Friday, December 31, 2010

Back on the beat...or just a fluke?

Happened to be revising my site,, due to my new recording coming out when I stumbled on this old blog that I started several years ago and then completely forgot about. Reread the stories I posted on it...very amusing. I have a bunch more of them, too. Wish I had time to write more consistently. Spending too much time composing and not enough writing. But composing is so time-consuming. I'm orchestrating my opera Ulysses (based on Joyce, not Homer, although Joyce's is based on Homer) and it's taking every minute I have. But, in the end, I'd rather have a lot of compositions nobody hears than a lot of blog stuff nobody reads. If you are reading any of these I'd appreciate a comment just to know there's people out there who give a damn. Hello. Hello. Anybody out there?

Friday, January 4, 2008

Some news and a Thought Experiment

In the discussion on my article on NewMusicbox (see below for links), there was a lot of pessimism expressed in some of the comments on the state of modern classical music particularly in regard to audience recognition. For my part, I think we have an incredible opportunity. As I mentioned in my article, the Norman Lear Institute poll shows that a majority of music listerners listen to classical music (along with other genres). So, far from being dead, the classical music audience is alive but, perhaps not well, since we know that the appetite for modern classical music is not great. Why not? To answer that question I've spend more than a few hours writing up a series of "thought experiments", the first of which is presented below:

Einstein on the Lam

“This can’t be happening,” screamed Al. “Spooky action at a distance makes as much sense as God playing at dice with the universe.” But it was happening and God was tossing the bones and Al was emerging from a time warp into an alternate universe that was completely different from the one he had left so many years before.

In this new universe, professors were taken seriously by people of taste, literacy and sophistication no matter what wild theory they came up with. It was like some Prussian philosophy department had taken over the world. Or at least the good old U.S.A. And here he was, sitting in a lecture hall, listening to one of these fellows expostulate on why Elvis was the next great thing since he represented the new culture of the world and the music that Al fiddled represented the old, outworn culture, the so-called European Canon. This canon, explained the Professor, was deader than a door nail, although some people still slavishly adhered to it despite its gender-biased talk of “feminine endings” and the many, powerful male figures who dominated it due to their impressive composing skills. Elvis wouldn’t let something like that happen, explained the Professor.

“Who is this Elvis he keeps talking about?” Al wondered. Perhaps he was one of those modern composers, like Schoenberg, or Richard Strauss…or Bernstein. But their music was in the European tradition. Meanwhile the Professor had moved on to point out that Elvis was the beginning of a new canon, a post-European canon that began with the song “Hound Dog” and whose most avant-garde exponents are the Sandbelters, an underground group whose name explains their musical methodology. To show he was a humble man of the people the professor sang a few phrases from “Hound Dog” in a phony southern accent being sure to supply plenty of nasal twang.

After getting over his initial shock Al became amused. This must be an alternative universe in which the South had won the Civil War. He wondered if Robert E. Lee was still alive and if grits had become the national dish. But then things began to take a serious turn.

“For the first time in history, Beethoven has fallen off his pedestal,” opined the Professor. “As has classical music as a whole. It is now sandwiched somewhere between saw playing and rhythmical farting.” And he projected a chart on the screen to shore up his point. It was information from the marketing group at the Megalopolis Record Company and showed the trends from the 19th Century right to the present.

“Here we have sheet music sales in the mid 19th Century. In those days people actually played instruments so they had no need of records, which didn’t exist anyway. As you can see, sheet sales for the composer Micklemeyer, a paragon of his day, are way up the charts. Profits were soaring for the sheet music houses. However, aristocrats were losing their shirts supporting these composers because the music-buying population was very small. Most people were illiterate, impecunious and basically farm slaves.”

Al was getting itchy. Some alternate universe insect creature had been biting his arms and legs. He wished he was back in his own simpler time when the only problem was whether or not the superpowers were going to blow each other up with the H-Bomb. The Professor droned on:

“Now we come to the present. As you can see, classical music sales have fallen off. Classical is too sedate for the post World War II youth who are no longer bound to the farm but free and raring to hear some bitchin’ music while they imbibe their recreational drugs. This required culture change. The idea initially angered their elders but…”

Not only was Al itchy but the room started wavering like the heat effect from an atomic meltdown, he heard a whooshing sound, and suddenly…

Found himself in a school gymnasium. Music was playing, folkish music with a simple, but insistent beat. Students were dancing. Their gyrations reminded him of the Lindy. The music was recorded, not live, and suddenly it stopped and all eyes turned…not to him…but beyond to a prudish-looking spinster who had suddenly entered the premises. The students, formerly happy and buoyant suddenly looked bedraggled and scared.

