PostClassic: January 2005 Archives
I admire Bill Osborne’s writing enough that I don’t think he’ll mind my taking issue with his note to Jan Herman which that worthy reprinted in his excellent blog. Bill went to a John Zorn concert at Miller Theater, and concluded (on the basis of that and other unspecified concerts) that there is no longer any difference between Uptown and Downtown music these days.
(Sigh.) This is a hip thing to say, and everyone says it, and most people believe it, and I would make a lot more friends if I would just shut up and go along. But the truth is that this perception does some harm, because it obscures the fact that there is a rich Downtown tradition that is very different from Uptown, and which is becoming less and less visible.
First of all, John Zorn. Zorn has long said in interviews that the early classical influences in his music came from European post-serialism. If I may quote what I wrote in my history of American music about him,
At 15 [Zorn] chanced across a recording of Mauricio Kagel’s chaotic Improvisation ajoutée, and said to himself, “Yes, this is the music for me. This is what I want to be doing.” Later, he has related, he attended Pierre Boulez’s “rug” concerts in New York where “I saw premieres of Stockhausen pieces. It was exciting, but at the same time, it was, like, very dry. No one was standing up going ‘Yeah!’ An emotional quality was missing somehow.”
If you listen to Zorn's early records like Pool and Archery, their statically noisy textures sound almost identical to certain works by Kagel, like Der Schall and Music for Renaissance Instruments. At the same time, Zorn has expressed impatience and disdain for many of the composers I consider central to the Downtown tradition, including Cage, Oliveros, and the minimalists. It is no exaggeration, I think, to say that Zorn and 15 of his free-improv colleagues took over the Downtown scene in the mid-1980s and turned it very much in the direction of Europe-influenced noise and complexity. Osborne notes that the works he heard “were extended, highly chromatic, rhythmically complex, precisely notated and formally structured works that sounded almost completely uptown....” He was surprised, but I’m not - that’s always been the nature of Zorn’s notated music. I’m not going to be a snob and say that Zorn’s music isn’t really Downtown, because the whole philosophy of Downtown music was that anything goes, no boundaries apply. But if you characterize Downtown music as being what it was from the days of the 1960-61 La Monte Young and Richard Maxfield concerts given at Yoko Ono’s loft up through the public emergence of Steve Reich and Philip Glass in the ‘70s, up through the artrock Branca/Chatham scene of the early ‘80s, and then again as the Postminimalist/Totalist scene that re-emerged in the late ‘80s through the Bang on a Can festival and my criticism, it is fair to say that within that basically minimalist/conceptualist mainstream, Zorn’s world constituted something of an aberration, one that veered towards jazz, but also way out toward European/Uptown opacity and complexity.
So for the Uptown world, whose scorn for minimalism was endless, Zorn became the Downtowner par excellence, the hip bandwagon they could all jump on. His music had a postmodern cachet due to his quotations and genre mixing (much like Uptowner William Bolcom in the same era), he quoted Elliott Carter, he reincarnated Stockhausenesque complexity, and he never touched a drone or ostinato with a ten-foot pole. No wonder they’re playing him at Columbia’s Miller Theater - he’s right at home up there. But to listen to Zorn’s music, of all people, and conclude that Downtown music has come to sound just like Uptown? Well... all Indians walk single file.
There are other reasons that you could attend ostensibly Downtown concerts and think that they’ve gone Uptown. Many Europe-oriented, grad-school-trained composers have taken to launching their careers from Downtown spaces as being hipper. Passing yourself off as Downtown, as long as there's no telltale hint of Cage or minimalism in your music, has become a smart career move, and ever since Zorn you can do it and still indulge Uptown pitch complexity to your heart’s delight. Meanwhile, the hard-core Downtown composers, the ones from that La Monte-Reich-Branca-Bang on a Can tradition I mentioned? They’re moving out of Manhattan because they can’t afford it anymore, and giving so few concerts these days that I have a hell of a time finding true Downtown concerts to go to. Yet Downtown music still thrives, even as it becomes less logistically accessible. Listen to the pieces I play on Postclassic Radio - not much there is going to remind of you of Carter, or Stockhausen, or even John Corigliano. Meanwhile, all the critics say, “Gee, there’s no difference between Uptown and Downtown anymore,” and my hundred best Downtown composer friends and I, all writing Cage- and minimalist-influenced music that doesn’t sound the least bit Uptown, sigh at yet another sign that the classical music world really doesn’t want to deal with our music.
