Michael Torke, that is.

I usually review music in my horrible, pages-long bimonthly (or less often) catalogues of everything I’ve been reading, watching (films, TV) and listening to. But I just got my Michael Torke boxed set, Ecstatic Collection, and I have to say, it’s pretty damned wonderful.

Michael Torke is a composer who was first mentioned to me by David R. Scott, a Canadian composer who was my instructor during my first year of studying composition. I followed up, and really liked what I heard — a strange blend of occasional snatches of pop music, Stravinsky, and good old-fashioned minimalism. But I never had the chance to look further into his work.

Now, I have the boxed set sitting on my desk, and I’m listening through disc after disc, impressed more and more Torke’s work as I listen again and again, more and more. This stuff is really something. Would that I had gotten myself a copy of some of his stuff while I’d been working in a record store, all those years back… perhaps I might even have continued composing music?

It’s never really too late. I do have this vague notion to go back and rework a couple of things, especially the piece I was happiest with — the last movement of something I wrote for two pianos and electric guitar, though if I do rework it, I think it’d be better for string quartet and two pianos.

But I was looking at Torke’s current projects page and it hit me that, yeah, I really am more of a writer than I ever was a musician. Me, I always struggled to come up with workable musical ideas, and they usually ended up being more like the kind of “conceit” that mediocre SF relies upon too desperately, because the story itself, the characters and plot and language itself, has no real texture. Me, I have a folder full of writing ideas,  each of them loaded with half-formed characters, snatches of dialog, moods, colors and shadings… which is much more than I ever had in terms of musical ideas. I did always have a folderful of musical sketches, but they look to me now as if they were always the kind of thing someone would sketch if he was guessing at what interesting musical ideas might look like.

But I don’t see my trek through musical study so much as lost time. I developed a lot of skills studying music: a particular sense of rhythm just as applicable to prosody and text as it is to music itself; a deepened sense of form and structure based on something other than just argumentative or descriptive logic — an idea about how flow works in things that are appreciated on levels not only logical but emotional or aesthetic; and of course all that performing built up my confidence and public speaking ability. Studying music
history even opened up a few unusual doors for me, such as history, or evolutionary psychology, and even language.

And of course, I believe that having studied music, I can better appreciate certain kinds of music that I’d be missing out on if I hadn’t studied the artform. But Torke’s work isn’t like that — I think I’d like it even if I’d dropped out of music after that first year studying composition, instead of after my second year at it — though, yes, I snuck in a final senior composition course with Robert Lemay, which was well worth the time, even if I only composed dreck during that year and stopped composing thereafter. That’s absolutely no fault of his — he was a great, great teacher and a number of students really came into their own under his tutelage. I just sort of figured out I wasn’t born to be a composer.

But a music lover? Forever.

10 thoughts on “Torke

  1. Anthony Burgess and P.G. Wodehouse were double threats. Both were best known for their novels, but Anthony Burgess was a composer as well, and P.G. Wodehouse was a lyricist for Broadway musicals. I wouldn’t give up hope yet.

  2. Mark,

    Yeah, and Ezra Pound wrote what, well, what some consider to be music. :)

    But yeah, there’s always time to write something. Too bad that in Korea, classical people aren’t really interested much in anything composed after 1900 or so. It’s much harder to get pieces performed far from where you live.

  3. Maybe it’s for the best Pound stuck with criticism and poetry. If his poetry is any indication, I don’t think his music was that much better.

  4. It takes some time to figure it out, but once you get a handle on the Cantos, they’re an amazing thing. The music was much more, um, like, Pound’s scholarship — haphazard, lopsided, and so on. But the Cantos, I rank highly… at least, the 40 or so I’ve read and studied intensely.

  5. I’ve never really liked Pound’s poetry, but something from his ABC of Reading always stuck with me: “The ancient Greeks were great because they imitated no one.” That, and his other dictum, “make it new” has always stuck with me.

  6. Yeah, the ABC of Reading was fun. And he also wrote there something about the quality of French education pulling ahead of the rest of Europe by turning classes into 40 minutes instead of 50, because a teacher is a man who is paid to fill time. (Something I agree with, not that all teaching is like that, but that self-discovery and self-teaching seem to have been unfruitfully abandoned in the universities today.)

  7. For every cool thing about Ezra Pound, I can think of one dorky thing. I used to think one of his lines in The ABC of Reading, “Chaucer read only fifty books during his lifetime, but he knew those books well”, was profound, now, well, I think Chaucer really didn’t have anything else new or interesting to read.

  8. Except he most certainly did — Chaucer had loads of books to choose from, as court poet and a literate man…

    … but I think that was kind of the point of what Pound was saying: that Chaucer (supposedly) didn’t have access to more books, but the ones he did have access to, he knew inside out.

    I don’t know, I find Pound’s political convictions, racism, and fanboyishness about Mussolini much more apt for mockery, myself! Apparently he sent a copy of the Cantos — the part with the ones that had Mussolini in them, at least — to the dictator. One imagines Mussolini looking at it for a total of a minute, thinking, “What the hell?”, and then discarding it utterly.

  9. Which is about as much as most people know, so here’s one more fact: he was a raving New Ager, and academia has mostly tried to ignore it, with the exception of a few people. (His academic work The Spirit of Romance has a reference to some pretty wacky theories of the genealogy of the religious doctrines of the Cathars, along the lines of, “Manicheans? Feh! They were obviously the surviving underground purveyors of the Eleusinian mystery cults!” or something like that. It’s been a while, but one thing I plan on writing someday is a fantasy novel in which Pound is battling Picasso and other during the time between WWI and WWII.

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