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Institute and music festival: bad roommates

Eben Harrell

The Aspen Institute showed up at the Aspen Music Tent on Saturday and ruined a perfectly good concert.The Aspen Music Festival and the institute held a joint performance that day entitled “Words and Music.” The concept was enticing – festival musicians would perform chamber music, followed by a lecture in the second half.Two very smart men – Walter Isaacson, Aspen Institute president, and Thomas Friedman, an institute regular and New York Times columnist – were lined up to speak.It all started swimmingly, with pianist and longtime festival performer Wu Han introducing and leading a quintet of international musicians (including her husband, cellist David Finckel) in performance of Shostakovich’s piano quintet in D minor. The hall was packed and engaged.Shostakovich’s work, Han said, is a remarkable piece of musical architecture, composed under the most trying circumstances, when Shostakovich was threatened with censorship, arrest and possibly even exile. In the face of such oppression, Shostakovich managed to create a work that Han described as a “rare crystal ball – clear, delicate, beautiful.”It was an interesting choice for a concert attempting to wed music and politics. As beautiful as the quintet may be, many would argue that its delicacy can never match the importance of Shostakovich’s later works, in which the composer addressed oppression directly with a deep and troubling ambiguity. Yet Han’s point still stood – the piece is an example of how the human spirit can soar even under the weight of political machinery.Yet in this way, Shostakovich’s piece begs for a separation of art and politics. In creating a “rare crystal ball,” the music advocates a flight into fancy, refuge into a delicate world untouched by human corruption.With the music still hanging in the air, Isaacson and Friedman did much to prove Shostakovich’s point. All of a sudden, the audience was bogged down in Iraq, in 9/11, in global politics. So soon, the “rare crystal ball” had been shattered.What I knew, and what Isaacson and Friedman seem to have forgotten, is that in a contest of “words and music” the former always wins. Words are heavy, awkward, too often destructive. We seek in music what we can’t express in words – purity – and we cherish it precisely because it is a deeper, more numinous code.This is not to say that Isaacson and Friedman didn’t have insightful, interesting things to say – although one wishes Isaacson would find something to talk about other than Ben Franklin and that Friedman would stop confusing the war on al-Qaida with the war in Iraq. It’s just that this wasn’t the right forum for such discussion; the music tent is a sacred space, where music can address issues of humanity without falling prey to the shortcomings of human language, corruption and ideology.Isaacson said he hopes to pursue further interaction between the institute and the music festival. After all, they share the same campus. The effort is in its earliest stages, and will perhaps one day be productive.For now, The Aspen Institute and the Aspen Music Festival exist like college roommates – a political scientist and a poet. One is determined to solve problems; the other strives simply for their most articulate statement. They try to get along, to hang out together. But what became clear on Saturday is that although “words and music” are both important, they should stay out of each other’s classrooms.Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is eharrell@aspentimes.com


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