PostClassic: July 2006 Archives

I had coffee yesterday with a rising young orchestral conductor, one of the assistant conductors to the New York Philharmonic. He made the remark that he had never seen an orchestra that showed a strong commitment to new music run into financial trouble. When I mentioned the obvious counterexample of Louisville, he said that they had abandoned their interest in new music (or rather, lost funding for the program) ten years before folding. He also commented that conductors who cultivate new and adventurous repertoire (e.g., Salonen and my boss Paavo Jarvi) seem to last in their posts longer than the average six to ten years. He agrees with what I've been saying (and said it before I did): that for audience members born after 1975, post-Rite of Spring music is a much bigger draw than 18th- or 19th-century repertoire, and the orchestra needs to start pinning their hopes on it.

I love talking to conductors. They all tried their hands at composing, and they all (though I only meet relatively young ones) feel an idealistic commitment to extending the repertoire toward the present. It's like living next to a mountain range and then hearing it described by someone who lives on the other side. Of course, the relationship isn't symmetrical. The eyes of a composer who's just met a conductor light up with a concupiscence otherwise reserved for scantily-clad statuesque blondes, but the conductors are always nice about it.* Their only collective fault is that they rely too credulously on the composing profession's official award structures for validation of the music they select. I told the Maestro I thought that being a conductor was the most difficult career anyone could choose; he countered that he felt that dubious honor belonged to composition. He had seen several composer friends reinvent themselves over and over again trying to find a way to survive finanically. But, I replied, when I don't have a commission, I can always amble into my studio and write another Disklavier piece; I don't need a group of people to agree to work with me just to exercise my art. I'm sure that my road as a composer would have been easier had I possessed a little charisma, but being a conductor without it is unimaginable.

[*Footnote: Bard has a small MFA program for conductors. I always kid the students that, as they walk across stage to pick up their diplomas, Joan Tower, George Tsontakis, and I will be at the end of the line with stacks of our orchestral scores to give them.]

July 26, 2006 7:44 AM | | Comments (4) |

I don't know much about the Schoenberg scholar Dika Newlin, who just passed away. But from 1965 to 1978 she taught at North Texas State University, and I remember my high school composition teacher speaking of her with reverence and awe. Then one day in college, in a library, I ran across her name and realized she was a woman. I had always thought he was saying "Deacon Ewlin," as though it were a religious honorific, like "Reverend." Perhaps because of that, I never managed to bring her into focus. The composer Mason Bates studied with her in Virginia, and speaks highly of her as well.

July 25, 2006 10:36 PM | | Comments (3) |

I bought, because a reader recommended it, The Pimlico Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Composers (1999), by Mark Morris - not the famous dancer, of course, but a Welsh music critic resident in Canada. It is organized by country, which creates some curious ambiguities: for instance, Foss is listed under the U.S.A. and Wolpe under Germany, even though both were born in Germany and emigrated to America. (I think of Wolpe's late music as highly American, while Foss retains his German accent.) But it has certain advantages, such as listing Iceland's Thorkall Sigurbjörnsson, New Zealand's Douglas Lilburn, and Norway's unfortunate and distinctly underrated Geirr Tveitt, whom most survey histories are unlikely to mention at all.

What's interesting is the opportunity to see our music world in an exceedingly British mirror. For example, this comment in the section on the U.S.A.:

"It is difficult not to come to the conclusion that in terms of musical impact, and in the reflection of the wider human condition and the narrower expression of the ethos and ideas of the day, none of the American composers has yet matched their European counterparts."

This is refreshingly frank, and brings up two Eurocentric criteria with which I might have been sympathetic when I was 20, before I became more acclimated to the changes that came with postmodernism. On one hand we have "the wider human condition," i.e., the programmatic holdover from Romanticism that music is supposed to encapsulate some echo of the bourgeois man's relation to society. On the other, "the narrower expression of the ethos and ideas of the day," which seems to reflect a modernist belief that the Hegelian World Spirit, moving ever westward (and stopping for the time being in London, at least until the trains are in better repair), is embodied in a mainstream of music on which all "serious" composers must comment, and to which they all contribute. No dirty rumor of "pluralism" taints these pages. British composers, from that country which the Germans used to call "das land ohne musik," occupy 72 pages; Americans only 50; Germany gets 49, and Russia 45. Harry Partch, La Monte Young, and Morton Feldman (the most influential composer of the last 25 years) are mentioned only in passing, not granted separate entries, while the names Conlon Nancarrow and Robert Ashley appear nowhere. Meanwhile, the entry on the United Kingdom begins, "The history of British music in the 20th century is a remarkable one," and includes separate essays on William Alwyn, Ivor Bertie Gurney, Daniel Jenkyn Jones, Elizabeth Maconchy, and Grace Williams, all of whom surely outrank the marginal Feldman.

To an extent, the book indeed complements my own American Music in the Twentieth Century. But I have trouble thinking how I'll explain away its anglophile exaggerations, and I have ended up taking Paul Griffiths' more equitable Modern Music and After for my 20th-century music survey class.

July 24, 2006 11:28 PM | | Comments (9) |

My old friend Joshua Kosman, irreverent critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, whom I don't see often because he's on the wonderful coast and I'm on the dull one, has succumbed to the tempation to start a blog, titled On a Pacific Aisle. It promises to be entertaining. Joshua is the coiner, among other things, of "Kosman's Law": never trust a piece whose title is a plural noun. (Think of all those horrible academic '70s pieces with titles like Algorithms and Perspectives and Concatenations.)

[UPDATE: The final two sentences of the above entry contain a joke that Joshua and I considered a riot 15 years ago. You may not find it funny, but there's no reason to get indignant about it. You can't expect all the jokes to be funny.]

July 24, 2006 12:14 AM | | Comments (10) |

I am informed that my Private Dances will be performed August 12 by pianist Kentaro Noda, at Tokyo Music University, at the end of a four-day piano festival. Mr. Noda's program for that afternoon (1:00), titled "The Next American Piano," is:

Justin Henry Rubin: Monumentum pro Giacinto Scelsi ad annum C (2005)
Kyle Gann: Private Dances (2000-2004)
Larry Polansky: tooaytoods #1-11 (2001-2005)
Dary John Mizelle: Piano Sonata no.4 (2001)
Dary John Mizelle: Transforms 1-34 (1976-1994)

All of these are Japanese premieres, and the Polansky and Mizelle are world premieres. This is not only my first performance in Japan, but the first time (as far as I know) that someone's performed one of my works from downloading it off my web site.

American pianist Blair McMillen will be playing two of the Dances at Caramoor on August 16, and at the Tenri Institute in New York on September 8. Details later. They're getting around.

July 23, 2006 3:57 PM | | Comments (2) |

My son's band Architeuthis played CBGB's last night. (I know, I should have advertised it in my blog. But he had thought they'd play after 10, then they were supposed to start at 8, until they found out there was an opening singer and they were moved to 8:30, so I wouldn't have been able to tell you when they'd be on anyway. That's what I always hated about reviewing groups at CBGB's and Tonic and even the Knitting Factory - the lackadaisical time aspect, the lack of printed information, the casual conviction that you should just hang out with the scene and expeeeeeerience it. For one thing, ten years ago when I'd review groups at CBGB's I'd be the only audience member over 25, and last night I was really the only audience member over 25. I skulked around in the back with my umbrella, looking, I imagined through the youngsters' eyes, about as hip as Sydney Greenstreet in Casablanca. A friend of Bernard's recommended that I pass myself off as a record company talent scout. I realize there's something to be said for just experiencing the music, never knowing what or whom you're hearing, or when any particular performer is playing, or titles of pieces, or names of players, and that a lot of groundbreaking music has been introduced this way. But when I was a critic trying to write about what I heard it was tremendously frustrating, and now that I'm twice the age of even the bartender, it's no fun "hanging out" quasi-enthusiastically with people who suspect you just wandered in from Paramus and that someone, as a joke, gave you the wrong address for the theater where you had tickets for Rent. I always had a policy - if I was the only person there over 22, I'd refuse to review the concert, and around 1998 I just swore off those three spaces altogether. I'm an old fart and a classical musician, and I want to sit in a cushioned chair, consult the concert program, and have the music start five minutes after the hour. Respect me less if you want, but I'll know what I'm listening to.)

As I say, Architeuthis played CBGB's, or rather the CB Gallery downstairs. Bernard Gann on guitar, Sam Brodsky on bass, Greg Fox on drums. They played seven pieces based on repeated riffs, with some 13/16 meter, a 7-beat ostinato at one point, considerable forays into atonality, and a tendency to suddenly cut off a mass of sound to strip down to one element and then build up again. Somewhat early-Sonic-Youthish, I thought, with loud energy, wider textural range than I would have credited from only two guitars, and considerable compositional finesse. I was thrilled to hear it whatever the circumstances.

July 22, 2006 2:32 PM | | Comments (5) |

It doesn't get better than this. I just had another serendipitous conflation of recordings. I'm transferring Zemlinsky's Fourth Quartet, with its marvelously nervous fugue theme in the sixth movement, all 8th-16th-16th, 8th-16th-16th, 8th, and on the other computer was, precisely in tempo, the Balinese monkey chant: "Chaka chaka chaka chaka chaka!" Perfect.

July 20, 2006 11:51 AM | | Comments (1) |

I spent all day writing program notes for the Shostakovich Eleventh Symphony, and I finally pinpointed why I can't love his music as much as I do Mahler's. It often demonstrates the same contrapuntal saturation, timbral variety, and rhythmic drive as Mahler, but it lacks meaningful background harmonic movement. A foregrounded chord, tensely sustained, will finally shift to another chord - and then back again, instead of onward toward another, continuing harmony that would make the move seem significant. Long sequences are not unified, as they are in Mahler, by a large-scale voice-leading that leads somewhere. Instead, the large-scale harmony wavers, and fluctuates, and diddles around, leaving the impression that he's just stretching out the length without a goal in mind. The melodic aspects are great, but the tonal background has no tautness. You can feel the approach to an inevitable Mahler climax ten minutes in advance, but Shostakovich, for all his many virtues, just too often feels harmonically arbitrary. And, as a composer, large-scale voice-leading is one of the things I pay most attention to in my own music. I'm kind of fanatical about it.

And whatever legitimate oppressive hardships Shostakovich had to work under, I doubt that Zhdanov and the Communist Party Central Committee ever cracked down on large-scale voice-leading.

[AFTERTHOUGHT: By the way, I don't say here that Shostakovich wasn't a great composer. I say that I can't love him as much as I do Mahler (one of my very favorite composers) because I'm highly attuned to large-scale harmonic movement. On a good day I'm very precise in my formulations.]

July 18, 2006 11:22 PM | | Comments (18) |

Unfortunately, I have a lot more urgent things to do than update Postclassic Radio, but I did manage to give it a long overdue facelift today, and will continue. I acceded to listener demand by adding some of the out-of-print vinyl I've been transferring to disc, including the following:

Morton Feldman: Piece for Four Pianos
Per Nørgård: Spell
Per Nørgård: Gilgamesh, side one
Pauline Oliveros: Horse Sings from Cloud
Pauline Oliveros: The Well and the Gentle (excerpts)
Henri Pousseur: Trois Visages de Liège
Stefan Wolpe: Form IV: Broken Sequences (postclassical? dunno, but I love it)

It finally dawned on me that I have greatly neglected Jon Gibson, and I've been remembering how beautiful his early music is, so I've added a lot of that, along with some Lou Harrison (from Tony DeMare's piano album), Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, Paul Epstein, David Borden, and a blues, played by Jon Gibson, by one of the earliest minimalists, Terry Jennings. Golden stuff.

Were it not Postclassic Radio, I would also treat you to Franz Schmidt's silken Piano Quintet in G Major, written in 1926 for the one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein. It's such a delight to discover it again.

July 18, 2006 11:07 PM | | Comments (3) |

Somewhere recently, and I've forgotten where, I read an essay by a Cage fan so avid that he had gone to some trouble to secure a recording of the piece Quantitäten (1958) by the Swedish composer Bo Nilsson, just because of a joking reference Cage had made to it. In his lecture "Composition as Process," Cage repeats over and over at intervals, as kind of a refrain, the question, "Would you like to hear Quantitäten by Bo Nilsson whether it's performed for the first time or not?" I chuckled, because I've always, thanks to Cage, had a humorous association with that piece myself, though I didn't remember having ever heard it.

