There’s been a great deal of chatter on these chatter pages in response to Colin Holter’s musings about composer bios. It’s somehow telling that his words provoked a debate about modernism, which seems somewhat inevitable these days.
A charge that was raised herein, and one which frequently gets raised by folks who are anti-modernist, is that modernism engages in a willful obfuscation with the audience. Yet from my vantage point it seems that no one aesthetic position has a monopoly on being obscure just for the obscurity’s sake. And in fact, I sometimes get the feeling that some of those modernists went more out of their way to explain themselves than anyone else.
For example, I recently chanced upon a copy of the score for Wallingford Riegger’s Music for Orchestra in the Strand. Since it was only five dollars, which nowadays is a steal for any orchestral score, I probably would have bought it anyway. But ultimately what made me take it to the register was the fact that the twelve-tone row upon which the piece was generated was printed on the first page of the score along with that row’s retrograde inversion. To someone for whom terms like “retrograde inversion” are de facto erudite this might appear to be the height of pretension, but to me it was a wonderful, if quaint, cipher to help figure out what was going on in the piece, especially since we live in an era where few people want to talk about how they’ve put something together.
Once upon a time even most jazz albums were carefully annotated, and those notes frequently helped clarify or give context for a listening experience. But since the dawn of the rock era, with the exception of occasionally printed lyrics, notes disappeared from recordings in most musical genres. Nowadays obscurantism seems to be part of the zeitgeist, and it transcends genre. Even many contemporary music labels such as Tzadik, Cold Blue, and New Albion largely eschew including program notes with their releases which could benefit from such verbal clarification. And some indie rock albums, perhaps taking the lead from Led Zeppelin’s completely nomenclature-free fourth album, go out of their way not to tell you anything.
Earlier this morning, I was listening to the indie rock band Animal Collective’s brilliant new album Merriweather Post Pavilion which comes in an extremely beautiful package which feels like a present. On the cover there’s a sticker telling you the name of the disc and the band, but it says, “Please remove this sticker after purchase.” Admittedly the cover would look prettier, but then you’d have no idea what the thing is six months from now when it was no longer fresh in your memory. Is it so terrible to have an identity marker? In my heart of hearts, I’d love to have them tell us what kind of lamellophone they used on the opening of “Lion in a Coma”, although I know it might be too much to ask rock bands to include program notes with their recordings.