… given the opportunity to write a piece for David Vickerman and the Johns Hopkins University Wind Ensemble. It was one of the few times that I’ve been asked to write a piece where the idea for the piece just seemed to light up like neon signage. I’ve been trying to come up with a simple way of talking about the piece, but the problem is that it becomes a really tough sell when you boil it down like that.
I’ve found that often, people, especially people who don’t really want to do a lot of thinking/reflection on a piece want to know what a piece is “about.” I’m not really a big fan of telling someone, “This piece is about _______,” at least when it comes to my own music. Lately, I’ve come to start giving overly-simplified answers to the question to sort of point out just how inappropriate that question can be sometimes.
So when people have been asking me what is this new wind ensemble piece “about,” I’ve been telling them simply, “It’s about meth!”
Yeah, meth. See? This concept needs a little (well, a lot) of contextualization. Allow me to explain…
Back when I was studying at the University of Oregon, I had a part-time job at a kwik-e-mart across the street from my apartment. As you might imagine, the kwik-e-mart was not exactly a radiant symbol of achievement in my life, but it offered me okay extra cash and a perch for some of the best people-watching around. That’s a great thing about kwik-e-marts: everybody shops in them at one time or another. Another great thing about kwik-e-marts is that when you’re behind the counter, you’re everybody’s pal (mostly because you’re selling them beer). And when you’re everybody’s pal, everybody tells you their life’s stories.
The stories that moved me the most were the ones told to me by the meth-heads who would come in. Their lives were always so ridiculously tragic in some way; were this the 19th Century, they might’ve been opium addicts and we’d be busy romanticizing their condition! The thing that always drew me in about the meth-heads was that no matter how far gone they were, you could always see a glimmer of who these people were before they became what you were looking at right then.
Being there as these twisted caricatures of people told their tragic stories made a huge impact on me. The meth heads at the kwik-e-mart always reminded me of Expressionist art. In a sense, the way that meth amplified the thoughts and feelings of its users was like how artists like Picasso would bend the laws of perspective and realism to demonstrate feelings that were more concentrated than the feelings that we normally express. I always thought that tweakers acted a lot like how Pierrot Lunaire might act if he were a real person.
The other day, I came upon a book of portraits by Egon Schiele. Now, I’ve known Schiele’s work for a while (I’m no expert, but I’ve seen the pencil sketches and other paintings here and there), but it didn’t hit home until I looked at that book that Schiele’s figures were a lot like the music I was thinking of in my head for this wind piece. The figures are grotesque, but in them there is always a glaring tenderness and humanity that really stays with you; you feel like Schiele knew something about these people that he could only reveal in these paintings, an unsettling intimacy with human nature.
Schoenberg’s music is often associated with the art of the Expressionsists, and for good reason; he was out there painting with them, and his early atonal music really does the job of creating stylized worlds of sound that still relate (albeit distantly) to the music of the past the way that Schiele’s highly abstracted characters still remain representational. I don’t think Schoenberg’s contribution to the art of music is ever emphasized enough; the only time we ever really discuss Schoenberg is in relation to twelve-tone music, and that’s usually done in music theory classes where we end up simply counting rows and trying to make some quantifiable sense of music whose expressive power comes from the fact that it doesn’t make sense. I’ve got a personal theory that the reason we don’t spend more time talking about how Schoenberg’s music makes us feel is that it touches a part of our collective unconscious (to borrow the term from Jung, another early 20th Century superstar) that gives us that sort of fear of the sublime that Kant talks about when we discover something to be True. This part of us is buried so deep within our brain/soul/whatever that we are uncomfortable talking about it directly and must filter it through some kind of idealization of human feelings (*cough, cough* Romanticism) or through the even more ludicrous notion of objectivisim (*cough, cough* Serialism).
John Adams seems to really understand / relate to Schoenberg, although I don’t think he gets nearly enough credit for it from listeners who don’t connect the dots. But whether it’s early in his career with Harmonielehre, or lately with his Chamber Symphony, the outright admission of inspiration coming from Schoenberg comes straight from the horse’s mouth (or straight from the horse’s program notes). I see the resemblance in the two composers’ positions as major transitional figures in music history, but not necessarily the resemblance in their execution.
Adams gets stuck being compared to Post-Minimalist artists a lot, a comparison that I rarely find apt. Whenever I hear Adams’s music, I hear less Anish Kapoor and more Gustav Klimt. Who knows? Maybe it’s shallow of me to consider the decorative patterning that covers most of Klimt’s work to be the same as the busy surface textures of Adams’s music, but who can’t hear all the bowed crotales, glockenspiel, and string harmonics in the Adams’s music and not see the similarity to Klimt’s use of gold flake? I stand by my comparison: both Klimt’s and Adams’s patterns are just the surface vehicle for the deeper expressive lines (both of which are rendered in a highly stylized, yet representational manner like Schiele).
Now, there are holes in this comparison when you apply it back to Schoenberg and Adams, mostly because Klimt was a major influence on Schiele, with it being the other way around when it comes to the composers. Still, what I think is most important is that this comparison at least aligns Adams and Schoenberg into the same camp, where I see them. Understanding how Adams and Schoenberg relate to one another is an important part of how I think about finding my place as an artist. This isn’t to say that I’m trying to put myself on the level of either of these guys (though I’d love it if someone else would go ahead and make that assertion, I’m not gonna lie), but I think the three of us all share something in common. We are all inspired by deeper, more reclusive feelings in humans. Schoenberg paved the way; Adams took the Schoenberg model and transformed it into something very different, but with a definite family resemblance. I hope to do the same thing myself.
So yeah, the piece for wind ensemble is about meth. And it’s not about meth at all. Really, meth heads are just a convenient vehicle to explore a different way to perceive the world, and more importantly, to perceive our own nature. Just like Schoenberg’s music, we’re made uncomfortable by meth heads not by what is different about them, but by how much we’re reminded of ourselves in the looks in their eyes, and in their stories. By their grotesqueness we’re given the chance to look at ourselves a little more honestly.