Friday, December 26, 2014

800 Words: A New Tonality - A Playlist - Part 2

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881, Russian)

(God, this scared the bejeezus out of me as a kid…)

Mussorgsky occupies the same place in music history that Henri Rousseau does in art history. On the one hand, he was a self-taught dilettante, a learning disabled genius with ten times as many unfinished projects as completed ones. And yet who could blame him? Was there ever a musician who had less desire to look away from adult themes and terrifying truths? Because he had to rely on himself, Mussorgsky is the true father of an entirely new musical thinking. He had virtually no concept of development, that most German of all musical concepts, and after him, no composer needed to have such a concept if he so wished. After Mussorgsky, all that remained a requirement was the ability to redefine harmony, tone color, melody, and rhythm in whatever way a composer wished to maximize the vividness of his music. Composers before Mussorgsky took us part of the way to his path - certainly the “Music of the Future” of Berlioz, Wagner, and Liszt, paves the way. Perhaps we even hear a move away from traditional development as early as certain passages of late Beethoven. But Mussorgsky was the moment of emancipation. Thanks to Mussorgsky, music became pure experience.

Mussorgsky Playlist:

Songs and Dances of Death (has there ever been more terrifying music?), The Nursery (One is about death, including the death of children, the other is about a child awakening to life and beginning its understand what it means to live), 
The Puppet Show (somewhat self explanatory...), 
Sunless (Mussorgsky takes on the dread subject of depression), 
Song of the Flea (probably his most famous, look at the text underneath the video, he could have been executed for it. There are many, many other wonderful songs he wrote, which are still nowhere near as known as they should be.), 
Pictures at an Exhibition for piano (If you know the Ravel orchestration, try to get it out of your head. No French perfume here, no smoothing out of the awkward moments with artificial orchestral effects. Just pure pianistic vividness and conjuration from the same world as his unforgettable songs, done by the greatest pianist of the recorded era in his most legendary performance.), 
Boris Godunov (on the other hand, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Vegasization of Boris Godunov did him an enormous service. We’ll never know what impact Chaliapin or Golovanov might have made with the original, but smoothening the rough edges allowed Mussorgsky’s acceptance to happen quickly enough for Boris to become the Great Russian Opera, and for performers to put the roughness back into the music that Mussorgsky would have loved), 
Khovanshchina (Mussorgsky’s ‘sequel’ to Boris. It might even better - greater intrigue, greater character development, still more brutal indictments of Russian politics and history.), 
Sorochinsky Fair (including the famous Night on Bald Mountain - not a great performance, but this was to be the comic antipode to Boris and Khovashchina. Some light comedy it would have been if it includes Night on Bald Mountain..., but the fragments, both complete and incomplete - the Shebalin completion is not to be found on youtube - show us the awful truth: Mussorgsky’s early death was a tragedy for opera second only to Mozart’s.) 
Night on Bald Mountain (here’s the original orchestration by Mussorgsky - a hundred times scarier and darker than Rimsky’s)

Leos Janacek (1854-1928, Moravian Czech)

The composer who as an old man picked up where Mussorgsky left off, and superseded him. Janacek is, even if I’m the only one who believes this, the greatest name on this list - the only composer but Mussorgsky to take a new concept of harmony and use it to bring music still closer to life’s experience. The greatest miracle of Janacek, among many miracles, is his ability to use further levels of musical abstraction to bring us closer to human nature. The more mannered his music became, the closer it came to reality.

Mussorgsky’s songs work on a level which no previous songwriter achieved because he based his word settings on the patterns of human speech. Janacek took Mussorgsky’s insight and systematized it - notating people’s speech patterns as they spoke to him, and in the process, mastering the art of turning natural human speech into music.

And like Mussorgsky, only far more so, Janacek’s concept of harmony was something far beyond the reaches of his contemporaries - unpredictable not only far beyond the imaginations of Dvorak and Smetana (wonderful as they are), but beyond the imaginations of Mahler and Strauss as well. In the first decade of the 20th century, both Mahler and Strauss were piling occasional dissonances that paved the ground on which Schoenberg’s atonality walked. To Mahler, folk music was a way of recalling his early memories in his music, and perhaps his early traumas as well. He seemed to have very little interest in folk music as an adult. Strauss had little to do with folk music, one might imagine that popularity meant so much to him that he would have agreed with Elgar’s famous quote “I AM folk music.” As a result, they both walked in the byways of Bach’s tonality, and only felt the need for the type of escape that blows up the old but builds the new out of the old's pieces. But while the great German composers wanted to blow up the tonal dam, Janacek worked and walked among folk musicians, and through them heard tonal byways - intervals, progressions, modulations - which no composer further northwest ever fathomed. Janacek was the only true revolutionary among these great composers.

Janacek’s career, his true career, begins in 1904, the year after the death of his beloved daughter, whose dying breath he dutifully notated as he did every other human utterance. His opera, Jenufa, or “Her Stepdaughter” when translated from Czech literally, is the truest treatment of human beings on the operatic stage since Mozart’s death over a century earlier. From then on sprang forth a twenty-five year stream of bizarre and sometimes demented sounding masterpieces interrupted only by death. After Jenufa was Sonata 1. X, 1905 - inspired by the death by bayonetting of a University student, and sounding like Chopin on Meth. Then came the Male Choruses - like Teacher Halfar, Marycka Magdonova, and my favorite The Seventy Thousand - all three of which change tempo, rhythm, and harmony so often that they sound as though a group of fifty singers are improvising on the spot. Through all this, Janacek worked on his own version of The Well-Tempered Klavier - On an Overgrown Path - in which Janacek’s increasingly strange tonalities and rhythms manifested themselves clearly and completely. Then came the ‘statement’ pieces of World War I, when Janacek dipped into Moravian folk mythology to make statements about the need for peace and Czech independence. The Eternal Gospel, in which Janacek doesn’t yet have the secure grasp of how to be quite so bizarre on such a grand scale and sounds like it could be written by Sibelius - hardly something to be ashamed of. More interesting is ‘The Fiddler’s Child’, which is Janacek’s bizarre take on the violin concerto, which is in fact a symphonic poem about the supernatural for orchestra and violin soloist. All of these statements cumulate in Taras Bulba, his orchestral rhapsody which is in fact a love-letter to pan-Slavism - declaring his belief that Russian/Easten Orthodoxy will deliver Czechs from their Austro-Hungarian/Catholic oppressors, in which he finally transfers the bizarre carnival of his more intimate compositions onto a full orchestral stage.

With Taras Bulba, Janacek reaches the cosmic proportions of his final decade. There has never been, nor will there ever be, music like Janacek’s ever again. He founded no school, and his sole truly gifted pupil, Pavel Haas (more on him later), perished in Auschwitz before he could realize the full extent of his gift.

The Diary of One Who Disappeared is a unique Song Cycle. It is about the love of a lower-class peasant for a gypsy girl, an his heartrending decision to leave home to pursue that love. It is both a celebration of love and an elegy for all the things which we must leave behind in order to follow our blis. Love is the stuff of Art Songs, and occasionally a song-cycle appears as this one does that documents love from the point of view of both people - but how many love songs or song cycles have three offstage altos singing with them? If you do not gasp when you hear their first appearance, you do not hear music.

Janacek’s final flowering was based on his love for a comely but ordinary middle class young woman named Kamilla Stasslova. Nobody knew exactly what Janacek saw in her, as she was hardly his intellectual equal, but she was his muse, and Janacek saw her as both the daughter he lost, and the wife he wished he had. His lifelong marriage was mostly a lifelong disaster, and his first string quartet called “The Kreutzer Sonata” tells their story. When Jenufa premiered, he nearly drove his wife nearly to suicide by having an affair with the lead Mezzo. The Kreutzer Sonata is not based on the Beethoven work, but on the Tolstoy story named after the Beethoven work in which a well-intentioned husband ends up demoralizing, abusing, and finally murdering his wife.

Five years later, in the last year of his life, came the companion quartet - ‘Intimate Letters’, in which Janacek put his last measure of devotion to Kamilla. There are 600 letters from Janacek to Kamilla, full of the most ardent (and dirty) love declarations. Even so, there is no definitive evidence that their affair was ever consummated, or even two-sided. In the same year, Janacek went out to retrieve her young son, lost in the woods, and contracted the cold which killed him.

In those intervening ten years, Janacek wrote his greatest orchestral work, the Sinfonietta, and his supreme choral work, the Glagolitic Mass - both inspired by the intense Czech nationalism, optimism, and pride of the Masaryk years - both of them major Beethoven-worthy statements of universal brotherhood and liberty.

But it is as an opera composer upon which his laurels must always rest. And in the 1920’s, Janacek wrote 5 extraordinary operas which are perhaps the only 5 that can compare with the finest five by Mozart.

Seemingly half of the world’s great operas take place in legend and fantasy, but The Excursions of Mr. Broucek is one of a handful of operas (let alone great ones) which deal in science fiction. Mr. Broucek journeys to the moon and time travels to the 15th century. Like most good Science Fiction, it is meant not as an alternative world, but a parallel world which can tell truths about our world in allegory which you can’t do in reality. No opera composer since Mozart, and no opera composer since, has ever done things this outrageous - and yet, like Mozart, even the most outrageous things are done with an astonishingly light touch, full of waltzes and parody songs which give the finger to the audience which expects a diversion.

The most beautiful, and in some ways the most heartbreaking, of the final great five, is Kata Kabanova. It’s a tale of a doomed, forbidden affair between a rich but absued young man and a married woman in a suffocatingly provincial small town. Kata is dedicated to Kamilla, and is clearly supposed to be Kamilla as Janacek saw her, the young angel of his desires, whose fragile beauty is doomed to be crushed by a cruel world. Janacek pictures himself as the figure of Boris, once again a young, vigorous man, able to consummate his desires and briefly tempt Kamilla away from her husband, but helpless against the suffocating claustrophobia of small town life.

But greatest of all is the third - The Cunning Little Vixen - in which the entire life cycle of nature - youth, old age, prosperity, poverty, love, hate, nature, nature’s destruction, eros, thanatos, birth, death, and rebirth, and all this is done in an opera populated by farm and forest animals, which itself is based on a newspaper comic strip. There are moments, not often but moments nevertheless, when I rate this opera above any by Mozart, and therefore as the greatest of all operas. Whether created by animals or humans, there is nothing about the experience of being alive that is missing from this opera about a fox. It’s an anthropomorphic animal fantasy, it’s a commentary and satire on human behavior, it’s a requiem for the passing of time, and a celebration of all the things that are still to come. Find a performance of this still much too unknown opera, if you have a soul, your life will never be the same.

Which is not to devalue his final two operas. The Makropoulos Case, in which Janacek merges Kamilla and himself into the personage of a brilliant 338 year old opera singer, assertive and volatile, ‘a passionate woman with flexible morals,’ but with a vulnerable core beneath her bluster. At one point in the opera, a long sought-after love affair is finally consummated, with disappointing results. It’s enough to make one wonder if the period in which he wrote this opera was the period in which Janacek finally bedded Kamilla, and wished he hadn’t. The Makropoulos Case is a bit like a detective novel, in which the enigma of Elena Makropoulos is gradually revealed in its full strangeness, both the plot and the musif growing ever more bizarre as it develops.

His final opera, From the House of the Dead, based on Dostoevsky’s novella about his prison experience, is no longer Kamilla or soprano obsessed. Instead, it returns to Janacek’s former political obsessions, about a Siberian prison and how the prisoners try to retain their dignity under inhuman circumstances. The foreshadowing of Eastern Europe in the 20th century should be obvious to anyone. To Milan Kundera, this opera, along with Berg’s Wozzeck, is the heart of the 20th century. According to many, Janacek was heartsick from Kamilla’s rejection, and planned for From the House of the Dead to be his last opera - perhaps he even  wrote From the House of the Dead as his own requiem. We will never know the true nature of their relationship, nor will we know precisely what Janacek saw in her. But like so many artists, love, and the possibility of it, was what inflamed him to levels of creativity which others can never see. When the possibility of love dies, the desire for life often dies with it.

All of this strangeness in Janacek is not possible without strange music. Between the very straightforward emotions of most great operas and art-songs, and the music of alienation which atonality brings is a chasm-wide gulf of ambiguity in which the real quirks of human behavior reside. What Janacek and Mussorgsky were able to do past virtually any composer of whom I can think is to plumb the deep ambiguities of human emotion, behavior, and condition. The questions they ask are eternal, but they are of a very different eternity than either the Church-bound masterpieces of the Renaissance and Baroque, or the State-bound masterpieces of the Classicism and Romanticism. This is music for the age of Democracy, for the age of Literature, music that not only demands freedom after the manners of Beethoven and Wagner, but asks us what that freedom is. We still don’t know, but at least we now know to ask these questions, and who knows if we would have without these two geniuses?

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

800 Words: The New Tonality - A Playlist - Part 1

First, the contemporary composers, all two of them:

Osvaldo Golijov (1960-, Argentinian/Ashkenazi Yiddish Speaking Jew/Israeli/Bostonian Academic)

Tan Dun (1957-, Hunanian Chinese/Huangian Political Prisoner/New Yorker)

At this point in world history, there is only so much room for Europeans to dominate musical discourse, and the room for Americans will grow smaller with every passing generation. You can only abstract the folk music of Western Europe by so many degrees before the music begins to seem less like heightened expression and more like white noise. Atonal composers and their followers can claim that their music is the wave of the future as many times as they like - history already seems to have long since ruled against them. American composers influenced by jazz and rock and R&B gave classical music a long-needed surge of vitality, but the vitality of their music was always a weak brew compared to the real thing - which any music lover could access for the price of a meal. The future of classical music, perhaps of music itself, has to belong to East Asia and Latin America, places that are assimilating Western classical music with a speed and aplomb that often shames classical music’s places of origin. Both regions possess folk traditions that are still insufficiently appreciated, and their popular music will never conquer the world after the manner of America, because to many places, ‘pop music’ will always now stink of ‘Americanization’. But these countries have folk music that exists on completely different rules than their Northern/Western colleagues. Aside from a couple Scandinavians and Old Eastern Bloc composers, the only composers left who can possibly be models going forward are composers who capture the music of their parts of the world and put it into their music.

