Friday, August 12, 2011

Classical Music With a Pop Sensibility

How much has a pop music sensibility invaded the classical music world? Have a look at this article with accompanying photo of pianist Yuja Wang. If you didn't know she was a pianist what would you have guessed? Escapee from a reality TV show? Pole-dancer?

This has been going on for quite a while. Remember Vanessa-Mae?
Her first big album was released in 1995 combining classical and pop music, but she was really a pop musician who played violin, though she started out as a classical musician. More and more these days, though, a pop music sensibility seems to be invading all of classical music. Here is another article. By "pop music sensibility" I suppose I am talking mostly about sexuality. We are always, it seems, looking for the next young thing, but isn't it the case these days that the next young thing, especially if she is female, just always seems to be extremely good-looking? Here is another young pianist:

This is slightly troubling because while the playing is a bit dull, the artist is extremely attractive. I've always had the idea that the performer should not overshadow the piece. But this is hardly a fundamental principle--just a feeling. I do know that how she looks sticks in my mind, but how she plays, in this and other music, does not.

Now what is the probability that all the young stars of today also happen to be very attractive? Surely there must be some stupendous young musicians out there who are rather plain? And if there are, then they seem to be being eliminated somewhere along the line? Is it in school, university or conservatory? At Julliard or Peabody? Or does it happen at the competition level? Faced with two brilliant players do the judges tend to choose the more attractive one because they know their chances of a career are better? Based on my experience with competitions I strongly suspect that the most interesting musician will always place second or third just out of the sheer obtuseness of the judges. So a very beautiful competitor with facility will often win the competition over an interesting musician. That seems to be what Buniatishvili has: facility. Oh, and Yuja Wang, too:

They both sound rather alike to me. Smooth (though not with an entirely even touch), facile and predictable. Good fingers without much actually happening under the surface. In order to confirm this impression--for it is nothing more--I looked for some Beethoven by these artists without much luck, at least on YouTube. But I did find them together doing this:
Now that reminds me of the lesbian scene with Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis from Black Swan. Yes, very, uh, enjoyable. But not a primarily musical experience. Both of these artists seem also to avoid Bach the way vampires avoid holy water. Possibly for similar reasons. It is not very easy for me to decide much about a performer's depth of musical understanding if all they play is music with itself very little depth. But perhaps that's the point.

Oh, I understand the motivation. You have to do whatever you need to, to get noticed in the very competitive musical world of today. It's the same in pop music. But I think that at some point someone ought to point out that a sexy dress and a moving performance are actually different things.

Here is a performance from a famously hip and eccentric pianist from not that long ago:
Sure, I know he played a couple of wrong notes, but it is a musically strong performance of a powerful piece of music (with an interesting and unexpected ornament at the end). Could Friedrich Gulda manage to become known if he appeared today? Or Martha Argerich?


Ian Stewart said...

I have just found your writing after reading your comments on Greg Sandow's blog.
Although I have come to it two months late, I enjoyed your article "Classical Music With a Pop Sensibility" and think you are exactly right in saying that the performer should not overshadow the music. However most people are attractive in some way and scrubbing up as part of marketing I do not see as a problem. In England there are numerous makeover programmes where anyone can be made to look good, also attractiveness is more often than not feeling comfortable in you body and choosing an image that suits you. If a good image becomes de facto a sexual image then it is definitely a bad thing I believe.

This leads me to think of two extremes. On the one hand English jazz musicians sometime ago would be ostentatiously scruffy (and often rude) because they refused to sell out; selling out seemed to extend to washing both themselves and their clothes and being polite to their audience. The other extreme are the female R & B singers who flaunt their sexuality all the time which is really tiring.

Like Greg Sandow I really do think that classical music needs to improve its marketing. In England every concert promotion seems to use meaningless clich├ęs; innovative, cutting-edge, young, exciting, bare knuckle ride etc.etc. If a designer dress on females and designer jacket and stubble on males obviates the need for these meaningless words its a good thing. But there are limits and I hope we have now reached the limits and there will now be a pulling back. A cover I realy like is Nicola Benedetti's Italia CD which refers back to the very stylish images of classical Italian cinema.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Ian,

Welcome to the blog! Very interesting observations... Totally in agreement with the things you mention: intelligent promotion, hygiene, trying to look good--these are all good things. What I don't like is the projection of an extremely sexy image coupled with humdrum performance. It you want to be edgy, then let's hear some edgy phrasing as well!

Vili said...

Hmm ... I think that classical isn't a dead genre like perhaps like the Latin language but I do think that classical music is frozen in time. Although initiatives like pop fusions with classical are great I do think that they take away from a bigger market of classical music which is the whole "classical music is ancient so let's protect and save it". I mean classical music has a huge base of monetary donors because of this and has great support from government (at least in my country).

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Vili,

Thanks for your comment! Where do you live? Since the 19th century, state support for the cultural heritage of the past has been an accepted part of the role of government--for better or worse. The idea of losing part of our artistic heritage is not a pleasant one. But I agree, the public sense is that classical music is somehow 'frozen in time' despite lots of evidence to the contrary. We have a host of composers like Philip Glass, Steve Reich, John Adams, Thomas Ades, Osvaldo Golijov and many others who are writing music that is winning a wider musical public. But information about classical music seems shut out of the mass media. Television rarely has a classical artist and newspapers and magazines have less and less coverage.

Robert S said...

I just had to put some more good examples to contribute here, Please feel free to click on the youtube button to read the top comments...

Lola Astanova ( An young Russian pianist )

Milos karadaglic ( This time it's a Man )

I'm not saying that Milos Or Astanova cannot play very well. But just go Milo's site and check out his upcoming concert list. Here's the link : It's almost as if he got all the shows, and can get any show at any part of the world. Sure Milos is good and talented although some people think that it's a joke for him to sign with Deutsche Grammaphobe without having to win any guitar competition or earn some recognition. I guess it's quite obvious that there are much better and greater players than Milos who are more skilled and talented yet they hardly get any shows or fame. Check out Jorge Caballero

The man is outstanding, yet he hardly gets any shows or recognition because of his average looks.

This is his site -

Sex sells more than Art music ever will. And I suppose it's safe to acknowledge that Capitalism and High Art does not get along very well. :)

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Robert,

Thanks for the contributions. I've posted about both Astanova and Karadaglic here:

and here

Thanks for the tip about Jorge Caballero!

Robert S said...

Wow Mr.Townsend, it appears that you are pretty updated. :) I think I am going to be a big fan of your blogs :)

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Robert!!

It's fun to write and I love getting comments.

MikeR said...

It is a huge relief to know that the real reason I will never find the way to Carnegie Hall has more to do with the advancing years and the mere-male hang-dog looks, than with 68 years of delinquent piano practice.
I guess it ain't helped by a lifelong loathing of pop

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Mike and welcome to the Music Salon. Yep, it's only a question of better promotion, hey? You are spinning off that old joke: someone comes up to a native New Yorker on the street and asks, "how do I get to Carnegie Hall?" And the answer is "practice, practice, practice!"

Anonymous said...

It sounds like that it is YOUR problem when you cannot discuss musicians like Yuja Wang on her music instead of focusing on her dress.

And the lesbian association when she duet with Buniatishvili ?

Time to see a shrink !

Bryan Townsend said...

No thanks!

(and why is it that people who like to make this kind of shoddy criticism always do so anonymously?)

Marc G said...

Hi Bryan , lovely blog I haven't gone much through yet ! looking for info on the Prokofiev piano sonata's, and was drawn to this post ; very well done and analysed : thought provoking. I liked especially the vampiristic projection...(even though all 'stars' might not like such comparison...). Now, it becomes indeed annoying when the visual show takes precedence over the music/what you get to hear ; however the people's opinions on this topic will diverge since what they are looking for in (classical) music/concerts will diverge too, in terms of acoustic/visual balance... ; hence the expanded musical market based on looks. Am not sure wetter this has a pop, or an ego-oriented, merchandising, consumeristic or basic seductiveness origin, but this attitude is today present in many other avenues of life than music performance: in many professional context, in many social interactions. A purely acoustic performance will work to us, as a good reminder that looks have not necessarily top priority in all events, ways, of life. Nice writing and nice examples.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Marc and welcome to the Music Salon. I assume you found my series of posts on the Prokofiev sonatas? Yes, a lot of different opinions on this subject.

Maury said...

This is actually one of the most important questions facing classical music (however defined). How it's resolved will have a massive influence on the field. .

These are my collected thoughts talking with younger people in their 20s and early 30s as well as young relatives plus hanging out at general Music Forums with large numbers of pop rock listeners.

1. Young people have a sharp dividing line between those artists that write their own material vs those who play other's material. The former are viewed as authentic and the latter somewhat inferior. Similarly, the idea of virtuosity (considered by itself) is mostly out of fashion. Younger people don't mind virtuosity if it is combined with something else such as personality to make it less obvious.

2. It is generally known there is significant overlap between jazz listeners and those who listen to classical. But also those who listen to avant garde pop generally have at least some classical music even if avant garde. People who mainly listen to more mainstream pop are generally not classical crossovers.

3. A significant proportion of classical music sales goes to crossover type material such as The Three Tenors. Of course classical music total gets about 3% of the music biz pie. Women are more likely to buy such crossover albums.

4. With the increase in streaming music, listeners are more likely to play compilations or selections by artists, genre or musical era. Most streaming services as with Amazon are poorly structured for the divide between composer and artists.

5. There is a sharp divide on the Music Forums between those who listen to classical vocal music including opera and those who listen to instrumental music. Rather surprisingly to me, classical music threads on these Forums feature an increasing proportion of Baroque and Medieval/ Renaissance listening, even for people who listen to Mozart to Mahler as well. However, earlier pre Monteverdi vocal music is not viewed as classical singing from 1600-1950.

6. Showboating musicians and singers are present in any era. The reason it is more of a problem now is the static repertoire. This is the same underpinning for the frequently repellent Regietheater because opera goers are a bit tired of the same operas with the same scenery.

7. There is a greater preference for rhythmically active music outside of opera. This is fueling the Baroque music revival. Although even in opera the HIP influence has made Baroque opera more palatable to audiences. It is also true recent recordings of 19th C music are decidedly non Klemperish.

8. As I discussed with the Hillary Hahn encores album, the hostile attitude of classical composers to these trends is making itself known to the audiences that are the object of their contempt. I have to wonder if even the arts bureaucracies are going to continue to fund music which accrues no audience outside of a few specialist publications? As you noted with the Pulitzer Prize and I could add the Nobel Prize given to Bob Dylan I think the answer is likely to be No.

Bryan Townsend said...

Those are a lot of very fascinating observations. I'm not quite sure what they add up to?

Maury said...

I was just trying to describe the landscape as best as I can determine it that classically oriented composers and musicians need to navigate now and for the foreseeable future. Nobody seems to be discussing the specifics of what is a new game in many ways. Obviously the old culture of going to a conservatory, getting a conductor or orchestral position or even a academic teaching position is not going to work except for a handful of people.

But I think one thing that soloists in the future need to consider is whether they have the ability to generate some material for themselves that people are willing to listen to. This was not uncommon in the past. Also the classical world needs to get with the streamers ASAP and work out an appropriate method to catalog the classical library.

What I fear is the situation in point 8 where the composers think they can retreat to a safe haven in universities etc and continue to get funded by the arts bureaucracies. That might be possible in Germany and a few EU countries but as we both noted the status organizations are already gravitating to the pop world trying to get their luster rubbed off on them.

Maury said...

