Friday, June 29, 2012

The World of Modern Music

“Being that music is our life, in that it has given us a 
life—did we make things clear? That is, do we love 
Music, and not the systems, the rituals, the symbols—the
worldly, greedy gymnastics that we substitute for it?”
                                                      —Morton Feldman[1]

To the outside observer, the world of modern music must often seem a House of Horrors. Seemingly drawn by a love of show-offy philosophical shenanigans, the aspiring modern musician passes the threshold and wanders off into the twisty little passages of this sanctum. Moorings are lost and a strange environment envelops him. The warping ellipses of this Purgatory are divided into the cloisters of various sects; each cell seems dedicated to some all-embracing theoretical conceit, each with its own body of curates and disciples, all engaged in the bizarre rituals of their theologies. He tries to decrypt the numeric mandalas of the Serialists, collegiate Neo-Pythagoreans for whom the nature of music is written in the language of set theory; he stays a time with a band of self-denying Cagian ascetics who seek to liberate music from the desires of its composers, then with a shamanic bunch of Free Improvisers who reject the arid intellectuality of notation and compositional structure.

Our newcomer finds his assumptions assaulted on all sides by this panoply of theories; the axioms of his previous musical life are ripped to shreds, and he is pained to discover that he knows nothing of his art. He is confused—yet he does not run screaming for the exits. For, having once entered, the modern musician rarely leaves this asylum; lost in its higher circles and burning with uncertainty, he searches for answers by delving always deeper into its spiral core. The edifice becomes his home; its eccentric residents, his friends; and their religions, the subjects of familiar neighborhood gossip.

On the whole, it is interesting and generally friendly world. Passing over the occasional dogmatist, the residents are for the most part lovable in their nuttiness, and sincere in their pursuit of some Idea of musical truth. Not all of their theorizing is pretentious claptrap, and the vastness of the edifice of modern music permits a creative mind the much-needed latitude to explore the possibilities of the art. Despite this, the danger of losing one's bearings and becoming mired in the depths of this wacky structure is very real. What, precisely, is meant by this metaphor? Simply that it is possible to become so enmeshed in the theoretical and philosophical problems of composition that one loses sight of the concrete reality—the experience—of music. Worse still, the love of that experience—that is, listening—can be ruptured and cracked by obsessive analysis, until it is little more than a pile of arcane debris.

The musician, one hopes, chose his path because of his enjoyment and love of music. Like all loves, the love of music may develop a melancholy aspect if its object, that is, what the musician longs to hear, is unattainable to him within his current sphere of musical understanding; the only remedy for him is to seek to broaden this sphere, and it is this need to attain to the beloved in music that propels him through the doors of the new monastery described above. If he learns within its confines how to find what it is he seeks, very well. But if, after his stay, his love has become no less problematical, he must leave, for to tarry risks worse than to further complicate his desire. The lost soul of modern music no longer experiences love of music in any real sense; his desire has been misdirected, cheated, replaced in toto by a sterile craving after analytic completeness, systematic perfection. These are strange idols to the lover of music, but their icons decorate every surface of this weird edifice; if much sectarian strife swirls round the identity of the True Form of modern music, we may be sure that all the competing ideals express themselves in the language of analysis and theory. These gods claim the laurels of Apollo, yet they are mute and without substance. It is for the musician to grasp the fundamental disconnect between this idolatry and the love and practice of music; for by no other means can he win passage across Lethe, drink from the waters of Eunoe, and ascend far beyond this citadel's wasteland writhings.[2]

1. “In Memoriam: Edgard Varèse”. Published in Give My Regards to Eighth Street, B.H. Friedman, ed.
2. See Dante, Purgatorio, Cantos 31-33.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Coffin Nails for a Soviet Hero: Soviet Russia and its influence on the musical language of Dmitri Shostakovich

By: Christina Guibas

Music has always been recognized as an abstract medium through which true self-expression can be realized. In an environment where speech and behavior are without restriction, the need for the full potential of musical expression may be too little for true greatness to appear. But in a society where speech and behavior are under such scrutiny as to threaten the very existence of the people within it, the only available mediums through which the self may be expressed are those of the abstract. In fact, in such circumstances, the need for expression and truth is so great that the realization of it brings great power and deep meaning.

Just like any other dangerous and suppressed art form, the circumstance that makes it most powerful is risk. Something has to be at stake. The situation has to be desperate. The declamation has to be so fueled by passion that the risk-taker is willing to put everything on the line just to take the opportunity to make it. During the Communist decade before the Second World War and under the rule of Joseph Stalin, the output of great art was particularly high, perhaps nowhere better shown than in the symphonic works of Dmitri Shostakovich. Shostakovich's journey from the composition of his first symphony through his fifteenth and last was long and arduous, and includes remarkable landmarks of self-assertion and continuously revitalized willpower. Never before in history has an abstract artistic medium stood so threatening to the foundation of an institution so steadfast as the Soviet Communist regime, and never before has an abstract medium had so much power to stand as a beacon of hope, a cry for help, a protest, and a timeless and painful scarlet letter as have Dmitri Shostakovich’s symphonies.

The First Symphony and the Yurodivy(юродивый)[1] - 1925

Shostakovich's First Symphony (1925) established him as an artistic power and entity in the circles of Soviet Russia and called attention upon his innovative talent. It was the quality of his music, rather than the political symbolism that his music came to represent, that first captured the public. Maximilian Steinberg, Shostakovich’s own teacher,  points out,

"This symphony was a tremendous success from its premiere, and is still considered today as one of Shostakovich's finest works. It displays an interesting and characteristic combination of liveliness and wit on the one hand, and drama and tragedy on the other. In some ways, it is reminiscent of the works of Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev. The transparent and chamber-like orchestration of the First Symphony is in quite a contrast to the complex and sophisticated Mahlerian orchestrations found in many of his later symphonies, and the assurance with which the composer imagines, then realizes large-scale structure, is as impressive as his vigor and freshness of gesture."[2]

The source of Shostakovich's success came out of purely musical goals. These goals reflect the position of a rising artist, still using his mentors and colleagues as sources for inspiration, still feeling the desire to join the already established 'musical club' in Russia at the time. The young composer had not yet begun to expand his artistic expression to the broader social and political issues of his time, nor had he become aware of the deeply transformational power that his music could have on society. As Paul Serotsky puts it, "it would be quite a few years yet before he had to sing his socks off to save his life."[3] The bright future and success that had opened up for the young composer came with a price: in the spotlight was not just his music, but also his dignity and individuality, and for the sake of self-preservation these would have to withstand the challenges presented by the monumental Soviet party. Shostakovich was in the fight for his life.