I know there are people who will read this beginning and be too flummoxed to continue. I might as well put Ennio Morricone and Mikis Theodorakis on this list if I’m going to put such light, ‘substanceless’, faux-pop composers on the list. I’m complaining about Americans using the same small group of harmonies, and yet Tan Dun and Golijov use only a slightly different group. But try to understand - the rock/pop/jazz/whatever influenced scores of Glass, Reich, and Adams will only get us so far. To my mind, all three of them are candidates for posterity (though less so in Glass’s case), and all three have written great scores. But unless their successors incorporate more complex harmonies, as both Adams and Reich have already done for twenty years, their music won’t go anywhere we’ve never been before. There are only so many ways to state C-major. Lack of harmonic progression can only work so many times before it ceases to be an interesting idea. Even Michael Daugherty, who can do everything they can and much more, could ultimately be a better candidate for posterity than all three of them.

The more I hear Tan Dun’s music, the more convinced I become that even with his inexplicably bad moments, he may be the one true giant working today. Few composers so talented risk crossing the line into kitsch so often, and few great composers have made anything as dull as The First Emperor, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. What is amazing about Tan Dun’s music is that in his faux-simplistic way, he incorporates every conceivable avant-garde technique within a deceptively simple framework. All the gains made in the Schoenbergian, Bartokian, Cageian, and Boulezian laboratories are to be found within his music, and yet it still manages to almost always place the ear within the most basic pentatonic foundations. His greatest works are almost invariably orchestral - he calls much of his work 'orchestral theater', but what they are nothing less than a reinvention of the orchestra - reinstating the awe and surprise into a concert that must have occurred when Berlioz and Wagner showed the world what the orchestra is capable of doing.

For those who complain that he dilutes the richness of Chinese culture with his gimmicky musical instruments and stereotypical harmonies into the musical equivalent of a Crispy Egg Roll, maybe you’re right. But such complainers don’t understand that you can only bridge the gap between cultures by meeting halfway between them. Neither Western nor Chinese classical music exist in his music as either would ever understand them. This, not high modernism, is music that will bring hundreds of millions of newbies into the concert hall. Perhaps, if such a thing is necessary, we’ll then get a modernism more ‘worthy’ of China. But Tan Dun will have made it possible.

I don’t claim my reaction to Osvaldo Golijov to be representative of anyone but myself. His musical language is so close to mine that he is one of the few composers writing in any language that feels like a dialect close to my own. Like in Tan Dun’s music, and like the music of so many Eastern European composers before them, his music seems powered by unconscious associations with the music of his forebearers. In his case, it feels like Astor Piazzola crossed with Yossele Rosenblatt. Like so many relatives of mine, Golijov’s family of Ashkenazi Jews found themselves escaping European pogroms by relocating to Argentina. No synopsis of Golijov gets through without talking about the interesting melange of exoticisms in his background. But what they neglect to mention is that only a first-class composer could have assimilated so many influences in a coherent whole.

Goljiov was always poo-poohed by certain musicians, and now more than ever because of the plagiarism accusation against him - an accusation which should probably also be leveled at least as seriously at Wagner, Stravinsky, Handel, Schubert, and Mahler. Like with Tan Dun, what they really distrust is the directness of his music. Nothing that apparently simple should have probity. And yet the simplicity enables his music to have a thousand-watt visceral theatricality which few if any musical dramatists since Berlioz or Verdi could equal - like so much of the best music, it has no ambition to disguise itself in a veil of reticence, and is none the worse for it. If Tan Dun is a pure musician whose theatrical experiments fall flat, then Golijov is his equivalent as a born musical dramatist. Golijov may seem rather simple at first glance, but nothing in Golijov’s music is simpler than anything in Verdi, and a lot of it is quite a bit more complex. La Pasion Segun San Marcos has one moment which juxtaposes a 15 against 4 drum beat - a technique straight out of Ligeti. And if you go back to Yiddishbuk, which he wrote as a young man, there are moments every bit as complex and avant-garde as anything by any other composer.

With Golijov’s mixture of Eastern European Jewry and the Spanish-speaking world, there is something about his music that feels as though it’s assimilated fifteen-hundred years of Jewish history within it. Beginning perhaps as far back as Meyerbeer - there is a separate canon of modern Jewish composers who seem to catalogue all the influences and incarnations of the Jewish tradition in music: along with many, many composers from various ‘popular traditions’, any list would have to include Mendelssohn, along with Mahler definitely, perhaps Zemlinsky, definitely Bloch, Gershwin, maybe Weill, certainly Bernstein and Reich, Moisei Vainberg would have to be on this list, I suppose Viktor Ullmann and Pavel Haas would have to act within it considering how they died, maybe Alfred Schnittke and Ligeti and Kurtag would be in it too, and Golijov is more important to this list than any composer since Bloch.  

But it’s not only the Jewishness of Golijov’s music that makes him so wonderful. It’s how that Jewishness is indicative of the world itself. Nobody should deny that the ‘Latinness’ of his Argentinian upbringing influenced his music still more - as it has every conceivable 'Spanish' rhythm and harmony within it. His Judaism, like the Judaism of so many people throughout history, is just a mask that makes him appear different - both a curse that prevents people from being full members of a society, and a passport that allows to access a wider world. Had a musician as talented as Golijov been just another Argentinian, he probably would have been just another popular musician - a talented writer of Tangos, but without a distinctive mark in his identity that separates him and makes composers truly individual. Like Tan Dun, he is a bridge figure to another culture. The world had great Latin American composers before Golijov, but none of them has truly connected the wider world to Latin American music. Golijov is still in his mid-50’s. There is still enormous time for him to succeed wildly where other greats have failed.

Monday, December 22, 2014

800 Words: A New Tonality - A Bad Composer's Manifesto - Part 3

I’m a weird guy. I can’t escape the fact that just about every person who meets me thinks some variation on that theme. Here I am, nearly 33 years old - perpetually single, unhealthily overweight, with a bag of facial tics and an extremely unattractive medical problem that causes me to burp every few seconds; tactless in the extreme, living alone in an apartment surrounded by music I listen to obsessively and books I usually stare at rather than read, and working in a nub of a job for my family because the anxiety and depression of working harder is too great.

Ambition is all I have, and I’ve always had enough of it for the entire city of Baltimore. But ambition alone does not make a career, and is practically the enemy of happiness. Were the circumstances of my life rather different, perhaps I’d feel less isolated; but as it is, I live in an inner world of my own creation - a world which, by definition, the outside world cannot provide its requirements.

I may be American by birth, upbringing, language, education, and culture. But I feel like a complete alien to this country. I don’t understand its music, I don’t understand its politics, I don’t understand its optimism. I don’t understand why time passes so quickly in America, or how Americans can be so fickle in every conviction except their sport loyalties, or how Americans can believe that ignorance is the happiest pursuit, or how Americans steadfastly believe that they can be masters of their own destiny when the world exists to prove to them otherwise. My perspective exists so far outside the American norm that I can’t help noticing that it occasionally gives me a certain miniscule amount of charisma in other people’s eyes - I’m so different that surely I must know something they don’t...

Surely I’ve listened to too much classical music over my 32-and-change years to belong anywhere but in Europe. And yet, every time I’ve been in Europe, I felt no less ill-at-ease - whether I was made to feel that way or not, I was acutely conscious of being American, being Jewish, being in extremely unfamiliar circumstances, and still felt as weird as ever. There was nothing about Europe, at least the Europe of today, that made me feel at home.

Whether I’d truly fit as some kind of educated European or New York Jew of fifty-to-a hundred years ago, I suppose that’s how I see myself. If my inner world, my worldview, my tastes, my lifestyle, fits with anywhere, it would be among people like them. Though perhaps my view of them is faulty, and I’d feel just as weird among them as I do among any peer of mine.

But if I sometimes project the air of worldly sophistication which such a background would guarantee, I’m able to do so because it’s completely unearned. I have an unusable bachelor’s degree in music from a third-rate institution, I’ve failed to learn to speak Yiddish, French, Spanish, German, and Italian, and perhaps Hebrew too, or master any math higher than the algebra I could do as a small child. I seem to have read the first 100 pages of every "major literary work," and seem to mean to go back to them all since I was a teenager. Few people wanted to educate themselves as much as I did, and I doubt many people have failed so often at the attempts. Had I succeeded in any of these endeavors, I’d probably be just another boring meritocrat, working some vaguely prestigious job in a vaguely more prestigious city.

But it’s because I fit so badly everywhere that I have a perspective that is so different from virtually everyone. Here I am, a Polish/Lithuanian Litvak Ashkenazi Jew, living in Baltimore - which must be the least European-like major city on the East Coast. For a variety of reasons, I’ve lived parallel to the American vernacular my entire life, and compared to virtually all my contemporaries, it touched me very little. Most classical composers of our day want to reflect American life better, but what does it mean for someone like me to reflect American life when I’ve experienced so little of it?

