FINDING HARMONY: Distinguishing music from noise

Jan 30 • FEATURE SIDEBAR, NEWS & VIEWS, Op-EdNo Comments on FINDING HARMONY: Distinguishing music from noise

“What do you think?” asked a man in a black turtleneck sweater. He was ahead of me in the bathroom line during intermission of the North Carolina Symphony concert over Martin Luther King weekend.

“He’s so animated; I think he was actually dancing. And what harmony!” I replied. “Is he their usual conductor?”

“That’s Rune Bergmann, visiting conductor from Norway.” The man grinned mischievously. “But he can stay in America if he wants. He’s from Norway.”

I enjoyed the rest of the evening’s program, contemplated the man’s comment, and the harmony at the root of all music. Harmony is what distinguishes music from noise.

Regarding the man’s comment: He was white, like me. All musicians were white that night—and nearly the entire audience. I’m not exactly complaining. There was plenty of harmony; although, there could have been more color. We are lucky to have such a fine classical orchestra in North Carolina, primarily playing selections from the Western canon—German, Italian, Russian composers, with a smattering of French and Brits. The program included Mussorgsky, a Russian, and Beethoven, a German. The energetic first movement of Beethoven’s under-appreciated 4th Symphony is one of my favorites. Other sections dragged, and I wondered what kind of beat Dr. Dre would come up with to liven them up. Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” was fabulous, but I would love to hear what Quincy Jones could do with it.

My wife and I discussed the irony of listening to Russian and German composers conducted by an immigrant from Norway. The irony wasn’t lost on us to have the discussion during the impending MLK holiday, especially on the heels of POTUS 45’s comments about immigrants from Africa, Haiti and other “shithole” countries. Russia, Germany, Norway: These are definitely not “shithole” countries.

It’s easy to tell countries deserving of such an eloquent presidential designation from those that don’t. Russia, Germany and Norway have long histories of conquest. Norway may be socialist and pacific now, but it started out as a launch pad for vikings. Basically, if anyone would like to come to America from a predominantly white country with a history of conquest, America welcomes them. If coming from a former colony, a colorful colony, a “loser country,” not so much.

As we head into Black History Month, Super Bowl teams are set (fly Eagles, fly) and we’ve already endured a government shut-down (historic, as one party controls the White House, Senate and Congress). It’s not surprising a celebrity president, who lifted his campaign slogan from an earlier era’s celebrity president, would mind a government shutdown or make derogatory comments about African countries. The GOP insists on deifying Reagan, and to some hardliners, the mantra “government is the problem” seems to remain the extent of their economic and political philosophy.

And it’s not that POTUS 45 is racist. It’s an accident of history that most conquering countries were white and most former colonies far more colorful. (Maybe “loser country” is a more accurate descriptor. But I digress, and defer to his staff of translators and apologists.)

It is ironic immigration led to the shutdown. A few hundred years ago, even as we white immigrants were exterminating indigenous peoples, we were importing immigrants from “loser” African countries in chains.

All in all, I enjoyed my January classical music experience and plan to enjoy February’s North Carolina Jazz Festival. For me, jazz helps make the ongoing divisive rage tweets and obnoxious comments from the highest office in the land less maddening. It’s not that there’s so little music and so much noise in D.C., it’s that it’s all noise in D.C. So far this is the least musical, most artless administration of my lifetime.

Even though jazz is a uniquely American invention, there will be more jazz in Wilmington next weekend than there’s been in Washington in over a year. That’s sad. Like America, jazz is an ever-evolving melting-pot genre, initially blending traditional African rhythms and melodies with Western forms. Today, the broad and inclusive jazz genre integrates just about every refugee musical style under the sun. Jazz embodies America’s greatest strength: blending diverse styles into colorful melodies grounded in deep rhythms to create beautiful harmonies.

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