PostClassic: February 2004 Archives
If you'll watch now, I'm going to do something very different, for me: an actual short, informative blog entry referring to something I found on the internet, to prove to you that I don't always have to write a 2500-word essay wrapped around a sinuous argument emerging in a moral at the end having to do with the heinous superficiality and crass commercialism of today's world. Watch:
If there were any new music composer of my lifetime whose work I would have thought would be lost to history, it was Arthur Russell. I used to review his performances of his quiet cello songs in my early days at the Voice; he'd sing barely audible lyrics with a Buddhist sensibility over a slight, droning, anti-virtuoso cello part. I found him charming if enigmatic, sort of a shy Downtown Erik Satie. Then he died of AIDS complications in 1992, at 40, and seemed to disappear from public consciousness. Turns out now that he had a whole other career in dance music, and that people who loved that aspect of his work have been busy all these years collecting and preserving his recordings, making sure his legacy isn't lost. I was vaguely aware of such activities, and today Ben Ratliff wrote a big article on Arthur Russell in the Times. Apparently there are several CDs of both sides of his music coming out.
See? I can be trained!
As you may know, I live near a pretty rural town town in the Hudson Valley, and there are interesting advantages to this part of the country. To wit: this morning we ate breakfast in the local diner. The somewhat elderly couple at the next booth were reading the morning paper of a Sunday, and complaining about the political news with a "What's the world coming to?" kind of tone. And the complaint I overheard was: "It's terrible that John Kerry won't just come out and unequivocally say he'll support these gay marriages."
How many rural areas of this country can offer that particular brand of outrage?
Last year I performed at a festival in Birmingham, Alabama, curated by composer Monroe Golden. Also on that festival was a local quartet called Liquid Brick - two percussionists, electric guitar, and acoustic bass, as I recall. Their heavily rhythmic music, with slower harmonic effects on the pitched instruments, was very interesting, and was intertwined with a computerized video show with moving images intercut among each other, both real and abstract. The complex interrelation of sounds and images was entertaining, and represented, I thought, the beginning of a new type of visual-audio synthesis that might draw a large, younger audience to music that, without the visuals, might be a little too weird for them. The fact that such a sophisticated group was down there in Bush-country Alabama only added to the mystique.
Because I was a fellow performer on that festival, I didn't write about Liquid Brick. But today I was recommending them to a student, Googled them, and found, lo, that they have a website at liquidbrick.org with music and visuals, including the film/music I heard, a piece called Eyedrum. Seems to me they would go over very well in New York and other places. I see them described on the web as a noise band, and I'm not always a noise band fan (though I do appreciate Borbetomagus, from a safe distance), so they've evidently achieved some crossover appeal. Check 'em out.
One of New York's self-admitted curmudgeonly composers, who wishes to remain anonymous for understandable reasons, responds to my "Master Narratives" blog entry, going even a little further than I would have:
It has always been curious (and frustrating) to see that contemporary musicians are so willing to anchor themselves to the very narrative that you write about. How many times have you been in a conversation nominally about new music, only to have someone in the group say things like "well, its just like what Bach did in The Art of Fugue" or "If Mozart was alive, he'd definitely have dual processors in his Macintosh" - and my personal favorite, "Beethoven was a great improvisor." Or even composers who bring in historical references into their new works by titling them "Sonata" or "Variations" or the worst - "Ars [fill in the blank]."
My point being, all of this falls into the linear narrative of Eurocentric concert music from the Great Centuries. Yes, the press wants to talk about orchestras, but look at how many of our composers (friends, even!) are still trying to knock on the doors of the concert world (and taking their knocks), speaking in the rhetoric of that world, and perpetuating the myth that they are a welcome part of it.
"Chamber music" - give me a break!
Well, yes, when was the last time a string quartet was actually played in a "chamber"? My own pet peeve is American composers who pretentiously write not only "Adagio" in a score when they mean "slow," but "al niente" and even "con gran espressione." When it's students, I always taunt them: "You have an ensemble in Italy you're sending this score to?" Beethoven rebelled by writing "Hammerklavier" instead of "Fortepiano" on his Op. 106, but many Americans have yet to make so bold a break from the old country.
