Obligatory Calendrical Observance

The new-music blogosphere seems to have exploded into existence in the summer of 2003, judging from the number of such blogs celebrating their tenth anniversaries lately. Although I wrote a couple of entries beforehand, I saved the official unveiling of my blog for August 29, 2003 – without even reflecting, as I recall, that it was the 51st anniversary of the premiere of 4’33″ (and of course not knowing that it would become the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina). I also, inexplicably, failed to check the prevailing astrological transits, whose oppositions of Mars and Uranus to practically everything else guaranteed, in advance, plenty of heated argument. Anyway, PostClassic’s own tenth anniversary is upon me, and I suppose it would be churlish of me not to complete the cultural moment with an accounting of my own activity.

Scattered among the celebrations are some laments, apparently initiated by the always sympathetic Elaine Fine, that new-music blogs are attracting fewer and fewer readers, or in other cases going inactive (though others have applied more technological sophistication than I possess to disputing these impressions). I imagine that I am one of the blogs considered as having arrived at the inactive category, down from as many as 27 posts in a month to as few as two quite often lately, and those mostly announcements. I’m sure that my readership is a small fraction of what it used to be, and I am quite happy about that. Weary of finding my most bedrock perceptions deemed controversial, I am content to preach to the choir that remains (Hi David!, Paul, Lois, Doug, Lyle, Brian, John…). It is tasteless, I realize, to repeat compliments one has received privately, but I was told this weekend I had become the Bad Boy of music just by thinking too deeply about matters that everyone else takes for granted. I’m sure others would formulate it differently. As I’ve said before, I write my music for the multitudes, but I would prefer PostClassic be a haven for that tiny minority of musicians who share my views on new music – such as, that it should be written for the multitudes. If my audience further dwindles to the point that this becomes an unnoticed site for my private musings nicely typeset and illustrated, that will be sufficient. In my 20s I kept a journal, and I enjoy the hobby.

The truth is, I’m in rehab. My decades-long lifestyle as a music critic had made me an attention addict, and I consciously decided to recover. Unable to get a composing career quickly off the ground in the years following grad school, I made it my strategy to flash my name into the public eye every week. In the ’90s I was publishing more than a hundred articles a year (with considerable economic incentive, mind you, since I had no other living). The Village Voice began shaving down my column starting around 1999; PostClassic gave me a panoramic word-count again, and, miraculously releasing me from the necessity of news pegs, left my subject matter wide open as well. You may have noticed that I’m a compulsive writer. I believe I’ve published more than four million words. A year ago a magazine editor called me, begging for a 1500-word article to fill an unexpected gap; I wrote it in 75 minutes and sent it to her. I’m not the best, but I’m sure as hell the fastest. Spewing words out into the world every week had become a habit. At some point I realized I was being buoyed along by my own momentum, and getting less and less of what I wanted from it in return. My son worried about his black metal band Liturgy getting “overexposed,” and I started to feel somewhat overexposed myself.

On the morning of July 1, 2011, for whatever internal reason, I woke up and abruptly realized that I was tired of the effort, and most of my other efforts as well. I had been living as a martyr for certain benign forces in new music (Downtown, experimental, accessible), and I didn’t want to be a martyr anymore. I wanted to self-indulge, satisfy my own aims more directly, and let the culture-at-large go to hell if it was so adamantly determined to. I had already been complaining for a year. I was, and remain, particularly weary of the composing world. We raise young composers with grand expectations that will almost certainly remain unfulfilled, and the chief proficiency they emerge with is a vast verbal and conceptual framework for invalidating the music of others. There has to be something about the way composers are trained that makes us all so competitive, rigid, and ungenerous; an education that prepares anyone for that kind of life is a mockery. This past weekend some colleagues from another school and I marveled at how many kids keep coming to college to be composers, and wondered what in hell they think they will ever get from doing so. On that day in 2011 I changed course, though it’s still not fully clear what my new direction is yet. That month I wrote only one blog entry, a brief paragraph. I needed to relearn what not being heard from frequently felt like.

This past weekend I also had a visit with Russian musicologist Olga Manulkina, who has written a thick history of American music, in Russian. She wanted some advice about teaching American music, she said, because the composers at her school harshly disparage John Cage and minimalism, and tell her she shouldn’t be teaching them. She looked astonished when I chuckled and replied, “Just like in America.” She wants to bring me to St. Petersburg to lecture for a new music criticism and arts management program she’s involved in, and she asked me what kind of vision I would present to the students. Pressed, I fell back almost by rote on my old catechism: “I believe that music can be intelligent, innovative, and original, and still be attractive and accessible to large audiences.” That was the philosophy behind the New Music America festivals (1979-1990), which ran from when I was in grad school to my peak years at the Voice, and of which I rather consider myself a product, having been involved with the second and fourth and having reviewed the later ones. I think it’s also the philosophy of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which I consider the country’s most honorable large arts presenter. So like most of us I’m a creature of the time and place of my youth: a relic of the late-’70s new-music boom, and withal something of a dinosaur.

