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4.14.2006

everybody knows what i'm talking about 

There's an interesting dialogue going on at Alex Ross's blog today about classical music, specifically, attempts to figure out what elements are responsible for its loss of apprecation, audience, and general place in American culture. It would appear that, on some kind of larger scale, the same kinds of cultural earthquakes that made rock music cool made classical music uncool.

One key point brought up by Steve Metcalf via Ross and then A.C. Douglas is about the inability of the educational system to expose kids to the classical genre. They don't all agree about whether or not you can blame the schools.

-Metcalf says, "Blaming the schools for the problems of the concert hall is, I'm afraid, a cop-out. It excuses us from the harder task of inventing genuinely compelling new concert models and thinking up compelling new ways to sell them to an over-stimulated and distractible public."
-Douglas says, "In today's world, the single most important — overwhelmingly important — entity in the promotion of classical music is none other than the commercial media, cable and broadcast TV most especially."
-Ross says, "The need now is to recapture the attention of young adults, not by making the music superficially "cool" (can't be done, anyway) but by stressing its passion, its intelligence, its relevance."

Back in college (Music degrees do actually have relevance) we spent a lot of time talking about the seismic postwar rumblings that caused this earthquake. But it's the classic black hole of History, and we can find significance as far back as we want - The French Revolution, maybe?

I'm not going to go that far back, but I do want to go beyond WWII. I think that the real culprit, since we are assigning blame, is the 19th century-era canonization of the western Germanic tradition. The very obvious split between "serious" classical works and "trashy" operas was not dissimilar to the genre-pandering marketing engine of today's pop music industry. In the same way that a contemporary rock critic will invoke the spirit of, say, Led Zeppelin, The Ramones, and Radiohead to establish a credible background for a new post-rock-post-punk-emo-retro-soul band, for about 150 solid years now, classical music appreciation starts with Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner. Anyone who ever took piano lessons will verify this. There is an implicit assumption that people who appreciate classical music are involved in an intellectual dialogue with the music itself, and if they are not, then they aren't part of the club.

Meanwhile, Rossini's operas were hits, and in the realm of industry-speak they were the Top 40, the Garth Brooks. It's no suprise that a social divide caused a division in the market. This is no strange occurence to us today.

Therefore, and I hope you can follow my train of thought, to try and blame the schools for not being able to indoctrinate children with the Beethoven bug is absolutely ludicrous. There are so many upsetting problems regarding schools and arts education, but this is not one of them. To relegate classical music to a scholastic experience merely furthers the pigeonhole effect, limiting the realm of experience to academia, separating it from the grit and passion of regular experience; this instinct shows that we have come no further than about 1875.

Despite the differences of opinion of the above critics (and they are not incredibly different, either), one thing jumps out at me. They adhere to the term "classical music" in a way that will not help them in their common cause. Everybody understands that it's a term of convenience; it applies to the Germanic canon but also to Debussy and John Adams and plenty of contemporary symphonic or opera composers that I don't know enough about. Nevertheless, if they are concerned with selling, they will need to change their terms. Critics and salesmen knew it in the 19th century, and these days they call it branding, but the question of naming is essential to changing the public opinion. What category would the Kronos Quartet fall in? (By the way, Mr. Ross has a great review of them in a recent New Yorker) - Or how about Elvis Costello's new release with the Brodsky Quartet - more like a Schubert than anyone else I can think of. And a lot of Billy Joel's earlier work crosses the line as well. These are just a few obvious examples.

Musicians, even rock musicians, especially rock musicians, owe a whole lot to people like Beethoven and Wagner. I hear echoes all the time. The social stigma of classical music is undoubtedly what keeps people away.

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26 Comments:

My problem with Alex Ross' blog is that there's never any "dialogue" going on there.

Hey Alex, when are you going to enable comments? Believe me, we'd all learn a great deal more that way.

Ali, forgive this brief hijack. Normal transmission now resumes.

By Blogger St Antonym, at 14/4/06 4:18 PM  

So, this discussion.

For those of us who get our kicks from Stenhammar and Saariaho, it's obviously a little sad to realise that we are in a distinct (and ever shrinking) minority.

But I don't know if anything can be "done" about it.

The fundamental issue seems to be that serious-mindedness has fallen out of favor in a big way. Take my situation for example: non-American, under 35, poor, and an immigrant. From my point of view, classical music is very available (whether on Amazon, or at Tower Records), no more expensive than anything else (and often cheaper. Naxos, anyone?), and widely available at a very high level in live performances.

