Not the Final Frontier. What does Classical Music’s future look like? Guest post by Michael Neno

I think you are going to enjoy this creative and interesting article by Twitter friend and professional cartoonist and graphic designer Michael Neno.

I connected with Michael on Twitter, as one of my first friends. He lives in Columbus. He's an artist. But coolest of all, he's really, really into all kinds of music, especially cool modern classical. And more recently, he did the fabulous graphics for my upcoming site. (End of March, with any luck)

Michael Neno is a central Ohio based cartoonist, publisher and graphic designer. He also listens to an insane amount of music and spends too much time on Twitter. He won the Ohio Governor's Award of Excellence in 1980 and received a Xeric Grant to publish his first comic book, Reactionary Tales.

More recently, he has colored artwork by Mort (Beetle Bailey) Walker for charity, drawn animated frames for a Times New Viking video, drawn illustrations for a recently published western short story, published a critically acclaimed psychedelic comic book, The Signifiers and created character designs and art for one David H. Thomas, clarinetist.

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The Mesh online comic strip:

Not the Final Frontier

By Michael Neno

When I was around nine years old, my father would play the 2001: A Space Odyssey soundtrack at such a high volume level on his expensive stereo system that the walls of my upstairs bedroom vibrated. (We'd seen the film in 1968, when it opened at the Columbus, Ohio RKO Palace, in Cinemascope, so I was used to hearing Also Sprach Zarathustra played loudly.)

The film's director, Stanley Kubrick, intended for the film to work on a subliminal, primal level and he succeeded. Most of Dave's readers know, I'm sure, that Kubrick originally intended to use a score for the film commissioned to Alex North (a good, but not one of the greatest film composers), but Kubrick instead used the classical compositions he had temporarily played over top the scenes he'd directed.

michael neno, not the final frontier
He chose correctly. How appropriate to sonically open a subliminal film with (Karl Bohm's recording of) Strauss’ magnifient Also Sprach Zarathustra, with its nearly subliminal sustained double low C on double basses, contrabassoon and organ before the start of the fanfare.

When I write that I still get chills just thinking about Gyorgy Ligeti's composition Atmospheres (and probably have the entire piece memorized), it again confirms the rightness of Kubrick's decision. I know little of Ligeti's philosophy, but the music (and not just because of its use in this film) has a mysterious, inquisitive nature that reaches beyond Ligeti's aesthetically experimental explorations and says something profound about the mystery of life, of humanity's place in the universe. Bluntly put, it's scary, disturbing stuff, in the same way early '60s commercials are unsettling, with their authoritarian men's monotone voices trying vainly to sound reassuring, telling the audience to purchase cigarettes and dish soap, using a script seemingly written by a computer and inadvertently implying that the world we live in, with all its Huxley-esque pleasures, is a ruse with little free will allowed - a cage where trapped creatures are diverted and tricked into giving their attention to treats. (Kubrick also used Ligeti's music - electronically altered - in the last scene of 2001, in which the astronaut Dave Bowman lives the rest of his life studied by aliens in a physical environment constructed from his own memories.)

Was it only due to my young age that this music had such an effect on me? And, is the sort of music I'm thinking of merely an artifact of the 20th Century, like Ingmar Bergman's films? Those philosophic musings on theology and man's place in the universe are beginning to look like antiques in a world of Quentin Tarantino and The Family Guy.

Another recording burned a similar wound into my psyche: a 45, like Kubrick's monolith, of mysterious origin and purpose. It's an RCA Victor record from around 1955 entitled Lazarus Sampler: Selections from Four New RCA Victor Albums. (Maybe an RCA discographer who’s knowledgable about RCA’s SPA series can post more information here). I'm assuming the Lazarus in the title is the great, dreamy wonderland Lazarus department store, previously of Columbus, Ohio. Did RCA issue national record samplers for regional department stores? It's possible. How that world has fallen; the Lazarus department store is no more and RCA bull-dozed their original classical master recordings into the Delaware river in the early '60s. RCA is now owned by Sony, which ironically now also owns RCA's longtime rival, Columbia.

michael neno RCA Victor
The first of the 45's four tracks is entitled THE FAMILY ALL TOGETHER - Boston Pops/Prelude in C-Sharp Minor. It is, of course, the menacing Rachmaninoff piece, though I didn't know it at the time and still find it odd that his name isn't listed on the record. All I knew was the swirling, malevolent, tragic thrust of the work which even grandfatherly Arthur Fiedler couldn't destroy - the music seemingly having something to do, from the information on the label with a family (but what sort of family?). The music haunted me and still does. The music lives on in new venues, too: the Prokofiev-influenced prog group Muse plays the piece in concert between ear-shattering, guitar-driven epics.

(After searching for an LP copy of The Family All Together most of my life, I finally found one in a Lancaster, Ohio thrift shop. It has an idyllically painted family-at-rest cover, painted by Wilson Smith, which looks faintly like Russian propaganda art. It can found now in five seconds on Google). The liner notes, written by the founder of Glamour and the publisher of Seventeen, extols the virtues of families listening to music together: "Sis is on a new pair of argyles, and now she has learned to follow the wistful sweetness of Debussy's Clair de lune, hum to herself the tender melody Intermezzo." The Prelude, by the way, was transcribed for orchestra by Adolf Schmid, who was born in 1868; he died three years after this 45 was released.).

michael neno, the family all together
The second track on the RCA 45 was entitled PASSION IN PAINT - Henri René/Persistence of Memory and it, too, was startlingly eerie. Now an obscure figure and better known as an early contributor of what became known as space age bachelor pad music, René was a German conductor, arranger and composer who had his own orchestra at RCA when he came to live in the states in the mid '30s.

Again, it took me decades (mostly in the pre-internet days) to track down a copy of the LP Passion In Paint, a collection of musical interpretations of famous paintings. Like the Salvador Dali painting the composition evokes, the music used here is abstract, mysterious, bizarre. On one level it could be considered '50s kitsch - but what '50s kitsch! It's like music from a dream of the essence of the sordid '50s counterculture. It's worth noting that, by the mid-'50s, Dali's own work was reaching the level of (deliriously entertaining) kitsch.

michael neno, passion in paint
The tracks on the opposite side of the 45 were innocuous instrumentals by Bobby Dukoff and The Three Suns (another playah' in the space age bachelor pad movement). In any other context they would be truly unremarkable, but alongside Rachmaninioff and René they seem they seem complicit in some subversive endeavor, tainted by the atmosphere created by the A side of the disc. (Alfred Hitchcock exploited the possibility of the creepiness inherent in The Three Suns' music when he used their music as counterpoint in the background of his film about thrill seeking murderers, Rope. More recently, the ambient/trip-hop group Tipsy deconstructed an album's worth of Three Suns songs and reconstructed them as experimental sonic landscapes on their first album, Trip Tease: the Seductive Sounds of Tipsy:).

michael neno tipsy trip tease
That 45, like a John Cage composition, like a Luciano Berio piece, was like a puzzle from another universe. I incorporated a photograph of it into my surrealistic comic book, The Signifiers, a book drenched in music, from the rap song sung over a heat-seeking bomb, to the Associate Professor of Linguistics (also a mutated crocodile) obsessed with a Ricky Martin CD, to an impromptu concert in a park performed by a bongo player, a flower child, a dwarf and two jazz side men.

michael neno cartoonist
Although I now listen to music voraciously, on a quantitative level much higher than the limited library I had access to as a child (I also obsessed over Rimsky-Korsakov's Scherezade as an eight-year old, along with Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony and Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf) I rarely find music which has the same sort of primal impact on me. Is it the quality of the music created now (or lack of) that's made the difference or was it just the timing of my impressionable mind?

Sir Edward Elgar's oratorio The Dream of Gerontius certainly had a hold on me in the '80s (particularly the Scottish National Orchestra recording, conducted by Alexander Gibson), with its profound and tragically beautiful Catholic ruminations on death and the afterlife. I spent many months listening to the recording on my cassette walkman, alongside Mahler's equally mysterious and monolithic symphonies.

I hear echoes of that lost world of music in some minimalist work and the neo-romantic classical music that's spun off from minimalism; I hear it in Terry Riley, in Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians and in John Adam's Harmonielehre. I hear echoes of that lost world of music in some rock and experimental music today: in much of the work of Muse, in Stereolab's earlier work, and in the (again, Prokofiev-inspired) work of Radiohead, particularly their masterpiece, OK Computer.

These are only fading ripples, though, of something that hit the pond much earlier and the secret, instigating rock, the truth, is hidden somewhere in the modernist movement of the 20th century. The essence of what I'm vainly trying to describe, discover, ferret out, began with Debussy (well, why not just start with Beethoven's late string quartets while we're at it?), peeks out of Schoenberg's Verklarte Night, finds further fruition in Berg, Webern, Varese, Stockhausen, Ligeti and all those hundreds, perhaps thousands of obscure, education system-funded, modern composers who embraced the deliberately inscrutable as necessary orthodoxy and whose only remaining products of existence were low-print-run recordings on obscure record labels - purchased by public libraries as something of importance, then sold for fifty cents (or dumped in a landfill) when CDs became the musical vehicle of choice. Little of this music made it to CD and even less of it is available online. The LPs were their last stop. It's true that much of this music may not have lasting value by any subjective standard. Even so, shouldn't history keep a record (both literally and figuratively) of its mistakes as well as its successes?

Arnold Schoenberg famously wrote that he hoped that someday folks would hum his melodies the way they hum Tchaikovsky's. There was a great heroism in that, though perhaps a naive one. Still, his dream came partially true. The dissonant sounds of his work was incorporated into film scores, leading the way for dissonant complexities in jazz, rock and hip hop. The legacy of Schoenberg is, in a sense, the difference between a '50s doo wop song and an abrasive ’80s sonic assault by Public Enemy; both are post-crooner top 40 hits, but it was classical music (and then, soon, after, jazz) that began laying the groundwork for public acceptance of complexity and dissonance in popular music. It just didn't happen the way Schoenberg thought it would. Instead, his specific methods became institutionalized in the education system and then nearly mandatory. Musical methods such as 12-tone serialism became the orthodoxy of their day. Other methods became worse than suspect.

'50s doo wop song ’80s sonic assault by Public Enemy
When '60s and '70s minimalism found sly pathways back to tonalism and melodicism (as all the post-modern arts found their way back to reality in the '60s and '70s), it seemed a complicit admittance, a mass feeling, almost on the level of a collective unconsciousness, that the modernists had gone as far as they could possibly go - that Edgar Varese, with his crazy bushy-white eyebrows, was not the end but an end to a 100 year musical experiment that had to drift quietly away. The majority of classical music written during that time period has done exactly that. Was La Monte Young's long droning efforts the beginning of the new?

Edgar Varese Maybe it was the modernist movement that was the aberration - in 500 years it may be the music written before Beethoven and after Cage that's considered basic repertoire. Stranger things have happened; even Bach's reputation as a composer had to be rescued at one point. And maybe it's only the happenstance of time that makes modernist work speak to me in ways that other art doesn't. In works like 2001: A Space Odyssey (and, concurrently in the world of cinema, Jacques Tati's Playtime) and in works like Atmospheres, visionary artists seemed to be willing to risk everything, their careers, their reputations, the limits of their abilities, to go places art hadn't gone before, places that ironically (and perhaps inevitably) pointed back to the most primal concerns of humanity.

Like our nearly abandoned space program, I trust that future generations will decide to return to the edge of the frontier, be curious about what lies beyond - and go there. Maybe I'll go there, myself!

michael neno, "not the final frontier"

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1 comment for “Not the Final Frontier. What does Classical Music’s future look like? Guest post by Michael Neno

  1. Thomas Baker
    April 13, 2011 at

    Michael, my boy, I think you might have missed your calling. I have often thought you should have been a writer.

    Uncle Tom

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