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SEARCH EVENT I, 15 April 2000, University of California, San Diego
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Department of Music, University of California, San Diego for its SEARCH
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When I started writing this lecture I had the idea that I would interrupt it now and then for a musical example. That was a bad idea, as we all know. I don't know what made me forget. Talk and music don't mix. Different parts of the brain or something. Except in two very special conditions, which we all have experienced, the attention to the details of the voice --- whether or not anything interesting is being said --- makes us impatient with the music, which is the last thing the lecture needs. The two conditions (just to remind you of what I mean) are: first, the very casual NPR-type introduction to a long piece of music, which sort of eases you into the Vivaldi or whatever; and second, the full-speed ahead DJ on format-pop radio, who tries not to say anything except the ID, the time and the advertisement.
I can't do either of those, because the talk is too long and the examples are too short. When I rehearsed this with the examples for the first time, I could hardly bear the examples, which are actually very short and which I love as music. I was shocked. Then I came to my senses.
So first I will talk, for about two hours, and then I will play about 30 minutes of nine examples, with reference to what they were supposed to illustrate in the lecture and with discographical information, in case you should want to pursue them in full.
Mostly, the lecture is academic, in the real --- not bad, I hope --- sense of the term. That is, these ideas have been said many times already by people more qualified than I. But, obviously, they are only academic if you have already heard them. For some people some of the ideas will be new. So I will say them anyway, just in case.
Most of the lecture, too, is not about the future, as such. It is not about computers will get faster, and we will DNA-away all disease, and we will eat food made out of chemicals and so nobody will starve, and you can make any sound imaginable with this set of knobs and so forth. We all know that stuff. Everything they told me in the rotogravure when I was a kid has come true. And I am still looking at old movies and the same file footage but with different words on TV. And I don't feel like I have aged a bit. Strange, huh?
So I am not going to tell you that loudspeakers will be implanted in your brain and that you will be able to listen to any piece of music that was ever made anywhere, at any time you want --- though that is part of the problem. I would guess that those of you who are too young to have known the Beatles will have grand-children listening to the Beatles, and you will be as cranky as I am about listening to "She's got a ticket to ride."
Most of the lecture will be about the present, and how we got to it from the past. I think that if we could understand the present, the future would be obvious.
The future of music.
The future of music is too big for me to deal with. Only a few decades ago I thought I knew, or knew of, most of the composers in Europe and America. That is, I knew something of their music, I knew what ideas were being attempted.
Today, of course, that is out of the question. The world of music has come to include more and more of the composers in the larger world. They live in places I have never been and will never be. I have no idea what is going on. I don't have a world-view, and it would be impossible for me to have a world-view unless I devoted every waking minute to listening to every recording I could get my hands on (or, on a more practical level, every recording that I have now and that I have not listened to). And probably even then I wouldn't have a world view. The world is too big for me.
Having said all of this, to protect me from criticism, I will make a few remarks about music as I know it, which will lead us to thoughts about the future of music.
Music is a commodity, like hamburgers, automobiles, oil, grain, currency and under-paid labor. (REPEAT)
Music is a commodity, like hamburgers, automobiles, oil, grain, currency and under-paid labor.
It can be bought and sold. Every musician, now, wants his or her music to be a valuable commodity, so that the musician can make some amount of money to, as we say, live on. We have no choice.
I can't see that anything will change in the next few years. Then I will not be around. And so, as far as I am concerned, there is not much of a future, if we are talking about change or no change. I think I have worked this out, finally, for myself. If I'm not there, there is nothing. I realize that this position or attitude of mine represents one side of an enormous philosophical problem, which I am unqualified to speak about, but I have come down on the side of "If I'm not there, there is nothing," because it speaks to my beliefs about my activities in music for the past fifty years. I became a musician as an alternative to scientist, civil servant, businessman, criminal --- my qualifications for all of which I can document --- because I wanted to make music, because music meant, when I was a child, an irrational sensual pleasure that I could not resist and, later, when I got into music as an adult, an irrational pleasure in making music with other musicians. No one who is not a musician can understand this pleasure.
I can say with honesty that, when I started, I did not intend to be a composer. When I first realized I wanted to be a musician, I did not know what a composer was. I'm not sure now that the term was in my vocabulary. Maybe it's no different for lots of you. Music is a present-tense activity that has an irresistible attraction, like, say, sex. Certain people are drawn to it.
There must have been a time when music was not a commodity. Or there might be a place even now where music is not a commodity. I can't imagine what that idea about music could be. Maybe a kind of "dharmic" --- if you will pardon the expression --- assignment. My father was a musician and so I am a musician. I am provided for. I don't know how the world began or how it will end, but I am a musician and I am provided for.
But that's gone. Now, anyone can be a musician and a composer, and that is why we are having this discussion.
It is in the nature of a commodity to destroy the resources that produced the commodity in the first place. (REPEAT)
It is in the nature of a commodity to destroy the resources that produced the commodity in the first place.
Who would have imagined that the humble hamburger, which was brought into commercial existence only a mere fifty years ago, would destroy the resources of the Great Plains of the United States, which some nutritionists only thirty years ago said could grow enough food of the right sort to feed the whole planet. (Frances Moore Lappé, in her book, "Diet for a Small Planet", maintained that the buffalo, which had adapted to the indigenous grasses of the Great Plains, could provide more meat over an indefinite period of time than could cattle even in the present. But the buffalo-burger is apparently out of the question.) The hamburger needed cattle. The cattle needed corn (in the final force-feeding stage), because the indigenous grasses of the Great Plains did not produce cattle with enough meat fat to make a good hamburger. (And it did not produce enough cattle.) The corn needed water. And so the wells got deeper and deeper. And now, according to Ian Frazier, author of a presumably well-researched book, "The Great Plains" (Ferrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1990), the enormous aquifer that lies beneath the Great Plains from northern Texas up into Canada and from the Mississippi to the Rockies is only one-fifth full and will take a long time to fill up again, even if we stop eating hamburgers tomorrow. So the hamburger has moved on, in its powerful drive to exist as a commodity, to the rain forests of the Amazon, which are being cut down to make a place for cattle and corn in the presence of new water.
There is some question about whether cutting down the rain forests, apart from ethical considerations, is going to help us in our immediate goal of continuing to exist and to enjoy music. And so, as of now, the hamburger as a commodity, is almost as dangerous as the possibility of a nuclear accident. Not on the same time scale, of course. But if there is no nuclear accident in the next fifty years, hamburgers will probably do it for us.
Who would have imagined that the internal combustion engine and its toy, the automobile, a way to go from one place to another faster than one could walk, would distort the economies of half the world and apparently destroy the protective layer of the planet.
Who would have imagined that Coca Cola, a simple mixture of water, sugar, a couple of fruit flavors and cocaine would destroy the tribal nations of Central America, where previously people lived on yams, meditation and a few leaves of something that made them feel good in an atmosphere almost without oxygen?
Footnote: For a brilliant article on the question of why we kill each other I refer you to "Always Time to Kill" by Jason Epstein in The New York Review of Books, Vol XLVI, Number 17, Nov 4, 1999. Mr. Epstein's article is about the "why" of mass warfare, but its observations could, I think, be applied as well to the "why" of large numbers of humans acting with total disregard for consequences in matters such as ecology. There is obviously something wrong with us. We are practically unique among species.
I will skip a discussion of petroleum, grain, currency, under-paid labor and other commodities, which would only use up valuable time.
Music has become a commodity. Every composer and musician I know wants his music or her music to be a salable commodity in the whole world. Maybe there are some exceptions, but soon they will be converted.
It is in the nature of a commodity, too, to be chosen for its success by persons who are impartial to the "quality" of the commodity as understood by the consumer. (REPEAT)
It is in the nature of a commodity, too, to be chosen for its success by persons who are impartial to the "quality" of the commodity as understood by the consumer.
No one, for a moment, believes that the well-paid hamburger executive eating a hamburger on TV would eat a hamburger, now that he is well-paid, except on TV. But somebody, not a musician, will determine the commodity value of a certain kind of music. And we will be stuck with that decision until another comes along.
It is in the nature of a commodity, too, to try to eliminate all competition. (REPEAT)
It is in the nature of a commodity, too, to try to eliminate all competition.
It is not a coincidence that the commodity as the dominant element in our lives has risen exactly in parallel with the rise of fundamentalism, in all religions, in our belief about the nature of God --- if you will pardon the expression. Fundamentalism wants to exclude all other ideas. The commodity wants to exclude all things like it.
The ultimate goal of the commodity in the eyes of the commodity producer is to have only one of every kind of thing. (REPEAT)
The ultimate goal of the commodity in the eyes of the commodity producer is to have only one of every kind of thing.
If we are to believe the holy books, which is questionable, and if we are to believe science, which is, at times, equally questionable, this would mean the end of the world. According to the holy books and to science there has to be at least two of anything in order for anything to be around for very long.
It is believed by some that this is not true. There are long-standing beliefs that a woman can produce another human being without the cooperation of a man and that this happens today more often than we think. I made a note of research on this possibility in the "Character Reference" anecdote for the "Willard" section of the opera, ATALANTA (ACTS OF GOD). The note says simply that two, British, Doctors of Medicine have done reputable research on the subject of "virgin birth" and have come to believe that it is more common than we think.
(Incidentally, science, it seems, often comes around to confirming long-standing beliefs. So, in spite of what you are thinking at this moment, I would urge you not to write off this possibility. I mean, the possibility of virgin birth.)
The problem --- for the commodity producer: of there being only one music; the situation where everybody in the world, listening to the radio or watching television or whatever, is listening to the same recording of the same piece of music at the same time; the ultimate goal of the commodity producer --- is not that this is necessarily bad --- who is to judge what that would mean? --- but (the problem is) that we are not capable as human beings at this time of being of one mind. There are too many distractions --- from our memories, our imaginations and our immediate physical desires and needs --- for us to be of one mind. We are divided among ourselves and within ourselves, and that division produces distractions that impede the dominance of the commodity. In fact, the commodity impedes itself.
The structural paradox for the commodity producer in music, at the moment, is that the performance of the music in every medium --- all day, everyday, everywhere --- is supposed to sell more recordings, but of course recordings sold will probably be listened to and that listening time, at the moment, will interfere with the on-going business of propagating commodities. We are having this problem today. We all know people who have record collections they have never listened to or have listened to just once. That's ok. Buy it, but don't listen to it. Especially, don't get "attached" to it.
Of course, the solution is simple. It is being discussed even as I speak. Sell listening-for-the-first-time-only --- all day, everyday, everywhere. Don't give them anything they can keep around and play repeatedly. You think this is crazy? I just read that Rupert Murdock suggested that since Americans are willing to spend fifty dollars (with accessories) to go to a baseball game, they should be willing to spend three or four dollars to see it at home on TV. The people from Diet Coke and It's a Rock must have taken him in the back for a little chat. The Diet Coke and the Chevy are supposed to go home, Rupert, and the people have to keep being reminded to buy them and take them home, and if they have to pay to watch the game, they will resent being reminded. They are perfectly happy, if they think the game belongs to Diet Coke and Chevy and they get to watch for free. They won't be perfectly happy if they buy the game and the game belongs to them and Diet Coke and Chevy keep interrupting it. Paying for cable is bad enough.
This is not to say that the commodity will not become more powerful and efficient. I could predict, at the expense of seeming crazy, that in the near future --- probably not in my lifetime, but maybe --- there will be one hit record everyday, for one day only, and that it will be played in every medium for all of that single day. "Proprietary" technology might prevent us from copying that record in any way. But who would want to copy it anyway? Tomorrow is another day.
Of course, the hit record will not "change" in any perceivable way from day to day. It is in the nature of a commodity to resemble itself as much as possible from use to use. (REPEAT)
It is in the nature of a commodity to resemble itself as much as possible from use to use.
For instance, a tank of gas may take you to different places while it is being used, but the tank of gas should resemble the prior tank of gas as much as possible. And the hamburger may have different effects on your body chemistry from day to day, but the hamburger should resemble the prior hamburger as much as possible.
In the meantime --- that is, coincidentally --- every person in the world (who is not resting for the moment in the "external" world of the compound of commodities) will be trying to make a piece of music that is as different from the commodity-music as his or her imagination will allow. Just for a little variety. No other reason is needed. The spice of life, etcetera.
It is in the nature of a commodity to create resistance to itself. (REPEAT)
It is in the nature of a commodity to create resistance to itself. (As opposed to the situation of creating a tradition, as in some kinds of music we know of and admire, but don't understand the practice of, in spite of what we say about it among ourselves.) And so there will be a music of resistance. Every person involved in music will be trying to create a "different" music, created through individual exertions. (That is, without help.)
There will be little common language among these individual exertions. There will be, perhaps, a common recognition that "we all do it." I'm not sure of this. There may be rumors of this or that extraordinary accomplishment. There may be actual examples of individual exertions being heard by persons other than the composer. But there is no reason to believe that these rumors or these exemplary exertions will be "scotched" by the "commodities police," because there will be no need for them to be "scotched." Everything will be moving too fast.
It is pointless to try to imagine what the day-to-day hit records will sound like. The super-highways take us to where the super-highways want us to go. They will sound like what the commodities producers want them to sound like. They will sound, as much as possible like the hit record of the day before.
But what will the individual, secretly imagined, non-commodity compositions sound like? I have said that there will be little common language. But that is wrong. There will be the common language of the instruments, the synthesizers and the computer software and whatever is available. But there has to be something that is more profound than that technological commonness, which would amount to nothing more than mere tinkering.
So in this discussion we are basically concerned with what is the future of music of the kind that we --- probably almost everyone in this hall --- are devoted to and compose. We are not concerned with the future of African music or Chinese music or the music of the people who live 15,000 feet above sea level in the Andes, or even, curiously, Icelandic music. Unless we take care of them, to use a phrase, they will take care of themselves. We are a small group and we are concerned with ourselves. What is the future of the sort of music that I compose or that Roger Reynolds composes or that the rest of you compose?
The strongest force in the music of today in America is nostalgia. It is the basis of music as we know it.
America is approximately one-hundred years old. Approximately one hundred years ago the European immigrants and their American Indian employees were killing buffalo, beaver, sea otter and every other thing that moved, as fast as they could. This enterprise was a great success. There are no more buffalo, beaver or sea otter --- or almost anything else, for that matter.
Footnote: When Europeans first arrived on the North American continent, one of the most numerous of the new animal species in evidence was the Green Parrot, eight to ten inches long, three to four pounds, a non-stop talker. They were everywhere from the Atlantic to the Mississippi. They were considered to be worse than a nuisance. They were considered to be a blight, like the Biblical locusts. You think pigeons are bad. Imagine a world of Green Parrots. Imagine the noise. Now there are a few Green Parrots in parrot stores.
The European immigrants were also killing the remaining American Indians and the American Indians were still killing each other. All of us, European immigrants, African-Americans, Asian-American and American Indians pretty much took it back to basics. A continent without forests, without animals and without anything resembling communication between the variously located dreams of riches and the various pockets of resistance and resentment that gathered in clumps around the river forks, the swamps, the desert hideaways and downtown and uptown in the cities to the ocean.
But we had brought in music from the "old country," which persists today. For instance, Beethoven in the orchestras, polkas in the taverns and a piano in every living room.
I am too old and tired to attack the way things are. The Metropolitan Opera can keep on playing Italian opera until, when they are hit by a car, they bleed spaghetti sauce. Orchestras in strange places where the palaces are the triangular Hyatt Hotel with external elevators can keep on playing Beethoven until they go broke. That's okay with me.
All of this is nostalgia on a gigantic, psychopathic scale.
Footnote: For a strange and disquieting article on nostalgia in America I refer you to "Death of the Cowboy" by Larry McMurtry in The New York Review of Books, Vol XLVI, Number 17, Nov 4, 1999. Mr. McMurtry points out that the "cowboy," as we know him from the movies, novels, rodeos on television, Marlboro advertisements and on and on, never really existed. Where did the cowboy come from? The cowboy is a mythical figure, rooted in nostalgia. Maybe in the case of the cowboy the nostalgia was for the dreams of freedom that the immigrants brought with them. A nostalgia for a dream of a better life.
