by Barry Drogin

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In 1993, I published a collection of essays, reviews, poetry and letters under the title, "Cassandra's Curse/Words No One Wants to Read." It was a diverse assemblage, covering my interests on both sides of the Two Cultures, as well as politics and religion. In 1996, I created a festschrift of sorts by publishing the collected poetry of my father and grandfather, plus a handful of my own efforts, under the title, "Generations/Poetry from Three Generations of Drogins." It became clear to me, however, that I had neglected some longer pieces from the past, and had since added some significant writings in the present, all centered on musical topics. I determined to get these works together into their own volume, so as not to disturb the symmetry of "Cassandra's Curse." This I have done with "A Musical Contrarian."

In reviewing the writings and creating this book, I have faced three issues. The first concerns the apparent uniqueness of my viewpoints, shaped as they are by someone who, as Virgil Thomson would say, does not derive his primary income from the world of music. Consideration of this matter has led to my chosen title for the book, borrowed, as it were, from a term used to describe John Adams (the President, not the composer). The second issue has to do with what I perceive to be an inherent difficulty in using words to describe anything, let alone an art form, and especially music. This matter I address directly at the beginning of my extended essay on Wagner. The final issue, one which I plan on addressing as the years go by, concerns the vicissitudes of so-called "specialty publishing," combined with the increasing musical illiteracy of the general population. By creative use of html, scanned gif files and sampled audio files, the act of reading about music, with accompanying score and audio samples, may finally emerge from the dark ages of "dah-dah-dum" and "A-Bflat-D" criticism to a more sensible, coherent form.

Unlike the last two books, then, "A Musical Contrarian" is a living document. At this, its first "printing," musical scores only exist as fixed, visual documents to be scanned into a graphic format and statically displayed on a screen. Although Finale is the best-selling music printing software of the day, its use endorsed (through a member discount) by the American Music Center, there is no free Finale file reader/printer, similar to Adobe Acrobat and its Reader. Similarly, although MIDI is a standard format for describing characteristics of musical events so they can be stored electronically and played back on any MIDI-compatible sound-reproducing source, the language of MIDI, in printed form, is incomprehensible to the human eye and brain.

In addition, because of musical illiteracy, and by this I mean the inability to read Western musical notation (let alone Finale or MIDI file formats), the lack of a standard for transmitting compressed scores is only half of the problem. For the general public to understand, what is needed is simultaneous audio and a synchronized, animated score, something akin to the "follow the bouncing ball" craze of the mid-twentieth century, with the option of Norton score-like greying of de-emphasized accompaniment.

Primitive versions of everything I have suggested are possible now, and may even be available here or there in proprietary MIDI software implementations. It is not my purpose here to predict their development, but to suggest and promote it. It may even be that some of these suggestions are patentable, and by publishing them free herein, I have precluded such a step. I have certainly not performed a thorough patent search to see if someone has already thought up such applications.

I will endeavor, however, to keep this book up-to-date technologically, as we transition from gif and wav to pdf and mp3 to whatever. The classical music world itself has certainly gone through some seismic shocks over the course of my lifetime, as I observe in the manifesto, "Sealing the Coffin of Twentieth Century Music," written originally upon request of composer Joel Friedman. I have travelled beyond the frustration of Charles Wuorinen's "How can you start a revolution when the revolution before last has already said anything goes?" to a mounting despair at classical music's consumerization, mummification and marginalization. See, for example, my comments on the NEA's "American Canvas" report.

Nevertheless, as a Modern Orthodox Jew, I have carved out an unexplored aesthetic sound world to plumb, and I hope some of my writings serve to illuminate my music, as well as the music of a few others. In my Cassandra's Curse letter about Richard Foreman, I mention John Zorn and Gary Lucas as similar investigators in this field.

My participation in a listserv and annual conference on new opera has started to generate an equivalent volume of writings on that field, and will continue to do so, I assume. For example, there are my thoughts on supertitles and comedy. In the spirit of a living book, I have attempted to remove these writings from their original e-mail context through various techniques of re-write.

Finally, I have not yet posted one of my earliest writings, a report on Stravinsky's "Oedipus Rex" packed with musical illustrations. I think it is well rendered despite my youth, and hope to reproduce it in all its glory soon. [October 4, 2004, five years later: "The Handelian Ring: Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex" has been realized using GIF and MIDI files.]

To trivialize Shakespeare with a cliche (but cleverly substituted, if you think about it): If music be your cup of tea, read on!

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A Musical Contrarian 1999-2007

Last Updated: June 17, 1999/August 4, 2007