Incidentally, the premiere of Night Air with the CCO was terrific. There's a lot of talent and grace going into that group's inaugural season and I'm damn proud of everyone. Keep up the great work, all.
It's always nice when a piece incites questions and discussion rather than tepid cocktail-party compliments. I had a couple of the former, including a complaint or two as well as several rogue interpretations. I don't mind multivalence, actually I get quite a kick out of it, but it was so interesting to hear that the group had read Night Air as a winter piece--one player even imagined it taking place indoors during the winter. It's not right or wrong, I suppose, it's just wildly different than my opinion on the matter. The discussion made me realize that I have never written a winter piece, and if I have any influence in the matter I will never, EVER, write an "indoor piece." I'm not a winter guy by nature, and I think my music is all essentially summer music: if it takes place in a certain setting, it's likely evening or night in the summer, emphatically outside, imbued with that estival mysticism which is one of my favorite things in life.
And which one finds manifested gorgeously in Bartók's "night music" movements.
Earthiness: it's not often associated with contemporary music, virtually never with jazz, and it's a part of my personality easily ignored at the piano. (The acoustic guitar is stereotypically earthier.) I have a difficult time maintaining it in the winter, as well, without that breath of warm fresh air to remind me. It's an element that just goes dormant in the winter, and I'm tremendously energized when it wakes up again in the spring. For this reason living in Texas was pleasantly and constantly over-stimulating to me; the summer feeling was present almost all year.
Well, this winter I'm not in Texas, I'm in the Canadian Rockies, which have their own charms (it's been snowing for three days). But I'm wearing this little bracelet I bought for a dollar at the Banff trading post. I like to see it on my wrist when I'm indoors, playing the piano; it serves as a reminder of that summer feeling, connects me to that crucial part of my soul.
This actually has quite a bit to do with why the string quartet made such a glorious medium for Béla Bartók. The great modernist composers are praised for their cerebral qualities and bold inventiveness, but they weren't the earthiest bunch, with Bartók as the towering exception. For him of course it was peasant folk music that connected his intellectual probings, his harmonic and formal experiments, to solid ground. In a much more fundamental, wide-ranging manner than my bracelet, of course, but there's a connection. It's in Bartók's music that the braininess of modern music feels most clearly to be an outgrowth of nature--as all music, of course, as all of us ultimately are.
And the string quartet? Well, I love Bartók in all media, but his orchestra music has this colorful airiness, and his piano music this cold, hard exterior. The string quartets are warm, grounded, inviting -- they are the earthiest music of an earthy composer. There's something direct and sensuous about the quartet that is lost when expanded to a full string section. So throughout these six monumental pieces, even at their most abstract, there is a certain pull. People who don't know modern music criticize it as unemotional, somehow inhuman; the string quartets are among Bartók's canon perhaps the most brimming with humanity.
For the record, Night Air was written when I got to Banff in October, and it was still lovely outside. It was a winter concert, so if it needed to serve as a winter piece, I can accept that. But that doesn't mean I'm not looking forward to spring.
Were I given the run of deceased composers to experience one as a composition teacher, I'd probably have to go with Morton Feldman. I just can't seem to run into a single printed word from the guy without thinking that a) he is catastrophically right and b) no one else has ever said that.
The most recent mind-blower is here, from an interview with Robert Ashley published in Contemporary Composers on Contemporary Music, edited by Elliott Schwartz, Barney Childs, and Jim Fox:
"Unfortunately for most people who pursue art, ideas become their opium. The sickness that you feel about the situation today is a piling up of multitudinous suggestions and multitudinous misconceptions, each tumbling over the other. There is no security to be one's self. There is only a total insecurity because people don't know who they want to be."
And then, the next page, it gets even better:
"You go to the various festivals and you see fantastic technical equipment. And all the time you feel that the young composer has immorally been given the moral license to lead a parasitic life...What the schools and the important pedagogues are doing is just perpetuating a tragic syndrome, a tragic misunderstanding about what it is to be a composer. But then, perhaps they don't think of themselves as composers. I think that composing for them is just an incidental activity in the power struggle of ideas."
"I think that composing for them is just an incidental activity in the power struggle of ideas."
Haven't been able to get that one out of my brain for a few days now. Precise as an arrow, devastating as a bomb. It's enough to make a guy want to quit writing blogs for a while...
• 1 •
I'm looking forward to a great concert tonight with the Chicago Composers Orchestra. The group sounds terrific and is such a crucial thing to have in this city. Congratulations to everyone involved with putting it together and keeping it going. (This being a full orchestra, that's a lot of people!)
• 2 •
On a totally unrelated note, and I'm a couple years behind in my praise here, but Of Montreal's Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? is the most recent in the series of pop albums that come along in my life every so often and cast the whole pursuit in a fresh and exciting new light. And I'm not just talking about the song titles, with which I am hopelessly enamored, e.g. "Gronlandic Edit."
The record's normative M.O. involves efficient three-minute pop tunes with tons of musical/productional brilliance stretched across concise lyrical conceptions. But in the centerpiece, the 12-minute "The Past Is a Grotesque Animal," the approach is turned on its head. Here the musical continuum is astonishingly consistent, is basically the canvas, and the forward temporal element comes from a rush of lyrical ideas.
He begins like this: "The past is a grotesque animal and in its eyes you see how completely wrong you can be."
And moves through this: "I'm flunking out, I'm flunking out, I'm gone, I'm just gone, but at least I author my own disaster."
And this: "Sometimes I wonder if you're mythologizing me like I do you," among other things,
Before ending here: "None of our secrets are physical now."
• 3 •
I also reread The Great Gatsby to begin 2011; the universe kept mentioning it to me and I decided it was time. I'm floored with how deftly Fitzgerald handles the past. The book is all about the past, but you don't even realize it for most of the text. Until the end when the lyrical ideas increase in density and frequency, this just remains implicit in the way the characters comport themselves.
The message I suppose is that the past is gone, though it's not that simple or stark, so pithy summary isn't that informative. The messier poetic truths the whole novel gives us are much more useful.
Throughout there are so many little and big metaphors of things disappearing--the glow of afternoon light in a living room, a radiant look on someone's face. Most notably it's the heat of summer, which wraps around most of the events and especially the climactic day of the story. The characters don't realize the "cooling twilight," their autumnal moment, is coming until it's already emphatically arrived. And I guess the tragedy lies in that lack of recognition.
"He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was..."
And a page later:
"Through all he said, even through his appalling sentimentality, I was reminded of something--an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago. For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted like a dumb man's, as though there was more struggling upon them than a wisp of startled air. But they made no sound, and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever."
• 4 •
Because I can't end on a note like that, I'll head back to Kevin Barnes' lyrics.
"I spent the winter with my nose buried in a book while trying to restructure my character, 'cause it had become vile to its creator. And through many dreadful nights I lay praying to a saint that nobody has heard of and waiting for some high times to come again."
On the last page of The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald wonders if in the European's first encounter with the American continent he stood "face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder." In little ways we experience that rush of newness and possibility when we set our eyes on a new place, a fresh idea... when we imagine a saint... when I hear an album that really surprises me.
Here's to a new year in which we'll seek elusive rhythms not just in the past, but in the continents that remain unexplored--if not to humanity as a whole, then to each of us personally. May our modest new experiences always be sufficient to satisfy our capacity for wonder.
This article by William Deresiewicz has been going around recently, and as usual with provocative ideas about leadership and creativity I found things that resonated with my experience in musical circles. Revisiting the piece a few months after I read it for the first time, this paragraph jumped off the page:
"We have a crisis of leadership in America because our overwhelming power and wealth, earned under earlier generations of leaders, made us complacent, and for too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don't know how to ask them. Who can fulfill goals, but don't know how to set them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they're worth doing in the first place. What we have now are the greatest technocrats the world has ever seen, people who have been trained to be incredibly good at one specific thing, but who have no interest in anything beyond their area of expertise. What we don't have are leaders."
Cough cough composers. Cough cough.
I've made the claim before that professional self-described composers are not always creative people, and this is exactly what I'm talking about. There are many who know how to make something, but flagrantly ignore all the higher-level questions that arise from the pursuit. They are like Deresiewicz's bureaucrats "who think about how to get things done, but not whether they're worth doing in the first place." They can produce a score, but hearing the music you get the distinct impression that they never grappled with the question of what kind of music they want to be making, what kind of effect they want it to have, who they want it to have that effect on, and why. WHY why why. Undeniably, they are creating something--but they have no idea why they're creating it, so it never begins to matter, and when the piece is played it hits the back wall with a dull thud. It is never even noticed.
With that harshness out of the way I can proceed to admit that I spend way too much time thinking about these meta-compositional questions. You can't write any music if you're always wondering what kind of music to write, and I've fallen prey to that disease from time to time. There's a point at which one must dismiss all questions, have a little trust, and put something out there. Maybe that's what all these people are doing, and what I'm doing too, and maybe we just have to accept that regardless of the level of introspection taking place, some expressions are going to be more successful than others.
Which is perhaps why Deresiewicz points out that solitude does not necessarily mean introspection. Deep, genuine, and original thought comes from long-term consideration of a problem in one's mind, but also in one's actions, or in a long conversation with a friend. I agree that these days we too often have the opportunity of "marinating...in conventional wisdom." We exist in a flood of casually provided information--often a poor substitute for carefully considered ideas--but all it takes to rise above is a bit of that "solitude of concentration."
Because if we're looking for leaders, we must admit that the big questions are going to play a role. And that isn't intellectual waffling: that's real creativity, because a blank page might be scary, but not as scary as asking yourself whether the page itself is what you ought to be writing on. Walking a straight line, that's professionalism; the creative leaders are the ones who don't just walk a curvy arc to try and look different, but who actually suggest the pavement itself is an option to be reconsidered, and that takes courage. Because most people are going to tell you duh, idiot, it's the pavement. You can't do anything with that. But in art, and oftentimes in life, you can.
10 Best of 2014
January: Wyoming and the Open
February: New Mexico and the Holes
Notes on The Accounts