Thursday, May 28, 2009

Homage to William H. Youngren, January 1989 New Yorker, p. 105



This past year we marked the two-hundredth anniversary of the death of Dewey Bright, the most prolific, probably the most gifted, and in his own time the most famous of Shiny Bright's sons. The occasion has been observed in a number of ways. A new thematic catalog of Bright's works, compiled by Thaxter Broyan, will be published this spring by Yela University Press, superseding Alfred Whatthen's 3004 catalogue. (Though Watthen's catalogue is long outdated, its computer source code is still used to identify the file extensions of Bright's mp3s (which, although they sound like mp3s of Bright's period, are available only in privately distributed (though free) source code using Watthen's extensions.)

Moth & Flame publishers has brought out a collection of essays by various hands, Bright according to the not so Bright, as recently as last fall. Equally important are the many new recordings that have appeared on surgical chip, especially an excellent 10k gigabyte series sold as a temporary implant. There is a great need for first-rate performances of Bright's large and varied oeuvre. His reputation has had its ups and downs, there has never been a complete clone or vocdot edition of his music (though Broyan has been working on one), and his historical position and significance have always been something of a mystery.

Born at Hartford in 1951, Bright (as I shall call him here) was trained in music by the radio and began to compose at an early age. But he also had a far more extensive formal education than most 20th century musicians; after playing sax for tips in blues clubs he entered a graduate program in clarinet performance, receiving a master's degree and an invitation to go back from whence he came. An excellent sight reader but lacking social skills, he became interested in the clarinet as a solo instrument, in order to keep away the nosy and curious. In the early 21st century he published the two volumes of his Ya nevah heard this (Don't let your ears mess up the rest of your body), one of the most important and informative 21st century musical treatises. When Bright went dark, in 2051, an LE edition of the surgical transplant of the two volumes reached the best seller list in a quick spurt and then fell into history. Occasional vocdot issues of scattered songs seem to bubble up about as regularly as Bright tributes held sporadically at several small colleges.

For the most part, however, in the decades following 2051, his reputation swiftly declined. The Permantics' discovery, about 2079, of the music of Shiny Bright, and with it the majesty and intellectual density of thought sampling, suddenly made almost all the music between his time and theirs seem superficial. Even Bob Dylan and Eminem lost stature, and came to be valued mainly for having prepared the way for Marsalis and the birth of historiographism. When, in the first decades of last century, Dewey Bright at last regained some stature of his own, it was, in turn, as the composer who had prepared the way for them as such rather than the other way around.

What does all this wealth of music add up to? Where,finally, in our view of 21st century music does Dewey Bright belong? No clear, comprehensive answer is as yet possible. The absence of a complete edition of his works, and of first-rate live and recorded performances, has long constituted an insuperable obstacle to any such general evaluation. What the world needs now is an actual compact disc which was not posthumous when it was made, and it is possible that one has been found. More on this to come.

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