First! Everybody buy the new Kronos Quartet CD, which has liner notes by one of my favorite Gregs. The Nonesuch.com store has it on sale, which means you can download the mp3s right now AND get the CD in the mail and it'll still be a buck under the list price, even with shipping. (Buy it together with the new kd lang CD, which is one of her best, and shipping is free!) I've only heard snippets of the piece so far, but it sounds gorgeous, and anyway it's Kronos + Terry Riley + Wu Man, so you can be darned sure I'll pick up a copy at my local indie record shop (on account of I work there). As for the liner notes themselves, they are thorough, clever, and duly affectionate. Do read. Also! They ran my latest concert previews in the New Haven Advocate. Ezra Laderman, Alvin Lucier. The first commenter to count all the clichés in the article wins a signed copy of my book. Furthermore! Hope you all read Rebecca Mead's article in the latest New Yorker about my friend Nico Muhly. It quotes "music critic and blogger Dan Johnson," meaning me! But I thought some of the best parts of the article were actually the least flattering to Nico. Whenever I read a fawning magazine profile about the genius of the week I want to run out and stab said genius in the face. But this one turns out to be as much fun as her profile of Peter Gelb, which I hope you all read. Now, this isn't exactly unflattering, but I love that for a little perspective, Mead sought critiques of Nico's oeuvre from the composers he most admires. Namely, Philip Glass:
"The great anxiety among young composers is, when are you going to hear your own voice? But the real problem is, how do you get rid of it, how do you develop? Nico hasn't got to that yet. There is a lot of rapid growth in one's twenties, but the big challenge is to keep that alive over the long stretch, for the next forty years, and not let it get stifled by the meanness of the world we live in."
and John Adams:
...Muhly's music is "eclectic, nondenominational in the world of contemporary classical music, which tends to split off into lots of different orthodoxies. He obviously shows influences from the minimalist composers, but his music is not nearly as rigorously designed. It is very much like him: it is open, it is attractive, it is pleasing." Adams says that he hears his own influence on Muhly's work—"It's like meeting a twenty-year-old who looks strangely familiar, only to discover he's your long-lost son"—but adds that he finds it oddly untroubled. "I could use a little more edge, or a little more violence," Adams says. "At times, there is a surfeit of prettiness in Nico's music, and I am not sure it is a good thing for someone so young to be so concerned with attractiveness."
See? That's actually quite interesting. Glass's warning we can recognize as the product of his own bittersweet experience. The great Glass paradox is that there is at once no better established or more dismissed composer in American concert music. And indeed, this dual position stems largely from the strength and distinctiveness of the Glass idiom. It's worth considering, in light of his advice, how seriously Glass must have taken the long evolution of that idiom over the past few decades. As for Adams, I find he sums up Nico's music better than most critics do. For one thing, it is very like the music of John Adams. How come nobody points that out? There are echoes of Nixon in China all over Nico's orchestral scores. And it is also very like Nico himself. Some composers, if you meet them, you'll think, "That guy wrote that?" But Nico face-to-face is exactly the person you imagine when you hear Clear Music. And again, these are criticisms that shed a little light on Adams' own mature aesthetic. Criticisms, as a friend of mine pointed out, that have been leveled against Adams himself, especially early on in his career: derivative of minimalism, but without the rigor; pleasing and attractive to a fault. I would be the first to defend early Adams against these charges (and hey, I mount a similar defense re: Nico in the NYer piece), but perhaps it's still interesting to consider the extent to which both composers might be guilty—the young Adams, the young Muhly. Isn't Harmonium a lot less gratifying than the Klinghoffer Choruses, precisely because the latter pieces are a little less eager to please, a little more eager to put the "post" in "post-minimalist"? Anyhow, I spent a lot of time thinking about these remarks, which isn't something I usually do after I read an article about music. Why can't more criticism get me this excited? Clearly, what we need are more critics like this: practical, caring. Potshots are too easy. (If you read this blog, you know I take plenty of those.) It's so much more interesting to see people working out the problems in music they care about, rather than dismissing the stuff that doesn't excite them or cooing at the sheer perfection of the stuff that happens to accord with their tastes. Why not? Let's go just a little bit deeper. New Havenites, I'll see you at tonight's concert!