Next week, a concert at the New England Conservatory’s Contemporary Musical Arts The department will take the audience back 100 years to a pivotal point in music history.
The concert, simply called “1923,” will celebrate that year’s new compositions and recordings and feature performances of many musical styles from around the world.
From the brilliant explorations of the American composer Henry Cowell to the first female tango singer Rosita Quiroga to Mongolian soundscapes, the concert will show how even a century ago, music interacted with the world events and technological innovations. “1923’s” curator and director Anthony Coleman talks about the concert with GBH’s All Things Considered host Arun Rath. The following is a slightly edited transcript.
Arun Rath: What was special about the year 1923? Starting in America, because I know you toured the world, what happened that shaped the soundscape at that time?
Anthony Coleman: When we’re brainstorming ideas for what we’re going to do as concerts, we’re always throwing a lot of stuff around. Jazz has been recorded since 1917, but in 1923 were the first recordings of what we recognize as the first true jazz masterpieces, especially from King Oliver and Bessie Smith and Jelly Roll Morton, and Louis Armstrong made his first recording in 1923 as a member. of the King Oliver Group. This led me to become interested in what was happening in other types of music at the time.
When we started talking about doing this concert, I looked at what some of the things were happening in contemporary classical music, if you want to call it that, at the same time. Many of the things were not just new, but new in ways that we still think of as new today, 100 years later. For example, the unusual use of instruments, such as the way Edgard Varèse used percussion instruments that reflect everyday life, such as lion roars and sirens. All of this, at the time, was very controversial.
Today, people still talk about whether a piece that includes street sounds or, as in the case of Cowell, plays inside the piano and gets different ways of approaching the sound. When I read about that, I thought that I still go to concerts that do these things that are considered experimental music and I find it funny. I started thinking, ‘Well, this was an experiment 100 years ago. So, that would be an interesting thing to talk about or watch at a concert.’
Rath: Those jazz recordings you mentioned, they still give you chills listening to how modern they sound.
Coleman: Absolutely. One of the charms and horrors of our department is that no one plays what you put in front of them. Not that any great musician does that. So, if anyone is listening and they are a concert violinist and they think that I am saying that they are only playing what is placed in front of them, of course, I am not saying that.
Translation is a big part of all music, but the thing about our department, because it’s so much about in terms of where people come from, people have different backgrounds. We have people from all over the world. We have people who come from a background where they read music from the beginning and people who are starting to read music now. So, whatever we throw at them, they translate.
They’re going to bring themselves to the table a lot, so these links between the cold that you’re talking about in the 1920’s, we’re trying to make that happen. We didn’t even have to try, but we made it as clear as we could.
Rath: You mentioned Henry Cowell, the American composer, who entered his piano. You were literally there, right?
Coleman: Yes, playing the chords and working hard on clusters of notes.
Rath: Did we hear some of it in this concert?
Coleman: We planned it. Everything is incredibly last minute, but let’s say yes.
Rath: I think Henry Cowell would like that.
Coleman: I wish.
Rath: So, it’s an interesting time, but how is it also important in terms of affecting or anticipating what’s out there?
Coleman: If you agree with the thesis that jazz is America’s greatest contribution to world music, which, you know, is one of those great sentences—it’s great, but you can look at it a little.
I mean, if that’s the case, jazz goes from being a music, which, if you want to say it’s from a pure, more like entertainment music, to a music where its achievement so broad that 100 years ago we’ Still developing the jazz tradition, I think you can see that in the first pieces, like “King Porter Stomp” by Jelly Roll Morton. Whatever records King Oliver set in stone in “Dippermouth Blues”, the whole idea of how to develop a solo, how you use multiple choruses in the same form to develop to a higher that level.
And, of course, Bessie Smith, who is like the mother of most of the music we hear today, like Louis Armstrong.
So, if we’re just talking about jazz, it’s easy to see how it’s going to be an important year. In any other music, it is important, like the introduction of sounds, as it was also when Arthur Honegger’s “Pacific 231” was released.
It’s very interesting to see that that’s the same year as the Cowell pieces and the and the different pieces because Honegger is thought to be a very conservative composer. But that was the first piece that brought, like, train sounds directly into the concert. That fascination with technology hit a certain kind of apogee or peak at that moment. Honegger worked in Switzerland, France, so all over the world, people began to think about things and how to incorporate them into music.
Rath: The concert takes us not only in time, but around the world. How do you decide what to include in terms of some of the non-European and non-American soundscapes we hear?
Coleman: That’s a great question and to really develop an answer will take longer than we have. Let’s just say that the department is really driven by the people who are in it at any given time.
Of course, this can be changed and it is not good to want to do a concert like this and not be able to have a representation. To include music from other parts of the world, we need the dreaded word today, appropriate.
But currently, we have many students from… Well, for example, a student from Uganda organized a performance of “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika,” which Nelson Mandela later ordered that it should be be accepted as the national anthem. in South Africa. It has gone back and forth between being the official or unofficial anthem of many different African countries. The student brings the authenticity of his experience to that.
There are also two very different pieces dealing with Chinese culture, and those are from our students. We have meetings, we talk, “Well, this is our theme. What do you think?
We have an Argentinean student who shares tango in a direct way in what he does, so he investigates the world of tango, and it turns out to be the first female tango performer to record, which was recorded in 1923 .
Rath: All of that is very interesting. I had no idea that Pan-Africanism and that kind of African nationalism was developing 100 years ago like that.
Coleman: It’s always a big learning curve for me too, what people bring to the table. The big thing is that I feel like I’m throwing out information and then it’s literally out of my hands and my job is to make sure that everything shows up, that the pieces are trained, and that we’re ready. to get into Jordan Hall if we need to get in there.
Rath: Bright. It was a pleasure talking to you about it. Thank you.
Coleman: Thank you very much.
“1923” will be performed in Jordan Hall at the New England Conservatory at 7:30 on Tuesday, November 14. The concert is free but requires reservations.