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Peter Schickele at the Library of Congress

Peter Schickele, Louis C. Elson Memorial Lecture, Library of Congress, February 17, 2006Peter Schickele is known for his own compositions, his hilarious and insightful radio show Schickele Mix, and for having created an ingenious satirical persona, P. D. Q. Bach. Out of admiration for all of those things, Ionarts felt compelled to attend the Louis C. Elson Memorial Lecture, given by Schickele last night at the Library of Congress, after he had cancelled on the original date of December 7. The title of Schickele's lecture, String Quartet: The Dark Horse of Contemporary Music, was not a precise description of what he actually said, but that was not really a problem. He did get around to making a statement about the elasticity of the string quartet, that it was the genre that has most successfully incorporated stylistic innovations in contemporary musical styles, but he did not defend that thesis in a systematic way.

What he mostly spoke about was a topic that has been of interest to us here at Ionarts lately, how the future of classical music may or may not involve the incorporation of popular styles of music. On one hand, he said, so-called crossover music represents a dilution, to the point that it may not be worth calling it "classical music" at all. To this he added several arguments, for example, that many people think that the orchestra has always been with us, as if given by Moses on the mountain, but in fact it has been an entity only since the 18th century (I would add the 17th century, if we accept that groups not called "orchestras" had the same function). Just as composers did not write for orchestra before that period, it is possible that they could cease writing for it in the future. He also said that people who take in crossover concerts will likely still not develop a taste for classical music.

In response to a question after the lecture, he said that the only way to get young people to like classical music is to get them to play it in a group themselves. In other words, even private lessons are not always enough. His brother, he said, got the bug only when his teacher managed to get him a place in the back of the second violin section of the Fargo Community Orchestra. This suggestion was related to Schickele's point about the decline of chamber music in the 20th century, that is, that so much of the chamber music written since 1900 or so was just too difficult for an average group of people to play at home. It's a good point. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and countless others played string quartets at home, but with the works of Shostakovich and Bartók -- not to mention later experimental composers -- such a thing is no longer possible. This is a shame, since the Musikabend is a great tradition that it would be tragic to lose. If it is not lost already, it is only because of a few adherents, like the New Year's Eve party that Schickele said he attended at the brownstone of Itzhak Perlman, with David Finckel, Pinchas Zukerman, Emanuel Ax, et al. In a performance of Mendelssohn's Octet, when they discovered that Perlman only had seven music stands in the house, David Finckel reportedly sat behind the other cellist and put his music in his colleague's suspenders.

That is where this lecture was strongest, in Schickele's humor and anecdotal reportage, which is why it is hardly necessary for him to have made a real argument about the modern string quartet. Schickele came armed with the sort of hilarious recorded tracks that used to be heard regularly on his radio show. Mezzo-soprano Phyllis Pancella sang a country song but studiously avoided the sound of yodeling. Sean Grissom transformed one of the Bach unaccompanied suites on his album Cajun Cello. A rock group called the Fifth Estate covered Harold Arlen's song "Ding Dong! the Witch Is Dead," with a bridge that they lifted whole from an early music recording of a Praetorius bourrée, buzzing and farting with shawms, played over their percussion track and rhythmic shouts of "Hey!" to great comic effect. Spike Jones messed with the overture to Carmen, and a crazy group called the Roto Rooter Good Time Christmas Band did the same with Beethoven's ninth symphony and Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. The Greene Quartet and the Turtle Island String Quartet riffed on rock and roll (a Guns N' Roses cover) and jazz (Mr. Jumbles), respectively.

With all of that hip crossover sound, why was I most interested in the recordings of Elliott Carter's fourth quartet and Julia Wolfe's Four Marys? Probably because both use traditional string quartet and sounds that have little to do with pop music. Other pieces by Adams (John's Book of Alleged Dances) and Reich (Different Trains) were also fascinating, with prerecorded tracks mixed with string quartet but no trace of pop music. In a sense, as Schickele reminded me, classical composers have always appropriated folk or pop music. In the great successes of this kind of work -- like William Byrd's variation set on that dippy tune John, Come Kiss Me Now, the quodlibet that concludes the Goldberg Variations, or the slow movement of the "Surprise" Symphony -- composers are writing something that does not sound out of character. That is, the raw material of other idioms does not dominate but is mined for whatever musical interest it can provide, without being an end in itself. The best examples of the current trends, which we wrongly label as something new ("crossover"), will survive and probably sound remarkably normal in fifty years. The music that remains with one foot more heavily set down in the pop realm will likely fade. (This echoes in many ways what Peter Schjeldahl said about making art that appeals to the masses.) As Schickele put it at one point, not all good music is going to be loved by the masses. I would add that what the masses admire changes very quickly.


Sir G said...

hello charles

i know i asked before and i hate to make myself a nuissance, but cd you add me to your blogroll? thanks!

i decided to go to Paris in the fall (i can't miss the dance festival in Bali!). will stay till spring. see you there? ;-)

Charles T. Downey said...

Sorry about that. I have not updated that Blogville list in a very long time.

Mark Barry said...

Isn't there an admin fee?