Tag: criticism

In Praise of Unremarkable Music, Part 2

Toy Xylophone

In Part 1 of this article, I surveyed some common measures of success in music and discussed some observations on a social level of what music that doesn’t meet these measures might teach us. I proposed that one way to deal with these issues is to sidestep them—to embrace what is unremarkable about your music as an alternative to fighting the system. In Part 2, after examining unremarkable music from a personal level, I will argue that embracing the unremarkable in your music may empower you to achieve your goals.

Many of us have feelings about what is true, beautiful, or good in music which match the fervor most people hold only for politics or religion. I know I have on occasion felt viscerally offended by “bad” music.

I know I have on occasion felt viscerally offended by “bad” music.

Soberly considered, such reactions make no sense. It’s just sound. But it would be unwise to stifle your “musical conscience” on that account. That muse lives to remind you of your deepest musical values and messages. Perhaps ironically, identifying and owning your “musical conscience” is what allows you to embrace what is unremarkable in your own music—because it affirms that the unremarkableness of these features is not salient to the truth, goodness, and beauty you have to share.

But honoring your musical conscience can be challenging when surrounded by other artists, each with their own strong feelings and compelling visions. Even if you admire them, it is crucial to recognize that when other artists lambaste certain music—whether it’s by John Cage, Lennon, or Mackey or Joan Baez, Tower, or La Barbara—those strong feelings do not come from a place of “I am a dispassionate, knowledgeable observer whose opinions are objectively true.”

For the compliant and sensitive among us, this lesson would have been especially useful before college and grad school.

Still, as my teacher Murray Boren put it, “attending school is an admission of ignorance.” Every undergraduate composer has skills they must learn and unfamiliar repertoire they should experience. We need these skills and experiences to help us grow and refine both our musical consciences and our ability to articulate their messages.

Unfortunately, though our professors did have plenty to teach us, we generally were not experienced enough to distinguish their wisdom from their opinions. In academia, as in all musical subcultures, we learn that “people like us do things like this,” as Seth Godin puts it. By no coincidence then, the music that academia generally prizes as “remarkable” sounds a lot like the music that academia generally writes.

Though our professors did have plenty to teach us, we generally were not experienced enough to distinguish their wisdom from their opinions.

As a consequence of this dynamic, our training often unintentionally (though in some shameful cases quite intentionally) delivered the message, “Your music is existentially not good enough.” (“People like us DON’T do things like that!”) Indeed, a colleague of mine once quipped that the professorial feedback he received in a composition seminar amounted to “The problem with your piece is that you’re writing the wrong piece.”

David Rakowski’s “buttstix” catalogs the kind of neurotic and narrow-minded expectations too many of us heard and internalized during our time as students. For those who have yet to attempt it, it is an empowering exercise to exorcise your own list of “shoulds.”

For my part, I internalized that good music “should”:

  • use extended techniques and extreme registers
  • look rhythmically and texturally intricate
  • require virtuosic players, in both their technical dexterity and their musicianship and ensemble skills
  • avoid tonal and metrical references and focus on timbre and gesture
  • (or conversely) embrace the intersection of indie rock and post-minimalism
  • push aesthetic, technical, and disciplinary boundaries
  • not repeat itself within or between pieces
  • create new forms and systems for each piece
  • be obscure in its emotions and evasive about its extramusical connotations
  • dismiss or transcend culture-specific musical symbols or topics
  • have a sound intellectual justification for its pre-compositional plan or its compositional structures
  • be itself virtuosic in requiring exceptionally long hours, decades of study, and arcane technical skills to create (anything easy or instinctive is dismissible or, at least, suspect)

Now, none of this aesthetic agenda is problematic in itself. In fact, it describes a lot of music I admire by many colleagues whom I deeply respect. Aspects of it even describe things I value in my own music. But this agenda has the same relationship to my musical conscience as Amy Sherald’s portrait has to the real Michelle Obama. Sherald’s painting may capture one essential facet of Obama, but no painting can ever capture her living whole. Likewise, when I pressure myself to conform to those dead expectations, I cut myself off from my living musical truth.

The despondency and insecurity that comes from being cut off from your musical truth is the emotional counterpart to being offended by bad music. In both cases, your musical conscience is telling you, “You do not belong here.”

The despondency and insecurity that comes from being cut off from your musical truth is the emotional counterpart to being offended by bad music.

It is further calling you: not to a wholesale rejection of your colleagues’ and mentors’ opinions, but to greater discernment and integrity of your own. To say with confidence, “This is what matters to me musically. By these features, I know in my gut I have succeeded in speaking my truth. Accordingly, I trust the value of what I have to share—that some people will treasure it, even though others will find it unremarkable.”

Recently, a composer friend and I attended the concert of a famous cellist. At the intermission, we were relieved to discover we both felt he was overhyped. Yes, his renditions of the solo cello literature were good—but no more so than any top cellist from any world-class conservatory. It was only at the end when he played his self-arranged encore that, for the first time, the music felt honest. At that moment, it became clear, “This is what people hear in your playing.”

For me, this recital was a prime example of the power of unremarkable music. It helped bring into focus the thoughts and feelings I have had while slowly emerging these past six months from my post-dissertation, post-graduation haze. From this example, as I have pondered what I want to accomplish musically and how my music can make a difference, I realized two things:

First, “I am not yet as good of a composer as I hope to be”—that part was already obvious, but it was the next part that was liberating—“but I am already a far better composer than I need to be.”

Second, “I already have all the compositional chops I need to make an impact in music.”

My unremarkable music is good enough to matter.

My unremarkable music is good enough to matter. It’s potent enough to form communities, to influence lives, and even potentially to make a living. And so is yours.

A diatonic toy xylophone, each key is a different color.

Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.
ASCAP Foundation Logo

What Do You Think?

Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing case studies that illuminate networks of support for new American music, as presented by a panel of musicologist at the third annual New Music Gathering this past May. The full series is indexed here.

A couple of years ago I attended a concert that included a piece by the composer Fred LaMar (a pseudonym). After several months of fieldwork in the Chicago New Music scene, I had recently become fixated on asking a simple question: what do you think? I would ask this of fellow concert-goers and whenever an acquaintance knew the piece I was interested in, so I was eager to hear people’s reactions to LaMar’s work. After this show, a respected performer responded to my question by asking, “You’re not a friend of Fred LaMar, are you?” I was not, and we engaged in a detailed discussion of what she saw as the piece’s failings, as well as other aspects of the performance she didn’t like.

How do we critique each other’s work? What is at stake in such a conversation?

Such conversations have remained a subject of curiosity for me. In my research, I routinely conduct taped interviews, but these can’t capture or exemplify all the interesting conversations I have had while doing my fieldwork. Many times, detailed conversations about aesthetics and labor came about naturally while walking around town or during a chance meeting. I couldn’t always prepare for such an encounter, and when I have attempted to solicit negative reviews during more formal interviews, the results are frequently stale or intensely private. How do we critique each other’s work? What is at stake in such a conversation? How do our relationships mediate our critical perspectives? What happens when someone you respect does work you don’t like? I want to consider these questions with regard to both printed and spoken reviews of concerts. By looking at how we speak about these issues, we can begin to see how musicians move back and forth between ostensibly social and aesthetic concerns, and demonstrate how these two areas are deeply interwoven domains.

As I’ve attempted to formulate what it is that interests me about these conversations, I’ve turned to anthropological research on gossip. It’s not that every response to “What do you think?” constitutes gossip, but sometimes it does, and it can be hard to tell the difference. (I know, I know, the adage about only saying it if you would say it in front of someone, but the fact is some people are more open to criticism than others. I didn’t always have a strong relationship with the criticized or the criticizer, and presumption is riskier than abstention.) Since the 1950s, researchers such as Erving Goffman have argued that intimate conversations often have as much of a theatrical “staged” quality as public discussions. We shape our conversation to its context. Even our most intimate iterations are mediated by concerns about place and impact, though they remain authentic. We can lower these stakes in part by feigning ignorance of a subject, as noted by ethnomusicologist Henry Kingsbury. In his book based on ethnographic research in an elite music conservatory, Kingsbury described the question “What did you think of the Beethoven?” as a way to judge not only the talent of Beethoven and his performers, but of the speakers. More recently, Niko Besnier has argued that gossip is crucial to understanding the make-up of a given community, arguing that “exclusion from gossip is one of the primary means through which groups define outsider status.” Gossip, he argues in his book Gossip and the Everyday Production of Politics, is central to “how people construct and maintain a sense of localness.” Viewed with a sense of community in mind, “What do you think?” can serve to announce our relationships with the musicians in question. It can locate us in relationship to the broader community, as having more or less insight or talent (a la Kingsbury), or as being a trusted confidant (as in Besnier). Responding to “What did you think of the Reich?” with “I just don’t like music with so little melody” could risk placing you outside the community, in opposition to widely accepted views. In contrast, a more nuanced response, “I think Reich’s music stopped being good about seventeen years ago” might have the opposite effect. Your response also varies according to your place. Maybe you really don’t like music with the kinds of melodies Reich employs, but you don’t want to say so in front of the wrong people. Giving your opinion of melody is thus an intimation, a sign that you trust your interlocutor to keep your confidence.

