Thursday, November 08, 2018

Looking back: "Notes to a contextual ars musicae"

IN 1964, not yet (quite) thirty, I tried to work out an approach to discussing music. Writing about music, maybe talking about music, thinking about music.

That year I was studying music privately — composition with Robert Erickson, conducting with Gerhard Samuel. A modest gift from a wonderful woman who'd been taking lessons on the recorder from me made it possible to devote that entire year to music.

I had studied English literature at UC Berkeley, graduating in 1960, and had thought of various ways of turning that degree into a career. I tried graduate work in library science, then in secondary education, but neither graduate school nor high-school teaching appealed to me — I think without my knowing it music was shouldering everything else aside.

That year, 1964, my younger brother somehow was given editorship of the UC Graduate Student Journal, and he asked me if I had anything to contribute. I decided, I suppose, that it was time to put my thoughts down on paper. I had been reading the criticism of local concerts in the newspapers — in those days the San Francisco Examiner had two music critics, the Chronicle three, the Oakland Tribune one — and was not satisfied with their coverage, particularly of contemporary music.

Published music criticism, as far as I could see, knew only one kind of music: that based on the conventional tonal system reflected by composers from Bach through Mahler. The rare review dealing with 12-tone music might or might not have reflected knowledge of that "system." No critic, with the possible exception of Alfred Frankenstein in the Chronicle, was attentive to the avant garde.

Critical thinking had been latent in my college studies of literature, but rarely discussed directly in any of these undergraduate courses. It may be that it was only in my final weeks at Cal, in the summer session of 1960, when I was finally required to take the freshman course English 1B of all things, that the subject was discussed — I don't recall much of that class now, other than occasional conversations with the instructor, Frederic Crews, a fairly recent hire only two years older than me.

I'm not exactly sure when I wrote this essay. I do remember that it was partly written as parody of academic writing — the sort of thing I found unattractive in graduate school. Looking it over now, though, for the first time since it was written, I'm not too embarrassed. It's a bit dense and should probably have been expanded. I never went further with it — except that its process and definitions no doubt underlay my approach from then on as a music critic. I regret only that something kept me from sending it to my colleagues at the time, among whom only Robert Commanday seemed to bring a background of professional study to the work.

You can read this "Notes to a Contextual Ars Musicae" here. I've cleaned it up just a little, left the marginal headings so thoughtfully allowed by the original typesetters, and added a short afterword. I make it available with thanks to my brother Jim, who may have fuller recollection of those distant days.

No comments: