Oh my lord. So much for writing every day. We're moving out of our apartment! This will come as a great relief to everyone who has visited us in our present building, which is, er, a rotting little slum. Between the sudden, relative lack of hot water and the weird diesel smell coming up from the furnace(!!!) it finally seemed impossible to live here, and our friend David (pronounced dah-BEED) had to give notice on Mar 1st as to whether he was keeping his overpriced one-bedroom and so we're all moving in together! Me and JoJo and David and TygerTyger, finally moving into an apartment big enough for the four of us. JoJo is especially sweating the move, trying to figure out what books to pack and which to give away. I wish I hadn't left my camera in Vermont just so I could show you the giveaway stack, which actually runs up the stairway in a dramatic, fire code-defying fashion. You're all welcome to drop by and take something. If you do, feel free to slip a donation for moving costs under our door. (Update: Photo here!) Anyway, the things I would have blogged were I not busy alternating between apartment-hunting and the fetal position have been picked up by better bloggers than I: Jeremy Denk sticks it to somebody named Harold Fromm, who put this sloppy piece in the Hudson Review. The notion that we can get at the real Bach by desiccating Bach performance strikes me as... a bit misguided. Fromm's right to celebrate the notion that Bach, as opposed to, say, Beethoven or Mozart, is miraculously free from the sort of mythmaking that mucks up listeners' interpretations of a body of work. The picture we get of Bach from his paper trail, mostly business correspondence, gives a pretty realistic portrait of the artist as a serious workman—somebody with a job to do—which is, let's just say, NOT how we tend to imagine our Beethovens and Mahlers. Unfortunately, Fromm points out by example the converse hazard of interpreting a composer's music biographically, which is the perception that Bach was some kind of musical accountant. No. Bach's music is sentimental, at times even maudlin, and the notion that it should be performed bloodlessly is thrilling not because it is an 18th-century idea but because, as Richard Taruskin points out in "The Modern Sound of Early Music" (the Times headline is not his), it is a very 20th-century one. How odd that an article called "J.S. Bach in the 21st Century" should take its cues from a performance style invented in the age of Stravinsky and debunked in the Clinton administration! Fromm's article is not only useless, it is not even fashionable. Look and! An editor at ArtForum asked me to link to this thing they ran on Stockhausen at their website, but Alex Ross beat me to it. I've resisted commenting on Stockhausen's death mostly out of ignorance—like most new-music lovers, I'm simply unaware of most of his output, and I simply can't contribute more thoughtfully than so many commentators have already done. So I was excited to see Robin Maconie's piece, which presents in some ways a terrifically clear-sighted perspective on Stockhausen's work. Like: "Of the intricately interlaced mathematical rhythms of his early works, his pianist friend Aloys Kontarsky said, 'Oh, that’s just his way of notating rubato.'" How nice to read an article on Stockhausen that actually brings us closer to understanding his music! But then we get a little further and, hm, it seems that Maconie has, as they say, drunk the Kool-Aid. On his controversial 9/11 comments:
In a scathing and factually exhaustive account of what actually transpired at the fateful press conference, Stockhausen’s companion, American clarinetist Suzanne Stephens, defends him as a bewildered old man drawn into a media trap and cynically abandoned by the festival administration and its political backers, who had already been made uneasy by press accusations that Hamburg had provided a safe haven for some of the terrorists.
Pretty easy to believe, yeah. But then—
One can go a step further and interpret the entire affair as a fatwa deliberately engineered by the festival authorities, with the connivance of disaffected members of the press corps, to counter the massive loss it was already clear the festival was bound to incur in the wake of the Twin Towers attack, by removing at a stroke its single most expensive component—a four-day program of Stockhausen’s works....
"Fatwa"? Well, that's pushing it a little. The word is obviously chosen to evoke the way Iran tried to censored Salman Rushdie, and I'm sorry but canceling some premieres and promising to murder someone are not the same thing. Of course, Maconie isn't saying this is his own point of view, he's just throwin' it out there as something "one" might choose to believe... and then:
At Stockhausen’s level of awareness, however—a level of divination on which things that happened to him were construed not trivially or personally but as a convergence of “cosmic” forces for which the artist is simply a lightning rod—what mattered was not who was to blame or their individual motivations, but the absolute reality of 9/11 and the artist’s moral duty to account for it. Stephens was missing the point. The event had to happen because it did happen. That the composer was misconstrued is par for the course.
Er—"a level of divination"? I'm going to go ahead and suggest to each and every one of us that we back away from the implication that our favorite composer has mystical and/or supernatural powers. I mean, I'm being a bitch here, and I am grateful for Maconie's article, but there really is some crazy stuff built into his rhetoric. Much more plausible is Morton Subotnick's interpretation:
Egocentric people are usually distasteful, yet I didn’t find that with him. He got so much flack for calling 9/11 the greatest work of art ever. But I don’t think there was any malice in that. He was so involved with his own persona and with his own self. It was an innocent comment—very unfortunate, but innocent. Thank goodness we don’t all feel that way about things. But having a few such people in the world doesn’t hurt.
There we go. I hope that we can all agree that Stockhausen's ego was a great thing—who but a monster of ego would have attempted to build his enormous body of work!—fraught with disastrous potential. For instance, every vocal work of Stockhausen's that I have heard sets a text by the composer, always a gamble, and in his case invariably a losing one. His poetry is atrocious.
Which leaves Björk's response... not much for me to say here, actually. I think she gets it spot-on. Most electronic artists, when they talk about Stockhausen's influence, are being pretty superficial—like a playwright saying he was influenced by Shakespeare because he writes his plays in English. Like, it's true, but not very interesting. Björk's obituary, but also her music, reveal a real depth of familiarity with Stockhausen's body of work. Beyond his electronic innovations (cribbed by so many pop artists) and his arcane compositional processes (aped by the avant-garde), she's actually been listening to his music, its alien textures and strange, gnarled melodies. Listen to Medúlla or the Drawing Restraint 9 score again after hearing Stimmung or Tierkreis... it might illuminate a facet of Stockhausen's (or Björk's) oeuvre that you hadn't noticed before.