PostClassic: November 2008 Archives

In my Analysis of Minimalism seminar - most rewarding course I've ever taught at Bard, at least for me - we finished with Michael Gordon's loud, propulsive Yo Shakespeare in the same class in which we started on Peter Garland's calm, delicate I Have Had to Learn the Simplest Things Last. The contrast moved me to get into one of my digressions (I live to digress) about the importance of kickass qualities in music of the Downtown scene in the 1980s and '90s. For several years there, kickass was the highest praise a Downtown composer could recieve on his or her music, and the most sought after. The word was thrown around so relentlessly that in my reviews in the Voice I started parodying it through overuse: we were in the kickass era now, everything had to be kickass, if you weren't kickass you weren't really trying! For months I worked it into every review, no matter how gratuitously. I hoped I could shame people out of the sophomoric notion that loud, percussive aggression automatically made a piece of music good, and the lack of it bad. I don't think I had much conceptual effect, but it did seem to that the word's omnipresence declined a touch. 

And in class I told a story that has sufficiently retired into the mists of history that I think I can safely recycle it: There was a female accordionist who, the first time I heard her on a festival, played a rather gentle piece based on a folk song. In my review, I called her piece "charming." Soon came a searing hot letter from a friend of hers, accusing me of sexism and chauvinistic condescension, since, surely, I would never apply the effeminite word charming to a man's music. I wrote back that indeed I had many times referred to the music of male composers as charming, and that I hoped I had written charming music myself. However, to mollify her, in the "Voice choices" I wrote for this performer (those little advance notices in the concert listings), I started escalating the testosterone level. The climax came when I referred to her as "a two-fisted powerhouse of accordion machismo." The performer loved the phrase enough to make it her lead press quote. That was the atmosphere of the Downtown scene in the late 1980s. 

(If you don't like the word Downtown, and know a more precise word for the south end of Manhattan, consider it inserted.)

I hope it's obvious that it's not I who was sexist in using the word charming - but that, somehow, the preponderance of the lower Manhattan scene had become radically sexist by renouncing every possible quality traditionally associated with femininity and treating them as insults. Quiet, gentle, receptive, nurturing, community-oriented: these are clearly not qualities unique to women, but by acculturation (if not biology) they cling to the female side of our mental male-female axis. By rejecting them, by aspiring exclusively to their opposites, both men and women were fleeing their inner feminine. Moreover, rock had become classified as masculine, classical music as feminine, and so composers were made ashamed of their classical trainings, and pressured to efface them. The result was several years of massive and transparent public pretense: composers pretending to be rockers, women pretending to be men, Ivy League-educated musicians turning their baseball caps backwards and pretending to be blue-collar. It was the opposite of identity-politics art: a scene full of artists ashamed of who they were. So publicly did they trumpet their insecurities that I was embarrassed for them. 

It was hardly universal: for instance, you might assume Glenn Branca's 130-decibel guitar symphonies were the epitome of musical macho, but there's something deeply feminine and receptive (mathematically "natural") about his formal paradigms, which comes vividly to the surface in the gentle, meandering works he's written for unamplified instruments. In that sense, he was more attuned to the earlier minimalists, whose music was despised as soft, lily-livered, and too pretty by the free-improv scene that arose in the early '80s, and whose macho attitudes I always associated with Reagan era neo-John-Wayne masculinity. The rock-worshipping totalists (John Luther Adams notably excepted) extended the kickass mandate into the '90s. Whether these sexual politics still exist in New York music I'm not around enough to say, though clearly the bad conscience that many composers carry about their classical training remains evident in the blogosphere.

As a sports-phobic male who grew up as a classical musician in Texas during the heyday of John Wayne worship, I certainly have my own gender-identification issues. They presumably account for the bulky silver jewelry, leather jackets, and biker-chic hats I wear to counter the total absence of male-identified interests that I refused to absorb from the alleged peers I grew up among. (I was even named after the 1950s star quarterback Kyle Rote - how's that for inserting a real zinger into a musician's psyche?) But it would never occur to me to force my music to compensate publicly for my private sexual insecurities. I've written loud music, fast music, occasionally loud and fast and even propulsive and goal-oriented, but more often slow, delicate, sentimental, empty, flat, pretty, even charming. Some of my music embraces chaos, but more of it cultivates a careful logic. Least of all could I imagine so squelching my natural musicianship to the point that I could rate music as bad or good based entirely on crude sexual stereotypes. I am a well-educated, inhibited, middle-class WASP male in touch with my feminine side, and my music is about what you'd expect for the type: neither I nor my recordings will ever be mistaken for Jimi Hendrix, nor would I seek that. I do believe that music can be ruined by too much evidence of one's education, and perhaps it is my peculiar luck that I have my musicological work to channel my education into, leaving my music to be written more by ear than by brain. I highly recommend that composers acquire an intellectual hobby.

Where we come from leaves traces on our music that need not be guiltily effaced. I hope that the very essence of a Post-Classic blog - that coming from a classical-music background is A-OK, neither feminizing nor the opposite, and doesn't commit you to writing "classical music" - helps other college-trained composers get over any undue discomfort with their speciously sissified background.

November 29, 2008 11:47 AM | | Comments (6) |
Composer-video artist Betsey Biggs, currently completing graduate work at Princeton, presented some lovely work at the Sacramento State Festival I returned from last week. Her latest piece, Ton Yam I, was based nostalgically on the idea of California, and used as sound material only slowed, looped, and altered samples from the Beach Boys' song "God Only Knows." (The title read backward makes the point.) More bloggable is a Morton Feldman anecdote she mentioned in her talk that I hadn't heard before. It seems that one of his assignments was to send a student composer out with one task for the week: to come back with one perfect chord.

On an unrelated note, the knee surgery I endured yesterday put a miraculous end to the pain I've been suffering from a torn cartilage for the last month and a half, and also hopefully from the perception-fogging effects of the accompanying pain medication. This has no relevance to the blog, but if you've been trying to contact me for any practical purpose lately and I seemed more than usually recalcitrant, it may be because I was operating at about 50% efficiency. (I normally operate at about 60%.) I look forward to the world coming back into focus. I guess.

November 18, 2008 8:42 AM | |
I am quoted in Rick Schulz's article about the toy piano as serious instrument in last Sunday's L.A. Times. It's a preview piece for a toy piano concert being given by Phyllis Chen this coming Sunday. The thing that Rick and I discussed that didn't get in the article - and having written for daily papers myself, I completely understand what limitations kept it out - was that, before Margaret Leng Tan began championing the instrument, composer Wendy Chambers had commissioned a whole repertoire of works for it in the late 1980s, including my own Paris Intermezzo. The history of the serious toy piano starts in 1948 with Cage, of course, but Wendy never gets enough credit for her galvanizing contribution.

November 14, 2008 12:03 PM | |
Many of you know that in the early 1980s magnetic recording tape was made via some kind of process that facilitated quick deterioration, and that you can reclaim tapes from that era by baking them. Eric Bruskin has kindly done that for some reel-to-reel tapes of my own early music and several early postminimalist pieces by Peter Gena, my grad school composition teacher and (since he was only eight years senior) close friend. I hadn't heard any of these in many years. Peter's pieces - Beethoven in Soho, Unchained Melodies, Stabiles - First Clone, Modular Fantasies, and 100 Fingers for ten pianists - are now all playing on PostClassic Radio. Beethoven in Soho, based on figurations from Beethoven's Op. 54 Sonata extended to epic length, and performed by Peter and myself at Orchestra Hall in Chicago, was written to suggest that, were Beethoven alive in 1981, he would have been playing in Soho lofts like Reich and Glass rather than at Lincoln Center. In other words, Beethoven would have chosen the Downtown route.

In a related story, worthy of a Dickens novel, I've been frequenting a local diner ever since I came to Bard in 1997. I have a favorite waitress there, who knows my breakfast order by heart. One day I mentioned that a high-spirited crew at an adjoining table consisted of students of mine. "What do you teach?", she asked. "Music," I said. "Oh, I majored in music at Northwestern," she said. I checked through some old papers. She sang on my doctoral recital in 1981.

November 13, 2008 8:29 AM | |

4 = 11. Or, 8 = 20. Symmetry without equivalence. Perfection without art.

November 13, 2008 8:15 AM | |
Heavens, I've gotten so involved here that I've forgotten to publicize a second performance I have today. Pianist Aron Kallay is playing three of my microtonal keyboard works this afternoon, Fugitive Objects and the world premieres of Triskaidekaphonia and New Aunts. The concert is at 3 PM at Ramo Recital Hall at the University of Southern California, 820 West 34th Street, Los Angeles. My apologies for the late notification. Aron is doing very interesting-sounding graduate work on microtonal keyboard performance. I won't be there because I'm a few hundred miles north giving a pre-concert talk for the Seattle Chamber Players' performance of my Kierkegaard, Walking at Sacramento State. Having conflicting performances on the same day almost makes it sound like I'm one of those composers whose works get performed frequently, but I think we can chalk it up to coincidence.

November 9, 2008 3:46 PM | |
Sacramento - Harold Meltzer's new sextet Brion, played by the Cygnus Ensemble here at Sacramento State last night, opened with a quiet piccolo solo playing the same motive over and over. It was a high note followed by several staccato repetitions of a low note. Pianissimo string chords played underneath. At first the relation between them was tonal, but it branched out into bitonality and mild dissonance. Lasting maybe a virtual minute in experienced musical time, it was lovely. But what was better was that, almost halfway through the piece, the whole section came back. By writing that passage, Harold created beauty; by repeating it, he gave it to the audience. We could now take it home. It was a generous gesture, generous toward the audience.

Charles Wuorinen's Sonata for Guitar and Piano was on the same program. Lots of musical beauty flew by, but it was not Wuorinen's intention to give us any of it. Nothing ever audibly came back, no discrete musical entity was ever defined, nothing was burned into the memory. He wanted us to admire his formidable technique, all the beauty he could create, but to keep us from getting any of it and taking it home, he showed it to us in only the most ephemeral glimpses. In a way, his piece was all about him, telling us what a clever composer he is.

I have been wondering for awhile now (and in a way this is really a continuation of my previous post) how it came to pass that we have trained composers to be ungenerous toward the audience. Composers are people who provide musical beauty for the world. How did it become a sin to actually give it to them? 

In my theater piece Custer and Sitting Bull, I have a passage in which Sitting Bull repeats a question over and over (and this really happened) to a panel of American military inquisitors, "Do you know who I am?" Then, later in the piece, I bring this section back verbatim. People have run up to me after concerts gleefully repeating, "Do you know who I am, do you know who I am?" They clearly love this passage - perhaps they could have loved any other passage just as much, but this is the one that I burned into their memory, this is the one I gave them. It's clearly the hook of the piece. People respond so extravagantly to any little generosity that it's touching. And yet, I know of a well-known composer who expressed stern disapproval to someone when this passage returned in the piece. I was pandering to the audience. 

How did the audience become the people from whom we composers are supposed to withhold our riches, rationing beauty out to them in only tiny drops?

I find lately that almost all of my critiques of student compositions have to do with the music moving on too quickly to something else. A composer will start with a gorgeous opening gesture - and 20 seconds later, the mood of the piece has already changed. I'm constantly telling students: "At the 20-second mark in a performance, the audience member has realized that a new piece has begun, quit talking to his neighbor, glanced at his program, and is beginning to listen - and already your best idea has gone by, never to return." I have no one to pin the blame on, but somehow our students are internalizing the mandate that musical ideas, no matter how beautiful, should never be repeated nor dwelt upon. I see fabulously professional pieces with one stunning little timbral idea after another, none of them sustained long enough, or repeated often enough, to register in the listener's conciousness. Why do we create beauty only to immediately take it away again? Relatedly, I get students expressing doubts that something lovely they've written in a piece is too "banal," or too "cheesy," by which they mean too obvious, too recognizable and enjoyable by the listener. You can see these young composers burst forth with an impulse to give the listener something fun to listen to - and then squelch it, for fear that they'll look too naive and not professional. It's the strangest thing in the world. 

I'm going to make a political analogy, so if criticism of poor, dear George W. Bush hurts your feelings, just skip to the next paragraph. Wuorinen's compositional attitude is like Bush's: "I'm the Decider." I don't have to give you anything, you should just admire me because I'm so great. In response to a reporter's opinion, Bush snapped, "Who cares what you think?" When the prospect of invading Iraq brought about the largest world protests in human history, Bush said, "I'm not going to be influenced by a focus group." Bush has never expressed generosity, which I guess to Republicans would be a sign of weakness. By contrast, what has Obama done for us? Almost nothing, so far: just given some speeches about how we're important to him and he wants to do something for us. And so instantly responsive is the human mind to even a suggestion of generosity that the entire world is cheering. 

And that's why Philip Glass is the most successful composer around. If you want to tell me his musical materials are cheap, I'll agree with you, depending on the piece. But he is invariably generous. When he gives the audience a piece, good or bad, they take it home with them. You want to convince me that there's more beauty in Wuorinen's sonata than in, say, Glass's Akhnaten? Fine, I'll go along. But people are more grateful for a hot dog you give them than for lobster étouffée that you let them smell briefly before whisking it away. 

Want an example of a composer whose materials are exquisite, and who is superbly generous with them? Morton Feldman. The older he got, the more generous his music became.

I love that statement from Schoenberg's "Brahms the Progressive" essay that I've quoted so often:

Evenness, regularity, symmetry, subdivision, repetition, unity, relationship in rhythm and harmony and even logic - none of these elements produces or even contributes to beauty. But all of them contribute to an organization which makes the presentation of the musical idea intelligible.

But I think it's a little too open to self-serving academic misinterpretation, and I'd rephrase it this way:

Musical beauty is not difficult to create, and almost any materials will do. But to transmit that beauty to the listener, to give it to him or her, so that the listener feels like he owns it and can take it away from the performance with him, requires some combination of repetition, evenness, regularity, symmetry, subdivision, unity, relationship in rhythm and harmony, or logic.

November 8, 2008 3:38 PM | | Comments (6) |
Though I've done it in other cases, I see little point in posting the keynote address I delivered yesterday for Sacramento State's 31st (!) annual new-music festival. The bulk of my spiel, about why the so-called American maverick composers aren't really loners but a pretty tightly-knit group, was sewn together from bits of material already available on this blog. But toward the end I changed subject and addressed another issue that's been on my mind lately, and I've been meaning to bring it up anyway. So I've adapted and expanded it for the virtual print medium, and I'll add some afterthoughts at the end: 


Many composers come into music through the world of 19th-century music, and most music schools put a pretty strong focus on Romanticism, and there's one aspect of Romanticism that survived through all the vicissitudes of 20th century style change pretty much intact: many, many composers aim in their music for a kind of organic emotional curve whereby the music spends most of its time either crescendoing or decrescendoing in intensity, with some sense of climax and often resolution, often symbolized by increasing dissonance or complexity. Of course there's nothing wrong with this, and it describes a lot of great music. But if there is a privileged paradigm that subconsciously represents normalcy to many musicians, this is how I would characterize it. The deliberate avoidance of this paradigm, the rejection of its premises, is one of the sins committed by the so-called "American Maverick" composers (Cage, Harrison, Young, Tenney) and continued by many of us, their faux maverick acolytes.  

One realizes that many classical musicians cannot understand music outside this paradigm by the criticisms they make of maverick music. Cage's quiet, diatonic music of the late 1940s, like In a Landscape and Dream, gets dismissed in classical music quarters as mere "doodling." Lou Harrison's music is called aimless; it is said that it lacks a sense of urgency. Morton Feldman's music is often considered boring, as is early minimalist music. I am proud to have joined this tradition when one of my CDs was reviewed as being "a little bit Zen for [the reviewer's] taste."  

I've been reading the autobioghraphy of Daisetz Suzuki, and I just ran across a traditional story of two monks, Baso and his student Hyakujo. Baso sees a flock of wild geese flying through the sky, and asks "What are they?" 

"They are wild geese, Master," answers Hyakujo. 

Baso asked again, "Whither are they flying?" 

"They are all gone now," answers Hyakujo.  

Baso turns to Hyakujo and painfully twists his nose, and then asks, "Are they really gone?" And Hyakujo suddenly achieves satori. 

Suzuki explains: 

The Hyakujo now crying, now laughing, does not lose sight of the Absolute Present. Before his satori his crying or laughing was not a pure act. It was always mixed with something else. His unconscious conciousness of time urged him to look forward, if not thinking of the past. As the result, he was vexed with a feeling of tension, which is unnecessarily exhausting. (A Zen Life: D.T. Suzuki Remembered, p. 41)

Suzuki goes on to criticize serialism - and I love this, because of course Suzuki isn't talking about 12-tone music, but rather uses the word serialism to describe the state of mind that lies outside the Absolute Present - that is immersed in the ordered series of events that constitute linear time. It's the state of mind in which "We regret the past and worry about the future... The future and past overlay the present and suffocate it."

"A feeling of tension, which is unnecessarily exhausting," is precisely what I try to escape in my best music. The most accurate way to describe it, based on the way it feels to me while composing, is the avoidance of musical karma. Of course sometimes my music increases in intensity and heads for a climax, and when it does so I have to time the climax well and lead to it smoothly, and make sure the effect isn't mitigated by extraneous elements. It's a matter of skill. It also imposes a certain feeling of obligation on the composing process. And I find as the years go by that I enjoy composing more when I can feel that what I'm writing in measure 185 doesn't commit me to writing anything particular in measure 202. I might suddenly want to take a left turn. I might be writing in B-flat, and suddenly think, "I think now I'll switch to A-flat." I love the description Feldman gave of his First (?) String Quartet, in which at one point he just suddenly decided to quote a Webern tone row in the violin - he wanted "a moment of symmetry." Later in the piece he threw in the retrograde. 

To many composers, the determination to avoid creating a feeling of tension may seem absolutely crazy. But Cage's chance music, the sensuous early minimalism of Harold Budd, Peter Garland's never-repeating melodies that all lie within a few never-changing triads, Brian Eno's ambient music, are all attempts to capture an Absolute Present, in which the sounds of the moment are not suffocated by the future or the past. This is a very different music from the more traditional classical attempt to draw a metaphor for an emotional experience. When composing a metaphor for human emotions, the skill of the music is judged by whether the climax is reached effectively and at the right moment, whether the emotional curve is smooth, motivated, and convincing. For many traditional composers, all these signs of competence are paramount, and the composer who does not exhibit skill in them is "not serious," of no importance.

The assumption is that, conversely, to capture an Absolute Present requires no skill. This is untrue, though perhaps in context skill is not the right word for what's needed. I find that keeping my music centered in every measure, free from the implications of what has come before and not accumulating any musical karma toward what will come after, is an enormously absorbing balancing act - and withal a tremendous pleasure. Boredom and pointlessness can legitimately ensue, and keeping the thread without a long-term throughline requires concentration. And so, for instance, my piece Kierkegaard, Walking (played at the festival here last night and this Sunday) moves from one thing to the next without any causality. The texture might continue and the key quietly change, or a ripple of triplet 16ths might suddenly enliven the momentum for a moment. The piece does contain passages that crescendo to high points - but the high points aren't real climaxes, because afterward the music goes on to something else unrelated, so the climaxes are really representations of climaxes, not metaphors for an emotional process. One could say that the little moments of heightened emotion are ironic, or, more accurately, that the music remains detached from them. They may be analogues for the pain Hyakujo felt when his nose was twisted, but they are divorced from any sense of before and after. 

[In fact, entre nous, it's seeming more and more to me that the perfect compositional model is the psychotherapy session. In therapy, you just start talking about what's on your mind, and wander anywhere you want through free association. But anyone who's been in therapy will tell you - I gather this is universal - that every therapy session ends up having a theme, often one that is unintentionally announced in the opening sentences. You think you're just chatting at random, but as you go it becomes clear that the entire session is really about just one topic, explored on many levels and through deceptively unrelated-seeming metaphors. Sort of like blogging, except that in blogging the mind retains too much conscious control.]

What I'm saying is that this flatness, this charge of boredom leveled at many of the maverick composers and their quasi-maverick acolytes, is a common feature of that musical world from which the mavericks emerge. I don't compose music that way because I'm from Texas and a tough hombre who can't be bothered to write mainstream music and I'm one of those outlaws who touch ladies deep down in their souls. I write it because I picked up that musical paradigm early in life from Erik Satie and John Cage and Morton Feldman and Harold Budd and John Luther Adams and I dearly treasure it. It doesn't make me a maverick, neither does it make me, in itself, incompetent. It makes me rather typical of a different musical world which is now evident in the new pluralism that contains both it and what we used to call the classical European mainstream. There is plenty of room in that pluralism for music that acts as emotional metaphor, and also music that seeks an Absolute Present.


[He-he - gave you a pretty good sucker punch with that headline, didn't I?]

Now, obviously I am not presenting alarmingly new thoughts here. When I was in college, and Cage's influence was still fairly novel, we young composers discussed exactly this issue of the Eternal Musical Present among ourselves and in academic forums. People wrote about it over the years, and the climax of attention came with Jonathan Kramer's fantastic book The Time of Music, which has never received enough attention. I admit, though, that I haven't heard it discussed in many years, and that may well be because I teach at a kind of Uptown bastion where the agenda gets set by Grawemeyer Award winners. The Time of Music has been out of print for many years. Perhaps this issue of divergent experiences of musical time is more taken for granted than I realize, but it is my experience, and that of many colleagues, that it never hurts to re-present what seems like old news to yourself to the new generation that may well have never gotten wind of it from anywhere else.

The thing is, Cage's music and writings advocated for a different experience of musical time. A lot of people didn't buy it. Then minimalism came along and made some of those Absolute Present ideas a little more seductive. My generation got into Drumming, and early Glass, and those slowly evolving Phill Niblock drones, and a whole new repertoire emerged - but mostly underground. Publicly, the New Romanticism came along, the classical musicians sighed with relief when John Adams and Louis Andriessen diverted the minimalist impulse back into more acceptably entertaining channels, and orchestral life returned to normal. So I think it might not be simple insularity on my part, or my chronic paranoia, to assume that the idea of music existing in a kind of timelessness is a less familiar idea now than it was in the oh-so-liberal-and-never-to-cease-being-regretted Golden Days of my youth.

In the meantime, the repertoire of unconventionally nonlinear music has vastly expanded. It's easier to recognize now what could have been more obvious then, that pieces like Satie's Socrate represented a vivid precedent for what Cage brought to the surface. I had a student sing Socrate a couple of years ago, and was amazed when a couple of my colleagues admitted that they found it pointlessly boring. And in Morton Feldman, Phill Niblock, John Luther Adams, Meredith Monk, Arvo Pärt, and quite a few others, the music of the Absolute Present - and I'm not going to take the responsibility for coming up with a term for it this time - has its major figures, its unignorable repertoire. It has thousands and thousands of fans who would be bored stiff listening to Brahms or Bartok or John Corigliano. It has its defenders in the public world. It needs, perhaps, more advocates within academia, so that young musicians drawn to it are not discouraged and confused by the uncomprehending faculty - whose effect overall, I think, is to keep the academic music world pointlessly alienated from a seminal musical tradition whose importance will only increase.

November 7, 2008 5:38 PM | | Comments (3) |
I'm from Texas, but the family story is that during the Civil War my ancestors were Northern sympathizers. One great grand-uncle was hung by the Confederacy for giving shoes to a Union soldier. I'm also a Civil War buff, and have read dozens of histories of it and visited more than 30 battlefields. And it feels like the Civil War finally ended tonight, with me here to see it happen. Not only because an eloquent Black man became president, but because Nixon's "Southern strategy" finally crashed to ignominious failure. I couldn't be happier. God bless us all, and bless President Obama most of all. After eight years of a malevolent, moronic president, America can now rejoin the rest of the world. 

November 4, 2008 11:14 PM | | Comments (9) |
I'll be in California the second half of this week. I've been invited to Sacramento State's annual Festival of American Music. I'm involved in the following three events:

Nov. 6: Thursday at noon, I start the event by giving the keynote address in the Music Recital Hall. 

Nov. 7: Friday at 10 AM, I give a Composer's Forum on my music in Capistrano Hall, room 205.

Nov. 9: Sunday at 7 PM I give a pre-concert talk (Capistrano Hall 151) prior to a concert in the Music Recital Hall by the Seattle Chamber Players. My old Seattle friends will be playing my quartet Kierkegaard, Walking, along with some of the works by younger composers they premiered at the festival of their I was involved with last January

See the whole schedule here. I can only stay for the first week, but it's a huge event, with composers Lukas Ligeti, Harvey Sollberger, Richard Festinger, Betsey Biggs, Steven Ricks, and Aaron Kernis; percussionist Steven Schick; bassists Robert Black and Mark Dresser; the Cygnus Ensemble; the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, and a lot of other new-music big-name performers. See you there.

November 2, 2008 9:30 AM | |

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