PostClassic: September 2003 Archives
I lived in Chicago from 1977 to 1989, where I frequently heard Georg Solti conduct the Chicago Symphony, and several times reviewed him and wrote about him. Around 1985, Solti held a press conference which I wasn't present for, but a tape recording was made that I transcribed shortly afterward. Someone asked why the orchestra didn't perform more new music. Solti responded to the effect that new music was always experimental, and that a great instrument like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra could not be used for "experiments." This is why, in my previous blog entry, I called him an anti-new-music snob. He then continued, "And why should I conduct a symphony by Mister X when there are Haydn symphonies I haven't conducted yet?" This is why I called him self-indulgent: his pleasure in conducting the repertoire he already loved was more important to him than his sense of responsibility toward keeping classical music a living art. Chicago's composers (notably Ralph Shapey) were livid, and damned Solti for months in conversation and print. I remember Solti conducted (and commissioned) Lutoslawski's Third Symphony during those years, but I remember nothing he did for any composer born as late as 1920.
So with all due condolences to the person who wrote me royally pissed off about my glancing snipe at St. Georg, my opinion stands, for the period I was familiar with and for that incident in particular, and I am entitled to it. Perhaps after I left in 1989 Solti became a heavy-metal freak and commissioned seven symphonies from John Zorn, but if so I didn't hear about it.
Yes, that's right - hard to believe, but my blog is a month old today, and it's time to assess how I'm doing. I've been a music critic since February of 1983 (my first appearance in the Chicago Reader), and not once have I ever marked one of my own anniversaries - nor, except for a couple of modest conflict-of-interest disclosures and a couple of articles on my own web page, have I ever drawn attention to my own music in print. So no one, I think, can charge that I am habitually self-promoting. But in one month on this blog I've e-printed more words than I do in a year at the Village Voice and Chamber Music magazine combined, and it's time to examine the self-searching question: Can an introvert blog?
For an introvert I undoubtedly am. I use the word in its strict Jungian sense (though he spelled it "intravert"): someone who makes judgments more on the basis of internal feelings than on external events. (Not many who know me would call me shy, I guess, though I am more shy in person than in public, if you know what I mean.) I now read the blogs of others frequently, and it strikes me that bloggers are typically attuned to the outer world. They react to items in newspapers, call attention to current events, link the reader to other articles that appeared yesterday. It's unlike me to do this, though I make the occasional effort to fit in. (Intraverts, says Jung, tend to overcompensate by overestimating the significance of public opinion.) I'm far more interested in reporting on recent insights I've had and my current state of mind, frequently having to do with realizations that have come to me slowly. A new interpretation of Boulez's Pli selon pli may suddenly occur to me, or it might dawn on me that I no longer hold the opinion of Dallapiccola that I did in the mid-1980s when I last thought about him much, and I end up reporting things months or even decades after the fact. And that fits with the kind of music I write about. My friend and fellow blogger Sandow may keep track of the classical music world on a week-to-week basis, but given the low simmer of the postclassical music performance scene today, there are not daily earthquakes in the postclassical world to elicit my attention. I am most interested in new wrinkles in compositional technique - my current Voice article on Andrew Violette's Piano Sonata No. 7 is a case in point. In the 1970s new musical techniques seemed to come thick and fast, but today gradual synthesis seems to be more common than striking innovations - or is it just that the innovations no longer strike me? In any case, catching on to "news pegs" as they fly by has never been my strength as a critic, and I am by nature slow to react, mulling things over for a long time before speaking. It's why I stank at football as a kid: I was 6'2" and could catch the ball, but I'd spend too many seconds studiously considering which way to run.
Overall, this appears to be more of a liability to editors than it is to readers. I'm honored by the people who have written in to thank me for expressing thoughts they'd had themselves, and equally by the people who've taken intelligent exception to something I've said. I rarely change my mind based on reader input, but I will readily change the way I express myself. For someone obsessed with the avant-garde, I am in many respects old-fashioned. As you can see, I'm not really attuned to the fragmentary nature of the "blog entry": I still write articles, each with a beginning, middle, and end, and I edit myself for completeness and overall form. I still write as though for the printed page, and don't know whether I want to change that. My articles are pretty long by blog standards, and I treasure the internet precisely for its lack of space limitations.
It's not true, as some think, that I took on this blog primarily to publicize the fact that the transmission on my Toyota Prius died mysteriously after only ten months, and that Toyota refused to honor the warranty, dishonestly claiming that I must have done something to injure the car. There were other reasons as well. After all, that issue will cease to exist someday, when I trade in that piece-o-crap lemon that Prestige Toyota of Kingston sold me for a nice new Honda or Subaru. Discouraging readers from ever buying a Prius, or from patronizing those crooks at Toyota, is only one of my aims, and hardly the most important one.
For one thing, for 17 years at the Voice I've been charged with writing only about Downtown Manhattan music, and it's not the only music I know well or am interested in. I love writing about classical music as well, and it's been a relief to de-pigeonhole myself, to return to the wider range of music I wrote about in the 1980s. Unlike Sandow I am not terribly concerned about the continuance of the classical music world, but the word postclassical itself implies music written by musicians trained in the classical tradition, of whom I am one. As critic and as composer, I don't believe in jettisoning musical devices that have worked in the past, and I believe in taking with us anything we can glean from classical music that still seems useful, as well as throwing away anything that no longer fits the contemporary worldview. Yet despite my affection for classical music as a repository of ideas, very little that goes on in the commercially-defined world of classical music concert life interests me, and that's been true all my life. So I haven't been to Zankel Hall at Carnegie, nor do I give a damn whether the NY Philharmonic merges with Carnegie Hall or with Barnum & Bailey Circus - neither is likely to lead to performances of music that interests me. To some I may seem overly concerned with musical academia, but it's where I've spent half my professional life, and in many ways that's where our potential musical culture gets cut off at the source, so to speak: the convictions of professors, just as trendy and biased as those of any other special-interest group, get transferred to students, who then go out and form each new generation of composers and performers. There is a tendency among the more high-powered critics, too, to be inordinately cowed by the academic musicologists, so when some neurosis takes over academic music departments, it eventually shows up in concert practice, and I find the situation worth policing.
Whether I will be able to continue blogging at this pace I have no idea. Over the last few years, as my space at the Voice and elsewhere has shrunk, it's been more and more difficult to say what I want to, and right now I have a lot on my mind that's gone unexpressed for a long time: the literary equivalent of "blueballs." I do write compulsively, though I edit myself just as compulsively, and I will have to discipline myself to keep from letting blogging interfere with my composing. You'll know when I'm composing, because I get into a relatively nonverbal universe in which words begin to blur.
So how I'm doing depends on who's reading, and whether anyone out there agrees with the delayed views of a cud-chewing introvert who shrinks further and further from the mainstream the more conservative and commercially oriented the culture becomes. At the age of 13 I wrote, for an English class assignment, a paper decrying and attempting to analyze the neglect of contemporary music, and if you could see how little my basic views have changed over 34 years, you'd realize how glacially stubborn I am and how permanent my mission in life has been. I'm a mourner at the funeral of classical music, sentimental but hardly wracked with grief, and seeking similarly forward-looking mourners who want to get on with life. Classical music had two debilitating diseases that I'm glad to see it put out of its misery from. One was a star system that put goofballs like Pavarotti and self-indulgent anti-new-music snobs like Georg Solti at the top of the pyramid, inevitably tossing composers into the ninth circle of hell. The other, deeper rooted and more insidiously tubercular, was a connection with European aristocracy and the concomitant genius myth which, transplanted to America and talked up by pious elitists like 19th-century Boston music critic John Sullivan Dwight, had always given classical music in America a foul odor of combined class distinction and moral superiority. Good riddance. Now that 4'33" has wiped the slate clean, let's build up a postclassical music scene integrated in American life, conducive of democracy, perception-stretching, enlivening, and expressing our innermost desires devoid of contamination by the pretentions of a mythic past.
Apropos of nothing, and only because I've had a virtual 17-year hiatus in writing about classical music (limited as I've been to postclassical music at the Voice and living composers in Chamber Music and the Times), here are some more of my classical music views considered heretical in my academic milieu:
- Greatest piano work between Schubert and Ives: Liszt's Annees de Pelerinage, three hours' worth of remarkably sustained inspiration, with innovations that had an obvious impact on Debussy and thus helped jump-start the 20th century. In fact, given the size of the work and its consistently superb quality, one could make an argument for it as the greatest piano monument since Bach's W.T.C., equalled in ambition only by works patently less perfect like Sorabji's Opus Clavicembalisticum - and yet only a handful of pianists play more than a "Sonetto del Petrarca" or two from it. Similarly, Liszt's Christus is the 19th century's greatest oratorio, an opinion in which I am backed up by no less than the great musicologist Karl Dahlhaus, whose revisionist views of the 19th century have bracingly clarified our image of that era. And yet, a couple of years ago at a conference I told an ambitious ivy-league musicologist that I was teaching a Franz Liszt course, and from the look of disdain with which she recoiled from the news, you would have thought I had said Lawrence Welk.
- Greatest romantic piano concerto: that of Ferruccio Busoni, 1905.
- We're supposed to find Brahms's Second Piano Concerto far superior to his First, and I don't. Brahms wrote some of his best large works in his youth (the Horn Trio, for instance), and the First Concerto's opening movement, with its slow chromatic slide in the basses from D down to A, and its surprise recap of the theme a tritone away from where we've been led to expect, is one of the 19th century's most vivid examples of large-scale tonal structure made audible and expressive. I hear nothing nearly so powerful in the Second Concerto.
- As a grad student, I took as my project for a rhythmic analysis class the Adagio of the Bruckner Seventh Symphony. My classmates were disdainful, but I found a convincing example of Bruckner's large-scale rhythmic displacement masterfully supporting the overall harmonic resolution. To this day, academia remains condescending to Bruckner, not generally acknowledging him, as I do, as at least an equal symphonist to Brahms and certainly above Mendelssohn and Schumann. One of those cases in which the critics and record collectors diverge from the musicologists, and I side with the critics. Also the minimalists - a surpising love of Bruckner is found among Downtown composers like Glenn Branca.
- Mozart is overrated. Actually, despite the scorn Woody Allen heaps on the idea in Manhattan, this is a less rare opinion than is often admitted. Quite a few composers I know think that Mozart's perfection is greatly overstated. That's not to deny that there are quite a number of perfect pieces, like the late piano concerti. But so many passages in his music (as Charles Rosen mentions) can be transferred from one piece to another with no change in meaning, like interchangeable musical bricks, a shortcoming that modern composers don't easily forgive. In my sonata class I analyze Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven alongside tremendously underrated composers like Clementi, Dussek, and Hummel, and side by side, Mozart's hastily-composed piano sonatas don't always fare well next to the lyric perfection of late Clementi or the daring innovations of Dussek.
I know, I know, this is classical music, not postclassical - but I'm getting it out of my system. And if the postclassical era is going to draw on the classical, it will need to reinterpret it to suit its own needs, as well.
I heard the Beethoven Seventh live the other night. It was a superb performance, the Albany Symphony under the very energetic direction of David Alan Miller. I doubt that I've ever heard a Beethoven symphony so dashingly rendered live, so I'm sure the performance had nothing to do with the discomfort I felt. But there are passages in the first movement of that piece that I've always found rather stunningly slipshod, as though Beethoven didn't take the trouble to write a convincing transition. The piece too often strips down to single repeated pivot notes, and in a couple of places the pivot note blankly segues to an unresolved harmony in a way that seems unmotivated and arbitrary. The second movement is a fantastic idea, possibly the first time in music that a melody was defined by its harmony, in which the inner voices carry more weight than the melody. But once the delight of that idea has been absorbed, the lengthy repetitions of it (probably necessary for the audience to "get it" at the first performances) seemed awfully tedious this time. I've never felt that Beethoven's symphonies reach the artistic heights of his string quartets and late sonatas; you have to go to Mahler, I think, to find symphonies as subtle and dense with meaning as the Hammerklavier Sonata, Op. 111, the C# minor Quartet, or even "Les Adieux." The Beethoven Seventh is a pretty fine piece, I guess, but palpably imperfect, and I was surprised at how little I got out of hearing yet another performance, even one this spirited.
Out of some numerological synchronicity, the next day I found myself writing program notes for a performance of Dvorak's Seventh. Though I've been familiar with Dvorak's symphonies since my teenage years, I'm not a big fan: there's too much corn meal in Dvorak, too many blustery, unsubtle brass climaxes with the same rhythm over and over. (Brahms, they say, used to correct Dvorak's carelessly written counterpoint, and I can imagine it.) All the reference works I looked into agreed: Dvorak's Seventh is his greatest symphony, while the Eighth is too episodic, lacking in a main point, too much like a series of Slavonic Dances. But the thing is, the Seventh has always been about my least favorite Dvorak symphony, and it's the Eighth I enjoy most. The Seventh opens with an instant harmonic ambiguity that I find off-putting, ungrounded, and the awkwardness it expresses infects the entire movement. According to all the holy books, the Eighth is a favorite of unsophisticated audiences. Yet for me, the Eighth sounds like Dvorak finally declared independence from his patron Brahms, quit trying to achieve the portentous tragic sonata form thing that he wasn't very good at, let his hair down and created a kind of original continuity that was much more natural to him. Does that make me unsophisticated? I'm a classical music fanatic, but my tastes always seem upside down, my every opinion a minority one, never in sync with the community of connoisseurs. I'm always asking myself the question that tortured Charles Ives: Are my ears on wrong?
Though it's not just music. The Shakespeare character I immediately gravitated toward, as a young man - Better it is to die, better to starve, / Than crave the hire which we do first deserve (and I'm quoting from memory) - was Coriolanus. And I read in my Riverside Shakespeare that Coriolanus is the one Shakespeare hero with whom it is impossible to identify, his least sympathetic creation. I fall in love with the great art of European history, but my reactions all seem upside down to everyone else's. Is that why the Post-Classical world seems such a safe refuge? Because it's always seemed to me, since adolescence, that we too easily glorify the classical world's partial and superficial successes, and shy away from its rare bold strokes of truth?
Sorry, a little light on the blog this week. I got an opportunity to do some concentrated work on my almost-completed microtonal chamber opera, The Watermelon Cargo (libretto by Jeffrey Sichel). With the exception of my Transcendental Sonnets for chorus and orchestra - which netted a large enough commission to justify my refusing all other work for a month or a little more - every note I've written in the last fifteen years has been written during time stolen from something else I was supposed to be doing for money. And now I'm stealing time from my blog. Perhaps this in itself is enough food for thought for a day or two.
Matthew Wellins responded at some heat and length to my piece on the Reich Remixed album. Matt is a student of mine, a published critic, and Mr. New Music around Bard. He's always bringing me new music discs from obscure labels I've never heard of, including rare recordings I'd never heard by composers I'm obsessed with, and he's been my primary source of information about Jim O'Rourke and the techno crowd. He knows that, in sympathy, I believe in keeping up with the absolute latest music out there, and he's disappointed that I no longer fulfill that ideal in 2003 as I may have in 1992 - which I don't. I publish his response here to let him speak for his generation, not as a typical member, but as one of its savviest aficionados. I've edited him for style, consistency, and potential libel charges. (I thought of editing him for length too, but given my recent rant against censorship by word count, it seemed hypocritical.) Possibly as a deliberate rhetorical ploy, he exaggerates the scope of my complaint; he treats it as a diatribe against pop music, when it was really only a gripe about people blinded (deafened?) by pop-centric conventions and limitations. Matt's point is primarily that classically-trained musicians have their own blind spots about pop - a complementary, not a contradictory, argument, and he's got some good points. If you read through to the end, you'll find a crescendo of indignation that exactly mirrors sentiments I would have nurtured at that age:
I can't help responding to these posts, especially when my generation (and classmates) are in danger of being digitally immortalized as impatient and uninformed consumers.
Now, I love Branca and Galas, but I don't know if the long-form is the entire point. Minimalism was a return to tonalism and populism! It was a refuge for the people, who were tired of being alienated by abrasive tone clusters and total serialism. Is it any wonder that the next postminimalist generation has made another step towards inviting people rather than turning them away? Isn't it possible that there is an increasingly thin line between new-music and pop groups? Is anything three minutes and under in the "pop" category, like Robert Ashley says? I think that the rock group itself is probably one of the decisive post-minimalist statements, heralded by artsists like Tony Conrad and David Behrman who saw minimalism as leading towards "the death of the composer." The most often-cited example is probably Sonic Youth, a pop band with members who've recorded with Branca and recorded pieces by Cage, Kosugi, Oliveros, etc. In fact, that New York scene with Branca and Chatham, the downtown "No Wave" scene, was filled with bands that would be called pop under standards based on duration or rigorous composition. Why is Branca's contribution more important than DNA, James Chance and the Contortions, or Teenage Jesus and the Jerks? Because he decided to become an autonomous composer of "serious" music? What about Faust, the German band that backed Tony Conrad on "Outside of the Dream Syndicate"? Or any of the other contemporary, experimental "rock" bands that studied directly under Stockhausen?
At the bottom of it, "This pop response to postclassical music - 'Hey, you could do something with that' - is, it seems to me, not uncommon.".... That reminds me of the postclassical response to pop music.
And if you've only listened to single songs by pop groups your students have brought in, how can you accurately assess the music? It would be the equivalent of listening to 3-5 minutes of La Monte or Eliane Radigue or whoever else. In experimental pop (or whatever other nomenclature is apt), the full album can range up to the longest pieces by minimalists. There's a DVD out by a group called Farmers manual with 48 hours of music. I also recently received a CD with 150 songs on it by an avant-pop musician, Jan Fair. And hell, if it's just an issue of length, does that make the Grateful Dead an avant-garde band? If you look into the backcatalogs of any of that electronic music released on the Reich Remixed CD (which I will be the first to admit is a poor release, though for different reasons), or rave/electronic music in general, you'll read about all-night concerts, meditative and sometimes chemically-induced states of mind, ritual and tribal imagery, etc...It's familiar, yes?
Finally, in regard to this comment: We don't need backbeats and chord progressions and the familiar accoutrements of everyday music to keep us from feeling like we've left home. With varying intentions and success, those Reich Remixed DJs did to Reich's music what the planners of Staples business supply stores do, make every store have exactly the same process and layout so that you never have to face the anxiety of being somewhere unfamiliar. Are you trying to tell me Philip Glass is still pushing the envelope? that Reich's "Nagoya Marimbas" is a major break from the past? that no one knows what La Monte will do next? Hell, I love Ashley, I loved Celestial Excursions, but were you really surprised by the processes and layouts he used? These composers have paid their dues, but now they're stuck in their ways. Even Branca, who recently surprised everyone by doing a orchestral symphony that sounded exactly like his guitar symphonies, has a musical conception that is already 25 years old. It would make me feel anxious and unfamilar if I bought a Phil Niblock album, and he was strumming a guitar and singing folk songs. Nothing against Niblock, I love his music too, but it was only unfamiliar the first thousand times I listened to it - eventually I adapted. I still find new nuances, new things to love, but I crave that anxious feeling. I crave finding a music that will make me lose my bearings completely. Does the world begin and end with postclassical music? I find hints of it in different places, be on a hip-hop record produced by the Neptunes, an Arnold Dreyblatt record, a whirlwind of a noisy Neil Young guitar solo, an old field recording from the pacific islands reissued on Nonesuch's Explorer series, Haydn's "Surprise" symphony, or a sparse, droning folk record by Richard Youngs, who has released albums on the reputable Table of the Elements and less-praised experimental pop labels. Can you really say hearing the new piece by Duckworth will unsettle you like the first time you heard Satie or Conlon Nancarrow? Don't you think those kinds of experiences are still out there? That maybe some of that stuff that seems superficially to exist in that world of 7-11s and strip malls might actually be tongue-in-cheek? That there might be a subversive spark in a beat or a melody, just to lure your average consumer into its lair and devour him or her whole? Who had more political effect, Rzewski or Dylan? Granted, I prefer Rzewski's subtlety to Dylan's cliched sentimentality, but looking at the world right now, maybe more subversive pop music wouldn't be such a bad thing.
When I initially stumbled onto Downtown music, I saw its eclecticism as being at peace with popular music. These were composers who decided they weren't part of the popular music tradition, but enjoyed popular music, and used it. This acceptance of popular culture wasn't new, but this was music that dealt with a popular culture I had some direct relation with. I never assumed that they did this because they thought popular music was inferior, I just assumed they, invidually, felt restricted. Yet, the longer music stays around, the more dogmatic it becomes, and personally, I can't imagine restricting myself to the idioms of the avant-garde because of its intellectually priviledged status. The DJ/remix phenomenon that you claim to be "too old to care about," is affecting the changing climate of music in this day and age, like it or not. I didn't for a long time, but as a new music composer and critic, can you really afford to distance yourself from the present?
See? After I am gone, others will rise up in my place, and God help us all. I do have to insist that I have never inveighed against the DJ/remix phenomenon in general, simply admitted that I don't understand the criteria by which it is to be judged. There's more to say about that, another day. And thanks, Matt.
A reader suggests that the fragment of Steve Reich's Piano Phase that I heard blip by on NPR might have been from a Nonesuch disc called Reich Remixed, an album of DJs playing around with various Reich recordings. It wasn't; the piece on that disc that riffs off Piano Phase uses the actual sampled recording of two pianos, whereas what NPR flashed by was a synthesizer version, with glitzy electronic timbres, that had to have been completely reprogrammed. But to prove my memory hadn't misled me I listened to Reich Remixed for the first time since just after it came out a couple of years ago, and I'm glad I did. Because when I first heard it I thought it was a stupid disc, and I felt guilty about that because I think I'm just too old - 47, after all - to understand the whole DJ/remix phenomenon. Today, I still think it's a stupid disc, and in the meantime I've grown too old to feel guilty for thinking something's stupid.
The problem is that Reich Remixed comes across as blatantly condescending to Reich's music. It's as though the DJs listened to Piano Phase, Proverb, Music for 18 Musicians, and other fantastic Reich pieces and thought, "Hey, that's kind of nice. You could do something with that: add a backbeat, layer some vocals over it, it'd start to sound like real music. Then you could sell it." They were honoring Reich, sure, and having fun playing with someone else's notes, but in their bells-and-whistles variety is an element of implied criticism, that Reich's gradual processes and additive forms aren't sufficiently interesting by themselves.
This pop response to postclassical music - "Hey, you could do something with that" - is, it seems to me, not uncommon. (As Stockhausen similarly told Morton Feldman, "Your music could be a moment in my music.") The music that comes out of the various streams of minimalism, in particular, is pretty and restful, or maybe brooding and unusual, but too eccentric and austere for the pop ear. "If only the composer could have thought of more things to do with it." And pop musicians, devoting lifetimes to the 3- to 5-minute song form, seem to focus on timbre and sound quality, and miss the large-scale formal processes classical composers build their music around. (The converse is also true: classically trained composers, myself notably included, often show less sensitivity to details of sound quality than pop musicians.)
That's why I quit teaching my course American Music After Minimalism. For years and years I had yearned to teach this class, to have a chance to pass down everything I know about the Downtown scene, to lecture to fascinated students about the exact repertoire that I'm the leading expert on. But when I finally had the chance, I was very disappointed. For after every piece I played, whether Robert Ashley, Diamanda Galas, Glenn Branca, Annea Lockwood, Eve Beglarian, Mikel Rouse, didn't matter - the piece would end, and a student's hand would shoot up. "Yes?", I'd inquire. Invariable response: "I know a rock group sounds just like that." "Welllllll," I'd indulge dubiously, "why don't you bring in the recording and we"ll listen to it." And the kid would, and it would inevitably be some band that would start with a 20-second intro that sounded just like Ashley, or Diamanda, or Branca, etc., and then the drums would come in and the conventional song would take off and sound like any other pop song. I would patiently try to explain (while feeling that all was already lost if explanation were needed) that there's a decisive difference between opening a pop song with a 20-second weird drone and making a 90-minute-long piece of music that consisted of nothing else but a weird drone, like Alvin Lucier's Music on a Long Thin Wire. But my experimental-rock-obsessed students couldn't seem to think formally, or in increments longer than a minute: a sound was a sound, and if they'd heard that sound before, well, my new-music composers weren't really any better than their favorite pop groups.
And maybe they're right. Maybe the austerity of postclassical music is neurotic in some way. Maybe it's due to some mental or personal deficiency that we can listen to Lucier's voice slowly become indistinguishable over 45 minutes, or Ashley's calming voice mutter nonsequiturs for three hours, or for god's sake La Monte Young doodling on a bizarrely out-of-tune piano for six hours. But some of us feel a deep need to go out into a vast musical desert where we can commune with a sound or a process or a tuning and really get into it, and we don't want the route cluttered up with convenience stores and shopping malls. For many of us, the large-scale course of the piece is precisely the point, even (or especially) if it goes nowhere. We don't need distraction: we need focus. We don't need backbeats and chord progressions and the familiar accoutrements of everyday music to keep us from feeling like we've left home. With varying intentions and success, those Reich Remixed DJs did to Reich's music what the planners of Staples business supply stores do, make every store have exactly the same process and layout so that you never have to face the anxiety of being somewhere unfamiliar.
But the postclassical music I love most goes to the ends of the earth, through impenetrable forests and across harrowing mountain gorges, to take you to someplace far from daily life where you've never been before. And if most listeners taking that trip would feel compelled to set up 7-11s and Starbucks' along the way to make the route seem more consumer-friendly, I guess it's just as well that we don't often bring them along with us.
In response to my general query, a helpful reader has given me a helpfully non-technical rundown on how CDRs differ from CDs, from the machine's point of view. To avoid hearing from the lawyers of Sony, Verbatim, and Maxell, he wishes to remain anonymous, but his detailed account is much appreciated:
...[A]s it's been explained to me (by people who probably refer to me as a mouth-breather in the technology arena), while real CDs transmit the 0s and 1s to the computer by physical pits in the surface of the medium, CD-Rs do a fake version of that chemically.... When the player's laser encounters a pit, it registers a 0 or 1, and when it encounters no pit, it registers whatever the other one didn't .... CD-Rs mimic the level of shininess, or whatever, to the laser. Some media do that better than others, and some CD players - especially older ones, and especially especially older high-quality ones - seem to be calibrated so sensitively that the fake pits on CD-Rs simply are not "seen" by their lasers. I've seen many newer CD players on sale at Best Buy that now specifically say "reads CD-Rs and CD-RWs", meaning, I suppose, that their laser scanners are calibrated so as to expect the kind of surfaces that are encountered on most CD-Rs. Obviously that specification would not be on the specs page if the same problem you are having were not fairly common....
My experience is anecdotal, and goes like this: CD-R surfaces tend to be yellow, green, blue, or black (only Memorex has the black surface, and I had great luck on everything except one car CD player with them). I have read that the yellow surface ones have the longest life expectancy, though the yellow ones seem to have the most problems being read by any players. Green and blue ones seem to be the best ones, but they are not universally the best. The black ones, as I said, have been good on everything except one car (Toyota, alas) CD player.
Still, no hard and fast rules have emerged, and I have had to go by personal experience for the brands of CD-Rs I recommend. If I have sent an important professional CD to someone who calls to say he/she can't play it, then I've dropped that brand from my list. So at this point, I do not buy: store brand CD-Rs, Sony, Imation, Verbatim, or Maxell. I have had some problems with Memorex CD-Rs, but not the ones I've sent out, yet. So far, no problems with TDK and Fuji. My go-to brand is thus TDK when they are Staples, and Fuji when they are at BJ's. I also think the Memorex black ones are just COOOOOOL looking, so I get them when I can, and when I know I won't be listening to them in the car. I do NOT buy CD-RWs, which seem to be unreadable in at least 75 percent of all players manufactured. Other people may have exactly the OPPOSITE experience from me. Which is what makes the whole thing so frustrating.
The tech guy here says any really important CD should not be burned at any speed faster than 1x. I don't have time for that speed.
Well, I have a question to bring to the world. I finally have the technology to burn my own compact discs, and everything's almost unbelievably ducky. My one remaining problem in the world (aside from my new Toyota Prius whose transmission died after ten months, and Toyota wouldn't cover it under warranty - I'd love to tell you about it sometime) is, some CD players have a lot of trouble reading CDRs. My computer has never rejected a disc; my car stereo has only once rejected one; but my home CD players of the last few years, three of them (one bought only last Christmas), fail to access anywhere from 30 to 90 percent of the homemade discs I insert. And even if they read them, they often can't switch between access bands. How is this possible? Why do my computer and car stereo handle the scrungiest CD with no problem, while my home stereo is ridiculously picky? Isn't it the same technology? This has become a pretty serious issue for me.
And, if you send me a substantive answer - may I quote you here?
I went Friday night to hear my friend John Esposito and his band play at the Uptown in Kingston, NY. (Imagine making me visit a place called the Uptown; but Kingston is not Manhattan.) Esposito is the kind of jazz pianist for whom jazz is still a dauntingly rigorous discipline, and his band - Eric Person on sax, Greg Glassman on trumpet, Kenny Davis on bass, and Pete O'Brien on drums - is made up of people able to meet exacting standards. The tunes were mostly Esposito's own, carefully defined but with harmonies and rhythms often too complex for me to follw. There were bass patterns that when you started counting turned out to be odd lengths like ten or eleven beats, but seemed normal enough at first because they dovetailed so smoothly. Gesturally the music was all over the place, but harmonically so tight that you could always sense a level of control. Unlike the kind of free improv where anything goes, this kind of jazz is still akin to the tightrope walk, the acrobat flight, the death-defying leap. Because while the energy level was that of a feeding frenzy (especially O'Brien, whose frantic polyrhythms ranged far from the meter only to land magically on the downbeat, like an Indian tabla player), the aims remained precise and clear, and a misstep would have truly led to disaster.
