You’ve learnt no lessons
all that time so cheaply spent
there’s no youth culture
only masks they let you rent
Travels, travels in Nihilon
we’ve seen, no Jesus come and gone
“Travels In Nihilon”
Andy Partridge, XTC
Zombie no go go, unless you tell am to go
Zombie no go stop, unless you tell am to stop
Zombie no go turn, unless you tell am to turn
Zombie no go think, unless you tell am to think
I bought Icebreaker’s Terminal Velocity the day it was released in 1994 (originally on Decca’s Argo imprint, it has now been reissued by Cantaloupe). I was getting my Masters in the Composition Department at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and I was not the only one of my peers listening to the CD for the next few weeks. I didn’t like everything on it, but I didn’t just like the good stuff – it thrilled me! The good music wasn’t just good, it showed a whole new way of thinking and being, of writing and making music, that was complex and satisfying emotionally and intellectually. It was both exciting and deep.
The works that shook me up are the bookends on the disc, Michael Gordon’s Yo Shakespeare and Slow Movement from David Lang. In these two pieces were ways to advance beyond the two kinds of minimalism, the pulse-pattern music of Steve Reich and the truly minimal materials of Morton Feldman; Gordon’s piece took both repetition and pulse and constantly thwarted their smooth, sequential progression, breaking up the flow of the music and turning it in on itself, while Lang produced a massive, drone-like slab of sound, both continuous and continuously shifting over 20 minutes or so, full of alluring details. Each piece produces a sound that the composers wanted, and that sound went beyond the conventions of contemporary classical chamber music to encompass the sonic power and appeal of rock music – they are not rock songs, but longer form pieces of abstract music that owe a superficial resemblance to the work of Glenn Branca, although made with much deeper skill and ambition. I would write that the rest was history, except that the history was already being made.
They were doing what good artists do, which is kill their fathers, figuratively. A composer has to discern the music that appeals to him and conceive of the music that he wants to produce in reaction and concordance to that, then look to past work as models. That step involves understanding the techniques of previous composers by making them your own, by producing your own fugue or sonata-allegro form movement. The goal is not to imitate, but to incorporate, then to kill your fathers, to say that was good for them, but this is what I want to do. It means understanding styles, producing them, and then shedding the styles of others and creating your own. It’s a constant back and forth between accepting influence and rebelling against it that is an inherent quality of the soul of the best artists. Steve Reich was a revolutionary in his own day, finding his way to a new style that came out of the music he himself enjoyed and played while not itself being that music, and the Bang On A Can composers became the same within the context which Reich created. Terminal Velocity was the announcement of a newer style, which came out of love for Reich and Louis Andriessen, and had bits of those flavors while being new.
Style is the essential, fundamental quality in the consideration of music, and a maddening one as well. Unlike the written or plastic arts, music has no inherent content and is made up of gestures and techniques, the combination of which creates style; the style of an epoch, a generation, a nation. The history of Western Classical music is also the history of the accretion of styles (pop music history is about the cycling of a limited number of styles, and creates a non-Western sense of time), and built into that history is the value that this accretion must be advanced, whether by creating something brand new or, like Stravinsky exemplified, taking something old and making it brand new. Generally, when new styles are accepted, incorporated and reproduced past a certain point, decadence sets in – the Baroque become Rococo – and something new comes along to open up a path out of a seeming dead-end. It’s a Hegelian dialectic of music, and when a style becomes pervasive, decadence is the inevitable end-point.
I’ve been personally wondering when this might set in for the current post-minimalist generation. Following Terminal Velocity, recordings from the Bang On A Can All-Stars balanced exploration and consolidation, testing the limits of the style and defining it simultaneously. Gordon and Lang produced some more stunning, exciting music, notably with Industry, Decasia and Cheating, Lying, Stealing. . .
But time passes, gasses coalesce, explosive debris falls to the earth. The experiments have become a style, and the production of some composers has become familiar. In the past two season, I have caught the premieres of Lang’s The Little Matchstick Girl and Singing In The Dead Of Night by the collective composers, and was left saddened that these works were entirely familiar, entirely predictable, sounding like imitations of the composers’ previous works. Bang On A Can has become an institution and seems to be implicitly seeking both self-preservation and self-replification.
A related institution is MATA, and last Friday I caught the third night (out of four) of their 2009 festival. Like the previous two events, this one featured enjoyable, capable music from the young and emerging composers MATA is dedicated to presenting, as well as some unsuccessful work. Taken in the larger context, this third night showed a similar institutional problem, the problem of sameness and predictability. As a collective choice, the programming, despite subtle variations between pieces and the worthwhile qualities of the individual works, sought and reflected a desire for some kind of safety.
I’m separating two things here, the choices individual composers make and how well they succeed, and the existence of the MATA Festival as a whole. The first half of Friday’s program was solid, mainly in the style of Bang On A Can aesthetics; punchy, pulse-based, clear scoring, bright colors, simple diatonic harmonies, long lines above faster repetitive structures and sequential structures that generally end in a different place than they start, without much looking back to their beginnings. The style eschews most melodic and harmonic development in favor of constructing polyrhythms and moving a pulse around and forward. It’s contemporary chamber music with a rock sensibility, but not only with less fire than rock but also less fire than Yo Shakespeare. It’s accessible to the ear and appealing to an audience that probably doesn’t hear much classical music and considering the backgrounds and youth of the composers, the style seems to be in the process of literal institutionalization. The pieces; Jascha Narveson’s Nice Boots, Patrick Burke’s Hypno-Germ, Greg Spears’ Quiet Songs, David Crowell’s sCrAmBLe SuIt and Magic With Everyday Objects from festival Executive Directory Missy Mazzoli, were all well crafted and commandingly performed by the NOW Ensemble. They all succeeded on their own terms, although some of those terms were more compelling than others. Quiet Songs was one of the standouts, a two part work that explores some relatively ambitious emotional territory amidst an aesthetic that is both eager to please and affectless in equal parts. The use of prerecorded sound of quiet trumpet calls and ringing bells gives the work a sonic space and harmonic richness that supports the elegiac goal; the instruments play their lines at independent speeds and the slow, heavy underlying pulse grounds the experience in a place of interior conversations. Spears mentions the “entropic sonic landscapes of late-Mahler and Morton Feldman” in his notes, but the piece doesn’t really disintegrate nor lose energy, it instead develops a sense of repose and dignity that is lovely. That’s harmony for you.
Harmony is also the key to the memorable success of sCrAmBLe SuIt and Mazzoli’s piece. In the first piece, harmony is a metaphor for chamber music. All the live music in the festival was chamber sized music, but this was one of the few pieces of actual chamber music, of actual dynamic interplay rather than purely mechanized idea of fitting instruments together to produce an overall pulse-pattern. In Crowell’s work the instruments speak with and to each other, which, along with a key change, made all the difference. The piece has direction, a point, a purpose beyond just the idea of musicians playing slightly syncopated eighth notes in layered patterns. Leave that to King Crimson, give me chamber music. Magic With Everyday Objects was a break with the overall programming, a slow piece about harmonic consonance, dissonance and disintegration, where chords are built up, pressed against each other, get knocked away, come back in new harmonies. This was not harsh dissonance, but an unsettling kind that begins in a settled place but can’t maintain itself there. This is truly music about entropy, about things falling apart, and is strongly affecting.
This night’s second half was the only failure of the festival, but it was a real failure. David Moore led his band Bing & Ruth in a performance accompanied by two short, silent films made by Sedastien Cros (who mentioned in the program he’s looking for an American wife to solve a visa problem . . . ). Bing & Ruth are a classical drone band. They are presented under the guise of contemporary classical music and perform long, sonorous and vaguely improvised drones, with the occasional open fifth and cctave thrown in. I say vaguely improvised because the music the play is easy to assemble by ear, in rehearsals, and there is a certain freedom within the overall confines of each drone, but there is very little musical activity other than some percussion patterns and the instrumentalists repeating notes. In an aesthetic that values the sonic experience of listening to rock music, they are the classical version of Sigur Ros. It was unambitious musically and boring, and there is an undeniably comfort in this kind of sonic boredom, it makes no demands and only asks you to sit while it reaches out to you with plangent vibrations.
And here is the aspect that troubles me – why seek such comfort, such familiarity? Here I am conveying a personal prejudice, a distrust of the group, the herd instinct. I think for artists that’s generally a good outlook, for comfort in one’s own style and be deadly. Seeking to convey comfort in music is a worthy goal, and Mompou, for example, wrote a lot of good music, but an arts institution promoting comfort is a problem. I don’t know how intentional this was, but it was there; a patron at intermission complained to me of “pablum.” The admirable exception was the opening sound and film collaboration between Mike Vernusky and Daniel Moldonado which was a strange, compelling slab of crackly electronic noise and someone’s overseen nightmare. Is this truly representational of the music being made by the generation of composers MATA is supporting and promoting? If so, then it’s time for some artistic fratricide – once an aesthetic is polished to perfection and showing no further development, that’s overdue. However, the alternative, that MATA consciously choose to present only this aesthetic, is still problematic. They are a cultural institution, and exist to present and promote ideas. If their goal is safety, then they should consider how seeing safety can make an institution culturally irrelevant – just consider the New York Philharmonic.
Culturally, is this generation seeking safety? Perhaps this is so – the reaction to Ruth & Bing was thunderous. I’m not sure what this is about. There are fragments that seem to make up parts of a whole that is as yet unclear. I was surprised recently to see a separate display of zombie books at Barnes & Noble. I’m fascinated with the zombie genre but am puzzled by this proliferation. “I Walked With A Zombie” continues to be affecting to me, just as the original “Night Of The Living Dead” and “Dawn Of The Dead” keep scaring the hell out of me. Leafing through some zombie graphic novels unsettled me – the horror of the crowd, the mass chasing after the individual is deeply frightening to me, and not in the delicious, pleasurable chill that usually draws people to horror. I think the popularity reflects an identification with the zombie, the desire to be one, to be part of the mass, comforted in numbers and relinquishment of responsibility. This is the generational change from Romero’s working class monster of 40 years ago to the mass, undifferentiated swarm people seek to lose themselves in. It’s almost a kind of religion.
I lived in Fort Greene during the time Nelson George writes about in this article, and have been back again now that I’ve returned to New York. It certainly has changed demographically. I remember when the first semi-fancy restaurant opened, it seemed revolutionary. Now composers live there, and hipsters and white families. I used to hear automatic weapons fire at night along the edge of Bed-Stuy. I’m not romanticizing any of that, because it’s good that New York City is so much safer now that 20 years ago. Strangely, the music of the generation experiencing this safety may not be considering the value of an aesthetic alternative. I overhead a bit of conversation at the bar among some recognizable new music musicians. There were discussing music to be played at Tanglewood this summer, and one mentioned George Rochberg, to which another replied that Rochberg is “cheezy.” Cheezy? Not hardly. The word is not apt, but if anything is cheezy it is a solid line of major triads, straight eighth notes and predictable pop song type structures. Rochberg himself embraced aesthetic danger, he abandoned the serial school of composing, literally loosing friends and colleagues, out of deep personal need and ended up writing music that is aggressive, dark, lyrical, excoriating, powerful and moving. He did not seek safety, and did not make cheese.
Technology may have something to do with this as well. This is the generation that has come of age with Finale and Pro Tools. Making music on a computer is in many ways quite easy, and certainly producing engraved-quality parts on a laserjet printer is a huge advantage. But the computer also makes it too easy to loop and copy and paste, repetition is built into the means of production. Making pulse-pattern music is as easy as working out a few lines in a sequencer, looping, copying, than transferring from MIDI to score. There is a danger in the seductive ease of producing these sequential structures, and a huge advantage of pencil and blank score paper. The music of Gustav Mahler took an extreme leap in expression, imagination, spontaneity and fecundity when he stopped writing a piano score first and began writing the orchestral score directly; the vertical sweep began to match and exceed the horizontal development.
I must again repeat so this is clear; the results are often well-made, solid, enjoyable pieces of music. That is the individual choice. But why should any institution be promoting safety in music as ‘emerging,’ or presenting it as anything other than anthropological? And whatever happened to epater les bourgoisie? Again, safety for the individual is one thing, it’s valuable and desirable. Safety in the arts is a very different thing, limning decadence. This is not a time to be playing it safe. After eight years of fear, seeking protection from false father-figures and the damage that has done to our culture and country, with a completely unsteady future on the horizon, it’s time remember the good old bad days, and consider that the Sex Pistols may have made terrible music, but they were, and still are, absolutely necessary. We cannot ensconce ourselves in refuges and ignore the world outside our doors, it’s neither ethical nor moral. And at least some of our music should be reflecting that.
Other contemporary artists are not playing it so safe – the music I’ve seen at Roulette recently is full of daring and doesn’t always succeed, but it fails at trying something that gets beyond the routine and the accepted, which is a valuable kind of failure, while succeeding at exceedingly modest goals cannot sustain thriving art. My week ended with a concert that was entirely different than MATA, that surprisingly took far more chances, that failed in many ways and yet was completely wonderful. That was the Brooklyn Conservatory Community Orchestra’s performance of Britten, Mahler and Copland at the prosaically sumptuous Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn Heights. The program was the Simple Symphony, Leider eines fahrenden Gesellen, and Appalachian Spring – imaginative and solid but not daring. Unless you consider that this is a community orchestra, with a few capable players and most struggling through their parts, but all ages and races playing nonetheless. So the strings were uncoordinated, the brass rough, the woodwinds out of tune. But Music Director Dorothy Savitch led them along through the scores without conceding anything to the quality of the ensemble, and in the Mahler soloist Daniella Carvalho was indeed solid, with a lovely, rich voice. In absolute terms, the musicians failed to play the parts, but they were willing to get up in front of a robust crowd and make music. Safety was no issue, music-making was, and they made wonderful music.
Appalachian Spring was a brilliant choice – the music is well known and, although it’s not easy to play, seems apt for a community orchestra. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about Copland being a faux-populist, even from John Adams, but on that I call bullshit. Copland was a good composer who decided he wanted to make music that was meant for a national audience, and wrote good music which satisfied that goal. That is not so different than the idea of making contemporary classical chamber music that appeals to a rock aesthetic, and certainly nothing like the condescending, smug ignorance of Ayn Rand, who sought out desperate rubes to sell her snake oil to. Hearing this ensemble calmly struggle through the lyrical brightness of Copland, the convivial energy of the Britten, the regretful longing of the Mahler was truly moving, the idea of making community music in this specialized age is so valuable. It’s also daring, because the added intimacy of playing for our friends and neighbors means they are emotionally committed to your success and failure. Emotionally, this program covered a far greater range of human experience, ecstatic and tragic, than did the MATA Festival. The nice, full sound of the orchestra as they reached the Shaker tune “Simple Gifts” was a complex and un-ironic expression of the acceptance of human experience. The encore, the “Hoe-Down” from Rodeo, was easily the most difficult thing they assayed. Stumbling but always ending up on their feet, they closed the barn door to tremendously excited applause.
This marked the BCCO as a culturally relevant institution. They are making music for their community. This is uniquely important, because music is the glue of civilization. It is language that makes us human and brings us together in groups, and musical language I believe came before any other kind, it was self-consciousness at making musical sound that made us conscious. And after one makes music, one makes music with another, and so civilization is born. And it comes with a lot of horrible problems, but it’s the best we’ve got, and the struggle to keep it together is constant and necessary. Making music for and with each other is essential. Consistently showing what is possible in music-making is essential, and hat involves surprise, confounding expectations and provoking unanticipated responses. Comfort is certainly an important part of our lives, and safety that of our well-being, and those will preserve civilization as long as we’re satisfied with where it is. In terms of values, we cannot be satisfied with where it is. So we need music to be a little dangerous now and again.