Below is my letter to Dean Rosenthal, composer, a follow-up to my post about Tom Johnson’s new book, Other Harmony:
Well, I think my non-review was really quite simple-minded. Yes, the important issues were raised in very basic terms. But the incredible interweaving of intellect, feeling, aesthetic standards, not to mention history and tradition is very hard to get beyond, thus we have to write theory books, and have to compose (I hate to say write, that’s the nub of it—writing is what we do when we compose, but composing is not about writing).
I see the two poles of minimalism as being something like: trance-music vs. systems music. Minimalism spawned both at the same time. The “counting pieces” of Charlie Morrow (no, never Tom) were in the trance music direction, as much as Tom’s were in the systems direction. True, Tom, if you pressed him, would grant the theatrical reality of the performance, but I never felt he would admit the Dionysian reality of repetition. Freud was certainly correct in trying to incorporate both in his “Id, ego, superego” trio, completely condemned as unscientific by all future scientists of the field. But essentially he was right to “square the circle.” The incorporation of drugs into music was basically an admission that music and intoxication were brother/sisters, and everyone knew that. The early music of Glass and Reich, and many OTHERS was essentially trance music. People in my circle vacillated about trance and system, or tried to just avoid the issue by keeping to technical ground, historical precedent or whatever. But everyone knew that minimalism was “dangerous.” I was fired at Rutgers for practicing “minimal music requiring minimal preparation” by the Harvard trained head of the Rutgers Music Department. (BTW I won my grievance and got tenure because of this man’s dumb move of putting that phrase in writing. Choice of style was sacrosanct even in the academy: it was FREEDOM of SPEECH!)
But he, the head of the tenure committee, knew minimalism was “dangerous.” He even was smart enough to say that it went one step beyond Satie (=repetition) by adding trance. You have to give Wagner credit for knowing that intellect and trance or “swooning” or being transported (as in Dionysian frenzy) had to be combined to get a really great art. (Of course not every piece has to be a masterpiece of swooning logic! What about some little ditty like “This old man, this old man…”).
Even Cage understood, but couched it in kind pseudo-zen: if something is boring, do it for 4 hours. If it’s still boring do it for 8 hours, etc. The music world would never admit into music this Zen saying, either before, during or after minimalism. And I can agree that pure trance without music is not as satisfying as with. Zen was never about artistic satisfaction, or even bodily satisfaction.
My non-review of Tom Johnson’s book also didn’t take on its content. And as of when I wrote my non-review, I still haven’t finished it, though I’ve skimmed ahead to see where it’s going. An actual review of Tom’s book in its own terms would have to be by someone other than me. There probably already is one someplace in the academy.
You [Dean Rosenthal] are the only one who responded to my request for comments, except for Phil Corner who sent me a set of beautiful calligraphic scores. And I wrote back to him this:
‘Your beautiful scores say here and there: “no redeeming musical value.” This seems to buffer you from being thought “music” if it’s “theory” and theory if it’s thought to be music, so you get out of it free—of the controversy. Yes? No?’ He said that was very well put!