Monday, January 20, 2014

The Spoken Melody

Have you noticed what’s been happening at concerts lately? Admittedly I’ll be in the minority on this and likely dismissed as a shameless revanchist, but I shall protest this nonsense just the same.

In his 1975 myth-busting masterpiece, The Painted Word, author Tom Wolfe described how modern art had devolved from creative visual expression into mere formulaic interpretation of art critics’ theories:

“Art made its final flight, climbed higher and higher in an ever-decreasing tighter-turning spiral until… it disappeared up its own fundamental aperture… and came out the other side as Art Theory!… Literature pure and simple.”

With all the jabber on concert stages these days, I can’t help wondering if something like this is going on in the music world, too – whether music is emerging from some essential orifice of its own as… Music Commentary! Could what commentators (musician or otherwise) are saying be not-so-subtly  upending what musicians are playing?

Before a concert, almost inevitably, someone -- perhaps a musician, maybe a pundit, sometimes a guild president -- will parade up to the proscenium where they talk and they talk and they talk! Maybe you thought you’d come to hear music but first you have to endure a compulsory oration that can go on like a filibuster.

Not that all pre-concert commentary is bad. You expect certain rituals at a concert, like the concertmaster or first violin tuning up the rest of the orchestra and shaking hands with the conductor when he walks on stage. Sometimes the conductor or a spokesperson will make introductory remarks about the program as a way of orienting listeners to its history or context, and this can be helpful. Although some classical composers – Verdi, for example – may have harbored populist leanings, a lot of classical music was composed in a milieu of privilege and aristocracy that for modern audiences may warrant some introduction.

But of late these explicatory prologues have begun to take on a life of their own. No longer just introduction, they’ve become part of the performance and may be brazenly promoted this way. For example, Cappuccino Concerts Australia touts its entertaining commentaries that “reproduce the friendly cheerful atmosphere of 19th century European house concerts and the classical performances at public venues.”

BBC's John Motson
The BBC  has announced plans to have its classical broadcasts enhanced by sports-style commentaries from pundits like John Motson, an English football announcer who was recruited for his aptitude with league statistics. "There’ve been player transfers across the UK this spring that will make the new season fascinating,” said he. “Who’d have thought that after six years with the Northern Sinfonia, 1st violinist Bradley Cresswick would have agreed to a transfer to the Liverpool Philharmonic?”

Listeners to BBC Radio 3 will get the usual introduction from a studio announcer and then be handed off to a team of stage-side analysts for “unbiased and candid commentary on the unfolding performance.” The BBC dismissed as nonsense a protest from listener groups that rolling sports commentary of this sort would interfere with their appreciation of the music.

Then there was the Camerata Pacifica concert I attended recently with Lera Auerbach and Ani Aznavoorian performing Ms. Auerbach’s 24 Preludes for Violoncello and Piano (Op. 47). As the two ladies came on stage at Hahn Hall, Ms. Aznavoorian gracefully took a seat with her instrument, whilst Ms. Auerbach took to the proscenium and launched into a lengthy autobiography.

We learned of her childhood in Chelyabinsk, a city in the former Soviet Union, dubbed the “most contaminated spot on the planet” on account of three nuclear weapons plant disasters in the 1950s and ’60s.
Lera Auerbach

“I was able to write out my musical thoughts as quickly as writing words," Ms. Auerbach revealed. "It was a very organic process. I would create stories at the piano.” 

All the better for staying indoors, too, no doubt, particularly if you were leery of the strontium 90.

While on a U.S. concert tour at age seventeen Auerbach defected, leaving behind the nasty strontium but maybe not all of the fallout. Like an over-exposed Geiger counter, she chattered on and on that evening about her  childhood and career.

Finally, almost as an afterthought, she took to the keyboard.

As the two musiciennes performed the “polystylistic” (read no distinctive style at all) 24 Preludes, I began to wonder whether Auerbach’s autobiographical 25th prelude might turn out to be the best of the lot. But in the end, I’d have traded that prolix introduction of hers for even more of her polystylism.

Nor is this epidemic of epexegesis confined to the Classics, as I learned a couple of months ago when UC Santa Barbara presented the duo of Lyle Lovett & John Hiatt.

Lyle Lovett & John Hiatt
The way the program notes described it, Lovett and Hiatt “turn the stage into their front porch for a rare and intimate acoustic evening, swapping stories and songs from throughout their incredible careers.”  Maybe so, but in the event I’d have preferred more of the stage and less of the porch – more acoustics, fewer stories, and a lot less pop music name dropping (Bob Dylan, Ry Cooder, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, etc., etc.).

Unfortunately, the desultory swapping of stories also added up to no half-time intermission, so a discreet visit to the miniature showers was all but impossible – at my age, not an insignificant issue.

One of Lovett’s signature songs turned out to be a whimsical number called “I Love Everybody (Especially You).”

I love everybody
Especially you…..

It's not the long lashes
Or lips on your face
And it's not your bosoms
That time can't erase
And it's not those long slender
Legs on your feet
Your mind is the feature
That makes me remember…

At the song’s conclusion, after a brief but pregnant pause, Hiatt turned to Lovett and asked, “Her?”

Lovett didn’t reply but his patented corkscrew grin twisted even more wryly as he picked at the frets of his Collings acoustic guitar. 

Not that it mattered. The audience already understood what Hiatt had meant, that he had answered his own question simply by asking it.*

Oh, the vicarious thrill of it all!

A couple of millennia ago, the Greek philosopher Plato came up with the idea that societies work better if each person does the thing for which he/she is naturally best suited and avoids meddling in other business. So if your m├ętier is, say, musical comedy like Smooth-E  or the late Victor Borge, it might work for you to talk and make music at the same time. But if you’re the likes of Lera Auerbach or Lyle Lovett, for God’s sake, just shut up and play!  If what you essentially are is a musician, connect to your audience through your music, not a lot of palaver.

Or at least study elocution and read up on how brevity is the soul of wit.

Thanks in advance.

*In case you didn’t know, Lovett had a 21-month marriage to actress Julia Roberts, owner of the long slender legs.

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