I've heard Alex gripe about the cost of classical tickets. But this doesn't seem to jive with reality. What's the rock music equivalent of seeing brilliant Juilliard students play free of charge every week? As a student, I can get mighty fine seats for Alfred Brendel for $10. OK, not mighty fine, but they are seats anyway. What's the going rate for the cheapest Radiohead or U2 tickets? I love rock music almost as much as I like classical, and the plain truth is that classical is far far more affordable. Jazz, that's another expensive habit. But classical? Come on now!

No, people. The bad news is that people just don't *like* classical music. The same way they don't like to learn Greek or Sanskrit, the same way they don't like needlepoint or engravings, or sit through Antonioni films. Culture changes, but these particular changes have to do with the loss of slownesss, seriousness and concentration.

(full disclosure: I can't sit through Antonioni either. And I just don't like needlepoint).

By Blogger St Antonym, at 14/4/06 4:29 PM  

Hey, there - excellent posting, Ali. Alex refers back to you at his blog, which is how I found you.

I don't know when you were in college. I was at Brandeis from 1975-1980 (there was a year's leave of absence in there). At the time, it was faintly frowned upon to think about studying Italian opera, and I believe that was true in most of the musicological world, though people were already looking seriously at Verdi (I hope people are now looking seriously at Puccini, Rossini, etc., etc. - a thought that I'm sure makes ACD apoplectic). That's changed, thank goodness, but the canonization of the Germanic had the effects you might expect on composition. A friend of mine was not treated well by the music department because....he wasn't writing serialist music.

By Blogger Lisa Hirsch, at 16/4/06 11:38 AM  

Re Alex - if I were music critic of TNY and got two thousands hits a day, I wouldn't enable commenting on my blog. I'd never be able to handle the volume, and undoubtedly there would be plenty of vitriol, as well. Who needs it?

By Blogger Lisa Hirsch, at 16/4/06 11:39 AM  

True.

But sometimes, he writes such exciting things, and I think a forum where people could publically swoon over recordings and performances would be *good* for classical music.

But, yes, point taken.

By Blogger St Antonym, at 16/4/06 2:19 PM  

I'm happy to open up this blog as a space for comments on Alex Ross's blog -
carry on,
Ali

By Blogger Ali, at 17/4/06 7:21 AM  

Honestly, the price of classical music tickets just depends on where you are. But realize two things, antonym,

1) A university concert is only available to people studying at that university or people who live really close to it. Therefor, any chance of hearing new music, cheaply, will likely vanish after one graduates.

2) People can hear "expensive" popular music cheaper than classical music through CD's and iTunes downloads. If you want new classical music to spread, you have to spread it at the CD level, not the concert level. I don't know why this upsets people; we have 299,255,966 people in an area of 3,718,711 square miles, one concert hall that can hold 5,000 people in ONE city is no match for a CD that can be internationally shipped to 100,000 people in a matter of days. We live in a era where things simply travel faster, and classical music forces itself to be rooted at the local level so often.

3) America is a HUGE country, the 3rd largest in the world, and many many cities do not have concert halls within any reasonable driving distance. New York seems to be the glaring exception. But in most cities where surburban areas are fairly elaborate, you have to drive out of the suburb itself and then a little while to get to the area you want to go, which is about 5 minutes at least, to drive to our local theater here is about 25-30 minutes which costs expectedly a lot of money in gas. Concert Halls used to flourish because city design was at the local level; everything was placed within short distance of eachother so that it made sense and could be walked to. Now, business owners just place things where they can simply afford it. It is not the way that concert halls are treated but that the concert hall is bordering on becoming obsolete.

Here are some more problems, which I sent in a letter to ACD.

I've been reading your blog posts about this issue as well as many of the others you referred to, I have contemplated this issue and I think I have come up with an answer although I can't promise that you will like it.

There are a few reasons as to why classical music is 'dying' and it's not merely because people didn't learn about it at a younger age. Most art forms are becoming so monumental that approaching them requires education, classes, what have you. Approaching an art film, because it is relatively new, undeveloped (as opposed to music, poetry, et al), and familiar, is much easier than approaching Stockhausen or Xenakis.

Advertising it on television is not entirely impossible, but it will not cultivate the type of people in the way that you want them to be cultivated, as I am not sure if you understand how little regard or care television executives have for art. They have done this before and it ends up with compilation CD's in the vein of "Mozart's Greatest Hits!!" or something similar. The ONLY commercial that was even the slightest bit tasteful was "101 opera favorites" on the history channel, which has a hard time sustaining itself as it is.

