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Music

The Seekers

Peabody's Michael Kannen, Michael Formanek, and Courtney Orlando find musical kinship in a variety of 1971 sounds

Photo: Alex Fine, License: N/A

Alex Fine


1971

Peabody Institute’s Friedberg Hall Jan. 26 at 8 p.m.

Visit peabody.jhu.edu for more details.

“Change” as a verb is typically defined as “to make different.” It’s an abstract idea, but sometimes when we think about it, change becomes more concrete: a movement from A to B. More elusive in that equation is the specious moment between the two endpoints. And more curious, what shaped and informed that process?

It’s an idea that a group of Peabody Institute faculty members have considered and shaped into an eclectic, adventurous program titled 1971. Tonight, 10 Peabody faculty performers and members of the Peabody Percussion Studio perform a program of works from that fortuitous year: George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae, Steve Reich’s Drumming, Part I, John McLaughlin’s “Meeting of the Spirits,” selections from Ornette Coleman’s Science Fiction, Josef Zawinul’s “The Unknown Soldier,” Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” and Led Zeppelin’s “Four Sticks.” These artists are typically not associated with one another, much less grouped together on a conservatory’s concert calendar.

It’s the brainchild of Michael Kannen, Peabody’s director of chamber music; Michael Formanek, director of Peabody’s Jazz Orchestra; and Courtney Orlando, violinist, vocalist, and music theory faculty member. “The point was to choose music that showed that great musicians of all different stripes were all kind of breathing the same air at that time,” Kannen says about 1971 during a midday interview with Formanek. “Everybody was looking to the East, especially Indian music—the Beatles were doing that. But certainly George Crumb and Steve Reich were doing that. So-called classical musicians were studying amplification. And I think jazz and rock musicians were starting to move toward the grandeur and complexity of classical music. We know that Miles Davis had Debussy and Stravinsky on his piano at home. So given our beliefs today and also this sort of historical fact, great musicians do think in all the same ways, no matter what sort of music they’re playing. That’s sort of what this concert is about.”

That idea is a fascinating throughline to 1971. History likes to compartmentalize eras into convenient decades—the ’60s, the ’70s, the ’80s—but the actual timeline is messier than that. Consider: In 1971, Mitchell, a successful Canadian singer/songwriter firmly entrenched in the 1960s folk revival, released an album that incorporated overdubs, unconventional tunings, and unusual approaches to make a pop album of indelible intimacy and originality. The New York-based Reich, who had spent the 1960s experimenting with 12-tone composition, embarked on a slightly different direction with a piece partly inspired by time studying the music of Ghana. McLaughlin, a British electric guitarist who had spent the 1960s working with emerging electric jazz musicians and rock ‘n’ roll bands, formed a group that explored Eastern musical ideas with jazz and rock instrumentation. And the then still-emerging Led Zeppelin released an enigmatic, exploratory album that all but came to define what would become forever known as “classic rock.”

The music of 1971 comes from a moment when the ’60s had obviously ended but the ’70s hadn’t been branded yet. “When you deal with jazz-rock fusion and all that, it wasn’t until ’74, ’75 that it was sort of set in stone,” Formanek says. “But up until that point, Weather Report was playing free and in these really sort of abstract panoramas of sound. Wayne Shorter with Miroslav Vitous doing these incredible improvisations. McLaughlin was really checking out Indian music, but they were still playing with [Jimi] Hendrix energy and sound. And, you know, Miles [Davis]—they were putting things together in the studio because they hadn’t really come up with a formula yet. So I kind of really love going from that perspective and just kind of looking at all these things and how it intersected with a lot of different music and ideas.”

That genreless curatorial thread is 1971’s liberating attraction. Not only is it a chance to see Peabody’s top-notch faculty perform both Crumb and Reich pieces on the same evening, but those works are paired with popular music and under-heard jazz, because they share some musical ideas, approaches, or process. “We didn’t want it to just be some sort of 1971 nostalgia,” Kannen says. “The real impetus came from a musical idea. And Mike and I share a feeling just within the context of the conservatory about, essentially, if it sounds good it is good. And the musicians that we’re training today have to be tremendously versatile and well versed in all kinds of different styles. The students are ahead of us a little bit in that. The students are listening to all kinds of music. The sort of walls between styles are not so pronounced for them. And I think we share a feeling that that’s really the future of a conservatory.”

Both Kannen and Formanek discuss how music, and musicians, tend to get pigeonholed in genre, be it the broadly defined “jazz” and “classical” or the subsets thereof. It’s a counter-intuitive fact of music consumption these days: While MP3 playlists and storage devices democratically organize music by alphabetical default—where Beefheart could run into Beethoven—niche and genre marketing tags thrive. The more decentralized music consumption becomes, the more descriptor tags emerge to create the illusion of a finite marketplace.

That attempt is just as limiting for the listener as it is for the performer. “For me, this stuff we’re doing [in 1971] was really exciting for me when I was younger, but I don’t do it normally,” Formanek says. “It’s not the music I really do. But I still remember how exciting it was when it was new, and it had nothing to do with jazz and it had nothing to do with taste and maturity. It was totally visceral. Music that sort of affected you in some deep way, emotionally, physically, rather than purely in some intellectual or craft way.”

Even if it takes a while to happen. Kannen says that in 1971 he was only listening to “Beethoven and Tchaikovsky,” and “all the contemporary music and pop music of that era pretty much went right [by my head].” Naturally, he was exposed to more music in the intervening years, but it was really his guitar-playing teenage son who got him into Led Zeppelin.

He and his wife took their son to see Davis Guggenheim’s 2009 electric guitar documentary It Might Get Loud with Jack White, the Edge, and Jimmy Page. “And I was deeply impressed by Jimmy Page in this movie, by just the music itself and the depth of his connection to music,” Kannen says. “So I started checking out Led Zeppelin a little more closely and more seriously, listening to the records, watching the videos. And it suddenly occurred to me, first of all, that these guys are very serious musicians, and that the things that they were doing definitely have in common things that were going on in other kinds of music, including my kind of music. So I looked into it and saw that Led Zeppelin IV was [released in] 1971.”

Kannen, flutist Marina Piccinini, and pianist Seth Knopp, also Peabody faculty members, had already been talking about performing Crumb’s Voice of the Whale. “And I looked up Voice of the Whale and that was 1971, and then we were off and running,” Kannen says. “So we had a very important committee meeting over there in the [Midtown] Yacht Club next door, Mike [Formanek] and Courtney Orlando, and knowing that these people have huge, vast knowledge of all kinds of music, I kind of brought it up. And the two of them just started up and ran with it.”

Passing along that breadth of musical knowledge is one of the possible outcomes of this concert. Ideally, 1971 can open some minds not only to the music of this era, but the big-ear thinking that went into the creative wandering that shaped it. “I understand the idea of conservatory, we want to be able to carry on certain things and certain ideas,” Formanek says. “But also, I think it needs to be able to take some different ideas, just things happening at a certain time, things in the air, and different approaches and different ways of doing things. If you just don’t do it, it disappears. If people aren’t in situations where you’re mixing a lot of different kinds of media and stylistic things, then it’s just not going to happen. And this time, this was a very fertile time for experimentation and cross-pollination.”

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