Tag: music history

Waking Up From The Dream Job

A three-dimensional rendering of a tesseract.

This is one of the most difficult things I have ever had to write in my life. After nearly a quarter century of continuous work (more than half my adult life) as the Editor of NewMusicBox and also eventually as Composer Advocate for what was originally the American Music Center and which in 2011 became New Music USA, I am resigning from my full time work here to devote more of my energies to being an educator. I have accepted a full time faculty position as Assistant Professor of Musicology at The New School’s College of Performing Arts (which includes The Mannes School of Music).

Back in the 1990s, I was one of the myriad aspiring composers in New York City (where I grew up) and, after getting a Master’s Degree in Ethnomusicology at Columbia University (which I did after teaching English as a Second Language in NYC public high schools for several years, my first job after my undergrad studies at Columbia), I balanced my compositional activities with a four-day-a-week day job at a music publicity office in order to pay bills. The roster of clients there included Meet The Composer (whose founding director John Duffy became something of a mentor to me and who at one point gave me his entire LP collection) and the Finnish recording label Ondine (which frequently collaborated with an organization called the Finnish Music Information Centre, which is how I learned about the International Association of Music Centres [IAMIC], before I even knew there was an American Music Center, even though it was then just four blocks away from where I had been living for most of my life). But the American Music Center (AMC) would soon become the most important place in the world for me.

While working for that PR firm, I had written a handful of articles for various publications and created repertoire lists of contemporary music that I distributed to programmers at NPR-affiliated radio stations, a personal project for which I was not paid but for which I was written up in Billboard magazine at one point. As a result of some AMC board members knowing about me through some of these activities and the more official ones that were part of my “day job,” I got on the radar of Richard Kessler, a visionary who had been recently appointed AMC’s Executive Director and who wanted to completely transform the organization from a passive library to an active advocate for new music in the United States. Central to his vision was for AMC to host a newly created web magazine exclusively for American new music and he wanted to bring on someone to come up with a format for this thing and to then serve as its “Editor and Publisher.”

I met with him even though I had absolutely no experience in publishing, had only written that handful of articles, and did not know all that much about this relatively new thing called the internet other than using AOL and surfing UserNet comments about contemporary music. (It was the ’90s afterall.) But it must have been clear how passionate I was about contemporary music and how willing I was to always defend it and evangelize for it. He ultimately offered me–and I unhesitatingly accepted–a full-time job (5 days a week, often much more than that) at a lower salary, put my own music on the back burner to some extent, and began work at the American Music Center on November 16, 1998. For most of the last nearly 25 years, I considered it a dream job–a vital role in the ecosystem of contemporary music in the U.S.A. and something that could raise the profiles of all the extraordinary people involved in making this music in all its wild varieties, which was far more important to me than focusing just on my own music.

I believed strongly, and still do, that practitioners should be the people who speak and write about this music since they have the most intimate knowledge of it, the greatest passion for it, and need their own outlet to disseminate information about it. I also believe that the strength and significance of NewMusicBox in our field is because by design it is a collaborative project and, for most of the time I have served as its titular Editor, I was thankfully mostly not alone in my endeavors, always working non-hierarchically with others who frequently had more strength than I did proofreading, juggling various pieces of content to always maintain a balance, keeping us on track with deadlines, and on and on. This first quarter century of NewMusicBox would never have been possible without the efforts of Nathan Michel, Jennifer Undercofler, Molly Sheridan, Amanda MacBlane, the late Randy Nordschow, Trevor Hunter, and Alexandra Gardner who were as devoted to NewMusicBox while they were part of it as I have remained all these years. There were also a great many interns, some of whom I have still stayed in touch with and not all of whom I can remember (for which I apologize). But I want to at least give a shout out to Sam Birmaher, Anna Reguero, Aurelian Balan, Jonathan Murphy, and Daniel Kushner for the high level of work they did while involved with NewMusicBox as well as to Johanna Keller, founder of the Goldring Arts Journalism program, the first master’s program of its kind to teach journalists to cover the arts, who sent interns our way every summer until she retired. I almost forgot to mention some of the web design artisans I realize in retrospect that I frequently frustrated with my often not very practical ideas, among them Stacie Johnston, Lisa Taliano, and Eugene Takahashi who once during a phone call with me at 2 A.M. claimed that he would have to invent a four-dimensional internet to do some crazy thing I’d asked him to do. NewMusicBox has been at its most effective when a small team of people worked on it together, brainstorming (and sometimes even passionately arguing about) who and what to feature and why, as well as getting in the weeds and carefully copyediting and coding every word, photo, audio, or video file that was then disseminated to the general public.

And it’s been quite a ride as anyone who has ever ventured into our quadranscentennial content stream would hopefully agree. I’ve been proud of so much of what we’ve published from artist/writers based all over the country and am grateful to everyone who has ever written for us. I’m also glad that all this material is still available for people to read online now and hopefully in perpetuity. And I hope that this content will continue to be constantly refreshed with new content curated by future NewMusicBox editors who will also always insist on pushing the envelop. Of course, since they’ve been a hallmark of NewMusicBox since its inception and I have been intimately involved with most of them, I’m proudest of our in-depth conversations with significant members of our community which were originally called “In The First Person,” subsequently rebranded as “NewMusicBox Covers,” and which have continued to this day, now as SoundLives podcasts. I treasure every one of them and hope that others will continue to do so as well. What many people may not realize is that the back stories of these one-of-a-kind encounters were sometimes as intense as the edited talks we published. I’ll never forget Randy and I showing up at Ornette Coleman’s Midtown loft, entering his unlocked apartment, and waiting for him to appear there nearly half an hour later, but then immediately plunging into a heady conversation about sound being a way to express emotions more than being a vibration. Or Glenn Branca refusing to put out his cigarette directly underneath a no smoking sign, despite Alex’s and my own visible discomfort in the rehearsal studio where we were recording which had no ventilation. (He had refused to let us come to his home.) Or Maryanne Amacher wanting to take a sample of my blood and mix it with hers for an audio project. (You can’t make this stuff up.) Or, to give a more recent example, Pamela Z describing putting a trunk full of bones through airport security (it was a prop for a performance) and my worrying the whole time that the internet was going to suddenly drop during our Zoom before the punchline (since it’s frequently spotty in my neighborhood and kept going in and out that day); thankfully it didn’t!

However, last year when I was asked to develop my own curriculum for an undergraduate contemporary music history class I would then teach at The New School as an adjunct and told that I could and should cover all genres of music, it was an offer–like the offer to create a web magazine for contemporary American music and then be responsible for maintaining it–I couldn’t refuse. As luck would have it, I was asked if I’d be interested in teaching that class by someone who had already changed the course of my life once and was inadvertently about to do so again, Richard Kessler, who is now the Executive Dean of The New School’s College of Performing Arts and the Dean of the Mannes School of Music. We had had some contact with each other over the many years since he left AMC, but I truly had only a glimmer of awareness about the range of activities going on there. I was wowed by a 2017 performance of Robert Ashley’s Dust by Mannes students just three years after Ashley died. The following year’s Mannes Orchestra world premiere of Julius Eastman’s only recently rediscovered second symphony in Alice Tully Hall was a watershed event. I’d hear from time to time that someone significant in our community was teaching a class there which made me more curious. After doing some deeper digging I realized that many of my personal musical heroes from the past also had ties to either Mannes or The New School, or both, either as faculty or students, or both–e.g. Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger, Henry Cowell, Johanna Magdalena Beyer, John Cage, Bohuslav Martinů, and salsa pioneer Larry Harlow (who got an M.A. in philosophy there!), to name just a few of the music folks. Needless to say I wanted to be a part of it too somehow, though it was incredibly humbling, so I again said yes.

Thus far I’ve taught three sections of that music history class and last semester I was additionally assigned a graduate seminar on minimalism and postminimalism which I also developed from scratch, talk about deep dives. It’s been hard work, though it has been completely worth it because I feel I’ve had a really huge impact on many students and the students I’ve taught there thus far have been a constant source of inspiration to me as well. But leading such a double life was ultimately not sustainable. So when I learned from an email message sent to all the part-time faculty at The New School that there were nine full time faculty positions that were open, I interviewed for a position (something I hadn’t done in 25 years!) with representatives from all the divisions in the College of Performing Arts. I learned earlier this month that they hired me. Having a full-time faculty position will hopefully give me even more opportunities to develop curricula for which my goal, just like at NewMusicBox, is for it to always be as broad as possible.

But that doesn’t mean I’m retiring from the contemporary music scene. Far from it. I still plan to be heavily involved both in the United States and abroad, wearing nearly as many different kinds of hats in it as I always have (even though I will always refuse to wear corporeal hats). I will still serve as Vice President of the International Society of Contemporary Music (ISCM) and, in late November, will be attending the ISCM’s first-ever World New Music Days festival on the African continent, which has been in the works for several years. And in late December, I will be at The Midwest Clinic International Band, Orchestra, and Music Conference in Chicago and then at the Chamber Music America conference in New York City in January, as per always, and will also attend as many new music concerts as time allows wherever I am. I plan to explore other avenues for writing about music whenever and wherever as well. And I also plan to write some more of my own music, something I managed to do a fair bit of again during the worst phase of the pandemic, but which, because of all the other stuff I’ve been doing, has become harder to find time for during our current seemingly (let’s hope) post-pandemic era.

I gave this essay the title “Waking Up From a Dream Job” which might be interpreted by some as tragic or, at the very least, terribly melodramatic. That is not my intent. Partly I just love a catchy title, and so I couldn’t resist coming up with one (that I hope is) for one last time on this site. (Actually there are few other pieces of content by other writers I’m editing that are still in process, so it’s not exactly the last time; stay tuned for those.) Admittedly it does feel like waking up after an extremely long and amazing dream. But even though I rarely get a full night’s sleep and don’t plan to anytime soon, I still have many other dreams to dream and hope to continue to dream along with others about this crazy thing that for a lack of a better term we still and will probably always call new music. May it never be boxed in.

Oteri holding a three-dimensional simulacrum of a tesseract.

Oteri is still mesmerized by the tesseract which was the original logo of NewMusicBox. (Photo by Trudy Chan.)

A Composition Competition and the Quest for Standard Repertoire

A few years back I entered a pipe organ composition competition. I have a brother who’s an organist and have written a bit for the instrument, so I’ve seen enough to know that the organ world is a world unto itself, with its own idiosyncratic concerns and ideals. So I was particularly struck by the fact that the competition required an accompanying essay asking the composer to explain how the proposed piece would consist of an “important addition to the repertoire.” I had to wonder whether this question had produced the desired results in the past—or whether, indeed, it would do so in the present, no matter who won the commission!

In fact, the more I pondered the question, the more I felt like it got to core issues regarding what music was about. Is music meant to be ephemeral or enduring? And indeed, are those two goals consonant with one another, or at odds? For those who take as their mentors, our sources of inspiration, and our measures of quality long-dead Germans like Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven, perhaps the ultimate goal would be to write, like they did, something of value that transcends our era. But can one write a piece with the goal that it become “an important part of the repertoire”?

The overwhelming majority of music that’s being created today is, of course, being made with an entirely different goal in mind—to create a hit, catching fire with the broadest possible listening public in the moment, with no concern or regard for any kind of historical endurance.

On the other side of the continuum, though, is concert music, written for a very small, elite audience, a subset of an already-small classical music listening public. I have a feeling that every composer of concert music harbors a secret desire that their work have a life beyond its original premiere, that it be labored over, loved, interrogated, and admired by future generations. And yet most enduring works are very grounded in the specific circumstances of their origins (very few have been born from composition competitions!), and if the phenomenon of 21st-century concert music is going to be regarded at all from the rearview mirror, it too is almost surely to be seen through the lens of the peculiar circumstances from which it came into being.

Be that as it may, there is surely some kind of a continuum between the impulse to write a work that will be effective for a specific occasion and the impulse to write something that will stand the test of time. There probably are composers who only swing for the fences, who write for history exclusively, but most of us fall somewhere in the middle.

I often write for jazz musicians, and in jazz one writes for a specific player or set of players, for their unique personalities or voices. When I perform myself, the music is that much more localized, as I strive for a kind of unique sound in my playing that’s not intended to be replicated. So in that sense the music is not necessarily intended to have a life beyond the musicians for which it is written.

But when I write for a strictly classical instrumentation, I confess that I do somewhat indulge my more grandiose tendencies. After all, if you’re writing for string quartet or orchestra, you’re writing for a medium whose core repertoire is more than a century old. You’re automatically entering into a dialogue with the past, and have enduring works as models. So it’s natural to give some thought as to what it might take for your piece to become something that speaks to a broad variety of musicians and music lovers over a span of cultures, places, and even epochs.

Organ Console Remnants. Photo by Brownpau (www.flickr.com/photos/brownpau/)

Organ Console Remnants. Photo by Brownpau (www.flickr.com/photos/brownpau/)

That Elusive New Piece of Organ Repertoire

The desire to write a piece that would enter the organ repertoire is particularly apposite since, despite the tireless efforts of musicians such as Carson Cooman who proselytize for contemporary organ music—and notwithstanding noteworthy contributions by eminent composers of the last 50 years as diverse as Philip Glass, David Lang, Milton Babbitt, and Györgi Ligeti—contemporary works simply do not figure prominently in the organ repertoire.

It may seem difficult to define precisely what the standard organ repertoire does consist of, but I think a survey of organists would yield a broad consensus around a group of works all of which have existed for at least a hundred years. As varied as the pieces in that group may be, they tend not to avail themselves of any particular extra-musical theme, program, or “concept,” but rather are pieces that succeed as pure music.

What features would a piece that could make its way into the organ repertoire have? Again, perhaps a difficult question to answer definitively, but one can arrive at some at least preliminary answers, some necessary if not sufficient conditions for a piece to have a chance for lasting success.

For a piece that is at the center of the organ repertoire, in terms of its ubiquity, I cannot think of a better example than the Widor Toccata (originally composed as the finale of Charles-Marie Widor’s 1879 Symphony for Organ No. 5 in F minor, Op. 42, No. 1). The piece may not possess the depth of the organ music of Bach, Brahms, or others, but it has acquired a permanent place in weddings and other services as the quintessential recessional and is frequently heard in concert programs as well.

A series of Organ Levers. Photo by Rex Roof (www.flickr.com/photos/rexroof/)

Organ Levers. Photo by Rex Roof (www.flickr.com/photos/rexroof/)

Based on a close look at the Widor, as well as a reflection on many other pieces that are widely performed, I have identified seven necessary conditions for a work to enter the standard organ repertoire.

1. Style and Stylishness. Works in the repertoire traverse a broad swath of styles; a piece apparently doesn’t have to be written in any particular style for membership. On the other hand, inasmuch as style, in the sense of stylishness, is the essence that makes a work stand out, that reaches out and grabs the listener, that commands instant attention, it is of crucial importance. Stylishness bespeaks self-confidence. Canonical works like the Widor, soaked through with neoclassical triumphalism and grandeur, are brimming with stylishness.

2. Substance. As important as stylishness is, a piece has to have substantive ideas, or better, one overriding idea that unites it through multiple transformations—the Schoenbergian grundgestalt—for it to endure. Schoenberg regards the idea, and the working out of the idea, as the highest objective, much more important than style, but I think this is overstated. Nonetheless a unity of thematic, harmonic, and melodic means is essential.

3. Integrity. Pieces that have entered the repertoire tend to have been written with a great seriousness of purpose, a fervent desire.

4. Craft. Exquisite manufacture is essential, from the micro scale of melodic construction and counterpoint to the macro scale of formal structure. There must be a kind of perfection to each event, and a perfect equilibrium in the flow between events. The work needs an inner propulsion that carries the listener forward from start to finish. This can—indeed must!—include surprises and the unexpected, but the “long line” of the piece cannot abate. In addition, it must wisely deploy the forces at its disposal and be effective for its medium. And finally it should be as idiomatic as possible, intelligently written for the instrument; it should be at least somewhat challenging, but never unreasonably so.

5. Simplicity. At the heart of every canonical work there is a simplicity. Strong, simple, iconic ideas abound. The Widor Toccata, with its repetitive keyboard pattern and very simple scalar chorale melody in the pedals, is the essence of simplicity.

6. Complexity. There must also be an element of intricacy that balances the simplicity and that creates intellectual interest. Simplicity has its limits; there needs to be subtlety and sophistication as well. In the Widor Toccata, the complexity inheres in the surprising modulations and asymmetric phrase structures, the form beautifully molded to create a satisfying sense of a musical journey.

7. Contrast. Also important are contrasting ideas that create a kind of intellectual tension. The Widor Toccata has less contrast than many pieces, but still there is dynamic contrast and certainly plenty of tonal contrast—causing the listener to wait with bated breath for the final return of the F Major.

Organ Pipes-photo by stevesnodgrass (www.flickr.com/photos/stevensnodgrass/)

Organ Pipes-photo by stevesnodgrass (www.flickr.com/photos/stevensnodgrass/)


I’ve outlined seven attributes that are prerequisite for a work to enter the standard organ repertoire. Looking at the issue through the lens of the organ, and the Widor Toccata in particular, gives focus to a topic that’s already potentially too broad to be meaningful. If you look at standard repertoire in classical music generally the variety is unmanageably immense—it’s hard to talk about the attributes of the Widor and, say, Wagner’s Ring Cycle in the same breath. Then again, the very fact that both of these works are still widely performed more than a century after they were written argues that things like scale and instrumentation are completely irrelevant to the discussion.

But, in attempting to dissect elements of works of the standard repertoire, I’ve ignored a factor that is less reducible, yet has perhaps more weight than the rest of these factors combined. It’s the idea of inevitability or need, a difficult-to-articulate but much-discussed sense that a piece must exist.

The ancient Greeks had a term for this—Ananke, a goddess who personified the need, the compulsion that leads to existence. Beethoven, that quintessential manufacturer of standard repertoire, had his own expression: Es muss sein.

Whatever you call it, this sense of inevitability may indeed have to do with forces completely beyond the control of the composer. How does one come to be a composer in the first place? For most of us, the origins that lead to our dedication of a great portion of our lives to an arcane art are shrouded in mystery. We all train, study, and prepare in innumerable ways in the hopes of making a strong, and ultimately a lasting, contribution. But ultimately the confluence of factors that lead to the enduring popularity of a piece like the Widor Toccata—which extend to matters sociological, political, and circumstantial—are beyond any mere mortal’s power to comprehend.

Time Is Flat

Last Friday, my new CD Shores Against Silence was released on the Songlines record Label. I’m very proud of this recording, which features some of the finest musicians working in the jazz field today: pianist Kevin Hays, bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummer Tom Rainey. The music integrates contemporary classical compositional techniques with a fairly traditional jazz approach in a way that’s fresh and novel.

The catch? The music was recorded on June 16, 1992—almost 25 years ago!

That means the music had been created even earlier, because we certainly didn’t just go into the studio and record the day after the music was written. Its gestation took place over the several years preceding, when we rehearsed, developed, and performed it. Which means I wrote the pieces when I was around 21 years old.

The day-to-day life of a young, aspiring musician in 1992 was very different from what it is in 2016. This project was created and executed before the internet age. No one in the band had email or even a cell phone. We communicated with each other largely through good old-fashioned landlines.  Digital recording was in its infancy—Shores was recorded live to two-track DAT tape, if anyone remembers that format.

Even writing an article like this one would’ve involved an entirely different process. I would’ve gone to multiple libraries (at Columbia University in New York, where I still had library privileges), had books and CDs spread out around a desk I’d claim, and probably be scribbling a draft into a notebook that I’d later type out. Now I’m writing at a café in Paris, watching the sun rise over the Seine, all the information I need to draw on conveniently arrayed in Safari tabs that require only screen space.

Looking back at music that I wrote so long ago has provided an occasion to reflect on the changes that have occurred since. How does a composer’s body of work change and develop over their lives? And how have our very responses to this kind of question changed over time?

At earlier points in intellectual history, a teleological response might have seemed self-evident—a composer’s work would increase in complexity and ambition over the course of his or her career.

It feels like the answer itself is in a state of transition. At earlier points in intellectual history, a teleological response might have seemed self-evident—the idea that a composer’s work would increase in complexity and ambition over the course of his or her career; that the work would assume more technical assurance, would integrate its influences and show with increasing clarity the unique voice of its author; and that it would retain some stylistic commonality, based on the composer’s immutable, indivisible identity.

But in the 21st century, in the internet age, can any of these things be taken for granted?

An image of a spiral clock found @ ffffound via cea+(https://www.flickr.com/photos/centralasian/)

found @ ffffound via cea +

Some of the music that’s been in my “playlist” recently (which is to say either on my computer or my piano stand, or a combination of both) dates from 1717 (Lotti’s Crucifixus) to 1749 (Bach’s B minor mass) to 1878 (Dvorak’s A minor Sextet) to 1907 (Schoenberg’s Freide auf Erden) to 1911 and 1915 (Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite) to 1960 (Hank Mobley’s Soul Station) to 2006 (Lisa Bielawa’s Song of the Lay of Love) to 2016 (Dan Coleman’s Third String Quartet).

Perhaps (following the theory that all art is political) these pieces are all rooted in time and place, express something about the events that were happening around them, or even embody the political circumstances of their creation. But I don’t think those circumstances, interesting though they may be, are what bring the modern listener to the pieces. After all, there are many uninteresting works born of perfectly interesting political circumstances. What’s more important is the fact that they are all relevant to contemporary experience. They have something to say in 2016. They have something to tell us now.

One could, of course, call into question the relevance of these particular pieces; it’s true that each given piece may have very little meaning to a given person’s life, musician or otherwise. No artist or work is relevant to EVERYONE, and yet perhaps relevance to ONE person (myself in this case) is insufficient proof of relevance generally. So perhaps any claim to relevance is no more than an unprovable conjecture.

Perhaps any claim to relevance is no more than an unprovable conjecture.

If one did want to be so bold as to seek ways of putting relevance to the test nonetheless, one metric might be number of YouTube views. Though not remotely scientific—after all YouTube viewers represent a very specific cross section of the listening public, the figures alone wouldn’t take into account the relative fame of the performer, nor repeat views, and would moreover be dependent on random, non-comprehensive uploads—they might nonetheless give us a very rough index of the current interest in a given work. A quick search for each piece (taking the video with the highest number of views for each piece) yields the following table:

 PIECE/PERFORMANCE/DATE UPLOADED/VIEWS: Lotti Crucifixus/Cambridge Singers/3.26.10/547,241; Bach B Minor/Proms/3.21.12/2,056,376; Dvorak Sextet/Amici Ensemble/2.15.11/12,039; Friede auf Erden/Accentus/1.2.09/32,652; Valses n et s/Danmarks RO/9.1.10 /72,686; Scythian Suite/Ukrainian SSO/10.13.08/272,433; Soul Station/Mobley/7.22.13/362,501; Song of Lay of Love/Bielawa/Not on YouTube; 3rd Quartet/Coleman/Not on YouTube

(Note, since Song of Lay of Love is not available on YouTube, I chose her most viewed piece Chance Encounter, which was uploaded on 1/15/08 and thus far has had 8,173 views. Dan’s not represented at all on YouTube as far as I can tell, but trust me it’s a cool piece!)

If this table contains several surprises— who would’ve guessed that Soul Station was so frequently YouTubed?—the only thing it might be said to demonstrate conclusively is that far more than one listener considers these pieces still sufficiently relevant to be at least listened to; and that there is no correlation (or, if anything, an inverse one) between the year a piece was written and how broad its current relevance is, at least to YouTube listeners/viewers.


