PostClassic: January 2009 Archives

It's been a long day, and I've been drinking scotch with John Luther Adams, but here are the highlights of the first full day of the Ives Vocal Marathon at Wesleyan University:

1. In a comment from the audience, the ever-incisive Bill Brooks situated Ives's creative life between the Civil War and the Warren G. Harding election. The Civil War, Bill said, put to rest an ongoing ambiguity in American life: whether we were going to be ruled by the Articles of Confederation or by the Constitution. In other words, whether states were allowed to secede in order to diverge from the federally mandated lifestyle, or whether we were going to be all forced to live with each other. Once secession was ruled an impossibility, it became clear that the vast diversity of viewpoints in America were going to have to learn to coexist, and this confusion flowed into the vast stylistic differences that became encapsulated within Ives's output, the coexistence of Romanticism and Modernism, tonality and atonality, artistic completion and fragmentation, formalism and intuition. And Bill counted Nov. 2, 1920 ("the only date Ives ever commemorated in a song title"), the [temporary] death of the progressive movement, as an even greater discouragement to Ives's continued composing than either the nervous breakdown/heart attacks of 1918 or 1921. Neither statement is strictly provable, but both are extremely thought-provoking.

2. I can't begin to effectively replicate Anthony Braxton's circuitous homage to Ives on the composers' panel, but he talked a lot about transidiomatic composition, the juxtaposition of different styles within one piece - and trans-gender, trans-temporal, and trans-everything-else. It was clear the extent to which the great, Stockhausenesque, multidimensional structure of Braxton's thought, as obliquely outlined in his Tri-Axiom writings, was originally illuminated by Ives's music. Also, he drew a strong connection between Ives and my favorite stride pianist James P. Johnson, which I don't immediately register but am happy to start thinking about. Braxton's stunningly discursive monologues were unparaphraseable, but immensely stimulating.

3. Composer Martin Bresnick, on the same panel, talked about an endemic problem in new music, especially virulent in Germany and France, by which composers understand the progress of music as a train moving in one direction, everyone elbowing each other out of the way to be in the front car of the train, while no one wants to be in the caboose. Ives's music, he said, makes it clear that the expansion of music is not unidirectional, but tends in all directions at once in at least three dimensions. I started on the omnidirectional thrust of Ives's music in my opening address, and it's become the theme of the conference.

4. In response to a semi-complaint about Ives's macho way of expressing his idea of a real "man's music," musicologist Carol Baron recounted an interview she had done with Lou Harrison. Lou told her, "I always acted like a total queen with him, and he never batted an eye." Let's bury the persistent rumors of Ives's homophobia about 12 feet deep, where they belong.

And then there were the performances - about 60 songs so far today - with the incredible Energizer Bunny Neely Bruce constantly at the piano. They've been stunning. It's a festival at which I love every piece on the program, and so does everyone else. We have microscopic arguments about who loves which song better than some other, but ultimately, who cares? 

January 31, 2009 1:26 AM | | Comments (1) |
Tonight at 8 I'm delivering the keynote address at the Ives Vocal Marathon at Wesleyan University, the Memorial Chapel. 

And this Saturday is the deadline for proposals for papers for the Second International Conference on Minimalist Music taking place Sept. 2-6 at UMKC. Not that we're stuffy about deadlines, but my colleagues on the selection committee are chomping at the bit to see what we've got. Lots of exciting topics so far.

January 29, 2009 12:35 PM | | Comments (0) |
We've been watching Ken Burns's jazz documentary again, for the third or fourth time at least (I can't watch the last tape, in which Wynton Marsalis skips over 15 years of exciting post-bebop jazz to pronounce himself the reincarnation of true jazz, as if Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor and Arthur Rhames never existed), and my favorite quote came up, from Roy Eldridge. It's a statement that, to me, seems to sum up the essential condition of music:

The beboppers are good. But they closed more clubs than they opened.

And while I'm at it, I'm a tremendous fan of Coleman Hawkins, the greatest musician who shares my birthday (Judith Shatin is second). Hawkins had something in common with Claudio Monteverdi, Igor Stravinsky, John Cage, and Miles Davis. He was a star of the swing era - his 1939 recording of "Body and Soul" was the signal recording of the WWII era - but when bebop came along, he changed his style and went along with the younger bebop guys. He was like Erik Satie: "Show me something new and I'll start all over again." God bless those who can be influenced by the younger composers.

January 28, 2009 9:40 PM | | Comments (9) |
I'm busy writing my fourth keynote address, this one for the Ives Vocal Marathon taking place at Wesleyan University Jan. 29 to Feb. 1; my speech is at 8 PM on the 29th. Across four days, an assortment of singers will perform every version of every song Ives wrote (201 items in all), with the legendarily masochistic Neely Bruce permanently stationed at the piano, no doubt periodically soaking his hands in two fishbowls of water like the young George Antheil. As with my Cage book, I will be speaking about Ives to people who know more about him than I do, and so I'm poring through every song and concentrating on being extra brilliant. I'm not even sure why Neely asked me - except that perhaps all the real Ives honchos are on panels, and the great Wiley Hitchcock is no longer with us, or that my absolute enthusiasm for Ives can be relied on to set a devoutly celebratory tone. In any case, it's work I enjoy. Some of Ives's songs had never made more than a fuzzy impression on me ("The Swimmers"? "Requiem"? "La Fède"?), and it's rewarding to internalize every single damn one.

Somehow through the end of last semester, a few measures every weekend, I also managed to finish my piece for pianist Sarah Cahill's "A Sweeter Music" project, a series of anti-war pieces that she'll be premiering through the year, which has been getting a lot of attention at New Music Box. The composers, besides me, are Meredith Monk, Frederic Rzewski, Terry Riley, Yoko Ono, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Pauline Oliveros, Peter Garland, Paul Dresher, Carl Stone, Ingram Marshall, Jerome Kitzke, Phil Kline, Mamoru Fujieda, Larry Polansky, Michael Byron, The Residents, and Preben Antonsen. Terry told Sarah he wouldn't write an anti-war piece, but he'd write a pro-peace piece. In response, I told her I'd be happy to write a piece titled "Dick Cheney Is A Lying Asshole." 


But I didn't. Instead, it's called War Is Just a Racket. Brian McLaren, to whom I am deeply grateful for it, sent me a wonderful text by General Smedley Butler. Butler (pictured) was a popular general who, in 1933, was approached by a bunch of plutocrats (including apparently Prescott Bush, the outgoing pResident's grandfather) who wanted to stage a quiet coup, reducing FDR to a figurehead and setting up a government friendlier to Hitler and Mussolini. It was an attempt at a fascist takeover, and they thought with Butler on their side, the army would play along. Butler feigned interest for awhile, but after he'd gotten enough information, he marched straight to Congress and turned the bastards in. No one seems sure exactly what happened, but apparently FDR agreed not to jail them all if they'd stand out of the way of the New Deal - and that's what it took to get the New Deal through the first time (of which we now need another one). 

Anyway, that's the background, with plenty of relevance to what's been going on in recent years. The text itself is just a 1933 speech Butler gave in retirement detailing his disillusionment with the purposes for which the U.S. Government uses its armed forces. I believe in political music, but I've come to think that it's really only effective with text, and Sarah wanted a solo piece. So I rather borrowed the device that Christian Wolff used in his 1971 Accompaniments for Frederic Rzewski, whereby the pianist speaks the text at a normal pace, and chords associated with certain syllables are played along with the words, in a speech-determined rhythm. (My Custer piece was also indebted to Accompaniments, which seems to remain a pretty well-known work, even though Christian later disavowed its Maoist politics and it's never come out on CD.) Writing this for a pianist took me way out of my comfort zone, because playing the piano and speaking are two things I've never been able to do at the same time - when I try to do it in class, I get all tongue-tied and clumsy. (One uses the right brain and one the left, and I have a theory about how my brain hemispheres are more disconnected than average.) But Sarah says she can do it, and I tried to make it graceful. She premieres it March 12 in New York. It strikes me as peculiar that this is the second time I've set to music words by a general.

Anyway, here's the Smedley Butler text, and thanks, Brian. And Sarah.

War is just a racket. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of people. Only a small inside group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few at the expense of the masses. I believe in adequate defense at the coastline and nothing else. If a nation comes over here to fight, then we'll fight. The trouble with America is that when the dollar only earns 6 percent over here, then it gets restless and goes overseas to get 100 percent. Then the flag follows the dollar and the soldiers follow the flag. I wouldn't go to war again as I have done to protect some lousy investment of the bankers. There are only two things we should fight for. One is the defense of our homes and the other is the Bill of Rights. War for any other reason is simply a racket.

There isn't a trick in the racketeering bag that the military gang is blind to. It has its "finger men" to point out enemies, its "muscle men" to destroy enemies, its "brain men" to plan war preparations, and a "Big Boss" Super-Nationalistic-Capitalism. It may seem odd for me, a military man to adopt such a comparison. Truthfulness compels me to. I spent thirty-three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country's most agile military force, the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.

I suspected I was just part of a racket at the time. Now I am sure of it. Like all the members of the military profession, I never had a thought of my own until I left the service. My mental faculties remained in suspended animation while I obeyed the orders of higher-ups. This is typical with everyone in the military service. I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.

During those years, I had, as the boys in the back room would say, a swell racket. Looking back on it, I feel that I could have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.

By the way, I notice I'm getting advertisers over on the right lately. Be sure to click on 'em, and thank you.

January 16, 2009 7:00 PM | | Comments (6) |
This might be a timely moment to reiterate that the deadline for submissions to the second international conference on minimalist music, which is being held at the University of Missouri at Kansas City September 2-6, is January 31. We're prepared for more papers than we've received so far, so if you're interested, give us a try. We've gotten almost no papers from Europe yet, but it was our European colleagues who asked to have the date extended, so maybe their proposals will all arrive at the last minute. We're honoring Charlemagne Palestine, Tom Johnson, and Mikel Rouse, and the barbecue's going to be to die for. E-mail your proposals to me ( and David McIntire ( The economy's making the money hard to come by, but as I told David: "We're minimalists - if we can't hold a conference in this economy, nobody can."

January 11, 2009 10:41 PM | | Comments (0) |
I wrote my "American Composer" column for Chamber Music magazine this month - though it won't be out till March - on John Halle, one of the eight composers of the Common Sense collective. And, as often happens, I obtained a generous influx of his music, so I uploaded seven pieces to PostClassic Radio. John's vocal music employs political texts - from Project for the New American Century, Larry Summers, D.C. activist Sam Smith - that sound pretty shocking when set to music with seeming innocence. (Much the way, I suppose, that Allan Kozinn once wrote that Custer's hate-spewing memoires sound in my Custer and Sitting Bull.) My real interest, though, is in John's rhythms, a typical example given here from his 1997 piece Spooks (the instruments are flute, oboe, violin, cello, and two guitars): 


Look at that: triplets moving to dotted quarters in the flute, septuplets grouped in sixes in the oboe, triplet quarters grouped in fives and fours in the violin, five-beat patterns in the cello and first guitar, over a dotted-quarter pulse in the second guitar. Pure totalism. You can tell me no such style exists, and I'll bury you with examples. Call it whatever you want, I don't care. Metametrics. And that doesn't at all mean that John's music sounds like Michael Gordon's, Ben Neill's, Evan Ziporyn's, Mikel Rouse's, Art Jarvinen's, mine, and so on. He's got his own fresh way of speeding up and slowing down through lines nonsynchronously over a pulse that ties everything together, more jazz-sounding than the other totalists (he started out as a jazz pianist), and the music would sound improvised if the harmonies didn't fit together so snugly. Amazing stuff.

John Halle is a man after my own heart. He used to be an alderman in New Haven, and his political writings are fearless. One of the first things Google attributes to him is an article on the wealth tax, and over at his humble-looking web site, he's got some excellent articles on musical politics, including the best debunking yet of Joseph Straus's MQ article claiming that the 12-toners never wielded any power in academia, and a report on the nefarious dealings of Mario Davidovsky. The kind of stuff that, were I to post it here, 20 people would write in to cry foul - and yet it's god's own truth. God bless 'im.

January 10, 2009 10:46 PM | | Comments (3) |
I sent in the quadruply-revised final draft of my book on 4'33" today: 217 pages, with 325 footnotes and eight pages of bibliography. Wiley Hitchcock would be proud of my footnotes-to-pages ratio. He used to kid me about how many footnotes in my American music book read "e-mail to the author." But hey, I figure, if you know the composer, why spend hours rooting through a library when you can send an e-mail?

And may I mention how euphoric I am to be writing books in the era of Google? The time-saving features are unbelievable. I read through Silence again, and most of A Year from Monday, and a lot of the articles in Richard Kostelanetz's John Cage and John Cage, Writer. But there are so many Cage books and books about Cage, and compendiums edited by the indefatigable Kostelanetz, and I didn't have time to go through them all, but Google found me everything I needed. For instance, I've always remembered Cage telling a story about sitting in a restaurant with De Kooning, and De Kooning framing a bunch of bread crumbs with his fingers and challenging Cage to say it was art. But I couldn't find it in Silence or A Year from Monday, so I kept Googling "John Cage" + crumbs + "De Kooning," and after a few references to George Crumb I finally found the story retold in a Christopher Shultis article available through JSTOR, and luckily I have JSTOR access through Bard, and of course Chris had the footnote: Kostelanetz's Conversing with Cage, pages 211-212. I could have spent days looking for it. Naturally I never footnote the internet reference if it's in a book somewhere, but Cage has been so thoroughly worked over that there's nothing I can think of that someone hasn't written about, and some internet reference will lead me to the right place in the books. And Amazon makes most pages of many books available, so I can Google a sentence fragment and get access to the actual scanned book. I've got numerous footnotes, with page numbers, to books I've never held in my hand. It's freakin' incredible. Not to mention Grove and Britannica and Musical Quarterly at my fingertips, plus my illustrations stolen from other web site jpegs and grabbed from PDFs. I can sit here and do blindingly erudite musicology almost without leaving the house. I wouldn't want you to know how much of my library research I've done in my pajamas. A million thanks to Al Gore for inventing this thing.

January 7, 2009 10:16 PM | | Comments (11) |
My Analysis of Minimalism seminar I just finished was the most exciting course I've ever taught, and I plan to write about it at greater length. But as I'm sitting here grading final papers, I'm pleased as punch to note that one student, Erica Ball (herself a precociously interesting composer) wrote her analysis paper on two works written late in 2008, by young composers Caroline Mallonée and Jim Altieri. When I think how many young composers come out of grad school these days all excited about dinosaurs like Ligeti, Xenakis, and Carter, I am especially proud. In my ideal pedagogical situation, all music more than five years old, or written by composers more than a generation older than the students, would be considered old classics, to be consulted like Bach or Beethoven as a way of grounding one's standards, while the bulk of analysis and study would be devoted to music of RIGHT NOW. Other analyses were written on the opening section of Michael Gordon's Trance, Jim Tenney's Diapason, John Luther Adams's Dream in White on White and In the White Silence, Eve Beglarian's The Bus Driver Didn't Change His Mind, John Adams's China Gates (for a perspective from the distant past), and Corigliano's Fantasia on an Ostinato (Corigliano called it his "minimalist piece," so I said what the heck). I've been frustrated with minimalism classes before, but this time managed to bring together a bunch of serious music majors who really got the music, who looked past Glass and Reich and Pärt to the hipper developments that followed, and concocted theories about postminimalism's relation to modernism. They were wowed by Nick Didkovsky's rock-jazz-classical fusion, charmed by Daniel Lentz, blown away by Belinda Reynolds. This music may have a future after all.

January 4, 2009 6:11 PM | | Comments (15) |

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