November 19, 2005

Peter Garland: Americas

A few things are worth saying about this set of essays. Garland has a couple loose histories of the use of percussion and the piano in American music, but the majority of the collection is devoted to his journals and appreciations of fellow artists. The writers and composers featured often rejected the mainstream culture of the 20th century for a life of wandering and solitude (Paul Bowles got a pretty extensive write-up).

A number of these people, Harry Partch in particular, also tried to rekindle an animistic attitude towards religion (or as Garland would argue, religion in general). Garland feels quite strongly that religion died in the 20th century and that our collective quality of life has suffered for it. In order to revive the kind of religion that Garland thinks everyone should have, a prominent spiritual leader would have to be embedded in local communities. This person would help mediate social relations and in general make sure everyone was happy.

The key is being embedded in the community. Garland's identity as a lonely wanderer is a bit at odds with this. The tone I read in his essays suggested that he was going to set down his ideas, but that they'd be understood and implemented at a later time (beyond his lifetime?). This attitude just screams Romanticism. He's of course entitled to his opinions and how he wants to express them, but I can't help but feel he could find a means of expression more in tune with his thoughts.

Also, I would question whether or not there are other institutions today that accomplish the same social functions as his conception of religion would. When someone posts a discussion topic over at the Composers Forum or any other online forum, doesn't that act serve to bring people together and increase their understanding of one another? I'm also not sure how religious figures today fail at this role. If anything, the rabbis and ministers I've come in contact with seem more concerned at doing this kind of service than anything else. Think of the character of Eccles in Rabbit, Run. He puts an incredible amount of energy into trying to straighten Rabbit out.

The thing I really took away from the book was a better feeling of the tradition running through the American experimental tradition. It's easy to portray Partch, Cage, Cowell et al as only being united in their defiant attitudes, but Garland shows there's more to them than that. There's a full-page headshot of Varèse with his trademark I-could-kill-you-just-by-thinking-it look, but there's another shot showing him sitting next to Cowell, who's playing the shakuhachi for him. Garland shows that even though the styles of these composers are quite individualized, they influenced each other quite a bit in the development of their ideas.

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