PostClassic: November 2004 Archives
But, taking matters into my own hands, I’ve come as close to it as anyone I know of. For my birthday (which I share with Coleman Hawkins, composer Judith Shatin, Rene Magritte, Bjork, Goldie Hawn, Marlo Thomas, and Voltaire, you could look it up) my parents bought me (I was very specific in my request, and went through my tech-literate brother) a 250-gigabyte external hard drive. (I’ll give the commercial: the brand is Maxtor, and it’s really sturdy-looking.) The device advertises the capacity to hold 4100-plus hours of music MP3s, and I’m putting it to the test. As of this writing I’ve filled 13 GB with more than 1400 tracks, trying to think of every piece I’ve ever used in class or even mentioned to a student. This is going to be the iPod from hell, and I’m planning to carry it into class knowing that there’s no piece I could possibly want to play that isn’t on it. I’ve loaded it with all the Mahler symphonies, the last seven Bruckner symphonies, the last four Sibelius symphonies, the complete Berwald symphonies (don’t ask), most of Haydn’s symphonies, the complete Nancarrow player piano pieces, all of La Monte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano, two of Sorabji’s complete works including the four-hour Opus Clavicembalisticum, the complete Beethoven sonatas, the complete Mozart Piano concerti, most of the Brahms piano music, the complete Hummel sonatas, all the available Dussek sonatas, lots of Josquin, most of Stravinsky, lots of Cage, and so on and so on. It will be my push-button repertoire machine. I’ve already tried it out - a major-minor motive in the Brahms first concerto reminded me of a similar moment in a Mahler symphony, and I played the beginnings of several movements before getting the one I wanted, the fourth movement of the Mahler Seventh. For years I’ve walked into class fumbling a tall stack of compact discs. Now I walk in with my laptop and Maxtor hard drive, and play anything from my CD collection I can think of.
The question is, of course, given 4100 hours of music storage space, what do you select? (Afterthought: I guess for people whose CD/vinyl collection doesn't reach the five-digit range, this wouldn't sound like a pressing concern.) Having copied more than 200 hours of music and only filled five percent of the disc, it’s not really an issue yet, but it will be. This is not a complete classical repertoire disc. There are composers I never refer to. I don’t see any reason to include Dvorak or Puccini, and I never mention Tchaikovsky in any flattering way. I play Mozart’s concerti and operas, but rarely his sonatas and never his symphonies. The name Verdi, though respected, goes unheard in my classroom. On the other hand, less new (postclassical) music has gone on the drive than you’d expect - as much as I love their musics, I don’t often get a chance to talk about John Luther Adams or Beth Anderson. It’s kind of a very generous desert island problem, preparing not the playlist that I’d want to listen to the rest of my life (though that inevitably goes into it), but what I can use to point out interesting things to students. And in case I want to play The Well-Tuned Piano or Feldman’s six-hour Second String Quartet, I have the luxury (if that is the proper word) or doing so without having to change CDs.
And so once again I spend dozens of hours changing formats for my recording collection: in youth I taped records on cassettes, in the ‘80s I bought compact discs to replace vinyl records, in recent years I transferred cassettes and vinyl to CDRs, and now I’m putting all of those onto one mega-drive. A composer friend of mine has gotten rid of her CDs altogether, after storing all of them on a similar hard drive. I worry that the entire culture is gleefully relinquishing something in terms of audio fidelity by settling for MP3s; if a new, more audiophile format emerges, I will doubtless spend yet more hours transferring once again. I’m not selling any CDs, because (as a frequent writer of liner-notes myself, after all) I need and enjoy the packaging. A colleague to whom I showed off my hard drive innocently asked whose recordings of the Mahler symphonies I selected, and I struggled to remember, with only partial success. With every transfer, it seems, something is gained, something is lost, and access to contextual information always seems to decline.
In the current climate, of course, an additional advantage forces its way to mind. In case the Bush administration succeeds in equating liberals with terrorists and outlawing them (which they certainly give every impression that they’d love to do), I may need to escape over the border to Montreal in a hurry. In that exigency, the Maxtor 250-GB offers a respectable fraction of my CD collection that I can carry in my briefcase when I’m forced to leave everything else behind. In the meantime, my teaching may be considerably enriched.
The Pasadena performance is this Friday. The ensembleGREEN kindly asked me for an instrumental arrangement of my sampler piece So Many Little Dyings, based on a Kenneth Patchen poem. The result will be performed Friday night at 8 PM, at the Neighborhood Church Chapel, 301 N. Orange Grove Blvd., Pasadena, CA. Here’s the program:
Arthur Jarvinen: DLL Canon (1993)
Mary Lou Newmark: Identity Matrix (2003)
Arthur Jarvinen: Brahms (1979)
Bruno Louchouarn: Flux (1999)
Henry Rasof: Witchita Falls 1
Frederick Rzewski: The Waves (1988)
Tom Johnson: Swena Lena (1976)
Philip Glass: “KneePlay2” from Einstein on the Beach (1975)
Tom Johnson: WoloYolo (1976)
Kyle Gann: So Many Little Dyings (1994)
I won’t be there, but let me know if you are. It all reinforces my feeling that I'm a West Coast composer trapped in the body of an East Coast composer.
When a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental — men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. So confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack, or count himself lost. His one aim is to disarm suspicion, to arouse confidence in his orthodoxy, to avoid challenge. If he is a man of convictions, of enthusiasm, or self-respect, it is cruelly hard…
The larger the mob, the harder the test. In small areas, before small electorates, a first rate man occasionally fights his way through, carrying even a mob with him by the force of his personality. But when the field is nationwide, and the fight must be waged chiefly at second or third hand, and the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.
The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their hearts' desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.
—H.L. Mencken, The Baltimore Evening Sun, July 26, 1920
For Cox, the reason to start a station was simple: He couldn't find the music he wanted to hear on the radio.
"For all the possibilities that the Internet may provide, what was actually out there was still very much what you would hear over the airwaves much of the time," he said. "The best you could hope for was a John Adams piece squashed between early 20th century works.
"I'm putting what I consider the essentials out there. It's been a good exercise going through all the music I love and picking out the desert island discs I feel most strongly about."
Cox plays music by not only Adams but the Kronos Quartet, Bang on a Can, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson. He bills it as "music that's smart but still warm to the ears," and he has a playlist of more than 100 pieces.
For Gann, the issue is more serious.
"When I was younger, classical radio was the way I discovered a lot of new music," he said. "It was extremely important. Today, you can't turn on the radio and hear any of this stuff."
What he and Cox do, he said, "points out the utter emptiness of most radio and most classical radio. Certainly, it points out how much better a job can be done on anything when commercial considerations are taken out of the picture."
Long Beach composer Carolyn Bremer agrees. She considers both stations "extraordinarily important because they are giving voice to a niche in music that generally requires a lot of work to find. If this multiplied, it would be the best thing that ever happened."
Well, I guess there are some even better things that I can imagine happening - world peace, perhaps - but I appreciate the sentiment. A friend commented that what he likes about the stations is that they are curated. There are ways to get on the internet and hear music by a hundred random self-promoting composers, and that's great too - but sometimes, to get a more contextual and less splintered sense of the scene, you need to hear someone’s personal vision of the best of what’s going on.
Meanwhile, it’s been difficult to write about music or even think about it. In classes, for the first post-election week, I would start to teach, and end up just standing there, wondering if the guys in the class would be trudging through the deserts of Iraq carrying rifles in a year’s time; or if in 20 years they’d be living in caves somewhere, trying to escape the disasters of out-of-control climate changes that happened because the U.S. did nothing. What good would it do them to know how many ways Wagner came up with to resolve the Tristan chord? But I also think of the woman Alfred Brendel (I believe) wrote about, who survived the German concentration camps because she had all the Beethoven string quartets memorized and kept running through them in her head. Music is a survival mechanism, and we’ll need all the mechanisms we can get.
You’ve all seen it by now, but I’ve been kind of mesmerized by the Sorry Everybody.com web site, all those thousands of people speaking for the six billion willing to stand up against the 59 million American bigots and Jesus freaks who want to keep spreading hate in the world. (The Christian Right doesn’t want to be called the Christian Right anymore, so the old term Jesus freaks, which seems more appropriate than ever, should do just fine.) I like to think that Postclassic Radio is somewhat of a musical analog to Sorry Everybody, a survey of people who don’t want to cling anymore to the bad old ways of thinking, who’ve evolved beyond the need for pissing contests, musical, military, religious, and otherwise. No wonder the Jesus freaks don’t want evolution taught in the schools: as the man says, if evolution is outlawed, only outlaws will evolve. At Sorry Everybody.com you can see thousands of the people who’ve evolved, and at Postclassic Radio and Iridian Radio, you can hear some of them.
Don't you think we've been depressed enough this week without taking all the blame for Bush's resounding victory? And how do you feel about the 2.8 million New Yorkers who voted for Bush -- more than in North Carolina and Arizona combined? What exactly is their excuse for being so stupid?
On the night of November 3rd [with my North Carolina colleagues] all anyone could talk about was how depressed they were, how hard they had worked in support of a losing cause, how completely stunned they were by the results. We had no idea that the next few days would bring about a situation in which every Dem in a state that scored 50% or more for Kerry would call us arrogant assholes for living in states where we represent something less than that magic 50% figure....
Kerry got 52% of New Jersey, 44% of North Carolina. That's the difference between a majority and a minority, but it sure as hell isn't the difference between enlightenment and ignorance.
Granted, and if it weren't for the dumb electoral college, we wouldn't be talking that way. I understand the logic of the electoral college, but more and more it seems like a relic of the day when state's rights were an important political issue, when the people of Virginia had more in common with each other than Richmond did with Philadelphia, which is no longer the case. I've got cousins in Waco, Texas, medical doctors, who are just as horrified by Bush as I am. As for those 2.8 million New Yorkers, I suspect a lot of those are not so much stupid, just the fabulously wealthy voting their... short-term, perhaps,,, economic interests.
So here's some sympathy and gratitude to the 25 million out there trying to talk sense into the bigoted and uneducated. I do too easily appreciate living in a precinct that voted for Kerry more than 6-to-1, where I can say anything I want about Bush and get only smiles and nods in return, and if my performance this past weekend had been any place less liberal than Berkeley, I would have cancelled. If I lived in a red state right now, I'd be in the hospital recovering from all the fist fights I'd started. I'm so pissed off at the religious right that I'm ready to marry another man, and I'm not even gay.
There are some who would say that I sound bitter, that now is the time for healing, to bring the nation together. Let me tell you a little story. Last night, I watched the returns come in with some friends here in Los Angeles. As the night progressed, people began to talk half-seriously about secession, a red state / blue state split. The reasoning was this: We in blue states produce the vast majority of the wealth in this country and pay the most taxes, and you in the red states receive the majority of the money from those taxes while complaining about 'em. We in the blue states are the only ones who've been attacked by foreign terrorists, yet you in the red states are gung ho to fight a war in our name. We in the blue states produce the entertainment that you consume so greedily each day, while you in the red states show open disdain for us and our values. Blue state civilians are the actual victims and targets of the war on terror, while red state civilians are the ones standing behind us and yelling "Oh, yeah!? Bring it on!"
More than 40% of you Bush voters still believe that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11. I'm impressed by that, truly I am. Your sons and daughters who might die in this war know it's not true, the people in the urban centers where al Qaeda wants to attack know it's not true, but those of you who are at practically no risk believe this easy lie because you can. As part of my concession speech, let me say that I really envy that luxury. I concede that.
