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29 September 2010

Zigs when others zag: A short attention span esssay on Alex Ross on John Cage on poverty in the arts & why I like Ross better than Sasha Frere-Jones

Let me present a backhanded insult about Alex Ross. (Which is to say, a compliment.) Here’s the thing that pisses me off about the guy. As a MacArthur Award-winning classical critic, Ross feels obligated to devote the majority of his writings to his specialty, that being 20th century-composed music. Say what you will about composed music, but from the perspective of the early 21st century it’s looking like an increasingly rarefied, quite specialized, and relatively unlistened to form of music.

The tragedy: I think Ross’s real gift is his ability to write shockingly illuminating and intimate criticism and profiles of more popular artists such as Radiohead, Pavement, Bjork and Bob Dylan. (Most of these articles, originally published in The New Yorker, seem to have been scrubbed from the internet, but a number of them appear in his recently published book, Listen to This.)

Ross’s writings on popular music are illuminating in large part because he seems oblivious or disinterested in the sectarian conflicts that make much pop criticism especially irrelevant to normal people. Viewing music from the perspective of a classical fan, he realizes “newness” and originality are something that happens once or twice a decade rather than five times in every month-long blogcycle; he realizes that “bestness” is something you must observe over a career rather than a single record.

The tragedy: I wish Ross wrote about popular music more often. He’s certainly better at it than The New Yorker‘s pop critic of record Sasha Frere-Jones. Frere-Jones is better than 95% of pop critics out there (maybe more!) and he is often an erm, impressive risk-taker who leads critical opinion rather than following the pack. But it’s also obvious that he’s as intoxicated by a personal notion of rock stardom as any of the pop musicians he covers. I get that tinny, foreign, metallic taste of ego on the tip of my tongue almost every time I read one of his pieces.

Unaffected by rock & pop groupthink, Ross’s shiz-nit is a paradigm of clarity in a pop crit universe dominated by the same morass of crap that makes popular culture (sans criticism) so hard to navigate, so glutted with dross.

And now, as if to go back on everything I’ve said I want Ross to do, here’s an excerpt from his excellent profile in this week’s magazine about composer John Cage. I think there’s a tiny bit of chronological fuckery going on in the piece (and even the excerpt) but who cares with writing this good. Ross’s clear-eyed identification of what makes Cage so inspiring — his realization that this “composer” is, as much, a philosopher, an artist — is a perfect instance of Ross’s genre-agnostic vision of what makes music good:

    When [composer, critic and professor Kyle] Gann talks about “4’33″” in classes — he teaches composition and music theory at Bard College — a student invariably asks him, “You mean he got paid for that?” Kids, Cage was not in it for the money. The Maverick concert was a benefit; Cage earned nothing from the premiere of “4’33″” and little from anything else he was writing at the time. He had no publisher until the nineteen-sixties. After losing his loft on Monroe Street–the Vladeck Houses stand there now–he moved north of the city, to Stony Point, where several artists had formed a rural collective. From the mid-fifties until the late sixties, he lived in a two-room cabin measuring ten by twenty feet, paying $24.15 a month in rent. He wasn’t far above the poverty level, and one year he received aid from the Musicians Emergency Fund. For years afterward, he counted every penny. I recently visited the collection of the John Cage Trust, at Bard, and had a look at his appointment books. Almost every page had a lit lie this one:

    .63 stamps
    1.29 turp
    .25 comb
    1.17 fish
    3.40 shampoo
    2.36 groc
    5.10 beer
    6.00 Lucky

    “I wanted to make poverty elegant,” he once said.

    By the end of the fifties, however, Cage’s financial situation had improved, though not because of his music. After moving to Stony Point, he began collecting mushrooms during walks in the woods. Within a few years, he had mastered the mushroom literature and co-founded the New York Mycological Society. He supplied mushrooms to various elite restaurants, including the Four Seasons. In 1959, while working at the R.A.I. Studio of Musical Phonology, a pioneering electronic-music studio, in Milan, he was invited on a game show called “Lascia o Raddoppia?” — a “Twenty One”-style program in which contestants were asked questions on a subject of their choice. Each week, Cage answered, with deadly accuracy, increasingly obscure questions about mushrooms. On his final appearance, he was asked to list “the twenty-four kinds of white-spore mushrooms listed in Atkinson.” (Silverman supplies a transcript of this historical moment.) Cage named them all, in alphabetical order, and won eight thousand dollars. He used part of the money to purchase a VW bus for the Cunningham company. The following year, he appeared on the popular American game show “I’ve Got a Secret”: as he had done on “Lascia o Raddoppia?,” he performed “Water Walk,” a piece that employed among other things, a rubber duck, a bathtub, and an electric mixer. Cage charmed the audience from the outset; when the host, Garry Moore, said that some viewers might laugh at him, the composer replied, in his sweet, reedy voice, “I consider laughter preferable to tears.” (YouTube has the clip.) Radios were included in the score, but they could not be turned on, supposedly because of a union dispute. Instead, Cage hit them and knocked them on the floor.

Enjoy the visuals:

(Image of John Cage score “Fontana MIx” at top of this post via Data Is Nature.)

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis  

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15 March 2010

“I have felt the pulse of modern art and know that it will die!” …just like neck beards.

Thank you Alex Ross for excerpting this quote which I’ve further abridged, below. I’ve done so because it’s too damn long in the original — sort of making the point of the quote itself:

    “I have felt the pulse of modern art and know that it will die! This knowledge, however, fills me not with despondency but with joy, for I know at the same time that it is not art in general which will perish but only our own particular type of art—which stands remote from modern life—, whereas true—imperishable—constantly renewed art is still to be born… I renounce all fame, and more especially the insane specter of posthumous fame, because I love humankind far too dearly to condemn them, out of self-love, to the kind of poverty of ideas which alone sustains the fame of dead composers.”

Which is to say, among other things, that formats of creativity which — in their own day — seemed completely compelling in all their length and glory, might seem, today, well, s-l-o-w compared to faster forms. No, Twitting is not the answer. But it is a clue.

Cormac has some thoughts about this as well. When I quoted him, it proved one of my most-commented on posts.

On the same topic, have any of you read Reality Hunger yet? Thoughts? Feelings?

And, well, to Richard: thanks for the the message in a bottle from the 19th century, but, shit, I really do still feel like I need to get around to at least one viewing of Der Ring, even in an excerpt:

You really did get it right about neck beards though. They just weren’t meant to last.

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20 October 2009

Quoting Morton Feldman

I’m going to be out of town the next few days, enjoying the Maine foliage. It’s an opportunity to share a backlog of posts I’ve not been posting. I’ll let this tip of the hat to Morton Feldman serve as introduction. Most of these will be quiet & weird.

“Earlier in my life there seemed to be unlimited possibilities, but my mind was closed. Now, years later and with an open mind, possibilities no longer interest me. I seem content to be continually rearranging the same furniture in the same room. My concern at times is nothing more than establishing a series of practical conditions that will enable me to work. For years I said if I could only find a comfortable chair I would rival Mozart.”

“There’s an aspect of my attitude about being a composer that is like mourning. Say, for example, the death of art . . . something that has to do with, say, Schubert leaving me.” He also admitted, “I must say, you did bring up something that I particularly don’t want to talk about publicly, but I do talk privately.”

Both quotations via Alex Ross. Thanks.

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