Lately I’ve been feeling as if I’m living in a bubble, or on a stage set — as if my life isn’t quite real. For a while I was thinking this is because I have no family. But while that may be a contributing cause, as an analysis of the situation I think it misses the mark.
I’m a musician. I enjoy playing music. Yet I feel almost entirely disconnected in an emotional sense from the music-making in my community. I don’t share the attitudes and expectations of either the audiences or the other musicians.
Our community orchestra has a new conductor. She’s working hard to build up the orchestra, and that’s a wonderful thing. In the past I’ve served as principal cellist in this orchestra, a post that gave me the opportunity to try to help the cello section sound better. My efforts may or may not have been effective, but at least I felt that I had some input in or involvement with the process. Playing orchestral music is not creative in any sense, it’s very much a paint-by-numbers activity, but I was able to go beyond that in certain (very limited) ways.
This year we have a new principal cellist. He’s certainly a better player than I am. (He’s also a friend of mine.) I’m very happy to have him take the post, because I want the orchestra to improve! But he has some very definite ideas about how he would like to interact with the cello section. As a result, I need to get out of the way. There is now little or no room for me to make a contribution to the orchestra (though there was little enough before). All I’ll be doing is showing up and wiggling my fingers so as to execute the dots on the page in whatever manner I’m directed to by the conductor and the section leader.
This is not music-making, not really. It’s a zombie activity.
A few years back, I was playing electric cello in a local band. We played original music and we improvised our solos. This was real music-making! We were playing occasional gigs — Saturday afternoon at a local winery, that type of thing. I suggested to the guys that we could work at really polishing the material and then stage our own concert.
They weren’t interested. Playing winery gigs was fine with them.
Eventually I quit the band. There were other issues — namely, drinking wine at band practice, which seemed flagrantly counter-productive to me. But here again, the underlying issue was the guys’ lack of interest in or commitment to excellence. What they were doing was good enough that they could enjoy doing it, and that was the extent of their ambition.
They’re still doing the same stuff today. Their regular gig is at a local wine bar. They’re a very decent band, and I think they may have accurately gauged their audience’s interest in music listening. Music is, for these audiences, a sort of mildly stimulating social backdrop. The wine audiences don’t really give a damn about music one way or the other, nor do they have the cognitive skills that they would need in order to interact with music in a more meaningful way.
What interests me about my own music-making is explorations of form, texture, melody, harmony, and counterpoint. Whether I’m good at it or whether I’m a dreadful hack is a different question, and not one that I’m qualified to answer. The point is, when I launch my music app (which happens to be Reason, usually) and start working on a new piece, that’s what I’m involved with. That’s what I care about. And I’m quite sure there are no local audiences who would be equipped to discuss or even perceive the processes I’m exploring. What I’m actually doing musically would be entirely opaque to them. If they were to encounter the music (perhaps on a Friday evening at a local coffee house), they would experience it as a mildly stimulating social backdrop — disposable, ignorable, perhaps momentarily enjoyable based on certain surface characteristics (a strong beat, big chords, whatever), but not something to be actively engaged with.
Some people are actively engaged when listening to classical music. Certainly my friend the new principal cellist is actively engaged — not in a creative way, but he does care about interpretation and is very knowledgeable about the repertoire. And he’s not the only fine classical musician in town.
That’s the picture, though: The folks who care about excellence are not doing original music, they’re just painting by numbers. And the folks who are doing original music don’t care about excellence, only about being good enough to play for (and be ignored by) people who are getting drunk.
This is the local and personal manifestation of a larger social process. In a consumer culture, music is a consumable. It’s something that you market, and its success in the market is presumed to dictate its worth. The idea that a musical ensemble would challenge an audience to engage in active, thoughtful listening is pretty much unmentionable.
Part of the blame for this may lie in the excesses of academic classical music during the 20th century. Challenging the audience (by writing 12-tone music or whatever) was pretty much the only thing composers aspired to do. Those who, like Aaron Copland, wrote more accessible music have withstood the test of time far better than have Schoenberg and Berg.
These days, highly abstract music still exists, in the form of experimental improvisation, but now there’s no underlying form or conceptualization that audiences could aspire to grapple with. Experimental improvisation operates pretty much the way pop music operates at a winery gig — you can have an immediate sensory response to it, or your mind may wander for a minute, but if your mind wanders that’s okay, because there’s nothing going on that you could engage with intellectually.
In this month’s Harper’s there’s an article about how colleges are ceasing (or have ceased) to teach the value of thinking. There’s more to the article (“The Neoliberal Arts”) than that. It’s worth reading. But as it relates to my experiences in community, music-making, it shines a spotlight on the fact that neither musicians nor audiences dare engage in the process of developing their own musical values through a careful process of introspection and dialog. People just accept whatever musical values are prevalent in their neighborhood. Nobody questions. If they strive at all, they strive within a narrowly conceived framework that has been set out for them.
We’ll be playing Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” in the December concert. Not a bad piece. The narrator will be a former mayor of the town. I have no idea whether he’ll be a fine narrator or a stumbling, stammering mistake. But I was at the meeting where the repertoire was being discussed and the topic of asking the mayor to narrate the piece was brought up. Nobody said, “Gee, maybe there’s a fine local actor who could bring the narration to life in a wonderful dramatic way, with gestures and vocal inflections.” Nobody said anything like that. Innovation and excellence were not on the agenda. Bringing in an audience by having the mayor, a (very minor) local celebrity, narrate — that was the whole point.