The wise elder and the snotty punk
You're no doubt familiar with Winston Churchill's adage that "If you are young, and not liberal, then you don't have a heart. If you are old, and not conservative, then you don't have a brain." Well today, dear listener and reader, I'd like to propose something similar for the world of arts. I've called today's parable "the wise elder and the snotty punk."
The story (hat tip: composer and guest blogger Matthew Whittall) comes from Kyle Gann's PostClassic, one of many excellent blogs to be found at the ArtsJournal website. Gann, a composer, musicologist, writer and educator, has long been an influential figure on the New York classical scene, especially its more experimental "downtown" side. He's also exactly four days older than me, poor fellow. Gann's got strong viewpoints, he states them well, backs them up in word and deed, and while he doesn't go around with a chip on his shoulder, he can stick up for himself. In other words, he's the kind of mature, informed, thoughtful grown-up we might all like to consider ourselves to be.
One cool thing about PostClassic is the insight is provides us musical lay people into the kind of technical stuff composers sweat over. Case in point: this entry about the "Pierrot Ensemble." No, that's not a troupe of street mimes; it's the ensemble of flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano employed by composer Arnold Schoenberg to back up the solo voice in his epoch-making 1912 masterwork "Pierrot lunaire." A novel combination a hundred years ago, the "Pierrot Ensemble" has now become de rigueur for all composing students, a state of affairs Gann laments for technical and artistic reasons. Not exactly Citizens United or Yankees/Red Sox on the controversy meter, but interesting enough.
Well! Gann's opinion was just too much for one Wiliam Chevdar, whoever he might be. Get a load of young Mr. Chevdar's insults and invective in the comment section of the Pierrot blog, starting here. "Über-patriotic fascist dictator!" "Lay off the hate for a little while, man!" And the unkindest of all, "you never heard of Spectralism!" I know, I know — those may not be fighting words in your neighborhood. But in the inside classical world, they constitute a verbal low blow. How does Gann respond? By remaining cool as a cucumber, refuting the criticisms with a few choice facts, and basically flicking Mr. Chevdar away like a piece of lint. For his expert, effortless put-down, Kyle Gann gets my Addison DeWitt Award, named for the verbally dextrous theater critic portrayed by George Sanders in the film "All About Eve." Let's hope Mr. Chevdar learns a little humility, not to mention a few basic facts, from the exchange.
But I have to say, I feel a bit sorry for the young fellow. For once upon a time, back in the day, I was a snotty punk too. I cared too much, thought I knew all the answers, and didn't mind correcting my elders and, I now recognize, betters. My comeuppance eventually came, as it inevitably must to all snotty punks. But fortunately, mine was much nicer than Chevdar's. I was doing a radio program of early jazz, as I used to do on WFCR, and introduced a set of the great 1926-27 sides by New Orleans piano legend Jelly Roll Morton & His Red Hot Peppers. These are some of the finest jazz recordings ever, including such classics as "Black Bottom Stomp," "Dead Man Blues" and "Grandpa's Spells." Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell the musicians they were making Very Important Music. So, as they no doubt would have in live performance, Jelly and the band preceded some of the songs with short snatches of comic dialogue, thus besmirching these monuments of great art. Or at least I thought so at the time, probably having read some sourpuss critic saying something to that effect. So I opined thusly on the air. And the phone rang.
It was a kindly old gentleman thrilled that someone was playing some of his favorite music. Then he turned his attention to my dismissive comments about the vaudeville hokum of the Red Hot Peppers. "Let me ask you a question," he said. "How old are you?"
Like Kundry's kiss in Act II of Wagner's Parsifal, the gentleman's simple question revealed the Basic Truth of my callow stupidity, and started me on my lifelong path to self-knowledge. Now, I don't mind admitting that I've recently played the Kyle Gann role on a few occasions, and in fact rather relish it. But if I hadn't been Mr. Chevdar's soul brother once upon a time, I probably wouldn't have gotten into classical radio in the first place. So, let me try a rewrite of Churchill's adage that works for the arts: If you're young and not a snotty punk — at least on occasion — you don't care enough. If with age you don't mature into a wise elder, you haven't grown up. Your thoughts?