Sunday, August 7, 2011

Taking Back the Space

There was a fascinating article in the New York Times on Thursday about classical music in the Bay area. Here's the link. For some time, an organization called Classical Revolution has been organizing semi-casual performances of classical music in non-traditional venues such as bars and restaurants. This is a great trend for a lot of reasons. It gives young musicians starting out great performing experience and it also creates good links between performers and audiences. One of the problems classical music has been wrestling with in its clash of the titans battle with popular music is that it tends to seem distant and hence irrelevant. The 19th century concert traditions of formal dress and separation of performers and audience in a specially designed concert hall foster this division. So it is great to forge links between listeners and players in a space where they can meet one another casually.

It is also interesting why this had to happen. Classical music has been fighting a losing battle for a while now. It has been confined to its traditional spaces: concert halls, recital halls, opera houses, university and conservatory performing spaces with less and less presence on television and radio. At the same time, popular music has been taking over all public spaces. Every restaurant, bar and shopping mall is pervaded by recorded music and virtually all of it is popular--non-classical. It is particularly incongruous to hear the latest pop music in a restaurant; chosen by the 20-something staff, but being unwillingly listened to by the much older customers.

The hundred-year-old technology of recorded sound is a double-edged sword: on the one hand it gives us instant access any time and any place to virtually every piece of music. But on the other, it means that public spaces can be dominated by music that is often truly horrible or, at best, bland.

Let me drag in a concept here: preference falsification. "Preference Falsification is another deceptive human behavior: publicly espousing a view that is privately rejected. In effect, people say or write what they think they are expected to do so by society." From here. I don't actually believe that 97% of the people in the world really prefer popular music and dislike classical music. I suspect that a good chunk of this is preference falsification. It is 'cool' to say you like Lady Gaga or Shakira but people look at you funny if you say you like Puccini or Haydn.

I think that classical music can take back some public space. I have read about some places in England that were plagued by loitering thugs that solved the problem by piping in classical music which drove them away. I guess that's like garlic or crosses to vampires.

One last thing: it would be a terrible thing to simply replace pop music with bland, nauseating easy-listening strings. It is more complicated than that. The owners of the space chooses what suits their purposes, after all. My point here is that sometimes ill-thought choices of music can make public spaces toxic for a lot of people.

Just once I would like to walk into a high-end shopping mall and hear something like this:

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