PostClassic: June 2004 Archives

Ultimately, what I want from a piece of music is to make me miss it, to make me yearn to hear it, to run through my head in a quiet, seductive way, creating a nagging temptation that can only be satisfied by playing the recording yet again. Even among the hundreds of postclassical pieces I really like, there are few that come up to that level: the A++ pieces among all the A’s. I’ve found a new one: The Same Sky by San Francisco composer Carolyn Yarnell, as played by pianist Kathleen Supove on her new CD Infusion on Koch International Classics (KIC CD 7572). I had known the piece before. Yarnell includes it on her Tzadik CD Sonic Vision, and I liked it. But there, it’s in a totally electronic version with synthesizer and electronic effects. The electronic version is smooth and silky and even, but with Supové playing the melody part on a real piano, it acquires a glimmer, and depth, and - well, prickliness - that give it some friction and make it haunting.

The Same Sky is basically a slender line of piano notes echoed in digital delay, sometimes thickening into chords and dissonances. The piece opens with a repeated C-sharp, echoed lightning-fast, and the movement of the line breaks into shimmering textures. Like a soundtrack for the graceful dance of some lithe undersea animal, it darts around in exquisite arpeggios with subtly metamorphosing harmonic patterns, mostly delicate but sometimes intensifying into anger and sadness. And the electronics make it sound like a piano playing five times as fast as it can play, a will-o’-the-wisp piano line, an unreal yet familiar sound diffracted through poignant harmonies. The energy is so unusual: fast and sprightly, yet kind of sad and thoughtful. Plus, the disc offers, if you stick it in your computer, a Quicktime movie of Supové playing the piece, which gives you a better feel for the relation of electronics to piano. The Same Sky is also a video piece, with shifting cloud forms projected onto the inside lid of the piano in counterpoint with the music. Interesting visual idea.

The other pieces on Supové’s disc, all for piano and electronics, are enjoyable too - one each by Elaine Kaplinsky, Marti Epstein, and Randall Woolf. Kaplinsky’s Umbra is even texturally similar to The Same Sky, also in repeated notes but slower. But only The Same Sky sent me back to the CD player hours later saying, “I can't get that out of my head, I have to hear it again.”

June 29, 2004 11:35 PM | |
I’ve been remiss in responding to the replies to my blog entry on the alleged death and irrelevancy of modernism, with reference to the Eugenides-Lewis debate in Slate magazine - first because I was waiting to see if there would be more, then because I descended back into my composing fog. But today’s a writing day, and I had received an impressive missive from the redoubtable Matt Wellins, which I will answer as it goes along:

You bring up how Modernism is still very alive in composer circles, but I think you're ignoring how dead it is in every other aspect of popular culture these days. Even the most transparent tripe (I think we're in agreement about "Lost in Translation", for instance) is viewed as some kind of artistic renaissance. I think some sort of prickliness is necessary, some sort of stamp that says "Not for commercial consumption."

Bravo, well said - as much as I love “pretty” music like Harold Budd and Daniel Lentz, there is a broadly felt need for some sort of prickliness in new music, isn’t there? if only to keep us from falling into the new age category. But how much prickliness, and why? To prove we’re “serious,” in some vestige of modernist self-estimation? To keep our music from being appropriated by music corporations? Are we in that much danger? Should we let the corporate threat dissuade us from the music we feel should be written, or should we cling to our autonomy? To keep people from sinking into the beauty that is “too much confused with something that lets the ears lie back in the easy chair”? To keep listening a thoughtful experience? Or, let’s turn it around: one might feel that if there is truth, structure, originality in a piece of music, there will also be prickliness as a side effect: but surely we’ve established through a million imitative, nondescript 12-tone pieces that prickliness will not automatically result in truth, structure, or originality, right? - though diehard modernists may continue to believe this. This question deserves further thought, but I hope we can agree that Adorno did not have the last word on the issue.

The first paragraph of the Eugenides quote strikes me as somehow oblivious, and I'm surprised this doesn't somehow frustrate you as well. We're in a desperate, broken time now too. Things are a bloody mess all over the world. And the fact that this initial wave of modernist "grand experiments" didn't exactly succeed doesn't necessarily undermine its importance. We are all still making grand experiments that reflect our desperate times. Our aesthetics, even if they're postively-charged towards some utopian future, still require some destructive element, something to wipe away the saccharine trance of our current culture.

Well, OK, you’re right - Eugenides admits that maybe he’s just getting middle-aged, and so am I. Things are a bloody mess, and, as bad as I thought they were when I was your age, they’re worse now - it’s not just a perception of youth. And perhaps if I were 22, my response would be to want a completely different kind of art, something that would shake off all traces of the past, like the Darmstadt composers wanted after WW II. As it is, I grew up immersed in music that tried to destroy the past, and, reacting against 30 years of that, I see a lot of value now in some kind of reconstituted “normalcy” - but I suppose to be 22 now would be to see even the Darmstadt music as a kind of “normalcy.” Or perhaps it’s impossible to be 22 right now without feeling swamped by a corporate kind of musical normalcy. An inevitable difference in perspective.

