The Nancarrow of Fargo

I went to Fargo to visit Henry Gwiazda. He used to make sampling pieces in virtual audio, placing sounds in three-dimensional space. He despaired of that, because it only worked with the listener in a certain relation to the loudspeakers, which meant that he could only play his music for one person at a time. (Though the effect, captured in his piece Buzzingreynoldsdreamland, is pretty astonishing. You can experience the piece on an Innova CD, but you have to set up your stereo speakers just right.) He’s more recently gotten involved in a video-animation/sound art fusion instead. He’s got some new pieces coming out on an Innova DVD that’s going to be beautiful. (My interview with him will be an extra feature on the DVD, and that’s what we were doing.) I think of Henry as the Nancarrow of my generation, because he’s reclusive, few people know his work, he’s working with technologies no one else is using, and yet he also has a kind of low-tech element to his work, since his sound samples and video models all come from commercial sound libraries and modeling software. He picks up old technology no one had thought of using creatively and makes evocative poetry with it, the way Nancarrow did with the player piano. Of course you’ve never heard of him: he’s 53, and Nancarrow was discovered at 65.

I’ve put up one of Gwiazda’s virtual audio works, thefLuteintheworLdthefLuteistheworLd, for you to listen to, but you HAVE to use headphones, with left and right channels in the appropriate ear, to get the piece’s amazing three-dimensional spatial effects.

Henry and I have argued for years about the meaning of modernism. At present, he defines modernism as the assertion that the world is more complex than we can understand; he defines postmodernism as the assertion that the world is more complex than we can understand, and that’s fine, we don’t need to understand it. He’s recently distanced himself from both positions, and feels that we both can understand the world, and urgently need to do so. (I consider this postminimalism, but we haven’t come to agreement on that yet.) Consequently, he’s making animated videos that capture extremely mundane moments in the protagonists’ lives, and drawing attention to small, sensuous details as a way of attuning the viewer to details in his own surroundings. It’s lovely, resonant work, that does make you see the world a little differently afterward.

But Henry’s given up on the new music scene, on the grounds that most composers consider themselves musicians but not artists, and cultivate imitative, recreative thinking rather than creativity. He showed me an article in this week’s Scientific American Mind (Henry is one of the most science-conscious composers I know), which defines creativity as divergent thinking, imaginative leaps into the unknown, but notes that almost all education emphasizes only convergent thinking, which consists of learning well-trodden paths and honing in on singular correct answers. Most of the way we teach composition, Henry feels, is scientifically mistaken, because we teach by examples and models already used by others instead of encouraging off-the-wall thinking and problem solving. Hindemith, he thinks, did tremendous damage to American music by encouraging composers to think of music as a matter of craftsmanship. Henry is himself one of the most off-the-wall, imaginative artists I know, someone whose mind is well accustomed to jumping off at bizarre angles. In the other arts that’s valued; in music, it always seems a little suspect.

Also, like Feldman, Henry has a refreshing way of seeing through the blinkered assumptions of the composing world. A story he told me suggests partly where he got it, from one of his composition teachers at Cincinnati College-Conservatory (where Nancarrow was also educated): one Scott Houston, since departed. On Henry’s oral doctoral exam, Houston asked the question, “Say you’re writing a piece for woodwind quintet. What considerations do you think about when you start out?” Henry muttered something about the relative ranges of the instruments. “Wrong.” He tried eight or nine other platitudes, all greeted with, “Wrong… wrong… wrong.” Finally, in some exasperation, Henry blurted out, “Well to tell you the truth, I’d never write a woodwind quintet, because it’s an ugly combination of instruments.” “DAMN RIGHT!,” shouted Houston, slamming his first on the table. That was the answer he was looking for.

Convergent thinking, true, but what a refreshing example.

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