Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Real Problem of Classical Music? It's Not About You!

I just ran across an article in The American Interest that offers this interesting statistic:
A selfie can be more than just a selfie. In the gallery setting, selfie-taking subverts a pact that has existed between museums and visitors since the Enlightenment Era. Museums offer a transformational experience and communion with creative genius in exchange for the focused attention of its visitors. But when we walk through a gallery today, we are accompanied by our invisible audience and the lure of self-presentation in the digital era. The average museum visitor spends seven seconds in front of an artwork—how you choose to spend each second counts.
Because it is not about the artwork, it is really about you. Everything in the universe is nothing but a background to your life. I think this is a partial explanation, not only of why the appreciation of classical music is less these days, but also why efforts to popularize it are not likely to succeed.

There are a couple of ways to listen to music: as a journey that takes you out of yourself to places you haven't been, or two, as a moody soundtrack to the wonderfulness that is your life. Guess which genre is which? It seems as if a lot of people listen to music in the latter sense, that is, they don't really listen to it. For some of us, listening to a great piece of music is one of those peak experiences that enriches your life and expands your awareness. But for a lot of us, music is a kind of acoustic carpet or wallpaper, nice enough, but just providing an unobtrusive context for your life. It's like the role of the painting in the museum: background to your selfie!

While I don't want to cramp anyone's style by saying they don't know how to listen to music, it is likely that a lot of people really don't--it is a learned skill. You have to learn to focus your attention and concentrate on something entirely invisible for extended periods of time. I remember when I was an undergraduate, I had a couple of friends over who were not musicians, just acquaintances from residence life. For some reason the question of the seriousness of music came up--I really don't recall the exact context--but my response was to play a recording of the Guarneri Quartet playing the Grosse Fuge by Beethoven, all the way through. They listened to the whole thing and, by the end, a bit shell-shocked, acknowledged that yes, that's a pretty serious piece of music.

These days, if you want to show the appeal of classical music you put on a show, have fancy lights, a pandering introduction, play short, easily digestible, glitzy little pieces and hope to win over a few listeners. But I suspect that one likely result of that strategy is to demonstrate pretty clearly that this music is lightweight flotsam and jetsam and for something serious they should go back to listening to the soap opera drama of Beyoncé.

Let's just listen to the Grosse Fuge so you see what I mean. Blogger won't embed the Guarneri Quartet clip, so just follow the link:

Here is the Alban Berg Quartet in performance:

And for an entirely different kind of journey, here is the Cavatina, a slow movement from the B flat quartet, op. 130, the quartet that the Grosse Fuge was the original finale for:

UPDATE: One fascinating thing about this piece is how Beethoven notates the subject of the fugue. You notice that the players lean on each note all the way through with particular intensity. Beethoven achieves this with very simple means: he writes the notes of the subject not as quarter-notes, but as tied eighth-notes:

Click to enlarge
This makes the players dig into the notes differently than if they were just quarters. The tendency then would be, since each note is followed by a rest, to leave the note just a bit early.


Steven said...

I can remember, as it's still recent memory, listening to a whole symphony for the first time. You're never the same -- it really humbled me. Yet getting to that point is quite difficult (at least I thought so). I'm surprised your friends agreed to listen to the whole string quartet.

May I also recommend a recent blog post I read which, starting from a similar idea, predicts 'the end of music' -- that is, all music. It's an excellent, well-reasoned post:

Bryan Townsend said...

It was 1971 and I think people were, one the whole, more open to challenging musical experiences. Also, it was just the Grosse Fuge, which is only about 16 minutes long.

That is an interesting post--thanks for sending it. But I ran into something that is flatly wrong just a few paragraphs in:

"Although few today realise this, music was not part of most people’s lives until about a century ago. For the vast majority of the world’s population, music simply just did not exist until the invention of recording."

Music was part of most people's lives before recording! And we have plenty of evidence for it. Just from my own experience: my mother was an old-time fiddler and her whole life she used to play for Friday night dances. This was in the Canadian north. These were well-attended, so even if you didn't play an instrument yourself, you could certainly hear music at least once a week. In more densely populated parts of the world, this would have been even more true. Ordinary, everyday music, not high-falutin symphony concerts, was an ordinary part of people's lives going back centuries and centuries. I am astonished that anyone would make a contrary claim!

