main: October 2005 Archives

My Rochberg talk out of the way, I am now focused on this week's events. First, as previously noted, the premiere of my microtonal quintet The Day Revisited occurs this Wednesday, November 2, at Bard College's Olin Auditorium. My son Bernard and I will be performing with the Da Capo ensemble, and other Bardian composers are featured, including faculty members Joan Tower and Thurman Barker, temporary faculty Keith Fitch, a very talented student Marcus Parris, and local composer Jonathan Talbott.

Then I'm giving the keynote address at a festival/symposium called The Extensible Toy Piano Project. The brainchild of directors David Claman and Matt Malsky, the event takes place Friday and Saturday, November 4 and 5, at the Razzo Recital Hall at the Traina Center for the Arts at Clark University in Worcester, Massachussetts. My speech is Saturday evening at 7. I've never given a keynote address before, and have spent the last couple of weeks thinking about what the toy piano means to me. A lot, actually: on the Saturday concert will be my 1989 toy piano piece Paris Intermezzo, and I also used the instrument (sampled and microtonally retuned) in So Many Little Dyings. Naturally, my talk, as the festival itself, probably, will revolve around John Cage's Suite for Toy Piano of 1948, which first brought the instrument to serious attention - and which I have added to Postclassic Radio as an homage.

October 31, 2005 9:24 AM | | Comments (0) |
Some readers have a few issues with the "comments" option, and I have a couple of disappointments about the new format myself - or rather, with what the new format does to the old entries. I thought that rather than post them as comments I'd forward them to Doug McLennan and post them here.

First, my issues. Somehow, in moving all my files to the new space, an awful lot of apostrophes and quotation marks got swallowed up, making the posts look a little illiterate. I've been restoring those in the articles I care most about, but it's unlikely I'll ever get to all of them. Also, internal links from one post to another are now all incorrect (as are, one presumes, all links ever made to one of my blog entries from the outside). I'm trying to correct those - if you find one that no longer works, I'd appreciate knowing about it.

Readers are concerned that the "Preview" button doesn't work when you post a comment - you apparently just get a blank screen. I've been asked if it's possible to provide some kind of "your comment is awaiting moderator approval" message to those who try to post, and also if I can create a list of "approved commenters," so that some people will get carte blanche after the first couple of posts. I'm not so sure about the latter - I'd hate to have to create a two-tier system of people I trust and people I don't. But I'll pass the other concerns on to Doug. It's like any time you move to a new house or new computer or new office, for awhile nothing seems to work right.

UPDATE: I'm assured that the preview problems are fixed - at least posting comments works like clockwork for me and Doug - and there's a message explaining that comments are screened before posting. Let me know if you have a recurring problem, and tell me what browser you're using so I can check if there's some compatability problem. Thanks.

October 30, 2005 9:26 PM | |
ashley.jpg Robert Ashley's brand new recording of his opera Celestial Excursions is up in its 111-minute entirety on Postclassic Radio. I think it's his most musically beautiful opera ever, even though there's not particularly much more music in it than in the other ones - something about the rhythms of the words, the way the repeated phrases make music. It's his opera about old people:

Old people are special because they have no future. The future is what to eat for breakfast, or where did I leave my shoes. Everything else is in the past. Is this understandable?

So, sometimes old people break the rules. Especially the rules of conversation and being together. They laugh a lot. I mean real, full laughter. Did you ever notice that? They break the rules because, for one reason or another (illness, anger, damage, enough of that, whatever), the rules no longer apply for them.

Or to quote the song about the baguette:

The plate was taken away. The heavy door shut. I heard the lock.
I thought to myself, if Beckett wrote in French,
He must have had to have a baguette for breakfast.
You can't write in French after a breakfast of oatmeal.
That is, when Beckett decided to write in French, He had to have a baguette for breakfast.
No, I thought to myself, think clearly. This is your chance.
Beckett wanted to have the baguette for breakfast, though he knew this desire would lead
Him irrevocably to writing in French.
You can't have the baguette for breakfast and write other than in French.
He chose. It takes courage to be a writer.


October 29, 2005 3:55 PM | | Comments (1) |
I neglected to notice that the Village Voice turned fifty this week - the first issue was dated Oct. 26, 1955, and I was born soon afterward. My editor Bob Christgau gives a capsule history of music criticism there. True to form, he doesn't sugarcoat anything:

In 1985 I became a parent and relinquished the editorship to a talented series of successors who know why I'm not name-checking them—they experienced firsthand the space cutbacks that have continued for 20 years (and hey, now pay rates are dipping too!). [I came to the Voice in November 1986. - KG] Many claim our section lost authority around the time I left, and they're right. This had nothing to do with editing. It was structural. The professionalization and expansion of music coverage, together with the DIY-ization and expansion of music production, topped off by the online DIY-ization of music coverage, have rendered authority, which in any aesthetic matter is provisional at best, an utter chimera, no matter how many 100 best this-es and 50 top thats music media sell ads with....

This is not a great time in alternative rock or alternative journalism—mainstream pop or mainstream journalism either....

October 28, 2005 12:06 PM | | Comments (0) |
Douglas McLennan calls my attention to a nice review of my new CD, by composer Christopher DeLaurenti in The Stranger, out of Seattle (halfway down the page): "Like Stravinsky, composer Kyle Gann has an astounding ability to forcibly deploy complex rhythms without sounding cluttered or pretentiously convoluted." Woohoo! The West Coast always seems to love me better than the East Coast, and you know what, West Coast? I love you better too.

October 27, 2005 10:01 PM | | Comments (1) |
As many of you have quickly noticed, this new format allows for the possibility of comments (I can set this option or not set it per individual post). The way Arts Journal’s comments work, the ones you send go into a holding pen until I OK them. Most people, so far, have kept repeatedly sending, trying to get their comments to appear, but they won’t, automatically. This is as it should be - I’ve spent enough time cleaning obscene nonsense out of my web site guest page to know that you don’t just hand total strangers a can of spray paint and invite them to express themselves. Your comment will appear when I get time to go into the software and publish it, assuming I find it well-intended and insightful.

The way I look at this is as a time-saving feature. I’ve always tried to post and/or respond to helpful comments I get, but sometimes this takes up lots more time than writing the original post did. Now people can do their own writing - I don’t have to paraphrase or edit, and I don’t have to go through the time and delay of writing people back and asking if it’s OK to quote them. I don’t have to answer, necessarily, either. I’m hoping this will more fully acknowledge the range of wonderful responses I get, while meaning a little less work for me.

On the other hand, I don’t get paid to blog here, and this is my space. I don’t owe nobody nuthin’. Anonymous comments will be deleted without becoming public, likewise abusive ones, as well as comments I don’t see the point of. No one will grandstand in this space but me. I’m all for collective wisdom - but if you want to prove how brilliant you are at length, you can start your own damn blog (are there are places that will give you the space for free). If you want to get a group dialogue going, join some new music forum like Sequenza 21. This is my turf, period, end of sentence.

I’ve been warned, by the way, against going wild with the photos, which take up loads of web space and make the site difficult for some people to access. So sorry about those promised photos of Alex Ross’s cats, it looks like you won’t be seeing them here after all. (Too bad, I paid a pretty penny for them on the black market, and some of them caught the felines in real compromising poses.)

October 27, 2005 9:26 PM | | Comments (2) |
rochberg.jpg I've been writing quite a bit about the composer George Rochberg since he died last spring, and now, by some amazing coincidence, I've been asked to speak about him this weekend. The Colorado String Quartet, who are, or which is, in residence at Bard College, will perform Rochberg's Quartet No. 6 (1978) at 3 PM this Sunday, Oct. 30, at Olin Auditorium here, at Annandale-on-Hudson off of Route 9G. It's the last of the "Concord" Quartets, with which Rochberg boldly inaugurated postmodernism under the shocked eyes of the classical establishment, and the one that famously contains a theme and variations on Pachelbel's infamous Canon. So I'll give a little talk about Rochberg and the piece before they play it. They're also playing stuff by Haydn and Beethoven (Op. 127), but I don't know anything about them.

UPDATE: Oops - somehow Franz Joseph Haydn changed into Richard Wernick. I HATE it when that happens.

October 26, 2005 9:29 AM | | Comments (0) |

satie70.jpg Thanks to Douglas McLennan, from whom all blessings flow, I have now joined the newer, sleeker ranks of Arts Journal bloggers whose wisdom is couched in the snazzy new format. No longer will I turn from Jan Herman's blog to my own and hang my head in shame! And before, somehow because I'm on a Mac, I could never post images. Now, with the new software, I can! and I celebrate this newfound ability with an experimental post of Erik Satie, the first postclassical composer and patron saint of all who have come since. Coming up soon, I have a lot of never-before-seen photos of Alex Ross's cat!

October 25, 2005 11:41 AM | | Comments (4) |

It seems like every month another young composer shoots out of grad school and starts blogging, brimful of enthusiasm for the musics of Ligeti, Carter, Xenakis, Berio, Boulez. I have nothing against that music. And if I did, what would it matter? Might as well rail against Brahms. What depresses me, and makes me feel trapped in an age of endless musical conservatism, is the ever-renewed enthusiasm, the sense that that old, old, well-known music, music with no more secrets to divulge, music of a past century, needs ever to be championed by the young, the young of every era and for all time.

In 1973 I came out of high school brimful of enthusiasm for the musics of Ligeti, Carter, Xenakis, Berio, Boulez. By the time I graduated college, I had discovered the next generation - Reich, Riley, Glass, Oliveros - and by the time I was through grad school I was grappling with Adams, Lentz, Meredith Monk. That means that during seven years of higher education I went from studying music by composers 30 years older than myself to those who were 20, 15, even 10 years older than me. Now I mainly pay attention to the music of my numerous brilliant contemporaries, and I've even had my music influenced by people younger than myself.

Did this happen because staid, prim Northwestern University was exposing me to Meredith Monk? HA! That's a laugh. Most of the faculty there still considered Hindemith a little outré. My generation didn't trust our teachers to tell us everything, and we did our own research.

Now, in an endless stream, come the 21st-century postgraduates, children of the 1980s, who brush me aside as irrelevant because I don't fawn over the important music of our time: Ligeti, Carter, Xenakis, Berio, Boulez! And I think to myself, "Kids, those people are your grandparents' generation, except for Carter, who's your great-grandfather." Had I followed that pattern, I would have come out of college all excited about Copland, Hindemith, Milhaud! instead of the postminimalists. If the young composers were on my timetable, I'd be considered old-fashioned by now, and they'd be grappling with music by composers born in the 1960s and '70s. There's a big difference between thinking about music that has been irrefutably validated by history, and music that is still in doubt, music that needs to be examined, music that no one in power will yet vouch for, music that makes your teachers uncomfortable. How do you become a composer wrestling only with a history already etched in granite, rather than interacting with still-pliable movements and a repertoire whose course you will be called upon to alter and direct?

Of course, what's obvious is that grad school teachers are pushing Ligeti, Carter, Xenakis, Berio, Boulez!, and doing so very persuasively. But - why are these young composers listening to their teachers? My generation rebelled against our teachers, and so today's young generation is rebelling against us by - not rebelling?

October 25, 2005 9:32 AM | | Comments (6) |

I love it when bloggers blog about bloggers. Two of my confréres have written about my interview with Frederic Rzewski at Miller Theater last Thursday, David Adler and Darcy James Argue. As a paid participant of the event, I would consider it unseemly to add my own evaluative comments about the concert - nevertheless I can say that I thought they both captured the evening's atmosphere well.

October 24, 2005 10:23 AM | |

I was going to send my mother the poem by W.H. Auden that I quoted recently, which doesn't seem to be on the internet anywhere, so I thought I might as well post it here, where, after all, she's likely to read it. There is an audio file of Auden reading the poem via the New York Times, but it's very late in his life and he seems to make it a little more trivial, so I recommend reading it yourself first. It's one of my favorite poems about music ever, with some sagacious observations about the changes in performance practice wrought by time and mores:

Metalogue to The Magic Flute

(Lines composed in commemoration of the Mozart Bicentenary, 1956. To be spoken by the singer playing the role of Sarastro.)

Relax, Maestro, put your baton down;
Only the fogiest of the old will frown
If you the trials of the Prince prorogue
To let Sarastro speak this Metalogue,
A form acceptable to us, although
Unclassed by Aristotle or Boileau.
No modern audience finds it incorrect,
For interruption is what we expect
Since that new god, the Paid Announcer, rose,
Who with his quasi-Ossianic prose
Cuts in upon the lovers, halts the band,
To name a sponsor or to praise a brand.
Not that I have a product to describe
That you could wear or cook with or imbibe;
You cannot hoard or waste a work of art;
I come to praise but not to sell Mozart,
Who came into this world of war and woe
At Salzburg just two centuries ago,
When kings were many and machines were few
And open atheism something new.
(It makes a servantless New Yorker sore
To think sheer Genius had to stand before
A mere Archbishop with uncovered head;
But Mozart never had to make his bed.)

The history of Music as of Man
Will not go cancrizans, and no ear can
Recall what, when the Archduke Francis reigned,
Was heard by ear whose treasure-hoard contained
A Flute already but as yet no Ring;
Each age has its own mode of listening.
We know the Mozart of our fathers' time
Was gay, rococo, sweet, but not sublime
A Viennese Italian; that is changed
Since music critics learned to feel "estranged";
Now it's the Germans he is classed amongst,
A Geist whose music was composed from Angst,
At International Festivals enjoys
An equal status with the Twelve-Tone Boys;
He awes the lovely and the very rich,
And even those Divertimenti which
He wrote to play while bottles were uncorked,
Milord chewed noisily, Milady talked,
Are heard in solemn silence, score on knees,
Like quartets of the deafest of the B's.
What next? One can no more imagine how,
In concert halls two hundred years from now,
When the mozartian sound-waves move the air,
The cognoscenti will be moved, then dare
Predict how high orchestral pitch will go,
How many tones will constitute a row,
The tempo at which regimented feet
Will march about the Moon, the form of Suite
For Piano in a Post-Atomic Age,
Prepared by some contemporary Cage.

An opera composer may be vexed
By later umbrage taken at his text:
Even Macaulay's schoolboy knows today
What Robert Graves or Margaret Mead would say
About the status of the sexes in this play,
Writ in that era of barbaric dark
'Twixt Modern Mom and Bronze-Age Matriarch.
Where now the Roman Fathers and their creed?
"Ah where," sighs Mr. Mitty, "where indeed?"
And glances sideways at his vital spouse
Whose rigid jaw-line and contracted brows
Express her scorn and utter detestation
For Roman views of Female Education.

In Nineteen-Fifty-Six we find the Queen
A highly-paid and most efficient Dean
(Who, as we all know, really runs the College),
Sarastro, tolerated for his knowledge,
Teaching the History of Ancient Myth
At Bryn Mawr, Vassar, Bennington, or Smith;
Pamina may a Time researcher be
To let Pamino take his Ph.D.,
Acquiring manly wisdom as he wishes
While changing diapers and doing dishes;
Sweet Papagena, when she's time to spare,
Listens to Mozart operas on the air,
Though Papageno, we are sad to feel,
Prefers the juke-box to the glockenspiel,
And how is - what was easy in the past -
A democratic villain to be cast?
Monostatos must make his bad impression
Without a race, religion, or profession.

A work that lasts two hundred years is tough,
And operas, God knows, must stand enough:
What greatness made, small vanities abuse.
What must they not endure? The Diva whose
Fioriture and climactic note
The silly old composer never wrote,
Conductor X, that over-rated bore
Who alters tempi and who cuts the score,
Director Y who with ingenious wit
Places his wretched singers in the pit
While dancers mime their roles, Z the Designer
Who sets the whole thing on an ocean liner,
The girls in shorts, the men in yachting caps;
Yet Genius triumphs over all mishaps,
Survives a greater obstacle than these,
Translation into foreign Operese
(English sopranos are condemned to languish
Because our tenors have to hide their anguish);
It soothes the Frank, it stimulates the Greek:
Genius surpasses all things, even Chic.
We who know nothing - which is just as well -
About the future, can, at least, foretell,
Whether they live in air-borne nylon cubes,
Practise group-marriage or are fed through tubes,
That crowds two centuries from now will press
(Absurd their hair, ridiculous their dress)
And pay in currencies, however weird,
To hear Sarastro booming through his beard,
Sharp connoisseurs approve if it is clean
The F in alt of the Nocturnal Queen,
Some uncouth creature from the Bronx amaze
Park Avenue by knowing all the K's.

How seemly, then, to celebrate the birth
Of one who did no harm to our poor earth,
Created masterpieces by the dozen,
Indulged in toilet-humor with his cousin,
And had a pauper's funeral in the rain,
The like of which we shall not see again:
How comely, also, to forgive; we should,
As Mozart, were he living, surely would,
Remember kindly Salieri's shade,
Accused of murder and his works unplayed,
Nor, while we praise the dead, should we forget,
We have Stravinsky - bless him! - with us yet.
Basta! Maestro, make your minions play!
In all hearts, as in our finale, may
Reason & Love be crowned, assume their rightful sway.

October 22, 2005 9:52 PM | |

And remember, if you're going to hear Marilyn Nonken play music by Frederic Rzewski tonight at 8 at Miller Theatre (116th St. and Broadway), you might as well catch an early dinner and hear me interview Frederic onstage at 7 before the concert.

October 20, 2005 10:52 AM | |

I have a new work being premiered at Bard College's Olin Auditorium on Wednesday, November 2 - and repeated next January 24 at the Knitting Factory in New York. It happened in this wise. Pat Spencer, flutist of New York's Da Capo ensemble, played in my microtonal opera Cinderella's Bad Magic, which we performed in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Pat is, of course, (with apologies to Walter Piston) an incredible flutist. She has mastered much of the world's most difficult flute repertoire, and is a relentless perfectionist. She once showed me a rhythm in a work that only an insane or incompetent person would have written, a quintuplet inside a septuplet with rests and dotted notes or something, and was berating herself for not being able to get it perfect. I said to her, "Has it ever occurred to you that the composer wouldn't be able to play that rhythm accurately himself, and that maybe it's his fault for writing an unplayable rhythm, not yours for not being able to play it?" It had never occurred to her. That's the kind of musician she is. If it can be written, it can be played, and the composer is never wrong.

So she played in Cinderella's Bad Magic, which uses thirty pitches to the octave. It's kind of a graceful, lyrical, light-sounding piece, as you can hear in excerpt here if you want, and you never suspect how devilishly difficult it is for the flutist. Basically, the only pitch she could play unaltered was A, and the other 29 all required fingerings and lip alterations foreign to conventional flute music. The ordeal would have made any sane woodwind player swear off microtonality forever, but Saint Pat, martyr to new music, not only wanted me to write another microtonal piece for her, she got Da Capo's clarinetist Meighan Stoops interested, and they both wanted a microtonal piece. Well, a microtonal flute-and-clarinet duo sounded like an exercise in futility - why go through the horror of microtones for only two lines, which would barely let you hear the in-tuneness of the intervals? So I added a virtual piano part (which will be played on keyboard sampler by Blair McMillan, who recently had a nice profile in the Times), a fretless bass (played by my son Bernard, who's been putting up with dad's bizarre tunings his whole life), and a layer of background reference chords on sampler which I'll play myself. In short, Bernard and I are playing with the Da Capo ensemble, and I have the easy part.

The 13-minute result, which you can listen to a fake MIDI version of here if you'd like, which I made to help the players find their pitches, is called The Day Revisited. That's not the title you'll see on the program, however. For some reason I've been kind of obsessed by my music of the early 1980s lately, and the idea that came to me was to take some themes and chords from a little piece I wrote in 1982 called As the Day Is Long, for semi-improvising flute, drums, and synthesizer with a tape background, and reuse them in a purely-tuned context. (Actually, you can hear a really poor-quality recording of As the Day Is Long from my web site here.) So the piece looks back on that moment of my life from a 23-year perspective, with all the tendencies purified into something smoother. Once again there are 30 pitches to the octave - different ones this time. For awhile I called the new piece As the Day Is Long (Revisited), but that seemed a little clunky, and it gradually shortened in my mind to The Day Revisited, which still captures the rather nostalgic flavor. I didn't make that change in time to get it right in the program - but such complications can make the history of a work all the more interesting, n'est-ce pas?

Anyway, if you're not near Bard November 2, I'll put in a reminder about the January 24 performance in New York.

October 20, 2005 10:37 AM | |

One last post on Charles Ives (previous ones here and here), and if you're tired of the subject, read no further. I got a bug up my ass about his reputation after running across a reference to him on the internet by a composer who casually referred to him as politically rightwing, as though that were something everyone knew about Ives. Of course, Ives was actually a Wilsonian Democrat whose ideas were too radical even for 1930s Democrats, let alone today's: he favored a world government to prevent wars (the League of Nations being a first step), a cap on annual salaries of executives, national phone voting for national issues to more directly register the national will, and a prohibition on any rich person having the right to interfere in government. Today we would have to call him a socialist or worse, because there is no major political party with ideas remotely as democratic, liberal, and left-leaning as Ives's. A self-made millionaire who funded liberal causes and voted against his pocketbook, he was kind of a minor George Soros of his day. And yet, ludicrously, his reputation, now based more on innuendo than fact, has become such that musicians routinely bring him up as a parallel to Wagner, as someone whose music one can only like despite his personal failings.

Antonio Celaya writes to remind me that when Lou Harrison had a nervous breakdown and needed several months' hospitalization, John Cage applied to Ives, who paid Lou's expenses; and that he did this knowing Harrison was gay, which Lou was never secretive about. The biography Composing a World: Lou Harrison, Musical Wayfarer, by Leta E. Miller and Fredric Lieberman, confirms this. In 1942 Harrison frankly told the draft board that he was gay, yet Ives's relationship with Harrison in the late 1940s was affectionate, writing him humorous letters to "Lew Harry Son," and treating him much as a son. Lou spent years editing Ives' manuscripts, and I remember him referring to his sponsor reverently as "Mr. Ives." Does this sound to you like Charles Ives was a homophobe? Do you know of someone whose information on the subject would be better than Harrison's?

And let me repeat, because it may have gone out of currency, a story about Ives told by one Charles J. Buesing, who worked for Ives at the Ives & Myrick Agency, and who was interviewed by Vivian Perlis for her splendid oral history project. In 1969, Buesing said,

We worked a half-day on Saturdays. We would rarely see Mr. Myrick, but Mr. Ives would be there many Saturdays. One man came by me one Saturday afternoon, and he had tears in his eyes. As Mr. Ives went out the door, this fellow said, "There is a great man." And he told me this story. He had had the experience for the past few months of not making any sales at all. Since we were wholly on a commission basis, if you didn't sell, you just didn't eat. Charles Ives walked up to this man's desk and he thought he looked rather dejected so he said, "Charlie (his name was Charlie too), do me a personal favor. Will you take out your wallet?" And he did. "Now," he said, "you open it." Then he said, "Will you point it toward me?" The wallet was empty. Charles Ives said, "I thought so. No one can ever make a sale of anything with an empty wallet. Now, I want you to take this as a business loan. I know you'll have so much confidence with what I am going to put in that wallet that you will pay me back, and I don't want any I.O.U. or anything else." And he put fifty dollars in there. It was after the [1929 stock market] crash, and this man had fifty dollars in his pocket. He hadn't seen that much income in the past couple of months. It made a big difference with him. This is the kind of man that Ives was.

And this is the kind of story that people used to tell about Ives before Maynard Solomon (author of a passable Mozart biography and a really sucky Beethoven biography) wrote a nasty article accusing him of trying to pump up his reputation, an article whose assertions have been completely discredited by subsequent scholars. Yet ever since that article people have practically broken their legs trying to climb on the bandwagon of the Ives-despisers. Yet there are many laudatory comments in Perlis's Charles Ives Remembered, by friends and coworkers and musicians remembering what a kind, generous, unpretentious man he was. He volunteered as an ambulence driver during World War I, but was turned down on account of his heart condition. His family had been fervent abolitionists, and his parents adopted a poor Black boy. Unlike so many musicians, Ives was devoted to his wife, and she to him. He bankrolled musical projects by Cowell, Slonimsky, and others, and almost single-handedly kept new experimental American music alive during the Depression. He won a Pulitzer Prize, the country's most distinguished music award, and replied, "Prizes are for boys," giving half the money to Harrison and the other half to Cowell's New Music Edition. Truly we can say of Ives as W.H. Auden said of Mozart,

How seemly, then, to celebrate the birth
Of one who did no harm to our poor earth,
Created masterpieces by the dozen....

And yet, unfathomably, Ives has become one of those composers that people can hardly speak about now without reference to his alleged failures as a human being. It's shameful, an example of Wagnerphobia missaplied and run amok. Did Ives have faults? Sure - he seems to have been a little strait-laced, and went into business partly because he couldn't handle the Bohemian lifestyle that many musicians lived. I think less of him for that, but I keep up a rather middle-class lifestyle myself, and am perhaps more like him than I like admitting. He'd get choleric and fire off nasty insults at music critics and orchestra conductors who he thought didn't know their jobs. Let's see, have I ever done anything that awful? Are these sufficient basis to hang a permanent cloud of moral suspicion over him? As one correspondent noted, Ives was such a great man and such an incredibly innovative composer that people can't deal with him, and they have to whittle him down to size to digest him.

Why do I get so exercised about it? For three reasons:

1. Because I'm a music historian, and I prefer that people believe things about music that are true (the reason for which I am similarly always defending Mozart against that wretched Amadeus film);

2. Because Ives is my favorite composer, and more than anyone else the source of my musical ideas and aesthetic attitudes, and I feel a personal stake in his reputation; and,

3. Because if someone as selfless, generous, well-intentioned, and full of integrity as Ives can be saddled with a scandalous reputation after his death by an evil cabal, or perhaps by just an ignorant bunch of musicians who don't read much, then not one of us is safe from the machinations of hate-mongering slanderers. I don't flatter myself that I have as many excellent qualities as Ives did, and I shudder to think what 22nd-century Maynard Solomon will lie in ambush to attach to my name unfounded charges of racism, wife-beating, or whatever post-postmodern thought-crime for which no word has yet even been coined.

October 19, 2005 7:58 AM | | Comments (2) |

In 1999 Joseph N. Straus published an article in Musical Quarterly entitled "The Myth of Serial 'Tyranny' in the 1950s and 1960s." In it he claimed that, contrary to the common belief, there had never been any pressure on young composers to use 12-tone technique in their music, that the 12-tone composers wielded no power in academia, and that 12-tone music was just a hunky-dory little movement that attracted scads of converts because it was just so damn fun. As I believe I've written about here, Anthony Tommasini took him neatly apart in a response in the Times for putting his thumb on the scales by limiting his statistics to pre-1970, the period in which the serialists were not yet firmly established in academia. Here's another, more recent reaction:

Straus' effort to remove the onus from serialism and serialists by insisting that neither had the "power to coerce and compel," therefore, there could have been no "tyranny" except as "myth," misses the crucial point: the real, lived-and-experienced atmosphere of the 50s and 60s was dominated psychologically, aesthetically, intellectually, and riven by the earlier emergence of a power-house of artistic presence in the persons of Arnold Schoenberg and his two satellite, equally strong artist-composers, Alban Berg and Anton Webern.... [T]he guileless, benign picture Straus tries to sell us fades before the reality he strives so hard and ineffectually to displace and deny. His tactics of detoxifying serialism and serialists, which remind me of efforts to denazify Hitler's Germany or debolshevize Stalin's Russia, simply do not convince.

Had he paid more attention to the palpable presence of the 12-tone, serialist dominated journals which set the tone of the period..., understood that American academic composers took readily to serialism, its logics, methodologies, magic squares, set theories because it now gave them something solid and intellectual that offered certainties where previously none had existed, then he would have been better able to comprehend why under-graduates and graduate students in particular felt frozen and intimidated - why they resented and feared their teachers and the ideas they promulgated which disclaimed any value attaching to works produced in any way other than the serial....

Above all, Straus fails to comprehend that primarily the greater majority of the American and European post-W.W. II generations of serialists found in serialism an escape from the necessity to be artists and make art, and could still call themselves composers even though what they produced were more demonstrations or illustrations of theoretical-analytical thought processes or thought experiments than they were attempts to say anything artistically meaningful in persuasive human terms.

Does this come from some former grad student still smarting from rejection by his teachers? No. Does it come from a rabid Downtowner who hates all 12-tone music? No. Does it come from some mid-career composer angry because he isn't getting performed enough, or can't get a teaching position? No. It comes from an elder statesman, someone who was a professor rather than student during the period in question, a famous composer at the end of a successful career of orchestral performances. It comes from someone who had mastered the 12-tone language himself, and written many successful pieces using it. Thus spake George Rochberg.

October 18, 2005 9:04 AM | |

The myth of a homophobic Charles Ives has gained traction, to the point that it sometimes seems that if a person knows only two things about Ives, one is that he wrote music and the other is that he hated gays. I alluded to this in my post about Ives the other day, and I received the usual questions. Let me set a couple of things straight.

The image of Ives as homophobe rests on two pillars: Ives's abandonment of Henry Cowell after the latter was sent to San Quentin on a homosexual morals charge; and his regular use of effeminacy as an insult, calling people he didn't like "sissies" and "old women in pants."

To take the first charge: In 1997, during the Henry Cowell Centennial Conference at Lincoln Center, there was an exhibition of Cowell's correspondence. One exhibit was a letter from Charles Ives, written to Cowell at San Quentin. It was warm, supportive, sympathetic, with no hint of disapproval. As I recall, it was written in Ives's handwriting, which was odd, because by the late 1930s his wife Harmony was writing most of his letters for him. A bunch of American music scholars and I stood around wondering at this letter, which so flew in the face of the legend that Ives cut Cowell as a friend after the homosexual incident. We theorized that perhaps it wasn't Ives who had trouble with Cowell's homosexuality, but Harmony - which would explain why this was a rare Ives letter not in her handwriting. I have never yet seen this written about - perhaps some Ives scholar is saving it for a new book - but thus fell down to dust one leg of the Ives homophobia myth.

Parenthetically, I've always wondered why this myth reflected so much worse on Ives than on Cowell. After all, Cowell was charged with corrupting the morals of a minor, and I think most of my friends and acquaintances would agree that having sex with an underage person is a bad thing (at least morally bad), regardless of the sexual orientation involved. Why couldn't Ives (or Harmony) have very reasonably disapproved of Cowell seducing a minor, if he had believed that's what happened, without a charge of homophobia? Why is it assumed that Ives would have felt just dandy about Cowell and a 16-year-old girl? As it happens, Cowell seems to have been, if not completely innocent, more innocent than charged, and got screwed over by a vindictive DA. In any case, he was later given a full pardon, and the evidence against him was acknowledged as faulty. In my experience, everyone seems willing to believe poor Cowell was innocent - yet Ives continues to be blamed for an abandonment that, according to the evidence I've seen, never happened. In any case, Cowell remained Ives's friend and wrote a fine biography of him in 1954, and if Ives didn't do anything Cowell couldn't forgive him for, I don't see that the rest of the world has any business not forgiving him as well.

The second case is more difficult to make, and many will not be convinced by it - but I'm going to make it anyway. Like Ives, I grew up in a culture in which charges of effeminacy were a standard insult. In Texas in the 1960s, we called guys we didn't like "sissies," "girlie-men," taunted them by saying they should be wearing a dress. This had nothing to do with homophobia. It had to do with our own fears of failing to live up to the unrealistic image of manhood impressed on our insecure imaginations, and to overcompensate we ascribed such failure to our enemies. (Ives, whose father was an impecunious musician in a family of solid businessmen, was probably acutely susceptible to this psychology.) For one thing, we were so ignorant of homosexuality that we thought it might be a one-in-a-million condition, something we would never encounter. I went into college talking this way, found that homosexuals were far more common than I'd been led to believe, and learned with a shock that the way I was used to expressing myself might be misinterpreted as disparaging gays. Of course, I cleaned up my speech immediately - I had no desire to offend any group of people for being who they were, and many of my new friends were gay. Calling people "sissies" was admittedly a graceless and ugly way of expressing ourselves - but to label it homophobia is to retrofit an anachronistic standard into a culture that wouldn't have understood the charge. (Why hasn't Arnold Schwarzenegger been vilified as homophobic for his "girlie-men" comment? What did Ives say worse than that?) Nor was it misogynistic: in the macho John Wayne world I grew up in, men were supposed to be men, and women - rather idealized and installed on pedestals - women. It was an unfortunate world in a lot of ways, and I suffered from it and continue to. But homophobia and misogyny played no conscious part in it.

Thus it was that when I read Ives's Essays Before a Sonata at age 14, nothing about its language jarred me - that's how people I knew talked. One of the wonderful things about Ives's prose writing is how much of the vernacular slips into his high-toned philosophical discourse. The unfortunate flip side of this is that some of that vernacular, in hindsight and from the point of view of a civil rights era, now has a nasty ring to it. Since I come from a part of the country whose enlightenment level creeps along more slowly than the average, my upbringing in the 1950s was probably on some kind of cultural par with Ives's in the 1880s. Ives called critics "sissies" and "Rollos" when they were hidebound and conventional in their thinking - which are not characteristics associated with gays. In any case, if you're going to charge Ives with being a homophobe, then you might as well charge me with having been one for the first 20 years of my life, and I alone know how misguided such an interpretation would be.

Ives assigned the royalties for his Third Symphony to Lou Harrison, who conducted its premiere in 1946 (and gave him half of the Pulitzer Prize money he won from the work). I don't know how "out" Lou was by that point, but I find it difficult to believe that Ives was in complete ignorance of his sexual orientation. In short, I have never seen any evidence that Charles Ives ever in his life discriminated against a gay person, or insulted one, or avoided one, or even that he hated gays. He did hate people who were intellectually timid and conventional, and in disparaging them he employed an old-fashioned vernacular idiom that no educated person would ever use today, because it now sounds homophobic. That's unfortunate. Ives's music enjoyed a big surge in popularity in the 1960s, and a lot of people who thought it undeserved have picked away at Ives's minor personal faults with a tenacious schadenfreude that seems all out of proportion. Ives's alleged homophobia should not be one of the first things anyone learns about Ives. In fact, it needn't be brought up at all - unless someone has some evidence.

October 17, 2005 12:06 PM | | Comments (3) |

I'm like a backward berry
Unripened on the vine,
For all my friends are fifty
And I'm only forty-nine.

My friends are steeped in wisdom,
Like senators they go,
In the light of fifty candles,
And one on which to grow.

How can I cap their sallies,
Or top their taste in wine?
Matched with the worldly fifties,
What chance has forty-nine?

Behold my old companions,
My playmates and my peers,
Remote on their Olympus
Of half a hundred years!

These grave and reverend seniors,
They call me Little Man,
They pat my head jocosely
And pinch my cheek of tan.

Why must I scuff my loafers
And grin a schoolboy grin?
Is not my waist as ample?
Is not my hair as thin?

When threatened with a rumba,
Do I not seek the bar?
And am I not the father
Of a freshman at Bryn Mawr?

O, wad some pawky power
Gie me a gowden giftie,
I'd like to stop at forty-nine,
But pontificate like fifty.

Ogden Nash: The Calendar-Watchers, or
What's So Wonderful About Being a Patriarch?

October 15, 2005 7:41 PM | |

I went through one of my biannual rituals today. I played my 20th-century analysis class a 1943, war-time recording of Charles Ives - age 69, diabetic, impaired by heart attacks, old beyond his years - singing and playing his song They Are There. Listen to it here. Here are the words, as best as I can make them out:

There's a time in many a life
When it's do, through facing death,
But our soldier boys
Will do their part that people can live
In a world where all will have a say.
They're concious always of their country's aim,
Which is liberty for all.
Hip, hip, hooray, you'll hear them say,
As they go to the fighting front.
Brave boys are now in action!
They are there, they will help to free the world.
They're fighting for the right,
But when it comes to might,
They are there, they are there, they are there (you bet they'll be),
As the Allies beat up all the war hogs.
Our boys'll be there, fighting hard,
And then the world will shout! the battle cry of freedom,
Tenting on a new campground,
Tenting tonight, tenting on a new campground,
For it's rally round the flag of the People?s New Free World,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom!

When we're through this cursed war,
All those dynamite-sneaking gougers,
Making slaves of men (God damn them),
Then let all the people rise and stand together in brave, kind humanity.
Most wars are made by small, stupid, selfish bossing groups,
While the People have no say,
But there'll come a day,
Hip, hip, hooray,
When they'll smash all dictators to the wall! [illustrated with forearm clusters]
Let's build a people's world nation, hooray!
Every honest country free to live its own, native life!
They will stand up for the right,
But when it comes to might,
They'll be there, they'll be there, they'll be there (you bet they'll be),
Then the People, not just politicians,
Will rule their own lands and lives,
And you'll hear the whole universe
Shouting the battle cry of freedom,
Tenting on a new campground,
Tenting tonight, tenting on a new campground,
For it's rally round the flag of the People's New Free World,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom!

I'll never forget, at age 18, hearing Ives sing that song, on the old Columbia recording. Tears streaked down my cheeks. Some think he sounds like a silly old man - his voice admittedly can't quite negotiate his own difficult modulations. But I listen to that song and realize that no one in the world could be more patriotic than I am. Everything I love about what the United States of America used to be, and used to stand for, is encapsulated somewhere in Charles Ives's music - in the freedom-seeking literary tradition of Emerson and Thoreau paid the deepest homage in the Concord Sonata and the Essays Before a Sonata, but also in the angry, relentless idealism of of a millionaire retired insurance executive who argued that there should be a cap on what any man should be allowed to earn in a year, and that "no man who has personal property to the amount of, say, $100,000 should have any active part in a government by the people" ("Stand By the President and the People," 1917).

That's my America, and Charles Ives's - not an America in which half of the people could have voted for, and a third of the people still belligerently continue to support, a vicious bastard in the White House who threatens to use his first veto ever to strike down a bill outlawing the use of torture. As far as I'm concerned, the musicologists and critics who try to tear away at Ives's reputation by charging him with mendacity, homophobia, whatever, are all of a piece with the uneducated, illiberal masses who voted for and support the vicious bastard. I hear that song and realize that my patriotism remains intact and unaltered - but that the United States of America that Charles Ives loved, and that I love, in which dictators are smashed to the wall and the people rule their own land, no longer exists. Thank goodness we still possess this aural document that captures its lost spirit. Listening to it, one can only think of what Ives's father told him about the hoarse but honest singing of old John Bell: "Don't pay too much attention to the sounds. If you do, you may miss the music. You won't get a heroic ride to heaven on pretty little sounds."

October 14, 2005 10:55 PM | |

Next Thursday, October 20, one week from tonight, I'll be onstage at Miller Theatre at Columbia University - not performing, but interviewing formidable composer-pianist Frederic Rzewski. Our pre-concert interview is at 7:00, and at 8:00, expert new-music pianist Marilyn Nonken will play Rzewski's famous classic The People United Will Never Be Defeated. This will be followed by the New York premiere of a new work, Rzewski's Bring Them Home, featuring, besides Nonken, pianist Ursula Oppens and percussionists Tom Kolor and Dominic Donato. I'll let you guess which recent war the title refers to.

The rather taciturn Rzewski tends toward the devilishly contrarian in public appearances; last time I ran into him was at an Ives festival in Berlin, where, asked to speak, he rose and announced, "I don't know why they asked me here, because I really don't like Ives's music," and soon sat down again. He's a challenge to interview, but I've had a lot of good talks with him, and maybe I can draw him out comfortably. Hope to see some of you there.

October 13, 2005 11:05 PM | |

I hadn't visited Ubuweb in several months. I don't know what I was (or wasn't) thinking. I think what happened was that I gave up on Mozilla as my browser - every so often it would just suddenly erase all my bookmarks, so I switched to Safari, and haven't relocated all my usual watering holes again. But a reader alerted me to the fact that Ubuweb now offers Robert Ashley's Music with Roots in the Aether, a series of seven two-hour film interviews with great young composers of the 1970s: David Behrman, Philip Glass, Alvin Lucier, Gordon Mumma, Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley, and a sort of performance art piece by Ashley himself. Right now I'm watching Terry Riley milking a goat on his farm, and giving Ashley a glass - kind of surreal, but real, I guess. I had seen most of these 25 years ago at New Music America, and then they disappeared, though still referred to from time to time in reference works. And now, here they are on my laptop! At present they play on RealOne, and AVI's for Quicktime will appear soon. I'm thrilled. Also, Ubuweb now has the mp3s for Riley's soundtracks to La Secret de la Vie (1975), and No Man's Land (1985). (Why not Journey from the Death of a Friend yet, my favorite?) In fact, you should just bypass Postclassic from now on, and spend all your time on Ubuweb. It's an incredible resource.

October 13, 2005 12:03 PM | |

"Of course, criteria for what constitutes an 'idea' in the first place have shifted and changed in this century, especially since the advent of radical modernism. So much so, in fact, that, for some composers, texture, color, layered sounds - none of which are particularly memorable or indelible to the ear because they are over-generalized sound-complexes, too diffuse and non-specific - take the place of 'idea' in the sense I mean it."
George Rochberg

I had always assumed, and written, that Rochberg had never quite had his ear bent out of whack by his 12-tone training because he was born earlier (1918) than most of the hard-core 12-toners (mostly born in the 1920s), and had too much other experience before the 12-tone idea took over. It turns out, however, that due to fighting in World War II he got off to a little bit of a late start, and that his differentness within his milieu seems to be more due to his working as an editor for Theodore Presser during the 1950s, before rejoining academia at the age of 42 (the same age Morton Feldman and I took teaching jobs). That means that he had a lot of the same experiences that a composer-critic gets: writing music while being deluged with other people's music, seeing the full range of styles available in one's time, and becoming acutely aware of each style's clichés through endless repetition. (At least, that's what it would have meant in the 1950s; today, working for a music publisher, you'd come across only a tiny sliver of the most conservative possible music, and would receive a totally unrealistic picture of what's going on.)

Of course, Rochberg found rock music abhorrent (the ultimate fruition of Russolo's "art of noise," he said) and had no sympathy for the post-Cage attempt to treat ambient sounds as aesthetic objects. But on music before his own, his opinions match mine remarkably well: for instance, the only Schoenberg piano piece he found attractive was Op. 11, and had no use at all for the late 12-tone piano pieces, Opp. 23, 25, and 33, which he found totally counterintuitive and abstract. (And this coming from America's best 12-tone composer!) For Rochberg, the sine qua non of music was memorability; if a piece didn't stick in his mind, creating an aching desire to hear it again, he deemed it unsuccessful. I've fought with this criterion, trying to keep in mind that there are other, sufficient musical virtues - but when push comes to shove, I ultimately have to admit that I feel exactly the same way.

There seemed so little celebration of Rochberg's life and music after he died that I've been wondering if the neglect was an expression of academia's resentment that Rochberg quit playing the game. As a famous composer at the University of Pennsylvania, he rejected 12-tone technique, stylistic organicism, Schenkerian analysis - did they pay him back by ignoring him? Many other composers also quit playing the game after Rochberg led the way, of course, but his apostasy was not only first, but very public and damningly articulate. I have a few Uptown composers I've adopted over the years, whose music I loved as a teenager, before I knew any distinction between Uptown and Down-, and which never lost its attraction for me: Ben Weber, Ralph Shapey, Stefan Wolpe, George Rochberg. They all turn out to have entered academia late, if at all, and to have remained outsiders in some way, not considered entirely respectable by the "ruling elite." I didn't know that about any of them when their musics first grabbed my attention - and until recently I wasn't aware of how true it appears to be of Rochberg.

October 10, 2005 11:01 AM | |

I'm running behind due to a confluence of recent deadlines, but I'm happy to announce Peter Garland as Postclassic Radio's Last-Two-Thirds-of-October-Through-First Third-of-November Composer-of-the-Month. Maybe I'll go on a five-week cycle and get back in phase. But this will coincide with my profile of Peter in Chamber Music magazine this month, and I'll play at least a couple of pieces from every CD he's got. So far, Jornada del Muerto, Bright Angel/Hermetic Bird, The Fall of Quang Tri, and Nostalgia of the Southern Cross, all for piano, plus Dreaming of Immortalilty in a Thatched Cottage, I Have Had to Learn the Simplest Things Last, and Palm Trees-Pine Trees. This last is not commercially released, and I have quite a few unreleased Garland recordings to offer.

I finally updated the playlist, too. Check it out quick before it's out of date again!

October 9, 2005 3:37 PM | |

Because I just never seem to have enough to do to fill up my time, I guess, I sometimes serve as a "reader" for publishers who want a professional opinion on whether a manuscript should be published. Right now I'm reading a personal memoir by the late George Rochberg - possibly because I was one of the few to express public sympathy for his music and aesthetics after he died. I must say I'm amazed, considering what a different type of composer he was from me, how simpatico I find his opinions.

One gratifying thing I've learned is that Rochberg had no patience whatever with Schenkerian analysis, nor with those courses of study comprised under the title "form and analysis." There seems to be something that links Schenkerian analysis and the "form and analysis" curriculum together with 12-tone music and High Modernism, some kind of belief in absolute rationalism and a specious objectivity devoid of cultural influence or context. I studied Schenkerian analysis with a brilliant man (best not named in this connection), and all we did was argue over what I saw as the arbitrariness and subjectivity of what purported to be scientifically rigorous criteria. I hear that Europe quit paying attention to Schenker decades ago, but he's still much in vogue in certain American college departments that want to see themselves as top rank. My employers would be prouder of me if I could buy into that whole pretentious mindset, and it's refreshing to know that someone as academically respectable as Rochberg - only too honest to kid himself - was on my side.

The other thing I find attractive is Rochberg's characterization of history. As he scopes it out, the history of music was always inclusive and cumulative, each era receiving what was valuable from the previous one and building on it - until the mid-20th century, which decided to exclude and prohibit aspects of the musical practice that preceded it. Rochberg felt that this negative new attitude was a sure road map to oblivion, that a prohibitionary approach to composing would inevitably become a dessicated practice that would blow away with the first wind. For me, this is why bebop harmony is a more sane continuation of the theoretical tradition than the sterile pitch-set analysis I learned in school, because it folds in, retains, and elaborates what came before. And I do find something weirdly schizophrenic in the fact that I spend my afternoons teaching students how to use a certain harmonic vocabulary, and that some composers tell those students that, having learned that vocabulary, they're not allowed to use it. Old, Eurocentric curmudgeon Rochberg may have been, but like me he believed in a Post-Prohibitive Age, and he was elaborating that belief before I was old enough to know what the issues were.

UPDATE: I am told by an authoritative source that my comment about Schenker analysis being ignored by Europe used to be true; but that there has been a resurgence of the technique in England (which is sort of the Columbia University of Europe anyway), and in Finland and Estonia, whence it has been spread by expatriate Americans.

October 8, 2005 1:11 PM | | Comments (0) |

I love teaching with my external hard drive, which now contains 6844 mp3s, perhaps something like ten percent of my record/CD collection. Today we were analyzing Ives's Concord Sonata. I wanted to make the point that Ives didn't invent the tone cluster (or at least wasn't the first to invent it), and so I plugged in my hard drive, pressed a couple of keys, and played the Combat Naval for harpsichord by Michel Corrette (1707-1795), which uses forearm clusters to simulate cannonfire. The students expressed surprise that something so wild could have been written in the 18th century, so I assured them that the Classical Era was a lot more varied than standard music history admits and, to illustrate, played a jew's-harp concerto by Johann Georg Albrechtsberger (1736-1809), who was Beethoven's composition teacher. (Having been a record reviewer for Fanfare magazine for many years, I know quite a bit of repertoire never run into by those whose education is primarily academic.) The downside of teaching this way is that I digress considerably more often, and for longer periods.

I have to say, though, that my first Maxtor hard drive suffered a very light fall onto a soft carpet, and quit working altogether, after I'd had it only five months. Maxtor made it extremely difficult to return: I had to download some voluminous instructions in fine print, and wrap it in foam (styrofoam peanuts were not acceptable for honoring the warranty) and an anti-magnetic wrapper that was difficult to obtain. Since then, the Maxtor's icon sometimes fails to appear on my desktop when I plug it in. I've been told that La Cie makes the best external hard drives, and I'm thinking of getting one.

October 7, 2005 7:17 PM | |

"Music nowadays is merely the art of executing difficulties, and in the end that which is only difficult ceases to please."

Voltaire, Candide

October 4, 2005 10:07 AM | |

I had a meeting with an editor from a major publisher today, as happens frequently. They want to know what textbooks I'm looking for, and are polite enough to ask what books I'm planning to write. My esoteric plans don't generally thrill them. But this one asked what kind of textbook I'd like to see. I told her that I'd love a beginning music theory text that isn't so exclusively classically oriented, one that would have examples from Broadway tunes, folk music, and pop music, like maybe some musical examples from the Beatles, so that I can connect the theory to music that my students, of whom only about half are classical musicians, already know. And she told me that, the way things are legally right now, nobody, but NOBODY is allowed to quote Beatles songs in a textbook. She said that her company even published a book on pop music, and were prevented from using a single example from the Beatles. This explains a lot - how can you have a theory textbook that includes pop music if the stuff's all under copyright, and pop musicians won't let you use their work? Thus we end up with all-classical music textbooks. Very interesting. How do we get past this impasse, Sherlock?

UPDATE: Carl Voss writes to inform me that Robert Gauldin's Harmonic Practice in Tonal Music "liberally cites folk, pop, and jazz tunes along with the classical repertoire," including a passage from the Beatles's "Something" to illustrate the use of bVII. I will check, it, out!

October 3, 2005 10:08 PM | |

Joseph Horowitz's article on Gershwin in today's Times reiterates the usual historical positions on him. One one side are the musicians (Copland and Thomson are quoted) who considered Gershwin's music lowbrow and never took it seriously. On the other side are those who find in longevity irrefutable evidence of artistic success, and therefore consider Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris among the great classics of American music. As usual, allow me to distance myself from both sides.

I have always taken Gershwin completely seriously as a composer. As a matter of fact, when I was a 11-year-old fan of Mozart and Schubert and Grieg and Rachmaninoff, it disturbed me that there were, seemingly, no composers from America. Then I discovered Gershwin, and it was like a window opened into a wonderful world I had thought I could only look at from outside. I remember in grade school being so intently absorbed in a biography of Gershwin that it took a teacher yelling my name most of a minute to get my attention. I played the solo piano version of Rhapsody in Blue at 12, and ingested it as ravenously as though it had been a succulent cheese and I a starving man.

As my taste matured, however, I came to feel that Rhapsody in Blue - Gershwin's first major work, after all - and An American in Paris were kind of inept in their piecemeal pastiche technique, a new tune every few measures, attempts to write classical music by someone who hadn't figured it out yet. I graduated to the Concerto in F, the piece with which I think Gershwin hit his stride, and I also came to love the Cuban Overture and even the little-played Second Rhapsody. And of course Porgy and Bess is one of my favorite operas (and to those who claim it isn't "really" an opera, I would ask, what are the meanings of "isn't," "really," and "opera" in that sentence, and what do you get out of making such an empty argument?). So today I find Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris kind of painful to listen to - but otherwise I remain a tremendous Gershwin fan. And, as with the bulk of my opinions, I never find this position echoed anywhere in the repetitive media discourse about the subject.

October 2, 2005 10:36 PM | |

Alaskan composer John Luther Adams and I were out grouse-hunting the other day, and got into a conversation about our generation of composers. We had flushed out a couple of coveys we weren't expecting, peppered the air with some 7 1/2 shot, and my spaniel Nellie had done a noble job of scouring the bracken for anything we might have hit - but came up empty. Finally, dropping my gun, I suggested that maybe the reason composers our age hadn't gotten enough attention was that we showed too much respect for our elders, and hadn't presented ourselves as individuals worthy of attention ourselves. John removed his orange cap, wiped his forehead with a weary arm, uncocked his 20-gauge, and asked what I meant.

OK, we weren't actually grouse-hunting, we were drinking at the Broome Street Bar after a La Monte Young concert, but it was just as picturesque, believe me.

After all, John was just about to premiere a piece titled For Lou Harrison, dedicated to one of his mentors. I had just released a CD of basically player-piano music, after having written a book about Conlon Nancarrow. I describe John's music as a kind of cross between Henry Cowell and Morton Feldman, and he's always been OK with that. My microtonal music doesn't sound like that of my teacher Ben Johnston, but I use his notation, and I inherited his approach to harmony. Our mutual friend Peter Garland has evolved an entirely original musical idiom, but he's always staking his claim to the Partch/Cowell/Rudhyar aesthetic. Our friend Larry Polansky is the continuation of James Tenney experimentalism, and his greatest piece yet is a set of variations on a Ruth Crawford-harmonized folksong. Mikel Rouse dedicated his most groundbreaking opera to his pioneer-predecessor Robert Ashley. The great composers of my generation, at least the ones I think are great, have not exactly revolted against their elders. We have not reinvented the wheel nor the world, nor announced that all music before we arrived was worthless and should be forgotten.

That's part one of the argument. Part two is that we have also not excommunicated anyone. We have not indulged in the age-old gambit of announcing that our way of writing music was the only way. We have not penned manifestos declaring that "Anyone who has not felt - I do not say understand - but felt the necessity of the postminimalist/totalist/microtonal language is USELESS." We haven't done the Stockhausen/Boulez thing, the Picasso/Braque thing. We haven't even claimed, as John Zorn did, that Carl Stalling, not John Cage, was the REAL father of the avant-garde. I remember in the mid-80s Zorn starting off a liner note, with a startling lack of prescience: "Like it or not, the era of the one-composer piece is just about over...." He seemed to abandon that tack soon after.

There are several things I feel in response to all this. First, I am proud of my generation for not excommunicating anyone. We were scarred by the battles our teachers fought, which appear stupid in retrospect. We absorbed pluralism with our mother's milk. We learned 12-tone music and sometimes loved it, while nodding our head to the Beatles, while zoning out to Terry Riley, while feeling a warm kinship with Virgil Thomson, while absorbing amazing rhythmic complexities from Henry Cowell, while buying up one Coltrane record after another. I had always felt that working as a critic robbed me of the luxury of believing that my own aesthetic was uniquely privileged, but more and more I find all my peers in the same boat. Many of us may feel (John certainly more than I) that THIS is the way I must write my music, but I've never met a composer my own age or younger who feels like only one kind of music is valid today for everyone. Minimalism nurtures no mandates. There were a couple of years back there that the Bang on a Can composers went around saying that new music, to be relevant today, must be based on the vernacular - but what vernacular they meant was a question no one could answer, and the argument petered out quickly in the face of non-vernacular-based great music by Feldman, Varese, Tenney, Niblock, and others. Thank the gods for my generation of composers: we are, by and large, a goddamned tolerant bunch.

The other part is harder to answer. Beethoven claimed that he had learned nothing from Haydn - I will not say that about Nancarrow, nor John about Harrison - quite the contrary. This does not mean that John's music isn't a whole different kettle of fish from Harrison's. Peter Garland can go on about the mantle of Varèse all he wants, but his own gentle, subtly non-repetitive style couldn't be further from the acerbities of Octandre and Hyperprism. And there's been little notice that, while Nancarrow's player piano music is laced together with brilliant large-scale canonic and isorhythmic structures, my own Disklavier music is almost the opposite: whimsical, intuitive, stream-of-consciousness. We're proud to be card-carrying members of a Maverick tradition (if that is not an oxymoron), but that doesn't mean we haven't each staked out his own territory.

My own take on the 20th century was that it was a tremendous unearthing of new ideas - and that now those new ideas are ready to be knit into a more elaborate language. In particular, for me there are four (or five) composers whose music created a space that younger composers could inhabit for several generations:

Nancarrow, for rhythmic structure;
Ben Johnston (or, alternatively, La Monte Young) for pitch structure;
Robert Ashley for text setting and theater; and
Morton Feldman for texture and continuity.

Personally, I feel like a composer could run wild for decades through the rainbow canyons opened up by these composers, without repeating anything they did. In my Nancarrow book I list 26 devices that he used only once each in his output, any one of which is susceptible to further development in other, quite different contexts; plus several ideas implied by his music that he never used at all. It seems silly to walk away from all those untouched riches in search of more pristine ideas. The modernists opened up new continents to musical habitation, and there's little point in that if someone doesn't come live in them.

To the extent that the arbiters of musical discourse have not recognized the musical leaders of my generation because we don't kick ass in the musico-political discourse, that's their loss. Our commitment to pluralism is a commendable ethical position; our refusal to chase after empty novelty while so many barely-unwrapped new ideas lay waiting to be developed means we are living in a reality that the taste-makers just haven't caught up with. There are times for innovation, and times for assimilation, and critics and entrepreneurs need to be on their toes when the paradigm shifts.

But I'd be willing to admit that our rhetoric is perhaps not sufficiently self-serving. Every time we justify our willingness to stand alone in some weird sonic territory by pointing to Tenney or Feldman or Young, perhaps the world understandably dismisses us as epigones. We fought the academy, but maybe we forgot to psychically kill off our father figures - at least the ones inside us. Perhaps Peter needs to make a more belligerent case for Garlandism without reference to Cowell, perhaps a manifesto telling what Polansky renounced in his teachers' music is in order. It's time for a "Cage Is Dead" article. John, in between puffs on his meerschaum (oops, not true, sorry), admitted that he once told Tenney how much he owed to his music, and Tenney practically got mad: "But John, you've gone way beyond what I'm doing, the music's all yours now!" He was right. We're too proud to make like Stockhausen, none of us yearns to play the Grand Inquisitor. But we all have strong reasons for making our music precisely the way we make it, for reasons that apply to this exact historical moment that wouldn't have been relevant 40 years ago. And maybe we need to state our own cases with a little more ego, and less reverence for the composers who meant so much to us - but whose music we've indisputably grown beyond.

October 1, 2005 12:05 AM | | Comments (0) |

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rock culture approximately
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Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
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lies like truth
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world
Life's a Pitch
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
Mind the Gap
No genre is the new genre
Performance Monkey
David Jays on theatre and dance
Plain English
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Real Clear Arts
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
Rockwell Matters
John Rockwell on the arts
State of the Art
innovations and impediments in not-for-profit arts
Straight Up |
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude

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

Jazz Beyond Jazz
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
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Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...

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

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Creative Destruction
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
The Future of Classical Music?
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Slipped Disc
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
The Unanswered Question
Joe Horowitz on music

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

Drama Queen
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off

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