I Have Chronic Depression, and I Belong In Concert Music

I have suffered from chronic depression since I was 15 years old.  I’m now 41.

I was just told on facebook by a Bigshot composer that I have a “grim” attitude toward concert music, and that he’s “frankly glad” he doesn’t share my “grim” attitude because if he did, he wouldn’t want to have any part of it.

This conversation was started by a question that he asked.  He wondered, why don’t composers go to new music concerts more?

I answered this question honestly.  Concerts depress me.  They make my condition worse.

I have a certain amount of social anxiety because of my depression.  The expected green-room gladhanding ritual alienates me to no end.

Bigshots are often in attendance.  Concert music culture, and the subculture of music composition, divides itself into Bigshots and Nobodies.  I’m not a Bigshot.  I’m a Nobody.  And going to a concert and having this reality underscored depresses me.  It makes my condition worse.

Concert music etiquette is very unforgiving for people with certain physical conditions, like I have, due to diabetes.  My blog, my rules on TMI: I have to pee every five minutes.  I can’t sit through Mahler without getting up in the middle, crawling over everyone, and irritating them.  Bigshot who asked the question “why don’t people go to concerts” seems obliviously unaware that people have disabilities— mental, emotional and physical.  You can’t always sit on the aisle.  Everyone wants to sit on the aisle, for the same reason.

I told this complaining Bigshot composer that I go to concerts anyway.  Despite the fact that the concert music experience makes my depression worse, that participating in concert music culture causes me profound social anxiety and exacerbates my disability, I go anyway.  And instead of being applauded for the effort, he came down on me and my “grim” attitude like a proverbial ton of bricks.  WTF?  Way to go, champ.  You just made me less inclined to buy a ticket to the next outing.  Not more.

But I will probably suck it up, buy the ticket anyway, and go.  Because I believe in new concert music.  Despite the fact that I would rather be just about anywhere else besides a concert, I go, because I understand that one has to support concert music-making itself in order to expect new concert music to be produced.

The upshot of Bigshot’s comment was that if my attitude is this grim, then I don’t belong.  Go away.  My critique of the concert music world— that it’s a subculture predicated on Bigshots and Nobodies and that composers don’t go to composer concerts because composers essentially do not help other composers with their careers, and so composers are actually making reasoned, rational choices when they perform the calculus and decide that some other composer’s career advancements do nothing for him or her— this critique is bringing down Bigshot’s good time.  He’s had his success, he’s had his fun, concert-going is fun, and if you don’t share precisely his same experience, then get the f*** out.

I’m not going anywhere.

It would be a convenient world if the disabled weren’t here.  We wouldn’t have to build those ramps.  We wouldn’t have to braille out books.  We wouldn’t have to develop sign language.

I’m going to tell you exactly who I am, and what qualifies me to say what I have to say here.

I’m the guy who drove from Texas to Ohio to rescue a blind man from an abusive spouse, because he had no way to get out of his terrible domestic situation.  I drove him back down from Ohio to Texas and gave him a home for a year, because that’s how long it took for him to get Section 8 housing in Texas.

That’s what I did for one of my fellow travelers in the disabled world.  Mr. Bigshot, until you can say that you’ve done anything like this, you are not fit to lick the soles of my shoes when it comes to evaluating who belongs and who doesn’t in your happy world.  You do not understand the profound barriers that people with disabilities experience.  Instead, you condemn us.  You want to erase us because it’s inconvenient to you.  People with depression are failing to do their duty and go to concerts to be your cheering section, and that’s what really bothers you about it.

I’ve got news.  It’s not all about you, Mr. Bigshot.  My reasons for not attending concerts to your satisfaction are my own.  If I could, I would never be forced into the miserable, awkward, depression-exacerbating social situations that concerts represent.  You call it “fun.”  I call it “hell.”  But I go because it’s something I believe in.

I make personal sacrifices to support concert music.  And you tell me I should get the f*** out?  Because I’m bringing you down?  Because I’m ruining your good time with my “grim” outlook?  How dare you!

I belong in concert music.  Just as deaf people belong in choirs that happen to use sign language, just as people with mental impairments belong in schools, just as blind people belong in housing situations without abusive spouses.  I have something to contribute.  It’s deeply ironic that some of our most lionized figures in concert music have had very famous disabilities, and yet people who have disabilities in today’s concert music world receive so little sympathy and so little tolerance.

In my exchange on facebook that prompted the dismissive, deeply hurtful response that prompted this blog post, I said that concert-going is something I liken to going to a protest— I do it because it’s something I believe in, not because it’s fun.

I stand by the statement.  Until you have had social anxiety disorder and have felt the hot gaze of a thousand unwelcome eyes upon you in every crowd, you cannot possibly understand.  Until you have had depression and experienced nearly suicidal ideation from constant exposure to the stark— I daresay, yes, “grim”— reality of our two-tier Bigshots-and-Nobodies concert music subculture— then you too cannot possibly understand.

I dare say that precisely because concerts are not fun for me, precisely because concerts are kind of like torture for me, that my support of concert music nevertheless by going to concerts anyway is all the more meaningful.  Likewise for the thousands and thousands of people who are made uncomfortable by the concert-music-going experience, which is in myraid ways unforgiving, but who go nevertheless because they support the music.

I don’t want props for going to concerts when it’s usually a terrible experience.

I just want a little understanding, and a little empathy.

Is that too much to ask?

-Robert Gross

Networks for Fixed Media

Or, My Big Ideas, Vol. II.

The genesis of Networks comes out of a desire to prove the efficacy of composition with Klumpenhouwer Networks (K-nets). It is my belief that for the post-tonal composer looking for a happy medium between strict formal procedures such as serialism (which is, apparently, outmoded in this day and age) and completely free post-tonality loosely governed by an intuitive set-theoretic approach, K-nets offer exactly this happy medium.

Rather than focusing on sets as fixed objects, K-nets focus the composer’s attention on transformations. Composition with K-nets means a post-tonal music that is governed, regulated and unified on the one hand, but which places its emphasis on motion and transformation rather than on the stasis of fixed sets or unchanging row forms.

The specific networks used for the composition of Networks come from an article I wrote for the Journal of Schenkerian Studies entitled “Post-Tonal Hierarchization in Wozzeck.” In Wozzeck I discovered a Tonnetz of K-nets at work, unifying together on one grid the 37 sets defined as salient to Wozzeck by Allen Forte. On this Tonnetz, which I call a K-Tonnetz, every four-square box is superisographic with every other foursquare box (for a definition of K-net superisography, one should consult the article); furthermore, all the pentachords, hexachords, septachords and octachords described by Forte as salient are findable as adjacencies on the K-Tonnetz.

So I use this Wozzeck K-Tonnetz as my pre-compositional harmonic landscape for Networks. Any foursquare K-net on the K-Tonnetz is available to me, in any transposition, as is every identified pentachordal, hexachordal, septachordal or octachordal adjacency, in any transposition, that is superisographic to the parent hexachord, which is a 6-31 omnibus governing sonority of Wozzeck. (It should be noted that Perle would never have called it a 6-31 sonority, but they did agree that this sonority was of great importance, and if those two agreed on anything, there was probably something to it.) Transposition away from the parent K-Tonnetz denotes a hierarchically inferior set, giving the composer a means of post-tonal hierarchization. (For more details on why this is so, again, consult the article.)

The K-Tonnetze identified as governing Wozzeck and also used as a pre-compositional device for Networks are given below.

Next, it would be remiss not to address the issue of the medium for which Networks is composed. Like Diogenes looking for an honest man, I had been looking for years for an elder statesperson to guide me in my career goals which are frankly more concerned with being a composer/thinker and a composer-theorist hyphenate than they are with having the Big Composition Career (capital letters intended). I lament what seems to be the paucity of ideas in today’s concert music establishment landscape. Where are the heirs apparent to Babbitt and to Perle? Where are the essayist composers who are having the Big Careers (capital letters intended again)? Where are the Arthur Bergers and (whether one agrees with his assessments or not) the George Rochbergs?

So it has been my pleasure to have become reacquainted recently with the work of Benjamin Boretz. Realizing that I had been tardy for some time in my intention to compose a self-conscious K-net piece, I came across Boretz’s fixed media piece Group Variations (or, more properly, Group Variations II). This piece is based on an acoustic version for large chamber ensemble (Group Variations I). The piece is very dense and complex, and probably defies human performance realization. The turn to the electronic medium was understandable for Boretz.

I got to thinking, whatever happened to pitch-determinate pieces for fixed media? This too seems to be a lost art. Where are today’s Group Variations, today’s Philomel? This criticism is not to be taken with anything less than a heaping tablespoon of salt: the current state of affairs in electronic music is marvelous. So much is possible. But when so much is possible, it seems as though some of the fundamentals have gotten lost. Contemporary fixed media pieces strike me as approaching an all-texture-all-the-time sort of affair.

So I thought it might be refreshing to try to compose a pitch-determinate piece for fixed media, as a successor to Group Variations and to Philomel. I conceived of the piece as an ensemble piece: an ensemble comprised of ten pitch-determinate sounds that have analogues to acoustic music instrumentation. I chose ten sounds in my sound bank that are abstract enough not to directly imitate the intended analogue instrument (most direct samples of instruments are dreadful) but which behave in some analogous way to the intended analogue. (The one exception is the contrabass sample which I used, intact, which I think is quite good.) The analogue (analog?) instruments are wind quintet and string quintet. The piece could conceivably be performed by this standard ensemble, if the ensemble can achieve some of the more complex polyrhythms and subdivisions that exist therein.

That said, the piece is a fixed media piece in its own right for determinately composed pitches and rhythms. It owes greatly both to Berg and to Boretz, and it is hoped here that it is a worthy tribute to both of them.

-Robert Gross

October, 2015

For the K-Tonnetz formations and score:

Networks SCORE 10-26-15 v2

The piece itself:

My Big Ideas, Vol. I

Okay, hotshot, I can hear someone out there thinking.  You’ve complained about  the disappearance from widespread prominence of the composer/thinker in the American concert music scene.  You recently complained on facebook about the lack of any heirs apparent to Babbitt and Perle, to Boretz and Morris, who occupy the same sort of presence on the concert music stage as did they in days gone by.  Fine, but what are your big ideas?  What do you actually stand for in composition?

Nobody’s actually asked this, yet, but I think if I keep complaining loudly enough and persistently enough, the question would become inevitable.  So here are a few ideas that I’ve developed in my theoretical writings that I also apply to my composing, and where possible, an example piece.

1. Post-Tonal Prolongation, alive and well.

My view of course is that post-tonal prolongation exists, and I vary wildly from anyone who says otherwise.  I won’t totally rehash my views as expressed in the link just given, but I will say that the fact that post-tonal music is vastly more complex than tonal music means that the odds are greater, not lesser, that some kind of prolongational syntax is at work in order to make this music coherent.  And don’t say that it’s not coherent; everybody loves post-tonal music and understands it just fine when it is used in film and television.

Prolongational graphs of post-tonal pieces probably are more complex than orthodox Schenker graphs of tonal works, if done well.  That does not mean that these complexities are insurmountable; I certainly don’t believe that the prospect of vastly complex prolongational relationships in post-tonal music means we should throw our hands up, give up, and simply pretend that the relationships don’t exist.  That’s certainly not the can-do attitude that made America great.

Moreover, I think post-tonal prolongation can be reverse-engineered to be a compositional device.  (For that matter, I think functionally tonal composers can sketch in the form of an orthodox Schenker graph and realize the graph in the form of a fully composed piece.  Indeed, I would urge any composer insisting on writing functional tonality to do this because there is great risk that one’s functionally tonal music can verge on superficial surface mimicry without a deeper understanding of tonal architectonics.)

My post-tonal prolongational thinking comes in two flavors: vertical and horizontal, and I do not believe these approaches are in any way mutually exclusive.  I call my vertical post-tonal prolongational analytical schema projection-constructive analysis.  My horizontal schema I would more traditionally call post-tonal linear-reductive analysis (no newly coined term).

Projection-constructive analysis posits that lurking in the background of most post-tonal pieces is a pitch field that represents the structural culmination of the work.  Suppose that pitch field is C#2/A4/D5/E5 with the numerals representing fixed register.  Projection-constructive analysis is predicated on the idea that fixed register assertion of pitches replaces functionality, which is missing in post-tonal music, as a means of asserting structural supremacy of those pitches.  The C#2/A4/D5/E5 pitch field might occur toward the end of the post-tonal piece, and I would call that the Structural Tetrad (sort of like the “Structural ^4” we might encounter in a Schenker graph).

How do we know it’s the Structural Tetrad?  We have to look for non-pitch parameters to determine structurality of the event.  We do this in orthodox Schenkerian analysis too: in determining whether a pitch is a potential head-tone, or should be flagged, or whatever, we often ask the same contextual questions, like, does it fall on a downbeat?  Is the event strongly placed metrically?  Is the event agogically accented?  Is the event dynamically extreme?  Is it colored by orchestration in a particularly marked way?  In the case of the post-tonal work, we can ask this additional question: is the set salient on the surface as well as in the deep background?  Notice that our C#2/A4/D5/E5 Structural Tetrad is a [0237] set.  Do we see plenty of [0237] sets in operation on the surface of the piece?  Projection-constructive analysis shares with Schenkerian analysis the idea that there is a significant nexus between the surface events of a piece and its background, and that the two mutually reinforce one another.

Projection-constructive analysis then looks for events in the piece, one event at a time, in which the final structural x-ad assembles itself vertically.  So if C#2/A4/D5/E5 is our Structural Tetrad, then we might find, for example, a prominently placed C#2 at the beginning of the work.  We can label this C#2 the Structural Monad (the post-tonal equivalent of a Schenkerian head tone).

Next, we would look for a Structural Dyad.  We could expect something like this: somewhere along the way, we might find a C#2 and a D5 in close proximity to one another (either vertically simultaneous or very near to one another), with both pitches contextually made prominent.  Once we’ve found this, we can label the dyad our Structural Dyad.  Then we would look for a Structural Triad (the term “triad” here is not used to denote tertian harmony but rather any literal three-note collection).  Suppose we find at some prominent juncture of the piece, occurring after the Structural Dyad, a C#2/D5/A4 collection.  So long as the three notes are contextually prominent, this would make a fine Structural Triad.

The arrival of E5 working in some prominent conjunction with C#2/A4/D5 completes the Structural Tetrad, the culminating structural point of the post-tonal work.  Of course, unlike with Schenkerian analysis where we have three prescribed cardinalities of structural events possible (the 3-prong descent from ^3, the 5-prong descent from ^5 and the 8-prong descent from ^8), projection-constructive analysis posits up to twelve possible structural events (if there are twelve, then the piece culminates in a Structural Dodecad).  I have not found a Structural Dodecad in a piece yet, but I have found a Structural Octad, lurking in the background of The Rite of Spring.

(The Structural Monad of The Rite of Spring is D#6 at Rehearsal 8+2; the Structural Dyad is C6/Eb6 at Rehearsal 9+4; the Structural Triad is G5/C6/Eb6 at Rehearsal 11; the Structural Tetrad is A4/G5/C6/Eb6 at Rehearsal 34 through 34+1; the Structural Pentad is E4/A4/G5/C6/Eb6 at Rehearsal 36+3 through 37; the Structural Hexad is C#4/E4/A4/G5/C6/Eb6 at Rehearsal 39+1; the Structural Septad is A#3/C#4/E4/A4/G5/C6/Eb6 at Rehearsal 70+5 and the Structural Octad is F#2/Bb3/C#4/E4/A4/G5/C6/Eb6 at Rehearsal 80+3.  Note that the Structural Octad is fully octatonic, giving support to those who have maintained that The Rite is essentially an octatonic work.  Once the Structural Octad is in place, those eight pitches in fixed register continue to assert themselves prominently in various combinations throughout the rest of the work, in what I call an Epilogical Dissipation.)

You would be amazed at how often one can find a projection-construction lurking in the background of any post-tonal work.  I believe that projection-constructions might be tropes of post-tonal pieces, because they are the results of the way post-tonal composers hear music: they go back to the same fixed-register pitches in various combinations again and again in order to tether together the work.  Webern does this very clearly.  Stravinsky does this.  Schoenberg does this.  Samuel Adler, whose music I’ve analyzed extensively, does this.  Birds do it.  Bees do it.  Post-tonal composers make projection-constructions— not intentionally, but by virtue of the way that post-tonal composers organize their pieces when they are listening closely to their materials.

A piece of mine that is structured in such a way is called Twelve Structures for Piano and Cello or Twelve Charming Little Pieces for Cello and Piano.  Each movement is a one-minute miniature that projects one of the twelve possible trichords across the background of the movement.  A performance of the piece by Viktor Valkov, piano, and Lachezar Kostov, cello, can be heard here:

The other post-tonal prolongational idea I work with is essentially linear.  The big idea here is that post-tonal prolongation is predicated on post-tonal counterpoint.  I have found that many pieces idiostructurally assert their own rules of post-tonal counterpoint on a piece-by-piece basis.  Certainly, it takes sleuthing and analysis to find the rules of counterpoint lurking in a post-tonal piece, but again, what are we analysts to do but analyze?

Stefan Wolpe composed a short passage called Modulation as Process which aesthetically modulates from a tonal harmonic landscape to a post-tonal harmonic landscape with remarkable fluidity.  Analyzing the short work, I determined these contrapuntal principles at play:

For the tonal section:

Traditional rules of counterpoint apply for the section described by diatonic intervals, with the exception of the following:

1. 7ths are allowed on strong beats if they are approached and left by step.

2. Tritones are allowed on strong beats if they are approached and left by step.

For the post-tonal section:

1. No tritones on any part of the downbeat.

2. Every beat must entail at least four distinct interval classes.

3. Interval classes 3 and 6 never appear together in a purely 4-voice sonority, unless on an upbeat.

4. Wide leaps greater than an octave must be a registral displacement of a linear motion (i.e., the only leap greater than an octave that is allowed is a leap of some kind of ic1 or ic2).

5. Tritone leaps must be followed by step in either direction.

6. Leaps from 6 to 12 semitones must be followed by another leap in the opposite direction.

Taking these idiostructures as rules for background contrapuntal skeletons, I am now composing a set of Wolpe Variations for pianist Viktor Valkov.  Wolpe’s Modulation as Process provides the framework of events that I prolong; the contrapuntal principles provide the rules by which I can compose-out the prolongations.

The purposes of the Wolpe Variations are two-fold: first, to show that post-tonal music can be prolonged through contrapuntal principles; second, to show that post-tonal music and tonal music can coexist peaceably and without superficial juxtapostion as long as there are large-scale architectonic forces in governance of both.

The Wolpe Variations are not yet complete; I’m shooting for 45 minutes of music.  The piece, I’m told by Viktor, will require significant amounts of editing to make it more idiomatic for piano.  Nonetheless, here is a MIDI realization of what I have so far.  I think piano samples are reasonably okay to listen to in order to get an idea of the work; they’re certainly better than any string samples.  There is about a half hour of music here; about two-thirds of the way.

To be continued:

Vol. II: Klumpenhouwer Networks as Compositional Devices

Vol. III: Geometric Formal Proportions other than Golden Sections

-Robert Gross

1974 Electronic Music Revisited

I had the occasion to be “friended” on facebook by the prominent composer and musical thinker Benjamin Boretz.  Eager to re-acquaint myself with Dr. Boretz’s music, I took a look on youtube and unearthed this forgotten CRI gem from 1974.  The liner notes to this album can be found here.

I love listening to dated, antiquated electronic music.

I especially love listening to vinyl transcriptions, and hearing it the way we heard it in 1974, with the occasional aural detritus coming from the scratches.

There is a certain tension in the fight to realize musicality within severe limitations that does not exist in today’s electronic music where practically any imaginable sonic vista can be realized.

By way of allegory: I once took a class on transcriptions when I was a grad student at USC, and we studied transcriptions of the Bach solo cello suites for guitar.  To a person we all agreed that these transcriptions fell flat.  Why?  Because there was no challenge in realizing the triple-stops and quadruple stops.  We realized that in the original version, the struggle is an an inherent part of the aesthetic of the work.

And so it is with electronic music of a certain era.  The struggle to take what a composer friend of mine once pejoratively described as “Martian farts” and make meaningful musical gestures is very much an aspect of this corpus of work that I find incredibly compelling.

The album opens, oddly enough, though, with a piece by Charles Dodge that involves no electronics whatsoever.  Yet, the piece, Folia, readies us for the aesthetic values to follow: a particular emphasis on texture, dynamics, spatial considerations, registral extremes, durational contrasts, and a general reserve and poise, bordering on austerity.  Dodge’s Folia very well could be a reverse-engineered realization of one of his electronic works for this era orchestrated for traditional acoustic instruments.  Clearly Dodge’s musical thinking by 1974 had been indelibly informed by the electronic idiom even when no electronic instruments were actually present.

Extensions for Trumpet and Tape exploits Ronald Anderson’s mellow stylings amiably.  The pitch-content is adventurous, freely post-tonal and lyrical to a fault.  According to the liner notes, equal divisions of the octave are explored, and intervals promoting such divisions (seconds, thirds and tritones) are given particular emphasis.  The sound-world achieved has an almost film noir quality to it: the trope of the street-corner jazz trumpeter blowing away through the night is not out of place here, with the electronics supplying the nocturnal ambiance.

Buelent Arel’s Mimiana II: Frieze is certainly a product of its time, down to the series-name-Roman-numeral-colon-subtitle form of its title.  The pitch content is perhaps the most pitch-definite of the three electronic works on the album, and a certain tension between overall post-tonal pitch organization and localized tonal centers is both aurally evident and, per the liner notes, completely intentional.  The piece is actually a dance score, and its deft use of reverb, space and emphasis on sharp textural contrasts certainly make the premise of human bodies in motion conceivable.

When Boretz’s Group Variations arrives on the scene, what is striking is how different the personality of the music is from the piece that preceded it, even though there is always some risk of a certain amount of superficial sameness in the parlance of sonic Martian flatulence.  Group Variations bookends the album as a sort of contrapositive to Dodge’s Folia, as Group Variations really did begin its life as an acoustic piece for chamber orchestra, which was then realized for synthesizer.  What one exchanges are the timbral possibilities of the orchestra for the pitch-and-rhythm exactitudes of the computer realization.  Before MIDI realizations, computer versions of pieces were, at one point I suppose, actually worth listening to.

To help us out a little, Boretz writes:

For those whose auditory way into Group Variations might be improved by some extra-intuitive assistance, the following leads are offered: first, no matter what the prospect of computer-electronic performance tends to prepare you for, listen to Group Variations as a polyphonic ensemble music, whose sonic surfaces are the fused images of networks of musical qualities, the sounds of such qualities rather than ‘sounds’ in some isolated, exotic, sense.  A pervasive shaping focus for these images, amounting to a conceit of the piece, is that every sizable passage of Group Variations— including the ‘passage’ consisting of the whole piece— begins as if suddenly tuning into the middle of something, and ends as if suddenly tuning out of something new that had just previously begun.  And, as each image is registered in the form of a phrase— or tune-stretch, give particualr notice to what it subsequently becomes, as it merges, as a component part, into a still larger, single, complex image.

Here another conceit of Group Variations, the musical resonance of an idea of complex congruence, may emerge: images of progressively larger time dimensions always fuse, in increasingly elaborate senses, into the same quality-network shape, so that wholes constantly retrieve and reincarnate the shapes of their component parts, and you are subsequently themselves so retrieved and reincarnated.  If, for a start, you listened to the image-chunks consisting first of the first four-attack stretch, then, of the first two such stretches, then, of the first two distinct stretch-type passages, and so on, you might get the feel of the process by which each trajectory ‘arrives’ at the same ‘place’ relative to its predecessors.  Moreoever, it you happened to identify the two stretch-types mentioned as complementary landscapes, the first conspicuously including places where several sounds attack together, and the second, places where single sounds attack several times in succession, many of the characteristics of the passage that ensue may come into sharper focus.

Those interested in further guidance toward the specific depths of these particular surfaces (to paraphrase a phrase of Jim Randall’s) are referred to the final chapter of ‘Meta-Variations,’ and the score.

Now, this sounds as “extra-intuitive” as all hell, but what it does speak to is that once upon a time, composers actually stood for more than their own press kits and were unafraid to reveal the complexities with which their compositional processes grappled.  Perhaps I’m grumpy, but I got a little tired during my own compositional tuition of being told by composers over a certain age how lucky I was to have been spared all that— all those complexities and struggles and grapplings that they had to go through because of the tyranny of serialism, or atonality, or experimentalism, or whatever it was— now that the concert music establishment and major commissioning bodies won’t have any of it.  I get tired of it because I would have very much liked to have been a part of it.  Why, as the Poni Tails once famously lamented, was I born too late?

Boretz’s piece is very forward-thinking, too: not because it uses electronic sounds; alas, these particular (to me charming) sonic vistas are clearly museum pieces.  But when he talks about networks, and networks of networks, he’s predicting Klumpenhouwer networks fifteen years ahead of schedule.  When he talks about large-scale architectonics and time-stretching, it almost sounds as though he’s hinting at concepts of post-tonal prolongation thirteen years before Joe Straus (wrongly, in my view) banned the investigation of the concept for good and all.

I asked Boretz a question that I now would like to rephrase.  I asked him in facebook chat whatever happened to the composer-music-theorist hyphenates?  He quickly disavowed being labeled a “music theorist,” and so I would like rephrase the question.  What ever happened to composer/musical thinkers?  One prominent composer recently told me proudly that he no longer reads journals; he just writes music now.  Underpinning this comment is the tacit message that real composers write music and do nothing else; if you do anything else besides compose then you’re a dilettante.  A corollary to this attitude is the famous teaching in academia is a necessary evil as a way to subsidize my composing and if I could possibly compose without teaching then I would never teach posture.

Of course, the internet reveals no shortage of composer/musical thinkers.  I mean, where are the ones having big careers?  The ones supported by the concert music establishment and major commissioning bodies?  The ones that have something to say other than “I just go to my happy spiritual place, commune with Ravel and Mahler, and then my music just gushes out, and isn’t it wonderful that we can do that now unlike the awful 1960s and 1970s?”  Where are the heirs apparent to Babbitt and Boretz that are commanding the concert music stage and continuing to challenge the minds of audiences?

I suppose we’re here, on the internet, ghettoized in black-box theaters, and doing wacky things like experimental Skype pieces where everyone in the orchestra is in their living rooms across thirty different countries— and that’s okay, I guess.  Again, by way of allegory: in 1995 I asked my father-in-law, an avid encyclopedic baseball fan, if he thought baseball would survive the strike.  (Bear in mind at the time the viability of baseball as a professional sport was by no means clear.)  He responded, of course baseball would survive.  There would always be people who love the game, people to play it and people to watch it.  Whether or not it remained economically viable as a huge commercial enterprise— that’s a different question.

And so it is with the composer/musical thinker.  There will always be composer/thinkers.  Whether they occupy the limelight or are sidelined in online ghettos is an entirely different question.

But there are upsides to the online ghettoization of composer/thinkers, and one of them is that there is no mediation between a concert music giving organization and my desire to hear antiquated electronic music circa 1974.  I don’t have to ask Meet-the-Composer-May-I to get what I really want.  Traditional media forms are becoming increasingly irrelevant in the arena of current events; why should we expect anything different in our little corner of the intellectual marketplace?  There are reasons to be deeply skeptical of rose-colored “internet will save us all” glasses.  But that said, there are also reasons for optimism too.  We live in a world where a resolutely post-tonal piece might reasonably expect to get 3000 hits on youtube, if “marketed” well, and that’s about 2950 more people than could be reasonably expected to hear it in a traditional brick-and-mortar concert hall.  One of these days someone might even figure out a way to make a buck or two off of all this enterprising new proliferation of challenging concert music (though, given the abject failure of genuinely popular music to do this, I would not become too optimistic).

Finally, I invite contemplation of this passage from the liner notes of the Dodge/Arel/Boretz album:

This recording of Folia was made possible by grants from the Martha Baird Rockefeller Fund for Music, Inc., the Fromm Music Foundation, the Contemporary Music Society, and Joseph Machlis.  The recordings of Extensions, Mirriana II and Group Variations were made possible by grants from the American Composers Alliance.

Back before Reagan, we didn’t believe everything had to be beholden to the marketplace.  This album was generously supported by grants and probably sold 200 copies.  Today’s libertarian ethos toward the arts maintains that art that cannot pay its own way in the free marketplace should not exist at all.  That’s the downside to our Wild West current state of affairs.

So I come away from this album with one enduring thought.  In the words of Adams and Strouse’s anthemic theme song to the venerated sitcom All in the Family:

Boy, those were the days.

-Robert Gross

Biden Schmiden

Will he?  Won’t he?

Who cares?

If recent reports are any indication, it looks like he will.  I must say this is a minor surprise to me, since I have this strange way of taking people at their word and he had said his heart was not in it.  What this indicates to me, then, is that there must have been a dramatic shift in thinking among the power brokers in the Democratic Establishment as to who they think will best take on the Republican nominee in the fall.

The thinking must be that if there is a dramatic shift in the Establishment’s wishes, then Hillary Clinton will take the hint and graciously tag out to her tag team partner Biden, who will then tag in and save the day.  The Establishment must be very nervous about Hillary Clinton and possibly view her as damaged goods, particularly in light of her impending Benghazi testimony on Thursday, despite the fact that would-have-been Speaker Kevin McCarthy famously gaffed and admitted that the Benghazi committee is nothing but a political witch-hunt.

If you’re Bernie Sanders, though, you welcome Biden to the race.  This is because Hillary Clinton is not about to take the hint and is not about to tag out.  Anybody who thinks otherwise has not been watching the same Hillary Clinton who has had designs on her own presidency since 1992, and who came within a hair’s width of the nomination in 2008.  Say what you will about Hillary Clinton— there is plenty to criticize legitimately— but she is not going to just graciously bow out in the face of diminishing Establishment confidence or Republican witch-hunting.  Indeed, I predict the pugnacious former First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State is going to hand the congressional wing of the Republican clown car their proverbial behinds, to a man, on Thursday.  Furthermore, there is a wing of the electorate that is— rightly or wrongly— deeply invested in the First Woman President Dream, and they’re not going to just tag out to Biden either.

So that means a three-way race.  And that means Advantage Sanders.  Biden and Clinton will split the Establishment, pro-Corporate-Democrat, pro-Republican-Lite third-way politics wing of the Democratic Party, with Sanders as the standard bearer for progressives.

What does Biden have to offer progressives, really?  Whatever bona fides he’s had as the pro-union workin’ man’s candidate from Scranton he’s traded away carrying water for the current administration’s Trans Pacific Partnership fantasy.  (This is the fantasy that says that if we just try global corporate deregulation just one more time it will somehow create those attractive tech-savvy jobs that NAFTA and GATT and CAFTA were all supposed to create, but didn’t, and will avoid pitting our workers against workers in other countries working for pennies an hour which wasn’t supposed to happen, but did.)

Can Biden credibly say he’s the candidate that will heal race relations in this country, when he’s been heard using ethnic slurs?

What has the Obama-Biden administration done to reign in SuperPACs?  At least Hillary Clinton has a mediocre campaign finance reform plan.  The Obama-Biden administration does not have a campaign finance reform plan at all.  Bernie Sanders, by contrast, wants public funding for elections, which is the most proactive and robust plan of action to curb the influence of money in politics.  He also has forsworn SuperPAC money.  Is Biden going to do the same?  (That’s a rhetorical question.  Of course not.)

What has the Obama-Biden administration done to make college more affordable?  Is there a plan that could compete with Hillary Clinton’s complicated, mediocre plan to make college more affordable, much less with Bernie Sanders’s simple, bold plan?

Where has the Obama-Biden administration been on raising the minimum wage?  Sanders wants to raise it to $15 an hour.  Obama and Biden have had eight years to get there, but haven’t.

Bernie Sanders wants a single-payer health care plan.  Obamacare, which I suppose we can now call Obama-Bidencare, only got us so far, but there are still millions of people without affordable health insurance, because the fundamental premise behind Obama-Bidencare (which is really Hillarycare anyway)— force people to carry insurance like they carry car insurance— is essentially flawed, and always has been.  Obama and Biden don’t have the political will or latitude to take on the monumental lobbying interests that would stand to lose in a single-payer system.  Bernie Sanders does.

So, if it turns out to be the case, welcome to the race, Mr. Vice President.

For progressives, you will have a lot of explaining to do.

-Robert Gross


We all know that politics has two “wings,” the left wing and the right wing. We know this because the corporate-owned media makes liberals into “those communist left-wingers,” and Christians into, “those fascist right-wingers. Obviously, there are liberals who are on the very far left and people that call themselves Christians who are on the very far right.  But did you know that the political spectrum ought to be looked at as a hoop or circle, rather than a straight line?  Here is why.

The circle model gives us two axes.  One, the axis of what you might call good, or at least acceptable to the general public in regards to finance, reform, domestic and foreign policy, morality and so on, while the other center, which I shall call the axis of evil, gives us people who regard none of these things.  Those in the axis of good want better education for all.  They want to get the money out of politics so that all candidates have a fair chance of winning, and win by the platform on which they stand and the way in which they present that platform.  They want jobs for everyone willing to work, and good pay for all workers.  They want a welfare system for those unable to work due to disability or discrimination, and to end that discrimination.

Then there is the other center, the “axis of evil.” Before I continue, I must emphasize that many of the people in this “axis of evil,” have simply done and do what they think is right.

If you read the communist manifesto with an open mind, you will quickly realize that Marx and his comrades were absolutely correct in their analysis concerning the state of affairs in which they lived.  Consumerism was on the rise, and the elites wanted it that way.  When too much product was produced, industry simply destroyed the rest.  This still goes on.  A few years ago, I was told of a Best Buy store who got in a new shipment of desk chairs.  Instead of simply putting them on sale, they took the older models outside, slashed the upholstery to ribbons, and threw them out, making sure nobody even tried to steal the now mutilated chairs.

Hitler and his people also did what they thought was right.  They thought that they could advance the human race by making us into supermen.  How do you do that?  Well, if you want to make the best corn, you kill off the diseased corn, the weak corn and so on, and this is exactly what the third Reich attempted, and how did it begin?  Other than Hitler being rejected from art school, It began with Hitler observing that many criminals were treated way too well for what they were, as it is in many places today…  Though in our society, where prison is a huge business primarily based on the “catch the African American looking at the cops wrong,” game, you will hear no complaints from me on that score.

Where do these extremes end?  Even though the people of these extremes both think they are right, the ends are the same: killing, oppression, suppression of the truth and free speech and, in a word, tyranny.

Perhaps you are asking why I am writing about these extremes, though I feel it ought to be obvious to the observer. In an earlier post on this blog, Dr. Robert Gross examined the abject racist comments of most of our lovely Republican candidates, and not just comments but many other offensive acts, all the while accusing Bernie Sanders of socialism.  While Sanders *did* indeed call himself a “Democratic Socialist,” there is a great difference between socialism and democratic socialism.  Canada is a Democratic Socialist country. T hey have freedom of the press, but they also have free health care.  The USSR was not a democratic socialist country.  Otherwise it would have been the USDSR.

Therefore, it is quite obvious that these Republican clowns are farther near an extreme than is Sanders.  (This is a gross understatement.)  Sanders is tired of seeing oppression, not wanting to cause it.

There is one more group we need to look at, the Clintons. are they liberal?

From my understanding, the core of being a liberal is that you believe that everyone should get their fair shake. this is not what Bill has done though, nor is it what Hillary will perpetuate.  In 1996, Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act, and told us that this was going to do just that, allow the liberal voice to be heard, to continue to further the spread of ideas and so on…

Well, how are we doing?

Are you aware that six major corporations own not 10%, not 30%, not 50 or 70 or 90% of the media, but a whopping 96%!  Is this the case because Bill Clinton just misunderstood the bill and couldn’t imagine what happened, or is it because he is in bed with the corporations?  Notice that I did not ask if it were possible that the Clintons could possibly be in the pockets of the corporations, and that is because this is a known fact.  Frankly, to me this looks much more right-wing than I am comfortable with.  Yes, I know that President Clinton did much good for our country.  The national debt became a national surplus, and foreign affairs were good, but Mrs. Clinton doesn’t get to ride the former president’s coat tails, just as Jeb doesn’t get to ride his brother’s coat tails and his brother didn’t get to ride his dad’s.  I know it’s a bit different, but if it is the case the case that it is different because she was much more involved, much more than George W. was involved with his father, should she even be allowed to run in the first place?  This smacks of dynasty to me, just as having a second president Bush smacks of dynasty to me, but I guess the American people love their dynasties… Wasn’t there even a show by that name once?

In conclusion, if you want the axis of evil to gain power, if you want the extreme of fascism to become the norm, vote Republican.  Even if the next republican president doesn’t get us all the way there, he will certainly move us closer.  If you want politics as usual, go ahead and vote for Hillary, who is only on one side: that of the corporations.  If you want change though, real, indefatigable change, then their is one candidate and only one candidate for whom you must vote, and that candidate is Bernie Sanders.  Even if he moves us farther left than we are currently, this will be a move toward the center rather than a moving out onto the left wing.

-Ken Downey

Could Your Music Be Mistaken for Brahms?

If not, thank a post-tonal composer.

Could your music be mistaken for Brahms?



Then show a little gratitude for post-tonal composers, and stop throwing them under the bus.

This is a pet peeve of mine: composers who identify themselves as essentially tonal composers— and they are, for the most part— but otherwise who have just enough unresolved dissonance in their music to let you know that they too are aware of the adventures that went on in the 20th century, and who trade on this just-enoughism to be considered “smart” enough to be hired in academia— who then turn around and throw post-tonal composers under the bus.  Perhaps the all-time champeen of this was George Rochberg.  Perhaps we could name this George Rochberg Syndrome.


As my piece “Rochberg the Progressive, Revisited” from Perspectives of New Music shows, Rochberg never completely parted ways with post-tonal techniques, particularly not in the famous (or infamous, depending on how you look at it) Third String Quartet which allegedly made the world safe for tonality again.  Not even in the middle tonal movement does he completely part ways with post-tonal techniques, as my analysis shows.

And then when one considers a piece like Rochberg’s Violin Concerto, or, better yet, his Sonata-Aria for cello and piano, composed later in Rochberg’s life, after he had said all the things he said about the “unfortunate” (to use his word) turn to post-tonality in the 20th Century, one really has to scratch one’s head.  There’s nothing in the Sonata-Aria that remotely sounds like functional Brahmsian tonality.  The most progressive classical radio stations in the land (which still play all Mozart 80% of the time) would not touch a piece like the Sonata-Aria It’s too dissonant.


Does it use tonal references?  Sure.  If pressed, would I be forced to declare the Sonata-Aria to be a tonal piece?  Yeah, probably, if pressed.  But the point is this: there would be no Sonata-Aria by George Rochberg if it wasn’t for the adventures undertaken by Schoenberg and Stravinsky and Bartok.

Many tonal composers— and I admit I’m picking on Rochberg because he’s not here to defend himself, and I don’t want to mention any living names, but I suspect composers reading this will know if the shoe fits for them or not— want to deploy a certain small amount of 20th-century techniques and then badmouth the pioneers who brought those techniques into existence.  They’ll change meters on the fly, use pointillist textures, bitonality or polytonality, or even dispense with tonal centers for a few bars here and there as a convenient way to get from Point A to Point B— and then claim in interviews that whatever Second Viennese or European Modernist or Exemplar of American Academic Serial 1960s and 1970s Tyranny is the worst of the worst.

Composers will make the point in dog-whistles, too.  They’ll make claims like “my music is completely fluid and organic.”  That means composers who use systems are bad, or who pre-compose are bad, even though even the most calcified tonal composer knows that there’s nothing like a quick tone row here and there to get one out of a jam.  (Never mind also that Heinrich Schenker proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that even the most fluid-sounding tonal music has large-scale architectonics at work if it’s any damn good, but no matter.)

Another one is “my music is never academic.”  That means abstraction is bad; never mind that today’s tonal composers routinely avail upon small sets and motives to carry the day, and those are abstract ideas.  Still another is “my music always has tonal centers.”  What this means is “sure, I use post-tonal techniques, but I’m not pedantic about it like Webern or Boulez or one of those bad guys.”  Never mind that the idea of completely egalitarian, non-hierarchical twelve-tone music is largely a myth, and that almost all post-tonal composers hierarchize their pitches and therefore “have tonal centers.”  It’s just that they arrive at their hierarchies largely through some idiostructural (individual piece-by-piece) means.

My broad point is this.  I’m proposing the “can your music be mistaken for Brahms” threshold of whether or not you get to complain about post-tonal composers.  If the answer is “no,” then shut up already.  You owe something to the post-tonal composers that brought about the techniques that you deploy liberally but to which you are not particularly devoted.  The composers you’re complaining about were purists, to be sure, and that may be a good thing or a bad thing or a little of both, but the main thing about their purism is that they had to push the envelope to the degrees that they did so that you could have the “changing meters on the fly” toy to play with in your pieces, so you could have the “octatonic” toy to play with, so you could have the “bitonality and polytonality” toy to play with, and so you could have the “occasional small post-tonal sets and motives” toy to play with.  To you they may just be tools in the toolbox, but to the purists, it was an aesthetic to which they were entirely devoted and for which they often really suffered.

If your music cannot be mistaken for Brahms, then show a little respect for the composers of yesteryear who made that possible.  Acknowledge the contribution post-tonal composers made to the music you are making that you are so quick to tout in your interviews and press-kits as being “mostly” or “primarily” or “essentially” tonal.  If you have to qualify the term “tonal,” then thank a post-tonal composer for the techniques you’re using.

-Robert Gross