Zombies Are Composers, Too

The other night before his wonderful concert, pianist Emenuele Arciuli, who is a great advocate for American piano music and has published a book, Musica per Pianoforte negli Stati Uniti, told me and composer Martin Bresnick that in Europe he often has to defend American music, which is attacked by composers there as being superficial, commercial, and lacking in technique.

The next day, at New Music Box, web site of the American Music Center, composer Mara Gibson described how inspiring it was for her to study with German composer Helmut Lachenmann at Darmstadt:

Lachenmann vehemently told us (particularly the Americans, a.k.a. the “zombies”) to forget everything we had learned up to that point. He encouraged us to develop our own material independently of our teachers. He explained that we are part of a “North American syndrome” that potentially results in work without any “real artistic provocation, just frustrating and boring.” His musical outlook could be encapsulated in the following quote:

With conventional or unconventional sounds, the question is how to create a new, authentic musical situation. The problem isn’t to search for new sounds, but for a new way of listening, of perception. I don’t know if there are still new sounds, but what we need are new contexts.

Now, in response let me see if I can recreate, from memory, the line that is perennially used by those defending European high modernist music from American composers:

Wasn’t that debate over twenty years ago? Haven’t we yet reached the point at which we can celebrate the world’s musical styles in all their wonderful diversity? Can’t we just all get along?


  1. says

    The debate isn’t over, Kyle, because the musical style and tradition they’re trying to defend is very much old fashioned. Is there anything in Lachenmann’s music that wasn’t already winding down in Darmstadt in the mid-late 1960s? In that one quote he reveals that he has trouble finding a new, authentic musical situation because he rejects all new and authentic musical situations that have appeared (and disappeared) in the last fifty years. I wouldn’t study with him except as an exercise in historical research.

    KG replies: Now Virginia, it’s narrow-minded and parochial for an American to criticize the Europeans, whereas for the Europeans to criticize us is evidence of their authenticity, autonomy, and irreproachable high standards. I particularly like the implication that, since I’m American, I’ve never tried to augment perception or create new contexts in my polytempo, microtonal music.

    • says

      Ah, shucks and darn Kyle, yer polytempo microtonal music jes’ don’t have the Gestalt backin’ of Europeen Frankfurter Schoolyard philosophy (perhaps with mustard on it…).

      KG replies: Ya know, it’s been 59 years since the German Karlheinz Stockhausen stole, without proper attribution, the rhythmic ideas of the American Henry Cowell for his article “How Time Passes.” Just sayin’.

      • says

        It’s at times like this that I wish I could respond to your comment about that great ‘borrower’ Stockhausen, and your reply to Samuel Vriezen (below) with a simple Facebook ‘like’. This blanket, uncritical repurposing of experimental music history to be a second-rate offshoot of Lachenmann, Stockhausen and Ligeti (see the Ashgate Research Companion to Experimental Music) really bores me.I’m not anti-European, just anti-anti-American experimentalism.

  2. says

    I’m sure you can find certain (often largely high-end orchestral) composers among your American colleagues, Kyle, that you could readily and with some personal satisfaction imagine Lachenmann to be talking about. I wouldn’t suppose he was thinking of Cage or Lucier or Partch or Ashley or Oliveros or Nancarrow here.

    KG replies: So you’re saying that Lachenmann (if correctly quoted) knowingly insulted many American colleagues he admires by painting them all with the same brush? Really, you think Lachenmann is a Partch and Ashley fan? And that if I say I can’t stand modern European music everyone will realize that I don’t really mean you, Andriessen, de Alvear, Norgard, Krauze, Adriaansz, Radigue, Nitsch, Vasks, Kancheli, Pärt, Tüür, Ter Veldhuis, and twenty or thirty others? You find it an innocent and unobjectionable statement? And its admiring appropriation (as given) by a young American student equally anodyne? Or are you perhaps imagining that the pool of American students Lachenmann encounters is extremely limited and homogenous in style and academic experience, so that he’s not aware of the composers you mention? I do know that he has at least had dinner with John Luther Adams. What can you tell us about Lachenmann that would excuse his referring to his American students as zombies?

