A 365-Day Project
"We Are All Mozart"
A project to create
Performers are often like their audiences: What they like best is what they've liked before, and what they do best is what they've done before. That's the point of practice and technique, and though it tends to make the (non-improvising) performer a conservative beast, it also offers the possibility of fine performances.
But there's a peculiar niche of performers that has spawned bifurcated thoughts today: the thereminists.
The theremin is a marvelous electronic instrument, invented in the 1920s by Russian engineer Lev Termin (Leon Theremin). The instrument is played in the air by moving one's hands with respect to differently shaped pitch and volume antennas. All the traditional technique is practiced without touching the instrument while playing, though various knobs are used to adjust tone quality and range of motion. After a brief fascination in the late 1920s, the theremin came to national prominence in films such as the 1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still, in which Bernard Herrmann's evocative score for two theremins is the pinnacle of traditional theremin writing -- mysterious, rich, and expressive, particularly in the hands of Samuel Hoffman.
Playing the theremin is a challenge, not only because its hands-off technique is difficult to master, but also because body and other nearby motion will also affect the result. Its greatest early exponent was Lithuanian violinist Clara Rockmore, who with her pianist sister Nadia Reisenberg created a style based on harmonic-rich, cello-like sound with strong vibrato and romantic expressive gestures. Her definitive version of Saint-Saëns's The Swan became for the theremin what Stairway to Heaven is for guitarists. She stood ramrod-straight before her instrument, her fingers, hands and arms moving like those of the violinist she once was.
Rockmore also hung a lead weight on the shoes of those who would use the theremin in other ways, and there begins the reason for today's commentary. Last week, a regular commentator on Levnet and Canadian pop performer Peter Pringle -- a dedicated Rockmore thereminist, and a wordsmith as well -- dismissed the need for those whom he calls "free thereminists" to practice because nobody would know if mistakes were made. Because Levnet is made up of "Swanners," my term for the romantic progeny of Rockmore, it is a self-congratulatory group of performers on the edge of technique failure (by their own accounts) while simultaneously resistant to the idea that the theremin has a performance life beyond cello emulation. Pringle was offended by the characterization as well as confused by my use of "nonpop," but the nascent discussion was interrupted by the New York Kalvos & Damian performance. When I returned it had unfortunately devolved into accusation and ended with the invocation of Godwin's Law.
With the discussion prematurely over, today seemed an opportunity to talk about the theremin and how its possibilities have been limited and its reputation effectively ruined by an inventor who did not know what to do with his invention and an acolyte who took it down the road of 19th century romantic mediocrity. The Termin-Rockmore mystique was heightened by the 1994 film Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey, which deified Termin as a Cold War-era captive engineer of the Soviet Union and Rockmore as his faithful amanuensis in America, the former returning to standing ovations in California. What it also did was place a historical lock on theremin playing for yet another generation as sweet melody resting in a tonal bedstraw.
In truth, expressiveness and effective sonic technique on the theremin require considerable practice for those of us who won't ever be interested in The Swan. The creation of just the right quality of low pitch moving in and out of the mix and resonating (as in an improvisation done at Zaal 100 in Amsterdam, with a trombone), the character of change from pitch to pitch, the nature of the sweep are all part of what Pringle calls 'free' theremin playing. Such so-called 'free' playing demands coordination of changes to volume sensitivity, pitch range and tone quality knobs while at the same time not losing volume or pitch position (by moving the shoulder, arm, etc., to keep pitch movement steady while tone quality is changed, for example). It demands substantial practice per composition -- while also inventing new nonpop performance practice so it applies to the theremin: getting fat 'plucking' sounds, developing two- and three-finger antenna-tapping, producing single oscillations used as percussion, etc. Changing theremin settings on the fly increases the difficulty -- going from narrow to wide ranges, or lowering/raising the range. (I sit on a stool to play to reduce my body english -- since I am also an extended voice singer, there's a lot of body movement involved that can't be switched off when I'm behind the theremin.) Few of those techniques apply to traditional musical performance, but it doesn't mean Pringle's 'free' players are slackers -- they just consider the theremin to be a different and more contemporary instrument from that used by the Swanners.
My own model for theremin playing is Eric Ross, with whom David Gunn and I played as part of a special theremin evening in Burlington, Vermont. Ross roughs up the theremin, producing ranges of sound from subtle to intense, and routing the output through the same sorts of effects boxes one might use for a guitar. Though his stylistic choices are far from mine, his explorations are significant to the instrument's future.
Here's where nonpop comes into play (you knew I'd get there). Swanners -- and the majority other concert-music performers -- play classical music. That is the genre they play, but it is not the genre I compose, nor most other contemporary composers. The Swanners also play art music and chamber music. They don't play the avant-garde, but then neither do we compose it. New music? Yup, they don't, we do, but so does Alanis Morissette.
Seeing and hearing what Swanners and their ilk believe "classical music" to be, it's no wonder a better term is so desperately needed. So nonpop. Let's define this puppy, first getting something over with: Nonpop is not negative anything, any more than nonfiction is negative fiction. It establishes a ying-yang pairing with a term that falls off the tongue easily. It's a word that triggers a general meaning, the idea of a meta-genre. There is gestural usage independent of some sort of etymological analysis or linguistic relationship. Once the word is absorbed as a whole, its state of opposition is lost, and it stands on its own. One forgets that it ever had negative implications to a certain generation. And the reason for using a word related to the other meta-genre is that the two together encompass everything, and the discussion can take place in the gray areas. But why not let's go to Wikipedia?
Clear enough, for what it is. But what about genres that cross boundaries? Does nonpop encompass 'art' forms of jazz and popular music? Simple answer: Yes. Improvisation, too. Nonpop is understood by context, known by the company it keeps. And conversely, pop can include chunks of the old classical music meta-genre, especially those bits that are hawked in early-morning commercials in arrangements with overlain strings or disco bass.
Jazz is as true an art music and as serious a music as erstwhile classical. Some classical music is more pop than art or serious, but we've re-designated it because it's got fiddles. A great deal of new music would never be thought of as art music, such as turntablists or noise artists. And the baggage carried by classical music, new music, avant-garde, etc., are pretty damaging to us because of the unpleasant artistic schisms of the past century. The reasons go on, but come down to the need for something simple and memorable.
We all struggle with finding a meta-genre that satisfies our prickly sense of accurate definition. But the world at large seems to be comfortable with inaccuracy if it's easy to remember (such as, say, classical). For example, electronic music underwent a definition change as it moved into the pop realm, one that I missed for a decade. It took me a few headshakes to learn what IDM is.
There's always a problem with vocabulary when society is undergoing the stress of change, as nonpop is. Many classical purveyors believe in a "we're better" message. No matter how the phrase is gilded or translated, no matter what politically correct words may be used, that is the message of "classical": You shall learn and become wise with us. This does not suggest any sort of intellectual dishonesty or even hubris, only a handed-down nonpop family credo that is uncomfortable to confront. I don't like that "we're better" message, even if I am part of the meta-genre. With every passing year, it becomes more suspect. So can we identify ways in which re-phrasing the questions can help illuminate classical nonpop's character and ultimately help change in some small way its ill fortune?
So when trying to act on these issues, composers and presenters can consider some of these approaches -- and admittedly, this is an aside for today's commentary, but something to consider for later:
Nonpop (word and meta-genre) does have merits. It's my field, and I believe in it as an expressive medium of our culture -- but not one inherently better. It has much to say in ways that pop does not choose to. By examining the choices made, one can clarify that betterness is not part of the distinction between meta-genres. Betterness exists within them both.
And that touches on the means & methods. Language transmits knowledge, information, and meaning. Literacy is generally understood as an ability to read and write, but that's increasingly vague as the transmission of information has had more than a century to evolve past symbols on a printed page (recapitulating its own origins in some ways).
For pop music, the document is the sound recording (and the video). A notated version would be devoid of the essential characteristics of the music, which have metamorphosed beyond the recognition of, say, a Cole Porter putting pencil to paper. Where in a score do you show the microphone choice and placement, equalization, compression, mixing, vocal enhancement, pitch-shifting, sound reversing, post-processing, etc., as well as the improvised licks, drumming, choreography, make and model of the guitars (or their virtual modeling in software)?
In nonpop, the score (or its documentary equivalent) contains The Language (or contained the language -- much nonpop involves studio technique now, particularly outside the orchestral realm, or even within it with composers like Kaija Saariaho). In pop, the recording (making it and hearing it) contains The Language. It has evolved so far that few songs other than the most popular are even published in stripped-down printed versions (which themselves require an understanding of the techniques at least as complex as the rhythms in, say, the French baroque).
Considering this understanding of literacy, then, are most nonpop composers and performers even marginally literate in the pop world, with its improvisation, group compositional development, studio technique, mixing and mastering, or even the conversation going down in the studio? Where a good nonpop musician could transcribe a classical recording to paper, how many could even identify the basic gear and how it was used to create the recorded 'document'? Again, the value equation does not apply to the meta-genre distinction, while it does come into play in the baggage-laden classical terminology.
Written language follows when it's needed. There's a language being developed for scratching, for example. It's neumatic and very interesting, but it's followed over a decade of the style maturing and becoming very rich in technique and expression. The scratch notation tells very little about the reality, especially the sample libraries and where they are used. (And that doesn't even start the discussion about jazz, whose literacy lies in studied improvisational interchange as much as in charts.)
How far are we from playing The Swan now?
Most classical music is not and was not great. It was often good, sometimes terrible. The formulaic work of the Baroque and Classical eras forms a wriggling sea of dreadfulness, and the era of personal expression and Romantic notions created a swamp of murky chromatic paeans to what-have-you rivers 'n' babes or rocks 'n' shepherds. That didn't stop it from being performed, then being stuffed into trunks, and (save for a few) eventually being lost in fires and floods and rot and neglect.
But nonpop! That's what we do. Now I'm going to prove it. Here's a short list of examples of nonpop selected a few years ago from the past half-century of nonpop. They just don't fit into "classical":
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