main: August 2004 Archives

Typical unhelpful new-music program note, American Uptown style:

Gordon Trustfund-Protégé studied at Harvard, Curtis, and Columbia with Elliott Carter, Roger Sessions, Gunther Schuller, Iannis Xenakis, Mario Davidovsky, Charles Wuorinen, Luciano Berio, Richard Wernick, George Crumb, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Ned Rorem, and Milton Babbitt. His music has been played by the New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Symphony, Los Angeles Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Seattle Symphony, San Francisco Symphony, Dallas Symphony, Nevada Symphony, Des Moines Symphony, Little Rock Symphony, Charleston Symphony, and Perth Amboy Symphony orchestras. He has won the Pulitzer Prize for music, a Guggenheim, the Grawemeyer Award, a Koussevitsky Award, a Fromm Commission, the Prix de Rome, an Academy of Arts and Letters membership, the Charles Ives Award, a Grammy, a Yaddo residency, a MacDowell residency, a Djerassi Foundation residency, the International Classical Music Awards’ Composition of the Year, the Stoeger Prize, an NEA Individual Artist’s Fellowship, a Bearns Prize, a New York Foundation for the Arts Award, a BMI Student Composer Award, the Silver Spoon Award, the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, the Preakness, and the fifth race at Aqueduct last Tuesday.

Typical unhelpful new-music program note, European style:

Freedom is not so much an existential condition as a never-ending dialectic within oneself. Einohääära Esapëkka’s Second Symphony is committed to demonstrating his belief that the vastest immensities of man’s internal struggle can be embodied in the briefest trill of a flute, and that conversely the most fleeting moment of self-doubt can find expression in the external structure of an entire work. In this music the dichotomy “freedom versus commitment” ceases to be a reality, at least on the unconsious plane, and the ever-assumed historical movement toward greater abstraction turns out to be an illusion that does not so much contradict itself as compound itself on ever higher and higher levels in a reductio ad absurdum. In the presence of the very sonority of this music bourgeois ideology crumbles, not due to its distance from lived experience, but because the urgency of its perceived desires renders the very idea of human autonomy laughable.

Typical unhelpful new-music program note, American Downtown style:

This piece is for Ellen.

August 29, 2004 5:44 PM | |
Well, today’s the day - the one-year anniversary of my blog going public. When Doug McLennan asked me to do this, I promised myself to give it a big push for a year, and as this is my 187th entry (the software keeps track), I’ve averaged about a blog entry every other day. Whether I can continue at that rate I don’t know, and I’m not going to make any more promises. Of course, I also went to New York to work for the Village Voice in November of 1986 and told myself, “All right, I’ll keep this job for three years” - and I’m still there, sort of. For all my unwillingness to commit myself, I am a creature of great habit and inertia. It’s very difficult to get me moving, and once I’ve started something it’s just as difficult to get me to stop. So I’ll likely plow along as I have, but I refuse to feel as guilty as I used to if I don’t come up with a topic (or am simply too busy with other careers) for a few weeks at a time. Some months I’ve felt like I’m going to the trouble to put my views out there just for people to take pot shots at; other months I’ve been abashed at the expressed gratitude I’ve received for saying things no one else is saying. It averages out. Thank you all for reading, kindred spirits and contrarians alike, and for believing that new music is worth voluminous public discussion. Now, light the candle and everybody sing, each in his own key, of course....

August 29, 2004 9:55 AM | |
Patrick Grant Internet Radio is now live and online at Live365, playing the music of... well, of Patrick Grant. Very interesting New York composer, kind of an Indonesian-gamelan-influenced postminimalist, or that’s how I tend to think of him.

August 23, 2004 12:19 PM | |
While reading, I was listening to the American Mavericks' "smooth" station on internet radio. Then the music stopped, and didn't come back on. I looked at the playlist window and found that they were playing Cage's 4'33". So I stopped reading and listened to the hum of the refrigerator, the creaking of my recliner, the drip of the air conditioner. I reconnected to my environment. What a great thing Cage did for us!

August 23, 2004 12:36 AM | |
I’m slow on the uptake when it comes to technology, but I’ve learned more about Iridian Radio, the station I enthused about a couple of days ago. It’s one of the independent digital stations at, which offers you the opportunity, for a monthly fee (though it’s cheaper by the year), to set up a playlist and broadcast your own music selection. Iridian Radio is the audio domain of Robin Cox, a violinist, composer, and director of a new-music ensemble in Southern California. He includes his ensemble’s recordings on his intelligently mellow playlist, and is expanding, so keep listening.

Live365 doesn’t offer “postclassical” or “new music” as categories, but it does offer “experimental,” and there are a few other similar stations. First of all, I didn’t realize (I’m so obtuse sometimes) that this is the site through which the American Mavericks radio program (for which I wrote the script) streams its “smooth” and “crunchy” listening rooms. I love those “smooth” and “crunchy” labels (which were not my idea) - you know exactly what they mean, and although they divide new music into two types, they’re too down-to-earth to imagine anyone getting into a huffy argument of the how-dare-you-presume-to-decide-whose-music-fits-the-crunchy-category type. Also the record label Innova runs several stations, including Innova-mu.experimental, which plays, as they describe it, “Radical music you won't hear elsewhere: Harry Partch, electroacoustic, experimental, computer generated, homemade instruments.” Among these evolving playlists, there’s a pretty good range and quantity of new music out there on the new, non-commercial, internet radio format. (And I’m toying with the idea of adding to it. Stay tuned....)

