Monday, October 23, 2006

Nostalgia and Cantankerousness

My favorite among the composers’ memoirs I have read is Virgil Thomson’s eponymous volume, published in 1966 when Thomson was 70. His biographer, Anthony Tommasini, calls it “an engaging narrative, cantankerous and sweetly nostalgic,” though he also faults it for a certain “indistinctness” in its characterizations of friends and lovers. That doesn’t bother me because I first read the book not out of admiration for Thomson’s music, which I still don’t know very well, but for its evocation of turn-of-the-century Kansas City, and for the clarity and precision of his prose, and the book rewarded me on both fronts.

I have visited Kansas City only once, and had a good time. My mental picture of the city has also been formed by Edward Dahlberg’s portrait of it in Because I Was Flesh, and by some of Calvin Trillin’s writings about Kansas City-style barbecue. Also, I knew Charlie Parker was born in Kansas City, Kansas, and grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. Thomson emphasizes this distinction in the opening sentences of his memoir:

“To anyone brought up there, as I was, `Kansas City’ always meant the Missouri one. When you needed to speak of the other you used its full title, Kansas-City-Kansas; and you did not speak of it often, either, or go there unless you had business. Such business was likely to be involved with stockyards or the packing house, which lay beyond the Kansas line in bottom land. The Union Depot, hotel life, banking, theaters, shopping – all the urbanites – were in Missouri.”

This is not ex-pat Parisian bitchiness, but its Midwestern cousin. The reason I bring up Thomson’s memoir is because I found a commonplace book I was keeping 20 years ago in which I copied out many of his sentences, including the following, which seem more apropos today than in the eighties or in the mid-sixties when Thomson wrote them:

“Truth is, there is no avant-garde today. Dada has won; all is convention; choose your own. What mostly gets chosen in any time is that which can be packed and shipped. And for everything that can be packed and shipped there is a conditioned public, from the universities, where Cage and Boulez are gods, to those cities, all too common West and South, where Mozart and Brahms are still a rarity and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has not yet been heard.”

And this, from the chapter Thomson devotes to his tenure as music critic for the New York Herald Tribune, from 1940 to 1954:

“My literary method, then as now, was to seek out the precise adjective. Nouns are names and can be libelous; the verbs, though sometimes picturesque, are few in number and tend toward alleging motivations. It is the specific adjectives that really describe and that do so neither in sorrow nor in anger. And to describe what one has heard is the whole art of reviewing. To analyze and compare are stimulating; to admit preferences and prejudices can be helpful; to lead one’s reader step by step from the familiar to the surprising is the height of polemical skill. Now certainly musical polemics were my intent, not aiding careers or teaching Appreciation. And why did a daily paper tolerate my polemics for fourteen years? Simply because they were accompanied by musical descriptions more precise than those being used just then by other reviewers.”

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