Thursday, June 11, 2009

Update; Cage and the Abstract Expressionists; Art; Languages; Books in Brief

Greetings, music blogosphere! Or, "Salve, blogosphere!" I've been away for some time from everyday internetting, mainly out of internet fatigue--and research fatigue--but (to paraphrase Flight of the Conchords) also mainly because of my laptop's DC jack, which has been undergoing an intermittent fail ever since Easter, and it has been enduring joint custody with lengthy, unsupervised visitation by its other putative parent--an electronics manufacturer whose name rhymes with Just Lie.

Since then, I've taken a three-week course in Contemporary Art history. It went very well, and I wrote a research paper on Cage and art the art world where I viewed his embrace of chance not as a reaction to integral serialism but as a reaction to abstract expressionism. His late 1960s performance piece Mureau (an excerpt of which is apparently available here in ringtone form? caveat emptor)--and his 1970s chance-derived prints from Thoreau--in a sense took the archetypal American Romantic and dismembered his words and images.

Cage was closely involved with figures like Willem de Kooning and Robert Motherwell in the early 1950s (to say nothing of Robert Rauschenberg), and--for a musician who was developing a damning critique of The Great Artist and attacking Beethoven at every turn as the fifties progressed--what, say, Clement Greenberg claimed on behalf of the Abstract Expressionists intersects compellingly with where Cage was headed, albeit in the other direction. Here's Greenberg from a 1947 essay (viewable in context via googlebooks):

What we have…is the ferocious struggle to be a genius, which involves the artists downtown even more than the others…Alas, the future of American art depends on them. That it should is fitting but sad. Their isolation is inconceivable, crushing, unbroken, damning. That anyone can produce art on a respectable level in this situation is highly improbable. What can fifty do against a hundred and forty million?

Just as in "the Ives myth" (which has now been under deconstruction for as long as it was under construction proper, making it very nearly a straw man these days--the myth has myths and countermyths and a whole constellation of counter-countermyths), Greenberg's artists fall under the Thoreauvian paradigm of isolation; or, to use a more politically charged word with some recent musicological and critical cachet, mavericks. It's them against the world, in a romantic struggle against isolation and underappreciation. If Beethoven is the root of German romanticism, certainly Concord is the root (or a root) of America's romantic impulse and--even while spurring on a love for nature and the like--removing the transcendental content from Thoreau and leaving him as a banal collection of sounds and dismembered image is at once a celebration and critique. But then, that's the fun with Cage: to experience bits of Thoreau as if it were an environment in and of itself. That was the point of Thoreau, after all, wasn't it?

This really was my first experience writing about Cage, and everything that bothers me in Cage scholarship--or conversations about Cage--I did within the first five minutes of starting to type. All of the sudden Cage's humor vanishes into this ether of mystical paen, paradox, or resistance. Just as I've always hated, I of course started reading Cage's early writings and letters into his later, more radical aesthetic, viewing his endpoints as inevitable outgrowths of earlier ideas. (Leta Miller doesn't do this, which is why she's one of my favorite scholars to read, and I happily polished off her smaller Lou Harrison book written with Fredric Lieberman in an unadvisedly late night a couple weeks ago.)

Pitfalls and generalizations aside, I've been reading (and listening to) quite a bit about Cage lately. On the listening front, I've been checking out some of the Arditti albums, listening ever more closely to the Concert for Piano and Orchestra, and have been especially fond of the ACO disc The Seasons, which includes The Seasons, Concerto for Prepared Piano, Suite for Toy Piano (also included in a stunning Lou Harrison orchestration that, at times, blurs the line between Cage and populist Copland), and a brooding, contemplative realization of 74, one of the "number" pieces.

I've been sampling everything from the excellent Cambridge companion, to this absolutely stunning Walker Art Center book of interviews with Merce Cunningham, Meredith Monk, and Bill T. Jones, to the recent Tony Conrad history, and--most of all, lately--Martin Duberman's wonderful, compelling, readable, thorough history of Black Mountain College, published in 1972 but reprinted a couple of months ago. It's interesting--every summer, I place a handful of books into Darwinian conflict, and one wins out--in this case, Duberman's. It's a very compelling, self-conscious attempt to assess the impact and structure of one of America's most unorthodox, defunct, and influential academic communities.

I did quite a bit of extracurricular reading while taking art history, although I did have to study hard for the slide exams, but all of the sudden this week, I'm having to face my fears, academically speaking: language.

Foreign language has oddly never come easily to me. I have a great ear, and a fantastic memory, but not for forms. I have some background in Latin, but I did a really awful job as a Latin student in undergrad. Now, I'm taking a French reading course each morning (which is so concise and unfussy that I'm wondering why undergraduates don't learn that way) and redoing intensive Latin in daily three-hour sessions. Yes, it's confusing, but I'm very relaxed in the summer, and so far have been able to stay on task much more easily. My high school guidance counselor actually recommended Cornell College to me eight years ago during my college search, because there are block classes, and she identified that that's how I learn best. You know what? She was right. I'll be halfway done with two languages this summer, and--having never traveled abroad--am planning on applying for a DAAD language study grant for summer 2010, hopefully allowing me to get back in time to take the second half of the French reading course. It feels good to confront these weaker areas of my mind, jump into it, and see that I could feasibly complete coursework by June 2011, and then launch into a genius dissertation that will change the music world forever, about--[message truncated]--

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