PostClassic: April 2004 Archives

One thing I love about writing this blog, I put information out into the world, and I get information back. [To tell you the truth, this is how and why critics gain authority, when they do - they send out their opinions into the world and see them come back all bruised and battered, and they learn by experience to send out better opinions, better protected. After some years, those opinions begin to accumulate powerful collective force from the fact that they are no longer just one person's. Any critic who sticks to his own egotism and doesn't learn from that input is a fool.]

In the case of my postclassical piano repertoire list, several people corrected inadvertent omissions. Devin Hurd pointed out that I had forgotten to include Giacinto Scelsi and Somei Satoh, so I added them in. Hurd also mentioned James Tenney's rags, which I haven't heard in years and don't have copies of, and informed me about some piano music I was unaware of: Endless Shout by George Lewis, I and Thou by Barbara Monk Feldman, and Tara's Love Will Melt the Sword by one of my favorite composers Janice Giteck. These all sound like excellent candidates, and I'd love to hear them. Hurd also reminded me of the "Hyper-Beatles" tributes commissioned by Aki Takahashi. I'd included two - Terry Riley's The Walrus in Memoriam and Walter Zimmermann's When I'm 84, and there are other worthy ones as well.

Sarah Cahill, pianist, fellow critic, and important West Coast radio personality, in her firm but charming way, chided me for not including more works using the inside of the piano, like Annea Lockwood's Red Mesa and Ear-Walking Woman, and Lois Vierk's To Stare Astonished at the Sea. "It's important to acknowledge," she writes, "that there's more to the piano than the keyboard." She's right - consider them included. I was overly timid in what I thought would appeal to the student I was educating.

Composer Galen Brown boldly, and with every right, advocated as postclassical his own piano piece Ex Nihilo, of which the score and MP3 can be found from his website. I gave up trying to access the recording, but from the score it certainly seems to qualify. He also suggested a list for works for multiple pianos (Reich's Piano Phase, David Lang's Orpheus Over and Under, works by Feldman and David Borden, plus his own Distance Over Time). Since I've written pieces for two and three pianos myself, I'll probably take up that suggestion.

Antonio Celaya advocated for Frederico Mompou's transcendent Musica callada, and David Carter for the labyrinthine piano works of Kaikhosru Sorabji. I myself had considered adding in "all of the piano music of Erik Satie," and I'm amenable to the Mompou and Sorabji causes as well. I have a little theoretical problem with calling them "postclassical," though. I wouldn't want the word to merely come to mean "good," or "better than the classical music we're all tired of," or "written by eccentric outsiders whose time has finally come." I want to think of postclassical not just as a terminological stick to beat classical music with, but as referring to a recognition on the part of the composer that the narrative, sonata-based conventions of the European common practice period were only conventions, after all, and that their moral force has come to an end. Thus I think of Cage as the earliest postclassical composer, and include all and only those who were tuned in to the great breaking away from tradition that happened in the 1960s. On the other hand, I do think of Satie as someone who thoroughly "saw through" the arbitrariness of European conceptions of form. Mompou remains a little close to impressionism, Sorabji to Europe's mammoth contrapuntal ambitions, but both are striking spiritual predecessors. How about "protopostclassical"? "Postclassical before their time"? Overall, I feel too much energy is wasted in defending terminological purity, and it's not an issue on which I would want to take a dogmatic stand. I do appreciate the input, and the list grows stronger and less solipsistic with each new suggestion.

April 28, 2004 7:08 PM | |

Like John Cusack's vinyl-obsessed character in the charming little film High Fidelity, I end up making a lot of lists, and for similar reasons - though my lists tend not to be "top five," but more like "top hundred, in no particular order." This week, for instance, a student pianist asked for some guidance in learning about recent piano repertoire, and so naturally with my Scorpio fanaticism I started obsessively pulling together a CD library of postclassical piano music. I'll be damned if I was going to concoct a list of the approved 20th-century usual suspects: Boulez Third Sonata, Stockhausen Klavierstucke, Carter Night Fantasies, and so on. The official stuff is so ugly. I wanted her to be, not repelled by modern piano music, but seduced into it, and so I started to compile all the attractive pieces, the ones I love listening to over and over and even enjoy playing through.

There's a hell of a lot of it. But still, it's an interesting problem. In general, the late 20th/early 21st centuries are not a great era for piano music. A lot of my favorite composers haven't written any solo piano music at all, and among many who have, their piano music is not their most convincing work. It's difficult to write for solo, unaltered piano these days, in relentless competition with Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, Debussy, Scriabin, et al. There are a few composers who have written for piano frequently, like Feldman, Peter Garland, William Duckworth, Walter Zimmermann, and myself, and, like Chopin, Frederic Rzewski has composed a mountain of piano music and little else. But I also found that an alarming percentage of recent piano works I'm crazy about are forbidding for pianists because of their extreme length. Larry Polansky's Lonesome Road and Feldman's Triadic Memories are each 90 minutes, Duckworth's Time Curve Preludes, Rzewski's The People United, Otte's The Book of Sounds, and Tom Johnson's An Hour for Piano all an hour or more, and Violette's Seventh Sonata a massive three hours. It's as though the form of the brief piano piece is way too difficult to do anything distinctive with today, and composers can only do something interesting through scale and form.

Nevertheless, I made a list and I'm burning CDs, and I thought I might as well share the former with you, to suggest to someone out there that a large and very attractive repertoire of postclassical piano music does exist. I included only works that I truly find beautiful, and, since this is a Postclassical list, I left out any works from the European mainstream; no 12-tone music need apply, no matter how superb. Several of the hipper Europeans are included, however. Since the purpose of the list is to offer young pianists repertoire that they could reasonably acquire and play, I omit works for piano and electronics, as well as works for piano in altered tunings (the only ones I would mention are La Monte Young's The Well-Tuned Piano, Riley's The Harp of New Albion, and Ben Johnston's Suite for Microtonal Piano). I omit works for prepared piano, since the major ones are all by Cage anyway. No works for Disklavier or player piano. I include timings if I have them handy, partly to show you what a factor length has become.

In short, if I were going to curate a massive festival of Postclassical piano music, all live-performed and without special technology, this (in no particular order) is what I would start with:

The Postclassical Piano Repertoire List:

John Cage: In a Landscape
- Dream
- The Seasons
- Etudes Australes (three hours)
- One5
Morton Feldman: Piano (26')
- Triadic Memories (80'-90')
- Palais de Mari (30')
- For Bunita Marcus (72')
- loads of brief early works, of course
Frederic Rzewski: The People United Will Never Be Defeated (60')
- De Profundis (30')
- Four North American Ballads
- Fantasia
- Sonata
- Mayn Yingele
- Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier
- The Road (eight hours)
Terry Riley: The Heaven Ladder, Book 7
- The Walrus in Memoriam
Charlemagne Palestine: Strumming Music (hours)
- One + Two + Three Fifths in the Rhythm Three Against Two for Bösendorfer Piano (24')
- Sliding Fifths (15')
Giacinto Scelsi: Un Adieu (5')
- Suite No. 8, Bot-Ba (26')
- Suite No. 9 (18')
- Suite No. 10 (34')
- plus, presumably, all the other suites I don't know yet
Christian Wolff: Preludes
- Bread and Roses (9')
- Hay Una Mujer Desaparecida (13')
Elodie Lauten: Variations on the Orange Cycle (24')
- Adamantine Sonata
- Sonata Ordinaire
Peter Garland: Walk in Beauty (18')
- Jornada del Muerto (28')
- The Days Run Away (18')
- Bright Angel Hermetic Bird (15')
- A Song (22')
- Two Persian Miniatures (4')
- Nostalgia of the Southern Cross (4')
John Adams: Phrygian Gates (26')
- China Gates (5')
William Duckworth: Time Curve Preludes (60')
- Imaginary Dances (17')
- Hand Dance
Giancarlo Cardini: Piano Sonata No. 1 (21')
- Lento Trascolorare dal Verde al Rosso in un Tralco di Foglie Autunnali (10')
- Una Notte d'Inverno (6')
- Una Sera d'Autunno
Walter Zimmermann: Beginner's Mind (65')
- Wöstenwanderung (19')
- Abgeschiedenheit (28')
- Barn Snail Dance (2')
- When I'm 84 (3')
Claude Vivier: Pianoforte (9')
- Shiraz (13')
Bernadette Speach: When It Rains, Lleuve
- Angels in the Snow
Annea Lockwood: Red Mesa
- Ear-Walking Woman
Cornelius Cardew: Thaelmann Variations
- The Croppy Boy
- Father Murphy
- Four Principles on Ireland
Beth Anderson: Net Work (9')
- Manos Inquietas
- Quilt Music
- Belgian Tango
- September Swale
- Rhode Island Swale
- Wallonian Waltz
Art Jarvinen: The Meaning of the Treat (9')
- Serious Immobilities (24 hours, but a one-hour version exists)
Clarence Barlow: Cogluotobusisletmesi (30')
- Des Nus Descendants Une Echelle
- Clair de l'Une Fois
- Pandora
- Bachanal (1')
Tom Johnson: An Hour for Piano (60 minutes on the dot)
- (and lots of austere piano pieces based on mathematical patterns)
Michael Jon Fink: Two Pieces for Piano Solo (4')
- Piano Solo (5')
Dennis Johnson: November (113')
Maria de Alvear: En amor duro (50')
Larry Polansky: Lonesome Road: The Crawford Variations (90')
Harold Budd: Children on the Hill (20')
"Blue" Gene Tyranny: Nocturne with and without Memory (11')
Judith Sainte Croix: Kachina Piano Preludes
Donald Crockett: Pilgrimage (9')
Paul Dresher: Blue Diamonds (18')
Peter Gena: John Henry
Frank Abbinanti: Jenin
Dennis Bathory-Kitsz: Tirkiinistra
Cornelis de Bondt: Grand Hotel (37')
Alvin Curran: For Cornelius
Jo Kondo: Sight Rhythmics
Lois Vierk: To Stare Astonished at the Sea
Wes York: Music for Strings
Mamoru Fujieda: Patterns of Plants
Robert Ashley: Van Cao's Meditation
Hans Otte: The Book of Sounds (72')
Phil Winsor: Dulcimer Dream (6')
Andrew Violette: Piano Sonata No. 7 (three hours)
Somei Satoh: A Gate into the Stars (8')
Stefan Wolpe: Form
- Form IV: Broken Sequences
Andrew Schulze: Dreams and Lullabies (22')
Kyle Gann: Time Does Not Exist (15')
- Private Dances (25')
- Desert Sonata (20')
- The Question Answer'd (4')
- The Mercy of the Storm (12')

In addition, here are some pieces I've heard, loved, and would have included on the CDs if I had recordings of them:

Stephen Scott: Departures
John Luther Adams: Among Red Mountains
Kirk Nurock: Four Imaginings
Bunita Marcus: Julia
Ingram Marshall: Authentic Presence
Dennis Kam: The Presocratics
Sidney Corbett: The Celestial Potato Fields

That's many dozens of hours' worth of good, varied, challenging but entirely accessible piano music. You may nudge me if I've forgotten something, or let me know if there's something great I haven't heard - but remember, this is a postclassical list, so examples in the modernist tradition will be dismissed with a contemptuous rolling of the eyes.

A million thanks, by the way, to Sarah Cahill, Lois Svard, Gloria Cheng, Aki Takahashi, Ursula Oppens, Kathleen Supove, Vicki Ray, Hildegard Kleeb, Marianne Schroeder, Joshua Pierce, Ian Pace, Herbert Henck, and all the other pianists who champion postclassical music, and whose recordings and performances made this list possible. You're saints.

April 26, 2004 9:47 AM | |

Virgil Thomson liked to explain that artists become alcoholics more regularly than composers because composers' moments of triumph come in public, at the performance, while artists get their triumphs at home alone, in the studio - and then drink. But he was wrong. There's little triumphant about attending a performance of your music. The people you hoped would come don't. The performance is rarely what you envisioned (although mine tonight was excellent). Audience reaction seems perversely skewed toward superficial thrills. If you're being performed in New York City, your quiet moments will be drowned out by the rock band next door (even at Zankel Hall). People won't know what to say afterward, and comments will be perfunctory and uninsightful.

No, composers' moments of triumph come just the same as painters', and any other artist's: at home, alone, in the studio. That's what you eventually learn: the great reward of being a composer is the thrillingly intense satisfaction of the process of composing itself when it's going well. Everything else - performance, publishing, recording, awards, residencies, reviews - turns out to be a disappointment. That's why envying any other artist's life is so pointless.

April 26, 2004 12:21 AM | |

I hope somone named Warren won't mind my stealing something he said on the Skeptomai blog:

"Fighting terrorists with a military invasion is like trying to kill a bee by shooting its beehive with a shotgun."

April 23, 2004 6:37 PM | |

My Steinway baby grand is at a piano hospital for repairs to minor damage incurred in moving. A couple of weeks ago I got sick of not having a piano, and set up my 88-key MIDI controller with a sampler that has a pretty good piano sound, but I never have time to play anyway. I'd been feeling drained lately from being wrapped up in school committee work and running the music department. I was weary of sitting on committees, of arguing with the administration, handling student crises, doing departmental paperwork, and answering carping e-mails complaining about my politics or my blog.

Then Tuesday afternoon my 4:30 student cancelled, and by some miracle I didn't have a school concert or event to attend that night. I came home and found a package in the mail from Tom Johnson, composer and one of my predecessors (before Greg Sandow) as new-music critic at the Village Voice. It contained, among other things, a score to An Hour for Piano, which has long been my favorite Tom Johnson piece. This is a very flat, 60-minute piece, quarter-note equals 59 all the way through, highly repetitive but in an irregular way, so that you never get to trust the sparkling 16-note grooves you settle into. It never deviates from the key of G, though some dissonant motives wash through from time to time. The pedal is held constantly, and 99 percent of the notes are in or just above the treble clef.

As best I could without a page turner, I played through the entire thing on my electric piano, nonstop. It was like meditating. It absolutely focused me, and school seemed a zillion miles away. By the time I played the final measures an hour later I was in a healthier and completely altered state of mind. Much piano music could have the same effect on the pianist, but if you're playing a Beethoven sonata there are difficult parts and easier parts, and a continual change of scenery, so to speak. You have to go through a practice routine, isolate the tricky passages, and there's a lot you memorize in the process. If you want to practice most modern music like Webern or Stefan Wolpe, there's a different kind of mental work involved. But in An Hour for Piano there's really nothing you can memorize because the returns of former figures are too unpredictable, and there's almost no measure more or less difficult than another. The piece requires constant attention to the page, but requires little of your fingers aside from that they keep moving. It's an amazing piece, and I don't know of anything else like it. I made a copy to keep at school, and whenever I have 15 minutes to spare, I start playing it. Afterwards, I'm always refreshed, and the noise in my mind has been turned off for awhile.

