Sunday, June 26, 2005

Write Safely and Carry a Big Schtick

Greg calls from Oregon as often as he can. Sometimes he's euphoric after having a wonderful meeting or conversation with his fellow composers. Sometimes he's frustrated and miserable after having heard the same old arguments from the academics. Each call brings a different mood, but all in all, he really is having a good time at the Bach Festival.

He talked a little bit about his music at a focus-group session yesterday, in advance of his big presentation on Tuesday. The people who were there generally liked the pieces he played, but after they were finished, the academic composers started up with the same old refrain: "The rhythm is so regular." That translates to "It isn't weird enough." Folks generally really liked Greg's sense of instrumental color (after all, Ravel is one of his compositional heroes, and no one complains about "Bolero" being too regular, either) and his ideas about applying complex harmonies to traditional counterpoint. Bach's music doesn't contain any freaky-deaky look-at-me-I'm-a-novelty content, rhythmic or otherwise, and it has transcended the centuries. I thought these people were at a Bach festival, but stop me if I'm wrong.

Modern classical music, at least in the academic realm, is still suffering from the John Cage-Milton Babbitt syndrome: If it's not weird, it's not imaginative. The problem is, listeners don't want to listen to weird music. They do want to hear music that appeals to their minds, but they tend to avoid 20th- and 21st-century music because they just don't want to get trapped in the same room with noise masquerading as music -- especially if they paid to be there. This is why they keep buying tickets to all-Mozart programs, and why that's all the orchestras ever program any more. (I can't say as I blame them, even if concert programming has taken a major turn for the bland as a result. If I never hear another piece with people moaning into microphones against a taped soundtrack, it'll be too frickin' soon.)

The folks who complain that Greg's rhythms are so regular are the proponents of the weird, the people who drive listeners away from contemporary classical music. These are the self-styled "bad boys" of the music world, who were such rebels in the '60s, and who are now teaching composition. Although they're older than we are (and we're middle-aged), they still think they've reached the ultimate point in musical evolution. Hel-looooo, the '60s were 40 years ago! Their students feel forced to either write the weird stuff so they'll get good grades from their professors, or they write "safe music" so that their music will appeal to the listeners who have retreated to Mozart. Trust me, I've been to enough student concerts this past year to have heard plenty of both.

There seems to be no middle ground left to those who have something new to say without being weird, and without retreating so far into "safe music" as to be anonymous. Small wonder Greg is frustrated. His music isn't weird enough to appeal to the academics, and it's not "safe" enough to share space on the program with Mozart and Haydn, or with the quasi-New Age "composers" they feature on PBS. He also doesn't rely on schtick to establish his identity, so people who look only for schtick would tend to pass him by, too.

The path Greg is taking is not an easy one. We've both always known that, but I still can't help feeling sad and frustrated for him. His music is beautiful without being syrupy, intelligent without being academic, accessible without being "safe." It doesn't bear an obvious, schticky, hey-look-at-me label that easily allows him to be classified. He is unique, but you won't catch anyone saying, "Oh yeah, he's that still-living, blond, male, Scandinavian-American composer from the Northeast." Have we grown so hungry for obvious "specialness" that we can't figure out what we're listening to without it?

Ironically, the people in charge of the composers' symposium are themselves academic composers. Greg would like to meet the performers and reach out to them -- particularly Helmuth Rilling, one of the premier interpreters of Bach today -- but he's worried that the folks who complained in the focus group about his music will deny him a chance to meet people who would perform and interpret his music rather than dismiss it. Greg worries that they feel they have to "insulate" the performers from anything non-academic or non-schticky coming out of the composers' side of the festival.

I like to think that Greg's work will receive the recognition it deserves while he's still around to hear that it's appreciated, rather than waiting for musical history to catch up. Something tells me that Bach himself would sympathize.

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