PostClassic: August 2007 Archives
The University of Wales' First International Festival of Music and Minimalism is chock-a-block with such intriguing developments that I feel I should be live-blogging it, but under the circumstances it would be intrusive. Conference directors Pwyll ap Sion and Tristian Evans had planned for a one-day conference, but were overrun with so many interested parties - even ones willing to find and fund their way to this lovely out-of-the-way burg - that they expanded to three days. No trendy kneejerk revisionism here. Keynote speaker Keith Potter, England's premiere minimalism expert, set just the right tone by pronouncing upfront that despite the cultural emphasis on Riley, Reich, Glass, and Adams, there were many more than four minimalists, and a tremendous variety in the movement. And with the exception of yours truly, the first day's speakers focused very hard indeed on the-music-formerly-known-as-minimalism, and, here in Wales, still so known. Maarten Beirens surprised everyone with protominimalist music from 1952 by the Belgian composer Karel Goyvaerts (1923-93), who had also just invented European serialism. Ann Glazer Niren treated us to ne'er-before-heard recordings of Terry Riley's String Quartet of 1960 and String Trio of 1961, and William Lake analyzed In C with scrupulous thoroughness. Evan Jones gave us an encyclopedic tour of early Glass chord progressions - Mad Rush, Einstein, Modern Love Waltz, Another Look at Harmony, up through String Quartet No. 4 - and showed how Glass achieves strange tonal puns via incommensurable hamonic shifts with oddly-placed pivot tones. Jones called this "diatonic drift"; not a term I've heard Glass use, but I have heard him talk about this exact phenomenon, and it was good to see a real theorist tackle it detail. Even the fluffiest minimalism taken very seriously here.
So, so far, even if the composer names are old hat, the music has been indisputably hardcore. True to habit, the musicologists have taken the era up from its most exotic edge, and are examining its history piece by piece. That's why the pop revisionsist view of Adams, Andriessen, and Gorecki as the quintessential minimalists is doomed; ultimately, critics listen to the musicologists, and the latter, taking no scrap of paper for granted, are getting it right. Of course, we do have a session on John Adams tomorrow (chaired by myself), and - what I'm looking forward to most - Sunday morning a session on postminimalism and totalism. David McIntire, a composer with whom I've corresponded regularly, is offering a paper: "Terminology and Meaning in a Post-Minimalist Style: The Case of Totalism." Brazil's Dmitri Cervo follows with "Minimalism and Post-minimalism: Necessary Distinctions." And I had dinner with Marija Masnikosa from Belgrade, who did her
master's doctoral thesis on Serbian postminimalism, using my American music book as a primary reference. D'ya hear that? Serbian postminimalism. American music departments are still digging their toes in the hot sand trying to decide whether to allow Glass and Reich into the canon, and the Serbs have already sprung ahead to tackle the next movement. What the hell is wrong with American musical academia? Why did I have to come 3800 miles to this hard-to-reach outpost in Wales to hear diehard minimalism scholars nonchalantly express opinions, as though they were the merest common sense, that I get attacked for expressing at home? Why can Britain, Serbia, and Brazil embrace postminimalism and totalism, while U.S. musicians remain squeamish about "-isms"?
Whatever the reason, it's a breath of fresh air being here among tough-minded, analytical academics who all think minimalist music is really, really neat. We were treated to a piano duo concert by Kate Ryder and David Appleton, who started off with Colin McPhee's Balinese Ceremonial Music of 1936, a protominimalist essay if ever there was one, and included, among more predictable fare, Glass's extremely obscure In Again, Our Again of 1968, Gavin Bryars's My First Homage, and John Adams's keyboard-smashing Hallelujah Junction. And as you can see below, there's nothing minimal about our post-conference get-togethers.
Back table: Keith Potter, David McIntire, and my own graying eminence; front table, Jelena Novak, Marija Masnikosa, and fine Serbian minimalist composer Vladimir Tosic.
Enough said. Purchases so far (scores):
Sibelius: Voces Intimae
Busoni: Suite Campestre
Busoni: Berceuse Elegiaque (orchestral version)
John White: Piano Sonatas Nos. 53, 62, 65, 75, 78, 84, 86, 90, 91, 95, 96, 103, 110
Monteverdi: Messa III and Messa a 4 voci M XV, 59
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 8
Being en route to London yesterday, by the way, prevented me from noting Postclassic's fourth anniversary.
