PostClassic: August 2006 Archives
Now Amy Bauer's posts have got me thinking about music that adheres to theoretical paradigms versus music that doesn't.
In theory class, I feel as much as any professor the pull of pieces that behave nicely. It's so satisfying to pass out the Webern Piano Variations, the D# minor Fugue from WTC Book I, Chopin's B-flat minor Nocturne, Schubert's G-flat Impromptu, the Maple Leaf Rag, Clementi's First Sonatina, and know that the analysis is going to go just the way you think it will. That's why Beethoven's First Sonata is in every theory book: not that it's his most impressive piece, but it exquisitely fits the textbook definition of sonata form you're about to give them, and convinces them you know what you're talking about. How inconvenient that K. 545 C-major Mozart Sonata is, with its recap starting in the subdominant! It's cute and everyone knows it, but you can't use it until you've taught ten other sonatas and throw it in as a wierd exception. Otherwise the students look at you funny.
Every theory teacher, I feel sure, collects over the years a repertoire of pieces for analysis guaranteed not to make him look stupid in class. But if the teacher always looks so smart, doesn't the music start to look stupid? I have to use those pieces, because sometimes you have to make a specific point in a circumscribed amount of time, but I consciously resist limiting myself to them. I have some pieces I analyze - the bitonal Saudades de Brazil of Darius Milhaud, a symphony (Second) by Martinu, Liszt's Sposalizio, that just don't behave well. I give them William Caplin's rules for the sonata, distilled from Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and then analyze - Dussek!, who never read Caplin's book. Every other year I wade a group of students into "Emerson" from the Concord Sonata and we try to figure out what the hell Ives had in mind, with perennially sparse results. I have learned to savor that stupid feeling of not being able to explain a piece fully, and not being able to justify its existence any better than pointing out that I like it. Sometimes I bring in pieces I've never analyzed, with no idea what we'll find, and we just start rummaging around. I even teach an entire course that way, my Advanced Analysis Seminar, in which we spend all semester on three works I've never analyzed, chosen specifically because I don't understand how they work. Once we got lost in the Stravinsky Piano Concerto, practically my favorite piece of his, and thought we'd never get out.
Of course, there are repercussions. The students form the dangerous idea that not all music is nice and neat and compact and explainable. They gather that spontaneous inspiration, subjective taste, and irrational will are part of the composer's arsenal. Of course, discipline, rigor, structure, and foresight are too, but why skew the weight so far in favor of one set of values over the other? Why parade Apollo onstage, and bind and gag Dionysius in the dressing room? Let us admit, at the risk of sacrificing some of our unquestioned authority, that the academic canon of Music Acceptable for Analysis, the music we put forward as The Best Mankind Has to Offer, is actually The Music that Makes Us Look Smart, because it follows the rules we've been taught to explicate. Then we can play in class whatever music we most love, and if it works out neatly on paper, or if it doesn't, those are both lessons. "Let us try for once not to be right" - Tristan Tzara. And maybe young composers - rather than either slavishly follow our directives or guiltily break away from us - will learn that the proportion between freedom and order is one every artist has to work out for himself.
[I'm going - gasp! - offline for a couple of days, and will print your comments when I return. I gotta stop staring at this screen.]
Reader Amy Bauer responds with mild indignation to my post on composers overlooked by academia:
I think you're unfair to music academics! I love Sibelius, Dvorak, Martinu, and many other supposedly 'unacademic' composers, and loathe the music of. . (um, afraid to say, as it may get me in trouble ;) )
Seriously, many of my musicologist friends adore much of the music you've noted above. I fear you may confuse academic taste with what are acceptable topics of research, which - as in any other field - are subject to changing fashion.
There are plenty of Nielsen scholars now; he represents only one of the many composers rehabilitated by academia in recent years. It is true that there are egregious conventions regarding what is worthy of study, and it takes a paradigm shift by those with power and influence to let new works into that particular canon (Taruskin's influence is a case in point). But in my experience, what academics write about and what they actually listen to often have very little overlap.
I will leave tilting at the windmills of compositional fame to those in the know.
Well, there's some truth in this. I was primarily not thinking of musicologists, but of theorists and composers, who seem loathe to subject to analysis any music not granted paradigmatic status. And I was also thinking not so much of "academic taste" as much as "acceptable topics of research." I've never quite gotten over how perplexed my fellow grad students were that I lowered myself to write an analytical paper on Bruckner.
Still, while I haven't spent much time consorting with musicologists, I have spent enough to learn what a strict composer-based hierarchy the world of musicology is. I was once on a panel with some big names, and highly complimented a famous scholar on his book on Muzio Clementi, which had been a great help to me. He seemed almost irritated that I had brought it up, as though it were some secret from his past that he didn't want mentioned in front of his colleagues. He had now written a book on Beethoven, which meant he had climbed a couple dozen steps up the musicology ladder. And I have learned in that world that to have written the first book on Nancarrow was a miniscule accomplishment, almost negligible, compared to writing the 67th book on Bach, Beethoven, or Brahms. In the world of music historians, your stature is exponentially proportional, not to the quality of your research and writing, but to the prestige of the composer you can claim to be an expert on.
(Many years ago I spent a pleasant evening with a new acquaintance who was writing a book on Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf. I'd love to hear from him, and learn how that project went. We had a better time, down there at the bottom of the musicology ladder, than the bigwigs were having up above.)
Perhaps a deluge of unpopular opinions foreshadowed a deluge of unwelcome waters, but this August 29 - the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina - is also the third anniversary of the debut of my blog. On the last anniversary, as New Orleans braced for the worst, I announced that I had written fewer blog entries in my second year than my first, and that the third would doubtless exhibit a further decline. This year I have an opposite announcement: despite my August slump, I have written more blog entries than in either of the previous years, and on the average they have been considerably longer. I complained last year that I was unable to back up my unpopular opinions with musical examples. That difficulty has been overcome. Meanwhile, my readership has expanded enormously. (Many readers report a weight gain of 30 to 40 pounds, which I can only attribute to their absent-mindedly munching down doughnuts while absorbed in my totalist analyses.)
I sometimes wonder why I blog and what good it does me, but there have been occasions on which the advantages are quite apparent, and in which I have been overcome by gratitude to my readers. Upon my mentioning an admiration for the Danish composer Per Norgard, reader Christopher Culver directed me to a web site that drew me far closer to an understanding of that master's most characteristic music. And recently David DeMaris drew my attention to the software Click Repair ($25), which has allowed me to transfer my record collection into playable form. I had long been recording records on CDs, but Click Repair removes all the pops and clicks, and make me forget that I'm listening to a recording of a vinyl record. I have since transferred several dozen records to CDs and MP3s, with tremendous psychological impact. A lot of my records, pressed on substandard vinyl in the early '80s, have never been listenable, and I'm suddenly hearing them for the first time as they were intended. The musical tastes of my youth have sat for years in boxes and then in cabinets in a spare room, mute reminders of the influences that formed me. All of a sudden they're back, pristinely recorded, as though I inherited the CD collection of someone with remarkably similar tastes.
It's always been an observation of mine that music professors have very different musical tastes than record critics, and that I possess that of the latter. Academics harbor a conceit that only the very best music is worth listening to - Brahms, Schoenberg, Berg, Ligeti, and then Brahms again - and that anything lesser is almost contaminating. Record critics are far more catholic, and pervasively doubt that history has done its job unearthing the best music. Carl Nielsen is one of the most delightful and underrated composers of all time. Franz Berwald is one of the great Romantics; Liszt predicted that he would never be appreciated during his lifetime, but opined that he was highly original and should keep composing. Max Reger wrote some incredible music, stretching tonality to the breaking point, and achieving far more subtle effects than Schoenberg. There is no Dvorak symphony I love listening to as much as the "Easter" Symphony of Josef Bohuslav Foerster: and yet, no other Foerster symphonies are recorded, so I can't find out for myself whether that work is an anomaly. A couple of my favorite piano concertos ever are by Hummel. The music of the short-lived Hermann Goetz was championed by Bernard Shaw, and his symphony and chamber music are similar to Mendelssohn, only livelier. Muzio Clementi's late sonatas are unbelievable, fantastic, yet he remains known only for those stupid sonatinas. The inordinately subtle Jan Ladislav Dussek is listed as a Romantic, a post-Beethoven composer, even though he was born ten years earlier than Beethoven - incredible. Ferruccio Busoni, of course, is one of my favorite composers, and my own music contains several homages to him. Other composers are less compelling, but I made it a point to seek them out: Sir Arnold Bax, Hans Erich Apostel, Nikolai Myaskovsky, Lord Berners, Alexander Zemlinsky, Cyril Scott, Franz Schmidt (whose Fourth Symphony and Piano Quintet are magnificent, but Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln? Don't bother).
