Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Holiday Music

I recently conducted a holiday program with the Colonial Symphony and the enthusiastically ecstatic response reminded me of the sort of warmth one receives after performing a work like Mahler's 2nd Symphony or Beethoven's 9th Symphony! It's certainly not the depth of the music that provokes people to respond the way they do, but perhaps the emotional experience of simply enjoying something that is readily understandable. This ease of intelligibility can be a facilitator for many in creating room for connection.

I don't know about you, but at the end of the day after running like a madman trying to meet deadlines that seem to be coming from every corner, I'm not in the mood for deep thinking! Most of the time just having a simple conversation with my wife, or if I'm early enough, hopping on the ground and playing with my daughter, or if I'm late, watching a little ESPN with commentators trying to out-hip each other with silly remarks works just fine! It's not that I don't love looking at scores, or doing musicological research, or frankly that I don't at some level enjoy doing administrative work when things are getting done, or thinking about musical aesthetics, or the psychology of music and musicians, or politics, etc..., but the fact is that at some point a lighter touch adds diversity and relief to my life - just listening to Nat King Cole sing holiday music with a glass of wine feels good.

I find that as I get older I have a greater appreciation for music that is considered to be part of the pops canon. When it's done well, the craft level can be quite high, even if the material isn't complicated. This seems like an oxymoron, but in fact it's a fit that has pleased both musicians and audiences for years. Part of it is that we grow up with music in movies, stores, on our cd players, now on our ipods, that is commercial in nature. We're surrounded by stuff we like and don't like, but at least some of this background music has most likely filtered into our listening diet. And this is fine without depreciating art music in any way, which in my mind, is also a complete essential in life.

Many groups have tried to capitalize on this phenomena - the Absolute Ensemble, Ethel, Kronos Quartet, Imani Winds, etc... all seriously gifted groups who have found that by integrating pop genres into their playing they are able to develop both new audiences and at the same time have fun (and this is a good combo platter)! And many have incorporated a wide variety of world music into their performing diets such as Yo-Yo Ma with his Silk Road Ensemble, Bobby McFerrin in both his singing and conducting, Tan-dun in his composing, etc... or pop composers have turned to classical composition such as Billy Joel, Elvis Costello, or Paul McCartney.

Is all of this music at the highest level on every plane of experience? Some of it perhaps is, some definitely not, and this will always be water cooler debate material. However, whether amazing, a little less than amazing, or just bad (or bad for us!), there is music, food, movement, writing, and movies that fit our needs at different moments of a day, week, month, even year. It can be worthy and wonderful in it's own light, whether it is deep or light.

I think what makes all music work are three things: a commitment on the part of performers to play with passion no matter what is on the page; a desire by the composer to consider the audience when writing something true to his or her voice - a bit of a controversial statement (many very modernist composers will admit to this in private, although not all); and an audience that is eager to listen. When this trifecta comes together, the experience can be absolutely life changing, whether the music is of the highest order or just plain good.

No comments: