Sunday, August 2, 2015

Idola theatri

In 1620 Sir Francis Bacon published his Novum Organum, one of the earliest descriptions of what would become scientific method. Bacon saw many kinds of errors that needed to be corrected in the way we look at the world and in his book he cites four, one of which I chose for my title: the Idola theatri or idols of the theatre. These are not innate in the mind, but the kinds of errors that are constructed by thinkers. Wikipedia quotes Bacon thus:
"Idols which have immigrated into men's minds from the various dogmas of philosophies, and also from wrong laws of demonstration." He named them Idols of the Theater "because in my judgment all the received systems are but so many stage plays, representing worlds of their own creation after an unreal and scenic fashion."
In other words, idola theatri are the kind of errors and misunderstandings that are sometimes called "received" or "conventional" wisdom; those kinds of things that we generally believe to be true but that are simply false. Some examples? The link between cholesterol or saturated fat and cardiovascular disease. Ever since the 1950s this was thought to be uncontroversial. But now:
In 2014, a systematic review and meta-analysis in the Annals of Internal Medicine, of 72 published studies totalling 530,525 participants, looked at observational studies of dietary intake of fatty acids, observational studies of measured fatty acid levels in the blood, and intervention studies of polyunsaturated fat supplementation. The authors of the review concluded that, ″Current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats.″ (from this Wikipedia article)
There are a whole lot of other areas in which the conventional wisdom is obviously incorrect, but many of these are so controversial that I don't even want to mention them! Suffice it to say that it is taboo to even discuss some of the most egregious examples. Bacon's reference to stage plays is very apt because a lot of these form integral parts of an overarching narrative that is intended by the powers that be to govern our thinking on all sorts of questions.

This narrative also governs thinking about the arts and a tiny part of it is also intended to govern our thinking about music. I am stimulated to write about this because I just ran across a near-perfect example of the narrative in action. Here is an article in The Guardian titled: "Access all arias: how a 16th century choral work is reaching new audiences." But the most blatant propagandizing comes in the sub-head:
Classical music will only survive if it persuades younger audiences to give great music a chance. In Bristol and across Britain, programmers are reaching out to new listeners in exciting and imaginative ways
The thing about expressions of conventional wisdom as The Narrative is that they must not seem controversial in any way. This is, of course, how errors continue and propagate: they don't seem like errors. And how could anyone (except a reprobate like myself) have any disagreement with that sub-head? Well, let's look at the first paragraph of the article:
Unless the classical music world finds ways to attract new audiences, it risks losing not just the baby and bathwater, but the whole bathtub. As I wrote last year, musicians and audiences are hungry for change. Here in Bristol at the Old Vic’s summer Proms week – now in our third year – our mission is to feed them with as much of it as we can dream up. Our concerts have included such innovations as big-screen live relays, digital imagery, lasers, robotics, and Google Glasses, all designed to bring audiences as close to the heart of the listening experience as they can conceivably get. We’re not the only ones heeding the call: the Hallé has just created a brilliant pay-what-you-like scheme for an informal concert later this year, and around the country there are concerts in pubs, in nightclubs, opera in the open air, and orchestras in car parks. But before traditionalists begin spluttering, I want to stress that this isn’t gimmickry. It’s about concentrating on the music, presenting it simply and directly, and breaking down the very real barriers that keep people from experiencing it.
Notice that this opening is very similar to the one I was critiquing in my Thursday post: "Holy Hokum, Batman!" Same error of attributing agency to a Passive Collective. "Classical music" is not an entity and has no agency. Classical musicians, in order to attract audiences, are always seeking ways to do so. But this, of course, is not dramatic enough for The Narrative. "Musicians and audiences are hungry for change"? This is a key part of The Narrative because the particular narrative that we are dealing with here is the Progressive Narrative where we are all marching into the Brave New Future guaranteed us by our masters. Don't get me wrong, I'm not opposed to Better, but Newer is not always better, though pointing that out is excluded from The Narrative.

