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.