Archive for September, 2005

On Friday, we had our first Composition Seminar of the year, a monthly gathering of all the composers in the department – students and faculty. After introductions and outlining of plans for the year, we settled down to the real business of the evening: digging into some of Burke Street Pizza’s finest.

Between peppers and pepperoni, the conversation was initially cautious and wide-ranging, finally settling into a discussion of pop music trends. Two of the students lamented the passing of the Nirvana attitude, which appeared to be unfamiliar to some of the younger students. We got into a discussion of “attitude” and what it means, apart from the music.

And I got to thinking about this relationship between the music we listen to and the world perspective we are buying into as a result. At dinner, the term that was used was “attitude,” but a more traditional term is “culture.”

Every music comes with a specific culture. If you love the music, you’re supposed to dress the way the musicians dress, talk the way they talk, relate to your environment with their perspective. Hip-hop, rock, jazz, classical, avant garde – they all come with an implicit set of cultural values which their fans adopt, knowingly or unknowingly.

But sometimes we love music and hate its corresponding culture, or love a culture, but hate the music that goes with it. I come across this all the time with regard to classical music – people who love listening to Brahms or Bach, but gag at the cultural associations that come with loving music by dead Europeans.

From an anthropological standpoint, this is insane.

And yet the insanity persists and, for many of us, is an accepted part of our daily existence. In fact, there is a substantial movement afoot in this country to preserve this music while attempting to change the culture that has grown around it.

Perhaps this perspective is peculiar to artists, or at least more prevalent in artistic circles, where the music is seen as the objective, rather than as one element in a galaxy of cultural artifacts. But I wonder sometimes if we are engaged in a toxic relationship, loving the hand, but hating the arm that it’s attached to.

Unrelated note: Anybody finding themselves in Kiev tonight, please stop by the National Philharmonic for the Ukranian premiere of my Furies and Muses at 7:30 by the Maxima Ensemble. It’s the first live performance of the piece — that I know of — since 1998, which is a shame, because it’s one of my best works.

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There are two distinct kinds of imagination employed in composing music.

There is the imagination that comes up with original ideas — or, perhaps more accurately, new perspectives on old ideas. This is the form of imagination that starts us on our way, the “what if” imagination that causes us to try something new.

Then there is the sensory imagination, the imagination that is able to call to mind specific sound combinations – notes and timbres – and combine them in fresh ways, all while hearing, in precise detail, every aspect of the result.

I’ve never heard the distinction between these two kinds of imagination discussed by composers, but they are very different. Many composers place particular emphasis on one or the other, but I don’t see why either one should be of greater importance or interest. They certainly aren’t mutually exclusive: it is possible to have a fresh compositional idea, then flesh it out in gorgeous, imaginative detail. In fact, combining the two kinds of imagination would seem to be ideal.

Like reading, writing and “˜rithmetic, both of these imaginations can be improved with steady practice. The many exercises musicians undertake to train their ears are well known, but the ones that can be used to practice coming up with ideas are less common. Nonetheless, they do exist.

In the post-Beethoven era, composers who emphasize the ideating imagination have often been held up as superior to those who have highly refined tactile imaginations. Having original ideas, to the degree that such a thing is possible, is often seen as more important than being sensual or musical. I don’t know why that should be so, but that’s the trend I’ve seen from both critics and academics, and I have come to expect it.

Have you?

Can one compose without either kind of imagination? Well, yes, in fact, it happens all the time. One doesn’t need even the semblance of an original idea to write music, and it’s fairly common these days for composers to abdicate their sensory imaginations, letting their software tell them everything they know about how their music will sound.

It’s certainly much easier that way. And it seems fewer and fewer people can tell the difference.

Is that a good thing? Is it inevitable? Is it ignorable?

Is imagination necessary?

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Finally saw Rivers and Tides the other night. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in seeing the creative process in action. For those who haven’t heard of it, Rivers and Tides is a documentary on the work of Andy Goldsworthy, a Scottish sculptor who works with the materials of nature – leaves, stone, ice, twigs, etc. He typically goes to a specific site, improvises various structures for a few days or weeks with whatever he finds there, then fixes on one element or combination of elements for a defining work.

In most of his pieces, he creates a design or structure that is deliberately fragile enough that nature will reclaim its materials – sometimes in a matter of minutes, sometimes over the course of months or years. Most of his works, therefore, change and decay over time, either quickly or gradually.

The fact that some of his most beautiful pieces were created for an audience of one is a firm rebuke to those who believe that great art must communicate with the multitudes.

Whether or not you appreciate his work, I recommend the film for several reasons. First, anyone who has devoted a life to art will identify with Goldsworthy’s feeble attempts to explain what he is doing – about 80% of what he says is unintelligible, but the other 20% is gold. Second, you will rarely see a more perfect wedding of material and form, which is always inspiring. The guy has an amazing sense of design and visual composition.

Finally, you should get the disk for Fred Frith’s attractive score, which, like the sculptures themselves, accomplishes much with minimal materials.