Healing? We, the people at risk from terrorists, the people who subsidize you, the people who speak in glowing and respectful terms about the heartland of America while that heartland insults and excoriates us... we wanted some healing. We spoke loud and clear. And you refused to give it to us, largely because of your high moral values. You knew better: America doesn't need its allies, doesn't need to share the burden, doesn't need to unite the world, doesn't need to provide for its future. Hell no. Not when it's got a human shield of pointy-headed, atheistic, unconfrontational breadwinners who are willing to pay the bills and play nice in the vain hope of winning a vote that we can never have. Because we're "morally inferior," I suppose, we are supposed to respect your values while you insult ours. And the big joke here is that for 20 years, we've done just that.
Healing, yeah. Bend over.
So I’m trying to throw out some tidbits to comfort the sane and thoroughly depressed. Including a couple of poems, the first by Mikhail Horowitz of Bard College’s publications office, cleverly based on the all-too-familiar letters of its subject:
Betrayal! United States has
Been usurped, stolen, hustled
By ugly shrub! He
Bamboozles us, sets his
Battalions upon Saddam Hussein
But undermines social health
By unhappily sanctifying Homeland
(Bullshittin' us?) Security. His
Bromidic, unintelligible speech hides,
Barely, undiluted slyness; he'd
Bomb Utopia, serving his
Beastly, ultrafascistic Satan. He's
Bellicose, unbalanced, shameless; he's
Breaking Uncle Sam's heart.
Brothers, unite! Sisters, help!
Band up! Stop him!
- Mikhail Horowitz
And on a calmer, more thoughtful note, one sent to me for consolation by composer John Luther Adams, from the poet John Haines, who wrote it before the 2000 election:
The Last Election
Suppose there are no returns,
and the candidates, one
by one, drop off in the polls,
as the voters turn away,
each to his inner persuasion.
The frontrunners, the dark horses,
begin to look elsewhere,
and even the President admits
he has nothing new to say;
it is best to be silent now.
No more conventions, no donors,
no more hats in the ring;
no ghost-written speeches,
no promises we always knew
were never meant to be kept.
And something like the truth,
or what we knew by that name-
that for which no corporate
sponsor was ever offered -
takes hold in the public mind.
Each subdued and thoughtful
citizen closes his door, turns
off the news. He opens a book,
speaks quietly to his children,
begins to live once more.
– John Haines
*A friend warns that I'll be jumped on for this comment, but it's based on a moral principle that I, an acknowledged liberal, believe in: that the evil a person does is more damaging to that person than the evil that is done to him. Terrorists can hit us and we can still hold our heads up high in the world, but if we perpetrate the atrocities of Abu Ghraib, I insist that we no longer can. In fact, I think that our national willingness to commit any crime, ignore any moral law, sweep aside any international treaty, rather than risk another 9-11 is an unparalleled example of national cowardice. If you disagree, then of course 9-11-01 will seem like a much worse day than 11-2-04, and maybe you sleep better than I do.
One of the things I’m most ashamed of in my life is something I did for the Church. The First Baptist Church of Dallas grouped us choir members in pairs and sent us out on the streets to proselytize. We were handed sheets of questions, and instructed to tell passersby that we were conducting a survey. So the nice people would stop to be helpful by answering our questions, and we would gradually lead up to trying to convert them, getting them to pray there on the street and dedicate their life to Christ. It was really embarrassing - lying to strangers as instructed to by the church. Bait ‘n’ switch is a perfectly acceptable strategy to the Southern Baptist Church - no wonder W. doesn’t understand why anyone should object to it. The absolute desirability of the end always justified any means, no matter how dishonest, which is exactly the pathology we see in the White House today.
