24 November 2008

Modern pretty piano

There's a problem in new pretty piano music. I call it the "new age" problem. The thing is, we've been Jim Brickman-d, David Lanz-d, Yanni-d, and now we can't hear Keith Jarrett the same way anymore. We are all familiar with the warm sounds of new age piano music; it's been a weird but persistent classification. On the surface, Jarrett's Köln Concert, the albums of George Winston, and contemporary postminimal piano music by Peter Garland or William Duckworth sound similar, but the genre underpinnings, and associated politics, are vastly different in each case. The worlds of jazz, pop, and classical, respectively, have merged together into this zone where superficial similarities are in danger of overriding the differences in intent between these disparate musicians.

I'm not going to sit here and rip on George Winston or even Yanni. That would be cheap and facile, and no matter what I think about their music, it's similar enough to Garland's, at least in terms of the primary units being warm consonant piano chords, that my argument would rest on thin ice. If you look even slightly deeper, though, there are simple enough ways to differentiate this music. I'll focus on the jazz and classical sides, not since I think they're inherently superior, but because I know them better. Listen to Jarrett's voicings, his energy at the keyboard, his creative texturing. As for postminimal piano music, I point to Kyle Gann's definition: a preference for minimalism's repeating figures, loosened to allow for changing textures and--here's the key--an atmosphere that is, in Gann's words, more "subtle and mysterious" than that of traditional minimalism.

The harmonies, strictly speaking, are not terribly more complex in Garland's A Song or "Blue" Gene Tyranny's Song No. 1, From The Driver's Son, Take Two than in the music of your favorite new age pianist. But there is something in the atmosphere of these pieces that betrays a careful composer's hand. The Wikipedia page for new age music describes it as "intended to create inspiration, relaxation, and positive feelings." I take no issue with that aim, in theory at least; John Cage famously put a similar idea a bit more eloquently when he stated the purpose of music to be "to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences." This is not a simple statement, of course. But while postminimal piano music can have this same generically relaxing effect on the surface, there is also a cultivated undercurrent of mystery in Garland's unremitting chordal patterns and Tyranny's magnetically resonating piano strings that any examination beyond the most cursory listening will quickly discern. It is a subtle but immensely rewarding quality that makes me, for one, continually return to this music.

Isn't it fascinating, also, that Tyranny himself describes his music as "avant-garde," as pretty and unthreatening as it is to the ear? Another reminder that this classification is primarily political, not aesthetic. This is a statement meant to indicate not what his music sounds like, but where it comes from.


James said...

The exact musical definition of "subtle and mysterious" remains subtle and mysterious. Could the author please explain what both he and Kyle Gann mean by this phrase?

Dan Johnson said...

Another case in point: LaMonte Young disciple Michael Harrison. His Revelation is, well, just that, but he has been known to tread the fine, fine border of Kitsch Kountry (e.g.).

Luke Gullickson said...

I won't speak for Kyle, but can provide a link to the essay from which I lifted the phrase in question. He was referring specifically to Duckworth's Time Curve Preludes and their manner of incorporating minimalist-derived patterning without falling into the audible processes that make minimalist forms immediately clear to the ear. (Check out the article for a better summary.)

I seized on the phrase because for me it speaks into something in the general atmosphere of the music. I'd make the analogy to the literary concept of "tone," the author's general attitude toward what is being described. Every choice the author/composer makes can contribute to tone--in literature, diction, syntax, choice of imagery; in music, the usual suspects of melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, and form, as well as purely sonic characteristics. I can't cite chapter and verse because, I'll admit it, I don't currently have the scores for the pieces I'm talking about... nor does the concept of musical atmosphere necessarily make sense in the context of traditional formalist analysis. I haven't made my mind up about that yet.

Matthew Saunders said...

Have you listened to anything by Valentin Silvestrov? Another composer who is very much on the line that you posit. I am writing solo piano music for the first time in a long time and struggling with some of the same problems. Thanks for a new line of thought.