15 January 2011

James Mulcro Drew and the Creation of Meaning

James Mulcro Drew, photo ©2005 by Kelly Drew Baskett

S   ome years, ago I addressed an audience at an International Webern Society Festival ... The point of my talk was that although Anton Webern was a renowned master, his influence created a ‘dead end’ for countless academic composers who didn’t really know earlier traditions very well, let alone understand Webern’s immense steps. The ability to count to 12 was of no value whatsoever. That was not where the Music was... I was designated a controversial speaker, but no one disagreed with my assessment, as far as I know. When I finished my talk, there was total silence—until George Rochberg yelled out, ‘I think they believe you, Jimmy.’ Organization alone is not a sufficient condition to create a symphony or a painting or any kind of Art work. Somewhere behind the resonating shapes, textures and temporal connections, exists the Music. The task of any artist is to find something that has personal meaning, something to Believe in—that’s the beginning. This has nothing to do with style. It has to do with flashes of light and with contemplation.”
  — James Mulcro Drew, Intention in the Arts, 2009.
A  fter God was assumed to be dead and no one any longer seemed to be in control, the new twentieth century, with the bang of World War I, was well on its way to what was soon to be a series of disastrous human errors. Certainly it is common for both individuals and nations to engage in competitive rhetoric of a political or artistic nature, but the breakdown, instead of the strengthening, of values that occurred in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, an age of spiritual disinheritance, was a collapse characterized by a kind of tittering hysteria... But, to confuse matters even further, the same general philosophy somehow managed to be understood, by many, as representing a ‘modern’ point of view and, therefore, sowing the seeds that equate ‘modern’ with the idea of ‘meaningless.’ The modernness of Monteverdi was not based upon meaninglessness, nor are the black paintings of Ad Reinhardt ‘meaningless.’ Meaningless needs no explanation, but the term ‘modern’ is another matter. Modern is anything that makes us feel new or renewed... As Eliot pointed out, ‘I can make nothing with nothing.’ Art, however, is dangerous—dangerous because, if its subject matter is crucial, it will reflect a doctrine of moral values and therefore will pose a threat to other ideologies. The moral and ethical battle in Art continues. The existential crisis, to quote Lloyd Rodgers, is yours.”
  —  James Drew, liner notes for Mirecourt Commissions CD, 1978.
J ames Mulcro Drew, beloved contemporary composer, died on 23-DEC-2010, aged 81, following a brief illness. He studied with Wallingford Riegger and Edgard Varèse and subsequently taught at Northwestern University, Yale University, UCLA, Cal State, and other institutions. He performed with and co-founded several musical groups, including Crossfire Mission Orchestra in the 1960s in New Haven, Connecticut. Drew combined superb technique and earnestness with humor and insight, to create a variety of original works that will last.

D rew’s style included subtle tonality and voice-leading, along with innovative figures that are challenging and, at the same time, illuminating to play. His contributions and honesty are perhaps most vividly remembered by his students, who experienced Drew’s energetic pedagogy first-hand. His enthusiasm was absolutely remarkable. Music was not a ‘subject’ to be ‘taught’; teaching music was something you did, in an up-close participative way. Nowhere to hide, you must own who you are.

I n a way, Drew’s prescience—his gravitation toward unusual topics and his investment of tremendous personal energy in them, years before other of his colleagues could grasp the point of it and decades before the topics grew to be popular—and his deep interest in Nature and in physics were characteristic features of his personality, ones that propelled the fascination that he held for many of his friends. The compositions of ‘Animating Degree Zero’ (link below) were manifestations of those life-long tendencies.

I n this respect, Drew was not unlike one of my old teachers, Rufus Lumry, a physical chemist at University of Minnesota, who intuited the importance of ionic liquids back in the late 1970s, long before the subject changed from a small, academic curiosity into a vibrant and popular industry.

E ven in his later years, Drew kept pace with the fast-moving areas his innovations had helped to create. With such prodigious activity comes a lot of fatigue and a lot of hype. But with it too comes a peculiar, memorable, enviable brand of perpetual youth. He will be greatly missed.

I   nsisting that the meaningfulness of a work of art depends on its having been created exposes us to an objection: Surely, it may be suggested, the meaningfulness of a work of art can only depend on its having been created if what is there to be understood is the reason why it has been created as it is. That is, we will be driven to suppose that the meaning of a work of art is to be explained (1) by explaining the intentions of the artist or (2) by explaining the historical circumstances which gave rise to the work, and which the work may be understood to express. It may be very useful for understanding the life and mind of the artist to work out her intentions, and it may be important for understanding the history of a period to understand what is shown in a work about the circumstances of its production, but neither of these things—the objection goes—is understanding the work of art itself. As it happens, [to a degree] I agree with the objector... [but] the crucial point is that, at the time of the creation of any given work of art, there are properties of the medium which are there independently of the intentions and beliefs of the would-be creator.”
  — Michael Morris, Doing Justice to Musical Works, in Philosophers on Music, 2010, p. 67.

Mirecourt Trio CD

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