On (Not) Buying into the Illusion of Transparency

Somewhere between me and Matt Wellins lies the postclassical dilemma. Matt, you’ll recall, is a student of mine at Bard, of aggressively postmodern tendencies. He writes mostly electronic music, with samples and environmental sounds: old recordings, noises outside his apartment, kids playing in Central Park, old TV cartoons. He thinks about the cultural provenance of each noise he includes, and is politically aware of the sonic associations he invokes. Now he’s writing a piano piece, though, and having a predictable problem. The piano, to him, is a cultural icon that speaks of European music, of high culture, of industrial mass production, of the elitism of virtuosity. He’s having trouble making it matter what he writes for piano, because the very fact of it being a piano overwhelms any nuances in the musical material. The medium’s message drowns out its ostensive content.

Of course, on one level this is nonsense. Piano pieces do differ: the grace of a Mozart sonata, the languor of a Chopin Nocturne, the fluid pile-up of sonorities in Art Tatum’s version of “What’s New,” the frozen abstractions of Stockhausen’s Klavierstuck Nr. 9, the athletic banging of Jerry Lee Lewis in “Great Balls of Fire,” the fireworks of Nancarrow’s Player Piano Study No. 25 – these mean different things, and evoke different worlds, activities, audiences, even social classes. But I’m speaking from inside the illusion that the piano is a transparent medium; I take its 12-equal tuning, its late-medieval-Germanic 7-white/5-black keyboard, its industrial cast-iron frame, its European manufacture, its expensive price, its relative immobility, its history of elephant tusk exploitation, its canonic repertoire, for granted. I shut them all out, ignore their imperialist origins, their contingent nature, their imposition of a worldview. (Composers haven’t always done so. The 16th-century Nicola Vicentino was acutely aware of the homogeneity imposed on the world’s melodies by a 12-pitch keyboard, and invented his own 31-pitch keyboard as a multicultural alternative.) Having grown up within classical music I can easily believe in the piano as an a priori structure, a transparent transmitter of intentions. But Matt comes to the piano from the outside. Used to dealing with sound itself, not the intervals between sounds, he can’t hear the tone of a piano as innocent. “The moment I write a note on paper,” he says, “I enter into the illusion.”

I know what Matt means, partly because that’s the way I feel about the orchestra. I grew up with a piano in the house, but the orchestra is something my parents dressed up to go hear, as if it were church, in a big hall in downtown Dallas. There was something infrequent, inconvenient, and foreign about it. Its overture/concerto/symphony repertoire was cumbersome and inflexible, each concert more or less like the last in emotive expression (though I must say, I remember one special American music concert I heard as a teenager featuring works by Feldman, Varese, and Ruggles). I can think in piano terms and find it transparent, but when I write for orchestra I am heavily conscious of passing through a veil, of threatening to impinge on a social world in which I am neither comfortable nor, as a living composer, entirely welcome. The orchestra is a hierarchical structure: the violins are most important, strings play most of the time, winds are for color, brass for climaxes, percussion for punctuation. The tuxedos, the applause for the concertmaster, the exaggerated respect for the conductor, even the dignified demeanor of the men who move the music stands, all remind me that the orchestra was a product of a different age and country, geared to please the aristocracy that supported it. The fact that my friend Sandow can campaign to save the orchestra while I always instinctively considered the orchestra moribund I attribute to the facts that he grew up in New York, with culture all around and orchestras within walking distance, while I grew up in Dallas.

But back to the piano. Matt and I found common ground in the piano works of Cage and Feldman. Cage’s Music of Changes and Etudes Australes, while they do not remove the veil from the piano’s illusion of transparency, do not blindly play into it, either. Cage’s chance techniques articulate the piano, causing its keys and hammers to create sound, but the end result is not expression, but merely the sounds of a piano. He does not make a point of the piano’s social context, but neither does he invite you to imagine that it is anything more or less than a piano. Feldman’s piano works, from Out of Last Pieces to Triadic Memories and beyond, are more specific: drawing attention to physicality, they demonstrate that the piano is not truly a melodic instrument, but that its notes instantly begin decaying, and that the instrument can produce nothing but rapidly decrescendoing sound envelopes. Feldman fashioned an entire aesthetic around the piano’s inability to sustain, a kind of continuous metaphor for our lifelong propulsion toward death.

So what of electronic music mavens of Matt’s generation, for whom Cage and Feldman may represent the earliest piano music that doesn’t seem foreign and artificial? I’m more and more thinking these days that traditional music theory is bound to give way to acoustics and the technology of sound reproduction. More and more we find young composers who can string chords together without needing to know what they’re called, but whose more detailed expertise is invested in reverb, delay, filtering, sampling, 3-D sound placement. Pitch theory (except for microtonality, and that’s a long article for another day) had pretty much reached a dead end in the 1970s anyway, and I consider much of the “pitch set” theory I learned in grad school a waste of time, worth telling my students about only as an example of intellectualism gone awry. Harmonic relationships between pitches, lamentably finite, are today taking a back seat to sound processing, and while I’m not always technologically savvy enough to follow along, I?m not convinced it’s a bad thing.

Nevertheless, I encouraged Matt to write for the piano and also for the orchestra, from the outside. Think of its sounds, think of its cultural associations, and perhaps you’ll find a new way to use those instruments and give the medium new life. The challenge is to write those notes on the page, but not think of them merely in terms of idealistic musical logic, but as concrete sounds connected to cultural realities. I’m fascinated to see what he’ll come up with. Me, I’m old-fashioned in terms of the piano, I still write piano tunes, and I can buy the illusion untroubled. But somewhere in here is the disjunction in lived experience that will separate the classical from postclassical worlds. Just as white-maleness can no longer be taken as emblematic of human experience in general, the musical media we use are losing their transparency, their veneer of political neutrality. It’s gradually becoming impossible to write for the piano without thinking of the piano as just a piano.