The Urgent Needs of Now

Justin Davidson’s recent New York magazine piece on a rising generation of New York-based composers has elicited comment from all quarters of the American new music blogosphere: Matthew Guerrieri and our own Alex Gardner furnish two particularly thoughtful comments, which I encourage you to read as well. Davidson’s criticism of Judd Greenstein, Missy Mazzoli, Nico Muhly, et. al. is that they suffer in the absence of an ideological opponent—they have nothing to push against, so to speak. Of course, as Gardner and Guerrieri are quick to retort, the assumption that some kind of antagonism to other artistic practices is a sine qua non for composers (young ones in particular) is rather narrow-minded; the sense of urgent rebellion against a musical orthodoxy might be a useful bucket of cold water, but to gin one up now that there is truly no garde to be avant is to miss by a hundred miles one of the most salient cultural signposts of the present.

And the present, after all, is what’s at stake here. Gilbert Galindo, who I wish would comment more often on NewMusicBox, poses the rhetorical question of why concert music has to strive continually to be “new,” suggesting that there’s no good reason for it—and I agree. But I’d like to echo Baudelaire in asserting that while the new may be of no consequence, the present is urgently to be addressed, and this is a criterion on which we certainly can evaluate a piece of music. The search for the “new” in music is responsive only to other changes and developments (in the TV news sense of the word) in music; I can’t imagine anything more solipsistic and antisocial than making all of one’s decisions as a composer based on the contents of other scores. However, we should never shrink from reminding composers of their responsibility to deal squarely with the present, with the (better, with a) life-world native to 2011. I’m sure Davidson would agree that the composers in his article take up this gauntlet.

Or, at any rate, they acknowledge the existence of a gauntlet: Whether they pick it up—that is, whether they take a critical perspective on the present rather than contenting themselves to be symptoms of it—is, along with the extent to which their efforts to mount a genuine critique are successful, up for debate. Davidson’s claim that young composers should align themselves against a kind of music is superficial, of course, but only because it doesn’t ask them to be ambitious enough: They should align themselves against kinds of thought. I hope they do.

28 thoughts on “The Urgent Needs of Now

  1. pgblu

    A representative of the conservative academy speaks!
    The way you’ve phrased this, while apt, leaves little room for dissent. What kinds of thought, specifically, are we supposed to be taking the gauntlet up against?

    The most dangerous thought that I can think of which music is capable of addressing is the assertion that there are universally meaningful musical universals (being intentionally redundant here) which music ought to rely upon in order to communicate. This is an illusion, but it’s just such a darn beguiling one and thus interestingly problematic.

    I freely admit that I judge musical experiences exactly in terms of whether they take a critical stance toward these supposed universals or not. Of course, what constitutes a critical stance is itself in flux, so I rely on new works to help prevent my definition of a critical stance from calcifying. If the music under discussion in the article is to ‘make the cut’, then I really need to stretch my notion of a critical stance. Let me put it as diplomatically as possible: I appreciate the challenge!

    To put it more briefly, the enemy of art is complacency. Or even better, art is, indeed must be, the enemy of complacency… whether it’s complacency with society’s notion of good and bad music, or complacency with some academy’s notion of good and bad. As the academy’s capacity to dominate the discourse wanes, the latter becomes less urgent than the former. Just my opinion.

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  2. mclaren

    Progress having ended, we all live in the past now. So addressing the “urgent needs of the present” remains impossible, as well as pointless.

    Today’s composers wander through the wreckage of past musical era, fashioning bricolage.

    Don’t like it? Too bad. That’s life in the 21st century. Learn to like it.

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  3. Veronika Lenz

    pgblu says:
    “What kinds of thought, specifically, are we supposed to be taking the gauntlet up against?”

    This one for example:

    “Progress having ended, we all live in the past now. So addressing the “urgent needs of the present” remains impossible, as well as pointless.

    Today’s composers wander through the wreckage of past musical era, fashioning bricolage.

