Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Classical Music is a Round Peg

Everywhere you look, people in the classical music business are trying to find ways to make it appealing to 21st century people. Branding! Entrepreneurial training! More bums in seats! Popular programming! Take the music to the people (parking garages, pubs)! Re-branding! Social media! Naked opera! Diversity! Equality!

Whew! About all this is missing is climate change and LBGTQ.

All of these efforts, some successful, many not, have the result of distorting classical music into something it is not: a normal part of life in the 21st century. Face it, most people, even those who love music, see classical music as not being a comfortable fit with their lives. Concerts take too long and you have to be quiet and not be checking your phone. The performers dress in these old-fashioned costumes. The music doesn't seem relevant to The Way We Live Now. And what the heck is a "sonata" anyway?

Whenever we try to make classical music fit into today's scene, it is like trying to put a round peg in a square hole. You can try, but unless you do a lot of whittling, it ain't gonna work. So that's what is recommended: whittle off the bits that don't fit: out-dated concert garb, long programs, audience silence, special concert halls and most of all, that classical repertoire. If you whittle off enough, you get pretty close to the pop experience:

But you know what is truly great about classical music? It is not pop music and it doesn't fit very well into our contemporary monoculture. Classical music is like a fig in a bowl of fennel, a goat in amongst the sheep. It is valuable precisely because of what it is not: just another musical niche in with the hip hop and the alt-country and the indie folk. It is a voice from another world and, as such, it give us perspective on our world. It is like a whole series of time capsules from different times and peoples who thought and felt differently than we do. Now that's diversity! Our problem is that mass media, social media and all the rest of that technology that connects us, turns us into a giant echo chamber all reacting to the same things and thinking the same thoughts.

Classical music, like classical literature and art, is great because it is not another hue of popular culture. Just that is appealing and refreshing. But in addition to that, it also happens to be a wonderfully powerful aesthetic experience.

The clip I posted above, of ThePianoGuys doing a mashup of Mozart and Adele, should be contrasted with the original piece by Mozart, to see just how much was whittled away:

ThePianoGuys clip is lugubrious, sentimental and slightly vulgar. The Mozart original is, well, terrifying. Not the thing to put on something like an album of "The Most Relaxing Classical Music."


Jives said...

this post reminds me of an article I read just yesterday about the value of reading old books.


Bryan Townsend said...

That's an excellent article, thanks Jives!

Seymour said...

I think a big problem with the general public and classical music is the perception that it's something you have to know everything about before you can appreciate it. It's the old anti-intellectual thing at work: "I don't know if I'm smart enough to understand Brahms, so I'll just dismiss it", or something I hear far too often: "I wish I knew more about classical music". For years I'm tried to explain there is no need for that kind of thinking. It's just an excuse anyway, like saying "I wish I could read more books". If you really want to do something, you'll find a way to do it. Lots of people sure know a lot about team sports (why I can't imagine, but that's another story).

Sure, it adds something if you "understand", say, sonata form, honestly you can live without that knowledge. After years of butting up against this kind of thinking, I have given up. Classical will never be for everyone, and in our age of soundbites and relentless distraction, I see an even smaller future for it.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, quite right. Classical music, like all music, has a direct expressive connection with the listener. But there are currents in the culture these days that tend to teach people that classical music has traits (stuffy, dull, elitist) that should be abhorred. That's what I try to work on and correct. It's just music. But knowing something about it definitely increases your enjoyment.