A 365-Day Project
"We Are All Mozart"
A project to create
A recent post by a composer-critic got me thinking. He praised a younger composer whose work was complex to notate but had a deep musical sense, and I thought, why don't I do that these days? The "We Are All Mozart" project has infected my composing this year. The point is, I think, that no one has asked me for that high level of complexity. Since most of the pieces are commissioned by performers, I had to believe, why not meet those requests and at best hide my own version of complexity (or better, weight) under the surface? Did I misread their requests? Or were they looking for something else? Certainly the premiere of a solo piece was pushed back because it was too hard -- not because it was too complex. And another performer seemed only lukewarm at the conservatism of the knotty but still espressivo piece he'd received from me.
What's the difference? Complexity could be the new complexity, a nest of interwoven irregularities of rhythm and pitch that taken together create a unified texture, fabric, weave. Complexity could be a non-Western sensibility, as the description of the young composer's superimposed irregularities of rhythm might offer (though, in truth, I heard the composer in concert and found the music, despite its stated depth of concept, to be uninteresting and even a little silly.)
So what can be discerned from complexity? Or can the complexity be discerned from the music? These are the swamp-questions. The serialists, unable to make a convincing case musically or verbally for half a century, largely withdrew from the discourse. The new complexity composers, learning from the unhappy experience of the serialists, have for the most part not engaged in the question at all (at least in America). Practitioners of so-called 'world music' have effectively skimmed off the surface features -- melodic sense, instrumentation, and the most obvious of rhythmic characteristics -- in a kind of Western colonization of other cultures' high art, lopping off the unique complexity of non-Western characteristics that are its core, offering Ethnic Lite.
You notice I'm leaving out Europe. The Euro-centrism of nonpop is an unkind bondage even for musical masochists. During my coming of age as a composer in the Nineteen Sixties, there were three choices for compositional understanding in nonpop: European music (Stockhausen, Boulez, Xenakis, Messiaen, Penderecki, Varèse, Stravinsky) and their American cousins (Babbitt, Carter, Wuorinen, Subotnik, Davidovsky), the eccentric Americans (Cage, Partch, Cowell, Oliveros, Feldman, Ives), and jazz in its last experimental stage (Coltrane, Taylor, Coleman, Ayler, Braxton, Monk). There was a paucity of available recorded work from the eccentric Americans, leaving the strongest influence to the Europeans and, if it was to one's taste -- as it was to mine -- jazz. It was coincidental that at the peak of its experimental era, jazz came into my life by accident, a story I've told elsewhere. Out of this early experience arose my interest in informal rhythmic complexity, harmony through linearity, electroacoustics and performance art. Parallel with it were a high balance of experiment in multiple approaches to composition and a low balance of analysis -- that is, who had time for analysis when actually creating the music?
For the past forty-plus years, my personal artistic struggle has been to break the European conceptual chains that grew around me in those early days. Indeed, composer Mark Gustavson writes, "until American musicians (and music lovers) recognize that Ives was our first great composer, a monumental figure in many ways, who should be adored as Sibelius is in Finland, we will languish. We ignore our base, our alpha." So being from the lost generation of composers -- post-Fluxus and -Cage and just post-Reich, but before the nonpop revolution of the 1990s -- I searched (or so I thought) outside its traditions, only to discover how thoroughly infused my music has been with those ideas. The pop, Euro-centrism and jazz of my teen years are all over my composition, my thinking, and my internal mechanisms.
Mechanisms bring it back to perception. Throwing off the bondage of Euro-centrism meant discarding, denying, rejecting, or simply ignoring a particular tendency to analysis and cultivated intellectual perception of internal mechanisms, personal or artistic. If the artistic mechanism created a something that could be sensed or felt at an unthinking level, then that might be the effective mechanism itself, and worthy of study. But see how solipsistic this all is, or experiential, or immersion-based, if you will? It is approaching music as one would an artichoke, not examining what it might contain to give it a taste, but experiencing the taste over and again until it was enjoyed or ultimately discarded. It approaches the artichoke and the composition from a personal perspective, not a received one. It is based in reaction rather than intellect, sensation rather than wisdom.
