The Masses Add to My Knowledge

One thing I love about writing this blog, I put information out into the world, and I get information back. [To tell you the truth, this is how and why critics gain authority, when they do – they send out their opinions into the world and see them come back all bruised and battered, and they learn by experience to send out better opinions, better protected. After some years, those opinions begin to accumulate powerful collective force from the fact that they are no longer just one person’s. Any critic who sticks to his own egotism and doesn’t learn from that input is a fool.]

In the case of my postclassical piano repertoire list, several people corrected inadvertent omissions. Devin Hurd pointed out that I had forgotten to include Giacinto Scelsi and Somei Satoh, so I added them in. Hurd also mentioned James Tenney’s rags, which I haven’t heard in years and don’t have copies of, and informed me about some piano music I was unaware of: Endless Shout by George Lewis, I and Thou by Barbara Monk Feldman, and Tara’s Love Will Melt the Sword by one of my favorite composers Janice Giteck. These all sound like excellent candidates, and I’d love to hear them. Hurd also reminded me of the “Hyper-Beatles” tributes commissioned by Aki Takahashi. I’d included two – Terry Riley’s The Walrus in Memoriam and Walter Zimmermann’s When I’m 84, and there are other worthy ones as well.

Sarah Cahill, pianist, fellow critic, and important West Coast radio personality, in her firm but charming way, chided me for not including more works using the inside of the piano, like Annea Lockwood’s Red Mesa and Ear-Walking Woman, and Lois Vierk’s To Stare Astonished at the Sea. “It’s important to acknowledge,” she writes, “that there’s more to the piano than the keyboard.” She’s right – consider them included. I was overly timid in what I thought would appeal to the student I was educating.

Composer Galen Brown boldly, and with every right, advocated as postclassical his own piano piece Ex Nihilo, of which the score and MP3 can be found from his website. I gave up trying to access the recording, but from the score it certainly seems to qualify. He also suggested a list for works for multiple pianos (Reich’s Piano Phase, David Lang’s Orpheus Over and Under, works by Feldman and David Borden, plus his own Distance Over Time). Since I’ve written pieces for two and three pianos myself, I’ll probably take up that suggestion.

Antonio Celaya advocated for Frederico Mompou’s transcendent Musica callada, and David Carter for the labyrinthine piano works of Kaikhosru Sorabji. I myself had considered adding in “all of the piano music of Erik Satie,” and I’m amenable to the Mompou and Sorabji causes as well. I have a little theoretical problem with calling them “postclassical,” though. I wouldn’t want the word to merely come to mean “good,” or “better than the classical music we’re all tired of,” or “written by eccentric outsiders whose time has finally come.” I want to think of postclassical not just as a terminological stick to beat classical music with, but as referring to a recognition on the part of the composer that the narrative, sonata-based conventions of the European common practice period were only conventions, after all, and that their moral force has come to an end. Thus I think of Cage as the earliest postclassical composer, and include all and only those who were tuned in to the great breaking away from tradition that happened in the 1960s. On the other hand, I do think of Satie as someone who thoroughly “saw through” the arbitrariness of European conceptions of form. Mompou remains a little close to impressionism, Sorabji to Europe’s mammoth contrapuntal ambitions, but both are striking spiritual predecessors. How about “protopostclassical”? “Postclassical before their time”? Overall, I feel too much energy is wasted in defending terminological purity, and it’s not an issue on which I would want to take a dogmatic stand. I do appreciate the input, and the list grows stronger and less solipsistic with each new suggestion.