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Bartok, Salt Lake, Emerson & Me

The jazz guitar instructors at the University of Utah liked to tell us, their Intro Jazz Guitar students, that we were much maligned by the rest of the music department. It’s true that we were a motley-looking bunch. Many of us weren’t even music majors. We were drawn from all corners of the university: architecture, engineering, and in my case, English. This was the fall of 1992, and I had just entered the “U of U” as a graduate student. I was supposed to take two classes a quarter, for a total of eight credits. Full-time status, however, required nine, without which I wouldn’t be able to defer my loans. Eventually I found out that I could take one credit of “independent study,” to be used toward my dissertation. But in my happy ignorance I went looking for an undergraduate class to make full time. Music Theory wouldn’t have me—the class was packed with majors—so I opted for Jazz Guitar.

The guitar class turned out to be a great way to refresh between teaching freshman writing in the morning and taking graduate classes in the afternoon. Three days a week I’d lug my guitar halfway across the U of U’s sprawling campus, down from the Medical Plaza apartments at the base of the Wasatch foothills, to Orson Spencer Hall, where the English department was housed. I’d leave the guitar in my cubicle while I went to teach. Then I’d carry it across the rest of campus, down the hill and one leg of the horseshoe of President’s Circle, to David Gardner Hall. Sometimes I thought it wasn’t even the class that helped; just going into the music building, another world within the balkanized world of academia, was purging.

Across the hall from the guitar class, Ardean Watts, then-director of the University Symphony Orchestra, was holding his own “class.” It was called “Music for Pure Enjoyment.” Coming up the stairs, I’d run smack into a bulletin board, the sign tacked there promising “No analysis!” Underneath would be the program for the week. He did the entire cycle of Mozart piano concertos that fall, and if memory serves, selections by Schoenberg, Vaughan-Williams, and Beethoven. Although he always chose the program, Watts invited students to bring in their favorite recordings of the programmed pieces.

But the day I walked out of guitar class and, rather than going down the stairs, timidly crossed the hall and sat down, Watts and a few others were immersed in Béla Bartók’s string quartets. As the narrator of a Ken Burns documentary would say: It was like nothing he had ever heard before. Except Ken Burns says that so many times it ends up sounding like bullshit. To me, it really was like no music I had ever heard before. I didn’t even think a violin could sound like that. It was as if I had walked in on the middle of Hendrix’s “Machine Gun,” and listened for a minute before someone deigned to tell me that, by the way, I was listening to a guitar.

I didn’t tell Watts that, of course. He was a charming old man with a long white goat’s beard and a tremor. He would sit among the students who had happened to wander in that day, sometimes just listening, sometimes engaging his fellow listeners in conversation. He was too enthusiastic ever to sound pedantic. Like everything he had to tell you about music was the most wonderful secret in the world. I didn’t answer him when he told me that Bartók’s compositions were “so logical,” because my first thought was, So was Manson. He must have assumed I was more musically literate than I was—he mustn’t have noticed the guitar. Because for me, there was (and still is) something in the quartets’ apparent lack of logic, their unpredictability, their constant shifting between ideas, as if they were being made up on the spot, that excited me.

Watts also told me that Bartók was the greatest innovator of the string quartet after Beethoven. He brought out the score, which I perused, though I was unable to follow it to the music. Before I left, he showed me the compact disc case: four young men in tuxes, holding up their instruments like proud fisherman showing off their catches of the day. I scribbled down the name.

One day after walking in on “Music for Pure Enjoyment,” I drove over to Discriminator Records (an all-classical music store in Salt Lake, sadly many years gone) and bought the Emerson Quartet’s recording of the six string quartets by Béla Bartók. For a while I listened to a quartet a day. Then I listened to them in pairs, evens and odds, by period, by movement. I quickly learned that I had walked in on the third and fourth quartets, the most dissonant of the bunch, although it’s likely any of them would have affected me in the same way.

Before “Music for Pure Enjoyment,” my understanding of Bartók’s music had been based solely on a few of his orchestral works: The Miraculous Mandarin suite, which had terrified me as a child, and the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. Listening to the quartets, however, re-introduced these familiar pieces to me, forcing me to hear them in a new way. Ironically, though Bartók was himself a pianist, and piano was the instrument most familiar to me, his concertos and works for solo piano have taken much longer to grow on me. This may be a broader problem of the percussiveness of the piano in modern music … except that in other modern composers, like Prokofiev and Stravinsky, that very percussiveness often thrills me. Maybe Bartók was just too much the gypsy; I always imagine him carting his wax cylinders between villages in the Carpathians, recording folk music, a task he believed was more important than composing original works. In my favorite photo, he sits at a desk stacked with books, transcribing with his left hand, the horn of a phonograph beside his right ear.

*

I am sure I’m not the only one who came to know the Emerson Quartet through Bartók, or vice-versa. As the program for their fall 1995 performance of the entire cycle of Bartók’s quartets at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall noted, Bartók has been “something of a cause” for them. They certainly play him as if he were a cause: honed to a near-military rigor, plaintive, demanding. The grueling three-and-a-half hours (with two intermissions) that are required to play all six quartets can only be explained as a cause. I don’t know that they’ve repeated the feat since. Not that they’ve ignored Bartók or anything. They may not play him all the time, or even as often as I’d like; but the quartets are still pretty regularly included in their programs (last August it was the sixth, at the new Alice Tully Hall).

I think discovering the Emerson Quartet represented something else for me, too, something in which Bartók played a role. So many of the classical performers I had listened to were of my parents’ generation or older, because it was my parents’ music, my parents’ records. It was an inherited taste. In my young adulthood, that taste was just beginning to be reshaped under the pressures of new musical discoveries. And now here was a quartet not much older than I, playing a “classical” music that sounded utterly fresh to my ears. So my taste in “classical” music needn’t be preserved in amber, carried around as a sentimental object shaped like home. It was much more dynamic than that. By extension, “classical” music itself needn’t be treated—as its very name damns it to be—like a museum exhibit, endowed with a transcendent authority that simultaneously robs individual pieces of their language. It, too, was something vital, changeable, and renewable.

In the two chances I had to see the Emerson Quartet in Salt Lake, as part of the Chamber Music Society’s series, they followed the standard concert-program formula of two classical or romantic pieces to one modern or contemporary.* At the time, the decision to include any modern or contemporary music on the program seemed daring—the “cause” mentioned in the Avery Fisher Hall program, and the reason performers who play contemporary music are invariably described as its “champions.” But to really explain why I thought this was daring requires a bit more context.

Salt Lake City is much more diverse today (religiously, ethnically, and politically) than when I first moved there. The geography of this diversity, however, is probably about the same as when I left a decade ago: a mostly Hispanic working-class west side; a liberal/radical population ensconced in “the avenues” on the foothills around the university and a few other pockets in or near downtown, mostly transplanted from other places (like California); and a conservative, mostly Mormon and native (or, when not native, Californian or Pacific islander) population living pretty much everywhere else. As an out-of-towner, an east-coaster, and an ersatz New Yorker when I wanted to put on airs, I saw the Emersons as the envoys of a dissonance that the staid harmonies of the Beehive State could not tolerate.

Never mind that I had been introduced to this music in Utah, among music students and teachers who were likely much more conservative than I. Never mind that, relatively speaking, Bartók was a pretty conservative composer—I still didn’t know what “postwar” meant in musical terms, and my fusiony conception of jazz was only just beginning to be unsettled by Monk and Coltrane. Never mind, for that matter, Big Bill Haywood, or Joe Hill. No, never mind any of that: I went not just to hear the Emerson Quartet, but to champion a modern music I was sure many in the audience would find intolerable. I got what I asked for, both times: Bartók’s Quartet No. 4 the first time around, and the second, a 1994 piece by the American composer Ned Rorem, which the quartet had commissioned. Some members of the audience tittered, some crossed their arms like the music was arguing with them, some shook their heads and tugged on their wives’ complacent blouse-sleeves. I left feeling clearly superior, lamenting my extended sojourn among the philistines. Back home—not Jersey, but the avenues—I listened to Bartók while my Deadhead roommate chain-smoked Camels and the snow came down hard outside. He was a communications doctoral student from Michigan who liked to drop acid and listen to two different things on the stereo simultaneously. He thought the Bartók sounded cool. And so together we waved the flag of Difference, waved our freak-flag high, standing in the foothills above the city, and watching the storms roll in over the valley.

Today, I look back at what I had there—not just the exposure to a culture of ideas that came from being a grad student in a school full of brilliant people, but those tightly-knit arts and activist communities, driven together by opposition to a dominant culture that was itself less monolithic than I had presumed it to be—and wonder what I was so anxious about. (I’m sure I was already wondering this the second time I moved away, at the end of 2001; it’s always harder leaving mountains the second time.) In a sense, the Bartók quartets were of a piece with everything I was doing in my classes—Derrida and Beckett, Genet and Baldwin, Bataille and Melville. My standard line about hearing the quartets for the first time was that they rewired my brain. But that was just a particularly dramatic instance of something that, in a more subtle way, was going on the whole time I was in grad school. And I think it is the cumulative impact of a thousand such revelations, from the most mundane to the most mind-shattering, that bonds us to the humanities, to the arts and culture, and makes us as eager as Watts was to try to share that in the classroom. Like the sign said: “Music for Pure Enjoyment.”

* The first half of this post (and a few sentences in the second) is a revision of something I wrote in 1996 or thereabouts, shortly after a performance by the Emerson Quartet in Salt Lake. Although I couldn’t find a place for the descriptive passage that follows in the new version, I enjoyed rediscovering it, and so include it as an addendum: Phillip Setzer, violinist, is petite, curly-haired, and dreamy-eyed, a miniature Tony Curtis. He displays a gravity that sets the tone for the quartet as a whole. From the first moment, at least during the more rhythmic passages, he sways madly. Next to him, Eugene Drucker, the other violinist, is heavier-set and less animated than Mr. Setzer; he keeps one eyebrow raised like Leonard Nimoy, the eye zeroed slantways on the music before him, a cowlick plastered to the eyebrow-side of his forehead, his bow-tie a little crooked. Lawrence Dutton, the violist, is tall and gangly, sized for the viola the way Setzer is for the violin. His hair is streaked with grey, and he doesn’t so much hug his instrument, as the violinists inevitably do, as try to surround it. Rather than swaying, he rocks the instrument on its axis, fingers walking the neck like spiders. I’ve never managed to see Dutton as well as I’d like, because I always choose a seat in the auditorium where he his half-turned from me. But maybe this is only so I can better observe the cellist, David Finckel, who is my favorite. Leaning back with the instrument poised against him, so that it seems like a giant belly, his feet turned out, he is as much the visual as the sonic anchor of the quartet. The posture gives him a deceivingly sated appearance; he is actually the most active member. Because unlike the others, who hardly glance away from their music, Mr. Finckel’s eyes are as mobile as Charlie Chaplin’s. [N.B.: I’m indebted to Gerald Mast for this observation, in Film/Cinema/Movie.] They dart from Dutton to Setzer, Setzer to Drucker, expressing variously the enormity of his undertaking, to a kind of embarrassment at some inaudible mistake, to satisfaction at a well-rendered phrase. Somehow, these four very distinct human beings create a marvelously coherent sound, as if forged from a single consciousness.

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