In the introduction to Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich Solomon Volkov lays out the notion of yurodivy:

"The yurodivy has the gift to see and hear what others know nothing about. But he tells the world about his insights in an intentionally paradoxical way, in code. He plays the fool, while actually being a persistent exposer of evil and injustice. The yurodivy is an anarchist and individualist, who in his public role breaks the commonly held ‘moral’ laws of behavior and flouts conventions. But he sets strict limitations, rules and taboos for himself. "[4]

In much the same vein, Shostakovich was slowly beginning to be paraded with various state campaigns of musical symbols that were directed at the mass of Soviet composers, but with him as the proverbial scapegoat. However, Shostakovich was not a dismissible artist, and authorities soon began to recognize the power and usefulness of his music. As his popularity grew, he inevitably took on the burden of serving as a vehicle for the delivery of propaganda in favor of the Communist party. As Shostakovich himself points out,

"To be an artist in a totalitarian state and survive both physically and creatively, one must play a surreal game with mortal stakes, a game of submission and humiliation, of periodic betrayals of self and others, of tentative advances and desperate retreats."

After the performance of his opera Lady Macbeth in Moscow in 1936, Shostakovich was placed under attack. Stalin immediately decreed criteria for Soviet opera in an article in Pravda (Правда)[5]: It had to have a Socialist theme, the musical language had to be "realistic", themes had to be based on Russian folk songs, and the plot had to be positive–a happy ending in which the state is eulogized, for instance. Music had to be refined, harmonious and melodious, without harsh tonalities, and with particular attention paid to words ("since singing without words satisfied only the perverted tastes of a few aesthetes and individualists").

Shostakovich Under Attack: The Fifth Symphony - 1937

In a second article in Pravda, The Limpid Stream was denounced as "vulgar and showing contempt for our national songs." Any acclaim and prestige Shostakovich had earned quickly evaporated and Shostakovich was immediately in danger. The article lambasted Shostakovich, saying that it alienated “appreciative audiences” that it contained “deliberate dissonance,” “snatches of melody,” and that it was “musical noise.” The opera, it was further argued, threatened the foundations of the socialist state; it was petty and bourgeois. Yet despite the open threat of reprisal against the composer, Shostakovich was not purged[6]. Instead, as Volkov asserts, Stalin gave Shostakovich a reprieve. Following this, Shostakovich withdrew his Fourth Symphony which was perhaps too genuine an expression of the composer to put forth as a political shield. He abandoned the Fourth Symphony, and began his Fifth. The Fifth Symphony would premiere in 1937, and the Fourth in 1961, fully twenty-four years later.

The deepening ideological conflict that the composer was experiencing began to crystallize in the Fifth symphony. The initial reception of the Fifth was overwhelmingly positive and granted Shostakovich an opportunity to be back in favor with the state, however temporary. As Volkov puts it, "[The] conservative idiom and heroic tone [of the Fifth symphony] found favor both with audiences and officials, who presumably did not notice its troubling undercurrents." And at the time of the Fifth symphony's premiere Shostakovich verbally justified the positive reception by the Soviet party with his statement about the meaning behind the music,

"The theme of my symphony... is the making of a man. I saw man with all his experiences at the center of the composition.... In the finale, the tragically tense impulses of the earlier movements are resolved in optimism and the joy of living."

However optimistic Shostakovich portrayed his symphony to be at the time of its premiere, he explicitly contradicts that optimism and brings light to its existing sarcasm.

 "I discovered to my astonishment that the man who considers himself its greatest interpreter does not understand my music. He [Alexander Alexandrovich Fadeyev] says that I wanted to write exultant finales for my Fifth and Seventh symphonies but I couldn't manage it. It never occurred to this man that I never thought about any exultant finales, for what exultation could there be?"

In an early version of an essay written before the publication of Testimony in 1979 Shostakovich states, "[The close] works just as it was intended to work though many a listener may find that the impact and the memory of the questions behind this music are stronger than those of the answer." He also adds, "Clearly, I did not believe in the answer, in the claptrap about "optimism and the joy of living." He further explains,

 "The rejoicing is forced, created under threat, as in [Mussorgsky's] Boris Godunov. It's as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, "Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing," and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, "our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing." What kind of apotheosis is that? You have to be a complete oaf not to hear that. ..."[7]

National Celebrity: The Seventh Symphony – 1941

Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony was written during the German siege of Leningrad during 1941.

"I wrote my Seventh Symphony, 'the Leningrad,' very quickly. I couldn't not write it. War was all around. I had to be with the people. I wanted to create the image of our country at war, capture it in music. From the first days of the war, I sat down at the piano and started work. I worked intensely. I wanted to write about our time, about my contemporaries who spared neither strength nor life in the name of 'Victory Over the Enemy." The authorities "took the famous 'march episode' from the first movement and turned it into a representation of the Nazi onslaught, and turned the entire piece into a propaganda device rallying for victory and perseverance in the face of the Germans."

Shostakovich sheds light on this false interpretation:

"The Seventh Symphony had been planned before the war and consequently it simply cannot be seen as a reaction to Hitler’s attack. The ‘invasion theme’ has nothing to do with the attack. I was thinking of other enemies of humanity when I composed the theme."

The enemies that he refers to were those of the Soviet Party who, for a decade prior had the blood of the people their own people on their hands.

