Thursday, October 05, 2017

Tradition and the avant garde, as seen in 1968

Eastside Road, October 5, 2017—
jUST FOR FUN, and because I've just run across it, a transcription made by I know not who of remarks ad-libbed on Critic's Circle, a review show on the arts I used to participate in at KQED, back when this sort of thing was possible.
It's long.
Charles Shere - CRITICS CIRCLE
April 3, 1968
[transcription of unscripted remarks]

I would like to talk about the PBL [Public Broadcast Laboratory] broadcast of last Sunday night because for the first time PBL give its two hours over entirely to a cultural program — and it gave those two hours to the avant-garde — which is very much, of course, in controversy these days, being only some thirty or forty years old. PBL's program was called Who's Afraid Of The Avant-Garde?: an excessively coy title which I think established PBL's stance toward the subject of its program.
It was never quite sure what its stance was going to be. Television can either act as a recorder, the kind of television that says "let's pretend you're at the Buffalo museum or let's pretend you're at the ball game and we will take you electronically there and you can carry it from there,” or television can act as a participant — and PBL attempted this a couple of times in Sunday night's broadcast.
When it did make this attempt, and when it succeeded, it came up with the most exciting things that it did the entire evening. I'm thinking, for example, of their coverage of Cecil Taylor's jazz group. I'm thinking also of the first coverage of Merce Cunningham's Dance Company, when the television entered and participated in Cunningham's dance and did considerably more than taking you out of your living room and putting you down in the auditorium.
By and large, however, PBL's attitude toward the avant-garde was very much conditioned by what I guess it feared was a recalcitrant audience nationwide; and perhaps that audience is more recalcitrant than we would think, living as we do in the San Francisco Bay Area, an area which is by no means representative of the country as a whole. For example, there were frequent statements on the part of the narrator that the difference between the avant-garde art and normal art was that avant-garde art does not care at all about any kind of representationalism. Taylor's music, for example, it was stressed, had no beat and no recognizable melody. When some underground films were shown, specifically Jonas Mekas’s film Circus, the narrator made a great point of saying that underground.films share the avant-garde prejudice against heroes, against plots, against stories, just as the avant-garde paintings and sculpture is non-representatlonal. It seems to me that there is a reason for this and that this is symptomatic, rather than the end result, of an attitude of the avant-garde artist. I was looking at a copy of a new book which came out recently published by Walker and Company, a book about the French sculptor Raymond Duchamp-Villon, who died in 1918, and in looking through this book it struck me that his career sums up the difficult time in western art which took place at the turn of the nineteenth century. It was a critical turning point, I think, in European history, certainly in the history of European civilization.
It was the transition between the teleological representational attitude of art until then and the new art which is the art of the 20th Century, representing homo ludens, man who plays games, man who is more concerned with the experience and with the integrity of what he is doing, of his activity, than he is with the pre-conceived concept of what kind of goal he is going to find at the end of his activity. In other words, where the nineteenth century and earlier thought of art as being a search with a goal at the end of the search, today's artists like John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Jonas Mekas, all of the people who were touched upon by PBL, are not concerned with what they are going to find at the end of their search… if you can call it a search. They seem to be considerably more concerned with what it is they’re doing while they’re filling the time ….
And I think that there is probably a lesson for all of us in this. I think that civilization gets the art that it gets because it is the civilization that it is. I think that our avant-garde art partakes of this quality partly because today the artist and intellectual, when he realizes it, is a little bit tired of the civilization which is founded upon things, upon works of art which have commercial value, upon having as late a model of car as your neighbor, and this whole sort of thing.
It's still very difficult to talk about avant-garde art and about Dada, its progenitor, because like PBL we tend to lump all of this activity into one bag. To think, for example, of Buckminister Fuller as being avant-garde, to think of Mary Quant, the fashion designer in England of being avant-garde, the same way as John Cage and Merce Cunningham are avant-garde. Of course this is perfectly absurd. There is a great difference between an industrial architect and an avantgarde fashion designer on the one hand and a painter and a musician on the other. And as John Calder says in his introduction to a new book about English happeners, talking about surrealism. "It will quickly lose its sense of identity as an art movement and become a technique to be used to a greater or a lesser extent by dramatists and artists of the future.”
I think this is true of the avant-garde and it’s true of Dada, and I think that programs like last Sunday's PBL, excellent in places and pedestrian in others, will help to accelerate this feeling, will help to accelerate the possibility of all of these phenomena, with the avant-garde being assimilated not only by the artists themselves but also by we the audience, the people whom the artists serve, the people who in the last analysis feed upon and, in turn, nourish the artistic activity itself.

