Tag: zeitgeist

Robert Honstein: Oblique Strategies

Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

Someone inadvertently picking up a copy of RE:you, Robert Honstein’s debut CD released earlier this year by New Focus Recordings, might initially assume that it’s an indie rock album. The stark plain white cover features only Honstein’s name in small caps in the corner and the large black letters of the title are strewn across the center, the colon an eye-catching green. The back is a similarly minimalist white, only instead of the title, large gray punctuation symbols form an emoticon-like image resembling two people facing one another: “(‘}{‘).” The CD itself does not even feature Honstein’s name; the perimeter is surrounded by exclamation points, the sequence only broken with “RE: you.” Then there are the titles of the eight tracks, listed in the gatefold of the digipack: e.g. “My friend I understand 100%, I have no girlfriend,” “Better find those little blue pills if you plan on giving her more than lip service,” etc.

The initial phrases of the opening track, with their gangly electric guitar and foregrounded percussion, also suggest an alternative pop album, as do the openings of just about every other track. But the vocals never come. Instead, the instrumental textures get manipulated in ways that are more reminiscent of contemporary chamber music. So while this is music that is clearly informed by indie rock songs, it is ultimately something else entirely. In fact, eschewing today’s common parlance where every kind of musical utterance is described as a song, Honstein—when we spoke with him a couple of weeks ago—described these pieces of music as “song-like” compositions. They reference many of the identifiable tropes of songs, but they are not quite songs:

A lot of them are A-B-A and they’re short (though a couple of them do get kind of long), so I think in terms of concision and formal clarity they’re song-like. And also, some of them have this melodic thing that maybe evokes the sense that maybe it is a song. But I didn’t want it to be something so concrete as a song. I wanted it to be more oblique—a little bit strange, a little bit more misleading. In a sense they’re cinematic, I’m just not showing you the film. I don’t want to micromanage your experience.

As for the provocative titles he gave to those eight pieces, they derive from lines that were contained in over a hundred emails sent and received through an online dating site that were then accidentally transmitted to a friend of his. They hint at a dysfunctional and ultimately tragic relationship, but if there’s more to the story, Honstein has no intention of revealing it:

How I came across these emails, who these people are, and what may or may not have happened—that to me is like a footnote. You can read a book and you can read the footnotes or not and you’ll still get something out of it. I don’t personally feel obliged to explain everything; those pieces are intentionally oblique. I’m merely suggesting what might have happened; I don’t want to give the answer. I think that’s a more interesting experience—to be confronted with something without an answer and then fill in your own blanks as to what it means. There is a line between what is for me and what is for the listener.

While the backstory of this usual digital correspondence served as a catalyst for his music, usually the Boston-based composer takes a more intuitive approach when he begins working on a piece. “I try not to think too much when I’m just generating ideas and material,” he claims. “There’s a good chunk of time where I don’t intellectually know what I’m doing and I think that’s important. So, a lot of the time I’ll get pretty far along in a piece and won’t have a clue of what it’s about, but then there’s this simultaneous process where I’m finishing the piece and trying to articulate what is going on.”

But one of the themes he frequently comes back to in his pieces is technology and how it impacts on our lives, which is the obvious subtext for the eight pieces collected on RE:You. The text for his choral piece, Hello World, I love you, emulates how a computer processes the English language using the words “hello world” which were the first ones translated into C programming language back in 1972. The text begins with a sequence of 0s and 1s, then moves onto x86 machine code; eventually the recognizable English words emerge. His orchestra piece 200 OK takes its name from how HTTP queries are served up.

Yet ironically Honstein’s music thus far has been anything but high-tech. Aside from the occasional electric guitar or electric bass, his timbral palette consists predominantly of acoustic instruments. If that somehow seems contradictory, it’s more a by-product of his being attuned to the world we currently live in but not feeling straitjacketed by it. He explains it during our conversation in a 19th-century Brooklyn brownstone where he arranged for us to meet (which somehow felt strangely appropriate):

I’m really interested in responding to the world around me and obviously technology is pretty much embedded in everything we do now. So I can’t ignore it; for that reason I feel compelled to deal with it in what I write. Then the other side to that is that what I think is most interesting about the technology is not necessarily the technology itself, but how we interact with it and how it affects our experiences of emotions, relationships, and being in the world. So rather than writing a piece about technology and then build a fancy robot that is super high tech, I think a poetic impulse is more interesting. The end result is kind of anti-tech because it’s all for older instruments and, in certain respects, it’s old-fashioned.

