Author: Nathan Currier

Reclaiming the Missing Middle

Six bagels on a tray in the process of being baked
Ed. Note: Orchard Circle’s first concert will take place at the DiMenna Center’s Cary Hall in New York City on Tuesday, November 8, 2016 at 8:00pm. Further details are available on the Orchard Circle website.—FJO

Orchard Circle began as a simple conversation among friends. Essentially it’s a new music series that will focus on what could be called the “middle”—the center of the aesthetic spectrum. Saying he loved this idea, John Corigliano noted how “the middle has been neglected far too long.”  I tried to explain it earlier in terms of something Anthony Tommasini wrote, which began with his describing the wide range, quick cuts, and “irreverent mixing” of an ACJW concert presented like a rock band’s release party, which had excited him. Frank J. Oteri recently published a piece in these pages describing the whole new music world in similar terms, expressing the same exhilaration at today’s freedoms, which he saw encapsulated in something written about Henry Threadgill: “Asked about what’s caught his ear of late, he identifies some recent Elliott Carter music for piano, as well as a Beyoncé song that his daughter brought into his life.” Tommasini’s article went on, however, to discuss how there was, nevertheless, one thing missing from ACJW’s “mix tape” approach. Namely, it had no middle: that is, the concert included similar “Carter to Beyoncé”-like contrasts, but explicitly eschewed any composers one might call the “middle ground” between them, and this set Tommasini to thinking, and to describing this middle ground and his fears for it.

This missing middle is precisely what Orchard Circle is all about.  I don’t think that anyone could deny the simple facts of the matter.  Tommasini’s article was not written yesterday; it was published six years ago, and there’s little question that, by all meaningful measures (media attention, share of commission funding, space in programming, etc.), things have only gotten worse. After having noted his worry that “pieces of more traditional excellence, like Mr. Harbison’s string quartets,” could disappear, Tommasini concluded, “For now this is just a passing worry.” Yet Harbison wrote to me recently:

I have been able to reach a conclusion that it is best for me to accept that my music, and my values in general, hold little relevance for the present moment, and I am able to be most useful and productive by letting go. … My music and that of most of my contemporaries has ceased to have meaning for the world of the presenters, press, and high-powered performers.

I’ve also found some younger composers, coming out of a similar aesthetic, who seem to feel almost as despondent and “finished,” yet they had just finished grad school! Why is no one discussing this? Whatever your own aesthetics, much like the idea that biodiversity equals ecosystem resilience, you should not want to see this branch of creative activity, from composers young and old, squeezed out of existence the way it has seemed to be lately.

What is the accepted intellectual justification for this current state of affairs? Why aren’t at least the internal institutions of the composition community politely bidden to make a thorough reexamination of their priorities, and an overhaul wherever these are seen to have gone awry? In trying to get Orchard Circle going, I noted the depth and extent of feelings that so many of the composers I talked to, both young and old, hold about all of this. I also noticed how among many there is a good deal of reticence to talk about any of it openly. I hope that readers can appreciate my own trepidation in making myself pretty vulnerable discussing all of this quite directly. An open question remains whether these same composers—frequently quite individualistic and proud, and so by consequence forming a fractious, balkanized, lonely bunch, hardly a union—can ever really be coaxed into coalescing.

Orchard Circle’s first concert, at the DiMenna Center, will soon provide the first test, with players from the Berlin Philharmonic giving an election-night bash that explores the notion of a “Weimar America.” Given our theme, it might be fitting to mention a musical thinker who liked to ponder stylistic shifts, a native Berliner who was forced to leave Berlin soon after the Weimar Republic fell (he was Jewish) and who then came to New York City and taught for a long time at NYU—Curt Sachs. “However we seek to define it, there is always something tragic about aesthetics,” Sachs once wrote, noting that a good half of what is created ends up rejected by our doctrines, today as in millennia past, and that we need to think more holistically, where different styles could be seen as “different but necessary parts of a meaningful and well-organized whole.”

Tommasini’s article didn’t fully explore why the aesthetic middle ground was now eroding so completely, but I’d like to throw out a few thoughts. One of the most salient features, it seems to me, of this missing middle is that it is the part of the aesthetic spectrum that has the closest ties to Western classical music’s past. Perhaps the ability to flip instantly through a vast global bonanza gradually desensitizes listeners to the subtle inflections, quasi-linguistic narrative processes, the totality of what I might call the “metabolism”—the complex guts—of classical music?

I might also suggest that the gravitating of so many toward musical languages of greater stasis—pop, minimal, non-Western—and away from the developmental, directional language of Western classical music, might partly stem from the deeper recesses of fear and uncertainty that plague us: who might not crave a bit more stasis, when, for the most basic aspects of our world, stasis has become so fragile and threatened a commodity, while a veritable black hole of looming global change stares us in the face? Yet by that same token, one could therefore cogently argue that there never had been a time in which this wordless language of development, change, and resolution could be deemed so valuable and necessary an asset to the mind, if the intention were really to rationally confront and resolve the outsized risks we now all run.

Sachs liked to study the periodic oscillations of style, sometimes comparing them to a swinging pendulum, but other times to the more chaotic yet still periodic motions of weather, calling them “hot” and “cold” style shifts, yet with subtleties akin to cool summer spells and warm spells in winter. (A few years after he died, one of the first things the earliest researchers reconstructing past climate from ice cores discovered was that such excursions were surprisingly common and important at the time scale of climate, too, and these are now named Dansgaard-Oeschger events after those researchers.)

Aesthetic shifts don’t relate only to periodic oscillation, however, and can track events that suddenly come crashing in like an asteroid, creating cultural “punctuated equilibria”: for example, when 9/11 came crashing in, it played havoc with every aspect of life, and I suspect played a role in the shifts I am talking about, abetting the move towards those musical “languages of stasis.” Harbison mentioned the role of the press in the middle’s decline, and Howell Raines, recounting his time at the helm of the New York Times after 9/11, described in particular a sudden imposed shift at Arts & Leisure just after 9/11, which he likened to having “a new sheriff in town,” and which he said began by suddenly placing an article about a rock band on its front page. Even the language Raines uses creates a striking parallel to Naomi Klein’s notion of a “Shock Doctrine.”

That is hardly a statement of “rock versus classical,” however. I still remember giving Keith Emerson my first composition, copied in the hand of my older brother Sebastian who hadn’t yet begun composing, around the time the childhood photos accompanying this article were taken My mother being a classical composer, I rejoiced as a boy in Emerson’s virtuosic way of bridging the different musical worlds I knew, morphing Ginastera, for example, into rock, and I tried to do this kind of thing myself. Of the older composers who first expressed enthusiasm for Orchard Circle, John Corigliano just had a premiere this fall of a new piece based on bluegrass and Harbison has taught jazz at MIT. In short, I don’t think that anyone affiliated with Orchard Circle seems alienated from American popular culture.

But there’s a big difference between the inclusion of elements into a style, and the exclusion of things from it, which a sheriff or two might like to see enforced. It can be hard after a while even to notice unnamed injunctions:  how long would it have taken you to notice that there were no doubled leading tones, over centuries of musical literature and through multiple revolutions, if you hadn’t been told about this in your theory class? I’m sure I would never have noticed. So I think that some might not even have noticed the quiet, but clear and growing, exclusionary injunctions I am pointing to or that Harbison describes, filled up as they have been by the nearly infinite cornucopia of “music products” available today.

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We were forced into having Orchard Circle’s first concert on election night (it was the only date our musicians, members of the Berlin Philharmonic who are here on tour, could do it), but one friend said that, given what Orchard Circle was all about, happenstance had forced it into what was perfect for it. So the program we have put together is built around the election, and we will all watch the returns together on the DiMenna Center’s large screen and high-definition projector, with good food and drink. It should be vastly more interesting than sitting in front of a television at home and being a statistic for some network’s rating!

Of course, some have been so worried that they can’t even envision listening to music that night, and John Corigliano wrote to me recently that he might even be among those himself. But for all of us there in that hall, The Fall of the House: Waltzing through Weimar America will be our rain dance, where the musical thoughts of sixteen different American composers must combine symbiotically as one—from Harbison and Corigliano to Babbitt to Glass, ranging from works of the 1970s to premieres—coalesced (at least there in music, if not personally) into a collective prayer that we find our way back to sanity.