An Interview with Nathan Currier
Nothing heightens feelings of powerlessness more than a political season. Over the past few months, we’ve seen parties fractured, pundits paralyzed, analytics rendered ineffectual. Fault lines shatter old allegiances, and formerly stable demographics appear to no longer apply. The democratic tradition itself feels newly imperiled; as the middle class dissolves, the world’s ultra-rich consolidate their power, and poverty chases the rest of us. As Yeats’ words are dusted off once again—“The best lack all conviction, while the worst / are full of passionate intensity”—many of us are no longer certain on which side of this divide we fall. Surely, we think, there must be a thoughtful middle.
Art can be a vehicle for understanding, interpreting, and reinforcing social structures, and classical music in particular has long played such a role. From Shostakovich’s satirical blasts, to Copland’s paeans to the common man, composers have long been employed—whether wittingly or not—in political discourse.
So when I learned about the Orchard Circle Concert Series initiated by the American composer Nathan Currier (along with Christopher James and Samuel Zyman) I was intrigued. The premise of the series is to focus on “the center” of what’s being currently composed in classical music today. Currier argues that the “aesthetic middle” includes a significant number of composers working today, yet the musical ideas it offers are currently being neglected. His idea harkens back to something Anthony Tommasini wrote in a New York Times article from 2010, “Dogma No More: Anything Goes in Classical Music,” in which the critic worried aloud about whether “today’s centrists [are] taken for granted, relegated…to the outskirts of the action?” Specifically, the article defines this as what composer John Harbison “wryly referred to as ‘us notes-and-rhythms composers,’ meaning those who more or less write pieces for conventional instruments, largely eschewing electronics, composers more concerned with thematic development than with instrumental atmospherics and sound collages.”
Currier speaks rapidly, in bursts of passionate, articulate multi-segmented clauses. As he talks, his arms stab the air with enthusiasm for his topic. His thoughts unfurl as if he were reading them aloud; his tongue barely seems quick enough to keep up. In our lengthy conversation, I’m not sure he ever stammered, stuttered, or inserted an “um” to pause for thought. Currier has long studied (and contributed to) Earth System Science as developed by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, and periodically our conversation veered into the direction of biodiversity and sustainability. Earth System Science, which grew out of the Gaia Hypothesis, is a holonic framework for understanding the workings of all things in the biosphere as being indelibly connected and interdependent. Currier has referred to classical music as holonic expression, in which each tone is simultaneously a whole and a part of its system.
We spoke over coffee at a small café beside the Raritan River in downtown Clinton, New Jersey.
VAN: How has what’s thought of as “aesthetic middle” or “centrist” changed over the years, do you think? At any given time, what we think of, collectively, as “mainstream” moves fairly rapidly. To use a common political analogy: if Nixon were running for office today, he would be considered a fairly liberal democrat.
Nathan Currier: Well, first, I’d say that for me the “Nixon as liberal” notion misses the meaning of “liberal” and “conservative” within human character, but much more important is to realize that this aesthetic center is not the same as political centrists at all. After all, you wouldn’t say the old Downtown was the Left and the Uptown was the Right, would you?
So there goes my theory.
…the Midtown is not the centrists, either. These analogies are not so simple. But you could say these are each spectra—perhaps you could say that in music the spectrum basically boils down to one running from simplicity to complexity, and in politics to one running from distrust to trust (that is, the whole Hobbes vs. Locke tradition at the origins of the conservative/liberal political spectrum, with the degree of trust in human nature driving the difference in how the social contracts of society should be constructed).
Anyhow, in terms of any shifting of the compass of this musical middle, like “Nixon being a liberal” today, the question is whether one’s “center” is taken broadly, or whether one is taking just a thin slice, which is then likely to shift around a lot. A broad middle—everything that isn’t the far ends of the spectrum—is pretty impervious to change, and that’s what Orchard Circle will be, I suspect.
Uptown and Downtown are informal terms that have been applied to delineate compositional trends. They came about as a shorthand way to refer to the new classical compositional venues in lower Manhattan that sprung up in the 1970s. As a rule, the classical music scene prior to that time was primarily based in upper Manhattan, often affiliated with institutions like Juilliard and Columbia University. The Downtown classical music composers were so-called as a way to distinguish this group from their Uptown counterparts.
