November 16, 2013 By Kyle Gann
By Kyle Gann
My journey into the very heart of musical Europe provides me with a renewed opportunity to reflect on how happy I am to no longer be a music critic, no matter how happy I once was to work as one. The day was when I would have attended every event of the ISCM's New Music Days 2013, taken names and scrupulous notes, mentally organized the event into its own little symmetrical Theater of Memory, and presented its digested evidence to you as grandly and unanswerably indicative of The Times We're Living In; but no longer. Now I am relieved to skip the events that look tiresome or simply too inconveniently late in the evening, walk out on concerts I'm not enjoying, and afterward amuse myself by sketching an old man's vague impressions, if I decide to do so - or even possibly write them up halfway and decide not to publish at all. I often wonder if there is another composer in the history of the world of whom people can so truly say, as one would say of me, "He has spoken enough; he has explained more than we needed explained." Only Wagner comes to mind, and he would certainly have a more benign reputation today if he had taken many more opportunities to keep his damn trap shut and his opinions to himself. Posterity may well say the same of me, and perhaps we need not even wait for posterity.
In any case, I went to Vienna with a sense that I was being invited behind enemy lines with a role to play, and as always on such occasions (especially when free trans-Atlantic airfare is involved) I played it. But my scandals are whimsical and polite these days, not so dramatic or confrontational as they used to be. I try to project an air of not knowing where I am or what I'm doing, just an innocent who doesn't dream that his anodyne heresies, born of ignorance and inexperience, could give offense. I had never before had any contact with the International Society for Contemporary Music, which certainly has a distinguished 90-year history of presenting new music, but which seems to have acquired by my time a rather musty and narrow reputation. Friends of mine who have long experience with the organization and its traveling annual festivals explained to me that the closer the events are culturally and geographically to Darmstadt, the more prickly, academic, and monochromatic the music involved tends to be. Vienna, by those standards, was in the neighborhood. There are certainly ISCM regulars who are trying to liven the organization up and make it more representative of the totality of what's going on in new music around the globe, and who freely admitted to me, in private, that the music I heard - and again, I emphasize that I missed more performances than I attended - sounded like it had emerged from a time capsule last open to the air in 1973, even if most of the composers implicated were not yet born by that stale date.
All the more honor, then, to Christian Utz, Nina Polaschegg, and Bruno Strobl for sensing that the annual festival is in need of some self-reflection, and for organizing a concomitant conference on musical aesthetics to provide some perspective. While the music (that I heard) did come from a pretty tiny and dark corner of the spectrum, the conference participants - besides myself, Sandeep Bhagwati from Montreal, Heekyung Lee from Seoul, Andreas Engstrom from Sweden, Alper Maral from Istanbul, Ivan Siller from Bratislava, and others - evoked a far wider and more diverse world, one which the copious and generally enthusiastic audience seemed deeply relieved to have acknowledged. Bhagwati in particular, playing with more authority a role that I once might have attempted myself, scoffed at the idea (brought up by a participant) that the music we heard represented a "critical" type of composing, or that it was a music of continual revolution. Modernist new music, he argued, is a well-defined style like any other tradition, and its practitioners are well instructed in how to satisfy the demands of admittance to its professional mainstream. It said everything about the cultural moment that some in attendance seemed offended by the remark, which others gave a smattering of delighted applause.
The music may have been a matter of taste, but there was little disagreement about its uniformity of idiom. For one thing, what used to be, and apparently still are, called "extended techniques" were ubiquitous. If a flute appeared, so did toneless key clicks. If an accordion, it was slapped and squeezed tonelessly just for the air whooshing. If a clarinet, it was usually taken apart, perhaps used to blow bubbles in a glass of water. If a piano, the pianist disappeared into its interior. It is a little late in history to object to such practices, but it has always seemed to me that what we learned, from the explosion of them in the 1970s, was that they are distracting and seem silly when used sparingly, as punctuation. In other words, a pianist knocking on the outside of the piano in between keyboard phrases can be irritating, but Cage's song The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs achieves a refreshing poetry by having its entire accompaniment tapped on the external frame of the instrument. If you're going to use those things, frankly base the whole piece around them. It's the frequent back-and-forth that creates inelegant theater, and nearly every chamber piece reveled in exactly that. We tried out a lot of crazy things in the '70s, and a lot of them didn't work very well; but there is a large swath of new music for which "didn't work" is not an allowable concept, and all those embarrassing techniques have just been added to the composer's mandatory professional vocabulary. I could say the 1970s called, and they want their silly music back - but why would they?
More generally, all of the music I heard was (needless to say) atonal, impenetrable, continuously varied, scrupulously free from minimalist or pop influence, and any impression of harmony, melody, or even memorable moment or event was assiduously avoided. I kept hearing all week about one piece I missed, which created a huge collective sense of relief in the audience by employing major triads. The orchestral music in particular was a panoply of splashes of timbre, violin glisses, celesta washes, brass splats, wind tremolos in tempestuous profusion, and afterward I wish I could have played excerpts back for the audience and challenged them to tell the pieces apart; I couldn't have. Nominally the youngish composers hailed from all over the world, but a friend, looking through the festival program, brought to my attention that they had nearly all studied in Germany; it couldn't have been clearer that they were writing the way they had been taught to. The way it works, my friend explained, is that each ISCM chapter makes a call for pieces, and, out of dozens, chooses six to submit to the festival committee, which then chooses from among those for the program. Thus the musical atmosphere is directly attributable to those who do the choosing, and previous festivals, I was told, have sometimes been considerably more varied and inviting than this one was.
