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Critic's Notebook; A Temple Of Classics Has Room For Rock


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Critic's Notebook; A Temple Of Classics Has Room For Rock

New York Times Aug 10, 1992

by Allan Kozinn

A funny thing happened at Tanglewood's Festival of Contemporary Music a couple of weeks ago. At the end of one concert, the eight punkishly dressed young percussionists who were about to play Christopher Rouse's "Bonham" bounded onto the stage with their arms raised and their fists clenched in a gesture of rock-and-roll triumphalism. A small but assertive part of the audience shouted, stomped and whistled as if the ensemble were a famous rock band, and when the six-minute piece ended, this claque shouted again and held cigarette lighters aloft.

That this rumpus was clearly premeditated did not matter because, in effect, it was a kind of on- and offstage choreography that grew out of the work's musical substance. And that substance was even stranger than the posturing, for in composing "Bonham" -- a tribute to Led Zeppelin's drummer, John Bonham, who died in 1980 -- Mr. Rouse reached unabashedly into rock-and-roll's bag of tricks, came up with some useful ideas, and wove them into a cohesive concert piece.

Mr. Rouse's work was a Trojan horse. It wheeled through the gates of a festival that was once a staid outpost of the most formal brand of contemporary music, and unleashed an assault that included rhythmic quotations from a handful of rock and blues songs, including Led Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks" and "Custard Pie." Quoting from "Custard Pie" actually opened yet another box of allusions, since it is based on the rhythm that Bo Diddley claimed as his signature riff, and that also lies at the heart of songs like "Not Fade Away," a classic in both the Buddy Holly and Rolling Stones versions.

Mr. Rouse, who is 43 years old, is not likely to have his membership in the fraternity of serious composers invalidated for these shenanigans. His symphonic credits are solid, and his Symphony No. 1 won the Kennedy Center Friedheim Award in 1988. But "Bonham" is hardly his first infraction. His prize-winning symphony includes quotations from songs by Led Zeppelin and Canned Heat, although they are less blatant than those in "Bonham." He also made an arrangement -- a disappointing one, alas -- of the Isley Brothers' "Twist and Shout" for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to take on tour a few years ago.

Nor was "Bonham" the only rude intruder at Tanglewood. Another was Frederic Rzewski's "Aerial Tarts," a chamber work that could have been mistaken for one of Frank Zappa's parodistic rambles. I did not hear Steven Mackey's "Physical Property" for string quartet and electric guitar, but his guitar works in recent years flaunted his rock roots.

Tanglewood's programming reflected a broader movement afoot in the music world. Composers like David Lang are writing orchestral works that speak with the accent of someone grounded in popular culture. Others, like Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham, Arnold Dreyblatt and Scott Johnson, are writing extended works -- some truly complex, some merely pretentious -- for rock ensembles. And Mr. Johnson has composed a string quartet in which a Chuck Berry riff mingles with a 12-tone row.

It was inevitable that rock moves would find their way into contemporary concert music. Composers, after all, are of this world, and they have open ears. Those under the age of 50 grew up in an age when rock was in the air, and although they may have chosen to toil in a very different field, many maintain an affection for rock and do not see why its colors should be excluded from their palettes.

I do not regard this as a deplorable development, not only because of my own lingering fondness for rock, but also because I believe that music only develops when its vocabulary expands voraciously. But this is probably not the majority view, yet. That much was evident to anyone who spotted the glum, bewildered looks on the faces of a few of the older composers and listeners in the Tanglewood audience after Mr. Rouse's piece was played.

Indeed, both in professional circles and certain corners of the classical music audience, there are many who see no need to come to terms with rock, or to accord it even grudging respect.

I saw an appalling example of this one day recently when I was browsing through the classical section at Tower Records on the Upper West Side. A young man with long hair and a stack of rock CD's was puzzling over competing recordings of Mozart's "Magic Flute." An older shopper noticed him and offered some advice. And then, indicating the rock CD's, he added, "but you aren't a very discriminating listener, are you?"

I did not intervene, nor did I do so when the condescending older shopper advanced the peculiar opinion that the way to judge the cast of a "Magic Flute" was by the Sarastro. But the exchange disturbed me because, although the young man continued shopping with equanimity, he could as easily have done what other rock fans curious about the classics say they do when confronted by this kind of snobbism, which is to give up.

Mr. Rouse turned the tables on classical snobbery in "Bonham." Here was music that had its own subtleties and complexities, and that worked well as a virtuosic percussion piece regardless of its sources and references. Yet one could not appreciate it fully or comprehend its wit without an acquaintance with "When the Levee Breaks" and the Bo Diddley rhythm, any more than one could take in all the implications of Berlioz's "Witches' Sabbath" from the "Symphonie Fantastique" without being able to recognize the "Dies Irae."

Mr. Rouse demanded a kind of literacy that some of the most musically literate listeners in the audience simply did not command. In that sense, "Bonham" was a delicious joke. But it was also a cannon blast across the bow of the contemporary music establishement.

It is not, by the way, as if populism has displaced the festival's traditional sobriety entirely. John Harbison, the composer who directed the festival this year, offered programs on which most dialects of contemporary musical language were represented. And one of the lessons he presented was that Serialism and atonality -- the comparatively abstruse styles that were once the festival's lingua franca -- are not only alive but are being pushed in new directions. So if the programs included rigorously organized, admirably logical but emotionally arid work like Berthold Tuercke's Octet, that dryness was countered by Rand Steiger's more inviting attempt to apply Minimalist repetitive techniques and electronic sound processing to 12-tone materials in his "18 Loops."

And if Gunther Schuller, the festival's former director, was seen to have lost the battle to maintain the primacy of Serialism at the festival when he resigned in 1984, peace has clearly been declared. Mr. Schuller is a visiting composer and teacher at the Tanglewood Music Center this summer. And the festival's souvenir shop sells postcards with Mr. Schuller's picture, an item that one of the clerks described as a brisk seller.

Besides the music festival, the talk of Tanglewood this summer is of a ghost that reportedly haunts the second floor of Highwood Manor, the house where Tanglewood has its offices. No one has actually seen this spirit, but Tanglewood officials speak of unexplained footsteps, sighs, lights that turn themselves on and off, and the feeling of being brushed against. They say that Leonard Bernstein felt the ghost's presence a few summers ago.

The manifestations are said to have started three years ago, after workers moved the tombstone of a 37-year-old man who was killed in the 19th century by a falling tree, but the ghost is said to have been unusually active this summer. So on my last night at Tanglewood, I drove to Highwood, went up to the deserted, unlighted second floor and waited. When three minutes of intensive surveillance yielded nothing but stillness and perhaps a few easily traceable heartbeats, it seemed sensible to leave, quietly.

Perhaps the ghost expected greater patience: Walking out of the house, I suddenly found myself flat on the sidewalk. Could the Highwood ghost have tripped me? Who knows? But as I drove away wondering, the song playing on the radio was the old Temptations hit, "Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)."

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