Sunday, January 27, 2008

What's controversial around here?

When a topic on a new music blog inspires passion, you have to pay attention. I've learned, for example, that expressing any reservation about the music of Shostakovich will guarantee a passionate response, but not necessarily a response informed by any musical argument. Shostakovich was a composer with brilliant technique and a tragic biography; he just wasn't an inventive or subtle composer, in my book. Having been burned on Shostakovich, I have generally refrained from bringing up music that doesn't work for me and instead concentrated on music that does. Risking further passionate controversy, I will readily admit that there are a number of composers -- including Shostakovich, Krenek, Britten, Bernstein, Henze, Zorn, and Kernis -- whose music just doesn't take me anywhere interesting, and I really do demand that music take me someplace never travelled.

Two topics, musical economics and musical institutions, are guaranteed to fill my email inbox with messages, both of approval and disapproval, but seldom do they appear as online comments. This was particularly true of my items critical of composition competitions, for which I received a striking amount of support. However, disappointingly few were willing to go public about wanting better competitions.

As to economics, I will readily admit that it's a field well outside the expertise of this musician, but nevertheless I can't help but be fascinated with little data points that add to a thick description of the world that's bopping about my music. Marginal Revolution often touches on cultural issues, Brad DeLong is a very smart guy, I've learned more about the recent credit crisis in the US from the Irvine Housing Blog, and this paper, An Empirical Analysis of Street-Level Prostitution by Levitt and Venkatesh, which noted that prostitutes with pimps may have some advantages in terms of marketing and protection, raised interesting questions for me about the comparative advantages of composers as free-lancers and with managers or institutional affiliations, and specifically in those areas of marketing and protection (e.g. provision of health care insurance).

I probably catch the most flak for my critical stance towards big musical institutions. Let me be clear that I'm perfectly aware that a certain amount of institutional structure is necessary to make some musical things happen, but one has to be persistently vigilant that the institutions not turn away from their service function for the music itself and invest ever more money, time, and oxygen in their own self-support. In a way, it's curious that my institutional critique receives any attention at all, in that the critics and bloggers and devotees of those very same institutions often spend as many words on changes in, say, opera house management or gossipy materials leaked by publicists, as the do on the aesthetics of opera.

As long as we're talking about opera houses, my critique is the opposite of the famous one of Pierre Boulez, who suggested blowing the places up. In fact, I think that if they're going to be mammoth places for upper class spectacle, simulcast in cinemas and on pay-per-view, they really don't go far enough. I would suggest that they instead follow the model of mega-churches. Put a parking lot in front of the house and glass-in one wall of the theatre for those who like to worship/watch without leaving the familiar comforts of their cars. Embrace amplification and other contemporary theatrical technologies. Let George Lukas and Joel Osteen stage these things. Opera loves stage magic and there's no reason that operas shouldn't be as vivid as a Rodger Rabbit cartoon. Heck, maybe they should even incorporate as churches -- they won't have to charge admission, as tax-deductible love offerings and cinema/pay-per-view income will surely more than cover costs. And then, the rest of us, who happen to like hearing unamplified voices in intimate surroundings can get to it.

That's probably enough to feed the passions for today.


David Ocker said...

I feel that the correspondences between classical music performance and religious observance are quite strong.

Both include intense faith from believers, enlightened historical beings who are revealed through sacred texts handed down through generations, great temples of worship where ritual acts are performed repeatedly and venerated high priests entrusted with preserving the orthodoxy.

This is NOT particularly controversial, or even worthy of much notice, because the people's faith cannot be challenged by reprobates like me.

Anonymous said...

In Defense of Shostakovich, which i am sure you were egging someone on, i will comply.
There are composers that are innovative in the "nouns" they use and others in the "verbs"
Too often when we think of innovative we think in strickly in terms of the nouns- the material they used regardless of the how they used them. Schoenberg and say Ben Johnston are good examples of composers who used innovative materials more than in innovative ways. DS as one example with his 4th sym. Which the form has to be one of the most innovative ( i am not saying what it is ) has a brief
passage where it is almost the ultraromanic and then outof no where one is hit in the back of the head with some of the most ugly pounding chords into the dirt . followed by silence. So the point is that he is "psychologically" innovative, and highly imaginative.
something i think we see also in Feldman, but no one seems to mention that aspect of him, playing with expectations and pulling the rug (he was a rug man let us not forget)out from just what you think is going to happen next. As i get older i tend to prefer those who use material in interesting ways as opposed to those who just flop some new material in front of us. The latter i contract you in getting nothing out of this type of work at all.

Civic Center said...

There's really no defending composers since music is so subjective. You either like somebody's music or you don't, and the feeling can be immediate or can take years. (Sometimes it can work in reverse -- I'm having a difficult time listening to any Brahms, the dude who's modeling for your resume.)

In any case, I share a lot of your reservations on your controversial list of composers whose music doesn't take you anywhere interesting, but not Britten, who I think is as much a god as Verdi. And I'll give Shostakovich a pass just for "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" alone.

Charles Céleste Hutchins said...

Who was the conductor who wanted to do concert halls as temples? He wanted concerts to end in silence and the audiences to file out afterwards, in awe of the conductor.

We studied this in my conducting class, and now, for the life of me, I can't remember.

Fees for composers: I see this a lot less on European calls for scores. I think it has something to do with getting adequate government funding.

Composers we all agree on and love: Elgar. My heart stirs when I hear the opening strains of "Pomp and Circumstance." It's a shame it's been ghettoized to graduations. I wish I could hear it more places, as a bigger part of the ambient soundscape. Who wouldn't feel an increase in confidence getting into an elevator quietly playing that tune? I wouldn't even bother to worry that the permit for it was 10 years out of date.