Friday, May 26, 2006

A road less taken

Back in High School (the late Pleistocene, on a continent far, far, away), my introduction to the musical avant-garde came mostly from libraries and radio broadcasts (especially those by David Cloud and Carl Stone at KPFK, the Pacifica station in LA, which then still had a committment to new music). Among the marvelous artifacts of the era were issues of Source: Music of the Avant-Garde. It had already stopped publication by the time I starting going through them (okay, I'm not that old), but luckily, the music library at Pomona College had a full set, and with written permission from Prof. Wm. F. Russell, long-time chair of the music department, I was allowed to leaf through them, albeit under the watchful gaze of one of the undergraduate librarians, probably certain that the kid from the wrong side of the Santa Fe tracks was going to abscond with a copy of one of those multi-colored, spiral-bound, oblong tributes to an era of extravagance already fading into the dull malaise of the times.

There is a remarkable amount of music, or musical directions, for which Source showed prescience -- Reich, Partch, Lucier, Ashley, Oliveros, Cage, Feldman -- and a few less-well-knowns that ought to be better known -- Leedy, Lentz, Childs, Hunt. But Source also had its share of misses, and one genre in particular seems to have nearly gone the way of the passenger pigeon: the theatre piece. In part, this is probably because performance art emerged as a genre with its own institutional presence and conventions, but also because a lot of theatre pieces just didn't work well or well enough on their own terms. (Theatrical elements were not the sole preserve of the avant-garde -- George Crumb would ask for masks and candlelight, as did countless Crumb-camp followers). But still, perhaps some of these pieces ought to be reconsidered. The scores to Daniel Lentz's theatre pieces are visual delights in the Source volumes, and while a bit slapsticky (i.e. a grand piano giving birth to a toy piano, an idea which could have come from a commedia dell'arte lazzi routine), sometimes a bit of slapstick is in order, and I'd really like to witness some of them someday. Kagel and his students (among them Maria de Alvear and Carola Bauckholt) have maintained a music-theatrical tradition in Germany, and it'd be a shame if the American repertoire just disappeared. I regret never having experienced Olivero's Double Basses at Twenty Paces (a duel, with referee and seconds, between two contrabasses) or Sender's Desert Ambulance.

A friend of mine in college once actually had a dream with a theatre piece by me in it, a piece I hadn't, but really wish I had, composed. If I recall correctly, this piece takes place at night, on a star-lit field, with instruments (now I'm composing: crosscut saw, horn, concertina, perhaps a viola) playing slowly against the background of a slow-moving complex of sine waves. (I was really into sine waves back then). A young woman with long hair walks barefoot across the field to a small table. On the table is a knife, a lemon, a white porcelain bowl, and a small paintbrush. She cuts the lemon in half, squeezes the juice of one half into the bowl, gently paints a line of lemon juice on the cheek of each person in the audience, and then exits, all as slowly as possible.

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