May 11, 2008

More News That Isn’t


Back in 1985, I took a required Aesthetics course at the University of Wisconsin. Absolutely miserable course. The professor was an arrogant, self-satisfied douche, but that was hardly the issue. It was a course about the philosophy of art in which we didn’t look at a single painting or sculpture, didn’t listen to a single piece of music or watch a single film. It was a twelve-week course about art without any art. What we did instead was read long-winded essays by dusty academics who deigned to know what constituted “good” and “bad” art without ever citing a single example.

            I found this a waste of time, and as the semester rolled on I found myself growing more and more irritated.

            So when it came time for the final paper, my irritation (as well as my general outlook) led me to write a fifteen-page essay entitled “Terrorist Bombing as Twentieth Century Art Form.” Or something just as snappy.

            It didn’t get a very good grade. The professor wrote in the margins that “the premise makes no sense.” That alone left me feeling justified.

            Were I to write and turn this paper in today, of course, the FBI would show up at my dorm room, and I would be sent far, far away.

            That’s neither here nor there. Just a sad given.

            Now, I’m not a big fan of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s music, personally, but I do appreciate it. He was one of the most significant and influential composers of the twentieth century. He was also a man obsessed with discordance and destruction, and one—like Dali—who had a tendency to say things that were perceived to be “outrageous.” Outrageous by banal standards anyway.

            So given all that, I wasn’t surprised in the least a few years ago when, at a press conference, Stockhausen referred to the attacks on the World Trade Center as “the greatest work of art that is possible in the whole cosmos.” It made perfect sense to me. The attacks really were like a visual interpretation of one of his compositions. He was, after all, writing music for an age of collapse and annihilation, so I could easily imagine him watching the towers come down, thinking to himself, “Man I should’ve written that.”

            (More than anything, though, his comment  left me thinking that he’d somehow cribbed it out of my Aesthetics final.)

            Well, as you can imagine, people who knew nothing about Stockhausen, people who lord knows had never sat through a single piece of music by Stockhausen, got all pissy and itchy and outraged at this. For two or three days there, Stockhausen (at least according to the local papers) was worse than Satan. The nerve of that kraut to say such a thing!

            Then everyone forgot about it. Last year, Stockhausen died and his WTC comments were barely mentioned.

            Then the schedule for this June’s Bang on a Can music festival was released.

            For those outside New York, Bang on a Can is an annual New Music festival, featuring mostly contemporary composers like, oh, John Zorn, Steve Reich and that lot. Although I don’t go to the festival myself, it’s again something I appreciate. It’s one of the last vestiges of a New York that was known for radical, avant garde, unpopular culture.

            Most people, see, would find the offerings abrasive and unpleasant. Not much of anything you could snap your fingers to. But there are still a few weirdies around (thirteen of them at last count) who prefer hearing new experimental music to the same inoffensive commercial jingle computer modulated crap we’re inundated with all day long.

            So those people—the weirdos—took a look at the line-up, saw nothing amiss, and ordered their tickets. But then some jackass happened to notice that, along with works by Brian Eno and Arnold Dreyblatt, a piece by Stockhausen was scheduled to be performed a few blocks from Ground Zero. Heavens!

            Those other thirteen, see, knew who Stockhausen was, knew full well what he said, and didn’t consider it that big a deal. But jackass there picked up his phone and alerted the media to this “unthinkable outrage,” and the media ran with it. A couple of outlets made it the top story of the day—some of them frothing about the “grotesque” and “shocking” and “insulting” decision to perform this monster’s music so close to holy ground.

            The organizers of this year’s festival told stunned and disbelieving reporters that no, in fact there had been no complaints about their choice. But I can guarantee there will be some now—complaints and hair pulling and protests on the part of people who, again, don’t know and don’t care who Stockhausen was. But insane ignorance hardly matters in a case like this. He said what they perceived to be an icky and naughty thing about 9/11, so it’s time to get the torches and pitchforks out of the closet.

            Okay, it’s the job of the media to uncover things we might not know about otherwise—police corruption, crooked politicians, juicy celebrity gossip, aliens on the K-Mart board.

            But this? It seems to me that someone’s working awfully hard to churn up a whole bunch of nothing into a controversy. It’s almost embarrassing to witness how obvious the whole thing is.

            Stockhausen was the godfather of what came to be known as the New Music scene, and remained a central figure to the end—it only makes sense that a year after his death, a festival celebrating New Music would in some way honor him. It would be weird and shocking if it didn’t. Yes, he said an outrageous thing—boo fucking hoo. Personally, I’m deeply offended by the high-end Tibetan fashion boutique that opened up down the street, but you don’t see me whining on the television or writing strong letters of protest. No—I simply opt to buy my Tibetan dresses elsewhere.

            What Stockhausen said was perfectly in character, both in terms of his music and his personality. He was a German artist, for godsakes! It’s part of the contract!

            My god we live in a stupid nation.

            Then again, if you think about it, the fact that a piece of his music would generate outrage and protest even after his death would probably make Stockhausen smile. And will probably be good publicity for the Bang on a Can festival, too.


            Makes you wonder if maybe the organizers didn’t plant this story themselves. If so, good for them, I say—media manipulation is so very easy and so much fun.

            And for the record, I still stand by that paper I wrote, so there.


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