Let Us Leave Our Musical Islands

Will There Be Deep Confusion About What Is Really Important?
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Nov. 6 2007 7:38 AM

Let Us Leave Our Musical Islands

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Alex,

You mention the positive benefits of mixing the new with the old in concert programs. I would really like to see that mixture, even to extremes, in the work of a single composer or bandleader, or in a single piece of music—the really, really new with the really, really old. That's it! That's Bo Diddley, and John Coltrane, and the best Louis Armstrong, and a lot of Cuban music, and a lot of Brazilian music.

Do you get this from some of the new classical music you write about? Do you get it from Adams or Golijov? I don't get it from a lot of younger jazz musicians. Well, a little bit: I hear it in saxophonists Stacy Dillard, and J.D. Allen, and Bill McHenry, among others. I hear it in the drummer Paul Motian, who is not young, but thinks that way. I keep hoping to hear it more.

One of the best things I ever saw was at Carnival in Bahia, Brazil, in 1999, when the band Timbalada came through on its Carnival float. The float had half-naked women on each corner, painted with African designs. The band had about 30 drummers playing Afro-Brazilian rhythm, as well as electric bass and electric guitar and a trap drum-set. The float said "Timbalada online" in digital letters. Carlinhos Brown, the leader, was wearing some sort of white Indian cloth and red basketball shoes and a turban, and singing a song about how he was a pharaoh. The song was only about a month old but everybody knew it, little kids and old people. The whole thing was fully ancient-to-the-future, in the phrase of the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

At the same time, I have been brought up with the idea that subcultures are sexy as hell, and subcultures are pretty much engineered to keep older people out, right? They gather late at night … they don't advertise very well … they're great for just as long as you don't know about it. I like to see commitment however I can get it. Death-metal shows, raves, tiny jazz clubs, whatever. Doesn't even have to be teenagers. There's a subculture for Czech polka in Nebraska, and it's a subculture of 65- to 80-year-olds.

On the topic of "Rite of Spring" shock versus contemporary shoulder-shrugs: Do you think that the Internet is kind of leveling out different eras and schools within classical music? There's always been this hierarchy. Same with jazz. Very stratified. In the not-so-distant past, it was always harder to find out about people on the losing end of cultural history: You discovered this as soon as you tried. Now it is equally easy to find out about Mozart as it is to find out about Hermann Nitsch, the Austrian guy who does those symphonic ritual happenings with slaughtered cattle and ritual crucifixions and really turgid music. It doesn't mean that more people will see either performances of Mozart music or Nitsch's things; it just means that both are equally ennobled by ready information. Do you think that at some point there's going to be deep confusion about what's really important?

Ben

Ben Ratliff has been a jazz critic at the New York Times since 1996. His new book is Coltrane: The Story of a Sound.

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