Tuesday, August 15, 2006


John Holbo, a philosopher who blogs at Crooked Timber, writes:
Does it ever seem weird to you that Hegel and Hölderlin and Schelling were college roommates? Or, for that matter, that Hamann and Jacobi were housemates? The whole business strikes me as quite suspicious.
Friendships among composers have their own sociological interest. While some composers may group themselves for strategic or tactical reasons, the music biz being cutthroat at times, many friendships among composers simply represent good friendships, and can sometimes even overcome serious aesthetic differences.

In music history texts, you sometimes find artwork or photos with two or more contemporary composers gathered together. The fifteenth century seems to have been particular rich in friendships among musicians: to my ears, Josquin's Deploration on the death of Ockeghem is not just a tribute to an older master, but is musical evidence of a close friendship. Bach's relationship to Telemann, Schumann's to the young Brahms, Liszt to Wagner, Bartok to Kodaly: all are examples of relationships that were more than temporary tactical alliances.

Groups of composers can be analysed (as is sociological fashion) in terms of networks: of student/teacher relationship, of private liasons, of influence, mentoring and patronage, and even fissures or breaks in groupings can be interesting (try Cologne from ca 1952 -ca 1965). I've written before about networks of teachers -- if you study with A, you may only be able to do further study with B or C, or with D not at all... The colleagial "New York School" of the 1950's can be diagrammed with John Cage in the middle and with spokes out to Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, and Christian Wolff. A solid arrow goes from Feldman to Wolff, a shaky line from Feldman to Brown (with a firmer line returning to Feldman), reflecting a tenuous professional and personal relationship, and there is little or no direct connection from Brown to Wolff (they liked and admired one another, but just happened not to have been in much contact). There are further lines going out to Varese and Volpe, to Cage's older circle with Harrison and Cowell and perhaps Thomson, to younger colleagues in the Tone Roads group, or the Once group and, naturally, David Tudor plays a major role in making still more connections, especially to Europe. When the network is extended to Europe, one senses that tactical relationships start to play a more important role, indeed trying to re-cover the personal friendship between a Boulez and a Cage behind the damage trail of their broken professional relationship is all but impossible.

Once, at a festival celebrating John Cage's 75th birthday, I was invited to join a group of composers for lunch in advance of a panel discussion, in which they were to talk about "Cage's influence" or something like that. I think that the idea was that I could help them focus on a few topics around which they could frame their public discussion. The group -- which included Earle Brown, Christian Wolff, Alvin Lucier and Gordon Mumma -- was immediately a meeting of old friends, and at once so jovial and loquatious that my assistance was superfluous. In any case the privilege of seeing a group of composers together who enjoyed each others company, admired each others work and were curious about their current work and lives, without a single hint of competitiveness, was all mine, and has remained with me to this day.

It has been a particular joy in the past year-and-a-half of blogging to recognize something of a similar spirit in the small community of composing bloggers. What is most exciting for me has been to encounter and to learn about people with the same job title ("composer"), but have job descriptions that are entirely different from mine. I have learned a lot from one blogger who does mostly sacred vocal music and another who writes for film, some composers have much deeper connections to pop music than I (and even to music with commodity characteristics that prevent me from hearing it as music!), and I suppose that a lot of music that might make my landmarks list isn't even proper "music", for some of them. And that's okay with me. The point is that we've got some dialogue, it's civil and productive in practically Habermasian terms, and there's too damn little of this about these days. As far as I'm concerned, being civil and exchanging viewpoints about something in which we all have passionate but radically different viewpoints, is acting both responsibly and musically.


Anonymous said...

The internet's all just a big college dormitory, and we're all just down the hall or bumping into each other in the lounge. That's my feeling once in a while....

Regarding John's first comment, how about undergraduate roomates Edward Gorey and Frank O'Hara?

M. L. Place Badarak said...

I've been lurking around in your blogsite for the past several weeks, reading your insights, enjoying several common touchstones and in some fleeting moments, a common history (UCSC). But now, suffering the shock of recognition, it's time to step out of the shadows and say, "Hi."

May I link this blog to mine; stop by and visit sometime.

Daniel Wolf said...

Anonymous -- I'll bet that Gorey and O'Hara had some startling late-night dorm chats.

and hello Mary --

I was just thinking about that performance of the Symphony of Psalms that Paul Vorwerk drew out of his hat (or many hats) in Santa Cruz. He managed to recruit everyone: I sang in the choir next to John Hajdu (my one and only venture into tenor-dom) and, if I recall correctly, you were the first horn in an all-star horn section with Gordon Mumma playing fourth. And you nailed that solo in the third movement! Yet another good example of a community coming together with ambitions larger than our individual egos to do something remarkable.