In an effort to temporarily pluck me out of the wide world of viral videos and indie music, I was recently coaxed into heels and a little black dress to find myself in Carnegie Hall at a concert of chamber music. I was vaguely aware that chamber music is designed to be played by a small number of musicians in a small venue, but otherwise knew little of what lay ahead. Childhood dabbling with a variety of instruments left me with an understanding of basic music theory, so I assumed that the experience would in fact, at least for a time, break me from my media-driven worldview.
I was disturbed and embarrassed to discover the exact opposite reaction. Last week, the Brigham Young University Chamber Orchestra, after a short prayer, performed an all-time American favorite, Aaron Copland’s "Appalachian Spring." Delighted that they opened with a piece I recognized, I watched them sit in a measured formation and stage, and prepared to be swept away. I was, but only with my eyes closed. All my efforts to train my eyes on the seated musicians resulted in my mind wandering to animated scenes of ducklings swimming behind their mother to the rhythm of the ball score. As the orchestra moved on to Gioachino Rossini’s "Overture to La gazza ladra" and the final universal crowd pleaser, Beethoven (Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major) I experienced the shifts between movements as moments of peril or comedy, in scenes of lackadaisical mornings and forest animals. I created elaborate, colorful narratives, reading specific associations into the sounds of each overture. One has to wonder where this comes from.
It occurred to me then that those of us who do not come from musical families have their first introduction to classical music through early morning Warner Bros. cartoons. The rhythmic swimming I envisioned was a scene from "The Ugly Duckling." As it turns out, the Looney Tunes and its sister series, Merrie Melodies, were created to promote Warner-owned musical compositions though the adventures of cartoon characters, starting in the 1930s. Narratives, originally intended for adults and imbued with socio-political implications, were constructed directly from the Warner Bros. music library.
Eight decades later, the controversial material pulled off the series to cater to children, the love for Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck constitute the reason Aaron Copland’s most revered work sounds like spring. Charles Tobias, Murrya Mencher and Eddie Cantor’s "Merrily We Roll Along" will forever be simply the Merry Melodies theme song. Every child recognizes snippets of Richard Wagner’s operas thanks to Chuck Jones’ "What’s Opera, Doc?", where Die Walkure accompanies the ongoing Bugs-Elmer chase and Elmer sings "Kill the Wabbit" to the tune of "Ride of the Valkyries." Have we all grown so incapable of prying ourselves from thinking beyond moving images?
I loved the concert, but state-of-the-art acoustics and lighting did surprisingly little to detach me from pop culture. My dear friend who was hoping to reacquaint me with high culture was amused to find that the concert brought me right back to my laptop, sitting in jeans, poking around YouTube for my favorite childhood morning cartoons.