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SEARCH EVENT V, 27 October 2002, University of California, San Diego
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Department of Music, University of California, San Diego for its SEARCH
initiative. The TEXT / TALK is copyrighted and appears in its original presentation
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The piece you just heard was developed in collaboration with video artist Cynthia Cox. Its title is A Collective Cleansing, and it is based on fragments of text from Aeschylus's The Suppliant Maidens. The original version, on a ten-minute loop with video, was commissioned by the World Conference on Breast Cancer in Ontario. The Suppliant Maidens were the Danaids, 50 daughters of King Danaos. After their father lost a decisive battle, the Danaids were made to marry the 50 sons of the victor. Danaos instructed them all to kill their husbands on their wedding night, but only 49 obeyed. The 50th daughter decided she actually liked the guy. In any case, the other 49 daughters were sentenced to pour water for eternity into a bottomless cistern.
Many of my works are responses to literary works, even those that do not use voices or text. This is the natural result of the fact that I find reading one of the greatest pleasures in life. Today a little later I will talk about private reading and listening, and why I believe they are so integral to the self-care of artists as we enter a cacophonous future.
I am the Co-Artistic Director of a festival in New York with my friend and fellow composer Eleanor Sandresky called Music At The Anthology, and we have been commissioning, premiering and producing the work of young composers for five years now. This festival allows me the great honor of witnessing new directions in music from very early stages and at very close proximity. Because we focus on the work of heretofore largely "unrecognized" composers, we have access to work that is not available otherwise. I do believe that this privilege also makes me conversant on the Future Of Music in a unique way, and I hope to do an adequate service to my colleagues, some of whose music you will hear at the end of this talk, by articulating some of my thoughts about our future. I do not claim to be the spokesperson for an entire generation of creative musicians; I seek only to be responsible to my felicitous position of enhanced access, by observing this work on its own multifarious terms.
A Collective Cleansing is a good example of a piece that was written for and is only really performable by the composer. Every year, because of the vast number of composers who are writing works for themselves to perform alone, we have a concert called 'Solitary Confinement' -- soloists only. The practice of composing for oneself is certainly not new. Whereas during the classical era music had a certain social function that frowned on total exclusivity, Liszt wrote for himself, and believed he was writing music that only he could play. He did not anticipate that technical standards would rise to meet him and that every self-respecting concert pianist would attempt to meet his challenges someday. In any case, this self-perception changed his social relationship with his audience. Others before him may have achieved fame and wide admiration, but Liszt was the prototype of the pop icon. The phenomenon of Liszt was a symptom of the relationship between artist and audience at that time. This relationship is in constant flux in the public and private imagination. Much has been written and said about the relationship of artist to society throughout history, so that even a thumbnail sketch is unnecessary here. There have been Classicisms, characterized by their use of a formal language shared and understood by artist and audience, and Romanticisms, characterized by the role of the artist as an individual force in a society that is docile or hostile or anything in between -- so long as it is defined as being in contrast to the artist. To some extent these arrangements come and go in cycles. I would venture to say that we are currently enjoying another Romanticism.
A work like A Collective Cleansing uses recorded material, digital processing on my own voice. This piece is truly hermetic, by classical standards it is even anti-social. One could say that it has no future outside of myself. One could also say that this piece is indebted to modern technology not just for its compositional process but for its future, since after my demise it will only be possible to hear it on recording. Happily, I can inform you that I am very little concerned with how you all might be able to hear this or any of my pieces after I leave this place. I actually think the hermetic aspect of this piece, as well as the trend towards works like this among my peers, is a symptom of our own time, of our relationship as individuals to an increasingly unified world. To conjure a more complete picture of this relationship, and what it can tell us about the future in music, it is necessary to take a closer look at the world as we encounter it.
Later this morning you will hear performances of three of my Kafka Songs for voice and violin. They respond to fragments of Kafka's personal writings and miniatures, not the more extended allegorical writings for which he is best known. You will hear in the second song one of my favorite utterances of Kafka's: "the world...is known to be uncommonly various, which can be verified at any time by taking a handful of world and looking at it closely." Let's keep this image in mind as I grapple with a large topic in a short time.
Because MATA's home is Lower Manhattan, we were shaken and destabilized by the events of September 11 last year, both individually and as an organization. In November, we convened a composers discussion group to talk about if and how we were working, and what the crisis did to our relationship with our work. Some experienced a surge of new work, others were paralyzed, some found their music and/or their process to be suddenly angrier, others found themselves to be more insistently joyful in working. Looking through the transcript of this discussion, I discovered a short but very telling exchange between three composers who are also friends:
Composer A found the after-effects of the attacks galvanizing, and felt a surge of energy and purposefulness in his work: "I have a renewed sense of vocation if anything. I am irritated by those who find their own work pointless now. If you have a problem with it now, then what were you doing before?"
Composer B, who was felled by the events and couldn't work at all for a while, responded, "But this is another kind of not-being-able-to-work. I wasn't paralyzed by a feeling of pointlessness, but by a collapsed psychological and emotional infrastructure."
Composer C was able to be active, but more in advocacy than in her work. She commented, "Certainly, as artists we need to look inward, and when there is not enough strength within, it's like going down into a collapsing cave."
Several issues come to the fore in these comments, and I will touch on all of them today: the artist's sense of purpose in the face of large-scale crisis; the fragility of the private self in the face of such collective anxiety; and the importance of advocacy and mutual support among artists. What are our expectations of ourselves and of each other as artists at times like these? What can or should we expect of ourselves and others as we negotiate an increasingly uncertain future?
Another young composer friend who lives in New York looked back a year after the Trade Center events and shared the following observation with me:
Perhaps the only successful way to deal with September 11 is to focus on the details. Like the owner of the jeans store downtown who preserved a whole window display of neatly folded, completely dust-encrusted jeans. In these cases of large scale human catastrophe -- and perhaps in general, in the small-scale catastrophes of daily life which make up the bulk of our art -- the grit of art is in the smallness of it, the microscopic head of it, the humility of it in the face of death and destruction.
Our world is changing in irreversible ways, but we as human beings and as artists are made of the same stuff as we always have been. As inhabitants and as artists we negotiate our relationship with the world, sometimes fitfully, as we work. The perils of sustaining both human life and artistic life in an increasingly impersonal environment were made especially vivid to me over the last few years because of certain experiences, including my morning at home in New York on September 11, my work in Eastern Europe, and my contact with young composers from all over the world through MATA. I have found some answers for myself, many of which I realize I have known all along but hadn't ever articulated. I am grateful to you and to Roger Reynolds for giving me the opportunity to articulate them here.
The first concept I want to consider is globalization, or world unification.
In 1924, Bertrand Russell wrote a concise booklet entitled ICARUS, or The Future of Science, a copy of which I happened upon while I was beginning to think about this topic before us today.
Science, Russell observes, favors and fosters an increase of organization. Larger and larger economic organisms become possible. "The world becomes more and more of an economic unity," he says. "Before very long the technical conditions will exist for organizing the whole world as one producing and consuming unit." [ICARUS, or The Future of Science, by Bertrand Russell. New York: E.F. Dutton & Company, 1924, 40.] He warns that as centralization of power and information is achieved, free competition at the local level buckles under the weight of conglomerate entities. Before long, he predicts, the only true rivalry that will remain will be between States by means of armaments. His vision of what happens next is, of course, apocalyptic, although he thinks a true democracy may become possible after a cruel and despotic world-rule by one nation, probably the United States.
Russell's world of the future seems to be a dystopia at first, but since he foresees an ideal society emerging after a cruel and despotic rule, he is actually utopian in the end. Even the conquest of science and technology seems to be ideal and perfect in all its evil, in his vision. His soberest warnings apply to the long period of increasing unification, the period in which we currently find ourselves.
Russell's booklet was conceived as a response to an enthusiastic and ultimately completely negligible pamphlet by one Mr. Haldane entitled Daedalus, or Science and the Future. The Presbyterian Advocate had fervent praise for Mr. Haldane's project: "The story of what is being accomplished in the laboratories and how it can be applied with sensational results in daily life." [Russell, ICARUS, 7.] Russell takes issue with this triumphant vision, and with prescience and rigor he describes the perils of a world in which scientific advancement results in an exponential increase in man's ability to fulfill his own collective desires "without altering men's passions or their general outlook."
Science has not given men more self-control, more kindliness, or more power of discounting their passions in deciding upon a course of action. It has given communities more power to indulge their collective passions, but, by making society more organic, it has diminished the part played by private passions. Men's collective passions are mainly evil; far the strongest of them are hatred and rivalry directed towards other groups. Therefore at present all that gives men power to indulge their collective passions is bad. That is why science threatens to cause the destruction of our civilization. [Russell, ICARUS, 62-3.]
Russell attaches a moral value to these various passions of man -- the collective is evil, the private is good. Science only has currency in the collective passions, therefore its ends are largely evil, unless particularly well-rounded scientists in the future find ways to enhance or influence the private self through a sort of kindliness serum, or the like. These ideas seem spurious and even ridiculous in Russell's otherwise cogent thesis. His analysis begs the question, "If science cannot alter men's passions or their kindliness, what can?" Can anything? He doesn't answer this question for us, but there is a general hopelessness to his stance. From within Western society, I believe it is nearly impossible to believe in moral evolution. Like Russell, I see that scientific advancement is cumulative while spiritual and moral wisdom are not. An individual consciousness may evolve, but no matter how much knowledge is passed on through successive generations, the collective moral wisdom of humanity does not seem to improve. I read the news, I look around me at home in New York or in my travels in Eastern Europe or Southeast Asia, and I see our current acute troubles as the inevitable result of a deadly combination: the absence of moral evolution and an explosion of scientific advancement.
