PostClassic: January 2004 Archives
"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 birth. I was raised in a classical-music household, and while I remember as a kid wanting a Beatles haircut, I didn't buy one of their albums - I swear this is true, and you'll think less of me - until the 1990s. Curiosity finally got the better of me. Rock music had never entered my consciousness in any lasting way. I was a day-dreamy, isolated kid who spent all his time reading (War and Peace, Paradise Lost), and was lucky enough in high school to find other classical-music geeks to hang out with. (There's no classical-music geek so militant as a beleaguered Dallas, Texas, classical-music geek.)
Today, I haven't lived in a place with television reception in 15 years. I see the occasional snippet of Friends or Frasier (sp?) in a hotel lobby, and I'm viscerally repulsed by the facts that 1. I'm expected to find these predictable strings of crap witticisms funny, and, 2. 15 out of every 30 minutes is spent trying to sell me expensive cars and unhealthy food. If getting in touch with my culture required watching entire episodes of Friends, or watching Jurassic Park III for that matter, then it can't be worth it. I've never read any King, but I recently read a couple of Elmore Leonard novels because Robert Ashley recommended their use of language to me; then I sent them to the used-book store. They were entertaining in a one-dimensional way, but I can't imagine reading them twice. I like to think that I'm in touch with "Western Culture," since I've read all the Shakespeare plays and know all the Beethoven Quartets, but of course that's not what we mean when we say "our culture" today, and clearly not what King meant.
So by the two, count 'em, two social categories available today, this makes me an elitist. Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind must be one of my favorite books. I must fiercely defend the white male canon and weep over the dumbing-down of American culture. I must gnash my teeth over the destruction caused by cultural relativism. I must see Pierre Boulez and Elliott Carter as the last representatives of a great musical culture that may now be no more. I must think that Schoenberg is a real intellectual's music, good thick beef for the mind and ear, and be disgusted that the treacly minimalist doodlings of Philip Glass are taken seriously. I must be upset that Stephen King got that award.
So it's funny, isn't it? that I don't recognize myself in this caricature, and I doubt that you do either. More importantly, I also don't recognize in it any of the music that I've devoted the last 20 years of my life to. That unacknowledged, indefinable genre that we sometimes call "new music" has always been devoted to the proposition that music can avoid being superficial and enslaved to commercial conventions, AND that it can avoid being arid, difficult to comprehend, and elitist, AND that it can avoid both at the same time. There's a middle way, or not even a middle but a third, unrelated way. Music can be simple, natural, clear, defining its own musical language as it goes along, even if it's weird and counterintuitive and full of unusual effects and materials. It can be a sincere outpouring of what its composer wants to hear and express, without either pitching itself to some commercial niche that already exists and is easily marketed, and equally without building one more airless, redundant floor on the tottering skyscraper of Euro-classical tradition. Some new music artists, it's true, incorporate the instruments and beats of pop music in an attempt to build a bridge to pop music fans. This is an unobjectionable personal choice, but the jury is still out on whether it makes any practical difference.
This seems pretty obvious. So why is "our culture" called upon to take up sides? Who outlawed diversity and nuance? If you don't assume that a disc that sells a million copies is good, why must you assume it's bad? One of my own professions, musicology, has dutifully split itself in half according to the media paradigm: either you write papers deconstructing pop culture these days, or you bury yourself in Bach manuscripts, looking for the one hitherto-overlooked detail that will make your career. No wonder new music can't make any cultural impact: it doesn't pledge its allegiance to either of the straw men who are our only candidates. It tries to say that physical enjoyment, emotional pleasure, and intellectual interest can all fuse in one activity, one piece of art, and in the current neurotic polarization of culture no one wants to hear that right now. I like to think, though, that, if artists are truly "the antennae of the race," perhaps the very existence of new music forecasts a future within our lifetimes when that polarization will explode and disintegrate, bringing us to a relative golden age of holistic human realism and satisfaction.
