Tuesday, May 26, 2015

What do we call our music?

Today I was looking over the program for a concert of the THIRD ANNUAL FESTIVAL OF THE AVANT GARDE, held in San Francisco in 1966 and then minutes later two festival announcements for the coming summer came across a social media feed, one for a "(n.n.) festival of experimental music, sound art and media", the other for a "(n.n.) 2015 Festival of Contemporary Music."  Why is the oldest festival, and the one that uses that ex-military term, the one that sounds to me, at this moment in history, the most intriguing and fresh  (and not only because that THIRD ANNUAL FESTIVAL had not been preceded by a FIRST or SECOND, let alone followed by a FOURTH)? Why is it that "experimental music, sound art and media" doesn't carry the charge any more that any mention of media did, say, in the MacLuhan heyday of 40-some years ago?  And why does anything with "Contemporary Music" in its title say nothing more or less than "snooze fest"?  

Yes, The New Music has a nomenclature crisis, a branding problem.  It doesn't help that we can't unambiguously use The New anymore in the US or other anglophone contexts (unlike in German-speaking countries in which the Neue Musik term still has some charge, almost a century late), at the very least ever since the New Music America Festival days (1979-90), during which time the New Music label got diluted internally by an increasingly diffuse content message (in large part due to a necessary increase in programming diversity, but still diluting the brand name) and was externally occupied  by an "alternative" popular music trade fair (but then again, new as in novel was never going to be a useful external label for a particular tradition as each tradition can and will have its own novelty acts.)

I don't have a solution to this.  After the New Music, there will always be another New Music. Contemporary Music is supposed to be what's happening now (though usually sounds like what happened then.)  I happen to like experimental music, but it's a label about means not ends, too internal to compositional or technical concerns and without much suggestion to potential listeners.  I like The Radical Music even more, but for a particular direction of music-making, and I'm a party of one here with regard to the name.  So in the meantime, until we can agree on terms, maybe we can just settle on making and listening to, well, music?

Composition is (sometimes) Research.

A recent article by the English composer John Croft with an assertion for a title, Composition is not Research, has received a lot of social media attention within Newmusicland.  Within the narrow context of academic employment for composers and the even-more-narrow context of evaluating the non-teaching, non-service activities of faculty composers, the title is mostly true, but only for the reason that most of the music faculty composers anywhere write is going to be quietist in nature, producing usable repertoire, but not music which asks questions about the nature, extent and limits of listening in general or music in particular.

I make a lot of music that falls into that quietist comfort zone too, but I also make music with a more radical or experimental nature and, reliably often, characterizing it as a form of research is not only fair but accurate.  When — and I'm just following Cage here — the outcome of a compositional procedure is unknown, then characterizing the work as experimental, indeed as experimental research, is fair.   The method, using a speculative thesis, testing it, repeating it, advancing conclusions, trying alternatives and consequential procedures, etc. is research plain and simple. Moreover, the areas of exploration enters into the fields of acoustics, material sciences, psychoaoustics and cognitive science which are established areas of scholarship. I find that composition which engages these areas adds an interesting and challenging aesthetic dimension to the research at the same time it risks adding to the given definitions of the music.

Thus, I am comfortable in asserting that this kind of work is research suitable to a university setting and suitable materials for evaluation as research whether for degree or academic employment and advancement.  My sense, however, is that the more urgent  question behind an article like Croft's is a question of the place of aesthetic production without an explicit research dimension, i.e. repertoire music designed as reliably performable rather than requiring compositional, performative and auditional risks, within a research program or institution.  I don't know the history in British institutions, but this has been wrestled with in US academia since after the Second World War in which the decision of an institution to offer graduate degrees to composers reflected a serious division among institutions, with some insisting on a terminal master's degree of some sort for composition, others promoting degrees based principally on creative work, MFAs, DMus etc., and others recognizing a PhD in composition as a form of research.  However, that era of wrestling on principle soon gave way to a considerable loosening of the categories and even — let's say it — degree inflation, such that many institutions established doctoral programs with PhDs or DMus-ez without investing much in their distinction. And, with regard to faculty hiring, there seems to be little discrimination based on the presence of a research program per se, but certainly on aspects of publication (commissions, performances, recordings, sheet music) and when the publication of written words is expected, composers are not always expected to produce scholarly papers in the manner of musicologists or theorists, but material that more immediately represents the composer's viewpoint, source literature not secondary, if you will.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The occasional is okay, too.

A treasured older couple in our neighborhood just got married after 29 years of wilde Ehe (I'm leaving it in the German — "wild marriage" — because the English equivalents are not quite right: "common law marriage", "shacking up", "living in sin" etc.) and I congratulated them by writing an ironic little wedding march with that title, for piano four-hands.  It has a few tricks, but it's tonal and traditional enough both to have the desired recipients cheered and to have me worried about having subconsciously plagiarized a phrase or two (which is one of those risks you will always have when writing tonally and traditionally!)

I mentioned this to an old friend from Newmusicland, played it through once, and was immediately read the Riot Act from the Newmusicland Code of Conduct:  "You can't do that!" my friend said, "you're supposed to be making New Music, not... (as he repeatedly jabbed the score with his forefinger)... that!"

