A Question's Environment

by C.P.M. Davis, Music Editor pro tempore

Back in America's Middle Kingdom, when political clubs had a voice in national politics, before reforms brought us Carter, Bush and Clinton, some portion of the "people," as nonparticipants in clubs were described, decided that the officers selected had made a mess with a pointless war, and a system for selecting Presidents, Senators and US Representatives that seemed dependent on crooked deals and handshakes. A crowd went to the National Convention of the Democratic Party to confront the powers that were. A police riot broke out when officers, expecting the ordinary submissiveness of citizens, became frustrated with a gathering of demonstrators. Before television cameras, what looked like the opening of a civil war began. Heads were bloodied with clubs, eyes teared with gas, and those hands not handcuffed were seen in paroxysms of handwringing, as though such difficulties were not to be expected in changing the direction of a national government. (This didn't trouble French citizens the same year, when they toppled the Gaullists; barricade sports were expected to be violent -- based on a long history of such in France). At one point, a squad broke into Senator McCarthy's headquarters. The bearer of the people's standard, a fiscal conservative of a type sorely needed, McCarthy was a poet, loved baseball when it needed help, and was in favor, in act and word, of ending the war. Storming his campaign headquarters was stupid, but the boys in blue committed their worst strategic error by assaulting a TV reporter the same night. Then, the rages of Walter Cronkite poured down on Mayor Daley, the host of the convention. However, despite the modest bloodshed and a flood of network executives' important opinion through the mouths of their anchormen, little occurred at the convention that hadn't been predicted, including the club's selection of Hubert Humphrey to lose the election to Richard Nixon. How had so much ended in so little?

Years later, someone remarked that, if the television cameras had been lifted twenty feet, we would have noticed that, beyond the smoky fringes of Bryant Park, traffic flowed normally. Chicagoans heading for work, for dinner, or the latest at the Goodman Theater would not have been aware that anything special was happening. And to be honest, what happened in Bryant Park had no effect. And yet, for a decade afterwards, participants conspired with commentators to define the Chicago Convention as a turning point in American history. It was, but not in their direction. Within six years, the reforms of 1974 divorced the political clubs and any other local organization from national politics; and in the 23 years, 12 Congressional and six Presidential elections since, the "people" have not been heard from again. Why does this matter in a discussion of music?

For some time now, seekers after significance have promoted assorted eccentricities at university, including further and futile forays in composition with the 12-tone row, post-Modernist exercises in musical pastiche, and even an effort to revive composition as practiced by Schubert, Mozart or Beethoven. As these paraders have worked the streets around the ivory tower, searching for grants, one of their complaints has been of the absence of an audience for their described "serious" music. Echoing the institutional avant garde (sic), this absence has been described as the result of the esthetic emptiness of the middle class, one which requires a proliferation of essays on appreciation of the new music to be printed and distributed at public expense. (Both extremes, like the "reformers" of 1974, eschew the choice and voice of the "people" even more vigorously than their "corrupt" predecessors). Further, you would be hard pressed to find any of their music in the subsidized orchestras at Lincoln or Kennedy Centers. There, much like the mindless citizens beyond Bryant Park in 1968 Chicago, many of whom were opposed to the war, concertgoers have little interest in either the musical or the political questions raised. Why is this?

It could be that they like what they're hearing. Subscriptions to Wynton Marsalis's Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, now on an equal footing with the Symphony Orchestra, are sold out a year in advance. So too are those to Avery Fisher Hall's symphonic offerings, Alice Tully's chamber music series, New York State Theater's dance, and performances at the Metropolitan Opera. The same obtains in halls in Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco, and in dozens of like organizations across the country. For jazz in clubs, the commerce has improved so much that, after decades of bad times, reservations are required in advance at leading spots, even if the headliner isn't a star. Where commerce for classical music and jazz have staggered is in recording sales.

However, given the mega-corporation's measure of "success," it may be that what used to be a successful jazz or classical album is now considered a loser because it doesn't sell as many copies as one by the Spice Girls. The market will decide that issue at some point; if Time-Warner won't record the Chicago Symphony or Henry Butler, and enough people want that music, somebody else will. It isn't that hard or expensive. In fact, some of the most notable recordings in jazz history were made by independents with equipment that wouldn't get past the doorman at 30 Rock. Indeed, music is flourishing in the United States. So what's the problem?

The institutional avant garde's complaint never varies, no matter which wing is speaking. Success, particularly that measured by ticket sales, is philistine. If the people enjoy the concert hall be-bop of Wynton Marsalis and Marcus Roberts, it's because such audiences don't know better. It's not that the modern evolution of Parker and Gillespie's revolution in American music is satisfying, both for its simpler attribute of swing, and its more complex qualities of rhythm, harmonics and variation unlike anything in jazz before, but because the audience is incapable of hearing the "serious." In contemporary opera, if people like Carlo Menotti instead of a composer of atonal arias, there must be something wrong with the Met's audience and with its music director. Or is this just a standard artist's complaint?

What is lost in denying the validity of an audience's response is perspective, without which neither a critical view nor an ensuing plan of action are possible, and without which outcomes are unpredictable, lessons the political activists in Chicago thirty years ago, like their modern brethren in the institutional avant garde, never learned. In 1968, for instance, most people were unhappy about the war and wanted it ended, but most people also believed in orderly political process; failing to acknowledge the latter undercut popular politics from that point on, and with the approval of the vast majority of Americans. Order was perceived as more significant than the transient disasters of policy or even the passion for peace and justice by ordinary citizens. The next time you talk about how resolute Janet Reno is, an Attorney General with as remarkably facile an interpretation of law enforcement as J. Edgar Hoover, make certain you note your own approval. (Or is it just because she's a woman?) One supposes that there remain interests in democratic process and one day, when issues more significant than the President's sexual pecadillos arouse the body politic, the democratic Voice will be heard again.

Similarily, and despite the commerce, many people are dissatisfied with directions in the arts. While upsetting photographs and naked performance artists get the press's blessing as the reason the people are upset, there is something stultifying about the same 23 pieces of music being played by symphony orchestras, the same 14 operas, and the same 57 pieces of chamber music. There is also something insulting about contemporary work where one has to read essays in how to properly listen to it first, as though the audience would otherwise idly flip through programs while the players struggled onstage. In poetry, a professoriate that declares virtually all of the art to be nul and void in the "new age" staggers the expressive will and profoundly wounds those who want to say something about the world beyond the mirror. Or is this just a philistine complaint?

Such fixing of the repertory, as such fixing of the terms of new work, create a rigged game -- nice for the corporate and public benefactors who want "guarantees" that the halls will be sold out, nice for professors limiting quality to expand the constituency for their tenured coursework at universities, and comfortable for audiences who may, as Louise Bogan described audiences for poetry in Victorian times, be looking primarily for reinforcement of either their prejudices or proofs of how hip they are to "new" things.

However, despite that discomfiture, most people don't go to concert halls to be insulted, spat on, put down for their stupidity, or otherwise degraded in the name of the latest nouvelle vague. The irrelevance of the institutional avant garde stems precisely from its sensed need to do just that, to "show the middle class a thing or two," or as a dancer on a grant once told me -- "I want to shit on the audience." As such, they take as their method one much admired by tyrants in seeking institutional power to impose their preferences on audiences, regardless of how they might react. The fallback position for audiences so offended is what the mega-corporations provide, whether through their generosity to the fixed repertories of orchestras, dance companies, opera houses and a few theaters, or through their production of the juvenilia that typifies movie, popular music and television production. Must we accept this Hobson's choice, as we have so willingly accepted that which has left our politics less representative than any American government since the late 19th century?

The answer of the Expansive Movement in poetry, particularly the side devoted to narrative, has been to say "we're going to write the work regardless of what we're encouraged to do by the professoriate, and regardless of what critics supporting the professoriate have to say. And we're going to find an audience." Is this happening in music?

It certainly is in jazz. At an institutional level never seen before for this most American of music, Wynton Marsalis's programs are considered conservative by club players and after-hours jammers, but Marsalis has relentlessly worked to expand what jazz is considered serious music, using a format familiar to anyone of middle age, a lighthearted but otherwise serious introduction of the music (as Leonard Bernstein used to do at Carnegie), followed by no rotisserie sampling of bits, but by whole nights of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins and so on. Why?

Marsalis proposes to raise the consciousness of his audience not by grant proposal essays on what art is, but by presenting the art itself in a bold format and in a hall that has never swung like this before. While restrained by nightclub standards, the reaction of audiences to the music is the way it used to be when Beethoven trotted out a new work. If they don't like it, you hear about it -- right now, not in whispers in the lobby. If they do like it, they get involved while the music is playing. It's exhilarating to be in the audience; for a player/composer it must be a dream. And as a result, there are probably more people in New York now who appreciate the evolution of blues form and other roots into contemporary jazz than there have been since the heyday of jazz clubs in the 1940's and 50's, and such people know that it's not just "playing what you feel like" but flying your dream through the complex structure of a composition by Charlie Parker or John Coltrane.

Such foundations also provide young players, composers and arrangers with a place to dream about, as the great halls of Europe encouraged Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms. It seems likely that this music, leaping from a folk tradition barely a century ago, may be on the threshold where a rank of composers enter in to take its rich vocabulary and create a body of work to stand by any other in world music. I have already heard, though not at Lincoln Center, composers writing a fusion of sonata allegro and blues form, using an array of jazz harmonics, rhythms and other ideas to create breathtaking music that is both rooted in tradition and more modern than anything else being done. With progressive institutional support, such as that provided by the energetic Marsalis, and a surprising expansion of teaching the jazz repertory even at the high school level, we can expect great things.

In symphonic composition, this critic can't claim to be so well informed, but much of what's out there seems strangulated by composers taking sides rather than writing work for an audience, the side of the institutional avant garde, which eschews all but erratic borrowing from the past, or that of the reactionary "underground", which eschews anything past the deaths of Schubert and Brahms. Avant garde symphonic music is abrasive, repetitive and boring to my ear. But reactionary music, rather like writing poems using the diction of Robert Browning, has an equally oppressive effect, denying the transformations in how we perceive sound, harmony and time, and the differences between contemporary folk traditions and those of 19th century Venice or Italy. Deny the latter and composers deny our variation of the referential language used by the very classical musicians defined as the only true example of how to create music. Perhaps it is time for composers to walk away from the institutional avant garde and from the "underground" and to plunge into the study of the art, its tradition, and how their own ears and those of audiences might connect that to our time and to the future. Without that, I see no future for symphonic and chamber music composition except in jazz.

These are opinions by a writer searching for similar ideas, but by authors vastly better informed about jazz and other forms of contemporary musical composition. I am looking not for attitudes of resignation, of monkish retreat into the ancient "golden" age, or of rage against how things "are." Things are what we make them; send me opinions on how we might.

				C.P.M. Davis

				Music Editor, P.T., EP&M Online

Send e-mail to the Webmaster's attention; it will be passed on to C.P.M. Davis.