mutterings; pontifications; humblebrags
After a dense and intense winter of composing and travel, the light at the end of the tunnel has finally become a reality, and I find myself with just a little bit of breathing room, and a string of really interesting performances here at the end of April.
1. The LA Philharmonic and Beth Morrison Projects collaborated for a vocal extravaganza at Disney Hall last Tuesday - the "Liederabend Op. LA" - which, true to form, had a lot of moving parts, a lot of rich and astounding vocalists, and a big vision. A couple excerpts from my piece Sound from the Bench were included, performed by guitar bros Taylor Levine and James Moore, percussion stalwart Joe Pereira, and the excellent Los Robles Master Chorale, expertly prepared by the fantastic Lesley Leighton. John Adams, as thoughtful and humble as ever, conducted.
2. I'm writing from San Francisco, where my new piece for six violins -- For the love of Charles Mingus -- will be premiered tonight at the San Francisco Symphony's Soundbox series. Chris Rountree is conducting the six violinists from the SF Symphony (along with a quirky but moving program that also includes Purcell, Rzewski, Stradella and Zappa, along with a new Nat Stookey piece.) I workshopped this piece extensively, first with six spirited violinists from the New World Symphony, and then with my great friend Miki Cloud (who will be recording the piece this summer).
3. On Sunday, I'll head to Minneapolis/St. Paul, where Saul Williams and the Mivos Quartet will premiere my new piece, The Answer to the Question that Wings Ask on April 26 at the St. Paul Reference Library. I'm so excited for this. The music sets Saul's powerful poem of the same name, and plays with some different ways the speaker (Saul) and quartet (Mivos) can interact rhythmically. The composer JP Merz interviewed me about this project and some other stuff -- you can read that here.
DON'T STOP TALKING ABOUT IT; TALK ABOUT IT BETTER
"[P]rogress is often found in the alchemy of disparate idioms." True!
"Anyone can put a hip-hop beat under a twelve-tone row." Almost nobody has, and for good reason, but yes I'm with you. [Also this reminded me of The Most Unwanted Song, which is actually amazing.]
"One of the dangers of simply talking about genre qua genre, aside from the fact that hybridity is the order of the day, is that the quality of the work becomes secondary to its stylistic attributes." Yes, this can absolutely be a danger... and this danger is not limited to particular hybridistic works. When someone says "I hate country music" or "I hate rap music," it's the same thing — they haven't thought critically about the genre; they do not understand that genre is an arbitrary frame around an individual artist's expression; they are biased against a culture.
But then, the crux of Gabe's argument:
"I object to genre as a discourse."
"I]n an era where kids are making playlists that run from Kendrick Lamar to Karlheinz Stockhausen, shouldn’t we allow craft, rather than categorization, to lead the conversation.” I want to agree with this, and I wish it were that easy. And if Gabe is merely objecting to the insistence of iTunes to label every album as belonging to a single pre-defined genre, or some article about how the newest chamber pop phenomenon is obliterating genre as we know it, then yes, I agree with him 100%. Those conversations are boring, and they usually replace far more interesting ones about what, why and how an artist is expressing. [Also, 'chamber pop' was a geriatric term from the moment it was first uttered and should be retired at once.]
But when I think about it, many of the conversations I have about music do originate from genre or style-related questions more than from craft-related questions, and I like it that way.
Poking around an artist’s relationship to genre usually results in questions that have something to do with: Why did this musician make certain aesthetic choices and what are the implications of those choices in context(s)?
Poking around an artist’s craft can help us understand how they’re making the music, but if our curiosity truly originates there, we may not even really understand what we’re hearing, much less why the artist put those sounds together in the first place.
The idea that an artist should start their work with good craft — "first and foremost, craft!" an old composition teacher used to say — is even more dangerous. It's founded, I think, on the assumption that "good" craft is static, neutral and unbiased, rather than dynamic and subject to interpretation like any other socially-defined concept. In that way, genre and craft are two sides of the same coin: both moving targets mistaken as fixed standards, both sets of restrictions imposed upon present artists that are modeled from boundary-breaking innovations made by past artists, both enemies of invention when taken too seriously.
