Coming distractions

Those of you in the Boston area looking for something to do this Saturday night (November 18): as part of Boston Conservatory’s New Music Festival, I will be a proud temporary member of the student-run Ludovico Ensemble, performing Morton Feldman’s “Three Pieces for Piano” (1954). Festivities start at 8 pm in Seully Hall.

It’s a cool piece that makes for an interesting problem: how much do I interpretively acknowledge Feldman’s mature style in playing this early music? The “Three Pieces” are sparse and quiet, but also much more pointillistic, dissonant, and non-repetitive than Feldman’s later, better-known music. Do I stretch the time out to make the piece sound more like you expect a Feldman piece to sound? Do I emphasize the Webern-esque nature of the writing to highlight where Feldman diverges from the prevailing mid-1950’s path? If I try to strike a balance, will that just make the piece bland? I still have the rest of the week to tinker with it—right now I’m trying for the temporal disorientation I love in so much of Feldman’s output, but the expressionistic side of me may yet win out. Suspense! Drama! All your burning questions will be answered Saturday night.

(It also strikes me that Feldman could be considered yet another exception to the increasingly suspect rule regarding composer careers I promulgated in yesterday’s post. I’m telling you, it takes me forever to wake up on Monday mornings. I still stand by the unwitting persistence of the idea of musical progress, though.)

The Festival runs Thursday through Sunday and includes perfomances by the Argento Ensemble and Harvard’s White Rabbit. (Scroll down this page for a schedule.) The emphasis is on Webern’s influence in America—serialism, pointillism, miniaturism. All the posters have this logo:

I heart Webern
Do you think a bumper sticker of that on your car would result in more traffic tickets, or fewer? (Just don’t drive near the mess hall.)

Update: Tears of a Clownsilly has analyzed the automotive ramifications of said bumper sticker with admirably typical brilliance.


  1. Well, you know you are part of the musical intelligentsia when you can use Feldman and ‘better-known music’ in the same sentence with all sincerity. I suspect that it is mostly among this group that the idea of musical progress has the most traction and that if you ask most classical concertgoers you will find its opposition–the idea that music has regressed. We like to think of the idea of historical progress as a Hegelian invention, but of course its pedigree and that of its opposition is as old as any idea. Virgil’s strongly teleological account of history emblazoned on Aeneas’s shield is one of which Hegel would be proud and like Hegel he answers the question, ‘are we there yet?’ with jubilant yes! Of course, he had Augustus looking over his shoulder. Like today’s audiences, there are always the pessimists like Hesiod and Ovid who want to describe the world as a constant decline from a golden age. The interesting thing is that while the arts are generally a stronghold for liberal thinking, those in the arts like to hold onto the idea of historical progress, which has generally been used to support conservative agendas. (Emperors, conservative politicians, and composers love nothing more than to think of themselves as the culmination of an inevitable, purposeful history). The random walk idea is a good antidote to all this. As is a little Thomas Kuhn or William James who has these words for Hegel’s Absolute:<>It was reserved for his Fichtean and Hegelian successors to call it the first Principle of Philosophy, to spell its name in capitals and pronounce it with adoration, to act, in short, as if they were going up in a balloon, whenever the notion of it crossed their mind.<>So in answer to yesterday’s question “Are we there yet?” my answer is, “Buddy! You missed your stop. We were there in 1827 and we’ve just been joy riding waiting for the wheels fall off this thing ever since. The low-gas light came on in 1913 and for some reason the check engine light has been going on and of since the 40’s.”

  2. Maybe history is driving a Honda—my “check engine” light has been on for some time now, with no noticeable ill effects. (It’s usually either a faulty gas cap or a problem with the exhaust manifold; in either case, I think that allegorizes out to “blame the media.”)I think the difference regarding liberals/conservatives is that liberals still dream of historical progress, but they hitch their abstract cart to equally abstract stars (Justice, Equality, Tolerance, capital letters all), whereas conservatives opt for more institutional symbols (Nation, Church, even a particular person—”the man and the moment coming together,” etc.). If you do the extreme-logical-conclusion thing, that works out to liberals becoming anarchists, and conservatives becoming fascists, which has the ring of truth to me. There might also be something in avant-gardists tacitly supporting the idea of historical progress because it gives them something to rebel against—if you’re trying to <>epatér<> the bourgeoisie, it’s nice to imagine that there will be more and more of them as time goes by.Incidentally, I’m never going to deny it whenever anyone considers me part of the musical intelligentsia (heck, I’m thinking right now that would make a great tattoo), but at least I said “better-known” and not “widely beloved.” (The difference between optimism and delusion, I guess.)Keep your typing fingers limber, by the way… there’s a post on Plotinus coming soon.

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