A MacArthur for Seth

by Barry Drogin

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Marin Alsop, 2005's winner of a MacArthur “genius” award, played violin at the reception for my wedding. My first wedding, that is, a small affair that began in a tiny synagogue (really a house buried in the canyons of Greenwich Village that never managed to be destroyed to make way for its neighbors), and proceeded, in make-shift parade fashion, down Fifth Avenue, to an odd space full of hanging carpets, scattered chairs and tables, and a small clearing that would serve as a dance space. At the time, Marin Alsop was not a world-famous conductor but the leader of an all-female all-strings swing band called “String Fever.” My fiancée and I hired String Fever to play their own collection of jazz standards in unique arrangements. We didn’t hire the entire band, just a string quintet and percussionist. I also invited my composer friends to submit works for the “performance,” and got an interesting collection: Beth Anderson was lazy and submitted one of her “swales,” my teacher, Gil Robbins, the oldest of the composers, submitted the most radical piece, which incorporated chance operations. Mark Lampariello (now known as Mark Lambert) submitted a spectacularly funny rewrite of “The Blue Danube” called “How About a Nice Vietnamese Waltz?” that, during rehearsal, reduced the cellist to speechless laughter. I submitted a hora (this being a Jewish wedding), which secretly evolved into a suite of melodic selections from my Jewish opera, Love and Idols.” The first joke was to trick our guests into dancing to my music; the second was that only my bride, from whom I had kept the music a secret, recognized the selections, since “Love and Idols” has still not, as of this writing, ever been performed or released on recording.

I am still waiting for my MacArthur. If there is any justice in this world, any true recognition of talent and genius, then I don’t see why I shouldn’t be getting that telephone call. I am patient, however. For example, I have long conceded that I wouldn’t mind if David Rodwin, a natural creator of music-theatre who co-founded Raw Impressions and is patiently waiting for the world to catch up to him, got his first. To this very short list I would like to add the name of Seth Gordon.

If I am to claim any philosophical contribution to the culture, it is my belief in hypocrisy. Just as the Existentialists attempted to bring angst into the consciousness of humanity, so have I been trying to achieve acceptance of hypocrisy. And just as the Existentialists didn’t mean that the culture should consist of nothing but angst, that only an aesthetic creation mired in angst had legitimacy, so, too, am I not insistent that only hypocritical pieces and writings should predominate post-post-modernism. I just want hypocrisy acknowledged as a common part of every human’s existence. And once you acknowledge it, you are willing to tolerate it, accept it, and, on occasion, embrace it. It expands your repertoire of the feasible and possible.

I first “met” Seth Gordon on-line in a free-for-all sponsored by the American Music Center known then as the NewMusicBox Forum. I was experimenting with an on-line persona modeled on the name of my publishing company, Not Nice Music, and Seth was struggling to define himself. In fact, this year Seth finally paid his dues and became a member of the American Music Center, although I cannot explain to you why.

Seth pays the rent by working as a librarian in a college library, and he supervises a motley crew of pay-their-way -through-college interns, many of whom do not appreciate the subtleties of the Dewey Decimal system to Seth’s satisfaction. After all, these students managed to be accepted into college – how could they be so stupid? I, on the other hand, was frustrated by the stupidity of the establishment, of the assumptions that mired my elders in blindness. In youth, I saw possibility; in youth, Seth saw ignorance. Although it ostensibly had no connection at all to the topic of new music, we engaged in a prolonged on-line battle that was undoubtedly ignored by the other readers of NewMusicBox. I defended youth, he denounced it. I assumed he was older than I was and out-of-touch; in fact, Seth is younger than I am and much more in touch with youth culture than I will ever be. We never reached an impasse, and some rather nasty insults were traded back and forth.

Professionally, I have achieved some success as a project manager, the principle function of which is to remember countless small details about a project, see the forest for the trees, and make sure everyone else who is working on the project is aware of what everyone else is up to, and that no detail falls through the cracks. As I move from project to project, my brain purges itself of these details to make room for the countless details of the next project. It is probably this talent for purposeful forgetfulness that led me, mere months after my heated argument with Seth, to lead me to leap to his defense in another context dealing directly with music. To this day, Seth cannot understand how, after dismissing him so directly, I could come to defend him with equal passion. To be honest, I simply forgot that the Seth I was passionately defending was the same Seth I had dismissed as an ignorant and prejudiced old codger. Years later, after countless (you may count the number of times I use “countless” in this essay) on-line exchanges and private e-mails, we finally met, face-to-face, in a favorite restaurant of mine in the West Village, and had a wonderful conversation. Since that encounter, we’ve kept in touch, through e-mail, on the telephone, and, when we can, in person. You see, Seth is relatively poor and living in Brooklyn, and I am relatively poor and living in Manhattan, and our mutually exclusive provincialism tends to strand us in our own boroughs.

Our music is as different as can possibly be imagined. I write intricate paper music, to which I strive to add elements of improvisation, freedom of performance, the un-notatable. For many years I wrote a cappella vocal music whose aesthetic was incontrovertibly tied to “live” performance – no microphones, no conductor, a direct connection between performer and audience (I even enjoy breaking the “fourth wall” and performing from within the audience). I use text, and subtext as well. Seth, on the other hand, creates electronic pieces with no melody, long moody pieces that incorporate samples, noise, that proceed at a glacial pace. Whereas in my active “now” the audience is constantly surprised and awakened, in Seth’s active “now” the world must stop, take a break, and be open to delicacy and tone. Seth does not write “ambient” music which you are supposed to ignore, he does want you to listen; but to listen, you must enter Seth’s world, which can be difficult but is worth it.

Seth, like me, tends to be smarter than everyone around him, and more knowledgeable. He is enormously open-minded, and knows more about cutting-edge electronic and youth culture than I could ever hope to absorb, and so he is a great resource for me. We come at each other from such different places that we know we will part having learned about something new.

This is not to say that Seth, like me, does not have his enemies. Seth hates John Zorn and Kyle Gann, not for what they get right, but for their mistakes, which they refuse to acknowledge. I embrace hypocrisy, so I am willing to grant people their mistakes and move on. The editor of NewMusicBox invited Seth to write an article in defense of pop culture, and Seth did so, brilliantly, and, to the editor’s horror, quite viciously. It’s a spectacular trashing of all of the false idols of contemporary “classical” music; a special place is reserved for Milton Babbitt, who Seth baits relentlessly. The piece is also full of misspellings, bad grammar, the most non-academic prose that one could possibly imagine. And it’s a brilliant piece, making its argument, if not with grace, then with force and humor. The editor would not publish it without alterations that Seth found completely unacceptable, so Seth posted it on the Internet as a satire of NewMusicBox and all it stands for.

Seth has had a difficult life, but this difficulty cannot necessarily be heard in his music. His penchant to create enemies is legion – I am, perhaps, one of the few of his enemies to move on and become, instead, a friend. Seth has many other friends, as well, but, I fear, none that are in a position to get for him the MacArthur that I know he deserves. But he does. Listen to his music. Read his writings. Try to accept Seth for what he is: an original, a talent waiting to be discovered, a genius. Seth, I’ll wait. You can get your MacArthur first. Or maybe, if I get mine first, I can get the Foundation to give one to you.

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Last Updated: August 4, 2007