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Monday, October 28, 2013

I Walk the Line*

"The title Icarus comes from the Greek myth involving an ambitious young man whose father, Daedalus, gives him a pair of

wings made of wax, wood and feathers. With this gift came the stern admonition from Daedalus not to venture too close to the sun, or the wax would melt and Icarus would fall. And of course, ignoring his father's warning, Icarus does indeed fly too high and comes crashing down.

"I saw the appropriateness of this myth as a metaphor for our time in America – particularly in the last 8 to 10 years. The striking resemblance between the behavior of Daedalus and Icarus to George H.W. Bush and his son George W. Bush is ironic, if not tragic.

"The story of Icarus also acts as a metaphor for the current state of American culture and its economy. The age-old myth warns all civilizations of arrogance and ignorance and most of all, the sometimes lethal combination of the two together."

– Richard Danielpour, 2009
The above is from program notes for a musical selection performed by The Western Winds, an ensemble of faculty and students of the Western Michigan University School of Music.  This was the opening to a concert that featured the same composer's An American Requiem,  which was dedicated to the victims of the events of September 11, 2001, performed by the WMU Symphony Orchestra and Grand Chorus. 
I scarcely know where to begin.
In the movie Amadeus, Emperor Joseph II warns young Mozart of the dangers of raising the ire of the establishment. I'm not denying Mr. Danielpour his free speech rights, no matter how misguided his statement are; rather, I question the wisdom of the WMU School of Music simply reprinting Mr. Danielpour's words and not coming up with original program notes.  I'm not certain how that works; perhaps permission to perform those works comes with the caveat of control over what is said about them.  For example, Irving Berlin (and later, his estate) was very particular about arrangements of his works, down to the typeface size on the cover. I could see if the work was a premiere, then the composer's words would literally be the last word (and the first).  But to leave them, unadorned, smacks of laziness.
When I was a music educator, one activity that gave me and endless source of bemusement was reading the descriptions of music for concert band in the JW Pepper catalog.  I think their writers must have received a bonus for using the phrase "exceptionally nice", but more to the point, people who are mass-producing band music have gotten into the habit of not only adding gimmicky sound effects into their music but then also explaining in great detail their symbolic significance.  To wit:  the "helicopter" in Robert W. Smith's "Inchon".  I had to constantly be on guard to not let my audience talks extend beyond the duration of the music being described, never mind the audience's tolerance for such talks.  One parent (and assume that there are thousands more) even saw fit to write to Instrumentalist Magazine about "the piece".  Pre-2000 music educators, especially band directors, will know what I mean.  The letter caused a ruckus, and alarmingly on both sides of the issue.  (In case you were wondering, I'm on the side of letting the music speak for itself).
But the fact that the WMU program notes passed muster seemingly without comment gives me pause. I'm not going to go so far as to call for a boycott; the School of Music did serve me well for a year and 9 months of my life when I earned my first master's degree. I will respectfully ask however, that people responsible for programming, especially those with terminal degrees, actually take the time to
WRITE YOUR OWN DAMN PROGRAM NOTES.
Onward.
*--Johnny Cash, 1956.

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