I Changed My Mind About Minimalists

And I mean just that—not that I was a hater and now I’m a fan, not that I was a junkie and now I’m a critic. I’ve just simply done to minimalists what one ought to do in music history: not be content with sweeping generalizations but studying particular personalities and their particular output. The results have actually startled me.

First, some background. Back when I first encountered early music, as I’ve recounted many times, I was baffled by the fact that nobody talked about Medieval music and was also passionate to see it re-invented. Shortly afterward, I ran into the music of a particular (living) composer whom I saw actually attempting to do just that. He was a composer that would have been the typical European Ligeti or Penderecki type, but in the ’60s he converted to Estonian orthodoxy and ceased to compose during the turmoil for around 10 years. After he emerged on the other side, his style was radically transformed by the Notre Dame school of Paris (13 c., mmmmm, yes). His name is, of course, Arvo Pärt. Pärt rightly or wrongly is usually considered a minimalist and has subsequently molded the American school of composition in his image, mainly through the conduit of Eric Whitacre. (Sigh.)

So much for Pärt. Then, around the same time, there was the New York Hypnotic School, emerging from Julliard in the wasteland created by America’s Schoenberg obsession. These guys emphasized aleatory, cells, phase, counterpoint, modality, and all that jazz. They were Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich. I presumed pretty much all of them—well, in fact all modern composers besides Pärt and a few others—were just pretty much bunk. I did that on the basis of a little Glass, a little Reich, the little of Riley I could put myself through, and some other composers whose music I found to be as profound a musical experience as eating cotton candy is a gastronomic one.

There were also a handful of modern composers who were engaged in a whole lot of “neo” schools. Neo-impressionism, neo-expressionism, neo-primitivism, neo-serial, and a whole bunch of other stuff that it’s difficult to remember the night after it’s premiered. Most of this I found bland, and I’m afraid I still do.

And you may think I’m a terrible snob, but I have this as evidence: there’s nothing in any of this music that excites the audience the way an audience of Brahms or Dvorak was electrified. On this blog, I’ve identified that as a result of compositional deadness after the demise of classical music, the inability of composers to compose in our own language and still be High music.

On this much I have changed my mind, that we don’t have to wait for the reinvention of a contemporary, high idiom. Pärt is not alone in this reinvention.

I think the first blow to my skepticism of minimalism was a piece by Jonathan Dove performed by the Stanford Chamber Chorale. Dove is a middle-aged British composer and I think not particularly well-known at least in America. I went home from the concert impressed by the piece, because it stuck out amidst a program of Eric Whitacre and Whitacre’s various worshipers and fellow pan-diatonicists. The Dove was similar but it had edges. It had its quietness and haunting dissonances, but it was wild, rugged, and, dare I use the adjective (and please don’t misunderstand me), masculine at points. This is an unusual experience indeed when it comes to choir and organ.

I didn’t want to admit (snob that I am) that I liked the piece to anyone, but I looked up a recording on YouTube and listened to it. And then I listened again. And again. I glutted myself on the piece. I got sick of it. And a week later I’d listen to it again about ten times. And get sick of it again. And then go back again. There was something about it that I found quite compelling. Quite possibly that’s subjective, but you can point to some definite musical things he’s doing that make him stand apart from some of his contemporaries.

But it turns out that I hadn’t properly understood some of his contemporaries. I should mention in passing that I also reversed my opinion on Hans Zimmer, and that is not unrelated as I found out. I got a random email from the Stanford Arts Commission asking me and a few other music students if we could turn pages at an upcoming concert. None of the rehearsal times conflicted for me and so I consented. Lucky for me—it was a Steve Reich concert and it turned out that the man himself was co-running the rehearsal with the conductor of Alarm Will Sound. I had a while to see him up-close, in person, working with one of the best sinfonietta ensembles. I was not really prepared for the experience, but I found myself doing a 180 on Reich.

I am no junkie, I am not categorical fan, and I still don’t like him sometimes. But during rehearsal and especially during the concert, I was confronted with an experience I have scarcely had before. It was a combination of three things that I have always looked for and haven’t found: (1) it was contemporary, (2) it was high, challenging, confronting me with musical possibilities I hadn’t thought of or was new to, and (3) it was also in the language, the idiom of our peculiar musical moment. Which is simply to say that, in a nearly unprecedented experience for me, this concert was normal. Normal in a way that showed just how abnormal our compositional deadness is.

I am sure that I then experienced what I’ve talked about for a while, how music must have been for the audiences of classical music but cannot entirely be for us because it is in the past. There’s no doubt Reich is (1). I know some people will object to (2) but I have recently listened to quite a lot of pop, alternative, metal, and hip-hop and I have yet to find something that musically catches me totally off-guard, which is fine. That’s what that kind of music is supposed to do. I think if you analyze it closely, you’ll find it’s true for you as well. But (3) is perhaps the point where I can’t be totally sure. What I do know is this: the audience’s reaction was not far from mine. We were all confronted with a concert experience that was not the usual binary of bored vs. interested. The binary was arrested vs. annoyed. It was impossible to be bored. Hypnotic is ironically the ultimate misnomer: the audience was forward-leaning the whole time, wide-eyed and riveted on the players, discussing in the intermissions, and unafraid to express opinion. I found it difficult to let my mind wander even if I wanted it to (and sometimes I did want to). It was all a musical language we could handle and knew, perhaps for no more mysterious reason than that it really did come from a composer composing (like Pärt) with respect to nothing but the desire for new compositional possibilities. (Reich’s style from the ’60s has also found its way subtly into our common vocabulary through Hans Zimmer, Radiohead, and Andrew Bird, all of whom, I think, have claimed to be directly influenced.)

It was for me an unusual experience and I think it was perhaps the sort of experience that few people are likely to have experienced in two and a half generations. I can hope that it will be increasingly common. This doesn’t mean Reich is, again, a great composer. I’m simply saying that he is, in the company of few others alive, a normal composer. Normal in the sense that this blog has been insisting on recovering.

The particular pieces that I really found great (and there were some in the program I thought were stupid; don’t worry, I’m still a snob) were Piano Counterpoint Arranged for Six Pianos, aspects of New York Counterpoint, Radio Rewrite, and The Cave (various movements; I can’t quite figure out either his theology or politics, but I suspect we wouldn’t agree; great settings of Genesis though).

All that to say, I think perhaps minimalism as a compositional school may be in fact a viable option for reinventing musical composition. It is in some ways quite aware of its modal, polyphonic tendencies and so in that sense I’m a huge fan. I still think Glass is watery and Riley is way too experimental to be enjoyable. Then there is the deeper issue that I still don’t know how to resolve: re-inventing Medieval music also involves the downfall of professionalism and this artificial distance between performer and audience (and composer and audience) given to us by the 18th century. Pärt and Reich and all of them still are implicitly working in a framework of music only performable by highly trained people. If we’re looking to recover specifically a Christian (a Protestant?) understanding of how music functions in society, certain aspects of the composition will have to change such that it is possible to compose both high and easily-peformable music. But that can happen and I think it will. When I look at how Medieval music emerges, it is actually far less organized than I might imagine given some of its later products. The rules in many cases come afterwards and the wild experiments that don’t always work come first. That’s something I’m interested to watch happen and, well, hopefully contribute to.

Repetitive Hans Zimmer

It’s interesting that in an age that is obsessed with musical repetition—Hans Zimmer, rap loops, phase music, etc.—we often object to older music, particularly Baroque and pre-Baroque, on the basis that it’s repetitive. And it’s totally true: think of the passacaglia, the ground bass, ciaconne, theme and variation, and, going back farther, rondeaus. If you listen to these older forms, it often takes one musical idea and repeats it over and over in different slightly permutations.

Which leads me to wonder, we all find “Time” and “Dream Within a Dream” by Hans Zimmer to be really effective. But is that simply the zeitgeist working its magic? Maybe 400 years from now, people will find that music as tiresome as we find Italian baroque. Or, if you like Italian baroque, now you know why.

You also think of the more boring Italian composers who were still really popular in their time. Then there’s Henry Purcell, who takes repetitive forms and goes crazy. Can you take phase music and do the same to it as Henry Purcell did to the unimaginative forms of his day?

Trickle-down Musical Economics

In a music history class today, the professor was talking about subtle effects that render medieval and Renaissance music alien to our ears. He mentioned elitism and class as one of them. Medieval and Renaissance music, at least the sophisticated stuff that we have manuscripts of, was understood and sometimes even heard only by the clerical class, the educated class (which was—duh—really small). I writhed.

I’ll be interested in talking with him about this more, but I think that represents an inaccurate view of the relationship between popular music and High music in any culture. There will always be trickle-down. No matter what the class situation is like (here, I think, the analogy breaks down), whatever trend High music takes will eventually show up in popular music. I think this has always been true and continues to be.

