Monday, September 01, 2008

Red Meat

Recently, a friend, in a somewhat confessional tone, told me of a regular assignation she has with a acquaintance — like her, a successful professional woman with a big downtown office — at a Argentine-themed restaurant for the sole purpose of eating steak. They don't talk, for they have found in the past that they have little in common to talk about, they eat. They each simply enjoy the periodic company of a partner who also shares the particular sensory pleasures of a medium rare chunk of bovine flesh. Just barely seared on the outside, pinkish in the middle and oozing with the various fluids that are usually induced to ooze through the timely application of heat.

While she was telling this story, I couldn't help being struck by the feeling that she was at once sharing one of her deepest pleasures, but also one of her deepest shames. It was as if she had been describing an affair or a dangerous and illegal conspiracy. And while red meat is not exactly politically correct these days, I believe that it was the extreme element of pleasure involved that was the greater apparent violation of norms.


Sensory pleasure is a largely hidden term in the discussion of music, and modern music in particular. But hidden behind our musical history is a path moving between extremes of pleasure, with, on the one side, sounds and structures which are refined, distilled, and synthetic, often to the point of the complete abnegation of the excess stimuli, Apollonian if you will, and, on the other, the opposing, Dionysian tendency to revel in ever-more intense, vibrant, and inclusive sonic experiences, embracing both sensory pleasure and its necessary complement, sensory pain.

Musicians tend to an odd mixture of prudishness and excess, perhaps simply because making music well require tremendous technical discipline, while the initial impulse, or desire, to make music, is the urge to put a sound or noise into the world unlike any sound or noise before it, hardly the act of the over-disciplined. This tension between prudishness and excess, Apollo and Dionysus, plays itself out in waves of musical repertoire. Romantic against classic. Neoclassic against expressionism. Minimal music against serial music. But most interesting, musically, are the cases in which the tension is suspended in the music of a single composer, even within single works. Wagner and Brahms, Ives and Mahler, Schoenberg and Stravinsky: each had uniquely unresolved positions along the spectrum between nature and nuture. Varese was poised perilously between a primitive noise and the romance of high science. Cage was — thank you, N.O.Brown — the living oxymoron, knowing both Apollonian reserve and Dionysian exuberance. (Ice and fire. No wonder Cage was so fascinated with The Seasons.) The minimal music was, in its origins, with La Monte Young, a recovery of the sensory dimension that had been so neglected by the serial style from which emerged. In this recovery, it embraced both pleasure and pain (we do put pepper on our steaks, after all), from the pleasures of revisiting tonality or low-number just intonation to the pain of more complex sounds amplified, extended and repeated beyond our comfort levels. And much minimal music ultimately embraced a mixture of strict rules or procedures with a real-time execution that includes improvisation* and the acceptance of accidents, both acoustic and human.

With the radical music, and with its minimal tributary, one recovered the raw (remember that radical=getting to the roots) taste of sounds in all the detail that had been lost by becoming part of the acoustic porridge that characterized more notationally complex music or the standardization characterizing more traditional, normative, composition (like the poets, we too have a "School of Quietude" (thanks to E.A. Poet via Ron Silliman for that useful phrase)). It once again became possible to hear each individual ingredient, yep, slow listening.

(This post was occasioned by reading composer Charles Shere's Eating Every Day).

* I will even give Milton Babbitt his red meat, in that, once the array has been composed, the actual assignment of notes to a score, given that there are no necessary relationships between a PC or time point on an array and a particular note on the page, is ultimately just a form of improvisation.


Charles Shere said...

I'm flattered and pleased that my blog, herky-jerky as it is, leads to so absorbing and provacative a divigation.
"Musicians tend to an odd mixture of prudishness and excess": that exactly describes me.

C Hutchins said...

It's worth mentioning that women are really not supposed to allow themselves to actually enjoy food. It's "sinful" according to ads run by the diet industry. Added to that, meat and steak are specifically masculine.

Her going out and deeply enjoying a steak is really gender non-normative and that probably plays into her shame as much as anything else.

Good blog post :)

Charles Shere said...

One more comment, if I may: You remind me that years ago I served three years on a jury for the National Endowment for the Arts. It was each jurist's job to read, present, and advocate his share of applications by composers for grants that would support composition, workshopping, and eventual production of new works for the musical theater. The first year I was assigned, among other scores, a conservative neo-Romantic opera by a composer from a Southern state. My own predilection was (and is) for Modernist work, but I was struck by this application. When asked why, Because it's so beautiful, I explained. Listen to that, another jurist said, In my three years on these juries that's the first time I've heard that word, Beauty. I was taken aback by this and felt, momentarily, that I might not be sufficiently serious and professional for my job.