We have a winner! Richard made me realize the perfect term for the slow-changing music of La Monte Young, Charlemagne Palestine, Phill Niblock, early Reich and Glass, Eliane Radique, and so on, so obvious I didn't even see it: the-music-formerly-known-as-minimalism! It's so perfectly accurate, evocative, unmistakable, and even compresses a whole historical critique into one phrase.
Of course, the working title for my new book, formerly Music After Minimalism, is now Music After the-Music-Formerly-Known-As-Minimalism. I'm going to have a hell of a time getting it past a publisher, but hey: musicology is a cruel bitch-goddess.
I think I've made a mistake. I've often written that the most essential characteristic of minimalism was obvious surface structure, but I've realized that that's not necessarily what makes me most feel that a piece is minimalist. Taking the plethora of recent advice that Democrats need to argue from the heart rather rely on rational discourse, I'm going to say, then, that what convinces me that a piece is minimalist is its low information content, the fact that what's first noticeable about it is that less is going on than in conventional classical (or pop) music. A piece starts, and you pause expectantly for a certain number and frequency of syntactical units to tell you what's going on, - and they don't arrive. You can decide a priori that that's unacceptable, declare yourself bored and the piece boring, and turn it off or leave. Or you can quiet yourself, lower your expectations, and hone your attention to the subtle, slow, long-term changes that some of us find fascinating to listen to once you let that music into your psyche. Minimalism, for me, was always a different kind of music, requiring (to misquote John Rockwell) a different kind of listening. It wasn't for everybody. It acquired a cult following of unusually patient listeners. It was, and is, a different type of listening experience than the attention-holding narrative of conventional classical music.
I was on John Schaefer's WNYC Soundcheck show yesterday with Times critic Steve Smith, and we discussed a little of this, but radio time flies by so quickly that you're lucky if you can get 500 words, cut into five or six soundbites, into a half-hour show. The point is, as keeps coming up over and over again, most people no longer define minimalism the way I always have. They think of minimalism as connoting the orchestra music of Glass, Reich, and John Adams. The Death of Klinghoffer is, as everyone but me now knows, a minimalist opera, and what's Strumming Music? Who's heard of that? No one. So every time I make one of my quixotic attempts to limit the word to what it meant in the '70s, I get a rash of "Let usage prevail!" comments.
Well, just so. Let usage prevail. The large, record-company-owning corporations have won, as they always do: they have redefined minimalism for the mass public. Let us prostrate ourselves before their infinite PR resources. Our musicology is no match for their press releases. I am nothing if not pragmatic. I would even volunteer to write the new Wikipedia article on the genre:
Minimalism: a rhythmic, wildly syncopated, rambunctious form of orchestral music with lots of repeated brass chords and propulsive percussion, usually tonal but sometimes atonal, and often breaking into 19th-century style Romantic melody; almost always found on a Nonesuch CD, but the only essential quality is that the composer's last name must be Reich, Glass, Adams, or Andriessen....
Everybody OK with that? Fine, we can polish up the details later, but we're all on the same page, and everyone should be happy.
However, one problem remains. Those of us who love that near-eventless, attention-compressing music I described in the first paragraph, need a name for it. We need to be able to refer to it, and by "it," I mean the following specific repertoire:
Music of the 1960s and '70s by
Jon Gibson; and
Music of that era and continuing up to the present time by
La Monte Young
The co-optation of minimalism was, after all, to a considerable extent, a deliberate move to marginalize all that boring old drone music that the classical people never liked anyway and the musical academics were embarrassed by. You could sense their relief when John Adams and Louis Andriessen started funnelling those repeated notes into big orchestral gestures, and breaking into actual melody. "Oh, thank god," all the classical mavens and music professors sighed in chorus, "we couldn't take another minute of those endless repetitions, those drones moving by infinitessimal degrees. Let's call this stuff minimalism, and hopefully everyone will forget about that old boring minimalism." Even the title of Jon's show yesterday - "The Maturing of Minimalism" - seemed to imply that the '60s minimalism wasn't the real stuff yet, that the real flowering of minimalism came in the Nonesuch orchestral music that is now so popular. But - the old boring minimalism was exactly what many of us loved and still love, thank you very much and keep yer damn mitts off our musical proclivities, and what some very important composers still produce.
What would chemists do, if the public, motivated by whatever bizarre fad, decided that any blue, flaky substance should now be called aluminum? Well, first the chemists would protest, then they'd stick to their guns for awhile and maintain a secondary, professional usage, and if public opinion refused to budge, they'd probably eventually let the public have their blessed flaky blue aluminum and come up with some new name for the actual 13th element in the periodic table. It sounds ludicrous, but it's not too dissimilar to what happened to the word gay. We still need synonyms for cheerful and carefree, and no longer have a word that means exactly what gay used to mean. Nor do we any longer have a word to specify what the Theater of Eternal Music, Phill Niblock, and early Philip Glass had in common, without falsely implying syncopated brass chords and big Romantic melodies.
So help me figure out what to call the-style-formerly-known-as-minimalism. I'm tempted to suggest something arbitrary like Cogluotobusisletmesism, or Btfsplkism, some ungainly, difficult-to-parse term that the critics can't pronounce nor the public remember, so they won't appropriate it again and make it mean something else. After all, fans of that music, and musicologists who study it, have a right to refer to it. The concertgoing public does not have the privilege of deciding what music counts as Baroque, nor what a fugue or a cantus firmus is. Musical experts do that. But when it comes to minimalism - let usage prevail! So now we need a musicological term, a specialist term, for the repertoire I describe above with which the public is not allowed to tamper at will. The list I give is, arguably, not closed; other composers and works could fit the definition (Zoltan Jeney and early Michael Nyman and Gavin Bryars come to mind). But no one who can't name a single Phill Niblock piece gets to argue which ones. We need a scholarly term such that, if you're not an expert on the specific music denoted, you no more get to futz around with the definition than you get to redefine "quark" if you're not a physicist.
For now, I'll make do with an obvious back-formation, "hardcore minimalism." But I'm not satisfed: I'd rather come up with a word as far dissociated from minimalism as Charlemagne Palestine's drones are from Louis Andriessen's bumptious brass climaxes. Steve Smith, on John Schaefer's show, pointed out that Tom Johnson, in 1971, originally used "minimalism" to describe the conceptualist music of Alvin Lucier, and referred to Glass and Reich as "hypnotic music." I don't much care for that, since I don't find the music hypnotizing. Maybe "compressed attention" music, or "slow change music."
Once we effect this change of terminology, it will be evident that minimalism is a music I have no more particular interest in than I do in Ravel or Debussy or Shostakovich, which it greatly resembles. Hardcore minimalism, or compressed-attention music, or Cogluotobusisletmesism (if you like that), is music I care deeply about, listen to often, and continue to analyze, study, and write about. But minimalism is just another orchestral fad, a new wrinkle in neoromanticism. In fact, "minimalism" can go mean anything anyone wants it to mean: the Spanish Civil War can be minimalist, lovers can roll over after a hot session in bed and exclaim, "Wow!, that was really minimalist!", the sentence "I have to minimalism a root canal next Tuesday" can be adjudged grammatically correct, since minimalism is apparently one of those contentless words that function as a Rorschach test, able to mean anything to anyone. Let usage prevail! But let's come up with some ironclad musicology word, some word that will specifically and centrally denote the static, slowly-changing music of Young, Palestine, Niblock, Budd, Johnson, Radigue, Jennings, Conrad, and the '60s and '70s music of Reich, Glass, Benary, Eastman, and Gibson. Something besides "minimalism," because who, in our wonderful world of strange and alternative and postclassical music, gives a shit about minimalism?
(I leave today to go attend the First International Minimalism Conference at the University of Wales at Bangor. Maybe some of the smart guys there can help me think of a new word.)
UPDATE: I just looked at the comments left to yesterday's Soundcheck show, and liked this one from Downtown musician David Linton:
my particular generation of downtown musicians felt as early as 1980 that we were entering into a post minimal period...
in our current cultural phase it's interesting to note that minimalism prevails as though this "post"phase had never happened...
i attribute this to a kind of perpetual cultural amnesia that occurs with every new generation (5 years) of young artists coming to ny in addition to the more obvious institutional cultural hegemony that has always been afforded the anointed biggies from the seventies
Also, Galen Brown repeats his distinction (which I had forgotten about) between "big-M Minimalism," by which he means the original compressed attention kind, and "small-M minimalism," by which he means the popular application of the term to Adams, Andriessen, and so on.
In the past when I've gone to England to teach and lecture, I lugged over about 70 pounds of scores in my suitcase. No more. I've got a scanner. The first sea change in my teaching methods came when I loaded 14,000 mp3s onto my external hard drive, and could now instantly play for classes any piece that occurred to me, without having to rummage through my CD collection. The second change is that I'm now loading PDFs of every minimalist, postminimalist, totalist, or microtonal score I would ever want to teach. (I even got major assistance in the scanning last week from Kerry O'Brien, an Indiana U. grad student who's doing research in totalism, believe it or not. She's a dynamite percussionist, and one of the few expert performers who did not switch to musicology because of an injury - she actually fell in love with the discipline. How strange is that? And how many percussionist-musicologists are there out there? It gives her Steve Reich papers an enviable authenticity.)
I had my first chance at trying out the PDFs at Northeastern last month. The hard-copy scores I used, I had to Xerox 20 copies, collate them, and continually tell the class what measure I was referring to. The PDFs that I could project on a screen needed no Xeroxing, killed no trees, and I could simply point to whatever I was referring to. In addition, for some of the fast-moving Nancarrow scores that need virtuoso page-turners, I could simply click the page turns myself, and, voilá!: no more students lost on the wrong page (or, at least, all of us on the same page). It was so much easier that I came home, bought a scanner, and swore I would never lug paper scores around again. (Actually, I lectured in February at a school in Florida where the computer-equipped classroom also had a projection machine that would shine a light on a hard copy score and project the image on a screen. That was fantastic, too. Can anyone tell me what those are called? And why Bard College doesn't have one?)
Of course, in addition to the incredible postminimalist PDF library Kerry and I have amassed, there are the public domain scores at I'm Asleep.org, which I've already written about. So there you have your Beethoven sonatas and Rite of Spring, and yesterday I downloaded the complete Liber Usualis - which means I no longer have to choose and Xerox Gregorian chants for my Renaissance class, just flash the Liber on the screen and pick some out on the spur of the moment. The musicology world is getting a lot more convenient - and ecological.
UPDATE: And by the way, Postclassic Radio fans (or should that be singular?) - I've updated just over half the playlist since Monday, and since I'm taking my iPod From Hell (external hard drive) with me to England, I'll try to keep uploading. You've been very, very patient too long.
UPDATE 2: Now if I could just digitize my clothing, so I could dial up PurpleShirt.fab and put it on, I'd have this traveling business down....
"I'm in the US mostly because it allows me to write the music I want. I feel the US are freer aesthetically, and also, politically (in music, that is)."
- from a note I received today from a European composer living in the U.S.
Here's what's shakin'. This Monday, from 2 to 3, I'll appear on WNYC's Soundcheck program along with Steve Smith from the Times. John Schafer's interviewing us about that minimalism brouhaha that occasioned such an outpouring of comments recently, but since I think Steve and I see fairly eye-to-eye, I doubt that it will bring any new controversy. You never know. Sometimes I feel like Dick Deadeye in H.M.S. Pinafore, who is considered such a disreputable character that his most innocuous platitudes are reflexively greeted with horror and revulsion by the rest of the characters.
Tuesday the European half of my sabbatical begins. I fly to London and take a train to Bangor, Wales - apparently there are no airports in Wales - to participate in a minimalism conference sponsored by the University of Wales. My friend Keith Potter, author of Four Musical Minimalists, is making the train trip with me and giving the keynote address. My talk is oddly early in the event, given that I'm talking about the influence of phase-shifting on postminimalist music. Those of you who read me regularly will already have an idea what I'll say and what examples I'll be playing. And then I chair a panel about John Adams, no less. Bangor is a riverfront town of 17,000 souls whose only famous attraction seems to be the Menai bridge, built in 1826 as the first suspension bridge, and whose name I've known since childhood from a nonsense poem in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass:
I heard him then, for I had just
Completed my design
To keep the Menai Bridge from rust
By boiling it in wine.
Since I have to fly out of London anyway, I'm taking the opportunity to meander there for a couple of extra days, and re-explore one of my favorite cities.
September turned out to be a bad time to arrange European gigs, so I'm flying home for a couple of weeks, and thence to Copenhagen. The Times travel section recently ran a piece on tracking Soren Kierkegaard's steps through Copenhagen, and since I was, during one of the more depressive tracts of my youth, a devout Kierkegaard fanatic, I've always wanted to do that, and I'm finally going to. September 26 I lecture on American music at the Royal Conservatory in Aarhus, Denmark, courtesy of the fine American expatriate composer Wayne Siegel, who teaches there. From there I head for Amsterdam in time to hear John Luther Adams's music at an electric guitar festival. I give a concert of my music at the Karnatic Lab in Amsterdam October 9, then another in Hamburg on October 25. My piano concerto Sunken City premieres in Rotterdam October 30, then in Amsterdam the next day, and again on November 4, with the formidable pianist Geoffrey Douglas Madge accompanied by the Orkest de Volharding. Sometime in the middle of all this I plan to leave for Basel for a few days to do some Nancarrow research at the Sacher Foundation.
The last leg of my trip is back in England, where I lecture at the University of Liverpool on November 13 and at Goldsmiths College in London, where Keith teaches, on November 20. Other plans are pending. But for the next three months I'll be blogging mostly from other other side of the Pond.
The tendency of composers to have too much time on their hands and not know what to do with themselves is an ongoing crisis. Two more have recently decided to deal with it in the traditional manner: blogging. American composer [oops! - Canadian, sorry] Matthew Whittall writes The Short Road to Nirvana from his post in Helsinki, and opened with an interesting anecdote about Debussy's The Engulfed Cathedral. Miguel Frasconi's Well-Weathered Music starts off, appropriately enough, with reminiscences of new music in the late 1970s that bring back all-too-familiar memories. They lean toward the minimalist/new-music side of things (though Whittall expresses fondness for Kaija Saariaho's music, a taste shared by several of my friends that I haven't been able to fathom), so maybe it won't feel so lonely out here in Blogland.
I grew up attending the First Baptist Church of Dallas, the south's largest Baptist Church, and the one of which Billy Graham was officially a member. Many of my peers there seemed to me the worst kind of religious hypocrites, and some were just ruffians stuffed into Sunday suits, but there was one kid named Robert Jeffress who was quiet, likable, humble, and genuinely nice, mature beyond his years. I didn't run into him often, but he played the accordion precociously well, so we occasionally discussed our common interest in music. My mother informs me that Dr. Robert Jeffress, author of 16 books, has just been appointed pastor of First Baptist of Dallas. He looks astonishingly little changed.
UPDATE: On the other hand.... (And I had just finished reading Elmer Gantry, too.)
The papers blown off of the Adirondack chair were the first sign that something was amiss. A new nip was in the air, almost chilly. The mountains etched the horizon with a crisp, purple line that he hadn't noticed in months. A sense of time passing settled slowly on him like dust stirred up from a long-neglected cabinet. Old enmities had passed; recent inequities were etched in stone with a certitude that no hand could revoke. He struggled to rid his mind of the remnants of insistent issues that now needed no longer ever be thought of again. But as more troubling thoughts cleared, it occurred to him that internet radio was still alive. How could it be possible? The pronouncements had been so dire. Yet that woman from Washington had hinted that there was never really any danger. Was it all a game, a distraction concocted by CEOs and political lobbyists to divert onlookers from the real crimes being committed, the money being siphoned from foreign governments, the restrictions being tightened on some form of expression no one was watching at the moment? Again, as so many times before, he chafed at his inability to see behind the curtain, his ignorance of the machinations of those expert outside his field, those who affected his future but were forever exempt from responsibility for it, hidden behind a veil of corporate secrecy.
No point in thinking about that now. The altered circumstances, however outside his control, dictated a certain responsibility. He made an effort to notice the stack of compact discs on his desk which, despite its steadily increasing height, had come to blend in with the rest of the furniture. Names that had flown by so fast as not to register now stood out with accusatory frankness. Slow Six? An ensemble of some kind, with compositions credited to one Christopher Tignor. Songs by pretty Molly Thompson, whom he hadn't seen in years. An enormous piano work from 1977-78 by Lubomyr Melnick, titled simply KMH, was listed as a rerelease. Why had he not owned the vinyl original? No way to puzzle that out at the moment. A new Noah Creshevsky CD awaited. Emily Bezar's "Angel's Abacus," with its Feldman-like minor sevenths, had been haunting his memory, from which he hoped to excise it by adding it to the mix. Kerry had recommended This Window Makes Me Feel by one John Supko, and he uploaded it almost absent-mindedly. And of course there was Gloria Coates's Fifteenth Symphony, which had made such a riveting impression on him only days before. Art Jarvinen had sent him a CDR of Breaking the Chink, and there was a new Mary Ellen Childs album out too enticing to ignore. More difficult to fathom was the recording of intermission noises by Christopher DeLaurenti, the tall, shaved-headed Seattleite whom he had just run into at school. Names, names, each attached to a trail of memories, except for a few curious in their absence of evocations. There would doubtless be other names, many, many others, and beneath the shadow of the political charade, the work would continue.
But now the harsher noon-day light edging around the deck and through the sliding glass door prompted reflections that there remained alternate histories to write, additional ephemera to be entered into the record of events. He allowed his eyes to close for a moment, and, shaking off melancholy, returned to books still laying open from yesterday....
You have to listen to Dick Cheney explain in 1994 why an invasion of Baghdad would have been a bad idea.
My esteemed colleagues at Sequenza 21 note that yesterday was the ten-year anniversary of Conlon Nancarrow's death. (While at the Voice I was always amazed at how many composers die in August - Feldman, Cage, David Tudor, Nancarrow, Earle Brown - and always noted it, because there is a dearth of New York concerts in August, and I was always stuck for column material. Someone usually died in the nick of time, and I always considered their timing their final gift to me.)
Anyway, as I was saying, Nancarrow died in 1997, and the obituary I wrote for him is not in Music Downtown, my collection of Village Voice articles. I don't know why. I'm sure I intended to include it, but as I was going through the proofs, I noticed its absence, too late to rectify it. I am happy for the bulk of my columns to disappear into oblivion, but of all the ones omitted, the Nancarrow obit is the one I most wish were in there. So I've long intended to post it here, and the anniversary is as good a peg as any. This is the pre-edit version, actually a touch longer than the one that was published:
Piano Rolls and Fresh Mangos
Conlon Nancarrow, 1912-1997
Conlon Nancarrow's wife Yoko Segiura used to tell me that, in the first years of their marriage, she would ask him what to do with all his player-piano rolls after he died. He'd shrug and say, "Burn 'em." Kind of a black sense of humor, right? And yet, in the nine years I knew Nancarrow, I never found any evidence that he was kidding. He seemed immune to the charms of public recognition. He wrote music because he wanted to hear what it would sound like to have two tempos running at once, one of which was the square root of two times the other. Once he had heard it, that was that. Oh, he'd keep the player-piano roll around because he wanted to hear it again, down there in his comfortably cluttered, garage-like, Mexico City studio. But he didn't seem to crave applause for that square root of two, and he endured the travels, film crews, and interviews his growing celebrity required with patience rather than enthusiasm. If his public persona was a pose, it never cracked.
Nancarrow's death at 7:10 PM, August 10,  from apparent heart failure, caused no tremors in the music world. The difficult part was getting a sense that this underground legend really existed in the first place. Except for some brief exposure in the '60s when Merce Cunningham choreographed several of his Player Piano Studies, he waited until age 65 for real interest to be shown in his work. He didn't make public appearances to promote his music until 1981, and he only did so then - so his then-manager Eva Soltes tells me - as a way of proving to his teenage son that he hadn't wasted his life. Even down in the musical backwater of Mexico City where he lived for 57 years, he had few connections to the local, Eurocentric music scene. Until the last few years, if you wanted to know something about Nancarrow, you had to seek him out.
I did so on three trips to Mexico City (resulting in a book, The Music of Conlon Nancarrow, from Cambridge University Press). On the first visit, in 1988, I found him as people had told me I would: suspicious, grudgingly hospitable, taciturn, opinionated about politics, impatient with discussing musical details. The interviews I taped with him on that trip contain entire quarter-hours of silence. He'd look at a manuscript I'd ask him about and finally sigh "I don't know," but mention Reagan and he'd rail against the Democrats for not putting up a real alternative. (Driving through his home town Texarkana, I once called up his younger brother Charles, who insisted on taking me out to dinner, and told me, "Conlon's to the left of Che Guevara, and I'm to the right of Atilla the Hun.") Nancarrow was no musical philosopher; I went with him to a concert and he immediately dismissed any piece that wasn't rhythmically complex.