Photo by Andrew Robles

Photo by Andrew Robles

In my fieldwork and interviews, “What do you think?” provided many people with an opportunity for expressing support. When I asked people what they thought, opinions were often given with various caveats or protective phrases such as, “First of all, I generally think Rebecca is a fantastic soloist and a great musician. But …” Many of the people I spoke with in the Chicago scene and elsewhere were eager to demonstrate their respect for the work required to produce a given performance. At each point in the conversation, interlocutors attempted to ascertain the rationale for the work in question. Why did this performance happen here in this way by these performers? Often, more intensely negative opinions appeared with more caveats, especially when disparaging respected figures. Indeed, this type of construction—a critique delivered after an expression of support—has, for me, become almost cliché. I encounter it frequently in press reviews of the groups I study. Eighth Blackbird is routinely praised for excellent performances while the same writer will deride the piece performed (check out Anne Midgette’s 2016 review of Eighth Blackbird’s “Ghostlight” program for a good example).

Sometimes, such constructions emerged after especially damning criticisms. In a recent concert review for Cacophony magazine, for example, Jen Hill took the vocal ensemble Quince and composer Luis Fernando Amaya to task, writing:

The concert began with a conservative program […] that relied on simplistic subtlety in terms of purpose and approach, in that any possibility of risk or consequence was masked by a metaphorical (and at one point, very real) veil of restraint. [This performance] objectifies the female bodies on stage and makes a theatrical mess of an otherwise pleasant listening experience.

That word “pleasant” recalls other back-handed compliments I’ve read over the years. Take, for example, this scorcher from a 2011 Eighth Blackbird concert review:

No need to return to Jennifer Higdon’s On a Wire, a listenable but inconsequential concerto written for eighth blackbird. They gathered around the Steinway at the beginning of the piece and the end, bowing and striking the piano strings to pleasant effect.

In the comments posted to the Cacophony review, Hill responded to critics, “i have great respect for all performers and composers and staff involved in this festival and have no intention of passing judgement on their skill, commitment, or character.” And yet judgment was passed on the work, a move that at least raises some questions about character, especially when criticism includes accusations of misogyny.

Why support those we criticize? Or the reverse, why criticize those we support?

Why support those we criticize? Or the reverse, why criticize those we support? Why do many of us feel the need to suss out works and our opinions? I posed this question to a friend, who responded, “Because it’ll make the work better. All this stuff involves innovating, trying to do something different.” In new music, it can be hard to know when somebody’s on to something or when we’re just excited for someone. Sometimes the distinction doesn’t matter, but often it does. There’s a point, I think, where your honest opinion matters more than your friend’s feelings. The opposite is also true, as was demonstrated to me repeatedly in fieldwork. “What do you think?” was rarely a simple question in the new music scenes I’ve studied. Especially when forming new relationships, as I did over and over again in the course of my fieldwork, sharing critical perspectives helped me engender a sense of trust and openness. Finding people who shared my critical views enhanced our relationship, and I needed those relationships for my work. When I could be honest with someone, I was able to have richer conversations, to open up, and—most importantly—to relax and stop analyzing everything I was doing while I was doing it. It helped make the long hours feel less like an intrusion and more like a shared experience.

Photo by Nik MacMillan

Photo by Nik MacMillan

Critiques and gossip both illustrate that, at least for the people I have worked with, new music is a rather contingent endeavor. An artist’s status, veracity, and execution were often points of debate. Even a group as successful as Eighth Blackbird ultimately risks a lot when they undertake a project. Groups with a larger budget and full-time employees cannot afford to fail in the same way that the part-time Ensemble Dal Niente can. This is important to remember amidst all the hyperbole around entrepreneurship. New music is a culture that tends to romanticize risk, and I think we ought to push back on that romanticizing. For all its aesthetic innovation, new music remains a job for many people. For every successful endeavor, there are more failures. As I became aware of this contingency, “What do you think?” became an increasingly high-stakes question. A consensus of failure had the potential to be a truly devastating realization, especially when a project cost a lot of money and involved multiple donors.

For every successful endeavor, there are more failures. As I became aware of this contingency, “What do you think?” became an increasingly high-stakes question.

Attending to this type of talk complicates how we support each other. It demonstrates that negative feedback relies on a sense of trust and implicit support, as has been noted by Ellen McSweeney in an essay titled “Can a Concert Review be an Act of Love?”:

I’ve realized that for me, writing about other people’s artistic work is actually an act of service. More than that: it is an act of love…. when I look back at my best concert reviews, I can see their devotional qualities. I never wrote about music that I didn’t like, or didn’t care about. Thus, my music writing is an expression of the fact that I really see this artist, that I believe in this artist, and that I want to shine a light on what this artist offers the world.  And when I called out Chicago new music sexism, or Beethoven Festival dysfunction, or an unexamined trope in Amy Beth Kirsten’s work, it was much like the process of telling a close friend that they’re wrong.

I don’t think I love everybody I talk about, but I do care about most of them. When I don’t care about something, I tend to talk about it very little (though when I really hate something, I might talk about it more).

One last thing about “What do you think?”: The levels of mediation I have outlined here demonstrate how much the people I’ve worked with rely on each other. The scene is small, or at least it is felt to be small. “What did you think?” is thus usefully combined with that other ubiquitous question in new music, “Do you know so-and-so?” To return to my opening example, I wonder what would have happened if I had been a friend of Fred LaMar. How would my conversation have been different? I think three counter questions would shape my reaction to another’s criticism of my imaginary friend’s piece. First, what did I think? This question often takes me a long time to figure out, and can change after I have a good talk with another listener. Second, who am I speaking with? The answer to this question determines how honest I can afford to be. Finally, did my interlocutor acknowledge in some way the work required to produce the work?

Determining the qualities of a piece of music of almost any kind remains deeply social for me and for many others. Most of us, I think, arrive at our opinions in dialogue with our friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and critics. Sharing our experience of music goes a long way to shaping our experience of that music. Even when we think something is bad, talking about it can still feel really good.

Music Criticism is Broken and It’s All Your Fault

One of my first composition teachers, Evan Chambers, made it a point to tell his students that learning how to talk about music was almost as important—and in some ways as important—as learning how to write music. At the time he said it, I believe he meant that verbalizing was a valuable compositional aid that gave shape and purpose to amorphous ideas. But in the intervening years, that thought has grown and taken on new and broader meanings for me. When composers and musicians don’t speak, we allow others to direct the discourse and determine the ways our music is contextualized and appreciated.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; music’s protean ability to accumulate new meanings is a large part of its enduring fascination and vitality. But it’s worth looking at just who is speaking and exactly what they’re saying. Historically, it’s generally established music critics doing this work, and the relationship between artists and critics is often fraught.

Most of the time this is background radiation, but it becomes painfully apparent whenever a critic does something especially cringeworthy, as when Norman Lebrecht expresses his disdain for “Afro-American” music, or when Rupert Christiansen makes nasty comments about soprano Tara Erraught’s weight, or when Mark Swed ruminates on the length of pianist Yuja Wang’s dress, to name a few instances. Some of these are worse than others (I feel a little bad for lumping Swed’s thoughtful essay in with the other two), but I bring them up to show that these aren’t isolated incidents; they are part of a continuing trend.
Rupert Christiansen writing for The Telegraph
The flip side is that these comments tend to generate a lot of discussion that crystallizes public attention around these issues. This is a fairly new thing, with the pace of the back-and-forth greatly accelerated by the internet and where more voices can participate. I find this kind of metacriticism—writing about writing!—to be immensely valuable, with the potential to actually shift attitudes in the long term.

But what does it say about the current state of criticism when the discussion of reviews is arguably more vital than the reviews themselves? It points to something deeply broken and dysfunctional about the current model.

Fundamentally, while the individual gaffes are easy to point out, I believe these problems are systemic. Between the decline in newspaper readership and shifts in culture, the number of classical music critics has undoubtedly dwindled in recent years, but as their ranks have shrunk, their perceived power within the community has remained constant, or even increased. Arguably, the internet is now more relevant than print media, but because new music banks on prestige instead of mass popularity, it still relies on old media to endorse and legitimize it. A good review from a major publication is still a rare and coveted thing, not just for the publicity it provides, but for the cachet it confers. Reviews are capable of canonizing or anointing artists in a way that is difficult if not impossible to achieve through other means.

newspaper reading

Photo courtesy of Miguel Pires da Rosa via Flickr.

