When Students Cancel, You Have Time to Think

A couple of insights gleaned from recent teaching:

- In my 20th-century orchestral repertoire class I happened to start teaching the minimalists on the same day I finished up the style-mixing postmodernists, like Bolcom, Rochberg, Del Tredici, Jonathan Kramer. And it occurred to me what they have in common. Both groups place the locus of innovation (I can still write fluent academese when I need to, though the Voice trained me out of it and I have no desire to start up again) – both rely for a sense of newness on the amount and variety of information in their pieces, contrasting it with the general information rate and stylistic variety range of the typical classical piece. The minimalists pare down the information to give you less than classical listeners would expect. The postmodernists ramp up the information variety so that you’ve got Mozart quotes, country and western licks, Romantic clichés, jazz all bubbling around in the same mix. There remain, of course, many composers for whom the information rate of classical music is still an abiding paradigm, but the minimalists and postmodernists likewise rebelled against the general rhetoric of classical music – one group by narrowing the focus, the other by widening it. Diametrically opposed as the two reactions are, I sense a certain kinship there, a tiredness with the repetitiveness of the classical music experience.

- Wagner’s spinning of Tristan und Isolde out of a dramatically small group of materials – the Tristan chord, deceptive cadences, and French sixths morphing into dominant sevenths that never conclusively resolve – of course led the way to atonality, a divorce from the universal syntax of the common practice period, and 12-tone music’s tendency to derive every element from a single row. More than that, though, I think it destroyed an overall faith in a commonly shared, objective musical language and created – indeed, privileged – a paradigm by which the composer creates his or her own universe for each work. This, seems to me, is what separates the New Tonality from the old. I write a lot of tonal music, but I never plunge into the whole syntax of V-I cadences, circle-of-fifths progressions, and all that stuff one learns in school: for each piece I choose what elements, some familiar and some piquant, that will constitute my language for that work. One can certainly say this for postminimalism in general, and I imagine for other New Tonal music as well. Wagner’s stripping his Tristan music of so many of tonal music’s usual signifiers was (forgive me for putting it this way) a proto-postminimalist gesture, or perhaps we should just say minimalist: a virtuoso determination to draw as much length and variety as possible from an artificially circumscribed set of chords and voice-leadings. 

In this sense I feel as a composer that I still inhabit a post-Tristan world more than I do, say, a post-Rite of Spring world. The expansion and increased systematization of materials ushered in by Le Sacre strikes me (when composing) as a little musty and superceded by this point. But Tristan seems like a forever-locked door, beyond which one could never again return to a non-contextual common language whose references could be drawn from a vocabulary not created within the piece itself.

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Comments

  1. says

    It seems to me that minimalist music typically acts to focus the attention of the listener on aspects of the music or of the sound which are commonly ignored in other music – for instance, on subtle rhythmic relationships between different parts and the changes in these rhythmic relationships over time. Perhaps the means by which minimalist music achieves this shift in focus by reducing the total amount of information transmitted to the listener when compared with classical music, but it is not obvious to me that such a reduction is necessarily the case. There may, in fact, be *more* information transmitted by the music to the listener when the focus is shifted to non-traditional aspects. If all the players are playing the same rhythm to the same time signature in the same key throughout the piece, as in much classical music, then very little information about the rhythm after the first few bars needs to be transmitted, for example.

  2. AB says

    “Tristan seems like a forever-locked door, beyond which one could never again return to a non-contextual common language whose references could be drawn from a vocabulary not created within the piece itself.”
    Depressing statement, no? Isn’t “common language” the pre-requisite for fully-realized human communication? And aren’t you saying here that a common thread in late-20th-century/early-now music is a “a tiredness with the repetitiveness of” … a shared language? No wonder this music has to struggle to reach a larger audience – it’s based on a weary disdain for the mechanism of communication. It can connect only to those who already share that weary disdain. THIS is the great human experience of music? Think what a difference it would make if music instead said, “I am your fellow man, speaking to you! We share a culture! We are together; you are not alone!”
    Popular music has had absolutely no trouble or shame strolling right back through the supposedly “forever-locked door.” Hey, maybe that’s why it’s popular!
    Despite all its foibles (and despite Gertrude Stein), we haven’t “lost faith” in the English language – it’s just too damn useful for all the, you know, talking. Not so in music! Why is it that post-Wagnerian composers have to lock that door, but post-Stein writers don’t have to give a damn? Why do they get to keep on writing novels and selling them to a reading public, instead of inventing new hybrid languages every time they sit down, and then fighting, fighting, fighting for that audience? Composers apparently spook a lot easier.
    KG replies: Depressing statement perhaps, but if we’ve become aware of the contingency of musical languages, no amount of wishful thinking will wish that contingency away. No current popular music idiom strikes me as “natural,” let alone universal.

  3. Paul A. Epstein says

    Messing with “the general information rate and stylistic variety range,” whether in the direction of sensory deprivation or sensory overload, has the effect of freeing the listener from what was traditionally a composer-imposed narrative. Remember the exhortations to students performing or analyzing music to seek out “the composer’s intentions?”
    KG replies: Good point, Paul.

  4. says

    @AB
    Music doesn’t communicate linguistically; it communicates via gesture, like its kindred art, dance. It’s not that we’re spooked, it’s that we have to come up with new gestures to communicate changes in relationships.

  5. peter says

    AB wrote: “Despite all its foibles (and despite Gertrude Stein), we haven’t “lost faith” in the English language – it’s just too damn useful for all the, you know, talking. Not so in music! Why is it that post-Wagnerian composers have to lock that door, but post-Stein writers don’t have to give a damn? Why do they get to keep on writing novels and selling them to a reading public, instead of inventing new hybrid languages every time they sit down, and then fighting, fighting, fighting for that audience? Composers apparently spook a lot easier.”
    Well, AB, you must not have read many recent Booker Prize-shortlisted novels! Lots of writers in English are writing in their own invented languages every time they sit down, and then fighting, fighting, fighting for their audience. They mostly sell about as well as one would expect, given the difficulty of their styles.
    Perhaps you’re really thinking of the writers of best-sellers and popular fiction, eg, JK Rowling, Michael Crichton, etc, — in which case, the correct comparison would be to composers such as Mantovani, Mancini and Jarre, not to composers of art-music (so-called).

  6. says

    “both rely for a sense of newness on the amount and variety of information in their pieces, contrasting it with the general information rate and stylistic variety range of the typical classical piece”
    This is really interesting. Reminds me of derivation in calculus, in a way.
    Perhaps, it’s the reason why newcomers can find the long, spun-out lines of instrumental JS Bach to be boring? The data rate of harmonic and melodic information is quite dense and consistent, while timbral, rhythmic, and episodic (in a classical antecedent/conseququent sense, not the fugal sense) information remains largely consistent. If the listener is not particularly adept or trained (Doh!, I hate that implication!!!) to perceiving the subtleties of the relevant material, the information rate approaches zero; in other words, hemogeny. And that’s how Britney beats Bach.

  7. Ryan Howard says

    Fascinating post…but could you elaborate a little more on your comment about Le Sacre?
    KG replies: Well, it’s pretty vague. Le Sacre caused an explosion in the wealth of musical materials available, but also suggested some systematic ways of organizing those materials, via the octatonic scale, symmetrically place dominant 7ths, and so on. Those kinds of structures, grounded in the limitations of the 12-pitch scale, have never exerted much gravitational pull on me, regardless of how impressive the piece is. And the daring cross-rhythms seem totally superseded by Cowell’s more open-ended rhythmic paradigm.

  8. says

    Of course, everything depends on what music is for. If the purpose of a piece of music is (or is understood by listeners to be) to convey or evoke some emotion, then information transfer is an appropriate metaphor for understanding it. But if the music has some other purpose — for example, to provide an aural environment appropriate for prayer or meditation, as much of Cage’s music was supposedly — then I am not sure that info-xfer is an appropriate metaphor.