Monday, February 7, 2011

My Buttstix article

Years ago I got the fabulous, if strange, inspiration to call those old compositional bugbears I’d accumulated through the years buttstix — since it was common parlance among many of my friends to utter “he’s sure got a stick up his butt about [fill in the blank]” after performances for composers whose music never changed. The strange part of the inspiration was actually identifying all my own buttstix, and making them … literal. As usual, I told no one of this unusual page. A blogger discovered it, and it went somewhat viral, in a limited sense, for the attention span of the internet: about a day. Frank Oteri called me and asked me to write a humorous follow-up article to the page, which I did. Frank and I both seem to have forgotten about it. Which was fine with me, since I wasn't really attached to it, or to becoming The Buttstix Guy. Which is what I became, anyway. Nose guy, too. As well as Étude Dude.

So what appears below was written in an afternoon, probably September 6, 2004 — according to the time stamp on my computer.


 “… and he’s not afraid to use pulse in his music.” I was being introduced before a colloquium at a well-known composition program, and this was listed as one of my positive attributes (indeed, in context it seemed to be an amazing attribute).

Many years ago, I was at a reception in downtown Manhattan, and in talking up a European, told him I was teaching in the city but lived in a house in the country, where I was able to concentrate and get work done. His response: “You can not make great art in the country. ART IS URBAN!”

At a conference with a lot of guest composers of every aesthetic and geographic stripe, one composer decided to use his time with the microphone to give some sage advice: “The problem with you atonal composers is that your music doesn’t have any tunes. You’ll never get any recognition until you write music with tunes.”

I was on a panel where one of the jurors stated at the outset, “anything with a key signature we reject right away.” This juror also voted to reject one of the scores because “there aren’t even any tuplets anywhere.”

A student of mine at Columbia had just had a piece performed on a composers concert that ended with a long, fun perpetual motion section. After the concert, an older student told him, “in my day, we frowned on motor rhythms.”

You see where I’m going with these anecdotes. Every one of these composers was enslaved to some sort of orthodoxy that limited – okay, severely limited – his or her view of what was possible, or at least proper, for a piece of serious music in this day and age. You call them orthodoxies; I call them buttstix.

All composers have buttstix. I have lots of them. I picked up plenty of them when I was a student, and some of them were shoved in so firmly and deeply – most of them by me – that I’m still trying to get some of them out today. Because sometimes I just need to make room for more.

Take the buttstick “be afraid to use pulse.” That mystified me, since the composers on the faculty of the school in question all write pulsed music. Why, then, would a student in the program think that not being afraid to use pulse was a particularly, um, brave thing? I wonder if “art is urban” guy likes Beethoven’s sixth, or Haydn’s Seasons, or any of Bartok’s folk dances? Does “has to have tunes” person think that there are no tunes in Schoenberg or Davidovsky?

So I started thinking about how I got my own buttstix. When I was starting out, like any neophyte composer, I wanted to write exact copies (or pale imitations) of the music that really got my eyes a-swirling when I first heard it. After writing lots of pale Hindemith and Persichetti copies, I encountered some stuff by Boulez, Babbitt, Davidovsky, Berg and Martino – among others – that just knocked my darned socks off. The music was fierce and strange and mysterious and passionate in ways that were very exciting to me. And the music made a peculiar kind of sense to me, the kind you couldn’t buy in a store. I wanted to be able to write music like that. So to figure out how to make it mine (or to steal it), I entered a composition program (New England Conservatory) hoping my teachers could tell me all the secrets (preferably shortcuts) about how to write this music, or at least to get something like that kind of sound.

Now the thing is, lots of those composerly things we can summarize in one word – “sound,” gestalt, texture, gesture, expression, meaning – require a lot of technique. A ton of it, in fact. So much technique so that technique itself is virtually transparent in the final product. And as a young composer with a tongue hanging out and a head ready to be filled with whatever was put in it, I had to spend years listening to and studying the music that really grabbed me –getting a conservatory education while I was at it – just to get enough technique to get to first base with my own version of that music.

Guess what? My first teacher, Bob Ceely, wouldn’t give up any compositional secrets. He told me I had to write and write and write until I started writing what I really wanted to hear. And to go out and listen to more music. So in order to get in the fast lane and start writing that music sooner, I made an end run and consulted (over beers and after concerts and with “cattiness” turned up to 11) with other student composers around Boston who gravitated toward the same stuff. Gradually I accumulated a list of Simple Rules Guaranteed To Get You That Modern Sound. Here are some of them.

No pulse.
No motor rhythms.
Sevenths and ninths are yummy.
Write everything off the beat.
Justify this note.
More counterpoint is better.
Saturate the chromatic.
Keep all the registers active.
Barlines are just a convenience.
No smiling.
Shun vernacular music.

I don’t think any of my teachers ever told me any of these. I got them off the street, so to speak, and you know what happens when you get your advice off the street. Monsters appear under your bed at night and make fun of your music. Or does that happen only with me?

Armed with (or more accurately, butted with) a fearsome array of buttsix, by the time I left graduate school I was able to write tremendously complicated music with lots of fierce fast gestures that identifiably put me in … a compositional camp.

Eventually I must have gotten a little weary of writing this always-intense, always-complicated music. And it was probably at this point that I started pulling out my buttstix – one by one, and over a long period of time. “No pulse” was the first thing to go, and the music I wrote after I did that sounded just a little less like it belonged in that camp. Every time I pulled out another buttstick while working on a piece, I felt a little more liberated, as well as a little naughty. Not to mention, it made sitting just a little easier.

Perhaps I was lucky that in the process of acquiring buttstix I also acquired a secure technique – as tends to happen when you work so much with egregious constraints. So with a lot of the buttstix eventually gone, I had the chops to write music that was more personal, more communicative, less complicated, less derivative, and at times pretty cool-sounding. Of course I still have some buttstix; and the ones I can identify I tug on once in a while. But in retrospect, I now think that acquiring buttstix is something that can potentially be useful for every composer – because, like hitting your head on the wall, it feels so good when you stop.

Other composers who gravitated to different music than the music I did have different buttstix – “the diatonic scale is the only natural mode of expression” seems to be a pretty popular one nowadays. And “content is secondary to surface excitement” has been making the rounds. “The backbeat will save classical music” is an up-and-comer, with a bullet (thanks, Danny). I imagine my old buttsix look as outrageous to those composers as their buttstix do to me. But at least I eventually recognized mine. And that’s the first step to recovery.

Several years ago, a composer in the Brandeis program wrote a piece that, in the words of the composer, purposefully cut against the “taboos” of serious composition – including pulse, octaves, motor rhythms, and humor. But all of us who teach in the department do those things in our own music, and we would never have told him he couldn’t do any of them. He picked up his taboos somewhere else. But if the ritual removal of buttstix, wherever they were acquired, in this piece liberated him compositionally, then so much the better – I’ve been there.

In the last few years, I collected my old buttstix that I’d saved, cleaned them up, labeled them, took a picture, and put them up on the web. There Frank saw them, laughed out loud, and asked me to write this silly article, as if the joke needed explaining. So that is what I did.