What Makes New Classical Music Classical?

In my review of Scott Pender’s release for Navona, 88 + 12, I closed by remarking that he “is inventive, expressively rich, and gimmick-free: his music is what I imagine when I dream of a future for classical music.” Not long afterward, a post by Greg Sandow on Facebook commented on his own blog post “It Can Be Done,” which reported on The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Wordless Music festival and their success attracting younger audiences. I was particularly interested in the Wordless Music model of combining various styles within a single concert: Sandow mentioned indie rock, noise improvisation, Shostakovich, the Bach B-flat-Major Partita, and more. It wasn’t clear to me how much variety there was within a single concert, but I got the impression that most of the concerts had a healthy mix of things. I’m certainly in favor of that: it seems more and more the case that the young composers and performers I know are interested in all kinds of music and very good practitioners of many styles. A similar, wider cross-pollination in concerts might increasingly appeal to younger audiences, too.

What most caught my attention, though, was Sandow’s overly optimistic observation that he sees no sign of classical music being dumbed down through attempts to reinvent its milieu and its programming. I disagreed and was immediately called upon to explain myself: I think people were concerned that I considered minimalism and other kinds of tonal-sounding music an example of dumbing down. I assured them that this was not the case, and promised to explain myself at greater length in a subsequent blog post. This is the result, which interleaves a number of related topics. First, some new classical music is dumbed down, and that comes from its failure to live up to the standards of what I would call new classical music—I need to explain what I mean by that. At the same time, new classical music should be distinguished from a great many other kinds of concert music (yes, yes, a vague term, I know) by composers who sometimes have very different expectations from a composer of new classical music. I conclude with some speculation concerning what these differing expectations might mean to the wider community of contemporary concert music composers and their prospective audiences.

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In order to set up properly the context for my thoughts on the subject, I need to cite some passages from one of my American Record Guide reviews published in the November/December 2013 issue. The disc in question was called Bach Re-Invented (Sony 94168) with the pianist Simone Dinnerstein and the Absolute Ensemble led by Kristian Järvi, who performed music by Gene Pritsker, Daniel Schnyder, and Tom Trapp. The album’s premise was to take some Bach Inventions and commission three younger composers to create new music in their own manner related to the models. I dubbed this “the musical equivalent of making a great Hollandaise—one miscalculation and the sauce breaks.”

I thoroughly disliked Pritsker’s Reinventions (Piano Concerto). The first two movements are based on the C-major and A-minor inventions, passages of which are mercilessly repeated with the finesse of a jackhammer. Bach is also mostly unrelated to the other music in the piece, which, as I wrote, “runs a gamut of popular styles that would sound perfectly at home in a Las Vegas megaclub.” I liked the third movement, which introduced a beautiful bandoneon (played by Hector Del Curto) and was effectively based on Bach’s D-minor Invention: the mixture of styles here seemed more plausible and each contributed to the other. Nevertheless, the whole effort seems wrong-headed from the start because Bach seems more of a pretext for the album than a font of inspiration facilitating a meaningful dialogue between the old and new. These composers, it seemed to me at the time, weren’t writing new classical music, and the presence of Bach’s work reasonably led me to expect them to.

Classical music is a tradition with a history and certain generic expectations—both formal and social—that come along with it. For instance, even though the exact meaning of the word sonata has shifted over the years (it originally meant music that’s played by an instrument rather than music that’s sung), composers who write a sonata probably expect their listeners to know other pieces by that title (maybe a great many of them) and probably also expect their listeners actively to consider their prior knowledge when they hear a new one. Scott Pender’s Cello Sonata is such a piece; it interests me as much for whatever merits it has on its own as it does for the way it makes me rehear other cello sonatas (Beethoven’s and Brahms’s, for example). Of course, a composer can strike out on her own, can write a piece so far against the grain of the generic tradition of the sonata that the result might productively engage with the tradition—but even then I’m inclined to think that the composer must be deeply aware of the tradition before such a work could succeed. Marc Chan’s music might be the best example of this I can think of: his pieces J’s Box and My Wounded Head 3 (the latter dedicated to and premiered by me, I should add) are remarkable pieces that treat pre-existing music (Bach’s first prelude from The Well-Tempered Clavier and the passion chorale settings from the St. Matthew Passion) as reservoirs of material for a highly nuanced intertextual dialogue. His later works involving the music of Schumann continue this trend and demand, I think, an even greater awareness of their compositional subject.

There are a number of different streams of concert musical composition now that have very little to do with the classical tradition but that, nevertheless, don’t fit comfortably in non-classical traditions. They include minimalism, chance and indeterminacy, and sound art; one might stretch and add twelve-tone array composition into the mix, but it’s possible to argue that it refers to Schoenberg, which in turn refers very strongly to the Austro-German tradition. Insofar as some fundamental aspects of twelve-tone array composition work against many of Schoenberg’s conceptions of composition (especially the formal ones), I would see it as essentially a different tradition altogether. To the extent that the composers imagine, hope, or expect their music to remain performed in years to come, however, that music subscribes to the same sensibility as classical music, even if has almost nothing to do with the tradition. Like classical music, it demands our attention and thought through multiple hearings; one performance is usually insufficient.

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Popular music, however, is different—it is predicated on a constant influx of new, relatively short and catchy items that stay in the mind’s ear for a few months and are eventually replaced by other offerings with equal staying power. That’s why I liked Tom Trapp’s Headless Snowman on the Sony disc. I wrote that it “clocks in at 4 minutes, makes its au courant musical points quickly and effectively—just as popular music does—and ends before it exhausts itself.”

