The elephant in the concert hall

Wednesday, January 10, 2018 - 5:33pm

I recently participated in the University Jazz Lab Ensemble winter concert. While we mostly performed traditional big band charts on this concert, we also performed the vocal piece “Too Close For Comfort” from the 1956 musical “Mr. Wonderful.”

For about a month leading up to the concert, we rehearsed the piece without the vocalist. Though the name of the song seemed a little strange to me, I will admit that I gave it little thought.

The day before the concert, we had a dress rehearsal with the vocalist (and with proper amplification) at Rackham Auditorium. As the words to the piece began to be distinguishable, I was shocked at what I was hearing. With lyrics such as, “Be soft, be sweet, but be discreet / Don't go off your beat,” and, “Be firm, be fair, be sure, beware / On your guard, take care, while there's such temptation,” I began to question what exactly we were condoning in our performance of this piece. Was it about a non-consensual relationship? Was this song something that I was comfortable with? What did this song mean?

We had begun rehearsing this piece in mid-Oct., only weeks after The New York Times published their investigation of Harvey Weinstein. Al Franken announced his planned resignation from the Senate just hours before we rehearsed. It seemed impossible to understand this piece without thinking about the #MeToo movement. I could not help but consider the cultural implications of this piece; the deeper meaning behind the song.

To other members of the ensemble, however, this song was neither uncomfortable nor upsetting. At the ending of the song, the narrator continues to narrate thoughts about the woman without ever acting on them. “She’s much too close for comfort now / Too close, much too close / She’s much too close for comfort now,” and it ends. The fact that we had a female vocalist also seemed to make the song more appropriate to some members of the ensemble. To some, it was a relic of a bygone era — it had been premiered in 1956, and it thus represented the beliefs of that time period. While by our standards it may be wrong, they argued, it was permissible in that time period.

In Nov., I wrote a piece on William Bolcom’s “Dinner at Eight” and experienced a similar phenomenon — while trying to discuss the opera and the director’s thoughts about approaching the opera, our conversation almost inevitably turned to politics. This opera depicted upper class Manhattan socialites during the Great Depression. It emphasized the disconnect between this upper class and the lower and middle classes during this tumultuous time in American history. The opera was composed in 2008 in the midst of the Great Recession; it could not have been more relevant to modern events.

As I interviewed various members of this production, one thing was clear: Everyone had an idea of what this production meant. While they all agreed that the piece was about this upper class disconnect, every member of the production interpreted and applied this meaning differently. To some, it was a veiled criticism at the elitism of the upper classes, particularly the modern upper class opera audiences. To others, it emphasized the failures inherent to the human condition that occur irrespective of class. To still others, it exposed the attempts by the upper classes to hide their failings from the lower classes.

In our modern cultural environment, it seems as if all performance art is riddled with cultural, social and political implications. We are a country defined by red and blue, and it seems impossible for performance art to have no overt connections to one side of this divisive cultural landscape.

For performers, this can lead to over-analysis. If performance art cannot lack a worldly relevance, if performance art must be immediately relevant to one’s beliefs, then relevance must be found even where relevance doesn’t exist. The controversy over this summer’s “Julius Caesar” at New York City’s Shakespeare In The Park, for example, generated unexpected interest in the production. While the production itself was incredibly thought-provoking, the references to the current political climate were successful, although slightly predictable, means of generating modern political controversy around an old classic as a means of garnering interest and attention.

For creators, this cultural divide has contributed to a modern art culture almost oppressively saturated in political subtexts. Art with political meaning is being created at an alarming rate, easily overshadowing almost all non-political art. The Golden Globes this past weekend, for example, were equally as focused on politics as they were on art. Almost all non-political statements at the award ceremony were ignored in favor of the many political statements made throughout. And while these political statements may be warranted, and they change that they are provoking may be viewed (by most people) as good, this glorification of political resistance slowly eats away at the core values shared by those on both sides of this cultural divide.

Performance art can and should be used to challenge beliefs and provoke thought — not merely to confirm one’s beliefs. Performance art can and should be used as a means of protest, not a means of glorifying the concept of protest and the rejection of commonality with one’s ideological enemies. Art is the vehicle that moves culture forward, that challenges unconscious biases within culture. Art is the means by which culture is forced to improve. Art is always a step ahead of culture, pulling culture towards this next step, towards a shared vision of a utopic future that both possess.

If anything, I fear that the current political climate is overwhelming art’s ability to provoke positive change. With so many disagreements between the political left and the political right, with so many fundamental differences between blue and red, with fundamental differences developing between liberals and conservatives over the very meaning of truth — art is being overwhelmed by the desire for political protest. With so many differing beliefs for both sides to challenge, art is being used to glorify the idea of challenging the other side, not the positive changes brought about by these challenges.

Performance art must avoid becoming obsessed with the elephant in the concert hall. This elephant can become all-consuming and repressive. Just like members of the Jazz Lab Ensemble, I struggled to either condemn or condone “Too Close for Comfort.” Many concert-goers must now analyze the performance art they are viewing against this elephant in the concert hall, determining whether or not they support or denounce the art they are viewing.

Art should make one think. Whether it conforms to or challenges one’s understanding of the world, art should force a reevaluation of position; one’s inherent biases and one’s hidden beliefs. Art should be provocative, not reactionary. Art should challenge one’s own beliefs not the beliefs of the elephant in the room. Art should be used to bring people together, not divide them. The response to this elephant in the room should not be glorification of the criticism of others. As Leonard Bernstein said, the response to this elephant in the concert hall should be, “to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”