A thought experiment: Let’s take two pieces at random, say Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître and Brahms’s B Major Trio, written more or less a century earlier. Of course these are both old pieces, but one is supposedly contemporary music, and one is much more traditionally romantic, complete with a four-movement form—scherzo, adagio, and so on.

But suppose, in our new internet world, one has connected to the Boulez in one’s teens, but only discovers the Brahms much later, in one’s 30s. It might seem much more unlikely for someone steeped in the oeuvre of Boulez to be ignorant of Brahms or the romantic tradition generally than the converse, until one considers the many Boulez fans that must’ve come to his music through his Frank Zappa collaborations, or the influential Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh’s well-known interest in his music.

Both the Brahms and the Boulez pieces provide revelations, insights, unique ways of looking at music and the world. But in the case of my invented listener, by her 30s the Boulez would have grown familiar, while the discovery of the Brahms would be completely fresh. So which is the piece of new music? For this listener, wouldn’t the Brahms be serving all the functions of what is new—providing new material, adumbrating new paths, suggesting previously unheard, even exotic, ideas?

But if that’s the case, is the idea of “new music” still relevant, still interesting—even still possible?

The idea of newness is completely relativized, and utterly personal, at this moment in cultural history.

It seems to me that the idea of newness is completely relativized, and utterly personal, at this moment in cultural history. With the amount of music flooding onto the internet from all corners of the world, it’s incredibly easy for even the most dedicated fan of music to stumble upon something amazing from the past that they had never heard before, even while being steeped in the music of today.

Jazz educators that I know have confirmed this phenomenon in their students, who may have discovered and absorbed the playing of a current jazz musician without having any idea who his or her precursors were. In this case, the flatness of time is a liability to be remediated, but in any case it’s clear that now more than ever it’s common to have revelations in reverse.

As the physical space required to house knowledge is being reduced asymptotically to zero, then, the moment of impact of a work has ever less to do with when and whether it was written and ever more to do with when it is perceived or appreciated as “new.” Increasingly, rediscovered old pieces stand alongside contemporary creations as providing fresh material for the masterwork-saturated classical music listener (think Venetian opera). This should also be a consolation to composers who feel like they have created something interesting, unique, and significant that may not yet have gained visibility in the current thrum of culture.

A photo of a digital time display with backwards numbers by Kenneth Lu

Reverse Time by Kenneth Lu

The sum of these observations bears heavily on the story of Shores Against Silence.

The music on the CD represents a very intense period in my creative life that was never thoroughly documented, but the development of my music since Shores has hardly gone from simple to complex. My artistic path has inverted that teleological trajectory, which had been the province of composers from Mozart and Beethoven through Schoenberg and Carter. Similarly, my music has in the intervening years arguably gone from more to less “original,” and has definitely abandoned any pretensions to stylistic unity.

In the catalogs of numerous composers working today, pieces don’t necessarily build on each other from one to the next, but rather provide contrast with each other.

Nor would this be particularly interesting if I were an isolated exception, the sole composer to have undergone such an unpredictable stylistic trajectory, but I find it not uncommon among my contemporaries, particularly among composers who came of age at the end of the academic vogue for serialism. I am hardly alone in having simplified my style as I matured. In the catalogs of numerous composers working today, pieces don’t necessarily build on each other from one to the next, but rather provide contrast with each other. Many composers these days pursue careers in contemporary classical music and pop/electronica simultaneously, and no one bats an eyelash.

After all, what matters in art has nothing to do with when and where it was made, or when it comes into the world. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh had it right: Eternity is the depth of a moment. Which is to say, Time is flat! A great piece comes to you when you’re feverish with ideas, when you follow them to their limit, not when you’ve attained x and y technical ability or z maturity. And it comes into the world, if it’s sufficiently worthy, when it will and in good time. Let the quality of afflatus be our sole guide to what is good in what we do, regardless of where or when we do it.

Sounds of Futures’ Past

I am afraid of the future.

Not for myself—I likely only have a few decades left, and there’s only so much that time can bring. But I have a daughter, a little girl, and it’s quite possible she will see the turn of the next century. There is no manifestation of our ongoing, 250-year process of terraforming that I will be able to protect her from, and that terrifies me.

What will she see—that is, if there is anyone left? More than a question of what the Earth will look like, I wonder what will be left of us, what we will leave behind. The Earth will abide; civilization is the open question.

Older, lost civilizations come down to us through objects that have managed to endure and that bear information: writing, images, symbols. Our own printed paper, painted images, and sculptures are also likely to last to some extent. I’m doubtful about the lifespan of these words that I’m writing. You are able to read them because of how fundamentally cheap digital media is, but that same cheapness means they are eminently disposable—they barely even exist. They’re just ordered bits on a storage device that can be erased, destroyed, or that will eventually, simply, de-cohere.

As much as for words, this is the contemporary and burgeoning state of music. Unlike older, lost civilizations that had no means to record and preserve audio, nor a method for notating musical instruction, we have been preserving sound for 150 years, and digital audio has been accumulating like an avalanche at easily the same speed as digital words.

Then there is all the physical media: vinyl, tape, CDs. Of these, tape is the most unstable, vinyl is fairly hardy if handled delicately, and CDs are predicted to last up to, or beyond, 200 years. And there are so many other places to find recorded audio: celluloid film, video game cartridges, Speak and Spell and other toys, the Mellotron.

But these are all based on technology and need a means with which to reproduce the sound, from a cylinder player to a set of AA batteries. As the massive, and especially plastic-based, manufactured detritus of consumer society accumulates, we are likely to leave behind stores, warehouses, veritable foot hills of this stuff. Will there be a means to play recordings, and will anyone be around to hear them? Just as recordings are ghostly hauntings from the past, so too will our sounds haunt the future. But which ones? What will be the sounds of the future’s past?

Not music, but sounds. Through the thousands of years of civilization, we have developed a large-scale, consistent, and constantly developing consensus on the nature of music, and we have made music, with deliberate intention, as a basic element of human society. While all sound recordings are a document of the past, all older music, from Haydn to Hendrix, is a document to some extent, a time capsule into the epochal currents and values that were the context for that melody, that rhythm, that set of chords.

Will music, in that sense, survive, and will it be recognized as such? Between a Bach CD and a bicycle bell found in a pile of garbage by some future scavenger, which is likely to be heard? For that future human, the bell will be the music of the ancients.

Walter M. Miller Jr. thought this through in his extraordinary 1959 novel A Canticle for Leibowitz. His context was different—the apocalyptic threat in the mid-20th century was nuclear war, not environmental catastrophe—but his fundamental question was the same: what of civilization would endure in the aftermath.

His answer was that the Catholic Church would survive in some way, with a new Vatican located somewhere in North America. Within the church, a new monastic order arises, dedicated to Saint Leibowitz. Before the war, the Saint was Isidore Leibowitz, an electrical engineer working in some capacity for the government. After, he was martyred during the Great Simplification, when the survivors destroyed any bit of learning and knowledge, burning books and people alike.

The original cover for Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s novel A Canticle for Leibowitz published in 1960.

The original cover for Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s novel A Canticle for Leibowitz published in 1960.

The Order of St. Leibowitz exists to preserve as much of the past as they can find, via the medieval method of copying by hand—it is the sacred Memorabilia. Everything matters, even if it is incomprehensible:

The monks waited. It mattered not at all to them that the knowledge they saved was useless, that much of it was not really knowledge now, was as inscrutable to the monks in some instances as it would be to an illiterate wild-boy from the hills; this knowledge was empty of content, its subject matter long since gone. Still, such knowledge had a symbolic structure that was peculiar to itself, and at least the symbol-interplay could be observed. To observe the way a knowledge-system is knit together is to learn at least a minimum knowledge-of-knowledge, until someday—someday, or some century—an Integrator would come, and things would be fitted together again. So time mattered not at all. The Memorabilia was there, and it was given to them by duty to preserve, and preserve it they would if the darkness in the world last ten more centuries, or even ten thousand years.

One monk, Brother Francis, finds sacred relics, including a shopping list: “Pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels—bring home for Emma.” One item is a circuit diagram, which he painstakingly copies, then illuminates, as a gift to the current Pope. He has no idea what it means, nor do any of his peers, the shapes nothing but “thingamabobs,” but to Francis it is both beautiful and marvelous and it is to be maintained and carried forward into the future, a fragment of old knowledge that might yet become integrated into a new civilization.

(In the end, civilization does arise again, in great part due to the efforts of the Order. In the conclusion, which is both horrific and poignantly hopeful, the monks continue their mission, just not on this planet.)

These visions of how the past views the post-apocalyptic future have likely been with us since man first imagined what the next day might bring. Their cultural legacy has survived primarily through writing and the visual arts, and in a mis-en-abime of the medium is the message, they focus on what the painter envisions, what stories the writer thinks will be told, and what surrounds us in the present day. And so J.G. Ballard, whose first novels chillingly (and perhaps presciently) predicted civilization’s destruction coming at the hands of wind, drought, melting ice caps, and scientific disaster, saw the gnostic literature of the present and future in billboards and news magazines.

This haunting, wrenching, agonizingly complex concept of a post-apocalyptic cultural legacy has certainly existed in music for thousands of years. Fragments of Medieval music concerned with the End of Days have come down to us, and apocalyptic thought began neither in Europe nor with Christianity. But the context of that music is the Second Coming, a redemptive and transformative event. And with no means to preserve the sounds of what was the present in the 10th century, nor that advantage of a post-Cageian concept of what constitutes music, there was no thought toward what the past might sound like to those who might come after.

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, those thoughts are rapidly, if inchoately, encroaching. There is more to the exponential rise in drone music than just the prevalence of technology, there is a vision floating around in the zeitgeist of a world emptied of people. As Joanna Demers writes in her book Drone and Apocalypse (Zero Books, 2015), “Apocalypse as a cataclysm draws a line between the present and the future, presence and absence. It is an emptiness, a threat or a hope of a revelation … but it is unthinkable insofar as we cannot claim to have already lived it.”

But drone music and field recordings make it easy to think about the apocalypse. There is the music of corrosion and desolation made by William Basinksi, Herbst9, Lost Trail, Patrick Emm, and Howard Stelzer. Beyond the dolorous calm of drones and the strangely comforting sounds of emptiness, the subliminal aura of vast machinery functioning without human supervision, there is in particular cases (especially Basinski) the use of decaying technology and media.

Philosophically and aesthetically, this music is a companion to the final movement of Ralph Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 6, a narrative that contemplates nuclear annihilation and a landscape emptied of humanity. Our specific, contemporary anxieties make that movement, and the long line of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, sound like explorations of entropy.

This music is post-apocalyptic in the sense that it is music for a transformed and empty future. For what a future Brother Francis might hear, and might believe (not incorrectly) that we heard—for just what might appear to the future as the music of the past—listen to Fossil Aerosol Mining Project. Without intending, this long-standing and quasi-anonymous collective is an Order of St. Leibowitz of sound, making audio “symbolic structures” out of literal shards and fragments of civilization.

Fossil Aerosol Mining Project's earliest public release was the 1987 cassette-only Simulated Mutation.

Fossil Aerosol Mining Project’s earliest public release was the 1987 cassette-only Simulated Mutation.

The Project rose during another era with apocalyptic overtones, the Reagan-era ‘80s, the last great hurrah (one hopes) for the idea of nuclear annihilation. Robert, who founded FAMP, describes their start as just a bunch of friends exploring suburban ruins in their home state of Illinois, digging through the debris of abandoned houses, shopping malls, and movie theaters. The stuff they found—objects, images, audio-visual equipment, “fragments of open reel 1/4’ tape and 35mm film recovered from burnt out warehouses and abandoned drive-in theaters”—they assembled into visual art, video, and tape loops. They knit together symbols of the cultural past into scrapbooks of preserved knowledge, without context or critical argument.

Initially short-lived, and with only two limited edition cassettes released in the late 1980s, Robert and various new members have revisited the project through the years. Since 2004, FAMP has been remixing and reissuing old recordings and creating new ones, including re-recording previous recordings via their old found equipment in sites they previously visited, and a new CD, Revisionist History, that celebrates the 30th anniversary of their first cassette and that recontextualizes older recordings with new material. (There is also a 1988 recording of a live performance in the basement studios of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago that streams at Mixcloud.)

What they collected and made at times had a conscious expression of anxieties about the present and possible future—what their official history describes as “inadvertent examples of the post-industrial, post-apocalyptic landscapes so commonly imagined in Cold War-era media. Places and desires that fostered views of modern pop mummified, and contemporary provisions made artifact. Zombie pepsis (sic) and fossil aerosols.” There are recognizable fragments, deliberately placed in some of the recordings, of audio from George Romero’s seminal zombie movie Dawn of the Dead.

Listening to their recordings is immersive, haunting, troubling—a mix of beauty, fear, and hope. There are the gauzy, warm drones, the reliable and grounding loop points, but there are also the voices.

Yes, the voices. There is the report that “Communications with Detroit have been knocked out, along with Atlanta” from Day of the Dead. There is the spoken introduction to the TV series In Search Of (“This series presents information based in part on theory and conjecture …”). There are culturally familiar but unidentifiable fragments of news reports and televangelists and half-remembered movies. And then there are moments where you hear a phone ring, someone picks it up, and a man asks, “Yeah, can I listen to tape 60?” Is that an accidental archival recording from a business or a training center?

All the voices are revivified through the recordings, and the ones like the last strike deep. There is something assuringly unreal about hearing film and TV dialogue—spoken as a performance, it comes from characters who are fundamentally features of the imagination. But the men on the phone were real, and sound real. What happened to them? Are they still alive?

From their past, they speak to us. Through the sound of corrosion and decay, they speak to us. This is upsetting, because we are their future; preserved and reproduced by FAMP, they need a reintegration with broader knowledge to be understood, and we don’t have the tools, only these fragments. Like ghosts, they haunt us but we can’t understand them. (And with mass-surveillance, mass-dissemination via social media, and mass digitization, will any of our voices, accidentally archived, haunt the future?)

These are transmissions, speaking to us from the past, in what might be the mundane routines of personal and professional life. Much of what you hear on FAMP recordings was never music, but in an audio collage, it takes on the inherent qualities of music: timbre, pitch, rhythm, a developing structure through time.

This is listening in the post-apocalypse. This is a music of the future, heard in the present, and because it is made with real materials, it is as frightening as the terrifying messages from the future sent to warn the characters in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness. FAMP’s recordings are broadcasts from the interior planet of cultural memory, excavations of the bunker, the sacred shopping list and circuit diagram as music. They force us to contemplate the future and the end of civilization.

Human music will survive, but who will hear it? Like emissaries from the Order of Leibowitz, the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft each carry a “Golden Record,” an aluminum-jacketed, gold-plated copper disc analog recording (thoughtfully packaged with a cartridge and needle). The Golden Records contain greetings in fifty-five languages, recordings of space, human, industrial, environmental, and animal sounds, and ninety-minutes of actual music: including Bach, Mozart, Stravinsky, Beethoven, Pygmy and Aboriginal songs, Azerbaijani music, a honkyoku piece from Japan, Louis Armstrong, Chuck Berry, and Blind Willie Johnson singing “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.” If there are any creatures in the depths of the universe who can discern this essential human activity known as music, perhaps they will hear that as a fitting epitaph to the human race. But is also quite possible they will think our world sounded like Beethoven, and that the sound of factories is our music. Like the fallout shelter signs at my daughter’s elementary school (a drill I—and Robert—went through for years but that she will never experience), the inherent meaning and purpose of the materials won’t survive.

The hopeful part of the sounds of futures’ past is that while there may only be fragments of our shattered civilization 100 years from now, Fossil Aerosol Mining Project know that there will be sounds, “songs of enhanced decay and faked resurrection,” and trusts there will be someone there to listen to them.

The cover of FOMP's album The Day 1982 Contaminated 1971

One of the FOMP’s most provocatively titled recordings is The Day 1982 Contaminated 1971 which was released in 2015.

George Grella is a composer, critic, and independent scholar. He is the music editor of the Brooklyn Rail, a freelance critic for the New York Classical Review, and the author of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew.

It’s Music Because I Can Hear It: 1960s Experimental Music Festivals

Photo of an upright piano burning

Photo by Caitlin Schmid

In the spring of my senior year of college, I burned a piano. Before you give in to the rising outrage—it was more than some college prank: I organized a performance of Annea Lockwood’s 1968 Piano Burning with the composer on hand to lead a pre-concert discussion. I found a “dead piano” as the score required—an upright that had been relegated to the laundry room of a dorm for years, a piano well beyond the concept of repair. I contacted the fire department for a permit; I advertised on posters around campus. I watched as it went up in flames. Hundreds of people crowded around the space we had cleared in the middle of the quad, talking, laughing; a few brave students were allowed early on to plunk out Beethoven and Joplin; I remember the sound of the balloons taped to the lid popping in the heat, the twang of strings breaking under pressure, the whoosh as the instrument was finally engulfed. “This is way cooler than I thought it would be,” a jock-type admitted. Just like that, I was hooked: this music made people think, this music provoked discussions, this music was gutsy and political and sometimes it even required us to reconsider our definition of music.

I went to graduate school to study the sounds of burning pianos and squeaky rubber dolls and trash can lids, scores that instruct the performer to “draw a straight line and follow it,” and realizations of that score involving hair dipped in ink and dragged across pure white paper. The experimental music of the 1960s was (is), to some, ridiculous (and maybe that’s part of its power); to others, it proclaims freedom from genre, border, and label. But the thing that draws me in the most? It was meant to be experienced—sometimes conceptually, sometimes interactively, never by just some small community of musicians, but always by everyone. To achieve this, our intrepid experimental heroes turned to the festival medium.

There’s something special about festivals. All of the musicians, composers and organizers coming together to say: “General public, this is what we are about.” And the audience members responding: “We hear what you’re doing, we’re trying to understand it, and we like it or we don’t.” A festival isn’t something that can just happen on a whim; even the lowest maintenance variety needs personnel, materials, space, some modicum of promotion; a festival is a concentrated effort to self-define and proclaim a particular set of artistic values. For experimental music—meant to be experienced by everyone, remember—festivals were part of the territory, and that was true in East Coast New York (of course) but also in West Coast San Francisco and Midwest Ann Arbor, and across the ocean to France, Germany, the Netherlands, and England. Wherever this extended family of musicians and composers went, they made themselves and their work known.

Here is this week’s example. Charlotte Moorman (famously known as The Topless Cellist) organized what eventually became known as the First Annual New York Avant Garde Festival in 1963. “We wanted for all these new people to see what we’re doing: it’s silly for us to play for all our friends, you know,” she told Harvey Matusow in an interview several years later. What were they doing? That first festival was a series of six concerts spread out over the course of a little more than two weeks, held at the venerable Judson Hall. The first concert was Frederic Rzewski’s American piano debut featuring music by Sylvano Busotti, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Giuseppe Chiari. The next concert was a Toshi Ichiyanagi and John Cage double bill (apparently Cage’s Variations III, which involved amplifying the sound of drinking a glass of water, caused several patrons to complain of earaches). There was a chamber concert, an electronic music concert, a Moorman-Tudor concert, and an ensemble concert. Imagine Moorman’s pride as she looked over this extensive and varied program on opening night—the “friends” had made this happen.

reproduction of flyer listing concert programs including works by Cage, Feldman, Brown, Woolf, Young, Corner, La Monte Young, Ornette Coleman, Toshi Ishinayagi, George Brecht and Dieter Schnebel plus all the composers' signatures

A flyer from the first New York Avant Garde Festival in 1963.

The “new people,” on the other hand, were—shall we say—less enthusiastic. Witness that very first concert in 1963. John Gruen of The New York Herald Tribune titled his review “Far Out Concert, Stupefying Boredom” and signed off with “avant-garde piano music is decidedly something to watch—it might even get worse.” He wasn’t alone in his evaluation: Harold Schonberg of the The New York Times left us with this gem: “An evaluation of the work [Chiari’s Teatrino]? Don’t be silly, man.”

The first three years of the festival were held in a concert hall and featured the musical works of all sorts of known composers including Cage, Morton Feldman, and Edgard Varèse. Looking back, we might say it was a fairly traditional concert-going experience, and yet… Year two, October 1964: Carl P. Sigmon’s “Festival of the Avant Garde” for Musical America: “Time and again the potential fun quickly turned to tedium….One could only wonder why the youthful audiences cheered loudly….” Year Three, September 1965: Leighton Kerner reviewing a night of action music by Nam June Paik for the The Village Voice: “Take, for example, the opening night which aged some of us considerably.” So bitter, so soon. Little did the critics know what they were in for.

Logo with the words "annual avant garde festival of new york" in white on black in which each word is separated with address (47 W 46th Street NYC) underneath

The letterhead that was used for the New York Avant Garde Festival

By year four, Moorman had radically redesigned the format of this music festival. Held over 18 hours in Central Park, the works of 77 artists from 14 countries were performed simultaneously. Picture this: Ed Summerlin and Don Heckman improvising a saxophone duet early in the morning across the Children’s Pond; Joe Jones riding his Musical Bike; Jim McWilliams staging his Picnic (in which the point was to eat as many hot dogs as possible, even if that meant regurgitating what you had already eaten); Moorman herself realizing Nam June Paik’s Zen Smiles by passing out five thousand pennies and five thousand smiles, one of each to each audience member; Dick Higgins, sitting in a lawn-chair, dressed in a striped tunic, allowing his wife to apply shaving cream to his bald pate in a performance of Danger Music No. 2. This is all faithfully reported in Dan Sullivan and Richard F. Shepard’s September 10, 1966 New York Times article “The Avant-Garde Day in Park Goes On and On.” The reporters ask at one point if it is really music. “‘It’s music,’ Mr. Higgins said, ‘because I can hear it. To the audience, of course, it’s theater.’” Shepard and Sullivan don’t argue; in fact, they give up opinion entirely in favor of description, laced with a healthy dose of skepticism. “[There were] no cogent answers from anyone,” they say at one point. Then there’s my personal favorite subheading of all time, “Clapping Hands – to Ears.” And finally, the last word of the piece: “Nothing was settled.”

After all was said and done, the New York Avant Garde Festival ran almost-consecutively for fifteen years from 1963 to 1980 (excluding three years when Moorman was too sick to organize it). At its peak, it featured the works of more than 650 artists and attracted audiences of a hundred thousand-plus at a time in locations including the John F. Kennedy Staten Island Ferryboat (1967, “Music: Lost at Sea” read one headline in the The Village Voice), the 67th Regiment Armory (1971), and even the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts (1980). As composers, as performers, as audience members, as passersby, Charlotte Moorman made sure everyone had the opportunity to experience experimental music.

So there it is, a history of the early days of the New York Avant Garde Festival, a bit of proof that festivals and experimental music go together like ramalamalama. In a nutshell, this was crazy music—was it even music?—with festivals that kept getting bigger, and the tastemakers (represented by the newspaper critics) thought it was outré and boring. Done and done. But there is a catch: what I’ve presented to you today as “the New York Avant Garde Festival”—a description of events, documented opinions, all incontrovertible fact—is only what I’ve found in advance press and reviews. It’s not the whole story by any means.

We can never have every detail of any given event; my version differs from yours, and what he saw from the corner won’t be quite the same as what she experienced from stage-center. Plus, memories are faulty and colored by attitude and context. We can’t really blame the critics for their generally less-than-enthused reviews because, let’s face it, these guys (and they were mostly guys) worked for major newspapers in the capacity of music critics. They usually spent their nights seated in a hall on red plush velvet, listening to Bach and Beethoven and writing about whether or not a particular performance did justice to the composer’s vision, not about whether or not a particular performance might be considered music. Regardless of whether these experimental music festivals were objectively “good” or “bad,” critics had a stake in the musical canon (which the New York Avant Garde Festival most certainly was not a part of) and it comes across in their reviews.

History is written by those who write; the critics were writers. What we sometimes forget in our pursuit of facts immortalized in print, waiting for us to scoop up and rewrite into our articles and books, is that history is made by all sorts of people—from the creative composers to the friends of friends who lend their amps in a last minute Situation. What is written isn’t the only version of history, and the critics weren’t the only people at those festivals. There were organizers, there were performers, there were composers—all, one would have to imagine, more committed to the idea of experimental festivals than the critics. And there were audience members—sometimes willing, sometimes just in the right place at the right time (or the wrong place at the wrong time, no judgment).

And so here we are fifty years later, and I have limited options to recover history: I can head to the archives (if there are archives), I can talk to the participants (if I can find them—hello out there?), or I can turn to the microfilms and the internet and pull up the newspaper reviews and the advance press—the easily accessed, written records of these historical events. That last is exactly what I did for you today. It’s not a bad thing (it’s often all we have to go on), but you deserve more and in the next few weeks I’ll give you first-hand accounts from a variety of festival participants. It’s the only way we can even begin to see the whole picture. After all, if I hadn’t told you at the beginning of this article about Piano Burning in my own words from my own experience, all you might have had to go on was this, from the comments section of a review on a local blog: “MHMMMM just wondering if part of our added sales tax for ‘the arts’ paid for this?????”


Caitlin Schmid, wearing glasses, sitting in front of a bookcase filled with books

Caitlin Schmid

Caitlin Schmid is a graduate student in Historical Musicology at Harvard University. Her interests include American music, sound art, feminist approaches to musicology, and (of course) 1960s experimental music festivals. She’s particularly interested in your experience of these festivals – what do you remember? Post your memories in the comments below.

2009: Just Add A Dollop Of Salsa

As you may have noticed, our artist interviews are a hugely important part of “The Box.” Years before I started working here, I loved reading the interview transcripts and watching the videos, and I appreciate the variety of musicians and genres represented—from those on the cusp of notoriety to those working solidly within the fray

…to seasoned veterans such as Willie Colón, whose interview is probably one of Frank’s proudest moments. In my opinion as a former percussionist, a little salsa makes everything better!

(Note: We often joke about how inevitably we end up taping interviews on the coldest and the hottest days of the year, and I’ve heard numerous retellings of the interview with Ikue Mori, which is apparently burned—so to speak—into memory for its heat stroke factor.)
NewMusicBox @ 15 logo
In addition to assorted Middle East political woes, 2009 was a complicated year in the world financial landscape, and while the pop music world was rocked by the unexpected death of Michael Jackson, the arts world also lost two immensely influential figures: Betty Freeman and Merce Cunningham. I imagine those three meeting at the pearly gates and bemoaning the music industry’s increasingly frequent use of autotune.

Do you remember the sad and strange vanishing composer story? This was also the year without a musical genius. Fortunately there is comfort to be found in the company of our feline friends.
On the bright side, 2009 also marked the 10th birthday of NewMusicBox (can you tell we like to party?)…

…along with some interesting music world newness like officially sanctioned online score perusal, a surprisingly excellent composer residency situation in Chicago, one of the smartest hires ever for a major concert presenting organization, and an honor for a life of listening deeply.

Additional NewMusicBox @ 15 Posts

FRANK J. OTERI: And you commission it, but it’s not really yours. You get to hear it but then it belongs to the world.

BETTY FREEMAN: That’s the way I like it.

Like the music we write about, NewMusicBox belongs to everyone. New Music USA is a public trust. Your support, quite literally, enables us to move this organization forward, to strengthen the community, and to hold up new American music for the world to hear. Please contribute in honor of NewMusicBox@15!

The Tyranny of Lists

Image via Big Stock

Anyone charged with teaching the history of classical music, especially in the one semester “intro” model, knows what a thankless reductio ad absurdum it can be, a rectilinear gutting of the Great Western Tradition, beauty reduced to a series of “progressive” victories. In the interest of cramming a vast amount of information into a tight space—canvassing 1000 years in the confines of a single term—much is jettisoned in favor of a linear argument, exhausting but unavoidable. Chant begat polyphony which begat fugue which begat sonata which begat symphony which begat bigger symphony and really long opera which begat atonality which begat our current mess today. We learn of famous schisms, of Brahms (retrogressive) contra Wagner (pro- and/or transgressive), Stravinsky contra Schoenberg, of the old-and-now-painful saw of up-, mid-, and downtown, of history with its attendant right and wrong sides where progress is less about achievement and more about a sequence of erasures. We learn that composers travel in packs, and that eras are divisible by the turning of centuries. A toe gets dipped, an historic trajectory (under the best of circumstances) is at the fingertips, and the great whos and whens and wheres are all rolled into a tidy line suitable for framing. This brooks little argument, and is a solid and digestible introduction to the notion of a musico-historical continuum (meaning it is truly meant, with best intentions, as a place to start, a leaping point into something more complicated, more beautiful). It is how the learning commences rather than anyone’s completion, but it does music a grave disservice, this line, this list. This concatenation of mere facts, birthdates and deathdates, while in and of itself not objectionable because it is the only practical and effective approach, nevertheless skips blithely toward the dangerous notion of the Grand Metanarrative, that “next” supercedes “previous,” that culture proceeds apace, and that the progress comes in the form of a long series of solved problems.

Never mind that this whole history is predicated on a lie because Pope Gregory was an amazing and learned man but by many accounts music was hardly an arrow in his quiver, unless you honestly buy the singing bird myth. Never mind that the realities are always more complex than the story (Brahms admired Wagner a great deal, despite the us-and-them-ness of their storied rift, for example), or that the convenience of named movements (“modernism” or “impressionism” to name two) is, like most conveniences, an oversimplification. But like George Washington and his fabled cherry tree, the concretized tale is simpler than the misty truth, and these handily compressed notions string together digestibly, reduced to a timeline, a sequencing of events, a list.

I’m not suggesting the big story be ditched; its value as a placeholder outline is obvious. But for those of us who work or seek to work in the “profession” this kind of thinking—call it “listy” thinking, this notion that anything as elemental and sloppily chaotic as music (or any art, for that matter) can withstand this sort of ordering, this-or-that-ing—can be, at best, problematic. Failing the much-needed later investigations, this listy notion becomes not just emblematic of the tradition; it becomes the tradition. The list can take the place of the work, much like ideas of the people involved—the workings of the collective life of the people involved is called history, but history is not populated with people but is in fact made exclusively by people—can be easily replaced by received notions. And that represents a danger because when something complicated is easily and quickly understood, the chances are that you are doing something wrong.

Do not be too quick to understand me: not every list is a bad idea. Even the lists I will go on to gently excoriate—those whose sole benefit is marketing, those capitaLIST lists—are not in and of themselves disastrous, dangerous, or even, if there’s a use for them, annoying. They can create light in the stochastic darkness or (if you want to get really academic) can lay out the signs and signifiers in the long semiotic discussion of art, history, and thought. Not a bad deal, in certain instances, and crucial in others. However, the sort of thinking that helps to ferry these lists into print—mostly mainstream or “commercial” print—and therefore into the at-large consciousness, that endows them with any cultural meaning beyond their immediate use, leads to nodal thinking. These lists, not ending where they begin, can become a kind of reward unto themselves, a stand-in for what they enumerate, and that kind of oversimplifying can lead to false constructions, to barriers, to ideas of genre and style that do more harm than good.

1. Beautiful Lists

In his masterful book The Infinity of Lists, (from whence my own title was obviously cribbed) novelist-semiotician Umberto Eco makes glorious hay of the notion of the list as a work of art. He found quite a few, “from Homer to Joyce to the present day,” enough, he wrote, “to make your head spin.” And in true Eco double act fashion, by simply listing the lists, he in fact creates the exact thing he is expressing: his book about lists is, in fact, one giant list. But as gorgeous as these lists are, the project, Eco admits, is flawed, because he in fact is just one man and no doubt several excellent examples eluded him, making the book both personal and incomplete, which is not a harsh criticism but in fact the reality of the project itself. “The fact is,” he says, “that not only am I not omniscient and do not know a multitude of texts in which lists appear, but even if I had wished to include all the lists I gradually encountered in the course of my exploration, this book would be a thousand pages long, and maybe even more.”

Eco’s preternatural capacity for scholarship is in full evidence here: the book includes everything from the famous “Catalogue Aria” from Don Giovanni to huge swathes of Rabelais and Shakespeare; long listing passages from Homer, Joyce, Prevert, Cendars, Borges, the King James Bible; pieces by Joseph Cornell, paintings by Bosch, Damien Hirst, New Yorker covers by Saul Steinberg, Andy Warhol’s soup cans. One of the principal things that separates us from the animals is our capacity to organize—lists are vital enough to be worthy of themselves becoming works of art. Eco includes Roland Barthes’ “J’aime, je n’ aime pas” where the French semiotician makes a long, lovely list of what he likes (“Glenn Gould” and “having change”) and does not like (“telephoning,” “the harpsichord,” and “women in slacks”) after which he lays out a truly salient point: “this is of no importance to anyone; this, apparently, has no meaning.” Yes, these lists are useful for him (on this, more in a moment) but like any true postmodernist, and there is none truer than Barthes, the whole exercise becomes in and of itself something beautiful to consider—in other words, a work of art, a thing of difficult beauty, a challenge because one is moved but one does not know why. Not far off from that famous apotheotic moment in Woody Allen’s Manhattan where our hero realizes he is in love with his impossibly young paramour in the middle of dictating himself a list of what he does, in fact, love.

And, as Eco promised, he does make omissions; we could all add to his list of lists. I Remember by Joe Brainard, is a long poem (or poetic meditation) comprised of single notions commencing with the plangent words “I remember”: (i.e. “I remember the old man who lived next door to me on Avenue B. He is most surely dead by now”). Allen Ginsberg’s Howl is just one long sequence of lists—the first section follows what happened to the “best minds of my generation,” the second a dire set of variations on “Moloch” (read: capitalism), and the last section a long, exhausting rumination on being in a madhouse (“I’m with you in Rockland”)—whose power is in its repetition. Carole Maso interrupts her gorgeous novel The Art Lover with the occasional stand-alone list, and the later work of David Markson is little more than chunks of prose ably strung together to create a huge accruing of small detail. In his novel House of Leaves (itself a wild set trick of narrative on narrative), author Mark Z. Danielewski offers, as evidence of someone’s waning grasp on sanity, a list of literally hundreds of famous photographers in alphabetical order—and the past-present-future list of historical events that serves as the spine for his masterpiece Only Revolutions defies my listy description. Rick Moody, in his short story “The Preliminary Notes,” numerically itemizes a sad tale of a husband determined to eavesdrop—and later in that same collection (The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven) in a devastating story called “Primary Sources,” a whole narrative comes from a standard format bibliography and footnotes. Peter Greenaway, in his film Drowning by Numbers, draws a visible line through the narrative about three murderous sisters by visually adding the numbers 1-100, a participatory postmodern game as well as a statement on the whole order-of-things thing. And then there’s the so-called “list songs” of Stephen Sondheim—“I’m Still Here,” “I Remember,” and “I Never Do Anything Twice,” to name merely three.

All of the above are my contributions to what I might call “Lists I Like.” I have more, many more; if you want, I can make you a list. These lists are beautiful, and they are not designed to be functional, do not seek to distract from or distill art down to a collection of vague essences because they are themselves art. These poetic lists are more about accumulation than the simplification. They don’t strive to reduce; they are something that might, at some point, require their unpacking.

Lists rendered in music are harder to come by because music fails to represent directly: watch Leonard Bernstein’s Harvard lectures The Unanswered Question for an hours-long teasing out on whether or not music can resort to the quotidian enough to leave the realm of poetry. (Spoiler alert, he tries to make a case for Hanon as being the only example of dull musical “prose,” and even then…) A case could be made for any theme with variations as an equivalent to all the glorious enumerated chaos Eco unveils or, say, Bach’s Art of the Fugue. The “Farben” movement of Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, where a single chord (with derivatives) is put through dozens of orchestrational changes is, in essence, a list of timbral possibilities. But these are reaches: to get artistically listy, references are of necessity: Eco could easily have made mention of the final movement of his friend Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia or of Mr. Bernstein’s Jubilee Games, both of which are unknowable tangles of layered musical quotations. And of course, there’s always Wagner’s Ring

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2. Useful Lists

I am something of a manic list maker, an alphabetizer. I keep meticulous track of a lot of things: from the books I read to the food I eat, from the goals I have to the pieces I’ve written and their performances, from the hours I work to the movies I watch in the middle of the night when I cannot sleep. I don’t know why I do it, but I always have—perhaps the very act of making the list calcifies whatever fleeting thought I have, reminds me, when looking back, how deeply I read or hard I worked, and does the disservice of dipping in amber the things I have not done. This is not poetry; this is a compulsion. I cannot shop without a list. I often have trouble conceiving of a full passing day—how I will fit in all the different and difficult tasks before me—without having made a list. Often I feel I need to organize my lists—to list my lists, as it were—and have sunk a small fortune into new blank notebooks, legal pads, and loose-leaf paper unblemished by lists yet to come. I make these lists to better understand myself, to help with the complicated task of simply carrying on, and to make the charting of my own personal patterns that much easier, to help me see through the darkness of what T.S. Eliot calls “this twittering world.” A shopping list helps us remember what to get at the store, a to-do list enables the checking off of daily tasks, a date book lists our appointments, a phone book lists our contacts, and iTunes handily lists our music and movies in orders of our own devising. Have you, like I’ve recently done, ordered and catalogued your books? These lists help the center hold; nobody is suggesting these are anything but helpful. But then again, nobody is suggesting they be published, presented, or performed. These lists are strictly inside jobs. Like Mr. Barthes’s funny little meta-list, they’re meant to explain us but never to be cared about by anyone else.

When Elvis Costello published his own list of top 100 records in Vanity Fair, I found it useful and excellent not only because he has the proverbial skin in the even more proverbial game, throwing down readily with his own work which one can take or leave, but also because I am what one might call a rabid fan. From the depths of his own learnedness he allows us to avail ourselves of it in this take-or-leave setup, but his credulity is unimpeachable because he offers, as a list-making avatar, his body of work by way of consubstantiation. If you like Elvis Costello, you might like what he likes, and so on. The flawed nature of the exercise—or rather, the impossibility of the task—is admitted because his list aims to be his list. He’s not a gatekeeper or a kind of cultural definer (as is the ostensible job of the critic) so his recommendations are not supposed to carry weight beyond themselves—they do not serve the future as part of an historical nexus as criticism, in its best intentional formulations, ought to do. They just help you find some nice records you might not have otherwise known. His list is not poetry, but—like the “if-you-like-this-you-might-like-this” data mining marketing notion—it can efficiently point the way to new listening.

3. Problematic Lists (or What They Fail to Mean)

It is the kind of list whose sole aim is to sell something, to make a commercial case, that is the list that can do the damage. We all know these lists—lists that define the “best” or “top” of something where there is no best or top. How, for example, can you be one of the “top” of anything when it comes to the ineffable, the immeasurable, the innumerable? These are notions lifted from history, from military campaigns and athletic competitions. You can, in fact, win a war (though there’s room for debate there), you can run a certain distance in a shorter time, you can hit more balls with a stick in the midst of an ordered, socially contracted “game.” These things can be tallied, or at least the tallying is expected. Athletes want to win gold medals, to be the best. And yes, the best swimmer in the world is an approximation—not everyone in the world can obviously swim the same race in the interest of comprehensive proof—but it is, at least, one on which enough people are in agreement to make the designation mostly relevant.

The same is true of marketing concerns: you can sell more of a certain book than another, more people can in fact go to see your movie than go to see mine. These are not vague statistics, nor are they invalid. They stand as facts, though facts under agreed-upon terms of measurement. However, when this kind of tallying comes to equal or even to mean more than the work itself, where there can in fact be an “A” list, then things are being run by marketing concerns exclusively, which lie in the interest of selling products rather than advancing quality.

We can go on—add to the list, if you like—mentioning the “Top” anything lists. Award winners, anything ever given the neo-, new-, or next prefixes, which, like calling anything “modern” or “contemporary” means not that it is up to the minute but that, to revivify our unfortunate parlance of bloodshed, there is a victor and a victim. I once read an article about a very successful composer—and with no disrespect to him or his work, none at all—that said he “may be the best composer in the world,” a title I hope to which even this person might object, flattering as it is. It is a ludicrous claim to make because it implies that 1) you know all the composers in the world well enough to establish that he is, in fact, the best, and that 2) you have a handle on the Pritchard-Scale level of criteria to make such claims. It is a bit of humbug, like claiming somewhere has the World’s Best Coffee.

As an artist, lists are part of our “kit.” They come in the form of bios, resumes, curriculum vitae. All accomplishments are listed, stem to stern, or cobbled into an impressive prose representation of our careers. It is a necessary—and not wholly unproductive—means of “getting to know” someone at a glance. Salient details because you cannot know every work of every artist—teaser, taste, brief introduction. Obviously, as we all well know, this can take a darker turn in our minds, and the resume can become more important than the work, the career more important than anything. Listy thinking is also resume thinking, because obviously your bio or CV has to impress and impress quickly.

Eco’s eighteenth chapter of The Infinity of Lists is titled “Mass-Media Lists” and begins:

The poetics of the list also pervades many aspects of mass culture, but with intentions different to those of avant-garde art. We can only think of that model of the visual list which is the parade of girls adorned with ostrich feathers coming down the staircase in the Ziegfield Follies, or the renowned water ballet in Bathing Beauty, or the multiple parades in Footlight Parade, the models who file past in Roberta, or the modern fashion shows of the great designers.

What Eco is saying is that there is built into lists a certain homogeneity, an uncomfortable sameness, a single definition of an ideal, an adherence to a system, which in turn is even more problematic because it leads to in/out, top/bottom, inside/outside, good/bad thinking, new/old, today/yesterday, beautiful/ugly, adventurous/conservative, garde/avant—to best-and-slightly-less-so thinking, which stems from the notion that there is the lone top to which one can aspire (“I’m sitting here talking to the best composer in the world”). The challenge is to either get there or risk becoming cultural dross. Nobody says this directly, but it is built in to listy thinking, its principal defect. It implies, simply, that creation is a zero-sum game that one can win, when it simply cannot be. This leads to asking absurd and deeply unnecessary questions: Is Shakespeare a better poet than Milton? Is Beethoven a better composer than Bach or Mozart? Is Rembrandt a better painter than Leonardo Da Vinci? Not even asking if one prefers Finnegans Wake to Ulysses, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock to The Waste Land, or even modernism to postmodernism. These overgeneralized questions are unnecessary, and actually do more harm than good, and the fact that we’re asking them at all is the sad by-product of listy thinking because their concern is for marketing rather than exploration. Even the best intentioned listy-ness is eventually subsumed into the very task of making the list, which is impossible. If you’ve ever served on a panel whose aim is to distribute prizes for creative endeavors, you get this: the fact that the list of winners is near impossible to determine with any “accuracy” makes the whole process a kind of exercise in despair because you are being asked to measure the unmeasurable. It hurts a little, as it should.


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The new Sight and Sound critics’ poll, wherein many a British film expert now cede that Hitchcock’s Vertigo has in fact replaced Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane atop the Greatest of All Time list, was a masterpiece of listiness and got a lot of media attention. I wondered, as I read that, how Messrs. Hitchcock and Welles would have felt on hearing that—after all, is it actually possible to make the Greatest Movie of All Time? Is that a height to which any filmmaker can—and should—aspire? What would those admittedly brilliant filmmakers have to say on the subject? And while we’re at it, why should anyone care? Sight and Sound no doubt has very strict criteria by which it has elected to judge the pictures it judges—but the very existence and use of their rubric epitomizes listy thinking. Because by even engaging in the making of this list—which is, I guess, intended to be a document of critical consensus; can critics arrive at consensus? One is in fact creating the standards-of-no-standards impossibilities. And are we to think that, after all these years, something has finally been found wrong (or at least not perfect) with Citizen Kane? Or has it been suddenly revealed that Vertigo, languishing shamefully at the #2 Spot, has hidden virtues, enough to cause its sudden ascendance? Or did enough Citizen Kane people die or retire to allow enough Vertigo people to weigh in and tip the scale? Are we to now believe that the time of Citizen Kane has come and gone and that we are now living in the more up-to-the-minute Vertigo era?

This or that, us or them, in or out, these can be a powerful tools in selling something—one wants to be part of the solution, on the winning team, the next wave, the new thing, the right side of history. It is an obvious part of human (especially American human) nature to want to be part of the absolute best, to be, in essence, right—be it a cultural innovation, an election, or a war. But at root this kind of non-critical binary thinking can become, easily, bandwagoneering, which means we’re not discussing art or even artists anymore; it is, when put so bluntly, a discussion not of the multifarious depth of art but the handier (because it can be listed down) notion of style. And not only do most artists dislike being lumped together in a de facto School of Thought—ask any member of Les Six, of the Second Viennese School, any twelve-tone or atonal composer, any minimalist, post-minimalist, neo-romantic, or alt-classical composer what they think of these labels—even if they enjoyed the sense of community and shared purpose, can they actually be taken effectively as a set? Ever heard someone say, “I don’t like classical music,” or maybe something a little deeper like “I don’t like minimalism”?

I’ve been involved at the deepest personal and professional level of “classical music” for over two decades, and I’m unable to answer the simple question of the–isms because they often have as many exceptions to the rule as they do rules. Fine, maybe you didn’t like that Philip Glass piece you heard; you are more than entitled to think that, but no one composer or work can stand for the style and/or genre that is minimalism. In fact, find yourself some recordings of the hundred or so famous composers who are considered to be toiling in that particular garden, and I suspect you will find more differences than similarities, save for a few basic shared notions. Once you do that, once you’ve spent time with the music, the work of these very different men and women, go ahead and admit to anyone who will listen that minimalism is not your especial jam. Like it or not, you are now possessed of knowledge enough to discern and make such a statement, and from your experience with the work itself and not simply the idea or representative sample, you know what a vast category it is and have not yet found something that moves you.

The most convenient terms for the listiest list are unfortunately martial—is progress a series of overturned rulers who are to then be overturned, one “Darwinian” banjaxing after another? Fine—or at least reasonable—for athletics and for wars, but an unnecessarily violent way in which to look at the great vivid wheel of the genuine span of music history, for example. No blood was shed in the development of the symphony; no sonata ever did grievous bodily harm to a sonatina. Evolving thought—the product of many amazing minds and daring souls—bears little resemblance to Iron Chef. In this rectilinear estimation, Beethoven remains present in our concert halls because Beethoven won; he bested not only all his contemporaries but also those who predate him—his structural innovations bested the structural innovations of all who came before him. By placing him atop this particular “A” list, we move further away from Beethoven the man (or even Beethoven the artist), his personhood replaced by an easily repeatable set of progressive ideals. This replaces the modest service of seeing to it that his work is reexamined over the years all with the disservice of removing his humanity—in place of the actual flesh-and-blood person who wrote astonishing music (“groundbreaking” if you like) stands his whitewashed portrait, a bust on our piano, our received notion of the man, “Beethoven” (or worse, “Beethovenian”) rather than Beethoven. It might be absurd to refer to him in the plural, to Beethovens, but it might also be a little closer to the truth. He was many things; he wrote many moving pieces within a vast multiplicity of moods, emotional conceits, intentions, and yes his music changed things, but that is hardly the only reason we still listen to him. As Cesar Franck’s biographer and advocate R.J. Stove says, “Sibelius took satisfaction from realizing that nobody ever put up a statue to a critic. He could equally well have said that nobody ever put up a statue to a structural innovator. One does not (however the more simple-minded historian would have the world believe) leap into music’s pantheon by virtue of bringing back, at a piece’s conclusion, the theme one has periodically used from the beginning.” There are no easy answers to the questions of durability, but “victory” because you changed an extant form is not one of them.

