Tag: compositional aesthetics

Beauty Is Revolution

[Ed. Note: The following essay, copyright © 1980 by Beth Anderson, was originally published in American Women Composers’ News v.3#3, 1/82 and subsequently reprinted in Ear and Vile magazines, among others. We reprint it once again here on NewMusicBox, with permission of the author, just only because it seemed a perfect supplement to our talk, but also in the hopes that Anderson’s important and still timely thoughts herein will reach a broader audience.—FJO]

To make something beautiful is revolutionary (not low class, not easy, not a sign of low intelligence). Last year I wrote an article about my approach to music for Heresies [No. 3, p. 37, 1980]. In it, I said that “the relationship of feminism to my work and the evolution of the form of my music are in violent flux.” They still are, but the dust is settling.

I once believed that the concept of the music was more important than the sound.

The idea that beauty is revolution is a revelation to me. I once believed that the concept of the music was more important than the sound, that the politics of the notation was more important than the time limits of the rehearsals and therefore, more important than the sound of the performance… that the numerological equivalents for the instruments were the determining factor for instrumentation… that pitch must be explicit and rhythm improvised… that if the composer says it is so, two string players and two lighting technicians can be a string quartet… that any composition must be consistent throughout and that internal change in the piece showed lack of compositional concentration… that more than three chords in one piece meant confusion or commercial music or both… and on and on. It is a very liberating feeling to come back to my childhood definition of composition, i.e., writing down inspirations. I’ve rediscovered the part of my brain that can’t decode anything, that can’t add, that can’t work from a verbalized concept, that doesn’t care about stylish notation, that makes melodies that have pitch and rhythm, that doesn’t know anything about zen eternity and gets bored and changes, that isn’t worried about being commercial or avant-garde or serial or any other little category. Beauty is enough.

And of course, it’s a problem, too. At different times in my life I have looked out and decided that Grieg’s music was the most beautiful… that Schoenberg’s music was the most beautiful… that Cage’s music was the most beautiful… that Oliveros’s music was the most beautiful. Now I feel as if my own music is the most beautiful, and the feeling is one of having jumped off the cliff with my wings on. I don’t know if they are going to work, but it’s too late now. This deciding about the “most beautiful” is necessary, and I think composers make decisions like this all the time. How else could they choose a style to work in and stick with it for fifty years?

Beauty means perfect to me, but it also has an additional meaning having to do with being pleasurable, rather than painful. Beauty is hard to make. The making is painful, and involves a certain amount of craft, and a relaxation of the part of the brain that says, “Don’t write that. X wrote those four notes in 1542 or 1979 or 1825 or whatever period you are worried about being influenced by.” You have to say yes to what comes out. You can scoot it around a bit, but the basic material that jumps out of you is you. If you say, “That sounds like a raisin commercial,” you are telling yourself you are trashy. You are allowing others to tell you what real art is.

Musical careers have a lot to do with class and money, but they don’t influence society’s acceptance of the music.

Real music soars above class society. Musical careers have a lot to do with class and money, but they don’t influence society’s acceptance of the music, after the stuff has been broadcast to the people. Composers are people who create music—not concepts, not machines, not posters, not parties. It takes just as much (maybe more) intelligence to invent a synthesizer or to make a crowd-pleasing poster for your concert, as it does to make beautiful music. But doing those other activities does not make you a composer, though they may add to your career or savings account. Being a composer of playable music still does not guarantee beauty. That’s a problem you have to solve for yourself.

Beauty got a bad name sometime after the First World War. Musical craft (ear training, orchestration, the real reasons for voice leading, etc.) was hardly even taught in the 1960s and ‘70s, probably because of the revolt against a tradition that could allow the war in Vietnam to happen. Beauty seemed a low value in relation to life itself. But life goes on and ugliness and lack of skills and nihilism are no excuse. The destruction of the world would not improve social conditions, and making painful, ugly music will not redistribute the wealth.

Ugly music will not redistribute the wealth.

Beauty is a revolution of the spirit. The euphony of the animating principle of humanity has the revolutionary power of healing, expanding, and revitalizing. Life is worth living and beauty is worth making and, in relation to current attitudes, these ancient ideas are radical. They are capable of making certain people swoon. If you think beauty is counter-revolutionary, ask yourself if you think mutilation improves the state of mind of the depressed.


Mentor, Me—Momentary Mentorship

This is the third in a four-part series about the important role female mentors have played in developing my artistic and civic identity.

In October of last year, Ashley Fure became a mentor to me without her knowing it. Fure was a guest faculty member for the LA Philharmonic’s National Composer’s Intensive, a weeklong workshop with wildUp culminating in a day of performances on the Phil’s Noon to Midnight Festival. I had known and admired some of Fure’s music and was looking forward to matching her personality to her sounds. Additionally, my Facebook news feed had been abuzz with citations of her piercingly eloquent article about gender, risk, aesthetic politics, and pigeonholing.

