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Dangerous music – Alex Ross, Dr. Pinckney and Me

April 23, 2010

Jill and I sat down in the plush seats of the old Fullerton Hall auditorium in the Art Institute of Chicago last night, there to hear New Yorker music critic Alex Ross speak about the intersection of 20th century music and literature. Mr. Ross’ recent book–The Rest is Noise—Listening to the Twentieth Century—which very entertainingly reviewed the much maligned music of that dear departed century and won all sorts of prizes and was named one of the best books of 2007 by The New York Times, delivered a fine talk.

Though Mr. Ross’ discussion of Schoenberg, Debussy, Berg, Mallarme, Verlaine and others was outstanding (thanks very much to the Art Institute’s year-long Looking at Modern celebration of all things modern) and I got my copy of The Rest is Noise autographed, what I’ll remember most was the elegantly tweedy gentleman who creakily made his way down the aisle and then plopped down in the seat next to mine.  We then had a lovely conversation.

Dr. Edward Pinckney, retired professor of Art History and Music (a “bloody academic”), Kings College, London lamented the fading art of music criticism but firmly stated that our Mr. Alex Ross was one of the best in his memory, though he did concede that the bomb-throwing radical Richard Taruskin was certainly well worth reading.  Mostly, I nodded in agreement, happy that I could keep up with him, knowing most of the names he mentioned and probing Dr. Pinckney a bit on Taruskin’s recent and provocative The Danger of Music which I have read and found to be most stimulating.

This really isn't Dr. Pinckney--it's Kingsley Amis--but it could be...

You will notice that I am beginning to write and sound like Dr. Pinckney.  His courtly manner and conversational skills are catching and I found myself comfortably seated in the Reform Club in St. James, London, sharing a nice claret at the end of a successful day amidst the piles of books and dusty scores in the British Library interrupted only with a cuppa tea and a side trip to Foyles’ vast bookshop.

Dr. Pinckney, easily in his eighties, when asked how he came to be out here in the wilds of Chicago, replied that he had never been to the States until five or six years ago when he finally roused himself up and made the trip to New York.  He loved the place and since then, it is required that he spend no less than six weeks, twice per year in the US—Chicago included, which, naturally he loves.  And by the way, he prefers to travel by train whenever possible.  One is better able to see the country that way.

A recording of the final moments of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune flowed through the auditorium’s sound system—gorgeously gauzy washes of strings with tones skittering all over the map—and I looked at Dr. Pinckney, eyes closed and his right hand lifted discretely in front of him, moving with the music, conducting and channeling this music that, though over one hundred years old is still provocative and still irritating conventional music listeners everywhere.  And that was the curiously upbeat lament Alex Ross came to deliver—while shocking paintings by Picasso or Pollack generate millions, shocking music by Stravinsky or Schoenberg created at the same time generates groans.  But everybody has their own 20th Century—yours, mine, and everybody’s—and they’re all different, all valid, all valuable.  Last night, it was a pleasure to watch Dr. Pinckney conduct just a bit of his.

Stravinsky writes another dangerous note

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From → Music, Scribblings

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