Deaths in Winter

Deaths come disproportionally in winter (in the northern hemisphere). There’s no sure explanation, but it seems to me the combination of cold and diminished sunlight direct the body towards a natural cessation of activity, and for one already approaching the end of life, it may be perhaps one subtle step to slip away.

Some important, irreplaceable musicians are now gone: Mark Murphy, Paul Bley, Pierre Boulez, and Elizabeth Swados. Read the obits if you want, they all give a good outline of each career, though I have some differing critical views on their individual importance. (UPDATE: Here is my own Boulez obit at the New York Classical Review.)

Mark Murphy

I miss Murphy particularly. The ultimate, true hipster, he gave up a promising career as a matinée idol singer to be a musical expression of the Beats, especially Kerouac. As careerism and consumerism has taken over the professional development of writers and musicians in America, the Beats have become easy to laugh at, in the sense that if one conforms to the crowd, numbers protect the ego with a sense of false courage. Murphy never let go of what is an essential American idea of individual freedom held within the values and morals of communitarianism:

His influence on the most artistically important contemporary singers was profound:

Paul Bley

Bley is a great loss too, although, unlike Murphy, his playing declined over the last decade or so, along with his health. You’ll find Bley’s records under jazz, and he was one of the greatest jazz pianists, but he was so much more—an exceptional improviser who could freely improvise coherent, linear structures, and was an exceptional listener. And he was an emotionally moving blues player. There’s substantial documentation to his career, on records and in books: I’m partial to this great solo CD, and this Black Saint/Soul Note box is the best single compilation (and if you can get one or more of the Life of a Trio CDs, you will have some of the finest small group improvisations ever recorded) . Bley’s own thoughts are important, and he had a capable amanuensis in Arrigo Cappelletti, but read Paul Bley: The Logic of Chance in the original Italian if you can, the translation is literal and un-idiomatic, a tiring read.

Elizabeth Swados

Swados may get lost in the shuffle. She had a tough end, but she left us with a lot of great music, and Runaways should remain a staple of high school and community productions as long as there are kids. Please don’t underestimate how important this is: the music we make and experience when young is the most important music in our lives, and Swados will be inside millions of people.

She also wrote books, including My Depression: A Picture Book, which is an important thing to read for those of us who find ourselves caught in the mental and emotional straight-jacket of self-loathing.

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Pierre Boulez

Certainly everyone will mention Boulez and Le Marteau sans Maître, and that is an important work, but in the negative sense. The piece marks the extremity of decadence of serial music. Schoenberg and his followers used the cool veneer of their music as pernicious, ideological propaganda, developing the idea that their method was objectively correct, the logical culmination of historical currents. Actual history, the accumulation of events, has shown serial music to be both an aberration—it’s heyday, though outsized, was short-lived—and the same as every other style, which first supersedes previous ideas, then grows increasingly solipsistic until it, in turn, is superseded by another. Le Marteau is about nothing more than a technique taken to the nth degree, past the point where it serves a coherent musical purpose.

Boulez was, in all, a notable composer, staking out a place in the continuum where he exerted beneficial intellectual influence and also created some fine pieces of music. Pli selon pli is one of my favorites, along with …explosante fixe… :

As a conductor, his recordings of Stravinsky, Bartók, Debussy, and Ravel should be in every classical music lover’s library (I think his Ravel is the finest on disc). His takes on romantic music are uneven, but at their best are refreshing and satisfying. The salient example is his Mahler: his readings of the Fifth, Seventh, and Ninth symphonies have brilliant moments but ultimately fall apart, while the vocal music comes of well, with a great pulse and understanding of Mahler’s continually forward development.


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I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.