main: July 2004 Archives

A press release informs me that Syracuse University has opened the first master's degree program in arts criticism offered by a journalism school. The program opens in July 2005.

I consider this good news. Many, many years ago, Peabody Conservatory had the only music criticism graduate program in the country, run by the late esteemed jazz critic Martin Williams. He invited other critics to come lecture, and brought me out; unfortunately, at the time there were only two students, and they of the most troglodytic musical tendencies. The program was discontinued after Williams passed away. My reflections at the time were that teaching music criticism was a poor idea. You could teach someone to know a lot about music, and you can teach writing, but trying to teach both together seemed pointless.

I later changed my mind, however. Writing about the arts is so extremely different from other journalism, and also not something anyone would learn in the average music school. (I remember once writing a piece for the Chicago Tribune and being informed by some hotshot editor fresh out of Northwestern journalism school that I wasn't allowed to use the pronoun "I" in journalistic writing. I asked her how I was supposed to express my own opinion without it. A higher editor overruled her.) I've come to believe that the many aspects of what can be said about music - atmosphere, analysis, performance, context, history - can be analyzed out, their relationships studied, and the purposes of subjectivity and objectivity specified. And for the first time, I'm teaching a music criticism course this fall, with Virgil Thomson, Gary Giddins, and Lester Bangs as my main textbooks. (I know Greg Sandow already teaches such a course at Juilliard.)

Even more importantly, I've decided that by not teaching music criticism, we allow people to think it's unimportant, that no training is required, and that the job comes with very little responsibility. I'm not saying that critics who studied music criticism in college would automatically be smarter and more open-minded than the ones we already have - I don't have that kind of faith in academia. But I do think some concentrated attention to the genre might kick us out of some critical ruts, and create some prestige for the profession that would attract people who truly saw it as a calling, rather than just fell into it by default. As I did.

So all the best to Syracuse University.

July 31, 2004 1:26 PM | |
If you're looking for me this week, it looks like all my blogging energy is going to be siphoned into Arts Journal's Critical Conversation. I'll be over there - probably too much - if you want your weekly dose of unpopular new-music views.

July 31, 2004 9:30 AM | |
I’ve just finished reading David Shenk’s lovely, humane, elegantly-written book about Alzheimer’s disease, The Forgetting (Anchor Books). What struck me most, professionally, was the view he gives of politics within the scientific community. It seems that the trend today is for scientists, rather than working together in an academic environment as they used to, to gear their research toward the profit sector, for pharmaceutical corporations. Crucial new medical findings are no longer freely shared, because a lot of money depends on getting the vaccine out first. And yet, counterproductive as this may sound, the scientists Shenk interviews, such as Allan Roses here, defend money as a more efficient motivator for scientific progress than academic prestige:

”I was in a situation where I was spending 50 to 60 percent of my time writing grants that never got funded,” [Roses] said of the contrast. “We argued for years about whether [the human gene] ApoE is inside neurons or not. It is in the neurons. We went to every meeting. They said, ‘It’s not in the neurons.’ We would write a grant proposal. ‘Oh, you can’t do that - it isn’t in neurons.’ No grant. So what we have done now is say, ‘Piss off. We’re just going to do it. We’re going to do it right and objectively, on the basis of the data’.... I don’t have to take the time or the people it would involve to publish it.

”Am I keeping anything from my fellow researchers around the world in Alzheimer’s disease? Hell no! All they ever did when I ever said anything was to say, ‘No, no, no.’ We would just argue it at all those scientific meetings. Now we debate in the context of very critical, highly skilled scientists who know that our viability as a team, our viability as a company, and our jobs depend on it - not whether we get it first into publication.” (pp. 188-189)

So innovative scientists, too, get their grants turned down by academics saying, “No, no, no, you can’t do that.” Who knew? The implications of this reconfigured career strategy for music are... well, I’ll let you work that out for yourself.

