emusic alert: Sarah Cahill's recent recording of the piano music of Leo Ornstein...
Tyler Cowen, spurred by the Grokster Supreme Court Decision, writes about the perceived value people get from music and goes on to say:
For whatever reason, most consumers find it harder to reorient their attention towards older musics. Perhaps only new music allows for effective signaling and sorting. When music is new, individuals can show that they are connected to current modes of thinking and feeling. Not everyone can know “what is in,” because “what is in” is changing so frequently. That very fact makes it worthwhile for consumers to put effort into following the new.
This has me thinking about my own musical preferences. I'll divide the music I listen into two types: "classic" music that to me has absolute value independent of its time or place and "new" music that requires a contemporary context to be valued. For the latter, as Tyler makes clear, the business of pop music is very much oriented towards the contemporary and thus we, for argument's sake, greatly value Britney Spears over Chuck Berry. Despite being a baby boomer, it's true for me as well since my pop music tastes still tend toward the new, be it Radiohead, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, or the Books. (Ok, I had a nostalgic relapse last night with the Guess Who's American Woman and even worse, the Association's Along Comes Mary). On the other hand, with my earlier immersion into both blues and jazz, I liked what I liked and it didn't matter if it was new, old, innovative, or derivative. For example, with blues, I've never been to Mississippi, have little in common with 1950s ghetto Chicago, have only an academic interest in the historical progression of the art, and yet, there are records by blues artists like Muddy Waters or Little Walter or Magic Slim that to this day floor me. Similarly in jazz, while I can appreciate the innovations of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, the music per se holds little of the sense of novelty and exploration I get from new pop music.
So, Tyler's post got me thinking about my relationship to classical music, which has both a classic side as well as a context-dependent side. Composers from say Bach to Debussy are on the absolute side of the spectrum where the music just "is"; I don't particularly care about 19th-century development or 18th-century aristocratic practices or much at all about the context from which the music emerged. And since I personaly have little interest in performance practice, there is no "new" associated with this music as it is currently marketed.
However, prior to Bach, from the origins of classical music up to 1750, I treat this music as if it were new, at least in my imagination. I can picture what it would have been like to be in Venice to hear phenomenal new music of the time by Gabrieli, or say, the shimmering effects of Vivaldi's L'Estro Armonico. I get the same musical buzz from that music that I get from contemporary classical music. I can only speculate why early music has a historical resonance to me when my reaction to someone like Beethoven is purely an absolute understanding. Maybe it's just music I didn't hear when I was young or maybe it's because at heart I'm an Anglophile despite some German blood (and despite being married to a Francophile). Alternately, in line with Cowen's thinking, maybe I am just signaling my hipness by paying attention to more obscure music. It's certainly safer to champion Brahms than Busoni but a lot less interesting.
All of which leads me to Leo Ornstein. When I created aworks two years ago, I expected to mostly focus on truly contemporary classical music. Instead, I surprised myself in how much I really liked pre-World War II American music. That music gives me the same feeling of newness and possibility listening to Leo Ornstein that I get when I first hear, say, Kyle Gann or Nico Muhly. I've read a fair amount of American history of the era and the parallels between then and the recent past are clear -- innovation, social crazes, Republicanism, immigration etc. leading towards more serious times and so maybe I identify with that zeitgeist.
To take a specific example, when I hear Ornstein's Suicide in an Airplane, the daring and excitement in the music speaks to me on three levels: as a programmatic glimpse into what it was really like to fly in the early days of aviation, as a reflection on the courage and/or madness of an American composer to write such music given the country's marginal musical accomplishments at the tme, and as a demonstration of the real talent required to perform such music (and fly those airplanes).
Finally, to tie this back to the Supreme Court ruling which could lead to practices that force me to stop buying truly new music (e.g. CDs that won't rip to an iPod or worse), I'm not worried since I hope I could rely on historical musical perspective from existing music to "make it new." Maybe even from Beethoven...
Amazon samples Hamelin playing Ornstein.
Time Magazine has posted their articles since 1923 to the Web (although you must be a magazine subscriber to see the full text). Searching for "Leo Ornstein" turns up the following from 1930:
Among the products of the widespread U. S. yearning for a new national anthem was a $3,000 prize competition...the best anthem had been submitted by Musical Writer Frederick Herman Martens (words) of Rutherford, N. J., and Pianist Leo Ornstein (music), that they would divide the prize. Final stanza of their anthem, entitled America:
Thou, America, enshrined, In ev'ry patriot soul, To olden greeds and hatreds blind, In unity thy strength shall bind The nations that they find In brotherhood their goal.
I assume the "widespread yearning" of that era continued...
Leo' Ornstein's Suicide in an Airplane is #8 on the aworks Top 10 Tracks of 2004. While some might think this program music grim, I find the piece for piano invigorating (if I put myself in the frame of mind of the perils of early aviation). Ornstein's piece captures the raw power of early mechanical flight as well as its swirling, soaring character, by varying the dynamics as well as the depth of texture. Edward Wright on Amazon calls it "descriptive near-minimalism" but to me, it is much richer and dramatic than that might suggest.
Martin Anderson writes the program notes to the Marc-Andre Hamelin recording. Of interest: