Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Flotsam, Jetsam, and Lagan

A message recently crossed my screen complaining about experimentalists (English experimentalists in particular, but I cheerfully join their company on this matter) being attached to "third-rate justly neglected composers from the past." This sentiment struck me as both misplaced and uninformed. Misplaced, because (a) we don't know the music we don't know, (b) we should always be vigilant about ratings and those-who-would -rate as opportunities and opportunists for or prone to abusing musical-canonic politics (which is something altogether different from music itself), and (c) we certainly know enough about music history to recognize that useful, indeed wonderful, music can be left neglected and revisiting abandoned repertoire — all the same whether it ultimately rates good, bad or gloriously indifferent — can be useful on its own terms as well as contribute productively to the synthesis of new music.

This message struck me as uniformed because it appeared not to take the relationship of experimental music to musical materials at all seriously. On the one hand, experimental music deals, from first principles, with the acoustical flotsam nature and physics have left us. Radioastronomic signals, whale song, and sine waves are all fair game. But on the other hand we don't have to discriminate against sounds because they fall into the great gray area of the insufficiently "natural" or "artificial", because they have already found particular musical uses, or have been found wanting in previous musical contexts and thus been abandoned, with or without ceremony. Music history is full of cul-de-sacs, wonderful dark and craggy paths (a) tested — like toes in waters of uncertain temperature — but not really taken to their consequences, (b) abandoned (with or without the equivalent of an orphaned babe's basket), or (c) left tied to the buoys associated with the sidekicks and curiosities of musical history in favor of that one-way Autobahn of musical progress through grand hegemonic processes of dialectic and evolution. But much that gets left to wayside has potential musical value. Yes, English (and other) experimentalist may have interests in the Alkans and Saties and Lord Berners, and yes, the Standard & Poors or Moody's of the Official Musical-Institutional Timocracy (OMIT) have rated these as sub-investment grade, but the musical evidence contradicts the judgment of the ratings agencies. These musicians simply do different things with their music, and those things — taking their own good time, for example, rather than pushing it around — they sometimes do very well indeed.

I happen to find much of value in Berlioz or Sibelius, composers to whom both OMIT and the Officious Avantgarde Factions (OAF) have not always been kind or — a recent discovery — Stenhammar (playing through string quartets at the piano from a set of parts (no score) is my latest parlor trick). I find that works of these composers can present heterodox practices in voice leading and alternative approaches to form that are for me, indicators of unexplored potential for new music. If material appears to have new musical potential, then I have no qualms at all about grabbing it from flotsam, jetsam, or lagan.


Not quite a footnote, but definitely lagan-related enough to append here: Since we've recently been treated to the first major Havergal Brian revival in the Age of the Internet, with the Proms performance of the Symphony No. 1 in D minor, "The Gothic", there's been lots of Gothic-related chatter. (Start with Kenneth Woods for the serious low-down.) May I add the rather obvious observation that the scale at which Brian was trying to work is highly problematic for composer, player, and lister alike? It comes down to economics, the distribution and consumption of materials over time. Scale is a serious concern among experimental musicians. La Monte Young, Robert Ashley and Morton Feldman have really thought and worked hard on issues of scale, with interesting — if interestingly uneven — results (i.e. as wonderful as Feldman's lengthy Crippled Symmetry and For Philip Guston are, I honestly don't think that his For Christian Wolff gets the economics of the material-to-time-scale right.) Both Young and Feldman, methinks, were onto something important in recognizing that there was a paradoxical decrease in the optimal ratio of materials to time, but the rich variety in the character of musical materials can add so many variables that I suspect it is not something that lends itself to rational calculation. In this particular case, Brian's Gothic, the all-too regular eventfulness, the succession from one stretch of music to another very different stretch of music is such that I'm never sure if it is fragmentary by design or just incoherent. The immediate succession from one section to another almost always makes some plausible sense, but whether the individual sections succeed in making broader time-scale connections or not, let alone whether those connections create any meaningful musical charge, is uncertain to me. My musical memory is pretty good and I suspected that things that happened early on got picked up again and shook around a bit very much later, but I remain only suspicious. (Another suspicion is that the Gothic, the first of 32 symphonies by Brian, is not the one we ought to be paying much attention to, but that's for another discussion.) Another British composer on the margins of official music-making, Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, presents a very different style but a similar problem of scale, coming from the opposite end of material eventfulness, in that his harmonic saturation and imitative counterpoint are so dense that it sounds less horizontally eventful than it ought. (For a very useful, if unorthodox, introduction to Sorabji's music, I recommend this web site, with some painstakingly synthesized versions of Sorabji scores.)

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