Mmm, now. Taking the audience complaint, I ask, how much do we need to know about something to appreciate it, or be moved by it, or be compelled by it, or have our world in some way transformed by it? How much can we discern, and does the artist know at the time of creation? For example, how much did Seurat know about optics when he put the Big Jette dots on the canvas, or Picasso about Heisenberg when he showed us the Avignon girls? Are the renderings of music built from, say, the Fibonacci sequence actually perceptible as numerical, and that number sequence in particular? Or do these sequences or formulas create a brief flash of effect?
Careful treading is now underfoot. There are sensory limits. The grouping limit is said to be seven, and there are other counting limits. How about fugal voices, once they're all entered? Four? Five? When do tuplets against tuplets become unlinked as rhythmic groups -- that is, what is the largest number pair that shakes out as immediately graspable without back-forming them in the mind? When does a tuplet become a phase, as in the shifts of early minimalism? When are simple groupings made complex by time-shifting, as Reich did in Clapping Music? Are isorhythms an intellectual conceit or transparent to the musically astute listener? Are the tone row or the formel perceptible once they leave the cradle of their nascent states?
Years ago I sang in a performance of the Thomas Tallis Spem in Alium, the motet for forty separate voices. Forty parts is way beyond the ability to hear as distinct counterpoint. Inside my quintet, I could hear my tenor voice, and distinguish the lines sung by my immediate neighbors. I was aware of but unable to follow lines in the neighboring quintets. At the other side of the room, it was cotton wool of music, hardly more than a hum in terms of being assessable. But because I was also recording the rehearsal, I could step out and listen to the remaining thirty-nine voices from time to time, where line-tendrils occasionally reached out of the quintets -- usually a soprano or tenor with a bit of extra lung -- but where it was sensorially a Brownian motion on a harmonic surface, even while that harmonic surface rose and sank like gentle swells on an otherwise becalmed ocean.
Music is linearity -- what we hear now as simultaneous and in immediate context, and with respect to what the short-term memory holds and the expectations lead to -- and deep memory -- the relistening that allows the unknown to comment upon the known. (Indeed, this is nonpop, the listening and re-listening art music that finds its self-definition so elusive; another day for that.) Music is not a painting or sculpture, and is more akin to a film ... but without the cues that film draws from representative images. Music is a moving abstraction, an elusive bundle of concept and memory.
When considering complexity, then, one first must elbow through the realm of familiarity. Melody, harmony and rhythm remain the driving forces of pop and, as Colin Holter suggested in NewMusicBox: "Most listeners maintain centuries-old aesthetic criteria. How do composers tell audiences what's on our minds when our definition of music differs so dramatically from theirs?" Leaving aside the question of what's on our minds, how do composers even reach the listener with older sensibilities when complexity -- despite centuries-old complexity tricksters like Bach and Ockeghem -- is little more than the background buzz of Tallis or the noodling underpinning of Michael Finnissy, Brian Ferneyhough, Richard Barrett, or Jason Eckardt?
Okay, yes, there are times when complexity itself produces unique results. The new complexity folks re-examine the performer-composer relationship in that the gestures of performance play a role. This is not fundamentally different from past nonpop performance, save for the dominance over performer in analysis, technique and performance 'function'. (To me this sort of control suggests a male predilection, which is confirmed by the vanishingly small number of female new complexity composers.) So, to be blunt, new complexity in itself contributes little more than a generalized relationship framework on which composers hang ideas and personalities -- serialism in vestes ovem aries. I don't suggest that new complexity is a fraud; far from it. Rather, it is extraordinary listening even while it is deeply connected to the past of the Twentieth century serialists and their sonic goals, still strongly Euro-centric in character.
I'm hoping this isn't just a big Dennis roundabout to nowhere. My questions are asking, in effect, whether in a post-minimal (or post-classical) nonpop world there is performer and audience reward or artistic substance in complexity as its own goal or complexity as the main aesthetic thrust of music, and whether this is meaningful if one's alpha is Ives instead of Schoenberg. (There's an aspect of complexity that has, however, offered a unique view: spectral composition. For the genre-intoxicated, there is no musicological relationship between new complexity and spectralism; they're both just complex. Another day for this topic, which is also, one might guess, Euro-centric.)
And, from a personal perspective, whether I should be bothering with it again.
The other day, composer Mark Gustavson asked me, "How do you view your music, perhaps yourself, within the music world? Are you hyper-consciously aware of what you're doing in the context of all, all I guess being: New York, USA, Europe, Non New York? Or do you not think that way?"
