Copyright ©1989 by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz
Do you mean, why do I write music? Ah, the phrase is so worn, but honest: I write music because I have to. For years--because I was brought up outside the musical world of lessons and tutors, without a hope of future performances--I composed with no more purpose than my own need to do it. It seems to be a basic drive, but it's more than that ... it is a kind of psychosis. I hear visions. The visions are not something glorious (I don't believe); they are just architecture in sound, or perhaps constantly running musical conversations, or maybe the imagining of patterns into existence from the random sounds of life. Whatever they are, I put these plans on paper. (Paper is the only medium for a resourceless person such as myself.)
But perhaps you mean why does one write music at all? Because, if humanity is to have any meaning for itself, then I am certain it must attempt to share its revelations. That is, it seems to me that our imperative is far more than a simplistic biological one; such a point of view can be derided as vanity or speciesism. But if it is vanity, then our arts are the purest form of human vanity.
Vanity implies showing off, so I suppose this means that an audience is essential--sometime, somewhere--for our musical art. And yes, there is an audience for new music--now. Something interfered with that for a while (about 40 years!), but I'm absolutely not going to lay the blame for that on composers. Tough music never kept audiences away. I have a long theory about the American economic system, about our ideas on democratization and political compromise, and about U.S. cultural imperialism--a theory that is long, involved and probably wrong.
But there is a remarkable coincidence that the U.S. domination of the world scene after 1945 and its present decline of influence precisely parallels the fall and rise of audience interest in new music. America loves challenges that gratify an urge toward simple answers--war and technology, for example. But challenges without quick answers--poverty or the arts, for example--give us the creeps. But today, as we become less the world's teacher, perhaps we are more ready to become students, listeners, and learners.
For me, the presence of an audience is an important event. I create the stuff to be heard, or I wouldn't have written it down. (Writing it to be heard and expecting it to be heard are different issues, alas.) I do indeed care how people feel about my music ... not for plaudits, but so I can know exactly what my creations do in the ears and minds of listeners. Who among us is always right? I'm surely not, and a few good, round yawns in the audience make me reread my scores very searchingly. And I love audiences. They're always so ready to listen if you treat them with respect. That doesn't mean you have to be nice to them; you can shock and intimidate and demand, but you can't patronize. They know it, and they'll yell "fake!".
Sure, there are audiences I dislike, too. They are the ones who come to concerts for the same reasons that they decry rock'n'roll music--for the pure, self-indulgent escape. You know the type; they believe the whole world was created for their entertainment, and they can never get enough Mozart. Collectively this group hasn't put as much sweat into their listening lives as I've put into composing a single piece. They scorn elevator music, but place Beethoven in the same kind of ghetto. These types deserve a hell where the Pachelbel Canon in D never stops playing.
Academic institutions mean virtually nothing to me, except for the occasional performance during an event sponsored by or sited at a college.
While I am in a complaining mood, I should add my complaint about academic institutions. They're great places for performers, but few performers are offered the joy of performing (and composing!) new music. With some exceptions (mostly talented and courageous individuals here in Vermont), academe is complacent and arrogant, full of rivalries and jealousies, and offers little in the area of valuable audiences. Worst of all, these institutions stomp on creativity. I loathe them.
Fortunately, for nearly ten years I learned my composing trade by performing in a small city with the tougest audiences of all: real people. These are not critics with an ax to grind, not academics with some correct point of view, neither are they looking for the light of fashion nor are they burdened by the weight of tradition. Adults and kids--some musically aware, but most largely untutored or familiar only with AM radio pop--came to these performances and festivals. I composed my share of bloops and bleeps (nifty bloops and bleeps, I thought), but the audiences took me at my artistic word. They were open.
Let me put it this way: Academic performances are nice, just as any performance is nice. Professional performances are wonderful because you get to hear your notes exquisitely tailored. But community performances! There you risk all. People have given their time and effort as performers or audience. Dissenting schools of thought or astute intellectual theories sit in the balcony seats behind the columns; how the music works in the real air is all that matters to these tough audiences. I recommend the real world; if you can keep their attention (love you or hate you) as much as rock'n'roll can, then you're writing music. Otherwise, you're a fake.
I guess I sound pretty critical of other composers. I don't want to leave that impression, because it's not true. Never in my life have I heard the work of a living composer that offered nothing to me. The work of other composers is in fact very exciting for me. And it doesn't matter if it is excellent or terrible composition. For example, I didn't like some of what I heard at our recent composers' festival, but my likes and dislikes are my problem. Rather, what I heard was gratifying and rich. Particularly this year, I heard very little music composed without conviction, and I believe in conviction. It is the rare and special composer--John Cage is one--who can allow music to create itself and yet still be exciting.
Almost universally, music that matters has to matter first to its composer; no purely intellectual gymnastics result in great music. Conviction does that. Arnold Schoenberg's intellectual ideas certainly sparked debate, but it was his music that sparked the passion of that debate. I'm not speaking from the point of view of a "new romantic" ... far from it. That is, if music doesn't have an "edge", then it bores me (In saying this, I don't exclude music of my own!). Music composed merely of competence, conviction and passion--but with no edge--can be unbearably dull: Schubert, Delius, Bruckner, Handel. It's fun to perform, yes, but suitable only for the incessant public radio purgatory of classical music. Imagine being tied up and having to listen to hours of Delius! (Kubrick chose the wrong composer for A Clockwork Orange!)
So over the years, I have learned from composers, not from schooling. Recordings and scores were my teachers, and for me, the greatest influences, the finest teachers, and perhaps the greatest composers of all time were these: Ockeghem, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Beethoven, Bartok, Bernart de Ventadorn. (The anonymous composer of Puberty Love in "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes" almost makes the list.)
And there's an incredible panorama of composers who have stopped me cold in my composition and changed my thinking: Coltrane, Dufay, Kalinnikov (who?), Rochberg (good and bad), Wagner, Albert Ayler, Braxton, Partch, Webern. Plus individual pieces of music: The Rite of Spring, In C, Exsultate Jubilate (did someone cheer "Mozart at last!"?), Lulu, Satyagraha. So--if I could take the music of just one composer to that famous desert island, who would it be? Me, of course ... I'm the most interesting composer I've ever heard, which is why I can bear to continue writing.
My music does sound excellent and imaginative to me in my head as I compose, complete and full and rich and dramatic and all those things which I want music to be. As I've mentioned, I chew on the music mentally before writing. In fact, most of a piece--or at least a major movement or section--is composed before I set to writing a note on paper. I don't use a keyboard or any other instrument during this process. That may sound strange, but it has a very practical origin: I learned my first musical instrument as a teenager, and never became proficient on it; coupled with that is a minor but irritating brain problem that makes decent keyboard playing impossible for me.
So I learned to read music well and to hear everything in my head. (If you think about that, it's not so unusual. Who, after their childhood years, need to read aloud as they write letters? The same applies to music.) My first four or five years of composing were not very good, owing to the roughness of my mind's ear and virtually no opportunity to cross-check my writing against live performances.
But these days, what I imagine is what I write, and that is what I hear. It works. And I do my writing on the most comfortable flat surface. In the early days, that meant a clipboard on a bus, then at a desk, and now on the kitchen table. It's coupled with lots of frenetic pacing and frantic motion and body contortions that might otherwise invite a second look from a mental health professional. It's a demanding and difficult art, fraught with the possibility of being misunderstood. I can't believe that I didn't give it up right after I started!
The fundamental points of change toward music in my early life began when I was in the eighth grade. Mystery abounded with a little thrill of discovered secrets.
A moment of import came with the radio, a Grundig Majestic, new to our household about that year, or perhaps the previous, or at least I had become aware of the Grundig Majestic radio around that time. I still have it, a beautifully designed, full-throated machine with buttons marked "BC" (which was AM radio to me, and I only learned meant "broadcast band" a decade later), "PU" (for microphones or something, and it worked, but I still don't know what "PU" means), and "FM". The button was always pressed to AM, and I listened to the Grundig Majestic every day, so long as my mother would let me, tuned to New York's flagship AM rock & roll station, WABC, with Cousin Brucie and myriad other voices of early rock mythology. (I met Cousin Brucie once; a terrible disappointment, as all reality is, I suppose).
