Saturday, October 13, 2012

Full Cage

There has been so much material about John Cage online of late that it is difficult to sort through it all. Let me just point to two very smart items, this, by conductor and percussionist Steven Schick, and this, by composer and critic Matthew Guerrieri. I'm singling these two out because they both focus on Cage's work in perhaps its most critical moment.  There is a tendency — due more to later Newmusicland politics than to the music itself in its own era — to disassociate Cage's project from the larger avant-garde musical project of the time, in particular accentuating the differences and distances from both the post-Schoenbergian American 12-toners and the European serialists.  Recovering those connections does not mean ignoring the differences (indeed, those differences — Cage and Eastern thought*, Babbitt and positivism, Boulez and French literature, Nono and romantic Marxism, Stockhausen and Hesse's Magister Ludi... — are the spice rack in the compositional kitchen) but helps place Cage's work in its own legitimate post-Schoenbergian context and helps to reestablish some of the sophistication, in terms of both complexity and plain musicality, of Cage's achievement that often gets lost in an emphasis on dimensions of Cage's work which are frequently misread as naive.  In a series of key works, in particular the landmarks Concert for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra and Music of Changes, Cage built upon his experience with rhythmic structures (used initially in works for percussion and the prepared piano) and modes of organizing and moving through collections of materials which clearly stem from Schoenbergian techniques, with an attitude towards gamuts of materials that equally clearly reflect the influence of his other principle teacher, Henry Cowell.  Cage's charts correspond directly to the row boxes or arrays of say, Milton Babbitt, and though very different in the character of the single elements, reflect as careful as compositional mind (being puzzled together under tight restrictions) and, often to my ears, through their exuberance and eccentricity, a more vivid musical imagination.  

* With Cage, the Hindu and Zen strains were rather recent additions to an already rich array of spices, including his Aunt Phoebe Harvey's rhythmic patterns, Cowell, Satie, literature including Stein or Joyce or Cummings, visual artists from Tobey and Graves to Duchamp, and of course, much experience in composing and performing music for dance.

Friday, October 12, 2012

On(e) Handedness

My counterpoint teacher in college was a Nadia Boulanger pupil and, more than once when having his students play exercises at the keyboard, would hear as the excuse for a weak performance that one hand was weaker than the other. He would, in turn, respond with a Boulanger anecdote, saying that when she heard that particular excuse she would raise both hands, palms forward to the student, and declare that, "for a musician, there was no difference between the two."   Well, then, I am a sorely deficient musician by Boulanger standards.

I've recently been reminded of how profoundly right-handed I am.  A small operation on my right index finger left me almost comically disabled for the past couple of weeks.  Aside from all of the inconveniences of eating and personal hygene with my right hand continuously held high and immobile, my daily sight reading were out of the question — lacking a supply of interesting music for piano left hand and right fist; the trombone, which would appear to be digitally insensitive didn't work out because my thumb was bandaged so that it couldn't grip any of the other fingers, so no slide  —, even modest work at the computer was a chore with it — though this may be as much due to stubborn character as the passing infirmity — a surprisingly difficult task to operate a mouse with the wrong fingers on those buttons. Everyday tasks, when suddenly done in the wrong hand, often had to be done twice or thrice to correct for the interference of habitual hand motions. My signature, done left-handed, was a infantile scrawl, refusing to seat itself with any discipline when required (a bank clerk laughed aloud at my left-handed attempt to draw money from my own account.) And, of course, blogging here took a holiday, as I had neither an index finger available to point (click, drag) to interesting reads elsewhere nor could I summon the patience to transcribe (hunt, peck) any of my usual manuscript marginalia, as I was not not putting note on paper or on the screen, making a composing holiday of it all as well.


With all due respect to Madame Boulanger, and as useful as it may be to have hands which can make music indistinguishably from each other — so that, for example, a musical line can pass smoothly between the hands —, there isn't actually very much music which depends, at a deep level, on the extreme case of absolute symmetry between the hands.  Most of the concrete examples are found in 20th century repertoire (think Webern, Bartok, for starters, Tom Johnson for another; inversion is very much a factor in earlier music, however, there it was typically restricted by the terms of the prevailing modality or tonality such that it was rarely exact intervallic inversion), but, to be honest, I'm not altogether certain that a performing style which smooths out the differences between left and right actually does these symmetries much service.  Music is just too closely tied to the essential asymmetries of passing time and a pitch spectrum which is defined by a relationship to that time.  Also this: the physical asymmetries of real people are interesting and attractive (nothing is quite as disturbing as a perfectly symmetrical face), and I suspect that when people make music, their natural asymmetries are often part of the charge of their performances.


These three items belong here, too, but I couldn't figure out quite how to fit them in:

(a) Charles Chase, who owned the Folk Music Center in Claremont, California, from whom I learned much about instruments and politics and poetry, was an occasional primitive sculptor. His major pieces were a steel man and woman (the man has a full body but the woman is represented by only a face, as he wanted to avoid the typical sexualized stereotypes of the female form), still on display out back behind the shop, and it had been his ambition to partner the two with a steel hand. He never made it, though, as it was, for him, the most difficult part of the human anatomy to represent.  He made hundred of sketches, but never found a satisfactory one that captured, in frozen form, the capacity of the hand for so many varied forms of motion.

(b) If I complain this much about one finger, imagine if it had been my thumb which was temporarily disabled instead! (BTW, it was Montaigne's (the first blogger, he was) essay Of Thumbs, taught me how great expository prose could be.)

(c) ...that convention of low-to-high in pitch, mapped to left-to-right on the standard keyboard... how peculiar it is to encounter a keyboard that does the opposite...