Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Pulitzer puzzle

Yesterday Steve Reich won the Pulitzer Prize for his "Double Sextet." It was commissioned by eighth blackbird with money from a bunch of institutions and foundations, the usual.

That is a picture of Steve Reich up above. He is not a bad-looking guy!

You can read about Steve Reich's "Double Sextet" and see a video at the nifty Collaborative Piano Blog here.

Also if the spirit moves you, you can go to the Carnegie Hall site and hear a slice of it here.

One of the many things funny about living in Buffalo is that because our city clings like crazy to the avant-garde, like this koala clinging to a tree...

... we are no strangers here to either eighth blackbird -- whom I have interviewed at least once -- or to Steve Reich. Reich was in town a few years ago with his wife, Beryl Korot. They showed this video they made of three ominous events: the Hindenburg, Bikini Island and the cloning of Dolly the sheep.

Why do I get the feeling I have written about this before? I am getting like this old person. I do not know what I have written and what I have not written. It is like the time I almost called the Muir Quartet twice in one week! Maybe it was the Miro Quartet. Wow, can you tell what kind of a morning I am having?

Focus, Mary, focus!

The Reich/Korot video. I liked it. It gave me all these new ideas on how to organize stuff because I liked how Reich and Korot made this kind of pastiche of sound and video and image and interview. I seem to remember the screen was divided at least part of the time. Anyway, to me it suggested all kinds of new ways of telling a story and it's funny, working on this book on Leonard Pennario, I find myself thinking of that video now and then. I guess you could say it has inspired me. "Three Tales" was the name of that piece. I looked it up.

But this "Double Sextet."

Like a lot of new music it falls into my category of, do I admire the work that goes into this thing? I guess. Will I come home from work and pour a glass of wine and listen to it? Uh...

Lastnight I made Howard listen to it to get a second opinion. Howard used to own a music store and he comes from the background of rock so sometimes he will give you a new perspective. Howard said it just sounded like a dime-a-dozen MIDI piece that a musician might churn out for a movie soundtrack.

To be honest, I have heard worse. Your ear can kind of hook onto this thing. It struck me as kind of like a long noisy vamp, a noisy jazz piece.

But is the world really the richer for it?

Plus the Pulitzer prize. Is this piece really the best our country has to offer?

Things like this make me wonder about the future of new music. I am sorry. People love to tell you that in Beethoven's time, there was a disconnect between him and the audience. But it was not like this.

Yeah, people raised their eyebrows at Mozart now and then. But it was not like this.

Back then you did not need a doctoral thesis to be able to find new music appealing. It appealed to more than niche audiences and ivory tower types.

I do not dislike all new music and sometimes I surprise myself. A little while ago at work I needed something to listen to so I could blot out something that was distracting me. So I put on a string quartet by Elliott Carter. And I was surprised how contentedly I worked with this Elliott Carter in my ears. I lasted through the whole piece. It was just his First String Quartet which is not as thorny as the others. But still.

"Thorny" is a word you always see applied to new music. It is that!

Frequently I know enough of the composers and performers behind a piece of new music that I can admire the work and scholarship that go into the piece.

I just cannot find it in my heart to love it.


  1. You write "I just cannot find it in my heart to love it." At least you admit it, and on a blog you're entitled to write anything (unlike writing for publication).

    In Beethoven's day, there wasn't so much old music to listen to. Concerts were infrequent and recording and playback didn't exist. Leonard Bernstein said somewhere that we're bombarded with music all the time and that it's a problem; mentally tiring. I don't know the answer, except to say that creative people will produce one way or another...they can't help it. The tragedy is that often after they're dead, one finds out that they gave more to the world than the world ever gave them.

    By the way, did you notice that Steve Reich is wearing a cap???? Wonder if he's ever been caught wearing a knitted watchcap (like a certain Prof. G.).

  2. I'm surprised to hear you speak about the "disconnect" between current new music and audiences.

    I think now, more than ever, the audience is connecting in a exciting new way and I think that Reich's music is on the forefront of that. Most of the avant garde of the 20th Century became the real disconnect between audiences and concert music and because of that, classical music became a museum piece. Reich and others - like Steven Mackey, Bang On A Can, Glenn Kotche, Osvaldo Golijov, and performers like eighth blackbird - are all creating and playing music that is highly accessible to the popular and the "academic" alike. I don't think it's the case across the board of new "classical" music, but I think in general, there is a shift in the direction of true accessibility in contemporary concert music.

    I think a lot of people are hearing pieces like Double Sextet and connecting it with the popular music they know and love as well as recognizing the informed complexity that the classical tradition has lent. I don't think that Double Sextet is Reich's best work - though it's growing on my with every listen - but I think that Reich's body of work and his artistic pursuit has been long overdue for some recognition of the caliber of a Pulitzer.