Academie d’Underrated: Dane Rudhyar

One of the advantages of this blog is that it allows me to indulge in the news-pegless item. Those of us journalists who have a soft spot for obscure music, or who have even become leading experts in bodies of music few people have ever heard of, get frustrated waiting for the “news peg,” the external event that justifies a subject to editors. When, after all, is there going to be an Ivan Wyschnegradsky concert in New York? How long will I wait to give my opinion of Ben Weber (1916-1979), if I am dependent on the prodding of external events? What excuse do I give an editor for injecting Giancarlo Cardini into an essay? And yet, if circumstances prevent me from bringing up artists who I feel are vastly underrated, how will they ever begin to be evaluated properly? So as a new, ongoing feature of this blog, I offer the Academie d’Underrated, a series of totally gratuitous articles bringing to your attention composers who aren’t visible anywhere on the cultural radar – and SHOULD be.

As it turns out, I’ve been planning for months to begin this feature with Dane Rudhyar (1895-1985), and just when I get the chance, a news peg actually appeared in the form of a new compact disc, along with the advent of an excellent Rudhyar web page. Had Rudhyar continued composing through the Depression, he would doubtless be one of the more famous names in American music; instead, even rabid new-music fans of my acquaintance have often never heard of him. An emigre from Paris who had come straight from hearing the premiere of Le sacre du printemps, Rudhyar landed in New York with a splash, getting two orchestral works (now lost) performed within months of getting off the boat. Spreading the twin gospels of Theosophy and Scriabin (a much more popular composer before World War II than seems imaginable now), Rudhyar made his way to San Francisco, and ended up in the proto-New Agey Halcyon community with Henry Cowell.

Had he been born a few decades later, Rudhyar’s heavily spiritual approach to composing would doubtless have landed him in the same milieu as La Monte Young, Charlemagne Palestine, and Terry Riley. As it was, he had to make do with the resources of early 20th-century modernism. Many composers in the 1920s, Rudhyar leading a banner in this regard, drew an equasion between dissonance and spirituality, the idea being that the irreducible sonority of dissonant chords elicited a new kind of meditative listening. Rudhyar felt that by playing dissonant sonorities on the piano, one turned it from being a rational instrument into a mystical one; like Scriabin, he seemed to imitate gongs and bells in resounding chords that played off the odd notes of the overtone series. Rudhyar wrote mostly brief works on principle, feeling that the emphasis on form and relationship necessary that a long piece demands detract from the magical quality of pure sonority. In fact, I regard Rudhyar as a kind of important midpoint between Scriabin and La Monte Young: less formally conservative than Scriabin, not yet aware what he might have been able to do in terms of sonority by retuning the piano as Young does in The Well-Tuned Piano.

The craggy, dissonant style of modernism, however, was hard hit during the Depression. The American composers who had championed dissonance in the 1920s either simplified their styles considerably in the 1930s (like Copland, Antheil, Cowell, and Thomson), or quit composing altogether (Crawford, and temporarily Arthur Berger). Rudhyar’s composing slowed to a trickle in the 1930s, and he got sidetracked into a career as the country’s most esteemed astrological writer. I highly recommend Rudhyar, actually, as a starting point for astrology, especially his first and seminal book, The Astrology of Personality – that was my introduction to the subject, and I became interested because I was already such a fan of Rudhyar’s music. Rudhyar can be a dense writer, and he often desperately needed editing for clarity; the following sentence, if rather brief by Rudhyarian standards, is otherwise not atypical:

In most ancient cosmologies with a metaphysical foundation – that is, that speak of a transcendent, spiritual realm of being antedating material existence and becoming – a release of sound is said to cause the “precipitation” of the Forms of a spiritual realm (noumena and archetypes) into the objective, perceptible, and measurable materials constituting the foundations of existential entities.

Not that one can’t figure out that sentence, but when Rudhyar starts generalizing about the history of mankind, several paragraphs in a row of such material can leave the reader desperate for a concrete bit of solid ground. Nevertheless, Rudhyar was a revolutionary figure in astrology whose influence is still much felt today: someone who championed the planets as spiritual forces leading one to self-knowledge rather than as implements of inevitable, therefore predictable fate.

And so Rudhyar’s composing pretty much dried up in 1934, as he wrote more than three dozen books about astrology. In the 1970s, due to interest expressed by young composers like James Tenney, Charles Amirkhanian, and Peter Garland, he resumed composing – and his style didn’t change one iota. Though I’ve heard only a little of Rudhyar’s orchestral output (and only his Five Stanzas for string orchestra has been commercially recorded), his best work seems to be his piano music, especially the series’ of brief works called Pentagrams, Tetragrams, Paeans, and Granites. The music is as tough and granitic as that of Charles Ives or Carl Ruggles, but instead of being melodic or contrapuntal it is an interplay of sonorities that reappear and evolve, impressionistic and atmospheric and yet stern and commanding at the same time. There are also a pair of string quartets he wrote for the Kronos Quartet, but I don’t find them as compelling.

The new compact disc (Furious Artisans FACD 6087 – you can hear a brief soundbite here) is a recording of piano music by pianist/composer Richard Cameron-Wolfe, who does justice to Rudhyar’s abrupt and impassioned side. (The disc also includes a rare Erik Satie ballet, Uspud, and one of Cameron-Wolfe’s signal achievements is that he has performed Satie’s Vexations, a 24-hour repetitive work, by himself rather than as part of the usual team of pianists.) Cameron-Wolfe includes two previously unrecorded early Rudhyar works from his Parisian period, Lamento (1913) and Cortege Funebre (1914), dark, original, and not as Debussyan as you’d expect from the fact that the young avant-gardist had written his first book on Debussy in 1913. The other Rudhyar works are Tetragrams Nos. 3 and 8, from the late 1920s, which as far as I know are also world premiere recordings. This is absolutely top-shelf Rudhyar, taut, mystical, thoughtfully explosive.

The Rudhyar web page, in which Rudhyar’s astrologer widow Leyla Rudhyar Hill is involved, is also exciting news. It offers not only a fairly detailed biographical sketch outlining Rudhyar’s musical and astrological achievements alike, but a list of works, twelve of his swirly, geometrically symbolic paintings, some of his portentously abstract poetry, and best of all a generous selection of his writings, including the entirety of his late book about music, The Magic of Tone and the Art of Music. Please avail yourself of it all: Rudhyar was an important central influence of the 1920s (on Ruth Crawford and John Cage among others), and musically ahead of his time in many ways. His insistence on brevity as a way to avoid abstraction, parallel to Harry Partch’s emphasis on corporeality, makes him a postclassical composer who arrived decades before the world was ready for him.