Descendants of the Prophets

Composer John Luther Adams is teaching at Harvard this semester, and he had never been to Walden Pond before – only 16 miles away, after all – so I drove out and we did the tour together. As you may recall, John is a hard-core Thoreauvian, I’m the Emersonian. Here we are united, however, on the site of Thoreau’s cabin:

So sharply do our mental processes differ and complement each other that we talked much about the Emerson-Ives-Gann world of ideas versus the Thoreau-Cage-Adams world. It amazes us that beings so overlapping in sympathy can be so disparate in perception and capacity. Later we photographically took sides, I at the grave of Emerson:

and John looming larger above Thoreau’s more modest stone:

For nine hours we pondered Transcendentalism, wondered what we were supposed to transcend, marveled at Thoreau’s wooden flute in the Concord Museum, compared teaching experiences, commiserated each other on the condescending looks that female students cast on old fart professors like us, sagely assessed our impression that the music Pulitzer, which had seemed to run amok a few years ago, is back on its familiar track, plotted music’s future, and, like druids in an ancient ritual, took turns trading stories bearing on the significance, influence, and ultimate fates of Tenney, Harrison, Nancarrow, Budd, Feldman, Young, Ashley, Cage, Ives, Cowell, and other luminaries. This world, this private world I share with John and a few other friends, keeps me sane. In it musical justice is ever meticulously meted out, brilliance is steadily recognized, mediocrity deplored, the superficial attraction of fancy musical devices dismissed, the underlying truths of art kept in sharp focus, the mathematics of spirituality grasped in all its paradox. It is, in short, in almost every way the opposite of the world outside our discussions.



  1. says

    Sounds like a delightful visit between you two. If only you’d carried an unobtrusive recording device to preserve all those musings on musical justice and music’s future! the better for you to share with us here!

    No, of course I know that won’t happen. Heaven knows, I fear what might spill out of my brain if I ever started my own blog!! As you said, it’s a private world, but one I’d like to enter with you sometime…not that you don’t provide glimpses into it in your day-to-day blogging.

    For which, and I can’t say it enough, thank you!

    KG replies: I’ve actually considered trying to record some of our conversations, but way too many of my opinions are already public knowledge, and no point in ruining John’s career as well.

  2. says

    The art experience aspires to communion. Communion through friendship is equally precious. Thank you for articulating so crisply the joy of your blessing, and the tang of its fleetingness.

    Love these phrases: “the underlying truths of art kept in sharp focus, the mathematics of spirituality grasped in all its paradox.”


  3. mclaren says

    You and JLA ought to videotape one of your conversations and put it up on YouTube or Vimeo. Seriously. A lot of folks think what you guys have to say might be significant.

    KG replies: More significant, perhaps, than the music world is quite ready for. Await instructions.

  4. says

    Greetings to you Kyle from Klagenfurt Austria where I’m teaching a class on the American Experimental Tradition.
    Like the Emerson/Thoreau divide you mention which as you know I think is often characteristic of experimental composers in this country–sometimes the only thing that connects the widely disparate work they do although that’s not exclusive of course. Just something I’ve noticed over the years. I remember Jim Tenney being concerned about the split when I wrote about it. Hadn’t meant to divide positive/negative in any case. Just different without choosing sides. For me the question has always been about nature related to memory and idealism as opposed to experience and physicality. But lately I begin to see them as less either/or and parts of all that, memory in particular, seem more important to me now (as I get older) than they did then. Still though I’d rather be in nature than think about it, in fact I’m about to walk in it right now, and this is central to the difference (I think) between Emerson and Thoreau, although I can’t speak to that difference in terms of how it relates to you and John!

    KG replies: Of course the dichotomy is illusory, as all dichotomies ultimately are, but I like to think many of them boil down to right/left brain differences, which we’re physiologically stuck with. Funny you should put it the way you do, because I’m not much of a nature-worshipper myself, and not much into camping or hiking – and yet I’ve always insisted on living in the woods, which I’ve basically done for the past 27 years. So I guess I’d rather be in nature than think about it too.

  5. says

    ¿ isn’t Transcendentalism a label for Boston Brahmin discovery of Sanskrit-based spiritual traditions (Brahmanic, Vedic, Upanishadic ; Buddhist ) ? E.G., Emerson’s Oversoul resonant with Atman … If so, weren’t Thoreau & Emerson some times a little unclear as to which was which ? ( The former speaks more of transcending while the latter more of finding enlightenment in daily life … )

    KG replies: Gary, I’m glad you asked, because I’m almost through reading Philip Gura’s excellent and superbly readable American Transcendentalism, and I feel like I finally understand it for the first time. I think Transcendentalism can’t really be scanned today without taking into account the two dominant intellectual and theological trends of the late 18th century: empiricism and Biblical inerrancy. Kant’s ideas about the preconditions of perception threw into doubt the empiricist position that the mind is a blank slate on which experience writes. And biblical exegesis of the day threw the authorial unity of the scriptures into doubt, leaving open the thought that we have to just the Bible according to our own rationality and knowledge, not the other way around. Put the two together, and you get a theological movement based on one’s own inherent spiritual perceptions. So yes, the Upanisads and Bhagavad Gita eventually played a big part, perhaps more as corroborating evidence than as initial inspiration. And Emerson wasn’t really one of the central theorists of the movement, more of an inspirer and popularizer; Thoreau was even less centrally involved. They were the best and most enduring writers, but for the central theology you have to go to Theodore Parker, Orestes Brownson, Frederick Henry Hedge, and some of the others. It was a coherent movement, if perhaps not a terribly original one, and today these conclusions seem so self-evident that it can be difficult to see what the fuss was about. But it was the beginning of real intellectual inquiry in America, and a few incredible writers still read today were peripheral parts of the mix.