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Music To Die By
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Matthew Paris

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Post Fri Jan 30, 2004 6:28 pm - Music To Die By
Itís one of the odd features of New York life that every generation seems both to decline and expire in an envelope of tastes and opinions peculiar to its youth. Itís as much true about musical preferences. The few centenarians among us toter across dimly illuminated dance floors to ragtime. The octogenarians stagger to the brassy revels of Dixieland.
The septuagenarians hobble over glossy floors to Swing; sexagenarians sit in the shadows and while consulting their doctors by cell phone look urbane and hip as they savor the alienated glories of bop. Not much younger people in their ripeness and more shake and shimmer away the calories to rock music.
There is a circuit of very cheap classical musical chamber events at Washington Irving High School, the New School, Town Hall, the free shows at Julliard, Mannes and the Manhattan School of Music, concerts at local libraries attended by the more mature among us through the year.
The shows make it on volume. Surrounded by Access-A-Ride buses, these capacious halls set a couple of thousand sagacious crones at a clip. One hears all the best string quartets, occasionally a great itinerant pianist on the way up or down in his career or simply treading water, a few excellent trios, all of them playing a shrinking circuit imploding over decades as young audiences grow up in this country commonly and happily post-literate, certainly without any handle for or background in these genres.
At the two opera houses, the concert halls, one sees the same demography of survivors of jejune fevers and ambitions. They are souls who were born into a time that could not have imagined a world with Disneyland or hunkered for a life with an ATM card that wonít quit tirelessly spewing out coinage to support equally relentless carnal tastes as one swaggers though the gaudy sanctorums of Las Vegas.
Itís struck me that music once written for and by young and middle aged people mostly in Europe and America is now being purveyed in New York to physically ruined audiences who in the past never would have survived long enough to be part of the natural aristocracy Social Security has given our nation.
Only Haydn and Verdi among our dead Old World classical brethren seems to have had the proper credentials to write airs for the aged. Nearly all the musicians we admire in all genres didnít live to collect their reward for having outlasted any scurvy or gilt predator that came their way for over six decades.
We donít have culture for the old because we never had enough of them around to make selling them anything worthwhile. Now people commonly live into their eighties and longer because imperial America canít bear to lost a customer. We are the beneficiaries of near immortality because even when close to death one can still pick up a few things one doesnít need at a shopping mall.
What does this mean for composers? If we think of composing in the old style, playing jazz or the blues, even if one is an out-patient beating on a drum in a subway tunnel, we normally are entrenched in music even if it is contemporary that reflects the hungers and glories of life before senescence.
What is the proper emotional palette a musician should paint with while entertaining an audience ancient as Dynastic Egypt? Certainly not the sermons of Tristan, the heady and martial call to arms of the 1812 Overture, the dour disquisitions on power of Boris Godunov nor the general adolescent melancholia of much 19th century music.
We should avoid too much twelve tone music; with short term memory loss common about this new class, they will forget the fist six notes in the row as they get to the last six, thus lose the entire design of the extending some dense and thorny piece.
If they are still vain they will find operatic meditations by the old about the old like Falstaff or The Makropolous Case depressing. My solution is to play lots of Haydn, which all these musicians on the circuit do, and hope it speaks to those in the shadows. Haydn was the only composer who was fecund into his late 70s.
If I were a young composer looking for the only audience in town out there that doesn't listen to synthetic junk fashioned by producers and drum machines I would study Haydn. If they donít know how it feels to be old, they can fake it.
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