Thursday, October 20, 2016

"The Rest is Noise": starting from scratch


"Once musicians obtained everything they had imagined in their most daring dreams, they started again from scratch."
(Kurt Weill, 1928)

Battle-lines are still being drawn over the meaning of much twentieth-century music. Often, the music is (still) overlooked in performance as too challenging, too difficult for audiences, trying the patience as well as the comprehension of most listeners who prefer the sounds of Strauss over Stravinsky. Alex Ross, of The New Yorker magazine, tries in his brief if too broad overview The Rest is Noise to put the musical daring of Stravinsky and Sibelius, Cage and Glass, Ellington and even Coltrane (as well as many others, mostly from Europe) in context with the times.

Understandably, two world wars, totalitarian regimes, and economic upheaval produced many fractured forms, and no single view of the century's music can explain it all. But Ross writes entertaining history, even if the reader may be familiar only with the names of many composers. And just when the book begins to take on the brisk, breezy approach of a survey course in modern music, he devotes 35 pages to the rise of Nazism in Germany and its effects on composition, as well as another 45 pages to the smothering effects of Communism.

Even Richard Strauss, whose music had once been a favorite of Hitler's (and whose premiere of Salome, in 1906, marks the opening chapter of the book) eventually becomes an object of ridicule from the German high command. Strauss suffered what Ross writes as "a public breakdown" as a result of a series of psychological games by Joseph Goebbels, the Reich's propaganda minister. "He is unpolitical, like a child," Goebbels wrote in his diary about Strauss, who sought assurances for his family's safety. A witness recounted Strauss' public humiliation in front of a large assembly:

"'Lehar has the masses, you do not!' the minister screamed. 'Stop once and for all your chatter about the significance of "serious music"! You are not helping your case! The art of tomorrow is different from the art of yesterday! You, Herr Strauss, are yesterday!'"

Ironically, the effects of this creative chill in Germany and Russia helped to spread the ideas of exiled musicians, who moved anywhere there was freedom to write and perform. (Hollywood became the surprising home to a number of emigre composers, who wrote film scores.) Ross does a good job illustrating how the many threads of modern music that subsequently developed -- serialism, minimalism, atonality -- have become part of a common musical vocabulary familiar to most listeners of popular music, even as "serious music" appears to draw futher from the mainstream.

His book also dispels the notion of a singular, dramatic arc to twentieth-century music -- the conservative notion of modern art as acts only of mere shock, and a dislocation of values. Some of the chapters deserve books of their own (the Russian chapter, although lengthy, still seems just an introduction). Certainly as the perspective on the century lengthens Ross could revisit some of the later themes, which seem slightly rushed. The book's critics claim Ross's leftward leaning politics are clearly in view, but it's hard to argue with his main thesis: that composers spent most of the twentieth century demolishing the romantic forms of the century before it.

But not completely. He begins the book with Strauss's opera Salome -- based not just on the Biblical story of a jealous wife and wanton daughter, but also drawn from a scandalous play written in 1891 by Oscar Wilde. In the audience sat Gustav Mahler, the young Arnold Schoenberg, and Puccini,"the composer of Tosca and La Boheme, who arrived to see what 'terribly cacophanous thing' his German rival had concocted."

The outrage ought to have been complete; Ross writes that Strauss's opera retells the story "in which the princess eroticizes the body of John the Baptist and indulges in a bit of necrophilia at the end." Instead, the Vienna audience erupted in applause and Strauss emerged in triumph, although Mahler later admitted he was "bewildered" by the opera's popularity. Also in the theater that night, with money borrowed from his mother to make the trip, was seventeen-year-old Adolph Hitler; Salome became one of his favorite Strauss works. By the 1940s, Salome was on the list of "degenerate" Jewish music, although Hitler continued to insist versions of it be performed -- the echoes of the nineteenth century, it seemed, would give birth to more things inexplicable than mere music in the twentieth.

The Rest is Noise
is a brief, sometimes confounding introduction to the complexities of modern music. John Adams' Nixon in China (1987) and the beautiful, haunting music and movement of his 2005 opera Doctor Atomic about the life of Robert Oppenheimer and the development of the atomic bomb, move contemporary music even further into new fields of politics and history. In a final chapter Ross careens from Boulez to Terry Riley, from Ligeti to the cool mathematics of Iannis Xenakis; his survey ends in a bit of a spin trying to name-check a multitude of composers for whom music can be a beautiful noise, and vice versa

Is it music, or just noise? In his preface Ross tries to prepare the reader for the journey ahead by quoting John Cage, whose 1952 piece 4'33" is divided into three movements yet involves only the sounds of the audience: "Wherever we are ... what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating."

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Inner demons and outer space: forgotten classics for Halloween

Mary Shelley's idea of "a modern Prometheus" that took shape in her novel Frankenstein is still a classic horror tale. Since then the boundaries of the scary and horrible have expanded to include inner demons and outer space. Whatever the spooky territory is now, it's bound to be fraught with thoughts of impermanence, the fragility of life, the world of something unknown or unimaginably strange. When the curtains are closed and shadows leap upon the walls, there's always Poe and Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley to scare us, of course. But what else?
Plenty: there are lots of writers these days willing to scare us or spook us. But there is much more in the dusty stacks of forgotten and near-forgotten fiction, from serious writers like H.G. Wells to pulp master H.P. Lovecraft. (It wouldn't be much of a stretch to include William Burroughs in the ranks of the weird and spooky: Cities of the Red Night is a mind-melting nightmare of a diseased, dystopian world.)
As is often the case, poet and publisher Jonathan Williams's view from Skywinding Farm was much more inclusive and forgiving of such matters as what our well-meaning teachers of English literature would deem worthwhile of our time spent reading. JW himself has gone ahead to join company with forgotten authors for "our dummified times" since he died in 2008. As he sadly noted, in this essay from the Jargon Books website, how much worthy reading eventually slips away nearly forgotten, and how "each of us has read almost nothing."
Williams -- himself "internationally overlooked," with a bit of honor and pride in such a distinction -- was asked by Dennis Cooper, of Little Caesar magazine, to guest-edit an issue called "Overlooked & Underrated." He happily complied, and the result was an extensive list of nearly forgotten novels in every genre, a list which was published eventually in 1981, added to in 1989, and once more in 1998. More than ten years later, it would be easy to imagine that the list in "our dummified times" would be longer still. Here's an excerpt from his letter to Ian Young, with an emphasis on stories of horror and the supernatural.
"What a civilization! Nobody even remembers who wrote THE MOON POOL." Often I think of that ultimate lament by Kenneth Rexroth. However, good buddy, I remember that Honest Abe Merritt wrote THE MOON POOL, and I was very turned on by its unique art-deco, sci-fi eroticism back in the ur-sexy days of Flash Gordon and Batman and Robin.
... I'd love to write you a whole book on marvellous caitiff writers who go unread in our dummified times. But, I remain up to my hunkers in chores for the Jargon Society -- all that reading and writing that serve to make me internationally unknown, like one had better be these days. "Of making many books, there is no end." That's in, I believe, Proverbs ... "The flesh is sad and I have read all the books." That's Mallarmé. These quotations remind us that each of us has read almost nothing.
... If you asked the poet Basil Bunting to name the few, world-class masters, he would name you twelve, half of whom you'd never heard of. Viz: Homer, Ferdosi, Manucherhri, Dante, Hafez, Malherbe, Aneirin, Heledd, Wyatt, Spenser, Sidney, Wordsworth ... For Basil, that was it. No one in the 20th century, even his great mentor, Ezra Pound, made the Top Dozen. I know a lot that's "readable" and that will help get a reader through good and bad days and nights. I'll select a few genres and see what I think of, off the top of my head. One thing to mention at the start is that our friend, The Devoted Reader, is going to need the services of a very excellent library system.

... Horror and the Supernatural? Howard Phillips Lovecraft was my transition from boys' adventure books to the surrealism of Henry Miller and Kenneth Patchen. Nothing wrong with a "third class" writer with a peerless imagination. THE SHADOW OUT OF TIME and THE CASE OF CHARLES DEXTER WARD are perhaps better than I remember. They stick in the conk.
Others that do: THE HOUSE ON THE BORDERLAND, by William Hope Hodgson; THE PURPLE CLOUD, by M.P. Shiel; THE HILL OF DREAMS, by Arthur Machen; and a lot by H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, M.R. James, Saki, Lord Dunsany, E.F. Benson, A.E. Coppard, Walter de la Mare, Clark Ashton Smith, Algernon Blackwood, and Colin Wilson.

The two current writers of boogieman prose I like best are Stephen King (The World's Richest Writer, who rivals the Big Mac for style and usability) and the more literate Peter Straub. 'SALEM'S LOT and THE SHINING are first-class books by Mr. King. And IF YOU COULD SEE ME NOW, GHOST STORY, and MYSTERY by Mr. Straub. Two other writers of interest: Whitley Strieber (THE HUNGER, THE WOLFEN) and Robert R. McCammon (MYSTERY WALK). Check your local drugstore.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

"Rub Out the Words," letters from William Burroughs: "This place is sick, sick, sick. And disgusting"

Granta has published a selection of William Burroughs' letters online, presented with commentary by James Grauerholz and from the book edited by Bill Morgan. The Granta excerpts show WSB in contention with his family (to his society-member mother: "A rundown on some of the good burghers of Palm Beach would quite eclipse the Beatniks") and his contemporaries (to Paul Bowles: "Staying in Leary’s house. Enough food to feed a regiment left out to spoil in the huge kitchen by Leary’s over-fed, undisciplined children.")
The letters run from 1959, when Burroughs was living in Paris, to New York in 1974. The Granta excerpts zero in on WSB's kaleidoscope of drug experiences and their various scenes, some with awe, others with a snort of disapproval ("Unused TV sets, cameras, typewriters, toys, books, magazines, furniture, stacked to the ceiling. A nightmare of stupid surfeit. The place is sick sick sick. And disgusting," he complains in 1961 about Leary's house to Bowles in Tangier. "Like a good European, I am stashing away all the $ I can lay hands to with one thought in mind. Walk don't run to the nearest exit.")
Such cantankerous, back-biting behavior became a hallmark of Burroughs' image early on, so much so that in the letters it is difficult to separate the writer from his cranky persona. It was a trick of his craft he was good at, and he seemingly practiced it virtually non-stop until it became his actual voice. Referencing a 1959 article in Life magazine about the Beats to his disapproving mother, his style reaches some kind of rococo,demi-monde apogee of self-promotion: "In order to earn my reputation I may have to start drinking my tea from a skull since this is the only vice remaining to me ... I hope I am not ludicrously miscast as The Wickedest Man Alive, a title vacated by the late Aleister Crowley." ...

Presumably, Burroughs Sr. still sent 45-year-old WSB the $200-a-month allowance to practice his tea-drinking-from-a-skull vices. It was quite a bargain for Bill: the elder Burroughses were taking care of WSB's son Bill, Jr., after their son's 1951 William Tell party trick killed his wife Joan.
Here's an excerpt from the Granta selection. From the post-script it appears he'd patched up relations with his mother Laura and his then-ailing father. The duty of a family visit: "Of course," he writes, "I have to stay clean in Cambridge."
William S. Burroughs [New York]
to Brion Gysin [Paris]

pre-September 28, 1961

General Delivery
Newton, Mass.

Dear Brion:

The scene here is really frantic. Leary has gone berserk. He is giving mushrooms to hat check girls, cab drivers, waiters, in fact anybody who will stand still for it. However Gerald Heard and your correspondent have taken a firm stand. We both refuse to take any more mushrooms under any circumstances. Heard is certainly the most intelligent and well intentioned person connected with this deal. He gave a great talk at the symposium about LSD and paranoid sensations. The last barrier: PANIC! To God Pan. I managed to do all right too, fortified by two joints and the whole symposium came off very well.

Burroughs, 1959

Michael [Portman] wants to come here now and I have written to dissuade him. Let me explain that I really put in a lot of overtime on that boy and thought I had managed to separate him from his deplorable connections. Then something happened and there he was with a cold sore and I lost my patient and my patience as well. I'm not complaining but I have been under considerable pressure trying to sort out and assess hundreds of conflicting reports and demands pleasing no one of course so maybe I goofed. In any case he is now in an impossible condition. Imagine having Eileen Garrett, Mary Cooke, Old Lady Luce in the same room with you. It is absolutely intolerable and I don't propose to tolerate it.
Otherwise the situation here is not too bad. At least I have room to work and there is much to be said for American conveniences. I can get good food out of the ice box and take a bath and wear clean clothes at least. Seems to be plenty of pot around NY and nobody worries about the heat. Its like they all have the fix in. Of course I have to keep clean in Cambridge. Flying back on Sunday. Please write what your plans are. I wish you could arrange to come here. Like I say NY is really a great scene and a goodly crowd is there. And more expected momentarily. Please write.


P.S. Very pleasant visit with the family.
Rub Out The Words: The Letters of William S. Burroughs 1959-1974edited by Bill Morgan, published in the U.S. by Ecco Press, and in the UK by Penguin.