Musings of an Obscure Composer

The Nagual Composer's periodic musings on the milieu of "New Music," and other topics that cross his mind.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Let's Try this Again

Let’s try this again.

“O know to end, as to begin”

Well, we shall see if this blog begins. I’ve tried to commence a blog four times previously. Each time I have lost the courage, the drive or lost the flash drive with the writings. This blog will concern “New Music,” the struggle of composing and occasional odd notions that flits through my befuddled mind.  

I intend to jot my thoughts about the “New Music” scene and my own compositional journey. Why do I call this blog the Nagaul Composer? An ancient Mesoamerican tradition holds that each of us has within the essential nature of some particular animal. Some people, nagulaes, have the ability to transform themselves into the animal of their inner nature, and so go about at night as jaguars, monkeys, coyotes or other non-human animals. By day I am a mild-mannered bureaucrat, sitting in my office producing paper. But, by night, after my daughter is put safely to bed, I often become the Nagaul Composer, scribbling music of vast, wide-spread unpopularity. It is that second nocturnal life that leads me to blog.

“So what new music are you blathering on about?”

So it seems that I ought to be clear about which type of music I intend to write, and what might be a good name for it. If one picks up a copy of the magazine “New Music Connoisseur” (and I’ll assume you don’t regularly pick up a copy) one would most likely want to know, generally, what the magazine what is about before coughing up hard earned cash. What is this “New Music?” I’d better be clear on what the term means and . Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be possible. If you’ve just stumbled upon this bog and are not an adept in any of the various cults of “New Music,” you may reasonably assume that the term refers to the latest Lady Gaga cd,. Every week I get Emails from amazon.com urging me to buy “New Music” from Britney Spears (she’s really famous, for the next 15 minutes so no hyper link is required), Lady Gaga (the outfits call for a hyperlink) or Shania Twain (I’m tired of hyperlinks). “New Music” does not pin down a style, or at least the styles I’m concerned with. If the music of the centenarian Elliot Carter and that of the al most as ancient Milton Babbitt whose music is rooted in early Twentieth Century Vienna, are classified as “New Music,” then the term is so broad as to tell very little, except that it doesn’t refer to Lady Gaga, except in the context of an Email from amazon.com. But, who knows whether even that limitation means anything. Perhaps some conservatory-trained composer with one foot in electronica and one foot in the orchestra, somebody like the Bay Area composer, Mason Bates, will step up and create the Lady Gaga suite for Orchestra and oddly dressed conductor. However, I really do not want to see Pierre Boulez in a black leather swimsuit with yellow feathers. I’m not sure that most Lady Gaga fans would take well to an evening Milton Babbitt’s music. Some things are best not mixed.

I can’t even figure out a good name for the stuff that occupies my thoughts. Terms for art are always problematic. It’s the same problem we got when academics decided that “modern” meant T.S. Elliot and Stravinski. One can’t even use modern to me contemporary or music of our time. Stravinski and Elliot are long gone but they remain modern. Some historians use “modern” to describe the time from the Italian Renaissance to 1945. Now modern can mean anything from the Renaissance to the time my grandmother’s youth. We’re just Postmodern Post Toasties – or is the stylish and useless term “postmodern” now out of style.

The term “New Music” is a dreadful and misleading name for the type of music about which I intend to write. The term jumbles together everything from the obscurantist splatter of Brian Ferneyhough, the free improvisation followers of the John Zorn school (what my wife calls “random saxophone honking”), the academic über-serialist crowd, the neo-romantics, Phillip Glass, Steve Reich, several varieties of electronic strangeness, John Adams. (Check out Adams’ blog because he’s much funnier than I am and he’s clearly THE most successful composer of “New Music.”) and a thousand isms between. At the same time it excludes Britney Spears, whose musical oeuvre whatever its quality is as newer than Steve Reich’s 1970‘w ecstatic and masterful “Music for 18 Musicians” (I merely make a verifiable observation and do not intend a snide swipe at the Reich work, which is one of my favorite pieces of music.). Mind you, many members of some of these groups think they have the Holy Grail and wouldn’t be seen in the room in which a performance of some other cult’s guru was being performed.

The alternative nomenclature is even worse. “Serious music” implies that the creators of those other types of music aren’t serious or don’t deserve serious consideration. George Clinton, of Parliament/Funkadelic, certainly is a musician who has worked very seriously for many years creating a brand of funk of incredible complexity; though plainly he doesn’t belong in the “new Music” category, because his public image doesn’t seem to require that he posture and be depicted in photos as grim, heavily intellectual, and deep. Someone should do a doctoral dissertation on the photos composers chose to put on their publishers’ and their own websites. Someone is probably at work on one now in the hope that it will lead to a tenure track job at the Southern North Dakota Remedial Community College and School of Taxidermy.

“Art music,” another term sometimes thrown around, implies either that all “New Music” is high art, or that it has some amorphous “artistic value” greater than all those other types of music that aren’t “art music.” All groups have to define themselves by exclusion from others, so why should the “New Music” folk be any different from the rest of humanity. The real problem with the term “Ahhhhhhht Music” is that it sounds like Mrs. Thurston Howell III is talking down to somebody. If it’s “artsy” then maybe it will be appreciated by guys with goatees, bongos and berets. “Paging Maynard G. Krebs.”

