Though I’ve done it in other cases, I see little point in posting the keynote address I delivered yesterday for Sacramento State’s 31st (!) annual new-music festival. The bulk of my spiel, about why the so-called American maverick composers aren’t really loners but a pretty tightly-knit group, was sewn together from bits of material already available on this blog. But toward the end I changed subject and addressed another issue that’s been on my mind lately, and I’ve been meaning to bring it up anyway. So I’ve adapted and expanded it for the virtual print medium, and I’ll add some afterthoughts at the end:
The Hyakujo now crying, now laughing, does not lose sight of the Absolute Present. Before his satori his crying or laughing was not a pure act. It was always mixed with something else. His unconscious conciousness of time urged him to look forward, if not thinking of the past. As the result, he was vexed with a feeling of tension, which is unnecessarily exhausting. (A Zen Life: D.T. Suzuki Remembered, p. 41)
Suzuki goes on to criticize serialism – and I love this, because of course Suzuki isn’t talking about 12-tone music, but rather uses the word serialism to describe the state of mind that lies outside the Absolute Present – that is immersed in the ordered series of events that constitute linear time. It’s the state of mind in which “We regret the past and worry about the future… The future and past overlay the present and suffocate it.”
“A feeling of tension, which is unnecessarily exhausting,” is precisely what I try to escape in my best music. The most accurate way to describe it, based on the way it feels to me while composing, is the avoidance of musical karma. Of course sometimes my music increases in intensity and heads for a climax, and when it does so I have to time the climax well and lead to it smoothly, and make sure the effect isn’t mitigated by extraneous elements. It’s a matter of skill. It also imposes a certain feeling of obligation on the composing process. And I find as the years go by that I enjoy composing more when I can feel that what I’m writing in measure 185 doesn’t commit me to writing anything particular in measure 202. I might suddenly want to take a left turn. I might be writing in B-flat, and suddenly think, “I think now I’ll switch to A-flat.” I love the description Feldman gave of his First (?) String Quartet, in which at one point he just suddenly decided to quote a Webern tone row in the violin – he wanted “a moment of symmetry.” Later in the piece he threw in the retrograde.
To many composers, the determination to avoid creating a feeling of tension may seem absolutely crazy. But Cage’s chance music, the sensuous early minimalism of Harold Budd, Peter Garland’s never-repeating melodies that all lie within a few never-changing triads, Brian Eno’s ambient music, are all attempts to capture an Absolute Present, in which the sounds of the moment are not suffocated by the future or the past. This is a very different music from the more traditional classical attempt to draw a metaphor for an emotional experience. When composing a metaphor for human emotions, the skill of the music is judged by whether the climax is reached effectively and at the right moment, whether the emotional curve is smooth, motivated, and convincing. For many traditional composers, all these signs of competence are paramount, and the composer who does not exhibit skill in them is “not serious,” of no importance.
The assumption is that, conversely, to capture an Absolute Present requires no skill. This is untrue, though perhaps in context skill is not the right word for what’s needed. I find that keeping my music centered in every measure, free from the implications of what has come before and not accumulating any musical karma toward what will come after, is an enormously absorbing balancing act – and withal a tremendous pleasure. Boredom and pointlessness can legitimately ensue, and keeping the thread without a long-term throughline requires concentration. And so, for instance, my piece Kierkegaard, Walking (played at the festival here last night and this Sunday) moves from one thing to the next without any causality. The texture might continue and the key quietly change, or a ripple of triplet 16ths might suddenly enliven the momentum for a moment. The piece does contain passages that crescendo to high points – but the high points aren’t real climaxes, because afterward the music goes on to something else unrelated, so the climaxes are really representations of climaxes, not metaphors for an emotional process. One could say that the little moments of heightened emotion are ironic, or, more accurately, that the music remains detached from them. They may be analogues for the pain Hyakujo felt when his nose was twisted, but they are divorced from any sense of before and after.
[In fact, entre nous, it's seeming more and more to me that the perfect compositional model is the psychotherapy session. In therapy, you just start talking about what's on your mind, and wander anywhere you want through free association. But anyone who's been in therapy will tell you - I gather this is universal - that every therapy session ends up having a theme, often one that is unintentionally announced in the opening sentences. You think you're just chatting at random, but as you go it becomes clear that the entire session is really about just one topic, explored on many levels and through deceptively unrelated-seeming metaphors. Sort of like blogging, except that in blogging the mind retains too much conscious control.]
What I’m saying is that this flatness, this charge of boredom leveled at many of the maverick composers and their quasi-maverick acolytes, is a common feature of that musical world from which the mavericks emerge. I don’t compose music that way because I’m from Texas and a tough hombre who can’t be bothered to write mainstream music and I’m one of those outlaws who touch ladies deep down in their souls. I write it because I picked up that musical paradigm early in life from Erik Satie and John Cage and Morton Feldman and Harold Budd and John Luther Adams and I dearly treasure it. It doesn’t make me a maverick, neither does it make me, in itself, incompetent. It makes me rather typical of a different musical world which is now evident in the new pluralism that contains both it and what we used to call the classical European mainstream. There is plenty of room in that pluralism for music that acts as emotional metaphor, and also music that seeks an Absolute Present.
[He-he - gave you a pretty good sucker punch with that headline, didn't I?]
Now, obviously I am not presenting alarmingly new thoughts here. When I was in college, and Cage’s influence was still fairly novel, we young composers discussed exactly this issue of the Eternal Musical Present among ourselves and in academic forums. People wrote about it over the years, and the climax of attention came with Jonathan Kramer’s fantastic book The Time of Music, which has never received enough attention. I admit, though, that I haven’t heard it discussed in many years, and that may well be because I teach at a kind of Uptown bastion where the agenda gets set by Grawemeyer Award winners. The Time of Music has been out of print for many years. Perhaps this issue of divergent experiences of musical time is more taken for granted than I realize, but it is my experience, and that of many colleagues, that it never hurts to re-present what seems like old news to yourself to the new generation that may well have never gotten wind of it from anywhere else.
The thing is, Cage’s music and writings advocated for a different experience of musical time. A lot of people didn’t buy it. Then minimalism came along and made some of those Absolute Present ideas a little more seductive. My generation got into Drumming, and early Glass, and those slowly evolving Phill Niblock drones, and a whole new repertoire emerged – but mostly underground. Publicly, the New Romanticism came along, the classical musicians sighed with relief when John Adams and Louis Andriessen diverted the minimalist impulse back into more acceptably entertaining channels, and orchestral life returned to normal. So I think it might not be simple insularity on my part, or my chronic paranoia, to assume that the idea of music existing in a kind of timelessness is a less familiar idea now than it was in the oh-so-liberal-and-never-to-cease-being-regretted Golden Days of my youth.
In the meantime, the repertoire of unconventionally nonlinear music has vastly expanded. It’s easier to recognize now what could have been more obvious then, that pieces like Satie’s Socrate represented a vivid precedent for what Cage brought to the surface. I had a student sing Socrate a couple of years ago, and was amazed when a couple of my colleagues admitted that they found it pointlessly boring. And in Morton Feldman, Phill Niblock, John Luther Adams, Meredith Monk, Arvo Pärt, and quite a few others, the music of the Absolute Present – and I’m not going to take the responsibility for coming up with a term for it this time – has its major figures, its unignorable repertoire. It has thousands and thousands of fans who would be bored stiff listening to Brahms or Bartok or John Corigliano. It has its defenders in the public world. It needs, perhaps, more advocates within academia, so that young musicians drawn to it are not discouraged and confused by the uncomprehending faculty – whose effect overall, I think, is to keep the academic music world pointlessly alienated from a seminal musical tradition whose importance will only increase.