The Emancipation of Judgment

Is the Tate Gallery rejection of a collection of paintings by the Stuckists an example of careful critical evaluation or yet another example of how the arbiters of taste limit audience awareness of artistic possibilities?

Eating My Veggies or Dealing With My Personal Critical Demons

In between my fourth and fifth visits to Footlight Records to pick up, at the lowest cost imaginable, more music that I might potentially dislike, I took a websurfing break to Sequenza21, where, in today’s Composers Forum, Galen H. Brown suggests that young audiences “shopping for a subculture” are not “vulnerable” to an “‘eat your veggies’ approach” to new music which has been the way all of classical music has been marketed in this country from day one.

I too have long believed all that “Mozart makes you smarter” stuff is a turnoff, even though I started eating broccoli with a vengeance upon learning that George H.W. Bush hated it, so go figure…

Among yesterday’s Footlight acquisitions is a record that I could barely get through half of. (Another plus in the vinyl over CD battle is that if you don’t like something, it will end sooner without you having to do anything.) The LP in question is Rosemary Clooney’s Mixed Emotions. I’ve long known that Clooney is an icon among fans of the great standards singers, so for a mere 54 cents (tax included) I figured it was worth the risk. Despite my years as a PR hack, I was also sold by the liner notes (another thing CDs can’t do):

If you happen to be one of the few who have never been exposed to her vocal charms, this is the perfect starter-package. Of course, if you are a Rosemary Clooney fan, we do not have to tell you that this album is a must.

From the first horribly unreal stereo-reprocessed mono distortion (not her fault I know, but still) as soon as I dropped the needle, to the opening words of the very first song, “Bless This House” with its saccharine religiosity, I found myself nearly gagging. But why?

Tons of electronic music I love going back to Stockhausen takes acoustic recordings and distorts them all sorts of ways to great aesthetic effect. And scads of music I cherish, from the Bach cantatas to gospel records by James Cleveland or the Davis Sisters, attempt to incite religious feelings I know I will never have, yet I can still love the music. So, why am I so turned off by this? Why am I allowing myself to let these things get in the way of listening to the mellifluous sound of her voice, which is above all else what her fans are paying attention to? Could it just be a little too close to things I heard growing up that made me turn to classical music and the avant garde in the first place? If that’s the case, might I be listening to my feelings and not to the music? Might that be what happens when most people listen to music they “don’t like”?

I’m heading back over there to buy more records within the hour. Undoubtedly, I’ll pick up even more Rosemary Clooney and hopefully figure it out.

I Don’t Know What I Don’t Like

I just came back from my third trip in so many days to Footlight Records in the East Village. Presumably until the seemingly endless piles of LPs and CDs become manageable enough for Footlight to close its doors and transform itself into an online-only retailer, they are offering a 75%-off sale on vinyl and a 20%-off sale on CDs.

For 30 years, Footlight has been the No. 1 store in New York City, if not the rest of the country and the world, for folks interested in Broadway original cast albums and film soundtracks as well as crooners and other vocal icons from a bygone era. While some of this music is of immense interest to me—I’m a Sondheim and Loesser fanatic—most of it has remained on the periphery of my musical diet and some of it I even blatantly dislike. Yet for three days I’ve been shoveling piles of it home and probably will go back there again tomorrow.


Because for years my response to encountering music I don’t like has been to keep listening to it and the best way to do that is to buy a record of it.

I usually blame the “tastelessness” of my record collection and subsequent listening time on the influence of John Cage, although he would undoubtedly have been horrified by much of what I keep on my walls. (Indeed, he was horrified of recorded music in the first place despite the myriad compact discs of his music that are now available for public consumption.) But Cage’s full emancipation of all sound as potential music must mean that if everything is music, so is “bad music.”

As a John Cage-loving young composer turned Columbia ethnomusicology graduate student in the late 1980s, I was already prepared to be swayed by William Brooks’s 1982 essay “On Being Tasteless” (Popular Music 2, Cambridge University Press) and John Blacking’s 1985 book A Commonsense View of All Music, texts which argued that we would understand music better if we objectively analysed it as a universal human phenomenon rather than constantly trying to evaluate it based on something as precarious and egocentric as personal opinion. For the last twenty years, these texts became the Little Red Books of my own still-ongoing personal cultural revolution.

