What It Means To Be You

What It Means To Be You

I initially thought about responding to the insightful comments by Dennis Bathory-Kitsz, mclaren, and Kyle Gann that were prompted by my ruminations last week about the viability of juvenilia and other abandoned compositions (“I Gotta Be Me”). But where those comments led me was to a place that wasn’t as pithy and succinct as responses to comments (especially from threadstarters) should be, so I decided it was better just to start a new thread. So here goes…

According to mclaren, there’s an “us vs. them” among composers: some fall into the camp of “stylistic monoculture” (writing similarly identifiable pieces time and time again); the others “practice musical xenogenesis” (each piece is its own new world). I’m never particularly comfortable with binaries, and I’m equally ill-at-ease with universal paradigms. However, a universal paradigm in this case rings truer to me than a binary. It seems, at least to my ear, that it’s pretty impossible to completely mask who you are in the things that you put forward as creative work, even though there have been many composers (most famously John Cage) who attempted to do just that. Despite his attempts at taking his own ego out of the compositional process, there are through-lines that are audibly Cagean from his earliest serial-esque works through to his proportional duration works of the ’40s through to the indeterminate scores of the ’50s and ’60s, the “cheap imitation” derivations of the ’70s, and the Number Pieces of his final years. More than five years ago during a talk I did with John Corigliano, another composer who has very publicly eschewed adhering to a specific compositional camp, I thought he quite convincingly described personal style as the “unconscious choices” that get made during the creative process. No matter what you attempt to do, you will leave certain identifiable signs and these are beyond your control. And a decision that comes from not deciding is itself also a kind of decision making.

On the other extreme, the demand to conform—especially in the creation of cultural artifacts within a market economy—can be extremely high. This is not only true for music. In fact, it is even worse in the visual arts. If you establish a reputation as a portrait painter and decide to exhibit a series of abstract sculptures, your gallery will most likely not be very happy about it. A visual artist friend of mine has spent his entire life creating a body of work about which, on the surface, it is extremely difficult to generalize. It has made his work, despite its quality, difficult for galleries to promote, and yet there are things that even he does in his disparate output that reveal his “unconscious choice” fingerprints.

That said, I think that listeners, viewers, readers, etc. will always search for such identifiers and perhaps make them larger than they might actually be. For over ten years I’ve hosted a series of concerts at a club in which performers are requested to present two sets that are completely different from one another—I was inspired to curate in this manner since in addition to the structure-obsessed chamber music I compose for other people, I front a bluegrass-type band, a duality which usually totally disconcerts people. It’s always fascinating to me how related the things that are seemingly unrelated wind up being. Perhaps that’s why it is so exciting to listen to that early Philip Glass Brass Sextet and the Babbitt musical theatre songs I brought up last week. While clearly not in the styles those composers became known for, there are small details in both of those pieces which offer clues about the future directions those composers would take. That said, I’m still not convinced that those of us whose music is not widely known or disseminated should put every iota of music we have ever written out there on equal footing. How the pieces of the puzzle fit together—evolve, devolve, seemingly stay the same, seemingly always change—ultimately determines who you are, but even if we might not have complete choice about what we write, we ought to be able to initially determine the context in which people experience it. But we also should reserve the right to always be able to change our minds…

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7 thoughts on “What It Means To Be You

  1. philmusic

    This is an odd one for me. As you know I abhor sectarianism and have written about the destructive nature of “teams”. I have been identified as a “downtown” composer but my motto “no sonic prejudice” is inclusive. No style police here.

    As for masks historically there have been composers and writers who have created work that they published under pseudonyms to make it distinct from their “own” work. Mostly no one was the wiser. Some went to the trouble of claiming their works were from the famous dead they newly discovered etc. etc.

    For myself, my one and only commercial recording (finally created when I was 51) is of a work from when I was 17 that I did a little reworking. It is not very representative of my work which is mostly vocal and opera and yes, serial. Melville’s Dozen

    Though not my main line this fits into my educational work and I think that most composers of our time create work for many different contexts.

    Perhaps I exaggerate that fact. The main bulk of my work (opera) has not been heard as of yet and the works to be found here:
    youtube thisby1
    do not include my serial or 12-tone work as of yet.

    Since I don’t hide my authorship I see my range as expressing my many moods. To wear a mask is not always to hide ones identity. Some times its needed to create a focal point for exaggeration

    Phil Fried

    Phil’s Page

  2. Tom Myron

    I honestly think that a ‘disconcerted’ reaction to a musician who is fluent in more than one performative register says more about the receiver than the producer of said performance.

    Over the years it’s been suggested (both publicly and privately) that my ability to work collaboratively as a composer, arranger and orchestrator in a very diverse range of venues & idioms is the product of a facile but ultimately shallow (or derivative) technique. Nothing could be further from the truth. I work very hard and listen very closely. Curiosity about musical materials is the engine that drives my work. On every project I endeavor to cultivate my skill set to the point where my curiosity as a producer will register as authenticity for the listener.

    I’ve come to believe very strongly Berio’s observation that today’s ‘culture’- networks of high-speed, high-volume mass communication, represent to us what ‘nature’ represented to artists of the 19th century.

  3. Kyle Gann

    Ananda Coomaraswamy’s aesthetics drawn from Eastern art were a major influence on Cage and, through him, many others including myself. Coomaraswamy thought that art should never pursue conscious self-expression:

    There is also a sense in which the man as an individual “expresses himself,” whether he will or no. This is inevitable, only because nothing can be known or done except in accordance with the mode of the knower… The uses and significance of works of art may remain the same for millennia, and yet we can often date and place a work at first glance. Human idiosyncracy is thus the explanation of style… Styles are the accident and by no means the essence of art; the free man is not trying to express himself, but that which was to be expressed. [Coomaraswamy, The Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art, p. 39.]

    But I don’t really think the duality McLaren posited has much to do with this. It seems to me more about whether a composer explores a small repertoire of ideas and devices from piece to piece, or a repertoire so wide that consecutive pieces can end up sounding very different from each other. It doesn’t strike me that the narrow-repertoire monoculture composer is necessarily “expressing himself” any more (or less) than the wide-variety xenogenetic. For instance, Paul Epstein is about as monocultural a composer as I can think of, but his objectivist concerns are hardly very self-expressive; Babbitt is the even more obvious example. Certainly the monoculture composer becomes more identified with his or her more limited stylistic repertoire in the public mind, which has often proved something of a career asset in recent decades. And it seems fairly obvious to me that monoculture and xenogenesis are more likely extremes of a continuum than a binary choice, though it would be interesting to explore whether most composers strongly identify more with one than the other.

    And Phil, the word “but” in your sentence:

    I have been identified as a “downtown” composer but my motto “no sonic prejudice” is inclusive. No style police here.

    strikes me as unnecessary. In the “downtown” scene I inhabited, “downtown” was synonymous with “no sonic prejudice” and “no style police.” We had 12-tone composers in that Downtown scene and no one minded, because they in turn accepted what everyone else was doing too.

  4. Tom Myron

    “It seems to me more about whether a composer explores a small repertoire of ideas and devices from piece to piece, or a repertoire so wide that consecutive pieces can end up sounding very different from each other.”

    Kyle- Can the second of the two approaches you posit above still, in your opinion, yield works that are recognizably the product of a particular author? My sense is that this is what you were getting at in your response to mclaren’s ‘two types’ RE: Nancarrow.

    And of course I’m interested in reading what everyone else thinks too.


  5. speakingmusic

    When I think about composing the next piece I try to consciously think about my “voice” –what it is that makes my music mine as opposed to something else. When studying other composers, particularly for model composition, the point is to find that voice, those elements that make that composer unique.

    Some composers obviously try and break free from a stereo type. Holst hated how popular “the Planets” had become with people continually asking him to write more of the same. Beethoven certainly went through a variety of different periods as has Elliott Carter. Yet, there is still something about each piece they wrote (during any given period) which is similar to the other pieces in the same period.

