Remembering Arthur Berger The Week of His Birthday.
There is a certain slant of light, springtime afternoons, flooding through the large, open window with a fresh, cold wind that brings Arthur Berger’s Duo for Cello and Piano(1) to mind. Arthur Berger was sometimes described as an “intellectual composer”. Whatever that means. He was a composer, writer, analyst, critic, and a part of any intellectual scene wherever he happened to be. Perhaps closer to the point, Virgil Thomson, a fellow composer, critic and one of his friends, talked about his “sidewalks of New York charm”. So, here we already have a dichotomy, or at least two things usually considered as opposites. Maybe the strong sun light and cold spring wind should count as a third point of view. What’s the truth? Having played some of his pieces and studied more of them, I am happy to testify to the intellectual brilliance and the charm, he had both in abundance. Beauty of sound, the ability he shared with Luigi Dallapiccola(2) to find exactly the right note, tone color and expression, and to put it in exactly the right context, might stand in for the primary witness above.
Someone asked me why I don’t write more about music, since that’s clearly something I know more about than evolutionary psychology or cognitive science , about which I’ve spent enormous numbers of skeptical words. While music is what I got my formal training in, I don’t know if that’s true. I don’t think anything more is known about music than the technical aspects of how to produce it. Music is an order of sounds (3), it is possible to learn how to produce musical orders intentionally to attempt an effect. On that level music is a skill instead of a collection of theories, observations, measurements and speculations. That I could talk about easily, though it makes for rough reading and it really doesn’t contain any information useful to non-musicians. It’s only in the sense that it is a skill to be practiced that someone can “know” something about music. In that sense, it is entirely like speculations about the mind, only with a practical component.
I could tell you that roughly measures 25 through 31 of the first movement of Berger’s Duo move me to an all encompassing state of ecstacy every single time I hear it or play through the piano part. Just remembering how that passage sounds can take me out of myself. I could try to think of further metaphors or write a formal technical description, to give a partial explanation of what happens at that time in the music and then guess why it produces that effect. All of that might be entirely true, in part, and entirely useless in total. Any elucidation that someone reading that description might think they’ve received would be deceptive. It would tell you nothing useful, it might endanger your own experience of the music. I would have to motivate you to experience the music, to listen to it, complete and in its entirety, to have any hope that you could know what I was talking about. No one who had not heard the music would know the first thing about it.
The culture of scholarship, text and reflection, is all well and good but it carries danger when it is placed in supremacy over actual life. Life, the whole stream of experience and action as lived, not arbitrarily cut into segments to be digested and published. Scholars dwell on their publishable and teachable work, the materials of their careers, jealously guarding its repute, hardly ever admitting to their intentional selection out of the entire body of possible information. Actual, direct experience is not susceptible to scholarship. It is by its most basic nature, personal, the experience of a single person, invisible and variable, in its deepest essence indescribable. That is something that the aforementioned behavioral scientists(4) should keep in mind, something that a composer could tell them, something such a musician should never forget.
The very selective, partial view of life, which makes up the work of a scholar, can be very useful, it can produce things and objects that enhance health and increase life-span, it can enrich experience. But when those things are ideas about real life, their entire effects, good and bad are often not able to be apprehended. Sometimes the added component of history proves that ideas thought good or innocuous in the abstract are deadly. Far from just being the plaything of a dreamer or a brick in a scholar’s career, an idea can’t be viewed as an end in itself, it has to be seen in as full a context as possible. Unconsidered in the full context, ideas can carry the danger of overtaking the whole of life.(5)
1. Also Hear: An Arthur Berger Retrospective New World Records NW 360-2
Joel Kroskick, cello Gilbert Kalish, piano and others.
Almost all of Berger’s works are or have recently been available on CDs. I have heard and would recommend all of them. If you can find it I would also recommend the old CRI recording of Berger’s music in the American Masters collection. The recording of his Chamber Music for 13 Players, conducted by Gunther Schuller, is particularly wonderful. I've seen three dates in different places of when his birthday was but they were all in this coming week. This week would have been his 95th birthday. I loved Arthur Berger and his music very much.
2. Talking about your neglected composers. John Harbison made this observation about Dallapiccola’s ability as a composer.
3. Susan K. Langer: An Introduction To Symbolic Logic. Langer’s several simple observations about music in this book stand as the most insightful general statements I’ve ever read by someone outside of the profession.
4. It is exactly this selective feature of these reductionist schools practice that makes me very suspicious of them and alarmed about the resulting conclusions they seem to demand. Those who insist that only one mechanism of evolution, the crudest part of natural selection, is the supreme guide for understanding practically everything , strikes me as too likely to produce a superficially appealing mannerism (6.) instead of a view of reality. It closes off too many possibilities of real life from consideration, even, at times, substituting fables with no known real life evidence as possible explanations.
5. If music was an area of life that could produce life and death consequences, a danger to freedom, it would be dangerous. Hearing, quite involuntarily, Les Preludes by Liszt the other day, the story of its association with the invasion of Poland and the suspected motivating force of Wagner’s work might be noted here. I do so without prejudice, as a suggested supplement to the observation.
6. I’m fully aware of the irony, I read Perspectives in Music Theory too.