Friday, April 11, 2008


I just about tossed it in today, almost held up my white flag and gave up the good fight for modernism: I found, in a small corner of English language books, at a discount bookseller here in Frankfurt, right behind the Kleinmarkthalle, two neat stacks containing copies of Gertrude Stein's The Making of Americans and A Novel of Thank You, discounted down to 4.95 Euros. Somehow, it made matters worse that the immediately neighboring stacks, also down to 4.95, were of translated works by Andre Breton. A good chunk of literary modernism thus sat there, till recently almost impossible to get a hold of but now, remaindered.

The stories of what happens to the modern when it is no longer market-fresh-new as a commodity (as opposed to the perpetual novelty of the intrinsic work) is often a curious tale. Near my house in Frankfurt-Praunheim are several settlements of Ernst May Houses from the 1920's, among the most important Bauhaus projects, designed to create mixed-class neighborhoods with affordable multiple and single-family housing. The original designs of the houses, with the pioneering built-in kitchens (designed by the remarkable Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky) and a specially-designed series of Bauhaus furniture, was rapidly modified by the individual owners, with a decided preference for Biedermeier over Bauhaus furnishings and, rather soon, the uniform external decorating schemes for each row of houses gave way to the individual owners painting their houses each as they liked and the cramped quarters were soon expanded by extensions to the buildings front, back, and on top. Now the settlement is as much a museum of 20th-century DYI store fashions for covered entryways, doors, and mailboxes as for the uniform Bauhaus style. As fascinated as I've always been with the modern hardware store and its contents, I'm not altogether certain that the fate of renovation is much different from a fate of remaindering.

As long as we've pondered the possibility that music might have a history, we have searched through the remainder boxes and fussed with renovations. From Monteverdi to Mendelssohn to Busoni, this history has had noble moments, and the gift of notation -- which forces one to use the imagination -- has played no small role. But, in our present age of mechanically and electronically-assisted memory, I'm not altogether certain that we have developed a routine best practice for managing and renewing our musical memories.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Be of good heart. In my youth, I would buy only remaindered books, and I got a very good and unorthodox informal education thereby. Your argument is, as always, more nuanced, but remember what Henry & Lou said about hybrids. (They left out the appalling parts.)