This week I am embarking on what promises to be another fascinating journey, and once again it is all because of music. Tomorrow afternoon I leave New York City for France. The primary reasons for my trip are to attend the Winter Meeting of the International Association of Music Information Centres in Nice and then to return to nearby Cannes for MIDEM. Readers of these pages may recall my daily reports last year from this mega trade fair devoted to music of all genres from all over the world. I’ve kicked it up a notch this time around; I’m bringing a FlipCam.
But before I do any of these things, I figured out a way to spend a day in Paris without having to pay for an additional flight. Since there are no longer any direct flights from New York City to Nice (the way I got there last year), I had to make a stop over somewhere. When I explored Paris routes, I saw that it was possible to have a 14 hour layover between my two flights, which is enough time to wander into the city and back and actually accomplish a few things. I wish I was there for an extended period of time so that I might return to the Louvre and other museums I only had a chance to skim during the only other time I have yet been to this treasured city (which was all of two and a half days back in 1989). But this time I’m on a very specific mission. Aside from visiting the offices of the International Music Council, housed in the UNESCO building, and the CDMC, which is the official information center for contemporary French music, I’m also visiting the home of Dimitri Vicheney, the now elderly son of the composer Ivan Wyschnegradsky (1893-1979).
When I was still in high school, I met Johnny Reinhard, who soon thereafter launched the American Festival of Microtonal Music. The first time I visited Johnny to learn more about microtonal music and to help him with his research, he played me a recording of music by Wyschnegradsky. It turned out to be a defining moment in my life. I was totally mesmerized by this otherworldly music—a bizarre amalgam of Russian romanticism and off-the-charts strangeness that was somehow old fashioned and brand new at the same time. It forever changed both the way I composed my own music and the actual music I wound up writing. It made me always think beyond the twelve notes of the piano, even when I decide to use 12-tone equal temperament. (When you grow up thinking that the piano is the be all end all of musical instruments, it’s hard to imagine there are things that pianos can’t do. Yet Wyschnegradsky found ways to getting around the piano’s 12-tone equal tempered limitations by writing pieces involving multiple pianos, tuned microtonally apart from each other.) Equally important to Wyschnegradsky’s influence on my own music, however, is that my obsession with his music also launched my career as a writer about music. I was so enamored of the music I had heard that I tracked down Wyschnegradsky’s address and wrote him a fan letter. A couple of months later, the letter was returned to me with a notification stamped on it informing me that he had died. I was initially crestfallen, but then I did even more to learn about his music, pouring over his Manual of Quartertone Harmony which Johnny had Ivor Darreg’s translation of, studying a copy of a score for his 1929-30 quartertone symphony for four pianos, Ainsi Parlait Zarathoustra,which I discovered was at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, and ultimately writing an obituary for Wyschnegradsky that I hoped someone would publish since I really believed that the general public needed to know about this forgotten genius whose ideas and compositions completely reinvented our musical language. When the obituary was finally printed a couple of years later in Ear Magazine, it was my first published piece of writing about music, an event that directly led to what I now do with a large percentage of my time, including my activities for NewMusicBox.
Fast forward to December 2011. Anthony Cheung invited me to give a talk about Wyschnegradsky at Columbia University as part of a day-long series of symposia on microtonal music held in conjunction with a microtonal concert by the group he runs, the Talea Ensemble, which featured what might have very well been the New York premiere of Wyschnegradsky’s neoclassical but quartertone Second String Quartet written back in 1931. A member of the audience for my talk was the pianist David Witten who serves on the faculty of Rutgers and was attending the symposia to hear a presentation by a Rutgers colleague, composer and Harry Partch authority Dean Drummond, who was talking later in the day. He decided to come early to hear my talk, not because he was a fan of Wyschnegradsky’s, but because he was a friend of Dimitri Vicheney, who is not a composer but an expert on American blues and gospel recordings of the early 20th century and, according to Witten, one of the most charming people I will ever meet.
So more than three decades after I first became aware of a composer who became a major influence on my life, I finally have the opportunity to meet a member of his family. For me it is the completion of an extraordinary circle, and one that would only have been possible because of music. I can think of few other things that have the same power to connect people over great geographic and chronological distances. I look forward to reporting on all my adventures in greater detail in the coming days. Stay tuned.