A good number of the musicians at the Metropolitan Opera might be Jews, a few of whom may have gone to Italy on their Fulbright. But why would they play Italian opera? God, why would they play Wagner? The commonplace answer is that music has no political meaning. That is, the music is not meant to evoke the time, place or political climate of when it was composed. But this is obviously crazy, when even the relatively uninformed listener like myself can identify by the rhythms in the Italian operas that there must have been --- and I have read this --- different kinds of Italian popular bands, from which the music of the popular Italian operas was derived: Italian "standing" bands, Italian "running" bands, Italian "horse" bands.
To say nothing of the words. It is important that all of us, I believe, are thrilled to listen to a foreign language when we have no obligation to respond. Foreign language overheard is heard as music, in a way that we can never hear the language we speak. So, it is not musically crucial that we understand the words in operas in foreign languages. Words are important, if you understand them (and especially if they are good), but they are not crucial to a musical experience. Mostly, though, we understand what's going on, without understanding every word.
I go to the opera as a Jew or as a descendant of Appalachian hill-billies (who resent the term) or as a Mexican-American from New Mexico or as any one of the numberless combinations that make up America, and I am transported to some Italy, say, of the past.
There is nothing remotely Italian about the Metropolitan Opera. But there it is. Planted in the middle of New York City, once catering to the left-over nostalgia of a huge number of Italian immigrants who then "controlled" the city, and catering now to the unfocused nostalgia of its current audience. It continues in its reenactment of Italy becoming a nation, arming itself, drawing borders, trying pathetically to conquer Ethiopia, collapsing into economic chaos and black and white movies. The Metropolitan Opera, were it an individual, would be hospitalized. Such is the power of nostalgia.
At the opera I am transported to a place and time where there is no disorder. There is disorder on stage, and it is called melodrama. We don't believe it. This is important: that we don't believe it. We do believe, when we are young (or even momentarily sometimes when we are older), what happens in the movies. It is important to remember: we do not believe what happens in opera. Therefore, opera can have no plot. It is foolish to argue that opera --- any opera --- can have a plot; that is, that the "characters" and their apparent "actions" and the apparent "consequences" are related in any way. Opera can be storytelling only. That the story-telling happens on stage and that musicians are making music in the pit (to reinforce the story told) is entirely coincidental. The story might as well be told at the kitchen table with a crazy aunt and uncle as the soprano and tenor. Opera has become "performance art," because it has lost its meaning.
Most people in America don't know --- in the matter of
their genealogy --- much beyond where their grand-parents came from, if they know that. So we invent where we came from in our music. Only music, among the sensual pleasures --- for some strange reason that I have not heard discussed in science or philosophy --- has the ability to stop the present, to stop time and to move us mentally to another time and place. Real or unreal, it doesn't matter.
(Maybe the reason is simply that music uses time and so it displaces the time of the present for a few minutes of relief from the time of the present. I don't know.)
(Maybe, too, visual artists would protest that a painting can do that for them. It doesn't do it for me. And visual artists spend far more time listening to music than they spend in museums. The question of the "why" of music, when taunted by Joyce's much-quoted observation about the "ineluctable modality of the visible," is answered in the simple fact that music does it. The modality of the visible is suspended, up-staged as it were, by the powerful nostalgia of the passage of sound. We can sit in a concert hall, more or less untroubled by the bizarre regimentation of the architecture and the "theater" of the performance --- the orchestra dressed as if for a funeral --- and be relieved of the present for a few minutes.)
Except in rare instances, we have not imagined music moving us into the future. This is understandable, because we cannot imagine what the ordering of everyday life in the future will be like. And in fact we don't much care. Our experience with everyday life suggests that things are not likely to improve.
But going backward in time has the advantage that the disorder of everyday life is removed. And so going backward is the ballgame. While the "stories" of the past, as in history and anecdote, are simpler than the past was, we still have to keep rehearsing them (the stories) to make them simpler and simpler. But with music this effort of simplifying is not required. Music simplifies the past for us. That we were not there, in place, when the music was invented doesn't matter. The place and the beautiful, unreal order surrounding the place comes with the music.
So, we can go back to Europe or Africa or Asia or wherever things were "easy" when the music was conceived, and for a few minutes be relieved of the present.
Most of us go back to Europe, because that is where most of us came from. So our music is mostly "European" in its nostalgia. The predominance of European music is a given, so even people who presumably came from someplace else are caught up in going back to Europe. Why not? Why fight it? We are not going back to a political possibility. We are not going back to reshape the present. That is science-fiction. We are going back to "rest" in the past, to be relieved of the present for a few minutes.
Sorry. I was distracted by the myth of the cowboy, the nostalgia for Wagner and for the triumphs of Italian nationalism and by a definition of "performance art" as melodrama. I used the more common definition of nostalgia. I was distracted from what I proposed was the future of music: a continuous, barely changing commodity always in the air and another kind of music caused by this commodity and made by individuals in refuge from this commodity.
The important question in this discussion is what the music of individuals isolated for a moment-of-variety from the commodity-music will sound like. Among the isolated individuals in retreat from the commodity-music that will be played in every medium for one day and for one day only there will be, in their music, strangeness. What are the origins of this strangeness?
The origins today are, again, nostalgia, but a different kind of nostalgia. This is a nostalgia for a past when music had a powerful political meaning and when musical change meant a political change of some sort, hopefully for the better. I have changed the meaning or use of the term "nostalgia."
Except that the term, "regret," has an active sense, which I think is not the case now, I could use "regret." We have regret for the time when music had a powerful political meaning and when musical change meant a political change of some sort, hopefully for the better. I would have to say, regret the loss of. So, I will stay with nostalgia.
Let us, for the sake of argument, set the beginning of European modern music with Beethoven. That would make it two-hundred years old. By modern I mean that Beethoven, sensing the power of music in his time, thought that he could change things through his music. He thought that by influencing the attitudes of the ruling classes, who controlled the machinery of everyday life, he could alleviate the suffering of everyday life in some degree in everybody. Whether he thought that listening to his music could for a moment alleviate the actual suffering of everyday life in some degree in some listeners I don't know. Probably. But I don't know.
I think he succeeded. Or maybe it is just coincidence. Maybe it would have changed anyway. (This is the artist-as-idiot-savant point of view.) Who cares? Things started changing and some suffering was alleviated. Not all, but some.
Beethoven's idea about the political power of his music to change things has continued to today in America and in Europe. It is, apparently, originally European and now American, too. I would think that it is spreading to other continents, but that is probably only a guess or a wish. As little as I know, I have not heard of the idea being an important part of any other music. (I was once of the belief that big ideas --- for instance, the political power of music --- happened to everybody on the planet at more or less the same time, the result, maybe, of a sun spot, or some virus, but I have left that idea behind, because the more I learn, the less it seems to work.)
I will not pick on other cultures, because I am too ignorant to withstand the attacks. But I know that the idea of music to effect a social change is at least European, dating (arbitrarily) from the time of Beethoven, and that we (in America) have inherited that idea.
It must have grown with the growing power of music for two-hundred years, because by the time I got in touch, around, say, 1950, it was very strong. It was still strong after the war --- which was in some ways a "musical" war: that is, (1) the bad guys apparently liked some kinds of music and didn't like other kinds of music and they enforced their beliefs; (2) I think it is fair to guess that our leaders couldn't have cared less; and (3) note that after the war, when we "re-built" European culture, at our taxpayers' expense, we re-built what was there before the war. After the war the idea that music was embedded in the politics of change continued unquestioned, especially in Europe, where every composer was a politician. And it was true in America, where every composer was disenfranchised, but still believed. I believed. Every one of my friends believed.
Things have changed somewhat since. Now nobody believes. But that doesn't mean that the idea has gone away. Maybe we are just stunned, as after a big meal the carbo-shock leaves you speechless. The next decade or so will tell.
Back to the question of Roger Reynolds and me. We are getting old. After forty you can't play third base in the major leagues. Merle Haggard says that after sixty you lose your voice. (I think he's right.) We have lost our power. And even if you are under forty, so have you.