Between 13 and 19, I plunged into Cage, Varèse, Stockhausen, Babbitt, Boulez, Carter, Nono, Pousseur. The louder, more violent, more complex, more dissonant, the better. Composing meant piling up as many major 7ths and minor 9ths and chromatic tone clusters and rhythmically conflicting layers as possible. Then minimalism came along - Steve Reich’s Drumming and Philip Glass’s Music in Fifths suddenly appeared in the summer of 1974.
Maybe I had gotten into musical complexity too early. If I hadn’t discovered the Concord and Variations IV until college, like most music students, maybe incomprehensibility wouldn’t have lost its freshness so easily. But at 19, minimalism suddenly made all that complexity seem old hat. Having used so many dozens of chromatic tone clusters by my freshman year of college, it had already become painfully apparent that there is a ceiling to meaningful dissonance. I had piled up as many minor 9ths as human hands and lips could play. The idea that I could go back to the major scale as a starting point - and still seem avant-garde and special - came as a relief.
At the same time, there was much talk in the 1970s about new music’s decreasing social and political relevance. Rock music had stolen center stage in terms of music’s engagement with social issues. Cornelius Cardew had abandoned the world of complex, incomprehensible music for political reasons, and Christian Wolff and Frederic Rzewski, in rhetoric at least, followed. From the appearance of Rzewski’s Attica and Coming Together, minimalism seemed to have a political impetus as well as a musico-historical one.
And thus came about an association that today’s young composers seem incapable of grasping: the move to simplify music and make it more comprehensible and communicative was a PROGRESSIVE move. Progressive musically, because it bypassed the info-overload dead end of endless noise and complexity, and made possible all kinds of subtle new phenomena that had never before been used in Western music, though one could find precedents in musics of Asia and Africa. Progressive politically because it offered the opportunity to reconnect with audiences of nonmusicians, in a performance paradigm that had little to do with the stuffy formalism of “classical music.” Eventually I found that there were many, many other composers like myself who felt that the development of minimalism was the clearest progressive approach to a music of the future.
Now we jump ahead thirty years. Young musicians go to college having heard little beyond commercial pop and maybe some standard classical music. In college they discover noise bands, Stockhausen, Varèse, John Zorn, obscure varieties of post-punk, even Elliott Carter. The music is exciting because it’s so mysterious, so noisy, so evocative of rebellion, so delightfully transgressive. Listening to it sets them off, as it did me, from their parents and their more bourgeois peers from high school, makes them feel special and in-the-know. Noise and chaos and mystery and sonic violence exert their perennial attraction on disaffected youth.
Meanwhile, I play them music by my peers, the ones for whom simplification spelled progress: Janice Giteck, John Luther Adams, Peter Garland, Elodie Lauten, William Duckworth, Beth Anderson. This music doesn’t make them feel special - it’s not transgressive, anyone can understand it. It’s not the parent-insulting music of youthful rebellion. Far from setting off the listener as insider to an exclusive club, it reaches out to audiences and aims at universality. Duckworth is pretty, it’s OK, but Elliott Carter: “Wow, that’s cool!” What seems dry and dusty and obscurantist and academic to me seems progressive and mysteriously cool to my students. What seems progressive and fresh and socially forward-looking and even beautiful to me seems bland and backward and unchallenging to them.
Part of what’s happened is that we have indeed reached, in a certain sense, the end of history - in the sense that successive generations would continue to absorb the experiences of their elders. My generation devoured everything that had happened in music up to that point, because it was in the air. 12-tone music was dubious but nonetheless available, vinyl discs of serialist music were unavoidable in record stores, there were no gaps in the last 250 years of music that were difficult to fill in. Today, the entire body of 20th-century classical music seems to be a gap. Whether someone comes to college having already heard Varèse, Stravinsky, Stockhausen, seems dependent on chance factors, while total ignorance of more recent major figures like Meredith Monk and Robert Ashley is virtually assured. The idea that music could be premeditatedly dissonant, confusing, off-putting comes as a delightful shock to today’s 18-year-olds, just as it was to me at 13. The insight that increasing doses of noise and complexity can quickly reach a self-defeating dead end is seemingly not inheritable.
As a result, my generation can't look to younger musicians for an easy audience; our new music doesn’t sound to them like anyone’s revolution. In the context of the traditional classical music world, with its uppity dependence on a certain kind of pitch complexity and dramatic gestural rhetoric, writing the quiet, subtle, meditative music we did was a bold, brave, fresh feat. Outside that context, its courage isn’t always apparent, even when its beauty is. We may have to evermore defend ourselves as progressives despite appearances, just as Schoenberg defended Brahms as a different kind of avant-gardist. Brash young musicians making noise assemblages on their laptops may think of us as not provocative enough, too accepting of the status quo, too eager to please. And perhaps, in some decade to come, they’ll reach the limits of their own tolerance for layered guitar distortions, and decide there was something to us after all.
