Episode 1: A Weekend About the Death of Music

For my first weekend of this project, I wanted to do something big, but not TOO big. I wanted to start on a high note (unfortunately, pun intended). I wanted to attend a performance by the Las Vegas Philharmonic, and I wanted to ask myself: Where will music go from here?

THIS WEEKEND

We and the Lees and us went to the Las Vegas Philharmonic’s performance of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major and Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Symphony.

I’ve played instruments my whole life; I majored in music with the intention of going on to become a professional musician. But the long, tedious hours of practicing measures 33–36 over and over again finally got to me, and I went another way. As a result though, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the arts, especially art music. I’ll always be a musician like I’ll always be a smoker. No matter how far away they are.

I suppose I’m knowledgeable enough to appreciate great art, while at the same time, never be able to appreciate it again. But I’ll have to come back to that.

LAS VEGAS PHILHARMONIC

The winged protector, a tribute to the original at the Hoover Dam.

The Las Vegas Philharmonic performance was good. It’s always good.

And I wish more people knew that about Las Vegas. That this thing exists called the Las Vegas Philharmonic, and they’re providing the valley with art and culture every season.

But I guess I went in with a little bit of disappointment, because I almost wanted it to be reversed. When I think of Rachmaninoff, I think about amazing piano concertos. And when I think of Ravel, I think of, I don’t know, Bolero and the Pictures… Mussorgsky adaptation. But I guess Ravel didn’t write symphonies.

Anyway, these composers were entering some experimental territory. They were in the roller coaster on top of the hill, and the whole art music world was about to slide into chaos. A chaos we now refer to as the twentieth century. You can hear that a little in these two pieces. Everything was just about to collapse, and Ravel and Rachmaninoff would be there to witness it. And that’s what the Las Vegas Philharmonic captured for us this Saturday evening — this snapshot in time.

THE DEATH OF MUSIC?

And that’s just what happened. The twentieth century brought some messed up stuff to the music business. In the music community, composers were trying to figure out what was next. But let’s back up for a minute.

The Baroque period of music in the 1600’s brought us the rules (think J.S. Bach). It was a period where for the first time, music would stand up and earn its place in art greatness. It was the first time music would truly become something more significant than its creator — man. Thousands of rules were created. We still use that rule book in pop music today — only, we need only the first page or so.

It was the first time music would truly become something more significant than its creator — man.

Classical reigned for a hundred years or so after that (think W.A. Mozart). It refined the rules, explored them, massaged them, and expanded on them.

Then came the romantic period of the 19th century (think late Beethoven, or Wagner, or Chopin). In this century, the rules of music chiseled into the stones of every reputable music institution in the world would truly be tested. They would be stretched to their absolute brink, then finally, like every great tragedy, they would break. Dissonance would take longer and longer to resolve to consonance. Then eventually, they would just stop resolving all together. Chords would stack taller and taller. Traditional song structure was taken out behind the woodshed.

By the time these 20th century guys were born, it might have already been too late. Had this grand experiment humanity was playing on tonal music reached its final act? Modern composers were backed into a corner, and they had to write their way out.

And in the process, they jumped the shark big time. They began exploring in places where the rest of us just couldn’t follow. They Bill Murrayed that shit a little. Some composers made random sounds and squeaks. (Look up the Second Viennese School.) Others turned to math to dictate notes. (Which doesn’t work very well, as it turns out. Yuck!) And some wrote pieces with no notes at all. (Check out 4 Minutes and Thirty-Three Seconds.) It all felt a little hopeless.

On another front, technology was changing in ways that allowed more people to participate in the music creation process. The barriers of entry were coming down. First it was the phonograph, followed by radio, then of course everything else, from CDs to finally the internet. Eventually, just about anyone with zero music education and 2 nickels to scrape together could get heard.

Meanwhile, two world wars and a Great Depression left a permanent scar on western culture. People were sad, and in a hope to find the cure, they sought something new. In America, it was Tin Pan Alley in New York, and jazz bands in New Orleans, and blues up and down the Mississippi River. It was ragtime and rockabilly and country. Or as I like to call it, gateway music. Music that was good enough to take over where classical left off — music that even MUSICIANS of the day liked, but music that would ultimately lead to Lil Jon.

Incidentally, this is also the arc of Pink Floyd’s discography.

What was the result of all of this? The world shifted from consuming music from the likes of Beethoven, Chopin, and Wagner… to Dylan, Davis, and Sinatra. The enlightenment was officially over. Music got humanized — it was brought down off its pedestal and transformed into something for any passerby to digest. Music was a bird with an infinite sky in which to chart flight, singing its tale to the world… and then it was locked into a cage no wider than its wingspan. It was no longer something greater than us. It was no longer something designed to be appreciated, only enjoyed. In short, music died.

The world shifted from consuming music from the likes of Beethoven, Chopin, and Wagner… to Dylan, Davis, and Sinatra.

Sure, it was fun. And don’t get me wrong — modern pop music is entertaining. There’s a lot of it, serving a lot of different purposes. And some of it is pretty good. But from a quality, depth, richness perspective, it’s McDonald’s where classical art music is filet mignon. It’s an ice-cold Bud Light where classical is a Bordeaux. It’s monster truck rallies where classical is, well, classical. You get the picture.

And over the last hundred years, we’ve arguably settled into less and less innovation in pop music. Each decade has brought less and less originality than the last. I’m starting to believe that American Culture froze about 15 years ago and no one’s noticed.

In the meantime, the community who cares about this kind of thing, such as the concertgoers of the Las Vegas Philharmonic, mostly resolves the conflict looking backward in time. Ignoring what’s going on, and instead just transporting themselves again and again to 100 and 200 years ago, blinders on during the Grammy’s and the VMAs. When Kanye stands up and talks about how great he is.