The most serious criticism one can make of my music (or the music of Roger Reynolds), which criticism I hear in various forms more and more is: what you are doing is not going to change anything; this piece is "self-indulgent," the term meaning it doesn't mean anything politically. The critic, in my imagination a younger composer, maybe doesn't know where the root of this complaint lies, but it is on his or her lips, because the idea that music can change things is still in force. But unacknowledged. Muted.
Actually, what I have just said is not true. I am rarely any longer criticized by younger composers. Now just newspaper "critics" complain. Times have changed. Twice, about thirty years ago, I had the experience of having a young man come up to me after a concert (these were different young men) to tell me that he hated my music. In one case the young man had to make a special trip to a party given in my honor. I was flattered, of course, and asked him why he had wasted his time to make the trip --- when he could be home composing music. He said it was important to him that I know. Those were the days. Now I am just ignored in the traffic or treated very politely as an old guy that did it. I will speak more about the current absence of mutual criticism among composers later. For the moment I must stay with the subject of nostalgia.
The problem for the three of us, Reynolds, you and me --- and for all of our contemporaries --- is that we are in nostalgia for the time, only four decades ago, when music had a political meaning. I can remember the time (wow, nostalgia) when almost every piece was more or less earth-shaking. Now, I must admit --- this is like some kind of medical confession --- that few pieces seem earth-shaking to me. They sound like strange sounds never to be heard again. They sound isolated. Not as manic and monomaniacal as early Stockhausen and Boulez. (These are political, not musical, evaluations.) Not as politically confrontational as Cage. Not as eerily unlikely as Feldman or Nono. Just pieces of strange, isolated ideas. That I may never hear again. And I don't mean just among the young composers. I mean everybody.
I would like to insert here a somewhat indefensible theory of mine in order to introduce a long and complicated complaint about a peculiar characteristic of American music. It goes like this. The Europeans who first arrived on the American continent were not, we think, big-time intellectuals or artists or musicians. They were escaping from oppression, real and imagined. They were what we could call, euphemistically, the working class. Their job, immediately, was to cut down trees, build huts, plant crops and in general make what they found as much as possible like what they had left. They didn't bring court music or Gregorian Chant or the beginnings of Bel Canto or anything of the sort. (Probably that's the stuff they wanted to leave behind.) They did bring a kind of unrealized devotional music, which became realized here. But, most important, they brought dance music; that is, music organized around a simple beat, which was expressed in the body. Because everybody has to dance.
Then they brought entrepreneurs, who in turn brought indentured servants (a wonderful term) and slaves, to cut down the trees, clear the swamps, fight the Indians, plant cotton and tobacco and, hopefully, make money. The devotional music became more and more isolated in the churches. But the dance music --- the African drum beats, the Celtic bar dances, the polka and every other kind of dance rhythm --- was thriving.
Then every successive wave, the Germans, the Irish, the Italians, the Slavs, the Greeks, the Russian Jews brought more. We are inundated --- no, that's not the word --- we are brainwashed with the notion of music as an expression of rhythm to dance to, because that's what the mostly very poor people, who had only that, brought with them. It is so deep in us that we can't find it to cure it.
I am sorry to seem belligerent. I like dance music. I like America. I like our innocent people. I am one of them. But I have come to like, as well, another kind of music, which is in conflict, I discover, with the idea of music as something to dance to. I have come to like a new kind of "devotional" music, which has moved out of the churches into some unlocated, secular place. I say "devotional," because I don't know a better word, but it is music to be listened to, not danced to. In the listening it takes you to someplace you have never been. It is mental. It doesn't require head-nodding. You just sit there and it flows through you and changes you.
I have brought up this point of the difference between dance music (music to be danced to) and "devotional" music (for want of a better word), because Americans keep trying to arrive at some sort of "compromise." Check out the term, "accessible." It almost invariably means the music has a "beat." I don't think there is any reason music has to have a beat, unless you are going to dance to it. It can have a beat. That is a pleasant aspect of some music. I do it myself. But unfamiliar music that doesn't have a beat is discriminated against. The composer knows this. And so the composer is always trying to compromise. This is expressed as "give 'em what they want." This is the musical version of "I can't think, unless I am being interrogated." Which is, in the case of thinking, why we don't have very many free-standing thoughts. We have answers. I catch myself doing this. I wake up in the middle of the night in the middle of a complicated argument, and I realize that I am answering to something that hasn't even been asked. It's as though I am interrogating myself. There is no kidding myself that this is a meditation. I am on trial. Or arguing for something. And so I have begun to notice this in a lot of writing. We don't have meditations, thoughts. We have answers.
We have, in the same way, few examples of music that is a meditation, free of external consequences. I don't mean "meditational" music. I mean music free of external consequences; that is, the consequences of who and whether anyone will like it. I think this compromise has damaged us. It is peculiarly American, because, as I said earlier, when our ancestors (all of our ancestors) came to America, they brought only what the "common" people had, because they came under adverse circumstances --- almost all of them. They brought what they could carry. And so we don't have the tradition of European "thinking" music, we don't have the tradition of African or Asian "thinking" music. We have a lop-sided culture that we have been trying to fix for a few hundred years.
There were a brief few decades, early in the century, when the better-off went to Europe (Germany, in particular) to catch up with non-dance music. Charles Ives didn't go. But everybody else went. They brought back imitation German music. It was good in Germany, but here it was imitation.
Then, in this "serious" music there was a brief flirtation with jazz, which mostly came to nothing, because the black people were better at jazz. And black people could not make "serious" music, because they were oppressed.
Then (this is a chronology) there came American-Serious-Music. It was taught in the conservatories. Every music school had a Resident String Quartet (the cheapest form of ensemble), a Graduate Student String Quartet, and numberless Undergraduate String Quartets. They played American-Serious-Music. The string quartet was the university computer-music-studio of the 1940s and 1950s. The string quartet was the sampler that ate hamburgers.
It is a characteristic of the string quartet to emphasize moving the bow back and forth. The more the better.
Insert: Mr. Arditti, of string quartet fame, complained to Alvin Lucier, in the presence of a large number of people, that he didn't like to play Alvin's "String Quartet", because there was very little bow movement, which lack of bow movement made his arm tired. To which Alvin replied, "Why don't you play it with the other arm?"
American-Serious-Music became a matter of moving the bow back and forth as much as possible, with accents here and there. You might call it sawing. One of its foremost practitioners called the style, "motor-rhythmic." It is characterized by a continuous sawing of sixteenth-notes or eighth-notes (depending on the time signature and the tempo) Up-bow, down-bow, Up-bow, down-bow, endlessly. You know what I mean.
This is where I came in. I went to music school. I hated "motor rhythms." Gradually I came to hate string quartets, when they got into that sawing, because that relentless sawing was simply a senseless update of the circle-dances that those innocent people had brought with them to America. Lawrence Welk get back. I am sensitive to poverty. Everything about "motor rhythms" was just another version of the polka, the hora and whatever else the dances were called wherever they came from. A circle of mostly poor people holding hands and jumping up and down.
A long way from Morton Feldman. And I didn't even know Morton Feldman existed.
Then there was a period, very brief, no more than two decades, when the "motor rhythms" went away. I think they were replaced in the music schools by something else, but I'm not sure what that was. Whatever it was, it wasn't very important, because it couldn't hold up to the changes happening in Europe and America. The European composers became irrational (and contagious) with Serialism. A lot of American composers got into --- if you will pardon the expression --- "sound." (The pejorative term was "drone.") Both sides were fascinated. What could be more different and more beautiful: serialism and the drone?
Things were looking up.
Then something political happened. If I were into conspiracy theory, I would blame it on the government, because it happened exactly when the NEA happened. But that's impossible. Maybe. "Motor rhythms" came back in a blitz of journalistic attacks on the "drone," in composers attacking one another, in string quartets sawing away, in five-finger exercises at the synthesizer and elsewhere. This time it was called something else. Another label. Same deal. Different name. Personally, I think the reason for the reaction was that the drone had just got too far out. It wasn't satisfying our need to nod our heads in memory of the polka and the jig and the hora.
Also, for some wonderful reason during the two decades of relief from motor-rhythms, many composers got into using words. The words were largely political, the Vietnam War and various other complaints, but the important point is that music stopped being resolutely "structural" and started being "narrative," as though there was some kind of primitive "opera" being born in America. (Note that at the same time the European composers were advocating "burn down the opera houses.")
This turning to "narrative" was maybe as important as the evolution of the "drone." And it was, apparently, in the minds of composers, audience and middle-management, as dangerous as the drone. So, something political happened.
We went backwards.
Thirty years and I was back to where I came in: head nodding while the string quartet played. I stopped composing for a while. My dream had come to an end.
Curiously, at the same time many Europeans went nuts. I'm telling you: sun spots or a virus. "Free improvisation." Wow. I don't want to vilify "free improvisation," because so many musicians like it now and practice it. Obviously, I don't. Maybe I am too old, or maybe there is another reason. I have noticed only, in my own defense, that much of free improvisation does not seem so free. It is a powerful method for finding new sounds without having to wait for the neighborhood orchestra to invite you to make new sounds, but it does seem to me to lack, in some way, a freedom of variety. I mean a variety among styles.
A few months ago I heard a glorious concert by the Art Ensemble of Chicago. I can't remember that they described their music as free improvisation, though improvisation was certainly there in force.
Just last night, (March, 2000) I heard a concert of free improvisation by nine professional musicians, some of whom according to the program notes have reputations based in part on free improvisation. One characteristic of the music was indisputable: it came from jazz improvisation. In fact, it reminded me during many moments of a concert I heard in 1970 played by Anthony Braxton, Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Barry Altschul (the era when many Europeans went nuts). It also reminded me of many concerts I heard in 1960 played by the Bob James Trio. It reminded me of concerts I've lost track of played in the 1950s. In other words, it seems not to have changed much and so it seems unlikely to lead us out of this situation of political powerlessness. It seems unlikely to change things for the better, if nobody is paying attention. The concert wasn't a statement. I don't know why I should have wanted it to be, but I did.
One aspect of free improvisation that seems important to someone from the "outside" is that so much of it sounds like it is a form of jazz.
I don't see why free improvisation has to sound like jazz. There are so many other things to be free of musically. But, I have heard few concerts of free improvisation that reminded me of anything except jazz, except from British musicians. Maybe only the British, after 1970, survived free improvisation free of jazz influences. Why? Because they had a rigid caste system, a Royal Family that spoke German at home, and, thus, a sense of humor. I have enjoyed British free improvisation, because it was like Monty Python does modern music.
That was a mistake. I heard a concert in Berkeley in about 1972 by George Lewis, Douglas Ewert, Rae Imamura and Jacques Bekaert that I think was totally improvised and that did not remind me of jazz. A spectacular concert.
Anyway, I have spoken so much about free improvisation, because it seems so important now. Almost as if there is a contest, in teaching music, between free improvisation and some other form that I haven't heard much about but that I take to be a kind of retrenchment to the incorporation of known ideas --- rhythmically, melodically, harmonically and orchestrally known ideas. I know I am guilty of this, I mean the retrenchment. It is one of those ideas that spread. A sun spot or a virus. But I don't do motor-rhythms.
And I have spoken so much about free improvisation, because I am not much impressed. There is so little variety of style. I wish those musicians who improvise "freely" would come up with a new "idea," a new form of behavior to signal the world that we are not satisfied with the way things are.
I wish free improvisation would make the audience say, "Those people are crazy." Like audiences said about Ornette Coleman and John Cage and Juan Hidalgo and a few of my friends. I wish free improvisation would divide the audience into the care's and the care-not's. I think divisiveness is necessary to accomplish certain things.
The good thing about free improvisation is that it is generally free of "motor-rhythms" --- not always, but enough. In that respect it is importantly free. The retrenchment has certainly given us "motor-rhythms" of a sort. They seem new, but they are not. I am waiting for another change.
I think, to put my intuition in the simplest possible statement, the future of music --- I mean both instrumental and vocal music (about which I will say more in a minute) --- will include the important change that music will get much faster and much slower. We will move dramatically away from what we think of now as the limitations of what the body can do. I think that, within reason, limitations are self-imposed by habit. This is illustrated in the radical changes we have seen in the last thirty years in sports. The slam-dunk, never imagined, is now a without-which. The triple Lutz, never imagined, is now a without-which (and they are going for four.) The four-minute mile. The sixty home runs. The seventy-yard pass. Etcetera.
There will be more notes played in a shorter period of time, because we will learn from what computers can teach us that we can actually play more notes (and understand them) in a shorter period of time.
There will be more notes sustained over a longer period of time, because we will learn from what electricity can teach us that we can actually sustain our attention to notes over a longer period of time.
The important stylistic novelties that I have noticed and admired while so-called "serious" music in America reinvented "motor rhythms" are two (both in popular music): one is what I believe is called, "New Age Music," which certainly is different and which certainly changed something (and which has remained, curiously, anonymous; someone should look into this). The other is: African-American "talking music." (I won't use labels here, because I can't keep up with the label changes.) This style has become the commodity, and has remained short; that is, modeled on the commodity form of popular music. I don't see why it has to be almost always short (except that African-Americans usually need the money that a good commodity provides). Short can be powerful. But there must be longer stories to tell from the African-American community. There must be some way that the composer claiming the African-American experience, and who can afford to, can make an "epic" statement, something that lasts longer than three minutes and still has the power of "talking music." (Correct me, if this music exists.)
As you can see, I like African-American "talking music" and I like its "political-ness," though sometimes not all of its politics. I like it because it is not nostalgic. But I think it will come to nothing except "style," and then be supplanted by another "style," unless it gets into the musical population at large. Its dangers --- lots of words --- must be taken up by the musical population at large (especially older folks), must be "assimilated" (oh, God) to do us any good. It must be assimilated, like we assimilated serialism, like we assimilated the drone.
You will answer that composers "assimilated" rock and roll and that that is what I am complaining about. But that's not right. Composers did not assimilate rock and roll until it had lost its power. Composers assimilated "motor-rhythms," the academic music of the 1940s. And lost it.
One more time. We are in nostalgia for the moment, not long ago, when a musical idea could have political consequences. I don't mean elect a new president or change the rules about telling the consumer about what's in the toothpaste, but political in the sense that having heard the music the world is not the same for you anymore.
There are exceptions. There are pieces that definitely are not likely to be a commodity. I play them whenever I have the feeling that I have lost the vision. I will play a few examples later.
I will say it again. We are in nostalgia for the time when music meant something. That is what I mean by nostalgia. We are hobbled by our inability to change our habits about what music might sound like and might accomplish, if it were changed, if it could shock us into paying attention.
The future of music, for us, has to include, logically, the possibility that there may not be any music at all, except for the commodity-music playing in the background. In spite of what I have said about the isolated individual doing it just for variety, just for fun, which is the most likely scenario, there is the possibility that the variety could disappear. Books and learning disappeared from Europe for a few hundred years during the so-called Dark Ages. (See: "How the Irish Saved Civilization," Thomas Cahill, Anchor Books/Doubleday, New York, 1995.) Music in all of its variety could simply disappear for a while.
I say that this is an unlikely scenario, because certain psychologists (see: "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind," Julian Jaynes, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1976) have suggested that the brain makes some form of music for some functional purpose, whether we want it to or not, and that, if we don't admit that message as music, we think the gods are talking to us (and we get put away.) In other words, the idea that there won't be any "new" music is preposterous, not only from a common-sense point of view ("she could sing before she could talk"), but in the opinion of speculative science.
But, of course, that depends on what you mean by "music." There could be mad-men and mad-women, safely locked up and singing away, but no music schools. What would the world sound like then?
John Cage famously suggested that we could direct our attention to the "outside" world of sounds, where every sound has a specific meaning (the traffic, the bird, etcetera), and be just as happy. No matter that it didn't work for him (he went back to or never stopped composing) and that his idea followed suspiciously on "1984" and "Brave New World," it is a big idea. The idea that every sound (from the outside world) has a specific meaning (is a "sign," as they say) and that the pattern of those sounds could satisfy us as much as any pattern of sounds we could invent, is a big idea. It suggests that we can stop "thinking" musically. All of those musical thoughts could be replaced by something else, I don't know what. But, for example, I do know people, wonderfully smart people, whose calculating thoughts have been replaced by the pocket calculator. (She said to me as I did the budget in my head: How do you do that? I said, the multiplication tables, of course. She said, the multiplication tables? My heart stopped. Talk about a generation gap. I explained the multiplication tables and that they were simply memorized. She said, Why would I want to know that?)
The idea that every sound in music has a particular meaning is of interest for me, because of my obsession with opera. Words, if they are real words, have a particular meaning and are the essence of opera.
That is, if they are real words, with a real meaning in the real world, like "hello," "love" and "goodbye," the words can be used in opera.
I have veered off into opera, my obsession. Sorry.
"Hermeneutics," for instance, apart from how weird it sounds, cannot be used in opera, because it is not a real word. It is a label. In fact, it is not even a label from the real world, like "chair." It is a label for an intellectual preoccupation, like "categorization," "racialization" and, for example, "preoccupation."
Footnote: A distinguished professor of physics at Princeton, who had won a Nobel prize, was asked, upon his retirement, what he looked forward to in retirement. I suppose the interviewer expected an answer like: Buy a house in Mexico and pursue my interest in desert gardening. The professor said, "In my retirement I will never again have to go to the dictionary and look up the meaning of hermeneutics." I myself have looked it up three times. Since then I have given up. The Webster's definition is: "the study of the methodological principles of interpretations and explanations."
"Hermeneutics: the study of the methodological principles of interpretations and explanations."
"Hermeneutics" is apparently a kind of intellectual model-railroading.
Culling through all of the words to find real ones, I can't get rid of all labels. For instance, "chair." But I get rid of as many as I can. Otherwise, how can you tell a story?
Our nostalgia for the time when a musical composition, in its resolute abstractness, in its defiant "differentness," could change the world for the listener, has left us with a tool that doesn't work any longer. This is the nostalgia that cripples Reynolds and me --- and you. And there is nothing we can do about it without resorting to drastic measures. (Little pun.)
Don't misunderstand, please. I like Roger Reynolds's music, as I always have. Forty years. I listen to it. I mean, within reason. There are just twenty-four hours in a day, some of which has to be given over to making a living. And, of course, there is everybody else. Like Reynolds, I have a small reputation for liking other people's music and trying to help it be heard. I haven't done this as much recently as in the past, when I could do it, but in my home town, among my friends, there is a sort of standing joke along the lines of: why is an old guy like you still going to hear concerts? What's the payoff?
In preparation for this visit to UCSD, I spent a special amount of time listening to Reynolds's recent works. "The Paris Pieces," "Kokoro," "Ariadne's Thread" and "Focus."
The music is curiously similar throughout (throughout the three CD's) in its ability to intimidate me with its skill in conveying the music to the page. I can't do that. I don't have access to the scores, but I am dazzled by the very number of notes and by the knowledge that these notes have been written for a functionally anonymous group of players and that, as I know to be the case with Reynolds, the composer has had to make up a new kind of graphic language, a new set of symbols, to tell the players what to do. This is the most brilliant music in its style and "medium" --- that is, written --- that I have heard in a long, long time. I could not do anything of the sort.
My music has become complicated over the past thirty-five years by its involvement with verbal ideas. Probably nobody else can do anything of the sort.
Roger and I and a lot of composers I know share two things. We have extraordinary skills. We have lost our power.
My complaint about the nostalgia is that we have lost our power. It was there and now it's gone. We have lost our power to make music important. Now it's up to the kids. Good luck, kids.
Insert: As I am working on this essay (March, 2000) I have just received a wonderful book from Granary Books, "Arcana: Musicians on Music," edited by John Zorn. It is made up of essays, remarks, technical hints, whatever, from thirty composers. In his Preface, Zorn complains that, though these musicians have been at it for some time --- they are all entering into or thriving in middle age --- they have had no recognition (at all!) in the critical press. In other words, nobody cares that they exist, except for their fans. That is what I mean by loss of power.
I know almost every one of the thirty composers from at least a concert or two. Some are extraordinary musicians, as good as or better on their instruments than anybody in the world. Their ideas in composition could not be more varied. But the composers are not commodities. Their music is, in most cases, not a commodity. And I think they do not want to be commodities or to make commodities. But, as Zorn points out, nobody cares. They are powerless. Music has stopped meaning anything politically.
I could not have invented a more perfect example of the point I am trying to make. This is a plug for the book (http://www.granarybooks.com). Zorn says it right out: "...after more than twenty years of music-making on the New York scene, except for the occasional review in trade magazines/periodicals (which because of the context in which they appear and the speed with which they are written don't really count anyway), not one single writer has ever come forward to champion or even to intelligently analyze what it is that we have been doing. Indeed, they hardly seem able even to describe it." Welcome to the club, John.
What I remark about the book --- and this is not a criticism of the music --- is how isolated each of the composers seems. In their ideas. There is great regard for improvisation; the notion occurs in many of the essays. Maybe I can learn something. But even though I know these musicians play together in various combinations --- because I have seen and heard it --- I would not know from the book that any one of them knows any one of the others. I think this is fair. Each of them is a private universe. Encapsulated, as it were. Traveling throughout the world to world-wide fan clubs, but quarantined from the world. It seems almost worse than when I was a kid. I think it is not their fault. I think they are trapped in the bubble of politically meaningless music. Have mercy on their souls.
Now I will stop picking on Reynolds and everybody else --- including now the Europeans and the younger composers --- and just pick on myself.
For the rest of this speech, with the exception of one remark, I will speak about opera, which is something I know little about and care a lot about. It certainly figures into the future for me.
The exceptional one remark is that I think "counterpoint," that is, the musical technique of many instruments playing together, each trying to make sense and each trying to stay away from collisions with other instruments, is on its way to being dead as a door nail. Maybe a couple of generations. Roger Reynolds, Brian Ferneyhough, George Lewis, Anthony Davis --- to name a few of the local celebrities --- and I compose in counterpoint, because that is what we were taught; that dogs are too old to learn new tricks, and the time is not ripe anyway. But computer programming suggests that there is the possibility of a "whole" music (in the sense that the liver is a "whole" human organ: that is, without "parts") in which the causes and effects are too complicated to be understood for a long time (i.e. requiring eventually a new music theory), in which there are no "lines" (as in counterpoint) and in which (unlike in counterpoint) no element can be removed without bringing down the whole house of cards. I am sorry I won't be around to hear this music.
Opera. What is it? And who cares? And who cares, because what is it has not a chance in the world of being altered in my lifetime.
It is strange to use the word "poverty" in this audience, where almost certainly everybody owns a car (if not a parking space), a closet full of nice clothes, a kitchen full of food and a mind full of big plans for the future. But, in fact, there is an unacknowledged poverty, and it is probably more important to us than the car, the clothes, the food and the big plans.
We are impoverished in our ability to change music. And for us, now, change is God (to quote my own work). It is impossible for us to imagine taking music to the divine realm of thrill that caused us to become musicians in the first place. We are impoverished, because the resources are so meager. If I dared, and if, in some extraordinary change in my financial circumstances (time and money is no problem, sir), I could make an opera that was different from any opera ever known, that opera would not be played.
If I made the opera for orchestra and voices --- ignoring for the moment what the term "orchestra" might mean --- there would be no orchestra to play it. Every opera company would refuse. Or imagine some opera impresario in a moment of absolute madness deciding yes we will do this, the orchestra could not play the work on six hours of rehearsal. Imagine that I asked for and got one-hundred hours of rehearsal with the voices to teach the old dogs new tricks, what would benefit the singers from those new tricks in the larger world of tomato sauce.
This is not "unduly" pessimistic, invoking the pejorative. It is simply pessimistic, because we are talking about my life. We are not talking about the future of music. I am talking about me. I don't want some pieces of paper in my file cabinet that in a century will change music. I want now. Girls just want to have fun.
