Compose a Piece That Goes Against Everything You Believe In

http://www.artsjournal.com/postclassic/2008/01/in_dispraise_of_efficiency_fel.html

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

Most People Like Post-Tonal Music

I had the misfortune to have lunch with an actual cognitive scientist from Canada— I don’t remember his name— who trotted out the same solipsistic arguments.  He hated post-tonal music and tried to argue the point that post-tonal music is completely invalid and cognitive science shows us so.  That tonal music is inherently biological and hard-wired into our brains.  That the human brain is incapable of understanding post-tonal music because it does not conform to the inherent biological hard-wired and proven-by-cognitive-science syntax that we need to truly understand and appreciate music.

Me: Okay, then, why do *I* like post-tonal music?

Him: I don’t know.  Most people don’t.

Me: Sure they do.

Him: Really?

Me: Sure.  Any time you watch a horror movie or science fiction film and post-tonal music appears, people understand it and love it.

Him: Oh, well, then, it goes to show that post-tonal music can’t communicate a full range of human emotions, certainly not any positive ones, like love.

Me: But that’s not what you said.  You said it wasn’t *understandable*.  That cognitive science proves it’s incomprehensible.  Now you’re backtracking, conceding the point that it is comprehensible, and now saying that it’s merely incapable of showing a full range of emotions.  Well, so is tonality.  You can’t express terror or alien invasions in D major, can you?

Him: Awkward change of subject.

Completely frustrating and impassive conversation for the rest of lunch.  We were never in touch again.

I find it amazing how many legitimate so-called scientists want to throw actual science, logic and reason out the window and instead use their authority as scientists to make an argument-by-authority to validate their prejudices about music.  Many of them love tonal music dearly; it’s so sacred to them that they are willing to absolutely and utterly upend what they know they should be saying and doing as scientists on the subject— to confirm that music is complex and even complex, post-tonal music probably has a logic and syntax that is innately comprehensible to the brain, or at least acknowledge that the jury is still out on the question— and instead go into full-on worship mode at the altars of Beethoven and Brahms busts.  Many of them won’t begin to concede to others the same kind of faith-based tunnel visions when it comes to other people’s worship of gods and practices of religions that they reserve for themselves when it comes to the worship of tonal classical music.

I know I’m out of lock step with the vast majority of people in western culture, but I find it very difficult to listen to 90% major-minor, 7% diminished and 3% augmented as my harmonic palette for forty-five minutes, or an hour, or three hours. I just can’t. Post-tonal music drives other people nuts with its complexity. Tonal music drives me nuts with its paucity— its paucity of harmonic choices. I get so bored with functional tonality. I really, really, truly do. I know in some circles in concert music culture it’s basically farting in church to acknowledge that common practice period music doesn’t really do it for you. But there are a lot of us out here, more than you might think, who became attracted to concert music because of all that stuff that happened *after* 1900, not before, and who just sort of nod along and pay lip service when everyone else drones on and on and on about the greatness of Brahms, or even Mahler, whom we’re supposed to get excited about because he ended movements in different keys than he began them in.

So is there something wrong with my brain then, because I prefer music that gives me a richness of harmonic experience? Because the harmonic dimension is that important to me? I know that even the great 20th and 21st century composers say, dutifully, that we need to respect, know and even love the common practice period masters. I’ll concede the respect and the knowing. But I cannot love music that is ubiquitously triadic in its harmonic constructions and never anything else for any great length of time.

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