My passion, your poison
By Dominic Eckersley
We all get asked at some point about a pop or folk or rock artist we have never heard of, don’t we? It probably happens to me more than to most though. My neighbour came to me once full of woe. She had had to write up yet another interview she had conducted with Bono. “Bono?” I asked. What is “bono”? “You mean WHO is Bono! You don’t know who Bono is?” she quaffed. No. I had no idea. I had never heard the name before. It seems he played in a “band” called “U2”. Now, I had heard of U2 and always thought the name was a really cheap and dumb pun. Had I heard their music? To this day I have absolutely no idea. I presume that I must have at some point. You hear “The Girl From Ipanema” and Mozart’s 40th symphony in elevators all over the world, so why not Bono and U2? Maybe I’ve been secretly indoctrinated by his music and am totally unaware? !
“You really have never heard of him?” she went on. No. I had never heard of him until that very moment. “But what about Rameau?” I asked her. Of course I got the same blank gaze from her which she had got from me moments before. She had never heard of Rameau. How could she never have heard about the man dubbed the ‘Isaac Newton of Harmony’? Telemann perhaps? Or even Pachelbel? Beethoven she knew about, and not just the St Bernard dog version. Mozart too, but that was just about it. Before we knew it, amidst laughter, shock, jubilation, we were both quizzing each other on who each of us had never heard about in the music world—reaching across the abyss of musical division to show each other what was ours. I wondered if this is what Cortez had felt like when he landed in Mexico when he was handed a potato. Were we living in parallel universes? How many other parallel universes were out there that neither she nor I knew about and how much cross over was there really?!
But even in highly specialised micro climes of culture, such as the ivory-towerdom of the classical musician, don’t we also suffer the same malaise, of being completely clueless about each other’s “thing”? How many violinists really know about Vierne or Porpora? How many harpsichordists really know the works of Copeland? Even being a harpsichordist, I was asked at college once to play a Copeland piece for piano, cor anglais and trumpet. “But can you do that on a piano?” the trumpeter asked. “Hey”, I said, “if I can handle Handel I can cope with Copeland.” I had no idea what I was getting myself into but a gig is a gig, right? Wrong. I did the concert and swore I would never get so far out of my depth again! Dvorak Romances for Violin and Piano at the Winter Gardens of the then World Trade Center drove the point home finally… the violinist (bless ‘is ‘eart) played the violin like a banshee on LSD. This stuff was not my thing, not my world. I had ventured into foreign places, a jungle of danger not to be trodden by the fearful or the harpsichordist. I’m sure had I asked him to do some of my stuff, you know, that old stuff, he would have been as incredulous as I was with the Dvorak. At least at the Winter Garden I did get my moment in the Liberace world… a concert on a white grand piano!
As I sit here writing, there is a street party going on outside, pumping bobah-bobah-bobah beats through rather overly bass-weighted PA system speakers. “Do they enjoy that stuff?” I ask myself. But if they didn’t like it why would they be so masochistic and play it at their parties? And then the next question hit home. Why was I sitting here writing when I should be out there with them, enjoying the party, the music, the social fun and games? Would they not prefer to sit indoors with tea and cake and discuss Voltaire with a little quiet Mozart gently massaging the walls? Something tells me they wouldn’t. Social parellelism?
But even people who think themselves to be on the same cultural space ship to Mars differ as much. Especially nowadays, with social networking sites, I see so many people posting recordings of compositions or performers while others vitriolically deride the performances, tearing them metaphorically limb from limb. I notice how some vehemently scorn anyone for playing Beethoven on so wrong an instrument as a grand piano (but love hearing the German Johann Sebastian Bach on a French harpsichord).
I can only assume that these kinds of divides have always existed, that Brahms or Josquin had the same issues with folk musicians as musical snobs like myself have today. And the reverse must also have been true too, since time immemorial, of the folk musicians’ inverted snobbery at the holier-than-thou classical snob. But I’m not sure it’s really about simple snobbery. How politically correct is it to even ponder these things?
How could we move towards a greater understanding of the apposite poles of the world of music? Telemann wrote pieces using Polish folk tunes. Maybe we should have transcriptions for piano and orchestra of U2’s greatest hits at our symphony concerts, mixed in with the Brahms and Mendelssohn. What happened to good honest talent, be it Bono or Beethoven, on Steinway pianos or a kazoo? Are we not able to put our overly highly revered knowledge or upbringing to one side and just be objective and enjoy good stuff done well?
Ironically, perhaps, it might be the very dislike for what’s out there which brings great musicians, great artists, to want to put things right, to put things out there which are “better”. Is it out of the ashes of bigotry then that the phoenix of genius is born? Vive la bigoterie!