Time for a story!
Last Thursday, the Student Symphony began rehearsing for our final concert in May. I rolled in like the pigheaded modernist you might imagine, set to conduct two living composers, Christopher Rouse and our own Kenric Taylor.
My illustrious colleague Dan Perttu was likewise optimistic and excited, about to rehearse Beethoven 5 for the first time. (In the snooty classical world, you don’t say “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.” You say “Beethoven Five.” Same for Mahler, Brahms, etc. Go ahead, you try: “Mahler Nine.” Whoa baby.) Kenric and I sat in Chapin going over his score, and Dan started rehearsal.
I haven’t listened to a Beethoven Symphony in awhile. Especially since I started writing this column. I didn’t expect to gain anything from this hearing but the ability to call Dan a stodgy poop for delaying Renaissance II another 34 minutes.
But then they started playing the fourth movement, and I was seized by the inexplicable desire to come up with a cool superhero name and save the world. I spent most of the rest of the night pretending to fly to “ba da da Ba da da da Ba da da da BAH” (I will be performing live demonstrations upon request. Write Judd Greenstein multiple times for details.) And people saw me, and they said, “isn’t Beethoven dead, Mr. don’t-play-dead-guys nyah nyah nyah?” As if this weren’t enough to ruin my day, I also had to conduct a Brahms motet for class. I got in front of the choir, after having studied, played, sung the score pretty intensely for some time, and told them that I was lucky and that they were lucky because this was a truly beautiful and profound composition. Then someone chimed, “but Brahms is dead!”
As one might imagine, I was not entirely happy about the fact that I was repeatedly contradicting myself. I wanted the pieces to feel distant and antiquated, wholly impenetrable. Instead I was absolutely stunned. This is not a rhetorical tactic.
Things were looking up on Friday, though, with a clear victory for living or dead-but-still-warm composers at the Chamber Players concert, namely Lutoslawski and our own Professor David Kechley, with exceptional performances by Doris Stevenson and Susan Aceto on the former’s Variations on a Theme by Paganini (for two pianos), and Stevenson and Nat Parke on the latter’s Winter Branches (cello and piano). (I and everyone else in attendance know that a clause in the middle of another point doesn’t do their playing justice. Nor does an apology in parentheses. But I digress.)
I attend a number of concerts and listen to an awful lot of music in the course of a normal week. Usually I can fit these experiences into my “position” of sorts rather nicely. It didn’t hold this time. And there it was, the end of the week, my Monday night deadline approaching and my little musical world in a state of profound confusion.
Which it still is. As I write this sentence. But I am going to attempt to press though it, and if it doesn’t work the revolution is officially cancelled.
LATE BREAKING NEWS: MATT SWAN, ‘03, IS PLAYING CHRISTOPHER ROUSE’S FLUTE CONCERTO FOR ANONYMOUS LISTENERS IN THE FRESHMAN QUAD.
Me: So Matt, let’s talk about the Flute Concerto.
Matt: Is this for your article? (laughs)
Me: Yes. Please refer to earlier question.
Matt: (laughs uncomfortably as if I must not be serious. Then sobers.) It’s one of the most amazing things I’ve listened to.
Me: And do you think that this “amazing” business has something to do with the fact that Rouse is not dead?
Me: Rrreeeeally? Might you expand on that?
Matt: I think it just has to do with the fact that it’s amazing music.
Me: So it has nothing to do with time or place, etc. Just generally, generically, amazing?
Matt: I don’t want to go against the revolution, but it seems like there are definitely moments in all music that are moving, whether the person that wrote it is alive or dead. They’re enduring moments, shall we say.
(It occurs to me that Matt might be afraid of what I will do if he disagrees with me. I try to appear nicer and less threatening.)
Me: A-ha. Anything else before I stand on my head?
Matt: Are you interrogating me?
Me: No, honestly. I’m trying to get somewhere and have a lot of confused impressions. And I think other listeners might be able to help me out. That is where you come in.
Oh dear lord. Kenric is here. So is Josh Pierson. He and Matt and I are going to get to the bottom of this. Renaissance II!
Kenric: Dear God.
Me: Alright, fellas. You know what this is about. Weigh in.
