Over the weekend, I attended FearNoMusic's "100 Years of John Cage," a collaboration with YU Contemporary. To be completely honest with you, I wasn't really that excited about the concert; I was only going because our Associate Music Director and Chorusmaster, Rob Ainsley, was singing -- his Portland debut! -- a piece called Litany for the Whale, for two baritones who sing the sounds W-H-A-L-E, call-and-response style.
As it turned out, Friday night's concert -- and not just Rob's portion of it -- was possibly the best performance I've ever attended in my life. I walked in with a totally closed mind. I didn't like this kind of music; I was only there to support my friend; I was leaving after the whalesong. Despite that, I left totally transformed. I spent half my day Saturday reading about John Cage.
I tell you this because we are entering into similar territory here at the opera. I've been working doggedly on correcting the parts for our upcoming Philip Glass opera, Galileo Galilei. The opera has only been performed a handful of times since its publication ten years ago. There is no commercial recording, so everyone, including the singers, is approaching the piece blind. (No pun intended, Signor Galileo). The parts are absolutely riddled with errors, which is common with new works. Although the task of sitting down and comparing the parts to the score -- measure by measure, note by note -- is incredibly tedious, I also relish it. This is important work. Butterfly has been corrected a thousand times, but the work I do on Galileo matters. It's work no one else has done yet. It's work that will live on if the opera lives on. That's incredibly exciting! I'm a librarian; I don't often get the opportunity in my line of work to be intrepid. But here I am, pressing forward, fixing things no one has ever fixed before.
I'm just going to say it: Galileo is going to fight an uphill battle with many members of our audience. That's absolutely not commentary on the work itself, but rather an acknowledgement of the difficulty that modern music faces in the classical world in general, and in the opera world most especially. We tend to like what we know. Mozart is familiar. Verdi is familiar. Wagner ... maybe. Strauss is getting out there. Berg takes some convincing. The closer and closer a publication date gets to the present, the less time a work has had to become part of the canon, and the "scarier" it is.
When we did Orphée back in 2009, the work fought an uphill battle with me. My experience with Glass's music came exclusively from music history classes in college, and mostly what I remembered was the monotony of Einstein on the Beach. But because Philip Glass was coming to Portland, I was determined, if not to like Orphée, then at least to appreciate it. So, as I worked (the same way I am working on Galileo), I would open the glass engine, pick a piece, and play it. I'd let the music play all day, day in and day out, as I marked scores. I wanted to understand Philip Glass. I read about him; I listened to interviews. I listened and listened and listened.
Let me tell you a story about oatmeal. (Bear with me.) I never ate oatmeal as a kid. My mom doesn't like it, so we never had it in the house. In college I got this idea that people generally like oatmeal, so I tried to eat it, but I couldn't stand it. I'd try it, and dislike it, and give up for six months before trying again. I have no idea why I was so determined to like it, except that it's good for you and everybody likes it, and I couldn't think of a reason why I shouldn't as well. So I started eating it anyway, even though I didn't like it. I don't know how long that went on, but at some point, I realized I liked it. Now I eat it all the time.
I say all of this to demonstrate how it was, then, that I taught myself to like Orphée. I didn't like it and didn't like it and didn't like it, and then, PRESTO. I liked it. There was nothing wrong with the opera; I just had to find a way in.
This is what I've learned: sometimes appreciation comes in a flash, but other times it's a long, meandering, and occasionally exhausting road. It might seem like a stupid thing to say, but liking the things we already like is easy. Liking the things that don't automatically strike us is much harder. And yet, as I've discovered, when you're successful the end result is much more enjoyable. I know Orphée now like the back of my hand. When we closed the show, I was one of a tiny group of people who knew the piece so well. I cherished that feeling. I was sad to move on.
I'm here to tell you that Galileo is not going to be easy for some of you, and that's okay. Sometimes a work just doesn't speak to you. That's nobody's fault -- not the composer's, and not yours. But do me a favor: consider the possibility that you just need to find the spot to crack it open. I walked into that concert Friday night thinking I was going to drag myself through it for a friend. After all, I knew what I liked. But I was wrong.
More from me about 100 Years of John Cage here
Fire up the glass engine, an enormous collection of the recordings of Philip Glass, where you can sort Glass's music by title, year, or amount of joy, sorrow, intensity, density, or velocity!
Ira Glass, host of This American Life, interviews cousin Philip Glass