“Contemporary classical music,” another term bandied about, says more about some composers’ academic training than it does about their music. In point of fact I don’t think that there is such a thing as “Classical Music,” but I’ll address that another day. Just because we had to analyze Mozart Symphonies in college doesn’t mean our music has that much to do with 18th Century Vienna.

Even worse is the term “modern classical music.” My music marginally fits into the “New Music” world. However, say “classical music” and people think of the German canon. But, I do write music with that tradition behind it. I’m just pocho from Southern Arizona and was not born to the high art European culture that holds those musical values. I do not endeavor to continue a great and powerful intellectual tradition to which I do not belong. "Classical music" once referred to the literate or notated tradition. More and more composers of New Music are finding notation to be unnecessary if not a detriment to their music.

Dennis Báthory-Kitsz (Dennis deserves a hyperlink), a Vermont-based composer and promoter of “New Music,” uses the term “Non-Pop” for what interests me. I’m not sure that some of the music he applies it to isn’t closer to what we generally consider Pop music than what I’m trying to get at.

But, I digress, but perhaps I haven’t digressed far enough. Why am I going to the effort of this blog?

Great Silent Majority of America: Why do you mention this minor digression now? All you do is digress, you half-witted lout. Why don’t you go write some music with nice beat that could have gotten at least a 7 on American bandstand. Do ya think foot tapping is beneath your mighty intellect?

Me-self: Shouldn’t you folk be silent and true to your Nixonian name? I feel as though the ghost of Spiro Agnew were after me.

Great Silent Majority of America: His ghost is after you. Why should a composer write a blog?  

Me-self: None of them should. But nobody has figured out means of stopping them. So many do. Why should I play high and might and pretend I’m any better than those other composers? [Gads, that’s not an answer! It’s another question!] I guess I have no answer for that one.

Great Silent Majority of America: Why should a middle aged, rarely performed, highly unsuccessful composer with a day job write a blog? Oh my where shall we start?  

Me-self: I will answer that one. I am often rather isolated from other composers and the musical world. Perhaps someone smarter and wiser than me will pop in occasionally and offer some wisdom that will put me back on track. (Smarter and wiser? Hell,. that could that could be almost anybody). I need the opportunity to clarify my thoughts. Hell, I need to get it off my chest.

“Highly unsuccessful” that hurts. Perhaps extraordinary lack of success is itself a form of supreme success. Satie claimed that he was freer than Debussy because of the paucity of his professional success.  

In this respect, I myself had a great advance over him: no "prizes" from Rome, or any other town, weighed down my steps, since I don't carry any such prizes around on me, or on my back; for I am a man of the type of Adam (from Paradise), who never won any prizes - a lazy sort, no doubt.  

Satie was in fact not lazy, as is shown by his systematic explorations and his sketches with dates and times appended. Satie didn’t seem to mind “success” when it arrived late in life.  Neither did he seem to know what to do with it. He became bogged down in the inane tribunals of the surrealists, bought collars and umbrellas he would never use and developed an unseemly interest in proving his own originality and priority in innovation.  I cannot compare myself to Satie in any meaningful way. I cannot claim any work as beautiful as the fourth Nocturne, as ravishing and unassumingly radical as the three songs of 1886, as haunting as Socrate or as clever as the dances from Le Piege de Baron Meduse. I won’t engage in declaring grapes sour. I’ll admit that I wouldn’t complain to loudly if suddenly my poor compositions won awards, commissions flowed and ensembles clamored to perform my works. Obscurity does leave me free to follow my doubts about much of the “New Music” scene. I hope that through this blog I can bring my thoughts into some coherent vision by which I can guide my composing when I find myself lost in a dark wood.  

Great Silent Majority of America: Why shouldn’t you spend the time trying to write better music? We take that back. We’ve heard “New Music” and we don’t want any more of it.  

Me-self: I’ve heard that line before. You want what you’re used to.

Great Silent Majority of America: Of course, listen to whatever you want. But there are good reasons I should write this blog. Sometimes I get stuck and need to talk it out. I might as well talk to the electronic void as the wall. Why aren’t you folk more silent? Is Sarah Palin putting you up to this?

Before the good folk of America distracted me, we were defining what I mean by “New Music,” or at least what we ought to call the stuff about which I intend to write. Some years ago, I heard a lecture by the late James Tenney. He said, that when the curious asked him what kind of music he wrote, he said that he wrote “unpopular music.” I’ve adopted that term for my own music from time to time. About 12 years ago I saw Tenney at a concert, and walked up to and apologized for pilfering his term. He graciously said that he didn’t mind in the least. So, I have continued to use that often too true term for my music.  So, “unpopular music” is the thing.
I intend to write about my struggles with my own “unpopular music” and that of others. I hope that occasionally someone may write with a useful insight or a suggestion on getting ones’ composing out of the doldrums. 

So, I can’t tell you precisely what the music is about which I intend to write and I can’t even give you good name for it. Sometimes there is no short way to say “hell if I know.” Visit again and maybe you’ll find something interesting.

“Say good night Gracie.”

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