One of the first things students are taught in a Music History class is to stop calling it classical music, please. “Classical,” of course, refers to one specific period, one set of innovations and conventions: those of Haydn and Mozart and their contemporaries. It is not the term with which to encompass the Baroque, the Romantic, the Impressionist and the rest of the whole gaudy fruit stand. Goodness, what has happened to precision in our language and in our thought?
What, then, should we call this music – the entirety of it? “Powdered” doesn’t quite do, because it leaves out Mussorgsky. “Serious music,” they tell us, is the encompassing tradition, the encompassing term. Now get out your Grove’s Dictionary of Music and read 100 very serious pages about monophonic chant.
So “serious music” is what you are supposed to call it, and that is patently ridiculous. If you want to know why classical music has lost so much of its relevance and popular audience in the last century-and-change – surviving mostly on cinematic utility, the grant drip and what remains of the high-culture brand – you can start here, with the word “serious.” No one would argue that sonatas, concertos, cantatas, fugues, quartets, symphonies, madrigals and even divertimentos aren’t serious; it is the implicit characterization of all other music as frivolous and “folk” that is so outrageous – and delusional.
I am probably the wrong person to be telling this story, but here’s what I’ve got: In the 20th century, serialist and aleatory composers and other atonal and early-electronic pranksters were busy alienating their audiences, starving the emotional hungers of concertgoers with astringent, difficult new styles and compositional methods (and producing some pretty cool stuff in the process). But other composers and sophisticated songwriters resisted the pull of the academic, reconnecting to the populist soil of all music and expanding the source pool for serious music, blurring the distinction between serious and pop, serious and folk, serious and jazz: Copeland and Bartók celebrated folk melody. Bernstein; Gershwin; Piazzola, the brilliant composer of tango. From the songwriting side, Kurt Weill, Cole Porter, Noel Coward and all the great Broadway writers through Sondheim. Ellington and the composers of jazz, a genre that has had its own well-documented problems with seriousness.
“I have never acknowledged the difference between ‘serious’ music and ‘light’ music,” said Kurt Weill. “There is only good and bad music.” The small ensemble Madera Vox, who will be performing at the Shadowland Theatre in Ellenville on Saturday, March 3, has adopted Weill’s words as motto and mission, spangling them not only on press releases but also on the inner panel of the 2009 eponymous CD as well. You can approach the serious-versus-pop problem from two directions, the serious and the pop; and Madera Vox makes no secret that it comes from the former: the conservatory route. Its members are imperialists for the serious.
The five-piece ensemble features voice, oboe, bassoon, piano and percussion. The doubling of the double-reed instruments accounts for the group’s distinctive sonic stamp. For some reason, it is hard for the modern mind to hear the double reeds without thinking of cartoons. And Madera Vox’s music can be cartoonishly vibrant, timbrally comic and implicitly narrative. It darts among stylistic references: playful waltzes that waltz in and out of tense chromaticism; tangos and evocations of all manner of modern dance styles; splashes of impressionistic color throughout (and a Ravel cover); devilish jazz appropriations à la Darius Milhaud; some electronic trickery in one original piece and moments of skittish complexity that approach the ADHD of Looney Tunes house composer Carl Stalling. It is wonderful, spirited and sophisticated stuff.
Madera Vox’s repertoire is demonstratively broad – it is making a point about repertoire, after all – but the preponderance of Kurt Weill material clearly situates the ensemble in the current art-cabaret revival. Consider it an observation, not a criticism, that Madera Vox maintains a chamber-group refinement and reserve through it all, rather than giving itself wholly to the trashier side of Weill, or to the bawdier side of tango and other dances, or to the haunted side of calliope and circus.
But the new cabaret style has many representatives coming at it from the other side, playing up the louche carnality and Edward Gorey-inspired death obsession of the cabaret. Honestly, not many of them have the chops to do what Madera Vox is doing. Let Madera Vox be what it is, then – which is subtle, precise and virtuosic, maybe a touch academic. But it does swing, and don’t doubt it.
One caveat: This is demanding music for player and listener, no matter which styles Madera Vox is appropriating. And this is a good thing. Advanced harmony (of which there is much here) does not exist to impress and insult you with its difficulty and its denial of your gratification; it is there for the harmonic expansion of your own ability to hear and feel. The forms are complex and full of challenge, requiring the listener to engage with tricky musical propositions, hidden or deceptive resolutions, puzzling and sudden changes. If Madera Vox’s repertoire, popular references and stylistic evocations make for easier entry, so be it; but this music is serious through and through.
Madera Vox will be performing on Saturday, March 3 at 8 p.m. at the Shadowland Theatre, located at 157 Canal Street in Ellenville. Tickets go for $15. To order, call the Shadowland Theatre box office at (845) 647-5511.