Let me add to the prior comments to try to make it clearer.

Composers have to write music for the audience that exists to get any attention. They also have to be aware of the existing constraints to the kind of compositions they write (eg instruments, length, basic form, difficulty level,likelihood of performance). What would have happened if Mozart composed something like the Symphonie Fantastique in 1783? Or Beethoven composed a large set of madrigals? Or Wagner composed operas describing Buddhist philosophy? What if Beethoven's audience consisted mostly of Tibetan monks?

The current classical audience are the same people mostly listening to pop music daily whether they try to or not. This thread acknowledged that. The audience even for classical music today is not the audience that existed in 1950 let alone 1900 or 1800. Also the recorded formats that used to deliver the music are going away, replaced by a 21st C form of custom radio.

So Mozart, Beethoven, Monteverdi, Josquin all composed music in the manner and basic style their audience was expecting - they just gave them what they wanted in a good way rather than a cheap meretricious way. The greatest composers brought the audience along with them but slowly over decades. But there are limits. Even Beethoven exceeded his audience with the late Piano Sonatas and String Quartets as that audience didn't exist before the early 20th C.

So composers need to consider the classical audience as it exists today plus anyone else reachable and try to give them what they want in a good way. But the delivery system (streaming) is another problem for classical music which needs attention.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Maury! That seems like a reasonable analysis of the situation. There does seem a mismatch between the systems for training musicians and composers and the marketplace in which they will likely earn a living. The idea of transforming the institutions of music training to better fit the marketplace, something discussed, I believe, by Greg Sandow and others, is one that makes me apprehensive. I can see all the curricula that I found stimulating and nourishing, like courses in fugue, the history of notation, analysis, ones on specific composers like DuFay and so on, all these simply being erased because they don't match up to the current commercial marketplace.

Composers, of course, have been retreating to the safe haven of universities for decades now, but I agree that that is not ideal as it leads to music that is both abstract yet dull! Theoretically advanced, but of limited interest to both audiences and performers.

You are correct in saying that the great composers of the past wrote music that, to a considerable extent, was what their listeners were expecting. This fact is somewhat obscured by current music historiography which examines music history from the point of view of innovation, not aesthetic quality. But it is also true that every composer that you mentioned also surprised their audiences by going considerably beyond their expectations, going beyond those constraints that you mentioned. This was very much how they gave the audience what they wanted "in a good way!"

Your last sentence is the most thought-provoking: how can composers now reach an audience in a world of streaming music?

Maury said...

Thanks for your additional comments. To respond briefly to your para points

Para 1. I don't think that the schools need to throw out book learning. yes there is a danger that in acknowledging the current music landscape that the urge will be to do just that. But given a good basic theoretical education for a year or two I think we have to trust the composers to learn and use whatever non basic techniques they want. They are all in the library and online even. But the composers also need a thorough understanding of what is happening in the actual music world - video music, occasional music, school band music, jazz and pop and recording techniques.

Para 2. The safe haven is about to become the hospice. If you are an arts bureaucrat and you have funding and awards to give, do you find a way to celebrate the new Radiohead Synthesizer Concerto or a new orchestral piece by an Associate Professor at U of XXX? Hint: Radiohead has money, celebrity and good times. Why is Yngwie Malmsteen or Jimmy Page authoring concertos foe Electric Guitar and Orchestra rather than trained talented composers?

Para 3. The great composers created a mix of compositions ranging from strictly commercial to inspired innovative masterpieces. Josquin composed scurrilous ditties, Ludwig Senfl added 4 part counterpoint to hundreds of German folksongs, Beethoven provided music for 100 Scottish ballads he didn't even have the lyrics for etc etc. Also pop music starting in the 50s expanded its range so not all of it is simplistic. Why couldn't a skilled composer have composed something like the Jefferson Airplane's Crown of Creation (substitute any sophisticated pop album)? I don't even mean the same song structures exactly or lyrics but something sophisticated but compelling and better composed.