Jessica Krash is galled whenever she hears The Four Seasons blaring at a cafe. She’s irritated, too, whenever classical artists put on evening gowns and meaningful stares for their album covers. But she has no trouble admitting that a warhorse changed her life.
It was a 1983 performance of The Rite of Spring at Lincoln Center. Krash was a 23-year-old graduate student in piano at Juilliard, so she knew the music of the Stravinsky ballet up and down. But the production showed her what a childhood of lessons among Washington’s classical-music elite and several years of studying music at Harvard and MIT never did. She discovered that music could be a part of something violent, cruel, and dangerous.
“I can’t tell you how many classes I had about Rite of Spring in school that talked about harmony and the unusual rhythms and the unusual orchestrations,” Krash says. “And no one said that this was a piece about human sacrifice.”
Telling the story now, the Chevy Chase, Md., resident still manages to sound horrified at the indifference of her early instructors: “It’s murder,” she says. “And we just looked at harmony. There’s an awful amount of that in classical-music education.”
It’s a message she brings to one of her classes at George Washington University, the Idea of Dangerous Music, which she’s been teaching since 2004. She guides her students through an appreciation of music that was banned, restricted, or elicited an unanticipated response from its audience. The material ranges from Bach to Mozart to Shostakovich. It includes, of course, The Rite of Spring and the riots that accompanied its 1913 premiere—and the riots that accompanied the premieres of works by Richard Strauss, Erik Satie, Maurice Ravel, and George Antheil. Krash and her students also examine the relationship between music and politics, delving into music banned by censors in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.
Although Krash is careful not to draw an unambiguous line between the depredations of the Nazis or the Stalinists and the antidemocratic excesses of the Bush administration, she does mention that, under those regimes, “music was saying things that people couldn’t say—the rich and meaningful things that could not be said in everyday life. My optimism about classical music is that it could be doing that.”
Krash’s career as an educator, musician, and composer has been characterized by an attempt to shake off perceived limitations on what classical music is supposed to be about, whom it is for, and how it is performed. In 1998, she collaborated on Taking Sides, a performance piece that was staged with dancers and saxophone players lining the C&O Canal during a thunderstorm. In 2002, she presented a composition for viola and alto sax titled “Sex in the Suburbs.”
Late last year, she released Obstructed View: New Works for Solo Piano, a CD that includes pieces such as “Traffic and Weather Together on the 8s” and “Mother From Another Planet.” On the cover, Krash wears hipster glasses and red lipstick, not an evening gown. The music within pokes fun at its creator, modern suburban life, and Washington’s political culture.
“I pretty much think music is a way of exploring the world,” she says. “Exploring how things work and what our place in the world is—which then makes it political.”
In other words, for Krash, the biggest political crisis facing classical musicians is not about any particular ideology but rather the way their art is considered mere entertainment. Again and again, in both interviews and subsequent e-mails, Krash takes pains to state some formulation of the following: “The discussion of music needs to be developed and land on the Op-Ed page of the Washington Post, not on the page about what people wore to dinner at the White House.”
Krash isn’t alone in her viewpoint, of course. Music critic Greg Sandow, who writes a blog “on the future of classical music,” noted recently “that people in classical music really do think the field is in trouble, and the classical music world is honeycombed with people looking for, and generating, new ideas.” New Yorker critic Alex Ross opened a 2004 essay with “I hate ‘classical music’: not the thing but the name….It banishes into limbo the work of thousands of active composers who have to explain to otherwise well-informed people what it is they do for a living.”
Krash didn’t set out to be one of those composers, but classical music has always been a part of her life. As a 5-year-old, she was taken to hear Isaac Stern at Constitution Hall, an experience she still vividly remembers—including her bewilderment when the audience exploded into applause before the violinist had even played a note.
As a teenager, Krash studied Ylda Novik, a Hungarian pianist who tutored many of the city’s most talented young performers and served as music critic for the long-defunct Washington Star. “People loved her or hated her or both,” Krash remembers. “But I don’t think anyone was neutral about her. She certainly made a lot of teens passionate about music.”
Under Novik’s sway, Krash and a friend once cut junior high to buy tickets for a performance on Vladimir Horowitz’s 1974 comeback tour. “We were like groupies for Horowitz,” she remembers. “It’s weird.”
Weirder, at least in classical circles, is how late Krash came to composition. She admits to entering the doctoral program in composition at the University of Maryland, College Park, as much for the health insurance as anything else: She was 23 when she married, 26 when she gave birth to twins, and 31 when she began her studies. Typically, composers come out of music school stamped with the imprimatur of a well-known mentor, enter competitions, and win commissions. It’s a difficult enough path under the best of circumstances. Washington Post classical-music critic Tim Page says that making a financial success in composition is “about as hard as making it as a poet or a philosopher. It’s very important work….But it’s hard to find your way through it.”
When Krash tried to, she discovered that she was often past the cutoff age for prominent competitions. She was also one of very few women in a field dominated by men—and a mother. “I think that when your life is involved with taking care of other people, whether it’s children or parents or friends,” she says, “things come at you that you don’t expect and you have to respond.” Her women’s issues, Krash specifies, “are really mothers’ issues.”
Some of the music on Obstructed View deals with this. “PTA,” part of a suite called Civil Rites, is a two-and-a-half-minute, mock-urgent composition that Krash describes as a “Soviet-style satire.” It was inspired by an experience of motherly volunteerism gone awry: Krash had agreed to help produce an elementary-school musical with the understanding that her youngest daughter would get a plum role in return. Said part failed to materialize, despite “hundreds of hours of effort” on Krash’s part.
“I found that the mean girls from junior high are back,” the composer says. “They are now running the PTA.”
Dangerous music? Maybe in Chevy Chase. Or perhaps in Krash’s old classrooms, where such a personalized piece of classical music would have shocked her teachers. But Krash insists that attitudes haven’t really changed over the past few decades—or even over the past few centuries. “Plenty of people…have this 18th-century view,” she says, that requires classical compositions to be thematic. “The theme is the protagonist, and he goes on this adventure and comes out turned into something else or comes back home again. I’m totally not interested in that. I’d much rather be the listener who went on the adventure.”
And not all of the music on the disc is about such domesticated subject matter. “Undisclosed Location” is a meditation on, Krash says, “Washingtonians trying to continue our lives after 9/11.” The piece is periodically punctuated by a high-note motif meant to evoke an air-raid siren. These intrusions “are predictable but also mixed with a sense of suspense,” Krash explains, “just as we can predict with certainty that this administration will continue to be stupid and irresponsible and increase our lack of security, at the same time we feel unsettled and not sure of what’s coming next.”
Obstructed View is the culmination of four years of writing, recording, and editing—work that Krash performed to the exclusion of almost everything else. “It was my image of what it would be like to write a novel,” she says. “It was all I could think about.”
Her life had taken a couple of difficult turns just before she started to write the music for the CD. In December 2000, she and cellist Tanya Anisimova ended a four-year collaboration. The next month, Krash got sick with a form of meningitis. It was months before she could return to her work. “I was grateful for small things, like being able to sweep the floor and make dinner for my family,” she remembers.
Before the break with Anisimova, before the illness, much of Krash’s work, both as a performer and as a composer, was collaborative. The C&O project, for instance, involved Washington dancer Nancy Havlik. In 1999, Weightless, another Havlik collaboration featuring voice and dance, played at the Joyce SoHo in New York.
“I don’t know if this is more about 9/11 or about becoming middle-aged or about serious illness,” Krash says of Obstructed View, “[but] for more than 20 years so much of my work was collaborative, and then, when I stopped working with Tanya, I stopped collaborating all together.”
The CD, released just before Christmas last year, garnered a favorable review from Page, who described the album as “a deft, challenging and eclectic set of pieces…that manages to combine politics and music in a manner that does justice to both.” Richard Brooks, head of Capstone Records, the Brooklyn, N.Y., label that released Obstructed View, says that he doesn’t have sales figures for the album; instead, he points out yet another symptom of the ailing classical-music industry: “[Capstone] does not earn enough for me to pay anyone to help with the work, so I do everything in my spare time.”
Krash can come across as ambivalent about the trajectory of her career, despite her academic post, an impressive slate of commissions, and her highly regarded work as a chamber musician. “This is a mom thing,” she says. “I’ve collaborated with very good people, but not very many and not very often.”
Remembering the intense atmosphere she experienced as a student of Novik’s, Krash recalls coming in second in a lot of piano competitions. Asked who came in first, she names Brian Ganz, who is on the faculty at St. Mary’s College of Maryland and is a teaching assistant to legendary pianist Leon Fleisher at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, and Lisa Emenheiser, who is, among other things, adjunct pianist with the National Symphony Orchestra. “They’re all doing a little better than I am,” Krash points out.
But she also points out that she made a career shift from being a pianist to a composer, “in a field when you have to hit the ground running at 16.”
“I’m really happy with what my career is doing now,” she says. “I’d like to be collaborating more and performing more and recording more. I released my first CD at 46, but that’s fine.”CP