It is no wonder that Russell prophesied that scientific advancement would not touch the moral fiber of individual people: "Science is no substitute for virtue," he says. "...the heart is as necessary for a good life as the head." [Russell, ICARUS, 58.] Or, elsewhere, "Technical scientific knowledge does not make men sensible in their aims, and administrators in the future, will be presumably no less stupid and no less prejudiced than they are at present." [Russell, ICARUS, 55.]
Perhaps Russell came up empty-handed precisely because he attached a moral value to the private passions. Do the private passions need to result in good acts for them to be of value? Is the private self less stupid, less prejudiced, more sensible than the collective self? I agree with Russell that technological advancements are causing collective concerns to overwhelm the private self. But I don't think the private needs to justify its virtue by resulting in good deeds and kindliness. The private is of value because it is the habitat of the individual consciousness. Personal awareness of the world is sacred. The more privacy we feel, the more richly and deeply we feel our own consciousness. The vitality of this private self is the dominion of artists of all kinds. Inasmuch as the collective passions threaten to extinguish our private selves, I believe that artists in our times must struggle in their work against trends towards unification and centralization, in favor of authenticity to the private self.
Allow me to explore some of these trends in our lives, and how we might negotiate our relationship to them.
The Polish-Lithuanian poet Czeslaw Milosz took a stab at the Future of Poetry in 1983 in his book, The Witness of Poetry. I was not surprised to find some points of agreement between Milosz and Russell, even though they are separated by six decades and radically different backgrounds. Milosz observes a trend toward the unification of the planet, which is proceeding already in the realms of science and technology but may spread to other areas as well. He sees the sovereignty of the dominant mega-civilization as destructive of the more "static" civilizations. In essence, he is vilifying the collective here, as does Russell, but Milosz has introduced a new element that Russell did not: other civilizations outside of the centralized system.
Earlier I stated that I share Russell's skepticism about moral evolution, but I acknowledged that I do so from within Western society. It is important to consider that some of these nearly-destroyed civilizations that Milosz deems more static may actually have traditions of wisdom that provide for moral evolution of a sort that we cannot understand within Russell's model. A civilization is more static if it does not participate in the expansion of scientific advancement, in all of its forms -- information exchange, commodity exchange and centralization of economic power. Of course, a civilization that does not value this participation, and values instead an active participation in human life of a highly-evolved moral or spiritual sort, will be overwhelmed and overpowered by the conquest of technology. We who grew up in the United States, or in any other technologically advanced country, cannot live our lives without being active participants in this conquest. We fly across the country to give talks at universities, we call each other on cell phones and do research on the web. We are always connected to this growing superstructure, and to claim to stand outside of it is inauthentic. Here is this word again -- authenticity. For better or for worse, we are inescapably products of our own society. Although we may admire and even study the disciplines of other societies whose traditions stand outside of this conquest, these disciplines are not native to us. They require the renunciation of American-European values. Of course, it is too late for that, since these values accompanied our formative development. We stand firmly within our society, with its overwhelming glut of collective passions. We can move to one of the few remaining outposts of civilization that adheres to a non-commodity-based value system, but the future of such civilizations is dubious, and our entry into them would be morally problematic, encoded as we are with the value systems of our own society.
So what is the antidote to the dehumanizing effects of global unification? For us, for those of us who are products of its burgeoning hub? We must establish a very delicate balance.
Let us further define collective passions as those which can be measured, influenced and traded on, within the super-system of information. Commodities are the units of collective passion. If we live in a society that expresses value through money, how do we situate ourselves in relation to it if we believe that our role as artists is to create things whose value resists being defined in terms of supply and demand? I believe that every work of art that is conceived and carried out independently of marketplace concerns is a small act of anarchy. As far as I'm concerned, this act is enough to earn my advocacy. Even if I don't have any idea what you are trying to accomplish in your work, if I am confident that it is a small act of anarchy, I will do what I can as an advocate to seek a sane environment and a forum for that work. Of course, within that definition there is even more we can and should demand from our own work than that, for it truly to reach its mark artistically. But we may not always be able to receive each other's work -- the gulf between us may be too wide. That's okay. We extend our support to each other anyway, in good faith.
But even if we leave out the issue of understanding and receiving another artist's work, how do we know if our work, or another person's work, is fulfilling the basic standards of integrity? How do we ascertain its purity as an act of anarchy? The words "standards" and "purity" herald a contentious topic.
Milosz sees negative results of globalization within the hegemonic societies as well as in the civilizations outside of it. Unification has high costs everywhere, he says. The sheer magnitude of communications systems separates people in modern states from their own local concerns. They may be literate, in a standardized sense, but they no longer learn shared intellectual and cultural values in their communities. Thus unprepared for a more substantive kind of exchange, they receive instead a kind of false sustenance from mass media. In an elegant metaphor, Milosz likens these media -- television, magazines, etc. -- to the tiny slippers that adorned women's feet in old China.
And so we encounter the ubiquitous stumbling block in any discussion about art and hegemony: elitism. How can we claim that some kinds of cultural information on a lower level than others? Why is it lower? If it is the part of our lives that participates actively in centralized information exchange, doesn't it represent the more politically powerful force? If we feel that we are pursuing a virtuous path when we resist participation in the trend towards unification and globalization in our work, does this mean that our work suffers from snobbism and pride, because it wants to hold itself to a higher moral standard?
One can answer this charge in several ways. I will approach it from two directions, one of them informed by my experiences in Eastern Europe, where commercialism and capitalism are frequently rendered non-functional because of economic collapse and corruption, and one of them informed by my ongoing quarrel with American postmodernism, which we as young composers inherit from our precursors. I will begin with a foray into post-communist blight, and then find my way back to our own country.
I spent several weeks in Serbia, in the summer of 2000, working with music students and preparing a workshop performance of a new music theatre piece at a contemporary theatre festival. We were in the northern part of Serbia, called Vojvodina, in a city called Novi Sad (literally New Garden) which was relatively harmonious at the time. Due to the presence of a large number of people of Hungarian descent, the strong ethnic conflicts characteristic of the rest of former Yugoslavia at the time were diluted. I ran rehearsals with the help of a translator, Svetlana, who was also my cultural guide and fast friend. She took me to see the bridges that NATO had bombed a year earlier -- twisted steel half-submerged in the river, blocking traffic and trade on the Danube. Factories had been closed, and the water was clean again. Left jobless and idle, people were swimming in the river for the first time in decades. Outdoor dance clubs lined the riverbank, and the bridges loomed over us as we danced.
When I arrived at the Belgrade airport, I was met by a man with a very beat-up car and a sign with the name of the festival in Cyrillic. I assumed I should go with him, but we couldn't really communicate. In the car on the way, we passed many junked cars and dead, idle farmlands. I saw very few other cars on the road. An entire enormous family sat at some card tables by the side of the road, selling pumpkins. A few miles later, another entire family was selling pumpkins. And then another. I saw many, many pumpkins that day. The pumpkins so outnumbered the cars on the road, I knew that at least 95% of those pumpkins were going to rot.
In a collapsed economy like Serbia's, people's lives operate largely independently of supply and demand. Near the theatre was an opulent, marble-floored, spacious café, with a well-dressed staff outnumbering the clientele. They seemed to have three or four muffins on sale. If one encountered this scenario in the East Village in the eighties, it would have indicated that the establishment was a drug front. In Serbia it was clear that the trappings of prosperity had no relationship with successful participation in buying and selling. Well-kept banks were open two hours a few days a week, and nobody went there to change money because the exchange rate was twice what it was on the black market. Behind these mysterious, illogical phenomena -- illogical to me because I am American -- was the palpable fear that something besides goods or services was being rewarded with money. I was not encouraged to discuss these irrationalities, just as I was not permitted to photograph the bombed bridges.
When I began rehearsing my piece with the music students, it became clear that they were starved for new stimulation and interaction. Some of them acknowledged an acute nostalgia for times in which Yugoslavia was part of a bustling European cultural community, and they felt shut off. There was no concern about rehearsal time being limited. There was no concern with career ambitions, because their economy had no way of supporting careers, in the arts or otherwise. (People in their 30's and 40's were largely moving back in with their parents.) They brought a blanket willingness to try any new technique, even if it was totally outside of their expressive vocabulary, but the communication gap seemed very wide at first. I coaxed them into improvising with me, which they had never done. When I introduced new sounds into an interactive improvisation, they began to explore new sounds on their own. Our work together was completely devoid of all of the trappings of professional situations, because these were people who could not possibly see music as a profession.
At the performances during the festival, people of all ages crowded into uncomfortable, smoky rooms. There was an attempt to sell tickets but many people just walked in. People shouted or walked out if they didn't like what they saw, and stayed in the building after the performances just to stand, smoke and talk about what they had seen. Not a single one of the pieces I saw by local artists appealed to a collective sentiment about the bridges or the plight of the community. Of course, any topical commentary would have been dangerous anyway. But every piece of work I saw there, without exception, was a private testimony to the anarchic act of creation. Any currency in a collective emotional language would have seemed sterile in the company of such pure work.
Here in this country we can scarcely comprehend what it means to lose our relationship with supply and demand. In Serbia I felt its absence as an undercurrent of chaos in my spirit that was stronger than my more concrete fear of being in a dangerous place. The idealism of the American artist, particularly the post-minimal composer, insists that value, even artistic value, is expressed through monetary exchange. "Who is my audience?" is another way of asking "Who will pay to hear my music?" Only in a functioning economy, based on competition in the marketplace, can we expect or hope that ticket sales, CD sales, commissions, or even grants and fellowships will come back to us in exchange for our creative offerings. Mentors encourage us to stand up for ourselves, insist on a commission amount that befits the value of our work. Professional development programs for composers teach self-marketing skills. Young composers come to these programs hungrily, because -- let's face it -- we are all scrambling to make a living while doing our work. There are only a handful of concert music composers who make their livings on commissions and appearances alone, and it is increasingly difficult to do. But perhaps we don't want to burden our work with earning responsibilities anyway. We turn to other work to bridge the gap. Teaching and performing are the most common supplements, and both of these can have a salutary effect on composing work in the best circumstances. I maintain my performance schedule on top of and sometimes to the detriment of my composing schedule. Every answer seems to be a compromise. Even composers who make a living from commissions alone find that they risk burn-out, because they have so many deadlines and need to produce so much work that there is no time to refuel, or to explore a new and risky direction in the work. I know a composer who wakes up at 4, composes for two hours and then goes to work at a furniture factory all day. He is writing beautiful and interesting things. I know a composer who cranks out music for a commercial music studio. On his own time he is writing beautiful and interesting things. I know a composer who has family resources and will never have to make a living. She is writing beautiful and interesting things. I don't think I could write beautiful and interesting things if I were in any of their shoes, but perhaps they couldn't do so in mine.
All of us plan ahead, and most of us have to make a living. We are thinking, committed musicians. Every time one of us makes a decision about how we will make the rent next month, or for the next ten years, we are contributing to the future direction of music. With the exception of this felicitous weekend, I exist entirely outside of academic institutions. This gives me great freedom in some ways and presents some problems in others. I am conflicted about money. If I get a big commission, I feel good. The money makes me feel good, the recognition makes me feel good. It also enables me to set aside the proper amount of time to compose well. In my position at the MATA festival, I raise money so that we can pay proper commission fees to young composers. This feels good too. Participating in the exchange of money for services feels good. Am I adding to the trend towards the commodification of the artwork by helping a friend put together a really slick grant proposal or fellowship application, or by speaking to other young composers about "getting their work out there"? Sometimes I think I might be, and so I try to walk a fine line.
I was once asked to attend a brainstorming session for a group of music and theater people who wanted to start a new music theater company. They wanted my advice because I had successfully founded an arts non-profit. I was talking to them about budgets, warning them that only 8% of our income comes from ticket sales, and that we are doing better in revenue than quite a few others. With visible concern, they asked me what percentage we would aim for, in a perfect world. I said zero. Free concerts. No tickets.
I was also asked once to give a talk on the subject of self-promotion for composers at a music conference. Fortunately, I was able to dodge the gremlin, because I was unavailable. I remember feeling confused by the invitation. I don't really believe in self-promotion for composers. But I do believe in advocacy. I try to renounce models of social Darwinism. If I am good at raising money and you are not, I should raise the money for you instead of teaching you how to raise the money. Your relationship with your work may require that you not project yourself as a product into the world. My skills are better used on others' behalf than my own, because if I turn them entirely to my own benefit, my own relationship to my work could get screwed up as well. We should all be bringing our skills and resources to the table to help each other do our work as authentically as we can, to enable as many small acts of anarchy as possible. We need to do this in good faith, understanding that some people may not bring as much social skill to the table as others. Those of us who have the psychological resources to be advocates must do so. We may not always be able to do so. We should take care of ourselves to remain strong. This means that we must have a healthy relationship with our own work, first and foremost, and that we must not squander our energies on self-promotion or even advocacy if it is going to compromise our work. It is not an easy balance, and I seldom strike it exactly right.
This is a personal balance that requires great self-knowledge. In times of confusion, I return to reading to guide me. Dostoevsky is the one who always gives me clarity on issues of advocacy. This beautiful excerpt is from his Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, a memoir of his first encounter with Western Europe:
What would brotherhood consist of if it were put into rational, conscious language? Of this: each separate individual, without any compulsion, without any benefit to himself, would say to society: 'We are strong only when we are together; take everything from me, if you require that of me; do not think of me as you make your laws; do not be at all concerned about me; I offer you all my rights; dispose of me as you please. This is my highest happiness: to sacrifice everything to you and to do you no harm in doing so. I shall annihilate myself, I shall melt away with complete indifference, if only your brotherhood will flourish and endure.' The brotherhood, on the other hand, must say, 'You offer us too much. We have no right not to accept what you offer us, for you yourself say that in this lies all your happiness; but what is to be done, when in our hearts we are constantly concerned about your happiness? Take everything that is ours too. Every minute and with all our strength we shall try to increase your personal freedom and self-revelation as much as possible... We are all behind you; we all guarantee your safety; we are forever doing our utmost for you because we are brothers; we are all your brothers; there are many of us, and we are strong: so be at peace and of good cheer, fear nothing, and rely on us.' [Fyodor Dostoevsky, tr. David Patterson. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1988, 50.]
Certainly Dostoevsky's brotherhood is a utopia. We may try to govern our behavior towards each other in the creative community by this model, but the likelihood of a large-scale selfless brotherhood in the 21st century is worse than slim. The marketplace is insidious, and quite possibly will soon be inescapable, as Russell's "world trust" fulfills its destiny as "one producing and consuming unit." Blight and corruption like I witnessed in Serbia may produce conditions that offer us a glimpse into a non-commodity-based society, but clearly we should not idealize such circumstances. The vitality of the art created in such circumstances is the heroic result of acute suffering. It is not a model for sustainable artistic life. The economic stability of a nation seems only to be achievable anymore on a capitalist model. How can one not wish for economic stability in a place like Novi Sad, to ease the sorrows of the people who are living and working there? Given the alternative, I hope for a healthy economy there. Just as I sometimes feel I can't possibly refuse to help a frustrated, dispirited colleague who wants to market himself better so he can gain some opportunity or other. But the experience I had there, making new work in collaboration with these artists who were thirsty for artistic exchange and not at all concerned with other kinds of exchange, has had a very healthy effect on my own work since. Experiences like these sharpen our commitment to our work, and deepen our understanding of value.
I made another trip to Bulgaria several months after the Serbia trip, with similar spiritual results. And then I returned to the United States, my home. I had achieved some cultural distance, and this is what I discovered: there is a capitalist utopian model among some artists here, in direct contrast to Dostoevsky's brotherhood. It celebrates hybridization and the dissolution of boundaries. Consider afresh the unprecedented amount of cultural products available on the global market. Music that was never conceived of as a commodity, either because it is historically remote or because it comes from the dwindling number of cultures in which the role of music is still locally defined, is now available in convenient units -- CD's, MP3's. This overwhelming plenitude of musics can certainly be seen as a rich cross-cultural, cross-historical spawning-ground for new mongrel musical styles, a utopia of diversity.
And so we arrive at my quarrel with postmodernism.
This country in particular has been just such a spawning-ground for hybrid
styles and forms. This is not a coincidence. It is a by-product of our hegemonic
position. Postmodernism, a word much misunderstood, especially because it
carries slightly different meanings in music, visual art, literature and dance,
celebrated the constellation of composite styles and stimuli generated by
the new macro-culture, or "sublime." Music, always slightly behind literature
in its -isms, witnessed an explosion of such hybrids, many of which were accompanied
by an anti-ivory-tower politics.
The philosophy of many composers in the generation that precedes me (people
in their 40's and early 50's now) has always seemed to me to be something
like this: "Why should I write one kind of music for my professors and listen
to another kind of music at home? If I listen to and am influenced by music
in popular idioms, why shouldn¹t it infiltrate my style and inform my aesthetic?"
I actually see the logic of this paradigm, and if it were at all true for
myself, I suppose I can imagine feeling the same way.
I grew up in this country, I was exposed to many kinds of music when I was
growing up, although because my parents were academic musicians, I had particularly
esoteric listening habits as a teenager. My father was a composer, and the
music he was writing when I was growing up was informed primarily by academic
modernism. It was a matter of pride to him that my brother and I remained
ignorant of Classical and Romantic music, although because my mother was an
early music specialist, we were exposed to tonal music primarily through the
Renaissance and Baroque. Later, as a teenager, I went dancing in the warehouse
clubs south of Market Steet in San Francisco, and in college I worked for
two summers as a singing cocktail waitress on Martha's Vineyard. I was exposed
to plenty of music from the commercial world -- why do I not desire to compose
in a postmodern, hybrid style -- mixing high and low, incorporating world
musics into concert music settings? Why does this not feel authentic to me?
I got an answer recently, in an unexpected and delightful way. I was talking
on the phone to a friend of mine, a wonderful soprano who sings mostly opera,
but loves to listen to popular music at home. I had just had one of those
lousy disappointments that crop up in the personal lives of single people.
She was sympathetic, though she felt a little helpless. At the end of the
conversation she said, "You probably wouldn't listen to it if I made you a
breakup CD, would you?" I said no, probably not, but then I thought -- what
a sweet gesture! This was an exchange of friendship, an act of empathy. I
changed my mind, and she made me a CD of girl singer-songwriter music -- no
track titles, no information -- just 'for Lisa.' I knew this was music I would
never have listened to otherwise, but my appreciation of her kindness impelled
me to listen carefully and gratefully. The words described situations like
mine, the harmonies adhered to a long-established language of emotional expressiveness,
dating back to the Romantic era. As I thought idly to myself, "Wow, I guess
I'm not alone in my sad feelings," another part of myself exclaimed -- "Hey,
I'll bet a lot of people use music this way!" I had stumbled into participating
in the use of music as a cultural tool. The shared sentiments I imagined as
I listened were collective passions, products of the American romantic imagination
(that's romantic with a small r). Many people think they are having an artistic
experience when they engage in this ritual. I believe that something quite
different was happening here. Would Russell find it evil? Possibly. Would
Milosz call it artificial sustenance? Most probably. I learned in that moment
that my relationship to music does not usually inhabit this model, and that
when I participate in such an exchange, which I do quite rarely, the experience
may be wistful, or fun, or even therapeutic, but it is not an artistic experience.
The authenticity that I strive to maintain in my work depends on knowing the
difference between using music as a commodity -- even if it is as an emotional
commodity -- and articulating or receiving an experience of authentic consciousness,
through musical means.
My friend knew I would feel exactly the way I did when I heard these songs.
The people who wrote them also knew, as did the producers, the labels, and
the stores. When we participate in this system, we do so IN ORDER to feel
the way we are supposed to feel, the way we are instructed to feel, the way
everyone feels when they hear the same culturally-defined triggers. This is
not what my music is for. Why? Because this is not what music in general is
usually for in my life, and my music reflects that. The vast majority of music
is commercial, of course, and the vast majority of people use music in this
way, because they believe that this is what music is for. I do believe that
as technology continues to conquer civilizations and centralize information,
it will become more and more difficult to create and receive music outside
of this commercial model.
And why do I believe it is important to continue to do so? Why does music
have value? We have established that it has value precisely because its existence
is not predicated on a system of supply and demand. It also has value because
it exists to bear witness to the vitality of the private self -- the self
that is not engaged in any exchange whatsoever.
When I read or listen, I do so in order to experience the vitality of my consciousness,
and thereby, the wonder of human consciousness in general. I do not project
my emotions into a shared language in order to participate in a collective
sentiment. I choose to read books or listen to music that makes me feel that
I am in the presence of a fellow consciousness, or a reflection of consciousness
in general. When I listen, I seek an authentic observation of the self. When
I compose, I seek an authentic observation of the self. Why (I have been asked)
is this self-exploration not simply narcissistic? Because listening and composing
are the same. An authentic act of creation is a faithful observation of the
self. This self is not my-self, nor is it your-self, nor anyone's self. It
is The Self. A friend of mine describes this phenomenon by saying that a successful
piece of music is both private and public at once. It is absolutely private
because it is only ever experienced as a solitary consciousness, but it is
also absolutely public because it offers this experience of the private to
anyone who will open him or herself up to it, who can still his or her participation
in collective passions long enough to bear witness to The Self.
As inclusive as I strive to be in principle, and as much as I give all creative
people the benefit of the doubt, I can't match the fervor of many of my colleagues
for boundary-less diversity. Although postmodernist utopianism is seductive
and even conceptually elegant, I have observed that, in practice, the glut
of potential influences induces mass over-stimulation. It may also be said
that it threatens what Russell calls the "private passions." It is no longer
possible for a composer and his or her audience to share a common language,
because the saturation of potential languages and hybrids of languages is
beyond the limits of human absorption. When an isolated influence visited
an ancient culture -- the Moors in Spain or the Persians in Armenia, for example
-- it could cause a proper upset, then be integrated variously into the existing
cultural language. The impact of modern-day multi-culturalism on the individual
artist is far beyond the mechanics of influence. It is on the level of a traumatic
And so I have never found that I could embrace the utopian vision of maximum
hybridization. My stance towards it did not, in fact, start out as a principled
resistance to it, but as a kind of involuntary systemic atrophy. I can't seem
to be selectively influenced. When I listen I do so intently; my receptivity
to evocative and beautiful sonic ideas is high, so high that listening to
music continues to be, for me, a vulnerable state. I postulate that other
highly aware people besides myself know this experience of receptivity. I
predict that as the information superhighway continues to strengthen and extend
its reach, the percentage of thinking people who will feel this vulnerability
will increase, as the contrast between the fragile individual consciousness
and the massive collective dialect becomes more and more pronounced.
Roger Reynolds has suggested that "boundaries are not altogether undesirable....
We cannot do without them, yet many factors now press us to move beyond them
wherever they are found." [Introduction to UCSD Music Department SEARCH EVENT V, 2002] Boundaries keep inside
and outside separate. How much do we open ourselves to influence? How do we
organize the charismatic ideas we discover in the world and determine, through
the creative process, that they complement our own unique vision? Each of
us has a unique capacity to absorb and process information and influence.
