At the beginning of the Thanksgiving weekend, I found myself outside an antique shop at the edge of SoHo where I saw a pile of classical music CDs going for $3 a piece. Never one to pass up an opportunity to increase the size of my record collection, I rifled through them and wound up with a stack of mostly Baroque music plus a lone CD featuring a mass by Frank Martin and a requiem by a composer I’d never heard (all the more exciting) named Ildebrando Pizzetti. The man I bought them from was extremely pleasant but assuming that I had picked up the Martin and Pizzetti disc by mistake felt obliged to warn me, “That one’s contemporary you know.” Normally such a comment would provoke a 20-minute sermon from me about the virtues of new music. But unfortunately, I was already running late, so I simply said “Yes, I know” with a big smile, waited for my change, and left.
Then, this morning, as I was rushing to catch the dress rehearsal of Tobias Picker’s An American Tragedy at the Metropolitan Opera House, a solitary youngish man who was more than likely high or in some other way mentally unstable was pontificating to the rest of the world in a high-baritone relatively-pitched monotone. All I heard was: “…related to the best composer ever.”
Was he claiming to be the son or grandson of someone we all admire? Who, in his opinion, was “the best composer ever” anyway? Normally this sort of talk stops me dead in my tracks no matter the outcome. But since, once again, I didn’t want to be late (I wasn’t) plus he was probably crazy, I ran quickly on without being able to catch any more of his rant. But all through the subway ride up I kept wondering what he was talking about. It is all too rare to have a random quotidian encounter with words like “composer.”
Whereas during intermission at the Met today I saw at least ten prominent composers… It was a strange and awkward moment as these high profile unveilings often are. Everyone wanted to hear it but nobody wanted to be the first to say anything about it. Some literally stopped talking about it when they saw me approach perhaps afraid I’d write up their reactions or that theirs would differ from the ones I would later write. Odd, given how often I advocate for a non-“critical” stance. There’d be no chance of my writing a “review” of this performance even though for the record, against my better judgment, I will write here that I was very impressed with the opera.
I don’t plan to expose anyone here a la Page Six or even to go further in my description of An American Tragedy since journalistic codes of ethics, for what their worth, have traditionally treated dress rehearsals as strictly off limits to critical commentary. Yes, I know, all is fair in the blogosphere, therefore I will paraphrase one comment that I think bears some reflection here. One of the people I spoke to confessed that it was difficult to formulate an objective opinion about the work because he wished that it was his own work being done there instead, perhaps adding further fuel to Joshua Kosman’s argument that composers ought not be critics, but perhaps not.
Hey, I wished it was my work being done up there, too! But that’s beside the point. If I had written An American Tragedy, I would have let the long trombone sustain at the end of Act Two end the opera rather than follow it with a quick declamatory tonic chord. But, you know what, I didn’t write An American Tragedy; Tobias Picker did. One of the important things that is gained from abandoning a critical stance, whether you’re a composer or not, is to allow yourself to appreciate things you would not want to do yourself. Allow yourself to let in a work of contemporary choral music even if what you really like is Baroque music. Allow yourself to appreciate the infinite variety of art that is the product of being a human being rather than madly and incapably trying to focus only on what you assume or what you are told is “the best.”
O.K., that’s the rant I never unleashed on the guy in the antique shop which might have made him think of me what I thought of the man ranting about “the best composer ever” this morning. But it still leaves room for a few more questions… When you really don’t like a piece of music you hear, what precisely is it that you don’t like and why? Do you listen to music with a built in set of expectations or do you come to it new every time? (Be honest.) How often do you hear someone randomly mention new music? Do you think most people don’t talk about new music because they might be afraid to proclaim a “wrong opinion” about it?