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Diary of a Mad Composer

When I was at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, there were times when I went to my composition lesson with Conrad Susa, we would sit down, and Conrad would look at me and say, “don’t you just get sick of music?”

I did and still do. In graduate school, I couldn’t afford to be sick of music for long, and Haydn was always the solution—Conrad liked to prescribe the “London” symphonies. Nowadays, I can’t really afford to be sick of music for long either—as long as someone is paying me to go to a concert, I go, doesn’t matter what it is.

But being sick of music, being weary of it, is a problem. I realized lately that I’ve been listening to an awful lot of drone music this year; ambient drone, metal drone, noise and industrial drone, and finding it deeply satisfying even when I don’t find it very well done. It’s because I’m sick of music, tired of hearing bar lines and chord progressions, tired of the formal and structural familiarity that is the purpose of so much music making, i.e. you’re supposed to hear that song end when it does because the entire few minutes of its duration has been setting up that ending. It’s a formula—an enduring one, but a formula nonetheless.

What I like about drone music and noise is that there’s is no formula. Or maybe the formula is so simple it doesn’t matter. The point of the music is not to get anywhere but just to be in one place for a time. It’s like the Steady State theory of the universe (of course completely discredited, but there must be a Calvino story that describes the constant pleasure of the eternal present that we can no longer experience now that everything is flying apart and heading toward entropy). Drone music gives you everything up front, and there’s no harmonies to follow to see where they go. That leaves out narrative surprises, but there are times when I’ve had enough plot, and I just want some story.

The story I hear this fall is that the Earth abides. As pessimism teaches, we began to die the day we are born—there’s no reason we can’t make something beautiful on the way, and perhaps that’s the point of existence, I don’t know—but the Earth abides, as does the universe. The damage that civilization wrings can only bring down itself. Despite the sensationalism of television and the awful efficacy of automatic weapons, no apocalyptic death cult can change the Earth. We may turn the planet the blue of the oceans, but it will continue to turn, to spin around the sun, the solar system slowly turning through the universe in its spiral arm in the Milky Way.

The universe itself has a sound, a background drone that is essentially the sound of existence creating itself at the Big Bang. The actual frequency is below the threshold of human hearing, but boosting it up many octaves (100 septillion!) means we can hear it. The drone is the sound of existence, as fundamentally organic as things get, and it is with us in the streets, in our rooms—it followed John Cage into his isolation tank, where the only sounds he heard were the low hum of his circulatory system and the higher pitched sound of his nervous system. The drone is life, and the drone of creation will last until all coherent information is lost in the universe.

Music like that is what sticks in my body’s memory this year, not just the image in my mind that I enjoyed a particular concert, but the noticeable lasting impression it made in my body, as if the drones are still vibrating in there. The best experiences I had this year didn’t always feature drones directly, but the music, by ignoring formal directives, was in touch with something essential:

* In January, the Argento Ensemble played the chamber reduction of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, and I have never heard Mahler played with such relish and abandon.

* Anne-Sophie Mutter, utterly consumed by Sibelius’s Violin Concerto.

* At Spectrum, Augustus Arnone played Michael Finnissy’s piano music, an incredibly rare experience, and following the amazing path of the pieces moved me out of the stream of ordinary time.

* Also at Spectrum, pianist Andy Lee played Galen Brown’s astonishing God Is A Killer, which somehow manages to reorder the world after yet another mass killing. I hope I will not have to play it as often in the future.

* LaMonte Young’s Trio for Strings at Dia’s temporary Dream House was a respite from the constant movement toward entropy.

* Maya Beiser played the ever-loving shit out of the cello in her “All Vows” show at BAM, which is a fantastic experience.

* I was fortunate to see the Ghost Ensemble and the Lightbulb Ensemble play at Pioneer Works just before Halloween: there was wonderful new music from Andrew C. Smith, Ben Richter, Juste Janulyte, and a piece for microtonal gamelan that was one of the most unusual things I’ve heard in years.

* There’s a new set of Alvin Lucier’s music on Mode, and his Risonanza is awesome drone music.

In recordings, there was the usual abundance of terrific new jazz releases this year, and I’m struggling to fit ten into the right order for the various end of the year polls. I didn’t spend much time with pop/rock/hip hop, etc. this year, because I kept turning back to drone music.

New music is the most important thing to me. As I write this, my very favorite recording of the entire year is Michael Pisaro’s A Mist is a Collection of Points, set for release on New World Records in early December. There is a drone in the music, in that Pisaro is operating several sine wave generators, and their background hum is the main formal design for the piece. Inside the drones, pianist Phillip Bush plays a part that gradually expands in complexity, moving from spare single tones to a haunting response to Morton Feldman’s late music. There is a percussion part, played by Greg Stuart, that introduces an abstracted and intensely dramatic sense of ritual. Time flows and the music fills it, it designs and builds something. Maybe there’s hope for us all.

Also this fall there was an important release on Starkland, of music from Elliott Sharp. The CD, The Boreal, has the title piece and Oligosono, which were previously only available on Sharp’s own zOaR imprint. Those are fantastic pieces, the former a string quartet piece, played by JACK, that threatens to tear a seam in the fabric of existence, the latter a hypnotic piano work played by Jenny Lin. Those are augmented by two great orchestral pieces, Proof of Erdös and On Corlear’s Hook, that are dense with viscerally stimulating timbres and dissonances. The orchestral works are brilliant expressions of the idea of agon, the struggle that produces something marvelous, the brief and beautiful flowing of life, perhaps.


George Grella

George Grella is the Rail’s music editor.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2015

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