One piece, however, stood apart from everything else. The Klangforum Wien, incredibly well commanded by Enno Poppe, played Mad Dog by Bernd Richard Deutsch (b. 1977), of which I can find no recording, but of course there's a YouTube of a previous performance by the Die Reihe Ensemble. It struck me as kind of a madly splintered neoclassicism, an ironic neo-concerto-grosso laden with spectralist moments, at once entertaining and baffling, in the most pleasant sense. But what really baffled me were the negative comments I heard about it from Austrian musicians the next morning. When I attempted to praise it they were reflexively apologetic that it was programmed at all: "Oh, he won an award, so we had to include it." "It seemed too much a kind of cartoon music." "The players love that kind of music because it shows off what they can do well and fills the house, but it was too much written for the audience." "The duet for violin and cello that came afterward [which I found strident, limited, and predictable] was much more multidimensional." Too much written for the audience?! I'M the freakin' audience!, I wanted to scream, but I was a guest in their country and behaved myself. Watch the YouTube, 21 minutes long in three movements: it's hardly an easy or noticeably accessible piece, and yet it was lively and intriguing ear-candy compared to everything else I heard there. What a horribly austere, severe world to have to live in, in which the slightest pleasure given to the listener occasions such tut-tutting for its deplorable pandering. What a world turned upside down, in which music is approved only to the extent that one receives no thrill from it whatever and remembers nothing afterward.
It was into this heavy, monochrome, classically and unapologetically modernist context that I tossed what I had accurately intuited would be my stylistic time bomb. After all, I was the decadent American capitalist dog; my sadly commercial lack of taste wouldn't be held against me personally, and might even provide some schadenfreude. I've already given you the core of my paper, though I both expanded it and took out a few things. But at the end, to illustrate what I said would be a kind of music that could only come from the U.S. these days, I played audio examples by three New York composers the same age, interestingly, as Deutsch: Corey Dargel (b. 1977) (click to hear the song I played), William Brittelle (b. 1976), and Judd Greenstein (though I played only a recording of his piece Change, not the brilliant video of it I'm linking you to here). I fully and correctly anticipated that some in the crowd would not consider this music at all, which is pretty funny when you think about it. Worldwide, I think a million out of any million and one people would be far more likely to identify Dargel's charming song as a piece of music than they would the Austrian woman humorlessly blowing through the middle section of her clarinet into a glass of water, but in the topsy-turvy world of European new music, it was the busy noise pieces that are considered important music and the tonal song with rhyming lyrics that's not so defined. After my talk one German-accented man objected with some anguish (and came up to me to repeat the observation after the panel) that he could hear no "soul-searching" in the music I played, that it just reminded him of a shopping mall. Now leaving aside whether soul-searching is something one wants to hear in every damn piece of music one listens to, what's wrong with shopping malls? We build them, we spend time in them, don't they deserve to be acknowledged in our art at some point? Is music only supposed to inhabit some wilderness of our imagination, and never sully itself with the actual, allegedly tawdry spaces where we spend our lives? And does, say, Vivaldi's Seasons offer evidence of soul-searching? In any case, among the people I hung out with for the week, the comment became a running joke, and I swore that if I could find a mall that played Dargel's delightful songs on the PA system, I would never shop anywhere else.
The sharp divide in opinion, interestingly enough, seemed to lie between English-speaking attendees (Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders - there didn't seem to be any Brits, though since so many Continentals speak English with an impeccable British accent I can't swear to it) and non-Enlish-speakers. One young Canadian woman came up to me later to ask where she could find more of Judd Greenstein's music, and an American one to tell me that she had run back to her hotel and downloaded a Corey Dargel CD on iTunes, leading me to realize that I really ought to be playing my own music at these gigs, instead of providing free PR for these jokers who aren't likely to do anything for my career.
Nina Polaschegg had begun the conference by saying that she organized it because we don't do nearly enough talking about musical aesthetics, about why we like some pieces and don't like others. As you can imagine, I completely agree. I mentioned in my paper that young composers these days don't like arguing aesthetic viewpoints. A couple of young composers in the audience felt put upon by that and objected, but as a friend mentioned to me afterward, both of them basically said, "We do have aesthetic discussions, we just don't like to argue," which merely restated my point. I think that if we studiously ignore what makes some pieces better than others and some styles more fertile than others, we will be pretty much condemned to blunder along making music that isn't meaningful or enjoyable, like so much of the crap I heard last week. After all, start enunciating these aesthetic positions out loud, and some of the most absurd ones just fall apart as you pronounce the words. And it was good for me to get a strong sense of why Germans and Austrians really object to the vein of American music I champion; we get the same objections at home, but no one dares articulate them. To deafly continue in traditions that no one is enjoying, just because everyone is too polite to say anything, is a sad option.
UPDATE: I'm not going to rewrite this entry, because I like it, and most people got it. But I have to say I'm astonished at how many people, some of them friends I respect, completely misread it. It has been taken as a blanket condemnation of European music, a rant against modernism, some grandiose claim for the superiority of American music. It is none of those things. It is a description of a specific festival that was criticized by many people, even those within the organization, for being too one-sidedly homogenous for an event that purported to represent music from around the world. When a festival is curated as a kind of competition, and seven pieces in a row sound so similar that one can hardly tell them apart, it is evident that the jurying committee had a very strong aesthetic bias. Maybe some people think that's fine and the way it should be, but the perception that it was a problem did not originate with me. I believe, though no one said so, that I was invited, as were some of the other speakers, as a corrective, an outside perspective. If so, I applaud the impulse. That the American pieces I played would not "fit in" I could guess in advance, but I was surprised that the most interesting German composition was also considered controversial - which shows what a narrow framework the festival followed. I reported here on criticisms that were made by a wide range of participants. Yet some readers, who didn't attend the festival or conference, took these criticisms as being entirely my own invention, and also leaped to a conclusion that I must have misrepresented the festival according to my own biases. I wish they would click on Deutsch's video and hear the exciting European modernism I'm defending, but they seem to prefer to keep their own caricature of me intact. I don't know how to respond to such gross misreading, let alone evidence-free charges of falsification. As the saying goes, I can write it for you, but I can't understand it for you. If someone is determined to misread and misrepresent me, he will do so.
