12 October 2023

Symphonic Anniversary

The egghead’s headache
Pluto, the Gaoler of Nigerian Princes
If I were Hawaiian, I’d invent Hula-we’en
Postcards From Red Squirrel Trail

Both work and living have become more and more pointless and empty. There is no lack of meaningful things that cry out to be done but our working days are used up in what lacks meaning, making useless or harmful products, or servicing the bureaucratic structures. For most Americans, work is mindless, exhausting, boring, servile and hateful: something to be endured, while life is confined to time off. Beginning with school (if not before) an individual is systematically stripped of his imagination, his creativity, his heritage, his dreams and his personal uniqueness in order to fit him to be a productive unit in a mass technological society. Instinct, feeling and spontaneity are suppressed by overwhelming forces. As the individual is drawn into the meritocracy his working life is split from his home life, and both suffer from a lack of wholeness. In the end, people virtually become their occupations and their other roles and are strangers to themselves. The American crisis then seems clearly to be related to an inability to act, but what is the cause of this paralysis? Why, in the face of every warning, have we been unable to act? Why have we not used our resources more wisely and justly? We tell ourselves that social failure gets down to individual moral failure: We must have the will to act, we must first find concern and compassion in our hearts. But this diagnosis is not good enough. It is contradicted by the experience of powerlessness that is encountered by so many people. Today a majority of the people as moral individuals certainly want peace, but they cannot turn their individual wills into action by society. It is not that we do not will action, but that we are unable to act, unable to put existing knowledge to use. The machinery of our society apparently no longer works, or we no longer know how to make it work. The corporate state in which we live is an immensely powerful machine, ordered, legalistic, rational, yet utterly out of human control and indifferent to human values. It is hard to say exactly when our society assumed this shape. The major symptoms of change started appearing after the Second World War and especially in the 1950s. The expenditure of a trillion dollars for defense, the destruction of the environment, the production of unneeded goods. These were not merely extension of the familiar blunders and corruption of America’s past, they were of a different order of magnitude. And although they were all an integral part of a legal, and seemingly rational system, they were surrounded by a growing atmosphere of unreality. The stupidities and thefts of the Grant era were not insane, they were human departures from a reasonably human standard. In the 1950s the norm itself, the system itself became deranged.

— Chas A. Reich, “The Greening of America” in The New Yorker. 26 Sep 1970

The Reich quote above came to my attention courtesy of a recording of Philip Proctor’s reading it on-air as part of the Firesign Theatre’s weekly live (or, generally live) radio broadcast in the early ’70s. The stupidities and thefts of the Grant era” is opaque to me but otherwise the whole of this has stuck with me because in the first place, I first listened to it while I was in rehab recovering from my stroke of November 2018 (the Duke of Madness Motors recordings are on a micro SD card in my phone, and I listened via ear buds) and in the second because in large part it explained the social pathology in which I partially (all too large a part) and willingly (let us say I was groomed into it) participated prior to my stroke. It was a kind of epiphany. I had been working long hours at a wage significantly lower than (for example) the people whom my work supported, in hopes that at some point I should be able to afford to buy a home. That never happened. The work I did, which to some extent I endured, while telling myself that it was work I enjoyed, is not my self, so the schizophrenia of which Reich wrote was indeed my experience, and I have reason to wonder whether it was worth it, since we still rent our living space and are therefore at the mercy of landlords (two of whom have been literally pathological) and I was “rewarded” for my 20-plus years of “sucking-it-up” work with a severe stroke which might easily have claimed my life, if I had not had the great good fortune of realizing that I was in need of serious medical help and crawled hands and knees to a phone to place a call to 9-1-1. I’m not writing to promote Communism or to wave a red shirt, just reporting facts.

Now, at last to the musical business: seven years ago today I reported the start of the Symphony № 1, Opus 143 on this blog. Mind you, in not-at-all-rare “I don’t always blog very promptly” fashion, I blogged of having posted to Facebook two days prior. And thus, this is what I posted to Facebook seven years ago today: While no more notes have landed on the page since Sunday’s session, there has been (in a musically pertinent sense) mental activity. Partly, I’ve thought of events/passages to follow (setting many of them temporarily aside, as not The Right Thing for measure # 58, where the score of the first movement presently stops); partly, I’ve been digesting the musical Stuff of what is presently composed. This last may sound odd. “He wrote it; doesn’t he himself get it?” But recall that my goal this weekend past was a musical object possessed of a certain sufficiency, to serve as a lump of workable sonic clay. It was the result of musical caprice, an impromptu. In a word, I thought it sounded fairly good, and that it was something to work with; yet the creation was a, I wont say a speedy affair, but the idea was, do first, and reflect after. (There are many situations in Life where that is not the way to proceed, but I’ve found I can compose like this to no one’s hurt.) So one of the things I’ve done is, study my own score, reduce the pitch material to a compact phrase, the clearer to make further use of what is already in the piece, so that the composition contains, among other things, ample self-reference and musical affirmations. That done ... I now go to paper. Just regular, blank paper, to sketch, arrange, fiddle with verbal and graphic scribblings with which my inner ear will associate a variety of musical elements and ideas, some of them more or less specific, some of them vague but nevertheless real. The broad idea is a kind of blueprint, although I caution you from considering it as anything as fixed as an architect’s blueprint must perforce be. The arrangement, ratios, and content of these visual blocks will quite probably alter over time as I work on the piece; since of course what ultimately matters is the success of the sound of the music. This sort of sketch is a kind of “pre-compositional” activity which I’ve used in the past, although by now, in quite the distant past. It is an ancillary process which was very helpful earlier in my composing, and which I largely internalized. It’s kind of a fun “back to basics” activity which, I think, helps me to ritualize and affirm this formal embarkation upon the composing of a symphony. So that’s the tale for today.

No comments: