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

Wednesday, June 09, 2004


Last night’s cranky, ungelled, inconclusively bilious post mystifies me. I had two topics in mind and didn’t get them together.

The question of public subsidy for professional proprietary arts is complicated. Clearly, symphony orchestra players aren’t going to be able to earn middle class livings without public and private subsidy. And without the promise of a middle class salary, most of the orchestra players won’t play together, and we won’t have very many orchestras, and no professional ones. The orchestra players would have to earn money in other ways, leaving little time for amateur orchestra playing. And as much as classical polemicists complain about the lack of funding, the money shakers have decided to keep funding at least several handsful of professional orchestras around the country.

I rue the snideness in my tone, reflecting the snideness in my soul. My conscious political mind agrees that it’s great to fund the arts. I have experienced thrilling joy and beauty in symphonic music. I wish we had more money for the arts. I’d love to see more arts education -- free musical instrument rentals for any public school kid in the country, along with group instruction. Art instruction and free art supplies. Free access to performance space for experimental and/or community artists of all ages, to put on plays or dance concerts or music concerts or pageants or what-have-you. And I’d love to see more jazz repertory big bands. I’m glad the orchestras and opera houses get theirs; that there's not more to spread around is a minor symptom of our debauched polity.

Since the public subsidizes the big orchestras, the question of box office is relevant. Which is why the repertory is so conservative, and the most recent pieces to win regular performances are probably 40 years old now. The majority of the audience don’t dig Charles Ives. Makes me sad, because I do, and his unpopularity means I’ll have to wait quite a while before my local Seattle Symphony will put his music on the bill. Even his incredibly sweet and harmonious and poignant 3rd Symphony. (Ives dissed it for being conservative, which formally it’s not.)

The power struggle between composers who can’t get their stuff played, audiences who don’t want to hear it, and orchestra members who don’t like it anyway is fraught with emotion and politics. I don’t know where my sympathies lie. The blogging critic and composer Greg Sandow posted a few weeks ago about a concert performance by the LA Philharmonic of a version of music from the videogame “Final Fantasy.” Sandow quotes a long e-mail from a young guy who went to the show, his first orchestral concert. A lot of the orchestra members hated the music, and the audience of videogaming orchestral neophytes loved it, even though they could tell the players weren’t digging it.

It would take a sociologically-minded novelist to get the story here. The culture wars; the alienated labor that goes into its production; the subsidized version of a market economy; the “vertically integrated corporate form” (to borrow a phrase from my friend Jake London) -- there’s a lot going on in the orchestral world. I'd be curious to know the story of how the LA Philharmonic decided to put videogame music on the bill.

One thing -- orchestral music ain't about original vision. Different conductors or soloists can bring unique points of view to the repertory, but has there been a new growth in music that first flowered with the orchestra since Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring"? It would not surprise me to learn that orchestral writers somewhere have found new wrinkles in orchestral tone color in the last 90 years, but classical ain't where tone color explorations have been mostly happening.

(Thanks to my friend Jake for helping me think about this stuff.)

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