You Have The Power To Kill Them There’s Nothing Left To Think About Only How To Do It

Lately, I’ve been writing a lot of music in novel form. That is, my music takes its narrative cue from literary devices. For example, I just wrote a western about cowboys and gunfights, and a 8-bit comic book about Atari-esque robots. One day, I am going to write a manifesto. You Have The Power To Kill Them There’s Nothing Left To Think About Only How To Do It is something of a shoulder-to-the-wheel nod to that end. Something of a prolegomenon against the writing of any more New-Music Bullshit.

What is New Music Bullshit, you might ask?

New Music Bullshit is music that is based on the premise that you, the listener, couldn’t possibly understand what the fuck you just heard. Yes, you hear pitches, noises, rhythms, silences, timbres, and lots of other arcane shit. You really want to make sense of it, and like all the other befuddled patrons around you, you page relentlessly through your program looking for a plausible explanation, any miniscule fact, from the composer to make sense of the melorrhea insulting your ears. (N. B.: If the composer is dead, rest assured that some musicologist will sing the praise of how said dead composer mystically turned shit into gold).

Rest assured, folks, you’re not alone.

RCA Electronic Music Synthesizer Mark I, 1956

RCA Electronic Music Synthesizer Mark I, 1956

Indeed we are visual beings. Our aural senses are not as rich and acute as our ability to make sense of movements, light patterns and colors. We can suck down fast-paced Michael Bay films, dodge flying objects, pick out faces from a crowd, etc. But, put us on an airplane with a screaming child, try pulling intelligible sentences from an enraged crowd, or get blasted with microphone feedback – We’re just not able to enjoy or process it. We weren’t cut out for dissonance. Schoenberg, Varese and Cage wanted to organize it for us, and there is the key word – organize.

Perhaps this is why, early on, composers of integral serialism, indeterminacy, and so on, sought to write music that was rich in complexity, cerebral, beautiful in design, and organized chaos.

That was the 1950’s. Please note, it is now 62 years later.

Hollywood has appropriated the term “rebooting.” This is a fairly recent phenomenon where film producers and filmmakers re-make re-makes, because they’ve run out of ideas, prefer the status quo, and don’t trust any new talent or ideas. It is a euphemism for ineptitude, laziness and the fear of being obsolescent.

Imagine if we imposed the same academic new-music trend upon Hollywood. Filmmaking would’ve never progressed beyond Antonioni, La Nouvelle Vague, and B-westerns. We would never have Tarantino, New Hollywood, or Spaghetti Westerns. Movies would still be in Black and White. And yes, the films of this hypothetical Hollywood would be a shitty re-make, of a shitty re-make of yet another shitty-remake — with a twist! Unless you followed the fold, under the umbrella of collective Hollywood dogma, no one in the industry would ever take you seriously.

This is what it is like to be a composer.

Composers of American academia, are churned out year-after-year to a decreasing number of funding dollars, public opportunities and ambivalent performing organizations who choose to look down upon us not because of our craft and skill, but because of our collective resistance to break from the past.

A century ago, American audiences, musicians and composers all understood each other, striving for a new American sound. This mercilessly came to an end with the rise of Toscanini, the tuxedo-clad virtuoso, and the end of populist activities after WWII. In turn, composers retreated to academia to explore new musics — our “past” — with no sentiment towards the audience — and were too chickenshit or too proud to accept the fact that the audience quickly got tired of having their academic pipe smoke being blown up their ass.

Our pipe smoke continued to linger in the air, while the rest of the art world moved on: Anthony Caro turned into Damien Hirst; Martha Graham turned into Anna Halprin; Ernest Hemingway into David Foster Wallace. Our performing organizations moved on too: away from cliche-ridden sound effects to stultifying simple regurgitations of romanticism. By 2010, the top-five performed American composers (from #1-5) were: Adams, Higdon, Daugherty, Corigliano and John Williams. A far call from what academia would want you to believe. But it is a change.

Why then, are composers so resistant to change?

Richard Serra,  Tilted Arc

Richard Serra, Tilted Arc

Because you are either in or out of the club. If you write new music bullshit, then you fit right in with all of the other composers like you who are pissed off and bitter that some other fucker who’s not in the club is getting the limelight for trying half-as-hard as you. When you’re in the club, you pay your dues by going to conferences and festivals and universities dedicated to keeping the farce up. You pay your dues by convincing those around you that no one understands what you write, and performers lack the technical skills to perform it.

Some of these clubs, like the new-complexity, had real, honest-to-god dogmata when they started. Now, thirty years later, so many people jumped on that bandwagon that it’s impossible to avoid. Composers who write overly complex music do so to avoid being discovered by their colleagues that they in fact have no idea what the fuck they are doing.

This is why New Music Bullshit continues to this day: to avoid being called a hack; to avoid having one’s pride broken; to avoid having to be novel; to avoid being called a coward; to avoid, at all costs, publicly acknowledging that what you do is on the brink of extinction.

And why the avoidance?

Because if New Music Bullshit comes to an end, than composition departments will close, money will be diverted, hallmarks of the olden days will be torn down (cf. Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc) or worse: the halls of academia might flood with all of us not in the Bullshit club.

Some closing thoughts on a future new music:

Good new music, like good new art, should be like mind-blowing sex, or incite one to riot. It should stir you, concern you, it should keep you awake at night. It can not be insincere.

Perhaps the way we are taught about music should change.

Composing is not a research activity anymore. Composing is a creative activity. Composing is a sacred nexus between our brain, our heart and our hands.