Written by Walter Palesch
Tuesday, 29 December 2009 17:19
I've Been Here Forever
"I’ve been here forever," eons before the mist and fog shrouded Jurassic landscapes, well before the dawn of civilization. I was here when the only rhythms, music and voices were those of nature: the rolling surf of the ocean, the rhythmic chirp of the nighttime cricket, the raucous rasp of the cicada, and the songbird’s lyrics.
Our ancient progenitors were given the gift of a metronome: the beat and rhythm of their own hearts, and this gift is our inheritance. Its pulse and tempo change to reflect surprise, joy, danger, love, peace and terror. It is the primeval timekeeper of all life, of all music. It is said that certain music rhythms achieve universal appeal and cross cultural connections because that beat is reflected in the music.
Just now some activity on stage pulls me back to the present from these reflections… I am neither a musician nor a director. I am a darned good claque, though. That means you can hire me for the cost of a free seat at the concert! You can count on me for near rabid applause, support and appreciation (if it’s a great concert, of course). The universal force of music stirs me in profound ways. Part of that is: How I wish I could perform like these musicians, be up on that stage, and have this or any audience applaud my efforts like that!
In the auditorium at the Michigan Youth Arts Festival at Western Michigan University, the announcer introduces the vocal groups as they come on stage. These singers are the best of the best in our state. They come on stage dressed in black gowns and tuxedos, and make sublime music. The second piece moves me almost to tears because of its ethereal elegance.
As I scan the stage and listen to the soloists, I wonder which of these fine young musicians will chose music as a profession. Will one of them end up on that hallowed stage in Milano? or the New York Met? or start a rock group? or even become a rapper? How many will go on to direct church choirs or community groups or become teachers of music? How many will some day stand here on this stage, directing a choral group and, finally, pass the baton to those who follow?
Songs lace through our culture and all cultures. I doubt that any significant national state ever flourished without songs. A song will celebrate your birth. Songs define your life and your memories. In fact, a song will help you recall who you were with and where you were at a particular moment in time. All the sacraments marking your path across the decades will be adorned by a song, and one will mourn your passing.
From the simple lullaby to the near primal scream of Verdi’s "Requiem," from that love song that belongs only to you and your lover, from the massive sonic assault of "Profane Incantations" to Ligeti’s celestial "Lux Aeterna," our emotions are bared and liberated momentarily from the daily grind. They are elevated to a sublime state, if only for those transient moments of a concert.
You musicians must surely know how your life’s work affects others and how grateful your audiences are.
Music is the voice and signature of the soul. If the soul is an abstract concept, then so is music. You cannot touch, taste, see, smell or display it. Describing it is best left alone. It is a performing art, and the most abstract one at that. It must be heard and felt!
The human ear is as miraculous and complex an organ as can be imagined, a perfect partner for the human voice! Unlike languages, customs, and literature, music is universally loved by all ages, in all places, and in all times, and will be loved in all times to come. Music for me is the most emotionally impacting experience, save only one.
I recall sitting in Sankt Stefan Kathedrale in Vienna, an overwhelming edifice and tribute to God. I was reminded just how brilliant and committed to a greater cause those artisans and composers were. As the organist’s hands lifted from the keyboard and the choir lent its last breath to the end of the song, dying echoes took two to three seconds to vanish in this massive, vaulted cathedral, an eternity for live music echoes to disappear.
That is what makes a music performance so ephemeral. When it is done, it is gone forever. Sure, you say, you can get a recording, kind of like a photograph of a pretty lady. Would you rather hug that photograph, or the woman in the picture? You cannot ever hope to capture the true visceral impact, let alone the dynamic force and raw power of the live performance by recording it. This is a really good thing, because your dwelling’s structure would be compromised by that energy and power.
For demonstrable proof, sit fifth row center in a concert hall when Respighi’s "Feste Romane" rolls off that stage. Feel that massive shockwave of sound explode across the auditorium. Then for contrast go home and play a recording of it in your living room. The recording you hear is re-recorded many, many times in 5 second snippets, shaped and fashioned on sound boards, and edited for a certain aural mix. This means you are listening to something that never actually happened in real life!
