Author: Ken Smith

NewMusicBox Special Edition: Listening Beyond September 11

The musical silence that week was deafening. Just as every sports bar in New York had filled its dearth with wide-screen CNN, my own speakers were streaming nothing but news reports. Getting through a three-minute song without distraction was a chore, to say nothing of a symphony. We did have some “help” from Clear Channel, the Texas-based radio network that sent out a wildly disregarded no-play list of some 150 “inappropriate” songs—as if anyone had thought about Steve Miller‘s “Jet Airliner” since 1979.

The unthinkable had happened. Not just the events themselves, which have already changed us all, but the fact that music—for many of us our chief consolation in troubled times—seemed a powerless, even frivolous, response. It took four days for the curtains to start to rise again on New York’s arts institutions, but even then, most of us still felt like the lone drawing in the New Yorker‘s Black Issue: a woman who had set down her violin to mourn.

But rise those curtains surely did. Urged by Mayor Giuliani to get back to normal, New York City Opera‘s belated opening weekend had singers and audiences alike gathered more as a civic duty than as a service to the art. The choice of shows didn’t help, either. After witnessing our city’s skyline hideously destroyed by a team of suicidal mass murderers, the last thing we needed to see was The Mikado. By the time Ko-ko’s list of things that won’t be missed got around to Gary Condit, Martha Stewart and Monica‘s dress, I wanted to scream “THAT’S JUST NOT IMPORTANT ANYMORE!”

The next day it was off to hear a Bach recital by Richard Goode, whose very pianistic approach toward the composer is filled more with the heart than the head. Just the kind of thing I usually hate. But this time was strikingly different. The playing was emotionally pitch-perfect, the pulsing essence of life tempered by the proper restraint. Minor keys flowed into major keys, as if unfolding light out of darkness. It was music to grieve by.

Around the country, orchestras were adjusting their programs, replacing both loud pieces and travel-impaired soloists with more appropriate standards like Elgar‘s Nimrod and the Mahler symphonies. Barber‘s Adagio became the national threnody. It was concert as public ritual, with emotionalism not only tolerated but encouraged.

It’s become a cliché to say that we are not the same country anymore, but what that will mean on an artistic level is far from clear. A tragic seed has been planted in every sensitive composer. Audience tastes will no doubt change as well. Is the omnipresent Star-Spangled Banner an indication of a new era of musical patriotism? Will programming veer toward frivolous escapism, or a taste for some of the darker emotions? There are no clear answers right now, but we can divine a few things from the past.
“Audiences will want to hear their own sensibilities matched by music that doesn’t pander to them, that isn’t sentimental or kitsch,” says conductor and Bard College President Leon Botstein. “Somehow, the vocabulary of John Williams and Andrew Lloyd Webber just doesn’t do it. When music becomes a public service, it’s crucial to fit it properly to the occasion. Music can do things words can never do.”

After the current spate of musical comfort food runs its course, Botstein’s hopeful scenario has audiences responding favorably to some of the more gritty and emotion-laden aspects of modernism that have been jettisoned in recent years in the name of accessibility. On the way out is “wallpaper music” that is “narcissistically self-expressive,” as well as academic music with no relationship to the audience.

“If anything good can come out of this, it could be the reassessment of our values,” says composer John Corigliano. “The last few weeks have been a very humanizing process.”

“One of the reasons I became a composer is that music is one of the best ways of expressing the inexpressible,” says composer Aaron Jay Kernis. “And the experience of listening or performing is communal. Half the time we don’t realize how connected to other people we are. But if anything, musical expression now feels more necessary, more direct. There’s a feeling of being lucky to be alive, and having the need to express that feeling creatively.”

But what music will we find? I think we can assume that John AdamsDeath of Klinghoffer, with its sympathetic portrayal of Palestinian terrorists, is unlikely to get performed any time soon. Nor, for that matter, will works by Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose professed admiration of the terrorist strike as a brilliant conceptual piece set off a backlash in the musical world, with many tarring the avant-garde and its barely disguised contempt for the public as an implicit devaluation of human life.
An immediate halt also came to Supermax, an opera by composer Stewart Wallace and Michael Korie about the maximum security prison in Florence, Colorado that at one point housed Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, right-wing extremist Timothy McVeigh, and Islamic terrorist Ramzi Youssef, who led the first World Trade Center attack. The 75-minute opera, portraying the prisoners’ daily hour outside of solitary confinement in the prison exercise yard, was scheduled to open next spring at The New Group, a New York musical theater company.

“This presents a certain problem for us now,” says Wallace, whose earlier reality-based operas with Korie included Harvey Milk and Hopper’s Wife. “This is a serious piece, with the men speaking for themselves and, we hope, hanging themselves by their own ideology.”

But one of arias has Youssef singing, “the two towers of evil keep tumbling down,” which presents some obvious sensitivity issues. “If we continue, I think we would follow our original concept,” Wallace says. “We don’t want to do anything to provoke, but we don’t want to follow the party line, either.”

Besides glibness, another potential problem with such musical reactions is excessive sentimentality. “Works need a certain gravity,” says Botstein, citing Leonard Bernstein‘s Mass, written for the opening of The Kennedy Center. “Compared to Bernstein’s own conducting of the Mahler Second in memory of Kennedy, which had a public monumentality about it, Mass didn’t make it.”

While the details of the World Trade Center destruction may be unparalleled, the emotions in its wake are not. “There’s hasn’t been great music evoking the Holocaust,” says Botstein, offering a comparison. “Events like these exceed any kind of direct musical evocation.” Like Beethoven‘s Sixth Symphony, which the composer claimed was not a “nature” piece but one artist’s response to nature, music fails in depicting tragedy but becomes a perfect repository for the artist’s grief and despair that words cannot express.

Just as America has quickly seen any isolationist ideals shattered, audiences can find solace in many past artists who’ve been there before. Botstein cites a number of works that reflected the emotional turmoil of the Holocaust—the Misarae (1935) and First Symphony (1936) of Karl Amadeus Hartmann, the Symphony No. 3, Liturgiqueof Arthur Honegger. But one could argue just as pervasively that none of those works convey the power of Steve Reich‘s Different Trains, which took 50 years to emerge.
So how long until the new spirit of America is reflected in music? Film composer Jerry Goldsmith‘s September 11, 2001, a two-minute tribute to the victims, premiered at the Hollywood Bowl that Friday with the speed of a score to a real-time movie. Most composers need a little more time to process their reactions.

Christopher Rouse, whose own death-obsessed music in the late ’80s and ’90s earned him the nickname “Mr. Sunshine” at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, likes to quote Berlioz‘s dictum that “Hot passions must be set down in cold blood.” He adds, “I don’t think it’s possible to create anything worthwhile in the heat of an intense emotional experience. You file it away, and gain a certain distance from it until you have the ability to express it.”

Kernis, whose Second Symphony was largely a reaction to the Gulf War, concurs. “You need time to process raw emotion into art,” he says. “Otherwise the results can become hackneyed and overbearing.”

As a father, Rouse had become obsessed with a British murder case, where a 2-year-old had been killed by two 10-year-olds. But, he said, it took a year and a half to put those reactions into music. Likewise, Rouse was in the middle of his Flute Concerto—a happy work—when his mother was facing death.

Like Stravinsky, who wrote the Symphony in C as his wife and daughter were dying, Rouse had to finish the music as written. “There’s an emotional temptation to put in some thunderclap of despair in whatever you’re writing, but the music has to be itself,” he says. “So I continued in this happy, bubbly vein, but resolved to write a piece later for my mother.”

Just the opposite happened with Corigliano, whose Symphony No. 1 became the first significant response to AIDS from the classical music community&mdahs;but only because Corigliano changed a commission to his terms. “Georg Solti had originally wanted me to write a Concerto for Orchestra, which I couldn’t bring myself to do when I was seeing people I knew dying,” Corigliano recalls. “Suddenly, all that became meaningless. I told them, ‘Look, a piece that shows off the brilliance of the Chicago Symphony is a wonderful thing, but I need to write something for my friends.'”

Wallace, too, will likely channel his current feelings into Book of Five, a concerto for the cutting-edge British new music group Icebreaker and the American Composers Orchestra to be premiered this spring. Stuck with what to do with his middle movement, Wallace is now contemplating it without soloists, making a noticeable absence. The title of the middle movement would be September 11, 2001, with the next movement, “a raucous, life-affirming response,” called September 18, 2001, the birthdate of Wallace’s son.

For a big-picture look at what to expect, Corigliano offers the AIDS crisis as an example. Despite the obvious differences in the situations—a massive, immediate onslaught versus a long-term viral invasion—the two have created similar reactions in the national psyche. Both came by surprise, and both put the nation in fear of daily life. “People in the ’80s were constantly thinking about death—their own and others’—just as a lot of people today are now terrified to go into a building or board a plane,” he says.
And most importantly, the artistic response to AIDS was also a particularly American phenomenon, he says. Composers who had once neglected to consider the audience as part of the musical equation were now writing public music with naked emotional power.

“The AIDS crisis was the moment of awareness that exposed the main conceit of the avant-garde,” says Corigliano, echoing the theme of a recent essay he wrote for the New York Times (9/23/01). “Composers began writing to their audiences directly and personally again. We began to find strength in American pluralism, which is as big a strength in music as it is in our political thought. Unfortunately, there are people in music as well as politics who believe in a supreme morality and have practiced exclusion rather than inclusion.”

“At times, composers have approached me and asked, ‘How can you respond so directly to the events around you?’ ” says Kernis, whose work has fashioned personal responses to the Los Angeles riots as well as the Gulf War. “Many of them thought my music should be less connected to the world directly.”

Responding too directly, though, makes for journalism and not art. Part of a work’s future in the repertory depends on how well it hides its roots. “I heard the Second Symphony about a month ago in London, and the piece was no longer about war,” says Kernis. “It’s about conflict. I’ve never considered the piece to be programmatic, so even though it came as a response to a specific war, it no longer seems to be specific to its time.”

“We can be as specific as we want to be, but for the piece to survive it has to live as an abstraction,” adds Corigliano. “My First Symphony appeared in Kiev without program notes, and the audience heard it merely as a tragic symphony. But they were just as moved as the people who heard it two weeks later in San Francisco.”

As of last summer, Corigliano had cancelled several commissions, claiming that as an artist he “had nothing to say.” That’s changed now, as he slowly contemplates his next move in response to this new Black Tuesday. “I’m not sure how it will come out,” he says, “but it will probably be an opera.”

Kernis, for his part, says he spent so much of the past few years focusing on loss he doesn’t see himself revisiting it. “At least right now,” he adds. “The trauma is going to take a long time to process.”

Struggling to finish a piece for the opening of the Philadelphia Orchestra‘s new concert hall in December, Kernis found his life and work that week coming to a complete halt. “I sat in front of the TV for three full days in total shock, wondering how long it would take for life to begin again, and how I could keep going,” he says. “I remember turning off the TV at 6 p.m. on Thursday, and by the weekend I was back spending as much time composing as I had in front of the screen. Everything still felt inadequate to the tragedy. And yet, I found myself moving forward just by getting back to work.”

Smoke and Mirrors: Mr. Smith Returns to Washington

Ken Smith
Photo of Ken Smith
in front of “Smoke Free” (1999)
{cigarette butts and wood, 45″x67″}
by John Salvest
(courtesy Rudolph Projects)
Photo by Melissa Richard

A former political journalist turned music critic offers up a HyperHistory uncovering “smoke and mirrors” politics in the American classical music business.

My name is Ken. I’m a recovering addict. I can trace my awareness to the 1988 Convention floors in Atlanta and New Orleans where as a working journalist I first saw thousands like me, high on an adrenaline rush from an endless stream of platform items and camera-ready politicians. You couldn’t even call it substance abuse. There was no substance.

Moving to New York from Washington gave me a new lease on life. Over the past decade music has replaced politics as my chief obsession, and though I will admit to a twinge of nostalgia during the Lewinsky days, my life for the most part has been cheerfully apolitical. My New Republic subscription eventually lapsed and my political news increasingly comes from late-night monologues. And I know I’m not alone.

The thing is, looking around at the music world, I think that’s part of the problem. Musicians are as much a subculture of our society as political junkies, and if locked in a room together they could certainly find common ground. But most of them will never find the same room. Ask a musician to name his state senator and you’ll most likely get the same silence as asking a U.S. Congressman to name his favorite American composer.

Public indifference to concert music is understandable, since non-commercial music has rarely been on the popular agenda. Unlike the Old World, where composers and musicians were for centuries cheerleaders for the state (take a look at the obsequious texts to any Purcell court masque and you’ll see exactly what I mean), American musicians have rarely filled a national function. Concert music, along with opera, has kept itself out of the mainstream, treating itself at various times as (a) an ethnic identification with the old country, (b) a tool for social advancement, and (c) a publicly funded entity like any other deserving minority. American composers, particularly those fringe figures who challenge European cultural heritage, have it even worse–shunned by America’s Euro-centric cultural institutions as well as “democratic” taste. It’s little wonder that Charles Ives remained in the business world, where unlike the music world his innovative mind was treated with the respect it deserved.

But I digress. Music often suffers next to theater, dance and the visual arts on the public agenda because it’s not “about” anything — and when it does become “about” something, it’s usually because musicians have let the agenda be wrested from them. Think of Aaron Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait being dropped from the 1953 Eisenhower inaugural concert because of connections to the Communist party. Or to recall a case of musical flag-burning, when a organ student was arrested at my alma mater during the McCarthy Era for playing Ives’ “unamerican” Variations on “America”.

How does music rate on the public agenda in Washington? How political are American musical figures, and do their different roles dictate different agendas? Do conductors vote like corporate presidents and orchestra players like union members, as their roles might suggest? Are neo-romantics composers neo-conservative and serialists communists, making all pitches equally bankrupt, to paraphrase a recent argument in The New York Times? Are music critics and radio programmers filled with liberal bias, or part of the “right-wing media conspiracy”? Do the various music industry handlers — managers, publicists, presenters, etc.– have their own political agendas, or are they just as pragmatic as image consultants on the political stage?

Is it time for “politics” to enter American musical life, or vice versa? And if the word “politics” is too distasteful, lest it evoke either echoes of right-wing filibusters or shadows of cold-war dissidents, let’s call it “public awareness.”

We hear plenty these days about “The Politics of Hollywood,” as a recent panel at New York’s 92nd Street Y was entitled, but what about the politics of Carnegie Hall? Last month, the institution celebrated the 80th birthday of Isaac Stern, who 40 years ago led the rally to save the building from destruction. Even more significantly, the violinist played a major role in the formation of the National Endowment for the Arts, the center of a decade-long Congressional debate in which the musical voice was conspicuously silent. Granted, musicians of Stern’s stature are few and far between, but how hard is it to command a few line items on the national agenda?

Inside Pages:

“Some People Think He’s God”: Ken Smith Remembers Paul Bowles

Although he was a success as both composer and author, as a recluse Paul Bowles was a total failure. After fleeing New York for Morocco in 1947, he and his wife Jane continued to entertain a seemingly endless parade of visitors in his adopted country. Even in the 1990s, after Betolucci’s film of The Sheltering Sky had made him America’s most famous living expatriate, finding him was still as easy as picking up the Tangier telephone book.

I had discovered his work only in the mid-’80s, when within the course of a week I read an essay by Gore Vidal claiming Bowles’s stories as being “among the best ever written by an American” and an unrelated piece by Ned Rorem predicting that “if history remembers [Bowles] it will be for his musical gifts.” The two sides of Bowles’s creative life seem to occupy mutually distinct realms-the music existing to charm, the text trying to horrify-but it was the area in-between than I came to find the most intriguing.

As a regular music critic at the New York Herald-Tribune from 1942 to 1946, Bowles upheld the mantle of Virgil Thomson, and was Thomson’s own choice to replace him as chief critic when he left the paper in 1954. In retrospect, Bowles proved a subversive choice. Entrusted with documenting “serious” music in the city, he became the first critic to devote any serious space to jazz and what today we call “world music,” reserving special contempt for countries which subverted their own indigenous music to a colonial presence, as Cuba did with its African influences and Moroccan Arabs once did with the Berber tradition.

These writings make intriguing reading for a generation which finds world music trendy again. Just as his nihilistic fiction paved the way for the Beats and his musically repetitive non-development fills the missing gap between Colin McPhee and Steve Reich, the best of Bowles’s criticism reveal yet another of today’s interests that he explored first.

By the time I eventually met Mr. Bowles, on a 1998 trip to Morocco with NewMusicBox editor Frank J. Oteri, “going out” for him meant leaving his bed for the living room. His presence in Tangier, though, remained undiminished. The staff at the Hotel Continental, where portions of The Sheltering Sky were filmed, effortlessly steered us to the right neighborhood. Our driver, conversing with local teenagers in a pickup soccer game, found directions to “the American, Paul Bowles” (the only English words amid rapid-fire Arabic). And once on the right street, a stranger we approached got in our car to point out the right apartment building.

Even in ill-health Mr. Bowles (for no other salutation seemed appropriate) proved an amiable host, providing some occasionally mischievous answers to an afternoon’s worth of questions, perhaps a few willfully misheard…

Speak For Yourself! A Hyper-History of American Composer-Led New Music Ensembles

Ken Smith
photo by Melissa Richard

For a composer, the urge to assume creative control in your own musical matters is as American as…well, Aaron Copland. But whether your frame of reference is literally the Copland-Sessions Concerts of Contemporary Music, a four-season project from 1929-1932 where American composers first took charge of bringing their music to the public, or the broader history of that tradition stretching back to Bach and Beethoven, the very breadth of composer-led or -affiliated ensembles is American to the core.

Since colleges and conservatories are the easiest places for composers and performers to interact, it’s no surprise that ensembles that met there (like Musicians Accord, eighth blackbird and the California EAR Unit) often continue the association after graduation. The members of other more experimentally-oriented groups, like Essential Music, Newband, or the American Festival of Microtonal Music, have found each other far from the halls of academe.

Once embarking on this mission, ensembles have a choice in what they perform. They can largely support a certain compositional school (The Group for Contemporary Music) or geographic location (Chicago Composers Consortium, Dinosaur Annex), or even a specific composer (Fred Ho’s Afro-Asian Music Ensemble), while other groups purposely break such categories (North/South Consonance and Composers Concordance). Some groups that originally formed around a single composer (like the Paul Dresher Ensemble) are now actively commissioning a variety of composers.

While the instrumentational resources of many of these groups is frequently what determines the kinds of pieces composers can write for them, some groups have been formed specifically to suit the whims of the composers (Music for Homemade Instruments, Bang On A Can All-Stars) But there are still composers who have found such standard ensembles like the string quartet to be their perfect medium for self-expression although their own conception of the genre has made them form their own groups (Soldier String Quartet, Turtle Island String Quartet).

The sound of much American concert music is largely shaped by the fact that composers are writing for specific ensembles. It is certainly easier for a composer to get a work performed by a small ensemble of his or her own creation than by an orchestra where the odds are generally stacked against both living composers and Americans. In fact, the American Composers Orchestra was created to try to remedy this and show that you can still have enormous musical diversity even if you focus exclusively on 20th century American music.

There is always the danger of being pigeon-holed in a new music ghetto. Groups like Sequitur and the Common Sense Composers Collective add to their own tradition trappings and inspirations from theater and dance. The Da Capo Chamber Players used to perform new works more than once in an evening to give audiences a greater familiarity with the music. They now frequently combine new pieces with works from the standard repertoire on their programs.

Usually, at some point, even the newest music falls comfortably on the continuum, as conductors such as Parnassus‘s Anthony Korf and Present Music‘s Kevin Stalheim have found. Music never exists in a vacuum, and at some point, even our most radical views and expressions of the present come to terms with the past. After all, what Copland began is now 70 years old.

The Ensembles