PostClassic: July 2010 Archives

This unparaphraseable self-dialogue from Atalanta illustrates something of what I love so much about Robert Ashley's music:

I said, "Is the struggle with the law manifested in every aspect of the making of music, or are there law-abiding aspects and others that are confrontational only because of indiscretion on the musician's part - because of a transgression?"

He said to me, "Music is the enactment of the manifestation of the struggle with the law on a scale of continuous attempts; that is, where the attempts are related to each other symbolically through a pattern imposed on our memory. Music is a history of our struggle with the law."

I said, "Can music, then, substitute itself for the enactment of the struggle in other parts of our lives?"

He said to me, "That is its most common use."

I said, "The musician, then, becomes socially symbolic, enacting restlessness."

He said to me, "Yes. In order to be law-abiding, there has to be a place where one can rest. One can be law-abiding only in safety from the law."

I said, "Is the listener different from the musician?"

He said to me, "Yes, that is the paradox of music. In listening to music we are observing other persons like ourselves, but the consequences of their actions do not accrue to us actually. Their actions are understood only in retrospect. The consequences may accrue to us as wisdom. May even endanger our relationship to the law, may change our minds, but for the listener the act has already come into existence before the law is recognized. The listener is in safety from the law."

UPDATE: Notice how subtly and beautifully it nuances the tone that he uses "He said to me" rather than simply, "He said." The man's a frickin' poet.

July 31, 2010 5:10 PM | | Comments (4) |

In an interview on Slate, Wikipedia cofounder Larry Sanger (who left the organization) confirms the very reasons I quit having anything to do with the web site:

Q. Why did you feel so strongly about involving experts?

A. Because of the complete disregard for expert opinion among a group of amateurs working on a subject, and in particular because of their tendency to openly express contempt for experts. There was this attitude that experts should be disqualified [from participating] by the very fact that they had published on the subject--that because they had published, they were therefore biased. That frustrated me very much, to see that happening over and over again: experts essentially being driven away by people who didn't have any respect for those who make it their lives' work to know things.

Q. Where do you think that contempt for expertise comes from? It's seems odd to be committed to a project that's all about sharing knowledge, yet dismiss those who've worked so hard to acquire it.

A. There's a whole worldview that's shared by many programmers--although not all of them, of course--and by many young intellectuals that I characterize as "epistemic egalitarianism." They're greatly offended by the idea that anyone might be regarded as more reliable on a given topic than everyone else....

And later, just as accurately:

This is a general problem with Wikipedia: What is praised as consensus decision-making or crowd-sourcing often just means that the person with the loudest voice or the most time on his or her hands is the one who's going to win.
July 30, 2010 6:10 PM | | Comments (7) |
We live eight miles from where Chelsea Clinton is getting married this weekend. I walked into my local copy shop, and Jerry asked, "Have you gotten your invitation to the big wedding yet?" I said, "Mine must have gotten stuck in the mail, it hasn't arrived." Jerry said, "Yeah, it's probably sitting next to mine." No boats are allowed to sail in this stretch of the Hudson for the weekend. The biplanes at the Aerodrome, a popular local attraction, are grounded for the duration. The fairgrounds have been emptied out, because that's where the helicopters are landing. Two extra sheriffs have been hired, apparently at taxpayer expense. The Clintons are staying with a rich family whose name adorns one of Bard's most expensive buildings. Residents are pretty much warned to stay away from the town this weekend. The rehearsal dinner is rumored to be taking place at my favorite local restaurant, a joint too pricey for me to dine at except on celebratory occasions. If by any chance Chelsea is a reader of this blog, I highly recommend the macadamia-nut tempura calamari and the garlic soup. They're fantastic. And mazel tov.

