Mainstream Camouflage

Pardon a little self-indulgence, but wow, what a great gig I had in Buffalo today. It was a Gann/Ives program at the Unitarian Universalist Church; Paula McGirr sang my song “Faith” (which she’d sung 25 years earlier) and Ives’s “Serenity,” and Daniel Bassin conducted The Unanswered Question and my Transcendental Sonnets, with the UUCB Choir and members of the Buffalo Philharmonic. TS was a stretch for the choir, but they sang their hearts out, were totally focused, the momentum grew with each movement, and it was one of those occasions in which I was touched deep down by the emotionality of my own music. One thing I loved was that the Buffalo News critic said in an advance article that the piece might remind listeners of Benjamin Britten. I’m proud of the fact that I can use ostinatos of seven against eleven going out of phase, quintuplet polyrhythms, postminimalist structures of tritone-related harmonies, and still pass as a conservative. And quite a few singers told me afterward what I’m used to hearing from performers: “At first I thought the music was impossible and you were asking too much from us, but then I suddenly got a feel for how to do it.”


  1. says

    Congratulations on your performance of such a substantial work.How people hear works is interesting, in this case as Britten. It maybe be a myth but apparently after a performance of Cardew’s Great Learning a retired army major thanked Cardew for writing a good piece of music, instead of ‘all this modern rubbish’.

    I must say though as yet I am unable to play 7 against 11.

    KG replies: Well, while I’ve often used 7 against 11 within a whole note, this is actually a seven-beat rhythm going out of phase with an 11-beat rhythm in the same tempo.

  2. kea says

    I am sort of the opposite, a genuine troglodyte whose music is always rooted in old-fashioned tonality, yet for some reason I feel most proud when someone describes one of my pieces as “challenging” or “difficult” (not that that happens often), or expresses a strong dislike or aversion to it. It’s a silly, outdated prejudice, but I always feel being compared to Britten or Copland or whatever is like receiving polite but un-enthusiastic compliments—as though all I’ve managed to do is entertain people rather than blow their minds. After all, while Britten and Copland and other such “conservatives” fill halls, it’s with people who listen in silence and applaud politely and go home unchanged.

    I suppose there’s nothing wrong with entertainment, but for me the goal was always to move the audience to tears, rage, ecstasy, fistfights, the exits, etc—to elicit a strong emotional reaction—rather than simply to provide comfort to the comfortable. Perhaps that’s not a realistic goal in this day and age however.

    KG replies: A lot of people are saying it’s no longer a realistic goal. You may or may not be the troglodyte, but I would be really disappointed if my music made people run for the exits, and all my life I’ve wished composers would quit thinking that way. I like what Steve Reich said: “Obviously, music should put everyone within ear-shot in ecstasy.” On the other hand, every time Transcendental Sonnets has been played it’s gotten a strong emotional reaction from the audience, which I’m very happy about. Tears and ecstasy are fine, rage and fistfights I’m rather tired of.

  3. says

    I’d love to hear Transcendental Sonnets again. It was beautiful when I heard it at Merkin Hall a few years ago..what was the instrumentation in this version (aside from the choir, of course..)?

    KG replies: Thanks. It’s chamber orchestra, I guess – that is, winds in pairs, one trombone, no tuba, timpani and glockenspiel.

  4. mclaren says

    Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (1946) contains one of the earliest 5-against-4 polyrhythms I know of written for a mainstream orchestra. Conservative? Really?

    So 5 against 4 tempo canons are now “conservative”…?

    Britten music seems to me to offer a good example of composition that pushes the edges in some directions while remaining restrained in others. Nancarrow could equally well be called “conservative” — his melodies remain tonal, though his rhythms push far into cutting-edge territory. But the same just as well be said for Boulez: he remains stuck in the standard conventional 12-equal tuning, a stick-in-the-mud conservative. Ditto Elliott Carter: ne’er a microtone to be found in his work, hence “conservative.”

    The bizarre delusion that a composer must be called “conservative” if s/he fails to explore extremes of every possible musical parameter simultaneous strikes me as absurd and long past its sell-by date.

    One of the very best pieces of modern music, Luciano Berio’s Sequenza I (1958), works by using 4 musical parameters, only two of which allow maximum variety at any given time. Berio wisely recognized that maximizing the information in four simultaneous musical parameters overloads the listener’s information capacity and results in perceptual chaos which sounds uninteresting. What a shame contemporary critics and composers have not arrived at the wisdom Berio attained 50-plus years ago…

    KG replies: Point taken.

  5. mclaren says

    Ian Stewart remarked: “I must say though as yet I am unable to play 7 against 11.”

    Try this: start with 4 against 5, which is 8 against 10. Once you lock into that 8 against 10, slow down the 8 until you get 7 beats instead of 8, and speed up the 10 until you get 11 beats instead of 10. As you slow down the 8 and speed up the 10, you’ll hit a point where the 7-against-11 “locks in” and becomes easy. Then just practice it until muscle memory kicks in. Eventually it’ll become automatic.