I don't expect to post again until after the holidays, so I'll take this opportunity to wish everyone a joyous season.

I'll be back after the New Year with rich, 101-related goodness. In the meantime, Robert Gable has a post up about John Cage's 4'33" and how people react to it. The next issue of The High Hat will include a new article of mine about why this piece is central to 20th century concert music.

Also, the two recent posts by Kyle Gann and Marcus Maroney concern an issue that is also central to 20th century concert music: time.

Again, Happy Holidays to all!



Forrest Covington has the latest in a series of posts from throughout the musical blogosphere on "atonality" and "nihilism". The current spate of posts began with one by a blogger who calls him- or herself Promethean Antagonist.

Mr. Covington seems to believe that "atonality" (hereafter the more accurate "pantonal") is an ultra-rational "system" that attempts to negate the "natural" tendency of humans to hear "tonally". The argument that tonality is "natural" is a familiar one, and has some basis in science. On the other hand "art" is the root of "artificial", not "natural".

I'm open to correction here, but it sounds like Mr. Covington is equating pantonality with 12-note technique. Arnold Schoenberg developed the 12-note technique because he didn't believe he could create full-scale musical works without the kind of rational system tonal composers had at their disposal. He had created large-scale pantonal works with a text, such as the monodrama Erwartung, but he believed that pantonality was too free to be able to sustain a musical arguement without a text. Since his time, countless works have been created using the tonal system, free pantonality, serialism, chance, and countless combinations of some or all of the above.

I've been struggling with the idea that pantonality and nihilsm are close cousins. It is so foreign to me that I almost put the word "idea" in quotation marks in the previous sentence. Are there nihilists who write, play, and like pantonal music? Undoubtedly, but we can name world-class nihilists who adore(d) tonal music.

Almost everybody knows a pantonal work they enjoy or even, God forbid, love. Listen to any of the pieces in Morton Feldman's viola in my life series and come back with the nihilist line. Or Stravinsky's In memoriam Dylan Thomas. Or the Berio Sequenza V for solo trombone. Or Lee Hyla's Pre-Pulse Suspended. Listen.



Greg Sandow has really gone into important territory with his last three posts: Connections, Power metal and my own composing, and Judging conservative composers.

In the last one Mr. Sandow points out that critics have frequently misjudged their conservative contemporaries. He ends with this:

And what their evident mistakes about Sibelius and Brahms might show is that --while we laugh at a lot at critics who can't understand advanced new music -- critics who can't understand the conservatives of their time can be equally absurd. Who are we misunderstanding now?
In order to answer that last question we have to be able to say what would constitute "conservatism" in composition today. Anybody got any ideas?



Today is Elliott Carter’s 96th birthday.

That he remains a controversial figure is due in part to his very longevity, and also to his continuing activity. Those who believe that Modernism is well and truly dead and buried Carter's continuing creativity (as well as the growing number of performances and recordings) is a reminder that the funeral may well have been premature. His partisans (and I admit up front that I am one) find his career an inspiration and a different kind of challenge.

My first encounter with Carter came in the early seventies, right after high school, when concert music had really started to open up for me. At that time I was intoxicated by the heroic odd numbered Beethoven symphonies, the Stravinsky ballets, and the orchestral music of Webern (especially the Sechs Stucke, op.6), Ligeti (Atmospheres), and Lutoslawski (Livre pour orchestre). I was visiting some with some older (that is, adult) musicians who taught in a summer program I had attended a couple of years earlier. They were arguing about this guy called Elliott Carter, who apparently had written some string quartets.

They put on the brand-new Composers Quartet recording of the Second Quartet. I didn’t care for it—it didn’t have the color of either Lutoslawki or Ligeti nor the outsized expressionist expression of Webern. One of the musicians then told of the premiere of the Third Quartet he had heard in New York. It didn’t make me like what I had heard any more but it made me want to follow it up.

In college I went to the library and listened to Leonard Bernstein’s recording of the Concerto for Orchestra and tried to follow along with the score. Slowly it clicked for me. Here was everything I looked for in new music—color, wildness, apparent rhythmic “chaos”.

