Taking off several weeks in August to write a new work for pianist Sarah Cahill put me way behind in my work, and teaching five courses this semester made catching up a slow process. But I have just officially caught up tonight. Perhaps blogging will resume.
I have been having an unexpectedly good time teaching my course “Populism versus Progress in 20th-Century Music.” The students are aggressively thought-provoking. After I gave a long exposition on the origins of minimalism, one asked, “Why do you represent this as somehow a continuation of classical music instead of something else entirely different?” I offered several rationales, all of them noticeably weak and unconvincing. On the other side I did cite the example of California minimalist Harold Budd, who once told me that whenever he walked into a record store and found his discs in the classical bin, he moved them to pop. So – why connect minimalism with classical music at all? Why not declare our independence?
In another class I played several examples of “postmodern” pieces that combined classical and symphonic idioms with jazz or rock or country and western, starting with William Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and Experience and continuing with diverse examples by Christopher Rouse, Mason Bates, and Erkki-Sven Tüür. Virtually every such piece was met with an almost unanimous thumbs-down. First of all, the idea that orchestras would try to lure younger listeners into the concert hall with orchestra pieces influenced by Led Zeppelin was seen as transparently condescending. The idea that rock fans might in any way get the same kind of pleasure they get from hip-hop from a bunch of guys in tuxedos was apparently ludicrous. Even the more thoughtful, less gimmicky examples, though, fared badly. The idea of classical musicians attempting to simulate the energy of rock or jazz turns them off, and even the audio image of a jazz band alternating with the orchestra injures their sense of good taste. (The class’s John Zorn fan protested, “Where’s the unity?”, and I shot back, “Hey, you’re the Zorn fan.” “I know,” he answered, “but his style quotations are all in short snippets.”)
But I’m not satisfied, and I will continue to press the point. Why isn’t it acceptable (and I’m not claiming it is – I’m as bothered as they are, but I’m an old fart) to present two highly opposed musical styles in one piece? As one young woman theorized, perhaps in 1924 audiences experienced the same jarring dislocation with the jazz elements of Darius Milhaud’s La Creation du Monde, and perhaps 80 years from now people will be so inured to such style clashes that Songs of Innocence and Experience will sound tame. I want a better excuse for why they think such music doesn’t work, can’t work, than just, they’re not used to it.