Diary of a Mad Composer
OSTRAVA, Czech Republic – August meant a working vacation for me. I was out of the country, but someplace no one thinks of for R&R: the medium-sized, post-industrial Moravian city of Ostrava. A former coal mining and steel milling town, it’s now home to the bi-annual Ostrava Days training institute and music festival, founded by artistic director Petr Kotík, which for three weeks—and nine straight days of concerts—brings together great composers, great musicians, and talented students to explore and extend post-World War II classical music modernism.
Ostrava Days is the finest festival of modernism in classical music there is, it has no peers or rivals. In its eighth iteration, the sheer mass of the music was stunning—forty hours across those nine days—and the range and depth are like a dream come true: Stockhausen, Cage, Lucier, Wolff, Phill Niblock, Bernhard Lang, Kotík, Berg, Ligeti, Bernd Alois Zimmermann; European composers like Petr Bakla whose music never makes it to America; plus dozens of fine, fascinating works from young composers whom you will hear from more in the coming years. There are world premieres, operas, 20th-century classics, electronic music, improvisation, mixed-media—too great a variety of intellectual and aesthetic values to make any single critical judgment about the state of classical music, save that it’s in good hands.
Something bothered me all through the festival, though: back in June I was at University Settlement to witness violinist Jennifer Choi and pianist Richard Carrick, under the auspices of Either/Or Ensemble, play Morton Feldman’s piece For John Cage. It was a lovely performance, a reminder of how Feldman thoroughly reworked preconceived notions of form, beauty, language, and meaning in classical music. Choi and Carrick played with great care and concentration. The violinist’s intonation and timbre were not only exact but, in this deceptively complex music, they sounded effortless.
After the concert, I talked with a friend of mine, an accomplished visual artist and aficionado of the post-World War II classical avant-garde and experimental movements who has been to several Ostrava Days festivals. She talked about the visual quality of the piece, the fitting together of patterns into a whole, and when I demurred, she told me in as nice a way as possible that on a visual skills scale of one to ten, I hovered somewhere below one.
Maybe I do, maybe I don’t. But it seems to me that hearing Feldman (and music in general) in a visual way, and thinking about it that way, is not only limiting but all wrong. Of course, Feldman in particular was friends with important painters and honored them with pieces like Rothko Chapel and For Philip Guston, and later works like Patterns in a Chromatic Field came out of a time when the composer was increasingly interested in repeating, woven patterns in carpets. But making music in response to visual art, or to honor art, doesn’t make for visual music.
Feldman was on the program at Ostrava—Petr Kotík led the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra and soloist Vilém Veverka in the composer’s Oboe and Orchestra—and even when his music is not being played, his influence is everywhere. After the festival’s final concert, Kotík talked about how he, Christian Wolff, Alvin Lucier (both teaching and on the program this year), and Earle Brown hammered out the basic idea, and those roots place the festival firmly in the New York School of Feldman, Brown, Wolff, and John Cage.
Oboe and Orchestra is (or was at the time of its composition) avant-garde classical music, not experimental, and the distinction is important. A substantial amount of Cage’s music, and Feldman’s early music, is experimental, meant to test possibilities and evaluate the results. Feldman eventually left those processes behind and put notes and rhythms on staff paper, writing pieces that are absolutely in the long classical tradition—using harmony, tempo, and rhythm to make structure and form—while situated at the avant-garde edge of where that tradition is going.
Feldman and Brown made graphic scores—Brown’s are particularly beautiful to look at—but those are for music, not visual art, and comparisons are less than superficial. The dimensions are all wrong. The flat surface of a painting is static. Time may wear it down, and viewers’ experience of a work may change as they accumulate personal context through time, but the work essentially doesn’t change. Music only exists in time, and even drone pieces are constantly changing as time passes. What’s more, so much of what we hear in classical music is the product, not of a final work akin to a picture hung on a wall, but of a fluid and dynamic relationship between the composer’s score/instructions and the musicians’ opinions and skills.
A painting is itself and its own record. Music recordings are snapshots of a moment in time, akin to paintings, but music itself is different every time it’s performed. Feldman’s mature music also is further designed to take patterns and alter and stretch them through time, plastic where visual arts are solid. His weaving can be heard as a visual quality, and I do hear that, but it also can, and should, be heard as something more, a vast carpet that has no set shape but instead unspools continuously through time, a string of patterns that, while they are clearly connected to each other, have individual definitions—siblings without twins. An image is set, it establishes an authority of itself. Music is subject only to the time that it has a hand in organizing, and is anarchic in comparison.
Music is repetition and change in time, and a lot of the music made since World War II has irregular repetition, or changes so quickly and drastically that patterns are hard to discern. Feldman produced change through extended, irregular repetition, especially in his late pieces like For John Cage. The scores may look like the weave of a carpet, one small, neat measure after another, and if played poorly they will sound like that too, one square laid after another. But when played well, as Choi and Carrick did, the repeated patterns turn out to be false (or in the visual sense, flawed); Feldman’s rhythms have a complex, irregular hesitation built into them, and alter both rhythm and pulse in identical note patterns. The first two measures of the piano part in For John Cage are a B descending to A-Sharp, starting on the downbeat, laid out as two dotted-eighth notes, played as the first two notes of four (the others are rests), in 3/8 time, followed in the second measure by the same pitches, beginning on the second beat (now in 4/8), and set as two eighth notes played in a pattern of five against four.
Feldman was neither a weaver nor a painter, but a composer, and his medium does things that the visual arts cannot. The visual analogue to the first two measures of For John Cage would be to take a subtly irregular sphere and turn it slowly in your hand, gradually revealing all the variations in the surface. Eventually, though, you’ve turned the thing around and there’s nothing new. Music just keeps going, unfolding through time and with no other limit. A piece of music can theoretically continue until the end of the universe, a work of visual art cannot.
Although it’s infrequently exploited, music can also be constantly irregular and unpredictable, setting up patterns and altering and breaking them. Regularity draws listeners and unpredictability can make them uncomfortable. Listening means waiting until music shows itself completely, and when you’re hearing something for the first time, that can be disorienting, at the very least.
Maybe this is why there continues to be such a divide between music and the arts on a serious level. The academic dominance of contemporary music throughout the mid-20th century did turn off a lot of otherwise interested listeners, but that problem is long gone. John Cage in particular engaged with artists, but the art world continues to seriously misapprehend just what it is that Cage was doing, what his values were, and how his ideas are only fully realized through the composition/performance process. Cage sought to remove both his own taste and intentions—choices—from the production and performance of his music, and I cannot see how a visual artist could produce their work without making any choices.
Feldman knew art (although he had his own limits, and rejected Guston’s move toward figurative painting, of a sort); Cage made art; Stravinsky collaborated with Balanchine, Cocteau, and Picasso; Debussy was an acute reader of Mallarmé; and on and on. Composition demands such substantial resources that composers, if they are serious about what they do, have to be learned, avid, and curious about things they neither know nor fully comprehend.
I don’t see that going the other way, and haven’t for decades. While musicians and composers go to galleries and museums, where are the artists at Ostrava Days, at Miller Theatre’s Composer Portraits, at Spectrum, at concerts from JACK Quartet or the Argento Ensemble? Big names like Reich and Glass are popular across the board, but their innovations are decades old, and by now so enmeshed in musical culture that not only have they been sampled and remixed, but contemporary pop musicians who aspire to be known as classical composers are copying the work of the older minimalists—though without any concomitant appreciation for structure and form. But for a culture of writers, artists, filmmakers, and others who display an interest in art music, that type of indie-classical/crossover music ends up answering all their questions. These are the “culturally aware non-attenders,” in Alex Ross’s words, and the substantial, continually evolving tradition of modernism in classical music never crosses their aesthetic horizon. They don’t go to Ostrava.
But Ostrava Days represents the art in art music. Writers, artists, educated people who value the creative arts and who read literary fiction, who go to museums and galleries, who attend Off-Broadway Theater (perhaps even the opera)—they mostly don’t know of any musical innovation past the early 1970s. They think about music in terms of art, or writing, not in terms of music. They know the buzz on novels and painters and movies and pop stars; they listen to music with words, and if it’s clothed in the latest style they hear it as the art of music, not pop. All love and respect to good songs, but there is an art in music that pretty much everyone is ignoring. Not even the cognoscenti know it exists.
GEORGE GRELLA is the Rail’s music editor.