The New-Music Narrative, Interrupted

April 25, 2007

By Kyle Gann

Take a look at this list of books:

Leonard Meyer: Music, the Arts, and Ideas, 1967
Iannis Xenakis: Formalized Music, 1971
David Cope: New Directions in Music, 1971
Michael Nyman: Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, 1974
Cornelius Cardew: Stockhausen Serves Imperialism, 1974
John Vinton, ed.: Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Music, 1974
Robert Erickson: Sound Structure in Music, 1975
Roger Reynolds: Mind Models, 1975
Steve Reich: Writings About Music, 1975
Walter Zimmermann: Desert Plants, 1976
Gregory Battcock, ed.: Breaking the Sound Barrier, 1981
Cole Gagne and Tracy Caras: Soundpieces: Interviews with American Composers, 1982
Wim Mertens: American Minimal Music, 1983
Pauline Oliveros: Software for People, 1984
George Rochberg: The Aesthetics of Survival, 1984

To follow up on and illustrate my last post, these were the books that informed me about new music in my youth, that chronicled about where it was going and what it was doing. They explained music that was only a few years old; they described and categorized current trends; they predicted what would soon be coming up in the future. There was a real effort to understand how music was changing and why, and a small industry devoted to arguments on every side. Most important, a narrative was being drawn, that a diverse group of thinkers (many of them composers advancing their own interests, of course) were contributing to. We in new music had a story about what was going on, and we could all be on the same page even if we disagreed about the details.

And then, suddenly, - nothing. In the 1980s art rock, totalism, free improvisation, postminimalism took over stages in New York and elsewhere in quick succession, but no books noted, no authors tried to explain. In the next several years we had a few memoires by elder statesmen reminiscing about what they had done way back when: Milton Babbitt's Words About Music (1987), George Perle's The Listening Composer (1990). In 1990 Cole Gagne came out with an odd little book, self-consciously vernacular in style, called Sonic Transports, that contained a lot of dubiously edited information about Glenn Branca and "Blue" Gene Tyranny; good luck finding it. The mid-'90s gave us two books of interviews, Gagne's Soundpieces 2 (1993) and Bill Duckworth's Talking Music (1995) - excellent, though aimed more at celebrating the diversity of what was going on, preserving some raw material for future musicology, rather than trying to draw a narrative to make sense of things. (The '90s also finally brought us books by Rob Schwarz, Ed Strickland, and Keith Potter thoroughly exploring the minimalism of the '60s and '70s.)

Finally, since the 21st century started, we've had a few 1970s-style synthesizing compendia appear: John Zorn's Arcana: Musicians on Music of 2000, the 2004 collection Audio Culture edited by Christopher Cox and Daniel Warner, and Duckworth's Virtual Music (2005). The first of these covers the free improvisation world, the second is largely historical and focuses on technological issues, and the third explores music's relationship to the internet. Put these three books together and you can start to make a picture of the era, though not much in terms of more general compositional issues. That leaves, by my calculation, my American Music in the Twentieth Century (1997) and Music Downtown (2006) and John Luther Adams's Winter Music (2004) - finally, the first book of essays by a composer of my generation - as the only books to address general recent compositional trends in a narrative format since the genre disappeared in the early '80s. And Schirmer kind of blindsided me by marketing American Music in the Twentieth Century as a textbook, thus making it more difficult to find, which wasn't the original idea.

Of course, there are a lot of issues here, and no one explanation. A significant one is that university presses were pressured to go commercial in the 1980s, and certainly weren't encouraging anyone to write about a subject perceived as non-lucrative as new music. But so many of the helpful early narratives about new music were by composers - why, in the '80s and '90s, did composers quit writing? The breakup of the new music world into a dozen or more niches certainly creates a daunting challenge. The "musical intellectual" niche, proudly clinging to Ligeti and Kurtag and following Ferneyhough's every move, is isolationist, and doesn't consider the rest of music worth writing about, yet their own music is too arcane for books about it to be marketable. The midtown orchestral composers, possessing all the institutional power, don't feel compelled to pay attention to anyone but themselves, yet most of them write such bland, compromised music that no one wants to write about them. Other niches, like postminimalism, have received so little public support that no one knows about them as a group phenomenon despite their vast numbers. And sometimes I think the microtonalists are doing everything they can think of to keep from being heard or seen.

