Child of Amerika: A Musical Manifesto

I get approached all the time by folks both young and old alike who are getting started in this crazy business. This is what I tell them.

Written By

Steve Horowitz

Steve Horowitz
Photo by Steven A Gunther

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Warning: Contains references to sex and drugs and may be harmful to those who don’t own a copy of Burnt Weeny Sandwich.

Nobody really wants to talk about the American musician. Or the real American musical experience. It is messy, ugly, discouraging, filled with wrong sounds and bad writing.

The American musician is willing to get 99 things wrong in the hopes of that pure one percent that is just so right that when everyone hears it, they figure it all started there. But we know better.

That one percent is filled with self-loathing, big mistakes, bad breaks, lousy teachers, and stupid timing. If and when that magic one percent is reached, it becomes the payoff for the other 99 percent of pure bullshit that we had to slog through.

It is all about the wasted years, all the people who don’t really care about music, all the starfuckers who love the surface but hate what it is built on.

I love the messy details, the talking, the thinking, the diving deep into something like music that is so rich, so full, and so complex that I have spent my life in it…and sometimes still feel like a pimply amateur plunking away on that first St. Moritz balsa wood electric guitar my parents got me when I was ten years old.

The American composer is willing to dive right in and get it wrong. The American composer is willing to keep making their music even when no one seems to care, when no one pays attention, even when they have to work a dumb day job just so they can keep making more music that no one seems to give a rat’s ass about.

In the final analysis, the American composer is willing to expose personal ignorance in the pursuit of pure art, pure sound, and a unique voice. Faced with so much to learn, so much to share, and so much to appreciate in the many aspects of the world we now call music, where does one begin to have the audacity to stand up and keep making great music? Where to start?

Well, maybe we should start with J. Randolph Hostetler. Randy was a close friend of mine and a wonderful musician who passed away tragically in 1996. He was, in fact, one of the most talented people I have ever known—a marvelous piano player who played in my ensemble and could shred anything you threw at him. Randy also had a deep love for the music of John Cage and enjoyed abstract performance art, a unique combination to say the least.

I recently had the pleasure of programming two of his cutting-edge video string quartets alongside my own work at REDCAT in the Disney Hall Complex in Los Angeles.

Performance of Randolph Hostetler’s Palm Quart at REDCAT
Photo by Steven A Gunther

What the heck is a video string quartet you ask? Good question. In Randy’s case, it is a piece of music where the images the musicians watch on screen creates the music you hear. The players sit with their backs to the audience and watch the screen. In both cases, Randy included a couple of pages of instructions and that’s it—that’s the score.

In the case of Floaters (for string quartet and video score of white shapes moving against a black background, 1989), each player is given a few rules, pitch and string indications, and they are represented on screen by an icon—triangle, square, circle, little Pac-Man guy (still not sure exactly what it is)—and, as the icons enter and exit and whiz all over the screen, the music is created.

In Palm Quart (for string quartet and video score of palm trees in Los Angeles, 1988), the video is made up of both still and moving images of palm trees shot all over Los Angeles. Each player is again given a string and pitch range, as well as a quadrant of the screen to “read” as the palm trees pass by. Francesca Talenti (the filmmaker) and Randy both thought that palm trees looked like musical notes, so they filmed them upside down, sideways, from cars and standing still, you name it. I guess if you are stuck bored out of your mind in a car in traffic jams long enough you can come up with anything, right?

Now, to me one of the most striking things about both of these pieces is how completely consistent and formal they sound. No matter what groups play them, in Los Angeles or New York, today or twenty years ago, they always sound the same. Seems strange and impossible at first, but I swear: If you closed your eyes and did not look at the screen, it sounds as if you are listening to a piece of Xenakis or Ligeti, something very complex and difficult to realize. However, open your eyes, and the images we see on the screen make these pieces delightful and full of fun and humor.

This is what I am talking about: Randy was a formidable American composer. These pieces scream out to us, “Hey! I don’t have time to spend a month laboriously notating some torturous piece of musical calisthenics for a player to learn. In fact, there is no need. I can make the same stuff much easier. In fact, I can make it with anything. I love this sound, and I can make it with dots on a screen, palm trees, whatever I choose. Heck, I can make gasoline out of donuts if I want. Nothing is impossible.” Now that is a heavy chop, complete with a huge dose of American ingenuity and know-how. Let’s make it better (well, maybe “different” is a better word than “better” in this case) and in half the time. Oh, and while we’re at it, let’s also make it fun to watch and listen to.

Randy is also a typical American composer in that most folks know nothing of his music. They are just beginning to find out now, many years after his death. We often don’t hear the music of our greatest geniuses until long after they are gone. Curators are afraid to take a chance on challenging new stuff, budgets are tight, and audiences dwindling. We all know that no one spends a lot of time with cool abstract new music on TV. Too bad. Randy (and many others I know) have proven over and over again that they should.

Please keep in mind that I am speaking regardless of style. American music is made up of all sorts sounds—from jazz to classical, rock to polka, and back again. But one thing all these musicians have in common is that they must work within a system that is in many ways broken. Sure, it is a best of times and worst of times scenario: It has never been easier to get your music out to the public, but it has never been harder to make a living at it.

So what is a poor American musician to do?

Behold, The Grand Concept of Adaptation, my custom six-step program (who needs twelve?). I call it “perseverance squared.” You must have a goal in mind, but also keep an open mind to the twists and changes in the road. View your art and the business of it in a broad scope.

I get approached all the time by folks both young and old alike who are getting started in this crazy business. This is what I tell them…

Your shit must be good. What do I mean by this? I am not really sure. After all, what is good music? Nobody knows. I guess what I am trying to say is, make your music (whatever that is) as good as it can be. I studied composition with Stephen “Lucky” Mosko, and he always talked about the morality of a piece of music. Remember, music is a living thing and your music wants something from you. Don’t be afraid to give it.

Don’t be turned. Keep plugging away and doors will open. Follow your muse. Go ahead and quit your day job or, even better, don’t get one in the first place if possible, or at least go part time. Do the work and expose yourself to a wide range of experiences. If it is better somewhere else in the world, go there—you just might dig it. I lived and worked in Holland for four years, and man that was nice. I miss it all the time.

Parallel Movement
Things don’t just go up and down, they often go side to side. To get out of a windy harbor a ship has to tack. Back and forth, side to side, seems like you are going nowhere and it might make you seasick, but you get out sooner or later. Sometimes, time spent developing some other facets of your musical personality will lead you to places you never knew about. Being well-rounded is not a bad thing.

Conceptual Continuity
Listen to the muse. Stay on your path by having moral and musical conviction. Keep your compass by doing what is right for your heart and soul and others around you. Enlightened self-interest is OK, just give back to the community while helping yourself. This is a very American thing to do, really. There are a ton of organizations you can join and volunteer your time to in the name of doing good works, giving back, and building your networks. Enlightened self-interest for the right reasons is cool!

Tell the World
You must find a way to let folks know what you are up to. In this overcrowded day and age, press and publicity are a must.

Critical Mass
You do the same thing long enough, keep making stuff, and sooner or later you will reach a tipping point. There are so many examples of this in American music. There are also a lot of examples of geniuses that died poor and lonely. Oops. Ah well, you choose a career in the arts, and risk is part of the game.

Steve Horowitz is a creator of odd but highly accessible sounds. A Grammy and Webby winner, he is perhaps best known for his scoring of the soundtrack to Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me. He and his band the Code Ensemble just finished up a ten-day residency at Cal Arts where they made a lot of cool new friends and capped it all off with a two night run at REDCAT in the Disney Hall Complex in Los Angeles. Steve also just released a new recording of contemporary music powered by the Yamaha Disklavier, which NPR and other fine folks really like. Check out Steve and his other doings at The Code International.