Dr. Gary Lloyd Noland (a.k.a. author Dolly Gray Landon & artist Lon Gaylord Dylan), grew up in a crowded house shared by ten people on a plot of land three blocks south of UC Berkeley known as People’s Park, which has distinguished itself as a site of civic unrest since the late 1960s. As an adolescent, Gary lived for a time in Salzburg and Garmisch-Partenkirchen, where he absorbed many musical influences. Having studied with a long roster of acclaimed composers and musicians, he earned his Bachelor’s in music from UC Berkeley in 1979, continued studies at the Boston Conservatory, and transferred to Harvard University, where he added to his credits a Masters and a PhD in Music Composition in 1989.
Gary’s catalogue consists of hundreds of works, which include piano, vocal, chamber, experimental, and electronic pieces; full-length plays in verse, “chamber novels,” and other text pieces; as well as graphically notated scores. His award-winning chamber novel JAGDLIED for Narrator, Musicians, Pantomimists, Dancers & Culinary Artists was listed as one of the “Top 10 Books” of 2018. Gary’s compositions have been performed and broadcast (including on NPR) in many locations throughout the United States, as well as in Europe, Asia, and Australia. He founded the Seventh Species concert series in San Francisco in 1990 and, for a period of 23 years, produced well over 50 concerts of contemporary classical music on the West Coast. He is also a founding member of Cascadia Composers. Gary has taught music at Harvard, the University of Oregon, and Portland Community College. His musical scores are available from J.W. Pepper, RGM, Sheet Music Plus, and Freeland Publications. Six CDs of his compositions are available on the North Pacific Music label at: www.northpacificmusic.com. He has well over 300 videos of his music and narratives available for listening on YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCJt_eNyJqOZBErG9McQ51nA and numerous other sites on the Internet.
I grew up in a headbox as an airhole freak, soliciting gestural awknowledgments of edibility crapropos of my monthly grub. The greenish gruel I ingested for nourishment drizzled in daggers from the broad vicinity of the ropemaster's, the driller's, and the eggman's quarters high aloft in the west-facing sumpwing of my cloaca maxima. I'd wile away my weeks watching ratsnakes swabbling down the dried up, crusty accounts off the edge of the slop pail in which I inveterately soaked my false tooth.
Current member of the Harvard Resistance Movement.
Composer Gary Lloyd Noland was born in Seattle (1957) and grew up in a crowded house shared by ten people on a plot of land three blocks south of UC Berkeley known as People’s Park, which has distinguished itself as a site of civic unrest since the early 1960s. As a budding young artist at the time, Gary Lloyd Noland (who now chooses to go by the anagrammatic nom de guerre "Lon Gaylord Dylan” for his visual artist persona and the pen name “Dolly Gray Landon” for his author persona) was deeply influenced by the rampant psychedelia on Telegraph Avenue—which may be correctly regarded as Haight-Ashbury's little sister. He remembers strolling lackadaisically into the Print Mint (an important Berkeley cultural institution just around the corner from his home) at age ten and encountering, for the first time ever, the underground artwork of Robert Crumb, the cross-hatching techniques of which totally blew his mind (to say the least). As an adolescent, Noland lived for a time in Salzburg (Mozart’s birthplace) and in Garmisch-Partenkirchen (home of Richard Strauss), where he absorbed a myriad of musical influences (notably a sentimental—almost morbid—wistfulness underscored by a surreptitious Viennese lilt, as encountered in much of the music by German and East European composers active during the fin de siècle, including members of the Second Viennese School and beyond). This, coupled with the fact of his having grown up in a family of German Jewish Holocaust refugees, lends to his music expressive attributes that in great part owe to the musical icons of the old-world cultural differentiae and mannerisms that emanated from émigrés of like stock who were amongst, and/or close to, Noland's immediate family. He nurtures a fond recollection of his piano teacher in Garmisch driving him past Richard Strauss’s villa in 1972, when Strauss’s son Franz and daughter-in-law Alice were still alive, not realizing at the time that he was fated to catch the Strauss/Mahler bug some six years thereafter.
Noland earned a BA in music from UC Berkeley in 1979, continued studies at the Boston Conservatory, and transferred to Harvard University where he added to his credits an MA and a PhD in 1989. His teachers in composition and theory have included John Clement Adams, Alan Curtis (one of the musical “stars” in Werner Herzog’s film on Gesualdo: “Death for Five Voices”), Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (Master of the Queen’s Music, 2004-16), William Denny (student of Paul Dukas), Robert Dickow, Janice Giteck (student of Darius Milhaud and Olivier Messiaen), Andrew Imbrie (Pulitzer Prize Finalist, 1995; student of Nadia Boulanger and Roger Sessions), Earl Kim (student of Arnold Schoenberg, Ernest Bloch, and Roger Sessions; teacher of David Del Tredici and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies), Leon Kirchner (Pulitzer Prize, 1967; student of Arnold Schoenberg and Roger Sessions and teacher of cellist Yo-Yo Ma and composers Tison Street and John Adams; assistant to Ernest Bloch and Roger Sessions in teaching theory at U.C. Berkeley, and initially encouraged by composer Ernst Toch [whose grandson, coincidentally, once dropped by the Noland's family home in Berkeley to inquire about a room for rent] to initiate his studies with Schoenberg; Kirchner proudly shared with his composition seminar the story of being invited to dine with Igor Stravinsky at his home, as well as the occasion, whilst still quite young, of meeting Rachmaninoff after a concert), David Lewin (called “the most original and far-ranging theorist of his generation”), Donald Martino (Pulitzer Prize, 1974; student of Milton Babbitt, Roger Sessions and Luigi Dallapiccola), Hugo Norden, Marta Ptaszynska (student of Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen), Chris Rozé (student of Charles Wuorinen, Ursula Mamlok, and Vincent Persichetti), Goodwin Sammel (student of Claudio Arrau, who, in his turn, studied with Martin Krause—a pupil of Franz Liszt), John Swackhamer (student of Ernst Krenek and Roger Sessions), Ivan Tcherepnin (son of Alexander Tcherepnin, brother of Serge Tcherepnin [creator of the Serge Modular Synthesizer]; student of Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen), and Walter Winslow (brother of Portland composer Jeff Winslow). He has attended seminars by composers David Del Tredici (Pulitzer Prize, 1980), Beverly Grigsby (student of Ernst Krenek), Michael Finnissy (leading British composer and pianist) and Bernard Rands (Pulitzer Prize, 1984), and has had private consultations with George Rochberg (Pulitzer Prize finalist, 1986, aka “the Father of Neo-Romanticism”) and Joaquin Nin-Culmell (brother of essayist and diarist Anaïs Nin, student of Paul Dukas and Manuel de Falla). To continue on with this (undoubtedly tasteless to some) name-dropping pageant, Noland has also had the honor of meeting (howsoever briefly) such luminaries as Lukas Foss (who was highly supportive of his music and with whom he maintained a brief correspondence), Elliot Carter, George Crumb, Frederic Rzewski, John Adams, Virgil Thomson, Oswald Jonas (student of Heinrich Schenker, founder of the Schenker Institut), John Corigliano, George Crumb (whose son, David, is a close acquaintance), pianist Stephen Hough, composer Henry Martin, Tison Street, Gunther Schuller, John Harbison, Peter Lieberson (son of Goddard Lieberson, president of Columbia Records), Lina Prokofiev (wife of Sergei Prokofiev), Sir Peter Pears (the great English tenor whose career was long associated with that of composer Benjamin Britten), English mezzo-soprano Dame Janet Baker, Alvin Curran, Charles Amirkhanian, Marc-André Hamelin, Gyorgi Ligeti, Hsueh Yung-Shen, John Zorn (under whose baton he once performed the organ in “Cobra”), Noam Elkies, Robert Levin (cadenza improviser extraordinaire), and (thru long correspondence): Joseph Fennimore (ranked by Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Philip Kennicott as "one of this country's finest composers”), Ladislav Kupkovic, William Bolcom, and Max Morath (ragtime composer and pianist). He has also found himself within spitting reach of (though didn’t quite have the chutzpah at the time to waylay) composers Olivier Messiaen, John Cage, Arvo Pärt, Alfred Schnittke, Hans Werner Henze, William Albright, Brian Ferneyhough, Leslie Bassett, Luciano Berio (next to whom he once sat at a concert), Milton Babbitt, John Williams, Pierre Boulez, John McCabe, and others. In the early 1990’s Noland used to dine with a friend of his grandmother’s named Ernie who once shared the story of meeting Gustav Mahler and Bruno Walther hiking together in the hills just outside of Vienna. Noland’s grandmother, who lived in Berlin during the Weimar years, once met Kurt Weill. (Noland’s grandfather fondly recalled having seen Albert Einstein stroll past the family home everyday during the Weimar years in Berlin. Interestingly, years later, Noland's grandparents became closely acquainted with a cousin of J. Robert Oppenheimer.) The composer can go on and on recounting other historical connections, interlinkages, and associations (with musicians and non-musicians alike). This is not meant in any way, shape or form to reflect favorably (or, for that matter, unfavorably) upon Noland’s own creative endeavors but only as a testament to how privileged he has been (for which he is eternally grateful) to have met and/or to have been in close proximity to such a legion of distinguished and influential personages. To those readers who are easily offended by (and/or who are inclined to view) this bio as being blatantly disingenuous and self-aggrandizing in tone, Noland offers his semi-sincere apologies for what may (not unforeseeably) smack of shameless name-dropping. One needs must admit, howso, that such shoulder-rubbings as hereinabove outlined are illuminating insofar as shedding light upon the streams of musico-artistic influences that are paramountly important in consideration of how they tend to impact, and ultimately lend cohesion and coherence to, the form and substance of a composer's creative output. This is by no means unusual; in fact, the power of such lineal influences upon composers is empirically universal. There are deep cultural and historical and psychological explanations as to why a composer writes a specific kind of music and the reasons for doing so are less a matter of choice than due to some inner compulsion over which the composer has no control. Multiple attempts have been made (by critics and others) to pigeonhole Noland into some pre-defined aesthetic category or school of thought. As a composer, he has often been (mis)labeled as “avant-garde,” “neo-romantic,” “neo-classical,” “modernist,” “minimalist,” “maximalist,’ “post-modern,” “radical,” “reactionary,” “tonal,” “atonal,” “Dadaist,” “Romantic,” “neo-baroque,” and the like. None of these tags or “isms" are wholly adequate to describe who Noland is or what he does and most of them are consummately meaningless (not to say functionally irrelevant). Noland eschews this type of (mis)labeling, since the affixtures of such labels to a composer's music can prove immensely misleading to the uninformed public at large. Over the years Noland's music has been compared to a wide range of compositional influences, most of which, perhaps, ring with some elements of truth (and are, nevertheless, not unflattering to the recipient of such comparisons, as they can in most cases be taken as high compliments) but none of which wholly suffice to tell the story of who the composer is, what he does, why he does it, or what he stands for. Many of Noland’s compositions have drawn favorable comparison to music by composers as varied as Richard Strauss, John Cage, Frederic Chopin, Karlheinz Stockhausen, J.S. Bach, Robert Schumann, John Zorn, Max Reger, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Olivier Messiaen, Franz Schubert, Frederic Rzewski, George Rochberg, Conlon Nancarrow, Frank Zappa, Scott Joplin, Ludwig van Beethoven, Cecil Taylor, John Dowland, Arnold Schoenberg, Gustav Mahler, Erik Satie, and others. One can only hope that in consideration of the milieu of the current epoch (the end of the second decade of the 21st century) it would be generally perceived, by those with any level of critical acumen, as a perfectly natural outcome of the pervasive surfeit of information and complexity of viewpoints and ideas that have evolved as a result of the chaotic musical landscape that has emerged in recent years (not to mention the multiplicity of influences, once accessible only to the elite, that has been globally disseminated by dint of a spontaneous cross-pollination of diverse and powerful artistic lineages, as well as the commingling and interfusing of cultures, past and present alike), which may well serve to impact, and ultimately lend a sort of structural coherence (if that is even to be considered a “virtue”) to an artist’s creative oeuvre (assuming the artist under scrutiny has achieved a markedly high level of craftsmanly expertise), that one’s critical response thereto would, at very least, be one of acknowledging (and thereby succeeding in granting due recognition to) the creative outpourings (whether willful on the part of the perpetrator or not) as legitimate and authentic forms of artistic expression. To view such things otherwise (i.e., insofar as attempting to delegitimize accomplished artists with the convenient dismission of their works by way of branding them as “derivative,” "pastiche,” and so on [a type of hackneyed criticism that has come to be one of the sterotypical tropes in the "hollowed" halls of cacademe, and which has proven over time to have little or no validity in the real world of contemporary classical music making) would be either disingenuous, naïve, or just plain indolent on the part of the criticaster in question. Ironically, it has been Noland's observation, over several decades, that it is not ifrequently the case that the more refined the craft and artistry of a composer tends to be (and one should make no bones about the fact that "originality" per se is all but impossible without a composer achiieving consummate mastery of his or her art—a truism backed up by ample historical evidence), the more likely charges of “pastiche” will be leveled against that composer by envious and/or incompetent peers, unqualified morons, simpletons, and ignoramuses. There is no “straight and narrow” in the art of music creation—it is an indescribably messy and chaotic pursuit that requires a fierce and uncompromising focus of attention, as well as a willingness to jeopardize one’s dignity, even to the point of risking one's own life. One of this composer's favorite self-coined aphorisms is: “There are no rules in Love, War, and Music.” Another is: “Music without craft is like salt without an egg.”
Noland’s catalogue consists of hundreds of works, which include piano, vocal, chamber, orchestral, experimental and electronic pieces, full-length plays in verse, “chamber novels,” and graphically notated scores. His “39 Variations on an Original Theme in F Major” for solo piano (Op. 98) is, at almost two hours duration, one of the lengthiest and most challenging sets of solo piano variations in the history of the genre (the score is available on this website under "Scores 1"). Having received both effusive praise and violent censure of his works over the years, he has been called “the Richard Strauss of the 21st century,” “the [Max] Reger of the 21st century,” “the most virtuosic composer of fugue alive today,” “the composer to end all composers,” “court jester to the classical establishment,” and “one of the great composers of the 21st century.” His compositions have been performed and broadcast (including on NPR) in many locations throughout the United States, as well as in Europe, Asia, and Australia. He founded the Seventh Species concert series in San Francisco in 1990 and has, since then, produced upwards of fifty concerts of contemporary concert hall music on the West Coast. Gary is also (along with composers David Bernstein, Greg Steinke, Jack Gabel, Tomas Svoboda, Jeff Winslow, and others) one of the founding members of Cascadia Composers, which has distinguished itself as one of the premier composer collectives on the West Coast. Noland has taught music at Harvard, the University of Oregon, and Portland Community College, and currently teaches piano, theory, and composition as an independent instructor in the Portland metro area. A number of his works (fiction, music, and graphic scores) have been published (and/or are slated for publication) in various litmags, including Quarter After Eight, Berkeley Fiction Review, Portland Review, Denali, The Monarch Review, Prick of the Spindle, theNewerYork Press, Wisconsin Review, The Writing Disorder, and Heavy Feather Review. His graphic scores are included in Theresa Sauer’s book Notations 21, which is a sequel to John Cage’s celebrated compilation of graphic scores Notations (first published in 1969). A chapter on Gary Noland is included in Burl Willes’s celebrated book Tales from the Elmwood: a Community Memory published by the Berkeley Historical Society in 2000. His “Grande Rag Brillante” was commissioned by KPFA Radio to celebrate the inauguration of its (then, in 1991) brand new Pacifica Radio Headquarters in Berkeley. This premiere was later acknowledged in Nicolas Slonimsky’s famous book compiling significant 20th century premieres: Music Since 1900. Noland’s critically acclaimed 77-hour chamber novel JAGDLIED (published in 2018) was listed by one reviewer as “one of the top 10 books of 2018.” Many of Noland’s scores are now available from J.W. Pepper, RGM, Sheet Music Plus, and Freeland Publications. Six CDs of his compositions are available on the North Pacific Music label at: www.northpacificmusic.com. He has over 300 videos of his music and narratives available for listening on YouTube at: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCJt_eNyJqOZBErG9McQ51nA and https://www.youtube.com/user/Geltschmerz and on Vimeo at: https://vimeo.com/user25315384. Other miscellaneous videos can be found in different corners of the Internet. Most of his music videos are available for viewing and listening on the this website: composergarynoland.godaddysites.com). His chamber novel JAGDLIED is currently available for purchase at: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07GJ1RDQJ?pf_rd_p=183f5289-9dc0-416f-942e-e8f213ef368b&pf_rd_r=FJW5GVTYY1NKTJ47M5B5 and his play NOTHING IS MORE: A HIGH BLACK COMEDY IN VERSE WITH MUSIC FOR SIX ACTORS is available for purchase at: https://www.amazon.com/Nothing-More-Black-Comedy-Actors/dp/1795387513/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1570996720&sr=
The link to this article is here (scroll down to page 13): https://oregonmta.org/images/OR%20Musician-Aug2013.pdf
I appreciate being asked to write this article on composition. I’ll do my utmost to tone down the invective. Although there are many elephants in the room, I’ll refrain from mentioning names or pointing fingers. We know who they are and they know who they are . . .
A couple of years ago I received a call from a young gentleman who’d come across a copy of my “39 Variations on an Original Theme in F Major” for piano (Op. 98) at the home of a Portland pianist for whom he was then house- sitting. This is a work of approximately 100 minutes duration that demands a player of extreme stamina and almost impossible virtuosic skill. The piece ends with a thirty-five-page fugue. I was raised on the Goldberg’s, the Diabelli’s and, later, Fred Rzewski’s monumental set of variations on Sergio Ortega’s anthem, ¡El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido!; thus I was acutely conscious of what I was up against in terms of attempting to one-up my formidable predecessors. When I passed this score along to Marc-André Hamelin with the claim (verifiable until proven otherwise) that it’s the longest set of piano variations in the history of the genre, he raised an eyebrow.
The gentleman who contacted me, having inferred from the afore-cited score that I was a “real composer,” requested a composition lesson. Upon expressing to me that one of his worst anxieties was that his music might sound too much like Brahms (or any other composer for that matter), I had to tell him, frankly, that, if such were the case, it would be the very least of his worries, for it would indicate (if his claim could be supported by evidence) that he was already a composer of the first rank, in which case I ought to be taking lessons from him and not the other way around. The only composers I can think of who sound even remotely like Brahms have written music that’s well-established in the repertory (e.g., Ernst von Dohnanyi, who’s been described as “Brahms on steroids,” Amy Beach, early Richard Strauss and early Ernst Toch, among others). There’s a world of difference between “sounding like Brahms” and sounding like an unskilled novice trying to avoid sounding like Brahms. If one does a study of juvenilia by composers whose opuses have made it into the canon, one will find, more than not, that such works are competent emulations of the styles of their predecessors (see, for example: Bach, Bartok, Beethoven, Berg, Chopin, Debussy, Hindemith, Ligeti, Rochberg, Rossini, Schoenberg, Schubert, Schulhoff, Scriabin, Shostakovich, Strauss, Stravinsky, Szymanowski, Toch, Webern, Weill, et al). Whatever “individuality” emerges in the music of such composers happens more as a result of their supreme technical skill than any self-conscious effort—if I might be vouchsafed the use of a catchword from the annals of textbook psychobabble—to “be themselves.”
The anxiety of sounding like someone else is by no means uncommon amongst aspirant composers, and therein lies a critical problem pertaining to the indoctrination that occurs within the padded walls of the Academy. For countless generations composers have been brainwashed by their teachers into fancying that the only way their music can achieve integrity on any level is if they “find their own voices.” I was subjected to this party line over and over again throughout college, graduate school, and in the real world. I’m experienced enough now to know that this way of thinking is fallacious and perverse in the extreme; it is, in essence, an institutionally condoned “cop-out”—a license for laziness. The fact of the matter is: it’s a hundred times harder to sound like someone else than to sound like oneself. That we possess our own voices is a matter of genetics: we’re born with them. We’re not, however, born with the motivation (read: fanaticism) and work ethic to do what’s required to perfect our craft and cultivate our musical tastes. (Incidentally, good craft and good taste don’t always coincide—not infrequently those with taste have no skill and vice versa, in part attributable to the furrowing of idiots savants at conservatories and eggheads devoid of chops at universities.) A high level of technical mastery (which, by default, presupposes a creative imagination) is the key to achieving authenticity. Anyone who can compose “like” or “as well as” Brahms has the means at their disposal (and credibility into the bargain) to do whatever they please. If you don’t have this level of craft, you’re not a composer. This is why Schoenberg was taken seriously in his time. (In the case of Boulez, it may have more to do with his phenomenal ears than anything else.)
I once had a brief conversation with a well-known theorist who said to me, “I could bang out a fugue everyday if I wanted to, but what would be the point?” Perhaps that’s true, and if it is, he’s depriving the world of hundreds, maybe thousands, of fugues (whether or not they’re any good is anybody’s guess). Of course, there’s a major difference between boasting one can do something and actually doing it (as, I believe, John Cage pointed out when someone said to him, “Anyone can do that!”). I can’t imagine this particular theorist will be eulogized for the thousands of fugues he could have written . . .
