Tuesday, December 28, 2010


The symphony orchestra is a humongous thing, the greatest musical instrument available to the hands and ears of humanity. "Great" in several senses: the number of people required to play it; its physical size; the amount of coordination and teamwork required on the part of all participants; the amount of money needed to keep it operating smoothly; the artistic framing of the statements of which it's capable.

So great is this instrument that, properly played, its tentacles reach into spheres beyond music: economics, politics and civic life of a city are all wrapped up in the fortunes of a symphony orchestra. Such a simple thing at base: people blowing their breath into specially shaped tubes, vibrating strings of specific lengths and tensions, striking membranes for dramatic or rhythmic effect. Actions absurdly specific, seemingly abstract, but directed like evolution. With the training and investment of all the performers in each instant of action, the product becomes synthesized, human artifice so complex that it takes its place among the creations of nature; a novel entity; a species. Creating such a thing as the music of a symphony orchestra tempts the human intellect: who would not want to feel this power of creation? But it's not for everyone. The basics are so teasingly simple that it seems within reach: the oboes play this, the violins play this and the harp does a bunch of arpeggios at this time, just a fun puzzle to be put together. But there are a lot of people involved, and only so much time and money to bring these creations into the world. The creator is asking a lot: in a sense it is the fun assembly of a puzzle, but there are a *lot* of pieces in this puzzle, and it takes a while and there's only so much time, and when you're asking people for all this time, well, those people need to feel like there's something in it for them, too. The performers, the audience, and the people funding the whole operation. Hence the politics.

As it turns out, there's never enough time for any art: we humans are just too good at creating it. In music, the invention of better and better sound storage technology makes this problem more and more acute. Not only is there a backlog of trillions of hours of recorded music and sound from the last century and a quarter dormant in the grooves of kajillions of records, the iron shavings of bazillions of tapes, and the ones and zeroes of karillions of CDs, now there's the internet and the hard drives and the storage devices that have brought the voices of the past into the present and made it possible to mix and match the old and the new, and generate the new through direct manipulation of sound. The problem of the fan - by which I mean you or me - is not (if it ever has been) one of needing new things to be created; rather it's a problem of prioritizing one's attention amongst the flood of new and old things that clamor for it, and perhaps also of being able to relax in the face of the certain knowledge that there's just too much for you to ever hear all of it, and that worthy things exist now and will be created in the future that you will never experience.

Hence the need for recommendations, or "entertainment delivery" technology. My thousands of LPs and my anxiety at the task of their mastery: it's why I created the FPE, and before that, any number of other strategies to constantly till the earth, to remember the times and circumstances that led me to buy a Steven Wright album, or that led George Clinton to turn some nonsense into a song, over and over again for half a century, with varying degrees of success (and also to examine the various yardsticks by which that success can be measured).

That's the consumer's problem: but my concern here is the yang to that yin, the problem of the creator. Too much access for the consumer means that any single creator is a voice lost in a shout of millions; relevance to one's potential audience is determined by arbitrary criteria and a hair's breadth. We even work against ourselves: our past creations join those of our colleagues as competition for our present and future endeavors, and our present relevance is inevitably judged by the standards we set in the past.

Music is a self-similar system: break it into a hierarchy of genres, times and locations, and you'll find analogous forces at work in its creation and consumption. Those on the creating end struggle for ways to make it relevant to enough people to support the endeavor, or they consider such struggle to be compromise of artistic integrity and create for a few rather than many, starving. In between are the agents and promoters, the media human and physical who mediate between the creators and the consumers. All engage in a dance whose object is to live according to the dictates of conscience and means, and whose product is art (or commodity, or something in between). Sometimes you hit it big if your particular talents and statements line up with something a lot of people want to hear: witness Motown; other times you make a nice, comfortable living for yourself striking a balance between what you want to do and what others demand; and sometimes the music is a painful, money-losing obsession (or an enjoyable, money-losing hobby).

The FPE takes me back today to 1955, a time when sound reproduction technology had yet to explode and amplify the problem of musical over-bounty. Then as now, though, we find a tension between old and new, and competition for available resources. Eight years had passed since the introduction of the LP, and the possibilities of the new medium were still being explored. In 1955, the idea of 40 continuous minutes of recorded musical expression (divided into 20-minute chunks) was still new, and unlike the widespread availability of the means to decode the medium that accompanied the revolution of the late 20th century that was digital sound-files, access to the technology was limited by esoteric production methods and ownership of playback equipment. Not just anyone could make a track and distribute it on the internet - and if you did have the means to get your music out, it was tough enough that you were only going to do it for a pretty awesome 40-minute chunk.

One group who recognized the potential of the LP as a strategic part of their plan for world domination was the remarkable Louisville Orchestra, under the leadership of music director Robert Whitney. Beginning in 1954, they immortalized their five-year Golden Age in the mid-Fifties on a subscription series of LPs, issued at the rate of one per month. Sixty albums from this period, 1954-58, by my math (although I haven't done the research to verify if they in fact kept to the schedule during this time) - and each of them consisted entirely of world-premiere orchestral works, commissioned from living composers. It's a stunning, almost unbelievable achievement for a modern orchestra, unmatched as far as I'm aware by any other in the Twentieth Century. The hard work of Mr. Whitney and the orchestra during this time, and for the seventeen years prior to 1954 during which he and others labored to turn the wheel of circumstances to a place where funding and politics created an environment where hard work to such an end would even be feasible, bequeathed to the world not only a significant contribution to the literature for symphonic music written in the 1950s but also a recorded legacy of incredible depth and breadth. And they kept doing it, and recording it, albeit with less frequency than during this hey-day, for decades.

A recent effort to preserve this legacy is documented in this 2006 review of a reissue series by "First Edition Music", whose link in the review is, sadly, dead, suggesting it faced the same lack of sustainability the Louisville Orchestra itself was plagued with throughout its most progressive era. This, too, then, the establishment of the fact of indifference of the music-buying public to such art - one of the greatest and only monolithic modern contributions to the symphonic literature (except, perhaps, for film music) - is perhaps the other legacy of their experiment. People buy tickets and recordings for Beethoven and Mahler, but you can still count on the fingers of one hand the composers active since 1950 who fill concert halls and move units.

That's right, the modern composer is irrelevant. It's a fact. Yet the composer insists on continuing to exist, and furthermore, composing.

Of course I apply this to my personal experience. As a composer, my chief obstacle in promoting my music is the difficulty of convincing musicians to play it. Those who dedicate their lives to the performance of instrumental music have little time to be involved with something that's untested and probably financially unrewarding - and who can blame them? New music, when it doesn't touch a popular chord, is unsustainable financially. If that wasn't already clear in 1954, the Louisville experiment drove the point home - and if anything the situation is worse for creators now, with half a century's backlog of recordings available as competition for the public's time in the audience of performing musicians, and as always the continued march of time bringing with it the constant birth of new compositions and composers like me.

(Since I'm writing about the Louisville Orchestra, I should shout out to a contemporary parallel that's important in my own life and work: Access Contemporary Music, or ACM. With their mission to "promote the music of living composers through performance, education and advocacy", they are directly attacking the problem of access to performance for composers. They're an amazing resource for people in my situation [got music but no one to play it!], and direct inheritors of the mantle of the Louisville Orchestra's Rockefeller grant, whose purpose was "to commission, record and premiere 20th century music by living composers". ACM was the first group who played something I wrote without me having to find the musicians. Thanks, ACM.)

Robert Whitney's story, and that of the Louisville Orchestra, offer some clues that may point the way forward for those of us who foolishly insist on writing music. The telling of that story in a 1977 masters thesis by Carole C. Birkhead is the source for my sketch in the following paragraphs.

When Robert Whitney was hired to be its music director in 1937, the Louisville Civic Arts Association Symphony, as it was then known, had for years been involved in a classical music scene in Louisville characterized by factionalism and competition for limited musical resources. The strife had taken its toll: in a 1970 interview by Charles P. Berry, Mr. Whitney states that at his first rehearsal,

There were only a handful of people. There were absolutely no French horn players. There was only one oboe player. There were no bassoon players. Of the players there were, there were very few of them of a quality necessary for presenting symphonic music. I discovered that one reason for this was that we could not call upon all of those competent to play because there had been factional feuds going on in this community for generations and particularly the years prior to my coming.

Whitney came from Chicago and was outside of this fray, and he brought with him a young man's energy and ideas, coupled with a resume that shows him to be a relentless seeker and employer of any means available, whether financial, technological or just hard work, to bring music into the world. At the age of twenty, in 1924, he and two of his sisters formed a chamber music trio and got a weekly radio show in Chicago; by 1935 this had grown to a sextet (with two more sisters and the father) and a nationally syndicated radio show. Presumably because he didn't make enough money from this to live on, he had a "real job" as an administrator for the Federal Music Project (where his mission was finding WPA jobs for out-of-work musicians), taught classes in music theory, and was gaining experience as a conductor for the Illinois Symphony, itself a WPA orchestra.

The Civic Arts Association, in the 1930s, had a long history of spending more money than it took in and presenting music to an indifferent public, supported by wealthy, patient benefactors. Whitney's approach was basically to throw everything at the wall to see what stuck, and if nothing did, throw more, all the while never, ever admitting defeat or flagging his efforts. Throughout his first two decades with the orchestra, he had tons of cool ideas that were exciting and engaging and never once increased the organization's ticket sales or operational deficit. These included performances and presentations for children (including compositional lectures where he had elementary and high school kids actually write music that he would arrange and have the orchestra play!), getting military musicians from the local Army base during the war years, and my favorite, something called "Industrial Night", which unfortunately did not involve Blixa Bargeld driving a bulldozer through the wall of the concert hall and striking a live warhead with a sledgehammer, but was an outreach to major regional companies with discounted tickets for employees. Selling it, man. Working it. The hustle.

But yeah, like I said nothing worked. Ticket sales and subscriptions remained flat for years. The kids and the people of Louisville just weren't interested enough in the music of a symphony orchestra to pay its bills.

The genesis of the golden era for the group was an idea by the mayor of Louisville, Charles Farnsley. His revolutionary proposal to Whitney in 1948 was to hire composers instead of expensive soloists who had consistently failed to reverse the orchestra's deficit with increased ticket sales. Composers would be cheaper than soloists, and the novelty would start to generate public support. It was one of those ideas that was "so crazy, it just might work!"

It did. There was significant opposition from traditional supporters of the orchestra, complaining loudly that all the modern din and cacophany was cutting into their Brahms and Mahler time, and this opposition almost shut the orchestra down, especially because the burst of excitement around the new project still wasn't enough to fill the hall consistently. The bold move generated national attention, however. In 1953, five years after they started commissioning new works and three years after the orchestra cut its first LP, Farnsley the mayor hustled his way on into a big grant from the Rockefeller Foundation that funded the commissioning project on a major scale (46 works a year) and the LP series on Columbia Records (one a month). The grant money rolled in, Whitney rolled up his sleeves and got to work, and the history happened.

I dig the Louisville Orchestra recordings, a lot. I pick them up whenever I find them in used record stores. I have five, two of which, including the one that Frances selected for me to listen to this time, are from the first year of the commissioning project, 1955 (this one is from the 1975 reissue series on the orchestra's own label, First Edition Records - hence the references on the cover to Whitney's successor, Jorge Mester; it's Whitney in the grooves though). This one is the January 1955 issue, and contains Henry Cowell's Symphony No. 11 (subtitled "Seven Rituals of Music"), Alexander Tcherepnin's Suite, Opus 87 and Bernard Wagenaar's Concert Overture. All deal, in some way, with the same tension that animated the struggle of the orchestra that first recorded them: the difficulty of finding music's place in the world, as art subject to the reality of living, but pointing the way through the maze.

Cowell's piece is a symphonic portrayal of the life of man, from birth to death. The peaceful sleeping child section at the beginning is thematically linked with the sad and peaceful death section at the end; in between are sections which link love with magic and mysticism, and work with play and war. It's rich and emotionally stirring, melodic and mystical.

Tcherepnin's suite, a dramatic, sensitive thing, is inspired by the idea of "the Town" - the world where humans live in close proximity and go their myriad ways in a web of existence, and the individual response to that setting. In his notes, Tcherepnin says:

I do not believe in living in an ivory tower. I do not seek a hermitage. My place is with human beings. I put my faith in them. I love them. They inspire me. And I try to serve them by the way of music. And this is the general "motto" of the Suite.

Wagenaar presents his Concert Overture, the most tonally dissonant work in the set (but still really really tame when you compare it to, say, Stravinsky's more difficult stuff, or any Schoenberg), as art to be framed and experienced as such: "this music does not have any literary connotations at all, but has been built up of purely musical ideas and moods." He makes the argument that he shouldn't need to go into a bunch of jargony junk (what he calls "professional problems") about the harmonies and formal structure of the work (a pet peeve of mine as well - that discourse about classical music so often reverts to this kind of inside baseball), and if you don't "get" it, it's not your fault for being dumb but his for not writing it well enough:

If, let us say, unity and variety, emotional expression and logic, tension and relaxation are not apparent to the hearer - although only incidentally so - and irrespective of taste, then we must consider that we have failed.

Three composers making their way in a modern world where they were lucky to draw a modest income from their art. Three composers, like pretty much anyone who has the cojones to call themself a composer, who probably had university appointments to keep their lights on and food on the table, and probably gave a piano lesson or two to supplement things (disclaimer: I'm just guessing here; I don't actually know anything about any of their individual situations), given a rare opportunity by a remarkable orchestral group in Kentucky, using the opportunity to make their own statements about living in the world. Whether music is set apart from the world as pure thought and emotion, an escape or punctuation, or whether it undertakes to explore the condition of life by commenting on and thus enhancing conditions that exist apart from the music, it's a piece of the whole pie, and there's no escaping life in music or music in life.

What's interesting about this whole story is that all the national attention and acclaim never really fixed the Louisville Orchestra's sustainability problem. The LPs never sold profitably (Birkhead notes that for the duration of the grant, no more than 800 of them ever shipped during a single month). After the grant ended in 1958, good musicians left in droves for better-paying gigs in bigger cities. The orchestra, established after its shining moment as a fixture in the civic life of Louisville, continued to operate at a deficit, albeit on a much larger scale and in a nicer concert hall. It remains an institution to this day, and if the buggy way the site loads for me in Firefox and the headline saying "The Orchestra Board is committed to re-balancing the organization’s costs to be in line with historical levels of income" are any clues, I'd say cash flow is still an issue.

In art and music, sustainability is a red herring - what matters is productivity and progress. If you build it, they won't necessarily come. But if you own that fact, keep moving ahead like a shark and trying new things, you'll live in the world, you'll probably find ways to balance your life with your art, and you'll have a bunch of things that you made to show for it. Good luck competing with those!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass

Yo La Tengo - I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass. In the canon of completely ridiculously titled post-golden-age-of-career albums by musical giants, it's almost but not quite in the same league with George Clinton's 1993 Hey Man... Smell My Finger and the Thinking Fellers Union Local 282's 2001 masterwork Bob Dinners and Larry Noodles Present Tubby Turdner's Celebrity Avalanche (both of which received mention in a previous post of mine). It's a cut above Tormato, though.

I first learned of this album from Douglas Wolk's ecstatic featured review of it on eMusic in late 2006. Until I read that, I'd never been able to get too worked up about Yo La Tengo, who I had always assumed made sweater-and-glasses indie pop that was, kinda serious. (I mean, that is actually what they make - but I think my mistake was thinking that sweater-and-glasses dudes and their indie pop are automatically lame. Some of my best friends are sweater-and-glasses dudes. These particular sweater-and-glasses dudes had to go and call their record I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass to get me to listen, though.)

I played this record a lot when I got it. Wolk's review and this one by Mark Deming emphasize its eclecticism, which is a particular happy-maker for me as well - it's like they took a mixtape and covered all the songs. The album opener, "Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind", recalls the awesome Faust jam "Krautrock" to my ears, with its keyboard wash and shifts in pulse (but why do both Wolk and Deming describe the guitar soloing as a "freak-out"? It rocks, sure, but the dude's glasses didn't fall off while he was playing it. They probably just slipped down his nose a ways). Other highlights for me are the atmospheric, drumless "Daphnia", the gorgeous, floaty "Black Flowers", the pretty, pretty harmonic palette of "I Feel Like I'm Going Home" and the triumphant closer "The Story of Yo La Tango" (sic). It would be a bit of a salad, rather than a delicious stew, in the hands of many - but the whole album, and I suspect Yo La Tengo's entire 25-year output, is overlaid with a lacquer of atmospheric, breezy seriousness, the sole constant.

It is pretty mixed up though. Maybe it's more of a soup than a stew. Minestrone.

I really like Douglas Wolk's writing (this is among my favorite pieces of music writing, ever), though I miss a lot of the aesthetic boats that he's in the front of the queue for. We have an on-and-off association that goes back 20 years (if you've already known me for more than half of this time, as 90% of the people who read this blog have, forgive me the expository indulgence!), and we fire on enough of the same cylinders for him to have released my old band's most ridiculous album (and to have composed a song for it); but his ultra passions, at least the ones he had back in the day, never set my blood a-boiling or my brain a-fire. They were always just a little too serious and not enough fart jokes or something. Now I'm a grownup, and Yo La Tengo has an album called I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, and Douglas is in Portland saying "See Matt? You should have listened to me when I was telling you to like Azalia Snail!"

Nostalgia and naming names aside, if there's a point, it's that I'm not gonna pay attention to just anything that any old reviewer writes, even if it is Douglas Wolk (though if these guys both hate something, I might consider checking it out). Reviews are fun to read, but unless my friend is in the band, I'm not gonna get the record on a reviewer's recommendation unless:

  • The reviewer convinces me that it's got something in common with other stuff I like - like they tell me it sounds like some Faust song that I really dig

  • The album title has "ass" or a fart joke in it or is otherwise stupidly juvenile

  • Both? That works.

Artists and reviewers: bring something to the table, or I'll just keep buying used high school band records, and the new Deerhoof, Marnie Stern and Harvey Milk, whenever they put new ones out. (Man, would you check the artwork on that Harvey Milk record? Handsome! That jet-trail cross in the sky just kills me. Why won't the vinyl ever come out? Delay delay delay! This happened with their last record too!)

One of my first interactions with Douglas was when he called me out in semi-public for "playing the Violent Femmes on the air at 2am" - when I asked him why playing the Violent Femmes at 2am was a problem, his response was that playing the Violent Femmes at all was a problem.

I'm laughing now. And I'm playing the Wolk-recommended "Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind", considering how good it might sound at 2am. If it sounds as good at 2am as it sounds right now, that would be pretty great.