I have a rehearsal and two classes to teach today. The rehearsal is with an ad-hoc improvisation ensemble of performers and composers involved with tomorrow's concert at the University of Louisville: Krzysztof Wolek and John Ritz (who are processing sounds with Max/MSP and PD, respectively), flautist Margaret Lancaster, singer Sally Freeland and pianist Anthony Weinstein. I am playing saxophone. Experience levels with improvisation vary within the group, but all are excellent performers. This is our first of two short rehearsals before tomorrow's concert. How to establish a working relationship with so many performers? The expectation seems to be that I will strategize for the group, so I propose more playing than strategizing. In the collective improvisation group I used to run in Holland (Did you know? I used to live in Holland?) I pushed for a lot of talking about what we were working on. My attitude has changed a bit since then. With instruments at the ready and rehearsal space available, let's play. We can talk about it later, at the pub.
My first class is -- wait for it -- "Advanced Topics in Computer Music". Krzysztof introduces me to his class as a composer, improviser, visual artist and "political artist". So. What I Talk About When I Talk About Computer Music: my mentors-turned-collaborators Marek Choloniewski, Joel Ryan and Michel Waisvisz. I have been incredibly fortunate to work with these inspiring, groundbreaking, critically thinking composer-inventor-improvisers. Since we are talking about electronic music, we have to talk about energy, so I also reference Peter Brotzmann and Albert Ayler. Since the electronic music I make is centered on both live improvisation and studio music, I reference both Evan Parker and Autechre. I reference the institutions where I have developed my own practice in electronic music making, SME and the Audio Art Festival in Krakow, STEIM in Amsterdam, and the Institute of Sonology and the ArtScience Interfaculty in The Hague. (After the class, one of the students dubs my presentation "name-dropping 101". Do the students, who have never heard many of these names, jot them down? They do not.
I discuss a few of my works made with a computer: Stachowski Variation, Dodging Bullets, and my video Things You Cannot See. Then I ask the class a question which should not be an advanced topic: where does electrical power come from? Someone offers: "the wall". This is not a correct answer, but a forgiveable one, at least in a culture that has gotten used to its sense of entitlement and its loss of contact with nature. It is a teachable moment! I take out my analogue electronics set up and play a quiet, abbreviated version of The Love Story. The energy to power an instrument has to be generated somewhere, and we have choices about our allegiances: refineries, coal mines, nuclear power plants, dams, turbines, the sun, the lungs. (As with food, so with music, less processing and less waste is probably better for you.)
I get a quick break and go for a coffee with some students. One asks about decadence, or the apparent lack of value of new music on a planet going to pot. This is an important point to me, and an important thing to address with young people after they hear me decry industrial civilization. I like the formulation of Antonio Gramsci "I am a pessimist because of the mind and an optimist because of the will." We can know the situation is dire without descending into permanent depression. We can do something about it, and if our gifts are in the realm of communication, we can communicate. Another important formulation, from George Orwell: "The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude." If we are truly committed to music making, we must be so in good times and bad.
The composition seminar is a larger group, maybe 25 people in the room. While I introduce myself and talk about my background, I let my ensemble piece Elegy for the schoolboys at Ghazi Khan, written for Ensemble Modelo 62, play in the background. When I turn my attention to the recording, I talk briefly about the simple way the piece was constructed, and the horrific reason it was made. I say that writing it is an opportunity to talk about those schoolboys. I ask if anyone in the room knows about the schoolboys at Ghazi Khan. They do not. Neither do most folks reading this, I'll wager. But these boys need to be remembered, and their massacre needs to be remembered, and the countless similar actions need to be remembered, and the killers need to be held accountable, always.
Some may think US crimes against humanity, or war crimes (I don't know which) are irrelevant to a class on contemporary art music composition. One of the reasons I am not a professor of music is that I am more interested in young peoples' politics than their aesthetics. I'd rather know that they prefer anarchism to authoritarianism than that they prefer minimalism to maximalism. Or something like that. In this second class I am able to elaborate on some of the things I brought up earlier in the day, without feeling tied to relating specifically to electronic music. I mention the Scratch Orchestra, Cornelius Cardew and his book Stockhausen Serves Imperialism, and Michael Nyman's Experimental Music. Because Louis Andriessen has just won the university's Grawemeyer Award, I relate the anecdote -- I don't recall the details -- of Louis, now an establishment composer, storming the stage in the late 60s during the performance of a Stockhausen work and delivering a leftist political manifesto. Huh.
Krzysztof guides things a bit with challenging questions about the motivations and economics of being an independent musician. I encourage the students to milk the school for all it's worth: rehearsal space, borrowing equipment, having a community of performing colleagues at the ready. These were difficult things to find after leaving academia. I talk about the Conquistadors set and play the track What We Have from the EP. I talk about the "spectacularity" of the set: percussion on stage always accounts for high expectation and drama, vintage gear seems to excite folks before it even gets turned on, and folks are "wowed" by circular breathing, even though there are more challenging techniques on the saxophone (like playing even vaguely in tune). I bring this up because I think it is neither shameful nor overly "savvy" to use multiple means to connect with an audience. Context is important: the use of extended technique is neat-o, but not in a vacuum. Let's talk.
The students ask some questions: "Do you focus on one region or problem of the world?" "Are you ever afraid that you'll offend someone?" I mention my poor mother, who still encourages me to "be less political". I am not sure that if I refrained from saying that Obama is every bit the asshole George Bush is that the bigger commissions would come in. And to be honest if the ratio of gritty basement shows to concert hall performances is tied to the extent to which I openly express how little I think of the authoritarian culture and specific authoritarians, I am super comfortable with the trajectory of my career.
At Krzysztof's encouragement I end the class with a brief demonstration on saxophone. This seems to be what reaches the class the best. Less talk, more rock.