Musical Karma, How to Avoid It

Greatly underappreciated though they are, negative comments in reviews are the sparks that illuminate your position with respect to the rest of the world. My Cold Blue recording of Long Night was described over by David Salvage at Sequenza 21 as “a bit Zen for my taste,” and it’s the best comment I’ve had since John Rockwell in the Times called my music “naively pictorial” in 1989, which led me to develop an entire aesthetic I call Naive Pictorialism, of which I am to date the sole exponent. Both are the kind of insights that indicate your message has gotten across. As a matter of fact, the last organized religion I participated in, years ago, was at Zen Buddhist temples in Chicago and New York. (The Chicago temple was great, but the New York one so smarmy, so more-meditative-than-thou, that I quit in disgust.) One of the earliest vocal works I wrote (Song of Acceptance of 1980, same year as Long Night) was a harmonically immobile setting of paragraphs from the Tao-te Ching:

The multitude are merry, as though feasting on a day of sacrifice…

I alone am inert, showing no sign of desires,

Like an infant that has not yet smiled…

Mine is indeed the mind of an ignorant man,

Indiscriminate and dull!

Common folks are indeed brilliant;

I alone seem to be in the dark.

Common folks see differences and are clear-cut;

I alone make no distinctions.

I seem drifting as the sea;

Like the wind blowing about, seemingly without destination.

The multitude all have a purpose;

I alone seem to be stubborn and rustic.

I can’t honestly say at this point whether it was John Cage’s writings that led me into Taoism and Zen and occultism, or whether it was my instinctive affinity for Asian religions that made me open to Cage’s writings. But I do know that, while Zen shouldn’t be made to take the blame for my music, the meditative state encouraged by Zen is a listening paradigm with which I am not uncomfortable. “A little too Zen” is praise that I would not have been so immodest as to confer on myself, but if someone wants to elect me to that august fraternity, I’ll emblazon it on my next poster.

The late Columbia professor Jonathan Kramer, in his great book from the 1980s The Time of Music, wrote at length about what he called “vertical music,” non-narrative, static music in which time ceases to exist, or rather that refuses to create a sense of virtual time, thus throwing the listener back on his own subjective time sense. This can range from music that doesn’t change at all – like Satie’s Vexations, Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis and Hymnkus, La Monte Young’s sound installations, Stockhausen’s Stimmung – to music that changes only very slowly, like Phill Niblock’s slowly unfocussing drone pieces, Charlemagne Palestine’s Strumming Music, Steve Reich’s Drumming, Bill Duckworth’s Time Curve Preludes, Elodie Lauten’s The Death of Don Juan, John Luther Adams’s Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing, David First’s The Good Book’s (Accurate) Jail of Escape Dust Coordinates, Eliane Radigue’s incredible Adnos and Trilogie de la Mort (pieces I use as the acid test for judging a great stereo system), even some of Olivier Messiaen’s slow movements. For that matter, Morton Feldman’s entire output has a strong vertical component, “vertical” referring to the music’s refusal to significantly order contrasting events in the “horizontal” dimension of time.

Tell me that nothing happens in such-and-such a piece, and I am immediately intrigued. To say that all or even most Downtowners subscribe to an aesthetic of vertical time would be a gross exaggeration, but many of us do. Large swaths of Downtown music are devoted to gradual process, without events, or sometimes just directionless stasis without process, “like the wind blowing about, seemingly without destination.” (Actually, my music was more like this in the ’80s, and I’m recently getting back to it.) To outsiders, this music seems to be missing something: the emotional sine curve typical of Western music, the up-and-down European conceit of psychological cause and effect.

Since Beethoven, music has been paradigmatically based on our psychological life, and since Wagner, particularly on its sexual side. Obstacles appear, dissonances thwart us, events move toward a cathartic climax, and the hero strives and overcomes – or, beginning with Mahler, is sometimes defeated. Tension crescendoes, release comes in decrescendos, and all value consists in the intensity of the struggle. But starting with Cage, or even going back to Satie, came a different paradigm more akin to Eastern musics, based on a more meditative, Asian sense of all-at-oneness, of music experienced in the moment, not as going anywhere, but as Eternal Being. La Monte once tossed off to me the comment, “Contrast is for people who can’t write music.” When I quote this, it tends to make Uptowners, Midtowners, Out-of-Towners, and even some Downtowners very uncomfortable.

