Playing In Traffic

It was a concept, and a concert, and the title carried a whiff of, if not danger, than something outside the normal boundaries of respectable behavior. While that premise was not honestly fulfilled, there were still provocative ideas to be found, even if unintended.

Playing it UNsafe” is what the American Composers Orchestra called their series of events, organized around two concerts of the same program at the end of May. How could I resist? As a composer self-consciously part of this time and place, at the contemporary point of modern American and Western life and anxieties, standing on the shoulders of hundreds of years worth of previous giants, I’m seeking the dangerous, the out-of-bounds solution myself. What are other people doing. An added personal bonus for me was the concerts featured a friend from graduate school, Ned McGowan, playing his own concerto for the rarely seen contrabass flute.


In purely musical terms, the concert was a mixed bag. In terms of the concept of “UNsafe,” which I can only think of as seeking to present music that had some sort of dangerous aspect, no matter how broad, it was also a (differently) mixed bag, and I think it’s important to address this aspect first.

What makes music “UNsafe?” What makes music dangerous? Perhaps it’s better to ask what can be dangerous about music. It’s not a facetious question, because music can be dangerous, and there certainly is music that aspires to be dangerous, both in the abstract and concretely. For example, there is this absolute masterpiece:

This is a particularly musical idea of danger – a piece of music is ultimately a type of argument – logical, rhetorical or a mix of the two – and the determination of whether it is “good” has to do with how well it succeeds at its argument. And “Failing” makes its argument by forcing the performer into the most dangerous of all situations, failure. In the ravishing paradox of the work, the goal is failure, the failure of the musician a success, and the satisfaction is in the fascination of the struggle against that inevitable outcome. Take the argument further, and we have the striving of life against death, coherent information against entropy, with only one possible ending. The satisfaction and success are in the living.

Music can be dangerous in conveying dangerous ideas, mainly political ones. Beyond simple protest and sloganeering, there has been political music that has meant actual trouble for the musicians, deliberately conceived or not. Music, like a lot of expression, has been outlawed throughout the history of civilization, and the United States is, unsurprisingly, no exception. Vis-a-vis “The Star-Spangled Banner,” for example:

Some states have laws governing how it is performed. In Michigan, for instance, a 1931 law made it illegal to perform the anthem “except as an entire and separate composition or number and without embellishments of national or other melodies,” which, technically, makes it illegal to perform Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” which uses a portion of the anthem as a tag line (to suggest the ugly side of Yankee imperialism). In 1944, a version of the anthem reharmonized and orchestrated by Stravinsky (a dutifully patriotic act by the Russian emigre composer) got banned in Boston. Stravinsky’s modernist retouchings ran afoul of Massachusetts law, and after the first performance, which left the audience “stunned into bewildered silence,” Boston cops showed up at a later concert to make sure he didn’t repeat the offense.

“Let him change it just once and we’ll grab him,” a Capt. Thomas Harvey told a Boston newspaper. According to musicologist Michael Steinberg, at some point Boston cops seized the music.

The shame is that we suffer with such a terrible piece of music for our national anthem. The main danger in political music, though, is that it is generally bad music, as a worthy slogan is not enough to make worthy art. Better then prescribing answers is to ask question. A profoundly dangerous and political artist is Diamanda Galas – she reveals the hidden and ignored, and the rest is up to us. Fred Rzewski is, I think, the highest example of a political musican; his work is often politically motivated while his expression is musical in the abstract sense. He doesn’t have answers, but he does have values. More on him in a bit, but back to the initial topic.

THe ACO concert was dangerous in the sense that it was promoting experimentation in music, and nothing fails, unintentionally, like an experiment. And there was indeed failure on stage that evening, along with success, but it was on overall example where the successes were proportional to the level of risk. Going against a 50 year old trend, the music from academic sources was the least experimental and the least successful. While the academy is a safe place for experimentation and failure, ideas and trends that are original at first are always susceptible to become a set style or school, and ossifying. What was puzzling about Charles Mason‘s Additions was that music that was a blend of acoustic and electronic sound, and music and sound that were specific to certain physical locations, could be seen as “UNSafe.” Johnathan Dawe‘s Armide seemed to consider it dangerous to address the war against Iraq, but how so? Perhaps only so in a purely musical sense, because the excerpt presented was an absolute mess, an incoherent mash-up of baroque, hip-hop rhythms, the santur and irritating text and vocals. When it comes to Iraq, the most dangerous thing of all would be John McCain.

The music that worked, and worked well, were the pieces that were trying something with a sense of curiosity and a focus on the means and not the results. This is the true sense of experimentation, and flirting with disaster, trying something to see what will happen. Anna Clyne produced a punchy, exuberant and transparent work for instruments, lap top and computer graphics. Dan Trueman brought the Princeton Laptop Orchestra along for what he called an anti-concerto grosso, featuring a traditional Norwegian fiddle. Both these pieces left me wishing they had gone on longer, the sound and the process were intriguing. Neither composer has an answer for how the computer is a part of performance, but they are searching out the possibilities; the very conception of PLOrk is chance taking in the most extreme sense. They are creating a new field every time they sit down together.

And that’s what Ned is doing. His contrabass flue concerto, Bantammer Swing, is a lively and seemingly traditionally structured piece; a dialogue between soloist and orchestra for the first movement, followed by a lovely second movement and then a toccatta-syle finale. While the instrument itself is a novelty, that’s not where the experimentation comes in. Rather, the work is a product of an entire experimental body of work. Along with being a composer, Ned is a player; he plays his instrument, he plays music, he is making music all the time. And he’s doing so with a sensibility that is both catholic and non-ideological, putting together music that pleases him – Minimalism, Karnatic music, cartoons, heavy metal – and making an expressive whole out of it. Look no further than Hexnut. This is a unique voice, a group of skilled, tasteful musicians putting it all together and seeing what happens.

It’s easy and not wrong to group them generally with all things Bang on a Can, but there’s a key organizing difference between the two. Bang on a Can consciously set out to bridge the gap between contemporary classical music and rock, which was dazzling and exciting at first but now has become its own house-style without much surprise left – this was apparent in a new work performed by eighth blackbird this past spring, with all the familiar gestures of off-kilter rhythms, repetitions and rock licks that Lang, Wolff and Gordon could probably produce in their sleep. Music of this style needs to keep close its roots in sheer playing, in improvisation, and that is why Hexnut is so fresh and experimental and satisfying.

And that is also why Fred Rzewski continues to be all of those and more. He is an astonishing piano player, and he seems to be starting a very fruitful late style. A concert dedicated to him at Zankel Hall in May featured older and new works, with the composer at the piano. Rzewski’s masterpiece is The People United Will Never Be Defeated, an explicitly political title for an entirely non-political piece. That is what makes it great political art, I believe, as Rzewski suggest a political context than proceeds to write an incredible set of variations on the musical theme, and as variations are an ideal form for internal exploration, the artist and the audience can search their own conscience for political ideas and resolve. He’s just asking questions. Even his explicit Attica is still abstract enough musically that it evokes political questions, rather than dictating answers (and anyone interested in Rzewski should absolutely get this recording). But again, the composer is a musician, a player, an improviser. Improvisation by its nature is experimentation and exploration, it’s also a way to find the happy accident, to make a mistake, do something wrong, and discover that you can make something good out of it. It is the most dangerous art, and the one with the greatest opportunities for success.


Author: gtra1n

I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.