Two American Obits: Foss and Crawford

Obituaries are always fascinating. Well written obituaries often shed light on a lot of things you didn’t know about major figures. You can also learn about whole fields you didn’t know existed. This week the Times ran obituaries on two major American musicians from very different areas of the field. And yet something similar, and similarly American, struck me about the two of them passing so close to each other. The musicians Lukas Foss and Hank Crawford passed away, at 86 and at 74. Both of them excelled in multiple areas of music-making, and both of them walked a line that willfully transgressed categories and the idea of boundaries in art.

Allan Kozinn wrote that:

Mr. Foss preferred to explore the byways of the avant-garde, focusing at different times on techniques from serialism and electronic music to Minimalism and improvisation. But as he moved from style to style, his voice remained distinctive, partly because he distrusted rules and never fully adhered to those of the approaches he adopted, and partly because a current of mercurial wit ran through his work.

He took particular pleasure in finding common ground between opposing languages and techniques. His String Quartet No. 3 (1975), for example, is essentially a Minimalist work, but it has a mildly atonal edge and uses dynamics more dramatically than other Minimalist works of the time.

And of Hank Crawford, Bruce Weber wrote that:

he was best known as an alto saxophonist who melded a wailing blues style to the melodic and rhythmic exigencies of modern jazz, funk and soul. He proved an especially flexible musician over the decades as styles of popular music swiveled hither and yon.

A sampling of his recorded tracks from the ’60s and ’70s would encompass, say, “The Peeper,” a bluesy swing number reminiscent of the Duke Ellington tunes he first listened to at home as a child; “New York’s One Soulful City,” an example of the rhythmically funky… sounds of some television themes of the ’70s; and “I Hear a Symphony,” a soulful disco cover of the 1965 Supremes hit.

I don’t know, maybe I’m over-analysing. But it seems like these two very different figures are sort of emblematic of certain kind of American artistry. A constantly evolving search for new means of expression. A willingness to find one’s own voice through the use of multiple techniques and languages. And a sense of freedom: the freedom to define oneself as one would like and to move through cultural territories seen as alien from one’s own.

There is a risk in this way of working, both a personal risk (losing one’s way and/or livelihood) and an artistic risk (being misunderstood). But it seems to be a risk that more and more typifies American culture and has become an identity we might call our own.