UNDISCOVERED GENIUS

A commentary on the history, contexts, and meanings of the word "genius."

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Son of Harpo

Son of Harpo

I think it's the "snooty" aspect of genius I don't like. I have a slogan on my studio wall:

anybody who looks down on somebody else is hanging upside down.

To many people the idea of genius implies exclusivity; only the very best; only this product is worthy of my attention. If somebody is a genius, it HAS to be good; gimme more o' that! It is this confidence in the mystique of genius that has led the public to remain faithful in its affections to artists whose careers began like a burst of brilliant flame, but who, year after year produce a poorer and poorer output (there are many examples); the audience remains faithful because "once a genius always a genius", because they think they are supposed to. They don't really listen to the music and experience it, and thus evaluate it, in its anomalous uniqueness--they rely on pre-programmed responses instead of putting out the effort to meet a difficult piece, at least halfway, one human mind to another..

Confidence in the mystique of genius dulls the edge of critical assessment. This is NOT a good thing, because:

EVERY PIECE EVER WRITTEN IS AN ANOMALOUS ACT OF CREATION.

EVERY PIECE OF MUSIC MUST BE EXPERIENCED IN ITS UNIQUENESS.

Therefore, take a chance every time you open your ears--there might be genius to be found out there in the most unexpected places. Take Bill Marx, son of Harpo.

My admiration for the Hollywood School of composers of the 40's and 50's is boundless. So many timeless musical images were created in that time, in that place. I have no qualms about declaring that "The Bishop's Wife" by Hugo Friedhofer, is the greatest film score ever written.

A truly unexpected treasure store is to be found in the CD "Two Classic Albums from Harpo Marx." There are as many harmonic investigations, misdirections, subterfuges, and surprises in Bill Marx's arrangement of "Laura", (already a pretty convoluted song) as in the densest passages of Schoenberg.

I have mentioned in an earlier entry that the 20th century was an era of irony. This irony is expressed musically, not only through stylistic disparity, but in the very details of the harmonic language; the quest of the 20th century composer has always and ever been a battle against the tyranny of tonality, and, in particular, the inherited relationships of triadic forms to the bass. These composers took a set of harmonic cliches, learned in the class room, and then, as a denial, perverted them with various categories of "false basses." Thus the ideas of bi-tonality and pan-tonality were made possible. I learned this harmonic misdirection technique at an early age when the U of I opera group put on "The Rake's Progress." Stravinsky's master stroke was to present a vision of classical style that was skewed way into the future--

and "The Rake's Progress" is a work of genius. Never mind that there were Hollywood composers who, at the same time, were coming up with some of the exact same musical solutions as Stravinsky, and yet he was a genius and they were hacks. Hmm.

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