Saturday, June 19, 2010

Live and Local

Let me out myself once more: I like live music, played by warm bodies, for warm bodies, in real rooms.   I prefer live performances of music made for live performance to recordings.  I like the spontaneity and variation a live performance necessarily brings to a work and I like the way the music dissipates in a real room or out-of-doors space, as the sound waves are absorbed and reflected into both air, architecture, ear, and memory.  A live performance of music is a unique event in time, space, audition and memory for which there is no adequate substitute.  I prefer even a clumsy live performance by an amateur but spirited group of local musicians to the best-engineered recording by the most prestigious big city orchestra.  Recordings do have definite virtues, as tangible, portable, divisible comodifications and records of a part of that experience (and, though I harbor serious doubts, I don't discount the potential of such media to have some positive economic effects), but I find them most valuable as a medium for music made specifically for a recorded format.* 

This article, by Terry Teachout, proposes a "thought experiment" (the quotation marks are Teachout's own) in which, essentially, all but the upper tier of big-city professional orchestras are abandoned and those of us in localities without big orchestras are to be satisfied with recordings. Teachout sees the minor leagues in the orchestral world as no longer performing a function they filled in the days before recordings.  This is historically wrong, as the local orchestral life in the US developed in parallel with recordings and, in the early part of the 20th century, was closely connected to immigration from Europe.  (Before that, the US had largely been a wind band country with orchestral and operatic music largely restricted to the biggest cities.)  Further, Teachout sees other locally-produced art forms as more diverse, innovative and higher in quality in offerings and the orchestra standing in a zero-sum competition for resources with those other organizations.  I believe that this is missing something important about the nature of orchestral music-making — what other archaic performance form, aside from sport regularly puts the better part of a 100 people on stage? —  with its unique relationship to a community.  

Not all concerts are perfect environments for either those bodies or the music they make or hear — far from it — but there is always opportunity to optimize the experience and, if history is any indication, the experience will change.  There are indeed survival-level-serious questions about local orchestras, but thinking about these problems from the top-down, from the vantage point of big-league orchestras is exactly wrong and in many cases, the greatest contributor to these problems has been a fixation on commuting conductors and big music management.  Local orchestras, if they are to survive, will have to recognize and capitalize on their advantages of locality, flexibility, accessibility, cost, and diversity.  They can only profit from emphasizing that they can do things that the major orchestras don't and that their recordings cannot.   The range of living composers played by the majors, for example, has been seriously restricted to coteries of "approved" composers** and the only possible solution to this cartelization of orchestral opportunities lies in the locals.  By doing business in a town like Pasadena, or Teachout's "Podunk", you have the absolute luxury not to parrot what is being done in the big town.  And this is where I agree substantially with Teachout:  the solution is not in "schlock" (Teachout's word) entertainment concerts, no Wookies-on-ice-with-lasers-meet-Benvenuto Cellini, but in an authentic extension of what they actually can do best.   I do not wish to suggest that local orchestras are doing a particularly good job of this now, but finding common cause with local musical innovators is a real part of the solution.  If serious music is to do more than survive, if it is to thrive, then it has got to be an active presence both deep and wide, from children to seniors, from amateurs to professionals, from the living room to the school auditorium or church  to the fancy endowed concert halls on campuses and in big cities.


* Recordings have become so cheap and ubiquitous that their main function among new musicians is not as an object of commerce but as an advertisement for concert music, for the gigs where money is actually made.  We used to hand out calling cards, now we hand out cds. 

**The worst part of this is that the effect is self-sustaining: a small group gets all of the opportunities to compose for orchestra, and the ensuing lack of experience with composing for orchestra gets used against programming or commissioning composers who are outside of the group.  This is in best (worst) evidence with the present regime at the Cabrillo Festival, which is now basically a summer satellite activity of east coast conservatory composers at the expense of Cabrillo's traditional commitment to west coast experimentalism. 

1 comment:

Paul Muller said...

Where can I get a recording of 'Wookies on Ice'? :)

I've played in community orchestras to packed houses. Our playing was marginal but the sense of occasion and the enthusiasm overcame our limitations. The Santa Barbara symphony is well-supported, not just because they have a rich donor base but because of a sense of 'home team' ownership in the community.

I agree that orchestras - at every level - need to get away from the museum music mentality.