George Flynn Is a Punk Rocker
George Flynn, chairman of the Department of Musicianship Studies at DePaul University’s School of Music, holding the rank of professor, was born about 30 years too soon to be a punk rocker. And he was born in the wrong place. Flynn was born, in 1937, in Miles City, Montana, a railroad town that shipped out wheat and cattle. He began playing classical piano at the age of five. “I started out as a pianist the same way I started out as a Catholic,” he says. “It wasn’t something I thought about.” At the age of 14, Flynn was living in Yakima, Washington, hanging out with the town’s local atheist, and was “hooked on writing music and on new sounds.” He’s now written over 75 chamber- and orchestral works, many of which have been extensively performed. “I’m just one of the many guys writing music,” he says. “I consider myself approximately mainstream.” We recently heard a recording of Flynn’s Four Pieces for Violin and Piano. As we listened, a voice spoke up in our head. The voice was small but firm. “Punk rock,” it said.
Four Pieces starts quietly. A chord spills out of the piano and hangs in the air, -loose and glittering. Then the violin begins a slow, measured melody. You follow it as you might follow a sleepwalker, into a strange, nocturnal world. At one point, the two instruments spit out a barrage of noise- like an orgasmic electric guitar solo- punctuated by bursts of stunning silence. For the entire second movement, the pianist is limited to playing one chord, and the violin to a single pitch. They jam. The violin’s single pitch extends through the air like a thread of wire. Again, you follow it, and feel you’re entering unexplored territory. Flynn doesn’t make the journey easy. He doesn’t give you a tune to whistle, or a rhythm to tap your feet to. He fills the air with clouds of sound, strange twisted shapes, murmurs, and turbulent flurries. It’s mind-expanding stuff. It is, by the way, also very political.
“I write music that reacts to events in the world,” Flynn says. “I suppose my music is very tied to American foreign policy, something I have very strong feelings about.” One composition, called Wound, “was influenced by my perception of the violence both in Vietnam and at home in the streets and on the college campuses,” Flynn says. American Rest, written the year the war officially ended, “deals with the nightmares of someone who can’t sleep at night as the result of the havoc.” Trinity “refers to the site in New Mexico where the first atomic bomb -was exploded.” On December 17, Flynn went into Universal Studios and recorded Kanal, an extended composition for solo piano. “Kanal” means “sewer” in Polish, and Flynn’s composition was inspired by the Polish, partisans who were I driven into Warsaw’s sewers by the Nazis and exterminated.
“When I think about certain things, like the Vietnam War, for example, or the student revolts, sound images will come to me. Whether I want to or not, I’ll hear a very frenetic band of white noise, say, or a cloud, or a certain musical gesture. Then I work out how to write it. I’d like to think that these pieces can stand on their own -that people who aren’t politically aware can listen to the music as music- but this is my way of saying something about political events. It’s a way of releasing my own outrage, my own feelings.
Flynn’s musical and political ideas coalesced in the mid-1960s. He taught composition at Columbia University then, and spent a great deal of time ex perimenting and performing in SoHo lofts with John Cage, Dick Higgins, and artists of the avant-garde Fluxus movement. He was also a friend and “quasi adviser” to Columbia’s angry, idealistic students. “I preached caution,” says Flynn. “When I was young, I believed literally all this stuff we were taught in public school about democracy and civic involvement. The war and the 1968 student revolts -where we witnessed cops beating kids, and blood on the streets — raised my consciousness a great deal. I have never turned back.”
Flynn says he doesn’t write his political, ear-jarring music in order to convert people politically, or even to jar their ears. He does, he says, what comes naturally. “I just seek to find the right notes. It’s about as traditional a way as anybody could write. And it’s going to appeal, I suppose, to a minority within a minority. Classical music has always appealed to a very small portion of the society. It’s a very private music for the most part. If you’re going to persuade people, then you have to’ go the route of a Bruce Springsteen or a Michael Jackson. People seem to be very taken with music like that. The music I write, and the idiom I write in, isn’t popular at all. It’s never going to be.”
Although he finished writing Kanal in 1976, Flynn says he never really showed it to anyone until last year. “I just let it sit downstairs in the basement in a pile of stuff,” he says. He looks down at his long, bony fingers. “I guess I don’t have good publicity chops.”
Kanal will be available on Finnadar Records, which has already released Wound, and Four Pieces for Violin and, Piano.
We like to watch John Drummond on the Channel Two news. He wears eye-popping suits, compared to the other reporters. His hair is hammered down upon his head in a very watchable way, cropped close around the ears. And he knows how to turn a phrase. “I get a kick out of what you would call oldtimey sports cliches,” Drummond says. “The boxing game is full of jargon: tipping the Toledos, pushing leather. When a guy is reeling around the ring, I say he’s on Queer Street. He’s hurt, but he’s still on his feet. Football players put on the moleskins. Crosscountry runners are thinclads. Basketball guys are always cagers. People who bowl are keglers.”
Keglers? “That’s an old-timey word. I get a kick out of it. You could say, Jesus Christ, John, those cliches are stinking up the joint! But they’re fun to use. Of course, you can’t do that kind of thing with a story about, God forbid, five people who died in a west-side fire. But sports you can do with a little flair. It comes from, see, I’ve always been an avid reader. The kids today, even my own, they’re glued to the tube for their news. I come from a dif ferent generation.”
Drummond says he first became avidly interested in television in the winter of 1950, when Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee conducted televised hearings into organized crime. “I was just transfixed,” Drummond says. “One guy, named Frank Costello, who was considered the prime minister of organized crime, objected to having his face shown on the tube. So all they showed were his hands, nervously drumming on the table, as he was being grilled by the senators. It, was classic stuff.”
Drummond still enjoys covering organized crime. “I try to do my homework, and maybe I get some respect for that,” he says. “I really feel that these people are a threat to America.”
He says, “A lot of print reporters feel that TV guys are very superficial: that we draw big salaries, work banker’s hours, and are really more concerned with getting our mugs on the screen than with getting a story. Frankly, in some cases, they’re right.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mike Tappin.