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.”

Rakowski writes orchestral music, and pieces for brass ensemble (including a really great piece for the U.S. Marine Band), and these works are “serious,” but what he’s most famous for, these days, are his piano études. It’s sort of funny, in a way, that he is known for piano études, because he doesn’t even consider himself a piano player, really, but there it is. I think it went this way: he wrote an étude (by which I mean a short piece that focuses on a particular skill among the generalized skills putatively required for good piano playing, in order to hone this particular bit of muscle memory, or perhaps, more simply, a piece that has a monomaniacal skill-oriented focus) for a friend, enjoyed it, and wrote another (each of them hewing to the following requirements: that it must be written in under six days, that it is not allowed to be “precomposed” or “preconceived” except during the six days, and that it cannot be revised, unless abandoned and started over in a different way), and somewhere during this rampage, he became shockingly good at writing piano études, and is now perilously close to having written a hundred of them. After which he claims he’s going to stop. Many of the études require some superheroic ability (or, viewed differently, some superheroic limitation). There’s a Rakowski étude that requires the player to bang with her fists, one that requires the player to play with his nose, there’s a left-handed étude, a right handed étude, an étude to be played inside the piano (called “Plucking A”), an étude for pedaling, an étude for a single note, and so on. Some of the études are stylistic, and are about the tango, or stride piano, or hard bop, or even prog rock (I might have had a hand in that one, in all candor). Some of the études are about particular compositional tropes, like tritone or the fourth, and so on. I am not so good at the description of the compositionally inclined études, because the level of theory that is embodied in the average Rakowski composition is far beyond what I, with my five chords, and my four-four time, can readily verbalize, although I do understand that David Rakowski comes from a place that no longer requires the fixed time signature. Rakowski is rhythmically intricate in the extreme, and can go from a few measures in 12/8, as the right-handed étude does, to 9/8, 21/16, and 33/16, and that’s all in the first ten measures (no shit, see photo here: ). I am pretty sure I have never willingly sung or played in 33/16, and just seeing it written down in a score is mildly terrifying.

Dwelling at great length on the strategic approaches to the études, though, misses out on what happens when you listen to them. Now, admittedly, this is work that has to be seen played live for it to really suggest all of its layers (there is nothing, in fact, like seeing a great pianist play “Schnozzage” with, in part, her nose), but when it is not seen live, something much different happens, upon listening to the Rakowski études. Because they are full of passion, in their very methodical and mathematically precise way. As Rakowski points out, he comes from a part of the world (dairy country in northern VT) where “feelings” were not readily discussed, but at the same time, as I found out from Tamara Jenkins, who first befriended him, Rakowski is no stranger to great family hardship, tragedy even, having lost family members, parents, when young, in ways that no one should lose anyone, and while his work, in its absolute loyalty to the academic strains of composition is unapologetically cerebral and highly thought out, it is also very, very passionate, and profoundly moving. “Schnozzage,” though Rakowski would be unlikely to admit it himself, is, in its meditative slowness, astringent and incredibly sad. Its chromatic movement owes a lot to jazz, at least to my ears, as so much of Rakowski does, but there are hints of Debussy and Brahms, but even more than this, the piece follows its feelings in a gentle, relentless, almost desolate way to some ritualized purgation. The piece almost requires the nose sections because it is so sad there is no choice for the performer but to put her face down on the keys. Thus: Rakowski manages to have his Platonic-stylings, his elective affinities, whether he will admit to them or not. And the same is the case with the uptempo numbers, which are full of Ellington and his beloved funk, and, on occasion other bits of pianistic history (a really good example here is #40, called “Strident,” which is available on YouTube), they are incredibly joyful, celebratory, hortatory, and so riotous and spirited in the way they move in and out of loudness and surprise and invention. In fact, among the many things I love about Rakowski’s études (and three volumes of them are now available on iTunes and from Bridge Recordings, the most recent having come out just last August) is how impulsively they move. They rarely build dramatically, and I imagine that Davy would say that is an important feature. They include dramatic passages, but their drama is sudden and unpredictable, all-over, in just the way that a color field painting is, e.g., cut from a larger canvas. A slavish devotion to starting with a certain theme and building to dramatic conclusion is completely alien to this composer. His pieces start and stop, because one must, and a lot happens between, there is ebb and flow, assembling and disassembling, but it happens in surprising ways, unstructured ways, impulsive joyous ways. The music goes where the musical language takes it.

What this work did for me, upon beginning to understand it: it restored in me a sense of the creative possibilities of “serious” music. When younger, I was, despite listening to “Evening Music” on WNYC-FM as much as the next thinking person, a little impatient with the non-traditional tonality of “serious” music, and with its non-traditional sameness. Too much virtuosity for its own sake, too much dislike of tonality, too much dread seriousness, not enough expression. In part I blame Schoenberg and Webern and Alban Berg, just as I sort of blame some of the dreadfully serious poets of the 20th century for a lot of the humorlessness in the contemporary poetry world. For me, if work doesn’t engage my emotional life as well as my intellectual life (and by emotional life I mean the entirety of it, not a sort of monochromatic version thereof) it is dead work, and I don’t care how smart it is. For a long time, I had trouble feeling fully engaged by contemporary “serious” music, but Rakowski, by his example, helped me around the corner, with his humor, his playfulness, his heavy heart, his great taste, and his creative restlessness. After a time, I was occasionally invited to help come up with the odd idea for an étude (this is very difficult to do since by now almost everything that could possibly be done by Rakowski with the etude has been done), and more frequently to come up with a title (because as with many music and math prodigies Rakowski is a man who is fond of really horrible puns, and he makes sure that every title has one, a pun), and in this way, by helping with ideas and titles sometimes, I got to see this music happening and even to read it on occasion, though I am not a great reader of scores. Luckily, his scores have drawings and notes so that even people who can’t understand can understand them, can appreciate.

To reiterate my larger theme: part of what I suppose I mean, here, is that when you school yourself up a little bit in a form that feels recondite or alien to you, it may be possible, even probable, that you are able to see how much beauty and heart there is in it. I was already making the transition into understanding work that is “atonal” or which has or had different and more various tonal centers, in that I was liking, for example, some of Sonic Youth’s darker colors, or some free jazz (Stellar Regions, by John Coltrane, let’s say). I was already making the transition to finding dissonance expressive, if that’s the right way to put it. With attention it’s hard not to conclude that tonality is (while occasionally satisfying) cheap. And traditional tonality of the kind that you hear in the popular song is, in the long run, aesthetically indefensible, and is, it’s true, more conservative than the wild west of an enlarged harmonic landscape. Why do all those pop song melodies always go to the same melodic places? And do the same things? If you really care about music, and you are ignoring everything that is happening among serious composers, then you are participating in the diminishment of the form you affect to love, in the same way as those school superintendants are who are cutting music education from public school programs, thereby diminishing what kids are able to hear. Music needs to be a field of possibilities, in the same way that literature needs to be a field of possibilities, in the same way that visual art needs to be a field of possibilities. The form needs to be able to go where history leads it, even if this happens to be down a byway that, on the surface, is complex and demanding or even forbidding for the casual listener. Especially this is the case if the more seemingly difficult work is, in fact, not as difficult as all that, if, upon reflection, it is in fact full of soul. Because that’s what we’re asking for in the end, correct? Are we not asking that music move us powerfully?

http://therumpus.net/wordpress/wp-admin/post.php?action=edit&post=45138Since this column is meant to concentrate itself on unreleased things, and a generous helping of the most well-known of Rakowski’s piano études are already released, many of them played by the amazing Amy Briggs, a pianist from Chicago, with a wonderfully supple touch, I want to mention, in passing, the excellence of Rakowski’s web site, where there are a lot samples his compositions, for people who want to hear some of the music. But then there is a lot of other stuff, and this other stuff, for me, is completely germane to the music. Not only is there “Davy’s Lexicon,” which has a lot of interesting acronyms for people in need of acronyms, or a history of Rakowski’s work in font design, at which, in the early nineties, he was successful enough that, apparently, they are still selling his font designs, but there is even some of his obsessive cataloguing of anagrams and people whose first and last names have only five letters. And there is a series of scanned images of notes he wrote his mother as a child, such as: “Dear Mummy, I hate you, love David,” and “Dear Mummy, I will not give you anymore kisses before I go to school, love David.” It’s absolutely unfair, here, to quote these without giving the real flavor of the composer’s youthful handwriting, so I will include the link here. These images will stay with you. There’s also a collage of photos of Rakowski from middle and high school, and some articles in the local press about him, and so on. Like the notes to his mom, the clippings are really funny, but they are also arrestingly sad, and Rakowski posts them without any kind of editorial comment at all. Then, best of all, under the title “Buttstix,” and I offer no apology for the locution, are a number of small apothegms, supposed “immutable regulations” of classical composition, that Rakowski, according to him, had shoved up his cantus firmus, during his student years. His creative life, he avers, has involved the removal of these “buttstix,” one at a time, until he arrives at a compositional freedom unfettered by the requirements of the canon. The link is here. As you can see, some of the apothegms are as follows: “Serious music is slow music,” “No smiling,” “Improvisation is not composition,” “Minimalism is bad,” “If amateurs like it, it’s bad,” and, of course, “The Tradition.”

This page is useful to me not only as a fan of Rakowski’s work, or as a passionate amateur listener to “serious” music, but also as a creative person myself. In fact, it’s extremely useful. And in the end this what I take away from Rakowski. He is a teacher, yes, at Brandeis, where I gather his classes are extremely popular (and where he takes Calvin and Hobbes cartoons and rewrites the words in the balloons with notes on counterpoint), and in a way his obsessive need, as a composer, is always to teach, but to teach without compromising what he believes in, but likewise in such a way as to make the difficulty of that work entirely accessible to nearly anyone who is willing to take the time to listen and to learn. This Rakowski model has been effective for me as a writer in the years I have been lucky enough to know Rakowski and to watch him do his thing. That is, he has taught me. You sense that he carries around a great burden, I do not deny this; you sense that there is a lot on his mind that he is not saying (sometimes he reminds me of something that Miles Davis said about Armstrong, that when Armstrong turned off the thousand-watt smile he was one of the saddest people of all), but also that he is made whole by his creativity and by the process of sharing and laying it bare for people who would know more. I think his kind of activity is quantifiable, in some ways. That is, I think that some of “serious” music is mathematics, but that the mathematics is loved here in such a pure way, for its expressive value, that its expressive value is not at all quantitative, but nearly romantic in its genuineness.

So this is what I know about “serious” music, because of an awkward dinner at The MacDowell Colony: that I am not afraid of it, that I like what I like, and some of it I like a great deal, and I am always willing to learn more. For me this is sort of how one ought to be passionate about music. One ought to feel, and one ought to be passionate to learn.

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 →