Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Why I Love Musicology

Last week, I went to Leuven, Belgium (Flanders, I suppose) for the third international conference on music and minimalism. More on that later, except to say it was a wonderful week, almost compulsively informative and consistently stimulative to my musicological orientations. It was also (shhh, don't tell anyone) my first trip off of the ol' North American continent; my first trip out of the States except for Southern Ontario and Baja California.

So, because of my airfare rate, I got hustled into buying a student ID card. Long story, but Sunday night, before I left, I opened the student ID card (which no airline official or hostel host ever had the least inkling to check) and found that I had been issued the wrong person's card. The student from Denton, Texas actually had the same name as a famous television character. Anyway, I call the organization (STATravel) that had given me said card, and they asked if I could drive from Antioch, where I was before I flew out from O'Hare, to their Evanston office.

The thesis of my paper in Leuven was that a couple of Albert M. Fine's best pieces--two piano works for David Tudor, Three Movements for Piano and Symphonic Sketch--were accidentally minimalist, in a sense, a result of Fine's channeling of his neo-classical French tastes through a Cagean experimental aesthetic (with a heaping helping of humorous camp). Remarkably late within my development of this paper, which has been lurching forward in several iterations for the last few years, I discovered Nadine Hubbs's The Queer Composition of America's Sound: Gay Modernists, American Music, and National Identity. Fine (who was openly gay, and throughout the sixties began to construct his own self-conscious ideology for what this meant to his music and art) came of age writing like his one-time teacher Nadia Boulanger and listening to David Diamond, Virgil Thomson, and his correspondent Ned Rorem, even funneling many of these scores into Russia during the Khruschev thaw. But increasingly throughout the mid sixties, he tried (successfully) to personally ingratiate himself to John Cage and (unsuccessfully) to parlay that friendship into a viable experimental music career. He is a figure who even in failure really embodies a move Hubbs identifies, a network of neo-tonal modernists becoming displaced by a more "cerebral" network of experimentalists with consequences (that I probably overstate) for our reading of tonal Americana.

dot dot dot...

Here I was on Monday, about to leave for Belgium to argue that Fine was an anomalous, Cagean neo-classicist (or neo-classical Cagean, if you prefer), and forced by pesky circumstances to go to Evanston, when I remembered there were a few Fine items in the John Cage Notations collection at Northwestern, including several postcard pieces and an undated Scale Piece for John Cage. On short notice, a couple hours in advance, I phoned the librarian, who kindly obliged to allow me permission on such short notice, since I knew what I was looking for, and on the drive, I began to get excited. Conversations with librarians tend to do that.

Scales! For John Cage! Perhaps this was like Fine's dissonant counterpoint/aleatoric Play-Piece from 1964 and 1965 that suggests rotations and rhythmic variations based on quirks of spatial notation. Perhaps it relates to a question Fine wrote to Cage in 1966:
Dear Mister Cage: have you ever thought about setting up ‘a Guilded Estate” which could be called something like “Hut on Hudson” so that Nadia Boulanger and the Europeans might all come to study with you?
Evidence, evidence, coming together on all sides. So, I read the finding aid, which describes the piece as:
Scale piece for John Cage
1 scale in box; 14x17 cm.
[1] leaf; type and ink on paper; 11x16 cm

Hmm, a scale, in a box. Perhaps each note is a sort of card you can shuffle and then arrange according to your shuffling. Or, maybe it's a kind of mobile, cardboard that takes one shape or another depending on how you fold it, with similar instructions as Play-Piece.

Once I got into the archive, I dutifully examined and listed the contents each post-card piece in the first folder, taking note of the postmark (which, for figures like Fine who moved around often between New York and Cambridge, Mass., an important way of establishing a firm chronology). I looked at the box, which had an "M" logo in repetitive fashion over the tan and red box. Among the writing on the box, was--in what looked like Cage's hand in magic marker--"Fine Scale (northwestern)" Finally, I opened the scale piece box. And it was a...

disassembled postage scale, like this but smaller, or perhaps a pharmacist's scale, or a, um, underground small businessman's scale. I don't know, I'm not a scale excerpt. In a box. With a small postcard coated in wax, on which was typed:

Directions: drop the ENTERED or a similar suitable weight onto the assembled scale.

You may consider the piece finished:

(a) before you have dropped the weight.

(b) after you have dropped the weight

( c ) after the scale has stopped moving altogether

after the weight has been dropped

(d ) before or after any of the above directions are performed or read.

( e ) any other.

I was juked hard by a readymade, and reminded of why archival research matters. I looked at a mention of this "piece," fitting it into what I knew and trying to imagine writing it into my paper, falling in love with my own argument. But sometimes a scale is just a scale. And, for the first time in my archival research career, I sat inside of Northwestern's august, wood-paneled music library, not ten feet from walls and walls of musicological monuments, collections of Renaissance and Medieval polyphony, and sniffed deep into the box, trying to figure out what the residue of the ENTERED really was, feeling worlds away from ficta.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Jackson Mac Low, in the wake of the news

anyone want to perform this piece?

