A 365-Day Project
"We Are All Mozart"
A project to create
Today I'm going to turn over most of the commentary to an actor and fellow composer, Robert Bonotto, who describes himself as a "Reactionary to Reactionaries". Robert and I compose differently, and if there's anyone on the opposite side of the musical wheel from Milton Babbitt, it's Robert. The difference from other critics is that Robert is open-minded and generous, without the venality that afflicted (and continues to afflict) the debate. So below is a slightly redacted version of Robert's comments, adjusted only to remove the non-sequiturs produced in an email exchange:
I actually rather enjoy the Babbitt kafuffle (but not half as much as being able to use the word 'kafuffle'; an elegant playwright came to last night's show and commented on the usual less-than-rowdy Wednesday night audience: "They weren't dead, but they were slightly supine").
I think your argument is not "I'm sorry to sound exercised," but pretty damned cogent. As a more-often-than-not conservative composer, I find RetiredProf Whatever-the-hell-his-name-is rather embarrassing with his tonal hard-on.
And of course both sides get rather a lot of fun making fun of each other, though I personally find it so unfunny I sidled away from two composers' groups, partly because of it. (As Babbitt's assistant said at a breakfast, "Can you imagine anyone studying with William Bolcom and thinking he'd learn anything?")
Both sides have ample ammunition, and the craw that is most intimidating Is exactly what you pointed out: "Could you step inside an electroacoustic studio in 2007 and work there?" This really scared those of us who are 'Behind'. The incidental music for Cherry Orchard was written by Michael Friedman, whose credits show that he knows his way around most forms; at the same time the four minutes of music he wrote for our show was the sort of Faux-Fauré I could do fairly easily. I complimented him on it, and he barely acknowledged me. Fine. But that doesn't take away the fact that his FauxFauré -- for violin, cello and piano is good. So, of course, someone like myself (and retiredprof, and quite a few others) are ... jealous.
There is also the fact that, for some of us, four LP sides of Anthony Braxton doing solo work makes our eyes glaze over (and I did listen to those four sides in one afternoon while I was working at the Record Exchange one day). And the complexity of one instrument doesn't prepare us for what Uncle Milty does in his Piano Concerto. The fact that much of his music sounds rather benign to me doesn't take away from its intimidating implications, which continue to make otherwise (often) reasonable people bluster and stammer and come out with stupid accusations that's not born out in their own music. (Okay, so sometimes it is born out in their own music. Tough.) You yourself subtly load the dice by saying "After listening to and practicing Mozart and Brahms and Elvis and Ellington, or from hearing and playing Stockhausen and Coltrane and Cowell And Luening?" -- clever choice, because those latter four played around with just about every style imaginable; though that's not the center of this argument, it's a first-generation cousin to it.
No, as you say, Art Isn't Easy, but dopey ideas are effective in helping push your work in the right direction (and the utilization of humor is just one more useful tool, when all's said and done). For example, someone heard the my Kalvos interview with you guys, and I'm writing a piece (thanks to you) for three violas. So, an abstract idea for a Sonatine resulted in a lot of ripped-up pages. But, I'm in the basement of the theatre (the rehearsal room is soundproofed from the theatre itself and I can use the piano there). So I start writing a movement after each of the characters in The Cherry Orchard, Ravenskaya, Firs, Lopakhin, Gayev, Trofimov.
Is this a dopey idea and would Chekhov be spinning in his grave? Perhaps to both? Do I like Ned Rorem's After Reading Shakespeare for solo 'cello. No, not very much. But the mental-picture of what I was embroiled in got the music written, and the weight of 17/18/19th century this-is-how-I-get-inspired is such that a lot of people don't understand that Babbittisch music can be created in much the same way.
Regarding the Babbitt stuff -- I agree/disagree in equal measure, speaking as a hypocritic (there's a good invented word -- would be a good title for one of your more sardonic pieces):
True. But if you shift the words tonalists to atonalists and vice-versa, it's no less true. Babbitt at the New Brunswick conference: "I felt like saying to Honegger's widow, 'Who would want to play your husband's symphonies?' I didn't, of course." Of course, everyone there agreed with him; but I suspect that not a single one of the nodders ever heard Honegger's wonderful Fourth, The Delights of Basel.
(In fact it was me and his assistant walking from one building to another along with Robert Pollock. We were on our way to a talk about George Antheil; Uncle Milty trashed his stuff, too, but he was very polite about it, implying that there was 'something original in his pasting together unoriginal materials' -- which is actually not far off from Antheil's weaker stuff. That afternoon they taped my Quartet for Oboe and Strings, which thankfully Uncle M did not hear.)
It cuts both ways, as both sides cut each other dead. The discourse -- and, in my opinion, a lot of it on the Orchestra List is a lot calmer than it would've been twenty years ago -- does have that unpleasant aroma of scores being settled (pun intended) by some of the participants. My feeling remains the same, that there's so much out there in so many styles, a composer-writer with feet and hands in several camps must say (and someone will always tell him he's wrong; fine): "Cage's Imaginary Landscapes are important; but you don't have to listen to his collage operas all the way through. Carter's Second String Quartet is something you really should try to listen through several times -- if possible, with the score in front of you; and, yeah, his Syringa isn't such a hot piece. Piston's Sixth and Seventh symphonies have the best tunes and rhythms; but his First and Fifth symphonies are deadly bores." And so on.
You and David did do this with your "Top 100 Favorite Tunes," among other things. How one gets this out there, how one connects up the possibility of hooking up potential listeners with iTunes or whatever the fuck this week's way of listening to music is (I'm still on cassettes, isn't that awful? No, that's how I make memorization tapes for plays); getting students/adults/former bass-clarinet players -- hey there -- to know how to interconnect is still an agenda on all composer/creators' plates. The fact that the 'opposite sides' are actually talking to each other without throwing things is a surprise; but, let's face it, an Orchestra List is going to have more conservative people on it in any case (you should see the Viola List; my inference that Haydn was as good as Mozart nearly got me booted off).
My feelings about it all were fairly cemented (ossified, if you prefer); it was my last year as a member of the New Jersey Composers' Guild. I had listened to a bit too much backbiting. When I moved to Boston and tried to join Composers In Red Sneakers and sent in a cassette, I was left a message on my Machine saying, "The board has listened to your cassette, and in our opinion the works are just not serious enough." (Ah, there, Mr. Gunn. In any case, I taped and kept a copy of the message.) Small wonder that I haven't been part of any composers' groups since, though the NJCG has changed since I quit ten years ago (an all Antheil program, for example) and has younger folks now; it might be worth rejoining.
All the above shoves me into the unwilling corner of being a Reactionary to Reactionaries; but in fact I try to support all kinds of music (would do more if I could afford it) and feel a bit less angry at the musical scene if all sides are talking to each other, which, despite the Babbitt fracas, they seem to be doing now, and which I know wasn't happening (I was there, too) twenty years ago. The problem is the constant reiteration of one's position (whatever it might be) instead of spending time getting it all together to form groups that perform a range of different styles. Of course people will rail if Uncle M's All Set is done next to something of Paul Schoenfield's or Moravec's. Fuck 'em. The CGNJ would do concerts in which there'd be one conservative work to three 'modern' works -- a Haydn quartet accompanied by works by George Walker, Claudio Spies, and Roger Sessions, for example. I think that might be the best route as far as public concerts go; as far as radio goes -- well, you know my opinion -- the New Sounds and your program is the way to go, with upbeat talk/interviews on what the composers are trying to/have achieved, and the audience can make up their own damned minds on whether the composer has.
And Back to the Commercial
Thanks to Robert for all that, and for permission to reprint it. Which gives me just enough time to squeeze in some notes about yesterday's composition for this project, Return to Nineveh.
When Taylan Susam, an Amsterdam musician, asked me to write an extended voice piece for a friend, there were few restrictions and lots of openings. He wrote, "He is totally wacky - he enjoys declaiming the strangest and ugliest (sometimes Spanish) words in that strong, colorful bass-barytone of his, in the middle of the day, for no obvious reason. Also, in front of his parents, or whomever is passing by. He is never embarrased, has written - among other things - quite a complicated piece for people while singing Sinterklaas songs, while having sex, or something like that (which still awaits a performance, by the way).
My kind of performer. So I turned to some of my favorite literature: the late, bloody books of the Old Testament, selecting six verses from Nahum (2:8-10, 3:1, 3:6, and 3:19 if you care -- but all of Nahum is delightfully nasty for a prophet's writings). And then I thought, "Nineveh. Where have I heard that name recently?" Yes, it is in modern-day Iraq, scenes of very bloody fighting. And so the dedication of Return to Nineveh reads, "In ancient times, it is said that he city of Nineveh on the Tigris River was brought down by the wrath of a vengeful God. In modern times, its people have suffered again through great wars and civil strife. And now they suffer again through the vengeance of a small man who would be God."
The singing is accompanied by reverb and looping, beginning with a kind of incipit or call to worship or lament, depending on the point-of-view with respect to its ambiguity. The florid description of the watery pool then begins a rush into madness -- notes get longer, harsher, chromatic, microtonal. Syllables fragment, and eventually the performance (which gets manic in the middle, with instructions to pace the stage and confront the audience) descends in horror and ultimately silence.
Extended voice can divorce itself from words, dealing only with syllables, or express the words. This is melded with, fused to, amalgamated with the words and their multiple implications. After writing it, I was completely spent.
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Tomorrow: a four-part choral piece on the mantra "om ma ni pe ne hun."
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