With books I seek familiarity. I want to know about the world, especially people, not utopia or some other tedious fantasy. Gulliver’s Travels is about us, not giants and little people. With music, it’s different. I look for the familiar but because I’m musically illiterate I enjoy surprise as inarticulately as a child. I’m more open-minded because my experience of it is subjective. I’m free to enjoy things I don’t understand. I know what I like and I know what bores me. When it’s just me and the radio, I can’t fake sophistication. Driving to work several weeks ago, I tuned midway into Alec Wilder’s “Air for Flute” and felt better for the rest of the morning. Later, driving home, I heard Mozart’s “Turkish Rondo,” and it took care of the evening. Writers ought to envy musicians and composers the power they wield.
Mark W. Wait is dean of the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University and a longtime reader of Anecdotal Evidence. He’s also a concert pianist and lately I’ve enjoyed the Stravinsky recordings he made with the pianist Carolyn Huebl. Last week I asked Mark about Wilder, one of my favorite composers, and he replied:
“Oh, I like Alec Wilder very much, and I think he is undervalued. His music is witty, urbane, and well-crafted in the best sense. (In music,`well-crafted’ is sometimes code language for `competent but boring.’ I mean no such thing.) His chamber music is really good, and I enjoy his piano music, too, though of course it’s the songs that attract the most attention.”
I also asked Mark Wait about Aaron Copland, another composer I love, and he wrote: “So I’m with you on Wilder. On Copland, too. Virgil Thomson had a nice line about Copland, specifically about the Piano Concerto (1925), his most jazz-influenced work. Thomson called the Piano Concerto `Aaron’s one wild oat.’”
Increasingly, I look to music for joy. That was not always true. I’ve had periods of Sturm und Drang and turned to an appropriate soundtrack. I listen a lot to Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Erroll Garner, Ruby Braff, Art Tatum, Paul Desmond and Maurice Ravel. In an essay on Copland collected in A Ned Rorem Reader (Yale University Press, 2001), Rorem compares him to Ravel: “Like all artists Aaron was a child, but where some play at being grown up Aaron’s childishness had a frank visibility that I’ve never seen elsewhere, except perhaps in Ravel, of all people.” Rorem says both composers dwelt “far from the madding crowd, Copland in sophisticated innocence, Ravel in naïve sophistication.” Maybe that is what I recognize in their music. In another brief piece in his Reader, “Notes on Death,” Rorem writes:
“Art and unhappiness are unrelated. Because an artist sees the truth as a way out, and can do nothing, he is unhappy. Because he is seen seeing the way out, he is happy. And he often is willing to market his misery, sweep his madness onto a talk show and laugh at his own tears. Perhaps finally the greatest intelligence is an ability for joy.”