Out of the East

April 18, 1999

Composers Mining the Music of Their Youth

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    Going to a contemporary-music concert in the 1970s to hear new works by young Americans could often be a discombobulating experience. The composers were baby-boomers who had grown up with Motown, rhythm-and-blues and 60s rock. Yet from some of the music they composed, you would have thought that they had been living in gas-lit garrets in Vienna during the 1920s, completely in thrall to the radical 12-tone works of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg.

    The source of this music was their teachers, not their childhoods. Inevitably, some of it sounded stiff and derivative. But even when the works by emerging Americans were technically assured and elegant, there was an odd sense of disconnect about the music. Why were there no traces of the rock and pop these young people had grown up with?

    One would think that the music composers were surrounded by as youths would fix itself in their ears and seep out later in their works. Take Haydn. His most sophisticated symphonies were infused with elements of the folk tunes and country music he heard and loved as a child in rural Austria, before he was shipped off to a choir school in Vienna.

    This changed after World War II, when an international style emerged: "sleek, glossy and anonymous," in the words of the composer Stephen Hartke, another baby-boomer, now on the faculty of the University of Southern California. "The international style had parallels in modern architecture," Hartke commented recently. It won the cultural war, he added, and prevailed in university music departments. Until, that is, the composers of Hartke's generation finally rebelled. "We decided that it was all right, at last, to reflect in our works the musical background we grew up with," he said.

    Of course, the influence of rock, pop and, in earlier decades, jazz, has long been noted in the music of contemporary American composers. In the late 60s, you were more likely to encounter Philip Glass, Steve Reich and their Minimalist cohorts in rock clubs than in concert halls. That's where their music, with its repetitive rhythmic patterns spinning atop dronelike pedal tones and slow-changing harmonies, seemed most at home, though Glass emphasized the influence of non-Western sources, especially Indian music on his work.

    Now, finally, a generation has come to maturity whose members seem connected to the music of their youth in as natural a way as Haydn was to his. Some of these composers come proudly from rock, like Steven Mackey, who was once a rock guitarist with a compositional bent and now composes incisive, complex works charged with rockish energy.

    Michael Daugherty, who teaches at the University of Michigan, has consciously fashioned a brash, eclectic and electrified style inspired not only by pop music but also by pop culture in works like "Dead Elvis" and "Motown Metal." And there is the inventive, Michigan-born Eve Beglarian, who loved pop music in her youth, then put it aside to attend Princeton and Columbia. Getting her education at these most formidably academic music departments was like sustaining a one-two punch, Ms. Beglarian said recently. "It knocked me flat for a while."

    While trying to master strict compositional techniques, Ms. Beglarian, who is now 40, was engaged in a bit of countercultural sabotage. "It was fun, and really useful, to get enough chops to be able to manipulate incredibly numerical systems of Serialism into something that partied," she explained.

    Now, her work as a composer, performer and audio producer happily takes her to clubs and lofts as well as mainstream concert halls. Twisted Tutu, her keyboard duo with the pianist Kathleen Supove, blends high technology with theater, and impish pop with structured composition.

    There are other composers from the generation born in the 1950s in whose music the traits of rock and pop are less obvious but no less significant: Tod Machover, for one, whose opera "Resurrection" will receive its premiere on Friday, at the Houston Grand Opera.

    Machover, who is 45, comes from a highly educated, musical family, and once played electric bass and electric cello in a rock quartet called Hot Toddy Went West. Having completed a master's degree at the Juilliard School, he went to Paris in the late 70s to work with Pierre Boulez at Ircam, then mission control for the brainiest contemporary music, where Machover put rock out of his mind.

    "Yet the longer I was abroad, the more I kind of remembered all I loved about American pop culture," he said recently. The result was his opera "Valis," which received its premiere in 1987. Based on a fable by the novelist Philip K. Dick, "Valis" combines sound, theater, high-tech electronic instruments and imagery. The ecstatic score is run through with highly charged energy and spasms of sound that could only have come from a composer who grew up with rock.

    In the case of Hartke, whose "Gradus" will receive its premiere Monday evening by the new-music ensemble Parnassus at Merkin Concert Hall, the rock element has crept into his music despite his best efforts to keep it out. In his youth the New York-born Hartke, who is 46, was a professional boy soprano who didn't even like rock. Jazz interested him more, and he was wild over a record of Balinese music he came across as a teen-ager. Still, rock obviously slipped into his consciousness.

    "I was a passive receptor for the stuff," he said recently. He refers to the "melos" that all composers grow up with, meaning the whole background of music and noise. Today, however, that melos has become "so loud and overpowering," he said, that composers really have to "concentrate hard to find out where they are."

    What specifically are the elements of rock and pop that have influenced American composers, even, as in Hartke's case, against their will?

    Rhythm is the obvious though not the only one, and the particular impact of rock rhythms on contemporary composers has been overstated. How do pulsating rock rhythms differ from the blues and jazz rhythms that influenced earlier generations of American composers?

    "One could argue that the rhythmic content of today's composers is actually simpler, in general, than the driving, jittery, syncopated rhythms of Leonard Bernstein's generation, or even William Schuman's," suggested the composer Scott Wheeler, the musical director of Dinosaur Annex, a Boston-based new-music ensemble.

    True enough. The spiky rhythms of the rigorously Serial compositions by Milton Babbitt, who earned money as a young man playing show tunes on the piano in nightclubs, are jazzier than, say, the neo-Romantic music of Aaron Jay Kernis, who is only 38.

    Yet motoric, repetitive rhythm is a defining characteristic of rock and the contemporary compositions influenced by it. Ms. Beglarian especially emphasizes the role of meter, the grouping of beats in regular (or sometimes irregular) units (or measures).

    "Coming out of an academic Serialist thing," she said, "what I was most dissatisfied with was not being able to play with meter. That sort of Serialist music, as practiced in the late 1970s, was basically orienting toward obscuring any metrical sense, all that cool stuff that comes from pop. But you can get away with using any notes you want, even the most complex, if you have metrical patterns happening that people can hang on to." A lot of rock, pop and punk functions just that way.

    The aspect of rock that has had a pervasive, even when subliminal, effect on most younger American composers has to do with the particular way it is recorded and, therefore, conceived: in multitracks, or layered elements. For American composers born in the 50s, this layering, Wheeler suggests, has become almost the equivalent of imitative counterpoint (the practice of writing music in multiple, intermingling individual lines).

    "Very few American orchestral pieces these days are put together with a sense of traditional counterpoint," Wheeler said. "More likely they are layered in the manner of a pop recording, track upon track." How does this work? You get a basic rhythm section going, add a tune, then a couple of little midlevel riffs, plus a high string line floating atop everything else. "It's too much to say this is four layers of counterpoint," Wheeler said. "It's four tracks. Composers like Messiaen did similar things. But younger Americans probably got the technique from the Supremes."

    Hartke agrees. "No one is terribly interested in imitative counterpoint anymore," he said. Most composers today use a harmonic language that Hartke describes as "dissonated diatonicism," meaning a language spiked with dissonance yet hewing close to major and minor keys. If you start writing fugues with such a language, he added, the music begins to sound like Hindemith in his ponderous Neo-Classical mode. "And the last thing anybody wants to sound like today is Hindemith," Hartke said. For Americans, apparently, that German composer and pedagogue has become, to quote the Beatles, "a real nowhere man."

    A great deal of today's recording technology, including multitracking, was specifically developed for rock and pop. "The very sound of that studio-recorded music has had a huge effect on composers today," Ms. Beglarian said. She is particularly interested in the "artificially fabulous and precise effects" you can get in rhythm-and-blues, Motown and, now, techno rock.

    "That's to me where the most interesting sonic ideas are coming from," she added. "It's way different from the guitar-hero stuff that people like Steven Mackey are into. Jimi Hendrix was great, but I'm more interested in stealing from Wu Tan Clan," she said, referring to a hiphop group.

    Machover admits to similar thefts. "It's hard to get that rocklike punch in instrumental music today without somehow enhancing the bass line with a percussion keyboard or adding extra electronic elements," he said. And as a faculty member at MIT, Machover has unrivaled access to cutting-edge equipment.

    Of course, in Machover's music, it's not just boosted bass lines that come from rock but also the wholesale amassing of sound. Rock has always been unabashedly loud.

    "The electric guitar exists in country-western music," Wheeler explained. "But to use an electric guitar with feedback to get noise, that really wasn't done until Hendrix." Composers today routinely turn to electronic instruments and amplified vocalists to create raucous, brash dins.

    There is a whole new audience of listeners who were raised on rock, are accustomed to sonic blasts and are not put off when the Bang on a Can concerts assemble a stageful of digital keyboards, hovering microphones and people-size speakers.

    Along with the big sound of rock came the big statement, which actually connected rock composers to 19th-century giants like Beethoven and Wagner, who never shied from tackling grand themes in oversize symphonies and operas. At a time when academically trained composers were producing elitist, formalist chamber works, rockers were preaching peace and love as an antidote to alienation and powerlessness ("Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"), and advocating enlightenment through hallucinogenic substances ("Surrealistic Pillow").

    Works like Daugherty's raucous "Metropolis Symphony," an ode to the crass vitality of popular culture, and Machover's "Valis," which, in his own words, concerns the "obsessive search for unifying principles of human experience," are close cousins to concept albums like the Police's "Synchronicity" and the Talking Heads' "Speaking in Tongues."

    Now that American composers who emerged in the 1970s have re-embraced (or stopped censoring) the melos they grew up in, the presence of rock and pop in their music should come through naturally, much as Haydn's use of folk tunes and dances permeated his masterpieces.

    On the other hand, Machover wonders whether he and his colleagues may finally have got rock "out of their systems." Moreover, he is keenly disappointed with the rock and pop of the last decade. "It's lost its edge, and is seldom risky," he said. "Everything is simplified and saccharine."

    Hmmm. Machover sounds suspiciously like his own teachers, who disdained the rock and pop of his youth. He freely admits to having missed "the whole punk thing and whatever" when he was abroad.

    His students didn't, he knows. Just as Machover was once inspired by the Beatles, today's student composers are charged up by white hiphop groups like the Beastie Boys. Ready or not, here they come.

  • Out of the East

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