- Category: November/December 2003
by Melinda Whiting
It's been said that the quality that most unites America as a nation is our diversity. Whoever the source, s/he must have meant more by "diversity" than simply our kaleidoscope of ethnicities. Instead, this diversity encompasses the huge variety of tastes, interests, and enthusiasms that Americans feel free to pursue; and the complicated landscape of religions, regional histories, and family ties by which they define themselves. This empowering and bewildering diversity distinguishes us from nations that are based on common history, heritage, and, yes, ethnicity.
In a diverse society like ours, fragmentation is a real risk. Several hundred million individuals calling themselves a nation must share something, after all, in order to stick together. And apart from high-flown rhetoric about our Constitution and democratic values (both all too easily bent to the political purposes of whichever individual is invoking them at the moment), the indefinable culture that we share has historically been most clearly expressed in our enthusiasm for--what?
Until recently, I'd have said the answer was movies. Movies have been our constant and universal entertainment for a century (perhaps to the detriment of concerts and home music-making, with attendant effects on the popularity of classical music--but that's a different column). What American can't relate to Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman bidding a final farewell as the plane's propellers fire up and the strings swell in the background?
The soundtrack to such classic moments usually--and far more often than I realized before reading his memoir, A Fiddler's Tale, excerpted in this issue--features the mellow violin of Louis Kaufman, either as concertmaster of the studio orchestra or as its eloquent soloist. In Hollywood's golden age, Kaufman was the go-to man for gorgeous, heart-twisting solos, at a time when the composers of film scores actively drew on references from classical concert music. Back then, in fact, movies were the primary way for many Americans to hear any orchestral music. And because this classically derived music provided much of the emotional power of the films it served (read Kaufman's fascinating anecdote about Of Human Bondage), at least two or three generations grew up with the orchestra as a familiar and meaningful sonority. Talk about product placement!
Today, movie soundtracks draw on a much wider range of musical genres than 50 years ago, and they depend upon sound effects as often as upon music for their emotional éclat. So movies are no longer the penetrating promotional device they once were. But as orchestras contemplate ways to connect with their modern audiences, it would be a real breakthrough to figure out the modern parallel: Today, what strategy could equal those grand old film soundtracks in subtly securing the ear of millions of Americans?
The answer probably has something to do with television, a force that classical-music advocates must accommodate in any case. And it may have a great deal to do with the Web. But both these media lack the unifying force that movies once had. They are divided into myriad special-interest channels, on the one hand, and an overwhelming proliferation of special-interest web pages, on the other--evidence of the very fragmentation that continually threatens our unity as a culture. Perhaps, in echo, there are many answers rather than one big answer. Or perhaps it's as simple as identifying where each community's heart and soul is (its schools? its baseball team?) and finding a way to position the orchestra squarely, even if subtly, at the center of that place.
Otherwise, I fear, we allow ourselves to become a mere fragment, just another special interest, "fine for people who like that sort of thing." But I am not satisfied to have classical music pushed into its own little pigeonhole, and I suspect you are not, either. We all want to see it pervading our culture; "everywhere" is the right place for an art form that encompasses every human emotion.
After all, that's why it worked so well in those old movies.
Melinda Whiting is Editor in Chief of SYMPHONY.