August 22, 2004 12:13 PM | |
Thinking about Anne’s article, referred to (not "referenced," which isn't a word) below: I guess what I took most from the Critics Conversation was that music critics and composers have come to live in much more disjunct worlds than I had realized. I sit around with the composers I know and talk about how the big thing today is that minimalism has opened up this new space which allows for new, less European formal ideas, and for exploration of all kinds of tempo complexity, much more audible and meaningful than the old kind - and they nod their heads and say “of course,” as though I were stating that the sky is blue and the grass green. And I say the same thing to critics and they act as though I’m describing some impossible fairyland where the birds have four wings and the rivers run with chocolate milk and maybe they’d better be careful because the voices I’m hearing in my head may direct me to do something violent. I thought, back in the ‘80s, that almost every composer knew a newspaper critic or two, and that despite differences in viewpoint, we were at least dealing with the same reality.

I suppose what happened was that, from the ‘60s on, a new music scene grew up and vastly expanded that has nothing to do with the orchestra world; and arts editors have a way of keeping classical critics focused on the local orchestra. I once applied for a job with the Grand Rapids Press, if you can believe that (this is obviously a very old story), whose arts section had just been placed under the purview of the sports editor. And in my youthful naivete I incensed him by suggesting that there might, on a given week now and then, sometimes be something interesting to write about that would supercede the Grand Rapids orchestra. This was not acceptable. The orchestra’s every performance would be reviewed. So if you’re not writing for orchestra, your name is unlikely to ever float before the faces of most critics - and as John Adams keeps saying, most of the interesting composers are not writing for orchestra. And the critics never realize that most composers inhabit a completely separate reality, because there are a few composers getting played by orchestras, and they see one take a bow from time to time, and they not unnaturally, but wrongly, assume that it’s the best composers who are breaking into the orchestra circuit. So when I say that those visible composers are just the tip of the iceberg and the rest of the iceberg is more interesting, they think I’m totally off my rocker.

Getting the critics to talk to each other was a neat trick. Maybe we could get the critics and composers to talk to each other - though if you only include the composers of orchestra pieces, you'll only reinforce the status quo.

August 22, 2004 10:59 AM | |
My colleague Anne Midgette writes in the Times today about Arts Journal’s Critics Conversation we participated in. And she is kind and careful enough to state my views, and those of others, I thought, with accuracy and nuance. My favorite line: “the future of new music and the future of classical music may not be the same thing at all.” Bingo!

August 22, 2004 8:58 AM | |
I visited the Village Voice offices today for the first time since the spring, and found a lot of good stuff waiting for me. Perhaps this would be a good forum in which to inform musicians and organizations that I only visit my mailbox at the Voice about twice a year (I'm writing for them less than once a month these days). If you want to send me a press release or CD, e-mail me at, and I'll send you a current address. It's a shame seeing Federal Express packages five months old.

August 21, 2004 12:38 AM | |
I'm listening to the radio station of my dreams. It's on the internet, and it's called Iridian Radio. I swear it sounds like they're going though my CD collection. They sent me the link this morning and I turned it on and immediately recognized Paul Dresher's Channels Passing. I left it on and was startled by my friend Eve Beglarian's voice suddenly coming through my computer in her piece Landscaping for Privacy. I heard Pamela Z before I tuned out, then came back tonight for David Lang's Cheating, Lying, Stealing and a chance to hear the Tin Hat Trio, whose music I'm not very familiar with yet. It's an all-new-music station, 24/7/52, with no commercials. They even repeat pieces during the day, as AM radio does, and I like it - even in Landscaping for Privacy, which I was familiar with, I heard things the second time tonight that I'd never noticed before. There are no announcements, and to find out what you're listening to, you have to look at their playlist window, with the result that I've been surprised a few times how attractive some pieces are that I had remembered not thinking much of. This is absolutely postclassical radio as I used to dream we might finally have it someday.

Sometimes I get the feeling that maybe I am the only person who really cares about this music - and I got that feeling a couple of weeks ago from the utter indifference to it of the classical critics in the Critics Conversation, and from Rockwell's impatience that I still even bother to write about this stuff. And then something like Iridian Radio comes along proving that we do have an audience, that we do have a unified and interrelated repertoire, that this stuff is wonderful to sit around and listen to. I'm enjoying Iridian more than any classical station I've ever heard.

They're playing Dan Becker's Gridlock!

UPDATE: They played Arnold Dreyblatt's Escalator, and now they're playing Belinda Reynolds' Circa. Who'd have ever thought that I'd hear this music on the radio?!

August 19, 2004 7:52 PM | |
Old, conservative, self-indulgent rationale for ignoring new music, ca. 1954:

”I can’t stand the new music, it’s too dissonant and just not nearly as great as Romantic music.”

New, hip, egalitarian rationale for ignoring new music, ca. 2004:

”I can’t stand the new music, it’s too consonant and just not nearly as great as pop music.”

In the world of music criticism, this passes for... Progress!

August 17, 2004 8:02 PM | |
Seattle critic Gavin Borchert has a more-original-than-usual view on the death of classical music.

August 17, 2004 7:55 PM | |
When I was a student at Oberlin, my composition teacher Randolph Coleman used to say that from now on, composers would bloom a lot later than they used to, in their 50s or 60s. He felt that there were so many competing influences on a composer’s musical style that it would take a couple more decades to assimilate them and find your own voice than it used to when everyone grew up in a culture with one dominant kind of music.

At the time, this sort of went over my head, and to the extent I grasped it, it was a depressing pronouncement for a 20-year-old. (I remember defiantly thinking it wouldn’t be true of me.) But now that I’m 48 and have watched a lot careers unfold, I think old Randy might have hit the nail on the head. Partch, who made up his own musical style from bits and pieces of world musics, didn’t really hit his stride until he started adding percussion to his music in his 50s, and he sprang into something like celebrity around age 66. Nancarrow, who combined jazz and Bartok with a new technology, was discovered at 65 and started becoming famous at 70. Lou Harrison, who brought together musics from all continents, was kind of a tangential, eccentric figure for most of my life, then in the 1990s, nearing 80, surprisingly got touted as possibly America’s greatest composer. Robert Ashley, despite some early notoriety, didn’t get started on his seminal work Perfect Lives until age 48, and he’s now, at 73, in his most fertile period - best opera composer of our era and still almost unknown to classical audiences. We think these people are the oddballs, the eccentrics. They might have simply been first of a new breed. They may represent, instead, the composer career trajectory of the future.

When you grow up surrounded completely by music in one style, becoming a child prodigy isn’t so unusual - a sensitive kid can quickly master a clear, finite set of rules. The ubiquity of classical, modern, jazz, pop, and other musics offers a paralyzing panoply of choices. We don’t have much of a record of composers becoming well known in their 20s or 30s lately. For the few who have done so, it usually seems due more to marketing and PR than sterling quality of music. The British keep force-blooming their 20-something-year-old composers, to later embarrassing results.

One characteristic of the Critics Conversation we had here on Arts Journal lately was, amidst lots of drawing on various historical analogies, a pervasive assumption that composers who are really good are bound to take the classical music world by storm in their 30s or 40s. The fact that almost no one is doing so is, to them, evidence that music isn’t doing very well, that there are no good composing ideas around at the moment. Personally, I have CD cabinets and file cabinets full of evidence that we’re in a very exciting time compositionally, with plenty of good ideas and beautiful music. (Since none of the classical critics listen to me, I have to conclude that they’ve all written me off as having no musical taste whatever.) But it may be true that the composers I follow are in a phase analogous to Partch in the ‘50s, or Ashley in the ‘70s, doing interesting work that hasn’t quite gelled enough for public consumption.

Likewise, to quote Wordsworth for the 50th time: “The authentic poet must create the taste by which he is to be appreciated.” When Morton Feldman died at 61, the classical music world had barely given him the time of day. In the next ten years, he became a very big deal indeed. Maybe it not only takes decades for composers to assimilate and master the influences they draw from now, but longer for audiences to assimilate a composer’s life’s work - and with the number of composers around, no one receives any very big chunk of an audience’s time. It won’t surprise me if, as we grow older, a lot of my contemporaries begin hitting their stride, and get revealed as more important figures than anyone had thought. And maybe we should not assume that any archetypes in the history of music are invariable, but make allowances for what may be a fairly new (though not unprecedented) pattern in human creativity.

August 17, 2004 6:39 PM | |
I write a lot of program notes these days - my work as a classical music annotator is replacing my work as a critic, strangely enough. And in the vast repetitiveness of what people say about classical music, you realize that the lives of the Great Composers are myths, bedtime stories that we tell ourselves to stabilize a certain sanitized, comfortingly simple view of the world. Nadazhda von Meck's cutting off of patronage to Tchaikovsky in 1890 was one of the crushing blows of his life. Beethoven's letter to the "Immortal Beloved" brought about a creative crisis and made him realize he would never find happiness with a woman. Sibelius's involvement in the pro-Finnish language movement wrested him stylistically away from the Germanic composing style. Told that his First Sonata sounded like Beethoven's Hammerklavier, Brahms responded haughtily, "Any jackass can see that."

All probably true enough, I suppose. The books can only report what the primary documents say. But you can't read virtually the same words, the same phrases, over and over in so many reference books and biographies without beginning to think of these as folk tales developed from writer to writer over the decades - and suspecting that some more subtle truth has escaped us. The artist's psychological life is not so simple that a few phrases repetitiously used are enough to capture it for eternity. I always wonder how Brahms really said, "Any jackass can see that" - angrily? embarrassed? guiltily? good-humored? We are given the mythic assumption that it was a trivial comment to make to a Great Man, but Brahms was young and just as subject to the anxiety of influence as any of us.

Carl Maria von Weber, hearing the first movement of Beethoven's Seventh, declared that the composer was now "ripe for the madhouse." You'd think that more than a few people in the history of the world had been declared ripe for the madhouse. But Google those four words, and you will find 32 uses on the internet. 31 of them refer to Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. And everyone quotes them - including me.

August 17, 2004 3:00 PM | |
Composer and loyal correspondent Lawrence Dillon has a formulation for the true relationship of composition and theory that is too admirable to keep to myself:

You can drive the car; you can look under the hood; but don't try to do both at the same time.

August 15, 2004 9:03 AM | |
Music theory blogging - the continuation of a Critics' Conversation by other means! DePauw University music professor Scott Spiegelberg has posted a feisty but thoughtful reply to the views I quoted from Jean Lawton and Adam Baratz.

August 13, 2004 7:42 PM | |
Reader Adam Baratz objects reasonably to my position on terminology:

I see where you're coming from on promoting the use of grouping music based on surface similarities, but I think such a course is eventually as dangerous to criticism and history as falling back on abstract, inaudible relationships. Just as it's easy to avoid the emotional meaning of a piece of music through a cerebral system, examining music through arbitrary stylistic groupings can get you into just as many problems....

You can get into all the ideological arguments you want about Babbitt et al, but it strikes me as being more productive to engage them on what's inside their music. It's all well and good that Babbitt achieved total serialization or successfully integrated live voice with tape, but Three Compositions for Piano is bland, and Philomel is downright cheesy....

Being able to fully articulate your emotional response to a piece of music helps you to fully understand it. Stopping at one word descriptions like "fluffy" and "soft," or "minimalist" and "impressionist," don't do very much to help you understand what the composer set out to do. The emotional choices made by a composer are just as important, if not more so, than any intellectual ones, and deserve to be criticized and questioned much more than they have in the past.

I see the point, and agree with it. I don't think anyone reading my reviews would accuse me of stopping with one-word descriptions (over-conciseness is hardly my vice). I make these same distinctions between Babbitt's pieces, and I've expended a lot of print talking about how different the various postminimalist composers are from each other. But if I can call a piece "postminimalist," and you know what I mean, that saves me a paragraph's worth of dry technical description and a couple of sentences about history, and allows me to spend my column inches talking about that piece's specific emotional characteristics. Otherwise, critics have to reinvent the wheel over and over, cataloguing superficial characteristics that hundreds of pieces have in common - which is what often happens in criticism of new music. Imagine having to re-explain sonata form for every Mozart piece you write about.

Let’s say there are 1800 pieces of music out there that one could call postminimalist. (Given that I can name 60 postminimalist composers off the top of my head, it’s undoubtedly a low estimate.) Now, I can listen to, say, Cover by Belinda Reynolds and Fade by Dan Becker, and tell you that, while both pieces basically come from a postminimalist orientation, Cover has more of a classical chamber music patina about it, and a well-calculated, surprising way of never using the same kind of modulation twice; while Fade moves more smoothly and intuitively and mysteriously, hiding its modulations and yet following a concealed repeated pattern. (I choose these examples as a joke, because Becker and Reynolds are married to each other, and the pieces are about as similar to each other as two pieces by different good composers can be - which is not very similar.)

But let’s take the music critic for the Bucksnort Daily Picayune, who’s hearing postminimalist music for the first time in his life. He hears Fade, and writes, “Well, I don’t know, the piece is really limited harmonically, and never departs from the same pulse all the way through. It seems awfully constricted and doesn’t really go anywhere.” He’s not really criticizing Fade, he’s criticizing postminimalism as a style, unaware that there are 1799 other pieces about which he could say the same thing, and that Becker is deliberately starting from the same aesthetic principles as 60 other composers, pulling the postminimalist idea in his own original direction. He’s damned the whole group, but he hasn’t said anything about Becker’s imagination.

This is what happens to composers vis-a-vis critics all the time. You’re involved in a whole scene, you’re developing ideas within a context, but so few critics have heard any wide sampling of that music that with every performance you have to refight the battle on behalf of the entire group. Now, OF COURSE (before everyone writes in, and please notice this sentence) a piece has to be successful on its own terms, and Fade has to overwhelm the listener with beauty regardless of whether those 1799 other pieces exist or not. But music is almost always in the position of relying on at least some minor recognition of its basic language. At some point, say in 1835, there must have been a critic who’d never heard a piece that wasn’t in sonata form, and who heard Schumann’s Papillons and complained, “Geez [or ach du lieber], the piece has no overarching structure, the main theme never gets developed, it’s just a bunch of short fragments, who cares?” - unaware that a new, Romantic aesthetic had been growing up around him in which the fragment, the vignette, was becoming a viable new form of expression. Fade can succeed, Fade can fail, but it deserves to be heard in the postminimalist context before it’s reflexively dismissed for its superficial characteristics. (And as Galen Brown pointed out, it’s the superficial attributes that pieces in the same style have in common.)

What almost every non-composing critic misses, with deadening regularity, is that almost no piece of music exists in a vacuum - composers develop musical languages collectively. And if you don’t know the style, the language, the idiom, you’re never going to deeply understand the piece, or understand why the composer made the choices he or she did. It’s as true of Mozart as it is of Belinda Reynolds, and vice versa. Imagine someone who’s never in his life heard a piece of music written before 1950 (not uncommon these days, unfortunately), hearing his first Mozart symphony. How’s he going to decide whether it’s a great Mozart symphony or a mediocre one (since a lot of the early ones aren’t particularly stellar)? He can’t - but if he listens to five more Mozart symphonies, and a couple by Haydn, he’ll start to make distinctions. He’s in the same position the Bucksnort critic is in listening to Fade, and the same position I'm listening to a performance of South Indian classical music - sounds good to me, but I surely couldn’t pinpoint what sparks of genius there are, and I may be overlooking mistakes that would send Ravi Shankar falling off his pillow laughing his head off.

One function of terminology is to make people aware that a style exists. If I’m unaware that a genre called South Indian classical music exists, I may think what I’m hearing is some bizarre anomaly that one person made up to sound weird. With our nominalist shying away from terms and movements, we have a tendency to atomize musical culture these days, consider every piece a bizarre anomaly, which is one reason our musical culture is literally falling apart - because no one will connect the dots.

(I realize I’m beating this terminology shtick to death, and probably even exaggerating its importance - since there are plenty of new pieces that even an up-to-date expert couldn’t assign to any known style. But I’m so sick and tired of this self-defeating, anti-intellectual bias in the new music world that it’s difficult to shut up about it.)

August 13, 2004 10:32 AM | |

Reader and like-minded spirit Jean Lawton has written a response to my blog entry “Leave No Term Unstoned.” I e-print it here because it’s not just an answer but a beautifully written article, despite the fact that it says a couple of flattering things about me, and because she makes so many points I wish I had made, and supports them so compellingly. Thanks, Jean - for this and for the Wittgenstein line I had already quoted.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

"What makes a subject difficult to understand... is not that some special instruction about abstruse things is necessary to understand it. Rather it is the contrast between the understanding of the subject and what most people want to see. Because of this the very things that are most obvious can become the most difficult to understand." [Ludwig Wittgenstein, Section 86, pg. 405 of the "Big Typescript," von Wright catalogue number 213 ]

Kyle Gann continues to rescue music criticism from the swamp into which the pseudoscience of the set theorists had cast it for nigh on 50 years. Descriptive terms for musical genres prove not only useful but essential. The only alternatives to necessarily vague isms like "impressionism" and minimalism"? Refuse to talk about music at all... or reduce music to equations and logic.

Been there. Done that. Dead end.

Composers often take the former path -- "shut up 'n play yer guitar!" (Frank Zappa). Fun. But unproductive.

A few unaccountably influential pseudoscientists in yakademia from ca. 1950 onward chose the latter, trudging ever deeper into "that Serbonian bog," as James Clerk Maxwell called it in his 1878 Rede Lecture at Cambridge, "where whole armies of scientific musicians and musical men of science have sunk without filling it up."

Neither alternative works. So that leaves us with labeling musical genres. That works, because language and music interact in powerful ways. Back in the 1960s, Kenneth Gaburo passed out bowls filled with sand, water, steel bolts, rice, silk. He had composition students close their eyes, stir their fingers around in the bowls, then compose music based on the sensations. Afterward everyone could instantly identify each composition with each sensation. Simple words like "rough" and "sharp" and "silky" and "liquid" sufficed to accurately describe each composition. More recently, a McNeil-Lehrer News Hour piece showed a class of 4th graders listening to modern music from the 2000s. The kids instinctively used plain descriptive terms. One said "I like fluffy music." Language is vague and imprecise, but captures important aspects of the musical experience.

These anecdotes tells us something about the power and value of non-musical ways of being to illuminate music -- particularly language. So using (admittedly nebulous) terms to describe genres remains useful, and more to the point, necessary. Spoken and written language, like music, iridesces and ignites distant meanings by creating a web of associations.

Applied to music, math murders to dissect. Language breathes life into music, or, as the Greeks put it, inspires. Only human language captures the countless microuniverses of sight and sound and touch and taste and smell which music evokes. In language, as in music, context reigns. So using terms for musical genres works.

Musical Josef Mengeles like Milton Babbitt and Alan Forte and Robert Morris who tried to flense away the ligaments of language, the tendons of cultural connotations, the muscles of synaesthaesia, and all the skin of extra-mathematical supra-logical aspects from music left us with set of bleached bones. The attempt to reduce music to dead math and silent logic yielded unlistenable swill and unreadable jargon.

People talk about music and musical styles using inchoate descriptive terms for reasons which brain science has only recently revealed. For example, the colorful metaphor of pitch "height" actually parallels the hard-wiring of the human auditory cortex. PET scans show that the human brain's pitch detection apparatus shares brain circuitry with Brodmann's Area 19 (commonly known as "the mind's eye" or "the visual theater"). (See Talking about pitch as "high" or "low" is thus more than vaguely descriptive. It limns the basic neurophysiology of the human brain.

Likewise, we're now finding that describing musical timbres as "sharp" or "dull" results from similar links to other hard-wired brain structures. [For details, see the article "A Universe of Universals," Leonard B. Meyer, The Journal of Musicology, Volume XVI, Number 1, Winter 1998, pp. 3-25] Terms describing general musical movements capture important aspects of the experience of listening to that music.

Unlike mathematical equations, which tell us nothing of significance about a musical style or a musical composition, descriptive terms like "minimalism" or "totalism" reveal important facets of these styles.

Minimalism, for instance, typically trades off a reduced pitch set for increased rhythmic complexity. Pieces like Reich's Piano Phase dial up rhythmic intricacy (way up) while dialing down the number of pitches. "The New Romanticism" typically heads in the other direction, twirling the pitch dial farther toward 11 and punching in the LOUDNESS button for emphasis but punching the MUTE button on rhythmic complexity (compared to Piano Phase, anyway).

Totalists use both techniques, and for obvious reasons. Understandably entranced by the Dedalaean rhythmic labyrinths discovered by Arts Subtilis and rediscovered by Conlon Nancarrow, totalists quickly figured out that complex nested tuplets sound incoherent without a regular rhythmic grid for background. So totalists do both. They ramp up the number of chromatic pitches and the complexity of the rhythm, but also keep a regular rhythm (a la minimalism) with close to zero complexity so you can hear the embedded tuplets offset from a Euclidean grid - as in Michael Gordon's Yo, Shakespeare! Most important of all, descriptive terms capture the crucial human qualities of the musical styles.

Minimalist music sounds what the name implied - chopped. Channeled. A cholo lowrider among musical styles. Retro chic, stripped down compared to previous tonal music, but pumped up with invisible hydraulics under the chassis. Totalist music sounds as the word implies - totalist composers want it all. It pushes forward on both fronts, as though it does want to have its minimalist cake and eat it too. By contrast, the term "set theoretic music" captures none of the crucial human qualities of such music. Instead, we should call set theoretic music like that of Milton Babbitt "sludge-ism." The music sounds like undifferentiated glop. No perceptible melodies, no functional harmonies, no discernible rhythmic pulse, no audible organization. It sounds like oil looks when it drains out of an engine: dull. Turgid. Undifferentiated. Boring. Tom Johnson even wrote a review in 1976 in which he remarked on how interesting it was that the music sounded so supernally boring.

There's a solid reason for that. By trying to push rhythmic complexity and pitch complexity and timbral complexity to the max simultaneously, set theoretic atonal music ran afoul of the basic neuro-cognitive constrains of the human nervous system. Faced with information overload, the human brain dumps *all* incoming information. Instead of perceiving complexity, the brain perceives chaos - boring chaos.

Well, music history offers us a kind of chaos. As J. J. Nattiez remarked, "I have said it before and I say it again - there is no progress and no regress in music, only change." The illusion of progress held sway for a while, but now that illusion has shattered. The Hegelian historicist delusions of the pseudoscientists who envisioned music as an endless upward ramp scaling ever higher levels of harmonic and rhythmic complexity, forever and ever, amen, have collapsed. But now that musical history has fallen off that imaginary upward ramp into the fluctuating steady state prophetically described in Leonard B. Meyer's Music, The Arts and Ideas (1967), how to convey the savor and piquancy of the individual fluctuations we call distinct musical styles?

Math fails. The last 50 years of music "theory" prove it, as L. S. Lloyd's article "Pseudo-Science and Music `Theory'" predicted (Proceedings Of the Royal Academy of Music, 1940). What remains? The delicate glistening web of language, whose ductile threads of meaning retain their freshness even when submerged in the alien ocean of sound. Kudos to Gann for pointing that out. As George Orwell remarked, "It requires an unusual mind to analyze the obvious" - particularly after 50 years of flat-out denial by set theorists like Babbitt.

August 12, 2004 8:18 AM | |

A reader was kind enough to draw my attention to this wonderful quotation from Ludwig Wittgenstein:

What makes a subject difficult to understand - if it is significant, important - is not that some special instruction about abstruse things is necessary to understand it. Rather it is the contrast between the understanding of the subject and what most people want to see. Because of this the very things that are most obvious can become the most difficult to understand. What has to be overcome is not a difficulty of the intellect, but of the will. [Section 86, pg. 405 of the "Big Typescript," von Wright catalogue number 213]

Perhaps this explains why no one can understand the simple sentence, “The financial failure of a few orchestras does not equal the death of classical music.” Perhaps this is why the people who were pointing out two years ago that the Iraq War would be a moral and political disaster couldn’t be heard.

August 11, 2004 9:58 AM | |
The other day I had lunch with a classical musician friend. She started talking about how sick and tired she is of reading stories about how classical music is dying. What is the purpose of these stories?, she wondered. If a department store found its profits declining and was afraid of going under, would its owners run around shouting to the public that it was in danger of going under? Wouldn’t that shake consumer confidence in the store and make things worse? Wouldn’t that become a self-fulfilling prophecy? We could see how, in private meetings of classical-music performers and managers, you would certainly want to raise any appropriate alarm. But what effect will this continual “Classical music is dying” mantra have on those not involved with classical music in the first place? Won’t they think, “Good, if I wait a little while longer, that’s one more thing I’ll never have to pay attention to”? Wouldn’t the helpful strategy be to talk about what’s wonderful about classical music, about what you can get from it that you can’t from any other music? Given the self-fulfillingly-prophetic nature of the mantra - that those who shout “Classical music is dying!” are increasing and accelerating its likelihood of dying - what do the mantra-shouters get from doing it? What ego strokes from dissing their own artform do these Cassandras receive? Especially when every now and then we find a retailer’s report or audience statistic suggesting that the reports of classical music’s imminent demise are greatly exaggerated.

Since I couldn’t answer any of these questions (not being one of the mantra-shouters myself), I pass them on to you.

August 11, 2004 9:40 AM | |

An extremely articulate response to the above post from composer Galen Brown, aptly pointing out that in talking terms we're talking about superficialities, and that superficialities are indeed wherein works resemble each other:

Since you are expecting unanimous dissent, I feel I ought to make a point of throwing my lot in with the "pro-termists." You make essentially the same argument I've been making for a while now.

Genre naming is useful and relatively harmless if used humanely, by which I mean that people need to recognize the fact that genre naming is based on salient superficialites and behave accordingly. Terms must not be used proscriptively -- e.g. I must not say "I want to write X, but as a post-minimalist that route is forbidden to me" and must not be expected to be anywhere close to complete, for reasons that you describe. For instance, Glass and Reich have little in common in their actual compositional techniques, but the salient feature of pulsation and repetition reasonably groups them together. Whether we use a "term" or not I can accurately claim that "if you like Reich, you might also like Glass, or Adams" whereas I would be foolish to claim "If you like Glass you might also like Schoenberg's serialist period." We're psychologically built to make generalizations based on salient superficialities, and to have our preferences, aesthetic and otherwise, based on those saliencies. It's silly to refuse to name groupings that we're using cognitively anyway.

August 5, 2004 3:57 PM | |

Prefatory note: I've always wanted to write an essay on this topic for my blog, so, having the excuse to do so for the Critics' Conversation, I post it here as well.

“Artists hate terms” is a truism, but not one of the eternal truths of music. It is too often proved false - artists occasionally find terms very useful. Debussy repudiated “Impressionism,” Glass and Reich disavow “Minimalism,” and in the current climate these examples are triumphantly thrown in our face at every turn as though they embody an unalterable principle. But artist George Maciunas coined “Fluxus” (over Yoko Ono’s objections), a group of artists met at Hugo Ball’s Cabaret Voltaire in 1916 to choose the word “Dada,” Cowell and Antheil embraced “ultramodernism,” Schoenberg plumped for “pantonality” before “atonality” won, and “Minimalism” itself was the coinage of either Michael Nyman or Tom Johnson, both composers who fit the bill. No sooner did “ambient” lose its novel flavor than Paul Miller (or somebody) launched forth with “illbient.” I don’t know who came up with “New York Noise” for free improv of the 1980s, but the improvisers didn’t seem ashamed to wear it.

Terms can be helpful to artists, especially those better remembered for where they were than what they achieved. If I mention Alison Knowles and Yoshi Wada, some of you who don’t know who I’m talking about will instantly place them in an era and milieu if I refer to them as “Fluxus artists.” The smaller the range a term includes, the more evocative it is. “Expressionism” is a vague catch-all, but “Der Blaue Reiter” is intriguing. The “Biedermeier style” so wonderfully connects the figurative inconsistancies of Hummel and Kalkbrenner to the overstuffed furniture of the early 19th-century German middle class, and both to a cartoon. No one can resist referring to Haydn’s “Sturm und Drang” period, and everyone instantly hears what it means in the “Farewell” Symphony. Discontinuities in the application of “Rococo” make it fortunate that we can divide that benighted stylistic era into the “empfindsamer stil” of the Berliners like C.P.E. Bach and the “style galant” of Galuppi and so many others, the latter so sardonically evoked a century later by the “Romantic” Browning:

What? Those lesser thirds so plaintive, sixths diminished, sigh on sigh,
Told them something? Those suspensions, those solutions -- "Must we die?"
Those commiserating sevenths - "Life might last! we can but try!"

(Browning undoubtedly meant "sixths augmented.") And if “Ars nova” recurs too often to be helpful, “Ars subtilior” is a wonderful euphemism for the mysteries of early 15th-century rhythmic complexity.

Now, imagine musical discourse stripped of such terms. Imagine replacing every recurrence of the word “minimalism” in the literature with “that steady-pulse, doodle-doodle style of Steve Reich and Philip Glass.” Of course, even that becomes a term, just a cumbersome one, and if you forbid terms, you really forbid generalization. So now you have four pieces written in the 1960s - Music in Fifths, Piano Phase, Philomel, and In C - and you are not allowed to say that one of them stands out from the other three, you are forced to describe each individually. It would save so many words to say, Three of those pieces are minimalist and one serialist, and a cultured person would understand you - but no, no, that would falsify the sacred particularities of each piece. You’d gain insight from hearing survivals of the style galant in Mozart’s rondos, but you can no longer say that - you can only refer over and over to a recurrence of quick 6/8 meter and a certain type of figuration. No more do you get to divide Stravinsky’s output into Russian, neoclassic, and 12-tone periods - just a continuum in which each piece merits its own description.

In general, two kinds of people make up musical terms: composers and music historians. I am both - or rather, I was hired as the latter because as a “Downtowner” (another term) I have no credibility as the former, and please don’t mention my little charade to the administration. Musicology is alleged to be a science of some kind (thus the “-ology” suffix), and part of its science is dividing up a gigantic chaos of historical phenomena into manageable bits based on similarity and contrast. As the first person to write a book about Nancarrow I had to come up with terms (“convergence point”) with which to analyze his canons, or else I would have gotten lost in a sea of awkward verbiage (imagine “that point at which all the voices coincide on the same analogous note in their isomorphic sequences” over and over on every page). Writing a book that focused on American music of the 1980s and 1990s when no one had ever done so before, I was obliged by the demands of the task to separate composers into categories based on similarity. The term “postminimalism” was already in the air, and the late Rob Schwartz had used it as a chapter heading - I just tightened up the definition. “Totalism” was a word coined by the composers themselves. I didn’t just go to a few concerts as a critic to hone my own definitions; as a musicologist I studied an entire file cabinet’s worth of home-bound scores elicited from the composers.

Terminology is the musicologist’s creative medium. Get too creative and the term won’t stick to the phenomena, but not evocative enough and it will lack resonance. No one pretends that terms are perfect. Some are so broad and contradictory in application as to be stumbling blocks, like “classical.” “Neoclassic” usually really connotes “neobaroque,” but every cultured person knows that and makes allowances. Luckily, terms come and go in a very clear survival of the fittest. “Postromantic” used to be useful for distinguishing Mahler and Strauss from the generation of Brahms and Wagner, but has fallen out of favor, as has “Fauvism” for the primitive style of Stravinsky and... well, perhaps that’s why it didn’t survive. One interesting recent development, acquiesced to by even the term-haters, is that “modern,” which used to just mean “up to date,” is increasingly bracketed for the challenging, dissonant music of the mid-20th century. We teach terminology, -isms, in the classroom, and we’re not likely to stop - for the very good reasons that we would become more verbose, we would be able to say less, and we would sound stupider.

Of course, artists don’t like thinking about terms. Nothing is more fatal to creativity than to already know the answer before you frame the question. Artists have good reason to be suspicious about what terms you yoke them to, because terms wield power. Tom Johnson, a critic, was the only composer who ever flatly called himself a minimalist, and I consider myself more or less a totalist. But I don’t think, as I start each piece, “Now, how to once again embody the principles of totalism?!” Only an idiot would do that. Kyle the composer couldn’t care less whether his piece turns out to be what Kyle the historian and critic calls totalist. It’s not an artist’s business to think about terms - unless needed for sometimes very practical career purposes, and even then not while in the act of creating. Still, I find it sort of hilarious that just now, as composers run from terms as though they carried viruses, the young pop musicians are churning out new terms almost monthly - jungle, illbient, drum and bass, liquid funk, and many others I can’t remember and that those who use them can’t even seem to distinguish in meaning when asked. What are the classical composers so afraid of that the pop musicians have so much fun playing with? I thought we were invited to learn from the pop musicians.

So rail against terminology, rail, rail, rail, rail!! Everyone expects it of artists. Critics, expunge “minimalism,” “neoclassicism,” “empfindsamer stil” from your vocabulary, and see if you enjoy being less literate. But I believe that in this era of exponentially expanding numbers of composers, the opportunity for chaos is so great that the need for terminology will become more important than ever. For - and here’s my one sane opinion, in case you had lost all hope that I retain any grasp of reality - it is unimaginable that some mainstream style is going to coalesce in the forseeable future. And also undesirable - can you imagine 50,000 composers writing in the same style? Jesus, it’d be like the 17th century cubed. You’d have to distinguish John Aloysius Brown’s Ricercar No. 27 in E-flat from John Lothario Brown’s Ricercar No. 27 in E-flat by the fact that one uses mutes. The obvious current in culture today, vastly facilitated by the internet, is toward greater fragmentation of subcultures. And subcultures need to be identified, and distinguished - defined, which is not the same as frozen or calcified or engraved in granite. The pop musicians are on the case. But you classical musicians, rail! Rail! Unless the culture as a whole lapses into barbarism, those oh-so-beside-the-point terms, -isms, categories, style names, will continue to be used, and will multiply. They’re how we make sense of our world.

I await, with amusement, your undoubted unanimous dissent. I’ll call you the “antitermists.”

August 5, 2004 9:56 AM | |
Fellow blogger Drew McManus adds some apt cautionary points to my musings on granting degrees in music criticism:

One of my overriding thoughts while reading the series of posts has been "why is it that a good share of music critics have no serious musical training?" I know that's a topic worthy of a large amount of debate, but I wonder that if too many schools eventually start offering degrees in music criticism then aren't they going to start producing more and more individuals that have no direct experience with the art they are creating?

Granted, academically verified music criticism is at such an infant stage most people probably don't think about those long term evolutionary issues, but it does occur to me. I compare it to how arts administration degree programs have developed. The more AA programs expand, the more they develop managers that have to have absolutely zero experience as an artist or even a direct understanding of art. At the initial stages of these programs, that thought was abhorrent, but a mere decade later it's an accepted fact.

It never takes long for mediocrity to sink its evil claws into a good idea.

Well, thousands of years of civilization have found no cure to ameliorate that last fact. A graduate program in criticism could require a degree in performance or composition as a prerequisite. Maybe I just want to play a bunch of budding music critics some repertoire they'll never hear in the usual concert halls.

August 3, 2004 12:00 PM | |

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