Sunday, April 22, 2007


I just read this in an item by Roger Bourland, the most augustinian* among composerly bloggers:
Moving to Los Angeles freed me from the tyranny of the East Coast music mafia, but soon discovered the West Coast music mafia was just as icky.
I almost let it pass, but then it hit me how often I'd heard composers talk of their colleagues in terms of cliques, cabals, or even -- as here -- criminal rackets. I sort of understood the message being conveyed, but I'm not sure that any of these identifications wouldn't fall apart upon in-depth inspection.

So when Roger writes of a coastal mafia, east or west, who exactly are the mafiosi he is writing about? When I was on the East Coast (from 1983-86, and then for a while in 88), the rivalries among East Coast composers made contemporary Iraq look like a quilting bee. Groups existed, trends existed, but seldom was an alliance anything other than convenient and temporary. Regional, stylistic, aesthetic, tonal or atonal, minimal or maximal, classical or romantic, uptown or down, pop-ish or jazzish, academic or conservatorial, experimental or electrical, straight, gay. male, female, ethnic, waspish, or or some/all/none of the above: for pretty much every form of identity, some grouping could be located. And for pretty much every grouping, some exception could be found. And for pretty much every grouping, someone's going to be left outside. But isn't this simply the consequence of the fact that different people are going to choose to make different music? The group that Roger himself co-founded in Boston, Composers in Red Sneakers, was a response by some (then-)younger composers to the existing musical scene there, and once the Reds has established themselves, there were plenty of locals, older or younger, or coming from similar or dissimilar aesthetic backgrounds, who resented the Reds for both their success and their clicquishness. It's an old story, and I have no patience with either the resentment or the fact that the resentful didn't take the initiative to start their own groups. And the west coast? He's got to be more specific -- are these film composers, or composers associated with the Monday Evening Concerts or the Independent Composers' Association, or composers along the CalArts/UCSD or USC/UCLA axes, the microtonalists around Erv Wilson, the Cold Blue-ers, or whoever? Again, I believe that any closer inspection is bound to fall apart. (Which begs the question: If musicians had really organized ourselves like a mafia, would we all still be working day jobs?)

So why the need to talk about groups of composers in these terms?

Often time, talk of cabals is an expression of resentment, dividing the world into me and an evil other, and locating one's status (usually "overlooked") in that division. On a mailing list with John Cage as subject matter, a musicologist who had interviewed the composer Lucia Dlugoszewski reported that Dlugoszewski felt that Morton Feldman had kept her out of the Cage/Feldman/Brown/Woff/Tudor group in the 1950's. This was an impossibility -- Dlugoszewski was a fine composer, perhaps even Varese's best student, but her aesthetic, especially in its dynamism, was completely different from the Cage group and, moreover, she had a professional and personal connection to the choreographer Erick Hawkins that more or less precluded a close relationship to the Cage group, with its connection to a choreographic rival, Merce Cunningham. But her reputation was never as great as any of the Cage group, and this -- perhaps coupled with some private grievance against Feldman -- was a convenient explanation.

Part of Roger's remarks may be an echo of another kind of resentment, that between students and teachers. I'm fortunate in that I chose my teachers well, and never had major aesthetic differences, or at least managed to keep them on a back burner. But many composers have ended up studying with teachers with whom they share only a mutual disregard for each others' work. Why anyone would end up in such a situation can only be explained by negligent selection in a buyer's market on the student's part, but why anyone would stay in such a situation can only be explained by masochism, and that's icky, if I can borrow a word from Roger.

I've complained often enough on this blog about the misuse of resources and abuse of power in musical politics (publishing, prize-giving, and distribution of fellowships and teaching jobs are the major areas of abuse), but I've also tried to steer clear of blanket incriminations. In general, the work of getting music played is taxing enough on our organizational skills that musicians seldom have the energy to conspire on matters more sinister, and the spoils for which we compete are so modest that whenever such indulgence is on display, which isn't often, the obvious loss of dignity is measurably greater than any material gains.

Our musical lives are richer because we have had compositional work that fit into a Perspectives, or a die Reihe, or a Source, a Computer Music Journal, or a Soundings, a Xenharmonikon or an Ear from either coast, or none of the above. (Not to mention this blog or that one or any other). Some music can be written about (and at length, such length), some music invites speechlessness instead, and neither condition is immediate and necessary grounds for either dismissal or celebration. I'm very particular about the music I do or don't like, but my musical life is lively precisely because I have a diversity of music from which to choose. And even within any of the fortresses of musical journalism mentioned above, closer inspection reveals surprising diversity.

Although, from time-to-time, there'll be tactical alliances, and even some real honest-to-goodness friendships, in the end, every composer is their own foot soldier, hit-man, consiglieri and Don in a one-man or woman musical mafia.
* Augustinian, in the sense that you'd need the confessional chutzpah of St. Augustine in order to admit to ever playing in a rock band named The Raspberry Steamboat.


Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
David Ocker said...

Oh too bad. Roger's comment and list of names was fascinating. I even referred to it already here

Maybe he'll repost it on his own blog.

Anonymous said...

1) who is the "blog administrator"?
2) why the message has been removed?

Daniel Wolf said...

(1) That'd be me.
(2) The commentator asked me to remove it and has promised a revision. Anticipation, kids.

Anonymous said...

hm... I was expecting something more romantic...

Unknown said...

Thank you DW for pulling my comment. I've reformulated it on my blog today, with names and more but have defused the mafioso umph. One of the shakers has already written me agreeing with most of my conclusions. When so little is really at stake, why get too riled, eh?

Unknown said...

FYI: I pulled my ranting. It served no purpose. As I mentioned, I am just as much a member of the LA mafiosi as anyone else. I needed to just grow up and get over it. So I am...