These are all names one never encounters in academia - nor in American concertgoing, unfortunately - but that record critics scarf up by the bundle. The strange thing is, I didn't get interested in them because I became a critic - I was already seeking them out in college. If there's anything that has characterized every move I've made as a musician, it is a kneejerk distrust for the mechanisms by which composers become famous. The routes by which composers gain visibility in the orchestra circuit today are patently bogus, and I suspect it was more or less ever thus. I don't know whether I will ever have opportunity to teach these names in the classroom; it's difficult to justify analyzing Berwald's Simphonie Singulaire, remarkable as it is, to students who don't know Schumann yet. But I love listening to them, and they contributed something to my musical personality, Nielsen, Reger, and Busoni most of all. For 20 years much of this wonderful music has been sitting mutely in my vinyl collection, inciting waves of nostaglia whenever I glance into what I call my "vinyl room." Now it's unleashed, with pops and clicks erased. It's been like a college reunion, and I'm thrilled to have them back.
The great James Tenney died last night [actually, the night before, August 24]. Word went around a few weeks ago that his old lung cancer had returned after a long remission of many years. He was a great teacher, great drinker, great companion, and an interestingly odd personality. As a composer he was a kind of hard-core conceptualist driven by theoretical curiosity. As a result his music could be awfully dry at times, but in about half of it or more the conceptualism transformed in kind of an amazing alchemy to an extreme sensuousness, lovely, slow sound-metamorphoses that you just couldn't believe. I'll repeat here what I said about him in American Music in the Twentieth Century:
In a way he stands at the center of American music, a kind of focal point: he studied and worked with seminal figures such as Varèse, Partch, Ruggles, Cage, Kenneth Gaburo, and Lejaren Hiller; he performed in the ensembles of his contemporaries Philip Glass and Steve Reich; and he has taught some of the leading young composers, including John Luther Adams, Polansky, and Peter Garland. Though his music and interests put him squarely on the side of the experimentalists, he is the only such composer so admired by the academic establishment that an entire issue of the academic journal Perspectives of New Music was devoted to his music. No other composer is so revered by fellow composers, and so unknown to the public at large...
It's difficult to believe he's gone, and he will be sorely missed.
UPDATE: Read the comments for a number of personal reminsicences about Jim by his students, colleagues, and young composers who met him.
A correspondent brings to my attention a statement by Tristan Tzara:
"Let us try for once not to be right."
One of the most important writers in my life has been the psychologist James Hillman, whose books The Dream and the Underworld, Suicide and the Soul, The Myth of Analysis, and others, helped reshape my inner world, and whose insights even ended up working their way into many a Village Voice column. I even met him once! - and we corresponded a little afterward. This morning, similarly psychologically inclined microtonalist Kraig Grady sends out a paragraph, typical of Hillman's therapeutically upside-down view of the world, from the 1991 preface to an earlier book Emotion. I can't imagine anything more inspiring to get up and read on a Sunday morning (thanks, Kraig):
The field of art therapy has always imagined the use of the arts to be therapeutic either for the expressive release of the blocked psyche or for symbolism, sublimation and communication, which thereby allow the patient to give creative formulations to the disordered soul. I want to reverse this relation between art and therapy of emotion. I want now, and finally as a last thought, to suggest that therapy is useful to the arts.
Let us assume that the arts in our western world are in as much disarray as the patients we encounter. The Arts themselves are suffering from exploitation, commercialism, delusions of grandeur, low self esteem, dried out rationalism, addictive careerism, fascination with success, vulnerability to criticism, loss of direction and intention, personalism, and so on. What seems lost to the arts is precisely what therapy deals with everyday: soul. Through art therapy soul returns to dance and painting, to poems and sculpture. Each gesture the patient makes attempts to place into defined form the emotional influxes that assail a human life. Each gesture is made for the sake of the gesture and not for anything external to the gesture itself. I dance my woe as fully as I can and paint my wild madness with a rich palette as I can attain, not for reviewers of my product, not for recognition, not for the increase in size of the letters of my name. I do it for soul's sake, and this gesture, encouraged by the art therapist in studios, practices, and clinics in the city after city, town after town, may be more than a therapy of the patient. It may also be a therapy of the arts themselves, restoring to them the archetypal gestures of the soul.
Tomorrow morning at 11 AM, pianist Blair McMillen, who's been getting quite the laudatory press these days, will play excerpts from my Private Dances at Caramoor, somewhere north of New York City, in the Music Room. Here is a rather uninformative web page that refers to the event (though not to me).
The history of literature... is a sum of very few ideas, and of very few original tales - all the rest being variations of these... There are even few opinions, and these seem organic in the speakers, and do not disturb the universal necessity.
Of what use is genius, if the organ is too convex or too concave, and cannot find a focal distance within the actual horizon of human life?
Quite a flap is being made at various web sites over Fanfare magazine's policy of not necessarily reviewing CDs whose labels don't advertise in the magazine. I haven't written for Fanfare since 1992, but from what's being said, it sounds like the policy now is what it was then. Without wanting to cast myself as an apologist for crass commercialism, from my experience, it sounds a little overblown. You sent your records to Fanfare: editor Joel Flegler, whom I consider a wonderful if crusty old guy, would send them out to reviewers, without fail. If your label didn't advertise in the magazine, there would be a little yellow post-it note on the record that said "optional." Personally, I reviewed lots of optional records. Sometimes I would take a pass if I didn't like the music, which has also been my policy at some other publications. Sometimes I'd review them all if I had the time, and I certainly tried to review all the ones I liked. So if you didn't advertise, you might well nevertheless get reviewed, especially if it was a good disc, though you needed to buy an ad to guarantee it - and buying one didn't guarantee a positive review. That's a little different from "We won't review your CD until you buy an ad," which is the way some are making it sound. (For contrast, I probably reviewed one tenth of the CDs that were sent to me at the Village Voice, because that's what I had room for, and buying an ad or not wasn't going to influence anything. So you had a lot better chance of getting reviewed at Fanfare than at the Voice, and you could, if you wanted to spend the money, influence Fanfare, which you theoretically couldn't the Voice - although, after the paper went free, it was occasionally gently mentioned to me that it would be really nice if I reviewed the organizations who advertised in it.)
Given the largely labor-of-love basis on which Fanfare was run, the paid ads seemed to do little beyond ensuring that the magazine would continue to appear. Nobody was getting rich off it, or even anywhere near well-recompensed. With so much massive corporate evil besetting the music business and everyone else from all sides, I have to regard poor little Fanfare as a rather uncharitably chosen target.
AFTERTHOUGHT: Besides, every newspaper of any size in the entire country reviews the local orchestra without fail - why? Because orchestras advertise in the newspaper. Every publication that runs reviews tends to give preference to the organizations from which it draws its income. Try getting your city's biggest newspaper to skip the symphony, or the opera, one week, and come review your little new-music group. One reason you can't is because editors base their decisions on not only income, but the number of people likely to hear an event or buy a recording. "Everybody else does it" may not make it right - but if the entire culture is at fault, if money has poisoned everything, if advertising revenue buys influence everywhere, why choose indigent little Fanfare to pick on? Start writing letters protesting the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, the San Francisco Examiner, the Village Voice, and then maybe we can eventually get around to publications run on love and a shoestring, like Fanfare.
I finally found a piece by Benjamin Britten (and I've listened to a lot, so whatever you're going to recommend, I've probably heard it) that I'm enthusiastic about, a chamber piece called Young Apollo. Here's what Grove has to say about it:
Young Apollo, written in summer 1939 for a CBC broadcast with the composer as piano soloist, was inspired not only by the last lines of Keats's Hyperion but also by [former lover Wullf] Scherchen; originally designated op.16, it was withdrawn and not heard again until after Britten died, either because of the personal association, or (more likely) because of its dependence, musically, on an elaboration of the A major triad, a kind of musical minimalism that was not the order of the day.
I have this experience all the time with "famous" (orchestra-circuit) living composers: find one piece I like, compliment it, and of course it's the one they're ashamed of.
Back to politics for a moment, because We Finally Won One: with all the head-scratching kanoodling about what Joe Lieberman's loss means, only Salon's War Room, that I've seen, got it right. It wasn't just the war (though I'll have trouble pulling a lever for anyone who voted for that war, Hillary - I knew it was a tragic mistake at the time, why didn't you?), nor the bipartisan kiss, but the fact that, ever since the '04 campaign, Lieberman's vicious demonization of any Democrat who disagreed with him has been taken verbatim from the Karl Rove playbook. Worse than simply being a Repub in Democrat drag, he's part and parcel of that same evil mindset - and blaming his loss on "partisan politics," as he did last night, is the classic Republican response, attributing your own crimes to the opposition. Good riddance, I hope.
John Updike, in his long essay on writers' last works in this week's New Yorker, said something about writing novels that I've long believed was true about writing music: "It's like sex, either easy or impossible." The less severe way I've always put it to my students was, I can write a good piece in three weeks, but a bad one takes me six months.
Schoenberg said something to that effect, when asked about composing without inspiration: "Impossible!" And yet, to counter that, I've long repeated two helpful slogans from Virgil Thomson:
Ninety percent of composing is keeping your ass in the chair.
My muse and I had an appointment, and at least I showed up.
The point is, of course (I'm learning I'd better always spell out my points), is that composing without inspiration may be a grind, but the surest way to catch inspiration is to be sitting in your chair when it shows up.
Come to think of it, I'd better qualify even that. Composition isn't always easy in the sense that it flows smoothly. For instance, in writing my piece Chicago Spiral, which is a nine-part triple canon at the major second in 14/8 meter, I spent three days working on one three-measure passage. (The three days were December 24-26, 1991). But it was because the form was so strict that I couldn't get the notes to come out right, and it wasn't hard to work on in the sense that I couldn't keep engaged; on the contrary, I couldn't leave it alone, and started up again as soon as the Christmas presents were opened. In that sense, working on it was easy, though the problem was difficult.
It's the middle of the night - prime blogging time when insomnia strikes - and I'm sitting here thinking about vinyl. I've been, as I've related, transferring dozens of vinyl records onto CDs and MP3s. I started out doing it for teaching purposes, but have run into more creative reasons. A couple of performers have recently expressed an interest in my returning to writing music based on American Indian sources (I know, Native American, but it just never sounds clear), and since the bulk of my Native American recordings are on vinyl, I need to transfer them if I'm ever realistically going to work closely with them again. I had veered away from borrowing on Hopi, Zuni, Sioux, and San Juan music in the last eight years, but I find that repertoire as inspiring again now as when I first started out. The melodies are elegant, and the rhythmic sense is so deliciously non-European.
