Sunday, August 16, 2009

Why everyone likes classical music

Today Dan Linsenmann sent me this link, to a talk by Benjamin Zander. A cool performance, for sure, and I have some thoughts about it and its subject matter.

First, I don't know much Schenker, but I've heard enough about it to recognize that Zander's explanation of the Chopin prelude was at least along similar lines. One of the people that's explained Schenkerian analysis to me loves it and the other hates it. In this case, identifying the important notes and the simple descending pattern they follow allowed the audience to understand the structure of the piece. That was cool -- I think usually people can't follow the structure of classical pieces that they hear, and the phrases, even if they're beautiful, lose their direction and meaning in their minds. Understanding something about the overall structure changes that.

But the bigger thoughts I have are about the decline of classical music. He says that only 3% of people are really classical music fans; why is that and what does it mean? Is it something that can be changed by getting people to appreciate it, or does it have to do with the music itself?

Today we take for granted a split between the classical and pop music worlds. I assume that by classical music Zander means what is often today called "art music", which might come pretty close to the conception that people have of it. Highly-trained people making culture in a very formal setting. Even when the audience is sitting on folding chairs in a flat in Pilsen, basically the same ritual is performed. And pop music looks just the opposite. Enterprising people work out simple, catchy tunes and broadcast them using loudspeakers over the shouts of the crowd.

I have long thought that there was room for both of these kinds of music, but that what we have today is an even wider split than art vs. pop: academic vs. commercial. Much "important" art music today is incomprehensible to even very well educated people. As recently as 1913 audiences cared enough to fight and riot at the premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps; can anyone picture a classical audience rioting today? I saw a talk on and performance of John Cage's works when I was in college. Many of the people seated around me were School of Music students required to attend for one class or another, and most were skeptical or hostile to Cage's music. They whispered among themselves and one walked out. The speakers and performers went on and on about the triumph of Cage's music over the philistines that loudly bashed it in the 50s. Did they even suspect that most of the audience was only there for a grade? Or that maybe now, in the 21st century, the only reason people don't write scathing reviews of Cage anymore is that they don't care? On the other hand many pop stars are vapid corporate creations expressing nothing but record companies' profit motives. There's hardly any point in even talking about the music.

So we have the ivory tower and the corporate tower. But what's in between is not just a two-lane highway through a desert! It's not really so bad! There's really a pretty big metropolis built up around that corporate tower where musicians are really making music and people are listening. Abbey Road, Zen Arcade, Neon Bible, Quadrophenia, The College Dropout, Kid A, More Songs About Buildings and Food, just to name a few truly popular albums with substance, none perfect, all with something to say. It's made with multi-track recorders and guitars and stuff, and you don't necessarily sit still when you listen (although, as Benny Goodman observed, sometimes you do, even in the middle of a dance number). Commercial music fills many of the same roles that art music used to, and why shouldn't it? Our dominant mode of production is capitalism, and so we produce and consume culture in the same way. We the people have the money to fund our musicians (and/or the technology to rip off their work) and this is going to result in a different-looking musical culture than the Old-World tradition of composers supported by feudal lords. The Soviet system, while it lasted, had a distinct musical culture, although I don't know much about it. And then, of course, sitting beside these things in all societies, there is folk music, which to me is music that has more to do with family and community than modes of production.

Zander, in his talk, played two pieces, one by Mozart and one by Chopin. So nothing written in the last 100 years. But then again I didn't list any albums recorded in the last two years in my last paragraph -- I wasn't trying to be exhaustive and he certainly wasn't. I don't think it's a coincidence, though. It's clearly important to understand our history and appreciate great works of the past. It's just as important to take that same critical ear to present-day culture. Even if only 3% of people are classical music fans, many more than that listen closely to the pop music that's usually more relevant today. If everyone can understand a bit of Schenker and love a Chopin prelude, everyone can also also appreciate that Bowie, the Talking Heads, and Radiohead all used random processes in their songwriting, just like Cage, and made it listenable even.

1 comment:

Danhongo! said...

I remember attending a cso performance in my early college years that began with a contemporary piece by who I think was a relatively known composer (at least among avid listeners/aspiring "art" musicians...) I couldn't personally connect with the piece in the entirety of the 30 minute duration. However, it definitely connected on some level with other people, because people started booing, I heard a few ask, "what kind of shit is this?", and people started walking out, leaving only about 15-20% of the original audience. Perhaps the composer accomplished his intention with that piece; Perhaps he didn't. EIther way, it was nice to know that the people were listening rather than admiring their fur coats or pondering whether or not their date was going to bang them later in the night because they took them to a *snobbish cough cough, perhaps spoken in the style of the waiter in Ferris Bueler's Day Off* Classical Music Performance.

Perhaps they were being impatient though and selectively listening to what they came to hear which, in my opinion, is pretty boring. Part of the thrill of live performances is not knowing what to expect. Are many audiences getting lazy? Do they know longer want stimulation, but rather, familiarity? Of course, we can't generalize audiences... but with all these recent conveniences technology has offered, I feel expressive and daring music might become too inconvenient. How else is pop music popular? Why else would they visually aestheticize it with lights, pyrotechnics, makeup?

I'm going for run and ponder this a bit more... Expect another semi-constructed rant soon :-)