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What's wrong with classical music?
October 4, 2010 7:07 AM   Subscribe

"What's wrong with classical music?" That article (1) diagnoses why classical music -- both old and contemporary -- has lost its cultural vitality and (2) looks at some proposals for reviving it.

The hard, cold truth is that classical music in public places is often deliberately intended to make certain kinds of people feel unwelcome. Its use has been described as “musical bug spray,” and as the “weaponization” of classical music. At the Bathurst Street Subway Station [in Toronto], the choice of music conveys a clear message: “Move along quickly and peacefully, people; this is not your cultural space.” . . .

I recently surveyed a group of undergraduate students, in a music appreciation class that I teach at the University of Toronto, asking for their views on the reasons for classical music’s lack of appeal. Broadly speaking, the reasons they suggested can be divided into two categories: things people don’t like about the way the music sounds, and things people don’t like about the culture that surrounds the music. To my students’ suggestions, I’ve added a few thoughts of my own, based on criticisms of classical music that I’ve encountered over the years. What follows is a litany of reasons – or at least perceptions – that collectively go a long way to explain why large swaths of society can be driven away by my favourite music. . . .
posted by John Cohen (186 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite

 
Related.
posted by Gyan at 7:15 AM on October 4, 2010


I admit to being a total stooge re classical music. I mean, I know the things I like that make me smile, but I couldn't tell you why one recording is better than another, and I'm still not quite sure what the conductor is doing. And as a fellow who has played a variety of instruments fo about 40 years, I think that makes me something of an asshat.

My only datapoint, and something that truly makes me smile every time I hear it, or think of it, is an old line from The West Wing.

Bartlet: "It isn't classical music if the guy just finished writing it this afternoon.
Charlie: "Yes Sir."
posted by timsteil at 7:17 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


For example, the complaint that classical music can’t survive without subsidy is a right-wing objection; whereas the argument that the music is “elitist” tends to come from the left.

Classic FM is probably the most unelitist and accessible radio station in the UK. It's on the low end of middlebrow if anything, they like to play stuff everyone recognises.

I'm not a huge fan of classical music but there's a fair bit of stuff even I'd recognise just from tv adverts and films and general osmosis.
posted by shinybaum at 7:17 AM on October 4, 2010


I'm still not quite sure what the conductor is doing.

The conductor is sort of a cross between a stage director and a football coach. S/He is the reason an orchestra is better than 100 people playing simultaneous solos.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:20 AM on October 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


Weird that classical music is looked down upon, yet nearly every big-budget movie score is either classical in style or heavily, heavily influenced by classical styles. Beauty, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder in context.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:21 AM on October 4, 2010 [11 favorites]


I think that the best way to promote a type of music is to get people to participate in it. Pop music is popular because it's accessible and easy to sing along to. My interest in classical or orchestral music stems from playing that music in high school and college.

Also, I think that classical music is still pretty popular. I go to several PSO (Pittsburgh) concerts every year, and turnout is still good, even in this economy. It's never going to be as big as Lady Gaga, but does it need to be? There's plenty of room out there for niche markets.
posted by dellsolace at 7:24 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Most classical music just plain never moved me. It's never spoken to me in anywhere near the profound way that so much blues, rock, country, R&B, soul, funk, old time, jazz, African, Brazilian, Indonesian, etc. has. And I'm way past any youthful idea of not liking it because it's "stuffy" or "snobbish" or whatever. I could ignore the socio-cultural trappings, no problem, cause it's all just sound at the end of the day. But the undeniable fact, for me, is that with a few exceptions, music of the Western classical tradition just doesn't float my musical boat.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:28 AM on October 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


gah, I can't open the link. server is taking too long to respond. any ideas, anyone?
posted by bardophile at 7:28 AM on October 4, 2010


I wonder if other places have a Proms type thing. Last night of the proms is still popular among not middle class people, when they play more popular and accessible music like pomp and circumstance.
posted by shinybaum at 7:30 AM on October 4, 2010


Jazz is dead!
posted by Artw at 7:31 AM on October 4, 2010


gah, I can't open the link. server is taking too long to respond. any ideas, anyone?

That's weird -- I didn't have any problems with it. It's on a fairly popular website that's been around for a long time (3QuarksDaily), so I doubt that their servers would suddenly not be able to bear the traffic from a Metafilter link.
posted by John Cohen at 7:32 AM on October 4, 2010


I think that the best way to promote a type of music is to get people to participate in it. Pop music is popular because it's accessible and easy to sing along to. My interest in classical or orchestral music stems from playing that music in high school and college.

Ditto. I attend several classics concerts a year, and I see lots of young people there. Generally, they are musicians themselves. Unfortunately, there's rarely room in a school budget for anything but band, and they usually justify their existence with marching and pep. By the time kids reach high school, it's too late to interest them in string instruments.
posted by muddgirl at 7:35 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


So what kind of music should orchestras play to attract new audiences? ... Concerts featuring rap artists as guests?

"The London Symphony Orchestra welcomes Cypress Hill".
posted by Joe Beese at 7:35 AM on October 4, 2010 [7 favorites]


> The hard, cold truth is that classical music in public places is often deliberately intended to make certain kinds of people feel unwelcome. Its use has been described as “musical bug spray,” and as the “weaponization” of classical music.

I'm not a classical music aficionado, but I often enjoy what I hear and it sort of bothers me to see it used this way instead of, say, Muzak, which is expressly designed to suck and repel. I guess classical is used because it's public domain and therefore free?

> The pieces are often far too long.

This. What hope do classical (and jazz) music have in an age when nightclubs* can't even be bothered to play the entirety of a three minute pop song?

* disclaimer: I spend very little time in clubs of any kind these days, but the last few times I did, the DJ only played the beginning and/or chorus of each song and it drove this old fart up the wall

> And one of the greatest repertoire problems today is contemporary music – and by this, I mean contemporary classical music.

The phrase "contemporary classical music" always reminds of of the Futurama episode where Fry is listening to "Baby Got Back" and Leela tells him "Fry, you can't just sit here in the dark listening to classical music." Culture moves along so fast these days that my 20-something co-workers (I'm 37) think my interest in jazz is a sign of encroaching senility.
posted by The Card Cheat at 7:35 AM on October 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


Weird that classical music is looked down upon, yet nearly every big-budget movie score is either classical in style or heavily, heavily influenced by classical styles. Beauty, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder in context.

Yeah this is definitely true. My dad teaches some intro to music courses and invariably he gets mostly students who are like 'Oh, classical music, this will be boring.' Then he sits down at the piano and plays the Pirates of the Caribbean theme and all the kids go 'Oh yeah, this is great! Too bad we have to study classical music.'
posted by shakespeherian at 7:36 AM on October 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


Most classical music just plain never moved me.

Yeah, you can't groove to it.
posted by philip-random at 7:37 AM on October 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


Why is classical music so successful in movie scores? The music improves the movie (by creating an emotional mood) and the movie improves the music (by giving it context). One of the problems noted with classical music, in the article that we are discussing, is the lack of lyrics (orchestral music generally lacks lyrics, although there are exceptions, and opera might be cited as classical music with lyrics - although in that case, the lyrics are usually in a language that most listeners do not speak, thus rendering them very abstract, and opera uses highly formalized singing techniques that are at odds with current musical trends). The combination of lyrics and melody that we normally see in popular music can give a much better emotional effect than either lyrics separately (poetry) or melody separately (classical music). However, movies do something very similar. When we hear the Darth Vader theme, the music carries a vast wealth of connotation that it would not have had it been composed independently of a movie. One cannot help but remember the tragic destruction of the planet Aldaran.
posted by grizzled at 7:37 AM on October 4, 2010 [9 favorites]


Epic trance is also heavily influenced by classical music.

Nothing like a gigantic orchestral breakdown to bring a dance floor to its knees at the end of the night.
posted by empath at 7:39 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]



Most classical music just plain never moved me.


Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima

Atmospheres

Classical music from the 20th century that gives me chills.
posted by Pastabagel at 7:42 AM on October 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


"The London Symphony Orchestra welcomes Cypress Hill".

here is a thing that you can't understand!
how I could just trill a man!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:42 AM on October 4, 2010 [5 favorites]


So what kind of music should orchestras play to attract new audiences? ... Concerts featuring rap artists as guests?

Well that's the BBC way of looking at it. There was an elimination based tv show about different pop culture people attempting to be orchestra conductors, Goldie was the runner up - he ws brilliant actually, should have won.

The BBC also do stuff like the Choir.
posted by shinybaum at 7:43 AM on October 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


I guess should have also linked to the actual trance version of that. That was the 'orchestral' mix without the beat..
posted by empath at 7:44 AM on October 4, 2010


Most classical music just plain never moved me.

Yeah, you can't groove to it.


Well, there's all kind of "groove"... I can groove to shakuhachi music, but there ain't no beat in that...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:44 AM on October 4, 2010


Act I of Wagner's Die Walkure always reminds me of a Jim Steinman extravaganza. Huge musical climaxes and rebellious young lovers on the run.
posted by Joe Beese at 7:45 AM on October 4, 2010 [2 favorites]




These are a bit less avant garde, but also from the 20th century:

Aaron Copland's "Rodeo".

Orff's "O Fortuna"

Erik Satie "Gymnopedie No. 1"

Vangelis "Hymne"
posted by Pastabagel at 7:47 AM on October 4, 2010


Most classical music just plain never moved me.

I would have said the same thing ten years ago, but then I discovered that there is a lot of classical music out there that moves me--mostly through trial and error. I refused to admit that I didn't like it, and eventually discovered stuff that I thought was powerful.

When I think about it, most "contemporary" music doesn't move me either. If I turn the radio to a station playing pop hits or even the college station that's playing bands that are more obscure, I'm not likely to hear something that interests me. I have to work to find the music I like; it doesn't just land in my lap.

Classical music can be intimidating to explore, though. And who knows, maybe you really just don't like any classical music; that's believable too. But I do believe that more people would like classical if they were exposed to a wider range of it.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 7:48 AM on October 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


While we're on the subject of grooving to classical.

Tiesto - Adagio For Strings.

The biggest trance record of all time - Cafe Del Mar was based on Wim Martens - Struggle for Pleasure.
posted by empath at 7:48 AM on October 4, 2010


At the Bathurst Street Subway Station, the choice of music conveys a clear message: “Move along quickly and peacefully, people; this is not your cultural space.”

This might be true if they occasionally used dramatic and forceful music in these contexts. But in fact the music is always calm in nature, and it merely has the effect of relaxing stressed passengers, including younger ones. There's nothing sinister about this.

People are constantly exposed to classical music in film, TV and commercials. While it's never going to be as popular as... popular music, I don't think there is as much aversion as this article suggests.

And of course, the boundaries of classical music are extremely weak. Who can describe exactly why In Rainbows or Kid A (Billboard #1, lol) weren't song-cycles of contemporary classical music, other than the way they were marketed? What about Four Tet, The Books, Björk, Sigur Ros?
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 7:49 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's kinda odd to click on a link in MeFi and see a headshot of an old classmate. Glad to see he's still writing.
posted by LMGM at 7:51 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


"The hard, cold truth is that classical music in public places is often deliberately intended to make certain kinds of people feel unwelcome."

Y'know... I kinda take exception to this statement. I propose an edit:

The hard, cold truth is that music in public places is often deliberately intended to make certain kinds of people feel welcome.

My assumption is any public space that has music is using that music to attract certain people. And it's the receptivity of the intended crowd to outsiders that defines how welcome those outsiders feel in the space. The same holds true for retail and service spaces.
posted by Severian at 7:53 AM on October 4, 2010


I think Howard Shore's soundtracks to the Lord of the Rings movies - especially Return of the King - are outstanding classical music that need no support at all from the visuals. They've even got Renee Fleming!

I'd sure rather hear the Utah Philharmonic play that than their n-th traversal of a Beethoven warhorse.
posted by Joe Beese at 7:55 AM on October 4, 2010


Did anybody else do the Music Memory program when they were kids? That was fantastic for me in instilling a lifelong appreciation for classical music. Sadly I never played an instrument (other than recorder in 3rd grade) so I don't have too much in depth knowledge, but I still love my Beethoven, Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky, etc.
posted by kmz at 7:56 AM on October 4, 2010


I always though classical music in public spaces was sort of educational and arsty and even patriotic in a non-evil way, like the Krizic singing fountain.
posted by shinybaum at 7:57 AM on October 4, 2010


You know, I'm a bit disappointed in the reccomendations section of this post. The author does a good job outlining the concrete obstacles between casual music consumers and classical music, but his "solutions" are all philosophical - "tearing down the Berlin Wall" and all that. What does that mean?
posted by muddgirl at 8:00 AM on October 4, 2010


"tearing down the Berlin Wall" and all that. What does that mean?

That symphony orchestras should start performing with giant inflatable floating pigs?
posted by dnash at 8:03 AM on October 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


Most classical music just plain never moved me.

I know the feeling, but here are some alternative (related) perspectives music that "moves":

"Art is the human disposition of sensible or intelligible matter for an esthetic end. The esthetic emotion (I use the general term) is therefore static. The mind is arrested and raised above desire and loathing.”
- James Joyce, "Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man"

"Aquinas defines beauty as that which pleases; that’s a very nice definition. There is another aspect, however, to art which is the sublime. And the sublime is that which simply shatters your whole ego system. In either case, we are over on the static side: one static held by fascination, the other static held by annihilation. The beautiful and the sublime. The sublime: enormous power, enormous space, to simply diminish and wipe out the ego. The sublime."
- Joseph Campbell
posted by Pastabagel at 8:03 AM on October 4, 2010 [5 favorites]


Epic trance is also heavily influenced by classical music.

The influence of classical is everywhere but short of movie soundtracks etc, average folks get virtually no exposure to anything even remotely interesting; just the same old nice and/or bombastic themes. And even in the soundtracks, it's usually just snippets, seldom a fully explored idea. A friend of mine used to be critical of the name. Drop "classical" and go with something like "symphonic", which of course doesn't work for something like a string quartet.

I remember reading a Brian Eno interview years ago where he spoke of a discussion he once had with a fairly renowned (at the time) musicologist. She sadly claimed that music on the whole was effectively moribund, that mathematically, every conceivable combination of notes etc was on the verge of having been tried, so there was nowhere for music to go. He agreed about the mathematics of the notes but suggested that we (humanity) were only getting started on our exploration of tone, a process enabled by amplification, electronic and recording effects, samplers, all the cool new technology of the 20th century; that someone like Jimi Hendrix could crank out a greater, richer variety of tones on one instrument than an entire symphonic string section (and the woodwinds for that matter).

As Eno reported, the musicologist just dismissed him out of hand. She didn't want to even think of what he was suggesting, and what it might mean to her precious (albeit doomed) symphonic ghetto. My gut tells me, that's "classical's" problem in a nutshell: unwilling, except in a few isolated corners, to even think about emerging from the 19th Century.
posted by philip-random at 8:10 AM on October 4, 2010 [15 favorites]


Hi, big modern classical fan here. I had a revelation not long after I graduated college with my music degree, and it helped me conceptualize my struggles with classical music: it's really just another genre. I think often we're brought up to believe that there's something particularly transcendent about it, something that you have to feel or you're doing it wrong. That there was "popular" music, and then there was (spoken in a grave, serious voice) "classical music". I realized that I had been regarding classical composers as these magical people who lived in the distant past, and that there wasn't going to be another period like this magical classical period, and that everyone playing this music now was just rehashing and repeating it to keep it alive.

When I started thinking of it as just another type of music, not intrinsically better or worse than rock, jazz, etc., I realized that I didn't have to like all classical music. It was okay to hate baroque music! It was ok to find it grating and cloying! It doesn't mean that I just don't get it! I was free to find my own ways to engage with it, to trust my tastes, and to not regard all of classical music with broad strokes. And I found that I loved a lot of the modern composers -- and not just the minimalists, either. There's great stuff going on with string quartets, and with hybrids of classical ensembles and non-Western music, with musicians working the edges of genres and blurring the popular/classical lines. It might sound a bit sacrilegious, but it seems to me that there's nothing "wrong" with classical music -- it's just going in and out of style, like all genres.
posted by statolith at 8:11 AM on October 4, 2010 [11 favorites]


BTW, does anybody remember the huge classical MIDI archives back in the day? I loved those. When all you have is dialup, a small high quality MIDI file along with Timidity was awesome.
posted by kmz at 8:13 AM on October 4, 2010


Haven't rtfa yet but I'll chime in. The symphony is so fucking expensive, but I've had great luck using local universities' free chamber music series as a way to widen my appreciation of all kinds of classical music. Any major city will probably have a site like this which lists all the free recitals and chamber concerts in the area. I just ctrl-f for "free" once a month and go from there.

Most classical music just plain never moved me.

Have you read Alex Ross' book The Rest Is Noise, flapjax? That's what did it for me (that and seeing a lot of live chamber music over the past two years). Ross has a real gift for contextualizing 20th-century classical in ways that opened up all kinds of areas of listening. I went nuts over Stravinsky (anyone who can't hear the groove in Stravinsky's early ballet scores is already dead) and Shostakovich's astonishing, spare and dark, dark, dark late string quartets (he gets some incredibly modern and unusual sounds out of the instruments, you'd love them), to name just the first composers to blow my mind. The latest was Webern; I heard his Six Bagatelles live Saturday night and they were marvelous - extremely concise bits of sound and silence that take music to an amazing place.

I freely admit to being bored by most Mozart, but the intricacies of the best of the chamber music repertoire of the 1800s should be right up the ADD-brained alley of modern humanity. It can make your head spin.
posted by mediareport at 8:15 AM on October 4, 2010 [7 favorites]


This essay echoes a lot of what I've been reading on Proper Discord, a blog I've been following for 4 or 5 months now. He is an insider of some sort (he carefully maintains anonymity) and has a lot of insight into the often self-imposed troubles that the classical music industry is facing today.

Some highlights:

An point-by-point analysis of an average concert-going experience
Does classical music need a 12-step program?
10 clichés of classical music journalism
10 ways to mess up audience development

He has made a number of posts attempting to debunk the myth that mp3s are incapable of capturing classical music as well.
posted by Klieserber at 8:16 AM on October 4, 2010 [11 favorites]


Wow, Klieserber, that site looks great. Thanks.
posted by mediareport at 8:24 AM on October 4, 2010


I wonder if someone could weaponize mathematics in the same way. Most people hate math.
posted by madcaptenor at 8:24 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Popping back into this thread to say I do loves me some Edgard Varèse.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:27 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


And some Satie.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:28 AM on October 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


Shostakovich's astonishing, spare and dark, dark, dark late string quartets

As a friend once described Pink Floyd's The Wall: "It's music for when I'm depressed and want to feel more depressed".
posted by Joe Beese at 8:29 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht also gave me chills when I heard it played live about 30-some years ago.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:30 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Classical music is dryly cerebral, lacking visceral or emotional appeal. The pieces are often far too long. Rhythmically, the music is weak, with almost no beat, and the tempos can be funereal. The melodies are insipid – and often there’s no real melody at all, just stretches of complicated sounding stuff. "

Has this guy ever actually listened to any classical music? Every time I sing Beethoven's 9th, there's someone in the audience with tears rolling down their face, and it's one of the most recognizable melodies in the western world. Hell, when we did the Star Wars symphony, *I* frickin burst into tears at the opening fanfare on the first dress rehearsal night. Listen to the finale of Dvorak's New World Symphony and tell me THAT's "weak, with almost no beat."

The problem isn't classical music, the problem is that this guy has no idea what he's talking about.
posted by KathrynT at 8:32 AM on October 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


I think Howard Shore's soundtracks to the Lord of the Rings movies - especially Return of the King - are outstanding classical music that need no support at all from the visuals. They've even got Renee Fleming!

I'd sure rather hear the Utah Philharmonic play that than their n-th traversal of a Beethoven warhorse.


Indeed. The St. Louis symphony played music from the Lord of the Rings as a two day engagement a couple of years ago. Tickets sold out in a couple of days, when it's rare for the SLSO to sell out any performance. They're bringing it back, though...in April of 2011 as a whopping three day engagement. I realize they don't want to overdo it, but it seems awful short sighted to play something that popular (and good) for only a few days every three years.

And the Utah Symphony did play music from the Lord of the Rings once. For two days. Six years ago.
posted by jedicus at 8:32 AM on October 4, 2010


Kathryn T, the author of the article doesn't agree with those sentiments, he's just listing some common perceptions.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 8:34 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Most classical music just plain never moved me. It's never spoken to me in anywhere near the profound way that so much blues, rock, country, R&B, soul, funk, old time, jazz, African, Brazilian, Indonesian, etc. has.

I notice that a lot of people have been responding to flapjax at midnite's comment that it "never moved me." I think this is a red herring.

Oh, I'm sure flapjax at midnite is sincerely describing his own experience. But saying a genre of music doesn't "move" you or "speak to" you basically means it's not one of your favorite genres. So, to say you're not a big fan of the genre because it doesn't move you or speak to you is a truism. Everyone feels that way about the genres they don't like.

It's like saying "I don't like that kind of music because it all sounds the same." People who say this about certain genres (including myself) are honestly describing how the music sounds to them. But it sounds wildly different to the fans. So there's still an open question of why those fans aren't more prevalent.

To me, classical music is more moving than any other kind of music -- and I don't just mean this in some serene, rarefied, contemplative sense, but in an immediately visceral and energizing way. I believe people who say they don't find it moving, but I think they would experience it differently if they gave it more of a chance. There's no question of classical music's potential to reach the masses (as one comment said, we can plainly see this with movie scores); the question is why that potential is no longer fully realized.
posted by John Cohen at 8:35 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


> A point-by-point analysis of an average concert-going experience

So going to see a concert is quite often a miserably uncomfortable, overpriced ordeal for rich people, too? Hm. Granted, I'm a bit crowd-phobic, but it's been quite a while since a saw a show of any kind where the live performance added enough value to the experience to keep me from thinking "I could have bought _____'s record for $10."
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:35 AM on October 4, 2010


I spent a solid twenty-one years as an operatic supernumerary actor with the Washington [National] Opera, starting out as a squeaky thirteen year-old in a cape in La Bohème and ending as a burly street vendor in La Bohème in 2002. I'm semi-retired now, essentially because I'm burly and more obviously middle-aged at this point and they only ever cast me as a soldier anymore, but they were good years.

It's not much of a stretch to point out that opera's kind of the rock & roll of its time; overblown, overwrought, lumpen and BIG. As an opera fan, I'm a little lacking. I like the ones I've been in, from the standards to the more obscure pieces, but I do love those operas, even though, decades later, I still feel a little antsy when I hear my cues come up, thinking I need to enter, stage right, with my musket and mug, to be on the parapet waiting for Tosca's arrival. I've also been spoiled by seeing virtually every performance I've ever witnessed from the stage, with Denyce Graves or Domingo belting out out three feet away from me, and it's hard to sit in the audience after that.

The thing is, though--over the years, I'd wash off my makeup, carefully hang my costume on a hanger, pack up my locker, and head out through the backstage entrance, and there'd be a small clutch of true fans out there, waiting for a glimpse of a big star, and they'd often corner me for information. The more seasoned supers and choristers cautioned me early on not to talk to the "viola counters," a rabid group of the most dedicated who'd pin you down and ask you why, why the conductor didn't emphasize the brass in the third act, or how I could stand to be a part of an awful modern production of the Ring Cycle.

Granted, the Ring was done by the Deutsche Oper Berlin, and they based the set for Valhalla on DC's Metro Center and dressed us all in sort of Fritz Lang underworld gear, with bare-titted Valkyries on motorcycles, but it isn't 1876, for pete's sake.

The caterwauling, though.

Keeee-rist classical fans caterwaul, wail, and whine.

Nothing is ever authentic enough. No instrumentalist is ever virtuoso enough. Nothing can ever hope to reach the dizzying heights of Gould, or whatever sacred cow performance holds their attention.

The new stuff is just awful. The old stuff is just stale.

That melodic crap is played out. That atonal music is jangling and unlistenable.

It's a crime to set Carmen in modern settings. It's embarrassing to play out Tosca the same old way, century after century.

They just don't make composers like they used to. Culture is decaying. It's our school systems. It's our parenting. It's our emphasis on rock music, or electronic music, or rap music. Nothing is good anymore. The symphony was much better in my day. People just don't care anymore. The kids, they like their ipods.

It's endless, but no one bothers with working to bring us back to listening to music in twenty minute portions, except electronic musicians, who are supposedly ruining music, and contemporary composers, who apparently are only capable of pastiche or elitist dissonance.

I can't think of another form of music that brings out the idiot critic in people more effectively than classical or "serious" music (myself, I just call it all "deep listening music," in homage to Pauline Oliveros, even though it's kind of a misquote of what she meant). People just want to believe everything great happened long ago, never to be replicated, and that all those pieces are just frozen and untouchable, even though it was the chaotic mutations that happened when classical music was just "music" that made it worth preserving over all this time.

Everything just gets hard-coded right out of the gate and, like all massive, brittle architectures, it crumbles away over time because it's just too pure, orthodox, and sacred to consider restoring, repairing, or building onto. The fans and followers should be out there, fanning the flames, sharing what is wonderful about a piece of music that takes ten minutes to really get started, but they're too busy having snippy cocktail party arguments about how The Rite of Spring ruined orchestral music, ninety-seven years later.

Mind you, this is just my own rather small-scale view on things, but I've seen so much of this in play, over my time with the opera and in my past association with the Baltimore Composers Forum, and it almost seems like classical enthusiasts really want nothing more than to see music of this type disappear within their lifetimes.
posted by sonascope at 8:37 AM on October 4, 2010 [67 favorites]


I wonder if someone could weaponize mathematics in the same way. Most people hate math.

Music IS math.
posted by empath at 8:37 AM on October 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


"Classical music is dryly cerebral, lacking visceral or emotional appeal. The pieces are often far too long. Rhythmically, the music is weak, with almost no beat, and the tempos can be funereal. The melodies are insipid – and often there’s no real melody at all, just stretches of complicated sounding stuff. "

Has this guy ever actually listened to any classical music?


If you read it in context, you'll see that he is summing up other people's attitudes, not his own.
posted by John Cohen at 8:37 AM on October 4, 2010


we (humanity) were only getting started on our exploration of tone

Well said, Eno and Phil! Classical music was an exploration of human using what limited sound production technologies we had at the time: buzzing strings on handmade boxes; buzzing chambers of air in handmade brass tubes; taut tympana stretched over actual kettles (kidding, kidding! (Sort of!)); buzzing vocal cords amplified by open mouths. In terms of what we've learned to do even in the past half-century, these are the sounds of banging rocks together in a cave.

I love it, by the way—except Baroque, which is like the math-rock genre exercise workout crap of the 17th century (/p4k)—but you can't blame a bunch of kids who are used to seeing with two eyes for disliking and distrusting the world when asked to walk around for a day with an eyepatch on. It's, like, ... dimensions, man. A whole new dimension. Or two! Two new dimensions. And, um. There's a point there somewhere.

One of my best friends recently asked me to send some new worthwhile music his way (a service he's been providing to me for a decade or more) and I told him I'd spent the past year listening to nothing newer than Mahler. His response touches on this topic. If you and he will allow (note: I'm not actually going to ask him) I'll just paste some of the convo:

He: my ears have been largely spoiled to the scales as there is no conflict between notes (ie dissonance) which my ears thrive on
He: but! its just a matter of retraining
 
I: yeah, i understand
I: beethoven does all sorts of weird microtonal grunting and moaning with his cellos and such in some symphonies

He: and its not that i need rock guitars etc, im perfectly happy as log as my ears can grab the conflict
He: this is really a great train of thought, instead of just finding new music to grab my attention.. look to all the amazing music i ignored for years
He: plus im getting old, makes sense

I: there's a tune or two out there, for sure
I: these conflicts have all been fought
I: just on slightly different battlegrounds
I: and with MUSKETS

There's a reason why distorted electric guitar is still so prevalent, beyond its marketability: one strum can contain the tonal complexity of an entire orchestra. Our ears/brains get used to this. We cook food for the same reason: taste tone. The tone is in your fingers! The bun is in your mind. The toasted bun. I'm done now.
posted by tapesonthefloor at 8:38 AM on October 4, 2010 [6 favorites]


I think this is the discussion is where i'm supposed to link this video
posted by eustatic at 8:41 AM on October 4, 2010


I'm pretty sure this is the discussion that needs some John Zorn.
posted by shakespeherian at 8:46 AM on October 4, 2010


You know, awhile back, I found myself thinking: how come goth bands don't sound like the Sisters of Mercy anymore? The Sisters' music is close to universally beloved in the scene, and there used to be bands that pretty clearly listened to them and went "well hell, we can do that!" (Nosferatu, I'm looking at you), so why doesn't anybody make that sort of guitar-driven anthemic gothic rock anymore?

And then it occurred to me- because that was a long time ago. A classical fan might wince at the idea of an artist whose last creative output was nearly 20 years ago being called old or outdated, but ever since audio recording and playback technologies became cheap and nigh-ubiquitous back in the early 20th century, music has been advancing- mutating, changing, innovating- at an absolute breakneck pace. Classical music? Well, by the author of this piece's admission, classical music simply hasn't kept up with the times. It's certainly been deeply influential, but I suspect that it's a dead end, musically, with the torch it carried being picked up by certain metal bands whose arrangements rival any classical composer's in their intricacy and complexity.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:48 AM on October 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


My only datapoint, and something that truly makes me smile every time I hear it, or think of it, is an old line from The West Wing.

Bartlet: "It isn't classical music if the guy just finished writing it this afternoon.
Charlie: "Yes Sir."


A curious datapoint to pick, given that the premise of this part of that episode was that Bartlet was wrong.

"They played a piece by a new composer. First, I wasn't hearing it. I had nineteen different things on my mind, but then I did, and C.J., it was magnificent. It was genius. He built these themes, and at the beginning, it was just an intellectual exercise, which is fun enough, I guess, but then in the fourth movement, he just let it go. I really didn't think I could be surprised by music anymore. I thought about all the times this guy must've heard that his music was no good... I've got to write this guy a letter."
posted by mightygodking at 8:48 AM on October 4, 2010


things people don’t like about the culture that surrounds the music

I had a job where I was often required to accompany disabled and elderly people to classical music concerts at various places. The general impression I got of classical music audiences was "white, old and unpleasant" in that order. Stuff like people getting all bent out of shape over a minor seating mix-up in a non-crowded theater and just general rudeness and intolerance. I would often feel bad for the residents that the people here treated them with such disdain, but luckily they usually didn't notice themselves.

I am a complete and unapologetic rock chick myself and I'd like to believe that kind of shit would never go down at a rock concert but perhaps I'm biased. I do know that one of the people I worked with went to a Staind concert (or some other buttrock band) on his own. He was escorted to front of the theater and got to meet the band backstage without even asking. I've also accompanied people to guitar stores and record stores and the people who worked there seemed to think it was the coolest thing ever and treated us very well.
posted by Jess the Mess at 8:50 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


The thing about classical music for me is that it doesn't have lyrics. It's not interactive. I can't sing along with it, I can't mentally peg it to a theme to think about, and I don't necessarily feel like I am emotionally participating with it to listen. It seems like a good chunk of it comes off as boring background music with nothing distinctive to it to distinguish it from Muzak these days too.

Thing is, I was in the orchestra when I was in school. I was a bloody terrible (third!) violin player because I hated listening to myself play alone and wouldn't practice, but I did like playing with the group. And I liked playing classical music so much better than having to listen to it while sitting still in an audience (or wandering through the mall, I guess). Because then it was interactive. It wasn't a boring passive experience to listen to it.

Does that make any sense?
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:53 AM on October 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


philip-random: My gut tells me, that's "classical's" problem in a nutshell: unwilling, except in a few isolated corners, to even think about emerging from the 19th Century.

What does this even mean? Classical music, colloquially, refers to the corpus of "art music" encoded onto paper by a disparate group of mostly dead white males over a period of a few centuries. This corpus is a done deal. It can't emerge onto anything. Modern performances can employ gimmicks such as reinterpretation or improvisation or some such, but then it wouldn't be 'classical music' anymore, in the same vein as a trance track sampling a classical work.

And if the domain 'classical music' is extended to include contemporary composers whose output bears some family resemblance to the classical repertoire, then that's another story altogether.
posted by Gyan at 8:55 AM on October 4, 2010


with the torch it carried being picked up by certain metal bands

I'd be up for a Beethoven Symphony No. 7 Movement II vs Metallica throw-down any day, sir.
posted by tapesonthefloor at 8:55 AM on October 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


Every once in a while, I get an email from this facebook group about free/cheap tickets to Seattle events. A few months ago, I got a message that, at quick glance, I read as,

Pacific Northwest Ballet is offering 25 pairs of tickets to SUNDAY NIGHT'S SEASON ENCORE PERFORMANCE ... an improvised cabaret in Hell, featuring sinners, demons and drag queens.

I thought to myself, "wow, now that sounds like a ballet I'd like to see". I bought my tickets, even splurging on a seat in the hanging-from-walls section, 'cause ever time I've been to something classical, I've looked on those seats and wondered.

I got there, watched the show getting started, everything seemed traditional ballet, so I check the program...nothing about demons or drag queens. hrm. The show was good, and included a couple of modern-ish numbers, one of which had a soundtrack I'd kill for a copy of, but nothing that matched my expectations from the email. At intermission, I rechecked the original email and discovered it had been talking about two different events, one at the ballet, one at a cabaret. d'ohwell.

I tried to track down the one piece of music I'd liked from the evening. Even after getting a hold of someone in the offices of the ballet company, I never could get an answer.

with almost no beat,

There's the black commediane who does a bit about how with her windows rolled up, her classical music sounds just like hip-hop.

I wish there was more classical-metal
posted by nomisxid at 8:56 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


At the Bathurst Street Subway Station, the choice of music conveys a clear message: “Move along quickly and peacefully, people; this is not your cultural space.”

To anyone contesting this, it is unambiguously true. A young man was shot in Bathurst station a few years ago, spent some months in a coma and a year recovering motor control. He was a bystander during a tussle where someone pulled a handgun. The classical music was put on after the incident specifically to dissuade this kind of thing.
posted by Evstar at 8:56 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


I was learning piano my last few years in undergrad, but I had to stop because it was making me incredibly nervous. I began obsessively listening to sounds, and I began to get panic attacks from the noises in the house at night. Listening to too much classical music puts me on edge. Distinct tones (as opposed to walls of sound), harmonic progressions, varied repetition - sounds like a recipe for psychosis. It's very hard for me to understand how anyone who actually listens to classical music could find it in the least bit soothing.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 8:57 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


(Note to the Pope: that was tongue-in-cheek, and was an excuse to link to a bit of music that makes many people go: "Wow. It clomps along like Unforgiven". I appreciate where metal has taken tone and rhythm and complexity!)
posted by tapesonthefloor at 8:58 AM on October 4, 2010


I'd be up for a Beethoven Symphony No. 7 Movement II vs Metallica throw-down any day, sir.

If your conception of metal begins and ends at Metallica, I can totally see why you'd be dismissive of metal, but look into some symphonic and technical metal and you'll basically find music nerds that I'd put up against your average classical musician any day.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:58 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


It strikes me that a lot of negative reaction to classical music is equivalent to "your favorite band sucks". It helps to know the context in which things were written and played to help your brain grasp them. It also helps to understand how different composers approached the same task.

For example, I found the Masses impenetrable until I found that they do, in fact, follow a traditional mass structure and that is still in modern liturgy - and why? Why would a composer put together this huge chunk of music? A) for the money B) as a celebration and man what a celebration they can be! Imagine a cathedral filled with people squeezing in and settling down through the Kyrie and then getting hit square with a Gloria. And yeah, this is a true celebration. Wow.

Then, and I'll stick with Bach here, you find that he wrote dance music. Yes, they had western line dancing in Germany except that they did other dances. Here's a piece that I first heard played by E. Power Biggs. It is a jig, for sure. This is my brother, Mike, playing this.

Fundamentally, people don't change. They love novelty and they love to dance and they to make music and push themselves in their ability to play it. So Paganini built a reputation of being a blistering violinist who would allegedly break strings intentionally to finish a piece with the unbroken ones remaining and play with a bamboo cane instead of a bow just to fuck with people. And so when I hear Caprice #5 on violin, I don't hear stuffy violin. I hear a guy who came out to shred and not to disappoint (and it shouldn't be a surprise when things go full circle).

And so I think that the joy in past music is in part due to being able to map the context of the past to the present. How do you get that accessibility? There is no simple answer to that. I could blanket is with "education" and leave it at that, but it has to be an education that is in itself meaningful and accessible and therein lies the challenge. 'Educate' from its deepest roots means to lead forth or pull out, and well, horse to water and all that.
posted by plinth at 9:00 AM on October 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


dismissive of metal

Damn, I wasn't in time. See above! My post was a celebration of what they share!
posted by tapesonthefloor at 9:03 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


There was an elimination based tv show about different pop culture people attempting to be orchestra conductors, Goldie was the runner up

Following his experience with BBC's Maestro, Goldie had a two-episode show on BBC covering the creation of a classical piece, which resulted in a well-reviewed performance, both by papers and the general public. The piece is short, and pretty moving (I think).

Then-girlfriend Björk introduced Goldie to classical music in 1996, and back in 1998, he released an epic 60 minute "track" called Mother, which was likened to Pink Floyd prog rock, but the "mini symphony" was panned by some reviewers. I really like Mother, but I think it's hard to set a song with slowly building movements next to songs with intense drum programming, instant break-downs and quick bridges.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:04 AM on October 4, 2010


My 17 y.o. son the guitar shredder and rapper loves Bach, which he thinks is akin to heavy metal. I've always liked Whiter Shade of Pale and How Gentle is the Rain and how Zappa will throw a riff from Stravinsky into the middle of a song.
posted by Obscure Reference at 9:07 AM on October 4, 2010


I love classical music but don't often listen to it on recordings. For me I need to see/hear it performed live to really get my head into it. It's very seldom that I can force myself to sit still long enough to concentrate on a classical recording but sitting there in a theater and watching a full symphony of performers play like they were one giant machine is just amazing. And tickets aren't really that expensive, they're way cheaper than NFL tickets or any rock concert by a national act.
posted by octothorpe at 9:15 AM on October 4, 2010


The hard, cold truth is that classical music in public places is often deliberately intended to make certain kinds of people feel unwelcome. Its use has been described as “musical bug spray,” and as the “weaponization” of classical music

Hmm. Our subways have classical music piped in but the intent, at least publicly, was always stated as an advertisement for the local arts, not as a weaponized aural deterrent.
posted by octothorpe at 9:26 AM on October 4, 2010


Wow, what an exasperatingly stupid article. I thought this debate was over and done with about 7 years ago. Let me start with this: Classical music has always been a dangerous label. For the masses it's downright misleading, since any orchestral musician knows that "classical" music was written during a very specific period of time. Just like there are genres of pop, rock, soul, folk, indie, bad indie, terrible indie, hip-hop etc, there are genres of orchestral music: baroque, renaissance, classical, romantic, modernist, minimalist, spectral and many more. They are all so completely different that many orchestral musicians have very picky tastes about what they like to listen to.

The problem then, and the problem now, is education. I've been a musician since I can remember and went to a conservatory for 6 years and have never regretted that I didn't go to a normal college. Being inside this world has definitely been eye opening...there are as many people in the orchestral world who have never heard a complete Michael Jackson album as there are people outside the orchestral world who've never listened to a complete symphony.

There are so many corollaries you could make about this phenomenon. Just like there are purists who feel that an album is a full work of art and that you shouldn't listen to single songs because they are taken out of context. Well that used to be true. Now that the music industry is primarily focused on selling singles, lots of pop albums are just a pile of crap with a few singles in them. Shrinking attention spans are also part of the problem. The strange thing? Back in the day when orchestral music WAS a part of everyday life, it was typical for an orchestra to play single movements from different symphonies to make up a varied program. Plus if the audience loved a piece the orchestra would play it AGAIN. Now, it's unheard of to play a single movement from a symphony, and in NYC at least, people literally RUN for the door once the concert is over (to beat traffic and crowds but still, how lame.)

Because art (fine art, music, dance etc) education is so terrible, many people have one idea in their head of what classical music is.. they think it's that swirling drivel being blasted over all of those snowy mountain shots in Lord of the Rings, or Carmina Burana blasted over the introduction of a football game. Just as an illiterate could never fully appreciate Franzen's "Freedom" (and audiobooks don't count ok?), someone with no orchestral education will not suddenly fall in love with sitting through an hour-long piece of music. It takes "practice" if you will. Experience, practice, exposure, encouragement: all the things a football coach can provide to his team (for example.) But see, football is a MULTI-BILLION DOLLAR industry.
posted by ReeMonster at 9:26 AM on October 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


Classical music was an exploration of human using what limited sound production technologies we had at the time: buzzing strings on handmade boxes; buzzing chambers of air in handmade brass tubes; taut tympana stretched over actual kettles (kidding, kidding! (Sort of!)); buzzing vocal cords amplified by open mouths. In terms of what we've learned to do even in the past half-century, these are the sounds of banging rocks together in a cave.

This.

Read Wendy Carlos' liner notes to her Beauty in the Beast:

The new scales used for all of this are quite odd the first heard called Beta, splits the perfect fourth into two equal parts (actually eight equal steps of nearly 64 cents each ), the second, Alpha, does the same to the minor third (four equal steps for 78 c. each). While both scales have nearly perfect triads two remarkable coincidences!), neither can build a standard diatonic scale, and so the melodic motion is strange and exotic.

This is thanks to digital synthesizers - which also allow to her create timbres for bowed piano, percussive violin, etc.

In a sound world of such limitless possibilities, to still be composing string quartets is madness.
posted by Joe Beese at 9:28 AM on October 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


"It's music for when I'm depressed and want to feel more depressed".

Huh. To me, that's a pretty strange take on Shostakovich's late quartets. They're dark, sure, but why dark is equated with "depressed" in so many folks' minds has always been kind of a mystery to me. The man's music is absolutely fearless in the way it wrestles - sometimes agonizingly, sometimes gorgeously - with bleakness, physical pain, death and sorrow.

The fearlessness and honesty in the music so clearly has a strongly affirmative element - hell, he wrote them, right? - that I'm just confused by anyone who listens to them and simply feels depressed. Speaking as someone who's come late to the classical canon via jazz, electronica and experimental 20th century stuff, Shostakovich's mid to late string quartets are one of the most amazing series of musical compositions I've ever heard.
posted by mediareport at 9:41 AM on October 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


Pope Guilty: Well, it seems to me that your post and the linked essay seem to be relying on a pair of strawmen about "Classical" music. It's either stuck in the 19th century (with occasional nods to composers as active through the 1960s) or prides itself on being unlistenable.

Classical music as understood by radio is certainly fossilized, but then again, we've known that about radio for the last few decades. Rock and Roll by the same standard has been declared dead and rotting for many of the same reasons. Competition for advertising/sponsorship revenue has resulted in a drive for homogeneity of playlists. I'd say the symphony and opera companies are stuck in the same trap of triangulating demographics resulting in an emphasis on well-known hits.

But for all that "classical" is dead and dying, pop music keeps poaching musicians, collaborating with symphonies and ensembles, or plagiarizing classical themes and structures. Meanwhile, classically-trained musicians and composers grabbed onto technology from sampling to ringtones.

Joe Beese: In a sound world of such limitless possibilities, to still be composing guitar rock is madness.

Certainly Frank Zappa spent the end of his career in a room of synthesizers, but he had the grace to admit that it's because he was a bit of a control freak and he didn't want to be an asshole about it with his brilliant collaborators.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:42 AM on October 4, 2010


In a sound world of such limitless possibilities, to still be composing string quartets is madness.

Why?
posted by shakespeherian at 9:42 AM on October 4, 2010


This is thanks to digital synthesizers - which also allow to her create timbres for bowed piano, percussive violin, etc.

In a sound world of such limitless possibilities, to still be composing string quartets is madness.
posted by Joe Beese at 11:28 AM on October 4 [+] [!]


In a sound world of such limitless possibilities, to still be even using a normal scale, normal timbres, hell any four chord progression, in fact anything established before, well...why would you? Make something new why don't you?

Oh, wait, we can't because then people wouldn't listen to it much like they don't some classical music. It still has to appeal to a certain market regardless.

Anyway, in terms of microtones etc. string quartets can do it, they just need to know how to locate them. So, that isn't the problem either.
posted by lizarrd at 9:43 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


I started taking piano lessons as a adult. Part of the learning was to listen really intensely to piano recordings. Wouldn't you know it, I slooowly started to "get" Bach, Beethoven and Schubert.

Some of this stuff is amazing, jaw-dropping and tears-to-the-eyes-beautiful. Like the Appasionnata piano sonata of Beethoven for instance, or in vocal music the Mass in B Minor.

And I'm speaking as a guy who loves Pearl Jam, the Who and Talking Heads.

So anyhow, those big composers are a lot like Shakespeare. If you call it boring, you ain't been there. You need to make the effort.
posted by storybored at 9:45 AM on October 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


Hold your horses, synth fiends. Digital synthesizers did NOT invent "weird" scales. Pythagoras and many other mathematicians were experimenting with tuning, THOUSANDS of years ago. They would scientifically explore the properties of vibrating strings and see what would happen when certain points on the string were pressed. Similarly, India and Africa were very adventurous with their tuning systems. The problem, BIG SURPRISE, was the fucking Catholic Church coming in and codifying a set of standards and practices over hundreds of years that finally boiled down to what we now know as "western harmony" which uses "equal-tempered" tuning. Harry Partch, and others, wrote plenty of music using outmoded tuning systems (based on Indian or Pythagorean scales), and did it with COMPLETELY ACOUSTIC instruments. So all you knob twiddlers shouldn't get ahead of yourselves on this one. Wait, so the sound of acoustic instruments is akin to banging rocks in a cave, and the sound of a Lady Gaga song is the evolution? As far as I can tell, synths are more often than not a total crutch and very rarely reach the complexity, content-wise, of most orchestral music. They may "sound" more complex, but that's just the synth itself. For every Aphex Twin or Squarepusher, there are a thousand Lady Gagas, in other words.
posted by ReeMonster at 9:46 AM on October 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


What ReeMonster said. And it's not as if compositions that can't be performed by any human being on existing instruments are anything new.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:50 AM on October 4, 2010


Should have included this above: Pythagorean tuning
posted by ReeMonster at 9:50 AM on October 4, 2010


So anyhow, those big composers are a lot like Shakespeare. If you call it boring, you ain't been there. You need to make the effort.

