December 28, 2012
With minimal choir available for Christmas, this is what we did. It was glorious.
UPDATE: A number of people on the PIPORG-L have asked me if I could post, as one of them put it, “even a verisimilitude” of what the instrument sounds like in the room. So today between liturgies I quickly played through a little music to give some idea. It’s recorded simply via the internal microphone of a MacBook Pro and from the organ loft very near the console (as you can tell when I sneeze), so it doesn’t get the full effect of the space. But you get the idea, I believe, that it’s a pretty grand sound in there. These are off-the-cuff performances with flaws, but you’re interested in the sound, not in the artistry. Organists will hear an occasional pipe not speaking in time, and for the “Greensleeves,” I had to alter the registration on account of dead notes and even rearrange a few of the notes to accommodate the fact that the combination action is, well, out of action. But, again, I think you get an idea. It is very much to be hoped that this 89-year-old instrument, unaltered except by much wear and tear, will soon be brought back to its pristine state.
The samples are these. Click on each to hear:
December 18, 2012
As an American, I have long been deeply interested in the struggle of the Catalan people to recover their great tradition of liberty and self-determination in a country that had elective parliaments before any other nation. My ancestors in this country participated in their own victory over a power, Great Britain, that was then the most democratic in the world but from which they wanted to be independent. The Spanish state, with a constitution forced through by survivors of the Franco regime just after a cruel dictator’s death, is nowhere near that level of democracy; nor is it even competent, as its current economic haplessness symbolizes. It borders on being what is called a “failed state.”
Today, the governing conservative party of Catalonia (CiU) and the left-republican party (ERC) put out this proclamation, upon which they have agreed, even while retaining their very different political principles on almost every other issue. Already voices in Madrid are calling for the army to intervene; this is the way they respond to any signs of progressive movement — an instinct left over from the dictatorships that they have so often found congenial. The idea that people might want to determine their own future is against everything they believe, and, to be sure, any such referendum is against the Spanish constitution that voters ratified under threat of armed restoration of dictatorship.
While the American Declaration of Independence gave far more space to detailing grievances against the British Crown, I find it impossible not to hear echoes of our Declaration in this modern, more streamlined document that came out today.
By the way, the 2014 deadline is significant emotionally. It was in 1714 that the Bourbon Philip V subjugated the Catalans, declared all the Catalan laws, traditions, and liberties null and void, outlawed the public use of the Catalan language, and imposed the Castilian autocracy and subjugation by the army. And still the Catalan people survive, with the culture as vibrant as ever. It seems clear that it’s high time they had their reward, for the first time in 300 years being allowed to speak freely as a people about their own future.
Here’s an English translation of the statement, with a link to the Catalan original.
December 14, 2012
14 Novembre del 2012
Als meus amics catalans del Centenari Montsalvatge,
Aquesta tarda vaig visitar per última vegada a l’exposició meravellosa en honor de Montsalvatge a l’Institut Cervantes de Nova York. Va ser un moment molt emotiu quan vaig deixar el lloc, perquè vaig sentir, d’alguna manera, una fi acostant a la relació especial que jo presumia de sentir amb Xavier Montsalvatge durant la preparació de la seva biografia i, sobretot, durant aquest any de la celebració del seu centenari.
A més del gran valor que poso sobre aquest sentiment especial, també hi ha el tresor de la major intimitat spiritual m’ha fet sentir amb el seu cercle musical, incloent Alícia de Larrocha, Victòria dels Àngels, Frederic Mompou, Eduard Toldrà i altres. Però el mestre m’ha donat també l’accés d’una altra manera impossible als grans figures d’altres arts i literatura catalanes.
No és el benefici més petit que tinc el privilegi d’haver format amistats amb molts familiars i amics de Montsalvatge, que espero no perdre mai. La meva gratitud a tots vosaltres és massa poderosa d’expressar. Sempre sereu benvinguts a casa meva, i espero de seguir en contacte amb vosaltres en el futur.
May 20, 2010
In the worldwide economic downturn, Spain — the world’s ninth-largest economy — provides a particularly dramatic example of dizzying rise and decline. One of the most vigorously growing economies in recent years, it had been projected to surpass Germany in per capita income by 2011. Much of this was based on the real-estate boom that has also been central to the global downturn. Industrial production in Spain is now down 25 per cent, bankruptcies have multiplied alarmingly, and unemployment has risen above 20 per cent.
Faced with such a serious financial recession, how are the arts faring in a country where government funding has always played an important role in supporting the arts? And what of opera, that most expensive of art-forms, in this financial atmosphere? It turns out that the three leading opera companies seem to be following the principle that you don’t meet economic challenges effectively by reducing the quality of your offerings. We see a number of imaginative initiatives, not only involving “outreach” — a term the mere use of, sometimes is felt to get management off the hook — but also of responsiveness to changes in the expectations of the public.
Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu, the grand old lady of opera on the peninsula, is behaving like a vital young organization on the make. Its trilingual Web site confronts you with three categories: Liceu, Petit Liceu, and Campus. We see a schedule of thirteen major operas on the main stage, but these are accompanied by concerts large and small, designed to enhance that repertory. These range from an imaginative presentation of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf in connection with his less familiar (and far less cuddly) The Gambler. This season, the anti-war War Requiem is paired with Britten’s 1949 opera for children; it is sung by children with audience participation and concerned with solidarity between children of different social classes. This season they have cut back on supplemental events in the Foyer, but are even taking advantage of that reduced expenditure to broaden the program: in future seasons they aim at partnering with other institutions around the city with the prospect of moving the smaller concerts out of the Foyer and into further-flung venues — thus increasing both geographic dispersal and constituency.
Most opera companies these days try do something for the kiddies, but the Liceu, with its integrated Petit Liceu, goes all-out. This season, besides Peter and the Wolf, there is an interactive show for children to explore the power of song in nature and in their own emotions; a “magic voyage through the world of opera”; a danced dramatization of a children’s story; and special children’s versions of The Magic Flute and Rossini’s Cinderella and Barber of Seville, adapted and directed by the popular Tricicle comedy team.
Under Campus comes the Open Opera program, in which HD transmissions of Liceu productions go to universities, which incorporate them in their curriculum. Similarly ambitious is the Orchestra of the Academy, made up of young professional instrumentalists from all over Europe and providing major concerts, beside occupying the pit for some productions at the Liceu.
If the Liceu is inclined to cut back on the richness of its offerings under economic stress, they are disguising it particularly well.
In Madrid, we find the revived Teatro Real– right across from the Royal Palace and, like the Liceu, receiving about half its income from the State — in evidently fine condition as well. The arrival of the always-newsworthy Gerard Mortier (lately of the Paris Opera) will be seen as a vote of confidence from abroad and of aspiration at home. As at Barcelona, we see that imagination is valued as much as funding — or one is perhaps seen as a prerequisite for the other. The Teatro Real is reaching out to a larger public by offering free tours (including backstage) late at night after a performance and presenting a course for elementary-school teachers all over Spain called Opera: A Vehicle for Instruction. In addition, significant discounts on tickets are available to those age 26 years or less.
All this outreach is justified by a pretty impressive repertory: fifteen operas interspersed with filmed operas, guest concerts and dance troupes.
Having looked at an old house with a continuous tradition (Barcelona) and at what is essentially a new company in a historic opera house (Madrid), many of us will be particularly interested to see what an entirely new establishment in a spectacular new arts complex is up to. Valencia’s Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía, whose music director Lorin Maazel until this season headed the New York Philharmonic, is not stepping shyly into the operatic limelight. After last season’s complete Ring cycle (conducted by Zubin Mehta and staged by La Fura dels Baus in a coproduction with the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and recorded in HD), supplemented by related concerts, this season’s varied offerings started off with a much-talked-about run of Les Troyens in a production by La Fura dels Baus, conducted by Valery Gergiev (coproduced with the Mariinsky Theater and Teatr Wielki). Significantly, productions from the Palau are being used extensively by other companies, including the Los Angeles Opera. In June, after the end of the opera season, they celebrate the Festival del Mediterrani, which is also supervised by Mehta and includes three more operas.