"Even before the war, in Leningrad there probably wasn't a single family who hadn't lost someone, a father, a brother, or if not a relative, then a close friend. Everyone had someone to cry over, but you had to cry silently, under your blanket, so that no one would see. Everyone feared everyone else, and sorrow oppressed and suffocated us. Talking about it is unpleasant, but I must if I am to tell the truth. And the truth is that the war helped. The war brought great sorrow and made life very, very hard. Much sorrow, many tears. But it had been even harder before the war, because then everyone was alone in his sorrow […] I began writing [the Seventh] having been deeply moved by the Psalms of David; the symphony deals with more than that but the Psalms were the impetus. I began writing. David has some marvelous words on blood, that God takes revenge for blood, he doesn't forget the cries of the victims, and so on. When I think of the Psalms, I become agitated. And if the Psalms were read before every performance of the Seventh, there might be fewer stupid things written about it."

The Symphony was a genuine expression of the deep-seated anger and fear that Shostakovich shared with his contemporaries and the citizens of Russian during the years of Stalin. The war gave him the perfect disguise with which to mask the true source of such intense and passionate feelings. Regardless of the false interpretation of the Symphony as pro-Soviet during the siege at Leningrad, Shostakovich states:

"Actually, I have nothing against calling the Seventh the Leningrad symphony, but it's not about Leningrad under siege, it's about the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and that Hitler nearly finished off."

In addition to the Symphony's power to express the authentic feelings of the composer, it also put him back in favor with Stalin. The Seventh put Shostakovich back on his feet.

"Probably many people think I came back to life after the fifth symphony.  No, I came back to life after the Seventh.  You could finally talk to people.  It was still hard, but you could breathe. That's why I consider the war years productive for the arts. [...] The Seventh symphony became my most popular work. [It] arose from the conscience of the Russian people, who unwaveringly accepted moral combat with evil forces."

The Seventh was awarded the USSR State Prize[8], and found itself a subject of world public opinion for many reasons.[9] In the Soviet union it was raised to the status of symbol, and excerpts from it can be heard in many films and plays devoted to the war.

“Shostakovich: Fascist,” and the New Coffin Nail: The Eighth Symphony - 1943

"When the eighth was performed, it was openly declared counter-revolutionary and anti-Soviet.[...] [The authorities] said, why did Shostakovich write an optimistic symphony at the beginning of the war and a tragic one now? At the beginning of the war we were retreating and now we're attacking, destroying the Fascists. And Shostakovich is acting tragic, that means he's on the side of the Fascists." [10]

Shostakovich had mastered his language. He was as clear as crystal; the problem was that everyone was listening, including the authorities.

"It's hard to be composer because the audience understands your music. It's probably the other way around in most cases: when they understand, it's easier to write. But here everything is back to front, because the larger the audience, the more informers there are. And the more people who understand what it's about, the more likely that they'll inform."

Musicians would later come to warn against this notion in Russia, but the "politicization of music" had become commonplace throughout the war. The warring nations of 1939-1945 showed an extraordinary ability to preserve and uphold classical music and, through media promotion turn it into something like a popular art. The occupied nations treasured their own musical heritage, particularly the romantic productions of the previous century. The music of Dvorak, Chopin, Rachmaninov, and Grieg in American radio and movies was associated with the heroic struggles of invaded peoples. In war-wracked Russia the most mournful strains of Chopin, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky filled the concert halls and airwaves. On the radio, Russian classics were playing continuously over folk music, lyrical songs, and military band music. Soviet composers turned their talents to war-related subjects—Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony being the most famous of these.

This universal popularity of the Seventh Symphony might have worked against Shostakovich in the end. Against a backdrop of increasing tensions between the Soviet Union and the West, backlash on the part of weary State authorities against Shostakovich’s popularity in the West in the late ’40s was, perhaps, a result of this politicization of classical music and mass culture.

"Every report of the success of the Seventh and Eighth symphonies made me ill.  A new success meant a new coffin nail. The reprisals were being reared ahead of time, the reparations began with the Seventh symphony.  They say that only its first part was effective, and that was the part, the critics pronounced, that depicted the enemy.  The other parts were supposed to show the might and power of the Soviet army, but Shostakovich lacked the colors for that assignment.  They demanded something like Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture from me, and later on the comparison between my music and the overture became a popular argument, naturally not in my favor. "

A “Cheerful” Symphony for a Triumphant Russia: The Ninth Symphony - 1945

Following the conclusion of the war, Stalin demanded a triumphant Ninth Symphony, celebrating him and the Russian defeat of the Nazis, complete with double choir, and huge fanfares--a regular propaganda bonanza. Stalin, according to Shostakovich had “went off the deep end,” and was completely shocked at the subdued and embittered ironic piece of ‘cheerful’ Symphony which Shostakovich produced.

"I confess I gave hope to the leader and teacher's dreams. I announced that I was writing an apotheosis. I was trying to get them off my back but it turned against me. When my Ninth was performed, Stalin was incensed. He was deeply offended, because there was no chorus, no soloists. And no apotheosis. There wasn't even a paltry dedication. It was just music, which Stalin didn't understand very well and which was of dubious content ... I couldn't write an apotheosis to Stalin, I simply couldn't. I knew what I was in for when I wrote the Ninth.  But I did depict Stalin in music in my next symphony, the Tenth. I wrote it right after Stalin's death, and no one yet guessed what the symphony is about. It's about Stalin and the Stalin years. The second part, the scherzo, is a musical portrait of Stalin, roughly speaking. Of course, there are many other things in it, but that's the basis."

The End of a Long Road to Death: The Fourteenth Symphony – 1969

By the end of Shostakovich's journey, he had come to accept all he had lost.  His expectations for life were of hard, cold reality. His music began to reflect the sentiments of a wise, old man.  Remarkably, even up to the very end of the battle, Shostakovich's dignity and will remained intact.

