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It's Impossible to Talk About Music

Posted by Joseph Chapman on Jun 11, 2012 12:10:00 PM

I'm not sure if you readers out there in the blogosphere subscribe to Richard Dare's blog for The Huffington Post. Dare is the CEO and Managing Director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic and he has a surprisingly sharp and entertaining blog going. (I say "surprisingly sharp and entertaining" because he's also a business whiz; it's kind of unfair that he's got both such a good head for business and a sharp instinct for art.)

I was browsing Dare's backlog of entries and I came across one from March titled "Brave New World: Who Muzzled All the Artists?" In this article, Dare shares an anecdote about visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. When a particular painting catches his eye, Dare turns to the docent giving him tour and asks, "What does it mean?" The docent, either in autopilot or intent on having Dare think for himself, volleys the question back to Dare: "Well," she says, "what do you think it means?"

Dare expresses his annoyance with the docent. Why, since art and music are so powerful, won't artists and musicians just come out and say what their compositions or paintings mean? And why is it that when our scholars, critics, and experts review an opera full of "murder and rape, war and pestilence, political intrigue, backstabbing" only talk about "whether the soprano hit her high notes gracefully"?

These are certainly fair questions. And, of course, Dare has a few answers. One, that art has gotten too self-referential: these days it's always about other art and not about everyday life. Two, that dictatorships from the twentieth-century have forced artists to "hide" their meanings more often. And three, that ours is an age of TV and we've just gotten lazy as interpreters of high art. 

I would add to Dare's list, though, that it's just plain hard to interpret art and music. For lack of a better phrase, there's a ton of stuff to consider. Does the intention of the composer matter? The historical context of the work? The response of the individual listener? The response of a group of listeners? The way the piece engages with a genre or form? What about music theory and higher-level criticism? In a way, the docent tried to privilege Dare's individual response to the painting, although perhaps she should have said "How does it make you feel as a viewer?" In any case, it's a lot to think about and feel. As David Foster Wallace would say, good art is a "brain-melter."

I'd add yet another, perhaps generational, diagnosis of our fear of meaning. We live in an age of irony and evasion. When I think of my friends (Generation Y) and my younger brothers' friends (Millennials), I know how we'd respond to Richard Dare's question "What does it mean?" We certainly wouldn't gush about the beauty of the painting; most likely we would slyly admit to being moved by the painting while mocking that emotional engagement. Let's say the painting somehow conjures the pain of new beginnings. My brother would probably say in response to it: "It's about how bad my cat's breath smells in the morning." Funny, yes, and in a way accurate, but ultimately unsatisfying. 

Irony is just the tone of his and my generation. This is the age of Internet memes and YouTube absurdity and Twitter hashtags and lightning-fast anonymous responses. In addition, it's also the age of an overwhelming amount of information. The sheer weight of what others have said make the interpretation of art even harder. (I think of Malcolm Gladwell's article on Enron's collapse a few years back, and his diagnosis of that catastrophe: it's not that we didn't have the signs in front of us, it's that there was too much information to even know what was relevant.)

So, what are we supposed to do? One of my favorite books on art and music is Real Presences by George Steiner. Among other things, Steiner argues that the best form of criticism is to make more art. If you hear a gorgeous violin concerto, the only way to truly and adequately respond to it is to write one yourself. I'm partial to his point, because it cuts through all the complications of interpretation, irony, and self-conscious criticism. You simply make other people feel what you felt.   

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Topics: Classical Music, Violin Concerto, Richard Dare

What I Learned from Performing in a Restaurant

Posted by Alberta Barnes on May 30, 2012 1:24:00 PM

… besides how to play Italian songs with as much schmaltz as possible and how to avoid stabbing the servers with my bow.

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Topics: String Community, Violin, Tips, Classical Music

Cello Sheet Music Recommendation: Elgar's Cello Concerto

Posted by Joseph Chapman on May 15, 2012 9:54:00 AM

Dear Alberta,

It's fitting that such an elegaic concerto is the last concerto of our letters. (Sad face!) Edward Elgar composed his cello concerto, Op. 85, in the summer of 1919; it's hard to ignore the fact that he composed the concerto in Sussex, where the previous summer he had heard the thunder of heavy artillery drifting across the English Channel from France.

