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Music Of Larry Bell
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Matthew Paris

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Post Sat Jan 24, 2004 5:22 pm - Music Of Larry Bell
Three CDs of the Music Of Larry Bell

Of necessity Larry Bell is a composer whose credits in his promotional material are much less intriguing than his music. He never was on the barricades of a revolution nor has he apparently gone into exile to escape his creditors like Wagner. He doesnít sit in a Venetian palace in a bath of perfumes plotting to create some sensual spectacle to produce orgasm in cephalopods all over the solar system.
We all have seen testimony of the lives our living composers live if they do not precisely embrace for the past half century or so. He has taught here, had a performance there, has held down day jobs to produce a varied body of music that are available to classical musicians in the United States because, as Virgil Thomson used to say, a composer has to make a living somehow unless he marries rich. In Europe composers normally go to great capitals like Vienna and Paris and become part of the engine of entertainment as either artificer and audience. They teach privately if at all.
Sometimes like Berlioz and Debussy they do urbane journalism. In fact unless one is a performer in America itís hard to survive without some contractual work with its educational institutions. Weíve not had a lot of itinerant performers in the United States classical music world since Gottschualk.
The only oneís who have escaped this net are the musicians who sell pop sheet music or have contracts to write Broadway shows like Porter, Rodgers, Gershwin and Berlin. Some few of them made film appearances too. Virgil Thompson got jobs at newspapers for some of them like Lou Harrison, Arthur Berger and Lester Trimble when Virgil worked for the Herald Tribune; we donít have newspaper criticism anymore; we mostly have infocom from dilettantes. Many of our most influential composers in America like John Cage never taught in central institutions; they didnít have any money either.
Bellís music is much more interesting than his public life because he lives in a world in which generating a public image outside of college work is very difficult to impossible for nearly all classical composers as well as all other musical who donít have an interesting and public love life.
In a society that sells music along with everything else with a gaudy brand name images one canít think of a single one these days who is famous much less a celebrity.
What is worse, the grey character of our colleges, their presumptive suspicion of both talent and wit, doesn't inspire those maundering in its groves to be too intriguing. A magnetic character flamboyantly offered to strangers might make them one more enemies and several more strangers in their life than they need.
Given this parlous social situation the work of Larry Bell on these three CDS, The Sentimental Music, Preallots and Fugues and The Book Of Moonlight, reflects not merely his solutions to making music alone in a room but the some of the anodynes fro these defecates invented by others. First of all, what idiom should an America composer write in? Weíve always had two strains of composers in this country, one working in the college, the other in dance balls, music halls and brothels.
Perhaps there is some identity between universities and the more posh bordellos that elude most of us. Though their natural direction was to write Broadway musicals and film music, Berlin, Porter, Gershwin and Rodgers all came out of a larger tradition rooted in the professor, sometimes a genius like Tony Jackson or Jelly Roll Morton, fats Waller or Duke Ellington, entertaining the customers in a whorehouse or music hall, or driving the sound of shuffling feet. Then we have our John Kowles Paine, Henry Hadley, Arthur Footes and Edward McDowell as the other strain.
Both have their sources in European idioms. There is a third direction for a composer nowadays: movie music. One thinks of those who have taken this sensible route: Max Steiner, Erick Korngold, Alex North, Bernard Hermann, Jerry Goldsmith, Johnny Mandel, Eliot Goldenthal. Itís good wages, offers a chance to produce some fine mood music but few of them have expanded beyond that ancillary status into the concert hall.
The American classical music world is defined by what is not there as well as what is manifest. There is no American Verdi or Mozart among us and never has been. The closest weíve gotten to that prophetic public role has been the career and achievement of Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson and George Gershwin. Weíve also had intellectual spiritual eccentrics like John Cage and Elliot Carter of course as prophets though most donít pick up as easily the Emerson sermons in Carterís music.
Yet the equivalent of Verdi and Mozart for this country with its populist genius has been somebody like Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, perhaps Randy Newman rather than anybody offering just a symphony or opera at Lincoln Center.
Give the general failure of classical music after 1950 or so to establish an independent realm for itself in American culture that could depart from the tether of quasi-European provincial patronage, given also the large and prophetic character of rock and roll as the central American export of its musical culture during that age, most classical composers in the past half century have looked to Europe as they did much earlier. We still to this day have either European musical celebrities bringing us classical music or Americans imitating them.
