Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Why Tonality? A Manifesto in Aphorisms

Since I have developed a style of music that I call "hard listening" I have had to use "easy listening" figures and gestures to form the foundation of this music. That is the dialectic of the situation.

This past month I recorded some solo piano music: all but two are original compositions. Much of it is about half sheer spontaneity, half rigorous restraint. It is an enormous amount of work, creating music on solo piano, using the fullest range of the instrument, and consciously attempting to draw on a widest variety of American popular music, with references to high art classical music. It requires hours of practice of course, but it also requires spiritual meditation upon musicians who have come before me and to whom I am most indebted. I figure if the style and language they used was good enough for them; it is good enough for me, and I want to honor them and their styles somehow. Every note I play or compose is completely indebted to heroes or icons of the past who have come before me.

I am a modernist to the core. By modern I mean simply that my music is music that has something to do with the modern and contemporary world in a most general sense. What makes me modernist is that my music is for music's sake. Art for art's sake is very unfashionable now since we live in highly politicized times. My music is in the interest of no group in particular except for those groups of musicians to whom I am most indebted and continue to inspire and elevate. I create music not to save the world, to improve or elevate consciousness, to ferment political revolution, or to defend any status quo. My music has no messages other than the message that listening to music can be entertaining and a source of highest joy.

There is a lot of emotion in my music but it is not specificity. This is why music is the highest of the arts, this lack of specificity. It is a tragedy that contemporary musicians revel in music's attachment to the specificity of a cause, or a scene, or an identity. They are giving up one of the very things that makes music, well, musical.  What makes me not a classicist is my ideal of liberation and freedom  in the creation of music. Perhaps my aim is really close to Tarkovsky and I create music to prepare people for death. When people are getting ready to die you kind of want to have some kindness towards them.

 My music is closer to David Raskin that to Pierre Boulez, which is why I am always slightly puzzled when I am linked with the so-called avant-garde. The avant-garde as a rule has not been very kind to me. Indeed a fellow pianist in the avant-garde camp actually walked out on a concert of mine. This after he had the audacity to ask me who the pianist was on a recording from Pandora. I told him Earl "Fatha" Hines and he was impressed that I knew this from just a few measures. (Just those octaves spoke for themselves.) But when my set started he and his entourage simply fled.  But I have been most generous with the avant-garde, perhaps to a fault.  That is what I have to deal with. Thus this manifesto.

 I have studied and played avant-garde music. I took master classes with John Cage. But I believe you should follow what you love most. I ask myself, when I create music, would Cedar Walton have done  this? Of course I have to reckon with the fact that I live in a world where lots of people would say Cedar who?

Recently on Tony Bennett's 90th Birthday I listened to the duos he created with Bill Evans. If somebody were to ask me "why tonality?" I would refer them to those recordings. All the fundamentals of music are there in that recording. It is like the perfect crystallization of what music is. Bill Evans plays a version of David Raskin's The Bad And The Beautiful.  For me it all about the sound. It sounds good. There is nothing more to be said about it. That is basically what I hold up in front of me in everything that I do.

 I can tell you that not too many composers (outside of film and television?) try and copy David Raskin. It just doesn't interest them in the slightest. And if they are classical composers I can tell you than none of the lines written by most composers sound anything like Bill Evans' lines. I kept waiting to hear a string section play those lines in symphony and I never heard them. I heard lots of highly chromatic lines that had a flattened effect, but you know Evans outlines seventh chords for crying out loud. He did this because it worked.

On the director's commentary for Three Women, Robert Altman commented on the "atonal" score for his picture. He was curious and bemused by this score. He said it wasn't really his thing even though he liked it for the film. In his own words. "Well I like Gershwin!" He delivered this line in a manner of defeated helplessness as if to say, "Gershwin wrote music that just makes me feel good and better than other things."

So when the song goes "I like a Gershwin tune, how about you?" it is a way of referring to a kind of common practice or consensus.

Really, in my music I am not trying to reinvent music, or overturn it, or overthrow it, or create some unprecedented music that nobody has ever heard before. Quite the opposite. I just want to get better and better at what others have done who came before me. The emotions I end up expressing are my own emotions, and the amount of improvisation I insist upon ensures that it is personal.

But the foundation is adamantly not my own. I am of the school of thought that says if something is not broke you don't fix it. I don't think any musical language has an expiration date on it. The whole idea that at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, you change your musical style like you discard a wardrobe of clothes that is no longer in vogue and change into a new suit of clothes that matches the mood of the new year is actually a complete misunderstanding of art. Artists can create new things but often those new things have deep, unconscious connection to very old things even if the connection is wanting to destroy that old thing in an agonistic way akin to Bloom's "anxiety of influence." That is it is an irony. The attempt to demolish something in the past chains you nevertheless to that same past. But the past is still here with us, it isn't past, because all the arts involve an awareness that time in the usual sense is an illusion.

Indeed, I want my music to remind people of things they have heard a million times somewhere but can't quite place it. I want it to be familiar somehow to them. I want to make the past alive, the distant past too, not just the recent past. I want my music to make people feel as if they've traveled in time in a cyclical, rather than linear direction. I want the the 1970s to become the 1930s, to become the 1890s, then forward to today and around again. To do this I use lots of cliches. I use every musical cliche in the book and run them into the ground. Sometimes I use these cliches and then transcend and transform them so that the cliche is left behind and something else emerges in place of cliche. But what emerges is also not entirely original. This is why my music is tonal.

In the terms of Adorno's binary, contra Adorno, I chose Stravinsky over Schoenberg. I made this choice sometime in my teens and I have never looked back. I was punished severely for it I must say.

