TOPICS > Education

Tuning In

September 11, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

PAUL SOLMAN: Native American musician Kenneth Littlehawk. On backup: The Westchester Philharmonic. An unusual pairing, but then this was an unusual concert– part of the philharmonic’s award-winning educational program for public school students in New York City’s northern suburbs. A showcase for the music of different cultures, the concert was also a vehicle for introducing kids to contemporary classical music in an era of school budget austerity. Philharmonic conductor Paul Dunkel.

PAUL DUNKEL: I think it’s a shame that in this country right at the present time the emphasis on music education, art education has become less intense, there’s less enthusiasm about it in certain quarters.

PAUL SOLMAN: So picking up where the curriculum leaves off, Dunkel runs an annual kids concert, and this year decided to include the listeners in the making of it. He created a contest: A new piece of contemporary classical music would be written for the philharmonic. The composer would be chosen by local third-, fourth- and fifth- graders.

SPOKESMAN: This is your vote.

PAUL SOLMAN: Here at George Washington elementary in white plains, New York, and throughout Westchester and neighboring counties, some 4,000 public school kids in their weekly music classes voted from among five pieces submitted by young composers Paul Dunkel had en for the competition.

SPOKESMAN: Here’s piece number one.

PAUL SOLMAN: Composer number one’s submission sounded to many of the kids like an action movie soundtrack. The kids were asked, among other exercises, to depict the sounds.

CHILD: It’s like a mission.

PAUL SOLMAN: Like a mission?

CHILD: Yeah.

PAUL SOLMAN: What are those shapes there?

CHILD: Those are lights.

PAUL SOLMAN: Oh, those are lights. Of course. I see. So it’s a guy on a mission?

CHILD: Yeah.

PAUL SOLMAN: To the kids, composer number two’s piece was impressionistic.

CHILD: It reminds me of like underneath the water in summertime.

PAUL SOLMAN: Underneath the water in summertime?

CHILD: I like number two.

PAUL SOLMAN: You like number two. Why? What was it?

CHILD: Because it was light and fluffy.

PAUL SOLMAN: Light and fluffy?

PAUL SOLMAN: And then there was the piece from composer number three called “Frenzy.”


PAUL SOLMAN: How many liked this one?


PAUL SOLMAN: What was so great about this?

CHILD: It was like rock. It was like all fast and stuff.

CHILD: Hip-hop.

PAUL SOLMAN: Like hip-hop?

CHILD: Yeah.

CHILD: Jazz.

PAUL SOLMAN: Like jazz? So is the idea what you like about this is you can dance to it?


PAUL SOLMAN: Just in your… Could you stand up for just a second. (music in background)

PAUL SOLMAN: The last two entries proved something on an anticlimax. (music in background) To the old geezers among us, number four was a haunting waltz. One, two, three. One, two, three. One, two, three. But only we geezers, it seemed, could dance to it. Piece number five had a circus feel to kids. But to some of them, that made it a bit menacing. You like the circus?

CHILD: No, because I’m scared of the circus.

PAUL SOLMAN: Why are you scared of the circus?

CHILD: Because they’ve got clowns.

CHLD: Yeah.

CHILD: I hate clowns.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, finally the vote. How many people like number one the best? How many people like number two the best? How many people like number three the best? Wait a second. You like it that much more than everything else?

PAUL SOLMAN: Even conductor Dunkel seemed to favor “Frenzy.”

PAUL DUNKEL: Well, it’s kind of disco, and right away you’re snapping your finger. It’s danceable. And when the kids listen to it, they started to move.

PAUL SOLMAN: “Frenzy” didn’t just win the day here. When all 4,088 ballots were counted, 2,145 were voted for them. Was that just because it had a good beat and was easy to dance to?

PAUL DUNKEL: We all respond that way, no matter what our musical intellect, is no matter how sophisticated we are. It’s the rhythm that grabs you first. I always think of a piece that has immediate attraction, the Beethoven Fifth Symphony. Everybody always fixates on the pitches, the “g” and “e” flat and “c.” And I say, “no, it’s not the pitches, it’s the rhythm. It’s those three fast notes and that one long note.” That’s the attraction. And you hear the movement right away. If you’re a composer and want to attract your audience, here’s a good idea. Start with a big, loud sound or start with a driving rhythm. And then go on from there.

PAUL SOLMAN: Several months after the voting, aspiring 25-year-old composer David Mallamud, the little people’s choice, met his electorate for the first time. A fan of both Beethoven and rock ‘n’ roll, Mallamud first went to the Eastman School of Music and is now at Julliard, but at music school he found out serious students were only supposed to listen to serious music.

DAVID MALLAMUD, Composer: So for a while I stopped listening to rock and I stopped listening to country. I stopped listening to all the kinds of music I love, except classical, which I also love. So I reached a point after doing this for a few years where I couldn’t write a note of music, and that was really hard. So then I decided I would write a piece, a rock ‘n’ roll-based piece for orchestra.

PAUL SOLMAN: This is the piece “Frenzy” comes from.

DAVID MALLAMUD: I was very nervous my teacher would get mad because he doesn’t listen to rock and my friends would all hate me. I was surprised because when I brought it in to my lesson, my teacher was happy. I think he recognized I was being true to myself and honest with myself.

PAUL SOLMAN: Mallamud’s assignment was too forward, to write something new for the Westchester Philharmonic and to teach those who chose him about composing itself. So suppose these kids had to write a piece of music about a theme, say the myth of Medusa?

DAVID MALLAMUD: Who knows Medusa is? Can you tell me?

CHILD: She got worms in her hair.

DAVID MALLAMUD: She has snakes on her head instead of hair. And, yeah?

CHILD: And if you look in her eyes, you’ll turn to stone.

DAVID MALLAMUD: If you look at her eyes, you’ll turn to stone. Can anyone tell me a sound they like which could represent the music?

CHILD: A hissing of a snake.

DAVID MALLAMUD: A hissing of a snake. Okay. Good.

CHILD: Evil laughing and spooky noises.

DAVID MALLAMUD: Good. Spooky noises.

PAUL SOLMAN: The key to Mallamud’s commission was the new piece he was writing on his own, of course. He was given $2,000 and several weeks at the Westchester County home of the legendary American composer Aaron Copland — a home preserved as a retreat for budding composers. The eclectic Copland, who freely borrowed from popular music, is an idol of Mallamud’s, and it was at Copland’s desk that Mallamud was writing the piece the kids had commissioned to debut in less than two weeks. He was calling it “Par-80,” rap backwards 1980’s style. It sounded a lot more complex than that, but Mallamud was basically trying to connect with a young, contemporary audience.

DAVID MALLAMUD: That kind of rhythm, very simple and direct rhythms which you find in, you know, some 1980’s rap song, kind of softer middle section with less instruments playing, and then the big, what I call the techno section at the end. From this techno CD, which I got, it was “Club Mix ’99” or something.

PAUL SOLMAN: 1980’s rap, 1990’s techno rap music? Though classically trained, Mallamud is a devout egalitarian. There’s no hierarchy in music– Bach, Beethoven at the top and “Club Mix ’99” down here somewhere/

DAVID MALLAMUD: I think all music’s great. It’s a question of someone’s personal relationship to it. I mean, I love that diamond commercial.

PAUL SOLMAN: The diamond commercial?

PAUL SOLMAN: Mallamud likes the Debeer’s theme, country superstar Garth Brooks…

GARTH BROOKS: Come back to me again.

PAUL SOLMAN: Teen sensation Britney Spears…

SPEARS: Whoops, I did it again I played with your heart

PAUL SOLMAN: ..PBS perennial Yanni. With his new piece, however, Mallamud wasn’t so much hoping to join the pop pantheon as to produce a popular work of serious, you could say, classical music. And on the day of “Par-80’s” debut, expectations were running high even within the philharmonic itself.

SPOKESMAN: It’s a cooking piece. It’s the first time that we’re playing the piece of music in the 21st century that’s composed in the 21st century. (music in background)

SPOKESMAN: It’s sort of groove oriented. It’s like electric bass kind of playing on the tuba.

SPOKESPERSON: It sounds like rap music. It sounds like speech.

PAUL SOLMAN: You like it?

SPOKESPERSON: Yeah. It’s cool. It’s fun and a bit of a challenge.

PAUL SOLMAN: Now, the kids loved folk singer David Sears and his sing- along ballad of John Cooke.

DAVID SEARS: Oh, John Cooke, you have…

PAUL SOLMAN: The audience also seemed to love Duke Ellington. Then came David Mallamud.

CONDUCTOR: “Par-80” by David Mallamud.

PAUL SOLMAN: The kids wanted to love it, to move to the music. But it wasn’t that easy. This turned out to be a tougher piece than “Frenzy.” As the piece progressed, the kids receded. At the end of the day, the school day anyway, the reception was mixed. (Applause)

CHILD: I just want to move.

CHILD: It is sort of like I did like it and I didn’t like it.

PAUL SOLMAN: I was expecting to see you dancing to it, but you weren’t dancing.

CHILD: Yeah, like the other day.

PAUL SOLMAN: How come you weren’t? In a phrase, this new piece challenged its listeners and made a number of them think.

CHILD: It was sort of confusing, and it wasn’t all that I thought it would be before when I listened to it in school. But then when I heard, like, the trumpets and stuff, I started to get the rhythm to it, and it got better.

PAUL SOLMAN: Because it was pretty complicated, huh? And you?

CHILD: It was okay. But I like fluffier music.

PAUL SOLMAN: You still like fluffier? So finally, what did the kids learn? The process of composition, of course. And that while not every piece will drive you into a frenzy, the halls of the Westchester schools are alive with the sound of music. “Par-80” debuts for grown-ups in November as part of the Westchester Philharmonic’s regular series.