A Couple of Complaints

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.


  1. says

    I agree completely. Fortunately, there are places for young composers to learn the craft of the operatic creation process, including the Tapestry New Opera Composer/Librettist Laboratory. Here’s the url for the program, which just wrapped up last week:
    The highlights from the 2010 lab will be performed in late September in Opera Briefs at the Distillery District in Toronto.

  2. says

    I concur. I also find a lot of Reich imitators. I think it’s hard for many to find their own voices. In truth, we’re all influenced good and bad by the music we listen to, even stuff we might not like. Reich originally emulated Riley, Feldman emulated Webern, as did Cage. There are few originals-Partch and Nancarrow are among them, as is Ives, but even they had their influences.
    KG replies: Well, Beethoven built on Haydn. I don’t expect anyone to start from nowhere. But I get some of my rhythmic ideas from Nancarrow, harmony ideas from Ben Johnston, form from Feldman and Duckworth, plus a hundred other influences, and so I don’t think I resemble any one of those people too obviously. And I don’t mind a piece sounding strongly Adams influenced, but so many young composers seem to be listening to the same person. And, perhaps, NOT listening to the other interesting postminimalists.

  3. says

    This is a really fine post. Thanks for the text-setting advice; it’s practical and timely.
    Good thoughts as well on broadening influences. I wonder if a lot of younger composers see JC Adams’ style as a fast track to success.

  4. Richard says

    I’ve not written opera (like the Symphony, too monumental for my tastes) though I do write for voice/choir. I’m influenced by Stravinsky’s objectivity in his neo-classic choral writing. Many times I don’t care if the listener can even understand text (I like dead languages) this is what program notes are for. Sometimes I just like the sound of the human voice in the same way as I like other sounds.

  5. says

    As for your second suggestion, I’m reminded of Peter Garland’s essay about Henry Cowell’s influence on American composers, Henry Cowell: Giving us Permission. It reminds me that music that borrows strongly from a composer’s style is almost always less interesting than music that borrows from a composer’s general approach and attitude. In my social circle in NYC, there’s probably more would-be Feldmans than there are would-be JCAs, but my favorite people are the people who imitate the work ethic of Feldman, or the discipline of Oliveros, or the utopian optimism of Riley, or most of all, the playful inventiveness of Tenney and Cowell.
    KG replies: How about the sneering cynicism of Gann? I just recommend getting ideas from more than one source, as you do.

  6. Robert E. Harris says

    Is failure of the music to agree well with the text why so many operas sung in English translation don’t work at all for me?
    Of the post 1920’s operas I have seen few seem to have much drama: there’s a story there, but there is a story in a New Yorker cartoon. Three hours of a cartoon is asking a lot of an audience.
    I have more of a musical play appreciation of opera than a “hear the beautiful singing” appreciation. “Get the story marching forward, don’t hang about with more time wasted on arias!” is my view of good opera. So among the Mozart-Da Ponte works Don Giovanni and Le nozze stand ranks ahead of that other piece of boredom. (I’ve seen five live productions of Cosi and only one had the slightest bit of drama to it.)
    So much from a listener, a non-musician but one with some bits of training in childhood.

  7. Richard says

    BTW, I do agree with you. I don’t just try to write like Stravinksy, I listen and study a lot of different things. And if the meaning of a sung text is important, your suggestions are spot on.

  8. Rodney Lister says

    A few years ago, while I was in London, I went to hear a program of music by student composers which was part of the BBC Proms. I was startled when the composers–ten or them, I think (all of them British)–were asked what composers were their biggest influences and every one of them said John Adams and Copland (I suppose it’s superfluous to point out that it was clear, as it usually is, that for them Copland was a person who’d written about five pieces).
    KG replies: That’s pretty astonishing. I would have liked to see a couple of young British composers stick up for Holst and Walton. Copland and Stravinsky are two major composers whose “minor” works (most of their outputs, really) get banished to the hinterlands and never talked about. I just ordered scores for Threni for my 12-tone class, and the publisher could only come up with five copies.

  9. Rodney Lister says

    Well, my reaction at the time was, “What about Britten?” But, yeah, Holst or Walton, not to mention Vaughan Williams. In Copland I don’t think it’s even minor works. We’re talking about the three ballets and the Lincoln Portrait–not the Sextet, not Music for the Theater, not the Variations, not even the Piano Sonata or the Violin Sonata…..

  10. mclaren says

    That guy who turned down Custer and Sitting Bull didn’t have a clue. That piece is one of the great live vocal dramatic things (monodrama? It’s not quite an opera — performance art pieces?) of the last 50 years. For my money, it’s right up there with Laurie Anderson’s United States.
    But the thing is, you really have to see Custer and Sitting Bull performed live. It has something a mutual acquaintance of ours talked about a lot — corporeality.
    Seriously, you should think about making a DVD of yourself performing Custer and Sitting Bull and offering that for sale. Great piece when you hear it on CD, but it’s a whole different piece when you see someone performing it as well hearing it. The difference is like seeing Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in the original 70mm Cinemascope widescreen compared to seeing it on TV.
    KG replies: Thanks, and I know there’s something to what you’re saying: the responses to Custer when I do it live have a whole other order of enthusiasm.

  11. Alan Shockley says

    I, too, see this trend of all-drawing-on-a-single-influence. And, I think, you’re right, Adams followed by Reich (but really only a handful of pieces) seems to be the overwhelming trend.

    Just to speak to your treatment of text point–I couldn’t agree more. Reading the text over and over again, or recording a reading of it by a decent speaker and listening to that repeatedly is requisite work before setting.

    I recently created a grad seminar focused on writing art songs, and I decided that the way to start was to teach the composers first to recognize the sonic (really, musical) components of a text, before sending them off to write their own musical settings. As they learned to hear the accent patterns, the pauses, the pitch changes, the like and unlike sounds of poems, their settings improved greatly (including changes like the texts became easier to comprehend and the songs became easier to perform as written, because the singer wasn’t struggling with an awkwardly placed downbeat, or a strange melisma).