Sextet

This is actually about a new piece of music I’ve just put up on my site. I’m going to talk about the music, starting with a peek into the crystal ball of past and future, so if you are amused by that sort of thing, read on — otherwise, tab over to the music page and listen to the Sextet, and ignore my rant.

<rant>

Several weeks ago, a friend sent me a note, indicating that the Fort Collins Chamber Music Society was looking for local composers. The friend gave me a name and a phone number, and after several missed calls and texts, Liz Telling and I finally met for lunch this last week. It was a great conversation, and it was fascinating to me to see how musicians, particularly in the classical scene, have been trying to adapt to the changing economic landscape.

Let’s take a little walk down some historical byways.

The peak of Western “classical” music in Europe occurred during the two centuries from 1700 to 1900 — this period spans roughly from Bach to Brahms.

The economic foundation for music during this period seems likely to have developed from the “court musicians” at the very end of the Age of Knighthood, the late 14th century, during which the ideals of noblesse oblige — the obligations of nobility — reached absurd heights that tended to impoverish all but the wealthiest of the landed gentry. As part of this obligation, the nobles were expected to act the part of nobility, meaning in practice that they had vast numbers of hangers-on in their courts: chefs, scholars, entertainers, theologians, artists, composers, musicians, astrologers, and the like, all of whom needed food, shelter, gambling money, and whores — that is to say, they were expensive. But if you were a noble, you needed to support them so they would speak well of you, or … well, you got the Medieval equivalent of a low Rotten Tomatoes score. And that was a Very Bad Thing for a long list of reasons I won’t go into.

Much of a musician’s success up until the late 19th century thus revolved around the idea of patronage. A musician who courted and continued to please a wealthy patron, generally did well. Franz Joseph Haydn, for instance, was court musician for the wealthy Esterhazy family, and lived very comfortably throughout his life. Mozart was originally employed in the court of the Archibishop of Salzburg, and fell on much harder times after being dismissed, before finding his feet (and new patrons) in Vienna. Beethoven subsisted on income from a number of wealthy patrons. Supporting musicians was simply something the wealthy did, and that musicians counted on — it was part of the old tradition of noblesse oblige.

Sometime in the 1700’s or 1800’s, this began to change. The idea of the concert-hall had become established, and existed in its own right as a paying proposition, serving up musical entertainment to the wealthy and the bourgeoise alike. While still underwritten and patronized by the wealthy, the concert-hall was a kind of corporation into which many patrons contributed, and the composers and performers were no longer bound to any single patron, though they were now at the mercy of the theater owners and directors.

Then in 1877, Thomas Alva Edison was granted a patent for the phonograph, and started a true economic revolution that broke the back of the concert-hall system.

At any time prior to this, music was ephemeral. We know, for instance, that the ancient Celts, the Greeks, and the Romans valued music and had an extensive repertoire — what we do not know is what any of it sounded like. Sound, by its nature, dissipates into silence immediately after it is produced, and a lot of it is never written down, or is written in notation that is never explained (in writing) and is thus lost when a culture falls.

Prior to 1877, to enjoy music, you had to be there. That meant you could be charged for the privilege of listening to the music, by the simple expedient of closing the doors to the concert hall until you paid for a ticket, or showed your invitation. After 1877, you could — in principle — buy the recording. And while making the recording was a bit tricky, reproducing the recording was and is incredibly cheap.

Consider that a training period for a mature concert violinist is twenty years, and that there are at least fifty members in a symphony orchestra. This means that the very first performance of a new symphony orchestra has already involved well over one thousand man-years of effort, before the first note sounds.

Nearly twenty years ago, I was chatting with a professional pianist, and he commented that anyone could hire a symphony orchestra — if they were willing to spend something like $10,000/hour. That was in the mid-1990’s, and inflation will have driven that figure much higher.

That cost has to be met by the ticket prices for a concert, and only so many bodies will fit into the performance hall. Any deficit has to be made up by wealthy patrons, be they individuals or foundations.

By contrast, the number of recordings you can sell is limited only by the number of people interested in hearing that performance, and the reproduction cost has always been negligible, compared to the cost of the performance itself. This completely changed the economic foundation of music, in a way that had never before been seen.

At about the same time, the nature of musical composition took a bizarre turn. I don’t know if that came about in response to the phonograph, or to changes in society brought about by the First World War, or some other reason. Historians will debate that for the next thousand years. But the turn itself is easy to see.

