Tag: avant-garde

Stefania de Kenessey: 20 Years After Rewriting History

On March 20, 1997, composer Stefania de Kenessey launched the first Derriere Guard Festival at The Kitchen, a shrine to cutting edge performance in New York City. It was a bold move for a festival whose explicit goal was “to return to long-forgotten, long-abandoned ideas rooted in history and tradition” since “abstract painting, fractured architecture, free-form poetry and dissonant music, concepts which had once been revolutionary, eventually evolved into the status quo.”

I still remember the disdain this festival elicited from folks on seemingly opposite ends of the aesthetic spectrum—the so-called “uptowners” and the so-called “downtowners.” People sometimes point to the first Bang on a Can Festival in 1987, which paired works by Babbitt and Reich, as the death-knell of the upown/downtown divide, even though these composers didn’t interact with one other. I personally like to think NewMusicBox, which launched in 1999, helped bring the two sides together. But the first time these sides seemed to actually agree on anything was in their hatred for the Derriere Guard two years earlier.

Why did they hate it so much? Were they offended? I still remember the stationary for the press release whose logo is accurately described in one of the few reports of that first festival that still appears online as “a hand shielding a pair of buttocks.” (My search for a JPEG of that logo has thus far been in vain.) Or were they somehow afraid of what de Kenessey and her compatriots were claiming in their promotional materials at the time? (E.g. “Musical modernism has been a failure: in spite of determined attempts by established musical institutions, by intellectuals and by critics, the newly configured aesthetic – music as organized, structured sound – did not take hold among the listening public.”)

Just as the uptown/downtown cold war has long since thawed, twenty years later, this too all seems like water under the bridge. And the Derriere Guard’s ringleader, Stefania de Kenessey, is now extremely inclusive in her own aesthetics, which we discovered when we visited her in her Upper West Side apartment last month. We also learned that her favorite teacher was Milton Babbitt!

“I can support somebody who’s writing noise or grunge music or electronica or whatever,” said de Kenessey who, in addition to her own compositional activities, is the program director for the contemporary music program for the Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts at The New School. “When I go to concerts, or when I listen to the work that’s being done, it’s just all over the map.  Stylistically it’s wonderful.  I love it.  I love the variety.  But I don’t get the feeling that there’s kind of—what I was calling earlier—a lingua franca of new music.  Some people embrace pop.  Some people still embrace serialism.  Some people embrace dissonance.  Some people embrace consonance.  Some people embrace the European idea of a narrative kind of music.  Some people think that it should really be kind of cyclical and non-narrative.”

According to de Kenessey, the current range of new music has rendered the Derriere Guard movement no longer necessary, which is why even though there was a big 10th anniversary celebration of the launch of the movement a decade ago, there were no events to mark the 20th anniversary earlier this year. Music history has moved on and so has de Kenessey.

In fact, since the dawn of the 21st century, de Kenessey has embraced percussion—in fact, a drum set sits proudly next to a grand piano in her apartment—and in the past few years she has gotten extremely interested in electronic sound reproduction.

“There is a genuine difference between electronically mediated sound and acoustic sound,” de Kenessey explained.  “I don’t know what I think about that divide yet, but certainly 20 years ago electronically mediated sounds were just not that good.  They were not that pleasing.  But the technological advances that have occurred in the last two decades are phenomenal.  So the quality of sound you can make now, even with relatively simple software and relatively inexpensive speakers, is just phenomenal.  One of the things I’m doing right now is I’m teaching myself Logic Pro, and the next couple of projects I’m going to work on are going to be using electronically created and electronically mediated sound.”

As for the more polemical aspects of the Derriere Guard, these too seem to have been tempered somewhat in de Kenessey’s thinking.

“I didn’t have a strict ideology,” de Kenessey maintained.  “It was not like you had to write music in a certain way or to paint in a certain way.  The idea was simply to let these new kinds of artistic endeavors have a place to flourish … I really just wanted to kick down some walls and open up some venues.  Why could only dissonant, harsh, terrible things be represented in The Kitchen?  It’s not monolithic.  You don’t have to dress in black any more to enter its halls.  That’s partly why I had Tom Wolfe there in all white.  I’m being silly here, but you know what I mean.  It’s just to allow a kind of a multiplicity of voices to be honored in a way that I don’t think was as routine as it is today.  I really do think that the establishment itself has been more fragmented in its understanding of what is possible, and what is honorable and interesting to support. You’re much more likely now to go to a concert and hear new pieces on it of very different stylistic bents.  Thirty years ago, it would have been a pretty safe bet what you might have heard.”

September 15, 2017 at 11:00 a.m.
Stefania de Kenessey in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Video and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri: Last month it suddenly dawned on me that this year marks the 20th anniversary of your Derriere Guard movement.

Stefania de Kenessey:  I know! When you sent me that email, I was actually flummoxed to realize that—that it’s been since ’97 that it started.  It’s hard to believe how time passes.

FJO:  The world was a very different place in a lot of different ways, but I still remember distinctly how angry certain people in the new music community were when you launched the first Derriere Guard Festival. And it was people on many different sides aesthetically, both folks coming from the so-called uptown and the so-called downtown. People on both sides who could never agree on anything agreed that what you were doing was outrageous.  And they seemed really upset about it.  Why do you think that what you were doing made them so upset?

The Derriere Guard “wasn’t about having an ideological vision that I wanted to impose on the musical community.”

SdK:  I’m not quite sure.  It was meant to be both a serious and a humorous gesture, but not an antagonistic one which is part of the reason I held it at The Kitchen.  The whole point of having it at The Kitchen was to show that this is a kind of avant-garde.  So my only point in the Derriere Guard, besides to have a sense of humor, as the name indicates, was to really open doors to a kind of music that was just not able to be represented in the way that I thought it deserved to be represented.  I never wanted to change the uptown aesthetic.  I never wanted to change the downtown aesthetic.  It wasn’t about having an ideological vision that I wanted to impose on the musical community, by any stretch of the imagination.  I just thought it was time to allow certain other kinds of music, that were not getting their fair share, to also be heard.  That’s it.  End of story.  That was the only point of the festival.  And I thought we did it.  And it was fun.

FJO:  From around that same time there was a British visual art movement called Stuckism. Were you aware of these folks?

SdK:  No, much to my shame.

FJO:  It’s a very interesting parallel to this.  It was started by a painter who calls himself Billy Childish. He’s a bit of a prankster.  According to the official story of all of this, in the late 1980s he was dating a now very famous conceptual artist, Tracey Emin, and she told him that his paintings were stuck in the past.  Apparently she yelled, “Stuck! Stuck! Stuck!” He wanted to return visual art to portraiture, landscape painting, and other kinds of things that she and many other of his contemporaries thought was anachronistic. So he decided to call what he was doing Stuckism.

SdK:  Oh, that’s funny.

FJO:  Yes, and when he wrote a Stuckist Manifesto and organized exhibitions of Stuckist artists in London, everybody in the British art world was completely incensed by it, so it definitely does seem to me related to what you were doing to some extent. I think in both cases, people in certain corners of the so-called avant-garde perhaps felt a little bit threatened about all of this even if you just said that wasn’t what it was about.

SdK:  I mean, it certainly wasn’t my intention for it to be threatening or ideologically prescriptive.  I just always thought that the idea of a so-called avant-garde that is ensconced at, say, Lincoln Center or the Whitney Museum, is an oxymoron.  Right?  I mean, it doesn’t mean it’s not great art or not great music, but it’s not avant-garde if it’s at Lincoln Center.  Right?  By definition.  The avant-garde should be somehow at the edges, pushing the envelope.  And you cannot be doing that if you’re embraced and supported by the very establishment. So to begin with, I think we need to have a sense of humor about the term avant-garde and reconsider its meaning.  Also, modernism had a very, very powerful and deservedly very strong influence in the 20th century, but it was not the only way to think about music and not the only way to write music.

I myself studied with Milton Babbitt, so it’s not like I don’t respect or know something about modernism. I think he was a brilliant, brilliant exponent of it.  But it also left certain kinds of music and music-making by the wayside.  I think in any kind of revolution it’s important to—what’s that old cliché—don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. For me, that was the idea of certain kinds of melodic constructions, certain kinds of relatively simple and consonant, beautiful harmonies.  It’s not impossible to imagine a music which is modern and forward-looking that still uses those “old-fashioned” features.  Right?  One of the things I tried to do with the Derriere Guard, and one of the things I really do believe in, is that the act of using melodies, the act of using consonant harmonies, is not in and of itself a political statement.  It is not right wing.  It is not left wing.  It’s not forward-looking.  It’s not backward-looking.  It can be what you make of it.  And you need to let people simply work in that idiom if they choose to.  You just need to give them a space in which to do it.  And I think 20 years ago, it was difficult to find that space.  There were very few venues that would support that.  To be writing the kind of music that I was writing, or to be painting the kinds of canvases that my painter friends were painting, or writing the kinds of poetry that had meter and narrative that my poet friends were doing was thought to be sort of off the beaten path or slightly crazy.

“History will tell what becomes favored by audiences.”

Ten years ago, it was maybe a little eccentric. And I think now it’s absolutely acceptable to do it, even if it’s not part of the establishment necessarily these days, which is why I don’t need a 20th Derriere Guard Festival.  We needed one 20 years ago, just to make a statement.  Then we had a 10th anniversary festival to kind of recap, or remember what we had done. But now I feel like it’s in the air.  We’ve accomplished what we wanted to do, which is simply to create a space where this kind of work can happen and can be acknowledged.  That’s it.  History will tell what becomes favored by audiences; you cannot predict which way things will go.  But you have to give a multiplicity of voices and a multiplicity of styles space.  I think that’s a laudable thing to do and it shouldn’t be threatening.

FJO:  But there are some provocations in the Derriere Guard’s original mission statement. To quote from it:  “Concepts which had once been revolutionary, eventually evolved into the status quo.  In such a situation, the most proactive, radical act was simply … to return to long-forgotten, long-abandoned ideas rooted in history and tradition.”

SdK:  I haven’t looked at that mission statement in 15 years at least.  But yes, it can be radical to do something as simple as write something with a beautiful melody in C-minor.  The trick is how to make it not simply a replica of the past.  I have no interest in simply returning to the past.  I don’t want to be put back in a corset.  That’s not my idea of revisiting history in any meaningful sense.  But it doesn’t mean that you can’t necessarily use certain elements selectively and intelligently from the past, that those are crasser techniques that aren’t valid in this day and age.  If you look at so-called popular music, it has never abandoned those kinds of historically grounded precepts that so-called art music didn’t abandon necessarily, but certainly pushed to the side for a long time.

FJO:  It’s hard to claim that tonality was long forgotten and long abandoned when there were a bunch of really significant composers in America in the last century who never actually abandoned tonality.

SdK:  Right.  And at the time of the Derriere Guard Festival, I remember some people saying what we need to do is write an alternate history of 20th-century music, because in fact it was not simply the 12-tone school that evolved and went in certain directions.  There was always an alternate history that was not being sufficiently acknowledged, or sufficiently supported.

FJO:  Samuel Barber was a tonal composer and for a while was one of the most successful composers in America.  When the new Metropolitan Opera House opened, he was the composer who got the commission to write a new work to inaugurate it. So it wasn’t like it wasn’t supported by the establishment.

SdK:  But that was in the ‘60s.

FJO: Even after that, Ned Rorem, who never abandoned tonality, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1976.  But I take your point to some extent—to read music history, to take a look at it from the way that historians write it, it’s too messy for there to be multiple paths. So when Arnold Schoenberg was coming up with the 12-tone theory and Josef Matthias Hauer was doing so independently of him, other Viennese composers, like Franz Schmidt and Karl Weigl, never abandoned tonality.  Richard Strauss certainly never did. Nowadays some people like to claim that Richard Strauss is the forefather of post-modernism.  They’ve retroactively claimed him so that there could be a larger narrative arc of history, and I suppose that’s the role of historians.  But reality is much messier. That said, maybe I’m making inferences here, but I did think that 20 years ago you were trying to make an historical statement. That mission statement certainly feels like a manifesto to some extent.

SdK:  Well, I think it was very important to establish that there should be a place for a kind of music—and in the other arts as well—which uses these techniques from the past in ways that were hopefully not repetitive of the past. We were really interested in moving music and the other arts forward in a way that was not being done, or was not being acknowledged—I thought at the time—in a way that it deserved, to be just let loose to blossom and to flourish.  So yes, I was trying to be provocative in that sense.  Sometimes you want to give history a little kick, to kick it forward a few inches.  One of the senses that I’ve always had is that in the 20th century we came to value innovation as the hallmark of genius.  You always have to be doing something new and something that has never been done before.  I wanted to establish the idea that maybe you can do something that really is genuinely new by simply using things that have been done. When I do my 20th-century history course at The New School, once we get to the end of all these things that have been done in terms of innovation, one of the most unkind assignments I can give to my students is to ask them to go and write a piece using a technique that no one has thought of.  It’s really damned difficult to come up with something.  Right?  What do you do that’s innovative at the end of a century where innovation per se has been one of the focal points of development? It becomes a different kind of problem, right?

“We came to value innovation as the hallmark of genius.”

History is a messy thing, and it’s very messy when you’re in the midst of it.  It’s very difficult to see clearly.  And I think one of the important things to do is not to be monolithic about it. Especially at this moment in history there’s such a multiplicity of styles and such a multiplicity of voices.  It’s particularly incumbent on us to have that broad palette available and supported.

FJO:  And history also keeps getting rewritten.

SdK:  Sure.

FJO:  Curiously, of all people, Arnold Schoenberg who established the 12-tone system and is hailed as an innovator and a torchbearer for the avant-garde, famously claimed that Brahms was a progressive composer.  Yet in the 19th century, the path that was considered progressive versus the path that was considered retrogressive was Wagner versus Brahms.

SdK:  Right.

FJO:  Schoenberg basically rewrote that history and said that if you analyze the organic structure of the way Brahms’s themes developed, it was really a more forward-looking idea than what Wagner was doing, which was just wandering around aimlessly without any structural underpinning.

SdK:  Well, that’s one way of understanding it.  Another one is to understand the end of the 19th century as not actually being bifurcated quite the way that it seemed to be.  The differences between Wagner and Brahms are in some ways radical and in some ways not at all.  It really depends on historic stance and historic understanding.  And those do change with time.  There’s no question about that.

Stefania de Kenessey talking with Frank J. Oteri.

FJO:  So I’ll be a provocateur.

SdK:  Go, go, go.

FJO:  It might be possible then with the hindsight of history, maybe even 20 years from now, to say that the music that you were composing back in 1997 and have continued to write up until now and the music of serial and post-serial composers, plus the music of the minimalists as well as the followers of John Cage—maybe all of this isn’t as different as we think.  They might sound very different, but maybe they’re not all that different.

SdK:  Well, I think you’re right in some sense.  I think the surfaces are obviously quite different.  So there are genuine differences to be claimed.  But I also think that the multiplicity of styles, and the search for what I would call a lingua franca in music, is certainly what unites everybody in the 20th century, or even the beginning of the 21st century.  There is no commonly spoken or commonly understood musical idiom. So if you meet somebody and they say, “Oh, I’ve been listening to music,” or “I’m writing a piece,” the first question is “What kind of music?  Is it classical?  Is it pop?”  Then if it’s pop, what pop? It’s the first question.  I don’t think that would have been the first question in the 18th century or even the 19th.

“A commonly spoken musical language is not one we can take for granted anymore.”

The sense of having a commonly understood or a commonly spoken musical language is not one we can take for granted anymore.  That’s both a blessing and a curse.  The blessing is that we can know about music from the 12th century to the 20th.  I know something about African drumming and something about classical Indian music.  The sheer volume of information that’s available to people is staggering. And you can’t do all of those things simultaneously, so you have to make choices.  But that availability of huge amounts of stylistic information is wonderful.  On the other hand, it also means that we’re all searching, because you either do what your teacher told you to do, or demonstrated as what to be doing, or you have to go out on your own and start questing for something that makes sense to you.  So there isn’t that possibility that was probably much more common in past centuries, and probably in other cultures as well, where you’d enter a tradition—you’d learn from your teachers and you’d continue that tradition.  You’d make innovations, but within that tradition.  That’s no longer true.

FJO:  In terms of historical lineage, it’s interesting to look at composers from the generation before us who were apostates to modernism, like George Rochberg or David Del Tredici. They were both castigated for returning to tonality when they first did, even though they’ve both become iconic.  I think part of why it was so shocking to people is they were both such good serial composers, so they were members of the faith who had defected so it was really heavy. I’m curious about this in terms of your development. I knew that you went to Princeton and that you were at Yale before that.  And when you were at Princeton, you studied with Babbitt.  So were you a 12-tone composer back in the day?  Did you start off writing this kind of stuff?

SdK:  Never.  I always admired it.  I always knew about it, but I have never written 12-tone music and never desired to do so.  I almost went and studied with Rochberg.  I went to Princeton for a variety of reasons, but one of them was they kept asking me to come. Finally I went and I was interviewed by Milton Babbitt.  And I said “I’m very honored to be asked to study here, but why should I come here of all places to get my Ph.D.?  I write very tonal music. I’m not particularly interested in 12-tone music or electronic music, and I kind of doubt that that will happen to me in the next couple of years.  So why should I come here?”  And he looked at me, and he said, “Well, for a couple of reasons.  One, I think you’re very talented.  Two, if you come here, you will find that we spend as much time talking about Bach and Brahms as we do about Schoenberg and Webern.  And three, if you come here, I will take you under my wing.”  So that was a very, very nice offer and not to be refused.

At the same time, I had applied to other places.  The other place I was considering was Penn where George Rochberg was teaching.  He was the one that people were pushing me to study with. I decided not to go to Penn for two reasons.  One, it was just a master’s program at that point, and they weren’t funding it the same way. Princeton made me a very generous offer.  But the other reason, the more substantive one, was that when I spoke with George, he said that he had returned to tonality, but he felt—and he felt very strongly about this—that tonality was in some sense finished and the only thing that could be done with it was to imitate tonal examples from the past.  He really wanted to write a Beethoven movement, a Bartók movement, a Stravinsky movement, a blues.  He wanted to sort of mimic those styles and was not interested in the conversation that I had with them.  We talked for quite a while about trying to figure out a way to go through those and come up with an individual, distinct style.  And for better or for worse, I’ve been trying to do that most of my life.  I didn’t want to just write a pseudo-Beethoven quartet. That’s absolutely necessary to develop skill, but then you want to try to move beyond that and develop what you think is your individual voice, and he was not really interested in that.  He really saw the return to tonality as an homage to the past.  I wanted to think of the return to tonality as moving forward into the future.  I’m mincing words here, but I think you understand what I mean.

FJO:  It’s so interesting because one of the things I found striking about your music when I first heard it—and the same is true for Michael Dellaira and Eric Ewazen, whose music you also featured in that initial Derriere Guard Festival—is that it doesn’t smack of irony; it doesn’t sound like post-modernism.  It isn’t about referencing.  It isn’t like Schnittke or how tonal melodies reappear in the Alice pieces of David Del Tredici.  I think David has moved beyond that in his own music, to like a full-fledged, almost kind of crazed other path that history could have taken beyond romanticism now, in the music he’s writing in the last, say, 25 years or so, but his initial re-entrance to tonality was aesthetically similar to what Rochberg was doing at that same time.

SdK:  I tried to position it as something post-post-modern.  There was modernism and then post-modernism, which returns to the past but kind of ironically. The same thing happened in architecture.  You get columns again, but they’re in the wrong place.  Things of that sort.  The question for me is: How do you build new buildings which may have columns, but in a more organic way?  How do you write music which may have melodies and harmonies that somehow represent elements of the past, but in a novel way, rather than in an ironic or pastiche manner?  So that was the idea.  That’s why I focused on those kinds of composers, rather than paying homage to clearly incredibly talented composers like Ned Rorem or David Del Tredici or to the minimalists who kind of opened up the door that I think the Derriere Guard was then able to open up further, if that’s the right metaphor.

FJO:  But even though the music itself is not ironic, calling it Derriere Guard spelled G-U-A-R-D, and having as your symbol a little cartoon of a butt, was a bit ironic.

SdK:  Yeah, of course.  Well, I think it was hard for me to have a movement which is not really a movement. I didn’t have a strict ideology.  It was not like you had to write music in a certain way or to paint in a certain way.  The idea was simply to let these new kinds of artistic endeavors have a place to flourish. There are huge divergences between the music of Eric Ewazen and Michael Dellaira and myself and all sorts of other people.  And that’s good.  That’s fine.  That’s wonderful.  I don’t have any problem.  It was just to give a place for that music to flourish. So to give it a serious term was going to give it a kind of ideological credence that I was not looking for.  I really just wanted to kick down some walls and open up some venues.

“You don’t have to dress in black any more.”

Why could only dissonant, harsh, terrible things be represented in The Kitchen?  It’s not monolithic.  You don’t have to dress in black any more to enter its halls.  That’s partly why I had Tom Wolfe there in all white.  I’m being silly here, but you know what I mean.  It’s just to allow a kind of a multiplicity of voices to be honored in a way that I don’t think was as routine as it is today.  I really do think that the establishment itself has been more fragmented in its understanding of what is possible, and what is honorable and interesting to support. You’re much more likely now to go to a concert and hear new pieces on it of very different stylistic bents.  Thirty years ago, it would have been a pretty safe bet what you might have heard.

FJO:  Depending on what neighborhood you were in.

SdK:  Exactly.  That’s what I mean.

FJO:  Yet if you have a concert and you call it a new music concert, you shouldn’t know what you’re going hear.

SdK:  Right.

FJO:  If you know what you’re going hear, then how is it a new music concert?

SdK:  Right.

FJO:  That, in fact, is ironic.

SdK:  Yeah.

Stefania de Kenessey standing in front of a red staircase.

FJO:  Alright, so to get to this place, you never wanted to write 12-tone music.  Yet you studied someone who is hailed as the father of total serialism. That’s another irony. So few of Milton Babbitt’s students actually pursued his compositional path. And he didn’t want them to. He wanted people to pursue their own paths.  He wasn’t interested in creating clones.

SdK:  Yes.

FJO: He was so open minded.  He was also obsessed with Broadway theater music.

SdK:  And Chinese food.

FJO:  Yes, and baseball.

SdK:  Right.

FJO:  But by the time you were studying with him, you were already well on your path. So when did you first start writing music?  When did you get this idea in your head that you wanted to be a composer?  How did you discover this music?  You and I are roughly the same generation; classical music of any kind wasn’t something that was necessarily nearby when we were growing up.

SdK:  Well, yes and no.  I grew up mostly in the States, but I was actually born in Budapest.  When I was three-years old, my mother decided I was too skinny.  The pediatrician told her to make sure I got regular exercise, so she enrolled me in a rhythmic gymnastics school in Budapest, which was part rhythmic gymnastics, part ballet, part modern dance.  And there was a little old lady at the piano.  Probably not as old as I now remember her being from my vantage point.  She sat at the piano and played music with which I just fell in love when I was three.  And I remember literally falling in love.  I still remember to this day that whenever we weren’t doing exercises I would crawl underneath the piano and just let the sounds wash over me.  And from that day on, two things happened.  One, I started to be able to hear music in my head that I hadn’t heard in those classes.  My recollection is they were either two or three times a week for either two or three hours.  So it was a lot of stuff going on, and lots of music.  I also started to pay attention to what she was playing.  She was playing from real scores.  She never improvised. It turned out to be mostly 18th- and 19th-century stuff.  Some 17th-century repertoire as well.  So following that, I also made my parents let me audition for a music school founded by Zoltán Kodály, so I grew up on Bartók and Kodály. By the time I was 10 or 11, I knew some Schoenberg, some Webern, Shostakovich, and some Stravinsky. So to me, a lot of the discoveries that my peers were making in college about music—the radical music of, say, 1900 to 1930—was part of my lingua franca growing up as a child.  So there was to me nothing particularly revelatory or difficult about dissonant music.

FJO:  Yet you weren’t attracted to it.

“I didn’t fall in love with Schoenberg and Webern.”

SdK:  I wasn’t as attracted to it as I was to the other kinds.  So like I said, it is our blessing and our curse that we have available to us a huge of palette of sounds.  And you might have to make some choices because you can’t do all things all the time.  For me the choice was that I fell in love with the music of, say, Monteverdi and Mozart in ways that I didn’t fall in love with Schoenberg and Webern.  I admire Schoenberg and Webern.  I teach them all the time.  It’s not for lack of respect or lack of understanding, but what I love is just a different kind of music.  And that was always part of my upbringing.  So my path is a little bit different from the typical path because of that particular history.

FJO:  Well, to take it back to the years you were studying, and even the years leading up to formation of the Derriere Guard, to aspire to write music that sounds like, say, Rachmaninoff would have been considered old-fashioned.  Right? Yet to write music that sounds like Webern would not be considered old-fashioned.

SdK:  Right.

FJO:  But this is ridiculous because A, they were contemporaries, and B, they’re both long dead.

SdK:  Correct.

FJO:  So they’re both the past.

SdK:  Yes.  You’re absolutely right.  That’s why I try to have a sense of humor about it.  That’s why it’s the Derriere Guard with a humorous name because some of the things we do, if you think about it in a more sophisticated way, don’t make any sense.  They’re just sometimes silly.  Music of the ‘20s is long, long gone, no matter what style it was in.  And the ‘30s and the ‘40s.  And now even the ‘60s and the ‘70s.  I have lots of students who are really proud of themselves because they know some things from the 1960s.  That’s amusing.

FJO:  So in terms of your own music—

SdK:  —I always wrote tonal music.

FJO:  Was there any resistance to it with composition teachers you had?

SdK:  Yes, always. All my composition teachers except for Milton Babbitt.  Sooner or later, they’d say, “This is wonderful, but for the next class, or next lesson, would you be interested in bringing in something along the lines of—” and those lines were typically what they’d been doing.  So that’s why Milton was my favorite teacher, by far. I would bring him, say, a piano trio, and we’d sit down and he’d say, “That transition from the first theme to the second theme, when you’re moving from C to G-flat, do you think that transition is long enough given the harmonic terrain you’re trying to traverse?”  We’d sit and talk about that.  It was absolute heaven.  It really was.  He helped me to think about my music on its own terms.  And that’s the best thing a composition teacher can do is to help, in so far as possible, each composer develop his or her own individual voice.  You can only do that by working on the thing that they are trying to produce.  And working on making that better.

FJO:  It’s interesting that you mention a piano trio, because one of my favorite earlier pieces of yours is a piano trio called Traveling Light.  It’s a gorgeous piece.

SdK:  Oh, that’s very sweet.  Thank you.

FJO:  But what I find even more interesting about it than thinking it sounds gorgeous is that there is harmonic motion in it that I don’t think could have been written in the 19th century.

SdK:  Well, that whole piece is actually modal.  It’s technically in A-major, but it’s got two sharps, so in fact it’s not in A-major in a conventional 19th-century sense.  There are, of course, composers in the 19th century who wrote modal music—Fauré is the prime example of that—but they typically don’t take those harmonic constructions and use them in functional ways.  So one of the things I was doing back then, if I have to explain it theoretically, is taking modal harmonies and modal chords and creating a sense of functional harmony using them.  There are no tonic-dominant relationships.  There is no V-I cadence in that entire piece, for instance.  So instead of veering right towards the dominant, it keeps going leftwards towards the subdominant.  The harmonic motions are always off if you’re measuring them by 19th-century standards.  So yes, in some ways there’s no way that could have been written in the 19th century and that’s exactly what I was playing with.

FJO:  And that was your idea of finding a new path.

SdK:  Well, it was my way of finding a new path at that time.  But yes, I was trying to find a new path.  And I was having great fun with it because I thought I was doing something that nobody had done before.  It was fun.  On the surface of it, it doesn’t sound “radical” or “new” in any sense.  It’s, you know, a piano trio.  Nobody opens up the piano and plays with the strings inside, the violin is just played with the bow. There’s no novelty in that sense.  But I think in fact I had a great time with it because I wrote this long piece where there are no normative harmonic relations among the themes or the instruments or the overall progression.  I had a great time, and I still think it doesn’t duplicate the past even as it participates in the past.  So it’s at least my way of trying to take elements from the past and really shoving them into the future.

FJO:  I’d like to unpack something else you were saying. You said you had no interest in doing serial music.  You also said you had no interest in doing electronic music.  It seems to me that your aesthetics at that time, and the aesthetics of the Derriere Guard overall, were about more than just re-embracing tonality.  You kind of hit on this when you said that nobody is going inside the piano.  The aesthetic was about focusing on certain instrumental sonorities that, even though they are very much still with us, had been developed in the past and also intentionally not using electronics.  Is that a fair assessment?

SdK:  I think that’s fair to say, though again, this is where things do evolve.  Most of the music I’ve written in the last 20 years has been for acoustic instruments and standard instruments.  There’s no question of that.  But in part, that was because there is a genuine difference between electronically mediated sound and acoustic sound.  So that’s number one.  I don’t know what I think about that divide yet, but certainly 20 years ago electronically mediated sounds were just not that good.  They were not that pleasing.  But the technological advances that have occurred in the last two decades are phenomenal.  So the quality of sound you can make now, even with relatively simple software and relatively inexpensive speakers, is just phenomenal.  One of the things I’m doing right now is I’m teaching myself Logic Pro, and the next couple of projects I’m going to work on are going to be using electronically created and electronically mediated sound.

FJO:  Really?

SdK:  Yes, absolutely.

FJO:  Wow.

“The quality of electronically produced sounds was not great. My analogy was always the difference between frozen peas and fresh peas.”

SdK:  So things do change, and they do shift.  Again it wasn’t so much ideological, I just wanted to make sounds that I considered to be really beautiful.  I felt the quality of electronically produced sounds was not great.  My analogy was always the difference between frozen peas and fresh peas.  I eat frozen peas when I need to.  I will dunk them into something. But if you can get fresh peas, it’s just a world of difference.  And now the difference to me is much, much less.  It’s almost imperceptible at times, so I think we’re entering a new terrain, I actually do, which is why it’s always difficult to predict the future.  You never know.  And anybody who pretends to is being silly.

FJO:  But, of course, the other schism is between using electronic sounds to mimic the sounds that we’re already familiar with versus electronic sound offering the possibility to create entirely new sounds.  Maybe new is the wrong word here, but rather sounds that exist on their own terms rather than trying to replicate and never quite getting right things that are already done so well on acoustic instruments.

SdK:  No, I think we are entering a new world of sound.  I think it’s going to be possible—it is possible—to create new sonorities that are, by my standards, very beautiful, but are not replications of standardized sounds. Actually one of the genuine revelations I had this summer is I went to Prague for the first time, and I heard a performance of Figaro in the house that Mozart premiered Don Giovanni in. The revelation to me was that the combination of instruments in the pit—and it was not a large pit—and the voices on the stage was the most perfect combination of Mozart-ian sounds I’d ever heard.  It became clear to me that he really was writing music for that medium.  The voices didn’t have to be loud.  The orchestra didn’t need to be large in order to sound absolutely plush and full.  And the interplay between them was acoustically perfect.  Mozart really was writing for the medium.  One of the things that has inspired me to do is to start to think about writing for the medium.  And frankly, a lot of my music is being heard on computers and computer speakers these days, or on film scores, or even the opera that I wrote, The Bonfire of the Vanities, which we’re now editing so it can be viewed in a theater or shown to opera companies as a filmed product.  A lot of the sounds that we listen to and create are actually being mediated electronically and at the same time, I’m not writing for that.  And that’s a mistake.  So I’m working on actually moving in that direction.

FJO:  That’s so interesting.  Well, one of things that triggered this thought for me was hearing what Artis Wodehouse did with your solo piano piece Sunburst on a Disklavier.  It was extraordinary.  It really worked, but it became a slightly different piece than how I first heard it—performed on a grand piano, which is how you originally conceived it.  Perhaps because of the associations we have with player pianos as antique curiosities, anything that resembles that sound world sounds like it’s from another era. So even though she was using a very contemporary technology on a piece that embraces the harmonic vocabulary of an earlier era, it conjured an earlier technology which actually made it sound older to me than when I heard it performed on a piano.

SdK:  Interesting. That’s funny. The Disklavier itself is an unusual thing if you think about it as an object—a piano that is a piano, but not really a piano.  So it occupies a very strange space in sort of aesthetic or philosophical terms in the history of instruments.

FJO:  But it also made me wonder what kind of a piece you might write had you written something that was originally intended for that medium.

SdK:  Well, it should be different.  I think it should be different.  I didn’t write it specifically for that, so I don’t know what I would do, but yes.  I think I need to start being more responsive to changes in the medium, or the media that are available to me.

FJO:  The other thing about the Derriere Guard aesthetic that perhaps I’m just inferring is it also has to do with performance practice to some extent, the performing aspect of how people play this music and what your preferred sound is for the way this music is played.  And it seems to me that a lot of the music that I’ve heard on recordings and in live performance, it’s really about embracing the performance techniques of players who play the standard repertoire and using performance techniques that are specifically associated with that, like singing with vibrato or playing instruments with a lot of rubato instead of singing with a pure tone or being metronomically precise. So it seems that part of your aesthetic in the way this music is performed is that it is probably more ideally served by players who play older repertoire than people who are “contemporary music specialists.”  Is that fair?

SdK:  That’s absolutely correct.  You’ve hit the nail on the head.  For me, the music needs to breathe in certain kinds of ways, so metronomic exactness of rhythm or tempo is not something that suits the music particularly well.  That’s also part of the reason why I’ve gravitated more and more towards working with singers, because singers take for granted that what they do is inflected by the meaning of the text that they’re singing.  So they will not hesitate to take an extra breath here or to stretch something out there because the emotional context or the word requires it.  Whereas, an instrumentalist might.  And you cannot put in, at the end of every phrase, that it’s the conclusion of a phrase, so make it sound like like the conclusion of a phrase.  Let it just pull back a little bit.  You can’t put those kinds of instructions in the score constantly.  It’s intrusive, and it also takes away the immediacy of the performance, the heat of the moment.

One of my favorite anecdotes about Beethoven is that he was reported never to have performed his pieces the same way twice.  That’s an extraordinary thing.  He was performing his own music.  Presumably, he knew how it went.  But in the heat of the moment, each phrase is going to be slightly different.  And sometimes the fortissimo might be much louder than the others.  And if it is, that might influence a quiet moment coming up.  So if you’re going to have a live performance, let the human being really inflect that live performance.  What I do with that once I get to start writing electronic music is actually particularly interesting.  Because that’s where you set up your tempo and everything is kind of precise in a way that human beings aren’t.  Or they strive to be, but you know, they have to work at it.

A manuscript for a vocal setting by Stefania de Kenessey sits on top of her piano next to a sheet with the text she is setting.

FJO:  And if you’re going to be doing electronic music and incorporating singers into that, you would probably want to use amplification for the singers.

SdK:  Probably.

FJO:  The technique of singing with a microphone is so different.

SdK:  Completely different.

FJO:  Vibrato doesn’t come across too well when it’s amplified.

SdK:  But I’m not a huge fan of vibrato either. I don’t particularly love those big, hooty voices that you hear at the Met.  I understand they’re needed to carry into the stratosphere, but I much prefer smaller voices and more pure, clean tones.  So that I’m totally okay with. But the question of how to make the time a little bit malleable to match the singers is one that is a very complex and vexing one and one that I haven’t solved.  The next opera project, which is just really in its infancy although I have a call to my librettist this afternoon, is we want to write a piece where I would write the score electronically and then we would have the singers sing on top of that for live performances.  How we do this yet, I don’t know.  So don’t ask me.  The details will be figured out, but we are moving in a different direction and in that direction specifically. But I don’t have the answer yet; I’m sorry.  That’s why it’s fun to be an artist because you set up a problem and you work with it. I have this goal, so it’ll keep me busy for the next couple of months.

FJO:  So you say you gravitate toward vocal music because singers know how to respond to a text. I also wonder if you also gravitate toward vocal music because having a text makes the music that much more directly communicative to people.

“To analyze one’s own motivations is the most difficult thing in the world.”

SdK:  Could be.  I don’t know.  To analyze one’s own motivations is the most difficult thing in the world. On the other hand, I would say for the first 10-15 years that I was out in the world and producing music, it was all instrumental.  I wrote piano trios and sonatas, a clarinet quintet and a string quartet—all instrumental stuff.  I’m actually a latecomer to vocal music, in terms of the trajectory of my own career.  I really come out of that Germanic tradition of motivic building and construction.  I moved into the vocal realm, and now I sort of write music on, if anything, the Italian model. I hate these nationalistic labels.  They’re not particularly useful.  But the idea is of these beautiful melodies that you can kind of remember, even sing, engagingly and with pleasure.  But it’s taken a long, long time to have come to that.

FJO:  But interestingly, you mentioned a clarinet quintet. It’s called Shades of Darkness. And your piano trio is named Traveling Light.  You didn’t call any of your pieces, say, Piano Sonata No. 4.

SdK:  Yes, except I did, and then one of my early mentors, Richard Hundley—I had a couple of lessons with him—said, “You’ve got to put different titles on these, otherwise they’ll never catch on.”

FJO:  I agree with him.

SdK:  So I went back, and I listened to my pieces again, and I thought, “What are titles that would actually exemplify what this might be about to a listener?” Originally it was just Clarinet Quintet in G-minor, opus whatever, 13.  Suite for Oboe and Piano.  Not Magic Forest Dances.  All of them had plain, vanilla titles.

FJO:  And opus numbers, too?

SdK:  Yeah.

FJO:  Wow.

SdK:  Yeah.  Because that’s what serious composers did back then.  And around 1990, I stopped numbering because it just got too complicated. I couldn’t care less anymore, and I started giving them titles anyway, so I stopped.  I have no idea where my oeuvre stands.

FJO:  Well, to go back to something you said earlier about the language of music and this desire in the 20th century to constantly innovate and come up with a new idea. One of the functions of art, whether it’s a poem or a painting or a piece of music, if you’re presenting this for an audience, for viewers, for readers, it’s got to communicate in some way.

SdK:  Right.

FJO:  So how does that communication happen for the person receiving the work? If I picked up any of the books on your shelves, I’d be able to read them since they’re in English and I’ve spoken and read English all my life. But if one of those books was in Hungarian, I’d be lost since I don’t speak Hungarian.  I wouldn’t get much from it. I’d just be seeing random combinations of letters. Music is sort of tricky because it doesn’t mean anything specific, so we have to metaphorically attach meanings to it, which I think is part of why titles are important.

SdK:  It helps.

FJO:  Yes, and it helps because it grounds it in a way that makes it more comprehensible. But there’s a larger kind of communication here as well, which I think the whole idea of Derriere Guard was trying to tap into, the idea about having recognizable chords and discernible melodies.  It seems to me that part of that was about wanting to communicate more?  But that’s something you haven’t said yet.

SdK:  Sure.  I mean it’s the only reason to write music, for me. It’s not for my drawer or to create a construction of sounds in a particular way, but to communicate to audiences and to move them.  To give them beauty.  To give them pleasure.  To make them think.  All of those things.  I think one of the big problems—I won’t say failures, but one of the serious problems—of 20th-century art music is that it left its audience behind.  And it was not because audiences weren’t trying.  I think the notion in the ‘20s and ‘30s that audiences simply needed to be educated by hearing more and more of this music and being exposed to it, then they would come around, didn’t prove to be true.  There is something about certain kinds of music which are just too difficult, too dissonant, too problematic. If they communicate, they communicate something to an audience that audiences are not able to take in.  So I do think the problem is how to reach audiences, and if we don’t have an audience, then there’s no point in writing music. If nobody’s listening, what are you doing?

FJO: Now you’ve done a lot of vocal music.  You’ve done this beautiful setting of poetry by Dana Gioia.

SdK:  Oh, thank you.

FJO:  The second song in that cycle was another example where I thought, “Okay, this couldn’t possibly be 19th-century music, because it’s filled with all these ninth chords.  Then it ends with this blaring ninth.  That would have been considered tonally unstable.  But to our 21st-century ears, which have lived through a century of pop music where for a decade every song was nothing but major seven chords, those chords aren’t unstable at all.

SdK:  Right.

FJO:  Tonality and how we perceive music is really associative and experiential, much like language.

SdK:  Okay.

FJO:  We can communicate with each other because these are words we’ve heard before and that we’ve said before, so there’s no problem communicating. I think we underestimate how music can function that way, too.  There is this kind of associative listening.  You hear something going a certain way, and you’re able to follow it because you’ve heard other things that did it.  Then when it goes somewhere different, like when you subverted harmonic relationships in Traveling Light

SdK: —No leading tones.

FJO:  Yes, you can follow that, because you were expecting it to do certain things from other pieces you’ve heard.  Whereas, if you have a piece that’s in a totally new system, someone who is listening to it is not going to hear what’s new about it because there’s no associative listening that they can go back and say, “Oh, well this references that, but then does something else.”

SdK: That’s true.  Although I actually was just speaking about this to a friend of mine.  One of the interesting things to me now is that the popular music that we’ve been listening to for the last 20, 30 years is this constant amalgam of both what we would call tonal music and modal music.  Half the songs have leading tones, but half of them don’t.  They just have flats.  I think for listeners today, they’re equivalent in a way that they weren’t equivalent to me when I was a child.  I could really hear tonality and tonal music, blues, driving rock and roll, and Eastern European folk music, as all really somehow distinct.  But I think they’re no longer distinct to contemporary ears.  And that speaks to your point that the reference points are very different today.  In that sense, they’re more open and more engaged.  But tonality still persists.  There is something about those damn triads and the fifths. It’s hard to get rid of that stuff as being somehow elementally pleasurable.  And I think elementally pleasurable and intelligent should not be opposites.  I think they can be combined and really innovative in interesting ways.

FJO:  So then who’s the audience for this music?

“There’s a thirst for a kind of new music that has some of the sophistication of the past, but is also fresh sounding and speaks to contemporary concerns.”

SdK:  I would love for it to be a relatively broad audience, not just the few thousand who would go to concerts.  Obviously not the millions and millions who have never heard Beethoven or Monteverdi.  But something in between. I do think there’s a large group of people in between who’ve heard music of the past, of the classical canon, but feel that it’s very, very distant.  And the only other kind of music they know is pop music of, say, the last 30 years.  Maybe some jazz from the ‘30s, stuff like that.  I think there’s a huge gap and a huge opening, a thirst for a kind of new music that has some of the sophistication of the past, but is also fresh sounding and speaks to contemporary concerns.  So that’s my goal.  Whether one meets that goal is another question or another story.  But that’s certainly the audience that I try to speak to.

FJO:  So, I’d like to talk about your opera, Bonfire of the Vanities, which was based on a very famous book.  And that book was also made into a famous movie, so theoretically it’s something that has a hook for the general public.

SdK:  That’s partly why I was interested in it and, of course, I loved the novel.  I don’t think there was a single chapter when I wasn’t bent over with laughter.  Although, you’d be surprised. I would say people 35 and over have heard of it, but the younger generation has not heard of the book—or the movie, for that matter.  So again, times are changing.  They really are.  The book doesn’t have the kind of resonance for younger people that it does for me or our generation.

<Bonfire of the Vanities, the opera, trailer footage (excerpts from concert 2-10-14) from Burgeon & Flourish, LLC on Vimeo.

FJO:  Another thing I thought is that when you set a text, whether it’s poetry or a storyline that’s been adapted into the libretto for an opera, there are certain things in the original work that help guide where you go musically.  When I learned that you were writing an opera based on this novel, I was slightly surprised. I initially thought that Bonfire of the Vanities is very urban and gritty and quite far away from your sound world, but it actually isn’t. People’s immediate association with operatic singing in a tonal context is with the 19th century, the gilded age. People nowadays don’t sound like that. However, that sound world also has specific class associations and that’s actually a big part of what that book is about. So I’m wondering if that was an ingredient in terms of you wanting to write music that reflected the status of these characters in some way.

SdK:  I wanted to write an opera along the lines of, say, Carmen, which has some terrific tunes and has a nitty-gritty series of events.  In Bonfire, there’s a black kid who eventually gets run over and he dies. It’s a horrible story on some levels, but it’s still ironic and satiric and makes fun of the upper class.  And I thought that’s the kind of story that doesn’t get told very often in opera.  How cool would it be to write an opera that is in some sense very operatic.  The soprano has to do pianissimo high Cs.  It has all those trappings, but also is going to attract people who don’t normally come to the world of opera and sort of pull them into this world that’s more sophisticated than the kind of music that they listen to outside the opera house.

So, in that sense, the conjunction of differing kinds of class or stylistic endeavors was deliberate.  And I also used a trap set in that, for instance.  Not in all the numbers, but a bunch of them have drums, and it kicks into rhythm the way good rock and roll does at appropriate moments.  Again, I’m toying with how to maintain a level of contrapuntal and structural sophistication that I associate with music of the past, but bring it into the present, or the future, with both sonorities—drum sets and singing styles—that are a little less operatic.  And subject matter that is entirely contemporary and can resonate with contemporary audiences. So I don’t know if that answers your question or not.  But in that sense, it’s a stylistic blend of different things that are associated with different classes.

FJO:  That definitely answered it.  I was struck when we walked into the apartment.  I saw the grand piano and I saw the trap set.  That was the first thing that I noticed.

SdK:  That’s me.

A grand piano and a drum set are side by side in Stefania de Kenessey's living room.

FJO:  People talk about the 20th century and say Schoenberg emancipated dissonance, but I think the larger thing that happened in the 20th century was embracing percussion on equal terms to other instrumental sonorities.  When I went back and I listened to your two 9/11 memorial song cycles, I was struck by very prominent foregrounded percussion in both of those cycles.  And, once again, I thought to myself that there’s no way anyone could say this music could have been written in the 19th century, because it wouldn’t have been.  People would not have foregrounded percussion that way.

SdK:  Right, the European tradition doesn’t do that.  Correct.  Yeah.  And that’s a real mistake. Again, I’m coming relatively late to this.  It’s just been the last 10-15 years that I’ve been doing this.  But yeah, the rhythmic component of music—which is so important and such a source of pleasure by the way, raw physical pleasure—is not a part of the European canon.  There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be.  Just because you have a drum set doesn’t mean you can only do a groove.  One of the things I was working on in those songs, and in other works as well, is to use percussion in a way that actually goes along with the narrative arc that I’ve created.  It’s not just a groove that you start and then you know exactly where it’s going to end three minutes later.  The idea is to progress along with the rest of the musical material.  But that’s eminently doable.  There’s no reason why that can’t be done.

FJO:  Nowadays you are teaching, so you’re now in the position with students that Milton Babbitt was in with you.  You mentioned that you present Schoenberg and Webern in your music history class.  In terms of teaching composition, what paths are your students taking?  Do you try to guide them in certain ways?  Or let them be themselves?  How do you do for them what Milton did for you and what maybe the others didn’t do for you in terms of not being supportive?

SdK:  First of all, I really believe you have to let individual voices blossom on their own because just teaching them to be me, when I barely know who I am, is a difficult proposition and not particularly useful.  But I also believe in teaching techniques.  Craft is important.  You have to know what you’re doing at that basic physical level.  What I try to do more than anything else is to teach them to problematizes, or think about issues that are relevant in any kind of music.  For instance, in the spring, I’m going to be teaching a composition and analysis class.  And the analysis will be to make them listen to certain kinds of music, and look at certain kinds of compositional devices or problems.  And sometimes they’re very simple, but they’re things they don’t think of.

“You have to let individual voices blossom on their own.”

For instance, I ask them to listen to Debussy’s Afternoon of a Fawn and it turns out of course that the flute melody is never presented the same way. Well, the first two iterations are almost identical, but none of the others are.  So the first thing they have to do is write a melody which begins the same way, but goes in five different directions.  That’s something which problematizes an issue: What is melodic construction like?  It makes them acquire craft, because you have to be able to write a melody in five different, very distinct ways, but it also enables them to write music in any style or genre they like.  It’s not prescriptive. It can be rock-ish.  It can be electronic-ish.  It can be classical-ish.  I don’t care about the -ish.  Look at melody and melodic shape and what it means to vary it considerably and what it does to narrative structure long term, if you have melodies that progress in different ways.  So that’s one way of encouraging people to write music which I don’t think makes them write music like me or like Debussy, or like anything else.  It enables them to develop their own style, even as they learn certain kinds of technical abilities.  And that’s just kind of emblematic of the kinds of things I do.  I set up compositional problems for them, and then ask them to solve it in their own voice, and then I help them in their own voice.  But the compositional problem also lifts it out of the realm of personal expression. At some point, you want to express yourself, but you also want to just be able to make mistakes—try out stuff and goof around, try this and have that fail, and just develop a sense of craft.  So I’m very, very eager to do that, and I stress that a lot.

FJO:  Have you ever had any students who’ve wanted to write atonal or 12-tone music?

SdK:  Not too many is the honest answer.  You have to remember, I’m teaching at Eugene Lang College, not at Mannes College of Music.  Some of them go into music history or music theory or composition, but many of them wind up going into popular music, either as producers or performers or creators.  They tend to veer in that direction.  Not exclusively, but they tend to.

FJO:  I’m curious though, what your advice would be to a composer who did want to go in that direction.  Could you be the Milton Babbitt for that person?

SdK:  Absolutely.  I mean, if I can be, if I can support somebody who’s writing noise or grunge music or electronica or whatever, which are not my daily bread and butter, I certainly can do 12-tone music.  So yes.  The example I just gave you of writing a melody that goes in five different directions; that could be a 12-tone exercise easily.  In terms of the kind of aesthetic precepts that students bring with them, I think it’s very important to let them experience those and enrich them and let them blossom.  Otherwise, you’re getting in the way and not helping.

FJO:  So to the larger question, to return it full circle, you said there is no need to do a 20th anniversary of Derriere Guard. So, do you feel people’s perceptions have changed about what new music means?

SdK:  Which people?

FJO:  People, the community, the audience for it. I mean, what does new music mean now?

SdK:  I don’t know.  I’m being facetious in answering because I think it’s a very confusing and confused time.  I think new music can kind of mean almost anything these days.  Which is both wonderful and terrifying, because it can mean anything.  I think in some ways a lot of possibilities have opened up, but I’m also less and less sure that new music as a concept is as meaningful as it was, say, 20 years ago.  So I’m not sure.  I’m not sure what’s happening with what we mean by new music.  I’m not sure what’s happening with concert music or art music.  It’s a very interesting and difficult time.

FJO:  You know, we’re almost 20 years into a new century at this point, a new millennium. When we look back to the year 1917, Schoenberg and his followers were saying that the 19th century is the past.  For us, the 20th century is that now.

SdK:  The past.  Right.

FJO:  So, are there hallmarks of the 21st century that are distinct from the 20th?  Could we now say, “Oh well, that’s stuff that was called new music, but that’s actually old music.  And new music now is something else.”  Are we there yet?

SdK:  I don’t think so.  I think from my vantage point at least we’re still in that phase of what I would call post-post-modern experimentation—of trying to find something that kind of unifies us all.  And I don’t think we’ve come to that point.  Maybe we never will.  Maybe that’s the future.  Or maybe there are only going to be different kinds of new musics.  That’s also possible.  I don’t know.  When I go to concerts, or when I listen to the work that’s being done, it’s just all over the map.  Stylistically it’s wonderful.  I love it.  I love the variety.  But I don’t get the feeling that there’s kind of—what I was calling earlier—a lingua franca of new music.  Some people embrace pop.  Some people still embrace serialism.  Some people embrace dissonance.  Some people embrace consonance.  Some people embrace the European idea of a narrative kind of music.  Some people think that it should really be kind of cyclical and non-narrative.  I don’t have the sense, at least right now, that we’re any better at finding an answer to how to combine those things than we were, say, 10-15 years ago.

FJO:  So earlier, when we were talking about the difference between Brahms and Wagner and how we can now see the similarities. Maybe we can’t say that yet with all of the music that’s happening now, but I imagine one day somebody might.

SdK:  Yeah, you were saying that earlier.  I think that’s possible.  But I do think that perhaps the range of sounds that we’re exploring today is larger than the range of sounds being explored between Brahms and Wagner.  I mean, you could put those guys in the same room and describe the parameters with which they worked.  If you tried to do the equivalent for all the new music today, you would need a stadium to house all those parameters.  So I think you are right to some extent, but I also think the playing field has increased and has gotten so large—again, that’s one of the blessings and one of the curses of our era is that there’s so much variety out there that’s possible. There’s a huge variety of sonorities, and approaches to sonorities, and approaches to audiences, and to subject matter.  So I don’t have that sense of clarity or even of semi-clarity that I would say I can impose on the world of Brahms and Wagner.

FJO:  And then when you open it up to other genres—is the word genre even relevant to 21st-century music?

SdK:  Right.  I don’t know.  I suspect not.  I think we’re seeing a genuine revolution in all sorts of ways in music.  Again, partly because of the wealth of sounds that are available to us and are known to us, and partly because the way in which we make sound is less and less the way sound used to be made, which is by learning to play acoustic instruments.  I’m always struck by my students: I give them 24 hours and they will return with a passable version of a pop song very nicely produced.  They may not play any instrument or sing.  They don’t have any music notation.  They don’t play an instrument, never have played guitar, piano, anything.  They know how to manipulate sounds via Ableton Live or Logic Pro or whatever program they’re using.  So it really is a different world out there, and I’m not quite sure how all these pieces fit together yet.  I really am not.

FJO:  But part of the whole Derriere Guard aesthetic was about not wanting to lose the things of the world before all of this.  The sound of a violin.  The sound of a piano being played on the keys.  Sounds that are not amplified.  Where does that fit in with this new world we’re now in?

“The great beauty of Bach or Beethoven or Brahms is that it’s just as pleasurable to my brain as it is to my heart and ears.”

SdK:  Well A, I’m not sure, but B I don’t think that stuff will ever disappear.  The love for that will certainly never disappear.  There’s no question of that.  To what extent that will be a major centerpiece of artistic endeavors, it’s hard to say. There’s less and less support for high art—I hate that term, but there it is.  So I don’t know to what extent that will flourish any more than in a corner.  There’s always the danger of it being turned into a museum piece. For me, part of the beauty of that old tradition is certainly the sound of a violin or the sound of a piano, but it’s also a level of what I would call complexity married to beauty in kind of a 50-50 melt. Obviously I can’t actually demonstrate quantifiably that it’s 50-50.  But for me, the great beauty of Bach or Beethoven or Brahms is that it’s just as pleasurable to my brain as it is to my heart and ears.  It’s really a 50-50 combination of those two.  And that is the thing that’s crucial to me in my music.  How one does that—it’s not uninteresting, but that’s not the question for me; it is how to maintain that.  And to me personally, that’s the important thing, and that’s what I try to do in Bonfire of the Vanities: write something that on the surface has some beautiful melodies and really transports you into the worlds of these people.  But if you listen, it actually has a kind of complexity to it that would not be embarrassing if it were played after a Mozart opera.  I’m trying to do both, and that to me is the heart and soul of all of what I think cannot be or should not be jettisoned from the history of Western music.

New Music Is Not (Necessarily) Contemporary Music


In the second essay for this series, I would like to define New Music and contemporary music. These are two terms that are often viewed as equivalent, but I will argue that they have different meanings.

In my view, New Music is a term that embodies a wide variety of artistic projects, mainly focused on sonic forms—though secondarily may also be expressed through the visual, the literary, or the theatrical—which position themselves under the umbrella of modernity in a critical manner. New Music is inherently in a difficult ideological position: it is in conflict with the economic, educational, and political structures that contribute to its birth, but it must simultaneously reconcile itself to them in order to attempt to bypass the anticipated consequences that these very conditions cause. It thus problematizes this inextricable contradiction in the hopes of generating potential alternative realities; hence New Music’s non-autonomous nature, for it conceals an ultimate purpose that surpasses its most superficial formal qualities. In this regard, New Music is embedded in modernity through a number of aesthetic forms—such as some instances of 20th-century modernism—and cannot be understood as such without its necessarily redemptory allegiance to “universal ideals of progress, reason, freedom and democracy.”[1] In consequence, New Music fits Terry Eagleton’s description of modernist works: “self-divided phenomena which deny in their discursive forms their own shabby economic reality.”[2] Beyond stylistic specifics commonly associated with this type of music (e.g. musique concrète instrumentale, spectralism, New Complexity, New Conceptualism, etc.), New Music is at its core an artistic project based on critique: this is its link to modernity—what fundamentally defines its nature.

New Music questions past, dysfunctional normative models as a means to generate newer, more appropriate aesthetic fields through which another future (however one wishes to understand this term) may be built. More specifically, the avant-garde, experimental music, free improvisation…: all of these may become New Music if they recognize a connection to modernity—they are not immanent in New Music per se. For this reason, one should not make the immediate assumption that New Music is a European or, at its worst, a Eurocentric endeavor. Far from it, New Music—quite similarly to how Srnicek and Williams define modernity—“names a set of concepts that have been independently developed in numerous cultures across the world, but which took on a particular resonance in Europe.”[3] New Music does not necessarily emerge from classical European traditions only. On the contrary: one could go as far as to claim that some instances of free jazz, punk rock, hip-hop, or music with politically revolutionary lyrics may be facets of New Music. Likewise, following this logic, it would be incorrect to presume that any music that uses sounds often heard in works by Brian Ferneyhough, Gérard Grisey, or Helmut Lachenmann should be categorized as New Music. New Music is not only recognized through how it sounds, but also by its clear-cut ideological stance against the uncritical employment of conventional means of expression. By virtue of this position, New Music is an artistic project forced to challenge its necessarily required material conditions, which, unless scrutinized through internal formal strategies, will contribute to the reiteration of flawed traditionalisms; hence the exceedingly difficult and contradictory space where New Music lies (un)comfortably. Finally, New Music cannot be defined through its material conditions only. New Music is a project of potentials; it is prescriptive with regard to what is to be heard, aesthetically and beyond. New Music cannot be understood without its projection of what different futures may look like: it is modeled after potential futures.

New Music seems to be largely negligible in U.S. culture when compared to other types of music. In this country, its influence may be mainly recognized in some university departments, conservatories, a number of summer festivals (which usually have an educational side to them), and a few—often small—venues in large metropolitan areas such as New York or Chicago. There are, of course, exceptions.[4] Today one can also listen to New Music in a few festivals across the English-speaking world.[5] However, not all of the music that is performed as part of these events can be considered to be New Music. It certainly is new, since it has been created recently, but that does not intrinsically result in this music’s pursuit of the historical and aesthetic critique that New Music does. This type of new music—contemporary music[6] from now on—does not have to be in dialogue with modernity; it does not have to aim for the (future-bound) transformational imperative that New Music endeavors towards. New Music, nevertheless, can certainly be a subset of contemporary music and is often disseminated by those institutions that support the creation, performance, and discussion of contemporary music works.

Contemporary music may also be at home in situations closer to cultural imperatives explicitly designed by market forces than those associated with academia. John Adams, David Del Tredici, Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, Steve Reich, and the members of Bang on a Can are examples of composers who have been trained in academic institutions, have (at some point or another) participated in discussions about aesthetics, culture, and philosophy, and have eventually earned significant economic success by promoting their music through structures located outside academic environments. It would be incorrect to assume that these artists downgraded the quality of their works in order to follow marketability. There is plenty of popular music developed in the antipodes of academia that is financially successful and displays substantial quality. What places these composers under the umbrella of contemporary music—and not of popular music—is their connection to academia, without which it is unlikely they would have developed their particular aesthetic ideas. Firstly, their works generally display some relation to European traditions of classical music (even if they function as clear-cut negations of some of the basic principles of these traditions); traditions that seemed to access Anglo-American intellectual discourse primarily via academic institutions. Secondly, all of the aforementioned composers use notation in order to express their music—this is another crucial feature of European classical music. Thirdly, these composers benefited from analytical discourses that have generally taken place in Anglo-American academia; discourses that had an impact on the particular aesthetic paths that their works followed. To sum up, while some of these composers may not be active members of the academic community at the moment and may earn their living by pursuing careers outside this domain, they are participants in the field of contemporary music by virtue of their education, collaborators (individual performers, ensembles, and orchestras), analytical discourse, and general aesthetic ideas.

For the most part, contemporary music embodies pieces written by composers who have been trained in higher education institutions and write for traditional, classical music ensembles such as orchestras, wind and vocal ensembles, and string quartets. Contemporary music may also be composed for electronic or electroacoustic instruments, or generated through computer-assisted compositional means. In short, contemporary music assumes basic attributes of European classical music and builds its own ontology upon them. Whether such an ontology predominantly accepts European classical music as a positive feature or not is largely peripheral. Contemporary music may explicitly reject certain ideas associated with classical music in order to differentiate itself, but that does not make it less engaged with classical music on a conceptual basis. Nowadays, contemporary music in the U.S. exists as a conglomerate of artifacts cemented into two fundamental pillars: European classical music and academia. Consequently, contemporary music institutions appear to be prone to take an indifferent stance toward their relation to the self-critical view of history embedded in some discourses around modernity.

The next post will explore the crisis of U.S. modern music in relation to scientism and the successive defeat of New Music.

1. Srnicek and Williams, Inventing the Future, 71.

2. Eagleton, “Capitalism, Modernism and Postmodernism,” 67.

3. Srnicek and Williams, Inventing the Future, 71.

4. Omaha Under the Radar (Nebraska), Versipel New Music, and ANODE (New Orleans) are three recently launched small festivals that are not associated with higher education institutions and are not located in large metropolitan areas.

5. The following is a partial list of prominent contemporary music festivals and concert series across the English-speaking world not associated with universities or conservatories: MATA (New York), Bang on a Can Marathon (New York), Aldeburgh Festival (United Kingdom), Ojai Music Festival (California), Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music (Massachusetts), Ear Taxi Festival (Chicago), London Ear Festival, London Contemporary Music Festival, Sound Scotland (Aberdeen), Sonorities (Belfast), Monday Evening Concerts (Los Angeles), BIFEM (Bendigo, Victoria), the NOW now (Sydney), SoundOut (Canberra), Liquid Architecture (Australia), and Metropolis New Music Festival (Melbourne). The Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, one of the leading festivals of contemporary music in the United Kingdom, has a partnership with the University of Huddersfield.

6. I would like to thank my friend and colleague Alec Hall, who brought to my attention that Michael Rebhahn has also developed a similar taxonomical divide between New Music and the oxymoronic term Contemporary Classical Music.

Killsonic: L.A.’s wild, war-painted musical incubator

It was late July of  2010, and we stood lined up in pairs just outside the lobby of the REDCAT Theater in downtown Los Angeles. I found myself constantly adjusting the bottom layer of the tattered green-black garbage bag dress that was my costume as a member of the Tongues Bloody Tongues women’s choir.  We were a wild-looking gang of women, specifically placed at the end of a long and windy procession of musicians, with our hair teased out and plastered into swoops and swirls on top of our heads, black liquid eyeliner streaked in an arc of tears from the lower lid of one eye, fashioned to look like oil. As we waited, the accordion players in front of us made jokes amongst themselves while members of the drum core twirled sticks deftly in one hand or stood quietly, waiting for the cue to move.

A friend of our troupe burst out of the lobby doors and into the REDCAT parking structure where we waited, exclaiming, “It’s sold out! They can’t fit any more people into the lobby.”  Excited chatter rose from the line. The tension between us all grew thick and the garage seemed to grow warmer.  A few of my fellow choir members checked the batteries of their bullhorns, pressing the red button in and out in a series of audible clicks.

NOW Fest #1  7/2010

In five minutes the Los Angeles-based music collective and marching band known as Killsonic (KS) was about to make its REDCAT debut, literally and sonically invading the cramped lobby with a bombastic cacophony of horns, accordions, full drum core, Amazonian war cries and amplified shrieks.  We were to make our way through the center of the crowd and divide into two lines, furies on one side and musicians on the other, and we were to engage in a full-on sound battle.  The audience could not escape, were not meant to escape. They were now both full participant and witness to this musical frenzy, showered in sound and confusion only to then be escorted into the theater space itself surrounded by both band and choir.

NOW Fest #1  7/2010

It was a moment that in many ways symbolized the creative culmination of the long-time and ever-evolving sound of the band and the city it hailed from. By the time the band had made its way to the New Original Works Festival there that July, it had grown from a little-known smallish avant-garde jazz ensemble made up of primarily music students into a sought-after 30-plus person marching band with a membership comprised of people representing all walks of life, music training, education, financial, and occupational backgrounds.

My introduction to the group happened in the early ‘00s when good friend, composer, and KS founding member Brian Walsh heard me doing vocal warm ups in between teaching students at the music store where we both taught in the San Fernando Valley.  He asked me if the sounds he had heard emanating from my studio had come from me.  Not quite sure how to interpret the question, I answered with a sheepish, “Yes, why? Was it too loud?”  Brian just smiled and asked me if I’d like to sing in a new project he was involved in.

Over a series of many Tuesday evenings we would all cram together in the living room of a small house in Highland Park and run through song after song. We endured long, sometimes agonizing breaks in between while Brian and KS founders contrabassist Michael Ibarra, drummer “Princess Frank” Luis, guitarist Minh Pham, and percussionist Dominique “Chief” Rodriguez would debate arrangements and timing.

It was during these various rehearsal cycles with KS, in all its shapes and variations, that my foundational understanding and approach to creating music was challenged and ultimately blasted apart. I realized quickly that being a part of this group was not going to lead to the makings of singer-songwriter-y stuff. I would not be singing with my guitar, and the sounds demanded of me as a vocalist would not be the gentle, soft, and harmony-laden sound so often associated with the music of Southern California.  It would instead demand growls and guttural sounds in some places, whispering and soft crooning the next. It would demand that I surrender all I knew about “verse chorus verse” and be an active creator and listener of something completely foreign to my classically trained ears and thinking. Creating the material needed for the choir’s parts in Tongues Bloody Tongues meant turning the traditional song form on its head, breaking it down, and patching it back together in a way that would create a sonic picture of a sandstorm in the desert or the call of tropical birds in the jungle. At times we were provided with only a verbal description of a feeling or landscape and other times we were introduced to the cues and symbols used in John Zorn’s game pieces. The process summoned both the beautiful and ugly from us vocally and coupled it with the ceremonial make up of  either chanteuse or madwoman, depending on the performance.

Los Angeles itself is a city of duality. At first glance one may see only the gorgeous and sprawling campus of venues such as the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the LA Opera atop Bunker Hill in downtown L.A. These are spaces where the classic canon of high art is performed on a regular basis. One may see that audiences for such places and repertoire is often comprised of a rather homogeneous community: older adults of a certain income bracket, education, and experience of life and art.  Yet one only has to walk a few blocks down the hill from such revered centers of culture to experience the truth and reality of downtown L.A.: an endless stream of homeless men and women sleeping in doorways and sidewalks, many bussed in and dumped from facilities and towns unable to contain or rehabilitate them.

Killsonic held the right musical pedigree to play the more refined stages of Bunker Hill, but it was from the less glamorous part of the city that the band declared itself musically. With its sinister horn parts and rapid-fire percussion, the group took to the streets and subways of downtown L.A., to those seen but unspoken of places and energies, and created music that erupted in frenzied harmonies and dissonance only to then melt into a slinky groove or Latin-infused rhythm of the neighborhoods they lived and worked in.  Killsonic at UCLA’s Royce Hall

As the band grew in popularity and exposure, it refused to change its tone and approach, instead bringing these truths into more open public spaces. The band eventually took its work right into the spaces it rebelled against: outside on the plaza of UCLA’s Royce Hall, around and through the art and sculpture of LACMA, the slick and hip art galleries on the Sunset Strip. In 2010, Killsonic marched itself straight into the audience of the black box theater of Walt Disney Concert Hall to tell a wild music tale of the history of Iraq.

Los Angeles is also a city that is easy to hide away or get lost in. The sense of community that can be found in other creative towns such as Chicago or San Francisco is much less present here.  You have to work to find your tribe, and you have to remain dedicated to sustaining and maintaining it. You have to be fierce in your creative work, because the number of people here pursuing similar endeavors is exponential and there is much audience fatigue—too many people performing in too many spaces with all the prospective audiences generally too wrapped up in the reason they moved here themselves to take time out to go see your show or play or gig or reading. That Killsonic was able to create a growing and loyal musical community and space for itself in a town where such things are difficult is truly incredible.

The performance at REDCAT signaled the beginning of the group’s dissolution. This was not because of conflict, but because over the course of its ten year history, a varied and colorful collective of musicians, composers, music educators, filmmakers, visual, and performance artists had grown in confidence and talent through the continued supportive environment of the collective itself. The time had come for its members to reinvent themselves once again, much like the ongoing reconstruction of Los Angeles itself.

El-Haru Kuroi—a trio made up of Michael A. Ibarra on bass, Eddicka Organista on vocals and guitar, and Dominique “Chief” Rodriguez on percussion—emerged around the time of Tongues Bloody Tongues performances. The group has since garnered a substantial fan base for and acclaim for itself, carrying the Mexican and African rhythms often referenced in KS music into a more intimate and guitar-based setting.

Dominique also joined up with several KS horn players and another music store colleague, Charles de Castro, to create a group called the California Feetwarmers, a musical ensemble that came together to share their mutual love of ‘20s music and bring it to a public audience. The group recently found itself walking the red carpet at the 2014 57th Annual Grammy ceremony as nominees for Best American Roots Performance on Keb Mo’s “The Old Me Better” and appearing on the BBC.

And the person responsible for bringing me into this tribe, Brian Walsh, has and continues to compose and play in a wide variety of avant-garde jazz and new music projects, most recently in the group Gnarwhallaby, the Brian Walsh Set Trio, and upcoming performances at the 2015 Hear Now Music Festival this May with Brightwork newmusic.

In terms of my own work, the aleatoric approach to creating song and sound has crept into every aspect of my creative outlets, whether it be writing lyrics for a new rock-based project or creating textural landscapes for electric and acoustic guitar.  It eventually snuck its way into my column for Acoustic Guitar magazine this past year, with a step-by-step explanation of how to write a song by chance using using backgammon dice and online random sound generators. How very curious I have been to find out what happened to the folks that read that article and took the risk to attempt it.


October Crifasi is a songwriter, musician, educator, and writer with extensive experience teaching and performing nationwide, including several years on the faculty at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago and as guitar coach for projects on the Great American Country Channel (GAC), MTV, and Lifetime Networks. She is a regular columnist for Acoustic Guitar and Classical Guitar magazines and also directs a private guitar studio for girls and women in the San Fernando Valley called Girls Guitar School. In addition to music, October lives a parallel life as professional comics writer and overall nerd. She can be found online at www.rocktober.org or on Twitter @OctoberCrifasi.

Erik Friedlander: Stories Without Words

“It’s not your skill level, it’s how much you communicate,” cellist Erik Friedlander advises early in our conversation. “It’s how much you express that the audience really wants to hear. They come to hear you be real.”

Friedlander, however, is clearly not a musician lacking for chops. The years of training and gigging he did to establish himself in New York City’s music scene—largely on the downtown/avant-garde jazz side, though his active performance career has taken him all over the genre map—left him with a reputation as a go-to freelancer. And while he’s since honed his focus down more tightly to his own composer/performer work, it’s this underlying sonic curiosity and his ability to aurally convey deep emotional experience that colors the ongoing evolution of his work, both in solo and group contexts.

This week, Friedlander released a recording of Illuminations, his ten-part suite for solo cello, originally a commission by the Jewish Museum in New York City tied to an exhibit of ancient books they were hosting. Friedlander notes the echo of Bach in the piece’s construction and the obvious impact of the historic texts that inspired him. Yet while the filter of that history overlays its message, its musical language is modern.

Friedlander explains that he took away a particular image from this display of illuminated manuscripts which inspired his later thinking. “You just felt like you were in the presence of some incredible work, some incredible time being spent to carefully detail every letter,” he recalls. “I was interested in the content, but I was more interested in the labor—the exquisite time and effort that was taken into creating these beautiful books. I just imagined the life that was given to doing this job.”

Erik Friedlander: Office

Erik Friedlander’s home studio.

Erik Friedlander: Office

Friedlander’s Luis and Clark carbon fiber cello

His working process varies from project to project, though inspiration for much of his recent catalog can be tied to such personal life experiences or visual elements. A prime example, perhaps, is his album Block Ice & Propane (2007), which he performs live as “Taking Trips To America” with the accompaniment of projected images taken by his parents (his father is the admired American photographer Lee Friedlander) during their annual summer camping trips.

No matter the impetus or the eventual scoring method, at some point Friedlander says he always ends up at the cello while working out ideas “because that’s where I’m most comfortable.” And while adventurous when it comes to finding new sounds and ways to play his instrument, there’s also a complimentary caution to adding techniques. Friedlander says he was always self-conscious about using pedals in performance, for example, because they didn’t fit as fluidly into his work as he needed them to until recently. The development of his remarkable pizzicato technique went through a similar period of appraisal, which he speaks about in the video at the top of this post.

But his experiences in New York’s downtown music community helped him build a platform for the experimental ways of working he was seeking. “I finally fell into a scene where a string player could be doing world music, could be doing rock-inspired music, any kind of music, and this is what I was searching for. I was a cello player who was not entirely happy just playing the music that was given to me in orchestra or chamber groups. I mean, I liked all that stuff, but I had something different about me that needed to be explored, and this was the scene for that perfectly.”

It was a necessary addition to his more traditional training. “When you learn classically, you learn to develop a very strong inner censor who’s constantly berating you for what you’re doing wrong. I think all players, classical or otherwise, need to get a good gag on that person,” Friedlander recommends. “You’ve got to shoot higher than that; you have to shoot for expression rather than technical perfection.”

Sounds Heard: Michael Ching—A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Michael Ching
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
(Albany/Troy 1507/08)
Performed by:
Opera Memphis
Playhouse on the Square
Curtis Tucker, conductor

Two excerpts from Act One, Scene Two of Michael Ching’s opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream
© 2014 Michael Ching and ℗ 2014 DeltaCapella /Albany Records. Tracks streamed with permission.

“New music,” the term we use as an umbrella for the music we feature on NewMusicBox, is simultaneously a blessing and a curse for the exact same reason—the words in and of themselves don’t really mean anything terribly specific. Music at this point can mean almost anything and the definition of new is also rather malleable; what is considered to be of recent vintage sometimes encompasses material that is more than a hundred years old despite such music not seeming chronologically new. However, many of us seem to parse the new music from the old based on whether or not it’s somehow avant-garde, doing something that no one has ever done before. In our web-search saturated post-post-post-modern era (I might have missed a “post” or two—it’s difficult to keep track), claiming something has never been done before is a recipe for almost instant refutation. A common conception these days is that nothing is “new,” which of course makes a definition of new music where new implies avant-garde even more perilous.

For an artwork to be truly avant-garde—whether it’s a piece of visual art, literature, or music—there needs to be an element of cognitive dissonance upon first encountering it. That’s what the initial audience reaction was to Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Duchamps’s Fountain, Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, and Stravinsky/Nijinsky ballet The Rite of Spring. But of course all of these works have been with us for a century and have become part of our cultural heritage, so they’ve pretty much lost most of their shock value. In more recent times, high art’s embrace of banality—from Andy Warhol’s iconic Campbell’s soup cans and Yoko Ono’s Painting to be Stepped On to Jeff Koons’s glorification of kitsch—began as an aesthetic provocation but is also no longer particularly disquieting. Even Koons’s output, now the subject of a major retrospective at the Whitney, has entered the mainstream.

Yet despite how difficult it is to be startled by something at this point, that was precisely my reaction to the just-released recording of Michael Ching’s 2011 opera, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But it’s not startling because its libretto is extreme or confrontational or because the music is in some esoteric stylistic idiom that has rarely been mined in a stage work. After all, the libretto is directly taken from one of the most famous plays by William Shakespeare (not a word has been altered) and the music is resolutely tonal, frequently extremely tuneful, and sometimes borders on pop.

Perhaps the most radical aspect of Midsummer is that there is no orchestra in the conventional sense. Rather every sound made to accompany what the cast sings is made by a 20-member chorus of voices—a “Voicestra.” But that too is nothing new. Aficionados of choral music or doo-wop know that a complete and completely satisfying sound world does not require anything beyond the human voice and fans of Sarah Vaughan might even remember her 1948 hit “Nature Boy,” a clever track made during the musicians’ union’s ban on recordings, in which the singer was accompanied exclusively by other singers imitating instruments. (Singers were not affected by the ban!) In more recent times, Bobby McFerrin has even used the word Voicestra to describe a group he leads made up of twelve singers from a variety of stylistic backgrounds who perform without instrumental accompaniment.

However, perhaps it’s a completely radical new idea to create an entire opera that only consists of singing. Certainly musical instruments have been a key ingredient in opera since the Florentine Camerata established the genre as we know it today at the end of the 16th century. But, although Jacopo Peri and his cohorts claimed their efforts at dramma per musica were an attempt at reviving ancient Greek theatre, they were deeply indebted to a more contemporaneous phenomenon called madrigal comedy which told stories by linking together a series of madrigals sung by a group of singers, sometimes with instruments doubling their parts, but sometimes completely unaccompanied. So opera actually has its source in unaccompanied vocal music. And, in fact, Michael Ching’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream isn’t the only recent opera scored exclusively for voices. Lera Auerbach’s The Blind, which was performed last summer as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, is also completely instrument free.

But whereas for Auerbach the absence of instruments served as an extremely apt sonic metaphor for deprivation (additionally, in John La Bouchardière’s production of her opera, the audience was blindfolded!), for Ching being restricted to just voices seems hardly a constraint. Abandoning instruments has paradoxically allowed him to create an operatic narrative that at times is every bit as opulent as conventionally scored works, and the absence of a large group of people in a pit (and the even larger paraphernalia which they need in order to make sound) gives the opera a lightness and a freshness that makes it instantly appealing and extremely practical as well. Ching, who served as the artistic director of Opera Memphis for nearly two decades before relocating to Iowa in 2010, certainly understands the practicalities of mounting an opera better than most composers. So this recording of the premiere production mounted by Opera Memphis in collaboration with Playhouse on the Square, featuring the combined voices of local groups DeltaCappella and Riva plus an exemplary cast who all sound totally comfortable navigating between operatic, Broadway, and even R&B idioms, will hopefully be the first of many.

As for why it startled me, it was simply totally unexpected. It sounds nothing like what I imagine an opera based on Shakespeare would sound like. And yet it totally works. And again, it’s not without precedent; a Joseph Papp produced radical pop update of Two Gentlemen of Verona featuring a musical score by Hair composer Galt MacDermot fetched the Tony Award for Best Musical back in 1972. Ultimately whether something is “new” in the avant-garde sense is not really important anymore; Ching’s score is compelling from start to finish and rewards with repeated listenings as well. And, perhaps the biggest shock of all to some denizens of “new music,” it’s lots of fun!

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.

Empty Rooms

Tempwerks Cover

This week I’ve been consumed by preparations for Trees and Branches, a concert I’ve wanted to do in some form for years now. For me, the legacy of John Cage’s ideas is even more fascinating than his music. Everyone seems to learn a different lesson from Cage, making the shape of that legacy vast, diverse, and constantly changing. I imagine it as a forest of trees and branches emerging from Cage’s sonic landscapes, radiating off in countless directions.

Since a single concert devoted to the entire scope of Cage’s influence would be impossible, it made sense to focus on one particular offshoot: in this case, the Californian composer and percussionist Arthur Jarvinen. There are a few articles about Jarvinen out there if you’re not familiar with his music. What made him irressistible as a focal point for this concert was his personal, immediate influence on so many composers and performers in the Los Angeles area, myself included.

Jarvinen’s sense of humor and penchant for redeeming “non-musical” sounds seem particularly Cageian, but Jarvinen’s humor was always more sardonic, and he didn’t necessarily follow Cage’s dictum to “let sounds be themselves.” In 2009 and 2010, Jarvinen wrote a series of electroacoustic pieces that combined a variety of electronic equipment he had collected over the years–strobe lights, contact mics, telegraph keys, shortwave radios, a Geiger counter–with more modern digital technology (e.g. laptops) and more traditional acoustic instrumentation (e.g. violin). He put together a group of LA-based composer-performers (Andrew Tholl, Scott Cazan, and me) to realize and perform these pieces, and named the group TempWerks. Unfortunately Jarvinen passed away before these pieces were to be premiered, but with the addition of Casey Anderson to the group, we were still able to perform them at the Sacramento Festival of New American Music in 2010 as originally planned.

On Saturday, we’re playing three of Jarvinen’s pieces together for the first time since then. Extending the vectors of influence, each member of TempWerks has also written a new piece for the group. At least in my case, I wrote with Cage and Jarvinen specifically in mind as influences, an unusual exercise for me. Generally influences are things that creep in unnoticed in the process of composing, so it was odd to have an explicit set of influences as a starting point.

Song from Twenty-Eight Rooms was the end result of this process. The piece calls for each performer to make seven field recordings of different empty rooms. Cage’s idea of silence as sound is an obvious inspiration here, but past this the resemblance is perhaps superficial. There are no chance processes in the piece—in fact it’s rather obsessively structured. There’s also a harmonic component—each performer is asked to arrange the recordings from low to high based on the dominant ambient hum from each room.

The piece is also notated in “stopwatch time,” i.e. with minutes and seconds instead of traditional rhythmic notation. This also stems from Cage, who often used this kind of notation to try and escape musical time or, to put it another way, to replace rhythm with duration. Two of Jarvinen’s pieces—Slide Show and Blinded by Enlightenment (Again)—also use a version of stopwatch time. But perhaps due to his background as a percussionist, Jarvinen’s stopwatch time pieces feel incredibly rhythmic. The five-second interval is a particularly important structural unit in his pieces, a curious choice because it’s right on the cusp of our temporal perception—a little too long to feel comfortable as a rhythmic interval and a little too short to feel comfortable as a durational interval.

This tension between “sound as sound” and “sound as music” is also a principal component of Song from Twenty-Eight Rooms, which uses the five-second interval as a departure point and adds several levels of subdivision. I briefly considered notating it with traditional rhythms in 5/4 at 60bpm, but this turned out to be impractical. In fact, deciding what tools to use to notate the piece was surprisingly time-consuming—I ended up writing most of the piece on graph paper before transferring it to the computer. After trying out various kinds of illustration software I settled on NeoOffice Draw, which seemed to strike the right balance between limitations and flexibility for this project.

While I was figuring out how to structure the piece, another influence snuck in after all: Tom Johnson, a self-consciously minimalist composer who creates startlingly vivid musical depictions of mathematical concepts. Many of Johnson’s pieces deal with combinatorics, or the field of mathematics dealing with combinations of objects. To give a basic example, let’s say you want to find all the pairs from a set with three elements. If you work it out, you’ll wind up with three sets: {1,2}, {1,3}, and {2,3}. One thing that attracted me to combinatorics is the similarity between mathematical combination and musical variation. Certain elements are repeated, while others change, in a manner that is systematic but often hard to predict as a listener.

Tempworks score

In the score of Song from Twenty-Eight Rooms, each recording is given its own color from low (red) to high (violet), but as the piece begins, each player is confined to one sound. The combinations here are concerned primarily with ordering (permutations)—{1,2,3,4}, {1,2,4,3}, {1,3,2,4}, etc. You’re also introduced to the three main “shapes” of the piece (left-facing triangle, right-facing triangle, square), corresponding to different amplitude envelopes.

Johnson’s music is certainly engaged with more advanced mathematical concepts than this, and his musical depictions of mathematical solutions are often exhaustively complete. I’m less concerned with completeness or correctness, and more interested in the emergent musical properties that mathematical processes can generate. When all the sounds, shapes, and durations are introduced, the number of possible combinations skyrockets tremendously. Instead of doggedly cataloguing all the combinations, I superimpose several patterns simultaneously, hinting at the complete gamut of possibilities in the space of a minute.

Song from Twenty-Eight Rooms

I like works of art that suggest a larger world just outside of the frame, and that’s what I’m grasping at here—chords shifting like quicksand, faint suggestions of melody, patterns just beyond the edge of comprehension. Yes, it’s a piece about absence, but also the richness of absence. People are like empty rooms, and out of these empty rooms whole universes burst forth, universes populated with all the things we can never know about them.

The Social Contract

“A social contract attaches to words: if we don’t use them correctly, we may as well be talking to ourselves.”—James M. Keller, “Word Imperfect” (Opera News, December 2011, pp. 39-41)

“Always play the expected and the listener gets bored and leaves. Always play the unexpected and the listener gets lost and leaves. But combine the expected and the unexpected and a journey is created that the listener will want to join.”—Jonathan Segal, The Disharmonic Misadventures of David Stein (2011)

Accidental Abstract Expressionism

This seeming abstract expressionist painting, created probably unintentionally from the random tearing away of a series of superimposed advertisements that over time had been glued on a billboard, shows how normative the once radical but now iconic creations of artists like Pollock and Rauschenberg have become.

I’ve been fascinated by cultural artifacts that experiment with normative expectations ever since I learned that such things existed. There was no gradual curve to warming up to such things in my case; it was pretty much instantaneous. In fact, when I was much younger I didn’t really appreciate the standard repertoire of classical music and only acquired a taste for it after being totally enthralled by composers like Ives, Cage, Stockhausen, etc. Similarly with jazz, I came to folks like George Russell and Cecil Taylor long before I got excited about Louis Armstrong or Lester Young. To this day, despite my efforts at eschewing experiential limitations resulting from personal taste, I still much prefer psychedelic, prog, or post-punk to any kind of mainstream rock music. And so it normally goes for things other than music—I’m usually instantly attracted to early 20th-century abstraction, stream of consciousness prose, concrete poetry, and on and on.

Part of the appeal of things that defy expectation is their ability to surprise. The first encounter with such work is guaranteed to be somewhat disconcerting and can often result in total bewilderment. Rather than this being off-putting to me, I often feel a total adrenaline rush while attempting to mentally process something that seems either incomprehensible or otherwise disturbing. Of course, repeat exposure to these initially jolting experiences eventually makes them normative as well. But then the joy becomes figuring out how such things were put together and what precisely made them so unusual. Somehow it can feel less exhilarating to encounter things whose secrets can be gleaned in the first go round, but then again seemingly obvious things often reveal deeper layers on closer inspection, and discovering such can make the return exposure an even more satisfying engagement.

However, a full century has passed since the now seminal experimentation that seemed to have sprouted at the same time in all of the arts. Artistic efforts that continue along similar lines to any of those once ahead-of-their-time efforts or even subsequent experimental watersheds now can smack of somehow being normative themselves. Creating an abstract painting in the year 2012 is no longer revolutionary; neither is composing a 12-tone, indeterminate, minimalist, or microtonal musical composition. Also the hindsight of a post-modern view of the past eradicates a clear linear narrative for artistic evolution and reveals that throughout history there had always been avant-gardes, often coexisting with what was subsequently deemed to be any given era’s zeitgeist. Embracing such a perspective makes attempts at contemplating what could possibly be ahead of its time in our own time something of an exercise in futility. Indeed, in our post-history/post-“anything goes” aesthetic climate, it often feels like it’s impossible to be revolutionary. And so ironically, newer works can frequently seem less challenging than things created before almost all of us were born.

Yet it also seems—at least on a creative level—that despite the difficulty in creating something that’s “new,” it might be even harder to create something (no matter what its form or stylistic inclination) that is capable of communicating and making a real connection to whoever experiences it. As artists, might making something people will want to encounter again be even more imperative than making something new? It seems like the sweet spot, if indeed there can be one, is to make something that is simultaneously in a new language but which could also be a language that people will be able to, as well as want to, converse in immediately after exposure to it.

What Are Our Goals?

Musicians live and work in every city and town in the world, not just the “meccas” where most of the music industry’s corporate headquarters have set up shop. And I would venture to say that the locations of these headquarters aren’t that important to the musician choosing to relocate to one of these urban centers. The music industry doesn’t give value to a local music community, although it does attempt to assign value by manipulating the broader musical culture. One imagines a time when the music being disseminated by the industry was stuff that musicians were already playing to their fans. The industry was merely widening that fan base and skimming lucre off the top. Now it seems that the industry has defined a variety of products to sell to demographically delineated subsectors of a marketplace.

I’m not sure how long this has been going on, probably for centuries; but I’m sure that the literate-ing of music has been an essential part of the process, which suggests origins in Ancient Sumer—about 20,000 years ago. Fortunately, not all of human civilization opted into the paradigm, and diversity of musical performance, theory, philosophy, and aesthetic has fueled the musical marketplace. Some might suggest that this diversity has kept the world’s music healthy. But we live in a world where the prominent culture pushes for “globalizing” itself, and part of that globalizing effort is narrowing down the fields of music being sold.

Without going into the how-and-why of this trend, I’ll point to my entry from two weeks ago as an indication of the effect this anti-diversification process is having on our “local” music community that represents more than 300 million people. To be real, the reinstatement of the 31 categories that NARAS eliminated last year wouldn’t begin to mirror the diversity of America’s musical palette. I don’t think artists like Elliott Sharp or Tom Hamilton could be included in any of the existing categories. The same holds true for vocalists Fay Victor, Tom Buckner, and Dean Bowman, drummers Tom Rainey and Nasheet Waits, pianists Jason Moran and Eric Lewis, or bassists Mark Dresser and Tarus Mateen, even though their work is neither new or radical. What is common to the names listed above is that the level of their musicianship is very high and the music they play is deeply personal, qualities that the music industry has little interest in. That the best jazz vocal album of the 2012 Grammy awards went to a drummer’s project that included more vocalists on it than the rest of the nominations combined is telling. That this happened to the jazz vocalists should raise an alarm because it is they, and not the music industry, who give value to music. Without words, music is so much deft manipulation of pitches and timbre. Semiologically profound on occasion, but devoid of any real meaning. It is when words are included with the notes that music moves us the most. The semiotic potential of a motive or phrase is given to it by the words attached to it. There’s a very good chance that we won’t see Michael Franti’s name any time soon in a Grammy ceremony, even if Gil Scott-Heron was given a posthumous lifetime achievement award this year. My hope is that none of the names mentioned above become marginalized to the point of obscurity. They, and so many others, work hard to better than break even in one of the toughest businesses, where operating at a loss is the norm. To categorically silence each vocalist individually is to deny their individual expression. In a sense, NARAS has denied jazz a point of view.

It’s true that many venerated and accomplished musicians who, sometimes by their own choosing, perform rarely or only play locally and are not recognized by the musical industry, despite their talents and contributions. They’re in every city where there are musicians, which is just about every one. I can think of many: the late Claude Sifferlin and Earmon Hubbard (brother of trumpeter Freddie Hubbard), both pianists from Indianapolis; saxophone genius Bert Wilson of Olympia, Washington; multi-instrumentalist Andrew White (oboist with the National Symphony and bassist with Stevie Wonder as well as the 5th Dimension, also responsible for transcribing the recorded output of John Coltrane); guitarist/educator Jerry Hahn of (recently) Witchita, Kansas. The list is endless. I mention them because the musical meccas have them, too. And many are vocalists. One of them, Anne-Marie Moss, passed away early Wednesday morning. She was an amazing vocalist who moved to New York in the early 1960s while singing with fellow Canadian Maynard Ferguson. She was adept at singing vocalise and had a huge range (rumored at five octaves) and briefly filled in for Annie Ross in Lambert, Hendricks and Moss. She spent most of her career in a duo with her first husband, singer-guitarist Jackie Paris. This was a time when the distinction between jazz and popular music was blurred. Jazz vocalists, like Peggy Lee, were the Adeles and Houstons of their time. Jackie and Anne Marie lived in a studio apartment on the Upper East Side until they divorced in the late 1980s and worked tirelessly to promote their superior vocal skills, which were appreciated by the musical community in New York, but rarely heard anywhere else. Anne Marie’s student roster is a Who’s Who of jazz vocalists, especially Roseanna Vitro (a 2012 Grammy nominee), Judi Silvano, and Jane Blackstone.

While some believe that the measure of success is how many recordings and high-profile concerts you perform in, Anne Marie Moss measured hers in how well she sang and how effectively she could instruct her students in how to sing with their “chest” or “speaking” voices. Moss was part of the faculty of The New School and Manhattan School of Music. I was fortunate to work with her and Jackie Paris from 1978 until 2004, and my wife studied with her until she retired around 2005. Still, her discography can be counted on one hand: a single solo album, Don’t You Know Me (Stash ST-211, 1981), a duo album with Jackie Paris, Live at the Maisonette (Different Drummer DD 1004, 1975), three tracks on a compilation Best of the Jazz Singers, Vol. 2 (LRC Ltd. 40050, 2008), and one song—“Let’s Fall In Love”—on a Maynard Ferguson reissue, Dancing Sesssions (Jazz Beat 514, 2007). While few in number, these recordings cover a wide range of settings, from pedal-to-the-metal big band to a voice and drum duo that displays perfect control of her range from pianissimo to double forte. Listening to these recordings has the same effect on the listener as hearing her sing in public did, leaving you wanting more.

I would offer that the number of recordings one is on should not be the measure of an artist’s success, but rather a measure of the success of the culture that artist must negotiate. A society that refers to itself as “the greatest in the world” should be able to document the careers of its greatest artists based on the merits of their work, not on how much they can hustle the music industry. Our goals as artists can be to make good art without having to pretend we admire the pablum that corporate America is hooking our children on.