I make only two demands on my listener, and this really is the hard part of hard listening. The first is for the listener to relinquish all attachment they may have to musical styles and gestures of, oh, the past twenty or thirty years. You are going to hear things older than that, maybe not much older. It might be 1975, it might be 1955, but you won't hear much 1995 or '85. I am sorry about that. As an artist you have to know your limitations. The second demand is that listeners accept the kind of temporal demands you get in classical music, that is, lengths longer than the usual size of popular music.

Pauline Kael: "If art isn't entertainment then what is it? Punishment?"

Yet I am so not the populist. There are so many things wrong with populism. For one thing, you place yourself at the mercy of the populace. I sincerely hope the populace enjoys my music. The fact that at one time my style of music was the popular music gives me hope. But every artist has to live and work in their time, alas and alack.

I don't want to define what tonality is. I mean the avant-garde crowd tried to come up with a word - pantonality - to try and conceptualize all music as tonal. This is either overreaching or disingenuous. But all forms of tonal music - and the virtue of tonality is the widest diversity of styles found therein - have some kind of hierarchy of pitches. They are organized based on the sonorous qualities of thirds and perfect intervals and so on. You can do anything you like after that, but that is the root, as it were. It is what unites Marvin Gaye, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, Sly Stone, Beethoven, Aaron Copland, Duke Ellington, The Beatles, Bobby Short. All of these names are doing their own form of that. Without a kind of tonality their considerable achievements would not have been conceivable.

I will break from tonality, for color. I will do this a lot or a little depending on the emotional makeup of the music, but it always comes back to some kind of tonal center in the end.

I close with a quote from George W. S. Trowe: "you can't help who you love."

Saturday, August 29, 2015

A New Installment Concerning 1970s Cinema Aesthetics Part Two: A Love Letter to The Last Detail

The Last Detail is a film that was created in 1974 and reflects a time in filmmaking art where the heavier cameras would be placed in the thick of real experience, in this case documenting the actual locations in which the figures would have travelled were they in life rather than in art. We are forced to witness the not always pleasant physical institutions that were created to contain large numbers of people: military bases, city train stations and bus terminals, drab diners and banal bars, public bathrooms, cheap sandwhich and pretzel stands, skating rinks, whorehouses housed in the greater Boston area, student/hippie apartments, the cheapest motel - with barely functional cots for beds, and finally, a woodsy park area in the snowy cold Winter, with no people except the three principals - all three of whom seem ill clad for such Winter, shivering in their military issue pea coats and open necked sailor’s uniforms. All of these environments are photographed in the most direct fashion possible, head on, so as to emphasize the brutalist designs of the era. This is a utilitarian and austere presentation, with just enough light needed to make everything out and no more, and the full force of the characters’ behaviors - their souls really - exposed to take center and stand out in relief. 
(note the environments such as bar and streets locations)

Were the picture done today, even if the same locations were used, the cameras would be as light as is possible and everything would shake just a bit -  the vogue now for practically a couple of decades - and quite possibly we wouldn’t get the same feel for either character or environment. Films today actually get too close (for my taste) to the figures and move around them and into them, whether it is the work of the Dardenne Brothers or last year's Whiplash, and this strategy of excessive closeness, whatever its virtues,  (and make no mistake: the Dardenne Brothers are fine filmmakers but there is still room for criticism vis a vis the issues I am raising which are general and technological rather than individual) is a strategy that enables us to make emotional attachments without really seeing fully what is front of us. There is an attempt to go directly inside without the consideration of the overall frame. It is a kind of advocacy or special pleading masked as observational documentary. 

I have called 1970s cinema (and this includes both mainstream so-called commercial productions and independent or so-called avant-garde productions) a cinema that tries to stay free from conceptions. Direct expressions of the actors’ emotions and direct presentation of the environments in which they move always comes first. People do things and we have to be faced with them. We might be amused, horrified, entertained, but we will have to live through things as they are presented to us without the sweeping summaries and conceptualized condensations that have come into all of the arts of the past thirty odd years. If the characters are what we could call today sexist, or immature or macho, and perhaps they are, they are in a way that is true to the selves represented, without the safety of having theories or conclusions about it. There is a palpable humanity present. One way people often have of describing this is naturalism and authenticity etc. but those are the wrong way of talking about this because the effect I am trying to describe is found in both the most fantastic and artificial of contents as well as the most "realistic". We need a way of talking about this aesthetic that accounts for this constancy across the spectrum.

 Hal Ashby, Michael Chapman, Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid, Otis Young and the rest LOVE their people and their ugly, florescent lit locations and want us to give them a fair hearing, as a form of witness. It is one of the reasons for "Badass" Buddusky’s unrestrained joy in performing for us and performing to get the young, green and perhaps slow Randy Quaid to accept and learn from Nicholson's performance, to be truly alive and present to the moment. 1970s film tells the audience that we and the world matters: it doesn’t want to explain and analyze. It wants to present it all to us and we are along for the ride or not. If we go on the ride we will leave behind our judgements and assumptions and learn to find the world interesting as it is, in itself.

It is interesting to compare Robert Altman in this regard. Robert Altman is absolutely merciless in his criticism of many things in society yet his absolute fidelity to what he chooses to photograph works agains his own intelligent skepticism and the joy of the human comedy as a sight of wonder and fascination is the final criteria rather than any melioristic ambitions or theoretical explanations. The love of observation is there in Altman as it is in the far more generous and forgiving Hal Ashby. Curiosity is at a premium. It was as if the filmmakers were discovering the world for the first time, even given the long history that preceded them, so great was their commitment to the stylistic practice I am trying to describe here.