COMMENTS (some redacted):
kea says: I greatly enjoy a lot of modernist music from the 1950s-70s (Stockhausen, Nono, Xenakis etc). I listen to more of it than I do minimalist music of any era, or even most 19th century music. But one of the things that appeals to me most about that kind of music is its defiant anti-orthodoxy; a conscious leap into the unknown and willingness to throw out all the "rules" and start over. (Actually, the same is true of a lot of music of this era, so in complete fairness I should add that I do also enjoy the simple interplay of colour and texture and so on that provides much of the moment-to-moment appeal of atonal/"difficult" music. For me music does not need tonal triads, a melody, a regular pulse, etc to be "accessible", a point I imagine I'm likely to cop some disagreement on.)
The retreat of the "avant-garde" into orthodoxy and conventionality, however--which I think is pretty indisputable at this point--does nothing of the kind. It offers "safe" territory to young composers. There are "rules" which they're only too happy to follow in order to create a "good" piece, instead of trying to make decisions on their own about how they want to approach and shape whatever musical material. I think a composer nowadays who turns out some sub-Lachenmann potpourri of extended techniques has done very little soul-searching if any, and that perhaps accounts for why, as even those broadly sympathetic to modernist music will admit, the 1990s-2010s have thus far failed to produce a single Gruppen/Poeme electronique/Marteau sans maitre/Atmospheres (or for that matter a 4'33", or Music for 18 Musicians). That kind of music simply does not get produced by composers who stay in their comfort zones and never challenge themselves or their learned notions.
I don't think the situation is *completely* hopeless (for instance, the valiant Enno Poppe is himself a composer and one whose music betrays an actual sense of humour and manages to avoid most of the quotidian Donaueschingen banalities) but the number of composers nowadays who, regardless of their aesthetic, are mostly interested in retreading familiar and comfortable ground rather than engaging critically with the "rules" of whatever tradition they've inherited, is deeply dispiriting to me, and seems another symptom of the massive rightward shift in Western society since 1980.
Tom Myron says: He who can successfully sell schadenfreude in Austria is poised to make a fortune selling the formula for ice in Alaska. Enjoyed this immensely. Rock on, maestro.
uncledavelewis says: i find that in a lot of New Music competitions for composers that we appear expected to come up with effects like dipping the middle of the clarinet into the water, and when we don't, the music doesn't get played. I think there is a sort of fetish among some performers for doing tricks with instruments; perhaps it makes them feel cool and that they are participating in the only way forward. That kind of leaves in the dark those of us who are happy writing notes like composers always have; it doesn't seem to matter that perhaps what's in the notes constitutes innovation of a kind; places where we haven't been before. There is the idea that we cannot move forward with just writing music alone, and that too is a tired, old holdover from the sickly 'seventies. Just my impression -- please disabuse me of it if I'm wrong.
kea says: Many of the performers I've talked to find "extended techniques" kind of silly, although the new-music crowd gets pretty excited by microtones and the different means of producing them.
It's more that composers who write for a certain audience are expected to include heaps of extended techniques, and without them the music is perceived as "soulless" and "one-dimensional", as KG's experience has shown. I think people often say composers can write whatever they want nowadays and no one will care, but that's not really accurate. If a composer wants to be successful in their field, they have to pick an audience, and that means taking sides, aesthetically speaking. These composers are only writing the music their audience expects from them, just as e.g. Dargel and Greenstein are for *their* audience. It's quite possible that Greenstein harbours a secret desire to write a microtonal extended-technique-laden string quartet in the model of Lachenmann's Gran Torso but doesn't because he knows his audience will dismiss it as pointless, outdated noise, and similarly that Lachenmann has a folder somewhere full of catchy pop tunes he daren't publish because *his* audience would dismiss them as commercialised kitsch of no artistic value.
I do remain convinced that in a truly "audience-neutral" world where one didn't have to take into account that the kind of music one writes strongly influences who one will wind up hanging out with, most of these "avant-garde" composers would be turning out symphonies and string quartets in the style of Brahms or Mahler.
Liam Carey says: Both these points are true, and I've certainly spoken to composers who have admitted feeling strong-armed into writing in a certain way in order to be performed. But in all of these cases I think the problem is the failure of these composers to question the means by which they make their music. Why continue writing for 'classical' ensembles if you can't write the music you really want to? Be like Steve Reich and start out writing pieces for a small group of friends (I'm thinking 'Drumming' here), or be like Nancarrow - to some it would seem that he restricted himself by only writing for the player piano, but really it gave him the ultimate freedom to write and perform whatever the hell he wanted to. Staying attached to tradition ensembles and genres either through a sense that these are somehow more valid than other means of making music is to merely produce music as some kind of fetish.
I extend this to those composers who choose write the music they do (extended techniques and the like) within the classical tradition because they believe it allows them to challenge the conventions of, what they consider to be, the mainstream - what Lachenmann calls the 'aesthetic apparatus'. But i think there's something ultimately futile and navel gazing about this approach. The establishment doesn't care, Bethoven and Tchaikovsky aren't about to disappear form concert programmes because someone was seen on stage throwing tennis balls at a cello. By merely placing themselves as critics of something they remain a part of it.
Richard Friedman says: Yes, some of the European A-G music from the late 60s to early 70s is still worth listening to. (Friday's Music From Other Minds presented Milko Kelemen and Bruno Maderna from 1972: http://rchrd.com/mfom/wp/2013/11/14/371/). But I think *some* (but not all) of today's European A-G composers are trying so hard not to sound "American" (or what they perceive as "American") that they have gotten lost. Also, it's now a time when, really, no one cares what they write. The big government subsidies are gone, as is access to the big radio ensembles and orchestras. Very sad affair. The real question is "Why compose?", and then "What to compose?"
I feel your pain.
KG replies: Well that's interesting. I kind of understand the Dutch eagerness to embrace everything the Germans reject, but "not wanting to sound American" would be a frail reed to ground a philosophy of music on.
Ian Stewart says: That is a wonderful article/post Kyle and contains some wonderful phrases and arguments. I try not to talk about my own music on other people's websites but a very successful professional musician said after a performance of one of my works that he thought I was "really brave to write such a purely melodic piece". This is in London where performances may include foul language, nudity and simulated sex. Two of my works were mentioned in an article recently and the author wrote "his works display an almost total avoidance of contemporary techniques" - I am really pleased the author noticed that.
I have heard many complaints from musicians, such as why use an expensive violin as a percussion instrument when percussionists are not only trained to do that but they also have specially designed instruments? Or why have the trumpets playing miles above the stave when there are synthesizer players who can play a brass sound in that register easily? You summed up the silliness of all that perfectly and I am glad that I am not the only one who finds it irritating. Decades to perfect the Boehm system clarinet only to blow bubbles!
There is a uniformity in most music at the moment, not just classical music. However these composers who think they are very contemporary in the classical world (or cutting-edge, innovative etc. to use the current clichés) sound decidedly dated to my ears. And the attitude towards the audience can even border on contempt sometimes. John Tavener (who died earlier this week) complained that there was "a notable lack of joy in modern art". I also dispute that this ISCM music is even "soul-searching", it is a lack of integration of intellect and our humanity. A difficulty accepting that for all our intellectual ability, we are still basically animals that need to eat, drink, have relationships etc.
However the last laugh is this: it is now almost certain that all this Darmstadt stuff was funded by the CIA.
Alfredo Votta says: Personally I find extended technique boring, and its abundance in a piece will always disappoint me. I totally agree with Ian Stewart above. I would add that there could be a moment when you can't even tell what the "main sound" a violin is supposed to produce is, for instance. Hitting it would be supposed to be considered as good as playing actual notes.
As to melody, I recall a French pianist lecturing in my country and, upon talking about a piece by Henry Cowell that uses piano glissandi, showed the melody and mockingly referred as that as "trop Americain". Now I generalize: if Europeans are now prone to think of "melody" as "too American", all the better for America; while I don't think melody is anything obligatory, it is quite silly to give it up, especially in such arrogant manner. When they wake up and decide to take melody back, they will have to give the credit as "American influence", since they renounced it.
Doug Skinner says: And personally, I think that if you disassemble your instrument, it shows more showmanship to reassemble it, and then balance it on your face, as trombonist Larry Collins does in this memorable performance with Spike Jones: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CCTmz18z8I4
This clip is also notable for the bicycle pump solo by Wilbur Hall, himself an excellent trombonist. I was, by the way, first introduced to klangenfarbenmelodie by Spike Jones, and still think his use of it more inventive than Schoenberg's.
Ryan says: Discounting specific techniques ("extended" or not) because of their development in a specific kind of music you particularly do not enjoy is quite immature, really. Most of the time, any given compositional technique, new or old, is being used poorly or greatly, and its only in the form of the usage that we can learn/critique something in a more objective way. As an aformentioned "Younger Composer" who does not really like to argue aesthetics, I would say that that is true because aesthetics are only tools, really. Most pieces that use "extended techniques" (a phrase I have a lot of issues with!) that I hear are pretty boring, annoying, cheesy...but I would say that my own music is nearly entirely made up of them, for deeper, formal, aesthetic, and philosophical reasons.
In short, if a work is hardcore "modernist" (another word I have issues with...see Bruno Latour!), and you dislike it, I would try to find better reasons than the fact it has techniques you don't find interesting, or that you don't hear anything in it, because it most likely is an earnest attempt at trying to find a new kind of music in some way. The older generation of composers who found their way "out" of modernism through inventive ways did the same sort of thing, and complain at how ostracized they became, and then turn around and do the same offenses to the younger generations...and I think that this is pretty sad.
KG replies: I would be happy to entertain another take on the word modernist, but "see Bruno Latour!" is not sufficient enlightenment or inducement. Tell Bruno he can come see me.
Ryan says: If you would like further documentation on a incredibly relevant writer and thinker of our time, I suggest, in earnest, reading Latour's book "We Have Never Been Modern", I would sit and discuss the finer points, but why explain someone else's ideas when he writes them so eloquently himself? Especially on a topic you speak on in such sweeping volumes, I would think you would find it more than interesting, Mr. Gann.
KG replies: I am grateful for the more specific reference, which perhaps I will have time to get around to someday. Why explain a point you're making in an argument when you can tell someone to go read a book instead? Because the latter is a little too easy. I am sincere: I recognize that the current common use of the word modernist by musicians is problematic (I say so in class frequently), and I would love to hear an alternative.
UPDATE: Well, OK, I had some free time this evening, and read all of the book that was available via Amazon. I read some reviews of it. It looks lively and intelligent. It's a sociology of science, possibly revolutionary in that field. But I was not struck by any evidence that it had much to do with modernism in any sense that would apply to the history or aesthetics of music. You appear to be a very young composer in Dallas, where I grew up, and originally from Frisco, where my brother lives and where my father is buried. I listened to some of your music, and found it congenial. How much your recommendation is worth, you understand, depends on who you are and what you've achieved. But before I gather enough incentive to pay $25 for this book and add it to the five-foot stack of books next to my reading chair, I need a little more assurance that it will actually pertain to the topic that interests us both. Can you supply a quotation or principle that might convince me that my understanding of modernism in general, as it applies to the arts, will be turned around by reading it? If so I will be in your debt.
Ryan says: Absolutely:
The first thing about Latour that is really pesky and difficult is that he decides to redefine many common words (like modernism) so they can be understood in the present day...and then uses them constantly but within only his own meaning written for them.
For him, modernism is in many ways the attempt to marry the scientific with the artistic, the political, and the social to create a completely rationalistic world. There are two problems with this: one, is that you get entirely too large claims (aka Boulez, Stravinsky, Babbitt, even Glass, Reich...especially in that recent interview) about what one is actually doing - calling pseudo-science, (set theory) real and valid, or maybe in a broader political context, something like Marxism...a set of ideas as rationalistic truth. This creates a very turbulent and terrifying world, because in fact, these are not Science, though in some for scientific. So, when we look at Modernism's original goal...we seem to have fallen short, and by doing so we created a world that is absolutely irresponsible and unsustainable. The ecological crisis is very important, in this aspect. It changes everything.
