Saturday, January 9, 2010

Getting Around to the Weird

I came across the following remark made by Thelonious Monk while reading Robin D. G. Kelley's book about him:

Weird means something you never heard before. It’s weird until people get around to it. Then it ceases to be weird.

He made this observation in the late forties, ostensibly about the general bebop movement; but I suspect that, deep down inside, he knew he was talking about his own way of doing things. It got me to thinking about the extent to which audiences have come around to experiences that were first dismissed as "weird." It certainly would be hard to imagine a riot breaking out today at a performance of Igor Stravinsky's Sacre du Printemps, although we would not want to dismiss the impact that the "dynamic duo" of Walt Disney and Leopold Stokowski (who blunted some of the sharper edges and deleted several others) had on bringing audiences around to a general acceptance of that particular score. On the other hand it seems as if the only acknowledgement that radio broadcasters (even in the satellite domain) make of Alban Berg comes about when some prestigious opera company (such as the Met) is performing Wozzeck or Lulu; and more recently Arnold Schoenberg has come to squeak under the same wire with a revived interest in productions of Moses und Aron. Anton Webern, on the other hand, is still pretty much a pariah in the world of broadcasting, which may be one reason why his Opus 6 has yet to be preformed without an outbreak of nervous coughing in Davies Symphony Hall (usually to the demonstrable displeasure of conductor Michael Tilson Thomas).

I wish I could report that things are better where jazz is concerned. However, I think it would be fair to say that it is even harder to find good broadcasting of jazz than it is for classical music; and, while Charlie Parker may receive air time comparable to that given to Igor Stravinsky (which, in the grand scheme of things is still pretty modest), he also shares with Stravinsky a setting in which we hear his music with few, if any, of its sharper edges. This brings me back to Monk. My collection of Monk recordings is, to say the least, generous. (They were as necessary as my recordings of Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde during my years in Singapore when it came to reminding me of what I was missing.) I thus have a somewhat eidetic reaction when one of those recordings is played, even if I cannot immediately home in on its source; so I can report with considerable sadness that I cannot remember the last time (or even if there was such a time) when I heard one of those sides on the radio. Basically, Monk is right up there in the same league with Webern.

Back in the days when supported some really solid discussion about "serious" music, there was one contributor whose Signature included the aphorism:

Welcome to the twentieth century; it's almost over!

Well, now it is over; and it seems as if both Webern and Monk (not to mention most of Schoenberg and pretty much anything Lennie Tristano ever did) are as weird to today's listeners as they were fifty years ago. Was Monk just being overly optimistic that the general community of serious listeners would eventually "get around" to his sounds; and he would no longer be dismissed as weird? Perhaps the pessimistic stance is more viable. Our very sense of self may be defined as much by what we dismiss as being too far "over the line" in the "realm of the weird" as it is by what we accept and enjoy; and, if that is the case for how we feel about the music to which we listen, what does that say about how we are likely to react to societies that are also "over the line" (wherever that line may be)?

No comments: