Well, you want to hear the latest? For the past month or so, I’ve been writing about “safe zones,” or the lack of them: zones free from partisan politics. There are precious few such zones, at least in my neck of the woods. Let me tell you about Friday night.
So, I go to cover a string-quartet concert at Weill Recital Hall (which is upstairs in the Carnegie Hall building). A string-quartet concert! What harm could possibly occur? Oh, there is always room for partisan politics — at any musical event. (But those politics are of the left-wing variety, only — make no mistake about that.)
Members of the quartet talked from the stage, talking from the stage being an epidemic of our times. And on the program was a new piece, by Kevin Puts. Before the quartet — the Miró Quartet — performed the piece, the composer gave a little lecture (bien sûr).
He explained that the Miró folks had asked him to write something optimistic about America — something lighthearted. But this was hard to do in 2007: because those were dark, terrible days. You remember, he said: like all days “before three days ago” (meaning, before the inauguration of Barack Obama). The audience erupted in a sustained cheer — just as always: in perfect, herd-like conformity. Not a dissenting mind in the bunch.
Or were there? There is always a minority at events like these, but their views and sensitivities are never respected, by the people I’m talking about. The majority just goes about its self-congratulatory, mob-like rituals. (Have you ever seen video clips of those stadium events in North Korea?) I have an old point to make, but one worth repeating: New York City can be as narrow, blinkered, intolerant, and conformist as any Bible Belt burg. Believe me.
And I’ll tell you something funny: I think there has been more partisan politics in New York concert halls lately than I notice in the offices of National Review!
By the way, have a further taste of Kevin Puts, in his formal program notes:
When Daniel Ching of the Miró Quartet asked me to write a quartet exploring “the lighter side of America,” I wasn’t sure I could deliver. It was hard to find things to sing about. The government stubbornly and arrogantly continued to pour young lives and billions of dollars into a hopeless war, one to whose protest millions at home marched with what E. L. Doctorow described as “the appalled understanding that America was ceding its role as the best hope of mankind,” that “the classic archetype of democracy was morphing itself into a rogue nation.” Also around this time, a disturbed loner finally enacted his plan to gun down a record-breaking number of his fellow students at Virginia Tech University, and — amazingly — this failed to prompt any heightened talks over gun control by politicians who feared they might offend their gun-loving constituents before the next election.
And so on. This is a perfect specimen of a particular mindset of our age (and of previous ages, to be sure). You could put it in a museum, under glass. The unfortunate thing is, this young man probably doesn’t know anybody who disagrees with him — at least in an open way. In his milieu, it can be fatal to dissent (trust me).
And did you catch that “hopeless war”? All I can say is: They wish.
You may wonder how the piece was (it is called Credo). And the answer is, meritorious. I will write a little about it in my next New Criterion “chronicle.” I have praised Kevin Puts in reviews before. And I think of a glory of music — particularly of music without words: You can divorce it from all political considerations, and all other non-musical considerations. Music exists in a sound world, a world apart from (you might even say above) politics and the like.
The British composer Peter Maxwell Davies once wrote a string quartet “against” the Iraq War. But there are no words, only notes — so you can throw the composer’s “program,” or motivation, out the window. Once the notes reach a person’s ear, he, the listener, “owns” the piece.
For a long column on “safe zones,” go here. For today’s Impromptus — which has a little bit more on safe zones — go here. And for a hour-long interview on the subject, aired on Wisconsin Public Radio, go here. (The date is January 6.)
To be continued, I’m afraid . . .