Friday, April 24, 2009

Steve Reich wins Pulitzer Prize

Just in case you missed it, experimental composer Steve Reich (It's Gonna Rain) was just awarded a Pulitzer. Read more here:

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Elevator Music

I wonder what Cage thought of elevator music. At first, I want to say that Cage would have disliked it, preferring to listen to the unique sounds of the elevator's workings, which one only gets to experience in the short time one is riding in an elevator. But then, perhaps he would have admired the fact that someone thought it worthwhile enough to play music in the elevator, so that people might get to enjoy it, even if just for a few short moments. Personally, I've always wondered what the point was. I mean, one doesn't spend much time in the elevator, so why bother with the entertainment. Then again, perhaps the point isn't entertainment. I can't think of anyone who especially likes elevator music. In fact, I recently heard it described as "muzak" that the world would be better off without. I don't even think it has much to do with our need for constant stimulation either. I think that someone decided to put music in the elevator so that when two strangers (or anyone, really) ride it together, they avoid an awkward silence. Or maybe it's to better the mood when fifteen people are crammed in such a small space -you know, to calm nerves. Then again, elevator music being what it is, it might just make everyone more irritated.
No matter the reason it's played, I don't know what can justify elevator music's being so bad.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Lincoln Vs. Cage

Penny and Jimmy and Samantha have all written stuff for this blog since our FYS ended, so I guess I'll join them and keep it going. All the Honors students are taking a course about Abraham Lincoln now (nowhere near as fun as the Cage class of course), so I decided to write some John Cage-Abe Lincoln crossover fiction. I can't decide if that's clever or pathetic (I'm going with pathetic), but anyway, here it is. Enjoy.

So, I was talking to some friends about Abe Lincoln, and as the conversation turns, as conversations about Lincoln inevitably do, to what would have happened had Lincoln and noted experimentalist musician John Cage met. (For a scholarly look at this topic, I cannot recommend a better article than Alfred Johnson’s Lincoln vs. Cage: A Juxtapositional Examination, published in the January 2005 edition of the Atlantic Monthly). So I decided to write my own account of their meeting.

Lincoln was walking home from delivering a penny to a widow who had overpaid at the post office. This honesty, Abe reflected, was the consequence of the godly teaching at the feet of his kindly old stepmother, although he wished she had included some fractions in her teachings as well so he wouldn’t keep making these math mistakes and have to keep walking ten miles to give widows back the money he overcharged them. Still, he knew, people were starting to call him “Honest Abe,” which would be advantageous if he ever decided to open a general store or run for postmaster or try to become president.

He trudged on, and saw a man standing next to a fence post. “Hello, honest sir,” Abe said, “who are you, and why are you standing by that fence?”

“I just stand,” explained the man.

“But why?”

“I just stand. That’s all there is to it, actually,” said the man in a quiet voice, with the sounds of hidden meanings swimming in subterranean pools of connotation.

“I don’t think we are getting anywhere,” said Lincoln briskly. “I like my conversations like the old lady’s dance—short and sweet.” (Lincoln didn’t develop timing with his jokes until he entered political life; until then, his jokes were pretty bad).

The man responded gravely, “Now, more than ever, we are getting nowhere, and that is a pleasure.”

Lincoln’s eyes narrowed, like those of a very large, tall cat who stood on his hind legs and had a beard. “There’s only one man in these parts who talks like that,” he said through gritted teeth, “and that’s John Cage. MY MORAL ENEMY!!!”

“Beethoven was wrong, Lincoln,” said Cage randomly. “We must duel to the death.”

“Yes, we must”, replied Lincoln, pulling out his jews-harp. “Let’s see how you stand up to—Turkey In the Straw!”

“Ha!,” Cage cried arrogantly, but in a meaningful way. “I have with me—the Cone of Silence! None of your screeching can reach me here. This cone is dedicated to the proposition that all sounds are created equal.”

Lincoln played away on his jews-harp, but no sound could pierce Cage’s field of silence. Then, out of a clear sky, someone said “I’ll help you finish that rebel,” Lincoln.”

Lincoln gave David Bowie a look of paternal respect, just like he looks on the Lincoln Memorial.

“What a wonderful idea,” he said. “My jews-harp doesn’t seem to be working.”

“Well,” said David Bowie, “If you want to be one of the heroes, you’ll have to make some ch-ch-changes. Fill your heart with the spirit of young Americans.”

“I don’t understand,” Lincoln stammered.

“Whatever,” Bowie replied. “You haven’t discovered marijuana yet anyhow. But now to the matter at hand.”

He started singing “Life on Mars?” (That’s my favorite Bowie song, so that’s why he’s singing it. The BBC TV show is good too.) Cage’s Cone of Silence collapsed, and Lincoln ran up and caught him under his top hat.

“Thank you,” he said to David Bowie, because he was polite as well as honest.

“Oh, you’re welcome. Think nothing of it. But my time here is at an end; I must return to that time of my life I enjoyed the most.”

“The Seventies, where you toured with some of the era’s brightest lights and inspired the development of music for years?”

Bowie looked a little embarrassed. “Er, actually, it’s the 2000’s, where I was a knight and really rich. It’s much superior, actually, and the drugs are so much better. The Seventies got old really fast. Now, if you’ll excuse me I must be off.”

Bowie faded away, sort of like his acting career did after Labyrinth.

BOOM!!! went a huge noise behind Lincoln. John Cage had blown his way out of Lincoln’s hat with exploding mushrooms!!!

“I’ll be back!” he said menacingly. “We carry our homes within us which enables us to fly.”

“Grrr,” Lincoln growled. He could have caught him, with his long legs, but he had four more pennies to deliver, and he had to write the Gettysburg address when he got home. “I’ll catch you next time.”

To Be Continued*

(“To be”, this case, should be read as “certainly will not be.”)

Earth Day with John Cage

April 22nd is both Earth Day and the birthday of philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and jazz composer Charles Mingus (1922-1979). Here is a Cage quote to commemorate the occasion.

"The aspect of nature with which we are most familiar-- and this familiarity is almost painful-- is that we, as a human species, have endangered nature. We have acted against it, we have rebelled against its existence. So, our concern today must be to reconstitute it for what it is. And nature is not a separation of water from air, or of the sky from the earth, etc., but a 'working together', or a 'playing together' of those elements. That is what we call ecology. Music, as I conceive it, is ecological. You could go further and say that it IS ecology."

Cage, John (1976), For the Birds (Marion Boyars).

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Baby Music

I read an article at work last night on my break that was very interesting. Now, it was in some magazine that I don't remember the name of... Paste maybe? No, that wasn't it... Anyway, it started with an interview with this guy named Doug Schulkind. He's a "self described music obsessive DJ" and when his wife went into labor with their child, he brought his boom box and a stack of CDs with him to the hospital. After a long and stressful labor (and what labor isn't?) a baby girl was born, and the first music this little baby heard upon entering this world was John Coltrain's A Love Supreme. Doug says this was no accident. As one who is passionate about music, the first music his child heard was just as important as important as picking out a name or buying the right car seat.
The Boston Globe's classical music critic, Jeremy Eichler had a similar decision to make when he brought his newborn child home. "It did actually feel like there was a lot of pressure as I was standing in front of our CD library," he says. "It was fairly paralyzing to think what would be the appropriate music to play for someone's very first-ever taste of music. And I ended up choosing Bach's Art of Fugue, in an arrangement for string quartet. I thought, 'Why not begin at the summit?' Bach's Art of Fugue is one of the pinnacles of his art. He's taking a single subject and manipulating it in many different ways. I just thought it would be like honey for the infant mind."
(By the way, if you're wondering how I can quote it without even knowing the magazine it came from, I took notes. Yes, I'm a dork)
I've never really thought about what the first music I heard was. This article kind of got me wondering. It also got me thinking about all the claims out there that say that you can make your baby smarter by playing the right kind of music. I've no doubt there's something to this. Studies show that babies can recognize complex rhythms and are surprisingly sensitive to the differences between consonant and dissonant music. It stands to reason, if you play the right kind of complex music, you can get your baby's mind working pretty early on. Kind of like jump starting the baby brain :)

