Thursday, January 26, 2012

Unpopular Music

A lot of people in the classical music world are working on the problem of, as Greg Sandow calls it, the "future of classical music", that is, how can we bring in new audiences to symphony, opera and chamber music concerts? The statistics are unclear, but it seems as if audiences are declining and attracting more young people is a project a lot of musical organizations see as critical.

The massive place that popular music now occupies in the public consciousness is one major factor in the increasing pressure on the classical music world. The change has come in the last fifty or sixty years. If we go back to the fifties, a huge classical artist like Van Cliburn, the winner of the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958, could sell more records than Elvis Presley. But with the coming on the scene of pop artists like the Beatles and the host that followed them, this changed and now classical sales are a tiny fraction of popular music sales. Popular music and the mass media have proved to be such a powerful partnership, as exemplified in the music video, that mere classical artists are forced to emulate them, just to be heard. I have posted a few times on this here and here.

So the question is, if popular music is what we mostly hear in the mass media, is classical music now "unpopular music"? In terms of sales? Sure. So administrators and promoters and artists are all working to make classical music more popular. There are a few problems, though. For one thing, popular music is popular because it is easy to listen to. Classical music is often not so easy to listen to. In fact, if you really want to enjoy all the glories of classical music, you need to investigate a bit, be curious, learn about it. Now mind you, classical music can have an immediate impact. Have a listen to this, for example:

For sheer musical power and glorious sound, this is pretty outstanding. I still get shivers every time I hear that theme in the French horns. Or listen just to the first couple of minutes of this:

Those horns again! But there is much more to classical music than just the orchestral showpieces. There are pieces of subtlety and sheer musical beauty such as this:

A piece like that is not going to overwhelm you on first listening like the first two did. No, you need to listen to it a few times. Each time you will notice something new and the beauty of it will grow on you. Some music makes very little impression the first time, but just sounds odd:

The first time you listen you might say "what the heck is going on there"? It may make little sense because of the big contrasts and may just sound confused. But then, after a few listenings, some things might suddenly capture your attention, and as time goes on it all starts making sense and a kind of sense that no other piece has. Other music is very challenging at first:

And may continue to be challenging, even after many hearings! Or you may start to pick up on the eerie floating harmony... One thing for sure, this music is very subtle and intricate: you must listen with your full attention and no distractions.

Classical music may be the "unpopular music" as compared to pop music. But it is not unpopular because it is bad music! It is unpopular because a lot of classical music does not give up its secrets and beauties immediately. You have to work at it a bit as a listener. Perhaps you might read a book on the composer, or at least look him or her up on Wikipedia. There is a wealth of information there. There are even individual articles on pieces. Here is the article on the 'Serioso' Quartet by Beethoven that is the fourth YouTube clip above. Here is another one on the Piano Sonata by Alban Berg that is my last example.

The neat thing about Wikipedia is that each article contains links to others. In the one on the Berg sonata there is mention of whole-tone scales which is linked to an article on them which explains what they are. If you follow those links you will start being knowledgeable about such things.

Most pop songs are just what you hear the first time, nothing much beneath the surface. But classical music is like an iceberg: what you hear the first time is just a fraction of what is going on. The more you dig, the more you will discover. Take my word for it, there are pieces of classical music that no-one has ever gotten completely to the bottom of:


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