Follow-up: Ingram Marshall

Earlier I wrote a blog about Philip Kennicott's post in the newrepublic. Among the many things discussed was Kennicott's vehement dislike of Kingdom Come by Ingram Marshall. During the end of his article, Kennicott takes a pretty unfair stab at new music, creating a checklist which describes at best one small scene of new music (often called the Midtown scene, after the work of collectives like Bang on a Can, and various composers that like to blur the line between pop and contemporary. And get lumped in with the touristy Midtown).

Here is Kennicott's checklist for in-vogue new music: harmonically and melodically accessible; socially topical; mixed media; and draws on musical culture outside the concert hall.

If you're even a semi-literate musician, you'll see how that checklist is, well...bogus. But I'll come to that a bit later.

First, I finally got the download from nonesuch records of Kingdom Come. Took a couple days, which in this day of digital downloads seems a long wait. Still, I have it without dealing with iTunes. Yay! One of the first things I did this morning was fire up the recording.

It's recorded by the ACO (America Composers Orchestra) and features recorded media along with a full orchestra. And listening to the piece, I do agree with what Kennicott said.

It is harmonically and melodically accessible. Meaning that the piece is triadically based, with a fairly Romantic notion of tension and release. Dissonant pitches are accrued then resolved more or less via good contrapuntal relationships. It seems to fit more into the mold of a Listz or a Wagner than a Brahms, with maybe some hints of Barber, especially in his string melodies. One of the more interesting parts were the dissonant low brass tones toward the beginning, which felt immediately linked to the rumbling pitch shifted voices that come in immediately after. All in all, I actually enjoyed the work--it's a bit more Romantic than I usually lean in my listening these days, but I may have needed it after a night of Saariaho.

It is socially topical, being influenced by the death of Ingram Marshall's brother in law in a bombing in Bosnia in 1994, as well as field recordings he had of chanting, singing, and bells from Bosnia. The title, in Marshall's words, can be related to the phrase "blown to kingdom come." If you didn't listen to Ingram Marshall's discussion with the St. Louis Youth Symphony, check it out.

So, yes, the piece can have these elements. I repeat, CAN. No one forces the listener to hear a piece in a specific way. Yes, there is semantic priming due to program notes, and recorded media often uses direct, unaffected sounds to create a more specific metaphor or relation. But this is one of the beauties of music: regardless of what we read about a piece, what we are told, and what the composer says, the listener has the final say on what is heard, based upon their experiences and what they choose to focus on.

Kingdom Come does use mixed media. In the recording, it is integrated quite nicely, with a well mixed balance of ensemble and media. The musical connections between the media and the orchestra seem clear to me, with lines being moved between recording and orchestra, harmonic movement being taken by either side, and a nice orchestration between all the parts. Kennicott obviously has a distaste for mixed media without taking into account the medium itself. That's fine, you don't have to like every medium, but to call it a bad piece because you don't like the medium is poor criticism.

And, yes, Kingdom Come does draw from musical culture outside the concert hall. There is chanting and church bells. I'm not sure what else Kennicott might be getting at, but it could be that it sounds more like "film" music to him than, say...well, I don't know, since film music comes directly out of the Romantic tradition and shares many characteristics with the repertoire he holds so dear. But it has the stigma of being for "film." Yes, I'm sure Korngold is impressed with your disdain.

Is Kingdom Come a "bad' piece of music? No. It does not, as Kennicott states, "fail." It is well crafted, firmly grounded in counterpoint, is balanced well between the media and orchestra, orchestrationally speaking. Of course, there could have been mixing errors in the live listening, but a critic has to be able to tell the difference between a poorly mixed piece and a poorly written piece.

Is it a piece I'll listen to repeatedly? Maybe not. It is a bit too Romantic for my liking, and, yes, a little simple in the harmonic spectrum. But then so is Brahms. And Strauss. And Beethoven. Especially Mozart and Haydn.

And this is the crux: Kennicott's list makes no sense. What is harmonically simple music? By what standard? By the standard of the past? Triadically based? Diatonic? All those things describe the repertoire Kennicott holds as being the core of the orchestra. It is no more or less adventuresome than Barber, Mendelssohn, or Boccherini. Or does Kennicott mean minimalist music that focuses on stasis or deep examination of a single area (such as Dennis Johnson's November)? Or does he mean modal music, such as Miles Davis' So What off "Kind of Blue?" That description to me makes little sense. It is not simple in the "pop tune" variety, meaning having only four or five chords. But it is triadically based. But, then, I doubt Kennicott likes the harmonically complicated music of, say, Boulez.

What about socially topical? Using that in a negative context seems so bizarre to me. It ignores a huge facet of history. For instance, for whom was Beethoven's 3rd Symphony (Eroica, or, Heroic) originally dedicated to? Napoleon Bonaparte. Wait, you mean that guy in the French Revolution that Beethoven so admired? That guy that then claimed to be emperor, and Beethoven grew disgusted? And then Beethoven scratched out his name, saving his fee (it was supposed to be dedicated to the guy that paid him, of course), and showing his now disdain for the "conqueror."

