This summer, a few musicologist buddies and I decided to embark on a little extracurricular lark: We organized the Weird Tales Reading Group, dedicated to the exploration of fantastical and bizarre pulp stories from the 1920s and ’30s. After making our way through H. P. Lovecraft’s grim oeuvre, we’re now finishing up Robert E. Howard’s steroidal yarns, and soon we’ll be jumping into the work of Clark Ashton Smith, my personal favorite. It’s been a lot of fun to get to know this literature, but in our discussions we’ve often asked ourselves whether we’re reading the weird tales as narratives or as primary sources. In other words, are we encountering stories as readers or cultural products as analysts? Do we enjoy the tales because they’re having the effects on us that their authors intended or because they’re informing us about the conditions of their creation in a compelling way?
I won’t go into great detail about the content of the stories except to say that many articulate, thoroughly reprehensible ideologies—power-worship, death-worship, Spenglerian racial fatalism, and so on. Lovecraft is particularly culpable. In an essay on “Boys’ Weeklies,” George Orwell claims that these kinds of stories are “written in a jargon that has been perfected by people who brood endlessly on violence.” On the other hand, all three of the authors I named above are very striking stylists in both prose and poetry, and they often manage to tell dramatic, engaging stories.
In a way, it reminds me of our project two summers ago: To watch the entire Ring cycle on DVD. Even as my colleagues (musicologists, once again, and theorists) and I marveled at the extraordinary harmonic prolongations, we took every opportunity to slam Ricky Wags for his transparent and unrepentant racism. When the question of whether Wagner was actually a good composer or not arose, the consensus seemed to be that it doesn’t matter: He was a terrible person.
It’s easy to write off Wagner (and Lovecraft) as unacceptable people—and you can do it with an absolutely clear conscience to boot. But it’s always in the back of my mind that someone, someday, might apply the unknowable ethical standards of a future age to me. Maybe American composers born toward the end of the 20th century will ultimately be deemed collaborators or capitulators, implicated in some now-acceptable moral crime. Does anybody else worry about that? It’s only slightly less scary than the tentacled astral horrors that infest Lovecraft’s world.
This week, newmusicscrapbook.com features the music of Zachary Crockett. Zac, one of the project’s masterminds, is by a wide margin our most Byronic composer at the University of Minnesota. Check out the interview for a close-up of Zac’s adventurous attitude toward music-making and his insistence on the importance of ritual; the electroacoustic piece Techno SineNoMine provides a great representation of this ethos.