The discomfort is understandable. As Kramer would say, most classically trained musicians (it’s not necessarily true of your average audience member) are locked into a meta-narrative in which one never challenges the assumption that a piece of music should contain contrasting sections and high points and low points. What’s surprising is that, after so many great, successful, historically important individual examples of vertical music that doesn’t contain those things, vertical music still remains unacknowledged as a genre, as an ever-present possibility, and has to be refought for with every new piece. Reich and Glass wrote vertical music, but they got away with it. Young and Palestine, well, OK, but that was back in the ’60s when everyone was doing drugs. That aesthetic is supposed to be over now, everything back to “normal.” The great achievement of Morton Feldman was that he wrote so much strongly vertical music that appealed to young composers, who in turn forced many of their reluctant professors to concede that one Downtowner had indeed entered the canon of the Greats.

To this day, I play static, vertical music by Downtowners of my generation for my more dyed-in-the-wool classical colleagues and their faces fall into a look of patient indulgence of my naivete. I have to understand, after all, that the music doesn’t really “do anything.” It’s never presented as an issue of style or intent or idiom, but as one of quality. These composers are OK at creating atmosphere, but they haven’t learned yet to build up climaxes, have they? Where are the pitch motives, where the colorful contrasts of orchestration? They’re still amateurs, and perhaps they’ll someday learn to write “real music.” I wish, instead of acting so goddamned self-assured in their convictions of what music is supposed to do, these people could step out of their own meta-narrative enough to have the graciousness to admit, “Well, it’s a little Zen for my taste.” I wonder if it’s partly because I live in the still-Europe-tinged Northeast; I fantasize that out in California people sit around grooving to slowly-moving drones, but I don’t know whether I’d find it different out there or not. Probably academia is the same on the West Coast as it is here, and I’ve come to believe that musical academia is never, ever going to step out of the classical meta-narrative, Jonathan Kramer’s most brilliant arguments notwithstanding. Like the music it roundly rejects, musical academia is permanent and unchanging.

I think Young’s right, that contrast makes composing easier, and that to get by without it (think of the great Renaissance composers, like Ockeghem and Palestrina, whose music is so seamless) requires more skill. I’ve written plenty of “real music,” sometimes on commission from classical performers whom I fear couldn’t appreciate anything more hardcore, and I find it less of a challenge than a piece that manages to stay focused on one idea. “Purity of heart is to will one thing,” wrote Kierkegaard. “All of man’s troubles stem from his inability to sit still,” wrote Pascal. With every new piece I try even harder to keep my music from changing. (Of my mature pieces that have climaxes, Nude Rolling Down an Escalator for Disklavier is a joke about climaxes, and literally laughs at them; Hovenweep was written for the elegantly Midtown St. Luke’s Chamber Players, and I was being a good boy.) After all, to listen to music is to temporarily identify with the emotional/psychological persona it presents. Music that goes up and down a lot, that creates arbitrary anxiety only to resolve it, that drives itself into frenzied crescendos, feels, to me, sort of immature, unenlightened, not a persona I would be eager to internalize – and I think that lay audiences generally find it a chore to get through anxious modern music that seems to be about emotional instability. I do love the slowly graduated emotional catharses of Mahler’s music, but experience them as a kind of throwback to music’s (and my own) turbulent adolescence. Today I prefer music that can keep its calm, that aims at something deeper, more spiritual, perhaps, than a fluctuation of violent emotions.

It’s a personal preference, not an ideological position, but it keeps me and my friends from ever feeling at home in the world of contemporary classical music. Fifty-three years after 4’33”, 47 years after La Monte Young started working with drones, 20 years after Jonathan Kramer introduced the concept of vertical music into theoretical discourse, several centuries into the histories of Indian classical music and Tibetan chanting, you’d think there would be more frequent recognition that music can be something other than a calculated sequence of contrasted events. But I alone seem to be stubborn and rustic, for every contact with classical musicians reminds me that a lot of the music I relish most is still considered “a little too Zen.”

UPDATE: Reader Joseph L. confirms that they do still listen to drones out in California, and points me to this recent Oakland concert as evidence. Always knew I landed on the wrong coast.