I've said all this before. What piqued my self-examination this time was that question, "Do you get brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your culture?" Clearly, the answer is no. My refusal to watch Friends need earn me no respect, and is a matter of preference, not pride. (Or maybe luck - I mentioned to a class yesterday that I was completely out of touch with American culture, and a freshman said, "Boy, you're lucky.") The question is, does music need to be in touch with its culture? And that splits into two questions: Does music need to be in touch with its culture in order to be great? and, Does music need to be in touch with its culture in order to be commercially successful?
I remember something in Jurassic Park I that impressed me. The tyrannosaurus was chasing the car, and the character saw the damn thing in the rearview mirror, and in the mirror you read the familiar words, "Caution: objects in mirror may be closer than they appear." I thought that was brilliant, and - this was '93, when it came out - I remember thinking, "That's the kind of detail I would never have thought of, because I'm too serious and not in touch with my culture." Or words to that effect. That kind of in-touchness certainly gives an artist a hook into his audience's psyche. It establishes sympathy, and tells each audience member, "I'm just like you, I live in your world, I notice the things you notice." But if ten years from now cars no longer have that caution in their rear-view mirrors, that hook loses its point for the next generation. And if Jurassic Park I had told a really gripping human story that engaged us emotionally, rather than taking us on a kind of tense roller-coaster ride of the imagination, would that visual joke have been necessary? Might it even have been distracting, as irrelevant to the story? Do we always need the author assuring us he's one of us? How much more is Steven Spielberg "like me" than, say, a Chinese dissident who has an important story to tell, but no contact with my culture at all? And aren't we most "into" the story when the author just disappears?
There are many, many virtues an artist can have. Being in touch with his or her culture is certainly one of them, and not one to be despised. Someone with my personality has to even look at that virtue with some respect and envy. But it's not the only virtue, nor does it seem a necessary one. I don't believe Beethoven was much in touch with his culture in the Grosse Fuge (everyone thought he was crazy), and I don't believe Morton Feldman was much in touch with his culture in the softly pulsing dissonances of For Samuel Beckett. Certain music comes at us from outside the culture and makes its own argument without the reinforcement of context. People in Kansas can be enchanted, after all, by the Bulgarian Women's Chorus. Music that does not rely on cultural clues has to define itself more clearly, which is why minimalism was so damn obvious. And as for whether music needs to be in touch with its culture in order to be commercially successful - that depends on who's controlling the mechanisms of distribution and what their object is. There are thousands of people who turn away from commercial culture in disgust - don't they deserve to have music made for them? How to get it to them in a profit-maximizing society is the question.
In any case, I do wish that we in the media could portray a more subtle, nuanced picture than this either/or culture war. Stephen King getting the National Book Foundation award doesn't make me fear that cultural life is accelerating to its final collapse, but it's not going to make me go read a Stephen King novel, either. It should become more obvious than it is that elitism is not the sole alternative to banality, and vice versa. It's like the great vending machine of our culture has only two buttons, Madonna and Elliott Carter - and few of us seem to know that there are more nourishing choices around than either.
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 publishing.
It might seem odd that a critic of postclassical music is so excited about Burney (1726-1814), but I've always felt a special kinship for the paripatetic old music scholar. Burney was a composer of sonatas and theater music whose career pressures pushed him into writing music history - in itself, this description does not distinguish him from me. Moreover, as a composer-historian Burney projects a delightful sense that history was being made all around him, and that the most worthwhile thing a scholar could do was chronicle his own time - deficient and superlative, the ephemeral along with the enduring. Had the Village Voice existed in 1770, Burney would have written for it. Aside from Gretry, Traetta, and other relatively trivial theater composers of his day, he reported on military bands and pipe organs in each new town, visited C.P.E. Bach, and chronicled the beginnings of the symphony in the hands of Wagenseil, Canabich, and the celebrated Mannheim Orchestra. One has to remember that these two books appeared before either Haydn or Mozart had written the works for which they are now remembered, during one of music history's most forgettable lulls, yet one does not get the feeling that Burney is disappointed with his era, nor considers it inferior to music of the past - another point of resemblence.
The only problem with the edition is, being a facsimile, it follows the the 18th-century English practice of using for every "s" not at the end of a word the character that looks like an "f" but with the right half of its cross-line missing. So "founding" and "sounding," "finger" and "singer," "foul" and "soul" are difficult to distinguish quickly, "bassoon" turns into "baffoon," and one does a series of double-takes in sentences that look like, "all was fo diffonant and falfe, that notwithftanding the building is immenfe, and not very favorable to found,... in fpite of two or three fweet and powerful voices among the boys, the whole was intolerable to me...." Like reading someone with a speech impediment. Aside from that, Burney is as entertaining as his reputation suggests, if quite a complainer about travel conditions, and as 18th-century musicology goes, it's a quick read.
Today, when the musicological community has almost totally turned their backs on recent creative music, deciding en masse that music history ended in 1976 with Einstein on the Beach, we need more of Burney's spirit, his conviction that searching libraries for old manuscripts was fine but not nearly as exciting as visiting living composers and documenting their activities. It reminds me of a remark composer Larry Polansky once made to me. Polansky and I were comparing notes, talking about his work on manuscripts by Harry Partch and Johanna Beyer, and mine on Conlon Nancarrow and Mikel Rouse. Finally he said, "Composers today are doing what musicologists used to do, while all the musicologists are off doing gender studies." Perhaps that was true for old Burney as well. So I toasted him in the most English way I could think of, reading him in a London pub over beef-and-ale pie and a few pints of Theakston's Old Peculier.
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 remember that I wanted to pass a car that seemed to be using cruise control. For fun, I decided to set my own car on cruise control just a bit faster than the other. I remember "phasing" past that car ever so slowly, thinking and feeling that this was like being in the guts of an early Steve Reich piece.
But I also had a personal insight that for me was crucial. I realized that if I were doing the same basic thing without cruise control on, I would have reacted very differently. There's a lot of psychological tension when you get close to that other car. You don't want to be in their blind spot, etc. I'm sure that without the cruise control on I would have sped up and passed him as I got close. A silly stoner-type thought maybe, but for me it was mental fireworks!
I realized the element of "human consciousness" was absent when using cruise control. So in music if a process is a mechanical one, it might be beautiful and elegant, but in the end for me it was doomed to be sterile. What was needed was to inject human consciousness into the process. As the composer, I needed to jump inside, dance around, see how it felt. Push it, stretch it, speed up, slow down. In other words, turn OFF the Cruise Control.
Knowing Becker's music, which has a general postminimalist momentum and shape but great freedom within the note-to-note details, I can easily see how this realization about free will would translate into compositional technique.
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.
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 of the best-known of Tenney's varied works (Spectral Canon, Koan, For 12 Strings (Rising), Chromatic Canon, Critical Band) give it to you straight in a more uncompromised, even severe form that doesn''t always sound like what you think of as music but is often surprisingly sensuous. Critical Band, for instance, slowly opens up an overtone series the way you might watch a flower open up, and it's an enchanting experience. Bob Gilmore, a Tenney expert, played me a recent similar orchestral work called Diapason, which is exponentially more beautiful: no rhythm, no tunes, just a slow, rich timbral metamorphosis before your astonished ears. I wish I could tell you how to hear Diapason: we badly need more of Tenney's music on disc.
American music in particular has always had a recurring back-to-nature element, and it comes at opportune moments. In the 1970s, 12-tone music, serialism, stochastic music, chance music, all left us up in the air about what music was supposed to be, and Reich and Tenney, along with La Monte Young, Phill Niblock, Tom Johnson, and some others, returned us to a kind of secure bedrock of sonic processes. Johnson, purveyor of pieces based in simple arithmetical logic, came up with the motto, "I want to discover the music, not compose it," which well expresses the extreme endpoint of a kind of objectivist mindset. That music grounded us in the nature of sound, and opened up a new era. My own proclivity, especially as a composer but pretty much as a listener as well, is that objectivity is not endlessly satisfying, and that eventually the human element needs to reappear, since music is (and this is not so self-evident or uncontroversial as it sounds), for me, a communication between human beings.
