Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A life, a catalog

Over the past few weeks, I've had the opportunity to assist with compiling a provisional catalog of Douglas Leedy's/Bhishma Xenotechnites's musical works, with a parallel, if less detailed, organization of his writings and correspondence.  I suppose that this is work that a properly credentialed historical musicologist or archivist is supposed to do, but I think that a composer/publisher does bring a useful perspective as well and, in the case of a catalog with its particular nexus of concerns — not just the postwar avant-garde, but the west coast radical or experimental music, tuning theory, Carnatic and Javanese music, early western music, electronic music, and Classical Greek and Latin — the overlaps with my own interests and experience are advantageous.  Plus (and objectivity be damned) I knew the guy.  But actually handling the sketches, drafts and manuscripts of nearly 60 years of composing life and simply ordering them chronologically inevitably conveys more of the rhythm and texture of the life lived alongside the work than I had known before and, in the process, uncovered a large amount of music that was previously unknown to me (and much of which had been inaccessible to the composer himself for many years) so that I think I have a better grip on how the various phases of the composer's work connected, for example from the radical Bay Area scene to his stay in 1965 Poland to his electronic environments and then the deep engagements with historical and non-western musics alongside his increasing attention to intonation. With this intense study, I've only grown to appreciate the man more — not always the inevitable result of musical-biographical study — as well as confirm my commitment to getting more of this music out into the world (about which I'll have more to write later.)  

A catalog of works does not contain the life of the artist who made it, but it is a kind of tracing or shadow, of that life.  Sketches show steps and — just as usefully — missteps or paths not followed. Manuscripts are often affixed with the place and date of composition and together with programs, reviews, and letters, the basic contour of the life, in terms of motion through space, can be established.  Marginalia and other material evidence hints at the social and environmental connections (i.e. names of performers and appointments for rehearsals; that sketch written on the back of an angry, but unsent, letter to a politician; a switch to using Kenaf rather than dead tree paper.)  I don't personally subscribe to composition as a literal, biographical means of expression and for the most part, Leedy did not either, but many works are written to mark occasions or events in the composer's life and if the biographical does not directly attach meaning to a work, it can often be useful in understanding the connections between works in the catalog, how the composer went from one idea or practice to the next.  The life is not the work, but much of it is certainly found in the space between entries in the catalog.

1 comment:

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Bethany Kapell