main: April 2007 Archives
Somehow I happened across a blog called The Comics Curmudgeon today. Its premise is that the author (I can't even find his name) picks out the worst three or five comic strips in the newspaper every day and makes savage fun of how pathetic they are.
This. Is. The. Funniest. Thing. I've. Ever. Read.
Before this, I thought The Simpsons was the funniest long-running bit of humor on earth. But this guy's running dissections of Mary Worth, Mark Trail, For Better or Worse, Cathy, Hagar the Horrible, and so on, have made tears of laughter, joy, vindication, malice, and restored sanity run down my cheeks more than a dozen times today.
The question is, of course, why are the large majority of comic strips, which supposedly exist to create humor, so miserably unfunny? When I was a kid I devoured them, and I read them avidly into my 40s. But now when I run across a comics page, it takes awhile to search out one that seems like its creator intended it to be funny, and as Comics Curmudgeon says repeatedly, they all look, even the newer ones, as though written by crusty nonagenarians steeped in Eisenhower-era morality who refuse to consider computers anything more than a nuisance. How can almost an entire industry continue decade after decade in such pathetic straits?
The personal angle is that, before I started composing music (at age 13), I wanted to be a cartoonist. In junior high I filled many a notebook with comic strips, and even took a cartooning course from a guy whose name, I seem to remember, was Charles Hamm - NOT the musicologist. I had no talent for it whatsoever. I still have the comic books, but I will make sure they are safely consigned to the flames before I die. Later, in high school, I ran into Charles Hamm at an amusement park. I told him that I had given up cartooning, and was now a classical musician. He thought a moment, rubbed his chin, and responded, "Well, that's sort of an art too." The bitter truth that The Comics Curmudgeon drives home is that I could have found something to do with my life infinitely more fun than defending music no one's ever heard of.
[AFTERTHOUGHT: Say, what if I started a new blog called "New Orchestral Pieces Curmudgeon," to make savage fun of... no, no, it's too cruel to contemplate.]
The venerable (by new-music standards) American Festival of Microtonal Music is this week and next, three concerts at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City. The concerts are Sunday, April 29; Wednesday, May 2; and the following Tuesday, May 8, all at (the-ungodly-hour-for-those-of-us-coming-in-from-out-of-town) 10 PM. I'm performing May 2. We'll be playing my quintet The Day Revisited, for flute, clarinet, two keyboard samplers, and fretless bass, all in a 29-pitch unequal scale. Pieces by Elodie Lauten, Joseph Perhson, and Johnny Reinhard are on the program as well. The Bowery Poetry Club is at 308 Bowery at Bleecker St. Read more about it all here.
Of course, this means I drive down to NYC with a car full of equipment - two MIDI keyboards, three amps, two keyboard stands, three music stands, a fretless bass, my computer, and all associated cables and sheet music which I hope I can remember - for rehearsals and performance, and since it's New York I can't park outside the rehearsal space but have to go down the street and park in a garage and carry everything all at once up several flights of stairs and then carry it all back down again once rehearsal's over. Many, many of you know what I'm talking about. I'm getting too old to make music this way. I went to study with Ben Johnston in 1983 saying, "I love his music, but I'm not getting into this microtonality stuff, because it's too much work for nothing!" And I was half right: it's too much work. (Frank Oteri has an article over at New Music Box called "Complaining Doesn't Work," and I wanted to test out his intriguing theory. I dunno if he's right, though, I already feel better.)
Take a look at this list of books:
To follow up on and illustrate my last post, these were the books that informed me about new music in my youth, that chronicled about where it was going and what it was doing. They explained music that was only a few years old; they described and categorized current trends; they predicted what would soon be coming up in the future. There was a real effort to understand how music was changing and why, and a small industry devoted to arguments on every side. Most important, a narrative was being drawn, that a diverse group of thinkers (many of them composers advancing their own interests, of course) were contributing to. We in new music had a story about what was going on, and we could all be on the same page even if we disagreed about the details.
Leonard Meyer: Music, the Arts, and Ideas, 1967
Iannis Xenakis: Formalized Music, 1971
David Cope: New Directions in Music, 1971
Michael Nyman: Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, 1974
Cornelius Cardew: Stockhausen Serves Imperialism, 1974
John Vinton, ed.: Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Music, 1974
Robert Erickson: Sound Structure in Music, 1975
Roger Reynolds: Mind Models, 1975
Steve Reich: Writings About Music, 1975
Walter Zimmermann: Desert Plants, 1976
Gregory Battcock, ed.: Breaking the Sound Barrier, 1981
Cole Gagne and Tracy Caras: Soundpieces: Interviews with American Composers, 1982
Wim Mertens: American Minimal Music, 1983
Pauline Oliveros: Software for People, 1984
George Rochberg: The Aesthetics of Survival, 1984
And then, suddenly, - nothing. In the 1980s art rock, totalism, free improvisation, postminimalism took over stages in New York and elsewhere in quick succession, but no books noted, no authors tried to explain. In the next several years we had a few memoires by elder statesmen reminiscing about what they had done way back when: Milton Babbitt's Words About Music (1987), George Perle's The Listening Composer (1990). In 1990 Cole Gagne came out with an odd little book, self-consciously vernacular in style, called Sonic Transports, that contained a lot of dubiously edited information about Glenn Branca and "Blue" Gene Tyranny; good luck finding it. The mid-'90s gave us two books of interviews, Gagne's Soundpieces 2 (1993) and Bill Duckworth's Talking Music (1995) - excellent, though aimed more at celebrating the diversity of what was going on, preserving some raw material for future musicology, rather than trying to draw a narrative to make sense of things. (The '90s also finally brought us books by Rob Schwarz, Ed Strickland, and Keith Potter thoroughly exploring the minimalism of the '60s and '70s.)
Finally, since the 21st century started, we've had a few 1970s-style synthesizing compendia appear: John Zorn's Arcana: Musicians on Music of 2000, the 2004 collection Audio Culture edited by Christopher Cox and Daniel Warner, and Duckworth's Virtual Music (2005). The first of these covers the free improvisation world, the second is largely historical and focuses on technological issues, and the third explores music's relationship to the internet. Put these three books together and you can start to make a picture of the era, though not much in terms of more general compositional issues. That leaves, by my calculation, my American Music in the Twentieth Century (1997) and Music Downtown (2006) and John Luther Adams's Winter Music (2004) - finally, the first book of essays by a composer of my generation - as the only books to address general recent compositional trends in a narrative format since the genre disappeared in the early '80s. And Schirmer kind of blindsided me by marketing American Music in the Twentieth Century as a textbook, thus making it more difficult to find, which wasn't the original idea.
Of course, there are a lot of issues here, and no one explanation. A significant one is that university presses were pressured to go commercial in the 1980s, and certainly weren't encouraging anyone to write about a subject perceived as non-lucrative as new music. But so many of the helpful early narratives about new music were by composers - why, in the '80s and '90s, did composers quit writing? The breakup of the new music world into a dozen or more niches certainly creates a daunting challenge. The "musical intellectual" niche, proudly clinging to Ligeti and Kurtag and following Ferneyhough's every move, is isolationist, and doesn't consider the rest of music worth writing about, yet their own music is too arcane for books about it to be marketable. The midtown orchestral composers, possessing all the institutional power, don't feel compelled to pay attention to anyone but themselves, yet most of them write such bland, compromised music that no one wants to write about them. Other niches, like postminimalism, have received so little public support that no one knows about them as a group phenomenon despite their vast numbers. And sometimes I think the microtonalists are doing everything they can think of to keep from being heard or seen.
But isn't this niche problem itself a plum of a musicological pickle? You can't say no one saw it coming: I well remember scary predictions in the mid-1970s that someday soon the mainstream in classical music would break up and cease to exist, and that we'd have a bunch of different streams that would hardly relate to each other. Well, it happened. Is that a reason to quit writing about it? Isn't that fact in itself the great musical story of our time? and why aren't some of the more ambitious musicologists rushing to clarify it, to put their own stamps on our understanding of it? With so many niches and such an explosion in the number of composers, there should have been more books, not none. Just because we don't have a central musical style anymore doesn't mean we can't have a central narrative whose primary outlines everyone could accede to. And how can we have a meaningful new-music world at all without a narrative?
In the question period following my Indiana University lecture the other day, composer-musicologist Brent Reidy asked me what the role of the musicologist should be, given the explosion of interest in the Long Tail, the infinite miscellany of little-known musicians whose internet availability has brought them an audience no retail outlet could ever have provided. I hadn't really thought about it, and my quick answer - my mouth seemingly working faster than my brain, as it sometimes does - rather surprised me. The musicologist, I said, has to go into the Long Tail and find a narrative, a story, something that makes sense and that people will respond to. Reality is chaos, and chaos isn't interesting, or rather, can't be empathetically responded to. There's no way to describe chaos in its complexity; to describe anything involves making choices. And so the musicologist has to select what means something to him, something that follows a story he identifies with.
In my own case, that was pretty easy. The great musical event of my adolescence was the advent of minimalism, and the ongoing story of minimalism - not so much its birth, which others have covered in detail, but its youth and early maturity - became my narrative. And I mean minimalism in the broadest, epochal sense, the sense in which Glenn Branca once shouted to me in the early '90s, "I'm sick of people saying that minimalism is dead!", and I responded, "Minimalism hasn't gotten started yet" - to which he replied, "Exactly." There are quite a few wonderful composers whose music I dearly love, and who do not seem to have been pushed in any direction by minimalism - Michael Maguire, Diamanda Galas, Trimpin, Paul Dolden - and I listen to their music and love it, but they're not part of my narrative. All that's really moved me as a musicologist was the fact that I was more or less witness to the youth, if not birth, of a new style, and had a very rare chance to chart its growth from the simple to the more complexly elegant. It was like going back and watching the development of the symphony in the 1760s, and I could never understand why no one else seemed as fascinated as I did.
Of course, I never expected that my narrative would remain the only one, nor the dominant one. I was extremely surprised by the musicological vacuum that opened up in the '80s, the fact that music was changing rapidly and no one seemed the slightest bit interested in coming up with a historical slant to characterize it. In my book American Music in the Twentieth Century (published in 1997), I refused to come up with any general description of music of the 1990s, which I knew everyone would disagree with. Instead I made up a narrative of what all the composers born in the 1950s grew up with in common:
- the introduction to world musics in college
- the corresponding loss of European music's privileged status
- the ubiquitous influence of rock
- the use of computers, with its emphasis on complex sound samples, paperless notation,
and so on. I had to tell a story that people would understand, and I couldn't tell a story about the music, which was too diverse, so I told a story about the composers, whose education and experiences were actually pretty similar and easily characterized. What I expected was that someone else would quickly come along and write, "Well, Kyle Gann didn't exactly get it right, because what happened in the 1990s was this," and then someone else would write, "that idiot Kyle Gann got it completely wrong, because what happened in the 1990s was this!" - and truth would emerge from all the different viewpoints. No narrative has a monopoly on truth. And I didn't care, I'm a composer, not a musicologist, I just wanted to start the ball rolling.
But I've waited years and years for some other narrative to come along and supersede mine, and all I've seen is a continuation of the tired old modernist line - you know, "orchestral music continued to be written and became more and more complex." The musicologists don't seem to want to deal with any music after 1980 that doesn't fall into all the same categories and explanations as music before 1980. So I went way out on a limb with my narrative, and people remain suspicious of it because there's damn little expressed consensus, and no balancing counter-narrative. And frankly, I'll be relieved when mine isn't the only narrative out there, so I hope Brent and his ilk, if ilk there be, will crawl into that long tail and come out with something new.
Fear, hunger, sex, and aggression are widely acknowledged, but one of the most destructive human impulses passes without notice: the urge to be useful. The wisest man I ever knew used to instruct his doctoral students to insert errors and infelicities in their dissertations - he was bound to assert his usefulness by changing something, he said, and if the dissertation came to him perfect, anything he changed would only mar it, and he would be unable to help himself. I used to follow this principle with my editor at the Village Voice, with considerable success. If there was an odd locution I wanted to get away with, I would insert a more badly-phrased one somewhere else, and he'd make the change there and leave my idiosyncratic sentence alone.
I thought of this the other day upon hearing a piece by a student composer that was just about perfect, without a note one could add or subtract. I was relieved that he wasn't studying with me, because I would have wanted to change something, and there was nothing to be profitably changed. Professors dearly like to feel they are doing some good in the world, and the student who shows up with a perfect piece is almost an affront. Even if a piece isn't perfect, it is sometimes evident that a student is following a process that he or she needs to go through, and no advice from outside will do any good. Usually the student is frustrated about the piece progressing too slowly, or not coming out the way desired; less often, the student is deluding himself about the effect he's creating, and needs a dose of reality. In those cases, advice and intervention are certainly called for. But 15, 20, 30 percent of the time the compositional process is simply following its necessary course, and no professorial interference can do any good. Sometimes the student even insists on advice and interference, and wants to be taught the kind of lesson that, ultimately, one can only learn for oneself. It takes a disciplined kind of austerity for the professor to stand down and not give advice when it won't be helpful. I get the impression that some composition teachers don't believe such moments exist.
It's not only the student/teacher relationship in which the satanic desire to be helpful intervenes. A faculty member will submit an appropriate, reasonable initiative, that then goes through committee for approval - and every damned member of that committee will feel it necessary to justify his or her existence by altering the original plan in some detail, until it turns into a nightmare of compromises, and gets deservedly scuttled, when the original plan would have benefitted everyone. (Never mind what recent events bring this to mind.) God bless the rare professional secure enough in his own ego that he can sit back and allow a proposal to proceed without making his own mark on it. And let's wonder why no biologist has yet embarked on any drug to suppress the compulsive urge to be useful.
I just returned tonight from Indiana University, where I gave a lecture Tuesday for the music department entitled "The Ethics of Composing in a Corporate Society." I probably should have mentioned here beforehand that I was going to present this, so that if you were around you could have gone. But I mention it now because, to tell you the truth, one of the benefits of maintaining this blog is that it contains a running list of my gigs, so that later, if I need to update my résumé (something I hope I won't have to do many more times in my life), I can look through my blog to locate the details. And I'm not going to post the lecture text here. I need to cultivate a repertoire of unpublished talks I can give when asked to do these things, so I don't have to write a new lecture every time the way Mozart wrote a new concerto for every concert. After all, I only have a finite number of ideas. At least, I only have a finite number of noncontroversial ideas, and I've been trying lately not to piss off the people who invite me somewhere. This hasn't always been my practice.
Besides, as always with academia, it's the peripheral human contacts that carry more weight than the central pretext. For the subsequent evening, the faculty invited me to a performance of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, which I hear is a cute piece, but grad student Brent Reidy also hinted that he was hosting an informal concert of student compositions at his apartment, and that was better bait. Brent - a composer who's getting a doctorate in musicology, which is an idea I kind of wish I had thought of at his age - hates the standard people-in-rows-of-chairs concert format, and he's starting his own concert series at which each piece will be played, then discussed, and then played again. It's a wonderful idea, reminiscent of Schoenberg's Society for Private Musical Performance but even friendlier. So I heard six student pieces, twice, whose lack of academic pretension would have been deemed miraculous during the era I was in grad school. The faculty I met were lovely and gracious and impressive, but the students are always more interesting, aren't they?, because they give me clues as to what's coming up in the future.
I also heard an informative and admirably clear lecture analyzing the music of Thomas Adès by John Roeder of the University of British Columbia. This gave me a new vocabulary item with which to discuss my music. Apparently Adès employs a technique that Roeder calls "parsimonious voice leading," which means that the chord progressions move by the smallest intervals possible. I've spent my entire creative life exploring parsimonious voice leading, but didn't know to call it that, and with 31 pitches to the octave as opposed to only 12, I'll go up against Adès in a parsimony contest any day. Partch called it tonality flux. [UPDATE: Ah, "parsimonious voice leading" is a Schoenberg term - not one I had paid specific attention to, but it obviously seeped in and took root somehow.]
While there I met some students who read my blog religiously, and I hope that percussionist/musicologist Kerry O'Brien and percussionist Andy Bliss, in particular, will appreciate reading here that it was lovely talking to (and drinking with) them. Store these names away, because you'll hear them again someday.
Blogger Allan MacInnis alerted me to a "Bob Ostertag article you have to read," and I didn't need to be told twice. Ostertag is not only an interesting San Francisco composer whose music deals with electronics and political issues, but an extremely insightful and articulate writer on issues of musical politics whose articles I've linked to before. I wish I knew enough to have written his The Professional Suicide of a Recording Musician (also up at AlterNet), in which he eloquently explains why he has chosen to put all of his recordings up for free on the internet. You should read the whole thing, but I'll give you some tease quotes. Starting out by showing how, in the mid-20th century, record companies were necessary structures for getting music from the artist to the public, he then says,
Record companies are [no longer] necessary for any of this [recording and production assistance], yet the legal structure that developed during the time when their services were useful remains. Record companies used to charge a fee for making it possible for people to listen to recorded music. Now their main function is to prohibit people from listening to music unless they pay off these corporations.
Or to put it slightly differently, they used to provide you with the tools you needed to hear recorded music. Now they charge you for permission to use tools you already have, that they did not provide, that in fact you paid someone else for. Really what they are doing is imposing a "listening tax."
He goes on:
You would think that musicians would be leading the rebellion against this [corporate copyright-protecting] insanity, but most musicians remain firmly committed to the idea of charging fees for the right to listen to their recorded music. For rock stars at the top of the food chain, this makes sense economically (if not politically). The entire structure of the record industry is built around their interests, which for all their protesting to the contrary dovetails fairly well with those of the giant record companies.
But the very same factors that make the structure of the record business favor the interests of the sharks at the top of the food chain work against the interests of the minnows at the bottom, who constitute the vast majority of people actually making and recording music....
I know one artist who had ten years of his recordings vanish into the vault of a big label that bought the little label he recorded for. He approached his new corporate master and asked to buy back the rights of his own work and was refused. In the company's view, his work did not have sufficient market potential to justify releasing it and putting corporate market muscle behind promoting it, but neither did they want his work released by anyone else to compete with the products they did release. From their perspective it was a better bet to just lock it up.
The idea that selling permission to listen to recorded music is the foundation of the possibility of earning one's livelihood from music is at most 50 years old, and it is a myth. The fact that most musicians today believe in this myth is an ideological triumph for corporate power of breathtaking proportions.
I could quote more, but you should go read it. Let me just add that years ago I decided that putting as many of my scores and recordings on my web site for free as I legally could was going to bring me far more benefit than waiting around for some corporation or another to come try to make money off me - only I couldn't have explained the economic logic behind the decision nearly as cogently as Ostertag does.
In this season of renewal, I have just given PostClassic Radio its most pervasive update ever, after having neglected it lately. Sixty percent of the content is new as of the last couple of days, with pieces never heard on the station before by Andrea La Rose, Miguel Frasconi, Ben Neill, Hirokazu Hiraishi, Michael Hicks, Maria Panayotova, Elodie Lauten, Jessica Krash, David Lang, Mary Jane Leach, Belinda Reynolds, Adam Baratz, John Halle, Carolyn Yarnell, Randall Woolf, Matt McBane, Per Norgard, Ira J. Mowitz, Ed Harsh, Marc Mellits, Dan Goode, Steven Sametz, Todd Levin, Harry Partch, Meredith Monk, Rhys Chatham, Fred Ho, Kevin Volans, John Morton, Nick Drake, James Tenney, Paul Lansky, Michael Finnissy, and myself. Some of the stuff is brand new CDs: notably the new disc Tic by the Common Sense collective (can you pick their names out of the list above?) and several dynamite tracks from International Cloud Atlas, Mikel Rouse's music for a recent Merce Cunningham dance. Also a 73-minute excerpt from Feldman's For Philip Guston; it's always been a plan of mine to program the five-hour piece complete, and also The Well-Tuned Piano, but maybe it's not such a good idea. Who knows how long I'll be able to keep the station going? Depending on what Congress does about the copyright, this could easily be my last update. I wrote letters to Senators Clinton and Schumer, and we'll see what happens. Meanwhile, there's more than ten hours of new music to accompany your egg hunt tomorrow.
I just dreamed that Charles Amirkhanian let me sit in the cockpit of a plane that Beethoven had once flown. I feel so duped.
Someone noted that by the time you get to paragraph 14 of one of my posts, you realize I haven't really taken to the spirit of the blog format. It's true, I'm not really into the whole brevity thing, El Duderino. I yearn for my glory days when the Voice used to give me a lovely, ad-less, 1700-word page to fill up, and to fit into that I'd have to shear 700 words off of my first draft. But this will be brief.
This Sunday night - Easter, admittedly - in Boston, Rodney Lister will give a concert for toy piano including my Paris Intermezzo (most of which was written on a plane returning from Paris in 1989) on a wonderful-sounding concert of many works for toy piano. In addition to my essay and other pre-existing ones by Eve Beglarian, Richard Whalley, and Dai Fujikura, he's playing premieres of pieces written for him by Lyle Davidson, Pozzi Escot, Stephen Feigenbaum, Michael Finnissy, Philip Grange, John Heiss, Derek Hurst, Matthew McConnell, Matthew Mendez, Nico Muhly, Ketty Nez, Dave Smith, Jeremy Woodruff, William Zuckerman, and himself. (Some of the pieces involve violin, electronics, boombox, and so on.) The concert is on Sunday, April 8 at 8:00 PM in the Marshall Room in the Music Building at Boston University (855 Commonwealth Avenue).
The following Sunday April 15 at 7:30 - tax day, admittedly - the Da Capo ensemble will play my Hovenweep at Princeton, at Wolfensohn Hall at the Institute for Advanced Study. (Advanced study of what, I have no idea.) I just ran across a review that said, "If Brahms had delved into jazz, he might have come up with something similar to Kyle Gann's Hovenweep." I'll buy that. It's a concert modeled around folk influences, and the rest of the program includes composers Jon Magnussen, Joan Tower, Chinary Ung, Reza Vali, and Stefan Weisman.
For those of you who don't subscribe to Times Select, I have to reprint a few of Glenn Branca's 25 thought-provoking questions that form the endpiece to the Times's "The Score" blog of four composers. They're not all equally thought-provoking, though, so rather than give away the whole deal for free I'll only quote the best ones:
1. Should a modern composer be judged against only the very best works of the past?...
3. If a composer can write one or two or more great works of music why cannot all of his or her works be great?
4. Why does the contemporary musical establishment remain so conservative when all other fields of the arts embrace new ideas?
5. Should a composer, if confronted with a choice, write for the musicians who will play a piece or write for the audience who will hear it?
6. When is an audience big enough to satisfy a composer or a musician? 100? 1000? 10,000? 100,000? 1,000,000? 100,000,000?...
12. Should a composer speak with the voice of his or her own time?
13. If there's already so much good music to listen to what's the point of more composers writing more music?...
15. Must all modern composers reject the past, a la John Cage or Milton Babbitt's "Who Cares If You Listen?"
16. Is the symphony an antiquated idea or is it, like the novel in literature, still a viable long form of music?
17. Can harmony be non-linear?...
19. Artists are expected to accept criticism, should critics be expected to accept it as well?
20. Sometimes I'm tempted to talk about the role that corporate culture plays in the sale and distribution of illegal drugs throughout the United States and the world, and that the opium crop in Afghanistan has increased by 86 percent since the American occupation, and the fact that there are 126,000 civilian contractors in Iraq, but what does this have to do with music?...
22. When a visual artist can sell a one-of-a-kind work for hundreds of thousands of dollars and anyone on the internet can have a composer's work for nothing, how is a composer going to survive? And does it matter?
23. Should composers try to reflect in their music the truth of their natures and the visions of their dreams whether or not this music appeals to a wide audience?
24. Why are advances in science and technology not paralleled by advances in music theory and compositional technique?
25. Post-Post Minimalism? Since Minimalism and Post-Minimalism we've seen a short-lived Neo-Romanticism, mainly based on misguided attempts to return to a 19th century tonality, then an improv scene which had little or nothing to do with composition, then a hodge-podge of styles: a little old "new music," a little "60's sound colorism", then an eclectic pomo stew of jazz, rock and classical, then a little retro-chic Renaissance ... even tonal 12-tonalism. And now in Germany some "conceptual" re-readings of Wagner. What have I left out? Where's the music?
Give up? I'll print the answers in my next entry.
I have a modest personal stake in the preceding discussion of classical composers borrowing pop elements: I'm writing a piano concerto largely based in jazz idioms. The reason is it's a commission from the Orkest de Volharding in Amsterdam, and they have an unusual instrumentation: flute, three saxophones, three trumpets, three trombones, horn, and bass. When I first thought about it, I thought of the few classical pieces I'd heard for piano and brass, and recoiled. (The two great concerti for piano and winds are by Stravinsky and Kevin Volans, but they both have plenty of woodwinds, and I don't.) If I'm going to write for solo piano with brass and reeds - instruments I've never focused on before - I'm going to use the one model for such instrumentation I dearly love, jazz band music of the 1920s. That led me to New Orleans, metaphorically speaking, and while I was considering this I happened to buy a DVD of Spike Lee's documentary When the Levees Broke, which touched me deeply. So the piece started to gravitate toward New Orleans as subject matter. And when I considered that I was writing the piece for Amsterdam, another city built below sea level, the topic seemed fated.
