Gordon Downie Interview comments

I’ve decided to remove the discussion and comments from the individual segments of my interview with Gordon Downie, and to anthologize them all here in a single post. Regrettably, a few comments did not measure up to our house standards of civil discourse and have been deleted completely, but I think readers will agree that what remains still represents a spirited breadth of opinion.

 

1.       [deleted by admin]
“This is a tendency that rejects hierarchical modes of operation in favour of heterarchical modes of operation…everything is as important as everything else .”
[deted by admin] It’s not a means of equality. Its a means of intervalic isolation. And what is he talking about when he says “modes of operations”? Is he referring to transformation functions and their groups of operations???
“…negation stands for a relation in which the contents of set A have no common elements with set B …”
I believe he’s talking about complement sets, which is the correct theoretical term and can indeed have a relationship intervallically and sonically with the original, so this is false premise on constrast…
[deleted by admin]
Comment by ComposerBastardMarch 5, 2008 @ 1:24 pm |Edit This
2.       CB
I’d love to see some discussion, debate and exchange of ideas as a result of this thread, but not personalized name-calling. If you would like to make a critque of ideas, that is very much in the spirit of the forum, but I am going to insist on the highest level of good etiquette, and professional respect in any discussions we have.
KW
Comment by Kenneth WoodsMarch 5, 2008 @ 1:55 pm |Edit This
3.       There’s a lot to react to here, but I would start by challenging Downie’s suggestion that “ they [people resistant to his kind of music] should ask themselves why, when we are surrounded by complexity in all other spheres, music should be any different. I’m not interested in art as escape.
First, I do think art can function beautifully as a sort of escape, and there’s nothing wrong with that . Second, I don’t think it’s fair to suggest that music “constructed from other music” is necessarily less complex than music built from “the ground up.” Aside from the complexities that may be inherent in the music itself, what’s wonderful about music within a grand cultural tradition is the complex web of references to other music. These conversations from one work to another are an enormous part of the meaning of music – whether it’s Bach talking to Webern, Mozart to Mahler, Haydn to Stravinsky. Bach wouldn’t exist as Bach without Pachelbel, Buxtehude, Vivaldi, and so on , which is to say nothing of the contributions of various performance traditions – it’s these very connections and the long-term evolution of a common, but infinitely complexly layered language that gives music from this tradition such richness.
It’s fine for Mr. Downie to want to start from the ground up, but I got into this business because I love the music that talks to other music, and I don’t think my interest represents some kind of aesthetic laziness or immoral capitulation to an exploitative socio-political context. I have no problem with being open to what his music has to offer, but I don’t feel an obligation to work it into my life based on such rhetoric. If what he’s saying is that he doesn’t want his music to be influenced by society, that’s fine, although I would say he’s opting for less complexity. Which, by the way, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Maybe I’m mis-reading him, but his tone reads as condescending.
Comment by Michael MonroeMarch 5, 2008 @ 6:34 pm |Edit This
4.       To MM’s point – “There’s a lot to react to here, but I would start by challenging Downie’s suggestion that “ they [people resistant to his kind of music] should ask themselves why, when we are surrounded by complexity in all other spheres, music should be any different. I’m not interested in art as escape.”
And what’s really so misguided in creating music that is its own universal world, without reference to a “narrative” or narrow “linear” deterministic western meaning? Whats wrong with music that might be a simplistic and also an escape? And, why can’t it be both – complex and escapist?
TO MM’s second point – I don’t think it’s fair to suggest that music “constructed from other music” is necessarily less complex than music built from “the ground up.”
If I take this literally, immediately I am reminded of an extreme – Berg’s quote of Bach in his Violin concerto – incredibly original, complex, and beutiful as any written using an “objective’ ground up hammer.
Doesn’t seem to me any point in arguing “value” or “worth” on art, as if it was listed on the stock market as a commodity.
