main: December 2010 Archives

One of the things I love about Richard Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music is its emphasis on how an evolving public narrative privileges some composers and marginalizes others. For instance, he writes about how when Ligeti came to Darmstadt, because he was Hungarian he had to rewrite (with Erno Lendvai's help) Bartok's reputation from that of a collector of folk music to that of a formalist using golden sections and axis systems. Communist Hungary needed to see Bartok as a champion of he proletariat (Lendvai's decadent-formalist book got him fired from Budapest Conservatory), but at 1950s Darmstadt, a quoter of folk music would have been merely pitiable. Ligeti needed to refurbish Bartok's narrative in order to polish up his own legacy, even to make it palatable. Over and over Taruskin shows how the narrative, created piece-by-piece by composers and musicologists and writers and savants, takes on a life of its own. Phenomena consonant with the narrative enter public consciousness; those that dissonate, no matter how valuable in their own right, fall by the wayside. 

I've finally gotten around to buying and reading Howard Pollack's book on John Alden Carpenter, which I'd fondled in bookstores for years. It's a succinct, engaging, curiosity-satisfying piece of scholarship. Curiously heavy on the critical reception of Carpenter - so much so, in fact, that he spends considerable space on a 1986 review I wrote for Fanfare magazine of Carpenter's piano music. Carpenter is a composer whose tragedy was to watch his reputation soar and then to plummet in later life, to the point of becoming almost a figure of fun to younger composers. 

Yet Carpenter remains a famous name. When I was young, he was one of the first "modern" composers I heard of. And what pieces did I read about? Skyscrapers and Krazy Kat. Why? Because Carpenter lived in Chicago in the jazzy 1920s. He was part of the age of skyscrapers and newspaper comics and heavy machinery, and his music betokened the point at which exploding urbanization still seemed sexy. Skyscrapers and Krazy Kat fit his narrative. He also wrote a tone poem called Sea Drift that Pollack and others consider a better piece. But Sea Drift? Number one, Chicago is a long way from any sea. Two, that's a Walt Whitman reference, and Whitman was an East-Coaster, and besides, Sea Drift is Vaughan Williams and Delius territory, part of the maudlin British transatlantic experience, not material for the jazzy and urbane Carpenter, wealthy heir to a manufacturing fortune. Sea Drift may be a better-written piece than Krazy Kat (not so I'm convinced of that, actually), but it had never entered my consciousness, even though I've had the Abany Symphony recording since it was on vinyl. It didn't fit my narrative of Carpenter. The fact that he wrote a sentimental tone poem on Whitman is a cognitive dissonance with my image of him, magnum opus notwithstanding. 

(For the record, and before I get to my main point, going deeper into Carpenters's music has convinced me that he is rather woefully underrecognized. He never should have written that damn Perambulator piece, it trivialized his reputation. It's true that even his symphonies have a kind of unfocused, balletic quality that sounds like film music today, but the music is always graceful and "debonair" - to repeat the aptest term it habitually elicited. And fairly often, as particularly in his 1927 String Quartet, it achieves an enchanting vigor and rhythmic surprise. Look up that string quartet, it's a forgotten classic.)

To be absorbed into the public dialogue requires a narrative. To not project a narrative is to have no career at all. Only a few dozen musicians, or if you're lucky a few hundred, will ever take a close enough look to see what you've actually accomplished. The rest of the musical public will inevitably receive a caricature of you, because that's all they have time or attention or insight for. That's the veil of Maya, of illusion, the conventional wisdom that we can look down our nose at but whose influence we can never escape. The public can take in Carpenter = Krazy Kat because it makes sense, but Krazy Kat plus Sea Drift is too complex, too nuanced, for even the peripheral imagination of a scholar like myself, and only now have I gotten around to more than a peripheral look. I ignored Sea Drift as an almost painful reality, because it took some effort to factor into the image of a composer I didn't yet have the incentive to focus on. 

Common sense and self-interest would dictate that composers would play to their narrative, but most of us shrink from it in disdain. Take me. I've made a big deal about microtonality, and I find myself almost universally described as a microtonal composer, even though some 2/3 to 3/4 of my output so far is in the good old 12-tone scale. Custer and Sitting Bull is probably my best-known piece, or the piece with which I'm most associated. And for good reason - it combines microtonality with my Texas roots and my interest in American Indian music. It fuses well with my bull-in-a-china-shop personality, my 6'2" stature, and my southern accent. Were I a short, Jewish New Yorker, this piece would never have gotten off the ground. Had I been attentive to my narrative, I would have followed it up with, say, a microtonal opera about Jesse James, or a song cycle on the letters of Calamity Jane (which Ben Johnston actually beat me to). I could have become the "microtonal wild-west-history composer." Instead, I wrote a chamber quartet called Kierkegaard, Walking, with 12 pitches to the octave. I think it's one of my best works. But what was I, a Texan transplanted to New York, doing having a fascination with Kierkegaard? How much of my life has taken place in Denmark? Four days. Kierkegaard, Walking may be my Sea Drift, a piece so incongruent with my image, my narrative, that no one wants to notice it. In fact, my personal image includes an affection for 19th-century writers, including Emerson, Kierkegaard, Thoreau, Jones Very, and even Custer (as memoirist) and Sitting Bull (as orator). But that's both a little complex for a narrative and not terribly distinctive in terms of distinguishing me from other composers. 

We can all name a few composers who do seem to assiduously sculpt their narrative. I recently had a chance to examine the scores of Steve Reich's Sextet and Double Sextet, and nearly slapped my forehead when I saw how similar, how identical in notation and gesture, they are to Six Pianos, Music for 18 Musicians, and all those much older other pieces. I had the presumably common thought that I could write my own Steve Reich piece at this point, and hardly needed Reich to do it for me. He's been unbendingly faithful to his brand. He sells a ton of records because he's predictable - or the kinder word would be reliable. 

The vast majority of us, I think, resist this. We don't want to be "pigeonholed" (an overused word, and what does it mean?). We want to show off our range, our versatility. I wrote once that Bill Duckworth was the Schumann-like modern master of multi-movement form, and his next piece was Blue Rhythm, in one extended movement. I noticed publicly that Joan Tower uses the motive of a minor third expanding to a major third in virtually every piece, and in her next work, the Third Quartet, that figure was conspicuously absent. Most of us are embarrassed at being caught repeating ourselves, even in our virtues. We want to prove we can master both collages and drone pieces, adagios and scherzos, tonality and atonality. Or else we simply get bored replicating earlier achievements, and having done one kind of thing well, now want to succeed at another. Or we fancy ourselves above the usual forces of history, fancy that the inherent power of our art will break through the veil of illusion and move listeners in no matter what genre, in pursuit of no matter what subject matter. This might have been more likely 200 years ago when the competition was less voluminous. Yet even so, there are Beethoven works, like his early choral music and those Irish folk songs he was so painfully proud of, that we can't bear to look in the face. Even Beethoven has his Sea Drifts

To so reflexively resist the call of the narrative seems, actually, counter-productive in a career sense, almost self-destructive. Poor Carpenter, had he not wanted to slide out of the scene, should doubtless have followed up Krazy Kat and Skyscrapers with a Machine Symphony, a ballet called Streetcar, a tone poem about Wall Street. Having cornered a certain market, he should have churned out more of what the public believed he could do best. Instead, he wanted to prove his soulful, Brahmsian earnestness with a respectable Piano Quintet and a Violin Concerto (which, amazingly, seems never to have been recorded, and Pollack makes it sound intriguing). As a result he slid into semi-oblivion. We composers, we are all John Alden Carpenters, and, however much prized by specialists, will enter public consciousness only, if at all, through the narrow tunnel of the available narratives, which are only partly susceptible to our own shaping. And so, with the loftiest intentions, we embrace obscurity rather than be so confined and only incompletely understood. It's peculiar.

And with that thought, merry Christmas.

December 24, 2010 11:41 AM | | Comments (15) |
OK, you really do have to watch the video of Cage Against the Machine recording 4'33". Its good-natured absurdity would have made a joyful climax to my book, had I not already finished it.

December 20, 2010 11:30 AM | | Comments (2) |
The semester is over, and so is my 12-tone analysis class, which made me work harder than any class I've ever taught. I added about 18 works to my analytical repertoire, including behemoths like Mantra, Sinfonia, Le Marteau, and Threni. Even having analyzed most of the music over the summer, I still spent most weekends checking rows and poring over dense JSTOR articles. And aside from me having wanted to learn all that stuff anyway, it was a continually rewarding class. I especially enjoyed showing the row matrix from Ben Johnston's String Quartet No. 6, with a row consisting of six harmonics of D- plus six undertones of D#, comprising, if I counted right, 69 63 61 different pitches in his Just-Intonation notation:


That 11th pitch in the third row, by the way, is called F-double-sharp-down-arrow-upside-down-seven-plus. It's the 77th subharmonic of the perfect fifth above D#. But you knew that.

Babbitt was really fun to teach (which explains, I guess, why so many theory professors teach him). I demonstrated how there are 16 ways to make a rhythmic pattern within a half-note using only eighth-notes, and then showed how Babbitt assembled those 16 possibilities into a rhythmic row that covers the first eight measures of his jazz band piece All Set and then reappears elsewhere in the work, now augmented, now in the percussion - and I heard a voice major, who'd had no prior interest in 12-tone music and was only taking the class to get a theory credit, whisper under her breath, "That's incredible!" She ended up doing a final paper on Babbitt's Du, which I took as one of those rare personal triumphs a professor gets only every few years. Still, overall the students remained a little dubious about the whole 12-tone thing, which is good - interested, curious, but only intermittently convinced. The last day I played, following the scores, some pieces I love without analyzing them, including Maderna's Aura, Zimmermann's Monologe, Ligeti's Monument-Selbstportrait-Bewegung, and Xenakis's Mists, to show them where 12-tone music had led in Europe. The most recent work I played was Mikel Rouse's Quick Thrust (1983) for rock quartet which uses only one form of the row amid elegantly serialized rhythms. In playing Le Marteau I noted that my birth was historically closer to Rhapsody in Blue than the students' was to Le Marteau. The 12-tone era is now just another historical period, to which we could bring a historical perspective, and I taught it that way. The music was too old and too ensconced to engender the slightest controversy, and too distant to embody any mandate for the present. It is what it was, only now immune to partisanship in either direction.

The biggest problem was finding good examples of 12-tone analysis to serve as models. Most of the books and articles are written as though to exclude outsiders from a secret club. If you don't already understand, you can't read them. Especially irritating are the digressions into meta-analytical issues, meant to create some kind of general 12-tone theory rather than to address the piece at hand. For instance, is it ever necessary to launch into a discussion of first-, second-, third-, and fourth-order combinatoriality? Sure it determines what rows are available to combine polyphonically, but who gives a shit? The best article I found by far was Richard Toop's analysis of Mantra in his "Lectures on Stockhausen" - perhaps because they were lectures rather than articles, he was the only writer who seemed to really care that his readers got drawn into the analysis, and truly understood. As I've said before, I used the Osgood-Smith book on Sinfonia, which was thorough if indifferently lucid, and Wayne Wentzel's "Dynamic and Attack Associations in Boulez's Le marteau" (Perspectives) went a long way toward clarifying Lev Koblyakov's impenetrable Boulez book, possibly the worst-written music book in history. I regretted throwing in the towel on Sessions's Third Sonata, but I asked George Tsontakis, a Sessions protégé, and he said, "Oh, don't analyze that piece, it's like two pieces happening at once"; and the published analyses were little help. 

Most of all, the class meant to me - and this conditioned what it meant to them - a chance to go back through a repertoire that had seemed numinous when I was a teenager. That's the music I loved before minimalism came along and seduced me away, seeming fresher and more full of possibility. I remember clearly what it sounded like in 1971, and I needed to find out how I'd react to it now. I was bringing up demons from my youth to exorcise, and I hope I didn't often sound like Captain Ahab chasing his personal white whale. But I was told that some appreciated learning that repertoire from someone who didn't insist that they pledge allegiance to it. Now that I've gone through all that analysis and kept records of it, I may well teach it again someday.

December 17, 2010 5:54 PM | | Comments (11) |
For hundreds of years people believed that water contracts when it freezes. Why? Because Aristotle said so, and Aristotle was an unimpeachable authority. During hundreds of winters someone could have learned the truth and refuted the great man by leaving a bottle of water outside on a frosty night, but the force of authority overruled experience.

Wikipedia operates by the same medieval principle. When I was researching Stockhausen's Mantra for my 12-tone class, I finally turned in some desperation to the Wikipedia page on the piece. It contains some true statements, but it says that there are 13 sections in the piece, the beginning of each one marked by a stroke on the crotales (antique cymbals) outlining the 13-tone row on which the piece is based. This statement is apparently based on Stockhausen replying "Exactly" to an interviewer who asked him if this was the case. But if you start looking at Mantra, the first thing you notice is that the crotales go through the row not once but twice, the second time in inversion, and so (since the rows are linked by one note) there are actually 25 crotales gestures in the course of the piece (or really 23, since in each row two of the notes are combined in quick alternation). This misinformation had cost me some waste of time, so I wrote correcting the error on the article's talk page. No matter: since Stockhausen said "Exactly," the statement must stand. I was told: "we can't just go filling up the article with 'facts' that we 'know to be true.'" For me to count the crotales strokes was "original research," and violated the Wikipedia principle, "Who ya gonna believe, us or your lying eyes?" (For the record, I am now aware that Richard Toop's "Lectures on Stockhausen" contains a different explanation of the crotales strokes that fits the phenomena.)

I'm reminded of years ago when I taught a graduate 20th-century analysis class at Columbia, and brought in an electric keyboard to demonstrate Harry Partch's 43-tone scale. Some Great White Hope who's now probably teaching set theory analysis somewhere raised his hand and asked, "Have there been any studies done to see whether we can actually perceive these intervals?" I played a sequence of them for him and said, "Can you hear this one? Can you hear this one? Can you hear this one? What do you need to read a study for?"

December 16, 2010 8:07 AM | | Comments (7) |
I suppose that people will keep e-mailing me until I acknowledge the "Cage Against the Machine" campaign in England, whereby musicians are trying to make a recording of 4'33" the hit single at Christmas time in order to irritate or otherwise inconvenience someone named Simon Cowell. I admire the wordplay, and am just hip enough to get the reference. On the chance that it might positively affect sales of my book, I hope they succeed. I presume Simon is no descendant of Henry. Otherwise, this falls into the same category as all the incessant Facebook demands that I "like" something, or that a photo of me had been "tagged" (and if I take the bait and click on the link, no photo ever seems forthcoming). It's a little over my head, and I suspect that raising my head will involve me in some distraction from things I'd rather be doing. Best of luck to all well-intended parties.

December 16, 2010 7:47 AM | | Comments (3) |
This Thursday, December 9, at 7 PM, I'll be giving a talk, "The Silences of John Cage," based on my 4'33" book, at the Unsound Lounge, presented by the Goethe Institute, 5 East 3rd St. between Bowery and 2nd Ave. in New York City. Hope to see some of you there. 

December 6, 2010 10:54 AM | | Comments (5) |
I had an interesting conversation with composer John Halle at a party last night. We were talking about how difficult it is to get information from books and articles about how certain serialist works were written. In European writings on the subject, and certain American academic writings as well, we agreed, it seems to be almost bad taste to state flatly how the rows are derived, what the rhythmic processes are, how the music is actually written. One is expected to know such matters but be coy in expressing them, and to talk more about the implications of the process than the process itself. Personally, I am far more pragmatic: in my book on Nancarrow I gave as much information as I could ferret out about how the pieces were written, exposing every process to public scrutiny. And I was told by a third party that György Ligeti considered my Nancarrow book "too American." Lately I've been trying to get information, for my 12-tone class, about how Stockhausen mapped the row of Mantra onto various "synthetic" scales, and all I find is a quote from Stockhausen about how he dislikes explanation because it "takes away the mystery." Well, taking away the mystery is precisely what I'm trying to do, to empower my young composers and show them that there are no secrets out there that they can't use. Mystery exalts the composer, and raises him above mere mortals, who are left to their own creative devices. Every time I write a microtonal piece I put the scale and the MIDI score on the internet, to make sure I withhold no secrets from those who might be interested. Perhaps it's a foolish career move. But for me the power of the music is in the sound itself, not in the mystification one creates by keeping the generative processes of inscrutable music secret.

I will add that for Berio's Sinfonia I used David Osmond-Smith's Playing on Words: A Guide to  Luciano Berio's Sinfonia. It's a little ponderously written, but ultimately fairly clear, with charts that explain everything that happens in that wonderful piece. Best of all, it identifies every musical quotation in the third movement by measure and instrument. Such forthright accounts for this repertoire are rare. And why? Afraid the hoi polloi might get in on the action?

December 5, 2010 10:36 PM | | Comments (8) |
MinimalPianoCollection.jpgI had a notice from the post office of a package waiting for me, so I stopped to pick it up on the way to school. It was a CD set. I get a lot of those sent to me. This one was Minimal Piano Collection Volume X-XX, a bunch of minimalist pieces for multiple pianos put together by Dutch pianist Jeroen van Veen on the Brilliant Classics label. I had seen the first Volume (I-IX because it contains nine CDs) in Amsterdam, but hadn't bought it because I already had other recordings of some of the music. So I was glad to get this, and didn't think too much about it as I was rushing to school - until I turned it over and noticed my own name. And sure enough, Jeroen and Sandra van Veen (with overdubbing) included my Long Night (1981) for three pianos, and I had no idea they were doing it. As I look through my old e-mails, I find that Jeroen did write long ago to express general interest, but I don't believe he ever told me it was coming out. The other composers in the collection are (take a deep breath) John Adams, Jurriaan Andriessen, Louis Andriessen, Marcel Bergmann, William Duckworth (Forty Changes and Binary Images, which I didn't know and they're lovely), Julius Eastman (Gay Guerilla), Douwe Eisenga, Morton Feldman (including the seminal Piece for Four Pianos, which I'd only had on scratchy vinyl), Graham Fitkin, Joep Franssens, Philip Glass, Gabriel Jackson, Tom Johnson, Simeon ten Holt, David Lang (Orpheus Over and Under), Colin McPhee, Chiel Meijering, Wim Mertens, John Metcalf, Carlos Michans, Meredith Monk, Arvo Pärt, Michael Parsons, Alexander Rabinovitch, Steve Reich, Frederic Rzewski, Tim Seddon, Jeroen van Veen, Jacob er Veldhuis, and Kevin Volans (Cicada, great piece). 

It's scary to have a piece come out on recording and not work with the performers at all, especially with a piece as free and amorphous in its notation as Long Night (which I wrote 150 years ago at age 25, fer gosh sake). But the van Veens did a nice job with it, a little louder and less pedalled than Sarah Cahill's version, but longer (31 minutes) and quite clear and enjoyable. I hear the notes and textures I wanted to hear, and sensitively done. It convinces me that the notation is clear enough to trust to strangers. As someone who grew up as a weird kid without many friends, it means more to me than you'd imagine to be included in a big group of composers like this. And it's an astonishing surprise to receive in the mail a recording of your own music that you didn't know was on the horizon.

December 2, 2010 3:42 PM | | Comments (4) |
My article "Reconstructing November," detailing the process of coming up with a performance score for Dennis Johnson's epic 1959 piano piece, has just appeared in the journal American Music. I prefer not to repost it on the blog; it contains hardly any more information than I've already posted herehereherehere, and here. It's available through JSTOR, or will be soon, I guess, for those who have access to that through their schools. This issue of American Music, by the way, is chock full of experimentalism: aside from myself, Maria Cizmic has an article on Cowell's under-explored piece The Banshee, Zachary Lyman interviews Johnny Reinhard about his controversial completion of the Ives Universe Symphony, David Nicholls's witty article on the Ultramodernists' influence on Cage (which I heard him deliver ten years ago) finally appears, and there's even a review of my Cage book by Branden Joseph, author of a wonderful Tony Conrad book, and a review by Brett Boutwell of John Brackett's John Zorn: Tradition and Transgression - which quotes me! Whew. 

But to the point: In the body of my own article, I promised to make available a recording of the public performance that Sarah Cahill and I gave in Kansas City on Sept. 6, 2009. It's now up here, four hours and 29 minutes long. 
December 1, 2010 8:48 AM | | Comments (5) |

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This page is a archive of entries in the main category from December 2010.

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