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Collage - modern music gives earache

Collage, with guest conductor Gunther Schuller, Longy School of Music, January 27.

Monday night I went to a concert to celebrate the 60th birthday of Gunther Schuller, consisting entirely of music composed since 1981.

This morning I have earache.

I have realy tried to give this music the benefit of every doubt, but I have to admit I could not appreciate it as most of the audience seemed to. Either something is wrong with me or something is wrong with "new music," probably both.

Maybe the problem is simply that there has not been enough time for the good new stuff to outlive the chaff. But Collage co-director John Harbison calls these new works "the durable old music of the future," and I suspect that the rest of the new music sounds the same. Is it second-rate music that will soon fall by the wayside? No. It's worse. After all, no one can remember Salieri's music, but at least it's pleasant enough when you listen to it.

The first piece, Elen Zwilich's Concerto for Trumpet and Five Players (1985), was very conventional for modern music. There were three movements (fast-slow-fast as usual in concertos). The music was scored for piano, flute, bass clarinet, bass viol and xylophones as well as trumpet, although the players occasionally picked up other instruments.

It was dissonant and harsh, but recognizably musical. The themes were interestingly developed. I would have liked it better if there hadn't been so many piercing, sustained high notes. Trumpeter Charles Daval seemed to handle his very difficult-sounding part well.

Next came Summer Images and Reflections (1985), a song cycle by Will Ogden. This was very difficult to listen to. Soprano Lucy Shelton could undoubtedly shatter a lot of glass if she wanted to. There were far more piercing and painful high notes here than in the previous piece, and I found both the words and the music unintelligible.

Gunther Schuller's 1984 Piano Trio was refreshingly mild by comparison. It was scored for piano, violin and cello, and was therefore easier on the ear, although the pianist more than once got up and scratched the strings. It must be hard to play such non-melodic music, and I can't imagine remembering such a piece in the way one can remember, say, a Mozart symphony (or even one by Salieri!).

After an intermission came the longest piece of the night, William Doppmann's Spring Songs for Soprano, Clarinet, Percussion and Piano (1981). The texts for this cycle came from Chaucer, Lennon, Robert Burns, Psalm XXII, Willa Doppmann, Shakespeare and Donald Justice.

I looked forward to this because the texts included some nice poems, and because I had the words in front of me. Unfortunately, it was just as wearing as the earlier song-cycle. It was also very annoying, because several innovations were clearly no more than unorthodoxy for unorthodoxy's sake (e.g. singing into the piano, foot-stamping at odd moments, random shouts from the instumentalists). Occasionally a melody resurfaced, and the whispered excerpt from Psalm XXII was spooky and moving. But the piece was generally nasty. One of the worst parts was the overdramatic and incredibly unwhimsical rendering of John Lennon's nonsense poem "I sat belonely".

During the intermission, Schuller received an award and a testimonial from Governor Dukakis was read, lauding Schuller for his numerous contributions as a composer, conductor, educator, etc. It felt strange, seeing all these people appreciate this guy, of whose talent I had no understanding.

I tried, I really did. But I think that a lot of modern music (by which I refer to the direct successor of classical and romantic music, played by musicians from symphony orchestras, as distinguished from rock, folk, jazz, pop, and various fusions) is too much like modern abstract art.

Don't get me wrong, I like abstract art. But whereas you can stare at, say, a Picasso until it begins to make sense to you, you don't have that option in listening to music, which is basically a linear experience. If I could somehow comprehend the whole piece at once, as the composer and (to the extent they practice) the performers do, I might appreciate it more. But I just can't get it from a concert, and if it is actually unpleasant to the ear I'm not going to listen to a record of it several times in order to understand it.

Maybe some people can "get it" just by listening. Maybe you need the right kind of training, or maybe you just have to have the right kind of brain. But I predict that this music will never be as popular as the music composed 100 and 200 years ago.

I don't actually believe that the emperor has no clothes, I'm just saying I don't see them, and I suspect he's not actually wearing very much. (My wife Lisa insists that at most he's wearing a string around his knee and a sequin in his bellybutton, but I don't think that so many people could be victims of such a huge humbug. I'll accept that there's something there, but I'm baffled that I can't appreciate it.)

All right, Arts Editor, I've paid my dues. May I please have some Schubert next time? I'll settle for Stravinsky. Just give me time to get over this earache.


Joe Shipman->