My feeling in that you should space them out, maybe six months apart. Unless they're all very similar, it will "confuse" most critics (which one sheet takes precedence over the other?), and you might end up with nothing. Even when I ran XI, I found that if several cd's were released at the same time, that I got less coverage than if they'd been spaced out.
Several people noted that the issue is very different in pop music than it is in (post)classical - most pop musicians are careful to space their CDs out for maximum sales. As Galen Brown pointed out,
A slight majority recommended spacing CDs out, although Joseph Zitt noted,
[W]hen Radiohead released Amnesiac close on the heels of their very successful Kid A, and acknowledged that the Amnesiac songs were recorded at the same time as the Kid A songs, people assumed that Amnesiac would be more of a collection of B-sides than anything else. Personally I like Amnesiac even better than I like Kid A, though.
Speaking as a record store guy (my day job is as classical music specialist as a large CD store in San Francisco), I know that if three CDs come in, looking like a uniform release and packaged as such, I would be quite tempted to make a display of them.
In general, however, Beth Anderson spoke for the composers in the audience:
I think you should get those CDs out as fast as possible. You could be hit by a bus and they might not happen at all. Life is short and CDs take a long time to finish and a very long time to let people know about them.
Cumulative average message: put CDs out when you can and don’t worry too much about control, unless you’re really famous enough to influence reception.
Both pieces are also posted on Postclassic Radio as noted in the article, but rather than tune in and wait several hours for them, you may want to derive more immediate gratification.
In addition, new-music maven and entrepreneur Herb Levy sent some comments in response to my minor dissatisfaction with Sequitur's sound production. I suspected something like what he says, but he knows more than I do about the technical end:
Reading your article about the Sequitur Ensemble made me think about what makes bands like those led by Glass & Dresher work & it's more than (or really I think, other than) the instrumental doubling you cite.
Dresher tour with a sound technician who knows exactly what the composer wants the ensemble to sound like. Without knowing any of the people involved, it's likely that the sound technician for the Sequitur concert was less experienced with sound reinforcement and/or recording of instruments that are more often amplified or just didn't hear the disparity of the sound sources as presenting a problem.
With bands like Glass's & Dresher's, nearly everything you hear, whether the original source is acoustic or electronic, comes from the same set of speakers, just as it does in the recording of the Beglarian piece (or any recording) you'd heard before the concert. Because the sound all comes from one source, whatever signal processing and other coloration the sound system may have is applied to all the instruments, and the ensemble sound is more unified.
In the picture running with the Voice article, it looks like the acoustic instruments are amplified with overheard boom microphones. Letting all that air & room sound into the mix instead of using close miking is going to give the acoustic instruments a more distant sound than the direct input of the electric instruments. By enabling the audience to hear the strictly acoustic sound of the acoustic instrument, as well as the mix of amplified sounds, the acoustic instruments retain more of their separate character. The psycho-acoustics of this also include the fact that the acoustic sounds are perceived as coming from the specific locations of the actual instruments, rather than through the sound system.
In the Glass & Dresher ensembles, the acoustic instruments are more closely miked (sometimes using contact mics or, in Paul's band at least, electric versions of some of the instruments) and little if any of the sound of the acoustic instruments is heard outside of the speakers, so the sounds blend more easily with those of the wholly electric instruments.
Now, it just so happens that I may have the opportunity to put out three CDs in 2005. And one of the record producers just told me exactly the opposite: that if you put out two CDs in quick succession, one of them will compete with the other, and each will only get half the attention it might otherwise have. Both of these opinions have been given to me in the strongest possible terms, with the presumed weight of vast experience behind them. Personally, as a critic I am more likely to pay attention if I suddenly receive three CDs by one artist, because I can write a more in-depth piece - but at the Village Voice I set my own agenda, and I am told that I am so atypical in that regard that I don’t count.
So, for my own sake and to settle a disputed point for us all, which is better? If you have three CDs to make, do you space them one a year for maximum exposure? or do you try to time them to come out all at once?
