Saturday, February 26, 2011

Is that really you, Christopher O'Riley? (Say it ain't so!)

Bobby McFerrin is too cool. Photo credit: Szaniszlo Ivor
By Barry Johnson

UPDATE: We asked Christopher O'Riley's press agent to check on the authenticity of the comment that purports to be from O'Riley. Here's what he said: "Dear Mr. Johnson, Mr. O'Riley says he did NOT post the original comment." We have asked him subsequently whether or not  O'Riley is playing in Detroit in June, and if he would cross a musicians picket line during a strike. We'll see what he says. We think this post, as is, has some usefulness, perhaps, so we'll leave it up. But remember, O'Riley is denying that he left the comment in question!

Last night a comment landed on an Arts Dispatch post from a couple of weeks ago, "Christopher O'Riley and the non-apology apology." And it was from Christopher O'Riley himself!

OK, the slammer at the end of the previous sentence is a bit of a jest. I was immediately skeptical that O'Riley had really left the comment on a post that took him to task 1) for failing to research the circumstances of the musicians' strike at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and 2) for apologizing, when it finally came to that, for the wrong thing, namely wounding the feelings of fellow musicians, instead of  simply getting his facts wrong.

I did a little research, and I'm still not sure the REAL O'Riley left the comment,  [UPDATE: In fact, he says he didn't: See above!] though who'd be wandering the Internet posing as Christopher O'Riley on blog posts opposing his positions and then planting erroneous information about upcoming Christopher O'Riley concerts? [UPDATE: Apparently, someone.] But if he did, good for him! Especially since he allows us to break a little news: The Detroit Symphony will host an O'Riley concert in June. It's not even up on the DSO website yet. [UPDATE: We're still trying to get confirmation one way or another on this.]

But see for yourself. Here's what he said:
hey, barry-
thanks for posting my nirvana video link.
all my detroit friends will be happy, i'm sure, that i've got plans to play a recital presented by the DSO in June.
hope to see you all there!
I want to talk about the two parts of that comment: The Nirvana video he's talking about gets to the heart of O'Riley's original point on his NPR blog;  and we should talk a little about the politics of the recital itself,  because then we'll be able to embed a cool Bobby McFerrin video, and we LOVE Bobby McFerrin.

O'Riley' isn't the first classical musician to encounter American pop music.  Like a lot of Boomers, my first encounter with the possibilities came at a Kronos Quartet concert, in their early days, when they transcribed Jimi Hendrix songs for string quartet.  What was interesting then is still interesting now: Their close listening and manipulations of the music freshens the original, opens it up, helps us understand it in a new way. Their Foxy Lady is hilarious -- or maybe it's just me -- but it lurches occasionally into the complexity and inscrutability of lots of serious 20th century music, too.



That's rock, but classical music also has a long and interesting history with jazz. Right this second I'm listening to a CD called Preludes, Fugues & Riffs: Jazz in Classical Music, which was produced by NPR. It features work by Gershwin, Milhaud, Copland, Stravinsky and Bernstein with the intent of demonstrating the penetration of the idioms of jazz into the music of classical composers, and it's convincing. Just looking through my own CDs,  Regina Carter does Paganini, Miles Davis did Cyndy Lauper's Time After Time, and ... all I'm really saying is that the membranes surrounding different musical forms and traditions are permeable. And just about everyone knows it.

On his blog, O'Riley wrote:
"I propose that getting more people to listen is a matter of those of us involved in the performance and presentation of classical music doing more listening ourselves. We should be putting our ears right to the rails of technology, societal attitudes, professional responsibilities and communal conscience. We in the classical industry are listening neither wisely (nor widely), nor too well."
Although the argument that follows isn't altogether coherent (at least for me), I think O'Riley is saying that the sort of "genre-stretching" he does should be standard practice among symphony orchestras. Which it is, though maybe not to the extent that O'Riley or Greg Sandow, say, would like. Or me, for that matter. And symphonies should be aware of the internet, understand that not all segments of society value what they do and start doing some serious missionary work in those segments. He assumed the musicians of the Detroit Symphony opposes this sort of activity, and that's what got him in trouble, but for the rest of it, what he was saying was unexceptional.  We may disagree about the extent to which contemporary symphonies have worked on these problems; I suspect that O'Riley, Sandow and I mostly agree that it should be matter of even greater urgency than it seems to be.


But as much as I believe that today's music director needs to have wide musical interests and a broad idea of where the orchestra can demonstrate those interests, I understand the "but" that comes up when I start discussing this stuff with classical music fans. "But" we can't forget about playing Mozart as well as we can possibly play him. In the same way that O'Riley's Nirvana will never replace the big grungy heart of the real band, nothing can replace Mozart, either. And at the end of the day, a symphony has to have faith that Mozart will "work" on anyone -- not because it's played especially beautifully but because the music itself is wonderful.

As I've made abundantly clear by this time, my problem with the board and management of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in this strike is that they are trying to dictate terms to the rest of their community. And the musicians are at the center of that community. In the process, they are destroying both the orchestra and the community that has formed around it.


So, O'Riley is planning to play in Detroit in June under the auspices of the DSO.  I read "all my detroit friends will be happy, i'm sure" as a bit of sarcasm, a jab at the striking musicians who took after him on his blog. I imagine I can hear it in his voice, the acid "i'm sure." Or maybe I'm too sensitive? I don't think so.

I hope that by June, the strike is old news, but the upshot of O'Riley's comment is that he will cross the musicians' picket line if the strike is still going on. One is curious whether the O'Riley-DSO deal was cut before he criticized the musicians on his NPR blog. In which case, what a coincidence! (And maybe he should have mentioned it on his blog.) And if it's not, what a good marketing stratagem! You find an orchestra where the musicians are on strike, you criticize the musicians and then management offers you a gig. Maybe for top dollar? I have no idea. That sort of thing would have gotten me fired from my old newspaper, but apparently NPR's rules are somewhat more elastic. Genius. Sheer genius. But surely I've got it wrong -- this couldn't be the real Christopher O'Riley. It must be an internet troll.
[UPDATE: And O'Riley says it is an internet troll. See the UPDATE above.]

O'Riley wouldn't be the only musician to cross a musicians' picket line. And if he does, he won't be the last. But just in case we start to think that the idea of "solidarity" is dead (and there's some evidence in Wisconsin these days that it isn't), here's what singer Bobby McFerrin said when he canceled his scheduled appearance at an event presented by the DSO:
“It’s so sad that I must postpone my show at Orchestra Hall in Detroit. I was hoping a
settlement between the musicians of the Symphony and their management would have been achieved by now. In Detroit and all over the world, people are hurting in this economy, and things are no different in the arts. We’re all struggling to find new ways to make everything work. We all need beauty and inspiration to enrich our lives, and it’s really important that we figure out how to make it happen. It matters. My heart goes out to all the good people affected by the musician’s strike, above all, the audiences. Detroit is such a great music city. I pray this will be resolved soon, so I can come back to Detroit and we can all sing together.”
Wow.  We'll close with a Bobby McFerrin video, because it's only right. And "genre-stretching." And amazing.