Craft is a word that used to mean power or force. (Kraft still means that in German.)
I laughed when this hit me, because I've long associated exhaustive conversations about craft with composers who don't have an interest in questioning or subverting the power dynamics of their own musical community. Composers who love their own prestigious teaching positions and residencies. Composers who have no personal incentive to cast a critical eye toward the audience assembled to listen to their music. Of course they would love power. (Not that I haven't talked craft with lots of other composers too, but somehow it's never the most memorable takeaway.)
And it's definitely true that if you compose with what powerful people agree is excellent craft, you have the highest likelihood of being folded into the established order. Accepting and adopting those standards without scrutiny clears the easiest path toward your own success in the field. (Not just limited to the Classical crowd here. The only established genres this is not true for are those which make no money -- what up, Vaporwave?! I see you out there!)
But how authentic can your expression really be if your syntax has been determined for you?
Genre comes from gender. This was a word that described grammatical differences before it was adapted into a word used to separate all human beings into two discrete categories of men and women. Today, genres herd different works of art into single categories based on any number of possible attribute filters. Who determines which filters are relevant is also a matter of power.
I recently took a job at a rather traditional Classical Music institution, where conversations about how to achieve the best compositional craft are constantly taking place, but questions about what "craft" might mean in different disciplines and styles, who exactly set those goalposts, or why we are perfecting our craft in the first place, are sometimes lacking. Tunnel vision.
But I don't blame the institution, I blame the genre. The culture of Classical Music is infected with the ethos that it is the most sophisticated, the most refined, the most subtle, the most expressive, the most "eternal" of all the Musics. (Then comes Jazz! Then everything else.) Most of us see this is completely and obviously untrue, but it's helping to keep the genre of Classical Music, and by extension the people it represents or at least the people that pay for it, isolated and segregated.
Genre is culture.
Our divisions and alliances, our segregations and minglings, our power dynamics, our setbacks and progresses — they are all traceable in our musical decisions, and in the ways we choose to classify them. People identify with music that reflects some part of themselves. The apparatus that harnesses these identifications together into labels with cultural import, and (usually) with monetary value, is genre.
Which is why I find Gabe's assessment that — "for the most part, everything that is new is a hybrid of two or more things that came before. This has always been the case." — to be juuuust a little flippant.
All hybrids are not equal!
Yes, Beethoven appropriated elements of the Turkish march and Debussy was fascinated with the Javanese gamelan music he heard at the Paris World's Fair, but the dialogue taking place among genres in these works didn't run much deeper than that. And it goes without saying: these are both composers who made seismic syntactic innovations. (Just not which are at all related to these particular examples of stylistic hybridity.)
Gabe's examples of Ligeti’s Désordre and Sufjan’s Predatory Wasp of the Palisades, on the other hand… Both are richer hybrids. Both explore a more fluid and dynamic relationship to genre than the Beethoven or Debussy.
The way I see it, craft operates in tandem with the hybridity of these works. The composer’s (and performer’s) choices about how to express their ideas factor into their engagement of different genres or stylistic signifiers, and are usually inextricable from it.
There's no such thing as universally good craft. Désordre is crafted exquisitely only insomuch as it is crafted to fit comfortably into the solo repertoire of a concert pianist. (And it’s a great showpiece — the promise of an wowed audience is enough to lure a performer to overcome the technical challenge of learning it.) But to me, this craft, while masterful in many ways, is the least interesting part of the piece. And personally I find the craft of Wasps (and all of Illinoise) to be a little awkward. Some sectional edges are rough, some of the production and orchestration seem a little wonky in a way that doesn’t seem intentional. (These aspects got way more convincing with Age of Adz and especially Carrie and Lowell.) But this only adds to its impact and authenticity.
But what about this new piece Brain by Fay Wang? We could talk about the composer's craft, which may or may not be notable, but for me the conversation definitely starts with genre. I mean, what even is this piece? The wide palette of musical elements she incorporates, the puzzle of implications she harnesses through sounds and their disparate references, the contrasting vocal styles (check the belting at the end!) — all these things speak to a really sophisticated and dynamic sense of stylistic hybridity.
