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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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