Friday, December 30, 2016

Smörgåsbord or Focus?

I've just been reading Jim Fusilli's article on the music festivals he covered this past year: What I Learned Covering Nine Music Festivals in a Single Year. One bit stood out:
In 2016, I had the pleasure and responsibility of covering nine rock-and-pop festivals for the Journal. I say “responsibility” because a critic can’t understand the popular music of yesterday, today and tomorrow without diving into festivals that present a multitude of artists. With that obligation comes the great joy of being thrust willingly into a series of events that confirm that this period in rock and pop is deep, diverse and wildly democratic.
I hope you will forgive me if I say that the idea of attending a music event that had a multitude of artists and was "deep, diverse and wildly democratic" causes me to shudder, just a bit! Now don't get me wrong, I have attended some rather festival-like events such as the Salzburg Festival, the Banff Festival, the San Miguel Baroque Music Festival, the Festival Internacional de Música, the Montréal Jazz Festival and so on. But in all those festivals, each event, that is to say, each concert, was by an individual artist or ensemble. And the ones in Salzburg were noteworthy for things like a whole series of concerts of the chamber music of Stockhausen, plus other artists and ensembles doing the complete Schubert piano sonatas and complete Beethoven string quartets. In other words, what was great about that festival, at least, was not the diversity or democracy, but the intense focus on specific repertoire.

The festivals Jim Fusilli is writing about are akin to the Woodstock model where each group plays a set and is followed by another group and this goes on for many hours, long into the night. (I did attend one of those kinds of festivals, but it was so long ago that I think we were even consuming an entirely different palate of drugs!) Just for a taste of what he is talking about, here is an artist he raves about, "avant-garde jazz guitarist Mary Halvorson in a solo performance":

I was rather looking forward to hearing what she would do as I am stretching my ears right now looking for some new textures for a solo guitar piece I am writing. But listening to this left me with an unpleasant blend of boredom and queasiness. Fusilli comments:
Reflecting today’s listening habits, the best festivals are gumbos of music from around the globe.
Yes, exactly! Which is probably why I had best stay away from them. I came up with a similar metaphor to describe a kind of musical fusion: flamenco stew. This is that unholy blend of jazz and flamenco that seems to bring out the most dreary self-indulgence in the performers.

Now I can sense that some of my readers are about to fire off some comments about how old farts like me should not be offering aesthetic opinions, but should rather be run out of town on a rail. So let me offer my positive alternative: the kind of musical experience that I think is the most profound, transcendent and fulfilling is one where there is, rather than a smörgåsbord of contrasting styles, tastes and artists, instead a focus on a particular style or repertoire.

I really like the idea of a pianist playing a whole program of Schubert sonatas or a string quartet doing an all-Beethoven program or a singer doing a whole Schubert cycle and so on. Instead, what we hear over and over and over in so many concerts is a classical piece, some 20th century pieces and in the second half some lengthy romantic piece. And this is found, over and over, in countless chamber music concerts and solo recitals. It is kind of a knee-jerk, formulaic gesture toward "diversity".

Mind you, it would take some really bold programming to get past that formula. But that in itself would be a marker for creativity in the arts. Here is the kind of thing I am thinking of: harpsichordist Andreas Staier plays a whole program of music based on the Aristotelian notion of a melancholic temperament. It begins with one of my favourite pieces, the "Plainte faite a Londres pour passer la Melancholie, laquelle se joue lentement avec discretion" by Johann Jacob Froberger:


Marc said...

A lovely end of year recital! Thanks for this. One of the greatest and least well-known reasons to live in DC is the great number of musical events of quality that happen there, out of the spotlight that shines in NYC.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks! I didn't know that Washington DC was such a cultural feast. Next time I visit my sister in Virginia I should take a side trip and check it out.