Thursday, February 7, 2008

Blogger Plugs Friends, Self

First! Everybody buy the new Kronos Quartet CD, which has liner notes by one of my favorite Gregs. The 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!

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Blogger Marcus said...

Alright, that was one of your most interesting and thought-provoking posts. I agree with Adams very much re: Nico, but so what. Knowing him only through his music, which I adore, Nico, to me, is a true candy raver of the set of highly-curated young composers.

I would love to see what he would come up with after a long immersion in the worlds of Thomas Ades and Andriessen. Imagine Powder her face meets the english choral tradition whipped into shape by Mdme. Curie; restraints and all.

MeThinks it might be time for Mr. Muhly to cough up an opera or two, presuming a good librettist can be found.

February 7, 2008 at 8:21 PM  
Blogger Dan Johnson said...

Thank you, Marcus!

Mead actually talks a little bit about Nico's opera projects in the article. Nothing is 100% certain, but the ideas he's developing show a lot of promise.

He definitely has a canny musical-dramatic sense. My hopes are high.

February 8, 2008 at 12:41 PM  
Blogger Judd said...

Nice post, Dan...

Marcus, Nico introduced me to Andriessen more than a decade ago, so I doubt that a lack of "immersion" is the reason he's not writing whatever you're imagining....I don't mean that in a catty way, I'm just saying.

These composers (Glass and Adams) have interesting things to say, for sure, but I fall squarely on the "this says a lot more about them than it does about Nico" side of your commentary, Dan. We all get lots of advice, in many forms, from many different sources. It took me years to realize that I could disagree with people I respected and admired, and that I could agree with people I didn't respect at all. In this case, I'm put in the position of not really agreeing with two people I totally dig - I don't feel the anxiety that Glass describes, even though there's no one I respect more, and I think Adams's last comment is totally, utterly off the mark, even though he's pretty awesome, himself.

I was once given a take-home, ad hoc diagram of my music by an eminent composer at Tanglewood; if I took the advice on the sheet, I'm pretty certain that my music would sound a lot more like that composer's music. I wonder how Glass or Adams would have turned out if they had been given advice, when young, by their older selves?

In the end, composers and artists and people will go in unpredictable ways that appeal to some and not to others. I happen to prefer late Beethoven and early Stravinsky, late Beatles and early Jay-Z. Others disagree. If Nico goes into a "violent" period, whatever that means, I'm sure he'll leave some disappointed fans in his wake, even if Adams is happy...

February 9, 2008 at 1:42 AM  
Blogger Marcus said...


Great points. Not being a composer, I have no idea what influences what one hears in his head, and then what one actually chooses to write. Didn't mean to imply someone like Nico hadn't ever heard of Andriessen, just expressing something I could imagine and love hearing, as you pointed out.

And, is it even necessary for an artist to go through a 'violent period' or a 'blue period' instead of, say, creating a violent piece one week then writing a pretty one the next week? Is having a new 'period' the inevitable way of growth for an artist? My likes and dislikes as a listener are more like mining for gold....once I find a new vein, I dig, dig, dig, dig, dig until that vein is exhausted and I move on to something else.

February 9, 2008 at 8:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How he can admire Glass is beyond me. Muly's music is much more interesting! I shudder at the prospects of him composing an opera. Lets face the fact that opera is dead
and has been for some time now. Opera is what the people had to put up with until they invented General Hospital and Falcon's Crest. Muly surly has better things to say. If he took a daring leap of faith he could use Stockhausen or Cage as his model. He should re-invent what music could and should be, sound without boundaries, form with and without purpose. Adams is fine as a starting point but Mulhy can take the training wheels off and start to brave the unknown without the baggage. He can do it. He has the potential.

February 11, 2008 at 2:17 PM  
Blogger Marcus said...

Hey Anon:

I agree with you about MOST of Glass's music, but he has been startling original and meaningful at times. Satyagraha is a masterpiece. (Even better if you listen when you are high because the music and the drugs will really screw with your sense of time.)

