“Beauty makes me sad,” said Steven Mackey, threatening to take a Byronic turn. “If you can’t have sex with it or eat it, what good is it?
“Maybe that’s why people invented picnics. If they can’t eat it [beauty] they can at least eat in its presence.”
So said the Princeton-based composer by way of introducing his piece Groundswell to the audience at American Modern Ensemble’s American Stories concert on March 26 at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music.
The subject, on that rainy Monday in New York City, was what makes composers compose. And for him, composing is an effort to hang onto beauty that he’s experienced. Specifically in Groundswell, he was trying to capture his experiences mountain-hiking and freestyle-skiing – which he did professionally when much younger, until a career-ending injury made him turn to composing. (He’s credited with being the first “Brooklyn composer” – in terms of cool rather than geography, since Princeton University is his longtime home.)
The piece itself turned not to be yet another instance of fine abstract instrumental music coming with extensive accounts of what stimulated the piece’s creation – information that, in my opinion, was not so necessary and could well limit the listening imagination that one could bring to the piece.
The day before (Sunday at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center), Michael Daugherty unveiled a tuba concerto titled Reflections on the Mississippi. I was happy to know the general subject matter partly because the music was lyrical, majestic and so different from past Daugherty pieces I’ve heard that some sort of explanation was in order. But I didn’t need individual subtitles in the movements. Let’s not forget that Mahler removed such things from his Symphony No. 3, mainly because he simply wanted his music to be heard (rather than processed). There’s a reason why more generic titles had a century or two of vogue in the classical world.
My frustration with this matter may date back as far as elementary school, when I rarely heard what the composer intended me to hear. Even Flight of the Bumblebee: My first encounter with the piece was an assignment to draw what the music suggested to me. Well, it wasn’t bees but a manic fox running in circles.
As a mountain hiker myself, I didn’t hear any of Mackey’s musical imagery. It’s a terrific multi-movement piece, sort of a crypto-viola concerto without the typical competitive relationship between soloist and ensemble. Often, I heard a profusion of disparate ideas that momentarily made me glad to be a musical American, because few other nationalities of composer would dare to put so many different things into a single musical collage. One recurring idea in several movements was what sounded like a child attempting to play harmonica, blowing in and out, creating a charming musical non-sequitur that certainly worked better than, for instance, the ocarinas heard in Ligeti’s Violin Concerto.
One movement was woven out of a pair of two-note motifs, Shostakovich-style – one that goes up, the other going down – that was as fine a feat of compositional invention as I’ve heard from Mackey. And that doesn’t really need any back story. The act of holding on to beauty – in the creation of his own – is why we were all there. I’d even venture that what the original beauty looked like is irrelevant.
In contrast, you would’ve wanted to know, in this day and age, what those gun shots were doing near the end of David Ludwig’s excellent Flowers in the Desert. As it turns out, the piece was prompted by the Oklahoma murder of a man who tried to hold up a drug store and, after being neutralized with a single shot from the pharmacist, was finished off with several more shots that killed him. The piece also contained a melody from the great 15th-century composer Josquin des Pres that didn’t make me love it even more when the program notes explained what it was.
The composer in that program who really needs to go to Overexplainers Anonymous is Robert Paterson. His Loony Tunes had visual aids – the various cartoon characters on which individual movements were based. What I managed to notice about the music under these circumstances often sounded quite worthy, though the novelty and specificity of the cartoon visuals (Tweety Bird, et al.) greatly diminished the music that accompanied it.
What’s going on here? Composers want to be understood, and the more original ones, all too often, have left audiences baffled, and not because they have failed to compose well. But even deeper than that, this Explanationitis comes from an American sensibility that something must be useful in order to be valid. But beauty will never be useful in any concrete sense – even though many of us would simply die without it.
We’re in a different era now. Contemporary music concerts no longer have tiny friends-and-family audiences. This concert was packed with young people with standees in the back. More and more these days, you hear composers saying that their explanation of a piece should never be as long as the piece itself. But I think that’s giving them way too much leeway.