And another composer writes:
Every generation believes civilization will die with it. It's a mystery to me exactly what the classical music establishment gets from its members-only doomsday scenario. Still, I have to say: The sooner, the better.
Note to orchestras: don't expect a lot of sympathy from the composing community.
Through Salon.com, I was turned onto an article from Jay Rosen's blog Press Think about the Master Narrative in journalism, a term borrowed from literary criticism. The Master Narrative is the big, behind-the-scenes story that generates all the other stories, that structurally contains them, but that is itself almost invisible, rarely examined, assumed without being acknowledged. His example in political journalism:
In standard coverage of political campaigns, where one goal is always to appear nonpartisan and above the fray, the master narrative has for a long time been winning - who's going to win, who seems to be winning, what the candidates are doing to win, how much money it takes to win, how the primary in South Carolina is critical to winning and so on....
Most people who pay attention to politics know that candidates who cannot win are safely ignored by the press until they threaten to affect the outcome. Then they become part of the story because they fit its terms. Winning, then, is the story that produces all (or almost all) the other stories; and when you figure in it you are likely to become news. This is a relatively non-partisan, apparently neutral, sometimes technical and of course reusable device, easily operated, and it maintains an agreed-upon narrative, which then maintains the press tribe as one tribe. In this way, master narratives resemble myths as anthropologists understand them.
Like journalism, music has its master narratives, and I can use this idea to describe the predicament I and the music I love are in vis-a-vis the musical culture at large. For instance, we have a great endemic crisis concerning the imminent death of classical music. The focus of this story is inevitably: the orchestra. Look at Arts Journal: every music writer here is focused on the orchestra except me. Here and in a hundred other newspapers and magazines, the death of classical music and the death of the orchestra are treated as coextensive.
Like the political narrative about winning, this one carries a certain unreality for me. Most of the composers I know and admire have written very little orchestra music; typically a piece or two (I'm thinking of Eve Beglarian, Bernadette Speach, Mikel Rouse, Dan Becker, and many others). Most of them write mostly chamber music, unless their work is primarily in electronics. Even if all orchestras disbanded tomorrow, 98 percent of the rather diverse spectrum of brand new classical music I cover would continue to exist as it exists now. Even John Adams, perhaps the most successful orchestra composer of our time, has admitted publicly and repeatedly that most of the good music being written today isn't for orchestra.
And a few years ago I was on a panel at Chamber Music America, just at a time when there had been a spate of articles about the death of the orchestra. It was clear that chamber music organizations did not share the orchestras' sense of doom, and when Mark Swed, speaking for chamber ensembles on the panel, said, "I don't feel any sense of crisis," the audience burst into applause. Classical music exists in many forms, at many venues, on many levels, with many audiences, but in terms of the journalistic Master Narrative, its health is solely and exclusively gauged from its own most inefficient, resource-intensive, financially precarious organization, the orchestra.
Judging from the current health and optimism of many chamber music organizations, and from the fact that so many hundreds if not thousands of composers get by without orchestral performances, it is entirely plausible that the orchestra could die as a public institution, and classical music continue to exist and even thrive. But no one ever says that - it's not part of music journalism's Master Narrative. And no one ever looks to young composers, or to chamber music organizations, for evidence as to whether classical music is truly likely to die.
(For that matter, only last year when I was writing the script for the American Mavericks radio show on MPR, I contacted the American Symphony Orchestra League to get dire statistics I could quote about the death of the orchestra. As it turned out, of the 15 orchestras that had famously folded in the 1990s, 14 were back in business. Ticket sales were up all over. I was being a good boy for once, trying to follow the Master Narrative, but got tripped up on the facts. According to the Master Narrative, apparently, an orchestra's bankruptcy is Big News, but its resuscitation merits barely a mention.)
Another Master Narrative has posited an unacknowledged end to the history of music. The history of music is understood as a series of great patriarchal figures, each of whom extended the musical language further toward abstraction and complexity: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Wagner, Brahms, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Webern, Stockhausen, Boulez. No dot dot dot to follow. Classical critics and academics will get momentarily excited when it looks like some youngster is going to extent that modernist line another inch or two - Brian Ferneyhough with "the new complexity," for instance, or Thomas Ades. But it never lasts, because that direction of history is played out. By the rules of the Master Narrative, it doesn't matter how good a composer is: if he (and I mean he) is not going to extend the line of patriarchs in the direction of further modernity, then he's not worth taking seriously - and if he does, he's too elitist. For some reason the Master Narrative has made an exception for a trio of publicly successful composers - Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Adams - and then drawn the line. There are no important young composers anymore worth keeping an ear on, and there aren't going to be any more.
And so in academic departments and newspaper music sections, you find people still making a big deal about Elliott Carter and Pierre Boulez as though they were, not revered old men whose cards have been on the table for decades, but The Latest Thing. The composers that music writers and professors get excited about - Ligeti, Boulez, Berio, Kagel - are the same composers my friends and I were excited about in college, 30 years ago. What about the important composers born after 1940? Well, mmm, ahem, uh, you know, there aren't any, really. Any composer still trying to extend the 12-tone tradition is old-fashioned, and if he's not trying to extend that tradition, then he isn't really great, is he? Catch-22. And gee, by the way, it's really pop music that's important now, isn''t it, and classical music is dying anyway, so I'll be damned if I'm going to invest any interest in some new composer when the whole field isn't going to last. Except no one says this, everyone just acts as though it's true without admitting it.
So this is why I'm the Dennis Kucinich of music criticism, because I won't talk within the Master Narratives. In our respective fields Rep. Kucinich and I don't want to preserve the status quo and tinker with it, we want to tear it down and replace it with something better, and that's too radical, so no one will pay any attention to us, except maybe anecdotally. Whatever insightful, even revolutionary truths we might express will be ignored because, 1. Kucinich isn't going to win anyway, and 2. no great young composers are going to be acknowledged anyway. To prove that none of the 40,000 composers working in America today is writing music that could last would require lots of research, lots of critical examination and thought. Luckily, the Master Narrative assures us that this is not necessary, because any greatness out there would have spontaneously appeared by now, despite critical and institutional neglect. (Sort of like the crusader's cry, "Kill them all, God will recognize his own!") According to the Master Narrative, the history of classical music had come to an end anyway, the great line of composers is over - how fitting, how convenient, that it and the orchestra, and therefore classical music itself, all died at the same time. Is this really true? Or does it become true just because everyone conspires to write as though we've all now assumed that it is true?
Is there really no great music written any more? Is classical music truly about to stop being played and listened to? Or is this just the script that those in power have agreed to follow? Does it become a self-fulfilling prophecy if enough people follow it? And what do they get from following it?
The next repertoire I'm transferring from vinyl to CD is my collection of Ralph Shapey recordings: I believe I have every vinyl recording he ever produced. Shapey (1921-2002), whom I knew in Chicago, is not the kind of composer I'm supposed to like - his music is atonal, thorny, somewhat complex, relentlessly abstract - and I mystify some of my Downtown friends by championing him. But he was a tremendously misunderstood figure. He became grouped with a lot of the more academic composers, both because he taught at the University of Chicago from 1964 on - and because he wanted to be. He had no college degrees, was a little defensive about what he jokingly called his "iggerance," and was very proud that someone of so little academic background (though superb musical training) could get a university job and associate with the musical "intellectuals." But, to his credit, that's not where he belonged.
The correct comparison figure for Shapey wasn't Babbitt or Wuorinen or Elliott Carter, but Morton Feldman. Both Shapey and Feldman studied with Stefan Wolpe, both eked out meager livings in New York before getting university jobs, and both were closely associated with the abstract expressionist painters - Shapey even married one, his second wife Vera Klement. In superficial ways Shapey's dissonance and complexity remind one of Carter or Davidovsky: major sevenths and minor ninths all over the place, unrelieved dissonances, triplets within quintuplets. As with Feldman and Messiaen, though, the unity of Shapey's music is very much a unity for the ear, a unity based in sonorities, not something that works out best on paper.