Well, I've been wallowing naked in all my old vinyl lately, and I ran across Quantitäten on a record of Scandinavian piano music played by Elisabeth Klein. I disremember whether Fanfare sent me the disc for review, or whether I bought it for Per Nørgard's powerful and imaginative Second Sonata on the flip side (I used to be a big Nørgard fan, but we don't hear much about him in the U.S. these days). The liner notes mention that Quantitäten contains 85 different time-values; I have no earthly idea why the composer would consider this important. In any case, others may have a similar curiosity, which I feel compelled to gratify. And so:

Would you like to hear Quantitäten by Bo Nilsson whether it's uploaded for the first time or not? If so, click here.

July 16, 2006 12:44 PM | | Comments (16) |

It is with some pinch of nostalgia that I put the final touches, this morning, on the list of my complete Village Voice articles, which you can find here. There were 522 of them, from Rebecca LeBreque and Iannis Xenakis to Barbara Benary, from December 2, 1986 to December 5, 2005, 19 years to the week. I decided not to stick around for my 20-year gold watch. I was proud of having outlasted all previous Voice new-music critics, though of course my longevity was dwarfed by Leighton Kerner's, who was kinda the Uptown critic, but he wrote surprisingly well about Downtown figures before that area was siphoned off to others. I have no regrets about putting it behind me. From 1986 to 1997 it was the greatest job in the world, and I could have done it forever. But by the time my column space had dwindled down to 650 words, and I was no longer hanging out in NYC often enough to grasp what was going on with the younger composers, I had become ashamed that I was holding on to it. Over the last eight years, from the moment the paper went free (and I didn't see it coming), the Voice ceased to feel like the paper I used to write for, and I felt more and more alien there. Too bad. But I needed a new life as a composer, and I am dubious about the possibility of remaining an expert on music of people a generation younger than oneself. I salute what the Voice once was and, in a sense, will ever be. The new-music community owes a profound gratitude to Bob Christgau, Doug Simmons, Richard Goldstein, Chuck Eddy, and the other editors there who felt that new music was important news. They kept the music we love in the public eye for 45 years.

July 16, 2006 10:20 AM | | Comments (6) |

You know, no one ever taught me how to teach music theory. I've been winging it in 16 years of on-the-job training. And if anyone's got a new idea of how to teach it, I'm all ears.

Several people, in response to my long case for the prosection against college theory, have suggested that a theory curriculum should begin with the study of rhythm. I'm much in sympathy with this idea. Who wouldn't be? Rhythm is the part of music everybody likes, the part that can lead to every different culture. African mbira music, and Balinese gamelan, and roots-rock reggae, and Renasissance polyphony, and the blues, and Japanese gagaku, and Bulgarian folk music don't all have harmony in the same sense, and they don't all use the same pitches, but all God's chillun' got rhythm. So let's start out with the feel-good subject that everyone gets excited about.

And I do. After a little section on pitch notation and a lot of basic rudiments (it's always surprising how many students don't know that 15va means two octaves, and you've got to explain fermatas, and double sharps, that ties go between noteheads not stems, and get everyone on the same page), we study rhythm. Nearly all my students come in knowing how to read music. We tap 8th-notes in 2/4 and 3/4, and that takes up about 45 seconds. Differences between 3/4 and 6/8 take about another two minutes. The idea that there are 3 beats in 9/8 and 4 in 12/8 is not going to sink in clearly for weeks, if ever, but I introduce it. Then, being a composer, and having 62 minutes of class time left, I get fancy, as composers do. I chart the possible organizations of 5/8 and 7/8 and 11/8. I play them amazing recordings of Bulgarian folk songs in 11/16 and 7/8 meter. I go into polyrhythms, and show how to figure out 4-against-3, and 5-against-6, and "PASS the GOD-damned BUTter" and "SHE'S PREGnant, DON'T know WHAT to DO," and all that. They find it interesting. I mention fractional meters, and non-power-of-two meters like 4/6 and 17/24, as found in Boulez's music and my own. I have even gone so far as to beat a steady quarter-note, have half the class clap 4-in-the-space-of-5 and the other half 5-in-the-space-of-4, and let them figure out that they've just performed 16-against-25. It's a blast.

Now, before you bring up the obvious objection, let me say that, the arbitrary way we organize it, I don't teach ear-training. We have a young woman who teaches that, who sings a hell of a lot better than I do, and thank goodness she's not as good-looking as me or the contrast would be really depressing. Teaching students to perform rhythms accurately, or to notate them from dictation, is a long, grueling, never-ending process. It's performative, and it takes practice. I don't do a lot of that in theory class. She does.

But let's just survey the progression theoretically. The students have learned that Bulgarians have no trouble singing in 11/16, and that 16-against-25 is performable. They never imagined such possibilities. The entire rhythmic world seems open and full of adventure. What do we do next? We look at a friggin' Mozart minuet. BAA-dum-dum, BAA-dum-dum, BAA-dum-dum. Short of inviting some actual Bulgarians into the classroom (and there are never any around when you need them), there's not much I can bring into class as examples that pursues these newfound possibilities aside from a few pieces in Bartok's Microcosmos. What am I going to say to freshmen, "Now that you've learned how to do 11 over a 4/4 meter, let's open Stockhausen's Gruppen"? The sad truth is that all the music they're going to encounter before they see The Rite of Spring in my Modernism class, and in fact 98% of the music they're going to run into in their entire life, falls, rhythmically, into two categories:

1. Classical-based notated music which is almost inevitably in 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 6/8, or 12/8, and
2. Pop music whose rhythms are basically unnotatable, but are tortured into wildly inaccurate quasi-syncopations in the sheet music that would sound wretchedly stilted if you actually sang them that way, and are almost all in 4/4 anyway.

The sad truth is, we in the West come from a rhythmically impoverished culture, and to the extent that our rhythms are livelier than Schubert's, it's in a performance-based way that is not capturable in notation. Were I a faded reggae star sent to pasture in the classroom, I'm sure I could give some wonderful demonstrations of different ways to swing a 4/4 beat, but, take my word, a Kyle Gann in dreadlocks is not a sight you want to spring on a bunch of impressionable freshmen.

By now you've got your finger on the "comments" button, but stop!: I already know what you're going to say. The rhythmic interest in classical music isn't in unusual meters or polyrhythms, it's much more subtle than that. It's in the different hierarchical ways to combine measures into phrases, the way a measure or group of measures can play anacrusis to a structural downbeat. It's true. I took a rhythmic analysis course in grad school, and while my fellow RILM addicts did their final projects on Bartok, Stravinsky, Ginastera or somebody, I rather negatively astonished them by analyzing the Adagio of the Bruckner Seventh. And what I found impressive was the way that the delayed resolution of Bruckner's large-scale structural syncopations, all pointing toward that cymbal crash at the climax, interacted with the harmonic rhythm and tonal resolution. But it's obvious from the very words I'm using that this is a subject requiring considerable sophistication. I am not convinced that the hierarchical rhythmic organization of classical music can be reliably discussed without reference to harmonic rhythm, and thus harmony. To dissect rhythmic organization in classical music requires knowing the harmonic rhythm, and how dissonance and resolution affect rhythmic perception, and thus you have to know harmony first.

In addition, large-scale rhythmic organization is not unambiguous, but prone to subjective interpretation. One chamber music coach will tell the players to move the music forward to this point, another to that point. How many arguments are there in print about the correct accentuation of the opening of Beethoven's First String Quartet, or the Fifth Symphony? It is not, I don't think, something you can teach freshmen by pointing to on the page without first teaching them, through performative experience, a large number of relevant analytical and right-brain criteria without which they will be incapable of deciding whether a beat is "important" or "emphasized" or not.

Someone suggested the book The Rhythmic Structure of Music by Grosvenor Cooper and Leonard B. Meyer, which is a good book that I hadn't looked at in many years. I'm not going to go back to campus for my copy on a lovely summer's day, but one can reread excerpts at Amazon, and on page 15 I find the following:

Because the more a tone seems to be oriented toward a goal, the more it tends to function as an anacrusis, rising melodic lines, particularly conjunct ones, tend to become anacrustic. The energy and striving implicit in a rising line make each successive tone move toward the one which follows it, rather than from the one preceding it. A rising melodic line feels very much like a crescendo. Indeed, most people perceive it as such. This is shown not only by the tendency of performers to crescendo in rising passages and of composers to indicate crescendos over rising passages much more frequently than over descending ones, but also by the fact that people actually tend to hear higher pitches as louder, even though intensity remains constant.

To the seasoned musician who reads this, this is very clear, and is validated by experience. It draws together a million intuitions one has had in the playing of music, and creates articulate order from myriad vague impressions. To the young guitarist in a garage band who's just found out there's music beyond Phish, I can't imagine what this could mean, if anything, beyond a platitude that he would immediately contradict by writing a crescendo over a descending line. If forcing them through augmented sixth chords is torture, what would this be? The book's preceding examples of different ways to notate "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" in order to suggest different rhythmic organizations seem designed to challenge a web of assumptions that the beginning musician has not yet formed. The subtle higher-level organization of classical rhythm is, it seems to me, a subject for which an experienced musician can draw on his experiences, not an empty theoretical container that the 18-year-old musician can fit her upcoming experiences into as she gathers them.

In short, I can't see that the theory of rhythm can be taught, at the beginning of a musical education, in anything like the same methodical and exhaustive abstract way, on a blackboard, that the theory of harmony can. The music of India is one of the most rhythmically complex and sophisticated on earth: how does the Indian student learn rhythm? From observing his teacher, who is a master performer, and who says, "Watch me and repeat what I do." At its deepest, rhythm is a feeling that enters the system through the body and the right brain. Analyzed before it is felt, it becomes stilted. I believe that my student's piano teacher can teach him more about rhythm than I can, by saying, "No, play it like this. Put the accent here. See how much better it sounds?" After a few years of that, and with an understanding of harmony under his belt, the student can then embark on the rhythmic analysis of entire works, which is a fascinating study.

I would that it were not so. Perhaps I'm mistaken. If anyone can offer a different way to think about it, it would be a relief to jettison all my inconvenient opinions about the subject.

July 13, 2006 11:21 AM | | Comments (27) |

For the first time in many years, I'll be teaching a 20th-century history survey this fall. In preparation I'm transferring a lot of old vinyl records to CD, and a lot of CDs to my external hard drive (more than 8500 mp3s so far), so that any time a title flashes through my mind, I'll be able to punch it up and play it in class. My entire musical youth, including many pieces never available on CD, is going onto this hard drive, and it's a trip down memory lane. I'm using one computer to record the vinyl, another to rip the CDs, and so I've been enjoying a Cagean clash of simultaneous composers: Ligeti, Harbison, Jon Gibson, Betsy Jolas, Diamanda Galas, Barraqué, Del Tredici, Niblock, Sculthorpe, Nono, Carter, Ferneyhough, yada, yada, yada.

At one point I had Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony playing along with Diamanda's Tragouthia Apo To Aima Exoun Fonos (Song from the Blood of Those Murdered). Diamanda was riffing off a high B, hitting notes all around it and always returning. The Rachmaninoff was in E minor, modulating in a way that kept B in the harmony as a pivot note. Like an avenging angel, she poured her passionate lament into Rachmaninoff's gently commiserating chorale, perfectly in tune, like it was all planned out. It was the most thrilling musical moment I'd had in awhile.

AFTERTHOUGHT: Actually, it was in harmony, but out of tempo, which sounds like an average description of my own music. No wonder I loved it.

July 10, 2006 5:33 PM | | Comments (9) |

Can anyone recommend a really good 20th-century music history text, one including (or even limited to) European music, and extending past the 1970s? The ones I've seen are either terribly out of date or crap. I've already got a decent 20th-century American text.

July 5, 2006 9:26 AM | | Comments (12) |

Fellow critic/blogger Alex Ross (currently on book leave) offers a thoughtful reply to my post on American Romantic painting vs. music:

I think it's a terribly important topic, actually, why there is no great 19th-century American music. Composers feel that absence to this day. At the same time, it's a great thing. You couldn't have had a Cage if there had been a musical Melville.

I'll see that, and I'll raise him: I think that absence helps account for the fact that America has produced such a stream of neoromantic composers - Barber, Hanson, Diamond, Corigliano, right up through Rochberg and Bolcom - a type virtually unknown in Europe. Because we never had Great American Romantic Music, someone's always finding it irresistible to fill in that gap. Even the middle movement of my own Transcendental Sonnets is an attempt to figure out what an American Brahms' Requiem might have sounded like.

July 5, 2006 9:13 AM | | Comments (4) |

As happens, I may have inadvertently answered the question of my previous post (oh hell, I'm not going to be cute and link to it, just scroll down) by the question I threw in at the last minute: "Is there something about musical pedagogy inherently more deadening than its visual analogue?" I think a large majority of musicians would surmise that there is. Let's think about it.

My own adolescent experiences as a budding painter gave no more pleasure to anyone than did the semester I spent playing the cello, but I learned a little bit of how the game goes, and I've read some things since then. Where better to let one's little knowledge be a dangerous thing than in a blog? Correct me if I'm wrong, but beginning exercises in drawing - dividing images with grids, camera oscura, and so on - seem designed to short-circuit one's left-brain cognitive grasp of physical objects, and focus the eye on exact contours. The exercises seem stiff and arbitrary at first, but you start to see differently, and, lo and behold, at some point you glance down at your paper, and the image you've just artificially drawn looks remarkably like the bell pepper you've been staring at, trying mightily to block out your preconceptions of bell peppers. You have become a smooth conduit for that image, and your fragile personality has stepped out of the way. It's a heady feeling, and there's something eternal about it - a sense that it must have been the same thrill for Rembrandt that it is for you. Relatively speaking, the payoff doesn't take long to arrive, and afterward, as you walk along, the shapes of trees and park benches begin to translate into surprising and exact two-dimensional forms. Get excited enough by this transformation, and you buy a barn in Saugerties and become an artist.

I don't know anything about color theory or the rest of that stuff - an art historian friend once told me that a red speck thrown in somewhere will focus a painting - and I'd love for someone trained as an artist to weigh in with details. But for contrast, let's look at four types of music theory pedagogy and their effects, three of them common in all music schools and a fourth that few of us get to practice:

1. Harmony

The teaching of traditional harmony, in my experience, is the aspect of music theory that raises the most adolescent hackles. From the professor's point of view, you are grouping pitches into the basic words and sentences of a well-known vernacular, familiar from church hymns, Broadway tunes, commercial jingles, and folk songs as well as classical masterpieces. From the student's point of view, you are not building up but cutting down, limiting her to only a tiny fraction of the myriad combinations available. She's coming to college having written a soulful song about how you shouldn't hurt the one who loves you just because you see someone else in a pink sweater over a deeply-felt alternation of C-minor and A-flat-major chords, and then I come along, great, lumbering, bespectacled ass that I am, and tell her that that's not one of the chord progressions that sounds good. Well, whatever sounds good to her sounds good to her by definition; it simply doesn't fit the classical paradigm that, for reasons obscure even to myself, I'm trying to impose on her.

What is the payoff here, and when does it come? It's that you learn to mimic the effects of music ubiquitous in the ether around you. You thus become equipped with a certain practicality for pedestrian musical functions. Learn a circle-of-fifth progression with a few secondary dominants, and you could, if the opportunity arose, write a song for your friends' musical that, who knows?, could become a hit. You can, if necessary, write out a harmony for "I've Been Working on the Railroad" and "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

For the student, this is not stellar inducement. "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" has already been harmonized. You could look it up. It's been a few decades since pop songs were particularly indebted to the circle of fifths. This is not the same thrill that it was for Bach: every piece of music Bach ever heard used this circle-of-fifth musical language, and by learning it he gained entreé to a world of musicians from which he would have been otherwise excluded. For the girl with the alternating triads, resolving V/vi to vi is an invitation to re-enter the Stone Age of torch songs. I feel as though I'm empowering her by teaching her how to recreate the more complex effects from music she hears; she feels that I'm crushing her spirit by forcing her to imitate music she's not interested in. And, though this couldn't be further from my intention, she will inevitably gather that I'm pressing this music on her as superior to the music she's attracted to. I realize how far my pedagogic aims have miscarried when, as occasionally happens, a student comes up and proudly shows me that they used a conventional chord progression in an original composition, as though they think this is the only kind of music I approve of.

Say instead, though, that the student is a classical cellist? Well, the incentives are even more intangible. He can read the notes in a Bach gigue just fine without knowing which are the non-chord tones. For the average classical musician theory is an idle curiosity, like knowing why the pistons fire in the car he's driving.

For the student truly destined for Broadway or Hollywood, the practical payoffs of tonal harmony - if he has not already stumbled across them by ear - may come quickly, but for everyone else they are gradual and, I suspect, exorbitantly delayed. Ten years down the road the cellist, assuming he goes professional, may be glad to understand the internal logic of the Beethoven sonata he's playing. The singer may someday find herself in a school choir job and need to write an SATB arrangement of, god forbid, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." The would-have-been concert pianist with carpal tunnel may find herself teaching theory. I suspect that few young musicians picture themselves someday trapped in the desolate careers for which a thorough grasp of classical harmony would be helpful....

Except for composers, for whom we promise a somewhat more metaphysical set of benefits. The composer will learn what's already been done in the language of music so that he will not waste time reinventing the wheel; he will internalize a model for a complex musical language from which he can extrapolate to a new musical language of his own. Philosophically compelling as this rationale may be, it is still difficult to command a student's full attention by teaching him in great detail a musical language that we are assuring him he will never have to use - indeed, that many composition professors will tell him he's not allowed to use.

For a million reasons - including the fact that I employ historical references and underlying conventional harmonic progressions in my own music - a knowledge of theory has done me tremendous good. I doubt that many of my composer friends, drawing harmonics from digital circuitry and improvising on saxophone mouthpieces, would say the same. Occasionally I see a student's eyes light up when he raises the third in a secondary dominant and a phrase he's written comes to life, but the experience is depressingly rare. No one is more reluctant than I am to send musicians forth into the world not knowing how the language of Mozart and Brahms works, but there are times when I've wanted to withhold the study of advanced harmony, saving it only for seniors who've developed a true curiosity about it. For most musicians, it seems less an inspiration than a hazing: if you can survive the chapter on augmented sixth chords, you've proved you want to be a musician badly enough.

2. Counterpoint

For hundreds of years, until the early 19th century, the study of music theory was the study of counterpoint. (I teach only the 16th-century variety, because few of our students build up the harmonic chops to do the Baroque version, and, frankly, I'm a lot better at Renaissance. I rely on the principles of Palestrina counterpoint every time I sit down to compose, while Bach counterpoint presumes a harmonic framework foreign to my music.) Compared to the premises of harmony, those of counterpoint seem at first even more arbitrary, but there is a fun kind of reductionism to them. Students enter into them as a playful challenge, like a crossword puzzle, or Chinese checkers. As they humorously start berating themselves for falling into parallel fifths, something similar happens as with the grid in the drawing class: all their habitual musical instincts get clicked off, and they start to focus on every interval. Every detail in the music starts to mean something.

Also as in drawing, the payoff of counterpoint comes as a surprise. Given enough time and energy, at some point the student writes a 20-measure exercise, a little three-voice motet; it gets sung in class, and with a shock she recognizes that it is... perfect. No expert could prove that it was not written by Nicholas Gombert or Adrian Willaert. If she's followed the rules religiously, she can produce something that transcends her own personality, that is demonstrably correct and solid and lovely, like an elegant mathematical equasion. Unlike harmony, which always maintains a connection to subjectivity and personal feelings, counterpoint may teach her how powerful it feels to be a mere vessel. She may learn what T.S. Eliot means when he says, "Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things."

This payoff may feel somewhat the same way it did for Josquin. For him, though, it meant the fulfillment of his creativity and the creation of a socially useful product, whereas for the student, it remains an enticing model, but a mere exercise - a mental state to be recaptured in other, more relevant media. Counterpoint may be a dead-end thrill, with little direct application to a world in which art and self-expression have merged, but the 16th-century counterpoint class I took (from Gregory Proctor, the year I attended the University of Texas) was a turning point of my life, and I do find that students who study counterpoint before harmony enter into the latter with more understanding and less resistance.

3. Analysis of Modernist Music

Here's a heady thrill, and a quick payoff. The young musician comes to college with romantic ideas that great music is ever the result of spontaneous inspiration. But what's this? That crazy-wild passage in The Rite of Spring - it all results from only four seventh chords, all linked by the octotonic scale. That broodingly meandering fugue at the beginning of Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta - it actually fills out a symmetrical precompositional plan of ascending and descending fifths. That desolate atomism of minor ninths in Webern's Symphony - simply a canon of 12-tone rows. Things are not what they seem. Modernist music appears a chaos of improvisation, but beneath the surface it is more structured than ever. The young composer senses a tempting opportunity. No more waiting for inspiration to strike; one can concoct a rationally conceived, rigorous plan, realize it, and get credit for a surface bristling with apparent spontaneity.

By now, we all know what the pitfalls of this kind of thinking are, which reached a peak in the 1970s and '80s - it is easy to be so seduced into complicated underpinnings that the listener is rather malevolently left mystified. My students tend to balk at following the primrose path as far as Post-Partitions and Gruppen, and they ever surprise me by saving their greatest admiration for pieces that truly resist analysis, like Varèse and the Concord Sonata. From only a handful of schools do we still need fear excesses in this direction, but now and forevermore each new generation will be required to plumb the limits for themselves. This new knowledge so flatters the composer's sense of respectable professionalism that it is likely to remain academically paradigmatic for the next century or two at least - thus all the continuing sentimentality about Ligeti, Carter, Boulez, et al as the Last Great Men.

The same analytical insights can ensue from analysis of 18th- and 19th-century music, but, for my students at least, they are less seductive. The young quite rightly plunge into music theory not for its own sake but for what they can steal for their own purposes, and the one hulking iron piece of démodé bric-a-brac that never makes it off the auction-room floor is sonata form. The urgency of bringing one's themes back in the tonic key is not a motivation to stir the blood, and thus they tend to miss the subtle feats of tonal logic they could glean from Brahms and Bruckner until they return to them later in life. The premodern pieces that can excite them, in my experience, are those pervaded and rendered cohesive by motivic saturation, like the late Beethoven sonatas, the Tristan Prelude, and certain movements of Mahler. Analysis of individual works remains an encounter with subjectivity, but unlike the teaching of harmony, it never requires the professor to dissemble or hedge. The text on the page is what it is.

4. Acoustics

Underlying the patchwork discipline of harmony is a set of immutable physical facts. Multiples of a given frequency by 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and so on make up the harmonic series, which one can demonstrate (not with godlike exactitude, but close enough) by running your finger up and down a piano string while striking it. In this Gibraltar of facts the student finds a comfortingly eternal solidity. The frequency ratio 3:2, a perfect fifth, yielded an intelligible consonance in Pythagoras's day 4000 years ago, and will continue to do so after the human race has perished. For many, the payoff of this mathematically inviolable knowledge is fairly immediate. Point out that 4/3 x 4/3 x 4/3 x 5/4 x 4/3 (four perfect fourths and a major third) does not quite equal 4/1 (two octaves), and every guitarist in class suddenly realizes why he can't get his ax in tune. Listen to meantone, and the prohibition against omitting the thirds of triads makes perfect sense. Teaching the acoustics of pitch, one can throw away the litany of mumbled excuses about German and Italian musicians that run through conventional theory classes. No longer is something "true" just because a human being once did it and it caught on. Numbers, for a musician, are nature.

Of course, the obvious downside (beyond the fear of arithmetic that makes this subject off-limits for some musicians) is that the teaching of just intonation finds so little cultural resonance. Its terms and definitions are not widely used, its practice is still in the experimental stage. The student who gets all wrapped up in pure tunings will grasp the vast truth underlying the disorderly history of harmony, and gain the background wisdom his contemporaries have missed - and will graduate to find that there are only 400 people in the country he can converse with, 200 of whom are weirdos.

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

Then there's also Schenkerian Theory, which, since it is faith-based rather than evidence-based, I urge relegating to the religion department.

The upshot is, I think, that in studying art you've always got a home base to return to, while in studying music you're at the mercy of whatever reference point the professor has chosen. Musicians have nature in the number series, but we don't use it; we rely instead on a changing series of approximations for it and references to it arrived at by generations of poor working schlubs in response to social conditions we can no longer imagine. Those of us who have gone through the experience and survived and relatively prospered know that neither the starting point nor the road chosen really matters, you'll get to the same place anyway. The student starting out doesn't have that confidence. I'm sure there are art professors with strange theories and weird pedagogies who manage to murk up the path, but it strikes me that the young artist, starting out, gets a pretty clear view of the road ahead, and knows more or less why he is led into each new step. I don't think this is true for the music student, who sees instead a winding, circuitous route, with arbitrary conventions standing as prerequisites for things that would make more sense. The art student can be given the answer, "Because that's how the brain processes visual reality." The music student has to settle for "Because that's the way Bach or Schenker or Schoenberg or Duke Ellington or Bob Dylan did it."

Perhaps it ultimately doesn't matter. Certainly many musicians see such training as a filtering process, winnowing out the weak and uncommitted. But it does strike me that the problem is not so much in the nature of the medium as in the slow accretion of contradictory historical practices that we get stuck with through habit and inertia. Creative music, considered as a current cultural whole, and brilliant counterexamples notwithstanding, is not in a terribly impressive state. Perhaps the general level would be higher if the possibility of being pedagogically misled were not so ubiquitous; perhaps not. All I can say for sure is that, when teaching the theory curriculum in the accustomed progression, I spend an awful lot of time apologizing and making short-cuts and detours to ameliorate its deficiencies and absurdities, and I wish I didn't have to do that.

July 4, 2006 9:41 AM | | Comments (15) |

My mother and brother came from Texas to visit. Looking for something touristy for us to do, I finally checked out, for the first time, the state park at Olana. A castle in detailed pseudo-Arabic style only five or six miles from my house, impressively overlooking the Hudson River lengthwise, Olana was the home and monument of Frederic E. Church (1826-1900), probably the most famous figure in the Hudson River School of painters.

The first word I heard about the Hudson Valley was sometime around seventh grade; I gathered, by an inattentive process of osmosis, that Henry Hudson explored the river named for him, and Fulton launched a steamboat here. The second time I gave the Hudson Valley a moment's thought was some 29 years later, when I was offered an interview at Bard College. Since moving here, I've always thought that at some point I would, in my usual obsessive fashion, study the Hudson River School. Now, for four days, I've been surveying paintings by some dozen or so artists in that clique. Suddenly, as I look out my window at the oak trees, tiger lilies, cumulous clouds, and Catskill mountain contours, I see them with a new shock of recognition. They are no longer simply pastoral, but dramatic, august, foreboding, emblematic of the New World with its new moral possibilities, the natural image of Democracy as crafted by God Almighty. I am living in one of the planet's most widely-painted landscapes, in the epicenter of the birth of American art. Though I didn't know it, I inhabit hallowed ground.

Cropsey: Autumn on the Hudson River

Since I am something of an involuntary historian of American music, naturally my mind turns to that artform. Where is the Hudson River School of composers? They don't exist. Church, his teacher Thomas Cole (1801-1848), Jasper Cropsey (1823-1900), Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904), George Inness (1825-1894), even the failed portraitist and eventual inventor Samuel F. B. Morse (1791-1872), used these trees and mountains around me as a springboard for a new definition of art only tangentially related to that of Europe. The American composers of those and even later generations - George Frederick Bristow (1825-1898), John Knowles Paine (1839-1906), George Whitefield Chadwick (1854-1931), Edward MacDowell (1860-1908), Horatio Parker (1863-1919) - were not of the same stature. They did not create a new artform. Their music is a pale imitation of the European aesthetic of their day. In vain one listens to their symphonies, tone poems, piano pieces, and string quartets, for a new feeling for melody, a new sense of form, a departure from Europe. They were timid. Their emphasis was not on a bold new beginning, but on a sense of correctness, a balance learned rather than created, and a desire to impress. At their very best - as in, say, Chadwick's string quartets - one finds an energetic smoothness, but even here the music seems to plead, "Look - I followed all the rules. Isn't that enough?" Absent is any creative spark, or even the tenderness of Heade's obsessive exploration of hummingbirds and exotic orchids. Their hulking climaxes are poorly calculated, and not even their adagios seem deeply felt.

It may be - I don't know - that artists look down their noses at the Hudson River painters the way we musicians condescend to America's Romantic composers, but I don't get that impression. Like Chadwick, Paine, and Parker, the Hudson River painters studied in Europe, yet unlike them did not seem to have their individuality crushed by the experience. Church, prolific due to his inherited wealth, has his better and worse pieces, but it is not difficult to have favorites, such as his Rio de Luz, Niagara from the American Side, Icebergs, Twilight in the Wilderness. Cropsey had a flair for red-tinged canvases, and was known as "The Painter of Autumn." The veracity of his colors in an American forest in October was so doubted in England that he took up the practice of saving red leaves and exhibiting them next to his paintings to prove that he did not exaggerate. Heade's perfectly flat New Jersey horizons, more zen than even Caspar David Friedrich's paintings, have particularly appealed to the modern sensibility, and the quirky sensuality of his myriad orchids is quite lovable.

