“These pages have seen some views which seem to try and ‘stir the pot’ somewhat…”
To whom could our illustrious arts editor be referring in last week’s installment of The Artist Formerly Known As? I don’t want to defend myself against the charge because I can’t, not on those terms. It’s true, I try to get people excited so they figure out where they stand, and so I can figure out if they stand anywhere at all. I simply want to know how people feel about music, people that don’t come into Bernhard Music Center, where I may as well live. It’s risky business, because what I may find out is that there really is an uncrossable chasm between what makers of “High Art” are doing behind closed doors and what the rest of the population cares about.
But there’s also a position at stake here. If I’m going to represent something during Record interviews then I would prefer that it be the position and not the way in which I choose to express it. In its most undistilled and unembellished: I think that the demands placed on the listener by “historical” music are fundamentally different than the demands placed on the listener by contemporary music. As an admittedly arbitrary measure I’ve been using the composer’s current, um, biological status, i.e. whether or not s/he happens to be alive. We can get into all sorts of interesting semantic tangles about that qualification. The reason, plainly and simply, to put it in play is because what is at issue is the way in which the current state of the world manifests itself in the artistic output of said world.
That is a lot to swallow. One has to grant that the composition and the circumstances of its creation are intimately related, further that they inform each other in some crucial way. Here is a way to dissolve everything I’ve said since that Tuesday afternoon in January on which I took over the world: simply reject this premise. If we yank Beethoven’s Ninth symphony out of its historical moment, is it still brilliant, wonderful, true, et cetera? This is, in fact, the kind of puzzling that led me to write in the first place: does the educative project attempt to explain or inform our strange relationship to music, or does the educative project attempt to control it? The impetus was personal. I was absolutely frustrated at my failure to react, to be moved, by certain “great” works in the canon. Maybe by most great works in the canon. It just didn’t happen the way the books and teachers said it was supposed to happen. Which meant that I needed to learn more about what the piece was up to, so that someday I, too, could join the ranks of the informed apprehenders. I was going to be taught to love this or that piece. Music education started to feel like an arranged marriage.
As I looked around, though, I discovered some music that worked on me even though it wasn’t part of any curriculum, even though I didn’t know the first thing about it. It just made that instant connection, boggled the mind, made it to the pit of the stomach. And most of it had been written in my lifetime. If I am ever in the position to participate in music education I will absolutely bring that particular music into the classroom, and I will absolutely attempt to explain why exactly the hearing works the way it does. And my students will have to learn it, will have to address my aesthetic assertions. But it is my honest hope that they won’t simply uphold my idols; rather that they will go out and find their own, or be found by them. And so on for ever and ever.
It’s not going quite that way, though. Art Music, whatever that means now, seems stuck on excavation. To understand it we need to do the work of decoding the music, placing it in a particular place at a particular time and hearing with those ears, and we succeed in this project as much as our musical education allows us. I am imagining a music that requires the listener to sit down in a seat somewhere in America in the year 2000, carrying a lifetime of FM radio, street noise and MTV; feeling a certain confidence that this particular moment is like no other that has come before, and that someone has language to express the particular difficulties and profundities that run it through.
Anybody else like the Ligeti?