January 28, 2007

Is Music Art? (Part Two)

“Do we have anything in music for example that really wipes everything out? That
just cleans everything away, from some aspect of illusion and reality? Do we
have anything like – Proust? Do we have anything comparable to Finnegans
? I wonder.”
(Morton Feldman, "Toronto Lecture, April 1982," Morton Feldman Says :
Selected Interviews and Lectures 1964-1987
, London: Hyphen, 2006,

Feldman’s question begs the answer, “of course music is an art form and here are some examples of some far-out, ‘important’ stuff that proves it.” But, this question of music as an art form points to some of the difficulties that so-called “serious” or “classical” music confronts in the marketplace of ideas. Feldman suggests that it’s all just show-biz.

First of all, let’s be honest and admit that most people simply do not care about music very much to begin with. Pop music is consumed as sonic wall-paper and/or as a social-identity tool. In any event, music is merely a consumer product, only incidentally (or accidentally) a work of art. The same is true on a more (ahem) refined level for the “classical” music consumer for whom a more “adult,” upscale, and high-class social-identity tool is desired. The music itself is show-biz all the way, with only rare outbursts of discomfiting “art” that only serves to irritate those patrons who desire only predictable familiarity and certified “masterpieces.”

Aside from the vanishingly small subcultures of scholars and musicians, for most people, music is decidedly not an art form. Or maybe it is - who cares? They simply do not want to listen to it. What’s worse is that for musicians themselves music is not an art form – at least not as defined by John Cage (or any of those other modernist, difficult, composers).

Why should this be so? Most people, even if they don’t like (or “understand”) abstract painting, will at least grudgingly admit that it is, in fact, “art.” Even if most people won’t ever actually read Finnegans Wake, they would accept its designation as a work of art. Not so much with music. “Art Music” as presented by your local symphony orchestra is a miniscule repertoire of 19th Century war-horses trotted out again and again for the benefit of the local gentry who would emphatically insist that John Cage is not music and it most assuredly is not art. (More than likely, most members of the orchestra would heartily agree!)

The problem is complex and the first essential difficulty is that music exists only in time - sometimes vast expanses of time. A person can look at a painting for a fraction of a second and assess it as a whole. Then, maybe choose to look some more or maybe look at something else. Music, on the other hand insists that you submit to its demand for your time. It also demands concentration to appreciate how the sounds relate to each other over that span of time. And, unlike a work of literature, you cannot pick it up and put down at convenient intervals without destroying its essence as a time-based medium. So, this is difficult for people.

Furthermore, music is difficult to talk about. Literature, obviously, is itself words and there is an enormous vocabulary of words with which to talk about visual phenomena. It is easy to talk about what we see. But music is, at its very essence, utterly abstract and what descriptive vocabulary we do have for sound is limited and woefully inexact. Of course, one may learn how to read and write musical notation, maybe even learn how to play musical instruments, but all of that is of little use when trying to articulate what makes some groupings of sounds music.

Music is obviously hard-wired into the human brain. Everyone sings in the shower although not everyone writes (or even reads) or paints or draws. This “natural” tendency towards music is of course one of the things that makes music so unique in the arts. But this “fact of nature” also tends to make everyone an “expert” and allows a very subjective and personal taste to define what is good and bad, art and not-art. Therefore, most people are simply never going to be convinced to listen to John Cage or Arnold Schoenberg (or Morton Feldman) and call it “art.” They can’t stand to listen to it for a single second. No one sings “Pierrot Lunaire” in the shower.

Of course, it really is all Arnold Schoenberg’s fault. So-called “classical” music was at the height of its post-Romantic popularity when he kicked over the table with his “free atonality” and 12-tone rows. His “emancipation of the dissonance” effectively ended the meaningful relationship of “Art Music” to the culture at large and the “standard repertoire” would therefore end with Richard Wagner (with a little Debussy or maybe sometimes Bartok thrown in for spice). So, it was definitely all over long ago by the time Cage (incidentally a student of Schoenberg) wrote music out of silence.

As my friend, the composer/professor Stan Link likes to say, “music went one way and the audience went another.”

Welcome to the Post-Modern.

January 21, 2007

Now Playing: Morton Feldman

Morton Feldman (1926-1987): Patterns in a Chromatic Field (Tzadik, 2005)

Charles Curtis: ‘cello
Aleck Karis: piano

Even though I prided myself on my radically open-minded taste in music, I didn’t like Morton Feldman’s music at all when I first heard it - and that shocked me. I knew he was “important” since he was not only a close friend and colleague of John Cage (whose music I had no problem with), but also friends with the major Abstract Expressionist artists like Willem DeKooning, Philip Guston, Mark Rothko, and Robert Rauschenberg (all of whose art I loved). Clearly there was something wrong with me, to be so befuddled by this apparently simple – if seemingly simple-minded – music. Rather than rejecting it out-of-hand, I viewed this music as a challenge to my unexamined prejudices about what music is supposed to be and decided to investigate further.

Feldman made a name for himself in the 1950s with his “graphic notation” wherein sounds are divided into three categories (high, medium, and low) and a number in each category refers to the number of musical “events” that are to take place, with each column on the graph representing a certain span of time (i.e. each column = MM=60). The actual pitches and rhythms are left up to the performer. John Cage would continue to develop this kind of “indeterminancy” for the rest of his career, while Feldman gradually returned to a conventional, if idiosyncratic, notation full of double-flats and double-sharps, constantly changing odd meters (i.e. 5/2, 13/8, etc.), and meticulously subdivided rhythms.

Feldman’s mature music is small-m minimalist music. Using the least amount of musical material (a few notes, a broken rhythm), Feldman aspires to create music with the Greenbergian “flatness of surface” akin to the paintings of his artist friends, the Abstract Expressionists. The dynamic markings are generally “as slowly and as softly as possible.” But, unlike the Big-M Minimalists like Philip Glass, Terry Riley, or Steve Reich, this is decidedly not easy listening. I mean no disrespect to these composers, but Feldman’s music is deeply rooted in the harmonic language of the Second Viennese School (particularly Anton Webern) and is built around dissonant intervals (particularly the minor second) and complex, asymmetrical rhythmic figures. Ultra-subtle variations of the material will move between enervating repetitions to moments of rapturously languid beauty across sometimes vastly uncomfortable time-spans – “String Quartet II” (1983) and “For Philip Guston” (1984) are both nearly five hours long in a single movement. Needless to say, these pieces place extraordinary demands on both performers and listeners.

The first piece I heard that really spoke to me was “Rothko Chapel” (1971) (New World, 1991) for soprano, mixed chorus, viola, celeste and percussion. Commissioned along with the painter Mark Rothko for the non-denominational chapel at the DeMenil Collection in Houston, Texas, Feldman’s music is as sublime and somber as Rothko’s paintings. Snippets of actual melody float above wordless choral harmonies punctuated by gentle clouds of percussion. But this music, while fairly accessible and, in some respects, conventionally “pretty,” is atypical of Feldman’s usual procedure.

The recording that finally opened my ears to the whole of Feldman’s work was a 1994 compilation of radio broadcasts on the German label Editions RZ. On “Piano Three Hands" (1957), Feldman himself performs with John Tilbury. Feldman’s touch is exquisite: extremely quiet with a minimum of attack, yet rich and full of overtones - and the rhythm (such as it is) almost “swings.” Hearing this recording was a revelation. Aha! This music is not just “interesting,” it has soul.

As for the CD at hand, “Patterns in a Chromatic Field” (1981) was written near the beginning of Feldman’s final phase of gargantuan works and at over 80 minutes, this single-movement piece pushes the capacity of the CD format to the limit. It is also an example of Feldman’s music at its most extreme. The opening minutes set the tone: a handful of dissonant intervals repeating a jagged yet insistent rhythm. After a long while, a lush consonance hovers briefly, only to take off into another angular and dissonant repeating figure. If you are willing to submit yourself to Feldman’s sound-world, the dissonances begin to sound like consonance and the consonances emerge as fleeting glimpses of the divine.

Morton Feldman was over 6 feet tall, weighed almost 300 pounds, and wore Coke-bottle thick eyeglasses. A native New Yorker, Feldman was as oversized and brash a person as his music was quietly delicate and subdued. He was voluble speaker and prolific writer and some of his talks and writings can be found online here. More of his prose writings have been gathered in Give My Regards to Eighth Street: Collected Writings of Morton Feldman (Cambridge, MA: Exact Change, 2000) and Morton Feldman Says (London: Hyphen, 2006), a collection of lectures and interviews. Literate, opinionated, and oftentimes laugh-out-loud funny, Feldman’s writings offer unique insights into this singularly American composer. Rarely performed outside of New York and Europe, the last decade or so has fortunately seen a deluge of recordings on CD. Most notably, Mode has embarked on a series aiming to record his complete works. Superb recordings are also available on Hat-Art, CPO, Nonesuch, Bridge, Na├»ve, Argo, and other adventurous record labels.

Immersing myself in Morton Feldman’s austere and initially off-putting music has immeasurably enriched my musical life.


January 14, 2007

Alice Coltrane, R.I.P.

Alice Coltrane died today at age 69. An obituary can be found online here. I hope there will be more information and tributes available tomorrow.

John Coltrane’s late-period music is profoundly important to me and Alice’s piano (and sometimes harp) playing is an integral element of its beauty and meaning. After John’s death in 1967, Alice went on to record a bunch of wonderful records for Impulse! including A Monastic Trio (1968), Ptah, The El Daoud (1970), Journey in Satchidananda (1970), and Universal Consciousness (1971). All of these records are readily available on nicely re-mastered CDs that are well worth hearing. In fact, I am listening to them all in chronological order as write this and they are all truly sublime.

I’m a lot less familiar with the Warner Bros. albums she made after that. I believe some of this stuff has been reissued recently and I intend to check it out.

Eventually, Alice Coltrane’s spiritual journey led her away from the commercial music world to form an ashram in California. The music that Alice Coltrane would perform in this period was purely devotional and made available only to initiates. Through my step-mother-in-law, Katie Atherton, I have a cassette tape of some of this music and it is beautiful, but strictly functional music for religious ceremony. I think I’ll dig that tape out and listen to it again. It would be interesting to further explore this “non-public” portion of Ms. Coltrane’s oeuvre.

After a 26 year long hiatus, Alice Coltrane returned to Impulse! with 2004’s Translinear Light. I would look at it at the record store, but I never bothered to pick it up - I’d read reviews that said it was a little “smooth” compared to her 70s records – but it was nice to know she was again making music, now with her sons Ravi and Avram Coltrane. I am now, belatedly, going to seek it out.

Music – art – aspires to immortality. While the artist passes away from this world, their work remains behind so that others may know that such transcendence is possible. I look forward to devoting some time to Alice Coltrane’s art and thereby celebrate her life.

Music Sales 2006

Nielsen Soundscan's Year-End Report is available here courtesy of Business Wire.

Physical album sales continue their steep decline with a -9.1% drop in units sold while digital album sales have risen a whopping 93.7%. Overall music sales are up 19.4% from 2005 due to such huge increases in download purchases and demonstrates a strong demand for music, even as the record labels are struggling with outdated business models.

What is particularly surprising about this report is that while sales of all other genres of music (except for soundtracks) are flat or down, "classical" music sales have risen a staggering 22.5% since 2005! What this all means exactly is interesting to speculate upon. Perhaps all those dire predictions of the death of classical music were a bit premature.

Fascinating stuff.


Is Music Art? (Part One)

“Everybody thought they’re listening to anti-art when they’re listening to [John] Cage. They don’t know that the reason they’re annoyed is that it’s art."

-- Composer Morton Feldman (1926-1987) to Peter Gena in a 1982 interview, Morton Feldman Says : Selected Interviews and Lectures 1964-1987, London: Hyphen, 2006, p.124).

Lizzy the Librarian forwarded to me a couple of interesting articles that reflect upon a topic I have been trying to write about, that is the problem of modern “classical” music (and modern “jazz” for that matter), its vanishingly small audience (at least in the USA), and this music’s relationship to the so-called fine arts.

Frank J. Oteri at New Music Box wrote a thoughtful essay wherein he observed how a recent MOMA retrospective of the relatively obscure, modernist (read “difficult”) painter Brice Marden drew huge crowds, while modernist music remains largely unheard in the concert halls, even in New York City. Oteri speculates on some of the reasons why the culture at large can accept the challenges of modern art in the museum, but will vehemently reject such challenges in music. He raises some essential issues and while the lively discussion that follows sometimes generates more heat than light, it is nonetheless a thought provoking read.

On the other hand, here is an example of a successful new music series in LA that has somehow managed to fill Frank Gehry’s (ultra-modernist) Disney Hall with an enthusiastic audience for concerts devoted to important contemporary composers.

Morton Feldman asked himself the question of whether or not music could be an art form and it is a serious question. Feldman’s tentative conclusion was that there are no art forms in music, only music forms - and this creates problems for the artist whose chosen medium is music.

This is a topic I hope to explore further.


North v. South

I was going to try to avoid politics on my blog, but I was surprised to find an email I sent to Dr. Eric Alterman at Altercation was recently published on his blog.

Dr. Alterman’s post to which I responded is here.

My response is here.

If you scroll down, you’ll see that I am not the only one who took offense.

I am still contemplating a response, but in the meantime, see for yourself whether or not I (and everyone else) misread Dr. Alterman’s text.


January 7, 2007

Writing About Music

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture"

It's unclear who originally uttered this infamous quote. It's been attributed to Frank Zappa, Martin Mull, and, most authoritatively, to Elvis Costello. (For an in-depth look at its cloudy citation history, go here.) In any case, it is a profoundly true and correct statement.

Alex Ross is the "classical" music critic for The New Yorker, and is one of the best dancers about architecture I've ever read. He can make me interested in music I thought was decidedly uninteresting, like say, Shostakovich, simply through his sharp erudition, enthusiasm, and eloquence. Plus he's not a snob and can write equally thought-provoking articles on, say, Bob Dylan.

Alex Ross, along with Peter Schjeldahl, who writes about "art," are the best reasons to subscribe to The New Yorker (besides the cartoons). They are the finest critics working in America today.