Oprah yet again

Oprah, Oprah, Oprah…there’s a lot to say.

From Anastasia Tsioulcas, classical music columnist for Billboard (and a triple threat, because she’s handy with world music and jazz, too) comes the following:

I was just catching up on your blog, and wanted to point out that Oprah’s extremely popular magazine, “O,” already does carry (albeit small) features on serious music–classical music, opera, and jazz–fairly regularly. (I should know, as I write many of them!) Over the past year, the pieces I’ve done for “O” include a short preview of the Margaret Garner opera and interviews with Renee Fleming and Angela Brown. Another wonderful, if surprising, example of serious music discussion in their pages is the interview I did for “O” with Mexican-American singer Lila Downs, in which she spoke of how both Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” and Strauss’ songs have shaped her artistically.

Of course, that sort of thing doesn’t have quite the same impact as her television show, and certainly doesn’t carry the weight of her personal enthusiasm & imprimatur…but it’s a start!

I guess we’d need to know how much Oprah’s magazine does the kind of thing any magazine might do—which could include, especially if you’re thinking of your African-American readers, something about Margaret Garner—and to what extent the magazine reflects Oprah’s own interests. Lila Downs, by the way is terrific (and thanks, Anastasia, for turning me on to her with your mention). Her life might as well be a playlist in itself—Mexican, Mixtec Indian, American, vocal study at the University of Minnesota, former Deadhead, and now a singer who’s powerfully ethnic, completely cosmopolitan, and politically committed. Think Caetano Veloso meets Mexican Indian meets Woody Guthrie (though comparisons like that make me itch).

Meanwhile, on Oprah’s own site there’s something a little bit discouraging. It comes from Robert W. Hamblin, a leading Faulkner scholar who’s Professor of English and Director of the Center for Faulkner Studies at SoutheastMissouriStateUniversity. He’s explaining how to read Faulkner—who of course is very difficult; many people will be grateful for any help Hamblin gives—and compares Faulkner to classical music:

…think of Faulkner’s novels as symphonic in structure. And just as a symphony moves from section to section, presenting varying moods and impressions, altering speeds and rhythms, at times introducing leitmotifs [melodic phrases that are associated with an idea, person or situation] and themes that will be developed more fully later on, at other times looping backward to recapitulate earlier themes, but always advancing toward a final resolution, so too does the Faulkner novel employ shifting tones and impressions, hints and foreshadowings, repetitions and recapitulations, time shifts looping backward and forward, all consciously intended to shape the story not so much on the pages of the book but in the reader’s mind and imagination.

Which is all very nice, but also garbled. Leitmotifs come from opera, not from symphonies. Hamblin, in other words, doesn’t seem to know much about classical music, no matter how eagerly he invokes it. And this, by the way, is nothing new. Milton Babbitt wrote a long, wry essay about mistakes scholars in other fields make when they talk about music, sometimes really basic mistakes from people who otherwise are paragons of authority. Classical music has really fallen off the radar even of cultured intellectuals—and that, I think, started to happen quite a long time ago.

I’ve been reading Faulkner, thanks to Oprah. She might as well be recommending Schoenberg. Faulkner, in his way, is just as difficult, though since he’s telling stories, and the characters and situations draw you in, he’s also accessible in ways that Schoenberg might not be. But still you have to work to read him; sometimes you have to read a passage over several times before you can even sort out the various threads that might be in it.

Faulkner also is about things we can understand. The Sound and the Fury resonates with echoes of the long-ago south, and especially the relations of black and white people. His portrait is unsparing, especially, I think, of the whites. The n-word is everywhere, which might shock us today. You’re forced to work out what he means by it, and what his characters, both white and black, might mean.

What in classical music deals with anything like that? Well, there’s an oratorio by William Grant Still about lynching, premiered by the New York Philharmonic in the ‘40s, though not at a regular concert; they played it in the summer season they used to have in Lewisohn Stadium in Harlem, NY. But that’s the exception—and a forgotten exception, too—that proves the rule. What classical music deals with our racial struggle in America? What classical music could Oprah recommend that would take us as deeply into our confrontations with the outside world as Faulkner does?

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