Tag Archives: bach

like it or not

“what is art today? […] the decent impotence of those who scorn to cloak the general sickness under colour of a dignified mummery.”

all art and patrons of art, throughout history, have faced an ongoing challenge: why do we like what we like? more importantly, whose opinion really matters? does my “like” trump your “like”? and, of course, do we like things because they are good?

what is good?

as someone who does a fair amount of study & reading on the philosophies and aesthetics of music, i come across this fairly often. i got hit with the reality, very bluntly, of what happens when you start asking these questions at a later age. there is no turning back once you realize that your concept of music, what it is and what it does, can be challenged. it can shake your entire foundation. this was tested last week in one of my classes. we devoted a whole class to postmodern aesthetics of music (with a little dash of Adorno) and i found myself in the position of preaching to the deaf. i could cite Pluto, Adorno, Derrida, and Lyotard till the cows came home but they were not having it. words like “good”, “undefinable”, and “beautiful” keep appearing and i kept cringing.

and what saddens me the most about all of this is that it’s not the fault of my peers. they’ve been indoctrinated and they don’t even know it. many of us come out of our musical academic experience thinking the only composers who have ever mattered are Bach, Mozart, (maybe) Haydn, Beethoven, Wagner and Mahler. god help you if you don’t like those composers because you are obviously not a real classical musician. how have we let it get to this point? this is canon formation in overdrive. are you really gonna like Beethoven because someone told you to and pointed out in all of his works what a genius he was? why wouldn’t you?

i had this experience with Bach. Bach was in my life from a very early age for, you see, he and i have the same birthday. not only that, but i was born 299 years to the day after the Master himself. (yes, if you can do math, i have just dated myself. whatever…) growing up, my favorite classical radio station would play nothing but Bach all day on my birthday and it drove me crazy! this led to a most likely irrational hatred of Bach and his music. but how could anyone hate Bach? did i not understand his genius? well, after years of rejecting common thought, i decided to really check Bach out on my own. and, amazingly, i had a moment. i liked Bach. from that moment on Bach and i have had an increasingly personal relationship. Bach became important to me because i found something relevant, relatable. Does common academic study tend to bolster those feelings? possibly, which, of course, i hate. but i never let myself take any composer at face value — if someone is going to tell me that someone is “great”, i need to know why.

as we all know, schools are intent on teaching the Austro-German Classical/Romantic legacy. it’s just easier. but in doing so, we produce a generation of musicians who are content with not taking risks, whether in programming or education, and it has real effects. in the Northeast, where i was educated, the “orchestra” was the only relevant and important music-making body. the wind band genre, which i grew up with was “less than”, “undesirable”, and not real art music. says who? says those who were educated within this system.

this reeks of bad things to come and i feel it’s my duty to curb it as much as possible. i will admit, i get a little overzealous (i know many people who are German Romanticists and it’s just my general feeling to loathe them, which is not fair — there’s just so damn many of them!) but i believe what i’ve subscribed myself to. don’t like Mozart? fine. but if you’re going to rebel against the institutionalized canon, be educated about it. and stay away from “good”, “better”, “best”. that trap is lethal — unless you’re Plato.

i saw this again on a much smaller scale (and i mean MUCH smaller) with the release of Christina Aguilera’s new video, “Not Myself Tonight” — there’s a lot of vitriol out there about what’s “good” and what”s not and i found myself asking the above questions in regards to this…and feeling badly that the same sort of institutionalized aesthetics happens on every level, from pop music to art music and everywhere else. i think part of the reason why it can be more inflammatory in music as opposed to other arts is because of the very deep connections we make with artists and their work. i’ll be the first person to admit it — to me, Bach’s Goldberg Variations feels like a warm breeze blowing through my hair and sounds like the silence of unconquered lands. and if you come up to me and tell me that Bach is shit, i’ll punch you in the mouth. but then i have to take a step back and analyze all of those feelings.

i’m not saying that we can’t like music just because and place value judgements because, let’s face it, that’s impossible. but if you haven’t before, take a look at why you like the things you do and think the way you do about certain musics. is it because of your own personal decisions or because you haven’t heard otherwise?

side notes: 1) i’ve decided to get my Britten tattoo & a new Bach tattoo to complement it on my right arm. i’m totally swagga jacking the lovely Ms. Lindsey Falbo, but let’s face it, Bach was a fucking baller who designed his own family crest. you can find the Britten here: http://drp.ly/V9Ifu (which i designed myself) and the Bach here: http://drp.ly/V9K1 (however the Bach will not be filled in but only outlines that i will design)
2) i’m sorry Christina, and i mean no disrespect but go away, again, figure out the artist you want to be, and then come back. when you do that, i will be happy. don’t pander to the lowest denominator with this video/song…you don’t need to be Madonna or Gaga, trust me.

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Kathleen Ferrier (1912-1953)

english contralto Kathleen Ferrier was born today in 1912…she has found a special place in my heart as she was Britten’s Lucretia, my Lucretia. her story is as beautiful as her voice & if you don’t believe me, just listen.

here she is singing Erbame dich from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion:

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first things first, i think it’s curious that the one time i have a week off from EVERYTHING (google: snowpocalypse baltimore) that i didn’t blog. i was too busy being completely wrapped up in the beginning of my thesis and having crippling cabin fever. now that i’ve re-entered society, the blood is flowing and my mind is a little more agile. (so get ready for a barrage of posts)

now to this post…i had my first lesson in two or so weeks due to conflicts, snow and illness and i was really looking forward to it. i had done a lot of work on the allemande movement of the fourth Bach cello suite and any time my teacher and i work on Bach is a good time. my lessons tend to be a lot more concept-oriented and i think Bach brings out the best in my playing. i sit down and play the whole movement, repeats and all. PK rubs his chin and just looks at me. this induces a serious amount of worrying on my part. he looks at me and says, “the feeling that i get from that is that you’re holding back…”. i interject with, “do you mean, like, time?” and he says no. he meant sound wise but more importantly, musically. he continues on with this speech about how the conductor of our orchestra talks about me, how he likes what i do in rehearsals and in performance (which apparently means that he and i gel, whatever that means) but in orchestra, i don’t have to take risks, it’s not needed. here, in my solo work, i wasn’t being gutsy enough. to paraphrase (in a way my teacher would NEVER say), i was playing like a pussy.

well sure enough, as soon as he got to his point, i started to tear up a little. why? because he had hit a super sweet spot. he was right, i wasn’t taking any risks but it was subconscious. last year, i took lessons with BSO principal tubist David Fedderly, and one of the most important things i took from those lessons was that i was afraid of being musical because growing up, so many people had told me that i was being too risky and emotional with my playing. so i bottled up all of the emotion because i was a kid, what did i know. and after all of that time, i put up a wall. my collegiate professors (and even my peers) say the same thing: we can see you thinking about the music, but we don’t hear it.

and yes, i cried in those lessons, too. a lot.

so we spent the majority of the lesson trying to get me to open up. of course, i was amenable, that’s what i want but it’s hard to put yourself out there on the edge. it’s really scary. but isn’t that what performance is, anyway? that same night, i went with a friend of mine to a BSO concert (Brubeck, Ansel Adams: America; Mussorgsky, arr. Ravel, Pictures at an Exhibition) and while i was watching certain players, the first word that came to my mind was histrionics. and attached to that word was a certain kind of repulsion that really bothered me. but was that the kind of musical bravery that i was lacking? in an orchestral setting, it’s hard to tell, but it is definitely food for thought.

why do we allow our students and ourselves to hide behind a wall of proficiency? just like certain things that kids do intrinsically, we have to learn to trust our musical instincts and see them through, even if it means crashing and burning a few times. i see this as being a possible life-long battle, as it has taken years to build up these defense mechanisms. but there is hope, even if that means shedding a few tears.

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the elitist within us all

i hate the Romantic period. aside from philosophy and poetry (which i’ll love in any period), the notion of the Romantic aesthetic bothers me. the great genius that is the soul of the artist which allows for creativity on a massive scale that MUST be released? and of course, the later concept of artist as hero. save it.

but there is one aspect that intrigues me. the notion of universality is a cumbersome one but one that is bandied about in regards to music on a regular basis. in the 19th century, this universality acts as double edged rapier. while all of us are able to appreciate art, not all of us are able to create. how indulgent! i can create but you can’t? this is the backbone of the Romantic aesthetic. but is this true? and is it important to think so?

i wasn’t sure to write about this because, at the time, i was in my Berlioz class talking directly about this subject. so, big deal, of course we mention it when dealing with Berlioz and his ilk. but then this idea of music as universal, shared but not created collectively, came up two more times during my day: once during my Mahler 4 rehearsal and again during colloquium. and what was central to both those utterances is the idea of elitism. the best music is created by elitists that, therein, creates its own elitist class of composers. now don’t get me wrong, this is not classism in the sense of the rungs found within today’s classical music audience. this is the separation of gods from mortals, to put it Romantically.

if you don’t think your music is special, so special that it speaks to the whole of humanity but could only do so through the imbuing of your vision, why would anyone listen to it? why do we listen to music in the first place? we give music monikers and adjectives like ‘transcendental’, placing upon the genre of music a burden, albeit an abstract one, to connect us to something. the best music does so. (note, that qualitative term is to prove a point. i’m not here to start an argument about what “best” means.) now this idea about what music should do has existed for as long as music has. but it was not until the Romantic era that people decided to do something about it. the composer moves from the role of craftsman (like Bach) to genius (like Wagner). the plight of the composer/artist is the plight of mankind focused. the way to survive through the miasma is to create and reflect. and as mankind is blessed with the gift of imagination, so is the artist.

here’s the rub. music acts as universal exactly because the spark to create, the ability to imagine lies within every person. we understand music because it is our own plight being reflected through the light of the Romantic lamp, the vision of the artist, who can do so like no other.

i do not like this. i especially do not like the word “universal”. i have been taught, as of recently, that “universal” is a four-letter word (just like if i say “the composer’s intentions”, i’ll get my hand chopped off). that and the idea of owning creativity, hoarding it, just doesn’t seem kosher. doesn’t seem fair. but let’s face it, those who had the ability to be elitist in the 19th century, either financially or artistically, did. wouldn’t you? i don’t blame Berlioz. he was a hyper-everything, a product of his time. but i’m glad the artistic hero has gone the way of the dodo. granted, it took two world wars to do it but, hey, we are dealing with the whole universe.

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