Music is unlike most any other art form. It can be recreated, re-performed and, above all, reinterpreted.
This semester, the Georgetown University Symphony Orchestra will perform a piece that has been reinterpreted many times over the past few decades — Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 2. The piece was composed on the cusp of the 20th century, and Ives himself was 27 at its completion (and working full-time as an insurance executive). This five-movement, 40-minute symphony went unperformed for some 50 years, since Ives’ use of dissonance and inclusion of American melodies offended classical European sensibilities.
It is no longer surprising to learn of artists who went unappreciated in their time. In fact, I tend to be skeptical of anyone who wasn’t. Music may rely on the science of sound and the mathematics of notation, but it is an art — fluid, born of and into the subjectivity of interpretation.
The length of “Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz” outlasts Symphony No. 2 by some 50 minutes. Of all the bemused backlash following the album’s surprise release, my personal favorite came from Pitchfork’s Meaghan Garvey, who wrote: “‘Dead Petz’ is a borderline unlistenable slog through dorm-room poncho bulls— and blissfully ignorant acid koans … delivered earnestly from an ex-child star seemingly unaware of how fundamentally inseparable her own privilege is from her ‘do whatever the f— you want all the time’ ethos, and enabled by a 54-year-old [Wayne Coyne] who should know better.” It’s enough to make you wonder how hard that truth hurt on Miley’s end.
Which brings me, on the subject of acclaim, to “The Road Not Taken” (1916) by poet Robert Frost. In his post for The Paris Review (“The Most Misread Poem in America”), critic David Orr quantifies the actual, enduring popularity of this poem, pointing out that it is the most frequently Googled poem. But above all, the popularity of this poem is evident in its pervasive appropriation. Its language has appeared in everything from car commercials to best-selling novels, and we are privy to the allusion. More to the point, however, Orr argues that “everyone gets it wrong.”
The poem is not a story of personal triumph and individualism, but of self-deception and complacency. In private correspondence, Frost himself wrote, “I’ll bet not half a dozen people can tell who was hit and where he was hit by my ‘Road Not Taken.’” What an incredible and enduring deceit.
The story of “The Road Not Taken” shows that the audience wields artistic power. We wanted so much to read the story of an American hero that we made Frost into one. Would the poem be as popular if we’d understood its subtleties? Does it even matter?
Now, having subjected you to the full extent of my disjointed thoughts, it is time to tie up loose ends. We’re talking about Americans. Famous Americans. Famous Americans who create art: a symphony, an aestheticized album, a poem.
“Most widely celebrated artistic projects are known for being essentially what they purport to be,” David Orr says. Is that true? How can it be? For everything Orr got right, I’d argue that he got this point wrong. There is no obvious truth in art. And artistic projects cannot, themselves, “purport” to be anything — certainly not anything static. There is artistic intent and there is public reception, and even this is reliant on time and place.
The Georgetown Symphony Orchestra’s rendition of Symphony No. 2 will be unlike any that came before it, unlike the New York Philharmonic’s premier performance under conductor Leonard Bernstein, and assuredly unlike the symphony Ives envisioned so many years ago.
We could argue that Cyrus’s work lacks artistic merit, or we could accept that it didn’t “purport” to in the first place. In the same way that Cyrus is iconic for who she is, Robert Frost’s poem is popular for what it is not. And who’s to say which is of greater value? This is our popular culture — our cultural canon, our communal art project.
Samantha Kosarzycki is a senior in the College. RADIO WAVES will appear every other Friday and will be written by a rotating cast of WGTB staffers.
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