SWINGING MODERN SOUNDS #20: Who’s Afraid of Serious Music?


Once, many years ago, I was at an artist’s colony in New Hampshire, The MacDowell Colony. I could never spend much time at MacDowell without suffering with paralyzing loneliness, and this visit was no exception. In fact, I could rarely stay at MacDowell without entertaining the thought that in the event of my death it would be three days before anyone found my partially decomposed corpse. This did not keep me from writing well at The MacDowell Colony, but it was work that came to light in a costly way. My mental health was at stake. This, it seems to me, is often the case at artist’s colonies. There are often people around you making significant work, but at some cost. Some of these people can be notably eccentric, or, in some cases, extremely troubled. But they are nonetheless inspired. During the stay in question I was in my early thirties, and in those days I was more impressionable. I was vulnerable, and I was porous. I was often shy and somewhat afraid to talk to the other colonists. So: I was at dinner at MacDowell, and this guy walked in and sat at my table, and proceeded to make conversation in a way that was as markedly awkward as anything I have ever heard. Worse than me. (And that’s saying something.) This guy made ill at ease seem like life of the party. He was miserable, but, I thought, he was trying really hard. For example, at one point he said to the assembled table (there were five or six of us there), “I have heard the sound of one hand clapping!” And then he attempted to flap his hand in some kind of floppy double-jointed way that did, in fact, approximate the sound of one hand clapping. This was not a thread in the conversation. This was conversational mayhem. I called my girlfriend that evening (still paralyzed by loneliness), and said, You won’t believe this guy who was at dinner tonight! He turned out to be a composer, of course. Because the crazy ones are often the composers.

I avoided the one-hand-clapping guy after that, at MacDowell, and I don’t think I was in residence much longer anyhow. Couple years later, I was at another artist’s colony, Yaddo, and it was a rather impressive crew at Yaddo–it included the filmmaker Tamara Jenkins, and the composer Ingram Marshall, and many others. It was the summer! Yaddo was like a Shakespeare comedy! And then one particular day I was waiting for dinner, and who should walk in but the one hand clapping guy! Oh fuck, I told my girlfriend, he’s back!

Who would have thought that in fact he was a really reasonable and funny guy and I had totally misjudged him? Who would have thought that he was actually an extremely gifted composer? Who would have thought he would become one of my very favorite contemporary composers and close friend? Who would have thought that in this mix of paralyzing loneliness and obsessive work I was able, at best, to get the whole thing exactly wrong? Who would have thought, in those days, that I didn’t know everything I thought I knew? And that in this moment I was actually about to start learning something–about serious music.

Click sheet music to view larger images.

It’s hard to say exactly how it happened, that the one-hand-clapping guy became a close friend, but I suppose it had a lot to do with Tamara Jenkins, because she likes just about everybody, and is not shy. Anyway, Tamara became friends with this guy, this David Rakowski, who inclines toward the nickname Uncle Davy and who seems to encourage his composition students to call him that, and she sort of brought him near to the rest of the assembled where he became, in a way, the life of the party. I learned, soon enough, that David Rakowski can stand on a chair and sing the entirety of Jesus Christ Superstar, and is not above demonstrating that he really knows all of it, that he can play Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield at four times the original tempo, and that he has a voluminous knowledge of funk, and, especially, of everything produced by the band known as Tower of Power. Moreover, his first instrument was the trombone, and so he comes by a love of good writing for horns naturally. And it gets even better. Davey likes to have dance parties, and to stay up late dancing, and he buries references to James Brown in his works, and he played “Smoke On the Water” in his high school band, and has been known to slip that into his compositions too.

Once I heard him mumble the sentence: “Harps, they’re either going up or going down.”

But all of this, it is important to note, all of this antic and slightly comical (more like very comical) stuff about David Rakowski is not really in evidence in his compositions, which, by his own estimation are somewhat complex, intricate, and challenging for those who are not readily familiar with contemporary  “classical” music. (His website puts it this way: “The music is difficult (it’s not just hard, it’s damn hard, or in Maine, wickid had), not tonal in the traditional diatonic sense (‘tonal’ is imprecise, and in many senses, my music is tonal — it has also been called atonal, with more tonal centers than you used to have, sounds like it’s in a minor key, pretty, opaque, accessible and unremarkable) — sort of a supercharged chromatic tonality if you will (my eyes rolled instinctively when I typed that) — and somewhat traditionally structured — and it has lots and lotsa notes. Some people call the music Modernist. Others have called it Romantic, total rockout, borderline Neoclassical, zany, too melodic, not melodic enough, postmodern, eclectic, and highly unified.”) Look, it’s not the time and place to get into a serious discussion about the word “classical” right now, but let’s say in passing, since my wish here is to defend “serious” music from the partial neglect it too often receives among contemporary music lovers, that the word “classical” is incredibly stupid when applied to people who write down music on staves, and who appropriate, in some fashion, the history of European serious music, or who use that as a point of origin for what they compose. Could Rakowski’s music, which owes a lot to Ellington, and a fair amount to Milton Babbitt, let’s say, be described as “classical?” The word just seems really reductive to me. Is it meant to designate a particular instrumentation? Like an orchestra or a chamber ensemble? If so, it’s still a stupid word, “classical,” and has nothing to do with what the music is trying to say. Rakowski, after all, his written pieces for toy piano, frame drum, celeste, and is working these days on a piece that incorporates bass harmonica, and he was just asking me for some advice about where to get a good harmonium. These are not “classical” instruments. So let’s not call Rakowski’s output “classical” music, and, even though I sort of think that “serious” music is too humorless and too uptight to describe what Rakowski does, let’s call him a composer “serious” music for now, so as to distinguish this work from the more vernacular “popular song.”

Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a volume of essays, On Celestial Music. His most recent publication is Hotels of North America, a novel. With Kid Millions of Oneida, he recently released the album The Unspeakable Practices (Joyful Noise recordings). More from this author →