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The Western Uncanonical (tribute to Harold Bloom)

Harold Bloom

The Western Uncanonical (tribute to Harold Bloom)

7 November 2019 / William Anderson / On the Beat, Compositions, composers, How to Talk about Music
Jotting some notes here that will have to be edited and focused in the fullness of time.
Links to sound or video are in the works.

I consulted with Harold Bloom

when preparing for Cygnus’ RW Emerson bicentennial celebration.

In the end, Bloom did not host our Emerson event. His friend John Hollander did that, and John Hollander and I talked about our project with Lenny Lopate, on his WNYC radio show.

Bloom’s writing can be difficult, but over time, it gradually becomes easier as one masters his terms.

Since our first telephone conversations, I stayed in touched with Professor Bloom and occassionally asked his opinions about this or that.

Most recently, just a few months ago, I asked him about Zadel Barnes’ (Djuna’s mother’s)


Meg: A Pastoral


I find it alluring. John Greenleaf Whittier wrote: “I can only compare it with Milton’s Lycidas; it is worthy of any living poet at least.” I was excited to see if HB had encountered it. He hadn’t. I sent him a link, excited.

He got right back to me: “dreadful beyond belief”.

Harold Bloom wrote many successful books, including a book called The Western Canon. He wrote another book entitled The Anxiety of Influence. Is new music about speculations in a future canonical music? Only in part, and perhaps very little, especially at this moment. There is much fun to be had in the now, in picaresque ephemera. (Murakami speaks of “shovelling cultural snow”.) Reversions to the norm are likely when no one gives a damn about the past.

Gloss on the Western Canon–
Borges compiled a list of belovéd books, Bloom made a canon. The classics are the gold standard, contend with the classics. Troubador poetry attained remarkable independence from the classics. The Pre-Raphaelites celebrate and revive that authentic European culture, weaned from the classics, their aims align surprisingly with the Symbolists. Harold Bloom lays out a complex value system, his approach to what survives and why. I find it comparable to a thorough appreciation of music’s trajectory with some attention to the technical front. Bloom understands every kind of trope, and he coins his own original technical terms or usages–“clinamen”, “misprison”, “crossing of solipsism”.

I differ with Bloom because I find the composers I work with are not terribly worried about influences and antecedents. I agree with him because over a larger time scale, they should be. At this moment we are immersed in the uncanonical–an overwhelming maelstrom on the chaotic fringe where composers contend for becomeing *composer of the moment* and/or *future canonical*. The latter amounts to a an act of faith, a kind of artistic grace that arrives only after death. Investing in the work of living composers and living poets and living poet-composers is an investment in future cultural usefulness or cultural necessities. The usefuless or necessity may not yet be evident as such. We attribute scary foresight to our artists. We should and we should follow them closely.


For some, Symbolism is the gold standard; We see this in the writings of Edumund Wilson. It seemed to have dissipated when Joseph Campbell’s work seemed to fade for a time. Symoblism will keep cropping up. I think we are seeing some feminist writers taking up the sphere of myth, folklore and dreamspace–Julia Kristeva, perhaps. And magic realism seems to do well at this moment. There is our beloved Murakami, but also David Lynch. The Major Brigg’s letter to his son in Twin Peaks is a gesture of great love from father to son, based on dream-values.

Musical values are certainly dream-values, but complicated. Music sometimes develops along technical lines that can seem to “progress” in a linear fashion, but there are frequent reversions to a norm. Reversions to the Baroque norm persist–the Beatles, Schnittke, Arvo Pärt, middle Stravinsky, Piazzola the Baroque side of Dawe. Some post-tonal music can seem like a pale reversion to pre-tonal music.

We can get to music through creative masks. Creative masks can unlock doors to that rich dream space, which spurs musical creativity no less than any other creative endeavor. This can side-step the technical front. We can think of it as the “probability drive” of technique, through which we can skip steps (move the needle) and show the non-linear side of technique. Yeats is all over this as it pertains to poetry. There is authentic Bob Dylan in his music, but it comes through a creative mask. Paul McCartney is a the most wonderful, brilliant, loveable zelig or schmoo.

Can we say that much of American culture is **countercanonical** ? In poetry, Harold Bloom spoke of influences. Can we say he liked to follow threads? Emerson & Coleridge were both offspring of Goethean Naturalism. Emerson created or conjured Whitman, Bloom liked to say. Wallace Stephens is Emersonian, with “strong misprison”.

Some American music has clear antecedants. Some sensibilities take comfort in picking up strong threads. Often this is a technical thread. The technical front enjoys too much attention and too little attention by turns. It does not need to be dismissed; it can be put in context. Music that teaches us to want something that we didn’t know we wanted helps to put technique in relief. Reich’s Piano Phase. We never dreamed we’d yearn for phasing. Phasing is a technical thing, perhaps minimally technical, or perhaps 100% technical, but far off the technical track that pathologically fixated some composers for too long. Fixation—the technical front can become pathologically clubby. You’re ok as long as you are doing this or that. The bar is set terribly low because this or that community is so desperate for fellow travelers.

Someone could translate this into historicist terms. Babbitt developed some Schoenbergian ideas. Geroge Pearle and Anthony Korf loved Berg. These are developments along technical lines, likewise American Jazz mixing with French modernism–Duke Ellington’s Parisian infuences, Milhaud at Mills, Brubeck.

This reminds me of the conversation between Milton Babbitt and James Levine at Weill Hall for the celebration of Babbitt’s 90th birthday. Levine produced the event through his Metropolitan Opera Chamber Players. Niel Farrell and I opened the music with Babbitt’s Cavalier Settings, preceded by a talk in which Levine said, provacatively, that Babbitt’s work defines the main line of musical development. Babbitt, having been properly chastened by Boretz and others, said, “We cannot speak in those terms.” Babbitt saw Schoenberg excoriated for his historicism and was careful not to repeat that mistake.

Much American music is channeled through a creative mask. Can we say that it is an American prerogative to have no concern, no regard for antecedents? Our lovers of American music only care about how well the American mythos is channelled. Angela Merkel plans to drive across the USA listening to Springsteen.

Perhaps there is the constitutionally un-canonical, and the situational un-canonical. The latter includes all new music, which by its nature can only be *potentially* canonical. Americans may be constitutionally inclined to be counter-canonical. Perhaps “un-canonical” misses. Perhaps the American canon is different. It’s like a mushroom. It pops up and it has no relation to European music and poetry, but perhaps we can nevertheless speak of an American canon that behaves differently, and in a manner that likely annoyed Harold Bloom.

It is unusal to see a creative mask in classical music. But it is there, remarkably, in Schumann. We see a fabulous creative mask in Anna Weesner’s 8 Lost Songs of Orlando Underground. Compare 8 Lost Songs with Sebastian Currier’s Theo’s Notebook (1992).

Link to iTunes 8 Lost Songs

Anna Weesner’s frame:

Orlando Underground is the thinly veiled pseudonym of a blues guitarist (and eponymous member of the well-known band) who harbored a longstanding interest in notated composition. Orlando always wondered what life might have been like if he hadn’t joined the band, and hadn’t stayed in the band all those years, instead nurturing his other musical interests.
(Would things have turned out differently with Jess? This question plagued him particularly.)

Orlando never told anyone about how in college he’d discovered and fallen in wild love with classical music. Those afternoons lying on the floor with a cup of black tea and Mahler. He was fascinated by the sensation of order in certain pieces of music, the feeling that microscopic patterns in his own skin came to the surface by way of organized sound. He liked the idea of retrograde, that a thing moving backwards might be both recognizable and new. There was much more to backwards than Paul on Sgt. Pepper, if you allowed for abstraction in meaning, and some composers seemed to understand this. He held a fondness for certain numbers; five, especially, was downright mythical. The five-syllable phrase how you broke my heart had followed Orlando for a seeming decade after Jess left, a relentless, five-pulse mantra that finally—in some kind of involuntary comedy—found new refrains, other words for the pulses; why won’t she come back becoming where’d I put my keys, or, please turn out the light. Jess had teased him mercilessly for carrying around and reading Arnold Schoenberg’s Style and Idea, but she never told the guys in the band.

Jess is the one who found the Eight Lost Songs in a desk drawer after Orlando died.

Note on instrumentation:

Jess believes that Orlando Underground chose to write for clarinet quintet in part because of Maya Ochoa, a rather beautiful clarinetist who lived on the fifth floor of his building in Brooklyn whom he saw often in the elevator and to whom he never spoke.

Is Anna Weesner’s Orlando Underground a sympathetic gesture toward composers who feel defensive within the American ethos where improvisation is an ultimate musical value? Everything has to be improvised! The singer/songwriter has to be both. Don’t set Wallace Stephens.

Orlando Underground, the creative mask, achieves a remarkabe, surprising, synthesis. We see two norms at once–something like the Bloom canon (the mention of Schoenberg) and the bizarre new American mushroom norm. Yet this achievement is still more complete and remarkable when we look at a greater swath of Weesner’s music.

American likes and dislikes do not come from a thorough love and knowledge of poetry from the classics to Emily Dickinson. Americans are bridge burners. Perhaps this is cemented in the postwar period? Knowing too much can become a disadvantage, but some manage both modes at once, miraculously. Some are broadly educated, they know about Schoenberg, yet they are still conversant in that special American forgetting that begets American authenticity. Anna Weesner’s Orlando Underground is a priceless example of this wide purview. There is nothing to suggest that she rejects Bloom’s value system, but she also embraces the antithetical American value system.

Anna Weesner’s music is shifts at will and meets her dramatic demands in surprising ways. Any nearby note or nearby harmony is in play, but her music can make a leap of any size, and gracefully slides into a rich polytonality that is very much her own.

Anna Weesner wrote her own words for her Cygnus piece, My Mother in Love. There, she assumes a creative mask, writing from the point of view of children observing the strange behavior of their heartbroken mother. And there she assumes the American singer/song writer role. Oren Fader, of Cygnus, fell in love with My Mother in Love, and brought it to the attention of his duo partner Jessica Bowers. The result was Three New Songs, heard for the first time last October at the American Opera Center on the Bowers Fader Duo’s Fourth Annual New American Art Song Concert.

Three New Songs
words and music by Anna Weesner

Circular Argument

Not every song is a love song
And not every day is a day for all days
Not every day is a song
Not every love is a song for all days
A song for all days for a love that arrives and stays
Not every love is a song
A song can be less than a day nothing more
It falls away
A love can arrive and not stay
A day is a song on the day of all days
When a love sings a song
And stays for the dullest of days
And stays for the dullest of days
I yearn for the dullest of days
For now and then a day is a song
Not every day is a love song
Not every love that arrives and sings
Stays for the dullest of days
For the dullest of days is the love song
I yearn for the dullest of days

Writing a Letter to Jane After Many Years

Dear Jane, do you remember me,
I hope you, I trust you remember me, Jane?
I was a friend of your brother
It’s so long ago, you may recall
I thought I’d say hello
The word ‘friend’ may be an understatement
He was my first love
I hope you’re well
It’s been years
I’d love to talk
You must miss him too, Jane
I’ve always wondered what happened to him
I live in Philadelphia now

I don’t want to make you sad, Jane
When I say I’ve wondered what happened
It’s not so much how he died why he died
So much as it’s why is he not here?
It’s so strange feels like he’s only missing
As if I’ve misplaced my jacket or my purse
I always thought you were so pretty so kind
A musician, you knew how you wanted to live
You had clarity, Jane–Did he love me?
There are songs about circles I can’t do them justice
When I knew him life was a line
We followed
I never said, let’s keep going
The older I get the closer it feels
The past lives right next door
It’s not timelessness, it’s not speed
It is being closer to end, feeling the whole
Some possible arc, a circle of time
I don’t mean to get carried away, Jane
I still wonder what happened
I’d love to talk
I hope you’re well

The Very Air

(He makes me want to taste air, eat up the air
There’s such a thing as delicious water)
My life is out of order
Young parts coming late
I had to get so old before I could feel this young
And in love
There’s such a thing as delicious water
You’ve had it every day of your life
And yet your eyes can go wide tasting it
If you’re thirsty
Or happy
He makes me want to taste air
Makes me want to eat up the very air

We do not compare Anna Weesner to Wallace Stephens. Nor do we care how it compares with Joni Mitchell, but it shares with JM a powerful, inescapable can’t-give-a-damn authenticity, so perfectly at one with powerful and ever inventive music..

I’d compare it with Dowland, because as words written by the composer, we can take it to be about music. I’ll paste below Dowland’s I Saw My Lady Weep. Isn’t it likely that the lady here is Music? Does Dowland assert that sadness and beauty are one and that it is the music that is real, and the words mere shadows?

To say that Dowland’s music is so much more powerful than the words is to deny that music sticks to the words, just as words stick to music. They rub off on one another.

Weeser’s music is wildly inventive and it surprises over and over again. And she’s not done. Dowland is, and there is nothing to suggest that AW fears him or any other antecedent. There is one of the great joys of partaking of contemporary culture–watching the fearless forge ahead.

I saw my lady weep,
And Sorrow proud to be advanced so,
In those fair eyes where all perfections keep.
Her face was full of woe,
But such a woe believe me as wins more hearts,
Than Mirth can do with her enticing charms.

Sorrow was there made fair,
And Passion wise, tears a delightful thing,
Silence beyond all speech a wisdom rare.
She made her sighs to sing,
And all things with so sweet a sadness move,
As made my heart at once both grieve and love.

O fairer than aught else
The world can show, leave off in time to grieve.
Enough, enough, (enough, enough,) your joyful looks excels.
Tears kill the heart, believe;
O strive not to be excellent in woe,
Which only breeds your beauty’s overthrow.

The Bowers Fader Duo’s October 2019 program at the American Opera Center was full of treasures. Rebekah Driscoll wrote her own words.

On Being Interrupted

Music and Text by Rebekah Driscoll

I have something to say.
I will be concise.
I will avoid tentative language, like “I think”, “how about” or “maybe”.
I will lean in and make eye contact—

But he has an ingenious joke and he cannot allow it to go unsaid.

I will smile politely.
I will return to my point.
I will use a lower and deeper voice that commands attention.

But I’ve reminded him of something he wants to discuss,
and he has to bring it up now or he might forget!

I will not take it personally.
I will remain calm.
I will be patient, and when I can speak I will be concise.
I will avoid tentative language, like “I think”, “how about” or “maybe”.
I will not pause for breath and give them an opening to interrupt—

But he has a question. Apparently he didn’t hear when I answered it five minutes ago.

I will explain it again.
I will not get upset. If I show emotion, it’s over.
I will use a lower and deeper voice—but not too low, that would be unnatural!
I need to sound authoritative, but also warm and non-threatening.
I cannot be boring; I can absolutely not be shrill—

But I know I can never match those melodious baritones.
Their words are inherently fascinating, and mine are easily dismissed.
If I mention this they will see me as oversensitive and petty, so for now I will listen and smile…

I have something to say.
I will be concise.
I will avoid tentative language, like “I think”, “how about” or “maybe”.
I will lean in and make eye contact—excuse me, Joe, that’s a great thought, but I wasn’t finished—
I have something to say. I have something to say!
I have something to say—will you hear it?

Rebekah Driscoll’s music is fun, fresh, and wonderfully fitting for her words.

Find me a man who has not been that guy with the ingenious joke, holding forth at the expense of some other soul, with something to say, perhaps more important!

This is a takedown of the clueless male. We might think of it as a bizarre Tenzone, a take-down poem. Some rap music reminds us of the Tenzone. Dante’s Tenzones are violent and vulgar. The speaker in RD’s poem is quietly taking down the typical enfranchised male, but after the fact.

If we think of Rebecca Solnit, we will assume that the frustrated person with something to say is a woman. And we might assume that the speaker is Rebekah Driscoll, the composer. But the narrator could be a shy person or a person rendered less likely to overcome the narcissistic, enfranchised male for one reason or another. I have felt like this in Cygnus rehearsals.

Is the narrator like Hamlet? Hamlet is hamstrung by hypertrophied reason. Can we compare the failure to assert with the failure to kill? The power dynamics are key, and yet hypertrophied reason helps this along. The common thread is the self-sconsciusness of Mannerism.

Surely, the narcissist is not self-conscious, not thinking:

I will avoid tentative language, like “I think”, “how about” or “maybe”.
I will lean in and make eye contact—

The narcissist would not articulate to himself the urgent needs of his interlocutor :

But I’ve reminded him of something he wants to discuss,
and he has to bring it up now or he might forget!

The opposite of action-inhibiting self-consciousness is primary, unreflexive action. We read of the leap of faith that can be the gateway to action. But this clueless man is too much the solipsist to understand the leap. All he does is act. He’s been taught that’s what boys do.

Hamlet is a revenge drama gone awry, not without a touch of comedy and many ironies. RD hands us a surprising and original assertion-in-conversation-Hamlet.

We are focused on the un-canonical and the Bowers Fader Duo offered a wealth of work where the voices and perspectives of women are presented strongly. How often does that enfranchised male in RD’s poem shut down the woman by objecting to her tangential engagement with *his* notion of the canon? Mea culpa. Every male my age was clueless in some such manner.

Here is the poem set by Paul Salerini and performed wonderfully by the Bowers Fader Duo. In this musical work we see five figures from the present and from the time of Vermeer. We see three real people and two figures from Vermeer’s imagination, one of which was revised out of the painting. Paul Salerni finds music in the ekphrastic poem by Nathasha Trethewey. Trethewey gives us insights into the woman in the painting and thinks into Vermeer’s revision. X-rays of the painting uncover Vermeer’s revisions which Trethewey penetrates through poetry.

Paul Salerni’s music is many-faceted. The music combined harmonic shifts with registeral shifts in surprising ways that I’ve heard before only in other songs by Salerni. The effect was not unlike switching, through the x-rays, from one layer of the painting to another. Musical pentimento.

Repentance
Music by Paul Salerni
Poem by Natasha Trethewey

To make it right Vermeer painted then painted over
this scene a woman alone at a table the cloth pushed back
rough folds at the edge as if someone had risen
in haste abandoning the chair beside her a wineglass
nearly empty just in her reach Though she’s been called
idle and drunken a woman drowsing you might see
in her gesture melancholia Eyelids drawn
she rests her head in her hand Beyond her a still-life
white jug bowl of fruit a goblet overturned before this
a man stood in the doorway a dog lay on the floor
Perhaps to exchange loyalty for betrayal
Vermeer erased the dog and made of the man
a mirror framed by the open door Pentimento
the word for a painter’s change of heart revision
on canvas means the same as remorse after sin
Were she to rise a mirror behind her the woman
might see herself as I did turning to rise
from my table then back as if into Vermeer’s scene
It was after the quarrel after you’d had again
too much to drink after the bottle did not shatter though
I’d brought it down hard on the table and the dog
had crept from the room to hide Later I found
a trace of what I’d done bruise on the table the size
of my thumb Worrying it I must have looked as she does
eyes downcast my head on the heel of my palm In paint
a story can change mistakes be undone Imagine
Still-Life with Father and Daughter a moment so
far back there’s still time to take the glass from your hand
or mine

[ I suspect the layout of Trethewey’s poem has been corrupted. We try to fix that. ]

Bloom is not fusty. Anyone can adopt a perspective that does not exclude the past. American amnesia is who we are at this moment and it has its own charms. Angela Merkel will be listening to Springsteen on her American road trip.

–William Anderson




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