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Composer John Adams

Much of what I do each day feels difficult to describe. For those of us who spend a lot of time alone in the studio, it is often hard to know what’s really going on. I am grateful when I find others who can language some of these emotions and experiences. And seeing correlations to other forms, like music and poetry, is often very useful.

Alex Ross has a silken gift, writing about music in a way that feels effortless and inviting. His read every one of his articles in the New Yorker, many of which have been compiled in his most recent book, the excellent Listen to This.

He wrote a review recently of a new oratorio by one of my favorite composers, John Adams. The Gospel According to the Other Mary premiered in Los Angeles a few months ago, and Ross’s review has several references that resonate for visual art as well.

Ross refers to the progression to atonal music as having a “mystical aspect: these uncanny new chords could serve as esoteric icons, emblems of the sacred.” He points out how extensively twentieth century composers wrote sacred music, arguably eclipsing the output of the previous century. “Even secular-minded artists like György Ligeti and Morton Feldman wrote works of a spiritual nature, perhaps because their chosen language drew them towards the unsayable.”

Adams, a self-described “secular liberal living in Berkeley”, has “tilted towards sacred subjects” with many of his recent works, says Ross.

Regarding this latest oratorio:

A Passion play in all but name, it is a huge, strange, turbulent creation, brushing against chaos. The modernist tradition of the dark sacred, of the radical sublime, is alive and well; a composer who started out as an acolyte of Boulez, Stockhausen, and Cage has rediscovered his avant-garde roots, and those who prize him as an audience-friendly neo-Romantic are in for some shocks…it contains some of the strongest, more impassioned music of Adams’s career. Above all, it is a work of daring: a popular, celebrated artist has set aside familiar devices and stepped into the unknown…

At the age of sixty-five, Adams seems to be entering a new phase, revisiting the danger zones of twentieth-century style, and the first results are astonishing.

There is so much here to capture the imagination: the “dark sacred,” the “radical sublime,” the artist who is willing to step into the unknown and revisit “the danger zones” of style. Setting aside the familiar: That’s worthy of a mantra on my wall.

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Continuing the theme of music and its multifarious explorations…

I follow with my eyes the proud and futile wake. Which, as it bears me from no fatherland away, bears me onward to no shipwreck.

–Samuel Beckett, Molloy

What an evocative quote to start Alex Ross‘ most recent book, Listen to This. His columns in The New Yorker are so consistently good, and I found his first book, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, smart, sensitive and insightful.

The preface to this latest book speaks to one of my most consistent themes: Exquisite experiences with art live in us outside of the power of language, but we are nonetheless continually driven to share, explain, decode those states of mind:

Writing about music isn’t especially difficult. Whoever coined the epigram “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”—the statement has been attributed variously to Martin Mull, Steve Martin and Elvis Costello—was muddying the waters. Certainly, music criticism is a curious and dubious science…But it is no more dubious than any other form of criticism. Every art form fights the noose of verbal description. Writing about dance is like singing about architecture; writing about writing is like making buildings about ballet. There is a fog-enshrouded border past which language cannot go…In my writing on musc, I try to demystify the art to some extent, dispel the hocus-pocus, while still respecting the boundless human complexity that gives it life.

Onward into that journey.

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Photo: Meredith Monk

A last four minutes of Meredith Monk’s most recent performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music of Songs of Ascensionhas been posted on Alex Ross’ (The New Yorker) blog.

From Ross:

The video excerpt…comes from the final section of the work: first Monk delivers a solo, accompanying herself on a shruti box, or Indian drone instrument; then the collected vocal and instrumental forces launch into the climactic “Procession.” Monk has said that “Songs of Ascension” was inspired by Norman Fischer’s Zen translations of the Psalms, by the upward-seeking forms of spiritual structures around the world, and by Ann Hamilton’s Tower in Sonoma, California.

Monk. She is still casting her spell after all these years.

Watch it here.

