Friday Miscellany

— From his various blog posts about his forthcoming book on the Concord Sonata, It’s clear that Kyle Gann has written an extremely insightful, meaty book, a thorough study of this cornerstone piece. Given that, it is appalling to read about the B. S. he is having to endure at the hands of his pre-publication reviewers.

— I was happy to see three of my favorite composers – Harbison, Rochberg and Crumb – get some respect on this best-of-2014 CD list by George Grella (linked to by Alex Ross). I guess I must need more coffee, because at first I read this sentence:

I have mostly grudg­ingly admired Harbison’s com­pos­ing, appre­ci­at­ing how his music was made with­out enjoy­ing it…

as meaning John took no pleasure in it as he wrote it! (Totally my problem, not the author.) I guess some alienation from your own work – as well as some affection for it – is part of the mix for any composer. The new String Trio is fabulous, as Grella suggests, but I don’t agree that it is “surprisingly” good, as I have found John’s music similarly fine all along the way.

— Distressing news about Allan Kozinn here. Hard not to see this alongside the reduced number of classical listings in The New Yorker as a shrinking of the conversation about classical music in print.

It’s Academic

463px-It's_Academic_WMAQ_TV_1967No, I’m not writing about this. While visiting New Music Box for its Robert Carl postings, I read Daniel Felsenfeld’s essay on the use of the word “academic” in reference to composers. The comment section is extensive. I want to point out a few things that you would think are painfully obvious, but don’t seem to be obvious to some of the commenters:

– there are people writing interesting music and people writing lousy music; some of each kind get academic paychecks, some of each kind do not. You cannot reliably predict what a composer’s music is like in terms of style or quality on the basis of that composer’s W-2.

– considerable power and privilege accrues to many composers with academic positions. Many composers outside academia also hold institutional positions of power and privilege.

– there is no one model for being a composer in academia. As Jennifer Higdon notes in the comments section of Felsenfeld’s post, her status as a member of the Curtis faculty plays a relatively modest role in how she earns her living, and some of the privileges you would think of as basic for any faculty member are absent in her case.

– the degree of interaction of the composer who draws an academic paycheck with the musical world outside the university can vary widely. Note Barbara White’s mention of her work with musical amateurs in the New Music Box comments section. I have a day job at a university, but I have also written a good many lead sheet style songs (in what one friend disparagingly calls the “happy-clappy” pop idiom of contemporary Catholic liturgical practice in this country) for church congregations to sing. I don’t think I am necessarily a better or worse composer for having written those – though, in the light of Kyle Gann’s post (see below) perhaps the professionalism I have sought in those pieces has been a good influence on my concert music.

I think the overwhelming presence of the pop music industry makes academic connections a source of anxiety in our field in a way that other arts do not experience. Do you love Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead more or less because she is on the University of Iowa faculty? You maybe didn’t even know she teaches there. Some pretty famous painters, folks whose pieces can at times sell in six figures, will take up an adjunct or visiting artist position when the vagaries of the art market temporarily reduce their gallery income – and nobody worries about them being academics or not.

I like what Felsenfeld has to say here:

We all know what is meant when the accusation of academicism is lobbed: that person (or their line of thinking) is cloistered, out of touch, has little bearing on the real world. But really, there is no “real world” and no “general public.”…

…when we use the idea of “academic composing” to pigeonhole other artists because we either don’t like their work or don’t agree with their methods, it becomes an unfortunate “choose a side” that all the recent important genre-leaping and boundary-crashing (or what have you) is there to eliminate. Maybe I dream, but the day that there are no “sides” but rather just individuals doing what they do (and possibly working alongside like-minded souls) will be a good day for us all.

For further reading, check out this important post by Kyle Gann – I think there is a lot of truth in the academic/professional contrast he describes.

Penn Troika

Go here for Kyle Gann’s post on Rochberg’s Serenata d’Estate. He talks about the similarity between certain moments in the Serenata and the work of George Crumb – so I had to post a lengthy comment there about the whole Penn Troika phenomenon. Kyle makes an intriguing connection between Rochberg and Feldman, of all people – funny to think of their work intersecting. Maybe the stasis of Varese is a common thread, with Varesian dynamics turned upside down in Feldman, of course. Earlier I wrote about Rochberg here, and here.

Ives Variants

Extremely interesting post at Post-Classic in which Kyle Gann discusses variants in the Concord Sonata of Ives. Let me repeat here what I said in a comment there: it is a shame people don’t seem to be interested in preparing critical editions of scores anymore – you would think such an edition of the greatest American composition for piano would be pretty important, wouldn’t you?

Update: In a reply to my comment, Kyle Gann rightly pointed out that the Charles Ives Society has done, and is doing a lot of work on critical editions of Ives. I didn’t mean to overlook this important work – but the fashion in musicology these days is away from doing critical editions, and it seems 20th century music gets overlooked. Glad the folks working on Ives are bucking that trend.

Boulez/Coke vs. Cage/Pepsi

I am pretty sure I can taste the difference between Coke and Pepsi, but I have to admit I have never tested this experimentally, blindfold and all.  And I am pretty sure I can hear the difference between the Boulez Third Sonata, and Cage’s Music of Changes. But, again, I have never actually confirmed this.

This post by Kyle Gann makes me think about the Coke/Pepsi problem. Gann notes some of the wackier ways of generating notes that can be found in Boulez’s Marteau, then comments: “What I can’t see is why this method of generating pitches has any significant advantage over Cage’s chance processes, which Boulez so vehemently rejected.” Now, please note that Gann isn’t saying you can’t hear the difference between Cage and Boulez. But his wondering about the advantages of the different techniques led me to think about the difference in the listening experience. Usually the dichotomy is laid out as Babbitt vs. Cage, the idea being that maximally and minimally intentional pieces end up sounding pretty similar. I have never found that convincing; the persistent density of a Babbitt piece is unlike the more variegated textures of Cage. But pitting those Boulez and Cage piano pieces against each other might prove tougher to discern. I think I can hear a certain degree of intentionality in Boulez, but am I just being fooled by the names on the CD boxes?

Of course, hearing something as admittedly vague as “intentionality” is a lot different from truly getting something meaningful out of the pitch games the composer is playing. And what does “getting something meaningful” mean anyway? What is it that I get out of Don Martino’s music that I don’t feel I get out of Babbitt? It probably has to do with the vivid gestures in Martino that are absent in Babbitt, but I still feel the pitches make sense to the ear in Fantasies and Impromptus in a way that they don’t in Partitions.  The latter piece is simply over my head. In Cage’s chance music, you aren’t supposed to “get” the pitches anyway – the music goes around my head. The Boulez Third Piano Sonata tries to be both Cage and Babbitt – irrational and hyper-rational – and ends up being neither. To me, Boulez is something of a naked emperor until Rituel, and even then I think he is overrated.

I am not saying twelve-tone music in general doesn’t make sense. There are too many ways of writing a twelve-tone piece to make generalizations of that sort. Joseph Straus’s excellent recent book, Twelve-Tone Music in America, amply demonstrates this. (More about that book in the Martino/Shapey post I still hope to finish at some point.)

I am in total sympathy with Gann’s esteem for Rochberg’s Second Symphony, and his Serenata d’Estate. That symphony truly deserves a revival, at least as much as – or more – than those of the “American symphonists” – Schuman, Piston, Diamond, etc.

Update: Kyle Gann stresses here that Coke definitely does not taste like Pepsi.