Saturday, February 1, 2020

Recorded Music Awards, Part 2

My last post was pretty theoretical, so let's get right to some real music and some real people. There is a lady playing the violin in the picture. I'll talk about her further along in this article.

First I should make some remarks about the big winners at last weekend's Grammy Awards — the O'Connell kids — even though I don't quite know what to say. Wait... who am I talking about? I'm talking about Finneas O'Connell, songwriter and producer, and his little sister (who gets all the attention, because she sings, has green hair, and is apparently willing to put large spiders in her mouth, among other strange things). "Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O'Connell" is the name her parents gave her — really, I'm not kidding. It certainly is an interesting name.

No, they are not from Ireland. They're from California.

What's the deal here? "Ocean Eyes" — the song (written by Finneas) that started it all a few years ago by going viral on SoundCloud — is a nice bit of music, especially considering that they recorded it in their parents' living room. None of the rest of their award-winning collection has made much of an aesthetic impression on me, except that there's overall something kinda morbid(?) about it. That aspect is hard to miss.

If there's humor, satire, parody, or some other kind of context for the "morbid" here, I'm not in on it. Morbid needs some kind of context if it's to be more than just fooling around. It needs context to be perceived and considered in an artistic sense. Otherwise it either won't be taken seriously, or it will be regarded simply as a straightforward (and urgent) expression of a pathological condition that calls for therapy rather than awards.

Context is intrinsic in artwork. It's what makes the work "hang together" with concrete meaning and value. It can be subtle and difficult to articulate, but it needs to be more than just an arrangement of things in superficial relationships that owe their coherence mostly to chance, an extrinsically imposed agenda, or the instincts of fashion.

So I wonder, "Where is this coming from?" Is this a sophisticated form of "acting out"? Is it weird jokes played for their shock value? Is it just immature silliness that I'm over analysing because I've become as boring as I used to think my parents were? Or is there an incipient artistic intuition here that's mixed up with lots of other factors that may be magnifying its momentary popularity while hindering it from maturing and growing? If the "adult world" is going to give these kids so much attention and so many awards, I hope I can be forgiven for wondering "why?" So far I haven't grasped the significance of what they've accomplished.

To be fair, I haven't really tried. I don't know where to begin to get a grip on it. Frankly, I don't think it's "healthy entertainment" for adolescents, but it may tell us something about the haunted, alienated desert that is the "terrain" of the adolescent mind in our society. This is not "innocent fun," but it's also not the usual kind of in-your-face hypersexualism that attacks with wearying relentlessness in most pop music (though there are enough weird twisted allusions here too).

Dear young people, you are so unmoored, so lost in the cosmos that an old man like me doesn't know whether you're being silly or actually mentally disturbed. And that's not your fault — it's our generation's fault, and it's the-world-upside-down because of forces unleashed that we haven't even begun to understand. There is a lot of work to be done, and it begins with the essential questions about being human, about what we are really seeking in all our desires and aspirations, about what causes us to be so dissatisfied and even cynical sometimes, and what reawakens hope.
For regular readers of this blog, let me clarify: you know where I'm coming from regarding the kind of Christ-centered, constructively human environment — the pedagogy for genuine freedom — that you want to build in your homes and communities with your children. There is room for learning many things, at the right time and in the right place. But when I consider music on this blog, I am looking at it as a mature adult, searching for whatever aesthetic or human value, or whatever authentic expression of human desperation and need, can be found therein. This is a distinct consideration from the particular questions you want to address in the vigilance, concrete judgments, and boundaries you give to your kids in the music they listen to and in wider socialization.
Of course, this is 21st century "pop music," the trends of which I observe primarily for their illustrative value in displaying the (unnerving?) plasticity of our expanding communications media. But, with few exceptions, I don't like it much. I really need to get "hit over the head" to notice something musically important in today's world of mainstream pop-stardum (other than "talent-not-being-developed-to-its-potential" — and there's plenty of that).

Still, occasionally I do get hit in this way, even when I least expect it.

Really, I don't want always to sound like a party-pooper. There's lots of beautiful, intriguing, skillful, well-crafted music out there in many styles. I try to keep an ear on lots of things, but my preferences, prejudices, and just the-luck-of-things are always going to play a role in what I listen to and take time to appreciate.

Having won five Grammys this year, 18-year-old Billie Eilish can't be ignored. I'll have to keep an ear on how her career develops.

She doesn't seem nearly as bizarre in interviews and on late night television shows as the impression she gives in her songs. She can certainly sing, and she appears to be articulate and clever. There's potential, talent, creative personality, and intelligence in her. Finneas must have a good handle on what can be done with today's tech, given that he won the best production award from what was literally a "mom-and-pop" studio.

Is the Billie Eilish sweep actually a victory for greater opportunities and real diversification in music? Is it a sign of another crack in the wall of the music business model and the celebrity monoculture?

In any case, the wall remains standing, even if these outsiders were permitted in. Billie is a full-blown celebrity right now. Why is she suddenly Such A Big Thing? It feels like the fad of the moment. Perhaps there's hope that the O'Connell kids won't let it go to their heads, and that they'll go on honing their artistic skills. The industry has been too successful in commodifying and stagnating (if not suffocating) so much talent in the past. I really hope (even at the risk of being foolish) that this long-standing pattern is changing.

I want to move forward to a couple of other things that impressed me from last Sunday's big event.

I am very happy about another Grammy given much further down the list to a record involving two of my favorite musical people. It wouldn't be one's first intuition to associate these two artists, but they have more in common than one might think. Their fascinating collaboration on a musical recording that came out last year won the Grammy for "Best Classical Solo Performance." This one I already knew well, and I was rooting for it.

Wynton Marsalis has attained legendary status in American jazz (and he's only a couple of years older than me). He is also so many other things: in addition to his playing jazz and classical trumpet, directing the Jazz Orchestra at Lincoln Center, and dedicating himself to music education of current and upcoming generations, Wynton is a composer of both contemporary and classical-style music. Not only can this man jam the blues with Eric Clapton; he can also compose a Violin Concerto and a set of solo pieces specifically for one of the most brilliant young classical violinists in Europe, Nicola Benedetti.

This is one of the things I love about Wynton: He is knowledgeable about so many different kinds of music, and he cultivates a wide range of connections with musicians.

He is also a tireless and prolific composer, performer, and teacher. He loves weaving together diverse musical heritages and furthering them in new contexts, so that in effect he is fostering a deepening of musical traditions as they encounter one another. He knows well the many strains that have contributed to the rich music of North America — including Anglo-folk and Celtic traditions.

It's not surprising, therefore, that he is friends with the 32-year-old energetic virtuoso violinist Nicola Benedetti who — in addition to an impressive catalog of classical recordings including magnificent interpretations of the two breathtaking, "impossible" Russian concertos (the Tchaikovsky and the Shostakovich no.1) — also has great interest in the music of her native land... Scotland! (😮)

I wonder if she's ever been stopped in the street in some Italian town by bewildered Scottish tourists, who ask her for directions in whatever broken Italian they can manage, only to be delighted with a response in English flavored with the distinctive brogue that makes them feel like they're back at home.😉 (Something like this often happened to me with American tourists when I lived in Italy, who took me for a "local" and were surprised to hear me speak like them, so I know it can be fun.) What I mean to say is that, other than her very Italian name and her very Mediterranean face and complexion, this first generation native-born daughter of Italian immigrants is Scottish to the bone — the toast of North Ayrshire on the Firth of Clyde in Western Scotland.

Clearly, the Americas are not the only places with Italian immigrants. There are Italian-Scottish people, and that's a very happy thing. Of course, it's something you notice especially because — like many of the new generation of classical artists — "Nicky" Benedetti is accessible (and quite articulate) on interactive media. In fact, she has some really good educational projects on her YouTube channel; like Wynton Marsalis, she loves teaching music and inspiring young people, including those just starting out.

She can also relate to Wynton's passion for both honoring and bringing forth new fruit from musical traditions. (Nicky has an entire album of Scottish themed music that includes collaboration with folk artists.) Some time after 2010, these two technically brilliant, generous-hearted, musically adventurous people began to collaborate and even challenge one another. What started as a plan for some pieces for solo violin (which would eventually become the "Fiddle Dance Suite") soon grew into aspirations for a full Violin Concerto.

At first it was Nicky's aspiration, but she found a way to convince Wynton to compose it for her. His 2010 "Swing Symphony" made her want seek a commission for a bold, full-orchestral piece with solo violin. Here was a chance to explore the vast terrain of Anglo-American music watered by many streams of classical structure, folk traditions, Celtic, African-American, blues, jazz, and contemporary idioms. Apparently it took some convincing to get Wynton to accept this challenge to write for violin and orchestra. Then, in an early stage of the work, Nicky prodded him to make the violin part more technically difficult. Judging from the final piece, I think he really decided to let her "have it." And she took it and ran with it.

The Concerto premiered in 2015 and has been well received in concert over the past five years. The performance that makes up part of the Grammy-winning record was with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Cristian Macelaru in November 2017. The Fiddle Dance Suite was recorded in March 2019. The whole record was released last July.

I don't have to tell you I love stuff like this. What fascinates me here is not only the continuance and further fruition of different streams of musical tradition (some of which have already been blended, while others have rarely met before). I also love the collaboration of outstanding musical artists at the peak of their creativity. Often such collaborations prove to be impossible, but when they do manage to work, they are unforgettable.

The focus of the Grammy is "best solo performance." That's not to shortchange the collaboration. But, among other things, this is one of the best examples of a composer writing music for a particular musician, and that music being played by the musician, that I have heard in a long time. To put it in simpler terms: Wynton Marsalis gave Nicky Benedetti a showcase. And she SHOWED!

I know, I used a sight metaphor for music. I do have a bit of synthesia. But also, it's pretty awesome to watch Nicky play. I can only imagine the stature she has on a live stage. It certainly comes through on video, and maybe there will be a video recording of these works somewhere in the future. In fact, she played one of the solo pieces at the Grammy Awards (not during the prime time broadcast, but still they live streamed it that afternoon).

For now, what we can be grateful for is that we have a recording, which is in itself an admirable work of art.

This article is too long and I'm not finished. The last part will wait for another time. In any case the final story I want to tell goes beyond an awards show or a single stunning performance — it's a larger story about a person who is struggling, who turned anguish into music, who we almost lost a couple of years ago, and who we hope and pray will be with us for a long time to come.

Stay tuned for that, coming up sometime soon....🎵