Monday, May 4, 2009

Clothespins and Googly Eyes

So, my technology woes continue. April 24, my computer was returned from tech support, only to have the same problem--a faulty AC jack--act up again a week later; and it's less than a year old!

I'm experiencing life via longhand once again. Frustrated at having to go to a computer lab or not being able to do work (which I often do between 8 PM and midnight, when I'd much rather be at home than in a library), I decided to start collating my research and sketching a narrative longhand. I found that re: my Albert Fine project, my research is coming together. I'm still looking for Nina Meister, who knew the composer's mother and performed some of his works at Harvard in 1990, writing about them and recording a casette that are housed in his archive. It's amazing how hard it is to find someone. Maybe I'll call the Harvard alumni office, or check in the crimson. And how many researchers have been foiled by the "married name" phenomenon?

Championing composers is a laudable feature of musicology and performance. It can lead to overstated scholarship if taken too far (in the musicological realm) but keeps old works alive, and allows new audiences to rediscover unfamiliar or familiar-but-misunderstood composers. I think probably the best, most thorough example of such advocacy comes from a former teacher (of whom I'm a big fan), Robert Levy, and his tireless promotion of Alec Wilder, a figure who is--Bob says this but more eloquently--"too pop for the concert hall and too classical for the jazz club." I remember attending a University of Minnesota New Music Ensemble concert a few years back that included:

--"Raggedy Andy" for chamber orchestra by Elliott McKinley, a doctoral candidate in composition from the University Of Minnesota. The performance will be conducted by Peter Smucker.
--A tribute to composer Alec Wilder, with three of his works: "Neurotic Goldfish" for winds and percussion, "I'll be Around" for voice and guitar, and "Such a Tender Night" for winds and percussion. Jerry Luckhardt, director of the New Music Ensemble, will conduct the performances of "Neurotic Goldfish" and "Such a Tender Night."
--Part II of one of the most influential works of the early 20th century, Arnold Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire" for voice and six instruments. Young-Nam Kim, co-director of the NME, will conduct the performance.
--The Woodwind Quintet by Elliott Carter.
--Four Songs for soprano, baritone and chamber ensemble by Andrew Imbrie, conducted by Kim.
It was a bold programming move, one that wasn't entirely flattering to Wilder given the new music audience (and one of the most canonic works--you know what I mean by "canonic"--of the twentieth century on the second half). Still, I think it's important to challenge our musical cultures and communities. Hearing a simple pop song by Alec Wilder next to Schoenberg makes Schoenberg and Wilder seem radical next to one another.

....Speaking of radical, my search for information about Fine took me to the Harvard Crimson website, which is--thankfully--archived online back to 1873! And, as I write about Fine's compositional shift, from a neoclassical style in the vein of Persichetti to really far out, this may be the best anecdote I've ever found about any composer. And note his obscurity. No author is listed, and the piece is quite colloquial, from March 26, 1966 (emphases added):

You're walking past the Bick about 5 in the afternoon and this just incredibly
happy looking guy in the fishbowl beckons to you.

Naturally you try to cross the street.But the light won't change and you kind of peer over your shoulder and he's still there, looking at you. Really seraphically happy.

So what the hell. You go inside. And what do you know. He's not selling marijuana. Fact of the matter is, he's selling clothespins. Or rather, he wants you to go to
Woolworth's and buy a bag of clothespins and then wanders around Cambridge
clipping them on to things. Nice fella really. Says his name is Albert Fine.

He's very explicit that you shouldn't injure anything. Probably a peace creep.
He doesn't have much of an explanation to offer. "It's a happening, baby," he
says. "It's the action not the reason that matters."

So what the hell. You didn't really want to study Chem 20. And it'll be something to tell the fellas back in Q House. You go to Woolworth's. The counter lady gives you quite the fishy eyeball. Seems there've been about 50 guys in already, asking for

This reminds me of something my friends Brent and Luke used to do back at Lawrence, afixing googly eyes with light adhesive to lampposts, table tents, buildings, shoes, doors, fliers--anything, almost always subtly or in the dead of night. I heard someone at Lawrence recently talking about someone who puts googly eyes around, and this is years later. The idea, uh, "stuck."

For that matter, the entire concept of minor history is taking my research in unexpected directions. Letters from Phillip Glass and Peter Schickele suggest that the three were a cohort of sorts in the late 1950s at Julliard. I have fliers from shows they put on at the defunct "Cafe Lorenzaccio" on Broadway between 108th and 109th streets, including Russian folk tunes arranged by Fine, original songs and movies by Schickele and his brother, David, classical works (from Haydn and Telemann), Glass premieres before Glass was Glass, and poetry readings. Schickele even wrote a piece (typtically) entitled "Fanfare for a lost cause : in remembrance of Cafe Lorenzaccio, and its owner and operator during the apex of its history, Burrill Crohn" in 1960. (This actually helps me out: Crohn played trumpet with their chamber group at the bar).

I haven't gotten ahold of Glass or Schickele--I think it might even be annoying if I did--but I can only imagine that they'd probably shake their heads and be amazed that anyone was researching what they did on their Thursday nights during grad school. (Heaven knows how boring the article about my evenings would be if someone ventured to write it.) But it helps to get at a larger question that the program-notitization of musicology often misses: how did artists do what they did, economically, and how did they create a market for it? Here are three figures (pictured together at their Julliard graduation in a Julliard periodical) with impeccable resumes, engaging and interesting personalities, and obvious musical potential. And yet, they weren't thinking about masterworks--or maybe they were; instead, picking up a few bucks, having a good time, and landing a job after graduation from grad school.

Landing a job after grad school? My research is taking me into some scary places.

I have many friends, like my former roommate, composer, songwriter, actor, good-guy, and Brooklynite-via-Northern Wisconsin Jonathon M.T. Roberts, who do insanely creative (often strange) things in New York. Will he be history one day?

And if clothespins, why not googly eyes?

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