I Don’t Like This Music

This is a guest post by Christopher Thibdeau, Conductor and Artistic Manager of Orchestras at AMP.

This month at Gilbert House we introduced the Level 2 strings to a piece that is well liked by many string orchestras, Dragonhunter by Richard Meyer. Sure enough it was a hit. The GH students can be heard most afternoons warming up with the melody and slipping in one last lick from the piece at the end of the day.
It’s easy to see why the piece is so popular. A driving melody with rhythmic excitement is fun to play, and back and forth exchanges between the lower strings and upper strings create an almost competitive atmosphere. B minor is an excellent key for strings, allowing for quick transitions in and out of D major for secondary melodies and a tongue-in-cheek pizzicato section. And of course the imagery conjured by the title was enough to create palpable anticipation as the parts were handed out!

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Christopher Thibdeau conducts the Atlanta Music Project Orchestra during the 2015 Holiday Concert.

The artistic staff at AMP work hard to find and program pieces like Dragonhunter that will inspire our young musicians to work hard and practice, and have fun while doing so. Nothing can be more discouraging at the middle school and high school age than being forced to play a dreary, boring, dull, or otherwise uninspiring piece. That being said, it is exciting to me to hear a student say “I don’t like this music.”

Those five words are incredibly powerful and open the door to profoundly important questions. I utilize this concept in my music appreciation course that I teach at Clayton State University for a lecture titled, “This is Not Music”. This lecture opens with the infamous 4’33” or Four minutes, thirty-three seconds by John Cage. If you haven’t seen this piece, watch it right now.

Ah, there it is. “I don’t like this music.” Or perhaps, you might be thinking, what the heck was that? If you’re feeling uncomfortable right now, perfect. Now we can talk.

What is music?
What do you like and what don’t you like?
Most importantly, why don’t you like it?

Music has the power to elicit and communicate emotions and more often than not we forget that these feelings can be both positive and negative. The opening of Beethoven’s First Symphony was criticized as being “peculiar” and unsuitable for “a spacious opera house”. When Brahms’ Fourth Symphony was previewed on two pianos for close friends and critics, one writer commented “I feel I’ve just been beaten up by two terribly intelligent people”. And possibly the most infamous example of the strong negative feelings music can stir is the premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring which caused a near riot (about 40 people were ejected from the concert hall).If you felt like rioting after experiencing 4’33”, fantastic! That is a wonderful feeling that is a welcome reminder: we are human. How incredible that a piece of music can make people angry! In our world of the 90 second attention span and prolific cat videos and three minute pop songs, we are rarely subjected to discomfort. This is the defining factor between art and entertainment: entertainment serves to confirm what we know about the world around us; art serves to question the world around us.

As the young musicians of the Atlanta Music Project go out into the world, it is my hope that their musical training prepares them to look inwardly as well as outwardly for solutions to life’s obstacles. Through the development of self confidence with each successful performance and their ever growing musical and personal maturity, I am sure that our students will continue lead lives enriched with art and music.

In the meantime, we’ll press onward with Dragonhunter. Richard Meyer has set the bar high – it is doubtful that I will hear a protest of “I don’t like this music!”

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