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The grim history of the twentieth century - something Brahms or Franck could never have foreseen, to say nothing of Matthew Arnold or Charles O'Connell - played its part as well both in discrediting the idea of redemptive culture and in undermining the authority of its adherents. The literary critic George Steiner, one such adherent, after a lifetime devoted (in his words) to "the worship - the word is hardly exaggerated - of the classic," and to the propagation of the faith, found himself baffled by the example of the culture-loving Germans of the mid-twentieth century, "who sang Schubert in the evening and tortured in the morning." "I'm going to the end of my life," he confessed unhappily, "haunted more and more by the question, 'Why did the humanities not humanize?' I don't have an answer." But that is because the question - being the product of Arnoldian art religion - turned out to be wrong. It is all too obvious by now that teaching people that their love of Schubert makes them better people teaches them little more than self-regard. There are better reasons to cherish art.

                  - Richard Taruskin, Music in the Nineteenth Century, p. 783

August 31, 2010 10:18 AM | | Comments (1) |
We went to Concord, Mass., a couple of weeks ago. It's my default short-vacation spot. I love the bookstores: The Barrow, the Concord Bookshop, Books with a Past, as well as the gift shops at local museums and authors' houses. I always find a dozen books there I didn't know about, many about Transcendentalism. And we walk around Walden Pond, and I wonder how much quieter it might be if Thoreau hadn't turned it into such a shrine. 


In The Barrow, I was going through poetry, and my eye ran across a title: Sonata Mulattica. I did a double take, chuckled in surprise. I tried to keep going. I looked at it again. I took it out, read a poem, put it back and moved on. But the book virtually leapt back into my hands. It's by Rita Dove, African-American poet who was poet laureate from 1993 to 1995. How can it be that the national poet laureate receives so little fanfare that I can fail to have heard of her 15 years later?

Anyway, Sonata Mulattica is an entire book of poems about a single subject: Beethoven's writing the Kreutzer Sonata for the "African prince" violinist George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower, falling out with him over a woman, and then dedicating the piece to Rodolphe Kreutzer instead. Dove uses lots of musical terminology, all correctly - in youth she played the cello, apparently - and her characterizations ring true and tired and humble, with none of the pompous mythologizing that attends portraits of great composers. Poem after poem after poem on this one moment in history, some from Bridgetower's perspective, some from Beethoven's, some from that of minor characters, and some of my favorites are about Haydn, who encouraged Bridgetower. This one is titled Haydn, Overheard (I'll refrain from entire poems for copyright reasons):

It is a sad thing always 
to be a slave 
but if slave I must, better 
the oboe's clarion tyranny

than a man's cruel whims. 
I stayed on at Esterhaza, 
writing music for the world 
between spats and budgets,

with no more leave 
to step outside the gates 
than a prize egg-laying hen. 
Even after Miklós died

and his tone-deaf son 
filled the courtyard 
with military parades, 
I hesitated: Call it

robbing Peter to pay Paul, 
but I had been homeless once 
and did not care for hunger....

But the finest gift I ever received 
was the vision of Johann Peter Salomon 
with his flamboyant nose and cape 
swirling across my doorstep:

"I've come to fetch you," he said. 
It was December. We set out 
from Vienna on the fifteenth 
for London, that great free city.

And here's Bridgetower, in a poem called Andante con Variazioni:

Thank you. It was a privilege. You are so kind. 
It is all his doing; I am merely the instrument. 
To have the honor of this premiere... 
a beauty of a piece, indeed.

What an honor! Countess, I am enchanted. 
I only wish I could better express my gratitude 
in your lovely language: Vielen Dank
It is all his - why, thank you, sir, I am speechless....

Herr van Beethoven is indeed a Master, and Wien
an empress of a city. My apologies -
I only meant that she is... magnificent.
(Ludwig, get me out of here!)

[UPDATE: In an attempt to better do the book justice, here's Beethoven:

Call me rough, ill-tempered, slovenly - I tell you,
every tenderness I have ever known
has been nothing
but thwarted violence, an ache
so permanent and deep, the lightest touch
awakens it... It is impossible

to care enough. I have returned
with a second Symphony
and 15 Piano Variations
which I've named Prometheus,
after the rogue Titan, the half-a-god
who knew the worst sin is to take
what cannot be given back.

I smile and bow, and the world is loud.
And though I dare not lean in to shout
Can't you see that I am deaf? -
I also cannot stop listening.]

It's a lovely book, a theme with variations indeed, and from every possible perspective. I could imagine reading about this episode and writing a poem, but an entire book of poems and so musically intelligent - it's quite astonishing. I considered ordering it as a textbook for my Beethoven course this fall, but I think I'll just put it on reserve, and make a much bigger deal than usual about the Kreutzer Sonata, which is one of my favorite middle Beethoven pieces anyway. Rita Dove: Sonata Mulattica (2009): highly recommended. And it's why internet shopping is not enough. I would never have run across this book on the internet, never known to Google "poems about Beethoven," never known who Dove was. Occasionally you have to walk into a really good, independent bookstore and finger every book on the shelves. 

I also ran across The Thoreau You Don't Know (also 2009) by Robert Sullivan. It looks and sounds like a facile compendium of Thoreavian esoterica, but it's actually a brilliant revisionist biography, with the contradictory virtues of being breezily written yet withal extremely erudite. Its ostensive purpose is to rescue Thoreau's reputation from those who think he was an antisocial "Mr. Nature," by emphasizing the year he spent in New York City trying to get a start as a writer, the time he spent in court as expert witness for property disputes (being a surveyor), and his wise handling of the family pencil business. Having not had a superficial view of Thoreau myself (the book convinced me), I didn't need the revisionism, but I was impressed with how much mass culture Sullivan delved into in order to anchor Thoreau in his immediate society, researching 1840s sheet music and ladies' magazines, and the changes in agriculture brought about by the depression of 1837. The bibliography is kaleidoscopically diverse. Oxymoronically a thought-provoking page-turner, the book is a worthy opposite bookend to Robert D. Richardson's more introverted Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind. 

August 29, 2010 4:58 PM | | Comments (2) |
If you imagine that I'm relentlessly driving myself to complete my Robert Ashley book before school starts, you would be correct. I'm not quite going to make it, but I'm very close. This is in addition to having written a piano piece, a viola piece, and two string quartets this summer (and reading three volumes of Taruskin's Oxford music history). I'm never again going to work this hard during the summer without a compelling financial incentive. This week I transferred all of my interviews with Bob to compact discs, and found that they fill up 18 CDs. Someday when someone writes a proper biography of Bob (as opposed to the intro-to-the-life-and-works I'm doing), all this biographical material could come in handy. I can't use half of what I've got.

There are some good stories in the book. My favorite is that when Bob stumbled across the text that would become Perfect Lives, he was trying to write a screenplay for an updated version of The Wizard of Oz. Also, the kid across the street that Bob grew up playing with became Marilyn Monroe's gynecologist.

August 26, 2010 8:29 AM | | Comments (0) |
Oops - I was supposed to help publicize that microtonal wunderkind Jacob Barton is giving a concert tonight on the microtonal instrument he's invented, the udderbot. It's at 8 PM at the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center. In Illinois, in other words. He's playing his own version of my piece Fractured Paradise, along with works by Susan Parenti, Aaron K. Johnson, Joseph Pehrson, Edwin Harkins, Bohuslav Martinu, and, well, there are a lot of names as you can see for yourself. The udderbot is made of a glass bottle, a rubber glove, and water, yet possesses a range larger than that of the flute. I've been very impressed with Jacob's initiative in performing so much microtonal work out there in the Midwest, and impressed with his own music as well. 

August 20, 2010 3:56 PM | | Comments (3) |
I found this curious, that in these days in which the erstwhile existence of an Uptown-Downtown split in new music has been forcibly shoved down the memory hole, an organization called The Field is sponsoring a workshop to bring Uptown and Downtown artists together. Their definitions:

For the purposes of this program:
• An Uptown Artist is an artist who lives and/or focuses their creative activities or aesthetic above 110th Street.
• A Downtown Artist is an artist who lives and/or focuses their creative activities or aesthetic south of 14th Street.

Thirty years ago, they could have gotten quite a fistfight going. Oh yeah, I'm only imagining that. Sorry.

And while I'm on terminology, I notice that the term alt-classical for my kind of music has been gaining traction lately at New Music Box and elsewhere. I suggested "alternative classical" for new music in the late 1980s via the Village Voice, and was sneered at. Eventually I gravitated to Postclassical, and so now everyone else is going to alt. I think everyone in new music watches where I go carefully, to make sure they don't go there.

August 11, 2010 6:23 PM | | Comments (16) |
You can't hear my son Bernard say anything in this Revolver magazine interview with his black metal band Liturgy, but you can watch him look cool. He claims the things he said got edited out, but he's kind of a quiet guy. Didn't get it from me. I'm shy around people I don't know, but I tend to blossom when you stick a microphone in my face.


Bernard Gann, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix

August 11, 2010 11:25 AM | | Comments (3) |
I finished another string quartet today - or at least, a piece for string quartet. See, I was asked to write a string quartet, and my original idea was to write one in three movements. I'm not much of a three-movement kind of guy, though, and the idea I had for the first movement got too long and too formally all-encompassing to be a movement. So it grew into an imposing, probably too-long, 25-minute movement, called The Light Summer Land. To title it just String Quartet seemed misleading. But I still had these ideas for the other movements, so I went ahead and wrote the third one anyway. It's a four-part canon at the major sixth, 13 minutes long, called Hudson Spiral - a companion piece to my nine-part triple canon Chicago Spiral, which I wrote in Chicago, and now I live in the Hudson Valley. I'll probably finish the second movement as well, and that'll be another independent piece. I don't think they can all fit in the same, wrist-slittingly long piece, being based on unrelated ideas. 

But I still don't know what to say if someone asks whether I've written any string quartets. Before this year, I had written only one little six-minute piece for string quartet in just intonation, called Love Scene (2003) - actually an arrangement of a love scene from my opera The Watermelon Cargo. All the pitches are in the overtone series on C, and it's a waltz in 3/4, but it still scares people away, and no one's ever played it. So I always said I'd never written a string quartet, thinking of a string quartet as a rather sizeable piece. Wikipedia, which of course represents ultimate truth, states that "A string quartet is a musical ensemble of four string players... or a piece written to be performed by such a group." Now I've written three pieces to be played by such a group. One of them, the big one, I can think of as a "string quartet." The others are pieces. Or are they all just pieces for string quartet? It's confusing.

August 10, 2010 5:35 PM | | Comments (1) |
Yesterday James Sinclair - emperor of all things Ivesian, who heroically catalogued all 8000 pages of Charles Ives's manuscripts - took me on the Ives walking tour of Yale. While a student there Ives lived in Connecticut Hall, then as now the oldest building left on campus, which, because of its age, tended to house the less affluent students. His dorm room was on the second floor, the last two windows on the right:


(By contrast, Cornelius Vanderbilt donated a fancy new dorm to make sure his sons lived there in style, attended by servants.) Ives's keyboard skills earned him the most coveted church music job in town, organist at the Congregationalist Center Church on the Green:


Years later:


August 7, 2010 4:38 PM | | Comments (3) |
In Ann Arbor I took photos of the houses Robert Ashley grew up in. (Old phone books in libraries, I've discovered, are a cheap way to chart history.) I showed him this house on Brookwood where he lived as a teenager - 


and he exclaimed, "I used to sit on that porch and read Mark Twain!" 

I'm proud of being the only musician who ever interviewed Conlon Nancarrow's brother Charles, and Tuesday I interviewed Ashley's sister Anne Ward (always called by her first and middle names). (Composers please don't have your siblings contact me, though, until I express interest.) I also got the first photos ever of me and Ashley, though I've known him since 1979. I like that a barely-visible bust of J.S. Bach is looking over us from the upper left, since I've been realizing how important Bach was to Ashley's early conception of musical discipline and symmetry. The books behind us are about the lost island of Atlantis, Giordano Bruno, the Rosicrucians, evidence of North American prehistory, Hindu numerology, and a wild host of occult and arcane subjects:


August 5, 2010 3:50 PM | | Comments (1) |
NEW HAVEN - I played the last two movements of the Concord Sonata in high school, and the final four articulated notes of "Thoreau" - G# Bb G C# - have always bothered me. I remember arguing with my piano teacher about them. They don't seem to have much motivic resonance with the rest of the movement, and the final ambiguous tritone always struck me as un-Ivesian. So now I'm at Yale library looking through the Ives archive, and I'm finding that Ives's original manuscript presented a different picture. The original ending, which was followed in the 1920 edition but was dropped for the Arrow Press Edition, followed that C# with a dotted-rhythmed A:


This makes perfect sense, and connects the ending with several other points in the piece:


It also brings back at the final moment the wedge motive - notes moving outward or inward chromatically around a center note - that recurs many times, notably in the opening measures, and also closes the piece on a more conclusive-seeming D-A sonority. (In one sketch, Ives even suggests that the last six notes could be played an octave higher by, not the piano, but the flute that barges in on the preceding page.) And yet in the 15 copies of the published version that Ives went through and altered to create several possible readings of the piece, he several times crossed out the A and made the C# a half-note. I think doing so was a mistake, and not the only one Ives made in belatedly revising his works. (I also never liked the 12-tone chord that he puts at the end to make fun of his Second Symphony.) 

Likewise, I've always wondered about the beginning. The first five notes of the Concord in the left hand descend B A Ab F D#. Everyone analyzes this as a skewed version of the "pentatonic theme" that will recur so often, E D C A G. But it's not pentatonic! And lo and behold in the first ink copy of the piece, the left hand descended B A Ab F# F D#, with two quarter notes:


It's octatonic! And with a whole-tone scale in the right hand and octatonic in the left, perhaps he was spelling out a larger-scale wedge motive. But he crossed out the second quarter-note and put a half-note. The realization that his original idea was not thematic but scalar gives me something new to look for in the piece. 

I'm considering teaching a Concord Sonata course next spring, and I've always suspected that if I could look at the sketches I could clear up, at least in my own mind, some mysteries about how Ives composed. And I'm grateful to the librarians here for allowing me to gaze my fill at these precious manuscripts. 


August 4, 2010 5:08 PM | | Comments (6) |
They noted that there were certain things which were impermanent and other things to which the word impermanence did not apply. - Perfect Lives

I spent June composing and July writing a book. Both are enjoyable and self-fulfilling activities; I am fortunate. The first feels like I'm taking care of myself and developing psychically, putting myself first; the second feels like I'm adding to my authority and piling up ammunition for future writing and debate. It saddens me that the book feels like so much more solid an achievement. The music might never get played, it might get played badly, there might not be a recording, people might not like it or not get it, it may disappear into the ether. The book, being from an academic press, will go into 500 libraries automatically and sit there on the shelves waiting to be tripped over. It will be used by other researchers and quoted in other books. Every time I open the book, it will read just as eloquently as the first time; the music, I'll have to worry again about every new performance, whether it will go well and sound good. Physically, the result of my composing will mainly be a PDF out on the internet. If I'm lucky and find some money, a compact disc may result, which feels a little bit like a book, but doesn't get distributed as well. CDs seem to disappear, whereas when I go to friends' houses, I notice my books sitting on their shelves. Books impress my employers, which my un-prize-winning music doesn't, and the books bring me lecture gigs, which my music rarely does. (Economically, oddly enough, they're about the same: I've made more money from music commissions than book advances, but the quarterly drip of book royalties offsets that.) After Music Downtown I thought I might not write any more books and just focus on my music from now on, which sounded great. I could do that. But I got seduced back into books as a much easier path toward the appearance of achievement. I could have written all my music and still not be taken seriously by a wide variety of people, but the books (peer-reviewed, published at someone's expense, permanent, not misunderstandable) give me a kind of irrefutable clout that I can't deny enjoying. And now I have three more books I'm thinking of working on down the road.

Ultimately, I believe that the artist outranks the scholar because of his vulnerability. After all, the clout I get is borrowed from the vulnerable artists I've made myself an expert on. But vulnerability ain't for wimps, if ya know what I mean.

August 1, 2010 10:00 AM | | Comments (8) |

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