We live in times when critics and members of prize committees tell us that “so-and-so” has an “original voice” when said party has done nothing more than reinvent the wheel (if that), for what the critics and committee members bestow their stamp of approval on has little to do with the constitutional integrity of the works they judge. It astonishes me how depraved such judgments often turn out to be, even at the highest level, when the prize in question can make a difference between launching a career or plunging a worthy contender into a slough of despond. Winning or not winning is a matter of life and death. Sometimes I’ll read that such-and-such a composer won the “Whiffenpoof” Prize or a “Ferschlugginer” Grant. Out of curiosity, I’ll go online to investigate, whereupon I’ll scratch my head and ask myself, “Am I missing something . . .?” I’ve been personally acquainted with a number of music reviewers, many of whom are well-meaning, good-hearted, salt-of-the-earth types. Several years ago I went to Powell’s to hear Alex Ross (music critic for the New Yorker) plug his (then) new book The Rest is Noise. I must have counted (including myself) four or five composers in attendance. It occurred to me afterwards, inasmuch as I found his talk engaging, that in a perfect world things would have gone down differently, namely: Mr. Ross would have attended a concert of music by Portland composers and written it up in his next review. Since when do music critics have greater stature than the composers they feed on? Do conductors of symphony orchestras know the composers in their communities? Like as not. You can rest assured: they know who the critics are! When I was an insecure, inarticulate undergraduate, I once got into an argument with a composition professor at a prestigious university. I posed the question to him (a no-brainer I assumed): “If a composer comes along and writes, say, The B Flat Minor Mass and if said work is in the style of, and of the same level of quality as, Bach’s B Minor Mass (a universally acknowledged masterpiece), would The B Flat Minor Mass have any validity . . .? Of course, deep down I knew the answer to this poser. Be that as it might, the professor was adamant in the negativity of his retort, which was something to the effect that the music would be “worthless” and there would be no point in embarking upon such an asinine undertaking. I wasn’t rhetorically sharp enough to hold my ground against such a smug polemic but nevertheless knew I was right in believing that his “stupinion,” not the hypothetical piece (were it ever to be written), had no validity. Thankfully, I was strong enough not to hurl myself off a bridge, for the patronizing tone in which he delivered his verdict (backed by years of kudos and funding) cast me into a deep depression. I believe it was Nietzsche who wrote, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” For most of my life now I’ve been fighting a one-man war against the inculcation (i.e., force-feeding) of impressionable minds with such black propaganda by irresponsible mediocrities in positions of power. There’s an amusing clip one can find online (http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=SSulycqZH-U) of John Cage being featured on a classic television show called “I’ve Got a Secret” that was aired in January, 1960, in which he presents a piece called “Water Walk.” The performance consists of Cage interacting with various random objects such as radios, a vase of roses, a bathtub, a grand piano, a rubber duck, and so on. The MC appears to be skeptical of Cage’s choice of instrumentation and asks him how he would feel if the audience laughed at his performance, to which he responds, “I consider laughter preferable to tears.” When I first encountered this clip, I was won over by Cage’s wit and humor until I reflected more deeply on his face-saving response. It occurred to me that most of the music I hold in highest regard is more likely to draw tears from me than laughter . . .
I’ve been around long enough to witness the landscape of twentieth century music undergo major shifts. I was told that certain “innovative” composers who wrote agonizingly inept, formless, ugly, random, arid, stodgy, boring music were “significant” on account of their “originality.” Tellingly, we’ve witnessed a revival of works by first-rate composers that were not in the canon thirty or forty years ago —works by Korngold (whose spectacular revival is comparable to that of Mahler’s some fifty years back), Toch, Schulhoff, Godowsky, Revueltas, Szymanowski, Sorabji, and others—that have become permanent fixtures in the repertoire, while products of the more “fashionable” secondrates from the mid to late twentieth century have faded from the milieu due to a justifiable lack of interest (granted, it’s yet to be seen if such sonic sewage withstands the test of time—fat chance, I wager). What we’re more likely to see is that what was musicologically endorsed as being “mainstream” thirty to sixty years ago will come to be viewed as a sideshow or footnote.