So, in short, and very crudely told, we failed...we never actually became modern...we lied and became very irresponsible. While he is much less an aesthetic thinker, I think his urgency for a new kind of approach to the world, politics, and the ecology is absolutely related, and the question of responsibility in art and how we can create art is absolutely related to what we do. Now, I will say that I love the music of these dogmatic old guys, and I don't really care to discredit them...thats a waste of my time. I also will say that certain composers, like Lachenmann, have found responsibility through their work, and there are great models for this for the future. Its not post-modernism that is needed, its something he calls "compositionism"...which is pretty interesting to me that he picked this word...but to create a new world out of who we are, equally rationalistic and realistic, to restore at least an ecological responsibility...and hopefully others.
I will be the first to say that Latour is probably not the most directly connected to aesthetics, and maybe it will always be something too tailored to how I think about aesthetics for it to really be revolutionary in the field of composition, but I think if we redefine modernism in a way that is less about techniques and the shouted dogma, and more about a failed attempt that in certian ways we must try again for survival and responsibility..to recompose our world into something that isn't completely destructive...we can come to find more beauty in anything...even blowing bubbles into water with a clarinet. Its not the 70s, but its also not the 90s, and a new musical world has to be created from something, because repeating ourselves (pun intended) isn't sustainable or inspiring.
I would also say that in general, Olafur Eliasson's work and perhaps to some extent Spahlinger, Alblinger, and Natasha Barrett's works fit this bill by trying to redefine the ground on which art can stand. But here I am again, name dropping because I am not an excellent writer, nor does my own music yet stand up to my ideals. 😉
Perhaps they should not call you the fascist because I am probably the dangerous idealist in this conversation.
And thank you for listening to some of my music...I am flattered.
From Latour, on aesthetics (the sense of awe) and the ecological crisis:
"The disconnect has shifted so completely that it no longer generates any feeling of the sublime any more since we are now summoned to feel responsible for the quick and irreversible changes of the Earth's face occasioned in part as a result of the tremendous power we are expending: we are asked to look again at the same Niagara Falls but now with the nagging feeling that they might stop falling flowing; we are asked to look again at the same everlasting ice, except that we are led to the sinking feeling that they might not last long after all; we are mobilized to look again at the same parched desert, except that we come to feel that it expands inexorably because of our disastrous use of the soil! Only galaxies and the Milky Way might still be available for the old humbling game of wonder, because they are beyond the Earth. How to feel the sublime when guilt is gnawing at your guts? And gnawing in a new unexpected way because of course I am not responsible, and neither are you, you, nor you. No one in isolation is responsible."
KG replies: Thank you, that's much more helpful. I'll keep him in mind.
Liam Carey says: That's a very interesting idea - I like the idea of an ecological approach to composition. Modernism (in common with Capitalism and Marxism) seems to believe in this idea of continual growth and expansion. New sounds, new forms, new timbres, onward, onward, more, more. But perhaps we need to take stock of what we really have available, perhaps there is actually only a finite set of resources for composers to use, and we have to use them responsibly.
KG replies: I've been explaining postminimalism this way for decades, but it never seems to get any traction. Glad someone else sees it.
Anna says: Having attended the whole festival (in Slovakia and Austria), I must say I agree with a lot of what Gann says about the Viennese part. The selections there, with some notable exceptions, were indeed rather limited in aesthetic diversity. I thought the Slovakian part was more diverse, however, even if it didn't include the kind of music that Gann brought from the States.
Anna says: I was one of the young composers who commented on the fact that composers of my generation discuss issues of aesthetics but we don't like to argue. I must say that I don't fully see the point of arguing. Who is that really serving? If a composer is writing truly what they want to write, would some aesthetic argument sway them from that path? Or should it? Would they say "I love doing this, but this is wrong, so I should force myself to do something else" ? To me it seems that if you can change your course like that than you are either creating for the wrong reasons and the wrong people, or you are a psychological disaster waiting to happen. You are trying to pander to something/someone who is not you.
Are we supposed to argue for political reasons? To prove that we and our ideas are superior to someone else's? What does that serve? Your audience probably doesn't care at all. They are judging by what they hear. Maybe we argue for the sake of being accepted by institutions and funding agencies? Well, I don't think that my generation has much chance in either of those places anyway. Not in the long term at least. We have to build our careers outside of those structures, or at least have two part-time careers with one foot inside the institution (on part-time lecturer basis and occasional commissioning grants) and the other in the wild outside where relationships with audiences and performers are more important than aesthetic philosophies. And when I talk about audience and performer relationships, I don't mean trying to pander to these people either. It is about finding and educating the right audience and performers for your ideas.
Do we argue to make something like the ISCM or some orchestra program our music? Why not just start our own and do whatever we want? And if you can't get enough people interested to do it with you, there's your aesthetic judgement right there in practical terms.
I think the idea of someone like Wagner or Boulez, who style themselves and their buddies as the beacons of the only correct way of doing things, is repugnant to us. If you are a composer engaging in an aesthetic debate designed to prove your own superiority, you come across as a pompous dick. And if you arguing for some other side, than what's your problem???
I think we just want to get down to the business of composing, getting our music played and making a living besides. Doing three jobs at once (composer, agent and employee) takes enough energy as it is. In today's world I don't see aesthetic arguments contributing to any of those three things.
Dennis Bathory-Kitsz says: I may be one of those who has been swayed by aesthetic arguments, and not just once. I think such arguments are the very process of artistic discovery. Discovery engenders growth for those awake to it, while 'getting down to the business of composing, getting our music played and making a living besides' is a growth-less, mechanical approach. Oddly, 'finding and educating the right audience and performers' expects growth from others, but not from yourself. Do you expect them to be willing to discover, while you, deaf to aesthetic arguments, are unwilling? Merely composing is child's play. Composing while discovering, stretching and changing in the midst of aesthetic peril is a much richer enterprise.
Anna says: I think you misunderstood me. I didn't mean that you never question anything you do or engage in other ideas, simply living in your own little world. It is something I do almost in every composing moment. I argue with myself. But for me, arguing with other people implies a value judgement of my work and theirs. It implies a hierarchy. I am questioning the validity of that process in today's world and whether it is useful to argue aesthetics for that reason.
