Tag: cultural relevance

Get ‘Em While They’re Young: New Music as a Gateway to Classical Music



Over the past several months I have found myself in a rather strange position. Although my own personal background covers little on the topic of elementary or secondary music education, I have been discussing how composition can play a more active role in our K-12 education system. These informal—and, on one occasion, formal—discussions have led me to being selected as the California Music Educators Association (CMEA) Central Division “Higher Education Representative.” It’s a role which I am happy to fill, even though I feel slightly like an imposter. Still, there are reasons why I have found myself more involved in the “mus-ed biz” as of late. One large reason is due to the fact that where I work, Fresno State, is historically a teacher’s college. The overwhelming majority of students in my program are studying music education. So, even though my own education is from a more conservatory-style background, my almost ten years of experience teaching at Fresno State has provided me with some experience in understanding the state of music education within California. Not a whole lot, mind you, but enough to get by.

As for the nature of these aforementioned conversations, they typically revolve around how (or, more precisely, if) composition is being incorporated into the K-12 system. In order to be better prepared for discussing this with my fellow educators, I took it upon myself to research what kinds of materials currently exist for teaching music composition to secondary and elementary music students. It did not take me long to realize that there is an enormous amount of material available, and that any teacher interested in implementing music composition at the K-12 level needs to only do a little bit of surface research to discover the monumental mass of material out there!

One thing did strike me as a bit odd, though. I noticed when looking through this material that many of the methods designed to teach music composition focus primarily on technique, and infrequently mention the music from which those techniques are derived. Please note: this is not meant to be a statement of criticism. Any article, lesson, or discussion that is meant to inspire young students to write music—any music—should be encouraged! However, it is worth pointing out that much of this instruction seems to be designed through the careful avoidance of new music, focusing instead on either teaching no style, or instead on the styles of music with which K-12 students are presumably more familiar. This unfortunately may be teaching music students that there is no classical music being composed today, and that a modern composer only writes popular music, songs, or film scores.
One challenge to overcome is that for many young students there is an ingrained belief that classical music is not a part of mainstream culture. It isn’t “hip” or “new.” It is not the music they are interested in, and certainly not the music that they actively hear on the radio, on television, or on the internet. As a result, many young students simply “zone out” when presented with classical music.

They find it boring.

This often leads music educators to turn to other music as a way to engage their students. They use anything other than classical music as a way to get their students interested in learning about the subject. Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with teaching non-classical music in the classroom. However, the exclusion of classical music is likely having a detrimental effect, essentially reinforcing the perception that classical music is old and irrelevant.

But do you know what isn’t “old and irrelevant”? New music—by definition, no less! Whereas traditional classical music is considered to be old, new music is—well—new. If traditional music is perceived to be “irrelevant,” new music is quite the opposite, often directly reflecting current trends in our society. If students are unable to relate to Bach, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky, maybe they can relate to Missy Mazzoli, Steve Reich, and Osvaldo Golijov.

Frankly, we underestimate students when we assume they will not be interested in new music.

I will admit that this is a very bold statement to make. However, I have anecdotal evidence to support this. My wife is an elementary music teacher in Fresno Unified, where she teaches music at four different school sites, all of which serve primarily low-income students. Part of her pedagogical approach includes beginning each class with an example of music. Sometimes she plays something classical and other times something from popular music, but it is always something that she believes is capable of engaging her students. Not that it always does. Many times in the past, when she would play examples of traditional classical music such as Mozart or Tchaikovsky, her students would be bored out of their minds. The old perception seemed to be reinforcing itself: classical music is a style of music her students wouldn’t relate to, as it was not a part of their upbringing or culture.

Then she played Steve Reich for them.

The response was, in a word, astonishing. The students began tapping along and became actively engaged in their listening. They asked questions—questions!—about the music (which, in of itself is a pretty remarkable feat). Whereas Mozart was boring, Reich was exciting! It was new—something they did not expect, especially in the context of “classical music.” They wanted to hear more! Several times after my wife played them Electric Counterpoint, they asked for it again, even over popular music examples that she had played.

While Steve Reich might be a composer that we would expect younger students to engage with, what was more surprising was the response she received when she played them Pierre Boulez. Admittedly, the students reacted with confusion at first. However, as the music played they wanted to hear more. They wanted to know where this “crazy noise” was going. Once again, the music engaged her students on a level that neither Mozart nor Tchaikovsky ever did. They became active listeners. The music was unique and didn’t sound like “stereotypical classical music.” Like Reich, her students asked to hear “that weird Boulez music” again—many times over, in fact.

My wife’s experiences introducing new music to her students reminded me of another story that I had heard several years ago, when I was still a student at Indiana University. My composition teacher at the time, Claude Baker, once told me of his own experience when teaching music appreciation during his graduate days. In a recent conversation with Dr. Baker, he recalled the story for me:

When I was still a graduate student at Eastman, I taught low brass, theory, and music appreciation at a settlement school in a predominantly African-American community.  In the music appreciation class, I tried to take a traditional chronological approach to teaching the history of music. . .and it was an unmitigated disaster.  The students (mostly high schoolers) were either apathetic or downright hostile.  After a few weeks, I decided to try a “reverse chronological” path, starting with the concert and symphonic music of the time (“the time” being the early 1970s) and working backwards…and the change in attitude was dramatic.  The students immediately became more engaged, more enthusiastic, and more curious.  Attendance and class participation improved, particularly when I drew parallels between current art music and the popular music to which many of the students were listening.

The parallels between my wife’s experience and Dr. Baker’s are remarkable. Both indicate that we are possibly missing out on large opportunities to engage music students with new music, and thus classical music on the whole. This seems especially relevant for disadvantaged communities, where classical music is often viewed as foreign.

So, if new music has the potential to be a way to better engage K-12 students, why aren’t we seeing more of it in the classroom? Well, the obvious answer is that few music teachers know enough new music themselves to bring it into the class (or worse, have their own biases against new music). However, we cannot expect the music education community to change in this regard without composers such as myself becoming more involved with the K-12 system.

We composers need to be advocates for new music in the classroom, presenting music educators with a wide range of new music literature. We need to bring minimalism, indie-classical, spectralism, and the current avant-garde to K-12 students. Granted, they may not like all the music, but it will certainly get them thinking about it. If we are to keep classical music relevant in our schools, it needs to be placed into a modern context. Music education needs to embrace both composition and new music.

History Of The World

The internet is full of articles that deal with contemporary composition in a very broad and abstract way. My articles for NewMusicBox are no exception: while I’ve talked about some specific works, it’s always been in service of more general points about borrowed material, relevance, and the politics of cross-cultural influence. So for the last article in this series, I’d like to zoom in and talk about how these issues played out in one of my own pieces.

I wrote World about a year and a half ago for the Stony Brook Contemporary Chamber Players. I’d heard great things about Stony Brook’s piano and percussion studios, so I took the opportunity to write for the now fairly standard instrumentation of Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. I knew I wanted to focus on the marimba—an instrument that has always struck me as somehow ancient and futuristic at the same time. And since almost everything I write has to do with cultural symbolism in one way or another, I started by asking: What does the marimba signify in American culture?

If you’re the kind of person who likes listening to a piece before you read about it, now would be a good time:

The first associations that came to mind were minimalism and TV news themes. I’ve thought for a while that there was a secret connection between the two. In particular, there’s one passage in Music for 18 Musicians that sounds remarkably like news music.

There’s also the 1991 theme for WABC 7 Eyewitness News, the opening of which wouldn’t sound out of place in a minimalist piece from the late 70s or early 80s.

(I assume that this connection is partially the result of Steve Reich’s widespread influence outside the new-music world—but I also have a theory that the presence of syncopated repeated-note figures in news themes originated as an imitation of a telegraph machine transmitting Morse code.) So World starts off with a passage that’s meant to sound like the ten o’clock news if it had been written by Reich circa Tehillim, with a little help from Bartók:

In TV news themes, the mallet percussion is often synthesized, which gave me the idea of splitting the ensemble into “real” and “artificial” sides: marimba and piano vs. electronic mallet percussion and synth keyboard. But the next association that came to mind landed me right in the political quagmire I talked about in my last article: both wooden percussion instruments and electronic imitations of them are associated with 1980s pop exoticism. The most iconic example is probably “Africa” by Toto—but you see the same thing in “It’s Nearly Africa” by XTC, “The Sheltering Sky” by King Crimson, “Listening Wind” by Talking Heads, “Mulu the Rain Forest” by Thomas Dolby, and “The Dreaming” by Kate Bush. These songs depict a variety of different cultures, and their attitudes range from Talking Heads’ anti-colonialist provocation to XTC’s blunt primitivism, but they all involve American or British musicians using a particular set of timbres as a symbol of far-off lands.

The thing is, I actually find some of these songs quite evocative. “Africa” in particular has been growing on me steadily over the years, for reasons I can’t quite explain (though it might have something to do with the prominent iii chord in the opening riff). Of course, that’s easy for me to say: it’s not my continent being exoticized. But I think it’s more complicated than that, because there’s quite a bit of art that I like even though it treats people like me pretty badly. I loved Infinite Jest, for example, despite a handful of passages that use just about every transphobic trope around as a comedic device. And I’m a fan of horror director Dario Argento despite the undercurrent of misogyny running through his work. In fact, what I like about the “world music” trope in 80s pop music is very similar to what I like about Argento’s movies: it’s all about the lush, enveloping atmosphere. (In the former case, it’s probably also because these sounds were constantly in the background during my early childhood. In fact, one of my first musical memories is an ad for Whatchamacallit candy bars that draws on a similar sound palette.)

I’ve also noticed that a lot of people dismiss this kind of faux world music not on the grounds that it stereotypes or exoticizes people, but on the grounds that it’s “cheesy.” In my experience, that judgment is almost never backed up with any kind of rational critique; usually it means “it’s considered uncool to admit to liking this.” So when I hear something dismissed in that way, I’m immediately drawn to it, both because I don’t like aesthetic prejudice, and also because things that are deemed “cheesy” can easily take on a surreal, alarming or even frightening quality. You can see this phenomenon—which I’ve sometimes referred to by saying that “cheesiness is the new dissonance”—at work in a lot of David Lynch’s films.

So here was this “cheesy” music that was conceptually related to my plan for the piece. I wanted to put it into a new context that would allows its merits, including its potential for strangeness, to be heard more clearly. (Some people might see this as trying to “improve” pop-cultural materials by putting them in a so-called “high-art” context, but I actually think of it more as trying to “improve” contemporary classical music, which could use a corrective to its often overbearing seriousness and self-importance.) The question was: could I create that lush world-music atmosphere without drawing on any actual non-Western cultures? Could I throw out the stereotypical bathwater while keeping the evocative baby?

In some ways it was easy; I could use the sounds of birds and water, long sustained synth pads, quartal harmonies, and minor triads in a major-mode context. If that sounds like it’s in bad taste, great! And how to frame the passage so that it might seduce people who would normally be skeptical of these kinds of sounds? Save it for later in the piece, and introduce its motivic material and aspects of its sound-world first, so that when it arrives, it seems like a revelation of something that was just under the surface the whole time: a door opening into the middle of a rainforest.

But something was still missing.

Now, a brief digression. Around the same time that I was writing World, I was thinking about how often I’d been hearing cut-up and pitch-shifted vocal samples in contemporary pop, rock, and electronica. The most striking example is the one that Skrillex gradually builds over the course of his song “Summit”—an entire pop melody constructed out of individually sampled vowels.

Others include Tune-Yards’ “Bizness”, Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls)”, and Gotye’s “State of the Art”. As I’ve said, I’m intrigued when a single idea shows up in a variety of different contexts. But wasn’t obvious, at least at first, that this had anything to do with my plans for World.
What put all the pieces together was Deep Forest’s “Sweet Lullaby.”

If you’re not familiar with them, Deep Forest are a French “ethnic electronica” duo, and their work is especially problematic: they’ve been accused of extensively sampling traditional music from around the world without permission and sometimes without even crediting the original performers, and they’ve made quite a bit of money in the process. They also have a habit of talking about people in developing countries in a patronizing way: “Somewhere, deep in the jungle, are living some little men and women. They are our past. And maybe—maybe they are our future.” “Sweet Lullaby” doesn’t include that kind of commentary, but it is based on a recording of a traditional Baegu song from the Solomon Islands, which they used without the permission of either the woman who sang it or the ethnomusicologist who recorded it.

And yet here too, I find the music strangely haunting. And while I was trying to figure out why, I suddenly realized that listening to electronically cut-up syllables is a lot like listening to a song in a language you don’t speak—which meant that I could create my imaginary foreign culture by taking a page from Skrillex and building a melody out of pitch-shifted vocal samples in the climactic section of World. Not only that, but the artificiality of the cut-up technique would enhance the surreal quality already latently present in the “cheesiness” of the style.

And then I realized something else: several of the songs that had gotten me thinking about cut-up vocals were related to the ideas that I had associated with marimbas in the first place. “Summit” relates to minimalism through its repetition-based syntax, and, less directly, through the long history of connections between Steve Reich and electronic dance music, including the Reich Remixed album and the sample of Electric Counterpoint in The Orb’s “Little Fluffy Clouds”. And Tune-Yards is another politically complicated case of a white American musician being heavily influenced by African music—in this case, Congolese pop music. In other words, everything is connected:
World Chart
When I talked about complex tangles of interconnections between different artistic streams, this was the kind of thing I had in mind. So what does my attempt to translate that tangle into an actual piece of music sound like? Hear for yourself:

How To Be Culturally Relevant

Sharing ideas
Composers spend an awful lot of time worrying about whether or not what we do is culturally relevant. Many discussions start from the assumption that it’s not; the only question is how we’re going to make ourselves relevant before our art form shrivels away like a neglected houseplant.
Whenever I hear words like “relevant” or “important,” I always want to ask, “relevant or important to whom?” When that detail is left out, these words become codes or shorthands: “important” means “important to Serious Art People,” and “relevant” means “relevant to Real-World Audiences.” But “Real-World Audiences” is a code too, because the people who use the phrase seem to have a pretty narrow idea of who counts as real. Other musicians? Not real. Artists in other media? Not real. College students and faculty? Not real. People over 40? Not real. You can sell out a huge concert hall, but if everyone there falls into one or more of the above categories, you’ll still have people citing your show as evidence of classical music’s imminent demise. Because when people say “culturally relevant,” what they really mean is “relevant to young people with mainstream tastes.” And “mainstream tastes,” unfortunately, doesn’t include classical music.

No other form of experimental music-making holds itself to this kind of standard. Japanese noise artists, for example, don’t seem to worry about whether or not their enthusiastic but small audience is a “real-world” one, and I’ve never heard anyone say that in order for them to justify what they’re doing, they have to appeal to people who aren’t interested in what they’re doing. “Why should non-mainstream music reach out to wider audiences?” asked Masami Akita in a recent interview. “These days, everything is diversified and it’s OK to have many different non-mainstream musics for non-mainstream music lovers.”

I actually do think that outreach is important and valuable. And I think the audience for classical music, and new music in particular, could be larger than it currently is. But our habit of dismissing the audience we already have as “unreal” has made me pretty skeptical of “cultural relevance” as a concept.

And yet something happened recently that made me reconsider. I’d been listening to Weird Sister, the newest release from a post-punk band with the wonderful name of Joanna Gruesome, and at a certain point I noticed something odd. The album reminds me by turns of Sonic Youth, Pixies, Bikini Kill, My Bloody Valentine, Splendora—but nothing that’s happened since. It’s not that the band doesn’t have an original voice; it’s that they sound like a band with an original voice from 1993. I like them, but I can’t figure out how to plug them into the cultural landscape of 2013.

I don’t think it’s bad to make something that seems like it’s from another era. There’s room in the world for all kinds of art, and that includes retro art. But I also think that “how does this relate to other things from its own time?” is a more productive question for composers than “does this appeal to young people with mainstream tastes?” And those relationships can pop up in unexpected places. Sometimes, if you zoom out far enough, even the most seemingly hermetic avant-garde music sounds like it’s having a conversation with other styles and genres from the same era. Just look at Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître, whose instrumentation—including alto flute, guitar, vibraphone, xylorimba, and bongos—wouldn’t be too out of place on a 1950s exotica or lounge album. I also remember listening to a 1973 recording of André Boucourechliev’s open-form composition Anarchipel and suddenly being struck by how much certain dense, skittering passages reminded me of Alice Coltrane’s Universal Consciousness, released two years earlier. Were those connections intentional? Probably not—but there was something in the air.
Those are isolated examples, but sometimes a single idea will show up again and again, across multiple styles and media, in a particular period of time. For example: the collage boom of the 1960s, which showed up in avant-garde composition (Berio’s Sinfonia, Stockhausen’s Hymnen), in psychedelic rock (“Revolution 9,” early Frank Zappa albums), in Pop Art (Tom Wesselman, Robert Rauschenberg), in films both experimental (Jan Švankmajer’s “Historia Naturae, Suita”) and mainstream (the acid-trip scene in Easy Rider), and even in advertising (“The Paperwork Explosion,” an IBM promo by a young Jim Henson).

Another example, which doesn’t get talked about as often: all the art from the 1980s that depicts a world made inhuman by suburban sprawl and global technological networks. You see it in contemporary opera (Robert Ashley’s Improvement and eL/Aficionado), in New Wave (Gary Numan and Thomas Dolby), and in whatever you want to call Laurie Anderson’s Big Science (“take a left at what’s going to be the new sports center, and keep going until you hit the place where they’re thinking of building that drive-in bank”). You also see it in the hyperreal domestic photographs of Tina Barney, the ultra-stylized suburbia of Bruce Charlesworth’s installations, and the Talking Heads’s film True Stories.

All the articles I’m writing for NewMusicBox this month deal with the issue of composers drawing on sources outside the perceived mainstream of “new music.” Last week, I took issue with one of the common arguments against it, but I didn’t say anything about why someone would want to do it in the first place. Different composers will give different answers, of course. But one possible reason is that when artists who work in different styles, in different media, and at different levels of mainstream exposure share ideas, they can create something larger than themselves—a complex tangle of interconnections that links their work together and gives it extra layers of meaning. And I’d like to think that if composers participated more often in these artistic conversations, they might not worry so much about being culturally irrelevant.

One final note: a few people were concerned that my previous article didn’t address the political and ethical issues that come up when different artistic cultures interact with each other—and I’m sure some of you were thinking the same thing as you read this one. No need to worry: that’s exactly what my next article is going to be about. See you in a week!

Not Quite a Horse Race


Probably the only time I think very much about horses is when I see an equestrian statue, like this one in Zagreb, Croatia, yet even I know about the Kentucky Derby.

Every year on the first Saturday in May since 1875, the eyes of the world are on the state of Kentucky for approximately two minutes to find out which jockey will capture the coveted first prize (and the lion’s share of the now $2,000,000 purse) in the Kentucky Derby. Exactly 110 years later, another extremely high-stakes prize was established in the bluegrass state, though it has yet to garner the same amount of attention from the general public—the $100K University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition. While regrettably there are fewer fans of contemporary music than sports of any kind in this country or probably anywhere else in the world, the Grawemeyer has also yet to be as widely an acknowledged accolade—even among new music aficionados—as other honors like the annual Pulitzer Prize.

Yet until last year, when the award was reduced from $200K to $100K as a result of the fund for the prize losing money due to a drop in the stock market, the Grawemeyer was double the size of the second largest prize a composer could receive. But since that prize, the Northwestern University School of Music’s Nemmers Prize (first awarded in 2004), as well as Sweden’s Polar Music Prize (established in 1989 by ABBA manager Stig Anderson), is also $100K, there still is no larger award. The Pulitzer, at $10K, is merely one tenth the size. The Grawemeyer, Nemmers, and Polar Prizes are open to composers from anywhere in the world (the Polar Prize is actually open to all genres as well), whereas the Pulitzer is exclusively the domain of Americans. However, since Pulitzer prizes are also awarded for journalism, every newspaper in the United States covers them faithfully every year. Did your morning newspaper (those of you who still read such things) run a story on the Grawemeyer Award this morning?

Might the Grawemeyer also not have the same caché as the Pulitzer because of the way the awards are determined? Each Pulitzer Prize winner is determined by a jury comprising a group of experts (which always includes a previous recipient of said award) which chooses three works to submit to the Pulitzer’s board (comprised mostly of professional journalists) which then makes the final selection. The Grawemeyer, on the other hand, is determined by a total of three panels. The first is culled from University of Louisville faculty and the second is a group of music professionals, including composers who have previously received the award. But the final panel, and the one ultimately selecting the winner, is a lay committee of amateurs which, according to the University of Louisville’s website, philanthropist Charles Grawemeyer believed would result in a more “democratic” adjudication process.

That more democratic process has resulted in an admittedly somewhat odd list of works. To date, only one piece of chamber music has ever been awarded (Sebastian Currier’s Static in 2007) and the only other winning work thus far that did not involve an orchestra was the collection of Piano Etudes by Gyorgy Ligeti which captured the second prize in award’s history, back in 1986. There also seems to be a weird proclivity for choosing string concertos. This year’s winner, Michel van der Aa’s Up-close is the 10th such work out of a total of 27 winners, which is more than 1/3rd of the total. However, the fact that Up-close also employs multimedia (it is the first Grawemeyer Award-winning instrumental composition to do so) is a hopeful sign that a greater range of works might snag the award in years to come.

Still, might a panel of “experts” be ultimately more sensitive to ensuring a greater variety from year to year than a panel of “amateurs”? I could imagine a group of such experts opining, “We can’t give this award to yet another violin concerto. Aren’t there any other worthy pieces in the submissions pile?” Of course, these days it sometimes feels a bit nostalgic to ponder the viability of expert opinions. After all, crowd-sourced decisions, a step even further beyond lay panels, have been touted as the unstoppable wave of the future by all the most trusted crystal ball toting spin doctors on the web. (Wait a minute, aren’t those spin doctors “experts”?) And yet Oscars, Emmys, and Grammys still have more cultural clout than the People’s Choice Awards. But maybe that will change as fewer and fewer people receive their news from mainstream media outlets. Sadly, though, the avenues of information that now inform many people about what’s going on (e.g. Twitter feeds, Facebook postings, even websites such as this) are so targeted that it can be extremely difficult for news to reach beyond the folks who have a vested interest in it. So, ironically, even though the Grawemeyer Award might be more reflective of what the greater community believes to be the strongest piece of new music, the result of this award will have a harder time reaching people who are not connected to new music in some way. And until the music awarded these kinds of accolades can reach a greater percentage of the population, it won’t really be culturally relevant.

Even if you don’t care about horse races (I know I don’t), I’m sure you’ve heard of the Derby. Without needing to turn on a TV or a radio, I always know when it’s Derby time from various posts from some composerly friend on Facebook. But if you weren’t somehow involved in new music, would you be friends with someone who posted something about the Grawemeyer Award? Thankfully I’m not a gambler, but if I was I’d be willing to bet the whole purse on what the answer would be. It’s hardly a horse race.