Wednesday, January 16, 2008


I'm ambivalent about biographies and autobiographies, and especially so about those of composers. While on the one hand, there is the fascination of a tale well-told, sometimes real -- and movingly so -- connections between my own experiences and those of the biograph-ed, and there are occasional flashes that brilliantly illuminate the music itself. But the other hand is an inevitable voyeuristic element, and that makes me decidedly uncomfortable. Fascinated, but uncomfortable about it.

I once began writing a monograph about a contemporary composer's music, but had to give it up because, as a writer, I couldn't get a handle certain aspects of his life that had bearing on his music (sex, drugs, religion, criminal rap sheet...). I'm realist enough to recognize that musicians are not their music, they can be cads and cheats and slobs and scoundrels without any of that playing out in their music and ideally, I 'd like the music to speak for itself, but the real world does have a tendency to penetrate the music, and sometimes that effect is inescapable.* I trust that this blog has reflected my ambivalence.

So with all of those reservations, let me note that composer David Cope has placed an autobiographical work, Tinman, online here, a series of 150 reminiscences . I am also looking forward to reading a pair recently published biographical works, as it happens, about dance -- Janice Ross's new biography of the dancer Anna Halprin, an essential figure in experimental dance, and one somewhat neglected by having worked on the left coast, and Carolyn Brown's Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham.

* The most civil exchange I've had online was with the late musicologist Philip Brett, a pioneer in queer musicology. We strongly disagreed about the role that sexuality played in John Cage's work, but I believe that our dialogue caused each of us to move a bit from our extreme positions; whereas I had previously been convinced that it was a non-issue, I am now convinced that there are in fact a handful of pieces -- among them The Perilous Night, Letters to Erik Satie with Sound Anonymously Received, and One^11 and 103 -- in which Cage's intimate biography plays an essentially role. I deeply regret not having met Prof. Brett


Ben.H said...

With one exception, I've never been interested much in artist biographies. Autobiographies are another matter, being mostly another "work" produced by the artist in question.

Your example of Cage shows a biographical problem exacerbated by Cage being allowed to become, by default, the ultimate critical arbiter and authority of his own work. William Burroughs is another example who comes immediately to mind, of an artist who created his own myth of his life through which others have to interpret his works.

Biographical interpretations of art are so often useless because they act as a substitute for understanding and turn into a circular argument. However, I've read some queer interpretations of Cage's music (possibly Brett's I forget) which I found interesting, in part because they went outside Cage's prescriptions on how his work was meant to be understood.

Charles Shere said...

Agreed re. biography and voyeurism; it's a difficult line to tread. I gave up on a life-and-works book partly for that reason, but more because I just wasn't enthusiastic about the entire later period of the man's work (though I loved the man, and respect his earlier work). I gave up on another project because it just wasn't necessary...

But I do think there's a need for bios of a sort. Even more, for good oral history/biography. At one point I wondered if it mightn't be possible for someone who knows about such things to make a sort of online outline; those of us who want to could simply record commentary on the questions, listen to one another's, add to the conversation, thus generating an audible oral self- and others-history...