Responses to the Postclassical Dilemma

Matt Wellins add his own words to my account of his postclassical approach to writing for classical instruments:

Just wanted to clarify: The piano does speak to me as a cultural icon, though not necessarily one that reeks of “high European culture.” As you said, it is very much in any number of different worlds. I think we even discussed several other composers in addition to Cage and Feldman today, I think Nancarrow and Zorn came up. But hell, any number of 20th century composers seem to have reinvented the piano, I can’t believe Messiaen hasn’t been mentioned yet.

The question, then, for me, is which piano history do I choose? This is that “postclassical” dilemma again, even the genre mash-ups of any number of Downtown composers seem dated (I mean, with Ives’ work, another great piano mind, going back to the early 1900s, let’s face facts, even ‘post’ isn’t so ‘post’). I wonder if the problem isn’t every composer’s problem. That is, to find an approach that is decidely personal, in face of a detrimentally influential history. This, however, only deals with half the issue. What I want to achieve and what I imagine listeners hearing are two very different things.

Despite all of these reinventions of the piano, could I lightly tap birdsong on the keys, and expect people to think of Messiaen? Did Messiaen’s audience honestly confuse the piano with birds? Even our perceptions of Cage as the liberator of ego-driven approach or Feldman as the liberator of timbre and space, seem possible for an audience to completely ignore. In fact, even fans of Cage and Feldman, in general, might not have the fetishistic dedication to their work that truly reveals the mentioned distinctions.

I’m completely cognizant of the great tradition of experimentations within the boundaries of piano. I’m worried that at the end of the day, people will hear the tritest aspect of my work. That they won’t be listening from the “bottom upwards”, as opposed to me working from the “outside inwards”, that instead they will be hearing the “High European culture” if I compose a piece to be performed at the Fisher Performing Arts Center, or the “Jazz” culture if I’m playing Bud Powell, or the “Rock” if I’m playing Jerry Lee Lewis. They will hear the piano in regards to any of those cultures, any of those lineages, any of those worlds..but they will not HEAR the piano in the sensual, Feldman way, they will hear it in regards to something else. Who knows exactly what.

Maybe my fears about the audience are unfounded or condescending, I don’t know. Some of these feelings are drawn from my own skepticism in listening. Everything seems to point back to attempting to re-establish a dominant folk culture – something regional, instead of historical, something participatory, but not hokey, something shared, remembered, and collectively created..Something that exists for the pure joy of music and music-making, rather than the hierarchy and the historical constraints.

North Carolina composer and faithful reader Lawrence Dillon also weighs in with an interesting perspective, traditional yet perhaps in today’s climate bracingly revisionist:

I enjoyed your musings on Matt Wellins’s problems with writing for piano. You correctly call his misgivings “nonsense” because the piano is capable of so much flexibility, but there’s another level of nonsense to his position: one can make a case that any medium of artistic expression is tainted by cultural associations. Electronic music, with its reliance on technology, is an easy case in point: technology distances us from one another, lines the pockets of unscrupulous corporations, employs near-slaves in foreign sweatshops, finds ever more effective ways to wipe out entire populations, destroys the environment, etc.

The piano, on the other hand, served as one of history’s most effective means of connecting amateur with professional musicians, enabled countless members of oppressed races to sidestep segregation, provided a cultural connection for young people who couldn’t excel at sports, wedded the mental, emotional and physical acts of making music through a single, consistent sonority, etc.

Rather than not buying into the illusion of transparency, we should encourage our students not to buy into rationalized constructs of political necessity. These constructs are usually used to give the illusion of objectivity to what is, and should be, a subjective choice. The composer’s job is to write what s/he wants to hear. Period. It’s not necessary to consider any type of music-making outdated or culturally inferior in order to justify ones tastes and artistic needs.

It’s certainly true that “rationalized constructs of political necessity” are all around us today, and there is much pressure to buy into them. For instance, the recording companies tell us that the extremely constricted range of what they intend to sell is coextensive with what the public wants; of course, no intelligent, naunced research is done to determine whether this is true, and for decades we composers assumed that the public’s taste was devloving toward lowest-common-denominator pop. Only in the last few years have I seen people realize and assert that the corporate drive toward drivel is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Perhaps the alleged association of classical music conventions with upper-class elitism has its origin in similar political motivations.

[P.S. - or P.B., or whatever the correct abbreviation might be for an updated blog entry: Responses are leading me to think that I may have inadvertantly misrepresented Matt's point. It's not that it's difficult to write for piano because of its European, elitist connotations - as he puts it, it's "Which history do I choose?" For composers used to dealing directly with sampled sounds that carry specific extramusical connotations, the idea of merely using simple notes and abstract intervals comes to seem rather meaningless. The same might have been said for composers of musique concrete 40 years ago, but the feeling is far more prevalent today among young composers who have grown up with recording software. Music, in this respect, has become more like painting, photography, theater, and performance art, which have long dealt with social realities. Especially coming from a pop music world in which every sound, every chord, every timbre, every singing style seems to point to some social provenance, today's young computer composers deal with more connotative aspects of sound. Trying to paint a picture in the undifferentiated notes of a piano, then, must feel like painting entirely in one-inch squares, or in black and white.]

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