A nice reminder that we're living in a golden age of instrument building, with entry-level instruments being produced (largely in China) at historically-low prices, top-end professional instruments are made by luthiers and builders of astonishing skill, and re-creations, conjectures, and experiments of every imaginable sort, from the astonishing viola da spalla above to circuit-benders laying-on-hands almost everywhere. The notion that the Bach cello suites were composed for an instrument along the lines of that in the video is controversial, to say the least, but there ought not be much controversy about Sigiswald Kuijken's musicality, uniquely balancing the robust and the tender.
A displaced Californian composer writes about music made for the long while & the world around that music. ~ The avant-garde is flexibility of mind. — John Cage ~ ...composition is only a very small thing, taken as a part of music as a whole, and it really shouldn't be separated from music making in general. — Douglas Leedy ~ My God, what has sound got to do with music! — Charles Ives
Monday, November 30, 2009
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
Not yet having read...
I was really looking forward to spending time this Winter with Richard Taruskin's The Oxford History of Western Music (five volumes, now available in paperback with a reasonable discount). I have long admired the author's work, especially for his willingness to question received wisdom as when he has famously and fearlessly entered controversies on "historically informed performance practice" or the politics of Shostakovitch. In particular, the two volumes of his Stravinsky and Russian Traditions (which I read last summer in the reading room of the local University library, as it is one of those books which is considered too valuable to lend out), in which the mixture of historical, cultural, and biographical context was consistently (and admirably) balanced with musical analysis betraying a gifted ear are a stunning achievement. What I had heard or read of Taruskin's Oxford History in advance was very encouraging; the balance of topics considered — with two of the five volumes reserved for the 20th century — seems right in proportion to their variety and volume, and it has substantial and serious reflection on music historiography. Enthusiasm for Taruskin's project has been widespread, with even a pair of musicologists-in-training blogging their way through the books ("The Taruskin Challenge" is here, and they're already up to the Glogauer Liederbuch of 1470).
The five handsome books arrived in this morning's post and I thought I'd ease in to reading by sampling the volume with the content matter I knew best, the fifth, which is dedicated to Music in the Late Twentieth Century. Unfortunately, each of my first samples, arrived at by looking up the name of a favorite west coast composer from the index, has turned up some weirdness:
— In an odd paragraph on Richard Maxfield, Taruskin seems to connect Maxfield's death by suicide to the violence of some Fluxus works (Maxfield's Concert Suite from Dromenon, the Danger Musics of Dick Higgins or Nam June Paik's Hommage à John Cage) and to sadomasochism. There is, however, no documentary evidence connecting Maxfield's death to his compositional work, and implying this — suicide as an aesthetic project — without mentioning the more plausible cause (Maxfield had long-term psychological difficulties and was a drug abuser; see, for example, the poem Richard Maxfield by Diane Wakoski) does not seem altogether responsible for a major reference work.
— Looking up La Monte Young turned up a passage with errors that some basic fact-checking should have corrected: Taruskin describes La Monte Young's Trio for strings as unpublished; in fact, the score was available for purchase for several years in the 1960's through George Maciunas's Fluxus Edition.* Taruskin also underestimates the number of performances of the Trio; I heard four professional performances in Germany alone during the 1990's by three different ensembles and know of several other performances which I was unable to attend. This underestimate may appear to be trivial, but it is made as part of an argument that the work was almost unheard.
— In another passage, in an ample section on Harry Partch, Taruskin makes a mistake about the disposition of Partch's unique instruments after his death, writing that they went from Montclair State University in New Jersey to the Smithsonian Institution. In fact, the instrument collection was housed for many years at San Diego State University in California before moving to SUNY Purchase in 1990 and then to Montclair State in 1997, where they remain today. Late in Partch's life, there were vague plans for the Smithsonian to receive the originals and to have a set of copies built for performance, these did not go far. (Fortunately, people like John Schneider of Los Angeles's ensemble Partch have been building duplicate sets of the instruments and are actively presenting his scores.) Again, this is a trivial matter, with only a remote possibility that some enthusiastic music lover will ask in vain at the Smithsonian Institution to see the Partch instruments, but when texts associated with the first three names I happen to look up are each found to have something problematic, and not problematic as a matter of differing opinions — which I would welcome — but problems due to research, it's not the sort of thing that inspires confidence.
