Assembling an anthem, with assistance from Whitman
July 3, 2017
"An Die Musik" premiered in Fredonia
December 4, 2017
Witness for the prosecution: 10 thoughts on Volans
July 6, 2016
The avenues of social media where new music reside have been afire the past 24 hours with the sudden notice of a speech given by the composer Kevin Volans (I say "sudden" because it's dated mid-June of this year). Volans speaks to issues that, to me, are at the heart of the creative endeavor: notions of composition as an art form, and the pursuit of such within the greater cultural quagmire of entertainment and commerce. I struggled about whether or not to reply at all. However, in the wake of widespread rejection by my fellow "emerging" composers (a term which always reminds me of the end of the film "Carrie"), I'd like to offer 10 thoughts, responses, etc - if, for no other reason than to throw the curve and offer a dissenting voice within the choir of young composers and musicians who think that Volans offers nothing more than an outmoded, cane-shaking "get-off-my-lawn" aesthetic admonishment, and is thus way off-base and flat-out wrong.
Spoiler alert: I happen think he's pretty much right about the big picture of new music these days.
Okay, 10 things:
(1) Volans starts by referring to the '84 Darmstadt lecture given by Morton Feldman. This already sends up red flags for a lot of young composers: Darmstadt, the 80s, the word "lecture" - all of which are neon blinking signals that, depending upon who you ask, should remind us that •THIS•HAS•NOTHING• TO•DO•WITH•MY•MUSIC•. If you've never read the Feldman lecture, it's great, and you can read it here. (Trigger warning: if you were offended by Volan's gentle, fatherly tough-love contextualizations, you'll probably hate Feldman because his rhetorical style is no-bullshit-no-nonsense and I have spent more than one afternoon wondering what his pedagogical reaction would have been to the current new music climate, and how much of that reaction would involve actual physical violence which, if you know what Morton Feldman looks like, is a funny visual.)
(2) On the distinction between art vs. entertainment: There's always a sort of Oedipal knee-jerk rejection of this pretty uncomplicated idea when it's issued by a successful person in our own field. Why so offended? When Susan Sontag says it about film, or when David Foster Wallace proclaims "entertainment provides relief; art provokes engagement" we all nod and scribble it devotedly into our Moleskins. Then John Adams says it and who the HELL IS THIS GUY TO TELL US ABOUT MUSIC HE DOESN'T EVEN KNOW ME... (etc. etc.) Relax and realize that it's a valid distinction to be made - especially if you're motivated to create because you have something passionate and sincere to communicate. Which isn't to say that it can't be both art and entertainment, but it doesn't need to be.
(3) In about 20 years, I predict some enterprising graduate musicology student will undertake an investigation on the relationship between the creative arts and the self-esteem/"trophy kid" movement in elementary and secondary education. I'm throwing that future musicologist a major bone: look closely at the discourse of these past few days. This may seem like a cheap shot, but I'm not making this up. My mother's a teacher. My brother's a teacher. His wife is a teacher. Her mother is a teacher. My aunt is a teacher. My girlfriend's parents are both teachers, and among her many talents, my girlfriend has been a teacher, too. I almost forgot - I'm a teacher. My best friend growing up is a teacher, and his wife's a teacher. Come to think of it, most of my friends are teachers. None of us, spanning disparate levels of instruction and subject matter, would dispute that the syndrome of "participation certificates" have had a huge effect on the attitudes of creativity and imagination among the coming-of-age generation - not completely, but it's sure there. Look no farther than some of the "rebuttals" of Volans' words on social media.
(4) Like I said at the top, I agree with pretty much most of what Volans has to say about new music - although, I'm not always sold on the rhetorical approach he takes (see below). But there's a few lines that stick out to me as being wholeheartedly representative of my sentiments and values regarding the compositional art. Here's two of them:
"I do not believe that popularising art creates a public for serious work. There is no 'trickle down' effect."
also, casting a critical eye towards...
Labelling and Endorsing. All of which comes back to the same thing: Bums on Seats. Not, how can we further music as an art, how can the audience have a transformative experience, but how do we drag them in to make enough money to cover our costs.
If, for whatever reason, you consider Kevin Volans an unreliable narrator, then I'd be remiss (yet again, and apologies to my friends who know what's coming) in not quoting Leoš Janáček:
Do not toil for recognition, but always do all you can, so that the field allotted to you may prosper. (1925).
(5) With tangential regard to the above Volans quote: I don't discount the necessity of proper entrepreneurial training for apprentice artists in all creative pursuits. But I, like Volans (if I interpret what he's saying here correctly) am concerned with what's perceived to be a shift in the focus of training for young composers, away from an emphasis on craft, on craftsmanship, and fostering curiosity of the creative culture in which they seek to be contributors, and towards merely developing a quick-implementation of a thriving commercial enterprise which treats concern for the inherent quality of the product as... dare I say it... secondary. In other words, "PR before Product", or "doesn't matter what you write, somebody out there is interested in performing it!". Which is not to say I don't think young composers should avoid presentation of their works in the pursuit of some standardized perfection - but, again, the concern here is a focus on artistic and imaginative growth, rather than facilitating career achievement.
(6) As far as I'm concerned, writing a longer (20 min+) piece is all sorts of more challenging than writing a shorter (5ish min) piece. But that's me, and everybody's different, and that's not Volans' point, as I see it. He's emphasizing that if a composer focuses on the small canvas, they do themselves a disservice by not fostering/executing the unique skills it takes to create on a large canvas. What puzzles me is why Volans chose to focus on the abstract issue of the real-time length of a piece, and not what occurs to me easily as a much bigger issue in the aesthetic transgressions of much new music: the relationship of a work's form to its content. I could abstractly say that for every piece of recently-composed music clocking in at 20 minutes that I found to be well-crafted, I've heard at least 5x that many long pieces that didn't manage the material well within the form of the work. The form/content issue is one of my big recurring new-music complaints, and one that I think easily transcends style or genre. If something seems too long, or too short, given its material, that's a problem. [Postscript: For those who cited Webern as an example of "short pieces being just as hard as long pieces", I'm guessing you have little to no opinion of the issue raised above, because the form/content balance of Webern's music is both so staggeringly present and so staggeringly masterful that to cite him in effort to refute Volan's point is just wacky.]
(7) Volans' line about football was weird, I'll admit it.
(8) On the other hand, I thought his points regarding concert presentation were pretty good. Here I'll own up to being born in the wrong generation. It drives me effing BONKERS when concerts (as most do these days) are deliberately designed to come across as haphazard, spontaneous affairs involving performers who (willingly or unwillingly) give off the appearance of not realizing or caring that an assembled crowd of ticket-paying arts consumers are there to be offered a specialty. There's just something about that hipster irreverence which does disservice to this particular audience member's experience. I think of how comedian Bill Burr made fun of Steve Job's keynote presentations: "walking out there in sneakers and no belt like it was no biggie!" I know, I know, this is really starting to make me sound curmudgeonly unhip. But seriously, tie your damn shoes and tuck your damn shirt in. Or, if you want to be untucked, iron the damn thing. It makes the music sound better. I don't know why. Maybe my elementary chorus teacher was right all those years ago:
"Stand up straight! People listen with their eyyyyyyes". (Emphasis on eyyyyyyes...).
If you've just broken out in a sweat, take a second, reread that paragraph, and realize I never once used the terms "tuxedo", "clapping between movements", or "institutions".
(9) Here's a Volans quote:
"Art is not democratic, and resources should not be spread thinly. Simply the best can survive. If we wish to create larger audiences for New Music we must focus on quality not quantity."
which, for the life of me, I cannot understand why anybody involved in the arts would disagree with it. Can somebody provide me with empirical proof that this is not simply the way things are; and if not, can somebody make a valid argument for an alternative that extends beyond "Old dude just doesn't get us. We're great".
(I don't want it to seem as though I'm simplifying the opposing viewpoint - although you have to understand that I'm exercising tremendous restraint in not further detailing much of the vociferous criticism I've seen online and calling it for what it is: pretty shallow ad hominem arguments with the predictable antiphonal-choir calls of "elitism" which sound their voices any time the planets of new music, academia, and the names Stockhausen and Boulez enter periapsis).
(10) To close, I'll return to the art vs. entertainment idea, with a quote from the pater familias of this whole aesthetic brouhaha, Morton Feldman (from the Darmstadt Lecture):
"I’ve spoken to a few of you here and a very, very serious problem is that you don’t know how to consult for criticism. You don’t know how to study with anybody. You bring something, you want to get some opinion, you get some opinion, you immediately don’t want to hear it. And so it’s overly defensive..."
"So what I’m really trying to say is how do you represent history? How close to a model do you move? How much is really needed? What are the leaps that you yourself could make? How have you used the model? What questions do you use about the model?"
Let me speak personally. I'm used to feeling out-of-the-loop within the New Music enclave-at-large, for the reasons highlighted above. I knew I was in trouble when I read the Volans article and thought "yep, he's hit in on the head", and then turned to social media and saw the widespread, Olympian outrage. I just don't feel slighted in the way many of my emerging composer colleagues do. Why? Maybe it's because I had mentors who consistently challenged me - not just so that I'd be a more competitive player in the high stakes game of creative capital, but because I understood that, like it or not, I was part of a creative tradition that was much bigger that I could have ever fully comprehend and to be part of that tradition was both a humbling honor and a real responsibility. (Do I have to drop the Janáček quote here again?). I know some composers who disregard the reality of that tradition, out of indifference or, (in a few cases) fear and denial, and their creative output reflects it, for better or worse.
Volans begins where I'll end:
"Feldman believed, as many generations before him, and some after him, that art was not to be confused with entertainment. That music has its own evolving philosophy, its own internal intellectual processes and developments, that are not commensurable with the desires of an audience. Indeed, as the person responsible not just for his own work, but for the art of composition itself, the composer should at the very least aspire to a higher level of musical education and appreciation than the audience. What Feldman implied by his statement is that the composer needs to write the next logical piece in her or his own oeuvre but which also will be a contribution to the art of composition."
"Contributing to the art of composition" is why I do what I do. I'm fully aware that my contributions may be ineffective or meaningless or granular in its overall offering to the idea of what a work of musical art can be. But, as a result of the environs of my development, my acculturation, and the essence of what moves me humanly, I consciously attempt to contribute nonetheless. In the words of a trusted friend and artist:
"There is an ongoing, eternal conversation spanning generation upon generation of artists; by engaging with them on their terms, one has the opportunity to further that conversation."
It saddens me when I get the feeling, as I did seeing the response to Volans' speech, that many among the few of us who still take up this challenge have somewhat lost their way from what I consider to be one of the noblest undertakings the mind can make. But I'm also not alone: there are a handful of comrades who I consider to be virtuosic listeners - those whose have an awareness of music-making, both past and present, that is remarkably comprehensive - and we're in basic agreement on the state of new music nowadays. So we continue on, tending to our little patches of green grass as best we can, and hoping each day brings it a bit more daylight. I want to create in congress with that ongoing, eternal conversation. It's a lawn, and it's mine, and if you don't agree...