Not only are you a rude speed-demon, but a light-running scofflaw as well.
Here's hoping that you mend your errant ways, or, barring that, that other drivers might be warned about said ways by having read this.
A very brief entry, addressed to the Seattle driver of a black automobile with "THE ART" license plates:
Not only are you a rude speed-demon, but a light-running scofflaw as well.
Here's hoping that you mend your errant ways, or, barring that, that other drivers might be warned about said ways by having read this.
Though "bother it" I may
I never use a big, big D.
– Captain Corcoran, G & S's "H.M.S. Pinafore"
No, my war isn't with "damn"; that once-taboo epithet has lost most of its bite, thanks to Clark Gable and countless others who have uttered it over the years. The battle I fight is with a word which is not offensive in and of itself, but which can be when it represents an unwillingness to accept an artist's decision to express certain aspects of life over other ones.
The word is "depressing".
How many times I've bristled at hearing someone say of a play or novel or movie, "It's good, but it's depressing." My inner response is: "Why 'but'?" Would the same person ever say, "It's good, but it's uplifting"? Why are some people so quick to use the word "depressing" as anything from a warning to a pejorative?
My views on this matter have led more than a few individuals to form some misconceptions about me. Chief among these is that, a priori, I like works of art that are sad, grim or seemingly without hope. This is emphatically not the case; it would be accurate to say that I don't mind if a work of art is depressing. If an artist has produced something in which I find worth and depth, irrespective of its emotional tenor, I am uplifted by having been reached and touched by it. What care I if the bad guys win, whether Boy eventually gets Girl, or if it ends in a minor key?
Some people are maddeningly fickle: they accept feel-good art without hesitation – even if they readily acknowledge its inferior quality – but balk at anything which yields a less-than-happy ending, although it is the obvious work of a master. One of the most specious arguments in support of this viewpoint is: "The world is such a depressing place already. Why should I spend time watching or reading something that will just remind me of that? I'd rather spend my time with something that will take my mind off sad things." Hardnosed though I may seem, I regard that viewpoint as escapism – using the work of an artist as an anesthetic against reality.
One could reject a lot of great art indulging in such a mindset. Imagine an eager willingness to see any of Shakespeare's comedies, but steering clear of Macbeth or Hamlet or King Lear because they are so emotionally wrenching. Consider the incomplete picture one would have of a great composer like Tchaikovsky if his "Pathétique" Symphony or the Piano Trio were eschewed because their final movements die away in despair, depriving audiences of rock-'em-sock-'em, ovation-inducing endings. And could anyone really hope to comprehend an artist as penetrating as Ingmar Bergman if one only embraced his "lighter" works and avoided at all costs such masterpieces as The Virgin Spring, Persona and Cries and Whispers?
I don't believe in unconditional love as far as creative artists go; even Beethoven was capable of such horrors as the Choral Fantasy and Wellington's Victory. But I do think it somewhat childish to reject certain works of a great artist because of their effect on the putative delicacy of one's sensibilities, and not because of their relative merit. Those who make such choices don't seem to realize how suspect their aesthetics appear as a result. It's not unlike a personal relationship: if you want the passion and the understanding, you may just have to put up with some emotional baggage and a little snoring, too.
"Depressing" be damned.
Wikipedia pinpoints the beginnings of Political Correctness – at least, under that banner – as sometime in the 1990s. But it has been with us in some form or other, spoken or unspoken, ever since the first time some wimp got it in his head to compromise justifiable self-expression for fear of being (Hea'en forfend!) objectionable. In the arts, few things are so headache-inducing to the creator or re-creator as an earnest attempt at communication compromised or scuttled by someone's oversensitive "I'm offended" button.
I was raised in an extremely open-minded and liberal environment; prejudice was non-existent under our roof (except, as we'd say, "against prejudiced people"). In the era in which I grew up, a comic like Don Rickles would explode prejudices by calling forth epithets and stereotypes during his act, in an effort to show their very ridiculousness and render them easier to laugh away. (We had friends who knew Rickles personally, and vouched for his warmth and humanity offstage.) When Blazing Saddles came out in 1974, my parents returned from the theater still laughing at the bombshell Mel Brooks had dropped, and regaled me with some of the film's over-the-top gags that transpired as Sheriff Bart gradually won over the initially racist population of Rock Ridge. What better way to show the imbecility and limitations of the townsfolk than by having them use language (yes, including the "N" word) that revealed them as the ignoranti they were? It made their education and eventual acceptance of Bart and his friends a tastier reward; an all-out comedy Saddles may be, but few movies have ever attacked prejudice so vehemently and made so potent a statement about it in spite of a putatively fluffy exterior.
It has been opined by many sages that Blazing Saddles could likely not be made today, unless the PC Police were permitted a thorough rewrite of the script to leech out that which today's lily-livered audiences might find repellent. (We could always subject it to the same unfortunate cleansing that befell Huckleberry Finn some years ago; a new edition of Mark Twain's classic about the titular hero's moral education was ridiculously maimed by the removal of every iteration of you-know-what.)
My intolerance for PC surfaced early on. My family were major theater-lovers, and we enjoyed attending productions at the Mark Taper Forum of the Los Angeles Music Center. When I was in my mid-teens, there was a staging of Sean O'Casey's play Juno and the Paycock in which the three principal characters were played by a trio of (to say the least) experts: Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau and Maureen Stapleton. Sadly, this festival of superb drama was dulled somewhat by a series of letters to the Los Angeles Times complaining that the cast only contained one actor of Irish heritage, in a supporting role. In an effort to blow off a little steam, I wrote the following to the Times which ended up being my first-ever Letter to the Editor deemed fit to print:
I am most distressed by the artistic management of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In a recent all-Messiaen concert, the only French performer was the composer's wife, pianist Yvonne Loriod. But the orchestra, soprano soloist and conductor were, respectively, an American orchestra, a British soprano and a Vienna-trained Indian. [The last two references were to Felicity Palmer and Zubin Mehta.]
There, I've said it. I've read it over. And had a good laugh, due to its incongruousness, short-sightedness and stupidity – the same qualities (or faults) that have permeated many of the letters you have printed in recent weeks, specifically those dealing with the casting of Chico and the Man and Juno and the Paycock. [Chico and the Man was a TV sitcom that also aroused ire, for casting a Puerto Rican actor in the role of a Chicano.] What these writers have overlooked in their blind ignorance is the primary artistic esthetic: the work of a creative individual presented to an audience for a (hopefully) joyous experience in communication. But these self-righteous ones only regard these vehicles as opportunities for unleashing their age-old complaints about their offended race, nationality or religion.
If we are to cater to this kind of half-baked morality, then let our U.S. orchestras play nothing but the works of Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and Leonard Bernstein.
A little rough in the syntax department, but I am still delighted to have put a sentiment out there that I still espouse roughly forty-five years later.
I've had to deal with the PC issue a few times in my professional life (not as many as some of my colleagues, thankfully). In every instance I've been caught off-guard by it, but at least in one case – the last of the three I'll chronicle – there was a delicious helping of vindication.
Many years ago I was conducting a student orchestra at what was essentially a summer music camp. One of the pieces I gave the students was a section from Aram Khachaturian's Gayane ballet. Now, as anyone even remotely familiar with Khachaturian's music knows, one of his most oft-used rhythms is:
– or, put another way:
It's a kicky little rhythm that is undoubtedly a mainstay in the folk music of Khachaturian's native Armenia. It also happens to be a rhythm that one encounters in Jewish folk and popular music; you can hear it in the offerings of klezmer bands, at Jewish celebrations of coming-of-age or nuptials...and I can think of at least one usage of it in the score to Fiddler on the Roof. At one point in our rehearsals for the Khachaturian, the low strings had this rhythm in their parts but weren't emphasizing the accents quite boldly enough to bring them out. By way of explanation, and speaking purely factually and with no snideness or sarcasm, I said, "Can you make it a little more Jewish?" Somehow, it worked; the young musicians got the point and the passage was played to my satisfaction. (I might also add at this point that my forbears on my father's side were Russian Jews.)
Imagine my surprise when I arrived on campus the next morning and was requested to step into the camp director's office. In the most delicate of terms, I was told that I had offended a Jewish student at the rehearsal the day before, and I was asked for a description of what had transpired. Fortunately, the explanation was all it took for the director to understand that nothing in the least bit damaging had been said, and he assured me that he'd call the student's parents forthwith and put any ill will to rest. (As I was engaged for many subsequent summers, I can only assume that I was not viewed as a threat to the students' delicate psyches.) It was gratifying in the extreme to tell this story to family and friends and get virtually the same reaction from all: "Somebody actually thought you were saying something prejudiced?!?"
A few years later, I was conducting another student orchestra, at a high school that prided itself on its progressive attitudes towards diversity. While admirable in theory, their take on the subject was somewhat different from my own; I would sum up their stance as, "We won't call attention to any ethnic, political or religious aspects of our student population, for fear of making those of other ethnicities, political beliefs or religions feel uncomfortable, marginalized, or excluded." That meant, among other things, that some students' wishes to put Christmas decorations in the cafeteria were quashed. Why not, felt I and some of my faculty colleagues, have students of other religions and ethnic backgrounds put up some of their holiday decorations, too? (Imagine what an attractive and festive display might have been the result!) No, came down the edict, better not to celebrate anything than run the risk of seeing some trends emphasized over others, etc., etc. (How do you say "Bah, humbug!" in Hebrew or Swahili?)
In an attempt to expose the orchestra to the most diverse (!) spectrum of music, I programmed works spanning from pre-Baroque to the late 20th century. Not wishing to bypass the avant-garde altogether, I scheduled a marvelous piece by Gavin Bryars entitled Jesus' Blood Failed Me Yet for pre-recorded tape and ensemble (the scoring is flexible, i.e., the piece can be performed by anything from a few instruments and/or voices to a hundred-piece symphony orchestra with chorus). The pre-recorded tape consists of a sung phrase which is repeated as many times as needed (the length of each performance is variable), and at each repetition the conductor can cue in or cut off different "live" musicians all of whose parts complement the singer on tape. It seemed a fun challenge for the young musicians, certainly outside the realm of playing something in a continuous, steady 4/4.
The voice on the tape was that of a homeless man in England, one of several persons interviewed for a documentary film on poverty, on which Bryars had been working as sound engineer. To quote Mr. Bryars:
In the course of being filmed, some people broke into drunken song – sometimes bits of opera, sometimes sentimental ballads – and one, who did not drink, sang a religious song, Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet... [The accompaniment I composed] respected the homeless man's nobility and simple faith. Although he died before he could hear what I had done with his singing, the piece remains as an eloquent, but understated testimony to his spirit and optimism.
To me, the work is primarily about music – about the timbre of the voice and Mr. Bryars' skill in coming up with so lovely an accompaniment for it. Second is the implicit program, the man's "spirit and optimism". But I do not think of this as a religious work; this is no cantata or oratorio aria, but a quietly moving testament to the composer's having been so moved. Had the man sung a setting of a Shakespeare or Whitman verse that spoke of fortitude in the face of adversity without mentioning Jesus, it would have just as stirring.
Imagine my surprise when, after describing the work at the Arts Department meeting shortly before the performance, there were some red flags about the piece – not as music, mind you, but the fear of how non-Christians might be offended by the "sacred" text. I managed to plead fairly eloquently on the piece's behalf, and eventually a compromise was reached: we could perform it, but I would address the audience beforehand to stress that the point of the piece (and, by implication, of our performance) was its musical merits; I all but admonished the audience to ignore the words (which, I told myself with an internal grin, would be impossible for them to do; if you tell someone, "Don't think about pink elephants!", what's the one thing about which they will surely think?). The piece ended up being the most talked-about work we performed all year, all of the feedback positive.
But my single favorite PC story comes from my days as the Seattle Symphony's Associate Conductor. I love the orchestra, and have a treasure trove of wonderful memories associated with them. This is not to say that there wasn't occasional abrasion, as there is in any relationship of long standing.
In the fall of 1998, when Benaroya Hall was in its first few months of being open to the public, the Symphony offered as varied a series of concerts and events as it could – classical, pop, jazz, film music – in order to attract the most diverse (there's that word again) audiences possible. One of these programs featured Gladys Knight doing an hour or so of her songs with the orchestra, for which she brought her own conductor; as frequently happened when a guest artist had a generous half-a-concert's worth of material, a "short first half" would be presented featuring the Seattle Symphony on its own. I was asked to conduct this first half, and then-Music Director Gerard Schwarz suggested "something American – _upbeat, with great tunes – something like Copland's Rodeo or Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from 'West Side Story'." While pondering repertoire choices, I thought of a piece I had known from recordings since I was a small boy: Spirituals by Morton Gould. When I bounced this off of Mr. Schwarz, he said, "Perfect! Do it!" And so it was scheduled.
The third of Spirituals' five movements is effectively the work's scherzo, a charming miniature that Gould called A Little Bit of Sin. It uses a tune widely known as Short'nin' Bread, which you may not know from the title but would likely recognize due to its being used in everything from cartoons to commercials. The rehearsal for it, and the other movements, went well and the orchestra, naturally, played superbly.
Imagine my surprise when two or three members of the orchestra cornered me after the rehearsal, to express their displeasure at the Little Bit of Sin movement. "It's a slap in the face to African-Americans!" they said. "It perpetuates the stereotype of black servants in the kitchen making pancakes!" I tried to offer some perspective: that this was a work in which a Jewish-American composer was paying homage to a culture other than his own, honoring their music with his composer's expertise – not unlike what the Australian-born Percy Grainger had done with American, Scandinavian and English folksongs in his compositions, or what Copland had done with Mexican themes in his El Salon Mexico. My arguments fell on deaf ears; not only did they resent the programming of the piece, but their deep-seated beliefs led them to go to management to get permission to leave the stage and not play it.
Given my own beliefs, and what I thought the piece was, and what I didn't think it was, I was amazed.
The performance went on (sans the nay-players), and was enthusiastically cheered by a packed Benaroya audience.
As soon as the Gould was finished and I had taken my final bow, I snaked my way through Benaroya to get to the lobby; a friend had asked for a ticket, and we had arranged to meet at intermission if he had indeed made the concert. In the course of scanning the crowd for him, I saw, standing across the lobby, the Reverend Dr. Samuel B. McKinney.
For those of you unfamiliar with the name, I can only skim the surface of Dr. McKinney's extraordinary life. Dr. McKinney's accomplishments include his longtime (1958-98) pastorship at Seattle's Mount Zion Baptist Church. Dr. McKinney had originally intended to become a civil rights attorney, and even though the ministry claimed him, he remained a major figure in the civil rights movement; he marched with his old friend Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma and Montgomery, Alabama, and in Washington D.C., in the early 1960s, after having arranged for Dr. King's only Seattle visit for a series of speeches and meetings in 1961. Dr. McKinney was also an outspoken opponent of apartheid rule in South Africa; his participation in protests against it earned him at least one arrest.
About two or three years before the evening in question, I had had the pleasure of working with Dr. McKinney: he was the guest soloist at a Seattle Symphony concert in which he narrated Copland's Lincoln Portrait. In advance of his first rehearsal with the orchestra, I met him at his church to play the orchestra part on the piano so that he could practice the pacing of his recitations. His bass-baritone speaking voice, which one could only call powerful and mellifluous, was perfect for Copland's score.
That same powerful voice erupted from his throat when he caught sight of me across the lobby. "Adam!" he called, and made a gesture with his arm that as much as said, "Get over here!" (Dr. McKinney's physical presence is as formidable as his voice; he's well over six feet, and his eyes blaze with intensity.) The phrase "moment of truth" must have crossed my mind as I approached him.
"Adam!" He beamed when I reached him, and gave me a robust embrace. "Thank you so much for playing that Morton Gould piece! I LOVED it! I heard tunes in there I hadn't heard since my grandmother sang them to me when I was a kid! Is it recorded? Can I get it on CD?" I was delighted to answer in the affirmative...and even more delighted at his response to a piece I loved.
