This Should Be My Biggest Problem!

One of the biggest problems I have as a working musician is going out to hear music. All too often when there’s a concert I want to attend, I have to work. This was the case yesterday when guitarist Bill Frisell, music presenter and producer Hal Willner, and visual artist Ralph Steadman performed Kaddish for the opening night of the Tune-In Music Festival. I was playing with vocalist Melissa Hamilton and guitarist Tom Dempsey at Studio 100 and so I had to miss Frisell’s musical take on Alan Ginsberg’s epic poem. In fact, I’ll miss the entire festival because the two concerts that will happen when I’m not working elsewhere are sold out (I’m at Trumpets, the club I mentioned a couple of entries back, tonight). (Well, I could attend the “Composer in Conversation” event if I rush back from New Jersey and don’t hit any traffic—and the idea is tempting…) I wanted to attend the ISIM conference this year, but my schedule didn’t allow for that, either. I would have been able to attend one afternoon, which coincided with my wife’s birthday (a sustained diminished triad with wide and rapid vibrato should be perceptible to the reader).

I was able to take advantage of some last-minute comps to hear the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra perform at Carnegie Hall and thoroughly enjoyed the performance. My favorite piece on the concert was Michael Tippett’s Divertimento on “Sellinger’s Round”, which was an opinion not shared by the rest of my party. I think his use of quotes from Purcell and Arne as a neo-classical device reminded me of how improvisers might quote passages from other pieces during their solos. I also think that as the evening’s opener it suffered from the ensemble’s settling into the concert, which might have contributed to my friends’ initial impression. But after the first minute, Orpheus found their “groove” and delivered a mesmerizing concert. I rarely lose my sense of place in a hall like Carnegie, but their performance of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings did it for me. Fortunately, it was a great concert, because that’s just about the only one I’ve been to for a month. I’m just too busy with rehearsals, gigs, and preparing for them.

Not that I’m complaining! I really like to play and can use the money (since my car blew up on me last month—now that’s a problem!). But I find myself in a bizarre inversion of Paul Matthews’s observation in his excellent article, The Cycle of Get , where he remarks, “To listen is not to compose. Composition asks more of us.” The first analogy might go, “To improvise is to not listen,” but that isn’t the case at all; one has to listen deeply to improvise. What is the case, what’s really happening, is that the act of being an audience to music performance places the listener into a unique and varied relationship to the music being heard. I think I’m paraphrasing John Cage by saying, “Composing music, performing music, and listening to music are three different experiences that bear little similarity to each other.” Yet, while music won’t make the same demands on the passive listener that it does on the improvising musician, it still demands that the musician commit to a passive role for balance. At least that’s what I get from going out to listen to others play music. I notice the imbalance when I find myself listening to music on my car’s radio more than the news.

When I go to hear live music, I experience one of the few healthy things that our culture offers us: a chance to connect with members of our species without our differences being at the fore. Wouldn’t it be great to play music the same way? It seems like that should be the way it is, but our culture isn’t small enough to unify music making. I know that there are occasions when extremely large groups of people will make the same music together, such as Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, but that only lasts for a short while. E. F. Schumacher hit the nail on the head when he said, “Small Is Beautiful.” Being too big to fail means that we can’t sing the same song at once, we have to take turns. Being too big to fail means that there are professional music-makers who are out to prove their music is worth listening to, at any price. But there is a beauty when diversity meets in the music crucible and it sometimes forges a new sound, a new beat, a new texture, that those whose business it is to listen to music are always on the lookout for, either to embrace it or to reject it. It’s then that we become like Mohammed Fairouz’s “fighting families,” who play the same music even though they didn’t learn the same music. Wouldn’t it be great if we were like that without the music?

But we aren’t, so I can’t complain.

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