The term Midtown developed as a way to talk about composers who were neither heavily academic/serialist nor minimalist/post-minimalist; in other words, composers whose work was neither Uptown or Downtown but instead grew out of the compositional traditions of classical music in previous generations.
Like any shorthand, it would be wrong to attach too much significance to any of these labels. All composers draw from a wide variety of traditions and influences, from Albeniz to Zorn, Bossa Nova to Brahms. The terms are most helpful when spoken loosely, mindful of a certain measure of necessary ambivalence.
Classical music has long been an easy target for complaints of elitism.
That’s right. But over the last 15 years or so, I’ve noticed a whole new dynamic of who calls the shots, and pure commercialism and all that. You might say it’s anti-elite forces...
Would you call it populism? We’ve certainly seen a good bit of that in the political arena this year.
Populism, anti-elitism—all that stuff. And that created also this young vs. old [dynamic].
Is that a new thing?
I think that there are many older composers these days for whom ageism is a large concern, actually eclipsing their concerns about the general shift in aesthetics. And of course, it is a combined effect of many things all happening at once now: so, for example, the niche nature of so much current activity means that a certain “youth marketing” style has permeated some segments of the contemporary music world, where it is both for a young crowd and from a young set of composers, and such things have contributed to the sense in some seniors, I think, that the nature of succession itself has been fundamentally altered. Some might try to explain it as the natural outgrowth of a “punctuated aesthetic equilibrium,” but of course you can have big shifts and still retain at least the figureheads of the old order as symbols. So the feeling of irrelevance some older composers have come to feel today could take on a darker interpretation, more in line with claims that classical music itself is becoming irrelevant, indicative of some kind of pre-collapse condition.
The premise of the Orchard Concert series is to reassert the relevance of “Midtown” or “centrist” composers. I know that in your work with Earth Systems science, you’ve thought a great deal about issues of diversity. It’s sometimes said that younger generation of composers focused in Brooklyn, who are influenced by new ideas from popular music and other musical traditions, are bringing more diversity into their musical sphere.
One composer said that she didn’t want to be listed as supportive of Orchard Circle because it wasn’t about supporting all new music, it was just focusing on this “middle ground.” To me that’s like the All Lives Matter concept. Obviously all lives matter, but Black Lives Matter isn’t against that: it’s an effective route to helping enact it, since you’re taking a disenfranchised part of society and pointing to the inequity it endures. So, Orchard Circle simply grew from the observation that there wasn’t really a single ensemble in the City focusing on this particular music now, and there clearly should be. That increases diversity. If we were trying to “bring in fresh new ideas from popular music,” that would hardly be original or adding much to current diversity, I’d say, because that’s what just about everyone is trying to do at the moment.
I’d also mention that diversity is a very big, but not always very carefully used word. It’s good to keep in mind that when you look around the Earth and you see the super diverse rain forests, and compare them to less exorbitant but still diverse higher latitudes, that these differences are set ultimately by the differing fluxes of available free energy entering the different systems. So, in a similar way, I just don’t think you can quickly create real aesthetic diversity, it needs to evolve through differences in societies, and the degrees of diversity will come from certain background drivers.
In nature, casual additions, like adding species into an ecosystem, mostly lead to decreases in diversity, and when you throw a bunch of organisms together, some are going to be more opportunistic than others. So, when you talk about “new ideas from popular music and other traditions,” of course in a way mixing it all up is the stuff of art (I played in a rock group as a kid, too), as it is of life, but my mind also jumps to superficial ideologies leading to opportunistic bubbles, and taken to its conclusion, that could give what I’d dub “aesthetic globalization,” with an end point of vast loss of diversity.
In any case, Orchard Circle is about preserving something that has already been around, was very prosperous, but is now considered less and less cool, and I’d point out that what I have argued elsewhere about Orchard Circle is that within new classical music, the part of the spectrum we’re looking at is ultra-diverse. It has been so splintered, and some of it relatively neglected, so it’s more like the Balkans or something, areas that get divided up into little pockets with poor intercommunication...[but] just like islands creating biodiversity—that’s what creates variety. ¶