    Don’t like it? Too bad. That’s life in the 21st century. Learn to like it.”

    Reply
  4. pgblu

    The roaring silence?
    Thank you, Veronika! I hope we can get together for a beer sometime.

    I’m a bit surprised that there hasn’t been any conversation in this thread. But perhaps I was being too diplomatic. I shall now try a more direct approach.

    There’s almost no discussion of the avant-garde on NewMusicBox. There are a few legitimate reasons for this, but also a huge number of bad ones:

    (1) the avant-garde is rarely played and heard, therefore it’s not worth covering.
    (2) the avant-garde is mostly stupid or poorly planned and executed (see the interview with Jennifer Higdon on this site, discussing a performance art piece she saw when she was 5 years old – anecdote also referenced here).
    (3) much avant-garde musical activity has low production values, which makes it unappealing.
    (4) the avant-garde is so fragmented and disjunct, it’s very hard to know what to cover if one wants to be fair, insightful, or representative.
    (5) the avant-garde has no unified message, style, or character.
    (6) the term “the avant-garde” makes us groan the minute it emerges from anyone’s mouth! It’s a term that perhaps needs to be retired, because at one time A. Mossolov was the avant-garde and now look at ‘im. Yet I don’t have a better word for what we* do.

    That’s an incomplete list for now. I’d be glad to elaborate on any of this if a discussion emerges.

    (*There is no we, by the way – I don’t feel comfortable using the word avant-garde to describe myself, for example, mostly for reasons 4 and 6, and maybe I should simply call us the “art as complaint” crowd… three cheers for Re-Branding!).

    To me, the music of Nico Muhly and that of Missy Mazzoli smacks of utter complacency, not ‘freedom’ as I understand the word. In anticipation of the most prevalent ad-hominem attack in this context, please note that I do NOT begrudge Higdon, Muhly and Mazzoli their success, and I would not post this if I seriously thought I could hurt their careers or reputations by doing so. Everyone should write the music they want to write, and write it as well as they can. However, in addition to John Cage suggesting that “all sounds are music” (see Higdon, 2005, linked above) he also once said “Art is either a complaint or do something else.” I wonder if anyone here would like to take a position against that? Or against Cornelius Cardew’s dictum: “At the first sign of complacency, stop.” And, no, it’s not enough to take a stance against dictums.

    The nay-sayers like me are ignored, or they’re dismissed with ad hominem attacks. (Yes, my career has been modest, at best. Boo effing hoo!) Don’t worry about me, I can take it. I would, however, also like to hear an argument of substance. Perhaps mclaren him/herself would oblige?

    I can tell you this for sure: if there’s nothing left to fight against/about other than whether Elliott Carter ought to be programmed beside Steve Reich, I’ll take that hemlock now. And contributor RustyBanks from this thread can whip up my cocktail for me.

    Forgive my [pg]bluster – you all have hit a nerve with your silence.

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  5. pgblu

    We can’t edit our posts, so just a short post-script here … my rant was not primarily directed against NewMusicBox’s slim coverage of ‘the avant-garde’ though it might look that way — in my opinion, it’s not really that slim, and what NMB currently chooses to cover requires no defending. My rant was against complacency in art music as I perceive it.

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  6. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    pg,

    Yes, silence.

    As a proverbial card-carrying member of the post-Fluxus avant-garde, I have watched the desire to shock, fight, struggle and confront simply ebb away as artists who engage in such behavior face little more than bemused there-there tolerance and at-the-zoo curiosity from younger artists.

    I’ve been trying to make sense of it. Does art no longer ‘say something’? Or does ‘saying something’ not require a contrasting viewpoint? Something with a point of view is by its existence going to oppose something with a different point of view. But it might be that when an interconnected world becomes a kind of buffet, there’s a temptation to avoid selecting a main course, and find the process of judgment and evaluation engaged in to select one to appear a little quaint — far from avant-garde, in fact.

    (Admittedly, I have plenty of rage to nurture an entire lifetime of disaffection.)

    Your points 2 and 3 are valid, and exactly how low those production values were and how stupid the avant-garde could be can hardly be exaggerated. I have a room full of photos, tape, film, and other documents. You betcha. It could be teeth-grittingly embarrassing to the professionals being raged against. Yet those low ‘values’ (an economic term, really) and apparent poor planning were part of the point. I say apparent because I worked with Charlotte Moorman for a few years on her last four New York Avant-Garde Festivals, and know that to be a lie. Low values and poor planning were the appearance, but not the heart. (And it’s important to recognize that it was a partial consequence of an opposition to what technology had wrought in the duck-and-cover era combined with the lack of money in a time when all technology was staggeringly expensive.)

    As for points 4 and 5, correct. There was no unified message because it was really the temper of the times that gave rise to individual or small-group disaffection. For example, though our cooperative Trans/Media was highly active in the Delaware Valley, we were independent artists who knew absolutely nothing about Cardew but a great deal about Moorman. It was the height of individual character raging truly against what had become an unjust social/artistic/military machine, a long era when art and politics were deeply linked almost to the point that art equaled politics.

    Living as we are now in a time of grand irony, it’s hard to imagine a period when it was a commitment to be an artist. Sure, not everyone was the starving-in-the-garret type, but many people gave up careers and children for art. (Yes, I was one of them.)

    Complacency is a strange word. It suggests that their work doesn’t matter to them. Might it be that, as the avant-garde used to print on posters, “art is easy” — truly easy when all the technological tools cost next to nothing? When copy-and-paste, a side-effect of minimalism but extended to all sorts of sources, is ordinary? And, I shouldn’t fail to mention, when ensembles (not all of them, but many) would rather play music that is technically familiar and philosophically easy? And finally, where the height of commitment in a few committed works left seem to be reflections on 9/11?

    I’m not going to judge Higdon or Muhly or Mazzoli or their music. Their work is appealing, and I’m sure that I simply am too old and influenced by the hard-core avant-garde to grasp its deeper levels — or even grasp that there are deeper levels, which I can’t imagine are absent. And, so as not to aggrandize my own avant-gardism, I have also written a great deal of appealing music whose only discussion is with itself.

    There are other ways of opposition. I think, for example, that John Luther Adams does it, ever so quietly and subversively. There’s another discussion to be had there and, of course, he’s one of the older artists — one who has learned to maintain his point-of-view without compromise.

    It’s too late, I think, to make the case for rage or protest or even (as it’s been benignly presented) “something to push against”. Music’s ‘velvet revolution’ has taken place and the pleasants rule. But there will clearly come a time when the succeeding generation, having absorbed their elders’ dabblings or postmodernism or inclusiveness or ‘complacency’ or [you choose the word], will engage in their own rejection of it, aghast at what they hear. I look forward to hearing what shape it will take, whether it will be a new & different avant-garde, a development and hardening of ‘rules’ à la Schoenberg, a clear-cut set of stylistic orders, or something completely different.

    Dennis
    “Get the money!” as Frank the deli owner used to preach to me when I drove deliveries

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  7. philmusic

    The phenomenon of the artist or composer of the moment has been with us for some time, though they have also been referred to as “the savior of modern music,”etc, etc. By their very nature their short term impact drowns out other voices. If no one remembers them now, even after a decade, that’s no worse a record than many other artists.

    Currently all styles of music are being created; why then blame a composer for their own success?

    If there is any complacency in the arts I would direct that criticism at gatekeepers and their institutions who give the “artist of the moment” their time. Too many times I have heard gatekeepers say–“anything but serial music.”

    Phil Fried, no sonic prejudice.

    Phil’s I’m still a curmudgeon page

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  8. Armando

    Progress having ended, we all live in the past now. So addressing the “urgent needs of the present” remains impossible, as well as pointless.

    Today’s composers wander through the wreckage of past musical era, fashioning bricolage.

    McClaren, you’re welcome to your dystopia. I will have nothing to do with it.

    It’s the very notion of progress that is questionable to younger composers (and other musicians, mind you–oh and some older ones too). The Hegelian notion that history moves towards an inexorable end is precisely what is being called into question (and rightly so, in my view).

    Progress, however, continues. It’s just that what entails that progress, or any attempt at outwardly determining and controlling musical “progress” (what Richard Taruskin cheekily calls “patent office modernism”) is not so important to today’s composers. Let art evolve as it will, naturally, and just continue to make music.

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  9. Armando

    What avant garde? There’s no such thing anymore!

    Dennis, you talk about the “post-Fluxus avant garde.” Isn’t that, you know, minimalism?

    How can Fluxus or any other movement that peaked almost five decades ago constitute an avant garde? It’s the same problem the integral serial “avant garde” faced in the 50s and 60s: the cutting edge is simply dulled with age.

    That dulling, coupled with the complacency of the “avant garde” towards shocking (can’t art also uplift, challenge, and merely entertain as well as shock?) the audience (ironically out of its complacency) leads it to edge rather poorly.

    Why bother? Just write the music you believe in and let history sort itself out.

    Phil, you left out one reason why the avant garde doesn’t get so much coverage: simply put, there is, no longer, such a thing as the avant garde.

    Postmodernism is a beautiful thing!

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  10. pgblu

    I also don’t want to judge anyone on the quality of their music. I just want to broaden my understanding of music’s role in the world in such a way as to include the work of the composers in question. I suppose my frustration is not with their work but with my own inability to come to terms with it. Isn’t that always how it is?

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  11. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Armando, don’t worry about the label. The post-Fluxus avant-garde was over 30+ years ago. The label appeared later. I had no idea that’s what it was when I was doing it. (And no, that wasn’t minimalism; that was an overlapping track for a while before high minimalism (another label!) brushed aside most of the avant-garde.)

    My point was not the labels at all, but that a problem is being suggested (from both angles) that has to do with the presence or absence of something to ‘push against’. It appears that postmodernism and whatever is happening now are the results of the ‘art is easy’ approach that the avant-garde (meaning the avant-garde you could find at the festivals thereof, not what ended up in museums and textbooks) handed over! Combine that unexpected acquisition (who would have thought?) with the worldwide access and cheap technology, and there we are.

    If not, then, how?

    Dennis
    Retro me forward!

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  12. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Morning. If we can be done with the labels, can we go back to the initial questions posed by Colin, Alex, Matthew and Justin Davidson?

    What are the ‘needs of now’? How does present and very recent music address them? And is p&vrm somehow inherently different than the musics that gave it rise and which it uses to build new creations? Is the notion of ‘pushing against’ simply absent from p&vrm or is it present in unobvious ways?

    The composer-performer is strong in p&vrm; this has been the case since the late 1950s, though. The mashup (electronic, acoustic-electronic, acoustic) is a major force; it was a minor and experimental area in the first technological decades until tools and access were widely and cheaply available. Irony influences p&vrm, largely a recent phenomenon, although it seems to me to have reached a peak and is on the decline. Typical with earlier times, experiment still takes place on the fringes (now laptops, phones, circuit-bending, robots) of the p&vrm mainstream. The desire for applause is strong in p&vrm and with that, entertainment is back. Composers still strive for publicity, awards, tenure.

    Storytelling has flattened, and this might get to the question. It’s been said that new art has no interest in or at least has suppressed narrative. It’s seems true of some fiction, which appears to me to extract a skin of imagined life and set it out in a way that its ‘real’ life is below the surface, and in some composition, which appears to me to weave a surface of extracted materials in a way that its ‘real’ substance is in the lining.

    Of course I come to it with a lifetime of creative work and have a tendency to think — as elder composers thought of my work — that it’s all familiar territory. How exactly is it unique? What has pulled it out of the past and uniquely into the p&vrm realm? And if it has such distinctness, has that not rejected the past? (I certainly feel there’s a rejection — but at a personal level, that many younger p&vrm composers can’t wait until we are dead and gone and no longer sucking up their air. It’s almost a visceral seething below the politeness of discussion on some forums, though fortunately not here.)

    When Armando writes, “It’s just that what entails that progress, or any attempt at outwardly determining and controlling musical ‘progress’ [...] is not so important to today’s composers. Let art evolve as it will, naturally, and just continue to make music,” that’s precisely how I approached music at 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 and now. But the topic has been opened up by Davidson, so can’t we try to discern how p&vrm is different within the context of shift & change? And, once we’ve figured on the ‘needs of now’, how it addresses them?

    Dennis

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  13. pgblu

    Armando, I’m perfectly happy to abandon the word avant-garde if you like, though the suggestion that there is no avant-garde anymore strikes me as truly Orwellian.

    Of course I come to it with a lifetime of creative work and have a tendency to think — as elder composers thought of my work — that it’s all familiar territory. How exactly is it unique?

    Hypothesis: What is new in, for example, the bandsemble phenomenon and related developments, is the notion that it’s OK to draw upon pop-music influences in the concert hall, as if that was an apt response to the elitism perceived in ‘difficult’ contemporary music. Meanwhile the elitism of ‘us classical’ and ‘they pop’ remains quite intact. If you form a band, you gotta go on the road and earn your reputation, but if you form a bandsemble, you make your connections through your conservatory training (and the legitimation provided by a degree), not only to like-minded musicians, but to audiences, grant money, etc. To me, that’s extremely problematic. Not that I’d forbid it, or anything, nor do I pretend that nothing interesting comes of it. But I don’t feel that someone with a degree is a better musician (i.e., more worthy of institutional support and prestige) than someone who has achieved commercial success after 15-20 years of playing Eric Clapton and Stevie Wonder covers in the public houses of the heartland.

    But — now to put my modernist hat back on — the notion that there’s a taboo on these kinds of influences has nothing to do with musical criteria and all to do with social criteria. I suppose, then, that what I feel is lacking in much current music is a critical approach to the language character of music, a willingness to poke new holes into the old illusion that music is a language. It seems to me there are still myriad ways to do this which have been insufficiently explored. And even those that have been explored (e.g. the wholesale rejection of the ‘language’ paradigm by scattering the seeds of music to the pointillistic four winds) still need to be explored in new ways, and re-explored, much as the human body needs to practice yoga every day lest it fall back into old habits of posture, attitude, and breathing.

    Yes, this is how I talk in real life.

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  14. pgblu

    Addendum: I do not share Dennis’ view, by the way, that young people today lack a sense of commitment and sacrifice for their art, and I hereby invite him to provide a more nuanced version of that claim. Also, I do not perceive any of the kind of animosity toward older generations of composers that Dennis talks about, though as I haven’t actually met the younger composers in question here I can only rely on what I’ve seen in print interviews. Muhly and Higdon both appear to be very genial and likeable people who pursue the thing they do with a healthy kind of gusto. The older generation of postmodernists have been much more nasty toward modernism than this new crop. As it happens, Ms Higdon is about 10 years my senior, so the modern/post-modern divide and the old/young divide do not really correlate all that well.

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  15. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Commitment & sacrifice make for a tough subject, and one that scratches open the skin. It seems to me that the personal comfort level is much higher among younger composers — travel, technology and even families — in a way that earlier composers could ill afford. And I think that such comfort is reflected in the music.

    I may be completely off the mark, and it may be the dual influence of my erstwhile radio show interviews and observing most composers on-line, itself a state of privilege.

    So school me.

    As for hostility — yes, I’ve experienced a colleague actually telling me that I should go away and die. And on other forums (read Salon, for example) the go-die-old-person phenomenon isn’t uncommon.

    Dennis
    Not dead yet

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  16. Armando

    Phil-

    I think we agree more than we disagree, frankly. I just don’t see what’s Orwellian about suggesting that there is no avant-garde. If one accepts that the Hegelian dialectic is a useless anachronism and, therefore, there is no “progress” then there CANNOT be an avant garde to lead towards something that doesn’t exist. (And to suggest that there is strikes me as post-Darwinian. So there!) ;-)

    Now, Dennis, what do you mean by comfort levels? Are they unwilling to sacrifice having a nice home, or eating? What’s wrong with wanting to get paid for one’s work?

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  17. pgblu

    Schmegel
    I don’t accept that Hegel is out of date; I think you’re simply reading him differently than I am. In my view, the avant garde (not Hegel’s term anyway) is not pointing toward some ultimate endpoint utopia, but rather creating a kind of progress by continually revising the relationships between thesis and antithesis. The best formulation of this position is not from Hegel but from Bruno Liebrucks (don’t worry if you haven’t heard of him). It goes: “Truth never appears as such, but always as the negation of a particular [prevalent/pernicious] untruth/falsehood of its time [and place].” Square brackets represent my own addenda.

    So art, if it is to be critical in the Hegelian sense, does indeed “point away” from the norm as the term avant garde implies, but the actual act of pointing outward, the clarity with which that is undertaken, is more important than its quantifiable radicality (shall we employ 16th-tones or quarter tones??), or actually pretending you can pull up your tent stakes and set up camp elsewhere. This latter is the kind of radical break which would be, at least to any meaningful degree, impossible – in other words, we can’t suspend tonality in a piece of music and thereby pretend that all tonality is forever suspended. Rather, when we suspend tonality (or phrase structural logic, or any other kind of convention) we simply are pointing out how fragile this seemingly universal system is, how insular and limited our current conception of the musical possibilities is (or was, at any point in history, for that matter), how easily the building blocks of music can shift against one another, how naive it is to cling to tonality or to any other construct (sonata form) as if it had some absolute truth content. In my own view, I’d go a step further and say it’s dangerous, a kind of propaganda, really, to pretend that these things are still intact.

    Now of course I’m mixing Hegel with some (slightly) more recent trends — though this could also be read into Archimedes — so I’ll stop. I’m not a philosopher.

    I see (thanks to a tweet from Dennis! LOL) that a similar discussion is going on right now at Sequenza21, a site I very rarely visit. There, the ‘synthetists’ are praising the ‘progress’ that comes with allowing pop influences into the concert hall. I accept that this is a kind of progress against a kind of elitist attitude, but the other kind of elitism (we classical, you pop, we grant money, you door receipts) that comes with the concert hall as a venue is far more pernicious, and as entrenched as it ever was. I think synthetism is the perfect ‘vehicle’ for fostering a further entrenchment — not a liberation at all — because it allows classical audiences to continue patting themselves on the back about just how up-to-date their tastes are.

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  18. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    What’s wrong with getting paid? Nothing. It surprises me, I suppose, how much ‘getting paid’ is going on, how comfort is so important (lots of talk of iPods and lattes and being irritated at airport delays). And a lot of the music is comfortable. I’ve just listened to the tracks recommended over at S21’s parallel discussion and found them, well, comfy … comfy enough that I’d forgotten they were still playing as I was reading other websites. I felt a lot of pulse and color but no real heat, no real passion, no knock-me-down moments.

    Look, I’m perfectlly happy to admit that this is just my problem because I participated at the height of the New York avant-garde and listened at the pinnacle of jazz experiment. So it’s felt a bit downhill and tame as time went on — a tameness I have tried never to fall victim to. It’s meant working (often but of course not always) well outside my own comfort zone, listening hard to others (for those 560 Kalvos & Damian show where I subjugated my own composer self and took on the ‘Kalvos’ role to try to live inside others’ work), and risking failure and having some bloody big ones. (Plus I know I look like ‘who is this guy who’s not famous trying to talk all important’.)

