Introduction by Roger Reynolds to the SEARCH Project.
An Introduction for DAVID LANG, by Roger Reynolds
A LECTURE ON THE FUTURE OF MUSIC
Copyright © 2001 David Lang and the Composition Area, Department of Music
University of California, San Diego
Published by Permission
Online publishing and editing by Karen Reynolds
All Rights Reserved.
FOCUS Seminar, 15 November 2001, University of California, San Diego
The following TEXT was commissioned by the Composition Area,
Department of Music, University of California, San Diego for its SEARCH
initiative. The TEXT / TALK is copyrighted and appears in its original presentation
here. While links TO this TEXT or recording from other sites are welcome, no part of this TEXT may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic storage or retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the copyright holders [Please contact Roger Reynolds: firstname.lastname@example.org to facilitate this.].
I am David Lang.
The format for this speech is that I am going to say some things until I can't say any more. Then I hope that you will ask me questions. I may not in this speech say all the things I need to, or even address the issues that are important to you. I am counting on you all to help me look good by asking me interesting things at the end.
As I am sure you all know, my stay here requires me to deliver a formal, written lecture, on the topic of the future of music. Although I have written articles before, and have given lectures before, before now I have not had to do anything this formal, or this prepared. In fact, I have only delivered one written speech in my life - that was for my Bar Mitzvah. Unfortunately, that speech was about the prophet Ezekiel, so there is nothing in it that I could use here.
Through the process of trying to organize my thoughts for this paper I have uncovered two profound and universal truths, which I will present here as disclaimers. The first is that I have no business giving a formal lecture. I am a composer, I communicate with the world through the organization of sound. I am not alone in this - history is full of thoughtful and lucid and intelligent and insightful people who were horrible composers, and, likewise, I have met many compelling and influential composers who are virtual nincompoops.
I think it is important to recognize that there is not a straight line between intelligence and musicality - they occasionally appear to be related and yet there is something distinct about music that makes it fundamentally unthoughtful. I believe that it is tempting but wrong to associate composition too closely with the intellect. It is not that there is no relationship between musicality and intelligence - clearly, there is one. But what it is, how to describe it and how to harness it, I cannot tell you, except in the most useless kind of highly personalized, anecdotal way.
I can't tell you the proper relationship between one's brain and one's music. It may change from moment to moment within the same composer, and within the same piece. I am, however, frequently aware while composing that sometimes my desire to engage my musical intelligence helps me express my self, while at other times I feel it luring my materials to places they should not ever go.
I have checked the archives of these UCSD lectures and I can tell you that it is really hard for composers to pull this thing off. A notable exception is Robert Ashley, but then again, his real work as a composer is performing a certain kind of written text, while creating a sonic context for it that enables it to function as opera. Speaking is already the core of Ashley's composition - that is what he does. Please don't expect me to be able to do anything that good.
Of course, I saw Cage perform his written texts many times - I produced several of his performances myself - but, again, these were performances, by someone who had chosen his own speech as a vehicle for his own expression. I never did that.
I am not a scholar. I will not pepper this speech with erudite references to Adorno and Foucault and Marx and Derrida, although - parenthetically - I did sit in on Derrida's lecture series at Yale and found him to be funnier that the Marx Brothers. I am a practical composer. I do not teach. I have never had a job. I do not have a trust fund to support me. I have made whatever living I have made through the composition and performance of my work. My experience is entirely practical, and, if I have anything of value to share with you, it is in this experience.
My second disclaimer is a little more basic to the task at hand - I don't believe in the future of music.
It is not that I am a pessimist - in fact, I am in a very good mood these days. I just think that concentrating on the future of music will lead us to certain forbidden areas of speculation. I worry very much that concern for the future will make us look cross-eyed at the present. Too much in the study of music - and in the study of everything - supposes that there are winners and losers. We study the past by constructing narratives of things that are supposedly in competition with each other, implying that we live in some linear world in which our present is made by the victors of struggles from the past, and the future will represent some supreme victory over our present. In other words - if a speech about the future of music means I am supposed to guess what in the present will live on I cannot do it. And I do not think anyone else should either.
