Keynote Address for The Extensible Toy Piano
By Kyle Gann
Delivered at Clark University in Worcester, Massachussetts, November 5. 2005
In 1948 John Cage wrote a Suite for Toy Piano. His instrument was only two octaves wide and contained only white keys. At that time he was writing mostly quiet works, because, as he later explained, "I didn't think there was any good in anything big in society."
Cage's willingness to limit himself to white keys was strikingly dissident in a noisy, patriotic decade which produced perhaps more symphonies than any other decade before or since. In a survey of the symphony I once prepared, I found more symphonies written by well-known composers in 1946, the year after the war ended, than any other year since the 18th century, most of them big, noisy works using the orchestra's full potential for brass and percussion. The same year in which the Suite for Toy Piano was written saw the composition of one of the largest symphonies ever, Olivier Messiaen's Turangalila, written in ten movements for orchestra expanded by a large percussion section, solo piano and Ondes martenot. Clearly, not many at that moment shared Cage's dubious view of the big things of society.
Soon afterward, however, the idea of pitch limitation was in the air: In 1950, Elliott Carter employed extreme pitch limitations in his Eight Etudes and a Fantasy, using only a D Major triad in the Third Etude and only the pitch G in the Seventh. European works on one pitch were written by Witold Lutoslawski and Giacinto Scelsi. Those may have been isolated experiments, but in 1960 La Monte Young wrote a piece using two pitches: B and F#, "to be held for a long time." In 1966 Steve Reich wrote Piano Phase using five pitches. Three years later, Philip Glass produced Music in Fifths using only seven pitches, five in each hand with three overlaps. In 1975, still in college, I, like Cage, wrote a piece using only the "white" notes, no sharps or flats. Jonathan Kramer, a reformed 12-tone composer who would later teach at Columbia, wrote a series of works limited in pitch, using only five pitches in his Moving Music for 13 clarinets, six pitches in Music for Piano Number 5, and an uninflected E-minor scale for his orchestra piece Moments in and Out of Time.
Theodor Adorno once referred to the attitude of Richard Strauss in his tone poems as that of "the grand industrialist who knows that his resources are endless." The 1960s, though, gave birth to a musical environmentalism that rejected the industrialist attitude in favor of a more cautious husbanding of resources. This environmentalism continues to have many adherents. Carl Stone made his 15-minute electronic piece Shing Kee from a few seconds sampled from a Schubert recording. John Luther Adams has written many pieces using only the C major scale, up to his 75-minute, 1998 orchestra piece In the White Silence. One of the most electric performances I've ever seen was a 1988 piece called Click by Mary Ellen Childs which consisted of three performers using only two wood blocks each, tapping them against each other's in intricate patterns with the inventive logic and lightning speed of a Warner Brothers cartoon.
From one viewpoint, this interest in self-limitation seems like a historical aberration. Before 1948, the history of musical resources looks like a more or less uninterrupted crescendo:
from the diatonic scale to the chromatic to the quarter-tone scale to the 43-tone scale of Harry Partch;
from simple consonances to seventh and ninth chords to unresolved dissonances to thick tone clusters to noises.
from the unaccompanied choir to the classical orchestra to the romantic orchestra with a large brass section to the modern orchestra with its array of percussion to the expansion of these means via recorded sounds.
Nevertheless, the most emblematic gesture of the late 20th century may be Morton Feldman's decision to base virtually an entire, prolific career, including many multi-hour works, on a single dynamic level, "as soft as possible." After Cage and Feldman seemed to give permission, hundreds of younger composers wrote pieces that used only one dynamic level, or one scale, or multiples of one instrument.
Why did self-limitation suddenly seem like such an attractive idea? Perhaps it's partly because of what Stravinsky described as the terror of too many possibilities. As long as all possibilities were open to him, Stravinsky said, composing was impossible. And he added, "My freedom will be so much greater and more meaningful, the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraints, diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self of the chains that shackle the spirit." I like to link this quotation with one from Friedrich Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil: "One should recall the compulsion under which every language so far has achieved strength and freedom - the metrical compulsion of rhyme and rhythm."
Perhaps it was the very freedom opened up by the emancipation of dissonance and atonality that required Cage and others after him to create their own limitations. Richard Strauss, after all, was limited to a Romantic harmonic language that reined in his profusion of orchestral techniques. In 1921 Schoenberg brought his own experiment with total freedom to an end with the invention of the 12-tone row.
