Idiot's Guide to PostClassic

December 6, 2008

By Kyle Gann

Statistically speaking, you probably don't agree with a word I say. Out there in the larger world of contemporary music, Elliott Carter is king, we are smack dab in the middle of the modernist period which will never end, the purpose of serious music is to convey how terrible the world is, and art is infinitely superior to entertainment and should never be confused with it. This blog is a repository of minority opinion, a haven and beacon for those few of us who happen not to agree with those propositions. We are painfully aware how tiny our numbers are, how overwhelming and monolithic the well-educated, well-entrenched opposition. Nevertheless, we remain content to disagree with the Conventional Wisdom.

This makes the comments feature something of a problem. The messages I get from people who understand the context of this blog vastly enliven it, and I treasure them. But for some reason, we periodically seem to attract momentary attention from the Conventional Wisdom crowd, who, horrified by a random phrase here and there, write in to portray me as some kind of trance-music Madame Mao determined to bomb classical music back to the stone age. I don't have time or energy to re-explain my entire life story to every rubber-necking newcomer who chances by to ask the new-music equivalent of, "When are you going to stop beating your wife?!" So rather than post those comments, I'm going to try to write a meta-post explaining a few premises of this blog, a series of such posts if necessary, so in the future I can simply refer those people to this URL.

So, for the uninitiated, let me address some myths about PostClassic:

Myth No. 1: I Am Opposed to All Complex, Difficult, and Atonal Music. In the first music history course I took at Oberlin, the professor played Stockhausen's Mikrophonie I for the class with poorly concealed distaste, and it was left to me, a freshman from Texas, to defend Stockhausen to the class as a remarkable and important composer. That was 1973. The first piece I wrote at Oberlin was influenced mainly by Luciano Berio's Circles. The Darmstadt serialist repertoire was the first brand new music I imbibed, and I did so in high school. I absorbed it on my own, to the incomprehension of my peers, uncontaminated by the pressures of mentorship, which is perhaps why my attachment to it never became dogmatic. I guess what happens with most composers, still today, is that some college professor introduces them to serialism, and learning to appreciate it becomes some kind of entree into the professional world, from which there is no turning back. For me it was a private affair; I felt free to accept from it what I liked and reject what, after dozens of obsessive listenings and all the reading material I could find, I didn't.

Therefore the automatic disdain of the amateur who thinks nothing good can come from 12-tone method, and the automatic reverence of the professional composer for whom 12-tone music was The Noble Experiment, I find equally shallow. My writings on complex and difficult music have been extremely nuanced. I've written with varying degrees of closely analyzed enthusiasm about Roger Sessions, Ralph Shapey, Dallapiccola, twelve-tone Stravinsky, Takemitsu, Rochberg, Rochberg again, Stefan Wolpe, Vermeulen, Blomdahl, '50s Carter and '60s Boulez, the ultracomplex music of Mike Maguire, some fanatically complex music by Cornelis de Bondt,rhythmic complexity, complexity in general, 12-tone music again and again. If you can read all that and still claim that I have no deep affection for complex, difficult, or atonal music, maybe it's time to admit that reading comprehension isn't your forte. "I find it rather foolish that we would dismiss all music which simply defies even the sharpest of listeners to catch every detail the first time they hear it," cried a commenter in anguish a few weeks ago. That someone could feel a need to say this to me, of all people, almost extinguishes all hope.

Of course it's probably, as Darcy James Argue says, that the Fraternity of Serious Composers defines themselves in opposition to popular taste, and if you admit to disliking even one complex, difficult piece you are immediately suspected of being an Unreliable Club Member and therefore must be rooted out and rehabilitated. Unreliable Club Member: that I'll plead guilty to. I no more pledge allegiance to minimalism than I do to serialism: I find The Desert Music problematic, Different Trains didn't grow on me, and I've written some of Glass's most blistering opera reviews. I am no ideologue.

