Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Awaking the slumbering blog

I recently had a very strange encounter with the works of an author whom I greatly respect. I didn't quite know what to do with this knowledge, so reactivating this long-dormant blog seemed the best course.

Alex Ross, the venerable music critic for the New Yorker, is releasing his first book, "The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century" in October. I await its arrival with bated breath. In the July 9 issue of the New Yorker, "Apparition in the Woods," his chapter on Jean Sibelius (and, more broadly, about the European "small-country" composers in the early 20th century), appeared. The following anecdote is the piece's final paragraph:

In 1984, the great American avant-garde composer Morton Feldman gave a lecture at the relentlessly up-to-date Summer Courses for New Music, in Darmstadt, Germany. “The people who you think are radicals might really be conservatives,” Feldman said on that occasion. “The people who you think are conservative might really be radical.” And he began to hum the Sibelius Fifth.

Below the link to this piece on the New Yorker's website (I confess that, unless I am at home, the Internet is the only format in which I read the magazine), a link to a piece from 1998 by Ross on the music of Sibelius was included. It's clear that some of the reporting for the earlier piece went into the book chapter -- no harm in that. But the same anecdote about Feldman's lecture appeared in the 1998 piece, with an unsettling discrepancy. The following quote comes from page 2 of the online version of "Prospero's Songs."

Morton Feldman modelled certain aspects of his hazily beautiful work on Sibelian effects. In a lecture at Darmstadt, the capital of the postwar avant-garde, Feldman proclaimed, “The people who you think are radicals might really be conservatives. The people who you think are conservative might really be radical.” He then began to sing the Sibelius Fourth.

In the book chapter, Feldman hums Sibelius' Fifth. In the 1998 article, he sings the Fourth. I don't know whether the oversight is the fault of Ross or his editors. I respect Ross tremendously, read his blog semi-religiously, and even worked with him in a writing workshop this past January. He's been somewhat of an idol to me since I chose to pursue music writing and criticism several years ago. But this disparity between two different versions of the same event has unnerved me. Why would the New Yorker's editors place a link to a story with an error alongside a newer, more polished work and invite this kind of confusion? Is the source that Ross consulted regarding Feldman's lecture in 1984 reliable? Though I have Ross' e-mail address, I didn't feel comfortable approaching him with this discovery. It might all be a simple matter or nothing more than a careless error. All the same, I felt compelled to report it.