Thursday, January 31, 2013

Popularizing Classical Music

There seems to be no doubt that classical music is having a tough time these days--perhaps all musicians are if the picture painted in this article is accurate. What classical music needs is some good popularizers--a role performed in the past by people like Leonard Bernstein. We may have fancier terms for this sort of thing nowadays like "branding" or "marketing", but the idea is the same. Or is it? Not quite. The earlier versions of popularizing were directed at opening the music to people not familiar with it, to revealing something about the music that would enable listeners to follow it and to enjoy it. Branding and marketing are concepts having to do with the sale of music or musicians. Instead of handling music as a form of art, these methods handle music as a salable commodity. There is a difference in emphasis.

Yes, music is a business viewed from one angle, but it is essentially an art form. I read an article the other day about the problems Apple is having these days. Under Steve Jobs it was a much-loved company who created much-loved products, now the focus seems to be more on sales volume and less on the marvelous designs and features. And the company is faltering. Apple was one of those rare companies that had an "aura", the article said, of engagement and charisma. Well, engagement and charisma are the very things that classical music, when presented and performed well, can deliver. But we desperately need popularizers who can open the doors and windows for an audience more and more de-sensitized and numbed by over-exposure to the raucous thumping of pop music.

What would a good popularizer look like? Bernstein certainly fit the bill as a handsome, personable, charismatic and enormously talented musician. But most popularizers are going to be working on a smaller scale and I think the basic requirements are the ability to communicate and a real understanding of music. Unfortunately, I don't see much of this in evidence these days. What's that you say? The Music Salon is a perfect example? Why, thank you! Of course, popularizing classical music is pretty much the raison d'être of The Music Salon. Plus, having fun. But looking around, I don't see a lot of this going on elsewhere.

Let me take an example: I just ran across this article on Debussy at The Smart Set. The author, Mary Sydnor, is a journalist and failed pianist. She writes
Debussy wasn’t just the first composer I never learned to play; he was the last composer I attempted. I was in the middle of struggling through Clair de lune, when I stopped playing the piano. Listening to it now, I think that it may have simply slipped out of my hands. Impossible to grasp, like light or water.
This is probably why she describes Debussy as "difficult" and "frustrating". I'm puzzled that she doesn't seem to realize that she has disqualified herself from pontificating on Debussy from the start. Ah, but she is not 'pontificating', that is absolutely forbidden these days. What we look to in our media is folks who are just like us, regular folks, folks who don't have special elitist abilities, like the ability to understand and perform Debussy!

Given that requirement it is not surprising that this article, entitled "The Difficulty of Debussy" is rather unsatisfying from a number of angles. It is a poor introduction and therefore a very poor attempt at popularization. The author's ignorance causes her to go down one rabbit hole after another. Let's have a look at her first paragraph:
Debussy was the first composer I never learned to play. After more than ten years of piano lessons, I had moved through baroque Bach; classical Mozart; and romantic Chopin Nocturnes — all of which had systematic rules to follow. I thought I was ready to move on to the next big thing: The Impressionist Era. I started with Debussy’s Clair de lune and later attempted the first of his Deux Arabesques. I listened, again and again, until I could hear the entirety of the works in my head, but between the key and tempo changes, it was simply music I couldn’t grasp. 
Ten years of piano lessons and she couldn't handle Clair de lune? She could be rather untalented or simply had a poor piano teacher because most reasonably able students are going to be able to play Clair de lune after several year's study. The Royal Conservatory of Toronto lists it as a Grade 10 piece--advanced, but not too advanced. Here, let's have a listen:

Lovely piece, but I don't think we would call it 'virtuosic', would we? It requires a competent technique and some musical sensitivity, but it is hardly a virtuoso showpiece.

Let's look at some other things Mary says in that opening paragraph. Baroque, Classical and Romantic music all have "systematic rules to follow"? Hmm, well, I'm not sure what she means, but yes, each of those musical styles has certain characteristics, but calling them 'rules' is really to misunderstand the nature of musical style. The next thing to bother me is the setting up of something called "The Impressionist Era" as an equivalent. "The Impressionist Era" really doesn't exist as an 'era'. It basically consists of two composers, Ravel and Debussy and Debussy in particular rejected the term very strongly. So Mary is a pretty weak pianist and also pretty weak on her grasp of music history. What about theory? Alas, not too strong there either as she says that "between the key and tempo changes, it was simply music I couldn’t grasp". Well, ok then. So why are you expecting us to read your thoughts on Debussy?

I'm not going to go on dissecting the rest of the article. Suffice it to say that the shortcomings of the author are revealed in every sentence. Apart from the music clips it contains, the article itself will leave you knowing less about Debussy than you did before you read it. You will be thoroughly misinformed! It's safe to listen to the music clips, but for god's sake, don't read the article!

It's odd that stuff like this gets published. It is certainly not going to do much to popularize Debussy. Too many ill-informed amateurs like this writer are doing a poor job of it. So where are the real professionals? The people who do know a great deal about Debussy and music in general? Where are the hoards of unemployed doctoral students in musicology? Or is it that their training in professionalism has rendered them incapable of communicating with the average reader or listener? That, sadly, might be the case. In doctoral school in musicology no-one ever really thinks about the need for popularizers. Instead, the drive is to greater and greater specialization to the point that after finishing your dissertation the only people you will be able to talk to are others who know all about middle-period Janacek harmonic inflections as they relate to long-scale formal development. Egads!

Now let's listen to another of those horribly 'difficult' pieces by Debussy:

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