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from 1995-2005. No updates have been made since a special program in 2015.
Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution
The breakdown of hierarchical barriers during the 1970s and 80s in America between Western art music, African-American music, rock, and even pop has resulted in an unprecedented crisis of identity for art music in recent times. One of the distinguishing marks of this period has been the tendency to embrace music outside of one's own genre in order to forge new sound within a given context. This trend has given us an aesthetic landscape with much advocacy by various interest groups for seemingly mutually exclusive methods of composition or musical procedure, but no critical theory with any collective consensus or consent.
While this can be looked upon as a wonderful state of affairs, allowing ideas to cross-pollinate happily in spring's breeze, it also has had the rather distressing effect of creating a great deal of confusion among artists, critics, and producers. That this is clearly the case is evident when one considers that no one had succeeded in pasting a generic label on art music over the past twenty years. The music of composers coming out of a classical background working in academic and non-academic settings has been variously labeled: new-music, music of the avant-garde, contemporary music, Western art music, post-modern music; the list goes on and on, with new descriptive terms being invented as the old ones are appropriated or begin to apply to other genres of music.
For, example, composers who began working in the fifties tend to feel comfortable with the label "avant-garde": "I'm an avant-garde composer", they'll say. But so is Ornette Coleman. Or Miles Davis, Gil Evans, Carla Bley and Max Roach. So is Captain Beefheart and Screamin' Jay Hawkins. Is this a problem? Of course not! But it doesn't serve to help composers of Western art music in defining for themselves, as well as for the public, what it is that they actually do, assuming that they know for themselves! While it can be said that all of us working in advanced forms of rock, African-American art music, and art music coming out of a classical context are making sounds that can variously be called new music, avant-garde music, art music, and so on, it can hardly be said that we all share similar backgrounds, histories, or formal concerns. The simple fact is that while there are many points of intersection, our music is very different. Thank God!
The term "art music" is inadequate when applied to contemporary-composers-coming-out-of-a-classical-music-tradition; the term "art music" can surely be applied with equal veracity to the music of Duke Ellington (b. 1899) as it can to Aaron Copland (b. 1900). However, as C.C.C.O.O.A.C.M.T. are dealing with continually changing and devilishly elusive definitions of what their music is supposed to be, operating, as they all too often do, outside any commercial context, for the sake of convenience and with no intention of connoting an hierarchy between the genres of music, I will simply use the term "art music" when referring to C.C.C.O.O.A.C.M.T.
This chronicle is a personal account of post-minimalism music in New York City during the seventies and eighties. In a general way, it is directed to those concerned with interesting developments in art music over the past two decades, but perhaps more specifically to those who would like to better understand the evolution of electric music within an avant-garde context during this period in New York. It proposes that it is now time to glean what was learned from the plurality and confusion of the seventies and eighties to forge new and vital music within the effervescent boundary of art music, as well as a possible agenda for the years ahead.
The first section is a bit of the history that led Western European and North American art music to the peculiar point it occupied at the dawn of the nineties. In the second section I switch to the first person and, taking the viewpoint of the founder/director of the music program at the Kitchen and an active member of the post-minimalist generation of composers on the New York downtown music scene since 1970, I give a firsthand account of how art music and its composers in New York City developed during the seventies and eighties. The final section returns to the third person, sums up many of the conclusions drawn in the previous sections, and outlines possible initiatives for fresh musical investigation.
Toward the end of the last century, equal-temperament and chromaticism presented composers with a new musical challenge, which Arnold Schoenberg liked to call the "emancipation of dissonance." The equal-tempered system, with its placement of semi-tones at equidistant intervals exploded previous notions of harmony, conceptions of chordal progression, and the tyranny of the triad. Pitch no longer had to relate to a tonal center implied by a key, but could exist as a thing-in-itself. The beginning of this century saw the invention of a new key: the key consisting of 12 semi-tones.
Although composers such as Busoni, Debussy, Ives, Mahler, and Scriabin intuited the implications of this new key, it was Arnold Schoenberg who first formulated a comprehensive theory for the manipulation and ordering of the twelve tones. Twelve-tone theory was extrapolated upon by Anton Webern and continued to be evolved by composers through the fifties, when it developed into the form known as serialism, or the International Style. By this time not only pitch was subjected to systematic organization, but other parameters of music as well: rhythm, amplitude, timbre, and dynamic.
The post-war period in Europe and America was indeed a momentous time for music in the sense that truly new sounds were being discovered through electronic production and extended-instrumental technique: new forms and methods of composing were being forged. Once composers began to break away from traditional modes of thinking about tonality and form, they found they needed to go to the very roots of music's definition in order to seriously question what it was supposed to be. For example, if it was possible to have a single 12-note key, was it not also possible to introduce noise into the sound palette, as suggested by Filippo Marinetti in the Futurist Manifesto? Would it be possible to have a composition whose form was about not having a form, as John Cage suggested? Could letting out a butterfly out of a jar be considered a piece of music, wondered La Monte Young?
Composers also began to experiment with radical new forms of notation, examining the possibility that traditional notation might in fact be forcing the listener into fixed ways of hearing music. What would happen if things were loosened up a bit by writing the pitch exactly but leaving the rhythm somewhat open to the performer, as Luciano Berio did in his Sequenza for solo flute? In early compositions by Christian Wolff, the general principle resembled a game: for example, the action of one musician, whenever he initiated it, would set off the action of another musician. In Play, by Morton Subotnick, the rules are as definite as a board game; in certain places, depending on what happens, certain things are done; you move ahead or you go back, and so on.
The end of the fifties saw a hybrid musical landscape, with composers on one side of the fence advocating complete control of all the parameters of music, attempting to reduce music to a science, and on the other side the composers who continued to push the definitions of music through the use of indeterminacy, chance operations, stochastic principles, rule-oriented pieces, and more. The composition of music and the sound of the resulting performances had reached the outer limits of the performers technical capacities, doing its intrepid best to be as arcane as possible. At times it seemed comprehension was limited only to a select core of hardened new music fans. By the early sixties, a critic of the New York Times had gone so far as to write a shocking article on the composer Milton Babbitt, a composer who was a leader of this school, entitled: "Who cares if you understand?"
There was a consensus among composers of the time that it was considered a compromise to write music with even a veneer of accessibility, for accessibility was not a part of the theoretical platform. It seemed one needed to be a specialist in modern music, or perhaps in love with someone who was, in order to fully appreciate the music which was being written around that time. In other words, for an ambitious young composer at the end of the fifties or the beginning of the sixties, tonality was out and dissonance was in. Or at least some kind of noise! He could take comfort in knowing that there was a well-defined agenda for music outlined in periodicals such as the German publication Die Reihe, and in America, Perspectives in New Music and Source Magazine, to name only three of the many publications devoted to this music.
Once composers began to understand that liberation was possible from 19th century precepts of tonality and form, many of them began to wonder if they could also be liberated from the notes themselves by introducing noise into the sound palette. John Cage, with prophetic accuracy, wrote in 1937, "I believe that the use of noise to make music will continue and increase until we reach a music produced through the aid of electrical instruments." As early as the 1920s, Edgard Varèse envisioned a machine that would produce electronic music. However, the first compositions involving pure electronic noise didn't come until the 1950s when the vision of electronic music and the tape recorder was realized with compositions such as John Cage's William's Mix (1952) and Fontana Mix (1958), Edgard Varèse's Poème Electronique (1958), and Stockhausen's Gesang der Jünglinge (1955-56). Additionally, in France there was a pioneering "musique concrète" school consisting entirely of natural sounds electronically altered and recorded on tape, led by Pierre Schaefer in Paris and Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening in New York. These pieces were important in further defining possible sound palettes for music, since most audiences of this time were not recognizing noise-compositions as music.
