main: December 2004 Archives
That means, if you submitted some music to NMA ‘82, I was the guy who opened your package, catalogued your vinyl records and cassettes, and first listened to them. My job wasn’t to filter stuff out, but I did advocate (without much success) for the music I really liked. Some of the recordings were submitted by composers, some brought by members of the advisory committee. I remember George Lewis brought along cassettes of two guys I’d never heard of: Rhys Chatham and John Zorn. Zorn’s Mauricio Kagelesque game improvisations struck me as old hat, but the Chatham excited me - combining minimalism and rock had never occurred to me. I sat at my desk absorbing the music of my generation: Beth Anderson, David Garland, Wayne Siegel, Carl Stone, Bruce Odlund, Michael Byron, Lois Vierk, Jeffrey Lohn, Peter Garland, Stephen Scott, Glenn Branca. Some of the names (Tom Cameron, Joseph Paul Taylor, Bill Seaman) have since disappeared, and I’ve never heard of them again. Others, once I moved east, eventually became close friends. Some of them have recently released CDs for which I wrote the liner notes. One of them, Bruce Odland, my son recently assisted in a musical production.
The experience didn’t make me a composer, for I had been that since I was 13. The piece of my own that was performed at that NMA festival, in fact, is coming out on a Cold Blue CD in a couple of months. But it was my first immersion in the music of my peers across the country, people who were reacting to the same music I had been consuming in college. I found out whom I stood with and whom against in the great aesthetic battles that would come later. And, looking back from an otherwise indistinguishable New Year’s Eve, it’s astonishing to reflect how much of my future life was forecast in my contact with those cassettes and records in the basement of the Museum of Contemporary Art in October and November of 1981. As PR person for the festival I got to know the superb Chicago jazz critic Neil Tesser, and it was he who helped me get started as a critic myself in the Reader. The rest you know.
Many of those cassettes are in a cabinet a few feet away from me right now. I kept the ones I could, and taped all the ones I couldn’t. I was probably, as administrative assistant, supposed to mail them all back to the composers. I didn’t. But now I’m transferring them onto CD, making mp3s of them, and playing them on Postclassic Radio. Sorry for any inconvenience. I hope, after 23 years, you don’t mind that I held on to them. They’ve meant a lot to me, and I knew someday I’d get a chance to release them back into the world.
Electronic cash registers eliminated the ka-ching of their ancestors; digital cameras erased the traditional shutter-click and advancing-film noises of their predecessors; PowerPoint presentations chased away the clunks and whirs of slide projectors.
The lifespan of sounds seems to be shrinking, Valentino said: "We sent our engineers to Ft. Bragg 25 years ago to record military tanks. All those sounds are now totally historical."
So are old pinball machines, car horns and pull-chain toilet flushes. Even the scratch of chalk on a blackboard is being exiled by the squeak of markers on dry-erase boards....
Right now, sounds such as creaking doors help create drama on the screen, he said. But the day is coming when door technology, which hasn't changed in centuries, will switch to an airtight, silent mechanism like something out of "Star Trek," he said....
It's happening with shoes. Although the clip-clop of leather soles against sidewalks is still a movie staple, in real life the sound of walking has largely been anesthetized by rubber soles.
To a musician, this sounds delightful. There's a wonderful little book no longer in print (naturally), The Third Ear by German jazz entrepreneur Joachim-Ernst Berendt, that I used to use in teaching, all about how we relate through the world through hearing. He wrote that the technology exists to create silent vacuum cleaners and even silent motorcycles, but that people doubted that silent vacuum cleaners were really picking up dirt, while motorcycle riders didn't get the feeling of power they wanted from silent engines. (Yeah, power to impose their own brand of noise on an entire neighborhood.) I hate the unnecessarily shrill beep that ATMs make to alert you that your card is coming out, and I could eagerly look forward to the day when all of our appliances are silent, and the foreground of our audio life is occupied primarily by... music.
Anyway, I recently got access to an old box of cassette tapes that's been in storage for ten months, and it's a cornucopia of new music mostly from the 1980s that never got commercially released: works by Todd Levin, Bunita Marcus, Maria De Alvear, Carman Moore, Elodie Lauten, Diana Meckley, and especially a large cache of recordings by Peter Garland. So Postclassic Radio will start the new year with another influx of commercially unavailable recordings. The sole complaint I've received about my timing indicated that I'm taking pieces off too quickly, so I'm actually sitting on a gold mine of material and trying to hold back. But to whet your appetite, I've just posted two lovely pieces by Bunita Marcus, her 1987 chamber piece Adam and Eve and her charming arrangement of the Beatles' song Julia, written for Aki Takahashi's Beatles project and played by her. Enjoy.
And for those who read me on a phone-line modem, unable to access internet radio, my apologies for writing about so little else lately. Happy holidays.
Meanwhile, there are some other additions I'm pleased with. One is the first disc of La Monte Young's 1981 performance of The Well-Tuned Piano - if you've searched high and low for this recording without success, here's part of it, and some day I may put up all five hours' worth. Also a lovely multiple guitar work by a young New York composer I admire named Christian Rober, and a new Golden Research recording of Charlemagne Palestine's Piano Drone from 1972, one of his most enchanting works. And my own Hovenweep, which was a commission from the St. Luke's Orchestra chamber series, and an attempt to write a piece that Uptowners would understand, i.e., very expressive with lots of detailed dynamics.
reminds me of an exchange I heard while auditing [Fred] Frith's composition class at Mills; he'd play examples of various music and ask students whether the music was “rock” or “classical.”
He played the beginning of Tony Conrad & Faust's Outside the Dream Syndicate, (monolithic 2/4 bass & drum stomp). Girl instantly says aloud, “rock.” Frith says “what if I told you that this goes on for another 50 minutes, much like this?” She then instantly said, “Oh well, then it's classical.”
This echoes a remark I’ve quoted many times. In the 1980s, when new music groups were playing at New York rock clubs while rockers were playing at the Kitchen, postclassical music and rock seemed all mixed up. One night at a bar, Robert Ashley gave me his ironclad definition: “If it’s over five minutes it’s classical, under five minutes it’s pop.” That definition has only come to seem more relevant over the years.
After all, it seems to me that the formal issues of, say, a Beatles song are not particularly different from those of a Schubert song in, say, Die Winterreise. To write a three-minute song that states a single musical idea is a different project from writing a 20-minute piece that goes through a journey of transformation. Each requires a particular talent, and many composers who are very good at one don’t do the other very well; I love Schubert’s piano sonatas and chamber music, but I’d have to say his long forms aren’t quite as flawless as his songs. Much of the classical prejudice against taking rock seriously in the ‘60s was not so much the energy or instrumentation as the habit of placing song-writing on a lower scale of difficulty than larger forms. That prejudice is dying out, and rightly so. But the simple distinction between songs and longer forms may remain, transcending all pop/classical definitions - much as writing short stories requires a different talent than writing novels, or watercolors versus oil paintings, or portraits versus murals, or houses versus skyscrapers. Whether “pop” and “classical” are the appropriate words is another issue. (I have to admit, I felt slightly mendacious referring to Sonic Youth's Female Mechanic Now on Duty as a pop song - successful or not, it's kind of an extended work.)
The last day of class the students played their compositions (it’s a theory class - harmonic correctness is required, creativity isn’t). Then they, not unreasonably, demanded that I play something of my own. So I complied with the one piece of my own I can play on short notice, No. 1 of my Private Dances, which is kind of a tango. Afterwards, two students swore that my piece sounded exactly like the background music to a scene in some movie they’d watched, and that I should check it out.
Now, that a tango of mine should resemble one in a movie - or every other piano tango in existence to some extent, for that matter - is hardly cause for surprise. However, without needing to watch the movie, I feel pretty secure in my doubts that the tango in the movie did what mine does. Mine is in a kind of verse and chorus format, repeated three times. The first pass through the material is firmly in B major/minor, chromatically nuanced by an occasional F major chord. The second time through it changes to some distant keys but keeps returning to B minor at cadences. The third time it takes off: Ab7, Gb7, E, G7, C#7, A minor. In addition, at the end of each chorus comes a C dominant 7th chord which twice acts as a German 6th back to B, and once as a dominant of F, so it’s kind of a theoretical joke, playing with your expectations. The piece does something, it ventures further and further out and gets lost, it playfully changes its mind. I doubt that the tango in the movie does that, or does it the same way.
What’s disappointing - and I mean it not just with respect to these two students but to their generation in general, for this is ubiquitous - is that for young musicians, momentary identity is often everything, and what happens in the piece hardly exists. For me, the cleverly-composed course of the tango was everything; to them, merely the general sound, the momentum, texture, and flavor of the tonality, mattered. From experiences in my criticism class, I’m tempted to think that this is a listening habit inculcated by pop music. Most pop songs retain pretty much the same sonic identity from beginning to end. The profile of a pop song is crucial to its instant recognition. You can’t have a pop song that starts out “We... will... we... will... ROCK YOU!” and ends up “God only knows what I’d do without you” - though in a sense, most classical music does something like that all the time. In class I even assigned them to write descriptions of some pop songs that went through tremendous changes - such as Sonic Youth’s “Female Mechanic Now on Duty” - trying to elicit recognition of, and maybe some interest in, the fact that some music transforms itself and goes through a variety of sections. It seemed pretty much in vain. I played entire movements from Mahler symphonies, and while they came up with loads of adjectives and even elaborate pictorial scenarios, not one, except under the most obvious prodding, ventured a description that took time-based changes into account. That’s why, in my Music After Minimalism class, I’d play part of an hour-long work by Robert Ashley or Meredith Monk or anyone, and someone would invariably shout, “I know a rock group sounds just like that!” And it would, for about 20 seconds.
The late Jonathan Kramer wrote about what he called horizontal time in music and vertical time. Horizontal time was what you experience listening to the recapitulation of a sonata differ from the exposition, taking account of before and after, hearing the consonant version of Beethoven’s Eroica theme 20 minutes after that version with the dissonant C# and realizing that something has changed. Vertical time is what one experiences in the moment, without before or after, and a lot of recent composers have written with vertical time as a goal - Jonathan listed Satie’s Vexations, Rzewski’s Les Moutons de Panurge, even certain works by Stravinsky. In fact, as the critic who most champions music in which nothing happens, I feel a little hypocritical chastising my students for only listening that way. I have the opposite trouble trying to get my classical colleagues to appreciate the timelessness of La Monte Young’s Well-Tuned Piano, Charlemagne Palestine’s piano strumming, a Phill Niblock orchestra piece which might seem to remain motionless. I love pieces in which nothing happens. One of my own pieces is entitled Time Does Not Exist. But I think I love those pieces more because they negate my deeply embedded horizontal listening habits (sounds like I listen to music lying down), the way Waiting for Godot smashed the expectations of conventional theater because the title character never showed up.
Imagine applying this situation to literature. You read, “Though Mrs. Jennings was in the habit of spending a large portion of the year at the houses of her children and friends, she was not without a settled habitation of her own,” and someone shouts, “I know another novel reads just like that!” It wouldn’t happen, because people who read novels at all realize that what’s important is not so much the individuality of the sentences (some of which may chance to appear verbatim in other books) as what happens. And movies! How many movies have a scene in which the hero is running from a bomb and is thrown forward by the explosion? Who would yell out, “I know another movie goes just like that”? No one, because people are conditioned to experience movies in time.
But I think - and I realize I sound like an old grump but I merely note the phenomenon - we’re raising a generation who, by and large, do not think of music as something to be experienced in time. And it strikes me that the lack of that habit closes one off from the pleasure of a tremendous amount of music - even the music in which nothing happens, if not especially that music.
New on Postclassic Radio:
Night song by Raphael Mostel and his Tibetan Singing Bowl Ensemble
Steel Chords for pedal steel guitar and strings by Sasha Matson
Tukwinong for piano by Judith Sainte Croix, and played by her
Lou Harrison’s Piano Concerto with Keith Jarrett as soloist
Alien Heart from Elodie Lauten’s early disc of piano works on Cat Collectors
Sites To See
AJ BlogsAJBlogCentral | rss
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
rock culture approximately
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
No genre is the new genre
David Jays on theatre and dance
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
John Rockwell on the arts
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Martha Bayles on Film...
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
Exploring Orchestras w/ Henry Fogel
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
Jerome Weeks on Books
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world
Public Art, Public Space
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog