PostClassic: June 2010 Archives

When school ended I had been asked for new pieces by three people, and I have now finished two and a half of them. This morning I put the final touches on a piece for viola and piano, Scene from a Marriage, for my Bard colleague, violist Marka Gustavsson. I also completed, this afternoon, a tentative first draft for a 25-minute string quartet in one movement, titled The Summer Land of Time, for a concert Carson Cooman is organizing at Harvard. And yesterday I reached the halfway point in a new piano piece. It's 38 minutes of music since the last week of May, which amazes me because when I was young I was such a damnably slow composer. 

What I'm also surprised by is that I have virtually been writing these three pieces at the same time. This has never happened to me before. I have sometimes worked on two pieces at once, but inevitably one piece always became the "main" piece, and the other I ended up calling my "trash can" piece, because I would throw into it all the material that didn't work for the main piece. (It has always seemed to me that, while you're composing within certain limitations, all the things you're not doing start crowding your brain for attention, and by having a "trash can piece" you have a place to temporarily stow all the things you're not achieving in this piece. For instance, you're writing an adagio, and all these wonderful fast ideas come up that you feel guilty for not writing. My "trash can pieces" usually never make it past the early sketch phase. I wonder if other composers think this way.) Anyway, I was absolutely convinced that working on two pieces at once and giving each your full attention was impossible. But I seem to have done it now, carrying three pieces continuously in my head. I've long been convinced that, sometime in a composer's early 20s, his or her process changes. You start out being inspired by sonic ideas that appear almost unbidden in your imagination, and without which you are unable to write. At some point you shift gears so that the initial inspiration is no longer sonic but formal, and you learn to compose without being inspired at first, and the inspiration will surge in once you're working well. I can sit down now and compose at a moment's notice in a way I never could at 25. And now I'm wondering if my compositional process is going through another shift, allowing me to compose in multiple streams at once. Any composer old enough to have been through this is welcome to describe to me what I have to look forward to.

Allow me to also note that 25 minutes nonstop is a long slab of music to keep in your head at once. My previous longest single movement was the second movement of Sunken City, which was 18 minutes. I don't see how Feldman did it, or even Mahler.

June 30, 2010 8:20 PM | | Comments (4) |

In my recent post How to Care How It Was Made, I did not at all mean to invoke, as a couple of commenters suggest I did, the old canard about serial music and chance music being indistinguishable. Boulez, in his letters to Cage, absolutely rejected chance as a legitimate musical technique. I find it odd that, having said so so stridently, he was at that very time using pitch techniques that were theoretically just as groundless and arbitrary. This does not mean that I think Le Marteau sounds like chance music, nor that it sounds like Cage. The wonderful thing about Cage works like, say, Music of Changes and Four for string quartet is that they do sound something like imagined nature, with so much unpredictable variety in every parameter (nothing is excluded, even triads can appear fortuitously). Le Marteau's rhythms and timbres and textures sound completely busy and purposeful - it's the pitch language that seems literally meaningless, and I am hardly alone in this opinion. In this respect, one could argue that what Boulez said about Schoenberg in his article "Schoenberg est Mort" of the previous year is equally true of Boulez in Le Marteau: that there's a conceptual mismatch between his rhythmic profile and his pitch profile. (It strikes me that Boulez never made that mistake again.)

[UPDATE: Carson Cooman points out that when I interviewed Boulez and mentioned Nancarrow, he said that Nancarrow's rhythm was extremely sophisticated, but that "the pitch language doesn't follow." Sounds like a theme.]

A fellow graduate student of mine at Northwestern did her master's thesis or doctoral dissertation on precisely the supposed aural equivalence of serialism and chance music. In the course of it, she performed a demonstration in which she played ten musical examples, half of serialism and half of chance music (Cage and Xenakis, I think, exemplifying the chance half), and challenged us, her fellow grad students, to guess which were which. Had we gotten half of them wrong, that would have confirmed her thesis. I not only got nine of the ten examples right, I identified the composers correctly. (The remaining example was a poor recording.) Serialism and chance music are abstractions that are not independent of the composers in whose styles they are embodied. To pretend that one could compare generic serialism, per se, with generic chance music, per se, is to blunder into a syllogism. To defend the point, one would have to be able to compare a chance piece by Boulez or Babbitt with a serialist piece by Cage, which is, of course, impossible. Not only do Cage and Xenakis sound (even in excerpts of a few measures at a time) different from Boulez and Babbitt, Cage doesn't sound like Xenakis, and Boulez doesn't sound like Babbitt. For all its continuing popularity as a historical concept, the supposed perceptual equivalence of serialism and chance music had a grain of truth to it, but one, I thought, that was infertile, and from which nothing important ever grew.

June 26, 2010 8:55 PM | | Comments (2) |
I just learned that the final movement of my Implausible Sketches for two pianos, "Don't Touch My Pint," received its world premiere in Belgrade on May 23, by students of pianist Nada Kolundzija. Other composers on the concert: Glass, Cowell, Cage, Reich, Ligeti, Pärt, Nyman, Dusan Bogdanovic, Marjan Mozetich, and Milos Raickovic. Nada had mentioned the possibility to me, but I had no idea it had happened. "Don't Touch My Pint" is based throughout on a 5-against-4 rhythm, which explains the title. 

Um... the, uh British [oops!] Irish mnemonic device for 5-against-4 is "Don't fucking touch my pint again!"

June 23, 2010 5:42 PM | | Comments (2) |

I mentioned that I find myself working Sudoku puzzles lately. My other spare-time hobby, relentless nerd that I am, is analyzing the 12-tone pieces I'm using for my 12-tone analysis class in the fall. The two activities - tone-row searching and Sudoku - are kind of alarmingly similar, so much so that I can forget at times which I'm doing. (Is that "aggregate" filled up yet? Am I looking for 12 of something, or 9 of something?) I do like understanding things, though, so that I get a real childlike kick out of teasing out the structure of a piece I've been listening to for decades. In other words it's more like summer fun for me than it would be, I imagine, for most people.

I'm also honing in on the repertoire for the course. Looking for Schoenberg 12-tone pieces I can stomach, I've come up with the Waltz, Op. 23 No. 5, the first 12-tone piece he published, with a row that never transposes; the Op. 24 Serenade sonnet with the 11-syllable lines that go out of phase with the row; and the magnificent first scene of Moses und Aron. For Webern I am almost criterion-less, because they all make the same point, and I already use my favorites - Opp. 21, 27, and 29 - in other courses. Using the Concerto feels like such a cliché, but I guess my students need to know the clichés. I'm afraid I'm at the point of dropping poor Aaron Copland from the list. Connotations and Inscape are big, unwieldy pieces, and I just don't think they're that good, and I don't want to end up weakly defending them. Copland's imagination seemed constrained by the technique. If I'm going to venture into a large orchestral work (in addition to Sinfonia), I'd much rather use Rochberg's Second Symphony, which is the most exciting, memorable, and followable orchestral 12-tone work by any American I know of - also more to my taste, frankly, than anything the Second Vienna School ever produced. I'm already using Rochberg's Serenata d'Estate, which has been fun to take apart.

I have to do much of this at the beginning of the summer, because I need to order scores for students, and I have to make sure I don't get in over my head. I don't want to omit Boulez, and I'll attempt Le Marteau rather than more attractive examples only because there's a published analysis. Yes, I'm slowly working my way through Lev Koblyakov's oddly titled Pierre Boulez: A World of Harmony, a stunning work of analysis, and an equally stunning piece of dismal writing. If he could have stuck with even one musical passage long enough to show how Boulez derived it from beginning to end, it would be immensely more illuminating, but instead he goes concept by concept and jumps all over the piece with each new concept. He's certainly concise - too much so, in fact - and I admire his achievement, but he could have made his findings infinitely easier to digest.

(Time magazine hasn't yet added it to their online archive, but I clearly remember around 1980 when they ran an article breaking the news that a music-analyst, Koblyakov, had cracked the code to Le marteau. Amazing to think that mainstream media actually cared about such things a mere 30 years ago.)

Nevertheless, I get that Boulez divides up his row into five segments in five possible ways based on a rotating number series:


and so on. I also get that he "multiplies" each of those five segments by all five of them to build up derived unordered pitch sets - the process of "chord multiplication" being to transpose one chord to all the pitches of the other chord and add all the pitches together. And you can see how (if you take the trouble) each gesture is drawn from the pitches of these chord-multiplication products:


I also get how Boulez chose the order of chord multiples by making little diagonal patterns through his chart of available sets. Sounds like fun.

Well, that's great, sir, you're a Lebowski, I'm a Lebowski. What I can't see is why this method of generating pitches has any significant advantage over Cage's chance processes, which Boulez so vehemently rejected. I can't see what they have to do with the ostensive unifying purpose of the 12-tone row, and since Boulez plays around within them as unordered collections, plus has two of them going at any given time in extremely rapid succession (any one collection rarely occupying more than two beats at quarter = 168), I can't see what purpose this incredibly convoluted process serves in the least. Stephen Heinemann in "Pitch-Class Set Multiplication in Theory and Practice" (Music Theory Spectrum Vol. 20, No. 1, Spring 1998) promises to reveal a "process-based listening strategy" for Le Marteau based on all this, but by the time one's waded through all his math, the results aren't much. He shows how in "Domain 5" (one of the five harmonic areas) a certain octatonic partitioning tends to occur, but then writes

the other domains do not parse as easily as Domain 5, and... such an analytical approach is not without its obstacles. The aural "processing" in terms of interval class 3 and octatonic structuring is complicated... by the sheer rapidity of change...

If this is the best assurance we can get from someone who understands Le Marteau well enough to correct Koblyakov's misconceptions about it, I'm ready to give up on anyone ever making detailed aural sense of the piece. As Fred Lerdahl famously wrote (and Taruskin quotes it in his history),

Boulez's Le Marteau sans Maitre (1954) was widely hailed as a masterpiece of post-war serialism. Yet nobody could figure out, much less hear, how the piece was serial. From hints in Boulez (1963), Koblyakov (1977) at last determined that it was indeed serial, though in an idiosyncratic way. In the interim, listeners made what sense they could of the piece in ways unrelated to its construction. Nor has Koblyakov's decipherment subsequently changed how the piece is heard.... The serial organization of Le Marteau would appear, 30 years later, to be irrelevant. The story is, or should be, disturbing. ("Cognitive Constraints on Compositional Systems," in Generative Processes in Music, Oxford, 1988)


I agree. I'm disturbed by it. And yet...

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 - and yet, just as I couldn't decipher Le Marteau on my own without Koblyakov's almost grudging help, neither had I been able to tease any detailed sense out of Stravinsky's Requiem Canticles before Joseph Straus's Stravinsky's Late Music appeared. (Koblyakov proudly asserts that he analyzed Le Marteau without seeing Boulez's sketches, which are apparently lost, but I gather Straus had access to Stravinsky's notes.) In my youth I struggled vainly to relate the luscious quadruple flute chords from the Interlude (so proto-Feldmanesque, although Feldman was already doing similar things) to any kind of pitch order drawn from the first movement:


What a relief it was to learn that the chords are drawn from the first two-note columns in an array of four rows, prime, retrograde, inversion, and retrograde inversion:


And, going on, the two chords in the fifth measure are drawn from columns 3 and 4, respectively. The relationship of this fat A-flat 9 chord, drawn from two notes each from four different row forms, with duplications, to any sense of this work's 12-tone content is just as tenuous as the order of Boulez's chord multiplications. Here and elsewhere, it's almost like Stravinsky wrote out his row forms in some interesting logical order and then just glanced around for groups of pitches he liked that happened to be adjacent on the page. Of course, that gorgeous chord locked in the choice of other chords following it, quasi-randomly determined, with little musical function of their own but to resolve back to the initial one. The approach seems more charmingly intuitive, almost accidental or even opportunistic, than theoretical. I'm reminded of Bill Duckworth's piece from the 1970s Pitch City, in which the players are given a map for improvising their way through a row matrix.

(I was also amused to read in Straus's book about Boulez's and Stravinsky's relationship. Despite the flattering interest Stravinsky showed in the young Boulez, Boulez led a disastrous 1958 performance of Stravinsky's Threni, and frequently made public his contempt for all of Stravinsky's post-1923 music. In 1970 Stravinsky said, "I have not had any contact with M. Boulez myself since, shortly after visiting me in Hollywood three years ago, he talked about my latest compositions... with unforgivable condescension, then went on to play them at a prestigious concert in Edinburgh. This was not the first proof of disingenuousness I had had of that arch-careerist, but it will be the last in which I have any personal connection." (Stravinsky's Late Music, p. 34, n. 66) I'm not sure "arch-careerist" is the precise term for someone who bites the hand that could feed him, but I do feel certain that, even with my stunted sense of political advantage-taking, I would have returned the solicitations of Igor Stravinsky more graciously than that.)

In neither the case of Le Marteau nor Requiem Canticles does the technique seem to have any perceptible relation to the unifying idea of a 12-tone row. In the case of Requiem Canticles, though, it doesn't matter to me, because I've always loved the piece and I always will; it and Threni are among my favorite Stravinsky works, which I guess makes me a pretty rare breed of Stravinsky fan. (Straus goes concept-by-concept too, but with his broad hints I've been able to trace the rows through half of Threni.) I'm curious to find out how Requiem Canticles was composed, but the knowledge won't influence the way I listen to it, and I didn't care what the process "turned out" to be. In Le Marteau's case, however, I have always been baffled by the music, was never able to learn to love it or even like it or remember any of it, and finding out what total disregard for perceptibility it was written with is more likely to reinforce my dismissive attitude toward it than to make me listen more sympathetically. (I'm with this guy.) And yet I do love some of Boulez's later music, particularly Pli selon pli and Rituel.

Going further into all this is bracing me for the big philosophical question I'm expecting from the students this fall: Why use 12-tone method? What was the point? I don't expect to have an answer by then. Already when I mentioned in modernism class that some composers deviate from strict use of the row, they became indignant; if you believe in the theory, they said, you should trust it devoutly, and if not you should abandon it. (Young people can afford to be so pure.) The music itself will have to convince them that it's not so black and white: that the row is sometimes a unifying factor, sometimes a melody, sometimes a note generator, sometimes a pretext, sometimes an ideological weapon, sometimes a bad idea entertained for too long, sometimes even a Rorschach test. But I think I can convince them some beautiful music happened in spite of it, if not always because of it.


June 21, 2010 5:35 PM | | Comments (18) |

Allow me to sharpen the source of some of the disillusionment I expressed in my last entry. Part of what I'm going through is the perceived failure of a project on which I've spent much of my life's energy. And yet it hasn't failed: it has been victorious - and now that it has succeeded, I can see how circumscribed that success necessarily is. As John Cage liked to say, "Success is just another form of failure."

I have been called "the Downtown academic" - I am hardly the only one to merit the title, but for many years we were few and far between. Incensed in grad school by the way my favorite then-young composers (Glass, Budd, Meredith Monk, Riley, Ashley, Julius Eastman, even Cage, etc.) were scorned by the professors, I began a long-term campaign to prove that music's worth to academia. I was going to build the bridge from new/experimental/Downtown music to musical academia, and in so doing win some respect for my musical heritage. I can see now that there might have been better uses of my time, but I had built up a good store of the usual Oedipal resentment.

For one thing, many of those composers didn't give a damn whether academia respected them or not. I strongly suspect that, deep in his heart of hearts, Phil Glass doesn't lose any sleep over whether his scores are being analyzed in some university classroom. Glenn Branca is infinitely more interested in where his next gig's coming from, where he's going to get to travel, and how he's going to pay the rent than he is in whether I include a score sample of one of his symphonies in my history text. And who can blame them? They've got their priorities straight. This campaign of mine was for my respectability, fought with their music as a weapon. Many composers, of course, have been happy for me to champion their music in that rarefied arena, but others have been only middling cooperative. They want to keep control over their own message, or they don't want their scores circulating, or they just think it's silly to write scholarly articles about music that was made purely for pleasure, and that adequately reached its intended audience. And who can argue with that? I was building a bridge from Downtown music to the music school, and it was a bridge many Downtowners had no interest in crossing.

But what were my choices? I wanted this music promoted, so that my own music, when it came along, would have more chance of acceptance. As I've said, there were three markets: the commercial one, the orchestra world, and academia. I am an introspective, Scorpionic, charismatically-challenged (if intense) personality, and I was not going to start trotting around to Sony and RCA trying to interest their CEOs in recordings of low-commercial-potential new music. The commercial world runs on values inimical to mine, and I was not cut out to play the entrepreneur. [UPDATE: On second thought, though, I guess I played a commercial role as a critic for as long as was feasible.] The orchestra circuit: I know a lot of composers in that world, but I do not hold much sway with them, and they hold even less sway with the conductors and orchestra managers who are in charge. Had I possessed the persuasiveness of a Leonard Bernstein, and held those people in my thrall, they would hardly have had the power to do anything for the music I was championing. Nor were many of the Downtown composers, once again, seeking an entry to that world, though some of them would have certainly welcomed some orchestra commissions.

That left academia. I knew academia, and understood (to a point) how it worked. I was damn good at analyzing music (better than I am now, I'm afraid). I could fluently speak academia's faux-objective rhetoric of persuasion. I had read all the articles, and I understood very well how the warfare of musical politics gets waged through journal articles under the guise of disinterested scholarship. I could play that game. Furthermore, that world was also the one that had stirred my resentment.

I never set out to write books. I just wanted to write and perform music, and I fell into journalistic advocacy almost by chance, if fatedly. For many years, too, I couldn't get a teaching job; having finished my doctorate in 1983, I didn't teach more than an adjunct course here and there until 1995. In retrospect, I can see that this freed me up to get some publishing momentum, whereas had I won myself a teaching job earlier I would probably have gotten mired down, as I see so many young professors do, in the details of teaching and administration, at great expense to their prolificity. I've never written a book simply because I wanted to write a book. The books were footholds in academic discourse, credentials, irrefutable proofs that the music I loved possessed qualities worth talking about. And it worked. Had I not written the Nancarrow book and the American history book, I would never have gotten a job teaching theory at Bard. Now I could fire my cannons at the fortress walls from the inside, since I had long observed that academia is impervious to attacks from outside, and indeed disdains them.

Because I was not firing away alone, my longer-range plan materialized as well. Other scholars, better musicologically trained than myself - Keith Potter, Pwyll Ap Sion, Robert Carl, Robert Fink, too many to list here - also started writing books and articles on minimalism. For the Second International Conference on Minimalist Music, we received paper proposals from 76 scholars working in the field. But I had miscalculated as well in thinking that, once there was a bridge from Downtown music to the music school, that academia would walk halfway down that bridge to meet us. I stupidly supposed that the very quantity of my scholarship would prove to musical academia, in general, that the music was valid. What happened instead was that scholars in minimalism carved out their own niche, their own ghettoized specialty. My writings on minimalism have been celebrated, praised, embraced - in that niche. Within the world of minimalist musicology, I'm one of the grand dukes, a major player. But in the academic composition world in general, with its eternal emphases on Schenkerian theory, set theory, the canon, complexity, hard-core pitch analysis, my work is still taken hardly more seriously than Budd and Monk were when I started out. (I heard my latest dismissive Phil Glass joke from a colleague two days ago, and I'm still looking for a local music professor who knows what Robert Ashley's music is like.)

In the meantime, I've come to understand academia better. I mistakenly thought, from my 1970s student's perspective, that the problem was that a group of academic composers had gotten ensconced in music departments, and their stodginess and lack of creativity were preventing students from being exposed to the most exciting new music around. I have since learned that a college or university is a particular type of money-siphoning machine, and specifically a type that adheres to values foreign to the commercial world. The lack of creativity goes not from the faculty upward, but from the boards of trustees downward. Wealthy people keep the college system alive, and they do not do so disinterestedly. They want, in return on their investment, a kind of cultural prestige, and a kind that cannot be supported by any rabble-rousing populism among the faculty. Arcane, difficult-to-follow academic work feeds that prestige. Sure, you can write about Laurie Anderson in that milieu - but only if you do so in jargon that talks about "postmodern modes of discourse" and "transgendering," that makes it abstract and difficult to understand and therefore respectable - which means nonthreatening. Exciting young professors get hired (almost by mistake, it seems) and energize the students, but they eternally seem to have more trouble avoiding getting smashed by the edicts handed down from above than the punctilious ones who cloak their research in measured and arcane terminology. The sciences and social sciences in particular thrive in this environment, and they're the backbone of the institution. Those professors are in their element, and live honest lives. Knowing them is a constant revelation. The artists, on the other hand, are at a permanent disadvantage. The most creative of them cannot present their work with the kind of empirical verifiability that translates as prestige going up the ladder - except by winning awards administrated by other universities. And those who aim for and achieve any kind of popular or commercial success virtually negate the explicit aims of the institution.

Some of you will smile that I was so naive as to have to learn all this. It was doubtless more obvious from the beginning to many than it was to me. In any case, minimalist music, at least, has succeeded, thanks to me and a few dozen others, in the very dubious aim of carving out its own discourse in the peripheries of music departments. Any good-sized department can now afford one token experimental-music whacko, kind of a court jester. At age 27 I stormed the citadel of musical academia on horseback, with spear and helmet, to incite a revolution. 27 years later, in return for my promise not to break any more of the furniture, I've been granted a small but nicely-appointed bedroom on the fourth floor, in the back. Success is just another form of failure.

So now what do I do? I won't say I don't want to write any more books, but my motivation for writing them will certainly have changed. I wrote books to cement my credibility in academia (thus freeing my music from any such style-deforming responsibility), but the guilty truth is that, except for the Nancarrow analyses, those books were never aimed at academia: those of you who read them, and who read this blog, are probably either 1. composers and music fans outside academia, or 2. academics with similarly eccentric interests who have your own troubles keeping a foothold in that treacherous world. As a populist by nature, I have pursued a populist agenda in exactly that sphere of life which proudly shelters itself away from the mandates of populism. It was kind of idiotic, now that I think about it. Some of you have pointed that out with more accuracy than I credited you for. A temptation has always lingered in the back of my mind that with my accumulated writing skills I should write books for money; once, in a period of chronic financial panic, I asked Yoko Ono to let me write her authorized biography, but she nicely declined. Today I can't think of any commercially viable subject that I wouldn't be disgusted to associate with. And I don't need any more résumé lines. I have to learn what I would write not to score points, not to advance causes, not to do favors, not to support myself, but simply for my own pleasure. Perhaps this blog, absolutely divorced as it is from the possibility of any conceivable career advantage, is the perfect sketchpad.

It would be narcissistic of me to write what I have just written did I not consider it not only my personal odyssey, but the odyssey of my generation. Thousands of us were appalled by the close-mindedness of the high-modernist generation of professors, and wanted to smash the stranglehold of pitch-set analysis as an ultimate criterion of musical value. Many of us have now proved how far we can go in that direction: impressively far, actually, and yet never far enough. The beast must be fed. Outside of academia, however, we have trouble knowing where to turn. As the corporate dictatorship we live in grows ever more restrictive, popular, let alone commercial, success becomes vanishingly elusive. Academia is the sector of society set aside as a safe haven from corporate control. And yet to pursue a career of quasi-populist yearning for fans within the confines of the ivory tower seems like a weird self-delusion. There's a story about Thomas Edison making 8000 failed attempts to invent a storage battery, who, on being consoled, replied brightly, "Now we know 8000 things that don't work." Perhaps all this is merely to pass on to the younger generation of composers that we now know how far the attempt to cure the problems of authentic art production in a corporate dictatorship can be addressed within the halls of acadème - and it's not very far. What other ideas you got?

June 17, 2010 2:16 PM | | Comments (10) |

[TWO UPDATES BELOW] I don't submit many scholarly articles to journals anymore. I figured out I can put my research in some journal and only three people will ever read it, or I can post it here on my blog and hundreds will read it, and comment, and link to it.

I'm certainly not going to hand the scores of my music over to some publisher so he can take half the royalties and tie up the copyrights. My music gets around much faster as PDF scores on my website, and with no appreciable loss of potential income on my end.

Likewise, I've been debating the wisdom of putting out any more CDs. They sometimes cost a mint to produce, distribution channels are terrible, reviews are almost unheard of, and income from sales? That's a laugh. I can't convince myself that any more people will hear my music from "commercial" CDs than from mp3s on my web site, and not making CDs would save me money.

Writing books is a lot of work, and I'm not sure what it does for me. My Cage book got me a couple of nice radio interviews that I had to drive many miles to record. I counted it up, and what I've made in book sales in 20 years is dwarfed even by the rare music commissions I've had. If I wrote difficult-to-read books with titles like Hexachordal Invariance in the Late Music of Roger Sessions, academia would consider me one of the Serious Guys, and I could write my own ticket at some university - but I'm not going to do that. Analysis of 4'33"?  Robert Ashley? Player pianos? Give me a break. Musicologists are nice to me and quote me, but no music department is going to ultimately import someone with my undistinguished areas of expertise. I'm considering not writing any more books, because I just can't see the point.

I don't write newspaper reviews or program notes or liner notes anymore. That was a tremendous distraction from my natural interests, and it never paid enough to justify it except when I was near-destitute.

I work like a dog trying to write a few pieces of music a year in-between all my other commitments. But my music doesn't "take off," whatever little successes I have hardly ever bring new commissions, the new-music groups out there never seem to consider playing anything of mine, and my kind of music is certainly never going to win any of the kinds of awards that would impress musical academia. I've been toying with the idea of not writing any more music. 

Meanwhile, what do people say when I am introduced to them?

"Oh yes, I've read your blog."

Given that I have a day-job salary: why do I do anything but blog?

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UPDATE: I had a feeling I might have to contextualize this intendedly humorous musing on futility. Here's the situation: We have three markets. There's a commercial market, entirely determined by huge corporations whose sole interest is money. We're never going to make a dent in that one. There's an orchestra-music circuit that you have to enter young, and it's all about who you know, and the music sucks. And there's an academic market, which demands a healthy respect for the Schoenberg line and a suspicion against anything populist. I and my 400 closest friends don't fit any of these markets. Back in the 1980s, there was both a Downtown scene and a rising new-music market that looked for years like it really might take off. The scene has been dispersed, the new-music fad has been rolled back. When I was 28 all this was a fight worth taking on. But we haven't won the fight - things have actually gotten worse. And in a weak moment Doug McLennan convinced me to write this stupid blog, and somehow it has more impact than anything else I do. People meet me, and I'm not the composer, I'm not even the author, I'm the blogger.

I have a nice screened-in porch, with the Catskills visible through the trees. At the liquor store down the road, my friend Jim has a standing order for my 18-year-old Bowmore single-malt scotch, and I have a humidor full of Padrone maduro cigars, smooth and chocolatey tasting. I'm 54 and I'm through fighting the system every day and watching things go south. And I'm very seriously wondering if there's any reason I should do anything after a day of teaching secondary dominant chords besides come home, sit on this porch, smoke those Padrons and drink that Bowmore? 'Cause if all this work is never going to lead to anything, I'm ready to decide the answer is no.

UPDATE 2: Forgive me for insisting that some of the moroseness being read into this post is in the reader's own mind. I am not the slightest bit depressed; I am dissatisfied. I want more money. I want to travel. I want some free time. I want to enjoy myself. And after some years' achievement in composing and publishing, I find that these activities, even when crowned with all available success, are not bringing me any closer to those goals. Quite the contrary. These extracurricular activities take up virtually all of my free time, and much of my disposable income. I have reached a point in my life at which I have to consider whether continuing to work like a dog for the next 20 years is going to result in any actual personal satisfaction, and if the trajectory suggests that it will not, I will jettison what responsibilities I can not in the spirit of sour grapes, but with a clear conscience and a relief at no longer delaying the gratifications I've put off for so long. Music can be the greatest thing in the world and still not be worth martyring oneself for.

June 16, 2010 12:37 PM | | Comments (26) |

One more thing about composing, since these theme columns tend to come in threes.

This is a guilty secret. When composing, I usually imagine more how the piece will sound on recording than in live performance.

There is, as we classical types all too seldom recognize, a difference. I love listening to Feldman's For Samuel Beckett on disc; I can just melt into it. But I heard it live once (John Kennedy conducting at Lincoln Center), and I felt nearly suffocated, sonically claustrophobic. Ten minutes into it I had an impulse to flee the hall - but I didn't. On the other hand, I don't think Feldman's Second Quartet would mean nearly so much to me if I had heard it only on CD, and not live. I had to live through it in real-time experience to fully get it. And those are two extremely different examples within the same composer's output. In live performance I expect to be a little more entertained, and can appreciate a more volatile sense of drama. I tend to pick CDs to listen to more for ambience, based on overall consistency and a paucity of dramatic contrast.