Other composers favored the belief that electronic sound composition should not be used to imitate or extend traditional music, but should be developed as a distinct medium. These included Richard Maxfield, David Tudor, and James Tenney in New York; the Sonic Arts Union consisting of Robert Ashley, David Behrman, Alvin Lucier, Gordon Mumma; and the San Francisco Tape Music Center (now at Mills College) with Morton Subotnick, Pauline Oliveros and Ramon Sender. In addition, research was being done in sound laboratories, most of them in universities, led by the Colombia-Princeton group who pioneered the RCA-Victor Synthesizer, by Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, by the experimental music studio at the University of Illinois, and by many others who were exploring every conceivable aspect of electronic music production.
It was against this background that a new yearning developed among composers who had come of age on the frozen wastelands of serialism. In this decade of the sixties, with its emphasis on social issues and human rights, it was whispered among certain circles of composers that their music had perhaps become too elitist, existing rarefied in the ivy-covered towers of the university or government supported radio. They began to crave for a new simplicity, and, if I may: a new tonality. This was in 1960.
Terry Riley and La Monte Young had recently arrived in New York from Berkeley, California. New York had an underground loft scene in lower Manhattan at the time, underground because loft living had not yet been legalized. There dwelled a spicy mixture of composers, visual artists, choreographers, and poets. Riley and Young found themselves in the company of artists such as Robert Morris, Yoko Ono, Walter de Maria and Marian Zazeela, poets Jackson Mac Low and Diane Wakowski, and the underground film makers Jack Smith and Tony Conrad (who was also a composer and violinist).
There was also a minimalist movement in sculpture going on at the time, which without doubt served as an inspiration for Young and Riley. Whatever the case may have been, Young was soon playing his sopranino saxophone in the context of a group he had put together consisting of the composers John Cale on viola, Tony Conrad on violin, and Angus Maclise on hand percussion. Young, who along with Riley is commonly acknowledged as having founded the minimalist school in the field of music, was improvising seemingly endless and very beautiful modal lines using a circular breathing technique, while the others provided an accompany drone in just intonation. Terry Riley at this time was playing concerts of A Rainbow in Curved Air, his seminal piece for electric organ, which was treated by the special tape delay techniques pioneered by Riley. These concerts would typically last from 8 p.m. to sunrise.
By the mid-sixties, Philip Glass and Steve Reich had arrived on the New York scene and embarked upon further explorations into the new tonality, Glass with his unique incorporation of Asiatic process art; Reich with his invention of "phase music", with which he liberally mixed the rhythmic models he had learned while studying with master drummers in Ghana. In the United States alone there were many composers working within the framework or at the edges of this new tonality, such as Maryanne Amacher, David Behrman, Tony Conrad, Philip Corner, Daniel Goode, Julius Eastman, Jon Gibson, Tom Johnson, Petr Kotik, Carmen Moore, Phill Niblock, Charlemagne Palestine, Eliane Radique, Laurie Spiegel and James Tenney, as well as the work of composers living on the West Coast such as Robert Ashley, Harold Budd, Lou Harrison, Terry Jennings, Pauline Oliveros and "Blue" Gene Tyranny, to name only a few. An initial gesture of this group of composers and their many colleagues of the period was to break art music out of the language and characteristic atonality of the serial school, without regressing to neoclassicism or romanticism, without reverting to a dead music.
Simultaneous with these new trends in art music in the United States, exciting developments were occurring in Europe by the late sixties with the work of groups such as Musica Electronica Viva and Cornelius Cardew's group AMM. MEV consisted of a number of expatriate Americans living in Europe - Alvin Curran, Frederic Rzewski, Richard Teitelbaum, and others. Both MEV and AMM were groups consisting of composers coming out of a classical music tradition who wanted to break their music away from the fully notated score. After Cage's use of indeterminacy and Stockhausen's early attempts at introducing random elements into his scores, it seemed like the next logical step. This resulted in the musicians of AMM and MEV working within very loose structures, or no structure at all, to produce a free music, an immediate music made on the spot as the spirit moved them. Rzewski later moved back to the United States where he started a New York version of MEV.
After working with improvisational techniques for a while, Rzewski and company realized that there was already a great tradition of improvisation to draw upon in America, namely, African-American art music. People like Rzewski, Anthony Braxton, Garrett List, Muhal Richard Abram and Karl Berger were working hard back then to break down the traditional hierarchical barriers between music coming out of a Western European classical tradition and African-American art music. It was wonderful to see composers from both traditions finally getting together to share ideas.
All this is not to belittle the importance of the continued exploration and development of so-called "established" avant-garde new music tendencies. For example, the research into computer music by John Chowning which brought about the perfection of FM synthesis; the continuing research of composers such as Max Mathews; the very exciting musical possibilities created by the micro-computer, which lead to the invention of interactive software and a good deal of interesting music by composers who are also software programmers such as David Behrman, Laurie Spiegel, George Lewis, Nicolas Collins and Ron Kuivila.
During the seventies there were several issues which became important to all art music composers, whether they were continuing to explore new vistas along established roads of musical thought or were giving birth to completely new styles of music. One dominating force that moved composers towards tonality and away from serialism was the very pervasive feeling during the early seventies that they wanted to reach a wider audience, not so much to increase their record sales (an eighties notion) as for the reason that, frankly, they were beginning to feel somewhat isolated. They felt that art music had become too insular, that they were making music which only other composers could appreciate. In reading interviews with various composers during the period spanning the early seventies up to the middle eighties, one comes across the word "accessibility" over and over again, statements reading something like, "I want to make music that is formally rigorous, yet accessible to a wider audience." It can't be emphasized what an important issue this was to composers during this period.
Opening their ears to a new tonality and opening their minds to the possibility of music having greater accessibility also had the helpful effect of legitimizing, for art music composers, the music of other cultures and popular music. It is important to remember that, as late as the sixties, improvisation was a dirty word in the hallowed halls of the music establishment. Asiatic Indian classical music and advanced tendencies in jazz were considered to be feverish, opium-inspired gibberish dreamed up by the hopelessly confused. There was a very real perception of an hierarchical pyramid with classical music on the top, "jazz" somewhere lower down in the middle; of course, in the early sixties, rock was barely considered music. During the seventies, these notions began to crumble in the minds of art music composers, classical music musicians and the general public as they began to realize the rhythmic and harmonic complexities involved in the performance of a raga or a melodic line articulated by an improviser such as Charlie Parker. As a direct result of this, another major item on the agenda among many art music composers by the mid-seventies was the desire to do everything possible to tear down the barriers put up by our society and by academia between the predominately Western art music, African-American art music, and world music.
Composers responded to this new challenge in different ways. As mentioned earlier, various composers such as Young, Riley, Glass and Reich infused energy into their work by embracing the music of other cultures to combine world music with a definitively Western vision of the world, to forge a new tonality. The path Musica Electronica Viva took was to escape the tyranny of written music by embracing improvisatory techniques of various kinds and exploding previous notions of musical hierarchy. There was also as important movement of visual artists, composers, choreographers and poets called "Fluxus", the musical portion let by composers and musicians such as Charlotte Moorman, Philip Corner, Yoko Ono and Daniel Goode, who went even further in rejecting notions of musical hierarchy: In considering all sound to be beautiful, they went so far on their agenda as to organize a remarkable series of concerts where even sensitive non-musicians could take part as performers.
It was against this background that the next generation of composers was taking careful note of the trails being blazed away from serialism into the exciting unknown of the new tonality. The musical climate of the time had facilitated the smashing of hierarchical barriers separating art music and what was then generally called "jazz". It hadn't occurred to many composers of art music that this decimation of barriers could happen with rock music as well. But then, starting around 1975 or '76, there was an explosion and regeneration on the rock scene. This explosion happened globally, with particular focus in the U.K., the USA, Canada, and what was then known as West Germany.
That we could do this was only possible because of the hierarchy-smashing initiated by the previous avant-garde, and, in a way, it could be said that we were continuing in the spirit of the modernist investigation into what makes a work of music a work of music. We continued to ask the question, "Can this too, be considered art music?" This was not, of course, to imply that rock is not art. The question we were addressing was how far could we go in incorporating the rhythms, sounds, and working methods of rock into art music before turning it completely into rock.
During this period art music composers weren't the only musicians pushing at the boundaries of their fields. Tearing down the walls of the music establishment was very much in the air. Composers such as Muhal Richard Abrams and Leroy Jenkins were teaching serial technique to their composer friends at the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (A.A.C.M.) schoolhouse in Chicago. They were busy incorporating these techniques into the techniques of improvisation. Rock was pushing its boundaries to the limits, too. By 1980 it had became common practice for rock groups to incorporate noise into their sound palette, not as a mere effect, but as the whole piece! Groups such as Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Contortions, DNA, and early Swans come to mind with regard to this. In New York the art world was embracing the new rock, it got to the point where it seemed that half the visual art world was going to the clubs, and the other half were actually in the groups!
The breakdown of barriers separating the genres of art music, improvised music, and rock was complete. Composers such as Oliver Lake were playing in performance venues that had previously been reserved strictly for art music or rock; art music composers such as myself were playing at CBGB's and the Mudd Club; we had rock composers such as Brian Eno making sound installations for art galleries. To use the three of us as examples, each was operating in our secondary context at this time as a kind of "secret agent": there was a definite feeling that we were transgressing in some way when we effected a switch of context. It was still necessary for us to "infiltrate" the venues of our secondary context. It must be remembered that when what was then called "jazz" was first programmed at the Kitchen in the middle seventies, it caused considerable outrage among members of the art music community. The same thing happened when avant-garde rock was programmed there at the end of the seventies, except this time it was an uproar from both the art and jazz communities. But by the middle eighties, there was no longer this feeling of transgression.It had become the norm, to the point where music producers at alternative art spaces and festivals appeared to be putting on variety shows rather than concerts of serious music.
The downfall of musical hierarchy had an initial effect of greatly enriching the music of all who participated. Improvised music began to be informed by aleatory techniques and "open" structures; we saw art music informed by improvisatory techniques and rock gesture; we saw rock composers working with ideas drawn from minimalist music and the classical avant-garde. Sometimes this was done consciously by the composers involved, and sometimes not. We who had worked to tear the walls of the academy down and break with the status quo had created a situation where the ideas associated with our various musical factions were up for grabs. While this had the effect of liberating composers from the ideological frameworks that had previously shackled them, it also led to a great deal of confusion among producers, critics, and composers themselves as to what this new music was actually supposed to be.
The amazing thing about the first half of the eighties in New York was that art music, improvised music, and rock had reached a point where the formal issues endemic to each nearly perfectly coincided, to such an extent that art music made by art composers in a rock context was rock music; where improvised music made by improvisers in an art music context was art music; where improvised music made by rock composers in a jazz festival context was warmly welcomed by the jazz audience. And this wasn't because the composers changed the music depending on the context. We were all doing what we would normally do. We were at a unique intersection in the formal development and evolution of our respective fields where what we played in venues and for audiences outside our primary context happened to work. However, the fact remains that the traditions, the histories, and the formal issues of each of the genres of music are very different. Each was growing at its own pace, and by the end of the eighties, they had gone their separate ways.
To augment the confusion, many of the composers were adamant about not categorizing their music. The romantic notion went something like this: an improviser is a rock musician is an art composer is an improviser, etc. While this was an understandable position to take in view of the increased number of venues it enabled one to play in and the resulting higher revenues it brought the composer/performers, it didn't make much formal sense. One couldn't expect cutting-edge music to stay stuck in that limbo forever and indeed it didn't. In the meantime, critics who were rock or jazz specialists were put in the unfortunate position of having to try to say something intelligent and meaningful about art music composers whose background and musical heritage they either despised or knew nothing about. Classical music critics who could barely hear the difference between John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, or for that matter between Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page, were put in the position of reviewing improvisers and rock composers. The onus of blame for this situation cannot be laid entirely at the doorstep of the critic. If the art music composer bills his work as rock, it had better be rock and address the formal concerns, latest sample or drum sound current in rock that year. If the improviser or rock composer bills himself as an art music composer, he had better know his art music history and his work had better stand up to its formal concerns, addressing issues relevant to the present, not to issues fully explored 20 or 30 years ago, (or in the case of at least one infiltrator of the art music scene, formal issues fully explored in the l9th century.)
Those musicians who've worked in a number of contexts have learned during the eighties that if one decides to be a rock composer, there is one set of formal issues at work; if one decides to work in the art music field, there's another. While it is certainly possible and indeed desirable in many instances to skirt the fringes of both fields, one eventually must make a choice regarding which set of issues to address in order to do any serious work in either. Anyone who says otherwise is being either cynical or naive. This doesn't mean that one must bow to the prevailing musical practice in one's field, but in order to challenge, bend, or break the rules, one must first know what those rules are. To do exceptional work within a given field, one must absolutely focus on that field.
At the start of the eighties there was no single agenda in New York City for new music. We were a group of composers who had come variously out of the rock, improvising, and art music communities of the seventies who met as fellow infiltrators during the eighties to form a highly factious community consisting of separate musical tendencies with widely varying positions of advocacy. Things have greatly evolved since then. At the beginning of the nineties, even though our music still sounds vastly different, a common agenda has finally emerged.
In the paragraphs following, I would like to cover the progression of ideas that led up to the current agenda for art music. I will make no attempt at an in-depth analysis of the work of my colleagues on the principle that it is better to outline my own musical adventure of the eighties, which I can do with some authority, and leave it to the other composers to describe in detail theirs.
I took a look at the various musical strains prevalent on the art music scene in New York at that time: composers such as La Monte Young, Charlemagne Palestine, and Tony Conrad were working with music in just intonation, Philip Glass was pioneering process music, Steve Reich was exploring the implications of phase music, and Frederic Rzewski was weighing the differences between notated and non-notated music. It was around this time I went to hear my first rock concert at CBGB's, it was the Ramones. While hearing them, I realized that, as a minimalist, I had more in common with this music than I thought. I was attracted by the sheer energy and raw power of the sound as well as chord progressions which were not dissimilar to some of the process music I had been hearing at the time.
The next step was to determine how I was going to integrate this music into my own. I didn't want merely to appropriate it, to filch from a form of music without actively engaging its source. Actively engaging a music's source implies that one has a knowledge and thorough understanding of one's source material. If I attempted to integrate rock into my music without understanding it, I realized I would have a music that would imperfectly represent rock, that I would risk making a shallow representation of it, a mistake I have seen arrogant art music composers make when they quote from their own highly subjective and often primitive notion of what popular music is. Any musical form is a field of knowledge that can be apprehended, given time and effort. I realized that the only way to truly integrate my music with rock was to be able to play it myself. In view of this, I undertook the study of the electric guitar.
In all fairness, it must be said that I, too, had a fairly arrogant attitude as I first approached the study of rock. I had very few insecurities as a classical musician, so I thought, "I've been a musician all my life, I've played Pierre Boulez's Sonatine for Flute and Piano and I know how to count to four, so this ought to be easy."
As it happened, things didn't turn out that way. I started playing with a band and got to a point where I was playing bar chords and even doing a bit of soloing, but my playing was stiff, very stiff. I was counting the rhythms in my head rather than really feeling them. In addition, one of the formal concerns on the rock scene in New York was whether you were "posing" or not. I clearly wasn't a rocker, yet there I was, playing in rock venues. That was called posing. The general feeling on the "punk" scene then was that if you were going to be a rocker, you ought at least to have tattoos on your arm, preferably with a hypodermic needle sticking out of one of them. Since I didn't fit into this model, I went through a huge existential crisis with regard my composing: "Am I going to be a rocker, or what?"
So I switched bands and spent a full year playing guitar with a rock group called Arsenal until I got the feeling of the music and its rhythms. It wasn't until after this "field work" that I felt comfortable enough to make a piece, a composition in the classical sense. With my background as a minimalist, my experience as a harpsichord tuner, and with the rock music I loved, I composed a piece in 1977 that made use of everything I was as a composer and musician.
The piece was called Guitar Trio, for three electric guitars, electric bass, and drums. Two of the guitars were in more or less standard tunings and one of the guitars was tuned to all low E strings. The melodic content drew upon the musical vocabulary I had worked with on the classical avant-garde scene in New York and consisted entirely of the overtone series generated by the E string of the electric guitar. The rhythmic thrust and the way the musicians played together came out of the rock tradition. To my knowledge, it was the first composition to make use of multiple-electric guitars to merge the extended-time, overtone-based music of the sixties and seventies with serious hard rock.
I did not want to be a classical composer quot;appropriating" an aboriginal form to satisfy my personal musical cravings. It was important to me then as it is now that I not play my rock-influenced pieces exclusively in art spaces. After all the Fluxus experimentation of the sixties and seventies, I knew that whatever I played in an art space would be accepted on some level. Art music composers were concerned with getting their music out of the ivy-covered tower of the university and insular environment of the alternative art space. I wanted to be able to play Guitar Trio and subsequent pieces in bona-fide rock clubs. So I formed an ensemble and we started playing at CBGB's and Max's, where a rock group would last on stage for perhaps three minutes if the audience thought the music was not rock.
As it turned out, the audiences at the clubs thought, "Jesus, most punk bands can play at least two chords, this band only plays one!" But they liked it. People would come back to the sound board to ask our engineer where we were hiding the singers. The overtones and harmonics we were playing rang out with such clarity that the audiences actually thought they were hearing vocalists. This made me happy because it meant I was succeeding in what I wanted to do: to make music that could be understood even without a Master's degree in 20th century music composition, but which, as the saying goes, wouldn't melt in your hands if you did! It was very important to the group of composers I had been working with in the seventies that we be able to play our music in a rock context, because otherwise we would be operating in a cultural vacuum.
Although it was true that I considered myself an art music composer working with a rock instrumentation in a rock context (making music which I insisted was art music), the fact of the matter was that my music at this time was not "not rock". The point of interest was that the signification of my pieces radically changed depending on the audience and context I was playing in, even though the music we played for each was virtually the same. For example, I had made a piece in 1980 entitled Drastic Classicism for four electric guitars, electric bass, and drums. The guitars were in special, dissonant tunings in just intonation; dissonant both in relation to themselves and to each other. Because a good deal of the melodic movement in Drastic Classicism rested with the higher overtones generated by the electric guitars, and because these overtones are rather soft, the musicians in my ensemble tended to turn their guitar amplifiers up to obscenely high levels of sound in order to reinforce the amplitude of the higher harmonics. This poetic gesture was interpreted in different ways, depending on who was doing the listening.
For an art music audience, both Guitar Trio and Drastic Classicism were vigorous new strains of overtone-based minimalism, lyrical in content and structurally austere, which synthesized two different musics to arrive at a striking new form. On the other hand, in a rock context, I can say with considerable pride that Drastic Classicism was one of the pieces which inspired the noise-rock movement. The sonority of Drastic was so complex that what the musicians in my ensemble were hearing as a kind of viscous, gelatinous sphere of shimmering overtones, the rock community heard as an ear shattering wall-of-sound. At first I wasn't sure I liked this characterization of what I was doing, but then I realized Guitar Trio and Drastic Classicism were compositions which told a story to the listener, but somehow it was the listener's story. Everyone heard the pieces in a different way. I hadn't started out with the intention of invoking the time-hallowed rock tradition of aurally assaulting an audience, but I gradually grew comfortable with the idea. Since I was evidently taking the use of noise in rock to new extremes, I decided to let the label stick for the time being.
I wasn't the only composer who was switching contexts between art music and rock. It was happening constantly and in both directions. For example, Robert Fripp had made a concert-length piece with sophisticated distortion techniques for electric guitar, combined with the tape-delay techniques developed by Terry Riley in the sixties. Robert Ashley and Blue Gene Tyranny had made a video-opera, which made heavy use of rock rhythms and delightfully sleazy cocktail-room piano music. David Byrne had made a piece for brass ensemble, commissioned by Robert Wilson, the theater director. Established art music composers such as Maryanne Amacher, Harold Budd, David Behrman, and Jon Hassel were playing their music at rock venues such as the infamous Mudd Club in lower Manhattan. Glenn Branca, a former actor turned rock musician, was making daring forays into art and classical contexts. Peter Gordon, who had studied composition at Mills College and U.C. San Diego, had established the Love of Life Orchestra in New York by the mid-seventies, which was one of the first bands, if not the first band, to bridge the gap between the rock and art music communities of the seventies. Laurie Anderson, a talented visual and conceptual artist, was successfully playing in art music spaces as a composer/performer. This is a mere sampling of the activity that was going on at the time. It was an exciting period. I watched with great interest the musical results of these crossovers, and after a time, came to a number of conclusions with regard to their merit.
A case in point would be the Fripp piece. Fripp himself had no idea the tape-delay techniques he was using originated with Terry Riley, thinking that it was Brian Eno who developed them. And anyway, what did it matter? The work that Fripp was doing had never before been done in a rock context and only could have been arrived at by someone who had worked extensively in the rock field. This affirms my point of how each genre of music has its separate evolution, that what is revolutionary in one could very well be old news to another. The early work that AMM, MEV, and the Scratch Orchestra had done with improvisatory techniques was vitally important to the development of the classical field, yet perhaps was treading familiar ground to musicians such as Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry.
This is not to attack the work of composers honestly trying to push their respective fields of endeavor to new heights, but almost every crossover piece I've heard (by classical composers claiming to be doing rock, by rock composers attempting to work within a classical context) are failures, not as a things-in-themselves, but when judged against the prevailing issues current in the composer's secondary context. That is why I have never called myself a rock composer, even though the music I made during the seventies and eighties was not "not rock". I have too much respect for the form. The musical issues I addressed in my pieces always related to the classical avant-garde, not to rock. Rock has its own history and technique. African-American art music also has an incredibly rich tradition and history, so does avant-garde classical music. We've realized that each of these genres of music has its own formal concerns which take a while to master.
By the mid-eighties, questions concerning accessibility and context no longer concerned composers who were at the cutting edge in New York. At the start of the seventies, a composer playing at a performance venue such as the Kitchen would be lucky if 15 people showed up to the concert. By the middle eighties, the place was consistently packed. After all the records sold by Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Jon Hassel, and Harold Budd, there was no longer any doubt that art music could reach a wider audience, when and if it had the inclination to do so. The point had been proved. As for hierarchical questions, the musical intelligentsia in New York had completed their project of decimating musical and racial barriers between the genres of music, which left us free to focus on the music we were making itself.
As a kind of background noise to the agitated din and musical ferment of the early eighties, we musicians and composers gradually became aware of a new agenda for music that was in the process of being formed that was radically different from the issues we were working on in the sixties and seventies. This agenda came to no single composer as a gift from the muse in a sudden flurry of enlightenment. It was something that dawned on many of us slowly at an almost subliminal level, revealing itself by degrees as we concurrently worked to bring our other projects to completion. At the beginning of the eighties, the tenets of this agenda were blurred, to say the least. A number of us set out to get beyond this myopic haze. The only way to do this was by trial and error. Each of our pieces became a means of answering a question, a way of unraveling a few of the twisted strands barring our way to true musical revelation.
In 1980, I was part of a circle consisting of visual artists Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman, Michael Zwack, Troy Brantuch, Richard Prince, video artist Ed Bowes and Michel Auder, art critic Roselee Goldberg, and the performance artist Eric Bogosian. Robert Longo was also a talented electric guitarist and played with my ensemble in 1979 and 80. He had made an evocative series of slides entitled Pictures for Music, (1979) which slowly dissolved, one into the other, to be projected behind the band when we played Guitar Trio (1977).
After many dinner table conversations with Longo, I realized that we were struggling with the same issues. The generation directly before Longo's consisted of artists such as Vito Acconci, Lawrence Weiner, and John Baldessari, who were conceptual artists. Longo and his generation had come of age on abstract and conceptual art. Reacting against this, they brought realism back on the canvas. One of the issues he and his colleagues were dealing with was representation versus appropriation. Longo and I belonged to that generation of baby boomers who grew up saturated by mass-media consciousness: spoon-fed on TV shows and transistor radios, snapshots, home movies, and Life Magazine. So it seemed perfectly natural for us to use images and sounds commonly found in the electronic media as subject matter for our work. The question was whether to simply appropriate from the media, as Andy Warhol had done with his famous soup cans and Brillo boxes, or to "represent" them, to allow them to pass through a kind of personal filter, thus impressing the personal stamp of the artist and his comment on society on the objet d'art.
The questions that Longo was posing sounded very much like the ones I was working on with Guitar Trio and subsequent pieces composed between 1977-81, posed in different language; naturally, I was intrigued.
Through my discussions with Longo and subsequent readings of art and literary criticism, I began to think of the work I had done with my electric guitar ensemble as a representation of rock, that I was representing the spectacle and sound of rock in the manner of a visual artist representing an image taken from the electronic media. In other words, my ensemble was a representation of a rock band, rather than actually "being" a rock band. To be able to accurately represent something implies that one is intimately familiar with the object being represented. By this time, none of the musicians in my ensemble, myself included, were strangers to the rock scene or its methods of producing sound. By 1980, I was immersed in the music of rock as well the life-style of its night-life, which is what finally enabled me to work freely as an art music composer embracing a vocabulary coming out of rock.
By 1982, after making a number of rock-influenced compositions in this style, I wanted to make a new series of pieces involving the use of representation in music. I had never planned on devoting my entire career to composing for a rock instrumentation. There were already so many composers around whose idea of making art was to take one good idea and regurgitate it for the rest of their working lives, a practice I had no intention of emulating. In short, I was getting bored. Composers from both the rock and art music fields had started to imitate or build upon the work I had pioneered, which I considered flattering, albeit alarming at times. Since I didn't feel inclined to stick around to "defend my place in history", I was free to move on to something else.
I had succeeded with the guitar band in combining minimalist tendencies in music with rock. Now I wanted to try combining other elements. To be on the safe side, I decided to work with music I was familiar with for this experiment. I had been through a musical journey which brought me through the stark lands of minimalism, the rhythmic and harmonic sophistication of improvised music, and finally to the sheer, raw power of the rock. I couldn't help but wonder what would happen if I distilled the essential elements of all three into a single composition.
In doing this, I decided to highlight the differences between notated and non-notated music by having both elements appear concurrently on a vertical plane. I had been wanting to write a piece for brass octet for years, so I decided to score a piece for 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, and trap set. A friend of mine, the composer and trombonist George Lewis, contracted the musicians for me. They were all well known players who were both improvisers and excellent readers. I asked Anton Fier, a fine drummer who was a cult figure on the downtown scene, to provide the rock element. This piece, For Brass (1982), had been commissioned by the Groupe de Recherche Choréographique de l'Opéra de Paris, who told me that they wanted a tape.
For reasons of conscience as well as aesthetics, I have always been opposed to the notion of ballet companies using tapes of music that could be played by live musicians. In order to get around this, I decided to make the composition so that the only way to realize the piece would be to record it. This turned out to be an easy thing to do with brass instruments. The trumpet in particular and brass instruments in general are difficult instruments to master and play. The players' lips tire easily and one doesn't write too many high notes without leaving sufficient rest in between. So I decided to make a piece with virtually no rests in between long passages with high notes. In the studio we would record one section at a time, punching the musicians in after each break so as not to "bust their chops", an occupational hazard among brass players. The brass section, composed of people who were acknowledged masters of their instruments to begin with, sounded doubly good. The effect could be described as a cross between The Theater of Eternal Music and a Broadway Musical gone wild. I was pleased with the result.
During the recording of For Brass, I had instructed Anton Fier to play a 120 bar, slowly-building drum solo coming out of the quiet section of the piece. We worked on the solo together, taking advantage of an overdubbing technique in the recording studio. When I asked Fier to add an additional snare drum track, the overall effect sounded a bit like a marching band. This gave me the idea for my next piece.
I had been an ardent serialist during my student days, but once I became involved with the minimalist movement, I was working primarily with forms of non-notated music. I felt an urge to return to notated music, to explore the differences and tensions possible between the two. In interviews, I've often been asked questions such as, "What is the difference in the way you think, if you are working with notated or non-notated music? Are you working more with structure when you write it out?" It's not a question of structure; to say a piece of music is non-notated isn't to say that its form is aimless. Most composers I know who work with non-notated or otherwise "open" forms of music do so within very elaborate structural frameworks; some of the work of the composer Earl Brown, and a good deal of the work of Elliott Sharp and John Zorn come to mind with regard to this.
