main: August 2003 Archives

Checking out our new U.S. poet laureate Louise Gluck (daughter of the inventor of the X-Acto knife, and I'm going to figure out a clever comment about that if it kills me), I came across the following statement by the Laureate herself, which made me like her:

The poet is supposed to be the person who can't get enough of words like "incarnadine." This was not my experience. From the time, at four or five or six, I first started reading poems, first thought of the poets I read as my companions, my predecessors, from the beginning I preferred the simplest vocabulary. What fascinated me were the possibilities of context. What I responded to, on the page, was the way a poem could liberate, by means of a word's setting, through subtleties of timing, of pacing, that word's full and surprising range of meaning. It seemed to me that simple language best suited this enterprise; such language, in being generic, is likely to contain the greatest and most dramatic variety of meaning within individual words.

I'm much in sympathy with this. In music, too, simple units are so much more evocative than complicated ones. That's what makes Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps so effective - it places simple, memorable melodic bits (Russian folk song fragments, actually), drawn mostly from the pentatonic scale (black-notes on the piano), in bizarre, unfamiliar, dissonant contexts. Player-piano pioneer Conlon Nancarrow, too, uses almost nothing but ridiculously simple melodic motifs like (in notes) C-D-F and A-C-B to build up massive complexes of different tempos and sound masses going at the same time. Melodies of simple quarter-notes and eighth-notes are so much more eloquent than the ubiquitous rushed "grupetti" (quintuplets, septuplets and such) that became obligatory in mid-20th-century music. Simple elements draw you into the music and help you identify with it, creating a human presence in a soundworld that could then be as bizarre as you wanted.

The opposite kind of music is that like Boulez's Le Marteau sans maitre and most of the serialist music that followed it, along with Elliott Carter's works like the Double Concerto. That music's units are wide-ranging, rhythmically irregular, and angular, difficult to remember except in the most generic way, as thrown-off gestures. They feel alien to the listener, and repel him. They are the musical equivalent of words like "incarnadine," or better yet perhaps "incarnadinississimotudeness." Significantly, that kind of music is most popular in academia, where there are also plenty of people who love seeing big, portentous words tossed around.

What Gluck so aptly points out, that I'd never thought about before, is that it's the simple, common words that possess a surprisingly large range of meaning and connotation, while the elaborate ones are so much more restricted and lacking in resonance. Likewise, a simple D-B-E-B motive in Stravinsky can have many different connotations depending on musical context, but the 12-tone row that opens Schoenberg's Fourth Quartet can mean little besides a vague anxiety no matter what you surround it with.

Happily, Gluck's own poetry illustrates her point beautifully, especially her use of rhythm (timing, pacing) to make a simple word seem surprising. I'm glad to become acquainted with her work.

August 31, 2003 8:34 AM | |

For instance, let's take up the question which, in various forms, has been the focus of several recent Arts Journal entries: to use Douglas's wording, Why has classical music fallen off the cultural literacy menu? Why do people who still take an interest in recent novels and paintings know so little about recent music, without feeling at all ashamed that they don't know? Why has classical music ceased to be something cultured people care about, and why hasn't postclassical music replaced it?

We truly don't know. This is a mystery. My usual kneejerk explanations, along vaguely Marxist economic lines that cast aspersions on record companies and orchestra managements, are subject to pinpricks by a million counterexamples. On the other hands, poet and cutural critic Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) believed that each of the arts had inevitable periods of growth, excellence, decline, and torpidity, and that if you found yourself an artist in the wrong age, there was just nothing you could do about it. "The exercise of the creative power in the production of great works of literature or art," he wrote in "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time," "is not at all epochs and under all conditions possible;... therefore labor may be vainly spent in attempting it, which might with more fruit be used in preparing for it, in rendering it possible.... [F]or the creation of a master-work of literature two powers must concur, the power of the man and the power of the moment; and the man is not enough without the moment." Similarly, George Orwell felt that certain arts could not reach high stages of excellence under certain types of government: the novel under totalitarianism, for example. In the U.S., when a work of art is unsatisfactory, we unquestioningly fault the artist, but there is a critical tradition according to which the artist is helpless against the deficiencies of his time.

Composers, of course, desperately resist this kind of fatalism. But it's at least true that there is a natural evolution in the technique of music by which a language is developed through the collective contribution of many composers, and in the early stage of a new style, enduring quality can be simply impossible to achieve. Except for the late works of Bach and Handel, who were considered old-fashioned by then, the period 1740 to 1780 was such a slump, and the leading composers of that day - Wagenseil, Monn, Benda, the Stamitz's, Bach's sons - survive today only as musicological curiosities. Even Mozart's music didn't really mature until his 1780 contact with Haydn. I've always considered C.P.E. Bach a poster boy for the "man plus the moment" theory: he was clearly a genius with an astonishingly inventive mind, and yet as far as I've found he never wrote an entire piece (more than a movement here and there) that wasn't patently flawed by some bizarre incommensurability between form and harmonic effect. C.P.E. had the genius, but he didn't have a mature musical language available to express his genius in. 1714 was not a good year for a composer to be born.

At the same time, Arnold's cultural theory may be subject to its own pinpricks. I personally don't experience the present as such a slump. The former Times critic Donal Henahan, who made himself an enemy of modern music with an irrational vengeance, once challenged readers to make a list of wonderful works that could endure from the period after 1940. Always obliging, I wrote him one. I indeed had a difficult time coming up with recommendable titles for the 1950s and '60s, but it became much easier through the ensuing decades. There may have been a musical slump from 1950 to 1975, and some may argue that we're not completely out of it. Nevertheless, lots of my favorite music comes from the 1980s and '90s - Bill Duckworth's Southern Harmony and Imaginary Dances, Elodie Lauten's Waking in New York, Mikel Rouse's operas Failing Kansas and Dennis Cleveland, Diamanda Galas's Plague Mass, John Luther Adams's In the White Silence, Janice Giteck's Om Shanti, Nancarrow's late player piano studies, the electronic sampling works of Carl Stone, all of Morton Feldman's late music, and on and on and on. Anyone familiar with my writing knows this list.

In general, though, even if we admitted being in a slump, I think people make too much of complaining about it. The complaint itself becomes so ingrained a habit that great music, when it finally appears, can hardly make a dent. Slumps are interesting, and not every generation has the opportunity to study one close up. It's instructive to hear several ineffective pieces of music in a row and wonder, What incorrect assumption have those composers made that allows all those works to fail? Wagenseil is fun to listen to on occasion because his mistakes are so easy to spot. I have an inferiority complex when it comes to visual art, but every now and then I see a painting that seems indisputably bad, and I enjoy exercising my slim visual abilities in figuring out what's bad about it - it gives me a feeling of superiority that Magritte and Picasso deny me. If we are, arguably, in the torpid stage of a new musical language that hasn''t formed yet, isn''t there any interest in observing its growth and imagining where it''s going to go? Does every piece have to provide the full payoff? Can't the interactive working of the listener's imagination be part of the pleasure? Or is full passivity what our concertgoers pay their money to experience?

August 28, 2003 8:23 AM | |

Whether we're in a slump ot not, however, I can point to one obvious large obstacle to cultural literacy about recent music: an alarming disunity in the opinions of composers and critics, and even an incredible dearth of common reference points. We are in a radically splintered situation, in which the artistic figures who seem like gods to one group of musicians can sometimes be totally unknown to another group. For instance, it seems to me unquestionable that Robert Ashley, now in his 70s, is the leading, and most excitingly innovative, opera composer of the late 20th century. Dozens of my friends would concur. Yet I mentioned Ashley recently to a good composer well-known on the orchestra circuit, and he responded, "I've never heard his music. What's it like?" Meanwhile, an opera coach with decades of experience, overhearing me state that opinion, ventured with some consternation he'd never heard the name. Similarly, Richard Danielpour is a big cheese in certain classical circles, but if I polled my Downtown Manhattan composer friends I would probably find few who had ever heard a note of his music.