(1) Chuck Klosterman talks about Elvis Costello’s critique of ’80s metal. “…[H]e thinks it’s a ‘facsimile’ of what legitimate artists already did in the past. What he fails to realize is that no one born after 1970 can possibly appreciate any creative element in rock ‘n’ roll: By 1980, there was no creativity left. The freshest ideas in pop music’s past twenty years have come out of rap, and that genre is totally based on recycled, bastardized riffs. Clever facsimiles are all we really expect.” (Chuck Klosterman, Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural Nörth Daköta)

But isn’t that exactly what happened 50 years earlier—maybe even 25—in the world of Classical music? Innovation simply stopped with the second Viennese school. That’s a situation tracked heavily by musicologist and a constant theme of this blog. Classical music died, and innovation stopped. The only real attempt to compose High music now is in a sort of rehash of the pre-tonal (Arvo Pärt and co.).

(2) Coldplay, a ridiculously popular band these days (too popular for some total poseurs), gets that distinctive Coldplay sound from assiduously avoiding the leading tone. (Interesting to note: they don’t use a mode in “Viva la Vida”, but they do use a sus4-3 chord in place of a straight dominant, which means that “ti”, scale-degree 7, never appears.) To cut the music theory jargon, they never have Vs, dominants; they never use the crowning achievement of common practice tonal music. No, wait, I didn’t cut the music theory jargon, darnit. Anyway, take my word for it. They’re modal. (Agh. Sorry.) Why are they modal? Maybe because that’s the direction that composers in academia took a couple decades before.

Actually, let me get really crazy. Think of some of the iconic “classy” bands in rock history. Think of the British ones. What do all the British ones do? Rely heavily on modality. Think of the Beatles. Maybe this is an intangible throwback to what Ralph Vaughan Williams was onto, that the British folk spirit speaks through Dorian and Mixo-Lydian and Lydian. And when academia recovers that blessed tradition, perhaps so does the popular world, but less consciously (and maybe less artificially, too).

(3) And, more to the point, look at masses in the Middle Ages. If class is really such a big deal, why was the parody mass on L’homme arme the most popular thing in the world to do? If you take “Yesterday” and work the melody into some sacred piece, people in church who know nothing about music and composition will start to giggle. Giggling, I submit, is the first and most important sign of understanding a piece’s composition. They’re engaging with the music. So, can we realistically suppose that Dufay and Ockeghem and Josquin had other motives in mind when they wrote their pieces? Who were they trying to impress? Who were they trying to appeal to? The people who know L’homme arme. In other words, everybody. (Okay. Everybody in Europe in the 15th century, but you get my drift.)

But! You say. That isn’t trickle-down, that’s trickle-up. But I’d say this represents some give and take altogether in the Middle Ages. Think about the popular tunes that get into the Piae Cantiones, things like Angelus ad virginem. Those whistle-able tunes are from chants monks would sing. They come from the Gregorian corpus, or antiphons, or whatever. In an age when folk music is molded so willingly by High music, I think High music is much more likely to cross that bridge itself.

There it is. I submit that whatever happens in High music will have an affect, seen or unseen, on popular music. The real battles lie in what is the philosophy behind both and how that philosophy conflicts with the musical assumptions of other ages.

Bon Jovi Knew It

“A widely held opinion in the aesthetic community insists an artist is more credible if he doesn’t consider his audience during the creative process; the philosophy suggests that a true artist has to make his art for personal reasons, regardless of whether or not people like it (or even want it). That’s plainly stupid, and Bon Jovi knew it. Art is not intrinsic to the universe; art is a human construction. If you killed off all the world’s people, you would kill off all the art. The only thing important about art is how it affects people. It only needs to affect one person to be interesting, but it has to affect many people to be important.” (Chuck Klosterman, Fargo Rock City. All the emphases are his.)

Looks like metal strikes at the modern lie of art as self-expression. Way to go, metal!