The difference between notated and non-notated music centers on the different approach each has to working with musical content. For example, Guitar Trio could be fully notated, but it would lose something in the process. The piece had been made in such a way that it could only be played by musicians with extensive rock experience. Guitar Trio has a formal structure, but the method of musicians working together parallels rock. I played my melodic line on guitar the same way every time, inviting the other guitarists to invent their own lines to go with what I was playing within the framework of the piece's use of the overtones as a melodic line. Once we arrived at something which satisfied everyone, the piece was set. Of course, the parts could be fully notated, but then the piece would sound stiff. While many guitarists from New York have played Guitar Trio at one time or another, Karen Haglof and Robert Poss of the Band of Susans are the guitarists I've been working with for the past six years who play this piece. If the parts were notated, it would lose the creative edge that Robert and Karen give it.
On the other hand, there is music which absolutely must be notated. After I had made the recording of For Brass, I asked Fier and another drummer friend, James Lo of Live Skull, to get together with me in a rehearsal studio. We tried to "improvise" martial music. The result was a total flop. The precision involved when playing the intricate unison parts of martial music necessitates its notation. What I learned from this experience was that while most improvised music would sound ridiculously stiff if it was sight-read off a score, the reverse is also true: there are many musical ideas whose birth into the world can come only by means of strict notational procedures. And as the French horn player Pascal Pongy once told the composer Gavin Bryars, "The moment music is written it is playable."
I did some research into martial music notation. Marching band drummers have an exotic lexicon of musical terms such as flam-taps, double-paradiddles, tap 9's, tap 7's, thirteen-stroke rolls, eleven-stroke rolls, etc., etc. I learned them all and wrote a number of pieces for brass and battery. The most successful, and perhaps the funniest, is called Waterloo No. 2 (1984) for solo percussionist, two trumpets or flugelhorns, and two optional trombones and optional piccolo. I have always had a soft spot in my heart for process music. I thought I might have an interesting result if I subjected the drum solo to a logically evolving series of additive processes and cyclic structures. The harmonic vocabulary of the trumpets was generic minimalist, which I decided to spice up by turning the melodic lines into an exhaustive inquiry into the true nature of the half-cadence. The result was a humorous music which I was at first tempted to call "Phil Glass Meets the Marching Band"; I even put a little tag on the end that was a direct quote from Riley's Rainbow in Curved Air in order to give credit where credit was due.
This was the first time I consciously decided to use incompatible elements, combining them not as a pastiche of ideas, but to arrive at a cohesive new meaning and altered musical signification. Actually, this is what I had been doing all along, since 1977, with my first piece in this genre, Guitar Trio, but the impetus of my earlier pieces came as a result of the contextual questions of the time, to answer the question of the avant-garde of the fifties: "Can this, too, be music?". With Waterloo No. 2, I realized that this was not the question any of my pieces since Guitar Trio had been addressing. The work of the modernist movement in general and of John Cage and the artists in the Fluxus movement in particular had finally freed us of our bondage to the academy, the museum, and the musical establishment. The avant-garde question had permutated into the post-modern question: "Now that we have this freedom, what do we want to use it for?"
This question was being addressed by virtually all of my colleagues at the beginning of the eighties, although often on an unconscious level. Most were using the liberties granted by the previous modernist project to arrive at a personal music, only to stay within the framework of its scope. As a direct result, many who had previously been grouped together as post-minimalists were now making music that could barely be identified as coming out of the same school, which I thought was a wonderful state of affairs. On the other hand, I felt that to linger on only one form of musical composition precluded the possibility of a full investigation into the post-modern question. Rather than using our freedom to define a personal playing style or mode of music in order to etch out a harmonic or melodic vocabulary that would immediately be identifiable, and incidentally, salable; I felt it would be more interesting to directly explore the nature of this freedom to determine how far I could push it by composing a series of pieces, greatly varied in style, which would be about directly addressing the implications of the question, "Now that we are liberated from the academy and from asking whether what we do is art or not, what are we going to do with this freedom?" I wanted to try to find radical new forms through a process of distillation.
A good example would be my 40 minute piece for solo piano called Echo Solo. Since I had already experimented with combining popular forms with art music, I wanted to see what would happen if I used a diverse vocabulary exclusively drawn from the last classical avant-garde. Accordingly, I tuned a MIDI-piano in a special, home-brewed system of just intonation and determined the pitch and dynamic selection by a combination of serial technique and chance operations. While all these techniques have been common enough over the past few decades, it's only now that current musical practice allows us to combine them. Ten years ago, to apply serial technique and chance operations to the choice of pitch in a composition for a piano tuned in just intonation would have been considered a hopeless contradiction in terms: today, it's an interesting paradox.
Another composer taking wildly disparate musical ideas and putting them into the framework of one composition is John Zorn. In a typical piece of his, Spillane for example, the music might open with an ear splitting scream, fading into soothing movie music, fading into some cheesy cocktail piano, fading into sampled strings. At first the musical ideas seem to have nothing to do with each other, but as the music continues, one hears a logic in its formal construction. The musical result is exciting, beautiful, and often humorous. However, there is a fundamental difference between our music. While I also work with disparate musical ideas, my music, since Guitar Trio, has always integrated them in a vertical, rather than horizontal, fashion. For example, in my Souvenirs d'enfance (1990) for two flutes, I work with ideas coming out of the minimalist, pointillist, and French impressionist periods, weaving them so tightly together that only the tiniest pair of critical scissors could isolate the various elements. Comparing my work and the work of Zorn's, we hear two musics, post-modern: one a music of contrast and timing, the other a music of synthesis and amalgamation.
This is not to say that amalgamation or the contrasting of disparate ideas is the only way to make music in the l990's. Composers are now finding many ways to take advantage of their musical liberation. In the fifties, much of our art was an art of transgression, an art which broke us away from the restrictions of the academy or museum. In the 90's, however, art music composers coming out of a classical tradition are free to make full use of the musical vocabulary available to them, whether from the other genres of music and music of the world, or finding new applications for the ideas of composers of the past, to combine them in way previously impossible or unthought of.
The tendency among those composers whose music juxtaposes and contrasts appropriated sounds or musical styles, stringing them together to make a musical composition, can be considered a tentative first step toward working with the forms now available to us. However, when a composer takes music out of one context and puts it into another, unless he first puts the music through extensive personal filtering, he runs the risk of the music being merely "kitsch", which Clement Greenberg had defined in 1939 as "the production of high art for the easy consumption of the new urban industrial masses" and mass-mediated culture. And even in those few instances when this work method does manage to get beyond being kitsch, the formal issues addressed in this style were already explored by composers such as Cage, Brown, Kagel, Subotnick, Stockhausen, and Wolff in the 1950s and 60s.
In Fontana Mix (1958), John Cage used magnetic tape splicing techniques to make a composition using sounds appropriated from 78 rpm and 33 rpm long-playing recordings, the radio, and through the use of the microphone. Karlheinz Stockhausen used similar techniques to make a composition whose source material was based on the national anthems of many countries throughout the world, called Hymnen (1969). Both composers avoided the risk of simply making a collage or pastiche of appropriated sounds by so thoroughly altering the concrete sounds they were quoting that the focus was on the composition, rather than its imported components. In relying on the "kitsch" value of an appropriated sound, the composer runs a high risk of the joke becoming stale after its initial shock value has worn off.
No one is saying, least of all us, that it was wrong for composers working in the 1980s to base their music on a project initiated in the 50s; on the contrary, it is often useful to borrow from ideas of the past, building upon them in the light of current musical practice. However, the point must be made that this particular method of music making only begins to scratch the surface of what is possible for composers to do at the dawn of the nineties; we can now take present notions of musical form and content to extremes never before dreamed possible.
My personal formula for musical inquiry begins by taking a close look at a number of different musics and studying them, considering what would happen if I modulated their signification through a process of amalgamation and superimposition. What I attempt to determine is how to best use the new sounds and forms available to us in a way that isn't mere appropriation through digital sampling or analog extraction, but that directly engages their source in a way which transcends original musical meaning while at the same time imploding it, to such a degree that meaning is no longer possible or even desirable, but rather exactly the reverse: to initiate a rite of decimation of musical meaning and thought in order to partake of the fascination which results from daring such a thing.
Re-examining the ideas of composers from this century, or previous ones, implies looking back to the past for inspiration, which carries with it the danger of regression. Without the modernist project, we wouldn't have arrived at our present point in art music and the freedoms it has given us. Our task is to build upon modernism, not to pretend it never existed. There are two types of post-modernisms in the art world today: the good kind, and the bad kind. The "bad" post-modernism rejects, or is completely ignorant of, the modernist project. It wants to go back into the past and stay there. During his presidency, it could be said that Ronald Reagan was this type of post-modernist. Through the laws he enacted and the judges he appointed to the United States Supreme Court and Federal judiciary, he attempted, and might very well yet succeed, in turning back the clock on civil rights, many social issues, the right to privacy, and the right to choice for women. He wanted to erase the progress we had made on social issues during the sixties, he addressed America's current crises of identity by looking backward, toward a better, nostalgic past. There are certain groups of visual artists, choreographers, composers and musicians, who, either through ignorance or cynicism, attempt the equivalent in art, for whom nothing is more important than the liquidation of the modernist project, which had always been a threat to them. Art music composers have been fighting for complete musical freedom since the 1890's. Now that we have it, what are we going to use it for? To directly revert to the romantic period? Of course not! To do that would be to regress, to go backwards in time, to sleepwalk through history.
Another ensnarement is that of simple ignorance. It is shocking how many so-called composers of art music are working in New York alone with only the vaguest notion of the musical endeavor that preceded them. Partly as an unintended side result of the liberal climate created by the Fluxus movement, which, radically at the time, suggested that even non-musicians could be composers, and partly because of the wide musical horizon and expanded freedom we now enjoy, there is a generation of would-be composers who came of age during the eighties who are unacquainted with the musical history that allows them to make their work. How can anyone hope to make work of lasting value in our field without understanding and being fully conversant with the previous investigations of our composers? Whereas musicians working in the rock field must stay within its boundaries or run the risk of their music no longer being rock, one of the aims of art music has been to decimate previously defined notions of musical meaning. How can an art music composer do this if he isn't familiar with issues explored thirty, a hundred, or two-hundred years ago?
The seventies saw an opening up on the part of art music composers to the music of other cultures and popular music. This investigation into music basically alien to them was not accomplished overnight, but by the late eighties, it had become common practice for an art music composer coming out of a classical tradition to embrace the rhythms and sounds of a popular music such as rock, to the point where it seemed that every student of a composer such as Pierre Boulez or Elliot Carter had his or her own personal rock group; where composers such as Tod Machover were writing rock-influenced compositions at the Paris-based IRCAM.
It has become clear by now that the main thrust of musical investigation at the beginning of the nineties is to make use of the freedoms implied by the post-modern agenda, to make a conscious rather than subliminal effort to use the new musical forms and extended vocabulary available to us, and to launch an investigation into the nature of this freedom itself. This is not to say that continuing investigations into earlier musical questions are not important as well. Most composers I know, myself included, have many projects and vestiges of questions left unanswered from the eighties that must be brought to conclusion before devoting all our energy to the current musical project. However, one current fallacy which should be dispensed with as soon as possible is that of musical pluralism. Musical pluralism was the direct result of the decimating of boundaries between the genres during the seventies and early eighties, which resulted in much exciting music; but by the late eighties, pluralism was having the effect of clouding the musical issues composers needed to address rather than clarifying them. The formal issues and concerns of art music coming out of a classical context, African-American art music, and avant-garde rock, which had converged during the late seventies and early eighties, had now gone their separate ways. During the nineties, while musical cohabitation continues to be possible and even desirable, we need to circumscribe and crisply redefine each of the fields of music, precisely because the questions being scrutinized in each are not the same. It is now self-defeating to have ambiguous and murky borders between musical genre.
This essay makes no attempt to define a musical agenda for the fields of African-American art music or avant-garde rock. However, for art music coming out of a classical context, the path is now clear for a very exciting period of musical investigation. The following section defines several possible avenues of research for the coming years, based on knowledge gleaned from the decade past.
Musical freedom, as with political freedom, has been the exception rather than the rule in the history of mankind. After centuries upon centuries of political tyranny of various sorts, the concept of equality and freedom of speech as fundamental human rights remain fragile. One must remember that documents such as the French Declaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen or the United States' Bill of Rights have only been in existence in Western society for the past few hundred years, since the 18th century period of Enlightenment, or Age of Reason. After generations of vassalage and servitude, these rights are not to be taken for granted. Even today, it is sobering to note that it would be impossible for our music and art to survive under such oppressive governments as now exist in Iran, China, Syria, and more recently in Algeria. We have seen the outrage to Western precepts of free speech and national sovereignty wrought upon the author Salman Rushdie, a British subject, who was forced into hiding when a murderous theocratic government illegally imposed the death sentence upon him for writing a book which they decided offended their religious sensibilities, proving once again that the pen is mightier than the sword. What kind of musical freedom would we enjoy in medieval societies such as these? How easy would it be to make the music we want in countries such as Ethiopia, Cambodia, or Liberia, whose class, tribal, and economic struggles rule out the possibility of working on anything else. It is only in an evolved society that we can begin to position advanced ideas in art on the same level as advanced ideas in technology and science; to have the luxury of putting as much value on the development of aesthetics as on the development of the weapons of war. At the dawn of the nineties, we find ourselves with unprecedented liberty to explore whatever musical direction we wish; we must hasten to take advantage of this because we may very well be in a golden age for development of musical thought, a period not unlike that of the ancient Greece of the classical age. We must immediately avail ourselves of the new intellectual tools provided us; the present golden age, as with the one which occurred in Greece so long ago, may not be again repeated for another two millennia.
To return to the present, the seventies and eighties saw a focus on how different genres of music were similar: Now, among other things, our task is to focus on how they are different. Unfortunately, accessibility in art music has led to an epidemic of musical conservatism within its boundaries. What started as a reaching out gesture to a wider public by its composers has ultimately resulted in causing a tremendous pressure on these same composers to make music that can be easily deciphered by a general audience. This is a pressure which must be resisted and fought against during this decade. We mustn't be seduced into letting our music be dictated to by the marketplace simply because of a perceived desire from the public for an art music they can immediately grasp. If easy listening is what they really want, let them go to the new age section of their record shops!
Theoretically, we in the field of art music have no restricting definitions imposed upon us by anyone. However, in spite of the traditional practice of 20th century composers of European derived Western art music to break out of confining notions of music making, there is now a pervasive notion in both the rock and improvisatory fields, and unfortunately, in the field of art music as well, that if you are not making good money, then you're not making good art. Lack of a coherent critical criteria had made money a convenient barometer for measuring musical worth. The decade of the eighties and the Reagan era saw the birth of the "me generation", whose artists ravaged any vestige of romantic notion remaining to the general public of the misunderstood starving artist. Under this charming view of aesthetics, art and music were made to be easily accessible, flashily packaged, and to generate hard cash.
The eighties saw an expansion of the modern art market enabling an entire school of visual artists barely out of their twenties to become millionaires. This phenomenon had its reverberations in the music world as well. The commercial success of such art music composers as Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich had predicated a climate where other composers were made to feel like failures if they chose a musical path whose nature didn't happen to lend itself to immediate apprehension by masses of people. This is not to say anything deprecating about the music of Anderson, Glass, or Reich; there have certainly been many fine composers of art music in times past whose music brought them both fame and fortune. Our musical experience of the past twenty years or so has taught us that it is ridiculous to say music cannot be taken seriously if it is popular, but we have recently seen an epidemic of reverse prejudice against music whose complexity precludes immediate comprehension.
The composer Maryanne Amacher once composed a forty-five minute piece of music for choreographer Merce Cunningham scored as a duet between the high tones generated by our nervous systems, which we hear inside our heads, and an external sine wave frequency of between 15,000 and 17,000 cycles per second. Amacher would bring the external sine wave in and out of the edge of consciousness to create a breathtaking new kind of harmony. Unfortunately, most of the audience heard the piece as 45 minutes of silence! She performed the same piece at the Kitchen Center in New York to an audience of about one hundred hardened new music fans. I would guess that about 15 out the 100 people in attendance were able to fully appreciate what she was doing.
Are we to say that because comprehension of a musical idea is limited to only a few that this makes the idea of limited significance and value to the advancement of musical thought? How many people in our society fully understand quantum physics, or for that matter, how many people have any idea of how their fax machine works? The point which must be stressed is that even arcane ideas have their place in our community and can eventually have far-reaching implications for civilization. One of the grave shortcomings of the West is that we crave instant gratification, instant profit, and instant accessibility rather than looking ahead to the long haul. Someone has to do the research, and this applies as much to music as it does to the field of science. If we don't soon arrive at a consensus among artists and composers which recognizes this, we will risk a course of events unfolding in the field of music in North America similar to the sad story of what happened to our once vibrant fields of home & computer electronics, hi-fi & video equipment, the automobile industry, and modern dance.
One of the reasons for the current prejudice in certain circles against complexity in music is because the post-serialists gave it such a bad name. When serialism reached its pinnacle during the fifties, it was a very exciting movement, the only problem being that many of its composers stagnated there for the next forty years: all too often its complexity was used as a cover for a lack of original ideas and bad music. Fortunately for us (as we saw in Section One of this essay) there were many free-spirited and adventurous composers during the fifties who, having exhausted their inquiries into the implications of serialism, had no intention of sticking around to see the bitter end of a bad movie.
During the modernist period of music in this century, music was often made as a reaction against something, a reaction against one's teachers and against the norms imposed on us by society. While this might still hold true to a certain extent, especially in the United States with its current First Amendment debate as it applies to freedom of expression in music and art, the main musical thrust for the nineties and beyond comes from plain and simple curiosity, rather than reaction. The possibilities offered us by our current musical freedom is limited only by our imagination. Whereas before we were struggling to free ourselves from the bondage of the academy, now we must free ourselves from limitations we might be unconsciously imposing on ourselves. This is why an exploration into the nature of the freedoms we now have is essential for the present time.
With the advent of minimalism, process music, phase music, and systemic music, we saw a fresh new approach to harmonic and melodic content, not to mention form, but now that we've been through nearly thirty years of this new tonality and simplicity, perhaps it is time for composers in the 1990s to make their music complex again, only this time, the issue is not complexity for complexity's sake. We now well know what can be done by infusing the music of other cultures or indigenous styles into art music. Perhaps we have had enough distance from our own recent history to be able to re-examine the musical proposals of this century as seen from the perspective we now enjoy.
30 September 1990
After my non-notated period (1971-81) I returned to notated music in 1982 and began performing exclusively with my brass band. After a year or so, I found that I missed my guitar ensemble and decided to write a series of fully notated pieces for it as well. Of this group of pieces, the most important was entitled Die Donnergötter ("the thunder gods"). Scored for six electric guitars, el. bass and drums, the piece was developed over a two year period at an amazing performance space in the East Village in NY called 8 B.C. In addition to my usual concerns with sonority and the overtone series, Die Donnergötter was significant for me in that a special compositional emphasis was placed on its melodic content, which was achieved by fingering directly on the fret board of the electric guitar (as opposed to the melody being within the overtones themselves, as in Guitar Trio). This piece, along with Waterloo No. 2 and Guitar Trio, was released in Europe on Dossier Records in 1987 and later in America on Homestead Records.
In 1988, I decided to write an ultimate work for guitar ensemble entitled An Angel Moves Too Fast To See, which I scored for 100 electric guitars, el. bass and drums. After a somewhat extended search for a sponsor, Agence Acacia of l'aéronef in Lille, France bravely decided to commission the piece in 1989. To mount a performance of Angel, whoever is producing the concert recruits 100 guitarists, who then learn the music in 5 rehearsals led by members of my regular working ensemble, which is based in Paris and New York. The 100 guitarists are divided into six groups with three separate and special tunings.
I first had the idea to work with a truly large number of electric guitars back in the early 80s. I made a list and realized that I personally knew 100 guitarists in New York at the time, so I didn't think it would be a problem to stage a performance. However, I hesitated because I didn't want the piece to rely purely on the visual and visceral impact of massing so many electric guitars in one place, I felt that I had some more compositional exploring to do. I wanted to make a piece that would truly exploit the compositional possibilities of such a gathering: a literal wall-of-electric guitars on one stage! In 1989, I gathered all the notes I had been putting together over the years and began to write the piece.
At that point, I had been composing for ensembles of multiple electric guitars for 12 years. Since this piece was obviously going to be the pinnacle of my long love affair with the electric guitar, rather than basing it entirely on a single idea or process (as I might have done in the 70s or early 80s) I drew entirely on my musical voice and raw gut to come up with An Angel Moves Too Fast To See, which owes as much to my roots as a NY post-minimalist as it does to serious hard rock.
An Angel Moves Too Fast To See was my first evening-length piece for truly symphonic forces. As of 1994, I have composed two additional works for "les 100 guitares": Warehouse of Saints; Songs for Spies (1991), which was commissioned by the Musica Festival in Strasbourg, and Tauromaquia (1993), commissioned by the Orbe Theater in Paris.
Die Donnergötter. Dossier Records DCD 9002 in Europe,
Homestead Records (HMS 120-4) in USA
Die Donnergötter, (1984-86), Waterloo, No. 2 (1986), Guitar Trio (1977), Drastic Classicisim (1982)
Neon. NTone CDS15
(all compostions in collaboration with Martin Wheeler) Charm (1996), Ramatek (1994), Hornithology (1996), Neon (1993)
New CD release: Rhys Chatham & Martin Wheeler's NEON, on the NTone Label
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