Confessions of a Modernist

by James Harley ¦ April 12 2018

OK, here goes. I, um, once purchased an album by Shania Twain (Up!). There, I said it!

For many years, decades, such an action on my part would have been absolutely inconceivable. And yet, there I was, even taking flack from my audio production students, the hyper-cool ones, anyway, for making them listen to country music! And there I was, enjoying the album, even. What the heck happened that I could have gone from listening almost exclusively to hardcore contemporary music to this? (Add to Shania: Clint Black D’Electric, Madonna Music, Bjørk Vespertine, Nine Inch Nails The Fragile…) To answer that, we need to go back a ways.

As a kid, I took piano lessons, and played drums/percussion in high-school. I was in a rock band for a few years, then drifted towards jazz. As a piano player, my listening interests shifted, or expanded, from players like Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman to Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. As a Jazz Studies major at university, my listening expanded rapidly, as I got to know more about the field. As a student, I did not have money to buy albums, aside from occasional browsing trips to the used record store downtown (I still remember unearthing a rare album of Rahsaan Roland Kirk

roland kirk

Rahsaan Roland Kird

playing solo, several instruments at a time, and a 10-cent album of Tommy Dorsey and his Clambake Seven!). But, and this is a crucial point, my most memorable listening experiences came from hearing music live. As an undergrad student, I can still remember, vividly, concerts I attended: Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock performing as an acoustic duo; Keith Jarrett solo; McCoy Tyner; Oscar Peterson. As a budding composer, my listening curiosity led far beyond my own instrument. I have strong memories of attending all kinds of other concerts, including: Anthony Braxton; Art Ensemble of Chicago; Harry Partch Ensemble; Sun Ra Arkestra; Meredith Monk Ensemble. I heard lots of classical music also, at the departmental concerts, but I did not buy tickets to hear classical music much. The only pop-type concert I remember from that period was Frank Zappa (which was interesting but way too loud!). I do have memories from living in the student dormitories of hearing pop music coming from other people’s rooms (Fleetwood Mac?), but as a music student I was drawn into the music I was learning about, which decidedly did not include popular music. (Does Laurie Anderson count? My roommate had a single of “O Superman”, and I really liked the B-side track,”Walk the Dog”.

I’ve heard her in performance three times, over the years, the last time including a chat over tea at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo.) We used to have listening parties, adding a collective energy to times when concerts of interesting music were not available. I recall one (long) session of 20th-century string quartets, culminating with George Crumb’s Black Angels. Another of Krzysztof Penderecki’s opera, The Devils of Loudun. Another of Albert Ayler; Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. These were sessions of discovery, carried out amongst friends, fellow travelers.

After graduating, I moved to London to study composition. What a great place to hear live music! I suppose it may have been a little incongruous to be sitting on the underground beside a punk rocker on my way to the South Bank to hear a new piece by Brian Ferneyhough (Carceri d’Invenzione I) performed by the London Sinfonietta.

But, no regrets. I did not ever make it to a punk club, but I did get to see Miles Davis (even facing the audience!), Cecil Taylor (a huge influence), and other jazz musicians at Ronnie Scott’s and other clubs. (Interesting aside: I ran into jazzers Kenny Wheeler, who I had worked with at the Banff Centre Jazz Workshop in 1982, and Evan Parker, saxophonist extraordinaire, at a concert of Olivier Messiaen’s Des Canyons aux Étoiles, an uncompromisingly idiosyncratic, powerful work.)

My listening focus during my three years in London was on 20th century concert music, and hearing this music was easy, as there were often several such concerts every week, and tickets were cheap. The first year I was there, I witnessed the end of a three-year festival presenting the complete works of Igor Stravinsky. Wow! I attended premieres of new works by many of the world’s leading composers, including Elliott Carter, Witold Lutoslawski, Toru Takemitsu, Iannis Xenakis, and many others. I attended the premiere of Harrison Birtwistle’s seminal opera, The Mask of Orpheus, and saw many other modern operas, by Alban Berg, Benjamin Britten, Philip Glass, Michael Tippett. The BBC Symphony Orchestra held open recording sessions, where a small audience could listen in on sessions intended for radio broadcast. Memorable recordings I attended included Louise Andriessen’s De Staat, Michael Finnissy’s Red Earth, and Tristan Murail’s Gondwana, all amazing pieces in their own ways.

I could go on. Suffice to say, my listening was pretty full up with contemporary, or at least twentieth-century, music. (I will admit to the occasional indulgence in other music: Mozart’s The Magic Flute at Covent Garden; Alfred Brendel playing Beethoven piano sonatas; several concerts of music of other cultures, including a memorable performance of musicians from Zimbabwe where many ex-pats in the audience could not stay seated and ended up dancing onstage.)

Back in North America, from 1988, this pattern of listening carried on, anchored by attending concerts. I think it is important to remind ourselves that music was not as available as it is now. There were recordings, although many works by contemporary composers, even the most famous of them, had not yet been released on disc. There were radio broadcasts, with special attention paid to the CBC flagship new music program, Two New Hours, and Musique actuelle on Radio-Canada. There was no Internet, or not quite, and certainly no YouTube with practically everything available anytime.

My listening habits really started to shift when I began teaching, especially in areas outside of composition and analysis. In 1999, I started directing the audio production program at Minnesota State University Moorhead, and this is where my education in popular music began again, in earnest (I even taught a course on pop history, where I filled my decades-long gaps). My way in, if you will, focused on listening for production techniques. At that level, even the dreaded country music starts to sound interesting. Isn’t it fascinating how Shania and her people created separate mixes of the same songs: country style, pop, world? In retrospect, my attraction to the intricate textures of György Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto leads my ears toward the richly scored, quirky tracks of Brian Wilson (Pet Sounds, Smile), or The Flaming Lips (At War with the Mystics). Did you notice that DJ Shadow uses a sample from Meredith Monk’s Dolmen Music in his Midnight In A Perfect World (the cello riff around the 2:12 mark)?

Isn’t it great that Radiohead built a track on Kid A (“Idioteque”) from a sample of a computer music piece by Princeton composer (Linear Predictive Coding guru) Paul Lansky (“mild und leise”)? Listening barriers really start to seem unproductive, especially when anything and everything is now available.

However, the barrier I see, that seems to be a serious problem, is that (perhaps) because so much music is at hand, increasingly heard from streaming playlists generated by algorithms and/or corporate interests, concentrated, critical listening is difficult to achieve. When recordings were not ubiquitous, the release of a new one was an occasion. One listened with great anticipation and attention. Indeed, the strategy of The Beatles to stop touring and concentrate on creating vanguard music in the studio for album release could only have worked with fans eagerly awaiting the new release. Sgt. Pepper could not possibly have the same impact it did if released on a streaming platform.

Don’t get me wrong. I love that so much music is available. I have 20,000 tracks on my phone. But we still need to listen, not just to consume. How? Well, I guess we need to pay attention. And if we want to make our own music, we need to pay even more attention. Isn’t it cool how Santana’s electric guitar blends with trumpets and accordion on “Migra” (Supernatural)?

Isn’t it amazing how the noisiness of the expanded percussion section is integrated into the orchestral textures in Magnus Lindberg’s “Kraft”?

Doesn’t Jeff Buckley’s rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” take your breath away?

If it’s on in the background, you might miss the magic. So don’t forget to listen. Yes, we do care.

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