I think that many people believe the solution to the “problem of classical music audiences” involves embracing the world of popular music more fully. This approach won’t do any damage when it’s well thought out and executed with honesty and imagination; and sometimes it leads to amazing results. I am by no means a purist when it comes to the updating of classical music performance, but I’m willing to be critical and call attention to when it works and when it doesn’t: the Kronos Quartet doing Jimi Hendrix worked; they’ve continued to have a strong career and presence. But Michael Torke singing the praises of Chaka Khan’s bass lines and thinking he was current for appropriating them (in one of his early releases) didn’t work: Khan was by then already a marginal figure in pop music, and Torke’s hitching his wagon to her star had no effect on his career whatever.

Torke is by no means alone in his misstep. I cringe when I recall Susan McClary gushing over Earth, Wind and Fire in her famous article “Terminal Prestige: The Case of Avant-Garde Music Composition.” She attempted to argue that the technology of recording was just as sophisticated as Milton Babbitt’s approach to array composition, that the band’s maintaining a groove was just as difficult to achieve as executing Babbitt’s complex rhythms. These are naïve, apple-and-orange comparisons, made still less tenable because Earth, Wind and Fire weren’t particularly sophisticated then and are now quaintly outdated except as the object of ’80s nostalgia. To be clear: I love McClary and think she’s one of the most important living musicologists. But even though there’s still a lot of useful material in her essay—above all her call for critics who can engage with the subjective aspects of twelve-tone and other post-tonal music in addition to (or even in absence of) the current tendency to offer little more than a technical description of its design—some of it has dated as surely as Earth, Wind and Fire’s “System of Survival.” And to the degree the ideas are outmoded, they cease to be intellectually or even culturally vital.

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I do think there’s a good deal of very sophisticated music outside of universities and concert halls, though some of it may inevitably date as inexorably as Earth, Wind and Fire. My own tastes are almost insanely eclectic: Satoshi Tomiie, Tristan Perich, John Cage, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Milton Babbitt, J Dilla, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich (to say nothing of Machaut, Bach, Liszt, Haydn, Wagner) are on my mind and my playlist, and I’m always looking for new material.

Some of the above individuals may or may not represent a trend I am increasingly noticing where I encounter a number of composers who are both clearly uninterested in the classical tradition (which, I emphasize again, is fine) and, perhaps, more open to the idea of a product that, like popular music, speaks vividly to a certain, finite present, can be easily grasped with one or two hearings, and is readily or even eagerly discarded when a new work in the same vein appears. The songs of Corey Dargel and Matt Marks have very little to do with classical music, even though their work can hardly be called pop music. They have a certain sophistication that several hearings reveal, but it’s not particularly necessary to grasp that sophistication in order to enjoy their music. Part of it is a question of scale: the shorter such a composition is, the more easily it can be digested (and either forgotten or not—how many of us are listening to Philip Glass’s Songs from Liquid Days now?). Even so, I might find myself returning to their work because their expressive or compositional merits still offer something that I want to experience again. In other words, Dargel’s and Marks’s chosen medium of song would no more assign their work to oblivion than Schubert’s.

At the same time, I can’t help but feel more than a little angst about the present tendency in new music, especially new American music, one that Milton Babbitt memorably resisted in 1975 when he said, “I dare to aspire to make music as much as it can be, rather than as little as one can obviously get away with music’s being, under the current egalitarian dispensation.” I like options. I like pieces that I want and need to hear again and again: Steve Reich’s Music for Eighteen Musicians (or WTC 9/11, lest I be accused of liking only Reich’s earlier music), Cage’s Etudes Australes, Robert Morris’s MA. I need pieces that can stretch my capacity for hearing, challenge my assumptions of what a piece of music can be. (Two more recent examples: Enno Poppe’s Salz and Michał Dobrzyński’s Magnus Dominus.) But I also like somewhat less durable pieces—charming, maybe a bit profound, and more instantly understood—like Dargel’s Last Words from Texas, which I may well continue to explore, or Sage the Gemini’s “Red Nose,” which I probably won’t.

But the question remains as to whether this cornucopia of options will remain in play or whether, as another, younger generation holds increasing sway over taste-making, the options will become more limited. I mentioned Milton Babbitt’s lament above, and the recent near-canonization of Steve Reich as America’s greatest living composer suggests that he is right—as I recall, the pronouncement was made while composers like Elliott Carter were still alive, not to mention John Luther Adams or Alvin Lucier. Then, too, there is the question of the changing environments for music performance, rightly hailed by Sandow (and which occasioned this essay). These new venues might condition changing listening habits as much as the kind of music heard there.

Classical music (and whatever you want to call the other kinds of music I don’t see as classical) needs new, younger audiences to be sure. But the new audience might come at a cost. The Dinnerstein debacle suggests that today’s composers are more open to the popular music model, which is not designed, in the main, to reward hundreds of hearings, let alone initiate or sustain a canonical literature. And this is by no means a new phenomenon. Think of the 70-some operas Donizetti wrote because his audiences needed a constant supply of new fare. Same with the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart. But I nevertheless worry that this more disposable concert music will lead to more superficial listening and a more fleeting sense of long-term musical memory.

I expressed more or less the same fear in the closing of my Dinnerstein review: “Classical music can wonderfully embrace the popular musical world around it—as in the work of Mason Bates or, in particular, Michael Gordon—but it cannot hope to offer momentary diversions in the same manner as pop music. That seems to be what this disc aspires to. And if this is all the future that classical music has, then classical music has no future.” I still believe this and hope new classical music will find a way to continue.

CD Review: Journeys—Tony Tobin plays Claude Debussy (Telepherique Productions, 2012, 56 minutes)

No one, I hope, would dispute Debussy’s importance to twentieth-century music; nor would they disagree that his innovative approach to timbre and his use of techniques like chordal planing, modes, and other unusual scale types forms an important part of his legacy. On top of this, his music is staggeringly beautiful, urgent, and unforgettable.

Debussy was also a pianist, and, from contemporary accounts, an extremely gifted one. Any pianist can appreciate that the sound of his music is an important key to its effective performance. What is that sound, though? Debussy gave detailed descriptions within some of his scores. One of my favorites is “Sonore sans dureté” (“sonorous without harshness”), in prelude called “The Sunken Cathedral”—at fortissimo, how does a pianist actually play this? I’m still trying to figure it out; I think it would be the sonic equivalent of something like the soft, luminous colors in paintings by J. M. W. Turner.

Perhaps a good starting place is the actual choice of instrument. Debussy played a 1902 Bluethner, a little under 6′3″ in length—it’s still in existence and well maintained at the Musée Labenche in Brive-la-Gaillarde, Limousin. This fact suggests that a smaller piano might be better suited to Debussy’s music than the largest concert grand.

Through listening to this 2012 release, I’ve certainly become convinced that a smaller piano works superbly for Debussy’s music; Tobin uses a Steinway A (6′2″ long). It’s a light-sounding instrument, and the bass strings, in particular, have a less strident sound and a somewhat faster decay than with larger instruments. The topmost register is like lace, never harsh or metallic; the middle register has a lean sound as well.

Tobin recorded the program in Switzerland’s Kulturplatz Wetzikon using only a modest Zoom H4N recorder (costs about $200 on Amazon). Each piece was captured in a single take, and there was no further postproduction of any sort. This approach not only offers a testament to his superior technique and musical instincts, but also gives the performances a freer, spontaneous character that suits Debussy’s music very well.

One highlight for me is the revelatory performance of “Des pas sur la neige” (“Footsteps in the Snow”) from the first book of Préludes). Like so many of Debussy’s works, the piece unfolds through the presentation of a single motivic idea placed in constantly shifting harmonic contexts; there’s also a frequent additional melodic layer in a higher register (occasionally transferred to the bass) and, about three-fourths of the way through, an unexpected new idea that sounds a bit like parallel organum. Tobin’s performance constantly varies the level of dynamics between the principal idea and the upper subordinate one, revealing subtle layers of motivic interaction between them. With timing and variations of tone color he also creates various connections for the different harmonizations, making them seem to follow a definite plan rather than to appear simply as a kaleidoscopic succession of chords. The piano’s characteristic timbre makes the enigmatic closing sonority (a D-minor chord at the outer extremes of the instrument) sound pale and completely forlorn.

The lighter tone of the piano also works very well for the evergreen “Fille aux cheveux de lin.” The lowest bass notes of the chords have a direct quality that never overpowers the subtle textures Tobin achieves. In the performance, too, I can savor (and envy) the soft, non-percussive quality throughout: it’s as if the musical lines emanate from the instrument almost as if they were bowed or perhaps willed to sing from within. The sonic approach is also nicely complemented by the interpretation, which makes its musical points simply but never diffidently. Rubato emphasizes unusual turns in the formal shape but gives the impression of a new idea considered just at that moment and nevertheless integrated naturally into the ongoing music.

Of course, Tobin is a consummate virtuoso—you have to be to tackle Debussy. And his virtuosity is effortless, as demonstrated in the limpid arpeggios, sudden expressive changes, and light, non-legato passages in “‘Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses.’” Here and elsewhere (as in “Ondine”), Tobin’s deft handling of so many different moods and figurations helps to reveal what is truly astonishing about Debussy’s conception of formal design. As with Stravinsky, the Frenchman’s music propels itself forward through a mosaic of different ideas, many of which are presented more than once in a sophisticated rotational design. (For a fascinating formal study of this principle, see this essay about “Nuages,” by James Hepokoski.)

There’s almost everything here that a single-CD collection of Debussy’s piano music should include. (In addition to the pieces mentioned already, the program contains “Clair de Lune,” “Le vent dans la plaine,” Brouillards, “Canope,” “‘Général Lavine’—eccentric,” “‘Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir,’” “Les Soirs illumines par l’ardeur du charbon,” “Feux d’artifice,” “La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune,” “Hommage à S. Pickwick Esq. P. P. M. P. C.,” and “Pagodes.”) I’d love to have heard “Reflets dans l’eau” on the same disc, but maybe Tobin will release another Debussy CD before too long. He should; whenever I teach Debussy’s piano music, I illustrate it with Tobin’s recordings—they’re that good.

The CD can be purchased through HBDirect and other vendors.

The Great Cage Recordings: Introduction

Having written an essay on Cage discography, included a list of recommended recordings in my book on Cage and reviewed a number of Cage CDs for the American Record Guide, I thought it might be useful to include on my blog a number of posts on some indispensable Cage recordings. My choices would not only identify what I think are his finest works, but also comment on which performances are better than others.

For those who haven’t read my Cage reviews, you might wonder how one could speak about superior (or inferior) Cage performances. What could possibly make for a bad performance of 4′33″, for instance? Visual shenanigans aside—as in this ridiculous video by the Music Group of EBU Radio—how could I possibly fault the sounds of any performance or recording?

4′33″—a piece whose sounds consist entirely of whatever sounds occur in or near the space where a performance occurs—is an extreme case, of course, but even when I get to that piece I think you’ll agree that not all performances are uniformly good. To introduce this series of posts, I thought I’d begin by discussing the aspects I consider when I review recordings of his music. Since Cage’s music was so diverse, some of the considerations below will not apply to every single piece, but many of them will. As I went about writing this list, I came to see that Cage’s music is, in many ways, not much different from the music of other composers.

  1. Fidelity to the text. Obviously this applies more to the works that are strictly notated, like the Sonatas and Interludes or the Freeman Etudes. In these works, while one make certain choices about tempo or phrasing, about shading of dynamics, the score carries the expectation that the music will unfold in the given order with the given pitches (sometimes sounding differently than they look because of preparations) and more or less at the speed that the notation suggests. The notation of the Sonatas is very conventional and fairly easy to understand; the notation in the Etudes, by contrast, is proportional (events at the left-hand side of the staff occur before the ones further right, and the closer the events are to each other, the faster they will occur). In the works with conventional notation, I’d expect the player to do more than simply play the notes with metronomically correct rhythms; I’d want the rhythms inflected, the phrases shaped, as with most music. In the proportional notation ones, I’ve found that quite literal performances can be quite effective but are by no means necessary or even preferable.
  2. Where the notation allows for a greater degree of choice, the performer should make novel choices. A colleague who shall remain nameless once introduced a burp in his or her performance of one of the solos from the Concert for Piano and Orchestra. That choice was deliberate. I observed that, in reading Cage, it seemed one of his interests concerned introducing sounds that had never been heard before; a burp seemed, somehow, too obvious. There might have been a time when a burp was a novel sound (or, to employ Cage’s term, a useful sound) and hence served an important purpose, for instance to remind us that any sound we make is music and that no one sound is better (or worse) than another. But just as Cage lamented, in performances of Winter Music, that everything became a melody—sounds formerly giving the impression of self-sufficiency seemed more connected to other sounds as the performer and audience heard the piece again and again—certain sounds become clichéd through overuse. Bodily sounds fall into this category, at least for me.
  3. Glenn Gould famously observed that the only reason to record a work is to record it differently. I’ve always thought that practice is more likely to lead to a worthwhile result, if for no other reason that it reveals the limits of what a composition can sustain interpretatively. Many Cage pieces invite radically different approaches. Even so, a radically different approach that violates the instructions of the score can often end up merely sounding stupid—this is particularly the case when performers know very little of Cage’s music or haven’t bothered to acquaint themselves fully with his ideas.
  4. This one has more to do with performances than recordings, but I think it’s appropriate to mention it here. Does the performance allow you to pay attention to other sounds in your environment as you listen? Another way of saying the same thing: do the ambient sounds around you seem, after a while, to contribute to what you’re hearing on the recording, even seem as important? If so, this is a performance of Cage that is in keeping with his post-1950 aesthetics. Naturally this applies only to the music composed after around 1952; the music of the ’30s and ’40s were not intended to point out the importance of all sounds within earshot, but rather to be enjoyed as most music was: by giving it our attention. At the same time, the principle applies in different ways to different pieces: think, say, of Sixteen Dances, one of the Number Pieces, and Europera 3.
  5. Cage’s music often suggests devotion more than emotion. But that doesn’t mean that the music must be played coldly or without expression. I’ll go farther: that doesn’t mean it should be played that way. The trick is to find an emotional approach that isn’t too overtly manipulative; that’s probably why so many people default to a senza espressione approach; it works, but it’s not very imaginative, especially in 2014.
  6. The music seems to demand an approach in which one does not become too wedded to habits. This is easier to gauge, perhaps, in a performance than a recording. Take a piece like Cheap Imitation, the content of which derives from Satie’s Socrate—when I played this piece a couple of years ago, I tried to shape the phrases in as many different ways as I could imagine; I think all of his music benefits from a variety of approaches applied, insofar as possible, without too much advance planning (and without falling back on habits).
  7. The performance should not be an excuse for the exploration of a concept or a gimmick, but at all times should aim for a simple, straightforward connection between musicians and an audience. (This observation applies, in particular, to performances of 4′33″ and several of the extreme indeterminate works of the 1960s.)
  8. If the work has been recorded before, do I want to hear the older recording instead of the one I’m currently listening to? And a corollary: am I too attached to an older favorite recording and not giving the newer one the attention it needs?
  9. Once I’ve heard the recording for the first time, I should want to listen to it again—sometimes as soon as it’s over. Once heard again, the recording should continue to surprise, move, give pleasure, etc.

One More (perhaps Superfluous) Webpage on 4´33˝

An old friend shared on Facebook a link showing four performances of Cage’s 4´33˝ (and one philosophy lecture about it) the other day, remarking that he couldn’t understand why it was that this piece was still being talked about. He thought that its point could have been made in less time and is astonished that it remains noteworthy.

Unsurprisingly, one of his friends soon echoed the same sentiments with a lot more invective for Cage, which prompted me to write the following. It’s amazing to me how riled up this little piece gets people. Anyway, it got me thinking that 4´33˝ is one of the most celebrated pieces of Cage, maybe the most celebrated one; it’s also overly celebrated and grossly misunderstood. I posted this thought on Facebook.

Why do I say the piece is overly celebrated? Because even to its advocates, it has eclipsed almost every piece he’s written since. And Cage made many pieces after 1952. Add those pieces to all the ones that he wrote before 1952 and you have an output of roughly 300 works. And there are more if you take into account certain pieces like the various parts from the Concert for Piano and Orchestra and the Music for _____ series, which can be played by themselves or in combination with any of the others, or pieces like Song Books and Variations III, which can be realized in countless ways. Poorly informed critics who like to argue that Cage was more of a philosopher than a composer point without exception to 4´33˝; very few have listened carefully to any other works. That situation has begun to change as performers and have programmed more of his music and record labels have released new and usually better recordings.

Shortly after I made my brief Facebook remark, Emil Israel Chudnovsky, the aforementioned friend, took the bait:

We all understand the concept: the sounds of silence, the impossibility of absolute silence, the meditative space of collective silence/non-silence. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yada yada yada.

Nice concept, might make for a legitimate essay or the occasional illustrative performance. Thus far, legitimate albeit a little too patently self-impressed; full of the pride of the pothead who’s come up with an intriguing question.

But then the son-of-a-mother has the cojones to publish and sell the “sheet music”. And then I know him to be a self-aware fraud. And know him to have the utmost contempt for the public as for the flock of trusting, neurotic sheep they prove themselves to be as they BUY said sheet music.

I offered to continue the discussion over e-mail because I know from experience that Facebook isn’t really a very productive medium for discussion. The following transcribes that exchange. (Thanks to Emil for allowing me to quote him.)

Me:

The significance of 4’33” has to do with a fundamental tenet of Buddhism, that everything in the world is important and valid, but only if one remains unattached to it. The question of this detachment is hard to describe—it doesn’t mean to be emotionally unmoved, but rather not to hold on to any feeling that the phenomena engender. It’s something really far past the notion of “any sound we make is music.” Cage mentioned in a 1980s interview that every day he turns his attention to it: a key to his devotion to the ideas of it.

As to the copyrighting of it, that was a condition that C.F. Peters made when it entered into its contractual relationship with Cage in 1960.  It’s too easy to make fun of the piece, I think—to oversimplify it, but also to overemphasize it, to hypostatize it. But one can choose to ignore that aspect of the piece. That’s what I would encourage people to do.

Emil:

So how exactly is

a) calling it a piece of music

b) making its “performance” a public event

c) allowing it to become a synecdoche for all things musical and avant-garde

Buddhist or unattached? What exactly does 4’33” encourage us to disattach from? I do understand the idea that attachment brings suffering, but it seems to me George Lucas’ Jedi knights did more to examine the idea, even with inane dialogue and epic special effects, than any number of Cage performances or debates ever did.

Me:

Calling it a piece of music was probably too simplistic on Cage’s part. But as he was a composer, and as it involved sounds, I’m not sure what else he would have called it.

Cage’s aim was for people to change their Mind in accordance with the tenets of Zen Buddhism. A performance is, I think you’ll agree, an extraordinarily potent way of making that point.

I am not sure 4’33” ever became a synecdoche for all things musical and avant-garde. To the extent that it did sort of speaks to my remark about it being grossly overvalued and misunderstood.

4’33” invites unattachment from all phenomena. I’m not sure I can make the concept of unattachment more clear. But it doesn’t have to do with forswearing all stimulus, but rather not becoming too overwrought by experiencing the stimulus.

George Lucas helped a lot too, but he made it more mystical than it needs to be.

Emil:

As for unattachment from all phenomena being in any way expressed by 4’33”, there is where I still disagree with you but need to formulate my thoughts a bit better to be coherent about why. As for the CONCEPT of unattachment, and how it means letting the world flow through and past you without necessarily altering you, I completely agree and hope to understand it fully one day, at the visceral level. Right now it’s just an intellectual construct. But 4’33” has certainly never done anything about moving the concept into the viscera. Indeed, the very fact that you had to point out the intention underlying the “piece” seems to argue for its being an ineffectual exercise in the alteration of Mind.

Cage was explicit about the connection, though? Between 4’33” specifically and Zen?

Oh, as for Peters, I’d still argue that true consistency would have made for a conversation of a separate contract, if need be. The act of publishing the work seems to argue against unattachment and to merely invite the kind of indictments that I – and millions of others – have leveled against Cage for many decades.

Me:

Buddhism is, ironically, an intellectual construct. So is every religion. (I can’t think of one thing that a person absorbs innately; can you?) One needs a little literature to introduce any spiritual idea, I think. But one soon realizes that words lose their effectiveness and meaning quickly.

I don’t think phenomena can pass through you without altering you. What I argue is that it doesn’t alter you permanently. :)

Cage famously avoided talking about these things because he was so terrified of imposing his ideas on others. But the interview with William Duckworth contains the ideas that I’ve used in my e-mails to you. (Talking Music; also published in the John Cage at 75 festschrift published by Bucknell Univ. Press.)

As for indicting Cage for 4’33”, I would say it’s sad that people do this when there are some 300-odd other pieces of his that are worthy of attention and don’t carry the same kind of baggage.

So there you have it. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about this.

CD Review: Scott Pender, Chamber Music for Strings and Piano (Navona Records 5968, 65 minutes)

First, some reminiscence, to drive home my admission that I have more than a few personal connections with this release: I first met Scott Pender at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University (better known, probably, as Peabody Conservatory of Music), in 1983. He studied composition with Jean Eichelberger Ivey and, like all composers I met at Peabody, was very smart, funny, and familiar with a wide variety of music. We shared some formative experiences (among them Wendy Carlos’s Switched-On Bach and the Gothic daytime television series Dark Shadows). He loved Berg (I was at the time ambivalent about him—still am), and we went to see Wozzeck together at the Met; he also introduced me to Indian food. I believe I introduced him to Steve Reich’s music, and I can remember both of us (along with our friend Thom Robinson) positioning ourselves strategically outside on Charles Street so that we could ambush Philip Glass, who’d come to speak at Peabody. (We also attended a Glass concert at the Meyerhoff Hall together in the same week.)

Scott had already written a lot of intelligent and compelling music; I remember a rather Bergian string quartet (which might have been his master’s thesis at Peabody) and a set of five chorale preludes, the first of which (on “Lobt Gott, ihr Christen, allzugleich”) revealed a glimmering of minimalism but, more important, a heartfelt lyricism. Scott had recently been accepted to study with Alexander Goehr on a Fulbright, and I was, against all odds, about to win a scholarship to study harpsichord at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (I say “against all odds” because I never expected to study abroad). Scott and I were performing some of his music together.

Just then he made an important request to the Fulbright people: he wanted to switch teachers from Goehr to Gavin Bryars, and all because of a growing interest in tonal music and, as he puts it on his website, repetition as a structural device. The request, though unorthodox, was granted. Scott and I socialized together while we were abroad, watched many movies at London’s Scala Cinema, ate lots of Indian meals; I visited him when he would travel to Leicester Polytechnic (now DeMontfort University) and also became somewhat friendly with Gavin and the experimental composer John White. (Gavin always bought me a gin and tonic when he saw me at concerts.) We did a couple performances at Leicester, following up on the concerts we’d done at Peabody; it felt good to perform with him.