Well, all of this said, I went out to Mills College Sunday night to see what was supposed to be an evening of Dada and about the only Dada on the evening's program were two films, a marvelous film by Hans Richter called Ghosts Before Breakfast, a film made in 1927, and Ferdinand Leger's Ballet Mechanique, a film made in 1924. I think that its greatly to television's credit that things like PBL are doing programs like that of the avant-garde. Certainly television should be reviving these early films, early experimental films and the recent experimental films as well. Television is the perfect medium of making these films an accepted part of our inheritance, just as the Mona Lisa is, for example, or September Morn was fifty years ago. And until this has become a common part of the culture, the importance and vitality of Dada and the avant-garde will be lost on most of us.
At Mills College there were also some musical performances, notably of the Three Miniatures for violin and piano by Krzysztof Penderecki and, before that, the Four Pieces for violin and piano by Anton Webern. These were very sensitively played by Nathan Rubin who was accompanied by Naomi Sparrow (who played, incidentally, the best I've heard her yet). The Webern could not he heard too well because of a marvelous crotchety woman who was in the audience banging her cane on the floor and barking like a dog from time to time. She was, I suppose, the most Dada of them all at Mills College.














Monday, September 25, 2017

Manifesto, 1966

FROM SOME TIME in 1966, this rather breathless and no doubt far too dense summary of what I had then come to believe:

The important things to me as an onlooker having been the sound (in music) the quick immediate appearance (in visuals) or (intermedia) the combination of these always coupled with not the way these final impacts, these appearances, were made (I don't care how it sounds Feldman says Boulez wrote, What I want to know is how was it made) but the way they happen once they have been made inevitably to happen. What it comes down to is an interest, no a concern with process: not techniques of writing/composing/painting/causing inevitably to happen but the objective fact or process or progression from (a point which can never be determined) to (a final position I at least will never fix). Cases in point being the whole Bride, the whole Joyce, the whole dada-surrealism-mid-twentieth century avant garde. The whole Mahler. Any individual Webern. Virtually any one opera. In short, any (apparently) closed microcosm, any closed system. Robbe-Grillet, Marienbsd, Blow-Up, Ionesco, Beckett. Getting lost in one luxuriant paragraph on the island in To The Lighthouse or Patriarchal Poetry or one stanza in The Faerie Queene or a metaphysical poet or wandering in the garden of a composition by Loren Rush or Bob Moran or a painting by Chirico or Magritte or Klee or Vermeer or the wake early in L'Etranger or the word chair in L'Age de raison. Tzara. Conversations with Jon Cott, David Abel, Karlheinz Stockhausen. Performances by Nelson Green, Bob Moran, David Tudor, Toshi Ichiyanagi. Ives: 4th Symphony, piano music, Central Park, Set For Theater Orchestra. Ashley's Frogs. David Goines at work, or Julia Child. This kind of process turns out to be a kind of texture always involving contemplation, but an exploratory kind of contemplation. The activity of absorption. No sort of time process at all. A physical visual impingement surpassing those objectivities set in motion by egos or personalities or intellects, and so we must restrict ourselves to gestures, to activity, to performance, and our reflections must be on the gestures activities & performances. Leave quickly when someone begins a presentation. Everything hard quick & committed, and full full full full. But serene in its vitality & its integrity. And the responses must be quick: no delay. But also no analyzed response, no conditioning: come when you're called, don't bring anything with you. Entities are discrete: constituents disappear within integrated contexts. No viewpoints, no perspective, no beyond, behind, this side or that. An unassailable logic of inevitability is the only teleology to be permitted. Make everything that concerns you an object of your concern, and mind your own business in a businesslike way. And once having committed yourself to that concern, no betrayal of commitment. The subject (of commitment, of concern), being secondary, disappears: cf. The Art (or Process) of Fugue. The agent, having acted, is unnecessary, and withdraws. This is what Dedalus meant by dramatic art. What's left is the process. No room any more for the heroic epic between the objective lyricism which is mood & the lyrical object of process. And having restricted ourselves to the business of being concerned with our gestures our activities our performances, seeing ourselves within the contemplative exploratory luxuriant texture we make of our microcosm. Abandoning a world only when it is fully known; until then returning as often as necessary; but abandoning any world unalterably when it is devoid of surprise. And never offering the insult of familiarity to any living thing (and all things live) but always granting to life the dignity of concern. And maintaining the joy of discovery, and the obligation of continuance, & the vitality: being.

