Tuesday, April 03, 2012

From a Diary: I:xxi

In a book review, Freeman Dyson recalls his encounters with Arthur Eddington, an important astronomer who also held some heterodox (read: wrong) ideas in theoretical physics and Immanuel Velikovsky who famously held unorthodox (read: so off as to be not even wrong) views on cosmology, earth science and world history. Dyson nevertheless finds much to value and cherish in the memory of both men. Dyson: "The fringe is the unexplored territory where truth and fantasy are not yet disentangled." ~~~~~ Now, in music we certainly have had our share of heterodox and unorthodox composers and in many cases, it is the music of these that we treasure the most. (For me Berlioz, Ives, and to some extent Skryabin are among the counterforce composers who most reliably produced work of this level.) Music doesn't work according to the kind of criteria with which a physical theory, in contrast, might be falsified or superseded, and I honestly don't have the least idea how one might even begin to distinguish true and false in a musical work, but I am nevertheless certain that we have had and can distinguish examples of bad music, mediocre music, mixed music and musical crackpottery and charlatanry, with which much wool has been pulled before ears and the clink of dull shards of the musically cracked continue to crackle. To be fair, music history is, in large part, a history of the superseded, but older music doesn't exactly go away in the same way that older physical theory goes away (actually, older physical theories don't always go away, they often stick around as valid to some increasingly limited degree of observation) and older musical sometimes actually return after being forgotten, to compete as novelties in their own right. We manage to distinguish between musics through criteria — beauty, logic, elegance, continuity, order, surprise, wit, drama, narrative etc. — that ultimately defeat the rational and the formulaic, but music theory, at its best, is a valiant attempt to sort out these criteria. ~~~~~ I've met my own fair share of fringe figures — and heck, for some of you, I may well be a fringe figure — and while that guy trying to sell stock in his perpetual motion machine out of a two car garage in Pomona was definitely a crackpot and a crook, someone like Ivor Darreg, a composer and writer specializing in microtonal music who managed the most unlikely survival in and around Los Angeles, did have something real to offer, a willingness to go where music didn't go before, even if the surfaces were rougher than rough and even if he didn't have the compositional technique to make music succeed over a significant duration. For all that, I think his larger failing was an obsession with fame; once, I remember him shouting that "at this rate, I'll be 65 soon and will never be famous." At some point, the facts of his poverty and isolation became points of pride and the quest for fame was put before getting the music right. Darreg had real talents and I will always wonder how different his life would have turned out if not for a tragic afternoon at the dentist's, in the days before antibiotics, after which the teen-aged Darreg essentially became an old and infirm man and his John Cage(!)-arranged plan to study with Schoenberg was forever put on hold.

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