This places far, far too much responsibility on the vanishingly small number of active critics working today, and it can create an atmosphere of mutual resentment. The easy answer to this, which is maybe a facile answer, is that more people should be writing about new music, including and especially practitioners of new music. This idea has its share of detractors. A great number of words have been spilled on the virtues and drawbacks of the composer as critic, with the objectivity of composers often coming under fire. Interestingly, this is something Christiansen also invoked when called out for his invective. His comments about Tara Erraught’s appearance were made in the name of “disinterested criticism,” or so he claims—never mind that similar verbiage about male singers had never graced his column. The lesson is clear: objectivity doesn’t matter as much as having a veneer of plausible deniability.

Speaking from experience as a double agent of sorts, this impression of objectivity can be quite challenging for a writer-composer to maintain. I’ll give one example. I recently went to a concert that featured some works by friends and colleagues, and a few works by composers unknown to me. I thoroughly enjoyed all the works by the composers I knew, and disliked everything else on the program. I was reasonably certain that I would have made the same exact aesthetic judgement if everyone was a stranger to me, but I knew on the drive home that I could not possibly write about the concert. If I did so honestly, it would look terribly partisan, and dishonesty was of course out of the question.

Perhaps this is why critics so often employ the idea of “disinterested criticism” as a shield when they are accused of being unnecessarily vindictive, petty, or cruel. Like Fox News’s “fair and balanced” slogan, it doesn’t really denote a commitment to objectivity, but it offers a disingenuous way to continue to be partisan while pretending not to be. Things would be better, maybe, if we were open about our inevitable allegiances. Or as Kyle Gann puts it: “Critics have agendas, or any interesting critic does, and given enough column inches, those agendas emerge.”

All of this indicates to me that concert reviews and album reviews, traditionally the bread and butter of music criticism, should play a much, much smaller role than they currently do. I will stop short of calling them obsolete, since they seem to still be obligatory. But I look forward to a hypothetical future where they are just a tiny part of a vast landscape of compelling music writing.

A fair and obvious follow-up question would be: okay, smartypants, if not reviews then what? Short answer: I don’t know. Long answer: Anything at all. I don’t know what can or should replace or supplement reviews, but this should be an era of experimentation in writing about new music, at least until we figure out what sticks. Traditional media outlets typically have style guidelines and space limitations that are not ideally suited for putting new music in context. (Swed’s reviews for the LA Times are often preceded by lengthy history lectures, leaving little room for discussion of the actual concerts themselves.) But blogs and most online publications are not bound by these same conventions.

Ted Gioia has complained that pop music journalism has degenerated into “lifestyle reporting,” divorced from musical content and musical knowledge, but I honestly think that new music journalism could use a little more lifestyle reporting. I don’t mean that we should be more sensationalist, but we should be better about conveying the fact that new music is the product of individuals with a wide range of personalities and quirks and challenges, and most of these people are not dead. I’m thinking of something like video game journalist Cara Ellison’s EMBED WITH GAMES series of articles. For each article, she travels to stay with “a different important game auteur of our times [to] write about their life, the culture that influences their games’ work, and look at how their immediate environment affects their outlook and design philosophy.” The result is intensely personal and illuminating, and unlike anything I’ve ever encountered in writing about new music, which is often dry and impersonal.
Owen Pallett writing for Slate
At the same time I think Gioia is a little bit right, and we could do with more substantive writing about musical content as well. Written in response to Gioia’s call to arms, Owen Pallett’s semi-satirical pop music theory articles weren’t perfect, but they were interesting, and generated surprising enthusiasm for music theory outside of the typical audience for such things. Clearly, there’s a great hunger for musical insight out there, but outside of academic journals written for a specialist audience, there isn’t much writing about new music that actually satisfies this craving.

A final pertinent question might be: okay then, who will write these fancy hypothetical things? If you’ve read this far then the answer is you. I’m serious about this. Whether you’re a composer or a musician or an enthusiast, I know you’re probably pressed for time and that you are being asked to take on an increasingly overwhelming number of duties. But chances are your perspective is not being represented, and if you don’t share it, who will? Sure, talking about music, like dancing about architecture, is patently absurd. But at least for now, it seems to be a necessity.

Robert Carl: The Time Keeper

At the composer’s home in Hartford, Connecticut
April 19, 2013—1 p.m.
Filmed, condensed, and edited by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Robert Carl’s music, to my ear at least, has always felt like the work of a particularly sensitive sonic observer of the world. Originally a student of history before he refocused his efforts into music, his interest in time, memory, and space are veins running through his compositions, his work more given to conjuring imagery than narrative plot. And whether inspiration is mined in the wake of a seascape or travelers on a speeding bullet train, the resulting music tends to carry a distinct organic beauty and rich, encompassing depth.

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

Currently chair of the composition department at The Hartt School, Carl acknowledges an aesthetic genealogy that nods to names such as Ives, Xenakis, Shapey, Cage, Kramer, Ruggles, and Rochberg. But for a long time, he says, he felt like a late bloomer scrambling to catch up, something of “a spy in the house of music.” For whatever anxiety that might have caused him, he immersed himself in this world at all sides—a voracious listener dedicated to composing, performing, teaching, and writing about the music that has filled his head and encircled his life. This work has provided him with opportunities for insight yet somehow without the pressure of it second-guessing his muse. When the work calls for it, he simply puts that experience on the shelf.

I tell my students that one of the things that you have to do is to create forms of creative self-delusion when you write. You can’t think too much about the weight of history, or about the weight of the field, which is even worse, especially if you’re young. … [I]f you have an idea for a piece, and you believe in it, then at a certain point that piece becomes the only piece of music that’s ever been written. Honestly, I can feel that when I’m writing. I mean, thank god, I’m inventing music! And of course, it’s a delusion. Of course, I know it’s not true. But you can feel it in a certain deep way.

Ultimately, it’s a delusion that has allowed Carl to explore the great global diversity of musical experience while also providing a level of clarity and space to communicate in a voice distinctly his own.


Molly Sheridan: Your artist statement opens with the line, “My work has always been concerned with time.” That has a certain poetry and also concrete applications to music, of course, but I thought we might start by digging into what that really means to you and why that’s such a powerful focus in your work.

Robert Carl: It’s changed over time. I think in some ways the initial impulse was because my first love was history. All through my childhood and adolescence, I thought I was going to be a historian. That, of course, has to do with time and the sense of the past being present. So this feeling for the co-existence of all sorts of different moments in time has a certain poetic quality to me. Earlier on, I think I wanted to evoke that with different types of music and historical periods. There was more of an element of, well, never literal pastiche but a sort of intersection and looking for connections between very different types of musics.
With more passage of time, it became a little bit more abstract and at the same time elemental for me. I think part of that was just digging deeper into music and finding its own world. Of course, one thing about music is that it is time reconsidered, because when you have counterpoint, you’ve got different things going on at once to begin with. You’re going to have returns; you’re going to have premonitions and echoes of things that have happened. So long as you have memory, then that sense of it being a dialogue between events that happened at different places in time in the unfolding of the piece is also going on. Music embodies this in a very rich way. That was always there for me, but over time, it became more visceral.

I think the key was encountering Xenakis. I was not a private student of his, but I was in Paris for a year and just stumbled on his course at the Sorbonne. It turned out to be about six or seven people in a seminar room once a week, which was great. It was basically him describing his music. One semester was sieve theory, which involved stochastics and it demanded calculus, which I had in high school and actually passed, but I’d forgotten everything. I took notes the whole way through diligently. I still have them and if I really wanted to relearn calculus, I might get something out of it. That was sort of a loss. But the other semester was group theory, which essentially had to do with envisioning the form of a piece as a geometrical solid with points on it, then putting it into rotation and comparing where a point was at one point to where it was after the passage of time and putting these into different parameters of the music. In a sense, it was creating a form which was the envisioning of this object, almost this sculptural form, but from different perspectives in time. I started to see a connection, I guess, between time and space. That was for me the thing that blew my vistas open. After that, I think in some ways my music has become much more interested in space and spaciousness. Long sustained tones, big registral separations, large gestures—that’s sort of a surface metaphor for what I’m looking for. I mean, I also love pieces that now and then are incredibly dense, but it feels like the space of the piece is big enough to accommodate that density. The very fact the piece is as rich as it is and yet doesn’t seem clogged was a thing that I really felt was to be aspired to. That’s another way of getting at space. And, of course, it has to do with the way you play around with time. They go back and forth like that.

MS: That doesn’t really necessitate that you use particular sonic combinations. You might say technology would be an attraction, but you wouldn’t necessarily associate that interest with the flute, or the piano, or the orchestra, or any one thing. Are you particularly attracted to a sound world as a result of this?

RC: It’s a really interesting question. I admit, I’m very drawn to the orchestra. In some ways there’s not as much engagement there as I would like, but that has to do with practical things. But let’s redefine that a little bit: Orchestra. Let’s talk about large ensemble—a large sonorously and timbrally mixed ensemble. That, I think, is something that I’m drawn to precisely because it gives you yet another dimension to explore in space. All through my life, I’ve made electro-acoustic music. It’s not my primary profile, but every three or four years it seems I make an electro-acoustic piece of some sort. Now it’s almost exclusively using Max/MSP. If I have a particular idea I’m interested in that I want to explore, it’s a great sketchbook. I’ve been able over the years to make pieces that now and then open up possibilities, not just technologically, but actually in terms of compositional practice that will then work their way into other pieces, as well as being in these pieces.

When you start to combine electronics with the chamber orchestra, for instance, the sound can be as big as you want it. I have a piece that I just finished which has a fixed media part. It’s sort of a white noise Bolero called The Inevitable Wave. It’s essentially a ten-second wave that was stretched to ten minutes, and it has an accompaniment from the chamber orchestra that’s based on spectral analysis of the sound file. It’s sort of a tsunami, and that was the point of the piece. The thing is, though, that just having this interaction between those two sounds, it becomes a really satisfying blend. You can’t really tell what is what anymore. So in that sense, large ensemble with sort of a symphonic bent and an electro-acoustic component, that’s where I’ve found myself more drawn. But I’ll write for anything. I’m a gun for hire.

Score pages posted on the walls of Carl's office

Score pages posted on the walls of Carl’s office

MS: Considering that, I’d actually like to read a quote to you, if I may. It’s from Kyle Gann in response to your Fourth Symphony. He writes, “I think it’s taken Robert a long time to clarify what is truly Carlesque in his music amid the Ruggles-like angularity (his dissertation was on Sun-treader), the Ivesian layering, the Rochbergian style schisms, the Shapeyesque pitch usage, and it’s been exciting to hear it emerge ever more clearly in each new work.” That’s a really neat and evocative packaging of your influences. But is it a true catalogue? And is it one that you still carry?

RC: Now we’re talking about aesthetic genealogy. I do think in large part that Kyle is hearing me pretty correctly there. I think the one thing that he’s not including is the Xenakis influence that I was discussing earlier. What actually has become more and more clear to me over the last five or six years in an overt way is the importance of Cage. When the centennial happened, I was actually shocked. It just didn’t occur to me that it was coming. But it gave everyone a chance to look and listen to the work, and really see it in context as a whole. The body of work is incredibly inspiring as music, and I think the permission that it gives to explore anything, and to go in any direction that you want to, has been a nice little shock or goose that I’ve gotten at this age. I think that’s now a part of my framework.

The composers I studied with were very important, and I didn’t always realize what the importance was. I wanted to study with Rochberg. I wanted to study with Shapey. I stumbled onto Xenakis, and it was extraordinary. But my first teacher was Jonathan Kramer at Yale. I mean, I’m interested in time, right? When I was a sophomore and starting to take lessons with him, I had no idea that this was his prime scholarly and intellectual interest. So I think I carry him in me too, that way.
But I think Kyle’s basically right.

MS: I know you consider yourself to be something of a late bloomer when it comes to composition. How did those teachers influence the path in music that you ended up following?

RC: Shapey was in some ways the only composer whom I felt taught me concrete technique. Anyone who came in as one of his students had to take a short course, basically a series of exercises where he taught you to, more or less, write his music. Of course, you’re immediately chafing at this. It was very entertaining—it was a highly personalized riff on serialism without it dealing with note count at all. It was mostly gesture, motive. He always talked about wanting something to be a graven image, as though an idea was written in stone. And he wanted to convey ways of doing that, and then developing it.

What it did show me was that you were able to take a sound, an idea, and then keep playing with it—the way of constantly reviewing a sound, a little bit like I was saying Xenakis performed, but in this case on a micro basis. He was able to give ideas for how you could continue to maintain the energy in an idea. If you do that in one line, and then you do it in another line in a different way, hey, you start to get counterpoint! So I felt like writing a phrase and creating counterpoint were the two things that I got from him. George Rochberg was a master of many different techniques. Interestingly enough, I look back on those lessons and I feel more like it was a constant kind of moral education and philosophical debate that was going on. He was always considering the fate of the world—what the flute does here, what does that mean in terms of Western civilization? I’m totally exaggerating, but he took it very, very seriously. Shapey was just much more nuts and bolts. I mean, he was a visionary—he was part of that head banging, post-Varèsian mindset, very macho in that way—but at the same, it all came down to the notes, whether they worked for him or not.

You asked about late blooming. Well, I had written a little bit of music at the end of high school and taken piano for a few years. When I was in elementary school, I quit and started back up toward the end of high school basically because I had an amazing French teacher who at one point decided just to give us a thumbnail sketch of the history of classical music from his record collection. That got me going. I got to Yale and I was a history major my entire time there, but I took a lot of music courses. I did get a real musical start at that point.

After I turned 50, I started feeling like I may have caught up. Up to about then, I felt like I was constantly scrambling to try to catch up on what I didn’t know. Of course, there’s always a million things you don’t know. Given. But I sort of became a composer, I think, before I became a musician. I was writing music before I had this fluency in musicianship and a confidence in musicianship that now I feel I do have. It took a long time to get there, and in a way, I felt almost like a little bit of a spy—a spy in the house of music. In a way, academia was right for me because I’m pretty verbal—I write, I like ideas—and those characteristics were things that helped to sustain me while I was working to compensate for that weakness.

MS: At what point did the electronics enter into this picture of you as a composer?

RC: When I was an undergraduate at Yale, I took the electronic course. It was actually Robert Morris, as I remember, who taught that. That was still when we were in the late years of analog electronic music. It was a studio in what used to be the ROTC building. There was a room that was dedicated to that, and they had a big ARP. They even had a spring reverb that was about as big as that wall over there where you could turn a crank to determine the amount of reverb that you’d get on the sound you were producing. So, it was actually something that, from the very beginning, I saw as kind of co-equal with any other type of composition that I did.

In Chicago, the first year I was there, I was Shapey’s assistant; I did the electronic studio afterwards. At the time, it was basically one of the doctoral students who would run the electronic studio and would show anything to any student who was interested. They had a Buchla, so I got to know another analog system. Things still hadn’t changed over. When I got to Hartt, basically within the first year or so, they got a Synclavier, which was a white elephant of a system that was like a predecessor of MIDI. It was a dedicated workstation. It actually had synthesis, and sampling, and sequencing, even a certain degree of re-synthesis and spectral analysis built into it. It was a kind of visionary thing, but—at least my experience with the one that we had there—it was always breaking. But I had electronic music experience, and so I had a conceptual framework, so they said, “Okay, you’re going to teach this course.” And indeed, the person who was originally going to teach it had a health issue, and I was brought in about four weeks into the semester and had to learn it on the spot, which is a situation that all of us know from a certain time in our lives when we have to just do things like this.

So, that became a kind of transitional wave into digital electronic music. I was never doing really hardcore programming, but the thing that I actually yearned for was finally met by Max, because there was a system where you actually could program things of enormous sophistication. I’d always been drawn to algorithmic music, in the sense of a strict process that will open up vistas that you couldn’t imagine otherwise, and finally that was possible. Though there’s plenty of stuff that can be very, very frustrating in terms of the object-oriented programming that you do, at the same time, it’s not all code.

Actually, in the course that I teach, just about two days ago I put a patch up on the screen. I said, “Everyone, okay, so this is your score identification. What piece is this?” And they were looking at it, and then one of says, “It’s I Am Sitting in a Room.” They saw it. They could read the patch like a score in terms of the process. That’s the sort of thing that I have dreamed of for a long time, and now it’s possible. I’m nowhere as sophisticated as a lot of people who work with it, but it serves a purpose for me.

MS: In your studio upstairs, you’ve posted the pages of scores that you’re working on up on the walls. They’re all in line, waiting to be performed or presented. There was one piece that caused you to mention that “as soon as I’m done, it’s done.” Was that one of the electro acoustic works?

Score pages posted on the walls of Carl's office

Scores waiting to be performed or presented

RC: Oh, I said I was going to record it. No, it’s actually that piece on the piano there, which is a set of bagatelles after Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird—which I know everybody else in the world has done, but since I actually live in Hartford and I actually go by [Wallace Stevens’s] house almost every day on my bicycle, I feel like I still have some rights to deal with it. I’ve always wanted to write a bagatelle set, and this became the way of doing it. I’m going to go into a studio and record it.

MS: Well, that leads neatly into discussing the influence of your being a performer of your own work on your own work.

RC: I’m an incredibly modest performer. I don’t mean modest in the sense of being shy or anything like that! My relationship with the piano has always been problematic. It’s ironic, because I think I have a bunch of pretty substantial piano music that I’m happy with. But thank god I have known through my life incredible pianists who can realize it, because I could never do it in a million years. I lack stamina—physical but also mental in terms of concentration. Great performers can go into that present moment where you’re playing the music, but you can actually see just as far ahead as necessary so that you can keep on top of it. I perform enough to know that, but everything that I have that I do perform myself, especially on the piano, is cannily organized to disguise my weaknesses and emphasize my strengths. If nothing else, it is a testament to me as a composer that I can do that and it sounds enough like real music that it can fool people. The pieces that I can play—and I have a little portfolio of them—they’re modest in terms of what the demands are. They’re maybe advanced intermediate. I can do it because I wrote it, so I don’t have the conceptual leap of going into somebody else’s world. Anyway, now that I’ve trashed myself as a performer, what I will say is that it’s incredibly important for me in terms of musicianship, in terms of just engaging in the act of making music and knowing what it is from the inside in a visceral way. I think it gives me much greater understanding of performers so that if I’m going to give them something really difficult, then it should be worth their while when they master it. If they master it, and it still feels grungy, then they shouldn’t have done it. I would like it to be sort of an athletic rush, if you can get it.

There’s a piece on the CD that’s coming out called Shake the Tree, which is for piano four hands, and John MacDonald and Don Berman do it. They are astonishing. I originally wrote the piece thinking, “I’ll write a piece for John, who is a dear friend, and I’ll make it so I’m playing the lower part. It will be easy for me, and I’ll play with John. Won’t that be fun?” Well, after about one minute of it, I’d already written myself out of that picture. I thought, “Oh my gosh, this is the most difficult piece ever written.” It is demanding, but they take it and they eat it for lunch. But what I got back from them was that they got a rush from it. So if I can do that, then that’s great. I think that does come from some degree of me forcing myself to sit at the keyboard and practice and constantly make mistakes.

Carl at the piano

Carl at the piano

The other thing is the shakuhachi, which again, especially in terms of traditional literature, I’m not sure I can for me even use the word “play” and “shakuhachi” in the same sentence. I have a very close, dear composer friend, Elizabeth Brown, whom I admire enormously as a composer and who I revere as a shakuhachi player. So if I say that I’m playing the shakuhachi, well, I’ve written music of my own that uses it. She’s actually played it. I know enough about it to write something that might feel as though it comes out of that tradition, but of course it has nothing to do literally with the tradition. The best thing about shakuhachi is that it’s really beginner’s mind because I’ve never had any expectation of being able to play at what would be a professional level for the traditional literature. At the same time, the shakuhachi [community] has a great attitude, which is sort of like, well, it doesn’t really matter what you play. Did you get the breath right, you know, did you breathe? So it has this nice compensatory thing that takes you outside of definitions of technique that you get very much in the Western classical tradition. It can be very meditative. And it gives you different systems of judgment.

MS: Meditative, yes, but your shakuhachi piece on From Japan did not make me feel like I was getting a massage at a day spa. You weren’t borrowing clichés, this wasn’t an instrument that you didn’t really understand added for color. The entire collection of pieces seemed to showcase not a particularly programmatic or narrative instinct, but perhaps more of a fundamental fascination with the sounds around you. I don’t know if that’s an accurate judgment of your creative impulse—you can correct me on that if I’ve misinterpreted—but I feel like it’s coming from a careful-listener perspective. What is it that gets you fired up?

RC: You’re right about listening. I listen to a lot of music. There are some composers—and I fully understand and sympathize with it—where too much music is like too much information. You just don’t want to be overwhelmed by other people’s music. I understand that. Yet, at the same time, I just get so much pleasure from listening to lots and lots of different things, all the time. It gets me thinking. It gives me ideas. It keeps challenging assumptions. The composer who is essentially my granddad, or great granddad, aesthetically is Charles Ives. One of the things that above all I love about Ives is that there’s no composer I know who went further in finding essentially seemingly irreconcilable things that he reconciled, or he made them live together. He found a way for things to get along together that shouldn’t. I find that a really noble and wonderful thing, and in a way, it’s kind of democratic and idealistically American. It’s really an aspect of the better qualities of this culture.

Of course, I have another life as a critic. I got involved in it a pretty long time ago—at the time, it was like, wow, free CDs! Well, of course, that doesn’t have the same cachet now that it did then, though I still have a certain fondness for the artifact. But in a way, it helped keep me in touch with what was going on—not only in New York or in the States, but worldwide, which was very, very useful for me as an artist and also as a teacher. I’ve constantly been listening to music, and I somehow never get tired of it. That doesn’t mean I like it all, though I think I like it more than many people. If there’s something I really hate, I probably won’t review it. I’d rather be an advocate for things that I find satisfying or interesting.

You were saying that you don’t hear a particularly programmatic aspect to my music. I think that’s true. What I would say is that what motivates my music often is instead what I would call an iconic or imagistic quality. Not in the sense of Impressionism, though there will be things that can be like that, but if there is a motivating image for the piece, either in its form or in its character, I feel like I can then run with it. The piece for string orchestra I’m working on right now is a commission for the Wintergreen Festival, which is in Virginia this summer. I’ll be doing a residency there. It’s a set of variations that are a response to the fact that I’ve been in rocking chairs all my life. That’s an image—it’s basically sort of an inhalation/exhalation between pairs, a kind of large-scale rocking. Images like that can get a piece going and often they can be rather naïve, but they often end up embedding themselves in the piece so that they affect more of the structural aspects of it than things that are absolutely on the surface.

MS: In addition to your work as a critic, there’s also the book on Terry Riley and I’ve read a few of your lectures. Your career encompasses a lot of deep thinking about music that you’ve committed to paper for public consumption, in addition to the notes you’ve written.

RC: It’s great if anybody’s looking or listening. I think that’s a legacy of the side of me that might have been a historian.
The Terry Riley book was a chance to combine several different approaches to musical thinking and writing. It was a strict history in one sense. It had a lot of research and also oral history, but combined with analysis. I said, okay, I’m going to try to prove that you can actually do a serious analysis of this piece, which has always had this kind of hippy-dippy reputation. Totally unjustified. Obviously it’s endured and people see, I think much more now, just how wonderfully put together it is. At the same time, you could do an analysis of the score outside of time. Then you could compare it between performances, so you can see the different possibilities of it. Then there’s aesthetics—what are the ramifications of this type of music, the fact that this type of music is surviving and is actually ever-increasingly influential. All of that is incredibly stimulating for me.

I’ve always admired composers who were also writers. As problematic as he is, Schoenberg remains a remarkable force. Stravinsky’s Poetics of Music is just such an elegant little book. Essays Before a Sonata by Ives is cranky and it’s almost like your daft uncle who’s writing letters to the editor. And yet at the same time, it’s absolutely brilliant. For all of those composers, their way of thinking about things was influenced by writing.

MS: That being said, and that being fantastic—being immersed in the community and keeping on top of things, advocating and writing books—how do you keep the weight of that much history and music from becoming a cause of paralysis? How do you keep it from burying your own music?

RC: I don’t know. That has never really felt like much of an issue for me. Part of it is that over time, I do feel as though the music I’m writing is ever more my music. I tell my students that one of the things that you have to do is to create forms of creative self-delusion when you write. You can’t think too much about the weight of history, or about the weight of the field, which is even worse, especially if you’re young. Yes, there are tens of thousands just like you out there–go to it, good luck! You have to find ways of not being paralyzed by that. I think one of them is that if you have an idea for a piece, and you believe in it, then at a certain point that piece becomes the only piece of music that’s ever been written. Honestly, I can feel that when I’m writing. I mean, thank god, I’m inventing music! And of course, it’s a delusion. Of course, I know it’s not true. But you can feel it in a certain deep way. I will say that over time, I’ve felt like I’ve been making more and more discoveries for myself, and that sense of personal engagement and invention keeps its fresh for me. I don’t feel like I’m recycling.

The sense of history, important as it was for me, I did feel early on could be a trap in terms of writing music that was about the music I liked. I wanted to try to find a way to write music where it was truly its own self. It asserted itself, and I was basically the person who was cultivating it like a farmer. I plant seeds, I watch the crop grow, and I harvest it. That’s what I feel like I’m doing now. Kyle’s quote from earlier: anyone can look and can see all sorts of influences and DNA there. We’re all a mixture of other things. Our personality is not something which is ever fixed. Who we were a week ago is already different from who we are now, so there is this constant mutation that’s going on in everything that we do. So I’m not talking about having found some sort of absolutely essential core, but at the same time, I feel like there is a practice I have discovered, that I can return to and find some satisfaction. In that sense, it is a little bit like doing something like gardening. You can do this thing that is very elemental. It’s in the nature of being human and being in the earth. There’s nothing very special about it, but you’re still doing it to the best of your ability. And there’s something very special about it when doing it.

MS: I want to go back to your Westfield keynote. There was a line about common practice versus a commonality of practice. I wondered if you’d unpack the thinking that went into that a bit, because that integrates a lot of broad observations.

RC: When I say I think there’s the potential for an emerging common practice, anyone who hears that will think I’m just insane. The standard line is that, look, we have more types of music now than we have ever had before. Of course, that’s absolutely true. But it’s interesting in that, for instance, over the period of my life, I have gone from there still being a kind of cachet to classical music, which was then more or less wiped out by the predominance of “popular music.” Now what I see is that in fact the monolithic quality of popular music itself is fragmenting into a huge range of different niches.

At the same time, lots of things that have traditions are classicizing themselves. You can have somebody who is in maybe the post-Radiohead school, who sees themselves in a lineage that goes back to Radiohead and the Beatles and that sees this as a very concrete set of techniques and aesthetics, attitudes and expressive tropes. That is basically like any tradition, and yet we have many, many of these. So it sounds like, again, I’m digging myself into my grave right now, but as things get more fragmented, at the same time, no single thing is controlling it anymore. There’s more room for cross-fertilization/hybridization. That’s why I’m talking about commonality of practice. I see more and more dipping and borrowing—going back to that idea of reconciling the irreconcilable—from different approaches, techniques, and traditions. What comes out of it is ultimately an increasingly synthetic music where people who are involved in one type of music have less difficulty dealing with a different type of music than they used to. I see it in students. They might be in a metal band, but they’re really interested in the math rock aspect of it. That then takes them into serialism. Of course, with the communications technology, everything is linked. So there’s this sense of the whole intellectual environment that you live in now being a series of connections—a kind of net, rather than being anything straight lined or boxed off. That is becoming much more common intellectual practice—and I’m using the term intellectual in a very, very broad sense.

MS: You’re talking about “my students” and what the kids are doing. Do you feel like your music is part of that?

RC: You know, I would sort of think so. I don’t want to try to assume any mantle of youth or hipness, which would be kind of disgusting, but I feel a great empathy and stimulation from what I see going on in different generations. And I’m not trashing my generation when I say that. I mean, certainly composers who are in my generation—if I mention anyone, and I leave somebody out, it’s going to be unfortunate, but I’m just going to choose two off the top of my head. Elizabeth Brown, who I mentioned before, I think has an amazingly synthetic attitude toward different instruments, different world music traditions, and a deep knowledge of the classical musician that comes from her being a freelance flutist in New York for decades. All of that gets all mixed into her music in a really subtle and beautiful way. John Luther Adams—I’ll say this, he’s the only composer of my generation whom I’m envious of because I feel he actually beat me to doing in his music what I wish I could have done. Of course, I didn’t go live in Alaska, so I couldn’t have written this music. It’s a totally different personal story, but the vision that’s in his music is something that I’m deeply moved by and, as I say, creatively envious of. So there are two composers in my generation who I think are doing this sort of techno-aesthetic synthesis already, very, very well. And there are many, many others. So it’s a thing that’s happening at every generation.

MS: I also think it’s often easier to talk about changes in the field, and apply that to people who are still obviously developing. Sure, some people then get down in their trenches, but you don’t stop paying attention and developing just because you’re 40, 60, 80 years old. Even Carter kept evolving.

RC: You know, Carter is a great example, because to be honest, there are all sorts of pieces from all [of his] periods that I love. But Carter really took off when he turned 80. The music became so playful. There was a piece for wind ensemble that was almost static, like the Carter Feldman tribute. He stayed open, I think, in his own way.

I’m of a generation that really came of age musically in the ‘70s. One of the myths is that up until recently there were hardcore conservative serialists who were in control of everything, and then it was broken down by either minimalism or post-modernism, or some combination of those. There’s of course some truth to that, but the thing was that when I was a student, there was no dominant –ism already. There were more distinct -isms than there are now. But frankly, the dominant one, I didn’t encounter. Maybe it’s because I chose teachers who were pretty wacky and maverick-ish in their own way.

In my generation, there was always a lot more freedom and liberty. Now I will say, just go maybe ten years back [from my peers], you hear a lot more stories from composers about how if you didn’t toe the line in this or that way, you wouldn’t get a job or you would be denied all the prizes. Yet at the same time, how does that explain the existence of Ned Rorem, who has been quite successful his whole life and has never shied away from writing exactly the type of music that he wanted to write? There’s always a little bit of exaggeration of it being a life and death struggle between different aesthetics. But there’s no doubt that it is much more fluid. It is much more hybridizing. It is much more fragmented now than it was before.

MS: Reading your technical discussions of some of the explorations you are doing in your own fragmented area, particularly your application of overtones, I kept thinking quietly to myself, “yes, but it’s so beautiful!” It was interesting to reflect on your private inspirations and public outcomes.
RC: What it is for me is actually finding something that is natural. Here’s the thing, which inevitably becomes kind of controversial: On the one hand, we’ve always had a kind of essentialist argument about tonality. Bernstein, in the Norton lectures he gave at Harvard, talks about how there’s a grammar of music that’s fundamentally tonal. Of course, this can really rile everybody up because it can be easily used as a kind of club to force us into an essential kind of musical conservatism. So I’m skeptical of that. I wouldn’t want to give up Atlas Eclipticalis for that if I had to, okay? At the same time, I wouldn’t want Atlas Eclipticalis to rule, you know?

My feeling is that over time—and it comes partly from spectralism, it comes just as much from composers like Henry Cowell and Ives—there are ways of looking at acoustical phenomenon of sound and using that as a model to create sounds on different scales. I don’t mean scales like modes, I mean different scales of size. Hierarchies. And what you can get from it actually is precisely that beauty. It is also about space. You get the proper amount of space between the notes, both horizontally and vertically. I think that’s why this practice that I pursue feels satisfying to me, and doesn’t feel like it’s over-intellectualizing. It doesn’t feel like it’s forcing us into too cerebral a trap. As a matter of fact, it’s just the opposite. It feels like it kind of frees me up. The analogy that I use is basically a jazz one. I teach myself my own changes so that then I can improvise on the page as I’m writing. That’s really what I feel like I’m doing with this. So in that sense, if you find it beautiful, great. But I think that’s actually a by-product of the approach rather than something that’s being done despite it. It’s not so much like I feel like I’d better be rigorous in some way so people won’t laugh at me. No, this is what allowed me to dig deep enough to get to what I was looking for.

A Critical Gap

After the deluge of new music concerts over the past few weeks, the dearth of dedicated new music critics in Los Angeles has felt particularly frustrating. Since Alan Rich’s retirement from the LA Weekly in 2008, Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times has been pretty much the only game in town. Swed is not everyone’s favorite person in the world, and he’s earned his fair share of criticism over the years (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, for starters).

Now, I don’t point this out to impugn Swed personally, but rather to demonstrate what a large target he is, simply by virtue of being the classical music critic of the Los Angeles Times. In particular, local musicians have often contended that he doesn’t pay enough attention to local music, outside of a few standbys like the LA Phil. But while I might make different choices in his position, I’m not sure they’d be choices that would make anyone happier, since it’s simply not possible for one critic to review everything that’s going on in a major metropolitan area. Whoever the critic is, they’re going to have to make choices, choices that will most likely reflect their own personal preferences and biases (not to mention the preferences and biases of their employer). You’re bound to disappoint someone.

What’s the solution then? A few bloggers have valiantly tried to fill the gap, including Brian Holt (Outwest Arts), Nick Norton (New Classic LA), Daniel Corral (Auscultations), and George Wallace (A Fool in the Forest). But because these blogs are the work of aficionados with lives and careers outside of music writing, they’re not always consistently updated.

Norton and Corral are also active composers themselves, raising the question of impartiality. Should critics exist separately from the music scenes they orbit, or should they be immersed in it? More and more lately, the latter option has started to seem more attractive to me. Any loss in objectivity could be offset by gains in depth and insight. The danger is that a composer’s perspective may be too myopic to relate the work of another composer to a more general audience (and academic journals already exist for specialized audiences). But I can imagine a third sort of critical stream that exists between journalistic writing and academic writing, one that doesn’t pretend to be impartial, one that is willing to be personal, maybe even a little bit messy and absurd.
Matador Oven/Adam Overton’s Ripe for Embarrassment: For a New Musical Masochism, a deeply silly and highly perceptive essay, strikes the kind of tone I am envisioning. But it’s still about John Cage and Overton’s own work–it seems difficult to write about anything except yourself and dead people. What would happen if we relaxed these mental blocks and (gasp) wrote about our friends?

