I’ve been reading the comments on my post about El Sistema and new music, and truly I’m surprised. I criticized El Sistema for (if my information is correct) not teaching composition and not including new music in the music its students play.
And people reacted as if I’d said they shouldn’t teach traditional classical music at all. Douglas Laustsen put it very simply in a comment he posted yesterday:
I think all that Greg is suggesting is that in addition to a core classical training, the kids are given the experience of music written in their own time. I don’t think he’s suggesting they trash the entire repertoire, but include another ingredient or two.
Now, Doug works with me on my blog site, maintaining the “Solutions” page. So maybe he’s biased in my favor, but I think he’s telling a very simple truth here. All I asked for, in my post, was for El Sistema to teach classical music the way it’s taught in North America and Europe, with an emphasis on old repertoire and the old tradition but with new music included in the mix.
Did I need to spell that out? Wouldn’t anyone likely to read this blog know how classical music is generally taught? I’m truly baffled. When I said, at the start of my post, that I might spark some controversy, I thought people might protest — and maybe not unreasonably — that El Sistema does such enriching work that it shouldn’t be criticized for a lapse with new music.
Or maybe some people think that new music is really painful, and ought to be avoided. I’d disagree, but at least I’d understand why they disagreed with me.
Or else my critics might have gone after Emilio Mendoza, the Venezuelan composer whose despairing remarks about El Sistema I quoted. My critics might have asked whether he’s just an angry malcontent, whose opinions other Venezuelans, even composers, don’t share. (And in fact I don’t know anything about him, apart from what he put online.)
But instead what I got (and very vociferously) from some people, was this — that when you teach classical music, you have to teach the older styles. Because they’re what everything else is founded on.
And so, once more, I’m baffled. What I’ve just summarized has no relation to anything I said. Or at least none that I can see. Of course the tradition should be taught. Especially since the older styles are still with us. We hear them every time the older (pre-20th century) masterworks of the repertoire are performed. Of course students should learn what these styles are about. They should learn the music theory underlying them, they should learn standard harmony and counterpoint, they should learn music history, they should learn to play Beethoven and Brahms.
So what, exactly, are my critics urging? What makes them hug the classical tradition so closely to their hearts, even when I haven’t threatened it? Are they happy that El Sistema doesn’t teach new music? Do they want new music ripped out of the curriculum at music schools all over the world?
There isn’t any contradiction between teaching older styles and teaching new ones. Look at Schoenberg, who of course, in his time, was a radically avant-garde composer, and also a famous composition teacher. He founded his teaching on traditional harmony, form, and counterpoint, and insisted that his students learn those things vigorously. Though they also — simply by their association with Schoenberg — were plunged into everything new about music that was going on at their time. How could that have hurt them?
Well, someone might say, his students were adults. Kids — who of course are the greatest part of the students El Sistema teaches — need to learn differently. They need to learn the older music first.
But I don’t see why that should be so. I’m thinking now of Jon Deak, the former associate principal bass of the NY Philharmonic who goes around the world conducting workshops — inspiring workshops, deeply admired — where he teaches children to compose. Is he doing something bad? Should he be stopped?
Or, back in the ’70s, when I worked at an arts day camp and taught 10 year-olds to compose, was I misleading these kids, diverting them from the true musical path, contributing (so to speak) to the musical delinquency of minors?
That makes no sense to me. If anything, the kids i taught learned to understand old music better by composing pieces on their own. I worked out a way for them to compose cooperatively, with each kid taking charge of a particular part of each new piece. They all lquickly decided that the one who had to write the ending had the hardest job. Will anyone believe that this didn’t help them understand what composers of the past accomplished when they wrote exactly the right conclusion to their pieces?
And how about ASCAP, which each year at its awards ceremony honors young composers, ranging from elementary school kids to college students? Is ASCAP doing something reprehensible? The kids they honor — excerpts from whose music they pay — are tremendously accomplished. Many of them, even some of the young ones, have the compositional technique of professional composers.
And in general, from everything I’ve picked up, they’re musical omnivores drinking in music in every known style. So learning to compose doesn’t take them away from the cherished repertoire of the past. And even if it did, the quality of their compositions shows that composing hasn’t deprived them musically. They know their stuff.
If I look back to the past, I’m even more baffled. Should Prokofiev, in 1936, not have written Peter and the Wolf? Was it bad for kids back then to hear something new? Should they have been listening to The Toy Symphony instead? Or Eine Kleine Nachmuisk?
Or I could ask the same question about Britten, and The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Was that a bad piece for him to write? Should British kids in 1946 have been listening to Purcell?
Or think about Britten’s delectable opera Noye’s Fludde, written for the musical resources of an entire town. Beginning violinists have parts with all the music written only on open
strings. Teenage girls play the women Mrs. Noye gossips with. The littlest kids take the parts of the smallest animals. (When you see the opera done, the sight and sound of these little ones, coming onstage and squeaking “Kyrie eleison” in the highest voices they can muster, is unforgettably adorable.)
Does anyone think this damages the kids who take part in it, because they should have been putting on The Magic Flute?
Are boy sopranos distracted from their proper musical training when they star in Amahl and the Night Visitors?
Was Bartok doing something bad when he wrote Microcosmos, a multi-volume course of instruction on the piano, starting with pieces simple enough for kids to play at their very first lesson, but always using the dissonances we hear in his string quartets?
Is Jennifer Undercofler, who runs the Special Music School in New York — part of the NY city public school system — wrong to organize a new music ensemble, in which kids of high school age play all kinds of new classical music? I’ve heard them. They’re fabulous. And they love the music they’re playing. Should Jenny be reprimanded? Should the kids ignore new music until — well, when? Until someone decides that they’re old enough to resist whatever contagion might be festering inside a piece by David Lang?
I’ll stop here. But truly I’m baffled. Would one of my critics care to explain what he or she really meant?