But isn't this niche problem itself a plum of a musicological pickle? You can't say no one saw it coming: I well remember scary predictions in the mid-1970s that someday soon the mainstream in classical music would break up and cease to exist, and that we'd have a bunch of different streams that would hardly relate to each other. Well, it happened. Is that a reason to quit writing about it? Isn't that fact in itself the great musical story of our time? and why aren't some of the more ambitious musicologists rushing to clarify it, to put their own stamps on our understanding of it? With so many niches and such an explosion in the number of composers, there should have been more books, not none. Just because we don't have a central musical style anymore doesn't mean we can't have a central narrative whose primary outlines everyone could accede to. And how can we have a meaningful new-music world at all without a narrative?


Elaine Fine: I don't think that people stopped writing music or writing about music during the 80s and 90s, but publishers were not as interested in publishing books about music as they were during the 1960s and 1970s, so we don't have as many books to read about the era. The 80s and 90s did see a great increase in the number of musicians who decided to get doctoral degrees because it was harder and harder, for reasons that are obvious, to get non-academic musical employment. In order to get tenure it was necessary (and still is necessary) to have a book published, so lots of people wrote lots of would-be books.
Getting a book published by an academic press, even in the 1980s, was extremely difficult because academic presses can only afford to publish a fraction of the manuscripts sent to them. Getting a book published by the non-academic press before self publishing became available to all was even more difficult because commercial publishing companies knew that they wouldn't make much money (if any) on books about non-popular music, especially those written by people who weren't already well known. I also imagine that most of the books about classical music and classical musicians that are published by large publication companies are a result of personal interest on the part of an editor.
I imagine that the only way to get a good look (not just a retrospective one) at what people were doing in new music during the 1980s and 1990s is to visit the archives of several university libraries and read through the doctoral dissertations written by music theorists. And then follow up by inquiring about non-published work from the writers who seem most interesting-perhaps they might be encouraged to put their work on line. Some of the best secrets of history lie in the drawers and files of people who go about their work quietly and are known by only a small circle of people.

John Shaw: I was riffing on Andrea's observation:
". . . we have an entire movement of music (and other arts) based on the exploration of non-narrative forms . . . "
It struck me that the minimalists tend not to write pieces that map the tension-building-CLIMAX pattern of so much 19th century and earlier 20th century music, a pattern which also maps the narrative pattern of traditional drama and fiction.
But the same could be said of the aleatorists, and maybe the serialists (though I don't know their stuff well enough to say).

Galen H. Brown: John-
Can you clarify what you mean when you say that the minimalists eschewed narrative? Thanks!

mclaren: Gann remarks:
And then, suddenly, - nothing. In the 1980s art rock, totalism, free improvisation, postminimalism took over stages in New York and elsewhere in quick succession, but no books noted, no authors tried to explain.
While we all know Kyle Gann is never wrong, that statement might fall just a wee bit short of being right.
One thing that happened is that the music criticism moved out of text and into multimedia. Consider the 7 DVD set of Simon Rattle's Leaving Home: Orchestral Music in the 20th Century.
This is a DVD compilation of a BBC multi-part TV programme on contemporary music.
Then there's Ivor Darreg's 100-plus lecture-demonstration audio tapes. I'm currently working on putting these on CD.
Then we have Harry Partch's "A Quarter-Saw Cut Of Motivations and Intonations" which only recently appeared on the Enclosure 2 CD.
My own lecture-demonstration CDs and Kyle Gann's multi-part internet radio series on modern music also count as part of the multimedia parade about contemporary music. There are surely lots of other examples of which I'm not aware, and these have appeared all throughout the 80s and 90s.
The multimedia format is inherently superior to text because people are literally incapable of imagining music they have never heard. This goes double for xenharmonic music.
Gann goes on to mention: Just because we don't have a central musical style anymore doesn't mean we can't have a central narrative whose primary outlines everyone could accede to.
Yes, it does mean exactly that. This is what Leonard Meyer pointed out back in 1956. Because we're now in a fluctuating musical steady state in which all different musical styles and narratives coexist simultaneously, no one musical style can claim primacy and consequently no one musical narrative can claim greater legitimacy than the others.
Consider the nature of the incompatible narratives in contemporary music:
[1] Music has evolved in a teleological Hegelian upward ramp from our earliest records of music to today. This is the implicit narrative of 19th century music historians and musicologists.
[2] Music exhibits stylistic pendulum swings and, while music history never repeats, it often rhymes. This is the implicit narrative of popular Introduction To Music textbooks.
[3] European music reached a peak of sophistication in the Hellenic era circa the 2nd century A.D. and thereafter collapsed into a sharp decline, whence it hardly returned until recently, with the advent of Nancarrow and Partch. This is the implicit narrative of Lou Harrison and Harry Partch and Ben Johnston.
[4] Serious contemporary music can no longer find its way without the aid of science, and, if it wishes to remain historically relevant, must continually inject more science and mathematics in order to progress. This is the implicit narrative of IRCAM.
[5] Music does not progress and has never progressed; musical styles fluctuate, but do not advance or decline in overall sophistication. This is the implicit narrative of contemporary Encyclopedias Of Music.
[6] The history of music represents a three-way tradeoff twixt pitch materials, rhythm and timbre. Increasing complexity in one requires that the others decrease in complexity. Failure to follow this rule results in a masical style which sounds incoherent and fails to catch on with a wide audience. THis is the implicit narrative of composers like John R. Pierce and Jean-Claude Risset who have been strongly influenced by psychoacoustic research.
[7] The history of western music exhibits a steady accretion in tonal materials until the 12-equal tuning became exhausted, circa 1970, at which point western composers started to cast about for other tunings to explore. This is the implicit narrative of many current microtonalists.
[8] Contemporary music is a degenerate slag-heap through which composers fruitlessly shuffle in futile quest of detritus worth salvaging. This is the implicit narrative of Henry Pleasant's The Agony Of Modern Music.
[9] The history of western music is the history of an apocalyptic cult whose members shave their heads and flagellate themselves and carry around placards which read REPENT - THE END OF TONALITY IS COMING. This is the implicit narrative behind the terminology "post-tonal" music.
[10] European 19th century music represents a Himalayan peak which dwarfs all previous and subsequent periods of music. This is the implicit narrative of large Western symphony orchestras.
None of these narratives is compatible with any of the others. In order to believe one, you must disbelieve all the others. A particularly vexing problem for the True Believer in any of these narratives nowadays is that so much excellent music has been done in all styles of contemporary music.
Lastly, Gann asks:
And how can we have a meaningful new-music world at all without a narrative?
Nassim Nicholas Taleb has pointed out that most of our retrospective historical narratives, upon exmination, prove unconvincing and bogus. Instead, he cites highly improbable unpredictable events ("Black Swans") as the primary movers of history, and he adduces a great deal of thorough statistical analysis to buttress his claim.
The most obvious Black Swan in modern music is The Great War of 1914, which led directly to WW II. This produced despair and anomie in several generations of sensitive composers...but the expectation of a world of eternal poison-gas trench warfare and an unlmited horizon of Dachaus and Auschwitzes as far as the eye can see has now been broken by the advance of democracy and the decrease in global violence since WW II.
Another black swan is the advent of nuclear weapons, which despairing artists and musicians judged the end of the world. Much music composed from 1945 through 1980 only makes sense as incidental after-dinner music for a radioactive post-WW-III wasteland. Instead of Prelude a L' Apre-Midi D'une Faun, "Prelude A L'Apre-midi D'une Mutant Radioactif." Nuclear armageddon never arrived, however, and nuclear weapons are now recognized as useless for warfare, and the human race is in the process of dismantling 'em.
Yet another Black Swan is the microchip, largely responsible for the internet as well as the contemporary popularity of microtonality (since we can now hear all those 37 pitches per octave at the touch of a button).
None of these Black Swans were predicted, or could have been predicted, or make sense in retrospect as anything but abberrant statistical outliers.
It may be that historical narratives of all kinds are delusions. If Taleb is right, then Black Swans have determined the course of music history as much as they have determined the course of Western history, or, indeed, world history. This would make a coherent narrative of contemporary music an ignis fatuus.
By the way, the first chapter of Taleb's book The Black Swan is currently being serialized in The New York Times. It's worth a look. Paul Griffiths has extensively revised his Modern Music And After to add part III, "Many Rivers," to reflect this view, in which Griffiths writes "We live among many simultaneous histories."
KG replies: Even simultaneous histories can be described in a book. Didn't you just describe them in an e-mail?

m c maguire: Classical music, by the 70's, was drowned out by new, old, and much louder cultural/economic noise. The narrative and counter-narrative fell off the collective-conscious radar --so all you have is a lot of desperate, mayday signals from far-flung cultural interpreters (composers), who no longer have all the information. For instance, the U.S. has a real bias about minimalism, not only because it gives the European taskmasters a bloody nose, it's partially the result of all of us being disconnected from a shared narrative (no more Toveyian 'Main Stream of Music). For the last 40 years, there has been no stylistic/musical discourse, but more a banding together of likeminded, lonely souls, catapulting stuff over the fort walls, not really knowing where the missives land (a good chance, complete obscurity, or better, an ill-performed orch. commission, or best, an obscure composer-in-residency gig). Perhaps the internet might change that, though given the siege mentality in all remaining camps, understandably squabbling over shrinking resources and airspace, real musical/critical dialogue and shared narrative seems far off.