So pity the poor audience member who would really like to become conversant in today's music. She looks at the Pulitzer Prize list and memorizes names of composers presumably celebrated. She reads my column in the Village Voice and sees those composers dismissed, and another group held up as exemplary. Reading Paul Griffiths until recently in the Times, she would have learned that today's great composers, besides Elliott Carter, are all European in their 70s, and write "difficult" music. At BAM and Lincoln Center she will hear composers dismissed by the Times and the Pulitzer both. If she attends concerts at universities she will hear an entirely different set. If perchance she goes to Patelson's music and looks through published scores, she will find an eccentric-seeming group of names pushed by the music publishing industry. At Tower Records she will find that the composers who have success in publishing are not the ones who put out the most CDs, and so on. And if she conscientiously pays attention to a variety of publicity sources, she will conclude that the best-known young composer around is Michael Torke - and then be astonished when she learns that his music is considered ludicrous by composers from a wide range of aesthetic backgrounds. Anyone with a nonmusical life to live would have given up long before this.

The musical mainstream ended in the 1970s, and we all consciously watched it topple like Saddam's statue (if one will forgive the unhappy metaphor of a mainstream toppling), though with as much apprehension as rejoicing. We are obviously in a transitional phase, but the new direction(s) to come is (are) up for grabs, and in such situations every group united by common values makes a play for power. Since 1980 the big divide has been between the waning modernists who are holding on for good old-fashioned virtues of intellectuality, complexity, and audience discomfort in music, against those who resist the elitism of only writing for colleagues. Even beyond that, though, each side diffracts further into a whole rainbow of viewpoints: notation versus improvisation, structure versus intuitive emotionality, technological expertise versus performer expressivity, self-expression versus public accessibility. Musicians often claim that the present state of confusion is a good thing, because it gives everyone a chance at a career, and doesn't pressure anyone into a particular aesthetic path. That's probably true - and yet it does make it damnably difficult for the wider public (who after all need not just a cursory listening but to steep themselves for awhile in a new style) to find anything at all to latch onto as a landmark.

And so when people come up to me and ask me what they should do to find out what's really good in postclassical music, it's with a sinking feeling that I can only come up with two hesitant options: "Well... you can take my word for it, which I don't recommend because you'll be considered eccentric - or you can devote your life, as I have, to figuring it out."

August 28, 2003 8:21 AM | |

"There are no accidents, there are no coincidences," wrote Jung. The day after Douglas McLennan asked me to consider starting a blog, I was moving some books, by chance including Thoreau's Walden. Usually when I run across it I can't resist starting to reread it. I'm now 17 years older than Thoreau was when he wrote Walden, and while he still strikes me as a brilliantly fresh, goodhearted, and highly literate fellow, as a more experienced writer than he was then I can now afford to condescend to some of his flights of verbal fancy that sound ineptly imitated from some passage stored in his memory. Still, he can stop me dead in my tracks with a phrase, and he did it this time with: "How can he remember well his ignorance - which his growth requires - who has so often to use his knowledge?"

I closed the book and thought of my life, and of the proposed blog. In my nose-to-the-grindstone youth I studied voraciously, but in recent years, from economic necessity, my ratio of knowledge gained to knowledge dispensed has shifted dramatically toward the latter. I have made a career from trading my knowledge for money, recycling some of it so often that I cringe to pass it over the counter again. One thing I do not need a blog for is to emit yet another steady stream of the facts about music that I have stored up over 30-odd years of fanatical collecting. What I do need is a place to think out loud, to run up against the ideas of others, to quote striking passages that I'm not sure I agree with, and to foment feedback. Another thing I need a blog for is space, enough column inches to explore a subject thoroughly and truthfully, a commodity that has been quickly diminishing in my various print outlets. So while I take too much pride in my writing skills to go public with an unedited stream of consciousness, I hope the reader will indulge a preponderance of inconclusive cogitation - and give me room to remember well my ignorance, which my growth requires.

August 23, 2003 2:51 PM | |

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