Or imagine that with my unlimited resources of time and money I went into the most sophisticated recording studio in the world --- Germany, Los Angeles, Nashville --- and spent some years with my idea (taking time off, of course, to go to the tropics when the imagination simply went dry), where would that recording be heard?
But this is foolish. I don't have unlimited anything.
So what am I do to, burdened with the habit of counterpoint, expected to produce works with voices and orchestra, expected to keep the message alive in the underground, required to be respectable (check out the term, "accessible") and with no resources to speak of?
One answer is to go forward in time. Very far forward. To a time when the poverty of our resources will have fully matured and there will be just musical commodities and, somewhere else, strange people doing strange musical things. To a time when there are no orchestras, to a time when there are just stories in song form. This evokes the image of some perhaps mythical blind Greek, maybe strumming a few strings, but basically just singing his heart out.(And hoping to get paid and not executed.) I must admit that, even though this answer doesn't appeal to me much, because it suggests "folk-singing," which in turn suggests poverty, I am drawn to it, because it is practical. That is, I can continue to make opera, weird as it will seem, unwelcome (and unavailable) as it will be.
I confess that for forty years I dreamed of opera as voices with orchestra, and I have made voices with orchestra. I have pursued the dream against all odds of success (that is, performance) and against all practical suggestions that I have lost my mind and that I am, in fact, not a composer at all. I won't apologize for this mistake. I think I have made some good pieces.
But something has happened recently that I can hardly handle. I am beginning to imagine pure singing. Nothing as pure as just my forlorn and aging voice, but many singers brought together in a new technique. Forget bar-lines, forget harmonic architecture, forget harmony, except maybe a few voices coming together to reinforce a certain line or two. Most important, forget orchestra.
Don't think of Welsh choral groups or church choruses. Think of numbers of singers, or just a few singers asserting their right, politically, to make music out of the incoherent whatever of what is going on in their minds that they can't stop and that they have decided not to stop. Think of just singing. Certainly with microphones. But just singing.
What I can hardly handle is that this imagination suggests pure speech. Or, maybe, impure speech. (It doesn't suggest to me, for instance, "keening" or any of the other non-verbal vocal sounds that people have made for centuries and make today.) It suggests crazed story-telling. It suggests speech, because speech is needed for story-telling.
In fact, many years ago I worked with a group of persons who were brilliant speakers, but who had no musical training: that is, specifically they had no experience in pitch inflections outside of the range of their natural speech and no experience with how to rehearse those special inflections and to reproduce them and to further embellish them. This was the now legendary ONCE Group.
And because I was just beginning and didn't know exactly what I was doing, there was no possibility that I could "teach" them these techniques. And so I just made operas that were extraordinarily "spoken." But not "merely" spoken. There were rules, as in music. Surprisingly, I did come up with compositional techniques that did not use bar-lines, harmonic architecture or even harmony as such, but that allowed the speech to be in the right place at the right time. And I didn't even know what I was doing. None of those works was recorded (because there was no multi-track recording in those days). For me those works were the big ones that got away. I would give almost anything, if you know what I mean. I was very happy. I think nobody, except me and the ONCE Group, thought that we were making music. But I didn't care, because I thought I would live forever and that eventually, sooner than later, something would come along in the way of support.
I was wrong. Our expectations got bigger, naturally, and the operas became more ambitious, but the phone never rang and so eventually we had to give up. But I learned something that changed me forever.
I was still into counterpoint of a more or less conventional nature. That is, the individual lines of speech existed as potential musical lines. If I had multi-track recordings of those pieces now, I could take them into the studio and make of them more or less what I am interested in right now.
If I had wings, I might be a bird.
So, I gave up composing for a few years. Entirely. Almost five years.
Then a new situation, full of promise, developed and I got back into it.
Gradually, very gradually, too gradually to satisfy my dreams of "if" (20 years), I learned what I wanted to do, and I found four singers who can do more or less perfectly what I have come to dream of. These four persons, in alphabetical order, are: Sam Ashley, Thomas Buckner, Jacqueline Humbert and Joan La Barbara. And we are assisted in our explorations by the great sound engineer and composer, Tom Hamilton. I would also like to give credit here to musicians who, earlier, helped me discover how these dreams could be made into music: in order of appearance, "Blue" Gene Tyranny, Paul Shorr, David Rosenboom and Tom Erbe.
I would like to be technical about my ideas about opera for a few paragraphs. What I will say is commonplace for many composers and antithetical for others, but I'll say it.
The simple fact is that American English does not fit European, traditional, operatic models of melody and rhythm. American English is distinguished by an infinitely subtle variety of melodic and rhythmic stresses on its consonants: fricatives, sibilants, plosives, etcetera. The vowels in American English cannot bear the weight of the kind of melodic stresses --- durations and embellishments --- that are used in, say, Italian opera. It makes them sound stupid. I didn't make it happen, but it's true.
There have been some successful exceptions to this rule. The exceptions are in Broadway musical songs from George M. Cohan to about Richard Rodgers (when I stopped listening). Maybe it's still happening, but I don't hear it in, for instance, Andrew Lloyd Weber and I never heard it in Bernstein. Maybe I'm just wrong, because I'm not paying attention, but for me it stopped being successful technically around "South Pacific."
More importantly there have been extraordinary exceptions in American popular music, which exceptions have continued in a kind of avalanche since, say, Chuck Berry (in one style) and, say, Hank Williams (in another). Or Billie Holiday and Patsy Cline. In popular music --- let's take country music as an example --- the treatment of the vowels --- and I don't know where it came from --- is so special that you almost can't do it unless you learned it before you could learn anything else. And even then it has to be refined by studying with a master-singer.
I heard an interview with a young country singer on the radio --- I didn't catch her name --- about her career. She said, "Well, you spend a couple of years in the studio as a harmony singer, learning the glides..." I think I know what the "glides" are, but I couldn't learn them any more than I could learn North Indian singing or Joe Turner. There are some things you cannot learn.
Back to the technicalities. On the other hand, apart from the glides, you could almost take out the vowels in many a popular song and it would still be a song. I exaggerate horribly, of course, but just to make a point. About American English. The technicality is that in de-emphasizing the vowels, if you don't put in the glides, everything goes faster. Consonants don't take up much time and they can't stand embellishment. So the words just whiz by, and if they don't whiz by they sound stupid. They sound wrong. Consonants are beautiful in American English.
"She's got a ticket to ride" sounds wonderful in song, but it is twice as fast as any six words in any European opera. Except for the diphthong in the last word --- which is an awfully fast diphthong --- the sentence is almost all consonants. Notice how beautiful that last "d" is.
Consonants are beautiful in American English. And they make the words whiz by.
So the composer has to use a lot of words to tell a long story and to make an opera.
There are probably more words in any one of my operas than in the complete works of Verdi. It's got to be that way.
So, above all I am interested in speed and how to make something beautiful out of it. (This is so academic and confessional I am embarrassed. But I think that's what I'm getting paid for.)
The idea of speed, quickness, as a beautiful thing --- as in Bill Monroe, Art Tatum, Anthony Braxton and a few other musicians I admire in popular music --- has entirely disappeared from our notion of opera. Now we are into turgid tempos (if there is any tempo at all), the projected vibrato and left-over vowel embellishment, which, handed down, is now written into the score.
I would like to explain my use of the term, "speed."
I am indebted to Jackie Humbert for giving me this way of explaining the idea.
You can use your car in at least three, different ways: (1) to go to the grocery store; (2) to go sight-seeing on a Sunday afternoon; (3) for the sake of "driving."
In going to the grocery store, speed doesn't matter, except in special circumstances, and except that you want to avoid getting a ticket. In sight-seeing, excessive speed can become a negative factor; you can go too fast to really enjoy seeing. Excessive speed focuses everybody's attention on the road and on the traffic. Slow is good. In driving for the sake of driving, speed is almost the sole, essential ingredient. That is, for utmost pleasure, the car should move exactly as fast as the speed the road was designed for. (We forget, probably more than we forget anything in our culture, that roads are designed by human beings, like ourselves, who have applied their skill and education and their taste for driving to making the road as good as possible; that is, safe, efficient and pleasurable. Not unlike a musical composition.) We can take special pleasure in driving too fast or in driving too slow. But in those pleasures we are not in collaboration with the designer of the road. For instance, in the Bay Area of California there are some of the most beautifully designed roads I have ever driven. If one drives those roads exactly at the speed called for, the car seems sometimes to drive itself. It seems to float. This is the special pleasure of "driving." There is no substitute.
