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“We must begin to listen only to our inner voices, whatever their source, to insist that the Platonic ideal doesn’t need a name, language, a category. We must rid ourselves of the notion that a piece of music can or cannot be politically correct, exploitative [sic], collaborative, traditional, iconoclastic, whatever. We must stop trying to explain music, stop caring whether it’s a sign system, a random or deliberate collection of sounds, or a symbol of anything other than itself. We must-we must-oh, shut up and listen, will you?”
—Evan Ziporyn of Bang on a Can All-Stars
The musical “canon” can be thought of as the relatively small catalogue of compositions that get the majority of radio plays, performances, and general academic discussion. Think Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and you will get the gist of what I am talking about. Most art suffers from our very human need to collect and label it as “good” and or deserving to be kept. It’s like a musical Hall of Fame if you will.
As a graduate student at UT, I performed works by “modern,” “post-modern,” and “new” composers. My favorites were a piano concert by Joan Tower and a toccata by Emma Lou Deimer. Ever heard of these women? Probably not. Toccata was a minimalist work (thank you Mr. Riley) that involved furiously repeated notes and lots of choreography for the inside of the piano! Scandalous! This music provided a breath of fresh air in contrast to every other piano student learning canon big-hitters like Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata or Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concert No. 2.
Discovery of these works which seemed to be falling into a dark chasm inspired the topic of my thesis: “Cracking the Canon: Moving toward multiculturalism and multi-pluralism in music.” I yearned for an ear-opening of sorts. I wished for a chance for all the works that have never made it into the canon to be heard! Had I known that something like Big Ears (thank you Ashley Capps) would happen, I might have revised some of the content.
The energy and enthusiasm that I witnessed this weekend was phenomenal. A large group of people were motivated and excited by the prospect of taking risks and hearing new music.
This weekend, Knoxville got to experience what life might be like if we could permanently crack the canon.