Reading a project like this History, it is easy, too easy, to build a critique around the presence or absence of particular names or works. While it is heartening to find the names of the three musicians I happened to search for in such a major reference work, their presence or absence is not critical to my appreciation of the book. Likewise, while I certainly would have chosen alternative works as exemplifying many of the composers included (e.g. where is the late Cage?), I recognize that, given the quantity and diversity of the repertoire, much of importance will have to be passed over or even omitted. But a judgement about this can only come after reading the whole thing, and getting a feel for the flow of Taruskin's narrative(s) and argument(s) as something larger than an assembly of facts. So, my confidence is a bit shaken, but judgement is suspended until I get through one big Winter read.
* Young, in a realistic assessment of personal finances, withdrew the work from the Fluxus catalog because the score was receiving too many performances without his participation, thus restricting his potential income from the work as a coach; later, in the 1990's Material Press (i.e. me) offered the score as a rental in connection with a contract for Young's rehearsal supervision.
Sunday, November 22, 2009
HR staged their second Klang Biennale this weekend, with the theme "Satellit Maderna", centered around the figure of composer-conductor Bruno Maderna (1920-1973). The major impetus for this choice of themes is a new set of five cds with all of Maderna's orchestral works, played by the hr-Symphonieorchester under Arturo Tamayo. (The first two have already been released, the remainder should appear early in the new year.)
WHILE it was certainly a good thing to be able to hear so much of Maderna's work, most of it very attractive — indeed with a gentleness quite distinct from his near-contemporaries — and with formidably idiomatic instrumental writing, AND especially to hear the orchestral works played by an orchestra that does them very well, AND it was also good to hear the work in contrast to major works that were contemporary to Maderna's by, a.o. Berio (Serenata), Nono (Due espressioni ), or Boulez (Le Marteau*), AND it was good to rehear some of Maderna's electronic pieces (Dimensioni II (1959/60), using a text by Hans G. Helms and the voice of Cathy Berberian is unjustly in the shadow of Berio's Thema: Omaggio a Joyce) IT is a fundamental problem that this festival comes out of the budget line for new music. At a certain point — and 36 years after the death of the composer, the point is surely long past — we should expect responsibility for repertoire of this age to be moved into the standard rep budget line. The Klang Biennale did, in fact, include some actual new music, commissioned premiers by living, breathing composing folk, but the Maderna theme was a major consideration in the commissioning or selection of these works, so again, there is a real sense that the interests of music of a significant age is being used in a zero-sum game against the interests of new music.
The "Aging of the New Music" (as Adorno phrased it) has always been problematic. There has been significant entry by 20th century music into the institutional concert repertoire, but there is a problem with music which appears to gets stuck in the phasing-in process as no longer novel, but not yet repertoire. I'm under no illusions that all music should enter the standard repertoire — it shouldn't and that's perfectly okay — but the process of selection should be as flexible and open to surprises as possible. The solution has got to come in not taxing the more vulnerable concerts and series for new music, but by rather finding better routes into those for traditional music. One step is clearly better documentation, more readily available (i.e. recordings, broadcasts, and online), of this music, and the other is advocacy by musicians, particularly conductors, who program the mainline series. The fact is that music like that of Maderna is not forbiddingly obtuse in character for audiences accustomed to the trivial atonality of half a century of film music, and players, conductors especially, particularly in the pieces in which some performer choice is required, actually enjoy playing this music.
* I want to send a special salute to the composer Dániel Péter Biró, who flew in from Victoria, B.C. (where he teaches) in order to play guitar in Le Marteau, continuing a tradition, probably begun with Cornelius Cardew, of composers who have played this part.
Friday, November 20, 2009
Tilbury on Cardew
Just finished John Tilbury's massive* biography Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981) a life unfinished and can recommend it highly, as a scholarly and — discretely — personal account of both the person and the musician.
