Keep It Simple and You May Still Be Stupid!
When young lawyers are about to try their first jury trial, their mentors often tell them to follow the KISS Rule - that is Keep It Simple Stupid. A good ten years ago I made a sharp turn in my compositional approach. Regarding my change of course I’ve often asked myself “What the hell were you thinking?!!” I embarked upon what I think of as my period of enforced simplicity. For a long time I wrote much more dissonant and complex music than I have done for about 10 years. It was a sort of therapy, perhaps, from which I soon began began to move on. Fortunately, it’s not Freudian, Jungian or Cognitive therapy so there are no therapist bills or expensive pills. It was a long ear cleaning, removing the historical wax. I was never some integral serialist or radical avant-gardiste, but simplify my music I did.
The simplified music was not really romantic, or even Neo-Romantic. Composers like Aaron Jay Kernis, Richard Danielpour and David Del Tredici (who keeps his sense of humor in the same tool bag as his grand statement), produce often tonal music with big romantic sweep and gravitas. What they write is very hard to write. Few people can do it, and they do it very, very well. I enjoy what they do, but it’s not something I could convincingly pull off without my tongue firmly implanted in my cheek. Who am I to adopt la style grand chef de oeuvre? I opted for what I call my Toy Romanticism.
Why would I do such a thing? Why put myself up to the ridicule of my intellectual betters. I’m certain that even many of my friends in the New Music world think my music is a farce. What did I hope for? I was weary of the angst over pitch selection and need to find innovation harmony that I had acquired twenty years before in college, and from which I had never quite recovered. All of those things had “gone about as fer as they can go.” I couldn’t stand any more music that constantly declared the composers profound suffering and distress at existence. I actually like living and enjoy a good time. I realized that unless one had the reputation of Pendercki or some rising star, performers were not going to suffer difficult music that required large amounts of rehearsal time. If fifteen minutes of rehearsal time is what performers give, we composers had better give them something that can sound like something in fifteen minutes. Most of all, I held the foolish hope that a few of my non-composer friends might enjoy my music.
Haven’t any of the composer out there who think of themselves as members of the “avant-garde” ever wished that your grandmother, your sister or non-musician friends might really enjoy a piece of your music without straining to “understand.” I am haunted by the words of long deceased grandmother who used to say; “Why don’t your write something with a little pep, like that Klezmer music.” I came to think that was really pretty good advice.
In my day job I am lawyer. I sit I in a government office with another 50 lawyers. Each has been graduated from some university and and from some over-rated trade school called a law school. Yet, if I walk down the hall and ask them one after another “whether they know the music of Ligeti, Elliot Carter, Milton Babbitt or (even) Steve Reich, they will look at me with blank stares and shake their heads saying ”Tony, I love the way you’re off in your own artistic world. But I don’t know anything about that stuff.” If I try playing some of my favorite music, say for example the Ligeti Requiem, one or two will comment that it sounds like music from a science fiction movie. One might even say that “it sounds like 2001.” Most will tell me to turn it the hell off. The middle class and professional class of today is not the high culture mad bourgeoisie of 19th Century Vienna. America’s superrich don’t want to commission string quartets. they want to own JImmy Hendrix’s guitar or Kurt Cobain’s sweaty tee shirt. I have only intermittent contact with the New Music world. We g to school and learn a musical culture to which we cannot belong, and which no longer exists. It’s very hard to stick with dissonant or complicated music when nothing in one’s social milieu says it makes sense. We admire Charles Ives for his doggedness in the face of a world that didn’t case, but it was one of the things that in part broke him. Just being difficult is no guarantee that someday “postmen will whistle” one’s tunes, as Schoenberg predicted. Schoenberg was wrong. The postman may ring twice but he doesn’t whistle a tune from Schoenberg’s “A Survivor from Warsaw.” That isn’t to say Schoenberg’s music doesn’t have value, but it’s value is not that it will be useful as a tune and sales device for the ice cream truck. If the ice cream truck is playing “Pierrot Lunaire,” you and your children should run, because you’ve stumbled into the view of a psycho ice cream man with murder on his mind.
I hoped that my music might appeal to somebody in the world in which I live. Well, it didn’t but we’ll come back to that. It was still a valuable effort for me. I even like much of the music I wrote. This hideous populist intention to please people, of course, violates the Prime Directive of certain composers which states in pertinent part: “To worry about whether anyone likes it is to try to be “accessible,” and to be “accessible” is to sell one’s self cheap and write trash.” I just can’t accept the Prime Directive. While I’m not about tot try and write the next hip hop hit (are there still hip hop hits?). I do think that music is a social function. There is no “great music” in an absolute sense or in a vacuum. It’s always a part of some lingua franca or tradition – even if nobody really likes it arises out of a tradition, even if it’s a brief tradition.
One would think that Steve Reich and Terry Riley fought and won the war of tonality and clarity in the 1960’s but I’m not convinced that it is over. Perhaps I simply needed to fight it with myself to clear out any remnant sense that I must write “academically serious music.” We are taught in music school that we must look to the “Masters,” the Germanic Masters to learn the necessary lessons for writing music. [I was always bother by “the Master” thing. It sounds too much like Igor talking to Dr. Frankenstein.] I think we are taught the wrong lessons about what we should take away. The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget argued that every child, in learning math and science. was reinventing the knowledge and processes that were developed over hundreds of years. So every artist my him/herself re-fight at least some of the battles of our fore-bearers. The snobbery and faux Hegelian historicism of our academic training is not easily overcome. We feel guilt if our music does not try to extend some previously established technical trick or seek to out grim the grimmest of the “Masters.” My decision to sue a few triads and virtually no harmonic motion, and the homeliest of musical materials gave me a way to learn more about who I am as a composer. Unsurprisingly, just as as it had for Reich, Riley and Glass in the generation before me, rhythm became more important; my music got a “little pep.”
I hoped that if I radically simplified my music that if what I was composing complete crap, that the music would have the virtue to allow everyone to know it’s crap at first sight. I did take the advice of my grandmother, and looked to the model of the minimalists and emphasized rhythm. I don’t write minimalist music, but one must often learn the most important lessons for those very different form one’s self.
Composers can resolve some factors of their over-all stylistic approach rationally, but the over-riding factors are composer’s emotional response to her/his own music balanced against the anticipated appeal to others. We cannot completely reason ourselves to satisfying music. Composers in the European concert tradition are not wholly free of the demands of what the composer perceives as the tradition, They (we) are not free of the desire taught by that tradition to innovate and alter the tradition. Some composers may try to bend to a large degree to what they believe is an inevitable course of the tradition. In fact none of us can respond to the whole of the tradition we pick and chose what parts we think are important. Serialist composers in 1950‘s America responded to what the perceived to be the high art demand of chromaticism and increased complexity - an easy trap for we Americans with a built-in sense of cultural inferiority to Europe. Let’s call it Freudian high art envy. The tried to justify their approach by attributing one line of thinking back to Mozart and even beyond. Like Marxism, hyper-capitalism and the Christian religion it posited that there was progress towards some allegedly know or perhaps unknown end. For such utopian ideologies history cannot be a circle, but must be a line. Utopianism always ends up with someone else paying the tab. In their obsession with complexity and its snob appeal they rejected the notion that a composer might amuse or entertain or give pleasure. But Mozart, Haydn and even Beethoven made money precisely because they did “amuse” people, to use the term in a broad sense. They were not embarrassed to be showmen, though Beethoven’s showmanship involved renouncing his showman status in the loudest possible manner - and the people with money found the show very amusing.
I made my music simpler only in part because I speculated that it might be more appealing to the folk of the wold in which I live. I have always found the reductionist quietism of Satie and Mompou to very emotionally appealing. Another blog someday may involve what music we would like to look down and hear at our funeral. Satie’s nocturnes would be one of my choices, but I’ll be dead, so play whatever you want.
Cycles of complexity and simplicity are always occurring in music and culture as a whole. We each need a break for complexity form time to time. In our need for simplicity we go camping, throw out old pairs of expensive shoes or write tonal music.
I rejected much of the more complex music because it seemed to use the extreme language of expressionism without having anything particularly compellingly angst laden to say. What were all those comfortable tenured professors trying say caused the great angst they seemed to want to express, and expressed in such a pallid manner. If I am again moving towards more dissonance and tension it is probably because like the rest of America I am anxious about the long continuing decline of the American empire and what that will mean to me and my family. I suspect China’s art will be increasingly optimistic. Perhaps the time for expressionism is once again upon us. That’s not a happy thought.
If my return to extreme simplicity and use of the common place music idiom did not result in overwhelming popularity, that is not surprising. People in a consumer society want what they know because that is what is expected of them. They are entitled to like what they like and we needn’t take umbrage if they don’t like our music. People don’t want sort of normal music. They want exactly what the are used to. They want Bruce and Madonna and Lady Gaga.
Simplification was not a waste. I re-learned things that I had long forgotten. I learned the importance of clarity of gesture. My music didn’t become wildly popular, but it helped me face myself and my own limitations. I re-learned the hard lesson that people usually understand what contemporary music has to say, if it is to the message they want to hear. I learned the lesson of Ricky Nelson’s silly song “Garden Party.” I learned to please myself. I strongly recommend the tonic of enforced simplicity - at least for a little while.