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John Gibbons holds a Ph.D. in music composition from the University of Chicago. He teaches music appreciation classes at the Universality of Chicago’s Graham School and at Newberry Library. He also offers private piano lessons in the Chicago area.

Bonnie Gibbons is a web site developer and SEO with a background in classical music. She might be persuaded to teach a few cello lessons in the Chicago area.

Do You Want Three Hours of Meditation on Meaninglessness? Mix Schnittke with the Coen Brothers

Maybe you have a favorite uncle who on taking leave of you, jauntily winks as he advises, “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.” Well, after the way I spent Saturday, evening, I advise you to think twice about doing anything I would do. The day started reasonably well, teaching a fistful of piano lessons to some of my favorite students, several of whom I’ve had for years. A leisurely walk home, while listening to some Panufnik on the ipod, only to find several packages of books I had ordered waiting in the front vestibule. So far so good; I thumbed through a biography of Hindemith I’ve been wanting for some time, as a reasonably entertaining football game played out on the TV. And my wife was baking a ham. A real ham, not Ham and Water Product or whatever.

And then I ruined everything.

First mistake:  I listened to Schnittke’s First Symphony. Now, the antecedents for this wild chaos (composed in 1972, I think) include Mahler and Ives, and maybe even Berio’s “Sinfonia”, when was that written? And did Schnittke know it? Was it unavailable to a composer working in the Soviet system? I’ll look this stuff up, if nobody enlightens me before I get around to some fact-checking. In any case, the piece is closest to Ives’ collage pieces, but on steroids. I’m planning on discussing Schnittke next semester, so he’s become a project of mine. He is generally associated (rightly) with a Shostakovich type ethos, but the First Symphony owes little to Shosty, although I do think I found some quotes from Shostakovich amongst the bedlam. This is a formidable piece. The scoring requires more players than the entire population of Cameroon in the 15th century. It is confrontational, violent, despairing, cruelly humorous, and ultimately demoralizing. So, naturally, I followed it up with a second mistake, by going with my wife to see the Coen brothers’ new movie, “No Country for Old Men”- which is confrontational, violent, despairing, cruelly humorous, and ultimately demoralizing.

Both pieces are exemplars of what is sometimes called post-modernism. Both are informed by a savage intelligence and irony, and both create worlds of sheer meaninglessness. For an hour with Alfred, and 2 hrs. with the Coens, you’re plunged into a weird, intractable void. You’re much better off with what Ives called “sissy” music- maybe some Boccherini or something. And if you’re gonna see a movie, go into screen seven and see “The Bee Movie” instead of screen eight, where “No Country” is… 

More on Schnittke anon. I don’t anticipate discussing the Coens any further. (Yes, I recommend both symphony and movie, if you’re confused.) 

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Shostakovich 4,7, and 11...Chicago, We Don't Have a Problem