When I went backstage again, I called some of my friends in the orchestra over. "Will you please help me spread the word as to who just thanked us for playing the Gould?"
There's that marvelous scene in Woody Allen's Annie Hall in which a pompous blowhard is dressed down by Marshall McLuhan, the very person whose theories he has been mangling. Woody looks into the camera and says, wistfully, "Boy, if life were only like this..."
Sometimes it is.
“It’s not just for money alone that one spends a lifetime building up a business…. It’s to preserve a way of life that one knew and loved. No, I can’t see my way to selling out to the new vested interests, Mr. Jorkin. I’ll have to be loyal to the old ways and die out with them if needs must.”
-- Mr. Fezziwig, from Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol", explaining his traditional beliefs to colleague Mr. Jorkin who is urging him to "sell out while the going’s good"
"In some settings (notably Tanglewood for the Boston Symphony) video screens provide a frontal view of the conductor as well as closeups of musicians. This greatly enhances the audiences' enjoyment and understanding of the performance. Only the fuddy-duddyism that also dictates penguin suits and other anachronisms prevents this from becoming a standard... If our classical orchestras decline to adapt to the modern world, they will simply fade away."
-- from an April 6, 2012 entry to another's blog dealing with music, conductors and orchestras
I'm with Fezziwig.
It's not stubbornness; it's not affectation; it has nothing to do with a desire to be seen in a particular light. It has everything to do with a profound love and respect for musical traditions, and my refusal to give way to an entirely wrongheaded way of thinking that has insidiously crept into the presentation of classical music over the last several decades. This odious philosophy can be summed up as follows: "Audiences are changing, and concerts have to change accordingly, too."
Unfortunately, and dangerously, many of the purveyors of this viewpoint occupy positions of considerable power in the music world: executives in broadcast media and the recording industry, administrators of performance groups, and, to my shame, conductors, instrumentalists and singers who either should know better or have simply "caved". In the arena I primarliy occupy – that of the symphony orchestra – I have watched in everything from astonishment to fury as standards have slipped down the drain into the septic tank known as The Lowest Common Denominator. This is reflected both in the music performed and the way in which said music is promulgated.
Take, for example, the realm of children's or educational concerts. Did anyone ever do these better than Leonard Bernstein, whose Young People's Concerts can still be savored for their explicational excellence and the quality of the music chosen to disseminate? Bernstein didn't pander, nor did he necessarily hew to the most famous or "accessible" of music to examine: Mahler, Bartók, Hindemith, Revueltas, Copland and Stravinsky (a complete performance of Petrouchka!) shared the bills with Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. In his demeanor, too, Bernstein refused to speak of music as so much pablum; I fondly remember his "Humor in Music" lecture that made copious use of the word "incongruous" when describing deliberate wrong notes, funny orchestral colors, and other musical hijinks. Here is Bernstein himself, justifiably satisfied, speaking to his accomplishments:
"When you know that you're reaching children without compromise or the assistance of acrobats, marching bands, slides, and movies, but that you are getting them with hard talk, a piano, and an orchestra, it gives you a gratification that is enormous."
Cut to roughly three decades later, when an unnamed conductor (he's currently at his laptop) was himself writing and conducting children's concerts. After performing several of these with a professional symphony orchestra, the orchestra's education director informed him that, due to what she perceived as too highfalutin an approach in his scripts, she wanted more editorial control over them (translation: co-authorship). When the conductor asked in genuine surprise for an example, he was told (and I quote): "You use words like 'melody'. That's too big a word for kids; say 'tune'."
How I wish the conductor had called her on her incongruousness.
Their relationship slowly disintegrated over the next few seasons as the conductor was given more and more questionable mandates – among them, to limit all but the rarest musical selections to those that were fast, loud and short. His question about how children – supposedly in attendance to increase their knowledge about music and its perception – were to learn how to absorb, among other things, a slow and/or quiet and/or lengthy (i.e., more than five minutes) piece, was essentially shrugged off; "they'll just have to do that somewhere else" was the implication. Eventually, when the scripts devolved to the point where the conductor was embarrassed to have their words coming out of his mouth, he requested that his role be limited to preparing and conducting the music, with a separate narrator engaged to recite the verbal material. Happily, the request was granted.
The whole subject has a unsettling similarity to what has happened to school textbooks. In an excellent 1997 article, "A Dumbed-Down Textbook is 'A Textbook for All Students'", William J. Bennetta makes the following observations following some disquieting testimony by himself and others in the book publishing milieu:
"Major schoolbook companies are making their books dumber than ever, because they perceive that there is a big, ready market for such products. The market is provided by schools where 'education' consists chiefly of submerging students in feel-good pastimes, furnishing students with easy successes, and ensuring that even the laziest and the worst-prepared students will seem to be doing well. [...] In its heaviest and most pernicious form, the dumbing down of high-school books comprises four interlocking processes. The first is the elimination or dilapidation of concepts that may require a student to expend mental effort: such concepts are excised entirely, or they are reduced to little heaps of factoids. Next comes the process that [James] Michener saw sixty years ago* and that is still going on – the reduction and impoverishment of vocabulary. Then comes the ostensible simplification of style, effected partly through the suppression of compound or complex sentences. This process often requires that logical connections be destroyed for
the sake of ensuring that sentences will be simple and short. Finally comes the replacement of written material
by pictures – pictures which, as often as not, are mere decorations."
*Author James Michener is quoted earlier in the article in reference to his erstwhile work as a textbook editor for Macmillan Publishers Ltd.
(for the complete article, click here)
Do you, as I do, detect more than a slight parallel between the requests for "tune" over "melody" and the eschewing of anything slow or soft on the one hand, and "dilapidation of concepts", "impoverishment of vocabulary" and "simplification of style" on the other?
Alas, my fears are not limited to the sphere of concerts for the young; the misguided and shortsighted have gotten their claws into the world of regular symphony concerts as well. I am not speaking here of "pops" programs, or concert-hall presentations of movies wherein an orchestra plays the score live, or special programs explicitly and honestly packaged as "events" that involve symphonic music. I am writing of the sorts of time-honored concerts that are becoming a potentially endangered species: experiences that are built on the idea of listening intently and undistractedly to well-rehearsed and inspired performances, what the great conductor Charles Munch called "a true musical communion".
Munch, idealistic in the extreme (and bless him for that), believed that "the public comes to concerts to hear good performances of beautiful music just as it goes to museums to look at beautiful pictures or statues. It comes to be enriched, instructed, fortified." I wonder what he would think of some contemporary practices which have been adopted in the name of catering to the putative needs of modern audiences: the dutiful trotting-out of the same repertoire staples every two or three seasons; slide-shows or videos accompanying such already-mega-pictorial music as Pictures at an Exhibition or The Planets; conductors and/or soloists indulging in cutesy-poo, drone-on monologues before one (in some cases, every) piece on every program; announcements from the stage or over the P.A. system to apprise audiences of sports scores. To invoke Maestro Munch again, he referred to his work as "a priesthood, not a profession." I couldn't agree more strongly, and I'm damned if I would resort to travesties in the concert-hall any more than I would belittle God or the teachings of Jesus Christ were I a clergyman: "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Oh, and the Mets just won!"
At the concerts over which I preside, I will do my part to enrich, instruct and fortify, via the best performances and most intelligent and varied programs I can present, irrespective of how incongruous my efforts may seem to some in the modern world. For centuries, Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven have had plenty to say and offer to anyone who would really listen, and I for one don't believe that those of us in the present age – awash though we may be in instantaneous communications, lousier-than-ever television shows, and apps for everything – are any less capable of receiving the music's messages. If I may dip once more into the fount of wisdom of the legendarily gentle and humble Mr. Munch: "The music, the interpreter, and the public form a tri-partite entity in which each factor is indispensible to the other."
An unseasonal tip of the wassail bowl, then, to all Fezziwigs – and the Munches and Bennettas of the world – for reminding us, in word and deed, about standards and priorities. May they continue to edify, enlighten and embolden us.