The student new music organization which I serve as the faculty advisor for had their final meeting this week. In addition to finishing up end-of-the-year duties, we discussed our concert series for next year and potential adjustments to how we publicize each event. Several of the students brought up the fact that it was difficult to convince their friends—even those studying music—to come to many of our concerts because of the overriding perception that they were all too “serious” and not very entertaining.
Now, I know for a fact that our music students don’t have a strong bias against new music, as in the past two weeks I’ve witnessed student performers—more than one hundred in total—play on a composition studio concert, a choreographer/composer collaboration concert, and four student composer recitals. That being said, the fact that even these students have a hard time being enticed to come to a concert with a guest artist or composer because of the “seriousness” they’ve experienced in the past did get me thinking…of cheeseburgers.
For years, I’ve used food as an analogue for music in my teaching and writing; one of my first columns, for instance, compared one type of composer to a chef or cook who “collects” ingredients from the pantry and then builds a meal around those ingredients. I also find that using descriptors typically associated with the sense of taste tends to work well when trying to describe subjective aural or sonic characteristics—much better, in fact, than the typical visual color cues that many tend to use (synesthetes excepted, of course).
In fact, one of the few cable channels I tend to follow regularly is the Food Network because of the similarities I see between the creators and the consumers on those programs and creators and audiences in music. One overarching trend that I’ve noticed through those programs involves classically trained chefs “going back to their roots” and exploring the possibilities of combining complex flavors and structural forms with seemingly mundane “comfort” foods. Time and time again, we are presented with the desire of creative culinary artists to make dishes that are both at a very high level of complexity but also will be enjoyed by a wide audience that may not understand their underlying subtleties. This is the concept—providing one’s audience with an experience that not only stimulates the intellect but connects with more visceral, foundational, and intuitive sides as well—that I think has a lot of relevance to our current musical world.
All of that brings me back to cheeseburgers and the equivalent lack thereof in our current repertoire.
I feel—and this is, of course, only my own personal viewpoint—that there is a dearth of musical “cheeseburgers” in contemporary concert music today. Before y’all smirk and roll your eyes, hear me out. I’m not saying that composers shouldn’t be writing intellectually stimulating and complex works—that will always be part of the culture of creative artists. What I am saying is that the other side of the coin—music that is dripping with pure joy or whatever other base emotion you choose—is hard to find. Music that fits that description is often not encouraged by those who teach or by those who act as gatekeepers for funding opportunities, awards, etc., and is many times shunned or ridiculed by those whose tastes or proclivities are focused elsewhere.
Cheeseburgers are useful here because of the associations we as a society have with them. It’s hard for us to take something seriously that one can make on a backyard grill or order at a late-night diner, and perhaps it is time to encourage composers to write music that may have a similar lack of serious intentions. With full knowledge that being labeled one of Deemer’s “cheeseburgers” is not exactly the first thing composers would wish on their music, I present two examples of works that, at least for me, fall under this category:
“Better Git It In Your Soul” by Charles Mingus from the album Mingus Ah Um
“Black” by Marc Mellits/Will Obst and Sumner Truax, baritone saxophones
The Mingus album is interspersed with several works that I might consider more entertaining or “cheeseburger”-like (“Better Git It In Your Soul,” “Pussy Cat Dues,” and “Jelly Roll”) alongside more introspective, dark, and complex works. The Mellits piece, originally written for the bass clarinet duo Sqwonk, conveys that sense of pure joy I mentioned before whilst not being “simple” by any stretch of the imagination. I might even look at Caroline Shaw’s Partita as a piece that speaks to an audience’s “comfort food” tastes in several ways.
To bring us back to my students who worry about convincing their colleagues to attend our overly “serious” music concerts, we’re already thinking of ways to not only pick the right artists for the series but what kinds of programs we can suggest that may look to this approach I’ve been describing. If composers, artists, and presenters keep an open mind both in terms of the new literature that’s being written as well as the programming choices through which audiences will interpret that literature, we may yet have an influx of “cheeseburgers” as part of our balanced musical diet.