“How Old Are You Now?”

Over tapas and perhaps too much sangria one evening last week, I got into an extensive debate with a friend about whether or not something could “live on” if it was not “great.”

“Only the really good stuff survives. Can you name anything that’s still popular from over a hundred years ago that’s no good?” my friend asked almost rhetorically, pretty much convinced that I would not be able to come up with something to refute his claim.
Even though I completely disagreed with him, I was in something of a bind since I have made it a life’s goal to not think in terms of good vs. bad. If I don’t like something, I’m fully aware that my feelings toward it have more to do with myself than whether or not it is objectively good or bad, and my attraction to things has changed considerably over time. The same seems true for just about everyone else. Therefore to assess something based on its popularity (either among the general public or a small coterie of taste arbiters) holds no validity for me.

If opinion has no role in establishing quality, whether or not something remains popular for a very long period of time cannot be used as a way to prove that it’s “good.” So even though I have no idea what “good” means (nor do I ultimately believe that anyone else does), I decided to play the game just to challenge the notion that what the majority values over time could determine what is worthwhile. Of course if I were to play this game by my own rules, my subjective assertion that something was not good would have no more weight than the weight of that group of many people over time. But, chalk it up to that blasted sangria, I summoned up my own subjectivity in an attempt to refute subjectivity overall.

“The song ‘Happy Birthday’!” I blurted out. “The music is dreadful and the lyrics are utterly insipid. Yet it has undeniably been the most popular song for well over a century and I highly doubt it will ever go away, though I often wish it would.”

Birthday Cake Profile

Image via Bigstock.

That pretty much ended the debate. However, the following day I received an email from a different friend in response to my previous essay on these pages in which I described my personal realization that my own composing emanated from the same impulse as my writing about the music of other composers—advocacy through communication. For him, however, the “virtue of a piece of music isn’t its ability to ‘communicate,’ but rather its ability to supply a unique experience.” And here’s the zinger:

“No one in new music will ever communicate more directly than ‘Happy Birthday’.”
So then, might “Happy Birthday” be one of the great aesthetic achievements of mankind and might my disdain for it somehow reveal that I’m actually pretty close-minded? Or is my second friend right and might it ultimately not be about communication after all?

The Choices We Make

An article published earlier today in the Independent initially caught my attention because of the provocative headline that ArtsJournal used to link to it this morning—“Why Are Next Generation Artists So Conservative?.” Politicians are probably the only people who use and abuse terms like progressive and conservative more than folks engaged in aesthetic debates about the arts. Curiously, the author of this article, former editor Adrian Hamilton, writes about politics even more than he writes about visual art.

According to Hamilton’s assessment of the 2012 edition of the ICA’s New Contemporaries exhibition in London (which has been showcasing emerging artists since 1949 and which helped launch the careers of David Hockney and Damien Hirst), the young artists that were selected are more concerned with “craft and their ambitions to become professional” than with “being revolutionary.” I’ve heard the exact same comment made about many millennial composers. But such assertions are difficult to corroborate since determining whether something is “revolutionary” or “reactionary” at this juncture is as subjective an undertaking as determining whether something is “beautiful.”

MTAs Abstract Expressionism

Do you think the following visual image is progressive or reactionary? Actually, the answer is not so simple.

It has been more than 45 years since jazz composer/trumpeter/bandleader Don Ellis challenged the status quo of so-called musical progress in his polemical Downbeat magazine essay, “The Avant Garde is not Avant Garde” (June 30, 1966). Ellis claimed that musicians who were continuing the previous decade’s experiments were as reactionary as the musicians who were not experimental, if not more so. Now, more than half a century later, it’s hard to argue that recent music that sounds like early free jazz or Darmstadt-style serialism is any more contemporary than music that sounds like ’40s era Swing or romantic-era orchestral music. Even so-called post-modernism feels old-fashioned at this point. However, if the aesthetic directive of post-post-modernism, for lack of a better moniker, is that you can do whatever you want, terms like progressive and conservative ultimately no longer have any meaning. All of it is somehow both yet also neither.

But there are lots of other reasons why Hamilton’s critique generated a bit of cognitive dissonance for me. Hamilton hinted that this year’s equal gender balance among the artists selected (which already seems off since there were works by 29 artists exhibited, an odd number) might be because all three of this year’s judges were women. This was irritating on a variety of levels. While he might have been suggesting that gender parity tipped the scales in favor of women artists, the notion that anything besides gender parity would be acceptable at this point is somewhat ludicrous. Then again, I continue to see concert programs that unashamedly list works exclusively by male composers and I’ve yet to see a program that only included works by women that wasn’t somehow specifically designated as being dedicated exclusively to women. Perhaps more disturbing, however, was Hamilton’s suggestion that the fact that this year’s adjudicators were three women “may also (or may not) help to account for the fact that the majority of artists are concerned with the personal rather than public.” Does anyone have any idea what that actually means?

But the comment that gnawed at me the most was his explanation for why these artists did not meet his standards for progressive brilliance:

[T]here is really no reason why you should find your voice in your early twenties. It’s a 20th-century assumption that creativity comes before the craft rather than the other way round. Nobody in previous centuries would have signed up to that.

I’m now in my late 40s and every time I begin composing a new piece of music, I hope that a new idea emerges. The last thing I ever want is to be forced into patterns dictated by a voice that I was supposed to have found upon “maturing.” It is my hope that none of these artists “find their voices” but rather continue to explore in this wonderful environment where anything and everything is possible.

What the Herd Heard

I was recently engaged in a discussion on a popular social networking message board that focused on whether or not rap music is primarily inclusive of messages of socio-political dissent. For obvious reasons, I won’t link to the board or reveal the identities of those who I debated, but I’m sure it will come as no surprise that it was I who argued that the socio-political messaging is there. I even went as far as to suggest that this messaging is similar to that found in the music of Woody Guthrie. I tried to invoke the research of Michael Eric Dyson on the subject, but he was pooh-poohed as “a member of a ‘non-underclass culture’” (a term I introduced earlier in the debate) who “may not be the best authority” on the subject. The debate, which is several days old now, has slowed considerably; not the least of the reasons being that I’m currently involved in the commendable (so I’m told) process of jury duty. One of the things that the debate confirmed for me, though, is that there exists a group of very creative musicians who believe that rap music is devoid not only of melody and chord changes, but of socio-political messaging as well.

I don’t think I can agree less with either thesis. Rap music and most hip-hop-based music uses bass lines, background riffs (often sampled from old jazz recordings), and melodic “hooks” that are inclusive of chord progressions as well as melodies. While I’m not very experienced in hip-hop culture, I’ve noticed that the bulk of the music is poetry backed by drum beats (often vocalized) and non-pitch specific “scratching” on vinyl LPs, and I keep hearing overarching tonal movement and structure that gives each song a subtly unique sonic identity. There are introductions that set up pitch centers (that might include microtonal relationships between sampled materials) and present non-textually inclusive melodic themes that recur, like Baroque ritornelli throughout a single work. The music is also loaded with culturally-specific coded messaging of socio-political dissent that incorporates anti-social themes, such as: gun-related violence, misogyny, irresponsible and perverse sexual behavior, and the overly conspicuous display of material goods or “bling.” Make no mistake, I do not condone the use of guns, murder, beating and/or humiliating woman, child pornography, or making the display of expensive items more important than feeding the hungry. But these themes are not specific to rap music. They are, however, traditionally part of the American Culture Machine’s output in movies, books, and television that has been shaping the minds and mores of generations.

Be that as it may, I have come to the conclusion that the difference in opinion between myself and “them” is that I listen to rap music differently than they do. Maybe it’s because, as a bass player—and, since the bass, along with drums, is the instrument primarily used to carry the identity of genre and subgenre in American music—I’m constantly analyzing the structure of music from cultures other than the one I grew up in (mostly classical, rock ‘n’ roll, and jazz). So I find myself paying attention to bass parts, and how they interact within a “rhythm section,” with an analytical ear long before I pay attention to textual messaging. This indicates to me that act of listening is related much more to one’s personal agenda than I had heretofore believed. The point was underlined for me by another essay that appeared earlier this week on NewMusicBox. While the essay’s author focused on the problem of music that is inappropriately (or even dangerously) loud, I was struck by his concept of “listening as an act of [non-selfless] submission,” by intentionally suspending the personal critiquing of what is heard. This is what improvising musicians strive to do when they interact in their performances; with as little critical listening done as possible, instead trusting in their ability to play what must be played. One of my debaters is a saxophonist, an instrument that is traditionally used to play melodies and melodic improvisation. Not many saxophonists are involved in “the groove” (although notable exceptions are found, principally in baritone and bass saxophone playing), and find themselves misidentified as the identity of the music being played. (Even though the sound of swing is absolutely reliant on what the bass and drums play for its identity, the name Lester Young is more known than Walter Page—and the word “bebop” usually conjures the name of Charlie Parker, but if Bird were playing with Bootsy Collins, the music would no longer bebop, no matter what Parker played.) Maybe that’s why I’ve found many saxophonists to be critical, or even hypercritical, of what is played by “their” rhythm sections; their musical voices are actually defined by their accompaniment.

So, this has me wondering to what degree music listening is “agenda-ized” by the players of different instruments. I know that when I go out to hear music with other bass players, we tend to react to the same things. It’s not that we only listen to the bass—we don’t, but I think we might hear what the other instruments are playing with a different “filter” than what might be employed by different instrumentalists, vocalists, and/or composers. I’d be curious to know what you think of that. I’d also be curious to know how rap music fits into your understanding of American music.

Playing the Dozens

The flurry of comments in response to Rob Deemer’s latest NewMusicBox post, “Found: Three Examples of 21st Century Music,” reveals how fraught with controversy it has become to establish anything that even faintly resembles a canon at this point in our history. While that is not what Rob was attempting to do (and I’m not trying to suggest that he was), his motives are extraneous to the passions that an assumption of such an effort provokes. Yet curiously, in a recent blog post over at Sequenza21 (cited in “Alex Shapiro’s response to Rob’s essay and written, ironically, in response to another NewMusicBox post by Deemer in which he provided a list of 202 women composers and offered anyone reading to add more names), composer Judith Lang Zaimont suggests that we should be narrowing our field:

What good is it to have so large a field? According to a telling anecdote in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink”, we withdraw when there are more than c. six choices at hand. Two hundred is 194 too many. Why are people – good people, sensitive, knowledgeable people – reluctant to express their opinion? Why run scared of standing behind your principles, your choices?

With all respect to Judith Lang Zaimont, whose music I have admired for decades and whose writings about music are insightful, I would hate to limit myself to three or six or even two hundred and, if there’s any generalization we can make about our current music culture, we no longer need to. I probably discover at least a dozen new composers every week (both contemporary and from the past), and for that I am grateful. I hope it never ends.

So I would be extremely uncomfortable with the assignment that Rob was given; I’m glad no one asked me to do it. Last year I devoted a lion’s share of my free time to updating and revising the articles about American orchestra music and American chamber music for the forthcoming new edition of the Grove Dictionary of American Music; in both cases, I went way past double my word limit in an effort to cite as many composers and works as I could cram in and I still feel heartbroken about all the works I couldn’t squeeze in. I don’t feel the need to defend Rob or his specific choices for three examples of 21st century music, especially since Alex Shapiro has already so articulately done so in the comments, despite ““Anonymous Matt”’s rebuttal that she was “exhibiting a Fox News mentality.” (Who is that guy?) But I would like to engage in Daniel Wolf’s thought experiment because I think it could lead us into a new and equally interesting area for discussion:

[C]onsider, as a thought experiment, trying to sum up the first decade of the 20th century in only three works. So I choose something of Debussy, Strauss and Ives. A nice group with some great pieces in the decade, but hardly representative or even suggestive as I’ve certainly missed very important and very different works by i.a. Ravel, Mahler, Puccini, Skryabin, Satie, Schoenberg.

If we were miraculously transported back to April 1912, we would have a very different view of the 20th century than we do now. Imagine being just barely twelve years into the 20th century: the first performance of Pierrot lunaire would not take place until October 16 and the riots during the premiere The Rite of Spring would not occur until the following year. Elliott Carter and Olivier Messiaen would have been three years old, and not yet aware of any of this. John Cage would not yet have been born. There would be no radio or television and live performance either in concert halls or in people’s homes (played from published sheet music) would have been the way music was mostly consumed; commercially released recordings were still a novelty that most people didn’t take very seriously. (Remember that merely twelve years before the start of the new century novelist Edward Bellamy, not being able to comprehend the possibility of recorded sound, imagined an alternative late 20th century where everyone had music in their homes as a result of using a telephone to call dedicated music rooms that operated 24/7.)

As for Wolf’s choices of Debussy, Strauss, and Ives as the three representatives of 20th-century music based on only being around for the first 12 years of it, I’m reminded of the cliché of hindsight being 20/20. Ives would certainly not have made anyone’s cut. At that point in history he was an unknown “amateur” composer and therefore would have been outside the purview of all of us. (The way music was disseminated in the year 1912 is difficult to fathom in our own time where being able to access the music of just about everybody is taken for granted; perhaps the greatest testimony to that sea change is our ability to easily find the music of our own era’s “amateur” composers about whom Dennis Bathory-Kitsz wrote so eloquently.) Also, an American would never have made the grade, especially not in the United States where our sense of cultural inferiority was artistically stifling for many at the time. (Also women, sadly, would never have been considered for such an honor despite the extraordinary music being written at that time by Amy Beach and Lili Boulanger, among others; nor would people of color despite the publication of the vocal score of Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha only a year earlier, in 1911.) More than likely the list would have been filled with composers like Max Reger, whom we hardly think of as a 20th century composer (since he died in 1916) if we think of him at all. This is in no way to disparage Reger, whose music I find endlessly fascinating. In fact, if anything, history’s weeding out of composers from earlier times can be far more unjust than singling out people in our own (at a time when there is also a platform for healthy debate about it).

But let’s take the exercise even further back in time to April 1812, a time that many establishment classical music purveyors continue to fixate on. Indeed, Beethoven was all the rage. He had already composed 26 of his 32 piano sonatas, as well as six of his nine symphonies, and the 7th and 8th would be completed later in the year. Many of the most influential arbiters of taste hailed him as the world’s greatest composer; for better or worse, they frequently still do. But almost as highly regarded at the time were Muzio Clementi and Jan Ladislav Dussek (who tragically died a mere month earlier on March 20). History has not been terribly kind to either of these composers. The Dussek entry in the 1980 New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians posits that history might have overlooked Dussek because so many passages in his music sound like the music of other composers, albeit composers whose sound-alike works postdate his. History’s selectivity can be capricious and extremely unfair, which is why the more of us who can write history the better off we all are in the long run. In our own era of plentitude, a few adventurous record labels have issued recordings of music by Clementi and Dussek; I’ve recently been listening to them and have loved everything I’ve heard. So rather than worrying about how history will determine who the “great” ones are, I would argue that it’s more important for us to be as open and generous to everything as we can possibly be and do everything we can to ensure that all of it thrives. And, if it all does in fact thrive as a result, when folks in 2112 start picking fights about the music of our time, they might actually have a leg to stand on.

We Need To Talk About New Music

I regret to say I missed the recent Minnesota Orchestra Future Classics concert; my fiancée (Well congratulations, Colin!—Why, thank you!) was laid up after the removal of several wisdom teeth last Friday, and I was on full-time gauze-and-mashed-bananas duty. Commenting on Future Classics has become an annual exercise for me: It’s always a welcome writing challenge to try to keep my thoughts corralled within NewMusicBox’s laudably upbeat editorial policy.

Why, though? We all want the same thing, right? As bloggers about and fans of contemporary music, we can do the most good by supporting the people and institutions that produce it, regardless of whatever internecine beefs we may harbor. In a world of finite resources, our noblest goal is to contribute to the rising of a tide that will elevate all boats. To paraphrase the very wise Doug Geers, we’re better off with virtually any particular arts organization in the world than we would be without it. Doesn’t matter whether you like it or not: Those who love new music, especially on the internet, are well-advised to tote the barges and lift the bales they’re confronted with, even if that means scrounging desperately to find something to admire.

As serious music people, however, we’re obliged to identify problems. On the face of it, this sounds like a destructive, negative mission statement, but au contraire: Without problems, we would have no solutions—and, worse yet, no more problems. Who cares if you think whatever it is is great? That’s the end of the conversation, not the beginning. Try on some critical distance; diagnose something. Have a question. I recognize that letting loose with a rip-roaring polemic is fun, but funner yet is saying something true and then assessing why and whether it really is.

It might not be possible for a single person to serve both of these masters faithfully, but it’s materially essential that both be served. I guess it’s for every netizen to decide how to negotiate them: Speaking for myself, the past five and a half years have given me plenty of opportunities to adopt either stance as the situation seemed to warrant, at the price—a light one, I think, in the final analysis—of confusing, sometimes, the first stance with the second. The fact that culture in general and American contemporary music specifically are complex and contradictory areas of human activity that produce more question marks than periods doesn’t preclude the fact that enthusiastic exclamation points just might be redeemable for concrete value to us. But a question mark is not an exclamation point, and to conflate one with the other is to invite frustration.