By the time the piece really gets going, I find myself suddenly thrust into the heart of bustling, 1920s New York. Every corner I cross clamors with the noises and colors of people shouting, cars creaking their way down unevenly paved streets, and trolley cars lilting to the imprecise rhythm of their tracks.
This picture flashes in my mind every time I experience George Gerswhin’s Rhapsody in Blue. (Recently, I witnessed a stellar performance by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra at Marsh Symphony on the Prairie, performed by pianist Stephen Beus and conducted by maestro Ryan McAdams.) This infamous piece is considered by many to be a staple of American 20th century music—and for good reason. It created a turning point in serious American music. It helped establish the voice and rhythm of everyday life in America through new and unconventional compositional techniques. One of these techniques was use of the “jazz concerto,” a concerto-type not widely used until Gershwin’s Rhapsody. Another existed in Gershwin’s writing, or his erratic compositional pacing. One can clearly hear the thriving, mobile sections of a lively metropolis through his erratic pacing, where musical ideas are quickly introduced and just as swiftly replaced. At first, this technique is almost dizzying. But overall, it creates a driving, percussive effect that gets the adrenaline really pumping..much like being in the city during rush-hour traffic.
What intrigues me most about this piece, besides its ability to create a movable feast for the imagination, is Gershwin’s source of inspiration. After the premiere of the piece, Gershwin was quoted, saying that his muse appeared:
“…on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang that is often so stimulating to a composer…I frequently hear music in the very heart of noise. And then I suddenly heard—and even saw on paper—the complete construction of the rhapsody from beginning to end… I hear it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America—of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness.''
The line “I frequently hear music in the very heart of noise” is what really catches my attention. Gershwin’s ability to hear noise as music has made this piece exceedingly imaginative. Even today, it speaks to many different minds because it was conceived from the noise of a common experience: the noise of metropolitan life.
The ability to hear music as noise, I believe, has particularly sculpted and encouraged American music since Gershwin onward. It’s the realization that the potential for music lies in just about anything. With this realization, music can be limitless. It can be challenging, making people question whether or the piece being presented is music at all. But despite what some critics say, I believe this a debate worth arguing over. If we are always questioning music, then music is continually growing. The moment music becomes normal and unchallenged is the moment we become culturally dead. And who wants that?
Maybe we could all live more like Gershwin. The beautiful thing is that we don’t have to be brilliant composers to do so. Listening for the music in everyday sound can be as simple as taking a moment to focus on the noises around you, whether you’re in a crowded coffee house, rush hour traffic, or relaxing on your back porch at sunset. Who knows, maybe you’ll hear the next brilliant jazz concerto.