Part of my reluctance to speculate comes from a bad association I have from my own education. I am old enough to have been rigorously educated in the theory and techniques of serial music. This musical style was presented to students and to the world not as a musical option but as an historical imperative. The meaning and value and justification of this style was really based on a prediction about the future, that this kind of musical thought would drive away all others, and so would live forever. This not only proved historically wrong but the presumption itself about serialism's unquestioned survivability left such a bad taste in many people's mouths that its real accomplishments have become harder to see. It is now harder to evaluate the musical contributions of Babbitt, for example, because they are in an uncomfortable relationship with musical ideas that were supposed to last forever.
This kind of thinking unfortunately extends backwards as well as forwards, and to all aspects of music history. I remember very well a class I took in graduate school in which we searched through all of Bach's works for augmented sixth chords. This class really pissed me off, as it implied that one of the values of the music was to fit neatly into some story about the supposed linear development of a certain kind of harmonic thinking. (As an aside, I think we found five or six augmented sixth chords, although it seemed to me that they were contrapuntal and not really functional in nature).
The idea of picking winners has had a long and destructive history in music. We are taught how musical thinking has moved inexorably from one style to the next, from one kind of social arrangement to the next, from one kind of listening to the next, from one great genius man to the next. Unfortunately, I am afraid that speculation about the future of music is a result of the same kind of thought - it is an encouragement to look out over the current musical landscape, in order to choose a winner, and in order to use this prediction to relegate all else to the dustbin of history.
We are all, as composers, in the process of making things new. That is what we do - each day we create something that was not previously there. One of the problems of imagining a future is that we are all constantly imagining and realizing the things we are interested in, trying our best to make them new. If we really could imagine something worth doing in the future we would be doing it right now.
To sum up this disclaimer - we must not think about the future, and everything that we can think of that will be worth doing we are doing already. So if you can't say who's going to win and who's going to lose what is the point of writing out a whole speech about the future? It is a bit like anticipating pleasant or unpleasant weather - it says more about the state of mind of the anticipator than about the real world. Like the weather, I suppose there are some easy things one could say: you can say things will be better for music. You can say things will be worse for music. You could say - very slyly - that things will be better, because they will be worse. (That's a kind of New York way of thinking).
In truth, the present is a mess, and every present has always been a mess, and the present to be experienced by the people of the future will also be a mess. I believe that this is, and has always been, a very good thing.
And now that I have introduced the idea of an historical mess I would like to talk about my life.
(This is the part of the speech that may be classified under "filler")
To understand the world I think I live in it may be useful to know something of the world I think I came from, at least the part of it that has to do with composing. I come from a family of Central European immigrants, people who were educated and hard working and emotionally dark and had no artistic pretensions whatever. The only conversation I ever had with my Mother's Father was short and full of meaning - he told me: "David - vun zing I must tell you - never verk fur anyvun else." I guess that is the place where the philosophies of artists and small shopkeepers meet.
I became interested in composing through an educational accident. On a rainy day in elementary school it was too wet to have recess in the schoolyard, so they put us in the auditorium and showed us a movie. It was a Young Persons Concert of Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, playing Shostakovich's First Symphony. Bernstein said that Shostakovich had written this piece when he was 19 and became world famous overnight. I remember thinking - I am 9 years old - I have ten years to figure this out.
I wanted to be a composer before I knew anything else about music - I only learned how to play instruments so I could write for them. My first piece - when I was about 11 - was a written part for trombone to accompany an Angel recording of the Beethoven violin sonatas - everyday after school I would rush home so I could perform my own music with my good friends David Oistrakh and Sviatoslav Richter. This was a record my parents had lying around. Most of their records were of other stuff. I didn't get the information from them about how to differentiate between or make hierarchical all the kinds of music in our home. Mostly I heard Montovani and Alan Sherman and Harry Belafonte, and because they didn't know, I didn't learn from them that there was supposed to be some kind of difference between them. To me they were all equal - they were things that could be expressed on a record. I really thought these experiences were all the same.
By the time I finished high school I was playing cello in the orchestra, trombone in the jazz band, bugle in the bugle corps (and in the boy scouts), sousaphone in the marching band, and electric guitar in a rock band I had with some friends. I also had boxes and boxes of music I had composed, and had performed with my friends. By my first year in high school I was also studying composition with Henri Lazarof, an aristocratic Bulgarian with Polish musical leanings, who at the time was teaching at UCLA. For years after working with him I could not hear a European accent without bursting into tears.
I continued this kind of musical pluralism at Stanford, where I did my undergraduate work. I was trombonist and chief arranger of the marching band, I conducted and played percussion in the orchestra, classical guitar in the new music group, bass trombone in the jazz band, and sang in the premiere of a piece by John Adams that he now disowns. I started a performing group dedicated to fluxus-style events. I wrote and produced two Broadway-style musicals. I had a tuxedo and a fake book and played standards in the faculty club. I played guitar in a stoner rock band that had only one gig during the entire time I was in it - a two hour long cover of a song by Sun Ra, for a dormitory dance party. They were not amused.
What interests me is that all these things are still inside me, working somehow together to create my musical personality. I have grown up in such a way that the kind of music I write belongs to the category I was exposed to last, namely, contemporary classical music. It would be dishonest of me to make believe that all my previous musical experiences have been forgotten on the way to making my current musical life.
I tell you these things not because I think I am exemplary but because I know I am not exemplary. The path to being a composer or developing a musical persona is not a straight one, for anyone. It is debatable if it ever was, at any time or in any place; clearly, however, at this moment and in this culture, all people who become composers do so as a result of their own musical accidents, with their own series of influences and confusions. Add to our culture's diversity of musical expression the pervasiveness of pop musics and a corresponding downgrading of the general education in so-called art music and you create a climate in which the composer's place in the world is not very clear. In many ways this is a very good thing.
The aforementioned situation raises two serious questions for composers and composition, one personal and one global. How can each composer combine or exclude these musical styles and influences that are within him or her? How can a general musical culture be defined broadly enough so that everything that is interesting and forward-looking can be included within it?
For a discussion of the first question I think it would be helpful if, instead of speaking in broad generalities, I could present a kind of case study. I would like to talk at length about a composer who is not me, someone whose life and work represent a significant blurring between musical experiences. That composer is Glenn Branca.
I believe that Glenn Branca is the composer working now who most embodies the spirit of the great American experimental tradition. It is possible to consider America's two real contributions to world musical culture as jazz and the long line of loner rebel experimentalists, beginning with Charles Ives and including such composers as Harry Partch, Conlon Nancarrow, Morton Feldman and John Cage. It may be oxymoronic to refer to a tradition of independents, or a school of thought for loners, but, in fact, this is one of our country's most significant achievements; there actually is a powerful tradition of American composer / inventors, operating on the fringes of our various musical mainstreams.
Branca is one such composer / inventor. Originally educated as an artist, he joins Brian Eno, David Byrne and a long and distinguished line of other musicians who began their lives in the visual arts. While living in New York in the late 70's as a struggling young artist, Branca began a very hip rock band, called the Theoretical Girls. The sound was noisy, the songs were unpredictable, the lyrics dense and intellectual, and the band began to have an influential presence on the downtown New York rock scene.
Branca was ambitious for the music the band played, and he very quickly discovered the limits of all that he could accomplish within the rock band format. Then he had a revolutionary idea - to write a symphony. Although he did not know how to read music he envisioned a way to harness the instruments, the language, the noise, and the immediacy of rock music to the structural and intellectual pretensions of the symphony, the high-water mark of European classical music. He used the instruments he knew - drums and electric guitars and basses, mostly - but they were used in an entirely new way, a way which can only be described as symphonic. Instead of individual melodies or lines the sounds were massed together into giant, pulsating, highly amplified walls of sound, propelled forward by heavy drum beats. The Symphony's roots were recognizably from the pop world, (perhaps the way that eighteenth century dance music is referenced in the symphonies of Haydn), but its change in format had transformed completely the expressive and structural intention of the sound.
Branca's Symphony was an immediate and controversial sensation. Branca became a star of the downtown music scene, mentioned in the same breath with Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Meredith Monk, and he began to construct ever more intricate and ambitious projects. Most important, he began to imagine a formal harmonic plan for his music that is unique in music of any genre or time, based on his own research into the microtonal intricacies of the overtone series.
Microtones, as we all know, are a hot topic to composers. They are the notes with no name that exist in between the evenly spaced, artificially ordered Western scale. They remind me of the ride at Disneyland where you shrink to the size of an atom and go inside a snowflake; microtones are the undiscovered territory, the last frontier. To some composers they represent an interesting, scientific place for music to go. To other composers, however, there is something primal about microtones, because they are artifacts of what is natural in music. To these composers, microtones bring music back to the time before the Western classical scale regularized the distances between the notes. To these composers, microtones are the pagan spirits of sound.