Here is, again, the thing about music: anyone that claims that it exists somehow outside reality, that composers aren't influenced by society, are wrong. In the wonderful movie (Untitled), Adam Goldberg's character states toward the beginning that his music is completely abstract and has nothing to do with life. SPOILER: he realizes later that he is influenced by all the sounds around him, thereby his music is connected to society.

But the kicker is the listener makes the final determination. If no one tells you the "story" behind a piece, then you are 100% free to make your own. Even when you're told, no one forces you into one mode of thinking. Your decision comes from your own experiences, pulling from cognitive schemata to influence what you hear and what it means. When I listen to Kingdom Come, I first grab all the musical elements. It's what I'm trained to do, as a musician. In particular, I listen to relationships between parts, motivic development, etc. My mind doesn't "make a story" because that's just not what I personally do. It does this with a piece programmatically titled, or a "string quartet."

Others will hear a relation to music from a movie, and equate it with some scene. Maybe something from Three Wise Men or another Middle Eastern/Balkan/Recent war type movie. Maybe the chanting sounds like what a person heard at the funeral of a beloved Eastern Orthodox family member. The list is large.

And the same is true for Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, etc. If you're going to hate on Ingram Marshall for it, then you should hate on Beethoven for the Eroica symphony, hate on Mendelssohn for the Hebrides overture, really hate on Berlioz's Symphony Fantastique, not to mention Haydn's London Symphonies, and Mozart's String Quartets dedicated to Haydn.

And what about music "outside the concert hall?" Who gets to decide what comes into the concert hall, and when? Take, for instance, the Minuet. It is, after all, a dance. One can look back at Baroque Suites and see collections of dances, now made as concert music. Is this as large a sin? Moving forward, do we attack Dvorak for having a furiant and dumka in his string sextet? They are, after all, popular dances in Bohemia. What of the choir in Beethoven's 9th symphony? Or Gorecki's 3rd symphony with it's soloist and obvious homages?

In other words, the whole list makes no historic sense. Kennicott is basically saying "Don't do what others haven't already done." He is another version of Eduard Hanslick, a deeply rooted formalist praising the works of Brahms while attacking Bruckner for being too much like Wagner. But Bruckner was far from writing programmatic music--his biggest sin was probably his poor development of themes, direct repetition, and large lush orchestration. Kinda like Mahler...

But Kennicott has an odd twist. I'm interested to find out what he considers harmonically interesting. What are these great pieces he holds so dear that by today's standards are so harmonically rich? Because, to my ears, if it's diatonically based, more than likely I will disagree.

That does not make a piece "bad." It does not make a piece that should be hid away from kids, because kids shouldn't play such rot! Kennicott must really hate what most young performers play, from Robert W. Smith to original and simplified string works of Del Borgo. Definitely shouldn't later tackle any of the works I put above.

No, young performers need to be taught the widest amount of music as possible from the youngest age possible. It's one of the great problems of our musical society. Too many musicians share Kennicott's (inferred) views that all the great music has been written, and that anything new is not worth pursuing. I came from a different type of upbringing--without the heavy handed lessons and top performing groups, I was as free to play and listen to whatever I wanted. I once quite piano for a year because my teacher couldn't work with me on jazz and she wanted me to play hymns. Later we came to terms and I tackled Bach Preludes and Fugues, works by Edward MacDowell, and whatever else I played. And I played Ben Folds, Train (yes, Train. We were all 15 once), and whatever else I could either buy a songbook for or pick out...which if you know my ears means "buy a songbook."

If anything, we need more outreach to young students, both performers and listeners. They need to hear the wealth of music that's been made, not just the pop music of today and their current genre loves, nor of just the "classics," but a great balance of everything.

It reminds me of the listening I used to do on the first day of music appreciation. I almost always started out with some shock value, usually Penderecki's Threnody. I play it without giving the title, and we talk about it. Then I give the title. THEN I give the story of how he changed the title to Threnody later. Also on the playlist? Mozart, Snoop Dog, Free Speech by Noach Creshevsky, Un Bel Di, and Weezer's Butterfly from El Scorcho. There were a few more, but that playlist hasn't been used for many years...

The classics of yesterday were created during someones lifetime. Music is living, breathing, and evolving. Music changes as people change. To ignore that fact is to ignore history itself. And I go to the museum not to spend my time lost in thought about how amazing this ancient civilization was, but to look at a piece of art, or an artifact, and realize that, just like today, people are making what they feel they need at that moment.

So, young (and old) performers, play new music. Listen to Ingram Marshall's Kingdom Come, and every other piece I mentioned in this post. I didn't even link them, so you'll have to use Google/Bing/Yahoo/Yandex (maybe I have Russian readers?). Or if you're at a university, drop by Naxos, or DRAM, or something similar. And listen. DRAM has an amazing "random" button.

And, soon enough, I'll tackle the "problems in outreach." I agree they are there, but the answer isn't to abandon it--if we do, soon there will be no audiences for our music!

And study your history, or else some guy will call you out on not knowing it...

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