On 7 November 2008, Kyle Gann posted a provocative article on his blog condensing and expanding upon remarks he made at a new music festival at Sacramento State University. In the piece, Gann calls for more respect to be accorded to an aesthetic he (with some reluctance) calls “music of the Absolute Present.” The Pantheon of Absolute Presentist composers is defined by a “maverick” bunch who had to fight against the musical establishment for any ounce of respect. Among these composers are Erik Satie, John Cage, Morton Feldman, and the early minimalists. Absolute Presentism takes its aesthetic bearings from Zen Buddhism and strives to make music free from memories of the past and premonitions of the future so that the “absolute present” can be accessed unmediated. Absolute Presentist composers like Gann write music “in measure 185 [that] doesn’t commit [them] to writing anything particular in measure 202″; they “avoid musical karma” and are inclined to “move from one thing to the next without any causality.”
Gann opposes Absolute Presentism with nineteenth-century Romanticism, an aesthetic which hogs the respect of the musical community. Romanticist composers “aim in their music for a kind of organic emotional curve whereby the music spends most of its time crescendoing or decrescendoing in intensity, with some sense of climax and often resolution, often symbolized by increasing dissonance or complexity.” Interpreting the term broadly, Gann labels composers like Brahms, BartÃ³k, and Corigliano “Romanticists,” even though their affinities with historical Romanticism are not easy to pin down. Basically, by “Romanticism” Gann means “organicism,” and such an organicist orientation describes much of what we know as the standard classical repertoire. While I will continue to use the term in Gann’s sense, I would like to register one objection up front: the standard classical repertoire is neither musically nor aesthetically monolithic; neither Satie’s music nor Cage’s is a virgin birth, however much devotees of these mavericks might like to think so.
Gann probably feels about Romanticism how I feel about Absolute Presentism. I would never quarantine all Absolute Presentists south of Fourteenth Street; nor would Gann banish Romanticism from the universe. I like In C, and I’ll bet he likes Beethoven; certainly both Terry Riley and Beethoven count as “mavericks.” I consider myself as open-minded as the next guy, and I have no reason to believe Gann is any different.
Nonetheless, I find Gann’s remarks highly unsatisfactory. His take on the aesthetic politics of music is skewed and hagiographic, and his Absolute Presentism is undernourishing as an aesthetic. Viewed through any sensible frame of reference, Gann’s Absolute Presentists are not as marginalized as his post suggests, and there is nothing in Absolute Presentism which obliges anyone in a position of power to concede its equivalence with Romanticism and set an “equal time” agenda accordingly. In the end, Gann’s post is just the sort of exercise in arbitrariness he suggests is behind Romanticism’s privileged status.
Gann’s view is that Romanticists are mainstream and Absolute Presentists are marginalized. While he is not specific as to his frame of reference, he seems to have academia and the classical performing arts scene in mind; that is, these are the places where Absolute Presentists get insufficient respect and Romanticists get too much.
By selecting academia and the classical performing arts scene as his frame of reference, Gann needlessly stacks the deck against his mavericks. Gann implies that the cafes and art galleries that have been open to Absolute Presentists are places that do not and cannot wield cultural clout and impress legitimacy on their musician friends. He also implies that these composers want nothing more than to write for the Cleveland Orchestra and have a tenure-track job.
But mavericks want to write for their own people-not the Juilliard String Quartet. They want to make music in flexible, funky spaces-not Avery Fisher Hall. And I think they would rather do other things that pay their dues as an Assistant Professor teaching aural skills in a state shaped like a rectangle. Gann does not consider to what extent his mavericks were (and are) mavericks by choice.
Furthermore, his myopic frame of reference disregards the considerable respect maverick Absolute Presentists have found elsewhere. Did Laurie Anderson get no respect from O Superman? Are we to insist Brian Eno has no legitimacy if the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center doesn’t commission him, and Princeton, where now an electric guitar player named Steve Mackey presides, doesn’t hire him as a full professor? Are we going to discount Philip Glass’s mainstream success in films and commercials? Or Steve Reich’s musical fingerprints everywhere (the music of U2 among other places)? Gann’s mavericks are too unwieldy for his own narrow point of view. They know sources of legitimacy come in many shapes and sizes.
But gestures of establishment respect don’t get much bigger than what some Absolute Presentists have received. When Alice Tully reopens, ETHEL and the Bang on a Can All Stars will get concerts on the Opening Nights festival. I don’t see any Carter-Wuorinen-Babbitt programs. When Zankel Hall opened, John Adams (whom Gann seems to think is a sell-out) conducted Absolute Presentist Lou Harrison. Carnegie Hall went bananas for Steve Reich when he turned seventy. The point is: you have no reason to assume that as an Absolute Presentist you will automatically be frozen out from the Temple of Classical Music.
One may reply that such distinctions come only when his mavericks are old and established or dead. But doesn’t most recognition for a composer come either in old age or posthumously-Romanticists included?
Gann also understates the academic credibility his Absolute Presentist forebears had. Cage delivered the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard, one of the world’s most prestigious appointments in aesthetics. Feldman taught at SUNY Buffalo. James Tenney, in addition to teaching at CalArts, was a eminent music theorist, published in the best journals. Jonathan Kramer taught at Columbia and was honored with a concert at (echt uptown) Miller Theater upon his death. And haven’t mavericks found homes at Absolute Presentist-friendly places like Mills College, Wesleyan, and (one assumes) Sacramento State? Just because the University of Chicago’s not calling doesn’t mean there’s no one who will answer.
But apparently we need more Absolute Presentists in academia “so that young musicians drawn to [Absolute Presentism] are not discouraged and confused by the uncomprehending faculty.” Does this problem really exist? Do students want nothing more than the secrets of Cage and Feldman unlocked? Or are they more likely to want to know how to produce a kickass song for the American Idol competition? Or how to write a Broadway musical? Or produce a rap? Or a jazz arrangement? Or country music? The list of musical sensibilities likely more popular with undergraduates than Romanticism can go on and on. Are music departments obliged to try to be all things to all people?
Departments make choices about what they will and can offer. And while there are many (many) more important decisions for a department to make than its “aesthetic,” I don’t see why the two or three composers on the faculty should not under any circumstances unite behind an aesthetic as long as they teach it well (as if a common aesthetic made for cookie-cutter composers; as if two or three people who are on campus two or three days a week could shut out any opportunity students might have to follow their musical inclinations). Besides: in the job search I’m doing right now, I’m encountering a lot more departments looking for composers expert in pop and world music than Anton Webern.
But Gann seems to know his own vision is bogus-or at least out of date. Late in the post, he refers to his college days when “Cage’s influence was still fairly novel.” Of course, this implies Cage’s influence is no longer novel. He also concedes “the repertoire of unconventionally linear [Absolute Presentist] music has vastly expanded.” If Absolute Presentism were really suffering, wouldn’t works in its mold be fewer? Wouldn’t Cage’s influence be hard to detect whatsoever?
Absolute Presentist composers are doing fine, and that their aesthetic might not have equal opportunity in every nook and cranny where music gets made doesn’t seem to be holding back the cause. Real mavericks aren’t anti-establishment anyway: real mavericks go about their business indifferent to the very establishment from which Gann wants more attention.
A piece of music is just one part of a larger experience made up of other parts-like sitting still, or dancing, or worshiping, driving, and so on. Different pieces of music suggest themselves for certain experiences. We want to dance to this piece; we want to contemplate that piece. If a piece of music fails, it may be because its presenters are trying to embed it into an experience for which it is ill suited. Were Brahms’s first symphony to be pumped through sub-woofers into a nightclub, the partyers would object to it and rightly so: Brahms sucks for dancing.
These general considerations serve as a good springboard into a discussion of aesthetics. Different aesthetics underpin the creation of different musics; and different musics suggest different contextual experiences for themselves. To prefer an aesthetic is to confess a preference for a certain kind of musical experience. On this level, then, there can be no quarrel when Gann implies all aesthetics are equal. How can one argue that dancing is a fundamentally better musical experience than singing Methodist hymns in church?
These pragmatic conclusions, however, do not cast the discussion into mush-headed relativism. Gann wants Absolute Presentism to have more respect within certain places-above all the academy, but also the world of classical performance. The question becomes: is there a kind of musical experience we should want for our college students? Is there a kind of musical experience we should want for our traditional Western concert halls? And is there an aesthetic that encourages the kind of music best suited to such experiences? I believe the answer to all three questions is Yes and that Romanticism is a better bet than Absolute Presentism to provide such experiences.
While I do not think the musics are irreconcilable, the Romanticist aesthetic and the Absolute Presentist aesthetic suggest musics that best serve somewhat different musical experiences. Romanticist music, in its close attention to the relationship between part and whole, its careful accumulation of tension, level of detail, and density of musical ideas, suggests an experience wherein the music is the dominant component; the significance of the last bits of the piece is lost if you haven’t been paying attention to the earlier bits. The different sections of a piece are intimately connected; hence composers like me, who, when they change something in measure 185, often find something in 202 also needs changing. A continuity of application from the composer is properly mirrored in the listener. A quiet room with a stage for the musicians makes sense for such music; rowed seats encumber movement (movement causes noise and distraction); a stage prominently foregrounds the music and spatially directs our attention.
Since Absolute Presentist composers, if Gann is to be considered to speak for them, take a very different attitude toward composing their music, we should not find it odd if their music suggests different contexts. Gann “might suddenly want to take a left turn” when writing his music. He “might be writing in B-flat and suddenly think . . . “˜now I’ll switch to A-flat’.” And one suspects it’s not just Gann. He cites Feldman’s spontaneous inclusion of a Webern tone row in one of his string quartets; Feldman also made final ink copies of individual sections of music before the entire piece was “done.” If Absolute Presentist composers want to take such left turns and eschew the steady accumulation of tension, then shouldn’t the audience in turn be accorded more freedom in how they listen to the music? Such music belongs in a context where listeners can get up, leave, make a phone call, come back, listen, go take a walk, come back, and listen some more. Glass composed Einstein on the Beach with just such an atmosphere in mind.
But the architecture and culture of the performance institutions Gann wants more respect from aren’t conducive to Absolute Presentist music. No matter how open-minded an artistic director might be in presenting For Philip Guston, if I’m sitting in a row and there are folks sitting to either side of me, it would be downright rude of me to get up and grab a 15-minute cup of coffee. The piece needs an open room filled with people who appreciate the situation. Such places exist already. It would be as silly to insist they make room for Gurrelieder and Charles Wuorinen as it would be to insist Zarin Mehta fulfill some quota of Absolute Presentist programming at the Phil. The cultural and physical limitations of venues have been essential in bringing about the musical pluralism we enjoy today.
Turning now to academia, it is easy to observe its kinship with Romanticism. Professors design courses with specific goals in mind; students fulfill assignments along the way toward these goals; like a musical climax, the biggest assignment usually comes toward the end. Professors design lectures with the intention every word will be listened to; students know they are being irresponsible if they leave in the middle of a lecture. Students are expected to accumulate knowledge and be able to apply this stored knowledge on exams. The Zen Buddhist Daisetz Suzuki, whom Gann references, advises students against “thinking of the past” and “looking forward.” But if you forget what you learned in class and read in books and you don’t prepare for the exam, you fail college.
Romantic music shares a didactic orientation with academia. Romanticist works, it is understood, are best listened to more than once. Surely part of the motivation for writing down music was its preservation, repeated performance, and ongoing study. In a way, you could argue that any music that’s written down does not “live in the moment” and can hardly represent an unmediated experience of the present. Romantic music works on the assumption of the composer’s authority, just as academia assumes the professor’s authority. The understood legitimacy of the composer accounts both for the vehemence with which audiences praise certain works and denigrate others; a bad piece of Romantic new music-like a poorly written textbook- feels like a fraud. A bad piece of “experimental” music, one supposes, is no big deal: life just goes on. (The whole idea there’s something called “experimental music” strikes me as a fraud and a trivialization of the scientific method. But never mind.)
