Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Decline of Everything?

I've lost count of the articles lamenting (or perhaps sometimes secretly delighting in) the decline of classical music. But there are even articles lamenting the decline of pop music. I was at a dinner party last night and for some reason I started riffing on this whole "classical music has been in decline since..." meme.

I had a friend who, perhaps even seriously, once asserted that music has been in decline since 1733. That would be the year that François Couperin "le grand" passed away.

Well, ok. But wait, what about J. S. Bach who died in 1750?

That was certainly a peak, but weren't there one or two other peaks even after 1750? What about Mozart who died in 1791?

Or, of course, Beethoven, who died in 1827:

Someone might even chip in by mentioning Chopin, who died in 1849:

But I think that's going a bit far. On the other hand, skipping over a lot of pointless romantic melancholy, we still have Debussy, who died in 1918:

But then I slap myself in the forehead: we are completely forgetting about Shostakovich, who died in 1975:

So maybe music is not in decline after all? But then I see something on the Internet, described in this way:
Desirae Garcia ... has one of the most stunning voices in music. The amount of soul contained in each syllable she articulates has a shocking impact on the first-time listener. The passion that she feels for the art she creates is evident in the lyrics she composes. She has a knack for writing material that contains a vulnerability directly contrasted by the strength of her vocal power. Her singing has a command over the songs that she writes and one can tell that she has experienced each theme she displays to her audience. She highlights each scar as if it were a mark of admiration, rather than something to be ashamed of. This is her most appealing characteristic: she has the skill to transform any subject into beautiful pieces of artwork. And in that lies redemption.
Sounds pretty good, huh? But here is the artist in question:

Stunning? I don't think I have heard anything quite that lame since Ethan Hawke's rendition of "Aura Lee".

Ok, so I think we see some sort of decline here, and we have narrowed it down to sometime between 1733 and 1975, right?


Rickard Dahl said...

It seems the more a musician brags the less good he/she actually is nowadays (Zoe Keating for instance). Or is it someone else who wrote those things about Desirae Garcia? Lots of fluff words, it was hard to read without being sceptic, it was as if the reviewer (assuming it is one) was trying to cover things up, make them sound better than they are in order to sell a product.

Well, classical music may be in decline both in artistic output and audience but I think those things can be turned around and hope that classical music will instead grow (haven't read the article but maybe if pop music is in decline it will help things move along).

When it comes to artistic output we're a bit stuck between the extreme-modernists, postmodernists, minimalists & the various "epic music", "new age" or fusion styles which sometimes are referred to as classical (sadly). But all we need to do is reverse this trend and go back to writing good music, with influences of the recent past and the present sure but always focusing on bringing good music to the table. There are of course composers doing that but orchestras etc. typically don't pay attention. It's still cool to hang out with the extreme-modernist academia and referring to it as progress.

The audience issue is a bit trickier. Classical music gets almost no exposure in media nowadays and while pop music seems to be knocking on the door for most people, classical music needs to be introduced or stumbled across. A proper introduction in schools (including note reading becoming something mandatory to learn the same way we learn one or more languages) could go a long way. I also think music from video games, TV-series & movies can work as a sort of transition or middleground between pop and classical. I see such music to be much more influenced by classical than pop. There might however be a trend towards making more pop-y music for video games, TV-series & movies (I hope not).

Speaking of video game music; I was on a video game music concert by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra yesterday. A few things I've noted:
- The audience was alot younger, it seems like the average age was maybe half of what it is on regular concerts. Hopefully many of them will return to listen to regular classical concerts.
- Less coughing but more cases of clapping at the wrong time.
- There was a modest light show. It was kinda nice, a bit distracting sometimes. There was also a presenter who talked some inbetween pieces and presented the next piece. It seems like the concert was a bit more on the show side.
- Except for a classical influence there is often a folk music influence in video game music. One part of a suite resembled Eastern European folk music for instance. Finally, the percussionists had more to do than usual.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, that was a publicist's blurb, though where I first saw it that wasn't apparent, so I was expecting to hear, well, something at least! The contrast between the description and the actual, inept performance was so hilarious I had to put it up!

There is a C. S. Lewis quote to the effect that, if everyone is going in the wrong direction, then true progress is to reverse your course so you can start going in the right direction.

That's an interesting point that for the usual purposes of film and tv soundtracks and video game soundtracks, music in classical style is far more suitable than pop music.

Rickard Dahl said...

That C.S. Lewis quote is very wise, especially when applied to music, which as we know has gone in the completely wrong direction.

Yes, music in pop style typically doesn't suit, I would say it ruins the atmosphere (at least for me). Anyways, a few examples of video game music with classical and/or folk influences: (the whole soundtrack (which I highly recommend listening to) is very "dark" and there is a clear primitivistic element to it) (this one shows a clear folk influence, the rest of the soundtrack is more classicaly influenced) (a bit of both folk and classical I suppose, the rest of the soundtrack is very interesting too) (a classic in video game music, it becomes more dissonant in the middle as the piece basically covers one day in-game on Hyrule field and the middle part is played during night, once again, very interesting soundtrack) (much of the soundtrack is pretty calm but it suits very well, the game actually takes place in a dreamworld created by Chopin and many of the names etc. have musical terms in them, for instance the rebel group of Andantino, Count Waltz or Forte City) (simple but nice, plenty of interesting music in this soundtrack too) (heavy classical influence I would say)

Bryan Townsend said...

I have played Civilization V and I notice that the music there is not only classically-influenced (and world music influenced) but they actually steal some very well-known (and public domain) classical pieces such as the Sicilienne by Fauré and the Largo from Dvorak's New World Symphony.

Of the clips you sent, the first one, at least the first part, sounds like a mashup of Carl Orff and Metallica and the second one is just straight-up polka music. The third one is more pop, but I detect some folk influences in the melody and Steve Reich in some of the accompaniment. The next one, Zelda, is hard to characterize--maybe we should call the genre video game music! I haven't listened to the rest, but I have to say that, apart from Civilization, I don't hear a lot of real classical music here.

Rickard Dahl said...

Well, I guess it's just better to classify it simply as video game music then. It is neither pop, folk or classical, maybe a sort of combination, although it varies a lot which makes defining it through the musical characteristics a really hard task. The common demoninator is after all video games. The same way it's hard to classify music for TV-series or movies except for in which medium the music is played.
Anyways, I see it video game music as far superior to pop music.

Bridge said...

Bryan, have a listen to this:

Here is the same piece played by a real orchestra although it is not the full version:

This sounds too much like Stravinsky for it not to be a homage or at least for the composer, Nobuo Uematsu to be heavily inspired by him (then again, who isn't?) Namely King Katchei's Infernal Dance and sections of Rite of Spring.

Note if you are listening to these video game tracks expecting to find classical structures then you are of course not going to find them. Generally this type of incidental music is extremely textural and contextual rather than being something to be experienced on its own terms (although many pieces, such as this one, are!)

But it is of course all video game music, being of its own kind. The same way film music is its own thing. Even so, there are film composers that are active composers of the concert hall as well and the line between film music and classical music is blurred. Examples include Miklos Rosza, John Williams and Howard Shore. In my opinion Koji Kondo's work with the Zelda games blurs the line to an equal degree, much of it being written in an orchestral idiom. It's a shame that there are not more performances of these pieces by a real orchestra.

I'd like to share with you a very nice piece for tuba by Mr. Williams that you may not have heard. It's from the Return of the Jedi complete soundtrack, but as far as I can tell it was not used in the movie (even though the theme is referenced).

Tuba solos in my opinion are too rare.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, very much like some sections from the Firebird and the Rite. But later on, with the choir, it sounds more like Carl Orff. But one difference is that in this music the rhythms are all shoehorned into a 4/4 meter.

Rickard Dahl said...

I know you didn't listen to this before but I think this is a good example of classical influence in video game music:

I think there is a clear romantic influence, maybe Beethovenian. At 1:50 to 2:43 at least it sounds quite impressionistic, reminds me of Debussy. Then it becomes more Beethovenian again. After that in the heavily arpeggiated section it sounds more new-age-y but that's not necessarily a bad thing, in this case it works well.

Anyways, I have a topic suggestion: Lately we have been bashing pop music a lot (for good reasons) but that got me thinking if there actually might be some good pop music out there. So, basically, is there pop music that is more heavily influenced by classical music and if so, what kind/which genre? Can certain pop music genres be considered artful or "art music"? For instance I've read on Wikipedia that heavy metal seems to be influenced by classical music more than most other pop genres (for instance because many guitarists in metal had a more classical background).

Bryan Townsend said...

Rickard, I can't listen to it at the moment, but I will. I always appreciate suggestions about posts, because they are nearly always things that I wouldn't have thought of. You have no idea how difficult it is some days when I am trying to think of something new to post about.

Rickard Dahl said...

I'm glad I can be of help. I will make sure to inform you if I come up with a good topic.

Bryan Townsend said...

Just got around to listening to that Final Fantasy clip with the piano music. This poses an interesting aesthetic question. This is certainly classically influenced. It sounds like a great deal of classical piano music from Beethoven on. As there is some vaguely fugal stuff towards the beginning, maybe we want to say from Bach on. This is not quite 'classical' but to explain why is actually pretty difficult. So I think it gives me an idea for another post.

As far as heavy metal goes, there might be something to what you say--I don't know the genre well enough. But I suspect that what heavy metal might derive from classical music is the virtuoso technique rather than any musical substance.