Here's something nice:
When the variables of a dynamic system are sufficiently complex and volatile, their observation and study has been appropriated by a relatively new branch of mathematical physics identified under the rubric of chaos theory. The name itself betrays, with appropriate wit and irony, the human prejudice against capricious, unregenerate variables. For if the phenomena cannot be reduced to the prevailing credo or model, they are per se unruly and intractable: chaotic.
Dear scientists, welcome to the world of musical phrases and structures.
--from Piano Pieces by Russell Sherman
That's the book I've been lulling myself to sleep with during the last week. Found it in the remainders stack at the Harvard Book Store, the best bookstore in Boston. It's surely one of my luckier finds in recent times. (I also found a used copy of Augie March, which I'm saving for after Mortals and probably Everything is Illuminated.) I can't resist sharing more of the good stuff:
A tone is beautiful only in context. Or as Edward Steichen pointed out, in the first stage of photography one is interested exclusively in the foreground tree. In the next stage, the surrounding shrubs and grasses become the focal point. Then finally we turn back to the tree, but within the dynamic of reciprocal planes. The conductor Charles Munch once said that the reason God gave us two ears was so that what goes in one may go out the other. God also gave us two hands. What one reports, the other retorts.
Yet the best thing about this book isn't its poetry, but rather the fact that its poetry works in service of the most passionate and searching analyses of piano music. He gives Mozart extended treatment:
The curious elusiveness of [the second theme, first movement] from the G Minor Piano Quartet, what makes it so hard to scan and decipher, is exceptional only to the degree of its topographical whimsy. If this theme were wildly anomalous to the general menu of Mozart melodies, then one could hold its wayward mix of articulation signs (and the asymmetrical groupings they signify) responsible. But if this theme were representative, admittedly in striking and concentrated fashion, of the tendency of all Mozart themes, then some process of alchemy, however disguised, would be constantly and functionally at work.
The theme were are discussion (tentatively, as its complexity permits) can be divided roughly into two segments: three bars of question (antecedent) and one bar of answer (consequent). The tag-end bar concluding the phrase is unexceptional but for its relation to the whole. Together these four bars fulfill the general Mozartean ethic and standard of inspired, freethinking, non-Euclidean, multidimensional themes, achieved by a variety of means of which one is particularly characteristic and remarkable. The pattern of accents and rhythmic durations confers special emphasis upon four specific notes within the four bars; in the context of the four-quarter meter, each of these stresses falls on a different beat of each bar. Keeping in mind that the theme actually begins on the third beat, in succession the third, the fourth, the second, and the first beats of their respective bars carry the accented load. Of course, some accents are more significant than others, but it is this general strategy of freely distributing the rhythmic (and motivic) weight throughout all the metric elements of the phrase which gives the music its distinctive lilt and gallantry.
By extension, among the two or more (in the F Major Piano Sonata, K. 332, seven!) themes in Mozart expositions, the rhythmic emphasis will generally tend to focus on a different beat for each respective theme. Thus every beat of the given meter is activated throughout by this complementary distribution. The meter itself, then, is constantly rejuvenated by this sharing of the spoils.
It doesn't take much musical knowledge, I think, to get why that's good music writing (vastly better than what you find in something like Rolling Stone, God knows). Of course this kind of analysis has no real place in thumbs-up/thumbs-down music reviews - if only for reasons of space - but imagine if it did! Further evidence (as if we needed more) that discourses on aesthetics in this country are deeply and irredeemably impoverished by hostility toward specialized (disciplinary) vocabularies.
Stephen Merritt (the man behind the astonishing 69 Love Songs by the Magnetic Fields) was recently interviewed in Salon, and bemoaned the horror that (supposedly) is Morissey's latest album, You Are the Quarry. His complaint was that, because of the contemporary-pop musicians on the album, an extraordinary lyricist was being strangled by cut-rate, generic music. Merritt is himself a master lyricist - the equal of Elvis Costello or Bob Dylan, though more like the former than the latter - and his defense of Morissey's work had the air of a great stylist bristling at the abuse or ignorance of his craft. Russell Sherman's writing on the piano is of the same school.
"Architecture is frozen music," so Goethe instructs. Then music must be fluid (boiling?) architecture. Form in flux: Fred Astaire.
For pretty much no reason at all, though, I'll give the last word to Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio, from his recent post-Phish-breakup Guitar World interview, in which he talks about the band's couple-years-long hiatus and its recent final tour (of which I was lucky enough to see three shows). Anastasio is one of my idols, and he's an amazing interview subject - voluble and invaluable. He's a man who seems to really know himself.
The interview does not attain the status of poetry, nor (for that matter) does it aspire to it. But his passion is Russell Sherman's is Stephen Merritt's is Morissey's. Trey Anastasio sees something simple in the world and breathes with it. A kind of grace note.
Here you go.
GW: You've talked about this from an artistic standpoint, but is it difficult for you personally to leave Phish behind?
TA: I think I'm going to have to face some deep demons when this thing actually stops. I'm nervous about it.
TA: Because I like to be in the center of that kind of energy. When you take that away and I have to wake up the next morning and find something to do, I'll probably go nuts. I may just lose it. But how could this be bad? The word 'risk' has been floating around the Phish camp forever. We've talked and talked about it. So, isn't this risk?
GW: You can see risk as its own reward, but the whole point is that it's a risk. Inherent in the idea of risk is the possibility of failure, mistakes, misdirections.
TA: That's why I'm nervous. I'm going to have to confront the possibility of not being accepted, of taking my risk and having everybody not like it. But, that's what the hiatus taught me, because that happened, and I didn't fucking care. I realized that it doesn't make any difference - I have to do it. It's bigger than me. Not following your heart or your muse causes a deep degradation of your soul. And that's what was happening the last five years. I felt a sagging in the heart.
TA: Onstage, it's peaceful, despite the loudness. Maybe that's why people are mad that we're taking Phish away. Maybe other people feel that, too, that it's peaceful.
GW: Well, it's hard to find those doorways [to new perception]. People will miss that.
TA: I will too. Like I said, I might go insane. But I think I'll probably just wake up and start writing something new.