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Composer Levin Leads the Way to Banality

It was a significant moment in music history when Schoenberg emancipated the dissonance four score and some odd years ago. Are we now ready for the emancipation of banality?

The time has definitely come, according to Todd bennett Levin, a Detroit-based composer who also works as a marketing and advertising specialist at his grandfather’s brokerage company.

“We must embrace banality as savior,” he claimed, in an often introverted, sometimes stumbling, but undoubtedly sincere telephone conversation from his home in Farmington Hills near Detroit. “While Boulez makes music he hopes speaks on equal historical terms with Beethoven and Mozart, I compose music that I hope speaks on equal terms with Barry Manilow.”

Tonight, Jorge Mester will conduct the Pasadena Symphony in the West Coast premiere of Levin’s “TURN extended dance mix” at Pasadena Civic Auditorium. The outspoken composer plans to attend the performance of the work, which was given its world premiere at Carnegie Hall last month by Mester conducting the New Music Orchestral Project.

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The performance stirred quite a controversy. One critic described the work as “a raucous bit of flimflam.”

Levin, 28, has composed three orchestral works to date following a professional career of arranging for Muzak and a high-school career of arranging for pep bands. Now a doctoral student in composition at the University of Michigan, he has created controversy there as well, once during a presentation of a paper entitled “Ushering in Banality” to faculty and students.

“They really let me have it,” he recalled. “I caused a near riot.”

Levin’s often manic approach to composition is indeed unique, if not shocking. With a combination of styles taken from blatantly commercial music, he arranges a collage that includes percussive disco ostinatos, Muzak string melodies and loud brass choruses that sound like the Trojan Marching Band during a halftime show.

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“My music is not ironic, tongue-in-cheek or even kitsch,” he insisted. “There is more of a sense of tragedy to it--of symbolism.

“I’m interested in supreme forms of artificiality, closed systems and perfection as symbols of stasis and death. My end goal is to make symphonic music as powerful as it can be by making it easily recognizable to the listener, as self-explanatory as a kick in the stomach.”

Trained as a percussionist, Levin’s first experiences with music were in his public junior high school band. He became a proficient arranger, which led him to the decision to study music at the University of Michigan, later receiving a master’s degree at the Eastman School of Music.

“I grew up in an era of pep bands, ‘Charlie’s Angels,’ ‘Saturday Night Fever’ and digital watches,” Levin recalled. “And today I’m still preoccupied by this magical time of adolescence. It’s a time when things are tested out--the laboratory of a person’s soul.”

When asked if he had a particular teacher in composition that stood out more than another, he tentatively mentions William Bolcom as an influence during his undergraduate years, but now insists on studying independently, without a given mentor while pursuing his doctorate.

“Advertising is almost like rape,” he continued. “It seduces someone against their will. Muzak does the same thing. It is scientifically designed to calm you down. Studies show that it actually slows down your metabolism.

“But I believe in advertisement and media completely. My music and personal life are based on it.”

Most of Levin’s comments carefully paralleled or often duplicated excerpts from his paper “Ushering in Banality,” a 20-page nonstop, almost stream-of-consciousness manifesto filled with his observations and opinions on commercialism. Perhaps the best summation is toward the end of the paper where he states:

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“So who is the joke on? Am I playing the fool for my audience or making fools of them? It’s useless to ask, because my attitude isn’t a vector but a spiral, showing a special smirk to every available point of view. Only the incurably self-righteous, standing on quicksand and fancying that it is solid ground, will fail to see that I have their number, too.”


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