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Monday, June 29, 2009

Reflections on the King of Pop

Everyone is talking about it. It's an obsession, and although I would like to think otherwise, I'm not immune to the mass hysteria of the moment.

Aside from a faded memory of the cute little boy who appeared with his brothers on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1970, the work of MJ is not part of my mental repertory of music.

People consider my ignorance about pop culture a little odd. This includes old friends. To them I'm like a bubble boy who never was exposed to the germs of ordinary life. To a certain extent that is true, and they are correct.

While I had a perfectly normal upbringing through high school and was exposed to - and a practitioner of - all of the standard Rock hits of the time, once I began to study music seriously I had to make some choices. For better or worse I chose to filter out the pop culture of music for a few decades, and consciously avoided it in my daily life. I did not have a TV from 1973 to 1986. The brain can only hold so much. Time is a limited commodity. You can't do it all.

In a sense I was playing catch-up, since my upbringing did not expose me to as much classical music as I would have liked. My lack of experience was painfully evident when I heard the recording of a major work by Luciano Berio around 1973. The third movement of his Symphonia - a major work composed in 1968 for the New York Philharmonic and the Swingle Singers - is a case in point. Berio's five movement work is for eight amplified voices and orchestra, and in the third movement it employs a collage technique where the composer assembles his score from various orchestral works of note. Fragments of masterworks by Bach, Brahms, Ravel, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Berg, and Webern can be heard throughout the quickly alternating texture. But the glue that holds Berio's movement together is the Scherzo from Mahler's Second Symphony. I was very impressed with Berio's piece, but felt that I wasn't getting it in the proper context. The music was mostly new to me, and I was hearing many of the historical quotes for the first time.

After that experience, I erected a cultural bubble where I was able to concentrate and focus on a narrower range of music. It takes time, but I believe I eventually got to a point where I could claim to know the musical language of Mozart and Haydn's day on its own terms. I can follow sonata form, and have as my personal mental playlist the major pieces of the classical and romantic-era repertory.

At the New England Conservatory I sang in the chorus, and we performed Mahler's great Second Symphony with the Boston Symphony under the baton of Claudio Abbado. I was closing the gap in my musical training, and could not have done so without going into a self-imposed cultural retreat. At least at that time, one felt as if a composer had a legacy to grasp on to, and an implied obligation to continue it. Haydn inspired Beethoven who inspired Brahms who inspired Schoenberg who inspired my teachers, and they inspired me. MJ did not fit into the equation.

In 1981 I received fellowship to attend the Yale Summer School of Music in Norfolk Connecticut. The composition seminar was led by Jacob Druckman, but visiting composers included Earle Brown, Elliott Carter, and Betsy Jolas. My fellow colleagues from this renowned music institute have mostly achieved significant success in the field of music, but I wont elaborate on that now. However, one of my salient memories from our intense discussions at Yale Norfolk was the reaction I got from Jacob Druckman when I described my initial experience of hearing Berio's Symphonia. I explained how I had done things backward, confessing that I had heard Mahler's Second Symphony first via the modernist lens of Berio in Symphonia. Only years later did I get to know the work in its original form as composed by Mahler. Druckman seemed shocked and disturbed by my candid confession. My distorted and non-sequential version of music history seemed to irk him to no end.

I had succeeded pretty well in holding the world of pop culture at bay. A few decades had passed without any exposure to the germs of TV sitcoms of the 70s or 80s. I avoided mainstream movies like the plague. Only circumstantially had I heard about a tend in popular music and dance called Disco, but I had no first hand experience of it. I think it involves something with colored lights reflecting off of a rotating ball covered with small mirrors.

All of this sequestering has consequences. I had become a social misfit in the broader community of life. Classical music nerds are a minority. Avant garde music nerds are even more of an obscure sub-genre. But it was a choice I and my equally nerdy classmates made to focus on the music we were involved with. I can truly say that the highly constrained musical world that I and a few colleagues chose to live in self-sustained us for years. We lived, ate, drank, and breathed the air of 12-tone partitions. The complex music of Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez, and Elliott Carter was the staple of our daily diet.

Eventually, all bubbles burst. For me it was in 1983 in a circular looking building without windows in Pompano Beach, Florida. It was constructed in aluminum to look like a large flying saucer, and as far as I knew it was ready to blast off for Mars at any moment. The venue was known as Starship Odyssey, and was situated near a strip mall on North Federal Highway at the corner of Sample. I was visiting my brother Ricky, and he took me one night to the saucer inspired arcade-bar-disco for local entertainment. I remember sitting alone, alienated, drinking a beer, and looking at the large projection screen looping MTV videos. Then, it came on, the 14-minute MJ Thriller video. It was about as surrealistic as life can get without taking drugs.

You can imagine my culture shock as I experienced MJ's hit video for the first time. The musical language I had learned in graduate school didn't prepare me for this. It was raw, dark, and completely new. The loud and pounding periodic rhythms were antithetical to the pulseless rhythmic time-scapes that I was more accustomed to in the music of Ligeti, Stockhausen, and Nono. The vibrant dance in the video could not be ignored. It was violent, contorted, and bizarre. The stage set, costumes, and storyline were strange to me too. I had never seen a music video before, and was not at all prepared for the visceral impact of a $500 thousand dollar Hollywood production carefully synchronized to music complete with special effects.




I had a lot of soul-searching to to after that night. What had happened to the cute little boy singing with the Jackson Five on the Ed Sullivan Show? He looked very different. Why were dancing zombies the latest craze? What did all of this have to do with me, and what were the ramifications for the music I wanted to write?





One of the important lessons that I've learned from that night is that pop culture quickly evolves and that nothing stays the same. I also learned that music can exist in parallel universes, and which universe(s) we choose to live in determines not only our fate, but our immediate surroundings.

I was never able to reenter into the world of popular music. Too much had changed and evolved in the years that I was away. Nor could I regress back to the past (as a few of my colleagues did), and pull an electric guitar out of the closet and wail. That form of music no longer interested me. I remember when Elvis died, when Hendrix died, as well as when Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and assorted members of the Beatles died. I lived that music when it was happening, but now it is all but a faded memory of a time long gone.

Postscript...

The flying saucer-shaped building in Florida was later renovated into a strip club and renamed Dollhouse III. It was run by a fast talking playboy allegedly associated with the mafia who parlayed his business education at Syracuse and Cornell into a million-dollar empire of upscale adult entertainment clubs.

For a number of years MJ, The King of Pop, continued to perform in concert and released numerous hits and music videos. He make a fortune, but his life spiraled downward like a lead balloon - ultimately ending abruptly in tragedy.

Jim found employment outside of the music biz (at least until about a year ago), but continued to compose his avant garde works in the vacuum of near-total isolation. He doesn't keep up with the latest trends in pop music, and can't dance.



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