Music Not of its Time

I’m getting more and more fed up, for I can see clearly that I was not born into my proper period – [but into] a period I can’t accommodate myself to….

Erik Satie to his brother, February 4, 1901

I believe we are in a period, and have been for just over two decades, in which masculine archetypes dominate cultural consciousness. The various musics that occupy musical discourse have masculine qualities. “Kickass,” hard-grinding, “risk-taking” improvisation has its champions at Signal and Noise and Musicworks magazines, and elsewhere. The orchestra circuit is dominated, not so much by John Adams, as by his legion of imitators, both male and female, who focus violently on the percussion section and make the crescendo of repeated brass chords their trademark. Cults surround the obscurantist music of the priests of the New Complexity, music that never apologizes and never explains. Musically as well as politically, the people seem hungry for leaders, for bullies, for heroes, for those who will lift the onus of responsibility from their shoulders and tell them what to do. Of course, Morton Feldman and Steve Reich, those icons of musical femininity, are highly praised, but nostalgically so, as part of the charming past. Thank goodness no one any longer writes music like that now, right? Or if anyone still does, they should be ignored, if not downright discouraged. That music was pretty, but it’s over, and nothing left today but real MAN’s music.

Like most of the current music I’m passionately interested in, my music, I think, derives from feminine archetypes. It is communicative, and goes overboard to be clear. Idiosyncrasy is its structural principle. It is always structured, but the structure is deëmphasized, smoothed over, unarticulated by contrast and not allowed to intrude. Pretty is its default mode, pianissimo its favorite dynamic. Its physicality is neither propulsive nor regular, but grounded in a balance of conflicting tempos, making it difficult to figure sometimes what speed to tap your foot to. Neither kinetically nor intellectually compelling, it bows to”emotionally convincing” as its ultimate criterion. Above all it does not hide anything nor intentionally mystify. Back in the ’70s, as we were escaping from the brutally masculine archetypes of serialism, that seemed like a good idea. We believed, for awhile, in music not as individual self-aggrandizement but as collective communicativity, in a music that could seduce crossover listeners and bring people together. As Reich said at the time, “I don’t know any secrets of structure that can’t be heard.”

And so, with that sense of being alive at the wrong time, of being totally unfashionable, as utterly irrelevant to the early 21st century as Satie was to the 1900s and Cage to the 1940s, I bring to the public one of my seminal and most unfashionable works. One of the ways I get back into composing after a hiatus is to re-edit some of my earlier music, usually entering it into notation software, as a way of reconnecting with my musical roots: and I’ve done that now with Baptism, a 1983 work for two flutes, two drums, glockenspiel, and electric organ or harmonium. A pre-Custer attempt to fuse cultures, the piece is based on two hymns from different churches, the Protestant “Jesus Paid It All” and the Apache hymn “Daxiasee Bizra’a” (Son of Our Father.) The music reminds me that I originally felt that my most basic musical impulse, beyond even multitempo and chromatic voice-leading, was the free profusion of melody, not based in any repeitition of motives or themes, but always generated anew from the music’s harmonic center.

A PDF of the 24-page score is now available here. The piece was actually published in the ’80s by Editions V in Dortmund, Germany, but I’ve re-edited it for tempos, articulation, and dynamics. Everone comments on the strange, anticlimactic ending, but I’m attached to it, and in 23 years have failed to imagine a better one. Unfortunately, as with all my work from that period, the recording, here, is rather lacking, played on a Casio synthesizer as the only electronic keyboard then available. There were only three or four performances, one in Maine and the rest in Chicago. If you want to complain about the synthesizer, the drones, the homespun quotations (reminiscent of Virgil Thomson’s at times), the simple tonality, the lyricism, and even the most peculiar ending from an output bulging with peculiar endings, I anticipate and overrule you. Marking the end of my Eno-influenced ambient period, Baptism was the piece which marked a new phase in my music, faster and marked by a more synchronized tempo complexity. In a certain way it’s a naive piece, yet I’m unaccountably fond of it, and wish I knew how to write something like it again.


  1. says

    Kyle, thanks for providing the score and MP3. I’ve also been going back to my really old (and unfashionable) music to try to get it notated in Finale and obtain a decent MIDI-based realization. Two of my old 12-tone works are here and here. I have many others, but when I do actually have some time to myself (which is rare these days), I have to balance devoting time to working with my older stuff with spending the time coming up with something new. Still, there’s a lot to be said for going back to one’s earlier music. Some of it I had even forgotten about until recently, some of it is enjoyable, and some is really embarrassingly bad. Some of the better stuff is “unfashionable,” but who cares about fashion, anyway?

    The two pieces I linked to above are works I’m pretty fond of. I also have a really old work, the first thing I wrote that I considered to be my own, rather than the product of my teacher, but haven’t gotten around to dumping it into Finale. I do have a MP3 of the first and only performance, however here. It’s a song cycle based on Joyce’s poetry for soprano and piano, and it dates from 1978 or so. The second song is the first 12-tone piece I ever wrote, and the soprano, a Juilliard student at the time, was excellent. The pianist was terrible, however, but that’s the beauty of performing one’s own compositions—the audience has no clue when you make mistakes.

  2. X. J. Scott says

    Yes, I liked this piece. Thanks for sharing it.
    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the recording – a synthesizer is a fine choice for a reed organ playing drone chords. It works well with the flute.
    No problems with the ending either. I guess people are upset that the celesta didn’t return to the tonic? Oh well!

  3. Samuel Vriezen says

    Hi Kyle, greeting from Vlieland – small island north of the netherlands. I just wanted to comment on your interpretation of Feldman as feminine. For me, his ‘softer than possible’ esthetic is in fact extremely macho and certainly aggressive, although perhaps it’s a kind of aggression that you might think of as “feminine” rather than “masculine” in nature – I don’t know about that.
    When I get back, I’ll give Baptism a listen!

  4. says

    I agree music has gone particularly macho – and I would argue it has never been much of anything else for centuries. It’s a matter of degree.
    But, excuse me, what are “Jesus Paid it All” and “Son of Our Father” but masculine archetypes? Or am I missing something?
    I would not dream of using either title.
    KG replies: I only used the tunes, not the lyrics.

  5. says

    Kyle: You write, “[I] wish I knew how to write something like it again.” What I gather from your many (and much appreciated) writings is that you approach writing music top down, as it were; you think in terms of mathematical structure as a framework, then executes something that accomplishes that vision. I’m no academic composer, but I do write and record music constantly. I never begin from a grand vision; rather, for me, it starts with a sound that’s neat or a lyric that has potential to be a song, or even an opera. (Whether or not it gets written.) If it works, this sound becomes the key to a world of sound. In Sandow’s writings, it seems he works in this fashion, rather bottom up as opposed to your top-down approach. (Aggravated, no doubt, by teaching theory to 19-year-olds.)

    I did look at the score of Baptism and, though, I’m not good enough to get the gist of the piece without listening to it (which I haven’t done), it strikes me that it was composed bottom up, if you will, rather than top down. Perhaps you should free yourself from mathematics—even arithmetic—and try writing for the sheer sonic pleasure of it. In practicing meditation, one immense hurdle is to stop one’s internal dialog and simply experience breathing. By way of analogy, I think you might do well to shut down your mathematical analysis and immerse yourself in the pleasure of sound.

    KG replies: Thanks, Lindsey. But appearances can be deceiving. With Baptism I worked out the whole seven-part structure first and then filled it in. These days I tend to start from one point and let the piece go where it wants. And I didn’t mean to imply that the piece is better than what I write now, just that it has some qualities I miss. Believe me, I don’t use “mathematical analysis” while I’m composing.