Clique You Heels

My ongoing blog on musical cliques left off with a brief description of cliques as “small and exclusive groups of friends and/or associates.” Cliques are also described in Webster as being “held together by a presumed identity of interests, views, or purposes.” As an example: we, the readers and contributors to NewMusicBox.org are part of a clique of individuals “dedicated to the music of American composers and improvisers and their champions”—a music described earlier earlier as “comprised of a multitude of genres, subgenres, cliques, factions, and styles.”

So, in a sense we are a clique of cliques focused on American musicians. In this light, cliques are a good thing. I know I usually consider cliques, per se, as relatively benign entities, groups of folks who share circumscribed interests and goals. The divisions between cliques can be surprisingly subtle. I was exposed to this Wednesday afternoon when I went to visit a high-school friend who was in town playing bass in the San Francisco Symphony at Carnegie Hall. Although I’m primarily self-taught when it comes to bass playing, I did study with Michael Burr, a past principal bass for SFS (when I studied with him, he was last chair, but when Seiji Ozawa took over from Josef Krips, Michael took advantage of an open audition for the vacancy). Since I haven’t been backstage at an SFS event as an observer since that time, I was happy to accept an invitation to come upstairs and hang out in the “mortuary” (a little low and base humor that refers to how flight cases for contrabasses are often referred to as “coffins”). So much had changed since 1969. For one thing, the coffins didn’t look like coffins anymore. Instead of the double-trapezoid I remember (which Burr used for his clothes, and not his bass), the modern SFS bass case is a rectangular box that stands about eight feet tall and is exquisitely form-fitted to the bass it houses. And what basses! My 1832 Ferdinand-Joseph Seitz Mittenwald contrabass with its six strings (see my blog photo) would be an abomination among some of these museum quality instruments.

One of the bassists, the assistant principal, was looking at German bows someone had brought over for him to look at (which was also a surprise because I remember the SFS bass section as exclusively French bow players). I offered to hold the bow(s) he wasn’t trying out, to save the hassle of depositing and retrieving them from the top of one of the cello cases and to just listen to his bass. I soon realized that I was in very exclusive company. Although many, if not most, orchestral bassists can improvise (Michael Burr took lessons from Ray Brown and Doug Watkins and is an exceptional improviser), the thrust of their clique is orchestra repertoire and uniform performance. When these guys go onstage, every note, gesture, and page turn has been carefully orchestrated and rehearsed. When I get together with my fellow improvisers, we might argue about what chords to use in a given piece; but, when the SFS bassists get together, they discuss which direction the bow will go on a given note. While improvisers see technique as somewhat fluid and secondary to the music being created, orchestral musicians focus intensely on technique, the notes have been picked in advance. I was an outsider in their clique, but had a ball listening to and talking about their instruments, although I’m a lightweight in the “gearhead” department. They were polite about my bowing (Yes, they let me play two of the basses–woo-WOO!) and my friend and I had a great time eating pizza at Angelo’s and cruising memory lane.

We talked about the frustrations of teaching in public schools (how working with children can be spiritually rewarding until the standardized testing requirements invade the realm of actual learning), politics (the abominable traffic patterns of Broadway and private armies), and, of course, improvised vs. non-improvised music. Being from San Francisco, we both grew up playing improvised as well as non-improvised music. We also both grew up in a time when improvised music was excluded from nearly every academic institution in the world except as part of the field of ethnomusicology where it falls under the rubric of anthropological research. One of his more promising students, however, is attending one of the prestigious colleges here in New York. He is extremely proficient at both jazz and classical music and had an opportunity to study at one of the big-name conservatories here in New York City. He was told, however, that as a jazz student he would have no access to classical bass instruction. So he rejected conservatory training and is majoring in a non-musical field. Fortunately, the institution he attends now allows him access to all of its excellent music programs, classical or not, and his excellent musical abilities will not be compromised by his academic pursuits. My friend and I were wondering why this kind of academic clique-ing is still acceptable in the 21st century.

That evening my wife Francesca and I went to hear Michael Tilson Thomas and the SFS play a fantastic performance of three compositions I had never heard before by three distinctive American composers: Carl Ruggles, Morton Feldman, and Charles Ives. Because the decision to attend the concert was a last minute one, I had no chance to research the program’s music before I heard it. I’ve never heard any of Ruggles’s work before and knew next to nothing about him, either. His Sun-Treader, the opening piece, made me think of Ralph Vaughn Williams’s Symphony No. 4 and I wonder if there was an influence, considering the quasi-serial treatment of certain pitch-class sets in Symphony No. 4. I have always been enamored of Feldman’s music; I literally wore out an LP copy of Rothko’s Chapel back in 1974. The SFS’s performance of Piano and Orchestra, featuring Emanuel Ax, allowed me to revisit that welcome spiritual experience from my youth. Henry Brant’s orchestral realization of Ives’s Concord Sonata (A Concord Symphony) could well become Tilson Thomas and SFS’s signature piece. The concert made me proud of how far SFS has come since the abysmal days of Enrique Jordá. Still, my conversation with my friend still hung in my head and I noticed few musicians of color on Carnegie’s stage and had to ask myself (again) about how really American was this performance?

Certainly the composers represented in the SFS program were Americans, but is their music? Of course, Ruggles and, especially, Ives are credited with developing textures and sonorities (!) that weren’t in the music of their European contemporaries. But America, as it is understood as a modern geopolitical entity, is ethnically diverse and the music heard in orchestral halls is a mere fraction of what is heard and played here. It’s not very popular among American citizens, which is also the case for jazz or just about any other kind of music. Every type of music heard in America will likely have more detractors than fans (except, possibly, the song “Happy Birthday”). We still have no real national music. The supra-cultural machine tells us what is popular and we develop our cliques accordingly.

To be continued…

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