Mr. New Music Weighs In

Matthew Wellins responded at some heat and length to my piece on the Reich Remixed album. Matt is a student of mine, a published critic, and Mr. New Music around Bard. He’s always bringing me new music discs from obscure labels I’ve never heard of, including rare recordings I’d never heard by composers I’m obsessed with, and he’s been my primary source of information about Jim O’Rourke and the techno crowd. He knows that, in sympathy, I believe in keeping up with the absolute latest music out there, and he’s disappointed that I no longer fulfill that ideal in 2003 as I may have in 1992 – which I don’t. I publish his response here to let him speak for his generation, not as a typical member, but as one of its savviest aficionados. I’ve edited him for style, consistency, and potential libel charges. (I thought of editing him for length too, but given my recent rant against censorship by word count, it seemed hypocritical.) Possibly as a deliberate rhetorical ploy, he exaggerates the scope of my complaint; he treats it as a diatribe against pop music, when it was really only a gripe about people blinded (deafened?) by pop-centric conventions and limitations. Matt’s point is primarily that classically-trained musicians have their own blind spots about pop – a complementary, not a contradictory, argument, and he’s got some good points. If you read through to the end, you’ll find a crescendo of indignation that exactly mirrors sentiments I would have nurtured at that age:

I can’t help responding to these posts, especially when my generation (and classmates) are in danger of being digitally immortalized as impatient and uninformed consumers.

Now, I love Branca and Galas, but I don’t know if the long-form is the entire point. Minimalism was a return to tonalism and populism! It was a refuge for the people, who were tired of being alienated by abrasive tone clusters and total serialism. Is it any wonder that the next postminimalist generation has made another step towards inviting people rather than turning them away? Isn’t it possible that there is an increasingly thin line between new-music and pop groups? Is anything three minutes and under in the “pop” category, like Robert Ashley says? I think that the rock group itself is probably one of the decisive post-minimalist statements, heralded by artsists like Tony Conrad and David Behrman who saw minimalism as leading towards “the death of the composer.” The most often-cited example is probably Sonic Youth, a pop band with members who’ve recorded with Branca and recorded pieces by Cage, Kosugi, Oliveros, etc. In fact, that New York scene with Branca and Chatham, the downtown “No Wave” scene, was filled with bands that would be called pop under standards based on duration or rigorous composition. Why is Branca’s contribution more important than DNA, James Chance and the Contortions, or Teenage Jesus and the Jerks? Because he decided to become an autonomous composer of “serious” music? What about Faust, the German band that backed Tony Conrad on “Outside of the Dream Syndicate”? Or any of the other contemporary, experimental “rock” bands that studied directly under Stockhausen?

At the bottom of it, “This pop response to postclassical music – ‘Hey, you could do something with that’ – is, it seems to me, not uncommon.”…. That reminds me of the postclassical response to pop music.

And if you’ve only listened to single songs by pop groups your students have brought in, how can you accurately assess the music? It would be the equivalent of listening to 3-5 minutes of La Monte or Eliane Radigue or whoever else. In experimental pop (or whatever other nomenclature is apt), the full album can range up to the longest pieces by minimalists. There’s a DVD out by a group called Farmers manual with 48 hours of music. I also recently received a CD with 150 songs on it by an avant-pop musician, Jan Fair. And hell, if it’s just an issue of length, does that make the Grateful Dead an avant-garde band? If you look into the backcatalogs of any of that electronic music released on the Reich Remixed CD (which I will be the first to admit is a poor release, though for different reasons), or rave/electronic music in general, you’ll read about all-night concerts, meditative and sometimes chemically-induced states of mind, ritual and tribal imagery, etc…It’s familiar, yes?

Finally, in regard to this comment: We don’t need backbeats and chord progressions and the familiar accoutrements of everyday music to keep us from feeling like we’ve left home. With varying intentions and success, those Reich Remixed DJs did to Reich’s music what the planners of Staples business supply stores do, make every store have exactly the same process and layout so that you never have to face the anxiety of being somewhere unfamiliar. Are you trying to tell me Philip Glass is still pushing the envelope? that Reich’s “Nagoya Marimbas” is a major break from the past? that no one knows what La Monte will do next? Hell, I love Ashley, I loved Celestial Excursions, but were you really surprised by the processes and layouts he used? These composers have paid their dues, but now they’re stuck in their ways. Even Branca, who recently surprised everyone by doing a orchestral symphony that sounded exactly like his guitar symphonies, has a musical conception that is already 25 years old. It would make me feel anxious and unfamilar if I bought a Phil Niblock album, and he was strumming a guitar and singing folk songs. Nothing against Niblock, I love his music too, but it was only unfamiliar the first thousand times I listened to it – eventually I adapted. I still find new nuances, new things to love, but I crave that anxious feeling. I crave finding a music that will make me lose my bearings completely. Does the world begin and end with postclassical music? I find hints of it in different places, be on a hip-hop record produced by the Neptunes, an Arnold Dreyblatt record, a whirlwind of a noisy Neil Young guitar solo, an old field recording from the pacific islands reissued on Nonesuch’s Explorer series, Haydn’s “Surprise” symphony, or a sparse, droning folk record by Richard Youngs, who has released albums on the reputable Table of the Elements and less-praised experimental pop labels. Can you really say hearing the new piece by Duckworth will unsettle you like the first time you heard Satie or Conlon Nancarrow? Don’t you think those kinds of experiences are still out there? That maybe some of that stuff that seems superficially to exist in that world of 7-11s and strip malls might actually be tongue-in-cheek? That there might be a subversive spark in a beat or a melody, just to lure your average consumer into its lair and devour him or her whole? Who had more political effect, Rzewski or Dylan? Granted, I prefer Rzewski’s subtlety to Dylan’s cliched sentimentality, but looking at the world right now, maybe more subversive pop music wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

When I initially stumbled onto Downtown music, I saw its eclecticism as being at peace with popular music. These were composers who decided they weren’t part of the popular music tradition, but enjoyed popular music, and used it. This acceptance of popular culture wasn’t new, but this was music that dealt with a popular culture I had some direct relation with. I never assumed that they did this because they thought popular music was inferior, I just assumed they, invidually, felt restricted. Yet, the longer music stays around, the more dogmatic it becomes, and personally, I can’t imagine restricting myself to the idioms of the avant-garde because of its intellectually priviledged status. The DJ/remix phenomenon that you claim to be “too old to care about,” is affecting the changing climate of music in this day and age, like it or not. I didn’t for a long time, but as a new music composer and critic, can you really afford to distance yourself from the present?

See? After I am gone, others will rise up in my place, and God help us all. I do have to insist that I have never inveighed against the DJ/remix phenomenon in general, simply admitted that I don’t understand the criteria by which it is to be judged. There’s more to say about that, another day. And thanks, Matt.