The Concert Hall
That Fell Asleep
and Woke Up as a Car Radio
I've been looking forward to working with you today as I've been researching the topic of the concert hall in the United States of America. I knew I was going to give this talk, and I've taken the better part of four months working at the Library of Congress so that we could talk about some issues that I think affect all of us who have devoted part of our lives to communicating, communicating through musical language or communicating through the philosophical and spiritual epigrams of the day. All of us in this room are interested in communicating something of our spirit to the world in which we live. My particular interest is in communicating what it is like to be alive through the language of music, and to that end I have been a composer since I was about four years old. I want to tell you a little about myself so that you will know where I am coming fromI am going to talk about some things that I don't think we have talked about very often in the study of music in our culture.
People are just beginning to understand some of the implications of what it is like to live on such a large landmass, which we call the United States of America, with such a diverse population, which we insist on calling one. We are beginning to understand the implications of living on this large landmass, east to west, north to south: we wake up in the morning saying "Good morning, America," we say "America thinks this" and "America is that." My perspective is that of a composer who writes abstract music, sometimes with words, often without words, who makes an order of sound in time and space. My particular intent is to communicate something of what it is like to be alive in Americaorder, sound, time, spaceto communicate something of what it is like to be alive in real time in our world.
Over the years I have studied many instruments. My principle instrument is piano; I took two years of voice, bel canto style voice; I sang in a rock band; I play harmonica. My seventh grade teacher, Sister Telupia, decided that the way she would discipline our class was that we would all have to own a Marine Band C Harmonica. We would keep them in our desks, and whenever we got a little out of control she would say "It's harmonica time"an extraordinary teaching deviceand we would get out our harmonicas. She taught us how to play harmonica, and we put on shows for our school in Minneapolis, Minnesota, playing harmonica and singing Irish songs. So I play harmonica. I also play electric bass, which I taught myself about seven years ago. I decided that I wanted to learn electric bass, so I bought all the Beatles' albums, got an electric bass, and played along with the Beatles from their earliest album to their latest album. You really can learn how to play bass that way.
I have a particular belief that colors everything that I would like to talk with you about today: cultures evolve the instruments and ensembles they need. Cultures evolve instruments and ensembles in order to study themselves through music in real time. That is my belief, and that is why I think I can stand up here and talk about "the concert hall that fell asleep and woke up as a car radio." I started thinking about the question of the concert hall when I was working on my doctorate at the University of Minnesota in the late 1970s. At that time I did a self-study because I was faced with the question: now that I have my doctorate, what next? Since I had been schooled in all the academic languages, and the formal rigor of a classical music education, I was asking myself, What have I got to say, and to whom can I say it, and who will listen to what I have to say?
I was faced with the quandary that I think is still central to all music education students. When I entered the University of Minnesota as a freshman I entered with an enormous repertoire of music. My repertoire included all of the Gregorian chants that I had sung for eight years in grade school, all of the rock and roll I had learned in high school, television jingles, all the music my parents had played on our record player (it was a record player then) at homethe big bands my mother loved, piano music my mother loved, Dixieland my father lovedI don't know why but we always had Shostakovich and Prokofiev in that stack. But my repertoire had a big hole in it, the classical canon that we study when we begin to study formally and academically. I spent nine years of my life, from freshman year of college through the end of my doctoral work, learning the canon.
When I received my doctorate it seemed that I had two choices, to take a faculty position at a university or college, or to see how I could use my skills to communicate something of what it was like to be alive in the concert halls existing then outside the academy. That would be orchestras and opera companies. (In 1978 we did not have a healthy chamber music ecology in the country, though we had a very healthy choir ecology, as we still do.) I noticed that living composers were not part of the concert world outside of the academy, and I decided that what I wanted to do was to work in the concert world as a living American composer trying to create pieces that spoke through that tradition, the tradition of the orchestra, the tradition of the opera company, the tradition of what was becoming the chamber music business, and certainly through the choral tradition. That's what I decided to do.
I wondered what I could write about, and I decided that I could write only about what I knew in a language that was technically educated but instinctually informed. I began to write pieces right away for the Minnesota Orchestra and the Minnesota Opera. I would go in there and say, "Can I write you an opera?" (I was very young.) The answer always came back, "Yes," which was not unusual. That is actually part of the Midwestern ethicyou don't have to go through sixteen people to get to the conductor. In the Midwest you just call up the conductor and say, "I'd like to write a symphony. Can I write a symphony?" and the conductor will tell you yes or no. It's the Midwestern directness.
And so I began working with orchestras immediately. My first commission was from the Minnesota Orchestra to write a piece for their young people's concert. I was still working on my doctorate at that time. My second commission was from Garrison Keeler, and it was to write a piece for the Powder Milk Biscuit Band and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Yeah! I wrote a concerto grosso. (I also wrote several country western songs under an assumed name.) This took me into the orchestral world, and in 1983 I became one of two composers-in-residence along with my great friend Steve Paulus. The two of us took on the job of composer-in-residence with the Minnesota Orchestra where we worked with Neville Marriner from 1983-1987. I have never worked with anyone who had more genius in the recording studio than Neville Marriner. He is also a cultural anthropologist. Not many people know that about him. To work with Neville Marriner you had to be able to smoke Swisher Sweets and drink champagne at any hour of the day, and you had to be able to pub (a verb, "to pub"). What that meant was that after concerts we would go to a local bar, order a bottle of wine for whoever was there, drink the wine, and play corks. Has anybody ever played corks? Its wonderful. You bounce the cork and see if you can get it to stand on its end. We could while away hours trying to get it to do that! Neville Marriner actually wasn't too good at corks. Steve Paulus was the best, but I wasn't bad.
In the bar we would talk about music, and Neville Marriner asked every single time, "Where are the young people in the audience for my concerts?" He would say, "Libby, Steve, I want you to find out where are the young people." I have been thinking about that ever since. I asked him, "OK, you ask me where the young people are. I'm asking you, Neville, where are my colleagues in your programming repertoire. I don't see my colleagues with any kind of regularity in your programming for the orchestra." We also asked, many, many times, "What is classical music in America?" I've been thinking about those three questions ever since. Where are the young people? Where are my colleagues? What is classical music in America?
Two more things happened. Right after I finished being composer-in-residence with the orchestra I joined the American Symphony and Orchestra board of directors. That is the oversight organization for all of the orchestras in the country, and in their wisdom they usually have two or three composers on the board of directors; it is a very interesting position. I began to understand "what is classical music in America." I began to understand where my colleagues were, which was not there, not in the orchestras. And I took part in a study (that I actually helped to engineer) with the symphony orchestra, a self-study, so that they could begin to answer "what is classical music in America?"
1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | Contents