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The Preparation

February 20, 2015

IMG_1598Last night Amy Williams played the Cage Sonatas and Interludes from 1945 on a properly prepared 1898 Steinway piano. It was gorgeous.

“Ah!” said Williams before the concert as she fixed the screws and bolts between the strings. “I get to play this on a prepared piano, so it’ll sound the way it should. You can practice it on an unprepared piano, but this is such a radical piece when the piano is prepared.”

“It’s 70 years old” I said. “How can it be radical unless we’re living in a really reactionary period?”

Later that night I dreamt of a woman living in an ancient time; or not so ancient, perhaps the 16th century. It was her life’s work to learn, and to share with her people, somehow, a different way of hearing, a radical new way of listening to their world. In other words, she needed to modify the existing neural connections that were the common audio processing channels for the humans of her time, and to pass it on, somehow. To open new pathways in the brain for sound; it was probably dangerous work. I watched her in my dream. I have no doubt this woman actually existed.

After the concert as she was removing the extra hardware from the strings Amy said, seemingly astonished, “It felt so romantic. I don’t remember it ever seeming so romantic before.”

“Well it’s a beautiful piece” I said. “Why wouldn’t it feel romantic? That’s just what Cage meant when he said that sooner or later everything becomes melodic. It’s the 21st century; we know how to listen to this music.”

I think we have to stop calling things ‘avant-garde’ unless they really are. And hopefully we don’t think about it at all. Nothing from the 20th century is avant-garde. The hallmark of the avant-garde is that it is, at least initially, not necessarily incomprehensible, but unable to be processed through the normal neural connections. The avant-garde will always require new pathways, new junctions, wider and maybe deeper streams for the data channels. When those new channels are formed, events are experienced through the senses to the mind smoothly, without friction, discussion or thought. Once these new paths are established, the music is not avant-garde, it is simply music.

It is the 21st century. That ancient woman did her work. We know how to listen to this music.


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