New Music at Election Time: Confronting the Angst and the Unknown

Anything can happen… and usually does. After it happens, will the music still play? Or will we still be able to hear it?

john_cage_blue_print (Photo credit: emanueleED)

Opening wide their ambitious new season, the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players kicked off a John Cage Centennial Celebration with a performance of his three Constructions, along with performances of three works by composers several generations younger. The idea, said SFCMP Artistic Director Stephen Schick, was to see if the “sense of delight and exploration” would reach across the years to the new musicians as well as the old/new audience. It decidedly did.

For this listener, though, the psyche could not be dragged from the wearying angst of these final pre-election days into the spirit of boundless adventure that new music represents. “New music,” that is, from John Cage in 1939 or from Missy Mazzoli today. Missy Mazzoli, who looks like a teenager but has a list of awards and accomplishments a mile long, composed the remarkable “Still Life with Avalanche” in 2008. It was performed in between the First and Second Constructions.

Hopelessly consumed with fear and anxiety over the elections, I wove the whole business together. The Constructions, with their oxen bells and giant gongs, the ad campaigns with their strident accusations, the strangely beautiful things Missy Mazzoli wrote for her Avalanche and the incomprehensible things circulating around news media from the swing states.

Music lovers comfortable with Mozart and Beethoven had to have wondered what in the world the future would bring when John Cage and his no rules/ no boundaries music burst onto the scene two or three generations back. But here is this geezer listener, captivated by Missy Mazzoli.

Mazzoli has been referred to as “scary smart.” Today’s presidential contest, between two smart men — both at least genuinely good people — is just plain scary. Some people think my guy will lead us down the path to socialism or destitution or worse. I think their guy will lead us to economic disaster, social hopelessness, global wars and a setback of women’s rights from which we will not recover for generations — if ever.

John Cage said, “The world is teeming; anything can happen.” He just didn’t explain how to keep calm while the avalanche is roiling.