A listener’s critique
July 24, 2006
After three consecutive concerts during Aspen’s day of free music on July 18, I offer this piece for those who feel part of some undisclosed “silent majority” of politically correct appreciators of great music.
I speak for music fans who, in their correctness, tolerate performances of contemporary classical music, but experience discomfort with absence of tonality, unfamiliar musical forms, and the exile of consonance and melodic line.
Any accomplished musician can read a score and approximate “hearing” the music, even “practice” by mentally varying interpretation, dynamics, phrasing, etc. The listener, however, must actually hear the music to experience it, and while performance does offer much to the performer(s), its true imperative is for the listener.
In trying to discern why contemporary music estranges many listeners, I honed a theory that contemporary compositions tend to overengage the head, while ignoring the heart. Lest I be dismissed as some schmaltzy, aging musical malcontent whose artistic appetites are inflamed by certain hormonal deficiencies, please recall that the most commonly applied adjective to modern music is “interesting” ” not inspiring, uplifting, beautiful, transcendental, elegant, etc. We speak of a performer’s technical ability, or our amazement at how the composer brought the piece together.
Listening to modern music requires something of the listener ” notably, trust. Lacking melodic line and suffering chord progressions and tonal configurations that defy the instincts of both heart and head, the listener must trust that the music is actually going somewhere; that the musicians are conveying what the composer wants communicated; that the music bears some relevant correspondence to one’s own life experiences. Lacking this correspondence, the listener has no ground for discerning meaning.
Contemporary art reflects the psychological complexities of our time. The stresses we experience that do not resolve in ways we hope, the disharmony felt in our complicated relationships, the sharp edges we touch in negotiating a complex world and finding our place in the psychological “food chain” are all well-represented in the overabundant tension in modern art. However, since we are confronted daily with vivid reminders of these frailties in the news, we might question whether we also want them reflected back at us in the concert hall.
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The Aspen Contemporary Ensemble’s program left me brooding about the future direction of music. In scanning the pitifully small audience, I noticed many were dozing, meditating or, caught in the height of rudeness, reading the newspaper. For me, the entire program was lacking in emotional attraction, but one piece in particular (Chen Yi’s “Sparkle”) amplified what I find so off-putting in contemporary music. With the string players sawing away in their highest ranges (fingers, bows and bridges coming into perilously close encounters), with the E-flat clarinet screeching away at the top of its register and the flute piercing the veil of kindness in its upper reaches, the term “screaming banshees” comes to mind.
While fewer listeners slept through this piece, I did not witness the glow of enraptured visages. Instead, blank, disengaged faces stared into space. The concluding applause, I fantasized, was for the release from the interminable screeching that made nails on chalkboards seem almost comforting.
Vacating the “heady” music, I hoped the second concert would feed the heart, offering inspiration, depth and an encounter with some Truth. The Kailas String Quartet struggled to convince us that “Phantasy Quintet” (Bowen, Op. 39) is “heart music,” but their bodily efforts were ultimately unconvincing. The closest thing to Truth I experienced was Dennis Smylie’s performance (bass clarinet, fifth member of the quintet), which demonstrated his appropriately engaged neutrality, allowing the music to simply be whatever it was to be for each listener. With neither theatrics nor affectation, his was a radically honest performance.
The third concert, by Aspen’s Academy of Conducting, invited children (young and old) to experience great examples of “program music.” While the contemporary concerts were sparsely attended, there was a full house for the old favorites. In Bernsteinesque style, the conductors instructed the audience in listening to their respective pieces. Throughout the concert, this audience was fully engaged, with youngsters marching about, at times, to the music. (It is unlikely they would have responded so enthusiastically to Chen’s work!)
Perhaps the most moving part of the last concert occurred in the finale, when some 30 children were allowed to lead the orchestra, aided by conductor Cofield, in Sousa marches. Seeing so many little girls stepping forward to take the baton, I indulged a fantasy that the doors to the male inner sanctum of conducting were finally being pried open. Those children will likely never forget the experience of waving that baton. After all, the ultimate test of any art lies in its ability to touch deeply those who encounter it.