I’m just going to say this up front. The friend I’m talking about isn’t technically a friend, and I still haven’t taken him to an orchestra. (And Drew passes out.)
The first part’s easy to explain. It’s my son. He’s ten, and in the last few years, he’s started to pay attention to the elements that go into the films, television, video games that he likes. It started with a trip to the theatre when he was eight, specifically a play called Shipwrecked! by Donald Margulies as performed at Actors Theatre of Louisville. I work in theatre, and I’d dragged him to childrens’ shows a few times before, but it was a lost cause–he was far more interested in meeting other audience members, wandering the building, going backstage. This time, he was curious about the show itself. He wanted to see what I (and his godfather and a lot of our friends) do when we put on a show. So I took him down to Louisville, he loved the show. The next time our company put on a show, he was there. It was a play called A Night in November by Marie Jones, not really a show for an eight year old, but he loved it, can still quote bits and pieces of it to this day. Even the curses.
(Why isn’t he talking about orchestras? Drew? Is this thing on?)
Part of the beauty of the way ATL staged Shipwrecked! was that you could see behind the curtain. There were live foley artists on the stage for sound effects. There was a scrim for shadow puppetry, but you could see the puppeteers and the light. And there was a live band for the musical cues. Because the script deals with truth and lies, storytelling versus reality, the transparency of the staging and effects was a brilliant touch.
That’s where his curiosity began to take over.
One day, he came into my office and heard the theme from “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” He’d seen the film, so he knew the music, but he was amused that I was listening to it on its own. I started the track again, and we listened together. He started to describe what he remembered from the various themes and motifs, which was fun–he’s got an excellent memory for details like that. The next track in the playlist was John Williams’ march from the score for “1941.” That held no associations for him–he’s never seen the film–but he wanted to hear it a second time. We picked out the various themes and listened to how Williams wove them in and out, bringing them all together by the end of the piece.
The next track in the playlist was the end credits music from the recent “Star Trek” film. He hasn’t seen the movie yet, but he knows the original series well, so he recognized several themes. Naturally, he asked about the new ones he didn’t recognize. After this came the main title theme from “The Incredibles,” which he knows well. On looking at my iTunes, he noticed that these tracks were both by Michael Giacchino. So now he had two film composers in his head.
Days later, he’s using our iPad, and out of nowhere, he shouts, “Michael Giacchino writes video game music!”
That led to a whole new round of YouTube searches and iTunes purchases. It had never occurred to him that people wrote music specifically for video games, let alone that anyone could make a living at it. This also led to questions of how to write knowing that the game might not be played in the same order or even any kind of predictable linear order.
Don’t worry, he also plays Pokemon and likes sports, too.
(Pokewhat? Sports? Giacchino? JUST PLAY SOME MESSIAEN ALREADY!)
Now, all of that was well and good, but he still wasn’t interested in what we’d call classical music. That was “boring.” Heck, I’m just happy both he and his younger brother like jazz. But he kept paying attention. Last fall, he pounded through the Harry Potter books and then the films. When he noticed that John Williams wrote the scores, he picked up on themes and how they evolved or developed over the course of the series. Same with “Star Wars.”
No. He hasn’t seen the prequels. Not going to happen on my watch.
(Good man. Now get back to the talking-about-music thing.)
Anyway. As much as he enjoyed the film scores and musical theatre scores–he figured out what an overture was on his own, a “sneak preview of the songs”–he didn’t want to bother with classical works. They didn’t come with visuals or stories, they weren’t about things. It didn’t matter that other music he liked was just as disconnected from story, he just didn’t like it. It “wasn’t fun” like film scores or jazz or pop.
That’s when I introduced him to Peter Schickele.
I can’t blame him, either. When I was young, P.D.Q. Bach was my gateway drug into the classical world. The music was fun even to an outsider, but the more you knew, the richer the parody. I checked out all the LP’s they had at the Princeton Public Library, taped them all, listened to them over and over. I started buying them on CD, especially after the library stopped collecting newer albums. And then I ran through my parents’ collection of music, finding new layers to Schickele’s work even as I was listening to the things he’d referenced. I laughed out loud at a concert of Bach cantatas at Richardson Auditorium once when I got a Schickele joke, got disapproving looks from patrons around the room. I didn’t care, it was a good joke.
It’s not like I sat down and said, “Today’s the day we show the boys P.D.Q. Bach.” It just happened. We’re pretty casual about letting the kids discover whatever books and music they want in our house. It’s how the seven year old wound up memorizing the Periodic Table when he was four. We stay out of the way and discuss things as they come up.
My wife had given me the “Houston, We Have a Problem” DVD for Christmas, so we put it on. Neither of the boys was paying much attention until the classic “New Horizons in Music Appreciation” routine. This is where Schickele takes Beethoven’s Fifth and illustrates how best to popularize classical music by providing play-by-play and color commentary.