By the time I returned a year later he had come to trust me, and became warmly hospitable. If he had a quiet lifestyle, it could be a delicious one. He had an amazing cook who prepared the best Mexican food I've ever had, and succulent, fresh mangos and papayas (completely different fruits from what you can get under those names in America) were passed out like dime-store candies. Nancarrow didn't care for publicity, but he liked the good life.
After his first stroke, his mental abilities were never quite the same. At first he was strictly protective of the studio where his player pianos stood, and in which he had spent 40 years punching on piano rolls the most rhythmically complex body of music ever written. Later he relinquished control and let me explore there by myself. Along with waist-high piles of manuscript scores and correspondence, the place contained complete editions of Source magazine, Musical Quarterly, Perspectives of New Music, and other journals that showed how avidly he had kept up with the contemporary music scene that he viewed for decades from a wary distance. The walls were still lined with tempo charts made from Heny Cowell's New Musical Resources, the 1930 book that Nancarrow had bought in New York City after returning from fighting in the Spanish Civil War, and which suggested using player pianos to achieve complex rhythms.
Now, rather than being burned as he suggested, all those scores, sketches, rolls, and even the pianos have been sold to the Paul Sacher Foundation in Switzerland (Sacher being the industrialist who bought, among many other things, the manuscript of Le Sacre du Printemps). That's how he had money to live on the last few years, after the inheritance Charles left him when he died ran out, which is what he lived on after his 1983 MacArthur Award ran out. Mexico cancels your health insurance at age 70, and he was paying his own hospital bills. I wish Nancarrow's studio could be preserved as a historical site, a kind of musical Thoreau's cabin; after all, the museum-houses of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera (whom he knew) are several blocks away. But it isn't going to happen.
Nancarrow no longer talked on the phone in the last year and a half of his life. A series of strokes had rendered him liable to forget who he was talking to, and his laconicism became exaggerated to the point of monosyllabic answers. He remained lucid long enough to look through the book I wrote about him and express confused appreciation. Problems with his back, lungs, and teeth confined him to bed, although according to Yoko he rallied at the end, and was energetic enough to walk with assistance the day he died. He was cremated the day after his death, with only a couple of local composers - Julio Estrada, Mario LaVista - and Yoko's friends present.
I once pointed out to him that he was probably the only American composer complex and modernist enough to be admired by Elliott Carter fans and also free and vernacular enough to be loved by John Cage fans. He chuckled in surprise. I don't think it had ever occurred to him.
I just had dinner with Alex Ross, here for the Bard Festival. My conversation is greatly inhibited these days because any story I tell, the response tends to be, "Oh yeah, I read that on your blog," so it suddenly occurred to me as we sat down that, since Alex and I read each other every day, we wouldn't have a thing to say to each other. But we both thought for awhile and came up with some news we hadn't blogged about.
Geez, now I can't start a conversation by telling anyone I had dinner with Alex Ross. As Alex said, "Maybe we need to be a bit more mysterious."
[Three updates below.]
Ouch. The great savants of the New York Times music section name their favorite minimalist recordings today. Six critics, given four albums each, limiting themselves to Reich, Glass, Adams, and Riley - plus one album each by Cage (huh?), Poul Ruders, and Count Basie (double huh?). Ouch again. What, no Well-Tuned Piano? No Charlemagne Palestine Strumming Music, or Schlongo!!!daLUVdrone? No Eliane Radigue Adnos, or Trilogie de la Mort? No Tom Johnson An Hour for Piano? No Phill Niblock Hurdy Hurry, or Five More String Quartets? No Tony Conrad Early Minimalism? I imagined that these people had large CD collections.
Next week, the Times food critics list their favorite ice cream flavors: Strawberry, Chocolate, and Vanilla! What else is there?
UPDATE: All right, I don't think any list of under 50 "best" things can be worth a damn, and I won't do four, but for the record I'll give my top five minimalist albums:
Young: The Well-Tuned Piano (unfortunately all but impossible to get, I know, but maybe that'll justify the fifth disc)
Terry Riley: Shri Camel
Charlemagne Palestine: Schlongo!!!daLUVdrone
Tom Johnson: An Hour for Piano (though I prefer Tom's own performance to the recorded Rzewski one)
Eliane Radigue: Trilogie de la Mort
For a sixth, I might put Glass's Music in 12 Parts on there, for sentimental reasons. And there are some individual Jon Gibson pieces I'm deeply attached to, but no full album. Reich's Octet plus John Adams's Grand Pianola Music might make the top ten if we're really going to consider Adams's romanticism minimalist. Reader submissions welcome.