Or what about the composer who better win all the Grammys, Kendrick Lamar? So many fascinating conversations are provoked by To Pimp a Butterfly, but the way Lamar uses genre as a dynamic parameter in that work is astounding and inspiring. Hip-hop has a genre consciousness built into its foundation. Sampling is recontextualizing, samples are recombinant materials, and the way a hip-hop harnesses (or hides) the cultural associations attached to each sample's source changes with every work. Much like D'Angelo's masterpiece Voodoo of 15 years before, TPaB is a patchwork of sounds, styles, gestures — some super specific and almost pastiche, some more elusive — that conjure disparate genres, all woven intentionally into a narrative that implies both unity and tension among different perspectives, voices, generations.
Yes, TPaB is constructed skillfully in other ways too, but it's not true that the combination of genres in that album are "only as important as the craft that's brought to bear on their marriage." I'd argue the opposite. The soul, the message of the music is found in a deep and critical engagement of genre.
Maybe I'll have a private argument with Gabe about how I hear him taking a similarly critical approach, using genre as malleable and expressive parameter in hybrid works like February House and The Ambassador, in ways that deserve real dedicated discourse. Maybe I'd completely agree with him if I still lived in Brooklyn, where it's still easy to get fatigued from the latest PR hype proclaiming the end of genre as we know it (as if "post-genre" weren't also a genre in this context). Maybe (wait, definitely) I'm overthinking what's really just a songwriter's plea to leave him alone and let him write down the music he hears in his head.
I know this can all sound a little whiny and a lot sanctimonious, but the truth is it's all rooted in optimism. Music is a great communicator and has the power to speak to large communities without relying on the problematic specificity of actual language. Greater stylistic fluidity can beget greater communication among people, and to that end some real talk about genre is not something we should shy away from.
VAPING OUT WITH SYBARIS
I just finished my movement of a new collaborative work by Sleeping Giant, for cellist Ashley Bathgate. Having just spent a lot of time in the city I grew up in, on and around Thanksgiving, I found myself feeling rather nostalgic and contemplative about lost youth in general.
When I started digging around for artifacts from the early 90's, things that would help bring me back, I came across a group of archived commercials for Sybaris Pool Suites, the Midwest chain of sleazy rent-by-the-hour hotel rooms+[waterfall spa]. I remembered these commercials from being 10-12 years old, when I viewed them with a repulsion/fascination akin to Garth Algar:
Anyway, I warped to what I'd call the speed of ultimate sleaziness and used that as a basis for sampling elements of the electronics part for my new piece for Ashley. Something about the muzak quality of the backing tracks is super beautiful... but in combination with the stretched voice of softcore commercial lady, it's quite something:
"EXPLOSIVE HAZARD" VIDEO
Here's a new music video from The Source by Daniel Fish, Juliet Lashinsky-Revene and Jim Findlay.
This premiered in this great article about The Source in one of my favorite blogs, The Daily Dot.
THEY NUNC!'ED US GOOD
I just got back from my hometown -- Chicago -- although really I never left the -coiffed suburb of Evanston because I was participating in "NUNC! 2" -- the second-annual new-music conference led by the composer Hans Thomalla. [I never got a straight answer on whether NUNC! is actually an acronym.... or the origins of the exclamation point, if there are any.]
This was a big ambitious undertaking. I joined Kate Soper, Rick Burkhardt, Ann Cleare and Donnacha Dennehy as one of five invited composers. (As different as their music is, from each other and from mine, I'm a big fan of all their work.) Three days were packed with discussions, lectures and performances, and Northwestern's contemporary music ensemble (along with some truly excellent student vocalists) performed about 75% of my piece Katrina Ballads on a concert Saturday night, conducted by Alan Pierson.
I've never been present for a performance of this piece (Katrina Ballads) in this particular type of academic environment, and it proved to be sort of a lightning rod. The (super generalized) gist was this: all the performers seemed to really love the experience of playing/learning the piece, a good chunk of the audience responded positively and I got a lot of comments after, but there was a distinct *vibe* (negative) from the academic set (many of the composers/musicologists present at the festival).
