How about a week without American culture?

The worst fears of many about a Trump presidency are coming to fruition, especially with the implementation of the federal orders banning entry to anyone from born in one of seven Muslim countries (though not the worst, like Saudi Arabia or some of the Gulf states, with strong business links), or who holds dual nationality. Not to mention the ongoing plans for the Mexican Wall. And Britain’s excuse for a Prime Minister has offered Trump a full state visit, before tootling off to sign a lucrative arms deal with another dictator, President Erdoğan of Turkey. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world…..

But getting angry may not achieve anything, least of all convince the millions of Americans who strongly support Trump’s actions, and previously have shown ferocious support for capital punishment, horrendous rates of incarceration of those convicted of petty offences, an insane gun culture which causes annually over 10 000 more deaths of Americans (at the hands of other Americans) than any other cause, use of gas-guzzling cars for small journeys and contempt for the very idea of climate change, not to mention neo-imperial military action against many other countries who are not necessarily compliant towards the US.

The issue is, to me, why we continue to legitimise a tacit view which assumes that the United States stands at the centre of the world, but only economically and militarily (both of which might be able to be shown with some degree of objectivity), but in cultural and intellectual terms too?

With this in mind, I have a proposal, which I will implement in a hard-line form for the duration of February, and recommend to others in milder manifestations. How about, first of all, going a week without partaking of any culture produced in the US? I do not want to limit this in terms of ethnicity, allegiance, ideology, and so on, simply down to where it was produced, as far as this can be ascertained fairly. So, just put on hold for now, any novel, poem or play from an American writer, any music produced by American musicians, any American visual art, any American films or TV, and so on. Then see how many times this becomes an issue, and this may give some indication of the extent to which your cultural habits are dominated by US culture. Try and make a point of seeking out something from elsewhere instead. For example:

  • If you were going to watch South Park or Family Guy, how about looking into some comedy and animation from elsewhere? There has been loads of such work from Eastern Europe over an extended period – this blog should give some pointers.
  • If you were going to listen to any African-American popular music, how about trying something from one of the 54 countries in Africa instead (or by African diaspora communities in countries other than the USA)? Try some of the work of Afrisa, or Prince Nico Mbarga, Hugh Masekela or King Sunny Ade, just to take a few of the most obvious examples?
  • If planning to listen to American minimalist music, how about trying some non-American alternatives? For example, the work of Louis Andriessen, Michael Nyman, Kevin Volans, Gavin Bryars, Arvo Pärt, Karel Goeyvaerts or others? Some might dispute the use of the term ‘minimalist’ for some of these, but assertions of unity amongst even the classic American ‘minimalists’ look less and less tenable all the time. Nyman himself just today pointed out to me that when he coined the term ‘minimal music’, it was when reviewing a performance at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1968 of Springen by Danish composer Henning Christiansen, played by Charlotte Moorman (US) and Nam June Paik (Korea, moved to US in mid-30s).
  • If planning to watch an American film, think of the many other countries with such important film industries as well, and how about watching an Italian, Russian, Iranian, Chinese, Nigerian or Argentinian film instead? From these and many many other countries, there is a vast amount to see, of all types. Just avoid the easy option of watching one of the usual blockbusters, and seek out something different.
  • Post-1945 American art is endlessly celebrated and anthologised – why not check out what was being produced in France, Sweden, Italy, Japan, during the same period?

And so on and so forth. I intend to do this for the whole of February, but my suggestion to others is this – try doing it for a week, and then the following week, limit US culture to no more than a third of what you watch/read/listen to/etc (which is still a huge percentage), and stick to that for the rest of the month. Do this for the sake of diversity and to challenge the notion that the country which now has Trump as President, and refuses entry to millions of people of Muslim origin, should continue to exert cultural hegemony as well.

This is not kneejerk anti-Americanism – I have in my office at work hefty volumes of poetry of William Carlos Williams, Lorine Niedecker and Charles Reznikoff which I had hoped to get round to soon, but they can wait. Instead, I will have a read of the new volume of the poetry of Basil Bunting which I received recently. I will have some works of John Cage and Morton Feldman to practice in advance of a concert in Oxford in early March, but as far as listening more widely to these, I have spent vast amounts of time before – I would sooner spend more on Franco Evangelisti or Henri Pousseur or Bent Sørensen or Yuji Takahashi. And lots and lots of recordings of Sardinian, Iraqi and Japanese traditional musics on which I’d like to spend more time. And films I have and have been meaning to watch from Dziga Vertov, René Clair, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Melville, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Dušan Makavejev, Zhang Yimou, Abbas Kiarostami, Nagisa Oshima. And many others which are lighter fare. Sam Fuller, David Lynch, Harry Smith, Kenneth Anger, Sidney Lumet and John Cassavetes can wait, great though they all are.

An further, an invitation: do leave a comment here with recommendations, of any period, genre or whatever, of any type of books, plays, films, music, art, etc., from all the other countries in the world. Imagine, as John Cage said, that the US is just one country in the world, no more, no less.

None of this will stop Trump, for sure, nor is it a substitute for pressing political action. But just perhaps, if a great many made a conscious effort in this respect, the hegemonic power of the United States in general upon people’s minds might be diminished and become more proportionate to its undoubted cultural achievements.

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Fifth Concert of Finnissy Piano Music – Piano Concertos, Gershwins – and Lecture on Experimental Music

On Tuesday September 27th, 2016, at City University, beginning at 18:00, I will be giving the fifth concert in my series of the piano music of Michael Finnissy, to celebrate the composer’s 70th birthday. This will contain Finnissy’s two piano concertos for solo piano, nos. 4 and 6, and both books of his Gershwin Arrangements (about which more can be found on this separate blog post, including links for all of the original Gershwin songs). The concert will be in two parts, an early evening concert at 18:00, and a main concert at 19:30. Places can be reserved here. The programmes are as follows:

 

Michael Finnissy at 70: The Piano Works (5)
Performance Space, City University, College Building, St John Street, London EC1V 4PB

Concert 1: 18:00
Piano Concerto No. 6 for solo piano (1980-81)
Love is here to stay (first version) (1975-76)
Gershwin Arrangements (1975-88)

Finnissy - from Piano Concerto No. 6

(From Piano Concerto No. 6 (1980-81))

Finnissy - from Fidgety Feet

(from ‘Fidgety feet’, Gershwin Arrangements (1975-88))

 

Concert 2: 19:30
Please pay some attention to me (1998)
More Gershwin (1989-90)
Piano Concerto No. 4 for solo piano (1978, rev. 1996)

Finnissy - from Piano Concerto No. 4

(from Piano Concerto No. 4 (1978, rev. 1996))

The Piano Concerto No. 4 is by some measure Finnissy’s most manically virtuosic piece, and this is a rare opportunity to hear it live. I gave the world premiere of the revised version in my 1996 series of the piano work and have since performed it many times and recorded it (as I have the Piano Concerto No. 6 and all of the Gershwin Arrangements).

There will be further Finnissy concerts in London, Egham and Oxford in October, November and December, details of which I hope to confirm very soon, including a performance of the complete (four-book) Verdi Transcriptions , and the complete cycle The History of Photography in Sound, as part of a wider day at City University of events relating to Finnissy’s work.

 

Furthermore, on Wednesday October 12th, at 17:30 I will be giving a lecture postponed from earlier this year (due to industrial action).

Lecture:Ideological Constructions of ‘Experimental Music’ and Anglo-American Nationalism in the Historiography of post-1945 Music’
Room AG09, City University, College Building, St John Street, London EC1V 4PB

Abstract: Since the publication of John Cage’s essay ‘Experimental Music: Doctrine’ of 1955, a dichotomy has informed a good deal of historiography of new music between ‘avant-garde’ and ‘experimental’ musics, especially following the publication of Michael Nyman’s book Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond in 1974. Nyman very clearly portrayed ‘experimental music’ as a fundamentally Anglo-American phenomenon, allowing almost no European composers into his pantheon. This opposition was itself foreshadowed in various writings of John Cage and Morton Feldman, and since the appearance of Nyman’s book has remained a prominent ideological construct, even feeding into other oppositions such as ‘high/low’ music, ‘uptown/downtown’ or ‘modern/postmodern’.

In this paper, I trace the history and development of the concept of ‘experimental’ music in several types of literature published in Europe and North America from the 1950s until the present day: general histories of music of this period, histories of American music, the writings of Cage, Feldman and Wolff, secondary literature on these figures, and other work dealing specifically with ‘experimental music’. I argue that from the late 1950s onwards, there was such a large amount of cross-fertilisation between composers on either side of the Atlantic that the opposition is unsustainable, but its perpetuation served an ideological and nationalistic purpose. Above all, by portraying a group of British and American composers as occupying an aesthetic space at an insurmountable remove from a (simplistic) picture of a European ‘avant-garde’, this facilitated special pleading on the part of the former for programming and other purposes. Even as some writers have grudgingly conceded that a small few continental European composers might also be considered ‘experimental’, they have constructed them as utterly on the margins of a perceived European mainstream to such an extent as to question their very ‘Europeanness’. Remarkably, this opposition has also been continued by various European writers, especially in Germany.

I also argue that the rhetoric of ‘experimental music’ has some roots in mythologies of the US frontier which have informed constructions of its canonical musicians. In place of this, I stress the strong European (as well as American and Asian) provenance of Cage’s thought and work (via that of Duchamp, futurism, Dada, the Bauhaus, Joyce, Satie, Varèse, Webern and Meister Eckhardt), and suggest that Feldman’s romantic, anti-rational individualism can be viewed not only in a clear lineage from nineteenth century European aesthetic thought (not least in Russia), but also in stark opposition to Cage’s anti-subjectivism. And finally I paraphrase Cage’s preface to Lecture on the Weather (1975) to argue that the music of the U.S.A. should be seen as just one part of the musical world, no more, no less.

 

I hope all with an interest in this subject will want to come along.


Ian Pace, May 2016 – Finnissy Concerts and Lectures

[Please note: the lecture on May 25th has now been cancelled due to industrial action. It will now take place on Wednesday October 12th] 

Ian Pace will be playing several major concerts featuring the music of Michael Finnissy during May 2016, following the great success of his recital on February 16th, the first in his series of the composers’ piano works (in this concert including English Country-Tunes and other pieces), to celebrate Finnissy’s 70th birthday.

Finnissy - from Song 9

(From Song 9)

Saturday May 7th, 19:30. York Late Music Series, St Saviourgate Unitarian Chapel, St Saviourgate, York YO1 8NQ.

See this link to book tickets.

Beethoven, Rondo in A, WoO 49
Percy Grainger, My Robin is to the greenwood gone [Settings of Songs and Tunes from William Chappell’s ‘Old English Popular Music’ Nr.2]
Michael Finnissy, Beethoven’s Robin Adair (2012-15) (World Premiere)
Andrew Toovey, First Out (2016) (World Premiere)
Steve Crowther, Piano Sonata No. 3 (World Premiere of revised version)
Luke Stoneham, Magenta Cuts (1994)
Laurence Crane, Slow Folk Tune: Sheringham (2014)

This concert features a major new extended work written by Finnissy for Ian Pace, Beethoven’s Robin Adair, a set of free fantasies and variations on the folk song ‘Robin Adair’ as set by Beethoven in his Verschiedene Volkslieder WoO 157 No 7. The remainder of the programme was picked by Finnissy, and includes works by long-term associates and colleagues Luke Stoneham, Laurence Crane, and Andrew Toovey (with a new work written for Finnissy’s 70th), as well as the new version of Late Music artistic director Steve Crowther’s Piano Sonata No. 3, originally premiered by Ian Pace in the series in 2015, and other works of Beethoven and Percy Grainger with which Finnissy feels a strong affinity.

 

Tuesday May 10th, 19:30
Michael Finnissy at 70: The Piano Works (2)
Hollywell Music Room, Hollywell Street OX1 3SD

See here for further details. Tickets available at the door.

Song 5 (1966-67)
Song 6 (1968, rev. 1996)
Song 7 (1968-69)
Song 8 (1967)
Song 9 (1968)
Nine Romantics (1992)

– Interval –

Ives-Grainger-Nancarrow (1974, 1979, 1979-80) 
Liz (1980-81)
B.S.-G.F.H. (1985-86)
Ethel Smyth (1995)
Joh. Seb. Bach (2003)
Wenn wir in höchsten Nöthen sind (1992)
Rossini (1991)
What the meadow-flowers tell me (1993)
Preambule zu “Carnaval”, gefolgt von der ersten und zweiten symphonischen Etüde nach Schumann (2009-10)
One Minute W… (2006)

This is the first chance to hear all of Finnissy’s Songs for piano for twenty years, when they were played by Ian Pace in part of his 1996 cycle of Finnissy’s piano works. These works (part of a wider cycle for various instruments) take their cue from a series of films by the director Stan Brakhage), which can be viewed here. Also featured in the programme is Finnissy’s little-known Nine Romantics, a bleak tribute to the Victorian artist Simeon Solomon, whose career was ruined after arrest and imprisonment for cottaging. The second half of the concerts features a series of short ‘portrait’ pieces of various composers to whom Finnissy is drawn, short fantasies on the names of Bernard Stevens and Georg Frederic Handel, two very different reflections on a cantata and an organ chorale prelude of Bach, a rather unhinged setting of an aria from Rossini’s Semiramide, a mysterious assemblage deriving from a movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony, and more recent free transcriptions based on works of Schumann and Chopin (Finnissy’s rendition of the Minute Waltz).

 

 

[Postponed to Wednesday October 12th] 
Lecture:Ideological Constructions of ‘Experimental Music’ and Anglo-American Nationalism in the Historiography of post-1945 Music’
Room AG09, City University, College Building, St John Street, London EC1V 4PB

Abstract: Since the publication of John Cage’s essay ‘Experimental Music: Doctrine’ of 1955, a dichotomy has informed a good deal of historiography of new music between ‘avant-garde’ and ‘experimental’ musics, especially following the publication of Michael Nyman’s book Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond in 1974. Nyman very clearly portrayed ‘experimental music’ as a fundamentally Anglo-American phenomenon, allowing almost no European composers into his pantheon. This opposition was itself foreshadowed in various writings of John Cage and Morton Feldman, and since the appearance of Nyman’s book has remained a prominent ideological construct, even feeding into other oppositions such as ‘high/low’ music, ‘uptown/downtown’ or ‘modern/postmodern’.

In this paper, I trace the history and development of the concept of ‘experimental’ music in several types of literature published in Europe and North America from the 1950s until the present day: general histories of music of this period, histories of American music, the writings of Cage, Feldman and Wolff, secondary literature on these figures, and other work dealing specifically with ‘experimental music’. I argue that from the late 1950s onwards, there was such a large amount of cross-fertilisation between composers on either side of the Atlantic that the opposition is unsustainable, but its perpetuation served an ideological and nationalistic purpose. Above all, by portraying a group of British and American composers as occupying an aesthetic space at an insurmountable remove from a (simplistic) picture of a European ‘avant-garde’, this facilitated special pleading on the part of the former for programming and other purposes. Even as some writers have grudgingly conceded that a small few continental European composers might also be considered ‘experimental’, they have constructed them as utterly on the margins of a perceived European mainstream to such an extent as to question their very ‘Europeanness’. Remarkably, this opposition has also been continued by various European writers, especially in Germany.

I also argue that the rhetoric of ‘experimental music’ has some roots in mythologies of the US frontier which have informed constructions of its canonical musicians. In place of this, I stress the strong European (as well as American and Asian) provenance of Cage’s thought and work (via that of Duchamp, futurism, Dada, the Bauhaus, Joyce, Satie, Varèse, Webern and Meister Eckhardt), and suggest that Feldman’s romantic, anti-rational individualism can be viewed not only in a clear lineage from nineteenth century European aesthetic thought (not least in Russia), but also in stark opposition to Cage’s anti-subjectivism. And finally I paraphrase Cage’s preface to Lecture on the Weather (1975) to argue that the music of the U.S.A. should be seen as just one part of the musical world, no more, no less.

 

Friday May 27th, 18:00 and 19:15
Michael Finnissy at 70: The Piano Works (3)
Performance Space, City University, College Building, St John Street, London EC1V 4PB

See here for more information and to book tickets

Concert 1, 18:00
Svatovac (1973-74)
Three Dukes Went A-Riding (1977, rev. 1996)
To & Fro (1978, rev. 1995)
We’ll get there someday (1978)
Terrekeme (1981, rev. 1990)
Taja (1986)
Hikkai (1982-83)
Cozy Fanny’s Tootsies (1992)
John Cage (1992)
Five Yvaroperas (1993-95)
Tell-Dirais (1996)
Vanèn (1991)
all.fall.down (1977)

Concert 2, 19:15
Folklore I-IV (1993-94)

The centre piece of the third concert in Ian Pace’s Finnissy series is the 70 minute cycle from the early 1990s, Folklore. This work takes its initial cue from what Finnissy himself describes as ‘Gramsci’s imperative to compile an inventory of the ‘infinity of traces’ that historical processes leave on ‘the self’.’ The work navigates its way through a variety of ‘regions’, defined in terms of their musical folklore (Norwegian, Rumanian, American, etc.), interspersed with extended passages imitating Scottish piobaireachd,  as well as the African-American spiritual ‘Deep River’, and also intercut with moments of extreme passion and violence, as well as allusions to early influences, representing the composer’s own personal ‘folklore’. The early evening concert contains a series of other pieces taking their cue from folk music (Macedonian, Azerbaijani, Sardinian, Australian Aboriginal), a series of three pieces all revised from his earlier (now withdrawn) Piano Studies, and a few more portraits or tribute pieces, including a series of five in memory of the late pianist Yvar Mikhashoff. There is also a very rare chance to hear one of Finnissy’s most pianistically demanding pieces, the hyper-virtuosic all.fall.down.

 

Preview for June 1st, 18:00, Public Debate, ‘Are We All Ethnomusicologists Now?’
Performance Space, City University, College Building, St John Street, London EC1V 4PB

In a now-notorious 2008 article (‘We Are All (Ethno)musicologists Now’, in The New (Ethno)musicologies, ed. Henry Stobart (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2008), pp. 48-70), Nicholas Cook suggested that the boundaries between subdisciplines of music had become more porous so that “distinguishing between musicology and ethnomusicology seems … as hopeless as it is pointless.” This led to his oft-cited statement: “we are all ethnomusicologists now.” Does Cook’s provocation stand up?

The panel will consist of (in alphabetical order) Amanda Bayley (Bath Spa University), Tore Lind (University of Copenhagen), Laudan Nooshin (City University London), Ian Pace (City University London), and Michael Spitzer (University of Liverpool), and will be chaired by Alexander Lingas (City University London).