What is it? The Music in Time series is Spoleto's showcase of new music by living composers. Organized by John Kennedy, it hopes to find an audience for composers and creators of tomorrow's classical music.
Why see it? Anthony Davis, the composer of Amistad, will be a featured composer in Music in Time. Members of the Spoleto Festival Orchestra will perform his Goddess Variations, Lost Moon Sister, and You Have the Right to Remain Silent with clarinet soloist J.D. Parran. The Imani Winds are scheduled to perform a work by jazz great Wayne Shorter (of Weather Report) called Terra Incognita. Water is itself used as a musical instrument in Tan Dun's Water Music. And once again, John Kennedy positions himself among the few, the proud, and the brave, as he leads an ensemble of talented musicians in a performance of the rarely played homage by Morton Feldman called For Philip Guston.
Who should go? Music in Time is decidedly niche, but it's a rich niche. And besides — what isn't niche these days? Aficionados, connoisseurs, and fringe fanatics will love these concerts. Curio-seekers, conservatory students, and sensibility snobs, too.
Spoleto Festival USA • $20 • 1 hour 10 min. • May 24, 27, 29, 31 at 5 p.m.; June 3 at 5 p.m. (4 hours) • Recital Hall, Simons Center for the Arts, College of Charleston, 54 St. Phillip St. • (843) 579-3100
We used to call classical music a niche market.
In the past, "niche" was bad. "Mass" was good. That's where the money was.
People bought country or rock or hip-hip records, not classical. Classical lovers were few in number. No money. Or relevance. Most television, radio, and print media passed on giving it much airtime or ink. If it's not relevant to the mainstream, then what's the point of covering it?
But amid the new realities of viral video and social networking, amid this new era of file-sharing and global culture, the whole notion of mass appeal seems a bit quaint. The producers of culture aren't in control anymore. Distribution is exponential. Cultural options are conceivably unlimited. So now even the language of mass appeal is starting to sound outdated. Take, for instance, the classic paragon of mass appeal: the hit record.
Mariah Carey's 1999 record, Rainbow, sold 323,000 copies its first week, rose to a high of 369,000 its eighth week, and sold 3 million by 2005. Despite this success, the record peaked at No. 2. Conversely, her new disc, E=MC2, hit No. 1 from the start, selling 463,000 copies its first week. Things got better the next week. Her record was still No. 1. Yet sales fell to 182,000, a drop of 61 percent.
It's still a "hit," but not like it used to be. It's why thinking about music in terms of high and popular culture — the classic bifurcation of highbrow and lowbrow — is increasingly meaningless. The winds are shifting. Where? We're not sure. Wherever, it could be good for classical music.
As music critic Alex Ross writes in The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century: "As the behemoth of mass culture breaks down into a melee of subcultures and niche markets, as the internet weakens the media's stranglehold on cultural distribution, there is reason to think that classical music, and with it new music, can find fresh audiences. ... we may even be on the verge of a new golden age."
Which is essentially what John Kennedy has been saying for a long time.
Wipe Everything Out
Kennedy directs the Music in Time series, Spoleto Festival's annual showcase of new and contemporary music. The goal of the series is to bring to a major forum, such as Spoleto, music that is rarely performed or has never been performed.
In this way, Kennedy introduces audiences to new voices and new ways of hearing music. At the same time, Kennedy is making the case that classical music isn't just Mozart and Beethoven and Brahms, but "a living art form," he says.
"We've tried to provide access to it and context to it," Kennedy says. "That way, you don't feel you need a degree to hear music, even the most challenging."
On the menu this year are works by Anthony Davis, the composer of the festival's marquee production, Amistad. Members of the Spoleto Festival Orchestra will perform his Goddess Variations and Lost Moon Sister.
The Imani Winds, an African-American woodwind quintet, perform a piece by jazz great Wayne Shorter called Terra Incognita. Others include Tan Dun (Water Music), Steve Martland (Eternity's Sunrise), Somei Satoh (Glimmering Darkness), and Ingram Marshall (Sea Tropes).
The headliner this year is Morton Feldman, who's often described as irony incarnate — he was six feet tall, weighed more than 300 pounds, and composed exquisitely quiet and fragile and very long music. For Philip Guston is one of those. Written in 1984 for a chamber ensemble, it tops out at four hours long.
"He thought of himself as a painter in sound," Kennedy says, noting the work is named for the famous mid-century modernist painter. "He was interested in the psychology of listening and what happens to the listener after being exposed to very slowly changing patterns. For him, this was the foundation of music."
Ross notes, in his brilliant survey of 20th-century music, that listening to the whole of Philip Guston is "to enter into a new consciousness."
"Extreme length allowed Feldman to approach his supreme goal of making music into a life-changing force," Ross says, "a transcendent art form that, as he once said, 'wipes everything out.'"
This desire to "wipe everything out" reflects the ideological character of the last century. Many composers defined themselves in opposition to society, writing music that was abstruse, atonal, difficult to hear, and categorically unlikable.
Bernard Holland, a critic for The New York Times, called this "the politics of style," perhaps best understood as an alternate Oedipus Complex: Just as Freud theorized that boys secretly yearn to kill their fathers and marry their mothers, Holland rightly observed that 20th-century composers yearned to destroy the sentiments of the past to renew future aesthetic.
If you had nothing new to say, forget it. You weren't worthy of attention. Morton was worthy, but he didn't wipe everything out by following the thinking of Schoenberg or Stravinsky, who filled the room with sound. He took the opposite tack. He wiped everything away by monopolizing all the vibrating air in the room. That was Feldman's politics of style.
Inertia of History
In post-Soviet, post-industrial, post-modernist America, this stuff matters little.
"And thank God for it," Kennedy says. "The political battles in contemporary music have been over a long time. With so many different kinds of music at our disposal, music doesn't have to take place in those paradigms anymore."
Composers now borrow heavily from popular music and music from around the world. The diversity is such that it's hardly possible to identify a mainstream style of new classical music, just as it's getting more difficult to determine if any kind of cultural offering garners a semblance of mass appeal.
Steve Martlin's Eternity's Sunrise is a cross between post-rock and post-classical, Kennedy says. Ingram Marshall's Sea Tropes includes processed ocean sounds, evoking loneliness and intimacy. Anthony Davis' work is a melange of styles that are tuneful and relay a strong individual point of view. And Japanese composer Somei Satoh creates "some of the slowest music possible."
"There's a note in Glimmering Darkness that reads something like, 'If you think you're going slow enough, you're probably not,'" Kennedy says.
What had mass appeal was popular music. What didn't was classical. But this binary thinking — highbrow and lowbrow, niche market and mass market — doesn't make much sense anymore. Composers borrow from pop culture. Pop musicians borrow from the world of classical music.
Nico Muhly learned from the Talking Heads like Radiohead learned from Sibelius. Pianist Michael Harrison learned from traditional Indian ragas as much as Björk learned from Monteverdi's 16th-century madrigals.
And this cross-fertilization isn't restricted to music: At this year's Spoleto, we have what's being called a circus opera, Monkey: Journey to the West, the brainchild of a Chinese composer and filmmaker and two British artists — one, animator and illustrator Jamie Hewlett; the other, frontman for Blur and the Gorillaz, Damon Albarn.
"Composers are free with styles, and now the styles are free to have their own lives," Kennedy said. "They are no longer tied to the inertia of history."