So, WABC and its renderings of Duke of Earl and Castle of Love and Soldier Boy filled my ears; I knew all the words. Yes, me, for whom memorizing one of my own songs is a trial, knew all the words to the top forty of 1961. But it was inevitable that I would press the mysterious and inviting FM. And what should come out but the strangest, most intoxicating, puzzling, riveting music I had ever heard! I listened to the end, and the announcer, in astonishingly un-WABC-like tones, informed me I had been enjoying Siegfried's Funeral March by somebody named Rick Hard Voggnur. Zow-dy! The other band on that WABC AM on my Grundig Majestic had WQXR FM ... "The radio station of the New York Times" ... which played non-stop classical music during all my waking hours!
It was like a drug. I would rush home to turn on the Grundig Majestic and throw myself around the house in music-induced emotional wretchedness that coincided nicely with puberty.
Now you ask, why did classical music get me, rather than rock or jazz or blues? Rock already had become part of me as the Top-40 stuff that was broadcast on WABC. The Beatles had just appeared in the U.S. around 1962 (the I Wanna Hold Your Hand days), and I knew it all by heart (I even translated one--can't think of it now--into French and sang it for my French class.) Blues wasn't rediscovered yet except in the Beatnik enclaves in New York City, and jazz could only be heard occasionally in its watered-down 1940's versions--which, being my parents' music, was automatically distasteful to me. "Real" jazz--the stuff of John Coltrane--was only being performed for the first time in the early 1960's. So-called folk (of the Peter, Paul and Mary variety) would not arrive on the scene for a few years; the Weavers were cult and outside my experience. So my options were early rock, easy listening (Billy (?) Vaugn's saxophones), MOR (Perry Como and clan), big-band white pseudo-jazz (a la Dorsey), or classical.
The classical music simply had power. It appealed to my adolescent desolation with its somberness, and titillated all the other trappings of puberty. Rock and roll was still in the shadow of Elvis, whom I found foppish. All of it was entertaining fluff. Stravinsky with his 100 blaring musicians was just the opposite, and I fell for it.
And then came the record player. By 1961, stereo was a given in many U.S. households, but our proud new purchase was a GE (GE? was it?) record player. And to complement this beige delight with the turnover ceramic cartridge that read "78" (I knew that) on one side and "LP" (LP? what?) on the other came the Record Set: from the Readers Digest (mandatory reading in the Bathory household) arrived by mail (!) a boxed set of twelve long-playing (LP! I got it!) records called Music of the World's Great Composers. Composers. What a special word, composers. No one composed Duke of Earl, it seemed, but certainly somebody composed this Fledermaus overture.
But I'm ahead of the story. The records arrived in a wonderful black box with a painting of musicians in suits playing with chandeliers overhead and delerious audiences swooning in the distance. But the record player and the records sat, unplayed, in the parents bedroom, the inner sanctum of parental life, where my foot never went except by invitation. Or, secretly, to explore the wonders of the black box. I read the accompanying booklet. I knew the story of every composition before I played a note (although by that time, I knew one or two of the pieces from the Grundig Majestic that picked up WQXR-FM, "The radio station of The New York Times". The New York Times? We read the Daily News and Dick Tracy and Blondie.), and I dared not play a note, for these wondrous records were a set that had come through the mail.
So I waited. We packed and moved, and it was months before the record player reappeared--but this time, it was in the living room! A safe place! I could touch it, use it! (I will tell you about the apartments we lived in much later; this one was above a dry cleaners ("One Hour Martinizing") and my day was accompanied by the sound of the steam pants presser ("whoosh, snap, THUD, thump, snap, whoosh - ssshhh - sh - sh - shhhhhh", repeat).) The sacred records were right there in sight. And I played them, oh, did I play them, and threw myself about the apartment with the renewed and revitalized energy of full emerging adolescence.
Ah, the glory! And there were more records! (Through the mail, from the Readers Digest). The theme music to Exodus ... da-thummmm, dee-thummmm, da-whump bee-bummmm b-dummm. Da-WHOOM, dee-whoomp, da-whump b-dummm. The Strauss waltzes! And, more thrilling than anything you can imagine, The Rite of Spring by some Russian composer. Pounding drums, mysterious melodies, perfect pain and all the head-hurting, heart-wrenching beauty I could and couldn't stand.
In ninth grade, with Mrs. (oh what was her name now?), who taught Greek tragedies, we went to see West Side Story in New York, New York. And the music, in stereophonic sound, blooming all around me, was intolerable; the film images faded quickly but the aural images remained true for weeks. My parents bought me the movie soundtrack ... West Side Story, the movie soundtrack; I had it! But it was (I knew the words by now), alas, in mono. And, by attending the first and only upscale school I was ever to know, I had learned about stereo.
So I set about saving my holiday and birthday money, perusing the Lafayette Radio catalogs, and went to the store and bought two tube amplifier kits for ten dollars each. And built them with a borrowed soldering iron (Mr. Groszmann's--I was in love with his daughter Lynn when I was six--who lived across from my grandparents). And saved more money to buy a turntable (not a changer, pffft! pshaw!) for $19.95. And found old speakers and put them in cardboard boxes. And hooked everything up. And - it - worked! It bloomed into stereo and I would lie between the tiny speakers and the sound was rich and wonderful in my head, the tube amplifiers warm and glowy in the dark.
From the tall, stern lady at the Scotch Plains Bookstore I bought records. $4.95 each. Dvorak's New World Symphony (oh, the beautiful fields on the front; it's still in my collection) and Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony (the cover a mystical, dewy yellow rose; I gave it to Candy, whom I loved in high school, after her sister killed herself by standing in front of a Jersey Central train). I listened and learned and luxuriated. There was now no turning back, but no one in the family--least of all, me--yet knew it.
By the next year, 10th grade, I wanted desperately to learn to read music. Through writing a stupid little essay on the New Jersey Tricentennial ("1664-1964", the button said, sporting an awkward triangle), I had won an encyclopedia set (Compton's, with beige covers--everything was beige in the early sixties), and studied the entries on composers. Under Wagner, Richard (yes! it wasn't Rick Hard Voggnur after all, something I had learned from the Readers Digest, bless them), there was music, real music, printed. I studied the incomprehensible language of lines and dots. The treble clef, meaningless, was something recalled from Kindergarten. But otherwise, nothing. Blank, blank, blank.
Miserable, I waited a year to gather the courage, and, with neither parental blessing nor knowledge, I approached the high school music teacher. His name is (he is still alive; he was in my mother's class, which makes him 68 or 69) Joseph Checchio and, by his own admission, he hated "eggheads". Mr. Checchio loathed the pinch-faced, isolated world of the intelligent, a world to which, to his own great disservice, he would not admit himself, despite his eminent qualifications, pinch-facedness and isolation excepted.
And so it was with his esteemed and feared "hairy eye" that he greeted my quite timid request to learn to play an instrument. The scene is vivid to this day: I standing to the west, in the far hallway by Mr. Warshow's room, he turned slightly away from me to the east, a sheaf of papers (music?) in his hand. Early fall, light reflecting on the (yes) beige lockers and on the bald front of his pate, emphasizing the black monk's ring of hair behind and the wondrous black eyebrows.
Though I don't remember my own words (something about wanting to learn an instrument), I heard his "Oh you do?" and saw the look of suspicion which I immediately recognized as his belief that I was merely an egghead looking for another extracurricular activity to collect for my college application. I panicked, but he said, "All I have is a bass clarinet. (Pause.) You can start right away. (Pause.)" It was a test, this offer of a clearly undesirable instrument, but I desperately wanted to learn to play, and I blurted out strings of words that summarize to: sure, anything, yes, now.
I was a beginning junior (making it 1964 and me fifteen, just three years after WQXR and Siegfried), and I took that instrument home in its giant case every day (band was daily in high school, and it cut lunch in half, to 17 minutes) and practiced and experimented and studied. Wagner's encyclopedic entry in Compton's made sense to me within days; the code was cracked.
I began to experiment with notes, and my very first piece was something called In Memoriam Adlai Stevenson, which I showed to my high school buddy Barbara and nobody else. She said the note stems were on the wrong side, so I threw the embarrassment away and set to work on real music: a full score of some 40 pages for 17 instruments. Called The Life Fulfilled: A Tone Poem, the thing was a harmonic and contrapuntal nightmare (most of both having been learned from that entry on Wagner), but it was correct. Technically it made perfect sense; since I don't have a copy today, I can't speak for its artistic points or lack of them.
But good old Joe Checchio was the key to my success and my future. I brought this big blob of music to him, and, "hairy eye" ablaze, he asked me just one question: "Did you write this?" After my rather surprised reassurances (wasn't it obvious?), he took it with him, corrected it, and returned it to me the next week with the request to see the next thing I wrote. He looked at every one of those miserable scores, corrected them all, showed me parts transposition, and even permitted me to conduct (he taught me that, too) one of my pieces (Fanfare and Pyrotechnics Overture) in the band.
And never once did he let on that it was unusual for someone to compose; he let me believe it was the normal thing even for a high school kid, and so he never intimidated me or frightened me. (My parents did, but, being parents, they were quickly dismissed in my estimation.) So onward I composed until college, when I was told by the department chairman: "Our undergraduates do not compose." A new sort of pain arose. But I continued to invent music.
Inventing music is full of satisfactions and frustrations. A work's creation is a period of informal thought and consideration and catching bits of sound. I don't actually write anything during this time. The writing itself is that confounding period of frenzied pacing as the notes I have invented must be fitted onto the page. Most of my music is written in a single draft, with only minor corrections. Then I am depressed. I experience a profound depression following the composition of a major work.
After its completion, a piece seems wonderful--for about a day. Then it looks awkward and clumsy and ill-formed and sloppy and amateur, yet nowhere can I find specific reasons. Also, it won't let itself be fixed. Then, a long time later, or perhaps in preparation for a performance, the work gains life and value once again. (As an aside, I should never direct my own work; few composers should. I know what I want, but I don't know that I'm not hearing it. The interpretation suffers because, somewhere in that guiding mind's ear, the details are filled in correctly without the performers' help. Every parent's baby is beautiful.) Then, after the seat-edge feeling of the premiere and the subsequent moment of gratification, there comes the post-performance depression, often severe.
The moments of joy are really very few: when I at last sign my name to a composition, and when a work is premiered. Otherwise it is frustration. I still work with pencil and paper, which means thousands of tiny, hand-drawn musical symbols. New computer programs can easily extract performance parts; I still hand-copy (not by choice but by budget!). It is burdensome work.
The next step is that performers, for whom newly composed music remains largely unapproachable, need to believe in it. I've been advised, "write only music that you know will be performed"; had I taken that advice, two-thirds of my music would never have been written. Yes, it is frustrating, but some of that music--when it is eventually heard--will count among my finest. Besides, I need the practice. (As an author, I can't imagine writing a story exclusively for final publication!) Oh, I've practiced and practiced. I could compose something for you here and now--while-u-wait, as it were--and though it would be far from a masterpiece, it would be every bit as attractive and competent as a well-spoken answer to a question, an impromptu charcoal drawing or a standard jazz improv.
I wonder. Ultimately, my professional goal is to write music thoroughly unencumbered by the economic pressures of life, coupled with dramatic international artistic success, plus wit, wisdom, well-being and a phenomenally long, productive and happy life. Short of that, being a modern-day Mozart would be just fine (though the early death part is a bit problematic). What kind of question is this?
The idea of composing as a profession sticks in my throat, just as I distrust the phrase "arts professional". It's as if you could pick and choose from a menu of occupations and say, hey, I'll be a composer. So my goals as a person who happens to be stuck with being a composer are simple yet ambitious: basically, what I've said in fun a moment ago is true. I believe in my work, and given space and time, I would anticipate its recognition. Not very humble, is it? But one has to be a self-centered maniac to dare to write 300 works for every conceivable ensemble, as I have done, and to encourage their performance, as I have tried, and to ask thousands of people over the years to take their own valuable time to listen, as I have asked. So as a "professional" composer (by night) I am an arrogant, irascible, demanding lunatic who believes every note I write is a precious stone in the jewels of creation. By day I take my dose of humility oil as a teacher and a fixer of electronic gizmos.
I am more comfortable talking about aesthetic goals or, better, aesthetic drive. First of all, I don't believe in writing down any note that can't be explained. It doesn't have to be logical, merely purposeful--something more than gut-level preference. I have to give myself shape, architecture, process, color, dissonance, resolution, impact, flavor--some reason for the choice. Then I build. I'm not a fantasia person right now, so my work has shape and line and lots of structure.
I mentioned Ockeghem, who continues to influence my work with his embedded linearity, independence of voices, complex but intertwined rhythms, and clear-cut secular and religious forms. That influence makes my music thick, because instruments either get chewy stuff to play or they get rests ... oom-pah is not a characteristic of Báthory-Kitsz composition. The complicated rhythms can make some pieces sound unruly, confused or distracted. When I incorporate improvisation or aleatory (sections where rhythm or pitches or both are not specified), it gets even thicker.
Why is this? In part because I'm exploring some new territory. Right now, at least, I've "heard out" the tiny little sounds that Webern and Cowell and Varese explored; I've ceased my Partch-like building of unique instruments for specific pieces of music; I suppose I've given up the ice for the fire. My music is large and often gritty. If I had unlimited performer resources available, I'd engender a mutiny. I overheard one performer describe last year's performance of my Mantra Canon as Shogun in sound.
One of my pet peeves, though, is that I seem to suffer from PMS: pre-mainstream syndrome. Techniques or ideas used by just a small body of individual composers around the world suddenly become hip. I sometimes want to scream, "I did that! I did it ten years ago! Hey!" Imagine such musical claim-jumpers' paperwork being process before mine!
People have feared my work. One discussion several years ago centered around the supposed lack of entertainment value in modern music such as mine. I was stunned. It's true that new music has suffered from pitiful presentation. The list of failures seems endless: new works sandwiched like Brussels sprouts between turkey and apple pie; cursory and uncommitted rehearsals; incompetent conductors (Erich Leinsdorf is a stiff critic of his colleagues in that regard); performer "superstars" choosing to redo the redundantly redone classics; aging conductors who forgot their adventurous youth (for example, staid Klemperer premiered Weill and venerable Monteux premiered Stravinsky); and the recording and broadcast industry mentality of more-of-the-same-makes-profits. But I think my music is vital and entertaining besides. I thought, how could we have differed in that argument?
Yes, new music is alive and vital, and it takes conviction--there's that word again--to make it happen. Of course it's demanding; anything truly new is demanding. Here's part of the key: Most people I know spend more time learning to program their VCRs than learning how to listen to music (any music). Of course it also takes good rehearsals and conductors who can read music well; how many professionals in other fields would we let get away with slackness? And the get-it-over-with-and-get-on-to-the-Mozart mentality is pitiful. I tell you truthfully that I have heard concerts with new music presented with such commitment and excitement that the audiences were cheering afterward.
Now music newly composed (especially mine) isn't always going to be your genial sort. Yes, we all get conned by applause and other forms of praise into writing likable music ... tuneful in an old-fashioned sense. The right amount of drama and the proper seeding of heart-tweaking dissonances are required. A sense of humor (not too wry or dry) is vital; cute sounds are helpful, and if you can quote (not too irreverently) from Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, that's good. It's rewarding to get warm applause and chuckles.
But seriously, we think of so-called classical music as easily rewarding to listen to. We forget the drama and fire and confrontation so many of these pieces inspired in their day; I am reminded of some greats whose music is hardly considered confrontational: Chopin, Mozart, Bach, Rachmaninoff. Even today, though, some of their innovation and confrontation can be heard. How about Chopin's A minor prelude (Op. 28 No. 2)? Mozart's C minor fantasy (K. 475)? Or that late, slow variation in Bach's Goldberg Variations? Or his Es ist genug chorale? Rachmaninoff's Isle of the Dead? Those few come to mind as possibilities.
How difficult for us working composers that in this age of shocked sensibilities, most older serious music listeners seek solace in the sounds of the past rather than the growth and fulfillment to be had in the music of the present!
But there is a new audience for present-day music. They discovered it through David Byrne and Frank Zappa; through Meredith Monk and Laurie Anderson; through Steve Reich and Phil Glass; through to John Cage and György Ligeti.
One of the ironies is where they didn't discover new sounds. Just as this new music is getting heard again by enthusiastic audiences, public radio (the chief outlet for concert music) programs cotton candy. Public radio's once-significant place as a source for alternative musical thinking has degraded into background music for the yuppie generation--easy classics and light jazz. (This is nationwide, folks, not just in Vermont! You can drive anywhere in the country and hear identical classical clearinghouse radio!) What a come-down for the hope of public radio.
Okay, back to the questions. Tonality itself isn't dead; it never was. But certainly the traditional forms implied by tonality are flopping around like fish on a beach. Expectations are different now. For example, who expected minimalism? Or the rise of pop and jazz crossover styles? Or the paralysis of serialism? 75 years ago, tonality was so sick that it needed to be taken off the line and put to bed. Some great composers tried to keep it on the job, but most--Copland, Poulenc, Janacek, Rachmaninoff, Sibelius, even Stravinsky--could give it very little strength. (Copland's Piano Variations offer a tantalizing clue to what astounding music he could have invented if he had not turned toward the path of Appalachian Spring). To me, Berg's monumental twelve-tone opera Lulu has the force that all the others sought but could not achieve with their tatters of tonality. So tonality is back with renewed strength, not because of the Coplands and Poulencs, but because of its time off, learning about other ways, other cultures, other styles.
Jazz is one of those other styles. I seriously doubt the rumors of its demise, but I sure do see it suffering under the vitality-sucking yuppie attention it's receiving. I love jazz and have learned more from it about compositional detail and variation than from just about any other style. In its complexity of variation, it shines brighter than J.S. Bach ... yet its claims to harmonic depth and rhythmic complexity are more mythology than truth. When it is able to return to its roots as an intimate performing art, it will be able to grow healthy again.
I would hate to be a jazz musician today. What risks could I take? What ground could I break? Already jazz has been stressed and stretched so severely that it has no workable definition left except "I know it when I hear it". Ask yourself if you know; then consider the difference between Anthony Braxton and Spyro Gyra. I give up. Jazz is alive, whatever it is.
Wasn't it Wuorinen who said "the orchestra is dead"? And now he is composer in residence at the San Francisco Symphony. The orchestra is always dead when it's not playing your stuff. But in reality, the orchestra is in trouble. It has work to do ... attitudes to change, maestros to dump, synthesizers and saxophones and drum kits to add, musically conservative boards to escape, marketing managers to assassinate. Listen, I love to write for orchestras. But I would rather see them die--hard and fast--than see millions of dollars diverted from creative artists to support the audio museums that orchestras have become. Frankly, if the time ever arrives to populate the musical barricades, I'm not going to be standing against the wall with the maestros.
I wish Vermont, which is otherwise fairly progressive, had the integrity to support an orchestra like the St. Louis Symphony. Music of the murky past still dominates Slatkin's orchestra, but there is some real vitality there. The fiscal folks tell us that our orchestra would go under if it programmed our new music. Well, if it would, then it should, because if the orchestra isn't alive, then it is, in fact, dead.
Regarding a recent score I had submitted for consideration by the VSO, a colleague told me that I should write an alternate instrumentation for the alto sax part--because they don't have one. In the late 1980's, a major orchestra doesn't have a regular sax player! What is this? Real music or museum music?
Not today, thanks.
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