This brings me to another subject: technology. Increasingly, we’re seeing young dotmakers achieving an unprecedented level of “flow” in their compositions on account of their use of computer software to notate their scores and emit note- for-note renditions of the pixels on their screens. I belong to a generation that had to write music from scratch—the “hard way”; we had to hammer things out at the piano and find ways to listen to our efforts as objectively as possible. I had the stick-to-itiveness to do this sort of thing to good effect (I’d spend weeks perfecting a single measure if I had to). It was much easier in those days to “separate the women from the girls,” so to speak. Nowadays, when I attend concerts of works by young composers (some as tender as eight or nine), on a peripheral level their compositional exertions sound leagues more “impressive” than the stuff I heard at grad composition seminar concerts thirty years ago (which were dreary affairs, to be sure). In those days composers relied on the limitations of their ears and their techniques as instrumentalists; consequently, their efforts on paper were, for the most part, inept. The danger of all this access to technological tools that eliminate the drudgery of putting ideas down on paper is that it’s now possible for amateur composer wannabes with little training or skill (as evidenced by their shoddy voice-leading, impoverished sense of structure, and a pervasive noodly modalness reminiscent of the schlock they listen to) to slickly package their junk and fool committees into believing there’s actual merit in what they do. Some of these dotmaking invertebrates—“LittleJohnny-One-Chords,” passive-aggressive dweezles out to exact their revenge on society by composing the most hideous imaginable atonal dreck, and/or overindulged suburban morons venting their “ersatz angst”—go on to have “reputations” on account of being cunning self- promoters, wangling distinguished prizes for themselves, and so on. At best, their wallpaper-like endeavors exude an occasional element of monkey-at-thetypewriter “cleverness” that might engage an audience for a split second but seldom has the capacity to coax repeated hearings—the music’s all too often D.O.A. As an audience member, I get impatient with having to pretend to admire arcane musical puns, tonguein-cheek turns of phrase, fancy-dancy riffs, et cetera. Ultimately, I want to be moved (i.e., transported) by what I hear. I can count on perhaps three hands the number of times I’ve had the good fortune to catch a new work presented that affected me in such a way.
I’m convinced there’s as much latent musical talent per capita in the present era as at any other time in history. However, the reason we’re not producing Mozarts and Beethovens (or any known works that possess that element of what John Adams calls “gravitas”) is because of the survival pressures imposed upon artists in a consumer-driven economy that impel them, in moments of weakness, to call attention to themselves by resorting to cheap gimmicks, parlor tricks, special effects, and so on. I can say this with authority on account of having myself been guilty of such meaningless experimentation. Ironically, some of my own ghastliest enterprises (including a 200-page underground comic book I had the audaciousness to call an “opera”) have attracted more interest than my worthier productions. It would seem, then, that in order to survive as an artiste, one has to make pacts with every conceivable devil that comes along. American culture tends to favor obnoxious extroverts who are adroit at drawing attention to themselves.
Many of the most accomplished composers I know are all thumbs when it comes to marketing their wares and for that reason remain on the fringes insofar as garnering the recognition they so eminently deserve.
I will name several first-rate (or “first-rate second-rate”) composers, most of whom are still with us, whose music should, in my humble opinion, be taken seriously. Some are well-known, others relatively obscure: William Alwyn, Edward Artemiev, Lera Auerbach, John Borstlap, Uri Caine, Lenny Cavallaro, the Currier brothers (Nathan & Sebastian), Kevin Daly, Paul Dessau, Gottfried von Einem, Noam Elkies, Joseph Fennimore, Michael Finnissy, Marc- André Hamelin, Ladislav Kupkovic, Fred Lerdahl, Robert Levin, Henry Martin, George Rochberg, Poul Ruders, Frederic Rzewski, Paul Schoenfield, Hsueh-Yung Shen, Tison Street, David Del Tredici, George Tsontakis, Hiromi Uehara, Alfred Watson, and two Oregonians—Victor Steinhardt and Tomas Svoboda.
One more self-corroding paradox I want to point out here is that politically infused terms such as “radical” and “conservative” are often misapplied to composers and their oeuvres. Some music organizations that think of themselves as “revolutionary” are anything but that, and some composers who are labeled as “cutting-edge” write the most insufferably pedestrian music. Conversely, there are others pigeonholed as being “conventional” who are groundbreaking innovators.
Go do the math—nothing adds up!
The review below of the contemporary music ensemble BETA COLLIDE was written by Gary Noland under the pseudonym Anarch Zigzagovich and was published in the October 21st, 2008 edition of Northwest Reverb: https://northwestreverb.blogspot.com/2008/10/review-beta-collide-uptown-meets.html
By Anarch Zigzagovich
Portland has of late been blessed with its sixth contemporary music group—Beta Collide—founded by Grammy Award-winning flutist Molly Barth (former member of Eighth Blackbird) and trumpeter Brian McWhorter (of the Meridian Arts Ensemble). Beta Collide, though currently based in Eugene, presented its Portland debut concert on Friday evening (17 October) at the atrium of the White Stag Building. Word is out that this talented ensemble is planning to do concerts on a regular basis in the Portland metro area.
To date the most prominent contemporary concert hall music ensembles in Portland have been Fear No Music and Third Angle. The eighteen-year old organization Seventh Species, which moved its base of operations from Eugene to Portland three years ago, has long been the only concert series of its kind in Oregon featuring music primarily by local and regional composers. Since 2006 composer Robert Priest has imported his Marzena series from Seattle, and has attracted a wide following of new music aficionados. Aside from Beta Collide, the other “new kid on the block” is Cascadia Composers, an official chapter of NACUSA (National Association of Composers USA, founded by Henry Hadley in 1933), which is scheduled to give its inaugural concert of chamber works by seven of the region’s most distinguished composers on March 13th, 2009 at the Old Church.
At this point in time, I cannot help but marvel that Portland (despite its cultural inferiority complex) has what might be considered a “vibrant” new music scene, though it still has a long ways to go before it can be on a par with cities like Boston or New York. This will only happen when the powers that be open their coffers to local rather than imported talent.
Friday’s Beta Collide concert had originally scheduled Luciano Berio’s Sequenza III for soprano (written for his wife, the inimitable Cathy Berberian) to be performed by baritone Nicholas Isherwood who, disappointingly, was taken ill with laryngitis. Isherwood was also scheduled to sing another work by the Hungarian György Kurtag, a composer who has risen to international prominence over the last twenty years and who studied composition with the same teachers as his student colleague and compatriot György Ligeti. Instead, we were treated to a tongue-in-cheek solo trumpet work by the American Robert Erickson entitled Kryl (named after the circus acrobat and cornet master Bohumir Kryl), which demonstrated a vast array of pyrotechnics, including glissandos insterspersed with hums, screams, and various fart-like sounds. Brian McWhorter played this piece with matchless verve and gusto. Another solo work was Eliot Carter’s Scrivo In Vento for flute, which had rapid alternations of high screechy, pointillistic figures and slow languishing moments, and was played with panache by the supremely gifted Molly Barth. The other solo pieces presented were Lutoslawski’s Sacher Variation (1975), expertly rendered by cellist Justin Kagan (who is a prominent fixture in many music venues throughout town) and a work for solo trumpet by the quirky composer Mark Applebaum of Stanford University.
While the solo works were rigorously precise in their notational directives to the performers (the notation in the Applebaum bears some resemblance to the ultra complex scores of his colleague at Stanford, Brian Ferneyhough), the three folios composed in the early 1950s by Earle Brown were either graphically or semi-graphically notated (i.e., with black rectangles of various sizes and/or multiple staves with waves, etc.) and thus required ultroneous improvisatory gestures from the performers. Occasionally I noted that the musicians did not actually have their eyes on the scores while performing the music represented thereby, which made me wonder if they had “memorized” the rectangles, waves and squiggles (?). Notwithstanding, they pulled off the folios with wit and aplomb. One element that lent distinction to this concert was that extremes of anally precise notated works on the one hand were presented side by side with representations of a sort of blasé indeterminacy on the other: Uptown meets downtown. The concert was divided into four segments, the first three of which consisted of the aleatoric pieces seamlessly segued into the more academically severe solos. At one point this reviewer lost track of what piece was being played—which didn’t seem to matter.
The repertoire presented, all in all, had very little meat on the bone, and while I can’t fault the performers for the conviction of their interpretations, I might suggest that if it is their intention to be “unconventional” or “cutting edge,” they might consider throwing in some less run-of-the-mill items. I, for one, would be delighted to hear more works by lesser known—albeit infinitely more talented—composers like Joseph Fennimore (who has yet to be “discovered”), the late Gottfried von Einem (the Austrian composer whose revival is long overdue and who is doubtless destined to attract a following on the scale of Korngold’s or Mahler’s in the near future), Tison Street (one of Boston’s notable talents), Henry Martin (perhaps the greatest contrapuntist alive today), Hsueh-Yung Shen (a Boulanger-trained eccentric who apparently does very little to advance his cause), or Noam Elkies (the Harvard mathematician who is the youngest person ever to have received tenure at that institution and who at the same time is one of its brightest musicians), to name a few, or even works by such luminaries as, say, Ligeti, Rochberg, Rzewski, Del Tredici, Schnittke, Tsontakis, or Currier. I remember hearing Del Tredici express to a symposium of younger composers at the Bloch festival some six years ago his observation that there is a pervasive indifference to harmony amongst the vast majority of today’s composers—a criticism that could aptly be applied to the works presented on Friday evening by Beta Collide.
Suffice it to say that I did not come to this concert expecting to be served Wienerschnitzel and Schnapps. The serving was more akin to a plate of cilantro garnished with nettles. More schmaltz sil vous plait!
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