My break with the church came in several stages. One turning point came in 1976, when I came home from college, went to First Baptist, and the pastor Wally Amos Criswell instructed the congregation not to vote for Jimmy Carter, who was a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher, but the Republican Gerald Ford. Another was a few years later when NBC aired a made-for-TV movie called The Day After, about the speculative aftermath of a nuclear confrontation between the U.S. and Russia. Fundamentalist church groups protested the movie on the grounds that it might scare away Americans from continuing the massive nuclear buildup we'd need for Armageddon. That's when I realized that the church wasn't merely a harmless anachronism, but the actual enemy.
Of course, only 64 percent of Texans voted for Bush, and you can’t tar every resident there with the same brush. But the state is populated by enough smarmy, dishonest, arrogant, bullying, jingoistic, homophobic, bigoted people that I’m not going to flagellate myself wondering why they didn’t go for someone as noble, introspective, intelligent, and fair as John Kerry. They went for the arrogant asshole created in their own image. No broader theme, no simpler message, no more quotidian concerns would have ever won those people over - it would have taken an army of psychotherapists, some straitjackets, and a few cattle prods.
And so it really pissed me off tonight when I’m sitting here listening to WAMC, our local NPR station, in hopes of some comfort, and some guy starts lecturing Democrats on how Bush won because he had a “moral vision,” and the Democrats didn’t come up with any “moral vision.” What moral vision? Invading a country that posed no threat, and killing 100,000 people, most of them innocent women and children? Outing Valerie Plame as a CIA agent for revenge on her husband? Sneaking around the Geneva Convention to torture and sexually humiliate Iraqis randomly dragged in off the street? Stripping people of their civil rights to spy on them? Suppressing minority votes? Lying to destroy the reputations of war heroes? Raping the environment? Well, I don’t know if you’d call it a moral vision, but it’s certainly the Baptist Church I recognize from my youth. And while I admittedly wish Kerry were going to be president, I feel better knowing that my liberal friends in New York and I occupied the moral high ground in this election, than if we had sunk to Bush’s level to win. We had our own moral vision, which genocide, election-stealing, and lying played no part in.
Sorry, my European friends, this is no aberration: you’re just finally seeing the real America, or at least half of it. People steeped in a warped religion prefer the warped guy, and the unscrupulous rich do the rest. Maybe Clinton won because Bush 41 and Dole weren't warped enough, and Clinton looked like enough of a good ol' boy to maybe be a little warped underneath. What were we supposed to do this time, convince them that Kerry is more warped than he looks?
UPDATE: Here's an article by someone at Salon.com who agrees with me about the "heartland."
We’ve fought the bastards for four years, and we’ll fight them for the next four - not only the unscrupulous politicians, but the 58,000,000 minus: the greedy corporations, the America-right-or-wrong bigots, and their hateful, lying, homophobic churches. I’ve been criticized for turning a music blog political, but every vote for Republicans is a vote for increased corporate power, and every increase in corporate control tramples the living creative arts further underfoot. You can’t have a healthy artistic scene in this fascist climate. The Bushites will learn that we do not flip-flop.
UPDATE: Apparently the buzz-du-jour on the TV stations (and I don't get TV, which is one of the nicer things about my life) is all the talking heads' surprised bemusement about how wrong all the Florida and Ohio exit polls turned out to be. Why it just discredits the whole idea of exit polls, doesn't it?
Sort of like Florida four years ago, when the exit polls said Gore, and the votes said Bush. Hmmm....
Anyone thinking about it yet?
Four years ago it was something like:
Indicates something about how far Nader has descended in the collegiate milieu.
Darkness and clouds of awful shade
Hang pendant by a slender thread,
Waiting commission from God the upholder to fall,
Fall, fall, and distress us.
Great God, avert th’impending doom,
We plead no merit of our own.
For mercy, Lord, we cry.
Bow down thine ear to our complaints,
And hear from heav’n thou king of saints,
O let thine aid be nigh.
Still, I’m optimistic.
The big question for me is, is this an inevitable correlation? Are pop-music preferences necessarily subjective, or could they, given the criteria of a certain genre, be grounded in objective distinctions? Can one prove, if only on paper, song by song, that the Beatles were better than the Stones, or vice versa? What I sometimes love about the subjective pop style is its sense of how important music is to listeners. They really love the stuff, it’s crucial to their sense of self-identification. The classical/jazz people are better at proving they know what they’re talking about, but less good at making the music sound important to them. There is a rather obvious correlation here to the music business in general. Pop music accounts for something like 94 percent of all CD sales, classical and jazz for about 3 percent each - or at least, that was the case a few years ago. If classical and jazz writers worked harder at identifying with the music, making it sound life-consuming and identity-defining (as, God knows, it generally is), could those percentages improve? Do classical music and jazz stay under the radar because they inspire a technical, specialist sensibility? or just because we talk about them that way?
Rose Rosengard Subotnik, a musicologist at Brown University, is the leading inheritor of Theodore Adorno’s musico-sociological methodologies, though she’s a lot less snobbish than he was. She’s written persuasively (and I’ve written a lot about her saying) that what “normal,” i.e. lay, listeners want in music is a reflection of their values, an externalization of the qualities they care about in the world. “What the public hears,” she wrote in her book Developing Variations, “is what is always heard, not autonomous structure, but the sensuous manifestation of particular cultural values.” One girl loves Guns ‘n’ Roses for their rebel attitude. Another loves Pearl Jam because their music helped her release the anger she felt as a teenager. They listen to the music, cling to it, wear T-shirts advertising it, because it crystalizes and thereby ratifies their inner feelings. Likewise, people who fancy themselves serious intellectuals listen to Elliott Carter and Milton Babbitt, not because they understand the music necessarily, but because it reinforces their self-image.
Classical (and postclassical) music express personal values as well, if perhaps or perhaps not on a different plane, but we don’t talk about that as much. To take a work that’s been crucial to my own self-definition (so much so that I keep an MP3 of it on my computer): Roy Harris’s Third Symphony. When I write about it, I tend to emphasize Harris’s mastery of one-movement symphonic form (and less competent handling of multi-movement form), the way he can crescendo within a texture to the point of exploding into a different texture. That has to do with technical expertise, but not much to do with values. What I more secretly get from that work, which I consider music’s The Grapes of Wrath, is its vision of America as a thrilling tragedy, its epic sweep and nobility in disillusionment. It seems to embody the promise of America’s westward movement in mid-century (Harris’s parents were Okies who sought greener pastures in California), a glorification of activity and hard work, yet at the end a realization that, human nature being what it is, America’s promise of transcendence is fated to remain merely an elusive yearning. I get a sense from the Third Symphony that, even if humankind is not perfectible, one is ennobled by the struggle - and, perhaps even more, the piece’s broad orchestral strokes and suggestions of grand emptiness evoke a landscape that attracts me (more than, say, Copland's busily detailed urban rhythms).
We don’t talk about classical music this way much, and I’m not doing a very impressive job of it now. To do so sounds like an old-fashioned music appreciation text, in which Beethoven’s Fifth represents Fate knocking at the door. We're a little too embarrassed these days to write that the "Jupiter" Symphony gives listeners a sense of noble optimism, but that's probably what's most important about it for nonmusicians. Ultimately (and this is my nagging pedagogical point), I feel that criticism reaches its greatest strength in linking the objective and subjective, when it can point to specific moves in a piece of music and pinpoint their expressive power in inevitable subjective reactions. This takes some modicum of musical training, and also a quasi-naive recognition of what music expresses in its most visceral qualities. For a critic, or any musical commentator, to merely react to music’s energy on a naive emotional level is not enough - but it’s necessary, and an awful lot of musicians forget how to do it.
Sites To See
AJ BlogsAJBlogCentral | rss
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
rock culture approximately
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
No genre is the new genre
David Jays on theatre and dance
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
John Rockwell on the arts
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Martha Bayles on Film...
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
Exploring Orchestras w/ Henry Fogel
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
Jerome Weeks on Books
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world
Public Art, Public Space
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog