Thursday, February 16, 2012

Music is alive and well, thank you very much.

Accessibility seems to be the thing I care about most, these days, at least in terms of my critical thinking. In my civilian life, I care about things like my decreasing tolerance for dairy and subsequent trend towards veganism, or why Rick Santorum hates women. But when I think about Music (with a capital "M"), I tend to think about accessibility. I wonder about this "death of classical music" or "commercialization of indie pop" and why people don't like music like they did in the good ole days. [I am fully aware that the "good ole days" never existed and are a result of blind nostalgia. The world always sucked, it just used to suck differently.] This is a topic I could write several books about, but I'm opting for an incomplete, inconclusive blog post instead. The "productive" part of my brain is still processing theory from the last 48 hours, so it needs a rest. I've also been neglecting this blog, which is something I don't want to do. I have thoughts and I enjoy sharing them in more than 140 characters and less than a senior thesis. The problem with me in relation to this topic is that practically is my senior thesis, if I were to take a practical rather than reactionary/theoretical approach. That's something that I might do some day, but I'm just writing a paper for now. A big paper. A paper almost 10x longer than any paper I've written before beginning this one. A paper that will probably be defended in three months and two days and is not yet complete. But I digress...


I'm really not big into musicals. I tend to like the ones I see, but I'm not exactly a musicals-person. I do happen to love Stephen Sondheim. I'm really not familiar with his shows (except for those for which he didn't actually write the music--West Side Story, Gypsy). Still, I find myself ridiculously drawn to Sondheim. I think we would be good friends, but I'm sure I'll never get the chance to meet him. Terry Gross has had Sondheim on the show a few times, and he always has wonderful things to say. Today, Fresh Air aired a compilation of some of the interviews, and I found myself even more drawn to Sondheim while I listened. We sometimes forget that Sondheim studied musical analysis with Milton Babbitt. Sondheim claims he didn't absorb Babbitt's compositional techniques, but I don't believe him. Sondheim's music certainly doesn't sound like Babbitt's, but it's most definitely out there. Because of his taste for out music, Sondheim claims he has trouble writing "hummable" tunes. One of my favorite parts of Terry's interview with Sondheim was when he reflects on Berg's Violin Concerto, a work that's difficult but a real gem of the literature.
The first time I heard the Berg Violin Concerto, I thought "well, what is this noise?" And the third time I heard it, I thought "well, this is interesting." And the fifth time I heard it, I found myself humming along with it.
What does this anecdote say about our relationship with difficult works? Or even not-so-difficult works?


When I was in my last semester of written theory, the class focused on 20th century harmony. I'm one of those weirdos who adored harmony class for the first few semesters, so I had a real crisis when I felt like I hated that last semester. My problem was that I didn't do what Sondheim did when he first heard the Berg concerto; I gave the pieces one listen without trying to figure out what made them special. Once I started giving difficult pieces a second listen, I started noticing what makes them special. Do I like everything I hear? Absolutely not. Do I hum along with Stockhausen? Hell no. But I can appreciate music differently than I could just two years ago. I don't go out of my way to listen to music if I know I don't like it, but I'm absolutely willing to give things a second or fifth chance. Well, maybe not a fifth.


I'm not sure who should be held responsible for this whole "death of classical music" thing. Part of that stems from my disbelief that it exists. Throughout history, genres and styles have grown and died. I don't see why Viennese musical culture has to be so fetishized. I happen to love that musical culture, but I also love plenty of others. I don't quite understand why we're so concerned about preserving something that doesn't seem to want to be preserved. That doesn't mean I think orchestras should instantly disband, but I do think we should consider focusing our energies on music that wants to grow. 


(It's moments like this when I would love to have coffee with Adorno. Just once, but still.)


Part of me wants to point and yell at the Second Viennese School. The first two times I was exposed to Schoenberg, I hated his music. I don't know if I would have given it a third chance, but I was required to, for one class or another. While I don't actively seek out serialism for my listening pleasure, I can appreciate what's going on there. [Yes, I played Webern on my senior recital. Playing that kind of thing is a much different experience than listening to it. I retroactively apologize to my audience.] The problem I see is that people still equate "new music" with the Second Viennese School. Heck, it happened today in class. Schoenberg has been dead for over 60 years (longer, if you're Boulez), but his system of serialism is still equated with "new music." A lot has happened and changed and come back since the 19-teens, but not all of it was "good." A lot of mid-century music alienated a lot of people. Once you lose an audience, it's really hard to get it back. I have a lot of respect for contemporary composers, because they're writing some pretty awesome music that not enough people listen to.


(I'm about to embarrass myself here.)


A year or two ago, I went to a New Music Delaware concert. NMD is a concert series coordinated by the theory/comp faculty, sometimes in conjunction with composition students. I used to avoid those concerts because I thought I didn't like "new music." I went to this particular concert probably to get extra credit or something, expecting it to be painful. Instead of hating the concert, I loved it. In particular, I remember hearing a piece by Daniel Dorff, a composer who's now my Facebook friend and a Twitter connection(I can't remember the title, instrumentation, or even what it sounds like), and thinking that it sounded like Dave Matthews. I don't believe that all music should sound like '90s alt-rock, but I remember loving the piece. It didn't sound exactly like Dave Matthews, but there was a certain connecting vibe between the artists. 


Now, I know that there's a lot of "accessible" music being written. I've seen a lot of it performed, and I've listened to a lot of recordings. For me, it seems like the problem is that there was so much alienating music written in the early/mid twentieth century that "new music" lost its potential audience. The good news is that the accessible music is making it so that more people can get into new music without having to listen to awkward ultra-Modernism. I think that's a good thing. It'll take some more time, but I'm optimistic about the Future of Music. Eclecticism is in, as is genre/style blending. I approve.

Monday, February 6, 2012

My first day as a second semester senior

Spoiler alert: I had no class, and actually got productive. Word.

7:20ish: Wake up to the construction outside my window. It's loud and the banging is in triple meter. Pick up a biography that would hopefully be helpful, but it's actually stupid and full of bad information. Still, it's good to know that bad information is out there.

8:30ish: Shower, get dressed, eat breakfast with lots of good coffee. Pick up another book about the record industry (published in '75), and read all the sexist remarks about consumer culture. It's a win for entertainment and research purposes, so I'm happy.

More of the morning: Work on summer internship applications. They're frustrating and difficult, kind of like grad school applications (except there's less at stake and they're less involved).

12ish: Head to the music building, have both productive and unproductive conversations with people.

2ish: Go into a practice room, make sure I can still somewhat play the excerpts for the orchestra placements tonight.

2:30: Make lunch: BANANA PANCAKES! I should have listened to Jack Johnson, but I've been listening to Train in chronological order of their album releases. My observation: their hits have gotten better throughout the years, but the rest of the albums get worse. "Meet Virginia" hit me when my sister was in college in Virginia, so I've always had a bit of a personal connection to them.

3-4: Go to four different bookstores, find the perfect notebook. Apparently, I'm super picky about these things. I told myself a drive to Staples was overkill, and that the 4 bookstores on Main Street (well, 3 plus Walgreens) should be enough variety. It was about $2.50 cheaper than I thought it would be, so I rewarded myself with bubble tea.

4: Listen to Meryl Streep on Fresh Air, while crocheting. I highly recommend the interview.

4:45: Read Wikipedia article on commodity fetishism. It's about time I get better acquainted with Marxist cultural theory...

By this point, I have tweeted seven times since waking up. I need to stop over-sharing (says the blogger...)

6: Head to the CFA, get some last-minute excerpt woodshedding done, then go to orchestra meeting. See all my cellos (all of whom I missed more than I realized), get ready for audition. Play audition, which might have been my last audition ever for anything (we'll see...). Meet friend upstairs in a piano room. Walk to Kate's for salsa night.

9: Meet other friend at salsa night, learn salsa! Dance standard salsa, then genderqueer salsa. I'm bad at leading, so regular was easier for me. I'm also bad at following--I just have a bit more practice!

11:30: Bedtime! Class in the morning.

Whadda wonderful day!!