And I have many reasons to imagine my music on recording. One is that 98% of the music with which I am extremely familiar I know from recordings, not from live performance. Opportunities to hear my favorite works live are extremely, extremely rare. I was in my 50s before I got to hear Thomson's Symphony on a Hymn Tune and Harris's 3rd live, and I've loved them from high school. As for my own music, for every one person who hears it live, there will be 300, or maybe 3000, who will hear it on a recording. I think most of us are pretty much in the same boat here.

But the most important reason is that I like records. Let me amend that: I liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiike  records. I started collecting records when I was 12. (I went down to Melody Shop in downtown Dallas - this was 1968 - and bought, for some reason, The Threepenny Opera and Berlioz's Romeo and Juliet. Heaven opened up to me. I still adore both pieces.) Here is almost a third of my CD collection:


I appreciate the immediacy of live performance, and in some sense I realize I've never really heard a piece until I hear it live, and many live performances have changed my life, but I have a lifelong love affair with records. Live performances are nervous-making, and almost never go completely the way you wanted. Becoming a critic was, for awhile, the perfect profession: most of the discs you see there were sent me free of charge. (It's a fairly small collection by music critic standards, because your average living composer doesn't put out new discs nearly as often as jazz and straight classical musicians do.) What would really, really make me feel like a composer, though, as I've said before, would be to have my music on an RCA vinyl record with a clear plastic inner sleeve and long, readable liner notes on the back, and maybe Ormandy conducting, with, say, the Berg Violin Concerto on side 2. That's what composers were when I was a kid, and that would make me feel like I finally achieved composerhood. I don't expect to ever get it (certainly not with Ormandy).

That is not to say that I put out CDs conceived as "records," any more than most classically trained composers do. For some reason we keep writing as though for live performance. I haven't managed to put out "concept albums," although some of my electronic works have tended that way, if I could get enough of them together on one disc. I think The Planets works well as a total CD because of its length and stylistic unity; it's my best record whether it's my best piece or not. As I've said many times, I think the only new-music composers who are really geniuses at putting out records have been Bob Ashley and Paul Lansky. Perhaps there are a few others I'm not thinking of. But I do suspect that the flatness, the consistency, the Zen, the drama-lessness of my music stems not just from my personality, but partly because I want to listen to it on a record.

UPDATE: I should add the obligatory depressing postlude. A few weeks ago I threw away, for the first time, a CD that had deteriorated to the point of unplayability: Brahms string quintets on Nonesuch. Picked it up out of the machine, held it to the light, and it had a dozen or so pinpricks where the coating had, I dunno, fallen off or collapsed or something. I listened instead to the mp3s on my hard drive. I've transferred most of those CDs to three hard drives, and hopefully will transfer those files to newer ones before the hard drives quit working. I can pass my vinyl down to my grandchildren if they want it, but I will probably outlive my CD collection. The only permanent storage medium my music is preserved on is the paper the scores are printed on. Everything else is designed to expire.

June 14, 2010 9:12 PM | | Comments (13) |

Since people seemed to like the subject of keeping the performer in mind while composing, it's been on my mind, in response to a couple of comments, to hopefully blow apart a notion I regard as superficial and misleading: that the composer "writes what he hears." Creative activity is virtually infinite in its forms, and I would never claim that no composer does this, but I think it must be fairly rare. Of course, in a sense I certainly do write the music I want to hear (my ability to relisten to my own CDs verges on narcissism), and I do "hear" my music before I compose it; but it often comes out sounding different than I expect, and I almost always end up rewriting it into something I never quite expected to hear. I'd be disappointed if my music didn't regularly surprise me.

Take this blog entry, for instance. I've started it because I've got a bug up my ass, as happens, about some mistaken notion I see myself in a position to correct. It's been running through my mind for a few days, and the mental form it always takes is that the initial, central idea always comes first, and other related ideas, or apropos phrases, group themselves around it in no particular order, like spokes around the hub of a wheel. Now I've sat down to write, and all those disconnected ideas must arrange themselves in series, into coherent paragraphs. Some of them don't link logically. Transitional ideas must be grabbed out of the air. I struggle with introspection, because at this exact point in writing my initial idea has been stated, but the other eloquent phrases I'm eager to use don't fit in yet. Very, very often I find, as I think any serious essayist must, that what I end up meaning as the essay takes shape is not exactly what I expected to say. I might possibly find myself contradicting the gist of this blog entry and not finishing it. What's given, though, is that the linear format of these paragraphs is not isomorphic to my obsessive musings of the past few days, and that I cannot possibly simply throw the latter down on paper (or screen) as they exist in my head. The impetus is transformed by the process. In a sense I had something to say and I will have said it, but more accurately, I will have found out by the end of this essay what I think. Which is the value, for me personally, of writing a blog - and would continue to be even were no one reading it.

Music is not language (though recent studies are suggesting that it uses the same part of the brain [h/t McLaren]), and parallels between them are always tenuous. You might imagine, however, and correctly, that writing music and writing words have become particularly conflated in the lifestyle that has chosen me. In a sense I've been better professionally trained to write words than music - only because being edited for a newspaper is a strict and arduous process - and my composing has increasingly borrowed reflexes from my writing. (There's a point I didn't expect to think of.) Everything I've said about my experience writing this blog entry applies to my composing, more or less depending on the piece. I always have an idea I want to get across, or an effect I want to create; but most of the time (not all), I find that the idea doesn't get across, or the effect doesn't happen, the first way I write it down. These little bits of nonlinear music that float through my brain don't map onto the linear page without some organization. Ultimately, the piece goes where it wants to go, and I'm smart enough to try and get out of the way.

 It is common to believe, I gather, that people think the material of music is simply sound, and that, being so incorporeal, music is the freest of the arts, that the composer can simply make something appear and it happens. For me this has never been the case. The materials of music exert as much resistance back to the artist as clay does to the potter, paint and color to the painter, granite and steel to the sculptor, words and syntax to the poet - and even more so, I tentatively think, because the materials involved, at least in composing via notation for human performers, are heterogeneous in origin. It depends, I suppose, on how you define your materials, and this is how I define mine:

1.    12 pitches and their octave equivalents (unless I'm composing microtonally, in which case I gather pitches like a kid with a credit card in a toy store until I'm a little freaked out by how many I have to carry home; and in this case they tend to group themselves into clumps of associated pitches);
2.    Musical notation, which includes rhythm within all its humanly possible limitations;
3.    The instruments and the sounds they can make that I find attractive or acceptable (for instance, I'm just not into multiphonics or sul ponticello);
4.    Insofar as I can anticipate it, the trained psychology of my performers, which may vary in specificity depending on how well I know them.

Other composers will conceptualize their materials differently, depending on medium or performing abilities, but I expect that for virtually everyone it's kind of an odd assortment - or becomes so with experience. (As several commenters have suggested, realizing pieces electronically changes the game entirely - but even there, with my limited skills, the medium resists with a vengeance.) I push all of these materials to do what I want, and I am accustomed to finding that they push back. I want to create effects that turn out to be inelegant or unwieldy or a pain for the performers, and in composing (or, more strictly, revising) I find how those effects can realize themselves within the materials I've got. Everyone knows that Stockhausen asked Feldman what his "system" was, and Feldman replied: "I don't push the notes around." Stockhausen: "Not even a little bit?" It becomes painfully obvious to me, in composing, when I'm "pushing the notes around," and I back off.

For instance, in the string quartet I'm writing, there's a lovely pandiatonic passage on the D-major scale. The section preceding it ends on an A7 chord, which I considered a nice link. But that preceding section was too complicated, difficult to play in rhythm, and with an unmemorable melody; so I rewrote it, and its voice-leading led to a B7 chord. I tried transposing the D-major, and it just ruined the resonance of the cello. I was despondent for about ten minutes, but playing through it realized that the A7 to D sounded trite, and the B7 to D was not only charming, but expressed my overall, non-causal expressive intentions better. The notes seem to be smarter than me. Thank goodness the purpose of the piece is not to demonstrate to the world how smart its composer is (which strikes me as being the case with some pieces I hear).

Another compromise I made: In the first movement of Desert Sonata, I have an isorhythmic passage (in 41/16 meter) in which the bass line runs through a repeating rhythmic cycle and a pitch cycle that go out of phase. Given my usual numerological inclinations, I would have had something like 17 notes in the rhythm and 19 in the pitch, so that they'd never come back in sync within the time framework of the piece. But the cognitive demands on the pianist would have been outrageous. Finally I settled for the non-mutually-prime numbers 15 against 18, so that the whole pattern would repeat every five measures, and it sounds great - not only easier to play, but easier for the listener to grasp what's going on. 

(Parenthetically, though it furthers the point, I find that some composers write more effectively for solo strings than I do because they can keep in mind what all the open strings are, to take advantage of them for double- and triple-stops. I just don't like letting those "special pitches" interfere with my freely composed harmonies, and so to this extent I arrogantly fail by my own criterion. I'm an emotion/intuition type, and not earthy at all. For the same reason I find classical guitar nearly impossible to write for. The physical material is too eccentric.)

The point about keeping the performers is mind is that I have found that I ignore category no. 4, performer psychology, at my peril. The first version of the "Moon" movement from my The Planets turned out to be impossible to play without a conductor, and since the rest of the piece doesn't require one, this was unacceptable. (I actually strolled onstage to conduct "Moon" at its first performance, which I felt reflected something of a failure in my composing.) One of the most difficult things about my music, which is hardly ever virtuosic, is that I try to create rhythmically free situations in which various performers have virtual downbeats in different places, often unrelated to the meter and especially to each other. The idea must get across, or else I won't feel like the piece is mine. But in this instance I rewrote the work with more frequent articulated downbeats, especially in the percussion, so that the players could keep track of where they were. It may seem like a compromise to some, but I was certainly happier with the performance as it turned out.

I doubt what I'm saying is particularly controversial (though I have given up trying to anticipate reactions). My colleague Joan Tower, who's from a completely different side of the aesthetic tracks, likes to say, "When you're composing you think you're in control, but you're not," and other well-established composers have said similar things to me in conversation. They say the young Mozart conceived works all of a piece, and I suppose it sometimes happens. David Galenson's book Old Masters and Young Geniuses suggests that planning a work out in advance is more typical of young artists, and experimenting to "find" the piece more typical of older ones, which accords with my experience; I used to plan too much, and the results didn't always flow. I know a retired composer who says that he always hears music in his head, and when he starts composing he just writes it down; but he hasn't had much of a career.

What makes the point worth stressing, I think, is that we are still emerging from a kind of collective macho mindset which overrated the untrammeled will of the composer. I have been strongly influenced by Pauline Oliveros's famous 1984 article "The Contribution of Women Composers," in which she drew a contrast between two types of creativity:

(1) active, purposive creativity, resulting from cognitive thought, deliberate acting upon or willful shaping of materials, and (2) receptive creativity, during which the artist is like a channel through which material flows and seems to shape itself.

Quoting both Mozart and Beethoven in support of the idea that we need both kinds, she goes on to say,

"Artists who are locked into the analytical mode with little or no access to the intuitive mode are apt to produce one-sided works of art. Certainly many of the totally determined, serial works of the post-war years seem to fit that category."

The emphasis I bring to my composition students is that the piece is king, they are servants; the needs of the piece they're writing are more important than their own needs. "This piece wants something from you," I'm always telling them; "what is it?" And the disappointing response I usually get is, "Well, that's just the way I want it," which I consider a miserable failure as a rationale. Or else they're giving the performers something that's going to take tremendous trouble to play for very little or confusing effect.

A live-performed musical experience is something that it takes several intelligences to create, and the composer is only one of them. For me to ignore the way my performers will react to the notation, in order to effect some pre-ordained system of my own, would be as stupid, I think, as for a painter to ignore how differently water-colors act than oil paints. Those musicians are the clay I have to work with. The composer has something to learn from his or her own music just as everyone else does. And while we talk loosely about the composer "writing down the music he hears," I think we do more justice to the complexity and reciprocal value of artistic experience by admitting that the composer is just as subject to his or her materials as anyone else. All praise to the composition - but the composer should be humble. 

June 10, 2010 3:27 PM | | Comments (11) |

pianoroll.jpgI've always said that the optimum way to experience Nancarrow's Player Piano Studies was "live" and close-up, being able to watch the piano roll go by. It's a roller-coaster experience: you can see the notes coming before they get there, anticipate their crash into audibility a split-second before it comes, and it adds to the excitement. Well, Nancarrow's piano technician Jürgen Hocker has put up You Tube videos of (almost) the complete Studies, including a couple outside the official canon (I say almost because I don't see No. 41 yet, but perhaps it's coming). The pieces are played on a pair of Bösendorfer grand player pianos, and it seems evident that Jürgen's done something to the hammers to make them sound like Nancarrow's altered pianos. Sometimes you get to watch the piano roll go by close-up; at other times the camera pans out so you can watch the keys play by themselves for awhile. It's the next best thing to being down in that studio in Mexico City. Study No. 30, the "abandoned" one for prepared player piano, is included, though without the preparations (we could never quite figure out what they were); also Para Yoko, and an early study used in the Merce Cunningham dance from 1960, then withdrawn, which resurfaced decades later as Piece for Ligeti. Jürgen throws in many photo-explanations of Conlon's working tools and method, so it's an enlightening presentation, worth spending some time with. (Needs a robust browser, though, my Safari keeps blinking out on it.) (h/t Nick Seaver)

While I'm at it, I noticed lately that someone has made a little You Tube video based on my microtonal composition Charing Cross, with historical paintings and photos of the Charing Cross area in London. Very nice. These things just appear, I guess(?). 

Lastly, I notice that a couple of musicology grad students, Mark Samples and Zach Wallmark, have an entire blog devoted to running commentary on Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music as they crawl their way through it, called The Taruskin Challenge. Almost like reading it, I suppose.

UPDATE: By the way, even with Captcha as a buffer, I'm now once again getting more spam mail on this site than legitimate comments. Pardon me if I say, in hopes that they'll see it, that these idiots trying to peddle their pathetic wares via my comments section are THE SCUM OF THE EARTH. Also, their puerile efforts are entirely wasted, since not a single spam ever gets posted.

June 9, 2010 10:58 AM | | Comments (1) |

One of the issues I deal with every day as a composer (every day I get to compose, that is), is the tension between what I want to hear and what's "grateful" for the performer to play. I suspect a lot of us are in this boat now. It started with minimalism. There are a lot of postminimal pieces I love listening to, and then I open the score and see page upon page of streaming 8th-notes without rests, or multiple tied whole-notes for wind players, or intricate permutational passages within small ranges, and think, "Boy, I love hearing it, but I'm glad it's not me who has to play it."

I wouldn't want to seem critical by naming pieces, but the locus classicus I show to students in this respect is Steve Reich's Variations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards of 1979. Stunning piece, I love hearing it, but I look at those wind parts, and my first thought is "oxygen deprivation." My second is, "Imagine the kind of concentration needed to keep all those fast patterns lined up right through changing meters for 20 minutes." And Tehillim? Jeezus, what a workout! I remember when the Netherlands opera orchestra started working on Glass's Satyagraha and the players leaked bitter complaints to the press about having to saw away on 8th-notes for quarter-hours at a time. The paradigms for that music came from Reich's and Glass's personal ensembles, either keyboard- or mallet-percussion-based, and - I don't really know about mallets - but it's kind of easy to lose yourself in a mechanical groove fingering away endlessly at the keyboard. Breathing's not an issue, nor do you have to continually keep your elbow in the air. Glass and Reich also had a few wind and string performers, like Jon Gibson and Barbara Benary, who developed the technique for it; plus, in those early works it was sometimes acceptable to drop out occasionally for a few notes and come back in again.

In general, though, performers aren't too happy to be handed endurance tests, and a lot of my compositional technique has gone toward preserving the qualities I want from minimalism while giving the performers something graceful and rewarding to play. I'm writing a string quartet. My impulse would be to keep the players pretty much confined to one string for ten minutes at a time, but I want them to use the whole range of their instruments, not get too tired, and feel each phrase as something musical. So I'm wracking my brain to introduce frequent variety and gently nuanced phrases without introducing any drama, anguish, or climaxes whatever, anything that will disturb the placid, uniform surface I want. And page turns! - boy, did that get me in trouble with my guitar quartet Composure. We all agreed that having a page-turner next to each guitarist would look pretty silly, so I went back and finagled some two-measure rests in so they could keep going. But the postminimalist textural paradigm I favor tends to keep everyone playing all the time. This was more feasible when the music was so repetitive that the score would fit on two pages, like In C.

I'm also working on a piano piece whose concept keeps the pianist's left hand in the lower half of the bass clef throughout, and it's a pretty quick piece. So I'm carefully arranging rhythms in intuitively graspable heirarchies so the panist's brain can proceed by phrases rather than tediously note-to-note. One of the most dangerous things I ever did in this respect was the last movement of Transcendental Sonnets, in which each of the chorus's SATB parts never strays more than a minor third from the pitch it starts on; turned out to be kind of exhaustingly difficult, as I taught myself before turning it in by singing through all the parts myself. I went back through and added occasional appoggiatura inflections to make it a little easier, and that helped. I love that effect of the chords hovering almost motionless as the harmony changes, but the singers would have had a much easier job leaping around from time to time.

The problem is that I'm trying to introduce into live performance a paradigm that comes from ambient music, and whose origins are electronic. In the abstract, this is not a novel concern. In the '50s and '60s, composers like Boulez and Stockhausen and Ligeti were introducing concepts from electronic music (like bandwidth) into their music, which gave the performers some new challenges. Many from my generation infuse postclassical music with the gestures of rock. Classical music isn't really a receptive medium for all these foreign paradigms. It's strange, when you think about it: Ligeti should have made electronic music, Michael Gordon should have been a rock star, and I should have made ambient music, but instead we pick up new paradigms in these areas and bring them back to torture string quartets and orchestras with. The serialists, finding saftely in numbers, managed to create a class of performers specialized to play their atomized rhythms and textures. (I know of one soprano who's made such a career of singing major sevenths and minor ninths exquisitely that she sounds pretty shaky trying to effect a major scale.) Will we postminimalists ultimately nurture a repertoire of performers suited to our exorbitant needs? Well, we've got Joe Kubera the human player piano, who's great for all those relentless devices that drive everyone else nuts. But other players I know will play such things when they have to, and hope they don't have to too often.

Some composers, of course, take the attitude (and will write in with it here), "Just write the music you want to hear and let the performers deal with it, it's their problem." But I really want my performers to enjoy playing my pieces, and most of all, I want the music to sound like the performers are really into it. After one concert I reviewed for the Voice I remarked that I wanted to go onstage and cordon off the performers with a yellow "Men at work" banner. I want to hear performers play, not work. I treasure the fact that Sarah Cahill finds my Private Dances fun to play. And I'm going to continue losing sleep over this string quartet until it plays like Schubert and sounds like me.

June 7, 2010 9:03 PM | | Comments (18) |

My summer hobby, as it turns out, pursued in-between writing a string quartet and finishing my Ashley book, will be relearning the history of music at the feet of Richard Taruskin. That is, from his five-volume Oxford History of Western Music. I should have bought it earlier, and I know what a brilliant writer he is, but I thought it would be full of things I already knew, perhaps kind of a super-Grout (and no former music student will need to be told that I am referring to Donald J. Grout's omni-required and stultifying A History of Western Music). But, stuck in New York City recently without my Kindle and with a few hours to kill, I bought Taruskin's Volume Five, Music in the Late Twentieth Century, and learned within minutes how groundless any such fears were. It is a thorough and creative rethinking of all of Western music. I could hardly put it down, and weeks later, going backwards, I'm halfway through Volume Four.

Volume Five's opening chapter is the most transcendent music history writing I've ever read, along with Rosen's The Classical Style - and possibly above it. He starts with the bombing of Hiroshima, using it as a grand metaphor for what he calls "Zero Hour" - the attempted total redefinition of music at Darmstadt. And yet, he brilliantly juxtaposes this with the Zhdanovshchina, the official rebuke that Zhdanov made to Soviet composers like Shostakovich and Prokofiev, calling on them to eschew abstraction and write accessible music using folk tunes. Through several long chapters Taruskin charts the century's most amazing musical paradox: that under a totalitarianism that mandated simple, melodic music, the mechanical algorithms of total serialism came to represent freedom. And at the same time, on the Western side of the Iron Curtain, total serialism came to express mankind's existential despair in the face of the possibility of nuclear annihilation. What a head trip!

For instance, here he is on Stefan Wolpe, whose early music was often political agitprop:

[Wolpe's thorny late] music no longer communicates with the directness of a Kampflied. A listener would be hard-pressed to paraphrase its "message," or guess its precise motivation, with any confidence. But if it thus frustrated willing listeners, it also frustrated would-be censors, and that may well have been the point. The hermeticism of Wolpe's postwar - or rather, Cold War - music was a deliberate and demonstrative refusal to comply with the directives of the Zhdanovshchina. And yet, the question nags, how did an artist with Wolpe's social conscience feel about a decision, however honestly arrived at, to insulate his artistic integrity within a music that eventually became so abstract that its content would be a riddle, its style so advanced that few except fellow musicians could take pleasure in it, and so demanding of its performers that almost no one could play it? [p. 14]

Adorno, he says, in his Philosophie der neuen Musik,

added an existentialist argument to the older doctrine of progress... If, as the existentialists argued, authenticity can only be personal and justified from within, never collectively asserted or justified from without, then a music that by virtue of its difficulty shunned popularity had to be a more authentic music than one that potentially spoke for the many. Responding only to what Adorno called "the inherent tendency of musical material" rather to any call from the wider world, twelve-tone music seemed to embody a perfect artistic autonomy. [p. 17]

