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Monday, September 8, 2008

Millennium Musings

I discovered an old article of mine.

Apparently, years before the blogosphere was invented, I was blogging.

Although the following essay was written nearly nine years ago, the circumstances are essentially unchanged...


Millennium Musings
(January, 2000)

What actually happened during the last years of the 20th century in terms of “classical” concert music? What will the early 21st century have in store for the public, audiences, music ensembles, and composers in the new millennium? The beginning of a new century is an opportune time to take a snapshot of the contemporary music scene as it existed at the end of the century, and to postulate about some of possible directions that a future music may propel us in.

I have a personal stake in this musical future, since I am a composer. The monumental event of a musical tradition transitioning into a new century is something that really excites me. I will talk about music producers (a.k.a. composers), performers (a.k.a. musicians), and consumers (a.k.a. the concert going public).

A music tradition is made not by individuals, but by a collection of active participants in the commerce of a musical culture. As a composer, I supposedly have a unique role in the creation, direction, and influence of musical trends, patterns, and styles. From my vantage point, the musical scene today is in need of a major redefinition, reorientation, and rejuvenation. But, before we can discuss what music should be like in the 21st century, we need to look briefly at what happened during the last quarter of the now fading 20th century.

As a close observer of the musical trends and tendencies in American “new music” since 1975, I can say that pluralism was both the engine that drove musical activity and experimentation, and the reason why collectively, music composition has apparently lost steam as a vital art form. A composer, after WW2, would have belonged to one of two primary musical camps: Schoenbergian or Stravinskyian. This polarization, which today seems ludicrous, became entrenched in the infrastructure of higher music education and concert performance. Unfortunately, this initial cesium parted the waters of musical expression for many, and the inevitable seeds of musical disintegration were sewn. Many diverse and obscure schools of musical thought ensued, some interesting, some absurd. The events of 20th century music are well documented by musicologists, who have been able to observe, formalize, and sometimes fire the flames of the evolution and rapid ghettoization of an international new music culture – in “real time.”

At the end of the 20th century, audiences and composers alike could pick and choose from a wide variety of musical styles and modes of expression. This tendency has also been enhanced by the proliferation throughout the world of information and recordings about previously unknown musical traditions, and by cross-fertilization between classical and vernacular music venues. The richness of musical expression and the overwhelming quantity of this new and interesting music are the real story of the later 20th century. Not only could one metaphorically eat at any kind of restaurant, but also the fare was much more than simply Schoenberg or Stravinsky (Chicken or Beef?).

Digestion is a different matter however. As a student, I was overloaded by the vastness of it all, and I have witnessed the concert going public gradually become (even more) baffled and confused about new music. Their dwindling numbers at concerts are an indication of the systemic nature of the problem. There is an accompanying adverse affect from the loss of interest by the public: A lowering of musical energy, quality and standards amongst the music producers – the composers themselves. The wide selection of musical sub-cultures is somewhat synonymous with the cable station that offers a 100-plus viewing channels day and night– with nothing of real value on any of them. But, with so much music to choose from, why are we so musically deprived and impoverished?

The answer is complex, and the blame can not be directed toward any particular group. The tone of the rhetoric has intensified, and the theater of battle has expanded from a few uninsightful music critics, to an ever-growing number of composers competing for a limited resource of awards, commissions, the attention of a few sympathetic performers, and even a chance to utter verbal sound bytes on National Public Radio (NPR).

I recently just listened to an interview on NPR with a very successful American “minimalist” composer. He did not confine the explanation of his music to his own musical credo and rational, but went the extra mile to quite viciously attack the academic musical establishment for unilaterally preaching the party line of Arnold Schoenberg. He (the minimalist composer) said that both he and the public found 12-tone music “greatly unsatisfying.” It was almost as if he - now highly successful and part of the musical mainstream - wanted to expunge any remaining vestiges of 12-tone music that may still exist.

Now you should know where I stand. I am an advocate of the music of Schoenberg and of his students (actual or indirectly influenced). I am also an advocate of the late serial music of Igor Stravinsky. Much blossomed from Schoenberg and Stravinsky’s respective serial music periods. Their seminal ideas and aesthetic, while not fully in agreement with each other, represent the single most important development in music during the 20th century.

Personally, I can not understand why the aforementioned “minimal” composer on NPR (with a similar educational background as myself), would lump together the rich repertory and history of 12-tone and atonal music from our common collective musical tradition and simply label it as “unsatisfying.” I couldn’t disagree more! My only guess it that this particular sound byte strikes a knee jerk reactive resonant chord with the general public, and that this was an intentionally calculated comment intended to justify his own abandonment of complex music. I believe even the musically naive will sense the broad range of emotive power and artistic merit inherent in composers as diverse as Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, (late) Stravinsky, Sessions, Dallapiccola, Carter, Babbitt, Martino and Wolpe. I’ve never met anyone that has listened to a composition by Dallapiccola and found it “greatly unsatisfying.” While you may not like everything by all of these composers, you have to concede that serial music can be wonderful, elegant, and unique in the hands of a master musician.

The NPR sound byte battle is not strictly limited to composers exchanging torpedoes with one another. Musicologists are often soldiers in the war. On another, unrelated NPR radio program, an author of a recent book on Aaron Copland talked about Copland’s life and work. At one point, he played only a few seconds from of a piece out of Copland’s 12-tone period, at which point the musicologist immediately interjected and dismissed all of Copland’s serial music as an aberrant failure. He “excused” Copland for his lapse in artistic judgment, since 12-tone music – like Communism – was an idiotic rage of the 1950’s and 60’s that few composers could escape or evade. He added that two dominant totalitarian systems of the last century (12-tone music and Communism) were both proven wrong.

