Composer Adam Baratz, whom I’ve long corresponded with via Sequenza 21, and finally met this last month, has alerted me to two online texts well worth reading. One is the speech given by Peter Garland at the 1997 Henry Cowell centennial conference, which is posted at Other Minds. The passage in question is one in which Peter talks about Cowell’s early piano pieces, and in which he, in one fell swoop, justifies even Cowell’s simpler works as radical, outlines the philosophy underlying Peter’s own gorgeous music, and demonstrates the derivation of his aesthetic from Cowell’s. Of the early piano pieces, he says,
I think their simplicity is their strength, and the reason for their continued freshness. In this regard they share something with modern-day pop songs, in that relatively little information is conveyed, so that communication is immediate and right there on the surface. Many of the pieces have very simple, modal melodies, so the harmonic language is likewise very basic. I don’t really take Cowell’s justification of the tone cluster as the incorporation of the major and minor seconds into our harmonic/ melodic language along some sort of musical evolutionary line too seriously. Okay — sure, fine. What blows me away about these pieces is that by compressing the interval relationships so tightly, they virtually cease to exist as such. So you are sidestepping the harmonic implications of the concept of interval, and what you are left with is: pure RESONANCE. That is the glory, the originality, the freshness of these pieces. By reducing melody and harmony to a background function, that of the simplest framework possible, one is affirming music not so much as a question of relationships, but rather of pure sounding and resonance. That is very radical, to me.
One does not need to use tone clusters necessarily to achieve this effect. By severely limiting melodic and harmonic movement and by emphasis on repetition, the same effect can be achieved.
(Adam uses this as a personal motto for his own music.) I was present for the speech, but didn’t remember this resounding passage. All I remember is that for 30 minutes Peter harangued us that none of us understood the real Henry Cowell – and that afterward we gave him a rousing standing ovation of several minutes’ duration.
The other text just appeared this week in The New Republic, David Hadju’s “The Breathtakingly Bad John Zorn,” and as many of us don’t subscribe to that journal, someone has finally posted the piece here. Rather than live up to its ferocious title, I find the piece rather even-handed, and I must say I find its conclusion about his music well-put:
Zorn is an exceptional artist, without question, because he prizes and seeks exceptionalism above all. This is not to say that he is exceptionally good at his art. What he is good at–so very good as to suggest a kind of genius–is being exceptional. Unfortunately, uniqueness is not an aesthetic value; it is a term of classification. To say that Zorn is one of a kind, as he certainly is, is to ignore the larger matters of his nature as an artist and, more significantly, the nature of his work, much of which is thin and gimmicky, and some of which is elementally corrupt.
Through his fiercely individualistic modes of working, Zorn deters attention to the work itself. He is obsessed with processes and systems, and he is often cavalier about their results….
The first music I heard by Zorn was Archery, in 1981, which sounded to me like Mauricio Kagel – whom I later learned had been an early influence on Zorn. The second was The Big Gundown, which appeared on Nonesuch in 1986, and which I found clever, genre-busting, and attractive. I’ve been waiting 21 years to hear something else of his I liked nearly as well.