I've defended Shapey on these grounds before, notably in the obituary I wrote for him a couple of years ago in the Voice. What moves me to write tonight is the stunning beauty, whose intensity I had forgotten, of his Fromm Variations, a set of 31 variations for piano gorgeously played on an old CRI disc by Robert Black. The "theme" is no more than a chorale of 20 four-note chords, uncompromisingly dissonant and undifferentiated. It's not quite clear from listening what each variation has to do with the theme, except that the type of chord repetition in the theme recurs over and over. Shapey's sonorities jostle back again and again with the same kind of familiar insistence as the chords in Cage's middle-period works like the String Quartet. You can't really figure out how the music works, but there's a clear argument going on whose terms are continually brought back into play. Plus, Shapey sets each variation with a well-defined sense of rhythm that characterizes it, but also brings back rhythmic motives on unexpected offbeats so that you're always surprised by the reappearance of what you recognize.
Most striking of all: each variation ends with the same final two chords as the chorale theme, and sometimes the last two or two-and-a-half phrases are left intact. It's as though each variation digests part of the theme, sometimes more, sometimes less, but there's always something left over at the end that's recognizable. Those mysterious chord progressions mean nothing on first hearing, but they reappear like magical incantations and eventually create an amazing atmosphere, stern and granitic, but also mystical and meditative - not something your average American university atonalist felt called upon to do. I'm hard put to name another piece of such absolutely abstract, atonal, "difficult" music that engages you so directly and makes such ineffable intuitive sense.
And I'm afraid that Shapey - ignored by the Downtowners, mistrusted by the academics as insufficiently systematic, and with a bitter personality that could drive away would-be supporters - may fall through the cracks. His discography as currently represented at Amazon.com is discouraging in its paucity, and only of a couple of my vinyl discs are represented there as reissues, not including the Fromm Variations. I'm not a fan of all of Shapey's music; he didn't write too well for voice, in my opinion, treating it as though it were a clarinet, with unattractively awkward leaps. But his instrumental works, especially the Seventh String Quartet, Three for Six, and all the piano music I've heard, are magnificent, and much of his music remains unexplored. Programmatic concerts comparing Shapey, Feldman, and Wolpe would bring out some interesting affinities, and reveal more of an "abstract expressionist school" in music than most people suspect. (The Fromm Variations, 52 minutes long, would make a stellar companion piece to Feldman's Piano or Triadic Memories.) I do hope there are musicians out there working to preserve Shapey's uncompromising musical legacy.
"for those of us who grew up amongst the rampages of political correctness, and still can't find a way to describe new music
'differently accessible' ?"
I wrote about Leif Inge's 9 Beet Stretch in my Village Voice column this week, and you should read that, but I have more to say about the piece than I have space for there. Briefly, what Norwegian composer Inge has done is stretch out, via digital software, a recording of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to last 24 hours without changing the pitch - and since the unstretched Ninth lasts about an hour, that means it's 24 times as slow as normal. The whole 24 hours is coming out next month on a two-DVD set from Table of the Elements, but you can download the whole thing here, sliced into convenient 83-minute chunks. (Or maybe not so convenient, since that's slightly too long a segment to burn to CD.)
Some of my friends, told about the project, ventured an opinion that Inge has too much time on his hands, but I find it fascinating listening. First of all, if you know the Ninth Symphony (and how many people who don't would be reading me?), you feel like an ant in Manhattan - you can usually sort of tell where you are, but the spaces are so vast! That horribly dissonant, seven-note chord just before the tenor comes in in the fourth movement (which for some reason Inge labels the fifth) - it just goes on forever, sustaining its rage beyond reason. Melody notes glissando into each other, overlapping because you can hear the microseconds of reverb. Timpani blows rumble like tremolos. The screech of sopranos rasps slowly against your ear drum. Every oboe tone is put under a microscope, not always with beautiful results, but you learn a lot about the infinitesimal realities of sound production. My favorite movement is the Adagio (third); its dissonances last many, many seconds before finally resolving, like the Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth Symphony conducted by Furtwangler, only much, much slower. The simple chords of the classical language become a metaphor for eternity. Beethoven's powerhouse of a musical philosophy lesson becomes ambient music, featureless at times and changing too slowly to follow. Time truly comes to a halt.