But I will, to even out the score, make an ameliorating comment about my own generation, which I have long kept under wraps. Namely: I think one of the disadvantages we labor under is that there are so many good composers in my generation, and hardly anyone who consistently stands out above all the rest. The very quantity is too overwhelming for a non-specialist to deal with. When I wrote my book American Music in the Twentieth Century in 1996, I had to choose eight composers, almost arbitrarily, as emblematic of my generation. Nine years later, I would have even a harder time whittling down my choices to that number. And while a lot of my favorite music - music I go around humming, that I listen to for pleasure and without professional compulsion - is by people my own age, I admit that it is specific pieces I’m drawn to more than any particular composer’s sensibility: Mikel Rouse’s Failing Kansas, Elodie Lauten’s Waking in New York, John Luther Adams’ In the White Silence, a bunch of specific David Garland songs, Beth Anderson’s Piano Concerto, Carl Stone’s Shing Kee, Rhys Chatham’s An Angel Moves Too Fast to See, William Duckworth’s Imaginary Dances, John Maguire’s A Capella, Diamanda Galas’s Plague Mass, Janice Giteck’s Om Shanti, Daniel Lentz’s The Crack in the Bell, and on and on and on. Some of these composers are fairly consistent in the quality of their output, others (myself included, I fear) notably not so; every one of them has produced something for which I’d have to apologize and murmur, “Well, not really his best work, you know.” To pick one or two or three of these people and say, “This is the Boulez or Stockhausen of my generation, this is our leading genius,” would be as impossible for me as it is for the public at large. And in America, at least, the way the star system works that has taken over the classical music world, somebody has to be Numero Uno, for if audiences are going to take the trouble to pay for tickets and drive to the concert hall, they want to be assured they are hearing The Very Best. It’s an extremely unfortunate, Philistine, artistically infantile need, but that’s a rant for another day.
What’s confusing is that, to tell you the truth, except for the quantity, I don’t see any difference between my generation and the previous ones. Out of the Darmstadt crowd of the 1950s and ‘60s, I would not have picked out Boulez and Stockhausen as top dogs: I always found Maderna’s music far more beautiful, Pousseur’s and Ferrari’s more interesting. Reich and Glass were not the most fascinating minimalists, just the only ones left standing when the dust cleared. In either repertoire, it’s specific pieces I gravitate toward, not the composer’s entire output. I love Boulez’s Pli selon pli and scorn his Le Marteau, take Koyaanisqatsi very seriously and get bored by Satyagraha, turn my nose up at Reich’s Desert Music though I adore Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ. The composer whose every note is sterling is a bird so rare as to possibly not exist; Beethoven wrote some drivel, and there are Bach works I find dreary. If we’re waiting for the composer whose every work is magical, we’re going to wait till global warming has melted our CD collections.
I have often felt that it was one of the great strengths of my generation that our stylistic enterprise is so collective, that we build on each other’s achievements, and have not arbitrarily elevated isolated figures among us to stardom. Unfortunately, it is not a strength that accords well with the American need for celebrity. I suspect what it would take for postclassical music to enter public consciousness would be some sacrificial lamb to get touted as the genius of the age. Every composer would want to be that person, but if it were me, I am scrupulous enough that I would get a guilty twinge every time I heard some gorgeous piece by one of my peers that I wish I had written. How much better if we could short-circuit the star system altogether. Every artist knows, and cites, the reason you can keep crabs in a shallow bucket without them escaping: because if one crab succeeds in getting close to the top, the others will pull him back down. What my generation has been working on, but hasn’t figured out yet, is how to pull together and get everyone out of the bucket all at once.
Marcus also had another opera planned, based on the life of Maurice Chevalier, titled Der Mauricekavalier. The world hasn't caught up with that one, nor did I ever complete my own contribution to musical punnery, Das Knaben Zauberflöte, though I did eventually write Das Knaben Wunderklavier.
And we all know what was wrong with minimalism: it was trivial, predictable, simple-minded, dumbed down, doodely-doodely and aimless. To this day, mention in educated company that you like something by Philip Glass, and you’re guaranteed at least an involuntary sneer or two. The music is too stupid to merit attention from serious listeners.
So, people: what’s wrong with postclassical music? What’s wrong with the musics of Mary Ellen Childs, John Luther Adams, Walter Zimmermann, Nick Didkovsky, Laetitia Sonami, Bill Duckworth, John Oswald, Janice Giteck? You certainly can’t say that Elodie Lauten’s music lacks melody. You can’t call Michael Maguire’s music simplistic. You can’t say Carman Moore’s music is unpleasant. There’s no denying that Paul Epstein’s music is intricately constructed. You can't accuse Mikel Rouse of being out of touch with pop culture. You can’t listen to Postclassic Radio and say that every piece expresses only anxiety, or even that they all express the same thing. And yet there must be something wrong with it, because 1. every new music is inevitably met with a chorus of disapproval from those who prefer the old music, and 2. institutions and large audiences ignore this body of music, and when that happens it’s always the music’s fault. Besides, every musical movement truly is one-sided in some way or another, and the criticisms are often just, as far as they go. I always think of Schoenberg’s brilliant comment: “So it is with all great men. At each is leveled every accusation of which the opposite is true. Yes, all, and with such accuracy that one is quite taken aback by it.”
But no one's leveling accusations at this music. So, let’s put postclassical music on trial, and Postclassic Radio is as good a place to start as any. Why haven’t the Philistines made their pronouncement? One of the ways in which new music works its way into public consciousness is through the negative, disapproving recognition of its new qualities. And on the other hand, if there isn’t anything wrong with postclassical music, then there’s no justification for ignoring it, excluding it from the concert halls and from history, is there?
The following e-mail that I just received from Michael Wittmann, a physicist who has his own radio show at the University of Maine, is not too atypical of responses I get:
This is wonderful.... For the past few days, I've spent all day listening to your feed. I haven't tired of it.... I've been seeking this music for years. It touches a place in me the way Mondrian, Frankenthaler, Rothko, Baer, Tufte and Smithson do in art.... This is absolutely incredible to listen to. Piece after piece is in the zone where I drift off at the astonishing beauty of it. Like right now: Bunita Marcus, Adam and Eve. Oh my GOD. I want to capture the audio feed so that I can listen again.
Now you’d think that if I get a totally objective and unsolicited reaction like that every couple of weeks, and I do, that the composers I’m playing, like Dan Becker and Belinda Reynolds and Daniel Lentz and Chas Smith and David Garland, might start to become famous and taken very seriously in the music business. But they don’t, much, and the Philistines must know what’s wrong with this music that it should be ignored. Why won’t they speak?
Twenty-seven percent of online adults in the United States said in November they read blogs, compared with 17 percent in a February survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project....
Though blog readership jumped [in 2004], the percentage of online Americans who write blogs grew only slightly - to 7 percent in November, up from 5 percent early in the year. Blog creators tend to be male, affluent, well-educated and young [two out of four ain't bad, I guess]; 70 percent of them have high-speed connections at home, and 82 percent have been online at least six years [but not blogging for six years, surely?].
Despite the attention to blogging, a large number of Americans remain clueless - only 38 percent of Internet users know what a blog is....
I think we found out November 2 exactly how clueless "a large number of Americans remain." But what jarred me was the thought that for every million Americans on the Internet, 70,000 of them are writing blogs....
The overture to Lauten’s brand-new opera Orfreo (that’s not a typo: the subtitle is “The Orphic death of Ray Johnson”) demonstrates how Baroque she can sound when working with classical instruments like harpsichord, as do two lovely excerpts from her large-scale cantata Deus ex Machina. Three movements from her synthesizer improvisation Tronik Involutions show her at her most sparklingly cosmic - New Age, you might dismiss it as, but more richly textured and more harmonically motionless than any New Age music I’ve ever heard. And I’ll continue adding some of the early pieces from which I first knew her work, the early piano pieces and Concerto for Piano with Orchestral Memory. I’ve also put up one movement from Variations on the Orange Cycle played by pianist Lois Svard, a haunting, Riley-ish, reconstructed improvisation, and someday I’ll post the entire piece. It takes at least this much music to demonstrate the tremendous range of Lauten’s universalist imagination.
Other offerings for the new year are all works not commercially available, as far as I know:
Vagina, an intense, 47-minute, multi-lingual monologue for herself and orchestra by the Spanish-German Maria De Alvear;
Strange Attractors for string quartet, drums, and sampler keyboard by Diana Meckley, a classically totalist work from that classically totalist year 1989;
String Quartet No. 1, "In Praise of Poor Scholars," by Peter Garland, in its sole performance by the Kronos Quartet - sorry about the hiss, I SoundSoaped it as much as I could, and the piece deserves to be heard; and,
Autumn Resonance for piano and two digital delays, an early piece by Wayne Siegel that I discovered working for New Music America, as detailed in my last post.
Siegel is American, born in 1953, but in 20 years I haven’t run across his name again except when I’ve gone explicitly looking for it. He moved long ago to Denmark where he is apparently enjoying a successful local career as an electronic music professor, and his native country has virtually forgotten about him. His music is excellent, though, and I’ll be playing more of it. This early work has obviously minimalist origins, but it’s always been one of my favorite pieces from the early 1980s, and I'll bet the farm you haven't heard it. Again, the point here isn't to sell CDs, but to convince you that a hell of a lot of the best music around never bubbles out into the public sphere - except maybe on Postclassic Radio.
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