Aaron Hayes

Sound Unbound - Review

Aaron Hayes When reading great thinkers, it is natural to wonder whether these people’s lives were any different from ours, whether their insights into the nature of reality and the world we live in allowed them some sort of super powers, or at least greater happiness, or something – especially nowadays with these intellectuals who can ‘see through’ the false images of society into the deeper forces working below us.  But I suspect that today, like any age, the philosophers remain blinded by the truth and so stumble around without actually doing anything, sightless oracles revealing to us the truths of postmodernism, etc., expecting something from those who act in the world, hoping for others to live guided by their wise instruction, to be able to understand the implications of what has been revealed to them.

Or maybe today might be different, in that the truths that are interpreted and discussed by the philosophers are precisely those forces and flows which everyone already participates in, and so the task is better understood as a coming to terms with what is here already.  Still, there remains a very interesting social gap between the thinkers and theorists in the academic towers, and the doers and the practitioners on the street level.  This gap, a strange fence which causes undue drag on the flows between the two preventing the otherwise natural movement, hides the fact that the dichotomy it hopes to perpetuate (pick your favorite name) doesn’t really work anymore. 

We all know that, yet it still operates.  It operates because few of us are able to move as individuals between the two.  We specialize in thinking about something, or in doing something, and taking up both as a task leaves our authority in either open to question.  But the answer was never really the generalist; the generalist could only draw diagrams (though valuable ones).  The answer lies in how we discuss, who we talk to, and what we talk about.  The general practice of talking to each other, learning, teaching, and playing in groups, requires some change if we want to get any of these flows of ideas to work right.

(Sound Unbound)

Without grasping the challenge facing contemporary discourse, it is easy to miss the significance of the recent MIT Press publication, Sound Unbound.  Edited by DJ Spooky (that subliminal kid), or Paul Miller, whichever name you feel more appropriate for an editor, this book contains interviews with composers, essays by important lawyers, cultural studies theorists, and many others.  The subtitle, otherwise known as the feeble attempt at thematizing an immensely eclectic series of essays (and a CD mix) is: sampling digital music and culture.  Sampling, the art of the DJ, is driven by musical aesthetics, and the aspect of intuitive groove among all the essays is perhaps the only unifying factor.  10 years ago, digital music and culture might have referred to a somewhat small and relatively rich segment of civilization (a nice, clean, focused topic), but today encompasses much more of the mainstream, and hence much more of the important, powerful, and decisive issues which artists create and audiences experience.

This is not to say there are no strong themes which unify many of the essays in the book.  Much of the work of Sound Unbound comes together to create a well thought out strategic positioning about intellectual property rights against the brutal legalism of the large media conglomerates who, in grand efforts of self preservation (or total domination, depending on your optimism or pessimism), are trying to criminalize the use of media in the face of increased technological freedom.  For those who tire of the shallow moralizing of the mainstream discussions of digital rights, many of the ideas in Sound Unbound are very refreshing.

Another common theme, though by no means ever-present, is a head-on look at the development of technology as it relates to musical creation and the changes of musical styles, not only concerning Boulez and the avant-garde, but also jungle, hip-hop, and easy listening.  Of course, the discussions of music and technology are an almost essential part of 20th century music history.  But this is not your average lab coat and thick glasses theorizing about the implications of spectral analysis on real time quadraphonic distribution.  Flowing naturally into these discussions come ancient deities and pop music producers, asking to be taken just as seriously as the latest IRCAM experiments.

In fact, one of the main weaknesses of the book is the contributions of Boulez and Reich.  Containing almost no reflections of any broad significance, the interviews and Riech’s introduction to the book read like some boring fanzine: ‘well, I used some technology, then I used some different technology, then I stopped for a while, and now I am using some technology again.’  However seriously one takes the other discussions of the book, it would have been nice to read the thoughts of these composers today, and not the same thoughts they have been having for 20 years (which, by the way, was 1988, in case some of you old people forget).

In an interesting way, this book is actually lacking in the traditional style of scholarship and the scholarly music – not through negligence, but in an appropriately destructive manner.  Sound Unbound is not a scholarly work, it is better.  In the past, these sorts of discourses were given voice out of some liberal moral obligation to let everyone be heard and respected.  But now, this book shows that the life of musical thought and thoughtful music can be found in many places, that the musical realization of our most profound ideas can be found in many other styles and practices than could have been previously admitted.

To illustrate the diversity of the book, consider a few highlights: writer Jonathan Lethem’s essay “The Ecstasy of Influence” traces all of its phrases to other sources; Cultural Studies scholar Dick Hebdige writes about the differences and similarities between US culture in the ‘60s and today; Google lawyer Daphne Keller writes about intellectual rights and copyright law; Philosopher Manuel DeLanda writes about the connections between evolutionary systems and musical systems; Artists Evelina Domnitch and Dmitry Gelfand discuss their use of sonoluminescence in one of their recent installations; Chuck D offers some raps -- and many more, all coming together, not in any thematic way, but in a much more subtle, aesthetic grouping which just somehow works.

Included with the book is a CD mix of DJ Spooky (who also contributes his thoughts via printed text).  This mix uses material culled from the Sub Rosa sound archives (www.subrosa.net) and contains samples of James Joyce, Sonic Youth, Phillip Glass, and quite a few other recorded voices and sounds mixed together in interesting ways.  The amount of information it contains and plays with is overwhelming, in some ways like the whole project, as many interesting ideas and sounds as possible fit into one publication. 

The scholarly validity of this collection of essays is of no importance; it creates its own validity by opening up a new way of connecting ideas and people.  As a consequence, it must be approached on its own terms.  If, in the end, the stories of crazy cyberpunk numerologists or the Deleuzian nature of dub and jungle isn’t accessible to you for whatever reason, there is still something for everyone.  What makes this book different is that these other voices are not so easily ignored.  Other worlds are opened up next to each other, and the flow increases.

Reveiw of Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise by Aaron Hayes

New Yorker music critic Alex Ross's recently released book, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30) is an in-depth and entertaining study of 20th century classical music.  It describes the lives and work of composers from Mahler and Strauss all the way to contemporaries such as Kaija Saariaho, Tan Dun, and Sophia Gubadulina, with an incredible depth and breadth of knowledge not only about music, but also about history more generally.  It as been well reviewed (and rightly so) with names of famous readers expounding its greatness on the back cover: if it is promoted by as varied stars as Björk, Osvaldo Golijov, Emanuel Ax, and Richard Taruskin, it must be good.  But with all these reviewers, and the scope of the work, it is hard to figure out who this book is for, why he wrote it, or whether there is anything particularly significant to be found in it.Part of the answer to this question can be seen by the sorts of details Ross centers on.  He makes a great effort to pick out notable pieces of music and tries to describe them with an analyst's attention to detail, translating complex musical ideas into a generally readable instruction.  Overall, these analyses are very astute, approachable discussions of the inner workings of certain compositions, though at times they fall into overly stylized language and the problematic talk of metaphors and evocations without which, admittedly, non-technical music analysis would come to no conclusions.  In this way The Rest is Noise reads like the program notes to the biggest pieces of the century.  But program notes are things to read when the concert itself gets boring.  Is this all Ross is trying to accomplish?  When the music ceases to be clear in its meaning, as is the case with most of the music Ross discusses, the critic must step in and connect it with real people and events, to give it a meaning in the face of its seeming incomprehensibility.  Accompanied by his blog (of the same title as his book) the reader has access to a large discography for his or her "to listen to" lists, and mentions composers along with their most significant pieces, pieces with which to get a proper taste of each composer.  Oriented toward the unspecialized but educated concertgoer, it is written primarily for the same people who read the New Yorker.  In fact, its Manhattan-centric view of the world (though not unfairly; that is where all the interesting stuff happens) only emphasizes the connoisseur-oriented eclecticism which hovers slightly beneath the prose of the book. Central to the story line are the lives and personalities of the 20th century composers, the men (and a few women) of flesh and blood, as Unamuno would say.  Full of History Channel style trivia, the relationships among the composers - who knew who, who listened to who, who taught who, who lived down the road from who - makes an interesting read and also more soberly documents the connections through which the development of the music proceeded.  Usually these peripheral details seem to be meant as tidbits for popular consumption, interesting facts to quote at cocktail parties.  However, the extreme lack of such details in other discussions of music history are equally problematic and so the biographical, day to day anecdotes and connections serve to entertain the reader as well as to ground the ideas and ideologies at work in the practices of the various composers in a more understandable manner. For this reason, The Rest is Noise is also a valuable book for those with more specialization in music.  Musicians and Musical scholars who have been brought up in another musical historical context entirely, in the ‘music appreciation' class or an introduction to music history, which has its own modus operandi and own narratives, will benefit from the critically examining the lives and thoughts of various composers.  Rather that going through the same interpretations and same material, Ross takes a fresh look at many historical stories, with plenty of primary sources (and for that reason a great bibliographic section) while avoiding some of the more worn anecdotes.  It is notable that, while discussing Strauss, we do not read once about his depicting silverware in music, perhaps the first discussion of Strauss in fifty years not to do so.  The ideas about music also come under Ross's discussion, from the alleged historical inevitability of Schoenberg's music to the political content of music in Nazi Germany, the USSR, and the ‘40s and ‘50s US, or even the sacred nature of music in Messiaen, some ideas are tacitly denied, and some are interestingly sustained. Ross escapes a big issue in his title "Listening to the Twentieth Century" since it avoids naming what sort of music constitutes his topic.  Now, if you walked into Barnes and Noble, most of the music which Ross discusses could be found in the "classical" music section, though there is nothing classical about most of it.  And while Ross discusses the Beatles, the Velvet Underground and a variety of other ‘popular' musical artists, this book reinforces that specific realm of music, nowadays abiding mostly in the academy, of historically conscious, self-involved specialty of writing music to be listened to, thought about, and appreciated.  Even this definition seems lacking; still, it is not all music in the twentieth century to be sure, and this limitation is significant.  Jazz is discussed at times, as well as Rock, but the central focus is this music sometimes called "high," "legitimate," or "classical".  It might be described in the broader sense of music lacking self-evidence. But if there are biases in Ross's work, they are not those biases found in the Twentieth Century itself - which are precisely those biases which the Academic study of music inevitably fall into.  This book is an example of popular research which in many ways surpasses scholarly research through its grounded analysis avoiding impassioned commitment to one tradition or one sound.  But the book does this by forsaking the reason why the academics have such a different method: the investments towards certain traditions it seeks to uphold.  Atonality and the Schoenberg tradition is, for most official music history, the continuation of the modernist classicalism of European ‘classical music.'  Ross speaks of it from a distance, and thereby escapes the predominant understanding of20th century "high" music.  On one hand we have the bitter passion of the academy trying to keep alive the dying tradition out of which it arises, and on the other hand, Ross, his level prose situating this rhetoric along with its music and its time.  Hence the analysis in The Rest is Noise presents a high quality study in which nothing is at stake, unbiased and uncommitted. Yet it is clear that Ross is invested in the music he describes, but not because he says as much or commits to a rhetoric of value.  The investment is at once absent from the text and immanent to the whole work.  The project of the book is no less than to establish the canon of 20th century music, to place in encyclopedic detail those composers significant enough to be known by an educated audience.  While this was tentatively accomplished already for the first half of the 20th century, one strength of this book is Ross's astute awareness of the composers of the last 50 years.  Until now, history had been reserving judgment on these new developments, especially since they are so unpopular.  As Adorno, whom Ross has clearly struggled with, says about modern art, "What has terminated tradition can hardly count on one in which it would be given a place."  Still, Ross gives them a place, perhaps not one which they would have liked, but still better than they could have been given by the largely unappreciative and correlatively unwanted audiences. Music criticism has a tradition of producing excessively scathing, bombastic rhetorical tirades about composers and pieces. With both the music, and the ideas about music, Ross maintains a dispassionate- perhaps we could say Kantian-disinterestedness, which is refreshing after two hundred years of grandiloquence about the horrors and triumphs of certain composers. At the same time, these composers, historical events, and pieces of music are still under debate.  The dust has not settled on the Twentieth century, and in contrast to these debates Ross's tone sounds as close to authoritative as one can get these days. Still, Ross really has only nice things to say about the music - he might even convince some people to actually listen to some of it, which would be good - and his authoritative tone is inclusionary and intended for the betterment of people's general musical reception.  For both those who don't know what to think about 20th century music, as well as for those who already have dealt with some of it, The Rest is Noise provides an entertaining read and a nice resource for approaching the difficult music of the twentieth century.

Reflections on John Cage by Aaron Hayes

The first time we encounter John Cage, we think that he is somewhat interesting.   Teaching a music appreciation class to a small group of high school students, I performed 4'33" for them one day outside.  About 30 seconds into the first movement, one of them said, ‘oh, I get it.'  Still, I think there is some legitimacy for the school of gradual enlightenment. The second time we encounter John Cage, we think he is a dilettante.  