Cardew was very important to me, as a music student, if chiefly as the composer of Autumn '60 and the Octet '61 for Jasper Johns, two kit-like pieces in which the performer has to engage with the score in challenging ways in order to create individual parts as well as forge an ensemble from a set of notations that initially appear very open but gradually reveal themselves to be systematic and carrying many constraints when followed consequently. (For a term paper in college, I compared Boulez's original version of ...Explosante/fixe... with the Cardew Octet '61, much to the advantage of the Cardew. I also had the pleasure of performing the piano-as-percussion-solo Memories of You several times, one of the most charming pieces of the era; my best version involved a flyswatter introduced at a strategic moment and used only once.) Later work by Cardew, although more impressive in scale, was more interesting intellectually than musically to me — Treatise, The Great Learning — and what I knew of the Scratch Orchestra intrigued me, but I had no real feel for the project as actual music. Cardew's turn to what appeared to be rather doctrinaire and marginal party Marxism was intriguing but much less attractive and the bits of the late, mostly-tonal music I encountered ran the gamut from sweet enough (the Piano Albums or the Thaelmann Variations) to puzzling (Mountains) to deadly dull (The Vietnam Sonata).
(N.O. Brown and I spoke at some length about the fall-out from John Cage, with Young and Cardew representing for Brown spiritual and social/political directions, respectively; I believe we agreed that both directions had largely failed, in the sense of moving musical or more worldly mountains, but this was still far before minimalism — for which Young was a critical catalyst — had become anything like an establishment force; who knows, with capitalism in its present state, perhaps Cardew will eventually be received as a similarly prescient force.)
But Tilbury's book puts Cardew and his music into a context that is profoundly different from that I which had understood or imagined. The works that were — and remain — important to me actually represented the passing or even tangential contact between the journeyman Cardew and the continental avant-garde, and Tilbury makes a very good case — albeit one that is, at times, surprisingly critical — for Cardew's unique career trajectory and, indeed, forces me to reconsider that later work and later working milieu as far closer to sense and sensibility and central concerns of the man himself than the handful of high avant-garde pieces written in his late 20s. Perhaps more importantly, Tilbury's description of the biographical context is a valuable reminder of how distant any bit of music history can be. For all of its detail — much of it quite intimate in nature, especially that taken from the composer's private journals and interviews with his wives — I still cannot say that I have a much of a feel for how Cardew came to be the composer he was, how he went straight from his traditional schooling as Anglican cathedral choirboy to an interest in the most modern continental-style music, or how he fit (or, at the case appears to have been, didn't fit) with the contemporary spectrum of composers in Britain.** Knowing more about the poverty in which Cardew spent essentially his entire life***, and of his connections to Blake, Wittgenstein, Chinese classics or Mao, or to his father's William Morris-like approach to the crafts helps considerably and makes Cardew a rather more sympathetic figure, but it is still far from knowing how he really ticked. In any case, Tilbury has succeeded in presenting more of Cardew than we had expected and yet leaving him as one of the most intriguing figures in late 20th century music.
*How massive? More than a thousand pages. But it's certainly the most readable 1000+ pages I've ever encountered in a sans-serif font. Book designers, please, long books need serifs!
**Isn't it fascinating, for example, how distant Cardew, with his connections to the continental avant-garde, to experimentalism, and to improvisation, is from his near-contemporaries in the establishment-modernists-to-be of the Manchester group?
***In discussing money matters, it would have helped to have had some more explicit hints about the historical purchasing power of the pound to really.
Filmmaker Robert Bresson: "Not to use two violins when one is enough."
Mozart on his own concertos: "They hold the happy mean between the too difficult and the too easy. They are brilliant..., but they miss poverty."
This blogger-to-be, on the edge of a manuscript, 1981: "Everyone talks about having too many notes uptown and too few notes downtown. Isn't the real problem not that of having too many or too few rather that of having the wrong notes?"
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Monday, November 16, 2009
Some Working Rhythms
Repetitive stress does not necessarily imply injury. It can be musically useful.
From a Ghanaian post office, a worker cancels stamps, spontaneously changing the pattern to fit each envelope:
Another example from a Ghanaian post office, an ensemble:
Various styles of counting cash, far less interesting than the basic pulse of each sequence are the rhythms internal to each pulse:
(See also this: Villagers in Iseh, Karangasem, Bali, stomping rice, in interlocking patterns.)
And this: from Robert Bresson's film Le Diable Probablement. Bresson, preferred not to use non-diegetic music in his films, but his use of sound was nevertheless extremely musical. This example uses diegetic noises to propel, through their increasingly rhythmic character, a didactic sequence (Bresson wrote: "Image and sound must not support each other, but must work each in turn through a sort of relay.")
Sunday, November 15, 2009
Friday, November 13, 2009
Leedy: The Leaves Be Green, again
Here's a recording of Douglas Leedy's The Leaves Be Green, for solo harpsichord, played by Margret Gries on an instrument made by Owen Daly. The performance is a bit ponderous for my taste, but it's still great to have it available. In case you're not familiar with Leedy's work, Brett Campbell of The Eugene Weekly recently wrote:
Oregon teems with artists of national significance who should be better known than they are but are content to maintain a low-key existence here in paradise. One is Douglas Leedy, the Portland-born composer who was right there at the inception of minimalism with his University of California classmates LaMonte Young and Terry Riley in the early 1960s. Like Riley, he also studied Indian music and went onto found the electronic music studio at UCLA and make some of the earliest major synthesizer recordings. Following the example of fellow Portland native Lou Harrison, Leedy made important contributions to the study of musical tuning and was a pioneer in the early music revival, founding one of the West’s finest ensembles, the Portland Baroque Orchestra, still going stronger than ever a quarter century on. In recent decades, he’s studied the music and culture of classical Greece, crafting compositions and tuning systems that attempt to recreate its lost arts. As composer, scholar and performer, then, Leedy has been a pioneer in the 20th century’s most salubrious musical developments — minimalism, the return of beautiful natural tunings (instead of the compromised 12-tone equal temperament that, alas, still dominates most Western music), world music, electronic music and early music. Yet this trail blazing West Coast musical figure lives quietly in Western Oregon, lacking (as far as I know) even that imprimatur of modern artistic existence, a web page or MySpace.
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
...which reminds me of a story, which may or may not be true, which happened in the 12th, or the 13th, or the 17th century...
Heinz-Klaus Metzger once suggested that I write the "secret, underground, history of American experimental music, all in anecdotes".
While I'm not going to be doing that anytime soon (I'm still waiting for the blackmail checks to clear), Metzger was certainly right about the format.
Between Ives' Memos and Cage's stories and Diary entries, the anecdote has proven itself to be the form best suited to conveying the feel of musical life on the far edge, and a form more pliable to experimental recycling for new artworks than plain vanilla prose.* One quality inevitably associated with the radical music due in large part to its exclusion from big official institutional music making is that much of the experience can only be captured in the informal discourse, much of it only surviving in messages scrawled on scraps of cocktail napkins or back of envelopes, or in memory, anecdote, and story. A lot of this information may be of questionable veracity. Much of it may be not more than gossip or innuendo. But, the same is certainly true of much official music history and sorting it out requires precisely the same critical skills.
Laura Kuhn of the John Cage Trust has recently begun a website devoted to the composer. It includes the inevitable blog, which promises to be very useful to scholarship and general interest, but even more promising, AFAIC, is a page devoted to collecting stories. At the moment, it's basically a long list of names associated with Cage, waiting to be filled with stories attached to those names. (The appropriateness of a form, now mostly silent, waiting to be filled in, is not lost.) It would be very useful if the page could be indexed by completed stories as well as names, and — since we're talking John Cage here — there damn well ought to be some way of gaining random access to the contents. (This was my complaint to musicologists at the Cage conference in '88 — in discussing archival questions, not one of them was giving a thought to the question of the appropriate format for an archive devoted to the work of an anarchist devoted to chance operations. Random access is a no-brainer.) And as long as I'm making wishes, shouldn't it be possible to include or link to stories in the form of graphics, audio, or video files? In any case, praise is due Ms. Kuhn, who is off on the right track.
* This is also my complaint about composers blogging — how come so few of us have chosen to experiment with the blog as a compositional format? Maybe it's a lost cause — the verbal experiments on this blog, most of them based on constraints of form or vocabulary — have either been unnoticed or gone down like uranium marshmallows chasing grain alcohol Manhattans — but isn't it a matter of composerly self-respect to play some games of the sort from time to time?
[Stravinsky silent movie]
Stravinsky conducting, Paris, late 1920's. Silent film.