ALL OF WHICH I though I summed up, later, more efficiently if perhaps more opaquely, in this short poem:

David Goines Contemplating the back of an axe.


Monday, September 11, 2017

Doggerel written while driving north

Highway 101, September 11, 2017—

SOMETIMES WHILE DRIVING or riding on these car trips silly verse jumps into my mind:

1.

An ant is on my seat
A moose steps on my feet
A cat nibbles my apple pie
A worm lives in the beet

A crow flies in the sky
A cat nibbles my pie
A dog drinks all the Chinese tea
Six chickens learn to fly

There is no pie for me
A dog drinks all the tea
A fish swims in the goldfish bowl
An owl sits on my knee

Three robbers steal the coal
A fish swims in the bowl
Lions lie on the dusty beach
Under the bridge, a troll

Thank god, they're out of reach
Those lions on the beach
You know it isn't very far
Please, may I have a peach

Cows fly up to the star
It isn't very far
There must be something dreadful wrong
My shoes are full of tar

We have to end this song
I think there's something wrong
Whatever you may think you think
It has gone on too long

2.

The cat's at the whisky, the mice at the rum!
The carpenter's clawhammer's beat up his thumb!
Little Jack Horner can't get at his plum!
Calamity! Catastrophe!

The children have mostly been fed to the bears!
Aunt Martha chokes while putting on airs!
Grandfather, drunk again, falls down the stairs!
Catastrophe! Calamity!

Those mischievous boys have derailed the train!
The surgeon's knife slips while inspecting a brain!
The turkeys all drown looking up at the rain!
Calamity! Catastrophe!

An elephant's eaten our favorite plants!
Apes have intruded and spoiled the dance!
The firemen have rushed off, forgetting their pants!
It's a Calamity!

Thieves stole all the instruments, left just one gong!
All the band's music sounds terribly wrong!
Everything's off, nothing seems to belong!
Calamity! It's a Catastrophe!

Trump's in the White House, and Ryan and Mitch
Make our eyelids break into a nervous twitch!
And the Press has worked up to a fever pitch —
Calamity! It's a real Catastrophe!

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Back to the desk

Eastside Road, August 27, 2017—

Ali A. Rizvi: The Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason
New York: St. Martin's Press,
2016
ISBN 978-1-250-09444-5
pp. 226     read 8/24/17

Frans de Waal: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?
New York: W.W. Norton & Co.,
2016
ISBN 978-1-250-09444-5
pp. 275     read 8/26/17
THE LAST FEW MONTHS have not been the best, as readers of this blog — and particularly the other one — will have suspected. I'm not complaining: plenty of others have it a great deal worse. It's largely a matter, I suppose, of aging: I've just gone past 82.

Nor is it simply a matter of fatigue, lack of stamina, and a chronic backache, serves me right for always suspecting those who announce that complaint of malingering. Nor is it only the political situation, extremely depressing — I am convinced we are on our way to dictatorship, perhaps a new form of it with puppet congress and courts, and publicly owned lands and other goods (museums, libraries, post offices) turned over to private business. Perhaps even the military.

So I've taken a vacation of sorts from the blogs, spending my time on baseball games (only a couple of them live in ball park) and writing. (The last two posts here offered you peeks at the process.) This has occasioned reading through pocket calendars, journals, and reviews from the 1960s and '70s, and the difference between those times and the present has been striking to say the least. To bring me back to the present, two books caught my eye in the last week or two.

Ali Rizvi's The Atheist Muslim: A Journey from Religion to Reason was recommended somewhere online, I no longer recall where. (I haven't been keeping up with my usual book review sites: The Nation, NYRB, and so on.) The title promised a good fit to the mood I've been in since the election. Dedicated readers of mine may recall my writing last April about this:

Belief, faith, knowledge : I began this month’s musings planning to contemplate my feelings about religion: past and permanence, decay and defiance, self and society, faith and belief, fact and facticity, life and death. Maladjustment of my own cells has made me more than normally aware of mortality. And what have the trams and ruins of Rome brought me to contemplate? Cats and garbage heaps on which grain had taken root over the years. Gardens and palazzi ; conversations with strangers; public behavior; the embrace of family; a toy boat; a pile of broken pots. The events and detritus of everyday life, in short. Nothing special, but constant reminders that there are things we see and so believe we know, transactions we share and so know we feel, concepts (and constructs) we hear or read about and so strive to understand. And I keep coming back to Montaigne: Que sais-je, What do I know?

Rizvi's book is far from perfect (I am hardly the writer to complain of imperfect books), but I think it is worth reading; perhaps even imperative reading in these times. Born in Pakistan, brought up in Libya and Saudi Arabia before moving with his parents to Canada and the United States, he observed the doctrinaire Muslim culture of Saudi Arabia from a protected position as the son of professionals living in a protected enclave.

This did not prevent his close reading of Quran and hadith, the twin written foundations of Islam. The internal contradictions in those writings, and their uneasy applicability to life in a post-Rationalist world, set him on the course described by his subtitle: a (personal) journey from religion to reason. Rizvi is a physician, hence a scientist; and he holds Islam — and Judaism and Christianity — up to a scientist's skepticism. As I myself think we must all do in these times when the inherently authoritative desert monotheisms seem increasingly at war, figuratively and literally, with contemporary society as it has evolved.

After a couple of hundred pages describing his own growing rejection of Islam, in the course of which Rizvi cites scripture as well as personal experience, he comes to the point: the solution to much of the present war in the Middle East — and the growing problems in the US with radically fundamentalist Christianity, though that's a bit outside the scope of his book — is reformation. He suggests a four-step process: Rejection of scriptural inerrancy, Reformation, Secularism, and Enlightenment.

But even the first step is dauntingly difficult in societies whose very identity — and whose individuals participate in this identity — is bound from birth with a sacred text. Muslims may be fundamentalist, lax, or even (as in Rizvi's case) atheist (or at least agnostic), but they are Muslims because of their common cultural grounding in Quran and hadith. It took Christianity some 1600 years to reach the Enlightenment, and a lot of blood was spilled along the way; there's no reason to think the path will be any easier for Islam.


IT WAS A RELIEF to turn from "faith" and "belief" to cognition — scientifically verifiable examples of memory, invention, and reason. Even if the examples were not from the doings of men and women, religious or not, but those of other primates, of octopodes and dolphins, of elephants and corvids. When I was a boy it was taken as fact that the lower animals were incapable of reason, of language, even of feeling pain. De Waal's book persuades otherwise, relying on his own experience with primates and the work of colleagues and forerunners in this fascinating field.

Much changed in that work over the last few decades, beginning with the suspension of the axiom that we humans are an essentially different and nobler animal than all the others. Observations in the wild (think Goodall) and experimentation in the laboratory revealed, once that prejudice was relinquished, that all animals communicate and many understand, or at least work with, memory, even with the concept of futurity. Such social animals as chimpanzees and bonobos, elephants and whales clearly have evolved language skills and evidence of economic and political methodology.

De Waal is a scientist and does not take up the question of religion. Perhaps this is the one thing that separates us humans from the other animals. I like to think that in this respect they may have evolved beyond us, to a stable point in their own evolution which dispenses with religion. Or perhaps Homo sapiens has evolved to need religion in order to externalize the intrinsic tribalism he shares with certain other apes, to justify irrational action when he knows better. We may hope for another book from de Waal:

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart WE are?

Friday, August 18, 2017

from Calls and Singing, for chamber orchestra

1968: from Calls and Singing

Note beginning the pocket calendar for 1968:  

and, later in the calendar,

do string orchestra piece on E, Ab, C: for music for orchestra?

write a piece like a football game. Players come in, go out, carry signals etc.

make a piece which gradually becomes metric — approaches a drive

make a piece with overlapping variable ostinati of various styles

Paul Freeman, a young conductor then directing the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, asked me to write a new piece for a concert that would also feature a work by Heuwell Tircuit, then a music critic (one of three or four!) on the San Francisco Chronicle. (I had met Paul earlier at a master class for conductors led by Richard Lert; I think we televised it.) For some time I couldn’t imagine what I could provide for a small chamber orchestra, lacking trombones, and percussion, until Nelson Green, visiting one day, pointed out that I could provide whatever I wanted to. This broke the mental block and the result, from Calls and Singing, was the second orchestral piece (after my Small Concerto) that I managed to hear played. 