Anyhow...opera is more interesting and vital than ever, but only in a few cites....NYC, SF, Santa Fe, maybe some others. Selling out movie theaters across the nation. And you have stuff like Spring Awakening, which is as much as an opera as anything out there, playing on bway.....just not being called an opera.

It's orchestras that are dumb, deaf, dead and dying, mostly due to entrenched interests; but newly created music is thriving in a web of cross-pollinating nodes everywhere in the world. I think it's really exciting myself, and I did not think the same thought a few years ago.

February 11, 2008 at 7:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Citing four places as evidence of a thriving vital art form is like saying that Cynthia McKinney has a shot at becoming president because I know two people that have heard the name. It's dead dead dead. The only composer to have done anything remotely interesting in opera in the past few centuries is Stockhausen. I guess if you consider the creammaster movies opera then well OK make that two people. Broadway is more like pretend theater to me and not

You do have a good point about orchestras being deaf dumb and blind but I wouldn't call the mortician just yet. We need brave young composers like Muhly to flip the bird at the establishment and start out on new territory. I'd consider it an insult to have Adams supporting my music. Ignoring the fact that he can be a pompous ass at times, just because he's mastered a school-boy paint-by-the-numbers form of composing doesn't make it good or art. It makes him JOHN ADAMS an IMPORTANT composer because thats what he tells you that he is. Do what Alvan Lucier or John Cage, or Kyle Gann, or Boulez has done and then come back and tell us that you've done something noteworthy. Sadly I don't see any cross pollination happening here, only the same old thing. We need composers that can dream (or trip if that's what floats them) again and show us what they hear. What we need is a new revolution in sound and form.

February 11, 2008 at 8:46 PM  
Blogger Dan Johnson said...

Judd—thanks, as always, for such an insightful comment!

Anonymous—can I call you Gwyneth? Gwyneth, I could hardly disagree more. Not only does Nico's music owe an awful lot to Glass and Adams, I think that they are both, yes, very important composers.

Adams has found a middle-ground between the fierce independence of the early minimalists and the sentimental lingua franca. As for Glass, if his musical language seems to have become cliché, that's because it's effective enough to have saturated the culture. In each case, that's a substantial achievement. Cage and Stockhausen are also composers to be admired, but their aesthetic has its own limitations and needn't be overestimated at the expense of composers less eager to reject "boundaries" and "purpose."

As for opera... well, Gwyneth, I've discovered that whenever somebody declares a genre "dead," that's actually about the time when things start to get really interesting.

February 12, 2008 at 12:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


So Boulez was wrong after all? I find Glass's music less cliche but boring. Anyone can write four notes and repeat it forever. Do Re Me La So: repeat. Hey look I'm a genius!

February 12, 2008 at 9:02 AM  
Blogger Dan Johnson said...


Re: your genius, we'll have to agree to disagree.

Re: Boulez, I was deeply saddened to hear that his recent Janacek gig—conducted sometime around the fortieth anniversary of the comments to which I suppose you're referring—may be the last opera performances of his career. He says he may still write an opera, however, and I for one hope he goes for it. I can't wait to hear what he comes up with.

February 12, 2008 at 10:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Yes but at least whatever Boulez does will not be so insipid and hackneyed as what is being passed as art these days. Give me As the World Turns instead. True drama at its best!

February 12, 2008 at 10:48 AM  
Blogger Professor Batty said...

... to give an outsider's perspective on Nico- I was Reykajavík for the Airwaves festival in 2006 and was completely taken by surprise by his performance.
What ever talent he may have (and I believe it to be considerable) is augmented by his open-minded approach to life, which I thought Rebecca's article showed very well.

February 12, 2008 at 10:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Do what Alvan Lucier or John Cage, or Kyle Gann, or Boulez has done..."

Kyle Gann? How on earth does his name get in that sentence?

February 13, 2008 at 2:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Nude Rolling Down an Escalator and Custer and Sitting Bull are works of pure genius as is Kierkegaard, Walking. I should have included Tom Johnson in the mix as well. He's one of the most underrated composers in America. Can anyone tell me where to find a copy of his Bonhoffer Oratorio?

February 13, 2008 at 3:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, they're pure something, all right. Thanks for the best laugh I've had in a while.

February 13, 2008 at 4:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re: Kyle Gann, I guess we just disagree on some things.

Re: Tom johnson is an often overlooked composer. Remember the Four Note Opera? Or Galileo? Again I've heard wonderful things about the Bonhoffer piece but can't find a copy or performance of it anywhere. Anyone offer any leads?

February 13, 2008 at 4:13 PM  
Blogger Marcus said...

I though Kyle Gann was a blogger. He composes too?

February 13, 2008 at 5:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

February 13, 2008 at 6:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I thought Kyle Gann was a blogger. He composes too?"

He composes like a musicologist–wisely, but not too well.

February 14, 2008 at 12:11 AM  
Blogger Maury D'annato said...

Why are digs at Phillip Glass always so cheap, I wonder.

February 14, 2008 at 1:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Because he's such an easy target. He does sound like he repeats himself over and over again. Reich is a minimalist but you don't hear the same kinds of criticism. His output is a little smaller and he tries to say something new every time. Tehillim is a great piece but he doesn't make all of his stuff sound like it. Different Trains, Pendullem music, My Name Is, Drumming, Triple Quartet...all very much Reich and all sound very different. Any news on his commission for EBB?

February 14, 2008 at 7:19 AM  
Blogger Dan Johnson said...

Thing is, though, Reich has written a lot less music. If you were to winnow Glass's output to a Reich-sized selection, you'd fast-forward through some pretty radical stylistic shifts. His evolution seems almost continuous from a piece like Two Pages up to a piece like the Eighth Symphony, but if you played the the two back-to-back you'd find they have very little in common beyond a handful of techniques and a very strong musical personality.

It looks like Eighth Blackbird has recorded the tape part of their Reich piece; there's some rehearsal footage online and it is JUICY. I'm really looking forward to this piece. (In other news, So Percussion has commissioned a Reich quartet! I think they expect it in about a year and a half. I'll hold my breath till then.)

February 14, 2008 at 9:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suppose you have a point. I still fail to hear much of a difference. The point with Reich is that he doesn't usually write something new until he has a good idea. He could pick one style and ride with it but I seems to have a restlessness that propels him to look for more. Sometimes it doesn't work out so well, City life has a lot to be desired, but at least he tries something new each time.

Arvo Part could be argued to have the same trajectory as Glass yet he still manages to avoid that much criticism. He has found his own voice but doesn't seem stale to the ears. Then again to each their own.

February 14, 2008 at 9:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

BTW Thanks for the link. Sounds good.

February 14, 2008 at 9:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think a closer inspection of Reich's work would find more - how shall we put it? - "continuity" between his works than some of the anonymous comments suggest. There are, for example, some important similarities in the handling of harmony in Four Sections, the Triple Quartet and Dolly. One could multiply such examples in comparison of other Reich pieces. For all his admirable qualities, Reich is probably not the best example to pick of a composer continually reinventing himself.

February 14, 2008 at 9:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps not reinvent himself but, how can I explain it, tries not to repeat himself. Yes he does draw techniques from other pieces that he's written. All composers do this to some degree. It's more of his voice for lack of a descriptive term. When I hear a piece of say, Reich, or Part, or even Copland, they all have similar things in common with their past work but they don't sound exactly the same. Copland has a distinct sound that is his but he writes in a multitude of styles. Hearing a concerto by Glass one only has to supplant one instrument for another. They more or less sound about the same, right down to the same exact chord progressions. This just seems to tire on the ears after a while. Bach for example can take the same tune in ten different situations and create something completely new out of it, down to the harmonization. I can never become bored listening to Bach even though he recycled a lot of his music. Glass isn't the only one to fall prey to this habit. Even though I love George Crumb's music, he has more or less has been writing the same thing sense the 70s. To each their own I guess....

February 14, 2008 at 11:41 PM  

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