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
A friend mentioned that she had been teaching her daughter to play test, but that the daughter, six, was unhappy that the game had not princess. I immediately thought of Martian Chess or Jetan (in Barsoomian), which Edgar Rice Burroughs invented for his 1922 novel The Chessmen of Mars (the complete text of which is at Project Gutenberg here). I last read the novel in grade school, but I can still recall the symbiont Kaldanes and Rykors and Jetan, which is played by live players in the game, to the bloody end. I also remember constructing my own ten-by-ten-square Jeton board and making a set of pieces from acorn shells. I cannot recall the rules, save for one which happens to be musically relevant. That move belongs to the Princess, who is allowed once, and only once in a game to "escape", to any unoccupied space on the board. What's musical about that? I think that every composer, no matter how strictly he or she likes to work, should allow themselves the possibility of one escape in any piece of music, a sudden move or leap to anywhere, a break in continuity, an opportunity to start over from scratch. The first example in which I encountered an explicit escape of this sort was in Cornelius Cardew's Octet '61 for Jasper Johns, the score of which includes a single arrow pointing to one-thirty with the instruction "out, away, something completely different", but once you get the notion in your head, you start finding musical escapes everywhere, from the point of further tonal remove in a classical sonata to some shocking figures-in-clearings in Berlioz or Ives to Pauline Oliveros's sudden full-power amplified brainwave explosion in her performance of Alvin Lucier's Music for Solo Performer. Pieces of music, like Martian Princesses or hard-working musicians, sometimes just need to get away from it all.
Monday, November 09, 2009
A younger* colleague ponders the use of, and frustrations with, foreign plumbling here. While the much-travelled Mr Muhly is certainly more enlightened about these things than the title figure in Gahan Wilson's cartoon "The Paranoid Abroad" — who finds himself confronted with alien bathing and hygene devices — I fear that the composer may have had some misconceptions about the mechanics and usage of certain water-bearing instruments and, in particular, seems to have been fed that line of baloney about the bidet which Europeans — in good fun, mind you — feed to all American naifs and to which I once myself succumbed, which would have the bidet serve as a machine for all manner of exotic and intimate ablutions. Rest assured, if you have heard such a story, your legs are being pulled en ensemble, for I have discovered, after twenty years of thorough-going fieldwork, interviews, and scholarly research, that Europeans do no such thing with their bidets. They are used for washing socks. Let me repeat: The bidet is used by Europeans travelers for the purpose of washing socks. Yes, they are used for washing socks, and — and as my comrade in ex-patritude, Mr Harry Mathews, points out in his distinguished essay-cum-recipe, Country Cooking in Central France — may also be used in an emergency as a casserole, substituting for that customarily used in preparing the classic Farce Double.
But what I really wanted to talk about this morning are ornaments, or, better yet, agréments, a term which (although perhaps a false etymology) conveys both the sense of agreeability and of general agreement or consent within a community. This is important because ornaments, or, better yet, agréments, are really a part of the social contract, alongside turning right on red, balancing peas on the back of a fork, not flying planes into building, and getting your swine flu shot. The agreement here goes to a social construction in the aesthetic sphere, distinguishing surface from structure, figure from ground, and the desirable from the merely necessary.
But times change and there is a constant stream, if you will, of innovations in indoor plumbing (indeed in even what plumbing is allowed indoors) as well as and in parallel to, musical style, and these innovations often play productive havoc with the conventions of the past, de facto amending the old contracts. The very best example of this, methinks, is the use of the grace note in Webern and late Stravinsky. These tiny notes are not — as classical tonal ornaments often are — inessential or superfluous, passing or even neighborly, as they go down deep into the bone, nay the marrow, of the music's tonal conception, having equal status at the level of the row or set with the very "principal" tones to which they are attached as graces. They are not tonally ornamental in that classical sense, but they are also not simply tones like any others which happen to be played quickly. Indeed, what is remarkable about them is not their rapid entry and exit from a sequence of longer tones but their attachment to other tones. The tendency for grace notes to attach is not just a notational convenience but an acoustical feature of the style, and once one gets a feel for the crispy sound of altered octaves (sevenths and ninths) and the occasional sweet third thrown in for relief, it is even possible to improvise in a style which would suggest that one was to this particular manner born. In doing so, these inseparable pairs of graced and principle notes pry open a space between successive and simultaneous dyads, physically impossible, but nevertheless an illusion space of great utility and charm, utility because they, effectively, strike off a few chromatic neighbors from the on-going lists of complete chromatic aggregates, thus leaving a collection more neatly balanced between tonal and not-tonal, as well as opening — in the fashion of a barber pole — an illusion about precise registers, as two registers are almost simultaneously in play, and charming, because of the rhythmic snap and the canny effects of short-term memory which leaves the impression that these almost-octaves were, in fact, real harmonic sonorities. Smart.
* How long can a composer continue to be called "young" or "younger"? I recently encountered a review of a work by "the young composer Toshio Hosokawa", who is 54. If this is the case, I plan to use my remaining 6 years of adolescence well and wildly and then slide immediately into senescence, skipping adulthood altogether.
Friday, November 06, 2009
Prosaic is more than Academic
This is a fascinating confluence of activity: The composers James Saunders and John Lely have begun a major project about prose scores (here) and Phil Ford of the Dial M for Musicology has been using text based exercises in his teaching and there's some interesting discussion about this at the blog (here) . Also, Frog Peak Music has recently placed Christian Wolff's very influential Prose Collection online (here) and, of course, there is Upload...Download...Perform, which is just chock full of textual/musical excitement (here).
Such text-based exercises or pieces or scores were central to the teaching (in music and extra-departmentally) of the extraordinary pianist and theorist Jon Barlow at my grad school, Wesleyan, with immediate connections to Cage, Wolff, Oliveros, Lucier, Young, Fluxus, but also to Barlow's other interests, which ran to Euclid, C.S. Pierce, Wittgenstein, Ives, Baseball, Blake, Faulkner, Joyce, and Stein. Barlow's student, Kenneth Maue, investigated the genre in the early 1970's and while Maue's work clearly began in an avant-garde or experimental musical context, it rapidly entered into pedagogical and therapeutic terrain. Indeed, the compositions/piece/exercises in Maue's book Water in the Lake (1979) were probably more widely used in the classroom, in group training for business, and in personal training of a more therapeutic nature.
It is increasingly fascinating to me how superficially similar text scores can be, but how different their intentions and results may be. Stockhausen's two collections of text scores are wildly different from Pauline Olivero's Sonic Meditations, while the more conceptual line — from Young and Cage through many of the Upload/Downloaders seems to address more absolutely musical issues than the social processes featured in scores by other composers.
I have tended to reserved the prose score as an efficient format for broader conceptual work, often as a kind of generalized sketch for a work which might receive more conventionally-notated specific realizations but I've recently been returning to the form for some very specific pieces that could not really have been notated otherwise, and several of my older prose score have had some very good performances, which is very encouraging.
Thursday, November 05, 2009
Structure & Sadness
Cut the Chatter!
Pliable, ever on the money, proposes, in response to BBC Radio Scotland's annual "no music day", a day of music programming without any talk by the classical DJ's. Such a "no presenters day" is an appropriate answer to the downward spiral of replacing more and more music with mediating speech and, eventually, eliminating music altogether. This has been tragic in the case of classical and new music programming at some of the Pacifica stations in the US (I well realize that there are other causes as well, in a mad scramble among interest groups for limited air time, but the tendency in all areas is that talk trumps tunes) and the increased tendency of management to insist upon music programming packaged in talk is very much at work in Europe as well. There is a place for some smart talk about music on air — and there is such a tradition in the major European broadcasters (i.e. it wasn't unusual to hear an Adorno or a Barraque introduce a piece; as a kid, I was lucky enough to have heard William Malloch on KPFK doing the same) — but when the sum of airtime for music is constantly under pressure to reduce, then the smart talk (which has tended towards glib talk) comes at the cost of the music itself.
Unfortunately, I have very little faith that such an day without chatter will be allowed to take place. The people who talk on air have simply more institutional influence than those who just make music. I remember that back in the 1970's, in response to criticism about inane so-called color commentary, one of the American networks tried the experiment of broadcasting a football game with only a neutral play-by-play and a few stats. It was great. However, directly after the broadcast, there was a discussion round with three color-commentators, who, like Foxes in a Hen House, decided for us on the spot that the absence of comments "didn't work".
Wednesday, November 04, 2009
Not a Zero-Sum Game
Back in grade school, before any of us really had any idea about how baseball or football really worked, many of us could manage to sum up firm opinions about this player or that or one team or another, and make authoritative rankings among them. These opinions were often based on nothing more than a few words overheard from adults, or a memorable name (Drysdale and Coufax were THE sporting names of my earliest childhood), or even just a favorite mascot or color combination. Not yet the stuff of a convincing argument.
There are probably no better BS artists than 5th graders arguing about sports, but sometimes I think professional music critics come awful close and particularly so when they fall into the trap of reducing their criticism to crude comparison ("x's performance of n was better than y's") rather than doing the heavy labor of actually saying something concrete about particular performances. (Here's a recent example, reviewing Loren Maazel guest-conducting the Boston Symph. on a roadshow appearance in New York while Boston's MD James Levine is out of commission.)
Now, comparison can be interesting, particularly when one is able to say something specific about the work in question and articulate how varying performances bring out — or miss, as the case may be — particular qualities or features in the work. And comparison can be practical, useful, as when recommending one recording of a given work from among many available. But when it is reduced to schoolyard BS-ing about a concert which is not to be repeated, what's the point, exactly?
One quality of music — and sometimes I think that it's precisely this quality which recommends music to the angels to practice — is that different performances of the same work can vary to the point of contradicting one another and still achieve superb musical experiences. When we're talking about live performances and not comparing recorded commodities, it's not a zero sum game in which the excellence of one version cancels out others, indeed even when one may strongly prefer one performance over another (i.e. does anyone seriously disagree about Carlos Kleiber's Fifth and Seventh?) the experience of those performances is always going to be made better, more richer, by alternative perspectives.
Local and Universal
I believe that it's safe to say the reputation of J.S. Bach went into the celebratory year of 1985 as that of the universal genius and came out more that of a brilliant but very much local hero, parochial not universal. A wider exposure to the complete catalog of Bach's work placed the canonical works of abstract and speculative brilliance in the unfamiliar perspective of being set alongside the huge quantitative bias in the BWV catalog towards functional liturgical works, almost all of them examples of extreme craftsmanship and taste, but all of them firmly anchored in a style and body of technique that was completely anchored in its particular time and place.
Similarly, we have seen recent performance practice and scholarship — in particular, Taruskin's two volumes — restore to Igor Stravinsky's reputation much of the Russian identity, or even, more particularly, a St. Peterburg identity, that had been very much displaced — by the composer himself, foremost, but by international critical and popular acclaim as well — by the image of Stravinsky as a central figure in an international modernism, for whom such local identification was a distraction, initially perhaps out of biographical necessity but ultimately from aesthetic choice.
In the 1950's , there was a moment in much of Western Europe, North American, and to some extent in Japan in which similar musical concerns, shared application of a body of techniques suggested, for many, the outlines of a common international style and — for some time well beyond this moment — these techniques and their associated stylistic turns, appeared to be more important than any local features. There were, to be certain, many attractive qualities to this moment, among which was a literally Utopian sense that music could be successfully transplanted anywhere and address matters of universal relevance and importance. This was often accompanied by an appeal to the border-free practices of mathematics or the natural sciences (or, failing that, at least, in the use of language suggesting the sciences) in describing and endorsing new musical practices. In Europe, in particular, the notion of a music unconstrained by traditional geographical-political borders shared the odd mixture of optimism and balancing of influences with which the new, post-World War II, cross-border political and economic institutions were formed.
Now, a half century later, it is always astonishing, when listening to the famous exemplars of this repertoire, how limited or even trivial the shared features appear to be when compared with the local and individual elements. The nationalities of the composers of Il Canto Sospeso, Le marteau sans maître, Kontra-Punkte, or Music of Changes do not survive "drop the needle" listening tests anymore as secrets. And it is clear that the figure and music of John Cage, for example, was very much instrumentalized through its placement into foreign musical-political dialectics into which Cage himself did not choose to enter. What is lost or gained by this change?
It is possible that these years were particularly naive. Certainly, the styles which later achieved some international status — texturalism, minimal music, spectralism, the new complexity — did so without much real confusion about their local origins. Even when composers and musical styles were (or are) better received outside of their home ports, there is little doubt about these origins. Although music is portable in ways that works of literature are not, we'd probably have to dig back to Lully to find a composer who has as successfully buried his or her tracks in the fashion of a Joseph Conrad or B. Traven and become productive in an adopted musical idiom.
Not being able to work as composer in the place I came from — due mostly to some biographical caprice, but also the practical problems of being an American composer — and respond more directly to a musical and wider community is an unhappy circumstance for me. I have an ideal image of the good citizen-musician in my head, in dialogue with a community, but that's a role I cannot play here. Instead, my work gets framed as something of a novelty act, the token Californian on a program here or the token ex-pat on a program there. My failure, as a composer, to find a way to work productively from this displacement, probably ought to be an even more pressing concern. It would probably be easy enough to change my work, to either make a better Imitat of the local avant-garde style, so as to better integrate into the scene, or to try a more entertaining style, as the market for wandering Musikanten always has some room, so long as you cultivate that special sense of knowing when not to wear out your welcome.