I’m an emissary from an alternative timeline - the timeline in which the twentieth century never happened and was purely an outgrowth of the nineteenth. People like to sheepishly claim that they have retro-musical tastes as though that proves their nerdiness, well… my preferred tastes start around 1780 and go to 1914 - after World War I breaks out, it gradually gets more and more hit-or-miss. While all the other nerdy college kids were immersing themselves in science fiction, I was enthralled to Chekhov and Kafka and Stefan Zweig. Even among artforms that postdate the 19th century, most people my age think movies and ‘popular’ music start with Star Wars and Michael Jackson, I think movies and pop music pretty much ended with Star Wars and Michael.

Lots of people think that I’m so different by calculated effect, and that most of my interactions are a kind of cultivated theatricalism in which I criticize people’s most cherished beliefs for the sheer joy of watching them sputter. Maybe there’s a very little bit of truth to that, but if there’s any truth in that at all, then surely it’s because I already feel so different that I can only feel comfortable by playing it up and embracing it. I can’t help who I am, and whether it’s by environment or by nature, my way of being is well outside of contemporary life’s norm.

Whether or not my music turns out any good, I think I’m in a unique position to write music very differently from most composers around today. I see myself a bit like a contemporary to the 1920’s generation - still trying to figure out where music can go after Mahler sounded the summit, the glorious final notes of the Symphonic Sonata-Allegro tradition handed down by Haydn to Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Bruckner, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Dvorak. In all likelihood, my peers are the more mediocre incarnations of the composers from former generations like Bartok, Stravinsky, Berg, Janacek, Vaughan Williams, Ives, Honegger, Respighi, Hindemith, Prokofiev, Ravel, Szymanowski, Bloch, Holst, Falla, Martin, Martinu, Milhaud, and Villa-Lobos. Soon, young whippersnappers will be nipping at my heels like Shostakovich, Gershwin, Poulenc, Korngold, Copland, Revueltas, Britten, and Messiaen.

If this music actually possesses any quality, then secret to all this is that it’s not at all a conscious pose on my part. I simply can’t help thinking of music on their terms, because their view of the world is mine. I listen to more popular genres, I even enjoy them much of the time. Perhaps some of it will even make itself felt in the music I write. But my heart isn’t with them, I won’t pretend I understand much about what most ‘popular artists’ (in any popular genre) are trying to create. My mind, my heart, my self, is stuck trying to solve problems that existed 90 years ago, and according to some people, my music will probably be stuck in the same place.

I feel like the only person living in the alternative 21st century - a world that never saw Kaiser Wilhelm, or Hitler and Stalin, felt no true need for the State of Israel, and no desire for great powers to wage third world proxy wars. The nineteenth century was based on Euro-centric lies, but at least they had hope for a better future - a future which still hasn’t come to pass. Most importantly for me, my alternative timeline begins where high art and popular art divorced each other, and in my timeline, the marriage was always secure. I now have a hundred years of new music to unearth, and the process will hopefully take a lifetime.

Friday, December 19, 2014

800 Words: The New Tonality - A Bad Composer's Manifesto Part 2

Try explaining the rules of a new tonality to someone who grew up with American vernacular music - it’s nearly impossible, and probably not worth the effort. If you grew up with no feet in an alternative culture, there is no escape from the culture which birthed you. Everything which you do is either to embrace your tradition, or to rebel against it, and in either case, you’re beholden to it. If you grew up with American diatonicism as your daily bread, the same diatonicism which Western Europe dined on from Bach to Verdi, you might as well stay within it. Any culture that gave us Louis Armstrong, Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra, Otis Redding, Nina Simone, and so many others can stand proudly in a line with any other musical tradition. But with possible exceptions like Nina Simone or early Louis Armstrong, their extraordinariness is almost extra-musical. Take away the magnetism of their performance, and is there any raw material left?

Composition is what music is in the eternity before and after a performance. It is the quality that remains when there is no extraordinary performer to play ambassador for it. Many music lovers will pay $100 to hear a Beethoven sonata played by a pianist they’d never heard, because Beethoven, not the performer, is the main event. But who wants to pay $100 to hear a Johnny Cash song sung by a performer you’ve never heard? Even the best American popular music is not truly composed, it is at most arranged - often with great sophistication, but one can’t compare Ray Charles and Charles Ives, what they do is simply too different. But the music of performers like James Brown and Aretha Franklin is our great contribution to world music - bringing vernacular, or ‘folk’ music to the world stage - no longer to be enjoyed by a small community, but by millions of musical consumers. Our contribution to world music is that the art of music no longer requires composition to be recognized around the world as great. And as so much reward and effort goes into making this vernacular music of ours that our best compositional talents have little reason to work hard enough to equal the great past masters. The circumstances that made great compositions possible are virtually gone. The world of Napoleon and Bismarck is not our world, and the music of Beethoven and Wagner is simply not our music, so to create music the way they did is to create a second-hand imitation of what they already created. Just as few people would compare America’s cathedrals to the duomos and eglises of Europe, our composed music is, with a few extraordinary exceptions like Ives and Gershwin, a dim imitation of the original models. And so successful has our country been at exporting our models to the rest of the world that even Europe itself no longer knows how to develop its own musical traditions in meaningful ways.

And so the great art of music, like its analogue counterparts of previous eras, has gone underground in most Western Countries. Our greatest music is almost always more prized for for its electronically amplified lyrics than for its music, and has taken the place in our lives both of compositional music and of poetry. Our culture’s greatest plays are movies, our greatest art is photography and animation, and perhaps even our greatest novels are television shows.

Perhaps history works in such a way that the transition between epochs has to be rough, but it’s hard not to think that an entire way of being died somewhere between the trenches of World War I and the camps of World War II. Europe as it once existed, with all the energy it imparted to the world, has been virtually dead for a lifetime, and I can’t think of a composer born after World War II who is able to recapture the native energy of Western Europe. Everything there sounds either Americanized or in rebellion from Americanization.  

In this postmodern age of no rules, rather than focus on composition as it’s always been conceived - the laying out for the ear of formal patterns of sound, every modern composer has a responsibility to redefine composition according to his or her own rules. As in modern art, composer’s conception has become more important than how well the music lives up to the conception. And like in art, it’s now more important to categorize composers by a particular system than it is to ask if this composer can take in an infinity of musical (or human) experience.

Eastern Europe is at least still in decline. There is a generation of older composers - Schnittke is dead, so is Berio and Ligeti, however inconsistently great those two could be, but at least we still have Penderecki, Kurtag, Shchedrin, Kancheli, and Rautavaara - who still think by that early 20th century rubric, find new harmonies and make our instruments sing new songs!

Harmony is no longer a concern for modern composers - and our lives are so saturated by rhythm that most every new composition we hear is either defined by rhythm, or defined by its absence. So often, we hear a revolting air of self-congratulation when a composer is described as being concerned with ‘timbre’, or ‘his music encourages contemplation.’ What that usually means is that the composer’s music is so boring that he can’t even bother to put up a rhythmic framework to orient the ear.

Schoenberg once described Stravinsky as music defined more by what it’s not than by what it is. What Schoenberg said holds true for the vast majority of twentieth century composers - particularly those influenced by Schoenberg. unable to square themselves with the reality of the modern world - which is that they are part of the world of rock music and fast food whether they want to be or not, and by avoiding that truth, they offer no substitute in their place.

And yet, does anybody really want to be known by history as hailing from the culture whose most lasting contributions are The Monkees and Chicken McNuggets?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

800 Words: A New Tonality - A Bad Composer's Manifesto pt. 1

So what’s Evan been doing instead of blogging?

Well, he’s been trying to write music. Writing music involves mostly looking at internet gifs, until an idea comes his way, and he writes jots it down, one cool chord at a time. Sometimes it’s just one cool chord a day if he’s lucky.

I write music so that I can hear the music I want to listen to. As I’ve too often said, popular music went in one direction, classical music went in another, and the two had the kind of divorce that requires restraining orders. Today, they live on opposite sides of the earplanet. One side of music, not just what we think of as classical music, involves extreme complexity of the type which announces that it is above the din of mass crap - which is very nearly the same as announcing that it’s as much a slave to it as anyone who thinks music begins and ends with Taylor Swift. The other involves extreme simplicity - the reassurance that everything is awesome, nothing but earwigs, a weightless one-dimensional product designed to assure the consumer that his spirit needs no challenging examination. The true challenge to a general public is ignored, and what’s left will be unmemorable to public past the one they had. I know that every generation believes itself the last wave of greatness, but I can’t help wondering that with the death of Alfred Schnittke, Western Classical Music lost its final giant. We have a number of promising little leaguers, but even among the older generation, is there a single composer today whose work can reliably make us both laugh and cry aloud? We still have at least a few musicians in other genres who can - Stephen Sondheim, Randy Newman, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Tom Waits - but songwriter is something so different from music that the two genres deserve completely different terms. One is music, the other is something else, perhaps equally great in its way, but not music as it used to be understood.

So it’s time to put up or shut up. Show people how to write the kind of music you want to hear. what’s that music?

Well, start with this: composers have lost sight of one of the only two weapons in their arsenal that no other musical genre can touch for interest. While the desire to create new forms of music, both in the temporal sense and in the sense of new instruments, is thriving as much as ever before, the desire to create new harmonies is moribund. We’re fundamentally either stuck in the three-chord American popular vernacular, or drowning in the atonal soup. In its place is a passion for rhythm.

I have nothing against rhythm, I love a good beat as much as anyone else. But we’re inundated by rhythm, saturated by it. Rhythm is order, and the easily accessible rhythm of the American popular tradition is what revs us up to go in the morning, propels us through our work days, and gives us the energy to go out at night. Anything that isn’t animated by a commanding beat reminds us of the fundamental fact of our lives - that we’re exhausted, and something more contemplative will put most people to sleep. In a world where every option is available to us, what chance is there to reflect on them?

Harmony is the haunting flavors of our earpallete that open up when we are able to examine our lives. Every chord gives us its own emotion, its own sensation, a perfectly placed chord can build us up, destroy us, and build us up again. This series of sensations is called ‘harmonic rhythm.’ Every piece of Western Classical Music is its own harmonic drama, in which a tonality is met by a dominating opposite, with which it must do battle, and either emerge triumphantly from the struggle, or slump down in defeat.

But beginning perhaps with Mussorgsky, or perhaps as far back as Liszt or Wagner, or perhaps even with Glinka, a new tradition emerged. One who’s center of gravity was farther East than classical music’s main centers like Vienna, Munich, Leipzig, Prague, Rome, Venice, and Paris. In this version, development of harmony didn’t matter nearly as much, all that mattered was the harmony itself - free floating and able to be used for whatever poetic purpose the composer wished. No longer was tonality a kingdom on which warlords did battle, it was a republic in which all chords may have their voices heard if the composer so wished. But like all republics, the distance to autocracy is very closeby. What began as a republic became a totalitarian dictatorship masking itself with the temptation of a true democracy. In the world of atonality and especially serialism, no voice is heard but an unending sameness. Some particularly gifted composers are able to work such a system to their advantage, but why did they have to? Wouldn’t composers as gifted have created something far greater without so many strictures?

And so the great art of music, like its analogue counterparts of previous eras, went underground in Western Countries. Our greatest music is almost always more prized for for its electronically amplified lyrics than for its music, just as our greatest plays are movies, our greatest art is photography and animation, and perhaps our greatest novels are television shows.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

800 Words: When Facebook and Blogging Become One

To be a Jew is to be a natural arguer. And outside of music, there wasn't a single influential gentile in my life until I was 16. Everything in my life since then is seen through the inheritance of those conflict-laden formative years. When I see the conflicts of today, gradually accumulate influence and militancy every year since I was a teenager and showing every sign of growing far more than it already has, I not only see the beginnings of a Tea Party of the Left, I see the young Menachem Begin and the Irgun, which eventually evolved to the modern Likud of Netanyahu. To the young Begin, violent opposition to what he felt to be unjust rule was always tolerated, often encouraged, occasionally participated in, and all cautious and nuanced words treated as though it is the same as though caution is as evil as the vilest bigot. What we're currently seeing on the streets is the formation of a neoconservatism for the left. Eventually, whether now or in a hundred years, caution, and only caution, will be what can win this current battle against racism - just as caution was what eventually won the Cold War, Jewish statehood, and the American Civil War. But just as in every one of those conflicts, there will be conflictmongers who will claim that their bellicosity was responsible, and people will believe them, only for the extremists to pervert the victory into something unrecognizably tyrannical and start the cycle of conflict anew. Mid-century America was a terrible place, it was also the best place the world had ever seen, in which the choice in planning for the future was between Roosevelt's Democrats, the party of liberalism, and Eisenhower's Republicans, the party of more gradual liberalism. If the world's made progress since then, it is because of what those two visions of America were able to implement for today's world. The Republican party went off the rails quickly afterward, and descended further year by year into a pit of authoritarian conservatism from which they have no escape. The Democratic party, never moreso than under Obama, did what it could to stand guard against them, and was burdened with doing the thinking that should be split between two functional political parties. But Obama, and all the progress he's made for us, has been betrayed by the very progressives who should be most aware of how he's resurrected the best liberal traditions. After he leaves, it's hard not to think that we will see the ultimate triumph of conservatism, which is the eradication of liberals who think with any more nuance than conservatives. After 9/11, we saw the us vs. them mentality so recently, and today's torture report shows exactly how that can warp people's sense of right and wrong. Yet every day on facebook I see people sharing pieces about how more moderate people use euphemisms to keep the old order in place, and are nothing more than conservatives in disguise. Or how allies have no place in the fight but to march lock step without asking questions. Yes, the old order is terrible, but the world can descend so quickly into so many worse terrors. Maybe people have a subconscious wish to bring us there, but once we get there, I think they'll be nostalgic for what once was. If you think your side is not capable of evil just as great, history will make a fool out of you. I first became politically aware at a young age, but for the entirety of it, I've seen a gradual destruction of everything effective which liberalism once stood for, and I expect it will gradually erode for the duration of my lifetime. It's like watching the Titanic gradually sail its way toward the iceberg at a glacial pace, and being powerless to stop it. In its place, as once happened in Europe, will be two diametrically opposed dogmatic revolutionisms, which will resemble one another far more than anything else. Jewish history is nothing if not symmetrical. Thank you for indulging me if you've read this far.