Saturday, September 02, 2006

Individualism Contest

Greatest American Composer--the Contenders
Charles Ives is definitely in the lead as the greatest American composer ever and we don't think any other American composer's going to beat him not even if we count as American composers those Euro composers who came over here before WWII, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Hindemith, Wolpe, Korngold...KORNGOLD? Yes, we like Korngold. Given our biases, we can't count them; they failed when trying to write particularly American music. Just like we found out last night George Gershwin, we were listening to Oscar Levant playing the I've Got Rhythm Variations and the Concerto in F and surprisingly we found there was something forced and artificial about Gershwin's compositional efforts; it wasn't the way Levant played them, he played them the way Gershwin showed him how to play them and, besides, we love Levant's boisterous way of exuding his energies into the piano as an extension of himself. No, it's the way George wrote them; "Sorry, George, you're too Euro for us." Oh, we'll get slammed by the commercial Rollos (look, we are stealing Ives's name for a Yahoo), including those who say Gershwin was the greatest ever American composer and songwriter [how do we know Kay Swift and Ann Ronell didn't write Gershwin's songs?--which is heresy to assume such to a Gershwinian devotee]. But we strive to be fair, to go back over recent American music history and weed out the real from the propped up, the phonies, the pretenders. Our hero and ideal greatest American composer, Charles Ives, despised pretenders. We lookin' for genuine composers--composers with roots in the music bubbling up from We the People's ground.

First up for consideration:

John Cage
"Later when I returned to California, in the Pacific Palisades, I wrote songs with texts by Gertrude Stein and choruses from The Persians of Aeschylus. I had studied Greek in high school. These compositions were improvised at the piano. The Stein songs are, so to speak, transcriptions from a repetitive language to a repetitive music. I met Richard Buhlig who was the first pianist to play the Opus II of Schoenberg. Though he was not a teacher of composition, he agreed to take charge of my writing of music. From him I went to Henry Cowell and at Cowell's suggestion (based on my twenty-five tone compositions, which, though not serial, were chromatic and required the expression in a single voice of all twenty-five tones before any one of them was repeated) to Adolph Weiss in preparation for studies with Arnold Schoenberg. When I asked Schoenberg to teach me, he said, 'You probably can't afford my price.' I said, 'Don't mention it; I don't have any money.' He said, 'Will you devote your life to music?' This time I said 'Yes.' He said he would teach me free of charge. I gave up painting and concentrated on music. After two years it became clear to both of us that I had no feeling for harmony. For Schoenberg, harmony was not just coloristic: it was structural. It was the means one used to distinguish one part of a composition from another. Therefore he said I'd never be able to write music. 'Why not?' 'You'll come to a wall and won't be able to get through.' 'Then I'll spend my life knocking my head against that wall.'"

The above was taken from John Cage's Autobiography. This comes from a wonderful Cage site:

We will have to study Cage. Some of us are very familiar with him; thegrowlingwolf is old enough to have seen Cage when he first started appearing in public. He reports, "I first saw John on the Les Crane teevee show; Les was a rip-off of the Tonight Show format; same as Dick Cavat ripped it off; Mervyn, Joey Bishop, and even Artie Shaw tried his hand at one of these shows. Cage came on the Les Crane Show and he had a tableful of mechanical objects, fans, toasters, coffeemakers, alarm clocks, oven timers, a telephone, a transistor radio, a cassette tape recorder, a cuckoo clock, et al., and his performance was a new piece, he announced, one he in fact was going to compose right then and there on the show. With this, as he quipped away about music being anything with sound, he went around the table and started firing up all these contraptions--the fan blowing; the toaster making toast and popping it up; the alarm clock set off at a clanging annoyance; the telephone ringing argumentively; the cassette recorder babbling insnae something, the radio playing some station-- it was total joyous cacophony, and the audience was laughing at John's every move, as if he were a comedian, and, he was a comedian, he liked being a comedian, but he was a serious comedian, and, dammit, this serious comedian was correct, sir; he had composed a piece right then and there and it was beautiful music, too. Escpecially since he said it was music, his Charles Ives said, you use your ear then your mind and then your solar plexus; that told you whether it was music or not. Cage was sly, he was; a very witty and carefully creative problem-solving kind of man; like he says, his father was an inventor."

More Cage
"I found dancers, modern dancers, however, who were interested in my music and could put it to use. I was given a job at the Cornish School in Seattle. It was there that I discovered what I called micro-macrocosmic rhythmic structure. The large parts of a composition had the same proportion as the phrases of a single unit. Thus an entire piece had that number of measures that had a square root. This rhythmic structure could be expressed with any sounds, including noises, or it could be expressed not as sound and silence but as stillness and movement in dance. It was my response to Schoenberg's structural harmony. It was also at the Cornish School that I became aware of Zen Buddhism, which later, as part of oriental philosophy, took the place for me of psychoanalysis. I was disturbed both in my private life and in my public life as a composer. I could not accept the academic idea that the purpose of music was communication, because I noticed that when I conscientiously wrote something sad, people and critics were often apt to laugh. I determined to give up composition unless I could find a better reason for doing it than communication. I found this answer from Gira Sarabhai, an Indian singer and tabla player: The purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences. I also found in the writings of Ananda K. Coomaraswammy that the responsibility of the artist is to imitate nature in her manner of operation. I became less disturbed and went back to work.

"Before I left the Cornish School I made the prepared piano. I needed percussion instruments for music for a dance that had an African character by Syvilla Fort. But the theater in which she was to dance had no wings and there was no pit. There was only a small grand piano built in to the front and left of the audience. At the time I either wrote twelve-tone music for piano or I wrote percussion music. There was no room for the instruments. I couldn't find an African twelve tone row. I finally realized I had to change the piano. I did so by placing objects between the strings. The piano was transformed into a percussion orchestra having the loudness, say, of a harpsichord."

Ives would agree with Sarabhai, "music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences." Divine influences in our way of thinking reside in the solar plexus.

So John Cage is our first contestant in this sort of The Daily Growler version of American Idol -- American Idol of American Composers.

thegrowlingwolf says, "I've never given much of a listen to John Cage, though I have through the years heard of him. My first young girlfriend, the woman I should have married, her New York City uncle introduced us to John Cage by sending her a John Cage LP for X-mas one year back in the late fifties. This Cage introduction stays vivid in my memory because this guy was an artist from my hometown who came to NYC and made a name for himself as the Saks Fifth Avenue champion window dresser--"That's me you see in all those famous windows," he used to chirp. He's the one who told me and I have never forgotten it that if I ever lived in NYC by myself in a small apartment, I would go to bed with the lights and the radio on. He was prophetic. I cannot sleep in NYC without a light on and now the teevee glares all night replacing the radio, though at one time, back in some of those long ago days when I didn't have a teevee, I fell asleep every night with the radio on."


for The Daily Growler

The Daily Growler Quote of the Day: "The lesson of these days is the vulgarity of wealth. We know that wealth will vote for the same thing which the worst and meanest of the people vote for. Wealth will vote for rum, will vote for tyranny, will vote for slavery, will vote against the ballot, will vote against international copyright, will vote against schools, colleges, or any high direction of public money...." Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journal for March 14 1854.

Isn't it amazing how dumb we stay. Ralph had this truth for us back in 1854, yet look what's going on all around us as we live to be free STILL...look at the vulgarities being put on us; look at how the wealth still votes for tyranny, for slavery (Wal-Mart would much prefer slaves to these cheesy hillbilly workers who it wants to pay Chinese sweatshop wages to and they're bitchin' about it and talking union talk...the little bastards), against education, or against spending the money of We the People back on We the People. Instead, We the People have bailed out since we've been cognizant: Lockheed, Chrysler, the Pennsylvania Railroad, the New York Central Railroad, Pan American Airways, United Airlines, Conrail, Amtrak, the partially privitized U.S. Postal Service (a consistent money loser)...on and on it goes. Emerson said: "[Wealth] will vote against the ballot...." "[Wealth] will vote for tyranny...."

Yet all the young girls and dudes know every god-damn silly lyric to all the silly dipstick Dick and Balls/ Tits and Ass music that is poured over their tiny-brained heads every day 24-7, all backgrounded with a McDonald's commercial.

Labor Day used to be a Union holiday.

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