Sunday, July 31, 2011

thoughts on an experiment

So I definitely made the right choice on Friday. Not only were there five different concerts all worth seeing, as mentioned, but they were also all one-offs: the Poul Ruders opera, the Burgundy Stain session, etc.

Anyway, I went to Gabriel Kahane's and Alisa Weilerstein's concert at Caramoor and I am very glad I did. Full disclosure: I used to work in the Caramoor box office. So I'm not really going to review the concert--Weilerstein's Bach suites, as expected, were excellent, and I love Kahane's songs--but since not much ink has been spilled about their collaborative piece, which received its New York premiere on Friday, I thought it would be worth talking a bit about that.

Kahane wrote Little Sleep's Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight last year as a commission from a couple of patrons--Stuart and Linda Nelson--who asked him to write a piece for Weilerstein. Kahane and Weilerstein have toured around a bit, doing the Bach/Songs/Bach/Sleep's Head thing in a few different cities before making what seemed to be the last stop in Katonah. It's a good idea for a program, though it would also have been interesting to hear them team up on a Brahms or Beethoven sonata (the encore, an arrangement of Kahane's Meritt Parkway for the two of them, made me really want to hear all of his songs arranged for cello and piano).

Sleep's Head is settled uncomfortably--and intriguingly--between song cycle and something else, and it's hard to tell what that something else is. It sets a rather beautiful, somewhat surreal multi-part poem by Galway Kinnel. The cycle alternates between straight songs for Kahane's voice and piano, with cello thrown in, and extended interludes for the two instruments. Everything feels quite fluid, but not without a sense of compositional rigor--the instrumental sections are couched in classical forms (Kahane mentioned to me after the concert the idea of "inadvertent neo-classicism"). The musical language reminded me of the Ives of the Concord Sonata, at once languid and austere. There are some great cello effects, and a couple awesome moments where it's just Kahane's voice and Weilerstein's pizzicato -- including a passacaglia where the pizz lays down the bass and Kahane floats wonderfully on top.

It definitely feels like the first step towards something, a leap into the dark. What I'm interested in--and what interests me about this generation of composers--is how these leaps were made. It's pretty clear that the reason that this piece exists is not out of some genre precedent. Last night I heard a spectacular account of the Brahms Double Concerto, courtesy of Pablo Heras-Casado, Jennifer Koh, Weilerstein, and the Orch of St. Luke's. It is a similarly beguiling idea as Sleep's Head -- a concerto for two instruments? -- but Brahms had as examples the Baroque concerto grosso, the Sinfonia Concertante of Mozart, the Triple Concerto of Beethoven. As one of the first self-consciously classicists, Brahms knew his models. Even if the genesis for the piece spun out of more personal matters (an attempt to reconcile his relationship with Joseph Joachim), it's hard to believe that he also wasn't interested in the piece as a neo-classical project/experiment as well.

If there are precedents for the combination of two instruments and voice in Sleep's Head, you'd have to seek them out, and the links they bear to this work are fleeting at best. The only one that comes to mind are Brahms' Op. 91 songs for alto, viola, and piano, and that's still a wholly different kind of work from Kahane's (and, oddly enough, another spinning-out of Joachim relations).

So even though this isn't spectral or atonal or electronic, it's still experimental, still breaking ground. Kahane is experimenting in the literal sense, delving into a for-the-most-part-unprecedented form, drawing on his training and the artistry of Weilerstein to craft a new piece of music. People who have accepted the false, Hegelian Romantic/Modernist view of musical history--that there's some kind of line of musical progress, where Stockhausen is more progressive than Britten and where serialism is somehow more advanced than tonality--would accept that experimental music only encompasses things that surpass Lachenmann and Sciarrino in hyper-notated effects and hyper-mathematicized forms. That is one road of experiment, but it is not the only one.

Oddly enough, though, the big experiment -- the idea of a piece for voice, cello, and piano -- isn't really the part that lays entirely in Kahane's hands. Those two patrons proposed the idea, and Kahane ran with it. (Not quite, apparently: according to Gabriel, the patrons suggested a sonata and then he came up with the idea for the hybrid) As I've been writing this, I've been listening to Timothy Andres' recomposition of Mozart's Coronation Concerto. It's brilliant and audacious and seems to be the definition of how today's composers approach classicism -- but, as Andres notes, someone else gave him the idea.

I often wonder about where the inspiration comes from, and it's a big musicology question. Bernd Zimmermann developed an extremely complex idea of musical time by reading Ezra Pound and James Joyce, but in his writing it's never entirely clear whether he was truly inspired to create these ideas by Pound's conception of time, or whether he had these ideas brewing and found Pound a convenient justification for his new direction. It's usually a mutual process. The classic example of this is Schoenberg, who takes the notion of Brahms being a kind of secret progressive, the underground progenitor for atonality. In reality, yes, Brahms was a forward-thinking composer, but Schoenberg is really just using Brahms to justify his own stylistic leaps in a classical past.

Who are the people who created the set of circumstances whereby we can hear a version of Mozart's Coronation Concerto that is so faithfully irreverent, or a strange pop song cycle/sonata
hybrid? One big answer, I think -- and one that is fairly obvious but not often discussed -- is teachers. Kahane mentions in an interview in the Caramoor program book that the musicologist Rose Subotnik suggested that he apply postmodern literary criticism to music. Subotnik is one of the many great academics who have helped explode the primacy of the Germanic musical canon in recent decades. It's not insignificant that Kahane learned about musical history from a New Musicologist, or that Nico Muhly has written about Edward Said. The composers who Andres or Judd Greenstein studied with at Yale are not the kind of composers who preach a fidelity to a specific style or set of compositional techniques (feel free to prove me wrong). I imagine that, unlike composers going to school in the '60s or '70s, this generation did not learn that musical or global history is something fixed and canonized. They probably learned that it shouldn't always be viewed with a Western eye, too.

And probably one of the main reasons they hate to put terms on what they're doing -- Olivia Giovetti's The New Canon on Q2 is a noble attempt to lock down what's going on out there -- is that they never had to. Stockhausen came up with a million names for his music partly as a defensive mechanism, the same reason why Schoenberg made such a big deal out of twelve-tone music. They wanted to show themselves as both rebels and adherents to a greatness of the past, but also to justify to critics and their predecessors that what they were doing was important, that it could stand with Beethoven in the annals of history. I can't imagine that Kahane had to defend why he wanted to write a musical and not a string quartet; I can't imagine Greenstein having to defend his love for hip-hop. I think we're beyond that ego trip at this point, and polemics have faded away when there's no one left to polemicize against. *Side note: the lack of something to rage against doesn't make music any worse. Most music before Beethoven wasn't about composers fighting stylistic battles or warring against their forefathers.*

So if we're going to throw around a term for what these people are doing, I would suggest (and only suggest! you don't need to use it, I probably won't) postclassic or postclassical. Alt-classical, besides being an abomination on the ears and minds, implies that there is one way of doing classical music, and this is the alternative. That's never been true; even when classical music performance seemed at its most codified, from let's say the 1930s to 1970s, there were many ways to present a concert. Classical music is a set of practices encompassing hundreds of years and tens of thousands of composers. It's not that that new guys are staking out a place that is an alternative to the Avery Fisher or Carnegie, because many of them have or will play there. It's that the way that they approach Classical Music is inherently not-classical -- it is not overly reverent, not worshipful, not dogmatic. They love the stuff, but they don't love it in the scary way that Schoenberg does. They present it as something living, not something that exists in the ether: friends to hang out with, not gods to pay heed to.

Muhly makes an analogy that I can't locate right now -- a version of it is here -- that genre can be seen like a citizenship or nationality. Classical music is where he's "from," but he travels to other places, lives in other places, has a summer home in some places and a winter home in others. This makes perfect sense for a composer who has actually lived in a ton of places, speaks multiple languages, and studied postcolonialism. It also makes sense for a generation of composers who aren't interested in style so much as styles, where the meeting points between classical and whatever else are ambiguous and impermanent.

1 comment:

  1. But are you sure you made the right choice on Friday night? Are you really sure you wouldn't rather have been at The Stone?
    Just kidding... I love your blog and this post is particularly fascinating. It opens up so many cans of worms all at once! Thanks for your excellent writing.