On Eating a Balanced Diet
On Eating a Balanced Diet
So I am meant to be blogging three times in advance of this concert I’m doing on November 17th for the MATA Festival Interval series, in which a number of guest curators (of which I am one) present concerts of their own devising. For this first post, I’d like to talk about the question of a balanced musical diet, by which I mean, is it acceptable for new music institutions to program music from the canon alongside the spankable new? A pair of interactions with curators/artistic directors led me to meditate on this topic.
First: About two months ago, Judd Greenstein called me to ask about including my shared recital program with cellist Alisa Weilerstein— which we’re offering around North America early next year— on the Ecstatic Music Festival, which is having its first season at Merkin Hall in 2011, and which Judd is curating. I said I’d be thrilled, at which point Judd asked if we could omit the Bach and Britten Suites that Alisa was playing and replace them with something else contemporary. Now this program that we’re offering consists of 25 minutes of solo music by me, a 35 minute work that I’ve written for Alisa and myself, and then these two olde works by two of the big B’s. Judd explained that the festival is to be devoted exclusively to new music, and that the suites wouldn’t fly. I told him that I thought Alisa had some Golijov in her rep, and that perhaps she could substitute out the older works. In the end, scheduling rendered the booking impossible, but it got me thinking about whether or not these distinctions of temporality are sometimes arbitrary. Like, Alisa and I spent a good deal of time thinking about what would be good to program alongside my music both in terms harmonic sensibility, density, texture, length, and so on. Yeah, so maybe Osvaldo is alive, but does that make his music a better pairing? Kind of makes me think of all the times when I was a picky eater as a child and would ask for the chicken marsala with no mushrooms, or the spaghetti primavera with no vegetables. And I remember the moment when my babysitter took me to Wendy’s and for the first time, I ordered chicken nuggets as is instead of a hamburger hold the everything, and the order came up so fast!!! Because they didn’t have to make a special thing just for me!!!
So then I had this interaction with Yotam Haber, who is the artistic director of MATA: I told him that in addition to the song cycle that we commissioned from nine composers for me to play and sing, I wanted to sing Schumann’s Dichterliebe from the piano. This ruffled his and Missy’s feathers—- MATA is, of course, committed to championing the music of composers under the age of 40, so their reservations were understandable. Yotam and I got into a broader conversation about programming the old alongside the new, which revealed his belief that often, standard repertoire is included as a kind of palliative to help the listener digest the gnarly avant-garde. Or more cynically, the standard rep is there to sell tickets.
Obviously, I don’t see it that way. I am interested in the old informing the new, but I am equally interested in the new informing the old.
I don’t know how prevalent this point of view is in new music circles, but it does smack of self-ghettoization to me. Frankly, I find it cynical to presume that I want to program a piece by Schumann alongside new music as an attempt to get people to come to my concert, or to take the edge off the more “challenging” new music. In fact, I find that these juxtapositions help to illuminate all of the texts, and not just the old informing the new. It’s my contention that served alongside a slew of brand new songs, Schumann’s bad-boy harmonic language may reveal itself to us in all of its pungent splendor. Just consider the opening of Im wunderschönen Monat Mai:
So there’s a C# that gets supported by a D, giving us a major seventh, then an A# in the tenor and we’re still a ways off from any kind of harmonic stability. If you let your ear linger there, it’s like a little pointillistic heaven of rubbed notes. And I really think that a case can be made that the meat (Schumann) is going to taste better because the roasted cauliflower (Andres) and beet salad (Norman) have each primed our palate for the flesh.