John Shaw: ms. andrea,
I was generalizing from my subjective observation, and yes, you are right that a non-narrativizing element has been in the arts independent of political Humpty-Dumpty-ism. But I don't think that the existence of non-narrative arts explains the lack of narrativizing arts histories, because non-narrativizing arts date back at least a century, and, as Kyle's list shows, the minimalists' eschewing of narrative did not undermine the urge to tell the story in prose.
Consumer culture urges each of us to create our own consumer niche -- my sensibility overlaps precisely with nobody else's. The acceleration of this process since the advent of CDs, and, even more, computer-consumerism, may have something to do with the lack of arts histories.
The theoretical critique of "overarching narratives" that occurred in academia in the '60s and '70s and '80s may have had an effect as well. It's interesting that this critique seems to rhyme with the consumer culture's glorification of the "culture of one" that each of us cultivates.
At least I can pat myself on the back that when a computer consumer portal tells me, "If you like This, then you might like That," they're always telling me something obvious, and often something wrong. Those computer programs can't encapsulate *my* culture of one! And probably not yours either.
The music and poetry and theater scenes really have fragmented, where most people in different camps neither know nor have much interest in the lineages of other camps. Pulling together a history from this situation would be a tough. But I do think it would be useful and interesting. Telling the story serves a different purpose than experiencing the non-narrative art in the first-place.

andrea: And how can we have a meaningful new-music world at all without a narrative?
for some reason your question reminded me of something richard foreman said to the new york times recently:
"Too much theater arranges things so that people are led on a journey that reinforces the emotional habits of their lives," Mr. Foreman said, sitting in the book-infested SoHo loft he has shared with his wife since they bought it for a song in 1970. "For many years I've said that stories hide the truth." His preference, he said, for his own life and his own brand of theater, is "hovering on the edge of understanding, waiting to see what direction it goes in."
it seems that music (alongside foreman's hitting the scene in the 60s) has been taking that same sort of anti-narrative direction. so, i'm not sure i follow mr. shaw's implication that conservative, republican doublespeak is entirely responsible for the anti-narrative streak in american culture (i don't think they're anti-narrative; they just want to be the sole authors of the american narrative).
if we have an entire movement of music (and other arts) based on the exploration of non-narrative forms, do we then follow suit and have a non-narrative history of said movement? i think these compendia -- arcana, audio culture, yours and tom johnson's compilations of vv writings -- are an example of just that: bits and pieces from which readers can construct meaning as they see fit. perhaps this is only only way this kind of story will be told.

John Shaw: It's a hodgepodge and a niche book, but "The Book of Music and Nature" edited by David Rothenberg and Marta Ulvaeus in 2001 includes writings by contemporary composers.
I think the problem of de-narrativization of culture that you are describing may cross over into poetry as well.
I can't help but wonder whether the ascendency of Reagan signified a cultural senility. The year I graduated from high school, he took office with the blatantly nonsensical platform of, "cut taxes, increase military spending, and balance the budget." Naturally one of these agenda items did not get accomplished, and yet Reagan remains a hero to millions of budget busters who style themselves "fiscal conservatives." In such a linguistic environment, when people who drain words of their meanings are elevated to positions of highest regard and power, maybe the narrativizing urge in general gets scrambled.
The end of the Carter years and the ascent of Reagan coincided with the explosion of homelessness. With my generation of artists -- at least the ones I know -- the lack of arts funding has always seemed a minor issue of complaint in a culture of brutal disregard for humane values. Simultaneously, I was acutely suspicious, and I suspect my peers were as well, of marketing in any form, and the construction of narratives -- and even more, manifestoes -- can definitely be suspected of marketing.
The current administration's linguistic style is even more Humpty-Dumpty-ist than Reagan's ("'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, 'It means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'"). It doesn't surprise me that artists have become less public in their understandings.
And I thank you for your work to counteract these tendencies.

Copyright 2007 by Kyle Gann

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