A direct answer: Yes, I do think about it. I have been composing for so long and working in rural Vermont for more than half my life, and this affects how I create, but at the same time strips the kind of comparisons one might make with New York or the United States as a whole or the Europe that I know. It's been a process of emancipation. The problem is, of course, that the cities are such an artist magnet that they create their own scenes. Despite the web communities, it's not a scene in the virtual world -- and Vermont certainly isn't one.
My previous life was in the small-city orbit of Trenton, New Jersey, where I could perform in New York -- at Charlotte Moorman's New York Avant-Garde Festivals, in independent concerts and performance events, and for a brief time in the Judith Scott Dance Company. And in Trenton, our own artistic cooperative Trans/Media numbered upwards of sixty artists and created festivals and concerts and events of its own. Later, during the years my Vermont computer company flourished, I traveled throughout the U.S. I lived briefly in Ontario (the California one) and Cologne and for a while in Amsterdam. My music has speckled its way outward as far as Prague and Brisbane. In some ways I'm Vermont's most performed unknown composer.
My music's reception is a strange and cautious one. Coming with no credentials and too much genre-crossing, the music engenders enthusiasm in audiences and suspicion among colleagues. Indeed, as Kalvos & Damian fades into history and fewer composers stay in touch (and even fewer encourage me or even remember me as a colleague), I lose strength and undergo long stretches of self-doubt. Without a city scene, academic colleagues, or performing ensemble, I am an international stylistic mutt who can think, well, this piece might be considered spectral (one composer heard Softening Cries and thought it was) while that piece is just plain peculiar (such as my cabaret Beepers) and the other piece is seriously virtuosic (like RatGeyser) or seriously demented (Spammung, anyone?).
(Of course, now that I'm of a certain age, it's also expected that I'll step aside for younger composers. Well, not expected: inevitable. Save for a few famous among us, we composers get tossed until it's time for a re-discovery at some gala eightieth birthday event. I'm not ready to back out quite yet.)
So yes, while I'm thinking about that question of viewing my music within the larger world, I also come up with few meaningful ideas. There is nothing to compare with -- I've had no great successes, no great failures, no highly visible projects, no long periods of creative emptiness, no important artistic awards, no fellowships or national press. It seems that I occupy not so much a geography of acute angles from New York or Europe, but rather a thin layer of mediocrity of visibility and, perhaps, though I desperately hope not, mediocrity of music -- precisely what I warned myself against when I was eighteen. How can I know?
The ever-slowing "We Are All Mozart" project has produced two pieces in the past few days. The first was a commission for ukulele. You're laughing. I did, too. But it's a challenge to compose for that unexpected and almost cliché instrument. Then I listened, thanks to the internet. The instrument is small, flexible, and can make a lovely sound. The commissioner was Larry Polansky, a composer of magic and substance, and a formidable player of guitar-like instruments of all strings. He is also a legendary electronic musician, and a person who understands algorithmic composition, tuning systems, and musical architecture.
For Larry, I chose to base the piece on variations on the Fibonacci sequence. The first was its representation as the Golden Ratio, with pitches in Fibonacci sequence and measures in the first digits of the Golden Ratio. The second section again exploited the digits as measure lengths and used the harmonies in a modified Fibonacci sequence. The final section is a free-form variation on the previous.
A few days ago I was doing some business in town -- propane bill, electric bill, bank deposit, ash bucket, chocolate -- when I passed a former restaurant turned into a Veterans of Foreign Wars post. I'd never taken notice, until this time. Its granite monument had been extended with another panel. On its grim grey blankness were engraved two words:
It was chilling. It was like the dogs of war had their mouths open, empty, hungry, salivating, waiting to be fed. I don't know how the VFW works, whether they always anticipate the dead. But there it was, a monument once again to folly and hubris, waiting patiently for the names of the fallen to erase its blankness. I hope it stays blank, but the image wouldn't leave. For all my anger over this war, I hadn't felt this, this whatever-it-is that sucks the life out of its surroundings with an artistic de-animation akin to death itself.
The piece I had planned for the Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble, itself a lament, simply sputtered to a stop. (You can hear how far I got in this rendering.) It was overwhelmed by a sense of the disjointed but slow instrumental sounds, a kind of nonpop Albert Ayler Ghost, not classical in shape, but endlessly interwoven in simple shapes.
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