Music’s restless avant garde: Still a ‘wonderful adventure’

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson has written about music for the International Herald Tribune, thecolumnists.com, Clavier Companion, Factsandarts.com and other publications. He served nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition. He plays the tuba.

In the picture the author Michael Johnson.
01.10.2013

Traditional classical music finally wore out its welcome with me a few years ago by endless repetition of the Top Twenty pieces on FM radio. I pretty much went my own way when I happened to hear elsewhere a freshly exciting piece by the young American composer Keeril Makan, “Washed by Fire” — not at all what FM radio wants. Makan creates four minutes of near-perfect stillness in that piece, suddenly bursts into a quote from Vivaldi, then continues through a tortured development, ending in stillness again. It may not be for everyone, but it is a good bridge for those fed up with Carmen excerpts and the Strauss Redetzky March. I listen to it about once a day and it never fails to get me going.

Makan, an assistant professor of music at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has amassed a large body of work and an array of prizes. He translates his emotions into often-edgy music. Here’s why: “My compositions are informed – sometimes quite viscerally – by my depression,” he wrote recently in the New York Times.

The excitement of Makan’s work opened the door to music I had always found intriguing but had never tried to sort through. After a long period of immersion, I can say it was worth the effort. What these composers are trying to accomplish is nothing less than the redefinition of music as an art form. Academics say there are now more experimental composers producing the music of their times than in all the history of music combined. Some of their work never reaches an audience but increasingly it does, and to great acclaim from a certain kind of audience.

But if it is such an exciting world, why does the general concert-going public hate this stuff?

Most of the uninitiated are mystified and so retreat to the familiar – the music of European Romantic and Classical composers from the 1800s and before. Traditional concerts still feature “Hitler’s favorites,” says New Yorker critic Alex Ross, and they survive in an elitist museum culture. I have looked around at uneasy faces in the big concert halls of the U.S. and Europe when a popular favorite is followed by something contemporary. Not everyone is swept up in the enthusiasm. Eyes roll. People sigh. Some get up and walk out.

By all evidence, the world of modern classical music is fractured. Composer-professor Scott McLaughlin of the University of Leeds in Britain tells me he believes new music attracts people who want to be challenged, not those who choose to stay in their musical comfort zone. Indeed, the two worlds do not sit well together in the concert hall. “Putting Mozart and Elliott Carter together on the same program is doomed to failure,” he says. “You anger more people than you disappoint.”

And Richard Steinitz, founder of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Europe’s largest annual gathering of composers and their fans, deplores the reluctance of many concert-goers to extend their horizons. “It’s the notion that they want to hear only what they have already heard before,” he told me in an interview.

He’s right. I know people who won’t let Christmas go by without attending another performance of Messiah.

Yet a quick look at summer and autumn festivals of new music removes all doubt about the growth and dynamism of this field. The big events are packing in the fans — from the Oslo Ultima Contemporary Music Festival to Huddersfield in the north of England, from Lucerne’s Summer Festivals to London’s “The Rest is Noise” concert series or Bang on a Can performances around the globe. Even the family picnic setting of Tanglewood near Boston. Tokyo, Chicago, Los Angeles and Seattle also have their own centers of new music. Michael Tilson Thomas’s San Francisco Symphony completed its “American Mavericks” series last year and is touring with the same groundbreaking music this year.

“There has never been a better time to be a composer,” says Ivan Ilic, an American pianist now based in France and active around Europe:

"Some who would have been completely disenfranchised a generation ago now have a fair chance of being heard thanks to the Internet. Morton Feldman might still have to work in his father’s textile business, but he would put his music on Sound Cloud and would email PDFs of it to performers."

The momentum behind contemporary movements is being kept alive by eager enthusiasts, “and above all, those who write it,” says critic Ross in his widely admired recent book The Rest is Noise; “… we may even be on the verge of a golden age.”

The most adventurous performers – such as the Arditti, Kronos and Pacifica Quartets — also go for the experimental. American Ivan Ilic is in the final stages of preparing a CD of a classic Feldman piano work. And American pianist Molly Morkoski said in a recent interview in Composition:Today that she is always on the lookout for composers who are “not afraid to write with interesting harmonies and with layers of piano sound.” When a new music composer combines harmony with a lyrical line, a diverse rhythmic sense, and an overall architecture, she says, the music “is near divine for me.” She singles out fellow-American George Crumb’s “magnificent works,” in which she says she finds “a real treasure trove of sounds” among the gnarly chords.