Sometimes it is hard to see the extent to which Cage's work participates in the modern Western musical tradition.  But the fact that he studied composition with many big names ("Schoenberg," e.g.) gives him an interesting credence.  In addition to the later compositions which stretch the concept of music to its breaking point, he does have a number of more understandably musical works, which are in their own way very successful pieces.  Percussionists have noted to me that it is Cage's earlier work for percussion, etc. ensembles which are most widely appreciated in their circles, while most of the world thinks of 4'33" as Cage's most famous piece.  In any case, neither his thoughts nor his compositions are the ramblings of one ignorant of music.  The issue of silence in Cage's music, for example, though rich with many non-Western ideas, still maintains its relation to occurrences in more strictly western academic music.  The notion of musique concrète has been a legitimate compositional technique since Varèse.  Indeterminacy, as Cage himself argued, has been around for much longer.  In fact, it was only within a very limited historical period in which all musical elements were completely determined by the composer's dictations as written in a score.  Calling the noise of everyday life a piece of music is merely an additive process using both the notions of sampling and indeterminacy.

The third time we encounter John Cage, we think he is more interesting than we had realized before.

A collection of 91 measures of rest in ¾ meter, where the quarter note equals 60 beats a minute turns out to be precisely four minutes and thirty-three seconds.  A fermata in music can also be dictated with a length of time as needed.  What is the significance of the indication of "tacet" which constitutes the instructions for this piece?  Tacere - to be silent; an excellent mode for listening.  Counting rests keeps the musician's attention in the music.  The trumpet parts for Beethoven's third piano concerto, second movement, indicate tacet-a sense of relief of being able to just take it all in.  Imagine the peace of having all three of the movements indicate tacet. One of the prerequisites for taking Cage seriously is taking Buddhism seriously.  Today, we make a vague connection between hippies and Eastern thought, and for many hippies themselves it was doubtfully any more than vague.  But despite such an association, or perhaps because folks in the 60's popularized it in the West, the philosophical ideas within of Buddhism, Taoism, and other ways of thought from Asia have come to be taken as very legitimate and productive notions with which to work.  But for musicians and composers, the concepts Cage was working with are very difficult to harmonize with traditional beliefs.  Brought up on the concept, however vague, of the genius, of self-expression through music, of pieces of music composed, owned, and appreciated by the subjectivities of individuals, to consider for a moment that there is no self that underlies all of it contradicts the very idea of music.  If I am not metaphysically more significant than the wind in the trees, how could my creations be qualitatively different?  To be sure, we all enjoy the wind in the trees.  People sell CDs of it.  But to say it is the same is to break down every possible barriers of what music is and is not.  A Zen koan is a pedagogical tool, in a sense, but it teaches us very little about Buddhism.  4'33" is a musical composition, and this tells us everything about what music is.  Cage continued to compose music, after he negated the concept - a kind of Bodhisattva. The fourth time we encounter john cage, we think he just copied Marcel Duchamp.

As with a lot of avant-garde art, the initial reaction to much of Cage's work is something along the lines of "well, I could do that!"  Or to be dramatic, one might attribute the ability to something even less intelligent than one's self.  "Well, my dog could do that!"  "Well, my infant could do that!"  When it comes to some works, this is simply not true.  When people mistake technical simplicity for facility, for example in Mondrian, they fail to realize what went into creating such clarity.  With Cage, however, we can write and perform work at a technically comparable level.  True, from 1960 on, we would be copying Cage.  But in contrast to the discourse in the plastic arts, Cage shares with Fluxus a feeling of welcome-that it would be good for us to listen to and ‘compose' some happenings, some chance occurrences, or some periods of silence. The fifth time we encounter john cage, we begin to appreciate his genius.  

We could say that people like Cage, Morton Feldman, and all those others were a product of their artistic era.  But we could also say that the 1950's and ‘60's - as we now understand the time period 40 years later, was a product of these people.  Creativity itself has been changed by what Cage did and wrote, and even though music seems to have continued though nothing has happened, it is as a child who plays in a field even though he has learned to climb the fence.

Ben Ratliff's Coltrane by Aaron Hayes

There is a general sense that, even after a hundred years of jazz, no one really has completely figured it out. We could hide behind the esoteric “if you don’t know by now, you won’t ever know” mentality, but only thereby avoiding the challenge which comes with every calling of something significant. The will to jazz lives equally in performances, recordings and, I would argue, in the attempt at interpretation. Even the Dao de Jing, beginning with saying that the Dao which can be put into words is not the real Dao, continues for a time with some manner of instruction. Some music is more open to explanation than others, and some, needless to say, is really hard to get into. It is jazz at its most difficult, that of the last 50 years, for which we have an almost traumatic relation with, a phenomenon we want at once to come out into the open and want to keep hidden, like some subconscious force which we suppress and yet which defines our socio-musical egos.Perhaps we desire no artist to be kept hidden behind a mystical veil more than John Coltrane. His music is for the initiated, for those first, second, third generation acolytes who have transcribed and learned his solos, who hear in his music spirituality and transcendence which are transmitted unspoken from teacher to pupil. He is also reserved for literal worshippers, those who take to heart so many words to that affect: that music has always in its potential a relation to the divine, and the prophet, the seer, is placed on a special pedestal. We hear in Coltrane’s music and his suggestive statements a pursuance, a forward searching for something else, desire for a state of knowing and being not yet fulfilled for himself by any other structure, musical or religious, extant in the world. In this way he becomes the musical, or perhaps literal, oracle who has some methexis in the absolute. Naturally, the sober minded ‘rest of the world’ who still would otherwise like to appreciate Coltrane’s music, must focus on the theoretical, technical, and biographical details which are accessible and reasonable pieces of knowledge for everyone. Even in this context, though, an artist like Coltrane is taken up into larger stories of modernism, Marxism, or civil rights, and interpreted as a character in something ‘more’ meaningful. That he comes ‘after’ Charlie Parker and before the current scene takes on various levels of meaning, but his music is always prescient enough to help define some context, some paradigm or historical theme. Without any mysticism whatsoever, Coltrane’s music requires some interpreting, if only to wallow out of the murk of the thousand stories which pre-package him for each generation. The historian critic and the jazz theologian would equally like to work through all of this in a rigorous manner. And in more of the former spirit, New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff has written the recently released Coltrane: the Story of a Sound (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24). Choosing to focus on issues of style more than biographical or strictly theoretical discussions of Coltrane’s music, Ratliff weaves in and out of quotes, anecdotes, analyses of recordings, and glosses of guiding concepts to attempt to come to a better understanding of the sound of Coltrane. ‘Sound’ –what does this mean? You know, a player’s sound. His tone color? More than that. His harmonic vocabulary, his participation with rhythm sections? Sort of, but… – then what? You know man, his sound. Right, I do know; I got Giant Steps when I was 14, studied music alongside Coltrane addicts, and have discussed jazz with enough self-defined hep-cat-in-touch musicians to know what people mean by ‘sound’. And I can sum up for you where Coltrane’s

came from somewhat quickly: Coltrane practiced non-stop, studied harmony extensively, listened to a wide variety of other music, and played with great musicians. That’s where it came from, and to know what it is, you just listen to Coltrane. If this book is merely a story, a story with no moral or thesis, then it accomplishes this, but little else. The mystery remains untouched. Ratliff, I would have to guess, suspected that the central issue he wished to discuss was not exactly the details surrounding the sound itself, since this is a vague and limiting category sort of encompassing a diverse set of musical elements. And, he knew he didn’t want to cover the well-studied biographical and analytical elements of Coltrane. But the central issue which he wanted to broach continually escapes the book: each detail, each discussion of the next solo or album, the next opinion from the next critic or fellow musician moves along the periphery of a realm of truly difficult questioning into the significance of Coltrane’s music, in itself as the work of this human being and for us as students of the history of jazz these decades later. He suspected this because he felt the need to write a book about Coltrane’s music: The department of Coltrane Studies has not published its definitive statement. No unified field theory of Coltrane, or jazz itself is even on the horizon. Ratliff’s book does help to focus the details of Coltrane’s life and work to better understand the dynamics of its development, giving, as it promises, a story of the development of the music. He does not really commit himself to the investigation of Coltrane’s sound per se, since this really is not a productive name for any part of the music. It is not always safe to play the naïve nominalist, but here it seems that nothing more central lies between the technical facts of the music and the spiritual content. A seer does not search for a tone of voice, a seer looks to articulate something through the voice. But Ratliff quickly discovers this. The book is full of discussions on the harmony, the tone color, the personnel, and the more discreet elements which make up the musical work (not artwork, but work accomplished, force over time) in which Coltrane labored. What would be necessary is not the investigation of a central focal point like sound, but a larger investigation which attempted to unify the extremes of technique and content. Ratliff works towards this, but stays a safe distance from a synthesis of any larger interpretation. But even the down to earth discussions of musical elements skirt around even local issues of significance. This seems to arise from the book’s commitment to non-technical analysis, the inevitably loquacious reconstitutions of musical meaning for those who would not be able to follow anything with more detail. But here, this commitment to the non-specialist reader drowns any true unity between the discreet technical elements and the themes of sound, whether they be historical, religious, Marxist, or what have you. For example, when, in the end of the book, Ratliff discusses the ‘sound’ passing from Coltrane himself to the next generation of great saxophone players, this transmission is emphasized with a number of quotes, stories, and interviews which tell of the particular captivation of the many musicians who were influenced by him. In many ways, this lineage had a connection which was unique in comparison to other jazz greats and their followers. It was not merely about the transmission of technical skills (although every jazz player from now to eternity will study Giant Steps changes) nor simply about the possibilities of the small jazz ensemble, or any other number of musical legacies. The transmission was much more emotional, having to do with what personal motivations are for making music. There is a telos which accompanies searching: a direction, a goal. And if one buys into the search at all, if one even speaks of it as searching, then one commits, if not to saying what Coltrane was searching for, at least saying what he was not. Ratliff does not commit. Chalking up all the mysticism to the ‘50s and ‘60s era hippie mentality, and chalking up all the modernism to the newly academic study of jazz and Coltrane’s role therein, discussion of Coltrane’s music returns to a safe level of historical contextualizing which fits nicely into the music connoisseur paradigm of appreciation: that Mr. Coltrane’s music is so interesting! Still, no matter how sober a historian Ratliff or his reader may be, it is difficult to escape the fact that the figure and the music of Coltrane consummates so many Romantic notions of expressivity, subjectivity, artistic genius, modernism, and religiosity, that to not interpret him in some of these ways, at least to an extent, is to miss out on some provocative ideas concerning the possible meaning and significance of his music, or music in general. Ratliff, or anyone who wants to take up the noble pursuit of discussing Coltrane’s music, must commit not only to the details of the music, but to interpreting the music with a respect for its possible significance. This might require taking some sides, might require some different textuality, and it might require, (perhaps inevitably today) more of an academic context, or at least one willing to move beyond the market for easy-to-read, relatively brief, quick moving and elementary analyses. Unfortunately, the Story of a Sound rarely escapes this level.

Reflections on Monk's 90th by Aaron Hayes

Even an especially accommodating definition of what jazz is will not place its beginnings much before the first few years of the 20th century, and so this world of music, this hallowed tradition which constitutes an entire paradigm of musical practice, is barely one hundred years old.  Among many implications of this, one is that a single artist could participate in most of the history of jazz.  Many did; and those who were canonized as jazz greats did not merely influence the development of the art form with a notable recording or famous concert, but continued, on many occasions, to shape and refine the possibilities which jazz – and all music – could reach.  Born in 1917, 90 years ago this October, Thelonious Monk lived such a life within, parallel to, and constitutive of jazz as we know it today.As an inversion of the history of European classical music, entire historical eras of jazz history make up mere periods of an artist’s style.  Because of this, a number of individuals like Monk held the power of changing the course of jazz history.  In some ways, it is remarkable that we have such a clear canon of great jazz artists, musicians who added such a distinctly creative element to jazz that everyone ‘afterwards’ understood jazz a little differently because of them.  The dust has barely settled on the 20th century and somehow we already know who is who.  Miles Davis, for example, was like the Pythagoras, Pope Gregory, Beethoven and Schoenberg of jazz, and weaved the decades of music together in a complex progression of music.  In contrast to a fairly straightforward lineage of composers through the eras of classical music, in jazz we find a complex progress of many simultaneous geniuses, who overlap and come together in groups and then go their own way again.  With Monk, too, we find a pivotal genius through which it is possible to understand jazz’s entire history. .  But in many ways Monk is cleaner.  If we had to continue our classical music comparison, we will give him a single comparison and say Monk is the J.S. Bach of the jazz historical context.  What Bach did was unified the understanding of music before him into a style and concept of musical aesthetics which directed the next three hundred years of music.  His clarity brought the music of his past into the understanding of music of the future.  Though he did not make his strategies explicit, students of music return to him at every level to understand tonality, the possible relations among musical voices, and the boundaries of chromaticism.  We cannot credit Bach for the invention of major and minor tonalities and the other basic concepts of common practice theory.  We value him for showing us what was possible in the musical arena which history gave him and the rest of classical music.  Like Bach, we do not credit Monk for theoretically establishing the versatility of extended tertian harmony, or for creating an entire new technique of playing the piano.  The history of jazz presented Monk much of this: the style of stride piano, the practice of re-harmonizing popular songs, the established chord relations were where he found himself as he was developing his own concept of music. For its youth, jazz cannot likewise be seen as proportionately smaller than classical music in importance.  It was a big hundred years.  In no sense metaphorically, Solo Monk is equal in significance to the collection of Bach’s chorals.  Both these collections, the pure articulation of these artist’s styles, establish music-theoretical aesthetics that escape – shall we say transcend? – their role as historical indexes.  They quiet the aesthetic relativism in us for a moment.  We think, against our postmodern condition: damn, this is fundamental. The paradox with Monk’s music is that while he was playing within a new sense of harmony, and hence establishing that harmony, his solos and comping are filled with seemingly archaic, “corny” harmonic material right along side what was entirely new conceptions of progressions.  Yet the jagged, assertive character of the articulations and phrasing unified it all into a forceful style.  For most musicians, playing with two almost inconsistent harmonic vocabularies would sound either ironic, or as though they didn’t know what they were doing in one or the other.  Monk, though, plays a simple G major chord in the same character as a G7b9#11.  There are no wrong notes here, because each note, each passage, arises out of a decisive physical gesture of musical creation.  Unlike Bach, the harmonic context Monk established doesn’t matter in respect to what he played – it will catch up if it wants to.  For us, though, it is the only thing to hang on to. For students of jazz, the piano keyboard is a map on which the history of harmony is understood, from Bach to Monk and beyond.  The context of what ‘works’ and what doesn’t is laid out in terms of interval relations and visual/kinesthetic patterns.  Music theory and eras of styles are situated there in terms of notes.  With Monk, the keyboard was not like this.  It was a place for events, physical gestures turned into music by a physical encounter of a person and an object.  While all In music, we search for the right notes – because a composer told us to do so, because we heard them on a recording, because our elementary music teacher inculcated it thus.  Bach told us one way of making the right notes come out.  It involved, through intervallic relations, music which encompassed the entire keyboard.  Monk tells us another way of getting the right notes.  It begins with the keyboard, goes up and down it, then it travels out, floating above, into straight fingers, into the body, up walking around, an out of keyboard experience, then back to the single dimension of where the finger hits the keys.  How do you play like Monk?  Got me.  It’s extended tertian harmony, it’s un-extended triads; it’s what has taken the history of music out of the traumatic Modern rejection of harmony and kept things going.

