Thursday, July 12, 2012

Microcosmic Nothingness of Man (Letter to Lenny)

I've been spending a significant amount of time spelunking through the New York Philharmonic Digital Archives, mostly for routine financial data from the late 1960s. Part of my research, now, is to take some of the grandiose political, social, and aesthetic rhetoric down from the cosmos and instead see what we can learn about "experimental music" when its composers have to work with/in the mundane day-to-day structures of arts administration, publishing, and recording.

 In other words, what happens when our high-modernist priests have to get their hands dirty a bit? The instinct of many musicologists is to, at best, look past the section players, arts administrators, secretaries, lawyers, etc. who make music happen; at worst, treat them as authoritarian figures who distract us from the pure, undistilled vision of the artist. Instead, what happens when we view these interventions as a central focus of "musical office work"?

As a result of my "working axiom"--that making creative work is work, made in a workplace--I suppose I've grown jaded about claims of music opening us up to new experiences, really changing the world, or inducing a new political sensibility (claims germane to Stockhausen in particular).

Then I decided to look through some files pertaining to the 1963-1964 Philharmonic season that saw Bernstein ramping up avant-garde programming through a series of curated subscription and youth concerts. While Bernstein's prepared remarks were interesting, what was perhaps most remarkable was a January 3, 1964 letter pertaining to a performance of Xenaxis's Pithoprakta.

The writer was one Bud Kaufman, the New York office manager of a Philadelphia-based clothier. The letter is prophetic and quite dark, cast in epic, appreciative terms for realizing that the world of music is no longer flat, and that composers are to be "the few choice high priests to begin to comprehend the deep and darkest secrets--frightening!"

Now, I know experimental music composers. My instinct is to point out that most of them make fart jokes and spend their time tinkering with electronics and testing out cool-looking graphic notation. But it's good to remind myself that real, overpowering experiences are the end goal--the end-product--of all the boring work.

Imagine you've just gotten done with a concert; can you imagine any more powerful letter to receive than one ending the way that Kaufman's does? You can imagine Bernstein reading it more than once.

The scientists have not found the answer. Last night I felt that it was in the artist that the truth will be found or the artist will find the truth. Perhaps, in the outer stratus of the planet world, the truth of man’s uniqueness and true potentiality the secret will be revealed. It is in the new creativeness and courage on the part of artists like yourself who bring to the audience the possibility to understand the impermanence, the nothingness, and yet in the midst of all the cacophony, and the screamings of new sounds I felt truth, religiousness, potentiality and the impermanence and microcosmic nothingness of man.
 And paradoxically, you were the great surgeon. Directing, searching and seeking the meaningfulness of man. Are we worms crawling on a globular non-entity, or is it in our potential as humans to comprehend the truths.
 For all of this awakening I thank you, Maestro.

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