|Four Innovative American Composers Sound Off|
|Reprinted from The New York Times|
|ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED MARCH 1, 2007, in TimesSelect|
|How I Learned to Love the Wrong Notes|
|By ANNIE GOSFIELD|
I’m a composer. I’m overworked, under pressure, and I need a vacation, but I love my job and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I’ve been a composer-in-residence, a visiting professor, and I’ve spent time being spoiled at artists’ residence programs, but I do my best work at home in my cluttered apartment, chipping away daily at the tangle of notes and rhythms that I have devoted my life to.
My commute is ten steps from my bed to my living room studio, where there is no dress code, no office politics, and no boss. Casual Friday never rolls around when you spend most of your time writing in your pajamas. In the best circumstances, we composers get to build our art one note at a time without anyone telling us what to do or how to do it. (Deadlines can be another issue.)
Nobody who has commissioned me has ever told me to write in a particular style, or even made reference to an existing piece, or an approach that I’ve taken in the past. In new music (or contemporary classical music, or whatever you want to call it) there is often an unspoken rule that a composer has free reign to write whatever he or she wants. Maybe I’ve been lucky, and maybe I’ve been commissioned by musicians who are unusually open-minded. In any case, I have learned to value the relationships between composers and musicians, and to appreciate the fact that this wouldn’t happen in a more commercial musical world.
Even before I was old enough to take lessons, I loved to play the piano. Since I hadn’t learned any pieces yet, I would just sit down and play, usually accompanying imaginary films that ran through my head. In retrospect it’s easy to recognize the combination of methods that I would use as an adult: some composition, some improvisation, maybe a narrative thread. As a teenager, I studied piano with Bernard Peiffer, a classically trained French jazz pianist who was living in Philadelphia. Bernard was a huge influence on me, a great pianist who made few distinctions between genres and always emphasized personal interpretation. When I came to one lesson unprepared, he yelled “If you’re going to play the wrong notes, at least play them in the right way!” Little did he know what an enormous impression that one sentence would have on me; from then on, I learned to play with conviction, and to never shy away from the wrong notes.
I went on to study piano and composition intensively, always trying to strike a balance between finding the right notes and being drawn to the mystery of the wrong notes.
After following a fairly conventional academic path, I thought “to hell with it all,” and worked with bands and free improvisation groups, trying to get as far away from traditionally notated music as possible. The timing was good: I was living in Los Angeles, and the live music scene was exploding. I was playing gigs in art galleries, Chinese restaurants, lofts, fly-by-night bars, and punk clubs. There was a whole world of non-commercial music that took place right under the nose of Los Angeles’ monolithic music industry. This was not the polite academic world of recitals. Audience members occasionally voiced their opinions by throwing objects at the musicians. Club owners had the habit of pulling the plug on bands in the middle of a set. If I was going to go out there and play free improv to a crowd of punks, I had to really believe in what I was doing, or enjoy contact sports.
In this atmosphere of defiance, strongheadedness, and cheap beer, I learned the importance of writing exactly what I wanted to and not fearing rejection. Most of all, it was a blast to get out and play. These gigs forced me to develop a thick skin and a sense of humor; I learned more in those clubs about how to deal with a performance that’s not going exactly as planned than I ever learned in school.
In 1992, I moved to New York. The city was positively hospitable compared to Los Angeles. New music was flourishing, and the audience wasn’t throwing anything. The scene centered in the East Village (particularly the Knitting Factory on Houston Street) was no longer in its infancy, but it was experiencing a very healthy second wind. Musicians were eager to experiment, collaborate and try lots of new projects. Armed with my own odd combination of skills and experiences, it was the perfect opportunity to push myself further as a composer, improviser and bandleader.
Shortly after I moved to New York, John Zorn invited me to participate in the “Radical Jewish Culture” festival at the Knitting Factory. Living in the middle of the old “Jewish Rialto” (the Yiddish theater district on 2nd Avenue) I had been thinking about my immigrant Jewish roots. Now I was literally on top of them. It was then I wrote “The Manufacture of Tangled Ivory,” inspired by my grandmother and her days as a young teenager working in sweatshops in downtown New York. “The Manufacture…” starts with a cadenza for detuned piano, and builds to a mass of prepared piano sounds, junk metal, and sliding guitars, all propelled by factory-inspired rhythms.
It was originally performed by my band: Roger Kleier on electric guitar, Christine Bard on drums, and me on sampler. The piece wasn’t notated; we worked within a basic structure and used a lot of head cues (vigorous nods) to signal when to move on to the next section. It was always a wild ride; each performance was always a little different, depending on our mood and the environment in which it was performed. In the first performance, an electric bass player who was sitting in with us hit his fuzz box before taking a very long solo, at which point I swore to myself I’d never perform the piece again. Fortunately I changed my mind; in the end, it was only that bass player who never performed it again.
I sent a tape of the piece to Bang on a Can, the new music organization, hoping to bring my group to one of their marathon concerts. Instead of booking my band, they proposed that their ensemble, the Bang on a Can All-Stars perform “The Manufacture of Tangled Ivory,” sweetening the pot with the suggestion that they could record and tour the piece. After all those years in Los Angeles, I was understandably skeptical when anyone made promises about my music. I was also enthusiastic about my own group, and did my best to convince them that we would perform the definitive version of the piece. In the end they proved my suspicions wrong: they recorded and toured the piece extensively, and played it in festivals all over the world. A version performed by my band appears on the CD, “Burnt Ivory and Loose Wires,” on the Tzadik label.
In many ways “The Manufacture of Tangled Ivory” parallels my own life as a composer: it started out in a club, performed by my own band, then found its place in the contemporary classical world.
Often this kind of new music, which uses unconventional sounds and structures, is referred to (both affectionately and pejoratively) as “out there”, or “outside” music. I have never intended to create music that is “out there,” in fact, the music is in there, very close to my heart, and I try my damnedest to dig deep and express something that hasn’t been said before. My goal isn’t to write something weird or shocking, it’s to try to create something new and personal in every piece. Is my music normal, conventional, mainstream? I hope not. But slapping on a label that says “out there” is dismissive, and marginalizes the music, as well as the work that went into composing it. Over the years I’ve found that a surprising number of people are open to new and unusual music, and branding music as “outside” prejudices listeners before they get a chance to decide for themselves.
Years ago I was working with a publisher in Los Angeles, who requested that I write “some surefire hits — nothing quirky”. I brought him three songs that fit that description to the best of my abilities. He listened, and then yelled “What the hell is this? Anyone could have written these songs!” As aggravating as it was, this lesson served me well as a composer. I stopped trying to compose music to someone else’s specifications, realized that making art shouldn’t be reduced to a popularity contest, and got down to writing what I believed in.
Read the other articles:
The Score is a series of articles by composers published on TimesSelect