Sunday, September 27, 2015

"Sila" by John Adams recalls Solo Tuba Ichigo Ichie

Some years ago, enroute to a concert at Northwestern University's Pick-Staiger concert hall, I encountered a scene that stuck in my memory.  On the huge lawn outside adjacent Regenstein Hall, smack in the middle, a solo tuba player sat, practicing, in the perfumed, sultry May air.
This solitary figure was going against the grain in so many ways:

  • on the lawn versus in a practice room
  • playing a big silver tuba, the unheralded member of the brass family vs. a piercing trumpet or stately french horn
  • waging its own war against the dying of the light, which could not be won, but not yielding to it nonetheless
  • and most dramatically:  utterly, completely alone, versus in a classical ensemble, where we would ordinarily find a tuba
The mental picture stuck with me.  It was equal parts serendipity, magic, and ichigo ichie -- (Japanese for one time, one meeting, i.e. an unrecurring encounter, an unrepeatable miracle).  I have never walked across a scene quite like it -- before, or since.  (Though while a student at Ohio State University I once came across a bagpiper playing underneath a bridge, but that's another story.)

But just now I have had an experience that put me in remembrance.  This past Friday night, Northwestern U. dedicated its new $117 million Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Center for the Musical Arts, eight years in the making.

It is a remarkable edifice, trapezoidal, leaning in, seemingly rushing forward into Lake Michigan as though some sort of musical starship that was utilizing the campus as a runway.  You can still get a lot for $117 million -- even today.  It features a 400-seat concert hall with a 50 ft. glass wall behind the stage, through which loom stunning views of Lake Michigan and Chicago city lights as backdrop.   Another 150-seat hall is for opera workshops.  The building adds some 55 practice rooms, and countless other analog and digital treasures to the music program of NU.

To 'consecrate' the house, on Sept. 25 and 26, 2015, 80 some musicians from the Bienen School of Music gave a Midwest premiere of Sila:  The Breath of the World by John Adams (noted critic Alex Ross calls him "one of the most original musical thinkers of the new century").  It took place on the lawn between the new concert hall and the lake.

Adams writes of it:  "The piece traverses sixteen harmonic clouds, grounded on the first 16 harmonics of a low B-flat.  All the other tones in the music fall "between the cracks" of the piano keyboard -- off the grid of 12-tone equal temperament."

There is no conductor.  Additionally, there is no melody, no rhythm, just these strange harmonics wafting ever skyward, for some 70 minutes, a more than ample 70 minutes, my guest said.

A work egalitarian to the core, audience members were encouraged via the printed program to walk around the players who were widely spread throughout the near football field size field and hear the presentation from different viewpoints.

How times have changed.  From one somewhat renegade tuba on the grass of his own taking to 80 highly organized musicians, strings, brass, woodwinds, percussion, marimbas, vocalists etc.  Each one had a single black earbud.  Though there were no "conductors," something was being communicated and/or controlled from somewhere.  Or so it seemed.

Famous philanthropists, big buildings, knock-your-socks off, impressive-as-all-get-out architecture.  Such is the way of the world.  Things get bigger and bigger.  In my own neighborhood, right-sized beautiful family homes are torn down, seemingly every day, so that new family 'hotels' can take their place at a cost of three to four times.  This is progress, of course.  Of course, the deformation (to use David Stockman's term) of ZIRP helps enormously.

Nevertheless, Dr. Pangloss surely would have approved this best of all possible worlds,  where everything happens out of absolute necessity, and that everything happens for the best.  So, too, here.

We get it.  This is progress.

Yet in a world of declining interest in classical music, (see Slate feature) the geriatrification of the classical audience, when 500 musicians routinely try out for a single orchestral post, one has to wonder how many gigs it will take to pay for a Northwestern music degree, which at this writing runs as follows, straight off the web site:  Full-time Tuition;  Tuition is billed on the first invoice for each quarter;  $16,208/quarter (3 – 5 courses).  (That's nearly $200,000, just for tuition, for an NU music school degree.)  Then there's the minor matters of text books, lodging, --- food.  So.....times 1.5, 2, x?  Whatever the case, the number is pretty staggering.

How about the payback?  Ay, there's the rub.

Teaching a master class at Ravinia Steans Institute several years ago, Kiri Te Kanawa said the lack of potential for the payback was a serious moral issue, this business of training the next generation of musicians for jobs that simply don't exist.

She has cited the fabulously successful Met Opera HD Live! broadcasts, for example, for being not that helpful to the opera world in general.  Why patronize the local opera company when you can attend "The Met," "live" for a fraction of the cost?

From the UK Observor (she lives a good part of the time in London), we have this:  "There is little chance of building up a truly elite tradition of singing outside Europe, she (Ms. Te Kanawa) argues, because the opera houses in New Zealand and Australia mount only a few performances a year and are bedevilled with cash crises. "There are great, dedicated young singers coming up all over the world, and yet there is no space. No jobs, because there are only so many places at the top table," she said.

No jobs.

Instead of jobs we have free classical:  Spotify, Pandora, streaming and all the rest.  Is it any wonder that classical record sales are so small (sometimes measured in the scores or hundreds for major artists) when you have the entire catalog of recorded classical sound available to you at a mouse click -- for free!?!  Not just one recording of Fischer-Dieskau and Winterreise, all seven that he made through his lifetime.  Tons and tons of works, and renditions, impossible to consume in whole, by composers both immortal and obscure.  A cosmological and ever-expanding miracle.

This is the blessing and the curse.  This is the elephant in the room, the unspeakable taboo which cannot be named or spoken of:  the futility of it all.  Classical lovers used to spend thousands on recordings.  Now, those few that are left, spend ----- next to nothing.

No jobs for newcomers.

That same air of futility was evident in Adams' music;  Sila:  The Breath of the World, without rhythm, without melody.  Just floating harmonies.  Not really going anywhere, like to the tonic, in Haydn or Mozart or Beethoven.

As the performance ended, the prodigious and somber concentration on the part of the players gave way to smiles as they were approached by family members, friends, and well wishers.  The performance art piece thus ended, it was time for all to exhale.

Meanwhile, the suit-and-tie and high heel set who were moments before wobbling through the grass, through whose largesse this was all possible, retired through a side door into their magnificent namesake edifice for a private dinner while the players packed up their instruments to do it all over again the next night.

Postscript:  I played tennis yesterday with a good friend and noted physician.  His daughter, a talented musician, earned a M.M. in viola at the prestigious Indiana University School of Music.  I learned she just recently gave up the music business to re-tool as a journalist via the Georgetown Journalism school.  She is now a reporter for the Baltimore Sun.   Her musician husband is now attending engineering school.