Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Cheerful Lapses Into Completism

What an incredible season for reading! David Foster Wallace's posthumous "unfinished novel" The Pale King has some of his finest writing, and some of his funniest, but it also makes one of the best case for the novel as moral instance, with his argument for the dignity of ordinary lives right up there with Pynchon's "keep cool but care." And then there's China Miéville's Embassytown, which I read in a non-stop, non-sleep frenzy and immediately — that is, now — started rereading just to get a better conceptual grasp on a book that is both the author's long-awaited space opera and a deep turn into some startling and compelling exolinguistics. But there's more — the last Paul Auster, Sunset Park (almost up there with Leviathan and The Book of Illusions) is not to be missed...

But this perfect storm of wonderful reads is a season spent with all my old favorites — all that is missing for me this season is a new Pynchon or a Harry Mathews — points out a certain abandonment of principles in my reading habit, and one that infects my music consumption as well: The broken record around here has gone: It's the individual work, sometimes even just a movement or moment in an individual work that counts, not the entire catalog of a composer (or author). Composers are perfectly human, which means perfectly fallible, and even the composer who is capable of making the most extraordinary works most reliably is capable of much less, and that wonderfully human inconsistency helps make the music world so reliably variable and interesting. Who know? Maybe there's a cosmic balance sheet, entered into which the price of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony is the Battle Symphony...

So, it's the work that counts, not the catalog, but I'll readily admit to my regular lapses into completism, which seems to happen whenever someone's track record has simply been so good that his or her name becomes a track record. So I eagerly wait for each and every new work I can hear by Jo Kondo or Richard Ayres, for two examples of composers with reliably astonishing craft, style, and ideas. Sometimes a composer gets around my completist barrier simply by virtue of having a small catalog: complete sets of sheet music for Machaut and Ockeghem (those three volumes of endlessly variegated lines were one of the best birthday presents I ever gave myself!) and Ruggles, Varese, and Webern take up only modest shelf space, and they've all been resident, complete as I could get them, in my shelves for decades. Some composers' work have become scattered and obscured with time, so a certain collector's mentality takes over, gathering each scrap of Richard Maxfield or Terry Jennings that I can scavenge. A good portion of Harry Partch's music, so important to me earlier on, sits, copied-out in a transcription style of my own, from days when I couldn't afford quarters for the photocopier. Other composers are models or teachers or good friends, and the urge to have their works with me is equal to the urge to spend time in their company: Leedy, Mumma, Lucier, Young. But there are also larger catalogs for which having everything would strike me as an entirely reasonable proposition: Mozart, Berlioz, Ives, Cage, perhaps Feldman or Christian Wolff.


3 comments:

Raining Acorns said...

I love this post, not least because of the deft way you segue from literature to music in making your point.

klangerin said...

Must agree with the previous comment.

What´s more, I find great pleasure in reading your posts, even though i am not a musician, i find them to be thought-provoking, poetical, and they are always tuned to a human proportion.

Best from Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Ben.H said...

For the past few years I've been congratulating myself for overcoming a mania for completism, but this feeling has been increasingly tempered by the worry that I'm somehow depriving myself of valuable knowledge. As you point out, there are some artists whose work is worth knowing in total, the good and bad alike having something to contribute.

There is also the problem of scarcity. I tend to grab the obscure and hard-to-find pieces whenever the occasion presents itself, and in so doing pass on the more common, greater works. When I finally get around to those more obvious choices, I usually end up kicking myself for leaving it so long.