Leave No Term Unstoned

Prefatory note: I’ve always wanted to write an essay on this topic for my blog, so, having the excuse to do so for the Critics’ Conversation, I post it here as well.

“Artists hate terms” is a truism, but not one of the eternal truths of music. It is too often proved false – artists occasionally find terms very useful. Debussy repudiated “Impressionism,” Glass and Reich disavow “Minimalism,” and in the current climate these examples are triumphantly thrown in our face at every turn as though they embody an unalterable principle. But artist George Maciunas coined “Fluxus” (over Yoko Ono’s objections), a group of artists met at Hugo Ball’s Cabaret Voltaire in 1916 to choose the word “Dada,” Cowell and Antheil embraced “ultramodernism,” Schoenberg plumped for “pantonality” before “atonality” won, and “Minimalism” itself was the coinage of either Michael Nyman or Tom Johnson, both composers who fit the bill. No sooner did “ambient” lose its novel flavor than Paul Miller (or somebody) launched forth with “illbient.” I don’t know who came up with “New York Noise” for free improv of the 1980s, but the improvisers didn’t seem ashamed to wear it.

Terms can be helpful to artists, especially those better remembered for where they were than what they achieved. If I mention Alison Knowles and Yoshi Wada, some of you who don’t know who I’m talking about will instantly place them in an era and milieu if I refer to them as “Fluxus artists.” The smaller the range a term includes, the more evocative it is. “Expressionism” is a vague catch-all, but “Der Blaue Reiter” is intriguing. The “Biedermeier style” so wonderfully connects the figurative inconsistancies of Hummel and Kalkbrenner to the overstuffed furniture of the early 19th-century German middle class, and both to a cartoon. No one can resist referring to Haydn’s “Sturm und Drang” period, and everyone instantly hears what it means in the “Farewell” Symphony. Discontinuities in the application of “Rococo” make it fortunate that we can divide that benighted stylistic era into the “empfindsamer stil” of the Berliners like C.P.E. Bach and the “style galant” of Galuppi and so many others, the latter so sardonically evoked a century later by the “Romantic” Browning:

What? Those lesser thirds so plaintive, sixths diminished, sigh on sigh,

Told them something? Those suspensions, those solutions — “Must we die?”

Those commiserating sevenths – “Life might last! we can but try!”

(Browning undoubtedly meant “sixths augmented.”) And if “Ars nova” recurs too often to be helpful, “Ars subtilior” is a wonderful euphemism for the mysteries of early 15th-century rhythmic complexity.

Now, imagine musical discourse stripped of such terms. Imagine replacing every recurrence of the word “minimalism” in the literature with “that steady-pulse, doodle-doodle style of Steve Reich and Philip Glass.” Of course, even that becomes a term, just a cumbersome one, and if you forbid terms, you really forbid generalization. So now you have four pieces written in the 1960s – Music in Fifths, Piano Phase, Philomel, and In C – and you are not allowed to say that one of them stands out from the other three, you are forced to describe each individually. It would save so many words to say, Three of those pieces are minimalist and one serialist, and a cultured person would understand you – but no, no, that would falsify the sacred particularities of each piece. You’d gain insight from hearing survivals of the style galant in Mozart’s rondos, but you can no longer say that – you can only refer over and over to a recurrence of quick 6/8 meter and a certain type of figuration. No more do you get to divide Stravinsky’s output into Russian, neoclassic, and 12-tone periods – just a continuum in which each piece merits its own description.

In general, two kinds of people make up musical terms: composers and music historians. I am both – or rather, I was hired as the latter because as a “Downtowner” (another term) I have no credibility as the former, and please don’t mention my little charade to the administration. Musicology is alleged to be a science of some kind (thus the “-ology” suffix), and part of its science is dividing up a gigantic chaos of historical phenomena into manageable bits based on similarity and contrast. As the first person to write a book about Nancarrow I had to come up with terms (“convergence point”) with which to analyze his canons, or else I would have gotten lost in a sea of awkward verbiage (imagine “that point at which all the voices coincide on the same analogous note in their isomorphic sequences” over and over on every page). Writing a book that focused on American music of the 1980s and 1990s when no one had ever done so before, I was obliged by the demands of the task to separate composers into categories based on similarity. The term “postminimalism” was already in the air, and the late Rob Schwartz had used it as a chapter heading – I just tightened up the definition. “Totalism” was a word coined by the composers themselves. I didn’t just go to a few concerts as a critic to hone my own definitions; as a musicologist I studied an entire file cabinet’s worth of home-bound scores elicited from the composers.

Terminology is the musicologist’s creative medium. Get too creative and the term won’t stick to the phenomena, but not evocative enough and it will lack resonance. No one pretends that terms are perfect. Some are so broad and contradictory in application as to be stumbling blocks, like “classical.” “Neoclassic” usually really connotes “neobaroque,” but every cultured person knows that and makes allowances. Luckily, terms come and go in a very clear survival of the fittest. “Postromantic” used to be useful for distinguishing Mahler and Strauss from the generation of Brahms and Wagner, but has fallen out of favor, as has “Fauvism” for the primitive style of Stravinsky and… well, perhaps that’s why it didn’t survive. One interesting recent development, acquiesced to by even the term-haters, is that “modern,” which used to just mean “up to date,” is increasingly bracketed for the challenging, dissonant music of the mid-20th century. We teach terminology, -isms, in the classroom, and we’re not likely to stop – for the very good reasons that we would become more verbose, we would be able to say less, and we would sound stupider.

Of course, artists don’t like thinking about terms. Nothing is more fatal to creativity than to already know the answer before you frame the question. Artists have good reason to be suspicious about what terms you yoke them to, because terms wield power. Tom Johnson, a critic, was the only composer who ever flatly called himself a minimalist, and I consider myself more or less a totalist. But I don’t think, as I start each piece, “Now, how to once again embody the principles of totalism?!” Only an idiot would do that. Kyle the composer couldn’t care less whether his piece turns out to be what Kyle the historian and critic calls totalist. It’s not an artist’s business to think about terms – unless needed for sometimes very practical career purposes, and even then not while in the act of creating. Still, I find it sort of hilarious that just now, as composers run from terms as though they carried viruses, the young pop musicians are churning out new terms almost monthly – jungle, illbient, drum and bass, liquid funk, and many others I can’t remember and that those who use them can’t even seem to distinguish in meaning when asked. What are the classical composers so afraid of that the pop musicians have so much fun playing with? I thought we were invited to learn from the pop musicians.

So rail against terminology, rail, rail, rail, rail!! Everyone expects it of artists. Critics, expunge “minimalism,” “neoclassicism,” “empfindsamer stil” from your vocabulary, and see if you enjoy being less literate. But I believe that in this era of exponentially expanding numbers of composers, the opportunity for chaos is so great that the need for terminology will become more important than ever. For – and here’s my one sane opinion, in case you had lost all hope that I retain any grasp of reality – it is unimaginable that some mainstream style is going to coalesce in the forseeable future. And also undesirable – can you imagine 50,000 composers writing in the same style? Jesus, it’d be like the 17th century cubed. You’d have to distinguish John Aloysius Brown’s Ricercar No. 27 in E-flat from John Lothario Brown’s Ricercar No. 27 in E-flat by the fact that one uses mutes. The obvious current in culture today, vastly facilitated by the internet, is toward greater fragmentation of subcultures. And subcultures need to be identified, and distinguished – defined, which is not the same as frozen or calcified or engraved in granite. The pop musicians are on the case. But you classical musicians, rail! Rail! Unless the culture as a whole lapses into barbarism, those oh-so-beside-the-point terms, -isms, categories, style names, will continue to be used, and will multiply. They’re how we make sense of our world.

I await, with amusement, your undoubted unanimous dissent. I’ll call you the “antitermists.”