Cloudburst — only a paper cloud?

 

“Tell me, burnt earth: Is there no water? Is there only dust? Is there only the blood of bare-footed footsteps on the thorns?” “The wilderness and the wasteland shall be glad for them, And the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose.”

Eric Whitacre is a conductor and composer with matinee-idol good looks, personal magnetism, a slick marketing strategy, and arguably common sense, too: he recommends young composers not waste time acquiring training in academic theory beyond what they need to write music that sounds good. Whitacre is beloved in the choral world, but also, sometimes, disdained — for being overrated (he is, although overrated can still be good), for being gimmicky (also true, though his gimmicks often land), and for writing music “suffused with a sense of easy spiritual uplift… Everything [is] maximally radiant and beautiful, and beautifully sung. And that [is] the problem.”

If that’s the problem, it’s a problem many composers would like to have. Or at least it’s a problem many performing musicians wish the composers whose music they have to perform had. Our disdainer continues, “Whitacre is so sincere I suspect he would glow in the dark.”

Sincerity needs content… In the case of Eric Whitacre, content of any kind is exactly what’s missing. To begin with, he avoids anything that might smack of belief. “I’m not an atheist, but I’m not a Christian either,” is about as close as he gets to a credo.

This disdainer does know how to get a good harrumph going — the proper conservative response to having one’s musical lawn infested by Whitacres, I suppose. He, quite conservatively, emphasizes the musical importance of rootedness, rules, and tradition, all of which he believes Whitacre lacks:

In music, this tussling with something difficult and problematic is symbolised by the composer’s tussle with a musical language.

For a great religious composer such as Bach, the musical language he was born into had the force of law, as unavoidable and exacting as religion itself. It wasn’t something he could just pick up and put down at will. The language had tough rules, and yet Bach never dropped any hint that he found them irksome. He actually relished the difficulty of writing counterpoint, and liked to make things even harder for himself. He would have agreed with Edmund Burke that “difficulty is our true friend”. The severity of strict rules is one thing that enabled Bach to “keep it real”.

What better way to keep it real on the right than name-dropping Burke? The Disdainful One continues,

Another was the fact that [Bach’s] music sprang from a particular time and place.

We forget this, because we like to praise Bach for his “timeless” beauty. But there’s nothing timeless about Bach’s great Passions and cantatas. They are absolutely rooted in their own time. They are full of chorale melodies, those sturdy affirmations of the Protestant faith that Martin Luther designed to be sung by the ordinary man and woman. The counterpoint is in the tremendous North German tradition that stretches back through Bach’s great forebears such as Buxtehude.

Look at other great religious composers, and they all have that quality of being rooted in a coherent style, and in a definite time and place. Palestrina’s Masses breathe the air of Counter-Reformation Rome. Thomas Tallis’s English anthems show the stresses and strains of England’s break with Rome. Modern religious composers are deprived of this context, but the better ones try to find substitutes.

And how does Whitacre’s music not spring from a particular time and place? Only, the particular time is now, a time which MacDonald points out is something of a golden age for classical music, with more knowledge about proper music practice — from anytime, anywhere — in circulation than ever before. None of us has distance enough from our own times to see them in historical context, but Whitacre seems as good a candidate as any for a composer emblematic of our time — and our “place” as Americans.

But back to the rain:

La lluvia (The Rain) is a short poem by Octavio Paz, seemingly a paraphrase of his longer, Whitmaniacal poem, El cántaro roto (The broken pitcher). The poem asks the question of the burnt earth which began this essay. Whitacre set La lluvia for chorus with percussion for his seminal composition “Cloudburst”. “Cloudburst” is, as Whitacre admits, not a tightly-structured piece, but rather a youthful outburst, heavily atmospheric and yes, even gimmicky. Still it’s fun, it’s expressive: once the choir’s done getting through the poem, the storm breaks forth, with percussion (including a thunder sheet) and choral vocalising that’s both ghostly and chunky, like Monument Valley in the rain. “Cloudburst” was written for high school choir and it’s exactly the sort of music to get modern adolescents hooked on the innocent pleasure of singing:

True, “Cloudburst” does have a vague spirituality — and possibly a shallow one, though I’m not sure it must be. In response to the question, “Tell me, burnt earth: Is there no water? Is there only dust? Is there only the blood of bare-footed footsteps on the thorns?” the biblically-literate answer, “The desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose.” Rejoice how? With a thunderstorm? Well, why not? There’s a biblical precedent for that, too.

It’s hard for me to tell whether Whitacre has committed any sin other than being accessible and (good for him!) marketing-savvy, and hence hugely popular. Could an omniscient God find, alive on earth today, dozens more no-names who could, if only given the chance, compose music at least as deserving of fame as Whitacre’s is? Quite possibly. But perfect meritocracy is a pipe-dream, and we can do no better than increase the opportunities for talent to find its big break, recognizing that many who aspire to the lofty heights Whitacre has reached will fail through no real fault of their own. Conservatives talk a big game on risk, and maybe we could show more grace to those who risk pretension for the chance to make real art — yes, even when they fail.

But back to the rain:

Yes, it’s nonspecific inspiration, neatly packaged, tied up with a bow that ends right where it started: the rain.

There’s no doubt the whole Whitacre phenomenon, down to his Barbie-girl locks, is a neat package, not wholly dependent on musical talent for its luster — a luster slick enough to raise doubts it’s phony. A paper moon over a cardboard sea. Or, rather, a paper thunderhead over a cardboard desert. Something which only becomes real if you believe in the “me” that is the Whitacre brand.

Or maybe it’s real enough, even if you’re skeptical of the slick packaging. Maybe what Whitacre does — the conducting, the teaching, the music-writing, the immersion in the world that keeps the work of old composers alive while adding in voices of the new (even if not every new addition proves worthy in the test of time) is the tradition, rooted and “authentic” (well, as authentic as anything ever is). Maybe the “easy spiritual uplift” offers an entry into a world of more difficult spiritual uplift. (After all, people have to start somewhere.) Screwtape warns his neffie-pooh Wormwood,

The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the world, for its own sake, and without caring twopence what other people say about it, is by that very fact fore-armed against some of our subtlest modes of attack. You should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favour of the “best” people, the “right” food, the “important” books.”

For Whitacre’s diehard fans, maybe Whitacre is the “best” people, writing the “important” (music) books. For the rest of us, though? He’s just some guy who writes some music that people — young musicians, particularly — come to truly and disinterestedly enjoy. Through enterprise and good fortune (it takes both), he’s been phenomenally successful at it. And his “Cloudburst” really does sound — and feel — like a thunderstorm.

If you ever get the chance, ask to play the thunder sheet.

There are 9 comments.

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  1. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    A beautifully written piece that poses a question for all forms of art–is it so awful, really, if nearly everyone enjoys someone’s work? John Williams has probably made more people interested in listening to instrumental music than Ned Rorem, and Gyorgy Ligeti would still be unknown if it weren’t for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yet, of course we know that on  the other hand, popularity alone isn’t proof of quality, and conservatives know that better than anyone. 

    Very nice, Midge. Thanks!

    • #1
  2. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    A beautifully written piece that poses a question for all forms of art–is it so awful, really, if nearly everyone enjoys someone’s work? John Williams has probably made more people interested in listening to instrumental music than Ned Rorem, and Gyorgy Ligeti would still be unknown if it weren’t for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yet, of course we know that on the other hand, popularity alone isn’t proof of quality, and conservatives know that better than anyone.

    Very nice, Midge. Thanks!

    This reminds me of an argument I had with my father 15-20 years ago on beauty, using Sandra Bullock as the focal point.  His contention was that although she was enormously appealing, she was not beautiful.  He was thinking in terms of Catherine Deneuve/bone structure/classic beauty.  My contention was simple; she was enormously appealing, therefore she was beautiful.  In other words, the eye of the beholder.

    • #2
  3. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    Much of modern music was written, not for an audience, but for the composer.  And if you didn’t like it (maybe it was positively painful to hear), then it’s your fault for not understanding the music.  I rather like music with a pleasant melody-that’s why Ray and I like Morten Lauridsen’s choral music, and William Bolcom’s Piano Rags.  Modern, yes, but beautiful.

    • #3
  4. Stina Member
    Stina
    @CM

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    A beautifully written piece that poses a question for all forms of art–is it so awful, really, if nearly everyone enjoys someone’s work? John Williams has probably made more people interested in listening to instrumental music than Ned Rorem, and Gyorgy Ligeti would still be unknown if it weren’t for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yet, of course we know that on the other hand, popularity alone isn’t proof of quality, and conservatives know that better than anyone.

    Very nice, Midge. Thanks!

    Well, if its accessible to everyone, then it is by definition vulgar.

    There’s a kind of conceit in there.

    • #4
  5. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    This conversation is part of our Group Writing Series under the August 2019 Group Writing Theme: Raining Cats and Dogs. Our September theme is “Autumn Colors.” There are plenty of dates available. Our schedule and sign-up sheet awaits.

    Interested in Group Writing topics that came before? See the handy compendium of monthly themes. Check out links in the Group Writing Group. You can also join the group to get a notification when a new monthly theme is posted.

    • #5
  6. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    RushBabe49 (View Comment):
    I rather like music with a pleasant melody-that’s why Ray and I like Morten Lauridsen’s choral music, and William Bolcom’s Piano Rags. Modern, yes, but beautiful.

    Lauridsen writes so much beautiful music!

    RushBabe49 (View Comment):
    Much of modern music was written, not for an audience, but for the composer.

    To be fair, a lot of the music is written for the ensemble who intends to perform it, which may or may not result in a treat for the audience. Showing off an ensemble to its best advantage can easily be a treat, but sometimes what’s shown off is just that this ensemble can do something difficult, even if it’s not particularly musical.

    And sometimes disasters result when music written for a particular type of ensemble is attempted by another which can’t pull it off. Which isn’t all bad — never biting off more than you can chew is playing it a bit too safe.

    Arvo Pärt is another contemporary composer who tends to get love from conservatives — our @jongabriel has said he’s a fan. One of Pärt’s Advent antiphons, O Schlüssel Davids, is simply so demanding it easily creates the impression of cats being stepped on if anything goes wrong: to avoid that, intonation, balance, tone quality, and perhaps even the acoustic space must be carefully chosen. I love the piece, and I’m still not sure why — whether I really do find it all that pleasant to listen to, whether it simply strikes me as fun to sing, or whether my imagination imagines what it could be (although, with a bad-enough performance of something, the audience’s imagination will not be able to tell what it could be).

    “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds” was an old chestnut even by the time Twain said it. But it’s true: it’s possible for Wagner’s music to not devolve into an all-out war between singers and orchestra, in which case it can be sublime. It almost never quite works out that way, though, so the singers start shouting and shrieking, the orchestra razzing and splatting, and soon the sensitive listener may find himself hiding under his seat, wadded-up program stuffed in his ears, searching longingly for the nearest “Exit” sign.

    • #6
  7. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):
    “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds” was an old chestnut even by the time Twain said it. But it’s true: it’s possible for Wagner’s music to not devolve into an all-out war between singers and orchestra, in which case it can be sublime.

    The problem is the singers. The problem is always the singers. The singers should just shush.

    • #7
  8. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Percival (View Comment):

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):
    “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds” was an old chestnut even by the time Twain said it. But it’s true: it’s possible for Wagner’s music to not devolve into an all-out war between singers and orchestra, in which case it can be sublime.

    The problem is the singers. The problem is always the singers. The singers should just shush.

    Very occasionally, a conductor manages to control the orchestra so that the singers don’t have to oversing. This can happen one of two ways: singers with voices naturally powerful enough not to push (rare birds indeed!) or through some miraculous spell, the conductor manages to mesmerize the orchestra into bridling its musical lust even though it’s Wagner.

    Either way works — when it works. But yes, in typical failure mode, axing the singers is the easiest way to improve things.

    • #8
  9. Doctor Robert Member
    Doctor Robert
    @DoctorRobert

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):
    “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds” was an old chestnut even by the time Twain said it. But it’s true: it’s possible for Wagner’s music to not devolve into an all-out war between singers and orchestra, in which case it can be sublime.

    The problem is the singers. The problem is always the singers. The singers should just shush.

    Very occasionally, a conductor manages to control the orchestra so that the singers don’t have to oversing. This can happen one of two ways: singers with voices naturally powerful enough not to push (rare birds indeed!) or through some miraculous spell, the conductor manages to mesmerize the orchestra into bridling its musical lust even though it’s Wagner.

    Either way works — when it works. But yes, in typical failure mode, axing the singers is the easiest way to improve things.

    A fine opera orchestra has string players who like to blend, wind players whose sounds are very pretty but not huge, and brass players who know how to play a true pianissimo and can do so for 80% of the evening.  This requires musicianship at the highest level and a willingness to defer one’s ego to the singers on stage.  The Met Opera is a perfect example.  Most of the principal winds were first chairs in this or that symphony orchestra, where they played big solos all the time, but have chosen a more subdued role living in the orchestra pit.  The result is an orchestra of unparalleled refinement and excellence.  One that allows un-miked singers to float over them in Wagner, Mozart and Mascagni.  And when one of the solo wind or brass players steps forward to take a  big prominent solo, like the oboe obbligato in act 3 of Aida, the effect is doubly magical.

    • #9

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