Perhaps An Hour for Piano is the perfect paradigm for the postclassical instrumental piece. Much of the 18th-century music we cherish and put up with today was written for home performance, but our home life has changed. This piece fits into and enhances my daily life. It's also masterfully written in an understated way, with ideas, motives, and note complexes that keep coming back again and again when you least expect them, like a symphony or novel delivered in a quiet deadpan voice, or an expert comic monologue. You could base a whole new school of composition on this 1973 piece, a new kind of meditation music quite different from Pauline Oliveros's, and no one's done it yet. Tom also sent me a compact disc of his Bonhoeffer-Oratorium, his two-hour oratorio on texts of Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the Deutsche Bank Bauspar AG label. If An Hour for Piano is the Waldstein Sonata of the postclassical era, the Bonhoeffer-Oratorium is its Carmina Burana: the rhetorical cliches of choral music embraced and repeated until a kind of innocent and infectious joy accumulates. Tom proves, as others have, that it's not so difficult to write great music: just set something beautiful in motion and then get out of the damn way.

You can order the score to An Hour for Piano from Tom's publisher at the Editions 75 web page. And, if you play the piano, I recommend it. There's also a Lovely Music recording of it by Frederic Rzewski, who does a wonderful job. I must say, though, that I've heard Tom play the piece himself, and while Rzewski plays with a subdued but taut intensity, I slightly preferred Tom's own Cheshire Cat innocence.

April 23, 2004 9:15 AM | |

Believe it or not, the expert Da Capo ensemble will play a piece of mine this coming Sunday at 7:30 in the Tap Room at the Knitting Factory in downtown Manhattan (74 Leonard Street, tickets $15/$10 students/seniors). The ostensibly all-Downtown program for this generally Uptown ensemble at this incorrigibly Downtown space looks something like this:

Frederic Rzewski, Coming Together
Derek Bermel, Coming Together
Kyle Gann, Hovenweep
David Lang, Thorn
John Mackey, Breakdown Tango
Dennis DeSantis, Make It. Stop.

And it's described as "a rollicking, frolicking set of new works from the stomping grounds of downtown Manhattan." Whoa! Well, to apply truth in advertising, Hovenweep is in my usual kind of languorous, depressive style, though it gets pretty loud at the end. I've never frolicked in my life. Rollicking, I don't know about. I'll have to check.

You can probably get more info at Da Capo's web page.

April 20, 2004 9:33 AM | |

For various reasons I've found myself immersed in 12-tone music the last couple of months, and rethinking what it means. Most radically, in Berlin I found two CDs of the music of Josef Matthias Hauer (1883-1959), the Viennese composer who claimed independent credit for having invented 12-tone technique, along with Schoenberg. Hauer is known for having a stamp with which he stamped all his correspondence from 1937 on, calling himself: "The creative originator and (despite many imitators!) still the only authority and expert in the field of 12-tone music." Hauer was a peculiar creative type. The musicologist H.H. Stuckenschmidt recounts a visit to him, quoted in the liner notes to the Ensemble Avantgarde's recording of his Zwölftonspiele (12-tone pieces) on MDG. Stuckenschmidt looked through some manuscripts of just-finished works, which Hauer urged him to take home with him:

"Do take it with you if you want to read it," Hauer said. I did not want to take the responsibility upon myself. "What do you mean?" he wanted to know. "When you've read it," [Hauer explained,] "just throw it away. I write something new every day."

Listening to the music, you can sort of hear this attitude reflected in it. The pieces are brief - I've yet to find a Hauer composition longer than eight minutes, and few are over five - and they resemble each other, as if churned out by a system. Even so, I have to voice the heterodox (or perhaps not so surprising) opinion that, on the average, I find Hauer's works more attractive than Schoenberg's. Hauer's use of 12-tone technique is not really row-oriented. His textures, whether slow, fast, or often both at once on different levels, are somewhat motoric and unvarying, resembling some brands of minimalism in their momentum, and even more presciently resembling postminimalism in their systematic changes of harmony.

Hauer seems to have been very, very, very fond of the major seventh chord (C-E-G-B, for instance), and many of the pieces take it as a starting point. In the only score I have of his, Labyrinthischer Tanz for two pianos (which I copied when Sarah Cahill and Joseph Kubera performed the piece recently at Bard), the piece starts with C-E-G-B chords and then adds a new pitch on each beat, also subtracting one, in the order of the 12-tone row, recycling the row over and over without transposition. The result is, rather than a dissonant and rather abstract rotation of the 12 pitches, a succession of mildly impressionistic harmonies. Hauer's works are always heavily polyphonic, but the individual lines are constricted and somewhat mechanical, and the changing harmony is the most prominent impression. The result is a then-new kind of texture as innovative as Webern's (whose works were equally brief), and palpably more pleasant. I'd been intrigued by Hauer ever since Charles Amirkhanian played me a rare tape of his music in 1982, and given today's postminimal idioms, his music, if undeniably modest in its ambitions, seems nevertheless more relevant than ever - perhaps due for a major rediscovery.

My other most intense 12-tone activity has been analysing what I think of as the most perfect and satisfying 12-tone composition, Luigi Dallapiccola's little-known Piccola Music Notturna ("A Little Night Music" - cute, huh?). Dallapiccola (1904-1975) developed a method of proceeding through the row in slow increments and almost minimalistically: playing the first three notes, repeating them and adding the fourth, repeating notes 2 through 4 and adding the fifth, and so on, so that it might take as many as five, seven, ten measures to complete one statement of the row. In addition, he would sustain out certain notes of the row to slowly build up drone-like harmonies that often had nothing to do with contiguous notes of the row: 12-tone music played with the sostenuto pedal, so to speak. It allows him to achieve effects of harmonic subtlety that are pretty rare in 12-tone music. For instance, in Piccola Music Notturna the second row statement starts with the pitch E and the third ends with E. There are 12 measures in between, and when he gets to the end of the third row, much of the orchestra comes in strongly on that E, which gains a certain freshness from not having been heard in awhile. Atmosphere is a quality that 12-tone technique generally militates against, and Piccola Music Notturna is uncharacteristically dripping in atmosphere. (I've often thought that the Italians - Dallapiccola, Maderna, Berio, Nono - found much better ways to make the 12-tone idea effective than any of the Germans or French did.)

And if you were to cross Hauer's harmonic textural technique with Dallapiccola's additive note technique, you might come up with something like the final movement of Philip Glass's Music in Twelve Parts, which slowly builds up a 12-tone row over some ten minutes.

I've never written a 12-tone piece. I tried many times in my youth, and just couldn't complete one. I felt exactly as John Cage did, who complained, "You run up and down that row matrix like a rat caught in a trap." But I've always felt that Schoenberg started the 12-tone language off totally on the wrong foot, and that there must be some interesting way to make it work. Hauer's music was just too radical for his lifetime: the 1930s and '40s must have found his rhythmic momentum and textural consistency bizarre, though after minimalism they begin to sound charming. And by the time Dallapiccola developed his own 12-tone usage, the serialists were set to take the style off in another direction, so Dallapiccola's idea fell by the wayside (except perhaps in the work of his student George Rochberg). I don't find the premises of 12-tone music very promising, but perhaps we're due, today, for a revisionist history that might discover its more provocative features and make it inherently alluring, instead of presenting it as a dutiful, even fascistic historical mandate.

April 18, 2004 8:44 PM | |

In case anyone out there reads me and not Jan Herman's blog (and you should, he's endlessly savvy and entertaining), I have to help disseminate a quotation he introduced me to. It's what drummer Max Roach replied when asked about rap music:

"People who voted for defunding of music education programs in public schools are getting what they paid for."

April 18, 2004 3:56 PM | |

My comments on improvisation from Friday brought a predictable yelp from electronic improviser and composer Tom Hamilton, my faithfulest post-blog correspondent, but his own diagnosis of recent musical ills completely blindsided me:

The fact that the music doesn't work for you is not necessarily a sign that the performers come to the music with any less integrity and self-scrutiny than any other musicians. Your assertion that the music has become "replicatable" argues more for over-pollination than for your accusation that improvisers don't listen to each other perform. [KG: I didn't really mean to say that improvisers don't listen to each other, but that the methods of free improvisation don't show any developmental refinement in the long run. But never mind.]

To my mind, the reasons that new music in general has gone kind of flat for many people is not for the lack of refined techniques, but for a want of breakaway ideas. The academic setting that can bring in four European laptop players through student effort is rare indeed. If one person attending got a new idea through listening to that concert, maybe we'll have something new to listen to in ten years.

But I want something new...TODAY. So I keep going, keep spinning CDs, and once and awhile I hear it.

Geeeeeeeez, really? Are we really lacking for "breakaway" ideas in recent years? I'll admit, I have argued before that the most interesting music now is drawn from 1) the gradual collective development of a language drawn from minimalism, and 2) a synthesis of all the crazy ideas that modernism unearthed without refining. I guess you could turn that around and look at it from the other side and decide that there are no new ideas today. But as a composer I'm still working out the implications of the great idea of my youth, the sustained process first evident in Steve Reich's Drumming, Terry Riley's In C, and Phil Glass's Music in Fifths. And I've even argued that the constant search for the new big idea was a 20th-century disease, that led us to cook up one new method after another, declare each one the Music of the Future, and then abandon it without really working it into a subtle, powerful language. But maybe I've been blind, or just putting the best face on a bad situation. Possible? Even if I'm right artistically, do we need breakaway ideas to focus attention on new music? Tom clarified a little:

Maybe I was imprecise, but the intent/implication was that while we have so many artists with individual notions of music (my perpetual grinding on "pluralism" over your "totalism"), we haven't had many really new ideas in the last decade. Not so incompatible with your complaint about free improv, but just different cause: I think the ideas just keep getting smaller.


April 18, 2004 10:51 AM | |

In response to criticisms of our Brainless Fearless Leader on my web page, I received an e-mail from some Republican woman out there pleading with me not to criticize the President. I didn't ask for permission to quote her, and so won't do so, but I'll paraphrase. I was interested, because I never talk to people like this and don't come across any socially - the precinct I vote in, on Election Day 2000, went 243 for Gore, 160 for Nader, and 80 for Bush (that's right, we're still looking for the sonuvabitch who managed to vote 80 times). So this lady, who sounded very nice and respectable and religious, told me that unemployment was lower than it had been in years, and that "our" tax burden had been lightened (which can only lead me to assume that she's in the $200,000-plus bracket). She went on and on about how "the war" (whether against Al Qaeda or Iraq she didn't specify - they seemed to have fused inside her head) was all Clinton's fault, because he hid his head in the sand and didn't have the guts to do anything to protect the country. Then (the interesting part), she told me that God is in control and that He selects who should lead the country, and that I shouldn't criticize whom God selects.

Well, you've already anticipated my response. First I pointed out that the 302,000 jobs recently created were against more than 5,000,000 lost since Bush took office, the largest job loss of any president since Hoover. I mentioned that Clinton bombed an Al Qaeda compound and the Republicans jumped all over him for it. Then I asked the obvious: if God makes sure that the right person becomes President, then God clearly wanted Bill Clinton to be President from 1993 to 2000 - and therefore, shouldn't she have refrained from criticizing Clinton?

I really wanted an answer to this one, and she sounded fairly reasonable, or at least polite. Disappointingly, in her brief response she only accused me of being driven by hatred of Republicans, and said she didn't want to argue the matter any more.

The great question remains unanswered.

* * * * * * * *

UPDATE: The lady wrote me back to say she's involved in a city council race, and has learned "the hard way" how Democrats campaign: when they run out of facts and ideas, they use lies, innuendos, and personal attacks. Really? The Democrats do that? And the Republicans? Ohhhhh, never, never, never.

Could we maybe find out who some of those feisty Democrats are? We could sure use them on the national ticket.

April 18, 2004 10:16 AM | |

Despite being a cool, avant-garde guy, I am a college professor, and the semester activity is at its height. You wouldn't want to hear what I'm up to this week - faculty evaluation committee meetings, written justifications for replacing retiring faculty, queries from prospective students - it would bore you to tears. What makes me so sure? It's boring me to tears.

But the upside of committee meetings is that they give me plenty of time to think about my blog, and I have been thinking. Experimental musician/reader William Lawless had a query:

Something I haven't seen you discuss - and that also seems absent on sites like New Music Box - is the kind of music that's being released by outfits like Erstwhile, For4Ears, Grob, and related labels. This music is going by names like electro-acoustic improvisation and lower-case sound (and filed under genres, if you can call them that, of "post-AMM" or post-concrete music). The aesthetic here is pretty hardcore improvisational, but not exclusively: Polwechsel comes to mind as a composing group whose sound nevertheless is squarely in this aesthetic. And Cage and Feldman seem to come up again and again as a cited influence for much of this music-in artist interviews, in liner notes, and in online discussions by fans and critics. (And correct me if I'm wrong, but there's a counter-gesture, too, on the part of many contemporary classical musicians who incorporate improvised passages, concrete elements, non-canonic instruments like electronics or sheets of metal or what-have-you.) So my question is, how do you see this new stuff fit into the contemporary (and/or academic) classical scene - if one can imagine this homogeneity, at least for the sake of discussion? Do you see these musical worlds communicating with or influencing each other in any valuable, innovative ways?

By interesting coincidence, this question came the same week that student Matt Wellins brought just such a quartet to Bard, actually four European laptop performers who had never performed together as a quartet before: Peter Rehberg (who goes by the name Pita, at times), Thomas Lehn, Marcus Schmickler (who occasionally goes by the name Pluramon), and Gert Jan-Prins. I'm not very hip in this field, but enjoyed what I heard. It always seems to me that this kind of music seems successful when the players know enough to make it subtle. When you have a million possibilities and use a hundred in the first minute or two, the music gets boring very quickly. When the laptop performers have enough self-discipline and knowledge of interesting software capacities to bring about slow, interesting transformations and unusual textures, the results can be quite lovely. Beyond those criteria, though, I do have a little trouble telling one group from another, and I feel like I'd need to have a better notion of how the software operates than I do in order to offer a detailed critique. I certainly have no principled objection to the music, but as with DJs, I'm not sure what criteria one would use to claim that one group is better than another. And I do appreciate it when I don't have to wear ear plugs. I'm 48 and getting a little old for the unrestrained noise business, but my sympathies are still with it.

My long-term historical doubt about electronic improvisation is the same as with regular free improv: I don't get a convincing impression that sustained self-criticism is going on, that improvisers listen to each other perform, hear and identify things that don't work well, and keep refining their techniques to make the music more powerful. Perhaps the mindset of this kind of sustained self-criticism only comes from a world in which pieces of music are semi-permanent, replicatable entities. But it's why, after writing extensively about free improvisation in the 1980s (unsympathetically, some thought, but I took pains to discuss performances I liked as much as those I didn't, and it seemed to me the very fact that improvisers found that "unsympathetic" was a sign of their unwillingness to self-criticize), I pretty much decided to leave that scene alone.

But Lawless goes on to wonder: these "post-concrete" composers are heavily inspired by the musics of Cage, Feldman, Varèse, and a lot of people in the composing world. Are composers likewise inspired, influenced by (I'm beginning to hate the ubiquitous word "influence," but that's a blog entry for another day) the electronic improvisers?

April 16, 2004 12:36 PM | |

While I'm on anecdotes, long-time correspondent John Dinwiddie sends a charming one:

I have a good Henry Cowell tale for you, starring David Tudor and Lou Harrison. In 1967, I drove David Tudor down to the Lansing Speaker Corp. in Sunnyvale to pick up some speaker drivers for the first version of the Rainforest circuit. Afterwards, David decided that I needed to meet a man of real culture - still true - and that we should head down to Aptos to drop in on Lou.

That we did, and late into an evening that would take a long chapter to describe, Lou holds up before his guests around his sunken long table a sheet of paper and asks in his great, Vincent Pricey voice, "David, do you have any idea what this is?" (No.) "Well, it's Henry Cowell's first composition, written when he was eight. It's called, [dramatic pause] 'I Want An Ice Cream Cone.'"

April 9, 2004 9:28 PM | |

The last few days I've been analyzing the slow movement of Roger Sessions's Third Symphony to present it in class. (Yes, it's true - I may denigrate 12-tone music as a critic, but as a historian and theorist I scrupulously study and teach it, and in fact compared works by Sessions, Copland (Inscape), Wallingford Riegger (Third Symphony) and Dallapiccola (Piccola Musica Notturna) to show different ways in which second-generation 12-tone composers slowed down the rotation of the twelve pitches to give the style more harmonic contrast. As a critic I would never undertake a sustained criticism of a style I hadn't fully understood.) Anyway, I was reminded of a 19-year-old story that I've never had opportunity to make public, because the person it concerned didn't want it printed. But now that the late, great Ralph Shapey is dead, I feel free to release it.

I interviewed Shapey in the summer of 1985. Ralph, a first-class ranter, embarked on a tirade against conductors who wouldn't program American music. "Like Roger Sessions," he bellowed. "They never play his symphonies, never. Oh, I know what Roger Sessions's problem is, everyone knows the problem with Roger Sessions, but that still doesn't mean they shouldn't play his music!"

"Wait a minute, wait a minute," I interrupted. "What's the problem with Roger Sessions?"

"Well," Shapey hesitated, glancing around his apartment in search of the right word, "he's... he's... he's DULL! But that doesn't mean they shouldn't play his music!" And then, realizing I was sitting there with a tape recorder and notepad, he panicked and pleaded, "Please don't print that! Please don't print that I said that!"

So I never did - during his lifetime. Shapey would use the f-word in all kinds of contexts and tell me to "write that in," but he was scared to death of the music world learning that he considered Sessions's music dull.

And the slow movement of the Sessions Third is indeed gorgeous, beautifully written, impeccably crafted - and dull.

April 9, 2004 8:03 AM | |

I gave a little cheer this morning reading my friend Greg Sandow, confirming something I absolutely believe:

What about serious musical scholars, who sit there [at concerts] reading scores? Now, I -- speaking now as a musician, though not all musicians would agree with me -- think that's one of the worst ways to listen to music. You notice the trees, not the forest. You police the composition (and, above all, the performance), but you don't truly hear it. You notice details, but you miss both the flow of the composition, and the sheer taste and impact of the sound.

Hooray again! Pompous Uptown critics who think Elliott Carter is the greatest thing since silced bread look down their noses at us critics who don't read scores at concerts, but I used to do it, and I learned that afterward I was able to point to dozens of notes that were played wrong, but had completely missed the emotional impact of the performance, and had nothing to report that a non-musicologist would be interested in. In fact, I think it was the practice of score-reading during concerts among certain critics that fostered a kind of specious enthusiasm for 12-tone music; the stuff could be fascinating to watch, and you didn't want to hear the emotional impact anyway. Now I'll look at a score before a performance and again afterward, but never during, and I wouldn't trust the judgment of any critic who listened to a work with his face buried in the score.

On the other hand, Greg's plumping for a hand-held device called the Concert Companion, which can provide rolling program notes during a concert, keyed to events in the music. As a composer, if I knew that such a device was going to be applied to a new work of mine, I would meticulously avoid writing into the piece any event that could be described. (Hmm, sounds like the way I'm composing lately anyway.)

April 8, 2004 10:05 AM | |

I took the quiz to see which New York Times columnist I am. Turns out, I'm Maureen Dowd.

And by the way, I've been listening to Air America over the internet. It isn't anywhere near as hilarious as they promised, but neither is it as dull as the reviews I've read charge. It's just radio, sufficiently entertaining to keep on in the background, and often satisfying in the truths it reports. Maybe they shouldn't have raised false expectations by hyping up the funny side so much.

April 5, 2004 11:10 PM | |

Picking up on my entry about Europe, Art Jarvinen tells an anecdote about the Dutch composer Joep Franssens:

I met him at an E.A.R. Unit concert at the Icebreaker in Amsterdam, where we played that piece of mine you like so much, Murphy-Nights. Afterwards Joep said "That's the kind of piece a lot of us here would like to be writing, but we can't yet. The pressure is still too strong to do what's expected."

Murphy-Nights, by the way, is a brilliant, jazzy piece in which three instruments play a crazily syncopated line in unison while the electric keyboard and bass play ostinatos going out of phase, one 32 16th-notes long and the other 33 16th-notes. Very lean, surprising yet logical, based in minimalist techniques but wacky and angular, humorous, very American.

I get a lot of contradictory mail on topics like this. Some aver that the hegemony of complex atonal music was over years ago; some find it very much alive, but more in Europe these days, it seems, than in America. Personally I find it sad and anachronistic that in 2004 any composer still takes the tonal/atonal distinction or the consonance/dissonance distinction as being crucial, or feels that complexity is a necessary musical attribute. As Charles Ives so wisely wrote, "Why tonality should be done away with completely, I can't see. Why it should be always present, I can't see." Isn''t it obvious that there is too much great tonal music for anyone to think music should always be atonal, and too much great atonal music for anyone to dismiss atonality? And yet a student of mine recently applied to grad school and was asked by a professor, "I see you've used a key signature - don't you find that awfully limiting?" Did Bach find it limiting? Has anyone ever proved that limitations on creative work were a bad thing? Nietzsche wrote that "one should remember the compulsion under which every language so far has achieved strength and freedom - the metrical compulsion, the tyranny of rhyme and rhythm." As for those convinced that a certain historical period necessitates a specific kind of music, defined by superficial qualities such as consonance, dissonance, tonality, complexity - can they prove their assertion? prove that it is more than a personal preference or received professorial mandate turned around into a weapon to blast away at the careers of others?

Of all the despicable follies of modern music, the most despicable is the devaluation of simplicity. Simplicity has always been an artistic virtue, and it remains one still - not an essential virtue, for there is too much enjoyable complex music to believe that. But other things being equal, one remembers simple music far better than complex music, and I come back to the simple pieces that have impressed me far more consistently than I do the complex ones. Beethoven's sketches reveal that his first ideas were rarely simple and rarely good, and that in revising them he invariably simplified them and made them infinitely more powerful in so doing. To get your music to where it is simple, and therefore memorable, and therefore powerful, takes tremendous effort, and many composers lie about that fact because they don't want to put forth the effort. It is just over 200 years since Friedrich von Schiller wrote that

True genius is of necessity simple, or it is not genius.... The most intricate problems must be solved by genius with simplicity, without pretension, with ease; the egg of Christopher Columbus is the emblem of all the discoveries of genius. It only justifies its character as genius by triumphing through simplicity over all the complications of art.... Simplicity in our mode of thinking brings with it of necessity simplicity in our mode of expression, simplicity in terms as well as movement; and it is in this that grace especially consists. Genius expresses its most sublime and its deepest thoughts with this simple grace; they are the divine oracles that issue from the lips of a child; while the scholastic spirit, always anxious to avoid error, tortures all its words, all its ideas, and makes them pass through the crucible of grammar and logic, hard and rigid.... ("On Naive and Sentimental Poetry")

That last sentence sounds like a definition of grad school to me. More compellingly (because more simply), George Sand wrote that

Simplicity is the most difficult thing to achieve in this world: it is the last limit of experience and the last effort of genius.

And even more simply still:

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
- Leonardo Da Vinci

Has European music forgotten? Have we?

April 5, 2004 10:33 PM | |

Well, I thought someone else would eventually say it, but no one has. The MPR American Mavericks radio series on American classical music that won the Peabody Award? It was based on scripts written by me, which were reworked slightly for radio, with interviews added, by Tom Voegeli. Tom did an excellent job, but the Minneapolis Star described him as "writer" of the series and omitted me, and subsequently I've been getting e-mails from friends saying, "But I thought you wrote the series." (Even the Arts Journal link, o unkindest cut of all, failed to mention me). I take a little drink in my own honor.

After all, I don't want anyone to think I falsely took credit for being involved with a radio show that won a Peabody. That would put me on the same level as... Bill O'Reilly!

April 2, 2004 5:40 PM | |

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of recent entries written by PostClassic in April 2004.

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