Thursday, January 21, 2010

Musical Literacy

I recently started playing in a local community band. I found out about this group through the local newspaper, emailed the director, and went to my first rehearsal a couple of weeks ago. As a clarinetist, it's usually not too hard to get into wind ensembles and concert bands, as they're always short. It's been fun-the hard part has been adjusting to the fact that it's a community band and not the type of ensemble I'm used to playing in, but it's a place for my to indulge my musical side, which always makes my soul feel better.

Anyway, the theme for the spring concert is outer space, or something like that. All of the music we're playing has some space-y thing in the title. Two of the pieces we're playing are from Gustav Holst's The Planets ("Jupiter" and "Uranus," to be specific). I've played "Mars" in both wind ensembles and orchestras before, and I've played the "Jupiter" in orchestra. Plus, this work of Holst's is wonderful and I know it decently well and imagined that everyone in the band would have recognized the pieces (especially "Jupiter"-it and "Mars" are probably the two most well known movements of the work) as The Planets is well known and almost movie-esque, in an early twentieth century kind of way. Imagine my surprise then, when one of the clarinets piped up after we finished "Jupiter" and said "Where did you find this piece?" After rehearsal, several players asked me the same sorts of questions. My response (mentally) is below:

WHAT?!?!?!?! Are you serious? You're a musician and you've never heard Holst's The Planets?!

I spent the entire drive home thinking about this. I'm still in disbelief. It got me to thinking about musical literacy in our society. You hear about the "cultural canon" or "great books" so much, but it's all about literature. Not that I have anything against literature-I study it, for crying out loud! But I find that music is rarely-if ever-included in discussions of cultural literacy. You could probably mention Beethoven or Mozart to people, and maybe even Tchaikovsky (if it's close to Christmas) and folks would know who you were talking about. But when you run into musicians who have never heard of Holst, the problem of musical literacy becomes apparent.

I don't even know how we approach this problem. I'm just...flabbergasted. Music transcends boundaries in ways that reading can't (language barriers don't exist here, although cultural tastes in music do, but I'd argue not to the same extent as language). I just want to go into rehearsal and hand out copies of The Planets, and even the soundtrack to Fantasia 2000 (which I find to be the best intro to the range of classical music, played by the oh so wonderful Chicago Symphony Orchestra) just so people would know these pieces. I mean, listening to modern music is enriched when you know the standards, just as knowing the standards in jazz helps you pick up on tags and quotes during improv sessions. Case in point-John Williams. I am convinced that "O Fortuna" from Carmina Burana was a direct influence on the piece "Duel of the Fates" from the score to Star Wars: Episode One. Aside from the obvious similarity in title ("O fortune!" vs. "Duel of the Fates"), the pieces have a similar sound. The first time I heard it in the movie theater, I was immediately struck by this and my experience of that musical moment was deepened because I knew (and had played, for that matter) then Orff setting.

I apologize if this post seems scattered or doesn't make sense. I'm just still kind of astonished by people not knowing the Holst piece. Crazy.

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