PostClassic: April 2005 Archives
This post by one E. Fulton on the Salon.com chat pages is making the rounds, and worth it:
Conservatives omit several important words in their whining about being oppressed, so in order to understand them you have to add those skipped words back in. For example:
Liberals are against people of faith forcing their faith on other people and intruding on the constitutional notion of religious freedom for all people.
Conservatives can't say anything openly offensive to minority groups, factually incorrect, and otherwise lacking any substance these days without hearing other people say that hate-filled and meritless comments are inappropriate, which is really just more speech, not a limit on anyone's free speech at all, and having to hide behind some faux-rebel posture by claiming victimization from non-existent political correctness being "forced" on them.
We have to use wedge issues to spark a fight to distract from our inability to create sound economic, social or foreign policies and preserve our political dominance among people for whom morals is an easy shorthand for "homophobia," and we hope that our family members and staff won't expose our hypocrisy and lack of integrity, so that we can lie about doing things we say we're against and continue our craven approach to the attacks by us against homosexuals and liberals, whose behavior is no more immoral than ours, but our agenda is more important, because it gives us power, even if our use of it will ruin our country.
Christians are most assuredly not the most persecuted group in the country, and what we want to do with liberals is to claim their call for social justice by making sure that we keep harping on false claims that no one can say "Merry Christmas" and insisting on inappropriate and sacriligious uses of our own religious iconography to force the prohibiting of any religious display by government entities, which we know shouldn't be displaying religious messages anyway.
See? They're really just using a shorthand that makes interpreting their messages a little trickier, but once you see what's not being said in context, it makes perfect, if Machiavellian and totalitarian, sense.
...is seeing Sonny Rollins amble into the local food market.
I went to Fargo to visit Henry Gwiazda. He used to make sampling pieces in virtual audio, placing sounds in three-dimensional space. He despaired of that, because it only worked with the listener in a certain relation to the loudspeakers, which meant that he could only play his music for one person at a time. (Though the effect, captured in his piece Buzzingreynoldsdreamland, is pretty astonishing. You can experience the piece on an Innova CD, but you have to set up your stereo speakers just right.) He's more recently gotten involved in a video-animation/sound art fusion instead. He's got some new pieces coming out on an Innova DVD that's going to be beautiful. (My interview with him will be an extra feature on the DVD, and that's what we were doing.) I think of Henry as the Nancarrow of my generation, because he's reclusive, few people know his work, he's working with technologies no one else is using, and yet he also has a kind of low-tech element to his work, since his sound samples and video models all come from commercial sound libraries and modeling software. He picks up old technology no one had thought of using creatively and makes evocative poetry with it, the way Nancarrow did with the player piano. Of course you've never heard of him: he's 53, and Nancarrow was discovered at 65.
I've put up one of Gwiazda's virtual audio works, thefLuteintheworLdthefLuteistheworLd, for you to listen to, but you HAVE to use headphones, with left and right channels in the appropriate ear, to get the piece's amazing three-dimensional spatial effects.
Henry and I have argued for years about the meaning of modernism. At present, he defines modernism as the assertion that the world is more complex than we can understand; he defines postmodernism as the assertion that the world is more complex than we can understand, and that's fine, we don't need to understand it. He's recently distanced himself from both positions, and feels that we both can understand the world, and urgently need to do so. (I consider this postminimalism, but we haven't come to agreement on that yet.) Consequently, he's making animated videos that capture extremely mundane moments in the protagonists' lives, and drawing attention to small, sensuous details as a way of attuning the viewer to details in his own surroundings. It's lovely, resonant work, that does make you see the world a little differently afterward.
But Henry's given up on the new music scene, on the grounds that most composers consider themselves musicians but not artists, and cultivate imitative, recreative thinking rather than creativity. He showed me an article in this week's Scientific American Mind (Henry is one of the most science-conscious composers I know), which defines creativity as divergent thinking, imaginative leaps into the unknown, but notes that almost all education emphasizes only convergent thinking, which consists of learning well-trodden paths and honing in on singular correct answers. Most of the way we teach composition, Henry feels, is scientifically mistaken, because we teach by examples and models already used by others instead of encouraging off-the-wall thinking and problem solving. Hindemith, he thinks, did tremendous damage to American music by encouraging composers to think of music as a matter of craftsmanship. Henry is himself one of the most off-the-wall, imaginative artists I know, someone whose mind is well accustomed to jumping off at bizarre angles. In the other arts that's valued; in music, it always seems a little suspect.
Also, like Feldman, Henry has a refreshing way of seeing through the blinkered assumptions of the composing world. A story he told me suggests partly where he got it, from one of his composition teachers at Cincinnati College-Conservatory (where Nancarrow was also educated): one Scott Houston, since departed. On Henry's oral doctoral exam, Houston asked the question, "Say you're writing a piece for woodwind quintet. What considerations do you think about when you start out?" Henry muttered something about the relative ranges of the instruments. "Wrong." He tried eight or nine other platitudes, all greeted with, "Wrong... wrong... wrong." Finally, in some exasperation, Henry blurted out, "Well to tell you the truth, I'd never write a woodwind quintet, because it's an ugly combination of instruments." "DAMN RIGHT!," shouted Houston, slamming his first on the table. That was the answer he was looking for.
Convergent thinking, true, but what a refreshing example.
Whenever I inveigh against the unfair obstacles Downtown composers face, I sometimes receive a certain kind of question: Isn't the value of Downtown composers that they're rebels, and wouldn't they be ruined if they became part of the establishment? If they won awards and became university professors, wouldn't they lose their authenticity? Wouldn't they become as complacent and authoritarian as Uptowners if they got performed a lot and were financially comfortable, and wouldn't their music weaken? Can't the social conscience that their music represents only be preserved by keeping them disenfranchised and in relative poverty?
I'll pause a moment to let any Downtown composers finish laughing, but I do get such questions, and I intend to answer them.
This is akin to the "artists need to starve to sharpen their work" theory that some colleges use to justify denying tenured status to art practitioners. I have yet to meet an artist who doesn't find that paternalistic, condescending, and wrong-headed. Oh, we all know the occasional talented rich boy who never developed his talent because he didn't need to, and there are stories of composers (George Crumb being somewhat archetypal) whose creative trains were derailed by too much success too early. But those are a completely different matter from supplying an artist with a living wage, or providing a modicum of helpful recognition after years of hard work. Every composer knows how your art improves: produce a lot of it, which requires loads of time and freedom from exhausting day jobs. Everyone knows how you gain the technique needed to increase your work's scale and ambition: by getting the practical experience of being performed. Denying these to artists does not make them spiritually pure, it stunts their artistic growth. Strip away the sappy, Song of Norway sentimentalism about artistic geniuses, and that's the common sense that?s left.
I'd bet you that there's not a composer in Manhattan who wouldn't prefer being fed and performed to being romanticized. (Please, Downtowners, let me know which of you prefer being romanticized, and I'll be glad to oblige.) I bet $30,000 would buy you the authenticity of any composer in the East Village. Easy payment plan available. Being considered authentic rebels, little miniature Harry Partches, I guess, is a kind of charming consolation prize for not getting much else, but the picture doesn't really fit. For instance, I wrote the script for the American Mavericks radio series, but I did so under protest against the stupid word "mavericks." It implies that Downtown composers, or the American experimentalists, are hermetic, society-scorning loners who eschew all external influences and go their own way. Hardly anything could be further from the truth.
Downtowners are (and experimentalists have always been) just as social, and just as susceptible to each other's influence, as any other group of musicians. Even Nancarrow - the archetypal maverick, right? - spent his entire life working out rhythmic ideas that Cowell had written about in New Musical Resources, while reading about the latest Continental trends in his subscription to Die Reihe. Cage used those ideas too, and so have John Luther Adams, Mikel Rouse, and Larry Polansky. Cowell begat Cage, who begat Feldman, who begat Bernadette Speach. Partch begat Ben Johnston, who begat me. What's maverick about that? The point is, Downtown music, American experimental, postclassical, whatever you want to call it, is not a more-street-credible-than-thou moral stance, but a coherent, traceable musical tradition. We steal ideas from each other, we influence each other, we even go, after concerts, to restaurants in large groups and drink and gossip together. But to hear the maverick myth, you'd think that after leaving Merkin Hall we each put on our cowboy hats, turn on our heels, light unfiltered cigarettes, and stalk off to our lonely studios to write music that owed nuthin' to nobody.
The genealogy of Downtown ideas can be documented. A lot of our scores can be analyzed. A surprising number of us have doctorates. We're closer to European music than we pretend, or than you realize. Minimalists are all Bruckner fanatics. Hell, we sit around and talk about how we're the real inheritors of the Mozart-to-Brahms tradition, and how 12-tone music was a misguided aberration, a sick detour. Like Mozart, we go out and perform our own works in odd little spaces, composing for the moment instead of being in thrall to music of a previous century. Uptowners inherited Mozart's forms, we inherited his attitude. The reason we're outsiders? We placed our bets shrewdly but unpopularly, on Feldman and Reich rather than Babbitt or Druckman or Harbison. We're feeling pretty well vindicated these days; we expect to eventually be proved right on Ashley, La Monte Young, and Trimpin as well, but we don't think that anyone should ever be excommunicated for their opinions and preferences and the models they follow.
Sure, we're rebels, but more like Solzhenitsyn than Jesse James, not so much striking out on our own as escaping an absurd authoritarian structure. To call Downtowners mavericks and rebels confers too much legitimacy on the Uptown establishment. That establishment does not represent The Inauthenticity of Mass Consciousness in a Corporate Society, and, sorry, it does not require a Radical Understanding of Human Freedom to escape it. It represents very little, in fact: just an outdated educational system held in place by anachronistic social institutions like the orchestra and opera house. All it takes to turn away from it is a willingness to make art out of materials and ideas that come from your daily environment rather than from your education, a refusal to write multimovement string quartets and concertos with the mandated kinds of harmonic, textural, and tempo contrasts. I can't tell that there's any such thing as Uptown painting, or Uptown literature. I'm sure the other arts have styles that periodically become the establishment for awhile and then give way to others. But in no other art do artists have to struggle against relentlessly surviving paradigms specifically from 19th-century Europe. Electronic music is the musical area with no real Up-/Downtown distinction because, with the exception of the endearingly quaint genre of musique concrète, there's no oppressive European inheritance involved. Far from Downtownness being a difficult state to achieve, I'm constantly amazed that the composition world isn't vastly dominated by Downtowners. It hardly takes nerves of steel to be skeptical of one's education.
If this blows your romantic image of Downtown, tough luck - we're more Woody Allen's than James Dean's, and I guarantee we would bear up bravely under some funding and recognition. Look at it this way: If poverty and disenfranchisement are such wonderful goads to an artist's creativity, Downtowners feel guilty hoarding them. We'd be happy to spread them around more equitably.
Last week I visited the University of Virginia at the invitation of composer Judith Shatin. Listening to music by her students, I asked her if she agreed that student composer concerts today are infinitely better than they were in the 1970s when we were in college. She did agree, emphatically, but we came up with different explanations. My memory was that young composers back then were all trying to imitate people like Boulez and Stockhausen and Carter, composers of extremely complex music wildly beyond their technical capacity. Sophomores who knew Led Zeppelin better than they knew Bartok were trying to mimic the musical personas of 50-year-old Europeans who had studied with Messiaen at the Paris Conservatoire, and who had all European history at their fingertips. The results were ludicrous, unlistenable. Judith's explanation wasn't contradictory, but complementary: that in the 1970s there was an intimidating prohibition on doing anything obvious in your music.
