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New Music and Listener Expectation

A commencement address given at San Francisco Conservatory of Music

by George Perle

May 18,1991 — I am most grateful to you for inviting me to participate in your celebration today, and for the honor that you have chosen to confer upon me on this occasion. My first introduction to the work of the San Francisco Conservatory came just two years ago, when I was composer — in residence of your annual Chamber Music West Festival. Members of your instrumental faculty rehearsed and performed a number of my compositions, not only with a very high order of professionalism and skill, but with devotion, dedication, and even affection. I remember thinking at the time, what an invaluable experience it must be for their students, to have musicians like this as their teachers.

I wonder if there has ever been a commencement address in which the speaker hasn't pointed out that the word "commencement" means "beginning." A "commencement" looks to the future, to what your experience as a student at the San Francisco Conservatory is going to mean, not only for you, but also, and above all, for the future of music.

I hope it won't seem arrogant of me to suggest that it seems entirely appropriate that you should choose to honor a living composer on such an occasion. Even though we now have something that earlier generations did not have, a technology that will bequeath to future generations an authentic record of our activity as performing musicians, I suspect that the vitality and significance of contemporary musical culture will continue to be evaluated by posterity in the same way as we evaluate the vitality and significance of earlier musical cultures — by what it contributes to the permanent repertory of performers — in other words, by the best of what its composers will have achieved.

This doesn't mean that we have to be interested in everything that's offered to us in the name of contemporary music. If you have been following the science section of The New York Times in the last few months you will know that the academic science community has been compromised and embarrassed by its acceptance and defense of the work of a scientific researcher who has now been shown to have faked the data and falsified the records of her purported research.

If this can happen in the field of scientific experiment, where we have absolutely objective standards for the recognition of fraud, what about music? Dr. Imanishi-Kari got by for five years with the pretense that she had made valid experiments and significant discoveries in the field of immunology. She couldn't have gotten by for five minutes with the pretense that she was an opera singer or a concert violinist.

Musical composition, however, is something else. On another page of the same New York Times there is a review of a new music concert featuring the work of Alvin Lucier. A piece called Amplifier and Reflector I for amplified clock has the composer "hovering" over his instrument and "effecting subtle changes in the timbre of its ticking by moving an open umbrella over it." The only piece in which the reviewer found "any musical substance" was a piano arrangement of John Lennon's Strawberry Fields Forever. "Mr. Lucier played the melody a few times, setting each phrase in a different register. He then played a tape of his performance through a speaker inside a teapot, altering the sound by lifting the lid."

Now Mr. Lucier may not be a composer as far as you and I are concerned, but he does have an audience at his concerts, and they are well aware of the sort of musical experience they are in for. It is not a large audience, but it can certainly claim to be an elite one — an audience that is sensitive to small scale acoustical events that are too minimal and too subtle to hold the interest and attention of the more general musical public.

If we were asked to name a contemporary American composer whose musical language and purposes are at the most extreme remove from those of Alvin Lucier, I think the name most of us would come up with would be Milton Babbitt. Where Mr. Lucier, in the two pieces that I've described, strips everything down to a single parameter and offers us only improvised gradations of that one parameter, Mr. Babbitt is deeply concerned with every component of the musical language. Not only are his pitch relations totally predetermined by the most complex and sophisticated serial procedures, but so are the relations between different timbres, durations, modes of articulation, dynamics, and textures, and the musical design of the whole is predetermined by an overall structure of interrelations among these parameters.

Lucier and Babbitt represent opposite extremes of avant-garde contemporary music, or perhaps it would be better to say that they represent opposite avant-gardes of contemporary music. Yet they have something in common, something that is perhaps more important than what separates them. Like Mr. Lucier, Mr. Babbitt addresses himself to what is presumably an elite class of peculiarly specialized listeners, and he is forthright in saying so. I quote: "The composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute and voluntary withdrawal from [the] public world to one of private performance and electronic media, with its very real possibility of complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition. By so doing, the separation between the domains would be defined beyond any possibility of confusion of categories, and the composer would be free to pursue a private life of professional achievement, as opposed to a public life of unprofessional compromise and exhibitionism." Like, I suppose, the life to which Bach and Haydn and Wagner and Stravinsky submitted themselves.

This same notion — that there is a special class of elite listeners who have been initiated into a secret code that clues them into the mysteries of new music which is incomprehensible to the rest of us — is expressed in a standard textbook on atonal music. According to John Rahn's Basic Atonal Theory, the "tonal filters" which enable us to comprehend the music of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms "are worse than useless" for an understanding of the new music. "The theory of atonal music should build you a set of 'atonal filters, "' through which you can come to comprehend "the relational structures of pitch, duration, etc., involved in 'non-tonal' Western music." Accessibility to this music, presumably, is to be reserved for a special class of listeners who have the professional education and experience to read theoretical treatises on atonal music.

