Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: music (page 2 of 13)

What’s Wrong with this Picture?

From the introduction to Steven Moore’s The Novel:

In the early 1990s I was an editor at Dalkey Archive Press, which specialized in what one bookseller disparaged as “egghead” fiction. The most difficult and demanding novel we published was probably Julián Ríos’s Larva: Midsummer Night’s Babel, sort of Spain’s answer to Finnegans Wake. It received fine reviews across the country, including a spirited one from Michael Dirda in the Washington Post, but since the New York Times Book Review adamantly ignored it (despite Carlos Fuentes’s pleading) and a promised review in the Voice Literary Supplement fell through, I decided to try to reach that hip demographic with an ad in the VLS captioned “Are You Reader Enough for Larva?” The mock-macho appeal was intended to attract those who like a literary challenge, as well as those who are open to new artistic experiences. Since I’m convinced those who malign innovative fiction do so more for personal, temperamental reasons than for the aesthetic ones they publicly espouse, here’s a test you can take to see if you’re the right kind of reader for writerly texts:

1. You are an average Joe or Jane and have moved to a big city offering lots of culture. One night you’re strolling past an art-house theater and the manager is out front giving away tickets to fill the house (the money’s in the concessions). Having nothing better to do, you take a seat and soon learn the movie is in a foreign language and has no subtitles. Do you:

(a) automatically get up and leave, knowing you won’t completely understand it?

(b) stay and get what you can out of it: appreciate the cinematography, the background music, the way an actress holds her purse, the possibility of a sex scene, etc.?

2. A neighbor gives you a free ticket to the ballet in gratitude for babysitting her cat last week. You go and discover it’s not a simple story ballet like Gisele or Swan Lake but an evening of abstract dance. Do you:

(a) give your ticket away because you don’t “understand” modern dance?

(b) stay and enjoy the show: the unusual choreography, the beautiful bodies poured into bodystockings, the weird music, etc.?

3. Speaking of weird music: you go to a club hoping for some good ol’ rock ’n’ roll, but instead of a long-haired band there’s a bald DJ spinning some techno-ambient concoction unlike anything you’ve ever heard before. Do you:

(a) pull an Ashbery by crying, “I don’t understand this at all” and burst into tears?

(b) let the music wash over you, let yourself find the pulse, maybe even ask that purple-haired girl in the striped tights to dance?

4. You’ve had enough of the big city and decide to return home. Waiting for a bus, you pick up a discarded copy of Larva and, because you have a long bus-ride ahead of you, begin reading. You quickly discover it is not a conventional novel. Do you:

(a) discard it and stare out the window all the way back home?

(b)

From an old interview with Steve Albini:

I can dig the Ramones and the Birthday Party and the Stooges and SPK and Minor Threat and Whitehouse and Link Wray and Chrome and Pere Ubu and Rudimentary Peni and Four Skins and Throbbing Gristle and Skrewdriver and the Ex and Minimal Man and US Chaos and Gang Green and Tommi Stumpff and the Swans and Bad Brains all at the same time, and if you can’t then fuck you.

After the Sophomore’s Work

This doesn’t really bother me emotionally, but I think it’s a pretty dangerous fallacy to say that as you get older, things don’t hit you the way they did when you were younger. I hear this so frequently from all angles (lit, music, film, you name it), and to me it seems like nothing other than encouraging complacency. As I’ve aged, I feel the thrill of discovery less frequently for all the obvious reasons: I’ve seen similar things, I’ve seen better things, I have more context, etc. But I don’t suddenly find myself thinking that something or other would have affected me so much more deeply had I encountered it when I was a teenager. It might be associated with more traumatic memories, which has a certain indelible effect on the scribing of memory, but I don’t think the aesthetic experience was any more or less intense.

So I can only figure that people who say that they’re cut off from the intensity of early aesthetic experiences have either had their horizons narrowed sufficiently that they no longer are open to that which is novel to them, or, more likely, they’ve just become lax about finding those new things. And yes, it does get tougher, not just because deeper digging is required but because the criteria for fulfillment evolve, and it takes a fair bit of work to satisfy the absence of what Robert Musil describes in this passage:

Just as in dreams we are able to inject an inexplicable feeling that cuts through the whole personality into some happening or other, we are able to do this while awake–but only at the age of fifteen or sixteen, while still in school. Even at that age, as we all know, we live through great storms of feeling, fierce urgencies, and all kinds of vague experiences; our feelings are powerfully alive but not yet well defined; love and anger, joy and scorn, all the general moral sentiments, in short, go jolting through us like electric impulses, now engulfing the whole world, then again shriveling into nothing; sadness, tenderness, nobility, and generosity of spirit form the vaulting empty skies above us. And then what happens? From outside us, out of the ordered world around us, there appears a ready-made form–a word, a verse, a demonic laugh, a Napoleon, Caesar, Christ, or perhaps only a tear shed at a father’s grave–and the “work” springs into being like a bolt of lightning. This sophomore’s “work” is, as we too easily overlook, line for line the complete expression of what he is feeling, the most precise match of intention and execution, and the perfect blending of a young man’s experience with the life of the great Napoleon. It seems, however, that the movement from the great to the small is somehow not reversible. We experience it in dreams as well as in our youth: we have just given a great speech, with the last words still ringing in our ears as we awaken, when, unfortunately, they do not sound quite as marvelous as we thought they were. At this point we do not see ourself as quite the weightlessly shimmering phenomenon of that dancing prairie cock, but realize instead that we have merely been howling with much emotion at the moon.

And if it wasn’t an article of faith that the movement to the small yields equally visceral and more meaningful results than the easy transcendence of adolescent (and arrested-adolescent) poetic narcissism…I wouldn’t be writing here.

A Young Person’s Guide to Edgard Varese

I was lucky enough to attend the two-night retrospective of Varese at Lincoln Center, where they played everything he ever published and then some, including a couple new pieces I’d never heard before, unpublished works recently finished by his assistant Chou Wen-chung. Varese was extremely parsimonious in what he published–Webern’s surviving works are almost twice as long–and he seems to have lost ten years in the 30s to some mysterious project that he abandoned.

I think I first heard of Varese via Frank Zappa’s worship of him, but because I didn’t like Zappa, I didn’t check out Varese until years later, when I found that he was far better than Zappa. (I’ve mellowed a bit on Zappa, but Zappa’s talents were mainly writing tunes and technical skill, while Varese possessed an ear for organizing blocks of sound that Zappa utterly lacked. Hell, he seemed to lack any sense of texture at all, judging by his love of the Synclavier. See Ian Penman’s endlessly amusing Don’t Do That On Stage Anymore for further reference.)

Varese also harder to listen to; I was exhausted by the end of each night because Varese really did compress a lot into each piece. And while he doesn’t have many string parts, he is very fond of brass, percussion, and sirens. The line from him to Messiaen, Xenakis, and Stockhausen, as well as the early electronic composers, is pretty evident. (And, more contentiously, I hear his influence in freer jazz improvisers and composers like Cecil Taylor.) He was one of the first to sublimate tonality (or atonality) to pure sound (Varese called it “organized sound,” in fact). He wasn’t the only one: Henry Cowell and George Antheil, among others (Ives and Ornstein?), were doing similar things, so it wasn’t as though Varese’s innovations sprung out of a vacuum. Check out Cowell’s “The Banshee,” from 1925:

Henry Cowell: The Banshee (1925)

But Varese, as far as I know, was the first to construct large-scale orchestral works that hung together in such a visceral way. Even if I’m wrong, his work is still outstanding.

For logistical reasons they couldn’t play the pieces chronologically, which is too bad because they do show continual development. So here’s my amateur’s guide to his small oeuvre:

  • Un grand sommeil noir, song to a text by Paul Verlaine for voice and piano (1906): A modest, impressionistic, and very French song, mostly notable for being a total downer.
  • Amériques for large orchestra (1918–1921; revised 1927): An orchestral monster for over a hundred instruments, including plenty of percussion. Still a fair amount of musical material here, which clearly influenced by Stravinsky, as it sounds like The Rite of Spring is about to break out at several points. But the sirens and general assault-level are beyond anything before it. Still, for all its bulk and force, there’s a sense that its an episodic, journeyman work, that Varese hasn’t quite managed to tame the forces he’s unleashing or hold them together at the scale he’s working at (25 minutes).
  • Offrandes for soprano and chamber orchestra (poems by Vicente Huidobro and José Juan Tablada)(1921): Less aggressive but more concentrated than Ameriques, as the accompaniment is often more along the lines of sound effects than music per se. The lyrics of the second poem are quite strange: “In the sky there is a sign / Oleo margarine.”
  • Hyperprism for wind and percussion(1922–1923): Melody finally recedes, as percussion and siren dominate and a few brief, lone melody lines (more repeated cells than actual melodies) are usually buried in massed, blaring winds. I’m very fond of this one, and it’s not a bad place to start.
  • Octandre for seven wind instruments and double bass (1923): Except for the lack of percussion, the materials are similar to Hyperprism, but more sparse, with lots of sudden, jarring shifts in tempo and texture. (I have to wonder if the tempo markings of each of the three parts are meant to be humorous, since they’re all of a piece.) The absence of percussion means that the pitched instruments take on more responsibility for pure texture, which sets the scene for…
  • Intégrales for wind and percussion (1924–1925): The oboe’s little melodic cell at the beginning recurs throughout, but there’s very little that could be called development. I see the piece as an attempt to negate whatever remains of melody by turning it into a percussive effect in itself. The endless repetitions of the little cells become numbing, especially when interrupted by crashing percussion and blaring winds, until they too are sound effects. I once saw Alarm Will Sound perform this while sitting two feet from the brass. Powerful but wearying.
  • Arcana for large orchestra (1925–1927): My favorite and I think his greatest achievement. Superior to Ameriques in every way save number of instruments. Everything Varese had done up to now is synthesized successfully for a large orchestra. There seems to be more base melodic material, but it’s less idiomatic and doesn’t dominate the textures, so everything is in balance. Recorded by, among others, Leonard Bernstein and Jean Martinon! This is the pretty good Chailly version:
  • Ionisation for 13 percussion players (1929–1931): Another synthesis, this time just using percussion players (plus siren of course). Impossible not to think of Xenakis’ percussion pieces while hearing this, but Varese is more straightforwardly rhythmic and organized, and there is enough pitched percussion that the piece is considerably closer to Arcana than it might initially appear. Ironically, it’s less daunting and easier to follow.
  • Ecuatorial for bass voice (or unison male chorus), brass, organ, percussion and theremins (revised for ondes-martenot) (text by Francisco Ximénez) (1932–1934): the organ and theremins (or ondes martinots) introduce new sonorities, but this one has always left me a little baffled. The caterwauling bass voice doesn’t quite mesh with the textures, and so the music seems like a sequence of moods rather than a unified piece. But in light of his later work, this was probably the intent. I just don’t find it as successful.
  • Density 21.5 for solo flute (1936): Just one flute. A lot less extreme than Xenakis and Lachenmann’s solo compositions, it’s structured very carefully and formally, but beyond the ability of me to “hear” in passing. Still sounds nice though.
  • Tuning Up for orchestra (sketched 1946; completed by Chou Wen-Chung, 1998): It doesn’t quite sound like tuning up; if you want that, listen to Schnittke’s first symphony. This piece is only five minutes and utilizes lots of “tuning up” sounds and snatches of famous pieces, but Varese structures them so fluently that it’s obviously composed, noise and all. Maybe not a major work but enjoyable and revealing of his skill to toss off something that would be beyond the ability of a lot of composers.
  • Étude pour espace for soprano solo, chorus, 2 pianos and percussion (1947; orchestrated and arranged by Chou Wen-chung for wind instruments and percussion for spatialized live performance, 2009) (texts by Kenneth Patchen, José Juan Tablada and St. John of the Cross): a new one! Unfortunately, Alice Tully Hall does not seem to be made for electronic performance, at least where I was sitting, and so I couldn’t make a lot of sense of this one, other than to say that it lacked the sonic integrity that all of Varese’s other work possesses. I’ll have to hear it on CD, I imagine, to judge better. This is apparently all that was salvaged of Varese’s mysterious Espaces project of the 1930s that never came to fruition.
  • Dance for Burgess for chamber ensemble (1949): I knew Burgess Meredith was the leading socialite of Hollywood and directed Ulysses in Nighttown (starring Zero Mostel as Bloom!), but I’m still surprised that he hung out with Varese. Anyway, this is a wacky two-minute piece with a brief jazz dance rhythm alternating with typical Varese craziness. Weird.
  • Déserts for wind, percussion and electronic tape (1950–1954): the last big piece, alternating sparser chamber and choral textures with “interpolations” of violent electronic and electroacoustic noise. They never play simultaneously, probably for reasons of sound balance. It’s explicitly episodic and so doesn’t reach for the massed intensity of Arcana. The increased use of space is ghostly; the sudden eruptions of volume seem to be gestures of struggle against, well, death. Just my reading, but there’s always been something morbid about this one to me.
  • La procession de verges for electronic tape (soundtrack for Around and About Joan Mirò, directed by Thomas Bouchard) (1955): They didn’t play this one and I don’t think I’ve ever heard it. Anyone want to help me?
  • Poème électronique for electronic tape (1957–1958): A wonderful tape piece. It can’t be said to be groundbreaking because Pierres Schaeffer and Henry and Xenakis and Stockhausen were already working in this area, among others, but they’d already been influenced by Varese anyway. Varese’s particular idiom carries over pretty clearly; if anything, it’s closest to Stockhausen, but more linear and more visceral.
  • Nocturnal for soprano, male chorus and orchestra, text adapted from The House of Incest by Anaïs Nin (1961): Some very interesting textures here (including the most dominant piano he ever used, I think), but as with Ecuatorial, the voice doesn’t really work for me, and the male chorus is problematic as well. Worth hearing though.

