Theorizing NOW

My Analysis of Minimalism seminar I just finished was the most exciting course I’ve ever taught, and I plan to write about it at greater length. But as I’m sitting here grading final papers, I’m pleased as punch to note that one student, Erica Ball (herself a precociously interesting composer) wrote her analysis paper on two works written late in 2008, by young composers Caroline Mallonée and Jim Altieri. When I think how many young composers come out of grad school these days all excited about dinosaurs like Ligeti, Xenakis, and Carter, I am especially proud. In my ideal pedagogical situation, all music more than five years old, or written by composers more than a generation older than the students, would be considered old classics, to be consulted like Bach or Beethoven as a way of grounding one’s standards, while the bulk of analysis and study would be devoted to music of RIGHT NOW. Other analyses were written on the opening section of Michael Gordon’s Trance, Jim Tenney’s Diapason, John Luther Adams’s Dream in White on White and In the White Silence, Eve Beglarian’s The Bus Driver Didn’t Change His Mind, John Adams’s China Gates (for a perspective from the distant past), and Corigliano’s Fantasia on an Ostinato (Corigliano called it his “minimalist piece,” so I said what the heck). I’ve been frustrated with minimalism classes before, but this time managed to bring together a bunch of serious music majors who really got the music, who looked past Glass and Reich and Pärt to the hipper developments that followed, and concocted theories about postminimalism’s relation to modernism. They were wowed by Nick Didkovsky’s rock-jazz-classical fusion, charmed by Daniel Lentz, blown away by Belinda Reynolds. This music may have a future after all.


  1. Rodney Lister says

    Surely you never ever actually doubted that it had a future.
    KG replies: I doubt that many times every day.

  2. says

    One advantage that students have today is availability – sound files and scores are usually readily available. It used to be that you’d be reading about pieces that you never had a chance to listen to and/or to see the score. Hopefully this availability will contribute to student’s being more interested in recent developments. Also it doesn’t hurt to be able to look at the composer’s web site and/or directly contact her.
    KG replies: I would have thought that most composers’ scores are really difficult to come by these days, unless you harangue the composer directly for them, and even then often.

  3. says

    Why the particular bright lines? I’ve always (naïvely, perhaps) thought that we lionize Bach and Beethoven and the rest as “old classics” because their music has survived the test of time. Is a generation (much less five years) really the kind of hindsight we need to put music in the fossilized past for our reference (or call them “classics”)?
    KG replies: What bright lines? I’ve always envied the musical health of the late 18th century, when old music (like Bach and Palestrina) was around for composers to learn their skills from, but it wasn’t performed, and all creative activity was focused on the composers who were building up a new language by stealing from each other. Mozart didn’t need hindsight: he needed Haydn, and vice versa. They weren’t making music for the history books, but for the people they knew were going to show up at the Mehlgrube next Tuesday. Why do we need to drown, year after year after year, in a deluge of freakin’ hindsight? That’s what keeps music turgid and calcified.
    Mozart’s and Haydn’s music was great for the same reason 1940s jazz was great and 1960s rock was great, because they were aware of doing something new that only demanded being in the moment, they had no weight of the past, no competition, no mandates unrelated to the moment they were in, and had only each other to bounce ideas off of. I am foolishly trying to recreate the conditions under which music can be great.
    But no need to worry. I’m the total light-years-beyond-crazy-far-left, and nobody listens to me anyway. Now that my seminar’s over, the world will return to its inviolable status quo.

  4. Paul H. Muller says

    Cal Lutheran here in SoCal has a New Music Concert each year, usually in March. And the intention is to bring in one or several young composers. The selections (in my opinion, anyway) are purposefully chosen so that senior music majors see someone very much like themselves creating contemporary music – not just older established types.
    I’m sure your school does the same. Another way to get young people excited about new music is to have young composers come in and share their work.
    KG replies: Why in the world would you be sure my school does the same? If they did (which we don’t), I’m not sure that would have the same effect as analyzing the music.

  5. richard says

    Gee, Kyle, why put Ligeti along with Xenakis and Carter? Amongst that gray pigeons that flocked together in Darmstadt, I always thought of Ligeti to be something of an exotic bird-of-paradise in their midst (particularly in the chamber works). Now if you had said Babbit or Boulez was part of the unholy “Trinity” I’d be in total agreement. I tend to look at a work like “Continuum” to be a sort of proto-minimalist, and it was the work that influenced me to turn toward the post-minimalist style I write today. There are alot worse role models to look at. But I do agree that students and the rest of us need to see what’s happening now.
    KG replies: Oh, I agree. I didn’t mean to equate them in any other way, just that they’re three names I came out of high school excited about 35 years ago, and that students come out of grad school excited about now. I very much appreciated that, unlike Boulez, Babbitt, Carter, Davidovsky, and all those guys, Ligeti gave his stamp of approval to minimalism in his “Self-Portrait with Reich and Riley.” I wouldn’t say a word against the man.

  6. says

    Ligeti & “minimalism”
    Yeah, I gotta say I could happilly – gleefully, even – live any number of lifteimes without hearing or playing Babbitt or Carter. But how many pieces can you name that you can honestly say about “I wish I had written that!”?
    Okay, maybe I don’t actually “wish” I had written Ligeti’s piece for 100 metronomes. But I “could have” written it, and wouldn’t mind at all if it were credited to me. And I think it’s a pretty nice example of Minimalism, kind of like Reich’s Pendulum Music, except upside down. And longer. And harder to program.
    I’m just suggesting that Ligeti’s ideas maybe took him into real minimalist realms, even if that’s not what he’s known for, primarily. I suspect there are other composers and works that stick out as not typical, but suggest that the artist was exploring something. One such leaps to mind – Zappa’s “Naval Aviation In Art?” It’s based on an obsessively repeated motif of 5 notes, doesn’t do a damn thing or go anywhere – and Frank recorded it three times in different versions!
    Shit, man. That’s one I actually do wish I had written.

  7. mclaren says

    Well…but wait a minute, why are Ligeti and Xenakis and Carter “dinosaurs”? Remember Leonard Meyer’s prescient prediction — we now exist in the fluctuating steady state he foresaw back in 1956. No musical style today counts as “older” or “newer” than any other. We live in a great big melange, a huge planet-wide tie-dye psychedelic contemporary musical T-shirt, where every musical style melts into every other, and the only real “change” involves small ripples and eddies and whirlpools on the surface of spherical musical-stylistic sea.
    We no longer have any preferred musical direction for the arrow of music-historical time to travel. Composers do everything simultaneously. Different musical subcultures cherish radically different idols, while ignoring other equally great composers and equally great music outside their tiny island universes. Many composers today, like Warren Burt, fluidly move between these different musical island universes — Warren’s Cat Laxative Sonata qualifies as about as hardcore High Modernist as you can get, it’s real Carter-Boulez-Babbitt territory, while his Pi and e has a serious LaMonte Young vibe to it, and his Twenty Chorales In Memory of Chriss Mann boasts a distinctly Terry Riley or John Luther Adams sensibility, while his Portrait In Saws Of Erv Wilson and Vingt Enfleurs sur l’Enfant Melvin channels an Ellen Fullman or Phill Niblock vibe. Plenty of contemporary composers change up like that. Why is one composer or one style a “dinosaur”? We’ve broken out of linear musical history and all styles today coexist, none better or worse, and there’s no direction “forward” in contemporary music, no vector signifying musical “progress”…just a smorgasbord of different tantalizing options.
    It’s understandable that you get bugged at the Carter-worship out there on the East Coast. But, seriously, it ain’t that way everywhere. Plus, which Ligeti are you talking about? The High Modernist Ligeti of Volumina? Or the later Ligeti of the all-white-keys diatonic piano studies? And which Xenakis is the dinosaur? The early Xenakis of the electroacoustic tape pieces made from the sounds of amplified burning charcoal? The middle-period orchestral Xenakis of Eonta and Kraanerg? Or the late Xenakis of the UPIC improvisational real-time electronic pieces? Those “dinsosaurs” evolved into birds over the course of their own careers!
    KG replies: By now C,X, & L should be part of every composer’s basic education, like Brahms and Stravinsky. There are plenty of younger composers still imitating C,X, & L – why can’t we at least hear about them instead?

  8. says

    I cannot locate it again now, but I recall reading an article that the view of Ligeti as the odd man out in Darmstadt is very much one that the composer himself tried to push, often to dishonestly blurring the very real common traits in his music with other composers.

  9. says

    It’s not that usual for classical institutions to feature younger composers or musicians, really. Why just the other day I was listening to the radio on KUSC featuring a string quartet made up of 16 year olds playing some fairly modern sounding pieces.

    Of course what’s striking about these concerts is not so much the breath of fresh air that the youngins supposedly bring in, but how remarkably similar their aesthetics are to their teachers/parents. Like many showcases of musical prodigies, these concerts glamorize the obedience of the musician and exist mainly to give reassurance to parents and patrons who want to see a return on their investment. I’d imagine that people pat themselves on the back for this sort of thing but I really don’t know anybody who speaks of their experiences as being the “featured young composer” very favorably, beyond seeing it as a superficial step towards advancing their career. The process objectifies the student and can be fairly degrading, despite its good intensions.

    There is an obvious disconnect between what the institutions think they are doing and what they are actually portraying to the public, and this comes from classical music’s fundamental lack of willingness to engage youth culture on its own terms. While the critics try to hail performers like Lang-Lang, most young people find him to be kind of annoying and a shallow representation of both youth and Chinese culture. The same can be said for a lot of things happening in the New Music scene as well. These things do not inspire but actually repel people from wanting to participate in the medium.

    Just to illustrate the point — I was at a New Music concert series a couple months ago and I saw a composer who brought his son along with him, wearing matching shirts. (That person supposedly teaches at a fairly prestigious university, by the way.) It might’ve been kind of cute if it weren’t for the fact that the father was proselytizing him the whole time and the kid was desperately trying to look for something he liked about the music as to please his father. That says everything that needs to be said in a nutshell right there.

    Thanks to globalization, we at least now have the ability to express ourselves in whatever form we want but the idea of a decentralized aesthetic is still fairly new so the pragmatics of it hasn’t quite worked out yet. The big project for the 21st Century is for institutional funding to become a better reflector of its pluralistic ideals, and I hope that in the future there will be people who will be willing to tackle this issues head on. Otherwise classical music may be heading toward being a relic of the past, if it isn’t already there already.

  10. N8Ma says

    Hey Kyle,
    Actually I make it a point to program a 21st-century work by a young composer on almost every Bard Orchestra program. As such, the Bard students who play in the orchestra have gotten to know the music of Jennifer Jolley (Ohio), Robert Honstein (Connecticut), and Jack Phillips (Arizona). (And then also some works by Greg Armbruster, who’s over 30 but I think that still counts).
    Many students went to Honstein’s MySpace page and investigated his other compositions. I had a bass player in the orchestra express interest in performing one of Honstein’s compositions for bass and percussion, actually. Jennifer, Robert, and Jack all flew out to Bard when we performed (or, in Jennifer’s case, premiered) their works, the students got to meet them, etc.
    Finally, we’re performing a composition by Erica Ball in the spring. So there is an effort, on my part at least, to connect our students to not just the overused “living composers,” but specifically to young composers and very recent works (all written since 2003).
    KG replies: That’s all admirable, but my point wasn’t really that not enough music gets played by young composers in academic settings (quite the contrary, and I say this to respond to several posts here), but that theory classes too seldom analyze music in current styles. Perhaps not everyone agrees with me, but it seems to me that listening to new pieces is one thing, but sitting down with the score and taking them apart and figuring out how they work is a much more intense experience, more forcibly imprinting the music on young minds and making them react creatively.

  11. N8Ma says

    Point very well taken. Actually I was going to add “but you’re right it still doesn’t beat thorough analysis” to my post, but you can’t edit these things. So I was in, and in for life hehe. I guess my point is that I feel I’m trying to do something with my ensemble that resembles the activities mentioned at Cal Lutheran.
    OK I’ll shut up now.

  12. says

    I’ve always felt emotionally closer to pieces I’ve performed, than pieces I’ve analyzed. There’s a deeper, visceral connection you get through rehearsing that analysis doesn’t quite achieve. That said, I think it would be ideal if theory & ear-training classes stuck less to the textbook and coordinated the curriculum with what students were performing.
    KG replies: That’s a nice goal, and I’ve seen departments try to achieve it. But in those departments, the students tended to limit themselves to repertoire from 1780 to 1880, with the occasional conservative modern piece thrown in, which makes it very limiting. The entire range of theoretically interesting music and the entire range of student-performer-appropriate music don’t seem to overlap very well. In fact, it may require analysis of some pretty weird stuff to inspire the performers to branch out more.

  13. says

    Analysis can be a useful way to understand a piece, but in my experience what’s missing in a lot of theory classes is the talk about its inferred meaning. Talking about form, themes, intervals and chords just comes across as a bunch of gibberish if you can’t make it relate to the student on a personal level somehow. It doesn’t take much, really. The ABA form is a form where it starts somewhere, goes somewhere else, then comes back. It feels “right” because this is a situation that connects to a lot of people in terms of their existence, where A and B can represent all kinds of things. (Going to work, war, ideology, relationships, etc.) It wouldn’t hurt for teachers to throw the students a bone once in a while — it took me years of ungodly amounts of studying (outside of the academy) to arrive at something so simple.

    A friend of mine who teaches photography around the LA area uses Family Guy and Girl Talk as examples of referential meaning, i.e. the use of floating signifiers that point to ideas that exist outside of itself. I’ve heard a musicologist refer to John Adams as the Matt Groening of classical music, because of his style of satire that’s reminicent of The Simpsons and such. This is the postmodern world we live in, and people of my generation and younger have come to understand the world through this lens. Few exceptions withstanding, it’s extremely rare to find people in music departments who acknowledge this (if they even want to admit that postmodernism even exists at all), which is probably why the music doesn’t connect very well to students even after making them take 7000 music appreciation classes.

    My theory is that people’s aversion to minimalism stems from a nostalgia for the pre-industrial, pre-modern world. It was also a time when the aristocracy had a tighter grip on society’s cultural discourse, so the strongest dissent seems to come from those who have an active interest in seeing the old ways reinstated. The introduction of factories did create a lot of problems for society (mostly environmental), but by producing cheap goods it allowed the lower and middle classes to participate in music-creation because they could finally afford to buy instruments and sheet music and whatnot. As pointed out in the earlier Feldman quote, composers are often ungenerous…maybe as a subconscious hatred for the masses at large, i.e. the poor.

  14. bios says

    this is all well and good in theory, but what’s the point of studying the music of today if it isn’t as innovative?
    i mean, it’s the whole point of music appreciation to really examine and dissect how the ‘geniuses’ of the past paved the way for the music of the future? right?
    i’ll all for listening to new music and keeping up with the trends, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s worth studying because of it.
    i WISH that artists like Legeti, Xenakis, Part and Reich were studied and performed more often by students to the point where they truly were considered dinosaurs.
    anyway, there is some innovative music going around. the last great ‘classical’ music i heard was from Romanian composer Dumitrescu.
    interesting blog.
    KG replies: Your first question is a really interesting one, and could lead to loads of discussion. But I find it mostly theoretical as well, because in point of fact, I consider that there’s a ton of interesting, innovative, masterfully written music by my own generation, people born in the ’50s and ’60s, whose existence academia doesn’t acknowledge. And if it’s because they don’t find it innovative, then maybe academia has made the definition of “innovative” too superficial, too score-oriented, too left-brain. Maybe academia needs to disenthrall itself from the “straight line” conception of history. The serialists (and even the first minimalists) were not the last innovative generation.

  15. kraig Grady says

    as an aside i think an investigation into the harmonic practice into pop music would serve as a background to much of what is going on. Regardless of how banal it is, it is far removed from classical functional harmony, and unexplainable in those terms. Its influence upon tonal minimalistic practice might be far greater than acknowledged.
    KG replies: I think you’re right. I wish I knew more about it myself, and I’ve tried learning it from books without much success. I do analyze pop songs in class, and pick up a little bit that way.