Neue Bahnen

It is conventional wisdom these days that serious music making is in trouble.  The public doesn’t support it.  The orchestras are going broke.  Everyone listens to music on their iPods while real musicians starve.  This is mostly rubbish, and it is only more apparent to me as I think about two events I attended this weekend.

Friday night saw the return of the Lars Halle Jazz Orchestra to Chris’s on Sansom St. in Philadelphia.  I knew Lars Halle way back when I had hair and hadn’t yet gotten off the trumpet. (Eleven years clean now, with only one relapse in June 2005.)  I was only too glad to reconnect with him and his ensemble when I moved to Philadelphia a few years ago. Lars drives the band from the drum set and surrounds himself with some of the best talent in the area.

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and if this is true, then classical musicians are a loyal lot, performing Bach and Mozart in as correct—and sometimes even inspirational—a way as possible.  There is value in breathing life into the dry bones of long-dead geniuses.  I do my best at it most days of the week.  But the jazz musician has what is arguably a higher calling:  making music on the spot.   A basic rhythm and chord progression holds the structure of the music together while a soloist improvises.  The virtuosity of the musicians may be the most obvious thing to the casual observer, but the musical inspiration is what I pay the most attention to.  It takes brains to do this, and also a capacity to yawp about the mysteries of the universe.  The greatest danger about historicism in art is that the artist will cease to have something to say, but as long as there are musicians who improvise, this is less likely.

I improvise a lot on the organ these days, but my initial instruction in this skill actually came from a jazz musician from Boston while I was a trumpet player.  He once brought down a house filled with hippies and atheists with a little tune called Everybody Ought to Know Who Jesus Is, played on his white baby grand piano.  I went into his studio one day and said I was tired of not being able to improvise.  He wrote out a blues scale, sat down at the piano, and turned me loose.  I remember two things he said from that lesson: 1) “Nothing’s worse than somebody who talks all the time but never says anything.” (I now save such blabbering for this blog.) 2) “I don’t care if you’re playin’ Johann Sebastian BACH! It’s got to groooooove!” From that day, I have never felt like I’m fully a musician unless I’m improvising.

There are musicians who can improvise so well that it sounds like a finished piece, except for the fact that the blood courses through the veins of the listener with more vigor, a sharing in the ecstasy of the performer.  They say that Bach could do this.  So could many French organists.  And no one beats these jazz musicians.  The student of music can always figure on a shot of new energy from hanging out with them.

The Lars Halle Jazz Orchestra is just as good as a major symphony orchestra, except that if you sit at the bar at Chris’s you’ll only have to pay five bucks to hear them.  If you want dinner the cover will cost you fifteen, but you’ve got a seat for the whole three hour performance.  The availability of spirits makes it even more enjoyable.  It’s not as crowded in the summer, since so many people are at the beach, but if you want a decent vantage point for one of these performances during the rest of the year, you better get there early.  Usually it’s standing room only.  This isn’t exactly the sign of a dying art form.  Some would take issue with my lumping jazz in with “serious music,” but they probably need to come out from behind their late 19th century fortress.  Even Richard Weaver thought that jazz was bad music and contrasted it mercilessly with Mozart, showing his ignorance of both styles.  Oh well.  We can’t all be right about everything.

Saturday night brought an experience even more contemporary and no less thrilling.  The Crossing, a choir that performs music of the 21st century, is in the middle of its Month of Moderns, which this year features a number of settings of text by and about Seneca, the Stoic philosopher of yore.  (Do all philosophers have names that begin with an S?)  This particular concert featured works by Kile Smith, a composer from Philadelphia, Kamran Ince, who spends much time in Instanbul, and Gabriel Jackson, resident composer for the BBC.  A review of the concert can be read here.

Kile Smith’s new work commissioned by The Crossing, The Waking Sun, comprised the first half of the concert.  Written for chorus and the baroque ensemble Tempesta di Mare, the third (on a text about Cupid), fourth (on a text about Tantalus), and sixth movements (a beautiful love poem) seem to me to be of particular beauty.  “I am usually a grudging participant in standing ovations,” I told Kile after the performance, “but tonight I only wished that I were a foot taller.”  (Full disclosure: I am friends with most of the people involved in this performance.  This is not an “objective” review, but what review is?)  In the second half, Kamran Ince’s Theystes featured a gruesome text about cannibalism, and Gabriel Jackson’s Not No Faceless Angel featured a poem about death that was mature beyond the years of the writer.

Turnout for concerts by The Crossing is consistently solid, but Saturday brought a standing room only crowd, perhaps the best showing ever.  Unlike  some concert patrons, however, those who come to Crossing concerts are there not to be seen to but hear, to listen to the music.  They are intelligent listeners: Usually, in any crowd, there is one wiseacre who insists on applauding the millisecond a piece ends, even if it ruins the atmosphere of a performance.  These people want everyone else to know that they know when something is over.  This is one of the reasons that the classical music milieu annoys normal people. This doesn’t happen at Crossing concerts; the whole room is still until conductor Donald Nally has relaxed his posture.  What’s more is the constructive conversation that takes place at the post concert receptions—about the composer, the text, the sound of the choir, whatever.  Just as there are “C and E” Christians, there are “Messiah and Beethoven 5” audiences; but the Crossing audiences are true believers.

As an audience member I find each of these concerts to be challenging, and usually I find myself wishing I could hear most of the pieces twice.  For awhile I thought I wasn’t paying careful enough attention, but I’m beginning to wonder if this just isn’t a factor of The Crossing and the works that they sing breaking new ground.  We are in a moment of musical transition.  The old forms are passing away, but new ways of writing are not yet settled.  If you pull out a Mass composed in the Renaissance era, there are certain technical and formal aspects of the writing that you can expect to see—a smaller ensemble for the Benedictus, repetition of Kyrie material in the Agnus Dei, etc.  The same kind of thing holds true for Operas, Oratorios and art songs.

But what The Crossing is doing doesn’t really seem to fit any of these molds.  Many of the texts are personally chosen by Donald Nally, who is a voracious reader.  And how should a composer tackle the poetry of Paul Celan or the selections of Seneca?  There is no canon for such a thing, and thanks be to God.  Many aficionados of music pride themselves on their understanding of harmony and of forms, but as I mentioned before, I’m more concerned about whether the musicians have something to say.  As long as this is true, music has a future, even with symphony orchestras.

But will we have the courage to cast off old habits that no longer work?