But what I see as the problem of literalism in music is something much wider and deeper. The gradual processes of Reich and Tenney are at least right on the surface and you can listen to them: the musical interest is in the tension between the objective process and the subjective listener. The bulk of the iceberg is all the literal process and method and structure in late-20th-century music that you can't hear. One notable example is Elliott Carter's piano piece Night Fantasies, which is structured around a cross-rhythm of 175 against 216. Buried within the mercurial texture are accented chords which mark off that slow phase relationship over a 20-minute period. You can't hear 175 against 216 over 20 minutes with a lot of other stuff going on: from the listener's subjective apprehension of the appearance of the piece, it's unimportant that that's in there. Neither is it a criticism of the piece that it contains that inaudible structure, but it is symptomatic of the late-20th-century situation in which many, many composers came to believe that as long as they knew some objective structure was in the music, it didn't matter whether the audience could hear it, or indeed what the audience heard. As Babbitt says in Words about Music, "It's not whether you can hear it, but how you conceptualize it." And by the latter "you," he clearly seems to have meant the composer, not the listener.
So you can't hear everything that goes on in late-20th-century music: this is hardly a novel complaint, and hardly worth reiterating. What I am urging is an explicit revival of the ancient aesthetic principle that art is about appearances, not about reality. I complain about a piece of music and the composer thinks he has refuted me because he can show me in the score the fascinating structure I missed. (I once heard a very erudite lecture analyzing Carter's music at a prestigious college. Hanging around afterward, I overheard the lecturer sadly tell a friend, "You know, you find all those wonderful structures in Carter's music, but then when you listen to it, you can't hear them.") We still let certain composers get away with justifying their music via things that are "really" there but that we can't hear, and, worse, in teaching composition we still tend to emphasize inner musical structure over audience perception. The problem is admittedly on the wane, but making a plea for "what the audience can hear" will still garner looks of condescension and contempt in many composers' circles. What I'd like to see in our musical discourse is for "You can't hear that" to become a damning critical interdiction, and for "but it's really there" to become an inadmissable defense.
My work has taken me into theater lately, and the theatrical attitude offers a good lesson for composers. The script calls for a sausage. The director, looking around, picks up a stuffed sock. "That doesn't look like a sausage," I say. "It will from the audience," the director calmly replies, and he's right. And how it looks, or sounds, from the audience is all that matters.
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 appropriated, but not everyone has been so scrupulous. But now, according to Professor Wiggins, Ghana has become the first country to charge royalties for use of its culture's indigenous music. In other words, if you visit Ghana, learn a traditional tune, and go back and use that tune on a recording or concert, you'll owe some fee to the state of Ghana. It's an interesting new model, because no one individual is responsible for traditional music, and other countries are likely to pick up on it. Among other things, it means that ethnomusicologists will acquire a new role: as legal experts in court cases over the unremunerated theft of ethnic musics.
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, pianos playing in the music building, the scratching of pens, heaters humming. After the four and a half minutes is up, I tell them that they've just heard a performance of a famous piece of music, John Cage's 4'33". Sometimes they get very excited, and once a girl exclaimed, "I never realized there was so much to listen to!" The only negative comments I've ever gotten are along the lines of, "You mean, Cage got paid for doing that!?" I assure them he didn't.
Contrary to some popular belief, 4'33" is not four minutes of silence, nor four minutes of outraged audience protest: it is four minutes of unintended, accidental sound considered as music, a frame placed around a random set of noises. It shows the arbitrariness of how we decide to perceive something as art. It begins to attune us to our sonic environment, to disable the filters we keep in place to ignore our daily life. It is such a whimsical, wise, harmless, cheerful, edifying, non-commercial gesture. So I'm thrilled the BBC broadcast the piece over the radio (see the story here), and shocked that, 51 years after it became part of music history, there are still people who can think Cage was trying to pull something over on the world. What he was trying to pull over on you, mate, was your own damn life. Take a listen to it sometime.
