If you're a culture consumer who has a hard time getting inspired by works you?ve seen or heard before, I have a foolproof strategy for getting you out of your funk.
My trick is to imagine experiencing some old classic as if it were being performed for the first time - in its moment.
I tried this when I saw the National Ballet performing the West Side Story Suite (see review, page 82) last Friday night. It went something like this.
Okay, it's 1957. If you exclude George Gershwin's groundbreaking opera Porgy And Bess, Broadway musicals have dared to offer about 10 minutes of emotional darkness - in Oklahoma. Otherwise, it's laugh, laugh, cry for a second - maybe - then laugh, then leave happy. And can we open the show with a rousing get-happy-type number, please?
So here I am in a theatre back then and - wait a minute - what's with this West Side Story Prologue? Isn't anybody gonna sing? They're just dancing. And the music. I want a song, not a symphony, and if I'm gonna get a symphony, I don't need jazz.
So why am I snapping my fingers along with the music? Because I've never heard a score like Leonard Bernstein's. And why am I on the edge of my seat? Because West Side Story makes sure the major action - and the dramatic tension - takes place during the dance numbers. The Jets and Sharks meet in the Prologue battling over turf. Tony meets Maria (á la Romeo And Juliet) in the middle of the Dance At The Gym. Tony kills Bernardo during the Rumble's dance sequence.
This is theatre doing its job - stirring feelings I've never had before, its intense conflict playing out in a traditionally formulaic stage-show context.
There are other well-known examples of this kind of cultural-paradigm-busting. French composer Camille Saint-Saéns walked out of the first performance of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring in 1913 bellowing, "This is not music," because he knew that Stravinsky had taken musical idioms beyond any place Saint-Saéns was prepared to go.
Other path-breaking moments? Don't confuse reactive cultural movements with a complete revolution. Punk was a response to 70s stadium rock and user-friendly singer songwriters. Grunge was a reaction to slick 80s new wave. Both still have their exponents, but did they alter the course of everything that followed? Not exactly. Both those genres no longer resemble anything like a dominant force and have actually petered out.
Hiphop? That's more like it. When Public Enemy launched It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back in 1988, they suddenly triggered a fully formed expressive innovation. The Bomb Squad production team's edgy sampling turned snippets of sound - and not just music samples, but sirens and cars honking - into their own sonic barrage, a totally suitable accompaniment to Public Enemy's torrent of political rage.
Yes, hiphop is smoother now and deep into bling, but sampling still rules, and the genre continues to bring us urban idioms at full throttle.
The closest I've come to experiencing first-hand the kind of artistic leap I'm talking about was my first hearing of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Pop music will never be the same, I thought.
And it wasn't. It was the end of the singles era; the concept album took hold. From then on, you couldn't release a record without including the lyrics. And pop continued to expand its musical palette way beyond the three-minute, three-chord tune.
Pop artists sensed the danger - it was adapt or die.
We're coming up to the holiday season when the National Ballet will be dragging out that old chestnut The Nutcracker. Think it's a snoozeworthy yawn? Then imagine how gobsmacked ballet dancers were in 1891 when they were finally given the chance to move to a powerful, full orchestral score and not to all that wimpy chamber crap they'd had to deal with before Peter Tchaikovsky came along.
You may never hear that Waltz Of The Flowers the same way again.