Success Is Just Another Form of Failure

June 17, 2010

By Kyle Gann

Allow me to sharpen the source of some of the disillusionment I expressed in my last entry. Part of what I'm going through is the perceived failure of a project on which I've spent much of my life's energy. And yet it hasn't failed: it has been victorious - and now that it has succeeded, I can see how circumscribed that success necessarily is. As John Cage liked to say, "Success is just another form of failure."

I have been called "the Downtown academic" - I am hardly the only one to merit the title, but for many years we were few and far between. Incensed in grad school by the way my favorite then-young composers (Glass, Budd, Meredith Monk, Riley, Ashley, Julius Eastman, even Cage, etc.) were scorned by the professors, I began a long-term campaign to prove that music's worth to academia. I was going to build the bridge from new/experimental/Downtown music to musical academia, and in so doing win some respect for my musical heritage. I can see now that there might have been better uses of my time, but I had built up a good store of the usual Oedipal resentment.

For one thing, many of those composers didn't give a damn whether academia respected them or not. I strongly suspect that, deep in his heart of hearts, Phil Glass doesn't lose any sleep over whether his scores are being analyzed in some university classroom. Glenn Branca is infinitely more interested in where his next gig's coming from, where he's going to get to travel, and how he's going to pay the rent than he is in whether I include a score sample of one of his symphonies in my history text. And who can blame them? They've got their priorities straight. This campaign of mine was for my respectability, fought with their music as a weapon. Many composers, of course, have been happy for me to champion their music in that rarefied arena, but others have been only middling cooperative. They want to keep control over their own message, or they don't want their scores circulating, or they just think it's silly to write scholarly articles about music that was made purely for pleasure, and that adequately reached its intended audience. And who can argue with that? I was building a bridge from Downtown music to the music school, and it was a bridge many Downtowners had no interest in crossing.

But what were my choices? I wanted this music promoted, so that my own music, when it came along, would have more chance of acceptance. As I've said, there were three markets: the commercial one, the orchestra world, and academia. I am an introspective, Scorpionic, charismatically-challenged (if intense) personality, and I was not going to start trotting around to Sony and RCA trying to interest their CEOs in recordings of low-commercial-potential new music. The commercial world runs on values inimical to mine, and I was not cut out to play the entrepreneur. [UPDATE: On second thought, though, I guess I played a commercial role as a critic for as long as was feasible.] The orchestra circuit: I know a lot of composers in that world, but I do not hold much sway with them, and they hold even less sway with the conductors and orchestra managers who are in charge. Had I possessed the persuasiveness of a Leonard Bernstein, and held those people in my thrall, they would hardly have had the power to do anything for the music I was championing. Nor were many of the Downtown composers, once again, seeking an entry to that world, though some of them would have certainly welcomed some orchestra commissions.

That left academia. I knew academia, and understood (to a point) how it worked. I was damn good at analyzing music (better than I am now, I'm afraid). I could fluently speak academia's faux-objective rhetoric of persuasion. I had read all the articles, and I understood very well how the warfare of musical politics gets waged through journal articles under the guise of disinterested scholarship. I could play that game. Furthermore, that world was also the one that had stirred my resentment.

I never set out to write books. I just wanted to write and perform music, and I fell into journalistic advocacy almost by chance, if fatedly. For many years, too, I couldn't get a teaching job; having finished my doctorate in 1983, I didn't teach more than an adjunct course here and there until 1995. In retrospect, I can see that this freed me up to get some publishing momentum, whereas had I won myself a teaching job earlier I would probably have gotten mired down, as I see so many young professors do, in the details of teaching and administration, at great expense to their prolificity. I've never written a book simply because I wanted to write a book. The books were footholds in academic discourse, credentials, irrefutable proofs that the music I loved possessed qualities worth talking about. And it worked. Had I not written the Nancarrow book and the American history book, I would never have gotten a job teaching theory at Bard. Now I could fire my cannons at the fortress walls from the inside, since I had long observed that academia is impervious to attacks from outside, and indeed disdains them.

Because I was not firing away alone, my longer-range plan materialized as well. Other scholars, better musicologically trained than myself - Keith Potter, Pwyll Ap Sion, Robert Carl, Robert Fink, too many to list here - also started writing books and articles on minimalism. For the Second International Conference on Minimalist Music, we received paper proposals from 76 scholars working in the field. But I had miscalculated as well in thinking that, once there was a bridge from Downtown music to the music school, that academia would walk halfway down that bridge to meet us. I stupidly supposed that the very quantity of my scholarship would prove to musical academia, in general, that the music was valid. What happened instead was that scholars in minimalism carved out their own niche, their own ghettoized specialty. My writings on minimalism have been celebrated, praised, embraced - in that niche. Within the world of minimalist musicology, I'm one of the grand dukes, a major player. But in the academic composition world in general, with its eternal emphases on Schenkerian theory, set theory, the canon, complexity, hard-core pitch analysis, my work is still taken hardly more seriously than Budd and Monk were when I started out. (I heard my latest dismissive Phil Glass joke from a colleague two days ago, and I'm still looking for a local music professor who knows what Robert Ashley's music is like.)

In the meantime, I've come to understand academia better. I mistakenly thought, from my 1970s student's perspective, that the problem was that a group of academic composers had gotten ensconced in music departments, and their stodginess and lack of creativity were preventing students from being exposed to the most exciting new music around. I have since learned that a college or university is a particular type of money-siphoning machine, and specifically a type that adheres to values foreign to the commercial world. The lack of creativity goes not from the faculty upward, but from the boards of trustees downward. Wealthy people keep the college system alive, and they do not do so disinterestedly. They want, in return on their investment, a kind of cultural prestige, and a kind that cannot be supported by any rabble-rousing populism among the faculty. Arcane, difficult-to-follow academic work feeds that prestige. Sure, you can write about Laurie Anderson in that milieu - but only if you do so in jargon that talks about "postmodern modes of discourse" and "transgendering," that makes it abstract and difficult to understand and therefore respectable - which means nonthreatening. Exciting young professors get hired (almost by mistake, it seems) and energize the students, but they eternally seem to have more trouble avoiding getting smashed by the edicts handed down from above than the punctilious ones who cloak their research in measured and arcane terminology. The sciences and social sciences in particular thrive in this environment, and they're the backbone of the institution. Those professors are in their element, and live honest lives. Knowing them is a constant revelation. The artists, on the other hand, are at a permanent disadvantage. The most creative of them cannot present their work with the kind of empirical verifiability that translates as prestige going up the ladder - except by winning awards administrated by other universities. And those who aim for and achieve any kind of popular or commercial success virtually negate the explicit aims of the institution.

Some of you will smile that I was so naive as to have to learn all this. It was doubtless more obvious from the beginning to many than it was to me. In any case, minimalist music, at least, has succeeded, thanks to me and a few dozen others, in the very dubious aim of carving out its own discourse in the peripheries of music departments. Any good-sized department can now afford one token experimental-music whacko, kind of a court jester. At age 27 I stormed the citadel of musical academia on horseback, with spear and helmet, to incite a revolution. 27 years later, in return for my promise not to break any more of the furniture, I've been granted a small but nicely-appointed bedroom on the fourth floor, in the back. Success is just another form of failure.

So now what do I do? I won't say I don't want to write any more books, but my motivation for writing them will certainly have changed. I wrote books to cement my credibility in academia (thus freeing my music from any such style-deforming responsibility), but the guilty truth is that, except for the Nancarrow analyses, those books were never aimed at academia: those of you who read them, and who read this blog, are probably either 1. composers and music fans outside academia, or 2. academics with similarly eccentric interests who have your own troubles keeping a foothold in that treacherous world. As a populist by nature, I have pursued a populist agenda in exactly that sphere of life which proudly shelters itself away from the mandates of populism. It was kind of idiotic, now that I think about it. Some of you have pointed that out with more accuracy than I credited you for. A temptation has always lingered in the back of my mind that with my accumulated writing skills I should write books for money; once, in a period of chronic financial panic, I asked Yoko Ono to let me write her authorized biography, but she nicely declined. Today I can't think of any commercially viable subject that I wouldn't be disgusted to associate with. And I don't need any more resume lines. I have to learn what I would write not to score points, not to advance causes, not to do favors, not to support myself, but simply for my own pleasure. Perhaps this blog, absolutely divorced as it is from the possibility of any conceivable career advantage, is the perfect sketchpad.

It would be narcissistic of me to write what I have just written did I not consider it not only my personal odyssey, but the odyssey of my generation. Thousands of us were appalled by the close-mindedness of the high-modernist generation of professors, and wanted to smash the stranglehold of pitch-set analysis as an ultimate criterion of musical value. Many of us have now proved how far we can go in that direction: impressively far, actually, and yet never far enough. The beast must be fed. Outside of academia, however, we have trouble knowing where to turn. As the corporate dictatorship we live in grows ever more restrictive, popular, let alone commercial, success becomes vanishingly elusive. Academia is the sector of society set aside as a safe haven from corporate control. And yet to pursue a career of quasi-populist yearning for fans within the confines of the ivory tower seems like a weird self-delusion. There's a story about Thomas Edison making 8000 failed attempts to invent a storage battery, who, on being consoled, replied brightly, "Now we know 8000 things that don't work." Perhaps all this is merely to pass on to the younger generation of composers that we now know how far the attempt to cure the problems of authentic art production in a corporate dictatorship can be addressed within the halls of academe - and it's not very far. What other ideas you got?