Maybe what I'm a proponent of here is a "New Elitism" - one that is somewhat more broad-minded than the past one, but not as all-inclusive and allegedly populist as post-modernism claims to be. All of a sudden, something strikes me as very silly about comparing post-modern (populist-leaning, but ultimately self-aware music) to modern music.... Who does it even matter to? [French electronic minimalist] Eliane Radigue is just as ridiculous to most listeners as Webern. My mom was ready to chop my head off for blasting [American minimalist] Arnold Dreyblatt in the house yesterday. I think the only post-modern music with true potential for subversion is music that we won't notice or label as "post-modern." Its galvanizing forces won't be apparent to academic communities or even a number of new music circles. I think most of that crowd will too quickly dismiss it as pop music.

Hmmm.... The logic is growing subtle. Does this mean a kind of music, using pop conventions, whose subversive features are almost unnoticeable? Perhaps a music that... reconstitutes a certain air of normalcy? You know, I think, that the paper I delivered on Mikel Rouse’s music at a recent postmodernism conference was titled, “Mikel Rouse and the Simulation of Normalcy.” I do like the concept of a New Elitism, though I think I might pick a different word. Possibly a New Sense of Standards?, with the inherent realization that standards are always relative to style, intention, and function. (Though I hate the word "standards," too.)

What I feel really defensive about, however, is the assumption that Modernism is innately alienating. I don't think serialism was a complete waste of your time, like you often joke about. You mention how seductive it is in the closing of your entry, but you never really illustrate what that attraction is. As an occassional Carterite and a former Zornite (there are still some works of his that I hold in high regard, it's just his work as of late.... but that's another story), it's hard for me to ignore how beautiful ugly sounds can be!

Touché. I do harbor and express fondness for certain serialist works. I think that the Darmstadt serialists, by exploding every then-existing concept of musical normalcy, came up with extreme originality and beauty in the area of musical texture, and my own music continues to be influenced by serialist textures. But I also think that aside from Berio’s Sinfonia, Babbitt’s Philomel, maybe Zimmermann’s Requiem, and a couple of other pieces with textual elements, the entire body of serialist music produced nothing that will ever mean much to anyone beyond composers and new-musicians interested in its technical aspects. There will always be interest in serialist music - it’s always fascinating when people pour tremendous creative energy into something that doesn’t appear to mean anything. Write some apparent nonsense, and people will study it for centuries! - look at the endurance of Finnegans Wake. It’s fascinating that people once wrote music that tried to alienate people. But again, once you reach a certain age it becomes less fascinating, and one can start to feel a certain urgency for connecting with that which can be understood. I think.

I think maybe the dilemma expressed in My Dinner With Andre isn't so much about people being fatigued from their constant confrontation with the harsh and abrasive "real world", but about the increasingly cliched form that people use to express those sentiments. Plenty of post-modern composers believe they're illustrating and reflecting the "real world", not all of them neccessarily subscribe to the idea of posing pleasant possibilities. People become conditioned, they form expectations. The fulfillment of expectations is the problem, not the sounds themselves. I wouldn't dare tell anyone I met on a casual basis that I was an "avant-garde composer" of some sort. It's not just because of the semantic difficult in describing what I do, it's because of the heavy baggage it holds. I believe Brian Eno told an interviewer once that he told most people he was an accountant, unless he knew they had a lot of time to spend.

I see modernism as an innately progress-oriented approach. I agree with you that left-brain functionality has taken the forefront of the modernist thread in the past 40 years, but I think you're ignoring that at the root of it, it was about invention, and became bland and monotonous with subsequent generations of uninspired composers. Putting Schoenberg and Boulez in the same boat isn't fair. One invented tone rows, the other used them.

Postmodernism is scary to me because it seems to hold non-invention in such high esteem. There seems to be a defeatist attitude in subscribing to either the idea that history is completely non-linear or the idea that history is completely apparent, both things that I see creeping up in post-modern work (speaking of which, isn't Zorn a post-modernist in this regard, anyway?). This all boils down to rhetoric, though. Composers define their own lineages, draw their own sounds, use their own themes. I don't think this is post-modern or modern. Maybe the only real defense in this email is that "While only some people like ugly music, not all people like pretty music."

A music that held no interest in invention would indeed be scary. Having been educated in the Age of Theory, as I was educated before it, you seem to have a much more definite sense of a body of existing postmodern music (as opposed to merely postclassical) than I do. I’d be interested in seeing a list of music you consider postmodern, and I’d be happy to print it - an invitation open to others as well. And thanks for your thoughtful remarks, as usual.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Also, reader Matthew Hammond was appalled that I seemed to equate the theoretical modernism of composer Brian Ferneyhough with the anachronistic imperialism of Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al. I certainly didn’t mean to imply any moral equivalence. Ideas that might just be interesting or controversial or tiresome when expressed in music become oppressive and life-shattering when expressed in political action, and the practicing composer does not wield nearly as dangerous a power in the world as the reigning politician. Nor did I mean to single Ferneyhough out - any number of other names would have done as well. What I object to, and am perhaps particularly sensitive to, is the type of rigid male personality that has infinite faith in its own perceptions and opinions, and dismisses all opposing feedback as stupid and irrelevant. I once interviewed Ferneyhough, and never published the interview because as I was writing it up, the contempt he expressed for audiences made it impossible to present him as a sympathetic figure. There are composers just as willing to tell the world of music lovers “Go fuck yourself!” as our current vice-president is to politicians who question his actions. I don’t care for the type.

And I suppose I see the type of old-fashioned imperialism embodied by the Bush administration, correctly or not, as anachronistically analogous to the type of late modernism that attempts to alienate people and impose its own set of rules - the rigidity of old men who think they know what’s best, they’re the experts, and the rest of us should just shut up and follow docilely along. Hammond points out that by excluding such composers, I don’t come across as someone invested in stylistic pluralism. And that’s a paradox of pluralism, isn’t it? - that it requires including in your rainbow of viewpoints those who think that they’re right and everyone else is wrong.

Of course, there were two very different phases of modernism - the early, irrational, expressionist phase, and the later, lawgiving, dogmatic phase. But that’s an article for another day.

June 29, 2004 6:51 PM | |
I’m no film critic, as I’ve noted. But I’ve read every review I could find of Fahrenheit 911, maybe two dozen of them, and not one of them quoted the sentence that seems to me, now that I’ve seen it, the film’s central thesis. All through the film, Moore keeps mentioning that the purpose of the Iraq war, of the War on Terror, of the Patriot Act, could not possibly be what it pretends to be, but he never gets around to telling you what the purpose is. Until the penultimate sentence, spoken by Moore in a voiceover (I’m quoting from memory): “The purpose of the war is to preserve and shore up the hierarchical structure of society itself” - that is, in context, to make the rich richer and ever more cushioned and invulnerable, to keep the poor helpless, and even to make self-sacrifice to the comfort of the rich the poor’s only possibility of happiness, as in the young Black youth of Flint going off to fight Bush’s war of choice. It’s The Matrix - remade as a documentary. In that sentence, Moore’s grandly wandering and discursive film suddenly comes into focus - every thread is tied together. It’s the most profound point he could have made - not that Bush is a bumbling idiot, or that Cheney is corrupt down to his bone marrow, or that Rumsfeld is a vicious autocrat (though all god’s truth), but that the war is not against Iraq or any particular country, but is actually a class war against the poor. Next to this central point, all the critical argument about whether Moore got this or that detail right, whether Bush is as lazy as he says and so on, is just idle carping about tangential issues. And that takes some of the alleged partisan sting out of the movie, because the increasingly feudal nature of American society is exactly what can least be changed by a mere election - even if we elect a smarter, more compassionate rich white guy from Skull and Bones. (Don’t throw Nader at me, it’s become clear by now that the Republicans are funding his campaign to preserve the status quo, with his cheerful complicity.)

Now, I know I’m not smarter than all those film critics. Yet they all got tied up in details from the movie that turned out to be relatively trivial once I saw it, and never once mentioned the main point. (For instance, the celebrated joke of Moore reading the Patriot Act to Congress from an ice cream truck only takes up about ten seconds.) What gives? Being critics, did they, perhaps, spend too much of the movie thinking up the brilliant things they were going to say, and fail to register the all-encompassing theme because it didn’t come until the final words, after they had already put away their notebooks?

June 26, 2004 11:52 AM | |

The work is intended for pianist-musicians of the highest order. Indeed, its intellectual and technical difficulties place it beyond the reach of any others. It is a weighty and serious contribution to the literature of the piano, for serious musicians and serious listeners only.

The above is the proud caveat appended to the score, by the clearly not-very-modest composer, of Kaikhosru Sorabji’s Opus Clavicembalisticum, which I heard Jonathan Powell play at Merkin Hall last night. For those who’ve neglected your education in esoteric composers, and shame on you if you have, Sorabji (1892-1988) is a composer of Parsi, English, and Spanish descent, semi-famous for having written some of the longest and most mammothly difficult works in the piano repertoire, many of them ranging from two to eight hours long. Opus Clavicembalisticum is the best-known, with a couple of recordings to its credit (Geoffrey Douglas Madge on Bis, John Ogdon on Altarus). Since Sorabji wrote it in 1930, it’s reportedly been publicly performed in its entirety only 11 times; I missed Madge's performance in Chicago in the mid-1980s and have kicked myself for years, so I determined not to make that mistake again. (I didn’t, however, hear Sorabji's Symphony No. 5 for piano played by Donna Amato June 17 - it conflicted with Larry Polansky’s concert here at Bard.) I wasn’t completely overwhelmed, but I did become a confirmed Sorabji fan - I’ll tell you how and why.

