Notes from the Great Vacuum

Grant Chu Covell

[October 2004.]

I attended a concert a few weeks ago. These days, recordings provide my musical nourishment, with live music as a special occasion. In CDs I look for near-perfection, something satisfyingly well-done that will sustain my interest on repeated hearings. In the flesh, I’m open to happenstance and irregularities. I can even tolerate a poor performance, if only because some semblance of the ideal might suggest itself. At this event, a piece concluded to the sound of off-stage conversation that would have ruined a recording. I no longer mind sitting near coughers, program-droppers, ringing cell phones, snorers and squirmers. I would like my live experiences to sound crystal-pure, but I know that’s impossible. And it’s not just because I’m aware of Cage’s worldview.

I used not to be this relaxed. Years ago, a man who must have been in the deep throes of nicotine withdrawal ruined a string-quartet evening. He twitched, fidgeted, shuddered, wiggled, sighed, jangled change and keys, shuffled, sniffled and practiced every possible motion while seated. I lost it. Somewhere in a slow movement I turned around and barked. He actually became quiet. But with the blood buzzing in my ears, I heard no more. If Nick O’Tean were seated near me today, I’d like to think I’d get up and move. Let someone else have a Mendelssohn aneurysm.

This concert passed peacefully. The piece I had expected to like least engaged my attention, and the ones I had most anticipated disappointed. I have strategies for keeping alert. A favorite is imagining the stage being dismantled as the music is being performed. This usually works best for recitals when there’s a front-and-center piano upon which to envision a gradual destruction. I nudge the vocalist away from the piano’s curve and start sawing the farthermost leg, then work the frame with a crowbar, then take pliers to the strings. If it’s an organ case, I imagine swinging like Tarzan from pipe to pipe. Is it possible I’m the only one with these thoughts?

One piece nicely encapsulates what’s wrong with contemporary music. A wunderkind churned it out to commissioned acclaim. The work sounds hastily created. Perhaps it looks good on paper. The composer has no sense of time or space, no ear for how music unfolds. It is at best a promising draft. There are several interesting moments, but these are at the ends of movements where the composer thought he had arrived at his Mount Olympus but has actually come off a golf course’s rough. This is the sort of composer who needs to limit himself to one good piece per year instead of seven or eight half-assed efforts.

It infuriated me that the composer makes such a big deal about the work’s structure. He operates a gimmick consisting of small movements interspersed between larger, meatier ones. The pauses ruin the flow: further evidence of an absence of sense for how music sounds in real time. If the program advertises your cleverness, you had better follow through.

As a lapsed composer living in the Great Vacuum, I think that limiting oneself to a good piece every few years is a great idea. Of course, here in the GV, no one knows I exist, so there’s no pressure to create, no critics to play to, no peers before whom to preen. Statistically, this means that the next thing I complete will be a masterpiece. But it will be, as they say, for the drawer. No one will ever know.

The few times I’ve stepped outside the Great Vacuum, I’ve had to put something together requiring about an hour of rehearsal. Of course, one writes differently for such occasions. The Great Vacuum encourages contemplating pieces of Ferneyhovian complexity or Xenakisian density, but if someone offers you 20 minutes under the lights, you set all that aside and scrawl something on 3 x 5 index cards for open strings and glass bowls. Then again, sometimes it’s best to do nothing.

Sibelius is the one I most wonder about. His “Järvenpää Silence” lasted for more than 30 years. Apart from alcohol fumes, what went through his head before and after he destroyed his Eighth? I won a reasonably good award once and was hot to win it again, not because I felt I deserved it, but because I couldn’t bear to be like so many others who won it just once. So here I am in the Great Vacuum, ego oiled and ready to go.

The concert piece I most enjoyed was written in an unapologetically tonal fashion. The composer was secure in his vocabulary, unlike the wunderkind who dines with Henze at breakfast, Stravinsky at lunch, and Glass by dinnertime. His maturity was refreshing. He evinced no need to impress his peers. He dips into Romanticism because it suits his musical argument, not because he’s being coy or playing to the gallery.

Composers are insecure beasts. First off, there’s the Beethoven albatross. Then there are the market forces. No one wants new music. Those few who do, want it to be easy. The days of serialism vs. neo-classicism vs. new romanticism vs. Uptown vs. Downtown are history. Nobody rocks the boat. Nobody dares offer negative or constructive criticism. The culture is rife with second-guessing. Composers even look the same: dark turtlenecks, worn corduroys and trimmed beards. Maybe some leather.

They write harmless music that’s easy to play in order to get performers to take it on and audiences to pay to hear it. The folks in the seats need not be challenged. Why go to the trouble of hiring a baby-sitter, paying for a slot in a parking garage and springing for a ticket in order to be bewildered? Last century’s classics are acceptable because they’re old and good by default. Decade birthdays are box-office draws. If the guy lasted this long, he’s worth celebrating. He was big in the ’60s when they did that sort of thing.

Being a composer in the here and now has little to do with creating music. One works with computers and music notation software, records and mixes CDs, updates mailing lists and designs concert flyers. One also has to be able to smile and shake hands, raise money, and do a nice-guy impersonation. I have no idea how the film-music scene works. I suppose the essentials are about the same, with one’s level of competency and ability to meet deadlines playing the more significant roles. I’m no good at politics. I don’t even like calling my own family! All this to push a product for which there’s practically no demand.

Note how none of this has to do with the quality of a work or that of its performance. I assume the culture to be better off across the Atlantic, in places where state funding helps, where musicians take new music in stride, where maybe they have a more mature sense of value. In any event, foreign recordings leave that impression.

Yeah, I know, it’s foolish to make such judgments based solely on CDs, but hey, we who reside in the Great Vacuum don’t get out much. And nothing of mine is coming to your neighborhood record shop anytime soon. But if you have 20 minutes to fill, I’ll maybe get some index cards ready. Time to put on another CD.

“I suppose nothing is going to make me angry or sad enough to write a new play. Sitting in the weak sunshine it seems as unimportant to me as it would seem to anyone else. Perhaps it really is the climate. In a little over a year I shall be forty. All the people who urged me to write for the theatre ten years ago have husbands and children now, and are not concerned with anger or sadness. I am becoming petulant, but it has no irritant value, except to others.”

— John Whiting (1917-1963)