Pierrot Lunaire and new music: "dreamily he plays on the bald spot"

[A version of this originally appeared on Ensemble Dal Niente's blog]

The 19th of the 21 songs (actually, the composer calls them “melodramas”—which, upon reflection, totally feels accurate, even given their miniature size), Serenade, of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire is even more meta-musical than the others.  (And that is really saying something.  Pierrot has got to be one of the most desperately self-conscious pieces in historical music, making heavy-handed use of a dizzying number of past genres and composers: Chopin (explicitly named in a title), the waltz, the minuet, the passacaglia, the barcarolle, the rondo, all manner of Baroque counterpoint, a bunch of others I can’t keep track of because of aforementioned dizzyingness).  Anyway here’s the text of Serenade, in my own not very good translation because I don’t really speak German:

With a grotesquely outsized bow
Pierrot scrapes on his viola,
Like a stork on one leg,
Sadly he plucks a pizzicato.

Suddenly Cassander’s here—frenzied
by the nighttime virtuoso—
With a grotesquely outsized bow
Pierrot scrapes on his viola.

Now he throws aside the viola:
With his delicate left hand—
He seizes the bald man by the collar
Dreamily he plays on the bald spot
With a grotesquely outsized bow.

On the one hand, this is an eccentric, kinda creepy, actually-a-bit gross fantasy, the sort of thing that shows up randomly in your dreams between an appearance of your long-dead first pet and your cisgender, heteronormative, right-wing uncles dressed in matching drag singing a song from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  Less weirdly and more generally, another way to construe it is as a description of the project of new music at its best, though I hasten to add that we def don’t always live up to it.  I know you’re skeptical but stay with me.  The project is something like: in what we do, as new music people, something unexpected happens to an instrument, or to a sound, or to a genre; this thing might be disruptive, causing you metaphorically (or literally) to stay awake at night; when you try to interrupt us, though, rather than stop, we make you the instrument.  Put another way: when we do things right, new music is an artform that bows your bald spot.  It does funny things to how your head feels.

Like I said, we don’t always live up to it; more often than not we don’t.  Life is tough under Trumpian nepo-capitalism, where some people's nauseatingly rich family members and friends get more nauseatingly rich and more straight-up nauseating; and everyone else is srsly just trynna make a buck.  Thus, it’s easy for new music to just, like, play music, cross our fingers, look pretty, smile wide, and hope y’all like us [gritted teeth emoji].

But, as a project by a new music ensemble, it’s nice for Dal Niente’s Staged series to remember the example of Pierrot Lunaire.  Of course, Pierrot is SO not new music; it was written in 1912, before World War I, in a world hopelessly smaller, whiter, more patriarchal, and more racist than our own.  (Hmmm, tbh, maybe not more racist.)  But on the other hand, Pierrot is SO new music; if anything, it’s new music’s prototypical work, and a self-consciously prickly one.  There are some obvious details: here’s a boring history lesson about blah blah blah one-of-the-earliest-examples-of-free-atonality, whatever; there are IMPORTANT INNOVATIVE IMPORTANT uses of instrumental important techniques that are innovative and important [eyerolling emoji]; and last but certainly least: the typical new music instrumentation (violin, cello, piano, clarinet, flute) is named after it (“Pierrot plus percussion” comes out of a new music person’s mouth about as much as “accessible” or “impactful” or “post-minimalist” or “why didn’t we get that grant” does).  But gosh, it’s so much more and so much better than IMPORTANT AND INNOVATIVE early examples of free atonality.   It doesn’t, like, always sound good.  It’s uncomfortable and it’s tortured and it’s hard to perform and get to know.  It makes directly contradictory claims about its status.  For instance: what’s the deal with that singing?  Is it actually singing?  What is singing anyway?  Worth remembering: it was commissioned by a person (Albertine Zehme) who was not actually a professional musician or singer, but an actress.  The sprechgesang (spoken-sung) or (more commonly) sprechstimme (spoken-voice) style of the vocal part is simultaneously alienating and familiarizing.  It’s more natural than classical singing (which, let’s be honest, is zero percent natural), but also is not imitative of everyday speech either.   You might feel yourself drawn to sprechstimme at the same time that you find it repulsive or abject.  It somehow recapitulates what you do when you speak, but it’s much more wretched and intimate and violent and embarrassing—it’s the id to your everyday language’s ego.  

Speaking of dilettante pscychoanalysis, maybe what I want to really say is that Pierrot Lunaire is the id and the superego in the same piece.  (It would be difficult to imagine that Schoenberg wasn’t influenced (even if—wait for it—unconsciously (see what I did there?)) by Freud’s ideas, which were floating around early 20th century Vienna).  It performs more than its share of strange, terrifying, for realz bizarre, free-associative fantasies: decapitation by the moon, ginormous moths that blot out the sun, smoking in a person’s skull, returning to a long-absent-from home (one that, hmmmm, actually you’re not quite sure you’ve ever been to now that you really think about it wait was my childhood real actually did any of us actually have childhoods wait are still all children whoa).  But at the same time, it wears the rigor of its organization on its sleeve as so much a point of pride that it feels defensive and trying-too-hard: it is the composer’s Op. 21, and it’s 21 songs, begun on March 12, 1912; but it’s not just 21 songs, it’s “Three times Seven Poems” (according to the title); seven-note motifs are used throughout the work, including the famous piano opening; there are seven musicians that perform.  Pierrot Lunaire overly insistently promises you sugarily that your listening experience is structured.

Maybe I’m skipping a step here, but I feel like Pierrot Lunaire is the perfect work for a new music ensemble’s series about the stage not because of its IMPORTANT INNOVATIVE IMPORTANCE OF INNOVATION, but because it masterfully performs the therapeutic functions that are the reason we go to the theater, and it does so in a way that is fundamentally musical.  It is both hyper-real and deeply fake.  It mirrors your contradictory experience of existence.  It reflects the world that you thought you knew so well back to you as something unfamiliar and possibly so so so very fucked up.

Join us for our Staged series, and perhaps consider throwing us a bit of your surplus capital to support it.  Help us bow your head.

(Oh, and this.)

(And definitely this.)

Danny Clay and Earsight Duo: (idk not really) a review (but more like a re-view or a re-thinking and def a mis-remembering)

[A version of this piece originally appeared in Cacaphony Magazine on May 26, 2017.]

Jacques Attali, in the inconclusive final chapter of his book Noise: The Political Economy of Music[1], writes about composition in a way that is not common; in contrasting it with the mechanism of repetition (i.e., reproduction) that has preceded it in the 20th century, he says composition is (or should be) (or will be) something

in which the musician plays primarily for himself, outside any operationality, spectacle, or accumulation of value; when music, extricating itself from the codes of sacrifice, representation, and repetition, emerges as an activity that is an end in itself, that creates its own code at the same time as the work.

Composition thus appears as a negation of the division of roles and labor as constructed by the old codes.[...] The listener is the operator. Composition, then, beyond the realm of music, calls into question the distinction between worker and consumer, between doing and destroying, a fundamental division of roles in all societies in which usage is defined by a code; to compose is to take pleasure in the instruments, the tools of communication, in use-time and exchange-time as lived and no longer as stockpiled.  (p. 135)

At the end of a fabulous, recently written (April 2017, I think) essay entitled “Thinking About New Music,” composer/apparent-spaceship-lover Marek Poliks lists several positive things he’s incorporated into his own music-making that he thinks we ought to consider for ourselves, among which is this:

Perform your own work. Identify as a musician, not a composer. Find other musicians who will perform with you and make your music together. Feature guest artists. Ask for help, ask other people what they think. Attribute authorship to the group, you made it together.[2]

Backing up: it does seem, doesn’t it, that new music has been in a state of paralytic re-thinking of itself for a while (Attali is writing in 1977 and Marek is doing so 40 years later. The latter talks about 2008 as a pivotal year, and he’s right; but I also think it’s worth hypothesizing that something cyclical might go on as well—2008 is not the only time that musicians have said to themselves “wtf are we doing”[3]).  And it also seems, doesn’t it, that this state of paralytic re-thinking has felt like an urgent emergency-crisis for the last year or so (the unceasing collective heart attack that is the current US/worldwide political environment being both a symptom and a cause).  I hope this doesn’t seem like a grandiose claim—I’m just setting the stage.

I feel somewhat insecure and not particularly qualified to generalize at the moment, but I also feel equally duty-bound to point to and look at things that propose provisional, hesitating responses to the seemingly insurmountable problems of culture in the world.  The peculiar experience afforded by Danny Clay and Earsight Duo (video artist Xuan and percussionist Peter Ferry)’s “on/off” at High Concept Labs is such a thing—a proposition in answer to seemingly impervious questions—though I actually don’t think their description of the project as something “blurring the line between performer, composer, and listener” quite does it justice. 

Ben Melsky, Deidre Huckabay, and myself were the three participants(?) in the 9:30 show(?) (which started at 10:05) on Friday night, May 5, and were joined by Peter in the performance(?), thus making us a quartet.  Ben and I had just come from the Spektral Quartet Contempo concert at U of Chicago (on which me and a few Dal Niente players had performed), thus the quartet as musical institution was on my mind.  It would be difficult to overstate how conspicuously well Spektral Quartet plays new work, and it would be equally difficult to overstate how different the Ferry-Huckabay-Lewanski-Melsky quartet experience was.   

I don’t know, what do you think about this?—maybe there’s something utopian-propositional about a quartet.  It’s an even number of people, unlike the Supreme Court or the UN Security Council, and there’s no Vice President to cast the tie-breaking vote for Betsy DeVos.  (Just a reminder: that happened.  Betsy DeVos is the US Secretary of Education.  Just a reminder.)  The existence of the quartet is an incessant negotiation because of the ever-present, structurally inherent possibility of a 2-2 tie.  However hierarchical things might be, the format simply does, in the end, demand that everyone work together.  Or, to put it more accurately and more succinctly, as Doyle Armbrust did in a rehearsal: “I hate me more [than you hate me].”  #utopia

OK, so what happened on that Friday night.  Really, I’m trying to get to my experience, but I keep getting sidetracked by myself: Ben, Deidre, and I walked into the HCL space, led by Peter.  There was a circle drawn in the middle of the floor, with what turned out to be four synthesizer boxes on its perimeter; we all explored the space a bit, not knowing what was going on; in order to be a guide for the perplexed, I suppose, Peter walked through the circle.  I am a toxic combination of always curious but only rarely impetuous, and for this reason I surprised to find myself the first one messing with a synth; once it made noise we all immediately sat on the floor in a circle.   

(Attali, describing a part of Breughel’s Carnival of Lent, at the very end of the chapter on composition: “Five people in a circle. Are they singing? Is there an instrument accompanying them? Is Brueghel announcing this autonomous and tolerant world, at once turned in on itself and in unity?” [p. 148])

(OK, I realize this doesn’t quite work because Attali talks about five people and we were only four.  The world is actually imperfect and contingent rather than autonomous and tolerant.  Sorry.)

The synths have an on-off switch, they have a sort-of volume knob (one that actually seems to change the timbre as well as the loudness), and they have a frequency knob (one that makes things higher and lower).  The on-off switch makes a satisfying sound; this sound is probably not intended to be part of the work, but I don’t care.  (Attali, you might remember: “to compose is to take pleasure in the instruments”.)  The range of possibilities that the two parameters make available is completely engrossing and immediately all-consuming.  Whoa, this goes really high!  Wait, it goes higher?  Wait, it can get louder???  WAIT IT CAN GET STILL HIGHER AND LOUDER.  WAIT WAIT WAIT WHAT HAPPENS IF I TRY TO DO THE SAME AS ANOTHER PERSON’S HIGH/LOUD SYNTH.  WAIT WAIT WAIT WAIT.  WAIT WAIT WAIT WAIT WHAT IF I’M LIKE REALLY CLOSE BUT A LITTLE OFF OR WHAT ABOUT LIKE AN OCTAVE LOWER OR WHAT ABOUT SOME RANDOM WEIRD-ASS INTERVAL WAIT OR WHAT IF I DON’T DO ANYTHING BUT STUFF CHANGES ANYWAY.

The experience of sitting in this synth quartet is intense; the synths are often loud, but more to the point, the ever-changing frequencies and the room’s acoustics do things to my head.  You might think I mean this in a metaphorical or psychological sense, but actually it’s physical. I imagine that I’m feeling my eardrums; sometimes my brain seems like it’s in a different place than my face; I’m having a hard time locating senses in my body; I’m experiencing some sort of acoustical phantom limbs.  I’m half-aware that I’m responding to the actions of my fellow quartet members, but I’m not sure how or why I’m responding, what I want, what it means, or what I want us to be doing.  How do we think this is to go?  Are we trying to achieve unity?  Are we attempting to remain in a state of enjoyable tension?  Are we playing?  Is this is a game?  Is this a piece of music?  What is a game?  What is a piece of music?  (Recall Marek’s suggestion: “Attribute authorship to the group, you made it together.”  We definitely made it together, whatever “it” was, though I’m not sure if “authorship” is a thing we were looking for or quite deserve.) 

OK, I'll interrupt again and pose a serious question for you: what are your experiences like when listening to performances, and/or performing yourself?  Mine vary widely—even more these days than before—from the seemingly transcendent (like whoa that german sixth chord in the slow mvt of bruckner 7 i could just die rn) to the pedestrian (is that a theme from earlier i can’t quite tell) to the annoyed (oh FFS i told that person so effing many times not to miss that entrance) to the bored (omg why are they taking this repeat i don’t need to hear this music again) to the despairing (srsly fuck this whole thing such bullshit i should stop doing music and get a law degree and go work for SPLC what if i literally walked offstage at this very moment what would everyone do and who cares anyway)[4].

Here though, in HCL, among these people that I love in various ways, I experience myself listening-performing and am doing so in a Goldilocks just-right of creative flow and self-awareness.  I am making the piece and the form and the rules and the genre with my friends in real time.  And looking back on the experience, I even worry that as I commit these words to computer screen that they betray a fallen-ness and a certain critical distance and an already-subject-to-memory-death-ness and that, worse yet, they will somehow negatively impact your experience of such a piece when you have the opportunity to take part in it.  I hope you’ll accept my apology and forgive me for future harm to your listening-performing; but somehow I thought telling you about my experience was important for me to do and for you to read.

At some point various instructions started appearing on a screen.  There was a long period during which we walked around the space while the synths sustained some dissonant non-chord; based on your location, its sound changed, as if it were the un-arrival point in a non-cadence that not-closed the non-form.  Towards the end there was a graphic score that, tbh, I didn’t love; maybe it was a bit prescriptive and sort of a buzzkill at the end, I don’t really remember what I didn’t like about it.  I do recall at some point getting all conductor-y and like trying to get the four synths exactly in tune with each other on a very high frequency, and had to just deal with it when my rage for order was frustrated. 

Look.  I wish I could say that all of my writing since the election has been a sort of participation in group therapy, but I don’t even think that’s quite true.  It’s way more therapy for me—personally, as an individual—than for the group; it’s that I fear that what I’m doing as an artist is deeply and painfully irrelevant and I’m trying to work through those feelings; and I simply have to trust that I have your best interests in mind as well, and to hope that everything I write isn’t just so exhaustingly self-indulgent as to be not worth your time.  

Attali is particularly concerned with what he calls “stockpiling”, which is what happens in the “repeating” phase of music history (roughly, the industrial 20th century); what he calls “composition” is an answer to this.  “Stockpiling then becomes a substitute, not a preliminary condition, for use. People buy more records than they can listen to. They stockpile what they want to find the time to hear.” (p. 101)  If I were to theorize, I might say that stockpiling, so described, is merely a thing that capitalism realized it could hella-mega-do with drives (in the psychoanalytic sense) already inherent in earlier music—to codify forms, to control the experience of time.  The next logical step beyond refining these things into formenlehre-type models is to emphasize the control part, rather than the experience-of-time part, with the eventual outcome that no one listens to music but everyone owns a lot of it.  For Attali, the possible escape from this is a vague vision of a person playing “primarily for himself, outside any operationality.”  For Marek, writing 40 years later, it takes the form of the realization that “new music 2.0” “shrugged out” in 2008.  

To be tautological: music is always about its time and place, and this is because the people that make it make exactly what they make and not something else; which is to say, the music they make must be the stuff they are driven to make.  I don’t really want to do a bad job of trying to explain why I think this is (something about Trump, late capitalism, Roger Ailes, Middle Eastern politics, the weakness of the EU, WMD’s, bots, idk so much else), so much as I want you to understand something about the listening-performing experience I had with Ben, Deidre, and Peter.  It wasn’t transcendent (though it was arresting), and it may not have been great or even good music, and actually maybe it was not music in a sense in which I am/you are accustomed to thinking of it; but it felt right and it felt new.  

And actually this, most of all: I am interested in knowing from you, in some sense specific or general: what feels new and what feels right to you these days, musical or otherwise?



1  Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985); here’s a decent summary of its arguments in the event that you don’t have enough stockpiled time.

2 Not actually gonna talk too much about Marek’s essay here, but I do want to encourage you to go read it if you haven’t.  His analysis is shrewd and his writing is fun.

3 I don’t want to get too hung up on this because it’s not the point to of this essay, but to be fair to Marek, he also acknowledges this, and I wouldn’t to misconstrue him: “To repeat the so-tired-as-to-be-silly refrain aimed at so many people in v2.0: ‘ok, fine, but this isn’t new, this is all super 1960’s, these people aren’t radical.’ I am really not interested in having this conversation. Whether or not new music 2.0 is just a cyclical inversive reanimation of v1.0, its practice is nonetheless occasionally at odds with its intentions.”  Anyway like I said go read his essay if you haven’t.

4 If you walk offstage in the middle of a show, stop doing music, get a law degree, and go work for the Southern Poverty Law Center, I would strongly support your life choice.  I just want to affirm that unambiguously.


[This piece is an expanded set of program notes for the April 28, 2017 joint concert of the DePaul Concert Orchestra and Ensemble 20+]

Jean-Féry Rebel (1666-1747): “Le Cahos” from Les Elemens (1737) (DePaul Concert Orchestra)
John Cage (1912-1992): Atlas Eclipticalis (1964) (Ensemble 20+)
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809): Introduction ("The Representation of Chaos") to The Creation (1798) (DPCO)
Peter Ablinger (b. 1959): Three Minutes for Orchestra (2003) (DPCO)
* Intermission *
Peter Ablinger (b. 1959): Three Minutes for Orchestra (2003) (DPCO) (repeat performance)
Charles Ives (1874-1954): Scherzo: Over The Pavements (1906/1913) (Ensemble 20+)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Symphony No. 3, Eroica (1806) (DPCO)
I. Allegro con brio


Among the oldest aesthetic and theoretical concerns in the field of music is the attempt to create a clear sense of just what is music and just what it is not—where noise starts and where it ends.  Given that this has persisted, explicitly or implicitly, for centuries, our current project is not to attempt yet another insufficient and unsatisfying answer; rather, it is to examine how this question has ramified in music of the distant and recent past, and how we hear answers to those questions today.  And it is far from an empty theoretical exercise.  We can experience, in each work presented on this program, composers experimenting with the limits of the musical vocabulary of their culture, pushing or breaking or ignoring boundaries, and generally struggling with material they exert only varying levels of control over.

Jean-Féry Rebel was hardly a revolutionary firebrand.  His was a successful career as, among other things, a violinist and the court composer to Louis XIV; he was 71 years old in 1737 when he wrote his ballet Les Elemens, which, in spite of his background as a force of establishment and tradition, contains some of the most untamed music of the 18th century.  Wrote Rebel:

The introduction to this work is Chaos itself; that confusion which reigned among the Elements before the moment when, subject to immutable laws, they assumed their prescribed places within the natural order. This initial idea led me somewhat further. I have dared to link the idea of the confusion of the Elements with that of confusion in Harmony. I have risked opening with all the notes sounding together, or rather, all the notes in an octave played as a single sound. To designate, in this confusion, each particular element, I have availed myself of some widely accepted conventions. The bass expresses Earth by tied notes which are played jerkily. The flutes, with their rising and falling line, imitate the flow and murmur of Water. Air is depicted by pauses followed by cadenzas on the small flutes, and finally the violins, with their liveliness and brilliance represent the activity of Fire. These characteristics may be recognized, separate or intermingled, in whole or in part, in the diverse reprises that I have called Chaos, and which mark the efforts of the Elements to get free of each other.

John Cage, two centuries later, had rather different ideas about chaos, though perhaps it behooves us to use his terms, “chance” and “indeterminacy”, and to take his various statements on these subjects at face value:

My intention is to let things be themselves.[...]

[Indeterminacy is] the ability of a piece to be performed in substantially different ways[....]

[Music is] an affirmation of life—not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we're living.

Atlas Eclipticalis, an indeterminate work, was composed by Cage using the “Atlas Eclipticalis 1950.0” (a 1958 atlas of the stars made by Czech astronomer Antonín Becvár).  Cage took the star charts and superimposed over them musical staves to generate notation; thus he completely removes any of his own taste or volition from the compositional process.  A complex of permissive and sometimes not-completely-clear instructions govern its execution, thus making it both indeterminate in its composition and its performance.  It may be played in whole or in part by any number of players, up to a full orchestra.  It may be played simultaneously with Winter Music, for one to 20 pianists (which it is tonight), or with Song Books.  Most provocatively, Cage writes that “a performance may be at any point between minimum activity (silence) and maximum activity (what’s written).”  

Cage wrote, in his essay Music as Process: II. Indeterminacy, the following:

One evening Morton Feldman said that when he composed he was dead; this recalls to me the statement of my father, an inventor, who says he does his best work when he is sound asleep. The two suggest the "deep sleep" of Indian mental practice. The ego no longer blocks action. A fluency obtains which is characteristic of nature. The seasons make the round of spring, summer, fall, and winter, interpreted in Indian thought as creation, preservation, destruction, and quiescence. Deep sleep is comparable to quiescence. Each spring brings no matter what eventuality. The performer then will act in any way. Whether he does so in an organized way or in any one of the not consciously organized ways cannot be answered until his action is a reality.

This is severely disciplined music that demands from its composer, performers, and listeners complete awareness, total attention to the sound around them, and careful removal of all sorts of agency that interferes with those things.  As it turns out "let[ting] things be themselves" is not easy for humans, whose basic modus operandi is to attempt to exert change, in some manner, on the world in which they live.  

The introduction (“The Representation of Chaos”) to Joseph Haydn’s Creation (which, though written in 1797-8, became one of the greatest hits of the early 19th century), may seem similar to Jean-Féry Rebel’s work: both are intentionally transgressive of various rules of their respective discourses, and the compositional performance is intended ultimately to reinforce the prevailing social ideologies (as represented in the guise of conventions of tonality, form, and instrumentation).  Haydn’s vision, though, is both more raw and more tame at the same time.  Its slow and formless meandering, its incorrect execution of common practice harmonic progressions, its stunningly prescient and coloristic orchestration, all paint a sophisticated picture of chaos; its rather ordinary deployment of key areas—based on the the limitations and normal use of the available instruments—show us that the frame of this picture is distinctly that of the late-18th century bourgeoisie.

Austrian composer Peter Ablinger writes [Author’s note: all quotations slightly edited from composer’s website]:

Once—I believe it was 1986, high summer—I came on something remarkable while on a walk through the fields aast of Vienna near the Hungarian border and close to the birthplace of Haydn.  The corn stood high and it was just before harvest.  The hot summer east wind swept through the fields and suddenly I heard das Rauschen [noise/the sound].  Although it was often explained to me, I can still never say how wheat and rye are different.  But I heard the difference.  I believe it was the first time I really heard outside an aesthetic circumstance (say, a concert).  Something had happened.  Before and after were categorically separated, had nothing more to do with each other.  At least it appeared to me then that way.  In hindsight I recognize/remember other comparable experiences that had to do with a jerking open of perception, but the walk through the corn fields was perhaps the most momentous.  

His Drei Minuten für Orchester (Three Minutes for Orchestra) is part of a larger work, Altar, about which the composer writes:

ALTAR (2002-03)
is one piece in three different situations.

The first situation involves so-called "listening columns" in public space where one could take headphones and listen to what (right now) can be heard in the actual situation.  The second situation [entitled “Complementary Study”] is an 18 minute long, quite hermetic, noise block including an almost inaudible live cello.  The third part is "Three Minutes for Orchestra".  It consists of 3 layers: first, ambient street sounds recorded at the exact places where the listening columns were located, secondly, the orchestra part with its parallel analysis of the frequencies of these street sounds, and an additional piano part which is just an ascending scale.

All 3 pieces are presenting the same 3 situations in different medias. Therefore the piece is also about different possibilities of (artistic) representation.


The "Three Minutes for Orchestra" also uses sound that was previously recorded on the the “listening columns” in the city center.  The piece is divided into three parts, each of which is symmetrically arranged around the 40-second playback of a "listening column" recording: the piano begins, the orchestra begins, the sound recording plays, end of the orchestra part, end of the piano part.[...]  The orchestra plays an acoustic analysis of the recorded sound landscape at a resolution of 2.5 seconds (which corresponds to a sampling rate of 0.4 Hz).  The piano moves slowly in every part, similar to the cello in the "Complementary Study" of Altar, through its frequency range.  The orchestra, like the piano, uses only the seven notes: C, D, E quarter-tone flat, F, G, A quarter-tone flat, B-flat.  The orchestra "accompanies" the city sounds of the CD, not vice versa.

Charles Ives, professional insurance salesman and amateur composer, lived in a basement apartment (“poverty flat” as Ives and his roommate called it) in Central Park West in the opening years of the 20th century, while working for Mutual Insurance Company in New York City.  From the window he observed people going by “in all different steps” about which he said, “I was struck with how many different and changing kinds of beats, times, rhythms, etc., went on together—but quite naturally.”  His Scherzo: Over the Pavements is the result of these listening experiences; a “kind of take-off of street dancing,” it is initially straightforward but develops into a chaotic series of independent streams and styles, all woven together into one work.  A ragtime section bookends a fiendish piano cadenza (on the one hand, “As Fast As Possible” but, apologetically, “to play or not to play”) as well as a concatenation of a brass march and a woodwind dance.  

Finally, Beethoven’s Eroica symphony, noise on a grand scale, and writ on a multiple levels.  Try as we might, it would be simply impossible for an audience of 2017 to recover the feeling of upheaval caused by the political, social, and intellectual revolutions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  One can study the history of, and thought behind, the art and politics of the time.  But fundamentally, we are unable to experience the extent to which the sweeping away of the ancien regime in France changed people’s perception of life itself, and the medium via which it is lived, time.  As musicologist Reinhold Brinkmann has written: “The most overwhelming effect the Revolution had on its contemporaries was indeed an entirely new mode of experiencing time.”  This experience was based on the recognition that far-reaching and profound social changes were taking place, changes as extraordinary in speed as they were unforeseen.  Contemporaries noted the tempo of change, the acceleration in the passage of time itself, and “contemporaneity of the non-contemporary” the latter a result of differing levels of acceleration in disparate fields.  The Eroica symphony is time-capsule of this feeling, a representation of literal and historical and psychological noise.

The work opens with two bracing, aggressive chords, in media res interruptions of whatever is happening previously.  (These chords have been so much the obsession of culture and the collective unconscious that there exists a youtube video of nothing but a series of chronologically progressive recordings of these two chords).  They are followed immediately by what can only generously be called a "theme" in the cellos whose stable E-flat major triad is immediately belied by a harmonically ambiguous C-sharp.  The subsequent music is a breathless hodge-podge, a frantic exposition of thematic fragments, sudden dynamic changes, shifts of the perceived meter, strange accents, and eventually, a sort of orchestral record-skipping—getting stuck on a single chord that, while recalling the opening, defies other aspects of the musical logic of Beethoven’s culture.  The key of B-flat major is eventually achieved, but the exposition is repeated with a jarring move back to E-flat.

The long development section goes further.  Sforzandos, unlocalizable disruptions of  consciousness, ring out unpredictably.  There is a short fugato.  Strife returns, intensified.  Diminished chords create harmonic uncertainty.  Hemiolas create a the tension between the triple meter printed and a clearly audible duple.  The tension becomes unbearable on a chord that is aggressively confrontational in its dissonance, and the music collapses onto the heavy strings.  A mournful theme emerges in the oboes—the first real melody of the movement, and, though motivically related to the opening, new.  In a truly unusual formal move, it lends all the more emotional weight to the moment, and serves as a sort of "N.B." that tells us what we already knew: this is not a normal, well-behaved sonata form.  The music dwindles to near inactivity.  The second horn stumbles in obliviously to catalyze a change.  (Famously, even Beethoven's student Ferdinand Ries thought it was a mistake during the first rehearsal-performance; the none-too-pleased composer struck him on the ear—a curious sort of noise, indeed.  But let us notice that it perfectly captures, in a single gesture, Beethoven’s entire project, and the aim of this concert: to hit the sense of hearing, to wake it up, to make it reconsider what it previously understood to be wrong.)  While the long recapitulation basically follows the exposition’s patterns, it ends without having achieved a definitive, unambiguous version of the opening theme.  The post-formal coda finally offers a provisional completion—heroically in the first horn, then in the first violins accompanied by a horn chorale in canon, and eventually triumphant with trumpets.  But the more we hear it, the more cyclical and sing-songy it seems.  The completion is an illusion.  Make no mistake: the ever-changing nature of this music reveals it to be a fragment of revolution—theme as enigma, sonata form as agent of change, music as noise, symphony as Hegelian “becoming” rather than Aristotelian “being.”  Maintaining appearances, though, the opening two chords, now rounded out with a third—heroic, enlightened, positivistic—return to end the movement.

But that’s not where the symphony ends; and even though the concert is over, its work is no less incomplete.  Let us close with a passage from an interview with composer, improvisor, computer musician, scholar George Lewis, quoted in in Aaron Cassidy and Aaron Einbond’s Noise In And As Music:

[I]n his 1999 book Culture on the Margins, historian Jon Cruz points out, the trickster function of noise as “sound out of order. It evades, eludes, spills out of, or flows over, the preferred channels—out of place, resistant to capture.” In that sense, the pretense to control becomes exposed as quixotic; noise and noises routinely overflow the banks of propriety, resisting and unleashing. People hear the sound and say, “no one told me it could be like that; I wonder what else they haven’t told me.” Or they say, “wow, that music is really different”; once they start down that road, thoughts inevitably turn to what else might need to be different.

So when we want change, in the memorable phrase of the rap group Public Enemy, we “bring the noise”—in Egypt, Tunisia, Montreal, or elsewhere. The improvised, spontaneous, seemingly leaderless nature of these and other protests reminds us of the primary remit of new music and new noises: to declare that change is possible.

Chicago New Music as assemblage; or, why are we doing this?

[A version of this piece was originally published on Oct. 4, 2016, in New Music Box]

I realize that there is an imbedded irony in a person who lives and works in Chicago new music making this observation, but I’ll do it anyway: it seems like people outside of Chicago talk a lot about new music in Chicago.  Why is this?   

From my vantage point—the lives-here, works-here one—I want to guess at an answer by saying tentative things, stutter while I do so, and use the shrugging shoulders emoji at the end of what I say.  I want to make a weak claim, not a strong one; I don’t want to assert that what is happening in Chicago is truly unique or mystically special or importantly revolutionary.  I don’t have the expertise to be able to make such a claim (and, actually, a suspicion of expertise is a strain in a mode of artistic production here).  What I want to hypothesize is that Chicago is a particularly concentrated expression of confluences in current culture, and that the evidence of this is both the explosive energy of the city’s new music community in recent years and also how hard its characteristics are to pin down.  This essay (in both senses: “a piece of writing,” but also “try” or “effort”) is one of a number of attempts I’ve made to theorize Chicago new music, and inherent in these attempts is—as an axiomatic presupposition surely, an ever-present anxiety maybe—an awareness that I could be wrong.  Going a bit further: my tendency to theorize, my hypothesizing impulse, my weak-claim-making, is a very Chicago-new-music-esque characteristic.

What comes to mind when I describe the character of Chicago new music are words like “provisional” and “transient”and “conditional” and “contingent” and “fragmented.”

A quintessential work of Chicago new music is something like George Lewis’s Assemblage, which he wrote for Ensemble Dal Niente (which I conduct) in 2013.  It’s quintessential to Chicago new music because it was written for the Bowling Green New Music Festival by a Chicago-born improviser/scholar/composer/computer musician living in New York for a new music ensemble started ten years ago by a bunch of mostly students without jobs, composed in a style that references many other musics, and cast in a form that encourages the listener to “catch the bus and go along for the ride.”  Thus, the city of Chicago is essential to the work’s creation, but its presence cannot be readily pointed to.  The essence of its Chicago-ness, if one may say so, is the not-exactly-there-ness of Chicago.  George was born in Chicago, cut his teeth as an experimental musician in the AACM, left to go elsewhere (Yale and Paris and San Diego and New York), has turned to notated composition only in relatively recent years.  Ensemble Dal Niente (literally, “from nothing”) was initially a bunch of musicians—mostly from Michigan or Indiana or Texas or Georgia or Canada or Kentucky, and not too many of whom were actually born in Chicago—just trying to make stuff work because existing things didn’t satisfy.  The Bowling Green New Music Festival is sort of close to Chicago I guess, kind of.  “Both the title and the content of Assemblage refer to a type of visual artmaking that recombines and recontextualizes collections of natural and human-made objects,” writes George.  Everything about the piece—its composer, the musicians for whom it was written, the form, its external references, the listener’s experience, the circumstances of its production—is provisional.  It is the instantiation of the contingent, if such a thing isn’t a contradiction in terms.  


To be less slippery, I buy a basic Marxian approach to culture (articulated and developed by, for instance, Adorno and other Frankfurt School theorists) that “means grasping[...] forms, styles and meanings as the products of a particular history” (Terry Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 2), as the results of a set of socio-economic conditions.  It’s not merely that works tend to be about their place and time, or that composers consciously engage with political issues (say, the Eroica symphony or Shostakovich’s wartime works or John Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls); it’s that every facet of culture creates the conditions for a piece of music, and this happens on many levels, including (and especially importantly) unconscious ones.  We have a particular and peculiar situation in Chicago: it's a very large city—the largest in a large region—that attracts intelligent, talented young people from this region and beyond.  It has famous performing and visual arts institutions with histories of being famous.  But these same institutions suffer from a certain second city-ism that makes them anxious about their own prestige and causes them to look to more famous arts institutions (in other cities) for art, and thus, they have only recently started paying close attention to the local new music scene.  It doesn't have many presenters, so the venue situation is often difficult.  (Sure, there are a few staple places where you might go to sample various flavors of experimental music, and plenty of it: Experimental Sounds Studio or Elastic Arts or the Hideout, say; or famously, Constellation, for instance; this is mostly due to the hard work of an amazingly dedicated staff led by the inexhaustible Peter Margasak.)  It's hard to find funding.  And while it’s not hard to make a living (it’s not as expensive as many East or West Coast metropolises), it’s hard making a living in music in Chicago.  There are only a few universities and full-time orchestras, and there are a lot of people.  

Chicago is simultaneously highly cosmopolitan and deeply provincial; this can be, depending on how you parse it, a painful contradiction to live in or a fruitful tension with which to engage.  Either way, these oppositions prompt the asking of a basic question: why are we doing this?  Put another way, or perhaps to offer a provisional answer: if we have an intelligent community of musicians, audience members, and composers, yet the possibility of creating a sustainable, full-time career seems remote, we’d better do something that is really meaningful to us rather than exhaust ourselves chasing a phantasmagoric notion of “accessibility.”  The financial stakes are often low.  This is neither to promote a romanticized starving-artist mythos updated for the 21st-century US nor to suggest that well-funded art here can’t be authentic; it is to say that the fact that people here mostly aren’t either a) stringently competing for a place in a saturated PR/marketing landscape or b) doing all they can to scrounge up the most minimal, indifferent, bewildered of audiences, has a defining impact on the character, structure, and style of the art that's made.  The drive to specialize in order to compete, to niche-ify, is less urgent; people seem free to develop authentically.

This pushes a group like, say, Mocrep to play their instruments less and pursue performance art more.  It pushes a group like Dal Niente in all kinds of different directions (a collaboration with Deerhoof, a portrait album of George Lewis, the performance of work by as many local composers as we can manage, plus lots of recent European music).  Third Coast Percussion has begun writing pieces collaboratively, somehow finding time to do so amid a nomadic touring schedule.  Spektral Quartet has made an art of the low-culture/high-culture juxtaposition with its Sampler Pack series.  The Chicago Arts Initiative is a group of high school students who perform and compose collectively, founded by Dal Niente guitarist Jesse Langen.  I read the work of local tape label/performance collective(?) Parlour Tapes+ as partially a non-high-culture re-imagining of the historical avant-garde (meant in Peter Burger’s sense).  Chicago composers explore stylistic ideas of dizzying dissimilarity; the Northwestern doctoral composition recitals from November 2015 to May 2016 alone are a worthy dissertation topic.  (If you don’t believe me, do check out the head-spinningly diverse aesthetics of David Reminick, Jenna Lyle, LJ White, Alex Temple, Chris Fisher-Lochhead, and Katie Young.)  Do you find the prospect of exploring this series of links daunting?  If so, welcome to my world. 

[I have an impulse to put here some sort of “full disclosure” statement about who of the above are personal friends about whom I cannot be objective, but the truth is I know all of these people.  This is not just okay, but actually great; I do not feign a non-existent objectivity or an impossible and undesirable disinterest.]


Eliza Brown wrote Prospect and Refuge (video here) for Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble in 2015.  Here we go again: Eliza is a Chicago composer in the sense that she is from Philadelphia, teaches at DePauw in Indiana, but attended Northwestern and worked in Chicago for many years.  Quince is a Chicago(ish?) group in the sense that only one of its members actually lived in Chicago at the time of this work’s writing but many of them are in Chicago often.  “The result is an experimental music-theater piece, primarily intended for re-purposed or non-traditional performance venues, that depicts four private individuals meeting in a public space. The dramaturgy of the work—how it is interpreted and staged by the performers—is to be adapted according to the social history and/or function of each performance space,” says Eliza.  This is a Chicago piece in multiple senses: it is written by and for Chicago musicians (“Chicago” as just described), and it has at its structural core a provisionality (can a core be provisional?).  But paradoxically, it’s also just deeply structurally concerned with the place and time of its staging.  This is not a work that is reproducible and commodifiable: you can’t find it in a Starbucks in Houston; rather, you might, but it would be a different piece.  That Zach Moore wrote a similar piece for my DePaul School of Music group, Ensemble 20+, just months before, is telling. About the piece, “???” (Zach says, “I’m bad at titles”; I’m not sure I agree),  he says:

I got into it for the obvious reason that a piece takes places at a specific time and place, and that is obviously a huge part of the piece (what the venue is like, who is there, what exterior sounds and movements are happening) yet they are somewhat uncontrollable, so to do it again would be a "different" piece. [...] I don't see reproducibility as any part of my practice. So, when I do a piece that's performed once, I feel like it acts as a community event, more so than the premiere of "my" piece.

In March 2015, my friends Seth Brodsky and Philipp Blume held an enormous festival of the music of mathias spahlinger (spahlinger writes in militant lower-case letters) for his 70th birthday, in which I participated with my DePaul orchestra and Ensemble Dal Niente.  It was a typical Chicago effort, mixing the DIY with the institutional.  The Goethe Institute and the University of Chicago and DePaul University were among the kind, supportive sponsors, but we made every dollar count.  The festival included an ambitious string of performances, a thoughtful symposium, and an elegant program book.  This was an event that was simpatico with the experimental, make-it-work character of our new music scene; perhaps a proposed resistance to a commodified concert-going and -making, a different way of doing things expressed in the work of a composer with many years experiencing thinking about precisely that question.  Says spahlinger about his doppelt bejaht (“doubly affirmed”): etudes for orchestra without conductor:

artworks too are manufactured and distributed according to the conditions of the market, and more to the point: their innermost constitution is itself dependent on the means of production, inculcated in power relations and their corresponding patterns of thinking. [...]

playing instructions for doppelt bejaht were devised with the aim of focusing the musician’s attention and responsibility on the whole—a whole which, since it involves new music, can only be contradictory, open whole, changeable in itself and actually changing itself.

spahlinger is an exciting figure to me not because he’s a Famous German ComposerTM, but because he’s a person who has simply been granted the time and means to work on these various issues in depth.  What drew me to him is that his life’s work does a more thorough and complete job of approaching cultural problems in our world and recent past than my own analysis does.  His critiques of commodification are penetrating and moving as musical experiences.

The festival was roundly criticized in the Chicago Tribune for not having been well-enough advertised.  

spahlinger wrote to me after the festival, in response to certain of my soul-searching queries:

you ask some first and last questions and i take this very seriously by saying: try to give yourself preliminary answers[...]

so, why are we doing this? music (not: is, but) can be a way to communicate (and to understand by ourselves), what we are, want to be, and will be by finding out, what is our way.  [Author’s note: read this sentence a few more times; it’s worth your while.]

sorry, this is not very specific.


