Standardizing Mediocrity

Teaching in any kind of school system requires standardization. Standardization requires that things be put in a box, labeled, measured, codified, and remain fixed.

Art is about uniqueness. An artist is someone who sees the world uniquely and expresses his or her point of view about it in some new fashion. Art should illuminate life, shedding light on the human condition, making us shift our awareness and discover something about living that we would not on our own encounter.

These two things do not go together easily or well.

The easy way to make things coalesce is to make the art stop being about uniqueness and make it be about sameness. That solves all the problems except it kills the art.

You do not have to think hard about the consequences of such actions nor of the commonality of them. We live with them every day.

If you go to a performance of an opera, a new opera, written by a living composer, I defy you to come away with any sense at all of the music. It is never there. No traditional harmony, no cadences, and certainly no repetitive themes or melodies. No tunes, no actual identifiable characteristics except that, of course, it’s not atonal, exactly. It’s just that, well, it’s not really recognizable as anything that’s tonal, either. It certainly might impress other composers. It might impress the people who give money who work in finance, or real estate, or maybe who have nothing else to do but give money to arts organizations to get a tax write-off. What it does not do is go to the heart. It does not move you. It does not make you want to ever hear it again. Even if, really, you had hoped you would like it and that you would find in it something of lasting value.

The people who criticize this non-music music are disregarded by the arts world in spite of the fact that opera as we know it has been dying as an art form for decades. The average age of the audiences at an opera sits in the middle of the baby boomers who are now in their late 50s and early 60s. There are all kinds of reasons why the arts people think this is so. There are all kinds of ways they hope to increase the audiences again. You have to “entice them in” by making the operas “relevant”. Dress up the old operas in present moment situations? Sure! Go ahead. Put Rembrandt in leather pants, give those Night Watch dudes clothes by Ralph Lauren and make one of them a drug dealer. Young people don’t have to scratch their heads…..they get it! Wrong. They stay away. How about — write new pieces that young people can claim as their own? That’s cool! Except the music, when they finally get around to going, puts you to sleep or makes you itchy in your seat.

That’s a good combination, sleepy and itchy. You really want to come back to have another go at that experience. Or, if you are very sophisticated, and can relate to the “interesting” musical elements (guitar and Chinese gong, South American bamboo flute and tin whistle, conga drums and tomato cans on a string), perhaps you would experience a performance more in the “deep intellectual investigation” mode. You listen to complex density and unusual overtones of all the music banging into itself….to see if you can find something you like. To see if you can find something. Anything.

And, of course, there’s the singing. The calling card of the professional opera singer who is “rising” or, perhaps, has gone about as far as he or she can go, is BE LOUD. BE VERY VERY LOUD. Loud shows you are emotionally communicative. Loud shows how good your technique is. Loud is about commitment. Loud says you have a big, strong voice. Loud is good. Loud.

No one is supposed to notice, however, that your face turns blue, your jaw is down so far your entire face looks like you are on the rack only standing up, your lips look like some kind of large fish going for the bait on a hook, your neck muscles are bulging and your pronunciation of the words is so distorted as to be completely unrelated to anything recognizable as communication. The vibrato is wide enough to contain at least three semi-tones, and the vocal line, if the music had one, is like a snake winding its way across the mud, leaving behind it a wake of significant proportions. If you are a man and can sing softly, you do so in a kind of weak falsetto whether or not that vocal production has anything to do with the emotion or communication of the lyrics. It at least lets you sing the notes that the composer gave you that are entirely out of your normal range.

On the other hand, however, if you have a nice, even vocal production with none of the above problems, you leave it alone, lest by disturbing it, it would go away. You sing every single word with the same nice, not too anything vocal approach, although you know that loud on the high notes is effective when you can sustain it for a bunch of measures. You do not change the quality of the vowels, the color of the tone, the pronunciation of the consonants, or the use of your physical anatomy, because, well, why would you anyway? Don’t we all stay the same in what we do all day every day no matter what? Might as well reflect life as it is, since that’s the point of the singing, right?

There is a remarkable availability of such experiences if you, as an audience member, would like to have one. You don’t have to look very far. Just go to something new or something old that is being “re-interpreted”. I’m sure you can find one in your own town, wherever you are. And, if, like me, you wonder how it is that we are in such a place, I will share with you what I came to after I asked myself this question for the 9,000th time.

Schools. Every year you have a bumper crop of people who graduate with degrees in performing, or orchestration, or composing, or conducting. They put in the time, they get the piece of paper. They may have no talent, no inspiration and no actual insight as to what, uniquely, they feel about life or art, but by golly, they went to school and they are READY. You might also have a degree in voice, maybe a masters’ or even a doctorate. But, if you are a regular reader of this blog, you already well know that does not mean you can sing. It does not mean you can sing in any way at all. Your singing might be just dreadful, but you did the required work, you studied with the chairperson of the voice department, and no one was willing to be the person to say “This person can’t sing”, because, well, they all have to keep their jobs and feed their families.

So you get an opera written by someone who writes by formula. You get an opera that has singers who scream or can’t change anything. You get an opera that is directed by someone who thinks that both of these things have something to do with music and/or communication. You get an opera that is orchestrated for some odd hodge-podge of instruments in a score with abrupt, haphazard, multiple meter changes and two or maybe even three simultaneous keys. You get an opera that, perhaps, tells an interesting story, but maybe not so interesting as the version that came out first as the newspaper article or the book.

You get standardized art, you get an oxymoron. You get MEDIOCRITY. You can find it every day at your local 7-11 or concert hall.

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