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The Mulching of Music

There. It's out of the closet. The word that concert music in general, and contemporary concert music in particular, are in trouble has been let out of the cabinets of professionals, the media, practitioners of the arts, and yes, even those trade organizations who have subsisted solely (and often handsomely) as arts boosters.

Pick up any trade journal —Symphony Magazine if your interest is orchestral, Chamber Music Magazine if you love the littler combinations, just for example — or attend any of the dozen or so annual conferences or trade meetings, and the refrain will be that old familiar tune: why aren't things any better, and how to get in more paying customers to — help! — keep the ship afloat. Why even the Arts & Leisure Section of The New York Times kicked off the new year (January 3, 1993) by devoting its Classical View column to "The State of the Union in the Kingdom of Pan," a thoughtful assessment by Edward Rothstein of the good and the bad, with the latter far outweighing the former. (Among the good, Rothstein catalogues some items the desirability of which seems highly questionable.)

That same august "newspaper of record" capped last year (December 31) with a worrisome piece on The Arts page under the header "Arts Presenters Shift From the Serious To the Profitable." In it, the author lists concert managements and individual performing artists who have been responding more to lack of demand than to demand, and claims that many are "increasingly steering clear of challenging work in favor of polished frippery." Moreover, in citing Robert Brustein, artistic director of the American Repertory Theater, columnist William H. Honan implies that the problem is not restricted solely to music but exists elsewhere in the arts, although perhaps not so drastically. "We've become a second-rate cultural nation," Brustein is quoted as saying. "There's a tremendous amount of talent available but serious work doesn't have the respect or endorsement it used to have."

Implanted in Brustein's sociological criticism is an essence that cries for elaboration. "Respect or endorsement" are both attitudes generated by the consumer, not the creator or the interpreter, towards a commodity called the arts. But if you listen to the endless laments of the musical institutions, they mainly prescribe remedies that are, at best, gimmicks to aid not the art of music but the institutions themselves: thematic or "multicultural" programming, targeted ticketry, a cornucopia of come-ons, ostensibly to broaden the cultural base but actually one last, desperate attempt to stave off oblivion, at least for another generation or two.

Sol Hurok's oft quoted and immortal Malapropism — "if they don't wanna come, nothing'll stop 'em" — was a prescient response to a cultural diminution and a foreboding (if ungrammatical) capitulation of Brustein's assessment. His thrust, too, was on them, the public — not on the acts or arts he so colorfully huckstered for many years.

The components of art, their most basic building blocks, however, must be in the public's domain, in the common currency. If audiences do not perceive, they do not respond. If the shapes and colors of pictures and sculptures find no points of identification in the viewer; if the sounds of music or language do not reach into the unconscious being of the hearer, then there will be little to induce that unique partnership which has always existed between the maker and the user of art.

This is not a call for Massenkultur, that commercial pap that would appeal to and make few demands on the least literate and most brutish in our world. On the contrary. We noted with sad approbation The New Criterion's tribute to the late Allan Bloom in which the place of rock music in our society was defined: "Its appeal is the appeal of the Dionysian: rock is anti-order, anti-verbal, anti-intellect. It is about unconstrained sexuality and polymorphous gratification. That is why its main enthusiasts are adolescents, young and old. They are right that rock music is a liberation: it is a liberation or vacation from civilization. In the deepest sense it is a liberation from music, whose essence is order." And of the devotees of rap "music," it has been said that they no longer know the difference between singing and speaking.

The arts are an assembling and organizing of basic materials that each of us is familiar with. Just how these materials are distilled will determine the unique profile of the art work.

In music, these materials are few — melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre — but their possible permutations are infinite. One immeasurably telling bridge to consciousness lies in folk music. It is the music of the peoples, lying deep in the inner ear of the collective unconscious. It is the sounds that were and are and will be recognized and embraced by specific cultures. We can listen to the sounds of other cultures and be intrigued and enchanted by them, but we know that they are not the sounds of our own culture, not better or worse than other sounds, but our own — coined and passed down from generation to generation of our own people. Leaders of minorities are right when they express concern lest the upcoming generations dissolve into the melting pot and forget their own myths and symbols, their own heritage. Music's irreducible expression is folk music, the sounds and words with the indelible characteristics of each nation.

It is when the lay person can no longer perceive a connecting line between folk material and art music that the gap becomes unbridgeable and the process of audience attrition begins. Think back to music of the past and consider the unmistakable connection between folk and art: the Lutheran hymn tune and Bach, the folk song and Schubert, the dance form and everyone from Haydn to Chopin and beyond. Consider the pop tunes of yesteryear from the 15thand 16th-century frottola to the aria or other set piece from a Handel or Mozart or Verdi opera.

In our own day, we may mercifully point to a number of musical dimensions in which the connection between folk elements and their distillates are clearly in evidence. The music theatre is a prime example, even when it gets as sophisticated as a show by George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Leonard Bernstein, or Stephen Sondheim. And just think of the cultural cross-pollination that went into the creations of these composers!

Another obvious asset truly our own that serves to lighten up the soil and bring us into closer contact with our roots is jazz. At last, it has come into its own. "Jazz is the only musical art form to which the United States can lay exclusive claim," stated New York Times editorial recently, but until now "jazz has been shunted into bars and music clubs that are inaccessible to families and to the young. Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts set out to change that last year when it created a jazz department, aiming to make jazz eventually a full partner of the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, the New York City Ballet and the Film Society." In another editorial entitled "The joint is jumping," the Daily News referred to the "unprecedented tribute to the passion and majesty of America's only homegrown art form. `Success' means keeping the seats full .... Be ready to jump." Under the inspired leadership of musicians like Norris Turney, Rob Gibson, and Wynton Marsalis, Lincoln Center is amidst its 1992-93 season of jazz under the rubric "Celebrations in Rhythm and Tune." Its immediate purpose is to delight and entertain; its deeper mission is to pass on the heritage of a unique country whose pluralism is evident in all its creativity.

What remains important is to know who we are and whence we came. If we do that, it doesn't matter where we're going. We'll find our way, aided by our families and our teachers. First among the "bads" in Edward Rothstein's musical laundry list is the "shameful neglect" of public music education. Decrying the paucity of singing, playing and study, he writes: "Public arts education has become a matter of feel-good pop psychology, with lots of selfexpression and little learning. In 20 years, if this approach to teaching continues, it will produce the audiences we unfortunately deserve."

A little mulching is in order, an organized effort to make America's youth as passionately involved in its music as it is in its athletics. A good way to begin, as has been so effectively demonstrated by Zoltan Kodaly and his disciples in Hungary, is a recourse to our rich folk traditions and the various off-shoots stemming from them. No one who knows America would suggest that we have a shortage of these artistic resources.

So cheer up, America. Provided that we remain true to ourselves, our arts, including our music, are here to stay, for us to enjoy and to pass on to future generations as, in Aaron Copland's words, "our message of what it feels like to be alive in our time."

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