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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A silly dream...

It’s now about twenty minutes after five in the morning. A foot of snow lays softly on the ground beyond my window, and it’s dark and cold outside. The day is about to begin, but for now there is a moment of silence. It’s January 20th. It’s going to be a historic day as our 44th President takes office in a few hours.


I am writing this shortly after I woke from a dream. It proved impossible to go back to sleep, but I need to tell my story. Sitting at my computer, restless, Microsoft Word beckons me to tell it about the event that just transpired.

It began like other dreams, a confusing hodge-podge of unrelated surrealistic and random events in serial succession, none of which make much sense of all. But then I found myself lost in an unknown urban setting – the bowels of a modern city – a hotel I think. After wandering through a maze of underground hallways and tunnels, I came through a door and exited up into the retail space of a large bookstore. It’s not Barnes and Noble, but a bookstore that sells used books - perhaps Powell’s in Portland, Oregon where I visited on vacation a few years back.

Miraculously, I found myself in the music section of the voluminous bookstore. This is not unusual since I am typically drawn to used bookstores to explore rare and out-of-print editions about my discipline: Music Composition and Theory. I was immediately drawn to one book in particular with a red cover, and pulled it off the shelf. I observe that it is dog-eared, but in good shape and I know what it is immediately. When I open the jacket, I see right off the bat that it had been my book. It still bares my name written in the inside cover, and still contains my carefully written annotations and comments.


The book in the dream was “Serial Composition” by Reginald Smith Brindle, a British composer who’s work was published by Oxford University Press in 1966.








He was an expert on the music of 20th-century Italian composers such as Luigi Dallapiccola, Ildebrando Pizzetti, and Bruno Bartolozzi, and had studied with all of them. Smith Brindle died in 1993 at the age of 86.



I was puzzled how my copy of “Serial Composition” had fallen into the hands of someone else, since I had purchased it decades ago for what was then a hefty price: $6.00. The subsequent owners had apparently added their own names and annotations in the years following my stewardship of the book. I looked to see who they were, and what they had written, but I did not recognize any of them. One owner had written his name in blue ink on the top right corner of the outside cover, although it was vague and blurred from the age of time.

As with many of my books, this one has a unique history, insider anecdotes, and personal associations from the youth of my student days. It had acquired the stains of use and the dust of many years on the shelves from a series of run-down apartments – including a period tucked away in storage between homes.

I purchased the book brand new when I was a year or two out of high school, but referred to it sporadically through years of college and graduate school. At that time practical “how-to” textbooks or technical field-guides about how to write 12-tone music were scant - at least until the American composer Charles Wuorinen published his “Simple Composition” in 1979. “Simple Composition” turned out to be not so simple, and it is just as biased and inane as Smith Brindle’s “Serial Composition.” With the wisdom of 20-20 hindsight, writing any book about the act of composition is impossible, and writing an aesthetically-neutral book about serial composition is just as futile. Nevertheless, both of those books made it to my personal collection of odd-ball artifacts concerning this obscure little corner of the musical universe. I have an entire room filled with out-of-print and out-of-use tomes on modern music and contemporary music theory. It’s a treasure trove of now-historic musical relics.

On little anecdote related to “Serial Composition” dates back to a colloquium that occurred at Brandeis for the graduate students studying composition in the early 80s. Composer Nicola LeFanu, a professor at King’s College London, Oxford educated, and a practicing a serialist, was invited to speak. Her music was familiar to me from her stint at Harvard on a Harkness fellowship in the early 70s because the new music group Collage played one of her works. Only a few faculty members and students made it to the colloquium, but I recall that professors Marty Boykan and Conrad Pope were present. At one point during her impromptu talk, LeFanu took a swipe at “Simple Composition” - the Wuorinen book. I forget precisely what it was that she said, but it was disparaging and contained an overtone of British superiority. With the arrogant over-confidence of a graduate student, I returned the torpedo with the reply, “Well, the Smith Brindle book sucks too.” Everyone got my joke.

In the dream I gaze at the book that I had formerly owned in amazement, but someone comes up to me, sees what I’m reading, and immediately attempts to grab it out of my hands. He’s a young man, has dark hair, a British accent, and is muttering, “I must have that book.” I hold it tight in my grasp, but he is persistent, undeterred, and appears unstable. I assured him that I’ve read it cover-to-cover many times, know its contents, and would be willing to give it to him if he told me why he wants the book so badly. The man can’t make his case. He’s confused and continues to forcibly grab it out of my hands. We engage in physical combat: mano a mano.

I woke up disoriented, covered head to toe with the moisture of perspiration, yet half-asleep. Still in an adrenaline rush, I consciously wondered if I had in fact lost my old book to the used bookstore. I glanced at the alarm clock on my bedside table but all I saw was the LED flashing in red and stuck at 3:26 AM. The electrical power had gone off briefly during the night. Everyone in the house was fast asleep.

I walked over to the adjoining room where I keep all of my music theory books, the flipped on the light. The room is filled to the brim with musical treatises – most of the brainy 12-tone-influenced classics: including “Basic Atonal Theory” by John Rahn, “Post Tonal Theory” by Joseph N. Straus, “Serial Composition and Atonality” by George Perle, “Composition with Pitch-Classes” by Robert D. Morris, “Generalized Musical Intervals and Transformations” by David Lewin, “The Structure of Atonal Music” by Allen Forte, and the pioneering work by Howard Hanson published in 1960: “Harmonic Materials of Modern Music.”

I search through the walls of shelves for the bright red Smith Brindle book. It should be easy to find because of it color and characteristic canvas binding. I can’t find it. It’s not where it should be. Still groggy from my dream, I begin to wonder if the dream could be true. How could someone have gotten their hands on my book? Did I misplace it somewhere in my travels? Did I lend it to someone? Finally I find it hidden behind a front layer of books on the outer rim of the shelf. Speaking silently to myself so as to not wake members of my family who are still fast asleep, I utter “Ah ha, Smith Brindle is safe and intact!” All of my original notes written in pencil scribbled 35 years ago are there too. I had written my annotations very lightly as not to damage the book for the rightful next owner, whoever that may be. The book will survive longer than I. This copy of Smith Brindle’s “Serial Composition” will live in perpetuity.



Dreams are only informative if we listen to their message. You don’t have to be Dr. Freud to interpret my dream and get a sense about what the book represents to me. I’ll leave the analysis to you.

Feeling a sense of relief after finding the book, my next urgent stop was the bathroom. I did what most old men have to do at various times throughout the night… pee.


Links:
http://www.powells.com/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reginald_Smith_Brindle

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicola_LeFanu

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