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NewMusicBox articles

Part of the reason I haven’t written here in a while is that in January I wrote a series of articles for NewMusicBox. You might be interested in them:

1. What Counts as Borrowed Material?
2. How to be Culturally Relevant
3. The Appropriation Problem
4. History of the World

Things That Are Dead

THINGS THAT ARE DEAD:
Classical music (source: BBC)
Rock and roll (source: Huffington Post)
Pop (source: Radiohead)
Hip-hop (source: Nas)
Poetry (source: The Daily Beast)
Cinema (source: J. Hoberman)
Theatre (source: The Age)
The American novel (source: Lee Siegel)
Originality (source: Zach Hannigan)
The author (source: Roland Barthes)
Liberalism (source: The American Spectator)
Conservatism (source: The New Republic)
Libertarianism (source: Slate)
Progressivism (source: Firedoglake)
Communism (source: Forbes)
Objective journalism (source: St. Cloud Times)
Philosophy (source: Stephen Hawking)
Academia (source: Recycled Minds)
Civility (source: Gawker)
Common sense (source: Philip K. Howard)
Traditional values (source: Glenn Beck)
Modesty (source: Free Republic)
Christianity (source: Facebook group “Christianity is Dead, Thelema Lives“)
God (source: Friedrich Nietzsche)
Friedrich Nietzsche (source: Encyclopedia Brittanica)

Let’s Record Everything!

1

You’ve just been to a concert by a new-music ensemble.  You really liked one of the pieces they played, and you’re excited to hear it again.

Good luck with that.

Will the ensemble repeat the program?  Very unlikely — even if they’ve spent months preparing for it.  Will they play that one piece again?  Maybe, but they have to make room for new material, and lots of it.  Is another group going to play it?  Probably not soon.

Has the piece ever been recorded?  There’s a good chance that what you saw was the premiere.  Will a live recording be made available?  It might, but be prepared to wait a few weeks for it to show up on the composer’s website, and don’t expect great sound quality when it does.   How about a studio recording?  Be prepared to wait a few years.

Obviously I’m painting in broad strokes here.  But if you’re a fan of contemporary classical music, chances are you’ve come up against these obstacles plenty of times.

 

2

On Saturday night I saw Julia Holter perform at Schubas Tavern.  Although Julia studied composition at CalArts and still has connections to the contemporary-classical world, most of the time she follows a different model:  she puts out albums and tours with a band.  That means that everyone there on Saturday had the opportunity to go home after the concert and immediately buy a beautifully produced studio recording of what they had just heard, or to hear a couple of the songs for free on YouTube.  Even better, since the album came out a month ago, the they could come to the concert already knowing the material.  When you do that, you hear the live performance not as a self-contained musical object, but as a response to and variation on the recording, and the relationship between the two adds meaning and richness to the concert experience.

The other benefit to the album-and-tour model:   it was immediately obvious that Julia had performed these songs a bunch of times and felt totally at ease with them. She looked like she was having a great time on stage, and when I talked to her afterward, she was glowing.  

 

3

Last Tuesday, I saw Fifth House Ensemble play at Constellation Chicago.  My favorite part of the concert was flutist Melissa Snoza performing JacobTV’s Lipstick.  It was my favorite not only because of the humor, poise and precision of Melissa’s performance, but also because I already knew the piece inside out.  Not only have I listened to Alejandro Escuer’s recording a bunch of times, but I even wrote a paper about the piece a few years ago — so I knew what to expect, where the structural landmarks were, what role each gesture played within the whole.  I was hanging out with an old friend rather than going on a first date.

JacobTV’s music is very clear and easy to follow, so I would have gotten plenty out of it even if I’d never heard it before.  But think about the last time you saw a performance of a really arcane, ultra-complex piece that you were totally unfamiliar with.  How much of it did you really grasp?  How different would your experience have been if you’d been able to get to know the piece beforehand, at your own pace, in an undistracting environment of your choice?

 

4

Last June, Spektral Quartet ended their Summer Sampler Pack concert with the wild finale of Beethoven’s third Razumovsky quartet.  They’d just taken shots of whisky, and they careened through the movement at a breakneck pace, making goofy faces whenever Beethoven pulled a new trick out of his sleeve. Like Julia Holter halfway through a tour, they played with the comfort, confidence and joy that comes of living with a piece for an extended period of time.  It’s very hard to do that if you have to learn six new impossibly difficult pieces every month. (Spektral actually does play a lot of impossibly difficult new pieces, but unlike many ensembles, they tend to program them on multiple concerts.)

 

5

The Summer Sampler Pack concert also included the premiere of my mini-song-cycle Behind the Wallpaper.  After the concert, four different people asked me if there was a recording.  When I mentioned it to Spektral violinist Austin Wulliman, he said people ask them that all the time.  (Their first album comes out next month.)

But the most eye-opening response to Behind the Wallpaper came later, when a friend of mine posted a link to the live recording on a poetry messageboard, thinking that people might be interested in the lyrics.  Not only did the commenters find the music difficult to follow — and this is a piece that’s so simple and straightforward by new-music standards that I was afraid it would disappear among the dense, virtuosic pieces it shared a bill with — but one of them seemed to think that the lo-fi sound, which is totally typical for a DIY live recording (especially one done in a venue with a loud air conditioning system!), was part of the conception of the piece.

This is a reminder:  most people grow up on studio recordings and rarely if ever listen to anything else.  I myself find that live performance seem much less “real” than listening to a studio recording on a good pair of headphones.  And when you’re used to having every sound vibrantly present, it takes work to hear the musicality of a lo-fi live recording.  That’s especially true when the music is unusual or surprising (never mind experimental or avant-garde): without familiar musical tropes to guide you or the sonic clarity of a studio production, it takes not only work but experience and practice to process what you’re hearing.  In other words, the fact that so many contemporary-classical pieces can only be heard in the form of live recordings has the potential to shut even curious and open-minded people out.

 

6

I’d love to see a world where more new-music groups functioned like bands — focusing less on trying to present as much new material as possible, and more on building a long-lasting repertoire of pieces that people remember and are excited to go see again.  Austin tells me that it’s hard to get grants that way, but I wonder if CD/download sales and the potential for a larger, more committed audience could make up the difference.

In the meantime, I’ve put together studio recordings of a few of my own pieces, including Eliza Brown performing A Presentation to the Board and Lily Floeter and David Chavannes performing Willingly.  (The latter showed up on a YouTube channel full of recent pieces synced with their scores, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they picked a piece with a great-sounding recording.)  I’m also working on a studio version of The Travels of E.C. Dumonde (stay tuned), and I’ve decided that I’m going to release End, my opera about closing logos and the end of the world, in the form of a three-episode podcast.

Sometimes, though, it seems like what I really should do is put out some albums and start touring with a band.

John Adams Rolls His Eyes at “Kids These Days”

John Adams had some pretty nasty things to say about young composers in a recent New York Times article:

“We seem to have gone from the era of fearsome dissonance and complexity — from the period of high modernism and Babbitt and Carter — and gone to suddenly these just extremely simplistic, user-friendly, lightweight, sort of music lite,” he said.

[...]

On the subject of commercialism and marketing in new music, Mr. Adams said, “What I’m concerned with is people that are 20, 30 years younger than me are sort of writing down to a cultural level that’s very, very vacuous and very superficial.”

Leaving aside the fact that there are plenty of composers in their 20s and 30s writing complex, dissonant, modernist-y music, what I find particularly weird about these remarks is that composers a generation older than Adams used to say the exact same thing about people like him.  Check this out:

“What we have is the quick fix, the need for instant self-gratification. And that accounts for this utterly unchallenging, unprovocative kind of music. [...] “These days it’s a question of how many clap the longest and loudest. Nothing is being asked of the creator or the recipient.”

That’s Charles Wuorinen in 1989, talking about minimalism.

And here’s Adams’s response, from the very same 1989 article:

“In fact, I couldn’t be happier to answer Charles and his criticisms,” says Adams. “It’s something I’ve never had the chance to do before. Frankly, (pause) I think he’s a square.

“To make arbitrary divisions between what is serious and what is outside the worthwhile realm is just too simplistic.

[...]

He hastens to add that his own music was intended to have entertainment value–”so did Mozart and Ravel acknowledge it, as well as all the great composers did, until these self-appointed guardians of theory came into existence.” But he finds “the dour, grim attitude behind art for art’s sake to be phony.”

According to a recent tweet from Will Robin, who wrote the recent New York Times article, Adams is well aware that he’s reduplicating the rhetoric of his old critics:  “I know that I sound like what Elliott Carter sounded like when he talked about me.”  But apparently that’s not enough to make him stop and say, “Wait, maybe I’m missing something here.”

This isn’t my first encounter with Adams’s “kids these days” rhetoric.   A few years ago he came to Northwestern, and he spent pretty much the entire time he was there talking about how young American composers have no attention span and don’t want to engage with difficult texts.   He then
a) criticized a student piece for not having enough “pizzazz” on the first page, and
b) made a comment about how Walter Benjamin had bemoaned the loss of the mystical “aura” surrounding works of art — which fits nicely into Adams’s own it’s-all-downhill-from-here worldview, but is exactly the opposite of what Benjamin actually said. When I asked him about it, he said “Oh, I didn’t actually finish reading the article.”

*eyeroll* Elders these days…

At the time, I figured that he was on the defensive because he was in a university setting, that he felt a need to prove his seriousness precisely because people like Carter and Wuorinen had accused him of being unserious.  But I can’t imagine that he’d feel defensive talking to the New York Times, which is generally very friendly to post-minimalists. All I can conclude is that he really does think the Youth of Today have reached unprecedented levels of shallowness.  To which I’d respond: if you think an entire genre, style, era or generation of music is shallow, take some time to consider whether you’re listening to it shallowly.

Let’s make a pact.  If I ever become famous, and then use that fame to trash young composers rather than to support and encourage them, please just stop playing my music.

 

Edited to add: Darcy James Argue just made a similar argument on Facebook using a very vivid analogy. Worth a read.

I’m a Trans Composer. What the Hell Does That Mean?

In the last few months, there have been a number of highly-circulated articles about women and contemporary classical music. There was Amy Beth Kirsten at NewMusicBox, arguing that the term “woman composer” is anachronistic; Kristin Kuster in the New York Times challenging that idea on the grounds that a composer’s success is never “all about the music”; Melissa Dunphy‘s post about the need for women to be visible in a world where most composers are “white men of average build with brown hair and glasses”; and Ellen McSweeney, also at NewMusicBox, examining some possible reasons for women’s underrepresentation in the new-music world.

Reading all these articles got me thinking about the role that gender plays in my own musical life. For those unaware, I’m transgender and genderqueer, and while I wouldn’t exactly describe myself as a “woman,” it’s a lot closer to the mark than “man.” So here are some thoughts on what it’s like to be a composer on the trans-female spectrum in the early 21st century.

 
Defining My Terms

Before I get to the “composer” part, let’s talk about the “trans” part. There are about seven million different words that describe the various nuances of gender identity, and sorting them out can be pretty daunting, so I’ll start by explaining the terms I used in the previous paragraph.

When I say I’m “transgender,” I’m talking about two related but distinct ways in which there’s a mismatch between the gender I currently identify with and the gender I grew up inhabiting. The first has to do with my internal sense of what my body is supposed to look like — what the brilliant biologist, activist and theorist Julia Serano calls “subconscious sex.” For example, I find the presence of hair on my face intensely alienating, as if there were something inexplicably wrong about its being there. (I’m currently in the very slow process of permanently removing it.) And when I see people and think “I want to look like that,” those people are always female or androgynous — never male.

The second type of mismatch has more to do with social meanings than with physiology, and explaining it requires a bit of a digression. Let me start by saying that I find the way many people talk about gender to be overly reliant on stereotypes. It’s tempting to define the social aspects of gender in terms of particular kinds of clothing, particular tastes and hobbies, and particular ways of talking and moving. But that approach is too simplistic. It can’t account for, say, butch women who nonetheless identify as women. I think it makes more sense to describe gender as a lens through which all those things are given social meaning. If that doesn’t make sense, imagine walking into a bar and seeing a person with a flannel shirt, a buzz cut, a beer, a swagger, and a picture of their pet Rottweiler in their wallet. You don’t know how that person identifies, but interpreting them through a “male” lens produces a different social meaning than interpreting them through a “female” lens. The clothing, tastes, and behavioral affect haven’t changed, but they come across differently, in the same way that the same painting comes across differently if you think of it as being painted in the 20th century than if you think of it as being painted in the 16th.

So when I say that I identify as female(ish), I don’t mean that I think of my personality as an inherently or specifically female one; I’m not even sure that means anything. What I mean is that I feel comfortable, embodied and sane when I view myself through the interpretive lens called “female,” whereas I feel alienated, disembodied and panicky when I view myself through the interpretive lens called “male.” One produces meanings that make emotional sense, and the other doesn’t.

So why all the qualifiers — “female(ish),” “trans-female spectrum” and so on? That’s why I describe myself as “genderqueer” as well as “transgender.” The word “genderqueer” means “not identifying solely or consistently as male or female,” and it includes people who identify as both at once, people who identify as one or the other at different times, people who identify as neither, and people who identify as a third gender. In my case, it doesn’t mean that I sometimes or partially think of myself as a guy. Rather, it means that the arbitrariness and constructedness of gender as a set of meanings imposed on human bodies is a part of my gut-level experience of myself and of the world. Or to put it less technically: I often feel like an anthropologist from Neptune sent to Earth to study the ways of humans — but I’d rather be an Neptunian disguised as a human female than a Neptunian disguised as a human male. At times I’ve also listed my gender on forms as “80s” or “Daria.” These descriptions might sound inconsistent, but they’re all different ways of getting at the same idea: a kind of gender in which unreality is an essential component. Many trans women would be terribly insulted by the suggestion that they are in any sense “not real women,” but my reaction to that would be “yeah, that’s kinda true” — just not for the reason that transphobic people would think it’s true.

 
Women’s Music?

One of the issues that comes up a lot in discussions of gender and music is the question of whether men and women compose differently (with the implied question for me personally: is my music somehow “female”?) As far as I can tell, the answer is no. Life experience, social conditioning and biology can all affect a composer’s music, but those things vary enormously among men as a group and among women as a group, and how people react to them artistically is idiosyncratic and unpredictable. Certainly I can think of plenty of pieces that fly in the face of gender stereotypes, and I’m sure you can too. (First example that comes to mind: the violent, noisy music of Annie Gosfield.)

That said, I have noticed that certain specific attitudes toward music seem to correlate with gender. In particular, it seems like nearly every composer-performer whose work depends on an intense, profound, almost mystical relationship with the artist’s own body is a woman; and nearly every composer who sees music as a purely abstract, formalist construction, free of emotional, social, psychological or political meaning, is a man. Given how our society is put together, the existence of those correlations shouldn’t come as a surprise. But I don’t feel any connection with either of those points of view, and my own approach to music, which has to do with cultural history and the fuzzy boundary between humor and horror, doesn’t seem to be a particularly gendered one.

 
Trans / Genderqueer Music?

While I don’t think of my work as specifically female, I do think of it as specifically genderqueer. Just as I often feel like I’m standing outside the world of gendered meanings, aware of them but never seeing them as inevitable natural facts like so many humans seem to do, I also tend to feel like I’m standing outside the world of artistic meanings. The discourse surrounding music tends to take certain value judgments for granted, although the value judgments vary with the musical style being discussed: complexity is better than simplicity, or emotional expression is better than cerebral formalism, or change is better than repetition, or raw authenticity is better than glitzy artifice, or whatever. But when I look at the world of music, I see an elaborate, sometimes gloriously absurd game, in which all of those rules are arbitrary conventions. Even though, objectively speaking, I’m an insider in the classical music world — I’ve been studying it formally since I was a kid, and I’ve been in academia for ten years — I always wind up feeling like an outsider, no matter what city or scene or university department I’m in. The fact that I’m a composer rather than some other kind of artist feels more like an accident of my personal history than something that was destined to happen. That’s why so much of my work looks at culture “from the outside,” to the extent that that’s possible — whether it’s commenting on mid-century love songs, faux world music or TV sound logos.

The four songs of Behind the Wallpaper go one step further. In that piece, I tried to convey an outsider’s view not just of music, but of the experience of living in the world. I’ve written before about wanting to address trans issues in my work, and this set of songs is as explicit as I’ve gotten — especially “Unnatural,” which describes seeing people’s clothing and hairstyles as a set of social signifiers and concludes with the line “you make me feel like an unnatural woman,” and “This American Life,” which includes the image of someone in an uncomfortably tight dress being laughed at by a drunk person in a bar. Both songs can be interpreted in other ways — Connie Volk, who premiered the piece, clearly had no trouble relating to “Unnatural” despite not being trans herself, and one listener interpreted “This American Life” as being about a cisgender woman who feels uneasy about what she has to wear to work (the song also mentions a tedious part-time job). That’s fine with me; my hope is that anyone who’s ever felt alienated, for any reason, will be able to relate to the piece on some level. But I also wanted to create something that my fellow trans and/or genderqueer people in particular could listen to and say “yeah, I know what that’s like,” or maybe even “you mean I’m not the only one who’s experienced that?” And it was important to me to make something that fills that role while at the same time being mysterious and subtle and strange, since, frankly, I find most trans art heavy-handed and way too fond of the word “fierce.” (Imogen Binnie’s novel Nevada is pretty fantastic, though. Go read that.)

 
Performance and Performativity (isn’t that a Jane Austen novel?)

In 2007 and 2008, I wrote a large-scale narrative piece called The Travels of E.C. Dumonde. It was the first thing I’d written for myself as a vocalist (mostly speaking, occasionally singing), and I performed it seven times in and around New York. At the time I thought of myself as a guy, albeit one with gender-bendy tendencies. In the video of me performing the piece at Roulette in 2008, I have a beard, and I deliberately use the low part of my vocal register; I was afraid at the time that my naturally high voice came across as un-adult.

I started describing myself as genderqueer, and began my ludicrously slow and still ongoing transition, right around when I left New York for Chicago in 2009. I didn’t perform Dumonde for a few years after that. The way I talked gradually shifted, along with the way I dressed, the way I carried myself, and the pronouns I preferred (for the record, I’m fine with either “she” or “they”). Last fall I finally revived the piece, as part of a show with Grant Wallace Band at Gallery Cabaret. And when I did, I found that performing it was a totally different experience. Not only did I use a different part of my vocal register — that’s so automatic at this point that I don’t think I could sound the way I did in 2008 even if I wanted to — but the piece’s affect had changed. Dumonde in 2012 is less stentorian than Dumonde in 2008; it has more of a raised eyebrow and smile in it, influenced by Miranda July’s unsettling spoken-word albums from the 90s (which, appropriately enough, were what got me interested in vocal performance in the first place, along with my old favorite Laurie Anderson). I also feel vastly more comfortable in my own body when I perform than I used to; or, to put it another way, I now feel like I have a body, rather than a thing that carries my mind around. (Despite what I said about composers who have intense relationships with their bodies above, I think this has more to do with coming out and transitioning than with anything female-specific; I know trans men who have described feeling the same way.)

But here’s the strange thing: not only do I feel more at ease with myself performing Dumonde now than I did in 2008, but I also feel more at ease with myself performing Dumonde than I do in everyday life. And this, once again, has to do with being genderqueer as well as trans. Since I often think of my gender as performative anyway, actually performing on a stage is incredibly freeing. It means I can give myself permission to make use of femme iconography without getting self-conscious and worrying about whether other people will see it as somehow “fake.” (Although of course, fake can be just as good…)

 
A Bit About Politics

The one thing I haven’t addressed in this post is the political aspect of working as a trans, more-or-less female-identified composer. There are certainly stories I could tell. In the past few years, I’ve started to experience the sexist microagressions that I’d previously only heard about, including uncomfortably intense compliments from older male colleagues, the assumption that I must be a singer, and questions like “did you do the electronics yourself?” (something I was never asked once when I presented as male). On the flip side, I’ve had a couple of professional experiences where my gender identity wasn’t taken seriously, including one that looked an awful lot like blatant discrimination. But the truth is, I haven’t been out for long enough to have a clear, big-picture view of this aspect of the social landscape. I don’t even necessarily know how people are perceiving me at any given time, especially given the slowness of my transition, the persistence of old versions of me in other people’s minds, and my androgynous name. So keep reading this blog, and maybe I’ll have more to say about the political side of things in a year or two.

In Defense of Nostalgia, Again

Last month I wrote a couple of things about nostalgia in a discussion on NewMusicBox. Today I was looking back at them wistfully, and I missed the good old days of June 2013 so much that I thought I’d reproduce what I wrote here.

 
First, in response to Isaac Schankler’s remark that “there’s also a palpable strain of melancholy that runs through [Daft Punk's Random Access Memories], something that suggests suggests that this kind of nostalgia may be more sinister than it first appears,” I wrote:

A lot of the music of the early 80s itself has a palpable strain of melancholy running through it. Just listen to Thomas Dolby’s achingly lonely first album, The Golden Age of Wireless — whose title is itself nostalgic for an earlier era: the 50s and 60s, when Vladimir Ussachevsky wrote Wireless Fantasy, a piece that looks back nostalgically to an early 20th-century radio broadcast of the Prelude from Parsifal — and of course Parsifal takes place in an imaginary past that already sees itself as corrupted and fallen in comparison to some impossibly distant, inaccessible golden age. “Man hands on misery to man / It deepens like a coastal shelf…”

 
Then a bit later:

People love to talk about how music, language and culture are degenerating. But the thing is, people keep saying it, year after year, generation after generation. If everyone who’d ever grumbled about “kids these days” were right, we’d all be grunting and throwing poop at each other by now.