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 aesthetic argument. In the '70s there were so many issues to argue. Is 12-tone music an inevitable development in musical language? Is chance a valid compositional technique? Is returning to tonality a copout? Can the process aspect of minimalist music be divorced from its prettiness? In college I remember one of my friends asking, why couldn't Steve Reich have used a 12-tone row for Piano Phase?
And on and on. Any composer who came to visit a college was not just an artist, but a salesman. He or she had techniques to sell. One assured us that 12-tone music would be the wave of the future. Another demonstrated that microtones were the only place left to go. Another brought a feminist critique of the avant-garde, and offered a more holistic, nurturing approach. Still others used Marxist terminology, and shook their heads over the "elitist" avant-garde, enjoining us to examine our musical intentions in terms of the class struggle. Students took sides, some boycotting certain composers' presentations as a political statement. When Petr Kotik and Julius Eastman played some long, austere, chance-inflected pieces at Oberlin in 1974, one of the 12-tone students tried to disrupt the concert by banging on the door from outside. Students challenged the famous composers. Some years before me at Oberlin, Christopher Rouse is said to have asked Morton Feldman, after his lecture, "Mr. Feldman? Why is your music so boring?" (Feldman's incredulous answer: "Borrrring? BORRRRing?... You should BE so boring!")
I'm not so sure that the composers, many of whom had comfortable careers and secure teaching positions, saw themselves as selling something - that may have been the perception only because we were in the market to buy. We were picking a horse to bet on - Who do you favor in the fifth race, Minimalism, Conceptualism, or Twelve-Tone? We were buying stock, and watching the ticker tape carefully. Ambitious, we wanted to get ahead, and looked for assurance that the musical movement we latched onto would still be hot when we graduated. We were also artists, and looking for something to believe in, something that felt right and offered us creative room to grow.
Today, that sense that there are winners and losers among musical styles is gone, somewhat to everyone's relief. More prevalent is the feeling that all styles have lost, and the entire scene is in danger. Yet there is no lessening of interest in making avant-garde music, whatever that is. 21-year-olds are inherently idealistic, and have been scoffing at society's Philistine threats for as long as this tree's been standing here, probably. The pleasant democracy of styles, however, does not mean there aren't aesthetic issues to discuss, and all the more reason that we should discuss them now, when the situation isn't so polarized, now that the names Reich, Feldman, Ferneyhough, Carter, Partch, Meredith Monk, can all be raised without much fear that anyone will jeer at any of them.
For instance, most of my music can be considered tonal. Among students, the fact doesn't seem to raise any eyebrows. One composition professor here seemed slightly disappointed that some of my harmonies are so simple. I do feel, and I think it would still be found to be a controversial opinion if one asked around, that complexity versus simplicity of harmony is a dead issue, beaten to death by the last generation, and that any type of harmony can now be legitimately used to articulate musical structures; that the large-scale structure is more expressive than any particular means used to delineate it. But no discussion ensues on this topic.
More interestingly, I find among students a concern for linear processes, and both James Tenney and Steve Reich have been influential in this area. Some young composers go through tremendous calculations to work out their musical forms to be geometrically exact. Personally, I find this type of thinking too literal, and I consider literalism the great disease of late 20th-century music. Twelve-toners started it: the 12-tone row and its permutations were a very literal technique. By basing one passage on a pitch row and the next on its retrograde inversion, one created a literal kind of unity, but with no assurance that a unified impression would result. One practically had to torment the 12-tone method, as Dallapiccola sometimes did, to create a meaningful appearance of musical unity. Likewise, the objective calculation of an exact process is not always the best way to convey the metaphor of a gradual process. To his great credit, Reich quickly moved from the physically exact process of his tape-loop piece Come Out to the metaphorical, far more expressive nonlinear process of Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ. It was an important lesson, and one I benefitted from.
James Tenney was one of the most recent composers to visit Dartington, and his love of exact processes survives as a student interest. Tenney is a great musician, and I love much of his music, but I collegially disagree with the emphasis on exact process that his musical example encourages. We are not machines, taking in numerical data, but human begins, who communicate through symbols, whose meaning is often arbitrary in its basis, but collectively agreed upon. I love the idea of a piece of music starting as one thing and gradually metamorphosing into something else. But I find it more rewarding, as a composer and as a listener, when the process is suggested humanly and intuitively, in stages, with detours and surprises, and in terms of harmonies, rhythms, textures that the listener can recognize and assimilate as they go by.
More important than my stand on that or any particular issue, though, is my (and Gilmore's) disappointment that there is very little apparent argument these days about which direction music should take. I don't single out Dartington: I find the same experience almost everywhere, and no public forum available for composers to debate aesthetic convictions. Musical decisions made collectively, through controversy, survival of resistance, and mutual correction, carry authority. No one needs or wants musical polemics to be as vitriolic and dismissive as they were 30 years ago, but the lack of discussion today leads to a dull acquiescence in everything, and a lack of community. Perhaps now everyone's too afraid to hurt each other's feelings. But Bob's playing me CDs of spectral music, I'm playing him postminimalist music, each of us dubious about the other's tastes and defending our own - and it sort of feels like old times.
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 - 61. Is this 2004? Why wasn't I informed?] One of the first postminimalist composers, possibly the first depending on how you define the style, Duckworth remains one of the best. (By the way, unlike some writers I don't use "postminimalist" to refer to general minimalist influence, but as a very specific American style of the 1980s. You can read my New Music Box article on postminimalism for details.) Duckworth's music is elegant, logical, tuneful, and yet leaves room for improvisation, dissonance, collage, and chance techniques without losing its own identity. His break-through came in 1979 with his hour-long piano work The Time Curve Preludes, a subtle, mesmerizing cycle of pieces weaving together bluegrass banjo techniques, chant, Erik Satie's Vexations, quasi-Indian modes, Messiaen-like rhythmic structures, and subtly veiled minimalist processes into a smooth fusion. I first heard it at New Music America in Minneapolis in 1980, which might pinpoint the true beginning of Duckworth's public career. Everyone I've ever played the CD for has expressed a desire to run out and buy it. It's a classic.
And it remains Duckworth's signature work, though I feel he's surpassed it. His choral cycle Southern Harmony drew on shaped-note hymn-singing techniques from early rural America, and shaped it with a minimalist ear. His Imaginary Dances is another stellar piano cycle: charming, more nuanced than The Time Curve Preludes, its liveliness begging you to analyze the tricky rhythmic devices through which he creates it. Blue Rhythms is a delightful trio for clarinet, cello, and piano, with a springy jazz feel. Mysterious Numbers, with its syncopated counterpoint of melodies rising and falling against each other, is the piece with which he started transferring that aesthetic to orchestra. If there is any composer from the 1980s and '90s whose music is sturdy, enduring, and universal enough to go into the standard repertoire, it is Duckworth's. In fact, come to think of it, if you're a Lou Harrison fan looking for who might follow in that tradition, Duckworth is a logical next step.
In recent years, Duckworth has divided his career between composed works and his massive internet project, Cathedral, which you can access here. Cathedral has drawn him into the world of listener-contributed sound samples, improvisation, and DJ-ing: live performances of his Cathedral Band are grounded in the disc-spinning of Seattle's DJ Tamara. One of the main features of postminimalism, though, and especially in Duckworth's conception of the style, is that it can draw so many disparate elements into a smooth fusion that doesn't seem eclectic at all. As I've written before, everything Mr. D eats turns into Mr. D. Now that he's past 60, it's time to recognize him as one of America's leading musical statesmen, a major influence on a generation or two of younger composers (myself included), and someone whose music elegantly crystallized a refreshingly calm moment in the otherwise chaotic late 20th century.
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 musical life. And Totnes is a short cab ride from Torquay, so I'll be making my usual pilgrimage to the land of Basil and Sibyl Fawlty.
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 Stravinsky's counterpoint trips into parallel unisons that don't sound like unisons, and why he was the only major 20th-century composer no one could get away with imitating. It is the most creative literary homage I ever seen made to a composer, not to mention a gold mine of clever quotations by and about Stravinsky. OUT OF PRINT.