I was taken aback by the vehemence of the complaint, too much so to have an immediate replay, but now that I've had a chance to breathe normally, I wish I had said: "It's time to get over the idea that a composer is a kind of brand with a certain fixed market identity.  Most of us are much more interesting than that and can do more than one thing, whether within music, or beyond music. Sure, the best of us will have a sensibility that projects itself throughout our catalog, idea, styles, practices, and ethics that can often allow a listener to successfully "name that composer!" But not always, not consistently so.  Interesting composers and good composers — intersecting but not identical sets — are inevitably inconsistent because the issues they are concerned with and the circumstances they write in or for are always changing, and the composer responds to that change, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing (and when failing, the best fail spectacularly!)  A composer's work has trajectory, but it also necessarily has variety and it is done within lifetimes of events and occasions that aren't always of the same importance or general interest, and if a composer happens to also make work that fits such events and occasions, even if you find it to be Kitsch or worse, if others find it useful or appropriate isn't that still a net enrichment rather than a loss?  And even if you disagree with me still, (a) please rethink how committed you are to composers having to have market identities, and (b) so far as I know, no one holds a license to tell me to compose this or not to compose that, and that empty set, that no one, excludes you and me both" and (c) isn't it okay just to have some fun, sometimes?

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Gentlemen, seriously?

So this 2015 Geneva International Competition in Composition has an international jury with five senior composers on it, all male, and the five younger composers selected by that jury as finalists are all male as well. (Thanks for the link, here.)  Above and beyond the ridiculousness of plopping down 100 Swiss Francs to participate in a crap shoot like this, I can't hold the finalists responsible for their selection from the paramutual field; indeed, even in a demographically more balanced jury it is possible they might just have been the five to have been selected, but I do think that the organizers of the competition itself as well as the sponsoring Reine Marie José Foundation have some serious explaining to do for selecting an all male jury and each one of the jurors has some explaining to do as to why they accepted a place on an all-male jury. Why did none of these jurors turn down the appointment to the jury and suggest a woman colleague to serve in their place? It's 2015, so I think it's fair to ask Pascal Dusapin, Luca Francesconi, Dai Fujikura, and Wolfgang Rihm why they accepted a place in such a jury and to ask Michael Jarrell why he would accept the chair of such a jury.  In the photo, it looks like all five jurors are having a perfectly chummy time together, but come on, it's 2015 and as fair-minded as you each may well be, Gentlemen of the Jury, the optics just don't work anymore, and instead they suggest an atmosphere of, well, chumminess rather than diversity and openness.  At the very least, the organizers and the jury owe the finalists an apology, because their selection will forever be discounted by the fact that it was made by an all-male jury, like one of those asterisks after a track record qualifying it because of the altitude, wind direction, absence of competition, or subjective judging.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A life, a catalog

Over the past few weeks, I've had the opportunity to assist with compiling a provisional catalog of Douglas Leedy's/Bhishma Xenotechnites's musical works, with a parallel, if less detailed, organization of his writings and correspondence.  I suppose that this is work that a properly credentialed historical musicologist or archivist is supposed to do, but I think that a composer/publisher does bring a useful perspective as well and, in the case of a catalog with its particular nexus of concerns — not just the postwar avant-garde, but the west coast radical or experimental music, tuning theory, Carnatic and Javanese music, early western music, electronic music, and Classical Greek and Latin — the overlaps with my own interests and experience are advantageous.  Plus (and objectivity be damned) I knew the guy.  But actually handling the sketches, drafts and manuscripts of nearly 60 years of composing life and simply ordering them chronologically inevitably conveys more of the rhythm and texture of the life lived alongside the work than I had known before and, in the process, uncovered a large amount of music that was previously unknown to me (and much of which had been inaccessible to the composer himself for many years) so that I think I have a better grip on how the various phases of the composer's work connected, for example from the radical Bay Area scene to his stay in 1965 Poland to his electronic environments and then the deep engagements with historical and non-western musics alongside his increasing attention to intonation. With this intense study, I've only grown to appreciate the man more — not always the inevitable result of musical-biographical study — as well as confirm my commitment to getting more of this music out into the world (about which I'll have more to write later.)  

A catalog of works does not contain the life of the artist who made it, but it is a kind of tracing or shadow, of that life.  Sketches show steps and — just as usefully — missteps or paths not followed. Manuscripts are often affixed with the place and date of composition and together with programs, reviews, and letters, the basic contour of the life, in terms of motion through space, can be established.  Marginalia and other material evidence hints at the social and environmental connections (i.e. names of performers and appointments for rehearsals; that sketch written on the back of an angry, but unsent, letter to a politician; a switch to using Kenaf rather than dead tree paper.)  I don't personally subscribe to composition as a literal, biographical means of expression and for the most part, Leedy did not either, but many works are written to mark occasions or events in the composer's life and if the biographical does not directly attach meaning to a work, it can often be useful in understanding the connections between works in the catalog, how the composer went from one idea or practice to the next.  The life is not the work, but much of it is certainly found in the space between entries in the catalog.