Wednesday, February 13, 2008

the kind of infectious it's good to spread around

The NY Times recently invited some of their classical music critics to "confess" their "secret musical passions" - to reveal some works/recordings they enjoy in spite of what one might expect of such highbrow types. Obviously, there's no right answer to such a question, but what I found most revealing is what some of the answers said about the moralistic tendencies of the classical music world - specifically, that there should such an obvious "right" and "wrong" way to perform various works. It's nothing new for me to suggest that ideas about "performance practice" are too prescriptive and idealistic - Richard Taruskin started beating that drum decades ago. And yet, here's Allan Kozinn saying, "I would probably cringe to hear a young pianist play Scarlatti the way Horowitz did, but Horowitz’s eccentric twisting and rebalancing of Scarlatti’s ecosystem sounds just right when he’s the one doing it."

What better indication is there that the academic side of the music business has gotten too much of an upper hand in how we listen, that one should be embarrassed to like something so likeable, and only willing to accept it because of the performer's fame? Is it any wonder that young performers are often criticized as being less original and spontaneous in their musicmaking than the giants of previous generations? Of course, the question of tastefulness in performance is one of infinitely recursive complexity; while I would argue for a much less moralistic tone about performance decisions and much more freedom than "the establishment" tends to allow, I also really value all the work that has gone into looking at performance practice in a scholarly way, and my own musical instincts are very strongly colored by "the establishment" way of thinking. In other words, I might want to say that performers should rely on intuition, but I might be horrified by what 1910 or 1810 intuition sounded like.

So, I haven't come to bury the "performance practice" movement, but rather to say that it's ridiculous that someone need apologize for enjoying politically incorrect musicmaking. (I understand, by the way, that Kozinn's remarks are somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but they reflect a predominant way of thinking.) Here's a more practical way in which I experience this tension. Not infrequently, while listening to a student, I'll find myself thinking, "I should really tell him/her not to articulate/phrase/pedal/ritard, etc a certain way," not because it offends my musical sensibilities or makes the music unmusical, but because I know it's not the way one is "supposed" to play. Naturally, it's important when learning anything to have to work within a set of rules, but the further I get from being a student myself, the more I find myself wondering why we're so rigid about so much.

MM's Law, which I don't think I've ever revealed on MMmusing, states: "There's always a tradeoff." The tradeoff in our academically-grounded method of training musicians is that concerns about authenticity (doing what we think the composer wants) have tilted us too much towards this moralistic attitude about music-making, and away from a more intuitive sense of what sounds right. It's a very tricky balance; not every one has Horowitz's instincts, and a good musical training requires some rigidity in the early stages about what's musical, acceptable, etc. Still, I'm convinced the importance we put on "doing it right" by academic standards can be a significant impediment to communication with audiences, because it can distract us from the business of communication.

I'm not interested in going further down that thorny path today, but I was also a little disappointed that the focus of the "guilty pleasures" was still on classical music. First of all, that seems like a great way to reinforce just how insulated we tend to be, to suggest, as Vivien Schweitzer did, that enjoying Klemperer's romanticized St. Matthew Passion is a kind of low-brow slumming. (How may potential classical fans have been turned off by hearing that a performance they thought they loved wasn't really any good at all because it violated some critic's sensibilities?) Secondly, I'd be much more interested to hear about the non-classical music that excites these critics.

Since my Lenten discipline demands that I forgo my normal sports radio on the daily commutes, I've been working the iPod more and, to be honest, sometimes struggling with what to listen to. I'm just not a pop/rock guy, but I'm often not in the right frame of mind to listen to typical classical fare either. With great joy, though, I did recently stumble back onto my favorite soundtrack of all time, the music for A Mighty Wind. Christopher's Guest's masterpiece is one of my three all-time favorite movies, along with The Purple Rose of Cairo and Magnolia. A very personal list, to be sure, and not intended to suggest these are the best movies ever made, just the most important to me. With Magnolia, it's the symphonic scope of the film, the way in which three hours go soaring by and feel connected, despite a wide range of content. The Purple Rose of Cairo is just perfectly executed from start to finish, both hilarious and heart-rending.

A Mighty Wind is the oddest choice here (a guilty pleasure, I suppose), but it's what went into making that extraordinarily delightful soundtrack that makes the movie special. These actors actually managed to create three convincing musical groups (The Folksmen, The New Main Street Singers, and Mitch & Mickey) that are equal parts hilariously satirical and legitimately entertaining, and the authenticity that comes from that gives the characters and situations unusual dimension for such a lighthearted film. I just watched the "concert" part of the movie again last night and I'm just amazed at what was accomplished. From the spot-on absurdity of the Main Street Singers' covering the Folksmen's "Never Did No Wand'rin" to the exuberant final ensemble (in which the title song proves to be both a huge joke and completely genuine), it's the most realistic incorporation of musical performance into any movie I've ever seen.

By the way, it's pretty cool how that scene was put together. Not only did the three groups perform for a live audience, but the concert was both filmed and videotaped, so that the scenes in the production truck show true TV-like video on the monitors. (Ed Begley, Jr. kills me in those production truck scenes.) All the drama going on during the concert is believably coordinated with the concert in real-time; fortunately, the fantastic DVD extras let you watch the performances in their entirety, but getting to know the CD soundtrack (which includes yet more songs) is essential to really appreciating what went into this movie.

It's surely a sign of my own snobbery that I seem to need the satirical layer to let myself have so much fun to listening to folk music, but so be it. The point is that when I'm listening to "Never Did No Wand'rin" (either version), "When You're Next to Me," or even "Potato's in the Paddy Wagon," it's hard to tell when I'm having fun because the parody is so good and when I'm just enjoying the very thing that's being parodied. That's a really difficult line for an artwork to straddle, but I feel no guilt in declaring this soundtrack one of my favorite guilty pleasures.

[The subject heading is taken from Jonathan Steinbloom's introduction of The New Main Street Singers, but it could just as easily apply to Horowitz's Scarlatti.]

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