November 29, 2005

Subversive Songwriting

Randy Newman seems to me like a completely unlikely person. Whereas so many singer-songwriters work in the heart-on-the-sleeve, confessional mode, his songs are mostly cynical and distant. His voice is nothing to write home about, plus his appearance doesn't scream "big star." Somehow, these factors add to his music. His songs about sexual deviants and con artists wouldn't be as powerful if they came out of a more conventional personality.

His ability to create rhetorical distance between author and narrator is right up there with Stravinsky. A song like "Rider in the Rain" is so absorbed in being "cowboy music," but this involvement is matched by a feeling that it's all an elaborate conceit. Newman uses this rupture to test your trust in the narrator. Because the writing is so disquietingly conventional, you examine it all the more closely for the cracks in the facade. He forces you to think about how genres are used, what images are conjured up by particular instrumental forces, and the weight you give to the words of singers. His voice is that of an outsider, always shrewd and subversive.

Andriessen and Schönberger wrote in The Apollonian Clockwork about how when Stravinsky wrote a Mass or a Requiem, it became an ür-Mass or ür-Requiem, a summation and a stepping beyond of the genre. When Randy Newman writes a song, he (and the song in a way) are so aware of the genre's conventions that a similar kind of commentary is embedded in it. Tom Waits has often been described as a "meta-songwriter," but I think that Newman is far more deserving of the title.

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.

November 17, 2005

A Literary Echo

From "More Light," Morton Feldman:
In effect, what I am suggesting is not that music should explore or imitate the resources of painting, but that the chronological aspect of music's development is perhaps over, and that a new "mainstream" of diversity, invention and imagination is indeed awakening. For this we must thank John Cage.
From "Oaxacan Journal" in Americas, Peter Garland:
In benign and far-reaching ways, he has helped and influenced all of us . . . Listening to any of the sets of records he edited for Folkways, Music of the World's Peoples, will give a sense of his continuing legacy: if, in this century, the past, present and future have been unlocked, and the variety of the world's cultures opened to us, we have Henry Cowell, more than anyone else, to thank.

Will blog later on this Garland book once I get through it. It's got its share of thought-provoking bits, particularly on the idea of tradition among quote-unquote maverick composers.

November 05, 2005


Yesterday I ended up listening to some of Peter Garland's piano music, reading some of his essays, and thumbing through some old copies of Soundings (thank you, extremely comprehensive music library!). His music is really shocking in its simplicity. "Radical consonance," the term used in the liner note bio, is an appropriate description. The shock is because the process that led to the music is a mystery at first hearing, and you're not sure if there was a high-level one going on. Music with a complex surface gives you the "assurance" that even if you don't know what the hell is going on, everything's probably very well thought-out. Alternatively, with process-y minimalism, if you don't know how the music was put together, you're just not paying attention.

With Garland's "minimalism," you become enamored by the simple beauty of the music, but afterwards find yourself asking very basic questions about it. So many things recur, chords, rhythms, that you want to know why he chose those ideas (whether or not that's a question worth answering isn't clear now). He makes no effort to hide them behind a developmental process, so they feel very exposed at all times. They're like little gifts being offered to the listener on nothing more than good faith. It's not often total strangers are so generous. You wonder, "Why me? What did I do to deserve this?"

His writing is similarly simple and generous. Kenneth Patchen's Journal of Albion Moonlight is not a completely unfair comparison. Though Patchen's work is far more lyrical and even more heart-felt, both writers are strongly attuned to an intense tragedy in everything that they see. This sense remains very tangible no matter how unclear the subject of their writing is. All in all, his work is the kind that lingers, that shoots with force into your thoughts hours after you experienced it. Definitely worth some further exploration.