Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Western Art Music: Is it more than just "pretty"?

Here’s a blog entry I have been meaning to write for over a year. It has to do with my gifted high school choir at the North Carolina Governor’s School (East) last summer (2009) in Raleigh, NC. As part of this six week intensive summer program, I brought in a number of guest teachers- one of them was the wonderful person who was instrumental in me getting the job in 2009, Lisa Fredenburgh (now the new director of choral studies at Aurora College in Aurora, IL).

(Lisa Fredenburgh)

As we began the second week of classes last summer, Lisa was in town and volunteered to come talk to the students on a topic of her choice. She chose to explore the question, “Is Western art music socially relevant and of importance in today’s society?” So, with that topic in hand, Lisa began talking to the students and trying to get their opinions. For awhile they were pretty timid, and I even had to challenge them out loud to get the energy of the discussion going (after all, Governor's School is supposed to be populated by strong thinkers with great verbal skills). So things picked up a bit but we kept getting painted into this corner with the opinion that the main thing about classical music is that “it’s pretty”. At this point Lisa and I were ready to gag, and started sending each other non-verbal cues that we both were disappointed with where things were going. So, Lisa started by challenging them more, and played the Barber Adagio for Strings in the “Agnus Dei” choral version, and we pointed out that this music had great emotional depth and had been used as music to commemorate Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy and many other public figures. We then talked a bit about similar 20th century music which was used to enhance cathartic moments in news documentaries about the 9/11/2001 disaster, especially in scenes showing grief or bravery (music by Aaron Copland, Joan Tower, and others). We were starting to get somewhere, but hadn’t won over everyone. Many in the room still thought that classical music really just strove to be pretty, and that the Barber was still part of that- beautiful music which happened to have great emotional depth.

At this point, I took a chance and thought I could really shake them up; I was able to talk to Lisa really quickly without them hearing me, and she queded up Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima; we did NOT tell them the title, we just started the music. If you know this piece you are certainly aware of a number of things- the first most obvious thing is that this is not traditional music, it has no melodies and relies on extended, very noisy, string orchestra extended technique effects (we didn’t care that this was not a choral piece). Many of the students would have never hear d a piece of music like this before, and as long as they had no chance to tune the oddness out, I felt that it could overwhelm them with its visceral not beautiful soundworld. I myself had forgotten that the piece is about nine minutes, I thought I was only subjecting them to 4-5 minutes of this very stringent music. What immediately happened is that the room completely quieted, and heads went down, and you could sense peoples stomachs knotting, The emotional tension in the music was so strong that the students didn’t even need to know the title of the piece. And I fact, I was overcome with the power of this music and the horrific scene it paints, as I had not listened to it for years and simply was very vulnerable to its effect. Memories of photos I had seen of this terrible episode in our history flooded my mind and I had to leave the room and go out to the courtyard right outside as all of a sudden I felt I could not handle this in front of my students. It’s just what happened-- I had no control over it. I seem to be way more susceptible to emotional content these days and I suppose that’s a good thing- it means I have let down my walls but it also means that things can hit you pretty hard. Part of me wishes I had not left the room toward the end of the piece, that I had stayed there stoically, yet I also wanted this listening experience to be for them- not for me to have a breakdown and for that to distract them!

(Penderecki around the time of the composition of Threnody)

When the piece ended I came back into room. We discussed what we had heard, and the students’ comments were very emotional yet also very strongly intellectual as well. They were overwhelmed by this music and experiencing it changed them for life- many of them said this to us straight out. We eventually told them the title and then it became even more powerful for them. For the rest of the summer, we all recognize4d that this was the breakthrough day that changed the attitude of all of them toward Western art music-we all now agreed that much of it is “pretty”, but some if it is the most powerful, emotional art capable of making dramatic commentary on society. When Lisa and I looked back on where the conversation with the students had started and then where it ended up we were both astounded. We had not really intended winding up where we did, b but it happened and we were so pleased that we had gone on this journey with these students over 75 minutes time.

A few weeks later we started singing an incredible piece by Robert Jager called I dream of peace, about the genocide in 1990’s Yugoslavia. Exploring the history of that extended piece and creating a stunning, memorable performance of it was really not too difficult for these young singers, for they had already experienced looking at music like this with new eyes, ears, and souls.

So that’s what happened in early June in 2009 at NC Governor’s School:32 bright young high school students discovered for themselves that Western art music is amazingly profound, alive and well in the 21st century.

Thanks Lisa!

[Also a big thank you has also to go out to dear Mary Alice Stollak, who exposed me to the Robert Jager I dream of peace, which she programmed for her MSU Children’s Choir farewell concert in Spring 2009 which I attended]

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