    There is a need for growth, but (I believe) a need for linear progression. Musicologists, in years to come, should be able to look at a composers output and see a progression of ideas.

    It doesn’t work for me to try and through out everything I’ve done before in an attempt to create something wholly new. As Schoenberg said, “This music was distinctly a product of evolution, and no more revolutionary than any other development in the history of music.”

  6. mclaren

    Frank’s wariness of binary paradigms seems wise. Aristotelian western logic assures us that “everything must be either x or non-x,” but in the real world it ain’t so simple.

    Mendel’s experiments with wrinkled peas offer a good example. Mendel classified his pea plants according to whether they produced wrinkled peas or smooth peas, and he created his theory of genetics on that basis. But what if you have a pea that’s only a little bit wrinkled? In that case, the pea is kind of wrinkled…but also kind of smooth. It falls into both groups.

    Music tends to be like that. We all know of compositions which are ugly, yet also beautiful; compositions which sound complex, yet strangely simple…music which we admire yet at the same time deplore. Compositions can fill us with contrary emotions simultaneously–they can elate and at the same time horrify. Melodies can be rhythmically spiky, but at the same time the two seemingly incompatible and radically different polyrhythms can blend into a single simple emergent pattern (which James Tenney called a “resultant” in his liner notes on Nancarrow’s piano studies).

    So we would do well to avoid simple binary explanations. They can prove awfully deceptive.

    In the case of composers, it seems more important to ask what a composer does rather than what they express. One of the canards we get today, in our Doctor Phil touchy-feely self-help culture, is that the act of composing music boils down to the composer “expressing herself.” But the reality once again tends to veer away from the simple stereotypes.

    Composers very often do what they do for reasons which have no connection with personality or any alleged need to “express” some personal emotion. Oftentimes a composer will start down a particular path because a new technology pops up. For example, Ussachevsky & Luening produced the first tape music in America because that particular technology of easily-splicable acetate magnetic recording tape happened to appear at that particular moment, in 1953. If you put Ussachevsky & Luening in a time machine and sent them back to 1903 or ahead to 2003, it seems highly unlikely that they would have wound up becoming gurus of electronic music.

    Or take Perotinus and Longinus. They happened to start composing using right at the moment when organ technology was taking off, allowing composers to produce multi-voiced gothic motets with techniques like isorhythms. If Longinus and Perotinus had lived during the 600s, before the Byzantine emperor gave the first pipe organ as a gift to the Pope, it’s quite likely that Perotinus and Longinus would have composed something completely different.

    Once again, consider Edgard Varese. He composed the first all-percussion piece in Western music, Ionisation, because right at that particular moment in 1930 the Western world had come in contact with enough different cultures that a wide variety of percussion instruments were available to composers, and also the then-new technology of phonographic recording had opened composers’ minds to the possibilities of non-Western music using all-percussino ensembles. If Varese had lived, say, during the 18th century, would he have composed the first all-percussin Western composition? Unlikely.

    This emphasis of the process of composition seems more useful than viewing composers as pools of pulsating emotion driven by the need to express something. If process is the crucial issue, then the real difference between the two groups of composers may involve how they go about composing, rather than their alleged need to wallow in oceans of inchoate emotion, and that seems to be what Coomaraswamy was getting at.

    The monocultural composers seem to want to focus like a laser beam. They get hold of a particular methodology and drill down, exploring all its possible implications. This has some big advantages. A monocultural composer can push the boundaries of a particular compositional method in ways that a xenogenetic composer is never likely to. By sticking with one particular system or technology or method, a monocultural composer can push it so far that it turns into its opposite — and that’s something else that the xenogenetic composers seldom get to explore. For instance, Bach wrote so many fugues that in several instances he pushed the form far enough to anticipate using all twelve pitches of the chromatic scale. So there can be big advantages to sticking with one particular approach and worrying at it like a dog at a bone, until there’s no meat left for anyone else.

    There are also drawbacks to the monocultural approach. A composer can end up in a rut. Also, a monocultural composer can go far out in one particular direction that it becomes impossible for the music to mean much to anyone else, because we appreciate new music by hearing what it does differently. But appreciating what the composer is doing differently requires having gone through so many intermediate stages and having heard so many successive developments of one particular approach that the end result can wind up sounding incomprehensible and alien to audiences unfamiliar with that particular style of music. An example here is Ornette Coleman’s “free jazz,” which represents such an advanced development of the bebop style that listeners who come to it without a familiarity of the intermediate steps that led to that style can wind up gobsmacked and nonplussed.

    Rather than deriving from “self-expression,” xenogenetic composers look at things a different way. They want to explore the total space of possibilities, even at the potential expense of exploring deeply. This has huge advantages because, as the U.S. Army war college puts it, “capabilities create intentions.” Setting out to compose in some particular new way can spark radically new emotions in a composer, opening up previously undiscovered territories in oneself as well as previously unimagined sonic landscapes.

    This approach has some disadvantages, though, because a composer who flirts with a wide range of approaches may inadvertently try one particular method and get bad results and conclude it’s not fertile before moving on to something else…but if the composer had kept going, s/he might well have found unimagined depths in that particular compositional approach. For instance, many composers had tried their hand fairly unsuccessfully at producing algorithmic music before Joel Chabade wrote M for the Macintosh in 1986. Therefore, that particular approach to aglorithmic composition spread like wildfire and now MAX/MSP and Pure Data compositions form an entire recognized “style” of music. But back when Lejaren Hiller produced the Illiac Suite it was seen as a momentarily amusing dead end because Hiller was a guy who flitted from one musical approach to another without settling on and exploring any one exhaustively.

    One of the biggest advantages of xenogensis is that the composer gets to push hi/rself into doing new things, and this can strengthen the composer’s imagination and versatility. Too, since novelty is a big draw in contemporary music, this can also help the composer’s career. The disadvantage is that a xenogenetic composer can wind up doing a series of superficial and trivial pieces. Perhaps the biggest drawback of xenogenesis is that composers may fall into the trap of spending all their time looking for new things to try, obsessing over the supposed need to be constantly “different” rather than the musical quality of the pieces themselves.

    As Frank remarked, these seemingly sharp distinctions partake of the artificial. Suppose a composer takes one particular approach and runs it through lots of possibilities and then exhausts it, and moves on to another approach. Isn’t that a combination of both the monoculture and xenogenesis approach? Lots of composers do that, however. For instance, Larry Polansky has made a habit of taking one particular compositional method and running it to its limits (as far as his own interests were concerned), and then casting it aside in favor of another compositional method. So you get pieces as wildly different as Polansky’s “Lonesome Roads” variations and his HMSL microtonal computer pieces. Yet within the limits of each group of compostitions, Larry’s approach seems strongly monocultural, as for instance his recent Four-Voice Canons.

    James Tenney also had a habit of running a particular compositional approach to its outermost limits and then moving on to something completely different. So Tenney’s computer music pieces produced at Bell Labs represent in one sense a stylistic monoculture; but then Tenney abandoned computer music and changed to doing entirely different pieces, like the Postcard Pieces, which represent another kind of stylistic monoculture. Then once Tenney ran through the possibilities of those kinds of minimalist compositions, he threw that approach aside for compositions based on psychoacoustics, as in pieces like “Critical Band.” So Tenney and Polansky embody both approaches — they are serially monocultural composers, but their entire body of work is strongly xenogenetic.

    It’s worth noting that there’s a strong bias in the grants and awards culture and in the dominant academic culture of contemporary music toward the monoculture approach. Composition courses emphasize things like Schenkerian analysis, which relies on finding an “underlying line” in a composition. Unity is everything, variety is viewed as superfluous and a distraction. And what applies to the individual compositions tends to apply to a composer’s entire career. The composer who refuses to restrict hi/rself to a single style and develop it exhaustively gets dissed as having “failed to fulfill hi/r promise” or “betraying hi/r principles.” So awards and grants and prestigious academic jobs tend to go to musicians who take the monoculture approach.

