Thursday, 19 February 2009

The Wholeness of Dane Rudhyar

Lurking on the edges of many histories of American music, Dane Rudhyar (1895-1985) was actually born and educated in France as Daniel Chennevière. Under his birth-name, at the age of eighteen, he wrote one of the earliest extended studies of the music of Debussy, while the latter was still alive and composing. He moved to the United States in 1916 and a few years later became an active member of the “Ultramodern” group of composers, his music performed in concerts that also featured new works by young firebrands such as Aaron Copland, Henry Cowell and Ruth Crawford Seeger. He painted intensely colorful semi-geometric canvases, wrote essays and poetry, and became a much-published authority on astrology. The University of Rochester Press has recently published the first comprehensively researched book on him. Here the book’s author, Deniz Ertan, explains how she developed an interest in Rudhyar.

Why was I - a young Turkish musicologist studying in England back in the 1990s - drawn to the world of Dane Rudhyar? I didn’t quite “get” the music of this French-born composer who moved to the United States in his early twenties: I was unable to follow a large part of his ideas and I never had any interest in astrology. But I had always been intrigued by relationships, interpenetrations and interplays (of the one and the many, part and whole, unity and multiplicity). After all, I was also a synthesis of my own different backgrounds and worldviews - I knew I had to take up the Rudhyar quest.

It did not take very long before I realized that Dane Rudhyar was not just another composer. Nor was he just another astrologer, nor just a painter, poet, philosopher, novelist, music critic - the list of his activities kept growing. Soon after I plunged into Rudhyar’s irresistible universe, I was granted immediate access to a totality of vision and a fascinating body of creative work. Hence began my own journey through some of his main ideas and themes: crisis, death, rebirth, growth, Wholeness. I’m not being ostentatious or sentimental, but on a personal level, this past decade with Rudhyar has been an intensely cathartic learning process for me. Undergoing a major illness, many months of life-threatening treatments, and the death of three loved ones, I continue to be nurtured by Rudhyar, as if he is holding my hand.

On a scholarly level, I first became interested in Rudhyar when I was carrying out research on Carl Ruggles as a postgraduate student at University of Manchester. I found the intensity of their friendship, which was instantly evident through their correspondence, deeply moving and arresting. This was my first “Aha!” moment. I then came to know their compositions, writings, and concepts, and felt a breath of fresh air in the power of their - often quasi-religious - ideals as a generation of American “ultramoderns”. In 1997, when I first looked up Rudhyar in Grove, I found the entry hopelessly inadequate. Why, I wondered, was one of America’s early visionary composers neglected and misrepresented to such a degree? And how did he manage to do “all that” in a lifetime marked by ongoing poverty, illness, and musical isolation? I knew that a book about Rudhyar and his creative output was needed.

Very soon I was swimming in the unsettled ocean of his words, ideas, tones, colors, shapes, cycles and lines. Serendipity kicked in quickly, playing its (more than usual) wonderful part. First, I found three Rudhyar scores at our university’s library. Then Patana Usuni - a devoted, altruistic advocate of Rudhyar’s astrological and philosophical work - opened wide his own Rudhyar window through correspondence. And dear Betty Freeman - the extraordinary arts patron who sadly passed away only a few days before this book’s publication - put me in touch with another kindred spirit, Bob Gilmore. Before long Bob and I were at the San Francisco doorstep of Rudhyar’s widow, Leyla Rudhyar Hill, and his last personal assistant, Joseph Jacobs, who together kindly admitted us into the Rudhyar archive and guided our explorations.

Although the book is now completed, I feel there are still many questions unanswered, untackled. I hope that it presents a vivid portrait of Rudhyar within the cultural, intellectual, and philosophical life of twentieth-century Western world, contributing toward the process of his demystification. To trace the ninety years of his existence and evolution of thought and work has been a challenging but most rewarding journey, with invaluable insights into the cyclic ascents and descents of Europe, America, and (as known or imagined by Europe and America) “the Orient.” One of the key questions throughout the study has been how these worlds appeared and changed under Rudhyar’s French-American questing eyes.

Since the book has been released in a historic week (when Barack Obama was inaugurated as president of the United States), I cannot help but remember two things about Rudhyar: his own amazement at how the most important events of his life coincided with world events, especially those in America; and how deeply the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr., moved him. Dane Rudhyar: His Music, Thought, and Art is a modest tribute to a unique cultural polymath, a transpersonal thinker, and above all, a fascinating composer-painter-poet persona.

Dane Rudhyar: His Music, Thought, and Art by Deniz Ertan (University of Rochester Press) is available from all good bookshops.

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