Let Us Leave Our Musical Islands

Here Time Becomes Space
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Nov. 7 2007 11:50 AM

Let Us Leave Our Musical Islands

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Ben,

In the spirit of our powwow, I've put some sound samples on my blog: Sibelius' Fifth Symphony, Coltrane's A Love Supreme, and Bernstein's "New York, New York," all playing around with the same set of intervals.

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Whenever I go to a jazz club, I tend to fall into a happy state of mind, no matter who's playing, because I feel I've entered listening paradise. A jazz club finds the perfect middle ground between the aren't-we-serious atmosphere of some concert halls and the aren't-we-having-fun-now vibe of your more poseur-ridden pop venues. There is a lack of pretense. People are listening closely, and yet there's a looseness about the whole thing: applause after solos, some chatter in the back, a general absence of solemnity. Am I idealizing? No doubt—but I like it better than the alternatives. These days, some classical musicians are trying to move away from the formal concert ritual and toward something more relaxed. Many no longer believe, for example, that the audience should refrain from applauding after each movement of a symphony or concerto. Educated, highly musical audiences in 19th-century Europe applauded whenever they felt like it; why shouldn't we? Emanuel Ax says he finds it positively bizarre when everyone remains deadly quiet after, say, the first movement of Beethoven's "Emperor Concerto," whose slam-bang finish practically cries out for applause.

There's something ideal, too, about your vision of jazz performance as something always unfinished, a continual evolution. Here's a problem classical music and mainstream pop/rock share: lack of spontaneity. What's more micromanaged down to the second than a Madonna or Rolling Stones show? Some lead vocalists and guitarists may inject night-to-night variety into their work, but I imagine the differences from night to night are not as striking as people assume. Likewise, you're not going to find huge differences in how a very well-trained orchestra such as the New York Philharmonic treats Beethoven's Fifth on successive nights of a subscription series—or, for that matter, in successive seasons. Conductors have to work hard to shake orchestras out of their practiced way of doing a piece. Often their interventions take the form of a few distracting interpretive "gestures" that concertgoers single out and discuss at intermission. Beyond that, it's the same-old. (Which is not to say that Beethoven still doesn't pack a punch.) On both sides of the divide, performance is too well-drilled, too controlled. This is the curse of the electronic age: Recordings have done so much to expand (or create) audiences for music, but they've led people to expect re-enactments of favorite records in live performance, whether it's '60s-era Bob Dylan or Beethoven by Karajan.

Change is in the air in the classical field. I keep hearing young musicians talking about, yes, improvisation. For most of the 20th century, performers were inculcated with the spirit of Werktreue: Stay true to the composer's intention in every detail. Toscanini's motto was "come scritto"—as written. Now the concept of "original intent" has been challenged, particularly in pre-1800 music, and performers are seeing themselves as more active, creative participants. Robert Levin, the Harvard-based pianist and musicologist, urges performers to write out or improvise their own material for cadenzas in concertos. He also improvises on themes suggested by the audience. He wisely says: "I think the most important thing in performing a piece of music, and likewise, even more so in the listener's apprehension of what's going on, is a sense that anything that's happening could have been something else." Spontaneity, in other words. In the early-music world, players add filigree to their parts and singers add ornaments. Jordi Savall's legendary Hespèrion XXI ensemble practices a kind of Renaissance/Baroque jazz. And in the new-music world, a not inconsiderable fraction of post-1945 music requires invention on the part of the performers. Since the minimalist revolution of the 1960s, when Philip Glass and Steve Reich led their own ensembles, composer-performers have come to the fore: Lisa Bielawa sings her own music; Derek Bermel plays his pieces on the clarinet. The sharp division of labor between composer and performer is breaking down.

I like your advice about what to listen for in jazz—where to listen. Someone coming new to an orchestra concert is confronted by a half hour or more of continuously flowing music. How do you get your bearings? Where does the music change? What do the individual instruments contribute? When I'm evaluating an orchestra, I often focus on the double-bass players, who are incredibly important. A well-tuned bass section adds three-dimensionality to the sound picture: It generates an illusion of bottomless depths. (Listening to Led Zeppelin, people usually focus on the vocals, the guitar solos, and the drums. But I think it's John Paul Jones who really makes that band gigantic: His bass lines drill down beneath the music, make it tall, and give you a vertiginous shiver.) In this way you end up listening vertically as well as horizontally. A seemingly linear art, where time is marked out one-two-three-four, opens above and below, in front and behind. Who summed up the wonder of music better than Richard Wagner, speaking through the character of Gurnemanz in Parsifal? "Here time becomes space."

Thanks so much, Ben! Because of your book, I've been on a Coltrane kick for weeks now.

Alex

Alex Ross is the music critic of The New Yorker. His first book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, has just been published.

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