Here I feel that I have reached a satisfying conclusion; I have sketched the essence, or the rather, the process, of Chicago new music’s transient state.  Yet I must say more.  On the one hand, everything I write above is consonant with my experience and so deeply felt that I’ve restlessly redefined my career trajectory because I feel inspired by the exciting work I see on a daily basis.  I feel that I have theorized in a nuanced, sympathetic, friendly manner the work of my colleagues.  On the other hand, it’s painfully clear that there’s an awful lot I’m leaving out.  I’m aware that I haven’t mentioned a number of Chicago new music organizations: Chicago Composers Orchestra, Fulcrum Point New Music Project, Eighth Blackbird, Contempo, CSO’s MusicNOW.  I recognize that, even in the list of organizations I’m leaving out, still more remain left out.  What I initially called “a weak claim, not a strong one,” is shown to be all the weaker.  There are vast numbers of complicating factors, and only the embrace of these will give us a fleeting glimpse of the reality of the situation: that there is not a unified whole to be grasped.

I said earlier in this piece that “[famous arts] institutions [...] have only recently started paying close attention to the local new music scene.”  This is true.  Ensemble Dal Niente, Third Coast Percussion, New Music Chicago have just entered their second decade.  Those groups are no longer new; Chicago new(?) music is no longer emerging, it is emerged.  Famous arts institutions are beginning to pay attention to local new music (for instance: CSO’s MusicNow, led by Samuel Adams and Elizabeth Ogonek, has commissioned Katie Young, Kyle Vegter of Manual Cinema, Marcos Balter, Sam Pluta—all current or former Chicago residents).  Thus, my analysis here can also be described by all of the adjectives I initially used to describe Chicago new music: Provisional.  Transient. Conditional.  Contingent.  Fragmented.  This is a scene entering a new phase of existence, and the socio-economic circumstances will—unavoidably—alter its style, forms, media, and contents.  I don’t know whether it will be for better or for worse, and I don’t know if the categories of “better” and “worse” will make sense as analytical tools.  Honestly, I just have no idea what’s going to happen.

The Neo-Futurist Kitchen: An Unacceptably Belated Review, Sort Of

The insaney ambitious Neo-Futurist Kitchen, sub-billed as “a micro-festival on art & performance” [“micro,” ha], took place at their 5153 N. Ashland space in Andersonville the extended weekend of July 21-25.  In an addition to the Neo-Futurists’ own work, it featured a diverse-but-somehow-related array of “performers, actors, movers, dancers,” local and national.  As a musician, i.e., a person who doesn’t specialize in non-musical performance, I want to call most of what I saw something like “experimental theater,” though I’m not sure that this is, strictly speaking, accurate.  More accurately, or rather more to the point, it felt experimental to me, and I hope by saying this I don’t induce eye-rolls or dismissive impulses.  It felt experimental in a true sense, in, like, a “um, what are we doing and why are we doing it and what does it actually mean to do something? so let’s try this and see if it works” sense.  Writing from the point of view of a musician, as someone in the "new music community," this particularly committed, driven, unforgiving, possibly painfully self-excavating mode of experimentation feels like something a new music community could learn from, though to be perfectly honest, I’m not 100% sure what.  But perhaps this not-100%-sure-ness is what true experimentation does to one, and perhaps that’s why it’s worthy of our attention.

I saw 4.5 shows and I’ll tell you about each one except for the half-show.  Looking back on it, 4.5 shows on this festival seems a woefully inadequate attendance rate, given what was available.  Looking back on my looking back, though, an underlying theme of the festival was incompleteness and fragmentation, so we might say that my experience of 4.5 shows and its woefully inadequacy was itself a performance of this theme.  Sure; let’s go with that.  Better than the other conclusion, which is that I’m a bit lazy.

The Simple Simples are an LA-based five-person comedy(?) troupe(?), a subset(?) of the Wet Hippo Collective, which performed on Friday evening.  The way in which they present themselves is just elegant enough to emphasize its grossness.  They each dress in different solid colors whose the tops and bottoms don’t quite match.  The clothes are all tight-fitting, emphasizing bodily irregularities, giving perhaps a bit TMI, and eventually, absorbing lots and lots of sweat.  In terms of the show itself: I wouldn’t have noticed this, but Andrew Tham thought they are working in a tradition of clown performance, which I mention to give you an idea of the particulars of their exaggerated movement style.  I spent the entire 90 minutes of the show asking myself on and off “what if people actually behaved like this in the world?”  This is not normally the question I ask of theater, because the fictionality of what we’re seeing tends to remain clear and present in my mind, even when the style is realist.  Here, though, their odd motions, alternately slightly too slow, too fast, too big, too excited, too low-key, too strangely shaped, lived in a sort of uncanny valley of closeness-yet-farness from normal human physicality.  The style of verbal discourse is equally eerie in its simultaneous foreign-ness and recognizability, at one point transforming an audience member’s name—a very average white-guy name that I don’t recall—to, I think, “Slonk,” i.e., something that could be an English word but is not.  The central drama(?) of the show centers around the green character performing a series of ostensibly physically demanding tasks, even though they obviously aren’t so—lifting a miniature stuffed toy bison, then a stuffed toy swan, finally an-obviously-not-that-heavy door.  Each time the duration becomes longer, claimed to be increasingly unreasonable even though it’s not; each time the character makes a big deal out of not wanting to disappoint us, even though we don’t really care; and when he cannot hold the door for 204 seconds (even though he surely could), he is despondent, declaring that he has let us down, even though he hasn’t.  In short, this comedy at its best; the entire game is an extended reflection on why anyone does anything at all and feels any particular way about it.  Which is to say, as patently ridiculous as ostensible failure at extended-duration door-lifting is, stuff we actually feel happy or sad about on a daily basis may not be much less so.  

On Saturday, I saw The Backroom Shakespeare Project “perform” A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  “Perform” is in quotation marks because their jumping-off point is a place of being intentionally unpolished, and their preparation therefore doesn't accord with what we normally expect for a legit performance: advertised for the fact that they have only one rehearsal, no director, and perform in bars, the aesthetic of sloppiness is consciously invoked and lived and felt and celebrated.  The actors forget their lines and have to be prompted, one reads his part from a cellphone for the last third, they’ll often gloss a particularly impenetrable bit of text with creative uses of the word “fuck.”  My initial impulse was to read this whole ethos, in an unobvious way, as a nod towards authenticity—when one imagines (rather, I imagine) performances of Shakespeare plays back in the day, one fantasizes (rather, I fantasize) about a rowdy, smelly, dirty audience of drunk people, throwing rotten food at the stage, responding spontaneously, having a direct experience with this art that is unavailable to me, hopelessly flawed 21st century viewer that I am.  Putting Shakespeare in a bar, says one’s (my) fantasy logic, is the closest equivalent.  I don’t think, though, this is the actual reason Backroom Shakespeare “performs” this way.  Here is where an instructive lesson might be learned for musicians: unlike (some but not all) classical music shows at bars (which can, but don’t always, have a self-congratulatory, smug, aren’t-we-cool kind of vibe), I found that the context actually helped me engage with the play more.  Though it wasn’t just the bar-ness of the show that was great (though drinking beer is, in fact, engaging), it was the particular way their brand of messiness gave the emotional context of the play a true-to-life-ness that is, in my small sample size of experience, unusual in Shakespeare performances.  It wasn’t just that the costumes and props were hilariously contemporary (though they were; say, Lysander sporting a backwards baseball cap and tank-top, Puck taking notes on post-its); and it wasn’t just that they drank beer while they performed (though they did); and it wasn’t just that Nick Bottom puts on a Donald Trump mask rather than that of a donkey, causing the play to, in effect, call Trump an ass (though it did, and he is).  It’s that the actual casting tried to out-gender-bend just about anything from the tradition of opera or stage, such that all four young lovers—Helena and Lysander and Hermia and Demetrius—were lesbian couples, and in one case an interracial lesbian couple.  What this accomplished was actually the opposite of shock value or a trying-too-hard mode (that one often sees in theater and, sometimes spectacularly unsuccessfully, in opera) of updating a hopelessly passé representation of the world.  It made the couples seem ordinary because the rawness and power of their love was palpable; it made you realize that everyone is lovable by someone, and that this love is a uniquely, mysteriously powerful force.  In short, it emphasized the only thing, in spite of the 500 years of intervening history, that can’t have changed since Shakespeare’s time: that people fall in love and it’s nuts and crazy things happen as a result.

Early Sunday afternoon was the only musical act on the festival, a performance/presentation by Parlour Tapes+, local cassette tape label/performance collective/roommates/dance-party producers (questionable)/”just put whatever.”  By way of disclosure, I should say I'm close friends with all of them and am 0% objective; but that’s ok because they don’t really need me to tell you how awesome they are.  Andrew Tham and Deidre Huckabay performed Mark Applebaum’s Aphasia (here’s a video of the composer performing it) which I'll describe in technical terms: there is pre-recorded fixed media, sounds synthesized from someone’s voice, and there are two performers who make gestures that relate in some way to the sounds.  The relationship is unclear—are the gestures causing the sounds? are the sounds prompting the gestures? are they somehow part of the same thing?  While these are fatal ambiguities, the piece is exceedingly compelling because, whatever is going on, one cannot help but sympathize/empathize with the performers’ bodies.  Perhaps we want to do the same thing they’re doing, or perhaps we want to understand the mystery of their experience, or perhaps we want to know how they feel while performing this piece.  Regardless, it’s a work that brings to the fore the irreducibly human role of the body in the musical performances, not only because of the actions of the performers but because of the fact that the electronic component is actually made up of human sounds.  

Also on Parlour Tapes+’s set was Jeff Kimmel (on bass clarinet) and Sam Scranton (on drum kit augmented by firewood, galvanized spikes, a bolt, a caxixi (whatever that is), a foot-long piece of rebar, and “a random piece of metal found on the streets of Memphis” ←---he actually said that) performing a truly free improvisation, inviting a constant question and fascination with how their seemingly unrelated sounds relate; this is especially palpable because Jeff’s enviably careful and parsimonious deployment of his virtuosity is somehow mirrored in, but totally different from, Sam’s mindful, focused attention to the strange sounds he likes.  The final piece on on the Parlour Tapes+ show was a shortened version of Rachel Ellison’s Gymnasium for the Soul, in which she interviews all manner of people about the “subjective experience of inhabiting their own body.”  Small groups of audience members read these interviews outloud, discuss how their experience with their body is the same or different, then perform various exercises as a result.  It was a fitting bookend to Aphasia, which is about the body in a different way; and it was thrillingly, tantalizingly unsatisfying; which is to say, the full version of her ever-growing project has the potential to be something of unique specialness and to clearly (or maybe unclearly) impact how one might think of oneself.

Sunday afternoon was the latest version of The Arrow, a performance piece curated by Kurt Chiang (the Neo-Futurists’ Artistic Director) and Lily Mooney (their Education Coordinator) with a cast of Neos playing themselves.  (Which is to say, the sort of Cretin-liars-paradoxical act of claiming, on a stage, that they’re not acting, is one part a way of inviting you to have a certain intimate relationship with the material they perform; and one part a way of asking what it means to play oneself every day in real life.)  Each Neo has written a (sometimes highly) personal essay based on a prompt; each reads their essay from the beginning, being interrupted by another Neo, who either reads their own essay, or begins a play they’ve written collaboratively in response to the essays, or who asks a question—an “arrow” (because sometimes they hit and sometimes they miss).  MJ Wrobel’s essay is about the slow process of embracing an agender identity; Tyler Smith’s is about a excruciating loss of a tooth that’s causing him pain; Liz Baron’s is about a childhood fantasy of becoming a singer and the slow disillusioning process; Lily Mooney’s is about rocks, sort of, I think.  It’s often confusing and hard to follow.  It is occasionally funny, sometimes inscrutable, often intensely moving.  More than anything else, it feels authentic.  Trust me, I realize that “authentic” is an impossibly ambitious word—we’ve read too much critical theory to have any confidence that we’re undivided subjects with unified points of view who are capable of fully understanding what we think and feel (“My body goes up to bat, but I don't stay to watch,” as Kurt Chiang’s essay puts it).  So I get why you might that that saying this show is “authentic” is hopelessly naive.  

But it’s authentic precisely because of how fragmentary it is.  We like to pretend that that our lives have clear narratives—my friendships go like this, my romances follow a pattern, my relationship with my parents have trended a certain way—but they don’t really.  We make up those narratives in order to function day-to-day, and the particularities of lived experience are way more complicated and chaotic than a tidy story.  And this—complicated and chaotic—is precisely what the The Arrow is.  Personal stories are not presented as straightforward, and in fact the very formal mechanism of the show makes straightforwardness the one thing that is prohibited.  Content-wise, the stories themselves are mostly about states of change and transition.  "Does anything actually have a conclusion, or is that always self-determined?  Does a narrative need an arc to be complete?" asks Kaitlyn Andrews’ piece.  The arrows, hitting sometimes and missing actually more often, wear their imperfections proudly.  And, gosh, isn’t the arrow a great figure?  Sure, if you shoot one, it ends up somewhere; but many things impact its trajectory that you don’t exactly control: the arrow’s materials, the bow, the wind, your own strength, and the precision of your aim.  

The form and format of The Arrow is, in short, mimetic of lived experience in 2016 in a way that one rarely finds.  Less academically, sitting there as an audience member, looking, listening, watching, it just feels very real.  It seems to me that new music (and I think I mean here the community of people more than I even mean the music itself) can learn something from this, and I hasten to add that I’m still not 100% sure what.  Music is, after all, just different.  It doesn’t deal with questions that we normally think of as “semantic” in the way that language does, and one might claim that this open-ness to a multiplicity of meanings is part of its unique power.  Still, though, one experiences plenty of music shows that don’t have this feeling of realness, that instead produce a feeling of unproductive alienation, boredom, a lack of satisfaction, a feeling of uselessness.  Trust me, if I had a clear take-away message for new music people from the Neo-Futurist Kitchen, I would say what it is; but I don’t.  Maybe the best I can do is suggest that we all go to events like theirs.

Because in the end my experience with this “micro[!]-festival” worked on multiple levels simultaneously, was exceedingly diverse, and was strangely unified.  It prompted extended reflection on what a human might do in the world with their body and with their psychology, and it did so in ways alternately elegant and unrefined.  It explored and created forms that existed in a positive feedback loop with their content, and was never insincere or trite.  In short, it was great.  I guess really what I want to say is that I’m glad I went.

21st century orchestras, 21st century issues

[A version of this essay originally appeared on WQXR.org as part of a series celebrating Symphomania 2.0, a broadcast marathon of 21st century orchestra music]

If there is one thing that I have learned in my unusual career as a conductor, it’s that our field is in a state of becoming, rather than of being.  As much as we might pretend otherwise, and as much as it might be in the interests of our institutions to believe the opposite, everything about music is in a state of flux all the time.  Playing styles change, audiences’ tastes shift, performers age, instruments develop, technology alters how we receive and listen.  In a certain sense, this is obvious, a truism—the world changes, and so how could the culture that is part of it and reflects it not also change? 

The particular question of what music is played, i.e., repertoire, is a thorny one, though, especially in the United States.  Beethoven’s music, say, is great and influential and important for a number of reasons.  (And actually I’d argue that chief among these are that his is music of change, of revolution, at a critical time in European history that had implications for our current world.)  But why do we tend to make a specific category distinction when talking about his music vs. some more recent music?  Why do we think the music of Beethoven is “standard repertoire” but that of others is “new music?”  Of course, there’s something obvious: Beethoven’s music was written a long time ago; but we mean more than a historical period when we say “standard repertoire,” and it’s hard to put one’s finger on what.  One might appeal to highly subjective notions of quality, questions of stylistic taste, historical claims about a certain Darwinism of repertoire selection, but I suspect the answer is more mundane: arts organizations feel more comfortable programming works that they know are economically reliable.  This is due to an understandable constellation of anxieties given that the mechanisms of consumer capitalism are not especially well-suited to supporting the arts, especially the performing arts, which are not readily commodifiable.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  This is particularly palpable to me, with fingers in so many pies: “new music,” “standard repertoire,” education, opera, etc.  As the conductor of Ensemble Dal Niente, every day I interact with musicians re-inventing what it means to play an instrument or sing in 2016, who ask why they're doing it and how their craft can be re-thought.  With equal frequency, in my work at the DePaul University School of Music, I encounter students in similar states of figuring out their musical identities.  The orchestra as an institution and the orchestra as an artistic body must respond, or—more accurately—does respond, to the needs of an ever-changing world.  The difficult question to answer is: how should it respond?

My provisional answers involve starting with and bringing to the artistic forefront the continued relevance, to our world now, of the symphony orchestra as an artistic, cultural, and political body, and not simply doing so as a PR ploy.  My recent programming is meant to reflect this.  Most radically, in spring of 2015, my orchestra at the DePaul University School of Music played a version of Mathias Spahlinger’s doppelt bejaht [doubly affirmed], 24 etudes for orchestra without conductor.  Each etude is a set of instructions for what amounts to a structured improvisation, and each moves from one musical state to another.  The suggested transitions (and it’s possible for the orchestra to create new ones) between the etudes are, similarly, processes of becoming rather than of being.  The orchestra makes decisions—collectively, in real time, and through an essentially musical process—about which etude to play, when, and for how long.  Thus, the agency of orchestra players, a thing usually discouraged in recent US orchestra practice, is not only allowed, but forced.  The line between the composers and performers is blurred, and the hierarchy among the musicians is substantially erased.  The conductor sits and watches (happily, in my case) from the audience.  Is this is a vision for a new “classical music” performance practice?  A idealistic artistic suggestion for utopian society?  An artificially created political atmosphere?  I don’t see why one has to decide between those options (and many other possibilities).

Last month, with the same ensemble, I programmed Chaya Czernowin’s The Quiet along with Gustav Mahler’s First Symphony.  As Chaya says, in her program note to a work full of highly original instrumentation and orchestration, she was interested in reflecting on storms that “evolved from natural occurrences into far away atmospheres surrounding human activity, before returning to natural realms.”  I was struck by both the similarities and differences of this sentiment to Mahler’s re-invention of the orchestra in his work: the “like a sound of nature” of its opening, its use of cosmopolitan and popular dance forms.  This concert was one way of exploring how we experience the nature-society dichotomy, done through the lenses of two similar-but-different voices.

Next month, my orchestra and my new music ensemble at DePaul will present joint thematic concerts about the overtone series (featuring Mozart, Haas, Murail, and Mahler) and counterpoint (featuring Bach, Webern, Ligeti, Shawn Jaeger, and Mozart).  These concerts are, in a general sense, about the history of how people hear harmony and melody, and how this hearing has changed.

In short, the orchestra now is a reflection of our social and cultural climate, every bit as much as it was in the 19th century.  It’s just that this climate is very very different, and possibly considerably more multifarious, in 2016.  Rather than artificially confine itself to music written a long time ago, in a far away geographical region, by people with a vastly different worldview, the orchestra must engage the confusingly and sublimely complex reality of life in the 21st century.  Composers are already doing this; we’d all be better off if more orchestral institutions made more forceful attempts to catch up.

On Mahler's 1st symphony, or, why only a conductor could have written this piece

Gustav Mahler was in his late 20s when he wrote his First Symphony, which is somewhat later than most composers with the notable exception of Brahms.  Unlike Brahms, though, Mahler’s reason was not an artistic-paralysis-inducing anxiety regarding composers that had come before him – it was simply that he was a busy guy.  He had held conducting appointments since he was 20 years old, and was ambitiously climbing the ladder of his profession.  By 1887, when he began the symphony, he was employed full-time as one of the conductors, along with rival Arthur Nikisch, at the New Municipal Theater in Leipzig.  To really contextualize this, let's go even farther: Mahler was known primarily as a conductor during his lifetime.  In the early part of the 20th century he held positions with the Vienna State Opera, the Metropolitan Opera, and the New York Philharmonic; his composition output was a bit secondary in his public life.

I guess I say all of this because knowing that Mahler’s day job was that of conductor is not just relevant but actually important in interpreting his music.  He approaches composition 1) as a person who deeply devoted to the orchestra, and 2) who is used to encountering and engaging a wide variety of music in diverse styles and genres.  While Mahler is concerned with the same questions of harmony, counterpoint, genre, etc., that many of his contemporaries were, there are many added elements that he believed transcends the purely musical.  It surely cannot possibly matter if the story Jean Sibelius tells about a conversation that he and Mahler had is apocryphal or not: “I said that I admired [the symphony's] severity of style and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motifs... Mahler's opinion was just the reverse. ‘No, a symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.’”  Mahler’s first symphony is, in fact, a critique and exploration of the concepts associated with the genre of the symphony since Beethoven, and Mahler draws from both the inside and the outside of the symphonic tradition to make his argument.

Indeed, the D major first movement’s introduction, apart from “slowly,” is marked “Wie ein Naturlaut,” or “as if a natural noise.”  The seven octaves of A’s in the string section (that continue throughout the introduction) seem not so much to begin the symphony as make us aware that they have existed since the beginning of time, that we are merely spectators appearing in medias res.  A slow chain of fourths, borrowed from the final movement of Brahms’ Second Symphony, creeps its way downward.  Far away in the distance (and literally offstage) we hear the trumpets representing a mankind who is not yet an important player in the work.  The descending fourth is now heard as a cuckoo; perhaps those in Austria are different, as in most other places in the world cuckoos sing a major third.  The introduction closes as nature wakes up, and gives way to a modified sonata form, which starts out, according to the instruction, at a “leisurely” pace.  The main theme (again reinterpreting the fourth) is heard unhurriedly in the cellos.  This one is actually a self-quotation, from the second song of Mahler’s early cycle “Songs of a Wayfarer,” the words to which are “I walked across the fields this morning; dew still hung on every blade of grass.  The merry finch spoke to me.”  Humans (or a single hero, if an early program, that Mahler later suppressed, is to be believed) are now definitively in the symphonic picture.  There is no second theme to this exposition, simply the traditional modulation to the dominant (A major) before the entire thing is repeated.  The development section returns immediately to the mood of the introduction, the cellos singing melancholy fragments, accompanied by birdcalls from the flute and the ubiquitous suspended A in the violins.  A momentary appearance (and a false recapitulation) in D major of a tentative, distant hunting theme is heard in the horns; this theme is a yet another re-casting of the fourth as ascending.  Further development in more adventurous key areas ensues, leading to a moment of tense crisis, full of harmonic stagnation and fluctuating tempos.  A break-through (durchbruch, as the Germans call it) of brilliant D major leads to the recapitulation, with the recently heard horn melody thrust into the role of main theme.  The rest of the movement is unremittingly joyous but short, and the pauses before its headlong rush to a close are more humorous than threatening -- "the hero bursts out laughing and runs away," according to the early program.

The A major Scherzo, “moving powerfully, but not too fast,” according to the instruction, is cast as an Austrian country dance, the Ländler.  A form used by Schubert, and a precursor to the significantly more cosmopolitan waltz, this one is particularly earthy.  The traditional stomping and clapping that occurs in the dance step itself seems to be mimicked by exuberant gestures in the instruments, as well as what becomes in some places a very strongly accented beat 3 of the 3/4 measure. According to the program, “the young man roams about the world in a more robust, strong and confident way.” With this confidence comes further motivic development – the introductory bassline consists entirely of the descending fourth, and the main melody sees the fourth ascend.  The somewhat slower (“rather comfortably”) Trio section seems to move us from the countryside to Vienna, where the choreography is somewhat more elegant and leisurely.  The Ländler returns, determined to outdo its earlier boisterousness.

The slow movement, in the tonic (D) minor, begins with the fourth stoically intoned by the timpani, accompanying a plodding round that begins uncomfortably in the solo bass, followed by the bassoon, tuba and other instruments.  American listeners could be forgiven for thinking the tune is reminiscent of a minor-key “Frère Jacques;” though the tune is called “Bruder Martin” in German, the song’s cultural function is the similar.  As the round continues in a more funereal vein, Mahler’s visual inspiration for the movement begins to make sense – the composer was apparently captivated by an unsettling woodcut by the painter Moritz von Schwind called “The Hunter’s Funeral Procession,” whose depiction of a bizarre and grotesque cortege of animals carrying a huntsman’s coffin is an irony of the most bitter kind.  What follows caused the initial audience of this symphony substantial puzzlement at the premiere: it is a series of seemingly nonsensical transitions, almost post-modern in its affect, from “Bruder Martin,” to a parody of klezmer music, to a return of the funeral march, to a subdued, arrestingly beautiful quotation of the last of the Songs of a Wayfarer.  (This last music seems particularly out of place, especially given the original text: “By the road stood a linden tree, where, for the first time, I found rest in sleep.”)  The latter is immediately negated by minor chords, and the funeral march begins again, a half-step higher, and is interrupted even more thoughtlessly by the klezmer music.  As the music sinks towards a despairing conclusion, the meaning from Mahler’s program becomes clear: this formless pastiche of a movement is “all the coarseness, the mirth and the banality of the world…heard in the sound of a Bohemian village band, together with the hero's terrible cries of pain."

The Finale, therefore, opens with a “terrifying shriek” as the pain continues.  Cast in a key unrelated to previous music (F minor) and marked “moving stormily,” the hair-raisingly wild opening introduces a main theme of extreme vehemence.  First heard in the horns and woodwinds, it traverses a fifth, the inverse of the other movements’ fourth.  It develops itself at a breakneck, frantic pace that it cannot sustain; groaning, it breaks down.  The completely contrasting second theme, heard in the violins and marked “very singingly,” is from a different world.  Elements of the first movement’s introduction begin gradually to creep into the texture, leading to a quick outburst that begins the development section.  The violence is interrupted this time by a subdued but radiant refashioning of the main theme in C major, as if the symphony is seeing very distant light, played by the trumpet and trombone.  The vehemence returns in C minor, but is halted this time by a break-though again in C major; all at once, though, the music stops and there is a dramatic pause; it starts again in a brilliant but completely unprepared D major, up a whole step, trumpets blazing triumphantly, horns intoning a solemn but joyful chorale with the fourths from the first movement’s introduction reset in a major key.  Said Mahler in a conversation with Natalie Bauer-Lechner:

Again and again, the music had fallen from brief glimpses of light into the darkest depths of despair.  Now an enduring triumphal victory had to be won.  As I discovered after considerable vain groping, this could be achieved by modulating from one key to the key a whole tone above.  Now, this could have managed very easily by using the intervening semitone and rising from C to C-sharp, then to D.  But everyone would have known the D would be the next step.  My D chord, however, had to sound as though it had fallen from heaven.

D major is the tonality of the symphony; so, one wonders, why does this triumphal chorale not close the work?  The answer to this question lies in a letter than Mahler wrote to Richard Strauss (who disapproved of this moment in the symphony:

At the place in question the solution is merely apparent (in the full sense a “false conclusion”) and a change and breaking of whole essence is needed before a true “victory” can be won after such struggle.

My intention was to show a struggle in which victory is furthest from the protagonist just when he believes it is closest.  This is the essence of every spiritual struggle.  For it is by no means so simple to become a hero.

Mahler was never one for understatement.

In musicologist James Hepokoski's analysis, the triumph here is not sustainable, precisely because it has “fallen from heaven.”  It gradually fades and eventually gives way to a return of the Naturlaut (“natural noise”) music from the first movement.  The main theme of the fast section of that movement is also recalled, as if channeling the Finale of Beethoven’s 9th symphony – remembering and rejecting earlier material.  Then comes the crucial formal move – the second theme of the present movement (the Finale) returns in the cellos in the key of F major, the “correct” key in sonata form.  After reaching a shattering climax with a cymbal crash, the first theme returns as well, in F minor.  It is a recapitulation in reverse – and where the first theme was ferocious fifteen minutes before, here the best it can offer is a few viola outbursts in an otherwise chastened texture.  Again, paraphrasing Heposkoski: Mahler is rejecting sonata form as a solution to the work’s problems.  The tense build-up following this recapitulation now increasingly resembles the same section from the first movement, complete with the fluctuating tempos and sense of crisis.  The break-though in the first movement that lead to the recapitulation here returns us to the D major blazing triumph heard earlier in the Finale – the critical difference being that everything now happens in the right tonality.  The triumph is not tacked on, it does not fall from heaven; it is earned.  The result of the symphony’s motivic transformations, and of the composer’s struggles, are the trumpets and horns intertwining the major key versions of the Finale’s main theme and the first movement’s falling fourths (now resembling the lines “And he shall reign for ever and ever” from the Hallelujah Chorus of Handel’s Messiah) together in an exhilarating counterpoint.  The horns stand up, so that they may be heard over the entire orchestra.  The uncontrollably ecstatic coda ends the symphony with one final transformation of the falling fourths into descending octave D’s thundered out by the whole orchestra, after which it would be hard to imagine a single other note.

On Sibelius's Fourth Symphony, modernism, instability, Futurama, and World War I

Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony thematizes and brings to the fore a single musical concept, and does so in a number of ways that are almost too numerous to perceive in any single listening.  (But, tangentially: if this even make sense to talk about, one’s ability to appreciate it on multiple levels might be one of few things that could reasonably be posited as a defining characteristic of “greatness” in an artwork.)  There are different ways of thinking and perceiving this concept I have in mind, and it’s so broad that one word seems inadequate to describe it.  What occurs to me as a provisional one is “instability.”  “But isn’t it,” you probably already think, “hopelessly banal and/or yawningly commonplace to suggest that instability is part of a piece of tonal music???”  Your internal objection might go further: “Tonality itself presupposes instability… an instability that gives way to resolution -- a dialectial tension, perhaps, between stability and instability in which stability always wins (or at least that what the works tell us).”  My claim, in response to your well-thought-out objection, is that there’s something different here.  Instability in Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony is uniquely used: a way of structuring all levels of the symphony, from the most global concepts to the most sensuous particulars.  It’s not just a chord or a phrase that’s part of a journey, something that merely gives way to a tonic triad that either affirms the social order or the primacy of the composer/listener’s subjectivity.  Fundamentally contradictorily, the structure of this symphony is built upon a notion that undermines structures.

Most pitch-prominently, the symphony makes obsessive use of a particularly, famously unstable musical interval: the so-called “tritone,” also known as an augmented fourth or a diminished fifth (indeed, maybe that there are different ways of naming the interval might be taken as a sign of its instability).  The foregrounded, almost heavy-handed use of the tritone has far-reaching implications.  Considered one way, the tritone is a half-step away from being (or, perhaps, we hear it as trying to be) a perfect 5th, one of the most fundamentally familiar and consonant intervals in music (located, as it is, in lowest parts of the harmonic series); put another way, it makes us expect a more consonant interval, but it is not itself one.  And considered differently, it is also the precise midpoint of the octave.  This means the following things: a note a tritone away from another is the farthest possible distance from the pitch whence it came.  More music-theoretically, the key of which it is the root is on opposite side of the so-called “circle of fifths” (the basis for key relations in tonal music) thus also the most distant tonal-harmonically.

The use of the tritone, while the most traditionally clear structural instability in the Fourth Symphony, seems to spawn other ones or at least go hand in hand with them.  N0 less pervasive is the use of syncopated rhythms.  For instance, the symphony’s opening motif, featuring the tritone as an outer limit, is made up of quarter notes that are written such that all but one is an offbeat.  Sometimes syncopations are used such that they sound like they are deliberately fighting with strong beats, as in the some of desperate-sounding string moments in the last movement.  Other times they are used on their own to create a sense of uncertain, undefined, uncentered rhythm, as in the lonely, high violin music in the middle of the first movement.  Other times they are used to create rhythmic dissonance with superimposed meters, as in the end of the 3rd movement, where an implied triple time signature creates a disconcerting effect against the prevailing (notated) 4/4.  

Finally, the unstable characteristics of the basic building blocks of the piece have ramifications on the formal and large-scale-structural levels.  The first movement is a sonata form (the expected, conventional form, used only recently by Sibelius in his Third Symphony in a cookie-cutter manner) only if your heart is really set on it.  The second movement should be an ABA, like most well-behaved scherzos are; but the second A section never arrives, and the movement retreats hastily with its tail between its legs.  The fourth movement reverses the (much) more typical minor-to-major trajectory; beginning in a celebratory but you-can’t-be-serious A major that eventually collapses the movement to a stern A minor – “pure cold water,” to quote Sibelius from a different context.

A few comments on the individual movements themselves:

As hinted, the first is formally uncertain and vague, though it invites a comparison with sonata form: after an initial muddy explosion in the low instruments, introducing the tritone motif, three identifiable parts ensue.  There is long series of opening gestures; there is a nervous middle/development section with tremolo strings and hopeless woodwind commentary; there is a sort-of recapitulation of many of the opening gestures.  Other than this, though, one is hard pressed to place the boundaries on sections that sonata form so often explicitly invites.  Melodies attempt to get underway; the opening cello solo, for instances, can’t really figure out its direction or internal structure.  Cutting brass chords portend something important that never arrives.  Subsequent fragmented horn fanfares refer to the memory of when tonal music was truly believable (wait, when was that?).  The solo clarinet and oboe reflect navel-gazingly on their own sadness.

The second movement, while tentative, seems to begin more hopefully.  The melody is almost cheerful, straightforwardly diatonic (one of my students related it to the scherzo of Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony, a rich intertextual relationship indeed).  The introduction of the sharpened 4th scale degree (B natural here in the key of F major), though, catches the ear as sounding like a wrong note; it re-introduces the tritone motif, which quickly commandeers the melodic character, though the texture remains light and scherzando.  A major character and tempo change (and an expressive descending woodwind melody – motivically related to what has come before it) seems to start what we normally think of as the trio section of a scherzo.  This one, though, is tempestuous and troubled.  Harmonic stasis breeds restlessness, and blaring horns make their discontent known.  The movement collapses unceremoniously and ends with a whimper, completely deformed and mangled, unable to complete what was set up to be a straightforward three-part structure.

The slow movement alternates between two musical-instrumental worlds and affective states.  The first is heard right from the opening, and it is a reminiscence of two different elements of the first movement – uncertain, searching, nearly energyless woodwind solos; combined with snakey melodic motions that involve the tritone interval (the opening flute solo strong resembling a subdued version of the of symphony’s very beginning, the contour only slightly changed).  This is contrasted with a different theme, one perpetually in a state of “becoming” rather than of “being” – first a hint in a noble-sounding horn quartet, then an elaboration by the cellos, then attempt by the full string section, all of which leads to a shattering, grief-stricken, wailing, garment-rending climax.  This secondary theme has finally found itself.  But the snarling trombone bass motion is a tritone, and it undermines the cathartic cadence by placing the tonic chord in first inversion rather than root position, refusing to give a sense of satisfaction.  The instability inherent in the tonal system, which so often gives way to a sense of affirmation and security, here leads only to a sense of anti-climax.  In short, this symphony can’t even get its melodrama right.

The Finale is suddenly, contextlessly, laughably in A major; but something is obviously not right from the beginning – there are wrong notes every few bars.  The most audibly obvious is the sharpened fourth scale degree that was heard in the second movement: in this case D#, the tritone away from A.  It works on not only local, but global levels: the key of E-flat major (D# major spelled grammatically) serves as the secondary tonality of the movement, a constant threat; when the recapitulation appears in that key it feels exhilaratingly alien.  Glockenspiel and chimes insist on an inane, juvenile cadential gesture of such simple-mindedness that it comes across as self-deceptive and naive.  The symphony’s gnarly, over-grown, wheezing climax comes as different tonalities and metrical hierarchies struggle for primacy in a cacophonous mess of musical detritus.  Left over from this are a few completely bewildered woodwind solos and a string section of increasingly little confidence.  The only certainty we are given is one of the very strangest endings of a symphonic work: utterly unremarkable diatonic string chords that confirm the key of A minor with no room for doubt, but with hardly any perceptible affect.  It certainly is not happy; neither, though, is it clearly sad.  It is simply mezzo-forte.  The achievement of a stable triad means nothing and neither affirms nor denies.  It existence is mere convention, a pure signifier without a signified, asking someone how their day was without actually wanting to know.  There perhaps so that everyone knows the piece is over and that they can go home now.

For some reason, this ending reminds me of the race of Neutral People from the animated TV show Futurama.  Their planet’s motto is “Live Free or Don’t.”  The Neutral President says “All I know is my gut says maybe.”  When faced with possible destruction: “If I don’t survive, tell my wife ‘hello’.”

Or, let us now recall that the symphony was finished in 1911.  Perhaps it is one of Sibelius’s many attempts to rescue and re-assert some possibility of tonality into a European world whose increasing fascination with an alienated modernism in art (of which Schoenberg’s atonality is a clear musical manifestation) was a reflection of a society headed irrevocably towards a cataclysmic war (1914-1918) that would forever alter the wolrd in previously unimaginable ways.  Calling this symphony “prophetic” might be too strong.  But it is certainly “symptomatic” of a very basic culture issues that our society today still deals with so much as a matter of course that we may not even notice them.

On Mendelssohn's "Reformation" Symphony

Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony is one of three by this composer with a nickname, and there are plenty of others by his predecessors and successors.  While this isn't an exhaustive list, here, for instance, are other nicknames for symphonies by well-known figures: “Linz,” “Prague,” “Scottish,” “Italian,” “Hymn of Praise,” "London," "Oxford," "Rhenish."  These names get at the fundamental function of the symphony in late-18th and early-19th century European society; works thought of as public statements, they are about large cities, or about nationalities, or about religion.  Even if their titles do not originate with the composer (in some case they do; but in some cases they were appended by the publisher in order to generate sales in an every-man-for-himself musical economy), they nevertheless offer key insights into these works’ reception histories, which is just as valuable as what the composers thought about them.  People understood symphonies to be about their lives and about their worlds.  And while, of course, this world is completely unrecapturable to an audience living half the globe away, almost 200 years later, we may nevertheless benefit from a mode of listening that views such works as large-scale, general statements about human social interaction, rather than as merely a set of reified notes and rhythms, as something called “classical music,” only to be viewed on a pedestal from afar and worshipped without interaction.

The “Reformation” Symphony was conceived of for the June 1830 tercentenary of the Augsburg Confession.  Mentioning this piece of information is surely the very worst of program-note writing; it seems like a totally removed, distant, rarified historical event of a completely bygone epoch.  Who cares? we might ask, and what is the Augsburg Confession anyway?  Answering those questions in order: it's important for us as a key moment in the identity of what would become modern-day Germany (the conversation surrounding the unification of which has far-reaching, eventually tragic consequences in the 20th century, and of course through to our own day).  Not only was the anniversary a celebration of the Augsburg Confession (a document written by committee that contains the key tenets of the Lutheran faith) itself; it was an attempt by King Wilhelm Friedrich III of Prussia to unify Calvinists and Lutherans into a single Protestant liturgy, thereby strengthening its political influence against the Catholic church.  In short, you should care because this work is part and parcel of a culture whose development has direct, if chronologically removed, bearing on our own.  While the symphony was not performed during the celebrations for accidental reasons related to Mendelssohn’s schedule and health (he had the measles and stopped working for a month and a half), its meaning is deeply bound up in the most important socio-politico-religious issues of the day and reflects on them in myriad and complex ways.  Thus, while we are not capable of fully grasping its context as an emotional reality, we can allow the multifaceted nature of its generation and intended meaning to guide our listening.

The first movement, a slow introduction and a sonata form, is based, with remarkable parsimony, almost entirely on the so-called “Dresden Amen,” a musical fragment of arresting beauty first played pianissimo by the strings after a series of bold, chant-like calls in the brass.  A few thoughts about the Dresden Amen: musically, it is a series of notes that ascend, stepwise, by a fifth, outlining the dominant chord of the key; containing, thus, both close and wide intervals, it can be deployed by the composer for multiple purposes; he can use its parts to construct many different themes.  Extra-musically, strikingly, its popularity was such that it was used in both Protestant and Catholic churches during the 18th and 19th century.  I will avoid speculating on its further meaning; but I encourage you to do so.  Finally, we’re destined to hear the Dresden Amen differently than Mendelssohn did; it’s used in later music as well, most notably Wagner’s Parsifal and the Finale of Mahler’s 1st symphony.  It's hard to know what to do with that information.  To my ear, the Dresden Amen’s appearance in the works of an anti-semitic composer, Wagner (both Mendelssohn and Mahler were Jewish by blood), and in that of one of the last figures (Mahler) to cling to the Romantic style that Mendelssohn helped create, gives its use a poignancy that the "Reformation" symphony’s composer could not have anticipated.  As triumphant as the work is, we know that history had a more complex fate in store for such ostensibly straightforward celebrations.

The fast portion of the first movement is grim and determined, almost Beethovenian in its minor-key insistence.  Its first theme is a severe and chiseled, based on the 5th from the Dresden Amen; its second theme is based on the same interval, now adorned with a subjectivized passion.  The development section charts a direct course to a crisis and out-pouring.  An interruption (shocking because subdued) of the Dresden Amen causes a recapitulation that calmly and chastely reconsiders the exposition.  The coda, though, returns to a stormy battle mode, ending with an plagal cadence (of the sort found in the “amen” of present day hymns) of utmost determination.

The brief Scherzo, placed second rather than third, is a stark contrast to the first movement’s seriousness.  Light and carefree, its trio (middle section) involves two oboes playing a long, pastoral-sounding theme that is also a bit carol-like in nature.  A repeat of the opening section becomes passionate then evaporates in a way that is so quintessentially Mendelssohnian that one looks in vain for some undetected irony.

The even shorter slow movement is, again, very different from what has preceded it.  If the Scherzo was faith at its easiest, this arioso is the opposite.  Hopeless, languishing, indecisive, the first violins sing a heartfelt song of deep and conflicting emotions.  The movement’s close is benedictory in nature, comforting only in the coldest sense, dying away to a major triad cause by a Picardy third that feels more official than honest, more required by ceremony than consolatory.

This paves the way for an assertive flute soloist to enter with a direct quotation of the universally known chorale by Martin Luther (a flute player himself) “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (know in English as “A Mighty Fortress is our God”), as if to suggest that not only faith, but the power of music as an expression thereof, is a savior from the despair of the previous movement.  

The Finale of the “Reformation” Symphony is formally ambitious and unique in the symphonic repertoire.  After two introductory sections, both elaborations of the chorale tune, a sonata form is launched by a mighty orchestral unison.  It is striking because it includes a new main theme (a skyrocketing ascending arpeggio), and a second theme (a further transformation, now triumphant, of the Dresden Amen), but also because Luther’s chorale fluidly and unpredictably appears and disappears, weaving itself in and out of the texture.  The subdued development section, for instance -- surprising after such a celebratory exposition -- concerns itself only with cello and woodwind fragments of “Ein feste Burg” rather than any of the movement’s thematic materials proper.  A coda that begins with a surprising and sublime calm gradually hurtles towards a full-throated, almost too insistent chorus of the entire orchestra declaiming the hymn at first in unison, then in a traditional harmonization.  It is a striking claim -- rather than music as an agent of transcendence, here it seeks to affirm and unify the social order with the religious in way that only a composer like Mendelssohn, born and raised a member of the only recently emerged bourgeoisie, whose family were Lutheran converts from Judaism, was in a unique position to have imagined.

On Marcelo Toledo, Cesar Vallejo, Poetry, Music, and Hedgehogs

Marcelo Toledo’s work from 2001 “¿Qué se llama cuanto heriza nos?” (more on an English translation of this later) takes its title from a poem by Cesar Vallejo, written in 1922 when he was in prison in his native Peru.  It is the second of 77 poems in Vallejo's collection Trilce.  Here’s Ensemble Dal Niente’s recent performance of the work with me conducting.  (Do have a listen; it's outstandingly well played.)

If you’re a native English speaker, you may know works by other Latin American poets: say Neruda or Borges or Octavio Paz.  If Vallejo is a less familiar name there’s a reason.  His poetry is very specific to the Spanish language, and doesn’t translate straightforwardly into English.  Imagine, as an analogue, trying to read James Joyce’s Ulysses in French.  Even the title of the present collection, Trilce, is an not-quite-translatable word that is a combination of the Spanish “triste” (“sad”) and “dulce” (“sweet”).  (Stay with me.  This is worth your time.)

Vallejo’s heritage was of mixed ethnicity, European and Peruvian Indian.  (Read more about him here.)  Thus, for him, Spanish was both a native language and a foreign one.  Much of his poetry is concerned with this contradiction.  He uses the Spanish language to its fullest, but also breaks it, defamiliarizes it, and makes new things out of it.  He intentionally uses incorrect grammar, misspells words, and creates neologisms.  It’s a simultaneous engagement with and rebellion against the system of communication he’s inherited; and it doesn’t take too many leaps to see some similarity with how contemporary American society changes the English language.  (Check out just about any entry on urbandictionary.com for an example.)

Have a quick look at the poem, followed by an unwieldy Frankenstein’s monster of a translation I’ve assembled from others (even this incapable of capturing many subtleties, not least of which is the sounds of the Spanish words themselves).  The formatting wouldn't allow to me to put them side-by-side, sorry.

Trilce II

Tiempo Tiempo.

Mediodía estancado entre relentes.
Bomba aburrida del cuartel achica
tiempo tiempo tiempo tiempo.

Era Era.

Gallos cancionan escarbando en vano.
Boca del claro día que conjuga
era era era era.

Mañana Mañana.

El reposo caliente aún de ser.
Piensa el presente guárdame para
mañana mañana mañana mañana

Nombre Nombre.

¿Qué se llama cuanto heriza nos?
Se llama Lomismo que padece
nombre nombre nombre nombrE.

Sadsweet II

Time Time.

Noon clogged up the nighttime fog.
Boring pump [bomb] of the cellblock pumping out [shrinking]
Time time time time.

Was was.

Roosters singsong scratching in vain.
Clear day's mouth that conjugates
Was was was was.

Tomorrow Tomorrow.

The warm repose of being though.
The present thinks hold on to me for
Tomorrow tomorrow tomorrow tomorrow.

Name name.

What do you call all that us bristles [wounds] [hedges]?
It's called Thesame that suffers
Name name name namE

This poem was written while Vallejo was in jail, and so at least part of what is going on involves an interpretation of the repetitiveness of life under such conditions.  Midday and nighttime are conflated.  Time, tomorrow, being... all repeated and repetitious.  Even the stuff of language itself -- in addition to the words, there’s something singsongy about how they sound: “era era era era” (was was was was).

In the midst of this is a strange, mysterious, ungrammatical line that is the title of Toledo's piece: “¿Qué se llama cuanto heriza nos?” awkwardly translated “What do you call all that us bristles [wounds] [hedges]?”  The answer to the question is that it’s “Thesame” as that which suffers.  Humans create their own misery, perhaps.  Crucial to interpretation of this line, and what makes it so difficult to translate, is the enigmatic heriza; it's a made-up word that involves at least the following meanings: erizar (to bristle), erizo (hedgehog), and herida (wound/injury).  

Marcelo Toledo is doing the same thing that Vallejo is, and that we all are as “American” musicians in the broadest possible sense.  He’s working with elements inherited from a European tradition (language in Vallejo’s case, instruments and playing styles in Toledo’s), and is engaging with that tradition to make them do new things and create new meaning.  This meaning occurs on multiple levels and finds particular, unique expression in the word heriza.  Perhaps the “bristles” part of heriza refers both to this relationship with tradition, and also the sounds in this piece, bristly indeed.  Perhaps the “hedgehog” part has to do with music’s referentially to other music.  (Recall, if you’re into this kind of thing, Derrida’s image of poetry as a hedgehog – something that curls up into self-referentiality, never crossing the road to transcendence and full communication.  Of course, such a reference is anachronistic; Derrida’s essay is much later.  Maybe associating the two, completely removed in time and space, is far-fetched.  But I’m not so sure; such are the mysteries of language.)  Perhaps the “wound” is that which American artists feel trying to make art in cultural situations that involve a perpetual negotiation between a foreign tradition and our own that we’re making up as we go along.

All of the above feels sympathetic with Ensemble Dal Niente’s project in general, and specifically to our Latin American tour during the summer of 2015 and continued engagement with new music in that region.

Marcelo Toledo writes in his program note about the work:

Time creates its own dance of elliptic cycles.  Looking at the score and listening to the recording of the premiere (in 2001) I can say that this piece was anticipating my next decade of work. The sound world that I imagined was clear and concrete but the musical notation was still finding its way through it. That openness manifested in the notation could trigger yet new worlds...

I’m not sure if Marcelo intends all of the connections of meaning between his piece and the poetry of Vallejo; and of course, there’s no possible way he could have known 15 years ago that a US new music ensemble would be playing this work in Chicago -- one whose artistic mission in many ways overlaps with or is analogous to his and Vallejo’s.  But culture does that to us sometimes.  We control certain things about our artistic work, or at least we think we do; other things, though, are part of our shared set of artistic concerns, priorities, and materials, and our interactions with them are beyond our.  “Trigger[ing] yet new worlds” indeed.  ("New Worlds."  I'll just let that one sit there.)

I’d be interested to know how you interpret the end of this piece.  I was surprised at the first rehearsal -- and I had the score and (theoretically) knew what to expect!  All the performers end by not playing the instruments they’re supposed to be playing…  instead producing sounds that obscure their role as oboists, clarinets, violinists, etc., even more than has already been done.  I have theory about this and why it is.  If you have one, though, I’d love to know what it is.

On "Latin American" music

[Cross-posted on Ensemble Dal Niente's website.]

To speak about Latin American music probably makes about as much sense as to speak of North American music.  Which is to say, it is immediately apparent that the term is of limited usefulness: all that can be definitively made is a claim about geography (and it is immediately apparent that this is not particularly definitive; how does one characterize the music of a composer born in one location and living in another, as many on this program are?).  My limited, unscientific, anecdotal experiences in Mexico, Colombia, and Panama on tour with Ensemble Dal Niente in June 2015 (having been to each of those countries once before) suggested to me that the only generalization about Latin American music was that a generalization was impossible. Yet, rightly or wrong, one makes an attempt to generalize; the geographies, political situations, and languages of Latin and North America are different; surely culture reflects this.  But just as an attempt to make a generalizable distinction appears, though, it collapses.  North America and Latin America also share a word in their names, a landmass, time zones, a history rooted in conquest, colonialism, violence; an argument could be mounted that these cultures have more in common, than, say the US and Europe.  Hesitatingly, I ask: might it make more sense to simply speak of an “American music” in the broadest sense?  But for now: let us attempt to live in these contradictory thoughts.

A trend I provisionally perceived in the works that Ensemble Dal Niente took on its tour involved what seemed to me to be an unmistakeable willingness to write about political situations.  But the way in which this is manifested in each work is very different; and none of them are facile or seem to make naive claims about their direct efficacy in, say, an electoral arena.  I’ll talk about three that appear on our 10th anniversary season-opening program, Canciones.

Regarding his work verdaderos negativos ("real negatives"), Colombian composer Rodolfo Acosta writes the following:

Its title refers to the deplorable phenomenon of so-called "false positives", especially in its  most tragic use: the killing of civilians by military forces in order to prove the latter's supposed effectiveness. In the most recent Colombian case, these crimes have been perpetrated in order to make the victims pass as guerrilla combatants killed in battle. Unfortunately, this is not a recent practice, nor is it  exclusive to the Colombian Armed Forces, as is witnessed by other societies in Latin America and in the world generally. On the other hand, although the term refers to "presenting the false positive results" of a military institution (and the killing of innocent people is not the only kind), we cannot lose sight of the fact that considering a person's violent death as something "positive" is grotesquely inhumane.

Thus, its concept and title is a play on opposites: the false is the radically real; the positive is the negative. Musically there are, similarly, contradictory forces at work that create an experience for an audience of unusual directness.  On one end are the drumkit and bass parts, whose rhythms are rigidly notated.  They can be read as representing the forces of a violently aggressive way of organizing time (along the lines of what a military force or tyrannical government might do); but also, simultaneously, as a reference to popular music styles that can be themselves seen as both resistant and compliant.  The melodic parts (the work is for an open instrumentation, requiring the performers to choose) are notated permissively, with suggestions for thematic contours and instructions like “fluctuating dynamics.”  They force the listener to consider individual voices, and force the players to be individualized – the opposite of what governmental forces do in killing civilians and passing them off as guerillas.  Which is to say, the action of creating “false positives” is an attempted erasure of the individual on multiple levels – in the act of murder, and that of attributing to the victim an identity that is not theirs.  The melodic sections of the piece make it so that the players (both as musicians and human beings) do the opposite. They must thematize their own particularity, such that their musical effort goes into being not together; and they must also make choices regarding their specific life circumstances, i.e., what instrument they're playing.  Yet on top of these layers of meaning, the overall affect is one of a certain unified rage (on the part of the musicians and composer and, hopefully, the engaged audience) against injustice – a visceral feeling of disgust and anger.

On the opposite end of the affective spectrum is Francisco Castillo Trigueros’s Geografias.  According to the composer, in the work

several poetic and musical visions of Mexico coexist.  The text, constructed from symbolic and narrative fragments, builds a dramatic arch, illustrating different facets of the natural, cultural, political, and mystical geography of the country, from a distant and semi-nostalgic perspective.

The music is understated, its unflappable character often of a mimetic nature that masks an underlying subtlety and sophistication.  We are introduced to a narrative subject, one that surveys the landscape.  As the music gradually moves on, with an epic patience, it becomes increasingly clear that this is not an ordinary narrative subject.  Phrases like “the heavy air was burying my body into the humid earth,” and “my pulverized bones crunching under its pressure” give us clues that the fate of the narrator is not a happy one.  As the work develops, the status of all elements become increasingly blurred – are the piece’s sounds natural or musical or in a fluid state between those two?  Is the narrator asleep or awake or alive or dead or does s/he even know?  Is the genre an accompanied narration or an art song or both?  In the end, we know the whole time that something has happened to this narrator, an event, an occurrence, a trauma.  The question remains for us until the end: what is it?

On our program Canciones (“Songs”) perhaps the most clearly “sung” is Federico Garcia-de Castro’s Memoria.  The composer writes that

[t]he idea for [the work] stems from the last 3 things that Bernardo Jaramillo Ossa, then presidential candidate for the Colombian left-wing party Unión Patriótica, said to his wife while dying in her arms after being shot in the Bogota airport in 1990: "Sweetheart, I can't feel my legs;" "Those assholes just killed me;" "I am dying, embrace me, protect me."

“High culture” art songs have a long, complicated history; when the so-called classical music lover recalls it, perhaps Schubert comes to mind first.  Easily passed over (but maybe quickly remembered) is how much sense his works made in his culture: so much so that the phenomenon of Schubertiades, essentially, listening parties for Schubert’s songs, were common events in the Vienna of his day.  It’s tempting to forget that Schubert wasn’t setting the poetry of Heine, Goethe, Schiller, Müller because they were “canonic” figures but rather because they were the widely read poets of his day.  Returning to the work in question: while the words spoken by a dying man were assuredly not intended to be poetry, it requires but a few conceptual leaps to see the setting thereof in an art song as part of a tradition of topicality.  Or one might view it ironically whereas German 19th century poetry is highly refined, nothing could be more spontaneously uttered than a person directly confronting their own mortality.  Regardless, both Schubert’s and Federico’s contemporaneous audience are the best interpreters of their music.  To put it another way: the impact of a musical setting of the words of a public figure relatively recently assassinated, from a country with a history of a fraught political relationship with our own, is likely to impact us in a unique way.  

The musically conservative elements of Memoria emphasize a certain radicality.  It contains an acoustic guitar cadenza that could fit right into Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez; its harmonic language relies heavily on open intervals and triads; its music contains conventional reflections of the semantic content of the text.  Yet at the same time, the instrumentalists break out of their traditional role as simple accompanists.  They come across as (because they are) human beings who comment, respond, exhort, complain; they envelope the lonely soprano in whirlwind of whispered secrets while she meditates on fundamental questions of human existence.  

In closing, I wonder this: will an audience find its conception of what it considers “American” music changed as a result of these encounters with “Latin American” music?  I’m interested to find out, and I certainly invite your opinions.

Education, Jazz, Canons: a Theoretical and Practical Postscript

[This essay is an elaboration of a previous one; it may help to read that one first.  Reflecting upon it, it became clear that a theoretical foundation was necessary for those ideas to make sense.]

A generalization

Here is an attempt at a very general statement about education (in the United States, perhaps) and how it is administered:

Any opinion or decision about education is inherently political; it is political because it implies a vision of how society should and/or will be.  There’s a lot going on in the universe.  We as a species don't know it all, and what we think we do know cannot, for practical and definitional reasons, be learned by a single person in a lifespan.  Thus, a decision about what to teach the human beings who our society designates as full- or part-time learners (what we call "students") necessarily excludes some things and includes others.  Thus, one's opinions about this inclusion and exclusion is a statement about what the world should and will look like in the future.  But it would be impractical for all of us to express our opinions about this all the time; and in any case, capitalism tends to divide labor in order to be efficient.  Thus, among the many, many jobs in our society is that of those who work as administrators and faculty members in educational institutions; they sort out and make decisions regarding those numerous and highly varied opinions about what should and shouldn’t be taught; and they allocate resources accordingly.  Their job is fundamentally a decision-making one; to gather a bunch of diverse thought, to consider it carefully, and to decide essential things about how a number of other people will behave as a result.

(My aim to make an uncontroversial statement; I certainly invite your revisions to this formulation.)

Canons and the education of performing musicians

Let me now narrow my focus considerably and talk about the education of performing musicians in the United States (mostly at the undergraduate and graduate levels, though I’m sure many of my remarks apply to other situations).  In my previous essay, I responded specifically to a statement made (to justify his institution's lack of focus on jazz) by the Yale School of Music Dean.  His statement, though, is really a line of thinking that is not merely his, but pervasive in some form in many music-educational institutions.  In response, I said this:

The notion of “training people in the Western canon and in new music” [a quotation from the Dean] is flawed, first of all, because it assumes that the Western canon is a fixed, reified thing that doesn’t change, and, secondly, that new music is separate from it (whatever “it” is).  Neither is the case[.]

I'll get to jazz in a moment and give some reasons that I think it should be taught more widely in music school curricula; for now though, I want to expand on what I think is wrong with the concept of “canonicity” as used above.  Again, to quote myself:

What exists is not best described as a canon, but rather as a complex, not-fully-knowable, ever-fluid-and-reinterpreted history of music; perhaps a “tradition” if you’d rather use a less general word than “history.”  Sure, there are a lot of pieces we like to come back to; but by granting them a separate status as a “canon” removes them from the world that made them, and this in turn leads down a dangerous ideological road.

Which is to say, first, let us posit that a piece exists (however you think about its ontological status as a notated score, a performance, a tradition of performance, a set of choreographic gestures, relations between sounds, interpretation by an audience, any number of other possibilities).  Once the piece is played and/or heard, it influences the players or listeners in a very wide variety of possible ways.  Some have little influence. Some have a huge influence and in massive ways; my previous essay offered the example of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony.  Separate phenomena are created as a result of this reception history – ways of interpreting its meaning (musical, affective, philosophical, political, etc.), modes of listening, styles of playing, other music that responds somehow, still other music that responds to the response, etc.  This is what I called “tradition” and “history,” though I’m not particularly attached to either word.  And furthermore: it would be implausible (or at least unobvious) not to talk about a “style” that the Eroica symphony engages with; it shares certain characteristics (ways of treating pitches, instrumentation, form, etc.) with other pieces written during the same time period and afterwards.  

Living in 2015, we have a lot of good reasons to care about all of this even though it was written a long time ago.  Strictly musical-historically: it’s a piece that influenced a lot of other music we like, and that music influenced other music, and that music influenced music being written today; in short, we deepen our understanding of other music by trying to understand the Eroica symphony.  Affectively: it is a deeply expressive work, and the act of listening to it tends to be enriching in a way that resists articulation in written or spoken language (though we sure enjoy trying).  Politically: it was written during a time of significant, fundamental upheaval, and basic questions about governments, social organization, and human freedoms were being asked in new ways; these questions are embedded in the work’s form, rhetoric, treatment of musical materials, etc.  Very similar questions about governments and human freedoms have obvious relevance to us: just ask the clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky and the same-sex couple who tried to get a marriage license from her.   I could go on (easily and at length), but you get the gist of my argument: studying old music has a lot of relevance for the people alive on this planet now, and so we should all be in favor of, say, making sure that it gets taught in a way that is organized, nuanced, deep, thoughtful; in a way that accords with a vision of a maximally better future society.  (I feel like that word “better” might get me in trouble, but I’m happy to have that discussion.)

It seems to me, though, that the word “canon,” when used a certain way (especially when one sticks that word “Western” in front of it) does a different thing.  Assigning “canonicity” to something creates a separate characteristic.  Along with “canon” also tends to go words and phrases like “great” or “established” or “highest quality” or “most enduring.”   (Along these lines, check out the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry if you happen to have access.)  Etymologically, this makes sense, as a different but a related definition of the word “canon” takes its authority from the ultimate: “[t]he collection or list of books of the Bible accepted by the Christian Church as genuine and inspired.”  If you accept the tenets of Christian faith, that’s one canon you can’t question.  

I’m not claiming that people who use the word “canon” in a way to exclude certain traditions do so out of a quasi-religious belief (though that argument could be made).  I am claiming that assigning canonicity to a work of art, with all of these related concepts, reifies it; and that such a reification is deeply ideological insofar as it reinforces a set of power relations.

A word about reification, since it is (ironically) a slippery concept: the German word is “verdinglichung,” which perhaps better translates to “thingification.”  The basic definition that you might see for it, googling around, is something like "make (something abstract) more concrete or real" or “the tendency for individuals to ascribe a definitive value or form to an abstract concept.”   The way in which Karl Marx (and I’m very consciously appropriating his concept here) uses it, though, is meant to suggest the way in which commodities appear to have an independent existence in a capitalist society as a result of the division of labor.  To paraphrase György Lukács, the Hungarian philosopher: in reification, people’s “own activity, [their] own labor becomes something objective and independent of [them].”  Phenomena in a capitalist society are made to seem a “self-evident necessity imposed by Nature.”  When you buy a bar of soap at CVS, you may not always imagine it as the product of labor and a series of historical processes; you don’t necessary think about someone making it, and what into making it.  It’s a bar of soap that, as far as you know, just exists.

The claim I’m making is that this applies analogously to the way we present the large body of music that has been and is being written; I am able to make this claim because we live in a capitalist society, in which music has been subsumed into a capitalist mode of production.  Instead of presenting the unknowably, irreducibly complex situation of all music in the world for what it is (i.e., unknowably, irreducibly complex), claiming that one’s “real clear” mission is to teach the “Western canon” does two things: 1) it encourages a work claimed for the canon come to be viewed “something objective and independent,” its greatness not to be questioned, and 2) breeds a sense that its status is not changeable.  If a performer-in-training develops a comprehensive view that the field they’re involved in is partially or largely fixed and unchangeable this might have a number of possible undesirable educational effects.  In my anecdotal experience, I have observed at least these: an inability to interpret in an informed, personal, or interesting manner; a lack of desire to explore music’s (multiple) possible meanings; a devotion to accuracy at the expense of all else (i.e., an unsaid sense that the truth exists merely in the correct execution of a set of notes); a desire to have an authority figure (teacher, conductor, etc.) just tell them what to do; an intense, all-consuming anxiety about what must be done to “win a job;" and an attitude of defensiveness (that belies an insecurity) when trying to justify any of the these behaviors or beliefs.

All of this leads to a bunch of very unhappy music performers (professional and otherwise), and if you are reading this, you know a lot of those people.  I believe this state of music performance is the result of a canon-mongering attitude; and I hasten to add that my attempt here is not to demonize canon-mongers.  I don’t imagine they are sinister or ill-intentioned, though there are exceptions.  Precisely the opposite – their actions probably result from a conviction that they’re doing the right thing, coupled with a lack of realization that their actions are fundamentally ideological.  Nevertheless, though, though I believe this line of thinking is deeply problem; and it demands a solution.

My suggestion is not, first and foremost, a specific one regarding what is to be taught, but rather an attitude towards the teaching, and more importantly, an attitude towards thinking about the teaching.  The latter is the important point; we would all benefit from an big, on-going, large-scale, in-depth, frequent, thoughtful set of conversations between administrators, performers, scholars, critics, and audiences.  I don’t want us to stop rehearsing, performing, and studying the Eroica symphony.  I want us to listen to the vast array of things it, and the tradition of interpreting it, has to tell us, and I want us to talk to each other about this.  And, given that we live in world that seems to get ever bigger, I want us also listen to what it being told to us by so many other musics that we encounter regularly: jazz, improvisation, popular and commercial musics; and world traditions that we may not encounter so often.

Regarding education in jazz specifically, and in the case of the Yale School of Music’s Dean’s remarks, this struck a nerve because it seems like such a no-brainer, for at least the following reasons:

  1. It is the indigenous music of Americans in a way that the European art music tradition (as much as we may love it) simply cannot ever be; thus, it is as relevant to our lives as paying taxes.

  2. Embedded in its history is also the history of American society, important aspects of its political development, and a relatedness of the artform to life (one thinks of obvious issues of race relations, but that is certainly not the end of it).

  3. It seems to me that jazz is unique in the history of music in a confluence of the following factors: its extremely rapid and comprehensive development, its sophisticated use of tonal resources, its rethinking of the role of the performer, its development of instrumental techniques, and its radical approaches to form.

My claims about what is variously called free improvisation or experimental improvisation, (an area of music too vast and nuanced for the confines of this essay, precisely because it is less well-know than jazz), while perhaps less sweeping, would be similar.

Put negatively, the consequences of not teaching jazz and improvised styles are very real, and have a clear impact on the growth of musicians.  I pointed to the positive example, in my previous essay, of Anthony Cheung, a composer whose music engages multiple traditions about as successfully as anyone, and whose biography cites “an early exposure to 20th century concert music and jazz/improvised music.”  As a different, if not opposing, example I offer myself.  I started studying music relatively late, and was not as exposed to jazz performance as much, retrospectively, I wish I had been.  I was, however, extremely fortunate to have high school teachers (Robin Beauchamp and Lynne Tobin, then at Savannah Country Day School) who combined our string orchestra with the jazz ensemble to create a studio orchestra from time to time, and I believe this may have set me on the path towards a stylistic pluralism that I embrace today.  It was a long time coming for me, though, and I regret not having been educated in jazz traditions more thoroughly from an earlier age.  I believe I would be a better, more comprehensive, more thoughtful musician if I had.

Austin Wulliman, a violinist for the Spektral Quartet and Ensemble Dal Niente, and I have talked about precisely this issue.  The slight differences in his set of experiences emphasize the overwhelming similarity of our conclusions:

As I got serious about playing and attending various music schools and festivals, pursuits seen as "other" were discouraged by my mentors, and for solidly practical reasons.  I was being taught to shoehorn my musicality into a specific economic model.

Throughout my education, in spite of efforts on my part to find a way to branch out, my orbit was rarely able to leave the traditional technique orientation in the strings department. I was simply too busy learning to play my instrument "well" through solo repertoire and trying to establish myself as a good collaborator in notated music.  Without a doubt, these are pursuits I still cherish and define my career today.  I remember thinking more than once that specializing my skills was crucial to my economic success as a performer.  

If I had been introduced to alternate modes of music theory, performance and creation of style I'm certain I would have ended up a different musician; a more daring musician, experimenting more, creating more.

In recent years, as I've gained confidence in my musical imagination and more knowledge about styles of contemporary music both notated and improvised I have begun to explore these avenues, but I feel as if academia let me down. A lack of imagination or even investigation into how musical styles interrelate in the standard curriculum was absolutely detrimental to my development as a musician; and I believe it leads to unimaginative music-making.

A response to possible objections

Among many other things, Austin anticipates a possible objection to my (and his) line of thinking.  This objection is a well-intentioned, practical one, and I can imagine it coming from both educators and educatees: why should students be taught things that won’t be of practical value to them in the “real world?”  Don’t we have an obligation to put our students in positions to get jobs and have sustainable lives, and isn’t training them in different traditions from what they will do professionally simply a distraction from what’s practical?  [Please forgive an angry tangent: I just hate the implication that the “real world” is something different and removed.  An educational setting is as real as anything; it is a bunch of people in the world, figuring out how to relate to each other; while the power roles may feel artificially constructed sometimes, there is nothing fundamentally fake about the interactions.]

I have multiple answers to this objection.  The first is that engaging a wide variety of stylistic traditions does create better musicianship, and the practical/professional value of that is obvious.  To cite the specific example of jazz: my overwhelming anecdotal experience, working with classical instrumentalists at the DePaul University School of Music, is that those who have familiarity with jazz have significantly better ear-training skills than those who don’t.  Put differently, you can imagine that an instrumentalist with a nuanced understanding of many approaches is likely to have a wider variety of ways of thinking about a set of notes than one that worries mostly about audition excerpts.

But my second response is that asking such a question misses the point, because it already presupposes that a student has a fully formed and fixed idea of what kind of musician they want to be and what kind of career they want to have.  On the one hand, one might think it irresponsible not to do one’s best to help students get existing jobs in musical institutions; they are scarce, competitive and hard to attain.  On the other, I say that it is more irresponsible to push a student towards a specialization before they have had a chance to fully explore their artistic potential.  American students are taught from a very young age to be anxious about the possibilities practical success, or the lack thereof; they must get good grades so they can get into a good college, so they can get into a good grad school, so they can get a good job, and so on, endlessly deferring the question of why they’re doing it.  It’s not that we shouldn’t help them get jobs; it’s that we must also help them know why they might want to get that job, what they can do with it, and how they might be good influences on the world from within it.

[If you find yourself saying something like "but it's just the way things are!" or "the situation is what it is, and we can't fight it" I ask you the following: are you sure?  What is your evidence that your understanding of the situation is comprehensive?  Will it be that way in a year?  Will it be that way in 5 years?  In 10 years?  In 20 years?]

This segues clearly to my third and final response.  I think such an objection exhibits the same fundamental misunderstanding that the Yale School of Music Dean's “real clear mission” of “teach[ing] the Western canon and new music” does.  It implies that the world is unchangeable.  To my way of thinking, it’s not simply that the world is changeable.  It’s that it does change, regardless of whether we want it to; the buildings that US musicians train and practice in didn’t exist 200 years ago, and probably won’t exist in 200 years.  In short, we have influence, in a wide variety of spheres and on myriad levels, into how that change happens.  Our real clear mission is, rather, to think very carefully and very critically about it; and my hope is that this thinking will lead us -- performing musicians, educators, audiences, composers -- to a more artistically satisfying set of engagements with the world we live in.

Postscript to the postscript

Since I wanted to keep the topic of the above essay focused and narrow, I have chosen not to discuss something that is equally important about the education of performing musicians.  In my first essay I mentioned in passing “the tendency of performing musicians not to be particularly well-trained as critical thinkers of their own artform.”  This is a huge topic, though, and one of equal importance to the above.  That performing musicians are not systematically trained, or at least introduced to, critical traditions is just as detrimental to music in the U.S. as their lack of training in various musical traditions.  By “critical traditions” I might start by naming the following, but this is by no means a comprehensive list: formalism(s), structuralism and post-structuralisms (including deconstruction, feminist theory, queer theory, etc.), Critical Theory (i.e., of the Frankfurt School), and psychoanalysis.  Expanding on this, though, would require substantially more thought.

Education, jazz, canons

[Update: read this essay first, then read the follow-up: "Education Jazz, Canons: a Theoretical and Practical Postscript"]

We throw the word “canon” around sometimes, pro or con, when talking about what music should be played.  Much more so than literature, music is a field in which the so-called canon often goes presupposed, unthought, and unargued-for.  Off the top of my head, I imagine that this may have something to do with a confluence of factors, among which at least are these: musicians generally not being particularly well trained as critical thinkers of their artform, marketing departments’ assumptions about what audiences will spend money on, and a certainly undeniable (and, don’t get me wrong, definitely awesome) physical/affective/emotional power that much music has that can be experienced by people with widely varying backgrounds.

Alex Ross shrewdly gets to the crux of question in writing about a NY Times article on jazz at Yale:

In the Times piece, Robert Blocker, the dean of the Yale School of Music, explains why jazz is not a priority for his institution. He is quoted as saying: “Our mission is real clear. We train people in the Western canon and in new music.” This is real bad. Jazz is a monumental art form, its major figures among the most original thinkers in twentieth-century music. Its links to classical composition are myriad: classical players who are not exposed to jazz will deliver poor accounts of much music of the past hundred years, from Gershwin to John Adams.

I agree 100% with Alex; classical players not experienced with jazz will be worse musicians in any number of ways, not least of which is the understanding of style he cites.  Piling on, I’ll add that in my experience, my DePaul instrumental students who have no familiarity with jazz consistently have worse ear-training skills than those who do.

But that’s not where the problems with Blocker’s attitude stops.  The notion of “training people in the Western canon and in new music” is flawed, first of all, because it assumes that the Western canon is a fixed, reified thing that doesn’t change, and, secondly, that new music is separate from it (whatever “it” is).  Neither is the case, and unironically using the phrase “Western canon” to defend institutional priorities distorts the issue.  What actually exists are pieces (often called “standard repertoire,” a less confrontational, but no less problematic term) that are played every season by major symphony orchestras… you know, Beethoven’s Eroica symphony and such.  Certainly these works are influential, deeply so, (in my view) rightfully so: they complexly interact with/cause/influence a bunch of the music that comes after them; performance practices develop around them; our interpretation of them ends up being a part of our identity.  But it’s not an unchanging set of pieces.  For instance, the last concert that Mahler seems to have conducted (with the New York Phil in 1911) contained Mendelssohn’s “Italian” symphony; sure, that seems pretty canonic.  But it also contained a work you may have never heard by Busoni (the Berceuse élégiaque; does that count as canonic? I can’t tell), and three composers you probably haven’t heard of either -- Bossi, Martucci, and Sinigaglia (had to look up that last one to make sure he was real).  What exists is not best described as a canon, but rather as a complex, not-fully-knowable, ever-fluid-and-reinterpreted history of music; perhaps a “tradition” if you’d rather use a less general word than “history.”  Sure, there are a lot of pieces we like to come back to; but by granting them a separate status as a “canon” removes them from the world that made them, and this in turn leads down a dangerous ideological road.  [update: I forgot to mention in the original version of this post that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra played this program under Riccardo Muti a few years ago, which is why it was on my mind.  High-five, CSO.]

Furthermore, by invoking the notion of a reified canon, I would argue that Blocker is actually undermining the very pieces he’s trying to defend; the Eroica symphony, after all, was meant to be revolutionary, not a bunch of audition excerpts practiced into the ground.  To pretend that these pieces are deserving of being played because there is something inherently, unquestionably cool about them is the problem.  The reason they are important is the opposite: it is because they have a reception history, a tradition of people thinking about, feeling, playing, interrogating, fighting, reacting against them; and we are among those people.

This brings me to my next point, which is to deal with the implication that “new music” is a separate thing (“Western canon and new music”).  It’s not.  I would argue that the only thing that makes new music categorically different from music by Beethoven’s music is the year.  New music, in addition to being new, is also a result of or reaction to or engagement with the music that has come before it.  For instance, my friend Anthony Cheung, a brilliant young professor at University of Chicago and the Cleveland Orchestra’s Young Composer Fellow, has a wonderful piece, Lyra (written for the New York Philharmonic), that involves an a contemplation of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto.  Cheung is every bit as much a part of the tradition of reading, revising, rethinking, rewriting the issues that Beethoven dealt with as Brahms or Wagner were.

But Cheung deals with a lot of traditions; Lyra also makes reference to Chinese, Turkish, and West African musics.  Jazz is particularly important to his musical thinking.  Another work of his is Centripedalocity (which I’ve conducted with Ensemble Dal Niente), a movement of which is based on Thelonious Monk's Epistrophy.  As Artistic Director of the Talea Ensemble, he initiated a collaboration with jazz saxophonist Steve Coleman.  In short, both Beethoven and jazz are crucial parts of who he is as a composer; and this is the case because at some point he was educated in both traditions (his biography even cites “an early exposure to 20th century concert music and jazz/improvised music”).  Cheung’s art is unique, slippery, engaging, thoughtful, hilarious, hard to pin down.  This is because he is a musician of the 21st century in the best sense -- he deals with the world around him; this includes its recent and distant cultural past, and the works of art he creates reflect his inimitable distillation of them.  (Really, check his music out if you haven’t.)

What I’ve tried to suggest is that both the “canon” and “new music” aren’t quite the rigidly circumscribable things that Blocker seems to suggest they are.  I also wouldn’t say anything different about jazz; it is a shifting, flexible, profoundly sophisticated artform with a rich and strange and unlikely history that itself deals with a huge number of influences and cultural traditions, some of which intersect with the music Blocker probably wants his students to study.  Alex notes Gershwin and Adams, whose works certainly do engage stylistic tropes and questions associated with certain kinds of jazz.  But there are also broader aesthetic concerns where the boundaries between “new music” and “jazz” are so blurred as to be meaningless.  (One might cite the entire history of the AACM, for instance, here.)  Capitalism might want us to believe that the Western canon and new music and jazz are all clear-cut, easily distinguishable things because it wants to sell us recordings.  The reality is much harder to parse.

I wouldn’t want to make a claim that the Yale School of Music has an obligation to prioritize jazz (though my personal opinion is absolutely that it should).  I would say that it has an obligation to think more carefully and seriously about it and to examine its own ideology.  Ideology is really what’s at stake here; claims of a “real clear” mission about the “Western canon” are not so much aesthetic as socio-political.  I follow Terry Eagleton’s definition of ideology (in Literary Theory: An Introduction) to mean “the ways in which what we say and believe connects with the power-structure and power-relations of the society we live in… I do not mean by ‘ideology’ simply the deeply entrenched, often unconscious beliefs which people hold; I mean more particularly those modes of feelings, valuing and perceiving which have some kind of relation to the maintenance and reproduction of social power.”

What is taught, played, purveyed in prestigious, well-known culture institutions (like schools of music) matters.  It matters because people in our society trust and believe in those institutions; we look to them for guidance in our own judgments about culture and life.  I should know; I did my undergraduate work at Yale (though it was in the Department of Music, not the School).  There is a kind of reciprocity between society and arts institutions (especially in the US, where most can’t depend on government financial support) that takes the form of “prestige” or “social capital” or something; and it is supported by real capital, i.e., money.  We trust arts institutions to help us make decisions about what to value in culture, and we support them financially so that they might do so.  (Alex notes wryly that “a decade ago the Yale School of Music received an unprecedented hundred-million-d0llar gift, one that allowed the school to end tuition. You'd think that freedom from financial pressures would have encouraged the school to widen its intellectual horizons.”)  

This support means that we implicitly assume they have deeply examined, thought, felt, debated a broad range of issues, and that what they present to us and the way they present it is the result of such an engagement.  Defining your mission in a way that doesn’t stand up to even cursory scrutiny, and that also thereby purposefully and consciously marginalizes a whole branch of 20th and 21st century art music, is, in short, a fundamental failure to do the central, defining thing we have no choice but to trust arts institutions to do.  It would be hard to overstate the potential harm such failures might cause.

To restate in a more constructive way: we live in an unknowably vast, interconnected world that trends only exponentially further in that direction.  The existence of, and our access to -- one might even say inundation with -- a huge number of musical traditions is, first of all, not going way; and second of all, something I'd much prefer to celebrate.  We get to be very different musical beings that those that have preceded us.  We should embrace that; and our arts institutions -- with their myriad resources, talent, and wisdom -- should be proactive in helping us figure out a different way forward in a world that is too complex for only the same old answers.  

On Frederic Rzewski's "Coming Together"

i think the combination of age and the greater coming together is responsible for the speed of the passing time. it's six months now and i can tell you truthfully few periods in my life have passed so quickly. i am in excellent physical and emotional health. there are doubtless subtle surprises ahead but i feel secure and ready.

as lovers will contrast their emotions in times of crisis, so am i dealing with my environment. in the indifferent brutality, incessant noise, the experimental chemistry of food, the ravings of lost hysterical men, i can act with clarity and meaning. i am deliberate--sometimes even calculating--seldom employing histrionics except as a test of the reactions of others. i read much, exercise, talk to guards and inmates, feeling for the inevitable direction of my life.

… thus wrote Sam Melville, inmate at the Attica state prison in upstate New York in the spring of 1971.  Crucial to the audience’s perception of this piece, therefore, must be the otherwise un-noted fact that he died in September of the next year, as a result of a wound sustained during prison riots, in which the inmates successfully, if only briefly, overtook parts of the prison and held guards as hostages.  The letter was subsequently published, first in a magazine, where it was read by Frederic Rzewski.  Wrote the composer:

As I read it I was impressed both by the poetic quality of the text and by its cryptic irony. I read it over and over again. It seemed that I was trying both to capture a sense of the physical presence of the writer, and at the same time to unlock a hidden meaning from the simple but ambiguous language. The act of reading and rereading finally led me to the idea of a musical treatment.

Which is to say: it is not an innocent text, nor is it innocently chosen.  Indeed, the very circumstances of our reading it render it (regardless of its original context or the intentions of the author) dripping with countless unidentifiable opacities and often hard-to-pin-down ironies -- verbal, situational, and, maybe most poignantly,  dramatic, since this narrative subject doesn’t know that he has only a year left to live.  

It is, assuredly, unusual to see such a text used as the basis for a musical composition, so let us briefly consider what is going on in Coming Together, musically speaking.  Everything in the piece works to create in the audience some re-creation or distillation of or metaphor for prison life, while simultaneously allowing questions to arise in a listener’s mind as to what the prison itself is a metaphor for.  Regarding the materials, there are elements of both composition and improvisation.  The never-resting bassline, consisting of an endless, inevitable, inexorable string of 16th notes, is limited to only 5 pitches  -- an intentionally simple (equally intentionally populist?), pentatonic collection.  These pitches are combined and recombined, subjected to rigorous yet slow-moving processes, such that the bassline remains maddeningly familiar but never predictable.  At the same time, instructions are given to the other instrumentalists that grant them a certain amount of freedom as to what to play, while at the same time drastically circumscribing their choices, and, of course, imposing on them a general form that delineates their actions as part of a musical composition.  While the metaphorical correspondence between musical material and prison, instrumentalist and prisoner, musical work and day-to-day labor, may seem so one-to-one that it is almost unsubtle and heavy-handed, surely the ease of the evocation of this metaphor in a listener’s mind suggests that it is actually much more.  Which is to say: if (this) music can be a metaphor for American prison life in the 1970s, surely it can be a metaphor for many other things as well.  If the particular circumstances of inmates at a particular point in history can be “expressed” in music (of all things!, we might say, indignant on our artform's behalf), surely, then we might find echoes and parallels between that situation of confinement and countless others in our existence.

Melville’s fragment is presented by Rzewski in a way that forces the audience to read it closely.  Revealed one word or one phrase at a time, we are made to confront possible meanings without necessarily relying on the semantic chain of the sentence.  The listeners and the speaker are therefore also cast as if in the role of writer, compelled to experience and consider every lexical item as it happens.  Thus what, if unexamined, might come across as flat, unironic, and straightforward accrues a rich set of meanings over the 20-minute course of the work as we can really do no other than interpret relationships between the words and the musical texture that it is superimposed upon.

Thus, this work is a contradiction, but a rich and fruitful one.  On the one hand, its musical materials are insultingly simple; on the other, the unceasing way in which they are recombined renders them unpredictably complex.  On the one hand, the players are given freedom to choose what they play; on the other, the very conditions of the freedom serves to highlight the ways in which they are constrained.  On the one hand, the audience is invited to be an active participant in the interpretation of the piece; on the other, such an invitation is conditioned by the composer’s control.  Rarely in musical works are the very tensions inherent in this artform itself brought to the surface so urgently, palpably, and -- ultimately -- forcefully.

On Berio's Folk Songs

First, I’ll try to generalize.  The Folk Songs by Luciano Berio are really hardly either – by Berio or folksongs.  (Ah, but already we run into problems with this statement – Nos. 6 and 7, “La donna ideale” and “Ballo” are, in fact, both freely composed settings of traditional Italian texts.)  Neither, though, would it be accurate to call them simply “transcriptions” or “arrangements.”  Too many strange things happen, and Berio’s personality is too present.  Just when a listener thinks he’s gotten his mind around the style or harmonic language of a certain song, something bizarre happens, like, say, the completely contextless coda of “I wonder as I wander” (is it about the bird mentioned in passing in the text?  If so, why that detail?)  What in the world is the harp doing there at the end of “Lo Fiolaire?”  In short, there is something, like so much of Berio’s music, that is elusive and complex – that resists reductiveness and straightforwardness… that seems to demand interpretation and work on the listener’s part, no matter how initially unproblematic things may seem… and that is ultimately not-fully-knowable.  (If one is being uncharitable, one might posit that it is an intentional deception by Berio; I would be hard pressed to imagine a more innocent title than Folk Songs.)

One thinks of the chaos of the third movement of another well-known work by Berio, namely, Sinfonia – the Mahler 2 Scherzo overlaid with countless other references to the standard rep, plus eight singers chanting, chatting, scatting, talking, whispering, shouting all manner of thing you can’t quite understand (and they’re using microphones, acting as visual cues that you should understand them; how frustrating!).  No kind of repetitive listening, no amount of score study, no degree of sympathetic perception can parse all of that minutiae.  The Folk Songs, of course, don’t have the same level of overwhelming detail; if for no other reason than that the instrumentation is smaller and the size of each song much more modest.  Similarly to Sinfonia, though, you just can’t quite penetrate the whole thing.  Your experience with it is fragmentary.  If you’re American, you probably have already have heard versions of “I wonder as I wander” in your life, and you know the tune.  And maybe you’ve heard “Black is the Colour...” (both, incidentally, not folksongs at all – but “composed” by the “classically trained” singer/folklore enthusiast from Kentucky called John Jacob Niles).  You probably don’t speak French (“Rossignolet du Bois” – “Little Nightingale of the Woods”) and Italian (“Ballo”), though; and if you do, I’d be completely shocked if you know both of those languages in addition to Armenian (“Loosin Yelav” – “The Moon has Risen”).  Still, if you are an insanely erudite person that is familiar with all of those (in addition to the English, Sardinian, Sicilian of the other songs) you definitely won’t understand the “Azerbaijan Love Song” even if you speak the language.  Cathy Berberian, the singer for whom Folk Songs was written, still Berio’s wife at the time though not for long – transcribed the words from a scratchy old Soviet 78 the couple found while perusing a record store in Moscow.  She herself didn’t speak the Azeri language, rendering the transcription highly inadequate; and even the ending, actually in Russian, is comprehensible but hilariously mangled by the transliteration, like a small child, struggling to learn its own language, imitating its parents’ speech.

Berio did write a program note about these works.  I don’t think what he has to say, though, is quite right:

I have a utopian dream, though I know it cannot be realized: I would like to create a unity between folk music and our music — a real, perceptible, understandable conduit between ancient, popular music-making which is so close to everyday work and music.

“Unity” seems like the wrong word, doesn't it?  After all, how can these songs possibly be thought of as unified?  They are from different places, times, musical/cultural traditions; the subject matter varies (though many are about love – more on this later); the languages represent widely varying degrees of comprehensibility.  In fact, there are strikingly few things about this work that are unified – perhaps a resonance between the opening viola solo and the cello at the beginning of “Lo Fiolaire,” maybe resemblances of various melodic lines to one another (or are we imagining that because we’re looking for it? Might it be, just as plausibly, that they simply share a melodic vocabulary given that they are mostly folksongs?).  But that is precisely why it is interesting.  It is its very disunity that makes it resonate with our experience.  Cathy Berberian’s messy, non-sensical transliteration is a figure for our understanding of this piece, a figure for the late 20th/early 21st century listener, and a figure for the piece itself.  It is the same basic experience we have of mishearing lyrics to radio songs (I only recent came to realization that the first line of the chorus of Brad Paisley “Crushin’ It” is not the acceptingly stoic Heidiggerian tautology “Every weekend’s a weekend,” but rather the rather commonplace, ordinary, pedestrian, almost nauseatingly Panglossian “Every week has a weekend.”  I have been mishearing this line for months, and developed a whole theory around the song based on it.  Does this mishearing render my reading invalid?).  But it is also fundamental to nearly every way we experience the world.  We work with incomplete information, and no matter how hard we try, we don’t (can’t) understand everything.

To narrow my claim a bit, and restrict it to the present work rather than the meaning of existence – Berio sets you up to fail as a listener.  He has composed in your inadequacies by his choice of styles, languages, and traditions.  Schubert, when he writes a song, imagines (expects?) that it is possible for you to fully understand what he’s doing (even if his expectation is unrealizable).  Berio doesn’t.  He himself doesn’t fully understand what he’s doing, and this might have to do with the speculation in some corners that this piece is an attempt to save his marriage.  These are not precious, Disneyfied folksongs, whose source materials are were created by noble savages in Technicolor.  These are confusing utterances, divorced from their context, that make half-sense, and whose sum total is not a unified experience, whatever the composer says.  Put another way: Berio, a composer associated with various acts of “transcription” or “arranging” or “recomposition” throughout his long career (one of his last works, in 2001, was a completion of Puccini’s unfinished Turandot), makes his art out of forcing us feel the holes and gaps in our experience much more than he does in "tidying up" works that lack a written-down tradition.

There is something in Berio’s statement that is correct, though: “a real, perceptible, understandable conduit between ancient, popular music-making...” While it is not unified, Berio does successfully create the  “conduit” he’s looking for.  He does connect “folk music and our music.”  But he does so by thematizing our (and his own) experience with music in a world that is too big for us.  In a sense, he thus makes this music much more our own than it could ever have been otherwise.  He reminds us that we are sitting in the concert hall listening to fellow humans make sounds, and that however much we miss in the interpretation of the authorial intent or the context of the original versions, we nevertheless cannot avoid encountering the performance we are listening to.  To me this invites an imaginative mode of listening that is much richer and more sympathetic than an imperialism that paternalistically appropriates its source materials.

Speaking of unknowability, one final word about the Berio-Berberian marriage.  Though the composer got remarried (to philosopher Susan Oyama) in 1966, scholarly work appears to disagree about exactly when the initial couple divorced.  Reading a connection between the text of so many of the Folks Songs (premiered in 1964) and the couple’s romantic dynamic seems too tempting to resist.  One thinks immediately of lines from certain songs, “Ballo,” for instance: “Love makes even the wisest mad, and he who loves most has least judgement...” or “Malurous qu’o uno fenno” (“Wretched is he”), even more to the point: “Wretched is he who has a wife, wretched is he who has not!  He who hasn’t got one wants one, he who has not, doesn’t!”  Is the work partially an ironic commentary on the couple’s personal situation?  Is it an attempt by Berio to save their marriage?  Or is that all just a coincidence, since surely the pains and joys of love are some of the most universally sung-about topics in the history of music(s)?  Again, perhaps this turns our ostensible weakness into a strength.  We don’t know, we can’t know; so let us accept that the tension of guessing, of trying to examine the inherently obscure, is one of the things that makes listening to – or rather, engaging with – this work so stimulating.

Beethoven and the romantic sublime: the Fifth Symphony

There are number of reasons that it would be hard for a listener in 2015, for whom Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is a the most irreproachably fixed of the standard repertoire, to recapture the experience the contemporaneous Viennese audience must have had on hearing it for the first time.  The very concert itself would be unthinkable -- held on a freezing cold day (Dec. 22, 1808) in the unheated (!) Theater an der Wien, the program included the following works: the Sixth Symphony, the aria and scene "Ah, Perfido", the Gloria movement of the C major Mass, the Fourth Piano Concerto (composer as soloist), the Fifth Symphony, the Sanctus and Benedictus of the C major mass, an extended solo piano improvisation (also by the composer, naturally), and the Choral Fantasy.  All of this played by a pick-up orchestra of whatever musicians weren't fighting in the Napoleonic wars and who had the customary one rehearsal.  In short, it was probably an unbearable concert that you would have left in the middle of.  Or maybe this: such a concert would never have been allowed to happen in today’s cultural environment.

More significant, and maybe more elusive to us 200 years later, than these preposterously unhelpful conditions, is the work’s interpretation and subsequent reception.  This very symphony was the tipping point in a long-time-coming shift in what people thought a work of music could do, a fundamental change in modes of listening that is relevant up until our present time.  E.T.A. Hoffmann’s review of the work -- using language of his contemporary romantic philosophers Tieck, Wackenroder, Novalis -- classified it as belonging to the category of the "sublime;” "sublime" meant not in a colloquial sense or even in reference to the 90’s ska band from Long Beach, California; but rather in a philosophical one -- as something that confounds reason and the senses, makes one feel one's own mortality as if standing in front of the infinite power of, say, an overwhelming nature, what Edmund Burke calls "privation," the sense that one might be annihilated at any moment.  Writes musicologist Mark Evan Bond: “Symphonies, until only recently consigned to the same category of the “agreeable” arts as wallpaper, were now [in the beginning of the 19th century] beginning to be perceived as manifestations of the infinite and, as such, as vehicles of truth.”  

This is a piece that makes outsized claims for what music is and can do.  Far from the comfortable half-hour that is a “staple of concert life,” that we own many favorite recordings of, that can be heard season after season in reasonably good performances on the programs of your local symphony orchestra, this work was understood in its initial milieu as being forceful and powerful in a way that accorded with a revolutionary shift in how people understood themselves.  The tension between these two points of view -- this work as something ungraspably new and as the very instantiation of the tradition of bourgeois culture -- is a tension that instrumentalists and conductors of today must (in multiple senses) play out every time they get on a stage to present it to an audience.

The work itself: it must have struck the audience as so very strange, and precisely because they understood the language it spoke.  Its features are exaggerated and sometimes grotesque, its logic severe and uncompromising.  While a composer using certain small, simple motifs as the basis for a composition is certainly not unusual (for Beethoven's teacher, Joseph Haydn, this was a common practice, especially in his later works that Beethoven undoubtedly knew), the ever-presence its inescapably insistent motif, as well as its simplicity, are heretofore unheard of.

Some discussion of the motif is in order: while it is familiar to us today as three 8th notes and half note with a fermata, without the benefit of context, these aspects are completely unclear.   The rhythmic status of the three 8th notes is not obvious -- do they happen on beat 1?  beat 2?  between beats? are they a triplet?  The interval -- a major third (G to E-flat) -- is no less clear; in fact it is much more likely to be heard as scale degrees 3 and 1 in E-flat major, rather than 5 and 3 in C minor.  The motif, which has implications throughout the symphony, is literally nothing more than three short sounds and a long one situated around one of the most common intervals in music.  In terms of traditional practices, one would be hard pressed to come up with less interesting raw material.

What is remarkable is that it is present in nearly every bar of the first movement.  There is no "first theme" as such in this sonata form -- merely an obsessive repetition of the motif at different pitch levels, combined with interruptive stops that fight its restless momentum.  While the second theme is an actual melody, the motif remains, grumbling around the bass instruments.  The closing section simply brings the motif back in the major key.  The development section sees the motif subjected to various changes of pitch, key, registral areas, stripped of its first note, eventually even all three, becoming nothing but a series of repeated chords (eventually losing their context, a series of long tones as if part of a slow movement).  The recapitulation is alternately more forceful (the entire orchestra hammers out the motif now, not just the strings and clarinets) and more subdued -- everyone waits while a perplexed, pensive, self-indulgently inward looking oboe solo meanders around a C minor scale.  The second and closing themes, now in C major rather than E-flat, promise a triumphal ending, but are immediately denied by a return of the minor mode.  The fully unleashed coda is vicious, propelling the music relentlessly until a final, climactic return of the motif, thundered out.  Even the final cadential gestures -- harmonically so conventional -- are rife with the motif’s unrelenting rhythm.

The motif is curious absent from the double variations slow movement in A-flat major.  It begins with a beautiful, singing, nonchalant, what-me-worry? cello theme that is elaborated upon by the woodwinds as a step-wise ascending tune.  The brass interrupt majestically, hurling the key to C major (the tonality of the Finale, though we don't know it yet), turning the woodwind theme in a military march.  It dissipates quickly, though, and the cellos begin anew.  The variations on this process comprise most of the movement, deviating only momentarily for a slightly faster section toward the end.

The sinister, insidious, snakey cello and bass theme that opens the third movement (the Scherzo) brings back the character of the first, if not its material.  It is not until the imperious entrance of the horns, blaring a melody transparently derived from the first movement's motif, that connection is clear.  The Trio section, while in C major, retains a threatening persona, with the cellos and basses bulldozing their way through a series of 8th notes (grouped, uncoincidentally, in three’s).  Upon repetition, it becomes increasingly tame, leading to return of the opening theme, now completely emasculated.  Limited to pizzicato strings and a few lonely woodwind solos, the movement dissolves.  So decayed does it become that it is unable to complete its final cadence in C minor, instead becoming suspended on an A-flat major chord for what seems like a symphonic eternity  As the violins courageously ascend, other instruments creep in.  

Without pause -- as if rending apart formal conventions by force, ironically in the guise of a forced unity -- the last movement bursts into the work in a conflagration of C major.  Trombones, piccolos, and and contrabassoon have suddenly appeared.   The orchestra has expanded three dimensionally -- it has gotten higher, lower, and louder.  All introduce the theme that is meant to resolve the symphony's tensions: an ascending C major triad that descends forthwith step-wise (and earlier, minor-key version of which appeared the C minor piano concerto’s opening theme).  The first movement's scale degree five and three have now added the stability of a root and merged with the second movement's brass fanfare to create a new theme.  It emphatically, triumphantly, heroically, definitively affirms an intense C major.  Words like “bright” and “blazing” are frequently invoked in relation to this moment, but it seems to me that they don’t quite capture it.  It is “bright” in the same sense that staring at the sun for too long is -- its power feels almost too much for your humanity, and there is some ironic sense in which its intensity threatens your subjectivity.  It is, in a word, sublime.  E. T. A. Hoffmann:

Beethoven's music, on the other hand, discloses to us the realm of the colossal and the immeasurable.  Beams of incandescent light shoot through the deep night of this realm, and we become conscious of enormous shadows; shadows that, in the ponderous weight of their alternating ebb and flow, ever-more-narrowly constrain, and, ultimately, annihilate us--without, however, annihilating that pain of infinite yearning upon which each and every pleasure that has fleetingly come into its own in the exultation of melody founders and then perishes, and it is only in virtue of this pain—this pain of mingled love, hope, and joy that is intrinsically consumptive but not destructive, this pain that strives to tear our breast asunder in a full-voiced concord of all the passions—that we survive the ordeal as enraptured communicants with the great beyond!

A second theme, featuring ascending triplets (related at least rhythmically to the motif), celebrates the collapse of the minor mode.  The development section features reminders of tonal strife, though, as the orchestra battles its way through a series of diminished chord and a threatened transformation of the Finale's second theme into the first movement's motif.  The progress halts on a G major chord.

In an astonishing moment, the still-afraid, meek third movement material returns momentarily, though it is quickly overwhelmed by a recapitulation of equal weight to the exposition, as if suddenly awaking from a dream.  Let us pause, though, to consider this remarkable compositional moment; we are made remember and re-live, after having done it once, our experience of overcoming the adversity of the work’s first three quarters.  It seems to me straightforwardly mimetic of human psychology in a way that music is rarely able to accomplish.  

After a repeat of the second theme in C major, an extended coda eventually accelerates to dangerous speeds (the first movement motif affirming the key in the bass line).  As the symphony careens towards a conclusion, superfluous notes and chords gradually fall away, leaving nothing but an uncontested C major, then simply a C itself, elementally, to end the work.

The more normative model of the Viennese classical, late-Enlightenment symphony involves finales that are light-hearted affairs -- perhaps a rondo, or a not-too-taxing sonata form with happy themes, the compositional weight having come in the first two movements.  For Beethoven, the last movement -- perhaps the philosophical and social ideas in the atmosphere during his day -- had become a hard-fought, not easily achieved tonal, compositional, and (undoubtedly) personal goal; a large-scale compositional form now heard as a teleology.  It would be hard to underestimate the influence of this compositional attitude in the nineteenth century and beyond.

Mahler and Mozart: Military Music from the Enlightenment to Modernity

[A version of the essay below was used as a program note to a concert given by the DePaul Chamber Orchestra on April 28, 2015; it included Mozart's 3 Marches, K. 408 and selections from Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn.]

Though this is hard to generalize about, chief among the important characteristics of musical modernism, whatever that means, is a certain sense of self-consciousness.  Experiences are not un-thought; things are rarely what they seem, are hardly straightforward, and are never, ever innocent.  This things-aren’t-what-they-seem-ness is an omnipresent aspect of Mahler’s music.  A detail from the composer’s earliest memories, apparently recounted to Sigmund Freud (omg, can you imagine what that meeting must have been like!?) always seems significant to me:

[Mahler’s] father, apparently a brutal person, treated his wife very badly, and when Mahler was a young boy there was a specially painful scene between them. It became quite unbearable to the boy, who rushed away from the house. At that moment, however, a hurdy-gurdy in the street was grinding out the popular Viennese air “O, du lieber Augustin.”  In Mahler’s opinion the conjunction of high tragedy and light amusement was from then on inextricably fixed in his mind, and the one mood inevitably brought the other with it.

Indeed, whether Mahler’s self-analysis is correct or not, certain topoi appear over and over in his works: popular music, klezmer styles, military fragments, and funeral marches.  Popular is mixed with serious, banal juxtaposed with psychologically complex.  It is music that thematizes the alienated subject’s interactions with and reactions to a world that cannot quite be made sense of.  To be more obvious: there is a reason that his music has continued to speak to us, in 2015, a hundred years after his death.

Such is the milieu of Mahler’s vocal music as a whole, no less his settings of songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“The Boy’s Magic Horn”), a collection of poems published much earlier than Mahler's setting of them -- in the early nineteenth century -- by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano.  When they were published, the poems themselves were already ideological.  Masquerading as folk lyrics, “old German songs” as the subtitle says, consistent trends emerge: military life, the innocence of children, love and desire, aimless wandering.  They were designed this way, of course: Arnim and Brentano were both involved in the early days of the romantic response to the Enlightenment, certainly a strain of which was an uncomfortably reactionary nationalism that festishized a non-existent, mythical past.  They were criticized even in their own day (indeed, by thinkers who may have been otherwise philosophically in line with them) for a certain myth-making, freely editing and altering old manuscripts, minstrels’ ballads, religious hymns, soldiers’ marches, tunes they heard on their Rhine journeys.  The attempts to create a world, rather than record one, are not concealed.  Whatever its ideological purposes, though, what Mahler seems to have related to in the poems is their rawness and unvarnished depictions.  They do not shy away from humor, cruelty, euphoria, grim realities of day-to-day life, even if the realities themselves are fictionalized.  Indeed, in Mahler’s settings, the life of a soldier is hardly glorious.  The march topics are never presented without ambivalence of some sort, an irony that can be situational or dramatic, but that nevertheless renders the settings not unequivocal.

For this reason, it seems prudent to examine three much earlier pieces by Mozart in that genre.  The march rigidly orders both musical material and movements of the body in space and time.  Its very purpose is to enforce a discipline of motion.  The movements of people doing the marching are radically circumscribed, and the music that goes along with it is equally formulaic and conventionalized.  It is music that attempts to impose its structure on the world, and that it would be one of the primary topics of classical era music is no surprise.  Despite the Enlightenment’s attempts to grasp human freedom, its implicit claims that the universe can be understood via rationality is (let us at least entertain the argument) no less hegemonic than the hierarchical social order it attempted to replace.  Mozart’s three Marches, K. 408, are typical of music of the period written in that genre.  All composed in 1782, just after Mozart had moved to Vienna, they are music for social occasions, indeed, just the sort of things that affirm civilization’s structures.  The first and third, both in C major, were likely written for Mozart’s first concerts in Vienna.  They are optimistic, confident in the way things are.  Bright C major triads make up both the melodies (horizontally) and the harmonies (vertically).  Both are in a simple ternary form, straightforwardly A-B-A.  The D major march, the second, was written for a different occasion -- for the same concert as the premiere of Mozart’s 35th symphony, dedicated to the Haffners, family friends and patrons in Salzburg.  (Salzburg -- literally “salt fortress” -- what name could be more bourgeois?  Is not salt the very emblem of what one might spend surplus capital on?)

Where Mozart’s march settings are unequivocal and engage the culture of his day, Mahler’s Wunderhorn songs, from 100 years later, that use similarly military topics, are deeply, sometimes bitterly ironic, and usually in multiple senses.  They reveal a resistance in the subject to the impositions of a rationalizing society, and they present an overall ambivalent interpretation of culture.

In Revelge (Reveille) the march topic is sounded relentlessly, insistently, unceasingly by the three trumpets while the soloist sings of soldiers doing their duty; but they seem to do it thoughtlessly and uncomprehendingly, no matter the cost to them.  Insidiously, music itself is enlisted to keep the soldiers fighting, the beating of the drum and the mindless refrain “trallali, trallaley, trallala” serving to keep them motivated, or at least in action; the drummer boy even leads the successful charge.  By the end of the song, even the skeletons of the defeated enemy (represented clearly in the orchestra) stand to attention.

The “Lost Labor” of Verlorne Müh refers to a maiden’s unsuccessful attempts to get a young man to be her lover.  The orchestra’s evasive tempos and slithering passage-work seem to contain as much innuendo as the words the female protagonist sings.

Der Schildwache Nachtlied (The Sentinel’s Nightsong) is the other side of this.  The unhappy sentinel sings about his duty to keep watch (the orchestra parts bearing clear resemblances both to Revelge and the Lied des Verfolgten im Turm), but the music melts all too easily into that of his sweetheart beguiling him with promises of their meeting in the rose garden.  As the sentinel grows agitated, ordering a phantom threat to halt, the listener realizes that we’ve heard not his sweetheart herself, but only his desperate imagination of her.  

The sermon to the fishes delivered by St. Anthony in Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt is the result of no one showing up in the church.  St. Anthony, in an act of supremely self-deceptive anthropomorphizing, imagines how much the fish love his preaching, their physical characteristics all indicating their rapt attention.  Just as the people, though, the fish all go back to their sinful way after the sermon is over -- making us wonder if he actually did ever leave the church, or, perhaps, if all of God’s creatures great and small simply behave the same.  What’s the point of all this utterance anyway?

“Thoughts are free” declares the narrative subject at the beginning of the Lied des Verfolgten im Turm (Song of the Prisoner in the Tower); even from the outset it is unclear whether this is ironic or not.  On the one hand, the 12/8 time signature allows for slippery, hard-to-pin down music to constantly attempt an escape.  On the other, the march topics seems to rigidly enclose his physical and musical world.  His sweetheart sings of summertime and freedom in nature -- is his renunciation of love at the end delusional?  Self-serving?

The narrative subject is the other half of the pair in in Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen (Where the fair trumpet sounds).  To sleepy, laconic music -- reminiscent of far-off military fanfares -- the maiden is awakened by knocking at her door.  Her lover wants to be let in to say goodbye.  He’s off to war, where the fair trumpet sounds; only on his last line, “there is my house of green grass” do we realize that, having been killed in battle, he is now exists only in her thoughts.

To a slow death march Der Tamboursg’sell (the drummer boy) is being led to the gallows.  We don’t find out why.  Desertion?  Cowardice?  Has he been captured?  Nevertheless, the march rhythm and death both make his path inevitable.

Though the Urlicht (usually translated, utterly unsatisfactorily, as “Primal Light”) may come across as ostensibly a child’s song, there is something too persistent and determined for it to be innocent.  While mankind lies in great pain, the narrative subject would rather be in heaven (indicated by the octave leap in the voice part).  Even when an angel threatens to turn her away, she insists “[she] would not be dismissed.”  The work of Romanticism, the building of the self to transcend the world, the effort of art-making, is Mahler’s salvation.  “What you have suffered will lead you to God,” as he would say in another context... well, at least at this stage in his career.

Fragments for listening to the music of Rebecca Saunders

Ensemble Dal Niente presents a concert of the music of British-born, Berlin-based composer Rebecca Saunders at 8:30 PM at Constellation Chicago on Thursday, April 23, 2015.

I have a very distinct recollection from when I was about 12 years old of hearing Sibelius’s Swan of Tuonela for the first time in performance.  It was an emotion, or rather a corporeal response, I had never had before, and one that is still hard to describe.  I am not even remotely a synesthete, and temperamentally I tend to look down upon that sort of thing... but something about the muddiness gradually becoming the shimmeriness of all those A minor chords gave me a sensation that I can only analogize to the experience of an intense color.  I certainly didn’t see a color or anything like that.  I experienced maybe a nostalgia or a longing or something, but not for a particular object… it was a physical sensation I wasn’t used to experiencing with a piece of music.

Rebecca Saunders: miniata, for accordion, piano, orchestra, and choir (youtube).

“Surface, weight and feel are part of the reality of musical performance: the weight of the bow on the string; the differentiation of touch of the finger on the piano key; the expansion of the muscles between the shoulder-blades drawing sound out of the accordion; the in-breath preceding the ‘heard’ tone … Feeling the weight of the sound is an integral part of the composing process. The essential materiality of sound is for me of primary importance. Being aware of the grit and noise of an instrument, or a voice, reminds us of the presence of a fallible physical body behind the sound. This physical presence of the musician and his acoustic instrument, and of sound itself, serves to inspire the material basis of a work."
-- Rebecca Saunders, on miniata

My maternal grandfather died when I was probably 20 years old, and I recall staying in a room in someone’s house -- I wish I could remember whose -- on a beach in south Georgia the night before the funeral.  It was windy and the late summer air was very warm, and the sound the sea made mixed with exhaustion and grief prompted in me, despite all of my undergrad intellectual pompousness (which I immediately regained), serious momentary consideration that the ocean was a living entity -- not in the concrete, collective way in which it is an eco-system, or in a vague spiritual way, but rather as if it were a single huge sentient creature.

“I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them, however . . . is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command!”
-- Mark Rothko

I used to keep a diary, but even when I did it I thought it was dumb and didn’t believe I really thought any of the stuff I wrote in it.  Nevertheless, for reasons I don’t know to this day, I kept writing in it for a while; and I’d collect a bunch of random, scraps of paper, photos, etc., in the folder pockets.  I lived in Chicago for a summer and used write while taking the El, and everything I wrote was totally stupid and so purposeless and contrived; embarrassing, really.  Well, I guess it was somewhat like the act of taking public transit around a big city for long stretches of time on a Saturday with no particular purpose or destination in mind.  Eventually I realized I was persisting with it because the act of utterance itself was somehow comforting.

Rebecca Saunders: dichroic seventeen (youtube).

"The big moment came when it was decided to paint 'just to paint'. The gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberation from value — political, aesthetic, moral."
-- Harold Rosenberg on Abstract Expressionism in The Tradition of the New

“My music in meaningless.  There is no meaning, no message...  that’s a wonderful contradiction -- I don’t have anything to say but I can talk for hours.”
-- Rebecca Saunders, interview

The last time I donated blood I fainted.  The only thing I really remember is blackness at the corners of my vision rapidly closing in on me, and an emotional experience that was... sort of initially terrifying but inexorable and obvious.  It didn't really last long enough for me to think anything else about it.  Then a doctor and a nurse were standing over me.

Secretly I enjoy noticing my own physical reactions when I almost get into a car accident...  heart-rate rises, cortisol/adrenaline levels go up.  [Don’t worry, though, it’s not a thing I do intentionally.  I’m a nice guy.]

“[Painter Barnett] Newman describes how, in August of 1949, he visited the mounds built by the Miami Indians in southwest Ohio.  ‘Standing before the Miamisburg mound -- surrounded by these simple walls of mud -- I was confounded by the absoluteness of the sensation, by their self-evident simplicity.’  In a subsequent conversation with [critic Thomas B.] Hess, he comments on the event of the sacred site.  ‘Looking at the site you feel, Here I am here… and out beyond there (beyond the limits of the site) there is chaos, nature rivers, landscapes… but here you get a sense of your own presence… I became involved with the idea of making the viewer present: the idea that “Man is present.”’”
-- Jean-Francois Lyotard, “Newman: The Instant”

I remember exactly where I was when I saw the first girl I ever really loved for the first time.  And I remember exactly what she looked like.  I also remember the last thing she said to me.

“At first form was much less important to me because I wanted to be inside the sound.”
-- Rebecca Saunders

“I know it when I see it.”
-- Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964)

Rebecca Saunders: Vermillion (youtube).


Ramifying naturally? On Sibelius and Spahlinger

[This brief essay was co-written with musicologist Seth Brodsky for a March 12, 2015 program of the DePaul Orchestras, in which Sibelius's Tapiola is played alongside Spahlinger's morendo and doppelt bejaht: etudes for orchestra without conductor.]

On 8 May 1912, Jean Sibelius wrote in his diary: 

”I intend to let the musical thoughts and their development determine their own form in my soul.”

It would seem during those days and months that Sibelius was consumed by such thoughts. James Hepokoski writes of repeated diary entries from 1912 indicating that Sibelius’s “aim had become to rethink the concept of form by allowing certain nature-mystical core ideas to ramify ‘naturally’ or meditatively, as though they had a separate volition not to be thwarted by the habits of traditional practice.”

The works that would emerge in the coming years—especially the last three symphonies (nos. 5-7)—are nothing if not a realization of this utopian dream: “own form”/“my soul”. But it’s tempting to think of Sibelius’s last major work, the 1926 tone-poem Tapiola, as its most extreme case. After its completion, Sibelius would live another three decades, and write virtually nothing else. While he worked for years on an eagerly awaited eighth symphony, Sibelius threw the manuscript in the fire. This biographical detail, often noted, carries enormous pathos. But here, in the context of this concert, it has a special relevance. What if it wasn’t creative despair, or a misanthropic shrinking form the world, that compelled the composer to burn his work? What if it was the coldest logic? As if his compositional aim had been fulfilled, and “the musical thoughts” had indeed finally taken on a life of their own—to such an extent that Sibelius the composer no longer had control over them. So one might hear Tapiola as more than just the hypnotic, haunting sound-portrait of the Finnish forests it claims to be. It could also be one way of hearing the vanishing point of “common practice” compositional thinking. A 20-minute window into another kind of forest, where nothing ever stays the same, even as nothing ever quite “goes somewhere”; where the whole idea of “theme” begins to fall apart, even as one never hears a new theme. A continual reconsideration of, a perpetual development of, rumination upon, some basic, by definition “generic” intervals. Tapiola becomes a document of supreme ambivalence: teetering between the “sound of nature” as heard by a transcendental auditor—The Composer—and the “natural sound”, unfolding despite all human audition, all earful efforts at hearing-as and listening-in.

Surely this is a thing with which Spahlinger can sympathize, albeit skeptically. He is, after all, the author of series of experimental text-scores entitled suggestions, concepts on the liquidation/redundancy of the function of the composer. But on a concrete level, Sibelius's final, restive efforts are a fascinating foil to Spahlinger's experimental 2009 score doppelt bejaht (“doubly affirmed”). Here, the concept of “ramifying” is explicitly thematized in these 24 etudes for orchestra without conductor. Each has many ways of going to another, via “verzweigerungen” (“branches,” let's call them; not forgetting that the Finish forest god who was Tapiola’s subject-muse), and, rather than “the musical thoughts” ramifying in a questionable “soul,” it is the orchestral collective itself that allows this to happen. If one takes a few conceptual leaps, one might say that where Tapiola clutches for dear life onto the precipice of the mimetic (not just nature—air, light, flora, storm—but no less relevantly, historical forces), doppelt bejaht lets go, and becomes instead a microcosm of them: its “own form”, but with an un-ownable soul. The point is forced – the orchestra becomes, not an imitation of, but an actual world. The players must make decisions—without anyone to tell them what to do, when to do it, how to do it, how long to do it—otherwise the piece simply does not happen. And while, of course, players in orchestras always make decisions all the time, only here is their decision-making the compositional agent itself, rather than its fantastical imitation, whose concealment provides the very support for the fetishized commodity that the institution of the 21st century orchestra has become.

On Fauré’s Requiem

Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem is one of the more unusual works in the genre.  Not written for any reason in particular (“pleasure, if I may call it that,” said the composer), it doesn’t stand as a memorial to a person or event.  (Fauré’s mother actually died during its composition, in 1887, so it cannot have been initially conceived of in her memory.)  The circumstances are hardly the most unique thing about it, though.  Unlike nearly all other works in the genre, it contains none of the drama, anxiety, or fraught emotions one tends to associate with human thinking about death.  Nearly all references to the last judgement from the Catholic liturgy (and trust me, there are plenty) are excised.  Its general affective state is one of contentedness and an almost detached beauty.  It is relatively short, only 35 minutes.  Its formal proportions are slight and symmetrical.  Its original two versions were for small ensemble, with hardly a note for the single solo violin, nothing but a point on the top of the overtone series.  Even its full orchestra version leaves out the violin section for large passages, preferring the mellow sound of the viola.  Let us go even farther: it is an anti-Requiem, at least at we tend to think about the genre.  Even its primary key area -- D minor -- seems to be consciously chosen to negate.  It is surely a reference to the Mozart Requiem, though through its use, we are made to feel the photographic negative of that work’s angst and anxiety.  

Can we take Fauré’s statement to an interviewer at face value?  Initially, to be honest, I have my doubts:

It has been said that my Requiem does not express the fear of death and someone has called it a lullaby of death. But it is thus that I see death: as a happy deliverance, an aspiration towards happiness above, rather than as a painful experience. The music of Gounod has been criticised for its over-inclination towards human tenderness. But his nature predisposed him to feel this way: religious emotion took this form inside him. Is it not necessary to accept the artist's nature? As to my Requiem, perhaps I have also instinctively sought to escape from what is thought right and proper, after all the years of accompanying burial services on the organ! I know it all by heart. I wanted to write something different.

Though there is something here I find striking, namely the last bit -- that somehow Fauré’s decision to write such a piece is bound up in personal habit.  Worth mentioning at this moment as well is a work with an intertextual significance (obvious only in hindsight): Brahms’ German Requiem.  A few surface details are surely worth pointing out by way of proof -- prominent use of the viola section, the composers’ liberal use of their own judgment regarding the text (rather than an uncritical adherence to the liturgical function, which even a radical like Berlioz is guilty of in his work in the genre), and finally, a generally consolatory tone.  Brahms’s focus on the emotional states of the living and communication between listener and performer/composer in a work he later admitted he should have called the “human Requiem” -- one almost gets the sense that he is talking directly to us sometimes -- obviously influenced Fauré’s conception as well.  While the Frenchman’s approach is less direct and more reserved (“more French” if you will forgive the generalization -- not in a nationalistic, but in a reception-history stylistic, sense), it is obviously a product of the same overall cultural milieu.  Embedded in the notion of composer-as-consoler is a much broader notion of post-Enlightenment self-actualization that is presupposed in a bourgeois society.  

The Introit, featuring the conventional text, begins on an imposing unison D, descending stepwise as if thematizing the very concept of of D minor (or perhaps the Dorian mode), while the choir responds as if quietly resisting inexorability.  The texture of the Kyrie is strikingly simple -- as if a modern re-thinkings of chant lines.  Both the orchestra and choir are notably sparse.  The interval of the fourth becomes the basis for melodic lines.

The Offertory, the longest movement, begins with an ostensibly archaicizing canon whose resultant harmonies betray its composer’s time and place, raising by step as the text becomes more urgent and more personally addressed to Jesus.  The middle section, a baritone solo, returns to the D key center of the first movement, this time in the major mode.  While its smoothing, gently undulating texture may seem odd for music about a sacrifice, the possibilities of the comfort that such an act brings come to the fore.  The brief return of the opening ends with a fauxbourdon (full of parallel sixths) Amen, music reminiscent of much earlier church styles.  Just as the first movement had incorporated chant-like passages, a modernizing impulse -- an historical consciousness -- continues here.

The Sanctus, typically celebratory and extroverted, is here a dream-like haze of E-flat major in which both the local (the subdivisions of the violas are composed to be ambiguous-sounding) and global (what is the meter?) rhythmic security is intentionally obscured.  The violin section, floating above the texture, invites all manner of interpretation -- the heavenly realm? anticipating the “highest” in the phrase “hosanna in excelsis”? the holy spirit?  A sudden fanfare reverses the opening movement’s fourth into a fifth, before returning the movement to rest.

The brief Pie Jesu emphasizes an individual, subjective relationship with both the divine and with death by its very choice of singer -- a single, solo soprano, innocence itself thematized.  The melody is fittingly simple, though, inevitably related to other movements by its prominent ascending fourth.

The Agnus Dei begins as gently as the lamb it describes; ravishingly gorgeous music accompanying the tenor section.  Darker music must represent the “sins of the world” that this symbol of impeccability takes away.  The text of the communion follows with no break -- an otherworldly shift of keys to A-flat major (the very farthest possible tonality from D minor in the diatonic system) accompanies the “eternal light” that shines upon them, and augmented harmonies add to the sense of wonderment.  Death, thus, leads to the diametric opposite of life.  After such a sublimely inspired moment, it is hard for the return of the opening music to avoid sounding trite, though that is surely not Fauré’s intention.

The Libera Me, returning to D minor, notably, contains the only references to the final judgment in the entire work (the lengthy sequence, the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath), often the longest part of the Requiem, having been conspicuously, almost confrontationally, omitted by Fauré).  A baritone solo takes the interval of the fifth from the Sanctus as the basis for his plea.  It is the chorus, though, that spells out the details of “that day,” accompanied by the horns and trombones; while obviously representing the final trumpet, the actual orchestral trumpets are omitted.  Even the last judgment in Fauré’s version is not so harsh.  Augmented harmonies reminiscent of the “eternal light” section of the Agnus Dei seem to provide another clue to the composer’s vision of the afterlife. 

Indeed, the In Paradisum, rarely set in the Requiem by previous composers, is in a D major tonality, resolving the tensions of world, for which many words -- “radiant” or “translucent” or “beautiful” -- seem inappropriate.  The harmonies are plagal.  Key shifts are free and unprepared.  Though there are a few conventional authentic cadences, they are subtly undermined, not structural, not emphatic -- as if to eschew the human psychological strife that tonality is, by its very nature, mimetic of.