Whose recording is this? Would anyone be able to tell? I can't wait to have 12 hours of it on a DVD, so I can play it all night and wake up in the middle. It reminds me of what Stravinsky said about Schubert: asked didn't Schubert's music put him to sleep, Igor replied, "What does it matter if I fall asleep, so long as when I awake I think I'm in paradise?" You should check out everything from Table of the Elements, who are to the 21st century what CRI was to the 1960s and Lovely Music to the 1980s - fearless purveyors of the wildest stuff around.
And speaking of art's ability to sharpen our perceptions (which I was), Beth Anderson's Ocean Motion Mildew Mind has given me a new appreciation for the counterpoint between word sounds and word connotations. If you're not familiar with her - and you should be, for she's been producing fantastic music for a long time, even if not the kind lionized by classical institutions - Anderson writes what is just about the prettiest music of any composer today, with the possible and very different exception of Californian Harold Budd. But she didn''t always. She started out a noisy John Cage devotee with a yen for chance processes and hard-core conceptualism, and that early tendency, along with her patented style of text pieces, is the subject of her new CD Peachy Keen-O (Pogus Productions P21030-2).
A disc titled Peachy Keen-O better be damn good, or else it's going to be really bad, and thankfully Anderson has a knack for turning cute, vulnerable ideas into cool, sophisticated pieces. Six of the nine works on this disc are the kind of text-music poems she became fairly well-known in New York for in the 1970s. In Torero Piece, she makes repetitive mouth sounds as her mother tells touchingly frank stories about their mother/daughter relationship; it's almost like Beth is gleefully ignoring her mother, indulging in her own adamant brand of nonsense as her mother frets about her. Ocean Motion Mildew Mind, which is based on those four words and "wishin', Titian, swishin', swine" ("mind" and "swine" rhyming in Anderson's Kentucky accent) is a subtractive process piece with a rock beat behind it - it's little remembered that Anderson was one of the first Downtowners to add vernacular elements to her work. She was rapping long before anyone dreamed of rap.
It's the instrumental pieces, though, that especially give the lie to Anderson's current reptutation as a composer of pretty music. The noisiest is Tower of Power, in which organist Linda Collins uses her body to hold down as many organ keys and pedals as possible, as loud as possible, multiply amplified, and squirming somewhat, for ten minutes - new music offers no more grinding mass of audio waves, no more opaque wall of noise. And the piece I had heard about for years and was glad to finally discover is Joan, a kind of oratorio - here arranged for multiple pianos - based on the trial of Joan of Arc. The alphabet letters of the words of Joan's defense are mapped onto the white notes of the scale, ABCDEFG, in a subtractive process that leaves everyone playing only A and B by the end. Restful in tonality yet bristling with energy, the piece is a particularly human and listenable example of conceptual art.
Starting in the early 1980s, Anderson switched to writing chamber music in a beautiful, lyrical, yet collage-based and stream of consciousness style. Her best-known works are a series of what she calls Swales, which is a term for meadows in which diverse collections of plant species live together, and despite her use of lovely, even sentimental string quartet textures, there remains something radical about the insouciance with which she juggles passages of aeolian mode, country fiddling, dissonance, fugue, classical melody, and Glassian argeggios in her work. Her music is too simple for the highbrows to take seriously, but the simplicity is entirely deceptive; I'm always impressed by the subtlety with which she smoothes out fissures among unrelated-seeming materials that start to feel like they belong together. You might even think of her as a feminine John Zorn, quietly finessing her collage seams instead of trying to jar and shock.
And while this new Pogus disc of her long-ago music from the '70s is very different, it is equally engaging, attractive, and enjoyable, and rounds out a picture of an artist who has never been awarded credit for her deserved stature, but who has been convincing at every stage in a varied career.
