The Deserving Police

In the United Kingdom, there have been some serious questions about whether musical composition constitutes bona fide academic research.

It seems to me another call being made to the Deserving Police.  The job of the Deserving Police is to make sure that nobody on God’s green earth gets a goody from a government or other goody-dispensing authority (like, say, a public university department) that they did not rightly Deserve (because, of course, what people Deserve is always self-evident and easy to calibrate).

In the U.S., the Deserving Police go around snooping into the grocery lists of shoppers using food stamps and EBT cards, and sound the alarm if the shopper is purchasing something nice for themselves, like a candy bar, or ketchup.  (Since there have been calls in some states to ban the purchase of ketchup with food stamps, this is not an exaggeration.)

In the U.K., apparently, the Deserving Police are more sophisticated and lofty in their aspirations.  They investigate whether or not composers are receiving undeserved doctorates that are institutionally held to be on a par with the doctorates of the musicological colleagues.

I also can’t help but notice that this argument strikes as an invitation to a back-door re-litigation of the argument about whether or not pop music is a bona fide subject for academic study.  (The Deserving Police are very interested in this question too: do musicologists and music theorists concerned with pop music Deserve, capital-D intended, the same professional status as musicologists and music theorists concerned with self-evidently prestigious and worthy classical music?)  It seems interesting to me that the Deserving Police became interested in the research status of composition more intently when composers themselves became less interested in obligatory fugues and more interested in appropriating hip-hop samples as is often done by electroacoustic composers.

I’m going to sidestep the arguments pro and con on all fronts just to say, generally speaking, that life on the Deserving Police Force strikes me as a very petty, very unhappy waste of time.

-Robert Gross

The Other Side *Does* *Not* *Care* About Gun Violence

I think progressives and liberals need to understand something. You/we keep thinking that everyone in America is as universally appalled by gun violence as we are. I’ve got news. They’re not. A very large swath of this country simply sees days like today— and the statistic that we have had more mass shootings this year than we have had calendar days (that’s true)— as “the price of freedom.” They don’t care. If it doesn’t affect them or anyone they know, they. Don’t. Care. Get it through your heads, liberals/progressives. They’re not appalled at all.

They see guns as a very proud American tradition, and days like today are just a side effect. They’re happy to take the *bet* that gun violence will not effect them personally.

It’s not just the NRA. The entire NRA enterprise is not possible without legions and legions of people who think this way— that days like today are *acceptable* trade-offs for their vision of unfettered, completely unregulated access to guns, which they love. They love the guns. And they don’t care about the victims of gun violence. They really, truly, truly don’t.

Get it through your heads, liberals. The other side does not care. Period. They’ve made their bet and they want the guns. Period. End of.

Compose a Piece That Goes Against Everything You Believe In

Apparently one of Morton Feldman’s favorite assignments for his composition students was “write a piece that goes against everything you believe.” I’ve never quite done this, but I had a similar experience a few years ago when I was teaching a course on postmodernism. I felt obliged to include a short unit on John Zorn, whom I back then despised. I felt that he stood for everything I was against— his juxtapositions were superficial, and that everything he did was superficial whereas the “true artist” unifies things in the deep background in some subtle way, etc.

But I didn’t want to be a drag and a Debbie Downer, so I tried to find positive things to say about John Zorn. And the more I really listened to what he was doing, the more I came to really appreciate what he was doing.

And because of John Zorn, Ken Downey and I composed our first serious piece together as Blind Labyrinth, “Dyschordia.” And it’s been a fruitful partnership that has been going on for about three years now. All because I was willing to teach a composer whom I thought “went against everything I believed.”

Oddly enough, I’m not sure what I would do if I had that assignment today. I think I would write an orchestra piece full of octatonicism and tinkly percussion effects (especially crotales), because I feel like this particular kind of piece is so overdone by everybody, and for very crass reasons (partly to be “just accessible enough” for the lay audience and “just smart enough” to impress the academic colleagues). I don’t know if Feldman’s gambit would pay off in my case if I wrote this piece (the article says that invariably Feldman’s student would write his or her very best piece as a result of the assignment). I think it might certainly result in my most *marketable* piece, but best? I’m not so sure.

-Robert Gross

Writs Large

People have described me as a grim pessimist in the past.

Yet, I try to find the good in all forms of music. I really do. I’m just as likely to write a paper on the music of Samuel Jones as I am Samuel Adler.  I’m as likely to listen to Kieren MacMillan as I am James MacMillan.  If I am a believer in any founding principle, it’s that no one aesthetic orientation is inherently supreme.  It’s quality that matters, not aesthetic, to me.  I’ve been a strident defender of post-tonal music lately, but that’s because I perceive post-tonal music as the form of music that is currently excluded from most concert halls today (at least here in the States, and by concert halls, I mean those that are administrated by the for-profit concert giving establishment).

But my central point is that there is good in all forms of music— even tonal music.  Even post-tonal music.  Even minimalist music.  Even commercial music.  I believe good music can be found in all aesthetic genres.

I really am a starry-eyed optimist at heart.  I really am.  Call me maudlin and pollyanna if you will.


But a lot of professionals are deeply invested in camps, and they perceive the success of their own camps as contingent on the failure of the camps of others they perceive as competition.  Music is deeply personal for nearly every musical professional, so one becomes greatly invested in the ‘rightness’ of one’s musical choices and devotions.  When the possible rightness of other possibilities and choices becomes readily apparent, all too often, professionals perceive a threat, and lash out— viciously.

For example, say you were a modernist in the 1980s.  Although modernism was losing its hold over academia and certainly over the professional concert hall, modernism still seemed to have enough life in it and enough staying power in it to be a good career bet.  So let’s say you place all your proverbial eggs in the modernist basket and make your wager.  You compose modernist pieces, you perform modernist works of other composers, and you analyze modernist works in some sort of set-theoretic or transformational-theoretic or whatever manner.  And you expect big things to happen because Modernism Is Here to Stay.  It’s kept people employed in academia since the 1960s, and shows no signs of dying out.

But then a sea change occurs.  Within a few short years, modernism is all but dead, at least as far as your prospects of a hot new career are concerned.  Modernism has been bumped off the front page.  Not by minimalism.  Not by neo-Romanticism.  Those you can actually sort of tolerate, and you dutifully address in your classrooms and performance schedule.

No, instead, what happens is New Musicology.  Suddenly, pop music is in.  Music of non-Western cultures is in.  Critiquing the canon— a canon that sees your modernism as a kind of apex— is in.  And suddenly, you’re not the hot prospect anymore.  Once you were bound for a tenure-track position at an Ivy League school, and now you’re teaching at Whatever State.  All because you placed the wrong bet on the wrong horse.  Modernism’s hold on the strings of power loosened until they all but let go.

How would you feel?

If you’re a human being, you’d probably feel pretty resentful.  If you’re human, you’d probably chafe at every new development.  Film music?  That’s in, way in.  Electronica?  In, big, especially with the ongoing development of web technology and every new social media surprise.  What’s next?  Video game music?  Or, worse, a conference devoted to the serious study of video game music?  Is nothing sacred anymore?

It would take a pretty big person not to feel a whole truckload of resentment and hurt as you watch while the world passes your now ironically named “Modernism” right on by.

But that’s precisely what we need.  We need big people, because it’s a big world, and big people for a big world are in increasingly small supply.

We need big people who can let go of the resentments, because nearly all those resentments are actually predicated on a worse sin than the human frailty of envy: they are usually based on a logical fallacy.  And that fallacy is the logical fallacy of the false dichotomy.

Music can have either artistic value, or it can be pop music.  But it can’t be both.

Music can embrace the people and be the music of the people, or it can be post-tonal.  But it can’t be both.

Music either pursues the true artist’s vision and pursue a progressive agenda, or it can be neo-Romantic.  But it can’t be both.

Music is either great, like the Western Canon is great, or it can be Asian/Latin/African.  But it can’t be both.

“Ethno” music is never great— not like the Western canon is.  Post-tonal music is never embraced by the people— not like tonal music is.  Neo-Romantic music is never progressive— not like post-tonal music is.

And, most importantly, anyone who does not agree is actually pursuing a musical agenda to the detriment of sheer morality.