There’s a perennially prickly relationship that persists between the artist who has an audience and the one who does not. In The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross returns to this theme many times as it played out between the giants of 20th century composing. Schoenberg “warned his colleagues against a futile chase after popularity,” and ended up devising a “new way of working—a ‘method of composing with twelve notes’ –that would protect the serious composer from vulgarity.” His long standing dispute with Kurt Weill hinged on this same issue, purportedly resulting from an article in which Weill contrasted composers who “filled with disdain for the public, work towards the solution of aesthetic problems as if behind closed doors” and those who “open up a connection with any kind of public.”

When Schoenberg protégé Alban Berg premiered his opera Wozzeck and was greeted by a standing ovation, he was upset by the response. According to Berg’s friend Theodor Adorno, “That a work…satisfying Berg’s own standards could please a first-night audience, was incomprehensible to him and struck him as an argument against the opera.” Adorno went on to say, “Schoenberg envied Berg his successes while Berg envied Schoenberg his failures.”

I found something of that dichotomy in an article about Julian Schnabel in the Sunday Times. Schnabel made a name for himself in the burgeoning art scene in Soho in the 1970s. He was a natural self promoter and played the high visibility game to perfection. I was never a fan of his work, but give him credit for having played his hand well at the fame game.

Later he refocused his ambitious energies into film, directing Basquiat and Before Night Falls, both worthy ventures that received a fair amount of critical acclaim. His latest film—and a bit of an unlikely choice–is based on the memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

So for all of Schnabel’s wealth and success, the following quote by him in Randy Kennedy’s article was noteworthy:

I’m a painter; that’s what I do,” he said in his Brooklyn studio, adding that a failure to acknowledge this properly was ultimately the result of ignorance.

I don’t think that people know too much about painting,” he said. “I don’t think that they really understand what it is. I mean, I don’t want to put anybody down. I just think more people understand the language of movies than of paintings.

The piece is wryly titled, Don’t Call Him a Filmmaker, at Least Not First.

This response could just be a case of ego, unchecked, seeking domination in every endeavor. Or perhaps this is Schnabel envying his own successes as well as his own (perceived or otherwise) failures.

As for the optimal artist/audience relationship, I’m going with e) all of the above.

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I love this guy.

Alex Ross writes about music for The New Yorker. He is so reliably brilliant, and my musician sister Rebecca and I both turn to his articles first when the magazine arrives at our respective homes. Then we call and talk about the nuance he captured or yet another poignant insight. His writing is fluid, seductive and informed. After a long year of waiting, his new book, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, is finally out and worthy of a hard cover purchase.

Under Ross’ expert hand, the extraordinary evolution of music over the last 100 years is delivered up as comprehensible, a kind of ordered chaos. There’s nothing canonical about his approach, but the journey from the fin de siecle in Vienna to Stalin’s Russia to modern minimalism is engaging, lively, highly textured.

Here’s an excerpt from his introduction:

Berg was right: music unfolds along an unbroken continuum, however dissimilar the sounds on the surface. Music is always migrating from its point of origin to its destiny in someone’s fleeting moment of experience–last night’s concert, tomorrow’s solitary jog.

The “Rest is Noise” is written not just for those well versed in classical music but also–especially–for those who feel passing curiosity about this obscure pandemonium on the outskirts of culture. I approach the subject from multiple angles: biography, musical description, cultural and social history, evocations of place, raw politics, firsthand accounts by the participants themselves.

Many of his descriptions of music during this period apply to the visual arts as well. For example:

In the twentieth century…musical life disintegrated into a teeming mass of cultures and subcultures, each with its own canon and jargon. Some genres have attained more popularity that others; none has true mass appeal…beauty may catch us in unexpected places.

And this great passage, quoted at the beginning of the book:

It seems to me…that despite the logical, moral rigor music may appear to display, it belongs to a world of spirits, for whose absolute reliability in matters of human reason and dignity I would not exactly want to put my hand in the fire. That I am nevertheless devoted to it with all my heart is one of those contradictions which, whether a cause for joy or regret, are inseparable from human nature.

–Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus