Monday, October 18, 2010

The New Piano Music

I have always been more of a composer than performer. I was able, during my pianist career, which began at age 6 and lasted into college, to perform competently. But my emphasis was never on Playing The Classics, or being a Great Performer.

When I was in music school, there was often a gap between the performance majors and the composers. Many of the composers were also gifted performers, on a wide range of instruments. But the performance majors didn't compose—except for exercises in theory classes, which were usually about writing in the style of tonal music from the 18th or 19th centuries. I wrote my own share of learning-pieces in theory classes, including faux-Bach, faux-Mozart, faux-Debussy, faux-Stravinsky pieces. Those are all études, meant to learn something from doing, but not in themselves to be considered as actual music. Musical, but not music. Some of this is a matter of intent, of course.

But the main gap between the composers and the performance majors was a simple emphasis. It can be defined, crudely, as the difference between creation and re-creation.

Performance majors I knew, many of them gifted and remarkable talents, did not usually consider themselves as creative. I disagree. I reframe that to say that their creative efforts went into interpreting the masters, into re-creating existing compositions. Most performance majors when I went to music school were not improvisers: jazz classes were not part of the curriculum at that time. Some few performers were improvisers, but it was because they loved to play jazz, and picked up gigs outside of school. This has changed now, as there are many music school that include jazz and even rock in their curricula. It's not just classical music anymore in music school.

Performing, or re-creating a composer's intent in the printed score, is not a matter simply of playing the notes. Performance requires interpretation. Matters of tempo, phrasing, pauses, subtle variations in feeling—these are all aspects of interpretation. If performing music were only a matter of mechanical re-creation, then anybody could do it and it would always sound good. But there's a reason Artur Rubinstein was beloved for his Chopin interpretations: they carried the heart and soul of the music, not just the notes.

So I view interpretation as a species of creativity. It's not obvious, and it's not overt, and many classical performers would quibble with me. Nonetheless, since I view creativity as an infinite resource in all aspects of life, I find it here as well.



I have mixed feelings about recorded music.

One or two great composers of the twentieth century opined that recorded music was lifeless next to going to a concert. John Cage told a story in which he was at a concert of Beethoven symphonies. A little boy sitting in front of him objected to his parents, "But that's not the way it's supposed to go! It's not like on the record!" This is amusing, but it also speaks to idea that recorded music conditions our ears with expectations that are often not met in live performance. We get used to a certain glossy perfection. Glenn Gould, the perfectionist pianist, used the recording studio to create perfected performances of Bach that even he could not perform live. Recordings of John Cage pieces fix in place a single performance of music that is meant to be ever-changing, never performed exactly the same way twice, and open to chance.

Nonetheless I treasure my collection of recordings of Cage's music.

I am in fact a highly experienced and qualified recording engineer. I know my way around the tools of the recording studio. I did a lot of tape music during and after college. I know how to splice using a razorblade (and believe you me, digital editing is a major improvement on the old tools). I have actually used reel to reel tape to master recordings of my tape pieces and performed compositions. (Most of these I have already transferred to digital media, or am in the process of transferring.) I still work occasionally in a recording studio, and I have a computer-based recording studio in my spare room at home.

We always work with the best tools we have available. When better tools are developed, musicians on the leading edge always migrate towards using them.

And yet there is nothing like a live performance.

In a live performance, you often hear the musicians breathing—and breath is an essential element of interpretation. When you hear a string quartet breathing as one right before and after a difficult ensemble passage, you are given audible evidence of the kind of unitary empathy that chamber music creates alike in performers and audience. Breath is life. Breath is timing. Breath is what connects us all. The masters of meditation speak of the breath in the same way that the masters of music performance do: it is what gives us life, and the discipline of mastering the breath is what gives us the ability to go beyond our own limits.



Musicians who are dominantly performers are specialists. They train as hard as doctors or lawyers, often for many more hours, many more years. They often have the physical tone of trained athletes, as well, as playing a musical instrument is a somatic experience, not a purely aural or mental one. I know brass players (french horn, trumpet, etc.) who could probably do push-ups with their lips.

When I was a boy, I had severe respiratory illnesses many times; I even ended up with bronchitis in the hospital at age 11, in an oxygen tent, sleeping sitting up so I wouldn't drown in my own pneumonia. Singing in choirs and learning to play flutes, over the next dozen or so years, were what gave me my breath back. I still am prone to respiratory illness, I get them more easily than most; but I have a discipline of breathing that helps me get through, now, thanks to music. Meditating for many years also helped.

A trained musical performer is a highly skilled person. They have to be able to do several things at the same time. They must coordinate physical exertions and muscle memory with hearing, cognition, and reading and memorizing specialized notation.

