From the archive: Let’s Get Lost: the thrill of the unknown in music

April 1, 2013

I was reminded of the title of Bruce Weber’s documentary on the life of Chet Baker when reading John Terauds’ feature on Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach on his vibrant blog, ‘Musical Toronto’ recently. The Glass-Wilson libretto-less opera was being given its Canadian première in June, and Terauds asks if the work’s success is in part due to the fact that, as an audience, there is nothing that we have to understand in the work: as Wilson himself has apparently said, it’s ‘a work where you can go and get lost.’

20130401-100349.jpgAs Terauds observes, ”I wonder how many people who buy tickets for a new piece of music or theatre, or who buy a novel from a first-time author — any situation where one can’t see beyond the curtain or the cover until the act of engaging with the creator(s) has begun — are able to commit such a leap of faith?”

In an age of high consumerism, where buyers demand value for money, contemporary art and contemporary music in particular can be a risky venture; putting on contemporary works and premières, launching new commissions, and performing new repertoire does seem to ask potential audiences to trust that they will be experiencing something worthwhile, something valuable which will widen their cultural horizons. There’s perhaps a feeling that, if consumers don’t know what they will be getting, then they’ll be unwilling to risk investing in a ticket for a concert when they aren’t familiar with the actual product beforehand. There is a certain sense in this: as purchasers, we don’t want to waste our money on something if we are unsure what it will provide; instead, we turn to those products with which we are already familiar, safe in the knowledge that we know what we’re in for, and that we like it.

But being uncertain about a concert, about a new piece, or about a new composer, can also be terrifically exciting. Instead of hearing the same old warhorse from the Austro-Germanic symphonic tradition that you’ve heard before, and instead of knowing in advance the range of emotional highs and lows that you customarily experience during a piece, your emotional spectrum is now a blank canvas, waiting to receive a new work and be led through a previously unchartered emotional landscape. With familiar works, you know that you’ll cry at that phrase, or start getting excited at that point where the brass come in, or that a particular chord or harmonic passage will make your heart stop; but with a new work, you don’t know where the music will take you.

Sometimes, you listen to pieces with which you are familiar because you want that emotional experience you know that piece provides. For me, it’s a particular phrase in Gabriel Jackson’s gloriously colourful motet O sacrum con vivium,for instance, that occurs four times, growing louder with each repetition until I find it overwhelming; the slow and stately opening to the final movement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, with hypnotic piano chords and that yearning violin;

Or there’s the open horn-chord and urgent strings ostinato that kick-starts Walton’s First Symphony, or the ‘Infernal Dance’ in Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite that thrums with the menace of deep-throbbing strings and timpani, both of which immediately set the pulse racing. I turn to these pieces when I feel ready to experience the emotional odyssey they offer.

But there’s a sense of excitement in the new as well. I can still recall the first time I heard Antheil’s Ballet mecanique, George Crumb’s Black Angels, Reich’s The Desert Music; all concerts that will resonate with me for years.

In return for surrendering your certainty, there’s the potential for undergoing a new emotional experience, the chance to revel in a new sound-world and be taken both aurally and emotionally across a new, unchartered landscape. It may well require, as Terauds puts it, a ‘leap of faith;’ but the rewards can be worth it.

Come to Sounds New, or indeed to any music festival or concert offering the chance to hear new work; surrender your certainty, and be prepared for a new experience. You won’t be disappointed.

(Originally posted on 15 April, 2012)