PostClassic: April 2009 Archives

Something else I've been thinking lately builds on my recent post What Composers Talk About -  and it will seem self-contradictory to say it, but I can't tell the absolute truth if I'm constantly on the watch-out against self-contradiction. Someone nominated me for some award, and for the first time in quite a few years I had to write an artistic statement. I used to love doing this. I had all kinds of "reasons" that had led me to write the kind of music I write, I had studied subjects that backed up my choices, I had followed a logical chain from my experiences to my aesthetic, and could delineate it. These artistic statements never won me any awards or anything, but boy, did I find them convincing. 

Lately, though, I've felt that my music has ridden rationalism to the end of the line, and I've got little left to say about it. It's not that I feel my future musical goals are less clear, but that I can no longer articulate them. The multitempo and microtonal structures I've come up with through study and experimentation are still, I think, interesting, but their interestingness is beginning to get in the way. It's time for them to fade into the background, and to simply be there in the service of something inchoate, something I can't specify because if I could specify it, it wouldn't surprise me the way I want it to. So I've reached the point at which a lot of musicians always have been, who can't bear to say why they're writing music or what they want it to do. And I, long-time maven of blindingly logical artistic statements, am feeling the unfamiliar suspicion that artistic statements aren't of much value. It seems to vary by field, possibly by age; I read a lot of visual artist statements, and they always seem able, even driven, to scope out some field of exploration whose premises they can explain. In recent visual art, the work and the explanation even seem to go hand in hand. Perhaps younger artists should need to explain where they're headed better than older artists with larger portfolios need to - but to conclude that would be merely to extrapolate from my own possibly idiosyncratic experience. Now I find myself having a hippie-ish, totally uncharacteristic urge to just write "My music is..." and then leave it blank, or draw a psychedelic picture or something. 

But here's what I came up with under duress, partly remembered from the kinds of things I used to write:

I recently joked in print that I write a cool, steady music in an attempt to calm myself down, and it wasn't entirely facetious. I think I'm also trying to calm the world down. Modernist music was an honest reflection of tensions underlying the veneer of civilization, but in the end it morphed into a self-fulfilling prophecy - people now know the world is chaotic, violent, and disappointing, and no longer need to hear that in the concert hall. I believe in the artist's ability to envision a future, and at this point that future must be sustainable and ecological. Toward that end, I think the future of music lies in increased sensitivity and perception, which is why I work with tempo complexities and higher harmonics among the overtones (with an increased array of expressive intervals). In other words, I think music has gone as far as is currently meaningful in an outward, extroverted direction, and now needs to turn inward, to become more meditative and develop finer gradations (much like Indian music, a tradition I admire but have never studied). The challenge now is to absorb dissonance and complexity without giving rein to anguish or anger. My music sometimes employs political texts, but I don't believe the artist has much right to preach: I prefer to state ideas in sharp focus but with their ambiguity intact so that people have to settle within themselves what their reaction is. 

I'm not as impressed as I used to be.

April 23, 2009 7:07 PM | | Comments (10) |
Two Bard students, violinist/pianist Erica Ball and flutist Kylie Collins, have taken it upon themselves to commission four young composers to write pieces for them, and will perform the premieres twice this weekend. The composers are Caroline Mallonée, Jim Altieri (both of whom worked with me at the Atlantic Center for the Arts), Alex Ness, and Sam Pluta. Plus, the duo will be playing a couple of pieces by Joan Tower and myself ("Saintly" from Private Dances). The first concert is at Bard College on Friday, 7 pm at Olin Hall. The second is at Roulette Sunday night, April 26, at 8 pm, 20 Greene St. in New York City. Erica is a very talented composer herself, and it's quite a program the two of them have put together. We haven't had anything like it before at Bard since I've been there.

Another Bard student, Eva Sun, is playing "Sexy" from Private Dances on a program Saturday at 7:30 at Bard Hall on campus. (Piano teacher Blair McMillan has apparently been pushing my music on the students.)

Also Sunday, April 26, at 5 pm at Chicago Cultural Center (77 Randolph Street in Chicago), pianist Sarah Cahill is recapping her anti-war concert A Sweeter Music, which I've written about here before, with videos by her husband John Sanborn and including my piece War Is Just a Racket. The program includes music by Peter Garland, Phil Kline, Jerome Kitzke, Frederic Rzewski, and Terry Riley. The phone number is 312-744-6630. That's four performances of my music in three days, though three of them through Bard.

April 22, 2009 11:29 PM | | Comments (0) |
I'll bet that if you ran a new-music series and gave composers the following choice - "We'll either give you a $500 honorarium, or you can have $100 and talk about yourself to the audience for 20 minutes" - almost all composers who aren't in dire financial straits would choose the latter option. When the subject is ourselves, we do not like to shut up. I was on a panel of composers last night preceding the Cutting Edge series concert at Symphony Space, and the desire to chatter on was palpable. William Bolcom was the grand old man of the group, and seemed accustomed to occupying a stage by himself; we all deferred to him and let him talk most. Two of the other composers had, in fact, been students of his. Composer Victoria Bond, who runs the series, has clearly been in the moderation business a long time. She cut off each composer as graciously as though he had come to the end of a prepared text.

Whence comes this intense desire for self-expression? The yearning to have our music played, the prestige of gigs, the need to get money for our work, are all easily understandable. But why do I want the audience to know, before it hears my music, that I studied with Ben Johnston? Victoria drew a tentative connection between a vernacular element in my work and the fact that I'm from Dallas, and I slightly bridled at being thought of as a "Dallas composer." Why? How silly. Do we imagine we'll be the more admired if we say something clever? that some credential we bring up offhandedly will convince someone to give our music a more serious listen? Why does the picture our music draws seem so incomplete? The desire isn't quite universal. Conlon Nancarrow was famous for answering series' of long questions with a bare yes or no. Frederic Rzewski seems to use the interview format to prevent people from learning anything about him. But most of us are pathetically eager for an opportunity to represent ourselves, to draw a picture of our character for the audience. And, being so, we naturally bend over backward not to appear so. Every composer learns to efface himself in such situations, to substitute for some unyielding conviction a gentle joke that signals that he doesn't take himself too seriously. We take turns out-modesting each other. We sensitize ourselves to the slightest clue that the interviewer is ready to move on. We conform, chameleonlike, to whatever level of discourse our peers launch into.

I'm old enough to recall when composers spoke more dogmatically and aggressively in public. Back in the day when we tended more to be judged by the intricacy and objectivity of our systems, we were more given to explanation. Composers informed the audience what to listen for, detailed their patented pitch methods, proclaimed their allegiances to this school or that. Of course we all know why this went out of favor. The audience didn't much care about those pitch systems anyway, and rarely heard what we told them to hear. We were shamed out of that dogmatic technical mode, and scarred by the aesthetic battles that were its context. Next, starting in the late 1980s, came the "influences" trope: "My influences include...." For the liberal among us, "my influences" generally included Arnold Schoenberg and John Lee Hooker, or Brian Ferneyhough and the Sex Pistols - to prove to the audience that though we were intellectuals, we weren't snobs.

These days it's all personal. Paul Yeon Lee heard his piece in a dream. Derek Bermel got his compositional idea from listening to foreign-language tapes. William Bolcom talked about underrated musicians he had known. Mark Grey extolled the colors of the light in the valley in Austria where he lives. I talked about visiting Nancarrow in Mexico City. After the bad old days in which composers used to impress their audiences with technical expertise and quasi-scientific musical mandates, we seem to be on a huge swingback, more modestly just trying to convince the audience that we're nice, down-to-earth guys. (I don't mean to single out this concert at all: I've been noticing this phenomenon for more than a decade, and used to write about it at briefer length in the Village Voice.) The prestige of the modern composer has fallen so far that I think the reflexive self-effacement is a true reflection of the perception that society doesn't take composers very seriously anymore. Still recoiling from the days in which we were all trying to be the next Stockhausen, now we're all trying to convince the audience members that we're just like them, except we write music. In front of an audience of complete amateurs this has one effect, but seems a little different in front of the musically sophisticated listeners that the Cutting Edge Concerts seem to attract, or so it felt. Despite the thousands of hours we put into honing our compositional philosophies, we're afraid to be leaders, or to pretend to be experts.

But we composers have more to say than this. What did it mean that Bolcom's trio had clear, vernacular-tinged rhythms couched in a bracingly dissonant pitch language? Or that Grey's A Rax Dawn for piano was precisely the opposite, lushly Romantic in its harmonies but fluidly mercurial and complex in its rhythms? What do such choices have to do with our strategies for reaching an audience? In 2009, each of us can choose any musical language he fancies; what philosophic or social concerns guide our choices? How are composers responding to the world financial crisis? The response in 1933 couldn't have been starker: abstract, dissonant music was abruptly discredited, writing music for the masses was in, and quoting Appalachian folksongs got you extra credit. What's our response now? Some of us pitch our music toward audiences, quoting or appropriating whatever elements might draw them in. Others devoutly believe in autonomous personal expression, and are content with however small an audience their idiosyncrasies attract. How are we dealing with the ascendence and hegemony of commercially supported pop music? 

No one wants the aesthetic battles of the 1980s to return, but by now we ought to be able to address big issues without dogmatism. I, personally, regret the lack of substantive dialogue in the current new-music scene, but it seems symptomatic of our current condition. Privately, I imagine we are all still inspired by Big Ideas - I know I am - but publicly, we hide their effect. Perhaps we're in too mushy a period to draw coherent distinctions. We're split into subcultures, and no one wants to offend anyone else. Everyone feels a little helpless. No generalizable new language beckons. The personal seems safe, unthreatening. But where are the important issues facing early 21st-century music to be delineated? Certainly not by critics, who don't understand the compositional issues at stake. Some of us composers are desperately trying to reach the audiences who fled from late modernism, but reluctant to admit that fact. Others continue in a straight line determined by their education, and don't want to confront the popularity issue at all. I envy the discourse of novelists reviewing other novelists in the Times Book Review and the New York Review of Books: writing words about someone else's words, they take on big issues, and are not reduced to personalities. I've spent thousands of hours contemplating what kind of music I ought to be writing, and I wish I could get out in public with other composers and work out the why and wherefore, rather than retreat into whatever personal tidbits of my life seem relevant to the piece at hand.

I came home and dreamed that I was ineffectively singing the Grandpa role in a school production of Copland's The Tender Land (of which I bought a vocal score last week). The second act was taken up by a long monologue by the heroine Laurie's rebellious little brother, whom I'd never noticed in the opera before - because he doesn't exist. I'm still trying to figure that one out.

April 21, 2009 10:15 PM | | Comments (15) |
Microtonal guitarist John Schneider of KPFK conducted an interview with me and pianist Aron Kallay today, who's been playing some of my microtonal keyboard pieces. You can still hear it. My portion doesn't start until almost halfway through. For the interview to work, John has to pretend he doesn't understand microtonality as well as I do. I remember that hazard of doing interviews. I used to feign ignorance so well that an interviewee once mentioned bar lines and then asked, "Do you know what a bar line is?" I replied, "I have a doctorate in music, you may speak freely."

April 17, 2009 12:04 AM | | Comments (2) |

Among other rites of April I'm heavily involved in faculty evaluations, part of my obligatory committee work - which I grumble about like everyone else, but secretly find rather refreshing. My fellow music faculty are thoroughly predictable, but the contact with faculty from other fields has a bracing effect. While music's fit within academia is inevitably uneasy, some of these people in religion, classics, literature, biology, et al, are the soul of institutional life, and I find their ethic inspiring. In the course of this work (to change the subject somewhat) I ran across a brilliant teaching statement by my jazz colleague John Esposito, and since it is in the public part of his file, I think I break no rules by quoting it. John talks about his education in the 1970s:

The prevailing wisdom among working jazz artists at that time was that jazz was an art form that could only be learned on the bandstand and in the community from which it grew. These musicians held the opinion that a college education could only give the bare technical bones that form the structure of the music, and that the expressive qualities in the music could never be successfully taught in the classroom. At one time I thought that this argument had some merit....

I don't think the same environment exists today. It is no longer possible to play, as Monk did at the Five Spot in NYC, six nights a week for six months. It is no longer possible to tour for ten months a year. It is no longer a requirement that we play six fifty-minute sets a night. The typical gig in any of the New York clubs lasts for two one-hour shows, or may entail traveling to a European venue for twelve hours, playing for an hour and twenty minutes, and returning. Therefore the opportunity to train oneself methodically and thoughtfully on the  bandstand no longer exists. Young players therefore seldom have the opportunity to play consistently with older, more experienced musicians for extended periods.

This is enlightening on its own, and could, I think, be generalized beyond jazz. As opportunities have diminished for musicians, the role of college becomes more crucial. We have to compensate for the wider performance world in which composers could have once gained more experience. I myself spend only a tiny fraction of my professional life in rehearsals and performance, and sometimes wish I had gained a more comprehensive education in orchestration and performance practice. I have to assume that many of my students will find themselves in similar situations. And so while forty years ago I might have left them to learn from real-life experiences, I have to explain to them much about performer psychology, audience psychology, rehearsal techniques, that long ago they might have learned on their own. I am moved by John's words to take my own role a little more seriously.

April 15, 2009 9:46 PM | | Comments (4) |
If you're in the Bard area, tomorrow afternoon I'm sponsoring a talk on Serbian music by my musicologist friend Dragana Stojanovic-Novicic, who's in the States researching Cage's early music for one of her many projects. She's a fantastic scholar, obsessed with detail, and has taught me a lot about Nancarrow from his correspondence - I'm trying to convince her she's the perfect person to write a biography. Here she'll be going through the variety of 20th-century Serbian music, talking most importantly about Ljubica Maric (1909-2003), Serbia's national innovative modernist. The talk's Thursday, April 16, at 4, Room 217 in the Blum music building at Bard College.

Next Monday, April 20, Justin Kolb will play my Private Dances at Victoria Bond's "Cutting Edge Concerts" series at Symphony Space. At 6:30 before the concert, Justin and I will participate in a preconcert discussion panel, and the concert's at 7:30. The other composers on for the evening are William Bolcom, Derek Bermel, Yeon Lee, and Mark Grey. Broadway at 95th. If you read the blog, come say hi!

April 15, 2009 10:04 AM | | Comments (0) |
I noticed John Brackett's new book about John Zorn at Barnes and Noble the other day. I didn't have time to look through it, but here's what Alan Licht had to say about it, as quoted on

"Brackett's first move is to loosen Zorn from the moorings of postmodernism and that most critical assessments of his work attach him to. For Brackett, Zorn is as much modernist as postmodernist...Rather than rehash the postmodern critical blather about 'channel surfing' and borrowed materials from high and low culture that is so often used to describe Zorn's techniques, Brackett emphasises the unity that Zorn strives for in his pieces between seemingly opposing elements, carefully crafting a proper flow and balance. He sees Zorn as a composer who is pushing the boundaries rather than defining them, which is where the transgression of the title comes in."-Alan Licht, The Wire, March 2009 

This is, in essence, what I've been saying about Zorn for 20 years, to the dismay of a lot of Downtowners. Zorn's big early influences in the classical world were Kagel and Stockhausen, and he's been more easily incorporated into the classical narrative than most Downtowners because he's less radical than others (those who are redefining the boundaries?), because rather than revolting against modernism, he gave it a thick new layer of hipness by incorporating improvisation and a wider range of quotation. Glad to see that Licht, and apparently Brackett, are getting it right and setting the record straight.

Another new book just out is John Luther Adams's The Place Where You Go to Listen: In Search of an Ecology of Music, a comprehensive set of essays about the eponymous sound installation I've written about at some length. It's wonderful to finally see books out about composers of my generation. We all publish compact discs, which seem to disappear into the "long tail," but there's something about books that announces that the music is now being taken seriously, worthy of study.

April 13, 2009 7:50 PM | | Comments (4) |
I feel bad that an upcoming minimalism conference co-directed by myself, of all people, has been criticized for its absence of attention to woman composers. I don't quite know how to go about addressing the collective guilt of the musicological field. As I said in the comments, I don't know why Meredith Monk, not to mention Pauline Oliveros and Elodie Lauten, get so little attention in the nascent scholarly attention paid to minimalism. Monk's scores, when she uses them at all, don't really circulate; I managed to coax one of her opera Atlas from her, and I occasionally teach it. Still, there are a lot of scholars less score-oriented than myself who could put together a good paper on Monk's distinct and original performance practice. (In Atlas, the instrumental accompaniments and some vocal lines are written out, but much of the vocal writing, including choral material, is developed in rehearsal, depending on the attributes of the singers available. Meredith prefers to teach her parts vocally, without the dehumanization of paper mediation.) Talking about the subject, composer Bernadette Speach once told me that in New York women composers come to men composers' concerts, but that men rarely showed up to hear women; I started taking count, and found she had pretty much hit the nail on the head.

As a critic and musicologist, I've done just about everything I could think of to champion women composers. While at the Voice, I sometimes would try to see how many consecutive weekly columns I could write about women; four was as far as I once got before encountering a week with no appropriate woman composer concert. As a master artist at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, I got to pick my own associate composers, and chose four men and four women. When I took over the "American Composer" column at Chamber Music magazine, I was given a list of 70 previous subjects of columns by my predecessors: to my horror, 67 were men, only three women. Since then I have profiled 50 composers, 25 of them women, more than octupling their presence in the magazine. Dozens of women are given paragraphs or sections in my American Music in the 20th Century. (I heard that when Claude Palisca was criticized for having no women in his History of Western Music, he asked, "Are there any?") Yet I notice that when women composers are omitted from an event, complaints are inevitable; when women are abundantly included, compliments or any other notice are almost unheard of. People shouldn't expect compliments for doing what they ought to do anyway, and I don't, but perhaps an attempt to redress the situation might be more effective if it included carrots as well as sticks.

UPDATE: For further elaboration of "a carrot," read Comment #2.

April 2, 2009 7:51 PM | | Comments (7) |
A couple of insights gleaned from recent teaching:

- In my 20th-century orchestral repertoire class I happened to start teaching the minimalists on the same day I finished up the style-mixing postmodernists, like Bolcom, Rochberg, Del Tredici, Jonathan Kramer. And it occurred to me what they have in common. Both groups place the locus of innovation (I can still write fluent academese when I need to, though the Voice trained me out of it and I have no desire to start up again) - both rely for a sense of newness on the amount and variety of information in their pieces, contrasting it with the general information rate and stylistic variety range of the typical classical piece. The minimalists pare down the information to give you less than classical listeners would expect. The postmodernists ramp up the information variety so that you've got Mozart quotes, country and western licks, Romantic clichés, jazz all bubbling around in the same mix. There remain, of course, many composers for whom the information rate of classical music is still an abiding paradigm, but the minimalists and postmodernists likewise rebelled against the general rhetoric of classical music - one group by narrowing the focus, the other by widening it. Diametrically opposed as the two reactions are, I sense a certain kinship there, a tiredness with the repetitiveness of the classical music experience.

- Wagner's spinning of Tristan und Isolde out of a dramatically small group of materials - the Tristan chord, deceptive cadences, and French sixths morphing into dominant sevenths that never conclusively resolve - of course led the way to atonality, a divorce from the universal syntax of the common practice period, and 12-tone music's tendency to derive every element from a single row. More than that, though, I think it destroyed an overall faith in a commonly shared, objective musical language and created - indeed, privileged - a paradigm by which the composer creates his or her own universe for each work. This, seems to me, is what separates the New Tonality from the old. I write a lot of tonal music, but I never plunge into the whole syntax of V-I cadences, circle-of-fifths progressions, and all that stuff one learns in school: for each piece I choose what elements, some familiar and some piquant, that will constitute my language for that work. One can certainly say this for postminimalism in general, and I imagine for other New Tonal music as well. Wagner's stripping his Tristan music of so many of tonal music's usual signifiers was (forgive me for putting it this way) a proto-postminimalist gesture, or perhaps we should just say minimalist: a virtuoso determination to draw as much length and variety as possible from an artificially circumscribed set of chords and voice-leadings. 

In this sense I feel as a composer that I still inhabit a post-Tristan world more than I do, say, a post-Rite of Spring world. The expansion and increased systematization of materials ushered in by Le Sacre strikes me (when composing) as a little musty and superceded by this point. But Tristan seems like a forever-locked door, beyond which one could never again return to a non-contextual common language whose references could be drawn from a vocabulary not created within the piece itself.

April 2, 2009 12:45 PM | | Comments (9) |
Life has been too hectic lately (in mostly good ways) to be attentive to my own PR. I do have a performance tonight, and a local one. The Da Capo ensemble gives their "Celebrate Bard" concert tonight (I affectionately call it "Calibrate Bard," on the rationale that it shows us how we're doing), at 8 PM in Olin Auditorium on campus. The program is as follows:

John Boggs '09 ~ This Estranged Land
Cameron Bossert '06 ~ Celeritas
Brian Fennelly ~ Sock Monkeys
Kyle Gann ~ Kierkegaard, Walking
Casey Hale '02 ~ of Another
Joan Tower ~ Amazon

Boggs is a current student, Bossert and Hale are former students, and the rest of us, of course, are legends. [OK, maybe that was a joke.]

April 1, 2009 9:31 AM | | Comments (1) |

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This page is a archive of recent entries written by PostClassic in April 2009.

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