People talk about the “Romantic Revolution” that began with Beethoven, or the “Impressionist Revolution” that began with Debussy — or even the “Polyphonic Revolution” that reached a brilliant peak in the masses of Palestrina or Tallis. But you can listen to Beethoven, or Debussy, or Tallis, and there is always a continuity with what had come before. Sometime in the early 20th century, the so-called “classical” music thread snapped, and a great deal of the “classical” music of that time and since has been simply cacophonous, or self-mocking (such as John Cage’s famous 4’33).

I walked into a violin lesson once in 1977 or 1978, and my teacher was sitting on a chair, fiddle in hand, glaring at the sheet music on the stand in front of him. While I was getting my own instrument out of the case, he burst out, bitterly, “You spend your whole life learning to play in tune, and then they throw these fucking quarter-tones at you.” I may not have that quote exactly right, but the F-bomb was his, and it shocked me — mostly to find that he, an academic musician, hated quarter-tones even more than I did.

Or take the case of a friend who subs on cello for the Boston Symphony, who was handed a composition once that consisted of a measure of 1 beat, followed by a measure of 2 beats, followed by a measure of 3 beats, and so forth, up to a measure of 7 beats, which then repeated, over and over throughout the work. They wrestled with it for a long time, and finally figured out that (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + 6 + 7) = 28 = 4 x 7. So they broke it up into four measures of seven beats, rewrote the bar lines, and managed to struggle through it. When he later asked the composer why on earth he had done such an idiotic thing, the composer replied, “Because it looks cool on the page.”

Chaos and cacophony. Stupid ideas promoted as “art.” I could go on at considerable length, but suffice it to say that this has really, truly, totally alienated both the musicians and the paying customers in the “classical” music tradition.

At the same time, “popular music” took over, for no reason other than that more people were willing to buy recordings of popular music than of classical music, particularly of the “modern” cacophonous variety. This was a very simple business decision by the recording industry, and became quickly self-reinforcing.

Now, there has always been, and will always be, “popular music.” That’s just something people do, whether in the streets of Vienna, or the jungles of the Amazon. Before recordings came along, ordinary people sang popular music: lullabies, drinking songs, marching songs, sea chanties, harvest songs, folk tunes, chants…. After recordings began, at least here in Western civilization, performers started singing popular music, and ordinary people mostly stopped singing altogether.

Instead, they listened to other people singing their favorite tunes. In time, their “favorite tunes” were no longer theirs at all — they were instead new “favorite tunes” of the hour, propagated through top-40 lists on the radio, intense advertising, and a constantly-shifting tapestry of the same-thing-all-over-again done by different artists in different ways, designed — like “new and improved” toothpaste — to spur sales for the next quarter, and little else.

Where the theater director had reigned in the 1800’s, the recording studio agent reigned in the 1900’s. In the process, I would argue, the music was left further and further behind, and the money — the pure, mercantile profit — moved entirely to the forefront. The result was much like commercial television: a race to the bottom. It’s why people poke such fun at the music of the 1980’s. Or the 1990’s. It’s all Wonder Bread plumped out with sawdust.

We are currently in the middle of yet another economic revolution in music.

The “recording industry” has effectively collapsed in the last decade. Once sound went digital, in the age of the Internet, there was no way for the recording industry to continue to protect its profits. In the 1960’s, if you had a record label contract, you had access to the marketplace — if you didn’t, you had no access, other than playing live gigs in smoky bars and hoping that some agent might “hear your sound” and scoop you up. Today, a record-label contract isn’t worth much to the recording studios, nor to the performers.

The money — according to what I’ve been reading recently — is moving back toward live performance, where it lay for all those long centuries before Thomas Edison came along. Many or most performers still record, but they are starting to give away the recordings as promotional material. They purchase the recording themselves, just like they’d purchase business cards, and give them out — or charge some nominal fee to cover costs plus a little — at live concerts.

The classical music scene is starting to adapt to this new economic situation: what they seem to be doing at the moment is to concentrate on the issue of access.

As I see it, there are two unnecessary access barriers to classical music.

