Monday, August 20, 2007

Musicological reluctance

In the summer of 1984, having finished my first year of graduate school and completed a draft of a thesis on the music of Nancarrow, I went to central Mexico with the intention of meeting the composer (I had already met him twice briefly in the US, at New Music America in SF and at the Cabrillo Festival in Aptos, where I played Space Invaders with his young son on the machine at Manuel's). But I was also tempted -- having been around the world music program at Wesleyan for a year -- by the prospect of something, at least vaguely, ethnomusicological.

By a set of accidents I won't get into here I met a wonderful American ex-pat journalist, May Brooks, like Nancarrow, an exile from the McCarthyite era* then engaged in some important writing projects involving Mexican history and literature, and especially the role of women and indigenous groups. She also happened to be an old friend of Nancarrow's and, although they were, at the moment, not on speaking terms, she agreed to find out if Nancarrow was visitable. A few days later, May, like Nancarrow, a heavy smoker (from cartons smuggled in by all members of her circle of friends and relations), pointed to the tip of her cigarette, and simply said that it wasn't a good idea at the moment, with the implication that his health was poor.

May did, however, suggest some other people to visit, including a number of prominent figures in Mexican musical life, which startled me, as I had understood that he was essentially isolated from the musical community. May countered that it wasn't that simple. People were aware of Nancarrow, but finding a public role for his music was difficult, and he, not in direct competition for any of the small amount of material support available in Mexico, had not made it any easier (I would later have a similar experience in Hungary). She told about the concert of Nancarrow's music in Belles Artes, the national concert hall, organized by the composer Rudolfo Hallfter. May said that it was a great success, with a full hall and enthusiastic reviews, but that Nancarrow had just found it a lot of trouble, getting his pianos downtown and declined all plans for a second concert. I remembered back to Nancarrow's interview with Charles Amirkhanian, in an issue of Soundings, in which Nancarrow's description of the event as involving "ten people" and "ridiculous" clearly didn't jive with May's. Suddenly, I realized that if I were to include any biographical or contextual detail in my thesis, it was not going to be a simple matter of stipulating a set of facts. Moreover, I had an ethical problem in that I thought composers, at least when they're alive and kicking, had a fundamental right to putting their own spin on their biographies. After all, a composer is not a public figure in the same way that a politician is, it's the music that's public, and the decisions and opinions of the person are not usually matters of great public consequence.**

Faced with a practical and an ethical problem, I spent the rest of my summer learning Nahuatl, and never returned to the Nancarrow manuscript.


A few years later, in preparation for a dissertation, I drew up a draft of a book about the music of La Monte Young. La Monte left me with a practical problem, and La Monte's parents left me with an ethical problem. La Monte did not want me to include any musical examples in the text, and was especially insistent that I not include the pitches used in his pieces composed in just intonation. In most cases, for example, that of The Well-Tuned Piano, the pitches used (of not the complete tuning, for one pitch on the keyboard was not then in use in his performances) could be determined by ear, but La Monte insisted on the secrecy and I came to agree with him, recognizing that the details of pieces which he did not allow to be performed without his own participation were the working capital of his livelihood, and were something very different from scores written for eventual performance by other musicians. I came up with some ways of writing about the pitches in the works from first principles and without being totally explicit, but was never satisfied with this, and, in the absence of musical examples, my scholarship would be faced with serious, possibly fatal, questions about its documentation.

The larger problem, however, was raised by La Monte's parents. I had long been puzzled by La Monte's idea of an "eternal" music. Through conversations with a friend who was -- like La Monte -- a former member of the LDS Church, I came to understand that Mormon theology was heavily engaged with the idea of the eternal, even making a distinction in the sealing ritual between "all time" and "eternity". La Monte did not have a detailed recollection of any of this, and I'm not altogether certain he was ever fully informed about it, but it was clear that he had grown up in an environment permeated by these ideas. In 1985, I had the chance to talk with La Monte's parents in their home in Garden Grove about these and other topics. This conversation did confirm that here was a substantial key to the music, but Dennis Young, La Monte's father, asked that I not write about them, as it involved (in his words) "church secrets". This was a substantial problem for me, as I thought that the ideas involved were important to the music, and that importance required that I take the ideas seriously. However, I was at Wesleyan, an ethnomusicology school in which ethical issues were taken very seriously, and I had no guidance available about how to handle the "secret" knowledge and practices of a religion different from my own, so I let the project go with considerable reluctance.***

* For anyone interested in the community of US political exiles in Mexico, Diana Anhalt's book, A Gathering of Fugitives, is well worth reading, and it's online here.
** The decisions and opinions of composers -- especially when they become jurors or otherwise participate in handing out scholarships, awards, prizes, positions, or commissions -- can, in fact, have consequences. Although these consequences are of a different scale than the consequences of a political decision, they are real and can affect the lives and livelihoods of individuals in a serious way. I hope that we, as a community of musicians, are conscientious in speaking up about possible conflicts of interest or instances of corruption in the distribution of the small spoils available to us. In any case, the biography of Nancarrow, a composer who did not participate in any such power arrangements, bears no relationship to such problems.
***A young musicologist, Jeremy Grimshaw, who is a member of the LDS church, has recently written in some detail about this aspect of Young's music.

1 comment:

Ben.H said...

Interesting. So now I guess anyone writing a PhD on La Monte Young would need clearance on cultural sensitivity from an ethics committee.