Ashley Fure

Ashley Fure

When Fure presented her recently premiered piece Bound to the Bow for orchestra and electronics, I was mesmerized. It was exactly the inspiration I needed after about eight months of not composing much, and not composing anything I was particularly happy with (including the piece to be performed later that week). Descriptions of music I love always feel trivial, but for the sake of this anecdote, I’ll mention that I was struck by its timeless fluidity and completely engaging sense of pacing. The propeller-like sound source that was the basis for the seamless integration of orchestra and electronics was hypnotic, as was the way this sound melted into and filled the cracks of lush harmonies and timbres.

Beyond the striking impression of the music, I was moved by Fure’s comments about it. She described how her brother’s vocation as an architect was often a source of inspiration to her. A designer of buildings, she explained, creates a sturdy foundation, immobile and rooted in solid ground from which a structure can be erected. A designer of ships, however, has eyes for flexible rather than rigid foundations. Yielding to currents from every direction, a hull too rigid is bound to break.

A drawing of the hull for a ship.

Fure likens this architectural approach to malleability to her musical approach to time passing. She imagines her music bending to and tolerating resistance from a twisting chronology. Time is Fure’s ocean, and her music exists in its expansive mutability.

Time is Fure’s ocean, and her music exists in its expansive mutability.

This metaphor resonated with something that’s been nagging at me in my work ever since I can remember: my music and general modus operandi suffer from a stringency that can result in a sense predictability and constraint by the logic I’ve imposed upon it. I am building cement foundations, not hulls. I’d been mulling over this analogy when Fure congratulated me on the performance of my piece a few days later, and I confessed to her that I felt it was unsuccessful. Fure thought carefully about this, and ultimately suggested that maybe I was dissatisfied with my music because I didn’t allow room for chaos. While it is my habit to associate the musical detail I love with order, maybe I might search for disorder in my details instead and see what forms emerge.

Mentorship moments cannot be planned or predicted.

Fure didn’t realize it, but she touched me to the core with her advice. Ideally, I want my music to wail an emphatic “yes” to bold expression. But I have yet to reconcile the inherent instability there is in such a cry with the conviction inherent in the vociferous “yes” that, for example, called out from Fure’s Bound to the Bow. The timing of Fure’s comment, mingled with respect for her artistry and amiability, has really shaped the way I’ve thought about composing this year. I go back to that conversation again and again as a sort of creative reset. It’s given me fuel to keep writing while concurrently being open to questioning why and how I’m writing.

These mentorship moments cannot be planned or predicted, but often make up the cohesive trajectory that forms a whole person. In 2013, I’d emailed out a recording of my first big orchestral piece, Passacaglia, to friends for feedback. Nina C. Young was the only person to respond, and she did so with a long, detailed email of her thoughts about the piece and my work moving forward. That email, full of loving and constructive critique, continues to shape my approach to orchestration.

We are perpetually both teachers and learners.

Advice or the spontaneous outreach of compassion at the right moment can turn anyone into the most important source of guidance for someone else in an instant. Because of my serendipitous experience on the receiving end of momentary mentorship, I feel it’s important to consider this possibility when we engage with each other in our community. We are perpetually both teachers and learners, and in any given interaction we might switch between being one or the other.

Katherine Balch's sketch of the structure for her musical composition Leaf Fabric

A sketch of the form of a recent piece of mine, Leaf Fabric, in which I tried to capture Fure’s suggestion of infusing a form with more chaos.

Reclaiming the Missing Middle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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





Mad Fresh

The most sampled recording in history is probably “Change Le Beat” by Beside and Fab Five Freddy, which was produced in 1982 by Bill Laswell.

If you’re listening to this song for the first time right now, you might be wondering what’s so special about it. You’d be right to wonder. Even Fab Five Freddy was reluctant to have his name on it. The special part of the track comes at the very end, when there’s a beep, followed by a vocoded voice saying, “Ahhh, this stuff is really fresssshhhh.” Hip-hop folklore has it that it’s Fab Five Freddy speaking the line, but it’s actually Bill Laswell’s manager Roger Trilling—he was playfully imitating Elektra Records head Bruce Lundvall. As Dave Tompkins puts it in his book How To Wreck A Nice Beach, “One of the most cloned hip-hop noises was but an imitation itself, mistaken for someone else in disguise, imitating the imitator on the A-side but replicated by a machine.”

The words “ahhh” and “fresh” are for hip-hop turntablists what the twelve-bar blues is for guitarists: both an entry point for beginners, and a bottomless resource for master practitioners. “Ahhh” and “fresh” are comprised of filtered white noise, which always scratches well. The “ahhh” has a distinctive attack and decay, so it’s easy for turntablists to keep track of where in the sample they are. And “fresh” is, well, fresh.

There are several different definitions of “fresh.” As a synonym for new or different, it can refer to food that isn’t canned, frozen, or otherwise preserved; a well-rested, energetic, healthy-looking person; an inexperienced noob; someone recently arrived, as in “fresh off the boat”; water that’s good to drink and not salty; or air that smells clean, pure, and cool. Fresh is also a dated slang term for impudence or impertinence. In hip-hop culture, fresh is on the endless string of synonyms for cool. Neither Roger Trilling nor the record executive he was mocking knew the hip-hop sense of the word when “Change Le Beat” was recorded, but that’s naturally the sense that turntablists intend when they scratch it. Thus you get Doug E Fresh rapping, “You’ve got to be [fresh], to rock with [fresh], and I’m D-O-U-G-I-E [fresh]!”

The wonderful thing about the hip-hop usage of fresh is that it could be referencing any of the various original senses of the word: new, refreshing, appetizing, attractive, or sassy.

fresh yogurt

We in Western culture have a habit of reflexively using “original” as a synonym for “good,” especially in music. I’m going to argue that originality is not actually a virtue, but rather, that freshness is. The concepts are related, but not identical.

In the strictest sense, we can understand originality to be a measure of information entropy, the information in a system that’s novel or unexpected. A song’s information entropy is high the first time you hear it, and then drops precipitously on each subsequent listen. Once you’ve thoroughly memorized and analyzed the song, its information entropy approaches zero. More generally, the music with the highest information entropy will be the most dissimilar to music you’ve heard before.

Producing original music in the information-theoretic sense of the word is trivially easy. Pull note names and durations out of a hat, or get a toddler to bang on a MIDI keyboard, or consult the I Ching. If you want to be really novel, you can generate audio files by randomly filling an array with ones and zeroes. The result is likely to be either tedious or annoying, or both. You’ve generated a lot of new information, but without a pattern or structure, it’s just noise. Now of course, some people like noise, and good for them. But even noise music is more structured than complete randomness. Most of us don’t want total originality in music; we want small variations and hybrids of known ideas, a delicate balance between novelty and familiarity. That balance will tilt one way or the other, depending on the listener.

Very often when we praise music for being “original,” we mean that it’s new or surprising to us personally. Surprise is entirely a function of your expectations. Recently, a student of mine presented a song by a self-described “experimental” Korean band called Clazziquai. I was expecting some kind of skronked-out punk, and instead was greeted by tame electronic pop with some occasional audio manipulations and stutters. Within the formulaic confines of K-Pop, no doubt these effects are startling. If you listen to a lot of Aphex Twin or Squarepusher, however, Clazziquai will hold no surprises for you.

Rather than evaluating music in terms of its originality, we need a criterion that gets at more meaningful aspects of musical quality: emotional truth-telling, recursive patterns of symmetries and asymmetries, intellectual depth, danceability, and so on. We should be judging music by its freshness. We can use exactly the same standards for music that we’d use for produce. A carrot doesn’t have to be unlike all other carrots that came before it; it just has to be crunchy, tasty, and nutritious. Unlike vegetables, music can retain its freshness over long time spans, and can even get fresher over time. Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” epitomized freshness when it first came out—the album it appears on was named Future Shock for a reason.

This song exemplifies the ’80s so perfectly that it was inevitably going to become dated and lame after a while. But then, like many artifacts of early hip-hop culture, “Rockit” attained a retro freshness that will never wear out. The documentary Scratch features a series of turntablists who cite “Rockit” as their first inspiration. I incorporated some of them into my own remix:

“Change Le Beat” itself was never all that fresh, and it probably never will be. But just like a rotted log feeds a whole new miniature ecosystem, the “Ahh” and “Fresh” samples are inexhaustible sources of new music. No track that includes the samples can be original by definition, but they can most certainly be fresh.

Boston: Caroline Shaw’s Common Cause

"Your Second or Permanent Teeth" (anatomical diagram)

From Harrison Wader Ferguson, D.D.S., A Child’s Book of the Teeth (1922).

In his 1547 treatise Dodecachordon, Heinrich Glarean, having lionized the likes of Obrecht, Ockeghem, and Josquin (especially Josquin), made sure—like you do—to despair that the younger generation was ruining everything. To be sure, even Josquin had his infelicitous moments: “in some places in his songs he did not fully and properly restrain his impetuous talent, although this ordinary fault may be condoned because of his otherwise incomparable gifts.” Those coming after Josquin, however, made this exception the rule, as Glarean complained:

The art now displays such unrestraint that learned men are nearly sick of it. This has many causes, but mostly it is because composers are ashamed to follow in the footsteps of predecessors who observed the relation of modes exactly; we have fallen into another, distorted style of song which is in no way pleasing—it is only new.

It was probably coincidental that, for the May 10 and 11 premiere performances of Caroline Shaw’s Music in Common Time, the vocal group Roomful of Teeth and the string ensemble A Far Cry preceded the piece with Josquin at his most elegantly, explicitly generational: his “Déploration” on the death of his elder colleague Johannes Ockeghem (in an arrangement by Shaw). But, then again, after winning the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for her Partita (the youngest composer to ever receive the honor), Shaw came in for a share of Glarean-like grief courtesy of John Adams, who implicitly held Shaw up as an example of “extremely simplistic, user-friendly, lightweight” music: “People are winning Pulitzer Prizes writing this stuff now.” He went on:

If you read a lot of history, which I do, you see that civilizations produce periods of high culture, and then they can fall into periods of absolute mediocrity that can go on for generation after generation.

So to have the “Déploration” on the program, that road from Ockeghem to Josquin to implied musical perdition, was a nice reminder that, if you read even a little history, you see that these sorts of bumpy transitions are nothing new. Music in Common Time is, among other things, a border stone marking one of those most porous yet most impassible of barriers: a proximate, parapatric stylistic divide.

* * *

A Far Cry, seven seasons old, has, since 2010, been the in residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (where I heard this program on May 11). They are a conductorless gang of energetic fashion. (Their standard-repertoire contribution to the program, Mahler’s string-orchestra arrangement of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet (D. 810), was incessantly high-contrast and bracing.) Roomful of Teeth charts a line between musical polish and enthusiasm. Their singing in the Josquin, for instance, channeled the precision of an early music outfit but eschewed the homogeneity: individual voices could still be heard amidst the collective. Both groups are cut from similar cloth: younger-skewing ensembles proficient enough to slip into the churn of the classical-music performance business, and idiosyncratic enough to create the sense that they’re reprogramming the machine. An additional layer of professional and personal connections between the two groups (which Shaw hinted at in a breezy program note) made for a natural collaboration; Shaw’s new piece—somewhat mind-bendingly, her first formal commission—provided the occasion.

Music in Common Time is not quite a concerto, although the eight voices tend to move more as a unified group than the string orchestra, which is frequently divided into distinct factions. An opening stretch—a staggered, rising, arpeggiated triad (D major, picking up where Partita left off)—shifts into the sturdiest of diatonic progressions, then gives way to a vocal break, one of two sections with text: “Over the roads,” the voices sing, in a tongue-twisting interlude of traveling music. (That dialectic, one ensemble gently interrupting the other, happens throughout.) After a bit of folk-tinged, almost Holst-like atmosphere, the opening section returns, only to be undercut by thickets of snap-pizzicato, becoming a conventionally plucked accompaniment, over which the voices embark on a short study in portamento, sliding up and down into pure harmonies.

The center of the piece was engrossing, a negotiation between a perpetually rising sequence of secondary dominants in the strings and faster, descending parallel chords in the voices, occasionally meeting up for chance cadences. It was chased with a brief dose of ringing-partial throat-singing—one of the piece’s few congruences with Partita’s more exuberant kitchen sink of vocal techniques. That led to the final section: first the voices introduced another bit of sentimentally elusive text (“years ago, I forget; years to come, just let them”) set as a sweetly unsteady shape-note sing; then a tranquil standoff of a coda, half the strings staying put while the other half, along with the voices, moved to a different key center.

The overall effect is that of a linked chain, a point-to-point sojourn. Arrivals are based less on contrapuntal resolution and more on the satisfying effect of a particular sonority. (The sound of a widely spaced triad—roots, thirds, and fifths saturating the overtone spectrum—is a recurring component; it also featured in Shaw’s Josquin arrangement, suboctaves from the double basses trundling in to give crucial harmonies a boost of widescreen warmth.)

But what’s most interesting about Music in Common Time is its relationship to style. Current usage of the term “post-minimalist” can be a little squishy, but in a way that goes beyond historical chronology (and to a more immediately apparent extent than Partita), Music in Common Time is truly post-minimalist, at least in the lower-case sense: the structure and gist are not minimalist, but almost all of its building blocks are minimalist signifiers, tropes and gestures that evolved along with minimalist practice. The triad as object; overlapping consonance as a stretched canvas; the chord-to-chord movement of basic progressions turned into scene and act breaks; variation via altered phrase length rather than elaborated melody—all of these figure into Shaw’s rhetoric, but in a way far removed from minimalism’s deliberate, patient process.

The tropes become objects of recognition at least as much as objects of exploration; the garnishes—the Bartók pizzicato, the more exotic vocal excursions, the polytonality—play off of expectations of what we might be accustomed to hearing those other ideas do in a minimalist context. In other words, Shaw is most definitely not observing the relation of modes exactly, at least by the lights of her elders. Which is as it should be. Music always does this, always has done this, always will do this. Music in Common Time is only unusual in the genial straightforwardness with which it repurposes inherited goods.

It reminded me of my favorite piece of curmudgeonly compositional grumbling, coming a century after Heinrich Glarean, when the Baroque era was just getting traction, but was far enough along for Samuel Scheidt to complain about where things were headed:

I am astonished at the foolish music written in these times…. It certainly must be a remarkably elevated art when a pile of consonances are thrown together any which way.

This is both supremely sarcastic and basically true. It is a remarkably elevated art that is so incapable of settling down, constantly inspiring its practitioners to use the output of one set of rules as the input for a completely different set of rules. Musical style is a moving target. It certainly must be.

& Sometimes, Music

The title of this post is borrowed from my friend and former band mate Doug Perkins. I heard him use it during a discussion surrounding our performance of Iannis Xenakis’s Pleiades a few years ago. Doug is idealistic. He was talking about Pleiades in the context of its unique qualities. So much rehearsal and setup time goes into putting on a huge piece like Pleiades; I spent months building new instruments for it. Why do we do it?

