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Can We, too, be the World?

Guest Column/John Harbison

[mk1]Statement and Counterstatement:

1A The July Live-Aid concert was the "greatest day in the history of music." (ABC-TV)

1B The greatest day in the history of music was the day Bach handed out the parts for the Matthew Passion.

2A Bob Geldoff, member of the Boomtown Rats and Initiator of Live-Aid "was not surprised by his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize." (USA Today)

2B The members of the Music for Peace group, who live among the poor in India, bringing them music, medicine and spiritual counsel, would be very surprised to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

3A Live-Aid was the "greatest example of selfless human cooperation of all time." (Capitol Times, Madison)

3B Selfless human cooperation, more easily evaluated when a billion people are not watching, could also describe the work of Quaker volunteers, hurricane relief squads, or even an amateur orchestra.

This is dangerous terrain, planted with mines and sour grapes. But for musicians in concert music, Live-Aid and the various We Are the Worlds which preceded it, in addition to their magnificent philanthropy, recalled us to some important truths about our profession:

1. [ix]Rock music like all the economic juggernauts at the upper levels of our economy, can do anything it wants. It does not need to raise money to exist, it makes money beyond comprehension.[xi]

2. [ix]Rock music is music to the vast majority of listeners, from the most illiterate to the most educated.[xi]

3. [ix]Compared to the economic fact of rock music, all concert music, even involving stars like Pavarotti and Perlman, is commercially ephemeral and its struggles and triumphs a side-street.[xi]

In those terms, new music ensembles like collage work in an alley of a side-street. Our breweries and distilleries are located upstairs in the rear, and we are overdue on the rent.

Is it possible that this is where we belong, that rather than being prophets and poets and visionaries, we are irrelevant neurotics singing into our armpits?

The Playmate of the Month lists "contemporary music" as one of her interests! But it is not Jacob Druckman and Andrew Imbrie she fancies, it is the Stray Cats and Duran Duran. "She's right," says my friend the literature professor, who reads Updike and Bellow, looks at Poons, and endorses that very music: "Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Prince are the Mozarts and Beethovens of today, music lives, you guys just haven't caught on!"

What Tina Turner expresses and what Roger Sessions expresses are different things. Sessions' recent death robbed me of one of my most persistent fantasies, to have Tina introduce him to America at some gonzo pan-musical epiphany. But the fact remains that different musics aim very differently. The finer they are the more they overlap, but in general rock seems to embody rebellion, against parent and society, extrovert sexuality, aggression of a more or less tolerable kind, and the childlike need for loudness, reiteration, and pulsation. The rock performer is expected to swagger, flaunt, and harangue, to give the impression that he will live forever without impediment. Concert music, while touching these at times, seeks transcendence, the awareness of death, the control of time, the hope, not the certainty or immortality. These guests take place within the music. If concert music fails to undertake this calling, this guest, it doesn't deserve our care. Our secret fear is that our present back alley addresses comes partly from our failure to distinguish ourselves from popular music, in terms of the magnitude of our aims, the poignance of our hopes, the grotesqueness of our failures.

Collage would like to donate the proceeds from its season to help the increasing number of homeless and hungry people in Boston. But we still haven't been able to pay players for our final concert last year. We would like to play pieces which would fill Fenway Park, but we have appetites and apirations which lead us urgently in other directions. We would like to be able to to tap into the generous corporation support for music for which Minneapolis and Pittsburgh are becoming famous, but we are in Boston, renowned as the proudest and tightest arts city in the country.

This leaves us morally inferior, publicly dimmer, financially weaker than our colleagues "in the world." But we are not the world, we are some small parts of the flesh and brain of the world, some essential enzyme. We are really lunatic (moon-mad) enough to believe that some part of the music we play will last as long as someone is there to listen.

All good music helps someone, either frontally, in lifting depression through absorption, or therapeutically, in enlarging the emotional like. At our back alley address, which we share with our friends from similar groups, we plan, with your help, our new campaigns.

(Editor's note: John Harbison is a professor of music at MIT. This column is reprinted from the Fall 1985 issue of Ques, the newsletter of Collage.)