On April 1, radio stations in 18 states will start carrying “The MTT Files,” Michael Tilson Thomas’ reminiscence-laced excursion through the musical landscape as he sees it — and he has seen a lot. Why radio stations in the remaining 32 states (including New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts and most of the Eastern Seaboard) have not picked up the show, I’m not quite sure. True, it's yet another scion of the marriage of media strategy and cult of personality. Yes, it adds luster to the MTT brand, even as it promotes music in general. But it’s also very good radio.
Rather than leading listeners on a dutiful trudge through history, MTT tells stories of the “I remember when Stravinsky told me...” variety. Like any accomplished raconteur, he has buffed each memory to a blinding sheen of significance, poignancy, or wry humor — or all three. He has a well-stocked storehouse of anecdotes, but if I can recognize some of them from the half a dozen hours I have spent interviewing him over the course of ten years, I suspect his close friends have his stories cataloged and numbered by now.
Each show rambles pleasantly down a thematic boulevard, pointing out curiosities and ironies along the way. The first episode is about the shifting intersection of music and noise, and it begins, like most music history courses, with Gregorian Chant. When he is discussing music composed by people he never actually had a drink with, MTT has a tendency towards offhand generalizations and casual historical compression. “That’s how it was with all early music,” he declares: “a sense of serenity, whether the spiritual serenity of Gregorian Chant or, several hundred years later in the Renaissance, the serenity of the planets moving back and forth inside a cosmic space — the music of the spheres.” It would be pedantic to point out that this single sentence covers a period that also includes non-serene battle music, lusty dance tunes, the gnarled counterpoint of late 14th century motets, and chansons that enshrined permanent sexual frustration. After establishing his street cred by remarking that “by Mozart’s day, music was way more in your face than it had been before,” MTT finally gets to the heart of his argument: that the densifying, intensifying and increasingly overwhelming sound of 19th and 20th century symphonic music arose from the need to compete with the rising din of urban life. That, I’ll buy.
By the second half-hour, MTT is in more comfortable territory. He reports that the young Edgar Varèse (whom he knew) attended rehearsals that Stravinsky (whom Tilson Thomas also knew) conducted in Paris and was entranced by the level of disorganized cacophony produced by musicians who couldn’t make sense of what they were playing. Unfortunately, musicians eventually learned to play Stravinsky well, and Varèse had to write music that would emulate the chaos of those early read-throughs. We also hear the voice of John Cage (yup: old friend), rhapsodizing serenely about noise: “The Sixth Avenue traffic sound is extraordinary. It’s continuous, night and day. And I listen to it with the greatest pleasure. I prefer it to my own music, or to any music that I’ve ever heard. It’s absolutely unpredictable and never disappointing.” Which, you might say, makes it predictable.
Update: The first episode, "You Call That Music?!", can be heard in its entirety here.