Archive for March, 2006

Sunday morning a recent piece of mine, called On Prayer and Praying, got its first performance at the 11:15 Mass at the Church of the Advent in Boston by the excellent–very excellent, in fact–countertenor (and composer) Martin Near and the also very excellent organist Ross Wood. Since it was in the middle of a quite long church service, there didn’t seem to be any good reason to let anybody who wasn’t going to be there anyway know about it beforehand. Edith Ho, the music director at the Advent, has been, and continues to be, very good to me. She’s done two or three pieces of mine with the choir (which is absolutely top-notch) for years now, and will also schedule other pieces, like this one, periodically. This particularly service also included the Josquin L’homme Arme voces musicale Mass and pieces by Philippe de Monte and Contanzo Porta (both from the 1500’s, neither of who I’ve ever heard of).

The piece was a sort of “political” statement, albeit pretty lame as agitprop: I get tired of hearing on radio and tv from Fundamentalists that there should be prayer in school and prayer before ball games and prayer during graduations and prayer where ever else (There is an old joke: As long as there are math test there’ll be prayer in school), so I decided to set the words of Jesus on the matter (Matthew 6:5-13), which forbids praying in public. (Well, “forbids” isn’t exactly the right word, but he certainly didn’t endorse it. He actually says that praying in public is its own reward.) Anyway, Martin and Ross did a great performance. I thought it sounded great.

Later in the day I worked with a chamber music group, a piano quartet, I coach at the NEC Prep School who are playing a house concert next week. They’re playing pieces by students Jeremiah Klarman (13) and Stephen Feigenbaum (17) and the Schumann Piano Quartet, along with the first Piano Quartet by Gerald Barry. I have to say that the Barry, which I think is a really really good piece, is one of the strangest ones I’ve ever encountered: unremittingly diatonic, with folky tunes, sometimes agressively imitative to the point of inpenitribility, having a straight-line, but very highly disjunct continuity, absolutely non-developmental, relying completely on the repetition and juxtaposition of the same material. It’s extreme, rollicking, brutal, and a little mistifying; I think it’s probably best described as sounding like a rough and rowdy night down at the pub or maybe Grainger with heavy boots and explosives. We’ve been working on it for about eight months now, and it doesn’t get any less strange (and sort of disturbing) with greater acquaintance. I like it a lot.

The Schumann is also really great, and very beautiful.

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It can’t be said too much:

“Art matters not merely because it is the most magnificent ornament and the most nearly unfailing occupation of our lives, but because it is life itself. From Christ to Freud we have believed that, if we know the truth, the truth will set us free: art is indispensable because so much of this truth can be learned through works of art and through works of art alone—for which of us could have learned for himself what Proust and Chekhov, Hardy and Yeats and Rilke, Shakespeare and Homer learned for us? and in what other way could they have made us see the truths which seem nevertheless, to the mind which contains them, in some sense a single truth? And all these things, by their very nature, demand to be shared; if we are satisfied to know these things ourselves, and to look with superiority or indifference at those who do not have that knowledge, we have made a refusal that corrupts us as surely as anything can. If while most of our people (the descendants of those who, ordinarily, listened to Grimm’s Tales and the ballads and the Bible; who, exceptionally, listened to Aeschylus and Shakespeare) listen not to simple or naive art, but to an elaborate and sophisticated substitute for art, an immediate and infallible synthetic as effective and terrifying as advertisements or the speeches of Hitler–if knowing all this, we say: Art has always been a matter of a few, we are using a truism to hide a disaster. One of the oldest, deepest, and most nearly conclusive attractions of democracy is manifested in our feeling that through it not only material but also spiritual goods can be shared: that in democracy bread and justice, education and art, will be accessible to everybody. If a democracy should offer its citizens a show of education, a sham art, a literacy more dangerous than their old illiteracy, then we should have to say that it is not a democracy at all, but one more variant of those ‘People’s Deocracies’ which share with any true democracy little more than the name. Goethe said: The only way in which we can come to terms with the great superiority of another person is love. But we can also come to terms with superiority, with true Excellence, by denying that such a thing as Excellence can exist; and, in doing, so we help to destroy it and ourselves.”

—-Randall Jarrell (from The Obscurity of the Poet)

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