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There is much talk these days of inequality, of unfounded biases and long-standing preconceptions that not only affect those that face the brunt of such prejudice, but ultimately the entire community as views slowly become more monochromatic, indistinguishable, and, in a word, dull. Often undue favoritism can be subtle, inadvertent, even unintentional (as many biases via omission can be), and over time this can slowly erode the affected population until it has dwindled to the point where only through direct and organized activism can such trends be reversed. It is entirely possible that many who are reading this article may, either overtly or subconsciously, in fact be a perpetrator of intolerance towards this long-standing yet misunderstood group.
I am, of course, speaking of the bias against brass instruments in contemporary chamber music today.
In many ways, it’s perfectly understandable why brass instruments have not found a proper niche within the contemporary concert community. Their limitations are completely antithetical to many of the parametrical experiments composers have been working on, especially over the past fifty years or so. Want to write a work that lasts an insanely long time? Chopbuster. Enjoy breaking away from linear lyricism and incorporating angularity into your melodic material? Not so much. How about working with extremely soft dynamics (unless you’re open to being limited timbrally with mutes)? Minimalistic use of repetition? Extreme registers? How about just blending and balancing with strings and woodwinds?
Of course these can all be worked around with the right players and well thought-out orchestration techniques, but I think that these limitations only scratch the surface of why more composers don’t write for brass instruments and why chamber ensembles don’t incorporate them. Pre-20th-century chamber repertoire already brings pianists, strings, and woodwinds together with only the occasional addition of a horn when composers were feeling frisky, even after horns and trumpets became truly chromatic and tubas gave composers another octave with which to work. Early in the 20th century, brass instruments were not ignored–Stravinsky proved with his Octet and Histoire du Soldat that brass instruments could be utilized to great effect outside of their normal orchestral wheelhouse–but they never garnered as much attention as the strings, woodwinds, and keyboards did. Two outstanding composers who wrote solo works for several of the brass instruments (as part of their collection of solo instrumental works for all the families) were Hindemith (whose Sonatas are boons to brass players and banes to pianists) and Berio (whose Sequenzas for trumpet and trombone are staples of the literature).
When one looks at the various musical adventures over the past 40 years or so–minimalism, spectralism, post-minimalism, alt-classical, and many others–brass instruments are very hard to find. In fact, if any instrumental group has come into its own over that time period, it would be percussion, beginning with Cage’s experiments, moving through Steve Reich’s relationship with the Nexus percussion ensemble, and picking up steam with So Percussion, Third Coast Percussion, Meehan/Perkins Percussion Duo, and others over the past 15 years.
All is not lost, however. From my vantage point, there are three primary veins of activity in the new music world that are seeing more and more composers jump onto the brass bandwagon, the first and oldest being the brass quintet. Beginning back in the 1940s in Chicago and New York, the brass quintet as a chamber genre continues to have a strong but slightly limited tradition of commissioning composers to write music for them. These days there are three brass quintets that have carved out their own places in the genre–the American Brass Quintet (a group that’s been around longer than almost everyone and has commissioned more than anyone else), the Meridian Arts Ensemble (an additional percussionist allows them to explore repertoire such as Zappa with an intensity not found in other quintets), and the Gaudete Brass (the youth and commissioning activity of which proves that the traditional medium is not yet dead). This mixed-instrumentation ensemble is not everyone’s cup-o’-tea to write for, but groups like these and others are proving that the genre is an extremely versatile one.
If the mixed brass quintet is the most prevalent brass chamber ensemble, the homogenous brass quartet or ensemble seems to have the most momentum these days as far as new groups being formed and new ideas being experimented with. Whereas the brass quintet allows for maximum color and range, homogenous ensembles give composers a much more blended and balanced palette with which to work. The most common of this type of group is the trombone quartet or ensemble, with a history that reaches back hundreds of years to the time of sackbutt consorts, and a list of these would have to include the New York Trombone Quartet and Four of a Kind (both fronted by NY Phil principal trombonist Joseph Alessi), the Amsterdam-based New Trombone Collective, and New York’s Guidonian Hand (whose performance at the 2012 Bang on a Can Marathon proved that brass could work in the current new music concert scene) as well as non-NYC-based groups such as the Chicago Trombone Consort, Washington Trombone Ensemble, and the Texas-based Minor 4th Trombone Quartet. Other types of homogenous ensembles are decidedly more rare on the new music front, although one that has been building up steam is the self-styled “leading post post-feminist feminist all-female horn experience” Genghis Barbie, whose current show “Guns & Rosenkavalier” (with operatic tenor Andrew Wilkowske) seemingly shows the potential for such a group to infuse both humor and non-traditional styles into an admittedly very traditional sound world.
The final type of chamber ensemble that is beginning to show interest in utilizing brass instruments is the mixed ensemble. There are several large mixed ensembles, two of the most prominent being Alarm Will Sound and Dal Niente, that conform to the “new music ensemble” format found at many universities that bring together one of each brass and woodwind along with a string quintet, piano, percussion, and various other instruments (depending on the ensemble). These are practically chamber orchestras and don’t have the balance issues that smaller groups do, but they do give composers the chance to incorporate brass into their works. Much less common are smaller ensembles, but there are two that, to my mind, demonstrate the variety of direction that other groups could explore. Asphalt Orchestra, started several years ago by folks associated with Bang on a Can, is made up of trumpets, trombones, saxophones, sousaphone, and marching percussion. They have taken the concept of a marching band (more of a New Orleans “Second Line” band than anything you’ll see in the Rose Bowl Parade) and asked composers such as Yoko Ono, David Byrne, and Tyondai Braxton to add to their repertoire. Taking a completely different tack, the quartet loadbang combines trumpet, trombone, clarinet, and baritone voice, a combination that encourages composers to re-evaluate how brass instruments can be used in a chamber setting. In addition to performing their own interpretations of Guillaume de Machaut, John Cage, and David Lang, they themselves have been forced to commission new works simply because of the uniqueness of their instrumentation.
Having written more than my fair share of brass works, I find myself asking why more composers don’t try their hand at it. In many ways it’s like the “chicken-and-the-egg” conundrum–what comes first, the repertoire or the available and interested performers? As more repertoire is written and more chamber groups explore the potential of including brass instruments within their ranks, that inequality I wrote about earlier may indeed fall by the wayside.
As I’ve mentioned once or twice before on NewMusicBox, I’m getting ready to teach a month-long continuing education course on radical American music before World War II. To that end, I recently checked Carol Oja’s Making Music Modern: New York in the 1920s out of my university library (to which I’ll have access for only a few short months more). I haven’t finished it yet, but the first half held my interest ably during the flight from Minneapolis to BWI. Although the particulars of some of Oja’s attempts to situate and contextualize prewar music within the long 20th century will probably seem a little narrow to readers with a more robust knowledge of postwar and more recent musics, as a work of cultural history I recommend the book highly.
I found Oja’s writing on George Antheil especially noteworthy. The futuristic pseudoscience and chest-thumping self-aggrandizement that adorn Antheil’s hyper-rhetorical manifestos are leavened by impossibly forward-thinking observations about musical material and form. About the infamous Ballet Mécanique, Antheil wrote that “it was conceived in a new form, that form specifically being the filling out of a certain time canvas with musical abstractions and sound material composed and contrasted against one another with the thought of time values rather than tonal values.” Had anyone said things like this before the 1920s? It’s a revolutionarily explicit foregrounding of the linear category of time, which Antheil made explicit as “the space of our musical canvas.” Rather than understand musical experience as a symbolic or agonistic play of events, Antheil—probably, now that I think of it, drawing a conclusion or two from the music of Debussy and especially Satie—proposed a quantitative view of that which had previously been conceivable only qualitatively.
This isn’t a wholesale endorsement of everything Antheil ever wrote in words or in notes, but—as part of a larger argument about the creative agitations of American ultramodernism—I think this point is worth remarking on. The notion of musical clock-time’s independence from agogic time is almost as crucial to postwar modernism as the notion of breaking down musical sound as graduated parameters. It’s very possible that there are clear antecedents here that I’m failing to notice—it wouldn’t be the first time Henry Cowell beat someone to the prescient punch, for instance—and, if so, I hope someone will chime in and set us straight. In any case, as we charge into the New Year, do celebrate the possibility that—like Antheil—something you’re thinking about right now might be on everyone’s mind in a few decades.
A few weeks ago, I was eating dinner at an amazing Peruvian restaurant in Wilmington, Delaware, (I mention this on the off chance that you’re planning to visit Wilmington soon, in which case you should look up Juliana’s Kitchen) with some visual artist friends. One of them brought up an old maxim of the art and design world: If you can’t make it good, make it big. If you can’t make it big, make it red.
The more I’ve thought about this phrase, the more practical this advice appears. A budding artist who wants to attract notice would be best served by creating outsized pieces that literally tower over their peers. Someone who wants to sell pieces needs to think about matching customers’ home design color schemes, which are generally based around neutral and wood tones, perfect matches for a nice splash of red art. Of course, this adage is based upon the premise that creative artists will accept their basic inability to create something they might think is good.
With very little tweaking, this adage translates quite well into music, where a parallel phrase might begin, “if you can’t make it good, make it loud.” There’s nothing like the sound of a full set of orchestral strings sawing away with brass blaring above them to help convey the sense of grandeur and awe, regardless of whether or not the basic materials are worthy of such treatment (what David Rakowski terms OLAMBIC music). Probably the musical equivalent of “red” in this interpretation would be “octatonic”—a modality found in Russian folk music that was utilized by a diverse swath of 20th-century composers, which goes well with just about every other type of pitch construction.
The main thrust of the quoted advice is to help beginning artists to emerge, to stand apart from the crowd. In an exhibition filled with medium-sized well-balanced images, a room-sized work will guarantee that the viewer will take notice of the artist. Regardless of what one thinks of the quality of this grand design, its creator will be remembered. Paradoxically, in a setting in which enough artists have heeded the time-honored adage, a microscopic creation might provide the contrast necessary to convey an individual voice.
I hope that everyone who reads this has a happy and safe holiday season. Since this is the first night of Hannukah, I would like to extend particularly warm wishes to those people lighting the candles tonight. In the New Year, I’ll return with more thoughts on standing apart from the crowd.
This past week saw two articles about contemporary concert music published in the New York Times which intended to shine light on two important evolutions within the music community. It is not often that one gets such a parallax viewpoint on the subject of new music in the mainstream media, and the opportunity allows those of us who are active in the profession not only to digest and react to what is being said but also to gain a better sense of how our world is seen from “outside the beltway,” so to speak.
The first article, “Emboldened Orchestras Are Embracing the New” by chief music critic Anthony Tommasini is written with a perspective from within the confines of the concert hall. In it, the author investigates whether or not, as he puts it, “those who have campaigned for contemporary music [can] declare victory” as audiences and ensembles seem to be gradually becoming more open to new works as well as music from the past century that until recently had been anathema to traditionalist concertgoers. Of course his findings are mixed, as one could expect from such a wide swath of institutions and genres to choose from; Tommasini outlines the sliding scale upon which the acceptance of new music is most easily gauged, with chamber ensembles on the tolerant end and opera weighing down the other, as relatively few examples of full-throated support for new works can be found on the opera stage today.
While the article effectively (albeit lightly) touches on the various aspects of contemporary music in today’s traditional music scene, it also reflects some of that scene’s intransigence when it comes to breaking through the historical and stylistic firewalls that many ensembles and audiences have constructed. That intransigence is most acute when Tommasini brings composers from the early and mid-20th century into the discussion; with examples that include Bartók and Janáček, the article does little to refute the idea that these composers can and should still be thought of as “contemporary.” The fact that very few living composers are mentioned throughout the article does little to strengthen the argument that things are looking up on the contemporary side of things. Recordings by two younger living composers are included in the online version of the article, but as they were both performed by the American Composers Orchestra, an opportunity to prove that established traditional ensembles are adding new music to their repertoires is missed.
The second article focuses on the evolutionary branch of new music that started with the Kronos Quartet, matured under Bang on a Can, and has blossomed with an ever-growing number of composers and chamber ensembles whose music and presenting style represent an intentional shift away from the traditional concert hall and the stylistic traits that are associated with that venue. Written by Allan Kozinn and entitled “Club Kids Are Storming Music Museums,” the article springboards off the museum mentality that is inherent in most traditional music organization by suggesting that this new generation of composers and performers see all of the hubbub mentioned in Tommasini’s article as “beside the point.” Looking at the various aspects of this relatively new movement, Kozinn touches on what the characteristic traits are, the musical establishment’s reaction and recent embrace of the major players, and closes with a prediction that this non-traditional approach may strengthen into its own musical lineage in the same way other popular styles grew apart from their roots rather than affect a wholesale change on concert music itself.
As with Tommasini’s work, I found it too easy to lose the forest for the trees in this article. My gut reaction when I first read it was disbelief that this trend was being presented as being something new, as many of the changes and innovations that were mentioned seemed old hat to those of us who live and breath new music. It also struck me that the overall focus was very NYC-based, which caused me to throw out an open question on Facebook asking if others could give me examples of this new trend that were happening outside of Brooklyn and Manhattan—the ensuing conversation wandered through many issues that the article raised and culminated in Kozinn himself weighing in on my assumptions and nudging me towards his initial intent of the piece, the aforementioned separation into a stand-alone musical style that is both related and distinct from classical music.
I came away from both of these articles with some observations, not about the subject matter at hand, but about myself and my own thoughts on the changes that have been swirling throughout concert music over the past several years. As with several other articles that have come forth over the past year on new music, I found myself bifurcated between elation that the subject was being covered at such a high level and dismay at both the perceived simplification and tight focus on the Big City scene (an admitted bias I have from growing up in the cornfields outside of Chicago).
Upon reflection, I am realizing that it is too easy to discount such introductory explanations. Over time articles like these will help to erode the last vestiges of conservatism that has reigned for too long in the concert hall. Similarly, it is too easy (for me, at least) to cast too wide a net when I make musical associations; I find myself clumping many composers who are associated with the New Amsterdam label, for example, when their style and language couldn’t be more different. I feel that the shift that Kozinn mentions is not based on a school of musical language as previous innovations have been, but rather a social and generational concept that is both a culmination and a rejection of years of reaction against the bitter style squabbles that occurred in the past. To this end, I hope to see more articles like Tommasini’s and Kozinn’s to further the conversation.
Dec 16, 2011
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