Dane Rudhyar is dead at ninety. Friday, September 13, 1985. The news to me was sudden, a phone call, two weeks later, in the context of another friend's illness. Just before driving to Albuquerque, 60 miles distant...
It was sunset ("it would be," I thought to myself; just as I'd said when learning he died on Friday the 13th). Cutting off the main highway into the desert, the back road in. Time to think about "old Rudhyar" (I'd never known him except as an old man, meeting him first in 1971 when he was 76).
Passing through the countryside he'd loved so much, having spent time, like Varèse and Partch, in New Mexico. The mesas he'd talk about in his letters, or the sunsets—here was one now!—and that special quality of air and light. It was in New Mexico that he began to paint, in 1938-39, becoming a spokesman for the New Mexican transcendentalist school of painters. Now I wanted to remember Rudhyar, hear him in my mind, through this land that had so much shaped his life and thought. In this way, to say a personal, private farewell.
...Thinking back on a life that had spanned the entire twentieth century up to now. Growing up in Paris before the First World War, a teenager when Debussy, Satie and Ravel were the contemporary composers! To die in San Francisco in the 1980s—Rudhyar's life encompassed perhaps the most radical changes mankind has ever experienced, both in society and the arts. As an 18-year old he heard the world premiere of Le Sacre de Printemps. At 21, he had left Europe, to land in what was most definitely for him a New World. He was to die sixty-nine years after he landed in that New World in 1916, on its far western shore in 1985, facing Asia.
Why was I, who am in some ways so philosophically different from Rudhyar, so attracted to this man and his work? Of course, the music; but more than that. There was something heroic about Rudhyar: in his absolute fidelity to his vision, a life-long commitment despite poverty and neglect of his work. And a vision that went beyond his art—it was for humanity and for the troubled world and century he lived in. That he believed and lived it, completely and uncompromisingly, was an inspiration to us younger musicians who knew him.
Rudhyar also came out of the 1920s avant-garde in music—a heady generation of Cowell, Ruggles, Varèse and himself. These were times when the promise of the modern held the hopes for something better (Rudhyar, of his contemporaries, lived to see that hope most fully defiled, become a nightmare). This was an incredible generation (all born before 1900)—just think of the music of Rudhyar, Ruggles, Varèse: as tough and sinewy as you get! Absolute music, in the sense that they were aiming for nothing less than the Absolute.
Rudhyar lived in two worlds musically. One was this group of American modernists; the other was the developing chromatic language of Liszt and Scriabin, that by 1920 had been overwhelmed by the impact of Stravinsky and Schoenberg. It was probably this latter quality in his music that gives most trouble to contemporary listeners.
Even though Rudhyar aptly describes his music as being based on the rhythms of speech rather than dance, his music is essentially melodic and rhapsodic. His structural leanings are this way also, many of his short pieces having implicit ABA song structures, or very compact self-contained forms of melodic development.
I am starting to think also that this return to smaller, miniature forms, in the work of Rudhyar, Cowell and others, is significant. These pieces contain thematic development, but not according to the rules. A complexity that was integral, not artificial. By 1920, the sonata form was dead, its shape bent into unrecognizable lengths by the likes of Bruckner, Mahler, Sibelius. The tonality language had been shattered by Schoenberg. And Stravinsky had rewritten the book on orchestration. These pieces of Rudhyar's are like some of the early pieces of so-called Minimalism—they were reinventing the language—
Back to his life: it is interesting to note that Rudhyar, like Lou Harrison, spent much of his time in isolated places, away from urban centers, the "art scene." Places that were the "real West" of the imagination (the why and wherefore of that could take a whole essay in itself).
—Driving now through the former mining ghost town of Madrid, bare juniper hills rising to a pass and a view of the Sangre de Cristo mountains behind me, red like the time the Spanish conquistadores gave these mountains their name...
Rudhyar's work had no relation whatsoever to attitudes of "current style." If it did at all, it was in relation to those two musical traditions I've cited above. Perhpas for tha treason, his music sounded "1920-ish," dated to some people—but damn! If the 1920s weren't the most exciting decade yet in twentieth century arts! Indeed, we have just started to move beyond them...
The magic of Rudhyar's music is that it captures both the strength of consonance (Rudhyar wasn't afraid of some wonderful fifths - take the opening chord of his piano pieces, Stars, for instance), and the tension of dissonance. A Varèse of the piano, I used to say, in that his piano contained an orchestra of sounds.
And too, Rudhyar endured poverty all his life for this work. He was not the stuff of professorship. He saw a deeper, more radical place for an artist in society than being a mere functionary and collecting a paycheck. Art as life, not a job.
Amazing about Rudhyar, that his best works occurred in the 1920s and ... 1970s!!! I know of few other composers to have had such a musical renaissance—in their eighties!
Let's return to the music. Muscular, dissonant, in an expanded melodic/chromatic language. Ninths, like seconds and fifths, are not necessarily dissonant intervals. Much of Rudhyar's piano music is not really dissonant, but an amazing sort of fortified consonance. Compare Rudhyar to Schoenberg, Webern or Boulez: this isn't dissonant music like theirs. Expanded consonance—that is Dane Rudhyar's music.
Expanded consciousness, a cynic might quip, regarding Rudhyar's astrological and psychological/spiritual work. That's absolutely right, I'd say, even if I am a more militant street-oriented person than Rudhyar. Of course, these lessons haven't been forgotten by some of us in the kicks-for-sale culture of the 1980s...
Anyway, I can go on about the fifths and ninths in Dane Rudhyar's music. That's not it. The man—that was it. One thing I learned very quickly about these older "loner" composers was how much they enjoyed "musicians' talk." The musical world had isolated them and not vice versa (and this is one of the art crimes of the century, that these people have remained fringe...)
Rudhyar's most famous piece may be his piano work, Stars. And every time I look to the night sky, I think of Rudhyar: star-man, composer. Whose piano music has resonated through me (Gift of Blood—yes, it is a gift of blood, what a true teacher gives). Whose world philosophy has challenged and expanded mine; and whose exemplary life we have to answer to in our own...
Rudhyar: goodbye (out of the New Mexico canyons now, back into the "real world," sun low over the horizon...sign reads: "Turn West on Interstate 40"...).
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