Finally, though, it was and is the rigor and poetry of Carter’s expression that has kept him at the center of my musical life. His music speaks to me at the deepest levels, those that are reachable only by the greatest art.

Among the Carter works have meant the most to me over the years are the Quartets 1, 2, and 5, the Cello Sonata, the Concerto for Orchestra, the Elizabeth Bishop cycle A Mirror on Which to Dwell, the Oboe Concerto, the Quintet for piano and strings, and the Symphonia: sum fluxae pretium spei.

I look forward to new pieces from him and to new experiences with the pieces we already have.



Fred Himebaugh lists "four freedoms" for composers, especially composers who are "stuck" . For the sake of completeness, I'll note that A. C. Douglas singles out two of them for endorsement: Freedom from the Masterpiece Syndrome and freedom from the quest for complexity, which are, I believe related, in that they can make the composer so self-conscious that he or she can't even decide how to spell a given note, for fear of something or other. In fact "Freedom from Self-Consciousness" is an umbrella over all of these concerns.

I would add a corollary, or flip side to the freedom from the quest for complexity: Freedom from the Ache for Accessibility. One never knows what an audience will like or dislike at any given time, so tailoring your music to try to make it "likeable" is a fool's errand, and more than a little condescending.

Why "condescending"? If you think you have to change your music (or your art in general) so that the audience will "like" or "get it", then you think the audience can't "get" what you are after in the first place. Write what you hear and what you feel. If your talent and skill are up to your inspiration there will be an audience for it.

Now, as for finding and cultivating that audience . . .



The New York Times' Anne Midgette writes about the recent trend of well-known performers commissioning new works to perform. The trend, embraced by such luminaries as Dawn Upshaw (who has been doing it for years), Anne-Sophie Mutter, and Midori, can only be a good thing for composers and for the concert music world.

However, Ms. Midgette does mention those eternal banes of the composers' life, the revival, or the lack thereof, and perceptions about the audience:

Once the pieces are written and performed, many have short lives. Premieres attract media attention; revivals don't. If an artist doesn't take the time to learn a piece well for its premiere, it may not sound good enough to attract much interest. And because it is often assumed that audiences don't like modern music, presenters shy away from it.

Plus, there is the novelty of a premiere and the artistic prestige attached to having a piece written for you:

. . . there is a risk that a work commissioned by one artist can seem less attractive to others. It depends on the work, and the only way to know is to keep playing it.

Still, this is a positive development for our music. It should be encouraged.



Robert Gable has a fine post on Carl Ruggles' Sun-Treader, which is a great piece.

Mr. Gable has several interesting and provocative nuggets in this post:

. . . in spite of all that occurred in the twenties, the author [Nicolas Tawa, in American Composers and their Public: A Critical View] argues this generation of composers was arrogant, un-democratic, individualistic, self-aggrandizing, out of balance, etc.

I think I know the answer, but I'll ask this question anyway: We love those traits in our dead artists; why do we despise them in living ones?


. . . Richard Taruskin's opinion on Schoenberg, where the focus on the composer, his methods and tools, overwhelmed any sensitivity towards an audience. Taruskin calls this divergence the "poietic fallacy," which places the making of art ahead of how it is perceived.

But isn't that a poietic fallacy itself? I mean, doesn't casting an artist's work in terms of poietic fallacy overlook audience reaction: Mr. Taruskin goes on to list several of Schoenberg's works he likes, which seems to me to cancel the poieticism of Schoenberg, because it places the supposed lack of sensitivity of a potential audience above the positive reaction of a real audience (Mr. Taruskin himself).

At any rate, check out Sun-Treader.


Basics, etc.

Reader response to the post on spelling led me to look for a site with good explanations of basic music theory. I found this one, where the tutorial on intervals provides good information for those who wanted a little background to more easily follow the discussion of spelling.

I've added Fred Himebaugh's Fredösphere to the blogroll. Question, and please, give it to me straight: Does my blogroll make me look fat?

Alex Ross makes a great point in a post on Jay Greenberg:

How about a TV profile of a grown-up composer — say, Steve Reich on the occasion of his seventieth birthday next year, highlighting his mammoth influence on every form of contemporary music?