MusicWatch Monthly: Send the fool further

A leap of faith and a speculative symphonic season

We have to admit that it was very tempting to do a hoax column today. We might have crafted fake season announcements, reviewed boxed sets that don’t exist, written a biography of an imaginary composer, released a phony recording of Bach’s seventh cello suite. Everything is canceled anyways, might as well have some fun and lob a little laughter into the void.

But we’ve all had enough fake news, don’t you think? It’ll still be fun to talk about all that imaginary stuff, but we’d prefer to approach it as an exercise in forecasting where music–and especially “classical” music–might go next. To get started, we’d like to veer into occult history to talk about The Fool and The Oldest Custom in the World.

The history of April Fool’s Day as an international phenomenon is shrouded in mystery, and you can certainly read all about it if you feel inclined. Our favorite of the various April Fool customs is the one attributed to Ireland and experienced by anyone who’s been a rookie or new hire. First, the manager or feudal baron or whatever sends the new kid on an errand to one of the other managers (barons, etc.) carrying a sealed note or a coded request. The note (or code) reads “send the fool further,” and the recipient keeps the gag going by sending the noob on to the next prankster with a fresh note. As a metaphor for the Sisyphean labors of artistic creation and spiritual enlightenment, you could do worse, which is probably why The Fool is the first character in the oldest of occult manuals, the tarot deck.

In every version of the tarot, The Fool represents the innocent young adventurer blithely tramping toward a cliff’s edge. In spiritual terms, this is the novice or apprentice who is given a series of apparently meaningless character-building exercises of the “wax on, wax off” variety. In occult lore it’s the ineffable and intangible, hovering on the verge of its headlong tumble into physical manifestation. Psychologically speaking, The Fool is what’s referred to in Zen as “beginner mind,” and thus represents the sense of possibility and renewed energy that come with a fresh start and the initiation of new struggles.

Which brings us around, finally, to our point: everything is different now. Sure, sure, it’ll all go back to “normal” in some sense before too long. But the new normal will not be the same as the old normal, and no matter what happens we’ll still have to deal with the aftermath of these next few months. The tools we develop for survival now will become normal features of our lives after.

That can be a good thing–many of you have recently discovered just how unnecessary your physical office really is. Others have discovered that, yes, that physical office is very much necessary. We’ve all just discovered exactly how essential our service industry workers are, and how woefully understaffed and underfunded our medical institutions. And I doubt any of us will ever take live music for granted again.

One of the many things all this means is that now is the time to organize, and to consider which of the daring social changes that once seemed impossible might come to seem natural, even inevitable.

Your Oregon symphonies

Let’s start with the symphony orchestra. We sometimes shorthand this to “OSO” since the Oregon Symphony is the busiest and wealthiest of Oregon’s orchestras, but we’re equally enthusiastic about the area’s other orchestras (perhaps more so, if we’re being totally honest). We’d like to say two things about all of these groups. First: they are all wonderful orchestras, with their own unique personalities and repertoire and cast of characters and so on, and we look forward to hearing them live again. Second: they all fall short, to some extent, in an area we’ve talked to death in these pages, namely their performances of living and/or American composers, programming which is substantial and significant but remains unsatisfactory in terms of frequency.

This isn’t a complaint about any of our local orchestras. It’s a complaint about what’s considered normal in the symphonic realm. In the spirit of The Fool, blithely tramping over the cliff of unfettered possibility, a miniature luck dragon nipping at his heels, we ask you to consider what it would look and sound like if every orchestra, choir, and ensemble in Oregon spent an entire season performing nothing but music by American composers.

Sit down and sketch out such a season. I mean it–pull up an extensive “best American composers” list (like this one), make a few playlists on the streaming service of your choice, and educate yourself. This is your monthly challenge, dear reader.

Start by hypothesizing, say, a season of twenty concerts, each following some variant on the classic overture-concerto-symphony model. You need twenty symphonies (or orchestral works of symphonic heft, like Gabriela Frank’s Walkabout, which OSO played just last October). You need twenty concertos or concerto-like pieces (like Jennifer Higdon’s On a Wire for ensemble and orchestra, or Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo, which PYP played awhile back). And then you need twenty to forty shortish overture-style compositions, such as tone poems and fanfares (Joan Tower conveniently composed a half dozen). These will be easily acquired, I assure you.

Sixty pieces of music. Make sure you’ve got a well-balanced assortment of younger and older living composers from various cultural and ethnic backgrounds, across different subgenres like minimalism and neoclassicism, taking care to include all Americans and not just the Northern strains. Go ahead and make half that list women, easily done using composers active after 1970.

Add in works from the first century or so of American symphonic music, from Anthony Heinrich to Amy Beach and John Knowles Paine and up through Charles Ives to Florence Beatrice Price. Stir in a good mix of mainstreamish mid-century composers like Barber and Piston. Don’t forget a few tasty crowd-pleasers like Bernstein, Gershwin, Elfman, and Williams. Sprinkle with newly commissioned works from within the orchestra’s own membership (as our local orchestras have done with Nicole Buetti, Kenji Bunch, Matthew Kaminski, Katie Palka, Jake Safirstein, et alia). Once you’ve seen how easily a list of sixty pieces comes together, you see how an orchestra–or a state’s worth of orchestras–might perform and record several seasons of all-American music without coming close to draining the well.

This could all easily be done. In fact, it’s so easily done we have to wonder why it hasn’t been done already. Is it just a money thing? Or a cultural QWERTY phenomenon? Perhaps this is one of those Gordian knots of path dependence, when it’s more cost-effective to keep playing at least a few of the same familiar pieces instead of learning all new stuff all the time.

Nevertheless, something must be done, dear reader, because orchestral music already nearly died once (shortly after the internet first got ahold of us) and might not make it through another prolonged shock to its system. Because there’s one big problem we’ll have to face if live concerts go away or even take a really sharp dip. Livestreaming and all similar solutions, much as we may enjoy them now, carry the usual terrible price demanded by the gods of internet: delocalization.

Why do we go listen to local orchestras play music? Because they play fantastically well and sound great, of course, but a lot of that has to do with how magnificently they work the physical spaces their gigantic bands require. Local orchestras have exactly one advantage over every other orchestra, which is that you can hear them perform in a live environment. No speaker system in the world can replicate the orchestra’s four-dimensional acoustic signature, besides which you’d need 3000 bodies’ worth of baffling to really get the sound right.

Take all that away, and we’re left with a tricky question. Why on earth should I listen to a livestream of the Oregon Symphony playing Beethoven when I can sit at home and listen to Leonard Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic instead? Why would I pay for OSO’s Beethoven when I can hear Lenny for free?

Again, this isn’t a complaint about our local orchestras. We’re lucky to have them, not just for their own sakes but because they keep local musicians employed–musicians who then spend their free time on cool stuff like 45th Parallel Universe, Fear No Music, Third Angle, and all the rest. But we’re likely to reach a point (if we haven’t already) where local orchestras are going to have to seriously compete with the best musicians ever recorded. The old strategy of offering up eternal variations on the same canon while only admitting living Americans one commission at a time is not going to cut it much longer. We’re going to have to do something else, and we can hear two hints of what that something else could be on two recent Oregon Symphony albums.

The first is a couple years old now, and features three Pulitzer-winning works by American composers: Walter Piston’s Symphony No. 7, Morton Gould’s Stringmusic, and Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 4 “Requiem.” The other is Gabriel Kahane’s emergency shelter intake form, co-commissioned by the symphony and recorded with Kahane last year. We’ll leave these two here for you to enjoy while you’re working through this week’s reader challenge.

Stay tuned for next week’s column, when we’ll talk about the virtues of sitting and staring out the window, doing nothing.

Send the fool further

I know what you’re thinking: what happened to that list of essential American composers from earlier? Well, dear reader, after a long and exhausting trip around the internet we could not find a suitable one–so we made our own from scratch, just like grandma. Please note that this list: a) is neither exhaustive nor objective; and b) only includes composers whose works include symphonies and concertos (or works close enough to fit the bill).

John Adams

Lera Auerbach

Samuel Barber

Amy Beach

Leonard Bernstein

Ernest Bloch

Elliott Carter

John Corigliano

Carlos Chávez

Henry Cowell

Richard Danielpour

Gabriela Lena Frank

Philip Glass

Howard Hanson

Roy Harris

Lou Harrison

Jennifer Higdon

Charles Ives

David Lang

Libby Larsen

Walter Piston

Florence Beatrice Price

Christopher Rouse

William Schuman

William Grant Still

Tomas Svoboda

Christopher Theofanidis

Virgil Thomson

Joan Tower

Heitor Villa-Lobos

John Williams

Julia Wolfe

Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

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2 Responses.

  1. Brilliant column today. Much food for thought (and thank god i didn’t have to grocery shop for it), plus interesting video clips to enjoy and follow up. Thank you.

  2. Thank you for this timely article, Mathew. I hope that as we make our way out of the pandemic over time, enough energy and money will be put toward live music(including revitalizing orchestras with new music performances). I think we are craving connection with community, creativity and culture. Hope you are well-Paul

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