Monday, August 25, 2008

Listening to David Antin

Today, while editing a score and in-between ferrying children and 'celli about, making borscht, cycling to the bakery & who knows what else, I listened to a series of recordings by David Antin (online here). Antin is a poet, critic, and all-round thinker, who does his best work standing up and talking, with a unique virtuosity. The themes of his talks, which may more immediately be dealing with poetry or visual art, are never really far away from concerns which I identify not only as musical but as vital to music. (I recommend especially the St Mark's talk on "line music counterpoint disjunction and the measure of mind").

Antin was a professor of visual arts at UC San Diego, and I once met him there.

When I was in my last year of high school, I was torn between studing music and political science. I opted for music. My family couldn't afford any of the private schools I had been accepted into and so I was set to go to UC San Diego, then as now famous for its music department's focus on new music. I decided to visit the campus, but when I came to the music department office, I was told that the faculty did not speak to prospective undergrads and that it would not be possible for me to visit a class. Discouraged, I quickly had my acceptance to San Diego re-routed to Santa Cruz, which turned out to have been a very good thing.

Four years later, I was finishing my undegraduate degree and I was looking for a grad school. Again I went down to UC San Diego, then as now famous for its focus on new music, to interview. Perhaps it was a bad moment, or maybe there had been some bureaucratic error but although I had scheduled the interview months in advance, no one was there to interview me. In fact, no one seemed to be around the music department at all except the secretaries and a few undergrads with that glaze that undergraduate musicians get when going into or out of a practice room. One of the secretaries was kind enough to let me know that I had already been admitted, but it was hardly an encouraging experience, and my other options looked more attractive.

So I wandered around the campus a bit, and ended up in the visual arts department. Actually, Nan Rosenthal, an art history professor at my school, who had helped me in designing a course in experimental music, had suggested that I look into the visual arts department where she thought that the theorists there might be actually more relevant to the project of studying experimental music project than anyone in the music department would be. So I wandered about, and a gentleman with a look you'll never forget and an accent that was not of Californian origin noticed my wandering and invited me into his office for a chat. For the next three-quarters of an hour, I was completed engaged and, in turns, entertained, challenged and educated by Mr Antin, a private audience with someone who had the verbal skills of a great comedian, the rigor of a logician, and who appeared to know everything. Classical Greek, check. John Cage, check. Kaiser Fraser cars, check. I was left with the sinking feeling that, if an art professor knew so much about my area, about experimental music, then I had no business pretending to be an art student.

Some years later, while writing my dissertation for the university, not UC San Diego, where I went to grad school, I took a year off and spent time in San Diego. I never managed to run into Prof. Antin again, but I did make an important contact with the composer Morton Feldman, who was then visting San Diego. My impression was that Feldman, who was looking rather fit at the time, had a nice routine: He would fly in to San Diego, hold forth in a seminar for grad students, and then drive down to the Hotel de Coronado for a late lunch before flying out of there in the evening. Since then, the discursive styles of Antin and Feldman, both virtuoso talkers, occupy nearby quarters in my private theatre of memory.

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