So I have to ask: where does music go from here?

What were we talking about?

THE SMITH CENTER

The Las Vegas Philharmonic has a home at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts. This building is ridiculously beautiful. It’s a downtown performing arts center made of stone and marble and steel. It’s the kind of building Las Vegas deserves. It’ll be here for 500 years.

David Schwarz and his team credit the Hoover Dam as their inspiration, and you can see it in the outside structure and all throughout the ornamentation of this art deco building.

Hoover Dam was a massive construction project that changed Las Vegas forever — not just because it’s the valley’s main source of water and power, but because it brought thousands of construction jobs. It helped kickstart another chapter for the city. Indeed, Las Vegas is a very different place because of the dam.

The Smith Center is a sister construction project turning another chapter for Las Vegas — one which brings a home to the LV Phil, the Nevada Ballet Theater, countless jazz bands and singers, public speakers, and traveling Broadway shows. It’s also a home to the Children’s Discovery Museum.

It’s Field of Dreams, and it worked. These institutions lived elsewhere in Vegas prior to TSC, or they didn’t exist at all. And now that they’ve got this ridiculous new home in the heart of the valley, they sell out show after show. Vegas went from not having this to having it, thanks to The Smith Center. Thanks Smith Center!

I’m truly proud to be a citizen of Las Vegas that was here to witness this transition in particular, and so many other transitions in my 12 years. I’ve grown up in the last decade here in the desert, and I’ve watched this town grow up with me. And The Smith Center is a living embodiment of that growth. Naturally, Jackie and I support it as much as possible.

I’ve grown up in the last decade here in the desert, and I’ve watched this town grow up with me.

MINGO

Before the Las Vegas Philharmonic concert, we went to Mingo for dinner. Normally we would go to Mundo, but they closed. And the chef came to Mingo, so we thought we’d try it. It was awful. And weird.

Tucked away in the Arts District, the outside of the place is pretty unassuming. You walk in, and the place itself looks pretty good inside. It’s got that dark, hipster, modern, goth, chic whatever thing going. It looks like an interior designer tripped shrooms at a strip club one night. So far so good.

Then we got seated. They printed the Mundo menu (Mexican Fusion) on the left side and Mingo (Trendy American Comfort maybe?) on the right. Logos and everything. Wierd, right? Am I in two places simultaneously? I’m like Schrodinger’s Diner.

And stuff just didn’t go well. They were 86’ed on about half our first-try order of food and drinks. They had $4 “craft beers” on happy hour, then we found out that “craft beers” were like Sam Adams and shit. Our server definitely took our drink order then forgot about us for a painfully long time. (Don’t get me wrong. I worked in food service for years. And I’m patient. This wasn’t just like some ten minute, our-server-just-needed-a-ciggie-pronto kind of lag. This was a stupid amount of time. I think we waited for three days or so. She definitely just forgot about us and went home for the night, and was brushing her teeth, and was like, ‘Did I leave my purse at work?’.)

Fortunately, some other server just noticed us and asked us how we’re doing. “I think we’re waiting on drinks” or something. She did the “let me go check on them” thing and basically ended up saving our table for the rest of the meal.

…But not before the DJ couldn’t figure out how to kill a long, high-pitched feedback from the sound system. And that wasn’t necessarily the bad part. It was more because he and the manager just sorta stood there staring at the problem for a surprisingly long time. Like they didn’t hear humming. Just unplug it, man. Eventually they did. As the whole restaurant watched.

I mean, lemme back up. Maybe I’m giving them a hard time. Maybe we just caught them on a bad night. This place had a lot going for it, and I hate to bash a struggling local business. Maybe someone else give it a try for me and let me know if I’m crazy? If so, shoot me a comment below.

It’s interesting to see restaurants fail — especially in Vegas, the town of master servicepeople. You could get in a fender bender and you’ve got a 40% chance the dude’s in the service industry.

It seems to happen all the time though. I’ve seen so many little restaurants in this town come and go. And not the big celebrity chef ones that get into an ego battle, or the prime strip location that’s just “changing it up.” Local places, that were clearly a mom-and-pop, let it all ride, this-is-our-one-shot kinda places. It makes you wonder about the nature of success. Like, why can’t we all just get this simple shit right?

I mean, that’s just not how ideas are supposed to work, right? Whenever an idea or a solution hits the world, it eventually becomes available for us all to benefit from. Once someone invents a new, I dunno, smartphone or something, all the competitors take it apart, see how it’s built, and whatever they learn becomes institutional. We’ll never NOT have the Snuggie. We just can’t un-know that invention. We all know the banana knock-knock joke. That’s why it’s not funny. Refrigerators don’t get worse — they only get better. Anyway, my point is, why doesn’t that apply to shit like this? To restaurants? They all know how to do certain restaurant shit correctly, because they can just look over there at a million other places and see someone doing it right. So why aren’t we all doing the restaurant thing perfectly?

Maybe it’s just the juxtaposition of going from the Las Vegas Philharmonic concert to this.

Anyway, yeah, a DJ. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had friends that DJ. I guess I get it. It CAN be hard. But let’s face it. Usually it’s not. Did you know that when those big famous DJs play a big nightclub, they CAN’T actually be doing anything? If they were, the club would have to charge everyone in the place a live entertainment tax.

In one weekend, we went from a room of over a hundred Las Vegas Philharmonic musicians that have devoted their lives to this craft, having put in a collective THOUSANDS of hours of preparation… To a guy who presses play. It’s interesting, that’s all I’m saying.

For all weekend recaps, visit maketheweekend.com.

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Originally published at www.maketheweekend.com on January 10, 2016.

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