The Sounds and Music of Open Space
Friday, February 5, 2010
Blog written by Jairo Geronymo, pianist, Nurnberg, Germany
Large cities often struggle with a contingent of people living on the fringe. In Europe, they often migrate from other countries; only the next generation will function within the society like natives. These foreigners to these new environments their music, their customs and their cuisine. Delicious foreign food easily crosses boundaries--and always sells.
Growing up in Brazil, I heard the accordion on old French recordings and at the winter Folk Festivals, generally accompanying dances that vaguely resembles square dance (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5RetlvTcLj8). For me the accordion was an instrument of character but certainly not cool. I never considered playing or owning one until two years ago, when my garage sale buddy bought one for me, amidst a fierce price escalation. Garage sale etiquette is highly regulated and treasured by the ‘regulars’.
My accordion is fake white ‘mother-of pearl’. I intend to buy a white polyester suit to be properly dressed when I first perform on it publicly. Maybe not. I play it at home a couple of times a year. Its haunting sounds urge me to learn how to play it properly. Its sound evokes foreign lands and laments something lost. Melancholic foreign music always sells.
Two subway stations in Berlin attract accordion players of the highest caliber. Alexanderplatz, in the heart of the old East Berlin and Stadmitte; the ‘middle of the city’ station left on the fringe during the “Berlin Wall” years and now back to its deserved central place (http://www.berlinverkehr.com/netze/051212sumetro.jpg).
Often I hear a duo of violin-accordion at Alexanderplatz that leaves nothing to desire in terms of ensemble, intonation, and certainly passion. All passersby do not seem to notice the quality of this duo, like when Joshua Bell played Bach on the Washington subway (http://amnesiablog.wordpress.com/2009/01/13/he-played-the-violin-in-the-subway/).
The connection between the subway lines U2 and U6, in Stadmitte, is through two long wide corridors, connected at a ninety degrees angle stairway with a plateau. Virtuoso street musicians have noticed this acoustical gem.
The first time that I heard the richly reverberating sounds of Bach’s “Wedge” Fugue in E minor (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=idhHq1mn1XA&feature=PlayList&p=7BA785A65B04C10F&playnext=1&playnext_from=PL&index=3) I was struck. Was that a famous organ in a north German cathedral disguised as an accordion in a subway station thirty feet bellow the street level?
Since this experience, I have heard many polkas but also Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky symphonies, the Planets by Gustav Holst, Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakhov, the Four Seasons of Vivaldi and, of course, Carmina Burana! These highly trained musicians do not carry themselves according to the level of their craft. I imagine that they came from the former eastern block, where education was affordable for the talented. Later, they drifted over to the commercial side of the world. Here, they do not seem to be able to package their craft into a sellable product.
This brings me to Lady Gaga. I like her a lot because she personifies the unconventional and yes, I always want to dance with her music. Like Madonna, she comes from a Catholic background, exploits unusual sexual themes, and has been able to reinvent herself at every turn. She rules the video clip world and young consumers buy her wares. I watched an interview with her at “Wetten, dass…?”, the most popular variety show on German TV, and she was so ‘cool’ that she sounded a bit ‘slow’.
Lady Gaga is a savvy businesswoman careful of her brand, so I am sure that this too was staged. It did not matter; her outfit astonished everybody. Fashion has always been an integral part of her persona. She knows how to market herself.
I have written before about music merging into a multimedia art. The tendency is for opera singers also to ‘look’ good; for violinists to pose in Chanel dresses on their album covers, for programming to incorporate themes. I have no problem with that.
However, from a purely musical point of view, Lady Gaga does not have the training of some of these street musicians that I mentioned. There is no question that she has been able to package her musical product into something consumers will buy. I would certainly pay 10 Euros to enter a club where her music will be played. Should those accordionists learn something from Lady Gaga? Do they have a chance if they do not play a fashionable instrument and look attractive? Do they need to invest in reinventing themselves? Yes. No. Maybe.
I do not resent the power of advertizing and marketing: it is all a question of choices. However, the training of an artist is a long and arduous process. I wish every aspiring musician would first embrace and excel in the history, technique and language of their art, then branch out into multimedia. Hopefully, they would still look great after all this time shuttling between the library and the practice room.
“Life is change, growth is optional”. We all know this adage. Some musicians choose to be different—they decide to follow the not so economically successful path of musicians of the past. There is space for all out there.
So go out and dance to Lady Gaga’s music. Life is short. But do not forget to drop a coin when music touches you, especially when an unassuming, over-educated musician performs it, thirty feet below a busy street intersection.