In Which I Am Poeticized

I would be loath to argue that seeing me talk about 4’33” in front of the Maverick Concert Hall adds anything worthwhile to what can be gleaned from my book on it, but filmmaker Cambiz A. Khosravi, a historian of Woodstock, NY, has created such a video from an interview he did with me. As it ends, note the length (you can guess). Toward the end I overstate the dearth of indigenous American musical influences prior to 4’33”; perhaps what I said made more sense in the context of the complete interview. I’m a good writer partly because I’m a good editor and reviser of my own words. I’m a middling extemporaneous speaker because time, at least insofar as I’m equipped to experience it, only goes one direction. Another thing I’d love to revise about the video is the 30 pounds I’ve shed since it was filmed. But I find my white hair blowing in the Catskill wind kind of poetic.

And speaking of poetry, a Boston poet friend of John Luther Adams, John Shreffler, wrote the following poem in response to JLA’s and my pilgrimage to Concord:

For John Luther Adams

The experience aspires to communion,
But the art is various, so many
Different ways to do it, sometimes you feel
It wrap its arm around you as its other
Hand reaches in and neatly lifts your wallet;
That would be Wagner, while Beethoven and Ives
Storm Heaven, locked in wars into which you’re drafted,

But sometimes, now and then, the artist nods,
Lost in his thought and fumbles with the keys
And turns the pauky lock and opens the door
And inside lie mansions, where the conversation
Is real and equal and, as well, ecstatic
And shimmers like the Northern Lights laid out
In a Heaven into which you’re invited.



  1. lawrencedillon says

    Love the way Shreffler captures the rambliness of conversation with six “and”s capped off by an “as well” in the second stanza.

  2. mclaren says

    Would certainly prove provocative to organize a roundtable discussion on the issue of the origin of “the American sound” in contemporary music.

    My own sense invovles a series of waves of innovation driven by economics and/or tech. The first big wave seems to have hit in the 1920s: Ives’ Symphonies, Ruth Crawford Seeger’s piano pieces, Cowell’s radical piano techniques (like The Banshee and The Aeolian Harp and The Tides of Manaunaun) but equally as much his wildly polymetric pieces like Fabric and Rhythmicana and Concerto for Rhythmicon and Orchestra, Dane Rudyhar’s 1920s piano pieces, and so on. A lot of these pieces owed as much to tech as to technique — viz., Concerto for Rhythmicon and Orchestra.

    The second big wave hit in the 1930s — this wave seems to have kick-started neorhythmic music (you call it totalism) started by Johanna Beyer with her 1930s percussion pieces that use wild time sigs like 2 1/2/4. Nobody else was doing that, period, AFAICT. It carried Cowell’s rhythmic innovations forward and fed into the same “fourth world music” stream that Lou Harrison explored in the 1940s and pieces like Cowell’s own Ostinato PIanissimo and Colin McPhee’s Tabu Tabuhan broached. You could call these precursors of minimalism and/or world music as well as percursors of neorhythmic music. BTW, the first American gamelan was built in 1930.

    The third big wave hit in the early 1950s. This was driven by tech: 1953 marked the year German acetate-tape recorders got imported to the U.S. from Europe (prior sound recorders in America used wire for recording so you couldn’t splice the recording medium). The seminal 1953 concert of Luening and Ussachevsky’s tape music in New York in 1953 and Bebe & Louis Barron’s early pieces hit like a thunderbolt in the early 1950s. At the same time, Lou Harrison started building and tuning a junkyard gamelan (courtesy of an oscilloscope wielded by Bill Colvig — that’s how they had to tune xenharmonic homebuilt instruments back then) in the early 1950s. Partch built and tuned his extended JI instruments too during that period. So you got both tape music in America, which sounded radically different from the tape music being done in France/Germany, and home-built Third World-type instruments, something you didn’t get in Europe in the 1950s at all.

    Starting in 1964 you got the first online computer music facility in Stanford modeled after Bell Labs’ facility and then soon thereafter an online computer music facility at Princeton (they shlepped the tapes down to Murray Hilly NJ for D/A conversion). Computer music was something radically new and with no precedent in Europe, a complete original “American sound.” Arguably early minimalism came out of Bell’s Murray Hills Lab — does anyone else recall that the very first concert played at The Kitchen in 1970 consisted of modal-sounding and world-music-like minimalist tape pieces by Laurie Spiegel and Emmanuel Ghent originally done at Bell Labs?

    You got another wave of innovation in the mid-1970s courtesy of microprocessors. David Behrman and the League of Automatic Music Composers hot-wired KIM-1 computers to interface with homebuilt synthesis modules to generate music that sounds nothing like what was going on in Europe. Pieces like Behrman’s On the Shores Of Another Ocean (1978) came from beyond Pluto by comparison with the electronic stuff being done at Darmstadt and IRCAM and the GRM in Europe.

    The next wave of innovation seems to have gotten started by MIDI and personal computers. Europeans were way late to that party, preferring elite high-priest minicomputer shrines to the elite like IRCAM. Even when personal workstations took over from minis and mainframes, IRCAM still tried to preserve it as elite venue with the ISPW. That effort went down in flames and ever since it’s been shleps from the undergroudn and low-rent free open source software shmucks who’ve ruled in computer and electronic music, to the horror of the high priests of modernism at IRCAM.

    So isn’t that early-50s breakthrough of “American sound” just one of a series? Or am I getting this completely wrong here?

    KG replies: Hey, I admitted that what I said didn’t make much sense. It got greatly exaggerated from the more reasoned statement in my book.

  3. says

    In most national classical musics, the classical interchange with the local folk (/popular) styles gets highlighted. In that context, Gottschalk rarely gets the credit he deserves. Anticipated Joplin, Gershwin, Copland, Bernstein, and many others in the use of African-American rhythms; anticipated Ives and Copland in quoting Stephen Foster.
    KG replies: I agree.

  4. says

    Kyle — I found this site a while ago through the vice of auto-googling (you mentioned me once), and have been enjoying your music and prose ever since. I thought you’d like to know. I salute you across the decades!

    And that’s a charming video. Congratulations on that halo.

    KG replies: Hi Doug. I’ll never forget that performance of Cage’s Experiences No. 1 we did. Nor your comment that your favorite rhythm was a steady quarter-note, which sometimes comes to mind while I’m composing.

  5. says

    What a lovely piece that is! Maybe we should play it again. I don’t remember saying that about the quarter notes, but I’m not surprised. I think I was besotted at the time with Satie’s “Rosicrucian” music. (Which, of course, I still am.)

    KG replies: Hey, I’m still besotted with Satie – along with Ives, Busoni, and Feldman.

  6. says

    Kyle, I know I’m a little late to the party, but I just finished reading “No Such Thing As Silence,” and was thoroughly delighted by it. Thank you.

    KG replies: Thank *you*.