    And it has nothing to do with philosophy and everything to do with experience. When I hear the ‘a little from here, a little from there’ approach coupled with not wanting to scare off one’s parents (yes, mine were duly scared off) I naturally think, where’s the unrestrained passion, the all-or-nothing commitment? And when you talk about money, all I can think of is never thinking about money beyond taking whatever job was needed to create the next production. Hell, even Glass went back to driving a taxi — and I was one of those lined up to buy tickets to the Princeton “Einstein” that never happened.

    So yeah, it was edgy and yes, it was avant-garde in very deep, committed and sometimes alienating ways.

    History has a way of softening the edges and we’ll be dead in not long and you’ll be able to rewrite it to match whatever philosopher you like. But like it or not, that level of intensity has been hard to match. Yeah, maybe the Stranglers 30 years ago or Devo when they were in the clubs. Maybe a little Foo Fighters. Jane Henry. And sure, good stuff still happens in the electroacoustic scenes especially with the building of virtual sonic spaces.

    You know, I’m not pulling all this out of my, um, hat. I had an experience with a performer for one of the Big Hot Groups who happened to be subbing for a player up here in Vermont. That performer derailed an entire premiere of my 40-minute piece because it was ‘too hard’. I knew what was really meant — not enough pay and not enough audience to justify the effort. Not comfy enough.

    And I do get that this is a sort of retrenching after the style wars, a lovely swim in everything the world has to offer. But I do wish it would get on to something just a little chewier.

    Dennis
    Commit to me!

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  19. Armando

    As for hostility — yes, I’ve experienced a colleague actually telling me that I should go away and die. And on other forums (read Salon, for example) the go-die-old-person phenomenon isn’t uncommon.

    Oh, Dennis, please, if you do anything, make sure it’s not go away and die. Keep doing what you’re doing and writing operas about murderous historical figures and putting them on through the magic of interweb networking. You are, quite frankly to this young(er) composer, an inspiration.

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  20. Armando

    I don’t accept that Hegel is out of date; I think you’re simply reading him differently than I am. In my view, the avant garde (not Hegel’s term anyway) is not pointing toward some ultimate endpoint utopia, but rather creating a kind of progress by continually revising the relationships between thesis and antithesis. The best formulation of this position is not from Hegel but from Bruno Liebrucks (don’t worry if you haven’t heard of him). It goes: “Truth never appears as such, but always as the negation of a particular [prevalent/pernicious] untruth/falsehood of its time [and place].” Square brackets represent my own addenda.

    Okay, fair enough. I haven’t read Liebrucks, though I find it hard to see any untruths in operation in concert music today. So far I have been lucky enough to experience not a clash of truths and untruths but, rather, a community of musicians at various levels of like-mindedness working side by side, sometimes aware of each other, but seldom against each other. That, to me, is a healthier situation than the modernist dichotomy and the inevitability of systems (and the uselesness of composers who do not abide by such systems). Let progress sort itself out evolutionarily.

    The elitism of the concert hall, well, that I can’t help you with. I’m trying to figure that one out myself, and I manage an ensemble of my own, something I’ve found causes more problems than it solves, even if it’s ultimately rewarding.

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  21. Armando

    And I do get that this is a sort of retrenching after the style wars, a lovely swim in everything the world has to offer. But I do wish it would get on to something just a little chewier.

    Well, there are chewier things out there, but one has to run out and find them. I think, ultimately, the dust will settle and things will sort themselves out.

    You’ll be surprised to know that I generally agree with your assesment, but I worry about hating too much. There are times when a little easy listening is just what the doctor ordered (Georg Friderich Haas does not make for a comfortable commute, for instance) and such music and such arguments as these, lest we forget (think Beethoven vs. Rossini), have always existed.

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  22. colin holter

    I haven’t read Liebrucks, though I find it hard to see any untruths in operation in concert music today.

    Not to speak for pgblu, but I think that an appeal to the “universal” in music usually qualifies as an untruth; when a piece of music enables me to stop “taking something for granted,” so to speak, that’s one of my favorite experiences as a listener. And between the Robb Symposium in Albuquerque, the performance of several large-scale works by my colleagues at the Minneapolis Institute of Art last weekend, and the JACK quartet’s brief residency at the U of MN earlier this week, I’ve been fortunate to hear a lot of pieces recently that do exactly this.

    Reply
  23. pgblu

    That, to me, is a healthier situation than the modernist dichotomy and the inevitability of systems (and the uselesness of composers who do not abide by such systems).

    Are you implying that that’s what I’m advocating for? I don’t think systems are inevitable, nor do I care for dichotomies. Especially not unhealthy ones.

    Reply
  24. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Seems like it’s time to wind down and sum up.

    As donalfonso pointed out of in Smooke’s Adieu, Avant-Garde column, avant-garde has a historical context, and that’s also how I’ve been using it. (Most of this discussion has also been of the American approach.)

    It’s hard to discuss this topic without specific examples, and I don’t feel comfortable critiquing colleagues in public. We all need support; a breakthrough might be just around the temporal corner.

    There has been considerable rewriting of history; as one brought up in public libraries (all our poor family could afford), I learned to document from the start. The rewrite doesn’t match what I have on photos and tapes, so I’m perhaps too quick to jump on those issues. Likewise, as a very public author in the 80s and 90s, I received my share of angry mail and even death threats, so again perhaps I’m too quick to jump on dismissals.

    All that said, yes, I do listen to a lot. Admittedly it’s only from recordings and online video/audio as there’s no ‘scene’ up here in Vermont — but as a lot of folks think Kalvos & Damian is still an active show, the links and recordings arrive. What I’m hearing may simply be the same stuff I got when I was a magazine submissions editor — everything, from good to bad, and it’s hard to find the music that really stands out. And you have to admit the self-congratulatory nature of urban clustering means nobody critiques anybody else publicly. The impression is that everybody believes everybody else is just really great — when most of it is trite and repetitive. So again, yes, one can hunt for chewiness and find a bit of it.

    What it comes down to is that I don’t at heart believe the notion that the current musical approaches have nothing to push against. It seems to me that it’s more a rejection of the previous generation(s) and the smothering earnestness that was brought to every topic. My generation in particular could (can) be repulsive in its excitability over every minor topic. And the claim to have ended musical history, well, yeah, how more offensive can we get to our artistic children, right? So if there’s any push at all, it’s against the idea of earnestness, of everything having a story and implications and psychological tentacles that should move society as a whole, that art is always politics, that the bedroom is always politics, and that if you’re not a bloody serious artist you’re nothing at all.

    Yeah, that’s pretty grim. So although I miss the artistic output of that attitude, I’m certainly glad the attitude itself over and done with.

    On the other hand, I’m still looking for more substance than I’m finding.

    Dennis
    Trying to Avoid Personal Irony

    Reply
  25. pgblu

    Why bother? Just write the music you believe in and let history sort itself out.

    And, from the other thread: Shouldn’t we just write what we will and let the musicologists duke it out 150 years from now?

    This sounds nice, but it’s naive also: (1) composers have been advocating for their music in words for as long as they’ve been composing, often in reaction or pre-emptive reaction to critics and NewMusicBox columns. How is that a bad thing?
    (2) some composers have languished in obscurity for years, decades, centuries, because of a single dismissive footnote in a biography or a single diatribe in a newspaper. I think if those composers had themselves simply been more articulate and more vocal, things might have been different (though admittedly, not necessarily).
    (3)History, like ‘the Market’, may be an invisible hand, but it’s still a hand made out of people, not mysterious forces.

    Believe me, jaybatzner, musicologists don’t need us to ‘leave room’ for them. If they get desperate they can start analyzing threads like these and practice a whole new level of meta-craft.

    Reply
  26. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Quick jump back to this topic. Just read this essay in Salon and the last paragraph jumped out at me. I seem to have read that opinion before as the source of the discussion above, and saw scorn heaped upon the article for it. Just when I thought it had been settled…

    Dennis

    Reply

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