After we both returned to the United States (in 1987), we founded a synthesizer ensemble, Industrial Arts, along with Thom (that’s another story, which I’ll write about one of these days), and Scott soon distinguished himself as a composer of choral and vocal music (a Requiem as well as other shorter works); he also wrote skillfully and prodigiously for Industrial Arts, and we included newer works as well as his early and severely minimalist piece, Music for 4, to which we added a narration drawn from comics, Wittgenstein, and other unlikely sources. All the while Scott was working for ABC, on the staff of Nightline.

At a certain point Industrial Arts ceased to be, I went on to study musicology and harpsichord at the Eastman School of Music, and Thom Robinson died far too young from HIV-related illness. Meanwhile, Scott began a long hiatus from composing (Fragments, from 1992, appears to be the last piece he completed until 2009); I believe I remember him saying once that he was busy with his work for ABC but also that he simply had no ideas for new works. (I believe Gavin went through something similar before writing the music for which he’s best known today.) As I began teaching music history classes, I regularly included Scott’s music, especially a fine piece he wrote for Yvar Mikhashoff, Tango: Ms. Jackson Dances for the People (still available on the New Albion label).

The 2009 work that ushered in his return to composition was a sonata for cello and piano, revised in 2013; a number of other chamber works followed in its wake. That Scott has titled so many of these pieces with the traditional names for chamber music (sonata, variations, piano quartet, and so on) invites audiences to take these works in as one might, say, the sonatas of Brahms or the string quartets of Beethoven—counterparts or even heirs to that great tradition. That’s certainly my impression as I listen to his new release from Navona, which comprises four of these chamber works.

Transformation is an important watchword of all minimalist music, but much of the music on this release unfolds in melodious phrases and longer formal paragraphs and, so to speak, gives the somewhat serious word “transformation” a human face. The opening piece, a string trio called Veil of Ignorance (2010; rev. 2011 and 2013), takes its title from John Rawls’s Theory of Justice; just as Rawls proposes consideration of others’ perspectives to ensure a just outcome, Pender creates his three-movement work by recasting and reconsidering musical ideas presented in the first movement. These various perspectives take on a variety of expressive forms: his relatively neutral presentation of the material in the first movement blossoms into a sublime set of double variations in the second movement and a brusque, earthy scherzo in the third. The New England String Trio dig into the finale with gusto, but also manage the poetry in the second just as well; the sound is excellent.

The second and third works date from 2009, a Rhapsody, Elegy, and Finale for Violin and Piano and Sonata for Viola and Piano (“From Old Notebooks”). I love the viola sonata because the old notebooks of the title contain material Scott wrote while in England; in those days he wanted to do some sort of project involving Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan (he also loved Dreyer’s film The Passion of Joan of Arc, which he introduced to me). I think at least some of the viola sonata derives from the Joan material. The first movement employs repetition on several levels and reminds me a bit of a cortege; it follows a design where two sections alternate, rather like the verse-chorus form of rock songs (another important inspirational source for Pender’s work). A chorale-like idea dominates the second movement, which again alternates with a more wistful, animated music that suggests British or Irish folk song. The third movement is a rather rigorous moto perpetuo that exploits the metric ambiguity between duple and triple groupings. Violist Peter Sulski and pianist Geoffrey Burleson deliver an ideal performance.

In some ways, describing the formal or stylistic components of Pender’s music does it a disservice because of its expressive immediacy. A particularly strong example of this expression appears in the Rhapsody, another set of double variations that burgeons with lyricism, mystery, and sometimes even humor. Sulski and Burleson are again the fine performers, though I find the violin playing a bit out of tune sometimes.

The spirit of Brahms is particularly strong in the masterly cello sonata. In fact, the first movement is a straightforward sonata form with a particularly inventive development. It also has a certain autumnal sensibility that I associate with Brahms. The second movement, a scherzo, makes still other allusions: Bruckner in the scherzo proper and, in the trio, very subtle stylistic nods to Ravel and Barber—but all the allusions are very, very subtle and folded seamlessly into Pender’s own manner. The finale, titled “Chaconne,” really more resembles a late Beethoven variation set, though many of the harmonies come directly from the chains of fourth-related chords that show up in much rock and popular music; in the breathtaking coda, Pender shortens the cycle of chords along with powerful intensification of the repetition and rhythmic verve: it is one of the most satisfying endings to a composition I’ve heard in a long time. The performance, by cellist David Russell and Burleson, is electrifying.

As is the case for most of Navona’s offerings, the CD includes additional content at its website: the complete scores, photos and video from the recording sessions, and a sturdy essay on the music by Elam Sprenkle.

The sound’s a little disappointing for all three of the string and piano works, which were recorded in a different location from the trio; the mix favors the solo string instrument slightly (along with a bit of concert-hall-like reverberance) and muffles the piano a bit, possibly from emphasizing too much of the instrument’s midrange frequencies through microphone placement or editing; the disparity is most noticeable in the final movements of the viola and cello sonatas. Still and all, this is a CD with some very impressive music. Scott Pender is inventive, expressively rich, and gimmick-free: his music is what I imagine when I dream of a future for classical music.

CD Review: Zsolt Bognár, piano (Con Brio 21346, 58 minutes)—Schubert and Liszt

I have one complaint about this disc: it’s too short. Mr Bognár hails from Champaign, Illinois and studied with Sergei Babayan at the Cleveland Institute of Music. The young pianist has performed in Europe, Russia, Japan, and the US and also maintains an active internet presence, where his series Living the Classical Life presents fascinating video interviews with performers including Yuja Wang and Stephen Hough.

This—his debut CD—couples, as the title playfully puts it, Franz and Franz; the pair might seem incongruous at first glance, but Schubert figured prominently in Liszt’s concertizing and work, and one might argue that Schubert’s piano music, more than others in his generation, established expressive terrain of Romanticism.

Bognár’s playing is Romantic through and through; sensitive rubato in the first two Schubert pieces demonstrates that there’s still much a performer can say with these pieces, and the electrifying but sure technique in Liszt’s arrangement of Paganini’s “La Chasse” (included among three Schubert song transcriptions: “Der Doppelganger,” “Aufenhalt,” and “Ständchen”) makes the music seem almost ridiculously easy.

Bognár indulges himself a bit with the Dante Sonata, Liszt’s enigmatic, new formal design masquerading as a fantasy—but the piece has a long tradition of being treated this way and it’s a marvelous closing for the program. More important, he takes full advantage of a fabulous range of tone color, which the recording engineers capture perfectly. (Carefully modulated bass-register sonorities in the “Doppelganger” arrangement mark another high point of his artistry.) The excellent Hamburg Steinway he plays seals the deal. Zsolt Bognár is a pianist I’ll keep my eyes and ears on.

 

Finding the Emotion in “Left-Brain Music”: A Response to Robert Baksa (Part 2)

When I hear any music in an unfamiliar style for the first time I’m often (maybe always) unable to judge or understand it deeply, and I’m certainly not able to respond with any deep feeling to it. Never mind whether the music has triads in it or not. For example: the first time I heard Monteverdi (it was Wendy Carlos’s realization of excerpts from L’Orfeo) I was baffled—I thought it was awful and boring. But once I got used to how it went, I found that I could respond intellectually and emotionally.

I’ll be the first to admit that a lot of our twentieth-century music has a much sharper learning curve. But I learn, with time. After many listenings, I find Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra beautiful; the variety of melodies and rhythm, and above all the sense of timing move me just as I’m moved when I hear Brahms’s Haydn Variations. And I’m excited and thrilled by the psychological drama Elliott Carter creates in his second string quartet. After spending some time listening with the score in hand, I find I can hear the dialogue Carter tries so hard to create in the music and perceive the very different personalities of the four instruments. And all this is in addition to what I intellectually understand about the compositional techniques in the music.

And surely some popular twentieth-century music can be very dissonant indeed. Think of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which speaks clearly and easily even to the most uninitiated audiences. Now for me, the Rite is one of the most overrated pieces of our time. Still, I can’t deny the emotional power it has over me and over its audiences. There’s a lesson to be learned here. What if I had convinced people to believe, as I do, that The Rite of Spring should be retired from the repertoire? I wouldn’t have all the wonderful music written by men and women who have been inspired by it. And I have no doubt that it will inspire others to compose other music that I might love in the future. So will I discourage people from loving it, from learning more about it, from listening to it? No, of course not. I believe that we have no way of knowing what positive effects music can have, so why not allow it in? Why lock the door? This is, rightly or wrongly, what I think Mr. Baksa asks us to do—and all because he can’t respond emotionally to some twentieth-century and contemporary music and can’t accept the possibility that some of us do.

As a Cage enthusiast I couldn’t help but be irritated by Mr. Baksa’s facile and completely ad hoc dismissal of his music. Already I think there’s a wide appeal for some of Cage’s early work; the Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano has been recorded over a dozen times and many people think it is a masterpiece, for instance. And now that we have a wide variety of Cage’s music available in wonderful recordings (the ones on Mode are the best for my money), I imagine other pieces will begin to make their mark, too. I will suggest two that I loved on the very first hearing: First, Roaratorio, that ebullient and richly textured glossing of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake on Mode 28–29 and Wergo 6303 (American Record Guide, Nov/Dec 1994). The world of sounds and music that Cage assembles evokes so many emotions in me, from a concert-hall reverence (the operatic aria) to wonder and joy. And of course Cage’s voice, reading his unfathomable mesostics on Joyce’s name, always moves and reassures me. A second work, of a much different sensibility, is Fourteen, a kind of concerto for bowed grand piano and thirteen instruments on Mode 57 (ARG, May/June 1998). The bowed piano has a stunning, gorgeous, lyrical sound; the other instruments, playing so simply and so unobtrusively, make me tranquil and attentive. In that piece I experience time in a way I never have before, and I’m certain others can respond positively if the music is here for them to experience.

In 1967, the great American scholar Leonard B. Meyer (in Music, the Arts, and Ideas) predicted a pluralistic musical culture in which diametrically opposing musical styles would co-exist: he advised listeners to stop attempting to judge which style was better and, instead, judge each according to its own standards of excellence and elegance. Now, more than ever, we must heed Meyers’s advice. We must build bridges to other styles, other generations—let alone other cultures.  For if we continue to fight over who is right and who is wrong, what is emotional and what is intellectual, what we should cherish and what we should discard, we may find ourselves with no classical music at all.

Finding the Emotion in “Left-Brain Music”: A Response to Robert Baksa (Part 1)

Robert Baksa’s argument against the overwhelming prevalence of left-brain-centric contemporary music and its adherents (American Record Guide, Nov/Dec 1999) strikes me as the latest example of a divisive mindset in Western classical music that has persisted since time immemorial. Critics have always tried to show how one music is inferior to another, usually by resorting to their own particular backgrounds. Scheibe criticized Bach’s music for not being natural enough; much later, Philip Glass called Boulez and his Domaine Musicale “these maniacs, these creeps, who were trying to make everyone write this creepy, crazy music.” There is truth to both criticisms, I admit, but the truthfulness only strictly obtains when the standards of another musical sensibility (proto-Classicism in Scheibe’s case, minimalism in Glass’s) are applied lock, stock, and barrel to musical styles with very different aims and aesthetics. In similar fashion, the composer Robert Baksa appeals both to the history of Western music and to the oversimplification of recent scientific experiments to support a claim that dissonant music (particularly serialism, Cage, and Ives, who seem to be Mr Baksa’s principal targets) can only stimulate the left side of the brain—the hemisphere that does not respond as strongly to emotional content.