Myth No. 2: I Write Music for Audiences. This one is actually true, but with qualifications. Almost every composer, even the regular commenters on this blog, will cite you the Conventional Wisdom about whom one writes for: "I only write for myself, taking my own taste as representative, since there is no such thing as 'The Audience,' everyone listens differently. Complexity is only a subjective perception anyway, and after all I saw Brian Ferneyhough get a standing ovation at Miller Theater once, and posterity will sort it all out, yada yada yada." Of course, you presumably already know what's going on in your music and a stranger listening to it doesn't have that inside scoop, and by trivializing that perceptual asymmetry, this line of thought provides an effortless rationale to save you the trouble of clarifying your ideas to the point that no one can miss the point of your music. On this issue I am way, way, way in the minority, even among friends. But I am not alone. As one of my regulars once responded:

The "I'm writing only for myself"-line I've always regarded as cynical and defensive. It's the art composer accepting his marginalisation by capitalist society, or even trying to pass it off as a great and heroic thing. Nonsense! Even Schoenberg couldn't stomach that. Yes, our art may come out of some sort of composerly ascesis, but it's not meant to stay there!

There is another tradition: that of Aaron Copland in the 1930s when he said, "It seemed to me that composers were in danger of working in a vacuum... I felt it was worth the effort to see if I couldn't say what I had to say in the simplest possible terms." The tradition of Marc Blitzstein who protrayed artists in The Cradle Will Rock as the biggest corporate whores of all, of Hanns Eisler who broke away from Schoenberg to write worker's choruses, of Cornelius Cardew's Stockhausen Serves Imperialism, of Leo Tolstoy's What Is Art? And it is the same tradition, though we didn't articulate it as militantly, as the populist movement that surrounded the New Music America festivals of the 1980s; without getting terribly political about it in the left/right sense, we were excited that a large group of composers had returned from the arid wastelands of the serialist avant-garde to write music that audiences could find hip and exciting again. It is even the tradition of Steve Reich, who wrote in 1967 that "Obviously music should put all within listening range into a state of ecstasy." Perhaps it's populism's tragedy that its two most eloquent apologists, Tolstoy and Cardew, wrote overly extreme, over-the-top books whose excesses are only too easy to refute. Nevertheless, phrases from those books stick in my head, unanswerable, forming part of my musical conscience. Despise me as you will, I compose with the audience in mind.

But I am no extremist, in this or anything else. Put a gun to my head, and I'd say that populism and narcissism are two poles between which an artist should vacillate, satisfying now one, now the other, and that the psychologically effective strategy is not to get stuck permanently at either end. If I am a fascist for believing that there is any worthwhile alternative to narcissism, as a commenter called me, then Aaron Copland was Stalin himself. (And besides, the more historically resonant epithet to throw at me would have been "communist!," which I would have accepted in better grace.) Just as I need not defend complex music, since only simple music comes under attack from the composing community, neither do I need to defend narcissism, which is the catholic church to which all composers subscribe except for a few of us outcast heretics. But I do defend, when the occasion arises, the opposite pole of populism. Some people take from this the uncharitable view that I am irrevocably opposed to selfishness and self-aggrandizement, when, really, it's just that I think it's probably not politic to wallow in them 24/7/365.

If you disagree with me, as chances are you do, I need not hear from you about it. To violently disagree with me on this issue is to be a walking cliche, a stock character: a composer who writes only to please himself. There are 40,000 of you out there at last count. I know exactly what you think, and need no reminder. You will never experience the grace with which Shakespeare could address the audience through the mouth of Prospero, who closes The Tempest by saying,

Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please.

(How cynical of Shakespeare to so pretend, since as a great artist he must have known that great artists write only for themselves.) Take comfort in the fact that opinion within the composing community is nigh unanimous on your side. Take no notice of the deplorable situation that new music composition is an art almost completely absent from the world's enthusiasms: surely the fact that composers are trained to write only for themselves bears no responsibility for that. And consider that the attempted squelching of my populist dissent is more fascist in character than it would be to allow me my tiny minority opinion, which threatens you no harm. Which leads us to:

Myth No. 3: I Control What Happens in the New-Music World. How in hell did that one arise? What's with the fear that I'm going to disenfranchise lovers of complex music, that I am on the verge of descending from Olympus and imposing my will on the new-music performance scene? Me?! Does James Levine never pencil a title into his conducting schedule without running it by me first? Are Dana Gioia and I are on the phone daily so I can confirm which composers are up and which are down at the NEA this month? Does the new-music programming of Michael Tilson Thomas and Esa-Pekka Salonen hinge on my suggestions? Do I wave my hand and the complexion of the upcoming concert season is altered?

The world of academic composition is tightly barricaded against people who hold views like mine. My colleagues circle the wagons to make sure my radical ideas don't infect the students. Every year I have to argue that it's OK for student pieces to have only one dynamic level all the way through. My suggestion that students ought to be allowed to learn composition software other than Max/MSP incited World War III. My simplest, most common-sense ideas are too radical for musical academia. Except for a few jokers at Yale who like to live dangerously by exposing students to me, the academic composition world has closed me out. (I occasionally hear that some blog entry of mine is brought into composition class to start an argument with, but it may just be Rob Deemer over and over again.) I used to sit on the occasional composer panel, but haven't been asked in years. No one I've written a Guggenheim recommendation for has ever received one. And as for the world of contemporary music performance, I'm not even a hair on a gnat on an elephant's rump. So what's with this panic that I'm going to rearrange the furniture, and heads will roll? I am at best the Dennis Kucinich of the composing world, considered insightful by some on the crazy left but with views so far outside the acceptable mainstream that there is no chance they will ever be discussed seriously in public by anyone but myself.

The only people who do listen to me - aside from a small cadre of fans whom I like to imagine idling around Other Music in New York waiting for the next Charlemagne Palestine CD to arrive - are the musicologists. I am in possession of historical data for which they have no other current source, and my description of a 1930s populism resurfacing in 1980s Manhattan piques their curiosity, not their terror. The musicologists, realizing circa 1983 that their profession's reputation was stale and dowdy, revolutionized their field, and are now at the apogee of their powers. Composers, by contrast, enjoyed their hour of maximum prestige in the '60s, and are straining every ideological sinew to extend that moment into eternity, and forestall the passage of time. There exists perhaps a real danger that my account of late-20th-century American music will get accepted into the history books in some form or another, for the lack of any attempted alternative narrative. But that's hardly my fault. I wield no weight except for whatever persuasiveness I can muster in prose. I have no institutional support, am buoyed by no prizes or awards of any note. I'm just a blogger, but for some reason a threat to Western civilization.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

A friend who got her doctorate in the '90s at a famous music department told me yesterday that the faculty criticized her music for having too many articulated downbeats (notes occuring on the first beat of the measure) and not enough quintuplets. From the point of view of traditional musicality that is absolutely bizarre - imagine Mozart submitted to such criteria - but from the point of view of the composing world's Conventional Wisdom, the "Elliott Carter got it Right" mentality, it makes a certain perverse sense. Some of us find this Conventional Wisdom twisted, neurotic, cramped, dogmatic, fascistic, counterintuitive, self-defeating, and sick. We gather here at PostClassic to get away from it, as gays go into a gay bar, and we don't need academia's Religious Right trailing in after us in to give us the same lectures we're trying to escape from. If you've bought into the Conventional Wisdom, you have the entire rest of the composing world to roam around in, and heads will nod wherever you speak. Why isn't that enough? Why are you compelled to try to change PostClassic too? What is it about a little modicum of marginalized diversity that threatens you so much?

I'm determined not to shut down the comments feature, but I am going to take a heavier hand from now on in deleting comments that demonstrate ignorance of the context here, and would therefore take way too long to answer. Those commenters will be referred to this post, and any other summational ones I feel moved to write. I am not obligated to provide yet another platform for the Conventional Wisdom. If that's all you've got to throw at us, the rest of the classical music world's your oyster, bub.


Will Mego says: Keep the faith. I might not agree with you most times, but I do on pretty much all of that. Look at it this way though: Perhaps they're just scared and require constant peer validation because they know (or at least suspect) that they AREN'T delivering the goods, that posterity WON'T think well of them (worse yet, they know it won't think poorly of them, but it won't think of them at all). So when faced with a lack of popular appeal, they say "you don't understand me". I'm not sure it's that we don't know the emperor has no clothes, it's that we really really keep hoping that if we act as though he has, we'll wake up one morning and it will have come true during the night.

Caleb Deupree says: Maybe some people are threatened because you're so darned entertaining. Other Music & Charlemagne Palestine -- LOL!
Seriously though, I've found more music I like through this blog than through any other source. I even have one of your posts specifically bookmarked (The Postclassic Piano List) for easy reference.

Tom Brennan says: I think it's possible you don't give yourself enough credit for being a positive influence on the music world. Or maybe it's just that I can't imagine what it would be like without your blog. I can't tell you how many conversations I've participated in where I've prefaced by saying, "you know, I was reading Kyle Gann's blog the other day, and..." What's refreshing about reading your blog, to me, is precisely that you aren't trying to muscle any one aesthetic. I find your perspective to be uplifting and positive, even in this entry.

Richard Lainhart says: Well said, and please, keep up the good work.
I guess I must be one of those gay bar types, because I visit every day, and I'd much rather hang out here than one of those Other Blogs. At least visiting here doesn't require a secret password or special knock to get in.

david toub says: I toally agree, Kyle. I think a lot of us hear similar comments by the establishment types. But maybe enduring their disdainful comments are better than being ignored, no?

Ryan Tanaka says: I understand your frustration, and I do tend to agree with most of your posts here. I went through a similar arc of being highly interested in high-modernism but as I learn more about it, it seems to lose its relevance or meaning as time goes on. (I was lucky to have improvisation to get me out of the dogma of that world...although I've noticed that improvisers seem to have a genuine respect for Carter...)
Economically, not even counting Hollywood, we've been losing a lot of funding to other styles such as jazz and world musics where there tends to be a much better public reception. (By public, I also mean potential patrons as well.) Socially, the "fine" arts don't really have the same kind of prestige or respect that it used to carry. Intellectually, a lot of the rhetoric espoused by high-modern art simply doesn't make any sense, and is insensitive to the philosophical developments which has lead to that point. Even the poster-boy of modern art, Theodore Adorno, didn't care much for the avant-garde and I think that says a lot.
Most contemporary music concerts I go to nowadays feel dead and uninspired, ESPECIALLY if they're coming from highly reputable venues. The musicians either have this look of impending doom on their face (probably due to the complexity of the music), or some of the more professional ones seem to have distanced themselves emotionally from the process all together. A lot of performers I know have developed a cynical attitude towards playing music, since they're the ones in the front-lines doing all the dirty work while the composers themselves are often lacking understanding of what they've just written. If I wanted to see people in suffering or despair, I'll just step outside of the concert hall and go back to the real world. Where did the fun in playing music go, huh?
I think that your posts resonates a lot with younger musicians, so I wouldn't worry so much about the comments. With the collapse of Wall Street and the change in administration, we're living in different times now, and I think it's fairly clear that in a decade or so the music scene will look a lot different than what it is currently today. A lot of what caused the recent collapse in the market was collective delusion (by otherwise very intelligent people) fueled by exploitative practices and blind optimism. To some extent, the music world was just reflecting this trend, but that trend is no more. I think that your work will be vindicated in the long run.
But in my opinion, to censor comments would be doing just of the same that they have been doing for a very long time. NewMusicBox has recently gone into heavy moderation mode -- I talked to some people privately and they said that it's probably not worth posting there anymore because of that. And you can tell that the chatter section has basically turned into a cheerleading site, devoid of any real talk about substantiative issues. It'd be a shame if it had to turn into that here...
Believe me, when old-fashioned people say something ridiculous, it may not be apparent to them but it's usually obvious to the younger folk. Have some faith!
KG replies: Thanks, Ryan. I don't mind the comments disagreeing with things I actually said. It's the comments disagreeing with things I never said and don't believe that I don't have time to answer.

peter says: Good on you, Kyle! I'm with you, 100%. I have mentioned here before that your book of reprinted articles finally allowed me to make sense of the contemporary music which spoke to me and that which did not. Most of the former was (and is) downtown music.
One of the most irksome features of the uptown complexity crowd is their widespread belief that downtown, minimalist and like music is somehow "simple". Different types of music require the hearer to listen for different things, and minimalism can make significant demands on the hearer (and indeed, on players). It truly astonishes me that many people calling themselves professional composers or musicians seem capable of only listening for, or only hearing, some of what is going on in a piece of music, and are completely oblivious of all the rest.
Hang in there!

J.C. Combs says: "the Dennis Kucinich of the composing world,"
nothing wrong with that! Mike Gravel on the other hand...
"Every year I have to argue that it's OK for a student piece to have only one dynamic level all the way through,"
How bizarre.

Richard Mitnick says: >Non illegitami carborundum est.
Don't let the bastards get you down.

Rob Deemer says: Heh... I will admit to have brought in your work (as well as that of Greg Sandow, Alex Ross, Frank Oteri, and others) to get my students to talk about the important issues you raise and to get them to look at their world and art through more than one lens. The fact that arguments have ensued is just a bonus...hope you don't mind...
In any case, please know that your blog here is one of the most important avenues for contemporary music issues to be voiced and discussed...blogs like yours, Greg's, Darcy's and Lawrence Dillon's as well as Sequenza21 and NewMusicBox are really THE conduits for the multitudes who aren't lucky enough to be living or working in Manhattan. For those too ignorant or close-minded or argumentative to understand the point of blogs like yours, it's their loss and I understand your loss of patience with 'em.

arthur jarvinen says: Kyle
One of the things I enjoy about reading comments posted to your blog is how often someone says "I'm not a musician", or "I'm not a composer"...but...
That's kind of fun. You have people reading what you have to say, listening, and getting turned on. There can't be too much wrong with that. You go, girl!
But it troubles me a lot that you so often say how much dynamic markings play into how your colleagues assess the "professionalism" or even artistic merit of a musical work. How stupid can they be and actually have jobs teaching composition? Dynamics are the least expressive parameter in almost any piece of music. The interesting styles and genres usually have little or no use for those fucking hair pins, let alone a ffffppppp.
Hey, I use those things. But only when the MUSIC needs them. I think a composer's job is to listen to the music, and address its needs. And I seldom hear dramatic dynamic gestures as being very relevant to musical ideas being shared with a listening audience.
You are doing a very nice job of articulating some matters of style, and clarifying some of the parameters that are being addressed by composers who don't rely heavily on huge dynamic (dramatic) contrasts to express all sorts of ideas, feelings, structures, and many types of beauties in sound.
My students always seem very relieved when I tell them it's okay to not use dynamics - if they are not relevant to their musical language.
Where and when did this insidious idea (about dynamics) even crop up, let alone take over?
KG replies: It's just you and me, god bless you.

Ryan Howard says: Not that I don't understand your point, but you commented not long ago on how your time spent at UM Kansas City made you think of how closely your beliefs mirror those of much of the compositional world out there, and that the kind of modernist mindset you describe has currency today mainly here in the northeast. Do you really belong to such a beleaguered minority as you're making out here?
KG replies: God, if only I knew. Sometimes I do think that if I could only get off the East Coast I could find paradise.

Brian Vlasak says: I've had to fight tooth and nail to secure ten performances a year; strangely enough, I'm doing better outside of the world of the Academy. I sympathize with your views; I taught my student Tolstoy's "What Is Art?" last year, actually ... the majority of them couldn't figure out why until the end of the course and even then it was a shot in the dark ...
...but I still picture you as part of the establishment, even if you don't. That's not necessarily a bad thing and I don't want you to take it as such. I don't think as many people have it in for you as you seem to believe.
(For the record, I don't buy into this whole downtown thing and I prefer the music of Carter, Stockhausen, etc... and I DO see the creation of the downtown scene as an extension of the wonderful music that is modernist in all of its incarnations ... but I have been known to rock out to Philip Glass and Steve Reich and even Laurie Anderson on occasion.)
You're all right in my book.

Chip Beckett says: I am not a composer, though I read this blog fairly religiously. In another life I sometimes dream of, I am one, but in this life not so much, just a serious fan of music in general.
Instead I work in film and theater. I've made my living working on big narrative features and commercials, and kept plugging away on my own small experiments in image and sound. Anyway, back in film school, I was asked to assist an instructor because she told everyone that I had a firm understanding of both narrative and experimental. I sat in a room with a student discussing his film and I kept trying to argue how difficult he was making it for his audience to see where he was going. He finally told me that he just didn't care and the audience would just have to deal.
I looked at him and said "Then why don't you just masturbate. It has the same effect, costs less, and I don't have to watch."
I frequently have this feeling about the Art Music establishment. I love the work of Schoenberg. I will carry my respect and deep affection for Berg's work with me forever. I also found myself in Junior High when I discovered John Cage. And while I agree The Desert Music is problematic and The Four Sections should probably never had been written, I will still get every Steve Reich CD because the next one might contain Proverb.
And I will listen to anything composed by William Duckworth, Robert Ashley, and "Blue" Gene Tyranny.
As a reader of this blog, I search out all the music mentioned because I have come to trust, though not always agree, with your taste. As an audience member, I want to be challenged, but I don't want to be ignored
Keep up the good work and the good fight. Oh and did I mention, I've become a big fan of your work too.