    • Samuel Vriezen says

      Kyle – Lachenmann’s comments are here reported as hearsay, and I don’t know the full context of the zombie qualification. But let’s face it: he was not talking to just any group of American students – he was talking to a group of Americans who had come /to Darmstadt/. Those are less likely to be in your camp, I would imagine. As to Lachenmann’s taste in experimentalism, I do not know enough; but I’d be surprised if he could not appreciate people like Partch for the pioneering work they did. I’ve certainly heard reports of him having very respectful panel discussions with Lucier, so why not?

      KG replies: Fair enough, Samuel. I’m just amazed anyone could report a scenario like that one without outrage.

  3. jk says

    I heard Lachenmann speak highly of Cage when he visited my school… on the other hand, he basically called Hans Werner Henze’s music bourgeois and capitalist back in the 90s. That’s what surprised me about his quote in Mara Gibson’s article; maybe he sees such tendencies in any given musical scene, and speaking to Americans, pointed out the tendency they would be most familiar with.

    • says

      What people say in one context might not be what they say in another. In my paper on student minimalism and postminimalism in 1970s Southern California, I related something a story about a composing clinic on the East Coast, in which the featured (Uptown) composer was polite and interested in Californian ‘pretty sounds’ music when he talked to West Coast students at the welcoming drinks party. At his opening lecture, however, he slammed that music and those composers for laziness. Californian composers wrote the way they did because they were too zoned out in their hot tubs to write anything more rigorous. Sounds very much like Herr Lachenmann’s ‘zombies’.

      KG replies: True. When I don’t feel free to say what I really think I tend to keep my mouth shut, which has led many people to the judgment that I am taciturn. You know, there’s a great old Russian saying, that “one man can steal a horse, while another can’t look over the hedge.” Every other sentence I write pisses somebody off, yet never in my entire critical career have I written anything remotely as offensive as to characterize the composers of an entire nation as zombies and say they should forget everything they’ve been taught. If I said anything similar about German composers, no matter how mitigated by context or nuanced, people would be hanging me in effigy, yet when Lachenmann is reported as saying it people rush to his defense. What you can get away with saying certainly depends on who you are and whose ox is being gored.

  4. Paul Steenhuisen says

    The uncited Lachenmann quote beginning “With conventional or unconventional sounds…” is excerpted from my interview with HL, which appeared in the Contemporary Music Review issue dedicated to him, and also appears in my book “Sonic Mosaics: Conversations with composers.”

    KG replies: Thanks for clarifying.

  5. kea says

    “With conventional or unconventional sounds, the question is how to create a new, authentic musical situation.”

    I think “authentic” is the key word here because it’s so meaningless—anything you don’t like is commercial tripe, cynical pandering to the lowest common denominator, elitist bourgeois pseudo-intellectualism etc, etc, and therefore created for motives other than Art for Art’s Sake which is the only *real* reason anyone should create anything.

    More to the point though, for Lachenmann and other Europeans America is often seen as a malign force run amok—24/7 advertising, billboards, fast food, neoliberalism, environmental degradation, violent video games, instant gratification, short attention spans and so forth—capitalism, in a word. American culture is viewed as a foreign invader (which it kind of is, I guess) which must be struggled against at any cost. Sadly, aside from academics everyone else is too busy gorging themselves on McDonalds, chatting on Facebook and playing Grand Theft Auto, so their political efforts are greatly enfeebled; and sadly, music cannot change the world (anymore), simply because it exists in such excess today that it has ceased to be of any real value. In spite of his attempts at authenticity the music of Lachenmann can never be more than a pleasant diversion. But so is all music nowadays. I sometimes think the efforts of composers and performers would be better spent in conservation—trying to *limit* the amount of music in the world, and re-introduce us to the sounds of a world without music, the Hildegard Westerkamp or Luc Ferrari sort of thing but with a more environmentalist bent.