Ian Stewart says: "But for me, arguing with other people implies a value judgement of my work and theirs. It implies a hierarchy."
Anna, that sounds to me like Cultural Marxism, where no one must be better than anyone else. The fact is that in any field of activity, some people are exceptional, some are terrible and should do something else. I am all for hierachies, it is how humans achieve great things although in the politically correct culture of the United Kingdom ability is suspect.
Post-modernism (which derives from Cultural Marxism) has done more harm to European/American culture than any funding cuts. Not because in its analysis, Post-modernism is entirely wrong, but because by the time it hits the arts administrators and talentless end of the artistic spectrum it becomes entirely misinterpreted.
I also believe value judgements are better than the recent period of classical music in Europe where conformity, to the intellectual style of composing, is enforced if you want your music played in a large number of places. I prefer hieracrchies to conformity. However I can argue about how much I hate post-modernism and then worship Ed Fella's typography, even though his design was the result of studying post-modernism, which was his main influence.
However maybe I have misinterpeted what you have written because I have a rule that I never criticise a living composer in public, only between very close colleagues, and even then I try not to - it always comes over badly for some reason.
Liam Carey says: Hi Ian,
I know that last comment wasn't addressed to me, so sorry for gegging in, but could you possibly give any objective standards by which we can make these value judgements, and thus place composers into a hierarchy?
Ian Stewart says: Hi Liam, your comment raises a few points. To consider hierarchies first, I was not suggesting that hierarchies should be deliberately created but answering Anna's statement, namely that aesthetic arguments should be avoided because they can lead to hierarchies. Hierarchies cannot be avoided and I do not think they are, in principle, bad. The other implication is that somehow hierarchies are fixed, immutable in time. They continually change; the clothing that was considered high fashion in the mid-1960's was looked down upon in the late 1970's. It is now considered high fashion again. In fact I have a great respect for the fashion industry because they are transparent. Classical music is every bit as fashion conscious but those involved rarely admit it.
There is a problem with avoiding hierarchies because the alternatives are far worse. If musical standards are no longer relevant, or politically acceptable, then in this vacuum other things take its place. Among these things are positive discrimination, where music is chosen by the creator's race or sexuality etc. because aesthetic judgements are now longer considered valid. It also leads to works being justified on the political content, a badly composed work promoting left-wing values is de facto better than a well written work promoting right-wing values.
Regarding objective criteria these are not fixed either. Repeating a phrase without change for several minutes is probably never acceptable in 12-tone music but is obviously acceptable in systems music. Each style has its own criteria and invariably its own hierarchies. It is possible to have hierarchies as a result of subjective criteria also. However words trigger political statements. When it is said one musician is better than the other one, for some reason Derrida fans think this can then lead to people thinking males are superior to females, or this race is superior to that race, which is nonsense.
I also think aesthetic judgements are unavoidable. How many times have discussions about the interpretation of various pianists playing a work from the standard classical repertoire? One pianist may be more accurate, whereas the other may have captured the inner qualities of the work better. I knew one person who attended a non-judgemental, residential dance course. Instead of objective and subjective analysis in the dance studio there was untold bitchiness behind the scenes.
David First says: Hey Kyle -
Yes, of course, blowing bubbles with your clarinet for a whole piece could be interesting. Or, better yet, go away, work on it for a couple years and create a brand new instrument. The problem isn't really extending an instrument's technical possibilities, it's when one just skims the surface..no pun intended..
mclaren says: The confusion and ongoing fractiousness surrounding the performance of modernist music arises quite naturally from the degraded and wholly degenerative condition of aesthetic criticism today. It becomes impossible to grasp the origins and motives of modernist aesthetics for most critics and audiences today, because the knowledge of the Romantic-era aesthetic credo and music/arts criticism from which it arises has entirely decayed.
It's quite startling to read art critics like John Ruskin and realize how crude and cartoonish today's aesthetic criticism as practiced by pygmies like Boulez or insects like Paul Griffiths has become by comparison. It's like watching cavemen who have forgotten how to make the wheel or build fire living in the ruins of the Roman empire, speculating about the putative function to which buildings like the Pantheon might have been put while herding their cattle inside it.
Ruskin's aesthetic theory turns of three central tenets. First, that the key to any work of great aesthetic significance is that it must exhibit sincerity.
"The greatest art represents everything with absolute sincerity, as far as it is able. [John Ruskin, The Laws of Fesole, 1878-1879.
This explains the absolute need for extended techniques in modernist compositions. By means of these extreme musical unctions, the modernist composer proves hi/r sincerity, in the manner of a penitent kneeling before the stations of the cross while flagellating hi/rself.
The second requirement of Ruskin's aesthetic theory is intensity.
"There is reciprocal action between the intensity of moral feeling and the power of imagination; for, on the one hand, those who have keenest sympathy are those who look closest and pierce deepest, and hold securest; and on the other, those who have so pierced and seen the melancholy deeps of things are filled with the most intense passion and gentleness of sympathy." [Ruskin, op. cit.]
This explains the indicriminate and non-stop variegated character of modernist music: it must exhibit a constant pressing, pressing, pressing upon the nerve of intensity, no matter what the emotion involved -- any emotion will do, any musical technique will serve, so long as it is sufficiently intense. Thus, acoustic roughness must be intense and prolonged; sudden silences must be unexpected and intense. Anxiety-producing buildups of layered acoustically rough dyads must be intense. Pointillism, when it makes it cameo appearance in place of melody, must be intense, involving a fizzing hothouse steamcloud of pointillistic melodic chaos. Rhythmic herky-jerkiness must be intense. Dyanmics must be intense, alternative unpredictably twixt unbearable loudness and pin-dropping quietude.
The third requirement of Ruskin's aesthetic theory is originality, but along with it, a concommitant isolation and alienation from the rest of mankind:
"Now the condition of mind in which Turner did all his great work was simply this: `What I do must be done rightly; but I know also that no man now living in Europe cares to understand it; and the better I do it, the less he will see the meaning of it.' There never was yet, so far as I can hear or read, isolation of a great spirit so utterly desolate.... So far as in it lay, this century has caused every one of its great men, whose hearts were kindest, and whose spirits most perceptive of the work of God, to die without hope: -- Scott, Keats, Byron, Shelley, Turner."[Ruskin, op. cit.]
Here we observe the origins of the need to alienate the audience -- the "isolation of a great spirit so utterly desolate" cannot of course occur if the audience actually enjoys the screeches and hoots and clatters and booms and howls and moans and stridulations with which the musicians bombard them.
Ruskin took the crucial step of severing the sublime from the beautiful. Previous critics had identified aesthetic sublimity as merely a mode of beauty, but Ruskin demurred:
"It will readily, I believe, be admitted that many things are sublime in the highest degree, which are not in the highest degree beautiful, and vice versa; i.e. that the two ideas are distinct, and one is not merely a particular form or state of the other." [Ruskin, op. cit.]
It is but a short step from this sophisticated late 19th century insight to the vulgar and cartoonish prejudice which identifies as the sublime as opposed to the beautiful. In Ruskin's view, the sublime might also be beautiful, but it might not be as well -- it depended on the context of the work of art. But as this late 19th century aesthetic doctrine filtered down into the pthecanthrepoid skulls of the cave-dwellers at Darmstadt and Princeton, the aesthetic doctrines of Ruskin underwent a degradation and degeneration, growing grossly simplified and misshapen in order to accomodate the far more limited intellectual capacities of the specimens of homo habilis which had made a home at Darmstadt, Princeton, IRCAM, and other centers of intellectual and aesthetic collapse.
In the manner of Austrolopithecus changing upon a cyclotron and concluding that it was deigned as an altar upon which to sacrifice virgins to appease the lightning gods, the doyens of high modernism at Darmstadt and Princeton and IRCAM chanced upon the aesthetic theories of Ruskin and his late 19th century ilk and repurposed them as exceptionally crude bludgeons with which to beat in the skulls of musical opponents.
This misuse of sophisticated 19th century theories, however, severely damaged them, leaving little of the original complexity and providing only a crass form of Stakhanovite rhetoric to continually one-up modernist rivals by continually extending the frontiers of musical ugliness, isolation and desolation. Thus the modernist composer could also prove hi/r bona fides by producing a piece of music even harder on the ears than the last one; if a previously cutting-edge modernist had required that the audience listen to multitudes of fingernails scratching across blackboards, an even newer modernist rival could outdo his aesthetic opponent by demanding that the audience listen to some buffoon onstage swallowing carrot juice while placing a microphone against his throat, or by rubbing phonograph cartridges connected to preamplifiers against a variety of bristly and abrasive objects to generate a range of roars, blasts, slams, crunches, screeches, howls, grating sound, and ominous scratching rumbles (Cartridge Music). By eliminating thought and aesthetic discrimination from the process of creativity, this mutated degradation of Ruskin's late 19th century aesthetic theories reduced modernist aesthetics to an ugliness-and-shock arms race: whoever could empty the concert hall fastest won. Thus fame arrived only for those modernist composers who succeeded in creating a scandal, with the ultimate prize being an actual riot in the concert hall, of the kind allegedly engendered by Stravisnky's Rite of Spring.
The problem, of course, came from the lack of appreciation for the subtlety of Ruskin's original aesthetic theory. Ruskin well understood that sincerity often required a great deal of insincerity to put across. A play like The Importance of Being Earnest works because it is so sincere about skewering the straightlaced sincerity of the Victorians. Likewise, 20th century modernist compositions like Marinetti's Riveglio de la citta work because they so succefully fake the creation of a set of faux noises using intonarumori, which really sound nothing at all like the traffic noises and industrial rhythms which Marinetti worshiped and praised in his Futurist Manifesto. Likewise, the Rite of Spring works by evoking an entirely faux primitivism: we today, who have access to a great deal of music from aboriginal tribes in the third world, recognize that Stravinsky's "primitive" rhythms and tone clusters have nothing to do with the actual sound of "primitive" music. Rather, Stravinsky found a way of translating the impression of primitivism into a remarkably sophisticated array of modernist musical techniques like polymeters, polyrhythms, plyaccents, tone clusters, dissonant counterpoint, and so on. Stravinsky, in short, got Rite of Spring to work by successfully faking primitivism -- Stravinsky was deeply sincere about the insincerity with which he used various bits of modernist musical legedermain to generate an tromp l'oeil illusion of primitive time and ancient tribes, without actually reproducing music that sounded anything like genuinely ancient tribal music. After all, Stravinsky could easily have dispensed with the modern orchestra altogether and simply had some Parisians dressed in animal skins shuffle onstage and bang some quasi-pentatonic xylophones or lithophones. That would have sounded much more like the actual music of remote tribes like the Are-Are people of the Solomon Islands, or the Ba-Benzeli pygmies of the Amazon rain forests. But that would not have gotten the impression of ancientness or primeval music across in the same way, because Stravinsky was not out to literally recreate the music of ancient tribes: he was after something altogether different. Stravinsky wanted to conjure up an imaginary world of primeval terror and beauty using intensely avant garde musical techniques from central Europe at the very end of the 20th century.
Ruskin understood what the modernists had forgotten, or never knew: that artists and musicians and poets had to create an aesthetic effect for audiences as they existed, using extant artistic or musical or poetic techniques of their time. It would certainly be possible to produce a piece of literature of complete originality in the 19th century by writing a novel in an invented language, and then burning the only existing dictionary created for that language. The problem, as Ruskin understood too well, is that such hermetic art creates no aesthetic impact because the audience has no way to get a handle on its new language. If the aesthetic modes and musical conventions bear no relationship with existing practice or with the conventions built up over thousands of years of musical history, the audience has nowhere to go to begin to parse the piece of music. It is in the position of someone listening to a potentially great play (perhaps Sophokles) in the original Greek: the drama may be compelling, it may evoke profound emotions, but only if the language proves comprehensible. If you don't speak Greek, all you get is people running around onstage hooting and yawping, and occasionally thrusting a sword into one another. Why is that guy doing that? Did that girl do something wrong? Why is she crying now in front of that tomb? Who is that older guy who is yelling at her? What does any of this mean?
