PostClassic: April 2009 Archives
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.
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.
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.
"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
- 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.
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
Sites To See
AJ BlogsAJBlogCentral | rss
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
rock culture approximately
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
No genre is the new genre
David Jays on theatre and dance
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
John Rockwell on the arts
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Martha Bayles on Film...
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
Exploring Orchestras w/ Henry Fogel
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
Jerome Weeks on Books
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world
Public Art, Public Space
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog