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The Trouble with the Familiar

As we move into the thick of the Holiday Season, I’m prompted to comment about one of my pet peeves – for the next month, musical groups throughout the Seattle area will be playing concerts that feature what may be the most familiar music possible. This time of year we stick closer to the familiar than ever, and though this is comforting, personally I find it a tad tedious. Science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon was credited with coining “Sturgeon’s Law” which declares that “90% of everything is crap”. This is probably true, but we are also not very good about how we filter out the 10% that isn’t. Given a choice, we tend to opt for what we already know, and tend to think that because we know it so well, it represents “the best”.
It is understandable that we are attracted to what is comfortable, but it also means that we miss assessing  the obscure, regardless of the reason for its obscurity. For the next few weeks we’ll have our fill of Handel’s Messiah, Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride”, the Seattle Symphony’s annual performance of Beethoven’s 9th, and a zillion arrangements of Christmas carols.

Now, this is not a rant against holiday music – rather, it is an observation that performers cater to audiences, and audiences want to hear what they love, over and over again. This is a normal human tendency, but it is also one of the reasons why great music gets lost. The quality of the work is not necessarily enough to save it. It is hard for us to understand how it could happen, but even JS Bach’s music came close to disappearing (in fact, it happened twice in Russia). Today, in spite of our ability to preserve music through recordings, fine composers are slipping away into the nooks and crannies of history. Names such as Cras, Stanford, Moeran, Holmboe, Coleridge-Taylor, Tailleferre and Magnard are almost unknown in the concert hall. This is a sad thing.

I plan to periodically write something about the dynamics of obscurity and some of the composers and works that have been unjustly treated by fate and fashion – I invite your comments.