Friday, July 14, 2006

Mad Gardeners, All of Us

He thought he saw an Elephant,
That practised on a fife:
He looked again, and found it was
A letter from his wife.
'At length I realise,' he said,
The bitterness of Life!'
-- from Lewis Carroll, The Mad Gardener's Song
In a recent post, I described a mean-spirited game of composer-jump-the-snark. This was really the completely wrong idea. When the trajectories of a piece of music and a listener cross, the listener often wants to stake a claim to a piece, and vicariously, to the composer him/herself, expecting that the qualities he or she finds in that music will carry forward into further works of music. But the trajectory of a composer's searches has its own course, and the listener is not seldom disappointed to learn that the composer is not exactly the same person one had imagined.

By accident, I suppose, I first heard the Symphonies of Sibelius in order, and I had followed the composer through the strange and wonderful Fourth, only to be disappointed by the return to classical form in the Fifth and Sixth. I worried that maybe he was "just another" symphonic composer after all. But thankfully, the Seventh put all doubts to rest, the two intermediate Symphonies could now be heard as taking care of unfinished business from the earlier Symphonies and the Seventh had another, equally radical, answer to the question posed by the Fourth. Another one-movement Symphony, the Third of Roy Harris, was a piece I must have heard a dozen times live as a young person, and I had developed an attachment to the idea of Harris as an innovator that was never actually satisfied by another real piece of his music. But his subsequent music did keep true to an idea of music, and I can recognize that now.

I will forever be in the debt to the works of Steve Reich up through Drumming and Philip Glass through Another Look At Harmony. There is much subsequent work of both composers that I value but am not attached to in the same way. With the wisdom of hindsight, the long-term concerns of each composer's work seem obvious, but they are not the same as the concerns that initially made the work attractive. With Reich, ideas about speech and voice that had been present in some of the earliest music came forward while I remained attached to a set of instrumental and technical features that appear less critical to Reich. Glass's identity had always been that of a very professional composer for the stage, but, not being a New Yorker, I had never really known him as anything other than a composer of absolute music. In both cases, I especially missed a real time element in their earliest music, one in which the presence of combination patterns and every manner of acoustical grafitti was often made more articulate than the plain notes the musicians were playing.

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