Is Dis a System?by Dann Baker
Conlon Nancarrow is very much in fashion at the moment. The late composer has been referenced in The Wire magazine, Columbia University’s Miller Theatre is presenting a Nancarrow festival this season, and new-music critic Kyle Gann has come out with a full-length study (available only at Lincoln Center, and priced at $90; you can bet it’s jumping off the shelves). I’ve listened to Nancarrow’s music quite a bit over the years, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I like it not. This, plus my aversion to musical trendmongering and a snide piece I read by one John Corbett (more later), has inspired me to inaugurate the Anti-Nancarrow Backlash. At least in my own mind. On second thought, though, it’s not really about Nancarrow at all. He’s an intriguing (if unlistenable) guy. A maverick. Fought in the Spanish Civil War. Had a cool name. It’s really about the people who write about people like Nancarrow. It’s about an entire class of music beloved of pedants everywhere, whether they occupy university positions, the pages of avant-garde music magazines, or chat rooms.
Forgive me for biting off too-large chunks of intellectual history, but let me call this music I speak of “system music.” In system music, the man (or woman) serves the system—not vice versa. The great apostle, if not the originator, of system music was Arnold Schoenberg, who, though a peerless artist and teacher, was almost too eloquent a writer. His self-narrative of the beleaguered artist working in near solitude struck a chord with any composer who ever faced public indifference or hostility. Indeed, such indifference became a badge of honor, proof that one was pursuing the True Way, despite the whims of public opinion. More important, his invention of the “tone row” connected the realms of creativity and science: by embracing a system, and publishing volumes of abstruse lore defining and defending it, composers could validate their profession as a field of academic study. Thus we began to see “composers” who wrote scores never intended to be played, only looked at—much like successful architects whose end product is a beautiful plan.
Accordingly, the people who write and talk about Cage, Carter, Stockhausen, Boulez, Nancarrow, and Anthony Braxton are not writing and talking so much about the music but the idea of the music. As great as Charles Ives was, he also exhibited this tendency; Ives wrote not for the listening public or even for musicians but for himself. Many of his scores were virtually illegible, and he admitted that a number of his passages were unplayable. Nancarrow dispensed with the musician entirely. His main aim being to create complex polyrhythmic relationships (e.g., 14:13:12), he found a way to make player pianos produce what humans could not. To me it sounds like music created by machines for machines (even though the earlier works contain an appealing jazz-inflected phrasing he abandoned later on).
The way “classical” music was dragged kicking and screaming into the new century (the last one, that is)—especially in America—is a fascinating and oft-told story that can still provoke rancorous debate. One thing agreed upon is that it became increasingly marginalized—and Balkanized—as the 20th century wore on. This can be blamed partly on modern mass communication and the increased access to music more appealing than the Serious Stuff. But I also blame the kind of defensive elitist posturing, from Ives and Ruggles on down, that brought about the rule of the System.
To me the true hero of early modernism was Henry Cowell, the intrepid experimentalist whose New Musical Resources (written in the early ’20s and published in 1930) became the handbook for the new American composer. He was read, avidly, by Partch, Nancarrow, Cage, and Harrison, and from them his influence spread apace. To the New England rigor of Ives he added his own lighthearted brand of West Coast syncretism, calling for increased microtonality, rhythmic experimentation, improvisation, and the use of non-Western or “folk” sources—including the prepared piano, the tone cluster, and the found-object-as-percussive-device.
All of which brings me back to John Corbett’s “Experimental Oriental,” published in Western Music and Its Others (California, 2000). Corbett uses Edward Said’s categories to demolish those composers who, he believes, borrowed the outward trappings of “exotic” music to enliven their own vitiated styles. Cowell and Lou Harrison come in for particular drubbings. Cage and his followers, on the other hand, are applauded for borrowing the ideas—but not the sounds—of the East.
Without going into lengthy comparisons, I’ll note that, yes, Harrison borrowed the sounds of the gamelan orchestra for much of his music. And, yes, some of Cowell’s later pieces come perilously close to New Age music. But Corbett’s dichotomy couldn’t be more wrongheaded. First of all, Cage and Harrison were, at the beginning, tighter than the 2004 pennant race. Both were gay Californians of a similar age fascinated with dance, theater, Asian culture, and tinkering. Both were completely under the spell of Cowell; their early works bear his stamp in their percussive dissonance. In 1939 Cage (still in the closet) drove to San Francisco with his wife for the express purpose of introducing himself to Harrison. They worked closely together on many projects during the following decade. The enormous influence they had on each other is impossible to dissect. Harrison secured a number of jobs and connections for Cage, and it was Lou who introduced Cage to the I Ching, sometime between 1939 and 1942.
They gradually diverged, and it’s this divergence that marks the great divide in American musical culture. Cage went from someone who could claim (in 1937) that “the means will exist for group improvisations of unwritten but culturally important music. This has already taken place in Oriental cultures and in hot jazz” to, in 1988: “When I listen to jazz, I don’t find it as interesting as people tell me it is.” Why does that sound like Andy Warhol, like someone who’s basically selling a shtick? I recognize Cage’s great contributions to theory, based on the insistence that we learn to hear all sound as musical. But I also see him as someone who attacked the hyperrationality of Western culture by becoming even more rational. Cage made himself the slave to a system (albeit a “random” one), and thereby made experimentalism safe for the academy.
Lou Harrison, on the other hand, really jumped off the deep end. After suffering a mental breakdown in the early 1950s (partly in reaction to the New York avant-garde music scene), he abandoned the strict dissonance of his early pieces and rediscovered the melodist within. Inspired by Harry Partch, he continued to develop homemade microtonal and percussive instruments and became a leading composer of experimental dance music. And, like Partch (and Ellington, Morton, and Charles Ives), he found a truly American music by letting a multitude of influences flow through him with no basis other than his own instincts.
DANN BAKER is freelance editor, writer, and musician living in Brooklyn. His musical projects have included Love Camp 7 and the late, lamented (?) Admiral Porkbrain, a Beefheart cover band.