One might say that in speech and in singing, tempo, or speed, is everything. That would be an exaggeration, but not much.
For my taste, as I have said, English sounds bad if it is sung too slowly, and it is usually sung too slowly in so-called "serious" music. The vowels are dragged out as if almost every English vowel were not a diphthong, and so the peculiar "speed" of the diphthong is lost. The consonants are treated as an embarrassment. Over-attention to consonants is thought of as a part of "extended vocal technique" (if that term still exists in teaching voice.)
Footnote: I have read that the earliest Italian operas, say, Monteverdi, were criticized in their time as being more spoken than sung. What could that mean? When I hear Monteverdi now, it always seems like it is being played at half-speed. If I say this out loud, my friends tell me to shut up. But I can't help it. My musical "intuition," which has not failed me yet, tells me that I am not hearing the beautiful Italian of Monteverdi; I am hearing some weird version of Italian fashioned by somebody who lives where the sun comes up only a couple of months a year and everything moves very slowly, because of the cold. Too bad, Monteverdi. That's the breaks. If anybody is still around in a few hundred years to perform one of my 90-minute operas, they will probably decide I didn't know what I was doing and take it to about four hours. To improve the intelligibility. There is a field of scholarship that thinks that the Shakespeare we think is interminable at three and a half hours was done in the Globe in an hour and a half. "To be or not to be." You know what I mean?
Now there is an interesting technical relationship between vocal speed and the "orchestra." Namely, if you sing fast enough and with spectacular grace and embellishment and wildness and abandon, you might not need an orchestra.
I have been trying to do this for the past few years. I haven't accomplished anything, because I don't have the nerve. And I don't have the technique. But I am trying.
I would, if I could, replace the "external" orchestra synchronized with the voices by the conductor or by time-code. I would replace it with an electronic orchestra designed to be synchronized with the voices. In this technique, then, the voices could go at any speed in American English and the orchestra would always be with them. This is currently called "processing," or "effects" (as in, "cause and effect"), which is ever so slightly pejorative. If I suggested that I would like to "process" the voices at the Met, can you imagine?
The problem I have at this very moment is that I can't afford it. It can be done, but I can't afford it. I can't afford the equipment and I can't afford the technical assistance. I have the voices, finally. But I can't afford the orchestra of voice-processors. I can only hint at it.
So I will continue with the "sound" of the drone. I will continue with counterpoint; that is, with as many tracks as I can afford. I will continue with my fascination with speed. I will continue to make it possible, through the combinations of the words, for the singers to sing ever faster. I will continue to make operas that will allow the journalists to say, "That's not singing. That's talking." It will be a well-kept secret. I mean, that it is singing.
I will be followed by composers who are smarter and more experienced than I am. And better equipped. I hope.
I don't know about the future of music. As I said at the beginning, it is too big a subject for me. But I think I know the future of opera.
I hope I have covered the subject.
As you might have guessed, I like popular music. That means I like some music that is designed to be a commodity. I wish there were time for more music in my life, so that I wouldn't feel guilty about liking Dolly Parton so much. Or George Strait or Daniel Lanois. (I know these names only because friends have given me the records. The African-American "talking music" performers will have to go un-named, because I don't have the records and I'm not going to buy them. I hear them on the radio.) I would like to not feel guilty about liking the music of people who probably wouldn't like me --- that is, my music --- if they knew me.
One commodity every day, all day, everywhere.
I am short of time.
Did I say nostalgia enough times?
Ideas I didn't have time or patience for:
(1) absence of mutual criticism among composers
(2) what could an important "change of commodity" mean ---
and has this ever happened in music?
The Future of Music for three hours. That is my mandate. Most was talk. Now I will play nine examples. None is more than three or four minutes long. Only two of the nine are complete pieces. The rest have to be faded out. (This means I have had to take them out of the digital domain and through my console.) Every example is taken from the beginning of the CD or from the beginning of the selection. The examples, of course, can't do justice to the whole work --- the changes, sometimes extremely dramatic --- the effect of listening for 60 minutes.
These are the kinds of things I listen to when I have the feeling that I have lost the vision.
Steve Peters: "in memory of the four winds" (excerpt)
CD Title: "in memory of the four winds"
Label: pianissimo ppp 01 c/o nonsequitur
P.O. Box 344, Albuquerque, NM 87103 /
I had intended to start with this composition, before speaking. I like the slow fade in. Later the piece becomes very loud. No short sample could do justice to this piece.
Tom Hamilton and Peter Zummo:
"Loudspeaker than Words" (complete)
CD Title: Slybersonic Tromosome
Label: Penumbra Music
P.O. Box 282, Grafton, WI 53024 /
I like the seamless blend of trombone and electronics.
David Behrman: "Canons (1959)" (complete)
CD Title: David Behrman / Wave Train
Label: alga marghen / plana-B 5NMN.020
Fax: Italy-01-70-300-689/attn:CarCano/Dept T1
A wonderful serial composition, every aspect serialized. "A palindrome as well as a canon, with the two musicians, pianist and percussionist, switching roles at its exact midpoint." Performed by David Tudor and Christoph Caskel. It is very different from David Behrman's recent music.
Sam Ashley: "Ear of the Beholder, Eye of the Storm, Benefit of the Doubt"
(for Thomas Buckner) (excerpt)
copyright controlled by Sam Ashley
"a bank of processed sines, each of which either stays at the same pitch, goes down a half step or up a half step" to lead the voice, Tom Buckner's, to different song-tones.
Walter Marchetti: "Natura Morta" (excerpt)
CD Title: Natura Morta
Label: Cramps CRSCD 031
Artis Records, Via False 33, 36050 Monteviale,
Fax: (0444) 552688
I have played this recording, which continues exactly in the manner of the excerpt for 69'27", many times. It heals me. I can't explain it.
Yasunao Tone: "Jiao Liao Fruits" (excerpt)
CD Title: Musica Iconologos
Label: Lovely Music LCD 3041
"Musica Iconologus" is an extreme example of the notion that every sound is a "sign." The sounds come from a computer program that scans pictures and makes the result into sounds. I can't explain it technically, because I don't understand it technically. But I saw a couple of the pictures. Yasunao Tone took photographs or drawings of everyday things (feet, for example) from magazines and made collages in which the everyday things take the place of brush-strokes in Chinese ideograms. (In addition to being a wonderful composer, Yasunao Tone is a scholar of classical Chinese literature.) As he explained it to me, a technician could take the sound samples from the recording and translate them back into visual representations of ideograms at a second remove: feet, not brush-strokes, but clearly ideograms telling the story of "Jiao Liao Fruits" and "Solar Eclipse in October," two poems from what Mr. Tone describes as "the earliest Chinese anthology."
Dolly Parton: "I Am Ready" (excerpt)
CD Title: The Grass is Blue
Label: Sugar Hill SUG-CD-3900
I use this as an example of voices without orchestra. Plus it is beautiful. Also as an example of the question of being able to afford it. The reverb, which breaks my heart, probably costs more than I made last year.
Robert Ashley and Jacqueline Humbert: "Au Pair" (excerpt)
copyright by Robert Ashley and Jacqueline Humbert
This is a recording of a first performance of a new composition with a libretto by Jacqueline Humbert. I have included it, because it is an example of the way we use a combination of harmony and text for pitch inflections and an example of processing as orchestra.
Annea Lockwood: "Feldspar Brook, Mt. Marcy" (excerpt)
CD Title: A Sound Map of the Hudson River
Label: Lovely Music LCD 2081
I intended to end the talk with this excerpt. The sound map changes continuously in time, because the river does. And it changes in place over hundreds of miles from the source of the Hudson River at Mt. Marcy to the Atlantic Ocean at Staten Island.