View From the East: A Modest Idea

Greg Sandow

This past summer, I wrote a piece for The Wall Street Journal about dinner music. I’d eaten in a fine country restaurant, where unfortunately there was one annoyance—classical music on the stereo, first some surging 19th-century romantic work, bad for the stomach, and then classical music’s greatest hits, Bolero and the like, bad for the imagination (and distracting precisely because they’re so familiar).

That got me wondering what music might have been better. I restricted myself to classical stuff, not because jazz or world music, or Sade wouldn’t have been fine, but because I know classical music best. I thought the best dinner music would be something that didn’t tug at your attention, but that rewarded you if you happened to listen. I came up with some suggestions—Stravinsky’s Apollo, Steve Reich’s New York Counterpoint (the multiple clarinet piece), and Haydn’s Symphony No. 63, “La Roxelane.”

But then, as I wrote, I realized something that should have been obvious—restaurants ought to commission dinner music, asking composers to write something that (in my view, anyway) should sit quietly in the background until you found yourself listening to it. And, come to think of it, would give you something delightful even if you listened for just a few seconds, never forcing you (with any kind of blatant drama) to keep listening, or else feel that you’d missed something crucial.

This should have been obvious to me because I think composers should be asked to write pieces for every occasion where music is played. A while ago I was asked to speak at the annual meeting of the New Jersey Symphony (a very happy orchestra that’s little known in New York, even though it’s recognized throughout the orchestral world as a model of imaginative management, and under its past music director, Zdenek Macal, gave some of the most satisfying concerts I’ve heard in the past few years). Of course there was music, played by members of the orchestra, but I couldn’t help thinking that one of the two pieces played should have been new. If a new bookstore opens, and there’s a party, someone should be asked to write a piece. If a band marches in a civic parade (St. Patrick’s Day, anybody?), someone should fund a new band extravaganza. (Don’t even get me started on the gala performances that open concert and opera seasons.)

Happily, one new music organization did pick up on my restaurant idea, so maybe something will happen. But already I can hear some objections. How can I ask anybody to write music people won’t listen to? Isn’t that an insult to composers? Won’t I encourage trivial music, at the expense of profound musical thought?

I’ve got many answers to that. First, look at the pieces I chose for my own ideal dinner—Bach, Stravinsky, Haydn—and substantial works, at least from the first two; not what I’d call trivial. Any dinner composer who writes anything even a tenth as good as Apollo deserves thanks from all of us. Secondly—and now I’ll extend my defense to the band piece for St. Patrick’s Day, and whatever anybody writes for the bookstore inauguration—not all music needs to be lofty. Anybody who wants to storm the heights of emotion or intellect in every composition is free to ignore my ideas. Though I do think that all grades of music are, in the end, related. Flood our lives with happy pieces for every occasion, get people used to seeing composers and hearing their work, and the market expands for everyone. Even Elliott Carter’s five string quartets will get more attention than they currently do.

But all this is a prelude to another idea. I was talking a while ago with someone in classical radio (I won’t name any names, or say which station was involved; no need to shine lights on someone who’ll do best working in private, without any pressure). This person works for a station that’s more or less typical; it broadcasts unchallenging music. My conversation partner had no thought of changing that, but wondered if, by some alchemy yet to be evolved, the station could sound a little more like the city it’s in.

I said: Commission some composers. Or, maybe, hold a competition. Ask people to write pieces that would fit with no trouble—no raised eyebrows, no shaking of heads, no turning the dial elsewhere, no angry letters to management—into the station’s playlist. And then don’t just play the winner, or, rather, don’t have just one single winner. Play everything you get that would work on the air (subject, I guess, to the laws of reality; the station would probably have to pay to get the works performed, and its bank account most likely isn’t bottomless).

My radio friend responded, a bit worried: “But wouldn’t that restrict the composers?” Or, anyway, words to that effect. Wouldn’t composers have to push down their creative urge, writing pieces for easy listening when surely they’d rather write something as searing as Mahler’s Sixth.