As evidence of the ability of music to organize our emotional life (referred to in my last entry), I adduce one of my favorite poems, C Minor by Richard Wilbur (1974), which I lift from The Atlantic, where it first appeared. Not only does Wilbur affirm the sense that music says something real about life, there's a mild complaint about the ultimate disconnect between Beethoven's 1805 musings in Vienna and the daily life of Americans today, which we could take as a suggestion that new experiences require new music to organize them:
Beethoven during breakfast? The human soul,
Though stalked by hollow pluckings, winning out
(While bran flakes crackle in the cereal bowl)
Over despair and doubt?
You are right to switch it off and let the day
Begin at hazard, perhaps with pecker-knocks
In the sugar-bush, the rancor of a jay,
Or in the letter box
Something that makes you pause and with fixed shadow
Stand on the driveway gravel, your bent head
Scanning the snatched pages until the sad
Or fortunate news is read.
The day's work will be disappointing or not,
Giving at least some pleasure in taking pains.
One of us, hoeing in the garden plot
(Unless, of course, it rains)
May rejoice at the knitting of light in fennel plumes
And dew like mercury on cabbage hide,
Or rise and pace through too familiar rooms,
Balked and dissatisfied.
Shall a plate be broken? A new thing understood?
Shall we be lonely, and by love consoled?
What shall I whistle, splitting the kindling wood?
Shall the night-wind be cold?
How should I know? And even if we were fated
Hugely to suffer, grandly to endure,
It would not help to hear it all fore-stated
As in an overture.
There is nothing to do with a day except to live it.
Let us have music again when the light dies
(Sullenly, or in glory) and we can give it
Something to organize.
The link given above also provides a Real Player recording of Wilbur reading the poem, which I'd never heard.
One of my favorite features on my new Mac G4 laptop is its rotating desktop images. You can designate a file of images, and both the desktop and screen saver will cycle through the images in that file randomly, at a number of variable frequency rates. So after trying out several of the image styles that came with the computer, I decided to build up my own image base off the internet. J.M.W. Turner is about my favorite painter, and I had a thrilling experience with an exhibition of his work at the Tate Gallery a couple of years ago, so I went to Artcyclopedia and downloaded about 80 Turner jpegs, mostly from the Tate Gallery web page. I also downloaded quite a few paintings by Canaletto. I started with these two because only a certain type of painting will work as a desktop pattern, and it has nothing to do, of course, with artistic quality. The painting has to be horizontal in orientation. Otherwise, the screen cuts off the top and bottom, and it's a mess. Portraits and other close-ups of human figures are distracting. I find a desktop pattern enhances the hours I spend on the computer if it opens up and creates a sense of space. Landscapes are almost obligatory. I tried some Jackson Pollocks, another favorite, and they were awful: flat up against the screen, emphasizing the flatness, too busy, claustrophobia-triggering. Turner and Canaletto painted mostly spacious landscapes with a great sense of distance, and by happy coincidence they painted many of the same kinds of scenes of Venice and London.
Since then, I've added many other painters: Caspar David Friedrich, Constable, Whistler, Frederick Church, Albert Bierstadt. Most modern painters don't work very well because their images are too flat and up-front, too nonillusionistic, but Yves Tanguy (someone I have strong affinities for anyway) is wonderful, and there are a lot of good Dali images for the purpose, and a few by Magritte. (I realize there are copyright issues involved, but I'm not doing anything with the images except privately looking at them. And what else are they for?)
And so I spend a lot of time looking at these paintings as they rotate on my computer desktop, hundreds of times as many hours as I would ever spend in a museum, or looking at them in books. And when I leave the house, I realize that they've changed my life. I used to think the cookie-cutter rural houses between campus and the town of Red Hook were pretty shabby looking. But Edward Hopper's paintings of similar houses have made me notice a kind of noble simplicity to them, a classic functional form. I notice the angles at which shadows of gables and porch rooves fall across them at twilight. The drab empty field next to the high school with telephone lines running down it looked like a Friedrich this morning, a plane of blue-white snow and another of blue sky picturesquely bisected by a horizon of trees and flat one-story buildings. The mists through which I see the Catskills across the Hudson River make them seem slightly whited out, as though by Church himself. And what Turner has done for the sunrises and sunsets I need hardly tell you: the sun becomes the focal point of every scene, and I get mesmerized almost staring into it, noticing how it sucks up the colors of everything in its direction and yet has an ineffable color of its own.
