A glimpse into the present
Classical music spends most of its time in the past. Not that it doesn't have a great past. Oy, does it have a great past. The thing about the past is that you can recall it, wallow in it, and reinterpret it, but you can't add to it. Which hasn't prevented some composers from claiming that their music can only be understood as the end-product of the glorious lineage that began with Leonin, or whomever. To which Leonin would no doubt reply (in medieval French) "write you own stuff, dude, and leave me out of it". Really, this greatness-by-association shtick is rather embarrassing. Classical music also has self-styled visionaries who compose for the future, though maybe not as many as a generation or two ago. "My time will come" is their slogan. "My music is too advanced for ignorant present-day listeners" is their inference. (Remind me to tell you about the composer who waited 30 years for the first performance of one of his works, then said "my music requires several hearings to be understood.") All we know about the future is first, that it hasn't happened yet, and second, those who live in it will make their own decisions about what they like, without regard to what we say they will. So, since classical's creative folks can't add to the past or control the future, maybe they can concentrate a little more on the present. And as I was reminded by a concert The Wife and I attended on Friday night, the present is a pretty interesting place for classical fans to be right now.
It was the first of two concerts in last weekend's "Nanofest", curated by Peter Blanchette. You've probably heard Peter many times on WFCR playing his archguitar (his own invention), and leading the Happy Valley Guitar Orchestra. (Disclosure: I've emceed several of Peter's concerts, and serve on HVGO's board of directors, all of this as a volunteer.) Half of Friday's program featured Peter's recreation of his Virtual Consort, the trio of archguitar, trumpet and bass that back in what seems now like the Pleistocene, won the coveted Silver Watertower Trophy on A Prairie Home Companion's "Talent from Towns Under 2,000" contest. With Peter joining two talented New Yorkers, Josh Frank on trumpet and Shawn Conley on bass, the music (some Stravinsky, some Nino Rota, and a few lovely originals), sounded both fresh and familiar, the way good music often does.
As did the other act on the bill, Duo Orfeo, consisting of guitarists Joseph Ricker and Jamie Balmer. Yet another guitar duo -- what's so fresh about that? How about a duo that plays, sensitively and imaginatively, quiet, contemplative classical works, by composers such as Federico Mompou, Erik Satie, Valentin Silvestrov and Arvo Pärt, on a pair of vintage electric guitars, fed into slightly buzzy but mellow-sounding tube amplifiers? Now, that's different.
You see, classical musicians normally play on instruments that get studied, e.g., the classical guitar. What was different here is that Joseph and Jamie were playing classical works on instruments that usually just get picked up and played, learned by ear or by the oral tradition -- the folk instruments of our time (and please don't assume that "folk" connotes "acoustic", since electronic instruments have long since become the norm). As Peter Blanchette said in his opening remarks, this is what present-day musicians do: take a little from here, a little from there, and come up with something new. Of course, Peter's comments refer to non-classical musicians as well, perhaps especially. But more and more, classical musicians are joining in. After all, why should the non-classicals have all the fun?
Duo Orfeo's debut CD should be done within a month. Stay tuned.