Tag Archives: joan tower

On New Music

I think a lot about “New Music.” Part of my preference for it is my Classical Saxophone perspective: (relatively) “new” instruments require new music to create a lexicon. And while not all new music (especially for saxophone) may be of high quality, you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. Another reason for my dwelling on New Music is from a teaching perspective. In my Music Appreciation classes, I always expose my students to New Music and some of its related concepts. I don’t care that they like it, and they know it – I simply want them to experience it, and to be able to explain their (dis)liking it.

I’ve started a number of drafts of what would have been this post over the last few months, only to delete them all. Each time the article has branched off in a different direction. Instead of trying to encapsulate everything in a single post, I decided to cover each item separately. For this first article, I’d like to start with an anecdote from last year.

As mentioned in my previous MTH-V post, I attended Belgian new music ensemble ICTUS‘s Austrian premiere of Harry Partch‘s The Wayward. Their performance was part of the “Kunst aus der Zeit” (“Art of Our Times”) series, the small new music branch of the annual Bregenzer Festspiele. I was able to arrange for my students and myself to attend a closed rehearsal, and I attended the premiere two nights later. For those unfamiliar with Partch (and I’m guessing that’s most everyone reading this), in brief:
• Partch is one of the many, and arguably one of the least-known outside of musicians’ circles, composers who pursued an “American Sound” in the 1900s
• He pursued not only an American sound, but sought to create a new musical system based largely on microtonality
• Not stopping there, he constructed his own instruments to properly convey this new musical language
• Corporeality: “The dramatic fusion of human speech, music, and movement, and inseparable combination of these parts into a larger whole.”
• For more (better!) Partch information, explore Corporeal Meadows and HarryPartch.com.

Before going further, I should mention that I’m no Partch expert. My combined assigned reading in undergraduate and graduate school of his life and music totaled maybe ten paragraphs, one selection on a CD, and a VHS clip. And as for my teaching, he received, until this point, brief mention, if any, as an example of Twentieth Century tendencies. My unfamiliarity was actually one of the big reasons for my excitement for this performance.

The Wayward includes all of the above aspects, and is arguably his most-known work (relatively speaking, considering none of his music is “known”). Another way to put it – this was the one piece I knew of his offhand. Because his music was written for instruments he constructed, he receives little-to-no-performance outside of a few “Partch ensembles” (mostly run by his surviving associates and students). Unlike a standard classical work, one can’t simply purchase a score, assemble musicians, rehearse, and perform. This is largely why it took a half century for the Austrian premiere to occur. (The Wayward‘s four parts were composed in various stages from the 1940s to the 1960s.) That being said, ICTUS went about their performance in a drastically different manner. Instead of reconstructing the required instruments, composer Tim Mariën re-orchestrated The Wayward for performance on common (often fixed) instruments. Hence ICTUS’s more “traditional” approach. (And controversial, according to members of the aforementioned Partch ensembles…more on that later…)

The Wayward‘s biggest, and arguably most well known, movement/section is “U.S. Highball.” It illustrates a hobo’s transcontinental railroad journey, using vocal techniques more reminiscent of sprechstimme and American folk than more classical means. That programmatic context, along with the above bullet points, was pretty much all the preparation I gave my students before we attended the rehearsal. (That, with a dusting of, “You’ll think it sounds weird and likely incorrect, but please remember that the musicians are 110% serious about the piece…and it’s supposed to sound like that.”) My reasoning was that I wasn’t as concerned about their becoming intimately familiar with Partch specifically, but rather I wanted to lightly prepare them to hear a type of music they’d never heard before or since. In my judgement, having them experience the music live with little-to-no context would be a great experiment of sorts. (After attending the rehearsal, we had a comprehensive debriefing, both with myself and also with the organizer of the new music concert series.)

In a portion of their final reflective essays, I asked my students to select and explain both their favorite and least favorite of the musical events they attended throughout the course. While only one or two listed Partch as their favorite – one or two more than I had expected! – only a couple listed it as their least favorite. (The winner of that category was actually Judith Weir‘s opera Achterbahn, the world premiere of which we attended.) On paper, one would likely expect Partch to be the outright loser for an audience of non-musicians, but that is perhaps the problem: it’s what is expected on behalf of musicians (in this case, academic musicians). For those who listed it as neither, most students told me that they enjoyed it much more than they had anticipated, and that it showed them that contemporary music didn’t have to be something to necessarily fear or avoid. And part of their reason for accepting it (and even enjoying it) as they did was the fact that we attended a closed rehearsal. They were able to witness the ensemble occasionally start, stop, tinker, argue, and refine the music. It was a peek behind the curtain for something that, to them, could have otherwise been simply organized chaos.

Their overall positive reception caught me off guard. Pleasantly.

As evident in the article, this experience has stuck with me for a variety of reasons:
• I simply enjoyed the performance (and being able to attend the rehearsal).
• It was great to expose my students to such a rare piece of music.
• It was great to see something most academically-oriented musicians see as “out there” go over well with such a general audience. (The room full of Austrians at the premiere seemed to really enjoy the performance as well.)

ON NEW MUSIC: Advocates, The Ivory Tower:
Now, what does this have to do with concerns over “New Music”? Frankly many, but I’ll try to isolate just a few here. The first has to do with we musicians who advocate and perform such music. This unexpectedly, but welcomely, came to life in the comments section of my previous MTH-V post. I was taken to task, and rightfully so in a sense, by Jon Szanto. He curates Corporeal Meadows, a wonderful online Partch resource (one that I had actually used a few times myself before and after attending the Austrian performance), as well as having known Partch at the end of his life. He presented a very valid point: the ICTUS performance was not authentic, as it featured a re-orchestration for traditional instruments, and therefore the music was drastically cheapened. Amusingly, he said comparing ICTUS to Partch was like comparing the Portsmith Sinfonia to the Berlin Philharmonic. 🙂

I can’t argue with that. I’m a Partch novice, and the above performance was simply an introduction. In areas I’m much more comfortable and knowledgeable, I’m equally picky. For instance, one of my pet peeves is classical saxophonists obsessing too much over transcriptions. I hate to break it to my colleagues: Bach didn’t write for the saxophone. Neither did Mozart. As valuable – and necessary – as that music is to our technique and understanding of older styles in our practicing, it needn’t be the focal point of the instrument. Now and again it’s perfectly fine, but after a while you’re conveying more of an inferiority complex than anything, in my opinion.

This question of authenticity is proper for debate. After all, musicians should always look to honor the music. But when it comes to reaching listeners and advancing our art, the context changes. As Jon rightly noted, the Berlin Philharmonic is great. Amazing, actually. However, most laypeople don’t experience the Berlin Philharmonic. Instead they attend local, regional, and university orchestras, most of which are more akin to the Portsmith Sinfonia. Then, assuming they enjoy themselves, perhaps they’ll take a greater personal interest, discover more music, and eventually listen to (or even see) top tier ensembles such as the Berlin Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, and Chicago Symphony Orchestra. As I told Jon, I remember attending performances of local classical and jazz ensembles in middle and high school, but now that I am one such performer I pretty much only seek out those top tier ensembles for performances. (Local rock scenes can function much the same way.) In this case, Jon and I agreed that ICTUS served this function for me. I was able to experience Harry Partch’s music live in some fashion, something most of my colleagues can’t claim, and now I’d like to eventually see “the real thing” (Partch music performed on Partch instruments). Since then I’ve invested in recordings and plan to purchase more.

ON NEW MUSIC: Audience:
This brings me to the final point (for this article, at least): reaching an audience. One of the biggest complaints among New Music enthusiasts is that no one besides fellow musicians wants to listen, or at least no one seeks it out. Fair enough, I suppose. But where is most of this New Music performed? In the United States, outside of major metropolitan centers, it’s largely relegated to university campuses (and associated churches and community centers when new music artists are on tours). That’s hardly getting it out there to the public. Of the many recitals I gave and/or attended while a student, rarely was there someone in the audience who wasn’t a friend, family member, fellow music student, or non-music student meeting a class/assignment requirement.

Perhaps one solution would be to take the show “on the road,” so to speak. Maybe instead of giving a performance in a university recital hall, it’s moved to a local space in town and off campus. I know some former classmates of mine did this with a (SCENE) & Heard It series at East Lansing’s (SCENE)Metrospace. Instead of waiting for the new ears to come to the performer, the performers can bring the music to new ears. Advertise it alongside local rock, jazz, and hip-hop acts. Put it in similar venues. Maybe even a double-bill of disparate but complementary acts/ensembles. What if – gasp! – you didn’t wear a suit or tuxedo to perform? Outside of my music appreciation course, my students didn’t have advanced musical knowledge when attending ICTUS’s performance, yet most of them quite enjoyed themselves. The setting was casual (granted it was a rehearsal, but the actual premiere didn’t require formal attire either), offering one more welcoming layer – or rather removing one more intimidating layer – to the first-timer. (Along those lines, The Corporeal Group asks similar questions [see bottom of page] about Partch’s music specifically, but those can also be applied to new music generally.)

Similarly, more “traditional” venues and series must be brought up to date. After the initial Occupy Wall Street protests, you may remember a number of comical OWS parodies. One that floated around music nerd-dom (of which I’m of course a member) was “1% of music students do 99% of the practicing.” Amusing, but it definitely had a point. Another that packed some punch was the following:

Very true. I know that music directors and money-managers want to appease their financial supporters, but perhaps their revenue base (i.e., patrons) would increase if they updated their programming. Works by Schönberg are still considered aesthetically challenging by many groups (100 years later, mind you…). Okay. But you could throw in that or Berg along with recent works by Torke, Colgrass, or Ades and still have time to open the show with some Haydn for good measure. I remember hearing this NPR story a few years ago about regional orchestras that banded together to co-commission new music by Joan Tower and finding much success. The move added cachê to these smaller groups’ reputations, added new music to their repertoire, created buzz in their communities, and possibly yielded a number of first-time concertgoers.

Obviously I’ve not covered everything here. There are many things I’ve missed (intentionally or otherwise), and I’ve provided more questions than answers, but it’s a start. Food for thought, if nothing else. It’s been my experience, at least with students, that they’re much more receptive to contemporary music when they see it performed live. Even if they don’t particularly love the musical style, the live experience at least causes them to respect and/or appreciate the work that goes into it.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read or heard, “It was way better than I had expected,” or, “It was better in person than listening to the CD.” Definitely something to consider. If we performers take chances on the audience, perhaps audiences will taken chances on us.