The work itself is awe-inspiring, but you wouldn’t necessarily find yourself humming it while walking down the street, or listening to it in the car. Rather than straining to argue for why Pleiades should compete with every other kind of music for attention at every moment of the day, Doug called it “sometimes music,” meaning that it’s okay to acknowledge that the music benefits from the context of a curated event with dedicated listeners, and to even highlight that fact.

So Percussion/Meehan Perkins Duo performing Metaux from Pleiades

What I love about the concept of “sometimes music” is that it sidesteps the thorny, problematic, and anachronistic implication that some musical styles are more advanced than others. It allows its advocates to encourage others to tune in, rather than to engage in tedious, insulting dialogues about which kind of music is up or down. We don’t have to believe in just one kind of music for every moment in our lives, and few of us actually do.

It also gives us a justification for going to extreme lengths in our dedication to the music we make and write. We call something “special” because we believe it is worthy of our time and energy, and we want it to have some kind of life.
This week, a YouTube clip caught my attention, courtesy of my colleague Ross Karre. It’s a performance of Milton Babbitt’s Composition for 12 Instruments, directed by the terrific violinist Erik Carlson.

I clicked on it to listen and continued to peruse Facebook. To be honest, I’ve never heard a piece by Babbitt that I’ve liked. It’s not that I don’t respect his work or his immense legacy; his music has just never caught my ear. As the track progressed, my focus gradually turned from perusing to real listening. There was a certain swagger and breathlessness to this recording. At times, I even felt a groove slither out of the dizzying pointillism.

And I liked it.

The piece was written in 1948, and I’m sure I’ve heard it before. The text itself has presumably not changed since it was revised in 1954. But it felt fresh and new during this listening.

For some reason, in this performance the music didn’t feel opaque to me. I wouldn’t say that it felt inevitable either, but I was strangely relaxed when listening to it, delighting in the interplay of instrumental colors. It feels like a bunch of really smart people constantly finishing each other’s sentences, or like watching one of those skits from the old Comedy Central reruns of Whose Line is it Anyway?

I’ve usually associated Babbitt’s music with an aura of intellectual austerity. But how much of that association is actually a direct result of the score, which has not changed in 60 years? I didn’t associate what I was hearing with that cold austerity at all. Could the studied effortlessness that the performers displayed been having a tangible effect on the way I perceived the music?
To me, this is “sometimes” music. Babbitt said as much in his infamous essay “Who Cares If You Listen,” which most of us know was not the title he intended. Finding a foothold in his work for the first time caused me to go back and reread that essay. Actually, in that article Babbitt allows for the possibility of writing “almost never” music.

“And so, I dare suggest that the composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance and electronic media, with its very real possibility of complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition.”
I found myself not hating the essay nearly as much as I did as a young student. I sti

ll have personal arguments with many of the assumptions and labels that he uses (“serious,” “advanced,” etc) but I’ve long since settled those internal conflicts, so I focused more on other questions.

My younger self was unable to move past the sense that Babbitt was trying to establish hegemony of his aesthetics. The 34-year old me sees an artist who seems to be saying, “Why not? Why can’t I create something new, even if it is inaccessible to some? Why may I not have the freedom to make work that doesn’t conform to normal expectations of a creator/audience relationship?” Far from fearing hegemony, I actually agree that he or anybody else should have that option.

I’ve chosen a very social life in music. It gratifies me to find repertoire that engages and challenges people in equal parts. Listening to this performance made me question my notion of what that kind of music might be. There aren’t many days where I’m knocked off-balance like that.

It happens, sometimes.

Fear of Simplicity

The recent death of British composer John Tavener has got me thinking, again, about simplicity and the way we talk about simple music. There’s a weird combination of admiration, envy, and condescension that often comes into play when composers talk about simplicity. We can admire its bravery, its unabashed unembellished-ness. But maybe we’re unsure how to judge it when there isn’t as much on the surface to analyze. And maybe we want to protest, “But I could just as easily have done that,” even though of course we didn’t. Maybe we resent someone calling “dibs” on that idea before we got around to it.

Maybe simplicity is complicated because the difference between a simple idea that is banal and a simple idea that has depth can be extremely subtle. Maybe we can’t tell, at first, which is which. But then, why should this be any different than complexity? Complexity can contain hidden depths, but it can also obscure a lack of substance at its core.

There’s no way to tell, then, on first listen. We can only trust our prejudices or our instincts, and what’s more, we may not even be able to distinguish prejudices from instincts. And maybe the prejudices have rewired the instincts, so that, while being drawn to the immediately attractive idea, we immediately distrust it, because we have been burned too many times by charlatans.
Maybe the non-composer is more likely to trust the naked idea and its fearless charms, while the composer prefers the idea with clothes, with armor. Complexity as a kind of modesty, as shyness, as parasocial anxiety. Maybe this petty yet fundamental disconnect is the source of countless tragicomic misunderstandings between artist and audience.