July 29, 2010 5:44 PM | | Comments (5) |
Robert Ashley's 1983 opera Atalanta is actually three operas: one about the painter Max Ernst (uncle of Bob's wife), one about the jazz pianist Bud Powell, and one about Bob's uncle Willard Reynolds, the family story-teller and, as Bob calls him, shaman. Any given performance is made up of one act about each hero, and the acts are interchangeable, so one performance will contain one set of stories and the next night a different set of stories. As Bob writes in his "Future of Music" lecture

At the opera I am transported to a place and time where there is no disorder. There is disorder on stage, and it is called melodrama. We don't believe it. This is important: that we don't believe it. We do believe... what happens in the movies.... Therefore, opera can have no plot. It is foolish to argue that opera - any opera - can have a plot; that is, that the "characters" and their apparent "actions" and the apparent "consequences" are related in any way. Opera can be story-telling only. That the story-telling happens on stage and that musicians are making music in the pit (to reinforce the story told) is entirely coincidental. The story might as well be told at the kitchen table with a crazy aunt and uncle as the soprano and tenor.

The original recording of Atalanta is just over two hours long. A few weeks ago, Lovely Music released Atalanta, Volume II, which is also over two hours. Yesterday Bob gave me the entire musical score for Atalanta: five pages of musical notation. He says he needs to write a long essay about how to derive the musical materials for the entire opera from those notations, but doesn't have the time. So to figure out his process, I'm having to do with Atalanta what I've already done with Young's The Well-Tuned Piano, Dennis Johnson's November, and Budd's Children on the Hill: play bits of it on repeating loops and transcribe it. It seems I'm spending my life bringing to notation new music I love that wasn't created via notation, and is often improvisatory (despite my reputation as someone who doesn't like improvisation). And that raises the question as to why so much new music I love didn't originate in conventional score notation. 

In other news, I've been browsing Volume IV of the Carl Nielsen Studies from Ashgate Press (which I received as partial payment for a little book evaluation work I did for Ashgate). I'm a big, big Carl Nielsen fan. In it, David Fanning presents a theory of the symphony by Russian musicologist Mark Aranovsky, who categorizes the four movements of the typical symphony as representing Homo agens, Homo sapiens, Homo ludens, and Homo communis:

1. Homo agens: man acting, or in conflict (Allegro)
2. Homo sapiens: man thinking (Adagio)
3. Homo ludens: man playing (Scherzo), and 
4. Homo communis: man in the community (Allegro)

My Google searches suggest that this categorization has received almost no attention in the English-language literature. I offer it here in hopes of publicizing it. And I find it perfect for characterizing the four operas of Ashley's Now Eleanor's Idea:

Homo agens: Improvement: Don Leaves Linda - Linda in conflict and acting to ensure her own safety

Homo sapiens: eL/Aficionado, the Agent looking back and trying to reconcile his experiences

Homo ludens: Foreign Experiences, Don Jr. having wild rides with an Indian guide in his imagination

Homo communis: Now Eleanor's Idea, Now Eleanor finding her destiny within the Lowrider community


It's kind of an amazing five-and-a-half-hour operatic symphony. (I also have to wonder why I spend so much time on really, really long pieces, when I don't write very long pieces myself.)

July 29, 2010 2:37 PM | | Comments (3) |
In the penultimate scene of Robert Ashley's Improvement: Don Leaves Linda, Linda keeps singing about "Twenty-eight million, two hundred and seventy-eight thousand, four hundred and sixty-six people...." That's 28,278,466. So I Google the number. I pull up a hundred random sites, invoice numbers, auction IDs, and so on. And there on page three I see the name: "Blue" Gene Tyranny. And "Blue" Gene has written an article in which he mentions Ashley's early ONCE festival piece Public Opinion Descends Upon the Demonstrators, in which sounds from the audience are amplified. There are six different versions of that piece, depending on the size of the audience. The smallest version is for 6 people in the audience, and, as "Blue" Gene notes, the largest is for 28,278,466 audience members or more. And the first words of Act II of Improvement are: "This act is about - uhn - public opinion." Turns out for Ashley 28,278,466 somehow symbolizes the end of the world, but he doesn't remember how he arrived at it. (I'll spare you the speculation: 28,278,466 factors out to only three prime numbers, 2 x 1097 x 12,889. I couldn't have figured that out without "factoring large numbers" sites on the internet. And it's not in the Fibonacci series.)