Josh: So what’s the point of this?
Me: I often have no point, but this time I’m doing a little fieldwork, wondering about your impressions of the state of contemporary “art music,” whatever that means, how it relates to the cult of the dead, etc.
Josh: I think one of the biggest problems is the fact that most modern composers are basically unknown to the average person, that there are no names to go along with the music that people might hear. In order for people to really latch onto a piece, it seems as though they need something more than what they are hearing to make it worthwhile to them. If you just heard two random pieces from the 18th century, you might assign them equal worth, until you find out that one is by Mozart and the other is by Joe classic guy, you automatically put the Mozart piece into his body of work.
Me: And respect it not on just on its own behalf, but on the behalf of its position in that body.
(Josh leaves, replaced by the illustrious Artist in Residence in Voice and Conducting, Director of the Chamber Choir, and all-around Good Guy Brad Wells. But first, Kenric weighs in.)
Kenric: The market is also saturated with Beethoven, Bach and these juggernauts because record companies don’t think that contemporary composers won’t sell records, so when people do hear contemporary music they expect music to sound like this older style, but music has come a long way.
(Brad makes a guttural sound.)
Kenric: I’m leaving.
Brad: I think the Revolution should continue.
Kenric: I do too.
Brad: The idea of art music needs to be exploded.
Me: YEEEAAAHH!!!! Keep going. I’ll take notes.
Brad: We’re just going to get so sick of the familiar, so we’re going to reacquaint ourselves with the familiar by recontextualizing it. Having a marimba band play Beethoven 5. Having an a cappella group do Zeppelin’s Kashmir.
Me: So is this part of the revolution or lateral to it? Kenric is saying that there’s already an oversaturation of the known, whether in classical or classic rock, and those marimba bands and a cappella groups would be misallocating their resources by focusing on the group that’s already arguably overrepresented.
Brad: That’s always going to be a problem for new artists breaking in…
Me: (cutting him off) But on those grounds someone like Schoenberg or Berg is still a new artist, because they represent a kind of dissonant or atonal or some other misused pejorative counterculture.
Brad: The pendulum is going to keep swinging. And just as people get so tired of diatonicism, at some point these “worthy” reactions to particular swings will have their day.
Me: I guess I’m afraid that no one is going to ever get sick of diatonicism, because of our friends the marimba band, the a cappella group, popular music, and those stereotypes that have me and my fellow composers here begging for audience.
Brad: Those are just questions of pop music versus art music, though.
Me: How about I make an outrageous claim for you, to which you can respond in word or interpretive dance.
Me: The way we “consume” art music depends on being far enough away from it in time to fit it into the whole history. So we hear it as how it carries the proverbial torch forward, rather than how it strikes us in the moment. That seems unhealthy to me.
Brad: And that’s why we need you to continue the revolution.
Me: You’re just saying that so you can go home.
Brad: True. But I also think that the concepts of canon, of “art” music, of proper venues for good music, need to be and will continue to be, questioned. Just as you rage against these things, others will, and the ice will eventually break. But I have to go home and feed my daughter. That’s why I can’t join you on the barricade.
Brad leaves, and with him the faint but pleasant aroma of Gerber-smooshed apricots.
Me: So now it’s Swan and Me. Swan? Are you leaving too?
Matt: Yeah, but first…I think it would be good to see your column turn into a forum for discussion about the issues you’ve been raising, because they’re important issues, and I think there have been strong reactions on both sides of the debate since you started publishing. It’s okay to question the revolution, I think, because I think in the end that will just make the cause stronger. We’ll have a deeper understanding of the issues at hand if we discuss them.
Well said. This has become the people’s column, To launch Renaissance II.
Here’s how it works: I pose the question or problem, you supply your answers, to 00alm. Along with generous words of praise. Plus official interviews with local celebrities. Next week: Professors David Kechley and Karl Korte, living composers extraordinaire. Plus your responses to:
Matt Swan talks about an “enduring moment.” What do we have to know in order to perceive such a moment? A complete musical education, just a pair of ears, or something in between? Does the criteria change with respect to time? In other words, lay the Flute Concerto against Beethoven 5. RSVP 00alm.
P.S. Find Out.