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The Essay
Show #254
The New Musical
David Gunn

Now that we've managed to get our feet wet in the fetid wastewater which has so far come to epitomize the 21st century music scene -- notwithstanding a trio of really swell tunes that saw their first light of Vermontical day one fortnight past -- we must ask ourselves, where do we go from here? Will we continue to lug along the musical baggage that we couldn't quite lose in the old millennium, or will a new musical Weltanschauung suddenly materialize to lead the next generation of tunemongers along previously unexplored compositional paths? Given recent personal exposure to a realm of new music I hitherto paid little heed to, I can hazard an answer.

The cutting edge of new music does not cleave in the direction of the electroacoustic or the pointillistic, the neo-post-minimalistic or the algorithmic, the psychic or the psychotic. Rather, it seems to be careening towards that bastion of Broadway, that Gomorrah of gaudiness, that barbican of the bottom line, the musical comedy.

Forget the sometimes private moment of satisfaction a composer has when he successfully turns an acoustic event into a musical one, the contemporary musical comedy maker's goal is to get an on-stage performer from one song and next dance routine to the next as painlessly and expeditiously as possible. And if it can be done so with a minimum of performance cost-overruns, so much the better for the bottom line.

Having as recently as last night experienced this transcendental phenomenon from the vantage point of a pit orchestra member, I can say that it presents one of the rare opportunities in the world of performance music where one can play as few as 80% of the notes in the score with an adjusted accuracy rating of 75% -- that is, either at the correct time and/or at the correct tempo -- and still be hailed a success. That success is due to a single button on an orchestral synthesizer: the harp sound. Yes, with this very handy sampling at one's disposal, botched entrances, illegible key signatures and a multitude of other musical miscues can easily be overcome, for nothing averts potential performance train wrecks like a harp glissando. Even capriciously employed, a harp glissando can effectively convey a feeling of surprise, anger, happiness, melancholy, queasiness, alcohol dependency, a new car, an old car, toxic effluvium from an unregulated cobalt 90 processing plant, the mysterious contents of a small box lashed to a baobab tree branch on the outskirts of a southern Nigerian village -- which, for the record, is a snoring, sentient nose, but more on that next week -- and scores of other plotline-crucial sentiments.

Prudent harp usage and cost overruns aside, whither the musical comedy of the future? Will a song about druidous celibacy recriminations overtake the popularity of "Doe, a Deer" or "A Little More Mascara?" Can a musicale with a strictly aleatoric construct play profitably in Paducah? Are barline-free atonal machinations with nose puppets keening in parallel fifths as old hat as grampa's dingy derby? And why aren't we likely to hear a representative work by Sir A.L. Webber on this 254th episode, or probably any other episode, of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar? Given my ongoing close shave with this form of modern music, I happily recuse myself from the response, and pass the query along with its shabby baggage over to Kalvos.