The analogy between Communism and 12-tone music is not new. It has persisted since the beginning as an easy way to make a headline, and stir up irrational hostile feelings toward serial music in general. Just recently, two composers were quoted in the New York Times making this same analogy, and reaping the self-serving short-term benefits of debasing their colleagues. The analogy also serves another function of creating an image of a few old, embittered, card-carrying 12-tone composers, persisting in their ill-fated musical ways regardless of the march of time, which has left them in complete isolation and disregard. While some composers may be old, if they are embittered, it is because of the McCarthy-like tactics often deployed by critics, musicologists, and unsympathetic self-serving composers who ruthlessly invalidate and annihilate their work.

So we see that the disintegration of music along many different party lines has created artistic friction and irrational hostility within the population of producers of music (i.e. composer political infighting). This struggle is magnified by the medium, usually a music performance organization under intense economic pressure to survive, and yet trying to keep music composition alive because they have a social obligation to do so. Traditional music organizations – symphony orchestras for example - are essentially hostile to complex music. New music is expensive to produce (requiring more rehearsals), and sometimes not well received by the public. The connection between the producers of music and the performers of music in many cases is strained by the economic implications of performing it with the investment in rehearsal time it requires. Hard pieces don’t get played, so there is regretfully a filtering and attenuation of the work and ideas by composers who choose to express themselves by composing music that is also co-incidentally expensive to produce. This results in a bias against complex music simply because it is difficult to perform. Simple music however is limited by its potential for depth and, as a result, is often artistically shallow.

The sorry relationship that producers of complex music can have with musical performers is well known, although this may be salvageable in the first few decades of the next century. However, the dysfunctional relationship between composers and their public has regrettably become socially ingrained, and is a major impediment to the natural flow of musical evolution. The lack of interest in new music in general affects the musical arts greatly. Even the minorities of composers that have achieved modest notoriety (but probably not basic economic viability - in most cases) are under-performed, under-valued, and generally ignored by the public. The public, confused by the mixed messages from a barrage of musical “isms” and suffering from music-information overload, is trying to take it in with a very limited budget of free time, and can’t adequately assimilate and process the music to their, the performers, or the composers, satisfaction.

There were a couple of “bad boys” of music composition in the 20th century that became very influential and controversial. These radicals often made their points in prose rather than traditionally notated music. In the later part of the century, anything and everything was attempted and common sense and fundamental musical ability often was discarded in the process. There was also a strong backlash to the silliness of these extremes, often resulting in an equally polarized and reactionary stance. The late 20th century revealed the New Romanticism, the New Simplicity, and the New Tonality. Most of this was an insipid rehashing of the clich├ęs of old music, in a pitiful attempt to recapture once again the sentimentality that simplistic tonal music could provide. This movement – not yet dead - was reinforced by the strong academic influence of the academy which has always stressed the practices of traditional counterpoint and harmony as composition, and a public that found it easier to hear in the framework of a paradigm of music more closely associated with the Classical or Romantic era than their own.

Many may disagree with my particular views on contemporary music, but my observation about how it has gradually dissolved into its own ether at the end of the 20th century is pretty evident to anyone that takes the time to observe. What does this mean for serious concert music producers, performers, and consumers of the 21st century? Can it get any worse than it is currently? Is serious new music of quality a dead art?

There are some promising signs that a new culture of credible and sustainable music activity is upon us. Small, yet specialized contemporary music performance ensembles have sprung up in some cities, often with no or little subsidy. They are comprised of highly capable, dedicated musicians that make new music their religion. These islands of opportunity are not completely spontaneous, since they are often instigated by self-interested composers or composer-musicians. However, the quality of both the compositions and of their performances is exceptional. The numbers of these independent-performing organizations is growing. It has become a phenomenon.

Independently produced and distributed CD recordings have almost become the normal distribution method for new and experimental music. has begun selling independently produced CDs on their commercial web site thus equalizing the distribution advantage of the big-business mega-recording companies. Taking as a starting premise that the objective of CD distribution is not to get anyone rich, but is intended solely to communicate, promote, and propagate one’s musical ideas, then the goal of independent recordings has already succeeded. The ubiquity of low volume CD reproduction services, along with inexpensive ad hoc disk burning technologies, make low volume CDs on demand a viable micro-music-industry. The Internet and WWW will further enhance the information flow between music producers and consumers by allowing even the most obscure communities of niche music enthusiasts to exchange ideas, compositions, and recordings. New technologies are furthering the revolution. Already, sounds (.mp3) and scores (.pdf) can easily be downloaded from the web, often at no cost. The musical establishment is no longer needed to subsidize, legitimize, or scrutinize the producer of music.

As a composer, I am cautiously optimistic about the future of music, although my particular vision of 21st century music composition is possibly different than that of some of my colleagues. I encourage music producers (composers) to simply write the music they want to hear, and not to get embroiled in the politics, cultural noise, and obvious career competition that has been so destructive to the profession. I encourage music performers to take a chance on new music, not be driven by the bottom line or first impressions. And finally, I encourage – even challenge – the concert going public (consumers) to actively seek out new music and become involved with it emotionally and intellectually. Without the public, no creative music will survive – neither good nor bad.

I don’t want to leave the impression that composers think about these issues every time they sit down to write a note of music. Our egos are large, but our brains are not large enough to contemplate the inner workings of all the aspects of a new musical work in progress, and simultaneously triangulate the position of its cultural context and economic potential in the constantly evolving, vast musical repertory of mankind. We do take moments from time to time, usually between pieces, and often at demarcation points in history – such as the onset of a new century - to speculate about our role and place in the universe as thinking composers.