4. Not a Solution, Exactly


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To paraphrase author Martin Amis, there’s only one list about any writer that’s important, and that is the frontispiece list of books they’ve written. That ought to stand as their only resume—and not just the accumulation of titles, but the work contained within. That’s how you separate an artist from their avatar, the raw data of the work itself. One’s list of works speaks greater volumes than any pithily worded bio, CV, or resume, their awards, and certainly how many critical lists on which they’ve managed to land. Promotion is promotion, and there are people who are in the business of doing just that—and I am by no means saying it is a bad thing because it is not; it’s necessary. I’m not suggesting that these lists are in and of themselves bad. But I do believe they need to be placed in proper perspective.

I am not suggesting an evisceration of the idea of personal preference, of taste. Nor am I suggesting we remove order from the chaos by mandating a lack of bullet pointing as a means of conveying information. I’m not even suggesting we remove the consumerist lists from the places where consumers go to buy things. To the contrary, I suggest it be embraced, to have your strong opinions and stand by them. Prefer Rachmaninoff to Beethoven, De Chirico to Bosch, Sibelius to Bruckner, Wallace Stevens to Emily Dickinson, Stones to Beatles, Scarface to Citizen Kane, by all means love what you love because that kind of love is pure love, especially if your involvement with the arts is that of an enthusiast, a listener / reader/ watcher / eater / drinker &c.

Art is and has always been (and should be) an outsized, shaggy, throbbing, complicated mess, made by people who are attempting the impossible with a certain ferocity, dedication, and near-sexual drive. The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, and ought to scare you into grabbing whatever lantern you can find—any port in a storm, right? But embracing the negative capability—in short, understanding that you will not understand—is where you will find all the beauty, and at the end of the day, the multifarious forms beauty takes is what this whole struggle is about, it’s broad cultural crux. It should never be about being a node on any given list, but about the list of accomplishments, of works, of thoughts. To return to Beethoven (the man who wrote music) versus “Beethoven” (the figure who triumphed against all odds), his oeuvre is so complex, so brimming with individual notions, with rash failures, with work that is profound and strange (not by any means exclusive), beautiful and exotic. We all contain multitudes, and should not that apply to a “genius” like Beethoven?

And then there’s the complicated notion of second place, the “lesser” that get left out of the equation, the raw shame we espouse at being anything other than the “best.” Because history is full of beauty, and beauty comes in many forms from many sources, isn’t it possible that there’s much to be loved from the silver medalist? Perhaps an out-and-out analysis of Beethoven’s entire canon does in fact net 1) more brilliant (read: still performed) pieces than, say, a similar examination of the canon of Sibelius, Vaughan-Williams, Anton Reicha, etc. and 2) a cozy place in the Metanarrative, but does that make him, in this sense, better? Or is the despair of that question enough to at least serve as a rallying cry to stop asking.

At the risk of repeating myself, there is nothing at all wrong with list-making because it can be a valuable at-a-glance tool in leading to a wealth of experience and deep knowledge. Listy thinking cannot be stopped, nor should it be; all I hope, in my own dream-the-impossible-dream way, is that it be minimized, put in perspective, and that we as artists at least try to rise above it. The simulacrum is not the experience, the map is not the territory, whichever postmodern buzz-phrase you want to admit. Careers are great, prizes and accolades impress and will always impress, and presence on a list, be it a year-end wrap up, a best-of, or a list of Pulitzer finalists, gives the occasional fillip in what can be a lonely pursuit. But credentials are just another list. We all know that awards beget awards, honors beget honors, lists, therefore, beget lists. And while it is almost impossible to put these matters from one’s mind, it is important, if nothing else, to try.

I could have replaced the word tyranny in this essay’s title with any number of words—ubiquity, dishonor, deception, despicability, dull thud, crappiness—and I instead, as I have admonished others for doing, resorted to military description. It was no accident—nor is the obvious meta-trope of this essay itself being put into list format. It is more intended as an illustration of what is, for me at least, a deeply held belief: Not in the ill effects of listy thinking so much as in great faith in the writing, playing, recording, distributing, listening to, and discussing of music. It made me reach for stronger parlance because it did echo how I felt as an artist—that we (those who are not only reading this but who have stayed with me this far) deserve better.

As a student, I heard a lecture by director Peter Sellars that changed my life, mostly because his principal part was that it was going to be to the benefit of culture to remove power from the critics and academics and return it to the artists because classically it was the artists who were the harbingers of social change. It mattered to me, and it still does, not out of any lust for “power” (none I will admit, at any rate) but because it seemed to be a way to make the thing I did, intended to do, still love, continue to matter. And in a world that places increasingly less emphasis and value on it, now more than ever I think the mess needs to be embraced, the tidiness abandoned, and these easy commercial conveniences put as far from our minds and hands as possible. Or, in the immortal words of Robert Altman who, when asked if he was disappointed not to have been nominated for an Academy Award, offered a Sellars-worthy clarion call: “We have to start concentrating on making better films.” Enough said.


Daniel Felsenfeld

Daniel Felsenfeld

Composer Daniel Felsenfeld has been commissioned and performed by Simone Dinnerstein, Two Sense, Metropolis Ensemble, American Opera Projects, Great Noise Ensemble Da Capo Chamber Players, ACME, Transit, REDSHIFT, Blair McMillen, Stephanie Mortimore, New Gallery Concert Series at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, BAM, Kennedy Center, Le Poisson Rouge, City Winery, Galapagos Art Space, The Stone, Jordan Hall, Duke University, Stanford University and Harvard University. He has also worked with Jay-Z, The Roots, Keren Ann, and is the court composer for John Wesley Harding’s Cabinet of Wonders. Raised in the outlying suburbs of Los Angeles, he lives in Brooklyn.

Moondrunk for a Century: A History of the Pierrot Ensemble

Hanns Eisler’s Palmström—for speaker, flute (doubling on piccolo), clarinet, violin (doubling on viola), and cello—is easily mistakable for a better-known work. Thirteen years after the premiere of Pierrot Lunaire, at the request of his teacher Arnold Schoenberg, Eisler composed a companion piece for the same instrumentation (minus piano) as that modernist masterpiece. Pierrot itself is a deeply ambiguous work, full of biting satire and mocking seriousness; Palmström takes this a step further, parodying the parody. The forty-five second “Notturno” mimics the bloodrush of Schoenberg’s “Galgenlied” (“Gallows Song”), but with comically low stakes:

Palmström takes paper from his drawer.
And spreads it artfully round the room.
And after he’s made pellets out of it.
And spread it artfully, and at night.
So that, when he suddenly awakes in the night,
He hears the pellets rustle and a secret terror
Strikes him
Of the spectre of wrapping-paper pellets.

Besides being a fine bit of Second Viennese School homage, Palmström is an early participant in a hundred-year musical heritage, one still unfolding today: the Pierrot ensemble. Composers from Philip Glass to Karlheinz Stockhausen to Missy Mazzoli have all written music utilizing slight variations on Schoenberg’s original Pierrot Lunaire instrumentation. Some grapple with the legacy of Pierrot Lunaire head-on; others creatively misread the work. Many ignore Schoenberg’s piece entirely and take the instrumentation as a given—a modern updating of the string quartet or piano trio.

As we approach the Pierrot Lunaire centennial, its instrumentation, once reflective of Viennese weltschmerz, has been internationalized, turned timeless, and endured both modernism and postmodernism. Briefly tracing its legacy, as this essay will do, reveals a story of artists grappling with modernism and tradition, but also with practical realities. The Pierrot ensemble acts as a panorama of the musical 20th century, and one that bridges us into the 21st—earlier this year, the Pierrot-derived group eighth blackbird took home their second Grammy.

Pierrot Lunaire Excerpt

This excerpt from the score of “Madonna,” the sixth song in Arnold Schoenberg’s 1912 Pierrot Lunaire, shows the first occurrence of a quintet consisting of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. It has happened many times since then. (The public domain score of Pierrot Lunaire is downloadable from IMSLP.)

Let’s begin at the beginning. We traditionally think of the Pierrot ensemble as a miniature orchestra—the grand Romantic afflatus stripped down to its bare bones—but Schoenberg actually did the opposite in Pierrot Lunaire. He originally planned the work, a melodrama comprised of 21 short texts by Albert Giraud, for speaker and piano. In the process of composing, Schoenberg asked actress Albertine Zehme to add a clarinet—a reference back to Brahms’s chamber music, if anything—then a violin, a flute and, finally, a cello.

Maximizing the musicians’ potential, Schoenberg requires the flute to double on piccolo, the clarinet on bass clarinet, and the violin on viola. He utilizes the novel instrumentation in various, smaller groupings throughout the work, and the combinations match the spirit of each song—the hooting piccolo and clarinet of “Der Dandy,” the sickly, limpid solo flute of “Der Kranke Mond.” And if Pierrot Lunaire’s Pierrot ensemble is a miniature orchestra, it is a miniature cabaret orchestra, adding a populist snarl to Schoenberg’s hyper-chromaticism.

Pierrot Lunaire premiered on October 12, 1912, and immediately caused a sensation. Schoenberg knew he had a hit, and the work had a run in Berlin before the musicians embarked on a five-week tour of twelve cities. Artistic responses followed quickly. Sabine Feisst has documented the work’s impact in America, which was immediate: Universal Edition published a pocket score in 1914, which inspired Henry Cowell’s 1915 Red Silence, a Japanese-influenced monodrama for speaker, flute, violin, cello, and piano. Charles Griffes followed suit with the similarly exoticist Sho-jo and Kairn of Koridwen of 1917; evidently, when American composers heard sprechstimme, they thought druids and samurai.[1]

Back in Vienna, Schoenberg sought out companion pieces for the Pierrot instrumentation to fill out an evening concert: thus, Palmström, but also Anton Webern’s re-orchestration of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony for a Pierrot contingent (1922-23). With Webern’s piece, we see one of the earliest examples of an instrumental Pierrot ensemble, with the role of the speaker removed—a precedent (though a virtually unknown one) for many later works which would abstract the concept of the ensemble entirely, removing the elements of melodrama to focus strictly on the possibilities of the instrumental combinations.

For the next several decades, works for Pierrot ensemble pop up throughout Europe and America. The American premiere of Pierrot, in 1923, was a major event with a wide impact. Cowell felt the Schoenbergian influence again, leading to his 1924 Four Combinations for Three Instruments (playing off of Schoenberg’s shuffling of instruments); Carl Ruggles wrote his Vox Clamans in Deserto, for mezzo-soprano and a more expansive chamber ensemble than that of Pierrot Lunaire.

Then there are early examples of the Pierrot ensemble as a convenience, a choice made as much for financial practicalities and logistics as artistic vision. In a fascinating article published in the volume British Music and Modernism, 1895-1960, Christopher Dromey discusses re-discovering the Pierrot ensembles of a young Benjamin Britten, who apparently “reveled in the romanticism” of the original work, and scored several films for Britain’s General Post Office Film Unit for its instruments.[2] His 1936 score for the film Dinner Hour may be the first instance of what today is called the “Pierrot-Plus,” with Pierrot instruments augmented by percussion. The day-to-day reality of the Film Unit meant that Britten often gathered random assemblages of musicians—Pierrot as pick-up band.

Still, these are not the pieces you think of when you think Pierrot ensemble (if you even knew they existed). They remain outside the repertoires of the major Pierrot groups, like the Da Capo Chamber Players, eighth blackbird, and the Fires of London. The real cottage industry of Pierrot music would come with the codification of the ensemble, the transformation of an unusual instrumentation into an institution.

Fast-forward to 1967. In London, young composers Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies banded together with several instrumentalists to form the Pierrot Players. Their first concert consisted of Pierrot Lunaire, Maxwell Davies’s Antechrist, and Birtwistle’s Monodrama, with the new pieces scored for Schoenberg’s configuration as well as percussion (the true dawn of Pierrot-Plus). Reflecting back on the ensemble in 1987, Maxwell Davies said that:

The Pierrot Players were founded because the performances Harrison Birtwistle and I were receiving of our music in the sixties were less than satisfactory—under-rehearsed and uncommitted….There emerged a group of friends, willing to spend many hours of unpaid time with two inexperienced conductors, rehearsing difficult new works. Thanks to The Pierrot Players/Fires of London I learned the basics of instrumentation as never before, and the rudiments of theatrical craft—not to mention, out of frightening necessity, how to conduct….The group has been the most important music experience of my life to date. [3]

The founders felt that tying their legacy back to Schoenberg would also connect them to Schoenberg’s own tradition of new music concerts in Vienna’s short-lived Society for Private Musical Performances. Here, Pierrot becomes a kind of foundational text, the modern moment around which one can fashion an ensemble to progress Britain’s contemporary music scene.

The Pierrot Players’ seminal early work is Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King, a heaving gloss on Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire swapping out moonstruck female reciter for crazed baritone (and adding percussion). Like that of Pierrot, the instrumental ensemble acts as a psychological manifestation of the work’s insane protagonist. Maxwell Davies takes it a step further, noting that the instrumentalists are “projections stemming from the King’s words and music, becoming incarnations of facets of the King’s own psyche.” (The musicians performed from within cages at the premiere.)

Where Pierrot Lunaire built upon the antiquated device of melodrama, Maxwell Davies crafts a full-on pastiche, juxtaposing several hundred years of historical references. The instrumentation becomes a kind of desiccated relic—the flute and clarinet mimic wind consorts, while the piano bangs out a “smoochy” country dance; the baritone quotes Handel’s Messiah over a Baroque harpsichord (yes, Maxwell Davies ups the ante on Schoenberg’s doubling, giving us a dual-duty keyboardist), singing alternately “in style” and “like a horse.” Figurative deconstruction, as the king’s madness reaches its forte, becomes literal destruction: Maxwell Davies indicates that the violin should “break apart.”

This maximalizing snapshot is only one aspect of the Pierrot ensemble’s grand postwar history. With the inception of the Pierrot Players (disbanded and reformed as The Fires of London under Maxwell Davies’s direction in 1970), as well as other groups around the same period—the Da Capo Chamber Players in 1970, Amsterdam’s Schoenberg Ensemble in 1972, the New York New Music Ensemble in 1975—the format is set in stone. As those groups actively commissioned and encouraged young composers, the Pierrot ensemble transitioned from a scattered tradition of Schoenberg-inspired works to a key player in new music.

With this shift, we see works emerge which tiptoe around Pierrot Lunaire while utilizing its core instrumentation—anyone writing for the ensemble was aware of Schoenberg’s piece, but many composers wished to avoid the association of Viennese modernism, abstracting the instruments from their Expressionist origins.

We see this in the slew of new works that accompanied the premiere of Eight Songs for a Mad King in 1969. For the 80th birthday of Alfred A. Kalmus, who ran the London wing of Universal Edition and championed contemporary music, twelve composers wrote pieces for the Pierrot Players in his honor. The result, A Garland for Dr. K, is a series of short, mostly pointillist experiments by Stockhausen, Boulez, Berio, Bernard Rands, and others for the Pierrot set-up. (Berio’s The Modification and Instrumentation of a Famous Hornpipe as a Merry and Altogether Sincere Homage to Uncle Alfred, a goofy riff on Purcell, stands out among the pack as sounding particularly not like post-war Pierrot ensemble music.)

That these works stood alongside the Maxwell Davies shows the burgeoning interest in music that took advantage of Pierrot Lunaire’s instrumentation without reprising Schoenbergian melodrama. (None utilize a vocalist.) This echoes, loosely, what Boulez wrote in his famous 1952 polemic “Schoenberg is Dead”: that the late composer’s music, despite its explorations of new musical languages, displayed “the most ostentatious and obsolete romanticism.”[4] A Garland scrubs Pierrot of its hyper-Expressionist roots, putting it in line with the pure, mathematical abstraction of the postwar generation.

Pierrot, of course, did not die. Works utilizing the ensemble to back a mad narrator coexist alongside ones that treat the instruments as a modern day string quartet. As we move towards the end of the century, this trend continues. Elliott Carter’s Triple Duo, a 1983 BBC commission for The Fires of London, is a classic example of Schoenberg avoidance. A review of the premiere noted that Carter “averred that Pierrot Lunaire and the legacy of expressionism had little importance for him as he was dreaming up fresh deployments of [Maxwell] Davies’s personalized, Schoenberg-inspired ensemble.”[5] Carter’s skittish instrumental writing is an entirely different kind of mania from Pierrot—it begins with a Haydn-esque joke, with the instrumentalists pretending to warm up. (His divisions of the sextet into duos, though, does echo Schoenberg’s chamber-groups-within-the-chamber-group concept.)

Carter seems to be deliberately stepping around Pierrot. Other composers forget it entirely, treating Pierrot’s ensemble just like any other. Morton Feldman’s The Viola in My Life 2 makes a Pierrot-Plus ensemble the miniature orchestral accompaniment to a solo viola.

Joan Tower, who co-founded the Da Capo Chamber Players and served as its original pianist, has written several Pierrot-scored works that have no particular connection back to Schoenberg. Tower re-arranged the 1977 Amazon for full orchestra (Amazon II), indicating that her original Pierrot instrumentation may have been merely a practical matter; her 1980 Petroushkates, another Da Capo work, pays homage not to Schoenberg but to Stravinsky (along with, strangely enough, ice skating).

These two pieces also demonstrate that there’s nothing odd about writing a tonal Pierrot piece—we shouldn’t forget about the Da Capo commissions of Philip Glass and John Harbison. Just because Schoenberg wasn’t terribly lush doesn’t mean that his ensemble can’t be.

The Pierrot parody genre, launched by Eisler, trudged on as well. Donald Martino, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning Notturno is a classic example of postwar Pierrot ensemble music, ends his From The Other Side (for flute, piano, cello, and percussion) with a movement titled “Das magische Kabarett des Doktor Schönberg.” A tango slides into the opening piano lick of Pierrot Lunaire’s “Mondestrunken,” and a czardas erupts into a section titled “The Wrath of A.S.” with shouts of “Nein!” under the piccolo trumpet solo from Petroushka. In The Death of Klinghoffer, John Adams mocks an Austrian woman by accompanying her sprechstimme testimonial with a Pierrot-esque subgroup in the orchestra.

Perhaps the best bookend to the Pierrot tradition is Martin Bresnick’s 2002 My Twentieth Century. Another Da Capo commission, My Twentieth Century is what Bresnick calls a “descendant of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire—without the chanteuse and in a more vernacular musical and poetic idiom.”[6] Its title is a sly annexation of musical modernism, utilizing the Schoenbergian ensemble for an alternate history of the past hundred years. A laid-back series of piano chords opens the piece, soon joined by gauzy strings repeating short, postminimalist patterns. The musicians themselves alternately intone Tom Andrews’s text: “I played hopscotch in the twentieth century. I lived in a country of fireflies in the twentieth century.” Just as the music steps around modernism, the text transforms the 20th century from world-historical to personal, giving weight to individual actions instead of grand narratives. Pierrot Lunaire is a piece of extreme economy and brevity, doing the maximum with the minimum; Bresnick transforms economy into expanse, suggesting in his open harmonies the sparse lyricism of Appalachian Spring. The instruments blend, rather than prick.

And where is the Pierrot ensemble today? Its most famous proponent is, of course, eighth blackbird. Timothy Weiss, who heads the Contemporary Music Ensemble at Oberlin, brought together several conservatory students in 1996 to tackle the more difficult works of the Pierrot lineage—pieces like Martino’s Notturno or Charles Wuorinen’s New York Notes. The repertoire of eighth blackbird quickly expanded to include pieces like Joan Tower’s Noon Dance, Wendell Logan’s Moments, and Peter Maxwell Davies’s The Bairns of Brugh. The blackbirds even tackled one of the earliest Pierrot configurations—Webern’s arrangement of the Schoenberg Chamber Symphony.

This origin story points out a crucial aspect of today’s Pierrot tradition: the ensemble did not perform Pierrot Lunaire for the first five years of its existence. Whereas the Pierrot Players centered their repertory around Schoenberg’s piece, by the end of the 20th century, Schoenberg’s ensemble stood on its own, independent of the work that launched it into existence. Asked why the Pierrot configuration has endured so long, eighth blackbird’s flutist Nicholas Photinos wrote in an email:

Many reasons: it’s a great, small, economical mini-orchestra. It can have the sweep of an orchestra, the groove of a rock band, yet is small enough to be a finely tuned sports car like a string quartet. I think one of that orchestration’s greatest assets, and what sets it apart from other standard small ensembles like string quartets and woodwind and brass quintets, is that there is so much variety of timbre, so the ear never gets bored. Though of course, a composer can also write in a way to achieve a great blend across the group.

Today, eighth blackbird tours Pierrot Lunaire regularly in a theatrical production with soprano Lucy Shelton.

Their commissions include works as varied as Steve Reich’s Double Sextet, Steve Mackey’s Slide, and Jennifer Higdon’s On a Wire—a concerto for Pierrot-Plus plus orchestra.

Most of these new Pierrot works don’t tackle the historical legacy directly, and many have that rock-band groove. In 2012, the burden of Schoenberg’s status as founding father seems to have been lifted. Not every string quartet needs to refer back to Haydn; not every Pierrot ensemble needs to refer back to the Second Viennese School. Instead, Pierrot Lunaire hovers in the background—in its centennial year, the moonstruck clown has taken a back seat in that finely tuned sports car.



1. See Sabine Feisst, “Echoes of Pierrot Lunaire in American Music,” in James K. Wright and Alan M. Gillmor, eds., Schoenberg’s Chamber Music, Schoenberg’s World (Hillsdale: Pendragon Press, 2009), pp. 173-192.

2. Christopher Dromey, “Benjamin Britten’s ‘Pierrot Ensembles,” in Matthew Riley, ed., British Music and Modernism, 1895-1960 (London: Ashgate, 2010), p. 230. Dromey has written a full-length study of the Pierrot ensemble tradition, which will be published later this year by Plubago.

3. Peter Maxwell Davies, quoted in Grenvile Hacox, “The composer-performer relationship in the music of Peter Maxwell Davies,” in Kenneth Gloag and Nicholas Jones ed., Peter Maxwell Davies Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 200.

4. Pierre Boulez, quoted in Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007), p. 394.

5. Paul Driver, “‘Triple Duo’ and ‘Image, Reflection, Shadow,’” Tempo 146 (September, 1983): p. 53.

6. Martin Bresnick, Program Notes for My Twentieth Century” accessed from Martin Bresnick’s website on May 4, 2012.

Many thanks to Frank J. Oteri, who has taken on the herculean task of compiling a massive and comprehensive list of works which utilize the Pierrot ensemble or its variations.

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.

The Social Contract

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

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

Accidental Abstract Expressionism

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

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

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

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

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