I’ve learned too many things from my students in the past two weeks to get them all in one blog entry. It’ll take three at least.
Our three-and-a-half-hour Open Instrumentation Ensemble concert last night went splendidly. We played Glass’s Music in Fifths, Riley’s In C, Samuel Vriezen’s The Weather Riots, Rhys Chatham’s Guitar Trio, Rzewski’s Attica, and an electric guitar version of Julius Eastman’s Gay Guerrilla, plus three works written by students in the ensemble. I was truly dumbfounded by the massive student enthusiasm for this music – as though they’d been looking all their lives for music like this, and weren’t sure it existed. They are determined to continue the ensemble next semester in my absence. And I’m trying to figure out what needs it fulfilled for them.
For one thing, pieces like these allow for a wide range of proficiencies. We had, in this ensemble, both senior instrumentalists of considerable virtuosity and freshmen guitarists who could hardly read music and had never played notated music in an ensemble before. Both were challenged, neither got bored. Music in Fifths, with its interminably expanding patterns of 8th-notes on F G Ab Bb C, is difficult to play, but it is not particularly more difficult for beginners than it is for the more experienced. Its difficulties have to do with cognition, concentration, and endurance, not instrumental ability or musical insight. The inexperienced had more trouble at first getting Riley’s 53 melodies in their heads, but once that’s done, the challenges are pretty much the same for everyone.
More than that, though, I think this minimalist, process-based repertoire has a kind of performance density that younger musicians enjoy. Classical music is all about enslaving yourself to an inexorable continuity drawn out on the page. Jazz is certainly freer in a way, and Bard has a thriving jazz program – probably the healthiest part of our department at the moment – but there are certain students who find the jazz regimen too limiting. Our jazz students learn the bebop language forwards and backwards, and play Charlie Parker fluently before going into anything more experimental. It’s rigorous. Classical music and jazz both impose on the young musician a tremendous discipline undertaken for the goal of playing with consummate expertise a repertoire that – however sad to say – may ultimately seem a little old-fashioned, not terribly hip to most of their friends. The road is long and torturous, the rewards far away and, in social and economic terms, arguably dubious.
But minimalist music? Easier to master, and the result of a training more personal than professional. Highly developed expertise isn’t entirely an asset; I’ve heard student performances of In C that were way better than the one the New York Philharmonic gave at Merkin Hall a few years ago. More importantly, the performance mode is not so fraught with anxiety. Within In C and Attica, there’s room for individual performance decisions made on the spot. Miss a pattern in Music in Fifths? Drop out for a measure, and then plunge in again – not only does no one care, it adds variety to the texture. (We had one excessive moment in which we lost the entire guitar section, but the closing repetitions were dynamite.) The discipline is more quickly achieved, creativity encouraged, mistakes far less penalized.
And the rewards? In the short run, far higher, for the music is both exotic enough to impress friends with its hypnotic strangeness and groove-oriented enough to delight them. It’s music you can perform with the comfortable familiarity and leeway of pop, but with more intellectual heft and formal interest. The three student pieces were all based on In C-like techniques, yet achieved quite different textures and forms. In fact, it’s really a perfect performance repertoire for college-age musicians: you can get good at it fast, a little effort will make you really good, mistakes are rarely an issue, you can compose it without sweating over every note, little changes in rehearsal can make a big difference, and it’s mesmerizing to listen to. The reward/discipline ratio is through the roof.
OK, then, why do most of the classic pieces from this genre date from the 1960s and ’70s? I located a few scores from the 1980s, like Barbara Benary’s Sun on Snow, but they were more elaborate, and would have required more rehearsal time than we had. We composers mostly all retreated from this kind of aptly-named “new music” in the 1980s. Even I gave up writing freer, looser music like my Oil Man and Long Night of 1981 to return to more linear, strictly notated works like Baptism of 1983. In my own case, I always think of Feldman’s statement about why he abandoned graphic notation: “If the means were to be imprecise, the results must be terribly clear.” Leaving certain musical details to chance and performer discretion didn’t gratify my sense of composer vanity: I wanted to prove I could get every nuance in place and make it beautiful. Performances of my freer music were sometimes great, sometimes lousy, and I didn’t feel I had enough control. I don’t think that’s particularly true of Music in Fifths, however. I think, rather, that I hadn’t quite found processes that could be guaranteed to work well in performance.
And I regret that. The ’60s and ’70s were an era of tremendous liberalism, and I think that all that minimalist music (to use an imprecise term for the body of process-oriented works for variable ensembles) was an expression of our political inclinations. We were disenchanted with expertise. The experts all seemed to be wrong. We were inclusive. We were writing music for Everyman. We (or our immediate predecessors) came up with a music that made newcomers feel comfortable playing it. Soured on elitist self-aggrandizement, we were in a mood to be generous to performers and listeners both. The music was accessible, striking, attractive, rhythmic. It gave, in Steve Reich’s words, “everyone within earshot a feeling of ecstasy.” And part of that ecstasy surely came from the sense of freedom and personal responsibility of players who were being allowed to make their own decisions without undue fear of mistakes.
So why didn’t we continue? Why didn’t this new genre, with so much to offer, become a new tradition? Times changed. The credentialism of the 1980s, and the renewed competition for jobs, brought back an elitist sense of professionalism. Some of us became successful enough that virtuosos were interested in performing our music, so goodbye Everyman. But I remain convinced that there were worthwhile political convictions expressed in the very cellular structure of that music, and the continuing student (and public) enthusiasm for it seems evidence of that. I may write a piece for the students’ ensemble myself, and I’m going to try to see if I can’t return somewhat to my liberal, ’70s, open-instrumentation, process-oriented roots and see if it’s possible to channel that populist energy in a new century.