Tag: death

Music After Life: Guiding Lights


Image by Xander, via Flickr

As I approach the end of this series on death and the fate of our music, I want to emphasize a few points that I firmly believe. I think they need to be stated upfront, and will resonate after whatever conclusions I reach. They need to put any wild suggestions I make in perspective:

  • None of us can ever control the fate of our works in the future beyond us.
  • It is highly likely that no matter how our music fares, we will have no idea of the result.
  • To devote one’s energies to achieving “immortality” is a fool’s game, and will probably distract from the very survival of the art that one desires. It makes the most sense to devote ourselves to the art for its own sake, and to stand clear of considerations that will distract us from the selflessness of this commitment.

Okay, I’ve said the noble thing, and it’s something I definitely believe. And having so spoken, there remains that nagging desire to make something that will resonate, a ripple in the pond of time that any of us have initiated. To ignore this is, I think, also dishonest. But how can this need be reconciled with the sentiments above? I’ll go out on a limb and make a few suggestions on the topic of “survivability.”

One instructive route is to see what composers in the late stages of their lives have concentrated upon. Their responses to a sense of time running out are, of course, as varied as the individuals involved. For Beethoven, it’s a combination of grand, cosmic ambition (think of the Ninth Symphony) and gnarly individualism, a complete rupturing of given forms (think of the late string quartets, especially Op. 131). For Verdi, there’s a similar dichotomy, with increased spirituality (the Requiem) and a sudden turn to greater complexity and naturalism (in Falstaff and Otello, a response to the challenge of two other masters across centuries, Shakespeare and his contemporary Wagner).

Looking into the previous century, Stravinsky around 1950 felt his neoclassical period was playing itself out and searched for a re-engagement with modernism. The intersection of his highly personal practice with serialism led to music of tensile strength and economy, and certainly some of the most engaging serial works ever written. Cage we’ve already considered, but in terms of his late work, the emergence of the “number” pieces is a sort of return to origins—the time brackets that structure the works evoke a use of time similar to his early “square root” form. At the same time, the music’s expansive quality of pitches floating in space suggests that Feldman was as influential upon him as vice versa.

And then Feldman. He also moved into a farther realm, attacking the problem of scale in an unprecedented manner. Following his basic tastes and impulses, he explored a new dimension to music, one that obviously excited his sense of adventure, and in turn created pieces that were more like installations than traditional concert works. In so doing, he redefined the listening experience for those who go to the concert hall.

Finally, I have to mention Elliott Carter. His passing is so recent (2012) that it’s really too early to make any projection of his ultimate stature. His incredible longevity made for an additional storyline to his career that was irresistible and led to a flowering of performances that accelerated in his last years. But even now it seems that in his last couple of decades, he found a way to combine his inventions of rhythm and harmony, resulting in a spectacular complexity, with an ethos of greater clarity and economy. In a strange way, his was the inverse of Stravinsky’s late-life course: moving from modernism to a greater classicism, yet not denying his core values and voice.

If there’s any lesson to take from these case studies, I think it’s that these composers all had the courage to do two things that are deeply related and at the same time seemingly contradictory. They decided to follow the natural course of their creative obsessions to new heights and depths, and they were willing to take risks. That might mean continuing along a path that seemed pre-ordained, but at a level of intensity that might seem exaggerated or inappropriate. And it could also mean throwing caution to the winds and trying something new, out of character, no matter what others might think. In this sense, such choices represent the embrace of a great freedom. What the hell; time is short, so forget what others will think.

This is one side of the survivability equation, the caution-to-the-wind embrace of a personal vision, fearless of the consequences, no matter how impractical. The other side thinks outside of the individual and looks at the times. What are the dominant trends and issues of an era, and how do we respond to them?

For the record, I’ve recently completed a longer manuscript on this topic (with the daunting title of Survivable Music: The Emerging Common Practice). In a nutshell, I perceive a series of cultural/musical concerns to which composers should confront and conceive a response, whether s/he embraces them or not. They include:

  • The role of noise and natural sound outside of the pitched spectrum.
  • The emergence of a harmonic practice based on overtone relations and manifested in new temperaments.
  • The increasing influence of technology, on not just musical production, but musical conception itself.
  • The emergence of an ethos of “openness” and multiplicity in the formal design of pieces.
  • The increasing emphasis on collaboration, both in the making of music itself and in its blending with other disciplines and media.
  • The blending of styles and practices from different cultures, periods, and practices.

And this is just a beginning. I don’t want to suggest that we as composers must try to find ways to meet the demands of every item on such a checklist. That puts the cart before the horse. Rather, I think such thinking leads us to consider a field of action outside of ourselves, which I believe is healthy. We don’t have to throw our individual passions, our sense of self to the wind; we should rather see ourselves as more connected to our world, in greater dialogue with the currents we swim in.

I’d like to argue that we can take a stance that, while it guarantees nothing, at least gives us a sense that what we do is not a solipsistic waste. That is to meet a need, to be of some use. Need to whom or what? What kind of use? Ah, that is the question, and we each must formulate our own answers. For some it may be a connection to issues of the world beyond music (the rate of climate change is, I think, an excellent example). For others, it may be a sense of mission to shape and transform the very medium of music itself. But no matter the approach, I’d argue that we should try to address some sort of ethical imperative in our art that reaches beyond our own immediate interests. This doesn’t mean becoming deadly serious. Just the opposite—without a sense of play, the music is DOA. To be clear, I mean the playfulness of the act of creation, the sense of play involved in realizing a performance, the delight of personal reception and interpretation on the part of the listener.

At the same time, I do believe that mere diversion isn’t enough (though it can be part of our tool kit). Mass culture has that market cornered. We shouldn’t try to compete with the song blaring from every device or the most recent phenomenon at the multiplex. Nor can we expect a symphony or chamber work to have the same mass effect that they would have had a couple of centuries earlier. (Opera/music theater is another matter, for a different series.) For the vast majority of people, a great song now can satisfy that humanistic urge, become a kind of anthem that encapsulates human passion and yearning.

I’m not arguing that music emerging from classical practice is doomed to hermetic seclusion. It doesn’t mean we must be mandarins and further distance ourselves from the world. Rather, I’d suggest we capitalize on the strengths of our medium: its abstraction; its ability to create vistas that expand a sense of time rather than trying to match decreasing attention spans; its connection over centuries to spiritual practice. Through a combination of these elements with an awareness of what we value and want to preserve and enhance for a meaningful life, we may make art that people will want to experience and revisit. In short, in its compressed and idealized form, we can present a metaphor for what is a perfected culture, a worthwhile existence.

Have I given a recipe for how we can beat the odds and send our work into a continued existence? Of course not. Have I gone out on a limb where anyone who wants can take a pot shot at my idealism? Sure. Do these posts provide a few suggestions for how to approach the issue, to have some sense of communion with the future, no matter how things shake out? Maybe, just maybe.

I’d like to leave with one final example of older–much older–music that meets a contemporary need. It lived in hibernation for a very long time, yet now feels current and necessary. Even a few decades back, few would have thought that one of the very first “non-anonymous” composers of Western music would be the 12th-century abbess and mystic Hildegard von Bingen. Yet a combination of forces has brought her into public view: the emergence of more creative and open musicology, the rise of a new spiritual practice that is less denominational, and the feminist revolution. Suddenly her music, after so long residing in a state of suspended animation, has flowered into our world and provides a model of beauty and transcendence that is useful. We never know when what we do may find a future purpose, be a time capsule that when opened is a light to the world. So we can dream…and then get back to work.

Music After Life: Twists of Fate


I was recently reading a feature on Lin-Manuel Miranda, who was speaking about his show (now on Broadway) Hamilton (New York Times T Magazine, July 19, 2015). The refrain throughout the show underlines the big questions that confront his characters: “Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?” We would like to see ourselves as above such considerations, since there is ultimately so little we can do to affect the final judgment. We want to be immersed in the immediate flow of our art, with recognition a happy byproduct if it occurs. But Lin-Miranda reports that most of the emails he gets about his show come dated from the middle of the night, that “3 AM dark night of the soul.” This suggests that we all, no matter where we stand in the pecking order, are not fully immune to the concerns of legacy. Whether we have children or not, our music can serve as a virtual progeny, a sort of memetic offspring we put into the world. It’s hard to dismiss this.

Linda and Michael Hutcheon’s new book Four Last Songs (University of Chicago Press) treats the final creative years of Richard Strauss, Verdi, Messiaen, and Britten. The only chapter I’ve read so far is on Britten, but it’s extremely revealing and moving. The composer always saw himself as perpetually youthful, as a “brilliant boy,” and when in his early 60s he was suddenly confronted with cardiac problems, physical frailty, and the prospect of premature death, it was devastating—not only for the obvious reason, but because it also meant the death of his self-image. (This is a bloggish paraphrase from memory, so any distortions of the Hutcheon’s argument are my own.) As we age, we face that same fracturing of self-image and confront the eventual loss of a role in our own story. We’ve been its author up to a certain point, but with perspective and honesty, we start to realize that we don’t fully control the narrative and that it is falling into other hands, which may or my not even choose to continue it.

Moving from the case of my late mentors to a broader view, I’ve been thinking about whom from the recent past is doing well posthumously. (And I’m going to make one artificial distinction here–namely I’ll talk about only American composers, both because of the focus of NewMusicBox, but also because so many different historical-cultural issues come into play as soon as one brings European music into the mix.)

At this point, looking back on the American 20th-century new music revolution, a big winner appears to be John Cage and his school. For those much younger, it may be hard to appreciate how threatening to and reviled by both traditional and modernist composers Cage was. So much of what he advocated seemed nihilistic or anarchistic (and in fact the latter was quite true, reflecting his deepest-held political views). I remember that the kindest view of someone not an acolyte tended to be, “he’s a great philosopher, but not a composer.” Of course, time has countered that judgment: it’s now clear that Cage was a scrupulous and rigorous craftsman, even in the most seemingly indeterminate pieces. The works up to 1950, with their gamuts, “square-root form,” and modal melodies look ever more prescient of minimalist and formalist practice. The respect for sound in its own right is the source-concept of sound art. The acceptance of openness (i.e. chance operations, indeterminacy, graphic notation, varying successive realizations of works, etc.) now seems ever more natural in our world which is increasingly “multiple.” In short, it’s music that speaks directly to many contemporary tendencies.

It also speaks across many disciplines and media, to other artists and not just musicians. As such, it gains entry into the art museum, not just the concert hall, and this is a point to which I’ll return soon.

"Morton Feldman 1976" by Rob Bogaerts Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 nl.

Morton Feldman 1976” by Rob Bogaerts Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 nl.

Of Cage’s circle, Morton Feldman seems to be the composer who is faring the best. He is more of a concert composer than Cage; his work is quite traditionally restricted to acoustic instrumentations and genres (even though he refused to title his pieces according to traditional genres, such as concerto or piano quintet, no matter how much so they were). Again, when I was a young composer, many dismissed his technique (soft, slow, spare) as easy to master and imitate, and a cop-out. But it became clear over his career that he had a mysterious talent. As the pieces grew ever more expansive, the degree of complexity and extravagant detail in them became more evident. I’ve come to feel that Feldman was to Cage somewhat as Berg was to Schoenberg—the composer who took a technical and conceptual armature from his mentor and combined it with an ear that was able to render even the most dissonant harmonic materials sensuous. The great surprise is that his music is some of the most beautiful of the second half of the 20th century.

What all this is moving towards is that earlier remark about the museum. It seems to me that the more composers seem to intersect with at least some of the broader narratives of modern/contemporary art, the broader the context within which their work can be appreciated—and by extension the broader the audience. I think we’re starting to see that certain “maverick” composers, who seemed doomed to oblivion by the impracticality of the choices they made for the presentation of their work, are in fact gaining interest and advocacy precisely for that visionary, “impossible” quality. The Whitney Museum, for example, just completed a festival of all of Conlon Nancarrow’s music, performed on player piano. Last month the German ensemble musikFabrik performed Harry Partch’s Delusion of the Fury on a set of new instruments exactly reproduced from the originals. It’s not just recordings that are preserving this work; it’s actual public performance in “authentic practice.”

I’m not claiming that these are the only American composers who have beaten the odds in the long game (or will). But their reputations seem to be actually growing with time, even though conventional wisdom earlier on would have predicted just the opposite. They present one possible answer to the question of how music becomes “survivable.” In my final post next week, I’ll explore a few others.

Music After Life: Posthumous Lessons

I left off last week with the image of four teachers—Jonathan Kramer, George Rochberg, Ralph Shapey, and Iannis Xenakis—now all gone. By now it’s more than a decade since they have passed, so there is some time to assess where their art stands in their wake, even though it’s still very early in the eternity game.

Xenakis, Shapey, Kramer and Rochberg

Clockwise from top left: Xenakis, Shapey, Kramer and Rochberg

Of these four, Xenakis’s (who died in 2001) popularity seems to be in the best shape. [Disclosure: I was not a private student, but took his weekly course in Paris over 1980-81, along with about a half-dozen others in a classroom at the Sorbonne, so the impact was close and sustained.] Inevitably, the juggernaut of European cultural momentum was already in motion on his behalf, but there is more. The music’s visionary intersection of architecture and science reaches out to potential listeners who may not usually be interested in “new classical music.” Its fearsome, near-impossible technical demands actually serve as a challenge for a certain sort of “thinking virtuoso” and suddenly don’t look so hard once they’ve been mastered and get out into the air. (Just look at how Rebonds seems to have become a student percussion recital favorite.) The often savage sound and rhythmic drive can feel like punk or industrial rock. And the scores, often generated in stages from abstract, geometrical drawings to final manuscript, appeal to visual artists. (A show at the Drawing Center in New York a couple of years back drove this home.)

Rochberg (who died in 2005) is an interesting case. On the one hand his music is the true opening salvo in the American “postmodern revolution” which started in the late 1960s, but he also never liked the term or the identification. He was far too passionate and straightforward in his usage of older styles and materials to embrace the irony that was a hallmark of the aesthetic. Even today, many of the shifts and references in his work can be unsettling in how obviously they deny any sense of what we call “originality.” But that very discomfiture also drives interest. Though scattered, I continue to see recordings and performances, suggesting at least a continuing simmer of interest, enough to preface a boil at some point.

Kramer was known even more as a theorist than composer, though I always felt the power of his ideas led his music into very original byways. For those who don’t know his book The Time of Music, I can only say, “Find it.” Inexplicably out of print but at least in many libraries, it’s a visionary exploration of a vast array of approaches to the articulation of music in the temporal medium. It’s the first text that shows the water we fish swim in. I’m editing a posthumous text of his—he died in 2004—Postmodern Music, Postmodern Listening, that once again dares to explore an intimidatingly wide range of aesthetics and approaches to musical thought in the wake of modernism’s fading prominence as a flagship practice. But at this point, there’s not much buzz about his work as a composer, though perhaps renewed interest in the books will in turn lead to similar exploration of his music, to which I think his thought is symbiotically tied.

I guess it’s Shapey (who died in 2004) that has me the most concerned. When I studied with him in the late ’70s/early ’80s, he was on a roll. An unbuttoned, profane man who never self-censored, he’d just ended a boycott of the performance of his own music (out of disgust with the field), and soon thereafter won a MacArthur, was performed worldwide, and even had the dubious distinction of being denied the Pulitzer by the general committee after the musical one had recommended him. Having spent decades in Chicago after a sort of “exile” from his beloved New York, he was in his own way a quintessential “maverick.” The music was unashamedly romantic and transcendental, and took cues from composers such as Ruggles, Schoenberg, and Varèse (maybe most of all).

And yet now I see very few performances and similarly few recordings. Of brilliant younger performers taking up his cause, the only one I’m aware of is Miranda Cuckson. Maybe more disturbing is the fact that almost no younger composers I encounter know of him, and certainly don’t know the work. I knew of Ralph’s passionate desire to make art that had a timeless quality and of his longing to enter the repertoire. So that deep yearning and total commitment seems even more painful, at least at this moment, in the face of what feels like a new exile, this time from a continued life for his music. At this moment he stands as an example of how quickly winds of taste and fashion can shift, and often mysteriously. (I suppose that one small side effect of these posts might be to have some of you take another look at Ralph’s work.)

But that isn’t the primary or ultimate topic here. From both my personal standpoint, and the slightly enlarged framework of the composers I knew as teachers, I’ve started to limn the issues involved in music’s continuance after its initial appearance. I think there are three big questions here (yes, among a million others):

  • Who seems to be doing well, in the musical afterlife?
  • What are the reasons for this (at least momentary) survival?
  • What lessons can we glean from this—not only for our own music’s possible durability, but also for an approach to the issue that keeps us sane?

I’m going to try to give some answers in the remaining two weeks, risky as it is.

Throughout my childhood and college I trained as a historian, something a bit out of the ordinary for a composer. And that encourages me to take the long view. Of course, all of this is quite fragile in the face of the inscrutable and mutable factors of “aesthetic evolution.” (I often tell my students, “You know the nature films with the lion and the bunny. You are the bunny.” And I swear I didn’t know that song from Urinetown when I first said it.)

Music After Life: Searching for Survival

passing years

This series of posts will deal with something we all think about, but that I think we’re also very wary of voicing aloud: the fate of our work after we’ve left the stage. This need not be a morose conversation. I want to be as positive as possible—indeed, maybe to even leave a few hints that may be helpful to all of us for making our music “survivable.” And I’ll be looking forward to comments and anecdotes from everyone out there, though I would suggest that you hold off on any quick judgment until all four of these posts have been published. It’s going to be a journey for me as well; even I don’t exactly know how it will turn out and what conclusions we will land on. (I suspect there will be some surprises along the way.) But do chime in. I’m working it out myself.

Where is this coming from? Of course, like any rumination on big ideas, it has personal roots and (unlike some) I’ll fess up. I’ve turned 60, and that’s a really good landmark to force some critical self-evaluation. I won’t go into too much personal detail because frankly it will be boring to most of you, especially if you’re a few decades younger. Suffice it to say that at a certain age, even for those in good health, one starts to look at a balance sheet. It’s impossible at this point to fool yourself that you have more time than less in relation to your lifespan. There are 20, maybe 30 years left, and how many of them are really productive? Considering the course of aging, for a composer, what’s the equation? For many of us, it takes quite a while to figure things out, to understand aesthetically and conceptually what really matters, and technically to amass the skillset necessary to bring that vision into play. But just when the stage is set for a comprehensive statement—BANG! Decline sets in. (Or at least the potential for it. Those of us who are Boomers have watched our parents’ lives with a deep scrutiny for what clues they give to the oncoming course of our own.) It seems totally unfair, but then that is life. Add to that the emergence of successive generations, each naturally eager to assert its primacy and relevance, and the constant round of self-promotional announcements we all broadcast of commissions/performances/prizes/appointments via every possible media platform. If one looks at it all too closely in relation to one’s own position in this aesthetic universe, it’s very easy to see the gates of madness not far down the road.

And sorry, just to push the envelope a little further: if you listen to a lot of music as I do (both professionally and for the sheer pleasure of it), you can’t help but notice that the overwhelming majority of pieces, no matter how momentarily stimulating or exciting, stand a miserable chance of long-term survival. Thousands and thousands of pieces are composed every day, each one beloved by her/his creator, yet all but a statistical sliver are doomed at birth to oblivion. It does give one pause.

So pull back for a moment, beyond what might seem like the self-pityingly personal. There’s another “motivator” here to my examination of the life of the work after the creator dies: just as I have lost my parents in the last five years, so too have I lost all my primary teachers. These aren’t everyone I studied with, but four stand out as the most consistently important: Jonathan Kramer, who had the insight to treat me seriously at the very beginning when I probably shouldn’t have deserved it; George Rochberg, who gave me a “moral education” in all things aesthetic; Ralph Shapey, who probably was the only one to teach me some real concrete technique; and Iannis Xenakis, who blew my mind with his thinking and reconception of musical form.

I’m in a permanent relationship with a visual artist, and she is often amused by the way we composers obsess over lineage. But there is a very intimate and special relationship that exists between the teacher and student of composition, one that has been in place for about a millennium now—a kind of apprenticeship where two people, alone together in a room, share secrets of the craft, discuss the nature and worth of the work, and come to some conclusions about how to proceed. It’s astonishingly simple and has been effective over the centuries for transmitting the knowledge that leads to art of some sophistication. (It is not essential for great art to blossom out of a supportive teacher’s influence—think of counterexamples that come from conflict: of Beethoven with Haydn, Berlioz with Reicha, Ives with Parker, Cage with Schoenberg, even La Monte Young with Seymour Shifrin.) Indeed, now and then the art comes precisely because of the opposition of student to teacher. But something happens in that room, things get pushed, unlocked…

So that intimacy of the teaching relationship gives me an extra impetus to examine the posterity issue. I’m going to leave it there for the moment. Next week my ghost-mentors get some postmortem evaluation (sympathetic and certainly not definitive); maybe that can become a key to start to unlock the issue of how each of us does (or does not) survive the test of time.

Robert Carl

Robert Carl heads the composition program at the Hartt School, University of Hartford. You can check out his music (scores, soundfiles, CDs, and video) on his website. He’s also the author of Terry Riley’s In C (Oxford University Press).