2017 Reading in Review

Last year was not the most active year in reading for me: I had less time due to getting a full-time job, and I also read quite a bit less non-fiction and scholarly literature, since I was bogged down in volume one of Steven Moore’s The Novel: An Alternative History (more on that later).

The most notable part of my 2017 in reading was that more than 80% of the books I read were by female authors. This was a deliberate choice, mostly inspired by my near-overdose of Philip K. Dick in 2016. I read all five volumes of his complete stories that fall, and was struck by his growing misogyny. My brief review of Volume 5 sums up my feelings quite well:

Most of these stories are excellent. Around 1970, however, it seems PKD’s latent but palpable misogyny exploded forth in several stories, most notably “The Pre-Persons”, which is offensive not because it is a barely- disguised polemic against abortion, but because it treats women as stultifying figures who suck all the joy out if life. The same is true of “Chains of Air, Web of Aether”, where one of the only round female characters in his entire output is described as “thanatous” (literally death-inducing) and becomes more and more parasitic, culminating in a de facto married state.

Then, in January 2017, I made the mistake of reading Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (with the additional mistake of reading the later, uncut version). Despite his attempts at representing a progressive vision of society and sexuality, Heinlein’s novel and its naïve protagonist are hopelessly stuck in the misogynistic era in which they were conceived. The one-two punch of Dick and Heinlein’s misogyny turned me increasingly to female authors.

Continuing my theme from the end of 2016, I read mostly science fiction for the first half of the year. I had heard of Connie Willis’ series of novels and short stories on time-travelling historians, so I started with her collection Fire Watch. The title story (and to some extent the rest of the series) is essentially a celebration of the field of social history, emphasizing the experiences of those who lived through pivotal historical events. The standout from the collection for me, however, was “All My Darling Daughters“, which is one of the most disturbing stories I’ve ever read. The uniquely female perspective as reflected in that story strengthened my desire to read (nearly) exclusively female authors over the course of the year.

Next, I read The Handmaid’s Tale, which, as my first Margaret Atwood novel, I like to joke was an attempt to appease my Atwood-expert father. I also read Kelly Link’s collection Stranger Things Happen, inspired by (fellow Wesleyan graduate) composer Katherine Young’s MA thesis, which explored the intersection of the musically familiar and bizarre in much the same way as Link’s stories, which combine realism, fantasy, and horror in a genre known as slipstream. The realism of early 20th century stories by Katherine Mansfield and a young Gertrude Stein came next, often highlighting moments of quiet despair in women’s lives of the period.

The highlight of 2017 for me was reading the first decade’s worth of Ursula Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle. The early novels, despite their pulpy titles and premises, bring a marvellously elegant style to science fiction. Le Guin reaches a career high in The Left Hand of Darkness, which is even better than I remembered from when I read it as a teenager, and especially in The Dispossessed, which I would nominate as a candidate for one of the greatest English-language novels of the late 20th century. The Dispossessed is the fulfillment of the failed promise of Stranger in a Strange Land; its protagonist, Shevek, is far more alien on the capitalist and misogynist world of Urras than Heinlein’s Martian Valentine Smith is on Earth.

I rounded out the year with several more contemporary novels, my favourite of which was Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which strikes a balance between family drama and historical epic in China from the 1940s to the present, with music and storytelling binding together disparate lives through several generations and across the Pacific.

Simultaneously with all this, I read Steven Moore’s The Novel: An Alternative History: Beginnings to 1600, which is more a heavily-annotated reading list than a book one could read as a continuous whole. Moore’s tone is effusive and his passion for the material he discusses is highly infectious, but his technique is far from scholarly and he is maybe a bit too fixated on sex and violence at the expense of other aspects of these texts. Because of its structure, it took me over a year to get through its  more than 700 pages, but I learned a great deal about early fiction from a wide variety of cultures, and have dozens of books to add to my reading list for the future.

 

 

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Composition Preview: ‘La ſelle d’ærain’ premieres Feb. 13

In my last post I described a large-scale project of which, at the time, I had completed only a few fragments. As I hinted in the last post, I anticipate this that this project will take several years to complete. Lately I have been working on another long-term project: a setting of five Nostradamus quatrains, of which two will be premiered on February 13 as part of the Oak Bay New Music Festival.

When I was 15, I found the ominously-titled Final Prophecies of Nostradamus in a used bookstore called The Flaming Novel. The shop, located in a strip mall parking lot in Apache Junction, Arizona, lived up to its name by falling victim to a fire sometime later.  The book features the text of Nostradamus’ Prophéties (originally published 1555-66), comprised of 941 quatrains organized in ten Centuries, mostly in Middle French. It features uninspired translations and misguided interpretations by Erika Cheetham. Cheetham did write a fairly interesting introduction however, and I learned that Nostradmaus was born Michel de Nostradame to a Jewish family in Provence. Regardless of their reputation as prophecies, most of the quatrains also are of dubious value as poetry; many are lists of 16th century states, cities and towns (e.g. VIII.LII et al). That being said, there are a handful of quatrains that struck me as beautiful when I first read them, especially quatrain VIII.XCVI (the text from this 1566 edition rather than from Cheetham’s book):

VIII.XCVI: La ſynagogue ſterile

La ſynagogue ſterile ſans nul fruit,
Sera receuë entre les infideles,
De Babylon la fille du porſuit,
Miſere & triſte luy trenchera les aiſles.

The sterile synagogue without any fruit
Will be received by the infidels,
The daughter of the persecuted one of Babylon,
Miserable and sad they will clip her wings.

The explicitly Jewish content of the poem and its powerful imagery convinced me to attempt a setting, which I began in late 2006.  The piece began as an attempt to reconcile the traditions of Klezmer and serialism, each of which I was beginning to discover at the time.  I came up with the following piano dyads, which use all twelve notes of the chromatic scale, and derived two tone rows from them:

Row

I ended up setting only the first line of the poem before abandoning it in 2007. The first line of the original version for voice and piano uses a mixture of Klezmer modality and serialism, including this representative passage:

melody

Untilthe end of 2007, I continued setting fragments of several other quatrains, but never completed any of them.

The next step in the development of this project took place in fall 2012 when, as part of Ron Kuivila’s composition seminar at Wesleyan University, we were assigned to write for an ad hoc ensemble of Connecticut musicians: namely voice, tuba, percussion, harp, accordion, viola and double bass. This highly unorthodox instrumentation, particularly the tuba, accordion and bass, reminded me of a Klezmer band, so I decided to complete my earlier setting of La ſynagogue ſterile for the ensemble. In order to emphasize the Jewish content of the work, I decided to intersperse a doina between the lines of the quatrain. The doina stems from sketches I wrote for solo tuba in 2010-11, which I called Der Levoner Doina (The Lunar Doina). I completed this version of La ſynagogue ſterile in November 2012 and it was subsquently performed and recorded at Wesleyan:

I decided to revisit my Nostradamus project recently, because I felt as though La ſynagogue ſterile was not  substantial enough a piece in its 2012 incarnation, and its unusual instrumentation meant that it might not be performed again in the foreseeable future. When the opportunity arose to write a piece for a chamber ensemble of voice, flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano for the 2016 Oak Bay New Music Festival, I jumped at the chance to adapt La ſynagogue ſterile for the new instrumentation, and also to expand the work to include two additional movements. I had come up with the title La ſelle d’ærain (The Brass Saddle/Tripod) when working on the 2012 version. The title comes from quatrain I.I, in which Nostradamus explains his method of divination. The tripod refers to the three quatrains I had decided to set, namely I.XVII (Par quarente ans l’Iris) and I.XXI (Profonde argille blanche), as well as VII.XCVI, which I  had already set.

By last November, I had decided to add movements for voice and piano framing the central three ensemble pieces: quatrains V.XCVI (La roſe) and II.XIII (Le verbe) as incipit and ‘excipit’, respectively (the latter term for some reason seems only to have existed in French literary analysis otherwise). I completed La roſe on Christmas Eve, and the final version of La ſynagogue ſterile exactly a month later, and these two movements will be joined by an instrumental interlude for the performance on February 13.

Doina

Friedman on Dialectics, Part 1: Of Formalist Denial

This is the first in what I hope is a series of fairly serious and personal posts I will write in the coming days, which will also address several issues that arose in my MA thesis, which I completed last spring. Part 1 deals with the intellectual background of a formative period of my life, roughly 2003-2008. Part 2 will deal with emotional and musical aspects of the same period.


 My music sometimes seems mysterious. Part of the mystery comes from the fact that I wait, receptively, then I welcome, I accept … Listen, there are two kinds of people: the type that is only interested in what they understand, and the type that wants at all costs the hermetic mystery, enigmas. The first gets bored when they don’t understand, the second is bored when they do understand. Me, I accept poetry, the inexplicable. Things are born in the waiting.

Morton Feldman, interviewed by Martine Cadieu in “Morton Feldman – Waiting, May 1971” in Morton Feldman Says: Selected Interviews and Lectures 1964-1987. Edited by Chris Villars. London: Hyphen Press, 2006, p. 40.

