I Was Once a Good Boy

Recognize the style?

I was looking for some old papers and stumbled across this piece that I wrote as a first-semester freshman at Oberlin, in 1973. It’s a setting of a poem by Jean Valentine, The Knife, which I’ve written about here before. This isn’t the final score, which is lost, but a first draft – and since we did actually perform it, I hope to god I was forced to put in bar lines and rhythmicize all those damn grace notes in the piano. I was somewhere between Berio’s Circles, Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke, and George Crumb, with lots of piano pizzicato and the flutist and pianist whispering certain words in echo of the soprano. Geez. I think somewhere I may even have a recording of it. I promise to destroy it before I pass on to a better world.
Anyway, you can see that I was a nice, enthusiastic, obedient modernist at one point. I so impressed people with the complexity of this piece that I was admitted to private lessons my second semester, instead of spending a whole year in the composition class, which was the intended norm. But in summer of ’74 I discovered Glass and Reich, and though I wrote one more cerebral, dissonant, unfinished piece after this, I wrote a piece called Satie in spring of ’75, entirely in the C major scale – I had acquired a new girlfriend, always the impetus behind a major creative breakthrough for male composers between 17 and 23, and I leaped into minimalism like a man leaping from a sinking ship to a fragile raft. It may have been the most sensible move of my life.
Of course, what made my atonal music so awful in that period was my monochromatic criterion for choosing each next note: as dissonant with the preceding as possible. The moratorium I truculently upheld on fifths, sixths, and thirds is absurd. Today if a student brought me crap like this I’d try to show him or her some second-level way of working with pitch sets or interval sequences that would allow for more harmonic nuance and variety. By the time I wrote Satie I had had, however briefly some of them, six composition teachers: Howard Dunn, Alvin Epstein, Joseph Wood, Randy Coleman, Karl Korte, Greg Proctor. I don’t remember any of them dealing with this issue, though it’s entirely possible that they did and I was just too immature to grasp the problem or take the bait. I have never felt comfortable with the mechanical or algorithmic generation of pitches, though ironically it seemed more acceptable in a diatonic or pitch-restricted context, where the results had a simpler profile. I do wonder how things might have been different had I found a simpatico teacher as an undergrad, which I never did. I am far closer to some of my composition students than I ever was to an undergrad composition teacher, and I give them a hell of a lot more encouragement than I ever received.


  1. says

    Everytime I read you speaking about having “piled up major sevenths and minor ninths” all around your previous compositions I try to imagine them – and I think I got quite near this excerpt you’re showing us.
    Though there are even a few major seconds and minor sevenths…

  2. says

    Good post. I liked in particular the recognition that your youthful composition was about being “as dissonant”…”as possible”. I don’t think you should destroy it, but celebrate it, as certainly it’s a milestone in your own development. I like the notion from science that even the wrong avenues, pursued to lack of fruition, can advance the whole by showing where not to go :).
    So many of the challenges of microtonal composition are no longer medium-based.
    Any reasonable synthesizer or digital audio workstation allows one to affect the formulae of pitch pretty much at will. It’s no longer a
    complex math game. I’ve been surprised, in a way, that we have not seen more little movements to pronounce this new microtonal scale or that as either “more pleasing” than the conventional scale or even as a new esperanto.

  3. karl7777 says

    “obedient modernist”
    Now I’m curious about what you wrote before you got into college. Was it really a case of being “obedient”, or more a sign of the times?
    But, where are the ‘irrational’ rhythmic brackets, and, goodness, there are no dynamics! Already, the roots of your downtown minimalism are apparent.
    This is an important historical document.
    KG replies: How obedient I was being, and to whom, seems like too profound a question to address in a blog, let alone a comment. I was certainly going along with what the professional composing world was encouraging, which was, Fuck the audience, let’s do something wild and dissonant and complex! I also had plenty of that adolescent spirit I see in my students, when they first discover modern music and say, You can *do* that?, and then write the weirdest music possible. So on one side it’s rebellion against the tame world of one’s upbringing, but the extent to which academia supports that particular rebellion takes a lot of the risk out of it. You start out trying to shock your parents or high school friends, and end up trying to join the club your college teachers belong to. Now, admittedly, Oberlin was a place where nothing would have shocked anyone, so my change couldn’t have been interpreted as disobedience – in fact, Oberlin let me do whatever I wanted, then I left and was astonished to find that there was a lot of antagonism toward minimalism elsewhere. So I don’t get any credit for defying my teachers, and never suffered any negative consequences for my stylistic choices until a few years after grad school. In fact, the controversial aspects of my musical life didn’t really sharpen until I got to New York – the Midwest just has a different dynamic, and, at least back then, had a lot more tolerance, more live and let live. The visiting artists who came to Oberlin and looked down their nose at minimalism were East Coasters like Davidovsky. (On the other hand, there were faculty at Northwestern convinced that Cage and Ashley were charlatans – good thing I didn’t have to study with them.) Had I continued on the path I’d started with The Knife, though, I would have found myself drifting into very different circles – circles in which obedience is demanded. It would have looked like obedience in hindsight, I guess.
    You’re right, there are no dynamics here – not enough for the style, I freely concede – but there are a lot earlier in the score. The piece is also filled with those Crumb non-parallel note-beams that go smoothly from 8th-notes to 32nd-notes, but I don’t know how to do them in Sibelius, because I’ve never used them since this piece, so I didn’t use that part. I have a couple of pieces up that I wrote in high school and still like:
    The clear influences are Ruggles and Ives. By college I was actually showing off with my Berio imitation; most of my peers were just discovering serialism. Thanks for provoking so much thought – more than you intended, perhaps.

  4. richard says

    I still have a warm place in my heart for Crumb (And from time to time been known to use the “feathered” 8ths-32nds notation. I can do that on Finale). But my experience in school showed me that most fire-breathing “euro”-modernists hated him. He was a turncoat with all those tonal references. Of course, he wasn’t as evil as Rochberg after the Conchord Quartets.
    KG replies: Yeah, it wasn’t easy squeezing Berio and Crumb influences into the same piece, but I was a hard worker.

  5. Eric Shanfield says

    You can do the “feathered” notation on Sibelius, it’s just sort of a pain. I’m not sure about earlier versions, but starting with Sibelius 5 you can make them (and have them play back sort of correctly) using the (fairly complex) method detailed on pages 75-76 of your user’s manual. Oh boy!

  6. Bob Gilmore says

    I like George Crumb also, and was very into him when I was about eighteen. I’ve never understood why so many people put him down. His very best work, which I think is roughly 1962-72, has a very particular poetry like no-one else and a gorgeous imagination for sound. A sense of spaciousness, and night, and memory, and a special way of placing those exquisite moments (the last minutes of Night of the Four Moons, for example, with the offstage musicians doing a quasi-Mahler reminiscence). There are half a dozen works of Crumb, at least, that I think are among the greatest achievements of his generation.
    KG replies: One of the nicest guys in the business, too. He was at a music festival at a school where I gave a talk spouting my usual Downtown ideas and the entire music faculty quit speaking to me, but Crumb ran up afterward and said, “That’s it, give ’em hell.” Then he invited me to his hotel room after dinner and we had a long, friendly conversation. I was so obsessed with Black Angels and Eleven Echoes of Autumn as a freshman that it embarrasses me to think about it now, which is probably why I no longer listen to him much.

  7. says

    Eric — One of the new features in Sibelius 6 is that the feathered beams can (finally!) be made automatically, without following that old somewhat ridiculous nested tuplet procedure from the user’s manual. (The advantage, however, of the nested tuplets was that they played back somewhat correctly.)
    However, the nested tuplets had the effect of placing the notes closer and closer together as they get faster — which makes sense, one would think — but every single engraving text and typesetting expert says that feathered beams are supposed to be typeset with the notes equally spaced, not getting closer as they get faster (or further as they get slower).
    Anyway, in the new Sibelius 6, you just enter the whole thing as the highest speed and then just click the feathered button and and it automatically does the beam for you. It’s only taken 9.5 years for them finally add it — but it’s there now.

  8. richard says

    Like you, my infatuation with Crumb has cooled down (though sometimes I’ll listen to “Ancient Voices..” when I’m in the mood, which i8s more than I can say for Babbit). The “new-agey” titles are a little dated and corny. But some of his sounds are truly delectable. Chalk this one up as a guilty pleasure.