Once again, our definitions are vague.  These labels that we’re using are becoming less and less useful.  It appears that the term Totalism can be identified by two (or more) tempos going on at the same time, both of which are audible.  I can’t help but think of Ives and wonder if, by that definition, his music would be accepted as Totalism.  While listening to some samples, I ran across a lot of garbage, dredging up the bad memories of Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives.  One especially awful piece is Mikel Rouse’s Dennis Cleveland, billed as a “Talk Show Opera.”  The music is incredibly cheesy and the previews on YouTube are even worse.  I get that most talk shows are “in the box,” but this piece fails to instill anything except disdain for composers who want to be innovative and end up with a fifteen-year build up of crap!

Another sad excuse for a musical composition is Michael Gordon’s Four Kings Fight Five.  It’s as though Gordon took all of the cheesy electronica of the 1980s and crammed it together into one ridiculous episode.

And then I ran across a gem.  I enjoy piano music, for the most part.  I rarely find a piece of music these days that I’m listening to for the first time where I get a reaction different than “wow, that’s utter crap” or “that’s half decent.”  With Larry Polansky’s Lonesome Road, I was completely blown away.  I haven’t responded to positively to a first listen of a piano work since I first heard Ives’s “Concord” Sonata a decade ago!  Perhaps this reaction is relative to the previous drivel I had subjected my ears to, but Polansky’s writing is wrought with imagery and emotion and is easy on the ears, although atonal at times.  A few of the movements walk a fine line of cliche, but Polansky always avoids the pitfalls that his colleagues have fallen into, and the result is quite appealing.

And then we come to Postmodernism: “Postmodernism describes a range of conceptual frameworks and ideologies that are defined in opposition to those commonly associated with ideologies of modernity and modernist notions of knowledge and science, such as, materialismrealismpositivismformalismstructuralismdogmatism andreductionism.” [1]  That’s about as vague and all-encompassing of a definition as I could imagine.  Great.  So what does it mean?  It’s as though a bunch of artwork has been made in which no one can quite label, so it’s all one “post-modern” movement.

From the handful of examples I’ve listened to, nothing stands out as terribly inspiring, however I must commend the composers for writing actual music.  William Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and Experience is especially successful in its orchestration!  Thinking back on it, I haven’t heard the use of a full orchestra this well done since we were discussing Ives.  The addition of electric guitar as well as harmonica were lost on me a little, but the transitions are smooth and the musical intent flows nicely.

Lukas Foss’s Time Cycle is an interesting selection.  Composed in 1960, Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic performed this work twice in one night on the eve of its world premiere. [2]  Again, the orchestration is masterful!  Due to the time period, it’s surprising this work wasn’t grouped into some other category, like, perhaps, neoromanticism… but George Rochberg’s music was also referred to as neoromantic postmodernism.[3]

And so once again, our labels are unable to contain this music.  What the future holds for music is difficult to predict, but I am certain we will continue to attempt to label everything as it comes out, but we will not be able to contain the success or the failures of that music under any one identity.


In its general musical usage, postminimalism refers to works influenced by minimalist music, and it is generally categorized within the meta-genre art music. Writer Kyle Gann has employed the term more strictly to connote the style that flourished in the 1980s and 1990s and characterized by:

  1. a steady pulse, usually continuing throughout a work or movement;
  2. a diatonic pitch language, tonal in effect but avoiding traditional functional tonality;
  3. general evenness of dynamics, without strong climaxes or nuanced emotionalism; and
  4. unlike minimalism, an avoidance of obvious or linear formal design. [1]

A vague definition at best.  It is becoming more difficult to discern the difference between genres of art, because each “new” style is a blend of previous styles and identity is becoming less clear, even if individual works stand out as unique.

Take for example, Daniel Lentz’s The Crack in the Bell,  On it’s surface, it is heavily influenced by techniques heard in minimalism as well as sororities exploited by Copland (with different orchestration, of course).  There is a Glassian element that also shines through.  When it’s all said and done, the result is a fresh, unique sound.  I find this music to be a little too commercialized for my taste (something you might run across off Broadway or in some quirky film), but there are moments of truly beautiful music, especially with the use of American folk tunes.  I hesitate to say it, but I think Ives would have enjoyed this music.  The layering and truly American sound seem right up his alley; the orchestration may not be to his taste, however.  The recording I heard used lots of synthetic instruments (at least for some of it), where real instruments would do the job well, which I think is a shame and speaks low-budget.  I also feel that this particular piece could be about half the length and be just as effective.  There is a little feeling of randomness throughout – ideas jump around and come and go a bit too quickly.

In contrast, Time Curve Preludes by William Duckworth incorporates elements of Impressionism, Romanticism, and even some Chance Music.  On first listen, I enjoyed this piece, but it’s intrigue fell flat on subsequent rounds of it.  I feel like I want a melody!  Something to bring each movement together that is not simply rhythmical or motivic.  It’s just barely not repetitive enough to be meditative (and is a little hard around the edges) but it’s too repetitive to be anything more than mood music.

Janice Giteck’s Om Shanti incorporates some international sounds on top of the minimalist persistence that develops in the second section.  The layering that is used keeps the drive alive (a la Ravel’s Bolero).  This piece, as a whole, was much more enjoyable to me than the previous two, even though elements of movie music kept creeping in.  The opening is especially beautiful. as is the beginning of the third section.

It’s interesting to me how similar these works are in terms of sonority and harmonic function.  There are no real cadences – lots of open-ended statements.  Repetition is a heavily-used aesthetic.  This music as a whole feels like a throwback to Populism, with modernized instrumentation and a minimalist aesthetic.

It just occurred to me that movie music is not the right phrase.  Video game music – this music feels very much like the music that could (should?) be played in different story scenes within video games.

I’d like to think we’re past all this, but we’re not.

Racial issues are still a prevalent part of our society.  Take, for example, the recent case in Florida where 28 year-old George Zimmerman shot and killed 17 year-old Trayvon Martin and is claiming self-defense.  Because Trayvon is black (and Zimmerman is not) this case has garnered national attention on the premise that Zimmerman slayed Trayvon in cold blood because he was black.  I’m not going to argue the case either way, but I would like to point out that Zimmerman is not white, like much of the media has unfortunately labeled him – he is, technically, Latino (much of the media uses “half-latino”, but how often to you hear Obama referred to as “hafl-black”) or, as his father put it, Zimmerman is from a “multiracial family” [1].  But therein lies the problem – we’re constantly labeling things, and when we label people by nationality or skin color, racial tension grows.

Why am I bringing this up?  I just (finished) reading “White Noise: Race and Erasure in the Cultural Avant Garde” by Lloyd Whitesell (that is one ironic name – ‘White’ ‘Sell’) published in American Music, Vol. 19 No. 2 (Summer 2001).  From what I gathered from the article, Whitesell is arguing that white and empty are one and the same and that the identity of White Culture has become absent.  To me, this reading is laden with undertones of White Supremacy, and is White Power propaganda in the guise of academic intellectualism.  Aside from Toni Morrison, I believe all of Whitesell’s sources are also white.

The trouble is, there is no “White Culture” just as there is no “Black Culture.”  Culture does not come from the color of one’s skin.  Culture is created in your neighborhood, city, or country and often has its identity defined by art, politics, religion, etc, and, in its most primal forms, are a way for people to join together and celebrate or commiserate together in harmony.  The Maya were a culture, not because they had tanned skin, but because they believed as a people in certain ideas and traditions that were collectively celebrated and performed.  Defining culture as a color becomes incredibly dangerous and is one of the leading pitfalls of race relations.  The Irogois and Arapaho were two separate cultures.  Chinatown in New York has a cultural identity (which, although similar in tradition, is unique from other Asian cultures).

Drawing lines of color can only lead to problems – partly because of sensitivity created by a troubling historical precedent; partly because of ignorant racists that, though diminishing in numbers, are still walking this earth.  I think of the groups of peoples that are constantly being discriminated against in the present age: Muslims, homosexuals, women, Germans, blacks, little people, Communists, Native Americans.  *Sigh*  What happened to “All Men Are Created Equal”?  “All Men Are Created Equal” unless you happen to be gay or German or short or [          ].  I propose to rewrite it as “All People are Created Equal”, but someone would be bound to argue that we’re now being biased towards goats or lions… as Santorum argues that if we allow gay marriage, we might as well allow “man on child, man on dog, or whatever” [3].  Yes, bigotry is alive and well.

I argue against the notion that music belongs to any one race, culture, or skin color, or whatever dividing lines you may be inclined to draw.  Just because Jazz music evolved out of slavery and the people associated with it, does that mean no one but a black slave can play or enjoy it?  Of course not!  Some dead old white guy wrote a symphony in 1806 – does a young Chinese girl not get to enjoy it?  Let’s stop this bullshit of boxing everything into categories.  Let’s stop being so sensitive to things.  Stop talking about what makes us all different and start sharing what brings us together.

Spread peace.  Spread joy.  Share happiness.

In thinking about the avant garde in Rock’n’Roll, I can’t help but think of the scene at the dance in Back to the Future where Marty McFly digs into the electric guitar in a way that was unheard of in 1955.  A lot of rock can be referred to as avant garde, as rock has changed (evolved? matured? diversified?) in a very short period of time, relatively speaking.

Although we still haven’t clearly defined what avant garde really is, the following a smattering of music out of the rock tradition that certainly was ground-breaking, at least in its day:

Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon – Because of the album’s overall success and 40 years of an ever-growing fan base, the music no longer feels terribly ground-breaking, and is even referred to as “classic”.

An Angel Moves too Fast to See by Rhys Chatham, is interested as far as sheer volume of sound is concerned.  Rock has a tendency to be loud, but 100 guitars is pretty over the top.  The music itself is very in-the-box and doesn’t really push any limits.

Laurie Anderson’s O Superman (1981) is an interesting piece that directly incorporates some minimalism into its form.  The voice is also experimented with, as an auto-tuner is used to pitch the vocals in a mechanized sort of way.  This same technique is used heavily by Imogen Heap in her 2005 hit Hide and Seek and again by Jason Derulo (via Imogen Heap) in his 2009 Whatcha Say.

O Superman

Hide and Seek

Whatcha Say

For Rock, though, I see some of the legendary bands that defined the genre as being ground-breaking, thus avant garde.  Buddy Hollie, The Beatles, Bob Dylan – they created specific sounds that laid the foundation for most of the rock music of the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

Buddy Holly – “Everyday”

The Beatles on Ed Sullivan

The Beatles “Strawberry Fields” – note the use of vocal manipulation and the international influence (not to mention the use of orchestral instrumentation).

Bob Dylan – “The Times Are a-Changin'” – much of the avant garde has been political.  No one figure stands out more than Dylan when discussing politics in music.

In true avant garde style, as we’ve come to appreciate the term, Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music (1975) stands as one of the most extreme examples within the repertoire.  Some are obsessed, others shut it off – it’s worth a listen if you want all the edge and absurdity that comes with avant garde.

For years I’ve often left the room or walked away whenever I overheard or became involved in an intellectual discussion about Jazz – something just never felt right about it!  The spontaneity of the art and in-the-moment recordings that are now readily available at the click of a mouse left me with a feeling that music labeled as Jazz needs no intellectual discussion.  Perhaps it was from listening to professionals talk about it (which has a certain casualty about it) or reading about it (like in the Miles autobiography), but I have never been able to quite put my finger on why I have such disdain for intellectual conversation about Jazz.  Even the word “Jazz” instills a certain commercialism that is absent in the true spirit of the art form.  I do tend to avoid over-intellectualizing all music, as music is more than words can possibly describe, but Jazz music especially is an avoided topic.  So I am going to write some impressions about Jazz that I got from reading “Art Ensemble of Chicago” in All American Music.  Here’s hoping…

The author defined jazz as concretely as was fit: “Jazz is a music movement that originated around the turn of the century among black musicians in the American South, gravitated north to Chicago, and then spread out into the world” and followed it up with: “Jazz plays its own club and concert circuit, has its own record labels or subdivisions, and its own scholarly and critical apparatus.  But if you try further to pin down what it is, it disappears like a mist” (164).  This definition is interestingly vague and appropriately so, as defining jazz inherently contradicts the spirit of jazz itself – it is life and is living – it has evolved and matured with its performers and continues to do so with each new generation.  Why we continue to generalize all music into one of four categories (Classical, Jazz, Popular, and Ethnic) is beyond me… but if you’ve been reading this blog a lot, you know I hate labels because nothing actually fits any general definition.

In discussing the music of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, it was interesting that it was compared to the Guarneri String Quartet’s repertory as it “spans the centuries of Western art music” (171).  Playing lots of various styles of jazz, or (another interesting choice of words): “black classical music” (171), the Art Ensemble of Chicago has an extensive repertoire.  The history of jazz is pocketed with movements and sub-genres just as the history of Western art music has its own periods and styles.  Keeping in discussion with our topic here, jazz in its early days was avant garde – it was a new thing – but now many performers have taken a more 1960s definition of avant garde approach to jazz, leaving behind rhythmic consistency and tonal cadence to a freer, less “classical” style – the music has an even more random feel than its early structured improvisations.  The Art Ensemble, for example, breaks even the boundaries of instrumental restrictions, as each of their members plays over a dozen instruments and may play any one (or three) of them at a time.

Composers such as Gunther Schuller have also taken the elements of the jazz idiom and fused them into “classical” music to create a very structured, but free, sound.  The fusion of genres is not new – Bartok and Kodaly fused his nation’s popular music (or at least folk music) into their orchestral and other Western art music works – however the result of blending two very opposed aesthetics (jazz and “classical”) creates, in my opinion, and unappealing sound.  This music teeters on the edge of over-commercialized and lacking depth.  Perhaps it’s the lack of spontaneity within a performance of this type of jazz, perhaps it’s the strange effect of a 100-piece orchestra playing the music that originated and thrived on a small ensemble, but, like oil and water, some things are better left separate from each other.

What an eclectic selection of music to listen to!  This evening I have listened to George Rochberg’s Bagatelles for Piano and String Quartet No. 3, George Crumb’s Black Angels, John Adams’s Grand Pianola Music, and Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together and The People United Will Never Be Defeated.  A barrage of styles from the 70s and early 80s, these pieces contain such an extraordinary range of techniques and styles from a sound resembling serialism (Rochberg’s Bagatelles) to minimalism (Adams’s Grand Pianola Music) to a traditional, but very modern theme and variations (Rzewski’s People United).

Out of this collection of extremes, one piece stood out to me as transcending the element of music and was extremely powerful: Crumb’s Black Angels.  A violent depiction of Hell vs. God written for electric string quartet, the powerful sounds emanating from my speakers got my attention and conveyed an extreme feeling of unease and torment.  Rarely do I find music that has such a deep connection to its topic as this work.  When the Dies Irae quotation was stated, I was floored.

It turns out Crumb quotes lots of major works, but the only distinguishable quotation, at least to my ears was the Dies Irae.  This work is hauntingly satisfying, which is surprising coming from a virtually atonal (and toneless) piece.  The affect is sublime, which, as I write this, I am realizing is exactly what Romanticism of the 19th century was all about – and now we’re discussing a new Romanticism or neo-romanticism.

For some reason, I like Frederic Rzewski’s music.  I don’t know why.  It feels moderately commercialized somehow – as though it is written for an audience that isn’t particularly well-educated (like the American masses) – yet I fall victim to its message (even though I don’t have a clue what it is).  His Coming Together feels heavy-handed in its politics yet the groove behind it is intoxicating – and very 70s!!  When I saw the music for The People United Will Never Be Defeated, I had two initial reactions: 1) Wow – that looks like something from 150 years ago (I hadn’t yet seen the last few pages) and 2) It was written for Ursula Oppens with whom I had the luxury of performing with (well, I was in the orchestra, she was up front playing all the notes) at the end of last year.  What a great theme and variations.  The progress of music over the last 200 years has stylistically freed up the possibility of variation and the journey we end up going on with this music is a far greater journey because of it.

I am posting a recording of People United that allows you to follow along with the music.  It’s really fascinating to watch the complexity grow from such a simple theme into what is clearly a post 1950s composition:

Philip Glass, who recently celebrated his 75th birthday, is often (controversially) referred to as a minimalist composer[1].  Philip Glass’s music is not minimal – it’s more a music that has evolved out of minimalism.  Listening to his opera Akhnaten, I was surprised to hear how tonal this music is.  Classical chord progressions pervade the texture, which is often grounded with an ostinato.  Although the music is quite simple, utilizing a small number of tones at once, and repetitive in a certain nature, the music does not evolve through a gradual process, which is a foundation of minimal music.  Sections are distinctly delineated throughout Akhnaten, and each of these subsequent sections has a clearly new feel to it – there is no gradual transition into each of these sections.  In many ways, the music in Akhnaten sounds more neo-classic than minimal.  The ostinatos often follow traditional chord progressions, but techniques such a split thirds (major / minor chords at the same time) clearly set this music apart from the classical era.  The repetition in the vocal parts that repeat the same note sound very much like falsobordone rather than anything new and innovative.  All of these techniques make this music very easy to listen to.

Philip Glass’s other major ‘opera’ Einstein on the Beach, is more minimal in style than Akhnaten, as we hear more gradual procession within the repetitions, however the result is very theatrical.  Listening to this work, I feel like it lacks something without the visuals associated with the stage production.  Then I ran across this video clip about the production of Einstein on the Beach:

Glass mentions that this work may be the first opera in history to be composed for the stage production rather than having the stage production come as a part of the composition.  This very much reminds me of the process of scoring for movies.  A composer will get the production video and compose around what they see and experience rather than let the visuals be created from the story within the music.  This process very much explains my realization that something was missing – the visual production – from my listening to it.

All that being said, I find Glass’s music as a whole to be interesting.  The changes in texture are interesting and some of his voicings are stunning.  He successfully sets up a mood and goes with it.  There is a certain ‘high art’ feel that is lacking throughout, which, interestingly, is explained in the video above as well.  It was suggested that Einstein on the Beach be produced on Broadway rather than at the Met because the crowd at the Met may not be the crowd that would go for a work like Einstein.  I very much hear music that is composed as production music, theater music, or movie music, and not necessarily as art music.  That is not to say that movie music does not have a place within high art – Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky being a fine example – but even with Prokofiev, Nevsky lacks a depth and a freedom that is expressed in his other masterpieces like Romeo & Juliet, Love for Three Oranges, or his Classical Symphony.