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Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

FURTHER THOUGHTS ON OTHER POSSIBLE CLASSICAL TRADITIONS

Rhetorically, I’m of the “shoot off my mouth first, ask questions later” school of rant. My confidence . . . can be unwarranted. Sometimes, however, I get something right; or, if not necessarily right, at least not forlornly wrong all by my lonesome in a wrongness of my own making.

This is from a 1937 book on classical music called “Of Men and Music,” by Deems Taylor, confirming some of yesterday’s speculations about Johann Strauss, John Philip Sousa, and Victor Herbert; the focus is on Sousa, who died in 1932: “Wherever he has gone, I am sure he has found a welcome. There is a dining hall in the Elysian Fields, marked GRADE A COMPOSERS ONLY. If you could look in at the door tonight, you would probably see him there; perhaps not at the speakers’ table, with Wagner and Beethoven and Mozart and Bach and Debussy and the rest, but somewhere in the room -- at a small table, possibly, with Herbert and Strauss and Delibes.”

(This book is on my shelf. I may have read the chapter on Sousa 9 or 10 years ago; if so, it sunk into my unconscious, where I forgot it. I haven’t read the whole book; I don’t remember reading the Sousa chapter, but can’t say for sure.)

(Now I want to read the whole book. I mean, jeez, the insight of the guy!)

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Typing late last night, I lost my beginning point by the time I finished. To wit: The pattern of music history suggests that it is only because of the advent of records that the great Broadway composers of the 1910s, ‘20s, & ‘30s aren’t considered light classical operetta composers like their stylistic forebears Herbert, Sullivan, and Offenbach.

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Somewhere along the line, 20th century classical music advocates adopted the “no pain, no gain” ethic. That was a new thing in the classical tradition, and it narrowed classical's parameters to its own detriment.

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I ask myself, why do I care? I started running down this rabbit-hole in response to stuff I read decrying (on the one hand) the dearth of orchestras in America compared to Europe and (on the other hand) the difficulty contemporary composers go through getting their music rehearsed and played and heard. The self-inflicted narrowing of classical's parameters may be related to these woes.

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Sousa and Strauss led their own bands. The first classical composers to influence pop music after Debussy and Ravel did too: La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass. Riley never had an on-going band, but he put ad hoc bands together to perform and record his music. That these composers were able to put bands together was an early mark of their aesthetic success; before they made any money, their music attracted players who wanted to rehearse and play it.

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Philip Glass’s first big splash came with his opera “Einstein on the Beach.” After its original New York production he went back to driving cab. The show was a big hit, and he lost money on it. Just like a rocker with his day job.

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Traditional composer writes music. Players play it. The best players get paid upper-middle-class salaries to play in the best ensembles. A gig is a gig, and and a big city orchestra is a good gig.

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As a songwriter, I’m much more hep to Young and Reich and Glass’s model. Rather have people playing the music because they’re into it. Not that cash equates with unenthusiasm necessarily, but it can. (Sure, I'd love to get paid big cash for my music, and I'd love to pay my handsome ensemble handsomely.)

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Social relations.

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The article decrying the puny number of American orchestras compared to Europe called for far more public funding of the arts. I'd rather see much more money go to arts education. Make participation in the arts and consumption of the non-profit institutional arts readily available to every school kid in the country. A pipedream for now, related to the goal of adequate education for everybody, period. But arts education would build the constituency for greater arts funding.

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Alex Ross in the "New Yorker" quoting Alban Berg talking to George Gershwin: music is music. Yeah yeah.

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