Aiming My File Cabinets into the Right Student’s Ears

Kyle, please keep blogging regularly. Your metametrics posts literally changed my life when I was starting my undergrad. I am now waiting to hear from grad schools after sending them applications and writing samples covered in the names Branca, Chatham, and Gordon.

This comment to my last post sticks acupuncture-like into my reasons for blogging or not blogging, my attitude about teaching, and a lot of other aspects of my life. I never press minimalism, postminimalism, or totalism on my students. Some of my composition students are very ambitious, and want to go to grad school. I know that a knowledge of, let alone strong interest in, Partch, Branca, Diamanda Galas, Glass, Young, Mikel Rouse, Ashley, Art Jarvinen, and all these other nutcases I’m fascinated by – what I consider the great music of my time – will not be assets to an academic composing career. I know my students should be able to analyze Stravinsky, Stockhausen, Nancarrow, Webern, and what academia considers the canon. I feel guilty even trying to interest them in the music I most believe in, because while it might excite them artistically, I know that the best composition careers go not to the most exciting composers, but to those who follow the academic/classical script. Of course, if they come to me interested in that music, I eagerly supply them with all they want. I have two file cabinets bursting with unpublished and self-published scores of “my kind of music.” A handful of students, mostly grad students from other schools, have come to me precisely for that, but not one has ever taken advantage of more than a fourth of what I could offer in that area. Consider:

A few years ago, a few students asked me for a tutorial on minimalism, which I happily provided. One of my colleagues, finding out, became incensed with me, and shouted, “See? You’re influencing them! You’re influencing them!” – as though I weren’t supposed to do that. But in fact, the student who led the tutorial request was the son of a woman whose favorite composer was Steve Reich. I try not to influence my students toward my own aesthetic direction because I know it won’t help them career-wise.

I apply frequently for senior composition, theory, and history jobs, but I almost never get interviewed. My publication record is superb, I have excellent references from friends who chair departments at other schools, and my student satisfaction ratings are very high. I can only conclude that it is the content of my publications, my academically incorrect aesthetic position, that scares away other departments from considering me. Sure, I directed an international conference on minimalism – but minimalism remains a dirty word in academia. And why would I want to burden any of my students with the same disadvantages under which I labor?

And yet, aside from writing my music, which I secretly think is very good – one of my guilty pleasures – I think the most useful and fulfilling role I could play would be as a distribution channel for the commercially and academically unviable music I love. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than for someone to provide me with the money and wherewithal to scan those files cabinet’s worth of scores to create a Free Internet Library of Downtown Music, where students who have an interest in it, like Patrick above, could feast their eyes and ears on all this alternative music. But how could I do that in a world in which copyright difficulties won’t even allow me to write, “Creep into the vagina of a living,” etc., and in which even the word “Downtown” raises the hackles of the vast majority of musicians? As long as there was a Downtown scene in New York that provided an alternative career path for composers who don’t write the kind of music orchestras and those oh-so-precious classical musicians will program, there was a reason to continue this work. Incorrigible heretic that I am, I believe that there still is a Downtown scene: you’ll find it in organizations like Anti-Social Music and New Amsterdam Records, among others, in which young composers take the distribution and performance of their music into their own hands, which is virtually a definition of Downtown. But even the young composers involved today seem uninterested and unknowledgeable about the music I’ve spent my life immersed in. Downtown New York has always been that way: each new crowd comes in, and has little feeling of connection with the dominant crowd that preceded it. Bang on a Can shrugged off free improv, just as Zorn shrugged off minimalism. And I find myself working night and day for a musical generation that has been shrugged off Downtown, and of course doesn’t exist for academia or the classical music organizations.

