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Concert Music: The Soul of our Society Enshrined

Sep 05, 2017

“Art is how we decorate space; music is how we decorate time.”

-          Jean-Michel Basquiat

 

This sentiment has fascinated me for a long while now; on the face of it, the quote can strike one as trite and most at home on a Pinterest board.  Perhaps it just fell in my lap at the right time, but it grew roots internally and led to fresh questions about music in our personal and public lives.

 

Jean-Michel Basquiat was foremost a visual artist.  His story is one that tragic bio-pics are made of – he was a prolific street artist who also dabbled in fashion and even briefly dated a then unknown singer who called herself “Madonna”.  Ultimately his heroine problem led to his untimely death at the age of 27.  Basquiat’s art is synonymous with dichotomy (rich/poor, interior/exterior, integration/segregation).[1]   His ideas are all wrapped up in the average modern person’s condition, notably represented in his well-groomed street-art graffiti style.

 

On its surface it appears that such a contemporary artist couldn’t be further removed from the choral music concert experience, but his quote, which bears much of the same antecedent/consequent qualities of his own art, is potentially vital to understanding the place of classical music and concert-going in today’s frenzied society.  When Basquiat presents the image of art as decorating space, my mind wanders to the architectural wonders of the world: the flying buttresses of Westminster Abbey, the clean lines of Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs, the arch that separates the chancel and the nave in the Washington National Cathedral, and the memorial column that stands watch over the Mount Vernon neighborhood in Baltimore.  This ornamentation of space is something that we all own; these places belong to all of us in some way.  Really good architecture is an embellishment of a space and elevates our existence within these settings into something with increased meaning, whether the goal is to worship with more beauty, govern with more authority, or live more pristinely.   The idea that architecture as art surrounds us and cradles our lives all while existing in the public space as a monument, a home, and an artistic expression, is fascinating to me.

 

This is where Basquiat’s perhaps clichéd quote links these ideas in architecture to concert music.  Just as space and time are related in physics, so is architecture and music!  A Mozartian phrase rises and falls like an embellished arch of a cathedral and the straight-ness of modernism is reflected in Stravinsky’s startlingly angular music.

My own thoughts on this quote have twisted into a more abstract civics lesson.  Simon Rattle recently proclaimed that “music is a birthright”[2] and I could not agree more ardently.  Just as the obelisks of the great civilizations belong to our collective history, and just as the Lincoln Memorial stands guard over our capital and is part of our collective birthright as Americans, so music occupies the public space as collective property that all humanity has access to.  Music is for all people in all times and is a collective experience intended for everyone much like the concept of freedom or water.

 

Moreover, as Greek pottery stands in a museum for the public to enjoy and collectively claim as their birthright so should music and concert-going stand in the public sphere as something that is of upmost importance to our society and culture.  Make no mistake, I am not suggesting that attending classical music concerts should be considered the same as taking a trip to the museum.  On the contrary, music is a living and breathing language that tugs at the heart and offers cerebral stimulation in an extraordinary way.

 

The heart of the matter is that in a sometimes uncertain time for classical music while we ask ourselves where we fit and where we are relevant in contemporary culture, I must urgently posit that choral singing and classical music concert-going as a whole should be elevated as a ritualistic experience that is an essential piece of civic life.  The act of engaging with classical music either as a musician or as an audience member is more important than ever as governments and leaders try to sway where our priorities lie.  Just as the brick streets we walk down and the statues to past presidents make an interaction with us as citizens, the next performance of Mozart’s Requiem at the Meyerhoff in Baltimore should be considered part of the fabric of our ornamentation of space and time.

 

I am eager to make another point: I do not like brutalistic architecture.  I do not like Picasso as much as I love Renoir.  Truthfully, I struggle to enjoy most opera.  Does my philosophy of classical music performance as integral in our public life mean that everyone needs to love choral music or that everyone needs to understand the sonata-allegro form of a Haydn symphony?  Absolutely not.  But I do hope that, just as I am exposing myself to more opera to develop my appreciation and understanding, people of all stripes would attend a concert and see what they are missing – they just might love it!

 

Music creates community.  Music creates understanding.  Music creates a mutual narrative that people can get behind and claim ownership.  So just as we all admire art and architecture as a society, so should we strive to get to the concert hall and consider it a piece of the cultural puzzle that we walk through every day.  Classical music should be preserved and actively engaged with in the public space just as we pass through and work in our civic institutions, admire the murals on brick walls in our cities, the movie posters on the theater window, and enter the houses of worship built by master architects.  Please join us at Baltimore Choral Arts this season (as early as October 28th) – even if you don’t understand choral music yet, I invite you to encounter the ritual of the concert experience just as you would stroll through the newest gallery in Station North or admire the prowess of the tallship that is berthed in our Inner Harbor.  You can join us by getting tickets at baltimorechoralarts.org.  I hope to see you soon!

 

Anthony Blake Clark, Music Director

Baltimore Choral Arts Society



[1] Hoffman, Fred. (2005) The Defining Years: Notes on Five Key Works from the book Basquiat. Mayer, Marc (ed.). Merrell Publishers in association with the Brooklyn

Museum, ISBN 1-85894-287-X, pp. 129–139.

[2] Maddocks, Fiona. “Simon Rattle: 'Learning Music Is a Birthright. And You Have to Start Young'.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 31 Aug. 2014, www.theguardian.com/music/2014/aug/31/simon-rattle-interview-proms-learning-music-birthright.

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