Hell, in all aspects this should have been my thing:
2. I’m an avant-garde nerd who has equal wet dreams to Kronos Quartet as to Sonic Youth and they hired a classical string quartet and chamber ensemble of improvisers.
So that leaves us with the question: How did the whole night still end up being a clusterfuck of godawful-ry?
Culture creates music and music creates culture and culture creates music and music creates culture. . . It’s the chicken and the egg / nurture versus nature / art imitates life therefore life imitates art conundrum, they are impossibly interwoven and you sound a bit foolish bothering to distinguish between them. Music subcultures are as important as the music those subcultures surround, for those people are the human embodiment of the music; they are the living, breathing incarnate aesthetic of their chosen music’s emotional quality. When someone’s walking down the street rocking their Slayer shirt you know what they’re about: metal ass shit.
So, upon arrival I quickly realized I was in for a show that so badly wanted to be cool. Wanted to be cool above anything else, including creating or listening to emotionally engaging music. Walking through the door I had to initiate the transaction with the ticket collector who wouldn’t talk, make eye contact, or confirm or deny that the transaction was over, because being the gatekeeper to this sanctuary of cool he needed complete apathy. . . obviously.
It seemed a majority of the audience members were there to maintain an image. Problematically their image is bought on trust fund money and adorned like an article of clothing from Filson, J. Crew, or Anthropologie with the tags cutout to look thrifted. Never have I seen so many different styles of elegantly disheveled heads of hair tousling around conversing about which music festival or estate they just came from. It’s a sadly common misconception – the poor souls – that cool is an image, something to be purchased when its trendy. Cool has forever been and will forever be about genuineness, a trait very few there wore well.
Performers assemble on stage. Lights go down. Audience shuffles and coughs. And I’m just sitting there rage-coring in a church pew and the music starts.
I’m prepared to hate everything by this point, but I don’t.
I truly enjoyed the first ten minutes, which featured the core duo of synthesizer player Matt Carlson and bass clarinetist Jonathan Sielaff, augmented by a 12-piece chamber ensemble. My problems with the show arose when I couldn’t distinguish those ten minutes from the next 35 of pandiatonic improvising. Pandiatonicism is a musical technique most easily defined by what it’s not: it lacks chromatics or notes outside of the key and it lacks traditional harmonic movement. This leaves a vast array of what qualifies as pandiatonic, but the general sonority of pandiatonicism is dreamy and consonant yet lacks resolution. It’s a very effective sonority for a short piece of music or for a section out of a larger work, but generally lacks the harmonic momentum to sustain a large scale work. See Debussy’s “The Engulfed Cathedral (La cathedral engloutie)” – I just re-listened to this piece and I found my attention waning by its mere six minute duration, although I am a through ‘n through expressionist so my attention is tried by most impressionistic works.
Golden Retriever could have completely sidestepped the issue of maintaining pandiatonicism’s harmonic interest with the contrasting timbral potential available with two bass clarinets, flute, pitched percussion, unpitched percussion, horn, piano, two violins, viola, cello, organ, and synthesizer. There are 479,001,600 (quite literally) different combinations of how those 12 distinct timbres – not accounting for the myriad of different timbres each instrument can produce – could enter to create a sonic canvas of the whole ensemble.
However, if exploring endless orchestration possibilities didn’t interest Golden Retriever, there was the elephant-in-the-room timbral contrast that wasn’t being exploited: the synthesizer-in-the-orchestra. If you’re having the whole ensemble do pandiatonic droning, why in the hell would the synthesizer not be the contrasting timbre? But nope.
Art and pop music both have something to learn from each other. I’ll be the first to admit that and criticize the over-intellectualization of academic music. However, if you’re wanting to expand into larger musical structures as an improvisatory avant-garde pop band, recognize that different musical time structures play by different rules. Form has to be present.
A friend/teacher told me something the great contemporary American composer George Crumb supposedly said:
The only thing we have left is form.
At first glance perhaps a little anecdotal, but Crumb makes a huge aesthetic assessment. The only thing we have left is form: we have done away with the necessity of conforming harmonies to the mathematical chains of the overtone series, we have conquered the confines of perfectly constructed music halls with amplification, rhythm is both not necessary and climbing to new heights of complexity upon the shoulders of electronics, but without an intelligible form, music is a random assortment of noises. Humans crave patterns (or form) as proof that perhaps some of the innumerable events going on simultaneously make sense. However, to have patterns you must also have change. Without change there is no development, without development there is no form, and without form the noises fail to connect emotionally to our species that’s desperately looking for form and patterns amidst chaos.
Perhaps for some there was enough change and contrast within Golden Retriever’s 45-minute jam session to constitute a form, but not for me. It is possible this is just a discrepancy of aesthetic preference, but when listening to the pioneers of long modal improvisation such as John Coltrane, you can hear their consideration of contrasting timbre, harmony, melody, rhythm, the power of silence before the storm, and they sounded genuine while doing it. To be honest though, even those trailblazers dragged it on sometimes.
For the performers: the concert received a standing ovation and I hope you interpreted that as all for you! Maintaining the consistency of sound you achieved is by no means easy. A solidified key with a tonic that never shifted in an ensemble including a plethora of woodwinds and strings, meandering through 45 minutes with no tonal implications and no misplaced notes is an impressive (though boring) feat of performance. However, some of you looked noticeably bored on stage. Assert yourselves! It was a collaborative/improvisatory concert: if the aesthetic wasn’t working, then as a professional musician you have an informed opinion that is worth sharing with your colleagues to try to create an aesthetic product you believe in.
All that to say there was nothing “wrong” with the performance, and to the audience members who attended and genuinely enjoyed the show: congratulations, you recognize there is so much more to music than what is pre-digested for you on the radio and you are seeking it out! You’re what keeps the arts alive. You’re the funder of hopes and dreams. You’re a superhero to all of us kids young and old who think we can survive by the alchemy of sound into emotion. And to the supercool audience members who bought an LP at the end to impress your Tinder date: fuck you.
Tristan Bliss is a music composer currently living in Salem, Oregon. Engaging in all sorts of shenanigans ranging from motorcycle dirtbaggery to navigating his way through the bullshit bureaucracy of earning a Bachelor’s of Music with a focus on modern composition; trust me, it’s not as fancy as it sounds. Also, apparently he is now reviewing concerts he goes to.