Lots o’ multisyllable words for you today. Ready? Opus Clavicembalisticum is a four-and-a-half-hour extravaganza loosely patterned after Ferruccio Busoni’s Fantasia Contrappuntistica, which is itself based on the final, unfinished fugue from Bach’s The Art of Fugue. (I’ve always considered Busoni’s piece hot stuff too - my own I’itoi Variations for two pianos is largely an homage to it.) Opus Clavicembalisticum is in 12 movements, four of them fugues: there’s a regular fugue, then one on two subjects, one on three, and finally, in case anyone is still standing, one on four subjects. Scattered around these are an Introit, a Chorale Prelude (following Busoni’s model, and quoting the Bach themes Busoni used), two cadenzas, two interludes - one of them a mammoth movement divided into Toccata, Adagio, and Passacaglia with 81 Variations - and a Coda. Whew.

First, let me say that the feat of playing Opus Clavicembalisticum is somewhat analogous, in difficulty and preparation time, to, oh, say, playing all of Chopin’s Etudes at the same time while juggling, or perhaps carving Mount Rushmore single-handedly with a butter knife. Powell is an extremely careful but energetic player, who hammered through the piece with relentless momentum, yet who also clearly differentiated all the themes, always keeping a wide range of dynamic levels going at once; he abundantly earned the instant standing ovation he received. He seemed more of a rigorous machine-like player than an expressive one, but Sorabji may not give the pianist much choice in this case. There is much more moto perpetuo than rubato here, low-energy moments are rare enough to be delightfully refreshing when they arrive, and Sorabji’s phrases are counted out not in measures, but in minutes. Powell seemed a little irked at climbing this Everest for a Merkin Hall that was only about a third full, but he was playing for fourscore fans diehard enough to have satisfied even the exacting Sorabji - not a soul walked out. Few seemed to even breathe, and several followed scores.

Sorabji’s music inhabits the harmonic soundworld of Busoni, Scriabin, Szymanowski, though a little more like any two of those composers played at once. His slow movements absolutely drip with lush exoticism. If you’re looking for an entree into Opus Clavicembalisticum, I especially recommend Movement 9, the Toccata, Adagio, and Passacaglia - the Toccata is a diabolical, dissonant blast, and the Adagio’s harmonies, constantly skirting atonality yet never quite going there, melt in the ear. It’s the fugues that are Sorabji’s problem. The four long fugue movements boast ten themes among them, all at least 30 notes long, seemed to me, and none of them hummable. Bruckner never ends a movement until you've heard the inversion of the theme, but Sorabji went him several better: each fugue had to state the original form, retrograde, inversion, and retrograde inversion, exceeding textbook requirements. Through their very quantity the dense undergrowth of countersubjects mostly merged into what Schoenberg called “rebaba counterpoint” - “rebaba” being allegedly the word (“rhubarb,” in some accounts) that Hollywood film directors told actors in crowd scenes to repeat to create the effect of indistinguishable murmuring. The piece kept drawing me in, then each fugue exhaled me at a steady rate.

So soon after this centennial anniversary of Bloomsday, it would be tempting to call Sorabji, for all his circuitous layered meanings, the James Joyce of music, but not really insightful. At least in Opus Clavicembalisticum, he’s more the gargantuan endpoint of a certain brand of neoclassicism - not the ironic branch a la Stravinsky, but another stream less well established in America, one that includes Busoni, Max Reger, and Alexander Zemlinsky. All of those guys tend to write very busy fugues with not very distinctive themes: Zemlinsky’s Fourth String Quartet is marked by a typically nervous, ultrachromatic fugue, Reger’s fugues are some of his less wonderful movements, and Busoni had the sense in Fantasia Contrappuntistica to stick with Bach’s themes. Yet all of these composers could write adagios gorgeously dripping with off-kilter notes: I recommend in this regard Busoni’s Elegy for his mother, Reger’s Romantic Suite and Der Einsiedler, and Zemlinsky’s Op. 13 songs. Gorgeous stuff.

And the most gorgeous Sorabji I’ve found is not in Opus Clavicembalisticum. Advance press indicated that Powell is issuing a multi-gigabyte series of Sorabji recordings, and I went out before the concert and found his Altarus three-disc set of the two-and-a-half-hour Fourth Sonata, also circa 1930. (Sorabji gave the first performance in 1930, Powell the second in 2002.) The piece is a little lighter than Clavicembalisticum, and more consistently engaging. The first movement is Scriabinesque in a massive sort of way, and the 35-minute adagio - I pause to gasp in wonder - is absolutely heavenly. A depiction of the garden of an Italian count he visited, its sonorities drip langorously into the ear, with an incredibly prolific invention of arabesque detail. The third movement contains two fugues, but they are not ambitious by Sorabji standards, and followable. And even Sorabji’s fugues, I have to admit, have elements to admire: they are written in the pose of an inexhaustible conversationalist, someone who hardly ever ends a thought without suddenly remembering another tangent to launch into.

So I am now completely sold on Sorabji as a major figure, if clearly not one to everyone’s taste: “for serious musicians and serious listeners only.” I highly recommend the Fourth Sonata as an easier, more seductive entry point than Opus Clavicembalisticum, and possibly as an exercise to build up the stamina for the larger work. Sorabji’s scores, which were difficult to obtain until his death in 1988, became impossible for awhile afterward, but some are apparently available through the Sorabji archive, and I am in search of them. And I will avidly scarf up Jonathan Powell’s recordings as they appear and let you know about them. Postclassical? Sorabji is post-everything, a one-man musical apocalypse.

June 21, 2004 9:01 PM | |
Alert reader Gavin Borchert ran across some comments in Slate that he found relevant to the concept of postclassical music, and I agree. The subject was James Joyce as a founder of modernism, and the forum was a collegial debate between novelists Jim Lewis and Jeffrey Eugenides. (I’d missed it, though I’ve been reading Slate regularly lately - their Reagan legacy coverage was refreshingly non-delusional.) Lewis says:

What I'm slowly learning is that vanguardism isn't the only form of ambition. There are others, and always have been - lyric, epic, and so on. The very idea of an avant-garde was made possible by a sense that history was relatively uniform and discrete: the sort of thing one could compass, harness, lead. But the patterns of the past are much too complicated, now; there are too many of them, and they're too varied. Again, this is fine by me: The more the merrier, and maybe "do what thou wilt" shall be the whole of the law, after all.

And Eugenides responds:

...I'm struck by your idea that we can get along fine without an avant-garde. I'm not sure I've ever heard it put quite so bluntly before. Joyce was writing Ulysses in the aftermath of World War I, when Europe and the European dream of progress and Utopian rationalism lay in ruins. I can imagine, in such a desperate, broken time, wanting to read books that were in no way like the books that had come before, books that, by the sheer destructive force of their aesthetics, spoke to the real destruction of war and, at the same time, began to show a way ahead by virtue of their grand experiments.

This isn't how I feel right now. There's a lot of noise in my head, coming from all directions, the radio, the television, the computer, the street. You could write a book that echoes this cacophony, but that might serve only to amplify it. What I want in a book is a refuge from the noise and confusion, plus a reminder that another human being is on the other end of the exchange, someone who isn't peddling me false consciousness but is bringing, or at least attempting to bring, things into light. Maybe this is just creeping middle age, but it's the way I'm tending these days.

This last paragraph echoes something that had a deep impact on me in 1981: Andre Gregory’s argument from My Dinner with Andre. (The internet is making me fat, you know. I could have eased out of my recliner and walked upstairs to look for that date on the DVD copy of the movie in my bedroom, but it was easier to keep my fat butt in the chair and click on the International Movie Database.) Andre argues that art that tries to shock people by showing them how violent and diseased the world is (let’s equate this with modernism, or the avant-garde, for the moment) is no longer effective because people already know that’s what the world is like, and it just confirms their worst suspicions and sends them back to sleep and denial. What people need instead, he theorizes, is an art that outlines alternatives, that offers hope and a saner, more beautiful image of what the world could be. This was not the beginning of my disaffection with modernism; in 1975, under the influences of Reich, Riley, and Glass, I had suddenly converted from writing the most dissonant, anxious music I knew how to make to basing a piece entirely on the C-major scale and an unvarying tempo. (Hey, Republicans: does that make me a flip-flopper? Should I have “stayed the course”?) But the many strings that connected me to modernism - theoretical, emotional, technical - were being cut one by one, and My Dinner with Andre snipped several of them.

Zip ahead to the 1990s, and you find me writing an article in the Voice called “No More Heros,” in which I argued - much like Lewis above - that modernism’s unidirectional increase of shock and complexity was a macho paradigm that couldn’t sustain itself forever. That there are still uncharted musical universes left to explore strikes me as unquestionable. But there is only so far you can meaningfully go in terms of left-brain analytical complexity, greater dissonance, more rarefied abstraction, and by pursuing only that one direction as if it were some god-given historical mandate, the Carterites, the Ferneyhoughites, and even the Zornites had left the musical needs of the human race behind. Music, as Lewis says, can also be lyric, epic - and I would also add poetic, meditative, sensitizing, physical, participatory, communal.

What I envy about this dialogue in Slate is the apparent ease with which literary people can remark on modernism’s irrelevance these days. Raise such an idea in composer circles, and a militant (if perhaps lessening) crowd will rise up to protest that we are still smack in the middle of a modernist era, with no end in sight. My parenthetical joke about “staying the course” was kidding on the square: I feel that there is a psychological link between composer Brian Ferneyhough and his “New Complexity” disciples thinking that macho increases in abstraction and complexity can go on forever, and Cheney and Rumsfeld thinking that America’s military expansion and domination of the earth’s resources can go on forever. Both are driven by a massive fear of vulnerability, and a "manful" determination to stick with the principle that has worked thus far until domination is complete. Modernism was a deadly seductive ideology - I should know, I spent 14 years slowly and painfully severing myself from it. The literary people are ahead of us, and I look forward to a music world in which we can all discuss modernism as a limited worldview from the historical past that we too have learned to transcend.

June 19, 2004 11:16 AM | |
According to a Pew Foundation report on the media carefully dissected by Jay Rosen in his exemplary Press Think blog:

"Significant majorities of journalists have come to believe that increased bottom line pressure is 'seriously hurting' the quality of news coverage. This is the view of 66% of national news people and 57% of the local journalists questioned in this survey."

No one asked me, so please add me to the 66% or 57% (depending on whether you consider the Village Voice a national or local paper - opinions differ).

June 19, 2004 9:50 AM | |
Larry Polansky is here for a couple of weeks - important composer, prof at Dartmouth, director of Frog Peak Music, a composers’ collective for publishing works by subversive outsiders like him and me. (Although, as he reminds me, we may be considered unspeakably outré by the Pulitzer crowd, but we’re thought old-fashioned by our students - we still write notes on paper.) Anyway, he’s found, and is hoping to republish, a novel by Clarissa Dixon - Henry Cowell’s mother. You always read that Cowell’s parents were writers, but who now living has ever read anything by them? This novel, or rather novella, Janet & her dear Phebe, was published in 1909 by the Frederick A. Stokes Company, when Henry was 12. It’s a poignant and imaginatively written story of two little girls who deeply love each other, wrenched apart when their fathers develop an enmity over a political dispute. Forbidden to meet, the girls communicate secretly through letters and poems:

I s’pose it isn’t nice to stamp
My foot upon the ground
And get into a boiling rage
Because a wheel is round.

I s’pose it isn’t nice, at all,
To rise at night and stand
Beside my window, wishing that
The moon was in my hand.

I s’pose it isn’t nice to want
The whole big world to be -
Like a mud play-thing in my hand -
Made over, just for me.

But worst of all, I s’pose, is this:
To wish that things were nice
When they are not. Good consciences
Cost such a big, high price!

The book’s a little dated, but also not what you expect from early-20th-century San Francisco, and the modern eye can hardly avoid reading feminist and even lesbian themes into it. (Cowell himself would become bisexual.) It’s a haunting and lovely book, and I hope Frog Peak can get funding to reprint it. 1909 was about the time Cowell started to compose, and you can only imagine what effect it must have had to have a parental model like the author of this intensely yearning novel.

June 16, 2004 11:05 AM | |
My official obituary for Jonathan Kramer is now in the Village Voice.

June 15, 2004 5:00 PM | |
I forgot to mention last week that I would be on Jon Schaefer’s “Critic’s Corner” program on WNYC last Wednesday afternoon. Sorry. (Honest, I get the chance to compose full-time and I go into a complete fog. Right now, for instance, it’s 3:30 in the afternoon and I’m still in yesterday’s clothes.) I’m always astonished at how little one can say in 20, 30 minutes of radio time. So I’ll expand here on what I started to say there.

Which was about the Pulitzer Prize. As you know, the Pulitzer board is planning to expand the music prize beyond classical music to include jazz, film scores, bluegrass, commercial jingles, etc. (Well, not bluegrass or commercial jingles just yet. Question: do you think they'd give you a Pulitzer for bluegrass if your doctorate is in grunge guitar?) Those of us who write Downtown, Cage-influenced music can’t really mourn anyway - we were always excluded from the prize, and in fact the Pulitzer has been notoriously bad as a predictor of composers whose work will still be influential in the future. Ever heard of Leo Sowerby, Gail Kubik, Leslie Bassett? You get the idea. Actually, New Music Box has a Pulitzer Prize page on which you can listen to all the Prize-winning pieces that there are available recordings for (I say that, but I just checked it and it doesn’t seem to be working). And what really stands out, listening to them all in a row, is how utterly typical all the pieces are of their decade. The 1950s pieces have every 1950s cliche, and so on. The obvious problem with the Pulitzer, one the board chose not to address, has always been the very narrow stylistic range of the judges. As with most such prizes, previous winners sit on subsequent award panels, and so they replicate more of the same aesthetic continuity year after year.

But what I started to touch on on WNYC is the problem of composers giving awards to composers. In fact, I think one of the great ills of new music is that almost everything is administrated by composers. Composers serve as the judges on almost every grants and awards panel. (Sometimes there’s a token critic, as on the Grawemeyer.) We have composer administrators and curators (Bernadette Speach and Ben Neill formerly of the Kitchen and the Bang on a Can trio), composer new-music radio figures (Charles Amirkhanian, Carl Stone, David Garland), composer critics (Tom Johnson, Greg Sandow, myself), composers who run record labels (Joseph Celli, Jim Fox, or in some cases it's composer's wives), composer music publishers (Larry Polansky, Stuart Smith), as well as composers running the new-music programs of every college and university in the country. Now, of course this makes a lot of sense. Composers know the new-music field better than anyone. They’re the experts.

But that’s the sad fact in itself. We also need new-music experts who are not composers. All of these composers do fine jobs at what they do, but when everything is run by composers, there’s ultimately never any sense of objectivity. That’s what happened to the Pulitzer - same people judging, year after year, same kinds of pieces, same narrow stylistic disposition turned into the law of the land. Replace those academic-music judges with me and some of my new-music friends, and you’d get a different style of winner year after year. Of course, one strategy for achieving objectivity is to make up a panel from composers from diverse aesthetics, say, Milton Babbitt, Anthony Braxton, and John Adams - but as anyone who’s ever sat on such a mixed-bag panel can tell you, the winner in such situations is often the lowest common denominator, not the most original but the person whose music was bland enough not to offend anyone.

The problem, most basically, is that new music, contemporary music, avant-garde music, postclassical music, whatever you call it, is no longer an attractive enough field to draw in people who are not practitioners of it. There are a handful. Jon Schaefer is one - he knows the new-music field inside and out, and he’s not a composer, so he doesn’t care who’s on top this week, who’s on bottom, whose career is doing well or badly. He doesn’t worry about whether the style of music that gets attention this week is the kind he writes, or what impact such choices will have on his own career. Jon Schaefer should be deciding the Pulitzer Prize, and I told him so. Another is Joseph Franklin, who used to run the Relache Ensemble in Philadelphia - a brilliant administrator, a visionary, and an ex-composer who has no stylistic axe to grind. There's Foster Reed, who's run the New Albion label with an elegant sense of consistent aesthetic. But overall, new music is suffering from a paucity of objective minds in its support structure. And perhaps that’s because we haven’t sufficiently appreciated or courted the talents of born administrators.

I’m not saying that composers shouldn’t be involved, or that I’m hanging up my critic’s hat anytime soon. We need a mixture, composers who know the field from the inside and connoisseurs who bring an objective, comprehensive vision. As it is, good composers are a dime a dozen these days, while visionary arts administrators who love new music are rarer than weeping willows in the Sahara.

June 15, 2004 4:46 PM | |
The Times finally came up with a not terribly informative obituary for Jonathan Kramer. Mine will appear in the Village Voice soon [I mean my obit for Jonathan, not an obit for me - knock on wood]. Kate Sullivan's obituary appeared in Newsday. And then there's Ray Charles and Steve Lacy and... well, no one else worth remembering. But it was a busy week for the Grim Reaper.
June 11, 2004 3:07 PM | |

Terry Riley performed here at Bard last night. I hadn't heard him play piano in over a decade, and I had forgotten, if I had ever realized it, how superb his piano technique is. Maurizio Pollini would have had to work hard to duplicate that performance. A few hours before the concert I asked Terry what he was going to play, and he replied thoughtfully, "I don't know... haven't decided yet." And he hadn't. He didn't announce all the pieces either, though he played a new one called Pagoda and a Requiem for Wally in honor of the man who taught him to play ragtime back at the Gold Street Saloon in San Fran in the '60s.

In a stage talk afterward with David Rosenboom, Riley talked about his learning early that he wasn't good at playing a piece from a score and getting all the notes right - it's why he turned to improvisation. And yet the pieces he played sounded very set, very composed, and could easily be transcribed. You can tell there's some looseness in the playing, some give and take about where themes enter, yet there were also some difficult-looking double arpeggios that had to have been pretty well practiced. It makes you wonder if the printed versions of Beethoven's sonatas, Mozart's concertos, were just kind of an average version of what they ended up playing live. And I agree with Terry. I love playing classical piano, but you put so much concentration into getting every little note right. How great it must feel to have all the harmonic motion, all the themes, composed, yet be able to take liberties here and there. Of course, you need a style conducive to improvisation, and Riley does use a fair amount of repetition and ostinato - but not all that much, you realize when you listen carefully.

The discussion afterward centered mostly around politics. In response to a question, Riley said that while he was pretty famous in the '70s and could draw crowds of thousands (at least in Europe), the audience has since "moved on to other things." He has a sense, I gather, that the political atmosphere of the '80s and '90s shifted the trajectory of his career and pushed him into the margins of the music business - as it has marginalized new music in general. There was a day when Riley could record on Columbia, get played on the radio, draw huge audiences, and be big news. His phenomenal piano playing, the consistent dazzling quality of his inspiration, made it very clear that it's not Riley who's changed.

June 8, 2004 4:24 PM | |
My favorite Jonathan Kramer story from his memorial service today, about Jonathan teaching music theory class:

Jonathan: Most of you have probably learned the fiction that there are three kinds of minor scale.

Student: If that's the fiction, what's the reality?

Jonathan: There is no reality.

Fuckin' A, Jonathan.

June 6, 2004 10:43 PM | |
This note from the ever-vigilant Herb Levy:

Thought you'd be interested/amused/whatever: the clue for 24 across in the NY Times Crossword puzzle for June 5, 2004 is "Piano composer ______ Nancarrow."

While I don't see the puzzle everyday, I think this is the first such mention of Nancarrow.

Thomas Arne, move over.

June 5, 2004 3:47 PM | |
And now I've just learned that the New York singer Kate Sullivan has died - what age I don't know, but younger than me. [Update: turns out she was only 40.] I first became aware of her from her expert, street-smart performance in Mikel Rouse's opera Dennis Cleveland, on the basis of which I engaged her to sing the part of the Mother in my own opera Cinderella's Bad Magic. I had hoped to work with her again when I restage the opera next season. (In fact, I was writing the lead for my next opera with her elegant mezzo in mind.) She was a lovely person and a dynamite singer.

I'm getting afraid to check messages.

June 4, 2004 11:29 AM | |
I just received the shocking and very saddening news that my old friend, a good composer and a very important theorist, Jonathan Kramer died yesterday of leukemia at the age of only 61. (He's survived by his father.) Jonathan was best known as a sort of postmodern theorist, hired as such at Columbia (in 1989) and for years not really recognized there as a composer as well. He was probably best known for his book The Time of Music, which dealt with goal-directedness versus stasis in our conceptions of musical time; powerfully argued with well-chosen and extensive examples, the book lent academic credence to the experience of time aimed at in minimalist music, relating it to kindred trends in European music.

But Jonathan was one of those rare people in whom analytical prowess and creativity went hand in hand. His music of the 1980s was what I'd have to call postminimalist: it used no repetition or grooves, but he would limit himself to only five or six or seven pitches with such inventiveness that you'd never realize the pitch spectrum was curtailed. My favorite pieces from this period were his Music for Piano Number 5 (1979-80), a Terry Riley-ish romp in mostly 11/16 meter; Moments in and Out of Time (1981-83), a big, Mahleresque orchestra piece that stubbornly adhered to the E minor scale; and a mercurial chamber piece called Atlanta Licks (1984). The limitation to a few pitches led Jonathan to experiment with using such limitations to subtly unify passages of otherwise widely varying style, and in his Notta Sonata for two pianos and percussion (1992-93) he achieved a true postmodernism, a fractured idiom in which unreal musics jostled each other in an impression of split consciousness. I never had the chance to hear his more recent music, but he was in the process of bringing out a new disc.

According to his ex-wife, Jonathan developed a blood disease last August which turned into myloproliferative syndrome, and only last weekend suddenly turned into acute leukemia. There will be a memorial service this Sunday, June 6, at 1 PM at Plaza Jewish Community Chapel in New York, 630 Amsterdam at 91st. He mentored hundreds of students, and was a loved teacher.

Jonathan, in a move that must have made colleagues question his sanity, brought me to teach a semester at Columbia as part of an attempt to loosen the place up and encourage diversity. He combined a roving, curious mind with blunt honesty, incisive opinions, and a genuine desire to make the music world a livelier, freer place. I had long looked forward to his someday receiving his just due as a composer. I hope it happens posthumously. For now, I'm stunned.

June 4, 2004 9:31 AM | |

As detailed by Anthony Tommasini in an article in today's Times, the Pultizer board was appropriately stung by John Adams's criticism of the Pulitzer for music when he won in 2003. "Among musicians that I know," Adams said in a comment much publicized at the time, "the Pulitzer has over the years lost much of the prestige it still carries in other fields like literature and journalism." As Tommasini accurately notes,

Anyone perusing the list of winners, he continued, cannot help noticing the absence of most of America's greatest musical minds, from mavericks like John Cage, Morton Feldman and Harry Partch, to composer-performers like Steve Reich, Laurie Anderson, Thelonious Monk and Meredith Monk. These creative spirits, he wrote, had been passed over year after year, "often in favor of academy composers who have won a disproportionate number of prizes."

Very true, and well said. So far, so good. It would be wonderful to have the Pulitzer board acknowledge that the Pulitzer has concentrated on a stylistically narrow range of composers, specifically avoiding the more accessible composers whose music has the most public impact. I'd love it if Downtown composers like Steve Reich, William Duckworth, Janice Giteck, Glenn Branca had a crack at the Pulitzer along with the usual academic crowd.

So what's the Pulitzer board's beneficent response? They're broadening the music category to also include music theater, film scores, and jazz, including even possibly jam sessions.

Anything, ANYTHING, rather than admit that Downtown music exists.

Pardon the unintended qualitative implications, but this is a little like telling someone their dinners are all meat and that they could stand to include some fruits and vegetables, and them responding, "OK, I'll throw in candy bars and chewing gum. NOW are you satisfied?" The response completely misses the point of the complaint. First of all, musical theater has always been eligible for the drama award anyway, and Tommasini lists musicals that have won a drama Pulitzer: Rent, Sunday in the Park with George, South Pacific.

Secondly, it could make perfect sense to institute a separate Pulitzer prize for jazz, a Pulitzer prize for pop recordings or songs, even a Pulitzer for film scores. Those genres deserve to have excellence recognized. But to have a prize for best music in which one has to comparatively evaluate film scores along with notated concert pieces, and jazz performances, and musicals, will put the committee in the position of having to decide to pick the best apple this year, the best orange next year, and the best pomegranate the year after that. Say the committee includes a composer, a film scorer, and a jazz soloist: the composer will presumably want to give it to a concert piece, the film person to a film score, etc., and how will they form any intelligent opinion regarding each others' categories? How do you weigh a great jazz performance of a particular night against a fine chamber orchestra piece against an excellent score for a good or bad film? It's meaningless. And this "broadening" will water down an already meaningless prize until it is meaninglesser than ever.

What takes my breath away, though, is the arrogance (I suppose one could more charitably say ignorance) with which they deliberately sidestep the explicit intention of John Adams's criticism. "Hell no, we're not going to give our precious music Pulitzer to any of those damn Downtown composers. Before we do that, we'll open it up to jazz and film scores and Broadway music, just so they'll quit bugging us about our damn elitism!"

June 1, 2004 10:29 AM | |

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