a jumble of thoughts in response

by pieces of moments


One of my professors from my days at New England Conservatory, Bruce Brubaker, recently posted an article called “Lineage” to his blog in which he relates the story of being asked by an audience member if young pianists focusing primarily on the performance of new music still need to learn Chopin Etudes. Provocative question, n’est-ce pas? He goes on to correlate the posed question to the visual arts world – do art students still need to learn drawing when they are going to be photographers?

My own personal response to the question (as a historian, musician, and as someone who spent many years studying visual arts) would be an emphatic “yes.” There is something to be said for knowing your place in the continuum. I’m thinking that being a young pianist who wants to perform, say, György Kurtág, should (have) study(ied) Bach and Beethoven at some point, for the same reason we all think (or I assume we all think) one should know that Napoleon existed, or that the Great Depression and WWII transpired. We need to know where we were, so we can know where we are and where we are headed next.

I’m not saying that a future Kurtág expert should have to be amazing at performing any of the heavy hitters of the past, no, not at all. In fact, I am a huge believer in the idea of empathy in music performance – that each performer feels a mysterious empathetic bond with specific composers or styles and thus excel at interpretations of those pieces especially. The piano repertoire is so enormous, so broad in scope and style, that to be a general practitioner seems to me not only bland but downright silly. So, yes, familiarity with the so-called ‘canon’ is a necessary and worthy study, but simultaneously it’s not something on which one should get stuck. It’s a fine balance and I guess every performer needs to find out what that balance is for them, just like everything else in life.

Perhaps, to go back to the visual arts model, it would be worth pointing out that photography students do have to take drawing courses (one of our former From the Top ‘Roving Reporters’ is starting at RISD this fall in a photography program and is currently enrolled in required summer drawing classes as preparation), but then they become photographers. I can speak from my own experience that having to trace lines with your eyes and translate them to your hands uses a very different kind of looking than alignment, pointing and shooting. Having that knowledge makes your artistic arsenal that much more versatile…but, you don’t expect a photographer to exhibit their drawings at one of their gallery shows.

Similarly, there are many ‘rock’ artists (Björk, Alicia Keys, Regina Spektor, Jonny Greenwood, etc.) who either started as ‘classical’ musicians or at least had formal music training of some sort (theory, solfege, all that fun stuff), whose music has a malleable quality, a kind of ease with the language, that say, punk rockers, do not posses. Whenever I hear a ‘rock’ artist whose music seems at least within itself I suspect formal training was had by some member of the band. But again, we do not attend concerts by any of the artists parenthetically referenced above to hear them interpret proper fourth species counterpoint.

So anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that young musicians who want to make careers out of playing new music do need to study the ‘canon’ but should not be expected to be tied down to it. I’m sick and tired of seeing posters for concerto competitions that restrict the entries to Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, Schumann, Prokofiev, or Shostakovitch. I’m fed up with young students only being taught the ‘canon’ and not the plethora of contemporary classical pieces in print and available to them. Fluidity people! We need fluidity! We need variety! We need to stop treating the ‘canon’ like yummy things children like to eat whilst the pieces of modern composers (oh, so hard to understand [to be read with ample sarcasm]) are like the veggies you know you should have, but don’t really wanna (which, sadly, is all too often how they are programmed in concert halls around the world).

Remember that book that came out recently, the one that Jessica Seinfeld (Jerry Seinfeld’s wife) wrote about sneaking veggies into meals kids naturally love? Spinach brownies and all that? Ah, just looked it up – Deceptively Delicious. Maybe if we just integrated ‘new music’ in a natural, no-fuss, no-big-deal, way into the regular music lesson curriculum it would just seem like music, not “that new music” or “that stuff I don’t understand because I’ve been playing music with standard lyric melody for years.” Then, when it comes time for the young musician to step out and claim their unique musical identity they can have the confidence of knowledge without the shackles of tradition.

As Zadie Smith wrote in White Teeth, “…tradition is a far homelier concoction: poppy seeds ground into tea; a sweet cocoa drink laced with cocaine; the kind of thing your grandmother might have.” Tradition is not a bad thing, but it can become like a cheap drug, a prescription, and therefore addictive because you can control with tradition while change, well, it’s a rather slippery thing and requires (forces) us to find new ways of finding our footing. It’s like John Keating making you stand on top of your desk rather than sitting behind it. But each needs the other. Your nose, when drawn from the perspective of someone facing you straight on, would not exist without the shadows that surround it, without the dark to make the light. You can’t have the new without the old, something has to precede. We all feel sorry for those who lose their abilities of long term memory and are only stuck with a series of now.

Spinach in brownies, desks you can sit behind, on, stand upon, kick, scratch your name into, drawing classes that help you see your photos in a new way, fourth species counterpoint that becomes more exciting when its rules are shattered, you have to have these tensions. There must be the old and the new, the traditional and the modern. But when it’s all one or all the other that’s when it gets one dimensional. All yin, no yang, or vice versa. Does the order matter? Old first, new second, always? Dunno. But I would like the music world to spend more time contemplating the Order Of Things. As Brubaker asks at the conclusion of his article, “What kind of music-making would ensue if the repertory pianists studied began with Stockhausen?” Indeed.