PostClassic: January 2007 Archives
I was almost remiss in letting an important milestone go by: today composer Mikel Rouse turns 50. In America you're a "young composer" until you're 50, and it's disconcerting to think that Mikel, only 14 months younger than me but ten years younger-looking, has crossed the line. He's the only composer younger than myself whose music has influenced my own long-term. He piles up layer after layer after layer in his recordings, all at different tempos and rhythms, and yet his music retains a remarkable clarity, and the ear can zero in wherever it chooses. My music sounds nothing like his; his is extremely pop-oriented and exquisitely produced in the studio, mine is mostly regular acoustic concert music with almost no pop influence. But when composing I stop and listen to his albums to remind myself to never stop reaching for that amazing clarity. I drink to his health and incredible music.
A singing correspondent asks if I've written any songs, and I have, and it makes me realize that I haven't made all my music available that I could have. So I've added four songs to my PDF score page. They're early: I used to write songs, but no one ever sang them, and I kind of lost interest. I've also put up a score to a brief 2003 piece for string quartet called Love Scene, an instrumental arrangement from a scene in my opera The Watermelon Cargo. It's in just intonation, and I haven't yet succeeded it getting anyone to play it, so, having recently gotten a couple of performances from having my PDFs available, I throw it out to the masses. It's a waltz, for gosh sake - I write a whole piece in 3/4 and you're gonna give me trouble about a few lousy extra pitches?
We pre-empt your attention to the succeeding postminimalist rant to alert you to a fantastic interview Frank Oteri did with my teacher Ben Johnston over at New Music Box. Frank asks Ben about his new book edited by Bob Gilmore, Maximum Clarity (which I knew was coming but didn't realize was out already), and alludes to something I'd never heard Ben talk about:
...possible meanings for various types of intervals: the 3rd overtone ratios of perfect fifths and fourths representing stability and strength; the 5th overtone radios of major and minor thirds representing emotions; 7ths representing sexuality; 11ths ambiguity; and 13ths death.
This makes a certain sense (although, 13 = death?), which Frank teases out well during the interview. For many years I've had a fascination with the "meanings" of prime numbers, such as those applied by the great/notorious qabalistic crackpot Aleister Crowley:
11: The general number of magick, or energy tending to change.
13: The scale of the highest feminine unity... or, the unity resulting from love.
17: The masculine unity....
43: A number of orgasm, especially the male...
61: The negative conceiving itself as a positive...
It's so tempting for a just intonationist to try to apply qualitative aspects of numbers to tuning. One book I studied for that was Number and Time by Jungian psychologist Marie Louise von Franz. One of her examples, showing that the Chinese mind considers numbers qualities as well as quantities, was a story of a battle in which eleven generals couldn't decide whether to attack, so they voted. Three voted to attack, eight not to - and they attacked, because three is "the number of unanimity." I never got very far with that compositionally, though I do consistently use the 11th harmonic as a gateway between opposing states. The interview with Ben is well worth reading, though, and there's a 1970 article by him too, which almost reads as if written yesterday.
It is undoubtedly the most heinously unpopular thing about me, that I will apply a generic term to my own creativity. No other cliché could possibly be as widespread in music today as the conviction that one should never, ever admit that one's art falls into any kind of category. ("Beyond category" is oft trotted out as Duke Ellington's highest compliment, and every grad composition student believes it already applies to himself.) And yet I not only refer to myself as a postminimalist, but embrace it as kind of a guideline. Perhaps it's a composer-critic thing: Tom Johnson, who freely called himself a minimalist, is the only other composer I've ever heard of self-applying such a term. But I did not get where I am today, wherever that is, by capitulating to widespread professional ukases, and although other composers urge it on me right and left, I have never considered conformism a very smart long-term career strategy for an artist. In this, as in other things, I flatly refuse to comply.
By postminimalism I mean something more specific than most people mean who use the term. In fact, for purposes of the current essay, perhaps the word should be temporarily understood as not being at all generic, but as referring solely to my own aesthetic - although ultimately I think there's more to it than that. I think the term describes a condition, an attitude toward the materials of music, that many have come to share, though I will allow the reader to be the judge of that. No other composers need be tarred with the brush that tars me.
The superficial understanding of the term, it seems to me, is that it refers to a kind of watered-down minimalism. For me, postminimalism is qualitatively different from minimalism, almost a reaction against it, or a deliberate misappropriation of certain elements of it. Minimalist music maintains a balance between concept and sound. The value of the music is in its literal fidelity to its concept, and it expands one's perception because of the cognitive dissonance between one's right-brain experience of the (often sensuous) sonorities and one's left-brain recognition of the extraordinary processes involved. Minimalism is inherently transgressive in venturing outside the perceptual conventions of concert attention, both in terms of scale and patent linearity. Minimalism aspires to the condition of natural phenomenon, and does not call attention to its "composed" quality.
None of this is true of postminimalism. Postminimalism is no more concept-related than any other body of concert-hall music, nor is it transgressive. Even less does it obscure its quality of being "authored." It inherited from minimalism one thing: the value of limiting one's materials, of composing within a circumscribed range. The postminimalists took from minimalism a lesson that was hardly intended - the contingent nature of musical elements - and ran off with it in a very different direction. Postminimalists noticed that the processes of minimalism did not depend on whether the harmonies were consonant (Steve Reich), dissonant (Phill Niblock), rhythmic (Philip Glass), or static (La Monte Young). The easy step from Reich's Come Out to his Piano Phase was a striking demonstration that materials don't matter. If you want to encourage perception of a process, piano notes and speech samples are equally effective. Minimalism had broken the traditional Romantic/modernist correlation between musical qualities and the external world.
And so, for postminimalism, an escape from modernism became also an escape from metaphysics. Sonata form had been considered, by its classic adherents, a natural form, something discovered in the processes of the mind; for postminimalism, there is no such thing as a natural form. The tendencies of tonal harmony were seen as conforming to natural laws, and 12-tone music was an attempt to draw music from an organic method; for postminimalism, there are no laws outside the composition, all tendencies are defined arbitrarily by a logic created within the specific piece of music, and organicism is understood as a constructed illusion. In traditional music, minor harmony and dissonance create tension, major harmony and consonance resolve it, in a tension-release pattern meant to mirror and elucidate emotional life; in postminimalism, one chord is as good as another, consonance and dissonance are equally acceptable, all being defined contextually rather than via reference to the outer world.
And the postminimalists had help: with his delicately gorgeous dissonances, Morton Feldman discredited, single-handedly and forever, the traditional correlation of dissonance with violence or even anxiety. The cord connecting qualities of musical materials to aspects of the outer world was snipped in two. Julia Wolfe's dissonances, William Duckworth's consonances, John Luther Adams's tone clusters, Art Jarvinen's pencil sharpeners, even Joshua Fried's radio commercials, all became neutral markers for the various logics in which they circulated. A harsh piece no more suggested the world was a vale of tears than a consonant piece exhorted everyone to be happy. For an entire generation, the battles of our teachers' generation - tonality versus atonality, consonance versus dissonance, harmonies versus tone rows - ceased to carry emotive force. "All art is artificial," wrote Stravinsky (the proto-postminimalist par excellence), and the postminimalists, hearing in serialism and minimalism the ultimate failure of an attempted musical metaphysics, embraced that slogan with open ears.
This de-charging of materials, so to speak, was reinforced by the more explicit aesthetics of the period. Philosopher Nelson Goodman (1906-98), the most influential aesthetician of my youth and one closely aligned with the then-new, more humanistic trends in analytic philosophy, denied in his influential Languages of Art of 1968 that perceived correspondences between art and reality were more than conventional. Artists, in his view, pretend to only document the world, but in actuality they shape our perceptions of it and create a new reality by conditioning us to reinterpret. "Realism" is never innocent. "That a picture looks like nature," he wrote, "often means only that it looks the way nature is usually painted." Drawing Wittgenstein's insights to their logical conclusions, philosophers of the '60s concurred that there is no ultimate reality to which all statements, and by extension all works of art, refer: "there is no such thing as the way the world is." As I've written elsewhere,
Oscar Wilde had articulated the same insight in a light-hearted but profound essay that strikingly anticipates Goodman:
the more [composers] portray the world as chaotic and formless, the more chaotic the world becomes. There is no such thing as ontologically neutral art. The artist cannot escape responsibility: no matter how innocently he "paints what he sees," he is toying with our perceptions. (Music Downtown, p. 150)
...[W]hat is nature?... She is our creation...Things are because we see them, and what we see,and how we see it, depends on the arts that have influenced us... At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist until Art had invented them... That white quivering sunlight that one sees now in France, with its strange blotches of mauve, and its restless violet shadows, is [Art's] latest fancy, and... Nature reproduces it quite admirably. Where she used to give us Corots and Daubignys, she now gives us exquisite Monets and entrancing Pisaros. (Intentions, 1889)
Had the world taken Wilde's topsy-turvy formulations at face value, the early Modernists might have approached their task with a little more self-conscious irony. At first eager to portray the new Machine Age in noise, then concerned to warn mankind of the dark forces that threaten human freedom, modern music began as a heroic attempt to capture in sound realities that classical form had banished to the world of nonsense. Le Sacre gave us the relativism of non-Western society; Wozzeck gave us psychological reality; Ionisation gave us musical atomic physics. In the troubled but comparatively innocent 1920s modern music had seemed part of the solution, but by the '70s it was part of the problem. The harshness, violence, and complexity of modern music, it turned out, had not been simple depictions of reality, but had helped condition us to perceive reality as harsh, violent, and complex. And when modernist music, dragged into a scientific dead end, suddenly yielded to minimalism, the relationship of music to the world stood exposed as contingent, not determinate. The collapse of what had seemed like the open-ended and unidirectional history of music faced composers, for the first time in history, with true freedom to write any kind of music they wanted.
Now the interesting question becomes, given absolute freedom to compose dissonantly, consonantly, complexly, simply, linearly, repetitively, noisily, melodically, structurally, intuitively - why did so many composers (not a majority by any means, but quite a few dozens) gravitate independently toward the same small set of ideas? Fittingly enough, part of the answer is simple historical accident. Not only serialism and minimalism but the American experimental tradition had tossed up phase-shifting, tone rows, isorhythms, arithmetical rhythmic structures, additive processes, echo and delay, polytonality, tempo canon, cross-rhythms, and many other devices, toyed with in seeming haste and then abandoned, begging for further exploration. Add to this that the sudden wealth of information about other world musics, plus increasing acceptance of vernacular traditions, made Gamelan melodic cycles, Indian ragas, African rhythms, bluegrass melodic patterns, boogie-woogie harmonic progressions, and five hundred other musical artifacts available. All of these have gone into postminimalist music, a variety so vast that you'd think the external appearance of a unified style would have become impossible.
Nevertheless, the astonishing fact is that a unified body of music did appear, seemingly without much influence seeming to have passed directly from one composer to another. One of its chief strategies, derived from minimalism but here turned to very different ends, was an overall limitation of materials within any one piece. Nothing is more characteristic of postminimalism than an avoidance of dramatic sectional contrast, or dramatic change altogther unless it is achieved gradually. As I experience the style as a composer, the unity is not necessarily moment-to-moment, but global. One has a sense from the beginning what concise universe of sounds, chords, rhythms, the piece will take place within, and the challenge is to create variety without diverging. Often the most basic idea of the piece is a certain relation among a finite number of harmonies, or a restriction on voice-leading strategies. (For me as a microtonalist, this self-limitation serves a practical logistical purpose, to keep the number of pitches from proliferating wildly in process - a situation that makes me even more surprised that I seem to be the only microtonal postminimalist.)
Theoretically one could have argued that, if all materials are equally acceptable, then a piece of music could include anything and everything. This has certainly been the message and strategy of some of the so-called postmodernist composers such as John Zorn and William Bolcom, and one might even include the more traditionally Ivesian Henry Brant. But to allow and include everything in your music flirts once again with the idea of representing the world, reviving the illusion of non-artificiality. To see the world as a cacophony of fragmentary signifiers, and represent it that way in your music, is to attempt to influence others to see it that way. Self-limitation, by contrast, is the most obvious sign of postminimalism's embrace of artificiality. And not only formal limitation: postminimalism's habitual reliance on steady pulse and the diatonic scale signifies a stepping back from naturalism, a deliberate and knowing acceptance of artifice.
One might as well admit, too, that overpopulation probably exerted its own pressures on postminimalism. If every piece includes everything, then all pieces become in some sense the same - a phenomenon that was fairly observable in the era of ambitiously massive, all-embracing serialist works, which inevitably came to resemble each other. There are so many tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of composers now, and without self-limitation on each one's part, they all end up exploring the same territory. Minimalism had created a model in which, paradoxically, although materials didn't matter, the focus on a specific element held so much power that, say, a piece based on a major third could have a very different profile from a similar one based on a minor third. Self-limitation enabled a composer to mark off territory different from that covered by other composers - or, put differently, it made pieces recognizable, it gave them profile.
And thus, in an era pervaded by increasing awareness of ecology issues, postminimalism felt like an ecological approach to composition, a refusal to hog more resources than one needed. Concomitantly, rather than a going-outward to say something about the world, it represented a going-inward, a focus on a certain small repertoire of sonorities and processes. Like Mahler, the postminimalists agree that a composition should be a universe: but not the universe, rather a possible universe, a created universe small enough to serve as a controllable model. To take a telling instance, the extreme limitations of John Luther Adams's 75-minute In the White Silence for orchestra - only "white" pitches used, only a handful of gestural types, a linear and self-limiting intervallic process - does not indicate an attempt to portray the magnificent vastness of the Alaskan landscape (for which some technicolor means such as those of Strauss's Alpine Symphony might be called for), but rather an attempt to create an inward stillness through a model that that one's experience of that landscape suggests.
And so, given the realizations that 1. there is no necessity linking a style of music to its period, and 2. the perceived character of a society is more a product of art than art is a necessary effluent of society - the postminimalists came to a logical conclusion: that the purpose of art is not to represent the present, but to envision a future. And given the harrowing state of the world, that future needed to be the exact opposite of the picture given by modernist music, just as the postminimalist language is the antipode of the serialist language in almost every detail. For instance, man's expansive appropriation of nature had brought us so close to disaster than music needed to show us a process of self-limitation and expansion inward, not outward.
Thus, nothing is more characteristic of postminimalist music than that it avoids the representation of anxiety. Even when postminimalist music is partly dissonant, harsh, or rhythmically complex, it has a sustained, continuous character that gives an impression of overarching calm. Dissonances and conflicts appear, but virtually never disrupt the musical surface. The first art-music style to arise from a collective perception of relativity, in total freedom from social mandates, postminimalism used its freedom ethically, to paint visions of a calm, less aggressive, and more sustainable future. Listening to postminimalist music attunes one to processes not marked by anxiety and disruption, but by variety without appropriation, a universe of activity within contained limits and controlled by logics that may seem intuitive or strict, but always multi-leveled. At its best it can be, I would submit, a blueprint for a more meditative mental state hitherto uncharacteristic of Western society.
To give what by now should be a classic example, take postminimalism's first ambitious essay, William Duckworth's Time Curve Preludes (which I'll undoubtedly be writing more about in coming months). Of 24 brief movements in that work, about half follow some rigorous process or arithmetical structure, and the others are freely, more intuitively written. And listening, you can't tell the difference. The distinction between rigorous structure and free intuition, such a bugbear of modern aesthetics, sits nestled there in the Time Curve Preludes as a distinction without a difference, and as you hear more into the piece you become more aware of the differences without it making any difference in the result. The piece is really an astonishingly suave statement about the illusory quality of artistic dualities.
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As you can see if you've read this far (and if you have, it is my duty to inform you that spending too many hours hunched over a computer screen is bad for the vertebrae, and may cause back problems), I've started my book on music after minimalism, and, like so many other authors, am using my blog to write it. There will, I fear, be a hell of a lot more where this came from. My goal will be not merely to outline the technical features of postminimalist and totalist music, which is a fairly straightforward task I've already assayed in many venues, but to place this music in the world of ideas, and explain what urgency it has for the people who write it - possibility even why it remains invisible to the people who pay no attention to it. The way I've explained it has much to do with the way in which I arrived at my own composing idiom, but I think that something of this train of thought infected dozens of composers of my generation, many of whom I've listed elsewhere, more than once. Because I really think that postminimalism is not just a derived style that piggybacked on minimalism, but a philosophical departure from the hitherto linear history of music, and an ethical attempt to envision an inner world that will carry us through the fearful times that undoubtedly lie ahead.
UPDATE: Responses lead me to think I should clarify a point. By "The cord connecting qualities of musical materials to aspects of the outer world was snipped in two," I do not mean to say that postminimalist music is somehow merely self-referential, that it refers to nothing in the world. To say that, and also to say that the music encourages recognition of certain mental states would indeed involve a self-contradiction into which I don't think I fell if you read me literally. What I'm saying is that postminimalist music does not rely on or refer to the traditional emotive associations of qualities of music elements: consonant, dissonant, noisy, musical, etc. For example, of Adams's two largest orchestral works, In the White Silence uses only the "white" notes, Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing employs the entire chromatic scale, though both use roughly similar textures and processes. But while the colors of the pieces differ somewhat, the chromatic scale is not used for a different expressive purpose than the diatonic scale, the way Beethoven uses the chromatic to make the second movement of Les Adieux anxious and the diatonic to make the third movement happy, or even the relative eeriness and stability of the first and last movements of Music for Strings, Percussion,and Celeste. The processes and form of postminimalist music encourage a certain kind of attention; the materials are often treated, from piece to piece, as more or less interchangeable, as in Come Out and Piano Phase. Anyone who sees a logical contradiction here has perhaps misread the word materials as referring to the totality of a piece, rather than the constituent elements.
At Bard's Schoenberg festival several years ago, the guy who introduced Arnold Schoenberg to Charlie Chaplin (I disremember his name, sorry) told about the experience, which occurred after the composer moved to Hollywood. Schoenberg, he said, was disappointed to find Chaplin running around, fixing his cameras, doing the quotidian work of the studio, and cracking jokes, rather than strutting around with an overcoat over his shoulders and voicing his august theories on filmmaking while his subordinates did all the work. That story has always made me think well of Chaplin, and worse of Schoenberg.
Likewise, I am told that as composers go, I am rather easygoing; my recording session last week went particularly smoothly because I don't insist on take after take after take trying to get every note the way I want it, and wearing out the performer's inspiration in the process. It's true. When I trust performers to understand my music and interpret imaginatively, as my pianist Sarah Cahill certainly does, I give them a lot of leeway. I don't assume that I always know best, and I take advice. I find that I unconsciously observe a heirarchy of musical elements in this respect:
Pitches I am adamant about. My music must have the right pitches played in the right order, and that's that.
My rhythms often suggest tempo relationships between 1:1 and 2:1, and it is essential that these come off as representing the notated values, though not necessarily in a precisely measured way. This means that the faster and more regular the tempo, the more precise the playing must be. However, I am fond of rubato, and Sarah has a wonderfully classical way of speeding up and slowing down within the phrase that I find enchanting. In slower passages, she has a freedom with duration that sounds like she's feeling the rhythm, not counting it out, and I find that more musical than a strictly accurate approach. As long as the quarter-notes and dotted eighths are clearly distinguishable, I don't interfere.
On dynamics I'm open to suggestion. Sarah insisted that she couldn't feel a couple of my dynamic progressions, and so I let her have her own way. One I changed in the score, the others I'll leave for the next performer to try. I am rather infamously sparse with expression markings, but for a good performer they always turn out to be enough.