UPDATE 2: Let's analyze these Times lists in terms of labels:
Bridge, CRI, Mosaic (Basie), New Albion, RCA, and Hungaroton, 1 each
And so we see that, of 24 discs, 13 are from media giants like Warner (Nonesuch), Sony, and RCA, three from Naxos which has been a worldwide marketing success, and three from the Bang on a Can label Cantaloupe, which has done very well at getting its product out. Now, how about all those obscure labels that we minimalism fans rely on to preserve all the great hardcore minimalist music not conventional enough for the major labels, like Table of the Elements, Organ of Corti, XI, New Tone, Robi Droli, Lovely Music, Barooni, Cold Blue, Mode, Blast First? Absent. Omitted. Not represented. What this tells us is that the Times recommendation list is extremely skewed by the commercial market, and that the critics are swayed, not solely by musical quality, but by the companies that manage to put their CDs across their desks, whose representatives call them up and push product. I've been there. I've had product pushed on me. It didn't work in my case. I once pissed off Nonesuch so badly they didn't send me anything for years. I listen to everything I can get, I go to Other Music to find the records that don't come in the mail, I like what I like, and I don't assume that, just because something's on Nonesuch, it's the best music out there.
UPDATE 3: Steve Smith responds in his blog, and I'm very happy to see him list some great pieces whose titles I would have loved to see in the Times.
It crossed my mind that if I publicly signed off on blogging for a spell, I'd immediately have something to write about. I went to see Mark Morris's dance Looky, set to my Disklavier studies, at Jacob's Pillow tonight. The Jacob's Pillow people treated me with breathtaking graciousness. Scholar and Mark Morris biographer Maura Keefe gave a preconcert talk that quoted liberally from my blog entries about Looky, making my vernacular prose sound rakish in so dignified a setting. Ella Baff, the surprisingly young director of the place, welcomed me, and, standing in the theater, suddenly said, "Maniacs is here. Do you know him? Do you want to meet him?" Her mispronunciation of "maniacs" nonplussed me, but something about her gestures forced my brain to gradually reconstrue the word as "Manny Ax," and ten seconds later I was shaking hands with the pianist Emanuel Ax. (I maintained enough presence of mind to enjoy her dancer's assumption that, since I'm a musician, I must know Emanuel Ax, and by his nickname, yet.) For his part, Mr. Ax did a lovely job of seeming to know who I was. I assayed to run back to my car and return with a sheaf of my piano works, but he was gone before I could make the suggestion. The dances went splendidly.
I tried to remember whether any other famous classical musician (not counting John Cage, Robert Ashley, and the postclassical crowd I hang out with) had ever been subjected to a public hearing of my music before, and I can't think of an instance. I'd love to know what he thought, but it's been my experience that my Disklavier pieces make pianists nervous.
Sorry, I haven't been blogging. Even those of us who like the limelight tire of public life occasionally, and fall into a none-of-your-business mood. I'm trying to organize my fall tour of Europe, and all I can think of is one of Groucho's famous lines from Night at the Opera: "I figure if he doesn't sing too often he can break even." That's exactly the way it looks: how many lectures and concerts can I afford to give? Not as many as I'd planned, certainly, and every one seems to add a few hundred Euros to my expenses, with the dollars piling up at an alarmingly more rapid rate. Who knew Europeans were as broke as we are? I hope to redo my PostClassic Radio playlist soon, which, with the imminent demise of internet radio, I've been neglecting. Other than that, the next fly I drop in everyone's ointment may be a European one, which may make me seem... almost respectable.
UPDATE: I would like to note, though, that today you'll see 735 given as the number of entries on my blog to date. The number seems insignificant - but 730.5 days is two years, and on August 29 (anniversary of Cage's 4'33" premiere, and of Katrina's attack on New Orleans) I will have been at this blog for four years. When I first started out, I doubted my ability or inclination to post frequently, but decided that if I managed to post every other day on the average, that I would count that as a respectable blog presence. I'm now enough ahead of my goal to take a couple of weeks off.
Debra Bresnan of Yamaha has written a story about my experience with the Disklavier for Yamaha's in-house magazine, posted on the web as well. It includes a photo of me taken recently by composer Adam Baratz, taken on my screened-in porch - where I am sitting at this moment.
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