    KG replies: Well put.

  6. says

    “Develop your own material independently of your teachers.” – I read this as “stop doing what your teachers tell you to do, and do what I tell you to do”.

    Having freedom also means being free to choose masters, models, teachers, to choose whether I want them as my advisors, or models for copy, or teachers of techniques etc.

    Perhaps humility is out of fashion, and the mere reference to this word may be laughed at, but it is really lacking in the discourse of so many people.

    KG replies: Yeah, I tell my students to look at everything they get from their teachers, including me, with a critical eye. But I would not be where I am today without what I learned from Ben Johnston, Peter Gena, and Morton Feldman. (On the other hand, where am I?)

  7. mclaren says

    One response to Lachenmann takes Virginia Anderson’s tack and notes that Lachenmann merely parrots the old shopworn Stunde Null (Zero Hour) position from 1945:

    All of this can be seen in the ultimate statement of the Stunde Null position: “Schoenberg est mort” (“Schoenberg is dead”), a manifesto published in February 1952, seven months after Schoenberg’s death, by Pierre Boulez (b. 1925), a young French composer who had studied officially with Messiaen, and with Leibowitz on the side. The violence that Leibowitz had predicted certainly came to the fore in Boulez’s frantically coercive and intolerant rhetoric. No one who has read the article has ever forgotten its frightening climax, expanded in a somewhat later squib into a battle cry: “Since the Viennese discoveries, any musician who has not experienced—I do not say understood, but truly experienced—the necessity of the dodecaphonic language is USELESS. For his entire work brings him up short of the needs of his time.” [Taruskin, Richard, Oxford History of Music: Volume 5, 2009.]

    1952 called, Helmut — they want their aesthetic criticism back.

    So that’s one response. But that riposte falls short, because it accepts the faulty premises set forth by Lachenmann and company. An even deeper and more devastating rejoinder focuses on the hypocrisy involved in Lachenmann’s fundamentally ignorant misconceptions about music history, human perception, and 21st century Western musical aesthetics.

    Lachenmann vehemently told us (particularly the Americans, a.k.a. the “zombies”) to forget everything we had learned up to that point. He encouraged us to develop our own material independently of our teachers.

    Sounds great, Helmut! So I assume that Lachenmann has abandoned the 12 tone equal tempered tuning, right? After all, he tells us to “forget everything we had learned up to that point,” and the 12-equal tuning represents one of the most basic elements of music everybody has learned and accepted. So how about it, Helmut? How many compositions ya produced in 97-limit extended just intonation? Or how about compositions in the 15-equal tuning? How many of those ya done, Helmut? Or how about compositions in a non-just non-equal tuning like the inharmonic vibrational modes of a cylinder? Done any of those, Helmut?

    Gee…seems like the answer’s a big NO. Meanwhile, Kyle Gann and I and many others have done compositions in those tunings — and many more.

    Seems like you don’t practice what you preach, Helmut. You lecture us in tones of punitive hysteria about the alleged necessity to “forget everything we had learned up to that point” yet you stick to the same old timeworn hackneyed 12-equal tuning used for the last 200 years. Why don’t you put on a tricorn hat and a frock coat and ride a horse to the concert hall, Helmut? From the sound of your tuning, you’re at least 200 years behind the times.

    In the same way, it’s obvious that Lachenmann hasn’t abandoned Western instruments for a Balinese gamelan. Likewise, he hasn’t thrown out audible pitches for ultrasonic and infrasonic pitches. And he hasn’t dumped conventional concepts of musical time and started composing with notes whose onset takes 50,000 years. So clearly Lachenmann hasn’t forgotten everything he has learned up to that point. And it is in fact impossible for any composer to forget “everything we’ve learned up to that point” because all music (not just Western, but Balinese or Afghan or Sudanese or the music of the Are-Are people of the Solomon Islands) derives from human auditory mechanisms and human cognitive-perceptual substrates which have fixed limitations. No one composes music with notes whose onset takes 50,000 years because this is pointless: humans could never hear it. No one composes with music whose pitches are ultrasonic because once again, humans couldn’t hear it.

    In fact, contra Lachenmann and the self-defined avant gardists of the 1945 German Stunde Null, Western musical practice is not contingent nor is it subject to arbitrary change without destroying much of its perceptual freight. As David Huron has demonstrated, the rules of Western voice-leading derive from the basic principles of cognition and perception: “Tone and Voice: A Derivation of the Rules of Voice-leading from Perceptual Principles,” David Huron, Music Perception, Vol. 19, No. 1 (2001) pp. 1-64. (Non-western music differs because non-Western music uses different musical instruments with different timbres. William Sethares has shown, for example, that the 7-equal tuning makes an excellent fit with the timbre of bronze gongs uses in gamelans.) See also “Cognitive constraints on compositional systems,” Fred Lerdahl, Music Perception, Part 2, 1988.

    To take a seemingly frivolous but completely unambiguous case, no listener, regardless of his previous musical experience, cultural background, gender, etc., will be capable of processing, and hence, will attribute any “structure”, find “sensuously attractive”, or be brought to tears by a musical surface composed of frequencies outside of the auditory spectrum.

    Composers, regardless of culture, gender, etc. have tacitly accepted the existence of the particular perceptual and hence ultimately “cognitive constraint” that music should predominantly make use of pitches that can be processed by normal human psychoacoustic faculties. [Halle, John, “Cognition and composition: A response to Boros,” 1996]

    To take another equally obvious example, listening to 37 different symphonies simultaneously does not simply reduce the listener’s ability to perceive each symphony: it destroys the listener’s ability to perceive any structure. The listener hears nothing but a mass of incoherent sound, because trying to listen simultanously to 37 different symphonies overruns our hardwired cognitive-perceptual limitations. Clearly this means that all composers must bear in mind at least some of the things they have learned, because abandoning all learned constraints on composition results in an undifferentiated stream of perceptually disorganized sound.

    But an even more devastating and unanswerable criticism of Lachenmann’s aesthetic cri de coeur comes from exposing its essential ignorance and inadequacy from a music-historical perspective. Lachenmann’s aesthetic boils down a warmed-over and long-debunked 19th-century theory of the arts. In fact, the view Lachenmann’s aesthetic view regurgitates historian Leopold von Ranke’s theory of history from 1824, and shoves a naive Platonist objectivist view of artistic history down our throats: “Wie es eigentlich gewesen,” how things really were and how they really are. But in the 21st century, we live in a quantum world where the observer interferes with the observation. Consequently, a 21st century aesthetic has the sophistication to understand that present-day audiences re-create past works anew every time they listen to them…so there exists no such thing as a fixed “avant-garde,” but merely an historical style — one among many. But as 21st century audiences, we go further: we recognize that historical causality can run in reverse when it comes to musical aesthetics. The past also re-orders the present, because aesthetic values in music (or the arts, or literature, or any other medium) are not absolute, but relative. What we value is not what composers do, but what they do differently. This requires an infinite regression along a vast historical chain, and each link, each old piece of music in that historical chain has the potential to re-value contemporary music as we re-value it. This is something Lachenmann utterly fails to understand — as we would expect from someone so thoroughly lacking in the scholarly acumen or the music-historical sophistication to relegate an entire nation of composers to the status of “zombies.” (Or should we say untermenschen…?)

    Lachenmann fails to grasp the elementary music-historical fact that no work of music is fixed, but rather represents part of an historical dialogue. A musical composition is not a thing but a process of continual historical dialectic which constantly mutates its meaning for each new generation of listeners. Lachenmann seems unaware of this elementary fact of 21st century music, but Jean-Jacques Nattiez pointed it out long ago, back in 1993:

    “We cannot accept the traditional historicist position aiming to show, according to Ranke’s formulation of 1824, `Wie es egientlich gewesen,’ that is, how things really were. Every reconstitution of the past, we now know, results from facts being selected, chosen as pertinent by virtue of an explicatory hypothesis that arranges them at the core of a temporal succession.

    “…The meaning of a work from the point of view of the composer’s world is never single, because compositional strategies are multiple, complex, and variable. `How fixed were [the composer’s] intentions?’ asks Howard Mayer Brown (1988: 27) in the context of a discussion of authentic performances. Questions of fidelity and authenticity asked of the poietic world of the composer cannot be based on once-and-for-all intentions:

    Our intentions — what we mean — come about in a ceaseless dialectic between more or less vague outlines and realizations that seem to us, depending on the circumstances, either to match or not to match what we mean, and which also form and construct progressively a signification that is never completely predictable and controllable. Thus the signification in what we say is not the expression of a prior meaning, but is constructed, and not a given. (Molino, 1985: 307; my emphasis)“

    “In this way the historicist position is paradoxical with respect to Time. By making History the exclusive instantiation by which styles and works are explained it congeals the flux of time — at the level of historical unfoldings and creatives processes — in a monist, petrified image.

    “It is no easier to subscribe to the structuralist position, for the simple reason that we cannot reduce the meanings of a work solely to structures discernible in a musical score. A work exhibits a style, but we cannot discuss style except by studying several works by the same composer, or of a period. Further, we have to step outside the `text’ of a work in order to understand it.” [Nattiez, Jean-Jacques, Le Combat de Chronos et d’Orphee, 193, pg. 137 (English translation, 2004)]

    Naturally these considerations make hash of Lachenmann’s empty posturings about about “a new, authentic situation” and “a new way of listening, of perception” and “what we need are new contexts.” All of those terms become meaningless as static yardsticks: they reveal themselves as dynamic processes in continual flux, and thus all efforts to establish a ranking based on them is as pointless as trying to assert that the color blue is “more authentic” or “newer” than the color red.

    Nothing new in that observation. Michael Foucault discussed these issues way back in 1969:

    “The use of concepts of discontinuity, rupture, threshold, limit, series and transformation present all historical analysis not only with questions of procedure, but with theoretical problems.” [Foucault, Michel, The Archaeology of Knowledge, 1969, pg. 21]

    Moreover, ascribing agency to a composer and ranking that composer’s intentions along a spectrum of ‘authenticity’ or `historical adequacy’ presumes that the composer understands hi/r own intentions. I.e., that composition represents a purely conscious process. But in reality much human motivation remains subconscious.

    “We are often unaware of the reasons for our own conduct, and our explanations of events can be inaccurate or incomplete, either because we are unaware of the truth, or because we are unwilling to see it, or
    even because there is no coherent explanation that links events together. Causal relationships are always in some sense provisional, subject to question or to alternate readings.” [Almén, Byron, A Theory of Musical Narrative, Indiana University Press: Bloomington, Indiana, 2008, pg. 31]

    It goes without saying that as a consequence, revenants like Lachenmann lack the sophistication to appreciate the musical aesthetics of the 21st century. But American musicologists and music historian like Judith Tick obviously do, since (like Foucault and Nattiez and Almén) she has gone over all this ground in depth. See her 2007 essay “Generation of ’38,” particularly “Generation of ’38 (part 3): Because time was in the air,” originally printed in the program notes for the 2007 Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music:

    Time was in the air, carrying with it new language, including “neo” terms and referential practices, as in the new tonalism, neo-Baroque compositions, “New Romanticism,” quotation, “polystylism,” and intertextuality. This discourse suggests a developing stage in the assimilation between the past and the future. The German philosopher Reinhart Koselleck wrote, “All testimony answers to the problem of how, in a concrete situation, experiences come to terms with the past; how expectations, hopes, prognoses that are projected into the future become articulated into language.” Music embodies this process within itself. [Tick, Judith, op. cit.]

    But perhaps the best response at all to the kind of silliness the Lachenmanns of the world spew involves simply listening to The Fleshtones’ I Was A Teenage Zombie .