Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Unwilling Survivor

As a follow-up to my Cage/Cunningham post a few weeks ago, I've had an interesting exchange with Allan Kozinn, the Times critic who wrote Cage's 1994 obituary--and who I, ah, somewhat excoriated for not giving proper credit to the relationship between John and Merce. Allan gently commented that in fact, he had wanted to say the proper things about their relationship, but Cunningham's people made it clear that Merce did not want to be listed as Cage's survivor, and the editors decided to honor their wishes. I offer my apologies to Allan!

And of course, it comes as no real surprise. Part of what makes their relationship so interesting and special was exactly this reluctance to identify it as such, and Merce was always particularly private. Mine might be a minority viewpoint, but I actually don't think secrecy or a post-Stonewall idea of the "closet" is the main reason for this reluctance. It was an aesthetic position, a well-known renunciation of any kind of expressionism--let alone an expression of love. I have little doubt Cage and Cunningham would have been just as silent had one been a woman.

But that doesn't mean we need to follow suit. While that might have been there aesthetic viewpoint, it doesn't have to be ours. I don't think it's violating their privacy to speculate on their relationship, since I don't think privacy is at stake. If one wants to figure out the Cage/Cunningham aesthetic, it is our job as historians and critics to look at what made these men think the way they did, and not be afraid to look beyond their often superficial public statements. As musicologists we are already constantly delving into interior worlds and private emotions, and we shouldn't be afraid to go farther. Merce himself put it well, in a letter from the summer of 1953:
When I phoned you, I couldn’t say endearments because of groups around, but I say them now, and miss you very much, and send you all my best love, and great kisses.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

A Guide to a Good Marriage

You know that I've been blogging for four years now? Cripes. I think that entitles me to repost something from my old pseudonymous blog, especially because one my more favored musicologists is getting married today, and she, like most of us, could use some advice from Patti Page on the subject. This is from her amazing 1960 self-help book for teenage girls Once Upon a Dream. There are explanations after each of these tips, a few snippets of which I have included.

How to Be Married and Still Live Happily Ever After

1. Be feminine
("I read somewhere that sixty per cent of American husbands get their own breakfasts while their wives stay in bed. To me, this is a sign of trouble.")

2. Don't protest if your husband takes you for granted.
("I don't know why so many women take this as an insult. All it means is that your husband is comfortable with you, trusts you and never questions your loyalty to you...personally, I think it's one of the highest compliments a man can pay a woman.")

3. Don't meet your husband at the door each night with the story of YOUR day.

4. Control your jealousy.
("The one way to get a man to come home every night and want to stay there is simply to make your home the place where he enjoys himself the most.")

5. Don't be too interesting.
("I think you'll find, when you're married, that it isn't nearly so important for you to be interesting as it is to make your husband feel that he's interesting.)

6. Share something bigger than yourself with your husband.
("It's essential that you share some interest, hobby, career--anything to give you a common objective. Usually, of course, that something bigger than yourselves is children.")

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Well this is cool

Via Gawker, of all places, I learn that Google News has been engaged in digitizing a variety of historic newspapers, including the early days of the Village Voice. Sort of like Proquest Historical Newspapers, but free. I'm still figuring out how to use it, but it seems to search not only the papers Google archived themselves, but also the archives of of papers like the NY Times that operate their own fee-based archives, as well as free ones like Time magazine.

Interesting. I've long been a fan of the Proquest version of historic newspapers, which started with the NY Times and then included the LA Times and the Wall Street Journal. Actually, this summer I've discovered that they have expanded to a whole range of papers, including back issues of the Baltimore Afro-American I would love to delve into. Unfortunately, none of the four academic institutions I steal database access from seems to subscribe to that service. Sigh. The great advantage of ProQuest is that you are dealing with PDF copies of the actual papers, ads and all, and not just plain-text articles yanked out of their physical context.

Now we just need someone to digitize all of Billboard and we're all set!

ETA: Commenter Mike points out that it is! Glory be!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Biographies and Biographers

I was reading the obituaries in the Times the other day, and the name Eleanor Perenyi popped up. She was apparently a "writer and deliciously opinionated amateur gardener" who wrote the gardening cult classic (who knew there were such things) Green Thoughts. The name sounded familiar, and sure enough, it was mentioned in passing that she wrote a biography of Liszt that was a finalist for the National Book Award.
[This book is so out of print I couldn't find an image of the cover online; I had to scan in my own copy. Funny, her obituary doesn't have the accent aigu.]

Biographies are a strange scholarly beast. For most civilians, the only musicology they are ever going to read are biographies of composers. If you go into your average Barnes & Noble, the music section will be full of biographies. Biographies get reviewed in the NYRB and The New Yorker. And yet, very few of them are written by professional, college-teachin', Ph.D.-holdin', embittered actual musicologists. Many biographies are written by journalists. Some are written by super-fans, others seemingly by random people on the street. Perenyi is an excellent example. She was the child of a WASP-y military family, who ended up marrying a Hungarian baron and then fleeing the Nazis before retiring to a life of genteel gardening in Manhattan and Connecticut.

Perenyi did have the advantage of living in Hungary, where a lot of Liszt archives still are, and knowing the language. Her great flaw, however, was that she took a somewhat crazed view of the women in Liszt's life, especially the Countess Marie d'Agoult. One of my first papers in graduate school was centered on reading d'Agout's fictionalized account of her relationship with Liszt, published under the pen name Daniel Stern. (Funny story: I signed up to write this paper not realizing the book wasn't translated into English. I theoretically read French, but that was a rude shock the night before I was due to give a presentation.) So I can tell you that Nélida is a fascinating and sensitive portrayal of Liszt and his world, and that d'Agoult was one of his greatest champions. Perenyi, however, had this to say about it:
Nélida’s hero-villain dies but in the meantime he has already suffered a symbolic castration in the loss of his artistic gift when his mistress leaves him...It had always been obvious that [Marie d'Agoult] hated Liszt’s music partly because she made the primitive association with his sexual potency. The loss of one would entail the loss of the other. Nélida shows that she willed this to happen.

Creepy, right? But I'm not pointing this out to make a point about non-musicologists invading our turf; after all, some of our best biographies are written by those who aren't professional musicologists in the traditional teaching-for-a-living sense (c.f. Maynard Solomon), and some of our worst are written by the tenured crowd. (c.f. no names named.) In fact actually every Liszt biographer has this weird problem with Liszt's women, something Allan Keiler, my professor in that way-back-when seminar, pointed out in a review essay of Alan Walker's authoritative three-volume biography of Liszt. Walker is absolutely psychotic about Liszt's women, devoting an entire chapter to ripping apart Nélida, and many more to Marie d'Agoult's various imagined shortcomings. He has to dig deep, of course. At one point he sniffily complains that d'Agoult's published writings never mention Liszt's "highly ethical achievements in behalf of the Beethoven Memorial Fund." (oh, well then!)

I imagine that the problem with so many biographies is that that the author spends so much time doing research that they don't actually think about their overall arguments. After all, just because the subject's life is providing the basic shape for your work, it nevertheless is still your story to tell.

But, there is hope: I think that one of the most salutary trends in our discipline at the moment is a renewed attention to biography. After all, it's a matter of agency--there are real people sitting out there in history, and to think we understand them merely through the musical texts they produced is disrespectful if nothing else. The intentional-fallacy fallacy, if you will. For me, that's been the influence of Performance Studies, which since the 1960s has been trying to re-insert the presence of actual living-and-breathing people into our logocentric world. I think for others the impulse has come from the close (or at least, closer) attention ethnomusicologists pay to ethical issues--it's silly how many people write about music written by living people without ever taking the trouble to try and get in touch with them. And heck, I seem to recall somewhere in Taruskin's monster an argument that was something along the lines of, "musical forms don't 'do' things, it's the people that write them that 'do' stuff." (He says it better.)

Perhaps this all won't result in a flurry of musicological biographies of single individuals, but with any luck, more of us will at least leave open the possibility of thinking biographically.

Postscript: Nélida is now available in an English translation!