“Music can be intelligent, innovative, and original, and still be attractive and accessible to large audiences.” That’s the vision I would keep rooting for in PostClassic, but I’ve said it in these pages every way I can think of, and they’re all available in the archives. The idea seems to achieve less and less traction. There is no longer any visible sector of the music scene that embodies it, and so all my explanations start over from scratch. Every restatement brings arguments I’ve defended myself from a hundred times. No progress is made. Every year hundreds of new composition graduates descend on the world having dutifully absorbed from their teachers that audiences can’t be thought about, and that musical obscurity is a sign of integrity. Meanwhile I’ve discovered the cool contentment of writing about long-dead composers, and am getting interested enough in 19th-century religious disputes as part of my Ives research that I wonder if my next big phase shouldn’t take me outside of music altogether. Unlike music, scholarship can become more fun the more esoteric it gets.

In short, the relative quiescence of PostClassic should not be taken as constituting evidence that the music-blogosphere is dying, or that fewer people are reading music blogs, or any other collective trend. Any synchronicity between me and them is purely coincidental. It’s just a certain point in my life.

 

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Comments

  1. says

    While reading the second-last paragraph I began having the feeling that an end announcement was due the next few words. Fortunately, it never came. Even though we might have something like one or two posts a month, I’m glad we still have the archives and the hope that new things might come up, explanations about new or old works, your stories about obscure composers whose works are only available in precious tapes you keep home… all the things that make your blog great. I am personally not at all inclined to controversy, and I am sorry to see that it is at least partly responsible for the fewer texts. Once more, controversy bothering me.

  2. says

    Like Alfredo, I was also afraid that you were announcing an end to the blog, and that would be a very sad day indeed. One or two posts a month are preferable to no posts – yours is always a viewpoint worth reading.

    KG replies: No no, and thanks at you and Alfredo, but the purpose was merely the quotidian one I announced in the first paragraph. But I realize I didn’t quite say everything I intended, and am considering a follow-up.

  3. Steven Jouanny says

    ‘Music can be intelligent, innovative, and original, and still be attractive and accessible to large audiences.’ – This is an excellent point, and a huge challenge for any composer. It seems to me that the next composer who can do this is truly a genius. This is because I find that all the great composers fulfil those criteria, whether it be Beethoven, Debussy or Chopin, or any other obvious candidate.

    I found myself thinking about the modernist project before and after the Second World War. The one that emerged after it definitely started the trend towards obscurantism, which reached its point d’orgue in the likes of Brian Ferneyhough or any other number of Darmstadt darlings from the eighties. There is certainly a lot of music immediately after the war that satisfies the three initial criteria, but it is sadly restricted to either music students or people who have a taste for the edgy in the arts.

    I can think of a few composers who seem to tried to write music that didn’t resort to Darmstadt-level difficulty in the last thirty or forty years whilst still being innovative and accessible, whilst avoiding banality, naturally. I thought of Feldman, particularly his late music, then Nancarrow, whose rambunctiousness and ingenuity is nothing if not infectious (as well being totally authentic) and perhaps late Ligeti (the Horn Trio and Etudes for Piano have very clear structures and cogent musical argument) and Nono. There are perhaps other contenders, like Kurtag, but I don’t really know his works all that well. Still, I realise that these four are a long way from being well-programmed, let alone well-attended.

    A lot of the European composers I feel had completely lost the plot: Stockhausen is a good case: his music since the early sixties I felt was a bankrupt, misguided plagiarism of the ideas of Cage (with less regard for purity and authenticity too.) Boulez retreated into conducting. I am not really sure what happened with Berio. But I do think Messiaen showed all of them up when he finished Saint Francois d’Assise in the early eighties – here was complex, colourful music that moved the soul in operatic form – no need for compositional systems or pseudo-intellectual concepts. Just one man’s musical paean to a remarkable man. But then, Messiaen was always more of an individualist.

    The trouble could be that, any composer who writes sincere, decent, challenging music will not get too far because his or her cards are already on the table, and not cloaked in enough fashionable (though vain) suppositions.

    KG replies: I’ll buy all that. Only, I would add several names from my own generation (John Luther Adams, Elodie Lauten, Mikel Rouse, William Duckworth, Eve Beglarian to start with), and the fact that their names don’t come up is the core of my difficulty. Perhaps your last paragraph is the explanation.

  4. says

    I too had palpitations at the thought that you were terminating the blog and am much relieved to read that reports of its demise have been greatly exaggerated. You must go on!

  5. mclaren says

    “…I was told this weekend I had become the Bad Boy of music just by thinking too deeply about matters that everyone else takes for granted.”

    The deepest insights invariably arise from questioning the most obvious conclusions. If you can manage to inquire into the why and how and wherefore of an alleged fact so stupidly self-evident that everyone regards you as mentally retarded for even uttering the questions, that’s the real key to a great discovery.

    “Music can be intelligent, innovative, and original, and still be attractive and accessible to large audiences.”

    The fatal word here remains “attractive.” As a nation of sadistic bully-worshiping cowards, the population of the United Snakes of Amnesia recoils with a savage hatred of beauty more virulent than a vampire flinching from sunshine. The adoration of ugliness remains the bedrock of coproliths upon which so-called “cutting edge” modern music builds its sonic necropolis.

    Speaking out against the slavish hyperpuritanical American fear and hatred of beauty, along with offering a kind word for its feared and unutterably loathed attendant values of sensual pleasure and emotional joy, offers one of the few true paths to permanent paraiahood in American culture. As the sick twisted American motto goes: “No pain, no gain.” As in physical exercise, so in the concert hall…

    KG replies: I’ll go along with that too.

  6. kea says

    new reader here. i think the decline of blogs (and, as well, internet messageboards, newsgroups and so on) in favour of social media is a universal phenomenon, despite the fact that social media is much less adequate for lengthy detailed conversations, essays or good writing. inferior products tend to win out in the long term due to being cheaper, easier to use and more convenient; compare also the replacement of lps with cds, with corresponding decline in audio quality, and the more recent replacement of cds with mp3 media. unfortunately those of my generation (children of the 90s) who wish to be exposed to and participate in high quality discussion are adding their voices at a time when those avenues for expression are becoming obsolete—and there seem to be increasingly fewer of us.

    as a would-be composer myself i have also noted the extreme competitiveness of the field, which seems almost comparable to academia in its ferocity. there’s an applicable maxim here, something about low stakes. i agree with you that music can be attractive to large audiences without being dumbed down or patronising (although you may disagree with me on what constitutes “attractive” music) but don’t feel that any classical composer has a chance of reaching a large audience in the first place due to the elitism (and high ticket prices!) of most classical institutions, the focus of presenters and intermediaries on a small number of “acceptable” composers and widespread negative perception of classical music in general. i originally found this blog while searching for the term “post-classical” in the vain hope that i had invented it >.>

    to comment on one of the posts above, with reference to post-wwii modernism—i personally think the supposed “inaccessibility” of modernism is much more due to the intermediaries than the music itself. by intermediaries i also include the composer and their comments, especially in the case of boulez and stockhausen. the music of many of these composers can be colourful, joyous, devotional, sombre, tragic, etc, in equal measure to that of more traditional composers (especially if one gets away from the rather morose germans, from schoenberg to lachenmann, with their unremitting agony and self-pity). yet when such a piece is introduced on the radio or before a concert there’s always some commentator quick to tell us how “difficult” the music is, books are full of pitch-class-set analyses and other similarly dry material, and the composers themselves can usually be relied on to provide some sort of “what do i care for your damn violin when the muse speaks to me” comment. i think time has put enough distance between us and most of the important modernist composers that they can be judged on their merits, not either praised or dismissed simply because they -are- modernists. (audiences seem to agree—some modernists have found continued praise and appreciation in an age when the avant-garde has generally fallen from both critical and compositional favour, such as cage, xenakis and stockhausen; most of the others, ferneyhough among them, remain curiosities at best.)

    well, that was long-winded. my apologies.

  7. says

    I’ve just been assuming the variability of your posting frequency was due to eccentric astrological influences. When there is a pause, it seems you always come back with both guns blazing.

    It’s not just, “thinking too deeply about matters that everyone else takes for granted”, it’s also your gift for writing about your “bedrock perceptions” in fresh and stimulating ways. Sometimes it takes me multiple reads of a post to get to your basic point because some of your phrasing takes me off on sideways thinking about assumptions I didn’t realize I was making or into new ways of conceptualizing something. You may think you’re saying the same thing over and over, but it doesn’t read that way.

    As to, “Music can be intelligent, innovative, and original, and still be attractive and accessible to large audiences”, it seems to me one small part of the inaccessibility of some new music is that a lot of it takes a savant like technique to perform and/or very specialized instruments. Back in the pre PostClassic era a lot of things were written by big time composers that motivated amateurs could pull off. Satie and Bartok seem the last to have done much of that. There were those pieces for solo piano Glass published some time back, and there are probably other things I’m unaware of, but overall there seems a falling off of things published for amateurs. I get that some new music requires a whole new way of doing things, but the trade off is that means there are fewer people who can do them.