November/December 2018: Winds of Change
In the last two columns I have danced around acknowledging that I have retired from university teaching. Now it seems the right time to retire this column as well. There are many reasons for the decision, and with a new editor at Clavier Companion, I step aside to make room for new ideas and fresh writers in this space. Frankly, I was a little embarrassed to re-read my last column when it arrived in the print issue. While I have advocated change my whole career, I will not be getting to know Kendrick Lamar's music as project number one in retirement. That was trying too hard on my part. If I have to strain that vigorously to come up with a column, it's time to stop.
When I retired my old Clavier column, "Out of the Woods," in 2003, I wrote of how the best we might hope for is to create pockets of beauty. My words then:
In an age of grunge bands, hip-hop and obscenity-laden rap, a few moments of Mozart, Chopin, and Debussy are like oases in the desert, like finding a copy of the Shakespeare Sonnets in a comic book store. We should all be able to relate to the Little Dutch Boy who sticks his finger in the dyke to save his village from the flood. There is little hope of turning the tide of trash, but one can create pockets of beauty everywhere, tending and nourishing them as one would a garden.1
I still believe that, and if I have a goal for the next stage of my life, that's it. It sounds so conservative, even old-fashioned, yet a genius like Lin-Manuel Miranda can create an extraordinary—and yes, beautiful—work of art (his musical Hamilton) using the hip-hop medium that I have denigrated here.
So, I still seek out the new, and will always feel the winds of change blowing.
Another concern often cited in my previous writings: how small the classical music niche is in current American culture, and what might we do about it. However, is it a question of interest to the Clavier Companion readership? Just because you teach piano doesn't mean you teach classical music. And what a loaded term that is—"classical music." Many read into it connotations of "old," "boring," "elitist," or "too complex to understand." I still remember when I first heard the term from my very first piano teacher, Mrs. Getz, when she assigned me an easy arrangement of Schubert's Serenade. She played it for me, and, with her face bathed in warmth, told me that this was the music she liked best—"classical music." Chalk up one convert to classical music that day.
That day has grown into a lifetime, and the way I think about music essentially reflects the way music was a century ago in Europe. Think about that: Debussy died in 1918; Leonard Bernstein was born. I was always interested in more modern music, but I thought about it in terms of the canon and its potential place therein. I know that there are many different kinds of music abroad today: traditional, folk, jazz, pop, and world just to name a few. The internet and sound-streaming technology have made musical pluralism a part of everyday life, but I fear all that is too late for me. Hence, I wrote in the July/August column:
We must find a way to make our music [i.e., classical music!] relevant to the general population, [and be] open to what a compelling performance looks like to today's audience.2
Two words in that quote deserve further clarification. The first is "relevant." Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines it as "having significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand."3 Filling in the blanks, then, I think classical music could have a significant (meaningful), demonstrable (provable) bearing (effect) on the matter at hand (life in general!). If more people had a deep connection to classical music, the world, at least I believe, would be a better place.
The other word is "compelling." Here I find three definitions: 1) forceful, 2) demanding attention, and 3) convincing.4 When we consider what makes a compelling performance for today's audience, we look for what would make a performance forceful (i.e., impossible to ignore), and how a performance could convincingly demand attention (be so compelling that the listener is won over by its authenticity). Such a performance would likely have a greater chance of success if it were live, i.e., in person, without technology coming between the participants. This is why I asked in my first column what a compelling performance "looks like" to today's audience. Since the subject is music, I might have used "sounds like," but "looks like" seemed more appropriate.
One more important word: today's audience. While my thinking about music may be stuck in the past, the audience is very much in the present. We could learn a great deal about what they consider compelling. So much is communicated visually and with body language; we should be aware of this. Should we get rid of formal dress? Are printed programs a help or hindrance to musical communication? Where is the best place for a classical music performance? Could it be in the home for a handful of people?
While I may be signing off, you can be sure that I'll be stewing over questions like these for the foreseeable future. So many questions—so little time.
1 Robert Weirich, "It Was a Difficult Choice," Clavier, 42, no. 4 (2003): 25.
2 Robert Weirich, "Winds of Change," Clavier Companion, 10, no. 4 (2018): 6.
3 Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., s.v. "relevant."
4 Ibid., s.v. "compelling."