Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Classical Guitar Cultural History

What we mostly see and hear in the media are current events. Sometimes we get a bit of perspective, but that is often shaded by political bias in one direction or the other. Very occasionally we get a bit of cultural history straight from the horse's mouth. I would like to try and do some of that today.

I am a classical guitarist and composer, so that means that I have traveled through a very particular kind of culture over the last forty or so years. I started out in the pop field, but back then, in the later 1960s, that meant the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, James Brown and a bunch of lighter pop groups. But those names were the big ones. They were the ones that kept putting out hit records and albums while most of the other groups were more ephemeral.

After a few years of involvement with that kind of music, I discovered classical music. I have talked about how that came about before. What I want to do now is delve into the culture a bit. One huge and glaring difference between the music scene then and now is, very simply, money. According to a CNBC article the Beatles made $25 million in earnings in 1964, which translates to almost $188 million today. They were the first pop group to achieve this kind of fame and consequent earnings. Of course, they were subject to the absolutely insane taxes of the era, putting them in, believe it or not, a 98% tax bracket. The complicated history of who actually owns their catalogue got started because of what they did to try and avoid such a punitive level of tax.

Nowadays, despite the plummeting sales of CDs, pop artists can earn a lot of money. The current highest earner is Taylor Swift who brought in $170 million last year. There are whole lot of other pop stars with large revenues.

But back in the 60s, it was largely the Beatles and they were really considered an outlier as they are today. Not one of their albums has ever gone out of production. The fab four aside, however, the music scene in the 60s was one in which the money did not loom large as it does today. The culture was not oriented around money but around causes (Vietnam war, drugs, etc.) and some rather shaky ideals such as universal love and peace. Personal experience through music, psychedelic drugs and Eastern religion was valued highly. Politics as such was devalued as being inauthentic.

So when I discovered classical music it was in this kind of context. The earnings aspect was unimportant, besides, back then classical artists did not earn hugely less than pop stars, unlike today. It was rather my personal experience of the culture that drew me. Sure, the music came first, but there were a host of associated details that I also found attractive and authenticity-building. Here are some examples:

  • the scratchy hiss of listening to old classical LPs on a mono cabinet player
  • the impressive logo of Deutsche Grammophon, unlike anything in the pop world
  • the aura of solitary discipline that hung over so many classical musicians
  • the very smell of a cedar-top Spanish-made classical guitar
  • the intellectual appeal of music theory and history
  • the sheer depth of the classical music traditions, stretching back a thousand years
Notice that some of this is very similar to the appeal of Eastern religion and art. The traditions of Japanese culture such as ukiyo-e (woodcut prints) and Zen are also rich in tradition and discipline.

What I chose to reject was anything relating to the drug culture. It seemed to me to be destructive of creativity and discipline in favor of shallow immediacy.

Spending a year in Spain studying under a guitar master tended to underline a lot of these cultural values. This became really evident when I came back to Canada. I was shocked at seemingly minor details of life in Canada. For example, when I few back, one of my flights was delayed so I missed a connection and was put up in an airport motel (which I don't think they even bother doing any more). The room was, to my eye, absurdly over-furnished.  There was a thick, shag carpet instead of the bare tile floors I had become used to, there must have been ten towels in the bathroom as opposed to the one I was used to, there were six or seven lamps, two beds, several bad prints on the wall, a television set and on and on. You see, I had become used to the austere, minimal furnishings of pensions and apartments in Spain. This experience was a kind of indicator of the fact that my aesthetic journey had taken me out of the mainstream of Canadian culture, where I remain to this day!

I don't think I ever thought of classical music as a religion, but I tended to regard religion as having a similar appeal: aesthetic, mystical. A good musical genre and a good religion share, for me, some characteristics: nothing ricky-ticky or kitschy, age-old traditions, meditative disciplines and so on. These qualities apply to both classical music and some religions. I guess this is a rather bizarre way of looking at things for most people!

I'm not sure I got across what I wanted to in this post. The nice thing about blogging is that it can often be very informal and experimental. The costs of experiment are low. So I hope you got something out of this.

Our envoi today is the String Quintet in C major D. 956 by Schubert from a Deutsche Grammophon 8 LP box set of Schubert chamber music, released in 1965. The artist are the

Norbert Brainin, first violin
Siegmund Niessel, second violin
Peter Schidlof, viola
Martin Lovett, cello

WILLIAM PLEETH, second cello


Anonymous said...

Bryan - not quite exact, but many of the reasons you give for becoming interested in classical resonated with me, including DG albums. I was discovering it at approximately the same time. But for me the major impetus was to try to answer the question "What is this music all about?", which really has continued to this day. It was a solo project, as no one in my family had any interest, and I did not have friends who were interested either. I listened to Bartok string quartets (on LP) and I thought 'What is behind this? This is such bizarre music, is everyone involved in producing it and listening to it crazy?'

I was raised in the Catholic tradition and agree that classical has similarities (length of existence, mystical aspects, meditative) that also seem to occur in Catholicism. I really like music that conveys a sense of ritual, and I think this is based on extensive church attendance in my early years. Ritual in the sense of a community moving to a place of heightened awareness. Messiaen's End of Time quartet falls into that category.


Bryan Townsend said...

This is one of those great things about the internet--you discover that there are people out there who do share some of your experiences. Am I correct in guessing that you grew up in a small community as did I?

Anonymous said...

Not really - NJ suburbs of NYC and Wash. DC suburbs, so always near cities, although I spent a lot of time with extended family in rural part of NW Jersey. And it was less crowded then.....P

Bryan Townsend said...

Hmmm, well there goes that theory.

Interesting that you mention the Bartok quartets. I had an LP of the 3rd and 4th quartets played by the Juilliard quartet back in the 70s and I was probably the only one in my social circle or cohort that was listening to stuff like that.