Galen H. Brown says: Awesome. And with too many quotable lines to bother picking one out.
Just bear in mind that the nature of commenting is that it's usually not interesting or worth the trouble to post a comment that simply agrees with what you've said, so the ratio of disagreeing comments to agreeing ones will be _way_ off from the attitudes of your general audience. I, for one, agree with you most of the time, but I only bother commenting when I think I have someting to add or some narrow quibble.
Also, I'm very curious to hear the story of the War Over The Max/MSP Alternatives. ProTools wasn't even acceptable?
KG replies: ProTools is the only other software acceptable here, which I don't think of as a very convenient software for composing. My own composition students make their music outside the electronic music program in Garage Band, because there's no one to teach them Logic, Reason, Live, or anything else, and Max/MSP has too long a learning curve for what they want to do.

andrea says: I'm a budding fan of Spongefork, which is a cheap ($65), easy to use, stand-alone program that does a lot of the things that people buy big programs or lots of pedals to do:
I think your students may enjoy tinkering with it. You can test drive it, sans samplers, for free. And it has the added bonus of being certainly-to-be-pooh-poohed by the establishment at your school. =)
KG replies: Anything guaranteed to be pooh-poohed by the academics is automatically OK by me. Maybe I'll get it myself. And learn to teach it!

Galen H. Brown says: Would I be correct in guessing that the use of MIDI in music composed for music classes (except insofar as it's used for mockups of acoustic scores) is ausschließlich verboten?
I actually like ProTools and similar DAWs a lot for composing, but obviously it really depends on what you're trying to do, which is precisely your point. I haven't used Garage Band, but while I've heard good things about it I can't imagine it's as good as any of the professional packages. Undergraduate Electroacoustic music courses are always tough, because at least half of the class isn't interested in academic music, they just want access to the studio and the training so they can make techno or record their rock band. That ambition is, of course, generally treated as suspect at best and fairly illegitimate at worst even at places as forward-thinking as Dartmouth (I took the course twice there, although neither time was with your old pal Larry, so I can't speak to how he teaches it). And while it's important to teach the students what they want to learn, you also need to teach them about the history and the current academic trends, and it's a tricky balance at best. Dartmouth, to be fair, had a pretty good MIDI rig while I was there, and established a secondary studio dedicated to recording and producing pop music during my senior year.
KG replies: A tricky balance indeed, but we have a couple of very heavy thumbs on one side of the scale. Our electronic program is completely geared for improvisation. In the 12 years I've been there, I've known of four students who wrote set electronic compositions. They all studied with me. I did my best for them, though I always felt incompetent at helping them with the technology. And I warned them they shouldn't study with me because of that, but none of them would be deterred.

kraig Grady says: I think allot might be gained if composers wrote for themselves as members of an audience instead of just as the composer. Write what they wanted to hear as opposed to what they want to write. Allot more 'gaps' might be filled in too. like what they hear missing from the landscape as opposed what we have too much of.

mclaren says: Great manifesto!
What's howlingly funny is that people treat you like you're some kind of Hannibal Lecter of contemporary music, as if you're so musically extreme and outrageous you have to be wheeled into the room strapped to a loading dolly in a strait jacket with a hockey mask clamped to your face.
But from the perspective of the really intense off-the-wall contemporary music radicals, the people like Kraig Grady and Bill Wesley and Trimpin and Henry Gwiazda, you're so mild and so establishment you qualify as a hidebound conservative by comparison.
There exist whole boatloads of contemporary composers out there who reject every part of Western musical tradition. Notes as the basis for musical composition? Forget 'em, use sound-clouds of computer-generated micro-pitches or bowed metal plates perched on balloons or timbre-clouds automaticaly generated by computers. Traditional musical dramatic arc? Irrelevant, stretch and distend musical time like taffy, do 3-day-long compositions or installations that only repeat one every 2 billion years. Classical European acoustic instruments, or any kind of acoustic instruments at all? Unnecessary, use electronics or build your own entirely new instruments from metal tines or wooden rasps or 30-foot-long wires. Dividing the octave into 12 logarithmically equal part? Not interested, roll your own tuning. Musical score? Don't bother, write computer code or invent something completely new.
It's really bizarre that anyone could see you as this wild over-the-top revolutionary figure in contemporary music. There are tons of contemporary composers out there so much more radically vehement at denying the musical status quo, with attitudes so much more wildly at odds with the majority culture of contemporary serious music, that if the PhDs who profess alarm at your hijinks ever met a Bart Hopkin or an Erv Wilson or a William Schottstaedt, those professors would probably burst into flames and spontaneously combust.
KG replies: Thanks... I think.