The problem for a composer in working with microtones is that Western music developed its evenly spaced scale specifically to avoid the messiness that microtones represent. Because of this, and although many composers have tried, it may be impossible to work convincingly with microtones without throwing away most of the conventions of Western music. Who then, would be most qualified to push music in this direction than a self-taught, art-educated, garage band experimentalist who can't read music?
Without the encumbrances of a complete education in the Western musical system he was free to invent his own. And it is a work of art - Branca invented an elegant and deceptively simple system for controlling the interplay of microtones, with his own system of notation and his own instruments. In his system, giant complexes of clashing microtonal frequencies are multiplied and divided mathematically, ever changing their shape and tonality. Because the harmonic changes are controlled by the math - which is, of course, a natural and not a cultural process - and not by a traditional Western notion of harmony the results are at once bizarre sounding and strangely coherent, giving his music an unshakable architectural strength. It is a solution not found by any other composer, well educated or no, in the history of music. My doctoral dissertation at Yale was on the effect of the natural overtone series on the historical development of classical music - Branca's system may be the most complete and elegant exploration of the natural in music since Pythagoras.
What is most tragic about this solution, however, and where Branca enters our discussion of a composer in a diverse and confused musical culture, is that Branca's revolutionary approach to overtones is virtually unknown in the world. Part of this is because of his unique place between musical communities: the classical or new music audience, which presumably cares about science and structure, can't listen to Branca's music because of its rock volume and instrumentation, while the alternative rock audience has little use for theory.
One place where his ideas, and his band, have had the most influence is in the players who have worked with him. His symphonies quickly became the laboratory for a generation of inventive alternative musicians. The ensemble for his first symphonies included the performers who founded The Swans, a legendary New York band with a dark and menacing sound. Alternative rock heavyweight Sonic Youth was founded by former members of Branca's ensemble, as was the multi-platinum selling band Helmet. Likewise, downtown New York experimental composers like Phil Kline also found their university in Branca's band.
Because of his approach to tuning he has had to invent a number of new instruments to play his music - new kinds and shapes of guitars, a table strung with hundreds of strings that he calls a guitar table, his own rebuilt harpsichords. He has had to invent a new system of notation. To create his own world he has had to invent not just the language but the tools to access it.
Branca is not an easy fit in the world - by being true to his musical influences and his musical inventions he invented a giant crack, through which he then jumped. This engages head on the second question I posed earlier - how can a general musical culture be defined broadly enough so that everything that is interesting and forward-looking can be included within it? - and brings me to the last thing I want to talk about this evening - the creation of Bang on a Can.
Now back to me. I was a young composer once. When I got out of graduate school I moved to New York and I did what all young composers do: all day, every day I complained bitterly about my fate. As we all know, the life of a young composer is not an easy one - no one wants to play your music. If you do get a performance it may not be with the best players, if it is with good players there are usually more famous composers on the program, who suck up all the rehearsal time, and who are the composers the audience really comes to the concert to hear. The real problem for me, however, was that after Yale I felt I was in the process of trying to determine the proper equilibrium of my musical influences. I became more and more afraid that I would be creating an expressive world for me that would be so hybridized that, like Branca, my music would have no place to go.
I was very lucky to have many close composer friends around, two of whom in particular - Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe - I would see almost every day. When I did my complaining I did it with them.
Fresh out of the Yale School of Music, we were disappointed by the state of contemporary music and the prospects for our future as composers. A new music concert in New York in the early 80's was a depressing experience. The audience had dwindled to a small number of new music regulars. An entire genre of new music ensemble was built and funded by the academic or "uptown" school of composers, whose only interest seemed to be the promotion of a very narrow and very exclusive vision of the musical world. In a reaction against that narrow vision, minimalist composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich took their music directly to the public, building a new audience and a new concert format, and young improvisers like John Zorn and Elliot Sharp had taken over the Knitting Factory. In a way it seemed that all three of these musical communities were equally restrictive, dividing the world not by quality but by ideology. For a young composer trying to make music that crossed different boundaries it was disturbing to survey such a balkanized landscape.
It actually felt as if some sort of war was being conducted among these musical sub-groups. As younger composers, however, we were part of a different generation and we didn't see ourselves fitting neatly on any side of the battle. Most of the young composers we knew were just like us - they had been influenced by ideas from all over the map - new music, minimalism, and improvisation, as well as by Balinese Gamelan, Indian raga, bottle-neck blues, Peruvian folk music and rock and roll. There was something different and important about our backgrounds. The ideological squabbling of the previous generation seemed to be going on without us; Bang on a Can grew out of our need to discover just where the music of our generation would fit in.
With very little encouragement and no money we got together and planned a 12 hour marathon concert, to be held on Mothers Day 1987. We liked the marathon idea because it would give the concert a carnival atmosphere, an extravaganza of adventurous music. We wanted to send a signal that something different was happening and that a new music event could be fun. After tossing around a few names Julia suggested "Bang on a Can." We liked it because it wasn't pretentious.
In order to address some of the aforementioned young composer complaints we made some important decisions about how the concert was going to be held. First, we sought out a neutral location, one not already associated with any type of music. We chose Exit Art, in SoHo, an innovative gallery with no history of presenting music. Second, we did a number of things to encourage informality. We asked the performers to dress in everday clothes. We put a bar in the performance space and we had an MC introduce the thirty works presented that day. Significantly, we decided not to print program notes. We felt that program notes are usually about composer facts and credentials and could actually get in the way of fresh listening. Instead, we invited all the composers to attend and asked them to say a few words before their pieces.
What really made the concert stand out was the music. We programmed an eclectic mix of pieces of all different styles, acknowledging both the revered masters of American music and young composers just starting out. Our programming philosophy was to present the most adventurous music we could find, regardless of style, with special emphasis on music by young and emerging composers. We put an early piece of Milton Babbitt next to an early piece of Steve Reich, and we didn't tell our audience that if they liked one they were supposed to hate the other. Over half the music was by completely unknown composers, many still in their twenties. We also presented a new generation of great young performers, many in their first appearances in New York.
We also knew that we needed new listeners and a new way of attracting them. We felt that the biggest problem with new music was that no one knew about it. New music had somehow dropped off the radar screen of contemporary culture: a lover of the arts who knows about the hottest young playwright or who reads the most challenging contemporary literature usually has no idea that there is a parallel in music.
We targeted the audiences for dance, theater, performance art, and poetry and we designed a simple card that highlighted the events of the day and that gave quirky, intelligent explanations about what these new listeners might expect. It worked! We sold out. What most excited us was that this audience was completely new. They listened with fresh ears, cheering both the known and the unknown, the simple and the complex. It turned out that there was an audience for this music after all.
Fourteen years later we are still dedicated to making to world a safer place for the music we believe in, and we are still trying to solve many of the same musical problems we began with. We are now among the most visible presenting organizations of new music in America. We have our ensemble - the Bang on a Can All-Stars - (starring Steve Schick, of course), which tours around the US and the world, our festival in New York, the People's Commissioning Fund, which pools together small contributions from our listeners to commission young composers, several touring opera and theater projects, and our record label CANTALOUPE MUSIC. Upcoming we have two new projects - our e-festival, an internet festival which will webcast performances from Bang on a Can and many of our international partners, and the Bang on a Can Summer Institute of Music, a summer program for young composers and performers that begins this summer at Mass MOCA in the Berkshires, and which we refer to informally as Banglewood.
The thing that we are proudest about is that we consider ourselves a home for music that is between categories. My favorite image of what Bang on a Can really stands for relates to my long experiences prowling through the cavernous halls of Tower Records. When you want to find a CD at Tower you have to know in advance what room it belongs in - is it classical? is it rock? is it jazz? Each kind of music has its own room. The composers I want to work with don't fit squarely in any room - they are in the walls between rooms, on the stairway between floors. These composers have aimed themselves precisely at the seams between musical designations.
This became most clear to me when we did our project realizing with live instruments the ambient electronic classic MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS, by Brian Eno. Eno has three bins in three different rooms at Tower Records. I am sure that Eno does not look at his own output and think that it is separable - it is just that the world - especially the commercial world - is not prepared to see each of his diverse musical personalities adding up to a single whole.
My favorite record store in New York is just called Other Music, which seems an apt description of the things I like and do.
I think the most important thing to say at the end of this lecture is about why I believe that Bang on a Can is an extension of all that I think is good in my own work as a composer. I believe that composition is intrinsically a utopian act. It is fundamentally optimistic. It imagines that the world can be made a better place, if only it could hear this new piece of music. For me, it is a logical extension to think that if my music could belong to a better world, there could be a utopian way to play it, a utopian audience, a utopian performer, a utopian venue. Once I began to produce my own concerts it became clear that I had the capability to make the strongest environment for my musical opinions to flourish.
What the world needs is for everyone to take responsibility for creating his or her own musical environment. I got into trouble once when I was asked by a critic about why Bang on a Can didn't represent other kinds of music. I answered - "GO START YOUR OWN FESTIVAL!" I didn't mean it combatively. I meant only that the world needs for all of its viewpoints to presented as passionately and as professionally as possible. I feel that I have discovered how to support the things I believe in. To make a better present - let alone a better future - it is necessary for everyone else to do the same.
Some Questions and Answers
1. What place do you see for technology in shaping the future? (N Brock)
I am a very low-tech person. Although when I was a student I worked for two years at the computer music center at Stanford, on some fundamental level I don't feel much compelled by technologies that weren't available to the garage bands of my youth. Of course I have worked on occasion with sampling and computers and video and processing, but my heart belongs to fuzz boxes and distortion and giant Marshall amps. I like the dirtier technologies better.
Choices of technology are not neutral in a compositional philosophy. One high-tech danger I have noticed is that the use of fancy equipment and procedures can start to dictate the kind of music composers will write: composers end up having to make cleaner and cleaner sounds in order for listeners to be able to perceive the changes within more and more sophisticated technological manipulations. The technology shouldn't really be in the position of bossing the composition around.
2. Did you ever try to "fit in"? (M Palter)
When I was just starting out I was - or considered myself to be - something of a prodigy. As I mentioned in my speech I began to write at age 9 and was having performances around Los Angeles and entering national composer competitions by the time I was in high school. My ideas about composition were so simple then, and I think they were essentially all about fitting in: if I wrote music people wanted to play they would play it. I thought the job of a composer was to write the music that the world already knew it wanted. It's not a terrible goal in life and many composers are happy never getting past it.
For a time I had this attitude as well and I was rewarded for it. I tried to write music that satisfied my musical tastes but that also made everyone happy: that made me happy to write it, that made the players happy to play it and the listeners happy to hear it. I went for a long time this way before I realized that some of these happinesses might be in conflict with each other.
When I was in my first year in graduate school at Yale I was commissioned by a violinist friend Leslie Shank - now co-concertmaster of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra - to write a piece for her Carnegie Hall debut, with pianist Jon Kimura Parker. It was supposed to be a virtuoso showpiece that demonstrated their considerable musical skills and talents, and I responded by writing a very difficult and flashy piece, called Illumination Rounds. This piece was successful and I immediately started fielding calls from other performers - some very well known - asking me to write similar flashy works for their instruments.
At first I was flattered and very happy but I soon began to doubt my own motives as a composer, and I started to ask myself some very hard questions. Was my piece so successful because I was such a great composer or was it because I had only written what I knew the players and audience wanted? Was the "flashiness" necessitated by the content of the music or was I just showing off the players' - and my own - technical abilities? Were the complicated and virtuosic patterns there because the music required them or because I knew the players would look impressive playing them?
In other words, was my piece expressing something that was honest and authentic and unique to me or was it just fitting into an established system of compositional expectations?
This kind of thinking precipitated a crisis within me, which took me years to overcome. I began to question any aspect of the music whose purpose was in the service of making the music attractive, in any way. I stripped away all ornament, I stripped away all change of color, I invented formulas that would make all the orchestrational decisions automatically. I began to rely more on the mathematical formulas that have always contributed the superstructures for my music. For several years my music became very austere, and even now I feel the effect of those years of austerity in my work.
Where and how a composer fits in is probably one of the most important things a composer needs to decide. For the most part the world is organized to set people on dependable paths, to make like decisions and think like thoughts. Society expects of artists pretty much what it expects of bankers and teachers and nurses, that there is a definable job to do and a specialized class of people who will dependably do it. It is so much easier this way.
When I realized that I could have an easy career doing no more than making all the decisions expected of me I could no longer make them. This has been the source of both strength and sorrow for me ever since.
3. What role do you see academic programs in the US having on the future?(R Wannamaker)
I don't see, and probably have never seen, an innate role for academic programs in music, in America or anywhere else. There is nothing inherently good about an academic program - a program can't teach you, a school or a building can't teach you. A person teaches you. Any school can only be as good as the people who teach there. The only reason someone goes to an academic institution to learn about music is because for the past few years there are some composers located within them.
This was not always the case, and it will not always be so. It has really only been since the post-World War II university explosion that composers became academics, making it necessary for young composers to become student academicians to find them. The effect of this shift on composition has been enormous, in two related ways. First, the presence of composition within the halls of knowledge encourages a more knowledge-based approach to what is an expression-based art. Music in an academic setting may have its more individualistic aspects submerged in favor of those aspects that can be discussed, quantified and organized. This isn't necessarily bad but it certainly changes the way composers approach composition.
The second, and to me more significant effect, is that if young composers can only learn from composers in academic settings then those composers outside the system have no way to transmit their ideas, other than through the music itself. This was a particularly painful fact in my educational life. I was very lucky to have had many committed teachers from whom I learned a great deal, but the composers whose music I was listening to in college - Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Terry Riley, Meredith Monk - were outside of any academic system and so were inaccessible as teachers. When I started searching for graduate schools I was disappointed to discover that these composers were not available to teach me. I continued in school anyway, learning many useful things on the way to my doctorate, but I was always aware that much of the music I was drawn to was virtually unrepresented in my formal education.
It should also be mentioned that there are other very vibrant experimental scenes in the music world today than those that can be reached through an academic system. The world of electronica, for example, is full of adventurous and technologically proficient composers whose base level of experience comes from pop music.
It is also interesting to think about how the future of music in an academic environment has been changed with the proliferation of home computer technologies, making it possible for larger numbers of musicians to do more far-reaching musical experiments in more places around the world. There is now and will continue to be a lot of interesting music around that is unmediated by a good education.
4. Thinking about your 2 "instances," (Branca and BOAC), both seem to demand initiative, commitment. The first looks inward, the second outward. Is the presence of commitment itself perhaps more important than the decisions a composer might make about how to use it? (R R)
I am not sure how to answer this question but I think it can be addressed with an anecdote from my high school days. I remember discovering the music of John Cage and telling my parents about how provocative this music was to me. When I explained the piece 4'33" my father was skeptical and asked if it would work should he perform it. My father is not a musician, but he assured me that his performance would be legitimate. It would, after all, be performed by following the rules of the score, and the sound of the performance would be the random contributions of the environment, just as indicated by the score.
I am not sure that I answered correctly, but I said that, even if it followed the rules and sounded right, his performance would not be legitimate because I didn't think that anyone could believe that he was sincere.
One of the things that is so interesting about the music world today is that so many things are possible. In addition to all the multiplicities of pop and jazz and world and ethnic musics, I can't think of any style of music introduced at any time in the past century that has really totally disappeared. Many of these kinds of musics become morphed into each other, blurring their distinctions, and many performers and composers begin in one sub-world and slide effortlessly between genres and categories. It is very confusing.
How then do we tell these worlds apart, and how do we tell if their practitioners are actually proficient in their practice? Since it becomes harder to judge composers or performers on their stylistic purity, or their ability to fit into a readily recognized tradition, or their reference to previously established points of cultural agreement, the only thing left to do is judge, somehow, their sincerity. Musicians must find a way to make their listeners believe them.
It was so important to us in the formation of Bang on a Can to create a performance standard that was high enough to allow the music to be believed. Because so much of the music that we present is challenging (and sometimes even bizarre) it was necessary for us to find performers who could commit themselves to its true and proper presentation.
For individual composers it is a similar situation - the listener hears the music for itself and at the same time tests it for its sincerity, for its commitment. One hears the long boring empty spaces of Bruckner, for example, and hears at the same time how much Bruckner believes in them. I cannot say how musical sincerity is created or transmitted but I do believe that, for composer and performer both, it may be the single most important thing we do.
5. As you look out at the musical world here from the perspective of BOAC and its role, what are the unfulfilled needs? (M. Bolles)
As I mentioned in my previous answer, it was very necessary for us to set high standards for performance, in order to present the best argument for the music that we support. When I look at the music world and see all the problems that need to be addressed - money, opportunity, education, better dissemination, new audiences, more love between people, etc - I keep thinking about all the passionless performances I have heard.
One thing I have always thought is that, due to low performance standards, I cannot be sure if I have ever really heard the music that I hate. Even the music I hate deserves to be played with passion and commitment, and presented in a convincing manner, in a conducive environment. I often joke at Bang on a Can that we should start a festival dedicated to great and convincing performances of the music we loathe, because we could make a better argument for this music than the people who currently support it.
If there is one thing I think the world could use more of it is this sense of passion, of commitment. It is a great thing to be a composer. What we do has meaning, it really matters. It is important. It has the power. I believe that this is true.