Jim says: June 17, 2010 at 3:58 pm
Well, I hear you, Kyle. But I'd still love to see The Arithmetic of Listening published. Not for academic cred, and certainly not for the gagillions of dollars it is sure to bring in, but just for the off chance that it will increase the people able to play my (and your) music.
KG replies: That's the hard one. First of all, the publishers think it's an impossibly arcane subject and that there's no market for it at all. They're wrong on both counts, and I can convince them of that when I'm ready to. But it also needs to be perfect and complete, or the microtonal community watchdogs will hand me my ass on a platter.

Elaine Fine says: June 17, 2010 at 4:36 pm
I'm not a minimalist by any stretch of the imagination, but I appreciate the use of minimalism now and again (and again, and again - couldn't resist that one). It really doesn't matter whether I (as a critic or as a performing musician) enjoy minimalism, but it does matter that minimalism and a handful of uniquely 20th century techniques are (championed by you) an important part of the "serious" (for want of a better term) landscape of the musical later 20th century, and are part of the overall vocabulary that musicians can use to write new music. I feel as a reviewer (in my own small way) I have helped legitimize a path towards tonality (the non-micro kind, which, as a string player and a person with very little in the way of mathematical skill I have never been able to embrace) in new music. Perhaps what I do and have done musically is the polar opposite of what you do and have done. Then again, I agree wholeheartedly with what you are saying, particularly about academia.
KG replies: I'm relieved, because your last comment was irrefutable.

john says: June 17, 2010 at 5:07 pm
Oedipus gets a bad rap, but remember: His father tried to kill him. Twice. How come people never talk about a "Laius Complex"? As long as you haven't become Laius yourself, you done alright.

Ryan Tanaka says: June 17, 2010 at 9:25 pm
I think deep down a lot of composition faculty members know that the status-quo isn't working and something needs to change, but it seems like not many of them are willing or capable of challenging the system -- during the interview process these past few years I was assured that they were "restructuring" or "reevalutaing" their approaches to doing things, but so far I haven't seen any signs that this is the case. They're still writing the same kinds of music that you've read in the textbooks -- styles and ideas that might have been cutting edge maybe 40 or 50 years ago but sounds really dull in today's environment. Even in concert halls they've just recently done a "music of the future" series near my area where the featured pieces were all written before the 60s. If you want a career out of any sort through those venues, you need to really take a liking to these types of past-ideologies -- it's not the sort of thing that can be faked if you have other interests, no matter how interesting they might be.

Wealth is a funny thing, because I do believe that it produces nostalgia in it of itself. Horseback riding, archery, rifling, skiing, sailing -- these started off as practical, useful skills for the working-classes then eventually became leisure activities for the rich as they gradually became obsolete. It seems like right now a good portion of academia is holding onto the ideals of the 1960-70s liberalism, which makes them more progressive than those who thinks everything after Brahms is crap, but still conservative compared to where the world is right now.

Even more archaic is the feudal system that academia models itself after, which doesn't prepare students at all for the capitalist world that reality is functioning in right now. I think there's a desire for many academics to return to a feudal society, where power-relationships are made very clear, as opposed to the chaos that exists within the free market. I'm not saying that we should all become devout followers of Ayn Rand, but when faculty members prioritize their ideologies over the well-being of their students it's really hard to figure out who's really the villian here. People of my age and younger have become very skeptical of people who claim that they're onto something "new", since in most cases it's really not the case. At all. But that's pretty much exactly what the New Music establishment is doing right now (it's even built into the name, jeez) even though there is virtually no chance that this will connect to people outside of its own interests.

I'm not going to pretend like I'm some kind of populist-hero here -- I came from a fairly well-to-do family and have had all the opportunities that a person could have wanted. There's something to be said about tradition, since ideas in themselves have hardly changed since the days of Plato and Aristotle so gaining a good understanding of these forms can really help to clarify your understanding of how the (Western) world works. I do think, though, most of the innovation comes from the bottom up, since they are the ones in the front lines creating new ideas out of necessity. In an ideal world, the wisdom of tradition should meet somewhere in the middle with the innovations of the present, which would actually help to propel things forward in a positive way.

I think the problem right now is that most people don't really know what to do in the digital age, which is so very new at this point, so there's a tendency to adhere to older models as means of establishing a sembalance of stability. Retro stuff is popular now. 8-bit stuff is popular now. Nobody wants to deal with the present, because it's confusing, complicated, and scary.

I've recently decided to abandon my dreams of getting a doctorate in composition and am now actively pursuing a degree in musicology. Musicology seemed like the right choice, being that those who are interested in contemporary musicology seem to be keen to recent issues and I'm usually surprised at the kinds of stuff they can get away with saying, which would typically never be allowed in a room full of composers. I can still pursue my musical interests while keeping up with my scholarly work this way, anyway.

I don't claim to have any definite answers, but I tend to be drawn to people who have the courage to try to understand the world we live in right now. It's part of the reason why I read your blog, too, because there's always something there to draw from that makes me feel like I understand the music world a little better each time. I think I said before -- in retrospect, I think your efforts will be rewarded.

(Check out our new website if you want to do our new approach -- kind of wacky idea, but what's to lose, eh?)
KG replies: Another grad student composer going into the more hip and exciting world of musicology - someone in the academic composition world needs to look at that trend, and ponder why. All well said, Ryan.

Richard says: June 18, 2010 at 10:48 am
"From the wrath of the Musical-Ideologues, good Lord deliver us". Keep tilting at windmills, 'cause someday they'll become outmoded. So pick yourself up and get crackin' on the post-min book! I WANT TO READ IT!!!!!

John Kennedy says: June 18, 2010 at 12:50 pm
Kyle, maybe you are giving academia more credit than it deserves in the ownership of what is the life of music. It has always seemed to me to play a small part in the ecology of composition, because change comes from those who transcend what is taught. Maybe my own approach to change is equally futile, but I have always thought the performance industry controls more of the dialogue about what is "worthy" amidst the new. And I'm not sure if theory departments are ever the place for progressiveness, given the personalities attracted to the field. Even if they were to embrace the music you advocate, wouldn't they just squeeze the life out of it? Don't kids already resent old guys waxing about Reich, which is just so 1980? You done good. And you see that many others here identify with it.
KG replies: You're right, and my biggest regret is that I didn't keep up the piano and stay involved with performance. But at one point - and that's the theme here, that I'm trying to free myself from attitudes formed awhile back - at one point I saw that students were coming out of school completely unaware of the music I love most, and so I located college as the initial bottleneck that was keeping music from progressing. If you could fix it there, things would start moving again. I thought if more progressive types were on faculty, grad students might emerge talking about JLA, Eve Beglarian, and Maria De Alvear instead of Ligeti, Boulez, and Xenakis forever and ever. I still think that's true, and maybe it doesn't matter so much, but it was the area I had the opportunity to influence. Although I'm realizing I can't really even influence that, except where my own students are concerned. I mean, you remember Oberlin: when I was there in the '70s, any piece more than ten years old we had no use for. The rest was history. And in my experience, I'm the one who resents my *own* students still waxing about Reich. And Part.

Andy Lee says: June 18, 2010 at 1:23 pm
To piggyback on the last comment a bit, I very much see my role as a performer/teacher as engaging in a dialog about the 'canon' of music, but I feel like part of a very small minority that see themselves that way. In my limited experience there isn't much that's cutting edge about piano departments. Perhaps it's because we have such an obscene wealth of repertoire that so few venture into even the early twentieth century. Perhaps it's because you can often tell when your professors got their doctorate because their knowledge of the repertoire tends to stop at a certain point. Or, as Bruce Brubaker put it so well, "they don't call them conservatories for nothing." I've found that cutting edge in a conservatory tends to be someone who plays a lot of Schoenberg or Messiaen, and most tend to think them weird for doing so. I see the point, though, in that we performers can really act as gatekeepers. Maybe we're just afraid of looking like we let the wrong people in. (As a side note, when I performed An Hour for Piano out at NEC I was asked a question I've no doubt I'll be hearing much more in the future. "So do you play Chopin or Beethoven as well?" I used to. I still really like playing Schubert, if that makes you feel any better.)

Bob Gilmore says: June 18, 2010 at 4:51 pm
I say: get playin' that piano. I've also been doing more performing in the past few years and find it immensely satisfying. I'll never be a Joe Kubera, but nonetheless there are some things I can do. You have a lot going for you as a performer - I truly enjoyed hearing you (playing and singing) on that evening we shared in De Badcuyp in autumn 2007.
KG replies: God, I'd love to, Bob, but I don't have the discipline anymore. I used to do practice sessions, but I just can't sit on the piano bench anymore. I'm glad to hear you can.

Chip Michael says: June 19, 2010 at 12:33 am
Kyle, I am one of those "academics with similarly eccentric interests who have your own troubles keeping a foothold in that treacherous world"... striving to get my Masters at 47 without throwing the whole thing away because I can't stand the "rhetoric" anymore. I am asked to compose using pitch-classes and 12-tone rows, to think inside the box that was constructed by Schoenberg 70 years ago and still fails to hold an interest outside academia. But, as I said in my own post on my own blog (interchanging idioms), I have to compose. So, I continue.... I have no grand designs to take down the academic establishment. It's castle is too big for me. I can enjoy writing music for it's own sake and will endeavor to keep them from taking that away from me.

Paul H. Muller says: June 26, 2010 at 9:37 pm
A little late posting on this thread but you should listen to this every now and then.
Especially the end…