24 May 2012

Toward a New Isolation (i)

Solo (that is, "unaccompanied") tuba performance doesn't have much of a history, and what we do have is ill-suited to a building a career around. This music is, to start, just not good enough, but also neither long enough in duration nor modular enough in conception to be engaging for an entire set, let alone two or more of them in succession. The first question to ask, though, before getting too lathered up over the thought of finding a solution is whether there is a solution to be found at all. It's an uncomfortable question for a tubist (or any other musician) to face. We like to mumble something under our breath about the relative youth of our instruments, but even so, we've been around long enough that if something more interesting is ever to materialize, you'd think we would have at least sniffed it by now.

So, does unaccompanied tuba music suck because the composers writing it happen to suck, or is it because any and every composer sucks when forced to hew so closely to the severe limitations (both physical ones, which aren't going to change much, and conceptual ones, which better git to changin' in a hurry) we impose on them from the moment of a piece's conception? What the hell do you do when someone asks you to write an unaccompanied tuba piece? What can you do? I happen to believe that there is yet hope for truly "great" tuba music in a plethora of styles and settings, if not necessarily in unlimited quantities, and I would include music for tuba as an unaccompanied, unwired solo instrument therein. (In the "wired" domain, Robin Hayward's solo work with electronics is, to me at least, the most exciting development in solo tuba music in a long time. Too bad that the people most concerned with instrumental advocacy in the tuba world generally don't care for this kind of music.) I believe just as strongly that this music will not (cannot, actually) resemble the great violin, cello, flute, piano and saxophone repertoire as closely in its surface stylistic qualities as anyone familiar with truly exceptional instances of those various repertoires (including myself, I will admit) is liable to occasionally desire. And I do not believe, by the way, that the advent of this earth-shattering new tuba music "matters, " so to speak...but it does matter to me and maybe a few dozen other people in the world, some of whom don't know it yet.

A greater role for unaccompanied solo performance is just a small part of the overall equation. I do think that it is particularly overdue, though, and have thought that for several years. My reason for not pursuing it has simply been a matter of my intense attraction to and subsequent investment in polyphony. For years, the solo work was in my mind destined to be someone else's and not mine. Things can change quickly, though, and it all starts here: polyphony is, in addition to being beautiful, sophisticated, elegant, and all that stuff, also expensive, needy, difficult, fickle, contentious, perhaps even intractable. Polyphony is the homewrecker of the contemporary musico-social landscape: it's the really difficult stuff that haunted your adolescence and from which you finally, if you were lucky, made your escape in early adulthood; it's the stuff your JI friends tell you is all a big fat nineteenth century lie; it's the reeaally fun stuff that people who are reeaally good get paid reeaally well for, and therefore, that people who are just okay demand to get paid okay for. When compulsory academic ensemble participation assaulted your love of music in the back alley of student-to-faculty ratio gerrymandering, polyphony was the ski mask, the bludgeon, the smoking gun, the body bag...I could go on and on.

As perhaps you can tell, I have spent my entire compositional life, since tweendom, obsessing over polyphony, wondering why my peers and colleagues don't seem to be nearly so obsessed with it, and therefore beating my head against a long succession of proverbial walls while experiencing only fleeting moments of what I consider to be success. While I generally had my head on straight from an early age and never had worse than serviceable instruction and mentorship along the way, the number and fortitude of these walls was not something anything or anyone prepared me for. While it's too soon to give up completely, I finally decided a couple of years ago that I was overdue for a thorough consideration of any and all alternatives.

