Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Re-shuffling History

A friend of mine--a performer and conductor at the advanced graduate level, not a "historian"--conducts and teaches at a small liberal arts school and has an opportunity, soon, to maybe teach music appreciation. The school encourages "themes" to their courses rather than drive-thru seminars (Would you like fries with that quiz?), and it's gotten me to thinking about ways to free up the staid curriculum, which has been getting a bad rap since at least the 1930s, when composer and critic Virgil Thomson, spelling out the various employments of composers, identified "the music appreciation racket." The term may have been self-deprecating, in a sense; while I'm a fan of what I know (especially the Stravinsky-lite "Sonata da Chiesa," a mixed chamber quintet I was dead-set on performing but for which I have lost track of the parts post-2008-flood), the biggest dent Thomson made in musical culture was not as another Boulanger apogee, but as a taste-maker in the New York Herald Tribune, writing to a broad but generally cultivated audience.

Music Appreciation--and undergraduate surveys in general--are valuable as a ritualized practice. It's what allows educated musicians of many age levels to say things like, "The catholic church feared polyphony and tropes," "Monteverdi let the text show him new harmonies that caused a richer harmonic language to usher in the baroque era," "Palestrina looked back to Josquin," or "Haydn was able to be more experimental because he worked for the Esterhazys and didn't have to worry about commercial considerations," or "Beethoven's radical experimentation profoundly affected classicism," or"The Tristan chord freed chromaticism and caused Schoenberg to come into being," or the Tinkers-to-Evans-to-Chance American lineage of Ives-Cowell-Cage-Young-Reich.

Specialists in each area will have something to quibble with in each of those statements, but specialists in each area and era will have something to quibble with in anything, won't they? Some are over-reductive myths, some are helpful constructs; but they are stories we tell, creation myths, scriptures. And even if your Reverend doesn't agree with the Apostle Paul when he tells wives to submit to husbands, that's a matter of commentary. The lectionary reading marches on, and, with slight variations (a "one" where a "he" was) there is a comfort in learning the same story your parents learned. In my (back home) house, I think we have editions 2, 3, and 4 or 5 of the Grout, and I learned from a borrowed copy of 6 while I consult (fairly often, actually) the revamped Burkholder 7th.

The details are certainly different, as any number of studies will demonstrate. Character actors have come out of the shadows to steal a soliloquoy from the leading men; but the overarching narrative starts at the beginning and goes to the end, where it splinters out, as teachers struggle each May to somehow get from Gershwin to Shostakovich to Hindemith to Shostakovich to Webern to Boulez to Berio to Adams to Zwillich to Tan Dun in the last 2 hours of classtime.

I wonder if the story could be told backwards and still maintain some modicum of coherence for a scantily educated college student, if we could start in the year 2000 and make our way back to 800 unscathed.

Like any great creation myth, the story of Western music appeals to our sense of formal coherence and mirrored structure. The first story we tell, after thought-experiments back to the Greeks and Boethius, is the emergence of a notated monophonic repertoire and how, through sheer force of will of some bright and hip Parisians and gentle experimentation elsewhere, it becomes a notated repertoire of polyphony. We pause and go back to the Troubadors, and then it's on to Josquin (although I've always thought the Troubadours and Trouveres would be a more bracing starting place for a "History of Pop Music" course than, say, Stephen Foster).

So, monophony becomes polyphony. And what happens at the end of every music history survey? Dozens of Robert-Altmanesque crosscuts. "Eventually, Bartok moves to New York, where he would soon die. Meanwhile, in Bairstow, California, Harry Partch...Which brings us to Varese's Poeme Electronique."

Could we start with an age of diversity, and move backwards into an age of (relative) coherence? Problems would abound, of course, but it seems that they would be the exact same problems as a linearally organized historical survey: how to relate Romantic lied and character pieces to absolute music contemporaneous to it? How to relate French opera and German classicism, or Italian opera and German romanticism? Teaching Turandot a couple of weeks ago, I abruptly showed my discussion sections two minutes of Wozzeck, which, sadly, we weren't covering. It may have been too big of an idea for a glib aside, and too problematizing for a non-major survey course, but would you walk out of a music history survey realizing that Turandot is a "later work" than Wozzeck?

Here's an interesting thought-experiment, an absurd idea that perhaps would catch the fancy of a Cageian: what if we centered an entire Western musical survey around one work, chosen at random, and told the entire history of music so that it would explain why that work came into being when it did? I'm going to press shuffle on my iPod and try it...

Oh my goodness! I swear I did not make this up. (And I'm very glad something like Amy Winehouse or late Dylan or world music didn't come up.) My shuffle selected Messiaen's "The Wood Thrush," from Des canyons aux etoiles. Hmm. Then, my survey would emphasize onomontopeia throughout the history of music; we might start with Josquin, go through the madrigalists, touch on the pastoral, word-painting in lied and the tone poem. We could go back in time to ars nova rhythm, and even further to the development of modes--but we would have to tell our students that these modes, and the modal formulae, were merely anticipations of an equally-divided octave.

Let me try two more, at random:

Whoa, here's a tricky one! "Variation for Violin and Piano," Uri Caine, The Goldberg Variations. Somewhere between Berg, Hindemith, and Wayne Shorter, this movement would not, in a first or even a one-thousand-and-first hearing, suggest Bach when heard out of context of the whole work. We could start with parody/imitation masses, or even cantus firmus, challenge the concept of authorship, make our way through Bach himself as transcriber, through different transcriptions of Bach spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, through Liszt and Busoni, through the downtown New York scene in the early 1990s, teach John Zorn, and then make our way to Caine.

One more:

"Candy Floss," Wilco, from the album Summer Teeth, a loving Beach Boys parody, even down to the Carl Wilson SoCal twang. Hmm... The Beach Boys could be a good gateway into vocal polyphony, but this is too hard. One more, for real this time:

Whoa! What a great one! "The Comedy (Noah and His Wife)," a terrifically strange, serial Stravinsky movement of spoken melodrama. (You can listen to most of it here at the Amazon MP3 store.) We could tell different creation stories through music--find Genesis in a noted missal, go back to Jewish chant, Haydn to Das Rheingold to Milhaud's La Creation du Monde through the first movement of Berio's Sinfonia, vaudeville, the adoption of late style by composers. This piece reminds me (uncannily, actually) of the more frightening, strangest passages from Ellington's Second Sacred Concert, "Supreme Being," that tells the story of Eden through a dense atonal haze, chanted choir, and a happy-go-lucky boy's voice who tells the story of Adam and Eve as if he were the apple.

This might not be a bad, if extremely arbitrary, way to structure a liberal arts class.

Going on with my current "shuffle session," I just came upon a recording of the third movement of Boulez's second piano sonata. 'Twould be a very fine focal point for a course, and maybe throughout the semester I could play it often enough that some would even grow to like it.

Who knows? This is really half-baked, but blogs can be half-baked, right?

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