Disputes over taste and preference are not unique to Western classical music, of course; but since the market for classical music is pitifully small and probably shrinking all the time, ultimately these disputes do us no favors. And worse, I’m afraid they may have a destructive effect, discouraging people from exploring possibilities and alternatives and eventually experiencing them fully. Let me first respond to Mr. Baksa’s arguments and then suggest a few thoughts on our twenty-first-century condition.

When we write history, we must privilege some facts and exclude others in order that the story we tell makes sense and feels true to us. Even so, I think Mr Baksa’s account of history is more exclusive than it needs to be. For example, we have certainly not always assumed that the most complicated or progressive music is always the best. Mr Baksa’s “periods of simplification,” in short, have usually not been ignored. The fiendish rhythmic subtleties of the late fourteenth century, the Ars Subtilior, for example, never held lasting sway. Likewise, the chromatic experiments by Lasso, Gesualdo, and Vicentino didn’t substantially change the prevailing style of the time.

Nor does Mr Baksa’s account of the natural appeal of consonant intervals—because of their more audible place in the harmonic series—hold up very well. Our wonderful, euphonious thirds were once regarded as incidental and harmonically unstable. In fact, it was only when Dunstable’s sweet “English countenance” made its way to the continent that composers began thinking about making thirds the dominant feature of the musical landscape at all. Moral: our ideas about what is interesting or moving or beautiful in music change, and they’ll probably continue to do so. The “absolute,” perfect state of triadic music that Mr. Baksa would like us to believe in has never existed, not even in the West.

Now as far as experiments in listening are concerned, I’m not an expert, but friends of mine who are experts believe that we are still at the threshold of our understanding of how the human brain responds to stimulus, how it interprets and processes what it takes in. For example, the left and right sides of the brain do interact and influence each other, but in ways that are still unclear. And, perhaps more important, what we consider to be consonant intervals are not inherently familiar to all. Non-musicians can’t discriminate between them and dissonant intervals as well as trained musicians can. (I know this from teaching music appreciation for 10 years; so do many of my colleagues.) And so I’m content not to take these experiments so seriously that they influence my decisions about what I want to listen to or what others should listen to. In other words, I choose not to believe that dissonant or intellectually-stimulating music is devoid of emotion. I’ll make up my own mind after I listen, thanks. And furthermore I will try to create a situation in which my students and friends can be free to make their own choices, too.

Rob Haskins by Michael Clayville (2012)

Welcome to my new blog

When my friend Raúl Santaella undertook a major redesign of my website, he suggested I include a blog with regular entries. I know he’s right: fresh content keeps people coming back.

However, as someone who’s had the good fortune to be published in a number of places and wants to continue to do so, I have a dilemma: what kind of content is suitable for a blog—that is, worth reading and worth writing—and yet is content that I wouldn’t want to try to publish elsewhere?

I haven’t thought very long and hard about this question, but my instincts tell me the best hope I have to maintain the required number of entries (one entry weekly or, at most, every two weeks) is to concentrate on the kind of quick writing I already do—principally, music journalism, reviewing, and the occasional program or CD liner notes—but choose topics that, for one reason or another, won’t easily appear in The American Record Guide, where I write many reviews on John Cage, harpsichord music, Philip Glass, and some piano music.

Though I regularly review new John Cage recordings, there are many older ones that I’ve never written about: especially many of the earlier Cage recordings on Mode Records, many of the volumes of Steffen Schleiermacher’s collection of the complete piano works, other classic Cage recordings that I’ve acquired over the years, and newer recordings that never made it to ARG. As I move forward with this project, it’ll be possible, eventually, to write a longer piece that serves as an introduction of Cage’s music for music lovers, students, and maybe even a few professionals—a kind of music-appreciation-style essay that complements the discographical essay I wrote for the Music Library Association’s journal Notes in 2010.

I’d also like to write some more about so-called minimalist composers both familiar and less-familiar: a short list would include not only Philip Glass and Steve Reich, but also Michael Nyman, Wim Mertens, David Borden, Simeon ten Holt, Scott Pender, and a few others. Some of these writings would be reviews of recordings (and possibly of some concerts), but I hope others will be shortish, more critical essays that, I hope, will contribute something toward the continuing reception of this music.

My great interest and affection for minimalism doesn’t mean, of course, that I see this music and others like it as the great new hope for new music. I’ve been exploring the music of serial composers for several years now, and hope one day to write a book that discusses this music in more ways than the technical ones that have dominated the literature on it thus far—appreciation, again. If I can, I want to explore some of the ideas for that book-to-be here.

I also continue to be interested in emerging composers and sound artists, and I want to write about their work here. One composer I’m very fond of is Tristan Perich, whose art background brings him an unusual but useful perspective to today’s new-music composition, and I would expect to devote a few posts to his work. But there are many, many others, many of whom I’ve discovered through social media. I would like these posts to serve as a forum for discussion with and about these artists; to that end, I would be grateful for these artists or people who love them to send me information and samples of new works. I hope to review some recordings of new music, especially the kind of music that lies in the interstices between styles and audiences and who might otherwise be overlooked. The easiest way to contact me is to follow me on Twitter or send a friend request on Facebook; you could also contact me through this website.

In short, I hope I can fulfill my hopes for this blog and that it will bring to those interested in music—especially new music—a forum for discussion and exploration.

Photograph by Michael Clayville