Michael Kaiser needs a new playlist. Or new ears.
I wasn't going to do this at all - I really don't want to my blog to degenerate into a dump spot for rants - but sometimes somebody with a public voice says something so boneheaded and misdirected, so begging for retort, and most significantly, so seemingly directed straight at you that you feel compelled to respond. I know it's a bad idea to take on a powerful figure in your own discipline. I also know it's more important to spend your time actually making
art than bitching about lameass critiques of what you make, but after reading Michael Kaiser's recent article in the Huffington Post entitled "What Is Wrong With the Arts?
" (I mean, you just know it's going to be good) I was so ticked off I actually couldn't practice. So in the name of getting back to the practice room, I'd like to write a few brief thoughts both on Kaiser's answer to this question, which proceeds thusly:
"The arts are in trouble because there is simply not enough excellent art being created."I mean, come on. He asked for it.Really, Michael? Really?
There's so much wrong with your article (every time I hear the phrase "serious art" it makes me want to tear apart a harmony textbook with my teeth), it's hard to know where to start. But at the base of it all, I feel sorry for you, cuz you're missing out, man. There's TONS of excellent art being produced these days, maybe more than ever. If you're not finding it, you're probably looking in the wrong places. I mean... Steven Sondheim? Yo-Yo Ma? Those are really the guys who top your playlist?As a student of music, let me take you up on that one discipline, since it's what I know best. You DO "sound like the classic old-timer" when you
discuss the absence of Bernsteins or Stravinskys in the current generation. I have some sad news for you, Michael: Igor's dead. Yeah... that happened in 1971. Not to say he's no longer relevant, or that we younger artists don't know about him or study him closely. To be sure, he was, is, and likely always will be a giant, but at this point, he's more like our heritage than our immediate model or inspiration. None of us were there to riot in Paris - most of us are the students of the students of the students of the students of his who did. A lot of your hand-wringing over the disappearance of excellent art presupposes a certain idea of art, a concept tied to image of the "great composer" who makes "great art;" there's nothing wrong with that, but it's a somewhat limited concept that springs from a specific place and time - 19th century Europe mostly - and certain bodies of thought - Romanticism, among others. This sort of material made sense to the people creating it, because it reflected the world they lived in; it was authentic to Liszt because he was
a 19th century European Romantic, and it made sense to Stravinsky, because he was a direct inheritor of that tradition. But art - certainly "excellent" art, anyway - is too organic and personal and important to just endlessly reproduce itself across generations; it needs
to completely transform with every pair of new hands, or else it's no longer authentic to the artist or relevant to the artist's world. Several generations of artists have made excellent art and thus completely transformed what art is and means since Stravinsky. Come on, Michael, get with the program.Today: Alessandro Bossetti, Public Enemy, Jason Moran,
NOW Ensemble,Carla Kihstedt... no? None of these resonating with you?The funny thing is, the fact that you can't hear value in the stuff people are creating today also makes me question how closely you listen to the older stuff you profess to admire. Sure,
the process of generating new material and new forms of art sometimes takes on an iconoclastic character, but it's often more about really listening
to those who came before; listening when Stravinsky suggested new ways to treat rhythm, listening when Schoenberg freed dissonance, listening when Cage revolutionized silence. If you don't hear connections between what we're doing and what they did, maybe you just need to listen to both - and everybody in between - more closely.
Yes, Stravinsky's great, we agree. The difference between us, the contemporary artists, and you, the contemporary critic, is that we didn't stop listening when he departed from primitivism and neoclassicism. His subsequent serial pieces made sense to us because we also listened to Schoenberg and the rest of the Second Viennese School, and we paid attention to their great, doomed 12-tone challenge to 19th-century tonal harmony. Many talented composers took up this cause in the following generation: we listened when Milton Babbitt (who passed just last week) challenged us to serialize even further and make music as ambitious and challenging as possible
. Of Babbitt's students, we're more interested in Paul Lansky than Steven Sondheim, because we listened when Varèse and Partch and the futurists challenged us to create music from hitherto unconventional sources, and so Lansky's fascinating forays into computer music and found sound are far more compelling than Sondheim's reiterations of musical theater. Of Lansky's students, we're interested in Dan Trueman, who does things with Scandinavian folk music we think are far more interesting than Yo-Yo Ma's multiple-platinum forays into (supposedly) Appalachian fiddle tunes and (boringly) Argentinian tango, because we listened when Steve Reich suggested that artists should look beyond the surface qualities of the art of other cultures and into their mechanics for inspiration. Of Dan Trueman's students... well, that's me, and I'm still a student, but I'm doing my best.
The point is, a lot
has happened since the great music you idealise was produced - the independence of the "third world," globalization, a few trips to the moon, Vietnam, the collapse of the Soviet Union, 9/11, the Great Recession, a black American president, and so on, and so on. Every one of these events has changed the world, and so excellent art - not just in its character but in its very form - has also changed to remain true to its world. If it doesn't seem that there are enough Great Composers out there, here's a possible reason: reeling from fascism and World War and uncomfortable with the increasingly clear linkages in theory between "great art" and "great states" or "great races," many artists sought to erase the hand of the composer as entirely as possible, leading both to Cage's chance operations on the one hand and Boulez's total serialism on the other, as well as many of Fluxus's Happenings. If performers don't always seem to be playing in tune, that could be because the influx of ideas and traditions from other cultures necessarily led us to question not only our own intonation aesthetics but also the very idea of artistic specialization, resulting in pieces like Riley's In C
that explore interaction between musicians of almost any level and type of training. If performances come out different each time, that could be that we're increasingly aware of rich improvisational traditions as well as composition-based ones, and composers like John Zorn and Anthony Coleman have incorporated both seamlessly into their music. And if you're feeling lonely in the concert hall, that may because we're increasingly interested in art that comes from other native soils entirely - Public Enemy's Bomb Squad and other definitive early rap groups tore samples from the sounds and recordings they found around them to make intricate new musical textures, just as the 20th century black American was forced to piece together a decent life out of the strange and often hostile fragments of an alien culture. Today's artists- at least the exciting ones - are the inheritors of these musical and cultural phenonena as well as Stravinsky, and they create art both relevant to the current world and reflective of this entire continuum. The youngest of us have grown up as the first generation where African-American art as produced by African Americans is truly integrated into the cultural mainstream. We're also the first generation to face an economy that may actually be collapsing on account of increasingly unpayable debt and a life expectancy that may be shorter on account of the things we eat. We are the largely unconscious beneficiaries of the civil rights movement, and some of us never experienced the Cold War. We are the first generation that grew up with mastery over the internet, and now talk to each other in newly emerging dialects through modes of communication unimaginable only a few decades ago. Of course we don't write music like Leonard Bernstein.
The question isn't why there's isn't excellent art any more, it's why excellent art isn't making it to audiences. To return to the people I mentioned earlier, why, when Dan Trueman produces compelling new music based around Scandinavian hardanger fiddle tunes is it well received within a relatively small and specialized community of listeners, while Yo-Yo Ma's most recent album "Songs of Joy & Peace," a compilation of holiday music mixed in with "Here Comes the Sun" and "My Favorite Things" presumably goes gazooble-platinum? When Trueman ups and forms a laptop orchestra, or when his teacher Paul Lansky inexplicably switches away from computer music and back to more conventional instrumentations late in his career - why doesn't it make bigger press?The villains here aren't the artists, they're, as you say,
the "boards, managers and producing consortia.... These groups are misbehaving. They are overly-conservative, subject to 'group think' and so worried about budgets that they forget that bad art hurts budgets far more than risking taking does." You said it, man! The thing is... you're the president of the friggin' Kennedy Center!
If you're concerned for the arts, there's no reason to pin the blame on the artists; the issue, frankly, is more with people like you, people in positions of institutional authority, people leading the country's top performing spaces
, people with blogging appointments at the Huffington Post, people with degrees in Economics and Management who do lots of good things for lots of good arts organizations, but who are also out of touch, far from the artistic vanguard, who are still so married to outmoded forms of artistic production that they can't see the great new art right in front of them. Michael, trust me, excellent art is out there aplenty, you just have listen closer
. Get some new stuff in your ears. Leave the Kennedy Center and check out a show produced by one of the many young new organizations like New Amsterdam Records that have emerged expressly to support the great new art you won't. Put the Yo-Yo Ma Christmas album back on the shelf and listen to some Penderecki, listen to some free jazz, listen to some kid doing something you don't understand, try to understand it. Then once you've done that, the ball's in your court, buddy; it's up to you to revamp the institutions and "producing consortia" to keep pace
with great excellent art, in all its amorphous, ever-evolving vicissitude.In short, Michael, to quote another excellent artist, if you want to make the world a better place...
the Denver Post published a series of unbelievable color photos
taken between 1939 and 1943, and if you haven't checked them out yet, you really owe it to yourself to do so. They're stunning illustrations into our past, and as such, I found them fascinating and heartbreaking, mostly on account of a terrible sense of how disempowered we've become.
Look at this picture of a dinner table - note the stunning lack of STUFF that characterizes that meal. As far as I can tell, that's almost all home-produced, home-jarred food. I won't get into the vast benefits of such a table - or the indication of the cultural health it represents - but the point is, most of us wouldn't even know how to do any of that now. We certainly wouldn't be able to construct that phenomenal Southwestern dugout, or maybe even maintain such an ambitious Victory garden.
Granted, I'm probably in danger of romanticizing the Depression, and one must always be careful of overlooking the subtler secrets of the word "we;" one of the most loaded of these photos is of black Southern field hands, who would surely provide a much different perspective on the trajectories of empowerment in recent American history. Nevertheless, I'm fascinated by the idea that everything has a secret history - hence the project - and I suspect that they're often about the things we've lost. In this case, I can't help feeling we've forgotten how to take care of ourselves - that knowledge has been forgotten in the same way that dissidents in autocracies are disappeared - and we're all the poorer for it.
Finished the patch that I'll be using for this Tuesday's performance of Industry - this is what it looks like:
for those of you unfamiliar with MAX/MSP, it's a powerful mass of software with lots of different applications - in this case, I'll be using it to get my laptop to recognize input from a touch sensor attached to my cello. And for those of you who are familiar with MAX, cool it - I know somebody smarter could have done all this much more elegantly, but come on, it's my first ever patch!
On the other end of my compositional process, people are sometimes curious about how I collect my samples. There's really no mystery to it - it's me with a microphone going around recording stuff. For instance, let this be a warning to any who would field record near cats (don't worry, NEC Entrepreneurship Department, no microphones were harmed in the making of this clip):
Drummers at the 2007 Thundergod festival just outside Denu
One of the key components of The Secret History
is a piece called A New Prayer for Thundergod
. I actually conceived of it before any of the other Secret History
material (or even any electroacoustic music at all!), way back in 2005, lying awake under mosquito netting in Kopeyia, a village on the border of Ghana and Togo*. The sounds of the rural West African night in rainy season were unbelievably reminiscent of the drumming music I was learning during the day - I could almost imagine some crafty frog had stolen away with a gankogui
and was out there somewhere jamming with the crickets and all the other beasties - and it made me imagine a percussion piece in the Ewe
style I was studying, but with prerecorded ambient noises instead of drums. So began my whole engagement in electroacoustic music and noise. It took a (very!) long time to learn how to write this sort of music, and while I gradually began producing pieces I liked, the original idea for an African piece continually foiled me.Finally, five years and a second trip to Africa later, I produced a draft of the piece and premiered it in Jordan Hall (you can read an updated version of the program notes here).
It was pretty successful, but I knew that before I considered it finished, I'd have to send a recording back to my old friends and teachers in Kopeyia to get their input. So recently, I did just that, and am now awaiting their reply... not without some trepidation! It's not only that there's a dearth of weird electroacoustic chamber music performances in rural West Africa these days, it's also that this particular piece of weird electroacoustic chamber music features field recordings I made IN this particular part of rural West Africa, and the people who'll be listening to it will be recognizing themselves reflected back. My anxiety isn't so much ethical - I received full permissions to record and to write the piece - as banal. Will they like it? Will they appreciate my use of their voices and playing? What if they don't? Will they be offended? Blah, blah, blah. I'm very rarely prone to anxiety, but this piece, along with my engagement with Africa more generally, has been so overwhelmingly central to my development as a musician, as a composer, and even - you saw this treacly bit coming - yes, even as a global citizen and human being. Unfortunately, mail travels slow to Kopeyia, so I may be waiting for some time before I hear any response....*my main host in Africa was a guy named Emmanuel Agbeli, and since my time there, his Dagbe Cultural Center has really taken off: you can find out more about it and Kopeyia here.
...just how straight-up physically pleasurable practicing classical cello can be. After two years of straight composition and improvisation work, I've just this semester started taking classical lessons again with Natasha Brofsky, and it's really a revelation.
Anthony Coleman, one of my teachers in the CI Department, is always talking about "the thing." When you're working on improvisation you spend an unbelievable amount of time and energy searching for the thing, better defining the thing's parameters, making sure you don't inadvertently wander from one thing to another, or if you do, that you switch well enough that the transfer of thingness is clearly apparent - or even becomes a thing itself.
With classical music, in contrast, you're pretty much handed the thing on a silver platter, and that allows you to enjoy the sheer physicality of execution in an incredibly pure, even athletic manner. Practicing jazz or free improvisation is frequently overwhelmingly cerebral, so just practicing a shift, exploring the influence of minute adjustments of body, and enjoying the gradual improvement bazilions of good repitions more or less reliably render is incredibly satisfying. I don't mean to suggest too firm a binary between the two modes of practicing, and I also definitely realize I'm in a huge honeymoon here. I'm free to appreciate all great things about playing classical music without an ounce of accountability - no scary auditions or high pressure lessons (yet) - but I certainly intend to enjoy it while it lasts!
Just finished up some new content for the Ocelot page, including two new samples, a video, and a booking link - check it out
has been selected to appear on the big This Is Our Music
show by the CI Department this month, which means I'll get to play it solo in Jordan Hall at 8pm on February 22nd! Also, the whole Drive
series (including Train
) will be played at the Boston Intercollegiate Collaboration Forum concert in Brown Hall at 8pm on March 1st. For more info on these and other shows, check out the calendar
page; you can also hear recorded demos of these pieces on the samples
I'd like to echo Chris from the Middletown Blog
: "I swear to God, I'll rip out what's left of my hair if one more popular music scholar name-checks Roland Barthes and The Grain of the Voice
!" Seriously, what is the big deal with this inescapable essay? I've got to vent for a second here, so if you're unfamiliar with Barthes' original argument, you should check it out here
(along with the rest of Image-Music-Text
), or just ignore this post altogether. Assuming that the heart of Barthes’ argument is basically “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing,” I continue to have real problems understanding what he’s adding to Ellington’s much pithier argument. When I try to pin down just what Barthes means by the "grain," (my teacher Anthony Coleman's explanation: "he's talking about the funk, man!") I keep thinking of Louis Armstrong’s immortal answer when asked to define jazz: “if you don’t know, don’t mess with it.” Barthes obviously wants to go further and establish something beyond this “dilemma of the… ineffable,” but even after all the ink that's been spilt, I’m not convinced that he contributes anything more than confusion. There’s a host of problems with Barthes’ effort – the disconcerting creep of his own aesthetic preferences into an argument over something supposedly bigger and unrelated to likes and dislikes, the questionable discreteness of the geno-song, the enduring ambiguity over what the hell the grain actually is, and so on.
I also suspect Barthes may be guilty of projecting an experience intimate to the listener upon the performer or the performance. If he seems to have difficulty nailing down the geno-song, maybe it’s because he’s assigning it to the wrong location. If the pheno-song “covers all the phenomena” of the performance, maybe the geno-song is not “the volume of the singing and speaking voice,” (not a question of “the style of the interpretation?”) nor “the space where significations germinate ‘from within language and in its very materiality,’” (not an aspect of “the structure of the language being sung?”) nor “a signifying play having nothing to do with communication,” (what?) but instead, the unique reception of that performance in the listener. While what performance “gets you there” is entirely subjective, Barthes can still maintain his claim of objectivity if he shifts it onto the self-immolating experience of total immersion – the juissance on which Barthes leans so heavily (more on that in a moment).
But first, another objection, springing from Chris's great class analysis: “Panzera gives the upper-middle-class French intellectual lots of ‘bodily’ stuff to dive into, to appreciate sensually (albeit in a very theoretical language) in a vaguely avant-garde way.” Chris is talking only about the singers here, juxtaposing Panzera’s “vaguely avant-garde” crunch to Fischer-Dieskau’s clarity, which is in comparison “almost middlebrow, acceptable to a lower-middle class sensibility.” But the same language could also be applied to Barthes himself. If Louis Armstrong passively accepts the dilemma of the ineffable, Barthes, instead of overcoming it, oversexualizes it. Just like Panzera, Barthes also “gives the upper-middle-class… intellectual [reader] lots of ‘bodily’ stuff to dive into… (albeit in very theoretical language).” In other words, he dodges the adjective only to run headlong into the erection. The problem is made more acute by his insistence on the objectivity of the erotic. Barthes seeks to escape subjectivity by linking physical musical delivery to the self-erasure of orgasm (jouissance being the glue), but even assuming orgasm as an obliterative “little death,” the erotic – least of all discussions of the erotic – can hardly be equated with the event of climax. Barthes may not be Barthes when he cums, but he is very much Barthes when he talks about doing so. The physical aspects of vocal delivery – or of anything, for that matter – are not uniquely compelling to him because they are erotic, but because he is Barthes, the upper-middle-class French intellectual.
I’m more than willing to accept that Roland Barthes is a hell of a lot smarter than Daniel Hawkins, and the sheer mass of people smarter than me who find real value in this article leads me to suspect I’m missing something. Maybe the good stuff is the more peripheral material Barthes generates while trying to make his main points. For instance, I found his critique of the adjective and its “constituting” qualities magnificent. However, many of the commentators on Grain seem employ these things Barthes does do to let him off the hook for the stuff he doesn’t. Even if Barthes covers a lot of good ground while moving sidewise around the central issues of his article – presumably this is what one guy called “Barthes at his finest and most vexing-“ he’s still accountable for never really punching through those central issues. So ultimately, I think Barthes leaves me in a position similar to Chris: “I’m open to hearing from those who think Barthes’s theory deserves the attention it receives,” but until then, I’m sticking with Armstrong.