Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Was it Chopin, in the Salon, with a Candelabra?

There's a story, and it doesn't really matter here whether it's true or not, that Laurie Anderson, while TA-ing an Art History Course, would come unprepared for her lectures and simply make things up, telling outrageously interesting but untrue stories about the paintings, as she would flip from slide to slide.

Another story: A well-known composer-conductor had once taken the job of music director for a regional US orchestra. After having avoided it for a number of years, the Orchestra's Board Chairman informed him that he could not once again skip conducting the annual Messiah Christmastime sing-along. The sing-along was an important PR event and the patrons were expecting to see the music director. So, he showed up for the rehearsal, began professionally but perfunctly, everything in order until he came to the Pastorale Symphony. A few bars in, he stopped the orchestra, and said, "That's not what Handel wanted..." "Maestro?", he called to a small man in the back of the second violin section, "Did you bring your mandolin?". The rehearsal began again, the melody now augmented "as Handel wanted" with a tremolo mandolin.

Another one: I had one professor in college, a composer, who was a fabulous teacher. He was an engaging figure in the classroom, a solid musician, and always very perceptive and encouraging about students' work. But damn, when it came to music history, he would just make things up. It wasn't a matter of not having ever really learned the music history, or having forgotten it, or having learned an earlier, out-dated, version of things. He was deliberately making the narrative stranger and more interesting than it actually was. While I initially took it as a kind of one-man campaign against musicology (or perhaps, and more personally, against his more pedantic musicologist colleagues), I soon realized that he was always looking for ways to communicate to his students something more than the banal generalization or trivial detail about music. His carefree attitude toward history was intentional and -- for those who listened closely -- always something substantially more than the BS it often appeared to be.

I have wondered, since starting this blog, what, exactly my own obligation towards "the truth" (i.e. historical facts about music, as well as we know 'em) ought to be. As a composer, my obligation towards music history is, gently put, to use it, recklessly, mining it for models and ideas, and then to make something new with those models and ideas, perhaps altering them beyond recognition in the process. To borrow a trope from literary folk, composing can often be the record of other music misheard or creatively re-imagined. Thus my compositional relationship to past musical practice may be three-dollar-bill inauthentic, and a casual mix of the historically informed, uninformed (when not willfully ignorant) and the wildly conjectural.

But what about this blog? Is my obligation here something more like that of a journalist, to be able to end each item with a Cronkitian "that's the way it was"? If so, I'm not sure that I'm altogether suited for the job. Certainly, I have neither the patience nor the energy to get into a heated argument over "rules" of notational practice (damn it, they're conventions, not rules) or terminology or historical performance practice or reception history. That's just not my portfolio.

(That should hammer the last nail in the coffin of my so-called academic career, the lid of which was already firmly closed by some earlier posts on music theory).

On the other hand, I do like a good story, and I will do my best to keep telling them. As to veracity, my caveats have been made, and I won't let a little truth get in the way of truthiness and a bit of suspense. So don't be surprised if you turn up here one day and learn that the culprit was either: (a) Gesualdo in the bedroom with a sword, (b) Lully in the ballroom with a dance master's staff, (c) Hugo Wolf in a brothel with the French Disease, (d) Charles Ives in Central Park (in the dark) with a Baseball Bat, (e) Anton Webern on the porch with a cigarette, or (f) Harry Partch in a boxcar with a tuning fork.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

None of the above. It was the butler in the pantry with a feather duster.

sfmike said...

Nah, it was Wagner with the poisoned perfume.a

JC said...

Bach in the choir loft with a brandy bottle.

Beethoven in the boudoir with an ear trumpet.

Schumann in the Rhein with a chinese finger trap.

Copland in Appalachia with a bedspring.