Wednesday, May 16, 2012

800 Words: The Failed Classical Revolution - Part 3

Another week passes, and I’m still the director of Kol Rinah. If you have musical ability, there really isn’t much to being a good conductor – you just have to make your musicians sound good and do what it takes to make that happen. Any responsible conductor realizes that his job is 1% musical creativity. It takes years of patient work, constant attention to detail, correcting your musicians in the most effective possible way, and compromise, compromise, compromise. The only way for an organization to make progress is to have a leader willing if necessary to bang his head against the wall, and every dent is its own victory. Even a conductor with the very highest level should count himself lucky if a single performance over the course of a 50 year career turn out exactly as (s)he dreamed it. Those of us who work with amateurs simply have to lumber along as best we can, getting our groups as close to first-class performances as possible while still realizing that people willingly giving of their time, their efforts, and their passion to make music owe us absolutely nothing. We their teachers owe them our respect for the privilege of our being able to make money through music, not the other way around.

Seemingly as always with my conducting jobs, I was naïve. I really thought that if I got this group performing at a certain level, people would start noticing how much better they sound right away, and offers for more prestigious, better paying concerts would come in right away. People who’ve listened have certainly noticed that this chorus sounds better than ever (their words inevitably, not mine), yet the new offers I thought would magically appear from the ether are not coming in. At yesterday’s rehearsal, I had them sing a half-dozen songs from memory which they had not sung for a full year. On the first run-through, they sang each piece on the voice, almost perfectly in tune throughout, with fantastic diction, responsive to my requests both verbal and non-verbal, and singing with a real sense of phrasing and dynamics. For an amateur singing group, it doesn’t get any better than they did yesterday. Yet who will know other than us?

There is one thing in life that’s guaranteed to never compromise, and that is compromise itself. Compromise is the fundamental state of all life, and it is merciless in what it compels from all of us. Goals are the only orderly thing about life, and achieving them doesn’t often give us the sense of accomplishment we’d hoped. But having goals does simplify life – “if I achieve this goal,” we all reason, “my life will be better.” Yet there is no guarantee that life will be better when the goal is met, achieving goals is often a messy, messy process, and there’s no guarantee that the goal itself is worth all the effort – all too often, the chalice at the end of the long, windy road is poisoned. In order to achieve your goals, regardless of what they are, you will probably be asked to do things you’d never have countenanced if you didn’t want to do something so badly.

 (Call me any name you want, but DON’T CALL ME SALIERI!)

More than anything else in the world, I’ve wanted to be a conductor since I was three years old. For my whole childhood and adolescence, I dreamed of nothing more than serving music, probably in the way that more religious kids dreamt of serving God. It was more than just a vocation, it was a calling, and it was what I was clearly put on earth to do. Teachers who saw how much I loved the music, how much I knew about the literature, and how comfortable I was in front of crowds could only agree with me. There was only problem: I couldn’t produce great results on paper.

Thanks to a whole battery of learning disabilities, I couldn’t get into anything but a third-rate music program (my professors would call it that at least as often as their students). It was not a music school or even a music department; it was a music program within a performing arts department. My training in theory was two years long, and I could barely eek out B’s and C’s even though I slaved hours on every assignment just so I could learn all the technical names of chords and harmonic progressions that my extreme perfect pitch (I can pick out every note of a hexachord) allowed me to understand implicitly. I applied to music graduate schools around the world in conducting and composition, and was rejected from every one of them no matter how fourth-rate. After all that effort, I still couldn’t pass a basic theory exam.

