August 11, 2005

Chiseling Away at the Iceberg

My mother, ever patient with my musical interests, will listen to just about anything I want to play for her. She deserves much credit, for she still keeps an open ear even after hearing some pieces that had her question whether I was even playing music for her (Bartok and Carter she no like). Even after giving her what seems like a minor education in modern music, she has only cared for the following:
  • Ives (admittedly his more traditionally tonal works), in particular his Second Symphony
As a card carrying Ivesian, I can hardly complain with her taste, but it is still a pretty limited list. Much to my surprise, a new member was recently admitted to this exclusive club: Rzewski's North American Ballads. What was completely unexpected was her reasoning. She wasn't caught by the folk tunes (though given her tastes, you would suspect she's a closet populist), but by the counterpoint in “Down By the Riverside.” There's an extended bit towards the end which sounds like two pianos going at once. This, she thought, was really great. I was surprised, mainly because it was the point of greatest dissonance in the piece. My initial expectation was that she'd enjoy the simple beginning and simply tolerate the rest.

If there's a “lesson” in this, it's not that people will like new music if you cram it down their throats enough (though I think this is the first time my mom's been drawn to a piece for an essentially intellectual satisfaction). My guess is that she liked the music because it met her on territory she was comfortable in. Though she hasn't touched the instrument in a while, my mom took piano lessons throughout the early part of her life. Though Rzewski's style of virtuosity was certainly new to her, she was able to relate it her knowledge of the instrument. Instead of being repelled by his style, it intrigued her.

I guess this situation speaks more to developing musical literacy than a taste for the new. Whenever non-musical friends ask me to “teach them about music,” I just tell them to listen to a lot of music (with carefully curated suggestions of course ;)). It's possible to appreciate music just out of the pleasure certain sounds bring, but a deeper appreciation comes from picking up on the practices that have persisted throughout its history. Like with any other language, the only way to gain fluency is through immersion.

My mom's knowledge of idiomatic piano writing spelled the difference, so far as I can tell, between her liking the piece and it being another instance of me playing unseemly “sounds” for her. I don't have any high expectations about further emendations to the list above, but it's nice to see that it wasn't as closed a book as I thought it was.


Anonymous said...

Interesting, indeed. Reminds me of when I played Celestial Mechanics by Crumb for some of my co-workers. Expecting the worst, I was prepared to answer all of the why and what for questions, and defend the "this isn't music" statements. But instead, I was met with "This is beautiful" or "This seems really complex, and I would like to understand it a bit better, can you please explain?" - AT AN INSURANCE COMPANY! There is hope...

The Humanity Critic said...

great post. Just passing through, cool blog by the way.