Wednesday, December 14, 2005

This gets a little out of hand

I missed this at the time, but Greg Sandow put in his two cents on AmTrag for the Post, closing with his patented "I wish this was more like HBO instead of boring, irrelevant classical music" line (most of the review is appropriate, if a bit mean-spirited). I've been thinking about Sandow's recent book post a lot, so I guess this is as good a moment as any to get into it.

Sandow's exercise is this: take the viewpoint of someone with no serious interest in, predisposition towards, or even attraction to the classical music tradition (blah, blah, its a stupid term--I think we all know what we're talking about here). Then mine the classical music experience for things which would maybe surprise the person who isn't interested and thinks its boring in the first place--musicians should dress down; play in a bar; bop around more while playing; the program notes should be less detailed; louds should be louder; softs should be softer; and the list goes on. And that's just the entertainment side. There's an attitude problem keeping his hypothetical Philistine away as well. He suggests musicians and those who love classical music must: stop wallowing in its elitist trappings; stop going on about aspects too difficult for everyone to understand; and, especially, stop pretending its a more complicated or demanding tradition than pop or jazz.

Putting aside the fact that I think I would find this pretty unconvincing stuff if I didn't give a crap about classical music in the first place, what's really going on here? Despite Sandow's dismissal of the "culture explanation" in a later comment to the post (it is yet another failing of people who like classical music that they are always trying to weasel out of the blame for its impending death), I think its just a bit harder to shrug off.

During the past 3-4 decades the U.S. has witnessed: the full maturation of an instant gratification mass media based on ever more efficient technology to deliver it; the emergence of new corporate structures in the form of multinational media conglomerates able to saturate the market more effectively; a wave of anti-intellectualism from the right combined with a wave of antagonism towards the western tradition from the left; a rather sudden retreat of the classical tradition into its avant garde and academic wings; and the drastic lowering of the median age to which mainstream culture directs itself. Against these sweeping changes, is it really more plausible to think classical music somehow just got exponentially more boring?

Contra Sandow, we have to think about classical music as a tradition in flux, rather than a tradition that has somehow lost its bearings and its meaning. Because to take his approach is essentially to claim that the experience of classical music today, is invalid, when in truth that experience is as central a part of the evolving tradition as the music making. And, as I've noted before, an artistic tradition isn't like making widgets or overhauling the school system. It evolves on its own terms and according to its own internal forces.

So what are some of the attributes of the experience today? For one, we prefer to experience classical music from an informed perspective when possible. We care that the artists producing it possess a craft unique in rigor, skill, and detail. We like the fact that classical compositions possess a depth that rewards those who choose to delve deeper. We are pleased that the artists make artistic choices based on the merits as they are currently understood. We are happy that the concert going experience has evolved beyond what it was in Brahms' day, when a concert goer would very likely never have had an opportunity to hear the work in question before and likely never would again. We are glad that people are quiet during performances because it lets us focus on the music in a way that concert goer of the late 19th century would rarely have been afforded. While it might be vindicating to live in a society where classical music occupied the place of primacy it did in Brahms' day, the way classical music is experienced today is a far better fit for how we choose to appreciate it.

So instead of trying to parse out reasons why someone could ever come to like classical music in the first place, perhaps Sandow should ask the people that actually, you know, like it...right now. I know it looks like we're catatonic with boredom and absorbed in our own elitism, but its just listening. You might have run into 4000 of us on 66th street Saturday night after the rapturous applause died down.

Looking around the classical music scene today, there's a lot to be worried about, but where there are doors closing, there are also a lot of windows opening. While commercial classical radio (and for that matter any non-crap commercial radio) is surely going extinct, the Internet has become a remarkable and vibrant tool for disseminating information, music, and discussion, especially regarding new music. While many orchestras are in dire financial straits, many are programming new music and more interesting programs, and an appreciation of new work beyond avant garde circles is growing slowly but surely. While the Plastico Tristan may indeed be the death knell for studio opera recording, the quality of live recording has become so high that we probably don't need any stuffy old studio recordings anymore.

But these promising signs matter to people that are actively willing to engage with the tradition as it exists now. Any attempt to make it more robust has to recognize that there is a meaningful experience being had, even if it is facing a tough adaptation, and build from there. I think its safe to say that most of Sandow's analysis and recommendations, on the other hand, would make any musician or self-respecting classical music fan cringe in horror. Doesn't that tell us anything?

Ok. I know this is long. But just one extended quibble.

As to his relentless attempts to put classical and pop music on equal footing. The whole leveling thing he tries to do is just a deeply misguided and frankly unappealing way to think about different musical experiences available today. We're talking about music, a labor of love for most people...why shouldn't they be allowed to make value judgments? And why is it such a bad thing that different genres should have superiority over others in some respects?

My mother was telling me stories she heard recently about how Evgeny Kissin, during the intermissions to his recitals, finds a piano backstage and continues practicing--this, a man who has probably practiced no less than 4 hours on any given day in his conscious existence. This makes me impressed by Evgeny Kissin, and the monomanical devotion that classical artists have for their craft. But I don't want to hear that this is what Bono does backstage during U2 halftimes. The man is a rock and roll star. He should be blowing lines or doing groupies or solving African poverty or something. I have no doubt he's an extremely talented musician and he writes very good songs, but the two just aren't comparable in terms of infinite technical craftsmanship, NOR SHOULD THEY BE.

And for another thing, I for one am glad that we can be explicit about the fact that a Brahms symphony is an order of magnitude more complex than a rock and roll song. Brahms meant to write complicated music, and while there is certainly great emotional power in his symphonies, exploring their complexity is really the logical end to enjoying them. In that vein, I am glad that there are scholars and critics who write about these things and can help me to understand them when I so choose.

Paul McCartney, on the other hand, for all the depth of his pop compositions, first and foremost means to write good, affecting songs. I suppose it's nice that there are rock snobs around who can obsess about the details, but I could enjoy Sgt. Pepper's for the rest of my life without giving a hoot about what they have to say. Because that's what popular music is. It's just different than art music, and that's how it should be.

Last thing. I need to let the air out of his rock music=authentic experience/classical music=fake elitist experience construct. If he thinks rock music is all about an authentic passion that somehow eludes classical music, I would invite him to come to one of our many fine clubs in Williamsburg and prove to me that 50 percent of the experience isn't just feelin' cool and enjoying the ambiance of the other dour hipsters. Live music is a social experience and it comes with a healthy dose of superficial environmental factors that have little to do with the actual music. That's fine. But let's not pretend like people that go to rock music don't have their own petty reasons for doing so. I mean...please.

Thanks to anyone still time I decide to blow off a morning at the office maybe I'll go back to my thoughts about realistic ways to strengthen the tradition and why Sandow's interminable cries of elitist are so misplaced. Later...

Update: 12/17 - A response to some comments here...thanks for writing!


Maury D'annato said...

A-Sung, this is good stuff. About to give it a more thorough read, but I wanted to join the amen chorus by mentioning those cd's they hopefully only used to make called Opera for People who Hate Opera, or Classical Music for People Who Would Rather Shove a Fork in their Ear, or whatever. I could never imagine who would buy them. If you hate it, hate it, right? These attempts to make it more hip don't really do much for anyone except I suppose people with titles like "Creative Vice President." If the entire NYPhil puts on whiskered jeans and Buddy Holly glasses, it's not going to save Beethoven and Brahms. It's just going to make a bunch of grown-ups look like morons.

A.C. Douglas said...

You're far too kind -- and paying far too much serious attention -- to Mr. Sandow, just another typical hanger-on to the hypocritical '60s equalitarian, anti-intellectual, do-your-own-thing mentality, trying desperately to justify his insatiable '60s-"revolutionary" appetite for populist trash -- the mother's milk of that generation -- by attempting to place it on the same footing, and in the same league, with genuine art. There are but two ways to deal with this type: ignore them, or ridicule them -- briefly.


Lisa Hirsch said...

Excellent posting, Alex (and thanks to the other Alex - Ross - for the pointer to this).

Henry Holland said...

Excellent stuff, A. I find Sandow infuriating for many of the same reasons as you. I just think it's bizarre that a man who seemingly can't stand the traditional orchestra concert and opera performance is sent to review them. It's a good scam, I guess, but still.

jult52 said...

At least Sandow is trying to deal with an important trend, which is that so many people -- people who love music, are intelligent, curious, play instruments -- no longer know anything about classical music -- and they don't care either. Your post avoids the issue entirely. (The use of "we" and those 4,000 rapturous listeners tries to shroud the issue in a rhetorical ploy.)

The decline in the size of the classical audience is not just an economic issue. An artistic milieu exists as a social culture as well and when that social culture fragments beyond a point, then it is in difficult shape for all sorts of reasons and one that will affect the actual artistic product. Saying that social, aesthetic and economic influences on art interact is a cliche but cliches are true.

And the snorting about popularization efforts and emphasizing the superiority of classical music (which I do personally acknowledge-- high-quality classical music IS better than popular music) is most-likely off-putting to prospective audiences. Let's face it -- people don't believe there is a "best" in art and, even if they did, it wouldn't move them to listen to that "best," because the "best" is simply not what people seek. (I'll add that "the best" is an excessively vague marketing idea. Look for how many infrequently high-level advertising touts something as "the best" without a very concrete meaning behind it.)

Contrary to other commenters, I find wellsung's post irrelevant and ostrich-like.

Dan VanHassel said...

I agree with some of your points, however your point about rock and classical music has annoyed me enough to make me respond.

I am deeply bothered by this argument that rock music is "perfectly it's place". "That place" being where people go to get simplistic animal pleasures from stylish, hip performers.

Why is somebody who finds layers of deep meaning in rock music a "snob" while somebody who finds meaning in classical is merely appreciating it properly. I enjoy both genres very much, and I don't think that they're the same, or that everyone should like both. But believe me there are just as many layers of complexity to good music in either genre. Just because you only recognize and appreciate the surface qualities of an album like Sgt. Pepper doesn't mean there isn't more there for those who choose to look. I don't believe I, and others like me, are "rock snobs" simply because we are able to find meaning somewhere that you can't or won't.

I agree that the genres are different, and I don't think that the standards of one should be applied to the other, which perhaps is a fallacy of Sandow's thinking. However, I don't think you should be so quick to dismiss the artistic and aesthetic observations of others, which might contradict your thoughts on the supposed superiority of a particular genre.

A.C. Douglas said...

Dan VanHassel wrote:

But believe me there are just as many layers of complexity to good music in either genre [rock and classical music].

Pardon me, sir, but that's absurd. The only genuine complexity (as opposed to complicatedness) in rock is in the lighting cues for so-called rock "concerts". As far as the music itself is concerned, you actually got it right (but not as you intended) when you wrote that the place for rock is where people repair to derive, "simplistic animal pleasures from stylish, hip performers."

Do I have contempt for rock? Not in the least -- as long as it's considered critically in its proper place within in its own aesthetic hierarchy.

This article on that matter may be of some interest you.


Dan VanHassel said...

Well, it's good to know that I characterized your side's position so accurately, and here I thought I was verging on an insulting oversimplification.

A.C., you obviously have a strong opinion on this matter, and I don't hope to convince you of my way of thinking. However, don't you think it's a little condescending to tell people the way they are to perceive a piece of music or any work of art? I obviously get something totally different out of certain pieces of music than you do, and I wonder why you feel the need to insist that my perceptions are wrong, and yours are right. I have to say it's a little insulting for you to say that my way of perceiving music is absurd. You seem to feel you have a monopoly on what goes on in other people's heads when they hear a piece of music. You may personally consider musical parameters such as timbre and rhythm less interesting or important than melodic and harmonic relationships, but that is an opinion, not an objective fact.

A.C. Douglas said...

You may personally consider musical parameters such as timbre and rhythm less interesting or important than melodic and harmonic relationships, but that is an opinion, not an objective fact.


I don't know whence you received the above impression, but it's quite wrong. Timbre, rhythm, melody, harmony (and counterpoint) are parameters of all music, even rock (I exclude rap altogether as that's so primitive a form of music that it borders on a misnomer even to call it music). The difference between rock and classical music in this immediate context is that rock is, by design, relatively simplistic in its uses of all the above parameters, whereas classical music is anything but. The former, because simplistic, is easily accessible; the latter, not. That's why rock is popular music, and classical is not.


Henry Holland said...

Some free associating here...

And the snorting about popularization efforts and emphasizing the superiority of classical music (which I do personally acknowledge-- high-quality classical music IS better than popular music) is most-likely off-putting to prospective audiences.

As somebody who had his life changed by hearing Cream and Jimi Hendrix in 1968 as an 8 year old (made me want to play music, so I became a bass player--thanks Jack Bruce!) and then by classical and opera as a young adult (thanks to ELP, Yes, King Crimson and Gentle Giant), I'm convinced that people who aren't in to classical music constantly make excuses for that fact. If it's not the snobbery of us us Wagner lovers--and trust me, the snobbery of the Pitchfork "indie-r than thou" crowd is much more upfront and intense than any opera queen I've ever met--it's the fact that

they have to be quiet while the music is playing

they can't get up and walk around and check their text messages

they can't wear shitty jeans and a Slayer t-shirt (they can but they'll look stupid, just like wearing a coat and tie to a death metal show would be)

the players don't smile or emote or dance around or have simulated orgies on stage

there's no Dead/Phish-esque light show

[and my favorite eyeball roll inducer that I read on Sandow's blog] there's actually people that can afford $80 orchestra seats and *gasp* they have the fucking nerve to buy those tickets and actually sit in the seats, the snobbish rich bastards!

etc. etc.

As I wrote on Sandow's blog, there's no excuse in this age of the Internets to not be able to explore classical music on your own. There's dozens of sites--or embedded within almost every opera company and orchestra's website a dedicated section--geared to helping new people "learn about classical music". Of course, there's a whole boatload of books that are variations on "Opera for Dummies". I really get the feeling of cultural blackmail sometimes--if every single damn thing isn't exactly as the newcomer wants it, fuck it, they're not going to bother. This was made explicit while reading a lot of the posts on the "Take a Newcomer to the Symphony" posts that a lot of classical bloggers did about 9 months-a year ago. Obviously, if someone has zero interest in Strauss or Dvorak because they think Ludacris is the be-all, end-all of music, then that's fine, those people are a "lost cause" for want of a better term. There's plenty of people out there who are vaguely interested in classical/opera but they act sometimes as if aliens have to abduct you and implant the knowledge, instead of taking a little initiative themselves. That's how I did it--I went to the library, checked out records and books and off I went.

I'm sorry, most "youth outreach" programs ARE lame. The basic premise: we'll do everything we can to make the actual act of going to a concert--you know, sitting in a concert hall, staying still and quiet, not yapping while the music is playing--as invisible and unimportant as possible. I've just snorted with derision at seeing things like "speed dating at the symphony" kinds of things. If by some miracle they get a % of the crowd slightly interested in the actual concert experience, what's going to happen when all the bells-and-whistles aren't there, when it's just a normal subscription concert of short Haydn symphony, Rach 2nd piano concerto, Beethoven 7th? Those people will stay away because they're really there for the bells and whistles with the music as a background thing.

I'm just constantly amazed at the idea of "if we only played more new music, instead of so much Beethoven, we'd get bigger crowds" trope. It's a lie! A vast majority of people, newbie or people who have been going to the NY Phil for 45 years, do NOT want to hear to new music.

And while there's no shortage of Sandow-esque "The classical music sky if falling!" type screeds around, how come it's rarely mentioned in those screeds that the following art forms are experiencing much the same problems:

guitar based rock (totally overshadowed by hip hop in terms of sales and cultural relevance)

jazz (started it's slide to mass audience irrelevancy with the advent of be-bop, ie not dance music, with the free jazz and avant garde of the 60's applying the coupe de grace)

ballet (thank you AIDS)

movies (jury is still out)

novels not named The Da Vinci Code

and there's no attempt to connect the dots? Fine, we're undergoing a tectonic shift in the way culture is consumed and presented, but I find it totally dispiriting that it seems that it's so easy to pile on classical music and opera--lord knows they provide enough ammo at times--but almost every single time, the burden is on "our" side, that nothing is expected of the potential customer except a whiny, petulent "Impress me NOW" attitude.

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