“What is going on here?” hissed the spinster, clearly someone of great authority.

“Nothing, m’am,” mumbled a boy with a duck’s ass haircut and a sullen expression. The spinster’s eyes moved upward to an area above the rolled up gym bleachers. “And what is that sign?”

The crude, hand-lettered sign read “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School”.

“Rip it down immediately,” she ordered. It was done.

“You young people believe that life is just fun and games. Don’t you! Just gyrating to your jungle music, drinking booze and trying to get your girlfriend in trouble. Well let me tell you, you are quite deluded. There’s literature and science and all kinds of great things that having nothing to do with….Elvis and his ilk.”

“Fuck the European Canon!” cried duck’s ass, suddenly emboldened.

“Detention!” screamed the spinster. “Detention, detention, detention and that’s not all, I’m going to make you study Dostoevsky, yeah, really study him, and then I’m going to…”

The scene shifted and Al was in the music room where the same students were attempting to play the Largo of the Symphony from the New World. As they stumbled on Al could see the teacher’s eyes roll up in her head and she laid it on the desk and commenced snoring (yet another nasty spinster, she was dreaming of a sultry affair with the dashing and talented Antonin Dvorak). Once the students realized that their teacher was asleep their mien began to change completely and they started introducing subversive notes and rhythms into the dull piece until it became…

“You ain’t nothing but a hound dog,” bellowed the lead violin.

“Cryin’ all the time, “riposted the first trumpet.

And so it went until it became a dance number of gyrating June Taylor dancers strutting their stuff with sexy feints and rotating hips and then everybody got the message and the evil spinsters dropped their drawers and started wriggling their butts and...

“Stop it! Stop it!” someone screamed from another dimension. It was the Professor and he wasn’t pleased. “I’ll have you know I represent a branch of scholarship that studies American culture and I know all about Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and, although I do admit it’s funny, it has nothing to do with what I’m saying here.”

And Al was back in the lecture hall again. The Professor had just shown that the slim sales of classical music recordings proved that it didn’t appeal to most people the way Elvis did and therefore deserved its fallen-off-the-pedestal status. Another minus was its long and complex narratives (unlike Elvis) that connected strongly with people's emotions (unlike Elvis who connected to a certain physical spot). The emergence of a whole generation of professors who studied and wrote about pop music like it was really important clinched the matter.

Never had Al imagined that popular culture, which had always been, well, popular, could theoretically eclipse the tradition of Bach, Beethoven and Picklemeyer. You didn’t have to convince him of the importance of theory: he had concocted a theory that wound up, unfortunately, almost wiping humankind off the face of the earth. So this new theory interested him greatly.

“You see, “continued the Professor didactically, “canons play an historic role and then are superseded by yet other more effective canons. As an example, consider Newton’s Laws. They were taken as the gospel truth and yet, come the Twentieth Century, they were replaced by Einstein’s Relativity and, um, Quantum Mechanics.”

Hearing his name woke Al up immediately. He rose from his seat.

“Excuse me, professor, might I ask a question?” The Professor nodded.

“Is there now no gravity?”

“Of course there is,” came the quick reply.

“And if there is, does an apple still fall from a tree instead of, say, floating in air?”

“Naturally,” said the professor.

“Then you’re full of shit,” said Al.

A commotion ensued during which the campus police made their appearance. Al was charged with sassing a teacher and, more important, being politically incorrect in that he had not referred to any female or transgender scientists in his rather ad hominem diatribe against the Professor. The fact that his remark was also a sly gibe at popular culture did not go unnoticed, either.

Sitting in the campus hoosegow, Al decided that this crazy alternate universe was not for him. Any universe where the idea of scientific progress was used to prove the viability of replacing Beethoven with 50-Cent showed a terrible lack of sense. If they must have a good time, he thought, why go to such lengths to raise it to a theory? Is it so horrible that to like this Elvis you have to bring poor Beethoven to his knees, kick him off his pedestal and fling him into the cornpone vat with Mr. Hound Dog?

As quietly as he could, Al picked the lock, opened the jail door and escaped into the aether.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Moving Forward

Check out my article "Classical Music: Alive and Kicking" on NewMusicbox, a very interesting and exciting online magazine published by the American Music Center. I must give a lot of credit to NewMusicbox's founder and editor Frank Oteri who helped me shape my article from an annoying diatribe into a more informative and communicative piece. Not that I dislike being annoying but I think that's better left to my fiction than my non fiction, especially in light of the fact that there is too much diatribe and not enough collaborative thought on the Internet these days...even in classical musicish type circles. Anyway, my article, as well as articles by two other authors on other aspects of this topic, is getting a lot of reponses, some of them vague, but others quite on the mark. You can see the commentary in the Chatter section of the "box". Check it out and don't hesitate to join in the discussion.

Friday, December 7, 2007

It's a Classical Life

George Bailey walked out on the bridge, miserable and alone, his mind swirling with unhappy thoughts. He was sick and tired of struggling against the forces of stupidity and backwardness. When uncle Billy, in one of his characteristic empty-headed gestures, accidentally lost his score, the one that would redeem him from undeserved obscurity, something broke in him and he ran screaming out into the streets, meandering aimlessly, meaningless sounds burbling from his lips until he wound up here, on the bridge, teetering over the edge on the verge of a long, life-crushing fall into the dark waters below.

It hadn’t always been this way. Many years ago, George had started out full of hope. He had studied and played the works of the great composers and vowed to continue their great tradition as a composer, himself, but with a modern twist, just as they had assimilated the work of their predecessors yet imbued their own work with an originality derived from their very being and the times they wrote in. He was not after glory, although he would not have rejected it. But what he really wanted was to reach the heights of expressiveness, create music that could move people and enter their hearts and minds; music that affected people in the way that his great mentors affected him. In short, he wanted to compose intelligent music for intelligent people.

The only flaw in George’s plan was the fact that the musical intelligence of people was not getting greater, it was getting worse. Take Mr. Preeble, the kindly manager of the town’s Five and Dime over on Main Street (next to the feed store). Preeble was a good enough listener to appreciate George’s music and enough of a critic to give George some good ideas about improving it. “That coda,” Preeble would say, “isn’t up to the quality of the rest of the sonata. You might pay a little more attention to that tempo there…it kind of whimpers out. And don’t forget our big sale this weekend…those jackets you like are almost half price.”

While Preeble senior was with the program, Preeble junior was a different case. His interests ran to running around in a beaver coat and dancing the Charleston. Although he was George’s age, and had a kind of business cunning that made him successful in the dry goods field, he had no use for the kind of introspection offered by George’s music or that of any other classical composer. And then there was Mr. Potter. Mr. Potter was the richest man in the area and a holy terror. He hated the little people whose lives he made miserable at every opportunity. Crabby and hateful, he gouged his renters, foreclosed on anyone foolish enough to miss a mortgage payment and had no qualms about buying up a business, gutting it and throwing its unfortunate employees into the street.

Potter’s only saving grace was his support of the Bedford Falls Symphony Orchestra, a 30 piece band that played the classics and some contemporary pieces including a number of works composed by George Bailey. Potter’s donations were large and he was listed in programs as the orchestra’s sole Gold Patron. However, on the night that George balanced precariously at the edge of the bridge, the worst night of his life, Potter had severely wounded George in a way that George did not see coming.

After Uncle Billy had lost George’s new opus, George had received a phone call from the symphony board chairman asking him to hurry down to the Rotarian lodge where the board was meeting on an important matter. He hopped into his old Huppmobile (a broken down thing which was all George could afford since most of his spare funds went for his music) and headed downtown. The room where the board was in session was hot and smoky. As he strode in George could hear the words “This is an outrage” and “Never!” and as he drew closer he could see that the center of attention was Henry Potter whose pinched, nasty expression was directed at him.

“Here he is,” Potter sneered, “Bradford Falls’ great composer.” A murmur of dissent swept the room. “As I’ve been telling these gentlemen, George, the time has come for a change. I’ve shelled out plenty of cash to this organization for many years…”

“And don’t think we don’t appreciate it,” simpered Mr. Gower, the pharmacist, whose daughter was a First Violin. “Your generosity has…”

“Oh cut the bull, Gower,” said Potter. “You and I both know your little symphony is all washed up. Who needs it? I can’t stand the music you play. No offense since I hate any kind of music pretty much. I was only donating because it made me look good to be a ‘patron of the arts’. But who cares about the arts now? Especially those German pieces you keep playing. We just kicked the butts of those Krauts. But, no, you want to play the same kind of music Hitler liked: Beethoven, Wagner…Mozart!”

“What about me?” said George pugnaciously, “Am I a German too?”

“Bailey…” said Potter thoughtfully, “could have been Bailstein originally. But that’s not the only reason I’m pulling out of your little tea party. I know you can’t see the writing on the wall but I can. Last night I had a Christmas vision and it shook me gentlemen, it shook me so that I can’t forget it and must act on it.”

While sleeping fitfully after a meal of undercooked, black market beef Potter awoke to a horrible wailing and clanking. A terrible wraith appeared in his bed chamber, cloaked in an old fashioned costume and wrapped in chains that rattled as he lumbered toward the bed.

“Ohhhh, help me,” cried the wraith. “Heeeelp me.” It was old Marley, Potter’s business partner who had passed away twenty years ago to the day.

“I am the ghost of Marley,” said the wraith, rather unnecessarily. “I am doomed to walk the earth…in these terrible chains…for my sins.”

Potter, who had known Marley as a good businessman and close friend was taken aback. “How can this be?” he queried. “You were always a fine banker and decent enough chum.”

“To you, to you, “replied Marley,” but who was I to the rest of the world? I was a conscienceless exploiter of men, a ruiner of families, a disgusting plutocrat who cared nothing for anyone but myself.”

“Piffle,” said Potter somewhat Britishly. “You donated to charities. You were on the board of the Bradford Falls Philharmonic.”

“Yes, I was on that board and supported that orchestra, not because I liked that kind of music, I have a tin ear and much prefer dirty limericks to concert music, but because it was the thing for wealthy men like me…and you…to do. But in the end it meant nothing. I died and was still damned as a greedy exploiter of mankind. And now I have to wear these chains and wander about moaning like a B movie character.”

Potter was quick to catch on. “So there’s no point in supporting culture, is there?”

“What is culture, anyway?” Marley replied. “Kids today want to have fun. They don’t need stuff that requires thought and just drags them down into some kind of angst. All those serious Germans, what good did they do the German people – when crunch time came they all flocked to Uncle Adolph like a bunch of lemmings.”

Culture is anything, thought Potter suddenly. It could be ukulele music or an electronic oscillator playing random notes or just taking some crap you found on the ground and putting it on the floor of a museum with your name on a plaque next to it. It could be the music they used to play while they danced themselves into oblivion with the Charleston prior to the Great Depression. It could be fatuous Hollywood movies with well-known actors. It could be anything at all!

Of course Potter was a bit ahead of his time in thinking all this. The time had not yet come when countless intellectuals of the professorial persuasion would take up the cudgels and declare minor celebrities to be great cultural icons so they could write books about them and appear cool. So it was no wonder that George Bailey and the symphony board could hardly believe their ears when they heard Potter say:

“So not one more red cent for this outdated, outmoded and even ridiculous institution. Gentlemen, I have spoken.”

George sunk to his knees in despair. This was the final blow. It was bad enough to watch helplessly while Benny Goodman and his band became national celebrities whose musical exploits were touted all over the radio and whose following included most of the youth of Bedford Falls while he, George Bailey, toiled away anonymously, hoping to have a few minutes of music played by the now-defunct symphony orchestra.

“Damn you to Hell, Potter,” he screamed and ran out of the lodge into the wintry night heading nowhere. As he stumbled on it seemed the entire town was taunting him. “How many records have you sold, Bailey? Even Zazu Pitts’ debut album sold more copies than all of yours put together. Even Dimitri Tiomkin, who sold his soul to Hollywood, can beat you in the market place. And, as Potter knows, the market is everything. You think we fought the Nazi’s because they were evil…that was just window dressing. We fought them because they were after our markets. Ditto the Japs. The new millennium of greed is here and the market is its supreme arbiter.”

And that’s why George Bailey wound up on the bridge that Christmas eve about to jump to his doom.

So now, I suppose, you are expecting to hear how an angel named Clarence comes down from Heaven and jumps in the water instead, inspiring George to jump in and save him. And when George says he wishes he never was born, Clarence, with his angelic powers, turns that into a temporary reality. You’d like to hear that, but, as Potter would say, life is hard. Instead of that stuff what happens is this:

“I wish…I wish…I wish there was no classical music,” George cried. “You got it,” said Clarence and suddenly everything was transformed. George ran back to the lodge, hoping to apologize and win Potter over by explaining to him that not all composers were Germans, but the Rotary hall was empty, the floors spic and span as though no meeting had taken place that night. When he returned to his house he found everything as expected. His wife and four children crowded around hugging and kissing him.

“Oh George, we were so worried,” cried his wife between hugs and kisses. “The kids are getting ready for Santa (wink, wink) and I had no idea when he might show up.”

One thing was a little strange. When his oldest daughter sat down at the piano to play the carol she had practiced over and over she unexpectedly pecked out a syncopated tune from the Broadway show, “Gold Diggers of 1946”. Its sentimental melody fit in well with the Christmas mood but it was a bit startling to George.

“Oh, Mary, you have no idea what happened tonight,” George began, but decided to drop it since telling his wife that an angel named Clarence had saved him from killing himself seemed like a bad move. Instead, George decided to go upstairs and see if he could find his notes for the symphony that his uncle had idiotically lost so that he might begin to reconstruct it. But, dear reader, as you have already guessed, there was nothing in his study even remotely associated with symphonic or any other classical music, nor were there any phonograph records except for some tunes from a band called Spike Jones and his City Slickers.

Without saying a word to Mary or the tykes, George left by the back staircase and headed downtown where he peered into the record store to see if his recording was still displayed there. It wasn’t. He pounded on the door of the closed shop and, finally, the owner, who lived above the shop, came down.

“Harv,” George cried desperately, “you’ve got to help me. Potter just dumped his support of the symphony…why am I telling you, you were there!..and now I can’t find any of my…”

“Calm down, George,” crooned Harvey. “Symphony, you say? What’s that? And what do you say Potter has done now?”

“Oh Harv, you’ve been imbibing too much of the Christmas sauce. You know all about Potter and as for the symphony…isn’t this your store? Aren’t most of the records in here this symphony or that? Aren’t some of them done by the Bradford Falls philharmonic? Wake up Harv, I need your help.”

“Symphony?” Harvey repeated dumbly. George rushed past him into the store and grabbed some phonograph records from the bins.

“Yes, symphony, this.” But the record in his hands was not a symphony at all. He had dipped into the “B” bin assuming he would come up with Beethoven or Bach but in his hand was actually…

“Basie,” corrected Harv. “The Count himself. Beat me, Daddy, eight to the bar!” And he started dancing. He had, in fact, been imbibing the Christmas sauce and he felt saucy.

“There must be some mistake,” muttered George and he rummaged through that bin and then another but with no classical result. Seeing behavior like this, reader, one must wonder why it is that such plots always protect the hero against a remark he made only minutes earlier which, against all logic, he has somehow forgotten. But that’s show business, as Mr. Potter’s west coast equivalents would say with relish.

As we so easily remember, Clarence had granted George’s ill-conceived wish and classical music was banished from the world. Do we need to hear more of this? Do we need to know how, with Beethoven and Bach and even Humperdinck gone, mankind missed one of the greatest, most transcendent experiences of human existence? True, there was still plenty of music available, but, contrary to the renegade professors of the cultural studies persuasion, entertaining as it all was, it didn’t hold a candle to what had been lost. And, even when Clarence rescinded the wish, in this version of the story George did not suddenly become happy and celebrate with friends and family the return of great culture because he knew that the Potters of the world would sell anything down the river if it meant revenue and the intellectual flunkies of the world would justify with pen and word until it was all gone.

Roger Rudenstein

December, 2007