Here’s a passage I ran into recently while researching sound logos:
“It seems that everyone has climbed on the ‘nostalgia’ bandwagon. We have Gatsby clothing styles, films about the ‘olden days,’ books and articles with nostalgic plots, a revival of Scott Joplin ragtime due to the film ‘Sting’ and now even an attempt to try to cash in on the old ‘Hit Parade’ which has been dead since 1958.”
—Harry Sosnik, “Nostalgia! Nostalgia! But Where’s Originality?”, Variety, 1975.

The mid-70s was a period when Hollywood filmmaking was at its most creative and daring, when punk rock was on the verge of exploding, when minimalist composers were throwing out a decades-old story about ever-increasing complexity, when novelists were glorying in a wild new type of countercultural maximalism. But Harry Sosnik managed to look around and say “Nothing is original anymore.” Why? Because that’s what he expected to see. Confirmation bias is a powerful thing.

There has always been nostalgic art, and there has always been radically innovative art. Those things aren’t going away. If you look around you and only see one, you’re either not looking very far, or not making a good-faith effort to understand what you see when you do. And anyone who’s convinced that the past was that much better than the present should probably reconsider their opposition to nostalgia.

 
By the way, I also recently found this remark while searching Google Books. See if you can guess when it was written.

“How often we hear it said that there is now no longer any originality in thought, and that about all that has been done for ages has been the repetition, or rehabilitation, of the thought of the olden time. No originality in thought? Then no originality in action; no new achievements in art, literature or science; no progress of the world to-day, and none to be expected in the future.”

(The answer is 1897.)

The Problem With 4’33″

1. Making Ideas Clearly Manifest

A few months ago, I participated in a ludicrously enormous Facebook thread about the relationships between composers and listeners. Somewhere in the middle of it, I wrote this:

“I actually think a lot of composers don’t care enough about the audience. But I don’t mean that they aren’t writing the kind of music that the audience wants to hear — after all, audiences aren’t monolithic, and you don’t know who’s going to hear your work anyway. What I mean is that a lot of composers don’t seem interested in making sure their ideas (formal, cultural, philosophical, or any other kind) are clearly manifest in the work. I often read program notes where a composer has said ‘this is an attempt to do XYZ,’ and then find that I can only hear the vaguest hint of XYZ in the actual piece. And very often I suspect that this results from the composer being so wrapped up in their own intimate knowledge of the piece, in light of which every detail is magnified enormously, that they never stop to think what it would be like to hear it for the first time. This is a problem that exists across all musical languages, styles, and levels of density, and the issue is worth thinking about no matter how musically educated you expect your listeners to be.”

I’ll come back to that later. But first…

 
2. A Diversion

John Cage’s 4’33″ is often misrepresented as a sort of Dadaist prank, like Duchamp submitting a signed urinal to an art exhibition — a bit of performance art designed to provoke the audience. And apparently that’s how the audience at the premiere interpreted it too. But that’s not actually what Cage was trying to do. In his words:

“They missed the point. There’s no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”
(from Richard Kostelanetz’s Conversing with John Cage (2003), via Wikipedia).

In other words, listening to 4’33″ is supposed to put you in an aesthetically receptive frame of mind — pretty much the opposite of trying to make you mad. And if you go into it knowing that, it’s a beautiful experience. I’ve seen it performed several times, and I’ve actually done “performances” of it by myself, setting a timer and sitting in silence until it goes off, listening to the sounds going on around me. I’ve always admired the piece for being such a clear, unequivocal statement of the idea that any sound can become music if you put a frame around it.

And yet…

 
3. The Problem

If 4’33 is so clear and unequivocal, why is it so widely misunderstood? Because clarity of form and gesture, which I had in mind when I wrote that Facebook comment above, aren’t always enough to convey your ideas to another person: sometimes you also need clarity of presentation. Cage chose to have the performer(s) sit on stage, obviously not doing anything. That decision actually makes it extremely unlikely that an audience who isn’t already familiar with the piece will respond to it by contemplating the beauty of the ambient noises in the hall. Instead, it focuses their attention squarely on the confrontational figure of the performer who isn’t performing.

If Cage’s goal was really to make people listen closely, there are other ways he could have staged the piece that would have encouraged them to do so. For example, he could have instructed the performer(s) to stay silent but make gestures as if they were playing very quietly, thus taking advantage of the audience’s natural curiosity to trick them into listening to the sounds in the environment. Or, as my friend Bex suggested in a recent conversation, he could have had the piece performed in the dark, so that the audience wouldn’t know where the sounds they heard were coming from.

Cage spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a composer. I find it hard to believe that the audience’s misreading of 4’33″ didn’t occur to him until after the premiere. And that makes me wonder if maybe he staged it the way he did because he was looking for a scandal after all.

Willingly update

As some of you know, I’m working on a piece called Willingly, for David Chavannes and the most appropriately named flutist ever, Lily Floeter. The piece is based on samples of people saying “If you had told me ten years ago that some day I would willingly _____, I wouldn’t have believed you,” where what goes in the blank has to be something they’ve actually done.

In one section of the piece, these samples are presented very straightforwardly, with a sparse accompaniment that adds a layer of emotional inflection but doesn’t “get in the way.” Over the last couple of days, I’ve been working on writing that accompaniment, and I haven’t been getting very far. The problem: I’ve transcribed the pitches and rhythms of the samples in traditional notation, but people’s speech rhythms aren’t actually metrical, so nothing quite lines up with the accompaniment I’m writing. I could write a non-metrical score, but it’s not really my inclination, and it’ll make it much harder for the performers to synchronize with the pre-recorded electronics. So just now I had another idea: cut the samples into individual “beats,” and either speed them up or slow them down them so that they line up with a metronome.

The downside is that slowed-down bits have a “grainy” quality, at least with the software I’m using (ProTools LE). But then I realized, that’s not a downside. First of all, it gives the samples a subtly unreal quality, which makes even the less emotionally charged ones (something like “…that some day I would willingly eat tofu…” as opposed to something like “…that some day I would willingly walk into an abortion clinic…”) seem a bit ominous. (Think of the reconstructed answering-machine message in Twelve Monkeys: “Haaaave a meerrryyy Chriiisttmaaass!”) But it’s also, in an unexpectedly Lachenmann-ish way, structurally and timbrally related to another section of the piece! In that other section, I’m taking advantage of the fact that nearly all of the people I sampled went into vocal fry on the last word of the sentence, “you,” and writing an all-fry section. Vocal fry and slowed-down speech graininess are awfully similar acoustically!

Composing can feel like banging your head against a wall repeatedly, but the unexpected moments when things come together make it all worth it.

How to Live With Both Irony and Sincerity

Replacing One Extreme With Another

Last week, a bunch of my Facebook friends linked to a New York Times editorial by Christy Wampole called “How to Live Without Irony.” In every case, they had nothing but praise for the article. Not surprising, I guess — bashing hipsters is practically a national pastime at this point. But I found a lot of what Wampole had to say disturbing.

For starters, let me say that I agree that people sometimes use irony as a shield to avoid taking responsibility for their statements and opinions. I’ve said many times that it bothers me when people say they like a movie or album “ironically,” because it so often means “I just plain old like it, but it’s not cool for me to admit that I do.” But Wampole isn’t calling for a better balance between irony and sincerity; she’s asking people to move from one extreme all the way to the other. Her article is called “How to Live Without Irony,” not “How to Live Without Excessive Irony.” She speaks in a positive tone about attempts to “banish” irony, not to counterbalance it. She praises four-year-olds for having “not the slightest bit of irony” in their lives, rather than praising adults who can see the value in both sincerity and irony, and who understand that they can coexist in one person, one artwork or one feeling. She even refers to irony as “ashes” that must be “dusted off.”

This article isn’t just condemning a culture that’s forgotten the value of sincerity. It’s advocating a new one that would be 100% sincerity and 0% irony. But culture is not that simple, and it shouldn’t be.

 

You Can’t Escape Referentiality

The basic problem is that Wampole fundamentally misunderstands what irony is. You can see this in the way she talks about clothing. She criticizes hipsters for having clothes that “refer to much more than themselves,” and advises people to ask themselves if parts of their wardrobe can be “described as costume-like, derivative or reminiscent of some specific style archetype.” But here’s the thing: unless you have so little money that you effectively have no choice about what clothes you wear — and it’s clear that Wampole is not addressing her article toward people who fit that description — then all clothing choices refer to more than themselves. No matter what you wear, you’re taking part in a cultural signification process that assigns meaning to everything. By not acknowledging that, Wampole is essentially saying that if you wear something that was popular and fashionable in another decade, you’re guilty of excessive referentiality, but whatever is popular and fashionable now is just “regular” clothes, so if you wear those, you’re off the hook. In other words, conform to the dominant style of 2012 or be accused of hipsterish insincerity!

All this reminds me of something I’ve noticed in the New Music world. If a composer uses harmonies, timbres or melodic figures that evoke something from another era or from some kind of popular music, people call it “borrowed material” and very often suggest that it’s not the composer’s “true voice.” But if a composer uses harmonies, timbres or melodic figures that sound like Lachenmann or Ferneyhough or Saariaho, that’s not called “borrowed material” — it’s called “working in a tradition.” There’s really no difference between the two scenarios: they both involve a composer adopting aspects of the language of someone else’s music. But, as with Wampole’s argument about clothing, people who go along with the default expectations of the culture are able to do so without scrutiny, while people whose tastes are out of sync with the dominant aesthetic, who seek inspiration in some other cultural domain, are assumed to be doing something inauthentic.

 

Double Awareness

Wampole reveals an overly simplistic understanding of irony again when she asks: “Do you surround yourself with things you really like or things you like only because they are absurd?” Why does she assume that you can’t really like something and also find it absurd? Often things are lovable precisely because of their absurdity — think of the wildly over-the-top dance sequences in Busby Berkeley musicals, or the glorious overabundance and self-contradiction (sex appeal meets women murdering their boyfriends, avant-garde fashion meets blatant product placement) of the video for Lady Gaga’s “Telephone.” People who love things like this aren’t just laughing at them, the way people laugh at The Room — they love them sincerely and also recognize that they’re ridiculous.

And that’s what irony is in general: a double awareness. It doesn’t prevent meaningful communication, as Walpole claims; on the contrary, it adds new layers of meaning. This is true no matter what kind of irony you’re talking about: when you hear a sarcastic comment, you’re aware both of its literal meaning and of its true meaning, and when you see a tragedy, you’re aware both of the protagonist’s fate and of their blindness to it. The same thing applies to irony in the arts. Frank Zappa doing doo-wop is not just a parody, but also a tribute, and sometimes a biting social critique too. JacobTV clearly gets a huge kick out of, and sometimes finds real pathos in, the American media culture that he cuts up and rearranges. When I was at Stony Brook a couple of weeks ago, Jason Gerraughty asked me if Liebeslied was a critique or a tribute, and I said, “Both!” I love 1950s crooner ballads, and I also think they’re creepy. In fact, I love them partially because I think they’re creepy. And that means that my experience listening to them is richer and more complex, and the piece I wrote in response to them more aesthetically nuanced, than if I just-plain-old-without-a-trace-of-irony thought they were beautiful.

 

In Defense of Nostalgia

Wampole also objects to hipsters indulging in nostalgia — both nostalgia for times they never lived in, and nostalgia for the present moment. Distrust of nostalgia runs high in New Music circles as well — I remember that when I interviewed at Northwestern, Hans Thomalla remarked about Imogene that there was a lot of nostalgia for the 80s in our generation (he’s less than ten years older than me), and that he thought it was dangerous. But nostalgia, like irony, adds new layers of meaning to the world. Yes, it can be used in damaging ways, from damn-kids-get-off-my-lawn dismissal of contemporary popular culture to the Republican Party’s idealization of 1950s social values. But there’s also something beautiful and powerful about looking at the past aesthetically. I personally have a very strong aestheticized sense of my own childhood, and it’s been a catalyst for a lot of the music and text that I’ve written. I know better than to conclude that the late 80s and early 90s were some kind of golden age, culturally or otherwise — but imagining them that way has turned out to be very artistically productive.

And clearly I’m not the only person who feels that way, because historically, a lot of great art has been motivated by nostalgia, from the opening of Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons to Poulenc’s wistful tribute to Mozart in the second movement of his Double Piano Concerto. Likewise, a lot of great art succeeds precisely because it captures the world with an aestheticizing lens that’s very much like being nostalgic for the present. Has anyone captured the cultural mood of the early 2010s, with its confused and contradictory relationship to technology, as well as Gotye in “State of the Art“? (Of course, the song is also something of a comment on 1950s technophilia, but there you go — additional layers of meaning. I get chills every time I hear the line “these amazing simulations end up sounding even better than the real thing,” partially because of the alarming overabundance of meaning contained in that seemingly straightforward sentence.) In fact, one of my goals in End, the opera I’m very slowly working on, is to approach the present in the same abstracted, aestheticized way that I approached the 80s in Imogene, the 50s in Liebeslied, the 60s in Party at the Last Resort, and the 1820s in Late Beethoven.

Liebeslied Gets Political

Last Saturday, Liebeslied got its third performance, courtesy of Jenna Lyle and the Chicago Composers Orchestra. Turns out the piece changed its meaning while I wasn’t looking. When Mellissa Hughes premiered it last fall, she emphasized the glamorous side of the 1950s pop songs that it pays tribute to and critiques, and Jenna’s first performance of it last spring took a similar approach. But at some point during the rehearsals for this most recent performance, Jenna compared the piece’s protagonist to a Stepford wife. I’d never thought of it that way before, but it totally works, and it Changes Everything: now the ultra-Hollywood first section and Caspar-David-Friedrichy second section seem like elaborate daydreams, while the spare, fragmented ending, in which the singer finds herself lost in a maze of dark corridors, seems like a revelation of the terrible truth. Jenna described her look for the performance as “Beautiful Hair; Dead Eyes.” (Also: “I slept in sponge rollers last night. See you in half an hour. You will be terrified.”) Suddenly the piece was a comment on actual gender inequality in the 1950s rather than a comment on a particular musical tradition. It’s such an obvious interpretation in retrospect that I can’t believe I didn’t do it on purpose!

To be clear, I don’t favor one interpretation over the other. I love the fact that different performances can bring out different sides of a piece. But realizing that I accidentally wrote a piece that can be interpreted as political makes me want to write political music on purpose. Nothing strident or heavy-handed, but something that approaches political issues obliquely, through personal stories, surrealism and distorted iconography. The last few pieces I’ve written — Party at the Last Resort, Thick Line, and World — all engage with musical and cultural history, but they do it in a playful, light-hearted way, and they don’t make any claims about, or by means of, the material they’re alluding to. I think they’re good pieces and I have no regrets about writing them, but I feel like it’s time for something different.

In particular, I’ve been trying for years to figure out how I could address trans issues in my work. A huge amount of the queer art I’ve seen doesn’t appeal to me: too much catharsis and self-empowerment, not enough mystery and beauty. A few years ago I wrote a piece for Ensemble de Sade about a magical gender-transformation ritual performed by a BDSM cult, but there was something about it that didn’t quite work, even after many revisions (despite the awesomeness of Mellissa delivering over-the-top cult ideology in punk screams toward the end), and eventually I came to feel uneasy about the type of gendered imagery that I had used in it, which was based more on erotic literature than reality. Recently I’ve started to grope toward an idea of how to address trans experience in a way that’s more emotionally true-to-life, while at the same time not being overly literal, or confessional, or even obviously about trans experience at all. But it’s still pretty vague.

By the way, speaking of trans issues, I just updated the “note on gender” at the end of my About page. Take a look!

Finally: I just discovered that Liebeslied has two anonymous admirers. The second one describes the piece as “hilarious,” which took me by surprise — although it probably shouldn’t have, given how blurry the line between humor and horror so often is, especially in dreams.

Discovering Your Taste

“Sometimes I feel like discovering what art you like — as opposed to what art you wish you liked — is a life-long process.” I wrote that on Twitter, so I had to be brief, but I’d like to expand on it here.

Two months ago, when I was at Fresh Inc, Stacy Garrop asked me to make a list of characteristics that described the kind of music I want to write. I found myself unable to say anything very specific, because I was trying to be as open-minded as possible. But more and more now I feel like I’ve taken the cultivation of open-mindedness too far. I wind up spending an awful lot of time listening to music that I don’t like very much, hoping that something will click and I’ll suddenly “get it,” while I neglect the music that really excites me. It’s only recently that I’ve realized how totally backwards that is.

It’s been particularly weird to discover that the more attention I pay to what I actually like listening to, the less interested I am in the avant-garde. When I was in college, I found the idea of “difficult listening” very exciting. But ten years later, how often do I actually want to listen to difficult music? How often do I find difficult music aesthetically, emotionally or intellectually rewarding, as opposed to forcing myself to sit through it out of a sense of obligation and finding it “somewhat interesting” at best? Occasionally — but not often.

I know there are people out there who genuinely love avant-garde music — ultra-complex music, ultra-minimal music, music made by quietly scraping household objects together, two-hour free improv marathons, pieces that are 75% silence, and so on. And that’s fine. But I wonder how many others there are who are trying to convince themselves to like it because they don’t want to be dismissive or closed-minded. Part of the reason I’ve struggled with this myself is that I’ve met a lot of people who really were dismissive and closed-minded, who were actively hostile to the avant-garde, and obnoxious about it. So I want to be clear: I’m not saying, “that stuff sucks.” I’m saying, “that stuff is mostly not for me, and maybe it’s mostly not for you either, and that’s OK.”

Getting back to the question that Stacy Garrop asked me: what if
we reframe it a little? What if composers made lists not of characteristics that describe what kind of music they want to write, but of musical elements and characteristics that get them excited as listeners? Here’s my first attempt; I’d love to see other people’s in the comments:

off-kilter tonality
juicy dissonance
major seventh chords
a clear pulse
rhythmic trickery
staccato sounds
angular, complex, catchy melodies
shiny synthesizers
vocoders
engagement with TV and advertising iconography
engagement with the pop-culture landscape
overt polystylism
(so-called) bad taste
multiple sonic layers
multiple conceptual layers
artificiality
narrative
mystery
emotional repression
formal clarity
audible motivic transformation
sharp contrasts
surprises of all kinds

Two Metaphors in the Politics of Musical Style

A lot of talk about the new-music scene is based on a metaphor in which the people who write and listen to “difficult” music are the elitist aristocracy, and the people who write and listen to “accessible” music are the downtrodden average joes.  There’s also a lot of talk about the new-music scene which is based on a different metaphor, in which the people who write and listen to “accessible” music are the jocks who rule the school, and the people who write and listen to “difficult” music are the picked-on nerds.  And when someone who sees things through the first lens tries to have a conversation with someone who sees things through the second, real communication is almost impossible.

Part of the problem is that both of these metaphors are spot-on, in certain situations.  The first one might seem very apt if you’re studying in a composition department where anyone who writes music that’s tonal or in 4/4 or influenced by popular genres is accused of being naive, unsophisticated, and unable to appreciate the weight of history.  The second might seem very apt if you’re working in a scene where populism reigns supreme and modernist-oriented composers are mocked and dismissed.  But these metaphors are so culturally and politically potent that it’s tempting to apply them to the new-music world as a whole, or even the entire art world — and then suddenly you have a situation where two people could be at the same concert or presentation and leave with two completely contradictory understandings of what they just saw and heard.

What do you think?  Is there any way to reconcile these two worldviews, or is that like saying that Ralph Nader and Pat Robertson should try to find common ground?  Is one metaphor more apt than the other?  Would it be better to stop politicizing style altogether, or is doing so useful for fighting aesthetic prejudice and closed-mindedness?

Interview and Photos at By Measure.

There’s a new interview with me and photos of my workspace at By Measure! Note my mousepad that looks like a 1970s TV…

Theatre of War

This graphic has been going around Facebook lately:

It is, of course, a huge oversimplification. In particular, correct pitch and rhythm are much more important than the graphic suggests. Sure, if a group plays a bunch of wrong pitches and rhythms, very few people in the audience will have any idea; if it’s a premiere, maybe only the performers and composer will know. But that actually makes it more important to get the pitches and rhythms right, not less — because if you get them wrong, the audience will just think they’re listening to a worse piece than they really are, and that can be pretty damaging in an era when so many people are prepared to dislike new pieces.

But there is some truth to the graphic as well. I’ve been to an awful lot of new music concerts where little to no attention was paid to the visual and dramatic elements of the performance — staging, lighting, and so on. (Video might be the most lazily handled element of all; much of what I’ve seen has been indistinguishable from a screensaver.) And maybe that doesn’t matter if you’re presenting highly cerebral music for an audience of specialists in a university composition department — but if you’re interested in drawing in non-composers, or even composers like me who are more interested in theater than theory, presentation is essential.

I’ve said all this before, several times on this blog and several million times in real life. But this time my purpose is not to complain about the troubles of the new music world; I want to talk about something I saw recently that was done right.

Last week, the Spektral Quartet put on a multimedia show called “Theatre of War.” It included films, poetry and a short play, as well as two musical performances. At the beginning, the group asked everyone to hold their applause until the end of the show. In between works the stage was dark, and the title of the next work was projected on a large screen, in silence. The lighting was theatrical — often just a single spotlight on whoever was on stage. One of the musical performances was the quartet doing George Crumb’s Black Angels; I have mixed feelings about that, not because of their performance, which was great, but because of the piece itself, certain sections of which strike me as unintentionally comical rather than somber or frightening. But I want to talk about the other one, Stress Position by Drew Baker.

Before the piece, all that appeared on the screen was the words “Stress Position,” with no explanation. Then Lisa Kaplan came out, sat down at a piano illuminated by a spotlight, and started hammering out an incessant minimal rhythm at the extreme ends of the instrument’s range, her left hand all the way at the bottom and her right hand all the way at the top. It took about a minute before I realized what was going on: the way that the piece forced her to keep her arms extended and her muscles tensed was an abstraction of the torture technique used by the US military at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay during the Bush administration. Realizing this was sickening and terrifying. And here’s the thing: it wouldn’t have been sickening and terrifying if I hadn’t been allowed to discover it for myself. What made the piece so powerful was the fact that its symbolism was presented worldlessly, allowing the viewer to grasp its significance viscerally rather than analytically.

Afterward, I congratulated Drew Baker on not having written a program note, and it turned out he actually had written one — I just hadn’t noticed it in the program. Oops. Still, having the lights down the whole time meant that I couldn’t read the program note while the piece was being performed.

Coming back to “Theatre of War” as a whole, I also have to say that I found it very gratifying to see new music presented as part of a wider artistic and cultural landscape. So often the rest of the art world ignores scored music in favor of bands, and so often composers and new music ensembles isolate themselves from the rest of the art world. I think something like this is Good For Art. What I’m wondering now is: would an event like this, presenting new music alongside other contemporary art, work as well if the music were totally non-representational?

Driftwood

One of these days I’m going to add a page to this site about my performances of other people’s music. In the meantime, go listen to my bangy piano playing on Ben Hjertmann’s Driftwood.

The White-Walled Room

New piece in the music section! Or rather, new version of an old piece: The White-Walled Room, which I wrote three years ago but was never really happy with until I revised it in preparation for Soapbox. Read more about it and take a listen:

The White-Walled Room

While I was revising the piece, I spent a lot of time listening to the recording of my first performance of it in 2009. I was surprised to hear just how differently I used my voice back then. Here’s a short clip from the new recording:

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And here’s the same passage as I performed it three years ago:

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I seem to be one step closer to my life goal of turning into Laurie Anderson…

New Music’s Image Problem (Part 2)

Last week I made a post in which I noted that people who are into experimental film, theater, literature and visual art don’t tend to listen to contemporary classical music, and suggested that this might be because the way contemporary classical music is presented to audiences makes it seem “uncool.” Since then I’ve spent a lot of time talking about this issue with other composers, and I’d like to share some of my more recent thoughts. But first, two things I should clarify:

First, I actually really dislike talking about art as “cool” or “uncool.” I’m disturbed by the idea of people deciding what artists to support based on something as superficial as the kind of social image they want to project. But I also recognize that this is something that people do, and that there’s really no way to stop them from doing it. So, from a practical point of view, I figure that if there’s something we can do to make new-music concerts seem as “cool” as black-box theater productions or art gallery shows — whether that means playing in more visually striking venues or ditching archaic concert rituals — we might as well do it.

Second, I’m not saying that composers should change what they write in order to be more audience-friendly. There’s plenty of audience-friendly music already, from Pärt to Corigliano to JacobTV. But I think that even difficult, esoteric music could have a larger following than it currently does. Remember the guy I mentioned in my last post? He reads James Joyce and watches films by Béla Tarr — not exactly easy stuff. He also listens to free jazz, which I personally found it more difficult to learn to appreciate than contemporary classical music. So why wouldn’t he like, say, Lachenmann?

My fellow Northwestern grad student Dave Reminick has made the argument that the work of a composer like Lachenmann actually is more esoteric than that of a free-jazz musician like Albert Ayler, because most people are much more familiar with the traditions that Ayler is playing off of (jazz, blues, gospel, etc.) than with the traditions that Lachenmann is playing off of (the Second Viennese School, mid-century modernism, musique concrète, etc.). Lachenmann also approaches those traditions in a more intellectual way, through the lens of Hegel and Adorno — philosophers that most people have never read. But I wonder: how many people who enjoy Lachenmann actually experience his music as a philosophical critique of conventional modes of listening? I know that when I listen to Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied, I’m not thinking that way at all: I’m enjoying the timbres of the sounds, and the drama created by the long pauses and abrupt textural contrasts. Dave is much more into Lachenmann than I am — he once named him as a candidate for his favorite living composer — but he too listens to his music in a basically intuitive way. So again: if someone likes the complex but sensuous prose of Joyce (or William S. Burroughs, or Italo Calvino, etc.), or the cryptic but evocative images of Tarr (or Apichatpong Weerasethakul, or Maya Deren, etc.), why shouldn’t they also like the abrasive but intensely dramatic music of Lachenmann (or Olga Neuwirth, or Beat Furrer etc.)?

And of course, not all new music sounds like Lachenmann, Neuwirth and Furrer. There are plenty of composers whose music is both easier to grasp structurally and more closely connected to the pop-cultural landscape that most listeners are immersed in. Lots of people know about Reich and Glass, but there’s also Louis Andriessen, Robert Ashley, JacobTV, Scott Johnson, Steve Mackey, John Zorn, Annie Gosfield, Evan Ziporyn, Paul Dresher, Frederic Rzewski, Julia Wolfe, and plenty more. If the Klangforum Wien folks could have a somewhat larger audience than they currently do, these composers could have a massively larger audience than they currently do, if only fans of contemporary art and experimental jazz and rock were inclined to explore contemporary classical music.

Like I said at the end of my previous post, I do think things are looking up. The other day I was at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and their list of events includes not only film screenings, dance performances and experimental rock concerts, but also performances by ICE and eighth blackbird. One of eighth blackbird’s concerts is described as featuring the “rigorously complex” music of Amy Kirsten and Dan Visconti (neither of whom I’m familiar with), so obviously someone thinks that people going to the MCA want to see not only a new music ensemble, but a new music ensemble playing difficult music. The ICE and eighth blackbird concerts I’ve been to at the MCA in the past have been quite well attended, too. So don’t let me fall into the trap of thinking that the situation is utterly dire. Still, we’re not where we could be. I want to see a world where OKCupid users who list Gravity’s Rainbow among their favorite books and Last Year at Marienbad among their favorite films also list La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura among their favorite music.

Program Notes and New Music’s Image Problem

If there’s one thing composers love to do, it’s complain about program notes. There are two kind that tend to come under particularly intense fire. Let’s call them the Play-by-Play:

Repossessions begins with a fluffy, scurrying motif in the contrabass clarinet. Soon it is joined by irritable pulsations in the high strings, and the music grows in intensity until it is interrupted by an abusive, rough-hewn fanfare in the brass and percussion. Gracious shards of vibraphone and harp descend from the high register as the opening motif is alternately stretched and compressed…

…and the Shop Talk:

The fundamental material of …le temps cyclique… is a matrix of pitches, dynamics, meter changes and bowing techniques based on a set of 147 rational numbers derived from the frequency of the note G# in Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra. Each parametrized line is treated interdependently, and each row and column of the matrix contains an element which triggers a rhythmic/textural disfluency, creating an ambiguous point of structural articulation and thus calling into question the dialectic treatment of the form…

There are a lot of reasons to criticize both. The Play-by-Play takes the mystery and surprise out of the music, and it risks reducing the audience experience to a game of “spot the passage I just read a description of.” The Shop Talk is dry and dull, incomprehensible to non-specialists and probably not interesting to anyone but the composer and his or her teacher. But the biggest problem with both is that they’re potentially alienating to audiences.

It’s bothered me for years that so many people who keep up with the latest developments in experimental film, literature, theater and visual art completely ignore contemporary classical music. They listen to indie rock, jazz, New Wave, electronica, industrial music — really just about anything else besides stuff written by people who call themselves “composers,’ with the occasional exceptions of Reich and Glass. I just used Google to pull up a random OKCupid profile that contained the name of the experimental Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The guy I found watches films by Béla Tarr and Alejandro Jodorowsky as well as Weerasethakul, and reads Burroughs, Joyce and China Miéville. You’d think someone like that would be fascinated by Sciarrino and Neuwirth, or Reich and Andriessen, or all of the above, but instead he listens to Joanna Newsom, Pixies, Throbbing Gristle and Albert Ayler.

What’s going on here? It’s not that contemporary classical music is too difficult to listen to: Albert Ayler can be very abrasive and esoteric. No, the problem is that contemporary classical music is uncool. Liking it doesn’t give you the kind of cultural capital that liking Tarr or Burroughs or Throbbing Gristle does; it just makes you a nerd. And part of what makes contemporary classical music seem nerdy is these extremely academic-sounding program notes. The impression they give to someone who isn’t already part of the new-music scene is: “This isn’t a show designed to transport you into a new and surprising sonic world; it’s a university lecture for people who analyze music for a living.” Obviously I have nothing against university lectures or nerds — I am a grad student, after all! Nor am I a fan of people basing their art-consumption habits on what kind of social image they want to project. But I’m more interested in getting people to listen to new music than I am in wasting time trying to abolish the very idea of “cool.” And I recognize that academia is not for everyone, and that program notes which make concerts feel like academic conferences contribute to new music’s image problem and keep the audience small.

Or so I thought! But then I actually asked some friends who are involved in other art media what they thought about these kinds of program notes, and most of them said that they didn’t mind them. A few even said that the technical terminology piqued their curiosity. Only one person actually objected to them, and that was because she objects to program notes in general: she comes from the dance world, where, she said, people generally feel that if your work needs any kind of outside explanation, it’s a failure.

Now, obviously this was a very unscientific bit of research with a very small sample size. It’s possible that the people I asked were particularly open-minded, and that a lot of other people in the other arts really are put off by “nerdy” program notes. But I have a hunch that the people who get the most exercised about program notes are composers, and that lay audience members just don’t care that much. And that means we need other techniques for getting the rest of the art world to pay attention. People are trying a lot of things right now: combining new music with video and other media, throwing out the staid and formal rituals of classical performance (is there any way to make clapping less exciting than telling people in advance when they’re supposed to do it?), and playing in venues other than concert halls (a particularly good strategy in New York, where there are venues that specialize in new music but serve drinks and look like clubs rather than monuments to High Culture™). And it’s beginning to work, but the emphasis there is on “beginning.” There’s a lot more to be done.

I’ll have more to say about this in a later post. In the meantime, if anyone’s reading, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

P.S. the next day: I didn’t realize when I posted this that nobody can leave comments! I can’t figure out how to change that, but my web designer should have it fixed soon, so come back in a couple of days and let me know what you have to say!

Liebeslied Afterglow

The Liebeslied premiere went extremely well! Mellissa was great as always, and ACO was wonderful to work with; they put the piece together incredibly quickly, and when they had to rewrite my first-person bio in third person, they were careful to avoid gender-specific pronouns. (If you’re reading this and don’t know why I want to avoid gender-specific pronouns — it’s a long story, but here’s a pretty good starting place.) It’s nice to feel “taken care of” for once, after so many DIY concerts at small venues and universities. Even the accidental disruption during the performance — a repeated clanking noise, apparently, from someone’s phone backstage — fit the mood of the piece so well that a lot of people I talked to thought it was intentional.

Both during the rehearsals and after the concert, people kept saying that the piece reminded them of David Lynch, which I count as a success — I actually had the “Club Silencio” scene from Mulholland Dr. in mind when I wrote the opening trumpet solo! I wasn’t 100% sure that the spoken section would work dramatically until I heard it done with a real sound system during the dress rehearsal, but it did; it certainly didn’t hurt that Mellissa sounded genuinely frightened when she described that strange, overcrowded party in an old hotel.

So far I’ve found four five reviews online, from reviewers that range from high-profile to anonymous:
- Anthony Tommasini, writing in the New York Times, called the piece “imaginative” and “bracincly contemporary.”
- Harry Rolnick at Concertonet wrote an absolutely gushing review, praising my “originality,” “fearless language” and “genuinely original voice.”
- Blogger Rob Wendt has a wonderful description of that opening trumpet solo — “one sees a trench-coated gumshoe smoking under a neon sign, steam rising through a nearby manhole cover” — although he found the piece “somewhat obvious.”
- Someone going by the name of BirthdayBoy!!!(^_^) on a messageboard called Musikchan found the electronics unnecessary and suspected that I was trying too hard to be “out of the box”; still, it’s always fun to hear a concert piece compared to an industrial band.
- Edit, 10.19.11: found another one! Alex Ross describes the piece as “something quite amazing.” I have to say it’s bizarre to be getting all this praise all of a sudden!

I’m intrigued by this comment in Tommasini’s review:
“From just the opening concert I am not ready to venture an overall impression about the state of music in the 21st century. Still, one theme did emerge. Young composers today, born after the stylistic battles that stultified creativity during the 1960s and 1970s, exude independence and feel entitled to draw from, borrow, use (or abuse) any style of contemporary music that interests them.”
That seems right-on to me. At some point I want to write something here about what it means to write “21st century music,” and about my relationship to musical styles of past eras, which I often use as springboards or reference points in my own work. But I’ll save it for another time.

I believe Liebeslied is going to be webcast on WQXR’s new-music stream Q2 this week. Watch this spot for more details.

Daniel J. Kushner interview

Huffington Post critic Daniel J. Kushner recently interviewed me about my recent piece Liebeslied, which is being premiered this Friday. The interview is up now, so you can read about the impetus behind the piece, and about my thoughts on popular representations of love in general, here.

Welcome

Thanks for visiting my new website, created by Elliot Cole and based on a design by Timothy Andres. Stay tuned for miscellaneous thoughts about art, culture and the new music scene.