The contradictory pressures that Esposito puts on his music to be 1) enormously fluid and virtuosic, and 2) harmonically and rhythmically exact remind me of a competitive, gunslinging, self-challenging strain in jazz that goes back to the early stride pianists, and that hasn't existed in the classical world for decades. I'm thinking of what stride pianists ("ticklers") were expected to be able to do back in the 1920s, as recounted by the great James P. Johnson:
Every tickler had his special trademark chord, like a signal.... Then they'd do a run up and down the piano - a scale or arpeggios - or if they were real good they might play a set of modulations, very offhand, as if there was nothing to it. They'd look around idly to see if there were any chicks near the piano.... At this time, they'd drift into a rag, any kind of pretty stuff, but without tempo, particularly without tempo. Some ticklers would sit sideways to the piano, cross their legs and go on chatting with friends near by. It took a lot of practice to play this way.... Then, without stopping the smart talk or turning back to the piano, he'd attack without any warning, smashing right into the regular beat of the piece. That would knock them dead.
That's the attitude: that you have to have incredible chops, and that you have to be able to prove you have such chops by your astounding feats.
I imagine that European classical music used to be more like that back in the 18th century, when every composer needed to be able to improvise a fugue onstage. Back then, performance conditions were more like they are in jazz today: audiences applauded not only at the ends of movements, but after a particularly good tune, and everyone enjoyed seeing a composer meet the challenge of improvising on a theme dictated by someone in the audience. The late-18th/early 19th-century composer/performer was more of a tightrope walker. At the sensationalist extreme, Mozart, showing off, even played in public with a cloth over the keyboard so he couldn't see the keys.
What Esposito's performance, and my frequent conversations with him, make clear is that for all their rampant hybridization in recent years, classical music and jazz remain at contrasting stages of development. As he and I are always agreeing, a young jazz musician today has to know jazz theory and history backward to get gigs; classical musicians, assuming they're fluent on their instruments, can get by knowing much less. A cellist can play in a Shostakovish symphony without knowing how to resolve a German sixth chord, but a sax player who wants to join the band in a Bird tune better know her flat-five chords and where the tritone subs go - counter to the hallowed stereotype that classical musicians are heavier on academics. As for composers, an excess of braininess during the 12-tone era led to so much ear-unfriendly, cerebral music that braininess has become suspect in the classical world, and a healthy dollop of ignorance, even amateurishness, almost seems an asset in a postclassical composer. No one knows what composing "chops" are anymore.
More essentially, though, postclassical music does not set itself rigorous tasks in such a way that failure would be evident. Everyone knows how a fugue, or a traditional sonata, is supposed to work, and when a classical composer tried one, he risked failure and embarrassment. Today's composers set themselves up against no such risk. What's valued in the postclassical composer at the moment (I'm thinking here of younger figures successful on the orchestra circuit, like Michael Torke, Steve Mackey, or Michael Gordon) is a kind of audacity, a nose-thumbing eccentricity, a charade of going against the rules even though everyone secretly knows there aren't any rules anymore - for example, repeating a melodic riff, or sustaining a harmony, long past the point at which a classical composer would have yielded to the desire for variety. A postclassical piece can't really fail, in a way, because the moment you impose an objective standard on it, it laughs at you for being so old-fashioned as to have objective standards. It is itself, in a sense, a joke about the fiction of objective standards. The only failure a postclassical piece courts is a lack of consistency, an inability to carry out its own eccentricity to its final conclusion without flinching.
So which is better? to set your aims clearly and risk not achieving them, or to explore without aim and just see what happens? It's sort of like asking whether it's better to be 23 or 47, better to live in London or Utah, better to throw a nickel into the air and shoot a hole through it or throw a fistful of nickels to watch them bounce - and I know arguments for both. What intrigues me is that I find in jazz - at least Esposito's kind of complex, disciplined jazz - a living window through which we can look back at what classical music used to be: a difficult, challenging art with inviolable rules and the spine-tingling risk of objective failure. And given that view maybe we can judge whether, and how far, we want to move back in that direction again.
(As always, John, thanks for the insights.)
First the good news: Roulette as a presenting organization will live on. Now the bad: Roulette the new-music performance space at 228 West Broadway, Manhattan, has closed down. I'm sentimental about it, for during all the years I was most active at the Village Voice, Roulette was the Downtown space where I went to the most concerts, and it was, in its low-expectation new-music way, perfect. It was the right size - an audience of seven people (which I've seen there) wasn't embarrassingly few, and probably 70 could squeeze in and create a feeling of collective excitement. It was sufficiently formal to encourage musical focus, but not so it felt stuffy or distant from the performer/composer. I just don't feel comfortable in the kind of Knitting Factory/Tonic atmosphere where there are no printed programs, nobody knows where the press list is, you don't know what's going on or whom you're hearing, the volume is pumped up to hell and the acoustics are terrible, where you're squeezed in with 75 sweaty 22-year-olds who are applauding wildly because they have no prior experience and no basis for judgment. Roulette was a good step and a half up from that. Jim Staley and David Weinstein, who ran the place, were composers with a long history of presenting (back to Chicago in the 1970s), and they were selfless, and had taste. But a few years ago a bar opened downstairs and shook Roulette's floor with its own goddamned 130-decibel Muzak, and after that Roulette - which I suppose was legally supposed to be Staley's apartment, not a performance space - ceased to enjoy its full advantages as a venue. This changes has been a long time coming, and as Staley's notification letter says, "we chose not to fight the legal battle that might have earned us more years in the space. It would have been expensive, ugly and perhaps endless. Instead we see this as an opportunity to develop the organization and take the view that we have finally outgrown the space."
So it's not an occasion to mourn. Roulette has a series on electronic arts at Location One in Soho, October 9 - 19 and November 12th - 23. Plus, later they'll be giving concert series' uptown at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia at Symphony Space, doing work at the Flea, and giving their usual Festival of Mixology at the Performing Garage next June. You can read all about it at their web site, www.roulette.org. They're presenting it as the beginning of a new incarnation, and have plans for a possible more permanent space in Brooklyn, with 260 seats and superb acoustics. Meanwhile, the old space will remain their recording studio and business headquarters. All the best to them in their transition, and may their audience increase.
Just a coincidental historical note: When Staley and Weinstein moved to Chicago from Champaign-Urbana to bring Roulette to Chicago in the late 1970s, they brought it to N.A.M.E. Gallery. Then they went on to New York. A few years later, in 1984, I became director of N.A.M.E., and resuscitated the new music series there that had died when Roulette left. I used to go through all the old N.A.M.E. files and read all the Roulette literature. Then, in 1986 I followed them to New York, and always felt a connection to them as a fellow Midwestern transplant.
Well, I have to retract one item I said wasn't available on CD: the Bernstein recording of Roy Harris's Third Symphony. There were a few years when this was true, and the only CD of the piece out there was by (once again) Neeme Jarvi, but the great old 1961 Bernstein recording finally appeared, and I forgot that's the one I have. There are also a couple of CDs of the Harris Seventh. So the first nine symphonies of this once-celebrated American romantic can be found - but what about the last five, which seem never to have been recorded?
I was dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, but I've learned to love it. Over the summer the hard drive on my Mac G3 laptop crumpled over in agony, and I spent a week cursing technology. A technician was able to retrieve all my info except for my Eudora e-mail box (in case some of you out there wonder why you never heard back from me). But perforce I bought a G4 with 10 times the hard drive space - enough to handle humongous audio files - and a CD burner. And now, with some cheap audio software my son gave me, I'm making my own compact discs. The world has changed. Reality seems almost frighteningly malleable.
Of course, my students have been blithely making their own CDs by the truckload for years, while we nearsighted faculty futzed around with cassettes and begged for transferring favors. Now that I'm finally independent, I've been putting all my recordings of my own music, back to 1976, on CDs. Some of this stuff has been lying around on reel-to-reels and cassettes for decades, the audio quality definitely not mellowing with age. At least for now, I've digitally halted further deterioration. I can now also carry my collected recordings of my own music around on my computer, nine hours' worth to play on the slightest encouragement, and to run off CDs of in any configuration a friend pretends to want. Ever try to listen to nine hours of your own music in succession, early and recent, good and bad? You could slit your wrists. I'm a walking CD factory, and if you run into me, it's not safe to express any interest.
The more enduring and self-indulgently time-wasting project, though, is transferring to CD all my cherished old vinyl records that you can't get on CD. All that wonderful audio that has for years seemed imprisoned in a cumbersome vinyl collection has now been freed, like a genie out of a bottle. I'll never relinquish my vinyl, but playing it for classes is nigh-impossible, and practically, I just never listen to vinyl for casual pleasure. Yet the more I look through my collection, the more the number and prominence of great discs that never made it to CD astonishes me. A partial list of the records I've transferred may serve as a stark reminder of the great art our culture can casually leave behind:
Stravinsky: Threni and Requiem Canticles. The only way I've found to get Threni is on a several-dozen-disc set of Columbia's complete Stravinsky, and I'm not sure you can get Stravinsky's own recording of Requiem Canticles at all, which I prefer to the sole available recording by Neeme Jarvi on a two-disc set with Le Sacre. I'm not wild about all of Stravinsky's 12-tone music - Abraham and Isaac and Movements leave me cold - but Threni and Requiem Canticles are superb, fearlessly unconventional, so avant-garde they sound ancient, and absolutely top-shelf. Had 12-tone music gotten off to this kind of start, rather than that of Schoenberg's Variations, its history might have unfolded in a far more interesting pattern. I have a secret theory that Morton Feldman learned a lot from the "Interlude" of Requiem Canticles, and he is on record as having known the piece. Considering how many recordings there are of Firebird and Le Sacre, it's alarming how difficult it is to find on CD Stravinsky works that used to be quite well known, like the "Ebony" Concerto and Danses Concertantes.
Carl Ruggles: Complete Works. Come to think of it, this list may become a chronicle of all the great old Columbia recordings that they won't release the rights for, and churlishly refuse to reissue. You can find Sun-Treader on DGG, a few other things on CRI, but what about Portals, Toys, Vox Clamans in Deserto, Evocations with John Kirkpatrick playing, and that wonderfully quirky swansong Exaltation? Not available today that I can find.
Charles Ives: "Concord" Sonata with John Kirkpatrick. Another Columbia holdout. How can an Ives fanatic live without the first, seminal, definitive recording of this work?
Giancarlo Cardini: Sonata No. 1 and other piano works (Edipan). You've never heard of him, but he's my favorite living European composer, a superb harmonist, something of a postminimalist romantic between Morton Feldman and Robert Schumann.
William Walton: Facade, the Argo recording with narrators John Scofield and Peggy Ashcroft. More recent recordings, which can condescend to Edith Sitwell's lovely poems, just don't measure up to this one Walton conducted himself with two accomplished British actors. A wonderful classic of the 1920s, unlike anything else in the literature.
Dane Rudhyar: Early piano music. This astrologer-composer was a major force in the 1920s and an agent of musical mysticism, hailing from Scriabin territory but better than Scriabin. Michael Sellars and Dwight Peltzer recorded his sonorous early Pentagrams and Tetragrams, and then they virtually disappeared.
Terry Riley: Happy Ending, Journey from the Death of a Friend, Lifespan - these are some of Riley's best vinyl sides ever, from obscure European labels, with his smooth soprano sax echoed via tape delay. He's rarely sounded so good since, yet these pieces remain almost unknown.
Luigi Dallapiccola: Piccola Musica Notturna - one of the warmest 12-tone pieces ever written: smooth, lucid, and sensuous, recorded on Argo with Busoni's gorgeously chromatic Berceuse Elegiaque in its orchestral version.
Schoenberg: Complete Music for Chamber Ensemble, David Atherton conducting on Decca. Contains some of Schoenberg's most charming, and therefore predictably least-known, works, such as his Weihnachtsmusik (a lovely chamber fantasy fusing "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" with "Silent Night"), Ein Stelldichein, and Herzegewachse - the very pieces that remind me that I sometimes actually like listening to Schoenberg - in stellar performances by the London Sinfonietta players.
Ivan Wyschnegradsky: various works by this Scriabin-influenced Russian mystic, for two pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart, and for three pianos tuned a sixth-tone apart, from McGill University records that were never widely available.
The Reflexe series of medieval music - some of it's been selectively reissued, but not the Studio der Fruhen Musik's wonderful reconstruction of hymns by the castrated 12th-century philosopher Peter Abelard.
Roy Harris: Symphonies 7 (his second best) and 4, along with the great old Bernstein recording of the 3rd, the definitive interpretation of what was and in some ways remains The Great American Symphony.
Harry Partch: Barstow, the expanded chamber version on Columbia, which represented Partch's last revision of the piece and the best performance ever captured. Another unconscionable Columbia holdout.
Ben Johnston: String Quartet No. 4, "Amazing Grace," with the Fine Arts Quartet on Gasparo. The Fine Arts does a better job with the tuning of this seminal and well-loved microtonal work than the Kronos does.
Cornelius Cardew: Memorial Concert, 1982 - an uneven but important document of the 20th century's most thoughtful political composer.
I'm sure a few people will write to tell me that one or another of these pieces can be found on CD, but I won't give points for ones listed as "out of stock" on Amazon. Aside from Cardini and Wyschnegradsky, who are private obsessions of mine, these are hardly obscure composers, and most of this is music I play for classes and friends year after year - on cassette, up until now. I get this poignant sense of trying to drag along with me into the future recordings and works I fell in love with as a young man. Did they really never catch on? Is posterity just as blind as the present? And then, within recent weeks, Arts Journal has run articles on the imminent death of the compact disc, and the brief lifespan of recordable CDs. In what medium can an old man preserve the life-changing recordings of his youth? The beauty of the rose is in its passing: must the same be true for audio data storage?
Thanks to his column on New Music Box, I've been alerted by my friend and fellow blogger Greg Sandow that Tom Johnson's 1992 book of Village Voice reviews, The Voice of New Music, is being offered as a free download on the internet. This is a dream come true. I already had the book in print, of course, but I have frequently needed to look through it for references to certain composers, or even phrases I remember Tom saying. Now, with it on my computer (I chose it as a Word file rather than a PDF), I can search even a word or two I remember. Tom's innovative writing, which set a new standard for the nonjudgmental consideration of crazily experimental music, remains the only major historical document for the Downtown Manhattan scene of the 1970s.
By the way, to forestall a frequent question, a book of my own Village Voice reviews is supposed to appear sometime in coming months. It's titled Music Downtown, and is coming from the University of California Press. It will NOT be offered as a free download. Not yet, anyway.
As my post before last reported, a fellow critic brought me up short for tossing off the brainless comment that Boulez's and Carter's music is no good because it's unmemorable. That I could utter such a thing shows what many years as a newspaper critic can do to a writer. As atonement, it took me 1642 words to accurately convey the nuances of my long-evolved opinions of Boulez and Carter.
Now, if I wanted to publish 1642 words in print today, where would I go? Nowhere I can think of. When I started at the Village Voice in 1986, my column was 950 words long (though I could get a luxurious 1700 by asking in advance). It shrank to 900 words, then 750, and lately 650. When you've got only 650 words in which to express the distilled experience of a lifetime, you start writing in shorthand. Opinions and principles that are not your central focus get squeezed into a sentence, and then lose a couple more words in editing. So if you've spent a lifetime going back and forth about the music of Elliott Carter, charmed by some pieces and bored by others, and after much analysis, listening, and soul-searching deciding that he's got his strengths but is not the Great American Master he's cracked up to be - and you're referring to him in a 650-word article that is not about Elliott Carter - all that accumulated wisdom gets boiled down to: "Carter's music isn't memorable." Because you've got four words to spare.
Tragically, you can get used to writing this way.
This is what music criticism is reduced to today. We critics are told that it's up to us to defend classical (aaaaaaaaand postclassical) music in the public marketplace - but the newspapers have taken away our tanks, bazookas, and machine guns and left us armed with garbage can lids and pea shooters. The space crunch is everywhere, in every publication. It used to be, when I'd write for the New York Times, they'd ask me one of the sweetest questions a writer can hear: "How many words do you need?" No longer. Articles that would have once garnered 2000 or 2500 words now get half that. And according to what editors tell me, this is true across the board. In the mid-1990s, the Times cut its arts coverage by 25% and the Voice laughed at them; then the Voice did the same thing. Arts sections have shrunk still further since then. Photos get bigger in search of allegedly nonliterate young readers, sidebars supposedly attract net-heads, advertisers buy up more and more space, and we critics cling to the edge of the printed page by our fingernails. I don't blame my editors, who appreciate good writing and hand down such fiats with manifest regret. I'm told paper tripled in price during the 1990s, putting column inches at a premium, and in today's "cultural atmosphere" (if I may so dignify it), arts coverage is given a priority somewhere below women's jai alai.
As my elliptical Carter comment makes clear, it's not just that arts coverage in city newspapers has decreased anywhere from 33 to 83 percent, but that as quantity declines, quality erodes even more precipitously. There are so many points that can?t be made in 650 words. A substantive argument squeezed into such a small space is a leaky vessel put to sea without its holes plugged up. If the writer knows what the potential objections to his argument are, he can counter them in advance - but not if he only has three or four paragraphs to work with. And when I know I won't have enough space to make an argument air-tight, I will generally just not make it, and restrict myself to more superficial points. Lack of enough space to consider an argument from all sides encourages - almost forces - the writer to censor himself, and not say controversial things because he can't fully back them up. Limiting a writer to just a few column inches may not seem like censorship in principle. But it is in practice.
That's not to say that word count limits can't have a salutary effect on writing, especially early in a critic's career. I started out at the Chicago Reader and at Fanfare magazine, neither of which (in those heady days, at least) imposed space limitations at all, and my early articles of 2000 words and more probably weren't as disciplined as they should have been. Coming to the Voice and having to stay within my 950 words a week was a good tonic - it taught me to prioritize what I most wanted to say, stick to colorful points, avoid academically roundabout ways of speaking, and resist the temptation to settle scores with impertinent asides. But after several years of such discipline a critic gets in the habit of going back over his work, striking out adverbs, activizing passive verbs, cutting the longer and less colorful example of an idea stated twice. My editors are now in agreement that I turn in clean copy, and since I'm not edited (by others) here, you may judge the results yourself. Even so, when I read some old newspaperman from the early 20th century like George Orwell, back from when newsprint was considered a worthless enough substance to be prodigal with, I enjoy the roominess of his prose style, his ability to reinforce and round off his points rather than check them off like a grocery list. A comfortable redundancy in prose style is not necessarily a bad thing.
Now, in a print page of limited word count, this paragraph I just completed would have been the first to go - it contradicts my main point, after all. But without it, a journalism-savvy reader could look at the remainder of this essay and respond, "Bullshit, strict word count limits make a writer sharpen up his argument," dismissing my article and passing on. I would have lost the chance to answer, to make the reader aware of my partial concessions and the contradictory lessons long experience has taught me. And that's exactly what happens to arts criticism in print these days. The critic states an opinion and doesn't have space to contextualize, to show that he's aware of secondary virtues or has already considered opposing points of view. Discussion then starts from the unnuanced clash of naked competing opinions, and never reaches the more fertile common ground of, "Yes, of course I realize that, but...."
It's often noted about TV news that we've become a soundbite culture, and only unsubtle points statable in a sentence or two ever get through the corporate filter. The principle also operates in the print world, even where word quantities are larger. As word counts decrease, we are prevented from taking the arts as seriously as they deserve, and we trivialize them against our will. Many insights never get expressed at all. Newspaper legend H. L. Mencken famously stated that "An intelligent person should be able to write 750 words about anything," which is true; but it follows that no very profound statement can be commonly expected from 750 words. Opportunities for a Gettysburg Address are created by history, and do not arrive often.
So thank god (or rather, Al Gore) for the internet. As I sit here and write with no word limit in sight, I feel my very soul re-unfolding as though through StuffIt Expander. For 20 years as a print critic I've increasingly lived with my opinions and perceptions telescoped and packed away in convenient little boxes, the musical experience of a lifetime abbreviated into staccato Morse code, and myself painfully reminded now and then that I'm wiser than I almost ever get to sound. (I think it can be taken as a truism that any critic in a newspaper is smarter than he looks.) As a reader, I have a long attention span, and I love a good, long article that covers its subject thoroughly. I trust that only similar readers will become my regular audience. In the lavishly furnished virtual foxholes of the web, we critics may once again have enough room to fight back.
Only problem is - I used to finish a lot of those lengthy newspaper articles in the smallest room of my house, and not many people can take their computers into the bathroom. (Actually, I'm told reading on the john is something only men do, so half the population is apparently unaffected by this deficiency.)
Word count: 1441.
Has anyone else heard the bit of tag music on National Public Radio that uses the 12-note "tune" from Steve Reich's Piano Phase? This morning I was listening to the news, and between items a little snippet of synthesized music came on for six or eight seconds, just long enough for me to grasp why it seemed oddly familiar: no phase-shifting, just the note pattern repeated over and over. Is Reich getting royalties for that? Does he know? Or did some wise guy in the sound studio perform a sly bit of larceny? It's always good to hear a postclassical classic on the air, no matter how morally dubious the circumstances.
Astute reader and fellow critic Marc Geelhoed took exception to my dismissive remarks about Pierre Boulez and Elliott Carter, and did so intelligently. My attitude, he says,
comes across as a simplistic rejection of their respective styles. You wrote that their music is "difficult to remember," but this "It's not easy to hum" is lousy grounds for critical acceptance, like saying that the Aladdin soundtrack is superior to Brahms, just 'cuz you can remember all the melodies... You criticize composers for not meeting criteria they don't pretend to aspire to,... namely, instant memorability.... It's not a matter of pretentious vs. approachable, it's a matter of compositional technique as well as the aim of each composer....
He's right. Of course I don't equate easy memorability with quality, though my comments did seem to point in that direction. My relationship with the musics of Carter and Boulez has been complex and changing, but as a critic of Downtown music, I rarely have an opportunity to write about them with much nuance. But what's a blog for?
In my early teens, I discovered Ives's "Concord" Sonata and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. Both were incomprehensible but fascinating, and I kept listening over and over and over until I totally fell in love. Next came Carter's Double Concerto and Second String Quartet, and I assumed the same thing would happen. All through college and grad school I avidly followed every new Carter premiere, bought his scores and recordings, listened dozens of times, analyzed what I could. Then, one day in the early 1980s, I was listening to the Double Concerto with the score again for what was at least my 50th time. And the thought popped into my head: "I've studied this piece and studied it for over ten years, and I don't give a damn if I ever hear it again." I closed the score, and never listened to the piece closely again until I wrote my American music book in 1995. In a way, what drove me away from the music was its unmemorability. There's a tremendous pleasure in becoming familiar with something as mammoth, dense, and complex as the "Concord" Sonata, and learning to love every skewed little harmonic implication. But while I had the general overall plan of the Double Concerto in my head, and could anticipate the climaxes and piano and harpsichord cadenzas, the vast majority of the pitch complexes just never imprinted themselves on my memory. (You can assume I have lousy ears if you want, but when I entered grad school the professor who administered the ear-training entrance exam told me I did better on it than he could have. It included some Stravinsky 12-tone vocal music that I transcribed correctly, including the solo vocalist's quarter-tone mistakes.) Though by then fond of Ives, Stravinsky, Cage, Stockhausen, and even Babbitt's wonderful Philomel, I had failed to develop the slightest affection for the Carter Double Concerto after dozens, maybe hundreds of listenings.
And it wasn't just listening. In the '70s every young composer analyzed Carter's Second String Quartet, and I was no exception. I started with loads of enthusiasm, but increasingly found the ideas unmusical: especially that the tritones were all in the viola, the perfect fifths all in the second violin (or whatever - I disremember the details), which isn't something one can hear in a polyphonic texture. It's a stupid idea, really. And as fanatical as I am about tempo contrasts, Carter's seemed mechanical and musically unmotivated. I came to think that Carter had invested a lot of time in overly literal aspects of music that didn't appeal to the ear. As I'm always reminding my students, art isn't about reality, it's about appearances.
And yet, I never turned against all of Carter's music. I've always been fond of his Quartet for Flute, Oboe, Cello, and Harpsichord (which I plan to analyze for class in my next Advanced Analysis Seminar at Bard), and also like his First String Quartet, Piano Sonata, and Cello Sonata. These transitional works he wrote between 1948 and 1952 seem poised exquisitely between his neoclassic period and complex atonalism, and for a few years there I thought he perfectly cross-hatched the near-tonality of his Boulanger years with the intervallic precision of serialist technique. But then he visited Darmstadt and started one-upping the Europeans, apparently, and from the orchestral Variations of 1955 on I find his music lacking in personality. So it's true I don't like most of Carter's music because it isn't memorable, but simplicity is not the only key to memorability. The F,O,C,&H Quartet is not necessarily simpler than the Carter Piano Concerto, but its pitch choices seem much more meaningful, not nearly so bland and randomly scattered.
Except for Le marteau, Boulez is a different story. In youth I attacked that piece with all the fanatacism of a new convert: read Musique aujourd-hui (of which Boulez eventually autographed my copy for me), did what analysis I could, and even did an independent tutorial learning to conduct the piece. But here again, I eventually came back to the piece in the late 1980s and realized that, after so many years of devotion, I couldn't meaningfully tell one movement from another, aside from the instrumentation. If someone had come out with a recording of Le marteau with half the pitches transposed by half-steps one way or the other, I wouldn't have been able to tell the difference. (I also analyzed every note of the Boulez Second Sonata before hearing it, and was so brainwashed that, when I finally heard it, I cried over its beauty. Today I wouldn't recognize that piece in a blindfold test.) Ultimately, I think Boulez was trying to be very avant-garde in Le marteau, but didn't really know what he was doing yet, and made lousy pitch choices. I've run into a surprising number of composers who have exactly the same opinion, and who were afraid to mention it for years.
But that's not my opinion of Boulez in general. His next work to grab public attention was dynamite: Pli selon pli, a lovely atmospheric piece with a highly original rhythmic sense and sensuous textures, and one he conducts gorgeously on disc. It seems to me that what happened next was that Boulez's confidence failed him. He left so many pieces unfinished, and after a long dry spell, came out in the 1980s with Notations - a thick orchestration of a not-very-interesting piano piece from his student years. My favorite Boulez piece besides Pli, the 1973 memorial for Maderna called Rituel (I heard the exhilarating American premiere in Cleveland), seems like an anomaly in his output, an abandonment of serialism for an almost minimalist concentration on evolving melodic contours. (His much-heralded Repons picked up this thread to some extent.) So I don't see Boulez as a bad composer, but as a failed composer who got sidetracked into conducting and administration and never lived up to the exquisite promise evident in Pli selon pli. But I do hear Le marteau as a terribly overrated, lackluster youthful indiscretion, and even some of his later pieces like Doubles and Explosante Fixe as perfunctory.
Certainly I love the music of a whole host of atonalists who, in most people's minds, would hardly differ from Boulez and Carter. Among the Darmstadt serialists, I always felt Stockhausen and Boulez grabbed the attention via political means, when the more talented, less dogmatic composers were Bruno Maderna (who died young, and whose music is seductively sensuous), Luigi Nono, and Henri Pousseur. All three of these were able to make pitch a secondary concern in their music, and put timbre and atmosphere at center stage; or in Pousseur's case, theatricality. Nono's Contrappunto dialettico alla mente wowed me again when I heard it recently, and I've been waiting for decades for the world to make a big deal out of Maderna's gorgeous Grande Aulodia and Pousseur's dashingly collage-based opera Votre Faust. One has to wonder why the most doctrinaire, least interesting composers in a scene are allowed to rise to the top.
As for Carter, I always felt it was Stefan Wolpe who better achieved what Carter was aiming at. I would have a difficult time explaining to a nonmusician what it is I greatly prefer in Wolpe to Carter, Davidovsky, Wuorinen, or most of the American atonalists. But despite Wolpe's density his music is endlessly playful, and though it can be as opaque as anyone's for stretches, every single piece has moments that stand out vividly, and spring up in hearing after hearing like old friends.
To repeat, simplicity is not the only, or even primary, key to memorability. A subtle sense of harmony and voice-leading, even in an atonal context, is very important, and not many 12-tone composers managed that; the Italians, Dallapiccola, Maderna, and Nono, were superb in that regard, and underrated. I feel that Boulez's sense of harmony in Le marteau, and Carter's in the music from Variations on, were extremely weak. And though I may have strayed far from my original point, I do think this is at least partly related to a refusal to anchor the music in simple pitch cells. Thus my too-dismissive attitude toward Boulez and Carter: not simply that their music leaves me cold, nor that they've wielded more power in the music world than they deserve, nor yet that they became emblematic of a gray, bureaucratic music (though that's all true), but that I invested many years of enthusiasm in both of them - and they disappointed me.
Sites To See
AJ BlogsAJBlogCentral | rss
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
rock culture approximately
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
No genre is the new genre
David Jays on theatre and dance
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
John Rockwell on the arts
innovations and impediments in not-for-profit arts
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Martha Bayles on Film...
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
Joe Horowitz on music
Jerome Weeks on Books
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world
Public Art, Public Space
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog