Tag: atonality

George Tsontakis: Getting Out of My Introvertism

Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

Since the early 1990s, George Tsontakis has had a career path that most American composers would envy. By then, he had already been signed by a major publisher and his music was not only being performed by soloists, ensembles, and orchestras all over country, most of it was also recorded. Then he received a significant music award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1995 and a Guggenheim Fellowship the following year. The following decade, he was awarded the Charles Ives Living and the Grawemeyer Award in Music Composition, which are among the two largest cash prizes available to composers.

And yet throughout the time he received those accolades and to this day, rather calling tons of attention to himself or striving for more honors (e.g. he refuses to allow his music to be submitted for the Pulitzer Prize), Tsontakis aspires to a hermetic existence in the middle of the woods and composes something only when someone commissions it and nothing at all if no one does. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s a strategy that has served him well. Since the mid-1980s, there hasn’t been a time when he hasn’t been juggling multiple requests from people to write music for them.

“If nobody asked me to write a piece, I wouldn’t compose,” he admitted when we sat with him on his back porch as hummingbirds and bees flittered around and chipmunks scurried by. “I’d be doing other things. I’m very happy to not compose. … One of the secrets to [my] life is that I only write what people ask for. … Multiple performances, you get that through websites or whatever. I don’t care. I’m not a promoter. I’m not even a person that wants pieces to be played all the time.”

Despite this reticence, he remains in demand and continues to compose vital works. A 2017 Naxos American Classics recording collecting three recent concertos by Tsontakis—the klezmer-tinged Asana for clarinetist David Krakauer, the jazz-inflected True Colors for trumpeter Eric Berlin, and the Soros Foundation commissioned double violin concerto Unforgettable—is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s currently a third violin concerto in the works as well as a Requiem in honor of his mother who passed away in January.

And as for Tsontakis being a serene, quiet person, he seems anything but! During the afternoon we spent with him he regaled us with endless anecdotes about his early years—acting in musical theater and almost being chosen for the original cast of Jesus Christ Superstar, arguing with Stockhausen during a seminar in Italy, fending off becoming a furrier by telling his Greek father than he was a vegetarian, and then his father being proud of an early piece of his that Vincent Persichetti hated. Along the way, he also told tons of jokes and did impersonations of various musical luminaries—including his one-time teacher Roger Sessions. Often, it was difficult to get a word in edgewise!

So much so, in fact, that it was somewhat hard to swallow that Tsontakis considers himself an introvert and that being socially active was an acquired skill.

“I get in these moods where I don’t talk,” he explained. “I’m basically an extrovert when I’m with people, but when they leave I become completely introverted. It’s an interesting balance. I’m either a closet introvert or a closet extrovert. I don’t know!”

A conversation with Frank J. Oteri outside Tsontakis’s home in Shokan, New York
September 12, 2018—12:30 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

Frank J. Oteri: We’ve only just started rolling the camera, but we’ve been having a great conversation since you picked us up in Kingston, New York, over an hour ago. It’s hard to believe it’s taken so long for us to finally record a substantive discussion with you.

“Every composer and every performer should have to act.”

George Tsontakis: Well, you did ask me one time, but I don’t do many things like this.  I’m very insular.  I think it was after the Grawemeyer [Award] or the Ives [Living], but I wasn’t talking to anybody.  I was composing. I get in these moods where I don’t talk.  I’m basically an extrovert when I’m with people, but when they leave I become completely introverted.  It’s an interesting balance.  I’m either a closet introvert or a closet extrovert.  I don’t know.  You’ve got to come out when you do teaching. And I’m an actor; I act in plays. When you’re doing a play, you have to close yourself up.  Acting really helped me to get out of my introvertism and at least pretend to enjoy people being here. Every composer and every performer should have to act. All these violinists are so serious.

FJO: You already sort of half answered the question with which I wanted to begin our conversation. Before I ever visited Vienna, which was only five years ago, people would always be shocked that I hadn’t traveled there since it’s such an important center of musical activity, to which I’d invariably respond, so are Harare, Zimbabwe; Lima, Peru; Seoul, South Korea—which are all places I had been. As a composer in this country, you’ve attained an enviable degree of prominence—you’ve won several major awards, a large amount of your music continues to be performed and has been recorded. And yet, you’ve chosen not to live in any of the major urban musical capitals.  I can see why.  It’s idyllic, despite being off the beaten path.  Still, it’s kind of a weird place to be doing what you do.  Or so it seems to me.  Maybe it’s not.

GT: Well, it depends.  I mean, if I lived in an urban area, it wouldn’t be Vienna.  That’s a museum, as most of classical music is these days.  If it’s not a contemporary music festival or concert, it’s museum stuff.  This is the perfect place to be.  Everybody else is in the wrong place as far as I’m concerned.  But it depends on what your philosophy is.  I’ve had 21-year-old students at Bard who have bigger Wikipedia pages than I do, because they’re reaching out and they’re trying to be in another place all the time.  The urban area is now wireless, so you can be in the country and still be reaching out instead of looking in.  But Bach hardly ever left Leipzig and he did pretty well.  Either you depend on promoting yourself or you depend on your product to be the promotion of what you do.  Of course, it helped that I had started off in a place like Juilliard. Having met people at Juilliard was a great thing.  It helped for about ten years. You’ve got to get off the ground, and maybe you do have to have a connection with some populated area, where there are musicians.  There’s nothing wrong with being with musicians.  Even at Bard, where it’s a tiny microcosmos of an urban community, there are fantastic musicians.  So I tell the composers, especially if they’re anti-social, you have to meet these performers, because these performers might be the ones that are going to do your works and request your works in the future.

When I was in New York City, I’d be walking down Broadway, and it led to a commission.  Somebody would say, “Hey George, you know, we’re thinking about you.  Thinking about doing something.”  The fact that we were in front of Zabars kicked it over to, “Yeah, let’s talk.”  That was a big difference.  So there are advantages.  But as far as creative energy goes, “New York, New York” and the other urban areas have a lot of static electricity.  You’re there walking around and you feel energy.  But is it your energy?  That’s the question.  By retreating to this quiet place, I know where my energy ends and the other energies begin, or vice versa.  So I don’t adopt any energies of the urban areas.  You have to make all your energy here.  It’s a more subtle energy, but it’s a dependable energy.  And I love nature, too.  You hear all these creatures? I feed birds. They inspire me as well. I have that in common with Messiaen. I love the birds, but I don’t know who they are.

A view of the Hudson River from George Tsontakis's home

FJO: But you actually grew up in New York City. You were born in Astoria.

GT: That’s another thing. I don’t need it because I’ve been there. I’ve done the urban area. Back to my advice to young composers: “I finished undergrad, where do I go to grad school?” I’ll say, “Where did you go to undergrad?” “Well, I went to New York, Manhattan School of Music.”  I say, “Well then, find a country place to go to for your master’s and doctorate maybe.” If they say, “I went to some country school in the middle of nowhere,” I’d say, “Find an urban school to go to because you need both to a degree.”  It’s the diversity of learning about these different poles.  There are some composers who will never leave the city.  That’s you, Frank!  Definitely, I can tell that already.  In one hour, you’ve demonstrated all the urban tendencies.  I think New York is one of the most provincial places I’ve ever seen.  A friend who lives in Woodstock read a chapter at the Woodstock Library about those New Yorkers who only read three publications.  And each one has New York in the title.

FJO: I don’t do that.

GT: No, I know. But he said, “Thank God for those people. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have anybody buying tickets!” New York is provincial that way. If a restaurant is not in The New York Times, you don’t go.  But out here, you have to fend for yourself. I also want to mention that there’s a lot of stuff going on here.  We’re only an hour and forty-five minutes from the George Washington Bridge. So, like the pollen, these New Yorkers come up here. They get off the Amtrak and we know what they’re doing, and they know what we’re doing.

A cottage which was George Tsontakis's first residence in Shokan and is now a cottage for guests.

FJO: [laughs] Okay, but I’m going to take you back to New York when you were growing up in the very tightly knit Greek community. I know that you had multiple interests, not just music; you were very deeply engrossed in theater. But how did you get exposed to all this stuff and when did things start to resonate with you?

GT: I can tell you the day I became a composer. I didn’t spend that much time in Astoria.  We moved to Long Island, to a school district that had good music. But my grandparents and I spent a lot of time in Astoria when I went to Queens College.  So that was important. I had a dual cultural life. You know, Astoria is really Greece in a way, although I was just in Greece in April and May and when I speak Greek, they say, “George, you speak Greek, but it’s Astoria Greek.”  Astoria’s a suburb of Greece.  And those roots are very important for what I do.

But I went to a good school on Long Island, and they handed me a violin when I was seven years old.  So I studied violin and I knew a little about classical music. But when I was around 15 or 16, I got this new pair of headphones (they didn’t have good headphones until the ‘60s) and I listened to a Deutsche Grammophon recording of Stravinsky’s Firebird.  It blew me away, because I hadn’t heard something like that live.  Now, if you had told me that Igor Stravinsky was a Polish jazz composer, I would say cool man. I like his music. I didn’t know enough about music to know who Stravinsky was. Someone recommended a recording. I also heard in the same week Beethoven’s Opus 135. Blew me away, too. I listened to the Fine Arts Quartet. That week I decided to be a composer.

I just said, “Between Beethoven and Stravinsky, I want to do that. Whatever that is.”  It’s like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, the chocolate and the peanut butter. You put it together; I want to do that.  And I have been trying to do that. I added Debussy and Messiaen to the mix, but basically I wanted to do that.

“Try to remember when you decided to be a composer and why.”

I argue this point with many composers, especially in Europe, who have had pressure put on them to be more progressive, more avant-garde, whatever it is, less tonal, whatever you call that.  I say, “Try to remember when you decided to be a composer and why.”  I decided to be a composer because of what I heard.  I didn’t become a composer because of my compatriot Xenakis or Boulez or Karlheinz Stockhausen.  I became a composer to emulate the music that I wanted to do.  And I will take that music, and I’ll bring it forward in my own manner.  I’ll decide on the colors. I call tonalities—dissonance or not dissonance—colors.

FJO: It’s funny you say that because every composer has a different story about what triggered the desire to be a composer. I confess, although I had already been writing music, a really formative influence on me when I was in high school was actually discovering who Stockhausen was—his whole persona, as well as his music and all his crazy pronouncements. It really impressed me, and I wanted to figure out what he was doing.

GT: Aha. I studied with him in Rome in an eighty-hour seminar over two months as I was studying with Donatoni. In Europe, you’d have these spontaneous things.  I read in the paper: Stockhausen seminar. He had just finished Donnerstag aus Licht at La Scala. So there were about ten of us who were students in Stockhausen’s class. Paul Sperry, who I knew, was there. Stockhausen did this thing with these big rolls of paper.  It was four feet and you unrolled it. He did all the staves in different colors.  It was a typical Stockhausen happening. I was the skeptical American.  I have cassette tapes of us arguing in English while the Italians are listening. But Donatoni and Stockhausen made me realize what I could do if I wanted to.  So I didn’t make a choice out of ignorance.  You wanted to learn what Stockhausen was doing.  Well, I found out and I still didn’t want to do it.  So I tell composers in Europe, or wherever they think we’re not modern enough, “Look, we can turn around tomorrow and do what you’re doing, and you could do what we’re doing.  We made a choice.”

That’s because we find, like my old friend George Rochberg did, the materials that you best communicate with, and that’s it.  You know, you don’t become affected because of someone telling you that your materials aren’t modern enough.  I give them the example that if in 1450 sackbuts and crumhorns started to play Lachenmann and then in 2018, two cats came along from Italy, Gabrieli and Monteverdi, and started doing their music, somebody would go,  “Holy cow, I just heard the most modern music I ever heard. These guys are flipped out, man.”  There’s no forwards and backwards in music.  I’m so happy that, these days, young composers don’t seem to care.

FJO: We’re now in an era where anything is possible.  But it’s interesting to hear you say all this because there’s a piece of yours I’ve read about in a New York Times review by Tim Page. I’ve never heard it and wish I could. It’s a very early string quartet that is probably either number one or number two.

GT: The Emerson one?

FJO: Yes.

GT: It’s very much like [Wolfgang] Rihm.  It’s not 12-tone, but at least it has 12 tones.  It still resonates for me.  I know you know [the recording of] the third and fourth quartets on New World.  The American [String Quartet] had a choice, to pair the fourth that I wrote for them with either my second or third quartet.  The third is very tonal.  And the second is completely out there—dissonant and dissonant—but there are some lyrical aspects, too.  They voted.  Two of them wanted to do number two and two of them wanted to do number three.  And I would still love it, if the Emerson is listening out there, my buddies—would you want to bring back number two?  I’d love to hear it.  I’d love for someone to do that really well.  You mentioned Tim Page?

FJO: Yeah, I’ll read you the quote that got me: “This piece, which was commissioned by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, under whose auspices Sunday’s concert was presented, proved a somber, knotty work in four movements, rather in the manner of Alban Berg. The composer writes that he attempted a ‘clear reaction to our times,’ and speaks of fears and frustrations. To this taste, Mr. Tsontakis lays on the angst a little thick.”

GT: Very good telling.  Tim’s a great guy, too.  I remember “lays on the angst too thick.”  Now I don’t have to lay it on at all, because I did it then.  I remember Andrew Porter in The New Yorker wrote something similar. I don’t remember the quote, but something like: “It wasn’t to my taste.” or “It was a little bit over the top.”

FJO: When I read negative reviews like this, it doesn’t turn me off the piece; often it makes me want to listen even more! But what stuck with me in that Tim Page review was his reference to your comment about the piece being “a clear reaction to our times.”  You talked about Europeans thinking that their music is progressive and ours is not. I don’t think it can be reduced to binaries. But one of the things that I find so exciting about your music, and why I wanted to talk to you—particularly now, in this current zeitgeist—is that although I don’t think your music sounds anachronistic, I also don’t think it sounds like it’s of the present time.  You seem completely oblivious to what is going on now, and it’s nice to be able to kind of get away from what’s going on, especially right now, through this music.

“Any music that is specifically yours has a character that can’t be duplicated.”

GT: Well yeah, I mean, that’s the whole point. Any music that is specifically yours has a character that can’t be duplicated. It’s like a fingerprint or DNA. I learn a lot by teaching, and I’ve always said to my students, “Don’t try to be original.” Only two composers every century are original, and they’re usually French—Messiaen and Varèse or Berlioz and Debussy, the big revolutionaries. The rest of us kind of do mop up, we do what the others do.  So I say, “Don’t try to be original, be specific. Be as specific as you can. Mold your music in your own specific way to your DNA, even if you start with C-major.”

It doesn’t matter what you do. There’s been proof of that.  Look at a composer like Arvo Pärt or Gorecki or Valentin Silvestrov. They have nuanced their music in a way that nobody can duplicate.  Benjamin Britten’s a great example, too.  One of our problems is that we think of chronology—1800, 1900, 2000—and music progressing, whereas I think of it as different things going up. [gestures hands] Here’s Bach. Here’s Beethoven. Here’s Haydn over there.  Here’s Messiaen. The higher you go with the lives of these composers, the more modern music is. It’s more modern because you can’t get there from going this way. So the late Beethoven quartets, those are all eternally modern. Or Gabrieli and Monteverdi—you can’t get there by imitating them. Chronology is not adding more and more dissonance, and being more and more abstract, scratching the instrument instead of sul ponticello. Eventually the violin is going to break in half from somebody trying affectations of texture! So be the life of a composer going up.  You make your own pedestal.  That’s why I can use whatever elements and it’s a personal dialogue in my language that I picked somewhere between Opus 135 and Stravinsky’s FirebirdRite of Spring was on the flip side [of that LP], but I went for the Firebird even though kids viscerally like Rite of Spring. I think that’s how I discovered Debussy, because Firebird is Debussy and Rimsky-Korsakov.  Again, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Take Russian tunes instead of French tunes, and you use Debussy’s techniques that Stravinsky obviously did in Firebird, and you have a new music. So if I pick that up, and Beethoven’s late quartets, and I blend those in my mind, my concoction is what you’re talking about that you can’t understand where it comes from.

FJO: So this is you as a teenager in the ‘60s. You were a weird kid.

GT: We were all weird. We had a group of weird kids in our high school. We were listening to Bartók and other stuff. That’s the way we rebelled, by listening to contemporary music.

FJO: Instead of listening to The Rolling Stones?

GT: Well, I played in rock bands. I played keyboard and electric violin.  We did stuff by Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears with Al Kooper. Those were the days, you know. And we did some Stones. I think that was really healthy to do.  But don’t look for fame in the business we are in.  It’s a very small, rarified world.

A tower that was added to George Tsontakis's house.

I don’t worry about anything. One of the reasons I can live where I do, and be disassociated to a degree with what else happens is because I’ve gotten myself down to a science in what I want to do.  I’ve realized that the only time I have to compose is when I’m composing.  I don’t have to have anything to do with music otherwise.  I have enough listening experience, unless I want to keep up with the latest stuff.  But all I have to do is sit and compose.  If I sit and compose for two hours that day, I don’t have to talk about music for the rest of my time.  I don’t have to live music.  I don’t have to go to concerts.  I don’t have to do anything.  I think it would be wonderful if somebody did, but I don’t need that.  So I can do that anywhere.  I pack my bag, and I’ll go in the woods.  It doesn’t matter where I do it because I don’t have to listen to it.  I love Beethoven and I love listening to Debussy, but I don’t have to in order to compose.

FJO: There are certain tools that you do need, though.  Yes?

“Nobody wants to just listen to the music of a composer who does nothing but be a composer.”

GT: You definitely need tools, but you develop your own.  All we have to do is compose when we want to compose.  Being involved in music otherwise is an elective.  I don’t need that elective.  I’d rather be involved with other things in my life and do other things.  And I think the broader the package that we make of ourselves, the more we will communicate—because nobody wants to just listen to the music of a composer who does nothing but be a composer.  So I tell my students that.  Enrich yourself.  Do other things because you’ll never write a piece that’s larger than what you’ve created as a person.  Where does the material come from?  How do you write a piece that’s beyond you living in a box, or in NewMusicBox?

FJO: Well, that’s where I live most of the time. But in terms of boxes, I know that you also build things.

GT: I do carpentry.  I love it. You have hobbies. Cage was a mushroom expert.  What is that called?

FJO: A mycologist.

GT: A mycologist. Messiaen was an ornithologist, and others do things that are completely different than music. I like acting and woodworking.

George Tsontakis staining wood on a futon.

FJO: I want to talk to you a bit more about acting because I know that when you were younger, you were being pulled in two different directions—acting vs. music. I’m curious about how your parents responded to all of this. Were they supportive?

GT: They were very supportive.  You know, they were Greek. My father was a furrier and my mom was a stay-at-home mom. I think I was persuasive because my energy just convinced them that I’m not going to be a furrier. Plus, I was a vegetarian.  My father said, “You want to be in the fur business?” And I’d say, “Hey, I’m a vegetarian.  You think I’m going to be cutting up 40 minks to make a coat?  No way.”  They respected it, because even young people make their pitch.  They persuade, the way a composer persuades you through music.  Of course, if you have stubborn parents, that’s harder to do.  But I think my parents recognized that whatever I did, I could be good at it.

I remember my father coming to my first Juilliard concert.  “I’m going to Juilliard to hear my son’s piece.”  It was a string quartet, number zero, and it was like Webern [sings].  He only listened to Greek music and American pop music, and yet he was so proud that people stood and clapped.  Well, they didn’t stand, but they stood to leave after the concert.  By the way, that’s the piece where Persichetti came up to me and said, “I liked your piece; I like the way it ended.”  I knew he meant the fact that it ended. He was a wonderful man.  I loved his sense of humor.  Andrea Olmstead just came out with a book about Persichetti.

FJO:  I have to get that.  Anyway, you said your father came to hear this Webernian thing you wrote and he was proud of you, even though he only listened to pop music and Greek music.  Did he listen to Greek classical music—composers like Kalomiris, Riadis, or Skalkottas?

GT: No, they knew no classical. Skalkottas? He didn’t know Beethoven.  But my parents sang Greek songs.  Or they’d sing “You Are My Sunshine” and harmonize in the car.  They had good voices and they had a great musical sense.  But you know, he just was not educated in those things.  He went right from high school to World War II.  He fought in Italy and got shot up.  There was no time for classical.  But they had an appreciation.  They’d play Mantovani classics, you know.

FJO: Now in terms of having an acting career, you almost got cast in the original Jesus Christ Superstar.

GT: I don’t know how you found that out! I had generous hair. And a beard. I looked like Jesus. I was 20, I think, and the guys I was playing keyboards and violin with in a flaky summer gig rock band called The Mann Act got hired for the road tour of Jesus Christ Superstar so no more band. I asked the clarinetist Dave Hopkins, “So what am I gonna do?” He said, “Why don’t you try out for the open call for actors?” They were trying to cast it like Pasolini, who used people from the street in his movies. The auditions were in two days.

So Dave’s girlfriend and I went to the Mark Hellinger Theater and stood on a huge line. When I finally got in, after several hours, I stood in the wings as some nut-job before me dressed up with St Pepper’s Nehru Jacket placed two incense things on each side of him on the floor and lit them as the directors were waiting impatiently. He started to sing, “My Sweet Lord” and by the time he sang “Krishna,” they said, “Thank you, goodbye.” I went next. I didn’t know the show, but I had learned a short recitative-like song. The pianist had to find the music in a pile. Right after I sang—no mike—Michael Shurtleff, the casting director stopped the auditions and called me to the seats. He asked if I could learn “Gethsemane” and return in a few days. The director was then Frank Corsaro, an opera director who I hadn’t heard of. The audition process became protracted and Shurtleff told me he wanted me for Peter the Apostle which he called a major role but it wasn’t, really, just on stage a lot with Jesus and the other eleven. I ended up auditioning six or seven times, but was knocked out after the dance part of the audition. I didn’t dance well. But then I was reinstated by Shurtleff. Eventually they changed directors and I auditioned two times for Tom O’Horgan of Hair fame. The plan to have Pasolini-like people off the street faded and they ended up with pros. Thank God!  I would have been in theater, and I don’t think I would have liked it as much because you can’t get out to the woods.  You’ve got to get to rehearsals. I wouldn’t have found my true self.  It’s not that I couldn’t have been in something else besides music, but probably not something so extroverted.

FJO: It’s quite a switch to go from singing Andrew Lloyd Weber to studying with Roger Sessions.

GT: That’s true. But there was Queens College in between. I was at NYU in the School of the Arts for Drama. I didn’t last very long because I didn’t like acting classes.  But I went back to my roots playing the violin and studied with Felix Galimir while I was at NYU.  I ran out of money and I wanted to be independent, so I went to Queens College and studied with Hugo Weisgall, George Perle, and Leo Kraft.  It was a very good school, and it was basically free.  From there, I went to Sessions.

I was very lucky because I knew Felix Greissle, who was Schoenberg’s son-in-law and Sessions’s publisher.  I don’t think I would have gotten into Juilliard without Felix’s recommendation.  I was Felix Greissle’s gardener in Manhasset. I did his shrubs. I brought music with me because I knew who he was.  I’d be all dirty and I’d bring these sketches to Felix after I did his gardening, and he said, “This is good.  Someday I will send you to Roger to study.”  And his voice—if you know Schoenberg’s voice from the Kraft Columbia recordings, where Schoenberg says, “My painting is like my music and my music is like my painting.”  It was frightening. Greissle had the same voice as Schoenberg. I wasn’t ready for Juilliard or Roger Sessions, but thanks to Greissle, I got in there and I went right to Roger Sessions.

On top of one of George Tsontakis's grand pianos there's a sign that says "nothing on the piano, please"

FJO: But there’s a missing piece to this jigsaw puzzle.  You had this epiphany on headphones listening to Firebird and then listening to Beethoven’s Opus 135.  That’s before the Jesus Christ Superstar auditions.

GT: Yeah, it’s before.  I was 15. By Jesus Christ Superstar, I was like 20 years old.

FJO: So at the time you had the epiphany about wanting to be a composer, had you written any music at all?  That’s the missing piece.

GT: Right. I was playing in the school orchestra…

FJO: Playing violin?

GT: Playing violin.

FJO: Not viola yet?

“When you compose, you have to give up violin for viola.”

GT: Not viola.  No.  When you compose, you have to give up violin for viola.  That’s the rule, because you can’t practice as much!  But then in high school, I started composing.  I started composing the last years in high school—funny, odd little pieces.  That’s when I became interested.  It was right after that.  My high school teacher got mad at me because I stopped taking violin lessons.  He was discouraging about my music; he made fun of it, in a way.  It was very crude, but promising.  But I continued and then I played in bands and wrote original tunes.  We had a band doing Blood Sweat & Tears and Chicago, so I wrote pieces for the band with brass.  I guess it was pop.  Then I started to compose more seriously and went to Queens, and—through Hugo Weisgall and Leo Kraft, and, as I mentioned, George Perle—I was on that track.

A pile of CDs and violin bows on a table in George Tsontakis's home.

FJO: Did you know who any of those people were before when you went to study with them?

GT: No. Well, I probably did when I investigated Queens and looked, but George Perle wasn’t George Perle, either.  In those days, he was really not known very much at all.  In fact, when I went to study with Donatoni, I mentioned that George Perle said hello.  And he said, “George Perle, is he a composer?”  He only knew George Perle as a theorist and someone that wrote about Berg.

FJO: Was Sessions a name that you knew of as a composer when you got this recommendation to study with him?

GT: Oh yes. I knew Sessions through Weisgall. So one step at a time, as soon I started seriously studying composition at Queens College. I also had Henry Weinberg, who was this Schoenberg freak. I learned a lot from him.  And I spun off my own theories about fourths and whole-tone scales that I spun off a system I call heaven, which happens to be a hexachord of six fourths in a row.  I think Henry Weinberg started that off in me.  We analyzed The Book of the Hanging Gardens using his ideas.  He was influential on me and Weinberg studied with Sessions.  Weisgall studied with Sessions.  Perle didn’t.  But there were two people of great influence that wanted me to go to study with Roger Sessions. Fate had it that I met Greissle and that flipped it over the top.  I don’t know what Carter thought of me at the Juilliard audition or Persichetti, but with Sessions something resonated.  And, by the way, I stayed with Sessions for five years.

FJO: Well, it’s interesting.  Perle and Weisgall both used 12-tone techniques in their music and so did Sessions. But Persichetti and Carter both did not.  So you were groomed and molded by people who were partial to the 12-tone method, but that’s not what you do.

GT: But I think the lines are in there.  They’re just not as angular.  I have passages of music that sound 12-tone. When I studied with Sessions and I mentioned “atonal,” he’d go, “Well, after all, if it’s atonal, it means it just doesn’t make any sense.”  Because he believed in tonality, no matter what.  And he used the 12-tone system very tangentially.  He did not really write pieces in 12-tone religiously or in a strict technique.  And he believed that it has to sound tonal.

FJO: As did Perle. His whole theory was based on the concept of a 12-tone tonality.

“‘If it’s atonal, it means it just doesn’t make any sense.’”

GT: Like Sessions.  So if I wrote something and it just didn’t make sense, that was atonal.  So I never wrote atonal music.  It’s just a matter of degrees between tonality and chromaticism; to write a really chromatic piece, you actually need more tonality. I can go from what is recognized as a very tonal space to a very—not dissonant, but—chromatic space seamlessly. It’s the stuff in between—the melting sort of thing in between—that is very interesting to me.  I think Berg was the closest, something like Wozzeck.

FJO: Or Lulu or the Violin Concerto even more so.

GT: The Violin Concerto. Right.  Is it tonal or not?  You can’t tell.  I know Schoenberg was not happy with Berg using triads in his music, but so what.

FJO: I actually hear echoes of Berg in your second violin concerto, the Grawemeyer piece.

GT: Oh, there’s a lot.  There’s Ligeti, too, I think. I consider Ligeti a very fine engineer.  I call a lot of the stuff that happens in Europe, which is textural, the school of engineering.  A lot of the composers are working with new textures, but they’re not composing.  They’re engineering stuff in a way that is wonderful, but to be more communicative, I think you have to take the engineering and—it’s like Pinocchio.  Geppetto built Pinocchio. That to me is what the many texturalists are doing.  But it takes a composer to breathe life into it.  How does Pinocchio become alive?

FJO: It’s interesting you say that because I find a lot of emotion in the later Ligeti, in particular the Violin Concerto, the Piano Concerto, and the Piano Etudes.

GT: Well, there’s tension and release.

FJO: And the Horn Trio is fascinating.

GT: Well, there’s drama. But I think there’s a difference between drama and empathy. I remember when Jacob Druckman was coming out to Aspen, he created a new emotion. I called it a new emotion. It was fascinating.  The word fascinating is an emotion now. And I do find Ligeti fascinating.  But I’m not sure how—well, there’s a lot of Bach that’s not emotional either, yet it moves us in a way.  It’s not overtly emotional. Because you are a contemporary music listener, you are so into the nuance of everything that things relative to what you listen to are emotional. But for the average listener, for the people? I mean, who are we going to reach?  Are we aiming to be popular, eventually populist, or are we going to think that Xenakis’s music in two hundred years is going to be Beethoven? No.

FJO: Well, I’m not so sure populism is a good thing, especially these days.  And at the end of the day, it’s all subjective anyway.

GT: I’m not saying you need a large listenership.  There’ll be esoteric little portals, especially with the internet everywhere now.  But how many are listening?  We talked about birds before.  An ornithologist will pee in their pants to see a certain type of warbler, but most people aren’t interested in that.  This is a philosophy.  We could debate it. You can write music for five people to get so excited about. It’s not for everybody, but to those five people, it’s the perfect thing.

The view from the interior of George Tsontakis's home

FJO: So do you think then that there are specific musical gestures that—in and of themselves—could reach more people than other musical gestures can?

GT: I think Rochberg mentioned that in his program notes for my quartets.  He says DNA cells from the past give messages. In late Beethoven, there are little tonal cells that actually have content in them that evokes our emotions.

FJO: Alright, I’m going to play devil’s advocate now.  At this point in time, for the majority of people in the world, Beethoven is completely esoteric.  In relative terms, only a handful of people listen to and understand his music.

GT: That’s right.

FJO: So if you really want to reach a broad audience, you should be writing stuff that sounds like Elton John.

GT: Well, we have to differentiate between abstract music and song.  We don’t teach young people to listen to abstract music—that is, music without words.  If we’re going to have an enemy, why people don’t get into classical music, they’re brought up listening to just song.  Song is fantastic.  We all love song.  Song form is the most popular thing.  It’s the greatest thing we have, in a way.  How long is song form?  What are we competing against when we do a 15-minute Mahler movement?  We’re competing with a song.  How long is a song?  Three minutes, right?  No, a song is about 50 seconds long, repeated twice.  People’s attention spans are very small, plus they have to have words.  It’s very hard to make your point in 50 seconds, so it’s hard to write a good song.  On the other hand, if we taught young people the abstraction of listening to music—jazz, classical, Kenny G., Yanni (oh, God forbid!)—any music without words, they will develop a cognitive ability to listen to abstractions, and they would start.  Those who want to listen to Beethoven will listen to Beethoven.  But just like teaching children to read, some of them are going to read trash, some of them are going read articles, some are only going to read their textbooks, and some will read Beowulf or Socrates.  But we don’t even teach them the equivalent of reading.  You can’t break out of a song.

FJO: But two of those names you mentioned, Kenny G. and Yanni, have both been hugely popular doing instrumental music with no words.

GT: Right. And does anyone go from that to Beethoven?

FJO: Yeah, or another example I was thinking of when you were saying all of this is John Williams. He predominantly writes film scores, but it is abstract, instrumental music with no words. To a great many people, his music is more immediately identifiable and resonant than a late Beethoven string quartet ever would be.

GT: Well, let me tell you a story. I mentioned how I got into classical music, but the other thing that really hit me before that was that I was in plays in high school. I played Tommy Albright in Brigadoon, which my mother always thought was my greatest achievement. You know, “Georgie had a piece commissioned by the Boston Symphony and had the Emerson Quartet play his music, but you should have seen him as Tommy Albright in Brigadoon in high school.”  I didn’t know any classical music, but I loved musicals.  Richard Rodgers is a genius. And I grew up with Oliver and My Fair Lady.

Now what happened was eventually I started liking the overtures more than the other music. You hear Oklahoma, and that overture is fantastic music. I started saying that I really like the music without these dumb words sometimes, or whatever the words were. Now, we have to teach people to do that somehow. I don’t know if Yanni and Kenny G are going to convince them, because that’s a little bit simplistic. But Peter and the Wolf, they don’t speak while there’s music, the speaking is in between the music, so it’s a great way to do it. But you’re right. People listen to Philip Glass who never heard Mozart. That makes me question if that audience will go on to Mozart after that. I think in this day and age we’re just skipping classical music.  People go from Philip Glass to world music or other sophisticated music.

FJO: Well, why do they have to go to music of the past?  Wouldn’t it be great if they could go to other living composers?

GT: I don’t think they need the music of the past, except there are many good examples to teach people how to listen music without words from the past.  Something like Pictures at an Exhibition, which was in Fantasia. I have friends from high school that got interested in classical music because of The Rite of Spring in Fantasia.  You know, they saw the images.  Nobody was speaking.  No one was singing.  But it’s not going to happen with just a couple.  You have to teach people.  In class, even young students concentrate.  And when they have that concentration in the class, even if they hate the music they’re listening to, something happens subliminally.  I remember I was fourth grade, and they played Mozart’s 40th symphony.  I couldn’t stand it.  It was so boring.  I said, “Stop, I’ll confess!” you know? But if you choose the music well, even if they don’t like what they’re listening to, young people will learn that the cognitive idea of form is repetition.  You hear something, then you hear it again in a varied form. Variation and repetition is our business. We’re not dependent on the words to tell the story.  Maybe instead of 4%—in America maybe 4% listen to classical music—it would be 9%.  That’s a lot of people.  Leon Botstein at Bard says that classical music was always an elitist thing.  In Vienna, you couldn’t get into the theater if you didn’t have the clothes to go to that elite theater.  You’d probably hear Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony once in your lifetime, and you had to take a six-hour carriage ride to hear it once.  So it was always a very small number of people. It was never a populist form.

FJO: So then how is that different than the Helmut Lachenmann acolytes of this world who are writing music for a small coterie?

GT: Yeah, but if in America let’s say 4% listen to classical music at all, only 2% of those listen to contemporary classical music. But there is a problem with the museum people, who are the older people that go to concerts. I’ll have a piece played by a symphony orchestra. I go to a lot of these concerts. Even at my age, I’m the youngest person there—it’s really crazy. And those people are there for the museum music.  They’re not there to hear my piece. They’re tolerating my piece. The conductor, the musicians want to do a contemporary piece.  They like my music, but the audience tolerates it.

“If in America let’s say 4% listen to classical music at all, only 2% of those listen to contemporary classical music.”

That brings us to the various audiences that a composer can aim to write for. One is that classical audience.  One is the Emerson Quartet audience, where they have one contemporary piece, and they have Mozart, and then Death and the Maiden by Schubert on a program. Or there’s the contemporary music concerts, or festivals in Europe.  I do admonish young composers that as they’re doing what they really want to do, they might have in mind where their music’s going to go, because unfortunately there’s nothing in the middle.  It’s either you write for the contemporary music concert audience, which is that small, esoteric audience, or you write for the general population and they probably won’t like it. I’m sort of in between those. I have a few pieces that can be played on a contemporary music concert in London, but not at IRCAM. Meanwhile, the music’s played for the traditional audience. Neither one likes what I do. By the way, they said Roger Sessions was too modern for the public audience and not modern enough for the contemporary music field.  There are many composers that are between those poles.

The viola part for a standard repertoire string quartet sits on a music stand near a grand piano in George Tsontakis's living room

FJO: But then I think there’s a third path, which is different from either trying to fit in with standard repertoire or being embraced by the more established contemporary music networks. You mentioned Philip Glass in passing.  People like him, Steve Reich, or Meredith Monk, ensembles like the Kronos Quartet and entities like Bang on a Can have all found a way to galvanize a completely different audience which is none of those audiences.

GT: And that’s fantastic. But a lot of those people are the ones that have never heard Mozart, too.

FJO: Exactly.

GT: And that’s fine. We need all the forces we can get. But what is the music? As long as that music has the sophistication of the great composers—I’m going to be in danger saying the great composers—but the sophistication of, say, a Messiaen, if they have that integrity, then they’re following a classical line.  I think all you mentioned have a combination of music that does do that and music that has more of a pop end of it, too, an appeal, but the materials may not be as—I don’t know a better word than—sophisticated.  And that doesn’t mean elite.  World music, Greek music, I mean that is sophisticated within its own realm, but again, it’s song form and it’s limited. Jazz is very sophisticated music, but it’s not accessible. Jazz is accessible only to those people that come to it.  But it’s all a question of whether there is a main classical line.  I think only the future will decide that.

FJO: I think it goes back to what you were saying earlier about how people continue to promulgate this idea that there’s this straight line from 1800 to 1900 to 2000, but in the year 2018 it’s very clear that there isn’t a linear progression.

GT: Well, it depends. We have to decide what our genres are. With the contemporary music thing, any combination will work. You can have a xylophone and three piccolos. Whereas, if you’re talking about the classical line, about orchestral music, what do we do with that music? Andriessen said he would never write for orchestra, but he did eventually.  So what do we do with the orchestra?  Why isn’t the orchestra expanded?  Why hasn’t it added saxophones or Chinese instruments for texture? It’s so museum-ish, that the orchestra is becoming a museum in itself. So it depends what we’re talking about. What are the lines we bring forward? Electronic music has dispelled a lot of that. But even if we stay on acoustic music, there are so many divisions.

FJO: To bring this all back to your music, you’re obviously attracted to the orchestra. And you’re attracted to the string quartet. You’ve written eight of them.

GT: Well that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy because I write a quartet and another quartet likes it. The Network for New Music commissioned a piece about ten years ago, and I said, “What’s the combination?”  “Whatever you like.” And I go, “Holy cow, I get to think on my own.” So I chose soprano sax, harp, piano, horn, whatever, this ideal thing. But when I sat down to write the piece, which became Gymnopedies, I said, “I hate this combination; what am I going to do with this?” It turned out that I liked the combination. But I write quartets because the next person commissions a quartet. I write orchestral music because it appeals to a conductor.

FJO: But if you write a piece for a crazy combination, no matter how good it sounds, how many performances is it going to get after the premiere? Who has the resources to put such an ensemble together?

GT: Well, my combination was more accessible than many combinations that people write for, weird things like accordions and kazoos. A lot of young composers are writing impractical works that way.  But Gymnopedies has been played quite a bit. And I conduct it, too. If you think of the Pierrot plus percussion ensemble, it’s only a few more instruments, and instead of a clarinet, you have a soprano saxophone and a harp.

FJO: Well, the Pierrot ensemble with or without percussion is an interesting phenomenon. The closest thing to it I can think of in earlier repertoire are some J.C. Bach quintets for flute, oboe, violin, cello, and harpsichord. It’s something that really did not become established as a common instrumental combination until the 20th century.

GT: To a detriment, almost. But not only is the Pierrot ensemble reminiscent of a successful combination by Schoenberg, it’s also a low-budget orchestra in a way. It just doesn’t have the brass instruments. I have a piece that I wrote for Da Capo [Chamber Players] called Gravity. It’s with just the five, without the percussion.

FJO: It’s much more typical though, for you to write for the same combinations that composers in the 19th century wrote for. An instrumental combination that you’ve returned to several times, that was very popular back then, is the piano quartet.

GT: I’m writing a fourth one. It’s on the music stand over there.

A page of music manuscript paper with hand written notation on it sits on top of a table with a Tanglewood program and a pair of binoculars.

FJO: Wow! This is very interesting to me, because despite how prominent this combination once was, there haven’t been a ton of them in recent times. There’s this great Stephen Hartke piece, Kingdom of the Sun

GT: —Wonderful piece.

FJO: There also aren’t a lot of ensembles that are commissioning new pieces. One I can think of is the Ames Piano Quartet in Iowa.

GT: That’s who I’m writing for.

FJO: Hah!

GT: But Ida Kavafian’s group, OPUS ONE, commissioned No. 3. No. 2 was for the Broyhill Chamber Players. Brian Zeger commissioned it for the Cape and Islands Festival. No. 1 was commissioned by Larry Dutton and his wife, who have a piano quartet.

FJO: So there are a handful of groups. But it’s another one of those things. You were talking about people who listen to certain contemporary music who don’t know Mozart and don’t listen to his music. If you described one of your pieces to these folks as a piano quartet, they’d assume it was for four pianos.

GT: Right.

FJO: It’s a wonderful combination, but it is not something that’s really part of contemporary music parlance very much these days. Still, it’s an area you have repeatedly mined. Which is why it was very interesting to hear you say earlier that the orchestra has not expanded to include saxophones or Chinese instruments. You don’t really throw things like Chinese instruments or, say, electric guitars into your pieces. You’ve made a very conscious effort to write for standard ensembles.

“I have not written a piece since 1983 that wasn’t commissioned.”

GT: I have not written a piece since 1983 that wasn’t commissioned. I’m very lucky—knock on something here.  Or maybe stop commissioning [me]. I’ve said it’s enough already. But no, I just do on-demand. If nobody asked me to write a piece, I wouldn’t compose. I’d be doing other things. I’m very happy to not compose.  It’s been a great, great thing. Same thing with teaching. But one of the secrets to life is that I only write what people ask for. So what am I going to do? Network for New Music was the only one that said I could have my choice out of probably 80 pieces I’ve written. The others say, we’ve got a quartet; we want you to write this.  So what am I writing now? I’ll tell you: the Piano Quartet No. 4 for the Ames Piano Quartet. They recorded my third and they did a beautiful job. For the Dallas Symphony, I wrote a piano concerto for Stephen Hough. They’re commissioning a piece from me for their co-concertmaster Gary Levinson. It wasn’t my choice, but I love orchestra.

And I have the Albany Symphony; they’re commissioning a requiem. I’m very excited. It was going to be an orchestra piece; they got money from the New York State Council on the Arts. But my mom passed away in January, so I asked David [Alan Miller], “Can it please be a requiem? I’ll do it for the same money as common orchestra.”  So that’s very exciting to me. Then a consortium commissioned Portraits by El Greco 2—Book 2. It’s a piece that I mentioned with slide projections of El Greco.  It’s very personal to me because El Greco was from Crete, as I am from Crete, in Greece. But I didn’t ask; people ask me for pieces. In fact, for the El Greco piece, they asked for the same piece. Steve Copes, concertmaster of St. Paul, played [the first one] at the Colorado Music Festival and, I don’t know, maybe I said I’d be interested to do another one, so he asked me, “Can you do an El Greco sequel?”

FJO: Well, this is the thing. You say you only compose on commission, but there are ways to maneuver that so that you write the pieces you want.

GT: But not if they’re piano quartets.

FJO: Sure, but I’m thinking of one of my all-time favorite pieces of yours. It was a piece that was created piecemeal, through various commissions for short pieces from four different orchestras. Yet you had this larger thing in your mind—the Four Symphonic Quartets, which is the symphony that you didn’t name a symphony.

GT: That came about because I loved Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot.  I learned a lot from that. It took T.S. Eliot years to write that because he wasn’t old enough.  When you hit 50, you can understand Four Quartets, because it’s a bit about dying and growing. You have to get to be a certain age. A 25-year-old can say, “Well, it’s cool,” but they don’t know what T.S. Eliot was talking about.  So I got to that certain age where I started descending, when life starts biologically descending, even though you’re still excited about it.

FJO: But were still in your 40s when you wrote those.

GT: I wasn’t 50 yet. Okay, you’re right, I forgot. But I felt like I was descending anyway, and I started to understand T.S. Eliot. Roger Sessions wanted to write When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d when he was in his 20s, and he said he couldn’t. It wasn’t until the death of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr. that his maturity enabled him to do that. He told a story about that. He said, he was like 60-years old and finally he could tell the story of Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. It’s a great example because he was in his 20s understanding how great it was, but not being able to explain it.

And that’s what happened when the first commission came along from Ransom Wilson for the Tuscaloosa Symphony. I said I wanted to do something influenced by T.S. Eliot, so I named it Perpetual Angelus. Then the next commission came along, and I said, “Can I make it another one of the four quartets?”  But you’re right, it was piecemeal. In the back of my mind I wanted to put those four pieces together, but who would commission an hour-long piece?

FJO: It’s similar to the way David Del Tredici commissioned the various sections of the piece that is now An Alice Symphony. Then, after that, he composed so many other Alice-themed pieces.

GT:  Who knows whether David at the beginning said, “I’m going to engineer this whole series of Alice pieces,” or if he started with one and said, “I think I’ll do more of that.” Maybe my Portraits by El Greco will be book eight or nine. I’m going to run out of paintings I like by El Greco, but the impulse will be there. That’s interesting.

FJO: Alright, even though you claim you don’t need or want another commission, what pieces would you want to write if anyone could commission you in the world?

GT: Well, let’s say I quit composing, which I talk about to my friends. Then I’d get a lucrative commission. “It’s terrible,” I say. Then all my friends say, “Well, give it to me, I’ll write it.”  But if I had the choice, I’d want to do acting or something else. I would still want to write the occasional piano piece.  I’d like to write for a capella choir, canzones like Gabrieli or Monteverdi, and maybe some songs. I would do that on the side. I’m also a little bit upset after Ghost Variations. I think Sarabesque, which I wrote for Sarah Rothenberg might have been written after that, but no one’s asked me to write another piano piece.  I’m pretty pissed off about that.

FJO: But you’ve done some little ones.

GT: Well, the Bagatelle was my first attempt to write a piano piece for Yefim Bronfman since Ghost Variations, which was for Bronfman, was due.  So I wrote Ghost Variations and then the dedication piece for Sarah Rothenberg. But no one’s asked me and yet Ghost Variations is played all the time. And I’m going, “How come nobody wants any more piano music, including Stephen Hough?” Now Stephen Hough is composing his own music, he doesn’t want to learn any more new music!

FJO: Well, he learned your concerto.

GT: The Man of Sorrows and it was recorded with the Dallas Symphony on Hyperion.

FJO: That’s one I haven’t heard yet.

GT: Well, you should hear it. It’s 39-minutes long and no one wants to do it again.

FJO: But you mentioned another piece of yours happening in Dallas.

GT: A violin concerto for Gary Levinson. Yeah, that’s on the books, as soon as they get a new director.

FJO: It’s interesting that you keep using the word concerto because except for the violin concertos, you avoid that word in the titles of your pieces. All the other pieces for soloist and orchestra have other names, like the piece I was calling your trumpet concerto, which has a lot of jazz inflections.

GT: True Colors. You’re right. And Unforgettable is a two-violin concerto.

FJO: That’s the George Soros piece. How did you get commissioned by George Soros?

“You’re writing for people like you and you’re trying to convince everybody else to become like you, which makes composing an amazing persuasive art.”

GT: Through Jennifer Chun and Angela Chun. They’re a wonderful violin team. Jennifer was dating George Soros for seven years. Jennifer was looking around for somebody [to write them a piece] through some sources, including Leon Botstein who’s a friend of George Soros. I think he recommended me. It was very similar to how they came upon me for an English horn concerto at the Boston Symphony where Rob Sheena was promised a concerto from James Levine and he went on a search for composers. Rob had looked for years for someone to write the concerto and it was like Goldilocks—this one’s not quite right and that one’s not quite right. I think David [Alan] Miller was a schoolmate of his and David recommended me and it resonated with Rob.  It’s just a matter of taste.  I’m not saying they chose me above these other composers. When it comes down to it, I don’t write for everybody. But I don’t write just for myself.  As John Gardner wrote in Moral Fiction, I write for people like me. People who are like you are going to like your music better. Composition is also persuasion, so you’re writing for people like you and you’re trying to convince everybody else to become like you, which makes composing an amazing persuasive art.

FJO: And that’s where you can throw in the esoteric things that you like and make them un-esoteric.

GT: You can also introduce them to ideas and say I didn’t make it in that piece. I didn’t get that across. I’m going to try it again in the next piece. This is another problem we have—are you a first-listening composer? When I talk to young composers, I ask, “Are you going to write a first-listening piece, or are you going to write a piece that you need repetition to get?” You’re not going to read Eliot’s Four Quartets the first time and go, “Wow, it was really good.” No, you have to keep reading it over and over again. People don’t stand before a Cezanne and clap after seeing it for a few minutes.  You have to come back.

That doesn’t mean you can’t write a good first-listening piece. But a lot of young composers are persuaded to write that piece because probably that audience will never hear it again.  Or no one will hear it again. You have to keep in mind that there is a world where you need to listen.  Maybe I don’t listen enough times to really get Lachenmann. Or Ligeti. Maybe there is an emotion there if I gave it more of a chance. There is something to be said for that. And by the way, composers talk about awards, and of course I have a couple big, good money awards. I do believe that that’s also an aspect. I wouldn’t live for awards; the award is a by-product. But the interesting thing about awards though is that they [the judges] have to listen more than once.  They listen many times. We talked about Tim Page. Tim told me for the Pulitzer they listen over and over again.  What happens is that during that first round, the first-listening composer might be the one that everyone on the panel likes.  Then they do the second round of listening, and that first-listening piece isn’t as interesting anymore.  It moves back to number five.  Maybe a piece like mine that just made the cut can move up.  Those multiple-listening composers wear better for people listening over and over.  Meanwhile, the easy listening ones are going backwards.

I know with the Grawemeyer, they listen to pieces a hundred times. The lay panel at the end that decides the final, they listen to it so many times that they must go crazy: “I thought I liked that piece, but I listened to it five times.” So if we had any parallel to that where we could get people to listen over and over—we do; it’s called recordings.

George Tsontakis's backhoe

FJO: It’s interesting that you bring up the Pulitzer, because I read somewhere that you refused to have your music submitted to the Pulitzer.

GT: I will not sign for it. You have to sign, and I won’t do it. It’s just a personal thing.  There’s some great people who have. To me, it’s too facile. When I had to call Aaron Kernis a few days afterwards for something else, and I congratulated him, I said, “You know, Aaron, this is going to facilitate introductions at parties; you have this label.” And he laughed. I don’t like that label. I think it’s overdone. I think there’s nothing wrong with it, but I would not like to have a label that stuck on me that’s more important than being a composer. If I were a journalist, I would probably want it. But as a composer, I don’t want that label, because I wouldn’t believe in it as much as the people that would hoo and haw about it.  It’s a little bit like my mother saying Georgie was fantastic in Brigadoon in high school. And I’d go, “Mom, I’m beyond that.”  So it’s a personal thing. I wouldn’t stop someone. I don’t think the young composers care that much about things like that, but back in the day, when it was very important, everybody was thinking maybe I’ll be so good I’ll get a Pulitzer Prize. I don’t have to worry about that.

“Back in the day, when it was very important, everybody was thinking maybe I’ll be so good I’ll get a Pulitzer Prize. I don’t have to worry about that.”

I came in from my lesson after it was announced that Roger Sessions, who was 80 years old, got the prize.  And I said, “Mr. Sessions, congratulations on the Pulitzer Prize.” And he said, “Oh thank you, George.” I said, “You must be excited.” And he said, “Well, they called me at home, and when I got off the phone, my wife says, ‘Who was it?’ ‘Apparently, my Concerto for Orchestra won the Pulitzer Prize.’ And she said, ‘How much is it?’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s a thousand dollars.’ And she said, ‘Oh, goodie. Now we can have an extra egg for breakfast every morning.’” They were not impressed.

The other thing is that this Astoria thing comes back. I do consider myself a Greek composer, too. They do a lot of my music in Greece. I’m going to start a multi-year residency with the Athens Megaron in January. The Megaron is like the Lincoln Center of Greece—beautiful buildings and auditoriums. I’m an American composer, for sure, and I love being an American, but I feel international at the same time. I think the Pulitzer defines somebody as more American than I want to be, except in spirit.

A bunch of post-it notes on George Tsontakis's door with reminders of things he needs to do.

FJO: But of course, now the Pulitzer’s completely opened up. It’s not only—

GT: —Classical. In fact, yeah, who won it, what kind of musician?

FJO: This year it was awarded to Kendrick Lamar, who is a rapper.

GT: Right, that’s amazing. I guess it’s fine, but it’s like the MacArthur. Remember when they gave out MacArthurs to Ralph Shapey and George Perle and John Harbison. Now they’re giving it to young people.  They can use the money.  And giving it to George Perle when he was 75 is not going to help his career. But I think that’s the way of the world now, maybe to a fault in a way.

This is the question: is the quality still there? I’m not questioning it, but I am questioning it! What is the meaning of this?  We talked about the artist colonies. It’s not only classical composers, it’s somebody in rock or jazz. Well, jazz has always been accepted and I love it; jazz is a powerful idiom.  But everything is becoming “whoever has talent should be supported” basically. The MacArthur has really been looking for more esoteric people that do something that someone else doesn’t do. And looking for a contradictory profile or something like that, not just somebody who’s great at whatever.

The field is opening up and that only makes more competition. It’ll be a big melting pot of what happens. But I go back to the point, as long as the sophistication is there, it’s okay with me. The skills and craft that a composer or an artist has are serious stuff. It doesn’t have to be serious, but it’s a serious commodity that I think we have to keep up with.  Again, one could argue that writing a good jingle is a hard thing to do. Geniuses have to write jingles. When I have composition class, the first piece I teach is “You Really Got Me” by The Kinks.  It’s only two notes and there’s diminution like Beethoven when they go [sings]: “You really got me. You really got me. You really got me.”

It’s an amazing piece of music. And how many could write a piece of music that economical? But is it Debussy?  Well, there’s a DNA like Debussy, but other characteristics are not expanded in a sophisticated way.

The spark of creativity has unlimited value. So is that as sophisticated as anything?  Yeah, in its own, minute way. But with classical music, it’s the expansion of that idea—that seed, that spark of creativity, that genius—through time. That’s one of the things that makes classical music, even contemporary classical music, different than other music. Usually the lack of words and the expansive movement of it; it’s not a small form.

FJO: This could be a much larger discussion, which I’d love to have. But I think, unfortunately, that we’re running out of time here. So a final area, for now at least. You’ve been offering advice to younger composers throughout this conversation. In the 20th century when you came to be you, you did all of these things the way one should in the 20th century. You studied with some very prominent teachers. You were signed by a major publisher, there were all these recordings of your music out there, and you won some huge awards. But in the 21st century, things are very different.

GT: Extremely.

FJO: People get attention for their music in very different ways now. But you don’t have a personal website.  You don’t use social media.  You don’t do any of the things that composers do to put themselves in people’s faces. And you live here, so you can’t run into somebody outside of Zabar’s and get a commission!

“If there was a site, LeaveMeAlone.com, I’d join that immediately.”

GT: It shows what you can do if you just write the music. I think that’s the answer. Of course, I had the benefit of becoming known before you needed a website. So maybe I’m going on fumes here. Maybe I was lucky to get elevated and have not many people know what I do, but enough that I get to write the next piece.  As I always say, I’m only interested in who’s going to ask for the next piece, and maybe who’s going to record it.  Those are the only two things I need.  Multiple performances, you get that through websites or whatever. I don’t care. I’m not a promoter. I’m not even a person that wants pieces to be played all the time. I just want to know what the next piece I’m going to write is. If it has to be piano quartet number five, it might have to be.  Whatever. That’s why I can live here. If you live minimally, and you just do the thing you’re supposed to do, you don’t need all the other stuff. But yeah, I tell my students, “I don’t do Your Face, My Ass. I don’t do any of that stuff! If there was a site, LeaveMeAlone.com, I’d join that immediately.” But I’m lucky to be able to do that.

At a lesson once, I said, “Mr. Sessions, I think I should do go back and do species counterpoint.” He said, “Well, you can George. After all, counterpoint is confidence.” That’s all it was to him. You’re not going to write like that, but it’s confidence in your composing.  And faith is a very important thing if you want to go it alone and be independent.

The road leading to George Tsontakis's home.

One quick metaphor. The other day I was in my old Honda Accord. It’s got a big hatchback window, and this huge bee was trying to get through the glass. I opened all the doors. I took paper, I tried to shoo him away, but he kept going right back to that glass. It was a great metaphor, but this glass ceiling was not necessary if the damn bee would just go out the door. I tell young composers, “Open up your horizons and go through the doors!” So maybe that bee is like trying to appeal to the contemporary music crowd, this limited milieu; whereas, there are so many performers and so many orchestras that would be happy to do their stuff. You’ve got to broaden your horizons.  Or you’ve got to hope that glass disappears and suddenly you’re free. I think my life has been a combination of those two things. I haven’t depended on the unusual channels for where my music is going to go.  So that’s going out the doors of the car.  And yet I still have faith that that glass thing will open up.  And sometimes it does.  I think it’s a matter of knowing what you’re supposed to do in life and having faith that eventually you get a break and that glass will open up occasionally.

It’s a hard path to go on. But it’s worked somehow. So many events in my life were serendipity. Like meeting Felix Greissle, who led me to Sessions because I was a gardener.  Also for young composers, you should accept any work you get. I know some composers, “I’m not going to go for that commission; I’m not going to get paid for that.” Take it. Keep in motion. And that leads to other things. No job is too small.

The Syncopated Stylings of Charles Wuorinen

When the arguments were over, only a few famous composers younger than Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carter remained committed to old-school high modernism. Two of the best were Peter Lieberson and Charles Wuorinen. Lieberson died in 2011 at 64, Wuorinen turns 80 on June 9.

They were easy to bracket because they were friends, had a similar circle of New York City advocates, and shared something of an aesthetic trajectory inspired by the late music of Igor Stravinsky. Both Lieberson and Wuorinen had met Stravinsky in person and Vera Stravinsky asked Wuorinen to “finish” sketches from her late husband, which became his A Reliquary for Igor Stravinsky.

Stravinsky had jumped into the twelve-tone pool after the passing of his rival Arnold Schoenberg, and his last great work, Requiem Canticles, is as instantly charismatic as dodecaphony has ever been. While the early works of Lieberson and Wuorinen are relentlessly esoteric products of the hardcore Babbitt school, at some point both followed Stravinsky’s lead into comparatively accessible territory. Lieberson worked on softening the lyric line, culminating in glorious song cycles for his wife Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson, and Wuorinen took on the challenge of creating modernist composition informed by perceptible pulsating rhythm.

Wuorinen’s “perceptible pulsating rhythm” was a return to ragtime.

In his way, Wuorinen’s “perceptible pulsating rhythm” was a return to ragtime. Before Babbitt and Carter, American formal composition frequently contained the echo of Scott Joplin, a patron saint of Charles Ives, Conlon Nancarrow, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, and Leonard Bernstein.

This ragtime perspective also fit with the Stravinsky influence, as Stravinsky found syncopation a natural source for his cubist phrases. Perhaps Stravinsky’s Movements for Piano and Orchestra is close to Babbitt’s rigorous discontinuity, but much else in the Stravinsky canon has a taste of ragtime, especially after he emigrated to America. Ebony Concerto (written for the Woody Herman band) is still one of best pieces in the conventional European concert idiom scored for jazz ensemble, and Stravinsky’s late non-tonal Agon (made famous by the George Balanchine ballet) is full of syncopation.

Wynton Marsalis says of The Rite of Spring: “Stravinsky turned European music over with a backbeat. Check it out. What they thought was weird and primitive was just a Negro beat on the bass drum.” If we pressed Marsalis further, he certainly would add there’s actually no “just” about that “Negro beat.” Asking musicians who are most comfortable with the European tradition to play with a groove is dicey territory. For that matter, composers themselves have seldom allowed a drummer to make up their own part.

Film composer Howard Shore had this to say about his experience trying to find an authentic “feel” for the soundtrack for Ed Wood:

Beatnik dance music—a conga player and a bongo player. At the time I recorded the score there were no studios available in Los Angeles…We ended up going to England—I recorded the score with the London Philharmonic—and it was very fortunate that we did. The British percussionists were so square, but it was the perfect sound! The bongo player was English! He was a good player and a good musician, just a little square, a little straight. In Los Angeles, they probably would have been too hip. As soon as I heard this English guy, I thought, oh, we’re so lucky to have this guy play this bongo track.

This “a little square” place is important to the soundscape of 20th-century American formal composition. It isn’t as rhythmically profound as jazz or hip hop (or another dozen American musics); it is simply basic syncopations and polyrhythms played “correctly.” The outsized pop version is found in musical theater. Leonard Bernstein is the emperor of that uninitiated energy—West Side Story is never better than when done by a college group—but a dollop of that “naive swing” has been a factor in many good performances of American concert music from Ives onward.

To bring this back to Wuorinen: the default setting of high modernism is Very Serious Indeed. Wuorinen’s post-Stravinsky “perceptible pulsating rhythm” pieces are Very Serious, but they also ask for European-style concert musicians to drive syncopations in a reasonably straight line, or at least straight enough for Wuorinen to claim they are “a hip-swinging wing-ding” (his comment on the finale to the Third Piano Concerto).

YouTube is full of smart kids nailing difficult Wuorinen scores.

Honestly, it is as goofy as hell but remains a pleasure to listen to, especially for those who want to clear their ears out with some proper atonality once in a while. Like West Side Story, these pieces are well suited to talented college students who are reveling in their vitality: YouTube is full of smart kids nailing difficult Wuorinen scores.

For my own private 80th Wuorinen birthday celebration, I’ve been repeatedly listening to four works from the early ’80s, when he seemed to give high modernism a proper injection of “ragtime.” I imagine the composer’s smile hanging over the proceedings like a 12-tone Cheshire Cat.

A collection of Wuorinen LPs and CDs on top of a digital keyboard.

The Blue Bamboula (1980)

Wuorinen has four pieces with “Bamboula” in the title. This is a tip of the hat to Scott Joplin’s notable predecessor Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who’s once-famous “Bamboula” from 1848 is a fantasy on two Creole themes.

Commissioned by Ursula Oppens, The Blue Bamboula is, in Wuorinen’s words, “A single-movement piece in which I tried to respond to Oppens’s request that the work embody the spirit of an earlier work of mine, the Grand Bamboula of 1971.” Amusingly, a quote from Tchaikovsky is fed through the modernist meat grinder. Carla Bley told Amy Beal, “To me, the piece Blue Bamboula with Garrick Ohlsson playing it, is the best piece of piano music in the world.” At one point I had a playlist of the Ohlsson and Oppens performances in rotation. Both are beautiful. (This was before the comparatively recent Molly Morkoski issue, which is also excellent.) It didn’t take long before my ears tuned up enough that I could follow the narrative smoothly: The whole work might be seen as a move from C to D-flat, and Wuorinen even gives a few repeat signs near the end.

Admittedly, if you aren’t intrigued by the style to begin with, the surface of The Blue Bamboula may still seem incoherent. It’s possible that high modernism is mostly for fellow professionals. Steve Swallow said about Carla Bley: “She has perfect pitch and can sing the notes in the voicing of incredibly dense harmonies. I’ve heard her do this to music of Charles Wuorinen, perhaps her favorite composer.”

New York Notes (1982)

Violinist Miranda Cuckson suggested I listen to this piece, which has attained the status of a classic. There are two excellent recordings. It’s common at colleges, and was one of the earliest pieces rehearsed by the important new music group eighth blackbird. For his 60th birthday it was played by the New York New Music Ensemble at the Kaye Playhouse, and for his 75th, the composer conducted it at the Guggenheim.

New York Notes refers to New York New Music Ensemble, who commissioned the work, but it is also the title of a book by celebrated New Yorker critic Whitney Balliett: New York Notes: A Journal of Jazz, 1972-1975. I doubt Wuorinen was attempting to make a connection to Balliett, but nonetheless there are many pretty jazz chords in Wuorinen’s chamber piece. Of the Wuorinen I know, New York Notes is the closest to Peter Lieberson, who was perhaps the greatest American master of sensuous, “jazzy” atonality.

There are many pretty jazz chords in Wuorinen’s chamber piece.

Wuorinen writes, “The six members of the ensemble (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, percussion) are all engaged in virtuoso play, but I also think of their music as comprising three duets of the related pairs of instruments, as well as six solos.” This explanation may obscure the real fun of New York Notes, which is simply that almost all fast-moving material is doubled. Usually “duets” in new music-speak means conversation and counterpoint, but not here, where “duets” literally means, “play the exact same material.”

For the first recording with New York New Music Ensemble, Daniel Druckman does a herculean job of managing all the percussion himself. On the later version with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, there are two percussionists and a few intriguing “cadenzas” from computer generated sounds.

It might be a stretch to say that New York Notes is “grooving,” but the rhythmic excitement is palpable. The phrases are usually in obvious duples like sixteenth notes and the occasional triplet. Wuorinen told Tim Page in 1989: “From my vantage point, it is a little difficult to say what’s happened—I’ve just kept on scribbling…. [but] my use of rhythm is more periodic, more regular, more intimately related to the background pulse than it used to be—which is a long, complicated, and rather pompous way of saying that the beat is clearer.”

In New York Notes, that clearer beat powers near-vamps in the low registers and near-bebop at the top, perfect for the city of jazz, subways, and skyscrapers.

Piano Concerto No. 3 (1983)

It’s a hell of a thing. Garrick Ohlsson begins with an intense toccata that barely lets up. The percussion enters, tentatively at first, then swarming the pianist. A hypnotic slow movement gently pulses away before the coruscating finale. Like New York Notes, duples and doubling are major features: The piano plays almost the whole time and various sections of the orchestra double the piano exactly, especially in the outer movements. (This must have been a real help in rehearsal!) The language is of course atonal, but there are plenty of harmonic puns: The first movement ends with G major over D minor, the last ends with G minor over D major.

As mentioned above, Wuorinen calls the finale “a hip-swinging wing-ding.” The rhythmic excitement is perfectly judged. It’s not too square, but there’s just enough “beat” to feel propulsion.

It’s interesting to compare Peter Lieberson’s Piano Concerto played by Peter Serkin from the exact same vintage. Lieberson’s harmonies speak more naturally; they are perhaps more glamorous and “Stravinskyian” in the best sense, but Wuorinen has the syncopated edge. I have tried to listen to as many of the 20th-century piano concertos as possible, and there’s no doubt in my mind that Lieberson’s First and Wuorinen’s Third are two of the best.

These composers were producing this great music on a reasonably well-lit platform. Ohlsson and Serkin were and are two beloved pianists, accompanied on record by Seji Ozawa/Boston Symphony and Herbert Blomstedt/San Francisco Symphony respectively. Lieberson’s concerto was commissioned for the Boston Symphony centennial, Wuorinen’s piece commissioned by a consortium of five orchestras. Both works were given technically insightful rave reviews by Andrew Porter in The New Yorker.

It is just barely possible that future young players will be able to put up a performance of Lieberson 1 or Wuorinen 3 as easily as Beethoven or Rachmaninoff. Time will tell.

That was then. At this point it is hard to imagine either concerto entering the general repertory, but I presume both composers were taking the long view and hoping to create music that will give at least a few people pleasure in perpetuity. The virtuosity of new music performers keeps improving (a process partially kickstarted in New York by the Group for Contemporary Music founded by Wuorinen and Harvey Sollberger in the early ’60s), and I suppose it is just barely possible that future young players will be able to put up a performance of Lieberson 1 or Wuorinen 3 as easily as Beethoven or Rachmaninoff. Time will tell. At this moment Wuorinen’s public face, a grouchy, “you kids get off my lawn” personality—a personality he seems to have had for decades, if not his whole life—has probably done harm to his status as an essential composer.

Before the performance of Brokeback Mountain this past Monday night, Miranda Cuckson quickly introduced me to Mr. Wuorinen in the foyer of Jazz at Lincoln Center. The conversation went like this:

EI: Hello! I’m a fan.

CW: (grumpy) Hello.

EI: I have the score to your Third Piano Concerto in my bag.

CW: (less grumpy) Well, that’s an antique.

EI: It seems like some of the same material is used in Spinoff.

CW: (smiling) Yes! That’s true. I totally ripped off the Concerto for Spinoff. That was the same year.

EI: Well. Thanks for all the music. You’ve written so much.

CW: (grumpy) It’s not so much. I’m 80 and there are 275 pieces. But I do work all the time.

Spinoff (1983)

Patrick Zimmerli told me about this piece in 1992, so I searched out the Speculum Musicae 15th anniversary LP.  Spinoff remains something I play for jazz students who are interested in combining modernist notes with pulsating rhythm. It’s only six minutes. For the first minute, the violin and bass sound like “normal” discontinuous modern music, but then Howard Shore’s beatnik conga enters and all bets are off. And, yes, a few of the lines are exactly the same as from the first movement of Piano Concerto No. 3.

It’s appropriate to compare Spinoff to another valuable item for jazz students, All Set by Milton Babbitt. Spinoff might be a bit dorky, but All Set is more dorky. If this admittedly subjective judgment is true, it’s because the beatnik conga in Spinoff holds the thread together more convincingly than Babbitt’s fragmented drum set notation for All Set.

Spinoff might be a bit dorky, but All Set is more dorky.

Congas star in Spinoff, but over the years Wuorinen has written for the full percussion arsenal extensively—and well. In the liner note for his mammoth Percussion Symphony, Wuorinen says he likes drums not just for clarity, but for a “very ancient, layered set of associations, reaching well back into our distant past. Thus, modernity and antiquity are pleasingly conjoined.” Daniel Druckman (who recorded New York Notes for one percussionist) has said of Wuorinen, “He’s one of the two or three most important people for us in terms of central works and stretching the limits of what the instruments can do.” (See also Tyshawn Sorey’s note below.)

The only professional recording of Spinoff remains the first by Benjamin Hudson, Donald Palma, and Joseph Passaro. It’s good (especially from Palma, who can play jazz), but upon finally looking at the score for the first time last week, I’ve realized that some of Wuorinen’s obvious syncopations could and should be articulated more clearly.

Big Spinoff is a fun amplification of the work for Alarm Will Sound, which does justice to the “finger snapping” moments in the piece. AWS Artistic Director Alan Pierson explains, “AWS got excited about the idea of arranging it years ago. The propulsive energy and driving rhythms felt like a great match for us. We actually originally proposed doing the arrangement ourselves (Stefan Freund was gonna do it) and asked Charles’s permission. But he said he wanted to do it himself! And we love the result.”

Peter Lieberson’s note to the original LP is now hard to find. After recapping Wuorinen’s relationships to Igor and Vera Stravinsky, Lieberson offers the following observation:

Spinoff is itself replete with little homages: one cannot help but hear echoes of L’Histoire du Soldat, the music from scenes one and two, with the characteristic “breathy” rhythm of the violin against the regular pizzicati of the bass acting as a refrain throughout. The ending sounds like a pitched version of L’Histoire’s and there are other smoky echoes in the congas from Ebony Concerto. Because Wuorinen’s voice is strong and recognizably his, such homages are agreeable adornments to the direct and exuberant discourse.

If I’m arguing that Spinoff is at least a little bit goofy, there’s no way to leave out Cicadas of the Sea’s excerpt of Spinoff with vocalese and hand puppets.

I have been re-listening to early ’80s Wuorinen because I’ve kept these pieces in rotation over the last 25 years. Since then, he hasn’t given up on a syncopated style—indeed, that aspect has proven perfect for several dance commissions—but among other things there has been an abundance of vocal music and an overt engagement with early European composers like Machaut and Josquin.

Opera might be the one place where a civilian can enjoy rigorous atonality.

At Rose Theater for Brokeback Mountain, there were several audience members in cowboy hats and jeans, apparently doing a kind of cosplay based on the hit movie. I hope they enjoyed the opera as much as I did. High modernism is a fabulous fit for the classic operatic themes of sex and death: indeed, I think opera might be the one place where a civilian can enjoy rigorous atonality as much as a professional. Unlike some reviewers, I didn’t find Brokeback overbearing or contrived. Indeed, there was a lightness in orchestration that suited the sparse set and simple story. There were even many comic moments… I mean, let’s face it, the meeting of cowboys and 12-tone music is already absurd and amusing. In the final analysis, I have only one criteria as to whether an opera is good: I need to be crying by the end, and Brokeback Mountain passed the test.

A common interpretation of Schoenberg’s Moses Und Aron is that Schoenberg thought of himself as the mute prophet Moses, offering the glories of 12-tone music to a society mostly deaf to his vision. When the lonely rancher in Brokeback Mountain swears fidelity to his dead lover, it was easy to imagine the last remaining high modernist Charles Wuorinen promising continued fealty to his beloved palette of uncompromising sounds.

Coda: With a canon as large as Wuorinen’s, it only makes sense that responses to his work will vary widely. On a hunch, I sent Tyshawn Sorey my piece and asked him if he found Wuorinen relevant. He replied:

“In my view, not only is Wuorinen totally relevant to me, but his works should be considered relevant for anyone who is interested in the study and presentment of contemporary music! Wuorinen’s music has a very direct relationship to my life in several ways. I’m mostly familiar with his 60’s and 70’s work, both as a performer and as a listener. Not so much his music from, say, the late 80’s up to now, except for New York Notes, which I really like. Since we’re discussing his 1980s music, it was also a wonderful experience preparing his Trombone Trio (1985) for performance by myself on tenor trombone and two other professors at William Paterson University from the New Jersey New Music Ensemble (a sub-group from the New Jersey Percussion Ensemble), but further opportunities to rehearse and perform the piece together fell through due to insanely crazy schedules. I’d still play that piece in a heartbeat if a pianist and percussionist would ever want to do it with me!

“But if you want to talk about the side of Wuorinen’s work I admire most, then I should mention being one of the percussionists in an exhilarating, life-changing performance of Ringing Changes (1969), a staple in contemporary music literature along with the incredible Percussion Symphony (1976), which as far as I’m concerned should be considered a ‘standard.” Even though the music itself is not nearly as rhythmically complex or discontinuous as his earlier pieces, these works are fascinating on every level—the last section of Ringing Changes featuring the tubular bells, for example, is probably some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard anywhere. It brought me to tears, playing the tubular bells in that section. That sound world was revolutionary for its time, and so full of life!

“It should also go without saying that I am very much in love with his earlier, more ‘rhythmically disjunct’ pieces—the ones that really did it for me were the Piano Variations, Flute Variations I & II, all of the 60s Concertos, the First Piano Sonata (Robert Miller’s performance is for me the definitive performance of this masterwork), Time’s Encomium, Arabia Felix, String Trio and the list goes on and on… And last (but certainly not least) there is my favorite composition of his, Janissary Music, which I think is one of the most virtuosic works ever to exist for one percussionist alone. The performance of this piece exemplifies a whole different kind of complexity and rigor; it’s not ‘new complexity’, and it’s not even trying to be that—it’s simply Wuorinen’s genuine compositional language. Hell, it’s new complexity done Wuorinen’s way! The percussion writing is full of extreme rigor and technical fluidity as well as some mesmerizing moments. That music truly ‘grooves’ in its own way, and doesn’t sound rhythmically ‘square’ at all! After happening upon the original CRI LP record of the piece at the William Paterson Library, I asked the genius percussionist Ray Des Roches (for whom Wuorinen composed this piece) what was it like for him to prepare this piece. He then informed me that it was so difficult to play, that it took him over a year to learn it! (This—coming from one of the most revered, pioneering figures ever to exist in the performance of contemporary music—was quite the news to hear! Des Roches’s classic recording also remains definitive!)

“I continue to listen to Wuorinen to the very present day. In fact, I was recently blasting and sort of ‘dancing’ along to one of his pieces in my car in downtown New York while waiting on a friend… folks stared, but I didn’t give a damn who was staring at me because the music excites and inspires me to move. The music is both “serious” and enjoyable, to my ears. I like to sit and read the scores, and sometimes I like to just listen and enjoy it to my heart’s content—it is totally possible to do this. Wuorinen remains a huge influence in my own work, both in terms of the rigor with which he deals with pitch selection and form, as well as the sense of melodic and rhythmic gesturing that is evidenced in all of his compositions. One of the greatest to ever do it, in my opinion!”

Is It Dangerous?

Female violinist with tattooOver sushi in a crowded midtown sushi bar with the brilliant pianist (and close friend) Charity Wicks, we’re discussing, among other important topics, her future neck tattoo. She is one of the more astonishingly facile and gifted musicians I’ve ever met, destined for a great career. While she spends a lot of her time playing in Broadway pit bands (her choice) for shows such as Spring Awakening or Billy Elliot (for whom the tattoo would not rate a second glance; this would be true also if she confined herself to new music) she worries, rightfully, that it might preclude her, as talented as she is, from the side of her career where she plays Mozart and Brahms. But I also think she should chuck it all and get that tattoo. Because why not?—follow her bliss, be what she wants, take control, etc. But she blanches, fearing it will limit her appeal in her chosen career. Can she play Mozart for the Mozart crowd and sport a visible tattoo? What is it about her potential illustrated neck that gave her reasonable pause? In her wise estimation, it would be inappropriate, a sticking point, and it could prevent her audience from hearing her properly. I agree but wish I knew why. My only thought is that it might be too “dangerous.”
But how to define danger when it comes to classical music (itself a sticky and even somewhat “dangerous” term to use because it spans nine centuries of repertoire with no signs of slowing, despite reports to the contrary)? Can this kind of music actually be dangerous? Can any kind of music actually be dangerous? This rhetorical question has an obvious answer: it cannot kill you, but something in it scares enough people that the famously oppressive regimes of, say, the Taliban, Stalinist Russia, Maoist China (during the Cultural Revolution), the pre-Reformation Catholic Church, or that tiny town in Footloose all felt that there had to be rules and that certain things (or in some instances the admission of music at all) should be duly restricted.

Toward A Calculus of Danger

In order to initiate any kind of discussion of danger, it has to be defined, however broadly.

1) Music is dangerous in that it makes you bleed, die (i.e. physical danger, violence). We will leave out the thankfully-never-realized “Danger Music” movement, a Fluxus offshoot heavily under the influence of Antonin Artaud’s notions behind his (also thankfully unrealized) “Theatre of Cruelty,” which can be summed up by printing Nam Jun Paik’s performative exhortation of his (also thankfully unrealized) piece Danger Music #5 wherein the performer is exhorted to “creep into the vagina of a whale.”[1] The very realization would be a poor choice for both man and beast, and was likely intended as a comment upon, rather than a direction for, performance. It is safe to say that Mr. Paik—because his death in 2006 had nothing to do with a whale—never did a performance of this work. There are of course pieces that are dangerous not to the performers or the audience but to the instruments involved. Michael Nyman, in his seminal Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond says “[George] Maciunas’ Solo for Violin (1962) proposes that an old classic be played on a violin and that where pauses are notated the violin is to be maltreated—by scratching the floor with it, dropping pebbles through the f-holes, pulling the pegs out, and so on. And in a performance of Richard Maxfield’s Concert Suite from Dromenon, La Monte Young quietly set fire to his violin while the other instruments were playing away quite happily.” This predates Mr. Hendrix. For the record, any music that causes actual physical harm[2] to anyone concerned is not to be performed, not under any circumstances.

2) Music is dangerous in that it changes or challenges your assumptions. This of course presumes knowledge, because assumptions are based on prior understanding—and smack of a certain kind of duty. Even the tiniest smack of expectation (i.e. a symphony is played by an orchestra; people sing in an opera) implies assumption or presumption, and when something is different (a laptop plays the symphony; the opera is full of people screaming) it can be viewed as dangerous.

3) Music is dangerous in that it challenges what you believe about what music ought to do. This is somewhat the same as the former rule but it is more for insiders or deep and careful listeners—if you think that Handel’s Concerto Grosso is formally mandated by precedent to modulate to the dominant and instead it modulates to the subdominant, that might feel a little dangerous because it challenges the austerity of the form. Swap the slow movement for the scherzo in a symphony, or (as Ives does in the Concord Sonata) bring in a flute in a solo piano piece, and you defy the expectations of those who know what to expect. Now imagine the utter absence of what you might expect from even the most grizzled modernist, a subtractive music that prides itself less on what it contains but rather what it avoids, all your compass points removed: no chords, no cadences, no melodies, no recognizable instrumental timbres. If the music in which you are involved—you write it, you perform it, you review it or study it, you simply love it to the point of knowing it at an intimate level—comes to lack all that you have come to depend on, it can be a perceived threat to all you hold dear. And what is more dangerous to one’s own psyche to think than that the Great World is participating in something to which your invitation seems to have gone missing in the mail? [3]

4) Music is dangerous in that it scares, shocks, awakens, arouses, provokes. Some music can produce a sense of longing so strong—especially when crossed with the frisson of both not knowing where you are (either in the piece or on a broader metaphysical level) and the very possibility that the thing might spin out of control. What experimental composer Dick Higgins had to say about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony[4] is that the final bars are “…as close as one could come, within the harmonic concepts of the day, to simple hysteria, and they work because they take the risk of degenerating.” The train seems as if it might run off the tracks, and when you stop and think about how that might actually feel, the word “danger” certainly comes to mind.

5) Music is dangerous in that you cannot overcome it. Think of The Red Shoes and dancing oneself to death (less the action than the conception; actually dancing yourself to death, were “red shoes” possible, would fall under category No. 1), or an earworm you cannot possibly ever shake, that haunts you at least to distraction and at worst to total madness. There is a certain danger in music so infectious that when you hear it, you simply cannot shake it.[5] It can overwhelm, dangerously so. Or just think about the very words (set to an earworm of their own) “lay down that boogie and play that funky music till you die.” (Italics mine)

6) Music is dangerous that sends you signals about how to be actually dangerous. The rock and roll or be-bop “attitude.” The music—or, frankly, the cult or whatever behind the image of the music—offers an unsavory way of living as an actual alternative. This is the most fugitive notion because one generation’s feckless youth is another generation’s camp to a certain extent—reading Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd or watching West Side Story, both of whose subjects are juvenile delinquents, is not instructive but can actually seem quaint and of yesteryear. And a work like John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera reads not as a comment on society but rather as a fascinating period piece, like a slang dictionary. But this is what people feared about everything from the flappers to the hippies to the Rolling Stones to hip-hop (to countless other movements and phenomena): a rash, widely acculturated glorification of “low life” or less-than-savory living that posed a threat to values presumed wholesome and right.

7) Music is dangerous when it is used to tell dangerous stories or evince dangerous ideas. See below, The Ballad of Associative Danger.

Danger as a selling point has always been problematic, because as something gets under any kind of collective skin of the “zeitgeist” it gets gobbled quickly by marketing committees as a way to move product—because sex sells, and what’s sexier than something a little dangerous? But this kind of acculturated “danger” ages quickly and poorly, and at a certain point even the Rolling Stones (originally slated to play Alex and his droogie-droogies in the ultra-violent A Clockwork Orange, which, talk about dangerous) grace the cover of AARP magazine and Cigar Aficionado and write their memoirs, or age gracefully like Dylan and trade in the role of spry upstart for wizened sage. Either way, the danger wears off as society changes its concerns, and while there are always imitators seeking to put forth the same image, it is as often as not borrowed, overcooked, and usually sterile in the wake. Cutting edge (even the sound of that phrase hurts) comes with an expiration date after which kitsch and camp follow—not without merits, but they do serve to neuter the terror impact.

The history of concert music—particularly in the 20th century—is riddled with pieces which “flew in the face” of expectations, in essence making aesthetic hay with the received preconceptions of the 18th- and 19th-century forms…this is to say, in essence, that the template (or the comforting sense of a template) was in danger. It is difficult to imagine now, but a piece like Marc Blitzstein’s string quartet Serenade ruffled feathers because it was cast in three “Largo” movements—in the 1930s! And the obvious trope of the Sacre riots need not be rehearsed here even though riots were very much in the air, occurring also at the premieres of Berg’s Altenberg Lieder and Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire.[6] But the so-(uncomfortably)-called “primitivism” of other works like Milhaud’s La création du monde (which has “jazz” in it) or even Virgil Thomson’s F-major rebellion of a piece—Four Saints in Three Acts—illustrates how the simple dislocation of form, intention, or tonality (or atonality) can make sirens blare.

The Ballad of Rock and Roll
matchesIn the middle of teaching a university seminar, say, pitch a chair through a stained-glass window shouting “¡Viva la revolución!” and it might rouse the rabble and turn light on you. It would terrify everyone, some into action and some into reaction, but it would definitely have an effect. But the next person to do the exact same thing—even 20 years later—while it might startle, would certainly be shining in the borrowed light of the previous action, especially if many makes and models of chairs were constantly being hurled through all manner of windows during all levels of classes. My metaphor will fall apart quickly, but what better way to explain the four generations of rock and roll music that have turned their especial kind of danger into a multi-billion dollar commodity.
When Jean-Luc Godard simply filmed the Rolling Stones simply being the Rolling Stones, it was a quasi-revolutionary act. They were doing what they did: making music.

Flash forward several decades and rock and roll, like everything else, is subject to the same commercial ossification: there are academic conferences and dozens of books and dull it-all-had-to-be-this-way biopics.[7] Charlatans have come claiming the mantle and diluted the essence. Committees have made decisions based on money rather than something more substantial and therefore have subjected the once-potent genre to the same ruin as everything else—as always, revolutions beget revolutions and lose something important in the process. Obviously, this did not start and end with the Rolling Stones. But while this sort of danger works in dog years, it ages quickly and unkindly because good old Mammon is there all along, and one person’s rebellion becomes another person’s oldies. Even the Velvet Underground (the very name screams dank-chic)—who were, as the house band of Andy Warhol’s Factory, aligned with the motliest lumpen crew of hustlers, pornographers, transvestites, intravenous drug users, and homosexuals ever to band together under the aegis of high art—parted ways and grew up.[8] Danger is not the exclusive province of youth, but the don’t-trust-anyone-over-thirty credo of the 1960s and 1970s made it clear that aging was not the best thing for one’s career if one’s career was predicated on being dangerous—a truism too many took too seriously and let the danger overcome them in the form of addictions, unchecked mental illness, and suicide.[9] This might be the raw (and vanished) association my pianist friend is hoping to avoid having to explain, a shopworn nightmare vision to some to which she would be unfortunately linked by showing something that, to her expected audience, still comes off as symptomatic.

The Ballad of Colonial Danger / Ballad of the Outsider
velvet ropeThere is the powerful sociological danger in concert music: a ruling class, colonialism. By those who view it from the vantage of how it is most often presented—an expensive museum for the upper crust—when it comes for your music, if you feel any kind of provenance it must seem like a kind of annexation. This same elite that not only looks down a long historico-political nose, but who would have native musics replaced but also subsumed by so-called “high art,” in essence not only deracinating it but also, on the path to homogeneity, uprooting and reclaiming—or at the very least including it in a patronizing and opportunistic way. One thinks of Henry Cowell, deeply knowledgeable on all manner of foreign folk musics but a composer who made a point of including the widest possible swathe of them in his own concert work, who referred to some of the musicians whose work he pressed into service as “simple souls.”
In essence this is the fear, an opposing take on the in-the-street revolution. Think of works like Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Copland’s El Salón México, or William Grant Still’s Troubled Island, and one can all but hear the terror in them on both sides. The “elite” believing that something ominous and other has come to besmirch their beloved music, and that same ominous and other being terrified of a loss of identity, of being effectively co-opted for use. And of course the effete elite (and yes, I am by all means speaking with an overt breadth that takes the cliché of a de facto group and speaks on their behalf, a cheap and easy socio-political overstatement with plenty of exceptions) would have much to feel challenged by when the music of the “other” finds its way into the unblemished purity of their concert music—the fly in the soup.

Cliques and klatches keep us safe, they bathe us in the warm bath of consensus, and this is not meant in any way to be demeaning. Composing music is really hard, a loneliness-of-the-long-distance-runner pursuit, and famously not exactly choc-full of security, so obviously even though “bunker mentality” is seldom meant as a complimentary description of someone’s forward thinking, the idea that there are people in the same situation with the same aims who think the same notion equally progressive is powerful and arguably necessary on a human level. This can, however, create the idea of an “insider” in which case, of course, there have to be “outsiders” to whom to compare them, and that in and of itself can be a dangerous notion to those inside. The path not taken has to be justified—though I hope for the sake of all of our mental health this is changing effectively.

But outsiders—or that-which-lurks-beyond the gates, be it flesh or idea—have always held the secret to danger because there’s titillation and a good dollop of naughty-naughty to be found on the dark side of the street. There is a kind of outside music, that of roughians, the barbarians at the gates, that has always made its way into concert music, from Dvořák’s hortatory “the future of American music rests in Negro Melodies” through Gershwin’s wholesale adaptation of jazz to the concert stage (or was it the other way ‘round?) straight through Bernstein’s epic kitchen-sink Mass,[10] the decibel-intensive work of, say, Christopher Rouse or Louis Andriessen, the ululations of early Philip Glass and on up to the entire so-called “alt classical” movement. There has always been this “other,” this outlaying, allegedly unwelcome thing that composers, those “genius parasites” as Alex Ross calls them, have managed to incorporate into their concert music.

Accused “outsiders” are too numerous to count, so much so that it can make one question the very out- and inside notions: like most things, it was far truer when John Cage, Henry Cowell, George Antheil, Lou Harrison, Colin McPhee, Dane Rudhyar,[11] and their ilk were engaged in their radical upendings and agons with the Great Western Classical Tradition. And like Freud, their once-radical anti-traditional approaches have become, in their way, a tradition unto themselves, as is the danger of danger. What was once radical can become, in hindsight, pristine, monumental (in that it is actually a “monument” which is a testament but more like a whitewashed statue), and the outside is always in danger of becoming, in fact, just another inside. Ask any composer, and they will probably tell you they are working “outside the system”[12] in some way because of the exact query that began this entire article, the idea that the inside has become untenably dull and that any artist worth the name must in fact be fighting against it.
The Ballad of Associative Danger
Hazard warning label.Judging from the violent backlash against Dr. Alfred Kinsey and Sigmund Freud, frank discussion of sexual matters were—and, sadly, remain—terrifying to people. Dr. Freud had the nerve to tell us about our nerves, and Dr. Kinsey suggested a slew of unthinkables, not least being that women liked sex, too. And as these two men were taking a heap of guff for their unpopular but at-the-end-of-the-day-absolutely-right conjectures, the globe bled out from two World Wars and America suffered the Depression, after which followed the retrogressive, state-supported witch hunts of Mr. McCarthy and his own thugs. At the root of this was not just the suppression of communism—that was the cover story—but really the suppression of transgressive ideas; an exercise in Soviet-style thought policing. In the midst of it, artists were demonized, terrified, lost lives and livelihoods.

In 1937, Marc Blitzstein wrote The Cradle Will Rock, a pro-union piece of agit-prop theatre meant to stir the masses if not to full-scale leafleted revolt, at least to let them know, by means of theatrical allegory, that one finger equals a finger but that five fingers pulled tight equaled a union. The musical (for lack of a better word) was shut down by the revolution-fearing government.[13] The storied premiere,[14] however, is an incredible tale of courage of conviction, as the very unions it supported threatened to ruin the lives of the actors and musicians should they set foot upon the stage—so they did it in the house. Something scared someone—or so the legend has it.

I wish I could say it was the bite of Mr. Blitzstein’s harmonies or the fugitive third-relation of his tonalities that brought the feds to the Lucille Lortel that night to shut down the proceedings, but it was not. The music did not concern them one bit save for the message that it evinced. One could argue that singing is more powerful than speaking and therefore without the music the show would have been less effective and therefore less threatening, and while this is true ultimately it was the brash Figaro-like characterizations of the Aristocracy (ruthless, stupid, and murderous) and the Proletariat (hard-working, victimized, intelligent, and strong) that shackled the show. It was not the music qua music that caused the success du scandale, any more than the Sacre riot was about asymmetrical rhythm groups and neo-primitive polytonality. It was about the ideas.

When an opera is genuinely scary, like Britten’s The Turn of the Screw or Peter Grimes, that is music that, if the Danger Calculus is to be believed, shakes and stirs us, yes, it is the music activating the fear. But without the story—without the ghost or the murder (or for that matter the psycho killer under the bed in even the most rank-and-file horror movie)—the score would not terrify when it does terrify. Much like the chilling ironies to be found in collaborations between Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, such as The Threepenny Opera, The Seven Deadly Sins, and Mahagonny, wherein low-life characters sing charming duets to one another or ballads of serial murderers are cast in jaunty major keys for maximum Objective Correlative, again the music on its own would not be able to do the job; there has to be a text, an action-moving plot. The music, while capable of aiding and abetting danger, is not in-and-of-itself dangerous. To say nothing of the sheer cultural vertigo—the weltschmertz—found in Alban Berg’s deliciously disgusting Wozzeck and Lulu, or the dangerous notions of messing with the natural order in Janáček’s The Makropoulos Case—to say nothing of the (intentionally) terrifying work of early Robert Ashley (Wolfman) or Diamanda Galas (whose first record is The Litanies of Satan and whose lone book is The Shit of God). These pieces, too, are dangerous—they challenge our assumptions; they make us think, make us sick, turn us on in unexpected ways; scare us—but because their music is so well married to their subject matter and serves to make the unbearable more stomach-churning by being sung.[15]
To wax anecdotal for a moment, a few months after September 11th I went to hear Wozzeck at the Metropolitan Opera, which with the benefit of hindsight was a dreadful idea. The score—again, one of my absolute favorites—did the opposite of what I needed, never landing, challenging me and my ears (or heart or soul) at every turn, and at that moment in my life it was exactly what I did not need. But worse—that moment near the end where, during an interlude (divorced from any moment of plot) the orchestra crescendos to a deafening volume on a single pitch. In a way, it is the most rooted moment of the show; in other ways, it was the most terrifying, and I experienced fear of actual danger more vividly than I ever had in the concert hall. I thought, yes, that planes were going to crash through the roof of the opera house into the orchestra pit, and as the note grew louder, I became more convinced that what I was thinking was actually taking place—it obviously never happened. And in subsequent viewings of the opera,[16] that moment, while gripping, never again caused me the physical symptoms of fright. Which means that the impending sense of actual violence I felt was in part due to the score (not a small one), but was also personal.

The Ballad of Richard Wagner
wagnerIf there is one indomitable and ever polarizing figure in concert music, it is Richard Wagner. More ink has been spilled teasing him out biographically than not just any composer but than any other artist period. In fact—and I offer a flimsy and unsupported statistic here so take it as only that—the Great German Composer stands as the third-most written-about human being behind Jesus and Napoleon.[17] While his music is quite good (depending on whom you ask) and innovative (ditto) the question remains: why, so long after his death and so many innovations later, do we as a culture still have such complex reactions to him and his work. Leaving aside associations for which he cannot be blamed—the poisonous rap of being “Hitler’s favorite composer,” as unimportant as it is untrue (tastes ran more to Franz Lehar)—in this single human being’s work, life, and thinking we find the root of so many conflicting philosophical and musico-philosophical narratives, from Teutonic Nationalism to Zionism, from atonality and modernism to neo-classicism and impressionism, not to mention free-love libertinism, anti-Semitism, Nietzschean will, and a whole list of others—I’ve even heard it explained that Die Meistersinger is the precursor to the pro-union agitprop of Blitzstein and Weill. And even those who consciously rejected Wagner (say Satie and Les Six) still agogically admit him and his work as necessary enough to fight against. So yes, his is an elusive legacy, not least as it is currently being fought in Israel, with some determined to never have his work played there and some determined to surmount the associations—a difficult issue with strong points and high dudgeon on both sides. But being an innovator and a hater does not warrant or endure this specific depth of examination—the reason Wagner continues to rate is that Wagner might well be the last of the Dangerous Minds in “classical music” not because of his ideas (though they sure can lead to some dark places) but because of the dark, sensual power of his music.

Joseph Horowitz is his usual elegant self on this topic in his (awesome, there’s no other word) book Wagner Nights when he describes Victorian Era society women gathering, sartorially trussed and bound, to listen to one Anton Seidl—a now-forgotten conductor (because he worked before there were recordings) who was Wagner’s associate and principal American advocate—conduct this dangerous music, music that “stirred” them in seriously non-Victorian, pre-Kinsey ways to heretofore-unknown heights of sexual arousal and climax, the danger of leaving the body, of losing control, of rapture. “They lived for Wagner,” Horowitz writes, “No less than the roller coaster or revival meetings that serviced the lower classes. Wagner was a necessary source of violent excitation. And Seidl, with his irresistible gift for climax, was the necessary medium. At the Met, Isolde’s death-song, thrusting toward regions of oceanic wholeness, of womb-like security, of pre-pubescent play, was consummated by the hypnotic and statuesque [soprano] Lilli Lehmann. The bad effects of husband and bedroom were silenced by a musical-dramatic orgasm as explicit and complete as any mortal intercourse.” He also quotes the contemporaneous poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox on Tristan who says, “I heard wild willows beat, and thunders roll / and as the universe flamed into fire / I swooned upon the reef of coral lips” and Willa Cather writing in the voice of a man watching his own dowdy aunt Georgina subsumed by a Wagner concert, “The deluge of sound poured on; I never knew what she found in the shining current of it; I never knew how far it bore her, or past what happy islands. From the trembling of her face I could well believe that before the last numbers she had been carried out where the myriad graves are, into the gray, nameless burying grounds of the sea…” One need not discuss the obvious deployed image here of the sea-death[18] to know to what these two powerful writers were referring.

If you think this a mere Victorian-era notion which can only happen set against vast acculturated repression, to be disabused one need venture no further than WNYC’s 2007 The Tristan Mysteries (in which I happily participated) in which a friend of mine, her voice disguised to protect her reputation, recounts in hysterically lurid detail her own similar experience listening to the “Prelude and Liebestod” from, yes, Tristan und Isolde, unexpectedly dampening the seat of Carnegie Hall. This in 2001. This is persuasive power; this is dangerous. Little wonder famously brutal director Lars Von Trier used the prelude and other chunks as an idée fixe for his apocalyptic Melancholia[19], specifically for a long-focus nude scene, because this music speaks to the sex and to the death instinct in equal parts. Little wonder the work caused stirring in otherwise unstirred repressed American housewife loins.

The Ballad of Atonality
The most persuasive case for music actually being dangerous, that there is a kind of music that intends to not only exclude but do harm, has been made by firebrand musicologist Susan McClary. To sum up her argument, when speaking of Carmen, the seductive title character’s music is chromatic, a whiff of the foreign which seeks to intrude upon the (exclusively male-created) tonality of Don Jose, luring him in with her white-and-black-note witchcraft because it threatens the purity of his I-V-I tonal cadences and therefore she has to die. While this 1) sounds like a flimsy argument and 2) seems to be better suited to the associative than to the strictly musical, scanning forward to other operas, there is certainly merit to the idea that the chromatic intrudes upon the diatonic. (e.g. Salome, where the title character there is wildly chromatic, who sets her mania against the alarmingly tonal John the Baptist and is fallen upon by guards; the chromatic Isolde is bested by the tonal Tristan and therefore she has to have one last orgasm and die.)

The danger of chromaticism was not just in the context of these operas, with their dangerous and seductive characters, but also because it was set against the ever-stalwart and purer cadences and melodic figurations of the foundation of tonal harmony. Lose that, though, and you lose more than just the tonic: the whole notion of atonality was a dangerous thing because, on the echt level it spoke of rootlessness, of homelessness, of an unceasing wandering, of trying to find sense when old rules no longer applied. This was dangerous because it was impossible to follow—two and three on the danger calculus fleshed out for all to hear. In an earlier time, a ninth chord that Arnold Schoenberg had put into an “improper” inversion and not properly resolved in his musical essay Verklärte Nacht was thought by one critic to be the harbinger of the death of classical music.[20]

It is almost impossible for those of us who have lived through the rise and (ostensible) fall of the idea of non-tonal music as the banner-waving face of “modern music”[21] to understand how powerful and genuinely terrifying it must have been. I think I would trade just about anything I have to have been at the premiere of Wozzeck—not just to have heard it but to have the luxury of hearing it afresh, of feeling the house trembling at what they had to have seen as the barbarians at the gate (some of whom welcomed them because they were their own; some of whom were probably afraid because they felt the plants in their especial terrarium could not weather the new sounds). Obviously nobody can, and in that fact lies the essence of the argument: that danger is not just a personal but also an historical precept, one that at the very least—especially when rooted in the surface rebellion of what might shock—can never be recaptured[22], try though one might.

Finale: One Last Thing (There is a Point Here)
fire alarmIt was once true that certain musics spoke of and for and were born from deep rebellion, like all art[23], but imitating their imitations and toning them down in order to be loved is no rebellion whatsoever. So where does that leave us, especially my friend who aspires to a tattooed neck and a simultaneous career as a performer of the classics? Has the danger—mock, echt, or otherwise—been siphoned out of the Great Tradition so much so that it has in fact been withered down to a calcification of itself? Is there any hope for any concert composer to make a string quartet, orchestral piece, or solo piano work that has the raw power and down-and-dirty daemonic grit to be actually interesting and potent? Can classical music[24] actually be dangerous? Can a simple collection of pitches and rhythms rendered from a score scare us, turn us on, make us think in a fashion unbecoming, get us dirty, make us laugh in the face of terrible bloody tragedy, do glorious violence to our preconceptions?

The short answer is: probably not. The subsequent answer: who cares? If music is, as Stravinsky famously quipped, “powerless to express anything except itself,” then music qua music needs the ballast of some kind of narrative thrust—a background against which the danger can be implied; a personal association with the sound; a plain flesh-and-blood story—or at least the Great Metanarrative of Music History to lend it anything resembling danger.

The gist of the problem is that what humanity seems to long for is a closed system because it is easier to manage, even for the most intelligent among us. What philosophers—and in this phylum of thinkers I include artists—try to do (and, wow, will this be alarmingly general) is create visible patterns, ways to latch on to the voluptuously untamable and ineffable spirit of this thing called humanity—which is also why we need not just a single philosopher or school of thought, or a single discipline with which to express, delineate, define, and process the hugger-mugger of existence. But obviously, no door is shut for long because humanity is the ultimate open system, and that notion, much like the infinity of the cosmos, terrifies we who want to understand. And so we force square pegs of art into round holes, to great and important effect, and occasionally something happens to remind us how artificial much of that is, and that is the great and untenable terror, the agape of true, untrammeled awe.

Maybe you love classical music like I do: not as an aperitif or some kind of relaxing thing to get you away from it all, but as a vivid and messy thing that is rich and strange; perhaps the story of my friend aspiring to the neck tattoo but fearing for the career feels like an unjust exsanguination, a commuting of something made by complicated people to something built by statues. To remove the sense of danger is, of course, to do harm to the work though, like anything, every generation gets the danger it deserves. I think, then, as artists it is important to keep the idea of what scares people in check and use it to our best advantage, to mind the distance between scaring and shocking, and to not presume the rebellions of the previous generations will be met with the same dumbstruck looks and contra-paeans in the press as previously, because that helps nobody. It is important to be bold—fortune favors it, or so the saying goes—but it is equally important to (at the risk of sounding like a Pollyanna) follow your own compass rather than just presume the vanity of immediate on-the-grounds-of-danger rejection. And if that scares you or makes you feel you have entered dangerous waters, then my guess is that you are on the right track.

1. Google this at your own risk.
2. There was an entire movement called Danger Music. Much of it involved turning the music up so loud as to damage the eardrums of the listener, or Mr. Paik’s excursion into a whale, that sort of thing.
3. The best iteration of this terror can be found in the pages of my friend Wesley Stace’s novel Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, which is about a composer but written from the point of view of a critic who seems lost in the aesthetic tidal shifts of concert music trends.
4. A piece of music so dangerous that not only did it feature in A Clockwork Orange (Burgess, a composer himself, and Kubrick were no strangers to classical music) but it also served as the source of much musicological heat when enfant-terrible but brilliant scholar Susan McClary wrote: “The point of recapitulation in the first movement of the Ninth is one of the most horrifying moments in music, as the carefully prepared cadence is frustrated, damming up energy which finally explodes in the throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release.” Indeed.
5. In my composition class, I had something called “Dangerous Music Day” wherein I played pieces (as did the class) that were in some way “dangerous.” As my two strongest examples of those pieces you simply should not be listening to in any way if you are trying to write music I used Stravinsky’s Les Noces and the theme from the Mr. Softee truck, the former because it is difficult to not write that piece once you hear it and the latter because it makes you loathe music altogether.
6. Every important piece seemed to need its riot.
7. Where every last scrap of famous lyric has to be drawn directly from the projected life of the subject in flashes of “inspiration”; and where almost always nobody is ever seen actually making music. Apparently rewriting and rehearsing are anathema to Hollywood notions of how legendary songs are made.
8. This is not to say they got worse—the solo records of Nico, John Cale, and especially Lou Reed are, to a certain extent, musically more powerful and profound than their collective VU efforts, but the inexplicable mystique of their rough-around-the-edges youthful efforts speaks to something different.
9. Let the debate begin over Reed’s Metal Machine Music—artistic overstatement or middle finger to record company? I’ve certainly heard both.
10. On which I’ve written about in these pages and so will not rehash here.
11. Another mea culpa for vast oversimplification and the square-peg-round-hole lumping together such diverse and radically different artists simply because they can conveniently be called “experimental.” It does them a disservice to help me make a point.
12. Though I really really am, I swear.
13. As was the WPA, eventually.
14. You can see this in Tim Robbins’s ham-fisted but ultimately effective piece of contemporary agit-prop (read: anti-capitalist) cinema called The Cradle Will Rock. Don’t get me started on either the disrespectful portrayal of Orson Welles or the deep historical inaccuracies in the script, but overall it stands as 1) an excellent portrait of the time and 2) a really good portrait of the life of Mr. Blitzstein—there should be more movies about composers.
15. I want to mention Tori Amos here because while she did not, until recently, identify as a “classical” composer, her unaccompanied song “Me and a Gun” which recounts her own rape is one of the more hair-raising pieces of contextual gut-punching on record.
16. Yes, I went back. Rabid fan or glutton for terror?
17. Or so the legend has it.
18. Or how many shades of gray she enters into…
19. Though Alex Ross says of this very phenomenon that in doing so Mr. Von Trier “buys into a cheap conception of Wagner as a bombastic nihilist.” I say nothing.
20. Though to be fair, what “advance has not been thought, by someone, to be the death knell of said thing?
21. Not to mention the movie Psycho, which made every atonal sound need its concomitant shower scene. How many times has a composer heard “that could be in a horror movie” about some piece of theirs?
22. Any more than Borges’s Pierre Menard could not, though not for lack of effort, become the author of Don Quixote.
23. Not every piece of art, but every discipline has seeds of revolt within it, or at least certain practitioners do.
24. For lack of a better term.


Daniel Felsenfeld

Daniel Felsenfeld

Composer Daniel Felsenfeld has been commissioned and performed by Simone Dinnerstein, Two Sense, Metropolis Ensemble, American Opera Projects, Great Noise Ensemble Da Capo Chamber Players, ACME, Transit, REDSHIFT, Blair McMillen, Stephanie Mortimore, New Gallery Concert Series at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, BAM, Kennedy Center, Le Poisson Rouge, City Winery, Galapagos Art Space, The Stone, Jordan Hall, Duke University, Stanford University and Harvard University. He has also worked with Jay-Z, The Roots, Keren Ann, and is the court composer for John Wesley Harding’s Cabinet of Wonders. Raised in the outlying suburbs of Los Angeles, he lives in Brooklyn.