What Costco Can Teach Me - 7/21/05
The What Protection Agency? - 7/18/05
This is an Amazing Picture - 7/16/05
Summer Note: Today and Everyday Available - 7/14/05
Back From Vacation - 7/11/05
On Vacation - 6/16/05
A Quick Thought - 6/15/05
Bothered by Bush's Lies? Read This - 6/14/05
It's Hard to Work When David Lynch is Distracting You - 6/10/05
Fame - 6/04/05
KRS-One interview - Hip Hop City? - 5/19/05
A Quick Note about Cliché - 5/10/05
A Return to Values - 5/02/05
New MP3s Uploaded - 4/19/05
Boston Modernism - 4/08/05
More Folk Music Performances - 2/16/05
Emanuel Ax and I Agree on at Least One Thing - 2/15/05
A Weekend of Good Music - 2/15/05
Drifting around my CD player, early February 2005 - 2/11/05
Happy Birthday Kevin (buy his record) - 2/04/05
Getting Reality Back on Script - 2/03/05
Good News for Opponents of Torture and Rights Violations - 1/31/05
It's Two Weeks, I'm Going Insane - 1/30/05
Hearing the New York Philharmonic - 1/16/05
Reflections on the Start of a New Year - 1/13/05
Virtuous Idleness - 12/15/04
New Music from NOW Ensemble - 12/14/04
Go Nadia and Go Frank Rich - 12/09/04
60 Minutes and Contemporary Composition - 11/30/04
Sam Solomon, a Good Man - 11/23/04
PAST POSTS Fall 2005 - Summer 2006
PAST POSTS Fall 2006 - Summer 2007
PAST POSTS Fall 2007 - Summer 2008
PAST POSTS Fall 2008 - the end of 2009
CURRENT RAMBLINGS (WHY)
What Costco Can Teach Me - 7/21/05
Today's New York Times has an article on Costco, the warehouse-style wholesale/retail stores. It seems (and I didn't know this) that they are among the best large corporations in the country, offering workers higher wages and better benefits than comparable companies. There are a number of fascinating elements of the article, which can be found (perhaps temporarily) here.
First, look at the language put forward by the market analysts. They seem to suggest that Costco is behaving immorally by virtue of its limiting shareholders' profits at the expense of workers. These are the people who are driving American corporations towards their cutthroat policies, and the reason that our version of the market economy - driven by the stock market and those who work in it - is failing to improve workers' quality of life. If even a highly profitable company can be lambasted for being responsible for its workers, it's clear that the system does not contain within it the means for creating an equitable society. To see the matter-of-factness with which these analysts present CEO Jim Sinegal's behavior as essentially immoral is chilling, and telling. I have to think that the stock market as it currently exists needs to be changed in order to restore balance in the terms of corporate behavior.
This is especially true because it seems unlikely that this model is replicable, from a broader market perspective. Sinegal is taking advantage of options that may only be available to businesses that operate at this level of volume. it's not clear that the benefits to workers actually pay off; he gets better workers who steal less, but could those costs possibly outweigh the costs of the increased pay and benefits? Even if you also factor in the small portion of the population (and I don't have numbers here; this is purely speculative) that shop at Costco because of their fair treatment to employees, such a balance seems highly unlikely. In that case, this is simply altruism, from the standpoint of the marketplace. How can this model be replicated, if that's true?
As an aside, here, assuming that we don't dismantle the stock market, we're left with two arenas for "altruism" (or "basic human decency", as I like to call it): corporate choice (as in the case of Sinegal) or consumer choice (as in the case, perhaps, of some of Costco's customers). Much has been said and written about the need for consumers to be more responsible in their decision-making, and to some extent, consumers have responded when the options have been made easy and convenient - "organic" produce at the supermarket (though most of that produce has many of the same problems as conventional produce), "fair trade" food and clothing (though it is unclear that these products are any fairer for people on the production end), and so on. The recent rush of demand for hybrid vehicles is encouraging, but will there be enough people, going forward in our society, who can afford to make the morally superior choice, such that it will counteract the majority of people, who have no such means? That question leads me to believe that relying on consumers will not be the answer. Of course, relying on corporations, as with the EPA's voluntary corporate programs, don't do much good, either. So it's left to good men like Sinegal to do what they can, and for the rest of us to push as hard as we can for regulations on corporate behavior, from environmental issues to workers' rights.
Getting back to the article, I'm intrigued by the success that Costco has had with limiting consumer choice - the "only 4 types of toothpaste" example that's cited is too perfect for words. Everyone knows that there's an overabundance of choice in our current system - and, of course, choice is always brought up as one of the great merits of the free market system (with high-end quality being the other, as in the case of medical procedures). Even Seinfeld has made fun of this - and that was in an early episode, back around 1993! The "treasure hunt" that Costco presents is another example of choice limitations - making things special by not having them available all the time. A store could do this in a sneaky way, withholding items in order to give them a false "specialness", but Costco has built up trust in its consumer base, such that people truly believe that the special products that are offered are, indeed, special. When reading about this feature, I was reminded of my experience going to the local health food store in the summer, when I always look first to see what special, locally-grown foods are available (last night, it was lacinto kale and kirby cucumbers, and so that's what I ate).
I don't need to be able to eat everything whenever I want it, but Americans believe that they do - this is what my friend Morgan and I call the "food court" model of American life. It makes sense that this would be desirable, on a surface level, especially to the generation of Americans who suffered through the awful hunger of the early part of the century, and then who fought a war to save the world, perhaps quite literally. Why shouldn't we have whatever we want, all the time? The answer is threefold. First, you sacrifice quality when you insist on having things when they shouldn't be had - such as tomatoes in the winter. Second, there are serious costs to this permanent availability - the transportation cost of food, to stay with this example, as well as the costs of rigging biological systems to produce more food, more often. But the third point may be the most interesting: I don't think that people really even want to have everything all the time. It's not interesting and it's not fun. What if it were always Christmas? Or your birthday? I look forward to tomato season every year, because the taste of fresh, locally-grown tomatoes is something that cannot be faked by any biological rigging that we've yet discovered. When we do, maybe I'll be able to eat caprese in February, and perhaps I'll do so, but I doubt I'll really be any happier as a result. It will make August that much more dull.
If Costco has successfully turned this anti-choice behavior into increased profitability, that's something worth noting. Perhaps that is one element of the Costco model that could be replicable, and of benefit to society: decreasing the absurd number of choices that we create, at great hidden cost to each other. I'd love to see other companies act like Costco is acting, but in most cases, the CEO would be fired if he or she behaved like Sinegal has. That's one of the great issues facing our society today - the fact that corporations are required to act as they do by virtue of their definition as profit-making enterprises, beholden to those with a stake in the profit. Would my financially-oriented friends care to offer a defense?
The What Protection Agency? - 7/18/05
This past weekend, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Washington, D.C. Circuit ruled that the Environmental Policy Agency did not have to impose mandatory limits on carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and hydroflourocarbons. We can discuss the merits of this ruling from a jurisprudential standpoint, and I'd be interested in hearing what any of my lawyer/protolawyer friends have to say about this, but what really caught my eye was the following passage in the Washington Post article on the topic:
Administration officials hailed the decision. "We are pleased with this ruling and glad the court supported our decision to use voluntary programs...to reduce carbon and greenhouse gases instead of mandatory regulations and litigation that don't promote economic growth," said EPA spokeswoman Eryn Witcher.
Excuse me? This is not the White House speaking; this is a spokeswoman for the EPA - why is she talking about promoting economic growth? Since when is that her job? The job of the EPA, according to their website, is to "to protect human health and the environment." Sounds about right to me.
Steve Johnson, head of the EPA, is by all accounts a hardworking advocate for the environment, albeit one who has built a career on taking a decidedly nonconfrontational stance toward industry. But he has signed on to the Bush agenda, and press releases like the one cited above speak the truth about what the agency has become in the last five years - a red stamp for regulatory rollbacks in the name of "economic growth", meaning favors to industries that have long supported the Republican Party.
Once again, issues such as this remind me that it's not just the President who we're voting for every four years - it's the entire Executive Branch of government. Which is why as much as we may hate the Democratic candidate in a given year, or believe that "they're all the same", we've got to get a Democrat back in the White House.
This is an Amazing Picture - 7/16/05
My friend David sent me this incredible picture, which I felt I had to share:
The guy in the picture is one of David's friends. The rest are genuine, well, idiots.
Summer Note: Today and Everyday Available - 7/14/05
Here's the summer note that I sent out to my mailing list, including an announcement about my new work, Today and Everyday:
Many people have been contacting me about the availability of a recording of my new work, Today and Everyday, that was premiered at Carnegie Hall by the New York Youth Symphony (under the excellent direction of Paul Haas) this past May. I'm happy to announce that an mp3 is now available on my website, at the following URL:
Many thanks to to the folks at the NY Youth Symphony for letting me make this available.
I've been fortunate enough to get some very nice press, lately, and I have appreciated all the positive feedback that people have been sending my way. So thanks!
I'd also like to let you know about a few things that I'll be doing this year. In the Fall, NOW Ensemble is joining forces with composers David T. Little and Missy Mazzoli, as well as David's ensemble, Newspeak, for a tour of politically-oriented music. We'll be playing Free Speech Zone, my large-scale work for NOW Ensemble, along with a bunch of great pieces, including Frederic Rzewski's Coming Together (with both ensembles at once). The tour is scheduled to play in New York at the Knitting Factory and Galapagos, and then go on to New Haven, Boston, and possibly other cities. More information will be made available soon!
I'm also working on some great commissions this year, including solo works for my friends Sam Solomon (percussion) and Nadia Sirota (viola). The fabulous soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird has commissioned me to write a new work for her forthcoming CD; she'll be touring the music from that recording sometime in 2006. I've also received a commission from Present Music, in Milwaukee, WI, as part of their 25th Anniversary season. They're a great group with a terrific reputation, so I'm excited to be writing for them.
There are other projects that I'm working on, but some of them are better left unmentioned at the moment! I'll take my cues from the Bush Administration and keep up that air of secrecy going forward.
I hope you're all having terrific summers.
Back From Vacation - 7/11/05
I returned this past week from an excellent vacation, taken mainly in the green hills of Vermont - my favorite place in the world. Most of the vacation was spent with friends, walking and talking, cooking big meals for 20 or 30 people, swimming in natural water (4 rivers, 2 lakes, 1 pond, if I remember correctly), and generally living a much more sane existence than is permitted in our normal lives.
At the start of my vacation, my friend Nat and I drove across the great state of New York (which Nat convinced me is the best state in the country, with the possible exception of California), stopping in Ithaca to visit our friend Matt, and then moving across to East Aurora, NY. East Aurora is a small town in the metropolitan area of Buffalo, made famous by its being a center of the Arts and Crafts movement, which gave birth to Frank Lloyd Wright, among other important artists and architects. (It's also the childhood home of President Millard Fillmore, for those who are keeping score.)
Today, the town is home to the Roycroft Chamber Music Festival, named after the Roycroft artist's colony that was an important developing ground for the Arts and Crafts movement. Humble in size and scale, the Festival is run by Eugene and Nancy McFarland Gaub, who used to live in East Aurora but now return from their new home at Grinnell College for two weeks out of the year. Along with the Gaubs, who are excellent players (a pianist and violinist, respectively), the Festival brings in a cast of mostly local (Buffalo and Rochester) performers of an exceedingly high quality. These are upper-tier players who realized (if they ever thought this in the first place) that you don't have to live in New York City to be a happy and successful classical musician. Sometimes, it's hard for those of us who are in the orbit of New York to remember that fact - and it's understandable, given that New York is a world of its own (with a metropolitan area population that's larger than most states, and many countries). Still, it's good to be reminded.
I was in East Aurora because the Festival had programmed my piece for NOW Ensemble, Folk Music, as part of their Saturday night program, and I thought it would be fun to go check it out. I'm not quite at the stage of my career where I can comfortably miss performances of my work, and given that the Festival organizers were kind enough to cover our travel expenses, and that Nat suggested a road trip was in order, it was really a no-brainer to go.
The program in which Folk Music was performed started off with a high school string quartet performing a couple of movements from a Haydn quartet; this explained the presence of some younger faces in the audience, but many of them stayed for the main program, as well! This was a terrific idea - an opportunity for the community to see the hard work that the quartet had put in (and they played very musically), and an opportunity for the quartet to play in front of a substantial chamber music audience. What struck me from the start was the lack of pretense that was evident in the presentation of the show - people got up and talked comfortably to the audience, moved chairs themselves, as if it were a hausmusik environment. People weren't here for the trappings of the concert experience; they were here for the concert itself.
The main concert featured a first half of Schubert and Kodaly (his fabulous, early Intermezzo for String Trio), and Folk Music. The second half was the C Major Brahms Piano Trio. All the music received tremendous performances - the Brahms was especially stirring. Of course, I enjoyed hearing Folk Music most of all (I should hope so), and I can happily report that the performance was incredibly moving and beautiful. The audience responded very well, and were especially happy to have a "real composer" in their midst - for all the talk of classical music dying, there are still plenty of people out there who are fascinated by the idea of composers. I'm not entirely sure why, but it's nice to see. That said, I don't think that composers should be viewed as mythological figures who occasionally dip down out of their heavenly realm to grace the normal folks with their presence. We should be (and generally are) down in the trenches, struggling to get by and to make positive changes in the world, starting with our own communities. It's flattering to be treated as special, but I'd rather be seen as important in the way that a teacher or police officer or non-profit director is treated, as someone who has sacrificed material gain to give something back to society. Anyhow, it was fun to interact with people who genuinely cared about the concert, and who were rightly proud of their festival. I also enjoyed being given the opportunity to speak before the show; I noted the connection between Kodaly and myself, as his piece drew off of Eastern European folk music, and he wrote it when he was around the same age as I was when I wrote Folk Music. I see the two of us as having had similar motivations - to open up our compositional palettes to other musics that we appreciated, while retaining our own voices.
After the show, I went out to a strange restaurant that had a "specials" list that was five times as long as the normal menu (and which you had to memorize, since they only gave out one for the entire table). Afterwards, I joined the players and friends for a drink, and everyone was incredibly friendly and supportive. I reflected on the experience (as I do now), and recalled the standing-room-only church, with beautiful acoustics and an attentive, multi-generational audience, listening to music from four different eras, all played excellently. I now add to those reflections the generosity of my host family, who put Nat and me up in their kids' rooms (I got the Orlando Bloom shrine); after the show, Nat and I hung out with Rob (the festival director at whose house we stayed), and he played us some cool music on his CD player, and gave a sitar demonstration! All in all, it was an unbelievably positive experience. I'd like to thank Gene Gaub and Rob Montone, and all the players, and the Montone family, and all the friendly folks of East Aurora, for making our stay so pleasant. I'd also like to thank Nat for driving me around the greatest state in the Union.
After East Aurora, we headed on to check out Buffalo, which unfortunately met our expectations of a depressing, post-industrial city. Rochester, where Nat went to high school, seemed cheerier, especially inside the flagship Wegman's, king of supermarkets. That was our last stop in New York - though I've skipped a few places of interest, including Ithaca, which I'd never seen, and thought was very pleasant, in a university-town sort of way. My measuring stick for sheer beauty in a collegiate setting is still Williamstown, but I guess I'm biased. Anyway, we also stopped at the very-cool Corning Museum of Glass, where Nat caved and bought a single glass flower from the gift shop for his girlfriend. We also got to see a cool demonstration of how to make glass, and were a little surprised to find that the hot oven that maintains the glass's temperature is called the "glory hole" (I'll let you ask your own chicken-or-egg questions at this point). I can't let my discussion of the trip go without mentioning that we also stopped off at a weird, seemingly Amish farm, where we bought jams and watermelon pickles (!), and at a roadside honey stand that had a box where customers were instructed to leave money (in the absence of anyone to tend the stand, which seemed to be the norm), and a box from which to make change - that's right, a box of loose cash. I'm glad that this kind of thing is still possible within 300 miles of my city.
Vermont proved to be the fantastic week and a half that I expected. Perhaps in a future post I'll describe some of the ideas that I discussed with my friends while there. For now, I have a string quartet to finish!
On Vacation - 6/16/05
Tomorrow morning, I leave to go on vacation. I'll be heading to Buffalo for a performance at the Roycroft Chamber Music Festival, then up to Vermont, for the Retreat, and for an annual Pig Roast thrown by my friends from college.
I hope that you're enjoying the summer, and I'll look forward to writing again when I get back.
A Quick Thought - 6/15/05
Since I've been thinking about the Iraq war again, and reading the "Downing Street Minutes", with their descriptions of various military options in the leadup to war, something's occurred to me.
How many Americans believe, on some level, that the justness of a war is determined by the ease of our victory in it? That somehow, the quick success in our ground war against Iraq was proof that God was on our side, perhaps, or that it was otherwise ordained as the correct course of action? I have no direct reason to believe that this is a widespread view, but it seems possible. It's something to think about, and it's truly disturbing if it has any basis in reality.
Speaking of disturbing things, I haven't had access to more Twin Peaks this week, so I decided to watch Donnie Darko to meet my "wacked out" quota. That's a truly and deeply disturbing film; it resonates with some deep fears that I can't quite place, while maintaining a frightening vagueness that makes addressing that fear all the more difficult. There are few films that make me more unsettled; I hope my upcoming vacation is the cure!
Bothered by Bush's Lies? Read This - 6/14/05
Recently, a classified memo (The "Downing Street Minutes") was released in Great Britain that proves that Bush lied to the American people about the reasons for going to war in Iraq. This is a "high crime", worthy of impeachment - and while we all knew that this was the case, there's now evidence to prove it. Congressman John Conyers is spearheading the effort to bring this issue into the light, and has a letter campaign going that already has amassed over 110,000 signatures.
Ray McGovern, former CIA analyst, says the following:
We Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity had been saying for three years that the intelligence and the facts were being fixed to support an unnecessary war. We never in our wildest dreams expected to have documentary proof of that under a SECRET label: "SECRET: U.K. EYES ONLY" in a most sensitive document reserved just for cabinet officials in the Blair government. And so, what we have now is documentary proof that, as that sentence reads, the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.
Read more at AlterNet.
And, most importantly, go to John Conyers's website and sign the letter! At the least, Bush needs to be forced to explain this in front of the television cameras, which will be slightly amusing and mostly frustrating in the usual Bush manner. What's depressing is that I'm describing our democracy, here - it sounds like I'm describing some post-colonial puppet regime.
It seems implausible that a partisan Republican Congress that has lost its contact with principles of justice and democracy would actually pursue this issue, but if the media could be convinced that it's worth covering, it couldn't be a bad thing.
Go sign and tell your friends!
Also, thanks to Duncan Meiklejohn for bringing this to my attention.
It's Hard to Work When David Lynch is Distracting You - 6/10/05
I'm back in New Jersey, now, trying to sequester myself with this string quartet that is long overdue. I was asked to write it by a friend of mine who plays in a high-profile, kick-ass ensemble, and I've just been unable to come up with THE piece that meets the standards that I expect of myself (and that, presumably, he expects of me). It's been frustrating to delay getting something to him for so long, but I've been working on it seriously for about 9 months and it's not for lack of effort that I've failed to produce. I have more sketches and aborted efforts for this piece than for any I've ever written. In the end, It's better to come up with something that I'm really happy with, and take longer, than to quickly pump out something that's mediocre. Sometimes you can't do that - when the piece is commissioned for a specific performance - but in this case, I do have that luxury, though I'm trying not to think in those terms because it's a great opportunity to write for a great ensemble, and I don't want to keep them waiting.
The good news is that I finally have a good chunk of what I think will be a pretty excellent piece. The bad news is that my friend Simon lent me the pilot and first ten episodes of Twin Peaks, and I am totally hooked. It's a struggle to sit at my computer, working on the string quartet, when I know that I could be watching this crazy story if I just walk 10 feet to my left. I'm not the type of composer who can work for 10 straight hours, anyway - I need to let my material percolate, to come up with the next thing. So I'm giving myself Twin Peaks breaks, and I'll take another one during dinner, and maybe one late at night (though that's dangerous, given the easy potential for bizarre dreams or fear-induced insomnia).
David Lynch is one of my favorite filmmakers. More than anyone else I've seen, his films feel "musical" in their construction. By this I mean that I have a similar experience watching his movies as I do listening to certain types of music - at least, this is my experience with the later, more abstract films, Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway. Twin Peaks has more of a clear narrative drive, and feels more "traditional" in that regard, despite all the strangeness. Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway feel similar to music in that you have to choose which abstract threads to follow; elements emerge from the images and characters that are presented to you, and your mind arranges them, only to have them come back in "developed" forms that change your earlier perception. This is similar to the way I listen to developmental music. Lynch tends to use disturbing or otherwise memorable (often archetypical) images in this way; this feels analogous to my own music, where I use big, easily memorable themes that are then developed and brought back in a variety of contexts.
I strive for what Lynch achieves - the constant sense that you want, even need to know more about the worlds he creates. How does the story end? What do these images mean? Who are these people? These questions are often left largely unresolved, as they are in the more abstract world of music. If the forward drive of a film or a piece is created by the viewer or listener demanding to know what comes next, and if there is a richness to the world that is created that invites multiple viewings and listenings, and further reflection after the work has concluded, that is the definition of success, in my view. My own works that I find the most successful approach that ideal; hopefully, I will continue to refine my skills and come closer and closer as I develop as a composer.
Fame - 6/04/05
This, my friends, is Fame.
KRS-One interview - Hip Hop City? - 5/19/05
From an interview with one of my personal heroes, Rap Godfather KRS-One, found on the Sick Doggy website:
In 2001, KRS-One met with United Nations delegates in New York to present them with the Hip-Hop Declaration of Peace. After several discussions with them, KRS-One has initiated several plans to make hip-hop recognized as a legitimate world culture. Along with his UN initiative, he has begun Hip-Hop Appreciation Week. His thoughts:
That's what hip-hop appreciation week is all about: May 18-25, 2003. We're going to have a meeting with Russell Simmons...We're going to put out the Hip-Hop Declaration of Peace. Because we want these record companies to hire us. If you're going to use the term hip-hop, Nike, Coca Cola, Sprite, Minute Maid, if you're going to want to use the term hip-hop, you're going to have to hire a certified hip-hop cultural specialist. Go to the university, let the universities develop a course which makes more kids want to go to college and they'll say, "Yo, if I could go to college, and learn hip-hop and take a two-year course, get a certificate, go now to the record company and get an $80,000 a year job. And you can believe that whatever else they want me to know - business management, whatever - I'll take that, too. But give me my two-year degree. We're trying to set this up as a real culture.
