Wednesday, August 3, 2011

In Defence of Music

I just read a post by Greg Sandow on the decline in audiences for classical music. He says,
Wolf Trap used to sell many more tickets to classical performances than it does now. And that seems to be true elsewhere, as well. Anne also talked to Welz Kauffman, president of the Ravinia Festival, outside Chicago.
He also notes that fewer and fewer 'stars' can sell out a concert these days. Some people say that the answer is more promotion, but as Greg Sandow notes, classical concerts are promoted more these days. In this post I criticize some of the 'promotion' classical music gets. Instead of taking that route, "Yes, classical music can be just as shallow and annoying as popular music!" my position is that, while we may be entering into a Dark Age for music (perhaps Mr. Sandow has some ideas on that) the last thing on earth we should do is start apologizing for classical music. Here, presented in bald fashion are some of my thoughts on this:
  • 'Classical' music is a back-formation, that is, until the rise of the economic power of popular music, music was simply music, just as 'acoustic' guitars, before the invention of electric guitars, were simply guitars.
  • 'Classical' has two meanings: one is the historic style that prevailed between the death of Bach in 1750 to the death of Beethoven in 1827. The other meaning is "music of lasting significance" and can include outstanding music from any period (or culture, I suppose--witness the 'classical' music of India) from the year 1000, when they began to be able to write down polyphony, to the Beatles (a personal inclusion).
  • Audiences, steeped in the unrelenting toxicity of much popular music of today, are becoming deaf to subtler musical values, therefore, classical music isn't in decline at all--audiences are.
  • I see our current situation as being like that of classical Athens or Rome, with highly developed cultures, seeing it both decaying from within and threatened by the barbarians at the gate. The need is to preserve the culture for better times. The monks of the Dark Ages copied and re-copied the great works of Athenian drama by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripedes and the great poems of Homer because they knew this was the best that had been done. They did not apologize to the barbarians for doing so, they probably just hid the copies until they went away.
  • Fundamentally classical music really isn't about the 'stars' anyway. It's about the music. Some of these so-called stars are actually debasing the music they play.
  • Yes, we have created a lot of our own problems. The avant-garde project has driven countless listeners from our concert halls as well as diminishing the aesthetic quality of the music itself. For more on this see my post on John Cage.
  • I think we need to do two things: first, preserve the best classical music. This may not seem a current issue, but every time I hear of a library getting rid of its print collection and going digital, it makes me nervous. Did they toss out a few collected editions in the process? The second is revive music criticism. As I noted in another post, the Wikipedia article on music criticism is pathetic. Three sentences. Clearly music criticism is at a kind of nadir. I talk about it in this post.
  • There are reasons why we avoid music criticism. Here are some of them. Avant-garde composers rejected any criticism of their music on traditional aesthetic grounds; this helped to make criticism illegitimate. Commercial interests do not want their products criticized in any telling way--they prefer puff pieces. The relativism that has permeated our thinking on just about everything tells us that everyone's opinion is equally valid, there is no disputing about taste, aesthetics is purely subjective and so on.
  • Despite (or even because) of all this I think that what we need to do is call crap when we hear it. It is remarkable how people react when they hear, possibly for the first time, actual criticism of music. I do it all the time in this blog. While I try not to do it unfairly, I make a point of aesthetic evaluation. We do no-one any favors by blurring distinctions of quality in the cause of "let's all get along". I don't want to get along with people who hate good music and like bad music.
UPDATE: I've noticed that the correct term for what I call 'back-formation' above is actually 'retronym'.


Anonymous said...

What do you think of music composed today by classically trained composers? Is classical music to be frozen in time or is it being created as we speak? It appears from your second definition that there's room for the new music that's being composed and that's influenced by the best of a number of genres, including, as you say music from around the world. I hope you're not saying that the only music worthy of preserving was composed before the 20th century.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Anonymous! I was hoping this post would provoke some discussion. There are a tremendous number of composers writing music at this very moment. It can take quite a while for the quality of their work to become clear. One composer that seems to be doing very good stuff is Osvaldo Golijov. As you can see from recent posts, I find Dmitri Shostakovich to be one of the great composers. He died in 1975. In the pop music field, I am pretty sure the Beatles have created music of lasting value. So I have a lot of time for 20th century music. But we probably should be prepared to admit that the 20th (and now 21st) centuries are also responsible for incredible quantities of very bad music, blasted out of sound systems that make it hard to avoid!