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Out of the Rabbit Hole With David Del Tredici

Philip Glass is not the only composer who turned 70 this year.  Among other newly-minted septuagenarians is David Del Tredici, a “maverick” composer in the great American tradition, and while his attainment of elder statesman status has attracted much less fuss than Glass and Steve Reich, there have been some small, quiet celebrations, one of which was reviewed in the NYT this morning by Alan Kozinn.

I have not heard a lot of Del Tredici’s music but what I have heard I have liked.  I would be happier if it was presented with less explanation, not simply because his “subjects” sometimes make me a little squeamish (not homophobic, just squeamish, in the way that some of Robert Mapplethorpe’s pictures make me reflexively cringe), but simply because I think that money and sex are topics that people ought to keep pretty much to themselves.   Call me an old-fashioned libertarian; I don’t believe there is “women’s music” and “gay music” or even “black music.” There is music. 

I also have the feeling that while wordless music may “mean something” concrete to the composer, it is an abstraction to the listener.  That’s why I find Peter Maxwell Davis’s lavish, prissy, poetic program notes to be laugh out-loud funny. 

Well, that should be enough red meat to get us started.

Comments

Comment from david toub
Time: October 3, 2007, 10:47 am

I agree with you about labels, Jerry. It detracts from a composer’s overall significance. How many times have I heard Korngold dismissed as a “film composer” by people who obviously have never heard his violin concerto. Same with Bloch; he was a great composer, but his appellation as a “Jewish” composer perhaps hurts his real contribution as a sometimes innovative composer and at least someone who wrote some really beautiful music that had zero to do with any Jewish themes (the violin sonata, the piano quintet, the violin concerto, etc).

I think of Julius Eastman as a great composer, not a great “Black” composer. I love the music of Meredith Monk, Mary Jane Leach and other composers who lack a Y chromosome. But I don’t think of their stuff as “women’s music.” It’s just good music that happened to have been written by women. I don’t see Young as a “Mormon” composer any more than I view Steve Reich or Philip Glass as “Jewish” composers. While I suspect that one could group composers by nationality (as we all do with “American composers”), one’s national, religious, political, sexual, and racial background doesn’t define one’s music, although it can impart a certain perspective. I think Julius Eastman wrote his music from the perspective of a gay Black American. But that doesn’t mean it’s gay music or “Black” music, nor do I even have any clue what that means. What’s “Jewish” music? Is it Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes or Shostakovich’s From Jewish Folk Poetry (neither one of them was Jewish, of course)? Is it Bloch’s Schelomo but also his violin concerto (which uses some Native American themes)? Is it Copland’s Appalachian Spring, or only Vitebsk? Or any of them?

That’s the problem with labels. They tell you what other people call something, but nothing about the thing itself.

Comment from jeff harrington
Time: October 3, 2007, 11:30 am

For me, music is about immersion into music. Words of any kind get in the way.

It’s like we as a culture have to add multiple layers of bull shit on top of everything we do – to make us feel more important or something. What matters is how much the musical immersion works and I think that principal is almost completely lost now by most people in the music biz, composers, performers, organizers all.

Comment from Kyle Gann
Time: October 3, 2007, 1:24 pm

“Words get in the way” – for those of us who are sophisticated about music, and have already read so many millions of words about it that we don’t need any more. But for amateur music lovers, and nonmusicians who would love to know more about what’s going on in new music but don’t quite know how to approach it, and possibly don’t assimilate sonic as easily as verbal information, words can be enormously helpful.

Comment from Chris Becker
Time: October 3, 2007, 1:37 pm

But you guys aren’t talking about the composers and their creative intentions. I think that titles and program notes from composers can set off a chain of meanings in the listener that might actually help to break down the kind of superficial labeling that is so pervasive in our society. Composers play these games all the time.

Eastman’s “Crazy Nigger” title when paired with its music isn’t just meant to make the audience uncomfortable. It’s more complicated than that. Same goes for Del Trideci and his notes on S&M. He isn’t trying to negate the emotional (and physical) experience in any way. If anything, I think with his notes paired with the piece, he’s trying to break open our preconceptions and produce a more transcendent experience.

Comment from jeff harrington
Time: October 3, 2007, 1:43 pm

Yeah that’s what he’s trying, but it ruptures the immersion. Seems to me all we do these days is find new ways to keep the immersive experience from even occuring… It’s a terribly fragile thing.

Comment from Samuel Vriezen
Time: October 3, 2007, 2:01 pm

Sex and music? It’s not necessarily a question of words as such – I remember a vivid conversation with a young homosexual composer about which composers write music that have sex in it. Not many, according to him. I volunteered Messiaen and Scriabin, to which he agreed. And he came up with Finnissy, who I wouldn’t really have thought of – according to this composer, Finnissy’s piano music is sex with its ‘great washes of sperm’. I could see his point, but I do think that him being homosexual (and VERY much into sex) and me not being homosexual made it easier for him to see Finnissy in sex terms. Certainly Finnissy himself doesn’t usually stress any sexual content openly, though people have told me you sometimes just have to know how to read the titles – “The history of photography in sound” apparently not primarily being thought to be about landscape photography.

And I dare anyone here to fail to see this point on formalist grounds!

And Jeff, don’t you think titles and paratexts might not in fact set up the kind of narrative mood that may actually help bring about this immersive (libidinous?) experience? Isn’t “Crazy Nigger” more likely to induce some excitement – whether you find the title inspiring or disconcerting – than, say, “Konstellationen XXII”? Or, for that matter, “Piece” or “Symphony”?

Comment from Samuel Vriezen
Time: October 3, 2007, 2:05 pm

Let’s not forget that words, meanings, and serious thought can be experienced viscerally as well as sounds.

Comment from Chris Becker
Time: October 3, 2007, 2:05 pm

…I agree it’s tricky but again, I believe we’re talking about two things here. The composer’s artistic decision making and what we might unkindly describe as the audience’s hang-ups.

One person’s experience with the Del Trideci piece might be very different from another’s depending on their personal history with say S&M, or gay culture or whatever.

Comment from jodru
Time: October 3, 2007, 2:20 pm

David’s also got a fondness for creating visual structures in his scores. If you are looking at the score for one of his orchestral pieces, for instance, you’ll see a massive diamond shape over two pages of the score, or you’ll see a giant bell curve. To the listener, these moments just sound like a Rossini crescendo or some such, and David would be the first to admit that they have no meaning to anyone but him.

What any one person puts into music (be it the program annotator, conductor, composer, performer, listener) is never going to equate to what another person gets out of it.

Comment from lawrencedillon
Time: October 3, 2007, 2:22 pm

We all — musicians and nonmusicians — have the ability to ignore written words if we wish. I think it’s a shame to concede our free will, or the free will of other listeners, to make that choice.

Comment from Daniel G.
Time: October 3, 2007, 2:51 pm

Listeners should be encouraged to absorb abstract art, and not feel inadequate when listening to a symphony by Mozart because they don’t know “the story.” In some ways, it’s our job as composers to find a way to create program notes, titles, subtitles, etc that identify our intentions, but allow the listener to explore their own interpretations.

When teaching music appreciation to un-classical listeners, it is one of the most difficult tasks to ask them to separate concrete and abstract thought. In the same way, when a child makes a drawing at the age of three or four, we shouldn’t immediately rush to assign a subject to that drawing.

I agree with Jerry. There is no “______” music…just music. How else could explain that to a straight, white man, like myself, the music of gay or black composers/artists has had the biggest emotional impact on me. Am I secretly black or gay? No, because what I hear transcends all of that.

Comment from jeff harrington
Time: October 3, 2007, 2:54 pm

Thing is, once the cat is out of the bag, like with DT when I hear a loud chord I start thinking, ‘Is that a “whip”?’ ;)

Titles I can ignore. But when I hear talk about programs and ‘stories’ and it just seems really important that I hook up these ideas with the sounds it no longer functions to me as music. It’s now symblic sound.

Symbolic sound to me, is much less interesting than music – which I don’t believe functions as sound at all. Just like speech doesn’t function as sound. Try listening to somebody talking as pure sound. It’s very hard to do. Same thing with good immersive music. It functions on its own merits freely and without impediment if the mind doesn’t allow ideation to be triggered.

Comment from Alex Shapiro
Time: October 3, 2007, 2:58 pm

There is no right/wrong answer here; different people seek different listening experiences. Some look at the night sky and want to know what every constellation is; others prefer to be blanketed by the overall effect. Such is the case with program notes and names for our sonic stars.

This spring I moved to a beautiful and very small, rural island where I am most likely the only resident aware of our self-referential new music world. One would be hard pressed to bump into a neighbor here who had ever heard of a John Adams who was not president. I will add that is as true of my fellow islanders living in million dollar homes as it is of those living in single-wides. Those of us whose lives revolve around the arts often forget just how isolated our passions are in the larger view of things. My answer to the usual, “what kind of music do you write?” is almost always accompanied by a short explanation of what chamber music is, since I’ve quickly learned it’s a term mostly used by those in the know.

I cannot stress enough how genuinely non-musicians appear to appreciate a story or anecdote behind a new piece of music. It’s not because they can’t think for themselves or are incapable of immersion. It’s because they very much *want* to be immersed in the music, and find that a guide of some sort is helpful. Any of us reading this blog are so inured to contemporary music that there’s almost nothing that will jar us; we’ve heard it all and we absorb it with the same ease with which others absorb Bach. But this is not the case for most. Music that S21-ers would consider very tame, is ear-expanding for the majority of the population. So giving listeners something on which to hang their hat is incredibly useful for bringing them closer to what we are offering. Besides, just as they can operate the “off” button on a TV, listeners always have the option of not reading the program notes. :-)

Comment from jeff harrington
Time: October 3, 2007, 3:07 pm

Heh Alex et al, yeah you’ve got a point, but I just don’t think we need to tell the story. I think we should write for the ideal listener, but that’s just me. And of course I’m always going on about how music needs to return to the ‘Narrative.’