"I wrote a number of works reflecting my understanding of the question, and as it seems to me, they're not particularly optimistic works. The most important of them, I feel, is the Fourteenth Symphony; I have special feelings for it. I think that work on these compositions had a positive effect, and I fear death less now; or rather, I'm used to the idea of an inevitable end and treat it as such... from people who claimed to be my friends... They read this idea in the Fourteenth Symphony: 'Death is all-powerful.' They wanted the finale to be comforting, to say that death is only the beginning.  But it's not the beginning, it's the real end, there will be nothing afterward, nothing.”

“I don't protest against death in it, I protest against the butchers who execute people."

The tragic subject matter so typical of Shostakovich's style had no real place in art according to official standards, but Shostakovich was a master at “gift-wrapping.” The incorporation of folk music in Shostakovich’s music was a long Russian tradition that continued, but it became more and more political.  Shostakovich would incorporate popular revolutionary songs sung in factories like the “Workers’ Merseillaise,” “Internationale,” and “Varshavianka,” into his works, like the opening of the Eleventh Symphony (1957)

"Revolutionary lyrics were funereal, visionary, accusatory, or menacing, but the tunes were overwhelmingly mournful. As illegal sounds of protest, they had small audiences but they unquestionably deepened and defined radical sentiments of those who sang them. After 1917, as hymns of a Bolshevik religiosity, they nearly drowned out all other forms of public celebratory music."
Nowhere but in Russia have art and music been so firmly bound to the political and social situation, nowhere but in Russia has art been such a substitute for real life, and nowhere but in Russia has the reality of a great country with enormous intellectual potential been so empty and hopeless; these are consequences of fusion of State and society during Soviet time and they cannot be understated. In the Soviet Union music and the arts had to serve one purpose: rouse the masses. One can only imagine the possibilities for Russian music had the lives of Russia's great composers been given the freedom and opportunities to not only survive but thrive freely as those have been given in America.  The conviction and power to move whole countries as well as individuals, contemporaries as well as admirers for hundreds of years to come, comes only through dire necessity. “The flower that blooms in adversity is the rarest and most beautiful of all."[11]

Christina Guibas is a pianist, teacher and master's student at Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is currently studying with Ludmilla Lifson.

[1] Russian for “Holy Fool,” “ the deliberate flouting of society's conventions to serve a religious purpose.” See
[3] Paul Serotsky, writing his socks off, introduces us to Shostakovich's First Symphony.
[4] Solomon Volkov, Ed. Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, As related to and edited by Solomon Volkov. London: Faber & Faber, 1979, 1987. From the footnotes. All following unsourced quotes are from this text, but note that the authenticity of this book is disputed. See
[5] Pravda (Правда) was an important Moscow newspaper, used liberally by the Communist Party. It closed in 1991.
[6] The term for a grim fate under Stalin. This was during what is widely considered the worst of his purges, the Yezhovshchina (ежовщина).
[7] The siege of Leningrad by German forces lasted nearly three years and resulted in the deaths of between one- and five-million lives.
[9] The work made him a star in Russia for its moral message, but audiences in the west were not as receptive, finding it overlong at nearly an hour and a half, and poorly crafted. Alexei Tolstoy’s critical review in Pravda was instrumental in securing its popularity. See
[10] This insult, among others, led in 1948 to the official censure of almost all of Shostakovich's works, starting with the First Symphony. Even works that had been awarded the USSR State Prize were criticized, an unheard-of event.
[11] The Walt Disney Company, “ Mulan”, 1998.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

No Safe Afterlife: Sofia Gubaidulina’s 2nd String Quartet (1987)

Virtually every religious person has an idea in his mind of what awaits him after he dies. Maybe he’s not exactly sure in which afterlife he’ll find himself, but he has an idea of what each possibility would be. But Sofia Gubaidulina, an intensely devout Christian, seemed unsure at least at one point in her life – when she wrote her String Quartet No. 2. In an 8-minute, single-movement piece, she paints a vivid picture of what it would mean to be wrong. It is a thing for any faithful person to fear, that you have found yourself unexpectedly in the unknown. This is a powerful and deeply enigmatic work.

The piece begins with a long solo G lying in place, unhappily unable to move. The note, the soul and the heart of the sound, is pinned in its place, lingering, calmly returning from its storms to our consciousness, and it’s all that the other sounds can do to change the character of that one note, as they come in and out with different force, tone and vibrato. The strings use every trick they have, every possible effort to break free: the strings play over the fingerboard, over the bridge, with ultra-wide vibratos and with fast tremolos. They don’t succeed. The note does not change beyond a small range; the music is here, in this one time and place; bed-rested, but with all the color of life, vivacious, forceful, and conscious, and captive.

We know this world. We experience the frustrations and satisfactions - the condition of life is that our desires aren’t always realized. They are the normal, everyday rules of existence, and so reflects the music: it is at heart predictable and understandable, pleasant or not. We know this struggle. And this is why the next events are so important.

By the third minute of the piece, the intensity and need for freedom becomes unbearable, and something shocking happens at 2:50 – There are suddenly different notes! The G hasn’t escaped; these are outsiders. And it’s not only the notes themselves, but also the sound: they’re played with the beautiful sustained string sound one expects to hear from a professional quartet, instead of the more abrasive tremolos and accents. The agitation only gets worse, and the need for escape is now desperate. That half-step is long gone, and one might wonder if it was ever heard at all, but it was, and it is a harbinger.

That last minute-and-a-half strikes me so directly that I can only think that someone, Gubaidulina herself perhaps, has died after the long, bed-ridden struggle we witnessed. The pained last gasps end at 3:12, and when the old light finally goes out, a new one alights.

At 3:20, everything changes. We find ourselves standing lower than we did, on the D below the old G, a few seconds later, that half-step appears again, in the cello. It starts on F-sharp, the major third above D, and changes to F-natural, the minor third. Traditionally, these are loaded intervals that can signify happiness and stability in the former, and darkness and uncertainty in the latter. 

We can’t be sure what that interval means. But how calm it is! Events are happening slowly, so they aren’t frenetic; even the tremolo parts seem more relaxed. The events themselves are at ease now, but the careful listener is not. At 3:32 did you notice the long slide up the cello strings? Or the pizzicatos at 3:40? Or what about the first violin playing a perfect fifth, and then a high tritone, above the D-floor? And a harmonic in the viola at 3:48! We’ve only been in this new reality for 30 seconds, and already these sounds are unlike anything we heard in the beginning, in life. What is going on?

A thought occurs to me: maybe that half-step we heard earlier was an angel, a vision of what would come. The thought is dashed when even that half-step sound we heard earlier becomes corrupted; it’s not what we thought it was, or what we were led to believe it would be. And remember the sustained notes? Now there are two of them right on top of each other. That is not stability, and it is not a firm grounding in the physical realm. To make matters worse, the “ground” we were standing on, flimsy as it was, is now moving! Vertigo takes us in full force now.

At 4:46, we get a break, a nice breath of the fresh air that is the major third. It takes a bit, but it resolves to its minor third the way it was supposed to happen. Maybe we were overreacting earlier. Yet the relationship between all the string instruments is changing: listen to the ghostly wails of the strings, beginning at 5:07 – they’re speaking to each other in a language we can’t understand. It’s beautiful, and it’s unnerving.

I don’t know where we are, do you? Still, everything is fairly calm. It doesn’t really feel like we’re in imminent danger. And we do recognize one feature of the landscape, since we’ve seen it a few times now: that half-step. It’s never quite the same, and we don’t know what or who it is, but at least it’s a familiar face.

At 5:50 the ground begins to move again, taking us with it against our will. The lines just rise, for no obvious reason or motivation. And they’re speaking to each other again. We’re strangers here, without any bearings.

But we can step back and admire this strange, incomprehensible beauty. Listen as at 7:10 the harmonics come out like stars in the night sky. Still calm, still changing, still different from the world we knew, but it’s beautiful in its way, and the differences are at least becoming more familiar, maybe even pleasant. Wherever we are, it’s alright. Right?

I hope so, because the next and last thing we hear is fate pounding the nails into our coffin and sealing us here for eternity. And I feel a breeze that chills me to the bone. I’ll bet you do, too.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Hidden Americans

“To evade the bondage of system and habit, of family maxims, 
class opinions, and, in some degree, of national prejudices; to 
accept tradition only as a means of information, and existing facts
only as a lesson used in doing otherwise, and doing better; to 
seek the reason of things for one's self, and in one's self alone; to
tend to results without being bound to means, and to aim at the 
substance through the form;—such are the principal characteristics
of what I shall call the philosophical method of the Americans.”
          —Alexis de Tocqueville

In 1833, freshly returned from his tour of the United States and penning his magnum opus, De la démocratie en Amerique, the young Tocqueville weighed what he had learned from the peoples and institutions of this young society, sifted and synthesized his experiences, and derived from them these words. It is a remarkable sentence that must have cost him considerable effort. To pierce through the complexities and contradictions of a nation in flux, to seize an essential from the heart of the maelstrom—this is no mean feat. Staggering, too, is the fact that, nearly two centuries later, the “method” described by Tocqueville would be considered by many Americans an entirely accurate insight into the core of American thought.

Tocqueville speaks of what were, in the mid 19th century, revolutionary ideas: self-reliance, self-culture, a pragmatic, skeptical view of history and traditions; as of 2012, an American who praises these values—now integral strands in the fabric of American cultural identity—would hardly be regarded as unusual or subversive. Were we to look to current American political discourse, we would indeed concede their primacy in the pantheon of American values; from the staunchest of conservatives to the most daring of reformers, no shortage of praise is lavished upon the “philosophical method of the Americans”. Judging solely by this, we might well believe that the US has become the society that Emerson envisioned when he wrote “We will walk with our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds.”

Perhaps not. Under analysis, of course, the relationship of self-reliant values to the everyday details of American society appears deeply troubled. But through the course of American history has stretched a nearly unbroken thread of individuals who epitomize the values Tocqueville described, and which Emerson so powerfully and positively articulated. They are artists, musicians, writers and philosophers. Many were born in the United States; many, perhaps most, sought learning outside of the accepted educational paths and beyond European-American culture. All insisted upon independence in thought and act and admonished others to trust in the veracity of their own beliefs in the face of popular dissent. But the strange fate of these artists has been to inhabit a world of paradox: while their lives and work seem to have been guided by exactly those values ostensibly beloved by American society, they have been, on the whole, ignored or rejected by this society.

The characteristic experiences, choices and ideas of these individuals will be our theme. Let us first try to state, in very general terms, the core principles connoted by these experiences and choices, before considering the lives of several individual artists in detail.[1]


1. Self-reliance and its corollaries—self-education, independence of thought, self-culture—are the first and perhaps primary principles we must formulate. Since Emerson's resounding Ne te quæsiveris extra announced the arrival of his monumental “Self-Reliance”[12], this concept has been an essential value of the American artist. We should briefly state what we mean by this value.

By ‘self-reliance’, I mean a belief in the value and integrity of one's own thoughts, creations and actions in absence of external approval. It means, as Emerson argues, a rejection of outside authority as a carte blanche source of knowledge, and of all impulses toward conformity: “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. Nothing at last is sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”[3] It further entails what we might call today the ‘DIY ethic’: a pragmatic emphasis on accomplishing goals using immediate, personal resources, and without outside assistance.

‘Self-education’ is a corollary of self-reliance. As I understand it, the principle of self-education holds that the primary agent in learning should be one's self; that knowledge can and should be sought without external frameworks or curricula, through experience, reading, and the internal dialectical processes of reason. By the entailed value of ‘independent thought’, I mean the perspective that the products of one's mind should not be rejected for contradicting accepted belief, and that no external belief is to be accepted unless, after rigorous analysis, it appears to be in agreement with the facts one believes to be true.

2. The artist in America has always been eclectic: while American culture as a whole has frequently looked to Europe for “cultural education”, the artists who are the subject of our discussion have never been so constricted. They have generally shared the sentiments of Emerson, who wrote: “There is nothing but is related to us, nothing that does not interest us”.[4] From the above, we should not find this surprising.

If we emphasize the capability of the individual to pursue knowledge guided by her own needs and interests, we must also expect her to seek sources of information when (in historical time) and where (in cultural space) she sees fit. An eclectic individual therefore learns from a wide range of sources, both from within her own culture and time period and from beyond it. She is relativistic: she does not recognize one canon of tradition, one cultural perspective, one aesthetic model, etc., but many; she is also pragmatic, recognizing no obligation to accept any of them entirely.

3. It is difficult to find a satisfactory term for the next principle, which I shall reluctantly call pragmatism.[5] It is a belief in the essential uniformity of the physical world, the equal value of the domestic and the exotic. It is at the heart of John Cage's belief in the equal beauty of sounds, of Herman Melville's pursuit of philosophic truth on a whaling vessel, and of Emerson's ‘transcendentalism’.

By ‘pragmatism’ I mean a belief that no location in space or time is possessed of greater inherent beauty, creative fertility or ‘spirituality’, and that, because of this essential uniformity, it is not necessary to pursue happiness, beauty, or individual development at any specific location in time or space—“centers of tradition”, places of great physical beauty, etc. As applied to art, a pragmatic view rejects the idea that some subjects are, per se, more fitting material for artistic creation than others.

Having, I hope, given a more precise idea of what I assert to be the “core principles” of the artist in America, we will now consider five artists who, I believe, clearly illustrate these principles applied in life and art.


The first artists we will consider were active in a young America—a society very much in search of an identity, torn between European and domestic models of painting and literature. I have selected the novelist and poet Herman Melville (1819–1891), and the painter and engraver Winslow Homer (1836–1910).
Herman Melville
Herman Melville spent the 5 years between his 21st birthday and the publication of his first novel sailing as an enlisted man on whaling ships, and never attended a university; as his own Ishmael famously declared, a “whale-ship” was Melville's “Yale College and his Harvard”. The subject matter of Melville's first writings, Typee and Omoo, was derived from his experiences among the peoples of the South Pacific islands; Moby-Dick deals with the experiences of an enlisted sailor aboard a Nantucket whaling vessel and The Confidence Man with events taking place during a Mississippi steamboat voyage; the novella Bartleby the Scrivener takes place in the bustling world of Wall Street traders. Melville shunned both the standard locales of European fiction and the overstuffed domesticity of popular “American” literature.

This insistence on the pursuit of personal ideals of beauty, however, came at a great cost to Melville. His earliest novels were well-received as popular adventure stories, but neither the public nor any elite literary societies opened their arms to the author of Moby-Dick and Pierre; having lost his talent to please, Melville found these dark, philosophical works ignored and even cited as evidence of mental illness.[6] Drifting into obscurity during his later years, rejected entirely by publishers, and forced to make his living as a customs inspector, Melville published his new poetic works independently and despite almost complete indifference from readers.
Winslow Homer

Like Melville, Winslow Homer received little formal training in his chosen art form. Working as a commercial lithographer, Homer discovered his love of visual art and soon quit to pursue this interest. After a brief academic introduction to oil painting, Homer seems to have developed his unique approach almost entirely on his own, writing that “From the time I took my nose off that lithographic stone, I have had no master, and never shall have any.” Known for his idiosyncratic choice of subjects, Homer's early works depict casual sporting events, Civil War camp life, agriculture, and Adirondack pioneer life in a style which owed little to contemporary European models.

As he developed toward the monumental works of his later career, the painter turned away from human events to seek models of beauty in the rough Maine wilderness. Sometimes referred to as the “Yankee Robinson Crusoe”, Homer spent the last 28 years of his life in self-imposed seclusion, focusing almost entirely on the scenery of his rough environment in the massive outpouring of works during these years.
Homer's work was unpopular for much of his life time; while some critical acclaim gained him respect in the art world, his work was generally dismissed by the public. Much more popular were the fashionable paintings of Homer's contemporary John Singer Sargent, who devoted himself primarily to depicting the plush world of Transatlantic society figures. Despite his constant financial instability, the stripped-down amenities of Homer's Maine life enabled him—with some assistance—to devote himself to his art.

Winslow Homer - Summer Squall (1904)

*       *       *

Let us now jump ahead nearly a century, to New York City in the mid 20th century. It is a very difficult task to choose two artists from this remarkable time to fuel the discussion at hand; I have chosen two composers, both of whom contributed mightily to the musical world of New York: Morton Feldman and John Cage.

Before discussing these composers, a remark or two is in order concerning the musical climate of this time in America. During the 1930's and 40's, the music of modern European composers—especially Arnold Schoenberg—was brought to America by a wave of composers and performers fleeing the rise of Nazism[7], among them Béla Bartók, Ernst Krenek, and Schoenberg himself. This music was (and remains) controversial—the words most commonly associated with it were “dissonant” and “angular”—and unpopular with all but a small group of musicians and listeners. Of these, the composers invigorated by the new European music experienced widespread rejection; the mainstream of American “classical” music, represented by composers like Aaron Copland, was dismissive of this music, and concert audiences were almost unanimously hostile. We should keep this in mind.

The elder of the two composers, John Cage (1912–1992), initially pursued a college career but quickly rejected what he saw as the conformist tendencies of university education. Cage memorably recounts the catalytic event in his departure:
“I was shocked at college to see one hundred of my classmates in the library all reading copies of the same book. Instead of doing as they did, I went into the stacks and read the first book written by an author whose name began with Z. I received the highest grade in the class. That convinced me that the institution was not being run correctly. I left.”[8]
Traveling far afield from his native California[9], first throughout the Western US and then to Europe and North Africa, Cage began to write music and returned to America in 1932 a committed composer. Studying music omnivorously, Cage became fascinated both with the music of Schoenberg (with whom he studied for two years) and with the music of Java and India. An obsessive experimentalist, the young Cage evolved quickly as a composer; he wrote works for unorthodox instruments (Water Walk), complex composition cycles structured around Indian philosophical concepts (Sonatas and Interludes), and pioneering live electronic music (Imaginary Landscape no. 4).

A developing interest in Zen Buddhist philosophy led Cage to reject virtually all of the premises of European music and to emphasize the value of music as a purposeless, meditative experience. His works increasingly relied on chance as a compositional element (reflecting his devoted study of I Ching), a choice which alienated him from many of his American and European contemporaries. Major performance opportunities of the 1950's were frequently sabotaged by performers or audiences unwilling to take the music seriously (like the disastrous debut of his Concert for Piano and Orchestra, when members of the New York Philharmonic ruined the piece's electronic setup and ignored Cage's score[10]); Cage frequently found himself with only a few core supporters and without the reputation or finances necessary, in the US, to secure performances of his new works. The economic fallout of this alienation was significant, and Cage's living remained precarious until the final years of his life.

John Cage

Despite this, Cage composed vast quantities of music between the 1960's and his death in 1992. His output extended beyond music, as well; in essays, poetry, and lectures, Cage called for the relinquishing of control in all arenas of life and art, citing Thoreau and Zhuangzi as his philosophical models. Harshly critical of US policy, he called for the abolition of the American presidency and of all forms of coercive government. In music, too, he advocated an anarchic, egalitarian view in which no sound was to be regarded as aesthetically more valuable than another, and where hierarchies of sounds (such as traditional theories of line and harmony) were instead heard as coincidental relationships of equal elements.
John Cage - Freeman Etudes (1990)

*       *       *

Compared to John Cage's life of constant travel and eclectic inspiration, the first thing we must remark about Morton Feldman (1926–1987) is the introspective, rooted character of his life. Feldman was born in Brooklyn to a Russian-Jewish family; though intending for him to work in the family garment business (which he did, for all but the last 14 years of his life), his parents provided Feldman with the opportunity to study both piano and composition privately. His voracious interests in music and literature, however, led him away from mainstream education (“It never occurred to me to go to a university”[11]); learning primarily by example, Feldman immersed himself in the music of Edgard Varèse, Arnold Schoenberg, Anton von Webern, and John Cage, then, later, in the work of New York painters Phillip Guston, Robert Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning—these artists were, Feldman wrote, “my graduate school”.
Morton Feldman
As a composer, Feldman developed a very personal approach: determined to write music guided solely by his own sensibilities, Feldman rejected all systems of composition as obstacles to achieving his internal musical needs. Focusing on the physical sound of his music rather than the means of producing it, Feldman would not be bound to one technical approach. It is important to understand exactly how non-conformist such a philosophy was: for a composer writing in a time and place saturated with the arcane technical innovations of modern music—a world that had, in Feldman's words, “given system a new prestige”—to put complete faith in his own values, and to write music unjustified by process, was a daring choice.

A prolific writer, Feldman was critical of prominent European composers (especially Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen), and deeply scornful of those American composers whom he regarded as Europhile imitators. In his article “Boola Boola”, Feldman launched a scorching attack on the American “academic avant-garde”, represented by serialist composers like Milton Babbitt and Donald Martino; while it deserves to be quoted at length, one corrosive line captures the sentiment of the piece: “Have you ever looked into the eyes of a survivor from the composition department of Princeton or Yale? He is on his way to tenure, but he's a drop-out in art.”[12]

Feldman's rejection of the academic world cost him many performance opportunities; as of 2012, only a few of his works for larger ensembles have been performed, and the extreme demands (with regard to stamina) of his later works created additional barriers to his popularity. Financially speaking, Feldman's supporting himself with his music was never a feasible proposition; fortunately, he seems to have been entirely happy working in his parents' coat factory, a job he held until 1973, when he accepted a professorship at the University of Buffalo[13]—an ironic choice, I might add, for a composer who had spent much of his life railing against academicism.

*       *       *

The last musician I wish to discuss, Anthony Braxton (1945–), is, I believe, one of the most remarkable musicians in America today; his life and work are supremely illustrative of the independence and non-conformity that I have called characteristic of the artist in America.
Anthony Braxton

Anthony Braxton's origins in Chicago[14] brought him into contact early on with the complex improvisational music that owed its origins to Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie—bebop. Studying saxophone and eventually developing a formidable technique on the instrument, Braxton began his musical career playing with jazz groups in Chicago (where he met Sun Ra, a lifelong influence) and New York City; although he studied music at the Chicago School of Music and philosophy at Roosevelt University (in Chicago), Braxton chose not pursue a degree and moved to New York full-time in the early 1970's. There, he came into contact with the music of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Paul Desmond, Warne Marsh, Cecil Taylor, and Albert Ayler, as well as the works of John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Braxton's musical tendencies were highly exploratory, a characteristic which quickly brought him into conflict with the orthodoxies of the New York jazz world; abandoning bebop forms very early in his career, he began to integrate new sonic and formal possibilities into his compositions and playing that placed him on the boundaries of the popular definition of “jazz”. His music, which contained both rigorously determinate notation and scope for individual interpretation and improvisation, reflected his increasingly all-inclusive view of human activity. Albums like For Alto and Four Compositions 1973 were rejected by jazz musicians, audiences and critics, and Braxton found himself alienated from all but the most progressive record labels and performance venues.

Composing prolifically through the late 70's and publishing his massive Tri-Axium Writings and Composition Notes independently, Braxton nevertheless suffered intense financial and psychological hardships; he “lived on Twinkies and Valium” during these difficult years, even dedicating an album to the manufacturer of the tranquilizing drug.[15] Braxton found the European “modern music” scene only slightly more welcoming; rejected by the jazz world for his “classical” tendencies, his European contemporaries regarded him, ironically enough, as too jazz-oriented to be taken seriously as a modern composer. Unable to secure large ensemble performances, Braxton wrote instrument-independent compositions that could be realized with even the most limited means, and focused on working with his long-lived quartet.

Now a composition professor at Wesleyan, Braxton's music is more frequently performed, and his financial circumstances have (one supposes) stabilized. However, his isolated status as an artist between categories has not changed; though revered in experimental and new music circles in New York and Europe, Braxton and his work still have not received recognition from mainstream jazz and classical venues and institutions in America, and is generally unknown to American listeners outside the Northern East coast.


