jandek’s ‘song of morgan’ 9 cd box set: the annihilation of experimentation/ ‘your art is stuck, stuck, stuck’
i’ve been gone from this review blog for a while and i set it up to only review the most unknown ends of underground music but i feel i have to discuss just why jandek’s nine cd box set of piano pieces is a dead end and a reactionary gesture which represents the ‘monster’ from cardew’s desemation of the work of john cage.
ghosts have some sort of dilemma; they can never be alive. monsters have one; they can never be human…there’s no reason he [cage] can’t shuffle his feet over to the side of the people and learn to write music which will serve their struggles. (cornelius cardew, ‘stockhausen serves imperialism’
jandak’s music is stuck, stuck as the art of billy childish was stuck when racy emin called it ‘stuck, stuck, stuck’ and just as childish took a reactionary delight and even pride in this so jandek has done with this set.
since at least satie there have been great leaps forward in how the piano is approached as an instrument and how works for piano are scored; over little more than 100 years the piano has moved from a repository of the western classical tradition to a sound source to be used as the artist and/ or composer sees fit. this can be through the free improvisation championed by cecil taylor, the revolutionary notations of morton feldman or the use of modified piano by cage and wolff but none of these seem to have impacted on jandek, none have figured in his nine hours plus of polite improvisation which seeks to evoke none other than Debussy wi it’s titles and insistance on being pretty, being musical.
over 100 years of experimentation forgotten, ignored, compromised and betrayed by an artist who has made a name for himself by pushing instruments in odd and interesting directions.
as american government sits in stasis, as the far right take over his homeland, as freedom disappears, as people die for want of medicine what does jandek offer? a retreat into a seemingly more innocent world of music as an abstract, beautiful form.
i do not support cardew’s attack on the avant-guarde in ‘stockhausen serves imperialism’ but it is a useful tool to use against this monstrosity. let me quote two passages:
nowadays a cage concert can be quite a society event. the audience has grown and it’s class character has become clearer in proportion. what happens nowadays is that revolutionary students boycott cage’s concerts at american universities, informing those entering the concert hall of the complete irrelevance of the music to the various liberation struggles raging in the world [pp. 156-7
at bottom, the mystical idea is that the world is illusion, just an idea inside our heads. then are the millions of oppressed and exploited people throughout the world just another aspect of that illusion in our minds? no, they aren’t. the world is real, and so are the people, and they are struggling towards a monumental revolutionary change. mysticism says ‘everything that lives is holly’, so don’t walk on the grass and above all don’t harm a hair on the head of an imperialist. [p. 168]
jandek’s retreat into a pre-modernist classical tradition betrays not only social movements but also music itself and, in the end, the listener who is lulled to sleep by the promise of beauty in a world where to live is to struggle.
all quotes from ‘cornelius cardew:a reader’
"Over 100 years of experimentation forgotten, ignored, compromised and betrayed".
On the plus side, this is one of tiny number of Jandek reviews that treats the performer as a rational adult delivering consciously crafted art - in terms of the general level of Corwood critique, this is like the sun coming out. But Jandek’s appeal is that he belongs to nothing - sure, there’s a vague connection to a blues tradition but he is the closest thing we have to an artist truly existing in a vacuum and it’s amazing how little this has changed in the live era. Jandek’s work has *ALWAYS* forgotten and ignored (or has not engaged with) what was happening around him musically. If an artist with such a limited profile can successfully betray and compromise 100 years of experimentation in a single release, what those 100 years developed must have been seriously weak. He would deserve a medal if “The Song Of Morgan” successfully destabilised all of that. I’m also not convinced that Jandek can simultanously be critised for changing tack (which making a “retreat” surely involves) and be accused of being “stuck” at the same time. An unwelcome diversion is still a diversion.
Jandek’s music undoubtedly simplifies when he sits by a piano - as several live albums have already taught us, he’s largely a white note keyboard player (“Glasgow Monday - The Cell” demonstrates this perfectly). But look at the whole of what he has done here. A nine CD set is a massive gesture. On the sleeve is easily the youngest photo of himself he has ever used and the only one where he is a child. This must be deliberate. He has illustrated this comparatively simple music with a picture of himself from when most people’s lives are at their most simple - we have no way of knowing if this is true for “The Rep” as an individual, but it’s a semantic match. And what if he isn’t disengaged after all? Perhaps he is actually entirely aware of the world around him and has been thoughtful enough to - 35 years in - finally add a safe space to his jagged, brutal, unyielding catalogue, a gentle dreamscape to balance the dark shadows, deep loneliness and post-traumatic nightmares found elsewhere in his lengthy recording career. Remember that Corwood’s timeframe now crosses 5 different decades and has seen conditions every bit as challenging as those we are in now. Maybe this even accounts for the size of the set, as if he has only just realised that he has never hugged us and wants to make up for it, like an absentee parent lavishing gifts on a bewildered child.
Thing is, he’s moved on already and has followed “The Song Of Morgan” with another gesture - for the first time, he has issued a live album out of sequence. Having presented us with a simplified sound picture and a childhood photo, he has given us a seriously deep 100 minute live recording, 5 whole years ahead of his release schedule.
It’s called “Waiting To Die”.
Something’s wrong. I can feel it.