Apple Doesn’t Fall Far from the Tree

“Elvis Costello has questioned whether or not ’80s glam metal should even be considered rock ‘n’ roll, because he thinks it’s a ‘facsimile’ of what legitimate artists already did in the past. What he fails to realize is that no one born after 1970 can possibly appreciate any creative element in rock ‘n’ roll: By 1980, there was no creativity left. The freshest ideas in pop music’s past twenty years have come out of rap, and that genre is totally based on recycled, bastardized riffs. Clever facsimiles are all we really expect.” (Chuck Klosterman, Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural Nörth Daköta)

Epic Fail Battle Strategies

Church music should always feel similar to hearing a really convicting or pertinent sermon. Its mission is not merely to declare (very poetically) the wonder of God’s goodness—a task, in the abstract, I absolutely do not dismiss—but its mission should also be to fight the relevant battles of today. Think of the way a prophet didn’t simply wax metaphysical on God and pearly gates and Jesus’ tears, but he offered the king tactical advice on present concerns. Church music must be relevant. There, I said it. Church music must be relevant to what we’re facing today. But there are two ways to be relevant, or so I’ve noticed.

Think of a battle. There are many ways to lose a battle, but I can think of two that are perhaps the worst. First, you can lay down your arms and embrace your enemy. That’s pretty bad. Or, you can leave the battlefield and go pretend to fight in the battle of Agincourt against imaginary French chevaliers. That’s maybe even worse. And there, in a nutshell, you have the two camps of Church music: the contemporary camp, for whom the word “relevant” is holiness-code for “worldly”, and the traditional camp, which can’t think of anything so dangerous as actually fighting the battles of today.

I mean “relevant” in the sense of anti-worldly. We need to be relevant to the world in the sense that we can attack it, not in the sense that we imitate it. So when David Erb or Mark Reagan writes something contemporary that sounds absolutely nothing like anything anybody else is writing, everyone says, “Well, that’s not really contemporary.” What they mean is that, in order to be contemporary, you have to mold yourself exactly to what the world is doing. Otherwise, you’re just a paltry imitation of the past. But the strange option of actually being contemporary and doing something different from the zeitgeist, well, is not to be borne, Miss Bennet.

Church music needs to be like the sermon. It must ride between the twin ditches of the contemporary camp and the traditionalist camp. It cannot plaster over zits, it must pop them. But it needs to pop the zits on my congregation’s face, not on the face of a congregation from 200 years ago. Toby Sumpter doesn’t lecture his congregation on the evils of alcoholism, urging temperance to all the indolent fathers, so why should his congregation sing hymns written by Sanky? (Thankfully, they don’t.) Douglas Wilson doesn’t urge his congregation to withdraw from public schools. They already are. Nor do either of them, though, compromise on homosexuality just to appeal to a broader crowd. No, pastors are supposed to prophetically fight the battles they’re faced with. Petty sins of individuals, and broad cultural battles.

So, that’s why, even though it’s 100 years old, “O God of Earth and Altar” is not, for now, a traditional hymn that can receive censure as such. It’s terribly relevant. “From all the easy speeches That comfort cruel men; From sleep and from damnation, Deliver us, good Lord!” Fuguing tunes have a fighting, impertinent independence about them, as attractive to us as is the 18th c. New England politics they grew out of . This church music is pragmatic. These weapons are particularly deadly to the enemy.

But, I feel bound to stress, that is the best and, perhaps, the only reason for using older music, music of a different era. Because older music is traditional? Because it connects us with past saints? Because it indicates we have a healthy respect for the past? Show me these principles in the Bible. If such principles exist, they poorly justify the wanton traditionalism that infects much of the conservative Church. The principle, on the other hand, that falls everywhere out of the Bible is to sing a new song. Every time a prophet comes along, he sings a new song. He does it by reminding us of older things, like Jeremiah reminding Israel to find the old paths. But he never just parrots David’s psalms, he retells David’s stories. He never quotes lengthy passages of Deuteronomy, he glorifies Deuteronomy in the retelling with new melodies and poetry. So we should write contemporary music.

But Jeremiah never thought that being a prophet meant encouraging allying Israel with Pharaoh. He never thought that imitation of the world was a prophet’s message. That is absurd. Just as absurd as thinking that being relevant means inviting a metal band on stage so you can say on FB for all your pagan friends to hear, “Worship really rocked this morning.” So we should write better contemporary music.

Kodaly vs. Wee-Sing

[Nurses] are the first people the child will hear, theirs are the words he will try to copy and pronounce. We naturally retain most tenaciously what we learned when our minds were fresh: a flavour lasts a long time when the jar that absorbs it is new, and the dyes that change wool’s pristine whiteness cannot be washed out. Indeed, the worse these impressions are, the most persistent they are. Good is easily changed to worse: can you ever hope to change bad to good? So do not let the child become accustomed, even in infancy, to a type of speech which he will have to unlearn. (Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, 1.1)

Kodaly’s five principles of child education are that

  • everyone has the right to musical literacy,
  • the child’s natural instrument for learning music in the early years is the voice,
  • in order for children to really become literate, they must start very young,
  • the natural sort of music to use is the folk music of the child’s culture, just like the natural language for him to learn is the language of his people,
  • and only music of unquestioned quality ought to be used in educating children.

I’m not going to defend those here, besides my quotation from Quintilian, which I think is quite persuasive. It’s just that Wee-Sing is (to the best of my limited knowledge) some of the better stuff that America has to offer for children’s music, so I’m interested in comparing Wee-Sing to the most successful program in children’s education to date.

As for everyone’s right to musical literacy, it’s more or less irrelevant. Wee-Sing is for any child, so way to go on that score. And, in fact, on three of the four other points, Wee-Sing is really much better than much of its competition in the market: (1) it encourages, more or less, the child to use his voice rather than just to bang on percussive instruments like many other annoying and primitive music programs for children; (2) Wee-Sing is geared toward the youngest constituency so that my 13-month-old nephew can recognize his favorite songs; (3) and, of course, the music is in our own tongue. That last point may seem odd, but Kodaly’s point is more nuanced. It’s a discussion for another time.

The final point—only music of unquestioned quality ought to be used in educating children—is where, obviously, I don’t think Wee-Sing gets it. To the best of my knowledge, Wee-Sing may be the best we have, and it’s far better to get a surmountably mediocre education than to get none at all, which is insurmountable. As I pointed out, Wee-Sing gets a lot of other stuff right. But its music is definitely not of unquestionable quality. There are several levels to this: (1) the actual choice of tunes and songs, (2) the arrangements of those tunes, and (3) the performance. My problems is really with (3). I actually find the arrangements amusing and pedagogical. I think (1) is worrying sometimes: Wee-Sing tends to the accessible song, the “fun” song rather than the song of quality. I sometimes think that the music is more for the sake of the parent than the child, because there’s nothing quite so gratifying as getting a smile on the face of your infant when you clap, clap, clap your hands as fast as you can. That may be a great song pedagogically, but just because the song gets the kid to laugh doesn’t mean it’s helping his education. Talking gibberish and being uncivilized will always make a kid laugh, and sometimes that’s fine, but the kid’s always learning, so if that’s all you’re doing, you’re giving him a nasty education.

Anyway. About (3), the performance. The real problem with Wee-Sing is that the children whom they’ve recorded to sing all their songs purposefully sing (or were purposefully taught to sing) “like children”. Their elocution can be sloppy and childish, the quality of their voices is not exemplary but just average, their intonation is usually good, but occasionally atrocious. Hopefully it goes without saying that the child won’t positively notice this, in that he won’t think, “They’re not really up to snuff.” The far more worrying thing is that the child will learn from what they’re listening to what is up to snuff. That will be their standard for good performance. The quality of your voice when you sing can be lazy, and your speech too, because that’s what it means to be a child and sing. I’m not sure if parents have noticed this, but I’ve always noticed that toddlers are far more embarrassed to sing Wee-Sing than the parents are, and if I remember my own emotions correctly, it’s because I felt as if I was being encouraged to act decidedly differently from the way parents did. Kids who grow up listening to mediocre performances as a standard will grow up to be parents who are comfortable letting their children listen to mediocre performances.

So, the alternative…well, I don’t know if it exists, but it ought to. Kodaly thought that the greatest effort in training a musician ought not to be put into the concert pianist or the conductor or any kind of performer, but into the teacher and particularly the teacher of the small child. A student, when he is mature, is like his master. Kodaly knew that you’re never going to exceed the level of your teacher, and when you have a “those who can’t do teach” attitude about music, it will be the rare student, not the average student, to be musically literate. To account for this minority, you’ll come up with silly ideas, like “musical genius”. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Kids soak up everything, and in this case, we ought to think of Wee-Sing as our children’s nurse. It’s teaching them all sorts of things about the standards of music, and in the performance area, they aren’t good things. A kid will probably not respond as well to Bach as he will to Three Blind Mice, and that’s fine, but he won’t respond better to badly-sung Three Blind Mice. I think it will make him more bashful about music.

All of which, I guess, to say, be cautious of Wee-Sing, if only for the reason that no age is more formative in standards. I enjoin somebody to re-make Wee-Sing with all its best folk tunes and do it with children who sing in an exemplary way.