Thursday, June 05, 2008

Complete Works

I've emphasized (again'n'again) that what's important for me is not a repertoire and not a composer, but rather the individual work, and often only a moment in a work. Both repertoires and individual pieces are inconsistent in quality, and composers can be marvelously uneven, a state of affairs that troubles me -- fallible, inconsistent, uneven me -- not a bit. But a repertoire and a composer is something like a brand name, a signal about quality, and there are some repertoires I always try to pay attention to and some composers whose every work I try to follow.

Sometimes, it's made easy: some composers have written so little (Varese, Ruggles), or so little has survived of their work (Machaut, Ockeghem, Monteverdi), or their work comes in such convenience-sized packages (Wagner, Berg, Webern) that it's possible to become familiar with everything. Some (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Schoenberg) have had complete works sets of recordings or scores commercially packaged (isn't having the NMA or every surviving classical Greek music manuscript online a really good thing?). Other composers are trickier, but the sport of chasing down every Stravinsky or Cage, or Partch , or Feldman score is great fun, and there was a time, there was indeed a time, when it was really important to know the latest from Stockhausen or Boulez, and a bit later Reich and Glass and Adams and so on. For myself, I'm pretty much on top of the music of my teachers and many of my friends. I pay attention to every bit of news from a few contemporary colleagues and each work of Ives enters my life as if it were the work of a contemporary. I'd like to do the same for Rossini and Sibelius and there are a couple of Debussy pieces left to conquer. But, to be honest, there are composers whose brand names have not worn well, and seldom recommend further listening (names withheld, but seriously, I don't think I'd walk across the room to hear another orchestral work by Roger Sessions... well, honestly, would you?) . Some brand names have worn better than others for me after complete works experiences (i.e. Mozart better than Bach) and there are still a few composers (Telemann) for whom a complete works, in any format, still doesn't exist*, so judgement is still reserved.

But I'm probably more faithful to complete works when it comes to literature or the movies. I suspect that it's probably because my engagement with the media in question is less intense than with music, so the brand name has become an efficient tool for choosing what to read or see. My canon includes all of Joyce and Beckett and Borges and Percy, Broch and Mann are almost complete and the arrival of each new book by Pynchon or or DeLillo or Wallace is an excuse to drop everything else. Each new book by Harry Matthews, Steve Erickson, or China Mieville is a guilty pleasure and, yes, when I was 20, I collected every P.K. Dick or LeGuin novel then available and I will admit to having gone through my share of complete readings of bestselling airport novels. With movies**, my allegiance to particular directors is unwavering. I want to see all of Ozu and Buñuel, and I've managed all of Huston, Bresson, Antonioni, Lynch and several others much less impressive. Sometimes a name brand will force me to sit through a torturous film (e.g. Altman's Three Women, Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut) and sometimes I persist, hope against hope as the case may be, in insisting that something redemptive is to be found (e.g. Altman's O.C. & Stiggs; Lynch's Dune) in a work that everyone else I know and trust has a perfectly reasonable case for loathing.

* Isn't it astonishing that there is not a complete works edition of Leopold Mozart?
**I'm from Southern California. I watch movies, not films.


aaron hynds said...

I've tried, but I just can't take Lynch's Dune. I'm a fan of his, but I just don't know what happened there. Maybe it was the fact that I had read the book first, and I just couldn't get over the changes that were made to the story. INLAND EMPIRE is the same for me, but in a positive way. I still haven't cracked it, but I am starting to think that is the way it's supposed to exist.

sfmike said...

You've seen "O.C. & Stiggs"? Wow. I've heard it makes you never want to see another Altman film in your life so I've avoided it quite deliberately, just as I've avoided "Quintet" and a few others.

Daniel Wolf said...

Aaron --

Dune has a visual style that deserves some attention, from the interior sets (all made, in Mexico, from massive wood) to the spaceships, which, befitting a civilisation long in space, are all ornamented, not simply functional, to the sandworms which had skin made of condoms. Also, the flat and deliberate acting style grows on you, if you can think of it as a baroque or even non-western theatre form. Following the plot is, indeed, problematic, but not if you think of it as a form of ritual rather than narrative theatre.

Mike --

O.C. & Stiggs is, indeed, a mess -- whoever had the idea of hiring Altman to do a teen comedy was seriously mistaken, and there are a couple of sub-routines that are, frankly, racist and homophobic. But Altman did superimpose a sub-plot, extending from Nashville, about nuclear-age and cult-political paranoia that still leaves me curious about what the **** he was getting after.

Hope against hope...

Corey said...
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