January 03, 2008
Continued from re: a climate of fear – a response from Jeffrey Kahane
A few years ago, when I was still music director of the Santa Rosa Symphony, I gave a talk on programming at our large local retirement community, the source of one of the orchestra’s largest, most loyal and (with notable exceptions) musically conservative constituencies. I had decided to do an experiment in the form of playing a little trick on the audience. (I had, incidentally, absolutely no doubt about the outcome of the experiment, but nonetheless could not contain my glee when the outcome was made known to the astonished “victims” of my well-intended prank, many of whom literally gasped when the results were announced.)
I had brought with me recordings of music by 9 or 10 composers, from each of whose work I had carefully chosen an excerpt of one or two minutes. The list included Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and John Adams, among others. I asked the audience of about 200 to number each of the excerpts as they heard them and then rank them in order of preference.
As I fully expected, Schoenberg (who was represented by his early masterpiece “Gurrelieder”), Stravinsky (“The Firebird”) and John Adams (the opening pages of the 2nd movement of “NaÃ¯ve and Sentimental Music”) overwhelmingly won out over both Bach and Beethoven, who ranked near the bottom, and was represented by the fugue from one of his greatest and most challenging works, the “Hammerklavier” Sonata in B flat, op. 106.
Now, obviously, I could easily have created the exact opposite result had I chosen different examples, but the point that I wanted to make to the audience (and I think I succeeded) is that music-lovers (like the symphony-goer mentioned in one post who cancels his tickets whenever a piece of new music is on the program) often make assumptions about what they do and don’t like, or want to hear, based on pre-conceived notions about what a given composer (or stylistic period) sounds like, and, in so doing, deprive themselves of the opportunity to expand their musical horizons and encounter wondrous new regions of the musical universe of whose existence they may not have even been aware.
(Incidentally, I once did a similar experiment at a Santa Rosa Symphony pre-concert lecture at which I played ten radically different excerpts, all by Stravinsky, ranging from “Firebird” to his very late music, and asked the audience to guess the composer of each excerpt. By the time we got to the last excerpt I had a list of something like 30 names spanning a period of 150 years. Again, there was a collective gasp of astonishment when I revealed that the same composer had written all ten works.)
Which brings me back to what that sparked my particular interest in this discussion, namely the reaction of my friend Kevin Puts – whose music I have championed for a number of years with great joy and who is one of my favorite composers working today – to John Adams’ remarks to students at Peabody Conservatory.
I have had the privilege of knowing John Adams for almost 35 years, first as one of my teachers at the San Francisco Conservatory, and then as colleague and friend. I would never presume to speak for Mr. Adams, and want to underscore that my response to his reported remarks is entirely my own, and, obviously, I wasn’t there so can’t judge the context in which his remarks were made. However, I can’t help but wonder if his remarks to the students might not have been somewhat misconstrued.
I can’t imagine that Adams, of all people, would discourage composers from writing from the heart, or from writing to reach and move their audiences. He is one of the least dogmatic, least elitist, least ideological human beings and composers I have ever known – which is ironic, as his work has on occasion been at the center of some ferocious ideological battles.
Adams knows as well as anyone that Beethoven wrote a substantial amount of music (like the Hammerklavier Fugue, or the Grosse Fugue for String Quartet, for example) that many of Beethoven’s most passionate devotees find as challenging to listen to and difficult to understand as the audiences did when these pieces were literally “contemporary” (and modern!). I wonder if perhaps the point that Mr. Adams was making in comparing young composers to “puppies” who are eager to please was that many young composers today may be afraid to challenge, provoke, or disturb their audiences AS WELL AS “giving them what they want.” It’s not, in other words, an either/or proposition. To put it in terms any dog-lover would understand, every puppy worth his salt is capable of both tugging at our hearts and driving us to distraction, of being utterly endearing and then proceeding to chew up the couch and strew trash all over the kitchen floor.
To be continued…
Read the original post a climate of fear