For all the value of the 53 specific pieces included in the 10-day festival of New Music, New York, the discussions surrounding them were perhaps even more valuable. And for all the confrontations and new insights, the mere fact that the affair had taken place was perhaps most valuable of all.
This was not just another music festival, but a genuine landmark in the evolution of a genre. The event, hosted by the Kitchen, marked the first time that such a broad spectrum of experimental music had ever been put together into a single, highly visible package. Critics from consumer magazines, jazz magazines, and entertainment magazines, which normally ignore experimental music, arrived in significant numbers. Nine critics from across the country arrived to participate in the Music Critics Association institute held in conjunction with the festival. Representatives from about 50 groups that present new music in one format or another arrived from all over the country to hear the music, to talk, and to form an organization for their mutual benefit. John Duffy, whose ‘Meet the Composer’ program is expanding to support new music in more and more states, arrived to coordinate his efforts with theirs. There were representatives from the National Endowment and other funding organizations, representatives from European radio, along with publishers, scholars, and music professionals of all sorts. And there was such public response that the Kitchen, with its capacity of 250, had to turn away dozens, if not hundreds, for every concert. In effect, the event turned out to be a kind of new music trade show, and a more vital one than even the most optimistic seemed to anticipate.
This is particularly significant for music that has always been considered experimental or avant-garde and has thus far evolved strictly on the fringes of official culture. The activity has been gradually increasing all around the country, but I don’t think anyone quite realized how much it has been increasing. Now it suddenly becomes clear that the genre has accumulated quite a bit of support and momentum, that it is becoming organized on a rather broad scale and that, from here on, it will be pretty hard to sweep under the carpet. In short, new music is now an institution.
Of course, this particular institution was never intended to be one. It was more often thought of as a guerrilla unit, or a collection of guerrilla units. After all, a place devoted to new music and video, and having no intentions whatever of selling food, does not name itself ‘The Kitchen’ if it is looking forward to the day when it will be well established and when the name will be a constant source of public confusion. Yet for better or worse, the Kitchen, along with the And/Or Gallery in Seattle, Real Art Ways in Hartford, 1750 Arch Street in San Francisco, and all the others, is not just a guerrilla unit anymore. It is clear that such places are now being administered quite professionally by people who know how to raise funds, know how to work together, and even know how to put on a trade show. Most of the groups represented are now stable enough to think two seasons ahead instead of one, solvent enough to consider taking on rather grandiose projects and capable of making decisions that will have significant impact on the history of music. At the same time, they are becoming significant targets for all kinds of criticism, and must now be ready for the blows that will inevitably come from left-out composers, irate consumers, and competing artistic categories. They, like the composers they present, can no longer hide along the fringes of American culture.
This situation raises a number of questions, several of which were expressed emphatically by composer Ivan Tcherepnin: ‘Is not the stand being taken, viz. to ‘establish’ the Experimental music scene and provide an endowment for its sustenance also tying the participants into the system, which will eventually incorporate it? Isn’t there an implicit complicity with Big Business and Government involved here?’ Many would say that the greatest value of avant-garde work throughout this century has resided in its subversive nature. Questioning bourgeois values, raising political issues, redefining art, throwing stones. But many experimental musicians and perhaps the whole movement, now exist in a glass house of their own. The milieu has changed, and the term ‘avant-garde’ seems less and less appropriate.
Laurie Anderson’s work had never impressed me much before, but her three songs from ‘Americans on the Move’ did. Her lyrics here have something to say, the music is inventive, she uses electric violin in unique ways, and her singing and general charisma are hard to beat. Some were speculating that, with the help of a good record producer, she would emerge as the ’80s’ answer to Patti Smith.
‘Blue’ Gene Tyranny presented the only political statement of the festival, unless there happened to be another one on the June 9 concert, which I had to miss. Tyranny’s ‘The White Night Riot’ is an expertly mixed collage of documentary recordings and electronic effects, with some simple staging involving two men who walk around slowly, eyeing one another. The subject is Harvey Milk.
One of the biggest surprises for me was the realization that there’s now a fairly distinct generation gap within experimental music. Perhaps I should have noticed this before, but I still tend to think in terms of the artists who have been making it for some time. Reich and Glass, Ashley, Behrman, Lucier, Mumma, Monk, Corner, were all represented, and aesthetic similarities can be observed among all the composers of their generation. But the festival also included a number of musicians in their twenties or early thirties, and in them I began to hear a somewhat different set of similarities. The older group derived much from Cage and almost nothing from popular culture, while the younger group almost reverses these priorities. While the song form is almost never used by the older composers, it occurred several times in works by the younger ones. While the older group tends to play synthesizers, homemade electronic devices, piano, or other standard instruments, the younger group is more likely to be involved with electric guitars or with some of the performance art trend of the ’70s. The influence of Eastern philosophy is far more apt to be felt in the older group, while loud volumes are somewhat more common among the younger.
It is not really a question of accessibility. One could hear rather severe approaches in the older composers like Corner, but Rhys Chatham, 26, is equally severe in his current work, in which the relentless restriking of drums and guitar strings is varied only by subtle changes in the way the harmonies are allowed to ring out in the high register. And if Don Cherry was able to please just about everyone with his friendly manner as he sang and accompanied himself on an African stringed instrument, Peter Gordon, 28, reached everyone with a good old-fashioned tenor sax solo, played against a hard-rocking pretaped accompaniment with idiosyncratic chord changes.
Phill Niblock’s music came off extremely well. Eight tracks of prerecorded oboe and bassoon tones, all slightly out of phase, beat wildly against the live oboist and bassoonist who wandered around the space. Niblock’s music is purely sonic, with no actual melodies, harmonies, or rhythms, and the importance of these massive sonorities is becoming clearer and clearer.
Ned Sublette did a strange and rather courageous thing. Having found a set of lyrics related to the Sublette family in a collection of frontier ballads, this composer from Texas and New Mexico set them to an old-fashioned modal melody of his own devising, and sang the results himself. His singing ability is marginal and there was no accompaniment to cover it up, and yet the long ballad was quite convincing.
Another contrast which began to interest me had to do with the religious and the secular. Of course, this is not the sort of context where one is likely to encounter religious titles or hear settings of actual religious texts. Specific references of that sort always become denominational in some way, and new music audiences are not nearly homogeneous enough to enable one to make denominational statements without offending someone. Still, religious instincts make themselves felt in all human societies, and they have had much to do with the evolution of experimental music. Composers, perhaps more often than their contemporaries in any of the other arts, have been quite aware of spiritual values.
Pauline Oliveros is a case in point. On the opening night of the festival, she came on stage and simply offered a few brief instructions to the audience. ‘Sing a tone on one breath, sing someone else’s tone on the 1979/the-role-of-number-one breath, and continue in this way.’ Then she just closed her eyes and waited. It was an act of faith, and an uncooperative audience could easily have ruined the whole thing, and yet, as the gorgeous choral texture began to rise very gradually out of the audience, it began to seem almost impossible that anything could go wrong. There was something irresistible about her, about her belief, and about how she was able to somehow plug herself, and us, into an almost cosmic experience. The result was not really a Buddhist statement, and certainly not a Christian one, and yet it was a devotional act. Something mystical, something superhuman seemed to be controlling that performance, and even those who would rather not think about such things were respectful of the atmosphere that took over the space. As the last voices were dropping out, after perhaps 10 minutes of this unrehearsed chanting, the room fell into an extraordinary peacefulness.
As the week progressed, I began to hear other works in religious terms. Annea Lockwood’s prerecorded mixture of natural sounds seemed like a clearcut example. Alvin Lucier often refers to his work as a kind of alchemy, and it does seem to involve a semi-mystical manipulation of electronic phenomena. The random structures in the excerpt from Petr Kotik’s ‘Many Many Women’ and the rational permutations of Jon Gibson’s work also seem connected with higher forces. And Charlie Morrow’s contribution, in which he chanted for a few minutes and then told us what visions he had had during his chant, was an overt case of trusting powers outside human control.
On the other hand, much of the repertoire seemed clearly secular. These pieces are rooted in the here and now, and convey greater respect for human skills than for outside forces. A few examples might be Jon Deak’s one-man-band act, Jill Kroesen’s songs, David van Tieghem’s toy instruments, Larry Austin’s somewhat humorous lecture-as-song, Tony Conrad’s shaggy-dog piano piece which ends with the piano being played by a machine, and Jeffrey Lohn’s neoclassically structured work for a rock ensemble.
In discussing the concerts with others, I noticed that some listeners tended to derive quite a bit more satisfaction from religious works, while others preferred the more secular, and that many of my own favorite pieces had been of the first type. Most experimental composers, like their audiences, seem to have drifted away from organized religion long ago, but that does not mean they have abandoned the spiritual. In a way, one might even say that a place like the Kitchen serves as a non-denominational shrine as often as it serves as a place of entertainment.
Philip Corner presented one of his many recent works for gamelan. This one, ‘Gamelan: Italy Revisited-III,’ is for four players, and it involves a repeated two-note phrase in which one note gradually becomes longer while the other gradually becomes shorter. Eventually they merge into simultaneity. The work goes on to treat a three-note and a four-note phrase in a similar way. The music is the height of simplicity, yet it is difficult to perform and challenging to follow in detail, and it attains a profound meditative calm.
Joel Chadabe made a strong impression, partly because his latest set-up involves two theremins, partly because it is so interesting to watch him move his arms in and out of the theremins’ field of sensitivity, partly because he first explained how the whole rig works, and mostly because his computer responds in a language of rich sounds, well-chosen harmonies, and exceptional variety.
Some participants asked why this collection of experimental music did not include more work from the jazz tradition, much of which is as innovative as anything in the classical avant-garde. Despite the performances by Cherry, Jeanne Lee, and George Lewis, the festival was clearly weighted toward white musicians, but the reasoning seems to me to have more to do with recent history than with overt racism. As I see it the black-dominated loft jazz scene has evolved right alongside the white-dominated experimental scene throughout this decade. Loft jazz has been quite visible and successful in its own way, and for an institution like the Kitchen to attempt to take this genre under its own wing would be far more patronizing than constructive. Moreover, I am beginning to feel that the most important racial issues go beyond black Americans vs. white Americans to involve a lot of other groups. A truly ecumenical festival of new music in New York would have to include some of the klezmer musicians I wrote about two weeks ago, along with shakuhachi players, khamancheh players, Irish groups, Balkan groups, and so on.
Brian Eno sparkled off other controversies. This articulate figure from the rock world, who took part in two panel discussions as well as presenting an informative lecture called ‘The Recording Studio as Compositional Tool,’ began the week somewhat arrogantly. He told us that experimental music involves too much intellect and not enough sensuality, that creating charisma is a useful and even necessary thing, and that experimental composers should think more about marketing their work. By the end of the week he had admitted that works which were not sensual for him might still be sensual for someone else, was soft-pedaling the charisma theme, and seemed to agree that music should not be considered merely as a commodity. On the other hand, much of Eno’s practical point of view did seem to be getting across. It would have been difficult for any composer attending those sections not to concede that, as Eno points out, the phonograph record, rather than the public concert, is the major means of musical communication today. The exchange proved useful on both sides.
But what seemed to make the strongest impression on festival audiences was the sheer diversity of the experimental music they heard. I have frequently written about this, but of course, such a point never comes across in print as strongly as it can in an actual demonstration. Those who do not follow music activity very closely seemed quite surprised to discover that almost none of the work resembled the familiar Reich and Glass models by which the genre is often defined.
Jon Gibson played better than I have ever heard him play before. His circular breathing was fully under control, and his soprano saxophone sound was really sumptuous. His new work, ‘Criss Cross,’ is a rather fast white-note piece that is of some interest in itself, but with unaccompanied pieces of this sort, it is the performing that really counts.
Gordon Mumma presented his ‘Schoolwork,’ playing his musical saw with Ned Sublette’s melodica and Joe Hannan’s bowed psalter, and the high sustained sounds of these instruments produced remarkable blends, as well as occasional difference tones. The piece is conceived as a kind of folk music, since there is no score, and the work can only be learned firsthand, by working with someone who already knows it.
As listeners confronted unfamiliar samples of meditation music, unfamiliar instruments, unfamiliar types of electronic music, and unfamiliar performance styles, they seemed on the verge of giving up the search for any unity or cohesiveness in the genre. As a result I found myself trying to figure out what characteristics were shared by all of this music.
There are actually quite a few. None of the works here climaxed in anything like the usual sense. None involved a dialectic between two opposing sets of material. The vast preponderance of the work was tonal or modal rather than atonal. Most of the works involved elementary performance skills, and only a few could be considered virtuoso pieces in the usual practice-five-hours-a-day sense. Most of the pieces were not notated on conventional music staves, and often could not have been, due to the nature of the materials. In almost all cases the composers performed their own works. Many of these points had been emphasized by John Rockwell, who organized the music critics’ institute, moderated many of the panels, and played an important role throughout the 10 days.
The music itself was up and down, as large programs of music usually are. The low points occasionally made me wonder if the artists in question were really ready for this kind of exposure, but more often they reflected the restrictions inherent in the festival situation. With the small stage, the 15-minute time allotment, the low budget, and the need to set up and break down quickly, the conditions presented obvious difficulties for composers who work best with large ensembles, large timespans, large budgets, or large conglomerations of equipment. Still, the vast majority of the music was professional and provocative, and not a single piece struck me as imitative of something else. I think the genre will survive quite well, even as an institution.Note:
The New Music America festivals have continued to grow, to pull together the largest new music audiences ever in the United States, and to attract financial support from foundations that normally only contributed to the symphony orchestras. If the enlarged format has occasionally induced organizers to select shorter works and more accessible styles, in order to please so many people all at once, the festival has also been very positive in providing nationwide communication for everyone concerned with new music.