If you've been reading this blog even semi-regularly, you know one of my persisent obsessions is "rhythmic authority," a term I stole from Ethan Iverson and have been plowing into the ground ever since. But it's an incredibly useful concept to refer to when talking about the disconnect that too often exists between even very highly skilled conservatory-trained musicians and, well... basically every other skilled musician on the planet. It's a disconnect that a lot of classical players do not perceive, partly because they have spent many years intensely focused on the development of a very sophisticated and deep emotional connection to pitch. But not only have many of them not invested the long hours of work required to develop an equally sophisticated emotional connection to rhythm, often they are not even aware that they don't have one, or that they might need one. They -- rightly -- consider themselves among the most highly-trained musicians in the world, so it can be very humbling to realize that they still have a lot to learn about something as fundamental as rhythm.
This disconnect leads to a lot of frustration when musicians from a nonclassical background try to collaborate with classical musicians, since the latter are not generally used to (and worse, do not generally respect) putting such a premium on rhythm. This is slowly changing, as the minimalist and post-minimalist works of the past 30 years are not playable by musicians who lack rhythmic authority. But, unsurprisingly, the slowest organism to adapt is the symphony orchestra.
I have to say, as a listener, I find this intensely frustrating. It's not just recent works that would benefit from being played by orchestras where everyone has solid time and can lock in together. There are lots of passages in the standard rep that would be greatly invigorated if orchestras and conductors made an investment in rhythmic authority. How great would it be to hear a rhythmically authoritative Rite? Or imagine if every orchestra played Bartók's rhythms as convincingly as the players in the Hungarian State Symphony.
But I have more or less given up attending orchestral performances, even though I love much of the repertoire -- partly because decent seats for the NY Phil are prohibitively expensive, but also because I find their lack of rhythmic authority kills the experience for me.
Some people don't believe it's even possible for a large orchestra to achieve the kind of rhythmic authority I'm talking about. Steve Reich gave up writing for orchestra in 1987 because he was convinced they were just fundamentally incapable of playing with the requisite rhythmic clarity. But it can be done -- watch:
That's the Simón Bolívar National Youth Orchestra, who are basically ambassadors for Venezuela's El Sistema, a national music program that for 30 years has been providing free instruments and music education to kids we've taken to euphemistically calling "at risk."
At just 12, Legner Lacosta was on the streets. Leaving school, his mother and stepbrothers, he started hanging out in Pinto Salinas, a notorious Caracas barrio where bullet-ridden shacks pile on top of each other in a ravine nestled beside the motorway.
By 13, Legner had a crack habit and a .38 calibre gun and a regular role as a drug-dealer and thief. "I got trapped by money," he says, "when I was high, I felt as if I were somewhere else; you clear everything out of your mind and start to invent your own world." By 15, the police caught and beat him, and he was sent to a young offenders' institute in Los Chorros, east Caracas, among 150 glue-sniffers and abandoned or abused children.
Forced to go cold turkey, Legner withdrew into himself. "I was bored and didn't want to do anything," he says. But one day, the Youth Orchestras Project turned up and he had his first meeting with a clarinet. "When the instruments arrived, the director told me there was a clarinet left. I didn't know what it was. I was fascinated when I saw it. He taught me the first four notes. I played those four notes all day."
By 17, Legner was back at the detention centre, but this time in a smart polo shirt and trendy thick-rimmed glasses, there to teach clarinet. "Music saved my life," he says. "It helped me let out a lot of the anger inside. If music had not arrived, I wouldn't be here today." He has now moved to Germany to continue his studies.
The conductor is the 26 year-old Gustavo Dudamel, himself a product of El Sistema. He made a big splash earlier in the year when he was appointed the next music director of the LA Phil, beginning in 2009. He and the Simón Bolivar NYO are currently all over the classical music blogosphere, with the general consensus being that they pwned every other orchestra at this year's Proms.
American orchestras, feeling the crunch of reduced ticket sales and an aging audience, have been wracking their brains trying to figure out how to turn things around, but many of the proposed changes are of the "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic" variety. It seems to me that when you are getting your asses handed to you by a bunch of Venezuelan street kids, it's time for everyone involved to take a long hard look in the mirror. And then maybe reach for that tambor mina and start shedding.