A cop-out you say? Absolutely. If my last cop-out had not proven so fruitful, I may not have seriously considered this one, but indeed, discovering the transformative nature of writing for open instrumentation changed more than my approach to orchestration: it opened me up to the possibility of further cop-outs. This latest one presents a remarkably similar scenario: in temporarily abandoning your first choice, you find that your second choice has the potential to make you better at everything you do, and also to be practical enough to stand a fighting chance of making it to the realization and documentation stages. This much I realized about solo playing years ago, but it didn't just occur to me randomly; indeed, my fixation on polyphony meant that it couldn't have. Rather, I had to become so bitter and frustrated trying to realize my ensemble music that I started to question whether I could be happy continuing in that vein for the rest of my life. I had to be driven, unfortunately by frustration in this case, to put every alternative on the table, and since monophonic solo playing more or less eliminates the part of music I value most, it was bound to be one of the very last resorts. (Socially, on the other hand, I suppose it's a bit surprising it didn't occur to me sooner.)

Musical predilections aside, there were external, "musico-social" factors which made me equally uncomfortable with the idea. Our present art music culture has been ravaged by these kinds of practical compromises: free jazz, for example, has been thoroughly co-opted and more or less absorbed into the jazz mainstream at this point not because these people saw the light but because they thought they saw an opportunity to perform without rehearsing; and of course, the tune-playing jazz mainstream itself remains terribly bogged down with third-rate lead sheet compositions which increasingly sound like parodies of themselves, and which, again, seem not to have been written so much out of personal artistic necessity as to be sight-readable on the bandstand. (You can challenge the drawing of causality here, but you can't deny that this is the path of least resistance right now, nor that there are lots of jazz musicians, including some very good ones who could be doing more interesting things, taking it frequently and unapologetically.)

Within my own aesthetic, a turn toward solo playing reeks of this kind of triangulating. I couldn't see much more in it than that for a long time, and I have to admit that part of me still feels that way. The greatest redeeming value here, I eventually realized, is that the tremendous conceptual and physical challenges it presents make incredible "cross training" for my other work which I'd be hard-pressed to duplicate any other way. That realization (I wouldn't be offended if we called it an excuse) finally got me thinking seriously about taking the plunge. Unfortunately, as soon as I had allowed myself to consider it, I realized that I was in far too deep, that too many people were relying on me to play in their ensembles, and that there was no hope of a socially graceful exit from only some of them that might allow me the time and space I needed to truly take this new direction.

This all began to play out in my head years ago, which is to say that I didn't come to California or to CalArts to become an unaccompanied tuba soloist: I came here, like I came into the world, full of false hope for a polyphonic consummation. Unfortunately, that hasn't happened. I will say that CalArts really is just about as pluralistic as you've heard it is, and that this is a good thing, but when people out here say "Performer-Composer," most of them are not thinking first and foremost about Ellington or Prokofiev. There's no hostility here towards notated symphonic music, but nor is there any particular inertia in its favor, and I would venture that this is true of almost all of the many musical styles in play at the school. This actually is a problem, I think, the dark side of pluralism if you will, which is not to say that I in any way prefer the University of Minnesota's tyrannical conservatory approach, only that the alternative is not perfect either. A friend on the cusp of graduation in another discipline referred to her experience attending CalArts as "a scream into a void." My favored metaphor as a music student has been the "padded cell." All of that is to say that aesthetic pluralism can be a matter of eclecticism and condensation or it can be one of indifference, apathy and relativism; it can be active or passive, focused or distracted, a posture or a pose. CalArts seems to me to have largely (though not entirely) mitigated the friction which bogs down students at so many other schools, and along with it any hope of traction either, if that makes any sense.

A further problem, regardless of commitment, is that of community. In my eyes, the concept of postmodern fragmentation of culture, or the idea that everyone now has their own style of music, like a Pandora station, is felt no less acutely by those of us making the music than by those who only listen to it, and more specifically, by those musicians whose work is inherently collaborative. It often seems to me that the very possibility of "like minds" has dwindled down to almost zero: the erosion of common practice (or any possibility of it), the sheer quantity of music being made and the ease of distributing and acquiring it all mean that no two musicians show up to school, work or play with much in common, nor, more importantly, with any obvious way to compel each other to pretend to beyond the possibility of a paycheck.

What is particularly crippling about this condition is that our polemics have fragmented along with our aesthetics. Rarely, then, are battles fought by people my age over concepts as global as absolute versus program music or over styles as different as serialism and minimalism. (Of course, many of the principals of that last one are still alive, but again, I'm talking about people under 30). Rather, we seem doomed to bicker over comparatively subtle, internecine questions. In Minneapolis at least, a "free jazz" group that uses a little bit of written music will have an easier time opening for a commercial rock band than getting booked on a series run by "improvised music" people who are militantly anti-notation. Groups that once actively despised each other (surely some continue to anyway) now play off each other's novelty value and trade "street cred," whereas close musical constituencies are torn apart by comparatively subtle artistic differences.

In a post-common-practice era, challenges to our musical ways of life have to hit particularly close to home to so much as appear to be directed at us at all, and as such, we tend to end up in engaged in actual conflicts with our friends more often than our enemies. It is certainly true that the older "global" issues often underly the contemporary "local" conflicts I'm describing; my point remains that these "local" conflicts are greater in number and, by definition, fought among people who really should be working together rather than, as I think you could argue about many of the older polemics, among people who really shouldn't. (Alternatively, it can and will be argued that people my age and younger don't argue over the big ideas because the internet has made us into shallow thinkers with short attention spans. Consider yourselves warned that the more I hear that, the longer and more verbose my blog posts will become.)

Put another way, even if you disagree that these subtle differences in experience and taste are as crippling as I am making them out to be, perhaps you'll agree that the empowerment of the individual in absence of monolithic tradition wielded as a bludgeon in the various bygone manners of species counterpoint, serialism or bebop means that seemingly minor aesthetic differences can become comparatively magnified by what might be variously called ego, self-determinism, artistic vision, or whatever. That musicians with nearly identical backgrounds can arrive at vastly different aesthetics is a beautiful thing, and as such long-overdue in Western musical culture. What's not so beautiful is that they likely will also come to irreparably despise each other, and only more acutely precisely for having both laid claim to the same confluence of ideas. With biodiversity comes competition, predation, and familiarity breeding contempt, and hence what might once have been called like-mindedness instead becomes internecine strife.

Many students come to CalArts to start over, and some in fact to start for the first time. If they so much as behave themselves, they leave with a NASM accredited degree and five- or six- figure student debt regardless of what they've accomplished academically or artistically. (If this doesn't bother you on some level or another, you must be either an arts administrator, an elected official, or both.) A professor here told me after my audition that, "People come here to become what you already are." Flattered as I was, and, for some reason, in no way dissuaded from enrolling, the aforementioned fragmentation of aesthetics was already on my mind. In the broadest sense, everyone in the Performer-Composer program is here for remarkably similar reasons, but our specific orientations are incredibly diverse. It seems to me looking around the room each week during our forum that we don't work with each other nearly as much as with students from the "straight" performance and composition programs, who might better serve our specific purposes, have less of an aesthetic axe to grind, and let's face it, generally need stuff to do. I don't think this is a coincidence.

So, here I am, casualty of the postmodern condition, one unlike mind among many, the polyphonic guy who got stuck with the monophonic instrument, the misanthrope who who hitched his life's wagon to a collaborative art, the lines-and-dots composer who enrolled at the accredited American music school with the most improvisors per capita, and the graduate student who showed up there in order to consolidate all of this, not to start over. Suffice it to say, though, that given the already mounting frustration I faced on many of these same fronts in Minneapolis, I did arrive in California with both a very clear picture of what starting over could look like and an exceedingly short fuse when it comes banging my head against the wall that stands between me and my polyphonic dreams. That fuse ran out sometime in February, and I've since begun my first serious investigation of unaccompanied solo performance. The above (yes, all of it) is merely an introduction in light of which I want to share, in the next missive, some early reflections on this process, which I believe is headed for a very fruitful, if hard-won, consummation.