Music can be many things—pristine, sloppy, austere, irrelevant, exulted, flat-lined, cerebral, relentless, naïve, etc.—and in most cases, it can exhibit many of these traits simultaneously. However, the music I find myself attracted to avoids the middle-of-the-road-ness of being all things, all of the time. It might seem quite simplistic, but it’s the music that displays only a few of these or other qualities to a ridiculous extreme in a very tangible way that turns me on as a listener. I’m not sure if this is akin to Kyle Gann’s post-minimal definition of totalism or not. I just like stuff that goes totally overboard or shows an extreme obsession towards an otherwise immaterial component of its own musical makeup.
It’s thrilling to hear a great rendition of Andriessen’s Worker’s Union, or early Glass, Reich, Tenney, and Lucier, when performed well in an appropriate acoustical environment. This is the music that defies all those theory treatises we were forced to read and write in school. I unwittingly took on a pitch class set analysis of Feldman’s Piano Piece 1952 thinking that some sort of pattern might emerge in such a small number of notes—no dice. And don’t even get me started on the concept of anarchic harmony in late-Cage (that paper never got turned in). Kevin Volans once gave a classroom of young composers some sound advice about music: the rate of change must change. Seems agreeable if you’re going to apply the concept in a Feldman-like manner. However, the same approach has significant potential to produce something unruly, without a point of view—i.e. welcome to the road’s middle.
I later presented Volans with a piece of mine for five guitars and gong. He proceeded to give me the exact opposite advice, pointing out that the gong didn’t blend well enough with the texture, which was monolithic. Instead, he suggested investigating the light installations of James Turrell. I was already familiar and knew exactly what he meant: almost nothing should change. In the end, the gong remained in the piece, but it’s played very softly. The piece, like many others I compose and listen to by others, is a singular object: one thing all the time. This doesn’t imply it has to be simple by any means. I thoroughly enjoy Ferneyhough’s music for its same brand of obsessiveness. Ultimately, I find that when composers let their music unfold itself to the utmost extreme implied from the very outset (or there about), it becomes exciting for listeners, like an amusement park ride or a hot stone message. In any case, allowing your music to merely be something, rather than ostensibly everything, insures, at the very least, that it won’t end up being closer to nothing.