A dutiful part of my research on Ashley has involved listening to music by his composition teachers, Ross Lee Finney, Leslie Bassett, and Wallingford Riegger. For the most part, it is well-crafted, relentlessly earnest, dour, unpersonable music, much of it for string quartet or quintet. I was glad to get that part over with. And then I run into Ashley’s own characterization, in an unpublished but wonderful lecture he gave at UCSD in 2000:
…I like dance music. I like America. I like our innocent people. I am one of them. But I have come to like, as well, another kind of music, which is in conflict, I discover, with the idea of music as something to dance to. I have come to like a new kind of “devotional” music, which has moved out of the churches into some unlocated, secular place. I say “devotional,” because I don’t know a better word, but it is music to be listened to, not danced to. In the listening it takes you to some place you have never been. It is mental. It doesn’t require head-nodding. You just sit there and it flows through you and changes you.
I have brought up this point of the difference between dance music (music to be danced to) and “devotional” music (for want of a better word), because Americans keep trying to arrive at some sort of “compromise.” Check out the term, “accessible.” It almost invariably means the music has a “beat.” I don’t think there is any reason music has to have a beat, unless you are going to dance to it. That is a pleasant aspect of some music. I do it myself. But unfamiliar music that doesn’t have a beat is being discriminated against. The composer knows this. And so the composer is always trying to compromise….
There was a brief few decades, early in the century, when the better-off went to Europe (Germany, in particular) to catch up with non-dance music. Charles Ives didn’t go. But everybody else went. They brought back imitation German music. It was good in Germany, but here it was imitation. Then, in this “serious” music there was a brief flirtation with jazz, which mostly came to nothing, because the black people were better at jazz. And black people could not make “serious” music, because they were oppressed. Then (this is a chronology) there came American-Serious-Music. It was taught in the conservatories. Every music school had a Resident String Quartet (the cheapest form of ensemble), a Graduate Student String Quartet, and numberless Undergraduate String Quartets. They played American-Serious-Music. The string quartet was the university computer-music-studio of the 1940s and 1950s… It is a characteristic of the string quartet to emphasize moving the bow back and forth. The more the better.
Insert: Mr. Arditti, of string quartet fame, complained to Alvin Lucier, in the presence of a large number of people, that he didn’t like to play Alvin’s String Quartet, because there was very little bow movement, which lack of bow movement made his arm tired. To which Alvin replied, “Why don’t you play it with the other arm?”
American-Serious-Music became a matter of moving the bow back and forth as much as possible, with accents here and there. You might call it sawing. One of its foremost practitioners called the style, “motor-rhythmic.” It is characterized by a continuous sawing of sixteenth-notes or eighth-notes (depending on the time signature and the tempo). Up-bow, down-bow, up-bow, down-bow, endlessly. You know what i mean. This is where I came in. I went to music school. I hated “motor rhythms.” Gradually I came to hate string quartets, when they got into that sawing, because that relentless sawing was simply a senseless update of the circle-dances that those innocent people had brought with them to America…. Everything about “motor rhythms” was just another version of the polka, the hora, and whatever else the dances were called wherever they came from. A circle of mostly poor people holding hands and jumping up and down. A long way from Morton Feldman. And I didn’t even know Morton Feldman existed.
I print this here because I think it’s wonderful reading, wonderfully put, and an insightful reading of the times. This is not to say I would have said everything he says the way he says it – I have my own thoughts about what “accessibility” means – but, as usual, I can’t argue with him. He’s a brilliant writer, which has not yet been acknowledged much – so brilliant that even his prose is nearly impossible to paraphrase, so that I end up quoting larger chunks than I’d like to get away with. American-Serious-Music: I know the genre well, and it’s a good term for it. We still have a lot of it around.
I keep running into evidence that musicians have never heard of Ashley. (For instance, last night Bill Duckworth told me his interview with Ashley got axed from his Talking Music book because the editor had never heard of him.) This flummoxes me. Ashley has been at the center of my musical focus since I was in high school in the early ’70s. When we brought him to New Music America in 1982, he was our number-two celebrity, after only John Cage – and much of his best music hadn’t even been written yet. In those days I didn’t have a musician friend who wasn’t into him. I would have easily said he was as famous as Stockhausen. I can only gather that Stockhausen continues to get taught in music departments, and Ashley doesn’t – partly because his insights, such as those above, don’t sit well in those music departments. My book will make the strongest attack on that problem that I’m capable of. I am finding that to really get into some of Ashley’s works I have to go through the text pretty thoroughly – especially true of Foreign Experiences and Now Eleanor’s Idea. It’s a lot less work than reading analyses of Gruppen and Le Marteau, and repays the effort.