There’s a new piece on the music page: World (2012) for two keyboards and percussion, including a recording from the November 15 performance at Stony Brook. There will be video from the following night’s performance at Symphony Space soon, so keep an eye out.
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.
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.
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.
One Last Comment
Discussing Wampole’s article reminded me of something: In general, I seem to like everything that a Sophisticated Art Person is not supposed to like. Irony, nostalgia, naïveté, obviousness, imperfection, inauthenticity… It’s a little maddening sometimes!
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.
“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:
major seventh chords
a clear pulse
angular, complex, catchy melodies
engagement with TV and advertising iconography
engagement with the pop-culture landscape
(so-called) bad taste
multiple sonic layers
multiple conceptual layers
audible motivic transformation
surprises of all kinds
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?
A few new recordings I’ve posted recently:
And there’s more to come!
There’s a new interview with me and photos of my workspace at By Measure! Note my mousepad that looks like a 1970s TV…
Every time I try to write a blog post, I get halfway through and then find that I’m no longer sure whether or not I agree with the point I was trying to make. That’s a problem!
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?
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.
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:
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:
And here’s the same passage as I performed it three years ago:
I seem to be one step closer to my life goal of turning into Laurie Anderson…
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.
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!
Confirmed: Liebeslied will be among the pieces from the SONiC Festival broadcast on New York new-music internet radio stream Q2 tomorrow night.
Wednesday, October 19
7 PM EST
Q2 (click on “Q2 Music” at the top to listen)
Edit: You can also hear the piece, along with the rest of the SONiC Festival’s opening concert, on the front page of Performance Today.
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.
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.