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Soundpieces 2: A Brief Look

by William Harris

     Having just read through, or rather waded through, the 550 pages of Cole Gagne's book, Soundpieces 2: Interviews with American Composers. . . 1993, I thought it might be good to do a brief review of this work, and add a few comments which came to mind. Briefly, the book is a set of extended interviews with Glen Branca, Anthony Braxton, Lucia Dlugoszewski, Lou Harrison, Alan Hovhaness, Anne LeBaron, Moondog, Pauline Oliveros, Terry Riley, Ned Rorem, Laurie Spiegel, Morton Subotnick, Sun Ra, John Tenney, 'Blue' Gene Tyranny, Christian Wolff, LaMonte Young and John Zorn. The range is wide in age, from Hovhaness born in 1911 to several from the early 1950's, and the range of musical ideas is equally wide.

     I noticed in many of the talks a strong urge to get at something real, something basic and urgent, which in the case of Hovhaness stems from Armenia. In a number of others who were maturing in the 1950's this points to the redoubtable John Cage and his wake, in other cases to sources outside this country, whether Indian music and apprenticeship to an Indian master, or absorbing the sound and modes of the Pacific Rim.

     Of course this matches the general personal voyaging of thirty years ago, the suspicion that the desiccated Western world had much to garner abroad. And it worked. It brought a wave of new sounds and new thoughts about what music should be, which were absorbed quietly into the American scene. Immigration and the melting pot did not cease in this country, they merely shifted from persons to ideas.

     The orientation of the interviews is retrospective. Each interview starts with a compressed biography and how the composer first started into music, so a great deal of each chapter is reminiscence. But these composers are unusually articulate people, especially about their lives and their views, and the interviewer is sharp in eliciting the history of their thoughts as their music developed. There is so much significant detail that I can only point you to the book and note that I found it absorbing.

     Some of the people are historical landmarks: Lou Harrison and others went back to early Cage and Schoenberg confrontations. When Harrison showed Schoenberg some of his work, its intricacies and technicalities, Schoenberg remarked "...only the essentials" -- only the essence was to be watched. In a period not known for its women composers, the four women shine, Dlugoszewski and Oliveros for depth and perception, LeBaron and Spiegel for sheer intelligence in a new world of logic, Fortran and electronic circuitry.

     All of these people were apparently successful in getting grants, commissions, performances, and working contacts with first-rate composers in India, Germany and Japan. The list of grants, honors and appointments is impressive, perhaps part of the economically affluent and open decades between 1960 and 1980. I suspect things were better than the 1990's with short-change and short-shrift for the arts in high administrative circles. Also much of what they were doing was new, brand new, whereas we in a certain sense have seen it all by now. There may have been anger at much of the music of 1960, but there was little ennui.

     One theme pervades all these interviews. All the composers have, in one degree or another, a serious commitment to hands-on music, live music, improvisation. A few are completely improv-oriented, but most can and do score as well. They all see music as a 'live art'. Even the composers who are being tempted by early electronics, and those who have worked along with developing MIDI through the years, see electronic music as a freeing experience, developing continually via improvisation and live-composing. The work may become fixed in scores or recordings, but it is the live moment, the golden moment, which they are all after. For some it is in eighth-tones, in gamelan, in gritty voiced chants, in having a chance to work with Harry Partch's constructed instrumental sounds. For others it is bringing together performers to work freely, or play off a graphic score, or with every last note scored. They have an amazingly wide range.

     A few went through the academies, got degrees, taught for a living. Many lived poor (but free) on commissions and hope, surviving as their reputation grew and they were invited for stage performances. Most felt Academe was a serious block, that teaching of music in the schools before 1985 was retrograde, stifling. Braxton has at last settled at Wesleyan, Wolff was always at Dartmouth in music and Classics -- the exceptions. This group could be called 'prominent' and 'successful' one way or another. But in the serious aspects of their development, they were largely self-taught.

     For the details, which are what makes an interview interesting, you have to read the book yourself. There is a good discography for each person, but you may find the discs hard to get at. The book is in Middlebury's Music Library: MusLib ML 390 S668 1993.

     A week after writing this, I took out recordings of some of the work of these composers to refresh my ear, and thought I might add a few comments. I had forgotten how wide the range of music in the last thirty years can be, from Hovhaness' finely scored and quite lovely pianisms in largely familiar tunings, to Wolff's early piano pieces which place short-duration notes, with no trace of voice leading or rhythm, on a large canvas of empty space. Similarly, the gap between Anthony Braxton's massive voicings and the "new violin" sounds for/by Malcolm Goldstein which squeak convulsively to the hearer's disbelief is enormous. On the other hand the "new trumpet" of Peter Davies is well wrought, while Lucia Dlugoszewski uses it for intelligent experimentation.

     Somewhere in the middle there is a great deal more diversity. The work of Jon Appleton, one of the designers of the Synclavier at Dartmouth, is finely finished and detailed. Like George Todd's compositions, Anne LeBaron uses altered sounds sensitively; there is a charm to her voices as they lead. She is never brash or rushed. It is clear that one can use a synth/computer studio along with acoustic sounds and come out with work which the uninitiated can still hear as "music". Laurie Spiegel's sounds, which often stretch time longwise, are more complex, more computerish and poly-textural, clearly a reflection of a very personal way of hearing. Her music program Music Mouse (I am waiting for my copy, and can report on it later) allows one to set up four programmable musical algorithms which work independently, yet all are controlled by the cursor on the screen as one moves the mouse -- left/right for pitch(es), up/down for amplitude -- while flowing artesian coordinates drawn on the screen offer thousands of unrepeatable patternings.

     I could go on, but much of this music is stuff you have to hear. I do however notice several threads which seem to pervade:

  1. Most new music stems in some degree from either Varèse or from Cage, who are worlds apart philosophically, although their ideas can meld. These are the poles.
  2. The minimalist concept and the serial concept are great as ideas, as breakers of over-age notions, but they tend to become boring quickly, especially in the hands of disciples.
  3. In much computer music, as in popular music of each decade, there is a tendency to become monophonic, often with elaborate "accompaniments" in terms of "layering". Many of the composers born after World War II gravitate strongly toward live performances with several instrumentalists. This I believe is a way of generating a new type of polyphony, which comes from some chanciness, coupled with half a dozen complex sets of brains listening in on each other with incredible speed and calculating power.
  4. The notion of breaking up the past and recreating it all anew as mark of a creative artist is strong in music, as it was in poetry of the Romantic period. Taken seriously, it impoverishes the world, as each artist marks out a territory -- although without urination, but a territory nonetheless. We run out of artistic "space", so we go to another culture, another set of instruments, another tuning, another synth program. Refining the distinctions, we become picky and finally academic!
  5. There is more than a fortuitous parallel between music and language. It seems that in music many have got stuck in the area of phonology or sound. There is a lot of new thinking in this area to be sure. But the combination of sounds into minimal-distinctive-patternings (morphology) can be neglected, so we use sounds as sounds only. Exactly what a musical word is would be hard to say, but the basic motions upward, downward, apart-going, opposite going of two, loud and soft -- these would seem "distinctive" and hence not unlike words. (We have to leave meaning aside, of course.) But without voices going somewhere, leading, moving along in pulses or rhythms in a time-frame, and all this in a recognizable matrix, we would have nothing at all comparable to syntax. Beethoven and Brahms and Bach had a great sense of syntax, which would seem to be the great ignored area in the current musical scene.

     But don't confuse this idea of musical syntax with traditional, preset notions of "form". The mosaic patterning of Corelli, the Suite and the Romantic Fantasie all put much thought into exactly what goes where, while the "fill in the blanks" sonata and symphony formulas are okay for new public audiences, who need stanzas, repeats, and thematic parodies to help them along and maintain their interest. Syntactic form can come only from the deep complexities of a working mind; there are for it no shortcuts to the making, or in the perception.