“God doesn’t play dice with the universe — Einstein”
“Please don’t tell god what he can or cannot do, Mr. Einstein! — Heisenberg”
Comment by ComposerBastardMarch 5, 2008 @ 8:12 pm |Edit This
5.       Y’know , Ken, if I didn’t know you better via your blog entries here, I’d swear this entire interview was an ironic (and very nasty) joke. Alas, I know it’s not, and this guy is in dead earnest. For my response to this interview, see this new post on S&F:
http://www.soundsandfury.com/soundsandfury/2008/03/puzzle-solved.html
Regards,
ACD
Comment by A.C. DouglasMarch 5, 2008 @ 9:49 pm |Edit This
6.       […] 6 March 2008 at 5:32 pm · Filed under Music ·Tagged complexity, Composer, Downie, Interview Kenneth Wood interviews composer Gordon Downie: part 1, part 2. More to follow; go to Downie’s site to sample some of his music. […]
Pingback by Gordon Downie interview « The Rambler — March 6, 2008 @ 4:32 pm |Edit This
7.       Thanks for pasting up the interview, I will get around to it properly in due course, I’m already acquainted with GD’s work and ideas, so I kind of know what to expect !
At the musicandsociety Forum, we’ve begun to discuss this interview:
http://musicandsociety.myforum365.com/index.php?topic=397.msg11187;topicseen#msg11187
Last year, we had some heated and serious debate about GD and his work, I can imagine this interview (as well as the interview Ian Pace made with GD on his website), also inspiring a few comments. more mature and considered than on ACD’s above link: how cheep to always have to bash names like Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner (a self-possesed anti-semite for whom I’ve got absolutely NO time whatsoever) over composers of new musics heads to win arguments with…
Comment by GreenBrain — March 6, 2008 @ 5:33 pm |Edit This
8.       I, too, am skeptical of “music from the ground up”. In fact, I’d say what makes any classical art “classical” is its self-awareness — that is to say, its commentary about (or against) the historical thread in which it participates.
We can construct intricate analyses for the “pure logic” of this or that musical discourse. But what resonates in us most is how the several histories of a particular music entertwine. There is its “external” history — the cultural circumstances and references from which it swam — and there is its “personal” history — points in our own lives when we discovered or re-discovered it and incorporated that into our selves.
Comment by Bill Brice — March 7, 2008 @ 2:56 am |Edit This
9.       Einstein also said that “the secret of creativity was knowing how to hide your sources.” Perhaps that’s why complexity became fashionable.
Schoenberg asserted: “Whether one calls oneself conservative or revolutionary, whether one composes in a conventional or progressive manner, whether one tries to imitate old styles or is destined to express new ideas – one must be convinced of the infallibility of one’s own fantasy and one must believe in one’s own inspiration.”
If we are to take his assertion at face value then many styles or syntaxes may find their justification.
Leonard B. Meyer made a prescient prediction (back in 1967) that at the turn of the century there would be a great diversity in art music and different styles would exist side by side and even within a single work with no “triumphant” style dominating the musical landscape. That certainly is the case at this time. Still, evidence overwhelmingly suggests that complex, arcane and atonal compositional syntaxes that possess high degrees of indeterminacy, find fewer advocates than simpler, tonal or quasi-tonal ones.
And that, it seems, is directly related to the “fantasies” of those on the other end of the musical spectrum—-the audiences.
DmichaelE
Comment by David Eaton — March 18, 2008 @ 5:44 pm |Edit This
10.   […] For those of you who followed the delicious controversy surrounding my interview with composer Gordon Downie with interest, his orchestral work “forms 6: event aggregates” will be the featured work on this week’s Pre-Hear on BBC Radio 3. […]
Pingback by Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » Downie- forms 6:event aggregates Radio 3 broadcastApril 4, 2008 @ 4:48 pm |Edit This
1.       Was this question prompted, even subconsciously, by Downing’s previous works in the “Forms” series? I’ve been feeling the same thing about a lot of modernist works lately, and listening to “Forms 3″ just now on Downing’s website prompted the same reaction. At times I thought I was listening to an early version of Babbitt’s “Correspondences”, which was written forty years ago.
You raise an interesting point with the Boulez quote. I would submit that if we revise it to read “…the necessity of having gone through the dodecophonic phase….” and changed the general term of “musician” to a more specific term like “composer” or “music critic” (as needed), it might be more applicable today. But then Downing would consider that heresy, I guess.
Sometimes it does seem that there is a sort of “inevitability” in a lot strictly dodecaphonic music. At times, music like this comes close to representing a “style” as well as a “programme”. I don’t know that such a “programme” is as liberating and revolutionary these days as Downing implies. If anything he reveals a more Catholic outlook, criticizing heresies and apostates. His stated political beliefs regarding (his kind of) high modernism seem to imply that a particular, almost Marxist, political power struggle is equally important to any musical reasoning behind the theories and techniques involved. So maybe you’re asking if this kind of “programme” can seem old fashioned if the underlying political theories are becoming outmoded? Downing clearly wouldn’t want to go there.
The relationships in today’s classical music world are drastically different from those a century ago. While there are still thriving institutions which began long before modernism (the professional, big-money orchestras, major opera companies, music publishers, etc.), the relationships between the performer, the composer, and the audience are more in flux now than ever before. If the kind of high modernist programme Downing has in mind is to take away any control over the musical experience from the audience, the patrons, and the institutions, and put it squarely in the hands of composers faithful to the cause, then it does seem like a road to stagnation.
I agree that it’s necessary to discuss why composers work along these lines, what it means to musicians now, and if anything needs to be done about it.
Comment by David Preiser — March 9, 2008 @ 9:51 pm |Edit This
2.       Sorry, it should be “Downie” above, every time I mention his name. Stupid daylight savings time jetlag.
Comment by David Preiser — March 9, 2008 @ 9:55 pm |Edit This
3.       From the Boulez/IRCAM program book in 1986 (New York):
“Despite the skillful ruses we have cultivated in our desperate effort to make the world of the past serve our present-day needs, we can no longer elude the essential trial: that of becoming an absolute part of the present, of forsaking all memory to forge a perception without precedent, of renouncing the legacies of the past to discover undreamed of territories.”
It is this kind of Boulezian (Downian) rationale that has turned the road to stagnation (Mr. Preiser’s characterization) into a veritable superhighway of apathy and marginalization, and why much “serious art music” fails to move people—or other musicians (I am both)—and gain greater acceptance. That this kind of determinism continues in this day age is rather starling.
Composer George Rochberg, a composer who turned away from atonal techniques, wrote: “There can be no justification for music ultimately if it does not convey eloquently and elegantly the passions of the human heart. Who would care to remember the quartets of Beethoven or Bartok if they were merely demonstrations of empty formalisms? Like mushrooms in the night, there has sprung up a profusion of false, half-baked theories of perception, of intellection, of composition itself. The mind grows sterile and the heart small and pathetic.”
I suppose that the argument can be made that we need our extremists to continually modify our center, but really, is there anything truly new or shocking out there after Stockhausen’s helicopters, Boulez’s whirling synths and the plethora of formulaic music that fails to find a significant audience.
The anti-conventional conventionality that appears in so much of what purports to be new/original/inventive/experimental music (how many times have we heard “new music” in which strings play atonal, glissandi tremelos? Sul ponticello, of course!) has run its course and composers who at least seem to care if you listen are gaining greater currency. This does not necessarily make their music objectively or intellectually less stimulating and I dare say that many may not have gone through the rigors of experiencing the crabbed mannerisms of dodecaphonic writing (so essential to the Boulez/Darmstadt axis.)
The music of Arvo Part, another former serilalist, has great appeal because he forged an engaging way to make the music of the past seem relevant to our present reality. Our human nature will always seek out music that inspires rather than merely interests us. That’s who we are and composers who don’t take that into account will continue to be relegated to the status of irrelevance.
Of course the great ironies here are 1.) Boulez has been recording a Mahler symphony cycle for DGG (a ruse?) and 2.) many of of the techniques and rationales that are employed and espoused by Mr. Downie and his ilk have been around for decades.
Mahler’s music continues to speak to our collective humanity despite it’s “anachronistic” syntax. Part’s music has gained great acceptance because at some point the composer did not yield to the decidedly determinist mindset that permeated post WW II modernism–a mindset that forsakes all memory of the past. No wonder that dodecaphonic writing, a form of compositional determinism, became the favored style of the determinists.
DmichaelE
Comment by David Eaton — March 13, 2008 @ 8:38 pm |Edit This
4.       Now, if I understand this correctly, I believe Mr. Downie gets it wrong when opines: ” And as aesthetic modernism is merely the cultural expression of a wider socio-political process, having its origins in projects of enlightenment and associated historical programmes of cultural maturation and advancement [emphasis added], its appropriation for individual acts of opportunism has implications that go beyond mere art making and cultural production. Such action becomes an aesthetic-behavioural correlation of that hyper-individualism that characterises market society as a whole.”
Adorno would disagree saying (as he did in his Essays on Mass Culture) the that it was the decidedly anti-enlightenment attitudes of modern society, a society whose consciousness was fettered in an highly undemocratic fashion in an attempt to stimulate group think and cultivate mass appeal, rather than cultivate a mature (adult) individually, that drives market society. The phenomenon of our market driven, lowest-common denominator, pop culture attests to the veracity of Adorno’s assertion, in my opinion.
If Mr. Downie is trying link “cultural maturation” to market forces, I think he may have been in the Ivory Tower too long. (Unless I’m missing his point altogether here.)
DmichaelE
Comment by David Eaton — March 13, 2008 @ 8:48 pm |Edit This
5.       Hi David
Welcome to Vfrtp and thank you for taking the time to offer such thoughtful comments.
Without wishing to speak for Mr Downie, I think that his point in this instance is that when we treat modernist techniques as simply a style that can be quoted, exploited and recycled outside of the projects of enlightenment, it represents a form of appropriation by the market. When the techniques of Boulez become fodder for a film composer their ability to do what they were intended to can be undermined. I believe Downie sees cultural maturation and market forces in opposition, and as a result sees market appropriation of an artistic project as a way of undermining the aims of the project (i.e.- enlightenment).
Thanks again
Ken
Comment by Kenneth WoodsMarch 14, 2008 @ 12:06 am |Edit This
6.       Ken,
Thanks for the clarification and if this was in fact Mr. Downie’s contention, I would agree. But this in not news. The appropriation of any artristic technique (old or new) for commercial use has been around forever.
I’m currently reading Lawrence Levine’s fine book “Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America” and in the 1800s Shakespear’s plays were appropriated for all sorts of commercial concerns–minstral shows, advertising, etc.
But the more important issue to me is the continual hyper-intellectualization of art music which renders it more and more irrelevant to the great public. The Babbitt-ization of contemporary art music is not helpful in cultivating new audiences.
DmichaelE
Comment by David Eaton — March 14, 2008 @ 3:20 pm |Edit This
1.       I’ve never thought about the comparison, and comfortability of “modern” art compared to “modern” music. I agree completely with your second last paragraph:
“the audience has the advantage of being able to see the whole and the parts simultaneously, after all, a box is a box and a painting is a rectangle or a square, while in music, the listener is initially only hearing the parts and has to assemble the whole in their head.”
My first thought was that it is very much an issue of “time”. You can determine an opinion on a work of visual art instantly, where as with music you are forced (for lack of a better word) to listen to the entire work (which is a time frame that in not determined by the listener) before you can make an opinion on the “whole” of the work. Perhaps the surroundings are also play a part. Art is displayed, normally, in a gallery, where the walls are plain coloured – usually white – the architecture of the building is safe – there are doors, windows, floors, walls, things which keep the viewer grounded in reality. The visual sense is calmed in a way by the background. Even if the work is not displayed in a gallery, I think the same principles of background apply.
Music fully absorbs the sense required to observe. The ear is not allowed to attach to anything other than the sounds they are hearing, there is nothing safe to rely on to distract the sense away from something which to the listener might be offended.
There is also the ability to “suspend” time in visual art, like you say, and worry about the detail after an overall impression. Hard to do with music unless you have the ability to recall the music note by note after a performance. This is also one of the joys of music – the ability to completely take over the sense required for listening. You can’t “look away” as it were.
Comment by JohnMarch 7, 2008 @ 4:06 pm |Edit This
2.       “..Just because a work manifests a perceptible degree of simplicity, or perhaps aesthetic clarity is a better way of describing it, it is not necessarily constructed using simple means, more often the oppposite… ”
Whoah! Ken. You hit the button! Awesome!
“…In music the listener is forced to do the reverse- when we hear a piece for the first time, we start with the details and have to gradually pull the temporal camera back until we can perceive the whole. I suppose part of my question is, are there tools that can help the listener who wants to perceive and understand the whole of a modernist piece of music who is struggling to get past absorbing the parts?…”
My answer to this is absolutely yes. The simplicity and restricted use of the micro material can suggest the overall large scale universe or prolonged structure of the work. You can see the whole immediately from the beginning, and “experience” it as you move through time because it’s build on the same micro material – maybe only 4 note interval patterns. It becomes more an artistic musical “environment” than an artistic “narrative” (linear or non-linear) communication. More akin to fractal nature and more akin to visual art’s representation. (At least that is where I ended up going in my own work. I didn’t necessarily want to go there but that’s where I discovered something for and about myself.)
The problem is to expose these materials in a clear way, so they are communicated in an effective and acceptable manner so you do get that. That goes somewhat against the hyper-saturation of the total complexity modern school. Its still “modern” and uses the same strict post structuralist serial techniques, but it respects and builds on what cognitive science tells us about listeners abilities and exploits this in the most economical way. Just as you respect the laws of physics in applying sound while composing, you respect what medical and neurological research is telling us about the human brain and how we use it to listen. And how we can listen to sound in new ways.
And just to be clear, yes it can be just as dangerous a trap as total complexity in that it can also lead to music that is “too simplistic” and drab. The composer has to take responsibility to “false verify” his work and meta-think he way through these problems so it doesn’t come off as bad minimalist or post-minimalist music. Of course surface elements help a great deal to clarify and add interest just like pigments do in painting.
Hows that for some Friday “art-speak”?
Comment by ComposerBastardMarch 7, 2008 @ 4:22 pm |Edit This
3.       Phew! That was some interview Ken! Many thanks for your efforts………. Having read, re-read and understood very little of Mr Downie’s ramblings, I am even more convinced than I have been hitherto, that he and his fellow modernist alchemists, really don’t want to be understood! In fact it would be totally against their ‘raison d’etre’ if they were!! Elitist is what it is and elitist is what he and his cronies are happy for it to remain! I can even sense a certain amount of self-satisfaction and a smugness in Mr Downie’s tone of conversation, that indicates to me that he would be completely offended if us prols were to show any sort of understanding of this out-dated claptrap!!
Comment by IrateMusician — March 8, 2008 @ 1:40 am |Edit This
4.       ComposerBastard’s Paradox of Cognitive Musical Infusion and Understanding
Cognitive Dissonance increases proportionally to the amount of stratification and saturation of like material in a work. The more complex and dense use of motivic material and objects and other techniques to create an overall uniformity of art work, the more the mind will treat this as noise and will try and filter it. At some point the mind will shut down and be unable to understand it at all.
But, seriously, Ken. Thanks for putting this together. Yes, it was painful and torturous and caused a certain reactionary response (from me anyway), however, I appreciate your efforts and was overwhelmed by your ability to keep cool and be able to get this down. So maybe Downie came off as someone who would not last 10 minutes in an Oregon cowboy bar, but you came off looking really great here. Thanks again for this effort…
Comment by ComposerBastardMarch 8, 2008 @ 2:52 pm |Edit This
5.       Irate wrote:
“Phew! That was some interview Ken! Many thanks for your efforts………. Having read, re-read and understood very little of Mr Downie’s ramblings, I am even more convinced than I have been hitherto, that he and his fellow modernist alchemists, really don’t want to be understood! In fact it would be totally against their ‘raison d’etre’ if they were!! Elitist is what it is and elitist is what he and his cronies are happy for it to remain! I can even sense a certain amount of self-satisfaction and a smugness in Mr Downie’s tone of conversation, that indicates to me that he would be completely offended if us prols were to show any sort of understanding of this out-dated claptrap!!”
Now, that’s hitting the nail on the head. Mr. Downie’s concerns are why most art music doesn’t speak to people. And no, you don’t have to listen to an entire piece to make a judgement about it because if the chosen syntax of the composer is so arcane so as to create high levels of indeterminacy from the get go, communication and cognition become difficult (if not impossible) and people will tune out.
I’m reminded of William Schuman’s great analogy that the modern composer can be like a great orator who has an important message to convey but utilizes a language that is so complex or specialized that no one can understand him/her, thus rendering the message virtually meaningless.
David Eaton
Comment by David Eaton — March 14, 2008 @ 2:51 pm |Edit This
6.       CB writes:
“Cognitive Dissonance increases proportionally to the amount of stratification and saturation of like material in a work. The more complex and dense use of motivic material and objects and other techniques to create an overall uniformity of art work, the more the mind will treat this as noise and will try and filter it. At some point the mind will shut down and be unable to understand it at all.”
That someone as intellectually astute as Mr. Downie has not ascertained this fact is in itself rather astounding.
BTW, in my previous remark I should have qualified the first sentence by saying “why most contemporary art music” doesn’t speak to people.
Thanks.
David Eaton
Comment by David Eaton — March 14, 2008 @ 2:58 pm |Edit This

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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2 comments on “Gordon Downie Interview comments”

  1. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » Gordon Downie Interview- part three: is modernism still modern?

  2. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » Gordon Downie Inverview- part four: “modernism- love the paintings, hate the music?”

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