Preparing for The Classical Style: Questions of Relevance, April 2015

I’ve been working my way through the score for Steven Stucky and Jeremy Denk’s new opera, The Classical Style, preparing the role Beethoven for this summer in Aspen. Using a blend of music-theory nerd comedy and playful imagination of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven’s afterlives, the work speaks to the timely conversation of classical music’s relevance to contemporary life, and the timeless conversation of what constitutes great art and the mutations of taste over time.

Seeking the late musicologist Charles Rosen, author of the book The Classical Style that inspired the opera, Beethoven states “It’s no longer enough to be great. We need to be relevant.” The question of relevance is one I’ve batted around since rededicating myself to music in 2013. What is the relevance of the classical cannon for contemporary life? This in turn, begs the question, what is relevance? Is it a useful measuring stick for art?

I hear relevance, and I think of critical engagement with the forces shaping our world – economic polarization, ecological devastation, the inherited legacies and present realities of racism, colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy. I imagine a production of Le Nozze di Figaro that presents the revolutionary power of love to subvert the class distinctions between Count Almaviva, Figaro, and Susanna in contemporary terms of the 1%, working poor, and undocumented immigrants. I ask how works, old and new, deepen our individual and collective self-understanding and enable us to make sense of and ethically navigate our relationships with one another and the Earth. Indeed, this is a form of relevance, but to define relevance as realized or potential political value in a work draws a partition between relevance and aesthetic experience.

I began drafting these thoughts in rehearsal for Haydn’s The Creation – Frank Corliss playing the piano reduction as Helen Zhibing Huang sings "Nun beut die Flur das frische Grün" on the lip the stage. The syncopation of her melismatic passages pulsating through the warm harmonies creates an incredibly potent pleasure – hearing, experiencing the pleasure that well-crafted music induces circumvents the intellectual, perhaps ideological, partition I’d built. Beauty is a form of relevance. Or, perhaps better said – beauty can create relevance. The relevance that emerges from beauty outlives the practical relevance of art.

Perhaps relevance is a flimsy term and a cloudy lens through which to experience art. It is hazardous to aim for relevance as an artist – in its truest form it emerges in the relationship between the individual, community, or culture and the work, often retrospectively. Thoughts?

Guest Post: Kevin Simms on Hannah Arendt and Creation Narratives, March 2015

While home in State College, PA with family over the winter break, I had the good fortune of running into my old friend and poet Abby Minor and her partner Kevin Sims, a percussionist and composer. I knew of Kevin when we were in high school, he three years ahead of me and one of the musical giants of the school. Since then, he did his undergrad at the Manhattan School of Music and graduate work at the Musikhochschule Freiburg in Germany. Kevin and Abby now live in Aaronsburg, Pennsylvania in Penns Valley where they practice their arts in the context of rural Pennsylvania. Kevin shared the following piece with me in response to my previous post on the Creation and Making Tellus. I found it very compelling in its discussion of performance, public dialog, mythology, and the location of culture. Enough of my introducing, here is Kevin's writing:

When I invited Abby and my composer friend Scott to work on a monodrama, I didn't have any particular theme or center in mind.  In a way, it's not surprising that our precarious and violent relationship to the earth eventually made its way to the front of all our minds, but it wasn't really planned.  Nor was the connection between this past and Genesis.  But it came sort of all at once in the form of taking up the charge of making a creation story.  This positions the deeply troubling role that aspects of both the Bible's and John Smith's early accounts alongside the real promise that is offered by having an alternative creation story.

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I've stumbled onto some scholarly books lately that both dealt extensively with the political theories of Hannah Arendt.  I've found both of them (Linda Zerilli's Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom, and Kimberly Clark's Our Sense of the Real: Aesthetic Experience and Arendtian Politics) to be deeply thought provoking.  One particular point that comes up again and again is Arendt's insistence that the public and political world must be continually made and remade.  There is no guarantee on its existence, but its existence is critical for human freedom to be felt and practiced.  Human freedom she defines as participation in bringing something new into the world; a direct connection with the world’s tireless newness.  In addition to having clear resonance with the work of telling creation stories, I also read it as being a strong affirmation of the essentially political potential in performance.

So we have an ongoing desire for an active and real connection to creation-storytelling.  The fundamentalist reading would have us take a position of obedience to an imagined authority in stories told by past generations.  We would do better to follow the model of that ancient Jewish community and practice the storytelling itself instead.  For it was the same community (or at least a community of their offspring) that developed the concept of tikkun olam (repair of the earth).  I believe Arendt would say that the meeting of these two relationships to the earth, dominion and repair, if allowed to appear together among people, would invite strong thinking, and public thinking. This instead of some kind of impoverished notion of obedience under laws, and an after-the-fact justification for all manner of exploitation.

Arendt wrote extensively on totalitarianism.  She understood totalitarianism as not just a particular way of running a state, but as a way of seeing the world that seeks to eradicate human particularity.  Kimberly Clark sees it appear in the work to eradicate our sense of the real.  With particularity and the real obscured--hunted into oblivion--it becomes easy to do massive violence to all sorts of natural communities, human and otherwise.  While the totalitarian form of government may no longer be recognizable in our nations, I feel its worldview to be very much alive.

The goal would clearly not be to supplant an old monolithic, patriarchal narrative with another one, but rather to bring these very questions into the public world of appearances.  In an increasingly totalitarian environment, there are no venues for the particularity of the world to appear.  It's all practicality and efficiency, cliches and sentimentality, all of which live in the world of generalities.  I think performance is one way to do it, to bring these questions into the world of appearances.  And there is no reason why performances of this kind should be relegated to the megalopolis.  That those of us that have practiced and learned the arts of performance should be somehow convinced to keep the fruit of that practice and study in a particular loop of appearances (a loop that is very conditioned by certain channels of wealth and status), is one of the failures of our current “high culture.”  My hope is that more and more these performances can take place in a more common world, a more inclusive world, and there help to increase our ability to think and act together.

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Kevin Sims is a percussionist, composer, teacher and organizer living in Aaronsburg, Pennsylvania. Kevin has performed as a soloist and ensemble player throughout the United States, as well as in Germany, Switzerland, Ukraine, Korea, and Russia.

Kevin is a founding and active member of Red Light New Music in New York City, the international percussion group Ensemble XII, and the recently launched Open Music Series at Webster's Bookstore and Cafe in State College. In addition to his activities as a performer, Kevin co-directs a local community choir and co-teaches collaborative art classes for kids in Aaronsburg and neighboring Millheim. Taking his inspiration from the freer musics of the middle 20th century, Kevin's work, from composing and organizing, to performing and teaching, centers around the idea that written music is a playful, pliable, and liberating world of study and practice.

Genesis, January 2015

Bard shuttered its doors to the winter’s first blizzard, and I am taking the time granted me to translate the bass solos in Haydn’s Creation and read up on its source material, Gensesis. My preparation to sing the bass role, Raphael, comes as Nina and I lay the conceptual groundwork of Making Tellus, which will draw on scientific, mythological, and poetic traditions to trace the advent of the Anthropocene - humanity’s emergence as a geologic force - and grapple with the implications of such power.

I flip through the dictionary from Wallfische to Löwe, Tiger, and Hirsch and write whale, lion, tiger, and stag in my score. God commands the Flutenwohner to fill the depths of the seas and der Bewohner der Luft to sing from every branch. Yet without a being to praise his glory, God’s work is incomplete, thus he creates man in his own image to complete his Creation.   

From an early age, I considered Genesis a myth in the sense that it was not based in fact. A militant little atheist, I spent lunch hours in elementary and middle school arguing with classmates that Adam and Eve were made up, asserting that we were the products of evolution. We echoed the prevailing dialog about the role of Genesis in contemporary society: a competition of fact and faith. Fixation on the story’s veracity, however, does not address the powerful ways in which the explicit and implicit values of Genesis shape our society, and increasingly the Earth itself.

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Whales persist. Hardly a week goes by that I do not see a stag near the forest’s edge, fearless in a predator-eradicated landscape. Lions and tigers roam where they are permitted. Upon learning that I would sing Raphael, I half-joked that I ought to rework the text of the aria “Nun scheint in vollem Glanze der Himmel” into the past tense, making “Die Luft erfüllt das leichte Gefieder” more accurately reflect the nature of increasingly biologically impoverished nature of our creation “Die Luft war gefüllt das leichte Gefieder.” But, at times, the air is still filled with flocks of birds. While walking to school in Central Pennsylvania’s winter mornings, I stood rapt as miles-long writhing flocks of black birds snaked across the sky. They were Starlings, introduced to North America in 1890 by the American Acclimatization Society, which sought to introduce all of the birds that appear in Shakespeare to the “New World.” (Kolbert, 211)

In 1597 Shakespeare wrote “I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but Mortimer,” naming the bird once in Henry IV Part I. In 2015, two hundred million starlings fill the skies of North America. The cultural imaginary gives shape to the ecological fabric of the world. God’s first command to man was, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” We follow God’s word. Even in the secular context of the concert hall, The Creation invokes a powerful mythology of humanity's relationship to the Earth and its inhabitants.  

Making Tellus emerges from the recognition that the formative power of mythology extends beyond culture; we write it into the Earth.

 

Sources:

Kolber, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2014)