Eight Waves a Composer Will Ride in This Century

Eight Waves a Composer Will Ride in This Century

I am strangely optimistic right now, at least for art, despite the enormous challenges we face as a species. Part of the reason is that I feel the forces that I’ll enumerate are in fact moving us towards a sort of new “common practice,” one that is far more diverse and comprehensive.

Written By

Robert Carl

A keynote address delivered by Robert Carl at the third annual Westfield Festival of New Music, presented by the Westfield State University Department of Music on March 3, 2013.

Robert Carl

Robert Carl

I’ve taken a cue from the great Italian writer Italo Calvino, whose Norton Lectures at Harvard (incomplete due to his untimely death) are called Six Memos For the Next Millennium. (It’s a great little book, which although oriented towards literature, will give insight to an artist in any discipline. His essay on “Lightness” is an antidote to all the critical theory—of every stripe—you’ve ever read.) I am strangely optimistic right now, at least for art, despite the enormous challenges we face as a species. Part of the reason is that I feel the forces that I’ll enumerate are in fact moving us towards a sort of new “common practice,” one that is far more diverse and comprehensive than what we call 18th-century Classicism, to be sure, but which is real and perceptible nonetheless. These trends, which I’ll call waves, come partly out of music and art, but they are derived at least as much from the tidal forces that are reshaping human culture worldwide. And I think it’s our responsibility as composers, or let’s go one step further, as creative musicians, to acknowledge them and respond.

Incidentally, before I go further, I think I should say why I think I have any right to make such grand pronouncements. Part of it is just that I’ve been asked to do so—many thanks! Certainly anyone has the right to speak out, and I hope a chorus of voices will emerge addressing these issues. If anything privileges me to speak out, I’d say it comes from the following: my intensive, insatiable listening and study of other people’s music over a few decades now; my initial training as a historian (not of music, by the way), which gave me both the tools and a taste for seeing large-scale cultural forces at work over similarly large time-spans; and my own work as a critic and writer on new music. But most of all, it comes from my teaching. My students have been my best teachers for many years now. They are the window into the future, and their courage and idealism make me want to try to help in some small way to identify the challenges they will be—in fact already are—dealing with. And all the time they are showing me what the issues are, they are helping me to understand.

So my time is short, let’s begin. The first wave driving us is perhaps the most obvious—Technology. My old friend Kyle Gann once made a brilliant observation, that we may not have a common language anymore, but we do have common software. Ever notice how now everyone you see (especially on a college campus) is tied to a device and bent towards it in an attitude to submissive prayer? I’m joking a little, but not much. In every aspect of our daily lives, the predictions of the digerati have come true. We have routine visual conversations across continents via Skype. We can ascertain the answer to almost any question that pops in our head with a quick “wikigoogle.” We composers make our scores on laptops, and listen to mockups of pieces long before they ever emerge from acoustic instruments. (I will say that one of my most notable experiences of change in teaching is the format of the private lesson. For decades a student brought in music on paper, and then we flailed through it at the piano. Now they plug into a little sound system in the office and let it rip. My job has become much more like that of a critic as a result—good for me, since I’m a lousy pianist but a good critic!). The whole act of performance has been enlarged exponentially by the emergence of synthesizers, processors, and now into entirely software-based systems that incorporate all previous advances. And even beyond that, technology is becoming a partner with us, with programs that allow for the computer to contribute material in response to our input, both in terms of compositional structures and real-time, interactive signal processing. In short, technology is becoming the fundamental tool by which we will be able to respond to the other forces I’ll present below.

The second wave is Globalism. We see it in the way we travel now. We hop on jets on the shortest notice, we travel to remote places that even our parents (or maybe your grandparents!) would have considered unbelievably exotic. What once was the province of the titled and moneyed is now much more in reach of the average professional woman or man. We similarly communicate with one another across cultures. As just one example, since it’s admissions season at Hartt, I have been interviewing some international students by Skype. I had a charming conversation with a young woman in Beijing, where we had to sometimes shout due to the barrage of firecrackers outside on Chinese New Year! I am truly touched by my foreign students, who have mastered English as the new Latin, and do not in any way see it as a sign of bowing to linguistic imperialism. It’s just the most practical way by which they can move through the whole world and interact with their peers, no matter what their origins. I find it a very beautiful, unselfconscious manifestation of a new global youth culture, something dreamed of in the ‘60s, but now far more realistic and less posturingly revolutionary.

In musical terms, it seems that we are becoming increasingly familiar with and unintimidated by different musical styles and traditions. Within our very American context, this has meant for a long time the willingness to mix “vernacular” and “learned” forms, not just in the postmodern sense, but in such flowerings as the Great American Songbook of the years up to World War II, a burst of art song that rivals that of any Western culture. In this sense, American culture I think has been in the vanguard and points a way for the world at large. This very attitude of cultural openness and omnivorousness has moved onto a new scale. As a personal example, I was just in Kansas City last weekend for the premiere of the first piece I’ve written for zheng, the Chinese zither. And even more striking was the fact that one of the composers with whom I shared the program was a young African-American man, who said that his piece (a quite sensitively written work that was closer to traditional Chinese practice than any of the rest of our pieces) was inspired by the sayings of the late comedian Bernie Mack. And all this seemed in no way unusual or surprising to him. It’s a new world, I promise you.

I’ve spoken about the cross-cultural, which leads to the next wave, which is Cross-Disciplinary Creativity. By this I mean the willingness of artists to enter into fields of activity previously considered outside of their expertise. Exposure to more and more of the world fosters this, and technology helps to make connections that earlier were impossible. In the visual arts, it’s unlikely now to find a young artist who doesn’t engage with a host of different creative media—painters make videos, installations, and do performance art. Sculptors make sound art. Conceptual artists do all of the above. And increasingly composers are following suit. To take an example I know well, the program Max/MSP now includes a suite of objects under the name Jitter that makes it possible to apply compositional thinking to visual elements in real time. (It’s no wonder this program, while originally designed for MIDI music composition, has become enormously popular and influential with installation artists and people working in performing arts other than music). And then of course, there’s the incredible impact of media composition—film, video, and, most cutting-edge, gaming. These suggest a dimension of composing where accommodation with the demands of different media will reshape our very thinking about compositional process and product.

I made a passing reference above to sound art. And this leads to our fourth wave, Sonic Essentialism. John Cage predicted back in the 1930s that music would eventually be conceived as “organized sound,” and this makes him the fountainhead of this art form. We now have both visual artists and musicians who make sound art. The flavors they coax from the field are different, but the product from each is similar enough that it feels increasingly like a new and different animal than either music or the fine arts. One of the finest examples of this, I think, is the collaboration of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, who at their best pool their resources as artist and composer to make a compelling hybrid.

And even within “pure music” itself, we are seeing the very idea of sound drifting from a divide between pitch and noise, towards a fluid continuum. In European classical practice, we have spectralism from France (represented by composers such as Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail), which sees the timbral microstructure of sounds as the basis for the macrostructure of pieces. And from Germany we have a practice represented by Helmut Lachenmann, which sees all possible sounds from instruments, beyond pitch, as material for rigorously structured composition. This is music as sound art. In all cases we go back to sound itself, whether from nature, from culture at large, or from musical sources, and look at it from a fresh perspective. (And, by the way, in composers such as Cowell, Ives, and Cage, we have had a very American precedent of the same thing which happened much earlier.)

We’ve been speaking about crossing boundaries here, between disciplines, cultures, styles, and concepts of music itself. But of course one of the greatest boundaries of all is from one human to another. And this leads naturally to our fifth wave, Collaboration. I see with increasing frequency composers taking collective action. It may mean creating cooperative music ensembles, pooling the resources of composers and performers. It may mean creating group pieces—I see more and more one-hour works, each made of sixty one-minute pieces by sixty different composers. It can mean moving a step further to work on a regular basis with other artists in other disciplines, to create consistent cross-platform work from multimedia collectives.
And of course, it can mean improvisation. We Americans have led the world in this, in particular with the impact of jazz as our great gift to global culture. But the world is rapidly catching up, and we in turn are becoming aware of other great improvisatory traditions that are returning here to fertilize our soil. It used to be that classical composers were scared of improvisation (even though we always read of Mozart and Beethoven dazzling audiences with their off-the-cuff cadenzas). It somehow was “cheating,” abdicating our responsibility for determining every aspect of a work. This was partly a byproduct of the mid-20th-century specialization that had ever-fewer composers as competent performers. As we’ve returned to our performative roots (just as visual artists have learned to draw again after a generation of discouragement from teachers and critics), it’s become natural to bring choice and spontaneity back into the process. Of course, Cage and his school never lost this insight, and it’s one reason he remains so influential. Now any composer should be open to asking her/his performers—in clear and imaginative ways—to create material on the spot. The composer here remains a leader, but the first among equals, rather than a despot.

In a sense this isn’t just improvisation anymore. I think perhaps the more comprehensive term is Openness. This applies to the moment-to-moment materials of music, but also to form, flow, and the very character of pieces. And thus this is yet another wave that emerges from the undertow of every trend we’ve discussed so far. Openness refuses to accept a single version of anything, it stays alert and alive to the continual effect of change. It includes the aleatory, indeterminate, and improvisatory. It allows routes that are both linear and non-linear. And, as we will now see, it provides the basis for our major remaining insights.
We’re almost done, and as we move to the final big picture, I’d like to integrate these elements I’ve discussed so far into two final trends that apply most comprehensively to our 21st-century mandate as composers. As you may have noticed, all these trends I’ve been enumerating blend and blur into one another. They’re points on a spectrum of influence rather than separate entities. The taxonomy is useful, but it’s ultimately illusory. Now these final thoughts show how they are coming together.

The seventh wave is Multiplicity. If you think about it, every element I’ve presented so far is full of multiplicity. Technology is expanding and diversifying every nanosecond. Globalism means that we discover new cultures and art forms each time we surf the web. Cross-disciplinarianism, of course, is a recombinant thing, almost infinite in its permutations. Sonic essentialism, while it seems to plumb into the micro-structures of sound, in fact opens up infinite possibilities too, rather like the exponential options that come from genetic sequencing. And then collaboration is as diverse as the number of humans on the planet who choose to work with one another.

So everything now is multiple. And yet, at the outset I made a reference to an emerging “common practice.” It seems like I cut the legs off my own argument with what I’ve just presented. How can a belief in commonality still stand in the face of multiplicity?
I think the answer lies in the very multiplicity of Multiplicity itself. Our choices have become vast, but our awareness, thanks to information technology, has done a remarkable job of keeping up. We just know more music than any generation in human history. We know music of other cultures, other traditions/styles, other epochs. Who would have thought even thirty years ago that we would now recognize the first great Western composer as Hildegard von Bingen? And in order to make anything, we will have to synthesize. Earlier choices were largely binary (jazz or classical? Pop or concert music? Roots or contemporary? Minimalist or modernist?) But now it takes an enormous effort just to shield ourselves from so much out there, so great an effort that I think it’s better instead just to let it wash over us and see what sticks. We still have to pick and choose, but I believe the eclecticism of such choosing that’s forced on every artist will in turn lead to more and more overlap. This won’t be a “common practice,” but it will be more “commonality of practice.” There are so many different practices that it’s harder for any one to rule out others. This fragmentation makes it easier for different things to recombine and blend, so we maybe should call this “granular multiplicity.” And I see young musicians everywhere, of varying backgrounds and interests, increasingly at ease with one another, trying out each other’s techniques, languages, and premises. They just don’t see the same divides that their elders did, just as they seem happily unfazed by differences of race, ethnicity, and sexuality.

The final wave is one I can’t sum up yet in a single word. (If you can think of one, please let me know.) It’s the Tension between the Individual and the Collective. I know this sounds like we’re back to the Cold War, but not quite. In the 20th century, we did have a great battle between those who wanted to protect the rights of the individual and those who wanted to advance the greater wellbeing of the whole. That was a binary choice then. And the collectivist dream was hijacked and betrayed by many kinds of totalitarianism. But now we can look upon Marx, just as we look at Freud, as a historical philosopher and not a political devil. We shouldn’t pillory either of them just because of the company their legacies kept, as each had no say in the association! I think that the utopian ideal that Marx presented of the withering away of work and the pooling of resources is still a dream worth dreaming, especially for artists, because for them work really never ends because it’s play. (I like Cage’s formulation here the best, when he said—I paraphrase—“I have heard politicians talk about the goal of full employment. I for one am looking forward to the achievement of full unemployment.”) The truth is, the increasing complexity of all life structures and activities means that it’s very hard for anyone to “go it alone.” One colleague, the composer/shakuhachi player Kojiro Umezaki, told me recently he felt that as a teacher he had to take the attitude of a “curator of knowledge,” knowing when to call in varied expertise at the right moment from the correct sources. And a very bright student of mine, Brian Cook, recently wrote in an artist statement, “in a world where everything is connected, everyone is looking for some sort of deeper meaning, and interactiveness is of growing importance. I aim to create sound, and invite others to create sound, in an attempt to connect humans with one another, and create deeper connections with the natural world, despite the stigma that technology often does just the opposite.” On a world scale, such collaborations will go global: We are going to be faced with an unprecedented challenge of climate change; it is a challenge that will force changes in society and behavior as well as solutions based on collective action—on a level which has probably never happened before in human history.

There’s no doubt that this need to collaborate in increasingly fundamental ways runs counter to the myth of the heroic artist-individual, the romantic ideal we’ve grown up with as composers. I admit it scares me some, for I love the idea and the reality of the single visionary artwork. But neither do I for a moment discount the capacity of individual genius still to assert itself. I think it will have to emerge in new contexts we really haven’t even imagined yet. The internet is a potential model here, but even it is still in its infancy, despite its intimidating sophistication. Upcoming generations will have to meet the challenge of creating excellent, beautiful, exciting new things, but they’ll have to do it by balancing increasing group-consciousness with the special, quirky character that can only come from individual humans. And all this will have to come from the ground up, it can’t be mandated by some sort of aesthetic fiat from on high. I want to remind everyone that my title spoke of waves we all must ride. That doesn’t mean we need to always submit to every trend, and certainly not in every piece! But I do think we need to stay acutely aware of these waves and to deal with them seriously if we are to engage in a meaningful, productive dialogue with our culture and if we want to actually contribute something to it.

And so to those who follow me, having laid out the challenge as I see it, I can only wish a fervent, genuine, and heartfelt—as John Cage said to me the only time I met him—good luck!