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 parapsychological phenomena and precognitions.... Freud never offered a sustained account [of the conversation], but in Jung's version, he "absolutely" rejected both, which caused Jung to accuse him of "materialistic bias" and to persist stubbornly in describing his own personal experiences. When he told of the knife that shattered [a large knife lying in a drawer in Jung's house had once spontaneously shattered into pieces in the presence of his psychic cousin], Freud "expressed such a flat positivism" that Jung found it difficult "not to respond in a way that would have been a bit too biting."...
Suddenly, there occurred such a noise from the glass-fronted bookcase in front of which they were sitting that they both jumped, fearing it would fall on them. "Now this is a so-called catalytic exteriorization phenomenon," Jung insisted. "Oh, no, that is complete nonsense," Freud replied. To prove his point, Jung insisted that there would be another noise, and immediately there was "an indescribably terrible noise in the cabinet!"
"Freud looked at me with horror then," Jung remembered. "This raised a distrust of me in him, for you see, something like that isn't possible, something like that doesn't exist in his worldview. Consequently, for him, I had to be absolutely out of kilter somewhere...." They never spoke of this incident again and the conversation moved to other subjects chosen by Freud.
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 lately.)
Richard Wagner wrote his masterpiece Die Meistersinger in the 1870s. It's about an older man, Han Sachs, who flirts with a young woman, Eva. Eva is to be wed off to the best singer in a singing contest, and as the greatest of the meistersingers, the widowed Sachs, as the libretto hints, could conceivably want that prize for himself. Instead, he paternally helps Eva win Walther, the young man she's in love with.
Zip ahead 110 years. Woody Allen makes the film Husbands and Wives, in which he plays a college professor tempted to bed a beautiful young graduate student who flirts with him. Allen's character decides, at film's end, not to get involved with her.
Here's the parallel. While Wagner was writing Die Meistersinger, he was having an affair with Cosima Wagner, his best friend's daughter and the wife of his young conductor protege Hans von Bulow. He stole Cosima from von Bulow and married her. In short, in the character of Han Sachs, Wagner portrayed a man who, in the same position as Wagner, made the admirable choice that Wagner couldn't bring himself to make.
And Woody Allen wrote and directed Husbands and Wives while he was involved with his girlfriend's adopted daughter Soon Yi, whom he subsequently married. In the film he protrays himself making the opposite of the choice he made in real life.
Now: why would two artists as disparate as Richard Wagner and Woody Allen, both getting scandalously involved with young women to whom they originally seemed to be paternal figures, both create works of art depicting, as honorable, men who made exactly the opposite decision?
Is there perhaps a kind of artist who succeeds in his art to allow himself to fail in his life?
There's a useful term that I've only seen in French - deformation professionel - and I don't see why it would lose anything in English translation as "professional deformation." It refers to the things that begin to separate us from the rest of the population as a result of our evolving according to the pattern of our different professions.
I thought about this as I read film critic after film critic include Lost in Translation among his or her top ten films of 2003. As someone who was tempted to leave half an hour into the film, and irritated, when it finally slithered to its pointless end, that I had bothered to stay, I searched for reasons to consider it one of the niftier things since sliced bread. They didn't convince me. "Atmosphere" was one. And Sophia Coppola's atmosphere was OK, but I couldn't see that the film gained anything from being set in Japan aside from a couple of cheap, not very funny jokes about Japanese culture. The one that came closest to making sense was, and I paraphrase, "It's rare to see a director show as much appreciation for an actor's talent as Coppola does for Bill Murray." And I thought, well, that sounds like a film critic's reason to like a film. That's his professional deformation. It sounds like someone who watches films virtually continuously, perennially gets annoyed by good actors who are underused, and as Lost in Translation wafts by right after The Return of the Ring and before Mona Lisa Smile, thinks, "Boy, Bill Murray got a lot of screen time." But for someone like me, who watches maybe a film DVD a week and can spare time to go to the local bijou somewhat less often than once a month, the fact that Coppola appreciates Murray's talent is slim compensation for the fact that the plot never comes to any point of fruition, that all obvious avenues of complication are simply sidestepped, that the wealth of cultural detail turns out to be gratuitous and never adds up to anything - not to mention the fact that Bill Murray only gets to deliver about 1/100th as many clever lines in Lost in Translation as he does in one of my favorite comedies, Groundhog Day. After all, I kind of thought it was my prerogative, as audience member, to appreciate the actor's talent, not the director's prerogative.