My Secret Science Fiction Past

Perhaps not so secret, but I was raised on the stuff and so I’ve read far more of it than I might have had I been born into a different environment. This list of Gollancz “classics” is going around, and modulo its omissions and overinclusions due to rights issues and the like, it’s got a fair amount of good stuff on it. And some less good stuff. (It overlaps a great deal with David Pringle’s list, and gives similar overweighting to British writers…which is probably not a bad thing.) But if I’m a fan of any genre (that’s not literary modernism, that is), it would have to be sf. So I figure I should engage in an exercise like this from time to time.

I bold it if I’ve read it. I italicize it if I liked it and still like it today. I could go more deeply into degrees of liking vs. respecting vs. enjoying, but I’ll leave it at this.

I – Dune – Frank Herbert
II – The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin
III – The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick
IV – The Stars My Destination – Alfred Bester
V – A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller, Jr.

VI – Childhood’s End – Arthur C. Clarke
VII – The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress – Robert A. Heinlein
VIII – Ringworld – Larry Niven
IX – The Forever War – Joe Haldeman
X – The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham

1 – The Forever War – Joe Haldeman
2 – I Am Legend – Richard Matheson
3 – Cities in Flight – James Blish
4 – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick
5 – The Stars My Destination – Alfred Bester
6 – Babel-17 – Samuel R. Delany
7 – Lord of Light – Roger Zelazny
8 – The Fifth Head of Cerberus – Gene Wolfe
9 – Gateway – Frederik Pohl
10 – The Rediscovery of Man – Cordwainer Smith

11 – Last and First Men – Olaf Stapledon
12 – Earth Abides – George R. Stewart
13 – Martian Time-Slip – Philip K. Dick

14 – The Demolished Man – Alfred Bester
15 – Stand on Zanzibar – John Brunner
16 – The Dispossessed – Ursula K. Le Guin
17 – The Drowned World – J. G. Ballard
18 – The Sirens of Titan – Kurt Vonnegut

19 – Emphyrio – Jack Vance
20 – A Scanner Darkly – Philip K. Dick
21 – Star Maker – Olaf Stapledon

22 – Behold the Man – Michael Moorcock
23 – The Book of Skulls – Robert Silverberg
24 – The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds – H. G. Wells
25 – Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes
26 – Ubik – Philip K. Dick
27 – Timescape – Gregory Benford
28 – More Than Human – Theodore Sturgeon
29 – Man Plus – Frederik Pohl
30 – A Case of Conscience – James Blish

31 – The Centauri Device – M. John Harrison
32 – Dr. Bloodmoney – Philip K. Dick

33 – Non-Stop – Brian Aldiss
34 – The Fountains of Paradise – Arthur C. Clarke
35 – Pavane – Keith Roberts
36 – Now Wait for Last Year – Philip K. Dick

37 – Nova – Samuel R. Delany
38 – The First Men in the Moon – H. G. Wells
39 – The City and the Stars – Arthur C. Clarke
40 – Blood Music – Greg Bear

41 – Jem – Frederik Pohl
42 – Bring the Jubilee – Ward Moore
43 – VALIS – Philip K. Dick
44 – The Lathe of Heaven – Ursula K. Le Guin
45 – The Complete Roderick – John Sladek
46 – Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said – Philip K. Dick
47 – The Invisible Man – H. G. Wells
48 – Grass – Sheri S. Tepper
49 – A Fall of Moondust – Arthur C. Clarke
50 – Eon – Greg Bear

51 – The Shrinking Man – Richard Matheson
52 – The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch – Philip K. Dick
53 – The Dancers at the End of Time – Michael Moorcock
54 – The Space Merchants – Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth
55 – Time Out of Joint – Philip K. Dick
56 – Downward to the Earth – Robert Silverberg
57 – The Simulacra – Philip K. Dick
58 – The Penultimate Truth – Philip K. Dick
59 – Dying Inside – Robert Silverberg
60 – Ringworld – Larry Niven

