Posting has been scarce of late due to my normal post-semester crash. Hopefully my brain will be up and running soon. I plan on tackling Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Edward Abbey’s Monkey-Wrench Gang this week. In lieu of in-depth thoughts, here’s a potpourri of impressions:
1. Modernism, Music, and Politics
Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, one of the most powerful, political pieces of modern music. Interestingly, especially in the context of the essays below, the piece was fully composed before the title was added.
Martin Bresnick’s fascinating account of a very special musical exhibition in Prague, 1970 has been going around the classical internet. It’s a remarkable piece of writing, powerful even to those who don’t know the musical names invoked:
On March 6, 1970, at the close of the Second International Free Composers Tribune in Prague, the final composer to be represented at the conference, Luigi Nono, spoke for more than 10 minutes before a large audience of mostly Czech musicians, vigorously criticizing my score for the short film “Pour,” which preceded his presentation. Although the protocol of the tribune permitted each composer only 10 minutes to speak about his or her own music, Nono took those 10 minutes to speak about mine, concluding with a scathing condemnation of my use of vernacular music.
Nono then went on for another 10 minutes about the making of his own work, especially pointing out the theoretically correct choice of the pre-recorded sounds he had employed. He then played a tape of his composition “Non Consumiamo Marx.” When the piece was over there were three people left in the hall at the Janacek Composers’ Club at 3 Besedni Street: Luigi Nono, Mr. Okurka (the technician who operated the tape recorder and sound system) and me.
I won’t spoil the punchline to the piece, save to observe that the goal of infusing music with political meaning is perpetually one of the greatest challenges a composer can undertake. It’s interesting to read Bresnick’s piece as counterpoint to David T. Little’s piece on contemporary music:
Historically, political composers believed that, since politics was going to concern itself with the arts — (as rulers like Hitler and Stalin proved) — art had better concern itself with politics. It was as if this was the artists’ preemptive duty. During the 1930s, the revolutionary tide reached the ivory towers, and composers began to see themselves as standing in solidarity with the worker. “Whether composers know it, admit it or not … they most of them belong to the proletariat,” wrote Charles Seeger in a 1934 essay.
But my reasons, approach and techniques are different, because this historical moment is different. We are no longer amidst a social(ist) revolution in the United States (despite what the Tea Party says) and as such music with a strong ideological or revolutionary message can often feel out of place and out of touch. As a result, political composers are no longer the revolutionaries we once were. Instead, we function as critics.
For that matter, the entirety of the New York Times column “The Score”–from which these pieces are taken–is great.
2. The End of Film?
Roger Ebert reprints Ben Dobbins’ article on the dwindling production of film.
Perhaps because of my age, the demise of film production only merits a shrug. I would, of course, be very sad if film was altogether unavailable in the future, or if production standards were likewise diminished. But other once popular media, like woodblock printing, lithographs, etchings, are still alive and well and their traditions maintained by artists and craftsmen that love the tradition. I would imagine that the same will hold for film.
What I think is truly gross, however, is the rise of fake vintage camera effects, à la Hipstamatic. They hold all of the false charm and tackiness as stock Photoshop “impressionistic” or “fresco” effects. By appropriating the visual signatures of the past, we further unstick ourselves in time.
3. Musical Public Domain
Marc Parry writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education (behind paywall, sorry) of conductor Lawrence Golan’s David-and-Goliath fight against Big Media’s effort to keep 20th century artworks out of the public domain ad infinitum:
For 10 years, the music professor has been quietly waging a legal campaign to overturn the statute, which makes it impossibly expensive for smaller orchestras to play certain pieces of music.
Now the case is heading to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high-stakes copyright showdown affects far more than sheet music. The outcome will touch a broad swath of academe for years to come, dictating what materials scholars can use in books and courses without jumping through legal hoops. The law Mr. Golan is trying to overturn has also hobbled libraries’ efforts to digitize and share books, films, and music.
The conductor’s fight centers on the concept of the public domain, which scholars depend on for teaching and research. When a work enters the public domain, anyone can quote from it, copy it, share it, or republish it without seeking permission or paying royalties.
The dispute that led to Golan v. Holder dates to 1994, when Congress passed a law that moved vast amounts of material from the public domain back behind the firewall of copyright protection. For conductors like Mr. Golan, that step limited access to canonical 20th-century Russian pieces that had been freely played for years.
“It was a shocking change,” Mr. Golan says over dinner at a tacos-and-margaritas dive near the University of Denver’s mountain-framed campus. “You used to be able to buy Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Stravinsky. All of a sudden, on one day, you couldn’t anymore.”
I think the ethics of copyright are very much up in the air right now (and the ethical issues are much more complicated than both the “rights protect artists” and the “information wants to be free” camps seem to acknowledge) but I think one thing that’s clear is that efforts like these–and big music publisher’s draconian crackdown on live performers–are creating an environment that is toxic for future performers and composers, or at the very least, turning them into rulebreakers.
4. Portland’s New Bud Clark Commons
The great Portland arts blog PORT has a great feature on the design elements incorporated into a new no-income housing/homeless shelter project in Portland’s Pearl District.
I’ve seen some critical posts elsewhere in the blogosphere (I’m not going to dignify them by linking) that have focused on the high-value design and stylish materials to attack the project. As with some other publicly funded services, especially prisons and public housing, any element of comfort seems to be a waste of taxpayer dollars, or “too good” for the target population.
That’s probably just an ugly side of human nature, but it’s always amazing to me how much resistance there is to public projects that are, you know, effective.