So, David Lang wrote an article suggesting that classical music could learn from baseball, where historical achievements and lore enliven the events of the present, rather than diverting attention and respect from them. A cute, inoffensive analogy. Nicely scaled for its medium -- clearly leveled at general readership, not fellow professionals.
And oh. The comments thread. It's so horrifying! I can't look away. It's worse than the typical Youtube thread, in a way, because the readers have decent grammar and in many cases appear to be balanced and intelligent individuals. But still, the ignorance. My.
Notice: I'm not calling anyone stupid, or even wrong. Just ignorant. Don't blame culture for not dropping great new music in your lap. Go out and look for it. The onus is on you, listeners--is on US, all of us, as listeners. We are all the listeners, we are all the audience, and every human has a choice whether to participate in music, or any other cultural expression, and at what level.
People are writing a whole hell of a lot of music these days. It's our choice whether or not to listen to it. I won't get mad at you if you don't; there's only so much time, and each of us has a capacity for new listening experiences that only extends so far.
So, if you want to stop at movie scores, that's fine. The commenters who cite John Williams as the greatest modern composer have a point. His music is widely heard and enjoyed. Maybe you'll stop at a crowd-pleasing concert music composer like Eric Whitacre. That's fine too. At least at that point you're aware there are concert music composers who are alive. Some of my brethren bash such popular figures, for musical reasons or simply because they're so successful. I will not. Their music is not my favorite music, but it's reaching people, and that's hardly a thing to get angry about.
That said, to those who asked "who is the Bach/Beethoven of today," those who are searching for a Great Man to help them contextualize recent music, I say we must let go of this model of individual greatness and era-defining personalities. We think music can only be understood as a progressing narrative of great individual musicians, because that's the way we were taught. But that isn't a good way of understanding music, globally, in the now. It is a good way of understanding music history. It is a historiographical tactic, and a very useful one. But it is not a practical method for parsing the loud, vibrant, confusing, extravagant Present Moment. It never was.
So as for understanding 21st-century music before it gets boxed up and three-hole-punched and becomes part of Music History, it's just going to take some listening. And again, you don't have to listen. You can hear modern piece #1 by composer X and give up because it's "atonal" and "not melodic." I've said these things myself. What they really mean is that we don't understand. Or you can listen ten more times until you start to get it. Even if you don't get it, you can still accept it, much in the same way enlightened people attempt to accept foreign ideas, opinions, lifestyles, and cultures. I don't understand Urdu. This doesn't mean it shouldn't be spoken, that the world isn't richer because there are people speaking Urdu out there, right now! There is plenty of music I don't "understand" -- including, but not limited to, segments of high modernism. But that doesn't mean it shouldn't exist. And that doesn't mean I don't appreciate it as a contribution to the rich realm of human utterance.
As a teenager, I "hated" 20th-century classical music as much as any of these commenters, because I'd heard a grand total of maybe thirty minutes of it. At first I responded with the familiar vitriol. But I kept listening, and with more context I found my way back to the composers I'd previously dismissed, and found that even when I failed to love the music, I could not dismiss the composer as a charlatan, or the music as "not music."
On that note, I'd like to suggest a cessation of declarations that style/piece/band/composer X is "not music." This is a closed-minded and ungenerous thing to say. Say you don't care for it, or that you don't get it. Because the onus is on you. The onus is on us, we the listeners.
John Cage's definition of music: "sounds heard."
That we choose to argue about heard sounds indicates that we are not paying attention to the sounds themselves, to the music itself, but rather to its implications in terms of power and money.
Recently I heard Line Upon Line Percussion play John Cage's Four4. This was four musicians standing on a rooftop for 72 minutes, during most of which time they were standing silently. Occasionally one of them would reach for an instrument or object and make some sound (or "noise," if you prefer). When they weren't playing, we listened to the breeze, passing cars, and other environmental sounds. We walked around, came and went. Eventually they stopped their stopwatches, and we all had chips and cookies.
Can we appreciate why the concept of "greatness" does not apply in this situation? It was just four guys making noise on a rooftop. That isn't "great music" and it's not "bad music," it's just "music," sounds heard, and it doesn't try to be anything more or less, and that's what made it so beautiful.
All we ever do is show up, to a concert hall or a bar or whatever, and listen to people make noise for an hour, and then leave. Isn't that wonderful? Sometimes we love it, or hate it. Some music seems great. Other music seems bad. There is scant agreement on these classifications, and when dispensed, they reveal more about the listener than about the music.
It's not much of a thing worth getting angry about. It's not as though anyone is making us listen. Again, in the spirit of modesty -- you don't have to listen. You don't have to listen to Schoenberg or Berg or Webern or Stravinsky or Bartók or Stockhausen or Babbitt or Reich or Harry Partch or Lou Harrison or John Luther Adams or Ornette Coleman or Eric Dolphy or La Monte Young or Han Bennink or Louis Andriessen or Saariaho or Lachenmann or Feldman or Georg Haas or Ligeti or Lutoslawski or mid-60s Miles Davis or late Coltrane or Radiohead or Sam Amidon or Beck's One Foot in the Grave or Vijay Iyer or Steve Coleman or Polar Bear or John Cage or Of Montreal or anyone else. You don't have to listen to me, or any of my transnational circle of musician friends -- although trust me, they're energetic and smart, and they know what they're doing.
You don't have to listen to any of it. If you do, and your response is anger or some other sort of negative emotion, ask yourself why.
You don't have to listen to any of it.
But I hope you do.
Because if you don't, wow. You're really missing out.
"He might have heard what people have always heard in strange music: the call of another life." -- Greil Marcus
Carson Cooman thinks composers should destroy early manuscripts to prevent them from being published or performed alongside mature works. I've always said it's a bit silly for any of us, these days, to think our music is going to be played after we're gone. It looks like there may be 12 or 15 billion people crammed onto this planet by 2100; they're going to have their own music to write, and moreover will probably be royally pissed at all of us for using up all the fossil fuels so we could sit in Colorado and eat apples from New Zealand.
But even assuming, for the sake of argument, that standard ensembles as we know them still exist in eighty or ninety years, and that they are just clean out of decent music to play, and that you, the Composer, still have some sort of reputation... well then, let them tarnish it by playing that awkward piece you wrote in high school. The world deserves to know what a complicated and flawed person you were, especially once you're no longer possessed of a physical presence and are therefore no longer able to trip over things, tell the wrong joke at the wrong time, engage in a disastrous romantic affair, say something stupid, or write a bad piece to show everyone you're human. The bad pieces, the foibles, will only enliven the great music by comparison.
If they think too much of you, it'll only lead to unfortunate patterns of thought. An untarnished reputation is a dangerous thing.
And besides, the 6.whatever billion of us on the planet right now, today, now, are better off focusing on the musical experiences through which, into which, from which, by which, we are living. And the 12 or 15 billion still coming? Them too. They'll have their own fish to fry. Let's not worry too much about how great they think we were--especially if they're generous enough to actually pay attention to the music we wrote while we were eating all those globetrotting apples.
It's been a blast to get back to Austin and play the Paul Bowles concerto with the UT New Music Ensemble. The more we play the piece, the more impressed I am with the freshness of the ideas and the forms. The concert is this Tuesday night at Bates Recital Hall and it should be a lot of fun!
Here is the program note I wrote for the concert.
Paul Bowles: Concerto for Two Pianos, Winds, and Percussion
The Concerto for Two Pianos, Winds, and Percussion was written in 1946-7, predating The Sheltering Sky by only a few years. On first listen its tone and affect are completely at odds with those of the famous novel, which creeps with a dark sense of anxiety and foreboding. By contrast, the Concerto effervesces with brash rhythmic energy, cabaret melodies crashing against one another, vibrant musical ideas elbowing for space. It seems nothing more or less than a grand evening on a Parisian terrace, full of songs, characters, clinking glasses. And yet at moments, in the rich ambiguity of Bowles' harmonies, still we find ourselves face to face with the mysterious and unknowable.
Bowles' stylistic reference points are familiar from contemporaneous works of Milhaud, Poulenc, and Stravinsky, but his manner of building long forms was unique. Eschewing traditional methods of motivic development, Bowles let each musical idea speak--or shout--for itself, and "develop" only through contrast and restatement. Bowles produced few extended concert works, and the present composition is his most ambitious in instrumentation and scope. This Concerto is perhaps the musical magnum opus of a brilliantly versatile creative mind.
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