Saturday, July 28, 2007

Ned Rorem and the Future of Song

I am not sure why I did not come across the writing and music of Ned Rorem until I was 47. I had seen his name occasionally over the years with no particular spark. A couple of years ago a reference to one of his diaries—I can’t even remember where I saw it—finally registered with enough effect and I dug up a used copy of the New York Diary at a local bookstore. By the time I was 30 pages into it I knew that I would have to read all of them, and listen to his music. I have now read many of his books and own several of his music CDs.

The recent release of both his latest set of essays (Facing the Night, Shoemaker & Hoard 2006), a collection of his letters to various famous and less famous people (Wings of Friendship, Shoemaker & Hoard 2005) and not long ago a collection of his earlier works (A Ned Rorem Reader, Yale 2001) provides an opportunity to look at his life works as a whole. I have to say “works” rather than “work” because Rorem, in his own words, is a generalist in the European mode, not an American-style narrow specialist. He does more than one thing well.

Rorem is frustrated at the prospect of being remembered more as a writer than as a composer. I lost track of the number of times in his writing that he declaims “I am a composer who also writes, not a writer who also composes.” But that is not how history works, and history won’t weigh in with any definitive trends for another twenty years or so. It might be more accurate to say that his writing is likely to survive in toto as a body of literature read and discussed for decades to come, while his music is likely to be remembered in bits and pieces, with much of it fading out over time. Yet that is what happens to most composers and to most music. If it does not happen to all of his music and all of his written work, he will be among the rare few.

For example, who outside Australia knows well the gorgeous work of Colin Brumby, whose Symphony No. 1, clarinet works and Piano Concerto ought to be played by all of the world’s major orchestras? Is Shaun Davey, whose Relief of Derry Symphony and Granuaile song cycle deserve great acclaim, a household word in the musical community outside the Celtic world? How many American concertgoers have heard the splendid Sonata da Chiesa of Adolphus Hailstork, from our own country?

Music is a world in which “modern” has become synonymous with “unpleasant,” which leads orchestras wanting an audience into the closed loop of miscellaneous dead Germanic tunemongers, with an admixture of other dead Europeans (what to call them – a froth of French, a roulade of Russians, a briskness of Brits?) and only the occasional living composer, generally the unpleasant ones. There are exceptions to the rule of modern unpleasantness: in addition to Brumby, Davey and Hailstork, John Tavener, Arvo Part and William Hawley come quickly to mind.

Rorem is fortunate in that during his lifetime his music has been played fairly often, and some of his work that capsized instantly upon completion (e.g. his First and Second symphonies) has recently been refloated with considerable approbation. The Bournemouth Symphony recently released the first commercial recording of those two symphonies (as well as the Third, which had a brief life thirty years ago) directed by Jose Serebrier, and these works are astonishingly fresh and full of zing, a perfect blend of identifiable melody and modern intonation. This recording was nominated for three Grammys.

Rorem asks that he be first judged as a composer and I can say that I am very glad he is one, because his best works are likely to last for a while and have certainly brought me a lot of pleasure. That is all most composers can expect. Nonetheless, I think the diaries will, over time, be viewed as a unique literary masterpiece, burning in the dim corridors of historic time with a brighter flame than the music.

What is it about these diaries that makes them so appealing? There is a certain flavor of celebrity, of course, since Rorem (still composing and reasonably spry at 83 as I write this) fell in with a lot of well-known people in Paris, New York and elsewhere in the 1950s. Hearing of his interactions with people such as Jean Cocteau, Edward Albee and Leonard Bernstein, often when the Famous Person was not yet famous or was just getting to be known, has a certain sparkle. Rorem’s willingness to state the, how can I put it, bare facts as he saw them, even when those facts are a bit more colorful or just more visible than what we usually see, adds spice to the overall tone.

Most of all, there is a sense of seeing sixty years of history open leaf by leaf, progress season by season. It is simultaneously a personal history, a history of 20th Century music and a broader history of changes in American society, all at once, like the twining of cultural DNA from one horizon to the other, with some recognizable patterns but a lot of change and unique perceptions.

In its personal aspect, the diaries are also a history of gay culture. Rorem grew up in an unusual environment for the mid-century in that his Quaker parents were apparently not too troubled by the fact that he was gay, or at least accepted it with grace. It is interesting to compare his relatively open experiences to the more constricted social beginnings of contemporaries Gore Vidal and James Merrill. Vidal grew up inside the American political establishment, choosing to write for a living (a living that was a little sparse from time to time) rather than accept the horror of teaching. Merrill did not really have to work for a living (Merrill as in Merrill Lynch) but became a respected and prolific poet. Both became open about their sexuality in a rather careful, restrained manner, though Vidal wrote about homosexual attractions early in his career.

Rorem, on the other hand, wrote matter-of-factly about the joys and disappointments of his own activity chasing men decades before such revelations were common. He did not belabor the issue, it was just part of his life so it came up naturally in his writings without taking over the story. It is that matter-of-factness that makes these works stand out in the period in which they were written.

What I find most resonant about Rorem’s diaries is his frequent descriptions of how the creative process works (or doesn’t work). He does not discuss the process of writing music in much detail, but the various issues that any creative person faces, and the peculiar misconceptions of friends and family about that process, make for a table-pounding “right on!” sort of reading experience. The fact that I am also a gay person raised in Quaker meeting, as he was, makes this sense of having found a philosophical uncle all the more rewarding.

A good example of his perfect evocation of the necessities of the creative process can be found where he refers to a friend who thought that the sights and sounds of Morocco must have been a great inspiration to his work, since he did so much early work there while vacationing, in a manner of speaking, from his nominal residence in southern France. In fact, the great advantage of working in Morocco, in addition to a Gide-like exploration of the joys of young male Moroccans, was that no one could find him or distract him there, so he could pull the shades against the glories of Morocco and actually get some composing done. This is precisely the experience and reaction that I have had and that many of my friends who write and paint have had, to which I can only say “preach it, brother Ned.”

For anyone who wants to experience the extraordinary breadth of human experience, including the greatest joys and the most horrifying losses, through the eyes and ears of a great writer and great composer, read the sixty-year saga of Ned Rorem in his own words, and listen to the generations of songs, symphonies and other music that this unique American voice has brought us.

Returning to the world of American song in which Rorem was the leading composer for many years, I listen and I hear a universe utterly changed, and yet there are niches in which song, in a form that Rorem would recognize, though different from his own, is flowering. A few years ago I heard the University of Oregon’s all-male singing group On the Rocks while driving home one night. Local station KLCC played their version of Dire Straits’ ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and I had no idea who was singing or where this amazing a cappella version of the song had come from. I called the station and they said that it was a local group called On the Rocks. The station had a CD but seemed to have no idea where it had come from or where to get it.

The next day I went into a music store near the University and mumbled something to the clerk about the song. Before I was finished with my incoherent tale of music found and perhaps lost, he said “On the Rocks” and got a copy of their debut CD off the rack for me. These CDs had been flying out the door all morning, and turned out to be the highest-selling CD for the store all spring. I personally bought a dozen as gifts and an additional fifteen for people at my office who had heard my copy. In an extraordinary violation of professional norms, I even called my staff into my office on some pretense, closed the door and played it for them on my computer’s reasonably good speakers.
What is so special about OTR, as they are often called? When I first heard and saw them, the group consisted of nine men ranging in age from 18 to 22, and they sing songs. Well, so do lots of groups. Someone who had not heard them asked me “is that, like, barbershop?” Ah, no. In fact when I invited one of the members whom I knew slightly to the regional barbershop contest—held about five blocks from his house—he answered with great courtesy that he did not think any of the members would be interested.

College musical groups are common. A cappella is much less common, and least common of all is for a group of young singers to make their own splendid arrangements of very recent popular songs—sometimes songs that had only been on the radio in the original version for a matter of months—retaining the original content of the song but adding their own unique silk and fire to produce something that the university’s other singing groups simply describe with the phrase “they’re hot.” Today there are other such groups nearby; I recently heard the UO women’s group Divisi, Southern Oregon University’s Dulcet and Oregon State University’s Outspoken. Many other colleges have them: for an astonishing listening experience, buy a copy from iTunes of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” performed by Northwestern University’s group ‘Freshman Fifteen’. This, their own arrangement, simply assassinates most other performances—and there are dozens. Buy the whole CD. Groups at Yale, Cornell and Michigan have been especially good in recent years.

OTR has made their own arrangements of the song “Hear You Me,” originally by Jimmy Eat World, “Demons” by Guster, “Street Spirit” by Radiohead, Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and “In the End” by Linkin Park, as well as “Romeo and Juliet” and others. They have also recorded Gounod’s “Ave Maria” and Billy Joel’s touching “Lullaby.” I had never heard many of these songs before I heard the OTR versions; indeed I did not know that many of these musical groups existed. Why not? Because I am, musically, an old person at 51.

Even if I had known of them, I would not have listened to their music, simply because people do not generally listen to popular music except for that of their own generation and, if unavoidable, of their children’s generation. Since I have no children and do not own a television, there is no venue in which I would hear this music. So at the very least the “transliteration effect” of my local singing groups OTR and Divisi has allowed me to experience music that I never would have heard. Barbershop, which my brother sings and I enjoy in moderation, is essentially a fixed style. Its generational crossover is more limited than that of the collegiate acappella groups, which are
the true transfer agents of modern American song.

Rorem has commented that it is inappropriate to compare the new music of his generation (generally, the first half of the 20th century, perhaps including the 1950s) to modern popular music because the former is, if you will, classical, while the latter is not. Thus he objects to, for example, comparing Aaron Copland and Bob Dylan because of the nature of their music in a technical sense. I follow this argument and agree with it up to a point, but the question and its answer needs to take into account the changing role of music and songs in society.

My late mother was exactly Ned Rorem’s age; she was born one day later. In her youth, adults knew lots of songs from earlier days as well as from their own generation, and in general young people heard the same songs as adults, whether they learned them or not. My great-grandmother’s Liberty Chorus Song Book, issued in 1919 by McKinley Music Co. of Chicago, was used by my grandmother’s family and recently came to me. Its editor, Anne Shaw Faulkner, also author of “Music in the Home,” closed her introduction to the Liberty Chorus songs with the following declaration about a man returning from World War I: “he will want to sing and to have his loved ones sing at home, at school and in all community gatherings.”

These were not only pre-headphone years but almost pre-radio years, with limited offerings available. The first commercial radio station was licensed in 1920, only three years before my mother was born. The phonograph, today almost an artifact, had just switched to “long-play” 33 rpm vinyl from hard 78 rpm “breakables” in my childhood. It was first patented in 1877, so two generations before my mother’s had heard music either only as live performances or as families listening to early discs. Listening to music on phonographs required electricity (not uniformly available in rural areas) and quite a bit of effort since the discs were hardly compact: the ones I saw at my grandmother’s home were about half an inch thick and contained very little music, requiring multiple discs for even shorter pieces.

Today, members of the same family typically have separate musical lives, and the song, as a “high” art form that Rorem knew and wrote for to great effect, has largely been supplanted by the song designed to appeal either to everyone (often in the form of advertising jingles) or to a specific target audience (country, rock, rap). Loved ones generally don’t sing together at home or anywhere else, let alone at community gatherings.

If a single vocal form that meets the esthetic needs of all generations can be found today, it is a cappella singing by truly creative groups like OTR and its collegiate compatriots. Once when I attended an OTR/Divisi show, the age range in my own contingent of about 15 people was nine to 83, and the entire audience reflected this astonishing mix. I do not see that cross-generational appeal (outside music schools) elsewhere in vocal music.

Before OTR became well known at the University of Oregon, I attended one of their shows and stood in line next to a couple of college-age women. They had heard of OTR and a friend had invited them, but they had not actually heard the group. They were discussing the group and asked another person in line what kind of instruments they used. “None” was the response, to which one of the young women looked at the other in amazement and said “but what do they do?” They sing, and singing is not called the “first art” for nothing.

One of my former co-workers, who is retired and lives her musical life mainly within the classical and operatic tradition, attends many OTR and Divisi shows. Her favorite song in their repertoire is “Romeo and Juliet,” with Jeremy Davidson’s supple, down-home baritone solo, available on OTR’s first CD. After she had been to a couple of their shows and was singing the song in the hallway, I asked her what she thought of the Dire Straits original, which is a favorite of mine. She looked at me and said:
“Who is Dire Straits?”

Yes, modern American song is different from that of Rorem’s generation, but it is in good hands.

1 comment:

Brian Salchert said...

I am here because you posted a comment on
Reginald Shepherd's Blog.
About two years ago something moved me to
find out more about Ned Rorem, but I didn't go further.
There is a song by Dire Straits--which I
cannot at the moment remember--that I once
thought would be a good song to play at my funeral.
I think it had something to do with
a group in a bar.
Your site is going be another good
site for me to learn from.
Thank you.