Avant Garde: An American Odyssey from Gertrude Stein to Pierre Boulez

Avant Garde: An American Odyssey from Gertrude Stein to Pierre Boulez

Robin Maconie

Language: English

Pages: 340

ISBN: 0810883120

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

Gertrude Stein and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead were unlikely friends who spent most of their mature lives in exile: Stein in France and Whitehead in the United States. Their friendship was based on a mutual admiration for the philosophical pragmatism of William James and skepticism toward the European tradition of intellectual abstraction extending as far back as Plato and Aristotle. Though neither was musical, both were leading exponents of a new orientation toward time and knowledge acquisition that would go on to influence succeeding generations of composers. Through Virgil Thomson, Stein came to influence John Cage and the New York school of abstract music; through his teaching in the United States, Whitehead’s philosophy of time and cognition came to be seen in America and abroad as an alternative to Newtonian neoclassicism, an alternative clearly acknowledged in the metric modulations of Elliott Carter and Conlon Nancarrow as well as the post-1950 total serialism of Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

The seemingly unlikely influence of Stein and Whitehead on Thomson, Cage, Carter, and the minimalists tells a remarkable story of transmission within and among the arts and philosophy, one that Robin Maconie unravels through his series of essays in Avant Garde: An American Odyssey from Gertrude Stein to Pierre Boulez. Maconie explores, from Hollywood to Harvard, the way in which music functions as a form of communication across the boundaries of language, serving the causes of trade and diplomacy through its representation of national identity, emotional character, honorable intention, and social discipline. The study of music as a language inevitably became the object of information science after World War II, but, as Maconie notes, 60 years on, music’s refusal to yield to scientific elucidation has generated a stream of anti-music propaganda by a powerful collective of celebrity science writers. In a sequence of linked essays, Stockhausen specialist Robin Maconie reconsiders the role of music and music technology through careful examination of key modern concepts with respect to time, existence, identity, and relationship as formulated by such thinkers as Einstein, Russell, Whitehead, and Stein, along with Freud, Schoenberg, Wittgenstein, and Marcel Duchamp.

This foray into art, music, science, and philosophy is ideally suited for students and scholars of these disciplines, as well as those seeking to understand more deeply the influence these individuals had on one another’s work and modern music.


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Hollywood with the celebrated but dull “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” of Noam Chomsky. Both are outmatched, in my view, by the finely judged geometrical equipoise of “Do not share, he will not bestow they can reiterate” by Gertrude Stein. Public opinion in England, after Cook’s death and the descent of Paris into chaos, feared the consequences of a French-style revolution. The US colonies had broken ranks, the great southern continent no longer existed as a trading alternative, and the

(alas) Daniel Barenboim, whose recent stint as BBC Reith Lecturer proved to be a public relations disaster for the conductor personally, and for the cause of classical music.20 Poor communication is also the message of Brattico and Terviamini’s paper “Musical creativity and the human brain” (note the adjective). The fault lies not in our stars, meaning the authors, but their musical advisers, unable to provide even the most basic definition of creativity, veering from the fatuous “any musical

penetrating timbre and harder, textured tone, acquired and preserved by constant cigarette smoking sponsored and encouraged by grateful manufacturers. For over a century Scott’s experimental phonautograph records languished in the archives until the arrival of digital audio signal processing enabled the original threadlike waveforms to be mapped onto graphs representing electrical signals and then reconstituted as sound, in a reversal of the orthodox recording process. In 2008 to great acclaim

Fathers, freedom from European governance opened the door to refugees of all cultures and creeds, creating a community of multiple identities connected by love of liberty, advanced technological capability, and a desire for progress, but unable to communicate. In such a situation language is reinvented as a form of state oppression, leaving the arts and music—and Hollywood—as a forum of dreams where fundamental questions of possibility and reality implied by a belief in life, liberty, and the

wife as the epitome of womankind. Mahler who was not only a great composer but had plumbed the depths of his own nature in search of a means to express an exact consciousness of his times was happy to discover that Freud was just as lacking in confidence as himself but also clever enough to recognize that Mahler was a greater artist with a far greater understanding of the human condition than himself. More to the point however is that to understand Gertrude Stein in her own terms of composition

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