This Terrible Week

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The last time I saw Matt Marks was in the middle of March. I was heading into the stage door at Carnegie Hall to pick up my press ticket for the concert in Zankel Hall where Alarm Will Sound was to present Ligeti. He was hanging around outside, and before he caught sight of me I pointed at him and said “I’ve got my eye on you tonight, I’m going to be extra tough on you.” Now, sure, I can be an asshole, but I’m not that kind of asshole, it was a joke I could pull on Matt because he had a sense of humor about what he was doing.

And at the same time he was serious about it, and he was a seriously fine musician and performer (not the same things) and also a talented composer who was working at the edge where contemporary opera and contemporary rock-based musical theater meet. I don’t need to go on, best for you to read Steve Smith’s obit and the interview with him by Will Robin at NewMusicBox. I have only to add my personal experience, which is that we were friendly but not friends, the time I interviewed him was to talk about the TV show Hannibal, which I started watching because I knew he was and I respected his values and taste, and that those close to him have lost even more than those of us who care about music.

And then Glenn Branca went. I never knew the man (Phil Kline did, read this). My thoughts about his music was that it didn’t always succeed, but it was necessary. Before Branca did it, no one thought about a guitar ensemble playing rock in symphonic form, and once he started making his Symphonies, we all realized we had wanted and needed someone to think about it and do it. My personal favorite is still The Ascension—not just the music, but the Robert Longo graphics are part of my life’s experience—but he demands attention and he has a permanent legacy in modern music. And I will always admire him for putting Cage’s disparagement of his work on one of his albums.

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Same As The Old Boss

I wonder what accounts for Glenn Branca’s bitter tone in this short, online article in the NY Times? It’s emotive of something beyond the content, which is stupid; objectively ignorant and ironically completely un-selfaware.

He writes as if he alone has discovered that symphony orchestras are struggling, when they have been pretty much since their inception in the 18th century. One way to look at it is that even though those original orchestras were supported by royalty, the musicians needed other gigs to survive. But his other complaints seem to come from the same universe where Sarah Palin is, one where reality is whatever she makes up in her head to suit whatever happens to be dribbling from her mouth. “Rock has been relegated to the underground.” Really? What are all those rock musicians doing in the country then? “Jazz has stopped evolving and become a dead art.” This makes sense only if the last time one listened to jazz was 1965. “The music industry has been subsumed by corporate culture.” Was this written in a time capsule for post-dated publication?

Branca is literally ignorant in the details and his premise reveals a commitment to an incurious, smug navel-gazing. He begins with “We seem to be on the edge of a paradigm shift,” and then proceeds to describe this shift as the end of new music making. Glenn, the paradigm shift has happened already, and it’s moving in a direction opposite the one you imagine. Cheap, mass digital technology is the shift in music making and listening, and it’s worked to destroy the corporate culture of the music industry, itself more than thirty years old. File sharing has obviously undermined the industrial/commodity model of music, but the rise of the laptop and music software has contributed as much, if not more, from the inside. With Pro Tools, Ableton Live, Logic, Reason/Record and many other packages, musicians now control the means of production as well as those of distribution. While composers could always produce music with paper and pencil, now they can also record and package their music without depending on a Duke or a CEO. The punk DIY ethos is now an actual mass-method, Branca should know this, but perhaps it offends him that the generations that followed him have surpassed him in dogma-free application of his own supposed values.

Digital technology is also producing genuinely new music, but perhaps one needs to be computer literate to recognize this. Beyond the DAW, tools like Max/MSP and free, open-source languages like Csound and SuperCollider mean that anyone can produce music, and music which is fairly popular in appeal while being resolutely non-commercial. This nether space between abstract electronic sound and pop sensibility is expanding, and it’s a new thing. The idea of making a piece of music out of lines of text code is not inherently new, but that anyone willing to tackle the challenge of the language in the comfort of their own bedroom can do so is part of the new paradigm. The rise and spread of Hip-Hop, a music fundamentally based in the resources of digital technology, is also both new and influential to music from opera to jazz, and if Branca hasn’t heard this in work ranging from Craig Taborn to Mendi + Keith Obadike then he is lazy and claiming that laziness as discernment.

Finally, I think Branca is ignorant as an artist, willfully so, and his post is the key to decoding the core of ignorance in his own body of work. Conceptually, the idea of making music for masses of electric guitars was daring and important, and the sound can be thrilling. Musically however, what Branca does is tightly limited and has shown no growth in either method or form. Having learned one thing, he seems to think that there is nothing else to learn, and neither he nor his work have developed in knowledge and understanding. For a moment, he was at the cutting edge, and then that edge continued into the future, into a new paradigm, while he decided where he was at was a good place to stop. He conflates his own lack of development with the limits of human possibility, rather like the rock version of George W. Bush. That Branca is recording a sequel to his 1981 record “The Ascension” says it all right there.