The First Emperor Opera Review by Aaron Hayes

"The First Emperor"By Tan Dun World Premiere: Metropolitan Opera, New York, December 21, 2006

reviewed by, Aaron Hayes


Placido Domingo as Qin Shi Huang

Tan Dun's recently premiered opera, The First Emperor, has not surprisingly been hailed as a masterful synthesis of Eastern and Western musical traditions. In fact, the story line itself takes up this theme, as the Emperof Chin searches for an "everlasting anthem" to unify the spirit of his new nation. When it comes to the work of Tan Dun, the theme of unity and East-West collaboration can be found around every corner. But East-West encounters these days often bring to mind mini Zen rock gardens and Confucius day calendars, and so the danger with this piece—as the composer recognized—is not so much the failure of unity, but the potential for the opera to fall into the shallow waters over which our regular supply of Kung-Fu movies and Oriental mysticism are shipped. Thankfully, this opera does succeed in escaping such naïve musical syncretism. But in order to accomplish this, the composer must use what at first seems like a sort of cheap method of organizing the music. Only in fulfilling this method can Tan Dun turn it into a brilliant work, which may revive the tradition of opera out of its modernistic slumbers.

Generally, Tan Dun's compositional genius lies in his ability to distill powerful musical effects from many different traditions and organize them into genuinely new and fascinating works. The list of contributing styles of music does not merely arise from the composer's roots in the folk music of the Hunan province and his Western compositional training. Rather, many different musical practices from around the world are taken into account by this composer. Taking instrumental sounds, compositional forms, and various ideas on melody and harmony from these practices, Tan Dun finds exactly what is most notable in them and uses them for his own purposes. But these musical elements are never simply quoted from a familiar convention, nor are they taken completely out of context. Passages which may sound particularly influenced by some tradition or another are created to present only what is most powerful and essential in a certain rhythm, harmony, or instrument. This often leads to very new ways of hearing traditional sounds. Tan Dun does not so much compose with notes as he does musical effects.

In itself, this technique is dangerous, since it is very similar to composing movie music, which is created with the goal of evoking certain emotional responses without regard to musical significance. But unlike a movie score, with all the bad guy cues and love scenes, the musical conventions which constitute this opera and much of Tan Dun's music come from such a diverse background that their musical juxtaposition allows for entirely different meaning and depth. Taken alone, any moment in this opera could be understood in terms of other past musical traditions. This is why, despite the Tan Dun's efforts, he is often considered a post-modern composer. Many of the traditional Chinese instruments give certain passages a clearly 'Oriental' sound, as do the pentatonic melodic lines and un-translated (in language and style) Peking Opera introduction and interludes. Even the use of sound mass and indeterminate pitch can be understood in terms of their 20th century Western compositional development. And it is, of course, an opera, whose scope and style picks up where the 19th century left off. Even if some point in the music cannot be traced to a clear predecessor, it reminds us somewhat of this or that composer or folk tradition.

An opera which combines East and West is not a novel concept; by at least the mid 19th century, composers had figured out that rotated pentatonic scales are to western tonality as soy sauce is to rice. Asia has long been a source of exoticism, and there are many icons which could easily be incorporated into an otherwise western piece in order to make it 'Oriental' sounding. In order to escape this, Tan Dun has mastered the very technique which traditionally is used to present those Asian elements to Western ears. His act of incorporating exotic sounds into the opera makes all of the opera exotic. There is no familiar territory to which we can return.

One way Tan Dun accomplishes this is through the compositional precision of the entire piece. His attention to detail at every moment creates music which is consistent in its quality throughout every passage. In many of the string parts for example, the violins and cellos momentarily take on the sound of traditional Chinese instruments, even as their counterparts sit next to them in the pit. Because the instructions for performing are very accurate, especially in the manner of articulation, (though probably not as much as in his Out of Peking Opera and The Intercourse of Fire and Water) the subtlety and originality is not hidden behind the seeming familiarity of 'Oriental' sounds. Tan Dun's attention to articulation rescues the Chinese influenced string writing from the ill fate of exoticism. The composer makes equal all those traditions from which he takes influence. But this step toward equality cannot be accomplished by making the exotic familiar. This would merely be the emotional colonialism of Broadway and Disney. Instead, by composing with these discreet affects, the composer is able to change their meaning to something more appropriately alien, and thereby bring us somewhere else than our tired musical consumption generally takes us.

This can be most clearly heard in many of the arias of this opera. In one respect, the lyrical qualities of the lines hearken back to the Italian operas which defined the tradition in Europe. Yet much of the harmonic context is defined by folk traditions which have fairly straightforward tonalities, though ones which do not lie easily in an unfamiliar ear. One result of this is that the melodic line often uses much larger intervals than might be heard in a European opera. But these larger intervals, combined with Tan Dun's colder harmonic vocabulary result in musical lines interestingly reminiscent of Webern's atonal songs. This sort of writing is what gives the opera its modern quality while avoiding the overuse of twentieth century avant-garde convention. In a similar manner, what often sounds like Expressionist Sprechtstimme is just as notably a result of the Chinese influence on the flow of language. Tan Dun takes into account the denotative qualities of voice inflection which have much more dramatically influenced the musical traditions in Asia. Along with fellow Chinese born composer Chen Yi, Tan Dun has successfully applied the indeterminate flow of Chinese to European musical lines sung in the English language. The result is not quite Schoenberg, but not quite the traditional Chinese folk song. The new context has refined these various musical sounds into their most basic meaning, their sonic effect. For this reason, even the tonal moments should not be considered in themselves as some functional harmony. Instead, moments of relative pleasure must be thought of in relation to the unsettling moments of indeterminate pitch or unfamiliar and jarring instrumental timbre. The entire piece is formed by the combination and relation of the somewhat discreet and contrasting use of sonic events, each of which you may feel as having heard somewhere before.

By the way, The First Emperor only runs at the Met until the end of January. A comparably grandiose production at the level of the Metropolitan Opera may not come around for some time. However, this piece is likely to become a classic of early twenty first century music, if not for its sheer quality then at least for the audacity of writing such a large scale work so closely attuned to the Operatic tradition of the West. For those who are into dramatic pyrotechnics and gigantic productions, then of course this opera is notable. The danger lies in this sort of quality, however. Because there are very consonant moments, and the drama is captivating, and we are perhaps gratified in some strange neo-colonial way with the extent of the Chinese quality to it, this opera is in danger of being appreciated for the wrong reasons. Indeed, there is 'something for everyone.' Only when each moment instills the right amount of mutual alienation can The First Emperor as a whole fulfill for us its potential as an original and powerful work.