The Ties That Bind, Part I

The Ties That Bind, Part I

Like nearly all arts organizations, the mission of many orchestras (in the U.S. and abroad) has grown to incorporate the hazy nebulae of “Education and Outreach.” Of course, it’s the obvious thing to do. But, for me, it’s another symptom of the precarious position of art in our culture. Over the last 50 years, one could point to a shakedown and oversimplified sorting-out of art and entertainment. [Having seen and enjoyed my fellow NMBx contributor Ratzo B. Harris’s recent posts on this very topic after writing my piece, I’m glad to see either a) great minds think alike; and/or b) it’s in the water.] Art is always highbrow, entertainment is always lowbrow. Further, and much more problematic, is the notion many hold, that art need (or should!) not entertain, and vice-versa.

While certainly in existence as long as Messrs. BetterThanYou and WhoDoYouThinkYouAre could lob accusations about who was ruining what, this dichotomy has been historically murkier, as in Anthony Tommasini’s discussion this week regarding genre in opera and musical theatre. The conventions/venue/genre of creative work need not, in themselves, reveal the aspirations of said work. But in our society, they truly seem to. Consider a cultural truism: If it’s on HBO or from Pixar, it’s good. I like that; if universal messages and compelling drama combined with high technical and creative standards and cutting-edge production still generate acclaim (and make lots of $, but let’s try the ridiculous exercise of forcing ourselves to try looking at it without finances being involved), then something is right. Long live Zauberflöte! Alan Ball is a great screenwriter; his decade-long association with HBO gives me hope for the idea of long associations. John Lasseter spends some of Pixar’s gobs of money on ways of making his employee’s jobs and lives more enjoyable—the saints walk among us.

But the received wisdom of What We All Think quickly starts getting problematic: if it’s Lollapalooza or South by Southwest, it’s fun (and timely and relevant: You’re an American!). If it’s Carnegie or the Met (either one), it’s work (enrich thyself, soldier, so we can relax afterward). And if We agree that Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin, and Norman Rockwell are classic, what becomes of the toughies, the likes of Cy Twombly and Edgard Varèse, two probing minds who were viscerally interested in communication? The crowd’s verdict? Castor Oil. Respectable punishment, if we remember them at all. Tough-minded and entertaining, long associated with both the loftiest and most basic notions of human existence and civilization…well, that marriage seems annulled for the time being. But separating the two in the work of Hitchcock, a creative mind whose work was part of the public consciousness for decades, seems truly impossible.

It wasn’t that long ago. It wasn’t that long ago that Dick Cavett had a late-night talk show on a major network where he often interviewed but one guest with spiky questions for an entire 90 minutes. And it wasn’t that long before that that David Sarnoff, before becoming the first quintessential TV executive, decided that NBC needed its own symphony orchestra, and needed Toscanini of all people to lead it. It’s utterly mind-boggling to me that Gian Carlo Menotti and Benjamin Britten actually wrote operas for the specific purpose of a primetime television broadcast. But then imagine: Beverly Sills, an opera singer, was on The Tonight Show. A lot. As a guest host.

O.K. Well, this was a very long way of saying: if our cultural climate had a wider purview of what’s possible to enjoy in our free time, words like “education” and “outreach” wouldn’t feel so damn condescending. Clearly, the work done by many symphony orchestras today is done for the right reasons: lack of access, cuts by schools, building future audiences—get ’em while they’re young. With very little access to either live music or the classical canon, my first experiences were school visits by Reno Philharmonic ensembles and Young People’s Concerts, some 25 years ago. There is truly no other way I would have been exposed at that age—my life as a composer is absolutely a result of those kinds of programs. I wholeheartedly vouch. But, I was never the type to prefer a stadium to a concert hall. Drunken crowds make me agitated; something’s always wrong with the mics. I was an easy sell.

Turn another direction. It’s easy to blame school districts/local government/state government/Arne Duncan. The arts need more attention, and the attention they get varies to a nearly unfathomable degree from place to place. With paints, with clay, in school plays, in third grade tambourine band, we explored basic notions of form, of expression, of precision and preparedness. If we were lucky. And that’s as far as many went. As adults, we recognize good writing when we see it; we diagrammed sentences. We try to catch our accountant’s and barista’s mistakes; we can still do long division if absolutely necessary. But with TV, movies, music—culture in general—we rely on intuition in our tastes. While I get frustrated with my non-musician friends, who describe their favorite new band by discussing the poetry of the songs, I’m absolutely aware of my dilettantism. I’m a fan of the work of Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaas, two (st)architects whose work has entered a broader cultural plane, and never have I met a young trained architect who found either to live up to the hype. If I knew more (thank you, graduate-school anxieties, for rearing your ugly head), I might agree. What can I say?—I like what I’m told!

How many ways would nearly every style and genre of music benefit if there were a raised standard of musical literacy in this country? Raised arts literacy for all: it’s a utopian vision (or just continental Europe?), which brings up lots of other questions. If we can all read, why don’t we read more? Would we definitely be better connoisseurs if we knew more about art? Would that make the art somehow better? If we had done the “work” in school, would that mean we would certainly find a trip to the museum less work and more play? But educators have enough to worry about: I don’t see it coming from the schools into the museums, galleries, and concert halls. And in the chicken and egg game we’ve got, policy makers respond to the voices of their constituents, who simply don’t experience enough art in their own lives to view it as a priority for their children. It will have to come from us. We must demonstrate our relevance, and work to encourage curiosity. But I truly think that we could use some help (not charity) in making our case. Art and entertainment are not enemies, and we could all find use in both. Keeping up with the Kardashians and David Lynch together on the menu—that’s a packed palette, and with the right pairings, a flavor explosion.

Perhaps most importantly, I can also think of ways in which it’s much easier to satiate one’s curiosity than ever before. Down from the heavens came Netflix, whose huge inventory of films means access to all the Fellini, Kurosawa, and Bergman I could take. Even better: I will never, ever have to settle to see another Bay/Bruckheimer blockbuster again. I might never have known the wonder that is The Larry Sanders Show. Self-reflective and cynical, with wit, heart, and ahead of its time, the smartest, dumbest show about a show there ever was. Talk about satisfying.

If orchestras do outreach, then composers-in-residence surely do outreach. In my first residency in Reno, this spring, I stretched my fingers out with lots of different groups. Of course I was nervous. I was in for some major surprises, starting first and foremost with the third graders. Stay tuned.

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One thought on “The Ties That Bind, Part I

  1. Ratzo B Harris

    “How many ways would nearly every style and genre of music benefit if there were a raised standard of musical literacy in this country?”

    I would be happy if the standard of musical literacy were brought back to 1960’s levels. I was in 2nd grade (1962) when everyone in our class took a field trip to the band room once a week and learned how to read music and sing simple melodies that were written on the blackboard. We were also exposed to and tested on recognizing pieces of orchestral music. In junior high school, I played in an orchestra class every school day. In senior high school, harmony and theory classes were offered. These weren’t schools that specialized in arts, either. It is proven that an education in the arts enhances proficiency in sciences. But it’s not the communities that schools serve that have a problem accepting this, it’s the administrative elite that is trying to make education a money making institution that is cutting budgets for the arts.


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