The popular stereotype of the artist is that he or she creates an image from his or her unfettered imagination. But most artists, I think, realize that one's imaginative vision does not go onto the page, or into the soundfile, intact, and in the same form in which it first appeared in one's head. Art is a dialogue with the material, a wrestling with material reality and perceptual constraints, and often a kind of problem solving. None of these can operate, can get the friction to create sparks of insight, if the possibilities are truly endless. As my colleague Joan Tower is always saying, "When you're composing, you think you're in control - but you're not."
Another spur to limitation may have also come from the explosion in the number of artists. In the 1980s, at an event not dissimilar to this one, I heard a statistic that there were 40,000 Americans who called themselves composers. With numbers like that, self-limitation becomes self-identity. If two composers use all the resources available, it might become difficult to distinguish them. But if you're the only composer to write symphonies for electric guitars, or the only composer to write for player piano, or the only one to write five-hour works in monochromatic pianissimo, you distinguish yourself from the other 40,000. This kind of finding one's own, limited niche has been especially common in New York City, where hundreds of composers are cooped up in a small area.
Of course, during the same period I'm talking about, from 1948 through the 1950s and '60s and '70s, the buzz in the profession was about how limitations were vanishing. The new resources of electronics were promising a musical world free from limitations, a world in which any possible sound would become available for musical use. Besides the Suite for Toy Piano and Turangalila, 1948 was also the year of Pierre Shaeffer's first tape composition, Etude aux Chemins de Fer, magnetic recording tape having been made commercially available only the year before. Etude aux Chemins de Fer was made from the sounds of locomotives. Annea Lockwood would later use a purring cat in her tape piece Tiger Balm, field recordings of the Hudson River in her Sound Map of the Hudson River, and recordings of tree frogs, volcanic eruptions, and even earthquakes in her 1975 piece World Rhythms. On a more quotidian level, Charles Amirkhanian used fart sounds, flushing toilets, and the roar of the crowd at a soccer game in his homage to Samuel Beckett, Pas de voix. If I were to hazard a guess at a sound that has never yet been used in a piece of music, someone in this audience would immediately contradict me and give examples. Every sound imaginable, from the subsonic mating calls of tree beetles to the soundwaves of the planets in motion, has been used in music by someone, somewhere.
In addition to the newfound availability of all sounds for musical use, technology has made it possible to pursue infinity in terms of what we can do with those sounds. Technology has made available the lightning speed of Conlon Nancarrow's player piano music, which in his Study #25 achieves a rate of 175 notes per second; and also any tempo relationship imaginable, not only close tempo ratios like 60-against-61 but irrational ratios like 2 to the square root of 2, and even transcendental ones like e against pi. Pauline Oliveros performs with software that can alter the acoustics of her music to mimic those of another space, so that she can perform in a storefront and create the illusion of a cathedral ambience morphing into that of a living room. Henry Gwiazda uses software, originally created for airline pilots so that they could receive multiple streams of information, that creates, in Gwiazda's music, the illusion of three-dimensional space with only two speakers, so that you hear basketballs bouncing toward you and seagulls flying overhead. Seattle's inventor-composer Trimpin, recipient of a well-deserved MacArthur Award, has made:
rhythmic fugues from the computer-timed drips of water into fountains;
microtonal bass clarinets with hundreds of keys spiraling down the instrument and fingered by computer, so that all a human needs to do is blow into the mouthpiece;
a computerized prepared piano in which the preparations can be automatically added and removed during performance;
computerized mallets that can achieve a continuous drone from the membranes of timpani by rubbing them with superhuman endurance;
machines that will play every instrument of the orchestra via MIDI; and even
assemblages of toy pianos synchronized by computer and played in three-dimensional space via MIDI.
More and more composers, especially those who write film soundtracks, are realizing orchestra pieces on their computers, with fidelity that can no longer be distinguished, in some cases, from a traditional orchestra. We live in a time in which the practical limitations on sound production seem to be evaporating like morning dew.
In these same decades, however, as we were being given all these new possibilities, much was also taken away from us. As our ability to create a realistic simulacrum of an orchestra in our computer software increases, our access to actual orchestras decreases at a similar rate. In one hundred years our most common reference point for sonic fidelity has modulated from a symphony orchestra at Carnegie Hall to the vinyl record, to the digital compact disc, to the mp3, this last often played through the tiny speakers on each side of a laptop computer, with a corresponding loss of sound quality inherent in each new medium.