Last point: We need our own city. That's the zenith of this whole thing. We need our own city. When we were at the United Nations, they said where do you want to live? And I said, "Where do I want to live?!" And then I played myself right there. Because they were talking to me as a nation and I was still talking as a rapper. And they said what part of the world do you want to live in? They've got land all over the place. Once we put out a charter, and it's real. If 10,000 people can stand firm in unity, we can go to a little town somewhere out here in the desert and start our hip-hop city. And right from there we win. That is our whole campaign.
A Quick Note about Cliché - 5/10/05
Alex Ross writes briefly about Modernists and their fear of cliché. I thought I'd share a little story that touches on this point. Last summer, I was at Tanglewood, and we had a number of seminars with an esteemed modernist composer. In one session, he played a piano work for us, but before starting, he mentioned the inherent difficulty of writing piano music, where "it's so easy to write clichés - you have to avoid Chopin, Beethoven...."
I set this comment aside to listen to the piece, which struck me (in the context of having just heard an admonition against cliché - I don't normally think along those lines) as being filled with what could be heard as clichéd Modernist gestures - from Webern, from Schoenberg, from Boulez. It's impossible not to hear cliché when you're told someone is trying to avoid it. And so I asked the composer how he meant his comment, given that one could hear his piece in this way. And our discussion went nowhere; it was clear that this was not a challenge that he'd heard before, or considered - he (and many others) simply take for granted that a certain category of gestures were somehow exempt from being labeled as cliché.
It seems to me that if one is trying to avoid cliché, one must also have the capacity to write something that sounds like nothing that has ever been written. And, despite the armies of composers who are out there trying, no one that I've heard in my lifetime has done this. I'm not saying that it's never been done - the 20th century was filled with composers who purposefully checked things off the list of cumulative achievement. Bravo to them, I guess. And I'm not saying that nothing new can be written, as long as one accepts the perfectly reasonable and historically conventional notion of "new" as the honest expression of an individual's artistic voice in the context of a broader culture, rather than "new" in some sort of absolute sense.
A Return to Values - 5/02/05
Every year, some of my good friends and I go on what we call a "retreat" to the hills of Vermont or New York. It's one of the best weeks of the year, every year, as it combines true rest and relaxation with a high level of intellectual discourse. Everyone who comes has to come prepared to engage with one another in a wide variety of topics; I'm the only composer who has so far come, and the list of invitees ranges from lawyers to scientists to businesspeople to doctors to writers and beyond. Everyone is interested in the big issues of our day - politics and social justice - but people are also interested in the fields about which they know little. Our discussions range across this gamut, but we also go hiking and swimming and play basketball and shoot the shit. It's R&R for people who have no interest in ceasing their inquiry, even during R&R.
I bring this up because I'm writing an essay for this year's Retreat Reader, summing up what I've been thinking about since last year. This web space has been a repository for many of my thoughts, so it seemed fitting to post this here. This year, I was mostly thinking about culture, both what was wrong with ours and how it could be fixed, and that's the topic of my essay, which follows.
A Return to Values
Long before the Presidential election of Fall, 2004, it was clear that
something was very wrong in our country. The behavior of the first-term
Bush Administration seemed, on its face, to demand the President's removal
from office. Regardless of one's politics, we imagined, no one could
support his clear policy of outright lies to the American people, lies
that supported an agenda that bypassed legitimate national security or
economic concerns and instead supported business interests and
long-standing international objectives that predated George W. Bush's
actual ascenscion to the Oval Office. While deceit in government was
certainly nothing new, never before had these lies been placed so squarely
in public view, out in the open, and never had those lies been so closely
connected to such high-ranking figures in the Administration.
Perhaps if Americans' lives were tangibly improved in material terms, one
could imagine that the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the
uncovering of intelligence fraud within the Administration, the condoning
of torture as official government policy, and other blatant miscarriages
of justice could be forgiven, however unfortunately, by the American people. When the economy is good, all else is forgotten and forgiven. But
while the Bush administration did oversee a rebound from the economic
collapse following the 9/11 terror attacks, the growth in the GDP was
mitigated by below-expected job growth and a widening gap between the
wealthy and the rest of America. Middle class Americans (and, certainly,
the poor) had no reason to stand behind Bush for economic reasons.
From the standpoint of assessing the health of our nation, the Fall
election was a mere formality. I do not mean to diminish the great
calamity that was Bush's reelection, or to ignore the harm that another
four years of his Administration's leadership is bringing. But whatever
the outcome of the election, the fact that our country could be divided
about this President, the fact that about half of our country could
support this man and his Administration, was already enough to make a
grave diagnosis about our culture. That a few more people chose one side
or the other was, from a strictly diagnostic perspective, irrelevant. If
our country were at all approaching a healthy condition, the election would have been decided last Spring, or earlier.
After throwing myself passionately into the issues surrounding the
election last Fall, I had a personal crisis. Around me, the country and
the world seemed to be falling apart, with the strongest forces being
forces that destablized traditionally beneficial institutions and
supported the spread of irrationality, misinformation, and corruption. And
how was I spending my time? Sitting in front of a piano, writing music. I
could not stand my ineffectiveness, my selfishness, in the face of a
But what are the roots of this crisis? The two main problems, as I see
them, are a misinformation problem and a cultural values problem. The
first is the oft-discussed problem of media; Americans default to news
outlets that are unreliable, biased, and run by corporations with vested
interests in avoiding controversy and, often, the truth. This problem
feels nearly intractable, despite the growth of independent media - which
is a real growth, and accelerating, but reflective more of informed
leftists' increasing distrust of mainstream media than of a broader trend.
It's also worth noting that many libertarians and conservative intellectuals turn to independent media of their own for news; anyone,
regardless of their political stance, can recognize that mainstream media
cannot be seen as reliable in any way.
The second problem is deeper, and more complex, because it reaches into
every facet of our lives. I was intrigued by the emphasis on "values" that
was given to us by the media in the days following the election; what were
these values that the Bush victory proved were so important to Americans?
Many on the Left scoffed at the notion that Bush could be synonymous with
moral values, pointing to his horrible record of injustice. Others
suggested that the Democrats needed to inject a dose of God into their
rhetoric, abandoning their secularist image. And, of course, the
conservative Christian leadership appeared on every talk show, proclaiming
Since then, of course, we've seen that "values" had little to do with the
election victory. Bush won on the strength of Americans' conviction that
he was the better candidate to protect them from Islamic terrorism, and he
has followed through on that mandate, continuing to transform America into
an imperial fortress nation. Meanwhile, "values" has been transmogrified
into an assault on the judiciary (the only branch of government not yet
controlled by the Republicans), an assault that most Americans seem to not
support. Everything has been subsumed into a quest for deeper,
longer-lasting Republican power, and it doesn't seem like there's much to
be done to stop this quest, for now.
But I'm interested in values, without the quotation marks. My contention
is that the issue of cultural values can cut across the divides that have
been created by politicians and religious leaders and supported by the
media. Regardless of whether the issue was used as a tool for corrupt
leaders to pull votes in the election, it's clear that many Americans are
concerned about their culture. And although that concern often expresses
itself most publicly in debates about abortion, homosexuality, and other
such controversial issues, I really think that the private debates are similar in and across households that disagree on those "wedge" issues.
Contemporary American culture is strongly anti-communitarian. Our main
cultural products are national: Hollywood movies, Clearchannel music and
talk radio, all television, chain restaurants and other stores. With no
alternative presented to most Americans, in their own lives or in those
that they see represented in the culture that the national corporations
market to them, this fact is simply the accepted norm of American life.
National culture is compelling in many ways. It's exciting to be told,
repeatedly, that you should want something, and then to have access to it
at any time. This is our experience with movies, music, restaurants,
stores, and clothing - we see advertising and we buy the products that are
advertised. When those are the only products that are available, as in
many places in the country, that system of desire creation and
gratification is the only way that people operate.
It would be very difficult for someone who only knows this cultural norm,
the model that I've just described, to be critical of it, or even to see
its operation in their own life. And yet I would posit that this system is
deeply unsatisfying to those who are caught up in it. Many who are reading
this are familiar with the arguments put forward in texts such as Bowling
Alone, the argument that the erosion of public space in America is one of
our fundamental problems, as it diminishes our sense of community. If
sense of community is of strong benefit to its members, and most Americans
only have access to anti-communitarian national cultural products, is it
surprising that Americans are dissatisfied with their cultural lives?
Furthermore, where is the space for our much-heralded American
individualism, if all of our cultural choices are being imposed upon us by
national forces? I have to imagine that many people are at least
subconsciously aware of these problems, even if they couldn't articulate
When people lose control of their cultural products, they lose control of their culture. And the new emphasis on "values" seems to me to be an
attempt to reclaim that control - but people do not know what, exactly,
they are trying to control, and are easily manipulated by leaders with
particular agendas. Cultural dissatisfaction has thusly been transformed
into the "values" issue that we see in the political realm. One question
for those of us who want to repair American culture is whether we can turn
people away from the association between values, as a broadly conceived
concept, and "values", as a limited set of issues that are politically
useful to certain parties. If we can begin a real discussion of values in
this country, it could open the door to a true bridge across borders that
seem to be otherwise impermeable. Fundamentally, I believe that we can all
agree that our culture needs to be improved, and we can likely agree on
many of the problems that need to be addressed.
This brings me back, finally, to my crisis last Fall. In thinking about
what I could do to help our culture, it occured to me that my life's work
was, in a way, an effort to do just that. Being an artist supports many cultural values that I believe in. My art is not a national product; it is
a product of my personal environment, and is written as a reflection of my
personal beliefs and values. In presenting my art to a community, I hope
to provoke dialogue and personal reflection on the challenges contained
within each piece. These challenges are non-verbal in nature, but they
contribute to an ethos of dialogue, debate, and creative imagination that
(I would like to think) can resonate beyond the solely artistic realm.
In accepting and embracing my role as an artist, I've become more critical
of certain kinds of art. Much of twentieth century art has been dominated
by art that is about art itself, or that shifts the paradigm of artistic
challenge from the content of the work to its form and surface features.
Artists have become self-obsessed historians, plagued by the burden of
finding something new to say. Certainly, I believe that anyone who is an
artist, even if their principles are in opposition to my own, is doing
more good than most people in society. (Some of my friends will find that
claim hard to believe, given my other arguments, but I mean it - making art is a good thing in and of itself, even if it's art that only has
meaning to a tiny group of people who subscribe to norms that I find
hollow.) But I also believe that art that is more direct in its
communication with the audience and that deals more centrally with human
experience (as opposed to dealing with issues of art or communication) has
the capacity to make great change in people's lives; this is the kind of
art that made me become an artist in the first place, so it's hardly a
surprising conclusion for me to reach.
Art is a reflection and a constituent factor of any culture. Our culture's
art is what we generally call "entertainment", but it does no less work
than art of other cultures. Our entertainment, like all art, provides
cultural norms that seep out into other areas of our lives. Any
consideration of television, popular music, or the movies will quickly
suggest what these norms might be. I would suggest that these are norms
that need to be replaced; if our art was more rational and sublime, could
our politics change as well?
In the early nineteenth century, European aristocrats established
Philharmonia societies for the benefit of the masses. They believed that
by bringing the lower classes into a beautiful concert hall, and by
playing symphonic repertoire for them (much of which was written with this
idea of value impartation in mind), they could improve the masses' lives.
