Too Much Music

Lynette Westendorf, July 23, 2015

The following address was delivered to the audience on opening night of the 2015 Methow Valley Chamber Music Festival.

Lynette in the river with her grand piano.photo credit: Teri PieperI’ve been thinking a lot about music recently. Music in my life. Music here at the festival. Classical music. Jazz. Irish music. Good music. Bad music.

Since I am the festival’s first lecturer and opening event, it is my unofficial task to pay tribute to this 20th anniversary festival—to Gerry Sparling, Herbert, and the other founders; to Howie and Liz; Festival staff and board; Kevin; musicians and composers; and you, as supporters of the art of music. I’ll also be paying tribute to two important American musicians who have recently died. This said, the thought that I kept coming back to, while preparing this talk, was that we have entirely too much music in our lives. Surely an odd opening statement, but one I think is true.

Before we go there, however, I had another thought. I know that you are all here to experience and listen to music that you love, performed by exceptional musicians, live, and in a beautiful setting. We know it will be good music, because we have been here before. We know and love and trust these musicians and festival organizers who have worked so hard. We are here to see our friends, celebrate our community, show respect and appreciation for work well done, and…to hear good music—classical music that has become so beloved that it has been elevated to the level of “art.” A highly developed art form to which thousands upon thousands of people dedicate their lives, with no guarantee of making a decent living; no guarantee of becoming a singularly, great musician; no guarantee of being held in esteem at some future date. We musicians spend not hours or days or months, but literally years and years, working on our craft and our art. Practicing. Repeating our practice. Rehearsing. Practicing. Composing. Practicing. Practicing organized sound. It isn’t easily explained.

Of course, not all music is necessarily elevated to the level of art. It is entirely good and appropriate to have music to accompany the rituals in our lives—weddings, celebrations, worship, even eating and enjoying the company of others. Such music is always better when it’s live, I think. I can almost always find something positive in live music, regardless of style, or even the skill of the musicians.

Back to the thought that we have too much music in our lives. At some point, some clever marketing person here in America came up with the idea that human beings couldn’t tolerate silence, and the idea spread so that now music is literally a background to our daily lives—to encourage pleasant shopping or pleasant root canals or pleasant sweating in our exercise classes. I personally resent that music has become a commercial commodity meant to regulate human behavior. It is a great disservice to the real appreciation of music and musicians. It is a real pleasure to wait in a European airport, surrounded by just the sound of the building. And by the way, the train station in Paris has a public piano in the middle of the foyer. Has anyone noticed how few public pianos there are here anymore? As I said, I’ve been thinking a lot about music recently.

I frequently hear people say they like good jazz. Now I’m one of those musicians who lives in multiple musical worlds—classical and jazz being just two. What people generally mean when they say they like good jazz is that it should sound normal—for jazz. Weird, but not too weird. Crazy and a little exploratory, but definitely something you can dance to, unless it’s Take Five. Good classical music, to many people, may be perhaps somewhat more modern than Mozart, maybe not quite so complicated as Bach, and definitely with a dynamic theme that can be followed and perhaps even hummed a bit after listening. Is it possible to experience music as if we had never heard it before? Rarely do we really know what we’re going to hear, but rather, we anticipate what we think we should hear from a composer or a composition. What if a goodly portion of the music we hear at this festival were something so new, so strange, something unlike we have ever experienced before? What if it weren’t pretty? What if I can’t find the beat? What if we don’t like it? What if there were nothing familiar at all about the music, except the actual sounds of the instruments? What if all our expectations of what the music should be were left unmet? What if it were entirely unidentifiable in terms of what we think of as classical music?

Kind of scary, and probably not a good marketing ploy. But let us consider, just for fun. Let’s say that for this new and unknown type of music…I’ve invented three titles:

  1. The Emptiness of Outer Space
  2. Cacophony in the Human Brain
  3. Prayer

…if this entirely new and unknown type of music were part of the program, wouldn’t it be kind of exciting, too?

There is a curious tendency of human beings—perhaps all animals—to dislike things we don’t understand. Perhaps it is a primitive survival instinct—a danger alert of some kind. But since we know that the music tonight will be entirely harmless, then perhaps we can approach our resistance in another way.

What if, out of the blue, you won a coveted lottery and were granted a one-time chance to hear something no one had ever before heard? What if it sounded like:

  1. The Emptiness of Outer Space,
  2. Cacophony in the Human Brain, or
  3. Prayer.

Let’s pretend that there is no need to like what you hear. There is no need to buy it. You get to hear other music you know you love—Dvořák, Beethoven, Mozart. No need to experience this new music ever again. Your only requirement would be a few minutes of time spent listening. Listening with an open mind for something that may sound like:

  1. The Emptiness of Outer Space,
  2. Cacophony in the Human Brain, or
  3. Prayer.

Something to think about…

I’d like to pay tribute to two great American musicians who died last month, within a few days of one another—Gunther Schuller and Ornette Coleman. They were musical colleagues early in their lives, both rose to the epitome of their fields in American music. Both were recipients of MacArthur Genious Awards, the Pulitzer Prize, numerous other awards and honorary doctorates.

Gunther Schuller is no doubt familiar to you because of his involvement for many years with music in the Northwest, particularly with the Spokane Symphony and the Northwest Bach Festival. Gunther Schuller was proudly a high-school dropout and self-educated musician, but one whose talent and hard work took him to the top of his field as a composer, conductor, educator, author and director. He was also a renowned jazz advocate. He coined the term Third Stream for the synthesis of modern classical music with jazz. He was an expert horn player (and I’m sure a dear friend of Verne Windham’s); his experience ranged from work with the Metropolitan Opera, many first tier orchestras, the American Ballet Theater; he was President of the New England Conservatory and director of the Tanglewood Music Center, and he recorded with jazz greats such as Miles Davis, Dizzie Gillespie, The Modern Jazz Quartet, Eric Dolphy, and Ornette Coleman.

Ornette Coleman, more than any other jazz musician I can think of, has a sound that is singularly identifiable—no one else sounds like Ornette Coleman. His artistic philosophy and technique of music opened the door for jazz to grow out of self-limiting concepts of form and rhythm, an innovator who was truly the jazz musician’s Jazz Musician. Ornette invented and lived a different concept of musical creation, a theory he coined as Harmolidic Concept, wherein the musical HARmony, MOtion and meLODIC ideas were freely equal for exploration in both composition and in performance. Three truisms of Ornette Coleman’s were that the musician should never be limited by the style of music being played, nor by their expertise on their instrument, nor by any perceived outcome of the music. His 1960 recording Free Jazz eventually became an entire genre of jazz, much as Gunther Schuller’s Third Stream paved the way for musicians to explore new avenues of creativity.

I know the music of Ornette Coleman quite well from my doctoral research on the analysis of free jazz. He never published his book on harmolodic theory, and he rarely spoke in musical specifics, but rather in more philosophical terms. For that, he was, early in his career, often dismissed by music critics, but he garnered respect from the likes of Gunther Schuller and Leonard Bernstein, and after a lifetime of creative endeavor, was awarded the respect he so deserved.

When I teach theory, I talk about notes and scales and chords and rhythm. But I can imagine Ornette beginning a theory session by challenging the player to play a note, not considering the pitch or duration, volume or attack, but rather the depth of the note, how it sounds not in a linear left to right manner, but how close and how far away it can be, how many ways a single sound can be explored until there is nothing left to discover.

I was recently trading music on YouTube with my brother and his granddaughter. We would each choose a piece and the others would listen until it was their turn to choose. We all had our opinions and observations on one another’s favorites, but when I selected a piece by Ornette, the reaction was immediate and decisive—What noise is that? Turn it off? What a racket!

It’s true that Ornette’s music is challenging to listen to. But that’s all it is. Just challenging. It requires attentive listening and questioning. What was he doing? How did he do it? One doesn’t become one of the most respected names in jazz, establish an entire genre of music with world-wild influence, record and sell many dozens of albums, perform around the world and pack concert halls right up to the year of his passing, if the music isn’t real. Ornette Coleman was never one of those musicians to end up playing county fairs and casinos late in life.

There is a story about Ornette and Gunther in New York, where Gunther, fluently versed in the theoretical language of Western Music (chords with hierarchical function derived from major and minor scales), had taken the younger Coleman on as a student. This was during Ornette’s developmental stage, even though he had had considerable success in creative jazz circles in Los Angeles and New York. There was considerable respect between the two, but Gunther thought that Ornette could benefit from further studies in music theory. Coleman learned to play without formal lessons, and was surprised to learn as a young teen that his alto saxophone was a transposing instrument. What he learned to read as “C” was not really “C” at all in the concert pitch. I often wonder what that moment of realization was like. In any event, Coleman took lessons with Schuller for several sessions, and at one session had an “Ah…I’m beginning to get it” moment, at which time he left, never to return.

I was just listening to an orchestra piece by Ornette, Skies of America, recorded by the London Symphony in 1972. Even though he rarely wrote for orchestra, it is such an “Ornette” piece—no long grand themes, no obvious formal structure, no repetitive rhythms—and while I was listening to it, I realized that if I tried to read from an article or browse through information such as a list of recordings or dates, that I could absolutely not do both activities at the same time. My brain just stopped, and I was repeatedly pulled into the amazing sounds of this orchestra work, Skies of America. When it was recorded, the record company demanded that the 41-minute piece be fragmented into smaller, “listenable” segments, which might be more marketable, which work for me, too, but the music was composed and recorded as one long movement.

To me, the richness of texture, the absence of development and resolution, the lack of identifiable meter, formal melody and obvious form take me to another place, mentally and emotionally. There is no expectation of what comes next based upon what has just taken place. The music just IS.

Back to the idea that we humans don’t like things we don’t understand, Fresh Air just ran an archive interview with Ornette when a listener said to him, “I like your music, but I don’t understand it.” At which point he answered, “Would you like it any more if you did understand it?”

So here’s to you, the lovers of music, without whom musicians would have no reason to be—thanks for listening. Many thanks to the Festival board and staff, Gerry, particularly Liz and Howie for this incredible venue. Cudos to Kevin for the inclusion of living composers on every program this year. Indeed, nearly half of this year’s program features music composed solidly in the 20th or 21st centuries. It will also be a pleasure to hear music by the America composer Amy Beach.

Please listen actively with an open mind and an open heart. Seek out music you don’t understand, perhaps music that you don’t necessarily even know about or like. I recently have begun to develop an appreciation of Irish punk, of all things, after I read the History of Irish Music by Larry Kirwin, and followed up the reading with YouTube performances of specific songs and musicians. I hadn’t known that Irish punk was a reaction to the political Troubles in Ireland, both in the recent past and historically. In that context, one can really hear the anxiety and frustration in the music, an emotional and artistic response to a reality that could never be expressed in something lyrical or conventionally beautiful.

You will be honoring the art of music, if you intentionally explore musical places you have never been. If you hear something that you don’t understanding, perhaps you can try to discover it, like:

  1. The Emptiness of Outer Space,
  2. Cacophony in the Human Brain, or
  3. Prayer.