As a grad student, the great alternative to an academic career for an aspiring experimental composer was a move to New York, but I never had much affinity for the city, and it's a place with such a high density of composers relative to population and performance opportunities that, ultimately, most composers are forced into very narrow specialization in order to etch out a style — a trade mark, if you will — that can stand out from the crowd. At that time I was neither ready nor interested in such a specialization, and I've probably still not gotten there. Later, during a curious five years spent as a trailing spouse in Hungary, I had plenty of opportunity to take advantage of the local market conditions to buy myself any performance or recording of my own work I would have wanted, but, absent any honest connection to any possible audience for such commissions, it would have essentially been vanity publication, and vain as I am, I'm not quite ready for that. (If you ARE into that, there's an entire industry based on hooking up soloists, conductors, and composers with middle and eastern European orchestras on a pay-for-play basis.)
To some extent, web-based communication has lessened these anxieties. I'm more up to date about goings-on at home and, maybe, the folks back home are more aware of what I'm up to. Then there are the new networks of friends and colleagues that spring up, sometimes spontaneously and temporarily, sometimes cultivated over longer periods of time. But this is still no substitute: it is a fundamentally different experience not to be composing with a 10,000 foot mountain in the background and the noise of an U-Bahn car makes an altogether different acoustical background than that of the San Bernadino Freeway. Southern Californian English has a different tempo, rhythm and tune than Frankfurter German. The desert air at sunrise demands a different music from that rising from the waters of the river Main. This is the background against and with which I necessarily compose, even if it is now more memory than physical presence.
Monday, November 02, 2009
More from the Dept. of Windmill Tilt
The director/actionist Christoph Schliengensief is planning to build a "Festpielhaus for Africa". More here (in German).
Schliengensief is someone I have found to be at his best as a talk show guest on late-night TV: as a passionate social critic and, originally, something of an outsider to the professional arts world, he has always been, at the least, articulate and entertaining, and makes an unfailingly sympathetic figure. His projects as a film and stage director, however, inevitably appeared to drift off if not collapse altogether, and rarely in an interesting way. Beginning as a school kid and devoted altar boy making homemade horror films and staging events in his parent's cellar, he rapidly came to some notoriety and was — and it must have been inevitable — ultimately caught, or, as the Situationists would have it, recuperated, by the Regietheatre industry in which the director's ego trumps all else, but, as his ideas have tended more to the naive than provocative, the results have been disappointing, spectacle but not spectacular. It is probably the case that Schliegensief's particular skill set is best suited for more explicitly political actions, with the best example probably his organization in 2000 of a "Big Brother"-style container in the middle of Vienna filled with asylum-seekers, who were, one-at-a-time, voted out of Austria by callers-in, the whole staged to protest the entry of Jörg Haider's xoenophobic FPÖ into a federal coalition government.
By all accounts, however, he is very easy to work with and he has been able to accommodate himself to the bureaucracies of some of the most complex theatrical institutions in Germany, including Bayreuth, where his Parsifal staging has come and gone with little ado. This rather unique combination of public avant-gardist and efficient stage manager has made a Schiengensief production something of a safe choice for any theatre wishing to do their obligatory experimental production.
Schliengsief's new project does appear to have a new seriousness about it. This is in part due to a new seriousness to Schliengensief himself, who has lung cancer and appears to be in rough shape. But the project is a problematic one and the way in which the director has wrapped it into his own autobigraphy does not make it easier to evaluate. His plan is not to build a theatre that Africans are demanding, let alone need, but rather to build something that he, Fitzcarraldo-like, as an artist, will have built for Africa. The blanket identity of "Africa" in this context is also problematic: it is not clear where precisely it should be built, although Schliengensief appears to have some preference for Burkina Faso, and it is unclear why and how this Festspielhaus and accompanying village should be received by or represent Africa as a whole and the question of what art, precisely, should be performed in the house when finished, is an open one, aside from a few remarks by the director that local forms should be presented alongside European imports.
On the other hand, when one considers this project in terms of costs and potential benefits, the costs appear to be modest enough that one is sorely tempted to suspend criticism and just say "why not build the damn thing and see what happens?" Schliengensief has been careful to make sure that funding for the construction does not compete with funding for conventional aid projects, and the costs of construction in Burkina Faso, for example, with local, environmentally friendly, materials are extremely modest.