Friday, December 12, 2008

On this day in music history...

Maybe this is madly narcissistic, but why don't we think of ourselves historically? Maybe there's cold comfort, economically, when I find I don't have any money, that we're in an economic crisis, and so I'm some sort of Representative Man or something. What I'm thinking about, though, is less personal and more collective and academic: the relationship (or not) of ourselves and our activities to what we consider important.

I spent a great deal of contemplation sifting through articles about the history of brass instruments this semester. That was really the one bright spot in an utterly overwhelming academic semester that found me dabbling in mathematical proportions at every turn--and ending up confused and feeling stupid for the first time in a while academically (since, hmm.... my last math class, Geology, and Latin).

But in the course of my ad-hoc investigations, I found that some of the best musical scholarship right now isn't about Bach or Haydn or Beethoven, etc., but about reg'lar folk. This is sort of what I want to do, something about music as an element of everyday culture. There are fancy terms for this, like "superstructure" or, in a very slightly less politically-toxic phrasing, "people's history".

I'm sometimes, as a historian who has grown up around and in the brass world, a bit embarassed, a bit apologetic, that Arnold is not Haydn; Plog is not Boulez. Whatever. Brass music's not about that, not about playing background music for cocktail parties for fat cats (although it can be, and that's awesome), not about winning Pulitzer Prizes, although that's cool too. It's about doing it! There's so much research about the place of brass bands in the 19th-century American social fabric. It's where your neighbors are, it's where you meet people and connect in a social way, like an Elk's Club or a church... except instead of scripture, you argue over articulations.

I think that's what keeps me involved in the brass band movement. First of all, it's a connection with my dad, I think. I remember going to concerts of all kinds when I was young, Navy bands, municipal bands, brass bands... Lots of Rossini overtures and Rodgers and Hammerstein medleys... Am I supposed to be unlearning that, unliking those, renouncing them? I've been thinking often about marriage in general lately, and it caused me to re-read the famous passage by the Apostle Paul on love. This familiar verse stands out:

When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.

That's much of what college education is; doing away with childish things, replacing Stephen King with Jonathan Franzen and "history" books with footnoted history books. Music is the same way. But I think bands in particular represent the re-democratization of music, town bands coming back into existence, trombones coming out from closets, messy, drunk big bands blaring in VFW halls when nobody's listening. The future of video is on youtube, and many people think that's where music is heading. I disagree. Music is a social art, a social phenomenon. What's more important: when Elliot Carter comes out with a new symphony, or when John Rutter publishes a new anthem? Hundreds of church choirs will sing the Rutter--most badly, but so what?--and thousands of parishoners will sit through it. And in 100 years, if I lived to be 125, I could make a splash as a historian rediscovering that fact.

I met an older lady yesterday at the bus stop with what looked like a suitcase. Freezing, we talked about ridership. I mentioned that I was taking the bus now that the music building at Iowa had gotten flooded out--what's the point in parking? She asked what I played, and if I was in the University/Concert Band concert she went to the night before. I felt a bit superior--those are the undergrad/non-major bands, but then she mentioned she was on her way with her flute to the New Horizons Band (a wonderful trend for "mature" adult music makers!). I asked if she knew my friend, who works with the New Horizon flutes, and she said she wasn't in the group with the very intense commitment and just liked to play for fun. I invited her to my friend's recital last night (he's an assistant director of the band) and I saw her there.

All the while, Elliot Carter turned 100. It was an historic day.

3 comments:

Annie said...

I like to think of it as adding Jonathan Franzen (or even Henry Fielding, whatever) to Stephen King. There's no reason both can't still fit in.

Peter G said...

Yeah, I totally know what you mean! I was trying to remember the ol' line that President Warch used to use at all the "welcome" speeches; that your education will fail you if you are still reading the same books and listening to the same music as when you came in. It's definitely not a bad idea at all, but I think it's more pronounced between classical and almost-classical music. Like, Leroy Anderson is bad, but something like--hmm, Spice Girls?--is so "pop" that it's not threatening.

I actually have mixed feelings about Jonathan Franzen. It's like talking to someone who's crazy smart and from New York... and knows it.

Yay! A Comment!

Jo Nathan said...

RE: What's more important: when Elliot Carter comes out with a new symphony, or when John Rutter publishes a new anthem? Hundreds of church choirs will sing the Rutter--most badly, but so what?--and thousands of parishoners will sit through it. And in 100 years, if I lived to be 125, I could make a splash as a historian rediscovering that fact.

Thanks for writing, Peter! As a historian, are we really interested in them (the subjects of research) or in us (contemporary audiences)? That is, is the real purpose of historical inquiry to illuminate something about us, how WE fit into the grand scheme of things, how things that interest US came to be? So, should the question be: in a hundred years, will we care more about Carter, or about Rutter? So, Thousands of THEM sang Rutter, but is Rutter still worthwile singing to US?

Another thought: we do away with childish things through experience. We have to step back and ask, "well, how does this compare to everything else?"

I guess I'm separating the social function of music from the music itself. Perhaps you're arguing that music historians should pay attention to the social aspects of music. But then, that would make them sociologists. And of course sociologists are really more interested in US, as well.