Heade: Catellya Orchid with Hummingbirds

These painters acquired a dazzling Continental polish, yet added something of their own. Unlike their Continental counterparts they omitted human figures and concentrated on nature alone, and in common they developed a remarkable approach to light that has in recent decades been christened "luminism." There are dozens of their works one can develop a soft spot for. By contrast, in all the years I have been trying to nurture a taste for the music of Chadwick, Paine, and Parker, I've never found a single work that recommended itself to me over the others. That music is listened to by specialists in American music history, and I can't vouch for any reason that it should be listened to by anyone else. It is irreparably eclipsed by even the minor works of Mendelssohn, Brahms, Dvorak. No Chadwick or Paine work I've been able to ferret out comes remotely close to matching the miracle of Church's South American sun:

Church: Rio de Luz

Insofar as one can judge from available recordings, I have only found three pre-1890 American orchestra works of any notable interest: The Ornithological Combat of Kings (1836) by Anthony Philip Heinrich (1781-1861), the Niagara Symphony (1854, though it doesn't seem to have been performed before the current decade) by William Henry Fry (1813-1864), and Night in the Tropics (1861) by Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869). All three were based on New World subject matter - South or Central America in Heinrich's and Gottschalk's cases, like so many of Church's and Heade's best paintings. All three offer effects unknown to European music of the time - particularly Gottschalk's pop-music syncopations and the rumble of eleven timpani with which Fry evokes Niagara's cascade. All three are marked by a technical ineptitude that any sensitive amateur could pinpoint - Heinrich's marching-band momentum badly needs a rest now and then, Gottschalk's harmonic rhythm is deadeningly predictable, and Fry lapses into Wagnerian banality whenever he's not being onomatapoetically athematic. They seem today like brave but Quixotic figures, would-be heroes whom the passage of time reduces to clowns. Their visual-art counterpoints are not the Hudson River School, but the untrained amateur painters like Ammi Phillips (1788-1865) and the Quaker Edward Hicks (1780-1849). Except for Gottschalk, who studied with the eccentric Berlioz rather than with academicians like Reinecke, Rheinberger, and Jadassohn, they didn't train in Europe, and their music demonstrates the extent to which energy and technical polish seem in inverse proportion in early American music.

In addition I've long nurtured a brief for George Bristow, who, unlike the other 19th-century American symphonists, didn't study in Europe. He was a violinist in the New York Philharmonic, and, for a time in the 1850s, resigned his job to protest the treatment of American composers, a move I've always admired him for. More than any other figure of that era, he seemed to search for a new feeling of solitude in the American wilderness, best captured in the opening violin solo of his "Arcadian" Symphony. But despite his successful melodic pathos, his music is overly repetitive and ultimately tedious. The earliest well-trained American composer I can listen to with pleasure is Arthur Foote (1853-1937), whose A Minor Piano Quintet has a lovely American bounce to it. The music of the admirable Amy Beach (1863-1944) I have tried hard to form an attachment to without success.

It is a telling measure of the stature of all these composers that in 1896-8 a young Charlie Ives, as an undergraduate at Yale, chafing against a composition teacher fundamentally unsympathetic to him, wrote what was easily the most stirring, the most original, the most lovable symphony that any American had yet penned, his First. This is one of Ives's stunning achievements that he never seems to get any credit for, and it is not dependent in any way on the technical innovations that skeptics believe is the sole basis of his appeal. In one fell swoop Ives, as a college student, raised American music to a level at which it could successfully compete with Europe, in both technical proficiency and urgent sincerity. And by this point, traditional Romanticism was virtually moribund, even for Ives.

All this is unsurprising news of the "dog bites man" variety. You hadn't been sitting around suspecting that there might be some wonderful American Romantic music that you were missing out on. What makes the subject interesting to me is what it implies about the disunity of the arts. Why did 19th-century American painters and composers, both studying in Europe, come to such radically different ends? Why was modernism a precondition for effective originality in American music, when that wasn't at all the case in American painting? Certainly it isn't because music requires more technical training than painting; Cole, father of the Hudson River painters, painted landscapes from natural talent, but had to go study in Italy to learn how to handle the human figure. Is there something about musical pedagogy inherently more deadening than its visual analogue? (My students clearly suspect as much.)

It seems partly that American painters had something new to paint. They were looking at a different landscape than the Europeans were, and fidelity to nature coerced their originality; the composers, still locked in European sonata form, had nothing new to listen to until ragtime and minstrel music came along, and for decades that was considered (by everyone but Gottschalk and Ives) insufficiently noble to appropriate. Dvorak proved in the New World Symphony how ineffective American tunes alone were for escaping Europeanness. As Henry Cowell would later write, "Transplanted to the United States, the rules of harmony and composition took on a doctrinaire authority that was the more dogmatic for being second hand." Someone will theorize that the composers, dependent on performers, had more trouble getting their works performed, and thus more trouble learning their trade, but the painters had their own problems. Most of them (save the wealthy Church) were hugely pressured to specialize in portraiture as the only genre that paid anything.

It is difficult to avoid the impression that a search for Americanness through subject matter sparked, on whatever conscious or unconscious level, a more listenable idiom. Look at the titles favored by the American academicians:

Henry Hadley: Salome
Horatio Parker: Hora novissima
John Knowles Paine: Overture to Shakespeare's As You Like It, Fuga Giocosa, Valse Caprice
William Henry Fry: Overture to Macbeth, Leonora
George Whitefield Chadwick: Euterpe, Cleopatra
Frederick Shepherd Converse: Endymion's Narrative

These are people struggling mightily to fit into the European picture, and the titles are accurate predictors of the music's turgidity. The painters certainly painted, from life, Italian and English scenes as well, with mixed success; Church's The Parthenon, despite its intriguing use of light, seems stilted and over-reverent. (The more urgent competition was to see who could best capture Niagara Falls on canvas.) And the American music which seemed to herald the beginning of a solid new originality, like Ives's First Sonata, Copland's Piano Concerto, Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, did so through an embrace of a New World vernacular (though one must mention, by contrast, the short-lived genius Charles Tomlinson Griffes, who came up with a pungeant Impressionism all his own).

It's a difficult nut for a historian to crack. I can't answer the questions myself. The future will undoubtedly be different from the past, but the historical trajectory casts a long shadow. It does seem that, in general, trying to fit into a foreign tradition for which one has too much reverence leads to a stilted insincerity, while painting what you see around you creates a freshness from which universality follows. Meanwhile, while I've never understood what my growing up in Dallas had to do with anything, I'm beginning to appreciate the significance of my having accidentally plopped into the Hudson Valley, instead of the location where I'd always half-planned to end up: California. Perhaps someday I'll be able to point to the Catskills and tell a visitor, like Mahler vis-a-vis the Alps, "Never mind looking at all that; I've already composed it."

July 1, 2006 12:57 AM | | Comments (11) |

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