Of all the traditions we brought here from Europe, singing informally, meaning not for performance purposes, is a custom that was never imported. You have to belong to an organized body of singers here, or be a soloist on stage or in church, or a famous singer. For example, some time ago a group of nine of my compatriots, both American and European, met in a pub. That evening, for reasons unclear, we broke into a ditty out of an Italian Operetta. The restaurant owner bought us a round of drinks, with the proviso that we stop that stuff! That was cool, we thought - drinks for not doing something! Just then the tenth member of our group walked in. We broke into the song with renewed vigor. We were simply so happy to see him. He had been ill and we tried to celebrate his recovery. We got one more drink on the condition that we then leave the pub. So much for our "Ode to Joy!" In Europe such behavior would be celebrated almost every time.
The Arts Are Not a Frill
Singing is also the resident language of the underprivileged, oppressed and disenfranchised. That explains the songs of refugees and the rich and inspiring spirituals of African-Americans. My people and I, the refugees who escaped across the Iron Curtain, would sing during threatening and happy times. It was a signal of solidarity and promised survival. These songs comforted us in our hours of despair by creating an aura of imagined safety. It truly saved our lives by giving us courage to go on.
Singing is simply the most elegant and beautiful form of speech. Song is a towering accomplishment of the human race, a celestial tribute to man and God alike, sung by that God-given instrument, our voice.
Arts are not a frill. Music speaks to the human condition: to joy, to tragedy, to God and all his creations. In authoritarian regimes, music is often repressed. "Finlandia" comes to mind, outlawed by the Russians for a number of years.
Popular music is flourishing in its expansive pallet. However, my personal concern is that classical music may vanish. I recently attended a concert by the New York Philharmonic at Hill Auditorium on the University of Michigan Campus. Topside tickets were $150. Mine were $50. The seats were so high up in that auditorium that we were issued oxygen bottles to breathe, opera glasses to see the musicians, and a case of vertigo to go. The acoustics, however, were fabulous. But here is the part that is alarming. Except for some college music students, the audience of 5000 patrons was disproportionably in their 50s, 60s, 70s and older. This does not bode well for the propagation and preservation of classical music, vocal or otherwise. I see this same statistic in every classical concert I attend.
What should we do about this? Why do I even lament? I lament because I am not capable of trading in my favorite bouquet of exquisite music for 2 minute popular ditties that repeat the melody every 20 seconds, with a complexity below that of a nursery rhyme, using a whole 6.3 notes on the keyboard, and played at 120 decibels, with the sonorous harmonics of a chainsaw. The topics and language of some songs would make the muses weep and even resign!
A Wake-up Call
Wake up, young people, our next and only hope! There is an incalculable treasure lode of unimaginably beautiful music out there that some of you have never tasted. Some of that music will compare to popular forms like a five star, nine course French dinner with a vintage Cabernet Sauvignon compares to a bucket of White Castle Sliders, warm diet Pepsi, and cold, oil drenched fries scarfed down in a moving car!
You will discover music that has stood the test of time, has survived uncounted generations, and which may survive us all, including you. A word of caution: Danger! It may be habit forming, even addictive, and good for your soul! Let’s face it, there is a great amount of beautiful popular literature, absolutely; but there is far more junk food for the ears than you or I deserve. This stuff is fare for the simplistic mind.
And that is in large part what makes our vocal programs unbelievable by contrast. Our directors choose and maintain a repertoire of classical and quality contemporary literature, introducing and passing the torch to those on that stage.
After 3 days of wonderful concerts at the Michigan Youth Arts Festival, I want to say: "Hats off to Commander Virginia Kervin and the dedicated directors, adjudicators, administrators and students for keeping the dream and excellence alive. You have set these young musicians on the road to success. Being only an observer, I am awed by what you all have wrought."
This saying is from my former homeland Austria and Germany, and one of my Mother’s favorites:
Wo man singt
Da lass dich ruhig nieder
Denn Boese Menschen
Haben keine Lieder.
Where there is singing
You may visit safely and long
Because mean and brutal people
Have no songs.
Until next year and the Michigan Youth Arts Festival of 2010, "May the Muse be with you."
From your favorite Claque,
Walter L. Palesch
Walter Palesch has published in a dozen newspapers and magazines, as well as on the internet. His principle focus is a memoir that depicts the true story of 11 refugee boys attempting escape from behind the Iron Curtain in Soviet occupied East Germany. He alone escaped, while the others perished in the attempt. English is his favorite language, although German and Russian came first. He began writing this year.
Walter is a program manager, and has spent most of the last 15 years in international projects in Europe and South America.
Last Updated ( Thursday, 31 December 2009 15:11 )