July 28, 2004 12:55 PM | |
I am buffeted about in a whirlwind of preparations for the upcoming Bard Festival, which is devoted to Shostakovich this year. In 12 years in Chicago, I never met a hardcore Shostakovich fan, even among CSO buffs. Likewise eight years in Pennsylvania, nor in all these years of working in New York. But upon moving to the Hudson Valley, I suddenly found Shostakovich peripheral no more. Composers around here quote his tunes in their own works; every young string player practices the Shostakovich sonatas and quartets; the Eighth Quartet is such a staple in chamber music concerts I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard it; and new music fans here plan life around Shostakovich concerts with an avidity that musicians in my circle reserve for the rare Partch or Feldman performance. I’ve never minded hearing a Shostakovich work played, but his music doesn’t grow on me, even with as many Eighth Quartets as I’ve heard and as many CDs of the symphonies I’ve bought trying to spark an interest. If his music disappeared from concert and recorded life tomorrow I wouldn’t pause long to think about it. Other places I’ve lived, I didn’t have to count that among my many musical eccentricities, but in the Husdon Valley it’s been added to the list.

There are other ways in which the Hudson Valley is different. For instance, classical students around here cite the late Robert Starer among their favorite composers, a name that would barely register recognition anywhere else in the country.

July 20, 2004 5:23 AM | |
Critic Marc Geelhoed, who's moving to the great old Chicago Reader where I started out my career (1983-86), responds to my post about composers in academia with some gratifying reflections:

It was kind of beyond the scope of your blog, but you didn't mention the value composers bring to their communities. The biggest benefit, to me at least, a composer can have on his or her community is having the chance to expose the citizens to music they wouldn't hear otherwise. This is especially true in small colleges outside the major urban areas. This is assuming they have some say in programming recitals and concerts, which usually comes with the territory of teaching, I think.

Composers also demystify new music and allow people to put a human face on composers. This reduced the fear factor a little. Talking and smiling before a piece has to help the audience a little.

Nice to hear the presence of composers so appreciated. As a composer who works to expose young people to radical and unknown music, though, I have to report that we struggle with an ongoing dilemma of priorities: Can we introduce students to Sorabji, Nono, Partch, Cecil Taylor, Meredith Monk, when they come out of high school not yet having heard of Brahms, Wagner, Stravinsky, Charlie Parker, Bartok? It's difficult, in a brief four years, especially in a liberal arts environment where the sciences and literature demand much of their attention, to inculcate some firm sense of a normative musical practice, and yet also spend significant time with the interesting weirdos. Painted onto a tabula rasa, Haydn seems just about as kooky as Anthony Braxton and vice versa. My colleagues and I periodically toy with the idea of starting out, "Classical music was invented in 1952, when a man named John Cage wrote a piece called 4'33"." Fortunately or not, our attempt to start the history of music over from scratch invariably breaks down somewhere - often because I have to teach the late Beethoven sonatas, and my friends can't stand them not hearing Varèse.

July 15, 2004 8:39 AM | |

What have I been doing instead of blogging, instead of letting you know what's going on in the exciting world of new music? Why, composing, of course. And more particularly, confronting the scary fact of being a composer in academia and trying to figure out how to cope with it.

"Academic composer" became a harshly negative term in the 1970s. Technically, to the extent that it refers to composers who teach in colleges, I've become one, and now that I'm tenured and really settled into the life, I struggle on a weekly basis with the nature of the beast. There are truly many dangers to one's musical creativity associated with teaching for a living. They're on my mind a lot, and perhaps the most entertaining thing I can do at the moment, in the absence of other stimuli, is outline them as best I can.

The most common connotation of "academic composer" is someone whose music and musical opinions are relentlessly highbrow and intellectual, who has contempt for any music that can be easily understood. This stereotype never really applied to composers at most colleges, and it probably applies to fewer today than it did 20 years ago. It applies most accurately to composing faculty at some of the more "prestigious," hoity-toity music schools - which there is no need to list here. In the '70s and '80s these were by far the best-known "academic composers," and they gave the group a really bad name. But their influence, like that of the Neocons, is definitely on the wane, and for similar reasons. They led us into quagmires.

