Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Monday, May 28, 2007

I was looking for a picture of a hurdy-gurdy, thinking about Western music's turn away from noisy instruments some centuries ago and toward "pure tones," when I found this fantastic collection of pictures of harps through the millennia -- I haven’t read the article yet. This picture is from a Pharaoh's tomb in the 2nd millennium BCE. The article has a picture of a hurdy-gurdy, a centuries-old "genre" painting, which, in art parlance, means a painting of poor people, which usually means, as is the case here, a painting in which the people are depicted looking undignified, unaware, un, un, un.

Music whelms me. I want to split the lark.

Emily Dickinson:

Split the Lark--and you'll find the Music--
Bulb after Bulb, in Silver rolled--
Scantily dealt to the Summer Morning
Saved for your Ear when Lutes be old.

Loose the Flood--you shall find it patent--
Gush after Gush, reserved for you--
Scarlet Experiment! Sceptic Thomas!
Now, do you doubt that your Bird was true?

No! No! I don't doubt it! Come back, Bird!

* * *

I read the booklet notes to John Adams’s 9/11 piece On the Transmigration of Souls (which I posted on last night), an essay called “Memory Spaces.” Originally published in the Atlantic Monthly by composer David Schiff, it gives a much more generous listen to the piece than I gave it. (It has a horrible subtitle, which was probably written by Schiff’s editors: “John Adams's On the Transmigration of Souls finds redemption in September 11.” Finding redemption in other people’s murder is reprehensible.)

I disagree with Schiff’s assessment, overall and in many particulars; I don’t hear that Adams is “building on” Ives in any cognitive way; it sounds more like bringing Ives into a technically unimpeachable personal pastiche to me. More basically, On the Transmigration of Souls does not expand our notion of what music can be with its melding of sound collage with a live performance -- not only is this a commonplace in pop music, but it has many precedents in the classical concert milieu.

But I wanted to bring Schiff’s essay to your attention because he fundamentally hears Adams’s quote of The Unanswered Question differently than I do, and his hearing is not only valid, but undoubtedly closer to Adams’s intention. The atrocity of 9/11, in Schiff’s hearing, did not inspire Adams to attempt an answer to Ives’s question, but merely to wonder at it again. I’ll give the disc another listen, and try to hear it this way, but I am doubtful that it will work for me dramatically. I fear that the technique and the pastiche are too self-assured to persuade me that this is Adams grappling with life-ultimate questions. Again, the impression sought feels more wished-for than achieved. In any case, quotation is a volatile business, and a composer cannot impose his or her intention onto someone’s hearing.

But the quotation works for Schiff, and I have to respect his experience.

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