Saturday, April 11, 2009

John Cage and Freedom

I started a painting yesterday, and it got me thinking about the approach to one's artwork in general. To preface this, let me explain that there are two types of painters: broad brush painters and fine brush painters (okay, so if you count Jackson Pollack and preschoolers everywhere, I guess there can be "no brush" painters as well). Me, I'm a fine brush painter, meaning that my paintbrush never gets bigger than a half-inch wide. Preferably, my brush is so small that one can hardly tell it's a paintbrush and rather sees a stick with three tiny bristles poking out of it. Why do I like such a small brush on even a 30''x40'' canvas? It's all about control, my friends. When my brush is that small, I have maximum control and can make everything look exactly the way I want it to with my nose one inch from the canvas (no kidding. really, I've gotten paint on the end of my nose before).
So what does this have to do with Cage? Well, Cage has come to represent everything that makes me uncomfortable as an artist. Definitely not a fine brush painter. Beethoven was a fine brush painter. The fine brush gives the power of manipulation, a power that Cage was eager to relinquish. But I don't think that Cage was even a broad brush person. Maybe a "no brush" person with a blindfold, or maybe a "no paint" person that makes people really think about his painting. What I'm trying to point out is that Cage didn't work within conventional confines of music, and as he did so, he relinquished all control over his medium. For many artists, that's scary. Whether you want it to be or not, artwork is a reflection of the artist. Even Cage, as he stove to remove himself as much as possible from his music, is reflected in his work. His choice to take himself out of it is directly related to how people see him in it. So to relinquish all control one has over it is a big step, or rather a ludicrous one. Then again, it is also the most liberating...
I think one of the reasons that so many people are intimidated by Cage's work, that so many people just "don't get it" is because they can't bring themselves to understand a person to relinquish that kind of control. Or rather, perhaps these people are themselves afraid of the kind of freedom that comes with that. I, for one, don't think that I could do a painting with a larger brush -let alone do it blindfolded. That lack of control, that sort of freedom, really scares me. It's uncomfortable. And I think that's the response many people have toward avant guard music, in general -especially that of a composer who so heavily relies on chance and indeterminacy. To throw all caution to the wind and just see what happens, to allow the world to see you in your art without having exercised control over its finer points, is scary.
For that, I have to admire Cage as an artist. He's braver in this respect than I could ever be. And more free as well.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

I've been singing about Cage for years and never noticed...

So it's past midnight, I have a ton of work to do, and can't think of a better thing to do than procrastinate. Figures, right? A friend of mine just sent me the entire soundtrack to the fantastic rock opera RENT, and I've spent the last half hour putting it in order and listening to the whole thing for the first time in two years. In high school, every single girl in my class (and a few of the guys, too) knew all the words to this one song, La Vie Boheme. It's a tribute to anything and everything, the most random and sporadic toasting of life in general put to song. We spent freshman, sophomore, and part of junior year bursting into song at various points throughout the day, carrying out the seven-minute song in its very fast-paced entirety and somehow hardly missing a single word.

Here I am, listening to La Vie Boheme, somehow remembering all the words and belting out the song in the middle of the night all by my lonesome when I should be doing something constructive, and I find myself thinking, "This song is kind of Cagean." It is, really. You should listen to it, if you don't mind the very strong and abundant innuendos. It's a toast to freedom of expression, art, randomness, chance, rebellion, conformity, and contradiction. And as soon as this thought occurs to me, I find myself singing, "To Ginsberg, Dylan, Cunningham and Cage....oh."

Merce Cunningham and John Cage have been a part of my formative years without my even knowing it. I choose to take this as a message from the universe, though in all likelihood it is just a coincidence.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Rappers and Rock n' Roll (Two For One Special)

This may be simply ignorance on my part, but was anyone else aware that there are rappers in the rock n' roll hall of fame? I heard on the radio this morning that the group RunDMC (I hope that's how you spell it) was recently inducted and they aren't the first either. Grandmaster Flash was actually the first rap artist "allowed" in. The station was also emphasizing RunDMC's collaboration with the group Aerosmith, creating a mesh of rap and rock, which was deemed an ultimate success by about 90% of fans, and total blasphemy by the other 10% of die hard rock fans. I can't say I'd ever before heard rap or hip hop done with electric guitars, but then again, I don't make it a common practice to encounter much rap to begin with. :)