61 – The Child Garden – Geoff Ryman
62 – Mission of Gravity – Hal Clement
63 – A Maze of Death – Philip K. Dick
64 – Tau Zero – Poul Anderson
65 – Rendezvous with Rama – Arthur C. Clarke
66 – Life During Wartime – Lucius Shepard
67 – Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang – Kate Wilhelm
68 – Roadside Picnic – Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
69 – Dark Benediction – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
70 – Mockingbird – Walter Tevis

71 – Dune – Frank Herbert
72 – The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress – Robert A. Heinlein
73 – The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick
74 – Inverted World – Christopher Priest
75 – Kurt Vonnegut – Cat’s Cradle
76 – H.G. Wells – The Island of Dr. Moreau

77 – Arthur C. Clarke – Childhood’s End
78 – H.G. Wells – The Time Machine
79 – Samuel R. Delany – Dhalgren (July 2010)
80 – Brian Aldiss – Helliconia (August 2010)

81 – H.G. Wells – Food of the Gods (Sept. 2010)
82 – Jack Finney – The Body Snatchers (Oct. 2010)
83 – Joanna Russ – The Female Man (Nov. 2010)
84 – M.J. Engh – Arslan (Dec. 2010)

I’m only torn over Hal Clement, who is brilliant at what he does, but what he does well is not “fiction” per se. Ballard and Gene Wolfe (yes, really!) deserve more entries, probably in lieu of the excess of Dick.

A few more genre authors who really should be on the list: Thomas Disch, Richard McKenna, R.A. Lafferty, Russell Hoban (for Riddley Walker, of course), Stanislaw Lem, Mark Geston, Michael Swanwick, James Tiptree, Carol Emshwiller, Iain Banks, John Crowley, Octavia Butler, Robert Charles Wilson (Spin was the best genre-SF novel I’d read in ages). There are other big names missing, but, offhand, no one comes to mind that I would want to read again.

Iannis Xenakis

It closes in just a couple days, but I loved the Xenakis Exhibit at the Drawing Center. Being able to look at the scores and plans while listening to the relevant pieces (on complimentary iPod!) was revelatory for me, particularly the extended coverage of Xenakis’s seminal Metastasis. (A nice little primer on the early stuff. I was also unaware of his absolute opposition to chance operations, improvisation, or performer choice.)


Study for Metastasis

This and others showed the hyperboloid curves that Xenakis used to generate the series of glissandi for a string ensemble, each instrument scored individually. Here’s the result:


Metastasis

At least for me, it vindicated how effectively Xenakis’s work does portray the graphic forms sonically, rather than sinking into impenetrable abstraction as Stockhausen’s far denser work frequently does. Xenakis really did have a rather atatvistic, populist conception of music (aided in popularity, no doubt, by the psychedelic era, which led to people like AMM getting major label recording contracts) that shows up in his own writing, where on several occasions he insists that his techniques are in the service of generating music that is intuitively graspable. The program included this quote from his early essay “The Crisis of Serial Music,” where he doesn’t sound so far from many of the more conservative critics of serialism (even daring to mention “the audience”!).

Linear polyphony destroys itself by its very complexity; what one hears is in reality nothing but a mass of notes in various registers. The enormous complexity prevents the audience from following the intertwining of the lines and has as its macroscopic effect an irrational and fortuitous dispersion of sounds over the whole extent of the sonic spectrum. There is consequently a contradiction between the polyphonic linear system and the heard result, which is the surface or mass. This contradiction inherent in polyphony will disappear when the independence of sounds is total. In fact, when linear combinations and their polyphonic superpositions no longer operate, what will count will be the statistical mean of isolated states and of transformations of sonic components at a given moment. The macroscopic effect can then be controlled by the mean of the movements of elements which we select. The result is the introduction of the notion of probability, which implies, in this particular case, combinatory calculus. Here, in a few words, in the possible escape route from the “linear category” in musical thought…. 

To paraphrase: forget individual manipulation of notes and tone rows, and focus on macroscopic presentation of dynamics, effects, densities, timbres, etc.

It would be empty speech if Xenakis’s work, or at least the best of it, didn’t succeed so viscerally in realizing his aesthetics (and listening to some of his followers reveals how easily things can go wrong–sorry spectralists!). I think his grasp of timbre and texture far outweighed many of his contemporaries (though granted, many weren’t interested in such things anyway), putting him closest to Messiaen and Varese, who both supported him.

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