Tuesday, July 31, 2007

musical scale (w/leah swann, guest blogger)

Last week, at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony under James Levine dove into Mahler 3. (NY Times review here) A little background- for as long as I can remember, about twenty years now, the BSO playing Mahler has been a big deal. I grew up in the Seiji Ozawa era, at the point where (allegedly) the musicians started getting bored of the maestro, and vice-versa, particularly during the long summers at Tanglewood. Every season was notoriously hit or miss, and with parents' season tickets and two summers working and playing at Tanglewood, I got to see some of both. BUT, whenever the BSO did Mahler, no matter how bad a run they were on by their standards, it was must-see music. The orchestra's intensity ramped up ten notches, Ozawa reminded everyone why they hired him in the first place, and the crowds rose to their feet. Not surprisingly, Mahler was on the program at least twice a year, and they would tour with Mahler 3 or 5 as part of the program.

I never thought too much about it. I always enjoyed the Mahler I got to see, but figured it was one of those things; some orchestras do certain periods or composers well. And Mahler, with his vast scope, grand themes and huge casts, is a good one to do well. Now I'm less sure.

My good friend, violist, occasional contributor to Strings magazine and all around amazing person Leah Swann is currently a fellow at Tanglewood; it's her second summer there, and she's an NEC grad, so she's seen her share of the BSO too. She recently send me a long missive about the recent Mahler 3 performance, with a very different take on playing and hearing his music. I'll let her talk now:

Mahler 3 seems to be this incredible depiction of the extremes of life -- ridiculous trombone solos and intensely loud full orchestra passages, muted trumpet and crazy double bass section solos...everything intense and dramatic and over the top but somehow not in an exaggerated, grotesque way, but in a way very much about human existence...not about a personal sort of humanity like Beethoven -- but about the humanity of a society, a culture, a people. (which seems so appropriate for a Symphony, no?) Beethoven is so amazing because his music seems to speak to everyone on a personal level, expressing all that it is to be human, and Mahler seems to express in a way vaguely similar all it is to be a part of something tremendous and living and breathing and writhing and aching and longing and celebrating. I thought a lot during the couple of hours about this idea that it was music so great that it also Demanded greatness -- here they (the BSO) were, all shining, all giving everything -- and it seems like that had to be partly true because you just couldn't do the piece any other way, you know? so then I started thinking about other pieces that are like that...that Demand something of the performer, that grow you and teach you something because you just can't be involved with the music in a way that is anything less.

It got me thinking- her question about musical Demands is a huge one, and one I wanted to throw out to the hivemind. Especially in our music (jazz/improv/art-pop/what-have you), is there an equivalent to Mahler? Do we, can we, are we well served when we operate on that scale? I'm inclined to argue no- our music, unlike European art music, was built from a small scale, from three minute 45s, from brothels and the Cotton Club and Birdland and lofts and the 200-seat Knitting Factory, so by it's nature it's not as broad as Mahler, or Strauss, or Nixon in China. And when it tries to be- Kenton, Ellington's Sacred Concerts, the Rock-operas of the 70's- it falls flat on its face. I was just listening to Maria Schneider's new record, Sky Blue, and it comes closer than anything she's done, or anything I've heard in awhile- it's big and bold and beautiful, certainly, but also in turn very soft and delicate, and far more personal than grand. More Beethoven if you use Leah's argument. (Maria's liner notes, almost diary-like, are a giveaway) In jazz (for lack of better language) our brilliance is in many ways in the intimacy of it- watching Trane communicate his processes, technical, emotional and spiritual, seeing Miles break a room apart with three notes, hearing Billy Holiday seemingly wilt into the microphone or Johnny Hodges climb ten stories in a second during a ballad. And currently, watching Dave Douglas and The Bad Plus and Darcy and Ron Miles and so many others try to thread the needles of tradition and innovation, irony and passion that our time demands. Even at their most political, it's a most beautiful form of retail politics, hardly an international soapbox.

I know personally, I've been very blessed to play some big, beautiful, Important rooms- including at Tanglewood- and I've never been able, never wanted to muster up that kind of grandeur, even writing 15 minute jazz odysseys for large ensemble. I want the person in the back of the hall to feel drawn in, like we're in a small club or a living room, having a conversation. And even playing Ellington with a big band, I never felt like I could fall back on the music the way I think some classical musicians believe they can with Mozart or Brahms. I think when you really pull an audience into Mahler, or a big opera, they're buying into the granduer, but when you pull a crowd in with our music, they buy into the personality of it.

But I could be wrong- is there a Mahler in our ranks? Other thoughts greatly appreciated.

P.S. Many, many thanks to Leah for the use of her beautiful missive, and congratulations to her, Evan and the rest of the TMC orchestra for kicking ass on Verdi's "Don Carlo this weekend. (Reviews here and here) Even listening on the radio a hundred miles away, it was amazing to behear.

P.P.S To drive it home, here's a very different take on Tanglewood, Miles ca. 1971. (thanks to Jason Palmer for this, my first non-text link. Slowly, we get hep to the future here at Visionsong HQ.)


the improvising guitarist said...

I read this with a lot of interest. My ¢2 (with more questions than answers).

…In our music… is there an equivalent to Mahler?

Short answer: of course not.
Longer answer: in what way would we expect someone (or something) be ‘equivalent’ from one tradition to the next. This isn’t meant to invalidate your question, but there’s something else hiding behind this… and I think the key point is one that you raise elsewhere:

…When you really pull an audience into Mahler, or a big opera, they're buying into the granduer, but when you pull a crowd in with our music, they buy into the personality of it.

Exactly. The question isn’t so much whether or not “there an equivalent to Mahler”, but why reception (and the corresponding mythologies) differ between these musics.

A few more random questions:

…Our music… was built from a small scale….

Well, depends. You’re assuming that the ‘work’ concept—single-author, stand-alone, autonomous, finite-length—holds some kind of cross-cultural, cross-traditional currency. But if that concept is applicable to other musics, why not accept the set, the songbook, the record album, or the scene as the ‘work’? Why not hold the 60s/70s Davis/Maceo experiments as an example of a large scale ‘work’ (that would have demanded greatness from the individual musicians)? Why not see vaudeville as a single entity (something beyond the grasp of the individual musicians involved) rather than a ragbag ‘anthology’ as the history books generally present?

Even at their most political, it's a most beautiful form of retail politics, hardly an international soapbox.

Is it a choice between ‘retail politics’ and ‘international soapboxes’? Or do the Mahler-industry’s (although not necessarily Mahler’s) ‘soapboxes’ resemble something else?
Yes, I understand the desire to place, say, Beethoven as one who stands for “all that it is to be human”, but why is that a compelling story? And does that story eerily echo the rhetoric of a universal humanism that oils the engines of colonialism? (Okay, I’ll stop. I’m probably getting borderline silly by now.)

S, tig

pat said...


Borderline silly... hardly. I always appreciate the tomatoes you throw at me... Seriously, that's a lot to chew on.

Briefly, by my scale comment, I wasn't thinking as big as you. I simply meant that there that large scale finance structures (i.e. royal or semi-royal court funding, then eventually city orchestras and universities) have been in place since almost the beginning of "classical music" as we think of it. (Hayden, Bach, Scarlatti, etc.) No equivalent to these structures really existed, either financially or in scope of music, until almost halfway into the history of jazz. (There were lots of 60+ minute symphonies long before the LP showed up)