Life in the Excluded Middle

"What do you think, you get social or academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your culture?" This quote from Stephen King, scolding his critics when he accepted the National Book Foundation's lifetime achievement award, struck a nerve with me. (It was from a January 25 Chicago Tribune article by Julia Keller, recently linked by Arts Journal.) I don't know of anyone more significantly out of touch with their culture than I am - if by culture one means only current mass-disseminated culture. And I've been that way since … [Read more...]

Burney and the Living Sense of History

London Gatwick Airport - I allowed myself one heady self-indulgence in England: I bought facsimile editions of Dr. Charles Burney's travel books, The Present State of Music in France and Italy (1771) and The Present State of Music in Germany, The Netherlands, and United Provinces (1773). I not only found them at Travis and Emery, the delightfully overcrowded little used-music-book store on Cecil Court near Leicester Square, they are published by Travis and Emery in the last few months, in the store's move to branch out into reprint … [Read more...]

Turning Off the Cruise Control

My divagations about literalism versus intuition sparked an interesting sympathetic comment from the excellent San Francisco composer Dan Becker, director of the Common Sense composers' collective. As he admits, it may sound like a "stoner" reaction, but it captures the psychology by which composers incorporate the real world into their musical thinking, especially for those of us attuned to the phenomena that minimalism brought into awareness: During grad school, I drove across the country several times. Once on a desolate four-lane highway, I … [Read more...]

Diapason Found, More or Less

Alert new-music maven and record producer Herb Levy notes that James Tenney's Diapason has indeed appeared on CD, on a Col Legno collection of recordings from the 1996 Donaueschingen Festival. The catalog number is WWE 3CD 20008, but something tells me you're not going to rush to your local CD purveyor and find it in the bin. … [Read more...]

Tenney and Literalism

In sketching out my thoughts about literalism in 20th-century music, I inadvertently maligned a composer I very much admire, James Tenney, by failing to articulate some important distinctions that I had in mind. If not well-known to the public, Tenney is certainly well-known to composers, and he has an interesting underground reputation: as sort of the concentrated, prescription-strength form of whatever drug Steve Reich is the name-brand, over-the-counter variety of. Reich dresses the idea of gradual process up for the concert hall, but many … [Read more...]

Don’t Appropriate in Ghana

Totnes, Devon - I was privileged yesterday evening to hear a brief presentation by Dr. Trevor Wiggins, who is head of the Dartington music department, an ethnomusicologist, and an acknowledged master of the drumming style of Ghana. I was struck by a fact he told us. There have always been ethical issues involved in taking the traditional music of another country and using it for your own purposes. The best-known example is Paul Simon's use of South African music in his Graceland album - Simon supposedly paid the musicians whose songs he … [Read more...]

So Much to Listen to

Pick up a camera. Close your eyes. Spin around, and point the camera somewhere at random. Open your eyes and look through the viewfinder. Just as a thought exercise, think of the image you're seeing as a work of art. Consider its composition, its shapes, how the things in the image relate to each other, however randomly placed. Sometimes I will begin a new class by having the students be quiet and listen for four and a half minutes. I have them note down, quietly, a thumbnail description of every sound they hear. They hear stairs creaking, … [Read more...]

Literalism and Aesthetic Debates

Totnes, Devon - I wish I could show you the 15th-century church I'm looking at - next to a tree believed to have stood here for 1500 years - as I smoke a Cuban cigar in the garden on a lovely Sunday morning, while back home my friends endure the coldest New York winter in a century. When I was a student, composers used to come to my school and tell us about their work. Now I go to schools and tell students about mine. Things have changed. One thing my musicologist friend Bob Gilmore and I discuss with some unease is the discontinuance of … [Read more...]

Academie d’Underrated: William Duckworth

I'm out here in the wilds of Devonshire, lecturing at Dartington College of the Arts, a school that resembles my own home institution in many ways: rural setting, size, priorities, student interests. As with all such liberal institutions, technology is not at the top of its priority list, and it took me a few days to get fitted with my own internet connection, one that would allow me to e-mail and blog comfortably and at leisure. In the process I missed a very important American-musical birthday this week: William Duckworth turned sixty. [Oops … [Read more...]

Across the Atlantic

I'm off to England. I fly out tomorrow for two and a half weeks of teaching at Dartington College of the Arts down south in the moors of Devon, courtesy of my good friend Bob Gilmore (he wrote the Partch book, I wrote the Nancarrow book, we both want to write a Rudhyar book). I don't know what the e-mail situation will be, how much free time I'll have, whether there will be anything to blog about. So don't necessarily expect to hear from me before I'm back January 25, though I may surprise you earlier with a wealth of anecdotes about English … [Read more...]

Out of Print Cont.

Another fantastic music book already out of print, though only published in 1990: The Apollonian Clockwork by Louis Andriessen and Elmer Schonberger, a wildly imaginative series of essays exploring odd but startlingly revealing corners of the life and music of Igor Stravinsky. It opens with a copy of the mug shot taken of Stravinsky when he was arrested in Boston in 1942 for having made his own orchestral arrangement of the "Star-Spangled Banner" ('tampering with national property" was the charge, no kidding), and discusses such subjects as why … [Read more...]

Jung and Freud

I've been a Jung groupie since I was a teenager, and I'm reading the new biography of Jung (Jung: A Biography, published by Little, Brown) by Deirdre Bair, which is excellent and notable for its nonjudgmental, objective look at Jung's life. I am blown away by the account of Jung's first meeting with Freud, which took place on March 3, 1907. Jung arrived for lunch at 1, and the two talked nonstop (mostly Jung, apparently) until 2 AM. This account really points up differences between the two men: Jung wanted to know what Freud thought about … [Read more...]

The Sachs Fantasy

Not to waste one more word on Lost in Translation, but it circuitously reminds me of a similarity between Wagner and Woody Allen that I've never seen anyone pick up on. Sounds crazy, but stay with me a moment. The basic fantasy of Lost in Translation, if you will, is the fantasy of an older man tempted to have an affair with a young woman, and who maturely decides not to, right? (Perhaps, becoming an older man myself, the assumption that an older man should know better than to see himself as a romantic lead doesn't sit well with me … [Read more...]