Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Chinese Jazz and the Modern Orchestra

Have you ever heard a Chinese jazz band?

Do you really want to?

Well I have. All the notes are right but something is quite not right. They just do not have jazz in their veins like the jazz musicians on Bourbon Street in New Orleans.

I have this running joke. I often call some of our American orchestras, "The American chapter of the society for the preservation of nineteenth century European culture", but I am starting to think this is not a joke. Perhaps this is the real function of an orchestra. After all it is a European sound machine.
America has its big swing bands and small jazz trios. America has its electric rock bands and Broadway as well. These are our contribution to the musical world. So perhaps the orchestra should stay as a European museum to preserve European tradition and culture.

Getting back to the Chinese jazz, I wonder when someone from Vienna hears our America orchestra playing Wagner, Strauss, Mahler, etc, are they secretly giggling quietly at us? Does it seem strange to them that these Americans are trying to play like us. Perhaps we think the American versions are good enough and maybe we do not know any better and are happy with what we produce. Or maybe there is another scenario,

Globalization in Music.

With technology the world is becoming such a small place.

Is globalization taking place in orchestra world as well?

Are all orchestras starting to sound the same and loosing their local sound?

Today, as in the old days, in Vienna, young students are groomed by their teachers to eventually step up and take their places in the local orchestras. The student’s teacher that plays the orchestra knows the sound of the orchestra and that student is finely groomed to fit into that slot seamlessly and continue the tradition and sound of the orchestra.

Today with open auditions any great player can walk into an orchestra, play a great audition, get the job and introduce his or hers own sound into that orchestra thus causing the orchestras to become watered down and globalized.

Is this good or bad?

It depends on what you want to do.

Preserve history or create new music?

Go to Brazil or Cuba and listen to the local bands. Their music is so rooted in their traditions that the music they play can only be imitated in other parts of the world. If you really want to hear a great Samba band you must go to Rio.

So if I want to hear a real Mahler interpretation will I have to go to Vienna as well?

When we hear Blues in America it has different local genres that make it more interesting, such as Kansas City, Memphis, Chicago, Delta and New Orleans. These cites have their own unique sound and this local color should be injected in serious orchestral music as well. It may not be better technically but it would make orchestral music more interesting and less homogenized. We should have different local styes for our orchestral compositions just like they do in American Blues.

This brings me to article that I wrote for the American Music center, “The Tokyo Syndrome” (the link is on the top of this page). It is about our ambivalence in not trying to create out own indigenous American orchestral sound. Are we going to be an orchestral nation that just copies what the Europeans did, or will we try to create our own new and exciting orchestral art form?

The piano I believe was a European invention as well, but Fats Waller, Art Tatum and Jelly Roll Morton managed to make that into a very American sound.

David Chesky