I’ve heard it time and time again, rubbing elbows with all corners of the concert music world.  Tonal composers are the only ones who are real composers, because they write the music of the people while post-tonal composers are elitist and *therefore immoral*.  Post-tonal composers are the only ones who are real composers, because they write music according to their True Vision and are progressive, unlike Tonal composers who pander to the masses and are *therefore immoral*.  Commercial music composers are the only ones who are real composers because they, by definition, earn a living, unlike academics who don’t make a living writing music and are therefore frauds and are *therefore immoral*.  Academics are the only ones who are real composers because they don’t compromise their art through the vagaries of commerce, unlike those writing commercial music who are sellouts and are *therefore immoral*.

In defending pop music’s place in academia,  recently, I pointed out that pop music is the province of women and people of color in music, who have been traditionally excluded from the western canon.  And I was told this was a tired argument.

But it cannot be possibly as tired an argument as “so-and-so is immoral because his or her musical enterprise runs contrary to my True Vision of How Things Ought To Be For Everyone.”  Now *that* is a really damned.  Tired.  Argument.

In recent weeks I’ve been friended on facebook and just as quickly alienated those people who friended me assuming that they were my allies.  One correspondent assumed I would be on board with his bashing of the “kids these days” who don’t attend concerts to his satisfaction.  I pointed out that there may be valid reasons why the concert-music experience may not resonate with everyone today, particularly people who (like me) have some sort of disability, and I was lashed out at, by someone who (I think) otherwise assumed that my recent defenses of modernism made him an ally.  Likewise, another modernist accepted my facebook friend request, and apparently assumed I would be on board with the bashing of the “kids these days” and their legitimacy of pop music as an academic field of discourse.

I am grateful for the attention that seems to have been paid, and, by the way, since you’re reading this, thank you.  I appreciate it.  I really do.  But I think I’ve been misunderstood.

I defend modernism because my general principle is that of inclusion above all else.

When you say, writ large, pop music has no place in academic discourse, I’m out.

When you say, writ large, tonal music is the only valid form of musical expression, I’m out.

When you say, writ large, post-tonal music is the only truly progressive language of music, I’m out.

I’ve used my blog and posts on Stephen Soderberg’s music group to defend post-tonal music vigorously.  But the reasons why, I think, have been very much misunderstood.  It’s because right now post-tonal music is the one getting excluded.  It’s the one getting picked on.  It’s the one getting maligned, abused, and its exponents are the ones doing most of the suffering and experiencing most of the neglect.

If the shoe were on the other foot, like, say, if this were 1972, and tonal composer-academics couldn’t get a job, especially in particular regions of the country like the northeast, then, certainly, I would defend tonal music too and decry the wrongness of that situation.  And I certainly still hear grumblings from modernists about the immorality of tonal music and the pandering to the masses that it entails.  (I have expressed on Stephen Soderberg’s group that much functional tonality doesn’t interest me very much— but I certainly don’t think a composer would be immoral for composing it, as so many cranky modernists seem to believe.)

The equation of aesthetic preference and mode of compensation for music-making with morality is ridiculous.  It needs to end.  I am constantly amazed at how many of my concert music colleagues will decry Republican and right-wing talking points about public morality to no end, and then turn around and castigate other music-makers for the way they write their music or earn their livings.

This is not to say that each and every aesthetic choice and mode of compensation is unproblematic.  The fact that the commercial music establishment does support an awful morass of music that is self-evidently without very much artistic merit is probably something that cannot be denied.  (But I am still careful to say “probably” because even this claim is very subjective and very complex.)  But to say, writ large, all popular music is de facto immoral because it conflates the commercial enterprise with the artistic one— that’s simply tarring with too broad a brush for this writer and composer to accept.  Nor can I accept the proposition that all commercial music is devoid of artistic merit in and of itself.  There is some that has obvious artistic merit, and what does, deserves a place at the academic table.  And so does modernism, which never should have been kicked to the curb in the first place.

It takes big people to start sticking up for others.  But I can tell you from personal experience (yes, anecdotal evidence though it may be) the day I started concerning myself far less with the Robert Gross Famous Composer Theorist Special Person enterprise, and far more with sticking up for women composers, composers of color, disabled composers, and composers who are experiencing one form of unfair marginalization or another— that day was the day I started to find (my assessment as a “grim” pessimist notwithstanding) actual happiness in this crazy-making world of concert music where so many people are so self-evidently unhappy.

We need big people for a big, pluralistic world.  Go start embracing some composers whose aesthetic choices are not your own.  Show a little respect for someone who makes a living in music in a way that you do not.  You know what’s really hard?  Making a living at music.  That’s really hard.  Anyone that can do it has a small modicum of my respect, however they do it.  So long as composers are not tossing kittens into bags and throwing them into the river as performance art pieces, we need to have perspective on whether or not any actual harm is being done to anyone.

I know music is deeply personal, and we all want our personal musical enterprise to be “right.”  But the rightness of your vision is not contingent on the wrongness of someone else’s.  It’s really not.

Be big.  Celebrate the difference.

-Robert Gross














Review: Homologic by Robert McClure

Robert McClure’s Homologic for bass flute, clarinet and computer is a remarkable, stunningly colorful work.  It opens with lyrical exchanges between the instruments and contrasting, yet fitting, timbral responses by the computer that mirror the harmonic language deployed by the instruments.  McClure says of the work:

homology – (n.) In biology, the existence of shared ancestry between a pair of structures, or genes, in different species. Evolutionary theory explains the existence of homologous structures adapted to different purposes as the result of descent with modification from a common ancestor.

“Therefore I should infer from analogy that probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed.” – Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (1859).

Homologic explores the musical applications of the above statements. The two instrumental parts display melodic structures originated from the same source materials and have gone through a process of musical evolution using invented scales. While an analysis of the source material and the melodic material in Homologic will not show intervallic similarities, it will uncover the same scalar structures. This type of musical evolution has been described by Matthew Santa as MODTRANS. The computer highlights these scalar structures (either chromatically or microtonally) with delay gestures built on different versions of exponential and parabolic curves and also provides textural accompaniment.

The source material includes two pieces for Chinese flute or dizi (dee-zih) that originate from the Suzhou region of China.

The Chinese source material fits the instrumentation like the proverbial glove.  McClure takes his time to develop his material in the beginning.  I know McClure to be an aficionado of Crumb, and the influence is evident here.  There is always motion, but never the nervous teleological imperative to “get somewhere— get somewhere, dammit” that plagues many compositions.

MODTRANS, or modular transformation, means the mapping of one musical shape onto different harmonic systems— what does that shape sound like on an octatonic scale?  What does it sound like on a chromatic scale?  On a major or minor scale?  McClure explores different harmonic areas fully, and shows a dramaturgical sensibility in his timing as to precisely when to shift to another landscape for new exploration.

Clara Novakova, bass flute and Xiaoting Ma, clarinet have a terrific synergy with one another.  They truly behave as though they are parts of one large complex instrument vis-a-vis the computer.  And what a treat it is to hear the sonorous bass flute, so rarely used, as an integral part of this strange, alluring meta-instrument McClure has built.

This piece is about growth, subtlety and nuance.  The ten minutes it occupies pass by very quickly, and one realizes only in retrospect the timelessness that the piece conjures.  One comes away hoping that further explorations by McClure for similar ensembles will quickly ensue.

-Robert Gross

Time and Newsweek Acknowledge Sanders Lead

Both Time and Newsweek are acknowledging the CBS News poll that has Sanders in decisive leads in Iowa and New Hampshire.  This is significant because of the blackout on coverage that Senator Sanders (I-VT) has experienced for the most part during his presidential bid that, if it is covered at all by the mainstream media, has been described as “quixotic”.

It goes to show that the mainstream media will not be able to black out Sanders indefinitely, particularly since he routinely amasses crowds with numbers that look like ZIP codes and is polling this well.  But you have to wonder, why is the mainstream media so reluctant to report on Sanders?

It’s two things.

1) He favors busting up the six corporations that own 90% of all the mass media you see and hear.

2) They’re in the tank for Hillary as a payoff because her husband signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which represented massive deregulation for the telecommunications industry.  They loved this, because it paved the way for the mass media consolidation we experience today.

It’s nice to see Time and Newsweek doing their jobs for once, but it is doubtful, given these structural realities that are in place as obstacles for Sanders, that we should expect engagement with Sanders to become a trend.  It is therefore imperative for those of us who employ and deploy on-line media, social and otherwise, to keep up the good fight in getting the Senator’s message out.

In the meantime, it probably couldn’t hurt to send Time and Newsweek a love note praising them for reporting on Sanders fairly and accurately.  Positive reinforcement is never a bad thing.

-Robert Gross