WB: When considering guests to write on this blog, Michael Standard was one of my first choices. Sonder is all about highlighting the inner thoughts and motivations of an artist, and I have never met anyone who considers those elusive qualities more carefully than Michael. He is both a composer and percussionist of the highest caliber, someone who is always broadening his horizons and working diligently to improve his skills. The facet of his personality that I find most admirable is his thorough contemplation of his artistic actions. Michael strives to do good, to do right, with his creative output—technically, morally, socially, and in many other areas. Michael has thought about the implications of his artistic decisions and is working to make the result a positive one. I am happy to feature him on Sonder, and I hope you will follow him in the future.
Please visit his website here to find out more.
What does experimental music have in common with Bible Belt evangelicals?
This question has stuck with me for several years now.
As a composer, my work has existed on a spectrum between two ways of working. On one side of the spectrum, my procedure involves experimenting with systems which are deliberately detached from my identity. On the other side, my compositions address topics which are personal. Many times, my work lives somewhere in the middle. I’ve been a composer for about 7 years now, and in that time, my framing of that discipline has evolved quite a lot. I remember the first time I started having musical ideas; I was itching to write them down and share them. I thought that the work of professional composers solely involved receiving ideas from some spiritual ephemera, and cataloguing these ideas on paper.
But as I’ve studied music, composition, and their accompanying history, I’ve realized two phenomena in my own experience as a composer.
First, I’ll explain each of these developments separately.
Aesthetic response is less important to me than when I started.
I used to think that aesthetic response is the most important goal as a composer – that the composer should strive to elicit an emotion from as large a group of people as possible. That way, you know that you are addressing some human universal experience. But I know now that this goal arose in part from my background.
My cultural background, which I am now better able to categorize, is that of a middle-class white Southern suburban family with roots in rural Southern neighborhoods surrounding Episcopalian and Baptist churches. My family is friendly, caring, devoted to community, intensely prideful, but personally modest. It’s a white evangelical Bible Belt family. It is not cosmopolitan, academic, or rigorous. It shies away from debate and intellectual challenges. Once in a lecture, I was encouraged “to be defensive against professors who challenge your faith. It is our belief that God’s revelations trump reason. Trust your inner pilot light. That is the Holy Spirit.” While these are platitudes, they do reflect the values embedded in that community.
By the time I finished high school, I had abandoned many parts of my religious upbringing, but I didn’t realize how deeply I had internalized those values. I went to Georgia State University in downtown Atlanta for music school. It’s a very urban, cosmopolitan place. The music school has a strong band program, but also has very strong interest in contemporary music among the faculty.
With my expectation that music was to be my medium for expression of my deepest thoughts and feelings, I began to feel bitter about music which purported to be deliberately intellectual. I was very frustrated by what I interpreted as a scorning of audiences on the part of composers like Milton Babbitt, Charles Wuorinen, Arnold Schoenberg, and Anton Webern (I know now that these composers are widely misunderstood, but at the time, I thought that they did not have any concern for communicating emotion through their music).
The portion of people that I knew who took this music seriously was very, very small, and I thought I did not agree with their ethics at the time.
Wasn’t I supposed to follow my intuition? My intuition on experimental music and contemporary music was that it was uninteresting, inexpressive, boring, and/or unpleasant. I felt isolated and frustrated that many of my teachers and some of my fellow students thought that this music was effective, expressive, or honest. I felt morally threatened because I thought that composers of this music weren’t concerned about whether their music actually communicated with people in a deep way.
The music was also foreign and strange to me. The music I grew up with had such a strong emotional resonance for me, and that resonance was something I could not find in the music I was being asked to study. Babbitt’s music was cold and boring. Schoenberg was inexpressive and angular. Many of my fellow students seemed to understand implicitly what was important about this music, so I tried to follow suit and take it seriously. However, I almost left music school several times because I couldn’t see any connections between what I was being asked to do and the music that had brought me into the discipline.
Then, out of complete frustration, I decided I had no choice but to engage with this music: I dove head-first into the music that I hated so much. I found a score to Webern’s Five Movements for String Quartet, built a twelve-tone row, and began writing.
At first, I had a kind of numb, detached feeling from what I was writing. However, as I continued writing the piece, I found myself more at ease in the act of composing than I ever had before. Because the language didn’t have emotional resonance with me, it seemed I was able to generate musical material with less of the panic and paralysis that characterized my previous composition attempts.
It seems obvious in retrospect that deflating the influence of my emotional investment in my music would help me think more clearly about it, but at the time, this was a major breakthrough. I know now that this principle of detaching one’s own taste from compositional choices has been discovered and encouraged by other composers, and its value has been written about by composers such as Lachenmann and Ligeti. I also know now that my colleagues had their early notions of music shaped by styles which were very different from me. I had a colleague once say to me, “I don’t write jazz or pop because I don’t know anything about it.” This struck me in a powerful way. My aesthetic DNA was foreign to other people. I had never met people quite so different from myself. Maybe I have something to offer here as well.
This completely changed the way I thought about studying music. In one lesson with a composition teacher, they mentioned that “the choice to study is an act of modesty. You’re admitting that there’s value in something you don’t understand.” To engage with ideas which are foreign and strange is an act of humility. You are admitting that you have something to gain from learning something you don’t understand at the outset. It’s a leap of faith. Maybe I’m not so different from these people after all.
The personal pride wrapped up in my Southern identity included a real pride in belief, with distrust toward contradictory ideas. Bible belt religious communities are, in a way, intellectually hubristic. They have presupposed that their faith-based beliefs must be infallible, and evidence that seems to contradict these beliefs cannot be accepted. “Revelation over reason.” So, I have realized that my intense distrust of what I was being asked to do as a student arose in part from this intellectual arrogance. But when you study (with a teacher or on your own) something, you are trusting that what you are working on will be valuable, even when you don’t see the top of the mountain.
Also, I know now that tastes and sensibilities are shaped so much by what you are exposed to as you develop an understanding of music. There is a pluralism built in to cosmopolitan music communities. The music sits in a place apart from everyone’s intuition because cities by their nature bring together people of diverse backgrounds. Those diverse backgrounds each fostered a unique intuition that accompanies each person in the cafe, the classroom, and the concert hall. Music for cosmopolitan communities must, by its nature, address more objective subject matter.
This is the first development: that my personal tastes, sensibilities, and aesthetic responses are a smaller portion of how I understand, experience, and evaluate music. I think this is a positive change. I feel more confident in my ability to navigate diverse musics in a thoughtful way, and I am intrigued by others’ differing aesthetic responses, rather than being frustrated by them.
So, after starting music school and interacting with so many different people with differing backgrounds and sensibilities, I realized why some composers choose not to search for aesthetic response first: because it isn’t universal. With so many different backgrounds, it can’t be.
The second development in my framing of composition involves historical lineage.
When I began composing, I was mostly responding to and channeling the music that I knew at the time, which was mostly written by people who are still alive. I was doing what most young music students do, which is to write music like the music you are excited by and engaging with on a regular basis. My primary musical development in my early years came in the form of playing drumset for pop, rock, metal and then later percussion in concert band and jazz music: all genres whose creation lives very much in the present.
However, when I began studying music at the university level, many of the conversations centered around composers who were either dead or whose music addressed a topic so arcane that it seemed irrelevant to contemporary life. I know now that this is quite common among people who start studying music on instruments with a long history of repertoire (at least the “dead” part).
As I studied the history of Western concert music (18th and 19th century chamber music, Mozart operas, Renaissance church music, 20th century modernist music, etc.), and some American concert music, I began to wonder why so much American concert music isn’t well-known to the general public. The orchestral music of Carl Ruggles and Jacob Druckman, the music of Harry Partch, Henry Cowell, and Pauline Oliveros had been performed, recorded, and celebrated alongside major events like the Kennedy assasination, the Space Shuttle program, and the First Gulf War…yet these composers were almost marginalized in American life.
As I listened to these recordings, I felt like I was listening to an alternate, secret history, and this new lineage of music began to feel very present. Even though none of my family members or friends in the band-world seemed to know this music, it felt present, and the ideas and construction of the music changed the way that I experienced sound in my daily life.
However, I became worried I knew that I was losing the ability to communicate musically with my former colleagues. I was elated to find out that Paul Lansky used the same technology in his electronic music that Imogen Heap uses in her song “Hide and Seek.” But if I speak to- or try to teach someone assuming this connection is evident to them, I may lose their trust or their interest.
This is the second development: that multiple ideas and historical times can be in dialogue in my composer brain-space. History folds in on itself, and my experience of the world and music arises as a product of- and a response to the music and events of the 1900s, 1800s, 1700s, and before that, all at once.
But, what I’ve also come to believe is that this ability to see my own work in the context of a long historical lineage is a privilege. It is a privilege afforded by my education, my age, and my geography. Everything that has shifted and enlightened my understanding has taken me further and further away from what I was like before, and many people are still in those beginning stages. My pathway into getting excited about electronic music was Imogen Heap and Paul Lansky. If I want to share this music with others, what pathways will they need?
So, what does all this have to do with Southern evangelicals?
Bible belt communities are all about just that: community. Within some limitations, they are very good at making people feel like part of a larger network. When I am with my family, I feel supported as a person. I feel that I have a responsibility to my family to be a part of that support structure. Religious centers in these communities reinforce this collective identity. I know this isn’t totally unique to the region, but I do think the sense of social responsibility is a positive trait. Community and social responsibility are two things that contemporary music world is not good at.
The thing that contemporary music is good at is innovation and originality (things which religious communities are not good at). Experimental composition is a rigorous referendum on truth, perceptual limits, and the relationship between philosophical frameworks and aesthetic experience. Composers, in relentless pursuit of the new, ask “what if?” This question fends off the aversion to change so common in religious communities.
Both communities, by the way, discuss strategies of “evangelism.” Christians are encouraged to share the story of Jesus. Musicians discuss methods for educating the public on the arts.
But I really feel that musicians could stand to think more carefully about where audiences come from. As we become experts, we also become teachers. Not only for private or advanced students, but also for our audiences. What can your grandmother get out of a Wuorinen symphony? What does the work of Johanna Beyer have to offer friends from your childhood soccer team? What can Ruth Crawford Seeger or Henry Cowell do for your dad? If we expect them to attend our concerts, we owe it to them to give them an entryway into the music. Not only in a way that humanizes the composers, but also in a way shines a light on a new way to experience the world, which the composer is often demonstrating in their music.
What is embedded in both religious belief and academic study is a reverence for the unknown. In spirituality, this is an awe of larger forces surrounding the individual. In science and research, this reverence is a choice to contextualize your own findings in the larger body of knowledge and understanding. If aesthetics aren’t universal, perhaps the search for a larger truth is.
April 12, 2020 – This article has been lightly edited for clarity.