Monday, April 13, 2015

Music Interviews: Turning the Tables

I think it is getting to be public knowledge that much if not most of what we see and hear in the mass media is actually crafted to support this or that ideology. Some outlets are frank about it, but most pretend that they are either simply in tune with the times or with what their readers want. But if you look a bit closely, you can easily see what kind of things they want you to believe.

For example, there is a certain publicly accepted ideology about classical music: it is boring, stuffy and behind the times. So this means, of course that to improve its sadly unacceptable situation it has to be more lively and populist. I have written a lot of posts critiquing this kind of attitude in the media. But it is often most effective when it is not so baldly stated, when it is simply the underlying assumption. A good example is the standard interview of a classical musician. I say "standard" because it is fascinating how limited the questions are and how they are designed to prompt answers that specifically bolster the prevailing ideology. Let's have a look at the Guardian for an example. Here is a recent interview with pianist Javier Perianes. Go read the whole thing--it's not very long. The most interesting part, for my purposes, is the questions:

  • How do you mostly listen to music? This is to show what a regular guy he is, listening to his iPhone just like the rest of us.
  • What was the last piece of music you bought? This does elicit some information, but one suspects that the interviewer secretly hoped that it was not a classical piece, but Björk's latest album. Because, cool!
  • What's your musical guilty pleasure? This is the really important question because it is designed to reveal that even classical musicians like to, maybe even prefer to(!) listen to popular genres. Alas, this interviewee only offers minimal cooperation.
  • If you found yourself with six months free to learn a new instrument, what would you choose? This provides the opportunity for the classical musician to admit that they would really like to try out blues guitar or harmonica or something--something, you know, cooler than whatever boring instrument he actually plays.
  • Is applauding between movements acceptable? This is the perfect question for the musician to demonstrate that they are cool and with the program. No-one ever in the history of interviews has ever given the true answer: "usually it is better not to applaud between movements as it breaks the concentration of the musicians and audience."
  • What single thing would improve the format of the classical concert? "Which is ridiculously antediluvian and totally out of sync with our enlightened times" is the subtext here. Another opportunity for the artist to show they are not another boring classical musician, but actually a cool dude. Correct answers include less formality, more diversity, flexible programming, cheaper tickets and untraditional venues: everything that actually would make the concert less good! Javier Perianes chooses a mix of B and C.
I won't keep listing every question, but there are two more that are indicative:
  • Do you enjoy musicals? Again, the sole purpose of this question is for the artist to show that he is not just a boring stick-in-the-mud, but actually gets out and enjoys stuff regular folks do. The only possible correct answer is "yes, of course!!"
  • Which non-classical musician would you like to work with? Posed for precisely the same reason as the last question: show us that you are a cool dude who would be delighted to get down and funky with Lady Gaga or Björk or an Ajerbaijani accordian player. Perianes only gets half points because, while he picks a non-classical musician they will still be doing basically classical repertoire. Should have gone with the Ajerbaijani!
Oh, how I would love to participate in one of these interviews. Back in the day, when I was often interviewed on radio or television, I, much like Perianes, tried to offer at least minimal cooperation with the thrust of the interview. If I were interviewed today, I would try to do the opposite: expose the whole absurdity for what it is: just another attack on the cultural hegemony of classical music: bad, bad, bad!!

So here is how I might answer these kinds of questions:
  • How do you mostly listen to music? I really hate listening on earphones or headphones in public places (there is always the danger of damaging your hearing) so I always listen at home on my Harmon/Kardon system with Polk Audio sub-woofer.
  • What was the last piece of music you bought? Bach, the Deutsche Grammophon Masterworks box. Not as cheap as some other boxed sets, but the best Bach recordings they have issued over the last forty years, so worth every penny!
  • What's your musical guilty pleasure? I don't really have any. I think the question assumes a conclusion. I mostly listen to classical music, but occasionally really enjoy some Beatles or Bob Dylan. Most of the rest of pop music I find unlistenable. Oh, and I hate jazz!
  • If you found yourself with six months free to learn a new instrument, what would you choose? Harpsichord? Theremin? I am not ever going to have six months free (besides, a new instrument probably takes five to ten years). Oh, one morning I went through a beginning method for blues guitar. In a couple of hours I had the last piece in the book pretty much learned. Is that what you mean?
  • Is applauding between movements acceptable? Most of the time not. Usually it is better not to applaud between movements as it breaks the concentration of the musicians and audience.
  • What single thing would improve the format of the classical concert? The format of the classical concert has evolved over the last two hundred years and it works great just as it is. We can hear great music played by great musicians in wonderfully designed concert halls. What's the problem? Actually, the problem is really just the audiences who often don't have the background and exposure to appreciate the music or the format. I blame the education system.
  • Do you enjoy musicals? A few, sure. I really liked Joss Whedon's "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog". Is that what you mean?
  • Which non-classical musician would you like to work with? It is difficult to work with non-classical musicians because they often don't read music. Even when they do, they tend to change what they do every time. Frustrating, and it takes up a lot of valuable rehearsal time. So, mostly, not worth the effort.
That's likely to end your career! Or maybe readers might just enjoy the novelty...


Marc said...

Please, Lord! let BT's interview appear in the Guardian! I could almost guarantee 500 comments all variations of 'elitist!', but there would also be 50 thanking you for your honesty and good sense.

Bryan Townsend said...

Heh, heh, heh! Oh yes, you're right. But maybe the proportions might be a bit different. Sometimes I suspect there is some "preference falsification" going on in the mass media. I.e., people tend to say what they think others want to hear. So maybe there would only be 300 saying "elitist!" and 200 saying "I agree."

Marc said...

Hope you may be right!