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Not Much to Discover, but Quite a Bit to Ponder

Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

From left, David Shively, Alex Waterman and Jennifer Choi of Either/Or at the Kitchen in September.

Published: December 23, 2007

I HAVE found precious little music to rediscover this year, but several concerts have helped me rediscover other things. If none were significant musical events or, for that matter, very successful, they set me to thinking about bigger matters, and for that I am grateful.

Was it just wild coincidence or a message from beyond that brought forward the Music of the Spheres to New York twice in three days in February? The Music of the Spheres Society played at Weill Recital Hall on a Friday, a trio called Music of the Spheres at the Frick Collection on Sunday. Just a month or so ago the American Symphony Orchestra played a program about the four temperaments. Pythagoras, Galen and the theories of ancient Greece have been knocked down by modern science, but evidently have still not been counted out.

The heavens, the earth, music and people’s insides, all responding to an overriding symmetry: an appealing idea. The universe sang a celestial tune, and Mozart sang along in emulation. Earth, air, fire and water were the common denominators for the human condition. Despite evidence to the contrary, the old stories prevailed. It almost made you sympathize with those slap-happy creationists and intelligent designers trying to do in the theory of evolution. Not too different are the numerous haters of contemporary music: listeners who pine for an orderly past, not an unpleasant present.

Unpleasant truths were another topic brought back forcefully by a concert at the Kitchen in September, by the fine young group Either/Or. Here was a program of 1960s arrogance and self-absorption, with people like Cornelius Cardew, Christian Wolff and Earle Brown as the main offenders. Listening to a collection of composers sharing inside jokes and private messages in music that reeked of contempt for the public made me get down on my knees and give thanks that an era so damaging to music was over. It didn’t drive an intelligent public away from classical music by itself, but it helped.

My other message came by way of Olga Neuwirth’s operatic version of David Lynch’s movie “Lost Highway,” at the Miller Theater in February. Ms. Neuwirth’s considerable assets — not to mention a librettist who won a Nobel Prize, Elfriede Jelinek — did not change the fact that other media can appear tantalizingly operatic but don’t translate. Inventive noise was no substitute for Mr. Lynch’s eerie silences. Musical busy-ness could not adequately replace a brilliant movie’s spaciousness and detachment.

In short, we can’t be made to hear what someone else has made us see, no matter how much talent we bring to the job. Maybe the 19th-century Italians had it right: Bad art and literature make the best operas.

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