The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2021

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NOV 2021 Issue

Diary of a Mad Composer

Valerie Coleman. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Valerie Coleman. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

Rahsaan Roland Kirk: “Black people say Dvořák was a Black man, but white people say he was a white man.”

Man in the audience: “But what do you say?”

Rahsaan Roland Kirk: “I say I don’t give a damn!” (Laughs, proceeds to play "Sentimental Journey" and the Largo melody from Dvořák's Symphony No. 9 on two horns, simultaneously)

I’ve been studying the Western art music tradition—call it classical music—since I was in grade school. First piano lessons, then learning the flute and playing Bach and Telemann and Debussy, piccolo in orchestras, theory, analysis, and composition in college and graduate school. I still write music, slowly (I’ve got a relatively recent sonata for violin and piano sitting around if anyone wants to take a look at it). And classical music has been at least a plurality of my home listening for decades, and easily the bulk of my concert going for the last 10 years, during which I've been an active classical music critic.

With concerts back after a year and a half of pandemic closures, you'd think I'd be happy, if not ecstatic. I see social media posts from colleagues expressing gratitude over the healing and life-affirming experiences they are having at the concert halls, and I realize I feel none of that. Instead, I walk the streets and keep asking myself, "why do we even have classical music in America?" This isn’t nihilism, instead it feels both sad and militant. I would not have dedicated so much of my time, for so little money, to this music if it wasn’t meaningful to me. The Western compositional tradition is essential to how my mind is organized. Music as a means to build structure and form out of time, whether writing it on paper or improvising, makes more sense to me than words. I understand music in a way that I don’t understand anything else in my life.

Classical music is relevant to me, even if that relevance extends to maybe a few dozen thousand people in the United States. The music, as a cultural business, struggles to reach more people all the while assuming its own relevance to the country at large. But never in my life, including the relatively cloistered world of graduate school at a music conservatory, has classical music felt less relevant to me as an American.

No one should assume that the question of classical music in America is settled. Because of European/bourgeois cultural roots, classical music has been played in America for hundreds of years, but it has mainly been the European tradition brought over here and presented as aspirational high culture and social cachet, an amelioration (even if not a pleasure) for mind and soul. The nature and birthright of America means, as Henry Threadgill has so plainly said, that we can enjoy whatever we want to enjoy. But more than something that people genuinely enjoy, Mozart and the like are presented as something inherently worthy that people will come to if we just work a little harder to tell them about it, or give them some kind of gimmicky draw to get them to show up.

As someone who does think Mozart is inherently worthy, I’m tired of this bullshit, this unquestioning assumption of worth and relevance. Classical music marketing in America treats it as a generic whole, when Mozart, Verdi, Bach, Debussy, Stravinsky were not just part of a tradition of creating abstract structures and developing notational methods, but each had a specific national culture background as well. German, French, Italian music all has a distinct national sound, as does that of Sibelius and Arvo Pärt and others. When we’re asked to appreciate Mozart, we’re never asked to appreciate the languages he spoke, the cities he wrote and played in, in which he was paid, the audiences he was trying to reach. That can be fascinating and relevant, but it’s glossed over.

So as much as I love Robert Schumann, without an acknowledgement of the culture in which he made music it’s very hard to make his work relevant to an American audience—and I use him as an example because no composer is earthier or speaks more directly to individual human experience. Granted, this is not easy to do, but the long-standing approach is to produce classical music concerts as museum pieces without bothering to give the audience the same type of context they get when they are in the galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s half-assed.

And it’s beyond frustrating because there is a genuine American classical music tradition. Obviously Charles Ives is the foundation, using European models but pioneering the idea of American sound and subject matter, the birthright of the American artist to tinker in every respect with every possible idea that has come before. Experimentalism is the American way.

Ives was not alone in setting the foundation—there was also Dvořák. The great Czech composer spent three years in New York, directing the National Conservatory of Music of America at 17th Street and Irving Place. This is where he wrote his Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.” One of the great melodists in music history, Dvořák created original lines that he felt had an American sound, and pointed out the source of his idea of what a new American music would sound like: “In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.”

That Black music is at the root and core of American popular music is a given, and it needs to be at the core and roots of American classical music if that music is to be relevant to this country. In fact, it's already there, but so little of this music is ever put in front of the public. This fall, audiences at the Metropolitan Opera are enjoying both Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up In My Bones and the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, which both speak to America, but the Met has also put money behind the horrendously dull 1869 version of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, possibly the most irrelevant drama for 21st century American, and there are the seemingly endless runs of Franco Zefferelli’s gaudy, decadent, vapid productions of Turandot and La Bohème—there’s nothing like even more Puccini to show how irrelevant an opera company can be.

Even worse is the state of symphonic music. I was at Carnegie Hall for the opening concert in early October, and the Philadelphia Orchestra and conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin opened with Valerie Coleman’s Seven O’Clock Shout (along with writing music, Coleman formerly was the flutist in the Imani Winds and now teaches at Mannes). The title is about the impromptu ritual of cheering for healthcare workers at their 7 p.m. shift change. It’s pandemic music, not only about a feature of the situation, but written in the spring of 2020 and premiered online by the orchestra, each musician playing remotely, all together.

Seven O’Clock Shout is one of the very few pieces of classical music that actually addresses a social situation beyond a title and some earnest, written argument. It is meaningful through sheer sound, beautiful and rich with conflicting emotions that manage to find a point to experiencing and enduring life. The music also has a wonderful sound, an important one that is the result of mixing Ives’s and Dvořák’s concepts together, a sound that was the defining characteristic of American classical music via the mid-20th century orchestral music of composers like Copland, William Schuman, Walter Piston, and Peter Mennin. That is a specifically American classical music sound, formed by the Great Depression, war, and immigration (Piston’s grandfather was Antonio Pistoni and Mennin was born Mennini). It was serious and exuberant, gritty, industrial, streamlined, with wide-open harmonies stacked on each other like skyscrapers. And, it in no way required any prior knowledge of European culture, it was American. Stravinsky, who was a great chameleon, adapted to this sound when he arrived here; you can hear it in Symphony in Three Movements and the Ebony Concerto, two of his many masterpieces.

And we hear almost none of this music, even in New York, much less America. The symphony orchestras still, in 2021, are monuments to what bourgeois Europeans told us was culture, not to what we, as Americans, have discovered ourselves. I give the Philadelphia Orchestra credit for asking Coleman to write this piece, because she has one of the most American voices I’ve heard in contemporary classical music, and that is relevant to me and would be so to anyone in this country who goes into a concert hall (the orchestra also has a new album on Deutsche Grammophon, playing Florence Price’s terrific Symphonies 1 and 3, so they are doing something about this). As parochial as New York City arts can be, Schuman, who was the first president of the Juilliard School, is somehow left out of the picture, even though the New York Philharmonic played plenty of his music under Leonard Bernstein. The institutions that decide what we hear positioned themselves as noble guardians of culture during the Trump presidency, even as there is no doubt that among the rich people who make up their boards were Trump donors, but the point of those years was not culture versus vulgarity, it was America versus authoritarianism. If you believe in America, that despite all the failures and things that are incomplete there is still a promise here that exists nowhere else, then you play music that is relevant to America, you give listeners this country’s culture instead of keeping it tucked away in music libraries. Nothing against Mozart and Schuman, it’s not their fault that they speak less to our moment than Valerie Coleman does. More of her, and those who came before her.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2021

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