The revolution is over. Ann Arbor is the Promised Land.
I visited the University of Michigan on Friday. I thought it was for some kind of final round ear-training death-match. It was actually an information session and seminar class entitled “Why You Are Wholly Underqualified for Our Composition Program.” But I digress.
The point, if there is one, is that the place is unimaginable. Every practice room full, hourly schedules tacked to the door so everyone gets their allotted time. Yes, fine, blablabla. There are lots of great players out there, what good are they to the revolution if they’re just playing dead composers over and over again? Astute reader, that was my next point. One of, if not the most esteemed performing ensemble is something called the Contemporary Music Orchestra, playing, as you may have guessed, contemporary music by people who are currently alive. Very alive; most of the pieces are commissions of either student composers or composers-in-residence. On the evening I was there, there were three separate concerts, all of which were exclusively contemporary. It’s as if “art music” can be vital and present-tense.
So I sat and watched Evan Chambers talk to Michael Daugherty about William Bolcolm’s new opera, which was opening that evening. (You don’t recognize the names because they are outstanding composers who are not currently dead.) And I thought about what they would say if they read my little propaganda bits in The Williams Record. Actually, they probably wouldn’t say anything. They would probably laugh and point at me, and then keep playing poker with their Pulitzer Prize money. Because in that world, with a music department around the size of this college, composition and performance and communication are alive and well. I felt like a big fat idiot for all of the ranting I’ve been doing.
But then I thought about it, which was good because feeling like an idiot hurts me in my soul. And I decided that I wasn’t such an idiot after all. In fact, I decided that I was right all along. And I began to tremble with fear and awe. I’m serious, I was literally trembling. Like an Italian leaf blowing in the Mediterranean wind.
Yes, the University of Michigan is indescribably, ridiculously awesome and wonderful. And so is Juilliard, no doubt, and Eastman, Indiana and all of the cutting-edge composition and performance programs. And if you are a student there, or a composer-in-residence or a professor, then life is generally good. That is your ideal world, and you thrive inside of it. But as soon as that environment disappears, as soon as the seven-story building with its soundproof rooms and giant concert halls and enough professional-level performers to constitute an audience dissolves at the end of your two or four or six years as a whatever-you-are is up, you have a serious problem.
The ideal world has to be recreated. So you go somewhere else. Everyone does the conservatory shuffle, bouncing from safe spot to safe spot until they die or retire. Though it doesn’t feel like a safe spot; it feels like the Real World is as sure of music’s vitality as the small space that one occupies at a particular moment. So why bother trying to break out of the container?
There is an ideal musical world out there. A counterculture that is absolutely convinced of its success, its timelessness, its undisputed status as a living and breathing art. Then there’s everyone else. Connecting them seems currently impossible. It would take a miracle, a superhuman effort, a revolution of sorts. Or it might just take a little bit more time, it might just take everyone’s thinking twice about that concert, or that CD, it might just happen, smack wham before our eyes. Because at this point in time, to really enjoy music and to really understand what it’s about only takes your presence in the hall. You just have to be there and be listening. That wasn’t always the case, to be sure. It may have never been the case until this waking moment. These are exciting times. Containers are breaking open all over the place. Prepare yourselves for Renaissance II. I’m just the messenger.
I shower you with boundless affection,
P.S. FYI: Berkshire Symphony, Friday at 8 p.m. featuring LIVING COMPOSERS! (mostly) Nathan and the Zydeco Cha-Chas, Sunday at 3 p.m. featuring…Nathan.