Whether or not it's a better explanation, I think it's one that remains more relevant today. There's still a reluctance in some music circles to allow anything obvious. Some of the most tedious music by famous and oft-performed composers seems to spend all its time busily hiding its underlying idea. Doing something obvious - a memorable melody, a clear chord progression, a rhythmic groove - makes you vulnerable, because it's something that the listener can latch onto and criticize and make fun of if it sounds stupid. But it is only the courage to be vulnerable that endears you to an audience, and today's young composers have that courage more than we did. Why was my generation so afraid to be obvious? Was it a fear imposed on us by our teachers? our peers? or did we do it to ourselves?
I know a lot of Uptown composers, probably a lot more than most Downtown composers know. (Hell, I had a Grawemeyer Award winner over for dinner last night, have another one coming over soon, and down the road is the house of another friend, one of the country's best-known opera composers. I'm better connected than you think. And by Uptown, for purposes of this entry, I mean Uptown, Midtown, and non-Downtown. It's not a distinction we Downtowners make conversationally, sorry.) As I say, I know a lot of Uptown composers. All of them are lovely people. They're all politically liberal. They all despise George W. Bush, and all fear for the direction our country is taking. They're deeply devoted to their students and colleagues. They all believe in diversity and equality, and in giving minority and women composers every possible chance.
And every single one of them, without exception, says and believes that it is wrong to discriminate against composers on the basis of style.
Some of these composers, not all of them, sit on panels for awards and artists' colonies, serve on search committees for academic positions, make recommendations for commissions. What happens is, say an orchestra piece by John Luther Adams comes up: "Well, thats all on the C major scale, it's not very sophisticated." A piece by Beth Anderson: "That piece wanders all over the place, there's no throughline." A score by Elodie Lauten: "There aren't very many dynamic markings here, that piece isn't really ready for orchestral performance." A piece by Phill Niblock: "This is just drones, nothing really happens in it." A piece by Bernadette Speach or Peter Garland: "Too repetitive." A piece by Joshua Fried: "There's no score, I don't really understand what's happening here." And so all those composers get passed over for awards, for funding, for jobs, for commissions, on what my Uptown friends are convinced is the basis of quality. They are certain that they are only applying standards that they have developed through their long experience as practical composers. What is really happening is that they dismiss all this music because they have no way to evaluate music written in Downtown idioms. And despite all their best, most honest, most laudable intentions, they discriminate against Downtown music on the basis of its style.
I'm not saying anything controversial or even subjective. I talk to these Uptown friends, and they agree that the reasons I've given for their decisions are the correct ones. When I talk to them, they concede that perhaps there's a style there that they don't understand. They will admit, under duress, that I may have a point about Downtown music having different notational conventions that, to them, look amateurish - "undermarked" is their term - but may not be. They recognize that some important composers have come from the Downtown scene: Reich, Feldman, Zorn. When a Downtowner reaches that level of adulation by younger composers, they resist acknowledging it for awhile, and then finally decide that it's OK to consider those people important. But they don't extrapolate from those exceptional cases to the younger Downtown composers who haven't "made it" yet. Aside from myself, they are surrounded by dozens of like-minded colleagues, and they feel no pressure to consider Downtown music under a different set of standards. They're not familiar with the music of composers whom Downtowners consider their important forebears: Niblock, Ashley, Lucier, Oliveros, Branca. They don't quite understand why Lou Harrison is supposed to be such a big deal, because they find his music aimless and lacking a tension that they don't know how to do without. They're resigned to Cage, but don't teach him. They don't know how to distinguish between drone pieces, or postminimalist pieces, that are really interesting and others that are merely pedestrian (the way I realize I'm not good at distinguishing a good DJ artist from a mediocre one). They don't know the reference points of Downtown music. They do their best, but ultimately they're comparing the music they hear with that of Ligeti, Boulez, Daugherty, Druckman, Harbison, Davies, Carter, Rochberg, and it all sounds lacking, amateurish, unsophisticated. While talking to me, they'll come around to realizing that they may not know enough about that music to judge it, and they really want to be fair and nondiscriminatory. But when they get back on that panel or committee with their peers, and they hear a CD by Mikel Rouse, they don't know what to do with it, and they slap it in the reject pile. Some of them, under my influence, even graciously try to represent the Downtown viewpoint on panels, but they don't really know how to argue for it, and there's no effect. The ones who are really in the circles of power in American music, being human, don't have a strong incentive to dilute their own influence by widening those circles - though one of the Grawemeyer winners, truly conscientious and newly aware that Downtown composers don't have a voice, has gotten me involved in some panels. As I said, lovely people.
Well, so what, right? Downtowners have the same reaction to Uptown music, right? And they're just as biased.
But the relationship is not symmetrical.
Have you ever heard of a college or university where the faculty was so Downtown that no Uptowner could get a job there? No. Mills College, maybe. The number of Downtown composers who have achieved academic positions in America can be counted on your fingers with some left over, and one of those (myself) only did so, after unsuccessfully applying for more than 100 jobs over 16 years, by pretending to be a musicologist. Contrary to a self-consoling Uptown myth, plenty of Downtowners would love to teach, are qualified, and do apply for the jobs.
Have you ever heard of an award panel that was so dominated by Downtowners that no matter how hard the token Uptowner panelist tried, she couldn't get an award for any Uptown piece? No. Out of all the composer awards in the country that go to composers, two routinely go to Downtowners: the Herb Alpert Award and the Society for Contemporary Performance Arts (the latter funded, I believe, by the estates of John Cage and Jasper Johns). Thanks goodness for them. It's great when they go to good composers like David First or Pamela Z or David Dunn, but both these awards are decided by secret nomination, and it's a little frustrating for Downtowners to sit around and hope for an unexpected bolt from the blue. We need things we can apply for, with some hope of getting them.
Have you ever heard of an orchestra whose Downtown composer-in-residence made sure that all the pieces that got commissioned were by Downtowners? No.
Besides, the Downtown point of reference includes the Uptown view, and the reverse is not true. Most Downtowners learn about the music of Ligeti, Boulez, Harbison, Druckman, Daugherty, Davies, Carter, Rochberg - we can hardly avoid it. We're educated on the same 12-tone music, the same modern European masters, we hear pieces by the Pulitzer composers. But we've also discovered alternative composing aims and strategies of which the Uptowners are unaware. Many of my Uptown friends go their entire lives without hearing music by Niblock, Eliane Radigue, Charlemagne Palestine, Duckworth, Lauten, Lentz. They never get immersed enough in that music to realize that it has its own, different, often quite demanding set of standards.
Some of the hardcore Uptown (non-New Romantic) composers of the past, like Wuorinen and Davidovsky, went on deliberate crusades against music of diverse aesthetics, but that's not true of my friends. They think they're simply applying their hard-won knowledge and being fair. So I'm not accusing them of a conspiracy or vendetta or anything dishonorable. They're just ignorant. Their ignorance, and perhaps a little laziness, puts them in the contradictory stance of being politically liberal but culturally conservative, giving lip service to diversity but perennially reforming musical society in their own narrow image. And, with all the best intentions in the world, they collectively prevent composers from the Downtown scene from participating in the few opportunities that this country affords for composers to make a little money from their work, to make their living from music-related jobs, to buy the time it would take to undertake serious creative work without interruption.
Some people on the internet think I don't know what I'm talking about, but I do. I watch it happen. The composers in positions of power don't disagree with my assessment. I am well aware that many, many Up- and Midtown composers similarly have a difficult time getting awards, commissions, jobs - but whatever their problems, they are not being discriminated against based on a total misunderstanding of their style and intentions. Education is needed. Consequently, I'm going to continue writing about the problem and talking about it until the situation changes. Any composer who thinks the current status quo is just fine is less liberal than he flatters himself.
Whenever Democrats accuse the Republicans of sculpting policy to favor the rich, the Republicans respond by yelling "Class war! Class war!" Apparently they think that merely yelling it in derision makes the term seem quaint, Marxist, and discredited, makes the Democrats look like they're living in the past, and haven't caught up with the new realities. There really is a class war, of course, of the rich against the poor, but by pooh-poohing and thus disallowing the term, the Republicans make it look like no such thing is going on.
Ever since I've started writing in this blog about differences between Downtown and Uptown music, Uptown (or at least non-Downtown) bloggers and composers have been ridiculing me for using the term "Downtown music." Apparently they think that by pretending I'm the only one who still uses the term and making fun of me, they can make the Up-/Downtown distinction look quaint, old-fashioned, and discredited, and make me look like I'm living in the past and haven't caught up with the new realities. Meanwhile, Downtown composers, who know who they are and still use the term, write to thank me for carrying on the fight.
It is in the interest of whatever class is in power to discredit the idea that there is any distinction between them and the class they are oppressing.
For twenty years I've carried around a quotation from an article in the October 13, 1985 Times Book Review, from an article called "Writers and the Nostalgic Fallacy," by novelist Marilynne Robinson. It's an argument that chaotic times do not necessarily call for chaotic art:
The literature of expostulation, of Catastrophe, is taken to be very serious. But among people carried along in a canoe toward a waterfall, the one who stands up and screams is not the one with the keenest sense of the situation. We are in a place so difficult that perhaps alarm is an indulgence, and a harder thing - composure - is required of us.
This connected with a passage I had heard years earlier in a scene from the Louis Malle film My Dinner with André (a film I rewatch at least once a year), in which André says (at 1:14:47 on the DVD):
How does it affect an audience to put on one of these plays in which you show that people are totally isolated now, and they can't reach each other, and their lives are desperate? Or how does it affect them to see a play that shows that our world is full of nothing but shocking sexual events and terror and violence? Does that help to wake up a sleeping audience? See, I don't think so. Because I think it's very likely that the picture of the world that you're showing them in a play like that is exactly the picture of the world they have already. You know, they know their own lives and relationships are difficult and painful. If they watch the evening news on television, there what they see is a terrifying, chaotic universe full of rapes and murders and hands cut off by subway cars and children pushing their parents out of windows. So the play tells them that their impression of the world is correct and that there's absolutely no way out; there's nothing they can do. They end up feeling passive and impotent....
I keep thinking that what we need is a new language - a language of the heart....
These quotations were given depth and political context by John Ralston Saul's Voltaire's Bastards (a book that I've bought more than two dozen copies of to give to friends). Saul agrees with André that the institutional purpose of showing a world of terror via television is to make people feel impotent and helpless, and to keep them afraid and politically passive. He also argues (similar to Adorno at times) that elitist art, art that is obscure in its methods and difficult to understand, serves the same purpose, of keeping people from believing that there's a way to change things. "The wordsmiths who serve our imagination," writes Saul, and you can substitute composers,
are always devoted to communication. Clarity is always their method. Universality is their aim. The wordsmiths [composers] who serve established power, on the other hand, are always devoted to obscurity. They castrate the public imagination by subjecting [musical] language to a complexity which renders it private.
And he quotes Baudelaire: "Any book which does not address itself to the majority... is a stupid book."
These are the trains of thought that, over the years, led me to expunge anxiety, alarmism, abstract techniques, and complexity from my music, and to seek out music that does not make use of those qualities. The desideratum that art should "reflect the world we live in" is shallow and self-defeating: might as well try to heal or console a wounded man by groaning along with him. I've tried to create and encourage, instead, a music of composure, a music that does not "stand up in the boat and scream," that does not reinforce fear and despair, but empowers people by being clear and accessible and addressed to everyone - a new language of the heart. And this is why, to the discomfort of so many composers, I have taken a dim view of so many, perhaps a vast majority, of the tendencies of late 20th-century classical composition. The impetus is fueled, neither by innate orneriness (though I will occasionally float a controversial argument to learn what people think) nor by ignorance or nonappreciation of advanced compositional techniques, but by a conviction that music should do what it can to help save the human race.
For the first time I've repeated a work on Postclassic Radio. It's Daniel Lentz's The Crack in the Bell, and I aired it last September, but I listened to it again last night, and it's just too beautiful, and not nearly enough well known. It's a setting of e. e. cummings's classic antiwar poem "next to of course god america i":
"next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims' and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn's early my
country tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead....
Lentz matches cummings's irony with a deadpan but glitzy setting, with a driving pop energy breaking into passages of glorious Renaissance counterpoint on the word "beauty." The piece is hilariously tongue-in-cheek yet sumptuously written, and its use of synthesizers and delay units in a large-ensemble context is elegant and innovative. Some people don't like the voice and intonation of vocalist Jessica Lowe on this (the only) recording (originally on EMI, now rereleased on Lentz's Aeode label), but those people's expectations are too classical. I think she's perfect for the piece, with just the cheesy insouciance to undermine cummings's surface meaning. As far as I'm concerned, a society in which Le Marteau sans Maitre is famous and The Crack in the Bell isn't has its values upside down, and so you can check out that opinion, I'll also post the mp3 to my web page, here.
Greatly underappreciated though they are, negative comments in reviews are the sparks that illuminate your position with respect to the rest of the world. My Cold Blue recording of Long Night was described over by David Salvage at Sequenza 21 as "a bit Zen for my taste," and it's the best comment I've had since John Rockwell in the Times called my music "naively pictorial" in 1989, which led me to develop an entire aesthetic I call Naive Pictorialism, of which I am to date the sole exponent. Both are the kind of insights that indicate your message has gotten across. As a matter of fact, the last organized religion I participated in, years ago, was at Zen Buddhist temples in Chicago and New York. (The Chicago temple was great, but the New York one so smarmy, so more-meditative-than-thou, that I quit in disgust.) One of the earliest vocal works I wrote (Song of Acceptance of 1980, same year as Long Night) was a harmonically immobile setting of paragraphs from the Tao-te Ching:
The multitude are merry, as though feasting on a day of sacrifice...
I alone am inert, showing no sign of desires,
Like an infant that has not yet smiled...
Mine is indeed the mind of an ignorant man,
Indiscriminate and dull!
Common folks are indeed brilliant;
I alone seem to be in the dark.
Common folks see differences and are clear-cut;
I alone make no distinctions.
I seem drifting as the sea;
Like the wind blowing about, seemingly without destination.
The multitude all have a purpose;
I alone seem to be stubborn and rustic.
I can't honestly say at this point whether it was John Cage's writings that led me into Taoism and Zen and occultism, or whether it was my instinctive affinity for Asian religions that made me open to Cage's writings. But I do know that, while Zen shouldn't be made to take the blame for my music, the meditative state encouraged by Zen is a listening paradigm with which I am not uncomfortable. "A little too Zen" is praise that I would not have been so immodest as to confer on myself, but if someone wants to elect me to that august fraternity, I'll emblazon it on my next poster.
The late Columbia professor Jonathan Kramer, in his great book from the 1980s The Time of Music, wrote at length about what he called "vertical music," non-narrative, static music in which time ceases to exist, or rather that refuses to create a sense of virtual time, thus throwing the listener back on his own subjective time sense. This can range from music that doesn't change at all - like Satie's Vexations, Cage's Atlas Eclipticalis and Hymnkus, La Monte Young's sound installations, Stockhausen's Stimmung - to music that changes only very slowly, like Phill Niblock's slowly unfocussing drone pieces, Charlemagne Palestine's Strumming Music, Steve Reich's Drumming, Bill Duckworth's Time Curve Preludes, Elodie Lauten's The Death of Don Juan, John Luther Adams's Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing, David First's The Good Book's (Accurate) Jail of Escape Dust Coordinates, Eliane Radigue's incredible Adnos and Trilogie de la Mort (pieces I use as the acid test for judging a great stereo system), even some of Olivier Messiaen's slow movements. For that matter, Morton Feldman's entire output has a strong vertical component, "vertical" referring to the music's refusal to significantly order contrasting events in the "horizontal" dimension of time.
Tell me that nothing happens in such-and-such a piece, and I am immediately intrigued. To say that all or even most Downtowners subscribe to an aesthetic of vertical time would be a gross exaggeration, but many of us do. Large swaths of Downtown music are devoted to gradual process, without events, or sometimes just directionless stasis without process, "like the wind blowing about, seemingly without destination." (Actually, my music was more like this in the '80s, and I'm recently getting back to it.) To outsiders, this music seems to be missing something: the emotional sine curve typical of Western music, the up-and-down European conceit of psychological cause and effect.
Since Beethoven, music has been paradigmatically based on our psychological life, and since Wagner, particularly on its sexual side. Obstacles appear, dissonances thwart us, events move toward a cathartic climax, and the hero strives and overcomes - or, beginning with Mahler, is sometimes defeated. Tension crescendoes, release comes in decrescendos, and all value consists in the intensity of the struggle. But starting with Cage, or even going back to Satie, came a different paradigm more akin to Eastern musics, based on a more meditative, Asian sense of all-at-oneness, of music experienced in the moment, not as going anywhere, but as Eternal Being. La Monte once tossed off to me the comment, "Contrast is for people who can't write music." When I quote this, it tends to make Uptowners, Midtowners, Out-of-Towners, and even some Downtowners very uncomfortable.
The discomfort is understandable. As Kramer would say, most classically trained musicians (it's not necessarily true of your average audience member) are locked into a meta-narrative in which one never challenges the assumption that a piece of music should contain contrasting sections and high points and low points. What's surprising is that, after so many great, successful, historically important individual examples of vertical music that doesn't contain those things, vertical music still remains unacknowledged as a genre, as an ever-present possibility, and has to be refought for with every new piece. Reich and Glass wrote vertical music, but they got away with it. Young and Palestine, well, OK, but that was back in the '60s when everyone was doing drugs. That aesthetic is supposed to be over now, everything back to "normal." The great achievement of Morton Feldman was that he wrote so much strongly vertical music that appealed to young composers, who in turn forced many of their reluctant professors to concede that one Downtowner had indeed entered the canon of the Greats.
To this day, I play static, vertical music by Downtowners of my generation for my more dyed-in-the-wool classical colleagues and their faces fall into a look of patient indulgence of my naivete. I have to understand, after all, that the music doesn't really "do anything." It's never presented as an issue of style or intent or idiom, but as one of quality. These composers are OK at creating atmosphere, but they haven't learned yet to build up climaxes, have they? Where are the pitch motives, where the colorful contrasts of orchestration? They're still amateurs, and perhaps they'll someday learn to write "real music." I wish, instead of acting so goddamned self-assured in their convictions of what music is supposed to do, these people could step out of their own meta-narrative enough to have the graciousness to admit, "Well, it's a little Zen for my taste." I wonder if it's partly because I live in the still-Europe-tinged Northeast; I fantasize that out in California people sit around grooving to slowly-moving drones, but I don't know whether I'd find it different out there or not. Probably academia is the same on the West Coast as it is here, and I've come to believe that musical academia is never, ever going to step out of the classical meta-narrative, Jonathan Kramer's most brilliant arguments notwithstanding. Like the music it roundly rejects, musical academia is permanent and unchanging.
I think Young's right, that contrast makes composing easier, and that to get by without it (think of the great Renaissance composers, like Ockeghem and Palestrina, whose music is so seamless) requires more skill. I've written plenty of "real music," sometimes on commission from classical performers whom I fear couldn't appreciate anything more hardcore, and I find it less of a challenge than a piece that manages to stay focused on one idea. "Purity of heart is to will one thing," wrote Kierkegaard. "All of man's troubles stem from his inability to sit still," wrote Pascal. With every new piece I try even harder to keep my music from changing. (Of my mature pieces that have climaxes, Nude Rolling Down an Escalator for Disklavier is a joke about climaxes, and literally laughs at them; Hovenweep was written for the elegantly Midtown St. Luke's Chamber Players, and I was being a good boy.) After all, to listen to music is to temporarily identify with the emotional/psychological persona it presents. Music that goes up and down a lot, that creates arbitrary anxiety only to resolve it, that drives itself into frenzied crescendos, feels, to me, sort of immature, unenlightened, not a persona I would be eager to internalize - and I think that lay audiences generally find it a chore to get through anxious modern music that seems to be about emotional instability. I do love the slowly graduated emotional catharses of Mahler's music, but experience them as a kind of throwback to music's (and my own) turbulent adolescence. Today I prefer music that can keep its calm, that aims at something deeper, more spiritual, perhaps, than a fluctuation of violent emotions.
It's a personal preference, not an ideological position, but it keeps me and my friends from ever feeling at home in the world of contemporary classical music. Fifty-three years after 4'33", 47 years after La Monte Young started working with drones, 20 years after Jonathan Kramer introduced the concept of vertical music into theoretical discourse, several centuries into the histories of Indian classical music and Tibetan chanting, you'd think there would be more frequent recognition that music can be something other than a calculated sequence of contrasted events. But I alone seem to be stubborn and rustic, for every contact with classical musicians reminds me that a lot of the music I relish most is still considered "a little too Zen."
UPDATE: Reader Joseph L. confirms that they do still listen to drones out in California, and points me to this recent Oakland concert as evidence. Always knew I landed on the wrong coast.
Lawrence Dillon's official Sequenza 21 list of 111 influential post-1970 musical works is worth taking a look at, as representing a diversity of tastes (including mine, and I appreciate his including it though I'm not a Sequenza 21 contributor). As he notes, there are a lot of celebrated composers that no one claimed as a compositional influence. Henry Cowell, I think it was, used to say there were "two kinds of music in America: the kind people talk about and don't play, and the kind people play and don't talk about." Played or not, here's a list of 111 new pieces people talk about (numerologically auspicious, since both Beethoven's and Brahms's Op. 111's are important pieces for me).
While we're at it, and since I've mentioned Duckworth recently, at the end of the 20th century (how well I remember it) (not really), Bill Duckworth wrote a book called 20/20: 20 New Sounds of the 20th Century. Similarly to Dillon, he queried all his musical friends and came up with 20 works that seemed to be the century's most important, using the criterion, "Which works matter most to you personally?" Here's the list he came up with:
Debussy: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
Joplin: Maple Leaf Rag
Stravinsky: Le Sacre du Printemps
Schoenberg: Pierrot Lunaire
Ives: Concord Sonata
Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue
Ravel: Bolero (personally? Well, OK)
Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time
Copland: Appalachian Spring
Cage: Sonatas and Interludes
Hovhaness: Mysterious Mountain
Riley: In C
Lucier: I Am Sitting in a Room
Johnston: String Quartet No. 4, "Amazing Grace"
Glass: Einstein on the Beach
Ashley: Perfect Lives
L. Anderson: O Superman
M. Monk: Atlas
He also includes the 86-piece "long list" from which he culled the 20, but you'll have to buy the book to read that. I can't do everything for you.
I just received an excellent CDR recording of a new piece of mine, Private Dances for piano, played exquisitely by Sarah Cahill - in her hands, in fact, a couple of the movements are more beautiful than I imagined they could be. I wrote the piece because for years I've been such a big fan of William Duckworth's multi-movement pieces like The Time Curve Preludes and Imaginary Dances, and they made me want to write a piece as a series of brief movements, something I'd never done. What Duckworth achieves that I didn't was a way to link the pieces convincingly as a series, like Schumann; my dances are more self-contained, but I'm happy with them. I've posted the piece to my web page and on Postclassic Radio, and I post it here as well. You can listen to the whole piece:
Private Dances (timing - 23:44)
or to individual movements:
and you can find the scores here as PDFs if you want. Hell, you can take 'em and play 'em on your own piano. [UPDATE: My PDFs, made via Sibelius on a Mac, download and print just fine on some computers, but on others either won't print correctly or possibly won't download at all. I don't know what the problem is, or what to do about it, except that friends have had luck trying it on different computers until they find one that works. Advice appreciated.]
Over at New Music Box, Frank Oteri is rather amusingly astonished at the silence greeting the announcement that, after all the talk about the music Pulitzers changing their focus and allowing jazz and film music, this year's prize went to one of the usual suspects, Steven Stucky. Stucky is one of those orchestra-circuit guys who's such an obvious shoo-in for that prize that my immediate reaction was, "Wait, hasn't he won it before?" I guess not, though his reported reaction was aptly blasé, like, "Oh, gee, forgot it was that time of year already ." There's a group of composers who have the circuit of big-league orchestra commissions in their pocket, and despite the occasional surprise winner like Henry Brant, that crowd owns the music Pulitzer. The question for them is not whether, but when. Like Jennifer Higdon: why'd they pass up her Concerto for Orchestra, and how many more years will it be? Where's Tobias Picker's Pulitzer? Augusta Read Thomas's? Roberto Sierra's? They're coming.
But two factoids Frank came up with made my eyes bug out. One was that he listed this year's judges, which I always thought had been a well-kept secret: composer Christopher Rouse, conductor David Zinman, music critic Mark Swed, jazz composer Muhal Richard Abrams, and last and least, octogenerian composer Gunther Schuller, whose conservative tastes and vast behind-the-scenes influence have single-handledly cast a pall over this nation's music for decades. So that's how the "opening up" works: put Abrams on the panel as the token jazz guy, and when a jazz score comes through, he can vote for it. Woo hoo!, we're liberal now.
Even more surprising was the statistic that only about 100 pieces a year get nominated, and that the total this year went up to 135 - allegedly because of the more "open" rules, although only four jazz scores were submitted and no film scores. 100 pieces a year? I hear a lot more new works than that, probably five times as many back in my heyday at the Voice. Given the stuffed shirts who think their chance at this lottery is worth a $50 admission ticket, that's probably a pretty glum 100 pieces, and I doubt that I could find a better piece to honor in that turnout than the judges usually do. So it makes me wonder: What if 700 Downtown composers all submitted pieces for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize? Just absolutely overwhelm them with entries. Might an enjoyable piece of music actually win?...
Nahhh, just a fantasy.
Here's a hint of Gannisms to come, hitting the stores this September.
Composer Lawrence Dillon, over at Sequenza 21, is trying to determine, for pedagogical reasons I guess, what were the pieces of music from the 1960s, '70s, '80s, and '90s that most changed the way composers think about composing. I demurred offering my own choices, feeling a little out-of-mainstream in that milieu, and also having an innate proclivity for huge, long, relentless lists instead of brief, exclusive ones. He said, "Awww, c'mon!," which I found a sufficiently compelling argument for a lazy Sunday afternoon. It's an odd request as worded, because those pieces from the '60s formed my conception of music, those from the '70s changed it, but by the '90s, very little was really going to change the way I compose - though I'll admit, Mikel Rouse's Failing Kansas did. Anyway, for what it's worth, here's my personal list for Lawrence, as short as I dare make it, and posted on my own blog so I can add important things I forgot:
Pierre Boulez: Pli selon pli (1962)
Terry Riley: In C (1964)
Igor Stravinsky: Requiem Canticles
Harry Partch: The Delusion of the Fury (1965-66)
John Cage: Variations IV (1963)
Luciano Berio: Sinfonia (1967)
Henri Pousseur: Jeu de Miroir de Votre Faust (1968)
Bruno Maderna: Grande Aulodia (1969)
Philip Glass: Music in Fifths (1969)
George Crumb: Black Angels (1970 - no big impact on me, ultimately, but still wows my students)
Karlheinz Stockhausen: Mantra (1970)
Tom Johnson: An Hour for Piano (1971)
Morton Feldman: Rothko Chapel (1972)
Frederic Rzewski: Coming Together (1972)
Ben Johnston: String Quartet No. 4, "Amazing Grace" (1973)
Steve Reich: Music for Mallet instruments, Voices, and Organ (1973)
Philip Glass: Einstein on the Beach (1976)
Morton Feldman: Why Patterns? (1978)
Robert Ashley: Perfect Lives (1978)
William Duckworth: The Time Curve Preludes (1978-79)
Harold Budd/Brian Eno: The Plateaux of Mirror (1980)
Morton Feldman: For Philip Guston (1984)
Conlon Nancarrow: Studies Nos. 40, 41, 47, 48 (1980s)
Daniel Lentz: The Crack in the Bell (1986)
Janice Giteck: Om Shanti (1986)
Carl Stone: Shing Kee (1986)
Morton Feldman: For Samuel Beckett (1987)
La Monte Young: The Well-Tuned Piano (begun in 1964, but perhaps not totally impressive until the 1981 and 1987 performances)
Larry Polansky: Lonesome Road: The Crawford Variations (1988-89)
Bunita Marcus: Adam and Eve (1989)
Art Jarvinen: Murphy-Nights (1989)
Meredith Monk: Atlas (1991)
Frederic Rzewski: De Profundis (1991)
David First: Jade Screen Test Dreams of Renting Wings (1993)
Mikel Rouse: Failing Kansas (1995)
Mikel Rouse: Dennis Cleveland (1996)
John Luther Adams: In the White Silence (1998, or alternatively the piece it's expanded from, Dream in White on White, 1992)
Elodie Lauten: Waking in New York (1999)
There should be pieces by Phill Niblock, Beth Anderson, and Peter Garland, but it's difficult to narrow it down to one.
I just paid $35.10 for six mp3s, and I don't know whether I feel like a chump or 21st-Century Man, but I wanted the experience. I went to Peter Maxwell Davies' web site, written about in an article linked from Arts Journal, and downloaded six pieces, his Symphonies No. 5, 6, and 8, his Piano Concerto, his Strathclyde Concerto No. 9, and Worldes Blis, totalling about three and a half CDs' worth of music. I enjoyed Davies's Eight Songs for a Mad King when I was a kid, which introduced me to Julius Eastman as a singer, and my old vinyl of which has mysteriously gone the way of so many of my possessions, seeking its own way out in the world, no doubt. Since then, Davies had almost completely fallen off my radar, for reasons so trivial as to be embarrassing: a vague prejudice that great music doesn't often come from England, and an equally vague sense that the people who champion Davies and those who champion the music I love don't overlap much. But I'm always tempted to remove swaths of my ignorance when I can do so in bulk, cheaply, and with immediate gratification, and I was fascinated by the fact that so august a figure was offering his music direct to the public without intermediary. I have my Visa card number memorized, and I was there.
Unfortunately, when I want immediate gratification, I mean immeeeeeeeediate, and the WorldPay link you use to pay wasn't working at first. It kind of soured the experience I wanted when I had to wait more than four seconds between entering my card number and hearing the first notes, but an hour later it worked. What you get for your virtual money is nice PDFs of the program notes (a quaintly termed "Owner's Booklet"), a PDF invoice for your tax records in case you're a professional blogger [pause to let that concept sink in], and the privilege of downloading, apparently repeatedly, mp3s of the works in question at various file sizes and quality levels. Frankly, I wasn't too impressed by the price. These are mp3s, after all, and for about the same wampum I could have gotten two CDs with nice booklets and better sound quality (though I have to admit, transferred to CD and played on my system, these orchestra pieces sound pretty splendid, if a touch harsh in loud passages). But the speed appealed to the impatient four-year-old child in me, and the quantity to my Scorpio need to know everything about a subject at once if I'm going to bother knowing anything at all. Also, I wanted to see whether this was a possibility I might want to pursue for my own music. It seemed strangely personal, after all, to get my music straight from The Man Himself.
To my slight disappointment, Eight Songs for a Mad King wasn't available - I suppose Nonesuch still owns the rights [UPDATE: no, rereleased on Unicorn]. Davies's later music, though, certainly possesses qualities that make it listenable and interesting. There is a consistent lyricism of diatonic lines despite the generally (almost) atonal idiom, and a tendency to lead the ear by echoing motives so that it's never difficult to keep one's place in the piece. My misgivings are the same ones I have with Roger Sessions's symphonies: the feeling of a facile, personal compositional language which risks becoming formulaic, as though the composer wakes up and says, "I think I'll compose another piece in my style today." While each work is full of variety, Davies always uses the brass the same growly way, always has some dancelike rhythmic passage for contrast, is always slowly building up towards some timpani-studded climax or receding regretfully from one. In other words, the musical ideas aren't strongly differentiated from work to work, and I suspect that it would take many, many listenings before I could drop the needle (if that is not too passé an expression) and tell whether a passage comes from the Fifth, Sixth, or Eighth Symphonies. It isn't a function of the music's complexity, for the European serialists, for all their emphasis on theoretical consistency, never fell into this problem; one would never, knowing them, mistake Boulez's Pli selon pli for Rituel, or Berio's Corale for Points on the Curve to Find, Laborintus II, or Sinfonia. Still, it's hardly the worst fault a composer can have.
Oddly enough, the one piece so far that transcends this critique is the earliest, the darkly Romantic Worldes Blis from 1969 (the others pieces are from the last decade or so). Davies was one of the first "postmodernists" (in Eight Songs for a Mad King too, if memory serves) to play off of historical styles in his music, and Worldes Blis begins with reference to Renaissance monody. The excellent and detailed Owner's Booklet essay by Nicholas Rampley states that Davies's pre-1970 works (he famously moved to one of the Orkney Islands that year) are "his most uncompromising and challenging," and that his "spare means" in those years proved too much for many listeners. But to the contrary, I find the sensuous dwelling on sustained tones here memorable and individual, almost Feldman-like except for the undercurrent of ever-seething passion. Perhaps I'm mainly a fan of the early Davies - or more likely, I simply like spare means. The later symphonies I will try to develop a taste for. In the meantime, I am re-adding Davies to my critical repertoire, and congratulate him on an effective PR strategy.
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