There is no point of departure among any of them that stands as a hedge between the music our nation produces in the concert hall and what has been and is still being done in Europe.
In this tripartite world of Academy, exilic lives, brothel argument and films, the Academies have been provincials of Vienna or Paris; even the whorehouse perfessers are always quick to do their improvisation on arias from Il Trovatore. Itís hard to say which is the more venomous job for the talent, being on tenure in limbo or working six nights a week at a booze fountain with t clientele feeding you drinks at a continual raucous party. Some do better than others. Obviously Milton Babbitt has thrives as a genius in the college world. Some are more party animals than Milton.
What has Larry Bell on these three handsome CDs done about his situation? What does he do to create both an American and personal sound? Well, the orchestral music on The Sentimental Muse, pieces one assumes were written for public performances for a large audience, breathes some of the NCO-classic and even minimalist solutions to musical execution one could find in earlier in the large works of Stravinsky in the 1940s and the current effusions of John Adams, Bell stands apart from the models with his concern with affable and accessible melody and a canny and deliberate simplicity of means.
His orchestration is clear and amiable; his harmonic palette is sort of a detached prism catching light from the 19th century with a French clarity in its general lack of doubling of instruments. Itís not emotional, passionate confession; itís more Hadynesque, a measured statement in oneís ripeness without fevers or melancholia.
Bellís chamber music is much more idiosyncratic. If still consciously eclectic as George Rochbergís chamber work; like Bellís own orchestral music it is reflective, discourses on prior music in a way Bell hopes is interesting. We after all live in a strange world of recordings where the music of composers over centuries is available to us in real time in a way nobody could have had access to in the past unless they were around a vast music library and was a specialist who both could read complex scores of sheet music and had the uncommon leisure to do so.
Our power to invoke the past as the past itself could not manifest itself in its time separates us from history. Bellís reference points are varied, Bach and Mahler to bits of ragtime and tango. Some of the piano music sounds as if he had been playing over the last five sonatas of Beethoven. There is also a sign he is not unfamiliar with Brahmsís solo music for piano. Yet one also hears metrical shifts at times in short intervals as one finds in Stravinsky and Copland-influenced neo-classicism.
There is a rather interesting sort of melodrama for spoken voice, violin and piano based on themes from Mahlerís Ninth Symphonyís final adagio, a meditation on the unfairness and injustice of death, its wilful manifestation on the planet by atom bombing that suggests some very personal meditation of the composer on mortality.
I can't say any of Bellís music I heard on these three CDS escaped being eclectic in some way or even meant to do so, or that it had a prophetic or even a crankish audacity. I would guess that those who are more intrepid donít last long in our college system. Yet Bellís music does stand for a felicitous and earnest approach to music that is always interesting, sometimes beautiful. Itís not fair to complain that it isnít revolutionary. There is conservative music of vigils and reflection that have no prophetic character whatsoever such as Bellís work that, if made with his fine sense of architecture and intelligence, is always worth listening to.
One might ask as one does about other composer what the general direction of Bellís music is or has been. Obviously musical critics in the future of humanity if we have any pays attention to him they will make that judgment. I would suggest there are three major kinds of careers in music: one makes the music for a town or small city like Bach, one levies in a great capital and is a performing musician among the sensational entertainers of a city of epicures as were Mozart or Beethoven, or perhaps one is a teacher living outside any capital but part of an educational system like Fux or Rhineberger.
Obviously these are hardly hard edged categories; Bach, Mozart and Beethoven did a lot of teaching. Cherubini, Rimsky Korsakoff and Anton Rubinstein both headed conservatories and were at once much more than that. Each of these directions has its tradeoffs. The town musician is limited by the parameters of enjoyment of his locals, the sensational performer can at his worst produce music with more startling effects than substance, the didact given his almost monkish remove from the fashions of musical history is prone to the idiosyncratic concerns of those in hermitages thorough the ages. His music may have the quality of skull-meditating vigil.
Bellís music stands outside history yet embraces all of it in a way that was not available to composers of the past. Up to the 20th century concerts were rarely focused on music that had been written in other ages. Sheet music of the past wasnít all; that accessible. Beethoven couldnít even get a copy of the Mass in B Minor of Bach when he was looking for models for his Missa Solemnis. Bellís music reflects an availability to the past that only his time has had.
As to the direction of music, who can say what it is? Weíve been living in a retro culture for a long time even if one plays the blues.
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