I’m not a critic anymore, and don’t want to be one. But I am bothered by a couple of things lately, and hope that a word to the wise won’t be resented. (Like anything I say ever goes unresented by a lot of people.) I will, at least, refuse to specify what music I’m talking about.
There is, in general, a problem with postminimalist opera. I keep hearing new operas that, to my ears, all keep making the same mistake. Namely: it sounds like the composer writes the instrumental accompaniment first, and then lays the vocal line over it. The vocal lines, draped on as an afterthought in this way, lack memorability. They tend to be shapeless, often even fragmentary. They seem to follow the harmony, rather than the harmony illuminating the vocal line. I feel that the purpose of an opera, or any piece of music with a text that needs to be understood, is to amplify the words and vastly increase their power, make them vivid. To that end, in every text piece I’ve written, even theater works like Custer and Sitting Bull and Cinderella’s Bad Magic, I’ve said and sung the words over and over again first, to find a way of delivering each line rhythmically and melodically that seems passionately meant. And then I go back and fashion the accompaniment rhythms around those rhythms, and the harmonic changes to emphasize the right points in the speech. I invariably change the meter to fit the words, I never squeeze the words into a set meter. I try to make the total music a faithful amplification of the words. And I think, and have received some anecdotal evidence, that sentences in my operas are made memorable by their musical setting. I’m saddened, though, that composers whose music I generally love are writing so many operas in which the voices seem more like a distraction than a focus, because the accompaniment was written independently and with its own logic. Postminimalism has turned this into a habit.
Secondly: I think young composers might want to think about diversifying the composers they base their styles on beyond John Coolidge Adams. Not that there’s anything wrong with Adams’s style, he’s as good a place to start as any. But I get CDs from composers in their 20s and 30s, all very talented, very accomplished – most of them sounding like they’re trying to be the next John Adams. Then I get asked for recommendations, and I can’t make distinctions among them, because one’s as good an Adams epigone as the next. Of course, a lot of them are far more successful than I am, and shouldn’t take any career advice from me. But I will hint that I’m waiting to give my best recommendations to someone who breaks away from the pack and sounds unlike John Adams – even if it’s to sound like Feldman or Nancarrow or somebody. No offense intended. Enough said?
UPDATE: I can add that I’ve dealt with my own charges of over-influence. Years ago I submitted my first solo disc Custer’s Ghost, containing Custer and Sitting Bull plus five microtonal instrumental pieces, to a new-music label. The record label guy called me up to decline, and, in a tone of exasperation at having to explain something so stultifyingly obvious to me, said, “But Kyle – it sounds just like Robert Ashley!” “Well,” I replied, “if Robert Ashley’s music were microtonal, and ran through complex meter changes, and had the accompaniment in rhythmic unison with the text, yes, my CD would sound EXACTLY like Robert Ashley!” Actually, I didn’t say any of that, because I made a quick decision that the person saying that, who still works in the business, was a blithering moron, and that it was pointless to argue. Silly me, I thought that Ashley had opened up opera to the spoken text, and thought I was actually imitating Mikel Rouse, who was influenced by Ashley, as well as William Walton’s wonderful Façade of 1924, which has been one of my favorite pieces since I was a teenager. If I have been guilty of a similar misassumption I apologize profusely, but it does seem to me that I have in recent years received a string of Adams-influenced CDs almost too similar to tell apart.
UPDATE 2: A composer wrote in to identify all the obvious pieces and composers I was referring to here, and got them almost all wrong. But he made me aware that by initially calling the record label “prestigious” (it was prestigious by my standards), I might have inadvertently cast false suspicion on Nonesuch. The idea that I might have such an exalted view of my own commercial viability as to try to get on the Nonesuch roster gave me a good laugh.