Pedalling we sometimes disagreed about, and only once did I insist. I love the blur of sustained dissonant chords, Sarah finds it at times unmusical. Who knows?, maybe she's right.
Tempo I leave to the performer unless they're so on the wrong track it makes me cringe. Occasionally Sarah would consult a metronome, and I warned her over the microphone that I shoot performers who take my metronome markings seriously. Different tempos work for different performer personalities. Sarah played two of my pieces slower than I'd imagined them, and made them more sensuous in the process. She played another faster than I thought it could be played, and the result is glorious - the piece turned more beautiful than I'd imagined.
And why would I want to preclude the possibility of my pieces surpassing my expectations? What would be the point of writing acoustic music for performers if not to channel their personality into the music as well? If I insisted that there was only one way my music could sound, what would be the incentive for another performer to make a second recording? Yet we live in a weirdly schizophrenic music scene: on one hand, some composers take me to task for not being more open to improvisation; another set criticizes my music because I haven't plastered it with dynamics and nailed down every possible detail. And yet for the in-between position, the limited improvisation of throwing down notes on a page and letting the performer use them as a vehicle for inspiration - which, after all, has a heavy weight of long tradition to speak for it - one hears little support these days. I always liked, and by "liked" I mean "despised," Milton Babbitt's comment, "Letting a performer decide what music should be played is like letting a typesetter decide what books should be published." Composers either think your music is dead if you don't let performers extemporize, or they think performers are mere machines to which you should transmit your intentions, which should be exhaustive.
And this second attitude, I think, goes back to a stereotype that the classical music world hasn't seen for what it is. Underlying much of our classical-music rhetoric is an ideal that the composer should be a stubborn, uncompromising figure who knows everything. I don't believe that this has as much to do with the nature of the artistic personality as it does with the fact that, just a few decades ago, all the great composers were central Europeans and mostly Germans. And, to generalize a little from my own experiences, Germans, whatever their many lovable qualities, tend to be stubborn, uncompromising fellows who know everything, or talk like they do. I think we've grafted the central European personality onto our figure of the artist, and, like Schoenberg, we're disappointed when someone doesn't measure up to that inflexible Beethovenian ideal. Americans don't tend to be so supremely confident, they tend to exhibit more humility toward diverging points of view, and I think this is why American composers (and most British ones as well) are at such a disadvantage in the classical music world. Making a career as a composer seems to have a lot to do with projecting the kind of unflinching, I-know-what-I-want confidence we associate with Europeans. Had I really wanted to impress people with what a great composer I am, I should have stormed around last week shouting, "No, no, no, pianissimo, not piano, and the crescendo doesn't begin until the third beat!" (An anomaly worth mentioning, however, is George Tsontakis, who's a funny, egoless, absolutely unpompous guy, and who's doing well in the awards arena lately.)
Carl Ruggles's Sun-Treader is one of my favorite works, an absolute knock-out that I play for students every year. His Organum, too, fantastic piece. Yet Ruggles was an underconfident, easily-swayed person who asked John Kirkpatrick for composing advice and, receiving it, followed it. One could fill a book multiplying examples, but the point is that I believe there is no correlation at all between being a control freak and being a true artist. I'm glad Chaplin fixed his own cameras, and I'm glad I have the sense to let Sarah turn my music into something more beautiful than my imagination alone could have produced.
On the front cover of this week's New York magazine is a headline about three performance artists who, quote, "are doing their outrageous best to prove that downtown lives on." [Emphasis in the original.] And the article talks about this guy Dash who's "a downtown legend." Now, whenever I use the word "downtown," six people leave comments to chastise me for referring to it, three people write to New Music Box to ask, "What's this uptown/downtown thing about?," and 14 bloggers go on the web to aver that there's nothing in the world they despise more than people who talk about downtown music. Do you think that'll happen to Ariel Levy, who wrote the New York article? Or is it only musicians who so resent the fact that something exciting once happened and they weren't part of it that they feel compelled to vent their spleen whenever someone mentions it?
I just completed an extraordinarily smooth and successful two-day recording session with pianist Sarah Cahill for my upcoming New Albion CD. Tom Lazarus is the recording engineer, with a resumé of hundreds of great discs behind him. (One of his credits was the last recording made by Vladimir Horowitz, which made me expect he'd be a bearded patriarch; actually Tom's my age and looks younger, and we kidded him about having worked with Horowitz at age seven.) We recorded three works: Private Dances, Time Does Not Exist, and On Reading Emerson. In a couple of weeks I'll record two more pieces for the disc with the Da Capo ensemble and my son Bernard. I had never heard On Reading Emerson before, aside from my own halting attempts to muddle through it, and I've been nervous about committing to disc a piece that I haven't heard with an audience. Listening to your music with an audience is like going over it with a microscope, and sometimes at world premieres I smack my forehead and suddenly realize what I should have done instead. But Sarah plays the piece so gorgeously that she won me over to it.
To make it scarier, On Reading Emerson, stream-of-consciousness and mercurial, is not my typical style. Sarah commissioned it for an Emerson conference she attended, and while I normally settle into a steady-state postminimalism, there was nothing postminimalist about Emerson. As Emerson so often quotes other writers, the piece wanders into motivically related quotations: from Busoni, Ives, and MacDowell, plus a phrase from an incomplete song I started in college to Emerson's poem "Rhodora." And since I think of each Emerson essay as driven by a single idea yet ultimately all-encompassing, I derived the whole piece from a motive that keeps reappearing at the same pitch level despite changes of key - E D# C# D# (G) - and that occasionally expands into a 12-tone row, the first one I've ever used. (Sort of like Strauss using a 12-tone theme in Also Sprach Zarathustra to represent "science.") I'm so happy with it and with Sarah's performance that I'll treat you to a rough edit, here (eight minutes).
This is not the first time I've written a piece outside my usual stylistic habits and found it in certain ways more attractive than my more characteristic music. Morton Feldman used to have a standard assignment that he gave his students: "Write a piece that goes against everything you believe." He found that his students wrote their best pieces denying all their usual reflexes. (Sort of like the Seinfeld episode in which he decides, since everything he does turns out badly, that he'll do the opposite of his reflex habits from now on - and it works.) Feldman also had a standing offer to buy dinner for the student who could come up with the worst orchestration - and no one ever won, because the more they worked to come up with bizarre instrument combinations, the more interesting the results.
Bard College music and film building (center):
The parking lot on right is student dorm parking. I park right next to the building in an area that's shadowed here: can't tell whether my car's there. The photo's about a year old because it was taken in winter and includes the new music building addition but not the extension being built on the Curatorial Studies Center across the field (top of the photo).
Gain a new perspective here.
UPDATE: On closer inspection, this photo is two years old, because the parking lot isn't finished yet and there are construction trucks all around. Why don't they update more often? The New Orleans photos look pre-Katrina, too.
I just woke from a vivid dream that I was telling a class about a jazz trio recording with Miles Davis, Kenny Barron, and a drummer whose name I never got. (Waking researches suggest that Miles and Barron never recorded together, and I realize now that the record cover I was looking at was actually Coltrane's Ascension, with, significantly, only one figure on the cover.) The brief liner notes on the back - those were the days - merely told an anecdote about how Miles scoffed at the idea of explaining his music, and swore he could show his musicians how the music went without words. Next Miles, Barron, and this drummer whose name I was trying to remember came to lunch with me at the Bard faculty dining room (which also looked, in the dream, like Chicago's old Museum of Contemporary Art, where I first worked in 1981). Kenny Barron talked most, discussing the impossiblility of capturing music in words, but finally Miles leaned over and spoke into my ear, so close that his lips touched me, and told me that you had to have a really divided allegiance working for The Man in a place like this. I realized that he was talking about being Black, but added (with amazement at my own temerity at telling Miles Davis anything) that it was also inherently difficult for an artist, because academia expects you to explain what you're doing, and artists can't always justify themselves logically. Miles kind of nodded. I woke up and ransacked my jazz vinyl collection for a Miles Davis trio record, which, of course, wasn't there.
I've been listening to little besides jazz lately, because I'm writing a concerto for piano and a saxophone/trumpet/trombone ensemble, and it strikes me that the effective, American prototypes for combining piano with reeds and brass are all jazz: so I listen to the Earl Hines orchestra, Louis Armstrong's Hot Seven with Lil Hardin, Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer, and the Miles Davis/Gil Evans orchestrations. I guess that accounts for me dreaming about Miles, along with a pianist he never played with. The last time I had a dream encounter this significant with a famous musician was 1991, when a bunch of people were waiting in Charles Ives's living room for him, and he came out to see me, played the piano with me, and gave me his blessing. That was a tremendously empowering dream. But I think Miles Davis just told me I talk too much.
For Christmas I received Richard Taruskin's massive two-volume tome Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, and I'm finally reading it. I always knew I would eventually, but I put it off for years - because the book is bulky enough to serve as doorstop at Notre Dame Cathedral, because I was afraid it would tell me more about Stravinsky than I wanted to learn, and because after 2000 pages it only progresses up through Mavra, which is not my favorite period of Stravinsky. However, I should have realized that the brilliance of Taruskin's writing would have made it difficult to put down regardless of topic, and the book has a tremendous amount to teach not only about Stravinsky but about musical progress in general. One of Taruskin's tremendous strengths as a musicologist, beyond the panoramic sweep of his research, is his theoretical ability to correctly grasp and describe compositional process. Take a look at the following statement about Stravinsky's youthful Piano Sonata in f#:
There is no end of decorative "trompe l'oreille." Any dominant seventh can be resolved as an augmented sixth, and vice versa. Any first inversion can be treated as a Neapolitan. Any tone can be a "common tone" for instant links between "unrelated"chords. Colorful nonfunctional bridge progressions are freely concocted by means of chromatic outer voices in contrary motion (what is often termed "intervallic expansion")... But all the harmonic novelty is surface embellishment; beneath the decorator colors the functional relations are pristine, easily followed, tame. [p. 116]
Reading that, and looking through the musical example on the facing page, any composer can grasp at a glance what Stravinsky's early compositional modus operandi was. Damn few musicologists can offer compositional insight at that depth.
But what first struck me about the book was the history lesson it gives on the development of musical style, with parallels that offer mirrors of our own situation. One article quoted from the music critic Vladimir Stasov, written in 1861 as Russia was just beginning to form its own art-music culture, seems as relevant now as it was then. Dubious about Rubinstein's attempt to introduce conservatory training, Stasov warns:
"Higher" institutions for the arts are an altogether different matter from higher institutions in the sciences.... A university imparts nothing but knowledge; a conservatory is not content with that but meddles in the most injurious way in the creative work of an artist trained there, extending its despotic power over the style and form of his work, attempting to force it into a certain academic mold, imparting to it its own customs, and what is worst of all, sinking its claws into the artist's very mind, imposing on him its own judgment of works of art and their creators, from which it will later on be exceedingly difficult if not impossible for him to extricate himself.
...The experience of Europe teaches us that to the same extent that modest schools which limit themselves to the rudiments of music are useful, higher school, academies, and conservatories are harmful. Is this experience going to be lost on us? Are we then required to copy slavishly what exists in other places, so as to have the pleasure of boasting afterward nothing but an enormous quantity of teachers and classrooms, a fruitless distribution of awards and prizes, proliferating volumes of worthless compositions and legions of good-for-nothing musicians?
Of course, in the narrative of successive decades Stasov goes on to become something of a clown, jingoistically continuing to cheerlead for the Russian nationalist composers, those descended from the "Russian Five" or "mighty heap" (kuchka), long after their students and protégés have descended into patent mediocrity. And yet, on some level Stasov's tragedy vindicates his thesis: the kuchkist faction declines in quality precisely because those composers gained power in the conservatories, and turned out generations of dutiful students taught to compose in similar manner. It's a particularly clear object lesson in how a musical society turns rancid through access to power and excessive inbreeding. Composers of this group were published by the firm of the wealthy patron Belyayev, and of their later activities Taruskin writes:
By the turn of the century, then, Russian music had entered its "Brahms phase," manifested quite literally in a cult around the Hamburg master such as never could have existed in Russia during Brahms's lifetime.... This cultivation was in every way a hothouse growth, subsidized by the Belyayev fortune and increasingly divorced from the realities of the surrounding world. The combination of denationalization and safe conservatism proved utterly bland, and for most of the public and the press the name Belyayev came to be synonymous with the word boring. Attendance at the Russian Symphony Concerts [a kuchkist venue] was famously poor. [p. 65]
Taruskin details how quickly a young composer could gain publications and performances once accepted into the Belyayev circle, and comments:
...[I]t is only natural that composers so favored will seek to perpetuate their favored status - or at least do nothing to jeopardize it. Within the Belyayev circle a safe conformism became increasingly the rule, and mediocrity flourished, especially as the need to fill four concert programs a year with new Russian works made it necessary to dip rather deep into the pool of available Conservatory-trained talent. As a result, the Belyayev circle became known for harboring a great multiplicity of "kleinmeisters" who were often far from meisters - "clones," to use [Cesar] Cui's kind but prophetic word... It was as easy to deride this group from without as it was difficult to rebel against it from within. [p.57]
A contemporary of the scene, the composer Nicolai Cherepnin (patriarch of a composing family that continues to its fourth generation today), wrote that there were no explicit rules that young Belyayevets composers had to follow, but that
...there most certainly and most naturally were such implied constraints on composers who were accepted into the [Belyayev] catalogue...
From them it was required - if only unconsciously - that the works presented by them for publication be more or less close - in sound, in esthetic, in the character of the musical ideas and workmanship - to the works of the builders of the catalogue...
There arose, and was even engraved in the Belyayev Charter, a certain qualitative yardstick: "No lower than the average item in the Belyayev catalogue"... This was to be interpreted as follows: "Look, we taught you to compose. Well, go ahead and compose as we have taught you, so that the general musical content of the catalogue shall be worthily augmented, continued, and developed along creative lines we have devised and marked out for you." [p. 58]
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
As a music educator by day job, it is uncomfortable for me to admit how much I share Stasov's reservations: that "modest schools which limit themselves to the rudiments of music are useful," while "higher academies and conservatories are harmful." I've said here before that I sometimes find myself agreeing with the Harvard faculty who in 1876 tried to prevent John Knowles Paine from becoming America's first music professor.
Certainly students around me are told, in a thousand indirect ways, often so subtly as to ensure the professor's plausible deniability, that this composer should be admired, and that kind of music should be looked down on. Constraints are almost never explicit, as Cherepnin notes, but are pervasively implied and unconsciously implemented. Young composers are strongly urged to move their music in certain predictable directions, usually toward greater pitch complexity and notational specificity. Even more harmful, they are given historical tools and techniques that most of them, naturally enough, feel obliged to use in their own music - why else would they be paying to learn them? Of course some composers in academia are well aware of these dangers and scrupulously try to avoid sending out such influence vibes, but there's no penalty for slipping up; I don't feel entirely innocent myself in this regard. Some composition faculty, and I've seen it happen, even show a student how to deliberately write music that will win prizes, even writing the "right" notes into their score.
And what's the result? The more compliant, eager, impressionable students go to the right conservatories and grad schools, get introduced into the system by their teachers, and are chosen for advancement on the basis of their willingness to continue in the style their teachers have marked out as acceptable. On recommendation of their teachers, they get commissions and prizes. So easily do the rewards flow that rebellion becomes impossible. And they are never quite as good as their teachers' generation. Jacob Druckman was a weaker composer than Roger Sessions, John Harbison is kind of a watered-down Aaron Copland, and their students, their "clones," are less distinctive still. And the new-music world revolves around a system of "fruitless distribution of awards and prizes," Guggenheims and Fromm commissions and Prix de Rome, 99 percent of which go to kleinmeisters, people who might have started out with true talent, but who have learned not to jeopardize their status by independent thinking, and content themselves with safe conformism and mediocrity.
Kleinmeisters: an early 21st-century typology of the term would be easy to delineate. Kleinmeisters are those composers who get dozens of orchestra commissions, especially for concertos, and hundreds of performances. Most of them, virtually all of them, are very nice people - naturally, since they've made careers out of their ability to accommodate. (The younger generation of kleinmeisters is astonishingly good-looking.) Because the major-paper critics are part of the system, the kleinmeisters get incredibly positive reviews in the top 15 or 20 newspapers and music magazines. They excel at two genres: the ten-minute concert opener with lots of brass and percussive momentum, and the concerto whose solo part is visibly at the limits of endurance. Their music thrills with its virtuosity, its patent sense of difficulty; it is neither remembered nor asked for afterward. Frequently their performances are greeted with a vindicating roar of applause that is taken to attest to its quality, but is really either intended for the poor soloist having survived his ordeal, or else a reflection of the piece's noise.
What's lacking with the kleinmeisters is any sense that their music is taken seriously. It is praised, usually in vague and unconsciously patronizing terms ("X really knows her way around an orchestra"), but it is not discussed. Its methods are not problematized. It may be considered thorny, but no one pretends it presents a new perceptual paradigm. Reviews most often cite as praiseworthy its orchestration - in other words, its professional clothing, not its content. Most of all, there is no buzz about the kleinmeisters among younger composers. Harbison, Chen Yi, Penderecki, Higdon, Zwilich, Sierra, Paulus, get to command vast musical resources, but no young composers heatedly argue the merits of their pieces. Their names don't come up in internet discussions. No one acts as though they hold any key to the future. After all, these composers write in styles in which far more vivid music had already been written decades ago. The kleinmeisters of 19th-century Russia were ridiculed by the musical intelligentsia outside that circle, but today's American kleinmeisters have a whole Potemkin music scene built to support them and protect them from reality - reality being that their music is drab, unoriginal, and cared about by no one, for good reason.
Of course, for some young composers, a trip through the kleinmeister factory is exactly what they want. For those perceptive enough to be dubious about that route, the potential advantages of higher music education can be difficult to tease out. Given the realities of the world today, I don't see that there's much of an alternative for a young creative artist to getting an undergraduate degree, or at least starting one. But grad school is a danger that I urge a student to approach carefully. When a student shows interest, I always ask why he wants to go to grad school. If the naive answer is, "To study and get better as a composer," I tell him to forget it - that if you improve as an artist during grad school, it will be in the face of the pressures to conform, not because thinking outside the box is encouraged. I emphasize that education, even under the best of circumstances, is something you have to do for yourself, and that great composers (Cage, Feldman) have often had no degrees at all. If the student has the personality to go out and start giving concerts and making partnerships and getting people to collaborate with him, those activities will do more for him than more schooling.
There are, however, a few graduate schools that can be trusted not to do damage; we've had positive experiences sending students to Mills College, CalArts, and Hartt. And I do admit three reasons to go to grad school as a composer:
1. to make connections with people who can help your career (in general the kleinmeister route, though there are different kinds of professors and assistance);
2. to idle away some time because you don't have anything better to do with your life, and don't have the aggressive personality to get out and be a performing musician (this was my rationale); and
3. to get a doctorate if teaching college is specifically what you want to do with your life.
I also recommend as a possibility going to a non-prestigious grad school, which is what I consider the secret of my own success. I had a couple of great teachers at Northwestern - Peter Gena for composition and theory, Gary Kendall for electronics, plus Ted Karp as a musicology mentor - but Peter, who encouraged my most avant-garde enthusiasms, got denied tenure because he was too far out. The rest of the faculty was so many decades behind that they didn't push 12-tone music because they were still a little dubious about Hindemith. All that "sinking its claws into the artist's very mind, imposing on him its own judgment of works of art and their creators": didn't happen to me, because I was into Brian Eno and Morton Feldman and Harold Budd and other people they'd never heard of, and they didn't know what to do with me. I was so rebellious and sure of myself that I can't imagine what would have happened had I gone to some high-powered department where the faculty had stylistic expectations. I probably would have just dropped out. If you have a personality like mine, you can't pick a grad school for reason #1.
I don't know what kind of educational system, or apprenticeship, might be more helpful than the university and conservatory system we've got. One recommendation I'd make is that college departments should try to hire more "outside," less credentialed, even older and more street-experienced artists, to get some new blood and ideas in and keep everything from getting so inbred - but the prejudice against any such idea, not only within music departments but even more within university administrations, is so ingrained as to ensure that that's not going to happen within my lifetime. One of my former students studies in Calcutta with a guru now, and thinks it's wonderful - but he admits he has to hide his electronic music equipment when his teacher comes over, or he'd get bawled out for practicing something besides tabla. So I don't know what the answer is. But Stasov's fears about higher music education echo to me 145 years later as very real concerns.
If you hate Pachelbel's Canon, this five-minute video will be really satisfying, and even if you don't, it's entertaining. (Thanks to my Cincinnati friend who's played the piece 47,000 times.)
Whether this is on the level I can't vouch, but inevitable it surely was. A press release making the rounds on the web (here and here, for instance) claims that a conceptual artist named Jonathon Keats has made Cage's 4'33" into a ringtone. (After all the goddamned ringtone advertisements that internet robots have tried to post on this blog as comments, I can't even believe I'm mentioning this.) I consider cellphones an evil technology, and won't have one: no one answers them, they go off at inappropriate times, they're a sonic nuisance, their batteries run down and when they don't you're out of range anyway, if you hang somebody people use them to photograph it, they're easy to lose and losing them's a tragedy - and most of all, I'm already easier to contact than I like being. But, a silent ringtone? What's funny is the claims trumpeted for the device, which, even in this modest context, can only be called grandiose:
Since the beginning of time, pure silence has been available only in the vacuum of space. [???] Now conceptual artist Jonathon Keats has digitally generated a span of silence, four minutes and thirty-three seconds in length, portable enough to be carried on a cellphone. His silent ringtone... is expected to bring quiet to the lives of millions of cellphone users, as well as those close to them.
"When major artists such as 50 Cent and Chamillionaire started making ringtones, I realized that anything was possible in this new medium," says Mr. Keats, whose previous art projects include attempting to genetically engineer God. "I also knew that another artist, John Cage, had formerly tried, and failed, to create a silent interlude."
Mr. Cage once famously composed four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence, which was performed on a piano, in front of a live audience, back in 1952. By all accounts, though, his silence was imperfect, owing to the limitations of the technology available at the time. "John Cage can't be blamed," says Mr. Keats. "He lived in an analog age." [emphasis added]
This kind of reminds me of Monty Burns about to engulf Springfield in perpetual darkness: "Since the beginning of time, mankind has yearned to destroy the sun!" There are many other comments one could make, but the reader can supply them as well as I. (Thanks to Brian McLaren.)
My friend Bill Hogeland alerted me to the arrival of a new book that I'm shocked had slipped under my microtonality radar: How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and Why You Should Care) (Norton). It's by Ross W. Duffin, who heads the early music program at Case Western Reserve University, and who argues that we need to go back and try out the tunings that pre-20th-century composers wrote their music in. He's not a microtonalist, and there's no mention of Partch, Johnston, La Monte Young, et al, but it's an elegantly readable exposition of what the temperament arguments are all about.
Duffin apparently started the book as a much-needed antidote to Stuart Isacoff's mendacious and unaccountably popular Temperament: The Idea that Solved Music's Greatest Riddle of several years back. Isacoff's populist tome was a heady celebration of the status quo: "hey, 12 equal steps to the octave is the perfect tuning, aren't we glad they came up with it, no reason to ever consider anything else!" To argue that, he had to sweep a mountain of inconvenient acoustic phenomena under the rug. (I wrote a Village Voice review saying so, and, comically, Isacoff wrote a letter to the editor excoriating me as - I quote from memory - "one of those dogmatic pedants who can only imagine doing a thing one way." Of course, the "one way" I pedantically insisted on was allowing and exploring thousands of different tunings; the open-minded route he so generously opened up was to impose one bland, invariant scale on all mankind's music for the rest of eternity.) Strangely for so esoteric a topic, Isacoff's Temperament got a tsunami of undeserved publicity.
Enter, thankfully, Duffin (who alludes to Isacoff's book, though not by title). His book is just as entertainingly written, just as acutely aimed at the average music fan, and possesses the inestimable advantage of being accurate. He starts off from, and keeps returning to, Pablo Casals's dictum that, in string playing, sharped notes should be raised and flatted notes should be lowered: "leading notes should lead." But, once granted that possibility, he shows meticulously how no one style of intonation is good for all musics, arguing that players should adjust their intonation to fit the historical style. His history of tuning theory is quick, concise, and as painless as possible. At one point, before giving some numbers, he adds, "Note to mathophobes: This is not math, it's arithmetic." (On the same impulse I call my tuning course The Arithmetic of Listening, not "The Mathematics.") His history and theory are admirably accurate, and he gives perhaps the simplest exposition I've seen of the 18th-century theory of dividing the octave into 55 parts, using a minor half-step of four units (C to C#) and a major half-step of five units (C to Db). We know for a fact that's the intonation Mozart taught, folks, and as Duffin adds:
Are modern practices better than what Mozart had in mind? I don't think so, and I don't think most musicians would deliberately go against the expectations of a composer like Mozart if they knew what those expectations were. And even though the sound of lower sharps and higher flats is likely to be unfamiliar to many musicians, I think Mozart's endorsement makes it worth trying... and trying very seriously. [Ellipsis in the original]
This is above all a practical book, brief and to the point, "because every musician I know would rather be making music than reading about it any day." Keyboard instruments he all but despairs of, and he even quotes Casals:"Do not be afraid to be out of tune with the piano. It is the piano that is out of tune." Duffin gears his argument toward singers, wind players, and especially string players, and includes some wonderful quotations about intonational practice from old-style, Old World quartet players. I might add to Duffin's argument that I keep my own pianos, at the office and at home, in Thomas Young's Well Temperament of 1799, and that I find it preferable in every respect, for every kind of music, to Equal Temperament. The problem with that, as Duffin emphasizes, is that, in tuning, there's no one-size-fits-all:
I am perfectly aware that what I am suggesting is a radical idea for musicians and that it is likely to be met with reluctance, resistance, and even scorn in some quarters. Some musicians will be convinced by my arguments but may still view unequal tuning as a Pandora's box to be opened carefully or not at all; others will scoff at the long historical pedigree of extended meantone as irrelevant; still others will find both the harmonic and melodic intervals strangeand "out of tune." At least that's how it may seem to some the first time they hear it or try it. But my experience has been that an hour or so of experimenting over two or three sessions is all that's necessary to help musicians begin, at least, to appreciate what non-ET tuning has to offer from a musical point of view.... [T]he testimonials of Bach and Mozart have to count for something. What makes it worth trying is that it makes the music sound better. And remember, I'm not saying that harmonic intonation should replace ET entirely and substitute its own tyranny; only that ET is not necessarily the best temperament for every single musical situation....
Now that's someone who can imagine doing a thing more than one way. Bill saw a stack of Duffin's books on display at Barnes & Noble, so maybe we'll finally hear the bland hegemony of ET - that heavily-processed Wonder Bread of tunings - start to erode. And once that happens: microtonality, here we come!
There is an obvious issue in Morton Feldman's compositional technique that I have never seen anyone write about - though I can't be the only one to notice it, and perhaps some discussion of it has escaped my reading.
Through some passages of Feldman's late works, it is remarkable - too remarkable for mere coincidence - how often his textures change at the end of a page. It doesn't seem true at the beginnings of pieces, which will often be seamless. But at some point in a work, he will begin to settle into a rhythm. A texture or pitch set will be consistent for a page, and then the next page will have a different texture and pitch set, and the next page a different one still, and so on. It is almost as though he treated the page visually, as a whole, and every time he turned to a new page, thought, "Now for something new."
For instance: in Crippled Symmetry there are no particular texture changes at page turns until page 5. The flute spends most of pages 5 and 6 on a motive in sevenths, Eb - Db - C - D, which ends when page 7 begins. Then:
- On page 9 the flutist plays only long, low notes on E, F, and Gb, and the percussionist plays only slow chords on the vibraphone alternating with single notes on the glockenspiel.
- On page 10, the flutist switches to angular motives on the regular flute, and the percussionist to the Eb - Db - C - D motive.
- On page 11, the flutist plays only reiterated Bbs above the treble clef, while the vibraphone is limited to a motive G - F# - B - A.
- On page 12, the flute takes up a different four-note motive, and the percussion is now limited to a reiterated Bb.
And so on, with changes of texture, pitch set, notation, and even number of staves occurring regularly with the turn of each new page. This is all the more peculiar in Crippled Symmetry, of course, because the three parts (flute, piano, percussion) aren't synchronized. Presumably, Feldman doesn't want such changes in texture and motive happening simultaneously, and thus waits until several pages into the piece before implementing them.
For Samuel Beckett for orchestra demonstrates an analogous relation to the page in a synchronized score. On pages 6, 8, 12, and 13, the last four or five measures are encapsulated in repeat signs. On pages 14, 15, and 16, each entire individual page is repeated. On pages 17, 18, and 19, the page is broken into two passages, each in repeat signs. Later we have a long passage in which, on each new page, repeat signs encompass every measure except the first and last. Neither here nor in Crippled Symmetry does any passage within repeat signs cross from one page to another. (Not every late piece is structured this way. I find no such changes in For Christian Wolff, and only a few, more inconclusively, in Clarinet and String Quartet.)
It is difficult to escape the impression that sometimes Feldman planned out each page individually, as an artist would. Sometimes in For Samuel Beckett the page is planned out symmetrically, making a contained and visible palindrome. Luckily, the Universal editions of these scores are copies of Feldman's manuscript, because if you engraved them, the pagination would likely change and obscure the relationship (as may have happened in the engraved piano works, like Triadic Memories and Piano). Evidence suggests that he composed the music on these pages - or, at least, when recopying, took care to maintain the same pagination.
It's an odd thought because, of course, a page is not a unit of musical time. We don't hear a page go by, or, usually, know from listening when one ends. But Feldman's music is often devoid of striking temporal landmarks, and the sense of experienced time becomes vague and immeasurable. For him, I suppose any long unit of time was as good as another. He loved exploring notation's psychological effect on the performer, and apparently he gave free rein to its psychological effect on himself too. A page became just the right length for a section of music, and, sitting in his study, each time he turned the page, it was time for something new.
Photo by Peter Gena
My tombstone is going to read:
Remember to raise the
seventh scale degree in
so that whenever my students drop by with flowers they'll get an extra reminder. I wanted to also include the rules for acceptable resolutions of the six-four chord, but I'm afraid the engraving costs would be a hardship on my heirs.
Why is it that some students cannot be persuaded to write a triad without adding a seventh on it? I assume these kids had a jazz teacher in high school who was very, very successful in drilling into them that every chord, every friggin' chord, contains a seventh. And since it's often nice in classical harmony to spice up the occasional chord with a seventh, you can't flat out forbid them, and it's really not possible to get across the inexpressible nuances of why sevenths sound nice in some contexts and not in others. And if you're teaching four-part writing, the presence of a seventh in every chord wreaks havoc with voice-leading. And what is it with ending tonal compositions on six-four chords? If I never mentioned six-four chords, would their natural instincts lead them to close in root position? Is it because I so emphatically bring six-four chords to their attention, as something to avoid, that they subconsciously or passive/aggressively end up writing epic strings of parallel six-four chords in their final compositions? What is so freakin' attractive about having the fifth in the bass on every beat? Did I miss a meeting?
And what is it with the students who are allergic to initiative, and have to have everything done for them? I call them my DLDS Syndrome students: day late and a dollar short. They never have the textbook with them. They've never extracted the parts for their compositions, and when they do, they're never transposed. Their printers, of course, haven't been operational since seventh grade. They are incapable of looking up e-mail addresses of the performers they need to engage. The posters with which they advertise their concerts remain in the back seats of their cars until hours before the event. Many of them are charming, intelligent, funny, delightful people, some of my favorite students ever. One of my best came to my house to print his orchestral parts with only an hour to spare before deadline - and, as we were finishing, spilled a glass of orange juice over all the parts we had just printed. I slowly looked at him and said, "You really wanted to make this a memorable occasion, didn't you?"
Why these DLDS students exist isn't what's interesting. The curious thing is that THEY ARE ALL MALE. I have never had a female student who fit this pattern. The young women, when they have something important to do, take care of it themselves. Explain, anyone?
That's off my chest. I'm done. Let the new year begin.
Sites To See
New release from So Percussion and Matmos out 6/8 digitally. See Florent Ghys, Burkina Electric, the Bang on a Can All-Stars and more Cantaloupe artists at the Bang on a Can Marathon in NYC on 6/27. FREE! Click here for more info.
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