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

Monday, June 25, 2007

they played with Kronos.

After posting last week on Richard Rorty and the contingency of language, my thinking went on two divergent tracks.

* * *

First, I went back and re-read the essay that first introduced me to Rorty, “It’s Only As Good As It Sounds,” by Kyle Gann, which was recently reprinted in his terrific collection, Music Downtown. I read Kyle’s piece when it first came out in 1990 in the Village Voice (back when the Voice could boast not only the most prolific and comprehensive and widely respected post-classical critic in English (Kyle), but also the most prolific and comprehensive and widely respected jazz critic of the past 20 years (Gary Giddins) as well as the most prolific and comprehensive and one of the most highly regarded rock critics (Robert Christgau)). I should not have been surprised to rediscover thinking in the piece that sounds like my own Anti-Manifestoism. I have mentioned that Kyle expanded my horizons, but I have no doubt that encountering his writing when I did encouraged me in my habits of mind as well.

Among other things, Kyle argues in the piece, following Rorty, that different styles in music (as in philosophy) can’t necessarily be fused successfully, when the different styles have differing underlying assumptions.

I’ve been thinking lately about Kronos Quartet as “ugly Americans” -- people who feel that their American passports and ample pocketbooks allow them to go anywhere and do anything they like. It’s unfair to call them “Ugly Americans,” but I really felt that way upon hearing the track they recorded with the amazing Romanian Rom band Taraf de Haidouks, on the Kronos collection Caravan. I’ve seen Taraf de Haidouks live and own two of their collections, and they’re astonishing virtuosos. Kronos Quartet has chops -- on a tune from Taraf’s repertory, Kronos fits in, they keep up. But why are they there? Ah, the tune has gone on for several minutes, and here comes their “feature” spot (arranged by Osvaldo Golijov). And it’s 20th century classical ho-hummery. Really, it detracts from the whole. What the hell is Kronos doing on this tune?

To be fair, Kronos can be equally ugly toward their fellow Americans. Their intrusions on an archival recording of Charles Ives singing his song “They Are There!” are grotesque -- they actually mock Ives, putting a sarcastic exclamation where Ives had a rest! And the arrangement for themselves of a wonderful Harry Partch piece (“Barstow”) -- it’s awful. I usually have no problem with transcription from one ensemble to another -- it’s a longstanding and often gloriously fruitful classical tradition. But Partch for string quartet doesn’t work. At least not for me.

From another angle, I applaud Kronos’s omnivorous musical appetite. They work extremely hard and have wide-open and generous ears. The attention they bring to manifold corners of the music world is healthy and positive. The only problem is -- musically it often makes no sense, it doesn’t work. Which is fine! Experiments fail. Good for them for going for it.

Re-reading Kyle’s piece, and thinking about the subtle particularities of musical style, I realize why these fusions so rarely work. Jazz-classical fusions (for example) have tried to address rhythmic collisions between the traditions, but the differences are more basic and subtle than what can be addressed with notation.

The classical “difference” may be notation itself -- or notation-centrism, for jazz and many other styles employ notation. Some weeks ago I was reading a collection of Virgil Thomson’s writing, and I was struck by his praise for Edith Piaf and “all that vast authority of singing style.” The stylistic authority of pop stars outweighs that of all but the most iconoclastic classical stars, because stars in every style I know of other than classical have greater demands of individuality of phrasing, attack, decay, timbre, and even pitch placed upon them than classical players are even allowed. Classical ensemble players -- such as those in a quartet -- have even less leeway in these matters.

So, when classical players improvise, even if they know the stylistic boundaries of whatever style they are playing in, they rarely have the technical chops demanded. It’s not that the other techniques are more difficult or more advanced or more complex -- it’s that in the grainy details they’re fundamentally antithetical to classical chops.

* * *

The other track I followed after posting on Rorty: I sent my query to Michael Berube, whose obituary for Rorty spurred me down this line.

To recap: Berube had said that “I was never quite convinced by Rorty's claims that the languages of the physical sciences were as contingent as any other form of language.” I wrote and asked him whether the recent demotion of Pluto’s status from that of planet to that of dwarf planet did not indicate scientific language was contingent on present consensus and understanding.

He kindly wrote back, and it turns out that my misunderstanding was contingent on which definition of “contingent” was operational.

According to the dictionary (and looking only at the adjective forms):

con*tin*gent [kuhn-tin-juhnt] - adjective
1. dependent for existence, occurrence, character, etc., on something not yet certain; conditional (often fol. by on or upon): Our plans are contingent on the weather.
2. liable to happen or not; uncertain; possible: They had to plan for contingent expenses.
3. happening by chance or without known cause; fortuitous; accidental: contingent occurrences.
4. Logic. (of a proposition) neither logically necessary nor logically impossible, so that its truth or falsity can be established only by sensory observation.

After going back and forth with Michael, it seemed to me that his contention was completely valid if we stick with definition three. Scientific language -- or, perhaps, a scientific claim of truth -- is less accidental than other language (or claims of truth); less, say, random. Looking at definition one or four, however, I would argue that scientific language is more contingent than most others.

I was grateful to Michael for patiently walking me through my confusion. That the confusion hinged on rival definitions of a key word strikes me as . . . fizzily delightful.

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