And Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, New Years! I missed last month's newsletter because of all those things ^, so this one will have to be extra good.
[CHECK OUT NEW MUSIC: Especially, "glimpses through clouded glass" - a meditative collection of six pieces (an EP) recorded at CalArts before break in collaboration with the wonderfully talented Drew Corey (voice). If you listen, I would suggest wearing headphones and turning up your volume a bit. A description can be found on the SoundCloud playlist description. And if you'd like to see the scores, I'd be happy to email them to you.
New Collection of Works (available for download):
glimpses through clouded glass
New string quartet:
impressions of a four-handed clock
Alright! First off, I am back from the East Coast and am getting settled back in Valencia. It was a great break of seeing family, friends, traveling to Boston, Maine, reading, playing some guitar, and, most importantly, not doing too much work. Before I get into what's up for the spring, however, I'm going to take a little (ok, maybe bigger) detour.
And it starts with this:
Music is made to be listened to.
...And then there's the other side:
"Who cares if you listen?"
The second one is in quotes because it is the title of a (in)famous article written by Milton Babbitt, a real titan of the 20th century academic avant-garde musical scene. There is a lot more to the Babbitt quote, and many articles in support, arguing against, and clarifying what he meant by that bold statement - and all of it is too much to go into here. BUT, it is interesting because it provides a dilemma that I face with each piece I write: am I making something that people can listen to? How much of the "listenability" am I sacrificing by staying true to my original concept of the piece? Do those two things have to be in conflict or should listenability and concept be in harmony (pun intended, ha ha)? And to quickly clarify: I very much align with the first statement - music is made to be listened to. And then to quickly complicate that: what is "listenability"? I guess it is easy to say what it is not: take the Psycho theme and repeat it for 5 minutes - that's not very listenable.... Well, to complicate thatfurther, there was just an article from NPR showing that Pygmies did not find the Psycho theme stressful or scary at all (http://www.npr.org/blogs/goatsandsoda/2015/01/09/375418410/why-pygmies-arent-scared-by-the-psycho-theme). Okay. So taking for granted we are talking about the Western ideal of listenability, it is still impossible to define it: it is subjective. You like Mozart, I like Billie Holiday, she likes Tupac, he likes T-Swift. On and on. But there is something to be said for this: more people like the four artists above than, say, Stockhausen. Because, well, Stockhausen is not the most listenable composer in the world. So, although the word listenable is a slippery one, it does havesome traction.
It seems, for me at least, that when an abstract concept or a systematic method for composing takes over, it comes in conflict with the music's accessibility and listenability. And, more often than not, I begin my pieces with concepts or systems. Equally as often, I get tired of the system, or feel confined by it, or unhappy with its aural results, and I break it down. I think it is because I feel I need something to hold onto when I'm starting (rules), but then after following them, all I want to do is get rid of them and see what happens.
And that, I think, vaguely illustrates the hard-to-define divide between avant-garde music and experimental music. One is more concerned with the structure and a systematic approach to composition (how it is made - and often, the complexity of how it is made) and the other with setting sounds in motion and allowing them to develop naturally (the natural, non-judged result). Experimental is about de-packing the sounds and avant-garde is about packaging them and walking the listener through the structure on a pre-determined path. Experimental wants to expose the sounds as they are in their natural complexity, allowing unseen relationships to develop, and avant-garde wants to integrate the sounds and create balanced, pre-determined relationships. Neither, of course, is overly concerned with sounding accessible (read: something I'd listen to after a long day, when driving in the car, etc.). A good story to demonstrate the experimental side of things is a conversation Cage had with composer Morton Feldman: after looking over the score of one of Feldman's early string quartets, Cage asked, "How did you make this?" To which Feldman quietly replied: "...John, I don't know how I made it." Instead of being disappointed or critical, Cage was ecstatic. If Feldman had said that to one of the avant-garde, say Boulez, the score would likely have been deemed garbage.
So, should music be concerned with how it is made? Or how it allows something surprising and unique to develop? Or how it explores new sounds, textures, timbres, relationships, the audience, the performer even? And should music be concerned with listenability, with accessibility? What is listenable enough? And where the hell does my stuff fit in. Luckily, it is still very much evolving. Right now, I guess I float between the need for the 'how it's made' complexity of the avant-garde and the perhaps stronger desire to blow all of that up and see what happens. I find myself between wanting to ignore whether or not my music sounds accessible and listenable, while very much wanting it to be listened to and enjoyed.
Yet maybe there is something past that kind of age-old dichotomy of rules vs. breaking the rules. Maybe the listenability question should be re-framed to ask whether or not the music has 'experience-ability' - or in other words, music should be experienced and have the potential to elicit a profound effect on the experiencer. Maybe, call it, "fuzzy listening." Cage predicted the 'mainstream' river of music was splitting into many small rivers, and that soon, it would flow into a massive delta beyond the concept of 'rivers' (imagine a picture of a lot of small rivers spreading out and unfocus your eyes... becomes a fuzzy looking delta right?).
And maybe, in that delta is where the listenability and accessibility will come. Because, at the end of the day, music is made to be listened to.