I sing in a men's chorus right now in which I am one of the most highly trained musicians; some of the men don't even read music notation well, but learn by ear and by listening to their compatriots. The result is a good choral group with a good choral sound. We all come from different skill levels in music. I occasionally forget this, and get a blank stare when I start talking theory.

The problem is that these highly-trained, incredibly talented, strongly motivated people often can't earn a living doing what they love doing best: playing music. We live in a culture that devalues all things artistic, because they are not obviously profit-motivated or economically-oriented. But music is a gift we couldn't live without. A healthy musical culture is one mark of the health of a civilization.



We do live right now in an artistically decadent, mannerist culture. We live in a culture where there is a severe disconnect between popular forms of entertainment, and forms of making fine art that have become insular and mannerist. Your average listener doesn't care about new music—except that commercial pop music is driven by novelty, by the cult of personality and celebrity, and by the profit motive. It's a contradiction: most listeners refuse to listen to music by living composers—unless they're pop music songwriters.

"New music" is something most listeners avoid.

That's too bad.

There are some neo-romantic composers out there writing new music that is very conventional, very unsurprising, very easy on the ears, not hard to follow, full of good hummable tunes and melodies, and full of memorable moments. Some of these composers are popular Broadway composers, with strings of successful hit shows and hit songs. Let's face it, though: Broadway as an industry is highly romantic. It caters, sometimes panders, to the common denominator. It borrows a lot from literature. It can be tremendous fun. But it's not very challenging. Broadway musicals rarely ask you to change your life. If they inspire you to do so, it's because you yourself have found a resonance point between you and the Broadway musical.

Of course music can change your life.

But any music can change your life. The danger lies in thinking that some kinds of music cannot, simply because you are not immediately attracted to them, or they don't speak to you. Yet music that is too challenging is no longer entertainment. What provokes, provokes life.

But entertainment isn't about life: it's about simulations of life. Rob Breszny's band World Entertainment War formulates this as the slogan: Performance is life. Entertainment is death. Entertainment is a passive re-creation of sentimental nostalgia for the genuinely-lived life. Because entertainment is passive, exercise-less and inactive, it doesn't feed the mind and body, it deadens them. The land of the entertained couch potato is the realm of the already-dead.

Commercial pop is not new music: it's recycled, dead music. It may be marketed as fresh and new, but compare to last year's novelties, and you see it's just more of the same. Nothing has really changed. The essence of mannerist entertainment is that it contains no new ideas, only the deadly repetition of old ones. What appears to be innovation is only variation of what has gone before. A new "reality TV" show is like every other one already in existence; content doesn't matter, only format and presentation. Nothing is more unreal than "reality TV."

Mannerist entertainment such as commercial pop music, because it is driven by market economics rather than by any creative force of innovation, keeps recycling the same tropes. They are presented as fresh each news cycle, but with rare exceptions they are simply remixes of what has already been known to sell well. Commercial pop music as a business is inherently conservative. It has no real desire to nurture innovation or exploration, because it's main goal is to sell the music. Experimentation always risks being unpopular and not selling. What music industry corporation would truly want to risk that? The recording companies that do push the envelope artistically are in the minority.

New music can push against conservative recycling and mannerism. You have to let it, though. You have to be open enough to its possibilities, even to its baffling complexities which may seem obscure and incomprehensible at first. New music often requires you to stick with it, to get to eventual rewards. There is always a risk that the time you invest in educating yourself about new music might not pay off. So if you're content with what you already know you like, why bother seeking out the new? Most listeners don't.



My own new music has been called dissonant and difficult. It's actually not that dissonant; it's just that it's not regressive neo-romantic ear-candy with easy predictable chords and pretty melodies. I do like to use more complex and interesting musical ideas in my new music, because when I write I'm also writing for myself. Yet I am capable of writing to commission in the style the client wants. And a large part of my new music is accessible even to new listeners, even though it is based on modal and non-Western styles. I can "write pretty." I just don't all the time.

My music is not atonal, as I don't write serial compositions. I actually have no use for classic serial twelve-tone technique, which I regard as an artistic dead-end. As such, it is quite parallel to contemporary mannerist poetry that is all about manipulating the materials in a context free of meaning. If all notes have equal value, if all words have equal value, then none do. The lowest common denominator of pre-packaged pop music and the extremes of ivory-tower academic classical music have this in common: they're both about nothing. They may be sensational, but the triumph of mannerism is the triumph of style over substance.

It ceaselessly amazes me how poorly this is understood: style can never replace substance, where there is none.

Style in a vacuum is a dead-end. Style exists to reveal substance, it cannot stand on its own. As fond as I am of sweet desserts, you can't live on them. Pre-packaged, over-produced, synthetically-performed pop music is all style; it has no heart. You can make it into the soundtrack of your life, if you choose, but what kind of life is that? A default life. A life lived vicariously. The cult of celebrity and the packaging of popular entertainment are closely linked in form and in practice: both are entertainment, neither are about you living your own life. You end up living someone else's life, never your own. Or you live your life For another, rather than for yourself.

Advertising is all lies.

It creates needs that don't exist. American advertising, compared to European advertising, is heavily fear-mongering. Fear of germs, fear of bad breath, fear of disease and mortality, fear of not being cool, fear of not fitting in at your workplace—these are all the tools of advertising. And they are also the tools of political campaigns, which are actually marketing campaigns. Campaign ads are often designed to make you afraid to vote for the other guy. And campaign ads lie as often as do commercial product ads.



Whatever you think you know about new music, whatever brief encounter you might have had with a piece of new music that soured your taste for all new music, whatever belief you have that composers don't care about their audiences: you're wrong.

The problem is, composers like other artists are always fighting an uphill battle. Against ignorance, against willful miseducation, against the idea that high culture and low pop culture can never meet and have nothing to say to each other. There has always been a strain of virulent anti-intellectualism in American culture, especially in political discourse, and when it comes near the arts it tends to be proud of its ignorance and lack of understanding. Why else would politicians attack something they don't really understand? Of course, politics too is entertainment, more style than substance. Mark Twain said that a century ago, and nothing has substantially changed.

in new music, there are two urges a composer must balance: The urge to write whatever they want, whatever they hear inside that they want to make happen, the urge to explore a direction in the music as far as can take them; and, the urge to have an audience, the desire to be heard, the desire to have musical ensembles actually perform your music.

It's one thing for write only for yourself, or your own band, or to do solo work in a recording studio, where you play all the parts and the music is all your own. It's another thing to be commissioned to write a large scale new work for an orchestra or other performing ensemble. You have to balance those urges.

Mostly I write whatever the hell I want. BUt here's the paradox: Almost all of my composed chamber music, in which I wrote whatever the hell I wanted to write, were commissions. They were for the most part commissions by performers who wanted me to write for them. In most cases, they had heard my other new music, liked what they heard, and asked me to write a piece for them.

I got all the way through music school, writing several new pieces a year, and only two of those were not commissions. (I don't count the études and other little throwaway pieces, many of which were exercises rather than finished works.) I occasionally stumbled. one or two pieces I wish I could rewrite now, and one I have in fact revised. But every piece I composed at that time in my life got performed, sometimes more than once. I have recorded performances of most of them.

Now I find myself with a piano again, wanting to compose again, wanting to sit down and notate again. I'm submitting my existing compositions to contests to by chosen for commissions for new works. (An occasionally dismaying process.) I'm writing new piano music, and choral music. I want to write more.

Here's the hinge of the balance: I write new music because I want to, because I can, because I must. It is as essential to me as breathing. It's great when other people like it, too. And it's okay when they don't.

If you don't like new music, you don't know what you're missing. And if you give it a try and still don't like it, you can always go back to that other stuff.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

As with most things I have been to very few concerts in my life. All but one have been of classical music. The ‘one’ was a Blondie concert that Carrie and I went to a few years back and it was a horrible experience on so many levels. No seats for starters. But I do enjoy sitting down and watching an orchestra do its stuff. One of the most captivating performances I ever saw was the deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie. I have three or four CDs of her performing. She doesn’t compose per se but she does improvise beautifully.

I would be lost without my CDs and tapes. No LPs left but I never had that many anyway. I know what you mean about the differences between live and recorded pieces. I don’t like much of the versions of Barber’s works that I own because they don’t sound like the first versions I heard. I’m not an audiophile in fact most of the time I listen to my music played quite softly through a pair of cheap speakers I bought to use while I was working on the laptop. I have a nice set of separates in the office but I don’t spend so much time in there these days.

I will listen to just about anything and I really hate when I don’t get something. I have a CD of string quartets by Gloria Coates that consists of basically nothing but glissandi and it’s hard going even for me. I want to get it. I want to hear it the way she does and every now and then – usually when Carrie’s not around (she’s not nearly as tolerant as me) – I’ll give it a go but I’m still a ways away from actually liking it. There is just so much music out there. I learned of a composer a couple of days ago, Alfred Reed. I looked him up on Wikipedia and it said, “one of America's most prolific and frequently performed composers,” and I had never heard of him. At all.

There is nothing I love more than discovering a new composer. Morton Feldman was the last ‘big’ discovery. I also love soundtracks and have quite a few.

1:40 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I've been known to irritate some friends by "forcing them" (their words) to listen to stuff they don't like, that either I do like or that I'm listening to, to see if I do like it. My background is in classical music, obviously, and the avant-garde, and 20th C. new music. I've been to lots of concerts of that kind of music, and I've performed in lots of concerts of that kind of music.

Evelyn Glennie is terrific. I have a documentary film about her on DVD, based around some improv sessions she did with Fred Frith. It's called "Touch the Sound."

11:05 AM  

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