The Golden Calf / Writing / Other Projects

The Golden Calf

Note: this first appeared on my old website in 2011, as a response to Justin Davidson’s essay (linked just below) in New York magazine. It’s my best piece of writing and the closest I’ve ever come to a manifesto. Non-snarky thanks to Justin for spurring it.

It’s been really difficult to congeal my thoughts, about this recent piece in New York magazine about me and my friends and the music we’re making, into a coherent response. I had assumed that my mental block was coming from the voice inside, telling me “don’t respond to critics!” — a wise admonition, but not the relevant one in this case, because my response isn’t really about the criticism, but about the deeper issues that this article raises. I do think there’s a trivial response that I could have: that the author doesn’t truly understand this music (“boo hoo”), that saying that Missy and Valgeir sound the same is a frank betrayal of this fact — because yes, they do, in the same way that Mozart and Haydn, Brahms and Schumann, Palestrina and Victoria, Babbitt and Carter, the Sex Pistols and the Ramones, Biggie and Tupac each sound the same, and if you think that any of these pairings are ludicrous, welcome to how I felt when I saw Davidson’s assertion about my friends — but Justin Davidson is a very good writer, and even if he doesn’t get the music, I think he gets at things about music that are more interesting than the specifics of the particular concerts he heard and what he thought of them.


Matthew begins to get to the heart of what’s most interesting here in his exceedingly thoughtful response to the article. I think he nails the crucial point when he says (emphasis his): “what’s the conflict [these composers are] rendering moot? I think you could make a plausible case that it’s the very idea that aesthetic conflict is a necessary flag for generations to rally around.” Yes. But where did that very idea come from, in the first place? Who is invested in composers-as-historical figures? Certainly not most audiences; except the practitioners and former practitioners (often -turned-critics or -turned-bloggers) in the audience, and except for venues where the audiences consist of nearly all (current and former) practitioners, most audience members are interested in an aesthetic experience that has nothing to do with history beyond their personal history with the music itself. Classical Music reflexively tilts toward the historical, time and time again, rendering itself less and less relevant to audiences who are divorced from, ignorant of, and do not care about, that history. I have Schumann on as I write this but am deeply sympathetic to this ahistorical position and believe that, like it or not, it is the position in which our audiences are situated. These are our audiences and if you want to reach History you must go through the Present.

This isn’t new. Audiences for any music have always been invested in that music primarily for its emotional, spiritual, and social qualities, not its position in some historical trajectory. Audiences have real uses for music that are far from abstract. On the other hand, the people who are most invested in the historical, usually teleological narrative of Western Art Music are the people who have built careers around it, be they composers, performers, historians, writers, or administrators. Historians and composers, alike, have always had good reasons to produce teleological explanations of music history for the same reason that Ezra and Jeremiah may have in the old, Bible-writing days; we all want a history that points to our own time and activity as a necessary outgrowth of the past, a collection of rivers that gathers force and carries our boat down to the glorious sea. But sometimes those rivers lead us far afield and sometimes there is no sea, in the end.


More on that narrative and its emphasis on “aesthetic conflict”. It is undeniably true that the Eroica, the Rite of Spring, and In C (to choose three obvious examples) are revolutionary works, in that they changed the musical paradigm of Western art music, moving forward, and influenced the way that countless artists saw the possibilities inherent in their craft. But they are not successful because they are revolutionary. They are successful because they are great. “Aesthetic conflict” or “revolution” is ancillary to this greatness. I was on a panel recently with the composer Paul Moravec, who said that the Eroica had the power to seem strange and new each time he listened to it. That’s not it being revolutionary, that’s it being successful, a work that inhabits its own artistic space, purely and completely, creating its own terms and fulfilling its promise totally and utterly. The state of music before and after the Eroica is interesting to cultural historians and relevant to the course of music history but should not be taken as a guide to understanding the power of the work itself. Likewise, the fact that it was written in 1800 is not irrelevant to its reception, and no one would write it now or in 1600, but its position in time is a clue to the possibility of its existence but not the possibility of its greatness. Is the Johannes-Passion “revolutionary”? Are the Brahms Opus 117-119 piano pieces? The Ravel Piano Trio? Lutoslawski’s Third Symphony? These are, to my mind, masterpieces of the same order as the works I mentioned earlier, but they sit outside the paradigm of revolutionary change and “aesthetic conflict” that is so tempting as a description of musical history but so dangerous when applied to what composers should actually do.

Let me draw a distinction, here, between the “aesthetic conflict” of a given work, and the concept of “aesthetic conflict” as motivator of an artistic movement. The former can certainly be positive, though here I would refer to Alex’s excellent unpacking of the conflict-is-paramount suggestion that feels crucial to Davidson’s description. Still, what I meant when I replied that “I don’t completely disagree with this” on Twitter is that, to the extent that Davidson, or anyone, is arguing for a richer, deeper, broader pool of influences and a more complex network of interconnectivities in the compositions that are coming out of this post-genre world of notated composition, I agree. That’s a self-critique as much as anything; I don’t think I have said everything I need to say and I am looking forward to exploring more and different musical combinations as new opportunities to do so come along. Also, frankly, I could use a bit more time to practice my craft, to work on counterpoint and to improvise and to do things that are not goal-oriented and directed toward fulfilling specific commissions but which simply improve my skill as a composer. Hopefully, those opportunities will come with time. I know that my colleagues all feel the same. I hope this is obvious and it hardly needs saying.

What excites me, here, is that as I grow as a composer, I will be doing so in the direction of audiences who have an authentic emotional investment in my music, and who bring themselves as new listeners, detached from any historical baggage, to my work. Davidson writes, “these composers in their thirties worry less about categories, narrative, and originality than about atmosphere, energy, and sound,” and assuming he means “historical-musical narrative” (because obviously we care about “narrative”; how else to explain my evening-length work about King Solomon, Missy’s opera about Isabelle Eberhardt, etc.), I’d agree, adding only that we also care about craft and all the usual concerns therein, such as harmony, counterpoint, voiceleading, and instrumentation. We “worry”, in other words, not about what the music says to other music or to other musicians, but rather, about how the music sounds, and feels, and what it does to other human beings when they encounter it. That feels like the beginning and the end of what should concern a composer and I am excited to be at a point, yes, in history, where it seems we can cut away the nonsense and get down to the exceedingly difficult matter of creating meaningful art, unhinged from history or genre, and building relationships between audiences and that art.

Building, not destroying. We may live in a Herzog-ian world of chaos and disorder but what many of us seek in music is a realm apart from that condition, a refuge that mirrors our own capacity to cope with the very conditions of existence. As composers, the shape that this building takes will be different from person to person, personal history to personal history, and constructing any overarching narrative to describe our activity must account for the overall state of perpetual flux that we will face from here on out. The teleological narrative was always wrong, or we have reached its end. There was never any sea, or this is it.

Finally, perhaps because it’s nearly Passover, my mind takes me to the Exodus story, a potent metaphor for the condition that I feel we are in. There’s a great book by Michael Walzer called Exodus and Revolution where he examines the Exodus story in relation to its history of use by social movements throughout Western history. He concludes that the power of the myth is that we are always “in Egypt” and always striving to make our way through the “wilderness” to the “land of milk and honey”, and that only by collective action can we bring ourselves forward — not to reach a destination, but progressing hopefully into the unknown future. The alternative is to go back to Egypt, or more specifically, to build a Golden Calf:

That moment in the Bible (and in the movie) is so powerful because it comes just after the victory has been won — the Jews are free! — and immediately they backslide into the power structure of that which they defeated. But couldn’t Moses have seen that this would happen? When he goes up to the mountain, leaving his people behind, they are left not only with no object to worship, but also nothing to measure themselves against, no Egyptian idols to deny, to (if you will) “rage” against. And so they build an idol, and worship it as they will so many times in the later stories, sliding away from the difficult task of believing in a God who cannot be seen, who exists in no fixed place, and instead choose to lean on the crutch of idolatry. It is a perpetual challenge to live in the world as it is. This is the deep message that one finds in many Talmudic interpretations and commentary on the ancient stories. Finding meaning in the world requires constant vigilance and the past can certainly be a guide, to a point, in dialogue with the present but never coalescing into an idol to be worshipped, or even to be smashed. Like Walzer, I believe that we must be vigilant in working together, not against each other, to find our way, perpetually, through the wilderness. And for composers, I believe that there are, thankfully, no commandments, save one: write good music. The rest, as they say, is noise.