Literalism and Aesthetic Debates

Totnes, Devon – I wish I could show you the 15th-century church I’m looking at – next to a tree believed to have stood here for 1500 years – as I smoke a Cuban cigar in the garden on a lovely Sunday morning, while back home my friends endure the coldest New York winter in a century.

When I was a student, composers used to come to my school and tell us about their work. Now I go to schools and tell students about mine. Things have changed. One thing my musicologist friend Bob Gilmore and I discuss with some unease is the discontinuance of aesthetic argument. In the ’70s there were so many issues to argue. Is 12-tone music an inevitable development in musical language? Is chance a valid compositional technique? Is returning to tonality a copout? Can the process aspect of minimalist music be divorced from its prettiness? In college I remember one of my friends asking, why couldn’t Steve Reich have used a 12-tone row for Piano Phase?

And on and on. Any composer who came to visit a college was not just an artist, but a salesman. He or she had techniques to sell. One assured us that 12-tone music would be the wave of the future. Another demonstrated that microtones were the only place left to go. Another brought a feminist critique of the avant-garde, and offered a more holistic, nurturing approach. Still others used Marxist terminology, and shook their heads over the “elitist” avant-garde, enjoining us to examine our musical intentions in terms of the class struggle. Students took sides, some boycotting certain composers’ presentations as a political statement. When Petr Kotik and Julius Eastman played some long, austere, chance-inflected pieces at Oberlin in 1974, one of the 12-tone students tried to disrupt the concert by banging on the door from outside. Students challenged the famous composers. Some years before me at Oberlin, Christopher Rouse is said to have asked Morton Feldman, after his lecture, “Mr. Feldman? Why is your music so boring?” (Feldman’s incredulous answer: “Borrrring? BORRRRing?… You should BE so boring!”)

I’m not so sure that the composers, many of whom had comfortable careers and secure teaching positions, saw themselves as selling something – that may have been the perception only because we were in the market to buy. We were picking a horse to bet on – Who do you favor in the fifth race, Minimalism, Conceptualism, or Twelve-Tone? We were buying stock, and watching the ticker tape carefully. Ambitious, we wanted to get ahead, and looked for assurance that the musical movement we latched onto would still be hot when we graduated. We were also artists, and looking for something to believe in, something that felt right and offered us creative room to grow.

Today, that sense that there are winners and losers among musical styles is gone, somewhat to everyone’s relief. More prevalent is the feeling that all styles have lost, and the entire scene is in danger. Yet there is no lessening of interest in making avant-garde music, whatever that is. 21-year-olds are inherently idealistic, and have been scoffing at society’s Philistine threats for as long as this tree’s been standing here, probably. The pleasant democracy of styles, however, does not mean there aren’t aesthetic issues to discuss, and all the more reason that we should discuss them now, when the situation isn’t so polarized, now that the names Reich, Feldman, Ferneyhough, Carter, Partch, Meredith Monk, can all be raised without much fear that anyone will jeer at any of them.

For instance, most of my music can be considered tonal. Among students, the fact doesn’t seem to raise any eyebrows. One composition professor here seemed slightly disappointed that some of my harmonies are so simple. I do feel, and I think it would still be found to be a controversial opinion if one asked around, that complexity versus simplicity of harmony is a dead issue, beaten to death by the last generation, and that any type of harmony can now be legitimately used to articulate musical structures; that the large-scale structure is more expressive than any particular means used to delineate it. But no discussion ensues on this topic.

More interestingly, I find among students a concern for linear processes, and both James Tenney and Steve Reich have been influential in this area. Some young composers go through tremendous calculations to work out their musical forms to be geometrically exact. Personally, I find this type of thinking too literal, and I consider literalism the great disease of late 20th-century music. Twelve-toners started it: the 12-tone row and its permutations were a very literal technique. By basing one passage on a pitch row and the next on its retrograde inversion, one created a literal kind of unity, but with no assurance that a unified impression would result. One practically had to torment the 12-tone method, as Dallapiccola sometimes did, to create a meaningful appearance of musical unity. Likewise, the objective calculation of an exact process is not always the best way to convey the metaphor of a gradual process. To his great credit, Reich quickly moved from the physically exact process of his tape-loop piece Come Out to the metaphorical, far more expressive nonlinear process of Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ. It was an important lesson, and one I benefitted from.

James Tenney was one of the most recent composers to visit Dartington, and his love of exact processes survives as a student interest. Tenney is a great musician, and I love much of his music, but I collegially disagree with the emphasis on exact process that his musical example encourages. We are not machines, taking in numerical data, but human begins, who communicate through symbols, whose meaning is often arbitrary in its basis, but collectively agreed upon. I love the idea of a piece of music starting as one thing and gradually metamorphosing into something else. But I find it more rewarding, as a composer and as a listener, when the process is suggested humanly and intuitively, in stages, with detours and surprises, and in terms of harmonies, rhythms, textures that the listener can recognize and assimilate as they go by.

More important than my stand on that or any particular issue, though, is my (and Gilmore’s) disappointment that there is very little apparent argument these days about which direction music should take. I don’t single out Dartington: I find the same experience almost everywhere, and no public forum available for composers to debate aesthetic convictions. Musical decisions made collectively, through controversy, survival of resistance, and mutual correction, carry authority. No one needs or wants musical polemics to be as vitriolic and dismissive as they were 30 years ago, but the lack of discussion today leads to a dull acquiescence in everything, and a lack of community. Perhaps now everyone’s too afraid to hurt each other’s feelings. But Bob’s playing me CDs of spectral music, I’m playing him postminimalist music, each of us dubious about the other’s tastes and defending our own – and it sort of feels like old times.