In grade 12, my school counsellor asked me why, when I was definitely going to be doing a degree in music, was I also studying calculus, chemistry and physics.  At some point a few years earlier, I had come across the 17th century polymath Athanasius Kircher’s exhortation that “there is nothing more beautiful than to know all” (where this quote came from I have no memory). This may have been possible at the time he was writing, but is clearly not now, something I obviously knew intuitively but did not really believe until after I started university. For my entire childhood and adolescence I intentionally read books that were far too difficult, culminating in Roger Penrose’s The Road to Reality, an attempt to explain the physical properties of the universe in 1100 pages. I vaguely remember understanding about the first 200, which deal with the math required to understand the rest of the book; I read the next 900 in a daze, trying to at least absorb the terminology. My reading was not limited to science: I also read books at random from my family’s shelves. My family owned somewhere in the area of 2000-3000 books at this point, skewing heavily towards CanLit and literary theory, thanks to my father. I read experimental novels like Death Kit by Susan Sontag and the highly obscure the telephone pole by Russell Marois (which I know I finished on Oct. 28, 2003 and Jan. 18, 2004, respectively, thanks to a Microsoft Access database [!] I kept of my reading at the time).

The book that most affected me during this period, however, was Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter. I read GEB in the fall of 2004, which was otherwise a very difficult part of my life (something I will address in my next post). In both his preface to the 20th anniversary edition of the book and in his later book I Am a Strange Loop, Hofstadter essentially complains that no one understood the underlying message of GEB, which is an examination of self-reference and its ramifications on the possibility of artificial intelligence. GEB very easily comes off as seeming to be about fanciful connections between its various subjects: not only the titular figures, but also Zen Buddhism, microbiology, computer science and the like. Its highly novel structure helps this misinterpretation: it alternates fairly normal chapters with dialogues between the characters Achilles and the Tortoise (drawn from a dialogue by Lewis Carroll [pdf], who himself got them from one of Zeno‘s paradoxical thought experiments) which are in the form of contrapuntal pieces by J. S. Bach. I do not pretend to have fully understood GEB, but I definitely gathered quite a bit from it, particularly the enormous paradoxes that loom under the surface of logic and therefore underpin nearly every aspect of thought. It’s possible that I took almost the exact opposite message from the average reader of GEB, namely that, while everything is connected, it is connected in such a way that nothing makes sense.

The most important paradox discussed in GEB is Kurt Gödel‘s so-called incompleteness theorem (of which there are actually two). I will attempt a simple explanation of it, which is probably ultimately fallacious, but will give the reader an idea of what it entails. A formal system is a logical construct where one can use certain axioms (statements which are assumed to be true beforehand) and rules (which transform axioms and other statements which are derived from axioms). Gödel leans heavily on the notion of compactness, which can be used to prove that, in a particular formal system, provability by the system is logically equivalent to truth. A compact formal system can have the property of completeness, whereby it can prove every true statement, as well as the property of consistency, whereby no false statement can be proven. Let us examine a statement in a formal system that can be translated as something like “this statement cannot be proven,” which is clearly a paradox: if it is true, then we have no way of proving it, so the formal system is incomplete (since we have found an unprovable truth); if it is false, then it can be proved, so the formal system is inconsistent (since we have found a provable falsehood). The result is that any system must be either incomplete or inconsistent, and that any attempt for a system to describe itself either fails because of incompleteness or yields dangerous results because of inconsistency. In the first case it means that in order to describe a system completely, we must create a meta-system, which must be described via a meta-meta-system, and so on. These statements hold true for even relatively simple systems, like those describing arithmetic. Interpretation of these theorems in other fields is often overblown (much like quantum physics), but it does essentially destroy the positivist perspective of Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica, which sought to derive all of mathematics from logic.

GEB was my first exposure to dialectical thinking, or at least unresolved dualities: Hofstadter dwells on several of them, particularly holism vs. reductionism. He attempts to resolve them via the Zen notion of mu, which “unasks” the question or at least points out its absurdity. In some questions the answer is both of “both and neither” of the choices, but also neither of those, and so on. The infinite regress of dialectics seemed to be isomorphic to the infinite meta-levels required to completely describe any formal system given Gödel’s incompleteness, while contradictory bare dualities seemed to map onto inconsistency. These notions led me to actively engage with the fundamental dichotomies I encountered in every subject I studied after this point, particularly in my undergraduate philosophy electives. But, in a sense, it was too late for my earlier interests: I believed that any formalist notion of truth was bound to end in an infinite tree of undecidability or a flat-out contradiction. I still tried to take a second major in math during my first year, but found the time demands of a music degree precluded much external commitment, and I realized it was basically impossible, at least at UVic, after two semesters. I was still helping some of my friends in sciences with their homework in second semester classes I would never take when I realized that I had to radically rein in my ambitions, however I did continue to take electives in philosophical logic until my fourth year, which were some of the most creatively stimulating classes I have taken, even if no longer directly relevant to my work.

What does all of this have to do with music? Though I am now unquestionably primarily a composer, I still have serious parallel interests in philosophy, math, science and literature, and these concepts provide some vital underpinning to the way I think about music. My interests have always straddled the art/science divide and I believe that I chose to pursue an academic career in music because, in my opinion, it is located at the nexus of the arts and sciences, and can be produced and interpreted using a plethora of different fields and techniques. Being a composer is my way of intellectually having my cake and eating it too. My next post will address the joint emotional aspects to the intellectual issues raised here, as well as their impact on the music I wrote until fairly recently.

[Review] Claude Vivier: A Composer’s Life by Bob Gilmore

I once again find myself in Victoria for the foreseeable future. As a way to ensure that I continue writing regularly while I’m between degrees, I have decided to start a series where I write about books (mostly on music) that I feel are worth sharing. There will be three rough categories:

  1. New books, which I will write informal reviews of (hopefully prior to being able to have a formal review published somewhere)
  2. Classics which I feel could use some further explanation or encouragement for potential readers (e.g.  Formalized Music)
  3. Obscure books which I feel more people should know about (e.g. The Modern Composer and His World which I mentioned some time ago)

Obviously there will be some overlap in the latter two categories depending on one’s perspective. However, this first article is very clearly in the first one.

UPDATE: This review has been published in the November 2015 edition of Musiktexte in a German translation by Monika Lichtenfeld as “Mythen und Widersprüche. Bob Gilmores Claude-Vivier-Biographie”.


Bob Gilmore
Claude Vivier: A Composer’s Life
Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2014
295pp. $34.95

In Claude Vivier’s brief life (1948-1983) he composed a substantial output of varied and compelling pieces for both vocal and instrumental forces, and his final works from Lonely Child for soprano and orchestra (1980) until his death constitute one of the strongest series of pieces written by a single composer in such a short time-span. His work is marked by a strong emphasis on the unknown in a very general sense: he fixates on such aspects as distant locales (including imaginary ones), death and love. A large portion of his output is vocal, much of which sets passages in a language or languages of his own creation, and much of it has strong autobiographical resonances. Born to “unknown parents” (an oft-repeated phrase found in almost all descriptions of his life) in Montreal and killed in Paris at the age of 35, his life’s details often threaten to overwhelm both appraisal of his music and his place in the Canadian musical pantheon.

Gilmore’s somewhat workmanlike biography attempts to cut through the various layers of mythology surrounding Vivier. Through a great many primary sources and reams of interviews with Vivier’s family, friends and colleagues (including a huge number of prominent musicians in Canada and Europe), Gilmore sketches out what can be definitively known about Vivier’s life. His work on these sections includes large extracts from sources and sometimes prosaic summaries. These can be quite effective: through them Gilmore manages to effectively unmask Vivier’s mythological status as a “great composer-traveler” in connection with Asia. Contrary to what some believe, Vivier did not spend years travelling through Asia (a myth repeated by his Wikipedia article), but only a total of five months in 1976-77, of which three were spent in Bali and the remainder in Japan, Thailand, Iran and Egypt. Even the much-vaunted Asian influence on his music is in fact mostly restricted to its instrumentation and his vague impressions of the places he visited. Pulau Dewata for open instrumentation (1977) is a perfect example of a piece that was supposedly inspired by Gamelan but actually bears very little resemblance to its inspiration. Other passages of the book prove more problematic but also more intriguing. Gilmore admits that writing a biography of someone who hailed from the era of the telephone proved to be quite difficult since the contents of most of Vivier’s interactions were ephemeral and the memory of those who knew him fallible. In order to fill these gaps, Gilmore relies on anecdotes by Vivier’s friends, which are usually vague but often quite entertaining, as well as speculation, which is usually well-justified. Speculation on some of these matters can be seen as appropriate, in fact, since Vivier himself cultivated many personal mythologies which complicate attempts to narrate his life. Vivier often imagined his birth parents to be Eastern European (or even Jewish), something that proved very influential on his autobiographical pieces, furthering his fixation on loneliness and personal mythology.

Finally, other aspects of Vivier’s life defy definitive interpretation or any sort of clear speculation, and the contradictions and myths must be presented as-is. For instance, his sexuality was somewhat complex: it is well-known that he was gay, but Gilmore brings up the oft-forgotten fact that Vivier engaged in at least sexual relationships with women throughout his entire life. When Vivier’s friend Rober Racine brought up the possibility of writing a book on Vivier, his would-be subject told him “You have to say I love women!” (p. 187). And of course his death is particularly divisive: a myth has arisen that he was stabbed in the Paris subway, but this is in fact an event from the story of his final work (Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele for voices and ensemble); in reality he was killed in his apartment by a lover, though contemporary sources and the recollection of his friends do not always agree on whether he was stabbed or strangled or both. At least one source claims that his death was in fact an erotic accident and not murder (though this is not given much credence by Gilmore). Gilmore also raises doubt as to whether Vivier’s last composition was unfinished at the time of his death (as most sources state): “it is hard to imagine what could have come after the chilling ending.” (p. 279) The most controversial of Gilmore’s assertions is that Vivier’s lifelong preoccupation with mortality and his fascination with eroticized violence in his later years did not ultimately lead to his death. The fact that Vivier was stabbed with a pair of scissors and robbed by an opportunistic man posing as a one night stand only weeks before his death led may of his friends to the conclusion that he must have been seeking out the kind of dangerous situation that ultimately killed him. Gilmore writes that these trends are counterbalanced by Vivier’s equally strong fixation on love and redemption, which should preclude suicide, though he ultimately states that this is merely his opinion and the decision ultimately rests with the reader.

Gilmore makes it quite clear that this book is both a biography and a companion to Vivier’s compositions. He provides concise and effective analyses of many of Vivier’s works, presented in such a way as to be relatively understandable to the layperson. He clearly explains such aspects as the influence of Stockhausen’s works from the 1960s and early 70s (such as Mantra) on many of Vivier’s pieces from the 1970s, especially Learning for four violins and percussion and Siddhartha for orchestra (both 1976), which are constructed from long melodies, and the nascent Spectralist movement’s influence on his late works, particularly in his use of ring modulation in Lonely Child. The one area where any analysis fails is in the text of many of Vivier’s vocal works: though some of it can be written off as mere exoticism (the quasi-Asiatic text in Bouchara for soprano and ensemble), much of Vivier’s use of invented language is still nearly impenetrable despite Gilmore’s elucidations. The opera Kopernikus, Vivier’s largest-scale completed work, in which the historical Copernicus plays only a small part among a cast of various historical and fictional characters (including Mozart, with the lead character being Agni, the Hindu god of fire), proves to be so idiosyncratic as to be almost entirely inscrutable. Gilmore does an admirable job connecting it to such precursors as the works of Lewis Carroll and The Magic Flute, but ultimately its intended meaning may be unknowable to any but Vivier.

Given these analytical gaps and the non-specialist level of the analyses of Vivier’s works, there is still plenty of work to be done in order to understand Vivier’s oeuvre. That being said, it is hard to imagine an English-language biography that could be more definitive than Gilmore’s book. In tandem with Vivier’s collected writings, which are published in the journal Circuit (and will hopefully be translated into English at some point), it makes a fine starting point for the student of Vivier’s life and work, which had seen a paucity of English-language scholarly attention until now.

Postscript to Rzewski

Many years ago, I met a very young pianist, Frederik [sic] Rzewski, and he said with the peace of mind available, he said, “You know that canon for two pianos?” Canon, me, my canon? Oh yes, that free-durational piece. It was a canon, I suppose. To tell you the truth, if I’d thought it was a canon, it would have caused me to commit suicide.

Morton Feldman, “Darmstadt-Lecture” from Essays

Some thoughts on conformity

 

When you do something against a rigid system, the product loses its authenticity. Rather one has to act as though the system doesn’t exist at all. That’s the only way music continues to be viable in the longer term.

Alfred Schnittke, “Between Hope and Despair” in The Voice of Music by Anders Beyer

 

“They believe it,” the Constable said, “because they have been indoctrinated to believe it.”

“Yes. Some of them never challenge it—they grow up to be small-minded people, who can tell you what they believe but not why they believe it. Others become disillusioned by the hypocrisy of the society and rebel—as did Elizabeth Finkle-McGraw.”

“Which path do you intend to take, Nell?” said the Constable, sounding very interested. “Conformity or rebellion?”

“Neither one. Both ways are simple-minded—they are only for people who cannot cope with contradiction and ambiguity.”

Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age