Sunday, January 10, 2010

"find the beauty … and don't bother with the rest of it"

In light of yesterday's post about the kinship between weirdness and unfamiliarity, it seemed appropriate that last night, when I went over to Davies Symphony Hall for my first exposure to concert performances (as opposed to recordings) of the music of George Benjamin, I should bring along my copy of Robin D. G. Kelley's book about Thelonious Monk. However, I really did not anticipate that reading this book during the intermission might have an impact on my listening behavior. Nevertheless, that seems to be the way in which things turned out; and, rather like Paul Saffo's aphorism about the future, they turned out in a rather unexpected way.

The text I happened to be reading was actually the words of David Amram, who had become sort of a Monk "disciple" in 1955. It is a passage in which Amram described a time when he had visited Monk's house; and Monk was listening to the radio, which happened to be playing country music. Amram, as might be imagined, expressed surprise that Monk would be listening to such music. As usual, Monk had few words by way of reply; and they came in the form of two sentences separated by a rather substantial gulf of time. (This sounds a bit like a setup for any number of jokes about highly scholarly Jewish rabbis.) The first sentence was:

Listen to the drummer.

Then, after that long pause, Monk came out with the second:

Check out his brush work.

This led to Amram discovering the punch line for himself (making the transition from Jewish wisdom to Zen):

So I listened as hard as I could on that little radio with a little bit of static and somehow I could hear something so I realized, of course, what he was trying to tell me was first of all, don’t be judgmental of anybody else, just listen and pay attention and look for the beauty. And then when you find the beauty, study that and don’t bother with the rest of it.

Shortly after I finished reading this passage, David Robertson returned to the podium to conduct the San Francisco Symphony in a performance of Felix Mendelssohn's Opus 56, his third symphony ("Scottish") in A minor. Now I have never made a secret of my not being particularly big on Mendelssohn; and, while there is no question that I would prefer listening to Mendelssohn to just about any cut of country music (with the possible exception of "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer"), I have often observed that his music tends to be overshadowed by the work of composers (such as Franz Schubert) happening to share the program. On this particular occasion Mendelssohn's symphony was preceded by the first San Francisco Symphony performances of two compositions by Benjamin and Michael Jarrell's orchestrations of three of Claude Debussy's piano etudes. Taken together the first half of the program had made for a rather massive shadow to cast on poor Mendelssohn!

Nevertheless, his music was not consigned to that shadow; and Robertson was probably the key figure responsible for "rescuing" it. To borrow from Amram's punch line, Robertson found the beauty of this symphony in its orchestration and chose not to bother with whether or not the melodies, harmony, and counterpoint tended towards the routine. Furthermore, since both Benjamin and Jarrell had been presented to us as imaginative masters of sonority, Robertson had basically disposed those of us in the audience to be listening for "the sound itself," meaning that our receptiveness to the beauty he had discovered had been primed by the music he had selected to precede the intermission. Thus, while Amram's point runs the risk of sounding like the sort of accentuate-the-positive homily you might find in a fortune cookie, it actually makes a strong case for the subjective and social dimensions of listening behavior. I have no idea whether or not Amram would have put things that way, and maybe it would not hurt to ask him about it!

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