No Vocabulary For Music Today?

Los Angeles New Music Scene May 2014

No Vocabulary For Music Today?

Three days of new music concerts, two dozen works—that was the Hear Now Festival of Los Angeles Composers May 2-4 2014. It was scrunched between the LA Philharmonic’s Minimalist Festival, a major Philip Glass concert at UCLA, and dozens of new music concerts at professional halls, schools, and universities. That was all itself a smaller part of a larger LA classical music scene going on simultaneously, that for me reached an apex with a stunning performance of the late Beethoven String Quartet op. 131 by the Henschel Quartet that very same week. On deck is new music nearby at the celebrated Ojai Festival in June. We are in the midst of a new cultural vitality. It is an exciting time to create and listen to music in LA. I wish our discourse was up to the task.

Audience comments were the usual flavors: “exciting,” “cool sounds,” “too long,” “really liked it,” “amazing performance,” and, of course, the swiss-army-knife comment, “interesting.” But response cutting to the heart of the music was rare.  A leading music critic attending Hear Now described it as “not minimal music.” Well, yes, that happened to be true. There were no panda bears on stage, either. 

This is why so much music “comes and goes” in our ears.  We lack a vocabulary to engage in meaningful response. Where is the contextual language to hear and describe the ideas of new music? In the ‘good ol’ days’ of the 20th century, people were never at a loss for words. A handy vocabulary could pinpoint every musical style: atonal, serial, experimental, electronic, minimalist, sound mass, aleatoric, microtonal, phase, neoclassic, neotonal, etc.  By golly, you knew where you stood! Musical camps clung like barnacles to a focused ideology and specialized vocabulary, convinced they were the “correct” evolution of modern musical thought. That was the dark side of the vocabulary, but it did give something to discuss, even if it resembled the modern political stage in serving as confirmation bias to solidify a particular viewpoint.

But in our 21st century, that stylistic vocabulary is less useful. Post-modern aesthetic is a free-for-all of musical styles that extend both back through history and across the globe. Most music today is not written within a rigid ideology. So how should we talk about it? On the one hand, new music concerts demand highly experienced listeners who understand all the influences composers synthesize, whether it be Medieval isorhythmic motets, Indian raga, aleatoric processes, DJ sample techniques, or heavy metal. That indeed is a tall order.  On the other hand, both composers and audiences insist on the conceit—I do, as well– that music should stand on its own, without us needing to be conscious of all its individual ingredients. There you have it. That’s why we don’t know what to say.

We require a common vocabulary, a simple one, one that transcends individual style and focuses on musical ideas. Let’s move beyond panda bears and observing what music isn’t and talk about what it is. 

For instance, it’s not helpful to call the Hear Now concerts eclectic. We should expect eclecticism: it is the surface of our time. A better doorway might be to notice that several of the pieces explored common themes, while differing widely in style and execution. For instance, one of those themes was structural counterpoint, the merging of two separate entities into one. A very literal and tour de force example was Pacific Light and Water/Wu Xing-Cycle of Destruction by Barry Schrader and Ismael Wadada Leo Smith. This piece literally merged two separate works into a new composition. Schrader’s is an electronic composition that deftly changes texture as it progresses through the Chinese five elements; Smith’s is an intricate trumpet improvisation that follows a colored map of waters off the Pacific coast that chart the penetration of light frequencies. Both the electronic work and the free-jazz trumpet solo were complete compositions. How fascinating that they integrated so smoothly, forming a third work when played simultaneously. As with contrapuntal lines, we listeners noticed moments of parallel, contrary, and oblique motion between the two structures. Gernot Wolfgang’s Theremin’s Journey was a different merging. Joanne Pierce-Martin walked back and forth between the piano and the theremin, both playing to an electronic track. The journey explored the cantabile of the theremin and subtle expressive piano harmonies derived from Mile Davis’ Bitches Brew.  Vicky Ray’s Jugg(ular)ling merged a violin-piano-percussion trio with a video that explored an additive and subtractive process with clips of jugglers keeping two objects in the air, then three, then four, etc. while the trio played synchronized to the video adding two, then three, then four, etc. musical elements.

Some pieces in the festival, rather than merging two unlikely forces, re-imagined ways that two or more conventional instruments might interact. Hugh Levick’s Constellation for string quartet and bass-baritone changes dramatic perspective in each movement, yet the voice and strings seem independent of each other, forming two compatible but individually convincing streams. The work is both a tightly knit abstract string quartet and a powerful vocal piece that freely moves between sprechstimme, speech, and bel canto. Jeffrey Holmes’ Fragments for soprano and piano also challenges the typical role of voice and instrument. He treats the voice more as a chamber instrument than the usual declaimer of expression. The singer here is abstract and equal to the piano, given to melismatic chant (singing multiple notes on a single syllable) on a compilation of Latin phrases that focuses the listener on vocal timbre more than content. Joe Trapanese’s Three Pieces for Sextet convincingly fused together many of the contradictory musics we have on our iTunes lists with its touches of Copland/Stravinsky, pop percussion, film music, and club rhythms. In this case, the intermingling of styles is the musical idea.