As inadequate as this selection of biographical information is, the similar affinity of these artists for the values of self-reliance, eclecticism, and pragmatism is clear. The art, life choices, and philosophies of these five men differ immensely; in their demand for independence with regard to each of these categories, though, they are unanimous. Each is a powerful example of the individual who pursues his own objectives at complete odds with the external world, and with himself as sole guide and master. Trust in the value of one's own creations finds a powerful model in Morton Feldman's conviction and scorn for theoretical crutches, and Anthony Braxton's refusal to adapt his music to a narrow category. No better example of pragmatic acceptance occurs to me than Cage's near-religious insistence on the beauty of the immediate, the mundane, and the unwanted. The years of self-imposed isolation undergone by Homer and Melville evoke the image of Thoreau feeling his way to Walden in the dead of night. Looking beyond our few examples, we find that these experiences, these beliefs, are by no means atypical of the artist in America.

I have said that the principles under discussion have been called quintessential “American” values, and have been associated with American culture since the time of Jefferson and Paine. If these are indeed ‘American’ values, then we must consider these artists to be among the most ‘American’ individuals in history.

What then, are we to make of the rejection and alienation they suffered in the US? None of the artists we have discussed enjoyed (or are enjoying) anything like widespread popularity during their lifetimes; financially, most struggled to secure even the basic material necessities of life. Seeking, among the halls of American history, scenes of an American public placing laurels on the brows of the self-reliant non-conformist, we instead enter a dark gallery, hung with tableaus of a different tenor indeed: of Melville in his New York apartment, ridiculed as insane, laboring over poems that went unpublished or ignored; of Braxton, collecting wood to burn for his family, after returning from a European tour to a house without electricity. On the whole, these images present no great contrast to the life-scenes of the artist of Europe, or of any other culture where the mantra of “individual independence” is not incessantly trumpeted. Perhaps we must echo Melville when he writes:

“Our New World bold
Had fain improved upon the old;
But the hemispheres are counterparts.”[15]

This, then, is the paradox of the artist in America, of the individuals who exhibited their belief in self-reliance, independent thought, and the value of the immediate, yet found themselves internal exiles in a society fond of endlessly declaring its allegiance to those same values. The paradox is easily solved if we admit that these declarations are mere lip service, their emptiness revealed by the experiences of the artist in America. This society has worshipped independence in the arts only long after the fact. After the work of an original artist has become popularly accepted—that is, as soon as it no longer requires the expression of an unconventional, independent opinion to praise him—American society flocks to the altar. In the present, it saves its laurels for the accessible artists who flatter its sensibilities and leave its dogmatic slumbers undisturbed.

I shall close, however, on a more positive note. Though America, as a whole, has shown little regard for the values of intellectual self-reliance, the example of these artists and thinkers, who stretch in an unbroken thread from Emerson to the present day, should council us not to consider these principles dead. They are the carriers of an American culture that bears little resemblance to the majority culture of the United States, and which has been ignored and execrated by its massive cousin; nevertheless, its citizens have historically mounted a strong defense against all attempts at assimilation: its insular edifice yet stands. What future generations will regard as the cultural legacy of the United States is still unknown. If we seek truly positive factors in American history, and true embodiments of what were once America's revolutionary values, I can imagine no better future than one in which these individuals—the “hidden Americans”—and their achievements go down as a reminder of what some Americans were, of what the United States might have been, and as a testament to the dignity of the self-reliant individual.

1. A person's biography should not be forced to appear as an instantiation of abstract principles; in this article, I have tried to proceed inductively, to seek similarities among these artists, rather than to force them into the mold, so to speak. I also do not mean to assert that these ‘core principles’ describe some universal truth about artists in America and only in America. Even a cursory glance at some of the lives of artists in Europe, for example, will reveal biographical similarities.
2. The full text of this essay may be found here.
3. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance”.
4. Emerson, “History”.
5. I do not use this term to mean what is meant by it in the works of William James or John Dewey.
6. In 1852, shortly after the publication of Pierre, the New York Day Book published an article bearing the headline “HERMAN MELVILLE CRAZY”: “A critical friend, who read Melville's last book, ‘[Pierre, or the] Ambiguities’, between two steamboat accidents, told us that it appeared to be composed of the ravings and reveries of a madman. We were somewhat startled at the remark, but still more at learning, a few days after, that Melville was really supposed to be deranged, and that his friends were taking measures to place him under treatment. We hope one of the earliest precautions will be to keep him stringently secluded from pen and ink.” (from Wikipedia)
7. The music of Schoenberg and anyone officially labeled as one of his disciples (which, in effect, amounted to anyone writing chromatic, non-harmonic music) was banned as Entartete Musik (“Degenerate Music”) under Nazi rule; the few avant-garde composers (viz. Anton von Webern) who remained in Germany after the rise of Hitler were unable to hold teaching positions and found their compositions barred from performance.
9. I have used Kenneth Silverman's John Cage: Begin Again (Knopf, 2010) for the biographical details of this section.
10. “The seventy or so Philharmonic musicians, their contact microphones attached to a bank of amplifiers, were supposed to play through Cage's piece for eight minutes. Instead, many of them improvised freely, ran through scales, quoted other works, talked, fooled with the electronic devices, or simply sat on stage without playing. ‘They acted criminally’, Cage said, some even stomping on the microphones.” (Silverman, p. 202)
11. Morton Feldman, “Boola Boola”, published in Give My Regards to Eighth Street, B.H. Friedman, ed. (Exact Change, 2000), p. 45
12. Friedman, p. 48
13. All of the information used for this section is from Graham Lock's excellent Forces in Motion: The Music of Anthony Braxton (Da Capo, 1989), or from Wikipedia. As I did not have access to a copy of Lock's book while preparing this manuscript, I have been forced to rely on my memory of certain details. I apologize for any inaccuracies.
14. Lock, p. 137. The album is In the Tradition, Vol. 1, released in 1974.
15. Clarel, IV, 5:61