Big hard art at the Marlboro Music Festival

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MARLBORO — In the culture wars, begun some years ago and raging through the present, the presence of names such as Bach, Brahms, Mendelssohn, and even, given the character of her work, Kate Soper, lead many to take up arms and fight, or, perhaps, hide themselves away in a cultural bunker. The concert on Wednesday, June 26, was a display of what we called in graduate school "big hard art," and while some of us were creating it, we had deeply mixed feelings about our activities. The Marlboro Music Festival delights in and presents just this sort of art, as the above names, listed on a recent program, would indicate. The dining hall at the college, the location of the concert, was filled, and so "big hard art" seems to be doing fine. The culture wars that attack that body of musical work that was so richly and beautifully on display at the festival seemed far away from the hilltop in southern Vermont.

Not so, I fear. And for those of you who avoid any of this music, I write to appeal to you.

Recently, The Atlantic printed an article about the decline of white Christian America, and while music like the material presented on the recent concert fits only with difficulty into this category, its location within a dominant culture is indisputable. Its audience, at least in the United States, is aging and not being replaced adequately by a younger generation of listeners. To me, as both a composer and educator, but moreover as a citizen of Earth, this seems sad. What we call popular culture also has much to offer to all of us, and we should partake of the human thought which it puts on display and invites us to consider. But the same is true of the culture which gives us — perhaps gave us — Bach, Brahms, Kate Soper, and Mendelssohn. In the end, thinking beings do well to indulge in thought itself, whether it's highbrow or lowbrow, white or of color, cisgender, transgender, gay or straight, or touched by any other vector of identity. This does not mean that identity is unimportant; merely that it is self-sabotaging to dismiss bodies of work solely because of their identity. Missing a chance to learn is what is truly tragic. I am a black composer, and I've learned a lot from that dead white guy named Bach. I doubt that I am alone. I have also learned from Tupac Shakur, and Nina Simone.

An incredible and really unique display of human intellection was put before the audience at the third Informal Concert of this years' Marlboro Music Festival. All of the works, including the frighteningly virtuosic Kate Soper work for a variety of flutes and soprano, were performed with a level of musicality that brought forth much pleasure, smiles, and even laughter. Most importantly the musicality brought forth an essence of the musical works that gave listeners a sense of how the composers were thinking. The persuasive musicality of the Marlboro musicians showed what humans — dead, white, German, and male (albeit with the notable exception of the American Kate Soper) — were doing with their brains.

The avoidance of engagement with what challenges us or is unfamiliar to us is precisely what is wrong with the contemporary United States. Indeed, it is the basis of discrimination itself. Attending a concert, particularly one so well-rendered as those that make up the Marlboro Music Festival, is, for many of us, a way to engage with what we do not know, but also with something that might well teach us something. Being open to that experience can counter the parochialism that currently reigns supreme. If you believe that "big hard art" is patriarchal and white, I would have to agree, but I would suggest that there is something to learn from both the patriarchy and from whiteness. If you believe, as some evidently did, that the dead white men on the program had something to teach, but left the concert before hearing Kate Soper's work, I'd ask that you too broaden your horizons, and listen at the next opportunity to the point of view of a living and deeply gifted American woman.

The point is simple: the fact that we fight about the significance of the Bach, Brahms, Soper, and Mendelssohn is not the focus. We should have those fractious discussions. They enliven us, but we cannot have them if we avoid the experience of an art-music concert, a concert that includes a contemporary work, or a folk music concert. So go up to Marlboro and become a foot-soldier in the culture wars. Your fellow citizens might thank you. Leave the hall and hate what you've heard, but — at the very least — be open to the experience of learning.

Etan Nasreddin-Longo may be reached at etan.reformer@gmail.com

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