Saturday, December 8, 2007

American orchestras and the death of American culture

If we went to see West Side Story in China would it be Chinese Culture or American culture ?

As I walked by an American orchestra the other day I noticed they play virtually no new American music, mostly older European classics as we all know.

I suggest to the American orchestras to take off the American city they are named after from their mast heads and change their names to "The American Chapter of the society for the preservation of 19th century European culture".

Are most American orchestras really American cultural institutions or just a musical variation of a fine wine and cheese import shop?

Should an organization that does not promote American music be funded by public funds or grants?

If this is the artistic path they choose to take it seems to me that they should be funded by European governments and large European companies that want to expose their culture around the world.

These orchestras really add nothing to the culture of our society. Instead of nurturing and creating our own indigenous orchestral art form they just import European culture and put American composers out of work in the process.

Perhaps I am naive in thinking that a local orchestra is there to nurture American art.

Maybe we as an American society are too inept to create something of true value. Perhaps that should be left to the dead Europeans.

In reality these orchestras are just filters that choke our own culture from developing and producing a new American musical art form ?

The contemporary world of American orchestra's culture has destroyed the modern American composer by reducing him to a mere street peddler and taking the transcendent out of his art.......


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

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Will the next Diaghilev please stand up!

Is there an impresario out there that has the vision and balls to champion new American art?

Is there an impresario out there with the creative skills to market it to the public?

Is there a public in today's repressed times that wants its art to reflect contemporary culture?

Is there a public that wants to be challenged with new art, or do they just want to be comforted?

Diaghilev is, in my opinion, responsible for some of the greatest art ever created. Without him there would be no Stravinsky or Ballets Russes. Diaghilev championed new art and gave the world Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy, Cocteau, Picasso, Fokine and Nijinsky to name a few. In his time the emphasis was on creating the new.

As I walk across the street I see a Lincoln Center poster for the world premiere of “Romero and Juliet” also there is a world premiere of "Sleeping Beauty". Am I on drugs? Wasn't this been done before, maybe one was 70 years ago and the other over 100 years ago in Russia? Are we going to be doing the same things over and over and over again until the next generation comes along and laughs at our reluctance to move forward?

In medieval times there were powerful forces that stunted art, all forward thinking and managed to stifle progress. In the early twentieth century Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes corrected that problem, at least in the arts. Now once again the circle is complete and we are back to the medieval way of thinking. If Diaghilev came back in a time machine and saw what was filling the concert halls today, he might think he pushed the backwards button.

David Chesky

Sunday, April 8, 2007

The Artificial Aesthetic

On my last trip to the South Pacific I stopped by the Island of Paong, where I met an older gentleman named Coco.

Coco is the world’s greatest coconut arranger. This is an art form that is totally unique to the island of Paong.

Coconut arranging is the art of placing coconuts on the beach and scattering them in a way that is pleasing to one’s eye and soul.

Coco had a knack for creating the most beautiful abstract patterns to the local people. To my novice eyes they were just coconuts strewn all over the beach, but to the trained eye of a Paongying, it was art on the highest level. Art on be cherished, talked, and written about.

After my wonderful vacation in the South Pacific I headed over to Thailand where I had the opportunity to hear the greatest orchestra in the country. Well, since I am a musician I thought would at least have point of reference, but when I heard the orchestra, I just heard a series of sounds. The patterns, tonality and structure were so alien to my western ears I might have well been listening to a Martian orchestra. I could detect the incredible talent and craftsmanship of the musicians. But as music that was pleasing to my ears, or that I could comprehend, it was not. Yet all of the Thai's agreed that this was great Thai art.

In art we must have context. Without social context we have no reference points for making any kind of aesthetic judgments. Art must reflect its time and culture for the society to recognize it as art.

So what is my point?

Academic Music!

What is this?

I have no problem with academics in music. Academic institutions are important for teaching and nurturing all types of music. It is only when the academic composer looses all touch with the society they come from that the term artificial aesthetic applies.

Regardless of how complex or simple the music is, it still must have some connection and reflect the society it comes from. Good or bad art must have relevance and context to a society so the society can make an educated aesthetic judgment, if not it is an artificial aesthetic that only the artist understands.

It is my belief that one of the causes for mass exodus of listeners from today's concert halls is when music looses its relationship to the society.

On the other hand, a modern day pop musician or rapper is so organically connected to their world that they are able to capture and reflect their world to their audience.

If the so called "classical music" is to survive it must follow the pop model, with a more sophisticated sensibility, and try to capture and reflect its time and culture path and inject the poetry back into it as well.

David Chesky

Sunday, April 1, 2007

The Tokyo Syndrome

On my last trip to Japan, I noticed the Japanese fervor for foreign fashion. Everywhere I went there were more Armani, Versace and Ralph Lauren stores than I have ever seen. There is a section in Tokyo called Aoyama that rivals any city in the world for high fashion.

I began to wonder why the Japanese have this urge for Western style. I thought their traditional Japanese fashion was about as beautiful as I have ever seen. Likewise, they have their own great indigenous culture: music, theater and unbelievable architecture and gardens. In some ways, I think Tokyo is the most modern city in the world today. So why do the Japanese feel the need to import all the Western culture?Is it low self esteem? Even with all their accomplishments, they still seem to have a lack of self worth, something that might be called Tokyo syndrome.

After speaking to many Japanese people, I learned they feel that the West is where all the real high fashion comes from. But I do not agree. I think the Japanese have a great and beautiful sense of style that is evident in every aspect of their lives.

When I arrived back in New York, I walked across the street from my apartment and saw one of our great concerts halls. I looked at the program and I noticed most of the entire season roster comes from foreign cultures that are mostly over one hundred years old.

Why do we feel the need to import all of our orchestral music from Europe? Do we suffer as well from our own type of Tokyo syndrome? Are we that embarrassed of our own culture? Aren't we capable of producing our own American orchestral culture? Or do we lack a sense of self worth as well in the orchestral world? Is it possible to put a value on and appreciate our own American music, or will new American music be relegated to the ghettos of the concert world?

I notice that the jazz musicians have developed their own sound and culture that is identifiable with New York. Rap musicians have done the same and have captured their own urban surroundings in their music.

Why can't we do it in the world of orchestral music? Is it the orchestras? I do not think so. They will play whatever the patrons would like to hear. So then is it us-the listeners?

Why is it that a modern day New Yorker feels the need to only listen to older European music when attending an orchestra concert? Don't we have the desire to create our own indigenous orchestral sound?

Has the orchestral world gone into a complete metamorphosis, or are they only catering to a public that has no interest in hearing new and creative things? Concert halls have always been a place for the elite of society to gather and hear music. When New York was young, concertgoers listened to the music that they had heard back in their homelands of Europe. Even then orchestras knew that if you played the same thing year after year you would loose your audience. So why is it that today if you play the same music all the time it is totally acceptable? People have told me that it was the old management guard that introduced this type of orchestral management tone.

Perhaps we have been so beaten down as a society that we no longer want to be challenged, but instead go to our concert halls to hear the familiar sounds that comfort us. But whatever the reason for this type of programming, it now must be broken.

David Chesky

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Age of Mediocrity

Over two hundred years ago Mozart wrote "The Magic Flute" to entertain his audience. Today we go see Batman, Spiderman, Planet of the Monkeys, Jurassic Park and other banalities to entertain ourselves. We hail these comic book directors as our new artists, while we kick, ignore, and punish those who are truly brilliant in our society.

Yes, every age had its mediocrities. But they never had to compete with mass marketing electronic culture. Thanks to great technological breakthroughs in science, we now have the ability to create instantaneously, with the push of button, a moronic culture.

Can we thank the passionless Wall Street greedy barons for this great accomplishment? Or is it just the natural course of the rise and fall of a culture? Is it progress or retrogression?

We have managed to create a spiritually diminished society. We use to listen to music. Now, today kids can only watch music on MTV!! Can they listen without the video?

We used to read books, think and reflect. Today, we sit mesmerized in front of a television set watching insipid and insulting shows. Is this what the inventor of this device had in mind? Or, did the networks manage to improve on his thoughts?

It is the age of wrestling, Jerry Springer, and freaks? Are we so deadened inside that this is the only thing that can awaken us?

We use to create beautiful buildings for the eye, soul, and the body. Today we live in the age of functional cold sheet rock. We have only managed to make buildings cheaper and faster, but not better.

We used to sit and really listen to our stereo records on high fidelity equipment. Today ninety percent of all people listen to music on five dollar plastic computer speakers while do something else.

We used to watch journalists on the six o'clock news. Now we watch good looking entertainers.

There used to be a time when a classical record company could sell a great American Orchestra. Unfortunately, due to the great job we have done in our school systems educating this generation about classical music, we cannot even give an orchestral recording away for free.

What is happening to the aesthetics of listening in this decade of popular music? Popular music in the thirties and forties was created by formally trained and technically accomplished musicians. The likes of Benny Goodman and Glen Miller were icons of popular musical culture, yet they had been schooled in the received traditions and produced well-crafted works. The writers Ellington, Gershwin, and Cole Porter had talents appreciated by the masses yet their popular appeal rested on a similar foundation of historically accepted standards of style and principles of form.

Why is it you never see great jazz musicians today playing the hits of rock or rap bands? Most simply cannot tolerate such juvenile writing. The harmonic language has no movement except a few basic chords. Is this the dumbing down of music in our society?

I recently went to the Jazz Educators Conference in New York and had the pleasure of hearing talented young students play. I was impressed by the level of their accomplishment. It pains me that most will end up playing in cocktail lounges and weddings because in our contemporary society, we have little use for them.

Our culture doesn't value musical and artistic skill much anymore. We honor and reward mediocrity. Our society only asks for reliable mediocrity. We worship pop heroes who cannot find middle C on the piano.

Why do we ignore truly talented, young, and up and coming artists and make musical illiterate people rich and famous? Was this always a trend or is this the new norm in our new fast-food, pop culture aesthetics?
The amount of money we spend on sound and music today is inversely proportionate to its quality. Our values are changing. We no longer believe in the pursuit of excellence.

A culture is remembered for the art it produces. The Greeks the Romans the Egyptians produced works that continue to awe and inspire us after two thousand years. Asian societies had similar aesthetic goals for excellence. They gave us the Taj Mahal and Angor Watt, to name a few.

What will today's America be remembered for?

Perhaps a society where the only value and sense of accomplishment is the pursuit of money with no great desire to pursue ideological excellence.

Will the new framework of our society be a frame work for ignorance? We have no values and we are spiritually diminished. We are becoming empty as a society, and our art will reflect this.

The multinational companies running the world will soon have the power to declare an artist of the month, like a centerfold, destined to be disposed of to make room for next month's super-artist.

George Orwell's prophesy has come true. But he missed the mark by a little. It is not the government that has become big brother, but cooperate America. And they did not have to use terrorist’s tactics. We gladly gave up our mind and souls of our own free will.

Welcome to the new millennium - substance not required!

David Chesky

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

It's About the Sound!

I am tired of hearing music critics tell me it's about the music not the sound when they hear a recording.
Well, it's not. It is about the sound.
Why? Because, what is music?
Music is just the organization of sounds. In the natural world there are sounds all around us. The natural order of the world's sounds is chaotic. A composer rejects this world and organizes the sound into a form that he or she thinks is aesthetically pleasing to the ear. In the modern world of recordings we cannot separate sound from music anymore. In the old days when we had limited technology, this could be overlooked, but not today when we have the means to reproduce sound with such precision.

The Double Standard!

Lets go back to the first line, It's about the music not the sound.
Well is not tonality a big part of music?
Why is this very important aspect of music entirely overlooked by most reviewers?
I would think that a great violinist works lifetime to achieve a beautiful tone. This is why we hold Stradivarius and Guaneri violins in such high regard, for their beautiful tones. The tone is the poetry that moves our souls when we hear music. We can read the notes on the page if we want to know what the melody, harmony, or counterpoint is, but it is the physical sound of the instrument that moves us. When you go to a concert hall you expect this from an orchestra. For years people always said, -"I love the rich sound of the Philadelphia strings"- when referring to that orchestra!
"They loved their tone !!
They loved their sound!!
So why is it acceptable for orchestras to sound like they are playing on instruments that are made of plywood when they make a recording?
Why do I need to hear loud down bows that can rip my ear off and do not resemble anything I consider pleasing on many classical CD's?
I want my orchestra strings to sound real and rich like in a live concert hall,
this is why we spend so much money constructing beautiful sounding concert halls. If a concert artist produced a sound like I hear on recordings that many magazines rave about, they would be run out of the business! I recently bought a new stereo system for my home. I love to listen to music at night. But I will tell you this, I do not care how good the performance is, if it goes on my main system and it sounds bright and hard, it immediately is shut off.

Why ?

Because this is not what I consider to be my esthetic concept of what beautiful music should be. If it is bad and I still want to hear it, I will play it on my little system in the kitchen and listen in the distance where the flaws of the recording do not irritate my ears! When I do play something on my system I want to be moved by the sound of the music. I want to hear the same beautiful tones coming from my speakers as in great concert hall. I would not expect less in a concert hall, so why should WE expect less in our homes? So it is about the sound!! So the next time I read a review in a magazine that tells me how great this CD is and I buy it, it better sound great or I will be mad! This is why we at Chesky spend so much time on sound. Because sound is music, and one cannot go with out the other in the modern recording world. I think with the new AREA 31 recording we are getting closer to the absolute sound more than anyone else to date. So in the end it is not about being an audiophile or not an audiophile. Maybe we're right, and just maybe they are just wrong!

David Chesky