In my capacity as composer-in-residence of the San Francisco Symphony I am frequently called upon to speak on the subject of contemporary music. A question that I am regularly asked is, "How can I prepare myself to listen to modern music?" I have published five books and about one hundred articles on twentieth century music, but it has never occurred to me to recommend these as a guide to the auditory comprehension of this music. It would never occur to anybody that the music of Bach or Chopin or Mozart or Brahms must remain inaccessible to people who haven't the technical competence to read a treatise on tonal harmony. I imagine some of you heard Richard Goode perform my piano concerto with the San Francisco Symphony this season. I don't suppose anyone prepared by reading my book on "twelve-tone tonality," which is what I call the musical language on which my compositions are based.

Michael Steinberg's program notes for the San Francisco Symphony are some of the most insightful and informative writings of this sort that I have ever read. There is no question that they can help to make you a better informed and more insightful music lover. But if the opening figure of Beethoven's Fifth or the first phrase of Mozart's G minor Symphony has no spontaneous, intuitive, and immediate effect for you, there is nothing that Michael Steinberg or I can write that will create that effect. Even if we could put it into words, the moment we had succeeded in doing so the effect would no longer be spontaneous, intuitive, and immediate.

Every piece of music that you know and love was at one time new to you. Every composer whose work you know and love was at once time a new composer. Every musical style and idiom that is now part of your musical experience was a tone time not a part of that experience. Your first approach to a new piece, a new composer, or a new idiom, should continue to be what it has always been. You should listen to it in the same spontaneous, intuitive, and immediate way as you always have, on a first hearing, to the older music that is now part of your listening experience.

There are several misleading implications in the question, "How can I prepare myself to listen to modern music?" One of them is that modern music is all of a piece, that you either like it or you don't, and that if you don't it's because you haven't been properly clued into the mysteries of this music. The two avant-garde elites that I described are very different from each other. For which of them do you want to prepare yourself, Lucier's or Babbitt's? There is no such thing as a homogeneous entity called "modern music." I will nevertheless make an effort to suggest some of the ways you can prepare yourselves to listen to it.

First of all, don't allow yourselves to be intimidated — by any of it. It's not impossible that what you are hearing really doesn't make any sense. A friend who is a great fan of my music informed me that he had been sent a tape of a piece of mine that was quite different from my other music and that was giving him a lot of trouble. I was greatly puzzled by his response and suggested that we listen to it together. It turned out that the piece had been recorded backwards on the tape. My friend was relieved to realize that his incomprehension wasn't due to any failing on his part, and that my musical idiom hadn't, after all, veered off in a new direction. Another occasion on which a composition of mine failed to make the sense that I had intended for it came to a more problematical conclusion. As sometimes happens with a difficult new piece of chamber music that is being performed without a conductor, the players got badly lost very soon after they started, and never got together again. My piece didn't make any sense at all to me, but it evidently did to others. I received the usual compliments when it was over and it got a good review.

But you should consider a third possibility, when you are confronted with a piece of music which you find absolutely incomprehensible. Perhaps it really is incomprehensible. I have to confess that some of the music that is being written today is based on "relational structures of pitch, duration, etc." for which I have not been able to find the "atonal filters" which would make it comprehensible to me.

Finally, you have to consider the possibility that the musical language of the piece is coherent, but not to you, for the simple reason that its language is foreign to you. Even this contingency, which I think is the least likely one, should not intimidate you. If the piece really makes sense, something about it, at some intuitive level, should reach you, even at a first hearing — something about it should suggest that you might get more out of it on a second hearing.

Not only listeners, but performers too, tend to be intimidated by new music, and their performance of it sometimes suffers as a consequence. I have a piece called Solo Partita for Violin and Viola. It is impossible for a musician not to think of Bach when he comes upon such a title, and the reference to Bach is implied in the titles of the individual movements as well. A performer who was about to play the piece had her first opportunity to run through it for me only about an hour before the concert. She was clearly an excellent and conscientious musician and she attempted to render the notes that I had written as literally as possible, without the slightest deviation from the indicated tempo, which is precisely what I didn't want her to do. I asked her if this was the way she would play a solo partita by Bach. A look of infinite relief crossed her face, her playing was instantly transformed, and she gave my piece a superb performance that evening. You must not be intimidated by the fact that the composer whose music you are playing is still alive.

Here is a second point I would make to anyone who wants my advice on how to prepare to listen to "modern music." Don't worry about keeping up with the latest trend. There is a restaurant chain that prides itself on offering a greater variety of ice cream flavors than any of its competitors. For those of its patrons who might have trouble making up their minds the company gives special promotion to what it calls "the flavor of the month." There used to be a company called "the gadget of the month." Subscribers would receive the latest thing in screw drivers one month, a "state-of-the-art" can opener another month, the most recent development in shoe-horn technology a third month. The New York Times can only give limited coverage to new music activities, but finds it worthwhile to interview a young composer "who began his composing career as a Serialist," then went on to "electronic and chance works," and has since moved on to "Minimalist compositional techniques and rock instrumentation." I don't think compositional techniques have anything to do with it. It's marketing techniques that we are talking about. It's not my purpose today to offer hints on how you might keep up with composers like this.

The crucial and monumental development in the art music of our century has been the qualitative change in the foundational premises of our musical language — the change from a highly chromaticized tonality whose principal functions and operations are still based on the seven notes of the diatonic scale, to a scale that comprehends all twelve notes. We can point to the moment of that change with some precision. It occurs most obviously in the music of Scriabin and the Vienna circle, Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg, in 1909-1910, and very soon afterwards, though less obviously, in the music of Bartok and Stravinsky. I think it is safe to say that nothing comparable to this transformation in the language of music has occurred since the beginnings of polyphony. Forty years ago Roger Sessions described his own generation as one that was, in comparison to these mainstream composers of our century, "not at all in the same sense a revolutionary one. It is rather one in which the materials yielded by the revolution must be assimilated anew and given new shapes; one in which the revolution must be appraised and consolidated, in which its various elements must be regrouped and its problems provided with fresh solutions." That is still the task of serious composers today.

I have already touched upon the third point I want to make. You should listen to new music as though it were old music. The corollary of which is, that you should listen to old music as though it were new music. Some forty years ago my suggestion that a Bartok quartet be included on a chamber music series was met with the retort, "Beethoven is good enough for me." I was too polite to counter with the obvious reply, "Are you good enough for Beethoven?" Though the Bartok quartets are separated by about a century from the last five quartets of Beethoven, they seem to stand next to each other. A listener who doesn't know what to make of Bartok isn't good enough for Beethoven.

The revolutionary change in the basic language of music that is represented in the work of the mainstream composers of our century did not result in the annihilation of basic musical values and means. I was once asked if I had any special advice for performers of my music. There was nothing in my reply that could not have been uttered by a composer of the preceding three centuries: "The composer's markings can't possibly tell a performer exactly how to play something. The performer must somehow sense the character of a passage, so that his interpretation derives from a conception of that passage, not merely from a literal reading of 'expression' markings, which aren't definable in exact terms in any case. A given motive, for example, may have the character of a signal, a kind of call to attention, or it may have a structural and referential function through its connections with what we have heard earlier or what we will hear later in the same composition, or it may be a component of some larger thematic idea, within which it may serve as a lyrical connecting element, or as an interruption, and so on. Most likely, it will be doing several of these things at the same time. One hopes that the performer will somehow understand and elucidate these different functions, and he will mainly do so in an intuitive and spontaneous way. [There are] harmonic progressions and tone centers in my music. This should mean that there are phrases and cadential passages and voice-leading. Just as there have always been. Discovering and realizing them where the language and idiom are unfamiliar is a challenging task for the performer but, I hope, an interesting and exciting one."

Which brings me to my last point. You should approach a new piece the same way in which you would any other new experience-with a sense of curiosity, with the hope that it will be a challenging, interesting, and exciting experience. When I first came to San Francisco to take up my post as composer-in-residence, I was introduced to the symphony's board of governors. One of them asked me, "Is your music fun to listen to?" When you see a new piece on the program, you have a right to hope that it will be fun to listen to.

There is a very good chance that you will be disappointed. There must be ten times as many young composers around today as there were when I was a young composer. The only aim that I can discern in the music of some of them is not to offend anyone by offering him music that he might not find entirely obvious at a first hearing, so they give you second-hand versions of Debussy, or Mahler, or early Stravinsky, or even Vivaldi. Second-hand versions of anything are a bore, which is itself an offense, to my way of thinking, but the new piece is rarely allowed to last more than ten minutes, and so you put up with it, and both you and the management of the orchestra feel that they have done their part in furthering the cause of contemporary music.

I ask you to expect much more from new music, and to be prepared to recognize the difference when the real thing comes along. And I think you will recognize the difference. One of the most encouraging events of the current season was the appearance of the Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski with the symphony. Here was a whole evening with music — just pure music, no words, no dancing, no scenery — by just one contemporary composer. I have seen larger audiences at Davies Hall, but I have never seen a more attentive, responsive, and enthusiastic one. They were getting the real thing and they knew it.

This kind of thing doesn't happen very often. The older music that is an important part of your lives represents only a selected and very limited portion of the music of any particular period. It is music that has stood the test of time, which only means that it is music your predecessors have culled out of the music of the past. You should be intrigued and challenged by the notion that you, too, will be playing a similar role in the unfolding of music history. It seems to me that nothing can be more important for the future of that history than the relation that you establish to the music of your contemporaries, and that is why I have chosen that relation as the subject of my talk.

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