Because NUNC is a conference for discussing musical ideas, it seemed like the perfect place to open up a discussion about the issues/problems raised by a piece that appropriates primary-source text (some from individuals experience great pain or grief), that deals with politicized topics and blending of styles -- and I did, in a 40-minute session slotted for me to present my music. But that forum felt way too short, and more than anything I think it reminded me of all the (sometimes silly, sometimes legit) strife that can divide members of a community that is, in truth, extremely small.
I wish I could say confronting all these issues was a healing process, but it only scratched the surface, and the more I think about it the more it leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Or at least it makes me want to continue a discussion in a real way - about what it means to use political (or even just extramusical) content in a piece of music today, and what the political/aesthetic implications are of mixing styles or playing with style. I've continued the discussion with a few great minds I encountered at Northwestern last weekend -- notably the conductor Michael Lewanski, musicologist Ryan Dohoney, and Danielle Taylor, who played viola in the performance of Katrina Ballads -- but I dunno.... I want something more from this. Hopefully I can find a way to write meaningfully about these divisions, or at least begin to articulate the problem.
"CRIMINAL EVENT" LIVE VIDEO
Here's a live video, by Tyler Kinney and Karlos Rene Ayala, that we shot a few weeks ago in preparation for the release of The Source. (Album drops this week!)
A FEW NICE REVIEWS
One of my favorite musicians, the voraciously-appetited pianist Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus, recently blogged a really thoughtful and thorough review of Red Light's new album Barbary Coast. This was so great to read because I've been such a fan of Iverson's playing for a long time. My brother from the old country Ron Wiltrout first turned me on to The Bad Plus when we met 10 years ago, and I've seen them several times since then and followed their surprising trajectory ever since. This album in particular, juxtaposing renditions of Ligeti Etudes and Milton Babbitt's Semi-Simple Variations with covers of classic rock songs featuring singer Wendy Lewis, is refreshing and bold, and a model for looking at familiar music through an unfamiliar lense. Read Ethan Iverson's review here.
Also, my new piece Coloring Book for Roomful of Teeth was premiered last weekend at National Sawdust, and the folks at Classicalite had some really nice things to say about it. Read that review here.
LAW OF MOSAICS HAPPENING IN CHICAGO
I couldn't be happier that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has programmed my piece Law of Mosaics for their first MusicNOW concert of the 2015-16 season! Adding to this delightful news is that they've asked my friend, the conductor Chris Rountree, to do the honors of leading the orchestra! Law of Mosaics will constitute the second half a program that also includes Daniel Wohl's string quartet Glitch, and Kaija Saariaho's cello+electronics work Petals. This will all go down on November 23, at the Harris Theater in downtown Chicago.
This concert is a big deal for me. I grew up listening to the CSO of course, attending their concerts and aspiring to their general musical boss-ness. The CSO blogged a little interview with me about it.
What's more is that Chicago Magazine has listed the show as one of their 25 "must-see" events of the fall.
GET YOUR BARBARY ON
I conducted the Red Light Ensemble in their first concert in 2005. The group was started by Scott Wollschleger and Vince Raikhel, two of my best homeys from Manhattan School of Music, who had asked me to conduct Gerard Grisey's Vortex Temporum on their first concert. That experience - learning, rehearsing, performing such an incredible work of contemporary music with my friends - was super important for me, and after that, the fun never stopped.
Well, unfortunately it did stop in February 2014, when the Red Light Ensemble played its last show as a conducted group. However, as we were preparing that final show, we spent some time in the studio recording an album of new works by the four composer-directors of Red Light, all written for Red Light - Chris Cerrone's The Night Mare and Liam Robinson's Chamber Concerto, along Scott's Brontal No. 3 and Vince's Cirques, and we threw in my piece Crispy Gentlemen for good measure.
It feels like it's been an eternity, but the result of those recording sessions - Barbary Coast - is now released on New Focus Recordings!