The score bears an epigraph, from Gertrude Stein’s A Sonatina followed by another: “Call to me with frogs and birds and moons and stars. Call me with noises. Mechanical noises.” The score was as much calligraphy as notation, and David Goines lovingly printed it for me in an edition of a number of copies. Paul conducted clock-style; the strings of his orchestra played overlapping washes of melody; woodwinds and brass alternated between conventional sounds and “extended technique” like playing without mouthpieces, or using only the reeds, or playing harmonicas or taxi horns. I thought the result quite beautiful, and so I suppose did Paul, for he  repeated it a few years later with the Detroit Symphony on a special concert, drawing contemptuous reviews from a local critic or two.

from Calls and Singing (the lower-case initial letter is intended, though difficult to force: the idea was to suggest an absent because inexpressible opening) continued the indeterminacy of Nightmusic but added physical separation to the mix. It begins, for example, with the orchestral tuning (an idea from Stockhausen, I think), and much of the time the wind-players are wandering among the audience. It is, though, in general a gentle piece, and everyone seemed to like it, even Heuwell


See the complete 12 pages of score as a pdf here

Monday, August 14, 2017

Getting on with the memoir

A  FEW READERS have responded to the previous post, offering a draft version of the first section of a new memoir, with comments and in some cases welcome corrections or suggestions. Many thanks to them.

Herewith, part two, covering 1967 to 1972, when I was working at KQED while tapering off work at KPFA. This was an intense and interesting time: the 1960s were winding down, and so were freewheeling broadcasting, open-form music and play-for-nothing new music concerts, and the marginal gallery scene. I don’t suppose we knew it at the time, but increased commercialization and the reach to bigger audiences was about to change everything that seemed to interest me, at the same time that our children were growing into their teens and Chez Panisse opened (in 1971), quite changing family dynamics.

Once again I make a DRAFT pdf of this memoir available. It runs to 85 pages, 1.3 MB of data. It is only a draft; more illustrations will be added as well as expansions of descriptions of people and places — and, I hope, responses to your comments and suggestions.

Read and download Part Two HERE
Read and download Part One HERE

And remember: this is not for distribution, only for single-person use; and I may well take the material down after it has served its purpose.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

memoir

I HAVE BEEN BUSY writing further in my memoir — "further," because I've already published a volume covering my first thirty years.

Getting There. Ear Press, 2007; 212 pages. Growing up in Berkeley, 1935-1945, and on a hardscrabble farm in Sonoma county, 1945-1952; college in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Berkeley; early marriage and children; beginning to learn about Modernism, writing, and the composition of music. ISBN 978-0-6151-5935-5 Available from Lulu 1487909, pb $20 (e-book $9.99, Lulu 18655161, iBookstore), or from such websites as Amazon.com

I've completed a first draft of the next volume, which runs from 1964 on to 1974 — years when I was on staff at KPFA and KQED, when I began teaching at Mills College, and began writing for the Oakland Tribune. This will probably run to 250 pages or so in print, and be subdivided into four main sections:

1: KPFA, 1964-1967
2: KQED, 1967-1972
3: Juggling Jobs, 1972-1974
4: In print, 1974-1976

As I've been working on this I've been struck by what an interesting time those years were, perhaps especially in the San Francisco Bay Area. I write about KPFA and my work there, of course, but also about family life, my musical composition, the musicians and others I got to know — and Berkeley as a backdrop.

But I may be overly enthusiastic. After giving some thought to the idea, I've decided to make the first section available as a pdf on my website. Interested readers can download it by clicking here where it should appear as a PDF running to 76 pages.

I ask that these pages not be printed out, or, if so, not distributed. I welcome any suggestions or corrections. And I reserve the right to take the pdf down from my website as time goes by…

And do let me know if you cannot find or download the pdf.