If you went into the room of someone who had a terrible temper after they encountered something that made them irritated, you might find a ripped up piece of paper, maybe even a torn pillow or shirt, and some objects would probably be strewn across the floor. However, if you went into the room of a low tempered person like me, you might find, well, not much. So when I found pink sugar on my floor from biting the heads off my Peeps a bit too violently after reading the following, I knew I was a little irritated. At first.
In a world where tangible (to some degree) media is slowly falling into the quick sand pit that is online, it is incredibly reassuring to know that newspapers, magazines, and radio stations can survive by compromising and not conforming. And, in a world where these forces are even more unbalanced in classical music, it’s even more reassuring to know that it is happening. WQXR, New York City’s classical station, is arguably one of the best classical music radio stations, and I’m not even in the range to listen to them. One can simply go to their website and listen to the programs as they were online, such as Hammered!, Exploring Music, or Nadia Sirota’s (who, for the record, I want to be, minus the viola and too-bad-ass-for-Elena haircut). Q2 is WQXR’s “listener-supported, New York-based internet stream devoted to the music of living composers,” and is a plethora of articles and comment streams of the unadulterated classical scene in the Mecca of America.
Knowing how un-surpassingly awesome WQXR is (and I’m still a novice to the station), I was surprised when I was alerted to a certain WQXR blog post via Facebook. The post is titled “Are Contemporary Composers Just Spinning Their Musical Wheels?” Immediately I clicked on it, and over the past week it has been in the back of my head, simmering. At first, the blog entry made me annoyed; I shook my head at the computer screen and made a few “psh” noises. However, once I read the 20+ comments, from others and the author herself, my mind opened and saw that her piece was merely a quick portrait of a common thought.
The article is by Midge Woolsey, a WQXR host and performer, choreographer, and director. The second paragraph is dominated by the following words, the theme of the piece:
“Is it important to keep creating new music? After all, there’s a lot of old music out there – centuries and centuries of it, in fact – so why not work on making good with that and forget about creating anything new? Is there really new breath to breathe into the art of music or are today's composers just spinning their musical wheels?”
Many examples that counter this argument come to mind immediately after reading. The first event that popped into my head was the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. In the book Secret Lives of Great Composers, Elizabeth Lunday writes, “Conductor Pierre Monteux reported he wanted to run out of the room the first time Stravinsky played The Rite of Spring on piano for him…[at the premiere] People started hissing, then booing, then shouting, screaming, and fighting… The police had to be called.” However, if one were today to hear Stravinsky’s masterpiece, the theater would likely be quiet or accompanied by subtle noises of amazement. This is how things, not just music, work. The Grapes of Wrath was poorly received when it was first published. Leonard Bernstein’s father pressured him to give up music when he was young. The list of underdogs that eventually came out on top is endless—if we followed what Woolsey is proposing, how would anything be accomplished? Most likely, we would still be hearing harpsichords and lyres (minus the fact that we still do hear harpsichords, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves).
Woolsey also writes a contradictory statement—“As I was prepping my radio show this morning, I noticed a quote from Pierre Boulez about Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. He said ‘the flute of the faun brought new breath to the art of music’ citing the creation of the piece as a pivotal moment in the history of music. That pivotal moment in history of music took place 107 years ago.” But, if Debussy had been “making good with” the old music, Boulez wouldn’t have this piece of music to refer to. Debussy had to look forward and, to some degree, not look back. The reason we love old music is because it includes masterpieces that during their time were new and fresh. Whether they were liked or not, those pieces are able to be latched on to now because they didn’t follow an equation created years before them. In Debussy’s time, “old music” referred to possibly Beethoven or Handel, but Woolsey is now saying that “old music” is Debussy. Seems paradoxical to you? Well, me too.
However, Woolsey presents an idea that is difficult to prevent from entering the fissures of our music-soaked minds. We all love the likes of Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, and Beethoven—why not keep creating this music that we don’t mind, in fact, love, submerging our ears in? Because that’s what makes it special, at least to me; to know that I am listening to music that has been residing on sheets of paper for hundreds of years makes it seem more special and wise, like owning a home run ball hit by Babe Ruth verses Ichiro or stepping into the house of Elvis versus watching an episode of MTV’s “Cribs.” Modern music is sometimes loved the moment the notes fly off the page and sometimes is met with scrunched faces. Either way, the timeline of music needs to be consistently built, not stopped in its tracks. If we created music that was identical in form and emotion to pieces written centuries ago, that style would lose its intimacy an importance in our archives of art. More importantly, we wouldn't have anything to refer to in the future.
We love this music because we can look back on it and see where we came from, like gazing upon our parents or grandparents. We cannot plant seeds and expect them to grow immediately into towering oaks—we have to let them grow and watch them do it. When we look into forest composed of hundred-year-old trees, they stick out and mesmerize us with their stature; however, what we don’t necessarily spend all our time looking at are the saplings, the trees that reach our waists and look up at their ancestors with the same amazement. These saplings are watered and place in the sunlight, but never catch our eyes until our great-grandchildren walk through the same forests. So, why not just cultivate the already magnificent trees? They will inevitably be over-watered, under-watered, and lose their luster. Bark will fall off, leaves will be lost, and roots will be, well, uprooted. What we need to do is place our attention on these saplings and let them grow on their own—without that small, seemingly incomparable sprout, the trees we love don’t exist.
|http://www.flickr.com/photos/scragz/132300147/ by Jason Scragz|