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Been listening a lot to a CD of music for cello and piano by Edwin Finckel lately. Finckel (1917-2001) is one of those composers who seemed to fall through the cracks in the mid-20th century. He studied with Otto Luening and George Antheil, had a productive career in jazz piano and arranging, working with such greats as Sarah Vaughn, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich and many others. He took a shot at Hollywood, but quickly realized the lifestyle didn’t suit him. He wasn’t really cut from academic cloth, so university positions weren’t an option. In his mid-30s, he settled with his wife and son in New Jersey, becoming music director of Far Brook, an arts-based private school, which gave him leeway to teach children as he saw fit. He composed music for beginners through advanced students, teaching many of the instruments himself, and conducting the chorus and orchestra. As time went on, he received more and more professional opportunities as a composer, which accounts for many of the works on this recording.

The music on this disk was all written or arranged for his son, David. One can hear traces of Hindemith and Poulenc, and his stated influences Rachmaninoff and Milhaud, but the main impression is of a 20th century American Neo-Romantic, with a gift for melody that harkens back to Tin Pan Alley. In a way, it makes more sense to discuss his music in terms of his Jewish-Irish parentage than specifically musical influences. There is a defiant, tender sweetness surfacing recurrently that one seldom finds in composers of his generation.

The suite from his ballet “Of Human Kindness” stands out particularly for its expressive and technical range. From the first movement’s stentorian phrases, to the haunting cantilena in the second movement, to the irrepressible vitality of the finale, this music is gripping throughout. Most remarkably, there isn’t a phrase in this 30-minute work that doesn’t sound just right, technically and artistically.

Most of the rest of the disk is taken up with charming and intriguing miniatures. To conclude, there is a lovely set of variations on “Willow Weep for Me” that recalls the 19th-century practice of composing virtuosic variations on popular themes.

The performers on this disk are the composer’s son, David Finckel – founding member of the Emerson Quartet – and his wife, pianist Wu Han. The performances have that wonderful alchemy that only occurs when you have artists of the highest rank who have a deep, personal connection to the music they are playing.

Speaking of personal connections, I have one of my own – Edwin Finckel was the first composer I met, when I was 14 years old. He ran a summer music camp for kids on Lake Dunmore in Vermont. He gave me my first composition lessons, and he set a lasting example of how a composer works and thinks. More than 30 years later, I can still hear his quirky, understated quips and gentle encouragements.

That summer camp was also where I first heard pieces like Xenakis’s “Kottos,” which was brand new at the time, and a piece for cello quartet and narrator that I believe was by one of Ed’s nephews, a successful cellist himself. The piece blew me away – it was written for a friend who’d had a stroke and could hardly speak – his performance of the narration was both nightmarish and unbearably beautiful.

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Cary Boyce has a provocative post on rhetoric on the Forum page, one that raises bigger questions than I find myself able to respond to. I’d like to address one tangent that has sprung loose in the ensuing discussion, though, because I think there is an important lesson to be learned for all of us.

Cary describes a “sentimentality of despair” that sprang up after 1945, indicating that Webern was a seminal influence. I see it a bit differently. What follows is my perspective on how this affectation came about. I don’t have all the answers, though, so I hope this accounting will simply amplify what’s already been said, and even lead to further clarification from others.

In many composition departments in the 1960s and 70s, there were two possible avenues for creative expression: the safe path, which was a hybrid of post-Webern serialism and the metrical puzzles of Elliott Carter, and the rebellious path, purportedly following in the footsteps of John Cage, which required a complete rejection of anything connected to history of Western music.

Hundreds of young composers were surprised to learn, upon entering these programs, that their budding emotional sensibilities, and in particular their adolescent angsts, were of no interest. The validity of great music could lie only in its rational basis or in its rejection of the past.

Two composers who were never discussed in these music departments were Dmitri Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten. Both of them committed the three most unpardonable sins of their day: using major and minor triads, using melodies, and using music to express specific emotions. For both of them, the emotional range was extreme, but the level of despair was particularly notable, because unprecedented.

When these two composers died in the mid 1970s, their absence left a void, and the music world started to take notice. Young composers became aware that Shostakovich and Britten, rather than being relics of an earlier century, were contemporaries of Cage and Carter, and just as worthy of emulation. While a generation of composers was embracing the new directions of Reich and Glass, a significant number of their contemporaries were allowing themselves the forbidden fruit of extreme emotional expression, and particularly reveling in the angst their teachers forbade them.

Thirty years later, Kyle Gann reports that these composers are now sitting in the most comfortable chairs in composition departments around the country and, as so often happens, what was once forbidden fruit has become a restrictive diet. Their students are told that music needs to have a wide expressive range in order to be taken seriously, and encouraged to plumb the depths of despair in particular. Once again, a liberating break from the past has ossified into dogma. Nobody meant for that to happen, I shouldn’t think, but it’s a lesson for all of us to see how easily the tone of rebellion can shift into conformity.

Who is to blame when this happens? Certainly not Britten, Cage, Carter, Shostakovich or Webern – all of these composers created stunning works of art that helped define their era. It is their mostly well-intentioned followers who package their predecessors’ achievements into ready-made prescriptions for success.

What are we to do about it? Not much we can do beyond pointing out the problem where it exists, and remaining vigilant in our own thinking and teaching.

That’s my take on what has happened. Any corrections, rejections, embellishments, etc.?

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“A multitude of words is probably the most formidable means of blurring and obscuring thought. There is no thought, however momentous, that cannot be expressed lucidly in 200 words” – Eric Hoffer

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