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Thursday, November 6, 2008

Crosscurrents: American and European Music in Interaction, 1900-2000

Surrounded by eminent musicologists, and feeling a little like Caliban in The Tempest, I wolfed down my bagel with cream cheese. It was one of several complimentary Continental breakfasts catered this week by Au Bon Pain courtesy of the Harvard University Music Department - host of “Crosscurrents: American and European Music in Interaction, 1900-2000.”

Serious musicologists among you can look forward to the second half of the Crosscurrents conference in Munich, Germany in May 2009. I’ve heard that there will be a future publication which will include everything presented from both parts (Cambridge and Munich).

If you are interested in reading a well-balanced review and professional critique of this well-run and informative scholarly event, I must point you to an article in Boston Musical Intelligencer by Mark DeVoto. Mr. DeVoto, a distinguished composer and musicologist, is an authoritative source and an excellent writer. Here is a link to his rational and concise review…

On the other hand, if you have a perverse curiosity to see the event through the grossly distorted eyes of an unemployed and struggling middle-age quasi-serialist composer, read on…

As readers of my blog are well familiar, I am not an academic, but live and practice submerged somewhere within the dark underworld of new music. Since the bulk of my years, training, and professional activity in my chosen field of study existed in the later half of the 20th century, I attended the Harvard conference as a curious outside observer – a fly on the wall so to speak. It is always fascinating to hear what musicologists think and say about important composers who have influenced me either directly or indirectly - as a model, mentor, or actual teacher.

I must report that my experience at the Crosscurrents conference was more surrealistic than educational. The Halloween festivities occurring in and around the event only added to my disorientation. It felt a little as if I was living in a Dadaist dream, watching a dramatic stage performance about the spirit of music’s past, although the subject matter was continually reinterpreted by a parade of experts armed with citations and footnotes. The unlimited supply of Au Bon Pain French roast coffee and sweets provided during the breaks insured that my hallucinations remained colorful and intense.

Lectures in musicology are in a sense performance art: where the performer artfully filters and extracts a set of events, facts, and ideas from history, and then exposes them in a tour de force display of convincing cultural trajectories and meta-histories. Instances of our collective musical history - some original, some contrived – become distinguished artifacts, and are trotted out to hang on the proverbial museum wall in the name of culture. In this context it almost seems as if debate and discussion about the quality, seriousness, and merits of every piece of music written in the latter 20th century is now a forgone conclusion, since the slate of history has already been wiped clean for the activities of the 21st century. In their mind, if it happened, it must have been something that was of valid concern and meaningful artistic expression. Musicology provides an aura of legiticmy to past art, and it can promote (or by exclusion demote) musical ideas and works of music that would otherwise perish in the natural order. I will have more to say about this when I discuss the concerts associated with the conference.

As an active and practicing composer attending the conference, I felt as if I was toying with dangerous forces of the universe, since anti-mater and mater should never come in contact. Composers should’t automatically accept everything that musicologists proclaim about music, particularly in relation to their own personal stylistic inclinations and ideas. Conversely, musicologists should not always take composers on the face value of their word. Some composers have on occasion been known to stretch the truth in service of strategic advancement of their careers. This high-level of inter-disciplinary communication creates an artificial feed-back loop that is neither beneficial for composers nor insightful to musicologists. Sausage makers should not reveal their process to sausage consumers. The magic show isn’t as exciting when you know the secret behind the illusion.

Instead, I believe that composers should listen primarily to their internal voice - the “Composer’s Eye”- to learn what it is that they need to express. For us, listening to intense speculation about a long list of influences, trends, and the motivations that composer X or Y may have been exposed to comes across as rather inconsequential. It’s not that composers don’t appreciate historical significance (even as a footnote), but in general we are too preoccupied creating the future to worry excessively about cultural context and our position in the grand scheme of history. Composers should not be over-persuaded by outside analysis or authoritatively hyped statements of legiticmy. Historical musicology faces a clear and present challenge in regard to the understanding the music of our recent past. Since the verdict is not yet in regarding much of what transpired, we should all reserve our judgement until the cultural maturation process has had an opportunity to run its’ course. Music is an art, not a science. Art, like young wine, needs time to ferment, age, and breathe. In the passage of time, the vintological result will fall somewhere on a continuum between a fine bouquet and vinegar. We have to wait for the result, not rush the process.

Given my apparent unease regarding musicological lectures, you are probably asking:

What was I doing there?


Did I learn anything?

Let me attempt to answer the second question first…

Yes, I did learn something, although it’s quite difficult to objectify or regurgitate such an onslaught of scholarly information (not that you would want me to). But I do have a few high-level observations of the conference as a whole. For one thing, the range of topics of study has broadened substantially over the years. Studies of world, folk, and vernacular music have come front and center and are presently at a very high priority in the consciousness of musicologists. Although these topics had long been part of an emerging area of research (e.g. “Ethno-musicology”), the discourse is now more fully integrated into a global spectrum of study that includes music from all ages and styles. Collectively, the Gestalt of this work begins to take on a function as the mega-music of mankind – if you can believe that. Drawing selectively from this great body of interest, scholars search for patterns of musical culture, rubrics, intra-relationships, inter-relationships, and they scrutinize and analyse every little morsel in painstaking detail. Their increasingly inter-disciplinary field of study is trans-cultural, trans-temporal, and trans-national. As children, they must have played happily in a sandbox with a wide diversity of kids who freely shared their exotic toys. In contrast, the bulk of my childhood consisted of sitting alone watching 1950’s science fiction movies in front of a black and white TV.

As an outside observer, it does almost appear that musicologists find relationships under every stone in the garden. They live in a hyperbolic chamber of boundary-crossing aesthetics, historical narratives, imagined communities of musical utopia, and apply their hybrid multivariate filters over notions of trans-cultural appropriation, modernist historiographies, and polysemus cultural markers. Anyone care for an Excedrin?

(Much of the text in the previous paragraph was lifted from random words and phrases quoted from actual papers read at the conference. Same words, different context).

I admit that I’m “Joe the Composer” and don’t need to lose sleep over these issues. But I do give credit where credit is due since several of the conference presenters and participants are active as established composers AND musicologists (David Schiff, William Brooks, and Mark DeVoto). Frankly I don’t know how they do it. They successfully wear two hats and straddle the line between these two conflicted worlds of musical thought. Musicology is viewed as highly rational and objective, while that art and craft of Music Composition - the black sheep of university music departments - is seen as more akin to psychic channeling and the practice of voodoo. For me, putting the two disciplines together violates my previously stated theory concerning musical matter and anti-matter. If that phenomenon were to occur, I’d likely explode, potentially taking the entire universe down with me in the process. Believe me, you wouldn’t want that.

Another interesting take-away from the conference was purely linguistic. This old dog learned some new words. The keynote lecture by Michael Denning of Yale University was on the topic of decolonizing the ear. He used the words schizophonic and audiotopia attributing the later to the author Josh Kun:

Denning also utilized the word music as a verb: musicing. “The musician’s were musicing.” (My line not his). Another presenter turned foreground into a verb, as in foregrounding. Cool! And what exactly did Joseph Schillinger mean by Zukunftsmusik (or "music of the future") in his 1927 lecture? I’ll leave you hanging in suspense.

Folk music came up frequently both in prepared papers and in the discussions that followed each paper. Figuring prominently in these discussions was the Seeger family, who’s combined effort provided an influential force in the fields of musicology and music composition. Ruth Crawford and Charles filtered American folk music through eyeglasses shaded by the Progressive School movement of the 1930’s that included emigre composers such as Hanns Eisler. The Seeger’s children – including Peggy (who is currently teaching a course on song writing at Northeastern University) and Pete grew up in what must have been an intellectually rich household. Yet I find it interesting that when I asked Pete decades ago about his remarkable and formative musical upbringing, he dismissed it as useless theoretical jargon by saying “Musicologists shovel music from one hole into another.”

I have already talked too much about people talking about music. I’ll now turn my attention to the concerts that were associated with the Crosscurrents conference.

The first was a program of modern French-American works (a representative from the French Consulate of Boston was on hand for the event). It featured the world premiere of works by Betsy Jolas and Edgard Varèse.

The Varèse work was the first performance of a newly discovered two-piano, eight-hand arrangement of his historic orchestral compostion from 1921, Amériques. It is based on a recently discovered autograph manuscript that now resides at the Paul Scaher Foundation in Basel where the score was carefully researched and edited by Helena Bugallo. The piano-reduction version, which dates from around 1927, is very different from the original version and should probably be considered a new piece. Varèse made many changes to passages and rhythmic details in the work. I particularly like the ending which works itself up into a frenzy of loud pounding percussive chords in a well-articulated penultimate episode of frenetic energy. Although the eight hand version of Amériques was probably created for study purposes, it hopefully will join other piano reductions (e.g. Stravinsky’s Le Scare du printemps) in the two-piano repertory.

Pianists Amy Williams, Lisa Kaplan, Amy Briggs (formerly Dissanayake), and Winston Choi were spectacular throughout the entire concert. (Briggs is well-known for her performances and recording of David Rakowski’s Etudes).

Betsy Jolas (b. 1926) is a wonderful composer, and her presence fit quite logically into the trans-Atlantic theme of the Crosscurrents concerts and conference. Hearing her in public conversation with her long-time friend and musicologist Vivian Perlis prior to the performance was an insightful, true, and relaxing. It stood in sharp contrast to the musical superlative in the air at the conference proper. Her new piece Teletalks (2008) for two pianists, is 17 minutes long and was commissioned by the Harvard Musical Association and Crosscurrents conference, with support from the Ernst von Siemens Musikstiftung and the Fromm Foundation. Teletalks draws upon the metaphor of international phone converstions between France and America, which Jolas indicated in her preconcert discussion seemed like a magical technology during her childhood. It reminded me of the 19th century concept of the Telectroscope that is only now being realized.

As the title implies, Teletalks plays upon the back-and-forth echo of sounds and ideas between the two instruments in a phone-like conversation between two distant parties. It’s in five movements of contrasting tempo, and full of rich pianistic sonorities that recall prior musical experiences while saying something new.

The second Jolas premiere was an updated version of her 1982 piece callingec which was written as a 75th birthday card for friend and colleague Elliott Carter. The 2008 version (composed for Carter’s 100th birthday) titled callingeccallingec, also utilizes the trans-Atlantic conversation metaphor. The pitches for the work derive from the notes E and C with various accidentals applied and in transposition. A texture of major and minor thirds permeates the brief two-piano work, but the listener can sense the craft that you would expect from a composer that held the title of professor of analysis and composition at the Paris Conservatory. Jolas was the successor to Messiaen in that distinguished post.

Jolas was off the next day to travel with the pianists to other cities (e.g. NY, Cleveland, Pittsburgh) for subsequent performances, so I did not get a chance to meet with her. But I did work with Ms. Jolas in 1981 when she was in residence at the Yale Summer School of Music at Norfolk CT. My personal recollection is that she was very professional and skilled as a teacher. I distinctly remember the strong work ethic displayed by both herself and Elliott Carter (to whom callingec was written and dedicated to a year later). While I was faint from dehydration and wilting from the summer heat and humidity, Jolas and Carter were off working hard on new pieces. I remember Jolas at breakfast early in the morning sitting across from me and filling her coffee cup with spoonfuls of sugar. I thought to myself “ah, massive amounts of caffeine and sugar, that’s how you do it!”

The first half of the Thursday evening concert also featured Piano Phase (1967) by Steve Reich (b. 1936), and Drie Stücke füvr zwei Kaviere (1976) by György Ligeti (b. 1923). I don’t have very much to say about these works.

I regret that I could not attend the Friday evening concert by the Chiara String Quartet, but it included another work by Reich and string quartets by Korngold (#3 in D major) and Bartók (#6).

The final concert on Saturday afternoon was by pianist Bruce Brubaker assisted by students Konrad Binienda and Kenric Tam. It focused on piano music of the post WWII 20th century with works by Earle Brown (1926-2002), Sylvanno Bussotti (b. 1931), and Alvin Curran (b. 1938).

Perhaps it was my state of mind after three days of lectures and concerts, but the concluding concert of the Crosscurrents conference left me cold. Although the actual performances by Brubaker, Binienda, and Tam seemed top-notch, I was annoyed by the selection of music and its pretentiousness.

The work Hope Street Tunnel Blues III (1983) by Alvin Curran, an example of minimalism, was the sensational hit of the afternoon for all of the wrong reasons. I found it masochistic and simple. It’s not that I don’t appreciate incorporating vernacular music (in this case the Blues) into concert music (as I have done in my own Boogie Woogie), but it is frankly a piece that I’ll avoid at all costs in the future.

The Curran was framed by older works by Bussotti (Piano Piece for David Tudor numbers 1,3, and 4)) and Brown (Twentyfive Pages). As a footnote I should mention that I’ve met both Bussotti and Brown and know their music first-hand from a time when it was in vogue.

When I was studying in Europe in 1984-85 I found my way outside Florance to the Scuola di Musica di Fîesole where Bussotti was teaching a class in composition. I have also studied his scores and listened to his music. My impression in the mid-eighties (and today) is that Bussotti is an eccentric artist who exploits the freedom of avant-gardism to his political advantage. His beautifully penned works could hang on the wall as framed art, but beyond the artful manuscript lies little music of true value. Bussotti, who wears a cape, is skillful at maintaining the image of the genius modernist composer, but he pales in comparison to his talented but deceased Italian colleagues Berio, Nono, Donatoni, and Scelsi.

Like Jolas, I met Earle Brown in 1981 at Yale Norfolk. Brown was not at all like Bussotti, but warm, unpretentious, and friendly. We discussed our common educational roots at the Schillinger Institute of Music in Boston (for me Berklee) where he was one of their first graduates. I got the impression that Brown felt fortunate career-wise. He happened to be in the right place at the right time, was one of the few Americans to be published by Universal Editions, and benefited from his association with avant garde superstar John Cage (btw, I plan a future post about Cage). Yet even in 1981, it was clear that the technique of Indeterminacy as practiced by a large number of composers from Cage to Boulez to Lutosławski was a dead end. I remembered that my teacher Donald Martino had used a bound copy of the Boulez Third Piano Sonata on his piano stand because it functioned as a good writing surface, not because he cared at all for the work itself.

In this context, I formed my ideas and opinions about these musical trends and ideas as they happened in the final three decades of the 20th century. After study, consideration, and thought, I rejected much of what transpired – including indeterminacy and minimalism.

So it was very strange for me to attend a concert that showcased select 20th century works of questionable merit. It appeared to elevate the works to a stature of classical masterpiece; works that I had never bought into or deemed valid after hearing them in the first place. This speaks to my earlier point about the power of musicology and the risk of distortion that a particular vision of history can represent. There was a “question and answer” session immediately after the Brubaker concert – as if the music needed further explanation beyond the written program notes. I didn’t share in the nostalgia which for me represented a catalogue of past sins and the mishaps of musical experimentation. Been there - done that. I applaud composers for experimenting, but once the experiment is proven wrong we need to move on.

We are not yet at a point in history where composers and trends of the past two or three decades can be certified as valid and worthy of academically supported cultural preservation. I could have (and would have) curated an entirely different set of concert programs highlighting composers and aesthetics of 20th century music from an entirely different perspective.

Do you sense some ambivalence on my part?

Now it is time to answer my first question: “What was I doing there?”

The answer is simple: Food.

As a struggling composer currently unemployed and on a tight budget, the receptions at the beginning and end of the Harvard Crosscurrents conference provided the best meals I had in a week. I actually left the discussion following the Brubaker concert early to get first dibs at the large spread in the Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library. The grubs included roast beef, various cheeses, fresh grapes, thinly sliced French bread, sushi, and assorted vegetables and spreads. There was also a good selection of interesting wines, including a fantastic Australian Shiraz that I’ve never heard of before called “Jim Jim.”

The setting in the library’s Spalding Room with its dark wood and large stained glass window was appropriately elegant. Congratulatory toasts ensued, and one could stroll over to view items on display in an interesting exhibit entitled “Nadia Boulanger and her American Composition Students." I had a nice conversation with a former teacher of mine from The New England Conservatory where I once followed his class in Schenkerian Analysis. We mutually agreed that Harvard's conferences, concerts, and receptions are a great networking opportunity as well as a fine place to feast. Consuming more Jim Jim than I probably should have (I was not alone in my lack of restraint), I accidently spilled some of it on the carpet of the Spalding Room. It was time to say my goodbyes to old and new friends – including the new Chair of the Music Department.

My only regret is that I didn’t bring plastic zip-lock sandwitch bags to store leftover goodies. I’ve never been one to think much ahead.