In the early decades of the 20th century, it was common for orchestral conductors to include one new American work on each concert. This practice declined drastically after World War II. Today it is safe to say that the vast majority of American composers have no access to an orchestra on any regular basis. Those who do have such access had better develop a facility for writing eight-to-ten-minute concert openers with lots of percussion, which is the typically marginalized placement and character of a new American work on orchestra programs today.
Access to record promotion and distribution has become far more limited as well. In 1970 Cage's Suite for Toy Piano made its recording debut on the Columbia label. Today, of course, very little new and experimental music appears on the labels owned by the four multinational conglomerates (Sony BMG, Universal Music Group, EMI, and Warner) that together control 70 percent of the world market and 85 percent of the U.S. market.
And when I mention 85 percent of the U.S. market, every member of this audience will realize that the remaining 15 percent consists almost entirely of independent pop music labels. When I was a teenager, one could keep up with the latest new music on major labels like Columbia, Deutsche Grammaphon, and Nonesuch; by the time I started at the Village Voice in 1986, new music was on small specialty labels like New Albion and Mode; by the 1990s, the best new music was on artist-owned labels that had very little distribution, and today I get most of my new music on CDRs, except when I download it off the composer's web site.
Not only has Ani de Franco gone independent with her own label, a composer as famous in my youth as Peter Maxwell Davies now offers his recordings via download from his web site.
Access to commercial radio has declined so far that statistics are hardly necessary to cite. When I was in high school, I learned what was going on in contemporary music by recording it off of WRR-FM, a radio station owned then and still owned today by the city of Dallas. In the early 1970s I became familiar in this way with music by Milton Babbitt, Charles Wuorinen, Leon Kirchner, and Terry Riley, and, in fact, with Cage's keyboard music, including the Suite for Toy Piano. It is unimaginable that any young musician today could learn what's going on in music outside of pop music on the radio.
During my lifetime there has grown a palpable feeling of the music I'm involved with becoming more and more marginalized, cut off from society. Many composers, especially those of us in academia, have colluded with this marginalization - out of a sense of inappropriate modesty, or out of a feeling that security is easier to achieve in a closed society of like-minded individuals than in a wider social sphere in which the value of one's work is more subject to challenge, or more recently out of a self-deprecation that considers pop music somehow more authentic and thus more valuable than our own music, with an introvert's typical compensatory tendency to over-value socially constructed reality.
Every day, more composers join the do-it-yourself bandwagon: self-publishing, self-recording, self-promoting. With that comes tremendous freedom in terms of content, but also a whole new set of limitations in terms of access. For instance, I always wanted to be a classical DJ, and now I run my own internet radio station, Postclassic Radio, with a lineup of new music that fulfills my wildest fantasies of what a radio station could be. Of course, no more than 100 people can listen at a time - which has not been much of an inconvenience because the usual average I get is two listeners at a time - and I pay $30 a month for the privilege. I'm playing mp3s, and I assume that most of my audience listens through their computers. In terms of content I've achieved my wildest dreams, but in terms of access to the public, I hardly exist at all.
We've been given limitless software, hardware, speed, manipulative capabilities, and sonic sophistication. What's been taken away from us falls under the category access to the public. Yet some have argued that access to the public is the most important resource composers have. In his argumentative little 1974 book Stockhausen Serves Imperialism, Cornelius Cardew wrote:
"[A] composition is not an end-product, not in itself a useful commodity. The end-product of an artist's work, the 'useful commodity' in the production of which he plays a role, is ideological influence.... The production of ideological influence is highly socialized, involving (in the case of music), performers, critics, impresarios, agents, managers, etc., and above all (and this is the artist's real 'means of production') an audience.... [U]nder the bourgeois dictatorship, it is clearly impossible to bring work with a decidedly socialist or revolutionary content to bear on a mass audience. Access to this audience (the artist's real means of production) is controlled by the state."
Let me repeat that: Access to the audience is the artist's real means of production. Not sounds, not recordings, not technology, but access to the audience. And that access is controlled by the state.
There is something heartbreakingly poignant about the fact that, just as our resources for sound production and manipulation are asymptotically approaching infinity, our even more important access to a mass audience is asymptotically approaching zero.
There is a great reluctance in the Western world to refer to control of musical distribution by private corporations as censorship, since censorship is something that can traditionally be done only by governments, not by privately-owned entities. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that the corporate world and the government have in fact merged, in actuality if not yet completely in appearance, and that the elected government is so completely beholden to the corporate world that the corporations are pulling the strings. One of the best-known examples is the corporation Clear Channel, which is the world's largest broadcaster, concert promoter, and billboard advertising firm, and whose Vice Chair of Communications, Tom Hicks, is a member of the Bush Pioneer Club for elite and generous donors, and who made Bush a multimillionaire by purchasing the Texas Rangers in 1998. When the CEO for Halliburton becomes Vice-President of the country and hands out no-bid contracts to Halliburton, distinctions between corporations and the government become academic. And thus there is no longer any difference between Sony BMG telling a musician, "This doesn't suit our needs" and "This is against the interests of the state." The interest of the state in this case is to make money, and music not made for the purpose of maximizing profit will remained undistributed - and for all practical intents and purposes, "undistributed" is the American word for "censored."
As Martin Scherzinger and Arved Ashby have written,
The culture industry thus aims to optimize an ever-increasing cycle of commodity production and destruction. While changes in fashion are often grounded in genuine socio-cultural needs, most of the music produced in the ensuing style cannot answer to these needs. Necessarily, such music is drained of musical or social values that may transcend the contingencies of that style. So, musical expressions that encourage the discipline of imaginative concentration, for example, will not be marketed or promoted. The more deeply satisfying and rewarding to listeners such music turns out to be, the less it is in the interest of the commercial industry to produce and promote it. With its exclusive focus on maximizing turnover through rapid-fire stylistic shifting, the industry favors music that will perish just as soon as it has been purchased. This is the mechanism that Slajov Zizek calls the "capitalist logic of waste and planned obsolescence."
Everyone who teaches undergrads knows this phenomenon. The shelf life of a popular band is three years, and once the record companies have milked as much money as they can from a band, they drop it for the next one. My students used to think I was really hip because I'd talk about Nine Inch Nails in class, and the fourth year I tried it they all said, "Who?" Planned obsolescence is a necessary component of commercial success. We all know the stories about software developers who perfect their product after a few years - but who have to keep changing it, even after it's perfected, so the company will be able to continually make more income off of upgrades. Even textbooks must be revised every four years whether they need it or not, since revisions are where publishers get their next influx of money.
Meanwhile, as the wheels of revision and new product spin faster and faster, our intellectual culture has reached a stagnation that would have seemed unimaginable when I was young. In 1973, when Stockhausen or Steve Reich would write a new piece, the recording would come out on Deutsche Gramophone in 1974, and everyone I knew would know the piece within months. Now my more adventurous students, the ones really on the lookout for wild new music, are just discovering Glenn Branca's symphonies from the early 1980s. The lag time from composition to audience for a new piece used to be measured in months; now it's more like 25 years. I have to come to a conference like this to remind myself that art is advancing at all. Elsewhere, I feel like our culture has fallen into the same state as the protagonist of the film Momento, incapable of forming new memories.
This, too, is determined by the corporate nature of publishing. When you take a book proposal to a publisher, the first thing they do is look at the financial figures for other books on the same subject by other publishers. What if there are no other books on that subject? Then there's obviously no interest, and they won't publish one. In other words, if the public doesn't already know about a subject, you aren't allowed to tell them about it. For years no publisher would consider a book on minimalism; it wasn't important music, it wouldn't last, no one was interested. Then somehow Rob Schwartz managed to publish a book on minimalism with Phaidon Press, and the next year there were five new books about minimalism. The year there were four good biographies of Charles Ives out, Oxford asked me to write a biography of Charles Ives.
Cage wrote for toy piano because there was nothing good about anything big in society. But it seems that there was a lot more good in the big things in society back then than there is today. At least in 1970, the Suite for Toy Piano was able to be recorded on America's most prominent record label, and to get played on the radio, where a 15-year-old composer in Dallas could get excited about it. Cage made his own limitations but he didn't face anything as restrictive as the corporate censorship disguised as social apathy we are facing today.
Some 15 years ago, the Indonesian composer I Wayan Sadra came to this country and talked about censorship in his homeland, which was severe. At one theater performance for which he supplied the music, the army surrounded the hall with tanks, and was prepared to arrest the entire troupe if any criticism of the government was heard. Indonesian artists, Sadra said, put a lot of creativity into criticizing the government so subtly and indirectly that the audience will understand the criticism, even when the army doesn't - and in this instance the tanks left without incident. Sadra suggested that if we are faced with censorship here - and this was during the time of the 2 Live Crew controversy, when artists were being pressed to sign an anti-obscenity clause when they accepted grants - that we should become very clever in getting our message out past the government in subversive ways. "As artists," he said, "we have to know what to do to not be caught by the censors. This takes far more creativity than just thinking about what we would do if we were free."
This kind of statement seems to suggest that the limitations of our current marginalization as composers can be as much of a spur to our creativity as Cage's use of the toy piano was. We all debate how this can happen. The government censors, in our case, are trying to prevent the spread of any content that does not promise to make money for corporations, and also promise to be ephemeral, to disappear quickly, so more money can be made very soon. This goes so much against the grain of what most of us want in a healthy artistic life that it's difficult to imagine how to package our music to create that illusion. On the contrary, we're all trying to create a rich, enduring music that will grow more meaningful with time and improve on subsequent listenings. We want to have our careers as composers nurtured for decades, beyond the three-year expiration date of record company interest.
In any case, I would like to encourage a recognition that the marginalization composers suffer today is not deserved; that much has been taken away from us, deliberately, that we have a right to expect; that we all have as much right to a healthy musical society as we do to clean air and water and freedom of speech in political discourse. Personally, I feel that composers should insist that we have a right to have our music published and distributed, as composers have had for centuries; and even more importantly, that the public has a right to hear what is really going on in the artistic life of the world, and not have their choices calculatedly restricted to whatever recycled pablum makes the most money for corporations.
In return, I believe we need to recognize that what's true of our more theoretical musical materials is also true of our real material, access to the audience - that it's a dialogue, a process of compromise, a wrestling with perceptions and a kind of problem solving. We need feedback from the scale, the instrument, the software, and we also need feedback from a mass audience. We can't afford the fiction that we're in complete control. In the early 1990s I was on a lot of grants panels, and all of them seemed to be going in the direction of getting composers involved with communities, rather than just commissioning works for performance. I don't know whether this trend has continued or whether the money has been taken away, but I heartily support it.
After all, when I mentioned to people that I was speaking at a toy piano conference this weekend, the reactions were invariably of astonished delight. People were happy to find out that composers will write for toy pianos today, which of course no one knows, even though it's been going on for more than half a century. Most people have some experience of a toy piano, usually in their childhood. This is not something distant or esoteric. My optometrist was fascinated. In the 1970s we composers were futzing around with combinatorial hexachords, and our alienation from the larger culture seemed like a natural concomitant, if not indeed a just punishment, for our picayune technical preoccupations. Such is no longer the case today. We have achieved emancipation of every possible element of music. Now we need to emancipate ourselves from the little corner in which the corporate world has imprisoned us, happy to siphon away our money in return for continually updated audio software, but refusing to touch our music.
After a century of expanding possibilities, we find ourselves in a world of limitations - some of them self-imposed, others imposed against our will. We have more reasons than ever to use the toy piano. We use it because we can - it is no longer prohibited, and thanks to Cage, there is precedence for taking it seriously. We use the toy piano because we can afford to. We can control it. It's portable - we can carry it. No one can deny us the use of it. The toy piano has no board of directors on the lookout against cost overruns. We use it as a symbol of that which lies outside corporate control. We can even connect it to computers and make it do things no toy piano was ever supposed to do. What we can't seem to do with it, though, is communicate to the outside world, the world outside our composing circles, that there's been a repertoire of toy piano music now for 57 years+.
We're in a very funny position today, saturated with a meaningless kind of freedom, and with our music held in chains. Nothing is prohibited, yet not everything is allowed, because very little is available. Nothing is allowed to grow because everything is abandoned at birth, nothing is nurtured. But we are in a better position to rise to the occasion than we were 20 or 30 years ago; and perhaps the restrictions we live under will force us into the most extreme burst of creativity that any musical generation has ever been called upon to achieve.
Copyright Kyle Gann 2005
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