It's not like me to make reference to current events in my music. I don't respond emotionally that quickly, and I've suffered through dozens of tediously sad pieces about the Holocaust, none of which ever came near doing justice to the unimaginable evil of their subject matter. I have no 9/11 piece. That I have a piece about Custer's Last Stand is more typical of my creative lag time. But here I am, for once in my life, writing a piano concerto about a recent event, New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina. The short, frenetic first movement is labeled "Before," and the long, devastated second movement is labeled "After."
And it's a piece about jazz. The word about is chosen advisedly. It is a depiction of jazz. And not just "jazz" in general, which would be meaningless, but about specific moments in jazz history. The first movement is a collage based on the syle of Louis Armstrong's Hot Seven, and even more of Bix Beiderbecke's band with Frankie Trumbauer of 1927-28. Armstrong was from New Orleans, of course, Beiderbecke wasn't, but Beiderbecke joined Armstrong's band in Chicago, and that's my image of the happy, innocent, partying New Orleans style. The second movement briefly features a New Orleans funeral of ghosts, led by Jelly Roll Morton and based on the chord changes of Morton's "Dead Man Blues." (I've wondered why ghosts figure so frequently in my music - I've never seen a ghost myself, though I thought I felt one once - and I don't know.)
In any case, I am not writing jazz, and have no desire to do so - if anyone starts improvising in my piano concerto I will be offended. I am depicting 1920s jazz, the way a novelist might go back and write a narrative about the Roaring '20s. Like the novelist, I include enough realistic detail to create the atmosphere I want. Also like the novelist, I am not obliged to confine myself to narrative conventions that might actually convince the audience that I'm writing from the 1920s.
I've studied a lot of jazz, and I've written piano and Disklavier homages to James P. Johnson, Bud Powell, and Bill Evans that have been well received, especially by jazz fans. I know you're supposed to write whatever the hell kind of music you want and the audience be damned, but if jazz musicians had told me that I really didn't understand jazz and should leave it alone, I probably would have. But the opposite has happened: jazz musicians have been appreciative and supportive, and as I blogged recently, my Disklavier CD made someone's top-ten list for 2006 in Jazziz magazine. This was incredible good news to me. Because I feel that 20th-century classical music, with its stupid pitch tricks, dropped the ball in the area of harmony, and that only two profitable harmonic directions have presented themselves: microtonality (which I pursue in other media), and bebop harmony, which picked up where Debussy and Ravel left off and kept going. Since 2000, bebop has been my default harmonic language when I'm writing non-microtonal music. So I'm relieved, since I'm determined to go that way, that no jazz musician has ever given me grief and told me that that wasn't my music to write, or that bebop harmony should never be notated.
Stick with me - I'm getting back to the pop-classical issue in a roundabout way.
In doing this I am acutely aware that I have opted into a classical tradition: the tradition of Rhapsody in Blue, of Copland's Piano Concerto, of Milhaud's Creation of the World, of Martinu's Le Jazz. I'm especially aware of the Copland (since it's another two-movement piano concerto), and also of the Coplandy early piano pieces that Conlon Nancarrow wrote, the Prelude and Blues and Sonatina. For years I've tried to find early stride piano that actually sounded like Copland's and Nancarrow's pieces, and I've come up dry. The image of jazz piano you get from 1920s and '30s classical music just doesn't match historical recordings of jazz piano itself. They evidently heard something in that music that we don't now - mistakes, maybe? were they enchanted by wrong notes played by drunks at rent parties? - and exaggerated that, and didn't understand the style very well. But 80 years later, who cares? We judge Copland's Piano Concerto and Rhapsody in Blue today not on their fidelity to their models, which is pretty slipshod, but on whether the music itself is creative and enjoyable. The idea of a "creative misreading" - that wonderful art can result when an artist imitates something foreign to him and gets it wrong - has come to be accepted as a recurring source of artistic progress.
As John Shaw of Utopian Turtletop mentioned in a recent comment, Copland found jazz awfully limited, thought it possessed a sad (blues) style and a happy (dance music) style and not much else. That's not true of me - I love that music, and listen to it for pleasure all the time. However, Beiderbecke and Armstrong were making music for people to dance to, and I'm making music for the concert hall. So my primary change has been to free that style from 4/4 meter, to let it go rhythmically wherever the melody wants to go. I run it through the Gann rhythmic gear-shifting mill and make it my own. It's something I love to hear: 1920s jazz divested of metric regularity and song form:
I don't feel, as Gershwin and Copland may well have, that I'm "improving" or "redeeming" the music I depict. But no one's going to dance to my concerto, and so I don't have the same job to do, or the same social or economic pressures, that Armstrong and Beiderbecke did, so why not?
A big difference separates me from Gershwin and Copland, and also from the pop-influenced composers of my generation: I'm depicting a style outside my training, but it's not a contemporary style. The fantastic musicians whose music I draw from are dead. Their music has been about as well assimilated as it's going to be. My concerto, whatever its success, will have no impact on the ongoing reception of 1920s jazz. And there's another huge difference between Gershwin and Copland and the pop-influenced composers of my generation. In the 1920s, classical music was a dominant artform, and jazz was a scruffy newcomer, looked down on in highbrow circles. Jazz musicians may have resented the attention Gershwin and Copland received - I notice that to this day, they wrinkle their noses when you mention Rhapsody in Blue, because it was inferior to the jazz of its day, yet because it became so famous, for generations it misleadingly defined what jazz was about. Since jazz musicians were relatively powerless, however, protests defending their music against classical borrowings and encroachments didn't draw much notice.
Today, however, we have a complete turnaround. Classical new music is now a minority culture constantly on the defensive, though it is stereotypically perceived as looking down its nose at pop music. Pop music, meanwhile, is a vastly dominant culture, a multi-billion-dollar industry, yet its fans see it as a feisty underdog. In other words, Goliath is a rickety old man in a wheel chair, David is chief CEO of an omnipotent corporation, and David's fans get terribly upset when Goliath steals a riff from him, or even imitates him in homage. David can kick Goliath out into the street any time he wants and everyone cheers, because he's, like, Goliath, man, the bad guy! And so pop music has inspired many composers my age, and they've depicted it, written music about it, some with more fidelity, some with less, maybe altered some things for creative effect, maybe creatively misunderstood. But the pop fans have it both ways: they speak for the dominant culture, but also carry the righteous indignation of those who have been snubbed. Holding all 52 cards, they insist on absolute fidelity to their music, and anyone who doesn't provide it will be cast into the dungeon without regret - because not only are they powerless, they're the bad guys, so there is double reason not to care about them.
(I do wonder one thing about composers who so so strongly identify with pop music - why are they composers, and not pop musicians? If pop music is the real, the true, the authentic music, why didn't they go make that? Why would anyone devote their life to writing their second-favorite kind of music? Do they secretly feel guilty for having abandoned pop? Do they fear that their classical training is a betrayal? And when some of us neglect to measure our lives against pop music, do they salve their consciences by projecting that abandonment and betrayal onto us? Just thinking out loud here.)
This will pass. The historical process is well established. Composers (and other artists) borrow from a style other than their own. At the beginning, their fidelity to that style, or lack of it, is a big political issue. Depending on how much clout each style carries in the social order, protests about lack of fidelity may or may not carry weight. As the years pass, however, the fidelity issue fades away, and all that matters is whether the composers created something new and vibrant on its own terms. There's nothing wrong with a musician borrowing from a style outside his training. If there were, we'd have to go back and condemn Bach for stealing from the Italian style in his Italian Concerto (which doesn't really sound like Italian music of its day and wasn't intended to, because Bach thought he could do better), then obliterate Rhapsody in Blue, Creation of the World, Stravinsky's Ragtime, Colin McPhee's Tabu Tabuhan, Henry Cowell's Homage to Iran, Lou Harrison's gamelan music, and a thousand other worthwhile pieces. Right now pop fans are so numerous, so in the ascendant, that one can't go up against the horde of them. Twenty, 40, 80 years from now, the argument will seem academic, and we'll rehear that pop-influenced music for what it did accomplish, not for what it wasn't trying to. As long as the music is wild and creative on its own terms, who, ultimately, cares whether you "get it right"?
Sites To See
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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
innovations and impediments in not-for-profit 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...
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
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
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
Joe Horowitz on music
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