You're completely right and I'm glad there are others who understand this. Classical musicians are always accused of being elitist when we say "You're not going to just GET Bach." You certainly COULD get a bit of it, if you listen enough, as his music is so accesible and amazing even to an untrained ear. But once you study it for yourself? Try playing some of the simpler pieces, just to see how it physically FEELS to play? Or take an introductory music theory course and begin understanding the foundations and the different compositional methods. If you're a math nut, begin exploring Bach's extensive use of numerology in his music. The more you study, the more fulfilling it is!
posted by ReeMonster at 9:55 AM on October 4, 2010


As a piano teacher, I have my students learn music theory, and how to read music, and learn to play and memorize classical and jazz pieces. I've tried to appease the students who just wanted to learn their favorite pop songs, and we incorporate some of those pieces sometimes, but if you want a student's comprehension of theory to go beyond the basics, you have to be exposed to the challenges of Bach and Beethoven.

Recently one of my students auditioned into a school jazz band that she wanted to be in. All of the credit goes to her -- she practices an hour a day, minimum -- but I'm sure that if we had watered down our lessons she would have had a tougher time reaching her goal.

What's wrong with classical music? Why not start by asking what's wrong with music education? When I was a kid (I know, I know), every third grade student was given a recorder and taught to read simple songs. Next year we all had to choose a band instrument -- mine was saxophone. After a few years you could opt in or out of music class, but a lot of students stuck with it. I moved on to piano, and it was just expected that you would learn classical music alongside popular band tunes. Along the way you learn that you like, for instance, baroque over romantic, or Beethoven's 5th over the 9th, or whatever. The idea wasn't to like what you were supposed to like. The idea was to gain the exposure, and decide for yourself what you like, and learn about yourself in the process. Nevertheless, you learn to play it.

Case in point: the student mentioned above absolutely despises some of the pieces I've had her learn. Have I turned her against music forever? Judging from the fact that she has stuck with piano lessons for five years or so, and continues to grow and improve, I'd say probably not. I doubt she's spending a whole lot of her teenage years voluntarily listening to classical music beyond what I've assigned her, but she won't be a stranger to this "genre" that provided the foundation for all of the myriad genres that permeate our listening devices today.
posted by vverse23 at 9:56 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


In a sound world of such limitless possibilities, to still be composing string quartets is madness.

As someone who has written more than an hour of music that uses only sounds synthesized in MATLAB, I disagree. Strings can be beautiful.
posted by Jpfed at 9:59 AM on October 4, 2010


Hmmm. First, let me say that a little Percocet and Arvo Part can turn a Sunday afternoon into a century.

But, after reading a lot of the comments, there's one word I haven't seen yet: nostalgia.

Nostalgia is what makes me love the classic rock that I used to hear working with my dad on a construction site. It's what makes me still like songs like Damnit and Beer because that's when I was just learning about how shitty love was and going to the shows and crushing on girls in the pit. Is it art? Perhaps not. But it is part of the culture that I was raised in? Is it fun? Catchy? Can you dance to it?

Classical music comes from a time when only the super wealthy could afford to ride a horse and carriage across town to see a three hour performance. It remains, largely, the domain of rich people who can afford to sponsor their local symphonies, or spend an entire weekend listening to hour long works without interruptions. The rest of the world lives in busy non-stop motion where you've got a few minutes to tell them what's on your mind. Pop music is now folk music. And if the stories are true, these poor parents can't even find the thirty minutes to get it on, much less gamble that thirty minutes on some experimental young composer.

Don't get me wrong, I adore symphonic music from the beginning through the 20th Century. It has a beauty that stands on it's own. However, inherent in it's sweeping emotion is the lack of straightforward ideas that are relevant to much of today's audiences. It's a tragedy that no one has time to sit in a room with a nice stereo system and enjoy a full symphony while dreaming of their lover, but it's also the reality.

Once the nostalgia for a music form fades, there's no momentum for it to stay in the popular domain. Classical music isn't going anywhere, but I don't think we should expect it to be any more popular than ballroom dancing or fencing or any other recreational activity from before the 20th Century.
posted by notion at 10:13 AM on October 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


she won't be a stranger to this "genre" that provided the foundation for all of the myriad genres that permeate our listening devices today.

Are you claiming that classical music is the foundation for the enormous family of genres descended from African and African-descended music? Be less Eurocentric.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:14 AM on October 4, 2010


The pieces are often far too long.

This. What hope do classical (and jazz) music have in an age when nightclubs* can't even be bothered to play the entirety of a three minute pop song?


Eh, I really don't think it's just that. The two Godspeed You! Black Emperor shows coming up in Chicago just sold out... six months in advance. They play slow, dramatic 20min songs with lots of strings involved. I can think of a fair number of other bands (Sunn O))) and Acid Mothers Temple, for example, to name two bands in completely different genres) whose concerts end up packed, despite their long songs. These bands aren't pop bands, and they aren't going to show up at the top of the Billboard list, but they're well-known, well-respected, and generally seem to be doing OK for themselves living off of their music. These bands are all reasonably representative of their scenes, too, meaning there's a fairly large audience of young concert-goers who have no problem with lengthy performances.

Furthermore, the truth is that there are plenty of classically trained musicians deconstructing their classical training and using it to make new music - but Silver Mt. Zion and Zoe Keating and C. Spencer Yeh/Burning Star Core aren't going to be called modern classical because because they take so many of their ideas from various genres of modern experimental rock, and they add pickups to their instruments or use pedals and software like Live or Logic or perform in rock venues, not symphony halls. Sure, it's a big jump from Beethoven to noise rock, but it's a big jump from Beethoven to Zorn, too.

This is thanks to digital synthesizers - which also allow to her create timbres for bowed piano, percussive violin, etc.
In a sound world of such limitless possibilities, to still be composing string quartets is madness.


Explore everything new, definitely! But use the past, don't throw it away. Synthesizers are awesome, but if you think they're a complete replacement for every other instrument - and that it's a waste to make an awesome new string quartet if you have an idea for one - well, that's what I'd call madness.

(Plus, I'm not quite sure what you mean by "percussive violin", but violinists have been knocking and tapping the violin or its strings, plucking and hitting the strings, dragging things other than bows across the strings, and otherwise making non-standard noises for at least a century or two. Similarly, I've seen several shows with bowed guitar in the past year. It's not like these sounds - or alternate tunings, including a variety of non-Western ones, even ones with microtones - had never been heard or tried until synths came out.)
posted by ubersturm at 10:21 AM on October 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


Are you claiming that classical music is the foundation for the enormous family of genres descended from African and African-descended music? Be less Eurocentric.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:14 PM on October 4


You mean like blues, jazz, etc? They all used conventional instruments, tuned conventionally. So in that regard, they are descended from European music.
posted by Pastabagel at 10:27 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's certainly been deeply influential, but I suspect that it's a dead end, musically, with the torch it carried being picked up by certain metal bands whose arrangements rival any classical composer's in their intricacy and complexity.

One of my favorite street discoveries of this SXSW was a group that played "string metal" (acoustic instrumentation, amplified as needed).
posted by immlass at 10:49 AM on October 4, 2010


Yeah, you can't groove to it.

Dude. Stanley Clarke. Steve Reich. Terry Riley. Michael Torke. David Lang. Michael Gordon. Mason Bates. Alarm Will Sound. John Adams. Christopher Rouse. Lee Hyla. John Zorn. That's the tip of the iceberg.

Man - I get exhausted before I even start talking about this topic. I guess the only thing I can really say about it is to take a line from Wittgenstein: "if I admire a minuet, I cannot say take another. It is not the same." "Classical" music encompasses so much. It's pretty hard to generalize about its downfall, as if we all knew exactly what we were talking about when we said "classical music." Grouping Beethoven with Satie and saying it's all dead is like grouping Wayne Newton with Michael Jackson and saying that pop music sucks.

Classical music isn't dead. Every major and minor city in our country has an orchestra. Access to classical music is dead. It's too expensive. Michael Kaiser will tell you that when they have free nights at the Kennedy Center, people are waiting on line out the door to get in. Anyone who's ever been to a free NY Phil concert in Central Park in the summer can attest to the fact that people do still in fact enjoy classical music, it still resonates with people. But programming has gotten stale while ticket prices continue to rise. You can't try to sell the same old models of cars every year at the same price.

But take heart: there are cool things happening that are attracting new audiences and breaking the snob barrier. Oregon Ballet Theatre's recent collaboration with Horse Feathers, for example. Prokofiev for orchestra and turntables. Eric Whitacre's Paradise Lost, opera electronica.

And hey, us kids are bringing classical music back to the people: The Classical Revolution, where you can drink beer and listen to Beethoven.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:57 AM on October 4, 2010 [6 favorites]


I put this in the Sesame Steet thread too, but: What is a string quartet?
posted by shakespeherian at 11:00 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Are you claiming that classical music is the foundation for the enormous family of genres descended from African and African-descended music? Be less Eurocentric.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:14 PM on October 4

You mean like blues, jazz, etc? They all used conventional instruments, tuned conventionally. So in that regard, they are descended from European music.


Yeah, to be fair on this point, blues, jazz, rock is a pretty democratic fusion of African and Western musics. And it's a stupid debate.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:00 AM on October 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


notion: I think that's overstating it a bit. Composers wrote a ton of smaller pieces for the dance floor, the church, and amateur performance. Music became much more accessible to the middle class in the 19th century as a result of bigger concert halls and festivals. Meanwhile, composers often looked at their big operas with an eye for the catchy tune that could be a hit on the dance floor or the low-brow theatre, and often published their own popular arrangements. Beethoven probably didn't mind too much that his 9th became a Methodist hymn.

Then, of course, the first half of the 20th century made classical music a downright populist affair via vaudeville, radio, the phonograph, cinema, and huge public festivals. Julie Andrews made her career singing opera arias on the vaudeville stage before she was picked up by Broadway and then Hollywood. Probably more people heard Callas perform the Habanera Aria in concert via radio and television rather than in stage performances of Carmen.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:06 AM on October 4, 2010


The pieces are often far too long.

This. What hope do classical (and jazz) music have in an age when nightclubs* can't even be bothered to play the entirety of a three minute pop song?

Eh, I really don't think it's just that. The two Godspeed You! Black Emperor shows coming up in Chicago just sold out... six months in advance. They play slow, dramatic 20min songs with lots of strings involved.


I agree that the fundamental problem is not that people can't be bothered with anything significantly longer or more expansive than a 3-minute pop song.

Go to your average karaoke bar. What songs do people go wild over? I'll bet they include songs like "American Pie," "November Rain," "Purple Rain" ... "Bohemian Rhapsody"!!! Radiohead didn't have much trouble selling OK Computer to the masses, even with a lead single as long and complex as "Paranoid Android."

Sure those songs are the exception rather than the rule, but there's no denying that they're extremely accessible to a very wide audience, and this does not require an audience that's had a rigorous musical education.

Let's also remember that if you want to find a lot of great, simple, short classical pieces, it's pretty easy to do so, even if you don't accept isolated movements from multi-movement works. Chopin alone has many, many of these little pieces. And if you are willing to isolate movements, then of course it's even easier to find examples. (Who can help but be instantly engaged by the first movements of Beethoven's 5th Symphony or Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik?)

There's a lot to be said about why relatively simple pop songs that are usually 3 to 5 minutes long have so much more mass appeal than classical music, but I don't think length or even complexity are the main reasons.
posted by John Cohen at 11:07 AM on October 4, 2010


Moving Classical Music: (high point starts at 2:15. Turn it up -- volume is low on this one.)
posted by wittgenstein at 11:08 AM on October 4, 2010


Bartlet: "It isn't classical music if the guy just finished writing it this afternoon.
Charlie: "Yes Sir."

A curious datapoint to pick, given that the premise of this part of that episode was that Bartlet was wrong.

"They played a piece by a new composer. First, I wasn't hearing it. I had nineteen different things on my mind, but then I did, and C.J., it was magnificent. It was genius. He built these themes, and at the beginning, it was just an intellectual exercise, which is fun enough, I guess, but then in the fourth movement, he just let it go. I really didn't think I could be surprised by music anymore. I thought about all the times this guy must've heard that his music was no good... I've got to write this guy a letter."


A+ for this mightygodking, I was trying to find that exact response in the Tubeiverse to post as further evidence of my idiocy but kids/Monday etc cut my time short. Nice response from both Bartlet and yourself, and maybe a way for some folks to open their minds and ears a bit.
posted by timsteil at 11:18 AM on October 4, 2010


In a sound world of such limitless possibilities, to still be composing string quartets is madness.

I am often astonished at the emotional subtleties and depths that can be evoked by four people playing music on four relatively simple stringed instruments. Sometimes a formal stricture is a feature, not a bug.
posted by aught at 11:20 AM on October 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


Atmospheres

Oh yes, Ligeti. The film 2001 changed my life more for introducing me to 20th-c. classical music than for its science fictional content (though I admit I was already getting plenty of that reading novels).
posted by aught at 11:24 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


jenfullmoon: "I can't sing along with it, I can't mentally peg it to a theme to think about, and I don't necessarily feel like I am emotionally participating with it to listen. "

Not trying to be snarky, but you really don't feel anything emotional when you listen to, say, Debussy's Clair de Lune? I'll grant that you and I probably don't feel the same things when we listen to it (maybe not even in the same universe of experience) but ... nothing at all?
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 11:29 AM on October 4, 2010


I like classical music just the way it is, thank you very much. I can't get my brain around the idea that classical music has lost it's vitality when there are more fantastic recordings of wonderful music than I can ever hope to listen to (with more being released all the time), more good live performances even here in podunk Boise, Idaho than I could hope to attend.

But I think this here is the crux of why it's not very popular:

we (humanity) were only getting started on our exploration of tone

For quite a while now, popular music has been all about the tone. Ever hear one of those morning radio shows where they play 10 half-second snippets of popular songs in a row and usually find a caller who can name all 10 songs? It's because every popular song has something unique in the tone -- a particular snare sound or electric guitar tone or something about the singer's voice.

But the tones of classical music have much more subtle differences. In general, a G chord in a string section or a C scale on a piano is going to sound about the same regardless of who plays it or where it was recorded. Classical composers focus on trying to come up with chords and voicings and melodies that you've never heard before instead of trying to get an orchestra to produce a G chord with a tone you've never heard before.

As I said, I like classical music fine the way it is. But I am intrigued by the idea of experimenting with tone, perhaps marrying the art of studio recording and production to classical composition, or even to re-imagining of classic works. What if we did a recording of Beethoven's Seventh with each instrument recorded separately in a sound booth and then let an engineer give us an orchestral mix we've never heard before? (Surely someone's done that already?)
posted by straight at 11:57 AM on October 4, 2010 [9 favorites]


This has to be the only Metafilter thread ever to refer twice, unrelatedly, to muskets.
posted by John Cohen at 12:16 PM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Speaking of Beethoven.
posted by empath at 12:17 PM on October 4, 2010


But I am intrigued by the idea of experimenting with tone, perhaps marrying the art of studio recording and production to classical composition, or even to re-imagining of classic works.

Well, you can listen to Tiesto's version of Adagio For Strings that I posted above, which completely took the strings out of the equation and replaced them with synths.
posted by empath at 12:19 PM on October 4, 2010


Many complaints seem to be about classical music not connecting with you emotionally. It's too mathematical, too distant.

I love The Art of the Fugue, and it's an extremely mathematical, almost automatic piece. But it's also beautiful.

It's not trying to force me to feel anything in particular. It just sits there and is what it is. Beautiful.
posted by Dumsnill at 12:25 PM on October 4, 2010


This has to be the only Metafilter thread ever to refer twice, unrelatedly, to muskets.
posted by John Cohen


Oddly, I take this as a something of a challenge. I'll be calling all my fusiliers about now.
posted by timsteil at 12:32 PM on October 4, 2010


Popping back into this thread to say I do loves me some Edgard Varèse.

And some Satie.

Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht also gave me chills when I heard it played live


flapjax at midnite: I take it you are amending your earlier comment b/c you realize how untrue to your tastes and musical interests it really was? If you like Varese, Satie, and Schoenberg; if you like Indonesian Gamelan (see your first comment), classical Indian music (see some of your posts), Brazilian choro (Villa Lobos is not that far off), Portuguese Fado, various European folk musics, Latin music or gypsy jazz or cafe music or ragtime (all of which have crossover into so-called classical); avant-garde jazz (a la Threadgill, Cecil, Braxton, etc); and if you realize (as I know you do) how much musical cross-pollination has been going on for the last few hundred years, then there's a good chance there's a lot of other composers (among, for instance, "third stream" music, which one finds hints of in Ellington's Suites and the AACM stuff; or hell how can anyone like Dave Holland's solo records and not like Pablo Cassals? or for that matter like Django and not Segovia?) that you like and have either forgotten about or might want to re-visit, such as: Toru Takemitsu, Terry Riley, Giancinto Scelsi, Claude Debussy, Gustav Holst, Arvo Part, Harry Partch, Kaija Saariaho, Alexander Scriabin, John Adams, Hector Berlioz, Iannis Xenakis, etc.
posted by existential hobo at 12:37 PM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Classical music? Well, by the author of this piece's admission, classical music simply hasn't kept up with the times. It's certainly been deeply influential, but I suspect that it's a dead end, musically, with the torch it carried being picked up by certain metal bands whose arrangements rival any classical composer's in their intricacy and complexity.

