A few weeks ago I went to Flat Black and Circular, a nice little used record store here in East Lansing. I bought an Eric Dolphy album called Out There (Amazon, iTunes), recorded in 1960. I tossed it in my backpack and forgot about it until last week. I had some time to kill before teaching a lab (20th Century Music Theory), so I popped the disc into the classroom’s CD player and pulled out the liner notes. (There are a lot of very thoughtful and creative liner notes from jazz albums of this period.)
Some of my students came in and really dug the music, others came in with a “What the $^&$@ is that crap?” look on their faces. I found a nice paragraph in the liner notes that I decided to share with the students at the beginning of class.
It would be best to acknowledge, right from the outset, that this is not the most easily grasped jazz album you are ever likely to hear. And it is also appropriate to say that, like many things which require careful attention, it repays that attention with a greater reward than you might get from music that reveals its total character the first time around.
As soon as I finished reading it, one student piped up “I disagree with that completely.” I told him that it was time to consider developing a more mature outlook on art.
In our class this semester, we will be studying music by Hindemith, Bartok, Schoenberg, Carter, Babbitt, and others whose music is not “easily grasped” the first, or even the second or seventh times around. In fact, many people might never grasp it. I do think that music should give the attentive listener some reward the first time, but if it gives you everything the first time, there’s not a whole lot of incentive to listen to it again. One of the things that appeals most to me about great music is that I can hear something new in it even after I think I know it really well.
Last year, I heard the Chicago Symphony under David Robertson perform one of the great “Top 40” orchestral hits, Dvorak’s New World Symphony. As many times as I’ve heard (and played) that piece, I heard some brilliant counterpoint that evening that I’d never noticed before. The saying goes that you can’t judge a book by its cover, but maybe you can’t be so sure about it even after the first reading.