Help Me Understand (or Roll Over and Play Dead)

Help Me Understand (or Roll Over and Play Dead)

Admittedly the whole Occupy Museums movement left me feeling a tad cranky last Monday because it seemed to me like the folks involved in it were basically barking up the wrong tree. From my vantage point the visual art world seems to strike an excellent balance between the old and the new. In fact, in an email I received the next day, a composer friend of mine pointed out that if anything, the art world is filled with people who are stepping up to the table regarding new work. There are a great many for-profit gallery owners who are responsible for keeping a steady stream of current art work available to the public—all of whom can visit for free and most of whom will never buy anything on exhibit. But I also wrote that things were far more out of whack for music, even though I still believe that the answer to getting new work done lies not in denying someone’s ability to fund older repertoire which results in many people being able to experience such work year after year. Rather others with means should come forward to specifically support new music.

However, that doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be a sea-change in how the hallowed halls of so-called high culture market themselves to the world at large. Their current approach sends a deafeningly loud and clear message that they are the gatekeepers of masterpieces from the past and that the here and now need not apply. Case in point, New York City’s classical radio station WQXR is poised to embark on a massive advertising campaign, starting tomorrow, for something called “Beethoven Awareness Month.” Touted as an effort to “draw attention to classical music and its most famous composer,” they plan to put ads all around the city as well as in subway stations. I wonder if the amount of money being spent on this initiative might be better used to promote a different living composer every day to show the audience that this music is not some precious relic from a distant time, but rather a vibrant living tradition.

Please don’t assume from this that I think that people ought not to be aware of Beethoven. There is no denying the significance of his musical output and its impact on the music of subsequent generations. I’m just not sure that it’s something that our cultural mouthpieces need to tout—the folks in Bonn, where Beethoven was actually born, do a fabulous job keeping his legacy alive. (His birthplace, which I visited during my trip to Germany last October, is a vibrant hub for ongoing research, which also spearheads educational initiatives using the most up-to-date technology.)

Over the course of the past two weeks I took myself out of the new music audience several times to experience other things. I attended a performance of Verdi’s Nabucco at the Metropolitan Opera, a lecture/demonstration about the 16th-century Chinese kunqu opera The Peony Pavilion at City University’s Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, and Chinglish, a brand new play by American playwright David Henry Hwang about cross-cultural miscommunication that just opened on Broadway. Each offered a valuable lesson in culture and how it is transmitted.

Min Cheng and Ling Yang, the two singers who performed a scene from The Peony Pavilion, talked about their lifetime immersion in this centuries-old art form. Kunqu had been on the verge of extinction but over the past decade, since being declared part of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, it has been experiencing a major revival in China. During the presentation, there was even a video excerpt screened from a production of The Peony Pavilion staged in Japan, featuring a kabuki performer alongside a kunqu performer. This offered new interpretative possibilities, although I greatly preferred the hard core traditional approach of the live performance.

Nabucco, on the other hand, is part of a tradition that is hardly in danger of going away anytime soon, although admittedly it is one of Verdi’s less frequently performed operas. The Met’s extremely lavish production was over-the-top but completely old school; there was no regietheater attempt at updating it (thankfully, since such things rarely ever work in my opinion), although the cast boasted singers from all over the world (including South Korea, Ukraine, and the USA).

Compared with those very old fashioned cultural experiences (albeit from different cultures), Chinglish is about as right now as you can get. While it begins and ends with the lead actor talking directly to the audience, a theatrical device going back millennia, the rest of its dialog and the production’s overall fast pacing probably could not have existed in a world prior to contemporary motion pictures or television situation comedies. (Chinglish, however, takes these techniques further than they normally go in either of those media.) What probably blew my mind the most was its extraordinary high tech set—even more high tech than the Met—which moves almost entirely on its own, transforming a hotel lobby into a bedroom into an office meeting room all in a matter of seconds. Such a stage set might very well be a harbinger for how most theatre is presented in the future. (I kept thinking as I was watching the show of how such an apparatus would greatly reduce all the down time at orchestra concerts.)

One of the many moments of mistranslation from the Broadway production of Chinglish by David Henry Hwang (2011), left to right Stephen Pucci, Gary Wilmes, Angela Lin, and Larry Lei Zhang. Photo by Michael McCabe, courtesy Andy S. Drachenberg, Jeffrey Richards Associates.

Chinglish, which also featured as its incidental music a pounding soundtrack of contemporary Taiwanese pop hits by Wang Lee Hom (who was actually born in Rochester, New York), is probably about as far away as you get from “Obeying Beethoven.” However, since the theme of the play is how difficult it is for people from different cultures to understand one another, in a strange way (at least in my mind) it confirms for me why it is a mistake to use Beethoven as the poster boy for classical music in America in the 21st century. No matter how wonderful Beethoven is, he is not ours, just as Nabucco and The Peony Pavilion are not ours. We absolutely should make every effort to get acquainted with his music, just like we should at some point in our lives experience Verdi operas or kunqu performances; all of these things are and will always be extremely rewarding. But unless we can convince audiences first and foremost that the arts are within the reach of every one of us—and what better proof of that than showing them that artists are everywhere in our current time and place—what percentage of the public will ever feel the need to find out about great artistic achievements that happened in faraway lands before any of us were born?

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5 thoughts on “Help Me Understand (or Roll Over and Play Dead)

  1. j109

    Keep in mind that the relevance of something is not just a matter of chronology and geography but also the extent to which it resonates with someone. If you played your average American a CD of Beethoven symphonies then a CD of Tristan Murail’s best music and asked them which one they’d choose to have on a deserted island, my guess is most people would choose the Beethoven.

    I don’t mean to change the subject to musical style, but there’s a misconception that a healthy new music scene is just a matter of publicity, promotion, funding, etc. To focus only on that is to bark up the wrong tree. It’s about the music as well. The reality is that if you flip on the radio to a rock or pop station, what you hear will probably have more musical similarities with Beethoven than with a lot of newer music. This is of course not true across the board, but it is an issue.

    There’s a lot of good music being written, but relatively little music that uses the common musical language to accomplish something great. Rzewski speaks in an article ( ; quoted in another NMB article) of “an impoverishment of the language of music.” I’d argue that musical language has always been impoverished, or rather has always been banal. Take that of 18th c. comic opera… I mean have you ever listened to Paisiello? And that’s what we still remember; imagine what was so bad that we’ve forgotten about it. Despite its banality, Haydn and Mozart took the basic traits of that language and used them to create something much more sophisticated. There are composers today trying to do similarly things (the minimalist cause has ostensibly had this as an objective), but IMO without much success.

    If you write stylistically niche music, it will always have niche appeal. To that niche it may seem new and modern and amazing, but to most people centuries-old music by a guy from Bonn will seem more relevant.

  2. dB

    I was under the impression the “Beethoven Awareness Month” was a tongue in cheek campaign intended to raise awareness of WQXR (and WNYC) in general. Raising awareness of Beethoven for listeners of a classical music station would be like raising awareness of the Rolling Stones for listeners of a classic rock station. In fact, Noreen O’Loughlin, vice president for integrated marketing at New York Public Radio more or less confirmed this in a piece that ran in the Times yesterday, saying that the idea of an awareness month for Beethoven is “obviously tongue-in-cheek, because everyone’s aware of Beethoven.” Even the people who love Beethoven don’t think he needs a higher profile, but we’re a little too ready to see the worst in their actions. The “OBEY THOVEN” campaign is an ironic comment about the ubiquity of Beethoven, not an attempt to increase that ubiquity.

  3. Todd

    Here, here, Frank. Wouldn’t it be a hoot to see a campaign on buses and subways and phone booths with big portraits of living American composers? “I’m Elliott Carter and I’m a composer.”

  4. Alvaro Gallegos

    Totally agree with you Frank!

    I’m always glad that there are efforts to caught new audiences to so-called “classical” music. But, on the other hand, I’m concerned that these efforts always point to the big names of a very distant past.

    It would be great if we could start for erasing the term “classical music”. I prefer to use “written tradition music”, denomination championed by my friend, the eminent Chilean composer-musicologist Fernando García.


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