    This stems from the dominance of the German method in academia. Germans introduced the PhD thesis and the dissertation defense into modern academia — so American academia is consequently based on the German approach. Exhaustive scholarship and a desire to be comprehensive and thorough typify the German “musikwissenschaft” methodology. (The French don’t call it “music-science,” as the Germans do, revealingly.) Since thoroughness typically requires specialization, that’s a strong push toward a monoculture right there. Composers and music scholar who exhibit opposite virtues, those of variety and versatility and unpredictably, get viewed with suspicion by the grants and awards committees and the academic culture of contemporary music. A composer who is too versatile gets slammed as lacking in depth; a musicology who covers too wide a range of topics becomes suspect for hi/r alleged lack of scholarly thoroughness. “Rigor” remains the big watchword in musical academia, a classic code word for exhaustive specialization in a stylistic monoculture.

    The emphasis on variety and versatility is characteristically French, and it’s amazing how many great French composers and French musicologists there are right now who are completely off the radar scopes of the most influential American music critics and musicologists. Henri Dutilleux and Jean-Jacques Nattiez and Laurent Fichet and Pierre-Jean Croset and Jacques Dudon and the Baschet brothers are nonentities as far as the doyens of contemporary American music are concerned. But these people have done fabulous work, hugely influential in American contemporary music.

    Groups like GRM get completely overlooked in surveys of contemporary music, yet they’ve produced infinitely more impressive music that sinkholes like IRCAM. People like Alex Ross actually seriously make statements like “most of the big ideas today have come out of pop music,” apparently without realizing that almost all those big ideas were initially created by French composers 40 and 50 years they ever showed up in pop music. For example, Pierre Henry (samples of everyday sounds and fragments of music rearranged into mashups in the late 1940s, 40 years before pop musicians started doing it). Or Jean-Claude Risset (the application of computers to synthesize sound in the late 1960s, 30 years before pop musicians ever started using softsynths). Or Olivier Messiaen (the use of non-western percussion instruments and non-Western rhythmic and compositional methods, particular Balinese and African rhythms and forms in the late 1940s, 40 years before pop musicians started doing “world music”). By contrast, not one of the allegedly “big ideas” of the German composers of the 1950s has proven influential in pop music, or continued as a vital influence today in contemporary music — while the French innovations are still going strong.

    Apparently only serialism counts as a “big idea.” French innovations like musique concrete and spectral music and tape music and Italian innovations like Russolo’s intonarumori just don’t count, because they’re not German and they don’t exhibi that oh-so-precious German Schenkerian unity.

    Above all, the monoculture composers typically have a comprehensive plan. They can explain and analyze everything they do. This makes their work seem important. (It’s all done according toa master plan!) Composers who pursue the xenogenesis approach tend to wing it. They don’t have any grand overarching plan and they can’t make any great universal claims for their music, so they seem superficially less impressive. A composer with a big impressive “method” can always justify whatever s/he does — “Here, it’s all part of my great Master Plan,” the monoculture composer can say. But when a critic questions why a xenegenetic composer produced some quirky new piece, all the xenogenetic composer can do is throw up hi/r arms helplessly and say, “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

    So the entire Western system of music criticism and academic musicology seems stacked against the xenogenetic composers.

    The big countervailing force in our culture remains technology. The existence of iPods and iTunes seems inherently xenogenetic. It has become impossible to enforce stylistic monoculture in music in the face of such technologically-mediated xenogenesis, so the good news for composers who practice musical xenogenesis is that music technology is making our entire society xenogenetic. It won’t be long before someone hands you a single disc with a notation in black marker pen on it: ALL THE MUSIC EVER RECORDED EVERYWHERE THROUGHOUT ALL HISTORY. Now that’s got to encourage xenogenesis!


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