I also suspect that the fulsome praise given the film (since none of my friends are film critics, and few of them thought much of the film either) contains an elitist element of savoring the avoidance of the cliché. Romances are about people who get drawn into affairs, and if you watch eight romances a week among your dozens of action films, thrillers, goofball comedies, etc., it must be a refreshing reversal to see an obvious romance not turn into a romance, like easing up on an overused muscle. But films are not so much part of my daily routine that I can savor the avoidance of something. I'm happy to see a romance not turn into a romance if it becomes something else, but I don't get any thrill, as professionals must, from seeing a director cleverly get a film through studio production without it ever achieving its painfully obvious goal.
So do I have a bee in my bonnet about film critics liking Lost in Translation? Nah, don't listen to me, what do I know from film? Among my favorite flicks are Eraserhead and Greaser's Palace, which gross all my friends out. The reason I bring it up is that the disconnect between me and the film critics makes me scared about my own professional deformation. After all, I live a weird life. My apartment is lined all round with brim-filled, floor-to-ceiling CD cabinets, and for various periods I'm listening to things almost continuously - a little of this, compare it with that, write down the lyrics from this, figure out a chord progression there, play two minutes of this old disc as a reminder, listen to this brand new disc already writing the review in my head as soon as the first sound blares out. It's not a "normal" relationship to music. In music, I can appreciate a piece that does little more than avoid the predictable cliché. I can listen to La Monte Young sing raspily over a drone for an hour, and as long as he doesn't hit an out-of-tune note, think, "Wow, that's amazing." I hear what happens in a piece, but perhaps I also too much hear every piece IN RELATION to every other piece in roughly the same genre. Music is never an isolated pleasure for me, but exists as a segment in a continuous web in which I spend nearly every waking moment wrapped, and rapt.
So I'm an expert. Everything I say about music is true, and insightful. But it doesn't follow from that that you, assuming you can afford fifty bucks a month to blow at the CD store, should jump at my every recommendation. I read film critics for interesting insights, but I don't automatically run to films they rave about, and the more prestigious their publication, the less, in a way, I trust them. It has struck me over the years that there are "critic's composers," composers who get rave reviews from critics for decades - Elodie Lauten and David Garland come to mind in the new-music world - without ever catching on with audiences. Of course, concert presenters and record producers have to be taken into account too, since they have their own professional deformations, and I'm always privately ranting about the perverse tastes of people who run record labels. We live in a world of specialists, and all things considered, it's amazing we communicate as well as we do. We experts have to remember to look at our field from the outside, as a small part of everyone else's cultural life, and offer our more esoteric insights not as pronouncements from on high, but as interesting examples of how to think - examples that may or may not expand the range of what non-music-experts can enjoy. We need to distinguish between perceptions that can be legitimately developed and deepened and those that are illusions of our professional deformation. (There are certainly movies I've learned to understand more deeply on repeated viewings, such as Greaser's Palace, but I can't imagine any "levels" I missed in Lost in Translation; the story sets you up to believe the two characters will have an affair, and, Ha ha! - they don't. Fooled you.) And every now and then, I think critics should take a sabbatical from concerts and their CD collection, something I've never been able to afford to do.
Sites To See
AJ BlogsAJBlogCentral | rss
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
rock culture approximately
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
No genre is the new genre
David Jays on theatre and dance
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
John Rockwell on the arts
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Martha Bayles on Film...
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
Exploring Orchestras w/ Henry Fogel
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
Jerome Weeks on Books
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world
Public Art, Public Space
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog