PostClassic: November 2003 Archives
Something else I meant to add about my students and the piano: Perhaps it's just Bard culture, but I see many students today, perhaps a majority, coming to musical creativity from the guitar rather than the piano, as they used to, or any other instrument. This could have profound consequences. In the Renaissance, composers usually got their start as child singers. Baroque and Classical composers were often string players (Corelli and Haydn, the violin; Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, the viola). Romantic and modern composers were more often than not pianists. Such choices have profound consequences, and if there really is a sea-change of composers now coming from the guitar world rather than the piano, that alone could bring about a rift in musical eras. Berlioz, who played the clarinet and guitar, was almost the only non-pianist composer of his era, and as a result became its most innovative orchestrator. Guitarists visualize music theory in more contextual, less fixed and abstract, ways than pianists do. Interval size is less of a constant for them, melodies more conveniently leap throughout the register than proceed by steps, and their instruments are easily retunable and portable, tremendously louder (if electric), and carrying no upper-class connotations. By their 20s, these composers have been conditioned by a completely different relationship to pitch and volume than the pianist-composers of my generation and earlier. I'm curious as to whether professors in other music departments notice the same demographic change.
And this is not to even mention the other new musical instrument nearly as ubiquitous as the guitar: the laptop computer.
Matt Wellins add his own words to my account of his postclassical approach to writing for classical instruments:
Just wanted to clarify: The piano does speak to me as a cultural icon, though not necessarily one that reeks of "high European culture." As you said, it is very much in any number of different worlds. I think we even discussed several other composers in addition to Cage and Feldman today, I think Nancarrow and Zorn came up. But hell, any number of 20th century composers seem to have reinvented the piano, I can't believe Messiaen hasn't been mentioned yet.
The question, then, for me, is which piano history do I choose? This is that "postclassical" dilemma again, even the genre mash-ups of any number of Downtown composers seem dated (I mean, with Ives' work, another great piano mind, going back to the early 1900s, let's face facts, even 'post' isn't so 'post'). I wonder if the problem isn't every composer's problem. That is, to find an approach that is decidely personal, in face of a detrimentally influential history. This, however, only deals with half the issue. What I want to achieve and what I imagine listeners hearing are two very different things.
Despite all of these reinventions of the piano, could I lightly tap birdsong on the keys, and expect people to think of Messiaen? Did Messiaen's audience honestly confuse the piano with birds? Even our perceptions of Cage as the liberator of ego-driven approach or Feldman as the liberator of timbre and space, seem possible for an audience to completely ignore. In fact, even fans of Cage and Feldman, in general, might not have the fetishistic dedication to their work that truly reveals the mentioned distinctions.
I'm completely cognizant of the great tradition of experimentations within the boundaries of piano. I'm worried that at the end of the day, people will hear the tritest aspect of my work. That they won't be listening from the "bottom upwards", as opposed to me working from the "outside inwards", that instead they will be hearing the "High European culture" if I compose a piece to be performed at the Fisher Performing Arts Center, or the "Jazz" culture if I'm playing Bud Powell, or the "Rock" if I'm playing Jerry Lee Lewis. They will hear the piano in regards to any of those cultures, any of those lineages, any of those worlds..but they will not HEAR the piano in the sensual, Feldman way, they will hear it in regards to something else. Who knows exactly what.
Maybe my fears about the audience are unfounded or condescending, I don't know. Some of these feelings are drawn from my own skepticism in listening. Everything seems to point back to attempting to re-establish a dominant folk culture - something regional, instead of historical, something participatory, but not hokey, something shared, remembered, and collectively created..Something that exists for the pure joy of music and music-making, rather than the hierarchy and the historical constraints.
North Carolina composer and faithful reader Lawrence Dillon also weighs in with an interesting perspective, traditional yet perhaps in today's climate bracingly revisionist:
I enjoyed your musings on Matt Wellins's problems with writing for piano. You correctly call his misgivings "nonsense" because the piano is capable of so much flexibility, but there's another level of nonsense to his position: one can make a case that any medium of artistic expression is tainted by cultural associations. Electronic music, with its reliance on technology, is an easy case in point: technology distances us from one another, lines the pockets of unscrupulous corporations, employs near-slaves in foreign sweatshops, finds ever more effective ways to wipe out entire populations, destroys the environment, etc.
The piano, on the other hand, served as one of history's most effective means of connecting amateur with professional musicians, enabled countless members of oppressed races to sidestep segregation, provided a cultural connection for young people who couldn't excel at sports, wedded the mental, emotional and physical acts of making music through a single, consistent sonority, etc.
Rather than not buying into the illusion of transparency, we should encourage our students not to buy into rationalized constructs of political necessity. These constructs are usually used to give the illusion of objectivity to what is, and should be, a subjective choice. The composer's job is to write what s/he wants to hear. Period. It's not necessary to consider any type of music-making outdated or culturally inferior in order to justify ones tastes and artistic needs.
It's certainly true that "rationalized constructs of political necessity" are all around us today, and there is much pressure to buy into them. For instance, the recording companies tell us that the extremely constricted range of what they intend to sell is coextensive with what the public wants; of course, no intelligent, naunced research is done to determine whether this is true, and for decades we composers assumed that the public's taste was devloving toward lowest-common-denominator pop. Only in the last few years have I seen people realize and assert that the corporate drive toward drivel is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Perhaps the alleged association of classical music conventions with upper-class elitism has its origin in similar political motivations.
[P.S. - or P.B., or whatever the correct abbreviation might be for an updated blog entry: Responses are leading me to think that I may have inadvertantly misrepresented Matt's point. It's not that it's difficult to write for piano because of its European, elitist connotations - as he puts it, it's "Which history do I choose?" For composers used to dealing directly with sampled sounds that carry specific extramusical connotations, the idea of merely using simple notes and abstract intervals comes to seem rather meaningless. The same might have been said for composers of musique concrete 40 years ago, but the feeling is far more prevalent today among young composers who have grown up with recording software. Music, in this respect, has become more like painting, photography, theater, and performance art, which have long dealt with social realities. Especially coming from a pop music world in which every sound, every chord, every timbre, every singing style seems to point to some social provenance, today's young computer composers deal with more connotative aspects of sound. Trying to paint a picture in the undifferentiated notes of a piano, then, must feel like painting entirely in one-inch squares, or in black and white.]
Speaking of the piano, I've been cleaning out my garage, and I found (among many, many other sentimental items you'd be grateful I'm sparing you) a cassette tape of the piano recital I gave as a high school senior, on May 18, 1973, at Skyline High School in Dallas. The program was ambitious, well over an hour, and, as you can see, studded with 20th-century American music, for which I was already a staunch advocate:
Johannes Brahms: Rhapsody in E-flat, Op. 119
Robert Muczynski: Solitude
" " : Night Rain
" " : Jubilee
George Rochberg: "Prologue" from Sonata-Fantasia (1956)
Kent Kennan: Three Preludes (1938)
John Cage: 4'33" (1952)
Kyle Gann: Commentary on Hope and Meaninglessness (1973)
" " : Impacts (1973)
William Swafford: "Ah, Ja! Ein Kleiderschrank" (1973)
Marcus McDaniel: Four Pieces (1973)
Alexander Scriabin: Etude in D# Minor, Op. 8, No.12
Aaron Copland: Piano Sonata (1939-41)
Frederick Chopin: Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53
Yes, that's right, at the age of 17 I played 4'33" for my bewildered friends and their parents, though with a lengthy explanation of Cage's philosophy preceeding it, so the audience sat obediently quiet. Marcus McDaniel and William Swafford were friends of mine; Marcus subsequently went into computers for a living, but we're still in touch. Kennan and Muczynski were middle-of-the-road composers better known then than they are today. I must say, I played pretty damn well, which I no longer do today, and I won't ask you to take my word for it - out of pure vanity I've temporarily put the Copland Sonata performance on my web site, at kylegann.com (scroll down to the bottom if you're really intrigued). The thing I regret most about my life is that I didn't maintain my pianistic skills, because I get tremendous pleasure from playing: but around 1983 I started typing instead of practicing, and it took over my life. The moral here, kids, is Practice! Practice, practice, practice, and never stop!
Somewhere between me and Matt Wellins lies the postclassical dilemma. Matt, you'll recall, is a student of mine at Bard, of aggressively postmodern tendencies. He writes mostly electronic music, with samples and environmental sounds: old recordings, noises outside his apartment, kids playing in Central Park, old TV cartoons. He thinks about the cultural provenance of each noise he includes, and is politically aware of the sonic associations he invokes. Now he's writing a piano piece, though, and having a predictable problem. The piano, to him, is a cultural icon that speaks of European music, of high culture, of industrial mass production, of the elitism of virtuosity. He's having trouble making it matter what he writes for piano, because the very fact of it being a piano overwhelms any nuances in the musical material. The medium's message drowns out its ostensive content.
Of course, on one level this is nonsense. Piano pieces do differ: the grace of a Mozart sonata, the languor of a Chopin Nocturne, the fluid pile-up of sonorities in Art Tatum's version of "What's New," the frozen abstractions of Stockhausen's Klavierstuck Nr. 9, the athletic banging of Jerry Lee Lewis in "Great Balls of Fire," the fireworks of Nancarrow's Player Piano Study No. 25 - these mean different things, and evoke different worlds, activities, audiences, even social classes. But I'm speaking from inside the illusion that the piano is a transparent medium; I take its 12-equal tuning, its late-medieval-Germanic 7-white/5-black keyboard, its industrial cast-iron frame, its European manufacture, its expensive price, its relative immobility, its history of elephant tusk exploitation, its canonic repertoire, for granted. I shut them all out, ignore their imperialist origins, their contingent nature, their imposition of a worldview. (Composers haven't always done so. The 16th-century Nicola Vicentino was acutely aware of the homogeneity imposed on the world's melodies by a 12-pitch keyboard, and invented his own 31-pitch keyboard as a multicultural alternative.) Having grown up within classical music I can easily believe in the piano as an a priori structure, a transparent transmitter of intentions. But Matt comes to the piano from the outside. Used to dealing with sound itself, not the intervals between sounds, he can't hear the tone of a piano as innocent. "The moment I write a note on paper," he says, "I enter into the illusion."
I know what Matt means, partly because that's the way I feel about the orchestra. I grew up with a piano in the house, but the orchestra is something my parents dressed up to go hear, as if it were church, in a big hall in downtown Dallas. There was something infrequent, inconvenient, and foreign about it. Its overture/concerto/symphony repertoire was cumbersome and inflexible, each concert more or less like the last in emotive expression (though I must say, I remember one special American music concert I heard as a teenager featuring works by Feldman, Varese, and Ruggles). I can think in piano terms and find it transparent, but when I write for orchestra I am heavily conscious of passing through a veil, of threatening to impinge on a social world in which I am neither comfortable nor, as a living composer, entirely welcome. The orchestra is a hierarchical structure: the violins are most important, strings play most of the time, winds are for color, brass for climaxes, percussion for punctuation. The tuxedos, the applause for the concertmaster, the exaggerated respect for the conductor, even the dignified demeanor of the men who move the music stands, all remind me that the orchestra was a product of a different age and country, geared to please the aristocracy that supported it. The fact that my friend Sandow can campaign to save the orchestra while I always instinctively considered the orchestra moribund I attribute to the facts that he grew up in New York, with culture all around and orchestras within walking distance, while I grew up in Dallas.
But back to the piano. Matt and I found common ground in the piano works of Cage and Feldman. Cage's Music of Changes and Etudes Australes, while they do not remove the veil from the piano's illusion of transparency, do not blindly play into it, either. Cage's chance techniques articulate the piano, causing its keys and hammers to create sound, but the end result is not expression, but merely the sounds of a piano. He does not make a point of the piano's social context, but neither does he invite you to imagine that it is anything more or less than a piano. Feldman's piano works, from Out of Last Pieces to Triadic Memories and beyond, are more specific: drawing attention to physicality, they demonstrate that the piano is not truly a melodic instrument, but that its notes instantly begin decaying, and that the instrument can produce nothing but rapidly decrescendoing sound envelopes. Feldman fashioned an entire aesthetic around the piano's inability to sustain, a kind of continuous metaphor for our lifelong propulsion toward death.
So what of electronic music mavens of Matt's generation, for whom Cage and Feldman may represent the earliest piano music that doesn't seem foreign and artificial? I'm more and more thinking these days that traditional music theory is bound to give way to acoustics and the technology of sound reproduction. More and more we find young composers who can string chords together without needing to know what they're called, but whose more detailed expertise is invested in reverb, delay, filtering, sampling, 3-D sound placement. Pitch theory (except for microtonality, and that's a long article for another day) had pretty much reached a dead end in the 1970s anyway, and I consider much of the "pitch set" theory I learned in grad school a waste of time, worth telling my students about only as an example of intellectualism gone awry. Harmonic relationships between pitches, lamentably finite, are today taking a back seat to sound processing, and while I'm not always technologically savvy enough to follow along, I?m not convinced it's a bad thing.
Nevertheless, I encouraged Matt to write for the piano and also for the orchestra, from the outside. Think of its sounds, think of its cultural associations, and perhaps you'll find a new way to use those instruments and give the medium new life. The challenge is to write those notes on the page, but not think of them merely in terms of idealistic musical logic, but as concrete sounds connected to cultural realities. I'm fascinated to see what he'll come up with. Me, I'm old-fashioned in terms of the piano, I still write piano tunes, and I can buy the illusion untroubled. But somewhere in here is the disjunction in lived experience that will separate the classical from postclassical worlds. Just as white-maleness can no longer be taken as emblematic of human experience in general, the musical media we use are losing their transparency, their veneer of political neutrality. It's gradually becoming impossible to write for the piano without thinking of the piano as just a piano.
I mentioned awhile back Art Jarvinen's 24-hour piano piece. I said he was producing a one-CD excerpt of it, and he has, on Los Angeles River Records, and he sent it to me. The piece is called Serious Immobilities, which, if you're new-music literate, should bring a ready reference to mind: Erik Satie. "To play this motif for oneself 840 times in a row," Satie write in somewhat ambiguous French on a little scrap of music found after his death with the title Vexations, "it will be good to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the greatest silence, through serious immobilities." John Cage took that odd sentence as a performance instruction, and, on September 10, 1963, presented a complete performance of Vexations lasting approximately an entire day. Since then, there have been many such performances, usually with a team of pianists taking shifts; I've been involved in three myself, in Austin, Chicago, and New York. For its audacious protominimalism, Vexations has become a real touchstone for new-music buffs. Among other composers, William Duckworth quotes it in his Time Curve Preludes.
What Jarvinen's done, and which only he would be crazy and dedicated enough to do, is write a theme and variations on Vexations. That's right - he wrote 840 variations on Satie's little four-line scrap of music, of which 81 are offered on this disc. The variations maintain the same general slow tempo and harmonic ambiguity as Satie's original, but listening to them is different in interesting ways. Mainly, the piece is unpredictable in detail - you know generally what harmonies are coming, but the music switches at times to triple meter, notes you're used to in the bass come back in the treble, harmonies get offset so that part of each chord gets combined with the next. One variation is all in trills, sounding as though there's a touch of Beethoven's Op. 111 thrown in, and in another, the tune from Satie's popular Gymnopedie No. 1 comes creeping over the murk of Vexations' tritones. And yet, for all this added interest, there's still the endless ambiguity of the original, never resolving, always coming back to the same semi-dissonant harmonies. Bryan Pezzone is the patient pianist, and does a devoutly sustained job.
Jarvinen is a trickster whom Satie would have undoubtedly found amusing. A couple of years back he produced his own fairly obscene Beatles parody CD on Lakefire Records, called Sgt. Pekker. That disc has songs like "We All Ride in My Yellow Limousine," "Man, My Guitar Playing Really Reeks," and "I Never Make Any Money":
I never make any money
And I seldom get laid
Well, I can live without cunny, honey,
But I need to get paid
Yes, I need to get paid
For all that, Jarvinen is a wildly inventive postclassical composer as well, and Serious Immobilities transcends its anecdotal interest.
I'm teaching Bartok again. I use the little Erno Lendvai book that explains the "systems" with which Bartok allegedly composed. One is the "axis" system, which luckily has nothing to do with the "axis of evil," but is rather Bartok's tendency to equate four tonics separated by minor thirds; thus, the "tonic axis" of a particular piece might be C, Eb, F#, A, the subdominant axis F, Ab, B, D, and the dominant axis G, Bb, Db, E. This is especially clear in the piece I usually analyze, the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. The first movement begins on F# and ends in C; the second begins on B and ends in F. The end of the first movement is especially telling, with the primary theme reiterated over and over on the pitches C, Eb, F#, and A, and all of them somehow sounding very tonic chord-y. It's astounding that, after a century of the diminished seventh chord being such a cliche with specific connotations of anxiety, Bartok could redefine it and find a fresh new use for it.
The other, less convincing system is Bartok's tendency to articulate his temporal forms via Golden Sections. The Golden Section is an irrational ratio found in nature and apparently used in a lot of ancient Greek art and architecture. It's found by the formula x/1 = 1/(x+1), and equals the square root of 5 minus one, divided by 2, or approximately .6180339887.... It's increasingly approximated by consecutive numbers in the Fibonacci series, the series in which the last two numbers are added together to get the next: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, and so on. There's a cottage industry surrounding the golden section on the internet if you're interested. Bartok apparently timed the climaxes of some of his pieces to mark the golden section, so if you multiply the number of measures by .618 you'll find the climax; and if you multiply the number of measures in each half by .618 you'll find the measures of the secondary climaxes, and so on.
What has struck me for many years is how uncomfortable music students are with the idea that a composer would use a system to compose. (Bartok denied using any such system, by the way, but the evidence is eerily compelling.) The axis system they don't seem to mind, but they don't like hearing about the golden section points in Bartok; the idea that he would plan out in advance where his climaxes are going to occur disappoints them. But that's nothing compared to their distaste for the complicated double inversion canon in the first movement of the Webern Symphony. I present Webern as sympathetically as I can, relating his canons to the ingenious Renaissance music on which he did his doctoral dissertation, but after a couple days' explanation they harrass me with questions along the line of, "But do you really like this piece?" One day I related the sad story of Webern's fatal shooting, and added the detail that the American soldier who had pulled the trigger regretted it for the rest of his life. In the dramatic silence that followed, one of my more incorrigible composers muttered, "But then when he heard Webern's music, he decided it was OK."
It's not from any prejudice against dissonance or complexity. Quite the contrary: they all become Rite of Spring fanatics, and they fall in love with the improvisatory feel of the Concord Sonata, the facts that Ives' unbridled imagination welcomed the wrong notes that got printed, that he added an unforeseen flute to the "Thoreau" movement, and even the very fact that I can't explain away Ives' harmony. The theorist's inability to reduce the music to basic principles strikes them as a decisive victory for the composer. I know what's coming up, because I go through it every two years: they will be unpleasantly incredulous when I lay out the detailed pre-compositional structure of Babbitt's Post-Partitions, but for some reason Stockhausen's Gruppen will seem more interesting, more expansive, despite its fanatical 12-tone overall plan. Afterward, they will warm up much more to the intuitive feeling-out of Feldman's Rothko Chapel.
To some extent I think there's a little adolescent romanticism in this reaction. Students - and the noncomposing population in general, actually - derive comfort from the idea of music as inspiration. The composer is a special kind of person able to summon up music out of his or her soul, and derives power from the sure-footed certainty of being able to judge at every moment exactly what tune or harmony will sound exactly right next. Doubtless there would be a general deflation were it learned that a symphony has to be built like any other large structure: that composers use devices, plan out themes and harmonic structures before the piece is written, sketch out sets of pitches from which they intend to draw, concoct relatively abritrary structural skeletons over which they will hang their harmonies and textures. For hundreds of years composers had sonata form as a pretty specific template, and when that collapsed, the early modernist composers had to come up with some kind of framework to defuse the anxiety of the empty page. You don't expect an architect to proceed without blueprints and concealed steel girders, and it's not entirely fair for a composer either. What's astonishing about someone like Bartok is how passionately he was able to pace his crescendos and decrescendos to completely efface any hint that there might have been a precompositional plan.
By and large, however, I think my students are right, and I learn from their spontaneous dismays and enthusiasms. Minimalism (as has been little acknowledged) gave birth to a certain amount of systematic thinking in the 1980s, and as I look back in my own music, I don't treasure the ingenious systems I came up with back then nearly as much as the occasional unique moment that fell into place without my knowing how until afterward. There's an element of sincerity involved. A precompositional system may commit you to a D# and an E colliding in measure 137, and how will you know you'll still mean that when you get there? As Ives said in defense of improvisation, how do I know that those are the notes I'll feel like playing next Thursday night at 8:19? And though Ives did it experimentally, he disdained what he called "composing with a ruler," i.e., setting up strict processes and letting them run. A system can be the result of inspiration, but a system carried out temporily precludes the possibility of surprise or inspiration arriving at some point later in the work. (This has always seemed to me to apply even to the Schillinger system, that it defines elements early in the piece and doesn't allow for the spontaneous creation of new ones.) It's a lecture read from the page, without the possibility of the reader gauging his audience and reacting to interruptions or nuances of reception.
The reaction my students have explains the tremendous aura Morton Feldman exerted from the 1980s on. Here was the Frank Gehry of music: pure inspiration stretched out over six hours, every sonority judged by ear, every note individually weighed, expanse without architecture. After decades of bureaucrats tinkering with systems, he was the Godzilla of musical sincerity. (There are reports that Feldman used more structure than is assumed, but I haven't yet found them convincing. As for Feldman's own word, when Stockhausen begged him to divulge his system, all Feldman would reply was, "I don't push the notes around." Stockhausen's alleged response: "Not even a little bit?") Feldman gives young composers permission to decide at any moment that the music can take a left turn, that nothing stands in the way of their whim. What he doesn't tell them, that I suspect is beginning to dawn on them, is what an existential quandary Feldman has left them in, what massive and sustained concentration it takes to create a compelling, unified, large-scale musical image without structural props.
In the era in which I went to college, WEBERN was GOD, and a composer was judged by the intricacy of his systems. I still rather like Webern's music, but I had begun racheting down his pedestal even before year after year of my students convinced me that he was always going to be a hard sell. Algorithmic composing software makes systems really easy to explore, so the issue is not going to go away. But we're in a good, calm place right now, unbuffeted by the winds of competing ideologies that have all spent their force: we can look back critically over the modernist era, decide what worked and what didn't, and use it to guide us in deciding what priorities to put forward in a postclassical world.
If you find yourself in upstate New York this coming Sunday, I have a performance of my music at the Storm King Music Festival. Emily Manzo, a dynamite young pianist just a few years out of Oberlin, and with an abiding interest in the latest music, will play my solo piano piece Time Does Not Exist at 2:00 at the Ogden Gallery of the Museum of the Hudson Highlands in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York. Other composers on the festival include Carman Moore, Stefania de Kenessey, Wendy Griffiths, Jonathan Hallstrom, Peter Kirn, Bruce Lazarus, Yuzuru Sadashige, and Raymond Torres-Santos (some of whom will appear on the previous day, Saturday, at 2). Storm King is a noble, aesthetically diverse little festival that specializes in not only presenting music but in getting the composers together to publicly discuss new-music issues (the discussions this year took place in August). Time Does Not Exist, which I wrote in 2000, uses various looping techniques to explore concepts of timelessness, not in a minimalist, pattern-creating way, but in an attempt to elicit psychological states; the title alludes to Freud's statement, "In the subconscious, time does not exist." And Emily plays it beautifully, with sustained tension and real understanding. (You can take a look at the score of the piece here.)
Following up on a previous blog entry, I've received two reports of John Adams's The Dharma at Big Sur, his new orchestra piece with the LA Phil premiered at the Disney Center, which was to be Adams's first foray into the alternative system of tuning known as just intonation. According to one third-hand rumor, there wasn't enough rehearsal time to deal with the tunings, and the piece was played in conventional tuning. However, according to a more official report I received, this wasn't quite true. Finnish composer Juhani Nuorvala subsequently interviewed Adams in Helsinki for the Finnish music magazine Rondo and e-mailed me the results. Nuorvala is himself a just-intonation composer, which I was excited to hear, both because he'd know what to ask Adams about, and also because in the microtonal world it's supposed that none of the European microtonalists use just intonation, and I was glad to hear of a counterexample.
According to Nuorvala, there had indeed been little rehearsal time, and many of the musicians couldn't get what Adams was aiming at. Some of the brass players reportedly said that it was no use trying to get the high overtones Adams wanted, but the harps were retuned. Adams hopes for more rehearsal time at the Proms in London, and perhaps the tunings will work out better there.
And as it so happens, someone also slipped me a recording off the radio of The Dharma at Big Sur (you'll never learn who, I protect my sources), so I've had a chance to judge for myself. I can't really better Nuorvala's description: "...it was laid back and pretty, reminding me of Adams' electronic studio record, Voodoo Zephyr. The tuning didn't sound as special as I expected, and I was unsure what I was hearing though there were some 7/4's [seventh scale degrees lowered by about a third of a half-step]. Harmonically the music was pretty static, the orchestra forming a background texture for the soloist's improvisatory quasi-Indian style lines." This is all true, and I indeed hear some intentionally flat seventh scale degrees at the beginning. Overall, however, except for some quasi-Indian sliding around by the solo violinist Tracy Silverman, the unconventional tunings don't seem to come off. It is a lovely piece, though - I find it probably the most attractive Adams piece I've heard since the 1980s.
An interesting bit of news from Wired: It's been ruled, in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, that bloggers can't be sued for libel as a result of republishing information. I found the logic intriguing:
"One-way news publications have editors and fact-checkers, and they're not just selling information -- they're selling reliability," said Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "But on blogs or e-mail lists, people aren't necessarily selling anything, they're just engaging in speech. That freedom of speech wouldn't exist if you were held liable for every piece of information you cut, paste and forward."
Recent attempts, ironically enough attending his centenary, to make out George Orwell as less than a saint grate on me. Orwell was less than a saint and freely and honestly admitted it, which is what makes him so human, such a kindred and readable spirit. He distrusted the aura of sainthood, and admired Gandhi, for instance, only insofar as he could strip away the suspicious illusion of selflessness that was placed around him. Whether great or not, Orwell remains well worth reading because he was trustable: he told the truth even against himself. Take this passage from the end of his vivid eye-witness account of the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia:
I had had five days of tiresome journeys, sleeping in impossible places, my arm was hurting damnably, and now these fools were chasing me to and fro and I had got to sleep on the ground again. That was about as far as my thoughts went. I did not make any of the correct political reflections. I never do when things are happening. It seems to be always the case when I get mixed up in war or politics - I am conscious of nothing save physical discomfort and a deep desire for this damned nonsense to be over. Afterwards I can see the significance of events, but while they are happening I merely want to be out of them - an ignoble trait, perhaps.
Those are not the words of a hero: but they are the words of someone who's not trying to make you think he's a hero, which is why I return to Orwell's writings agin and again and again, not because he was a GREAT MAN, but for honest and thoughtful companionship on life's difficult road. Saints are rare - luckily enough, for they're not my preferred company. I'm weary of this modern tendency to use a person's life to discredit his work, or his politics to discredit his philosophy, or his womanizing to discredit his novels, or his antisemitism to discredit his music. I think of all my heterodox opinions, petty hatreds, sins of omission, and embarrassing little vices that future morality-policing historians could glom onto, in the service of whatever political correctness becomes ascendant, to buttress a claim that my music should be shunned, and it makes me go listen to Die Gotterdammerung, just out of spite.
Last week I voluntarily subjected myself to a flaming war at New Music Box, which maintains a policy of allowing anyone to post anything they want, anonymously if so desired. I had been libeled as a writer, and rather than sit idly by and take it, I was in a mood to fight back. After a couple of weeks of exhausting college work, I had a free day with nothing else to do, and - as they say - it was just the wrong day to piss me off. But the activity was so repetitive that I learned a lot about flaming - the practice of posting incendiary e-mails in an attempt to discredit, insult, and anger someone - and I learned to anticipate and counter the verbal venom-spewings of malevolent morons in a way I hadn't before. So I kept a record of flaming strategies, which I detail here in hopes that writers everywhere will learn to defuse these hangers-on who have nothing else to do besides heap bile on people they envy:
1. The most common strategy, of course, is to a) ignore a poster's or author's main point and latch onto some little peripheral factual statement that can be credibly contradicted; b) flatly contradict it with some evidence or other; and then c) smugly act as though the truth value of the entire post is therefore rendered suspect and demolished because a small imperfection was found. About all you can usually do in this instance is ignore the person, because the only alternative is to waste your energy trying to back up factual points that had little relevance to your main argument, and in the process you're bound to make other peripheral factual points that are vulnerable to challenge, embarking on a process of infinite regress. That's why this is the most common strategy.
2. If a vulnerable factual statement can't be found, then one can draw a plausible inference from a statement in the post, spin out a set of ramifications from it, and act as though all those ramifications had been stated in the original. The example I got of this was a textbook classic. I had written,
...in 1973,... Vincent Persichetti's A Lincoln Address, also based on words of the Great Emancipator [Lincoln], was to be premiered as part of Richard Nixon's inauguration. Lincoln, however, had denounced "the mighty scourge of war," which threatened to look like a reflection on Nixon's pet venture, the Vietnam War.... The performance did not take place.
The six words "Nixon's pet venture, the Vietnam War," "argued" a flamer, meant I exonerated LBJ and Kennedy; therefore was biased toward Democrats; therefore was making misstatements and hadn't been fact-checked; therefore I was making up facts, and not a word I said could be trusted. This strategy is rather easy to call someone on, luckily, because you ask, "Where did I say that? Please quote the sentence that stated that" - and they typically don't reply. As indeed this flamer didn't when I pointed out that the fact I had "made up" was that Nixon supported the Vietnam War.
3. Bring up something irrelevant from the author's or other poster's past that might potentially embarrass or discredit him. This is especially effective if the past item referred to is an off-screen document the other posters don't have access to, so that you control the information, and if you describe it in ominous terms, others will imagine that it's worse, of course, than it will turn out to be. If, in response, you can get access to that information and publish it yourself, at no matter what length, at least you can take back control of the information flow.
4. When all else fails, lie. As one flamer frankly wrote to me when I challenged him to quote the statement he was accusing me of having made: "I can't. But that's irrelevant."
Of course the best defense is not to enter into these conversations at all. But libel is possible on the internet, and sometimes a gang of posters will agree to get together to take you down, and you start to look guilty if there's not some defense of you in the posts. It's just like politics. Al Gore never claimed to have invented the internet, but a horde of pundits started claiming he had claimed that, and through an excess of repetition it became virtual truth. Repetition can turn blatant falsehood into accepted fact, and those of us who write for a living need protection. When we were writing for newspapers, our armchair critics were required to write a decently credible letter to get into print (still the case at Arts Journal, I'm happy to note). But in some areas of the internet, any idiot can shoot off a spontaneous lie about us, and any mob of his idiot friends (or even he himself under several anonymous identities) can repeat the lie until it starts to pass for common currency. It's a problem internet publications will have to learn how to deal with, and I've now started refusing to write for any internet publication that can't protect its writers from libel. Free speech is a wonderful thing, but if those who exercise it have to fear the retribution of a libelous mob, then free speech won't remain free for long.
(For further information, I ran across an entertaining and slightly helpful Guide to Flaming. One of its observations: why do flamers who play "Gotcha!" on spelling errors so often misspell words themselves?)
I rarely pay public attention to reissues - I've been collecting records since 1967, after all, since the recorded birth of new music itself, and I got most of the music that interests me the first time around. But a new three-disc set reissued from the hip southern-California label Cold Blue has me so mesmerized I can hardly quit listening to it, and there was only one piece on it I'd heard before. In the 1980s, like a flash in the night, Cold Blue released seven 10-inch vinyl records epitomizing the then-state of California minimalism, and the only one I had ever gotten hold of was Peter Garland's Matachin Dances. Now if you believe Peter Garland - and you should, because his lone-voice-in-the-wilderness alternative narrative of American music history is the underground conscience of our field (I once saw a hall full of musicologists leap to their feet and give Peter a thundering standing ovation for having harangued us all that we didn't understand the real Henry Cowell) - if you believe Garland, minimalism was first of all a widespread, lovely, slow, pastoral, California movement that got hijacked, publicity-wise, by the energetic, steady-rhythm New York minimalists Steve Reich and Philip Glass. I've been guilty of pushing the mainstream narrative myself, though under Peter's nagging guidance I've made sure that Harold Budd, James Tenney, Daniel Lentz, and other West-Coasters got their due. But this set, "The Complete 10-inch Series from Cold Blue" (CB0014) makes me realize that California minimalism was a broader and richer scene than most of us east of the Rockies ever knew.
The music that wows me most here is by composer and instrument-builder Chas Smith, a name that's remained at the outer edge of my musical consciousness for years and has now moved into the center. Disc 3 has four of his pieces for pedal steel guitar (an underacknowledged instrument that only West Coasters - Sasha Matson, for instance - seem to have discovered) and 12-string dobro. Smith's pieces are sparse in notes but lush in timbre, gorgeous, restful, and the longest one, Scircura, is a ravishing continuum on an ostinato in two rising triplets (B E G# B F# A#) that draws you in and hypnotizes you by playing with your rhythmic perceptions. Equally lovely, if less lush, are some piano pieces from the late 1970s by Michael Jon Fink: tonal, sparse, with a lonely Harold-Budd feel, and beautifully recorded. The '70s were a time you could indulge simple yet completely counterintuitive gestures - as Fink does in Vocalise by having a cello and piano play the same slow, single-note melody in unison - with stunning effect.
Garland has surpassed his Matachin Dances in other, more ambitious chamber works - I especially recommend his Another Sunrise disc on Mode. But for years Matachin Dances was about the only Garland you could find (though there had been an early minimalist piece for the Blackearth Percussion Ensemble), and it is paradigmatic: a set of dances for two violins and gourd rattles in Garland's trademark simple, but not at all trite, melodic style. Daniel Lentz, one of my favorite composers of - no, I'm not even going to qualify that - has his old After Images disc rereleased here. I'd never heard it, but a couple of pieces had reappeared on his extremely hard-to-find Rhizome Sketch disc, b. e. comings. Dreamy, breathy, dripping in arpeggios, Lentz's music had already achieved postminimalism by 1977, when everyone else was still toeing the minimalist line. Two pieces by Rick Cox have an eerier feel, sliding glissandos through poignant guitar harmonies and whispering unintelligible text over mellow electronic effects.
The remaining disc I find worthwhile but not quite as listenable. Half of it is text pieces by Read Miller, hypnotic in a repetitively cadencing, Robert Ashley-esque kind of way if you enjoy listening to unaccompanied text. Then there's Clay Music by the late Barney Childs, a set of sweet little pieces for ceramic instruments like ocarinas that seems like it might be charming in live performance, but is a little too intrusive/tedious on CD. Cold Blue, which discontinued production for some 15 years, has resumed and to its great credit is still recording newer music by the same people they used to, who remain curiously resistant to fame. I've always felt like I ended up on the wrong side of the Rockies, and that I was meant, by nature, to be a West Coast composer. And this gorgeous set of discs makes me feel, somehow - homesick.
Ahh, back to Arts Journal, the land of sanity, and I don't even want to tell you what lunatic asylums I've spent my week in. My bright spot of the week was Greg Sandow's very touching compliment to my blog. Thanking him for that strikes me as a private, not a public matter, and I have. But to give some idea what it means to me, picture me 17 years ago at 31, going into the Village Voice office on weekends and reading old Greg Sandow and Tom Johnson columns for hours on end, trying to figure out what they did, what I could learn from them, what the Voice audience was used to and would expect from me. Tom, of course, took a flatly descriptive, non-evaluative approach to a very new kind of music, highly auspicious for that historical moment because it allowed a lot of crazy ideas to float without getting shot down. Greg's strength, I always felt, was connecting new music to the outer world, placing it in large social perspective, and I remember often having the experience of reading about some music he was describing and then him suddenly turning the world upside down, making me realize with a bracing shock where the little scene I was focussed on actually fit in. His writing wouldn't allow me to kid myself, and it opened my eyes to a lot of things. I realized early that I can't begin to compete with him on the sociology of music - his understanding of the pop music world and the classical music business is much more fleshed out than mine, and as he says, I'm much more focused on internal musical logic.
Of course, I had blown in from godforsaken CHICAGO, and for years everyone in the New York scene shook their heads because I was such a pitiful substitute for the great Greg Sandow. So to get such a sincere tribute from the critic I got so used to being unfavorably compared to was like - I made it into the club. Perhaps that's enough to say.
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