It is already impossible for most of us to have a natural and open encounter
with the stimuli around us without experiencing symptoms of saturation. Such
symptoms inhabit our work as well as our selves. I believe it is each composer's
responsibility to his or her own work to collaborate with the world only to
his or her natural capacity for absorption. Collaboration with trusted colleagues
is one of the best ways for creative artists who have the requisite resilience
and confidence to accept and absorb influence. Influence is a necessary component
in our work. Without it we stagnate. But with too much of it we atrophy or
capitulate. At this point in my argument it is possible that I could meet
with criticism for cultivating "Irrelevance to our Time." As much as I may
seem to be advocating protectionism, I know that it would be artificial to
ignore the incredible range of artistic stimuli available today. Closing off
our sensibilities to the interesting and beautiful things around us is just
as treacherous as letting our systems be racked by the over-stimulation of
modern life. But our responsibility must be to ourselves. The influential
stimuli that we amass and integrate into our work must fulfill the realization
of our own full awareness. This dilemma is one about which I have had extended
arguments, recently, with mentors and colleagues alike. No one can be irrelevant
to his or her time -- this is my profound conviction. The only possible error,
a quite common one that must never be underestimated, is irrelevance to oneself.
By collaborating, listening and learning we contribute to the maintenance
of a salutary creative mind. The second and equally difficult step is bearing
faithful witness to that mind in one's work. Any gifted artist who pursues
these two ethics will be relevant to his time, because he will be a fertile
testimony to his time.
I remember a lively debate, about a year ago, with a mentor. At issue was
my own peculiar ignorance about popular culture. At a time when many people's
expectations of younger composers, particularly those who are outside of academia
and live in New York, is that their work display a stylistic hybrid of high
and low culture, my interests and passions are more eccentric and esoteric.
This person suggested that as an artist, I have a responsibility to be a representative
of my own culture, and that I can't really be an adequate ambassador unless
I give myself a two-year catch-up course on American popular culture.
My response was that I am just as much a product of my society as anyone else,
even if my interests continue to get more eccentric rather than less. Any
one composer's set of influences is an elegant example of the beauty of human
curiosity. The important thing is that I nurture my own vital curiosity. Then,
if my music is a faithful and sincere testimony to my own musical consciousness,
in all its eccentricity, I will be providing the means for intimacy with a
listener. If I show up, and if the listener shows up, and if we are both sincere
and aware, a true artistic exchange can take place. What is in your most private
musical consciousness? Let me hear it in your work. I am not eager for you
to do a lot of research outside of your native fascinations, in order to become
more relevant to me. We are all relevant to each other because every consciousness
contains the whole world.
Art is the extension of that consciousness into a place where it can be shared.
Does this mean that we, as vanguards of the future of music, are not supposed
to care whether or not people want to hear what we write? Of course we care.
We like it better when more people like what we do. It gives us company in
our fascinations. It makes us feel that whatever compelled us to create certain
sounds is compelling to others as well. But that isn't why we do what we do.
As an artist I say: I value this experience in time -- perhaps you will too.
But time is only experienced one consciousness at a time. There is always
only an audience of one in my mind. It is you, or it is myself. It is an individual
consciousness, experiencing sound in time. One or two of you may value the
way in which I organize your experience of time through the music you are
hearing today. All of you may -- I am human, of course I hope you all do!
But these are social concerns -- that isn't the reason I put sounds together
the way I did. The more of you who value what you hear, the more individual
experiences of intimacy have taken place, and I suppose that is a desirable
thing. But there isn't any way I can make that a priority if I am truly inhabiting
a private passion. This would be double-dipping. The stimulation of our musical
consciousnesses is supremely personal and private. It is also supremely political,
because it insists on existing outside of concern with supply and demand.
In our composing and in our listening, we are custodians of the private.
What will the future be, for those of us who value what the Polish poet Wislawa
Szymborska calls the "broken whisper" ["Autotomy," by Wislawa Szymborska,
tr. Czeslaw Milosz, quoted in Milosz, The Witness of Poetry. Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1983, 4.] of the private self, rendered more and
more frail by the din of technological advancement and collective realities?
I hesitate to predict, since the more forceful agents in our world will decide
so much for us in the decades to come. But I am discovering, as I speak to
many other young composers from all over the world, that many of us are choosing
quietly rigorous paths. There is a kind of velvet mutiny underway -- composers
and artists of all kinds are gearing up to protect the domain of artistic
experience from the conquest of supply and demand, by insisting on creating
work that is authentic to the self and by refusing to apologize for its lack
of participation in collective sentiments. We are safeguarding the full and
rich consciousness that artistic experience provides. It will get increasingly
difficult to do so. We will need to protect ourselves from over-stimulation
and saturation. We will need to continue to grow and be influenced in ways
that are authentic to us. We will need to struggle with our own unavoidable
participation in collective passions, including rivalry, use and various kinds
of empty gratification.
I want to share with you some of the music that young composers are writing.
These pieces represent a vastly diverse range, but what I feel they have in
common is that they offer me a vivid, private world. They are relevant to
themselves, in a way that invites me to share that relevance.
Before we listen, I need to acknowledge the many friends and colleagues who
have conversed with me about the future of music in the past weeks. I am indebted
particularly to Gordon Beeferman, Mick Rossi, Eleanor Sandresky, Philip Glass,
Andy Armstrong, Peter Stewart, Aaron Kernis, Rick Carrick and Sadie Dawkins
for their considerable influence on me as I was writing this.