Mandarins and stumblebums – the music of Michael Fiday

by John Halle

 

In a now notorious essay from 1966, the New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer spoke for what was probably the consensus in describing recent works by Philip Guston as those of "a mandarin pretending to be a stumblebum."  The naked light bulbs, hooded klansman, trash heaps, and beat up sedans were unwelcomed reminders of a pockmarked domestic landscape separating the American dream from a less than halcyon reality. Welcome to the real world, Guston's paintings declared; many in the art world didn't like what they had to see.

 

It would take composers another generation to begin to realize Guston's vision in musical form - to come to terms with the analogous characteristics of the American sonic landscape. In confessing to his friend, the composer Morton Feldman, that he was "tired of all that purity," Guston anticipated composers' rejection of the modernist fatwa on referential sounds and recognizable sonic images.  The sentiment could have served as a rallying cry for composers beginning their careers at the tail end of the 20th century.

 

Of the composers implicitly or explicitly influenced by the Gustonian vision, Michael Fiday's finely honed series of small masterworks stand out for their eloquence, immediacy and sophistication.

 

It is likely not a coincidence that the two share certain similarities in their artistic trajectories. Both hail from blue collar backgrounds, Guston, famously, a junk-dealer's son in Los Angeles, Fiday the son of a staff automobile mechanic for the city of Colorado Springs.  Both regarded the traditions of their disciplines with a respect bordering on reverence, with the unjaded eye of the outsider looking in.  Guston's childhood and teen years were devoted to the intense study of Giotto, Pierro Della Francesca, and Massacio; Fiday's were spent in violin lessons and string sections of community orchestras where he acquired by osmosis and by instruction a thorough grounding in traditional forms and orchestral sonority.  In their artistic maturity, both pursued their disciplines with a near monastic intensity and high degree of self-criticism (Guston in particular was reported to have spent months in front of a canvas without managing a single brush stroke), resulting in a small yet singular body of work. 

 

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The similarities begin to dissolve, as they inevitably must, when artistic disciplines separated by two generations are compared. One important difference derives from a broad attitudinal shift towards what has been referred to by the musicologist Robert Fink as the post-canonic epoch: whereas Guston may have doubted the significance of his own contribution, he was never in doubt as to the chasm separating high arts from what was then universally derided as commercial art, or "kitsch."  In contrast, there is a general recognition that classical music has now become, in Fink's words, "one style among many, and by no means the most prestigious."

 

Fiday's generation was the first to have operated in a post-canonic climate, in which the mandarin and stumblebum inhabit the same ground. The mandarin elements of classical form, unproblematically celebrated in Guston's day, are present but only detectable as an underlying genotype in Fiday's works. The phenotypical characteristics are typically Gustonian, the scraps of a musical culture now defined by 

aurality.  The literate signifiers of concert music of previous epochs, the Alberti basses of the classical, the extravagant gestural lexicon and lush instrumental textures of the Romantic era, the disjunct melodic leaps and fractured rhythms of high modernism, are available but have no privileged status among the collection of vernacular found objects.

 

Thus Dharma Pops takes for granted a universal "classical" referent, but in the form of the curious trinity of beat legend Jack Kerouac, bebop jazz great Charlie Parker, and Zen Buddhism – under whose umbrellas are found Bach-like sequences, heavy metal scrapings, and Cagean silences. Amidst the various mandarin elements, stumblebums abound – most notably in Fiday’s evocation, in haiku number 7, of vaudeville entertainer Nat Wills, aka “The Happy Hobo.” The Kerouac haiku recitations commenting on each proceeding movement may recall the atmosphere of a Greenwich Village coffee shop, but this is placed before the listener at a remove.  For, unlike Parker's improvisatory flights of genius, Fiday's creations exist in the form of a primary text - a musical score conveying instructions to performers who themselves put their own interpretative stamp on the elements.  Ultimately, the effect is to encounter the beat generation as one would a prehistoric insect encased in amber.

 

9 Haiku, inspired by Basho's ancient texts, assembles a similarly rich, heterogeneous class of found objects but require a very different interpretive framework.  One finds, most strikingly, formal counterpoint, specifically "close" canons - the super-imposition of two melodic lines, one slightly offset from the other. The resultant phasing effect suggests not so much the baroque but rather the omnipresent digital delay unit of contemporary pop production.  Similarly, the spacious textures and open fifth harmonies suggest a Coplandian Americana, whose sprawl is arrested and directed by the imposition of dwarfish proportions musically embodying bonsai - the botanical analogue to Basho’s metered aphorisms.

 

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Equally intriguing are Fiday's series of works for percussion, themselves the found objects of the instrumental world.  Here the boundaries between the seemingly hard wired categories of noise and sound become equally phantasmic, as non-pitched elements assume center stage supplanting pitch in dictating the structural scaffolding of the work.

 

"same rivers different" define two poles of the percussive spectrum: the pure timbres produced by the resonant steel bars of the vibraphone announce a minimalistic premise, simple but by no means simplistic, which is gradually combined with, challenged and then magically obliterated by the aperiodic sonic color of drums skins, wood blocks and metal plates. A well known fragment from the writings of the pre-Socractic philosopher Heraclitus – “Upon those that step into the same rivers different and different waters flow…They scatter and…gather…come together and flow away…approach and depart” – provides a springboard for the overall pulse of the piece, which Fiday describes as “like a river – sometimes straight and steady, other times with abrupt twists and turns. You hear the same music three times, followed by a slow apotheosis – but like the fabled Heraclitean stream, you can’t step back into the same music more than once.”

 

"Automotive Passacaglia" offers another take on a different beat era sacrament, "the road" as the domestic analog for the Dharmic spacial void. The title, taken from a Henry Miller essay of the same name, acts as a point of departure for the 12-note passacaglia theme which functions, in Fiday’s words, “as the vehicle that transports the listener through diverse musical terrain, first taking shape in the middle register before gradually branching out and gaining momentum during its course.” One imagines Dean Moriarty's Colorado sojourn having included pulling up to Fiday seniors’ garage for service, though the journey following is perhaps considerably more eventful than Taoist quiescence would seem to require.  The Passacaglia revs up the putative V-8, as the heldentenor of the percussion section, the piano, reverts to its Lisztian Romantic ancestors bursting forth with explosions of filigree, much like (in Millers’ own words) “a steam calliope playing Chopin in a tub of grease."

 

"Hands On" was composed for the Dutch percussion ensemble Slagwerkgroep Den Haag, who premiered it in a series of “stokkenthuis” concerts in which the players were forbidden to use drum sticks. Informed by surface features of both Indian and West African drumming, the music is almost entirely rhythm-based, the vibes contributing only, in Fiday's words, "a thin strand of a chord progression," shunted into the background by striking rhythmic motives and subtle variations in texture which serve to propel the piece forward.

 

Dedicated to Fiday's mentor, the distinguished Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, the work can be seen as a rejoinder to Andriessen's "Workers Union," a ur-sixties anthem in which workplace liberation is compositionally embodied by conferring on the performer unlimited freedom of choice in pitch and instrumentation.  The precise notational instructions of "Hands On" suggest a somewhat different view of the labor/management, performer/composer transaction, namely that true artistic freedom (and social liberation) consists, in Robert Frost's words, of being "easy in the harness.” The results of Fiday's success in negotiating this relationship is a combination of rhythmic aggression and hard-headed formal rigor, but with a lightness of affect - the smile on the face of the buddha, or perhaps the legendary bongo playing physicist Richard Feynmann.

 

Having focused its gaze on the world outside of the concert hall "Hands On" prepares us for "Protest Song," a commentary on protest in the post-political new century ushered in by Sept. 11.  Peter Gizzi's eloquent text starkly renders a society frozen in paralysis, one which has resigned itself to the futility of rousing ourselves from our slumbers.  The phantoms of the golden age of protest sleepwalk in a haze, musically embodied by Fiday's stunningly evocative orchestration of a small ensemble. The hushed string harmonics provide a canvas on which these sentiments, which we already know to be at the core of our contemporary political experience, demand attention.

 

Insofar as there is an ultimate subject unifying such a wide diversity of works, it is that they all make an immediate claim on our attention, demanding that they be not just heard, but actively experienced and thought about. By applying to everyday objects a faultless ear for pitch and sound, a fluent and deeply internalized awareness of rhythm, and a fertile imagination, Fiday shows that scraps of ephemera can find themselves iconized as art.  The musical canvas upon which Fiday works has a place for mandarins and stumblebums alike, and virtually everything in between.  Insofar as post canonic artistic culture has a place for what it is that composers do, Fiday's music makes about as strong a case as could be imagined for it.