One highlight of this past weekend was a concert at Carthage which consisted entirely of the music of my colleague and fellow Luther grad, Mark Petering- and four of the five pieces were receiving their world premiere. A program devoted entirely to modern music can be very hard to stomach, depending on the composer and their music- but this proved to be a thoroughly enjoyable and impressive program- and at the end, unbelievably, I was ready to hear more. . . and I think the rest of the audience felt the same way.
I contrast this to a program back at the University of Nebraska by a composition grad student whose gifts were painfully modest, in stark contrast to his arrogance, which was of epic proportions. I played piano for one piece (I don’t know how I got roped into that) and I count it among the Bottom Five experiences of my life — somewhere between breaking my leg in fifth grade and losing my pants during lunch in first grade. It was that unpleasant an experience and every one of us involved in that performance just wanted it to be done before we were driven to wet our fingers and stick them into the nearest electric socket. It was modern music which sounded like nothing but a succession of mistakes and wrong notes.
It’s possible that part of why I hated that experience so much was because of my own ignorance- but I can’t say that was the situation many years later when I sat through I’ve- forgotten-how-many concerts of avant garde music presented by a former organ professor at Carthage, Gary Verkade. (Remember Mike Myers’ Saturday Night Live skits where he portrayed Dieter, the host of a German avant garde television program called “Sprockets”? That was Gary and his recitals.) His very first faculty recital was an extraordinarily exciting night featuring works which combined the sounds of the mighty Siebert organ with pre-recorded tape; it was probably the most thrilling twentieth century music I’d ever heard. But every recital from there became progressively stranger, culminating in a final recital which featured what sounded more like random sounds than music. For the main piece of the program, which seemed to go on for hours, sounded like he was playing with two fingers. . . holding two notes for maybe fifteen seconds, and then moving to two more, holding for fifteen seconds, and moving to two more, etc. Gary would be the first to admit that this was music that was created without a single thought being given to entertaining or uplifting or edifying an audience; in fact, he said so in an interview we did before the recital, rather proudly. That may be well and good, but I guess I’m just not smart enough or sophisticated enough to untangle the meaning of music from the audience which hears it. To me the two are not to be disconnected. I should say that Gary Verkade provided an exciting shot in the arm to Carthage’s music department and I think he did some really good things – and perhaps some people enjoyed the groundbreaking music which he performed. But for me, most of it had the musical value of a box of wrenches being dropped down the stairs. (Maybe that says a lot more about my own musical limitations than it does about the quality of the music. I am more than willing to concede that possibility.)
Contrast that with Mark’s music, which was undeniably fresh and new – but also something with which we could relate – and in a number of cases, the music was vividly illustrative. One piece evoked the sounds of traffic – another the sounds of quilters – and some of it was just whatever it was – nothing in particular – but the sounds were so interesting and compelling and not nearly so self-consciously modern.
It helped that the music was being performed by a superlative chamber group from Chicago called Fifth House- and you could tell that they had really put their heart and soul and their spectacular talents into this project and the results were dazzling.
I’m not a composer the way Mark is a composer, but I know the pleasure when musicians take something you’ve written and give their all to it. Holy Communion’s senior choir does that on a regular basis – the Chamber Singers did that – Polly’s kids at Tremper High School do that – and it is both humbling and thrilling for a composer when that happens. And what makes it even better is when there is an audience there who seems to be as excited to hear your music as you are to share it with them. That’s what creates the highest of all high’s for a composer. And it was so exciting to be in the audience as Mark enjoyed that experience Saturday night. May he have many more in the years to come.
pictured: Mark Petering accepting the applause of the audience at the end of the concert. Actually, I think this shot catches him joining the audience in applauding the evening’s musicians. The folks in the front row closest to the camera are his proud parents.