As much fun as the album version was, the routine in concert takes it to another level, full-on silliness from start to finish. The ten-year-old was mesmerized. He knew Beethoven’s Fifth, or at least the beginning–you really can’t not know that. He’s even found the old “Nobody’s home!” commercial. But here’s the thing. It wasn’t just the silliness that got him. It’s that he understood the concepts Schickele was describing in the play-by-play from thinking about the film scores. Themes, motifs, recaps, etc. The idea of calling it like a sports event was funny, but he appreciated the next level, the fact that the play-by-play is a good description of what’s actually happening in the piece.
He may be the only ten-year-old who knows the Liebesleider Polkas.
Just like me, he’s discovered that the more he hears of the real stuff, the funnier P.D.Q. gets.
We also love listening to the Carl Stalling Project albums and pulling apart the music of Looney Tunes while watching them on DVD. [“Hi, George!” The author waves across the crowded TAFTO meeting hall at Adaptistration HQ.] When he realized “What’s Opera, Doc?” was a parody of an actual work, his first reaction was, “You’re kidding.” Then, “What’s it like?” Well, it’s like that, but without the wabbit. It’s also longer. “Oh.” But he’s curious. That’s how he found live, staged versions of the cartoon on YouTube.
Then he discovered Victor Borge. Nuff said.
And yet we still haven’t gone to the orchestra.
(Good God, man, what are you waiting for? Star Trek night? Get on that!)
I’m not going to blame ticket prices–although that is a consideration–or the thought of dressing up–which I enjoy, actually–or any of the other little niggling complaints people bring up about going to the orchestra. The main problem for us is proximity. We live in what I like to call “Hoosier exile” in southern Indiana. Cincinnati and Indianapolis are about two hours away, Bloomington and Indiana University are almost as far. These are places that we visit regularly–we grocery shop at Jungle Jim’s in Cincinnati when we can, it helps keep us sane out here–but most of the time, we try to be home before dark. Even so, with gas prices what they are, we visit those cities less often these days.
Louisville is a short trip, only 45 minutes from here. But. The Louisville Orchestra is a million miles away at the moment.
My parents have been in Albuquerque for as long as I’ve been near Louisville. As subscribers and supporters of the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra, they had front row seats for their dissolution as well as the birth of the New Mexico Philharmonic. It’s not quite the same, but it’s improving with each concert, so I hear.
It’s been interesting keeping that in mind as I watch the tug-of-war down in Louisville. It also means we’re not likely to see a top-flight orchestra down there any time soon. [The author raises a glass in Drew’s direction in honor of his optimistic post from the other day. He can’t see the toast, surrounded as he is by the groupies.] For my part, I’d like to see the musicians regroup and create something new along the New Mexico lines. I don’t know if that’s possible here or even plausible. [“Hey, Drew!” he said, waving. “What do you think about–“ Drew has taken out his iPad; the groupies’ squeeing drowns out all other noise in the hall. Sigh.] We’ve been watching this struggle for a few years now, with threats of bankruptcy and dissolution more than once. I expect that even if they do hammer out some kind of truce, we’ll see this play out all over again in a year or three.
(Give them bourbon, let some patrons into the mediation room, and let those patrons bring Louisville Sluggers. And some bats. Can I get an “Amen?”)
[The groupies shout “Amen!” These may not be related; Drew showed them a cool animation on the iPad.]
So we watch Live from Lincoln Center when we can, we listen to public radio and podcasts. In a way, I’m taking the boys to all sorts of great orchestras right at home. It’s not the same–we have the “but you’re not IN THE ROOM!” conversation all the time over in the theatre side of the internet–but it’s something. I’ve argued before that a recording of a live theatre performance, while not the same experience, is still worthwhile as a way for people to sample the work.
By taking our work and putting it outside of the room, out where the people are, whether online or on a DVD, we give them a chance to try it at their own pace and comfort level. We get out of the way with our distractions, our dress codes, our ticket prices. We let them discover it for themselves and discuss it as needed afterwards. And we remind people that the experience is exponentially better in the room, live.
So. Maybe by this time next year, Louisville will have music again. Maybe then I’ll have had a chance to take my friend to an actual orchestra. Stay tuned.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, it looks like Drew’s firing up the Adaptistration Karaokester 3000, and he’s waving me over. And look at that, he’s loaded P.D.Q.’s Black Forest Bluegrass in there. Good man.
(Good grief! Run!)
[The groupies are bouncing an inflatable Dudamel over the crowd. That. Is. Awesome. And now Drew’s got the Tilson-Thomas wig on. Seriously, people, you have got to come to TAFTO ’13. It’s like Burning Man for the orchestral crowd out here, but not as restrained. Can’t wait for the Chicago Symphony’s naked marathon this weekend. And there’s the countdown for “Blaues Gras.” It’s showtime…]