Joseph L. says: aside from a small cadre of fans whom I like to imagine idling around Other Music in New York waiting for the next Charlemagne Palestine CD to arrive
A crude stereotype! Take me, for example -- I idle around Downtown Music Gallery waiting for my Charlemagne Palestine CDs.
KG replies: Heretic!

George Mattingly says: This is a wonderful thread. Thanks so much for your honesty and thoroughness -- and clarity.
As a writer and publisher I have experienced all of the dreary and stultifying Esthetic Police State syndromes you describe -- but in the literary world (in which the current equivalent to music's uptown dogma would be Language Poetry and Deconstructionism).
It seems that every form or discipline is susceptible to the destructive power of religious cults -- whether the Higher Principle in which they demand belief is The Transcendent Purity of The 12-tone Row, supply-side economics, Virgin Birth, or The Self-Referentiality of Language.
It also seems that the further the fairy tale tenets of a religion are from observable reality (or the needs or desires of the audience), the harder the line the adherents must take to discipline heretics. Fundamentalists just don't seem to be secure enough in their beliefs to restrain their impulse to stamp out dissent.
Unfortunately there's more political power to be derived from adherence to a hard line fundamentalist dogma with clear and rigid rules and critics (and theological seminaries) ready to enforce doctrinal purity. (This sounds like an absurd metaphor -- unless & until one has been caught in its machinery.)
Freedom of expression has always been harder to defend. But doing so is immeasurably more satisfying to the soul than living in a conformist bunker fighting off self-doubt by stifling dissent.
This might sound harsh -- or melodramatic. But while forcing artists to toe an esthetic line doesn't do the damage or threaten the planet as do other forms of religion, stifling creative freedom is nevertheless sinister, and you deserve a lot of credit for speaking out against it. Thanks.

karl says: "Out there in the larger world of contemporary music, Elliott Carter is king, we are smack dab in the middle of the modernist period which will never end,..."
Wow, how differently we see things. I consider myself a modernist who is stuck in the middle of a minimalist/post-minimalist period that's been going strong for 50 years now. I'm waiting for modernism to come *back*.
But, like you, I grew up on Babbitt, Cage, and Reich (and Carter, Boulez, Stockhausen, et al). As far as I'm concerned, everyone is welcome.
To quote (from memory) Feldman, "The older I get, the more I appreciate talent where ever I find it."
I wish you well.
KG replies: We're both right. In the world of orchestral performance and mainstream record companies, with which I have virtually no contact, John Adams, Arvo Pärt, Louis Andriessen, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass are way ahead of Elliott Carter. And in academia, where I spend my life, music professors tell Philip Glass jokes knowing all their colleagues will laugh, and student composers can still have their performances cancelled for the crime of too much minimalist or pop influence. The modernist and minimalist periods are simultaneous, just found in different worlds.

Charles Turner says: Kyle,
I'm a composer who is trying to negotiate the populist/narcissist divide, having abandoned academia long ago. I am trying to make music that is memorable enough to stick in your mind and interesting/pleasant/complex enough not to drive you crazy if it does.
Your blog is my favorite music reading on the Web.
Keep it up!
Charles Turner
KG replies: Thanks. Sounds like my aim too, and well put.

Steve Hillyer says: I'm no professional or academic, but for what it's worth (probably nothing to this crowd), "dull" is the last word I would apply to Roger Sessions's music. I've been listenng to a lot of his stuff in recent weeks. The deeper I listen, the better I like it.

Copyright 2008 by Kyle Gann

Return to the PostClassic Blog Archive

Return to the Kyle Gann Home Page

return to the home page