Even though it has a stellar philosophical pedigree stemming from Kant, I have never been comfortable with the claim that art is useless, even when the most positive possible spin is put on that uselessness. So this unexpected reminder of the transformative power of art pleases me a great deal. How could I remember what the transformative effect of music is? I'm surrounded by it, haven't been outside its sphere of influence for ten days at a time in 48 years. But painting is an intermittent pleasure, and sustained immersion in it a rare experience. What does it do for me? It reminds me that the town of Red Hook, New York, is not a drab series of developers' opportunistic decisions. It is a piece of nature, both nonhuman and human. It embodies aspirations whose outward form imitates geometry. The impulses of human life have come to rest here between the earth's flatness and its verticality. Light turns the entire area into a daily kaleidoscope on a larger level than I can quite comprehend. My work divides the night cleanly from the day, where the angle of the sun rolls a smooth continuum.
Is this useless? to transform Red Hook from the seen-better-days college town where I accidentally ended up living into the place where the white snow and the blue sky are bisected by the line of low-slung buildings, where the prefab yellow house on the hill whose porch columns cast diagonal shadows becomes an embodiment of someone's personal myth, where the symmetrical right angles of the drugstore and hardware store at the center of town become iconic of small-town America everywhere? I think not. The problem is, we don't realize that we need this integration into our environment until we get it, and then you realize what an impoverished life it would be not to have it. And Hopper and Church painted an America now long past - who's doing it for us now? Who's interpreting the angles and shadows of the malls and the fast-food places so we learn to connect with the world we're in now? I'm sure someone's doing it, and that they're having a hell of a hard time getting publicity.
Can music do this? It strikes me that, perhaps, modern sound pieces like Alvin Lucier's I Am Sitting in a Room, Luc Ferrari's Presque Rien No. 1, Steve Reich's Come Out, and the granddaddy of them all Cage's 4'33" do for our auditory life what the paintings I'm talking about do for our visual life. Otherwise, I suspect that most music conventionally understood, as in 19th-century classical music, sharpens our perception of our emotional life instead. Charles Ives' Essays Before a Sonata seems to argue the latter point, and John Cage argued the former point, as paraphrased by Life magazine in 1943:
Cage believes that when people today get to understand and like his music, which is produced by banging one object with another, they will find new beauty in everyday modern life, which is full of noises made by objects banging against each other.
So let's avoid the two traps: the trap of agreeing that art is useless but in a good way, and then trying to convince people that they should fund it anyway; and the trap of trying to make art useful by championing only its multicultural and social-problem-alleviating characteristics. Art is what ties us to each other and to the landscape as humans, and keeps us from being merely alienated cogs in an economic system devised not for our benefit. And if we spend a thousand times as much time staring at a computer screen as in a museum, geez, maybe we should be commissioning desktop-pattern paintings from painters (and restaurant background music from composers). Let's put the art where it works!
From the web site of Democrat Senator Zell Miller of Georgia, as quoted on Salon.com: "The culture of far left America was displayed in a startling way during the Super Bowl's now infamous half-time show. A show brought to us courtesy of Value-Les Moonves and the pagan temple of Viacom-Babylon."
What?!? If there's a "culture of far left America," I want credit for being right in the middle of it. Les Moonves is the President of CBS. CBS and Viacom are megacorporations against whose influence the Left is always fighting. How does the Left not only get oppressed by Michael Powell's FCC buddies CBS and Viacom, but also get blamed for their excesses? Not that I'm bothered by Janet Jackson showing her tit on TV, but the impulse certainly doesn't come from liberals, whom I generally find just as puritanical as New England's original founders, if for different reasons. Anyone who automatically blames America's liberals for sexuality in the media hasn't spent any time getting to know us.
As soon as I returned from England my semester started, I had to move a houseful of belongings, and I had six articles due. (Besides teaching full-time, writing operas, and blogging, I still turn out about fifty articles a year.) I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and am collecting things to blog about. See you shortly.
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