The results were the great orchestras of Europe and the United States,
most of the brilliant Romantic orchestra repertoire, and massive
revolutions and wars for the following century. In the mid-to-late
twentieth century, American aristocrats established entertainment edifices
designed to placate the masses and appeal to the lowest common
denominator. The result is a culture that is unchanging, mindless, and
harmless. And two terms for Bush and his administration.
New MP3s Uploaded - 4/19/05
I've just received a pleasant surprise in the mail - a CD of a work I wrote in Fall-Winter 2003-2004 for my friend Martin Wittenberg. He's a trombone player, and an adventurous one, at that - yes, they exist - so I decided that I'd take the opportunity to try something new with him. He had asked for a new work for solo trombone, a request that conjured up strange and distant memories. When I entered college, my compositional style was rather concerned with issues that are no longer important to me. I wanted the scores to look very complicated, and for the music to be difficult to realize - and so I would obfuscate the pulse, the harmony, and the form of my works whenever possible. Underneath, I think there was a good compositional effort being made, but I insisted on basically piling a big load of junk on everything I wrote. I had studied many scores from the back half of the twentieth century (remember, this story takes place in that remote epoch), and being young, I had gleaned that obfuscation was, for some reason, a virtue.
Before I finish my trombone story, I'll say that I still believe that there is value in limited obfuscation, insofar as it can create dramatic tension in a given work. For this to be the case, there must be a balance between the transparent and the opaque; not all elements can be rendered obscure, or the resulting music will be indecipherable without intensive score-study or a ludicrous number of listenings. This gets at the point I make below in my discussion of different types of musical challenge. So I'll leave this point aside for the moment and get back to the lesson at hand.
The last piece of mine in which I employed my willfully opaque style was a piece for trombone and piano, written for my friend Josh Lawton. After some weeks or months of work, I went to meet with my great composition teacher, David Kechley. I had about 25 pages of the score written, and we spread them out over the table. It was a beautiful sight - the score had arrows pointing this way and that, with various subdivisions of the beat shoved up against other subdivisions, and things like "7:4" and "5:3" appearing in abundance. I still find those types of scores to be the most visually arresting, and I was proud of my work. But Kechley proceeded to tear down the edifice I had constructed, not by directly attacking the work, but by asking me questions. Why did I misalign these notes? What effect was I hoping to achieve? What relationship did I hope to establish between the trombone and the piano? How did this piece of material fit in to the overall form?
I don't think the questions themselves were what pushed me over the edge. I imagine that my distrust of this language had been festering for some time. Unfortunately, my memory, in general, is not very strong, and I can't recall the exact circumstances or emotions from that time. What I do know is that I destroyed the work in question, in its existing form, and kept only a few elements from that piece, which I then reconstructed into a much more concise (and probably superior) work, which I entitled Burden, for trombone and piano. The title referred to what the work had become to me - but, in a sense, it was one of the most important works I've ever written. Completing that piece marks the end of one chapter of my compositional life and the beginning of a new one.
Trombone, then, is an instrument that carries with it, for me, a certain amount of baggage - a fact that Martin could not have known. And did all this really matter? In the end, I wasn't going to write a trombone sonata, in any event, and the piece that came out is unusual in every respect. It's not really like anything else in my body of work, and it doesn't seem to be much like anything else in the trombone repertoire. For what it's worth, this piece is probably the
biggest crowd-pleaser I've ever written. I'm not sure exactly why this is - perhaps because it's so unusual, perhaps because it's so virtuosic, perhaps because both performances that Martin gave absolutely rocked, perhaps because the bar for a new solo trombone work is set about as low as the bar goes, making it virtually impossible to disappoint a crowd. If you do listen, keep in mind that the effect is much greater in an actual hall, and that the amplified sound is strangely distorted in this recording. But it's a terrific performance, and a lot of fun to hear. Thanks, Martin!
I'm also officially announcing that one of my newest works, Free Speech Zone, is up in mp3 format. I'm working on getting better-quality recordings of the Merkin Hall concert where this was recorded, but these mp3s are pretty good. This is one of my most significant recent pieces, and it's an excellent performance, especially considering that this is the premiere. There will be more chances to hear this piece in the Fall, so stay tuned.
Boston Modernism - 4/08/05
I'm on the Amtrak train back from Boston, where, last night, I had a premiere of my new piece for viola quintet, The Night Gatherers. It's a memorial work for my friend's grandmother, and deals both with the life of the deceased woman, and with her work as an artist. She was an accomplished amateur painter; among her best works (that I had the privilege of seeing, on slides) is a painting of Bosnian women gathering wood under cover of darkness, for fear of being killed or raped in the daylight due to the conflict in their country; this painting gave my piece its title. My friend's family commissioned The Night Gatherers, a wonderful gesture in which I feel privileged to have been invited to participate. Members of the family were able to attend my friend's Master's recital, where she premiered the work, and their presence, and positive response to the piece, made the evening truly memorable.
This type of musical environment is, for me, the ideal musical environment: a concert of family and friends listening to music that deals with their real emotional concerns. Palpable in the room was the three-way conversation between me (as the composer), the players, and the audience, especially the family members who asked me to write this work as a reflection of someone who was important to them in life. It's easiest to create such an atmosphere when the emotional concerns are made explicit, usually in the context of a memorial work where the audience feels invested in the subject. (Look at the response to John Adams's mediocre - for him - On the Transmigration of Souls.) But great music creates the atmosphere on its own, without need for a compelling "real life" drama. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, as much as scholars, critics, and audience members may attempt to impose a storyline about Fate or whatever else, requires no such effort for its emotional weight to be unavoidable in a good performance.
When I refer to "real emotional concerns", I don't see those concerns as being limited to the explicit needs of a recognized moment of crisis, precipitated by death or another such tragedy; our emotional concerns are with us, all the time, and music can address those concerns in a deep, meaningful, and specific way. The particular emotional and life issues of composers aren't even really relevant. We don't need to live in fear of secret police to find resonance in Shostakovich's string quartets; non-Christians find the sacred works of Bach and Messiaen (and countless others) to be masterful, generalizable reflections of the human condition, whether or not the composers themselves heard them that way; one need not pine for Clara Schumann herself to understand, on some level, the idiosyncratic mix of joy and suffering that's evident in Brahms - and it's a different mix in different eras of Brahms's life. Even a composer such as Wagner, who would have probably wished me and my kind out of Germany, or worse, wrote works that are undeniably powerful in their dramatic weight. To deny performances of his music, as was long the case in Israel, misses the opportunity for reconciliation across otherwise oppositional segments of humanity. If music can't be allowed to serve this function, what will?
It's interesting to me that I had such a wonderful musical experience last night in Boston, of all cities. In some sense, Boston is the capitol city of the crumbling empire of musical Modernism. For those readers who are unfamiliar with Modernism in music, it's certainly a term that means many things to many people - but for me, it's the ideology of imposing a progress narrative on music history, a narrative that contextualizes great composers of the past as "innovators" and insists that composers of the moment be judged by their contribution to this inexorable march to the Future. (I take this idea in part from the excellent Morton Feldman essay, Give My Regards to Eighth Street, and from writings by Modernists such as Babbitt and Boulez, and from actual conversations with people who really think this way.) Fans of that movement (probably about 500-1000 people, mostly composers and performers) were recently given a big gift when James Levine was rescued from New York and granted free reign to program all the Babbitt, Carter, and Wuorinen he desires (well, probably not all) from his new post as conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Last week, the New York Times published an interview with Levine and composers John Harbison and Charles Wuorinen. Some strange points were made. Apparently, audiences absolutely adore the early works of Arnold Schoenberg, a point that I'm only willing to concede for the sake of argument. (Or am I? On what basis is this claim made? As far as I've seen, the best way to gauge a work's popularity is to see what works it's paired with in a standard orchestral concert; if works are paired with others by obscure composers, especially contemporary composers, it's a good bet that they are ticket-sellers. Think Mahler, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven....and early Schoenberg? Let's say you've got a new work by Wuorinen in the first half. Do you program Gurrelieder in the second half? It's that or Tchaik 5, I guess. But too many times choosing column A will lead to bankruptcy pretty fast.) Let's say we take that for granted. The follow-up argument made in the interview is that this should lead audiences to assume that they will also love the later, twelve-tone works of Schoenberg. Put more strongly, the argument is really that audiences should love those works, and that it's their fault for finding them off-putting. This is an outrageous claim. If a composer suddenly decides that instead of A) keeping a foot firmly in the tonal system (as in Verklarte Nacht, the only Schoenberg work that's anywhere near the pop charts) and B) choosing pitches because they sound good to his ear, he's going to start drawing charts and exploiting un-hearable relationships between formations of the 12-tone aggregate, I don't see why we should assume that the latter body of work will retain the quality of the first. Yes, there's the same keen musical mind at work, but keen musical minds are capable of losing their way, from time to time or all-at-once and utterly. In fact, I'd argue that the same thing happened, to a lesser extent, to Schoenberg's onetime cohabitant in the Pantheon, Igor Stravinsky, when he turned to his neoclassical idiom. Though he wrote some masterpieces in that style, much was lost in the translation. As with Stravinsky, it's not that all middle or late Schoenberg is bad, by any means, and there are some truly great works in that period. But it is entirely reasonable to imagine that they will be different enough as to be less appealing to a particular audience. That Levine fails to recognize this seemingly obvious point sheds light on his position on the question of what constitutes quality in music, a question I'll examine shortly.
Another point that's made in the essay is an interesting one about art and entertainment. Wuorinen makes the excellent point that our tendency to support the notion of democracy in most realms of civil life can lead us to miss the fact that art is not democratic; that is, art is not made good by the mere fact of its existing, but by its inherent quality. I'll buy that, for sure. Another point that's made is that art may be defined as that-which-challenges, with entertainment being that-which-is-easy, consisting of a body of cultural products that pose no challenges to the listener, viewer, reader, or otherwise consumer. But what is the nature of that challenge? Is it a challenge of grasping the musical language that is used, or a challenge of contemplating the ideas that are expressed in the music? Some Modernists seem to think that a work of art that is "accessible", in that it is not immediately off-putting, is a work of art that avoids "challenging" the listener - and is therefore in fact a piece of entertainment, and not a work of art, at all. That's the strong form of the argument, held by only the most die-hard in the community. (In Boston, when I described my new viola quintet to my friend, an avowed Modernist, he said, "so it's entertainment, then.") The weaker form accepts the possibility that a work with a decipherable surface idiom that contains a strong emotional or narrative challenge is still a viable work of art, albeit one that is weaker than it could be, by nature of its avoiding the obligation of progress to keep pushing forward.
This perceived obligation is at the heart of the matter. It carries with it the demand of writing music that is often indecipherable on first hearing, but that rewards those who invest time enough to truly understand the art contained within. And thus we get the artist who is "ahead of his time", Ives and late Beethoven and Gesualdo, the "innovators" who wrote music that was too difficult for their own audiences to comprehend. Their scores were left for us to discover in a more advanced stage of development; through our tears for their inability to be fully understood, we accept the Mantle of History, and recognize our obligation to forge anew the same imagined relationship with our own audiences, a relationship where the proper culinary analogue to Music is not a bowl of ice cream, or a plate of pasta, or even a stem of broccoli - music is the broccoli leaf, which one may chew indefinitely, drawing the occasional nutrient out of its mostly indigestable cellulose, savoring the challenge to jaw and tastebud alike.
But this can't be right. Because we find Brahms to be far from off-putting on his surface; the gorgeous melodies draw us in, closer, where if our ear is good we may find the story within or behind the other story. There's always more to discover, but that initial song, is that just a flight of fancy, a bone tossed to the masses so that they may discover the true mastery of structure that lies within? Or Beethoven - would he have avoided, if he felt he could afford (in a literal, financial sense) to do so, the celebratory Symphonic codas, rejoicing in Major keys as themes are brought back to parade in front of our ears? Why put a Verbunkos melody in the Kreutzer Sonata? Did he not think that it rocked? And what of the Viennese classicists, with their regressive harmonies, undeniably "simpler" than those found in J.S. Bach and some of his contemporaries? Did J.C. Bach, Haydn and Mozart adequately meet their historical obligation?
We can invent stories of how history works to serve any conceivable ends. The only lesson history teaches for certain is that history is created by those who write it. And I refuse to cede Beethoven to the Modernists. It is wholly possible to acknowledge the new things that Beethoven did without concluding that those developments - and here my language is conditioned by Modernist thought - constitute his great contribution to the art form. Quite simply, Beethoven was one of the master storytellers of all time, in any art form or idiom. His stories were so well-crafted, so detailed, and so powerful that they created ruptures in the arbitrary confinements of his era. Perhaps the interaction with those confinements were part of the source of his greatness; one has to ask whether Beethoven would have written such easily acknowledged masterpieces were he to write in our own time, an age without walls where composers, seeking them, hurl themselves into the air, hoping to hit brick. I'd like to think that Beethoven would have found this amusing, and gone on to write great works of a different kind. Whatever the idiom, I feel confident that he would have told us a remarkable story, and that it would have been challenging on the deep level of human experience.
That's the level at which I think The Night Gatherers is challenging, and why I know it's a work of art, and not a work of entertainment. I'm still not sure what it means, but it makes me ask questions about life, about the nature of struggle, and about the way a single voice can interact with the wider world. It probably makes me ask other questions, and raises other issues, about which I'm not even aware. I enjoy listening to it, struggling with it, letting it challenge me even as I find it appealing. I do feel an obligation, as an artist: an obligation to always tell stories that have a deeper meaning than I can understand, and to do so at the highest level of craft that I know. Anything less would be to fail in my duty as an artist; as a metaphor, to do less would be to fail in my duty as a human being. But that's what it means to be an artist, and that is, in the end, what I am.
More Folk Music Performances - 2/16/05
I've added three new performances to the Why page, all of Folk Music, which is fast turning into my most-performed piece. First, NOW will be performing it at the Look & Listen Festival in New York. Then, my friend, the excellent bass player Peter Rosenfeld, will perform it on his April 25 recital at Juilliard, with NOW. Finally, on June 18, something different: NOW Ensemble will not be performing the piece! Instead, it's been programmed by the Roycroft Chamber Music Festival, and they'll be performing it along with works by dead European composers. It's funny: I have all this music that was made for such venues (my piano trio, my string trio, my cello sonata) and that has rarely (sometimes never) been performed on them, and now this festival is going to play a work that was written specifically for NOW Ensemble to perform. It's strange how these things work out, isn't it?
Emanuel Ax and I Agree on at Least One Thing - 2/15/05
This made me happy. A few weeks ago, I spoke to the applause-between-movements topic, as an aside to a different question. Here's my quote, and please note the piece I chose as an example:
Normally, the question is one of applause, and whether it's cool to just do what you feel and yes, applaud Alfred Brendel after he rocks the first movement of the Emperor Concerto, even if he's annoyed that you're doing so.
Fine. Now what made me happy was reading (as usual, in The Rest is Noise) that the eminent pianist Emanuel Ax and I are on the same wavelength:
All of us love applause, and so we should - it means that the listener LIKES us! So we should welcome applause whenever it comes. And yet, we seem to have set up some very arcane rules as to when it is actually OK to applaud. I have been trying to find out exactly when certain listeners and performers decided that applause between movements would not be "allowed", or at least would be frowned upon, but nobody seems to have been willing to admit that they were the culprit. Certainly when a composer like Beethoven wrote the symphonies and piano concertos that we hear today in the concert hall, he himself expected that if a movement ended with a flourish, such as the first movement of the 5th piano concerto, the audience would leap to its collective feet and let the composer (and pianist) know that they had triumphed.
Now I wish I'd chosen Ax instead of Brendel as my hypothetical pianist. But now I know that Ax won't be annoyed if I applaud. Maybe Brendel wouldn't be, either.
UPDATE: Marcus Maroney has added a new layer to this mix by referencing Alfred Brendel in his blog entry on the applause topic. I won't quote that reference here, as the last thing we want to do is continue this weird tangent about a silly coincidence, but it's still funny that wherever I look, the coincidence continues. Is the Emperor concerto really the only piece of music with a first movement that demands applause? Does Alfred Brendel have to be involved in this conversation? This is beyond coincidence - it must be proof that We Are Not Alone.
All silliness aside, I tend to agree with Marcus Maroney's point, here:
I don't see why it's elitist, stuffy, conservative, academic, or pious to want to submerge myself in an atmosphere and take in a work as a whole. I'd rather sacrifice the applause between movements of a work like the Emperor Concerto for the sake of not having to deal with it between movements of everything, which will be the eventual outcome. I think the preference for applause at the end of the work, for its performance as a whole, is the most appropriate.
Anyone who has heard the fantastic Leontyne Price recording of Barber's Hermit Songs, with the composer at the piano, knows that the days of all-applause, all-the-time are not days to which we should lightly return. There's nearly as much applause as music in that recording, as the audience feels compelled to interrupt the flow of the cycle after each and every song. I'd like to think that there's a middle ground between the Ross and Maroney Doctrines, but perhaps this is one of those issues where a certain degree of dogma is required. In any case, I will definitely agree with MM's conclusion:
Let's face it - there simply aren't going to be a whole lot of new audience members that just "wander in" to the concert hall, become embarassed, get laughed at and leave when they clap after the first movement they hear. The new audience is going to come from current concertgoers inviting their friends and coworkers. It's our job to make the new audience realize just how special the event that's about to take place truly is. It's going to take work - but it's worth it.
OK, then. Let's get to work.
A Weekend of Good Music - 2/15/05
What a good and crazy weekend. I ran up to my old stomping grounds of New Haven on Friday to hear a concert put on by Pele, a new project that's run by my friends Missy Mazzoli and Jennifer Fontana Graham. The show was excellent, with Missy's new work Shy Girl Shouting Music standing out as a real highlight. The audience was a mix of friends and strangers, mostly young people and all enthusiastic about the concert. It's concerts like these that make me hopeful about the future; they prove that there's still a space for music that may never be commercially viable on a large scale, but which works on a local level, with small communities supporting local composers. I'm also excited for the opening of the new Firehouse 12 space in New Haven, which will hopefully become a popular stop-over destination for bands and ensembles on tour from New York to Boston, as well as a space for these types of new music concerts to take place.
Saturday's concert was intimate, but Sunday's show at The Monkey made Saturday feel like an arena rock performance. This is a cool new venue on 26th Street, run by guitarist Dominic Frasca, and featuring a surround sound system in a tiny space. It's like going to your friend's house, except your friend is Dominic Frasca, and he's got an unbelievable system, and keeps inviting his incredibly talented musician friends over to play. Sunday featured Todd Reynolds playing with Luke DuBois and Jody Elff. Again, the music was great and the mood was terrific, with a small group of friends listening to some beautiful improvisations between Todd and Jody, while Luke's computer animations played on a screen above. Todd tours with this show and others like it, but I doubt there are too many better venues at which to hear him than at this new space. Again, this was a concert that I imagine most people would enjoy. How do we get people to come out to these shows?
The weekend spilled over into Monday, as I went back to New York to hear Nadia play Der Schwanendreher with the Juilliard Orchestra. Remember when Derek Jeter came up for the Yankees, and everyone said, "the shortstop position will be filled in the Bronx for the next 20 years"? That's how I feel about the position of "new music viola" in New York - it's taken care of for a long time to come, as long as Nadia stays around. A big congratulations on a fantastic performance - and hardly the last, I'm sure.
Drifting around my CD player, early February 2005 - 2/11/05
Is this something to share? The risk is that I'll be pulling a "look how cool and diverse my record collection is!" This gets to a point my friend Ted Coffey made recently, quoting some cultural critic, about breadth of knowledge being the new mark of elite status. I just think it's interesting to see what people are listening to; it's a question I ask of friends and strangers, when given the opportunity, so why not give the answer up here? And I think anyone who lists "composer" as his or her profession needs to just deal with the fact that people will consider you elitist. So here's my frickin' list, already:
Talib Kweli, Beautiful Struggle; Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonatas (Claude Frank); Neil Young, On the Beach; Black Spartacus, The Seven Dreams of the Leviathan; William Byrd, The Three Masses (Choir of Winchester Cathedral, David Hill); Organized Konfusion, Organized Konfusion; The Pixies, Complete 'B' Sides; Scott Lindroth, Human Gestures; Gillian Welch, Hell Among the Yearlings; Gavin Bryars, Vita Nova; Joanna Newsom, The Milk-Eyed Mender; Laurent Garnier, Unreasonable Behaviour; Pink Floyd, Animals; Traffic, Traffic
I think I prefer the first Organized Konfusion record to the more critically acclaimed second (Stress: The Extinction Agenda), but I'm really just getting into this music now. Pharoahe Monch has been a favorite artist of mine since he dropped his solo debut, but I never really knew his earlier work with Prince Po until now. It's phenomenal, and I wish I'd known about it when it came out - it would have been in my walkman, with Black Moon and Tribe and all that.
Speaking of "which album is the best?", I recently went through a Neil Young obsession. I think his early-to-mid-1970s period is the strongest, with the release of On the Beach, Tonight's the Night, and Zuma. The three records are different enough that a direct comparison isn't necessary, and they're all superb. For people who love their IPod Shuffle and have resigned themselves (or openly support) the end of the Album as we know it, go listen to Tonight's the Night to remember what, exactly, you're giving up.
Happy Birthday Kevin (buy his record) - 2/04/05
Today is the birthday of Kevin Hume, a.k.a. Black Spartacus. I urge you all to go buy his record, The Seven Dreams of the Leviathan, which costs only six dollars. It's a strange mixed bag of carnival music, ambient music, and rock, with some truly beautiful and well-written songs. This plug is his birthday present, but I really mean it.
Getting Reality Back on Script - 2/03/05
In a media climate where Presidential policies and known even while they are in the consideration phase, what is the purpose of the State of the Union address? Like everything else in political life, the speech is now merely another political tool. That's been true for as long as I can remember, and was certainly true in the Clinton years, where the art of pointing out hard-working Americans in the audience was taken to new heights.
As repugnant as that politicking may have been, yesterday's Bush SOTU contained something a bit different. The already-famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) hug between Safia Taleb al-Suhail, a recent Iraqi voter, and Janet Norwood, the mother of a soldier who was killed in Iraq, was not just a show of support for Bush's decision to go to war. This was the rewriting of history to fulfill the promise, made by Bush and his team on the eve of war, that the Iraqis would welcome us with open arms as we rescued them from a brutal dictatorship, bringing them the joys of freedom and democracy. Could there be a more literal fulfillment of that promise than that hug in the balcony, next to Laura Bush, at the State of the Union address?
Reality is now being brought back in line with the script that was written three years ago. Suhail, representing all Iraqis, publicly thanked Norwood, representing all Americans, for our efforts on their behalf. Bush stood firm and proud as his policies were proved by this hug to have been entirely appropriate and correct. We who doubted are proven wrong - but we are forgiven, so long as we stand and applaud with the rest of the good Americans.
