Thursday, July 30, 2009

Our Missed Opportunity

I feel like musicology should have something smart to say about Auto-Tune the News.

But I'm not sure what it is.

Monday, July 27, 2009

"No Immediate Survivors"

ETA: Please note Allan Kozinn's response in the comments! And see my more recent post here.

Just a few months ago I noted that Merce Cunningham and Pete Seeger were nearly exactly the same age, and, at age 90, were still going strong. Alas, the Times is reporting today that Merce has passed away. It's hard to imagine someone who lived a more satisfying life. I saw him in person only once, at a performance by his company in Los Angeles a few years ago. He came onstage afterwards, rather frail, to answer questions from the audience. I can't say I learned much; he told stories I had already read before, and stalled when pressed about specific points. But it's not often you get to bask in the presence of a legend like that, and it was thrilling just to be there.

The tributes are starting to flood in, and already, it is a pleasure to see how much things have changed since 1992, when John Cage passed away. What do I mean? Well, as we all know, the two were life-long lovers in various configurations from the 1930s until Cage's death. It was one of the most enduring partnerships in the history of the arts, bringing the idea of collaboration to new heights. Every single piece of music or dance either of them produced was done in the company of the other. Sure, not everything Cage wrote was to accompany a dance, but most of it was, and their lives and philosophies were so intertwined that you can't speak of one without speaking of the other. It's really kind of one of the great love stories of the twentieth century.

And yet, when Cage passed away, there was a great silence about Cunningham. Perhaps the most egregious example was Allan Kozinn's obituary for the oh-so-liberal New York Times. The essay is about 2800 words. I just did a little search, and the word "Cunningham" appears about eight times--and that overstates the quantity of the discussion. Kozinn simply mentions that Cage had been a "central influence" on Merce since the two had become "friends" at school. Later he mentions their "lifelong collaboration", and then finally at the very end, Kozinn gives a scant overview of Cage's personal life that is the only hint that he and Merce were more than "friends", even as he brutally dismisses the meaningfulness of their relationship:
Mr. Cage's marriage to Xenia Andreyevna Kashevaroff ended in divorce in 1945. From 1970 until his death, he lived with Mr. Cunningham.

There are no immediate survivors.

Shocking. One can only imagine how this obituary would be re-written if the two lovers and collaborators were a man and a woman. Sometimes I think my own scholarship on Cage is a little screechy, constantly pointing out that the man was in a same-sex relationship and that this might have affected his music. But you can see what I have to deal with! However, seventeen years later, appreciations of Merce are already doing a much better job of not cloaking his life with the veil of homophobia. Either that, or dance critics are better human beings than music critics, which might be the case.

It's true that Cage and Cunningham were reticent about their personal relationship. Cage's famous answer to such questions was, "I do the cooking, Merce does the dishes." And their music and dance is famously anti-expressionist, so it takes a little work to learn more about the men through their art. But, it's actually not that hard. I mean, just think about all of those early dances that Merce choreographed to John's music, back in the 1940s. Tamara Levitz has done the work to show intimate the relationship is between the music and the choreography, both Merce's and other choreographers--despite Cage's later disavowals, he followed the dance just as much as the other way around. As Tamara wrote, "he came to know their bodies as intimately as his own sounds."

Their relationship surfaced at other times too. One of my personal favorite moments was Cage's Sixty-two Mesostics Re Merce Cunningham, a spoken-word piece written in 1971. It is simply a set of mesostics read in succession. Each mesostic is based on either the word "Merce" or the word "Cunningham." Mesostics, as you know, are like acrostics, except that instead of aligning on the first letter of each line, the chosen word is aligned down the middle, and Cage further made a rule that the letter along the spine must not repeat until after the next letter. For these particular mesostics, Cage used chance procedures to choose words from Merce's own book Changes, and further subjected the words to fonts and sizes according to more chance procedures. So, for example, the third mesostic of the set:

This all might seem pedantic to the uninitiated, but Cage was obsessed with finding ways to speak that broke the prison house of language. "Syntax," Cage liked to quote from Buckminster Fuller, "is the sound of marching feet." From the performance directions to Sixty-two Mesostics:
Speaking without syntax, we notice that cadence, Dublinese or ministerial, takes over. (Looking out the rear window.) Therefore we tried whispering. Encouraged we began to chant. (The singer was sick.) ... To raise language's temperature we not only remove syntax: we give each letter undivided attention setting it in unique face and size; to read becomes the verb to sing.

With all that can be said about mesostics, it can easy to forget that these ones in particular are in essence love poems. Filtered through layer after layer of modernist pretensions, but love poems at their heart. Like many of their generation, Cage and Cunningham saw no need to display their relationship to the world, but it wasn't simply a matter of the closet. Often, it was an attempt to build something even more powerful.

Friday, July 24, 2009

It's Like I Waited My Whole Life

See, the wonderful thing about Pop music (by which I mean, music which is actually popular, not Bob Dylan) is that sometimes there can be a horrible song, a most dreadful insipid creation, originally written for a chewing gum commercial, that stalks you all year long like the abusive jerk who wrote it...and...suddenly, when witnessing the enjoyment someone else gets out of it, that song can miraculously be transformed.

h/t to like every single person I know on Facebook.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

From the Plastic to the Magnetic

This post is in the "looking for advice" category:

One of my projects this month is to put all of my classical CDs into iTunes. I've long avoided this move, partly because the iTunes interface for classical music is not the most intuitive, but mostly because, well, I don't have enough hard disc space. It's not a large collection by musicological standards (we're talking roughly 260 discs), but by my math that's roughly 18 gigabytes or so, and I don't have that kind of space on my little laptop. (I've long since put all of my popular music on my laptop, so that's not at issue here.)

Well, a year of full-time teaching, and I think I need to do it. When I teach I do so off of iTunes usually, and it's been a pain to remember to rip the necessary files at home before class. And there have been countless times that in the middle of a lecture I've wished I could quickly bring up some obscure piece that I know I own, but is sitting at home on a piece of plastic. And finally, since I'm dividing my time between Virginia and Pennsylvania this year, the less I need to lug back and forth the better.

So let me run my plan by the brilliant minds that read this blog. I'm going to buy an external hard drive, probably one of those USB ones that don't need their own power supply. (any recommendations?) Then, as I understand it, you can create a new iTunes library that can be stored on another drive. With that in place, I'll cheerfully start ripping. I can keep the external drive in my office down in Virginia, and it will be easy enough to bring to the classroom with me each day.

One problem I forsee is that external hard drives are not always entirely reliable, so I need to have at least a rudimentary backup system in place. The external hard drives I currently use for backing up have enough space for that, and it's not like I'll need to back up too often--it's not like I buy tons of music very often, so once I have my basic collection ripped and then backed up, it will be mostly unchanging. So that should be okay, I think.

Any issues I'm not thinking about? It's a little weird, I realize, to keep popular music on my computer's hard drive, and classical on an external drive. After all, critiquing that duality is something I do a lot in my research and teaching! But to be honest, in the ways in which I use music in my daily life, I think it should fine. When I say "classical music," I'm referring mostly to common period canonical music that I trot out for teaching, and don't listen to (or work on) much on my own.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Ol' Man River

For those who might not read it, over at Musicology/Matters we're hosting a colloquium on Michael Jackson. I reposted my own earlier entry, my friend Marianna has contributed something, and we're waiting on several posts by a range of friends who are lending their expertise.

But in other news, my little family has settled itself in a new home, literally alongside the banks of the Schuylkill river near Valley Forge, or to more accurate the Scuylkill canal. It's an idyllic existence, where the choice of where to walk the dog in the morning consists of, "up the canal, or down the canal." If we wanted to do, we could launch a canoe out of our backyard, paddle downstream about a mile, tie up at a local pub, have a drink, then paddle back. That's pretty cool. Phoenixville itself is a quirkly little town. The home of the historic Phoenix Iron Works (among other things, they supposedly made the iron for the Eiffel Tower), the town has managed to avoid to desolate fate of other industrial river towns along the Schuylkill. The main street is full of hip restaurants and bookstores, and there is a restored 1913 movie theater that was a filming location of The Blob. Next weekend is the annual reenactment of the scene in The Blob where everyone runs screaming out of the movie theater.

A bunch of my Facebook friends have been making academic summer to-do lists, and so am I, in hopes of accountability:

*Find a place to live in Williamsburg.

*Organize two syllabi: a one-semester Western music survey, and an upper-level seminar on Minimalism.

*Research: luckily I have useful confluence of events. I'm giving an early doo-wop paper at AMS this fall, and the sample chapter of the book proposal I'm putting together is also on early doo-wop. Slightly different topics, actually, but close enough that working on one is useful for the other. I'm quite enjoying the process of revising the dissertation, re-reading the old sources and giving myself the leisure to spin out ideas into a longer format.

*Move to Williamsburg.

I think this is all do-able, if I don't get too distracted by watching the ducks float down the canal.