As for marketing it as a luxury good.. luxury goods are forcefully selective. Gucci would not be Gucci if you could buy it at Macy's, it is restricted to Saks Fifth Avenue and the like. Classical music is intellectually selective, and in order to be a "luxury good" it would have to cater to a financial class, not an intellectual one, and there is nothing about classical music that makes it financially more expensive; on the contrary, it is usually cheaper. Your problem isn't assisted by the fact that most people who are financially secure do not have the time to learn about classical music much less care about it, and most of them have grown up on popular music themselves

All art forms will inevitably progress this way. Picture the design of an asterisk, except as streams; all of the bodies of water (I know you hated the river metaphor, but bear with me) originate from one area but eventually expand farther from eachother. At the base level they are similar and transition between them is easy but as they branch out farther this becomes more difficult. People who practice new forms of poetry likely feel the same way about people who are knowledgeable about contemporary classical music but ignorant about new forms of poetry or what have you for other art forms.

I can cite myself as an example; while I may be up-to-date with contemporary classical music, I have never read any work of fictional (nonfictional, yes, but fictional, no) literature other than the few cases where I was forced to do so. Approaching that type of literature at this point is daunting and would take immense amounts of time, especially when I could spend that time reading works of philosophy or other more productive writings.

So when you regard all art forms capable of achieving high art as equal and acknowledge that they should have education for these you face a problem on how the education should be spread. If there is a "music appreciation", then why not a "poetry appreciation" and "cinema appreciation", and so on for every art form that demands this sort of preparation that would cultivate connoisseurs. You would then end up with a situation where the bulk of time spent was learning about arts, which sounds fine to you, but to be unfortunately blunt, they don't matter much. Science, math, history, language, health, what have you are pivotal to our development. Art is largely optional in that it is not necessarily required for our development even though we can develop artistically.

We are reaching an intellectual fork in the road where you can major in "useful subjects" or you can major in "arty subjects". Philosophy and Architecture get their own special roadways with this. Fine art requires a level of commitment and time that most individuals in modern society cannot manage at the hobby level. Comparisons to wine are fruitless (ha....ha..) endeavors because wine does not intellectually advance drastically over time as the arts do. A good wine is just a good wine, there is no "postmodern avant-garde wine" unless I am sadly mistaken.

A society that makes more money is more powerful and a society that has higher technology is more powerful. Despite how many would say their culture is superior, the USA can absolutely destroy France in terms of power and this is because the USA is an overall more productive nation than France. Philosophy is useful to law, mathematics, politics, what have you. Architecture is useful to living as we have to have a roof over our head, obviously. But art is useful to art and not much else; arguments put forth by art can be put more effectively into logical argument. Emotion has no place in logic or debate, but it has every place in art. This is why the government would choose to fund education for children on subjects that can be put to use, they have solid objectivity.

The USA as well as other countries are getting busier and busier by the day. Unlike the days of the past, the financially wealthy do not have surplus time, in fact, their schedules are often much busier and longer than the middle class. Overall, even in the middle class which is the most time-rich, the nation is getting busier, and as this happens we have smaller and smaller time intervals for hobbies, such as art appreciation. This is why entertainment is what it is, it is an "easier" art. Or you could try the inverse, and say that art is a "harder" entertainment, or "more complex", or "more intellectual". (which, admittedly, seems like a more dignified way of saying "more complex")

The point is, it is not just classical music which is dying but 'highbrow art' as a whole. We are lucky that the Pulitzer Prize and other well-recognized awards still exist. Only a few art forms are able to survive because they are more accessible or take less time and I don't think classical music will be one of them. Painting and sculpture will because it can be a financial investment for the rich if they buy a painter's work who will be a significant figure 100 years from now. But it is doubtful that classical music will. You can't "invest" in classical music. Comparisons to advanced literature are unfair - all you have to own is the book, and the only commodity the writer needs are things to type it. Art films are able to survive because the film medium is ridiculously popular and it doesn't take a ton of work to appreciate a good film like 21 Grams. Orchestras and opera houses require a lot more than that. I think that in the next century we will see a decline of interest in the arts as a whole, not just because of lack of funding but because other subjects are more pivotal to learn.


Tell me what you think,
(although I'm positive it will be negative,)
-Alfred H. MacDonald IV


I hope this helps, although I can't say that it will make anyone feel better. I'm on your side, but what I think will happen is not, unfortunately. I am not a blogger and it to me strikes me as a more intellectual "myspace", but I could not pass up delivering input into this discussion.

-A. H. MacDonald IV

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