April 18, 2010

Place: The Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam
Time: Summer
Event: Organ lesson
Work: An Elevation Toccata by Frescobaldi
Performer: A young me

Teacher: (after hearing me play the Toccata) It is too fascinating.
Me: (stumped) Eh.

He then went on to tell me how the work, like other elevation toccatas (pieces that were composed or improvised for the point in the Mass where the newly-consecrated host and chalice are raised for the people to see), was no more meant to be an event than incense was — that it was intended to float in the air and not be perceived as doing much.

I thought of this as I followed up on a New York Times article today by sampling a work called “Presence and Reflection” by an ensemble called Redhooker. It’s pretty uneventful. Or, put another way, it has minimal, carefully-chosen events that are spread out over a larger time period than the West is mostly accustomed to.

My awareness of this kind of thing is often increased when I listen to music with a friend who is one of my favorite musicians and is far less tolerant than I am of such tendencies. Much music in vogue nowadays makes him extremely irritated. “He really thinks he can get by with staying in the same key for the whole piece?” is a typical reaction. “I’m going crazy waiting for something to happen!” Clearly we’re dealing with different concepts of music and therefore different expectations. Part of this is no doubt due to the incorporation of non-Western techniques and goals. Inevitably, some of it will be a cover for laziness or lack of imagination. But it also makes me think of something else, namely the longstanding struggle in the visual arts over what constitutes “art” and what is just “decoration.” To someone like me, the distinction between what are called the “decorative arts” and “art” art can seem very arbitrary. In Western classical music we may have arrived at a similar situation where repeated patterns, either artfully arranged or leaving some acts more or less to chance, come to be more comparable to fine wallpapers or book bindings than to the event-oriented music that we have grown accustomed to during many centuries. If development, tension/release, modulation, departure/return and such are our measure of a work of musical art, we’re going to be disappointed with a whole lot that is out there.

Now, the Frescobaldi example demonstrates that — at least in the church — the impulse for music that is more atmosphere than happening is not wholly new. But the atmosphere of elevation toccatas has not usually been that of our prime performance venues. But now Carnegie Hall or La Poisson Rouge are likely (and equally likely) to host music that is not “too fascinating.”

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