I still remember hating the not-quite-in-tune and horribly mannered sounds made by many rock vocalists, which can be as jarring to someone unversed in the genre as bel canto operatic vibrato to folks who aren’t Met subscribers. Yet now I can think of few experiences more intense than listening to Johnny Rotten in his prime. Through being tasteless, I’ve opened my mind to hip-hop, country-western, Frank Sinatra, and a good deal of so-called contemporary classical music since we’re probably even more guilty of exclusion within the genre than we are outside it.

How can you possibly have your mind open to a brand new piece of music if the only music you’ll allow into your life is music that you already like?

Yesterday I bought a couple of records worth of music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, whom I have never liked. And today I picked up an album featuring Teresa Brewer, a singer I only remember as one annoying voice passing by among many others on a TV commercial for an oldies collection I saw some 30 years ago. To this day, I still haven’t come to terms with Billy Joel, Elton John, or most so-called soft rock but every now and then I keep trying. Maybe tomorrow.

Entertain This

For the past week we’ve been having a silly discussion in the editorial room of NewMusicBox about who is the more important historical figure in the history of American music: Kurt Cobain or James Tenney. But maybe it’s not so silly…

I’ve taken the minority position that Tenney is more important, even though on the popularity scale presumably almost everyone knows Cobain (even the classical music-only types) while Tenney is someone still largely unknown even in our own new music ghetto. In fact, I’ve owned a copy of Nevermind for years, long before I ever had any Tenney recordings (but that’s only because his music is only just now starting to get commercially released).

I also know that Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” made the top 10 of Rolling Stone‘s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time,” a bizarre list that implies all time began in 1948 (but I’ll save that for a future argument).

So, yes, I don’t deny that Cobain, as a member of the band Nirvana, made an impact. And the synthesis of metal and punk that is the core of grunge—a style that Nirvana codified though arguably did not initiate—defined the sound of ’90s alternative rock to the point that “alternative” was no longer a moniker for a group that challenged the hegemony of commercial rock but rather an epithet for groups that sounded like Nirvana.

That said, I was impressed by “Smells Like Teen Spirit” the first time I heard it and I still am impressed by it (particularly the way the vocal line persistently hovers a major second away from the tonic for no apparent reason). And I really admire the seeming randomness to the chord changes in many of the other songs on Nevermind as well. But, that’s precisely why I think Tenney is even more important. The synthesis his music represents goes well beyond the merger that Nirvana achieved, and the simultaneous logic yet complete unpredictability of Tenney’s compositional trajectory has much greater implications than anything Cobain was able to achieve in his extremely short life.

Yes, Cobain became an icon to a generation, but I’d argue that the demographic of that generation is far from universal, since in a rare moment of agreement with Terry Teachout, I too believe that we’ve replaced our cultural mainstream with a “balkanized group of subcultures whose members pursue their separate, unshared interests in an unprecedented variety of ways.” And, even if Cobain were universally lionized like the pop icons of prior generations such as Sinatra or Elvis (whose music touched even James Tenney), I would argue that Cobain’s lionization had more to do with his persona (the slacker pose, the scrapes with NARCs, the suicide, etc.) than with his music, even though I find his music interesting. Interest in Tenney, on the other hand, can only be about the music. He himself insists that there is no other narrative.

As if to prove my point, I was walking through the supermarket in my neighborhood yesterday afternoon and was greeted by a fellow shopper.

“Weren’t you involved in that Tenney concert a few weeks ago at the Issue Project Room? That was really incredible. I can’t stop thinking about it.” (Those were not her exact words, but they were pretty close. Unfortunately, we’ve yet to be able to add a camcorder-at-will feature to PDAs…) “I’m not a musician, but I read about it in The New York Times and decided to go. I heard your conversation with him before the concert and didn’t really believe what he said about his music not referring to anything else except itself. But then I heard the music. It made me listen in a completely different way, especially that piece for the gong [Having Never Written a Note for Percussion]. It was like a womb of sound.” (That last sentence is her exact words.)

Tenney’s post-Cagean compositional framework—which creates a space in which minimalism, serialism, microtonality, indeterminacy, conceptualism, neo-tonality and even ragtime can sit on the same shelf—defines the musical landscape of the early 21st century. It is in fact a womb of sound that will give birth to the music of the future. It’s hard to think of anything that’s more important than that.

BMI Student Composer Awards Announced in New Venue

On June 6, 2005, a total of eight composers ranging in age between 10 and 25 were presented with BMI Student Composrt Awards for compositions ranging from a solo percussion piece to two orchestral works. Plus George Crumb received a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Remembering George Rochberg

Last week, after having just gotten back from the National Critics Conference in Los Angeles and racing madly against the clock to get the talk with James Tenney up on NewMusicBox, I learned the sad news of the death of George Rochberg.

I had long wanted to have a conversation with Rochberg for NewMusicBox, but it was not to be. The closest I ever got was a brief phone call, the results of which served as a Hymn and Fuguing Tune comment (remember those?) back in March 2000.

Since there have been an abundance of excellent obituaries for Rochberg available on the web this past week, I felt that there was no need to redo here what has already been done. However, one thing I learned from his recent passing perhaps does bear further discussion here.

Rochberg startled the music community over 35 years ago by rejecting the “historical inevitability” of the 12-tone system and re-introducing tonal elements into his music. In retrospect this was not so revolutionary since so many other composers (Barber and Rorem to name just two) never stopped composing tonal music. But perhaps what made Rochberg’s embrace of tonality so upsetting to the custodians of musical progress was that he was such a good composer of 12-tone music. He was one of them. And, just as Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms from within ultimately led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Rochberg’s embrace of tonality might arguably have been what led to today’s poly-stylistic musical landscape.

It would seem that this is old news by now, right? Not quite. One of the Rochberg obits last week made me curious about seeking out some of his essays about music which have been collected in the volume The Aesthetics of Survival: A Composer’s View of Twentieth-Century Music published by the University of Michigan Press this past January. When I tried to track down that volume on Amazon, I was greeted with the following one-out-of-five-star “review” of the book by someone only identified as “A reader.”

Rochberg, having failed to distinguish himself as a composer, let alone an alternative to modernism, makes an attempt as an Adorno wannabee in this effort. The latest essay is from 1982, and they all are hopelessly dated. Roger Reynolds “Mind Models” from the 70s generates more excitement and shows more relevance to today’s scene than Rochberg’s stuffy, self-referential musings. This book is destined to collect dust at university libraries, only to be read by those who want to read something that confirms their views, as evidenced by William Bolcom’s introduction.

If you must read, ask yourself this question: On what basis should we take Rochberg seriously? Where is an epistemology that we can trust?

Apparently some people out there are still threatened by Rochberg’s aesthetic positions enough to hide behind anonymity and hurl ad-hominem attacks his way that say more about the closed-mindedness of Rochberg’s detractors than they do about Rochberg’s own music or ideas.

The sad news here is that according to Amazon’s statistics, 4 out of 7 readers found this gibberish helpful which means that, more than likely, more than half the people who visited this page did not buy this book because of it. (Admittedly the total number is not one to be proud of, which makes the negativity here all the more destructive.)

At the National Critics Conference there was a lot of talk about how criticism can continue to be relevant in a world where uncritical knee-jerk reactions are the rule of the day, and everyone can blog his or her own singular viewpoint to the world on a now completely level playing field. Perhaps the way to be relevant, as I have argued many times before, is to take on a greater level of advocacy and to present as many sides to an argument as possible rather than simply worrying about being right and making sure everyone who disagrees with you is summarily proven wrong.

That said, here’s my opinion… Rochberg, like Cage (seemingly an unlikely pairing, but an apt one here), showed there was more than one path and the world is a better place for it. Thank you, Mr. Rochberg.

James Tenney: Postcards from the Edge

Whether combining serialism and minimalism, reconceptualizing microtonality or ragtime, or re-assembling an Elvis recording, James Tenney’s music continues to push limits while bridging opposition.