Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Morton Feldman

I sent this to a friend of mine recently. It's an interesting topic, so I'm posting it here:

I'm listening to "Coptic Light" now, and wanted to pass along my impressions, since you pointed to this piece as being influential on you.

I'll be honest: I don't hate it. :)

I'm generally not a fan of atonal music. I get that, like any music, there is probably good and bad atonal music. Or respected composers. Or influential pieces. But to me, since there is (by definition) no tonality, all you have left is texture. Unfortunately for me, most atonal composers (or at least most of the atonal pieces I've heard) use instruments and/or textures that I find brash or uninteresting. Especially if it involves piano. I -hate- atonal piano pieces.

My bad attitude is exacerbated by the context in which I became aware of atonal music: school. There are a number of "avant garde" composers who are darlings of academia (Stockhausen, Cage, Varèse, Xenakis, Reich, etc etc). Later, many years later, I became aware of composers who were pushing the boundaries of music in ways just as important or interesting as these cats: Morton Subotnik, Raymond Scott, Henry Jacobs... to name just a few. Why didn't I learn about them too? Because they weren't in the "club" recognized by academia, or something...

While I didn't know about some of these other composers, I was -very- aware that much of the boundary-pushing music to which I was listening at the time wasn't even on the radar of academia. And I -knew- some of "my" music was more interesting (and better, damnit!) than these dinosaurs of "avant garde". (I keep putting "avant garde" in quotes because I disdain the term. For me this label came to represent only what academia considered worthy. Such was the way my attitude was cultivated and soured toward what They thought).

I got to play some of the more "important" pieces too as a percussion performance major. And as a music major, we (briefly) studied some "avant garde" pieces in Music Theory II class, to see how they broke all the rules we were learning, I think. In other words, I really got to get inside some of these pieces. This wasn't just a matter of not being a fan of it. I kinda lived and breathed it for a while.

In any case, in almost all of these composers' cases, their compositions are... interesting, and important for breaking the shackles of music and rules, but not necessarily good (and IMO, rarely so). John Cage's 4'33" is kind of an extreme example, but it illustrates my point. As a performance art piece, it was brilliant. I'm glad Cage did it. I'm glad that it stirred up controversy about "what is music?" But the fact that it still shows up on "avant garde" music concert programs is redundant and stupid. It was an important piece, folks! I get it. Can we move on and make more interesting music now that our minds have been expanded??

OK, so a number of Cage's contemporaries probably would have agreed with my sentiment. Not everyone was on board with the "everything is music" idea. But they probably enjoyed more success on some level because Cage (and others) shook some trees. Still, a division exists in my mind: Is it good? Or just important? I think I found through my experience in school that (for me) I like to maintain an appreciation for music that's "important". But I'd rather spend my time with music that's actually good.

So... where does "Coptic Light" fall for me...?

What I like most about it is that it sorta shimmers in a quiet sort of way. It's not atonal in an attention-grabbing way. It's more textural orchestral ambient music that happens to be atonal. But that's about as much as I can say about it. 30 minutes of it (and this is how I feel about most atonal music) is like eating too much candy: I don't enjoy it after a while, and it leaves me feeling a little empty. Like I need a big juicy steak.

I -do- appreciate atonality most when it's used as flavoring: a place you visit for tension, a diversion, or whatever. It's like dissonance or distortion: you appreciate it because you know what it's modifying. But a 30 minute piece that doesn't deviate from its atonality... it lacks interest for me. Charles Baudelaire said it perfectly: "That which is not slightly distorted lacks sensible appeal; from which it follows that irregularity – that is to say, the unexpected, surprise and astonishment, are an essential part and characteristic of beauty."

I enjoy tonality. There. I said it. :)