Without access to the language, the audience quickly grows bored, fidgets, and eventually steals away out of the concert hall. It is necessary to be original, but just as necessary to maintain a bridge to comprehensible practice and conventions. Originality is not an arms race where the most extreme version wins: it is a compromise twixt introducing new forms of language to generate excitement, but at the same time maintaining enough contact with familiar conventions to allow the audience to get a sense of what is going on and what the points of tension are about and why the dramatic moments occur where they do, and what they lead to, and what it all means dramatically and in terms of expectations violated or fulfilled, structural musical conventions flouted or adhered to.
Likewise, the "isolation of spirit so desolate" of which Ruskin spoke could and soon would turn around on itself. As soon as the avant garde became ensconced as the reigning orthodoxy,t he only possible mode of originality and isolation became the return to musical traditions and practices which had been abandoned by the modernists. Thus, the great frontier of post-modern music (as Warren Burt has wittily remarked) became sentimentality and tonality -- two frontiers modernists feared and dared not traverse. But postmodern bricoleurs like Jacob Druckman did not fear sentimentality,and when composers like Nicholas Maw and David del Tredici and Jacob Druckman began composing tonal music that even contained quotes from earlier music, the reaction among the modernist establishment was just as violent and just as intense as the reaction to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring had been 60 years earlier.
Ruskin recognized that non-stop intensity would defeat itself. Thus intensity represented in the 19th century critical view, a delicate balancing act that traded off occasional sallies of emotional explosion for long periods of convention. The convention was necessary to provide the explosive parts of the art to have an impact. But the musical modernists forgot this, and by using non-stop musical explosions, incessant variety, continual rhythmic irregularity, they didn't heighten musical intensity -- instead, they created a music in which paradoxically nothing ever happens because anything can happen at any time, and so the audience has no more expectations to violate in order to get excited about what happens.
Likwise, re-introducing not just tonality, but a very limited set of key centers, and not just repetition, but intensive repetition, as minimalists like Philip Glass and Steve Reich did in the 1970s, was just as revolutionary in its own way and provided just as much explosive progressive power to contemporary music to shock it out of a stylistic rut as the rejection of triadic harmony and conventional rhythms and conventional orchestration by Stravinsky in Rite of Spring and Prokofiev in his Symphony No. 2 and Mosolov in his orchestral piece The Steel Foundry had done between the 1910s and 1920s.
Ruskin's aesthetics, as a sophisticated product of late Romanticism, recognized and allowed for these antinomies. But the degraded cartoon version of aesthetics into which IRCAM and Darmstadt and Princeton had descended did not recognize such exquisite paradoxes, nor did it allow for them. The watchword among these de-evolved post-competent modernists was the rallying cry of the Viennese Kook: "...if it is art, it is not for all, and if it is for all, it is not art." [Schoenberg, Arnold, Style and Idea: Selected Writings, trans. by Leo Black, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984, pg. 124]
But that rallying-cry fails to recognize the fatal paradox inherent in its credo. For the self-styled avant garde of the modernists was united in recognizing the alleged excellence of idols like the Viennese Kook. But once the modernists united in recognizing the excellence of any aesthetic paradigm, this became an aesthetic embraced by all, part of the establishment, official, not merely sanctioned but now required and demanded by elite musical institutions from top to bottom. But this then creates an art "for all," and since it is for all, it cannot be art. Meanwhile, the despised and condemned conventions of triadic harmonic progressions, tonal melody, a regular rhythmic pulse, once eschewed utterly and entirely by the elite institutions become something that is "not for all," at least all the people who consider themselves musical elites -- and so these reviled and deprecated practices of triadic harmony and tonal melody and regular rhythm become the new art, the only true art by the very definition of the modernists, since the modernists themselves despise and eschew it.
And so we arrive at the self-reflecting hall of mirrors of postmodern compositional style, where the modernists find themselves ill-equipped to function. In the 21st century irony, playfullness, polystylistic disruption, and retrogressive returns to older musical practices break through the clotted conventions of musical modernism and paradoxically make the music sound new again (by sounding old). This is a level of paradox and irony that makes the modernists' heads explode. They can't handle it.
No modernist, for example, ever imagined that Frank Zappa would get the reverse kind of message he actually got out of high modernist musical hijinks, or that Zappa would take that message the pervesely sly places he did:
"Once upon a time, when I was an impressionable young composer, somebody gave me a John Cage record and I listened to it, and went 'What the fuck is this?' But since I didn't know what the fuck anything was, I thought 'Maybe this is really good.' A short time after that, John Cage came to Claremont College and he was giving one of his ... he does these performances with a throat microphone. He'd put this thing on his throat and drink a quart of carrot juice, or read something to you while he was drinking the carrot juice. In a way, this ties in with my over-all feeling towards colleges. In this instance, there was a college audience watching John Cage drink the carrot juice and do these things, and they were pondering it like it had this large significance. It occurred to me that if he could do that, then certainly, SURELY there were other things equally ridiculous that a person such as myself could do in the music business." [Den Simms, "An Evening With Pierre Boulez and Frank Zappa," T'Mershi Duween, no. 9 (October 1989)
KG replies: Thanks, I've been needing to read Ruskin for my Ives book, and it's really difficult to know where to start. I'll start with The Laws of Fesole.
Stephen Shearon says: I become utterly exhausted every time I realize that anyone in the (western) classical music world still thinks like the Germans and Austrians you've described. It's an unhealthy and tiny little subculture lacking self-awareness. That is why I followed a path to musicology and now ethnomusicology, which, in my opinion, is providing the basis for the future of scholarly music study.
KG replies: Your final sentence echoes many things people were saying at the conference.
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