generalized, narrow-minded, and a little bit "curmudgeon-esque." Shocker, I know!
The person in question is one John Adams. No, not the US's 2nd President, though I'm sure he said plenty of "curmudgeon-ey" statements as well. No, the composer. He's known for many things:
Post-minimalist large scale works:
And high school marching shows (Skip to 1:15 to get to Short Ride in a Fast Machine).
Oh Texas marching bands and their John Adams. Actually, I saw this at least five or six times during my marching career (5 as a marcher, 2 as an instructor). And it's an arrangement. Sorry, bit of false advertising.
So that's the music of John Adams. Why did I bother posting that? I know most people hitting this blog undoubtedly know his music. It's all for context though. Keep those pieces in mind, or hop back to the top when you need a reminder. I'll be breaking down all sorts of points as we go though this...
What did John Adams say that blew up my Facebook feed, and probably blew up the bloggosphere as well It was around 11pm here, so I didn't do the blog, nor did I run down the rabbit hole last night.
He said this:
“We seem to have gone from the era of fearsome dissonance and complexity — from the period of high modernism and Babbitt and Carter — and gone to suddenly these just extremely simplistic, user-friendly, lightweight, sort of music lite,” he said. “People are winning Pulitzer Prizes writing this stuff now.”
Acknowledging with a laugh that he might sound like a curmudgeon, he added, “If you read a lot of history, which I do, you see that civilizations produce periods of high culture, and then they can fall into periods of absolute mediocrity that can go on for generation after generation.”
On the subject of commercialism and marketing in new music, Mr. Adams said, “What I’m concerned with is people that are 20, 30 years younger than me are sort of writing down to a cultural level that’s very, very vacuous and very superficial.”
This statement is tossed in at the end of a press-release about his new saxophone concerto. Seems a question was posed about Adams' use of bop and jazz influences, and then Adams went on a little rant about the fad of using popular music.
I saw three responses to this: first was "Yay, new saxophone piece by John Adams!" and the statement was ignored; second a "He's kind of got a point. And, man, burn on the Pulitzer when JOHN ADAMS says the music is simplistic, user-friendly, etc."; and third was this long rant, which I'm attributing to the person that I saw as the poster that got shared, Darcy James Argue:
Dear John Adams,
You are awesome at composing. You've written several works that have become pillars of the late 20th/early 21st century canon. Whenever you premiere a new piece, it's an Event. Your style is hugely influential. Basically everyone out there tries to orchestrate like you. There are maybe, like, two other living composers more famous than you. I think it's safe to say you've MADE IT.
I also understand that it was hard for you when you were first coming up. Lots of mean old composers talked all kinds of smack about your music. They said it was boring and insubstantial and pandering and commercial and derivative and unserious. And that stung. I get it. It really sucks to hear people say that about your music, especially when it's coming from Established Famous Composers. And even moreso when those Established Famous Composers are just mouthing off without having listened carefully, because they are so stuck in their own little bubbles that they are unable to approach the music of anyone younger than themselves with anything other than reflexive, unconsidered disdain.
But you SHOWED THOSE ASSHOLES. You shrugged off their bullying and just kept doing your thing, and now you're rich and famous and all the important people agree you are awesome at composing. You are ON TOP.
So why do you still feel the need to inflict the exact same hazing on younger composers that you received when you were coming up?
Seriously, here are the words you've been throwing around as blanket descriptors of the music of composers "20, 30 years younger" than you (by the way, you are 66 so that means you are describing the music of composers who are roughly between the ages of 36-46, and I just want to remind you that you wrote "Shaker Loops" when you were 31):
"extremely simplistic" "user-friendly" "lightweight" "sort of music lite" "absolute mediocrity" "very, very vacuous and very superficial”
Has it occurred to you that these are precisely the words that all those Established Famous Composers used to describe your own music in the early years of your career? It seems impossible that this would escape your notice. But it also seems like maybe you don't realize that this is what everyone else is thinking whenever you use these kinds of epithets to insult the work of younger composers. Which it seems like you're doing with some regularity, of late.
Have you seen Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused? It seems like it's possible you've maybe seen that movie — unlike some of the mean old composers who used to rag on you, you've never been one to reflexively turn your nose up at ALL popular culture. I mean, the name of your blog is a Buffy reference! And Dazed and Confused is actually a really good movie. There's like a Criterion Collection edition and everything!
Anyway: you know how, in the opening sequence of that movie, all of the high school seniors get all excited about the merciless ritual hazing they are about to inflict on the incoming freshman class? And as you watch them paddle the crap out of the boys and force the girls to "fry like bacon, you little freshman piggies," you realize that a big part of the reason why everyone's so excited about bullying these younger kids is that they, too, were hazed mercilessly as incoming freshmen? And even now, the wounds are still so fresh, so raw, that they can't wait for the opportunity to dish out that kind of punishment on someone else, as if doing so might somehow heal their own psychic trauma?
What is your reaction when you watch these scenes? "This tradition is awesome"? "Hazing builds character!"? "Vicious circles are good for everyone"?
Seriously, John Adams. Seriously. You are a brilliant composer and an incredibly smart and perceptive and sensitive individual. Why do you persist in acting like the high school bully who can't wait to dish out some of the abuse he was once on the receiving end of?
A lot of people rallied to this blog length post, saying "yeah, screw John Adams." My reaction was "Wow, someone really has thin skin and identifies exactly with the music he perceives John Adams is talking about."
Later on his feed, Argue linked a quite infamous article about Charles Wuorinen. I'm happy he did, because it saved me the trouble of finding it. I had every intention of including it in this blog. In it Wuorinen goes after the Pulitzer winner of that year, David Lang, as well as tons of other people. And Lang's response is equally wonderful.
Ok, I really hope you skimmed those articles. Why? Because, let's be honest, Adams' generalized, narrow minded, quick jab pales in comparison to the methodical attack by Charles Wuorinen. I've blogged about Wuorinen before, and, yes, he is abrasive, direct, and opinionated. I heard him talk 25 years after that infamous argument, and his complaints are the same.
And Wuorinen has a point.
So does Lang.
So does Adams.
Argue as well, but it gets muddled badly by a horrible comparison.
He equates flippant remarks as the same as hazing. Even compares it to Dazed and Confused.
Alright, let's give a quick summary of Dazed and Confused for everyone out there--as summary that includes the actions perpetrated, not a watered down "they were mean too" viewpoint.
End of school year, Juniors become Seniors, 8th graders become Frosh. The "tradition" is for Seniors to haze the new Frosh. For the men, this is mainly paddling, getting a few "good licks," a bruised backside, and then, if you're lucky, a beer or an invite to a party. For the ladies, it involves rolling on the ground "frying like piggies," lots of getting screamed at, having various food thrown on them, and finally taken through a car-wash. And, again, if you're "cool" enough, you may get to go to the party later.
In other words, direct physical and verbal abuse by the "gatekeepers" as a trial for incoming people to pass. If you pass, you're in.
John Adams remarks don't hurt me. They're hardly abusive. In fact, they're pretty impotent. They come off as someone that "doesn't like the music of kids today." I shrugged, laughed a bit, and then remembered all the music I've heard that does fit that exact specification, and think "well, he kind of has a point, mainly about going for appeal over art." And I started to recall a rant he did on masterclasses. Again, my friends (or friends of friends) are awesome, read my mind as I slept, and posted the exact blog post I was thinking of.
I remember reading that and thinking "Yeah, he's right, these are some broad trends. And they are problems...but not of just the upcoming generation, but of all young composers across time."
See, that's the kicker, isn't it? Historical context. And I don't mean historical context in the "Doesn't John Adams remember when he was picked on?" sort of way. I mean long term.
Let's take the inclusion of popular music, transformation of art forms, cross-fertilization, etc. Let's go old, let's say...13th and 14th century? We had a couple musical cultures in the West we know of pretty well: Troubadours, Trouveres, and their line; and the music of the Catholic church. Some composers did both, and did both awesomely. Guillaume de Machaut comes to mind. Machaut is amazing. A bit later (15th to early 16th century) we get this Josquin de Prez cat, who is also amazing. Two composers straddling the "popular" and "serious" traditions. And they borrowed from both sides. L'homme arme masses anyone? Using popular tunes as the cantus firmus, the vocal line that is the basis of a piece?
Let's fast forward to the 17th or 18th century. Let's pick a guy at random...I heard someone say J.S. Bach. Sure, let's take an easy one.
Bach is known for being pretty much all around awesome. He wrote cantatas, Baroque concertos, keyboard works, all sorts of stuff. I can think of two great examples of "pop turned art" : for subject matter, the Coffee Cantata. (Which, yes, if you're JUST getting the reference of my opera to this, you're a bit late to the show. It's a reference I refused to point out because I thought SOMEONE would put it together...).
Sorry, didn't grab one with English, but this performance is kind of amazing...
Then let's hope over to something else...Suites.
I LOVE Bach's French Suites. During slow times, I would just sit and practice them for hours. Bach twists fingers, has wonderful passages, and is so damn musical. Sitting there coming up with multiple interpretations is one of my favourite past-times. I've always had a soft spot for Glenn Gould's interpretations, if for no other reason than he's not afraid to interpret them
This can keep going ad infinitum. From, say, Dvorak using a furiant in a symphony to, I dunno, me incorporating funk into a sinfonietta piece.
BUT, is this what Adams is talking about? Is it just the use of pop as starting point? What is he getting at really?
I think his comments in the blog post about masterclasses reveal it more. He's seen many young composers not understand minimalism and post-minimalism. As he said, an ostinato does not make a minimalist piece.
I joked with a friend slightly on Fb about the irony of the statement. Argue did that as well in his "look what people called your music!" But, I joked with a bit of knowledge, whereas I think Argue was just being defensive.
I said "the next time a marching band performs Short Ride in a Fast Machine, the world may implode from the irony." To which my friend replied "If irony could do that, Brooklyn would be a black hole."
It's a joke. A very generalized joke. I lived in Brooklyn. Rather than being hurt, I said "I remember the first time I drank a PBR in Brooklyn...I felt like I had to scream 'I'm not being ironic! I'm poor and out of whiskey!' "
Again, generalized statement. A joke. Are you offended? Do you think I'm talking about you, specifically?
Here's the thing: Adams has a point. The point is horribly articulated in a few short toss off sentences. The point is hit home a bit more in his blogpost. This is a trend. And here's where I'm having problems with people's reactions.
Does everyone remember Daniel Asia's article attacking John Cage? I blogged about that as well. Same sort of thing, isn't it? Here's an influential composer that severely dislikes an entire style of music. A broad trend. I pointed out my main problem: that I hope he's more open minded with his students, and encourages them to explore lots of different avenues. Turns out, he does.
And I've spoken to many students about the general issues--formal, structural, historical context and understanding of a style (the "I'm writing this kind of piece but it's definitely not that kind of piece and here's why"), directionality (does this go anywhere? is there forward motion? backwards looking motion? Static? Stasis? What do those different energies accomplish?), and all sorts of compositional problems. Guess what, these are common for all composers throughout the ages. Adams seems to insinuate it's special for this time, but it's not really. We just hear more of the bad stuff (more opportunities for performance, recordings for everyone, all posted online, hell, even sold!).
John Adams is not a "gatekeeper to cool" though. If he doesn't like my music, it will probably have little bearing on my life outside anything he judges. Alright, fine...guess what, every composer/judge/conductor/performer has these exact feelings about SOME type of music. Some only like the latest strain of mid-town post-minimalism. Others really only like the music of Brian Ferneyhough, and would like nothing more than to do concerts of only Ferneyhough, Helmut Lachenmann, and their ilk. This has been the way of the world since the inception of time.
People have opinions. Some of them are over-generalized such as "I dislike all rock music." They are entitled to their opinions. If you want to change their mind, the best approach isn't "Now you've hurt my feelings because I play in a rock band! Be more supportive!" The approach I've found that works is finding out what they like, thinking of something that relates to it, and then leading them through experience to a new realization. Like what?
Ok, say someone says they hate rock music. So you ask "what music do you like?"
"do you like the Eagles?"
"They're from the 80s. They're more like Garth Brooks than Dolly Parton though. Do you like Garth Brooks?"
"Alright, here, let's listen to some.
"How about some Lynyrd Skynyrd?"
"Sweet home alabama! love it!"
"Ok, Z. Z. Top?"
See what happens, slowly but surely, you introduce more "related" material.
Or, you look at someones past comments. Does John Adams hate all new music? Is it all vapid? His blog says otherwise, as he praises inventive uses of forms, interesting music, etc. Even music that uses popular themes.
So, what's he on about then?
Stagnation. Lack of individual voice. Lack of experimentalism and forward movement in the vocation. What John Adams perceives is that there is a large amount of people in the younger generation just copying: copying him, copying David Lang, or Brian Ferneyhough, or Lachenmann.
Derivative works that are being watered down, because while we feel like we SHOULD write like David Lang or John Adams, we don't quite have the skills to orchestrate as well. Or we don't have the deep understanding of the process and through put into minimalism and post-minimalism. We hear In C and think "Oh, I can just write a bunch of fragments and toss them up there!" Or we work on an "invention in the style of Bach" and don't modulate even a quarter as much as Bach did...In fact, we forget those pesky sharp 4s to tonicize the dominant. All those problems I listed earlier, all those skills not yet developed.
And, time for honesty everyone, many composers will never master those skills. I may never master them. I certainly haven't yet. I've gotten enough criticism in the past year that many composers would just walk away. Yehudi Wyner really didn't like my opera. And ya know what? I thanked him for not liking it, for challenging me, for making us talk about all the issues. Because there are major issues with it. Oh man, are there issues. There are formal issues, counterpoint issues, libretto issues...Take that direct criticism and fix it.
What about John Adams indirect criticism? If you were really hurt by it, maybe you should ask why. Is it because you think older composers should be "father figures" and encourage us to do our best? Is it because you love and respect John Adams music, and to hear him disparage any music offends you? Is it because you identify with the music he's pointing out and say "fuck you!"? Or is it because you just fit in the age bracket, and you wonder what beef he has with late 20s to early 40s composers?
Me, I looked at it, laughed a bit, and shrugged it off. I didn't even care until everyone started taking sides. Then I started asking "why is everyone getting worked up? Why are people taking sides?"
I'm not sure I found answers in this...
But, I did prove that Adams comments lack historical conviction. At the same time, there is validity. All those composers I linked to above did something to their music--they weren't all "complex" in the vein of, say, Babbitt or Wuorinen. But they did treat the material with a great deal of thought, great craftsmanship, and care. The same cannot be said of all music being written today. Or all music written at any point in history. (BTW, I'm not including myself in that praise. Need to revise that piece as well).
So, here's my advice: shrug off Adams comments. Work hard on your music. Write music you love. If John Adams doesn't like it, who cares? Will you miss out on a few awards? Maybe, but, again, who cares?
If you create great art, with strong craftsmanship, extreme care, and the knowledge of past and current trends, then you've created a great piece. Will it last forever? Maybe, maybe not. There's a lot of luck involved. Even composers that were well known in their time don't always stand the test of time (Telemann anyone?).
So, don't be sensitive about your art. Be strong. Don't call people bully's because they disagree with what you do. Strongly disagree even. Why? Because it cheapens the idea of bullying. A general "I think this stuff sucks" is not the same as "You suck" which is not the same as "You suck go kill yourself" which is not the same as "You suck go kill yourself n'ah I'll just beat the hell outta you now" which is not the same as "I'm going to kill you because of "X" arbitrary reason." Though, I'm guessing, the person wouldn't use the word arbitrary.
To recap: Yes, Adams comments were very general, narrow-minded, and kind of ignorant. Because of that, they shouldn't be taken as a big sore, but ignored. Or simply asked "could you be more specific." Being outraged over a generalization is as ridiculous as the generalization. So is equating it to hazing. Or Hitler. No one said Hitler, but it was about time he got brought into this hyperbole. Adams view may lack historical context in one sense, but he's far too intelligent to not know everything I mentioned, and explain how those still "pushed the envelope." And, maybe, we should look into our own feelings, and figure out why we had the reaction we did.
And, maybe, just maybe, take the attitude of John Adams that Argue pointed out...And show John Adams that his words are too general, and that there is exciting new music happening. I'm guessing he'll agree.
Who knows, maybe he'll like your piece. And then you may have a commission from the MET.***
***commission not guaranteed. This is hypothetical. Better put that, or someone will call me on it later.