Open Up Your Golden Gates

In the depths of a fairly cold winter, Juilliard gave us a a mix of shaggy and urbane visitors, bringing us some word of a mild and sunny land to the West – California! This was the Focus! 2009 festival, dedicated both to music from California over the last 100 years and to the argument of what makes for California music. Each proposition, intertwined, amounted to a mixed bag of success and failure, inspiration and mistaken notions. But it was free, so who’s complaining?

I’m not complaining, I’m listening and thinking and discussing. This is personally an important topic for me. I started becoming a composer in New York, under the tutelage of the late, great and sorely missed Meyer Kupferman, but I began to develop as an individual musical personality in California, in great part due to the influence of California music. There is such a thing, there is music that demonstrates and markedly different aesthetic than East coast music. While the roots of it are firmly set in a geographical place, there is no guarantee that a composer living in California will make California music, no is there a need for a composer who wants to make California music actually live in the state. Now that it has long been with us in the culture, it’s much more a state of mind. Of course, the pleasures of living on the West coast can certainly be stimulative.

The introductory essay in the program by Joel Sachs states emphatically that there is a California music, but then goes on to explain that it is ‘everything imaginable, and more.’ Well, no, it isn’t. This is a misguided way to argue a legitimate point, and musically the festival had more than a few moments of making the case that non-California music fit the bill. It doesn’t. The history of people, places and times shows that after the Nazis seized power, a flood of European composers fled to the West coast; Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Darius Milhaud, Ernst Krenek and Hanns Eisler among them. Many of them became teachers, and thus helped make music in California. But of this list – the most important names – not a one of them could be called a California composer. They were representatives of various schools of Late Romantic and Modern music in the 20th century, music that had an enormous influence on the East coast establishment but which, like the waves, broke into ephemeral spray on the aesthetic coastline of the Pacific. The festival presented solid, well-crafted Modern music in the Euro-America vein by composers who live in California – Kurt Rhode, Wayne Peterson, Andrew Imbrie, Elinor Armer – and it was all a disappointment, like having a party to which no one comes. No, California music is not everything imaginable, it is not strict atonality or dissonant Modernism. It’s also not a cliched of do-your-own-thing grooviness, it’s not simplistic nor purely tonal. It’s not a school in terms of technique, it’s a style in terms of outlook and values.

As Charles Ives is the father of American music, someone consciously striving to carve an entirely new national aesthetic out of the raw materials of his country, so Henry Cowell is both his immediate descendant and the next logical step in the process, Cowell is the son who himself begat California music. He looked to the West, which should be natural in California, because much of the state is not even on the North American plate, it is literally part of Asia. It also overlooks the seemingly endless expanse of the Pacific ocean, an enormous and enormously inviting emptiness that seems to demand that artists make it all new again. That’s California, where people come to renew and reinvent. And where important and absolutely American art is invented – how could we have Noir without San Francisco and Los Angeles?

Cowell reinvented music in many ways as both composer and teacher. As the latter he published the New Music Quarterly, which spread knowledge of non-European music to an audience of musicians and composers, and as the former he made music that had been completely rethought from the very basics. He ignored 500 years of accreted knowledge in music and started from scratch with basic musical gestures collected from around the world. Using the fundamental instrument of Western music, the piano, he made music by brushing the strings, by pounding fists and arms against the keyboard. A selection of his piano works was given a powerhouse and sympathetic performance by Euntaek Kim who was absolutely in tune with Cowell’s sheer musicality, the idea that any melody or rhythm can be shaped in a performers hands into something that sounds like the very best music possible – if you watch 30 Rock and see Alec Baldwin make everything he says funny just through his delivery, you’ll know what I mean. Kim’s rolling fists on the keyboard, and sense of phrasing and dynamic focus sounded as familiar and even comforting as possible, as if tone clusters are what the ear thirsts for. There is something completely liberating about the idea that beautiful music can be made with fists on the keyboard, and Kim clearly found it deeply inspiring, playing with verve, sympathy, skill and power. His performance of Cowell was the answer, both limiting and unlimited, to the question of what is California music. Cowell’s language, too, is immediately and clearly American. He’s like Hemingway, saying “we talk this way” in our country.

The whole festival cohered around this point, for or against. The music by composers who live in California was admirable, but seemed stolid and dull. The music by California composers was incredibly fresh and cleansing to the ear, like Haydn. It was transparent in means and modest in affect and pulled the delicious slight of hand of showing you how it’s done while marveling you at the same time. This gives it it’s great emotional power as well, the sensation that there is a way out of aesthetic culs-de-sacs, that there is hope. Even the music that did not entirely succeed but was quizzical about the possibilities and its own nature was exciting to hear. The conscious Asian elements in Paul Chihara‘s Logs and Grand Alap-“A Window in the Sky,” from Chinary Ung, were liberating and refreshing; there are clearly fertile possibilities in the wedding of the abstract, i.e. non-social, basis of Western music with the non-Western musical view of time, which is neither linear nor progressive. There are earlier examples of this in the work of Debussy, Colin McPhee and some of Britten, and these possibilities were adopted and carried far by the wonderful Toru Takemitsu, still an underrated figure of the 20th century. This in general is one of the real possibilities for the future of Western music, and Peter Sellars has pointed this out, expressing the idea that the proliferation of students from Asian countries at Western conservatories signals a renewal of the great tradition of Western music through cultures to which it is still new. I believe him, and California music is the proof. It can be hard to see from the East, and it was hard for me to get used to when I moved to the West, but there is an Asian history of this country and continent, just as there is a European one. Geography focuses the mind, however, and like Saul Steinberg’s famous New Yorker cover, it’s almost impossible to see from Manhattan. But in California, eyes are drawn inexorably westward, and the peopling of California by the Spanish, Japanese, Chinese and Russians is in the names of the land.

After Cowell, the next logical step in the California aesthetic, and in many ways Ives’ figurative grandson, was Lou Harrison. After ‘traditional’ training and composing, including working with atonal systems, Harrison set out to make music that he simply liked, based on the music he like to hear, including Chinese opera. Even more than McPhee, he brought gamelan ideas to Western structures and techniques and produced a vast, varied and idiosyncratic body of work (Harrison and his partner Bill Colvig built their own instruments, he was a student of Esperanto and he created his own fonts). Another highlight of the festival was a performance of his Varied Trio, by Ariana Kim on violin, Chihiro Shubayama on percussion and Sharon Bjorndal playing piano that was absolutely the finest I’ve heard. This is a work that comes out of a synthesis of Western and Indonesian music, combining pentatonic scales, non-tuned ringing percussion and archaic European dance forms to create a work that is varied in its emotional scope and powerfully moving in its beauty. Kim’s playing of the extraordinary melody of the first movement was exceptionally expressive; she has a gorgeous tone that is clear, full and a balance between sweet and bitter and is apt for this music. Harrison’s work again refocused the ear and mind on the true point of the festival, and gently and forcefully demonstrated the fundamental nature of California music.

The big news and big name in overall event was, of course John Adams, who seems to be in New York constantly attending numerous events and premieres. Lucky us, because he’s not just the leading American composer, he is a composer who’s works will be performed for the next few hundred years, that is their quality and the importance of his voice. The capper to the event was a concert performance of his opera The Death of Klinghoffer, which I will discuss in an upcoming post. In concert, Harrison was followed by the world premiere of Adams’ String Quartet, performed by the St. Lawrence String Quartet. It is excellent in the way of Adams’ best work – and his work has been consistently excellent lately. His voice as a composer is now both familiar and new. The piece starts off with a rollicking tempo and attitude, as the ensemble passes around the type of choppy, rhythmic phrase that we except in Minimalism. But that is a style that Adams has long ago incorporated as merely an element, and slowly he adds lines of increasing length and chromaticism, in the grand Romantic tradition that moves and satisfies him. There is a rise in activity, expression and tension, before the long first movement comes to a quiet close. The second, and final, movement begins with a dramatic quiet, a pulling back that builds suspense for what we expect to be an intense finale, and the music fulfills that promise. Antiphony in all the voices builds to a peak of tremendous energy and brings the work to a close with an explosive upward movement. Adams captures a quality of verve and emotional satisfaction and depth that sneaks up on the listener – every moment is exciting to listen to and so the listening experience really moves along, and before you know it he’s snuck up on you with something fairly profound. His recent orchestral work Guide to Strange Places is like this, it seems to be meant simply to entertain, but when it ends you realize that he’s had a real effect on the emotions. I think what makes this work is Adams’ unique and important way of combining Process, as in Minimalist music, with Resolution, as in Romantic music. The Process part is endlessly listenable, seductive in the way of the beauty and interest of colors and timbres, while the Resolution part is the essential power of music, the building up of tension directed towards an ultimate release which is the great contribution of Western music to the world. Beyond the sheer quality of his work, Adams is showing there is a way out of the fragmentation and didactic dead-ends of the 20th century, and that makes him I believe the next towering, essential figure in the art, after Stravinsky. And this way he found was possible, again, only in California, to which he fled in great part to escape the schools-of-thought confines of the East coast musical establishment and where, as he describes in his memoir, he came to find his voice while driving into the Sierras, listening to Wagner. Looking across the Pacific, he could see around the curvature of the globe to find what he sought in the Old World. He just had to get to the newest world first.


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.