MusicNOW’s mashups: Proof that listening is a creative process

Punch Brothers

Punch Brothers


Even music fans accustomed to the MusicNOW Festival’s self-described “genre-bending” mix of classical, rock, world music and other far-flung styles may find their heads spinning over this year’s March 18-20 festival lineup.:

  • Founder Bryce Dessner of the rock band The National, a composer becoming a force in orchestral music, holding an across-the-decades dialogue with the late Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski.
  • The famed Kronos Quartet performing Pulitzer Prize-winner Julia Wolfe’s amped-up, rock-infused “My Beautiful Scream” with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, followed by solos from folk/bluegrass mandolinist Chris Thile.
  • An atypical (for the decade-old MusicNOW) program with progressive bluegrass group Punch Brothers, folk artist Sam Amidon and Australian indie folk duo Luluc.

It’s the festival’s third year collaborating with the CSO, which devotes a weekend of its subscription series to unique, never-to-be-repeated programs.

CSO Music Director Louis Langrée says this collaboration “creates a vibrant atmosphere for artistic experimentation,” with the hope that listeners will “have their sensitivities reawakened.”

Well. Though it may not be fashionable to admit it, some listeners may not be able to make head or tail of it, and many struggle with the raucous crash of musical styles that’s so much in vogue.

They may see classical music, which has been a symbol of rationality and order, spinning away into seat-of-the-pants chaos. What’s going on?

There’s actually a logical explanation:

We are living in an age of “infinite music” in which everything is available, so anything is possible.

That’s the premise of the new book “Every Song Ever” by New York Times critic Ben Ratliff, who attempts to divine a new order in this chaos. Ratliff observes that for the first time in history, digital technology has assured that virtually every existing piece of music is available to the listener.

And it’s all instantly accessible – “a world in which Caruso, Coltrane and Carly Rae Jepsen are all only a click away.”

We can stream, download, create playlists, devise “stations” that dynamically change with our listening habits, employ tools to sample and otherwise digitally manipulate any piece of music.

Listening has become a creative act, and all of music’s universe is available to the listener in one gigantic “mashup” to mix, match, compare, contrast and juxtapose any way you want, drawing upon other arts, as well as music.

One good example of this is festival guest artist Jennifer Koh, a violinist who will perform with the CSO. Musical America’s Artist of the Year, she’s known for her initiatives such as “Bridge to Beethoven,” in which she pairs the composer’s 10 violin sonatas with new works written by a culturally diverse group of artists. Koh, who has a degree in English literature from Oberlin College, will perform Anna Clyne’s concerto “The Seamstress,” based on a William Butler Yeats poem.

Seen in this light, the programming quirks of former music director Michael Gielen that so shocked CSO concertgoers in the 1980s – interweaving movements of a Schubert symphony with pieces by Anton Webern, for example – seem positively tame.

The cross-pollination – and more – of musical styles is far from new, however. In fact, it has been a reality since the development of recording technology – and its rapid availability to a mass market – around the turn of the 20th century. It opened the floodgates for people to hear music from the rest of the world, and for composers and performers to embrace exotic or novel influences. By 1920, the recording company Victor had issued more than 20,000 “ethnic” recordings from around the world, many for the comfort and entertainment of  homesick immigrants in this country.

The dawn of the digital age in the 1980s, just after introduction of the compact disc, started the real explosion of classical music’s stylistic Big Bang. That, not coincidentally, was the early heyday of the Kronos Quartet, featured in both of the CSO’s MusicNOW programs.

Kronos was an early poster child for “universal music” – and one of its main instigators. Over the years it has played not only every avant-garde Western composer around, but Mexican folk music, Jimi Hendrix, tangos, jazz, Bob Dylan, various rock bands and more. Player piano maven Conlon Nancarrow followed by “Purple Haze”? No problem.

But that brings us back to the issue: How do we make sense of all this?

One solution, says Ratliff, is for listeners to keep in mind the clear distinction between genre – the musical shorthand that says this is classical, this is hip-hop and so on – and tradition – the principles, techniques and esthetic of each musical style.

The trick is to discern what traditions are operating in a piece of music, and how they are influencing each other. All music contains basic qualities – speed, volume, density and more – regardless of genre, style or era. Discerning those can help listeners make connections.

So the challenge of MusicNOW is the chance to awaken those “sensitivities.” The opportunity it presents is to remind us that in this era of “universal music,” the listener is the creator and holds the power to make sense of things. Not a bad achievement.

MusicNOW lineup

Friday, March 18, Music Hall: music by Bryce Dessner, Anna Clyne, Julia Wolfe, Chris Thile

Saturday, March 19, Music Hall: music by Lutoslawski, Dessner, Terry Riley, Magnus Lindberg

Sunday, March 20, Cincinnati Masonic Center: Punch Brothers, Sam Amidon, Luluc

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