Instead of merging multiple worlds into one, some Hear Now pieces went the other direction, fracturing singularities into multiple personae. Bill Kraft’s Encounters II articulated a range from high to low that didn’t seem possible for a tuba, colored with many extended techniques—multiphonics, humming, etc.—as imaginative tools that essentially transformed the lowest member of the brass family known mostly for its bass lines into a rich polyphonic instrument. Moments of echoes, contrapuntal lines, and chords carried a dramatic conversation that reinvents J.S. Bach’s strategy in his solo works—that of creating a registral tapestry to give the illusion of multiple voices conversing all within a single primarily monophonic instrument. Riley Hugh’s Terraform for solo flute created a similar illusion but with different techniques—key clicks, noise, dampening, microtones, slides, silence—as a metaphorical tapestry he compared to the vastness and pointillism of the night sky.

Finding a common theme is a way to start discussion naturally—noticing similar musical ideas between pieces. It starts to say something about the music, and it does point out recent trends. But discussing music should be about more than noticing current trends. While thematic comparisons make a good conversation “opener,” we still hunger for specifics that embrace the real content and development in each work. For example, the fracturing of one entity into multiples says nothing about how completely different Bill Kraft’s dramatic tuba piece sounded and unfolded from Riley Hugh’s atmospheric flute constellations. What usually happens next, though, is a discussion of the stylistic influences of each piece (as in “sounds like Stravinsky plus Varése” or “ sounds like Feldman plus Debussy”).  That was a given, and Kraft opened his remarks rather wittily, saying  “I am not Stravinsky, I am not Bartok, but those composers live within me.”

But where do you go after that? Ultimately, describing a style does not say much about a work itself. I think the answer is to tackle the listening experience itself. It’s not so hard. How does a piece tell its story (beginning, middle, end) and what ideas does it convey? With this directed but simpler approach, a non-technical vocabulary might find its way into discussing each piece more naturally.

After all, many pieces on the Hear Now Festival did not fall neatly into similar themes. Neither my String Quartet No. 2 or Peter Knell’s String Quartet No. 2 merged two entities into one, or one into many. I described my second string quartet to the audience as a Hollywood action sequel—lots of special effects without much plot. That was for humor and intrigue. But to describe its actual content, I might say my second string quartet builds continuous momentum from a single four note motive. It tells its story in a classic sonata shape with a beginning, development, and return. The presto tempo rarely takes a breath as the quartet explores a spectrum of color and percussion bouncing their bows (ricochet), plucking their strings (pizzicato), sliding their fingers (glissandi) and playing electronic-like sounds by bowing near their bridges (sul ponticello).  It does all this in a sound world that reflects the quartets of 20th century composers Berg, Bartok, and Shostakovich. At the climax, all the instruments play a very fast figure that begins on their lowest strings and ascends way up to their highest register, crossing a threshold from pitch into noise. Doesn’t that give a better sense of the piece than to say what it isn’t (minimal music) or that it shows influence of Bartok (painfully obvious)?

Peter Knell’s String Quartet No. 2 was another case in point of the problem of not having a vocabulary to talk about music. His movement titles list three places in California and his program notes describe those places. Yet he confessed to the audience those titles were added later. He created them to provide a helpful entry point for the audience. This is a common dead-end strategy composers use to find someway to relate their music to their audience. It does work to intrigue, but it doesn’t lead to anything meaningful. But to my ear, all three movements of Knell’s quartet were a beautiful exploration of a common musical device—the trill. Where Beethoven explored the trill often as a source of energy and explosion, Knell explores the trill throughout the quartet as a generator of exquisite and delicate color.

So what meaningful observations might we come away from having heard two dozen works by such different compositional voices, all in Los Angeles? From the pursuit of this more specific vocabulary of discussion, we might conclude several streams of intent. There was a varied creative response to integrate the diverse musics and media in our 21st century palette: video with chamber music, electronic music with acoustic music, conventional with non-conventional instruments, and style fused with other styles. There was the continuation of the “modernist” 20th century tradition to explore new sound possibilities with extended instrumental techniques so that each piece creates a unique sound world. There was evident intent that all the pieces used the tradition of Western classical music as their structural bedrock, whether that be influence from the 18th or 20th centuries. Finally, there was a commitment to create narratives with integrity and emotional energy that, while showing awareness of popular culture, vehemently refused to be swallowed by its formulae and conventions.  This is what is absorbing Los Angeles composers today. We’re not banding together with a single ideology to challenge an imagined status quo (hence, “not minimal music”). We’re not concerned to set ourselves opposite to an imagined “New York” sound or “European” aesthetic. Rather, we’re seeking a way to integrate a wildly diverse contemporary world of style and reference in a way that communicates the type of meaning and expression that drove us to create music in the first place.

It takes a long time to absorb the fullness of established repertoire. The situation with new music is ridiculous. Often we hear a new work but once. New music therefore pleads for focused listening and avoidance of snap “like” “don’t like” judgments.  Facile comparisons to other pieces are also a form of dismissal. I often point out at pre-concert lectures how strange it is that we routinely sit through new 2 hour films with complete understanding and interest, but fall into boredom and confusion with 10 minutes of abstract concert music. I think discovering a new vocabulary, one that seeks to embrace musical narrative, is a key to solving this problem. If you don’t agree, did I mention already that the 2014 Hear Now Festival of Los Angeles Composers had absolutely no panda bears on stage? Maybe next year.