Social Project 1 (29 April 1963)

Find a way to end unemployment or

Find a way for people to live without employment

Make whichever one you find work.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Notes on digital culture

I'm probably not the first to notice this, but I'm too lazy to google who has. (Or maybe I am "original" after all): *

As facebook's vindicated for its "social utility," I've noticed there's a continuum between how much fun it is and how much work it creates. Case in point: several messages await me. Some are quite important, and would have, 70, 80 years ago, merited telegrams. Others, letters. Some are professionally related in one sense or another.

Now, in the meantime, I'm clearly doing other things. I'm pithily observing the world. I'm commenting on youtube clips of animals gone wild, posting Jon Stewart clips as if I discovered the daily show, and doing all manner of frivolous things.

It's as if you've gone to the DMV and I'm behind the counter. You might be my family, you might be my boss, you might be my best friend, and I hold up the proverbial "it'll be a sec" index finger. You're waiting in line, but I'm clearly blowing you off. Then you drift on to chat, and I slink off, poking my head in to see if you've left.

Why haven't you RSVPd? You RSVPd, why didn't you go? You were clearly up at 11:30; why did you go to sleep without writing me back? Inquiring minds want to know.


In 1935, Hanns Eisler (Brechtian, composer) upheld Schoenberg's twelve-tone style as progressive and potentially revolutionary because it "mirrored the confusion" of late capitalism, running every which way with no sense of what's going on and breaking the connections with a surfeit of data, data, data. The irony is that serialism is all about connections, as any word-search of a (RIP) Babbitt-Square will show you. I'm tinkering with my Berio paper, where he criticizes as falsely utopian the notion by Babbitt-via-Westergaard that serialized rhythm that mirrors pitch serialization "unifies" music. Rather, he argues (applying Eisler/Adorno's idea but reevaluating it), the sense of dislocation does not enable some sort of transformation. It drives us crazy, lulls us, makes us bow down in front of abstractions.

Social media too is revolutionary, and starts to jump the shark when it becomes an entire medium for experiencing life. Integration on a single platform should by all accounts unify things and ideas--lo and behold, it does. We have our same busy rat-race lives, sometimes miserable, joyful, and mostly mundane, but with a blue and white border.

And here I am blogging when I haven't written back to you.

*One of my personal goal is to reclaim the parenthetical followed by a colon from the emoticon

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Why, Hello There

I think it's fair to say this has become a vacant blog. I've been doing more reading than writing for the past year or so, and, for the past six months or so, almost as much running as reading, a healthful pasttime. I've also kicked the ol' fast-food addiction (my nadir was a double-down, just as I started running) and am actually fancying myself a vegetarian these days. And wonders never cease.

I've fallen back in thrall with musicological work again, which I wonderful. I've become a more voracious reader, stopped blogging and learned a whole bunch of repertoire, and I'm beginning to understand how to write about it all, and how not to. I'm also a big fan of teaching, which is great: teaching is great. Writing is great. Learning is great.

I have a spate of conference presentations coming up--five in three weeks, it's shaping up to be, from Madison to Iowa City, to Oakland, Michigan, to two in Central Missouri. It'll be a somewhat exhausting gamut, but also invigorating to road-test my research, much of which I've been sitting on for quite some time. What I've enjoyed, making this all presentable (material on Berio's O King and a style study of Albert M. Fine's proto-minimalist keyboard works), is the joy of rediscovery, not just from my archival material but from myself. I will rack my brain over a particular phrasing, only to discover a moment of clarity scrawled illegibly in the margins of a book or photo-copy from 2, 3, even 5 or 6 years ago. Sometimes I'll have recognized an idea but not really have the tools to see what it really means, or--like a dog out on a walk near a smelly hydrant--I'll draw the wrong conclusion from it and chase it down.

Another joy is to be around a new crew. The life cycle of a grad-school crew is about 2 or 3 years. I had a great crew of colleagues, saw them go, and now it seems everything's reloaded, and I'm surrounded by fresh approaches, sympathetic and challenging at the same time, and a group of interesting new faculty who read my mind and point me in the right direction. People share my interests, round out my knowledge, and 20-minute hallway conversations can suggest whole new fields I never imagined existed.

My favorite "new" colleagues are hardly new at all to me, but old buddies from Lawrence who have managed to settle here in nowheresville: Andy and Meg have some of the most interesting musical minds I know. You'll like their blogs. They're both fixtures at Jared Fowler's terrific ihearic concert series, which has filled a great void.

I attend much too infrequently: being a morning person (wonders never cease) doesn't always support being a new music fan. I'll only hear the Feldman string quartet if I can go during the early bird special.