Friday, April 08, 2011

Great Expectations

I'm quite fond of the series of novels (four, to date) by the (pseudonymous) James Church featuring the Pyongyang-based Inspector O. On the surface, they are detective novels with an exotic setting, but just below that surface they're something rather more, with proper resolution of the police procedural seldom on offer (the North Korean system inevitably makes that impossible) yet carried by the real mystery in the motivation and character of the central figure, O, and actually quite a lot of beautiful prose, much of it so tangential to the plot that the books sometimes seem like experimental literature.

Indeed, in the third of the novels, Bamboo and Blood, there is one of strangest formal moves I've encountered in a work of fiction. At the end of a chapter, just about in the middle of the novel, O is sent to New York City. Naturally, from the perspective of a western reader, this very unusual trip for a North Korean police inspector ought to be something very important, something truly momentous, and all expectations are for a detailed account of the unlikeliest adventures in the Big Apple. However, the next chapter instead begins with O already back in Pyongyang, as if nothing momentous at all had happened and, indeed, the fragments of information we receive in the rest of the book about the New York visit add up to very little. Church not only makes a surprising formal move, disappointing our expectations for significant, plot-driving action, he plays with expectations based upon our deepest biases. It's our conceit that we simply expect a North Korean police inspector to be impressed, if not overwhelmed by the city that never sleeps. Instead, from what we can gather, the inspector was so much more annoyed by the interference in his quiet and careful life at home and in the office — not to mention the possible personal risks associated with the opportunities of foreign travel — that O simply refuses (a) to let much happen in New York and (b) to register much about the city that he might take home in memory subject to interrogation.

In the play of expectations in a musical work, an example like Inspector O's laconic trip to NYC is a very useful one. A satisfying piece of music is not necessarily about satisfying musical expectations. It's also not necessarily about holding back material or an event (a lot of 12-toners made a big deal about "saving notes", often confusing a useful tactic with an all-too-obvious strategy; let me be clear: saving a note is a musically useful notion, but it's inadequate to sustain an individual career, let alone a repertoire*). But it can be about seriously disappointing expectations and offering something totally outside of the framework we had assumed the piece was operating within. And that moment in which we suddenly become aware that our assumptions weren't even wrong is a wonderful one.


* Paradoxically, perhaps, the opposite strategy, of allowing all the marbles to fall from the very beginning, allowing all material to be available — the gamut-based pieces of Cage come to mind — can be powerfully disarming to expectations. You think that you know all of the furniture in your living room, but switch the positions of the sofa and the coffee table and it might feel as if the earth has shifted just a bit on its axis.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The story is interesting in that the investigator character, or, perhaps, the author herself, may have been under the false assumption that NY was primarily about entertainment, and therefore, not worthy of a deeper intellectual investigation/exploration, as it were.

Speaking of entertainment, it is not necessarily a shallow thing.

For example, my new Algorithmic Toccata “Registers” for Detuned Piano, op. 2:

- has a roller-coaster feel to it, which may appear to be a violation of relevant laws and applicable regulations governing music-making.

It is difficult to say whether a given music piece would pass the Turing test (as applied to music).

In case of the Algorithmic Toccata, an experienced music investigator with some free time on her hands would probably easily detect the signature of a machine, although the exact proportion of human involvement in generating this admittedly mechanical, inappropriate piece, would be difficult to establish beyond the reasonable doubt.