Thursday, December 17, 2009

john's blog of alleged dances

I'm sure you've all seen John Adams's blog at this point. It came out of nowhere a couple months ago and is now one of my favorite reads. Adams posts nearly every day, a remarkable feat considering the amount of performing and composing he is doing (well, at least I assume he's composing). But more remarkable is that the almost-most-famous living composer (I think Glass and Reich may edge him out slightly) has a blog which is very clearly a series of personal and musical thoughts, rather than press releases or criticism-lite. The title, Hell Mouth, is apt. He has moved his sparring match with Richard Taruskin onto the internet and taken a few friendly potshots at critics in New York and L.A. along wtih writing a virtuosic parody of cliches in music criticism. To balance it out, he's also written a number of kind tributes to friends and musical collaborators.

What strikes me most about Hell Mouth is Adams's creation of a mock alter-ego, Marcel Proost. Judging by the comment section, some of the readers don't "get" that this bizarre character is very clearly fictional, a self-proclaimed hick music critic and Adams's "neighbor." Adams's dialogue with Proost (he has been reading a lot of Proust lately, and gave an engaging lecture at the Art Institute in Chicago last month on Proust and musical memory) is reminiscient of the German Romantics' invention of fictional alter-egos: Brahms's Young Kreisler, Schumann's Florestan and Eusebius, even Hoffmann's Kreisler. This blog will certainly be an important primary source for 22nd-century musicologists, who will surely write their dissertations on Marcel Proost's role in Adams's music and what veiled allusions to Anthony Tommasini and Allan Kozinn represent.

Adams's entire online persona evokes a composer with which he has had much dialogue: Arnold Schoenberg. In a number of pieces--most overtly, Harmonielehre and the Chamber Symphony--Adams uses Schoenberg (and perhaps more importantly, Schoenberg's polemical writings) as a means of commenting on early 20th-century musical modernism.

Here's Adams on Schoenberg (in his Harmonielehre notes):
"But Schoenberg also represented to me something twisted and contorted. He was the first composer to assume the role of high-priest, a creative mind whose entire life ran unfailingly against the grain of society, almost as if he had chosen the role of irritant. Despite my respect for and even intimidation by the persona of Schoenberg, I felt it only honest to acknowledge that I profoundly disliked the sound of twelve-tone music. His aesthetic was to me an overripening of 19th century Individualism, one in which the composer was a god of sorts, to which the listener would come as if to a sacramental altar. It was with Schoenberg that the 'agony of modern music' had been born, and it was no secret that the audience classical music during the twentieth century was rapidly shrinking, in no small part because of the aural ugliness of so much of the new work being written."

Schoenberg was a prolific writer who used his essays, often ripe with paranoia, to justify his musical decisions. Reading Schoenberg's Harmonielehre and Style and Idea, it becomes apparent that Schoenberg felt himself to be a Viennese Rodney Dangerfield ("I don't get no respect"). Adams is a kind of twenty-first century inversion of Schoenberg. Just like Schoenberg, he attacks his critics in writing. But the bizarre paranoia (Schoenberg accused Krenek of parodying him in the opera Der Sprung uber den Schatten, and freaked out about Thomas Mann's appropriation of twelve-tone technique in Doktor Faustus) is replaced by Adams's ease with his public personality and critics. Marcel Proost is a way for Adams to poke fun at musical establishments without the preachy and mystical attitude of Schoenberg. Both composers are very aware of their place within society. But while Schoenberg was horrified by the idea that he was not a household name or cultural celebrity like his musical ancestors, Adams has accepted and even enjoyed the somewhat-modest role of the composer in the 21st-century.

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