When you can write the end of the story, it doesn't really matter what comes in the middle. But was that, in fact, the end?
Good News for Opponents of Torture and Rights Violations - 1/31/05
The Center for Constitutional Rights made two big announcements today. First, a Federal Judge has ruled that the Guantanamo Bay tribunals are illegal:
U.S. District Court Judge Joyce Green ruled on January 31, 2005, that special military tribunals used by the Pentagon to determine the alleged guilt and continued detention of almost 550 men held at Guantanamo Bay are illegal. CCR, which filed a number of the habeas petitions before Judge Green, called the decision a major victory for the detainees and for civil liberties. CCR, which also won the Supreme Court case Rasul v. Bush last year, has since condemned the Bush Administration for failing to comply with the decision and give the Guantanamo detainees a chance to challenge their detention in federal court.
In another matter, Attorney General nominee Alberto Gonzales has been named in a German war crimes suit:
Deputy Legal Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights Barbara Olshansky stated, "Judge Green has sent a hopeful message to the world that despite the Administration's continued refusal to acknowledge the unlawfulness of its behavior, our democratic institutions are working hard to ensure justice is preserved. Our courts are alive and working to put this country's actions back in line with the humanitarian principles that are the foundation of modern civilized society and the backbone of the cooperative relationship among the world's community of nations.
Michael Ratner, President of the Center for Constitutional Rights said, "Judge Green's decision is extraordinary. It reaffirms that the Guantanamo detainees cannot be imprisoned outside the law, that they have a constitutional right to a fair hearing and that evidence resulting from torture and coercion cannot be used to continue their imprisonments. The judge also found that it was illegal for the President to unilaterally determine that an entire group of the Guantanamo prisoners were not POW's protected by the Geneva conventions. This ruling has the potential to bring the U.S. back into the fold of nations under law. It is about time."
CCR filed new documents on January 31, 2005, with the German Federal Prosecutor looking into war crimes charges against high-ranking U.S. officials including Donald Rumsfeld: one includes new evidence that the Fay investigation into Abu Ghraib protected Administration officials - it is a comprehensive and shocking opinion by Scott Horton, an expert on international law and the Chair of the International Law Committee of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. The second is a letter that details how Attorney General nominee Alberto Gonzales's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee confirms his role as complicit in the torture and abuse of detainees in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere in Iraq.
See the CCR Report for more information. Also, visit CCR to find out how you can help keep Gonzales out of the Cabinet, or at least, voice your opposition to this insane appointment.
Finally on that point, read this excellent thread on Daily Kos for more on the German suit.
It's amazing that all we seem to be able to hope for is to simply raise our voices when a man who authorized torture is being nominated for Attorney General of the United States. I'm not saying that this is anything particularly new in this country, given our bloody history, but actually living with such hypocrisy is difficult to stomach sometimes.
That's why I write pieces called Free Speech Zone - it's my way of actually saying something, even if it's shouting into the wind.
It's Two Weeks, I'm Going Insane - 1/30/05
I've heard a lot of music since I last wrote anything on this page. And I keep trying to write a post, but every time I start, I wind up forcing myself to stop, so that I can get on to one of the many things that actually needs to get done. I have about 4 half-essays that are sitting in various states of incompleteness on my computer, essays that will likely never be read by anyone. More frustrating is the incomplete state in which the ideas contained within those essays exist in my mind; I write to get those ideas filled in, to figure out what, exactly, I think about this or that or the other. And I haven't finished that process.
For example, a couple of weeks ago I heard an excellent recital by my favorite famous pianist, Leif Ove Andsnes, but couldn't quite get through to the point of what, exactly, makes him so great. In one of my pauses, while I allowed my brain to dwell on that question, my mind staged a mutiny, led by the "responsible" portion, and steered the ship back to the matter of completing the piece that needed to be turned in by the next day. Perhaps a reasonable coup d'etat, but frustrating, too. What makes Leif so good? His attention to phrasing? His underlying Romantic spirit? Send me your thoughts; I don't have time to finish having my own.
Then there was the American Composers' Orchestra concert, with its strange audience-participation session. Somewhere during Jason Freeman's piece, my mind turned to the question of the audience and the orchestra, a question that's been discussed at length among my friends, and on Alex Ross's excellent blog. Normally, the question is one of applause, and whether it's cool to just do what you feel and yes, applaud Alfred Brendel after he rocks the first movement of the Emperor Concerto, even if he's annoyed that you're doing so. This piece was in a different category of music, and didn't speak to that question directly, but I couldn't help thinking, based on the New York audience's inability to keep its composure in the face of absolute freedom, that there's something to be said for the conventions of decorum, for the maintenance of the concert hall as a sacred space. I'm a big fan of ending the inanity of the current classical music concert environment, but I can't remember a more uncomfortable musical moment than the end of that piece, when the second violins were holding a single note, non vibrato, and the audience was cheering for section A, which had just "won" the competition to see who could best keep the computer's interest. The music and the audience were in two different worlds (the audience seemed to be in Madison Square Garden, watching Marbury slam one down at the end of a fast break; the piece was back in Stuttgart, where it was developed, expecting a more passive German audience), which is largely due to the piece, but I do have to wonder what the other side would look like, if we revolutionaries have our way. We take for granted that we have access to a level of constant, quiet attentiveness that is unparalleled in concerts elsewhere. That quiet, and its accompanying pseudo-attentiveness, gets on my nerve a lot of the time but is also not something to casually toss aside. When it's absent, as in the end of this Freeman piece, you really do notice that it's gone. And part of me misses it. As you can probably tell, my thoughts on this question are also not fully-formed, and I'd be interested to hear what others think about the issue. Especially people who heard that piece, and saw the chaos that was Zankel Hall at 8:45 on that Friday night.
Finally for now (because yes, the troops are stirring in my head, and swords will soon be drawn), a word about Friday night's Focus concert at Juilliard. First, it was excellent to hear the Shostakovich Symphony No. 15 live; I realize now that I heard that piece live once before, when Leon Botstein conducted it with the American Symphony Orchestra. But I analyzed the work last year for a seminar at Yale, giving me a new appreciation for the Symphony. I mentioned this analysis I had written to some friends, and they were curious to see what I came up with, given how bizarre the piece is. Here's the conclusion from that paper (which, disappointingly, follows about 20 pages of blow-by-blow, key-by-key description....I'd like to publicly apologize to Patrick McCreless for making him read all that) - the last paragraph is the most interesting, but the rest needs to be included to make sense of that bit, so here it is, complete:
Shostakovich's Symphony No. 15 is a difficult work to understand. The piece has an autobiographical quality: Shostakovich himself claimed that the first movement contained metaphors of childhood; the Symphony contains vague references to his operas, both The Nose (in the solo percussion writing) and Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (in the trombone glissandi); the Wagner "fate" motive suggests Shostakovich coming to terms with his own impending death. The references here are much more generalized than those in the String Quartet No. 8, with its numerous quotations from Shostakovich's own music. This might make the autobiographical quality less about Shostakovich's life, specifically, than about a human life, in the abstract, progressing from childhood to old age, and accepting the inevitability of death.
While this reading of the Symphony is tempting, it misses the two key qualities of the actual music: isolation and interruption. Isolation, because the Symphony is obsessed with solo instruments, with nearly all the important themes presented in the context of solos. When the orchestra reaches its important tutti climaxes in the second and fourth movements, they reveal themselves to be grotesque versions of the original material, culminating with the climactic eight-note chord in the fourth movement. This is nothing new for Shostakovich; his Symphonic climaxes often have a grotesque or horrifying quality. But in this Symphony, the contrast between the tutti sections and the rest of the Symphony - the vast majority of the Symphony - is greater than in any other work of Shostakovich's, and nearly any other work in the Symphonic repertoire, because of the minimal scoring and emphasis on solo writing that pervades all four movements.
The other key element in this Symphony is interruption, the imposition of outside elements on an existing structure. In the first movement, the Rossini themes interrupt the sonata form in a playful manner, poking fun at the attempted seriousness. In the second movement, the mysterious wind and brass chords interrupt a somber dirge; they are mysterious and frightening because they are never given context or resolution; though they serve as the gateway to the first climax of the piece, that climax ultimately is unsuccessful at resolving anything, despite its moment of triumphant arrival on A Major. The third movement holds the least weight of the Symphony's four movements, but its interruption, the percussion texture, proves to be the most significant; the "point" of the third movement seems to be to introduce that interrupting element. The fourth movement has no interrupting element of its own, but ultimately is consumed by the interruptions from the earlier movements.
If there were only interruptions, and no isolation, the Symphony No. 15 could be seen to be a massive deconstruction of Symphonic form, a hostile takeover of a classical genre that cast a new light on a traditional form. But given the strong sense of isolation imparted by the scoring, the interruptions cannot be read as merely theoretical in nature. Listening to Shostakovich's music, I often feel that loneliness is the norm, but that isolation is better than the alternative: mass chaos, a large body that is out of control. Here, in the Symphony No. 15, Shostakovich puts forward a new model, a third choice, apart from lonely isolation or violent mass culture. The model is mysterious, confusing, and wholly outside the norm; it is imposed on the existing structures that Shostakovich has used for a lifetime of composition; it has no real meaning because it represents nothing that is real. Perhaps it is a utopian vision, perhaps it is a dystopian hell, perhaps it is death itself. In one sense, we do not and cannot know; I believe that Shostakovich did not, either, but wrote music that, like all great music, represented something that could not be expressed in any other language. In listening to the Symphony No. 15, we cannot articulate its meaning in words, and yet its meaning is clear.
To that, I'd only add that it's interesting to think of Shostakovich as returning to the Symphony with this piece after a hiatus that includes a few works that are labeled "Symphony": the incoherent No. 12 and the decidedly non-Symphonic Nos. 13 and 14. As much as it is a play on the idea of the Symphony, the 15th is clearly a Symphony, and is one of the great Russian's finest.
For most listeners, the Shostakovich was merely a prelude to Gubaidulina's monumental Stimmen ... Verstummen, and I understand why. A 40-minute epic statement, this work cannot help but impress those who hear it, especially with such a strong performance as it received Friday night. I have issues with some of the writing: there are times within that piece where I feel entirely adrift (albeit on a first hearing), and the lack of a strong motivic idea in a piece that long is eventually exhausting. I also don't know that I'm convinced by the formal device of performing a big crossfade between spiky, modernist harmonies (but good ones) and D Major. And, you know, there's also the matter of the conductor solo. But despite all this, despite the weirdness of it all, and the fact that if you described the work to me, I'd probably scoff at it, despite all this, I was very moved by the music and it has lasted in my memory. Again, I'd like to say more, but my work beckons, and I don't have the time to dwell on this matter at the moment. Perhaps when the idleness revolution takes hold, I'll have more time to collect my thoughts. Perhaps we all will.
Hearing the New York Philharmonic
I went to hear the New York Philharmonic last night. It had been over a year since I'd visited Avery Fisher Hall to see the orchestra perform, which is a long time for me, and a bit strange. I attended occasional concerts with my parents growing up, but in high school, when I became obsessed with classical music, I would get student rush tickets whenever I could. This culminated in my senior year, when I interned for the orchestra and heard nearly every concert of the 1996-1997 season. As part of my internship, I was allowed to attend one closed rehearsal every Wednesday afternoon, an invaluable experience in learning what the orchestra sounds like when you take it apart, piece by piece, and then reassemble it. The New York Philharmonic is not merely my hometown orchestra; it's one of the ensembles that is most closely entwined with my development as a musician. So its absence from my life for an extended period of time is like the absence of a friend, or a relative.
I chose last night's concert because I happened to be in town, and because I'd never before heard live a work of Mark-Anthony Turnage, a composer who always seemed a bit overhyped in comparison to the music I'd encountered. So it came as a pleasant surprise to find that his new work, a Philharmonic commission called Scherzoid, was exceptionally good. The energy level was kept high throughout the eighteen minutes of the piece, a difficult feat. At the end of the work, a climax was reached, but it was more of an exasperated, "enough already!" climax than a "this is what it's all about!" climax. That felt tasteful and appropriate to the work, which seemed to not be so much a grand statement of big ideas than an exploration of a particular mind-state. There's little I hate more than when a composer throws a huge ending or a huge climax onto a work that doesn't warrant such an event; it's not only cheap, but it devalues those gestures for the pieces that really do require them. Turnage held back, but the climactic gestures were incredibly gripping, a testament to the success of the material that got us there. They recontextualized what had come before, making the work more personal than it had previously seemed. This is a composer who I now feel deserves a revisiting; it's great when a live performance demonstrates a composer's true skill. That's something for me to remember the next time I'm too quickly dismissive.
Also worth noting from this concert: conductor Xian Zhang, the New York Philharmonic's Assistant Conductor, is the real deal. She contributed mightily to the success of the Turnage; such a large, uninterrupted work could have been a huge mess under a less skilled or interested baton. The Philharmonic subscription audience, not known for their love of all things new, called her and Turnage out to the stage three times, with a vigor that is normally reserved for Rachmaninoff or Brahms. Her direction of the Britten Sea Interludes was good, as well, but the real stars of that show were the brass players. I can't say enough about how good the brass in that orchestra sounds; there were moments in the Turnage and in the Britten where I was absolutely stunned by the force and the control of their playing. Their combination of a massive, full sound with precise articulations is a joy to hear, and makes a trip to the Philharmonic to hear just about anything a worthwhile use of your time.
That said, I must admit that I only attended the second half of the concert. (Note that I said "just about anything" in the preceding statement.) Early Mozart and Strauss juvenalia couldn't beat out burritos with Gabe and Adrienne, especially not at Taqueria y Fonda on 107th and Amsterdam. For those of you who claim that New York can't make decent Mexican food (I'm looking at you, transplanted Los Angelinos), I suggest you quit your yapping and hop on the 1/9.
Reflections on the Start of a New Year
Well, it's no longer 2004, a year that had so much promise, and carried with it so much disappointment. Since the election, I've had a strange experience, repeated a number of times. I'll be reading an opinion piece that feels right on the money - insightful, well argued, cogent - and it will suddenly occur to me that this opinion is totally irrelevant. This feeling of irrelevancy stems from the failure of rational discourse to take the day on November 2, when fear-mongering and image-crafting and media spin somehow allowed an incompetent and dangerous President to remain in office. The residue from that epic disaster has been to undermine my confidence in the power of reasoned argument, and to cause me to distrust my ability to ascertain what is meaningful in a given essay, or speech, or even an item in the news.
This is, perhaps, the most disturbing personal implication of the election results. As someone who has spent my life engaged in explorations of the rational, and who has surrounded myself with people who are likewise engaged, it is hardly possible to imagine a world in which cause and effect are only loosely correlated. But that is the world that we seem to inhabit, at least in certain parts of this country, or better (as the geographical split is not as stark as it seems), in certain minds. November 2, 2004, was the purest manifestation of a cognitive dissonance that had been mounting in the preceding months, as story after story detailed the incompetence and utter failure of the American administration, with no discernible correlating effect in the pre-election poll results. The events of election day were only shocking in that they proved that those results were not an aberration, or part of some strange dream.
Fundamentally, I don't think my instinct is correct. The willingness of much of the country to look past the failures of the Bush Administration's first term and elect him for a second is not so much about the illogic of the American people as the corruption of the media by its business interests, a corruption that eventually touches all aspects of American life that are not specifically protected against market forces. Gradually, everything that has legitimate value is being herded into the non-profit sector, as the for-profit sector becomes more and more efficient in trimming the fat to benefit shareholders. Of course, that "fat" is nothing less than the lifeblood of civil society. In the world of classical music, we know this story all too well, as record companies, purchased by large, multinational corporations, have stopped using their profits from the popular albums of the day (and I mean "popular" here in the literal sense, not as a catch-all for non-classical music) to finance less glamorous, sometimes even esoteric genres, as they did in the middle part of the century. While this is far from the death-knell that many have claimed (mostly older people with no ability to envision a world apart from the social structures that they had come to assume were permanent), it has caused a striking repositioning of the way in which musicians and composers earn their bread. Today, even groups that live on the edge of the term "classical" - such as NOW Ensemble - are all but forced to become non-profits, as that is where the money lies when you don't have a singer or a drum kit. I would hope that the great artists of our time who have the good fortune to be working in genres that still have sufficient appeal to be recognized by the large corporations - the Radioheads and Talib Kwelis and Bjorks of the world, few though they may be - will at some point use what leverage they have to reinvigorate the market for good music, steering their corporations in the direction of real quality instead of immediate and transient profit.
I bring this up to suggest that the world of classical music, what we see around us in this business every day, is a microcosm of what is happening in countless fields around the country. That it has happened to the media should hardly be surprising; the problem is that Americans are caught in a lag where we still turn to traditional media outlets for information, without realizing how biased that information can be. I know I'm guilty of this, merely in my preferences (I read the New York Times and Harper's and other left-leaning journals), but the more broadly-distributed media outlets are even worse, with magazines delivering advertisements cloaked as articles, surrounded by a sea of straight-up ads, and with television no longer capable of delivering any real content, apart from a few noble holdouts. The only solution is to strengthen independent media outlets, question what we read and see and hear, engage in vigorous dialogue and debate, and become more involved with democracy. There's no shortcut to saving a failing democracy.
And yes, our democracy is failing. The public cannot make informed choices about leadership when its sources of information are corrupt to the core. Again, I offer a column from the rehabilitated Frank Rich as an example of this, but just look around; there's evidence everywhere.
There is a silver lining to this big mess we're in: I think we'll be seeing and hearing a lot of artistic fallout from the events of the past year, a prospect which excites me greatly. One should not and cannot use silver linings as an excuse for terrible events or figures in history, but we wouldn't have Phil Kline's fantastic Rumsfeld Songs without Rumsfeld, the man, just as we couldn't have so many of the great works of this century without the horrors that in some way inspired, or better, necessitated their existence. That is no justification for horrible events, and we wish they'd never occured, but it's a reason for some hope, a hope that humanity works as does nature, with an equal force of justice for every opposite force of injustice that is thrust by the course of history. And justice, I think, often comes in the form of art, in visions of the world that are both personal and universal at the same time. There's an unknown and mysterious quality to the sense of pleasure we find in beauty and in justice, in an artistic system or a moral system that seems to be working. I think they are similar in the embeddedness of their logic; this is why even art that wears its system on its sleeve is not beautiful because you can see the system; that visibility is peripheral to the success of the system's machinations. And there's always more than can be seen.
I finally got around to reading through the November issue of Harper's Magazine, and came across one of the better essays I've read in some time. It's by Mark Slouka, and it's called Quitting the Paint Factory: On the virtues of idleness. The central premise is that the business ethos has become an internalized religious force in American life, at the expense of what he calls "idleness," now castigated as the enemy of national and cultural progress. This idleness, besides being central to human health and creativity, is also central to our most treasured political value: democracy. An excerpt:
Idleness is not just a psychological necessity, requisite to the construction of a complete human being; it constitutes as well a kind of political space, a space as necessary to the workings of an actual democracy as, say, a free press. How does it do this? By allowing us time to figure out who we are, and what we believe; by allowing us time to consider what is unjust, and what we might do about it. By giving the inner life (in whose precincts we are most ourselves) its due. Which is precisely what makes idleness dangerous. All manner of things can grow out of that fallow soil. Not for nothing did our mothers grow suspicious when we had "too much time on our hands." They knew we might be up to something. And not for nothing did we whisper to each other, when we were up to something, "Quick, look busy."
This is an essay that questions our core societal values, and accuses our nation of a deeply-embedded hypocrisy, suggesting that democratic values and the ethic of business (or busy-ness?) as a virtue cannot truly coexist. He saves a twist for the end, which I'll give away, though I encourage you to read the entire article, which is better-written than what I can manage here. In considering our President and his administration, one is often reminded of fascism. As Slouka says, the tendency is to recoil from this association, dismissing it as an extremist and irresponsible connection. I tend to agree; the associations with Nazism, especially, are quite disturbing in their lack of appreciation for the reality of that political climate. However, Slouka finds a different connection to fascism in our President, and all that he advocates, one that is more fundamental to the fascist project and less tarnished by dirty associations with (overtly) genocidal regimes: the Futurist movement of early twentieth century Italy. I've done some research into this movement, and I must admit that the connections Slouka draws never occured to me. But I'm now fascinated by them. An excerpt:
The linkage had nothing to do with the Futurists' art, which was notable only for its sustained mediocrity, nor with their writing, which at times achieved an almost sublime level of badness. It had to do, rather, with their ant-like energy, their busy-ness, their utter disdain of all the manifestations of the inner life, and with the way these traits seemed so organically linked in their thinking to aggression and war. "We intend to exalt aggressive action, a feverish insomnia," wrote Filippo Marinetti, perhaps the Futurists' most breathless spokesman. "We will glorify war – the world's only hygiene – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers….. We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind….. We will sing of great crowds excited by work."
"Militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers," "a feverish insomnia," "great crowds excited by work" ... I knew that song. And yet still, almost perversely, I resisted the recognition. It was too easy, somehow. Wasn't much of the Futurist rant ("Take up your pickaxes, your axes and hammers and wreck, wreck the venerable cities, pitilessly") simply a gesture of adolescent rebellion, a FUCK YOU scrawled on Dad's garage door? I had just about decided to scrap the whole thing when I came across Marinetti's later and more extended version of the Futurist creed. And this time the connection was impossible to deny.
In the piece, published in June of 1913 (roughly six months after Anderson walked out of the paint factory), Marinetti explained that Futurism was about the "acceleration of life to today's swift pace." It was about the "dread of the old and the known... of quiet living." The new age, he wrote, would require the "negation of distances and nostalgic solitudes." It would "ridicule . . . the 'holy green silence' and the ineffable landscape." It would be, instead, an age enamored of "the passion, art, and idealism of Business."
This shift from slowness to speed, from the solitary individual to the crowd excited by work, would in turn force other adjustments. The worship of speed and business would require a new patriotism, "a heroic idealization of the commercial, industrial, and artistic solidarity of a people"; it would require "a modification in the idea of war," in order to make it "the necessary and bloody test of a people's force."
As if this weren't enough, as if the parallel were not yet sufficiently clear, there was this: The new man, Marinetti wrote – and this deserves my italics – would communicate by "brutally destroying the syntax of his speech. He wastes no time in building sentences. Punctuation and the right adjectives will mean nothing to him. He will despise subtleties and nuances of language." All of his thinking, moreover, would be marked by a "dread of slowness, pettiness, analysis, and detailed explanations. Love of speed, abbreviation, and the summary. 'Quick, give me the whole thing in two words!'"
Short of telling us that he would have a ranch in Crawford, Texas, and be given to clearing brush, nothing Marinetti wrote could have made the resemblance clearer. From his notorious mangling of the English language to his well-documented impatience with detail and analysis to his chuckling disregard for human life (which enabled him to crack jokes about Aileen Wuornos’s execution as well as mug for the cameras minutes before announcing that the nation was going to war), Dubya was Marinetti's "New Man": impatient, almost pathologically unreflective, unburdened by the past. A man untroubled by the imagination, or by an awareness of human frailty. A leader wonderfully attuned (though one doubted he could ever articulate it) to "today's swift pace"; to the necessity of forging a new patriotism; to the idea of war as "the necessary and bloody test of a people's force"; to the all-conquering beauty of Business.
That's compelling. Read Marinetti's manifesto in its entirety, and see what you think.
The cultural ethos that Slouka describes is an intersection of the political and the personal, a distinction that is revealed to be hollow. Democracy (the political) relies upon free individuals (the personal), but as individuals, we are trapped in a society that creates our desires and forces us down paths that are against our deeper needs as human beings. We live in a culture of the medicated, taking drugs (legal or otherwise) to alter our minds into a state that makes it possible to tolerate, to endure the world in which we reside. And we are not shown an alternative. Our society is a prison with no walls; the door that leads out is unlocked but invisible. We feel free until we discover that there is, in fact, a world outside the unseen walls and the unlocked door.
Art is the last expression of individualism, but art struggles to find its place in a culture where nothing is "for its own sake," though true art is always for its own sake. When all activities are checked for their efficiency and their contribution to our culture of growth and expansion, there is no time to idle, to consider, to become dangerous, to become artists, to become free human thinkers. And the cycle continues. It's worth considering what, exactly, made the 1960s counter-culture movement so special. More than anything, it was an attempt to redefine the terms of success in society. The residue of that era are political changes, such as the civil rights legacy, that are extremely valuable. But the fundamental restructuring never took hold; the business ethic is more dogmatically embedded than ever before. For those of us who would like to see the fires of that generation rekindled, it's important to see clearly the failure of our predecessors, and to learn from it.
New Music from NOW Ensemble
New music! We're in the process of mixing down our
NOW Ensemble demo CD, and my man on the inside (whose identity will remain a secret) has slipped me a copy of the music. It sounds really good. Mateusz Zechowski is our engineer, and he's done a very fine job. Check out the new pieces: Folk Music and Rock Me Samuels.
NOW Ensemble is credited for recording these works, but I would also like to thank Emily Hall, Lou DeMartino, Steve Mackey, and Alex Hanna for their hard work this summer in making the House Band version of Folk Music a great success. Steve gets a special thanks for thinking of the project, which I earnestly hope becomes part of the Tanglewood Composition Fellow rotation in the future.
Go Nadia and Go Frank Rich
A big congratulations to Nadia Sirota on winning the Juilliard Concerto Competition! Nadia and I have had some epic discussions regarding the merits of modernism, in which she has softened my generally bullheaded approach to the subject. (Don't worry: I'm still firmly in the "anti" camp, but a bit more understanding.) Nadia is one of the finest young performers I know, on any instrument, and is not dogmatic about her musical preferences: she simply likes to make good music. She believes she can do so with modernist scores, and I admire her for seeking a challenge. For this concert, which takes place on February 14, 2005, she'll be playing what's sure to be an appropriately Valentine's Day-oriented work by Hindemith. Pen this concert into your books, and congratulate Nadia if you know her.
In other news, one good result of the otherwise disastrous Presidential election is that Frank Rich has become a single-minded advocate for an open, censorship-free media. I've never loved Rich's writing, but I appreciate that he's turned his weekly column in the New York Times Arts and Leisure section into a forum for keeping this important issue in play. One thing about censorship is that it's hard to see in action; it takes reporters like Rich to make a public issue of the subject. Read this weekend's column, on the attempt by conservatives to censor any suggestion that sex actually happens in America.
An excerpt from that column:
No matter what the censors may accomplish elsewhere, the pop culture revolution since Kinsey's era is in little jeopardy: in a nation of "Desperate Housewives," "Too Darn Hot" has become the national anthem. A movie like "Kinsey" will do just fine; the more protests, the more publicity and the larger the box office. But if Hollywood will always survive, off-screen Americans are being damaged by the cultural war over sex that is being played out in real life. You see that when struggling kids are denied the same information about sexuality that was kept from their antecedents in the pre-Kinsey era; you see that when pharmacists in more and more states enforce their own "moral values" by refusing to fill women's contraceptive prescriptions and do so with the tacit or official approval of local officials; you see it when basic information that might prevent the spread of lethal diseases is suppressed by the government because it favors political pandering over scientific fact.
60 Minutes and Contemporary Composition
I happened to catch a bit of 60 Minutes this past Sunday, on CBS. That show used to be one of the few news programs on network television that was worth watching; I have fond memories from my childhood of crowding around the small television in the living room, 1950s-style, with Chinese food and placemats on our little glass table, as my family listened to controversial stories and then argued about them during the commercials. I'm probably rose-tinting the past a bit; the segments were almost certainly not as hard-hitting or argumentatively sound as I remember them being. There's no question, however, that I learned some important lessons: always question the government, rarely trust corporations, and never, under any circumstances, agree to an interview with 60 Minutes.
The reason I bring up this venerable old news program is that this week's episode featured the young prodigious composer, Jay Greenberg, aka "Bluejay." I met Jay at this year's ASCAP Awards ceremony, when I had the pleasure of joining him and his family at their luncheon table. He and his family were very pleasant in conversation, and I wished him well on his future endeavors. I'm mentioning this because I'm about to say why I feel that the 60 Minutes segment on Jay was a disturbing piece of television, and I bring up my encounter with Jay and his family as part of my disclaimer that my criticism of the segment should not be read as a criticism of Jay himself.
Why disturbing? The question one must ask about this segment (you can read an internet article that contains nearly identical content to the television piece) is what is suggests about the art of serious music composition. The main focus of the story is Jay-as-prodigy, "a prodigy of the level of the greatest prodigies in history when it comes to composition," according to music theory professor Samuel Zyman, a composer of some note. His "objective" skill level is higher than all but a handful of historical figures, and he is claimed by some to be the most gifted composer to come along in 200 years. The segment notes some impressive-sounding attributes: he writes very fast (he wrote an orchestra piece in "a few hours"), he has some sort of special brain capacity ("Multiple channels is what it's been termed," says Jay. "That my brain is able to control two or three different musics at the same time - along with the channel of everyday life."), and he never revises his compositions (garnering criticism from composer Sam Adler, who notes that Beethoven corrected himself constantly; I suppose Mozart would be the prodigious counter-example).
In other words, America, we have here, for your viewing pleasure, a freak. And there's nothing America loves more than a freak, especially a young freak. There's an old tradition in this country of carting out child prodigies of all kinds to perform tricks for the general public; one of the places where this tradition remains strongest is in the world of classical music, where teenagers routinely pump out recordings that would now be considered classics had they been made fifty years ago. In those cases, however, the music itself is relished by listeners. People enjoy their Kissin and Hahn recordings; they are more than curios, and therefore, not exploitative in the same way as this 60 Minutes piece. It's exploitative because it positions Jay as the Other, as not-quite-human, with skills that we, the viewers, can't really understand. This distancing does a disservice to Jay, and it does a disservice to the art of serious music composition.
It's not clear why the idea of talented youth is so exciting for its own sake. I'm a Giants fan, and it's exciting for me to watch games with our rookie quarterback, Eli Manning, because he represents the future of our franchise. I'm excited about what he will become, and I'm looking for premonitions of that future in the present. But if there were no season next year, or any future year, why would I care that Eli is only 23 years old? I'd say that we should get the best guy for the present, because there is no future. In the world of classical music, there's not much of a season next year, or this one. Or perhaps, it's better to say, this is the equivalent of a low-level minor league team. I'm not making the tired, old, classical-music-is-dead rant; I'm merely asking the following: who cares, except for a few fellow composers, what becomes of Jay Greenberg? I care, Sam Zyman cares, Sam Adler cares, his mother cares - perhaps a few hundred people care. But is there any chance that Jay Greenberg will be featured on 60 Minutes in the year 2040? A mid-career retrospective? Jay Greenberg may, right now, be the most famous composer in America, merely by virtue of his being on a prime-time television show, something that never, ever happens to composers. And here's the critical question: who, exactly, are we hoping Jay Greenberg grows up to be? Mozart? Mendlessohn? Or some version of our contemporary "superstars" of classical music, such as they are: Philip Glass? John Adams? Gyorgy Ligeti? I would strongly imagine that these people are all less relevant to the 60 Minutes set than, say, Josh Groban. Or Harry Connick, Jr. Or Al Pacino, for that matter, or hundreds of other celebrity artists of various stripes. Composers, in our culture, are not celebrities, nor are we particularly celebrated, nor is our work noticed. Unless, it seems, we are 12 years old, and old men are infatuated with our skills. Unless we can be brought out as something not quite normal, and therefore, interesting.
What, according to this segment, is composing about? Composing is a game in which the object is to A) make a coherent structure, B) ask the instruments to do things that they capable of doing, and C) finish the game as quickly as possible. Having arranged notes in a manner that sounds approximately like traditional music of the Western canonical style, a piece of music is deemed to be successful, and the writer is deemed to be a "good composer." If one can achieve this objectives with great speed (see C) and has mastered these tasks at a young age, then one is certainly in line to become a "great composer," if one is not already worthy of that title.
Without delving deeply into what I think composing is really about, I will say simply that these criteria are absurd. They are all important, to be sure, but there are innumerable pieces that meet A and B, and plenty of composers who can achieve C. The bottom line, at the end of the day, is the true quality of the music that is produced - is it great music? That's a fundamentally subjective question, and we all have our favorite pieces. But we would never suggest that a work is great because it met certain criteria; at least, I know that I wouldn't, and I'd like to hope that no one else would, though I suspect that they might.
I don't think that Jay Greenberg should be forced to have his work evaluated against the great works of history at age 12. And 60 Minutes seems to agree with me; we heard only about 20 seconds of his music in the segment. But then how do we know that Jay is great? No viewer could come to the conclusion that Jay is a great composer by virtue of his music being great. Instead, they would come to that conclusion because others were saying that he had an incredible skill set, and therefore, must be a great composer. In what other arena would this be appropriate? In chess, perhaps, or in the hard sciences, though even there, this would be a stretch. But composing is not a science. It is an art form. And greatness in art comes not from craft alone, but from the merging of craft and message. I hope Jay has a lot to say, but the mere fact of his being able to say it well, in a particular language, is not enough of an achievement to make his prodigious talents relevant to much of anything. Not yet, at least.
I hope that Jay Greenberg has a successful career in composition, if that's what he wants. He's certainly an extraordinarily talented individual. And I hope more fervently that these types of accolades don't dissuade him from becoming a true artist, challenging himself and not settling for what he can do so easily. And, more broadly, I hope that we can shift our culture in such a way so that we might see Jay, or someone like him, on a news program in the future, not because he is young and smart but because he is a composer who has made people see the world differently. Jay, I wish you, and us, the best of luck in these endeavors.
Sam Solomon, a good man
Many thanks to Sam Solomon for his hard work on this website. Besides being a wonderful web designer, he's a killer percussionist and the author of an excellent new book on writing for percussion, which I highly recommend.