Saturday, January 24, 2009

First Editions

There is a plainly a bit of class hierarchy among thrift stops - the charity with which a given store is aligned, the inevitable connection between its neighborhood and who donates and shops there and so on. So it is not so noteworthy that I was in a Brooklyn Heights Housing Works rather than the 135 St Harlem Goodwill when I came upon a rather lavish 12-LP collection of 20th century orchestral music, commissioned, recorded and released by the Louisville Orchestra in their 1954-55 season. [What's always irked me is you don't find rare free jazz or even much in the way of good gospel or salsa in the Harlem thrift stores - it's the same old battered Judy Collins records as everywhere else - some sort of conspiracy?]

The Louisville Symphony, though quite long-established, may still not have quite pulled itself into the top 10 U.S. orchestras as measured by however they measure these things, but its decision, taken around 1950, to champion the music of living American composers and start a record label to broadcast it has remained a claim to fame.

The set I bought is packaged in the manner that the phrase "record album" was coined to describe - two boxes with half a dozen paper sleeves bound together on the left, with a vinyl record in each, so you page through to make your selection. The program notes are on separate 12-inch squares of paper, inserted loose into the front of each box.

The actual music - well no one I know including me listens through 24 LP sides of mid-20th century orchestral music in any kind of hurry. The immense diversity of humanity and its artistic production does get a bit overwhelming at times like this. I read through wikipedia articles on relatively obscure composers like Paul Creston and Halsey Stevens, seeking connections with things I know more about and, to be honest, struggling a bit to find anything very compelling in their music. There's lots of sturm und drang: trumpet blare, tympani thunder, contrasting pastoral flute segments, neither cacophonously dissonant but nor, even when they are categorized as neo-romantic, is there much memorable melody to latch on to. Long rich lives - Pulitzer prizes, distinguished careers teaching at USC, writing definitive biographies of Bartok, spouses and children - well, I already said it's a big world.

It is interesting to me that Creston taught composition to the somewhat better known John Corigliano who in turn taught Nico Muhly, who has diversified his own composing with some marvelous string arrangements for the likes of Will Oldham and Björk. Muhly's arrangements on "Cursed Sleep" from Will Oldham's The Letting Go have single-handedly earned my admiration. Between his pop music connections and savviness with regard to myspace and blog use, getting himself interviewed by Pitchfork etc, Muhly stands some chance of bringing this sort of music back to a wider audience. (Note to self: see Carnegie Hall premiere in March?)

So far, the bigger names in this collection, and the ones whose pieces I feel more likely to return to, are Henry Cowell and Alan Hovhaness, who can both be loosely considered in the tradition of "maverick" American 20th century composers (throw in Harry Partch and call Charles Ives their forefather while we're at it), characterized in varying measures by a kind of deliberate experimentation far beyond the modernism of the Second Viennese School, inventing their own instruments and a tendency to bring some mysticism to bear on their aesthetic, yet never rejecting compositional values so firmly as John Cage or the Fluxus composers. Cowell invented the world's first electronic drum machine, pioneered the use of tone clusters on the piano (at times the performer might need to use a whole hand or forearm to strike a large set of notes), was a handsome young man and confused me for a couple of teenage years by having no connection to my favorite avant-garde rock band Henry Cow. And, his first composition teacher was Pete Seeger's father!

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