Are You Born Into Your Music?

Here is a claim I wish I weren’t making, and that I would prefer to be wrong about: popular music created in the industrialized world in the decade from the late 1990s to the late 2000s doesn’t have a distinct style—that is, one that would provide an identity for the young people who grew up with it. The process of the reinvention of life through music appears to have stopped. […] There are new styles of music, of course, but they are only new on the basis of technicalities.

—Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget

I have a bizarre hypothesis about the zeitgeist of the current musical moment. It seems that for whatever reason, people are channeling the zeitgeist of the year they were born in the work they are currently creating. E.g. I recently heard music by someone born in 1968 that reminded me of Stockhausen’s Kurzwellen, and a piece by someone born in the early 1980s sounded surprisingly like John Adams’s Grand Pianola Music.

It’s hard to imagine such an influence being conscious since no one is really attuned to the world around them when they are first born. But perhaps there’s something that occurs developmentally early on in each of us to somehow trigger aesthetic allegiances, which will only become clearly pronounced decades later.

Last week I talked about how much of a kinship I felt for the film Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) which was released in my birth year, 1964. So I did some further personal soul searching. My favorite jazz album of all time is Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch! and my favorite Broadway musical has always been Stephen Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle. Both of these iconic 1964 landmarks have profoundly affected me, not just as a listener, but also in my own attempts to create work that breaks a lot of rules while still being respectful of and clearly indebted to a preexisting tradition. And I still continue to be endlessly fascinated by and aesthetically moved in the direction of early minimalism. Guess what year The Well Tuned Piano and In C both made their debut? Taking it a step further, when I was younger I heard detractors of minimalism decry it as a rehashing of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, a work composed between 1935-36, the years that La Monte Young, Terry Riley, and Steve Reich were all born. Go figure.

Am I going out of my mind, or is it possible that such a correlation could exist?

14 thoughts on “Are You Born Into Your Music?

  1. rtanaka

    If you’re a new music composer who primarily listens and writes new music and hangs out with other new music people all day, you’re probably going to see some correlations because they all come out of the same tradition. Your hypothesis could very much be true, but what does it imply, really?

    Although in reference to the original quote, for those of us who grew up in the digital age (which came right around when I turned into a teenager) the idea of having a collective identity in itself doesn’t tend to cross your mind. There’s been a huge shift in how we access entertainment and art, because we now have control over when and where we want to watch something. This wasn’t the case back in the 80s and early 90s.

    Notice that the hipsters nowadays are listening to pop classics from the 70s, 80s, 90s as if it were their own. Strange times.

  2. mclaren

    It seems that for whatever reason, people who live in New York are channeling the zeitgeist of the year they were born in the work they are currently creating.

    That could well explain it. Out here beyond Manhattan, might not work as well. Bill Wesley composes music for musical instruments that didn’t exist when he was born in 1953, because he invented ‘em.

    Jonathan Glasier is composing and performing music on 19 tone equal refretted guitars. Not a lotta 19 equal guitars around in 1945, when Jonathan was born.

    And me, well, I just composed a piece using subharmonic rhythms 1 through 31 (if you start with, say, 16th notes in 4/4 then each note of subharmonic 2 is twice as long as each 16th note, each note of subharmonic 3 is 3 times as long, each note of subharmonic 5 is 5 times as long, etc. up to subharmonic 31, in which each note is exactly 31 times as long as each 16th note in subharmonic 1) in subharmonics 1 through 31 on a retuned physically modeled piano done in software.

    Hate to break it to ya, but to my knowledge no one has ever composed using those rhythms or that tuning in the history of the planet.

    So channeling the music of the year in which you were born seems to be a New York thing.

  3. danvisconti

    Hi Frank, Naxos has a great compilation titled “Class of 38″ featuring music by Gloria Coates, John Corigliano, Jose Serbrier, Frederic Rzewski, John Harbison, Joan Tower, Bill Bolcom, Charles Wuorinen–each of them born in 1938. These composers couldn’t be more “stylisitically” different yet their collective output seems to share many of the same artistic goals and motivations.

  4. Frank J. Oteri

    people who live in New York are channeling the zeitgeist of the year they were born in the work they are currently creating

    Actually, the composers I heard which prompted this remark mostly do not live in New York. And I must point out that my remarks were not meant as a criticism, but rather as an observation and a hypothesis that what excites us musically later in life might indeed have origins dating back to our earliest consciousness, before the ability to speak, etc. It’s admittedly a somewhat kooky idea, but I thought it might generate some interesting commentary and indeed it has.

    Not a lotta 19 equal guitars around in 1945

    Well, Joseph Yasser’s A Theory of Evolving Tonality, which advocates the use of 19-tone equal temperament, was first published in 1932. And Harry Partch’s first adapted guitar dates back to 1934, although admittedly his system was 43-tone just intonation. However, according to Patrizio Barbieri’s recently published volume, Enharmonic: Instruments and Music 1470-1900, which is a must read for anyone interested in microtonality, instruments tuned to 19-tone equal have existed for centuries. And, BTW, although Yasser lived in NYC for a time, he was born in Poland. Barbieri was born in and continues to live in Italy and, as most folks already know, Partch was a West coaster.

    But please do not construe my remarks here to mean that I think 19tET exploration is invalid. I’ve been a fan of those wonderful minor thirds since hearing 19tET music by San Diego-based composer Ivor Darreg (on guitars, too), a couple of decades ago. It’s a wonderful scale that I’d like to explore some more myself one day. I will definitely be checking out what Jonathan Glasier does.

    I think we all put too much emphasis on trying to come up with stuff that’s never been done before. Another reason people should read Barbieri’s book, even if they have no interest in microtonality, is that it reveals that most ideas that we think are original actually are not. In my graduate musicology studies I used to take particular pleasure in finding pre-20th century examples of things like tone-rows, minimalism, irregular meters, indeterminacy, etc. Not because I wanted to diminish the accomplishments of contemporary music, which even back then was my favorite music, but because it was proof that these ideas are not in any way antithetical to long-established musical traditions.

    Hate to break it to ya

    Please do. I’d love to hear your music; send me some!

  5. pgblu

    The idea of making nineteen divisions of the octave was first promoted in the 16th century by Francisco Salinas.

    Also, the trumpeter Stephen Altoft plays an instrument that’s been retrofitted to play in 19div.

    But that’s slightly off-topic; I’ve been trying to remember the name of the logical fallacy that you’re employing here, Frank. Since I’ve had no luck, I’ll leave it to other readers as an exercise: A list of logical fallacies

  6. philmusic

    McLaren, It seems that Henry Weinberg composed, starting in the 60′s, many works where the rhythmic content is based on his notes and interval relationships.

    Phil Fried

    Phil’s Page

  7. rtanaka

    Correlation does not equal causation?

    Nowadays there’s a lot of pressure for musicians to be “unique” or “different” in some way, in order to stand out. In hindsight, though, what’s more striking is usually how similar most styles are with each other, despite their claimed differences. Probably best not to worry about such things, really.

  8. pgblu

    Confirmation Bias
    Ah! Thanks to a friend I only know as increpatio, I see it is called Confirmation Bias.

    This doesn’t mean, Frank, that I want to deny you the pleasure of being intrigued by all this. Just that I don’t buy this kind of causation for a second. It’s no better than astrology.

  9. davidwolfson

    I’m the same age you are, Frank, and the music I heard for the first decade or so of my life was the folk music and musicals my parent played, and whatever was on the radio. Some of what I write these days was influenced by that, and some was influenced by music I didn’t encounter for another couple of decades—and most by both. And, FWIW, my favorite musical is probably
    Sweeney Todd.

    I’m afraid what you have there is known in the trade is a Big Fat Coincidence. ;-)

    David Wolfson

  10. mclaren

    Phil Fried: Yes, Weinberg did some proportional rhythms in the 60s. You’ve forgotten to list James Tenney’s 1968 Spectral Canon For Conlon Nancarrow, which uses rhythms proportional to harmonics 1 through 7 and also retunes the player piano to harmonics 1 through 7. You also neglected to mention Henry Cowell’s harmonic rhythms, which use proportional rhythms from harmonics 2 through 13. You also didn’t bother to mention Rhys Chatham, who started using proportional rhythms back in 1974.

    None of this relates specifically to what I said, and that’s typical of New Yorkers who rush forward to marginalize anyone and everyone else based on non sequitur historical minutia and irrelevant technicalities. I said that no human being on the planet to my knowledge has used subarmonic rhythms 1 through 31 and a subharmonic tuning with subharmonics 1 through 31, and that remains a fact.

    Henry Cowell and most of the others used harmonic series rhythms: that is, rhythms which get faster — 5 against 4, 13 against 11, and so on. Weinberg and several others used a few members of the subharmonic rhythmic series, but only the first few. No one has used a full set of subharmonic rhythms.

    This matters because one of the peculiarities of subharmonic or harmonic series rhythms is that they form a jazzy kind of ensemble rhythmic resultant which only occurs if you use a lot of ‘em in sequence. You don’t hear that jazzy rhythmic resultant if you use only, say, subharmonic rhythms 1/4:1/5:1/7, or 1/3:1/13:1/29. You only start to hear that kind of cyclic rhythmic resultant if you use all the subharmonics 1 through 23 or 29 or 31 or some large number like that, or harmonic rhythms 1 through 19 or 1 through 29 and so forth.

    This isn’t something you can argue about. You have to hear it.

    Frank Oteri: Yasser was a theorist. To my knowledge he never composed in 19 equal. As for Partch’s adapted guitar, that’s just intonation with unequal frets. A better example would be some of the xenharmonic equal tempered guitars Augusto Novaro built during the 1950s — but once again, Novaro was a theorist, not a composer or a performer. Novaro built refretted guitars in 15 equal and 17 equal and 19 equal, but once again, he doesn’t seem to have composed music for them. We have only one notated 15-equal study in any of Novaro’s books, and that’s not for a refretted guitar. Easley Blackwood composed a suite for a 15-equal refretted guitar in 1980, but as I mentioned, that’s long after 1945, when Jonathan Glasier was born.

    As for Patrizio Barbieri’s recent Enharmonic tome and concerning the claims that Francisco Salinas used 19 equal, please note that in almost all cases these instruments from previous centuries used 12 out of 19 equal pitches.

    Everyone knows that 1/3 comma meantone is nothing but 12 pitches selected from 19 equal (to an excellent approximation), just as everyone knows that 1/4-comma meantone is nearly exactly 12 pitches out of 31 equal. However, composers in previous centuries in virtually all cases used these meantone instruments to play music composed in 12 pitches per octave…12 out of 19, 12 out of 31, and so on. “12 out of” is an entirely different animal from having the full 19 pitches or the full 31 pitches available at once.

    Moreover, only a handful of fully 19-equal or 31-equal instruments (viz., the Nicola Vicentino’s archicembalo of 1555: but only Luzzasco Lazzaschi composed any music for it; and while, in Naples the 19-note cembalo was common enough to be referred to as a the cimbalo cro­matico comune or common chromatic harpsichord, only Mayone and Trabaci published Toccatas for it — and those only use 2 extra keys per octave) were actually built in previous centuries, and virtually no music was actually composed for them or performed with them. Aside from Costeley’s chromatic chanson in 31 equal, how many 31 equal compositions were ever actually composed in earlier centuries? Hardly any.

    So the implication that 19 equal refretted guitars were used by performers in previous centuries or the assertion that “instruments tuned to 19-tone equal have existed for centuries” is simply not accurate and grossly misrepresents the musical reality. Instruments tuned to 12 out of 19 equal pitches have existed for centuries but they were used solely to obtain slightly smoother versions of familiar Western triads in meantone music. Some keyboard instruments, including Handel’s cembalo, used more than 12 pitches (Handel’s keyboard had 14 pitches to the octave) but this was solely and exclusively to avoid the notorious “wolf” tones in meantone. You could not play a 19 equal chromatic scale or a 19-equal cluster or anything like that on the vast majority of these instruments from previous centuries, and that’s where the real action is in xenharmonic music…exploring what’s different and exciting and unique about those xenharmonic tunings, not just getting slightly smoother versions of familiar Western triads.

  11. Frank J. Oteri

    McLaren, thanks for your clarififications. I am very curious about the subharmonic rhythms you’ve been exploring. As I requested in my earlier response to you, please send us something we can listen to. It seems like something very worthy of sharing with the readers of these pages!

    However, I must counter that the Barbieri volume reveals much more pre-20th century “microtonal” as opposed to “retuned” 12-tone music than you might imagine. Considering the depth of your enthusiasm for microtonality, it is definitely something you should get your hands on and read. And have you ever seen Telemann’s 55-tone equal tempered study, which completes the cycle of 1/6-comma meantone, Telemann’s preferred temperament, just as 19tET and 31tET complete 1/3 and 1/4 comma? Discovering that historical curiosity has made me eager to explore what else might be possible within a 55-tone system.

    But, to take this beyond the Euro-American centricity that this topic has engendered thus far, other cultures around the world have had instruments with more than 12-tones to the octave long before the era of 20th century experimental music. E.g., the Iranian sehtar has had 17 frets to the octave for centuries. Admittedly, most of the time the sehtar is used to play music that is “diatonic” (7 pitches to the octave) and not even “chromatic” (12 pitches) much less ultrachromatic. However, since the performance of traditional gushehs (fixed melodies) are traditionally presented in suites according to dastgah (the Iranian name for mode) but then frequently modulate between dastgahs, a performance can theoretically traverse all 17 pitches available on the instrument. Discovering this music is what make me pursue a Master’s degree in ethnomusicology instead of composition, since I believed at the time that a deeper understanding of other tuning systems from around the world would make me a better composer, but that’s a topic for another day and to bring up things like the Iranian modal system here might be interpreted as engaging in “historical minutia and irrelevant technicalities” like you have claimed the rest of my fellow New Yorkers do ;) I was born in Miami, BTW.

    And Phil Fried, when last I checked, lives in Minnesota. Right Phil?

    But despite the argumentative tone of your geographic generalities, I still am truly interested in hearing your music. So, I’ll ask once again, please send some to us or point us to a place on the web where we can all hear it!

  12. philmusic

    “…None of this relates specifically to what I said, and that’s typical of New Yorkers who rush forward to marginalize anyone and everyone else based on non sequitur historical minutia and irrelevant technicalities..”.

    That’s right Frank-Saint Paul Minnesota, and it seems that some folks around here need a sense of humor.

    Phil Fried

    Phil’s page

  13. pgblu

    News of the warm
    There seems to be a lot of heat being generated on this thread. I agree with mclaren that we misrepresent history when we imply that the arcicembalo was used to create real 31ET music. At the same time, it’s an oversimplification to say that the purpose of such instruments amounted to nothing more than simply creating “smoother triads”. It also meant having the option of substantially widening the palate of harmonic possibilities. The most extreme case I can think of is Frescobaldi’s Cento Partite sopra Passacagli. That work sounds pretty horrendous in 12ET, but it would sound even more awful if the D-flats and the C-sharps were both realized at the same frequency in some unequal tuning. A tolerable performance of this piece would need separate keys for C-sharp, D-flat, D-sharp, E-flat, G-sharp, and A-flat.

    And that’s just within music specifically intended for keyboards. A popular practice at the time was to produce intabulations of vocal music. This would be quite impossible in the case of madrigals by Marenzio or Gesualdo, where in some cases you need E-sharps and B-sharps quite distinct from F and C. I can well imagine that the study of intabulations, or even rehearsal ‘support’ for actual vocal performance, may have been a primary function of these outlandish keyboards.

    On top of this, I can’t help but surmise that among the patrons of the chromatic art there existed a kind of oneupmanship — and it’s particularly in this regard that I see strong parallels to the present day.

    Not contradicting mclaren here, obviously. But I do indeed think this amplifies the point that contemporary JI has more parallels to the distant past than some of its practitioners claim.

    mclaren mentions xenharmonics. Who is working in this realm today that is of interest? I found the music of Ivor Darreg to be mildly interesting, though totally disappointing in MIDI. For me, electronic renditions of this stuff are not a particularly illuminating substitute for actual instruments, retuned, rebuilt, or modified as extensively as needed.

    May I end with a little plug? There’s an incredible CD called La Tavola Cromatica, played by The Earle his Viols with Evelyn Tubb. I can’t recommend it highly enough to casual listeners interested in finding out more about 16-17th century chromaticism. Those who hang on to 12ET are in for a hair-raising experience.


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