Dear Roger Jones of Minneapolis,
Thanks for your email - these are good questions. The first one is about the role of 'reverence' in the musical experience. The second is about the relationship of quality and performance to an overall appreciation of music.
In the interview I said that all the great classical music that has come before us is worthy of our reverence. The problems come with how people learn to appreciate the music, and how (and if) they learn to show the music the reverence it deserves.
You wrote that Beethoven "earned" your reverence. How did he earn it? And, maybe more important, what did the experience of hearing Beethoven feel like to you before your reverence was earned? I completely agree with you that a goal might be to encourage people to love and revere the music of the past the problem is that people don't know what they are supposed to feel after they are introduced to this music but before they learn to revere it.
I don't know about you, but a lot of my musical education was of the 'eat your vegetables' variety. My elders told me what was good and I had to keep consuming it until I understood why. As hard as that sounds this actually worked somewhat with me; maybe this is the same strategy that worked with you. The problem comes when you try to apply this kind of appreciation to music that is still fresh, that is just being made. How can we learn from the acquired tastes and experiences of our elders when our elders are just hearing this music for the first time, and at the same time we are?
When Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe and I started "Bang on a Can" in 1987 we wanted to make the newness of the music the center of the experience. We didn't want our listeners to hear a piece in terms of how it could fit into some larger tradition or how one idea could win over or crowd out another; we just wanted our listeners to revel in the awe-inspiring range and variety of composers' imaginations, as they imagined the world right now.
The problem arises immediately of how to make a completely new experience convincing. We began with the idea that our performance standards need to be exceptionally high, in order for the listeners to be sure that they are hearing what they are supposed to. Since most of us have heard Beethoven before we can usually hear the music even in a less-than-perfect performance, but in a piece you have never heard before, how can you tell?
It turns out that pieces you have never heard before need even more powerful and compelling performances than the pieces you already know - with a new piece you are relying completely on the performer to show you everything you know about it, to convince you that it deserves your attention. It is a huge responsibility for a performer and at "Bang on a Can" we have always prided ourselves on getting the very best performers and performances.
One of our happiest professional moments was that a few years back our ensemble, the Bang on a Can All-Stars, was named Classical Ensemble of the Year by the industry publication Musical America. The fellows who come to study at our summer program come because our performance standards are very, very high.