Saturday, July 29, 2017

Future Symphony Institute running 15 year old pieces like "Recovering the Sacred in Music". Well, they're aiming for timeless values in musical art, right? ;)

The Robert R Reilly piece in question, if memory serves, was a chapter in a book called Surprised By Beauty, a compendium of essays published in 2002 by Morley Press and more recently reissued in 2016 by Ignatius Press discussing classical music, and the essay in question was formally about a surge in what Taruskin once dubbed "holy minimalism".  In the context of Reilly's larger book-long polemic the chapter could be read as a recovery of the sacred in a somewhat different form, the idea of some kind of tonality. 

So when commenter MYNYC replies in comments "This article could have been written 15 years ago ... ."  It was, in fact, and arguably before that since it takes time to get stuff published in books. 

I read the book in its 2002 edition and I thought it was okay.  It's really conservative and leans conservative Catholic (or did getting reissued by Ignatius Press not tip that off earlier?  ;)  I like a lot of tonal music so I don't mind seeing defenses made for tonality being a compelling way to organize musical art. 

That said ... a reissue could have potentially had time to interact at least a little bit with Douglas Shadle's Orchestrating The Nation, which is a readable survey of how and why American music critics created an impassable double bind for American composers.  You either had to pay proper homage to the greatest musical legacy of all time, the Germanic lineage of Beethoven and Wagner and maybe a few others, or your music was beneath consideration.  But if it sounded like that Germanic lineage you were a lame imitator.  So the double bind would seem obvious enough there, you have to imitate but not be too imitative and arts critics would get to decide if you succeeded or failed.

Reilly may well believe John Cage was the apostle of noise but Cage's approach, as scholars like Leonard B. Meyer put it, was more a transcendentalist philosophy than an actual school of thought regarding music.  But we don't even have to take Meyer's word for it, even though he quoted Cage more than a few times.  Kyle Gann's book No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage's 4'33" gets into the philosophical ideas of Cage's work as applicable to his most notorious work.  Ben Johnston knew Cage and has said much the same thing in a book of his collected writings called Maximum Clarity.   Johnston also has stuff in that book about the mathematical defense of what he describes as extended just intonation and its debt to a composer whose works never get mentioned in the FSI scene a whole lot, Harry Partch.

Now FSI's comments section wouldn't be what it is without comments from John Borstlap, who's got a reissue of an earlier book coming out this summer that I will try to get to later.  Borstlap and the FSI team get comments that they seem to have it in for Adorno and for Schoenberg.  I'm not sure I want to recite all the back and forth of that stuff on a weekend.  Schoenberg gets the blame for abandoning tonality by formulating the twelve-tone technique and providing the basis for an incipient serialism.  Adorno ratified and sanctified twelve-tone technique as an honest way of making musical art unlike the detached and cynical chameleon-ism of Stravinsky, the fetid neo-classicism of a Hindemith, or the misguided folklorism of a Bartok. Adorno also had nothing nice to say about popular music or music as entertainment in the form of jazz.  Paradoxically Borstlap and Adorno might be on the same page about popular and vernacular styles of music but that might be a topic for some other time if I even feel like writing about that.

No, instead what I want to mention is that a potential blind spot for the Future Symphony Institute scene seems to be that there are ways of dismantling the arguments and assertions of a Schoenberg or even a John Cage not from the "right" but from the "left".  Surely someone over at the Future Symphony Institute has read Cornelius Cardew's compilation of essays Stockhausen Serves ImperialismKyle Gann's even found a place that provides the book to you for free over at Ubu. For the vehemence with which FSI writers talk about Cage on the one hand and the Marxism they ascribe to a defense of atonality via Adorno, the historical occurrence that Marxist/Maoists authors condemned John Cage's complicity with what they regarded as ruling class interests is pretty easy to document from within the writings of the left.  Even more paradoxically, Cardew and Tilbury condemned Cage's weak sauce metaphysics as being a set of ideas that man cannot live by as man and that is a concept for concept mirror from the left of what Francis Schaeffer had to say about John Cage's disconnect between his philosophy of artistic creation and the way he picked mushrooms about half a century ago.  In other words, a secularist left and a nascent religious right could both condemn John Cage's philosophical approach to music as not being the sort of idea you could really live life by. 

But, and we're getting back to Partch here, Gann's observation at his blog was that there were people who believed Schoenberg's mistake was that he simply too twelve-tone equal-tempered instrumentation as paradigmatic.  In Maximum Clarity, Ben Johnston has a few essays in which he explicitly lays out this problem--up until Arnold Schoenberg formulated dodecaphonic techniques the Western musical world was operating under assumptions about tonality and linear progressions that were indebted to a vocal tradition that predated equal-tempered tunings by centuries, i.e. the medieval through late Baroque periods.  Schoenberg was the first composer to consciously and explicitly tailor his compositional approach to equal temperament and the sonic implications of that.  Johnston's take was more generous than Borstlap's regarding Schoenberg's intents but still critical. 

While Schoenberg was right to be concerned about how trite and maudlin late Romantic music in the Germanic tradition had become, in Johnston's reading of his significance, nevertheless Schoenberg's twelve-tone approach was only a short-term solution.  In fact, as Johnston has put it, Schoenberg accelerated the complete exhaustion of possibilities in the equal-tempered system of Western music.  Johnston's own polemical claim is that we should heed the idea of Partch and go back to just intonation and be open to microtonal possibilities that are opened up by no longer presuming to teach, compose or understand music on the basis of the constraints of equal temperament.  Johnston goes so far as to assert that equal temperament is a sonic falsehood that gives us pure octaves at the expense of the purity of every single other musical interval we would otherwise have at our disposal in composing and performing music in the Western tradition.

But the Future Symphony Institute folks need to remember, or be reminded, that a binary opposition of Marxists=atonality and anti-Marxists=tonality is lazy beyond any responsible defense.  It's not like Gann hasn't identified himself as left, for instance, but he has written that the problem with composers in the West is ...


Now, I find it entirely significant that I can tell, while composing, that composers will like the piece I’m writing, and when they’re not going to like it, and that it has nothing to do with the quality of the piece. If I were really careerist, I would sit down and write another dozen abstract pieces, pieces that sound more like they just happened than were composed, like Orbital Resonance. It’s a temptation. But I don’t think non-composers automatically prefer those abstract, organic, naturally-occurring-sounding pieces, and I take the long view: I’m trying to reach a widespread audience, not just fellow professionals. This is what I mean when I say, “I don’t write my music for other composers”; what other composers mean when they say it, I have no idea, but everyone says it. Unfortunately, composers run the new-music world, and it’s composers one has to impress to get heard.

What composers value in new music differs from what most people would enjoy in it. They’re looking for a new paradigm, a new Moses, and they don’t want something that’s (as I was told at the ISCM conference in Vienna) “too much written for the audience.” They seem to want something mystifying in its aura of objectivity. As a result they exalt composers like Schoenberg above someone like Poulenc, whose music I’d prefer any day; paradigm-setters such as Stockhausen and Boulez enter history, while those who write more beautiful music, like Maderna and Pousseur, fall by the wayside. In recent years the Times has made the extraordinary gesture of running thinkpieces by composers, and after each one, 90 percent of the comments are people talking about how lousy contemporary classical music is. [emphasis added] I hear why they think so; I agree with them most of the time. I think the composing community keeps that rift alive by privileging attributes that are not necessarily virtues.  ...

If in the polemics of the Future Symphony Institute they keep talking about Cage and Schoenberg and Adorno but have no use for talking about Wyschnegradsky, one of Scriabin's acolytes, they'll be talking past ideas that suggest the mistake was to assume we're beholden to equal temperament.  Back when I was interacting with Andrew Durkin about his book he made a claim that words mean what we use them to mean.  My counter-assertion was to say that we are taught what words mean as we grow up and we are constrained to think in the realm of possibilities the meanings of those words convey to us.  It's not that Durkin is wrong and I'm right, it's that we're seeing different elements.  I would propose, however, that my concern about musicians being constrained by the pedagogical and conceptual parameters they were taught is going to be foundational to the nature of how they rebel against that pedagogy or against the nature of whatever it is they regard as cliché.  Schoenberg rebelled against what he regarded as trite and insipid in the Germanic Romantic idiom while embracing other things as given.  In Ben Johnston's take on Schoenberg, the problem was taking as given the twelve-tones of the equally tempered chromatic scale. 

Now at this point we could ask where we might expect to hear microtonally variable music within a traditionally tonal idiom and come up with a pretty ... obvious answer.  Blues and jazz on string and wind and brass instruments gave us this about a century ago and Johnston was drawn to the music of Ellington early in his life.  Who can blame him?  Certainly not me! 

Of course for we guitarists who can only afford the sorts of instruments that are built around the equally tempered twelve-tone chromatic scale Ben Johnston's microtonal explorations aren't possible for us.  Fortunately, though, Johnston's never said his approach is a "should", merely that it's one possibility that he believes can retain the vitality of the concept of tonality without being stuck in the rut of the equal tempered scale.

Gann wrote a bit about Johnston's work and theorizing over at this little post:


Theoretically speaking, Ben, like Harry Partch before him, does not take a sudden left turn from 1920, as the quarter-tone composers did, but goes back to the tuning arguments of the 16th century and starts over. For the Renaissance musician, a sharp multiplied a musical frequency by the fraction 25/24 – and so does it in Ben’s music. In Renaissance music, major triads represented a set of tones vibrating at ratios of 4, 5, and 6 – and so they do for Ben. The C major scale represented the center of the musical universe, and a take-off point for more exotic phenomena – and so it does for Ben.

What happened in the 16th century, limiting our musical resources for the next 300 years, is that a decision was made to exclude the number 7, and all larger prime numbers, from our theoretical vocabulary. Under English influence in the 15th century during Henry V’s war of occupation, French theorists were convinced to expand their tuning arsenal from 2 and 3, the octave and perfect fifth, to 5, which gave them a consonant major third as well. But when they came to the number 7, the seventh harmonic, despite the advocacy of certain intelligentsia like Nicola Vicentino and the famous mathematician Marin Mersenne, the theorists balked. [emphasis added] The victorious Zarlino insisted on the infamous senario, the numbers 1 through 6, as the basis of musical consonance. He argued by analogy on the grounds that there are six directions (up, down, right, left, forward, and backward), six zodiac signs (as long as you count only the ones visible above the horizon), six visible planetary bodies (as long  as you don’t count the Sun), and so on. That there are seven days of the week, let alone 13 full moons a year and a 19-year cycle of sun and moon phases, he seems to have conveniently overlooked. The decision was cultural, political, and even racist, besides being sixist. The hindus and arabs used prime tuning numbers larger than 5, and the good Catholics of 16th-century Italy were not going to follow the path of the heathens. And so for over 300 years, Europe and then America sweated by on  12 impoverished pitches only designed for the playing of simple triads. [emphasis added]

This was the decision that Harry Partch set out to undo in 1928 when he burned his early music in a pot-bellied stove in New Orleans and started over with the 7th and 11th harmonics. It was Ben Johnston’s contribution to create a notation in which to think musically with the 7th, 11th,
and even higher harmonics, and to pursue an expansion of acoustic-instrument performance practice with those harmonics.

This is probably not an argument that would have much warmth sent its way by the Future Symphony Institute side, or is it?  Gann mentions more directly what he regards as Ben Johnston's contribution to music theory as follows:

I’d now like to contextualize all this with reference to Ben’s quiet, little noted, but persuasive contribution as a music theorist. Though not as noisy or controversial about it as some other composers later were (notably one of his more outspoken students), he was probably, or seems so in retrospect, the first to publicly criticize serialism on theoretical grounds, and not from a conservative position, but from a radical one – not because it went too far, but because it didn’t go far enough. [emphasis added] Much later, Fred Lerdahl would write a paper about “cognitive constraints” in which he demonstrated that our brains are not wired to process permutations as musical phenomena; years later, George Rochberg would publicly stop writing 12-tone music and scandalize his colleagues by returning to Romanticism; soon, the first minimalists would return to writing in a diatonic scale. But before all of these, as early as 1959, Ben was writing about the limited intelligibility offered by an interval scale in a 12-tone context.

The trouble with an Adorno-inspired polemic against the legitimacy of tonality is that the nature of such a polemic evaporates if we simply remove the necessity of equal-tempered instruments.  Johnston's polemic, to summarize it briefly from his writings, was that the big mistake was unforeseen and the result of Western music being tethered to keyboard instruments in ways that were atypical of the larger sweep of Western musical history and theory regarding ratios between tones.  Whereas the contributors to the Future Symphony Institute regard Schoenberg in his composing and Adorno in his criticism as having thrown out the baby of tonality with the bathwater of late Romantic clichés, Johnston's counter-proposal was that equal temperament was what needed to go.  It would seem even conservative musicians who embraced the period instrument movement and other elements of early music activity got around to this idea, too.  Now Johnston had his over-the-top declarations, such as saying temperament was an acoustic lie but people said and wrote stuff like that in the 1960s and 1970s.  As he got older he seems to have nuanced that position a little, proposing that he'd found what he believed worked for him and that others could try it out, too. 

Johnston had worked with Partch enough to observe how uncompromising Partch was.  He was also able to observe that Partch was explicitly against the Western classical tradition and also explicitly anti-Christian, being the son of missionaries who went overseas and apostatized.  As easy as it might be for people who could contribute to a Future Symphony Institute article to lament the abandonment of tonality there has been slightly less written about how the Schoenberg or the Cage or the Partch that side-stepped 19th century tonality all, in different ways, embraced religious ideas that were occult or against the grain of what would now be regarded as more conventional or traditional iterations of Judeo-Christian/Abrahamic faith traditions. 

Paradoxically the Adorno-derived repudiation of tonality could be thought of as a kind of apophatic aesthetics, defined by a progressive negation of the standards of beauty from earlier eras.  This gets to Gann's next observation, about a criticism leveled at 12-tone technique articulated by George Rochberg:

I’d like to add to Ben’s critique the complementary formulation expressed by George Rochberg, another excellent 12-tone composer who decided there was something wrong with the idiom. According to Rochberg, every new era in music history took the previous era’s practice as a basis and added to it. Not until the atonal period ushered in in the 1930s, he wrote, did musicians begin to prohibit use of the resources that had served previous composers. The 12-tone style mandated an avoidance of octaves, an avoidance of triadic points of tonality, an avoidance of evident regularity. And as Rochberg wrote, an aesthetic based on negation and prohibitions cannot serve the human race for long.  ...

In the West we've had eras of changing of the guard, but the Baroque era spanned about a century and a half and the old style co-existed with the new style for some time.  It came to be known as an era with two practices.  What tonalist reactionaries and atonalist radicals (and other sorts of radicals) seem determined to avoid conceding is what Leonard B Meyer observed to be the actual musical/cultural reality, that we've arrived at a polystylistic steady state.  What's interesting about this era since ... 1967 ... is that it's not even really that new.  We had a polyglot of forms and styles without a firmly consolidated tonal/functional harmonic idiom back in the early and middle periods of the Baroque era. 

Paradoxically if the Future Symphony Institute wants to recover a philosophical basis for the viability of tonality it would sure seem as though Ben Johnston's writings took a few very big steps toward doing that; but if the goal of FSI contributors is to champion the music of a Wagnerian/Ravelian sound and defend the established canon Johnston's criticism of such a gambit would be that maintaining the museum aspects of concert music culture will probably not ensure the vitality of the tradition into future centuries. 

Now I don't just happen to think Johnston's string quartets, recorded by the Kepler quartet, are excellent works.  Having said that, I don't feel any obligation to explore microtonality in any official way.  It gets in there, inevitably, if you ever play slide guitar or play string bends or do anything ever in your life with blues or country.  Johnston has written about how pitches derived from the seventh overtone are all over blues and jazz.  Johnston's theoretical writings are interesting but for those of us who played equal-tempered instruments with keys or frets there's another avenue we can explore which is colloquially described as "fusion". 

There's probably never going to be a "fusionist" manifesto but the idea that after a century of artists insisting all the rules be broken to discover new possibilities the ideal of a fusionist might simply be to suggest that after a century of breaking every precedent that feels inhibiting there's room to consolidate everything that is fun to listen to into a new theoretical/practical paradigm.  Jazz and blues and vernacular styles can play a vital and necessary role in this process.  After all, between the end of the Classic period and the emergence of the Romantic era things like improvisation mid-performance began to be subordinated to the aims of the Romantic-era artist-as-prophet-visionary-genius. 

What I've been considering the last few years is something that has been clarified by reading Johnston's writings on music theory--Johnston pointed out that statistical methods, aleatory, microtonal variance and just intonation, there's a whole lot of stuff that avant garde composers attempted to introduce as a substitute for tonality and the clichés of Romantic era German music.  Johnston pointed out that it was about one century after equal-temperament instruments became the norm for compositional practice and theorizing in pedagogy that Schoenberg began to feel there was a crisis of an entire musical culture being kitsch.  This had never occurred in previous centuries so what was actually different in the early 20th century?  What was different, in Johnston's account of things, was tempered instruments with fixed pitches.  But where my ruminating has gone is that the individual elements avant garde composers tried to introduce into concert music to revitalize it were generally isolated components that all existed as a whole within the vernacular idioms of jazz, blues, folk, etc. 

If we live in a new era of quasi-autocratic mercantilism would we be altogether surprised if a kind of neo-Baroque era might be upon us, where polystylistic mastery is considered a value for composers and musicians?  Just an idea to consider. 

In an era in which concern about whether or not the NEA will still exist and whether or not arts funding has its blind alleys and prejudices I can't help but wonder about the "symphony" part of Future Symphony Institute.  I've stuck with composing for the guitar because, as guitarists the world over like to say, the guitar is a miniature orchestra.  One of the complaints I had about Robert R Reilly's book was that he could devote a chapter to Heitor Villa-Lobos and never once mention that Villa-Lobos was a guitarist.  While guitar music and guitarists have seemed so marginal to the Western literate musical tradition Richard Taruskin casually said the instrument was never, basically, part of that tradition, we're in a period where at least four guitarists have completed cycles of preludes and fugues for solo guitar.  I know, I keep beating this drum, but in an era of precarious arts funding we might want to learn from Heinrich Schutz and preserve a way of musical thinking in the idioms most available to us rather than writing for a symphony whose funding might get gutted by a government policy or a city disaster ... .

Anyway, back to this recurring thing of whipping on Schoenberg as though people still care who he is outside the confines of academic musicology ... .

Johnston's theoretical writings about music are fascinating to me because, besides being interesting explications of how and why he believes we should return to just intonation and explore a tonality based on a recovered sense of non-tempered tuning in performance practice as a foundation for compositional exploration, his critique of Schoenberg can be applied to Adorno's subsequent lionization of Schoenberg's approach.  There was never any inherent need to divide the octave into twelve-equal steps beyond solving a practical issue in keyboard design.  The thrust of Johnston's most polemical statement, that temperament itself is predicated on an acoustic lie, inverts the direction of Adorno's polemics against a continuation of tonality.  The musical lie is no longer those who would seek to maintain a tonality based on the actual overtone series but would, instead, be those who insist that the "honest" approach to composition is based on an equal-tempered scale with twelve chromatic steps within each octave where the only purely tuned intervals are any given octave and none of the other intervallic relationships within that scale

The Future Symphony Institute, in a sense, wastes time any and every time it attempts to make Schoenberg the perpetrator of some kind of attack on tonality because, as Ben Johnston argued, Schoenberg was the first composer to take the equal-tempered chromatic scale as a given and explicitly compose music based on that scale, rather than doing what had been done for centuries before in the West in which composers and musicians made do with the equal-tempered chromatic scale as the best way to approximate musical thinking that was really carrying on idioms and ratio relationships drawn from a tradition that aspired to just intonation in musical relationships and forms. 

But because the Partch/Johnston/microtonal tradition doesn't seem to fit into an anti-Schoenbergian narrative of the sort Future Symphony Institute authors seem set on running with, it isn't on the table for them, even if it should turn out that the microtonalist critique of atonality manages to articulate a clearer basis for rejecting atonality as a binding set of rules than traditionalists managed to articulate.  And this gets to a problem Leonard B Meyer's writing about the Romantic composers indirectly addresses--the Romantic era composers talked a lot of big talk about how genius is not bound by the petty constraints of tradition but seeks to discover and become.  What?  Well, joy in the journey I suppose.  Meyer's observation about the Romantic era composers was that they spent a lot more time talking about how they were going to shake off the shackles of fusty traditions than they did actually innovating.  Meyer proposed that if you look at what John Cage was doing in strictly expressed ideological terms he was, really, the most Romantic of all Romantic composers.  To be sure his music doesn't sound Romantic!  But if you look at his ideological aims as an artist and compare that to what the Romantic era pundits on music said they wanted music to do and what they believed ambitious musicians ought to do, then Cage was the most Romantic of all Western composers.

As Richard Taruskin would later put it, if a bit more implicitly than what I'm about to write here, John Cage was a scandal to the music establishment because he was the reduction ad absurdum of the artist as holy iconoclastic genius negating conventions that earlier epochs of concert music paid lip service to.  Cage was paradoxically embodying the far out point of a Beethovenian mode of artistic visionary genius.  And if contributors to the Future Symphony Institute read all five volumes of Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music they'll have already read that observation.

Not everyone who is an advocate for traditional concert music who is more or less conservative does so from a belief that the German idealists were actually a good paradigm to follow.  I've been fairly explicitly anti-Romantic and anti-transcendentalist in my outlook my whole adult life.  I adore music from the Renaissance and the Baroque era.  I also adore music from the high modernist era of the 20th century.  I really, seriously, enjoy string quartets by Xenakis.  And I love blues and jazz and ragtime and ... country if it's by people born before 1960 like Johnny Cash or Hank Williams Sr.  I believe that for the rest of us who aren't exploring microtonality one of the crises of musical culture in the West has been aptly summed up by Richard Taruskin as a seemingly impassable gulf between the repertoire canon (what people are willing to pay money to hear in concert) and the academic canon (what college professors at officially respectable schools say is respectable music). 

What I suspect may be a dead end for both the entrenched avant gardists who think Schoenberg is under-appreciated and the Future Symphony Institute authors who reject and abject popular styles is overlooking that we've got a long history in Western music of composers who managed to play music for the high and the low as "bridge" composers.  In the 18th century Haydn played in street bands and became a court musician.  In the 20th century Villa-Lobos played in street bands and composed more than a dozen string quartets.  Shostakovich got an early start playing film music.  Some of the writers over at New Music Box have claimed genres don't exist.  I have, as I've said multiple times, believe that all those genres really exist but that the boundaries between those genres are all permeable.  I would like us to explore a musicology that recognizes and explores the permeability of all those boundaries rather than trafficking in policing the purity of the genres that people simultaneously claim do not exist but that can somehow still be rigidly and stringently policed.

It's not going to be for everybody but I think Gann made a case that Ben Johnston's theoretical writings about extended just intonation could open up a path to a revitalized sense of tonality in which, as Johnston put it, traditional tonality can be considered a subset of a larger, vaster realm of musical possibilities that we can continue to explore.  For those of us in the equal-tempered scene I think the possibilities we have before us sound more like explorations of correspondence in developmental and formal syntactics at the level of gestural manipulation, a la the writings of George Rochberg or the formal surveys of sonata forms by Hepokoski & Darcy.  We live in an era in which ragtime sonatas are possible but they won't be possible if people who reject tonality on the one hand and people who deny that the vernacular and the high art idioms can interact have their way.  The anti-Adorno can end up being like Adorno about pop music, after all. 

I had planned to write more this weekend, actually, but this seems like enough for the time being.

Maybe 5,000 words is enough for a day. And to think when I started writing this it was supposed to be links for the weekend ... .