But back to vinyl. It's remarkable what a wide range of apparent media the word covers. I worked at Laury's Records in Desplaines, Illinois, in 1979-80, and remember that it was at about that time that record companies started advertising "audiophile" recordings on "virgin vinyl," for only a few dollars more. In an interesting coincidence, at that same time, non-"audiophile" records started being made out of what one would have to call, by analogy, "aging syphilitic whore vinyl." Thus they created a powerful incentive to start shelling out $18 to hear records of the quality that you used to get as a matter of course, instead of the $12 you'd pay for "normal" records which now sounded like garbage can lids. I put on my late '70s Deutsche Grammophon recording of Henze's Sixth Symphony, pristinely undisturbed since I last listened to it for, oh, maybe the third time circa 1980 - and it pops and scratches and bristles like I had gleefully run back and forth over it with a snowmobile. You might as well try to listen to a bowl of oatmeal. Go back a few years into the early '70s, though, and the vinyl improves tremendously in stability. I bet between 1965 and 1985 I could date a record within a couple of years by the scratchiness of its surface.
And yet, with some trepidation I pulled out my old American Indian records made in the '60s and early '70s, which had been listened to relentlessly for transcription purposes, and manufactured by cheap little labels like Canyon Records and Indian House: perfect. Side after side without a single scratch and hardly ever a pop. Even the historic old Frances Densmore ethno recordings, made in the 1920s on portable cylinder equipment and issued by the Library of Congress in the early 50s, sound far better than that Henze symphony. There may be some anthropological explanation I'm unaware of, such as that the Indians used every part of the vinyl and didn't throw away the hooves or something, but it does remind you of what a sturdy, near-perfect medium vinyl used to be, before the industry deliberately trashed it in order to force us to pay for something with a larger profit margin.
Still, I'm a child of the record. I've never had my music on a vinyl record, but I spent my youth dreaming about it, and I can't relinquish the dream. No little square, plastic, ephemeral-looking CD case with my name on the front will ever thrill me the way a record of my music could, with 12"x12" cover art and copious, readable liner notes on the back to peruse in the record store. It's a quixotic urge, but I know there are still vinyl records being bought up by young audiophiles - and it would fulfill a dream of my life to someday see my name on the front of a beautiful, readable, playable 12-inch record. I only hope that, if it ever happens, the vinyl hasn't been around the block too many times.
I have to reflect that vinyl is a metaphor for the life I grew up wanting, and which no longer exists. I wanted to hold in my hands a record with my name on it, and I probably never will. I might have wanted Time magazine, or perhaps the Village Voice, to discuss my music, but Time hasn't written about new composers in many years, and no longer does the Village Voice. I perhaps thought orchestras would play my music, but the new music orchestras play now is dreadful, and the process one of constant compromise, based more on youth and looks than musical quality. I rather fancied that C.F. Peters or Presser or Schirmer might pubish my music; now I would quite sensibly turn down any such offer, since "publishers" no longer do anything but take your royalties, tie up your rights, and make your music difficult to find. I thought my musical ideas might be discussed, but no one discusses ideas in new music anymore. I can't envy anyone, for there is no one of my generation, or even a decade or so older, who's achieved the life I had in mind. No one I know has put out a vinyl record since the '80s, nor had any other kind of success I used to dream about. The post-Reagan corporate stranglehold put an end to that kind of cultural life, or perhaps it was only a dream of the 1960s, an optical illusion. Not very flexible by nature, I set my heart on a life that, if it ever existed, was starting to disappear by the time I was a record-store clerk, and if it no longer exists, financially secure obscurity will do as well as anything else currently offered.
There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better for worse as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried. Not for nothing one face, one character, one fact, makes much impression on him, and another none....
A boy is... independent, irresponsible, looking out from his corner on such people and facts as pass by, he tries and sentences them on their merits, in the swift, summary way of boys, as good, bad, interesting, silly, eloquent, troublesome. He cumbers himself never about consequences, about interests; he gives an independent, genuine verdict. You must court him; he does not court you. But the man is as it were clapped into jail by his consciousness. As soon as he has once acted or spoken with eclat he is a committed person, watched by the sympathy or the hatred of hundreds, whose affections must now enter into his account. There is no Lethe for this. Ah, that he could pass again into his neutrality! Who can thus avoid all pledges and, having observed, observe again from the same unaffected, unbiased, unbribable, unaffrighted innocence,-- must always be formidable....
These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world. Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.
Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist... Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.