Given that significant an error, and his argument seems to be built on it, I rather lost interest!

Steven said...

I gave him the benefit of the doubt, thinking that for many populations in the world that statement might be nearly true (which, I admit, still makes it wrong), considering how seldom music would have been heard. His argument that music's ubiquity and use 'as an adjunct rather than an object' might mean its death is a sound one, I thought.

Bryan Townsend said...

I certainly don't know about how much music is played in the Amazon jungle or in New Guinea, but in the rest of the world I think there would be musicians in just about every community, no matter how small. Lots of evidence for this, literary and other. I think that the percentage of the population that play an instrument now is probably as low as it has ever been and this is likely the consequence of recording technology. There is less employment for musicians of modest abilities as they are easily replaced by recordings, and people feel less need to learn to play for their own amusement for the same reason. In Victorian times, every middle class home had a piano and someone who knew how to play it.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand the argument why music is dying. Or does he mean good music is dying? Music itself has never been so alive. On the other hand, painting is dead because photography killed it. But music has no rival in its own realm, so it's ensured perpetual life.

Whether music had a big presence in people's lives say in the middle ages is a good question. Historians surely know the answer and it would be interesting to hear it.

Bryan Townsend said...

No, I didn't make much sense of the argument either.

Historians rely on historic records and while we have lots of manuscripts from the middle ages of music--ones with polyphony start around the year 1000--they are all from fairly elite circles: churches, monasteries and so on. What we don't have records of is the music of the ordinary people because it was not written down. However, artistic and literary evidence suggests that there was a lot of music for dancing and reveling and general amusement. We just don't know much about it. Secular dance music wasn't written down until much later, starting in the later 15th, early 16th centuries.

Steven said...

Right, mea culpa, I take back my recommendation! His argument, reasonably plain I thought, was that ubiquity makes you numb to music, and as music becomes an accessory, it essentially becomes worthless. I guess I glossed over the weak foundations of his argument. I did, in my defence, note my surprise to him in the comment section, which you may have seen, to which he responded:

'Before the 17th century music was unknown to the vast majority of peasant classes, and before the 14th century it simply did not exist outside the lives of rulers and religious leaders. Evidence of musical cultures in peasant classes before the 19th century is both sparse and very dubious.'

Now, that sounded very authoritative... Unfortunately, I don't really know if it's BS. (Though my feeling is that the music of African slaves, for example, might disprove this.)

Anonymous said...

In Asterix and Obelix, there's that awful singer, Cacofonix, who accompanies himself on a sort of lyre. So there we have it: irrefutable scholarly evidence of the importance of music in early Gallic society... :-)

Bryan Townsend said...

Historians have to be cautious in the absence of evidence, but that cuts both ways. If you cannot say authoritatively what sort of music was played and listened to by the ordinary people before the 17th century, then neither can you say it didn't exist. Music is one of those things that is practiced in nearly every human society and has been as far back as any records go. It is a radical claim that most people before the 17th century simply did not have access to music. After all, for those societies for which we have a lot of written evidence, such as the Greeks in the 4th and 5th centuries BC, the evidence that music played a big role in society is also enormous. Recall that all the Greek tragedies and comedies were accompanied by music in festivals attended by just about everyone.

Christopher Culver said...

"It seems as if a lot of people listen to music in the latter sense, that is, they don't really listen to it."

But the art form in fact depends on those casual listeners, so I wouldn’t knock them. If you’ve ever spent time among a subscriber audience, you can see that for so many of them the orchestra is just a place they come to unwind and have some food and drinks without caring much about what’s on, and occasionally they dose off. And those are typically people over 50, so this can’t be framed as an “O tempora, o mores” problem of selfie-loving youth.

So even within the traditional classical music scene, it is likely that only a minority of anoraks like us actually care deeply about the music. I suspect that for most people spending money on it and keeping it alive, it is very much a background soundtrack to life.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, you are quite right, Christoper. Most listeners are probably casual ones, but we really need them! Actually, I tend to doze off whenever Handel is on the program.