November 27, 2006

"Can it be that it was all so simple then?"

Over the weekend, the Globe's Jeremy Eichler looked at Boston, looked at Steve Reich, and asked, "Where is the love?" It's true, the town I call home (but which will never be my hometown—non-native New Englanders know what I'm talking about) hasn't exactly been clearing the shelves at iParty in honor of the man's 70th. Truth be told, though, I hadn't noticed. In fact, I don't listen to a whole lot of Reich's music anymore.

Now, I have nothing against Reich's music; I liked it when I first heard it, and I haven't stopped liking it, but I haven't needed to hear it for a while. I think it's when I first heard it that's important. Reich entered my consciousness in my late teens—right around the time, in fact, when I first got hooked on Richard Strauss. Don Juan and Music for a Large Ensemble both got many a spin on my turntable (and lest you think that turntable makes me even older than I am, keep in mind that I didn't even buy a computer until the late 90's). I still have my copies of Different Trains and The Desert Music, and like Zarathustra and Sinfonia Domestica, they don't get a lot of play.

Glenn Gould once divided the world into two camps: those who outgrew their youthful enthusiasm for Strauss, and those who didn't. The implication was that there's a certain age at which all listeners (all boys, at any rate) who come into contact with Strauss's music become infatuted with it, and that age usually falls around late adolescence. Gould was on to something, I think: there's something about Strauss's music, a talent for turning the raw materials of nerdishness and awkward enthusiasm into the most grandiose of triumphal statements, that's irresistable to the teenaged mind. But even more than that, there's the sense that Strauss had figured it all out, that he had cracked the code, that this was the way music was supposed to sound.

I remember thinking that when I was 16 or 17. For a while, I thought that, like Gould, I would be in that minority that didn't outgrow their Strauss-o-philia, but my ardor cooled, and now my fondness is limited to his songs. That's not to say I don't relish a nice Heldenleben when the opportunity presents itself, but that pleasure is in large part nostalgic: for a little while, I can remember what it was like to blast it through my headphones late at night (the Karajan recording, the one where the trumpets cack on the high note), reveling in the hedonistic glory of a wildly over-orchestrated 6/4 chord.

Reich's music doesn't have very much in common with Strauss, with one exception: to my not-quite-adult ear, it sure sounded like he had squared the circle, that this was a way of making music that had worked out all the 20th-century kinks. I don't think that anymore—I don't think any less of the music, it's just that I've wised up about things a little—and I have a suspicion that, if I had encountered his music later, when my mind was more attuned to possibilities than solutions, I'd probably hear it much differently (and would have continued to hear it in new ways for a much longer time). But, like Strauss, it was a particular type of music at a particular time, and that initial impression was indelibly strong. I still enjoy a serendipitous chance to hear it; maybe Boston, it its curmudgeonly way, will celebrate Reich's 71st birthday just to reassure everyone that they're not jumping on some passing fancy of a bandwagon. If they do, though, some tangle of hard-wired teenaged neurons will insist on making it into a trip down memory lane.


Mark said...

Well thanks for that. I haven't listened to some of those Strauss songs since that fateful day im Mai when I had to endure the college band arrangement of Allerseelen. Ein Tag im Jahre ist den Trompeten frei, if you will. Not exactly something that puts you in a reflective mood.

So now I'm drinking good beer and letting Schwartzkopf have her way with me like the good old days. Ah, to be young again.

I'll buy this whole argument so long as nobody tells me I'm supposed to outgrow Poulenc [The spellchecker wanted to substitute 'opulence'--it likes the crazy Frenchman as well] .

ps. Are we supposed to get over Metamorphosen with age too?

Matthew said...

Speaking of which, I'm currently on the hunt for an alleged Max Reger piano transcription of "Allerseelen." (Apparently he did a once-over on "Ich trage meine Minne," too.) Reger transcribing Strauss? It's like garnishing your pie with another pie.