Author: Kevin James

An Open Response to “… But I Hate Modern Music”

Cartoon of bolts striking a reddened ear

As a composer, performer, and lover of almost every stripe of music, I feel it’s important that “…But I Hate Modern Music,” the recent article by Maia Jasper White that was published in NewMusicBox, receive a thorough and thoughtful response.

As a composer I rely on the good will and enthusiasm of musicians such as Jasper White for the effective performance of my music. As a performer, I sit in the same ensembles, and I most certainly am part of the same audiences. Perhaps this is why I was so disappointed by the dismissive tone of her article, and I feel compelled to set the record at least a bit straighter, from a composer’s point of view.

So first off, let’s talk about the opening disclaimer that all art is subjective. All art is definitely NOT subjective. For example, the stick figure drawings of a two-year-old may be heartwarming and worthy of a spot on the fridge, but we can all objectively agree on their relative quality and value within a very narrow range. When art reaches a high level of professional accomplishment that requires peer review for funding and curation for its production, the objective measures are very often already in place.

What the article refers to in terms of subjectivity isn’t actually a matter of taste. It’s a matter of expectation. When it comes to art and artistic renderings, there is, unfortunately, often a disconnect between what an artist is presenting and what an audience believes their price of admission is buying. For example, I once knew a very lovely and open-minded army veteran who loathed hearing pop artists sing the national anthem. Yes, he even hated Whitney Houston’s Super Bowl version—and he otherwise loved Whitney Houston’s singing. He hated her rendition because he believed the purpose of singing the national anthem before sporting events was so that we could all take a moment to collectively show our respect for our country. In his mind, Whitney was showing disrespect through her (in his mind) self-serving reinterpretation of the song. There was nothing subjective when considering the quality of the performance, only in the expectation of the way it should serve its audience.

As for the further disclaimer that art is too often shielded from criticism, it’s off base even in its sarcasm. While I do believe that art—through its attempt to reflect and challenge the norms of our culture and society, to express the inner working of the mind, and to inspire contemplation in those who engage with it—does hold intrinsic value, I’ve never experienced or even witnessed that aura of social value sparing it from criticism. Note that within the article I’m responding to here, the author confesses that she walked out on the performance she was attending. Criticism of contemporary art is alive and well and thriving in the hearts of every person who engages with it. Isn’t that half the fun? Isn’t that, at least in some part, the point? When you go to the movies, you don’t walk home talking about the weather; you dissect your experience. Sometimes ruthlessly. Sometimes you walk out. When you walk out, you can blame the filmmaker for letting you down, or you can kick yourself for not having gone to Rotten Tomatoes to see what the critics and other audience members thought, for not watching the trailer ahead of time, for not having checked out what your favorite reviewer thought, maybe even checking out other films by the same director, screenwriter, lead actors, etc.

I simply don’t believe that the author is attempting to soothe the collective consciences of concertgoers who have been traumatized by their new music experiences. No, there is no hostage taking being perpetrated by composers today.

Here’s why I don’t believe it: while the author claims to “love and respect” composition, and to be a champion of contemporary music, the entirety of the article is an explication of what a single concert programmer expects contemporary music to do for her. Remember what I wrote above about expectations?  I do not think that’s what a champion of art does.

Champions of art seek connections. They seek connections between themselves and the artists, between the work of those artists and other works they’ve experienced, between the works of art and the lives of their constituents, between the motivations of the artist and the world in which we live. A champion of art is a translator, a cheerleader, an ambassador, a confidante, and sometimes a guru. A champion feels an obligation equally to the constituents who have placed their trust in them, and to the composers who they are ushering to the ears of the public. At least from what I can infer from this article, the model being presented is not of a new music champion.

When the author writes about bearing the brunt of concertgoers’ complaints toward contemporary offerings, she seems to be blaming composers for putting her in the awkward position of having a career as a professional performer. When she brushes off her parents’ negative response as a fact of human nature, she makes the concept of swaying their opinions seem akin to climbing Mt. Everest. In fact it’s much more liking visiting the summit of Mt. Washington. Yes the climb can be taxing, but there’s a road that goes up the back side of the mountain, in case you’d rather drive.

Remember what I said about being a champion of new music in the previous paragraph?  When people seek you out with negative opinions, champions of new music don’t take it as a complaint. They take it as a plea for your ambassadorial acumen. They don’t want their confusion to be validated—and if they do, that’s not your job, thank you very much. They want their confusion to be alleviated. Give them a map for the road up the back side of the mountain. Hell, ride along with them.

Champions of living artists are indeed an endangered species. We have far too few models. There is no critical mass of new music champions inspiring a next generation of impresarios, patrons, and yes, musician/curators to take up the torch.

To that end, it’s not helpful to acknowledge experiences with new music ranging from “profound to insufferable” without examining deeply what it is that creates that distinction for a given listener. It’s not helpful to deflect one’s own responsibility for that experience or especially to simply imply that…. what? All music should be pretty? That concertgoers are incapable of new experiences? Perpetuating false stereotypes (“grant money and music critics favor the avant-garde”) further confuses what ought to be a deep sense of responsibility for our community as a vibrant incubator of art with a fortitude and integrity to rival any other time in musical history.

Hyperbole? I don’t think so. It’s been my experience that over the past 15 years or so there’s been a dramatic shift in both the number and quality of submissions that grant panels are asked to review. Earlier in my career 100 composer submissions would in many cases have been considered an extraordinary number for a panel to review. They would be heard by a panel of 3-5 members and 10-12 of those submissions could be expected to be competitive. New Music USA now empanels 30-50 members of our professional community twice a year, just to be able to handle the immense number of submissions they receive. And even a cursory review of the funded projects will speak to the quality of the work being produced.

I’ve sat on any number of these panels and have never experienced a style-based bias deep enough to effect the outcome of the selections. The avant-garde (however we’re defining that term here) is favored when it represents the highest quality submission with the clearest and most distinctive voice. Period.

I’m not going to respond directly to the article’s review of a single illustrative concert experience, other than to point out that the composer seems not to have misrepresented the type of meditative experience being presented. Didn’t he deserve an informed, open-minded audience, capable of being in their seats ahead of time and in an appropriate frame of mind?  As I detailed above, I prepare at least this thoroughly to go to the movies. Don’t we owe our living composers more than that?

My purpose here is not to disparage the author of the article. It’s to point out the sometimes-destructive disconnect between those who would represent the broader community of professional musicians and the music of living composers, and the reality of our endeavors as artists. To that end, one last point. Jasper White presents her contention that there’s an “avant-gardist’s implicit credo” that is both arrogantly self-directed and completely dismissive of all our forebears. Leonard Bernstein is quoted to support the premise. So let me be clear. Leonard Bernstein is dead. The comments quoted from him are 50 years old now and at least 50 years behind the times. No composer of any merit is anything less than expert on the evolution of the craft of the last 300 years that informs our work, even those who come to the conclusion that the creation of new sonic approaches is essential to the expression they seek.

[Deep breath]

Perhaps finally on the last, and most important point of the article, we can agree.

The article finishes with a rejection of the conceit that there are two inevitable options when presenting contemporary music: to acknowledge our preference for “pretty” or “intelligible” music over music that is less so (which is also the preference of the audience); or to present anything that composers write whether we like it or not, honoring their First Amendment rights, and run the risk of forever alienating the audience. Thankfully, we’re in agreement that, of the contrived choices presented, neither feels good. Neither feels good because neither is necessary and neither serves artists, audiences, musicians, or anyone else.

More importantly, we can also agree that the litmus test of inspiration and the excitement of sharing ought to be the goal of the performers when presenting new music. That is, assuming they’re doing their homework. Assuming they truly are intending to be champions of that new music. Assuming they’re willing to be open minded and forward thinking. Assuming they’re truly willing to bring their audience along for the ride, unapologetically and fiercely, with a dedication to communication, and a willingness to find that common human ground that they share with the composer and their audience alike.

Cage = 100: Provenance and Process—100 Waltzes for John Cage

Cage in 1992

John Cage in August 1992, the last month of his life. Photo by John Maggiotto, courtesy S.E.M. Ensemble

Sit. Think. Remember. Do a Google search or two. Read. Research. Listen. Hear the hum of the fans. Locate their points of convergence. Remember. Try not to repeat the things you already know about. Ignore your talents. Follow your most impish curiosity. Dwell on an unpleasant memory. Grind the coffee beans. Sort the pile of neglected mail. Make a cup of perfect espresso. Write.

On August 12, 1992, I was sitting in the yard of a small villa not far outside of Siena, Italy, with a group of brass players (of all people) when the word came that John Cage had died. I didn’t read his obituary on that day. I read it today. For the first time.

Find a place you trust and then try trusting it for awhile.

In many ways, this sort of unordered, untethered moment defines my connection to Cage and his work. I remember my mother once asking about him. “He had an amazing influence on so many artists,” she said, “but I understand that he did something with music too. Have you heard of him?”

Consider everything an experiment.

Reread. Highlight. Erase. Replace. Don’t you wonder what’s not here?

In 1992 I had heard an eclectic smattering of Cage’s works, compared to the enormity of his oeuvre—a handful of the prepared piano works, several of his percussion pieces, a fantastic few of his vocal puzzles, a variety of others. I had met him briefly on two or three occasions over the preceding few years, and I was always charmed by his just-finished-digging-mushrooms appearance and his completely affable demeanor.

100 years is a very long time.

Consider. Read. Research. 1912—Mahler’s 9th, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” Pierrot Lunaire. Woody Guthrie. Source material for unread theses, but not why we’re here, is it? Dwell on an unpleasant memory.

There is no win and no fail. There is only make.

I consider it one of the highlights of my performing career to have participated in the 2005 Lincoln Center presentation of Ocean, finally realized as Cage and Cunningham had envisioned it, with the orchestra surrounding the audience. Merce looked very old.

13 years is a very long time.

The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It is the people who do all the work all the time who eventually catch on to new things.

Reread. Highlight. Erase. Replace. I promise, I’ll stop doing that. I can tell it’s annoying you now.

In college my friends all called me by my initials, KJ, which through time, use, and the laconic habits of college students was eventually shortened by many, to a pronunciation more like “cage.” When the ridiculously talented and humble pianist, Jenny Lin, asked me why I didn’t have my own ensemble yet, it seemed like a pretty good question.

Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.

When it became obvious that the currents pushing my ensemble (the [kāj] ensemble—you get it now, right?) into outlandish existence would converge with the inevitability of the 36,500th revolution of the Earth since the breaking of silence by one John Milton Cage, it was once again time to sit, think, read, research, consider, talk, laugh, listen, plan.

We are breaking all of the rules. Even our own rules and how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for “x” qualities.

I first approached the concept joining the parade of centenary performances much as anyone/everyone else. I focused on his 49 Waltzes for the Five Boroughs because it represented such strong points of connection for Cage and me—specifically, a love for New York City and the opportunity for the inclusion of field recordings and ambient sounds in the mix.

Go to the library. Search. Sit. Wait. Read.

Find a place you trust and then try trusting it for awhile.

Sometimes, the thoughtful and respectful recreation of a work is the deepest form respect. Other times, taking that work, using it as a diving board to bounce on and leap from, and landing in a cannonball to splash the snoozing pool-side adults is a much more fitting nod. I think Cage would prefer the latter.

Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.

I don’t think that Cage chose to create (is “invent” a better word?) out of a sense of inspiration, or a desire to inspire his audiences, as much as a desire to connect. He chose to connect by listening, and by creating works that offered his audiences the same opportunity. He found great joy in sound. And he found great joy in the opportunity to connect to people. To be able to use one to accomplish the other is nothing less than sublime.

Find an I Ching website. O.K., I take it back. Ask your super-human assistant, Whitney, to find the website. She will then make six virtual rolls of the three coins five times over to find the longitude down to the sixth decimal place of the “seconds” (you know—degrees, minutes, seconds). She’ll repeat that process for the latitude. Then she’ll mark and map the location using Google Earth. Repeat 147 times.

“The [kāj] ensemble is an eclectic group of all-stars and icons from the New York new music scene. Under the direction of composer and trombonist Kevin James, the ensemble embodies the ethic and aesthetic of its namesake. Unabashed in its search for originality, guided by a love of improvisation, drawn to risk-taking, unafraid of theatrics, the [kāj] ensemble fuses the unique virtuosity of its members into a tightly unified whole, at once subtle and spontaneous, gritty and urbane, intimate and overpowering.”

The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It is the people who do all the work all the time who eventually catch on to new things.

Print all the Google maps and all the attendant directions. Make a 24-hour reservation for a Zipcar. Midnight to midnight. Ask your craziest musician friends to volunteer to keep you company. Get your favorite mic plugged into your super duper state-of-the-art HD recorder. Stock up on batteries and bring an extra hard drive. Start in Staten Island. End in the Bronx. Stop at 80 locations in between for 3 minutes and 20 seconds each. Don’t forget to turn the mic on. Don’t fall asleep. Don’t be late with the car. Rest two days. Repeat (ten hours this time around). Rest two days. Strap a camera to your bike helmet. Strap your recorder to your chest. Mount your mic in a backpack. Pack extra water, fruit, and Cliff bars. Don’t forget your map and list of locations. Ride for ten hours—Governor’s Island is the midpoint. Time Square means you’re done. When you finish, it won’t be your legs that hurt.

Google “the world’s 100 most favorite waltzes.” Compare the lists in order to come up with your own super-cool, completely definitive list. Download all of the scores in PDF format. Go back to that I Ching site you like so much. Do six rolls each to determine page number, staff number (or bar number) and number of bars to include. Repeat 900 times (nine musicians—they’re funny about wanting to have their own part to play). Create slides for each of the 900 excerpts.

Do not try to create and analyze at the same time. They are different processes.

Send all the slides and all the audio samples to your software engineers. Give clear instructions. Practice trust. Give clearer instructions. Now practice trust. O.K., one more time. Give the really clear instructions. Get excited. You’re almost done.

Surround yourself with the eight other most talented, adventuresome, soulful musicians you can find. Give them permission to act on their talent, have an adventure, expose their soul.

There is no win and no fail. There is only make.

What exactly is 100 Waltzes for John Cage? It is a randomly evolving soundscape made up of nine transient iPad-equipped musicians, 100 waltzes, quad speakers, and audio from those recordings we made at the 147 New York City locations in a sublime expression of “the 10,000 things.”

O.K., I’ll break that down for you a little. Cage actually didn’t like the word “random.” He preferred “indeterminacy” and “chance operations.” But now we’ve got these nine musicians with iPads (that’s three trios worth). And on their iPads are slides with fragments of music from 100 different waltzes (remember those zillions of coin tosses). Here’s where we get to the “random” part—the slide show on the iPad is controlled by a randomizing algorithm which determines how long that particular slide remains visible to the individual musician and the order that the slides appear. The audio samples become a soundscape when loaded onto a computer and fed through a randomizing algorithm (there’s that term again) which determines how long each sample is heard, when it begins, and which of the four speakers at each corner of the room the sound will emanate from. And just to be fair, we invite the audience to get up and wander around as they please as well. Trust.

We are breaking all of the rules. Even our own rules and how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for “x” qualities.

One of Cage’s more famous moments of clarity involved the realization that the street sounds entering the window of his studio were far more interesting than anything he was trying to put on paper that day. I think later his thinking would evolve to the understanding that the sounds themselves—timbre, rhythm, diversity, contrapuntal interactions and whatnot—despite their inherent fascinating qualities, required his window to be open and his mind to be willing in order for any connection, clarity, understanding, joy, to take place. 100 Waltzes for John Cage celebrates that window and invites its audience to experience that connection.


Kevin James

Kevin James

Composer, performer and educator Kevin James explores a broad palette in his creative work, spanning free jazz and improvisation, audience participation and multi-media to traditional forms and modal harmonies. His compositions include The Portraits Project, a 90-minute multimedia “opera-lingua” commissioned through the Meet The Composer/New Residencies Program, for which he recorded over 700 interviews with homeless New Yorkers. James is now in his second year as Director of Education for the American Composers Orchestra where he is working to increase the visibility and impact of composers in the world of New York City arts and education.