The first unnecessary barrier, which Liz had a lot to say about during our conversation, is the venue. How many ordinary people want to buy an expensive ticket, then get dressed up to sit perfectly still for two hours in a dark auditorium listening to music, with no idea of when they should clap, when they should not, where they look around and see nothing but old people who seem to be asleep or perhaps already embalmed? Ewww.

When I used to go to the symphony in Fort Collins (note the past tense) I would move in my seat with the music. I’d conduct, if I knew the piece (and I usually did, which was ultimately the problem for me — do I really want to hear the 1812 Overture again?) I’d close my eyes and smile beatifically — or scowl and shudder if the horns flubbed their passage. I’d often get strange looks from nearby members of the audience. I didn’t give a rat’s fart after a bean-dip gorge-fest. But I’m funny that way.

I would always cringe when people would half-heartedly clap between movements and then fade away in embarrassment. Not because of the applause — in Beethoven’s day, if the audience liked the movement, there was some danger the balcony would collapse from the stomping of feet — but because of the way I knew those poor music-lovers felt as the stony silence engulfed them.

Those rules are all stupid, entirely unnecessary, and they drive away music-lovers. Talking during a movement — yes, that’s a bloody capital offense, and merits dragging the offender into the lobby to be hanged as a warning. However, talking, clapping, cheering, whistling, and howling between movements is something that the director should court, like an actor pausing after a laugh-line.

An article in the latest issue of the New Yorker magazine writes of director Ivan Fischer of the Budapest Festival Orchestra trying to break up this access barrier in Hungary. Liz says there are numerous national programs in the US beginning to approach this issue of concert accessibility.

The Fort Collins Chamber Music Society is trying to speak to this by creating new venues for classical music in Fort Collins. One approach involves placing classical musicians in brewpubs and coffee shops, just like that guy on the stool in the corner with the guitar and the microphone, only in this case it’s a string quartet, or maybe a couple of violins and a harp.

I think it’s very much the right idea. If Leo Kottke showed up in a brewpub with his 12-string guitar, I’d damn well shut up and listen. I first heard him as a warm-up for a Seals and Crofts concert in the 70’s, and while I don’t remember a bit of the main act, Leo was … amazing. I think exactly the same potential exists for classical musicians, most of whom are trained to within an inch of Death on their instruments. They aren’t strumming a few chords and wailing in a gravelly voice about a lost love. They are — or could be — kicking musical ass. And they should be.

The second unnecessary barrier is the music itself.

I have a dear friend who took me to a performance of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron at the New York Met, and he was thrilled. I was appalled. I’m perfectly willing to admit I may not have the refinement of musical taste, or perhaps the depth of philosophical background to properly appreciate such a work: perhaps the fact that this opera is about a German existentialist take on two opposed theological outlooks really does deserve music that makes no musical sense. Nevertheless, I was appalled by the interminable tone-row shouting (in German, of course, which is always somewhat frightening, especially when one’s German is as poor as mine), and if I wasn’t appreciating it, I’m willing to bet a few hours time with the London Philharmonic that 90% of that New York audience was faking their orgasm of applause after the performance. But the point here is that eventually, even those New Yorkers faking their appreciation are going to skip the opera and take in a Dodgers’ game instead.

Just last weekend, I listened to a work I’d not heard before by Eugene Ysaÿe, performed by two student violinists from CSU (whose combined artistry was admirable). I found myself listening with a composer’s ears, not for the music being played, but for the music not being played, and for the first time, this sort of music started to make some sort of sense to me. But if that’s actually the point, and not just a bit too much coffee in my bloodstream that morning, this concept is a self-destructive step — nay, a running leap — into musical and financial suicide.

There is no reason for music to be this difficult to listen to. It’s not like we composers have run out of notes. All this serves to do is drive audiences away.

That’s where feel that I have something to offer. I’m writing music that I would like to hear. I have every suspicion it would be dismissed by most academics, and eviscerated by most critics: and for all that, I don’t give the aforementioned rat’s fart. What I do care about is the fact that I’ve seen wonder-filled tears in the eyes of listeners at the closing of the fourth movement of the Missa Druidica. That is the point of music — to caress the soul. And I have at least once, in some small way, achieved that.

What I’d really love to see is other — and more capable — composers, particularly young composers, take the hint. Or more accurately, take heart, and courage, and perhaps inspiration, from my blundering forward with my rusty plow to raise a new crop of music from old and well-tilled earth, inexplicably abandoned. I’d love to see them kick my ass at the accessibility and soul-caressing game. I’d love to have them say, “Dang. I can do better than that.” And then, do so.

