Thursday, November 14, 2013

Scouting Report: Some 20th-century composers considered as tennis players

In honor of Third Coast Percussion's appearance tonight in the Ensemble Music season at the IMA's Tobias Theater,  I've revived for the blog a piece I wrote for fun years ago, blending my interests in music and tennis.
Arnold Schoenberg (left) after a mixed-doubles match
Two of the composers on tonight's program are among those covered in this gently satirical flight of fancy:

John Cage

Said to prefer playing with the net down.  Willing, even eager, to take chances — a real scrambler. Sometimes a crowd-pleaser, despite a tendency to forget the rules, or devise his own. May follow a weak second serve to the net just to see what will happen.  His strokes look ungainly, though he is apt to return any ball hit in or out of court.  Also a canny doubles player. Has intense interest in racket vibration dampeners.

Igor Stravinsky

Never uses the same game plan twice. Thorough knowledge of the game allows him to turn any opponent's style to his advantage. Always knows precisely where he is on court and what shot a given situation requires.  Hits well to corners and lines. Likes to establish a repetitive pattern during rallies, then suddenly shift out of it with a well-disguised contrasting shot. Apt to question competence of officials.

Charles Ives

Relies overmuch on a stinging forehand drive. Tries to hide a weak backhand by running around to use a forehand stroke, leaving much of the court wide open. Lightning reflexes make him quick at the net to either side. Can be beaten by being forced into long rallies, during which he tends to lose concentration and get trapped out of position. Fond of attempting novelty shots, mainly dangerous side-spin returns from deep in the court and showy behind-the-back volleys. Unnerves opponents by whistling old tunes from time to time. Said to be lost when he can't apply his father's coaching to a situation.

George Crumb

A very mysterious player, able to pull off well-disguised placements without seeming to expend much effort. Has a vast repertoire of "dink" shots — spins, slices, drops.  Never questions a bad call. Double-faults frequently.  Often mutters to himself in Spanish.

Elliott Carter

Has a finely tuned ability to control the pace of a game. Mixes up speeds on his serve to keep opponent off-guard. Excellent at chasing down "impossible" shots and working his way out of defensive positions, always keeping good form.  Though not a show-off, has a flair for the dramatic. His elegant game flourishes in close, tense matches with lots of complicated exchanges.

Carl Ruggles

Fine overhead smash, but often powered out of court. His ground strokes are hard and relentless. Though fast, his serve is flat and predictable. He can be frustrated when encountering a game dependent on delicacy of touch. Sometimes temperamental during play. A sore loser.

Arnold Schoenberg

Dazzling command of tennis technique: His forehand and backhand alike can be devastating both down the line and cross-court. Has a tricky spin serve. Ability to mount a successful game plan is phenomenal, and few can crack his concentration. Plays best when the crowd is against him.

Aaron Copland

Court coverage is swift and fluid. Affects a no-nonsense serve-and-volley style, but can toy skillfully with an opponent, using a combination of lobs and drop shots. Serve is powerful but erratic. Once at the net, he can angle away anything he reaches.  Affable and straightforward, a gallery favorite of both connoisseurs and newcomers to the game.

Michael Tippett

With his deep back swing and early committed stance, he tends to signal his shots, counting too much on his imposing stature and sheer ambition to carry the day. Sometimes awkward footwork makes him vulnerable in long rallies. At his best when he can play out a point down the center of the court, hitting topspin drives from the baseline until the opportunity for a strong approach shot presents itself. His all-or-nothing strategy often lets him down.