Three of Bob's operas, Improvement, Foreign Experiences, and Now Eleanor's Idea, have something curious in common: they're all 6336 beats long. 6336 = 9 x 11 x 64. Improvement is divided into two acts of 3168 beats each, 1056 measures of 3/4 and 792 measures of 4/4. Foreign Experiences and Now Eleanor's Idea have four acts each, 1584 beats long, some in 3/4 and some in 4/4. Bob started out from wanting to write operas for TV, so that each "episode" had to be the same length. But Bob also studied in college with the great Bach scholar Hans T. David, who was his favorite teacher, and who edited The Bach Reader in the 1940s, as well as writing the definitive 1937 article on The Musical Offering. David was obsessed with symmetry in Bach, and the way in which certain movements added up to the length of other movements, or whose lengths represented the proportions of other formal partitionings. Luckily I can read a lot of David's writings on JSTOR. I think Bob got his penchant for numerical proportions not only from TV format, but first from Hans David's fascination with Bach's proportions.

I'm almost done with Volume 3 of Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music (having read Volumes 4 and 5 already), and I'm blown away by, among other things, the quantities of details he can integrate, especially on nonmusical subjects. And, remembering my work on my Cage book, I'm realizing how much the internet has changed the experience of writing scholarly books. No more does one have to go to the library, or travel, or search out rare books. Almost everything one needs is on the internet somewhere. For Bob's operas I have to research Giordano Bruno, the auto industry, the establishment of Israel, the Carlos Castaneda books, Spain's expulsion of the Jews, and a hundred other things. Fifteen years ago that would have meant a lot of time in various libraries, and some of it (like 28,278,466) would be virtually unsearchable. Now I do it all sitting on my porch. And almost no tiny question that arises goes unanswered.

July 23, 2010 5:52 PM | | Comments (2) |

A dutiful part of my research on Ashley has involved listening to music by his composition teachers, Ross Lee Finney, Leslie Bassett, and Wallingford Riegger. For the most part, it is well-crafted, relentlessly earnest, dour, unpersonable music, much of it for string quartet or quintet. I was glad to get that part over with. And then I run into Ashley's own characterization, in an unpublished but wonderful lecture he gave at UCSD in 2000:

...I  like dance music. I like America. I like our innocent people. I am one of them. But I have come to like, as well, another kind of music, which is in conflict, I discover, with the idea of music as something to dance to. I have come to like a new kind of "devotional" music, which has moved out of the churches into some unlocated, secular place. I say "devotional," because I don't know a better word, but it is music to be listened to, not danced to. In the listening it takes you to some place you have never been. It is mental. It doesn't require head-nodding. You just sit there and it flows through you and changes you.

I have brought up this point of the difference between dance music (music to be danced to) and "devotional" music (for want of a better word), because Americans keep trying to arrive at some sort of "compromise." Check out the term, "accessible." It almost invariably means the music has a "beat." I don't think there is any reason music has to have a beat, unless you are going to dance to it. That is a pleasant aspect of some music. I do it myself. But unfamiliar music that doesn't have a beat is being discriminated against. The composer knows this. And so the composer is always trying to compromise....

There was a brief few decades, early in the century, when the better-off went to Europe (Germany, in particular) to catch up with non-dance music. Charles Ives didn't go. But everybody else went. They brought back imitation German music. It was good in Germany, but here it was imitation. Then, in this "serious" music there was a brief flirtation with jazz, which mostly came to nothing, because the black people were better at jazz. And black people could not make "serious" music, because they were oppressed. Then (this is a chronology) there came American-Serious-Music. It was taught in the conservatories. Every music school had a Resident String Quartet (the cheapest form of ensemble), a Graduate Student String Quartet, and numberless Undergraduate String Quartets. They played American-Serious-Music. The string quartet was the university computer-music-studio of the 1940s and 1950s... It is a characteristic of the string quartet to emphasize moving the bow back and forth. The more the better.

