Sunday, July 4, 2010

PA Arts Sunday - An Auspicious Concert at Out North & Reflections on "Good" Music and "Bad" Music

I. Out North's new artistic director, Scott Schofield, was very pleased at the end of his first full day of work. There had been a reception in one of the galleries for him and others, shortly before Juneau's CrossSound Festival performed a midsummer concert of recent works in the building's theater. But the excitement of the concert and the enthusiastic response of the audience certainly made his day complete.

I've been to most of CrossSound's Anchorage concerts over the years. They have rarely sold out. This one did, though, and the crew at Out North even had to bring in several dozen chairs to put all around the stage for the overflow.

A combination of circumstances contributed to the large, enthusiastic crowd. Most were there to listen to and observe Chinese pipa virtuoso, Wu Man. Others were Out North regulars. Some were fans of CrossSound. Some were my students or former students. I've performed with CrossSound in the past, and have received three commissions from them (Two Rivers, Nice Work, Kid - Don't Come Back! and Shards II). I've strongly urged my students to go to CrossSound events in Anchorage. There is so little new music presented in southcentral Alaska, it is a shame.

Anchorage blogger Steve Aufrecht, a longtime staunch supporter of Out North, was there. He wrote a detailed review, with many photos.

II. Steve's review asks, "What makes good music?" He asked that question of me, and of several others, after the concert. Steve writes:

Now I happen to enjoy music that doesn't follow our standard conceptions of music, but I did begin to ask myself, how does one determine whether this is 'good?' Later I asked several of the music professors there variations of this question - is there a difference that you could notice between a piece like this and something someone like me with almost no formal musical knowledge could produce in Garageband?

One said, "Maybe, maybe not."

Another responded, "How do you know if food is good?"

I was one of the people Steve questioned on this matter of aesthetics. My main subject at UAA is music appreciation, and my job is to get people to learn the fundamentals of what to listen for in any music, from any genre, ancient to modern. Steve's curiosity is well known, and nobody seemed taken aback by his search for meaning in music that is both difficult to listen to and difficult to describe. I look up to Steve in many ways, so I was brief, to avoid going into my lecture mode. Steve goes on:

Does it even make sense to talk about good here? Some of these pieces seemed to be more experiments in sound and silence which deliberately attempted to do things that were beyond the normal rules musicians might follow. Whether the intent was to see what they could get by violating such rules or these pieces were in them and they simply had to write them even if they didn't follow standard musical expectations or something in between, I don't know. I didn't think of that question until later.

Too bad Steve didn't ask me that, as it seemed to me each of the compositions followed a set of rules. Not all pieces shared the same rules, though. Steve spoke at length with Japanese composer Yoriko Hase Kojima. The concert, titled The Oort Cloud, was named after her 2000 composition, originally written for an early CrossSound concert, and performed again Wednesday. Here's Steve's description of part of their conversation:

One form of good, as one of the music professors suggested, would simply be whether the musicians actually played what the composer had written. And that was another question I'd had while listening to The Oort Cloud because the composer was in the audience. Since she was there, I wanted to ask her if there were any points where she went, "Oh no, they missed that"?

She smiled at my question and said, no, they did it very well and she was very pleased with the performance. She had flown in from Tokyo and was headed back the next day.

But that begs the question of whether the piece itself is 'good.' This music forces one to confront the socially constructed nature of good. How much is good simply related to what we are used to? Asian music such as Chinese opera isn't something that most Westerners can appreciate on first hearing it. What if we had heard this sort of music all our lives? It would sound totally normal. One professor said he'd need to listen to it several times to start getting a sense of it.

Yoriko is right. They did her magnificent composition justice, as with the rest of the evening's fare. One of the things I stressed when Steve was questioning me on the aesthetics of the music and "What makes music good?" was that each of us react to music in a different way, and react differently to a piece each time we hear it. That's how subjective music is. Music is nothing unless it is both being played and being heard.

People enjoy most the music that reinforces their own belief system. One sees examples of this all the time. The Anchorage Symphony, for instance, is attended mostly by a fairly conservative audience of older people who expect the music they help support to validate their feelings not just about music, but about society. They might put up with some dissonance in the sound of the music itself, but they find it hard to handle the cognitive dissonance of music that projects an idea through its program they feel is objectionable.

My own experience with that sociological phenomenon and that particular ensemble dates back to 1989, when the ASO performed my Chugach Symphony. That performance contained a new slow movement I had recently composed about the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Titled Sphinx Island Elegy, the piece was my reaction to the devastation the spill had caused to my favorite place in the world.

That particular October 1989 concert and my work was sponsored by Exxon, and the work itself introduced by that year's head of the symphony's board, Don Cornett, who was also in charge of Exxon Alaska at the time. That's Don Cornett of the famous "We will make you whole!" statement to a crowd of bewildered Cordovans, in early April of that year.

The symphony's Executive Director, Helen Howarth, was besieged in the week leading up to the concert by ASO supporters who were either oil company employees or their spouses. She and the ASO were accused of betraying their main supporters by presenting my new work. I walked into the ASO office one morning that week, to see Helen in tears over her most recent call. After she explained, I told her, "I love seeing a beautiful woman crying over my music, but not like this."

After the concert, several people from the audience came up to talk to me or to thank me. One Veco guy I knew flipped me off. But another oil company employee, who I didn't know, came up to me with tears in his eyes. He had been deeply involved in the cleanup from day one through the preceding week. He thanked me heartily, saying that hearing my music brought him in touch with his feelings for the first time since before the spill. He gave me a big hug.

In 2007, the ASO presented John Luther Adams' short masterpiece, Dark Wave. I recommended the concert to my students. Many attended, writing term papers about the concert. One student, a USAF airman who had recently returned from his second tour of Afghanistan, told me that John's piece had that same effect. He wrote convincingly about how listening to it helped him get back in touch with repressed emotions. His moving description of the music's richness was longer than the piece itself.

In September 2009, CrossSound performed at UAA. About 35 of my students attended that concert. One was a young man, recently released from the Marines, and just back from Iraq, where he had been subjected to a traumatic brain injury from a bomb explosion to his humvee. Upon hearing Matt Burtner's Broken Drum, for brake drum and computer, the young man vaulted across rows of chairs, running from the recital hall. The music had hurt his brain, and brought images of the deaths of his comrades in the explosion to the fore.

The first reaction a dear friend had, upon hearing me play I Had No Mercy for Anybody, was "This should never be played!"

IV. Perhaps the most infamous concert review by a hostile critic was that believed to have been penned by Josef Stalin after he had attended a performance of Dmitri Shostakovich's opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The review included the phrase "This is playing at things beyond reason that can end very badly." When Shostakovich read those words at a train station the morning after the performance, he was terrified. The only thing that kept him from being liquidated was the simple fact that he was Stalin's favorite film music composer.

Up until Stalin's review, the Communist cultural apparatchiks assumed Shostakovich's opera was "good" music, and it was in production in Leningrad, Moscow, and elsewhere in the USSR, as well as abroad. But the review instantly made it "bad" music. All performances and productions were instantly cancelled inside the USSR.

Shostakovich's solution to his ostacism by the Soviet cultural hierarchy was to write no more operas. He stated several times in later years that "words can get you into trouble."

Back in late 2003, the Anchorage Concert Chorus presented Benjamin Britten's War Requiem. The Iraq War had just started that spring. The concert producers felt obliged to apologize for the work's subject matter, saying that it had been scheduled for performance before the commencement of our "liberation" of Iraq.

Was it the music itself that was troubling? No, it was the magnificent poetry of Wilfred Owen. The work ends with this poem, Strange Meeting:

It seemed that out of the battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped

Through granites which Titanic wars had groined.

Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,

Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.

Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared

With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,

Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.

And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall;

With a thousand fears that vision's face was grained;

Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,

And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.

"Strange, friend," I said, "Here is no cause to mourn."

"None," said the other, "Save the undone years,

The hopelessness.
Whatever hope is yours,

Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,

Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,

But mocks the steady running of the hour,

And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.

For by my glee might many men have laughed,

And of my weeping something has been left,

Which must die now.
I mean the truth untold,

The pity of war, the pity war distilled.

Now men will go content with what we spoiled.

Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress,

None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery;

Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery;

To miss the march of this retreating world

Into vain citadels that are not walled.

Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels

I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.

I would have poured my spirit without stint

But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.

Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned

Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.

I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now . . ."

Not exactly "Mission Accomplished" stuff, is it.

V. There isn't a lot of agreement on what makes good music, or on what makes music good. There is more agreement on what can make music bad, or on what is bad music.

Here's a link to Alaska Rep. Bob Lynn, addressing a joint session of the Legislature, explaining why my music is bad, in a speech titled "
There’s “good” music, and there’s “bad” music."

Bob's a musician, a very good baritone saxophone player. His reasoning is that my music is bad because it doesn't support his vision of where an artist may comfortably go in a free society. He wasn't criticizing my choice of chords, of orchestration or the difficulty of the music. He was criticizing the program of the work. Like Stalin before him, Lynn wants to narrow the range of what artists feel they can comfortably address in their music.

Rock critic and sociologist, Simon Frith wrote a chapter titled "What is Bad Music," to a collection of musical essays in 2004, called "Bad Music: The Music We Love to Hate." In Frith's article, he lists criteria for "bad" music:

  • "Tracks which are clearly incompetent musically; made by singers who can't sing, players who can't play, producers who can't produce,"
  • "Tracks involving genre confusion. The most common examples are actors or TV stars recording in the latest style,"

and "rock critical lists," which include:

  • "Tracks tat feature sound gimmicks that have outlived their charm or novelty,"
  • "Tracks that depend on false sentiment (...), that feature an excess of feeling molded into a radio-friendly pop song."

He later gives three common qualities attributed to bad music: inauthentic, [in] bad taste (see also: kitsch), and stupid. He argues that "The marking off of some tracks and genres and artists as 'bad' is a necessary part of popular music pleasure; it is a way we establish our place in various music worlds. And 'bad' is a key word here because it suggests that aesthetic and ethical judgements are tied together here: not to like a record is not just a matter of taste; it is also a matter of argument, and argument that matters.

Other aestheticians have tried to describe music in terms similar to "good" or "bad." The context of bad, along with Frith's and Lynn's and Stalin's, can include music that can harm the performer. The lead male singing part to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde was once believed to be so demanding it killed the first man to sing it, Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld. No matter what kind of music one listens to, playing it too loud, especially on headphones, can cause physical, irreversible harm to the ear. That is bad.

The simplest descriptions of musical aesthetics generally concentrate on the positive rather than negative aspects of listening to and appreciating works. Simply put:

It is commonly believed that human responses to music are culturally influenced. For example, musical passages in
Beethoven that sounded highly dissonant to his contemporaries do not sound dissonant to listeners today. As such, music's aesthetic appeal seems highly dependent upon the culture in which it is practiced. However, there is a physical background which defines sound being proper or improper. Proper sound is perceived as gentle sound while improper sound is more or less considered nice sounding depending on what the listener is used to listen to.

Plato proposed in The Republic that music is such a powerful component of the destiny of the human soul, that the state had a duty to regulate it, and to prohibit "bad" music. Right now, there is an ongoing battle to either encourage or discourage artists from performing in Israel, because of its apartheid practices in Gaza and the West Bank. A successful cultural boycott of South Africa in the late 70s and early 80s, was instrumental in raising awareness of the institutionalized racism of that close ally of Israel, and whose "Bantustans" Israel is so ardently replicating.

Last year I stopped using a text for my classes by Israeli musicologist and performer Roger Kamien. I kept using the book for four years after being told that he and his wife live in housing on land stolen from the Palestinians in East Jerusalem. Essentially, his text is the best there had been (until some very recent publications) up through World War I. But, partially because of the culture he has become a part of, his coverage of most of the 20th Century and beyond is flawed. He profoundly misunderstands new developments in popular music, especially in the third world, and views popular trends from the unavoidably weird perspective of a conformist Israeli cultural academic.

VI. I'll conclude with reflecting on Steve's observations on the auspicious first day at work for Scott Schofield. Here's what Steve wrote about Scott's welcoming remarks before the concert:

Preparation for the performance began just as he arrived at OutNorth. His introduction Wednesday was a pleasure to listen to. His words were good, his delivery fluent, and he effortlessly rotated to acknowledge the audience members sitting behind him on the stage. (See, there are some things I feel have some basis for evaluating.) We're lucky to have him here and I look forward to continuing great nights like Wednesday at OutNorth.

I completely agree. Hopefully, Scott's enthusiasm will help bring more new music to Out North. Anchorage and southcentral Alaska have never had live performances of many of the main masterpieces of the 20th and 21st century canon of music. Composers like Anton Webern, Arnold Schoenberg, John Cage, Harry Partch, Henry Cowell, Karlheinz Stockhausen or Alfred Schnittke have seldom been represented here. The list of masterpieces never heard in Alaska is quite long. If Out North is interested in producing more work by these and other masters, I'd love to help.

It would be good music.

images - Scott Schofield, by Steve; Jocelyn Clark and Wu Man, by PA

1 comment:

jay in uk said...

Thanks for this, Phil. With all that Scott has to do, let's hope he can support new music as well. All the best to you all.