The answer, of course, is that anyone who didn’t want to write radio music wouldn’t have to enter the competition. And also that restrictions aren’t necessarily bad. They can even stimulate creativity. The 12-tone canons in the first movement of Webern’s Symphony, Op. 21, are pretty fearsome in their rigor and complexity (not in their sound). But Webern didn’t sacrifice anything by writing them, except maybe some sleep. When Prokofiev decided he’d write the last movement of his Classical Symphony without using any minor chords, that didn’t put him in a straitjacket. It was a challenge; of all the music he might write, use only the kinds where minor chords don’t occur. Or when Tom Johnson wrote The Four-Note Opera…does anyone remember that? Tom, a certified downtown composer (and chronicler of the downtown scene in The Village Voice, to the delight and edification of many of us who first learned about downtown music from him), wrote a sly tonal opera with just four notes, D, G, A, and E. It was a wild success early in the ‘70s, got into Time magazine; and Tom was still Tom.

A radio composer could see her work the same way. She’d be like Prokofiev: Of all the musical ideas she might have, use only the ones that would work on classical radio. There’s no limit to how cannily the ideas can be fit together. It’s true that you can’t express violent emotion in a piece like this, but if that’s an objection, then we’re forgetting all the great pieces that aren’t violently emotional. You know, like the Brandenburg Concertos or Music for 18 Musicians. We’d also rule out sounds that are in any way extreme, like Glenn Branca symphonies (extremely loud) or anything by Morton Feldman (mostly very soft), but enough already. We’re not saying all music should be like this; only the pieces written for the radio. And anyone who doesn’t like it doesn’t have to participate. The point, if you ask me, is that classical radio isn’t going to go away (or at least we hope it isn’t), so let’s turn it to our purposes.


On another note, I’d like to say something in defense of Dead Men Walking, the Jake Heggie opera that my critic colleagues pretty well savaged when City Opera produced it this fall.

It’s not what you’d call a sophisticated piece, though the Terrence McNally libretto bristles with commercial smarts; it’s constructed tightly enough to rival the most successful Hollywood screenplay. The music is somewhat crude and not exactly specific about crucial dramatic points. At the start, when we watch a violent murder, the music howls something translatable, more or less, as “This is horrible!” What, exactly, the horror means is something the music can’t tell us, not then or anywhere in the piece. Compare the violent music in Verdi’s Otello, after Otello degrades Desdemona in their scene in the third act. It’s utterly specific; it wouldn’t fit in any other Verdi opera, or at any other point in this one.

I never felt anything like that anywhere in Dead Men Walking. Even at the opera’s climax of redemption, when Sister Helen tells a desperate killer (on death row, awaiting execution) that God is with them, the music only says: “This is lovely and important.” It doesn’t make us feel the presence of God, or the strength of Sister Helen’s belief, or the peace the idea of God brings to the now-repentant killer. I can’t remotely tell what God means to Heggie; whether, for instance, he believes God really did descend, or simply that Sister Helen’s faith made it seem as if He did. The whole thing comes across, in the opera, simply as a dramatic device, just as McNally’s libretto comes across as an expert contrivance. (Which is not, by the way, to say that Heggie doesn’t have any feelings or ideas. It’s just that they don’t sound in his music.)

But, as Galileo muttered even after he was forced to recant, “Eppur si muove”…”Still the earth moves.” (In the astronomical, not the Hemingway sense.) No matter what fault I find with it, this opera, too, moves—it slams along with real force, and captures the audience, earning strong applause. Compare that to The Great Gatsby, John Harbison’s waste of an evening at the Met, infinitely better written than Dead Man, heavy with sobriety and high aspirations, which unfortunately weigh it down until it can’t move, instead of giving it fuel for a climb to the heights. Judged purely as opera, it’s flattened—whipped, completely eclipsed—by Dead Man Walking, a piece otherwise so inartistic that too many people make the mistake of not taking it seriously.