Classical music is a particularly tough nut for the Progressive Warriors to crack because the very nature of classical music, its links to tradition and aesthetic quality, its core repertoire coming from a small group of Dead White Males and its lack of the usual visual distractions all tend to insulate it from the typical entertainments of our day: pop music, electronic dance music, hip-hop and so on. So the first thing you will do, in order to, as I say, crush this tough nut, is to bring in
such innovations as big-screen live relays, digital imagery, lasers, robotics, and Google Glasses
But of course these things instead of "bring[ing] audiences as close to the heart of the listening experience as they can conceivably get" only distract from the music itself. Classical music is an auditory experience and all those things are visual! Believe me when I say that the more visual gimmickry you insert into the experience the less aware of the music you will be. I'm not sure audiences are really noticing, but they are more and more being distracted from the music itself by peripheral things.

These aren't just visual gimmickry, but extend to the program notes. You would think that the basic function of program notes was to tell you something about the music, to aid your reception of the music. But this seems to be less and less the case. I recently attended a concert in which I learned from the program notes where Beethoven was born, the weight of an early patron, the Elector of Bonn, Maximilian Franz (480 lbs), his nickname (the patron's), Beethoven's meeting with Mozart, how long it took Beethoven to write his first set of string quartets, when they were published, and which Mozart quartet inspired op 18, no. 3. It was K. 575. Of the quartet itself, about to be played in the concert there was exactly one word of description: the finale is described as "effervescent."

You think this was just an anomaly? Go ahead, dig out some programs of concerts you have attended recently and tell me how much of the notes actually talk about the music and how much talk about everything BUT the music.

So much of what is going on recently in classical music seems so outright opposed to a suitable listening experience that I wonder if the intention is in fact to crush classical music. After all, if that was indeed your intention, to destroy the classical music listening experience, wouldn't you do just these things? Replace a quiet, distraction-free environment (the traditional concert hall) with one filled with big-screen digital imagery, lasers, robotics and Google Glasses, put on concerts in uncongenial places like pubs, nightclubs and car parks, replace informative program notes with trivial citations of irrelevant biographical details, and constantly dilute and distort the core repertoire by adding in as much non-core as you can: pieces by rock guitarists, pieces with added choreography, collaborations with pop musicians, quotas of people that are not Dead White Males and so on.

It all reminds me of something I read a while ago to the effect that you can best understand the behavior of a bureaucratic institution by assuming that it is secretly controlled by a cabal of its enemies. Now doesn't that make things a lot clearer?

How can classical music thrive? It is pretty simple. Make available, even to children whose parents lack the funds, good music instruction. In Canada, for example, the Province of Quebec has an extensive network of conservatories all over the province that do this. Of course, there is constant political pressure to shut them down. But the system works very well despite that. Let musicians work out their own ways of reaching audiences. Some subsidized performance spaces--real concert halls with proper backstage facilities, good acoustics and suitable lighting--would help a lot. I hesitate to suggest anything else because I think a lot of government programs to aid the arts tend to go astray. The basic principle is let creative people be creative and let audiences support them. How to best do that is sometimes a puzzle, but the solutions will usually be specific to the context and locale so there probably aren't too many general rules.

Ironically, if you read the rest of the essay I quoted you will se that they are doing lots of great things:
this year we’ve programmed an evening with no less than nine 40-part choral motets, seven of which are world premieres. One of them is nearly 450 years old and also shot to the top of the charts after it was featured in the novel Fifty Shades of Grey. Thomas Tallis’s Spem in Alium – composed in the 1570s - will be performed with eight other new works written for the same mind and ear-boggling choral forces.
That sounds like it will be a great concert. So don't mistake my thinking here: I am not at all attacking the great things these musicians are doing. More power to them. I am just noticing that they feel they have to genuflect to The Narrative and I am critiquing that Narrative. 40-part choral motets? Yahoo, bring 'em on!

So let's end with a clip of that piece by Thomas Tallis, the motet in 40 parts, Spem in Alium. This is The Sixteen directed by Harry Christophers, with the Laurenscantorij and guest singers, directed by Wiecher Mandemaker:

(Wait, are we sure there are 40 separate parts? I think I only heard 38.)

(Just kidding.)


Rickard Dahl said...

Yes, when I read the quote I was thinking: These things are distractions rather than things that enhance the experience. The music speaks for itself in most cases and the best listening experience comes from as little distractions as possible (this includes distractions such as coughs and various noises made by the audience (which are hard to get rid off)).

Actually the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (GSO) has good concert notes in their magazine called "podiet". For instance there are concert notes for Bartok's 2nd piano concerto in one of the numbers and roughly 1/2-2/3 are about the music itself, the rest is mostly background information leading up to the work. From this example and other similar examples there's no deep background information unrelated to the music as in your example with Beethoven.

Yes, I guess some government involvement in classical music and culture in general is needed. Some forms of welfare can probably be beneficial to a society, including things like state-funding for schools (including private options for those who want to pay) or free healthcare (including private options that are maybe partially state-funded). However, the big welfare system we have makes people dependent on welfare (i.e. lazy). Welfare should be used to get people back up if they fall on hard times rather than making it a way of getting an income. I've listened to an interview with Nima Sanandaji (Iranian immigrant who lives in Sweden) who argues that the economic growth in Sweden has in fact been reduced due to introduction of a big welfare system in the 70s and onwards. He argues that it in fact is the free market from the 1870s to about 1970 that allowed Sweden to become one of the richest countries and allowed Sweden to afford a big welfare system in the first place. Before the 70s the welfare system was relatively small but it worked better. Anyways, he has written several books, including this one:

Bryan Townsend said...

Glad to hear that Gothenburg has good program notes! Regarding Sweden, I was just reading a very similar discussion the other day.

Christine Lacroix said...

One of my adult students is from Ukraine and experienced life under Soviet domination. She said that though they were thrilled to be free from communist domination she still has wonderful memories from her childhood of the free music, art, and sports education that was available to all of the children.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, it is very illuminating to look at life in the Soviet Union. In some ways they were a musical superpower with great composers such as Shostakovich and Prokofiev. These composers found a highly appreciative audience. But this has to be balanced out against the appalling economic and other oppression that was also life in the Soviet Union. Shostakovich was nearly sent to Siberia for writing an opera that Stalin disliked. As a result, he never wrote another opera!

Marc Puckett said...

I tried to read that article too late in the evening yesterday and my eyes had a difficult time making it past the beginning of the title, 'access all arias', which I still can't quite get my head around; glad you did.

Will go back to the Bach Festival program-- one book for the entire series of concerts-- and read it from the perspective of 'sensible program notes?'. I recall lots of historical context sorts of details, and that Arvo Part has a long beard (am making that bit up); each one I read was by the same author.

Toward the end of Lent I downloaded the score to Tallis's Spem in alium to try to follow along with different recordings. Had to use larger sheets of paper at the Fedex store because the print would have been too tiny for me to read otherwise. Do singers have scores with just their parts, I wonder....

Bryan Townsend said...

My post may have been an instance of shooting fleas with an elephant gun, but whenever possible I try to punch back at the sillier ideologies floating around the classical music world.

I believe that Arvo Pärt does have a beard!

Watching the video of the Tallis, in one shot it seemed as if one member of the choir, at least, was singing from what looked like the score: a very long system of many tiny staves. Choirs do usually sing from a vocal/piano score, but that would be awkward in this case.

Christine Lacroix said...

Communism was an interesting idea and I've always felt extremely fortunate that I never had to live in any of the countries that tried it out!

Bryan Townsend said...

You bet! Because sooner or later, in order to make the unworkable work, they will have to control the life of every citizen. And it still won't work!