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).

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.


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.