04 December 2008


How can you start a revolution when the revolution before last has already said anything goes?
— Chas Wuorinen

. . . and after all, we’re only ordinary men.
— Pink Floyd (“Us and Them”)

On the Misery Loves Company principle, this past US presidential campaign just concluded was a most verbally gratifying experience. The general public was visited by a plague under which we musicians suffer on practically a weekly basis: the tiresome overuse of the word maverick.

You all know what a “musical maverick” is! He’s the composer who zigs where all those other composers zag!

It does not, however, require any great penetration of the environment of musical composition in the past 50 years, to find that, actually, there is no broad consensus of composers who (herding ruminant-like) are all zagging.

The piquant irony in this reduction of maverick to a cliché is: where the practice among ranchers was to brand their cattle for ready recognition, the Maverick family did not brand theirs. And yet, the indiscriminate slinging of the word in our time is all about branding.

We retreat for a moment to the Baroque era. In rehearsing the Vivaldi Gloria last week, we heard the alto soloist begin her aria with an arresting musical contour:

Compare this to the celebrated opening of one of Bach’s most famous organ works:

Out of consideration for my fellow musicians in a rehearsal, I contained my mirth, of course. But inside, I was laughing with hearty delight.

I shan’t concern myself with any musicological puzzle of “what Bach knew, & when he knew it.” Mine is pure delight in the mere fact of this similarity. In Vivaldi, it is a phrase tucked away in the middle of a multi-movement work, which is largely unknown outside the choral music community; in Bach, it is a phrase which has passed a threshold, onto general cultural awareness. It’s a phrase known to Mickey Mouse, for crumbs’ sake.

Why that should be, is an interesting course of thought. But our task at the moment is otherwise, and freely tangential.

The magnificent Toccata & Fugue in d minor, BWV 565 — and why this organ work of Bach’s has penetrated popular awareness, rather than any other . . . no, no, Judith (says Bluebeard), do not open that door — has accumulated popular associations which are apt to diminish the piece, even as it is raised to the status of a musical celebrity. The piece — the opening, at any rate — has become a brand for menace. A search at imdb.com with the keywords “bach toccata” yields 17 movie titles, ranging from The Raven (1935) to My Stepmother Is an Alien, Gremlins 2: The New Batch and beyond. (With some of these, the brand encompasses self-parodying mock-menace, it must be.)

It is what it is, and I only make the observation; it’s a river I do not have the energies or will to re-direct. Il faut cultiver son jardin.

Besides, it is this fund of cultural reference which fuels the amusement of hearing the amiable saxophones of the Bonzo Dog Doo/Dah Band quoting Bach as the punctuation to Viv Stanshall singing the refrain of “Look Out, There’s a Monster Coming.”

Listening yesterday included:

Elliott Carter, Clarinet Concerto
Vivaldi, Le quattro stagioni
Dvořák, Symphony № 4 in D Minor, Opus 13

[ “for crumbs’ sake” courtesy of my friend Juhan, formerly of Maryland ]


Anonymous said...

A maverick living in NYC is one who has come from some place else to do so, and decides to continue dressing as they did in their native lands (be they South Carolina or Montana or Romania) and not give in to Kenneth Cole, Tommy Hilfiger, any shoe with a square toe, or wear any black at any time.

- Hermanzoon (aka "anonymous")

Karl Henning said...

You never wore black in New York? You must be tragically unhip like me!