This is much more a multi-use house than the other two and, as might be expected in a younger company, the overtly educational efforts are more limited — though Valencia is clearly serious about their young-artists program, putting it in the hands of none other than Plácido Domingo. It will be an interesting situation to watch.
It appears that in Spain, the more established a company is, the less it depends on sheer monetary power. A new company understandably must rely on basic funding to set itself up as a formidable musical and dramatic presence, whereas the confident historic house becomes a fountain of imaginative and sometimes outrageous productions, matched with venturesome outreach efforts — initiatives that are not just pasted on or opportunistic but are true to its main product. It would appear that the amounts of money available from struggling central and local government will not be the whole story for these companies. Both those in countries with a history of massive governmental support and those that have long depended on private funding may find much to learn from what happens in Spain. Already they provide an object lesson in how artistic and marketing ventures that are intimately connected can construct a unified front for an organization. This can happen only when both spring from the same vision and process. Such an approach clearly holds great promise for non-profit arts in societies today.
Roger Evans wrote a version of this article for the DCM newsletter.
May 10, 2010
Even in a stagnant economy, people are still supporting what they value, and many nonprofit arts organizations report that contributions remain strong. With all the robust signs of life in American orchestras, I thought I’d have conversations with the heads of marketing for the two polls of the continent’s orchestras. Both the New York Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic have opened new seasons that also debut the régimes of exciting young music directors. On the right, we have a local boy who grew up with the orchestra, Alan Gilbert, while the left coast welcomes Gustavo Dudamel from the hotbed of lively, youthful music that Venezuela has become.
At the NYPO, David Snead, Vice President, Marketing, is clear that innovation and creativity are employed for a reason and that, for thirty years his reason has been the same: “turning people onto the music.” The best way to get exciting and excited new audiences, he has proved, is not to offer them dinner or preferred parking but to offer them exciting music in a way that projects its inherent nature and excitement.
What he calls his “epiphany” came when the twenty-something daughter of a friend visited him in New York. She asked Snead if he would take her to a rock concert. He was a little taken aback that she wanted to trek out to Farmingdale, Long Island to hear Duncan Sheik — on what was for him a “school night.” This was before the Broadway hit, Spring Awakening, and her host was not really sure just who Duncan Shiek was but consented — stipulating that he must be in bed by 11. His visitor also asked Snead to bring his camera to take her picture with the artist. He took this to be an instance of naïveté of the ways of concert life, since he knew her chances of getting that close to a rock star would be slim indeed, and he certainly didn’t want to have his camera confiscated, as he knew to be the practice when a guy showed up at a concert hall with the conspicuous intention of taking photos. Not only did the young woman — and many others of the audience — get an individual photo with Duncan Sheik; not only did he find himself falling into bed at 4 a.m.; but next morning he learned that his guest, far from retiring in contented exhaustion, joined hundreds of other enthusiasts online to discuss what they had heard at the concert. There they not only shared their pictures from the event but dealt with a minority complaint that there had been too many slow songs. Snead was thunderstruck to learn that Duncan Sheik had then appeared online as well, where he defended his programming. All this had been an integral part of the event, so far as the fans were concerned.
That’s when Snead thought, “Here we are in New York. Manny Ax and Gil Shaham live in New York, and they’re very open guys with a great attitude towards the public. Why can’t people hungry for musical fellowship be provided with more access to them and other towering artists than just seeing and hearing them on the concert platform?” One result of this question has been a whole program of engaging interviews with a performer or composer for each event — at least one per concert — pasted on the orchestra’s Web site. These seem to have greatly decreased the sense of perceived distance between audience members and the musicians that they go to hear. In addition, the site also provides downloads of music from the Philharmonic’s internal label, along with access to more material via iTunes and mobile phones.
The free concerts in New York’s public parks, already favorite summer events for large crowds, came to yield an increasingly participatory experience through devices like the two-season-old practice of inviting audience members to contend via mobile phone on behalf of different encore alternatives. At least as invigorating for these events have been the online photo contests, for which pictures of the event taken by audience members are submitted to the site and prizes are awarded for various categories of views from the evening. These have without doubt represented a significant change of emphasis from the stage to the audience experience of the music emanating from that stage. Thank you, Duncan Sheik and young woman visiting from out of town!
“We’re a learning organization,” the thoughtful Philharmonic marketer tells us. This presupposes a vision far different from the idea of marketing as dictating the experience that the public is expected to take — or leave. Snead seems to feel that the most compelling “brand” is created by the consumer rather than by the management. A fruitful result and evidence of this is the enormously successful Create Your Own Series subscription program. This has been a powerful way for younger audiences to form the conditions of their participation in the season for themselves, while at the same time communicating some useful information to the management. Naysayers had predicted that people allowed to design their own series would make a rush for the most popular familiar repertory, leaving the more challenging (read: “unpopular”) evenings comparatively deserted. The facts have been quite otherwise. The Philharmonic has balanced the time invested in learning about their audience with much effort at communicating with that audience about the thrill of discovery available to those who engage with new musical experiences at the highest level. Those who customize their own subscription have renewed at the stunning rate of 90%. What’s more, they are trading up in number of concerts and to better seats — clear evidence that they value the experience that they are getting and want to enhance it further. Thus the organization sees increases in customer satisfaction, longevity as subscribers, and motivation to become donors. Another sign of satisfaction is that, when they are given discounts for various reasons, statistics show that these are overwhelmingly inclined to use the saving for … wait for it: more concert tickets.
All these programs, their devising, thinking-through, execution, supervision, and — crucially — their evaluation are expensive in thought and staff hours. But, in money, the entire online multi-media program, for example, costs for a whole year approximately what a quarter-page ad in the leading metropolitan daily costs. These kinds of comparisons command attention.
An hour of conversation with David Snead was succeeded by an hour engaged with Shana Mathur, who is Vice President, Marketing and Communications at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. After what I had heard about consumer-designed experiences, I was eager to know how the Create Your Own Season program was prospering on the other end of the continent. Evidently we’d have to say that it’s a success when participants in the program have doubled from last season to this. If we remember that this was hardly a limping organization before, such response from the public must be respected — and examined. Naturally the popular fervor that the arrival of a new music director has inspired makes people want to see him, if nothing else. But people are buying not just Dudamel concerts. There is a clear age difference between the modes of subscription: the average age of fixed subscribers is 65, whereas that of Create Your Own is ten years younger. “It takes a lot of 30-year-olds to bring it down that much,” Mathur points out. While these, not surprisingly, flock to the visits of the Berlin Philharmonic, John Williams, or Steve Martin, there also seems to be no letup in the willingness to buy tickets for the non-familiar and adventurous — a legacy of 17 years of steady progress in this direction under Esa-Pekka Salonen.
The Los Angeles administration is particularly alert to lifestyle issues as they reflect and affect participation in the seasons. Since the prosperity of the Philharmonic had long been subscription-driven, when Mathur joined in January of 2008, she realized that this round hole, while wonderfully effective in its way, wasn’t quite right for a lot of square pegs who needed to be reached out to. She recognized her good fortune in having two iconic venues that in themselves drive audience interest (the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Hollywood Bowl), each with a distinct season. She found “a well-oiled machine” in place that she was wise enough to respect. “I didn’t want to stick my foot in a wheel that was running smoothly.” On the other hand, there was no digital team in place, and it seemed an obvious step to create a department of digital marketing. One result of this was a growth in the extent and effectiveness of the e-mail list.
Mathur saw the digital realm as providing greater opportunities for engagement. When the idea of online games came up in internal discussion, she said, “We have an opportunity to have lots of fun here. Let’s just do it.” The resulting games have been an “incredible hit.” One of them introduces “what a conductor does.” It thus teaches nuts and bolts relative to experiencing the Philharmonic, but it also incites commentary and brings new audiences closer to what goes on at the concert venues. She sees the games as a way to involve and engage audiences.
Web analytics are also key. How did the user get to that video? A link in an e-mail or on the site of an educational institution? That will inform what they buy. How does a print ad or an ad on a newspaper’s Web site get the user to a point of purchase? Her staff also created mobile programs so people could text in their photos to a “What Happened Last Night” feature after a Hollywood Bowl evening. The increased return-visitorship has persuaded them that to implement a program tailored for the Walt Disney Concert Hall as well.
The team’s creative thinking was guided by the perception that subscription is a luxury — not so much financially as in presupposing a well-regulated schedule and more or less predictable habits and needs. This corresponds, of course, to the secure and settled retired person — which helps explain the age difference in modes of purchase. On the other hand, they look closely at other lifestyle needs: for example the two-career young marrieds-with-children for whom planning ahead may be the only chance for a night out at the Philharmonic as a couple, with babysitting engaged and demanding work schedules arranged.
The relationship between marketing and artistic administration at the LA Philharmonic is highly collaborative. The artistic side typically comes to marketing with ideas, and the many successful festivals that the organization is known for are necessarily cross-departmental initiatives, since a festival is among other things a marketing package. Festivals like their “West Coast/Left Coast” (in which California was celebrated as the home of progressive ideas in music and society) involve marketing from the very beginning.
But Mathur emphasizes that the kind of marketing we’re talking about here is not all about “what sells/doesn’t sell.” Other motives take precedence all through the discussion. It can’t be coincidence, therefore, that the public too seems to be getting the message that the Philharmonic can be trusted to give them substance that is worth their time and money. “Our role as marketers is to find our place in the larger enterprise.” The result, she says with evident conviction, is “a brand that has love inside it.”
As the Kennedy Center’s Michael Kaiser, renowned as “The Turnaround King,” said in a January 9 WNYC-FM interview: “What’s important to running a successful arts organization is to produce great art and then to market that art very aggressively. Everything else will follow and fall in place… There is money for the arts if one is producing interesting art.”
Roger Evans wrote a version of this article for the DCM newsletter.
March 20, 2010
I’m sure that I was far from alone among readers of The New York Times on March 4. When I read the article “At Caramoor, a Focus on Songs of the Belle Époque,” I thought: “Now that’s something I’d like to know more about.” Imagine my delight, then, when I heard from Michael Barrett, Executive Director of the Caramoor Center for Music and Arts, inviting me to come up to the fabulous estate — for once, the over-used fabulous is precisely the mot juste — in Katonah, New York, for a day of observation and informal interaction with the participants who had already spent a week living, learning, cooking, debating, and making music together.
It would be hard to imagine a project more perfect of its kind. Steven Blier, Artistic Director of the two-decade-old New York Festival of Song, of which he is a co-founder with Mr. Barrett, is in his second year of running for Caramoor this ten-day “spring break” concentration of minds and voices on a compelling subject that varies by the year. This year it was the French art song — or mélodie, as they say — that fell under their study, scrutiny … just what is the right word? As I watched Blier and Barrett and the four young singers at work, I must say that images of both the dining room and the kitchen kept coming before me. They were falling upon this material with an appetite that was certainly sometimes ravenous, but also full of the more refined approach of the epicure and a Julia Childlike preoccupation with the original creation of the poetry and music and, now, its re-creation.
Seeing the singers in a conference with their two mentors was a lesson in cooperative interaction, but it was when they entered upon a run-through of the actual concert-to-be that I got to the meat of what had been going on here. The first singer to come out interpreted the theme song for the week, Fauré’s “Le Plus Doux Chemin (The Sweetest Path).” The baritone John Brancy was something of a known quantity, since I see him around musical events quite often and had heard him — first when he was a high schooler, appearing on the PBS show From the Top. His rich, perfect vocal production and entirely professional stage presentation made it difficult to believe that he is just 21 and is still an undergraduate at the Juilliard School.
Then came Matthew Peña, a tenor who was new to me. The moment he began to sing, however, a magnetism that was the essence of the song he sang seemed to take over everything about him. He is somewhat more experienced, since he already has two degrees from Oberlin and one from the Manhattan School of Music, but it was his first interaction with this NYFOS crowd — I almost said cult — and it was clear that he was going to fit right in.
He was then joined for a serene but passionate love-duet by Charlotte Dobbs, a soprano who, like her tenor partner has already been through a liberal-arts education (at Yale) and is a graduate student at the Curtis Institute. But, unlike him, she also has done time with Steven Blier at Juilliard . Her demure interaction with the more extrovert Peña in this song did not quite prepare me for some of what was to come from her later, especially in the sensuous Ravel “Vocalise en forme de habanera.”
When Rebecca Jo Loeb bounced out on to the stage, it was not surprising that she was going to sing about an amorous elf. Though this mezzo-soprano projected a much more serious affect later in this varied program, she does excel at the songs that allow her to communicate in a mischievous manner with the audience. But I thought it spoke well of her that her high point came with a song in the grand tradition by the great mezzo Pauline Viardot. Since she brings with her an education at the University of Michigan, the Manhattan School, and Juilliard, we were seeing interaction of four bright young talents with a nice mixture of backgrounds.
In addition to the well-known expertise of Blier and Barrett, the group had had input the day before my visit from the French opera star and singer of song Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, who is in the country for the opening of the New York City Opera spring season, in which he portrays the male lead in Emmanuel Chabrier’s L’Etoile. Since, in this program, we were never far from some song by Chabrier — a particular favorite of Steven Blier — Fouchécourt must have seemed like a Gallic prophet to these singers, some of whom were encountering large doses of French poetry and music for the first time. Indeed, he said he found them to be veritable sponges.
This kind of avid absorption must be very gratifying to all the devisers of this ambitious mentoring project. Indeed, I had a chance to hear of her own satisfaction from Eileen Schwab, whose idea the mentoring program in vocal song was. Through the support of the Terrance W. Schwab Fund for Young Vocal Artists, the program grew out of Caramoor’s other mentoring programs, for instrumentalists and opera singers. This seems very important, since mentoring is one of the greatest needs in the musical art — not to mention in all of society — if skills learned in studio and classroom, and drilled in the practice room, are to take flight in the real world. But Mrs. Schwab’s enthusiasm was not just because of the process. I was hearing from her after the culminating New York concert in the Merkin Concert Hall. It was the result of all that work that inspired a rapt audience to ovation after ovation for a particularly meaty survey of French mélodie, from Gounod to Poulenc — with not a longeur all evening.
So is it the process or the result that is the point? I’d say we really don’t need to choose, since the concert that thrilled audiences in both Caramoor and New York treated the public to a valuable finished product; but, with these extraordinary young singers, we have not even begun to see the good things that will flow from their experience at Caramoor. And Steven Blier and Michael Barrett have plenty more up their commodious sleeves, as well.
July 28, 2009
It is in the period that we call by the refreshingly positive name of Renaissance that we first find composers who behave like composers, writing and publishing appreciable amounts of music, obviously learning from identifiable teachers, and influencing students whose names we know. Our ingrained Darwinism is gratified when history arrives at this—the beginning, significantly, of what historians call the Modern Era. Missing Links in stylistic lineages have been tracked down with a thoroughness that would edify paleontology. The composers of the Renaissance tend obligingly to group themselves into Schools (or at least not to resist over-much when we so group them ourselves) and generally give us what we want in the way of compositions in the various genres of the time.
But to look at Renaissance composers thus is to view them in a way that would have surprised them—and especially startled their employers—very much. Josquin Desprez, arguably the greatest composer of the Renaissance, is usually called in the old documents such things as “biscantor” (as a singer at Milan Cathedral), “cantor di capella” (when a ducal singer in the Sforza family’s service), “Josquin chantre” (as he ventured into France during his leaves from the papal chapel), and “maestro di cappella” (or teacher of the singers attached to the court of Ferrara). That he became renowned as a composer was a sort of bonus (though, in his case, an unprecedentedly large one) attached to, and greatly ornamenting, his occupation as a performer and trainer of musicians. Even his teaching of composition was described solely as an adjunct to day-by-day performance in the choir:
My teacher Josquin … never gave a lecture on music or wrote a theoretical work, and yet he was able in a short time to form complete musicians, because he did not keep back his pupils with long and useless instructions but taught them the rules in a few words, through practical application in the course of singing. And as soon as he saw that his pupils were well grounded in singing, had a good enunciation and knew how to embellish melodies [i.e., improvise around the written notes] and fit the text to the music [since much of this was left to the discretion of the performer, too], then he taught them the perfect and imperfect intervals and the different methods of inventing counterpoints against plainsong. If he discovered, however, pupils with an ingenious mind and promising disposition, then he would teach these in a few words the rules of three-part and later of four-, five-, and six-part, etc. writing, always providing them with examples to imitate.
July 21, 2009
An individual singing style often involves a singer’s imitation—for better or worse—of a popular artist’s tone quality. It sometimes calls for a sudden break in the voice, plaintive bleating, or wild screeching: all these effects, however, are purely ephemeral and continually change with their originators.
These devices by which some singers develop a vivid, individual, and compelling style are quite familiar to us from the music all around us. They may bring to mind specific artists who have used them successfully. These will doubtless be performers of great (and perhaps somewhat uninhibited) expressivity. Some readers will think of certain now-venerable jazz singers, others of soul, folk, or rock singers whose vigorous expressive devices fit such norms of what we might call mal canto. What the quoted remark of course will not describe at all well is the goals and achievements of our best “classical” or operatic singers. Their more or less bel canto interpretation of the standard repertory of the past has become a sort of international standard. It is widely considered to have the only valid claim on the serious attention of people of elevated musical culture.
The quotation, which deserves to be read with great attention, is from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s musical dictionary of 1768. (The philosopher’s untranslatable expression here rendered as “particular style of singing” is gout de chant.) The passage refers to the best usage of Rousseau’s day. The musical events that involved such singing were naturally rather different from the specific decorum of modern “classical” occasions both in aesthetic posture and in the whole atmosphere that surrounded them. (If they weren’t considerably more highly-charged before the singing began, they certainly must have become so in the course of the breaks, bleats and screeches.) Rousseau’s description was originally applied to repertory that is now generally referred to as “early music,” which a curious chronological reflex in us will, if we are not careful, associate with the prim and the restrained—even despite the most feverish exertions of such as Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus to disillusion us.
But, in the early twenty-first century, we here and there find people willing—or perhaps driven is not too strong a word—to try to go back to earlier musical repertories with an openness to experimentation involving even the most extreme of the old expressive ways. (Joseph Kerman has described the singing of one of the best of them as “inspired screeching.”) Insofar as they do so, they bring together crucial aesthetic ideals of the “pop” culture and of the early-music nook of the “classical” culture, which manages to be rarified and frisky at the same time—not unlike some esoteric jazz circles. (Both the jazz and early-music movements, significantly, have tended to be viewed with suspicion by the same people.)
The Rousseau excerpt provides a simple and useful first example of the sort of radical anomalies in our musical life that can be considerably and usefully cleared up by a serious view of music-as-event. Somewhat different musical bedfellows are found together through an event-directed, performance-oriented approach than through the more customary chronological or social-class segregations. These latter groupings may scrupulously play by their own historiographical rules without sufficiently taking into account the nature of the musical art itself.
The works of Rousseau are of course not unknown. But the certain testimonies that his, and vast numbers of comparably illuminating sources contain, have not been as useful as they might have been: the greater cultural world has not found them sufficiently striking without adequate reference to the larger event that music indissolubly belongs to.
And that greater world is right. We will here endeavor to look at some things, both familiar and novel, with the freshest eyes that we can possibly assume. Doing so can be an exhilarating imaginative experience. Doing so will teach us much about our musical culture. It is a prerequisite to finding what that culture itself can tell us about what we are accustomed to thinking of as wider issues.
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