Then again, maybe I am overgeneralizing (or over-equivocating). There is room in the world for both simple and complex music and for all kinds of interactions between the two, and mapping this strange, non-linear territory is one of the things that new music has gotten pretty good at. The trick is to view it without judging—or to judge anyway while knowing your judgment is wrong. Creation unfortunately demands a perpetual, genocidal sacrifice of possibilities, so we might as well get it over with.

Derivative Works

Here’s a confession: I like creating derivative works. I mean that both in the colloquial, pejorative sense of the term, as well as the broader and more confusing legal definition of the term. According to the U.S. Copyright Act, a derivative work is “a work based upon one or more preexisting works.” Obviously there is more verbiage than that, but that’s the essence of it. To an artist, you can see why this might be a hopelessly vague definition.

Wrangling over what separates an original work from one that depends “too much” on a pre-existing work has been the subject of a number of high-profile lawsuits over the years. Off the top of my head, there was the Beastie Boys’ sampling of a jazz flute improvisation by James Newton; producer Timbaland’s appropriation of a track by obscure Finnish musician Janne Suni; and the Verve’s lifting of an orchestral arrangement of a Rolling Stones tune. In many of these sorts of cases, the outcome seemed to have less to do with musical merit and more to do with who had more weight to throw around (and/or who had better lawyers). In other words, the celebrities tend to defeat the lesser known quantities in these legal battles, regardless of which side they’re on. This ends up twisting and perverting the original intent of copyright law, stifling innovation and consolidating intellectual property into the hands of the powerful.

Many years ago a student composer I knew received a cease-and-desist regarding an electronic piece that paid homage to Michael Jackson’s music. The samples he used were so tiny and reconfigured that if you didn’t know it was based on Michael Jackson, you might have no idea. But by explicitly acknowledging it, this composer made himself a target. If it had gone to court it’s very possible he would have won the case, but the mere threat was enough incentive for him to withdraw his work. This puts the artist in a strange and unenviable position. By choosing not to cite your sources, you may escape notice, but you detach your work from a great deal of what gives it meaning. You might also find yourself feeling conflicted about sharing the work, or even betting against its success.

I don’t think it’s hyperbole to call this a culture of fear. Almost everyone I know second-guesses themselves when creating something that references the work of the recent past—and that includes nearly everything that we create. You can absolve yourself artistically by calling it a tribute or homage or parody, but this doesn’t actually protect you. It’s true that this often doesn’t stop people from creating, and it shouldn’t. (Alex Temple’s Nineteen, a collage piece that samples one hundred 20th-century works, is a great example of the kind of derivative creativity I hope to see more of.) But it does often affect what we can do with those works once they’re created. Without getting too specific, in the past it has stopped me from announcing, selling, or publicly posting recordings of certain pieces. Am I just being paranoid? Maybe. But I’m certainly not the only one.

More Famous Than You

There has been a deluge of commentary in response to Dan Joseph’s extremely measured reaction to Daniel Asia’s recent anti-John Cage polemic for The Huffington Post, as well as a more modest, but also significant set of reactions to my own thoughts about how the arbiters of taste and relevance in the media ultimately determine what becomes mainstream. It amazes me that now, 13 years into the 21st century, there are so many people still actively fighting the battles of the 20th century.
I’m pretty much open to any idea except an idea that winds up being exclusionary. To me the genre sanctity debates (whether they’re about music that is not popular enough to be “popular” or about music that’s not classical enough to be “classical”) are ultimately about keeping people out. I like letting people in. Similarly, the debates about whether music should be either tonal or atonal, minimalist or maximalist, precisely notated, contain elements of indeterminacy, or be completely improvised on the spot are all fences that ultimately keep folks from enjoying the picnic. From my vantage point, the 21st century has gotten past a lot of this, both in terms of the plurality of aesthetics that inform today’s creators and interpreters, as well as in the ways in which listeners come to this music.

LPR Carter Memorial

There wasn’t a single empty seat at LPR’s all-Carter program last night and standing room seemed worse than a rush hour commute. So much for Carter’s music not being “part of the popular soundscape.”

In the late 1970s when I first met him, Elliott Carter represented “uptown music,” an approach to music I initially felt, as an aspiring “downtown composer,” that I needed to reject during the final years of the stylistic wars being waged around me. Yet Carter lived downtown in Greenwich Village for the final 60 years of his life. On Sunday night, his memorial concert was held at (Le) Poisson Rouge and it was the biggest crowd I had ever seen there. When I first met John Cage—not long after I had first met Carter—he represented for me the freedom to do anything I wanted to do. Of course, it turned out that there was ultimately method to Cage’s seeming madness. He also wasn’t open to everything.

But now with decades of hindsight, all that music has been absorbed into our history. Cage and Carter are both no longer with us, which means that they’ll probably finally be embraced by some sectors of the classical music community who only care about dead composers. They will undoubtedly both be lionized in a way that was never possible while either of them were among the living, although they probably will never catch up to the fame of Beethoven and that gang. Not because their compositions are any less worthy, but because we continue to subscribe to the absurd received wisdom that music evolved to a higher plane in Europe than anywhere else in the world, and that after reaching a pinnacle somewhere in the 19th century it devolved from there. But just as those classical tastemakers may decide to begrudgingly allow a few 20th-century Americans into the vaulted canon of Western classical music, the pop tastemakers won’t care a hoot about this news from yesterday and will proclaim certain fleeting trends to be in and everything else out. So for better or worse, Beethoven and whoever is the Lady Gaga du jour will always be more famous than the rest of us who are making music that we feel passionate about.
Nevertheless, fascinating music continues to be made all over the planet; it continues to evolve and to incorporate elements from wherever and whatever its creators see fit.

Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation!

We’re at that time of year where the pace of life accelerates considerably (at least for those of us in the teaching biz) before the inevitable caesura around the holidays, so it’s not too surprising that I almost missed Dan Joseph’s article last week decrying the absence of composers from his “generation,” which he defined as 1963-1980. Beginning with a story about Frederic Rzewski ranting about composers from that generation back in the mid-’90s, Joseph leaps into an extensive essay on the dearth of composers born in that era.

To give you a thumbnail sketch of Joseph’s viewpoint, I offer the following extended excerpts:

“Of course, they are out there; I do actually know some of them, and no doubt readers of this column will know of numerous others. But relative to the generations before and after, it seems that there is a shortage of Gen X voices out there.”

“While there may be some truth in this stereotype, what the classic Gen X personality is arguably really expressing is a kind of indifference, to both radical rebellion and to traditional roles and paths. The prototypical Gen X’er is skeptical, cynical, and self-effacing and not surprisingly, many of this generation have followed unusual, non-linear paths in life, often without attracting much notice. This would seem to fit the broader profile of Gen X composers whom, I have suggested, appear to be missing.”

“Of course not all Gen X composers were or are writing in a minimalist idiom, but if we were to take an informal survey of some of the more prominent composers of this age group, what I think we would find is somewhat of a muddle of conflicting influences and styles with no real significant innovations or discoveries. There is no signature movement or style of this group as there is with the Boomers, which, as I have suggested, is really a second phase of minimalism, or post-minimalism. The Millennials, I would argue, have coalesced around a new style that fuses classical and contemporary pop music in new ways that might be characterized as “post-classical” or “indie-garde.” Sure, there are interesting, talented and accomplished figures among them, but as a group, Gen X composers seem caught in the same wrinkle of ambivalence, between rebellion and tradition, that characterizes their generation as a whole. I might posit the Gen X sound as “a little bit of many things, but nothing in particular.” Is this part of the reason for our absence, the fact that we have no distinctive sound of our own? Is ours’ the sound of “a sad, sad bunch”?”

“Perhaps you, the readers, know some important Gen X composers out there that the rest of us have overlooked. I would love to learn about them.”

In culling through Joseph’s essay and subsequent comments, I see that his concerns can be condensed down to the following:

– There is a seeming lack of Gen X composers (at least at new music concerts in NYC), in relation to those from the Boomer and Millennial generations.

– Many of us had really depressing childhoods (“the America of our childhood was also somewhat of an impoverished land of broken dreams and broken families”), thereby fostering a current generation full of skeptics and cynics and resulting in non-linear life paths.

– There is no signature movement or style (“a little bit of many things, but nothing in particular”) associated with our generation, resulting in a lack of notable voices.

– We can’t help having been “passed over” because of the timing of when we were born.

– While we have had a positive influence on our musical world, our lack of need for the spotlight has muted our overt importance on the broader musical culture.

Starting with the first issue regarding the lack of Gen X composers, this confused me at first. Anyone who’s read my columns over the past two years knows that 1) I’ve been interviewing many composers around the country from precisely this demographic and 2) I’m comfortable making lists of composers if it’s necessary, so please know that my first reaction to this was to create a massive list to disprove Joseph’s thesis on its face. But after re-reading his article and the subsequent comments, I understand that a simple list would miss what he’s pursuing. In his comments to David Smooke, Dan interprets David’s own examples of Gen X composers as being representative of the “academic classical establishment” (an interpretation that I would strongly disagree with), after which he states that his “field of view” is broader than that and that his argument is qualitative rather than quantitative, describing our generation’s character and profile as “muted and muddled.” In his comments to Jennifer Higdon, he again asks if Gen X composers are “missing” after agreeing that there are many active and accomplished composers in that generation–again, this was confusing to me.

I think I read Dan’s comments to David and Jennifer in the following way: previous generations have always seemed to have their A-list composers, who were considered as such during their lifetimes as well as after their deaths. These A-list composers were broadly recognized, at least within the musical community if not in the general population, and they were known for having very distinctive musical styles that could be easily associated with their own public personas, which were also often known and recognized. One could use just their last or even first names when speaking about them and be understood (Igor, Bela, Aaron, Benjamin, Samuel, Lenny, Milton, Elliott). Dan’s thesis seems to be that because Gen X does not seem to have any composers who he can point to who fall under this rubric, there must be something wrong with us and our upbringing. From here he extrapolates his subsequent arguments about the lack of an organized musical “movement” among these composers, which has ultimately resulted in them making a less substantial impact on our culture and our world.

