In March, ICE and the NYPL co-hosted a free OpenICE event which revisited Leonard Bernstein's 1973 Norton Lectures at Harvard, long regarded as a pinnacle of music education. The panelists were composer Tania León; music educator Elena Moon Park from Found Sound Nation; Ted Wiprud, composer and former organizer of the Philharmonic's Young People's Concerts; and Jacob Greenberg and Rebekah Heller from ICE. NYPL's Evan Leslie expertly moderated. Here are some excerpts from the wide-ranging conversation.
Evan Leslie: Bernstein, in these lectures, uses the analogy of linguistics as a central tool for helping us understand music. Tania, do you find Bernstein’s linguistic analogy adequate to comprehend the music you write?
Tania León: I think that I’m in agreement. My music has an accent, I speak with an accent, and based on [Bernstein's] analyses of poetry and syntax...it’s interesting because the poetry that might inform my music might be the poetry of Borges, the poetry of those voices that come from the region where I primarily come from, and also the syntax of the language that is spoken in Cuba. I’m saying that because we all speak Spanish, but if you go to Mexico, the spoken language is very different. If you go to Costa Rica, to Peru, Colombia, same. That doesn’t mean that my music has to have an accent, but there’s something inherent in the deepness of my sound that has to do with my interpretation of tonality: how I also voice my chords, and the references that he talked about is something that I’ve thought a lot about.
Ted Wiprud: What is something that someone has expertise in, so they feel like an expert in understanding the music? Language is one way, but there are many…We have used many points of entry [for listening to music in the Young People's Concerts]. Like movement: everybody moves their body in some way, and you’re an expert on how you move, and that can be an analogy for listening to music. Cultural contexts: painting, poetry…What thrills and excites me about these Norton Lectures is that we went in so hard on this one point of entry…it’s remarkable.
Rebekah Heller: One of the things that really struck me was that it’s such a generous and open invitation, to say that we are all experts in this. And even though he went so deep and so abstractly into this specific analogy, just offering a way for a layperson, a non-professional musician, to feel empowered to have opinions about these deep works. That’s something that we’re all striving to do in the field today: how do we engage an audience deeply with the material without them having to feel like there’s some sort of entrance exam required.
Jacob Greenberg: As a presenter and organizer of contemporary music, are you excited by the possibility of universality?
Rebekah: I would also think about it more as universal communication than a “language.” I can listen to an Indian raga for hours without understanding the harmonic language or the structure, but I would be completely mesmerized, because I understand the emotion, the feeling, and the way it's communicated. Music is being made today because composers have something to say, and the people performing it also have something to say. And if you’re lucky enough to be in the room, then you will understand, and you’ll feel. We’ve all had experiences where we’re so deeply understanding something within ourselves that we might not know how to name, but that’s truly present. For me, that’s been a truth of all music, from any part of the world.
Elena Moon Park: In the work that we do [in city schools], we believe in the power of storytelling as a shared human trait. And of being a soundmaker, like making sound is a birthright. As societies and communities, those things converge to make musical traditions. A lot of that is the storytelling process, and it’s moving to me that it’s something common to societies of humans, to continue societal evolution.
Rebekah: Concerts are a true conversation between community members, between audience members, performers, and composers. When we’re all in this porous state of having conversations beyond words, without words.
Jacob: Every one of these composers that Bernstein talked about in the lectures was dead by 1973. To have the chance after a concert, at a bar, talking with a composer, you can say to him or her, “I really hated your piece!” And you’ll have a conversation, and that’s what makes it a living art.
Tania: What he is saying in the lectures is about the period of music that we have been studying as we grow up, as part of our formative understanding. However, he talks about diversity, he talks about inclusion. We have access to the Peking Opera. We have all of this incredible microtonal music, which is a system that we are still trying to understand. We’re talking about Lachenmann...the discourse of music that we may say for some of us is only noise. One of the things that is happening now is that, for the first time, we are taking into consideration the creativity of human beings, and that music is not always the music that we’ve studied so deeply, in the European geographic territory. This is opposed to everything in the world that we’re now discovering, thanks to the degree of communication that we have now. As musicians we’re learning a great deal about systems that we never thought were part of the scope of the musical pantheon. We are much more creative now! Wehave to understand that electronic music opened up vistas that were not there in the 1970s. To talk about Cage was like, Wow! How many John Cages do we have now? Bernstein offered these lectures in a frozen time, talking about composers where no women are mentioned.
Jacob: John Cage is definitely the elephant in the room for all these lectures!
Elena: The variance and diversity that has sprung from language is really what’s intriguing about it. And I believe that about music also. For me, what’s more interesting is the variance, not the sameness that you find. Bernstein mentions the possibilities of opening human expression and a creative aesthetic through ambiguity. Calling any school of music a dead end goes against that. There’s a great Cage quote, which is something like "Great artists generate new ways of looking at the world: new perceptual and more effective technologies with which to engage the world’s unfurling." We’re able to expand the possibilities of the human mind to understand different aesthetics, and I find that very exciting.
Ted [after listening to Anna Thorvaldsdóttir's Sequences]: The overtones were so present in this piece, but in a completely different context from what Bernstein could ever have imagined. The tonal/atonal thing is just irrelevant! She uses overtones not as syntax, but rather as texture. If I were presenting this in a Young People's Concert, I would use texture as a point of entry. There are analogies to things that everyone has tactile experience with.
Sincere thanks again to the panelists for taking part in this conversation! NYPL has been a wonderful presenting partner for deep discussions like this one.