No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

One of the most striking things Morton Feldman said when I worked with him briefly in 1975 was, “In the ’60s, my students were all using a tempo marking of quarter-note = 60. Now my students are all using 72.” That was a revelation to me: that even something as neutral as a tempo marking might be a cliché, a learned behavior, an unconscious imitation, a hint of groupthink. Ever since then, for 35 years, every time I’ve put down a tempo marking, I’ve thought, is this really the tempo I want? Did I see another piece with this tempo lately? Am I using 104 because it’s on the metronome, when I really want 103? Feldman taught me to question whether I was using even the most quotidian devices out of reflex, or whether I was really conceiving the piece as a unique whole.

Now, I could have reacted differently. I could have attacked Feldman: “How many of your students are using 72?! I know lots of young composers who are writing at tempos other than 72! Which ones are you talking about? And what’s wrong with 72?” But I didn’t. Instead I learned a whole life attitude from Feldman’s subtle and quick ability to detect clichés and imitative, inauthentic behavior.
It was in this same spirit that I recently mentioned that I hear a lot of young composers using devices inherited from John Adams – I might particularly mention the affectation of hammering repeated notes. Did I say that all young composers sound like John Adams now? Of course not – go back and read it again if you think I did, and if you can’t see the difference, you’re not literate. Since I benefitted so much from Feldman pointing out to me clichés to avoid, I’ve always thought younger composers might appreciate taking advantage of similar perceptions. Of course there’s nothing wrong with putting hammering repeated notes in your music, but so many people are doing it right at the moment that a composer might want to stop and think, Do I really need these to fully express the idea of my piece, or am I unconsciously picking up something I heard that was really effective in someone else’s piece?
For this altruistic, generously intended, and avuncular bit of advice (which I further softened with a self-effacing anecdote about my own borrowings), some composers are attacking me in the same way I mention that I could have attacked Feldman in the second paragraph above – not because I set out to disparage anyone, but because, since my opinions are rather visible, I am a convenient hook for other composers’ projections of their own negativity.