Friday, May 8, 2015

"A completely arrested art form"

I just read an article in the Globe and Mail titled "Ditching sheet music, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra plays from memory." Tafelmusik is a Toronto-based early music chamber orchestra that has done a lot of fine work. The big box of Sony Vivarte recordings has several of their discs including the Brandenburgs, the Bach violin concertos and a whole bunch of other stuff. Recently they have been creating shows that present a narrative framework for the music.
On stage for a rehearsal at the Bloor Street church they call home, the members of Toronto’s Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra start up a Bach sinfonia. The musicians are standing, without chairs, music stands or sheet music; liberated from this architecture, their bodies sway and their eyes sparkle, infusing the old music with an impressive new energy. It’s as though the complex 18th-century composition were being played by a band of East Coast fiddlers. In these hands, Bach’s music feels more alive than ever.
The feat is possible because the orchestra is playing from memory. Each musician in the 17-member ensemble has memorized his or her part so it can be performed without sheet music. It’s the third time the internationally renowned orchestra has tried such a thing, always for the same reason: It takes hours of extra work, but an upright and mobile orchestra is key to the company’s multimedia, storytelling concerts that also feature a narrator, a script, visual images and video.
I read the article with some interest and an undercurrent of discontent. Don't get me wrong. I think things like this are valuable and I hope very much they are both educational and new-audience-attracting. But at the same time they concern me. Appreciating music, that is to say, enjoying it to the fullest, is a learned skill, I think. The way I look at it, if I were to give someone a mini-course in how to listen, I would start by saying, ok, ignore everything but the music. Especially, don't talk, don't think about what you had for breakfast or how your feet hurt, just listen to what you hear. Then I would start refining this by saying, ok, now try and identify the instruments. What are you hearing, winds, strings? Then I would try and expand the listening to hearing the melody, the rhythms and the harmonies. Is that a major or a minor chord? I think that the ability to listen is built up slowly, taking in more and more subtle aspects of the texture. Is that a tonal or real answer to the subject? -- is a higher-level kind of listening. But listening starts and continues by focusing on the music to the exclusion of everything else. Especially, whatever the performers are doing with their bodies or wearing or how much their eyes are sparkling! Don't get me wrong, listening to the expressive aspects of the music is probably more important in the long run, but I just think that hearing what is actually going on is the best path to the subtle, expressive glories of the music.

The problem with creating a narrative framework as they discuss in the article is that it always takes you away from the music! This may not be obvious, but how the instruments in Bach's orchestra were constructed, while quite interesting, is NOT the music and in fact, if you were forced to think about that while the music was being played, you would not be listening to the music. The same is true about the Galileo narrative and whatever other framework you use. The music is just the music. It is not the instruments, the historical context, and most especially it is not the composer's biography. All of these things impinge on and block our experience of the music.

The title to this post comes from the one and only comment on the article which is, in its entirety:
Sorry but LOL, only in a completely arrested art form would this qualify as innovation. Sorry but LOL, only in a completely arrested art form would this qualify as innovation.
Heh! I just liked the phrase, "completely arrested art form". Is this true? It is very likely a common reaction. More and more classical music tries to remake itself as a kind of popular music, or educational show, or documentary or whatever. First, you get everyone to memorise the music so they can stand up and move around and groove to the music. Next you put everyone in a costume, maybe learn a few dance moves and before you know it, you are reenacting a Miley Cyrus video! Slight exaggeration there.

But the awkward truth is, if you completely revamp classical music so it fits into our 21st century mass media world, then it will become something very different and very much shallower. The rest of this awkward truth is that, depending on which classical music we are talking about, it often comes from an aristocratic context and is most comfortable there. Nearly all Baroque music was written by composers employed by either the church or the nobility and performed for them. Some music, operas perhaps or the concerts presented by Vivaldi in Venice, might have attracted a general audience, but most was for performance in chambers or small halls in private homes or estates. This continued to be true up until well into the 19th century when most major cities built concert halls and the symphony subscription series came into being. Then, for the first time, the audience became largely middle-class, though still with an aristocratic component. This continued until quite recently when the upper classes, what we now call the "1%", who still contribute a great deal to orchestra and opera budgets, finally seem to have entirely lost their taste for classical music.

Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, was the main patron behind the Jimi Hendrix Museum (now the EMP Museum) in Seattle and the kinds of artists invited to perform at the White House these days are now likely to be Beyoncé and Jay-Z.

So the situation seems to be that classical music, with its 1000-year-old tradition of astoundingly great music, has failed to weather the transition from an aristocratic context to the 21st century welfare state. To restate the awkward truth: music, all music, has a political or sociological component. We have to understand and accept that. The traditional defence of classical music is that it is above all that. But we see that it is not. I really need give no more example than that, as recently as the late 50s and early 60s, a major magazine would, as part of its election coverage, publish lists of the favourite music of the candidates. At that time they would always list some classical music and perhaps a musical or two. Now, no candidate would admit to even knowing anything about classical music. That would be the kiss of death. Instead, a politician today would be more likely to play a few saxophone licks in public (jazz, not classical), or sing a few lines from an Al Green blues tune.

Classical music now has a negative prestige. How is this going to play out? Things are never as simple as they seem and trends are constantly changing. After all, how much Miley Cyrus and backbeat can you take before you go completely mad? But the future is anything but clear. In some ways I hope that those sincere efforts to make classical music palatable to people raised on pop are not entirely successful as I would prefer that some classical music at least be left alone.

Let's listen to some resolutely aristocratic music, the Tombeau de Monsieur Blancrocher by Louis Couperin. The harpsichordist is Gustav Leonhardt:


Ken Fasano said...

I agree. I simply agree! But that's usually the case. As my wife watches (note the verb) American Idol, I'm listening to Dufay or Brendel's Beethoven. The underlying model of Idol is "How can we, the music industry, find the most profitable product for US to make money off of." I'm thinking, "How can we pass down the magnificence of Western Civilization to the next generation?"

Bryan Townsend said...

The commercial aspect has always been there, of course. Renaissance patrons would even specify to artists how much, by weight, gold leaf would be used in a painting. But what seems to me extremely odd about today's pop music scene is how thoroughly and totally the commercial aspect has overwhelmed everything else. Though I suppose the fans of pop music don't think that. It is truly an industry rather than an art form.