For all these reasons, I can say with a completely straight face that if there is no place in classical music for a person like me, then to talk of classical music’s future in this country is a colossal joke at best. The fault is not me, the fault is them. Local symphony orchestras double as assisted living facilities, patronized by an elderly population of World War II vets and their wives whose numbers dwindle every year. Most musicians don’t complain if they have to play the same 50 pieces, and always in the same standardized interpretations which they heard as kids on a Karajan or Rubinstein recording. Classical music is the world’s saddest nostalgia act, insisting on reducing its evolvolution to as slow a crawl as possible. What we now call classical music, once the musical lingua franca of the world, shrinks into an ever more insular niche. In a generation, there might be meaningful classical ‘scenes ‘ in big cities like New York, LA, and Chicago, but when the older generation passes away, there will be hardly any need for classical music in regional cities, because America has its own classical music. What sense of a transcendent experience can Bach possibly give these people that Bob Dylan and Otis Redding can’t? The meaning of European Classical Music is virtually irrelevant in a country whose own music has a fully developed culture, identity, and sense of history. Along with American Popular Music, European Classical Music is now the prized music of the rising middle class of East Asia – and in less than a century, the Asian middle class will have have grown its own indigenous music. Where will Beethoven be appreciated then?

Once the world’s dominant music, classical music is no longer even the first (or tenth) among equals. While the classical world grew smaller and smaller, the world of other genres grew ever larger, now long past the point that it’s assimilated classical music into its own vocabulary. What sense is there of talking about classical music which assimilates things from Rock and Pop music when Rock and Pop have long since assimilated much of the best from the vocabulary of classical music. In Eleanor Rigby, The Beatles (or George Martin) used the String Quartet to better effect than Elliott Carter. Hell, Brian Wilson arguably used the theremin (or is it an Ondes Martinot) more memorably than any composer save Percy Grainger (or was it Messiean?). The difference in quality between the best young American classical composers like Nico Muhly or Timothy Andres and the best non-classical composers of various indie genres like Sufjan Stevens and Dan Deacon is staggering. The classical scene is merely excited because they have now produced composers who have even a small hope of breaking into the indie-rock scene and being treated as a lesser peer to Animal Collective or The Decemberists (why anyone would want to compete with either band is a question for another day.). Let’s face it, classical music has lost the battle – and it’s now a small tributary river, simply waiting for the dam to be broken and the final pouring into the bay that is the American Popular Tradition.

And meanwhile, I’m finally doing that thing I’ve been resisting since I first played with a rock guitarist at the age of 16: I’m taking something approaching a full plunge. For the time being, I’ve given up on a career in classical music, and am passing my time in the family business before I can (I hope) perhaps become a jobbing jazz and rock violinist. Eventually so much compromise is necessary that it simply becomes a byword for surrender. It’s the universe’s way of telling you that you have to switch gears and find another outlet. Three months ago I put out an ad on Craig’s List ‘Good but rusty violinist looking for musicians to play with.’ A gypsy jazz guitarist got in touch, and apparently I’m now a gypsy violinist who plays gigs a couple times a month with Baltimore's premiere 7-piece Slovak Gypsy Jazz Band.

At our first concert, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I barely knew the material and anyone who listened would realize that my solos were horrible. Yet it was the most fun I’d had with music in five years. Suddenly, and without warning, all the anxiety of failed plans with choruses and classical music washed away, and I remembered why I loved music in the first place. I can only hope I find half a dozen bands to play with that are this much fun, but as always, compromise is necessary, and one has to take what one gets even if the honeymoon ends.

When I finish this post, I will be heading to my second open Jazz Jam of the week. It’s a great way to meet other musicians, to get my fingers back in shape, to learn more music, and to simply enjoy making it. Like most great musicmaking, it doesn’t exist to be respectable – you won’t find jams like the ones I’ve been to lately at a Church or a concert hall. It’s simply good musicians finding ways to make music enjoyably and viscerally, wherever they’ll have us. This jam will be at a strip club, the first jam of the week was at the lounge of a gay bar. Like all great musicmaking, these kinds of jams challenge our views of how great music is made  - it can be made anywhere, and is much easier to make in places that don’t have to worry about what’s proper.

So until something less anxiety provoking comes along on Tuesday nights, I’m guaranteed to keep going with my little patch of conducting land at Kol Rinah. If stay, if I leave, few people will care much either way – perhaps least of all me. I’m having too much fun otherwise, and whether or not classical music disappears in my lifetime, the music plays on, regardless of genre.  

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