California Dreaming

In less than 48 hours I’ll be back on an airplane, heading to Los Angeles to catch some of the Phil’s West Coast, Left Coast extravaganza, host a pre-concert talk for one of the programs, attend the AMC’s first-ever board meeting outside NYC (as well as various other events we’ve scheduled to meet up with all the composers in the area), and hopefully also find time to grab a quick bite at my favorite sushi restaurant in the United States (the great Hama in Little Tokyo). It will be my ninth trip to L.A., and my eighteenth to California. Strangely, although it’s on the opposite side of the continent from where I live, I’ve probably spent more time in the land of New Albion than any nearby Northeast locale.

I’ve been a lifelong New Yorker, but I’ve always been emotionally and artistically drawn to the West Coast. However I’m not completely convinced that I’m drawn to a specifically “Californian” aesthetic, since I’m doubtful that such generalizations are possible. Sure Richard Brautigan remains my favorite poet and fiction writer. And folks like Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Raymond Chandler are not far behind. Henry Cowell, Eric Dolphy, Lou Harrison, Harry Partch, Terry Riley, Brian Wilson, Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, even The Residents—California originals all—are on the highest rung of my pantheon of musical heroes. And I have an ongoing fascination with lesser-known women mavericks—the painter Jay DeFeo, the microtonal pioneer Mildred Couper, and another composer I’ve only recently started learning about, Vera Preobrajenska, also all hail from the Golden State.

My favorite film of all time is Californian as well: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which was shot on location in San Francisco. But since Hollywood has been the epicenter of the film industry in the United States, arguably all American motion pictures are a byproduct of a California aesthetic. But here the generalities break down. There seems to be little common ground between the re-imagined worlds of Pacific Rim composers and writers and the relentless pace of most commercial films. (Admittedly Chandler’s dialog, always on overdrive, also doesn’t quite fit.) However, Vertigo does seem to share a similar, non-developmental approach to time with much of the music and poetry I find so compelling. What I treasure about Vertigo is how slow it often is, how Hitchcock incorporates several long sequences completely without dialogue that allow Bernard Herrmann’s mesmerizing music to become foreground. But did the British-born master of suspense suddenly adopt a Pacific Rim aesthetic when he made that film? Most likely not.

It is well nigh impossible to delineate an overarching style for artistic creations in the United States (and indeed the whole world at this juncture now that we’re all so integrally connected to one another), so to try to do so for California will ultimately result in tons of loose threads. How does the formidable music of Andrew Imbrie and Wayne Peterson fit in? Or, for that matter, The Doors, The Eagles, Metallica, and Ice Cube? That said, I’m looking and listening forward to this weekend’s festivities.

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