Furthermore, to know about something is to have knowledge of its history. I have no qualms with Western universities privileging the study of Western music, though naturally brilliant musics exist all around the world, and one hopes exposure to some of them is easily available to Western undergraduates. The best way students can get to know Western music is through its surviving texts and documents: in other words, music of the past that was written down. And a big part of this is the Romantic standard repertory. To have Romanticist-oriented composers on the faculty provides a living, breathing connection to the treasures of Western music. No musicologist, music theorist, or ethnomusicologist can know a piece of music better than the composer who writes one from the ground up and sees it through to performance. The price for this knowledge is, of course, that nobody really cares about this music-at least not yet; we’re more interested in the comparatively superficial knowledge the historian possesses about Mozart or Wagner. (I do not denigrate the work of musicologists here-or anywhere; I’m only drawing attention to what composers are uniquely able to offer music departments.)
In addition to knowing about a subject’s history, the educated person knows how to make connections between his or her field of expertise and other domains of experience. But Absolute Presentism asks us to turn our backs on the world. The aesthetic doesn’t just eschew tension; it eschews causality. How can a person-who is not sheltered either by great wealth or by the monastic walls of an ashram-deny causality? How can anyone deny there are consequences to our actions? Surely Gann does not think causality is an illusion, and the past is only good for forgetting. His (I believe) continued indignation at John Zorn’s sexist music of the past is justified: Zorn doesn’t get off the hook because his compositions are not sexist anymore. Nor does Absolute Presentist music set out to represent the interior experience of feeling human beings. Gann’s climaxes aren’t “real climaxes, because afterwards the music goes on to something else unrelated, so the climaxes are really representations of climaxes, not metaphors for an emotional process.” In short, Absolute Presentism is just an aesthetic. It is detached from the realm of moral relevance. The very motive for aesthetics as a philosophical discipline in the modern West was predicated on the connection between art and moral education. But who cares about a bunch of dead white men in Germany?
Precisely because Romanticist music grows organically by taking account of past events and paying heed for the future, the sorts of connections one can make between works of the standard repertoire and lived life are endless. One doesn’t have to subscribe to any Romanticist Weltanschauung; but at least Romanticism presents a set of flexible ideas from which serious contemplation and speculation can begin. Eastern paeans to the unmediated present-which are by means confined to Zen-can surely inflect individuals’ lives valuably. But this value is related to disconnection from and imperviousness to the outside world; sometimes a little stoicism is a good thing. Yet art created from such an orientation is an art of escape. Certainly I myself would not want to live in a world devoid of escapist art. But the focus of schooling, at least here in the West, is best directed elsewhere.
I take so much trouble to respond to Gann only because I sense his attitudes are widespread. They cater to a popular notion that music is just music and one’s own personal judgements are always best-or at least no worse than anyone else’s. In some ways, I am sympathetic with such attitudes. But I worry when this individualistic egalitarianism appears to lead to a general devaluation of the importance of guiding principle. When all aesthetic or moral principle becomes reduced to being functions of subjective bias, only the inclinations and pleasures of the subjective agent remain to wield authority. At times, Gann’s post flirts with becoming a report from just such a condition: the “sudden left turns” I have already mentioned; that Gann’s personal enjoyment and own sense of absorption are also sources of validation for him he makes explicitly clear elsewhere.
I believe the evidence for the destructiveness of similar thinking is ubiquitous these days. The line goes like this: “While no principles are intrinsically good, I myself am. Therefore whatever I do that is in accordance with my instincts, as determined by the needs of the moment, is also good-or, at least, has as much a claim to being considered good as anything else.” The sense of personal entitlement behind such an attitude is revolting far beyond anything in Gann’s post. I neither assume he subscribes to such thinking nor insist intellectual honesty compels him to be consistent with it. But his Absolute Presentism has a complicit role to play in a society where such thoughts are the mainstream, and he should understand why some refuse to play along.