison, Pauline Oliveros, Joan La Barbara, Charlemage Palestine, Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham. It is difficult to put these composers into a package, except to say that Branca, Palestine and Chatham have a category all their own.
    Steve Reich’s best work and THE classical piece of the last half of the 20th century is “Music for Eighteen Musicians.” This piece was a transition from the phase pieces into pieces that addressed more diverse language. These days also, one has to be aware how classical composers keep writing the same piece over and over again, just with different colors perhaps: e.g. PHILIP GLASS. His best work was one of his first and appeared on the album “Glassworks.” A total concept recording. It is fabulous.
    For a classical musician to try to integrate the freedom that is instilled in jazz is difficult. I will say that Gunther Schuller has failed. His last BMOP recording, for me, was totally embarrassing and that he called it Third Stream was astonishing.
    Values are not the currency between classical and jazz. The attitude from classicists to improvisors changes everything. Values become moot.
    Joe McPhee, who is well aware of the history of classical music, tells the story that a friend who introduced him to the music of Albert Ayler, at his youthful evolutionary peak, said: Listen, Joe, Albert is playing just like Bach. To which Joe replied: You are right, he is.
    HM: Lewis’s book is of the highest level of achievement, I agree (though I do disagree with some of what he says, he has traced like no other author of whom I’m aware the development of a productive community and organization of artists over four decades). I’m also in basic agreement with you, Lyn, though I take exception to some of the artists you’re enthusiastic about — having experienced them enough to have an opinion. Thanks for writing.

  2. Richard Mitnick says

    I have recently come to Jazz from Classical music. I am just a listener. I have no musical training or academic background what so ever.
    I got the Classical influence from my father, who had a humungus LP collection, limited only in that it ran from Beethoven through Copland, nothing much earlier or later.
    My wife’s family was not at all interested in music. But my wife was influenced toward Jazz by her peers at the New School and the Art Students’ League. So, we began to listen to some Jazz.
    Especially when we lived near Philadelphia and had the adavantage of a great radio station, WHAT, with Sid Mark and the recently passed Joel Dorn, we began buying Jazz.
    But my real passion started when I began to listen to the documentary work of Steve Rowland (http://www.artistowned. com) on Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
    I am, of course, still listening to Classical music, my own pretty good collection and the music presented on wnyc2 ( WPRB, Princeton, NJ (
    With Steve’s influence- much email back and forth- I have now developed a huge Jazz collection.
    If one takes advantage of Kyle Gann’s essays for American Mavericks (, one learns to clear away a lot of the clutter of genre. Many early twentieth century “Classical” composers, especially those of European extraction, were heavily influenced by American Jazz.
    Alex Ross in “The Rest is Noise” comments on the relationship between John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and Sibelius. In one of Steve’s programs on Miles Davis, we learn about McCoy Tyner’s relationship to Paul Hindemith. At some point, its seems that all of the Bop guys were studying Bartok.
    So, I think we need to relax and remain open to all sorts of musics.
    HM: Yes, we should all feel free to partake of any and all music, without genre restrictions. However, I find it curious that the best jazz musicians feel free to investigate “classical” music and do so without condescension, but that attitude it less often demonstrated by “classical” musicians, despite the urgings more than 100 years ago by Dvorak, the interests of notable “maverick” composers, the works of Stravinsky, Copeland, Bernstein (who I don’t think of as mavericks), the jaz backgrounds of Mel Powell, Milton Babbitt, Terry Riley, etc.