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Monday, January 26, 2009

Quartet for the Next Four Minutes

So I don't know about you but I thought that John Williamses inaugural piece was really quite good. It was not particularly innovative or daring, no, but this was not the occasion for "daring," and let's admit, Mark Swed's implication that Elliott Carter might've been a better pick is frankly absurd. (Can't you just hear some gorgeous gnarly atonal texture starting up, and then everybody in America goes, "Oh. Modern music.") I didn't think Williams' Coplandesque choice of "Simple Gifts" as a theme, or the Copandesque idiom of the piece in general, were very imaginative either, or even very well suited to the occasion (other than Obama's noted fondness for Copland) except as the expected cliché. Ah yes, Copland was America's greatest composer; ah yes, Americans are a simple folk. Well, I'm done disputing Copland's greatness, but as for Americans, an awful lot of us are fancy. Growing up, I never felt quite at home in Copland's America—not the America he actually occupied, mind you, the America he composed; it reminded me too much of the place I was trying to escape. It took years for me to reconcile myself to the deeper satisfactions of his music. But it's worth noting that none of the detractors from Williams' inaugural piece seem to have found anything wrong with it beyond the predictable sins of style. That's probably because the actual craft of the thing was nigh impeccable. Like, the concept of the piece was a little on the nose: you've got these four instruments, entering gradually, each doing its thing—all playing in harmony, but not quite as one—until finally they find a common theme. It's about diversity and unity and perseverance and all of those things that Obama was talking about in his speech, but it was communicated entirely without words. Just in case you might have missed the point, a canny bit of casting brought us an Asian cellist, a Jewish violinist, a Latina pianist, and a Black clarinetist (leading a Greg of my acquaintance to dub the work THE JEWTINOBLASIAN QUARTET, thereby shaming all Gregs, everywhere, with his racism), and the Black guy took the lead. DIGRESSION: How excited are you to have suddenly heard of Anthony McGill? There aren't a whole lot of young star clarinetists on the scene, and along comes this guy, younger than I am (God that's hard to say), good-looking like WHOA, and he can play your motherfucking face off. No wonder we never heard of him—he's been hiding under the Met stage this whole time, playing principal—but he is probably having to dodge record contracts right now. Everybody making a big deal out of how these guys were finger-synching needs to hush, because I have a feeling the actual sound of a live clarinet playing out-of-doors in the freezing cold would have given us no clue as to this guy's excellence. But Williams. I'm not exactly mister contrarian for defending the most famous composer in the world, but the dude's popularity has earned him a legion of haters, sometimes justly (didn't his "stirring" Private Ryan score gross you out?) and sometimes not: he got famous, after all, by having an instantly recognizable compositional voice, and by being incredibly good at what he does. The world of film music is full of hacks and amateurs; John Williams is not one of them. Listen again to the duet between Perlman and Ma:Isn't that counterpoint actually kind of nifty, the way they're never in rhythmic unison? The lines are elegant and expressive, and they interact in unexpected ways. The mood is solemn, but not pompous, and surprisingly ambiguous. What more, really, do you want? This sounds to me like one of the most thoughtful pieces John Williams has ever written. It's not some holy and immortal masterpiece of music—when Yo-Yo Ma jokingly called it Quartet for the Next Four Minutes, that seemed just about right—but as an occasional piece, it filled a need, one towards which classical music is especially well-suited. Few of our greatest composers could have filled it so well.

3 comments:

R. said...

How very well articulated. I'm no fan of Williams, but I don't see how the inaugural composition could've been something much different and still be successful and as symbolic as this was. And I'm equally baffled by the ivory-tower opinions calling for something academic. I have a similar issue with some of the objections to Elizabeth Alexander's poem (which, agreed, was problematic and not the most brilliant example of its genre), but all these opinions seems to be doing something you just can't do in this case: take the work out of the context for which it was produced and proceed to analyze it like in a classroom exercise.

Anonymous said...

Dan, you're right on the money on this one. It was just fine and anyone else writing in this idiom would come off as sounding too cornball. Thankfully Williams is a capable composer in his own right. It was,however, a bit too conventional and Carter would have been a better pick for the occasion or so would Reich, Gann, Babbit, Crumb, or even Perle who sadly left us far too soon. Or at least they could have commissioned those composers to write a fanfare. Fancy that, a fanfare by Reich! Staging a competition for this would have brought the Copland/Kennedy theme of the event full circle.

@R. yes Alexander has done better but she was put on rather short notice. Give the girl a break.

Anonymous said...

"Isn't that counterpoint actually kind of nifty, the way they're never in rhythmic unison?"

Well, it was nifty when Shostakovich did it first, yes. I remember turning on my TV halfway through the ceremony and thinking "What is this crap? It's like Copland, only worse". And that hackneyed interrupted cadence at the end...yuk.

Personally I would have liked to have seen something by Carter, but I can see that others wouldn't share my enthusiasm. But it's a world stage for American classical music - was there really nobody better available?