Frankly, I’m 54, and I’m dog-tired of working as hard as I’ve worked all my life. But more accurately, I think I would be happy to continue doing the work if considerably more reward and acceptance came as a result. I’ve been on a big scanning spree during this winter break – mostly of scores I plan to teach in upcoming semesters, and largely because I save a ton of trees by projecting the music on a screen in class rather than Xeroxing it. But I also keep scanning scores of the postminimalist music I like to lecture on, and one score I scanned this week was Carolyn Yarnell’s The Same Sky, which I think is one of the most fantastic keyboard works anyone’s written in the last 20 years. I’ve made it available here before on mp3, and I do so again here, also with part of the score, which I think Carolyn will be rather complimented than annoyed by:





Kathleen Supové is the pianist. [UPDATE: By the way, notice that the sole dynamic marking is the mf at the beginning. The second dynamic marking is a pp on page 8. Welcome to postminimalism.] I hope to get time to analyze the piece sometime, so I’ll have more to say about it. What would be even more gratifying would be if I inspired some student to analyze it and send me the paper. I wish I could direct this activity specifically toward the younger musicians who would find it interesting, and not toward those who reflexively find it Not Serious. I rarely get to feel that such efforts are worth the amount of work I put into them. I seem more often penalized for my expertise than rewarded for it. But to the extent that this blog has a purpose, this is where I see it. It is not a very efficient medium, but it is almost the only medium I have, aside from the laborious producing of books.

As always, the number one and inviolable rule of this blog is, if you don’t like the music, I don’t want to hear from you, and will not publish your response. It would be unfair to Carolyn to get criticized on the internet as a result of my momentary appropriation of her work. If you don’t like the music, ask yourself why you think it’s important for the world to know you don’t. What good does an expression of your disapproval serve? None of the composers I champion is getting rich off their efforts; most of them are eking out extremely slim careers. They and I wield no power over others that needs be combatted. By criticizing, you merely add your voice to an enormously well-supported status quo that will thrive nicely without your reinforcement.

In other words, if I can figure out how to get this blog to more efficiently serve the grandest purpose I can imagine for it, without wasting energy on all the other stuff that serves no purpose at all (like defending the music and my terminology), I will gladly keep doing that. And if I figure out some other medium that would be more productive and rewarding, I will switch to that – even if it turns out to be something less public.


  1. yaya says

    It’s interesting, I’m currently studying at Juilliard and based on my experiences with the composers that I know who have gone far academically (D.M.A.s to teaching positions) and whose music I’ve heard, it doesn’t seem that there’s any consensus that minimalism is a style that is below them in any academic sense. It’s surprising in a way, since the faculty currently consists of Sam Adler, Christopher Rouse, Robert Beaser, and John Corigliano, none of which I can imagine bringing into lessons examples of minimalist pieces. In fact I would say that the style of composition is pretty diverse among the students, for example here are a few composers:
    Ryan Francis:
    Ray Lustig:
    Nico Muhly:
    Serial music by students of Milton Babbitt (who is recently retired):
    Daniel Colson:
    David Fulmer:
    Any also composers that are not as easy to group together:
    Huang Ruo:
    Chris Kapica:
    Juilliard has been known primarily as a conservative or academic school for composition in the past, but I have a feeling that things have changed dramatically from what it used to be. Elliott Carter quit the faculty in the 70’s saying that his students wanted to write retro-Brahms music (this was at the time that the faculty consisted of Babbitt, Carter, Sessions, and Diamond). But there seem to be schools who are hiring interesting composers who do not fit the mold as academic, for example David Lang at Yale or Julia Wolfe at MSM/NYU. So maybe things will change. These are just my observations as someone who is not a part of the composition department but is a friend of a few of these people and have gathered this to be the situation from my own experiences. I think that the composers here are open to a variety of styles and a lot of them would go nuts over the pieces you have to offer.
    Original answer retracted. See below.

  2. says

    Well, it would certainly be a loss if the only music blog I bother to read went away. I read PostClassic because you are an insightful, frighteningly-well-informed and passionate champion of a certain kind of music that I also happen to hold in high regard. I can honestly say that every time I read an article by you, I learn something of real value. Hell, you probably know more about my music than I do. I also encourage all of my students to read your blog, especially for information on topics that I do not personally have much knowledge or experience of, such as tuning systems.
    I also derive considerable satisfaction from occasionally being able to contribute a worthwhile insight, bit of relevant information, or a helpful comment from my own limited experience. Makes me feel that just maybe I have gleaned something over the years that I can share, and you provide a convenient outlet for such commentary.
    I can’t imagine putting in the time it must take for you to regularly blog, especially with the detail you go into, with scores, audio files and analyses etc. But your work is very much appreciated, and not taken for granted. PostClassic is a wonderful resource. I hope you will consider continuing to share your ideas with us in this format, if only now and again.

  3. Emily Shore says

    Just a brief note to say thank you for your blog, which I’ve discovered only recently. I studied the cello while a teenager, then went on to other things, and am now coming back to classical music as a listener. I always enjoyed playing twentieth century music but didn’t manage to get much more modern than Hindemith and Ravel.
    While I found your blog thought-provoking I kept telling myself that I would never enjoy the sort of music that you compose. Too thinky, abtruse, beyond me as a listener, who knows. Not good reasons. I’m thankful that you make some of your music available on your website because one day I decided to try it and (you’ll be able to guess by now what I’m going to say) enjoyed it a great deal! I particularly like “Chicago Spiral” and “Charing Cross.” Since then I’ve tracked down some music by Ben Johnston and La Monte Young and found that it spoke to me as well. A friend of mine who is only just getting to know classical music was similarly struck by these pieces. Our sonic horizons have been greatly expanded and I think we have a lot more exploring still to do.
    (“The Same Sky” is lovely and I’m glad you chose to share it.)
    All of this is a long-winded way of saying thank you. Your blogging does make a difference and, whatever you end up doing, I thought that you deserved to know that.
    KG replies: Thanks, Emily, that’s a particularly nice story.

  4. says

    I really don’t think music, culture, anything of any importance should just sit inside a filing cabinet. That said, no one wants to dedicate their whole life to slaving over a scanner.
    Perhaps there’s a way to divide the labor so that curious parties to the music can also find a way to make the job easier? Sending the scores to various schools for safekeeping that’s near a scanner?
    KG replies: You know, I do slave over a scanner, but there’s no reason to. Carson Cooman works with an incredible high-tech scanner at Harvard in which you can drop 50 pages into the feeder and it’s automatically stored to your memory stick seconds later. What we need is some centralized organization, and one that combines scores, recordings, and commentary. Frog Peak Music is a great and well-curated organization, especially for getting scores into libraries, but it’s only scores. The American Music Center does both scores and recordings, but it’s by its nature uncurated, and can’t push any certain viewpoint. There needs to be a curatorial viewpoint, or the more aggressive or more organized composers just take over, whatever their aesthetic. Some of the very best composers are terrible at making their music public, so there needs to be some compensatory function. In the old days Carla Bley’s New Music Distribution Service admirably corralled certain kinds of record labels into one source. Analytical commentary is really important, I think, so we can sort out what kinds of ideas composers are using, and bring some order to the ocean of what’s going on – a postminimalist Die Reihe, sans excommunications. A navigation filter and one-stop new-music source. But I’m not an administrator by talents, just a commentator. If others can set it up – and no reason it can’t be entirely on the internet – I can bring order to it.

  5. Jon Szanto says

    Look, my friend, it’s down to you and Alex Ross. I’ll understand if you go away, and I’ll support you in the move, but I would miss what I’ve learned from you in the past continuing into the future.
    I’m 56, and I’m tired of working so hard, too. I tried stopping, and it really got the better of me.
    Warm regards,
    KG replies: Now, that would be a helpful discussion to have, my friend. What happens when we just give up, relax, and leave the field to the bad guys? Does the world end? Or does it just pretty much keep going the way it was, as I suspect? I’m looking into the potential pleasures of inactive obscurity. Sometimes I think we need a special web site just for progressive musicians over 52 to figure some of these important things out.

  6. Steven says

    Kyle, I discovered your blog recently, and I will admit I had an interest in minimalism and modern composers beforehand, but really knew nothing about either, and still don’t know much. But your writing has introduced me to a lot of music which speaks to me very directly. Being a Jazz Performance major very interested in free music I understand, at least on a basic level, your frustration with academic close-mindedness. For some crazy reason though I want to be a Theory graduate student and be a PhD. Part of me feels like it is the only way to effect change so that more people appreciate music outside the current narrow view of universities and conservatories.
    I understand if you discontinue writing your blog, but I ask that you don’t, as I don’t know who I would go to in order to learn more about this music, and the culture we exist in as musicians/academics.
    KG replies: I went into academia thinking I’d change it too… but what I think I’ve found is that the entrenched interests are just too deep, running all the way up to the rich folks who sit on the boards. There are top-down reasons things are the way they are, and too much genuine excitement at the bottom disturbs the powers that be. But try anyway.

  7. says

    OK, don’t stop blogging. Your blog introduced me to Tom Johnson, Charlemagne Palestine, Eliane Radigue, even La Monte Young. I wouldn’t have heard about the minimalism conference in Kansas City, and attended, if I hadn’t been reading PostClassic. And that led to my senior musicology thesis on postminimalism, which will probably lead to me being a scholar of minimalist/postminimalist music, which will probably lead to me at some point analyzing and teaching the music that you love. Even if people hate on you on your blog, it’s not like that actually affects anyone. But you introducing us to great music we wouldn’t ordinarily hear has a ripple affect outwards. Hope to see you at the Belgium conference in 2011.

  8. Andrew says

    This is the kind of thing the internet was made for (to quote my sister, who was speaking of another blog).

  9. Dan says

    I do like the music about which you blog — which may be no more worthy of the comment space than the fact that those who don’t like it don’t like it, but I hope you’ll continue, as this space is one of my few sources of news/info about it.

  10. says

    Are you saying that the recording you posted was played by Kathy Supové? I knew she was good, but holy crap, she’s a monster. And it’s a fabulous piece. I don’t think I’ve ever even heard of Carolyn Yarnell (I must have missed your previous posting about this piece). I get a fair number of CDs in the mail (not as many as a real journalist would get, but something every couple of weeks) and most of it doesn’t excite me. Most of the concerts I got to are solid, with some nice music on them, but I rarely hear things that truly excite me. I’m sure part of the problem is me–I’m not very good at going out and finding interesting music. And it’s difficult and not very rewarding to slog through all the PR stuff I get every day to find the gems. But part of the problem is that the music I like the most is often not very well plugged into the professional infrastructure. I spend a lot of time wondering why I don’t give up on “classical” music and switch to rock, and then every now and then I hear a piece like “The Same Sky” and I remember why I belong here.
    You know my position on your continued blogging, so I won’t bore you with it again. As always, thanks for everything.
    KG replies: That’s why the curatorial function is so crucial. Career aggressiveness and stunning artistic creativity are rarely found in the same person.

  11. Lucy M. says

    Kyle – Since my son enrolled at Bard expressly to study with you, and so far you’ve surpassed his expectations, I do hope you plan to stick around at least another couple of years!

  12. Nicola Mason says

    For over a year, I have religiously followed your blog, often opening Post Classic before my morning coffee. I am not a musicologist, an eloquent writer, or a superior musician (I’m a PhD Music Education tubist). But I love music, I love learning about music, and I love sharing my unique finds with who ever will lesson.
    Almost one year ago, at the beginning of my PhD coursework, I committed myself to a project inspired by two people, my history professor Dr. Lance Brunner at the University of Kentucky and you. This project took me on a journey, one that I know will continue for years to come. It opened my ears to the eccentricities of LaMonte Young, the creativity of Steve Reich, and the simple complexities of Tom Johnson. It opened my eyes to the masterpieces of Mikel Rouse and Phil Niblock, and it drew me into a community of minimalism.
    At the end of last semester I gathered the copious papers and notes I had accumulated from my readings of various sources including your blog, several books, and my extensive notes taken at the second International Conference on Music and Minimalism and taught a 2-hour graduate class everything I knew and loved about Minimalism. The buildup to my presentation created countless conversations on minimalist, post minimalist, and totalist composers. And heated debates about techniques and classifications even stretched to Facebook.
    I wanted to thank you for the inspiration and the courage you gave me to begin this adventure. I am nowhere near the end of my journey. Every one of your intriguing comments and gems of knowledge on your blog inspire my own reading on the subject/composer/work. And I sincerely hope that you will not become disheartened by the challenges and hardships that you encounter. Whether I am here in the USA or back home in South Africa, I will continue checking my bookmarked Post Classic for your thoughts…
    KG replies: That’s a really touching tribute, Nicola, thank you.

  13. Richard says

    Oh Kyle, you’re such an “American”. You just don’t want to bow down to your European (or “wannabee” European) betters. Don’t you know that in the music world we’re just barbaric colonist;)
    KG replies: Hey, *we’re* the barbarians, they’re supposed to bow down to us! “Khan” was the original spelling of my family name.

  14. Judd says

    That Yarnell piece is truly excellent.
    KG replies: But how is that possible? I had been told that music had to have lots of dynamic markings all over the place to be any good. :^)

  15. says

    I’m a composer, and not of the styles you discuss on your blog, and in fact you might even hate like my music. However, were you to stop talking about things like this, I wouldn’t be listening to “the same sky” right now. So while my sound might be different, your discussing and posting things like this have a very real effect on that sound. Thank you for posting it, and I hope you post more scores and mp3s…it makes me a better composer. Thank you.

  16. msk says

    I’m nothing but a music lover, really, and one who was never well-informed outside of jazz and blues. Your blog, which I have read every word of for years, has been a great pleasure and an invaluable source of information about people and music that I had never heard of and frankly had not really imagined.
    Thank you for all the tremendous work you have done.

  17. says

    It might be just me, but I’m getting the impression that the minimalist aesthetic is a tad bit more accepted over here on the west coast than in the east. John Adams is the creative chair of the LA Phil now, after all…even Esa-Pekka’s compositional style took a pretty big turn toward that direction when he started living out here. I remember during my undergrad (at the U of Illinois) I would get weird looks for the types of things I was studying, but moving out here really helped to open up my musical palette. But then again, I did go to CalArts so my experience might not be typical.

    As for academia, I have a few interviews lined up for a Ph.D program this year so we’ll see if my participation in the minimalist conference will count for or against me. After going to concertsI got the impression that they were sort of in a middle-area between some of the dissonant modernist style and people experimenting with some of the ideas developed within the minimalist trajectory. Change comes slow, but maybe there’s some hope. Doesn’t quite match the passion and conviction that people had at the conference, though.

    Nice piece, by the way.

  18. M. says

    Blogs come and go, but sometimes when one goes away, there just isn’t a suitable replacement. I first heard of you, and of your particular musical interests, in an online article on what you termed “postminimalism” that I found…well, I completely forget how I found it. It was the sort of article that I pray for when I’m online, one that opens up a new set of possibilities for exploration, with specific suggestions (in this case, Ingram Marshall, Daniel Lentz, Janice Giteck, William Duckworth, and a few others). Eventually I went looking for more of the same, which led me to your blog. It ought to be self-evident that I haven’t found everything, or even most of the things, that you have suggested here to be to my liking. But I’m listening to “The Same Sky” for the second time right now, and it will be finding a permanent place on iTunes on my work computer, and the chances that I would have stumbled across this wonderful piece in some other way are infinitesimally small.
    I am not a musician, a composer, a musicologist or anything related. I am merely a listener and a music lover. I am perhaps more willing to explore off the beaten path than most, but I like to think that I’m not the only one. I do not feel the need to burden your blog with negative evaluations of works I don’t like, and until now I haven’t felt a great need to post anything about the ones I love either. But when you make noises about ending this blog, I get a feeling as though I’m about to lose a great personal resource. Where else can I find out about works like “The Same Sky” without devoting more time than I have to listening to 30-second snippets? Of what use are 30-second snippets in evaluating whether or not it might be worthwhile to sit through an entire 20-minute piece?
    There is something profound to be said here about the true role of the critic, and I’m sure I’m going to botch it badly, but: blogs like this one serve as a lens, focused by someone who knows more than I do about what might make a piece worthwhile. I may not agree with the aesthetic behind your decisions all of the time, but the bewildering mass and variety of music that’s out there requires some sort of guide. You’re one of the ones I’ve valued for a couple of years now, and probably the only one that leads me to pieces like “The Same Sky”. Your blog is irreplaceable.

  19. says

    I can’t imagine how aggravating it must have been to be told that you were influencing your students—as if no one else in your department exerts any influence (the scary thing is that your fellow faculty members might actually believe that).
    I also think it would be a shame if you stopped blogging and talking about the music you like, your own or that of others. Don’t let the bastards get you down.

  20. says

    I think the tool your looking for is out there – fresh off the presses from Indiana University – Variations. You should ask your library about it – it wouldn’t serve the desire you have as a more public platform, but it integrates scores, score analysis and recordings (not so sure about commentary and sharing that). It takes some technical commitment to have it up and running, but what an awesome tool:
    It’s a shame that copyright keeps us from implementing tools in the best way – the tools and technology are there. The law is lagging painfully behind….

  21. Jeremy Howard Beck says

    First of all, thank you for posting Yarnell’s piece–I’ve had one of her beautiful handmade cards (evidence, perhaps, of your point that no one in postminimalism is making a killing off their music alone) for a long time, and it’s wonderful to finally hear how her musical aesthetic lines up with her visual sense. And sweet Jesus, what a performance! I’ve been reading your blog for years, and it’s been invaluable to have my ears (and eyes–the scores!, the scores!) opened and re-opened.
    That said, I must say I found your reply to yaya’s comment unduly harsh. I’ve read her comment and your reply several times now, and I see no attempt made to draw you into any sort of argument; I only see a student at what *is* regarded as a fairly conservative institution (full disclosure: I’m finishing up my Masters in composition there right now, and her assessment is not wrong) ruminating over her experience there and how things might be gradually opening up. Case in point: last year, Steve Reich gave a lecture in Composers Forum in front of the whole department, and not one person–not even the hardcore modernist students–questioned his right to be there, addressing every composer in the school. He played his Double Sextet, and I’d be shocked if that piece had more than four dynamic markings in its whole length.
    And to be perfectly honest, as an intelligent person in his mid-twenties, your dig at her age (and, therefore, mine) offended me. Is there now an age requirement for posting comments here? I think the richness of this blog and its comments would be severely diminished if only certain classes of people were permitted to respond.
    I guess its my impending graduation that’s making me think that we are all *really* going to need each other’s support if we’re to survive. That goes for us needing your blog, and it goes for your blog needing readers–and commenters–of all stripes. I just don’t see the purpose in tearing yaya’s comment apart when it was clearly posted with none of the intent you ascribe to it.
    That said, I really do think you might love some of those composers’ music (Chris Kapica is a good friend of mine with incredible chops, and Ryan Francis’ music has consistently blown me away; Nico Muhly’s work is common knowledge at this point, and I haven’t yet had the pleasure of knowing the others). I see their names on this blog as enriching the conversation, not detracting from it.
    With the theme of openness, I’m posting this under my real name. Thank you for reading this far.
    KG replies: OK, look, I withdraw my original answers, and I can see how you and she were perhaps trying to encourage rather than disagree. The thing is, I’m not encouraged, and I don’t take some of your examples as encouraging. Here’s what I think classical-music academia is trying to say: “Of course, minimalism is a Not Serious style, but just to show we’re good guys we’ll let a couple of the more palatable, orchestra-writing minimalists, the ones with lots of dynamic markings, into the canon, say, Reich, Adams, and that nice European Andriessen. And maybe we’d better keep a chair for David Lang.” And then they try to squirm by as though nothing radical had happened, just a little bump in music history. Meanwhile, Phill Niblock is celebrated all over Europe and books are written about him – but not in American academia! Robert Ashley has an amazing volume of his writings published in Germany, and multiple books being written about him – but no one gives him the time of day in American academia! And a younger generation of composers comes along influenced by what I call “Nonesuch Minimalism,” for obvious reasons, who seem completely unaware of all the more radical minimalists and the whole wonderful first generation of postminimalists, which the classical world continues to keep hidden from view. So I hope you can understand how, say, Steve Reich being honored at Juilliard, from my perspective, doesn’t even strike me to be a benign development. And how you and your friend may come across to me as apologists for a truly insidious system. I can accept, however, that that wasn’t your intent.

  22. Amy Bauer says

    I don’t think of Carolyn as post- anything.
    KG replies: You don’t think her music has gone beyond what preceded it?

  23. says

    Thanks for posting Yarnell’s work. I really enjoy “The Same Sky”. There may not be much reward for new music in the USA but developing one’s potential and individuality is a cause worth pursuing.