Saturday, August 6, 2011

Mysteries of the Poorly Explained

Hooray, what a crazy summer! I no longer live in New Haven, for one thing (though I'll still be writing previews and whatnot for the New Haven Advocate). That's right! We picked up and moved to Brooklyn! I'm totally free! I need a day job! Call me! I've also been writing a bunch of exciting stuff, most of which isn't online yet, but I'll let you know. (There is this Cunning Little Vixen review, which I didn't link here yet.)

But, so, you know who ELSE has had a crazy summer? The world of New Music! (SEGUE.)

I mean there was this nonsense. Did you read this? So many problems with this, but it seems like with all the big noisy response to it (this guy's PIIIIIIIISSED), nobody's really put a finger on what's wrong. I think they're distracted by the piece's tonal misfire: a lot of people seemed to think that Swafford hated the music he was describing; I guessed instead that Swafford had simply aimed for "bitchily knowing"—in order to amuse his audience and impress them with his grasp of the subject matter—and missed.

It seems to have been the "knowing" part that he missed. We get this from the first paragraph, right away, where Swafford describes the audience at the New York premiere of Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre:

The audience was largely made up of the youngish and hipish, which can't be said of the usual operatic performance. They went nuts over the opera, which they probably called the "song."
Okay. Now. CLEARLY the audience at Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre is not going to be an audience that would call an opera a "song." (I mean, nobody calls an opera a "song," anyway, they would call an aria a "song.") This is a young audience, but it's a young audience that aspires to connoisseurship. This is not a couple canoodling to Boheme in the park with a bottle of wine. (NO OFFENSE TO THOSE CANOODLERS, Puccini is great.) Ligeti fans are gonna get their shit right! They know what an "opera" is, and they knew exactly what they were getting themselves into. And then there's
Around 1999, I went to a program of new semi-improvised electronic "noise music." What it sounded like was Karlheinz Stockhausen in the 1960s: squawk, snort, rumble, gleep. I wouldn't be surprised if that young composer never heard of Stockhausen. (The Beatles did, however, which is why they put Stockhausen on the cover of Sgt. Pepper. The main piece they knew was his electronics-and-voice piece Gesang der J√ľnglinge.)
Honey, I would be not just surprised but flat-out ASTOUNDED if that young composer never heard of Stockhausen. If you don't think young electronic musicians don't know Stockhausen, then you don't know young electronic musicians. (And while we're on the subject, Gesang der J√ľnglinge is not an "electronics-and-voice" piece, it's an electronic piece that uses taped vocals. And also, the Beatles also famously knew Hymnen by Karlheinz Stockhausen quite well, since that was the inspiration for "Revolution 9," so it seems odd to refer to Gesang as the "main piece" they knew. The essay seems full of weird oversights like this.)

So while it's great that he's taking the lay reader on a brief (word-counts being what they are) tour of contemporary music, especially some really important stuff that hasn't yet filtered into the mainstream, there's this implicit promise that he's letting the reader in on the ongoing conversation about what's going on NOW in the world of new music, but since Swafford doesn't actually know what's going on now, he sorta lets the reader in on a conversation that is taking place almost entirely in his own mind. For instance, his insistence on lumping composers as different as Jennifer Higdon and Osvaldo Golijov into the "Atlanta School" of composers, which seems to be more a marketing term than any kind of useful distinction, or worse, this bit of nonsense:
Our other two current trends are nicely complementary, one aggressively noisy and the other aggressively pleasant. For the noisy sort, I propose the genre aesthetic brutalism. Since this music tends to have a certain punk sensibility, and authentic punks aren't given to explaining themselves other than with blows to the head, let's listen to a defining example, a cut from "Eight Songs," by Jefferson Friedman. These are arrangements of pieces by the noise band Crom-Tech, played here by the Yesaroun' Duo, Eric Hewitt on baritone sax and Samuel Z. Solomon on drums…
Now. You can "propose" genres all you want, but the usefulness of such an exercise can be quite limited. What Swafford is saying here is, Here is a piece of music I presume you've never heard before, in a style with which you are presumably unfamiliar as well. I propose that this single point of data represents an larger artistic movement, and I've just made up a name for it. Yes, he could call it "aesthetic brutalism," but since this generic descriptor has as yet has only been applied to a single piece of music, he could just call it Eight Songs, same as Jefferson Friedman did.

Other problems with this example: Jefferson Friedman did not, except in the very loosest sense of the word, "compose" Eight Songs. They are, as Swafford acknowledges, arrangements of songs by Crom-Tech, the avant-garde post-hardcore duo. Here are Friedman's arrangements:

And here's an actual Crom-Tech recording:

Friedman himself remarks of the pieces:
In the end, my job ended up being at varying points along the continuum of transcription-arrangement-composition, depending on the particular section at hand. As much as possible, I tried to respect the original material, but in order to do that (and in order to make it humanly possible) some tweaking was necessary. When all is said and done, though, these are Crom-Tech's songs, and I'm just happy to have played a small part in spreading the gospel.
Obviously, merely by putting his name on these songs, he's making him a part of his oeuvre in some sense, and god knows I don't mean to diminish his contribution to these thrilling arrangements. But it seems a bit odd to choose—as the "defining example" of this new classical genre that Swafford has made up—a relatively faithful arrangement of eight pieces of popular music that were actually composed over a decade ago. At any rate, it is certainly not representative of Friedman's work, which from what I've heard bears the merest vestiges of Crom-Tech's influence. Go listen to his string quartets, they're gorgeous! You'll love them! But they don't sound like this.

And then, what's that weird thing doing there about how "authentic punks aren't given to explaining themselves other than with blows to the head"? Did his idea of punk rock authenticity come from that Quincy episode? By a weird coincidence, I just interviewed Mick Barr of Crom-Tech for one of those upcoming articles, and somehow we managed to hold a lengthy conversation about his music without once banging ourselves in the head with our phones.

I mean, do you see how many mistakes Swafford makes in every single paragraph of this article? A brief selection of other boners:

Setting up a quotation from composer Joshua Fineberg, Swafford offers Stockhausen's Stimmung as an example of "the avant-garde of the'60s and '70s, and its often private, inaudible arcana"; in context, Fineberg himself is clearly suggesting nothing of the sort, since after all Stimmung is just a prolonged exploration of the overtone series. Unlike the Stockhausen works Swafford is evidently familiar with, Stimmung's construction could hardly be more exposed and audible, or its harmonies less complex. Fineberg is simply pointing out that its construction is relatively static. Which it is.

Later, Swafford cites a lecture by an "academic brutalist" that "consisted of incomprehensible mathematical jargon illustrated by slides of cigarette butts on the street"; on Facebook, the unnamed composer (Ken Ueno) pointed out that in fact his lecture contained no math whatsoever, and explained exactly what was going on with the two slides of cigarette butts he did use in the presentation.

All in all, it's really too bad! This could've been a great opportunity to introduce a broad audience to some gorgeous music. If only it hadn't been so graceless, careless, and wrong.

Now come back tomorrow, and I'll explain why everyone is wrong about that new Steve Reich album.