Even so, there are more widespread psychological difficulties that face any creative artist who teaches in an institution of higher learning for a living. Some of the more obvious ones I'm pretty much immune to - perhaps because I spent the first 16 years of my post-college life earning my living outside academia. One is the tendency to get your ego strokes from the fact that 19-year-olds find you brilliant and your knowledge impressive. Some professors get so used to reflections of their encyclopedic wisdom in the awe expressed by inexperienced young people that they lose perspective about where they stand in the adult world. My students, for instance, may think it's amazing that I can refer to all of the Beethoven string quartets by opus number off the top of my head, but it isn't: it simply indicates I've been around for awhile. Might as well be impressed because I know all the street names in my neighborhood. I've known a couple professors so intoxicated by the admiration of their students that they grow uncomfortable in the company of other professional adults, and start shunning adult contact to hang out with their students and continue being the Big Man. It's good to keep in mind what Morton Feldman said about the hardcore academic composers: "They have reduced the music of an entire nation to a college level" - a reminder that the level of college discourse is, or should be, intrinsically lower than that of the post-graduate professional world.

A related danger is the temptation to start thinking of your college population as the real audience for your music. It's difficult and rare to get truly objective feedback on your music from your students and especially your collegiate colleagues. The latter are pretty much guaranteed to pat you on the back without giving you much critical thought, and student admiration is mixed up with all kinds of extraneous influences, including the extent to which you present a similarity or contrast with their parents, and how they feel about them. Much, much more edifying to have a performance for a roomful of lay strangers who owe you nothing, and to watch their reactions and listen to their particular praise and what they reject. I never encourage performances of my music at my own school, which do nothing for me professionally; at best they provide a pro forma validation to the community that my authority as a teacher is grounded in some practical ability. But I have known professor-composers whose entire career has pretty much taken place within the confines of the college auditorium (augmented by performance-exchange programs with other schools). This leads to a kind of debilitating solipsistic smugness, since your music draws loads of lukewarm praise and almost never any outright rejection.

This much I can avoid, but there are other influences more insidious. One is the pervasive proximity to music theory. Like most college composers, I spend a lot of time teaching theory, preoccupied on a daily basis with musical phenomena that have names and can be defined. This is not good for one's composing, and it keeps me in a state of daily resistance. Pivot-chord modulations, augmented sixth chords, and the like are tools developed by long-dead composers for music very different from ours today, and while you need to spend your life developing the specific tools you need for the job you've created, it is difficult to resist using tools that you have lying around your mental studio floor so ready-to-hand. The ongoing tension has given rise to a rainbow of solutions and compromises, and has been responsible, I think, for a general stylistic change in my music over the last seven years. Teaching music history, interestingly, which I also do, doesn't present the same mental bind, and though it's more time-consuming for me, I recommend it to those so inclined. I'm perversely lucky, by the way, that I am considered the theory/history teacher at my school, and not the composition teacher: my music can exhibit a simplicity, direct emotional appeal, and vernacular influence that goes against the grain of the more musically intellectual types without tarnishing my professorial authority. I'm not really a composer, you know.

But the worst condition of the "academic composer" is the amount of mental and emotional energy siphoned away from creativity and into administrative and pedagogical concerns. Every professor will tell you that teaching is by far the best and easiest part of the job: what requires and consumes far more energy is the committee meetings, the politics, the territorial and curricular disputes, the power grabs to be resisted, the bookkeeping demands made by the administration. It used to be, when I was young, that I could make a three-hour road trip and spend almost the entire time engaged in what I can only call acts of sonic imagination: where should this melody go, what would this rhythm sound like against that one, what succession of keys or harmonies would make for a satisfyingly organic structure? When that mental energy gets harnessed instead into composing in your head a memo to the Dean, or listing arguments to shore up a defense against encroachments by some department chair, you're in trouble. You find yourself obsessing about things that, in an earlier sane moment in your life, you would have realized are of absolutely no consequence. The issues you're getting passionate about are, in point of fact, academic.

And that's the real danger of composing in academia, even for the most open-minded and well-intentioned artist, that takes all one's powers to be aware of and resist: it threatens to turn you into a dilletante. You write a piece over Christmas break and another one between conferences in the summer, and composing becomes more a respite from the rigors of your teaching career than the central focus, the meaning of your life, the defining end of your personality, that it used to be. Composing infrequently leads to a too-easy satisfaction with your current technical prowess. You use a few techniques in one piece, and, forgetting in the whirlwind of the semester what that was like, six months later you use those same techniques in another - and it seems sufficient. You don't become immersed enough in your own creative process to grow dissatisfied with it, to damn your own limitations, to be struck by your own repetitive reflexes. You don't work yourself into a creative crisis, as you can writing several pieces in quick succession, that demands that you break through to a new plateau. Your music ceases to communicate - because you're in an artificial environment in which failing to communicate carries no penalty. The built-in college audience cushions you from a real-world response that would make this painfully apparent.

Don't mistake this for a complaint about my cushy life. Such dangers are not entirely confined to academia - to a certain extent they are the nature of day jobs. The worst thing I could imagine is having an exhausting, 9-to-5 job outside of music, one that would leave little energy left at the end of the day and on weekends to remember what I wanted to compose and why. I couldn't do what Charles Ives did. If I had to wake up every morning and devote myself to something that wasn't about music, I'd shoot myself - some composers are different, and relish the diversion. Even inherited wealth, as Virgil Thomson pointed out, harbors dire pitfalls for the creative mind. I know composers who live their lives pretty much being composers, and they expend about as much energy applying for grants and commissions and awards and trying to line up gigs as I do teaching. That kind of life isn't open to me: I don't ask for things well, I rarely make good first impressions, especially on someone I want something from, I don't toot my own horn gracefully, and I'm not good at hiding the resentment that accompanies what can only be called institutionalized begging. These are my shortcomings, and it proved more practical to work around than fix them. I like the paycheck deposited into my account every month without me having to humble or exalt myself to get it, and criticism and teaching have both afforded me that. Committee meetings exact a milder toll on my creative process than financial insecurity used to.

The evil of the academic creative life is that the dangers come with so many rewards, that they are so seductive. You have prestige, and a position. People kowtow to you on the basis of your laurels, without ongoing achivement being necessary. Sit back and recycle your paltry information, and a certain mild level of honors will flow to you automatically. You write a chamber piece, it will be played by people you know for people you know, and it takes energy and ambition to tell yourself every day that that's not enough - that it's not anything, in fact. The danger of teaching (and of criticism as well), unlike plumbing or working on computers, is that you'll start to identify with your role, a role in which authority is conferred on you by an external institution. That assumption of an authority that does not come completely from within, from one's own personal powers of persuasion and decision, is fatal, I think, to an artist. It is the static authority of a Salieri as opposed to the irreverent vulnerability of a Mozart.

I do not, however, join the chorus of people who say that creative artists shouldn't be given tenured positions. I utterly reject the paternalistic treatment of artists whereby they should be kept starving and insecure "for their own good," the ludicrous idea that some administrator knows what my soul needs for its sustenance. Every artist, no matter what his or her day job entails, is responsible for learning and applying the mental hygeine appropriate to it. The history of creative artists in academia is a brief one, when you think about it - John Knowles Paine created the first music professorship in America in 1876, and composers didn't flood into academia until the 1960s. It's premature to conclude that we can't learn to deal with this. I ground myself in musicians who had no academic aspirations, from James P. Johnson to Harold Budd to Morton Feldman to Bob Dylan to the Residents; I keep my composing career separate from my job and cultivate it away from colleges in general; I refer to teaching as "my day job" every chance I get, just as a reminder; and in the months I can I compose like a Tasmanian devil, trying to make a year's worth of music in a summer. I chose this life because 1. I didn't like the way creative music was treated in the university and I wanted to change things, and 2. the world of print journalism was crumbling and I needed a place to jump to. It's up to me to make it work. As Erik Satie said, "If I fail, so much the worse for me; it'll mean I had nothing in me to begin with." In the meantime, I've learned something that doesn't particularly surprise me: that composing in academia without sliding into becoming an "academic composer" is really, really difficult.

July 13, 2004 10:47 AM | |
Electronic music genius Tom Hamilton explains why I look fatter in the PR photo for the Interpretations series than I really am:

I've noticed that every old picture I look at has just a little bit narrower version of myself. The explanation is probably that changes in lens technology have created subtle distortions that tend to "bulk up" the image. (This can probably explain why Saturn's rings look so hyperbolic.) So go ahead and have that second bowl of Doritos.

So comforting to have it explained by someone who understands the scientific principles involved.

July 11, 2004 9:51 AM | |
On the point of musicologists charging royalties to ensembles who play from their editions, long-time correspondent Antonio Ceyala offers an interesting point:

Is a musicologist who sues for royalties for an edition of an almost 300 year old work admitting that his edition is not "historically accurate?" Presumably if he's entitled to royalties he added something besides filling in middle voices on a figured bass.

July 11, 2004 8:31 AM | |

It ain't Saturn's rings, but you'll find an interesting photo at the Interpretations series web page of a large portion of Manhattan's Downtown music scene, all the people participating in next October's "Sounds Like Now" festival who happened to be in or near New York at the time of the photo shoot. Click on the photo, and it will fill your screen. The composers and improvisers are:

Bottom row, left to right: Mary Jane Leach, Jin Hi Kim, David First, Phill Niblock

Second row: Roscoe Mitchell, Peter Zummo, Daniel Goode, Jon Gibson, Joan LaBarbara, Chris Mann

Third row: Tom Hamilton, Annea Lockwood, Tom Buckner, "Blue" Gene Tyranny, Nora Farrell, William Duckworth, Joshua Fried, Fast Forward

Back row: Mark Dresser, some joker who looks remotely like myself but has a fatter face, Bill Hellermann, David Behrman, Michael Schumacher, Muhal Richard Abrams

The photo shoot was at Phill Niblock's loft, AKA Experimental Intermedia, a few months ago. Where they got the guy who's a fatter version of me, and why I wasn't in the photo myself (since I was there), I have no idea. It's not exactly Downtown's "Great Day in Harlem," but as a representative portrait of Downtown music, give or take a few hundred worthy composers, it will have to do.

July 9, 2004 10:48 PM | |
The suit in which the record label Hyperion is being forced to pay royalties to the musicologist who edited the music of Michel-Richard de Lalande (1657-1726), linked by Arts Journal, does sound bogus and unfortunate. Musicologists have their own well-trodden career paths, and to tempt them to gear their research toward commercial interests sounds like an invitation to chaos at worst and superficiality at best. But for a moment the story conjured up a plan I’ve always secretly nurtured. Follow this logic: Mozart made appallingly little money on his music during his short life, and were he still alive today, his royalties would doubtless amount to billions a year. Meanwhile, musical ensembles today have a financial incentive to play dead composers rather than living ones, because they don’t have to pay the dead ones royalties. I’ve always thought we should reverse that: that some ASCAP- or BMI-like organization should collect royalties on music by dead composers, which could then be distributed among the living ones, on the well-established theory that classical composers (at least the good ones) get a lot more performances after they’re dead than while they’re living. You’d need sort of an old-fashioned guild system that composers would have to be inducted into to qualify for the benefits - which ASCAP and BMI already are, to some extent that could be feasibly extended. Today’s composers could be living off of Wagner's and Stravinsky’s divided royalties, and the next generation of composers could live off of our music. Or, ensembles would at least find it cheaper, if nothing else, to play music by living composers.

I know, I know, it’ll happen when Nader is elected president and Halliburton decides to turn over all its profits toward subsidizing housing for low-income families. But all my life I’ve mused over it as a more just system for an art form in which the true worth of a piece of music may not emerge for decades.

July 8, 2004 9:26 AM | |
Is it just me? I've been reading for days about Cheney telling Senator Leahy to "Go fuck yourself." Dozens of commentators have condemned his use of the F-word, many (including Frank Rich again today) mentioning - as though this were relevant - that John Kerry used it publicly last year as well. But not one writer has pointed out what seems painfully obvious - that it's not the use of the word, but that particular use of it. I can say the word "fuck" in front of my college superiors all I want, without so much as raising an eyebrow. But if I told one of them to go fuck himself, I don't think even tenure would protect me for long. It's not the word, it's the offensive and dismissive aggression of the entire phrase. Obviously. Obviously?

A nice political thought for the Fourth of July.

July 4, 2004 8:43 AM | |

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