Saturday, November 28, 2015

800 Words: Wye Oak - In Praise of Bad Music

November 12th was the night that Wye Oak performed with the Baltimore Symphony at the Meyerhoff, and it what every orchestral concert in Baltimore should be. During the long happy hour in the lobby before the performance, there were moments when a knowledgeable musiclover might feel as though he was transported to the 19th century, when a classical concert meant something completely different, almost opposite, of what it means today.
All of musical Baltimore was there - every good musician in town, every bad musician, every musical connoisseur, every musical groupie, seemingly of all ages, seemingly all genres, all cliques, all rivals. It was not so much a musical event as a musical gathering. In the lobby you see a former colleague about whom you still have murder fantasies, and you both stand socializing in concentric social circles as you chat up a potential new musical colleague, and pray that she isn’t eavesdropping so she can tell him to run away screaming before it’s too late. When you get inside the hall, you see that twenty feet in front of you stands the friend with whom you’ve fallen in love and she’s with her new beau, and she has to pass by you to get her seat, so you both pretend not to notice each other. Every seat is of an equal price, and since thirty of your friends are there, you awkwardly keep walking around until you find one who has an open seat next to him.

In other words, it was exactly what every classical concert should be. All due praise to Rafaela Dreisen and the BSO marketing department for making it happen so brilliantly. It’s just a shame that the music sucked.

Wye Oak is in no way a bad band. Their music is a perfectly pleasant melding of bland folk music with bland electronica. There are so many bland bands out there with big dreams that only luck can explain why Wye Oak attracts a national following while two dozen local indie bands almost indistinguishable from them languish in the obscurity Wye Oak also deserves.

In fact, as music, Wye Oak is modestly good, if not more than that. They create moderately interesting harmonic progressions and draw nice sounds out of their instruments with a rich, full wall of sound that - unlike so many rock bands -  they seem willing to dial down into softness. Their lyrics, utterly inaudible until you look them up online, are the usual metaphysical nonsense. They’re mildly better than your mind’s generic idea of what an indie band sounds like, but no more than that. Like so many indie bands, the aesthetic is more important than the music - any potential emotional content in their songs are flattened so that highs and lows, happiness and sadness, seem nearly indistinguishable. What I think people respond to them is the insouciance of their music, a Britpop like emotional flatness in the face of life’s vicissitudes that lots of people mistaken for emotional resilience.

...Actually, that’s not a bad description of the Smalltimore crowd who clearly responds so well to Wye Oak’s musicmaking - ersatz rebellion and faux solidarity masquerading as emotional strength and political commitment in the face of the overwhelming poverty all around us. Even so, if you have to give people what they want, you could do worse than Wye Oak.
The truth is that classical music in its alleged Golden Age was no better than this. There are few people in any generation who go to concerts and museums and theaters for transcendent experiences, they go as a social outing to pass the time and meet up with friends. Until the emergence of Wagner, most 19th century concerts were not meant to be transcendent experiences, they were vehicles for virtuosic performers to perform showpieces by composers about whom we’ve completely forgotten. They were operettas full of the kind of light entertainment that seems completely old-fashioned and stuffy to most classical audiences of today, who prefer their opera with high doses of grim suffering.

As classical music got more and more serious, its audiences became correspondingly smaller and smaller. Life is hard enough, so many people reason, without being reminded of how difficult it is when all you want is to be entertained. You have to admit, they have a point…

Would that the concert was more entertaining. The dull music was interrupted by a number of painfully pompous commentaries upon it in the form of interviews between the WTMD DJ Alex Cortright and the BSO's assistant conductor Nicholas Hersch. The tone of these interviews was so stuffy that I wouldn't blame half the audience for never coming to the Meyerhoff ever again.

The set by Wye Oak was preceded by a piece by John Luther Adams, a composer whose newfound fame is probably because he has the same name as the much better and better known composer, John Adams. John Luther Adams’s piece, again, was perfectly pleasant without being at all distinguished - a generic piece of minimalism whose only distinguishing characteristic is that it was so slow. And yet, there was something in the music to which the audience clearly responded in a manner they never would to more obviously expressive music. Like Wye Oak, this extremely white audience is clearly stuck in music of forty years ago.

Minimalism is a very loose term, but by-and-large, it was an attempt by composers of the rock generation to take the throbbing rhythms and simple harmonic progressions of Rock music and make sophisticated compositional designs above it. Like the great Rock musicians, minimalist composers had (have) a fascination with Indian music and Buddhism that is both helpful and condescendingly simplistic in the way they worked the sounds of India into their music. Nevertheless, there was a period when minimalism was enormously exciting: in the 1970’s and 80’s, the minimalism of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and John Adams was some of the most exciting classical music written on our side of the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain, but minimalism has long since curdled into something much more stale - Philip Glass is still writing the same aural doodles he wrote forty years ago.

The real musical developments of today happen internationally in a movement even more loosly known as ‘polystylism’, which takes its cue from the Soviet composer Alfred Schnittke, who interpolated as many modern western techniques as he could get his hands on in the midst of Soviet repression. Just as every discovery in Schnittke’s world was like a musical earthquake that shook the foundations of what was possible in the Soviet Union, the most important recent development in music is the astonishing proliferation of global music we’re now able to listen to that is a mere Google or Spotify search away. The best composers currently operating at their peaks, 40-60 something composers like Tan Dun, Osvaldo Golijov, James MacMillan, Michael Daugherty, Jorg Widmann, Thomas Ades, John Zorn, and a host of others, who skewer the music of the entire globe for their ideas and create music like a giant feast with fusion dishes comprised of ingredients from every country. Even the best musicians in Rock, musicians like Sufjan Stevens, Bjork, Radiohead (make your own list), know that the best musical material comes from our unique ability to listening to music from all around the world and all eras and incorporate the best of it into your own personal voice.

A concert comprised of Wye Oak and John Luther Adams is a concert that doesn’t take in anything like the astonishing diversity of modern art music. If this concert gave the audience a real sense of that diversity, they probably wouldn’t like what they heard nearly as much. For well over a hundred years, classical music burrowed itself further and further into its notions of integrity and art, and as a result, hardly anybody listens to classical music anymore. Perhaps what we need to survive is the same kind of bad music you get in every other genre. The music may suck, but at least it’s ‘our’ music and performing it will help orchestras survive into another generation. And who knows, maybe before long a few of the people who like Wye Oak might ay even learn to love Mahler or Jorg Widmann...

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