But who’s listening? And to what? The fracture of audiences is not total. Bartok, Stravinsky, Berg and Charles Ives have crept into conventional classical concerts, and such living artists as Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Adams and Arvo Pärt have attracted followings among the traditional listeners. Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach, a five-hour work without intermissions, undergoes periodic revivals, the latest of which was a popular tour last year covering France, Italy, the UK, Mexico, the Netherlands and Canada. I play it in the background for hours at a time. Reich replaces the traditional orchestra by synthesizers, a woodwind section and voices. Considered revolutionary, it is like “some dark star whose effects we can only feel,” wrote one critic, and I agree entirely. “Einstein must be seen and re-seen, encountered and savored … an experience to cherish for a lifetime.” As this excerpt shows it reinterprets the concept of opera:

Too strange for the average music-lover? Perhaps. I too reject some of the experimentation, but when I connect with a piece, the effect can be exhilarating – miles ahead of the latest teenager trying to play a Scarlatti sonata faster and louder than Horowitz. Other efforts are, I guess, just beyond my artistic sensibilities. I wonder what Reich was thinking when he composed Clapping Music. Earnest musicians perform this piece to audiences that are apparently open to anything. The performers, alone on stage, clap their hands to Reich’s repetitive rhythms. Even more difficult to grasp is Alvin Lucier’s I am Sitting in a Room, which consists of a short statement recorded and re-recorded over and over. Aficionados swear by it. One internet version has attracted more than 90,000 hits.

I’m not alone in my intermittent resistance. Newcomers to experimental music, especially the older generations with lazy listening habits, often cannot abide what they say sounds like sawing, thumping and shrieking interspersed with empty silence. A friend of mine thinks one particularly
captivating piano piece by the great German composer Helmut Lachenmann sounds like a cat walking down her keyboard — a favorite wisecrack from those who have not yet made the transition to new music (or found the piece that will open the door for them as “Washed by Fire” did for me).

Tempers flare in discussions of modern experiments in music, with traditionalists openly scornful of what they call “difficult” scores. So what’s new? After all, Bach and Beethoven were both at odds with their publics when they moved away from the conventional. Bach was hated by the faithful for tinkering with sacred music and Beethoven took the sounds of Mozart and Haydn and pumped them full of vulgar color and energy. But today’s collision of tastes can be more violent – and certainly can lead to stronger language. Scroll down the comments below some of the YouTube performances and you may be shocked. One musician, unhappy with a commentator’s opinion on a John Cage composition simply said, “You’re dumb. Shut the fuck up and kill yourself.” In a separate incident, a harpist walked out of a rehearsal of the Anton Webern Symphony by the New York Philharmonic, threw the score at the feet of Dimitri Mitropulous and said, “I refuse to play this shit.”

Extreme? Indeed — yet also a continuation of a clash of sensibilities that began in the late 19th-century, when controversial rise of chromatic writing, using the full scale, provided a magical palette of new colors from such composers as Debussy and Ravel. The first quarter of the 20th century brought forth still stronger shocks, as composers pushed the boundaries of European classical and romantic traditions. The initial step was to dispense with the compositional strait-jacket, the key and time signatures and forms such as the three-movement sonata structure. The twelve-tone revolution (the use of the entire scale in tightly restricted ways) initiated by Arnold Schoenberg lasted only a few decades but produced some haunting music, as in Three Piano Pieces, the first of which is played here by the late Glenn Gould:

Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (1912) was written for a Viennese actress who wanted a piece to which she could recite the words; for her, Schoenberg invented Sprechstimme (speech song). The work so enraptured the avant garde that even such a leading experimenter as Igor Stravinsky was influenced by it. In his role as conductor, the French composer Pierre Boulez makes the most of this innovative creation with an impeccable balance of the vocal and orchestral and a tight control of the players in his Ensemble Intercontemporain :

Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, now a must-play for any serious orchestra, was music dynamite and barely playable when first performed in 1913. His unnatural changes of rhythm and keys, sometimes migrating measure by measure, disturbed old European listening habits and set traditionalists hooting and hissing at its premiere in 1913. Equally upsetting was the Ballets Russes choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky, which featured primitive tribal dances in roomy costumes rather than long-legged ballerinas in tutus.

Other composers pushed much further, notably La Monte Young and Harry Partch, masters of the microtonal (the breakdown of intervals between notes into tiny increments) and Henry Cowell, the man who helped remake rhythm and sonorities. On the outer fringes sat George Antheil, an American composer and pianist. His Ballet Mécanique fits snugly into our repertoire in these post-Stravinsky times but in 1924 the eight pianos, a pianola and an airplane propeller caused worse scandals than The Rite of Spring had triggered 11 years earlier.

When Antheil took his mechanical contraptions to New York, he doubled the number of pianos, and added anvils, bells, car horns and a buzzsaw, producing what might seem today a stunt or parody of experimenters of his era. The thumping percussion and the weird extra-musical sounds brought him a divided audience of cheers and boos. But it would please the “bold experimenters” of the 1920s and 1930s to know that today “the freedoms they envisaged and fought for can be taken for granted by their successors,” in the words of the late music academic Joseph Machlis. There were no boos when Ballet Mécanique played in New York a few years ago: Antheil’s ghost got a standing ovation. In the 1950s, the Russian composer/pianist Alexei Liubmov produced a more manageable version to played onstage by live musicians instead of hammers and gears. The music makes sense when viewed in the context of its messages — the wild industrialization and urbanization of the 1920s. The piece, performed recently at the Moscow Conservatory under the direction of Vladimir Ponkin, is rendered here more listenable, scored for only four pianos and percussion. The audience reacts with thunderous applause:

Edgar Varèse’s Ionisation created a stir in 1931 for its focus on percussion and bell sounds that had previously, with few exceptions, been concealed behind the orchestra’s dominant harmonies and melodies. Again, Boulez knows where he is going with it. His arid conducting style is straightforward and unaffected. The snare drums, bells and sirens are reined in and kept in perfect sync — no mean feat. I am partial to percussion pieces, having more or less trained as a percussionist in my younger years; I find the effect here mesmerizing:



A more recent brief but equally powerful assault on the senses is Salvatore Sciarrino’s Due nottumi crudeli: Il Furia, metallo. It has split critics down the middle, some saying it breaks new ground, others dismissing it as an example of a composer who has run out of ideas. I find real ideas in this piece, and get a visceral impact from its off-kilter hammering in the base line and the virtuoso excursions in the upper register. Here one realizes that the piano actually is a percussion instrument. Not for the faint of heart, it is played with much brio:


The 1950s and 1960s saw what one critic called a “great flowering of experimental music,” in tandem with dramatic changes in the visual arts. This symbiosis produced at least one striking composition, John Cage’s piano piece inspired by his friend Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings. Cage transposed the idea into the music world, producing the audacious “4’33,” a silent piano composition that continues to astound concert-goers. Cage’s point was that there is no pure silence. Someone in the audience is always squirming or coughing.

Lachenmann and others have credited this bold non-composition with opening their minds to an “anything-goes” attitude in music. “I love sounds just as they are,” Cage liked to say. Many composers followed Cage’s ideas and have brought an occasional taste of zen to the concert hall, a chance to meditate and let the mind go somewhere new, to open it up to “divine influences,” in Cage’s words. This performance of 4’33” is elegant in its own way:

Cage’s most memorable legacy is probably the prepared piano, an instrument modified with felt strips, rubber bits and metallic screws and bolts inserted between the strings to produce thudding yet musical sounds. Many pianists find receptive audiences for these new timbres emitted by a traditional instrument. In this performance of a Cage piano sonata, the potential of the prepared piano is wonderfully demonstrated:



The music world was, and remains, divided on Cage, however – great composer or shameless charlatan? McLaughlin of Leeds dares to ask the leading question, “Was Cage a good or a bad thing? I don’t know but he was definitely a thing.”

For fans with stronger tastes, Karlheinz Stockhausen produced what one YouTube commentator calls “genius stuff” such as his Kontacte (1959-60), a work that sparks strong reactions pro and con from listeners – my favorite definition of art. He was pleased, he said, to have brought timbre, pitch, intensity and duration under control, thereby realizing his goal of total serialism – the act of composition liberated from the constraints of key signatures. This is the fully electronic version of his well-known ear-smasher:

Morton Feldman, a part-time composer and an intimate of Cage and the New York art colony, at 47 was finally hired to teach composition at the University of Buffalo. His work was rarely performed in his lifetime but today he is enjoying a renaissance. His fans talk of losing track of time, of drifting into an alternative consciousness under the influence of his free-floating rhythms and slow development of ideas. The prominent German violinist Carolin Widmann, who plays a lot of Feldman, has written that “you stop thinking about where this music has come from and where it is headed, and you become part of it.” His crystalline piano and string quartet, an hour and 20 minutes in length, is such a work, cleverly illustrated in serene shades of grey in this video:



Now, genres are so eagerly exploited by emerging composers that they seem to survive no more than a few years before reaching exhaustion. Trends have ranged from Cage’s chance music (where much latitude is granted to the performer) to minimalism to dodecaphonics to serial composition to electronic music to post-minimalism and now laptop and internet music. New York composer-critic Kyle Gann understood: “True art,” he wrote, constantly moves on, tracing the trail of the zeitgeist … Maturity and tradition are the enemies of this eternal novelty.” “Experimental music is a broad church,” wrote Steinitz with understatement in his lavish history of the first 33 years of the Huddersfield Festival, 
Explosions in November.

It was Cage who summed it up best: the state of music today is “extraordinarily disparate, almost to the point of separation between each composer and every other one, and a large gap between each one of these and society.” Never mind that he said this in a speech at Vassar College in 1948. If anything, it is more true today. And that is what makes it such a rich vein to explore. If you don’t like a composer’s style, try someone else. The variety is endless and still evolving.

Will the audience grow or shrink? The prickly Boulez, in a rare confession of weakness, said in an interview a few years ago that he believed that some of the experimental music from the 1950s and 1960s got lost through sheer arrogance. “… perhaps we did not take sufficiently into account the way music is perceived by the listener,” he said in a published interview.

In the 1960s and 1970s, explained soft-spoken, easygoing composer Makan of MIT to me recently over a Tibetan vegetarian lunch in Cambridge, “composition was cerebral, and they didn’t care if you didn’t get it. That’s changing now.” He and his fellow composers openly strive to find ways to “engage an audience.” Ten years ago, Makan premiered his elusive string quartet “The Noise Between Thoughts”, a raw and physical expression of his moods. He has described the brutality of the piece, with its “deconstructed instrumental technique and its replacement of consonance and dissonance with noise (which) were directly influenced by my experience with depression”:

And he followed it up later with a more accessible, compact piece that immediately pleases the ear with a convergence of reeds, marimbas and other percussion in “The Infinite Corridor”:

I’ve learned that from a listener’s point of view, the key to entering this world is a reorientation of the ear. Stepping up from the familiar to the new requires relearning how to listen to music. Rather than humming or whistling your way through someone’s Chopin Nocturnes for the thousandth time, try sitting through a long, hypnotic piece and imagining a dimly lit room in which your senses must gradually adjust. Eventually you will “see” clearly and you will want more.

Lachenmann speaks enthusiastically of such reorientation. “We have to find new antennae in ourselves,” he told composer Paul Steenhuisen in the recent book Sonic Mosaics: Conversations with Composers. “(We must) listen more, and this is a wonderful adventure.” A listener should not be afraid of confusion, he advises. “You should be glad to be confused. It’s the most active way to live. Confusion is to discover oneself in a new way.” Even composers have to deal with this shifting world of sound. The late critic and professor Herbert Brün was known to tell his students, “You should write music you don’t like yet.” Part and parcel of this effort, adds Steinitz, is “persuading the audience to be more curious.” He has contributed, as he puts it, “evangelical fervor” to the movement.

To ease your way into modern compositions, personal commitment is also required. It is such a leap of musical logic that some pieces may sound annoying and set your nerves on end at first hearing. But now, when I hear Makan, or Meredith Monk or Geörgy Ligeti, George Crumb or Wolfgang Rihm, it can still be jarring, sometimes perplexing, rarely melodic — but it’s always fresh. I almost want to say “Melody be damned.” This piece, Black Angels, a Crumb classic, opens with a stunning, slashing attack by the strings before moving on to complete changes of instrumentation and mood. He finished the piece on a Friday the 13th at the height of the Vietnam war, both forces perhaps affecting his subconscious:

Hubris is not unusual in the ethereal world of contemporary composers. Dimitri Erlich wrote in his book of profiles Inside the Music that “great art may require a big ego and perhaps a lot of neurosis.” He might have mentioned depression. As a result, he went on, “many artists fear that sanity, moderation or happiness would destroy their work.” And Steinitz wrote that the “genuinely original (artists) compose because of an inner compulsion that no more depends on the presence of an audience than does the lark singing aloft or the blackbird at sunset.”

Some enthusiasts believe the battle for the soul of the concert-goer is virtually won, if only because conservative concert hall programmers cater to a dying population. Count the grey heads in any traditional orchestral concert and you’ll understand. The younger set is more open to newness, and will demand the work of living composers. Composer La Monte Young sniffed at the traditional “dry and staid” concert hall. It reminded him of going to a dull church service. “I mean, these people sit in rows, and that guy stands up there and does something.”

It may be premature to conclude that traditional classical music is drying up, but New York critic Kyle Gann has already written a parody of its end. His weekly column in The Village Voice was written in the language of a detective novel, the title of which was “Who Killed Classical Music?” In the conclusion, someone’s girlfriend opines that traditional classical music committed suicide. “Tried to starve itself to death,” she says. “A tiny, self-imposed diet of German and Russian food over and over… It never established any roots here anyway – still obsessed with the old country, and acted so hoity-toity to cover up its insecurities. Suicide was the only way it could save face.”

More likely, the world of serious music will remain somewhat splintered, one group staying with the familiar and other bits breaking into subsets of contemporary music. Musicians and traditional audiences will still draw much satisfaction from the established repertoire, itself a rich world of creative abundance. But in the parallel world of new music, an entirely different experience is awaiting anyone with the intellectual curiosity to explore a new world – a world of unexpected sound, rhythm and … silence.


This article was first published by the Open Letters Monthly. Published here with the kind permission of the author and the Open Letters Monthly. Please click here for Open Letters Monthly.

Below drawing of John Cage by the author Michael Johnson:

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