Insert: Mr. Arditti, of string quartet fame, complained to Alvin Lucier, in the presence of a large number of people, that he didn't like to play Alvin's String Quartet, because there was very little bow movement, which lack of bow movement made his arm tired. To which Alvin replied, "Why don't you play it with the other arm?"

American-Serious-Music became a matter of moving the bow back and forth as much as possible, with accents here and there. You might call it sawing. One of its foremost practitioners called the style, "motor-rhythmic." It is characterized by a continuous sawing of sixteenth-notes or eighth-notes (depending on the time signature and the tempo). Up-bow, down-bow, up-bow, down-bow, endlessly. You know what i mean. This is where I came in. I went to music school. I hated "motor rhythms." Gradually I came to hate string quartets, when they got into that sawing, because that relentless sawing was simply a senseless update of the circle-dances that those innocent people had brought with them to America.... Everything about "motor rhythms" was just another version of the polka, the hora, and whatever else the dances were called wherever they came from. A circle of mostly poor people holding hands and jumping up and down. A long way from Morton Feldman. And I didn't even know Morton Feldman existed.

I print this here because I think it's wonderful reading, wonderfully put, and an insightful reading of the times. This is not to say I would have said everything he says the way he says it - I have my own thoughts about what "accessibility" means - but, as usual, I can't argue with him. He's a brilliant writer, which has not yet been acknowledged much - so brilliant that even his prose is nearly impossible to paraphrase, so that I end up quoting larger chunks than I'd like to get away with. American-Serious-Music: I know the genre well, and it's a good term for it. We still have a lot of it around.

I keep running into evidence that musicians have never heard of Ashley. (For instance, last night Bill Duckworth told me his interview with Ashley got axed from his Talking Music book because the editor had never heard of him.) This flummoxes me. Ashley has been at the center of my musical focus since I was in high school in the early '70s. When we brought him to New Music America in 1982, he was our number-two celebrity, after only John Cage - and much of his best music hadn't even been written yet. In those days I didn't have a musician friend who wasn't into him. I would have easily said he was as famous as Stockhausen. I can only gather that Stockhausen continues to get taught in music departments, and Ashley doesn't - partly because his insights, such as those above, don't sit well in those music departments. My book will make the strongest attack on that problem that I'm capable of. I am finding that to really get into some of Ashley's works I have to go through the text pretty thoroughly - especially true of Foreign Experiences and Now Eleanor's Idea. It's a lot less work than reading analyses of Gruppen and Le Marteau, and repays the effort.

July 23, 2010 3:12 PM | | Comments (6) |
Here's an author's query for you. One of Robert Ashley's biggest influences in college was a piano teacher named Mary S. Fishburne. She was listed, with an M. Mus., as Assistant Professor of Music in the Univ. of Michigan catalogue from 1949 to 1956, at which point she vanishes from history. I can't find any details about her. If anyone (among my older readers, presumably) has heard of her and has any idea what happened to her, I'd love to hear about it.

I spent much of last week in Ann Arbor researching Ashley's early life, doing a kind of musicology I've never done before. The best document I found was the obituary for Ashley's father, in the Ann Arbor News. Ward Ashley dropped dead of a heart attack in 1950, aged 66, in the very post office in which he had worked since 1900. The News stated that he had never missed a day's work in fifty years.

July 12, 2010 9:22 PM | | Comments (5) |
On an Overgrown Path has put up a flattering piece pairing me with Gustav Holst on account of our shared astrological concerns. Even nicer, this Sunday (our Independence Day on this side of the Pond) host Bob Shingleton is going to present a radio show comparing four of Holst's Planets with the same four of mine - and, in a gentlemanly touch, he is leveling the playing field by playing Holst's not in the usual technicolor large orchestra version, but in a rare two-piano version (that I'd love to hear). Holst strikes me as having been a nice man, and I think he would have welcomed the friendly competition from a little-known newcomer.

July 2, 2010 8:43 AM | | Comments (5) |

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