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Thursday, August 29, 2013

#Weltschmerz and #Harmonization by John von Daler


                I would be walking across campus in #Princeton along the shaded pathway through the Gothic green at just before eight o'clock - on my way for some breakfast and then back to my room to read a couple of hundred pages of Anna Karenina or some other wordy novel. He would be walking in the opposite direction, a lighted cigar in his mouth, his Homburg tilted back, his eyes turned down more to think than to watch the path. My professor, R, was on his way to the lecture he was giving and I was supposed to attend: Music 201: intermediate #counterpoint.
                R would touch the brim of his hat absentmindedly in answer to my greeting without hinting that he knew that I knew that he knew that I was not going to attend his very small class today. He was too deep in thought about the future of electronic music to be aware of life's small ironies.
                In class he would act the same way, except for the hat. R would start off on our subject - which I found interesting - the rules of modern counterpoint, especially in Mozart and Beethoven. His analyses of some piano sonatas could keep me awake with their profundity. But somewhere between some wild change of key and a return to the dominant through the sub-dominant his mind would get back on what to him was the right track and he would lapse into an interesting row of numbers or an explanation of how many versions of a certain series of notes that you could make if you had had access to Princeton's huge computer section.
                I tried off and on to make some kind of impression on him. He would give us a little melody to harmonize and I would sit late into the night, my right food heavy on the right pedal of the piano in an attempt to prove to him that modern American harmonization filled with weltschmerz could easily fit into the Viennese rules for counterpoint. When I turned the exercise in, he would slap the page onto the piano and with both feet planted on the ground, smoking away at his stump, he would pick out my harmonies with as little respect as a vulture tearing at a carcass. Then R. would pull out a red pencil and circle all the examples of my misuse of the Grand Old Rules.
                So sometimes I just had to skip his class and curl up with some weltschmerz that did not talk back to me. Anna Karenina was perfect. It did not occur to me then that he was working with the precursors of the computer composing systems that would dominate my life thirty years later. Maybe I would have gotten more out of his lectures if I had attended them now. But come to think of it, my knowledge of how the system actually works is so limited that I probably could not even ask one pertinent question. Our conversations would still be disconnected. I might start skipping his lectures again.
                Then again, I bet R. knows a lot about Anna Karenina. Maybe we could talk about Tolstoy if I did some crash reading.

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