And yet, in another sharp irony, the collective pressure put on composers to switch to dodecaphony would have seemed to destroy the autonomy of the composer, and thus the authenticity of his music. Referring to Boulez's infamous "Schoenberg is Dead" article,

The violence that Leibowitz had predicted certainly came to the fore in Boulez's frantically coercive and intolerant rhetoric. No one who has read the article has ever forgotten its frightening climax [the line about any composer who hasn't understood the necessity of the 12-tone language being USELESS]...
Not even Zhdanov had ever voiced a judgment more categorical or intransigent (and indeed it is obvious that Boulez's rhetorical model was the Communist journalism of his day). [p. 19]


...rather than an expression of simple nihilism, or belief in nothing, the renunciation total serialism demanded might rather be seen as expressing existential despair. It was the passionately intense reaction of artists who could no longer believe in the supreme value of the individual self, the "autonomous subject" exalted by romanticism, at a time when a hundred thousand selves just as individual as theirs might vanish at the push of a button. [p. 43]

Virtually every argument Taruskin makes is buttressed by telling details from obscure corners of history. He analyzes Stockhausen's Kreuzspiel, an early work I've always heard of, but have never actually heard (and there seems to be no currently available recording). Because it has a steady drumbeat running underneath it, it was attractive, and Stockhausen suppressed it:

Within the ascetic world of "total serialism," at any rate, Kreuzspiel counts as easy listening. That may be one reason why Stockhausen supressed constant pulsation in the works that followed, and also withheld Kreuzspiel from publication for nearly a decade, despite positive audience reactions. [p. 48]

Later, Taruskin credits the anti-Communist backlash in the U.S. as having partly motivated a turn toward 12-tone music, since "accessibility" had earned a politically suspicious reputation. Evidence? The month in which Aaron Copland was first denounced by a rightwing group for his Communist connections happened to be the month he began his first 12-tone piece, the Piano Quartet. The contradictions of the age had made over-intelligibility politically incorrect. I hadn't realized that Erno Lendvai had been dismissed from his Academy post in Budapest for writing his book about Bartok's axis system and Golden Sections. The book made Bartok sound like a decadent formalist, but Ligeti broadcast Lendvai's ideas at Darmstadt to revive Bartok's flagging reputation among the 12-toners, and thus add prestige to his own lineage.

This is history written in very broad strokes, and they are dazzingly creative, flexible enough to be encompassing, while supported in enormous detail. The major theme Taruskin brings out for the postwar era is the question of whether a composer is indebted to history or to society. If to history, then the important thing is to build on past music and to keep progress going; if to society, then musical style doesn't matter, even to the point of seeming anachronism, as long as the point gets across. I vividly remember feeling crucified on this exact point in the 1970s, torn between systematic composing methods and Cardew-esque political critique. (In fact, my have-your-cake-and-eat-it solution to that puzzle - making my music lyrical and harmonically simple on the surface, while hiding my secret innovations in the backgrounded rhythms and tuning - occupies me to this day. I spent the morning wrestling with it.) Interestingly, Taruskin brings all this out in the volume's center with a contrast between Benjamin Britten and Elliott Carter, two composers whose "followings tended to be mutually exclusive."

This is a revisionist history, but unlike Carl Dahlhaus's otherwise wonderful Nineteenth-Century Music, it is not a revision that requires one to have read the original first. It explains everything clearly enough from the ground up that I think undergrads could deal with most of it (I gave that first chapter to my modernism class to read). The only things that might daunt them are the rather detailed analyses of Boulez and Babbitt, which do contribute to Taruskin's overall points. In fact, the book ripples with musical analysis. This is a history book by someone who loves to analyze music, and does it very well, capturing the essence of musical styles with a few well-chosen and deeply plumbed examples. The sections on pitch relationships in Debussy and Scriabin have greatly deepened my understanding of two composers I'd never gotten around to looking at closely. I can't escape the impression, actually, that it is a history of music written specifically for composers: I can't quite imagine any other group getting as much out of it. Virtually every historical generalization eventually gets pinned down to specific instances of compositional technique. (I've told the story here before that Taruskin was one of the external evaluators for my tenure; he made such penetrating comments about my compositional technique that I changed my style in response to them. It was the best composition lesson I've ever had.)

Of course, I've been policing Taruskin like a hawk on the American composers I'm most invested in. He sometimes looks likely to overdo an emphasis, and never does; every crucial point is hit, every ameliorating factor noted. His parsing of Ives, for instance, is that he was a maximalist but not a modernist: that is, he shared the early 20th-century tendency for ramping up levels of complexity and dissonance (maximalism), but conservatively held to a 19th-century view of music's appropriate expressive ends; I've said something similar myself, though without documenting it nearly so well. (In fact, Taruskin quotes me at some length on music after 1970, so a few of my agreements with him approach tautology.) He even collects Ives with composers like Crawford and Rudhyar as Americans who used technical innovations toward spiritual ends, which is a nice point I've never seen anyone make. People get left out - Nancarrow, for instance, isn't mentioned - but his framework is so all-encompassing that the reader can fit them in for himself later.

I've ordered a vocal score to Salome and downloaded from IMSLP (because the available scores cost a fortune) one of Elektra, two operas that impressed me when I was a teenager but that I've hardly listened to since; Taruskin's analyses resparked my interest. I'm beginning to get out recordings I haven't listened to for years, and I've taken up an interest in Andrzej Panufnik, whom Taruskin contrasts curiously with Ligeti. In short, I am swept up in the irresistible flow of Taruskin's vastly creative musical logic, and, with 3000 pages to go, the rest of my summer is pretty well planned out.

[May I conclude with a didactic point for those whom it may concern? You'll notice I've quoted Taruskin heavily, and allowed him to make his points with his own words. This is how you write a book review. Read a book through once, describe it from memory, and you'll invariably falsify it. This is what happened with that idiot who reviewed my Cage book, and it's not the first time. As you read a book for reviewing, copy out things you'll want to quote, and add the page number. Look at them again in context while you're writing. It's astonishing how often you'll find that the author didn't actually say what you first imagined he said. If you want to damn the author, do it with his own words and he can't complain. In fact, I've overdone it a little here for emphasis; people don't like to read too many long quotations. A book review without quotations, however, is never, ever to be trusted.]

June 4, 2010 8:47 PM | | Comments (19) |

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This page is a archive of recent entries written by PostClassic in June 2010.

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About Last Night
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Artful Manager
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
blog riley
rock culture approximately
critical difference
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dog Days
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
lies like truth
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world
Life's a Pitch
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
Mind the Gap
No genre is the new genre
Performance Monkey
David Jays on theatre and dance
Plain English
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Real Clear Arts
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
Rockwell Matters
John Rockwell on the arts
State of the Art
innovations and impediments in not-for-profit arts
Straight Up |
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude

Foot in Mouth
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Seeing Things
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...

Jazz Beyond Jazz
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...

Out There
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Serious Popcorn
Martha Bayles on Film...

classical music
Creative Destruction
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
The Future of Classical Music?
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
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
Slipped Disc
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
The Unanswered Question
Joe Horowitz on music

Jerome Weeks on Books
Quick Study
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera

Drama Queen
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off

Aesthetic Grounds
Public Art, Public Space
Another Bouncing Ball
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
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