Regarding the number of composers, I’m comfortable in pointing toward the rapid increase in the number of graduate academic degree programs in composition that started in the 1960s and 1970s and have steadily increased since then to suggest that, at least numerically, there are more (professional and otherwise) composers in the Gen X group than there were in previous generations. While in the past, most composers may have congregated in several cultural urban centers, the ability for composers to thrive outside of those centers has increased dramatically since the advent of the internet and, I would argue, that the Gen X’ers were the first generation of artists to break ground on that front.

Joseph’s comments on our childhood and its effect on our current psyche, while overly dramatic and reductionist, include some (relatively) valid points. Did more of our parents divorce than the Boomers? Yes. Did the steady disintegration of the utopian ideal that was propagated during the 1950s and early ’60s have a lasting effect on how we as adults view our career options? Yup. Did the fact that both mainstream composers and academia began to (slowly) move away from didactic, overly process-driven, and dissonance-laden concepts as their only viable options have an enormous effect on young composers in the late ’80s and early ’90s and subsequently create an “all-bets-are-off” free-for-all attitude towards musical language and technique? Definitely. And did that free-for-all pull composers away from the supposed importance of a “signature style”? Very much so.

Were we born at the “wrong” time? Only if you believe it to be so. Would I rather have been born in the mid-’80s or early ’90s instead of 1970? (Give up cassette tapes, Dungeons & Dragons, and getting to see Star Wars during its opening week in the theater?) Not on your life. I think our generation has the unique luck to have connections to both the social turmoil of the 1960s/’70s as well as the changes in technology and social interaction of the 1990s/’00s. We were the last generation to live without the internet, the last generation that remembers not having the option of using notation software, and the last generation to remember how the arts could be supported by the general public. Does that put us at a disadvantage against our more respected elders or the media-savvy Millennials? It depends on what you mean by a disadvantage.

I would also suggest that Gen X had a dysfunctional relationship with the media at the same time as the media was going through its massive transformation from dead-tree and network to digital and cable. Because there were so many composers doing so many different things in the late ’80s through the early ’00s and there was a rejection of the concept of a single signature movement or style, this caused both the media and the academics to wait until the dust settled before they made any proclamations of importance. The issue for the Gen Xers arose when the generation born at the end of the ’70s/beginning of the ’80s began to get noticed because of their (supposed) stylistic homogeneity. Personally, I think it had more to do with their comfort with breaking out of the typical concept of what a composer should act like and look like than with any purely musical trend, but whatever the reason, the updated media models (of which this magazine is a fine example) have given composers born in the ’80s and ’90s quite a lot of attention. This attention, which was never available to Gen X’ers during their careers’ formative years, could easily engender feelings that our generation was “left behind” in favor of the young whippersnappers with their savvy and moxie (I’m hearing myself say this in a Grandpa Simpson’s voice…).

Returning to the main “A-list” argument I described earlier that underlays Joseph’s entire article, I have three responses. The first of which is that there are A-list composers in our generation, but you have to be willing to have a truly broad context to see them. Mention the name “Eric” to anyone in the choral realm and they will know who you are talking about; Whitacre’s music has transcended the concept of “standard literature” and his Virtual Choirs have brought unknown attention to the choral genre (I’d also put Tarik O’Regan in that category for choral works). There are thousands who would recognize the names Mackey or Bryant from their high school band concerts. In the concert world, Adès, Puts, and Theofanidis are already known throughout the industry and Mazzoli, Bates, and Friedman are not far behind (as well as many more I really want to list but won’t, to save space). How about jazz? Darcy James Argue and Vijay Iyer. Musicals? Jason Robert Brown. Film music? Michael Giacchino, Alexandre Desplat, and Marco Beltrami.

Secondly, the fact that Gen X composers don’t have a single movement or style is not only a good thing, but it is the most important aspect of that generation as well. Our generation was the “reboot” that erased the many years of serial/chance/minimalism debates from the musical whiteboard altogether. It’s not surprising that it took 10-20 years of exploration in the wilderness by Gen X composers before the situation improved to the point that the introduction of the Millennial composers seemed so effortless.

Finally, years ago in my undergrad days when I was a hardcore jazzer ignorant of the concert world, I got the chance to play with the great trumpeter/flugelhornist Marvin Stamm. I distinctly remember him musing about his place in the jazz world, frustrated that he wasn’t old enough to be a respected elder but was too old for the media-friendly “young lions” who were prevalent at that time (the Marsalis brothers and their coterie were all the rage back then). But there he was, surrounded by excited student performers who hung on his every word and looked up to him no matter what he himself thought of his place in the world. It is with this mindset—glass half-full—that we as creative artists must meet the world that surrounds us. Whether or not we are “noticed” by the proper authorities or the general public means so much less than our own well being, both now and in the future.