War and art are such strange and perfect bedfellows. Although the poet Philip Larkin would probably take issue with the expressiveness of Elgar's concerto – he preferred understatement, probably to a fault – I can't help but think of Larkin's poem "MCMXIV," an elegy for the year 1914, the last year untouched by the horror of truly modern warfare. The last stanza of the poem reads: 

            Never such innocence,
            Never before or since,
            As changed itself to past
            Without a word – the men
            Leaving the gardens tidy,
            The thousands of marriages,
            Lasting a little while longer:
            Never such innocence again.

I know I keep quoting poetry to talk about music, but what other kind of language can say what I hear? The concerto sounds, at times, like Larkin's valediction: "Never such innocence, / Never before or since / ... / Never such innocence again" (Of course, the whole concerto isn't so elegaic, but I couldn't help but hear these lines in the opening of the Adagio, which is mournful stuff.)

The more I listened to this concerto, the more it gnawed at me. Why do I hear such sadness in this piece, Alberta? Does the cello, with its lower range, have a voice that reaches us in a way other instruments can't? Is it just me? It's possible that it's not just me: all the commenters (yes, I read them) on YouTube seemed to be crying into their keyboards too. I guess it didn't help that we were all watching the Jacqueline du Pré performance.

It's intense stuff: Du Pré drapes her body over her cello (the 1712 Davidov Stradivarius) and her lithe and willowy bowing seems to come almost from the instrument itself, a gravity only she feels. Some players impose themselves on an instrument, it seems – they control it – and others have a conversation with it. (At times it seemed like the Stradivarius swayed before du Pré swayed.) I've never seen a musician listen so intently – to the concerto, her conducter, and the instrument – while playing so expressively. All of this is to say that maybe du Pré  is to blame.

In any case, I'm suspicious of my reaction to the Elgar concerto because it's so strong. Am I really hearing the Elgar cello concerto when I feel such heavy sadness? And am I imposing all this stuff about World War I and an instrument and composition that so deeply inspires both the performer and listener? 

If it's all projection and sentimentality, tell me why I feel a gravitas that's not my own.

Yours, Joe 

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Topics: Cello, Classical Music, Sheet Music, Elgar

"Going Home" -- Dvorak and America

Posted by Alberta Barnes on Apr 27, 2012 9:52:00 AM

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Topics: Violin, Viola, Cello, Classical Music, Music History, Chamber music, Dvorak

Quiz: Which Classical Composer are You?

Posted by Alberta Barnes on Apr 25, 2012 2:00:00 PM

I know you've wondered who you'd be if you were a composer. Here's your opportunity to find out!

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Topics: Classical Music, Quiz, For Fun

Dvorak's String Quartet No. 12: Is There Anything American About It?

Posted by Joseph Chapman on Apr 25, 2012 1:22:00 PM

In this week's letter to the violinist Alberta Barnes, I try to figure out what's so American about Dvořák's String Quartet No. 12. 

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Topics: Violin, Cello, Classical Music, Music History, Chamber music, Dvorak

An Apology for the Beethoven Violin Concerto

Posted by Alberta Barnes on Apr 20, 2012 7:00:00 AM

I defend Beethoven's Violin Concerto, a piece which I ardently love.

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Topics: Violin, Beethoven, Classical Music, Violin Concerto, Violin Repertoire

Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D Major: Am I Allowed to Dislike It?

Posted by Joseph Chapman on Apr 18, 2012 2:43:00 PM

In last week's series of letters, Alberta Barnes and I discussed Saint-Säens's Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 78. This week we're tackling Ludwig van Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D Major, which, for some reason, left me feeling indifferent. Want to defend Ludwig? Have a favorite piece you want us to write about? Leave a commment below or send me an email at joec@sharmusic.com.

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Topics: Violin, Beethoven, Classical Music, Violin Concerto

SHAR's 3rd Annual String Quartet Competition

Posted by Alberta Barnes on Apr 17, 2012 11:50:00 AM

SHAR Music is proud to announce the winners of its third annual Quartet Competition!

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Topics: SHAR Apprentice, SHAR, String Community, Violin, Viola, Cello, Beethoven, Schubert, Auditions, High School, Performance, Classical Music, Parents, Strings, Education, Chamber music, Dvorak

Interview with Charith Premawardhana, Founder of Classical Revolution

Posted by Alberta Barnes on Apr 13, 2012 7:00:00 AM

This week I had the privilege of speaking with Charith Premawardhana about Classical Revolution, a national movement which brings live classical music into accessible venues.

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Topics: Classical Music, Classical Revolution, Chamber music

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