But if Honstein’s way of responding to the present is to create lush music (albeit in what is frequently a post-minimalist, indie-rock influenced idiom) scored mostly for instruments that many people associate with the past, he has also re-imagined the past in a very contemporary way in other works. In 2007, he arranged a responsorial chant composed a millennium ago by Hildegard von Bingen for soprano, cello, organ, and wine glasses. One of the most unusual projects he has been involved with was creating series of short pieces meant to be inserted in between the six concerti in Antonio Vivaldi’s L’Estro Armonico during a performance by the Sebastian Chamber Players, a New York City-based period instrument ensemble. While Honstein’s predominantly consonant, pulse-oriented steady-state compositional vocabulary would seem an ideal fit with Baroque music (and in keeping with such illustrious precedents as Bang On A Can’s Lost Objects or American Baroque’s collaboration with the Common Sense Composers’ Collective, The Shock of the Old), the end result aimed instead for an “extreme juxtaposition” to maximize cognitive dissonance.

I really didn’t want to compete with Vivaldi, so I had to do the opposite, which led me to the backstory. Here’s this pillar of Western music who wrote a lot of famous pieces, particularly L’Estro Armonico, for these orphaned girls, and they were premiered behind the metal grilles of a church. It’s just so weird to me that that’s where that music came from and I got drawn into that story. So I wound up writing scratch tones and really long glissandi. It sounds like nothing I’d ever written before.

An excerpt from the score for Robert Honstein's Three Night Scenes from the Ospedale (2011)

An excerpt from the score for Robert Honstein’s Three Night Scenes from the Ospedale. Copyright © 2011 Robert Honstein, CHM Press. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Of course, putting new music right next to old music is what happens most of the time whenever a piece of new music is performed by an orchestra, unless it’s written for a contemporary music-focused group like the American Composers Orchestra or the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Although Honstein’s Rise was among the pieces chosen by the ACO for their Underwood New Music Readings this past June, the other performances he has received for his orchestral pieces thus far, like most composers, have been on programs that consisted predominantly of older, standard repertoire, “right next to Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky,” Honstein points out. “But I’m not trying to beat them at their own game; I’m just trying to be true to my own style and my own voice.”

However next season, Honstein, along with five other composers—Timo Andres, Christopher Cerrone, Jacob Cooper, Ted Hearne, and Andrew Norman who together comprise the Sleeping Giant Composers Collective—will rework one of the most treasured masterpieces of the classical music canon, the Mozart Requiem. The project is the centerpiece of an unusual joint composer residency with the Albany Symphony Orchestra funded through Music Alive, jointly administered by New Music USA and the League of American Orchestras.

“That I will not speak of in too great a depth because it’s still in formation,” Honstein says cagily. “If you go to that concert you will hear the Mozart Requiem, but you also will not hear the Mozart Requiem. You’ll get what you’ve paid for, but you’ll get a little something extra as well.”

An excerpt from the score of Robert Honstein's An Index of Possibility for three percussionists (2012)

An excerpt from the score of Robert Honstein’s An Index of Possibility for three percussionists. Copyright © 2012 by Robert Honstein, CHM Press. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

2003: Difficult Memories

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In terms of world affairs, 2003 was probably one of the most turbulent years. So did that play out in the music?  It depends on how you want to think about it. Music is inscrutable in its abstraction, especially when it does not have words to go along with it. Program notes can be helpful in this regard, though many composers believe that reading them interferes with the listening experience. Then there are the titles, which—unless you’re calling your piece something like Sonata No. 4 or, even more to the point, Untitled—betray some kind of narrative inclination.

In a conversation we had for NewMusicBox almost exactly eleven years ago, David Del Tredici admitted to me that the original title for his first composition for symphonic winds, which he had only just completed, was Christians and Infidels, but he was advised to tone it down and so he changed it to In Wartime. Both titles, though, mirror the events of that year—the Iraq War which began that March, the suicide bombings on three continents, etc.  But does his music? Well, he acknowledged that embedded in it are quotes from the national anthem of Persia and a motif from Tristan und Isolde, if that helps any. Carla Bley’s surreal reimagining of our national anthem (actually created and recorded in late 2002 but it appears on her 2003 CD Looking for America) also seemed to sum up the mood of that time, so much so that I trekked up to her home in Willow, New York, right after the album was released to talk about it with her. But again, music is wonderfully elusive; despite its seriousness and occasional portentousness, Bley’s big band arrangement is ultimately lots of fun.

I wish I would have asked Alvin Singleton about his 2003 piano and percussion composition Greed Machine when I finally spoke with him in depth about his music five years later, but to my ears, even without the suggestive title, it too seems an apt, if subtle, sonic metaphor for the dangerous uncertainty of those times and their probable cause. There’s nothing subtle about Neil Rolnick’s 2003 The Real Thief of Baghdad, but of course since live electronics combine with spoken narration in that piece, the words are what ultimately tell the story.

Robert Hilferty

Sadly, Robert Hilferty (1959-2009), who never completed his incredible documentary film about Milton Babbitt, only ever wrote one article for NewMusicBox, but it was a doozy!

But I’m at a loss finding a zeitgeist-related thread in many of my other favorite purely instrumental compositions from that year, such as John Adams’s microtonal electric violin concerto The Dharma at Big Sur, David Dzubay’s early music-infused St. Vitus’ Dance for brass quintet, Jennifer Higdon’s lush Piano Trio, Paul Konye’s wonderfully idiomatic African Miniature Songs Without Words for solo piano,  or Steve Mackey’s psychedelic Dreamhouse. Though a work like Elliott Carter’s Piano Concerto, completed in 1965, betrays no program in its title, much has been written on how the work—composed as the Berlin Wall was being erected—epitomizes the struggles between individuals and societies; the work even incorporates a small concertante group in addition to the soloist and requires an unusual seating arrangement. Might his second work for piano and orchestra, Dialogues, which he completed in July 2003 (five months before his 95th birthday), also be emblematic of the world’s crises at that point? It doesn’t seem nearly as tempestuous as that earlier work, so perhaps not.
These Are the Vistas, the second studio album by the let’s-take-it-beyond-jazz trio The Bad Plus, is all instrumental, but in addition to compositions by each of the group’s members—pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer David King—they also play extremely inventive interpretations of two iconic pop songs from previous decades: Blondie’s 1978 “Heart of Glass” and Nirvana’s 1991 “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Could this somehow be a message about how our own memories in the present irrevocably alter the past? Memories certainly seemed more malleable that year, perhaps from the déjà vu of a second American military engagement in the Persian Gulf. The elusiveness of memory is actually the theme of Robert Ashley’s Celestial Excursions, in which a group of elderly people struggle to recall their past as well as old sayings and songs they heard on the radio in their youth. It is also central to the plot of another favorite opera of mine from that year, Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth’s adaptation of American filmmaker David Lynch’s Lost Highway, which is every bit as creepy as the movie in its depiction of a sudden inexplicable corporeal transformation. Are there hidden messages in the mumblings that pass for song lyrics on Animal Collective’s eerie Campfire Songs, which was released that March? It’s hard to tell. There certainly was nothing “subliminable” (to use a phrase coined by our then-president) about the cover of an album issued the previous month, King Crimson’s final (at least up to now) studio recording The Power to Believe (which featured music collaboratively created by a quartet of musicians who, with the exception of the originally British group’s founder Robert Fripp, were all Americans).
My own strongest memory of 2003 was how awful the news reports were almost on a daily basis, but it was certainly much easier to ignore what was going on around you by plugging headphones into an iPod, which had hit the market two years earlier but was now easier to load up than ever before thanks to iTunes. (The iTunes store opened to U.S. residents on April 28, 2003.) For better or worse, this platform established what has now become the industry standard for legal downloading. Many musicians would bemoan that it also reduced all music to “songs” that were all equally worth only 99 cents, while 61% of people surveyed by Billboard in August of that year claimed that 99 cents was too expensive. I remember refusing to be part of this cultural phenomenon (I remain an apostate), preferring to hear my music via physical formats like CDs and—gasp—LPs. In 2003, a lot of people thought I was hopelessly anachronistic, never imagining the resurgence of vinyl in the past year.
But most of the folks I admire steadfastly keep to their own clocks, though probably few as demonstrably as La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, who for years maintained a 28-hour day. We finally had an opportunity to talk with them for NewMusicBox. (He had recently completed the composition Just Charles and Cello.) Paralleling the duration of his seminal The Well-Tuned Piano, our conversation lasted more than five-and-a-half hours and we published all of it.

Randy Nordschow

Randy Nordschow

A final personal note here… I’d be remiss in these remembrances if I didn’t give a shout-out here to composer Randy Nordschow to whom I will forever be grateful for videotaping that marathon chat. It lasted until 3:15 a.m. on an extremely hot August evening (the night before the massive northeast blackout!) and for optimal sound, we had to turn off the air conditioning. Randy was a vital member of NewMusicBox’s editorial team for more than five years starting in January 2003 when Molly Sheridan journeyed off to Nepal and Amanda MacBlane (a.k.a. Mandy) took over her duties—resulting in the rest of the NMBx team morphing from the alliterative Molly and Mandy to the rhyming Mandy and Randy. Later that year, Mandy moved to France but luckily Molly came back, this time for good. At the time, though we kept going without a hitch, it was a somewhat unsettling game of musical chairs—at least to me. Now it’s a delightful memory, a positive analog to those constantly shifting and often unsettling times.

Are You Putting Me On?


Image courtesy of Bigstock.

There have indeed been a great number of John Cage concerts, festivals, articles, and discussions throughout the world in 2012 in celebration of his centennial and I can certainly relate to experiencing a bit of Cage fatigue, especially here in New York where the din of Cagean noise has approached a veritable roar. However, what I have a difficult time relating to is the completely cynical rejection of Cage and his legacy that the composer Daniel Asia conveys in his article “The Put on of the Century, or the Cage Centenary” published on January 3 in The Huffington Post. In this rather mean-spirited piece, which begins by noting that this year (2013) marks the 100th birthday of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Asia repeats many of the standard criticisms of Cage’s music that have been made from the beginning: that it is non-developmental, it lacks form and structure, it lacks meaningful pitch relations, it lacks tension and release, etc. He also asks the question: “While Cage is being feted this year among my musical colleagues almost as much as Stravinsky, why should this be so, and what does it mean?” The author goes on to recapitulate a bit of 20th-century music history in making the antiquated case for the supremacy of “the tonal enterprise” (i.e.: harmony and counterpoint), seemingly dismissing the entirety of modernism in the process.
I am no proselytizer for modernism, but at least I accept that it happened and that our music and culture have been forever altered by it. Nothing is essentially wrong with the “tonal enterprise,” but most of us acknowledge that in the aftermath of the tumultuous 20th-century, we live in a dramatically expanded field of possibilities. Not only do we now have a range of idioms and languages such as atonality, aperiodicity, serialism, jazz, heavy metal, gamelan, gagaku, Chinese opera, punk rock, mountain music, electronic and computer music, sound art, field recordings, noise, balloons, bird songs, sirens, mechanical instruments, MIDI controllers, free music…you name it, but we also have a whole universe of approaches to form and structure. To rely only on the traditional recipe of hierarchical relationships, the play of consonance against dissonance and the ultimate resolution of expectations, is to live in the past.

Which brings us to Cage: I believe I am in good company when I assert that John Cage is our country’s most important and influential musical thinker. It would take much more time and space for me to fully make that case, but suffice it to say that Cage revolutionized music in such a way as to make it possible for anyone to make any music they imagine. His example of openness and acceptance of diversity has inspired many to become involved in music, and perhaps most importantly, through both his own work and his proselytizing on behalf of a great many neglected or unknown composers, he essentially defined our understanding of a distinctly American musical identity. While we here on these shores are undoubtedly rooted in Western civilization, we are a decidedly multi-cultural and free-thinking nation, and as we have come to recognize, many of us identify as much with the East, the Americas, Africa, and “other” as with European ideals. Our homegrown musical culture makes this clear by its vast diversity. To ignore the complexity of our situation is foolish.

Now I don’t expect everyone to endorse or emulate Cage and his aesthetic, although a little more love for his Sonatas and Interludes would be nice—it’s probably his greatest work! (Check out Maro Ajemian’s 1951 recording first issued on Dial Records and later by CRI. Wow!) It would in fact be in keeping with his very ethic of openness and acceptance of diversity to follow your own path (he often said as much). But I do expect composers working today, especially in America, to have at least an understanding of what Cage means and why he is important. How an American composer and professor, Daniel Asia in this case, living and working in the western states no less, could still have no real understanding of or interest in a composer who is arguably our greatest and most influential figure is, well, surprising. The bigger question for me is why this should be so and what does it mean?