Banging some music

As an important adjunct to my posts on this year’s Bang on a Can marathon — this post and this one — I should add that what in the end makes the event so fabulous is the music. Without music that people want to hear, no crowds, no year after year success, no event.

Of course, just because large crowds enjoy this music, that doesn’t mean the music is necessarily good, that you’d like it, or that I’d like it. But I’ve always liked it very much. Not every piece; of course not; life doesn’t work that way.

But overall I’m happy to hear what shows up, and I get in the same head I found myself in tonight, at a National Symphony concert, which ended with a Golijov piece, Azul. I just loved that music. Abandoned myself to it, was happy to go wherever it went, had no impulse to judge it.

Same with much that I hear at Bang on a Can. In the short time I was able to be at the marathon (I’m busy with life changes in two cities at once), I heard a piece by Fred Frith, played by the Bang on a Can All-Stars, a chamber ensemble piece that lives in the same universe as a lot of new classical music (of the non-concert hall sort), and a lot of jazz and blues and improvisation.

That’s a congenial part of creation for me, and I’m sure for a lot of people in the large audience. A friend I talked to after it was over thought it didn’t hold together, but somehow I wasn’t looking for that. I was happy to follow all of its thoughts, wherever they went.

Then came the piece I mentioned in one of my posts, by Fausto Romitelli, which the composer said would last 40 minutes, and which sounded at first like an assault of noise. (From a large-ish ensemble.) I like assaults of noise, but I had to work with this one. I did what I’d always advise to me or anyone else, when we can’t get with some music we’re hearing: listen much harder.

I did that, and soon I began hearing gestures in the music that should have been clear to me earlier, gasps and spasms, the piece moving forward in shudders, often with a downward fall from one prominent note to a lower one. Now I got really caught up in what I was hearing.

When I left, two women on stage, calling themselves Buke and Gass, were crashing and wailing and sing-shouting their way in a wonderful sonic space that rock, new classical music, and pure noise have together opened up.

One thing I love about all this is that I never know what to expect. Contrast your normal symphony concert. The National Symphony quite brilliantly paired Golijov with Ravel (three familiar orchestral works), but the Ravel had no surprises. When the Golijov work began, I felt like the walls fell away. Just as at Bang on a Can, I didn’t know what to expect, and that stayed with me all through the piece.

Which is the experience, isn’t it, that we have when we go to a movie we haven’t seen, when we read a book we haven’t read, when we go to see a new play, when we listen to a new pop album. Not till classical music rejoins the real world, and lets me, day in and day out, have a musical life like that, will the classical music world seem normal, or healthy.

(And yes, sometimes I read a new book and it’s bad. Predictable. Nothing in it I haven’t read before. But I didn’t know that before I starting reading, did I? While when I look at the programs of most classical concerts, I pretty much know what to expect.)

(And yes, someone will say that classical concerts, even when the most familiar works are played, are full of surprises, because new things can happen in performances, people can play familiar phrases in a subtly different way, or even widely different way. But these are small surprises, I think, and, worse, audible mainly to initiates, people who’ve heard the standard masterworks often enough to appreciate small departures from various norms. I’m not going to put down the value of that — we’ve all seen a movie for a second or third or tenth time, and noticed things we hadn’t noticed before — but if that’s the main thing that musical art holds for you, aren’t your horizons terribly limited?)

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  1. says

    Interesting, insightful comments again Greg – thanks.

    What can be difficult of course, is finding the ‘wall-dissolving’ pieces among the myriad musical options out there. Performance forums such as Bang On A Can are invaluable for airing and hearing this new music, but what then? Where can these pieces be heard again? And how can we know that a work is going to be rewarding enough to invest our time, attention and money to listen to it. It’s great to take risks and attend marathons such as you describe now and again but these opportunities are rare – what about the rest of the time? And other genres of music for which this sort of opportunity is impractical?

    That’s one way in which the various music information centres, such as SOUNZ here in New Zealand, can really help – making accessible works that are otherwise hard to come by through samples, scores, and recordings where they exist.

    SOUNZ, for example, collaborates with our national orchestra, the NZSO, on sets of readings of orchestral music twice a year – an invaluable opportunity for works to be heard and draw the attention of programmers. I’ve been lucky enough to attend concerts where works revealed through the Readings have been programmed for public performance and experienced that excitement of being among an audience that has been captured by the unknown and unpredictable – all kudos to our orchestras for taking the programming ‘risks’ attendant upon playing ‘unknown’ works.

    Another useful ‘forum’ is through composition prizes perhaps? We have the SOUNZ Contemporary Award here and I’m sure that many countries have similar award opportunities in which composers can submit works from any genre. We have just been involved in that process for the 2010 Award and seeing and hearing the range and depth of music being created was quite stunning once again (and yes! wall-dissolving works abounded!) Following through a list of the works that have been finalists in the SOUNZ Contemporary Award would be an excercise in musical discovery that at least has the advantage of having some sort of musical recommendation. To use your ‘book’ analogy, at least it would be choosing an unknown book to read from a trusted book review.

    Good questions, Stephen.

    My answer might be a little radical. The proportion of new music at mainstream classical concerts has to increase, by a lot. At least half the pieces at any average concert should be new or recent, maybe more. Until this happens, the situation of new music will be abnormal, very unlike the situation of new work in any other art.

    And, to take this further, unless classical music reorients itself around new work, I don’t think it can survive. The old ways have expired, and a new generation — at least in the US — won’t buy tickets for old-style concerts, or give money to support them.

  2. says

    A minor (?) fact check. Buke & Gass are a male-female duo.

    “When I left, two women on stage, calling themselves Buke and Gass, were crashing and wailing and sing-shouting their way in a wonderful sonic space that rock, new classical music, and pure noise have together opened up.”

    Thanks. I should have been more careful, both in looking at the stage, and in checking with the printed program.

  3. Yvonne says

    I agree that the proportion of new music in classical concerts has to increase. At present – in most orchestras – there are two problems.

    First, because it’s relatively rare, many in our audiences perceive the programming of contemporary music as a token gesture (even when the programming overall is logical and sensitive).

    Second (and this is a big beef I have), we do ourselves no favours when we construct marketing for concerts that deliberately avoids all reference to the contemporary works. Let’s say an orchestra is giving the country premiere of a really exciting and powerful new concerto. And let’s say that the program also includes, hmm, Brahms and Tchaikovsky. You can bet your bottom dollar that the concert will be called “Brahms and Tchaikovsky” and the copy will studiously avoid referring to the new work.

    Now, assuming that audiences are smart (which they are!), all this does is send the clear signal that the middle work on the program is Nasty Modern Music. Stay away! Be afraid! Heck, even the presenter doesn’t want to talk about it and is hoping you won’t notice it’s there until you’re in the hall.

    But if anything, the new work should be the highlight and focus and the touchstone of our institutional enthusiasm and thus our marketing. Because if we as presenters can’t communicate affection and enthusiasm then why should anyone in the audience feel it?

    All true. And the audience, of course, isn’t really interested in hearing new work, though they’re often enough taken by surprise, and find they like it.

    What this means to me is that classical music — both for its artistic health and its survival — needs an entirely new culture. And, I fear, a new audience. Which obviously it’ll have to have, if it’s going to survive. The era of the standard masterworks is ending, I think. The current generation in our world, at least in the US, isn’t as interested as previous generations in hearing that music over and over and over.

  4. says

    The Ravel had no surprises for you, but you’d heard it before. Pretend you hadn’t, just like you’d never heard the Golijov before. Then it’s all a big bunch of surprises.

    Thanks so much for instructing me in the art of listening to music, something I’ve been doing professionally for more than 30 years. I have no end of things I think about during performances, no end of ways to reorient my mind to put myself as much as possible on the side of the music and the performers. I never sit in an audience without trying to find some joy in what I’m hearing.

    But that doesn’t mean it always works. It’s quite lovely, in a strange way, to see how ready you are to dismiss what I report as my experience, as if it wasn’t genuine, or as if I wasn’t trying hard enough. How would you feel if I dismissed you as someone so easily satisfied that you don’t even notice when — at the 97th repetition of some familiar piece — you’re bored? Or if I said you’re so brainwashed by classical music that you accept anything the field gives you?

    But in fact, Marc, I’d never say such things about you. If you say you have an experience, I believe you. And I won’t lecture you on ways to have a better one. Why don’t you do the same for me? (I do reserve the right to lecture you if you say things that aren’t true about pop music, though in truth I’m getting tired of those debates. Would I debate someone who showed up in the comments here, telling me the sky is green?)