Funny thing, seems like after every performance of my music I’ve ever attended some newcomer comes up to me and says, “Hey you’re music seemed to me like it told a story.” After the premiere of BlueStrider this old lady came up to me and said that. I asked her if she was a classical music fan and she said, ‘Nah I find that stuff boring. I mainly listen to gospel.’ :)

Comment from Chris Becker
Time: October 3, 2007, 3:22 pm

“Try listening to somebody talking as pure sound.”

You should hear my Siamese cat. He talks! I swear to God! I need to record him for one of my pieces…

Comment from Alex Shapiro
Time: October 3, 2007, 3:26 pm

See? Even when we don’t give people story lines, they often think they hear them anyway. Maybe it’s human nature; listeners tell me what events they detect in my music all the time, whether my title or liner notes are descriptive or not.

“I think we should write for the ideal listener”

My ideal listener is anyone who wants to hear what I write (ok, and buy my CDs, too– even more ideal!). If they want to attach a story to it, fine with me! Anything to get them to connect to the music.

As for felines– man, are they valuable. One of mine is solely responsible for the main theme of one of my best pieces– stolen from him after he landed with all four paws on my piano. He gets all my ASCAT checks now.

Comment from david toub
Time: October 3, 2007, 3:43 pm

I think we should write for the ideal listener…

FWIW, the ideal listener is me. I think that if you write something that grabs you and expresses something honestly, someone else will come along for the ride. Perhaps not many. Perhaps no more than one person. So I’m probably in agreement with Alex in that the ideal listener is anyone (demented enough and) willing to listen to my music.

I’ve gone back and forth on the whole idea of program notes. At first, I had what I’ve come to learn was also Ralph Shapey’s attitude: the music has to speak for itself. He’s probably rolling over in his grave that either of us shared an opinion. However, I’ve modulated my opinion, and am very happy to provide some sort of road map regarding my music, although I tend not to get too detailed, or suggest what certain sections “mean.” That’s because my sense of what something means is very different.

Case in point: some time ago, I was playing some of my music on our iHome over dinner (sick, I know, but my kids like some of my stuff…go figure). My wife and daughter both saw certain emotions and associations where I would never have before. It changed my perception of what connotations my music has on some people. So in the end, everyone is going to have their own associations, and that’s fine. I’d like to think that I can like a piece of art or music without needing to know extramusical connotations, but the reality is that we all do like to know these things. I can’t ever listen to parts of Berg’s Lyric Suite without thinking of the somewhat secret program and words built into the work that only came to light many decades after his death, for example. Yet, while it’s altered my perception of that great work somewhat, I’m still glad I know what Berg was hiding in terms of placing references to his mistress in the music.

Comment from David Salvage
Time: October 3, 2007, 8:14 pm

Del Tredici has a recent concert band piece called “In Wartime.” I heard it a few years ago at a seminar he gave at the CUNY Graduate Center. I asked him to explain the music’s relationship with the title. Expecting an anti-war diatribe, I instead received a brief answer that went something like “Well, I was writing the piece as we went to war in Iraq. The TV was on a lot while I was composing. So I thought I’d call it ‘In Wartime’.” I immediately thought: “Umm…”

Comment from zeno
Time: October 4, 2007, 11:21 am

“I also have the feeling that while wordless music may “mean something” concrete to the composer, it is an abstraction to the listener.” (Jerry Bowles)

Well, in order to ensure that MET audiences have a pleasant, quasi-abstract or cosmic experience, Rufus Wainwrigt is apparently writing the libretto to his new MET commission — “Prima Donna” — in French — “because it sounds better.”

http://www.cambridge-news.co.uk/lifestyle/arts_music/news/2007/10/04/
8d77909d-966e-49f3-802b-31e6f11a9083.lpf

Comment from zeno
Time: October 4, 2007, 11:23 am

Rufus Wainwright … Sorry.

Comment from john mclaughlin williams
Time: October 5, 2007, 11:47 am

David Toub, really well said about Eastman Monk, et al. Not to digress too much, I am curious about the native american themes you mentioned in the Bloch Concerto. Really? Can you cite them or send me to the source of your inference? Being very familiar with the work, I think it’s one of his MOST Jewish compositions.

Comment from David Toub
Time: October 5, 2007, 12:09 pm

Thanks 8-)

One of the American Indian themes in Bloch’s violin concerto is right there in the very beginning, probably measure 3 or 4 (I’m doing this by memory, but it is pretty overt right after the brass opening). What I’ve found on the Web of Bloch’s commentary on this is as follows: “Although Bloch attributed the major themes in the Concerto to American Indian songs heard on a visit to New Mexico, he also described the work as portraying ‘the complex, glowing, agitated soul that I feel vibrating through the Bible’.”

So you can hear either or anything else in Bloch’s music. I just love his stuff, but always felt he got pigeonholed into this “Jewish composer” category and that seems to minimize his significance as a composer of music, period.

As far as I’m concerned, I don’t write “vegetarian music” or “atheist music” or “Secular Jew” music or “Pennsylvania music” or however someone might categorize me. And I don’t think Bloch wrote “Jewish” music any more than he wrote “Swiss music” or “Oregon music” either. He wrote incredibly beautiful music and just happened to be a Swiss Jew. QED.