Notes On the Adès Circle

draft: corrections, comments, and (minimally reasonable, fact based) criticisms appreciated.

Will Robin’s profile of a group of Brooklyn based composers united by their admiration of Thomas Adès brought back fond memories of New York Times 3500 word think pieces, and of the arguments they used to provoke.

One of these, penned by the acknowledged master of the form UC Berkeley musicologist Richard Taruskin, concerned the then 28 year old composer with the letter section providing me an opportunity to praise Adès in the Times, just as Robin’s subjects are doing now. Adès’s upcoming appearance with the New York Philharmonic seemed to present an occasion to renew my praise and to extend it to his self-identified circle.

Given their obviously prodigious gifts, it was an easy job then and now though those with some familiarity with the business of composition can see a bit more clearly what these are and that they rest on the usual foundation. Part of it involves their having acquired, studied, and internalized the scores of the most relevant and important works of their predecessors.  And they have stolen from them liberally and effectively-as good composers always have.

But while theft is routine, only those with high degree of musicianship and excellent training can pull of the caper with consummate finesse-in their case the pilfered goods woven into a fabric which is always personal and almost never derivative.

While their roots in the past are apparent, probably more significant is their relationship with their present day peers.  A conspicuous aspect of the classical musical scene in New York is that to a greater degree than was the case it can now be described as a community. The Adès circle has played a role in establishing it by their having reclaimed new music from the margins, negotiating a division of labor between composers and performers based on mutual respect and an apparent minimum of tension.

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This hasn’t always been the case.  One of the symptoms of what Taruskin referred to as high modernist “hermeticism” was a barrier between composers and performers the erection of which is generally traced to Schoenberg having viewed himself as a lawgiving Moses operating in a separate realm from the Aarons obligated to proselytize in the concert hall.

The post modernist reaction resulted in a rapprochement, but it was along lines which traditional performers often found unsatisfying. While minimalist classics like Steve Reich’s Piano Phase or Phillip Glass’s Music in 12 Parts required remarkable focus, discipline and concentration, what was demanded had little to do with traditional virtuosity.

The Adès circle could be seen as a throwback to the days of Brahms vetting his concerti with his close friends the violinist Joachim and pianist Clara Schumann works which expressively and ergonomically reflect a inside awareness of three centuries of instrumental technique. Although Adès’s Mazurkas could only have been written within the past decade or so, it’s hard to imagine any pianist undertaking them who hasn’t previously worked through the 19th century repertoire having developed a full command of the gymnastics required to negotiate it. The same goes for Andrew Norman’s Sabina a kind of homage to the technical foundation players begin constructing in their first years. Ted Hearne and Caroline Shaw’s vocal writing is equally grounded within bel canto practice combined with vocal inflections from traditions distant from it, while Timo Andres’s finger busting piano extravanganzas are perhaps the most unselfconsciously conventionally virtuosic of all.

Mirroring their relationship with conservatory trained performers is their accommodation with classical music institutions, most notably with concert halls and the rituals of the classical music concert.  Yes, the former recall distant ancestors, doddering aristocrats and decaying 19th century drawing rooms as do the Cotton Matheresque codes of behavior associated with the latter. But viewed from a utilitarian distance they are a means to an end:  Carnegie Hall is, ultimately, nothing more or less than a nearly perfect acoustic space, one which allows everything in a well composed piece to be heard and to glow.  Similarly, the repressed silences and sanctions against overly physicalized audience participation serve an end: while not all music benefits from the absence of alcohol, mosh pits or pyrotechnic stage shows, a fraction of pieces demand to be heard unobstructed.  At their best, Adès’s work and that of his followers reside in the category of music which repays the investment of undivided attention.

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All that amounts to a rather sunnier view of contemporary music than I’m accustomed to associating myself with.  And to be honest, it strikes me, in reading it over, as a bit Pollyanish-my admiration for Adès and his circle notwithstanding.  In particular, while those reading this will-and should-consider the source, I’m not ready to relegate to past history the crisis in modern music which functioned as a de facto noose around the neck of generations of composers including my own.

Admittedly, it’s been a long time since anyone’s talked about it very much.  That’s understandable: the subjects “whither serialism”, “whither atonality”, “a new tonality?”, “a new romanticism?”, can only be broached so many times before becoming tedious and depressing.  That said, by now, a decade or more later, the absence of any discourse around these questions seems like Ionesco’s Rhinoceros-a presence more glaring due to our agreeing to ignore it.

That’s too bad since now finally, a good half century after the symptoms of the crisis were first identified, it seems that a discussion might be usefully re-engaged and some of the main lines of criticism productively revisited.

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One of these has to do with what composer and music theorist Fred Lerdahl denoted with the phrase “cognitively opaque” in what was once a widely discussed polemic.

Given that most readers will be unfamiliar with it, I’ll provide an abridged version of what Lerdahl has in mind by noting that the category applies when a composer’s system for choosing notes comes into conflict with how we hear. The existence of the category and, more importantly, the experience Lerdahl identifies is based on the empirically demonstrable proposition that our cognitive faculties require auditory and other perceptual information to take a limited range of forms.  We will, of course, to a greater or lesser degree, perceive that which does not, but in a significant and not altogether metaphorical sense, it will “go in one ear and out the other” without leaving any trace in our memory just as does, for example, speech in languages we don’t understand, light or sound outside of visual or auditory spectra.

It is important to understand that this is a formal characterization and not necessarily an aesthetic criticism: creating a perpetual “shock of the new” through the deployment of strategies balancing on the edge of cognitive inaccessibility is precisely what much of this music was intending to deliver, and it succeeded in doing so. And it also understandably became a fashion in which music which did not share this agenda was to a greater or lesser degree rejected as “useless”.

Where this became a problem was when it hardened into an ideological agenda equating accessibility with superficiality.  That this constituted an impoverished view of musical experience many listeners intuitively felt to be the case, though it took some time before the basis behind their apprehensions was at all understood.  Probably the clearest explanation can be found in Leonard Meyer’s classic essay On Rehearing Music which argues that rather than being static entities, pieces which lodge in our mind are dynamic representations of an underlying musical object perpetually re-experienced as different faces of it are revealed to us in performances or in our recollection of them.  Insofar as a piece thwarts our capacity to engage it in this way, it lacks a dimensionality which defines our experience of music.

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It is this line of thought that I had in mind with first part of the tweeted predicate “music should be loved more than it is respected.”  Pieces for which (or for that matter people for whom) we have the most affection are those we are still glad to encounter after we know a lot-maybe even everything- about them.  The same can be said about re-experiencing, say, Bach Preludes and Fugues, Sibelius Symphonies, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or most pieces which have found their way into what used to be unproblematically referred to as the canon.

While I would expect plenty of disagreement on the line of thought just advanced, and its application in the form of any particular judgment, the general proposition that one should love music I took to be relatively innocuous.  And so I was a bit surprised that the tweet in which it was conveyed encountered immediate objection: “Love” according to this respondent “is vastly overrated.”

The four words served as a useful reminder that the rhinoceros remains in the room. Ades, at least for some of its less critical adherents, functions as a delivery vehicle for a genre of music which was indeed deeply unloveable, and, as an empirical matter, equally deeply unloved. The “eat your vegetables” justification proffered within this tweet for why we should reduce our expectations,  “Music is like wine-some requires us to develop a taste for it”, was also familiar-a restatement of the passive aggressive moralizations which functioned as an obligatory component of the modernist sales pitch back in the day.

The pitch failed, most spectacularly with the class it was mainly directed to. As Taruskin pointed out, the trahison des clercs by which intellectuals decamped from their previous allegiance to what was previously taken as “high” musical art was nearly total, and it continues to this day.  Mentioning the name Adès in my faculty lunchroom will elicit the same shrugging of shoulders as will, with a tiny number of notable exceptions, virtually any other composer born in the last century.

Will a highly touted piece like “Asyla” succeed in re-establishing a connection with this core constituency-or any other?  I’ll admit that I’m skeptical since it strikes me as repackaging: its debt to its predecessors, albeit that of Ligeti and Kurtag (for me, the most consistently inventive and least doctrinaire of the high modernist icons), is worn too much on its sleeve.  Like modernism it seems too obsessed with supporting the weight of tradition-that is, with being respected, or worse, being respectable.

That said, the composers Robin mentions are a varied lot, embodying a range of styles, and, it would seem, disparate compositional philosophies.  Hearne, Shaw and Kahane, are my personal favorites partly due to their willingness to tread on territory which a mandarin like Ades would tend to avoid or dismiss.

I’m also enthusiastic about the composer most directly linked with Adès, Andrew Norman, his “Play” being mentioned as a generational successor to “Asyla”. While the connection seems apparent, to my ear, the comparison works in Norman’s favor: “Play” more consistently elicits the “Wow” reaction which justifies the praise which has been heaped on both works.

What neither piece has received is that which might be expected of work which pushes the boundaries of a genre, namely criticism, mild, harsh or otherwise.

While the above should not be seen as fulfilling that function, classical music’s return from the cultural margins, when and if it occurs, is sure to be accompanied by a reasonable fraction of spit balls along with hosannas.  We should await and welcome these, just as we should the works of the Adès circle along with others who see the musical future very differently from them.