There is so much stunning music out there, and so much to be written. It would be a shame to see our civilization move back to kazoos and banging rocks together for no better reason than that our music-listening experience has been made artificially and unnecessarily unpleasant.

</rant>

On to the Sextet.

This is actually the third movement of the symphony I’m currently working on. I’ve simply thinned it out so that it can be played with only six instruments, harp, flute, oboe, violin, viola, and cello. It turned out pretty well, though I’m not completely happy with the instrument sounds in my box (the viola is buzzy), and I should probably spend another week on the mix.

But then, maybe it will see a live performance this summer, which will be far better than trying to work the buzz out of the viola. We’ll see….

Beyond that — well, I could talk about the music forever, but you should just go listen to it. It’s on the music page.

Enjoy.

2 comments on “Sextet

  1. Iannin says:

    Themon, my good friend, perhaps the elitist attitude about the superiority of classical music and your broad degradation of popular music has added to the loss in classical listenership as well. I don’t see popular music as “all Wonder Bread plumped out with sawdust”. Though it may not all be to your liking, many of us make such music as art, without the profit motive.

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    • Iannin, many people come out of a university education with a degree and a fine education and the ability to think critically, and they doubtless had some exemplary teachers in that process. That does not mean that there are no “degree mills,” nor that the university system as a whole isn’t slipping into being a grubby commercial enterprise on the same level as prisons-for-profit. So if I make uncomplimentary comments about the university system, it doesn’t reflect on the quality of the education that any individual managed to pull out of the dying coals of the system, or the integrity of any individual teachers trying to stand against the tide of bad institutional practice rising around them.

      The same is true here. The recording studio system was a money-maker. A BIG money-maker. For decades. Many of the people who corkscrewed through it were real artists. Many were not. Some of the record-label moguls were “visionaries” — many were not. The system itself, however, was a grubby commercial enterprise, and it churned out a whole lot of “Wonder Bread plumped out with sawdust,” and didn’t care, so long as it made them money every quarter.

      That system, however, had started dying before you guys had your first rehearsal, and you’ve never really had an opportunity to be “snapped up by a label” and promoted as recording stars. I suspect that you never will, because I don’t think that system is going to come back.

      It’s funny how this word “elitism” always comes up. So let’s put it in simple economic terms. A symphony orchestra is an ensemble of about 50 to 100 players, each of whom has dedicated about twenty years perfecting their instrumental technique, so an orchestra represents one to two thousand man-years of effort in preparation. There are no shortcuts to instrumental proficiency, so if you want an equivalently proficient popular musician, you need the same twenty years of hard practice — but now there are only four or five musicians involved, so we’re talking only one hundred man-years of preparation. And, of course, hardly any popular artist puts twenty years into perfecting their craft — the exceptions are the legendary greats.

      If you’re going to invest ten times as much in creating the ensemble, you better have something to show for it. A degree of “elitism” is built into the cost. If you pay $100,000 for a car, you expect something better than what you get for $10,000. If you don’t get it, you feel cheated.

      The symphonic crowd has not been putting out, IMO. Scan any current symphonic playbill, and you’ll find 90% of it is what a popular artist would call a “cover.” Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, the stuff we’ve heard over and over and over until the most brilliant thing a talented director can do with the music is put a slight accent on an off-beat in a particular passage. When the occasional “new work” is premiered, the average audience member’s first emotional response isn’t enthusiasm — it’s generally more akin to dread. After hearing the work, they don’t go out humming the tunes. If they can even identify “tunes.” There are always exceptions, but they are exceptions.

      There’s now a democratization taking place in producing music. I can afford to write, perform, and publish my own music. You can afford this. The kid down the street can afford this. You can write and perform trance-dance, reggae, symphonies, or serial tone-rows. There is no longer an “elite” to act as gatekeeper — there is no record label, no concert-hall, no patron.

      Groups like yours are going to do fine. You have your audience, you deliver what they want and expect and appreciate. You haven’t priced yourself out of the market. You’ll have to quit when you get tired of doing it, but probably not before.

      The large ensembles — the symphonic groups — are in serious trouble, and if they expect to survive, they need to change their ways. A major barrier is accessibility, both to the venues, and to the music itself. Both need to change.

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