This isn't really true. You're confusing metal's adoption of some surface level textures with the notion that the genre somehow continues the spiritual project of "classical music" -- I use scare quotes here because those textures that metal players favor are actually representative of a pretty limited subset of the whole corpus of classical music, influenced as they are by (stereotyped components of) a few specific periods (late Baroque, early Classical -- I guess you see some resemblance to Romantic style in symphonic metal, but it is again a matter of adopting tropes rather than a deep stylistic resemblance). A big part of the aesthetic project of classical music, very broadly speaking, involves the manipulation and development of conceptual relationships between the various musical entities that comprise the piece, a tendency that metal de-emphasizes. There's nothing wrong with that change in priority, but the superficial similarities do not in any way make metal the successor of classical music, especially in light of changes in the modes of music production and consumption that have happened between then and now.

Also, to argue as such ignores the 'concert music' (a less restrictive term, I think, for describing the whole arc of "classical music" from its inception to the present) of the present and of the last half-century, which has deeper and more well-founded ties to the classical music of the past and which, despite relative obscurity, has been changing and developing at a pace rivaling the one you ascribe to popular music.
posted by invitapriore at 12:39 PM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think the thing that's mostly wrong with classical music is there isn't enough Jay-Z and Rihanna in it. or Snoop Dog, or Kanye. It isn't just mashups either, there's a billionty people on youtube shoving drum n bass right up Vivaldi's arse.
posted by shinybaum at 12:40 PM on October 4, 2010


I wonder if someone could weaponize mathematics in the same way. Most people hate math.

Mathematics kept students like me where they belonged; in art school.
posted by ducky l'orange at 12:48 PM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


The problem with labels is that so-called classical music, so-called jazz music, so-called world music, and so called art music, have all been merging, overlapping, and cross-pollinating for at least 100 years, and that continues to occur. That's why Astor Pizzola's tango is not traditional tango, and tango itself was a hybrid of European cafe and classical influences, or why Anouar Brahem's oud ensembles are not traditional-sounding Arabic or Persian, but yet retain that influence, or a composer like Myriam Alter can be grouped under more than one label (jazz, classical, etc.). In the i-pod shuffle era I think so called classical has actually a good chance of resurgence, b/c listening to eclectic or incongruous pieces together is seen as normal: I know 20-something kids who have things like Bach, Billie Holiday, Lady GaGa, Steve Reich, and Janelle Monae all co-existing on their i-pods.
posted by existential hobo at 12:49 PM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Those talking about the classical/metal connection are on to something.

Take note: Fans of heavy metal and classical music have a lot in common, study finds.

Personally, they're two of my favorite genres of music. And while I'm much more likely to go see a metal show live instead of a classical concert, I listen to my local classical station KING-FM nearly every day. And while I may not know the artists that they're playing, I do know that I will generally like it. (Though the classical music I like the most tends to be the works written in late 19th to mid 20th century, and Debussy and Copeland are favorites of mine).
posted by spinifex23 at 1:33 PM on October 4, 2010


she won't be a stranger to this "genre" that provided the foundation for all of the myriad genres that permeate our listening devices today.

Are you claiming that classical music is the foundation for the enormous family of genres descended from African and African-descended music? Be less Eurocentric.


Yes, I should have said a foundation.
posted by vverse23 at 1:41 PM on October 4, 2010


which one finds hints of in Ellington's Suites

Oh, god yes; any jazz head looking for a side door into classical should try Ellington's Latin American Suite, my fave of his orchestral works, gorgeous and groovy.

...Claude Debussy...

Yeah, same goes for ambient heads and Debussy, especially with headphones and maybe a copy of Debussy: The Quiet Revolutionary nearby. And not just the deliriously floaty Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune but also works like the amazing, "how 'bout those gamelan gongs at the 1889 Paris Expo" Pagodes from Estampes, a collection of three piano compositions which, if you were spoiling for an argument in a crowd of drunk musicians, you could easily pronounce the origin of ambient music in the Western tradition.
posted by mediareport at 1:50 PM on October 4, 2010


A problem with "classical" music is that it's a post-hoc marketing label that's applied to a wide variety of genres that were rarely performed together in one context. To some extent we see this creep into 20th century music where a "pops" orchestra might throw in a Beatles medley and Williams soundtrack along with Beethoven's 5th and the Blue Danube.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:59 PM on October 4, 2010


In a sound world of such limitless possibilities, to still be composing string quartets is madness.

I love electronic tools. Love 'em. I've been interested in synthesizers since both they and I were very young. I own a few actual synths, I have half a dozen soft synthesis and sequencing tools at ready hand on my computer right now. I curse the fact I don't have more time, maybe more lifetimes to spend on them. They're fantastic.

And I still think that's a rather foolish statement you've made there.

By all means, composers who find themselves drawn to create new instrumentation, ranging over the realm of sonic possibilities until they find the waveforms that work for their pieces should do so, particularly the ones who do it because they're just simply in love with sound.

But I'm sorry. I can't believe there's a single instrument, let alone a single kind of ensemble that's simply "played out." I'm pretty sure you could pitch your tent on a small patch of timbre and decide to work there for a lifetime and produce interesting work, and there are few patches sweeter than the largish one which covers the sounds a string quartet can make.
posted by weston at 2:13 PM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


First of all, to preface: I enjoy a great deal of classical music. I'd love to enjoy more of it.

However.

Here's why I don't buy Classical Music™ recordings: There are no definitive recordings of classical compositions, so buying a copy of so-and-so's umpteenth symphony yields a free-for-all clusterfuck of widely varying recordings of widely varying arrangements of wildly varying quality. It's one hell of a slog.

Here's why I don't listen to Classical Music™ on the radio: For some reason, Classical Music™ programmers always go with really boring-ass stringy dreck with really crummy dynamics. By crummy dynamics, I mean there's a really long stretch of whisper-quiet string cheese butted right up against SUDDEN! DEAFENING! BOMBAST! that falls off into an even longer and more boring puddle of something so scarcely audible that it might as well be dead air. Don't even get me started on the ubiquitous Classical Music™ radio deejay hush-hush voice. Are they afraid they might wake their listeners?

The conductor is sort of a cross between a stage director and a football coach.

Totally: Despite the fact that they're reading straight out of a script/playbook/composition, and all their players know perfectly well how to play their respective parts, the job of stage director/football coach/orchestra conductor is still a) supposedly vitally necessary somehow, and b) as difficult as herding cats while substitute-teaching a caffeinated kindergarten.

More like a metronome in white tie and tails, amirite? YEAH, I SAID IT. That's one thing I can't stand about the live Classical Music™ experience: Unless the conductor is the composer of the work (or at least an arranger), I really could not give less of a crap about Maestro McWavy-Arms. Neither do I especially care for the hard-boiled mime stylings thereof (pit elevator going down, please); the music should speak for itself without some old dude performing a one-man reenactment of all the sad parts of some silent movie melodrama. I also just fundamentally do not like the idea of a person standing between the audience and the performance, particularly if his back is to the former. And then he finally turns around and gives a big smarmy bow, acting as a sort of applause heat-sink sucking up my adulation for the orchestra? No bravo for you, jerky jerkenstein.

Now, conductors as curators: That part, I totally respect. Curators are good people.
posted by Sys Rq at 2:41 PM on October 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


I thought the general consensus was that while you possibly can make a synth sound like a solo or group of instruments, that actually capturing all the variations of phrasing and tone was generally more trouble than it's worth and you might as well just bring the analog instrument into the performance.

That, and it's not particularly a good use of the keyboard as an insturment, or the particular skills a good keyboardist brings to the music.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:45 PM on October 4, 2010


Neither do I especially care for the hard-boiled mime stylings thereof (pit elevator going down, please); the music should speak for itself without some old dude performing a one-man reenactment of all the sad parts of some silent movie melodrama.

Where would you place the conductor so that everyone in the orchestra can see them without offending your sensibilities? Conductors do not just act as metronomes - they also act as human mixing boards, which is a good reason to put them front and center.
posted by muddgirl at 2:48 PM on October 4, 2010


Pop music is popular because it's accessible and easy to sing along to.

That is a gross generalization. "Accessible" means people like it, period. There is as much complexity in some popular music as in any form of art music, if not always in the same musical dimensions. I'll take Al Green's ornamentation any day over the opera star of your choice, and there is no scientific reason to say either is doing something more complex than the other. I'll take the micro (within the beat) complexity of a proper groove any day over the extended harmonic vocabulary of the late 19th century symphony and argue that in cognitive and performative terms, neither exemplifies any greater sophistication as a human accomplishment than the other.

Etcetera.

If people like the classics, they would find them accessible. The idea that they are made inaccessible is absurd, actually. It stinks of the way unsuccessful bands chalk up the success of their competitors entirely to better promotion.

I grew up a serious classical musician and composer, majored in music in college, teach music now. But simultaneously I developed a passion for vernacular musics and played and created rock and country and blues and funk and reggae at the same time I was learning to compose in serial forms or how to splice tape loops or recognize specific harmonic structures in Wagner operas. I made a choice to follow my love for popular music because . . . more people like it. That simple. That's why it's "popular." Not because it's simpler, or promoted better, but because we live in a more egalitarian society than the one that existed briefly in Europe in the 16th-early 20th centuries, where vernacular forms now command respect for their beauty, complexity, and creativity. I have nothing against classical music whatsoever, although I only listen to it a lot because it's in the job description for what I do. It's work for me, although interesting, just as a lot of popular music listening I do. But when I want to exercise my musical mind, I'm quite as happy lost in a Jimi Hendrix solo or a Sam Cooke song as I once was lost in a Bartok quartet or a Mozart symphony, works I now find less interesting than I once did.

Getting over the idea that a living musical tradition needs to be protected from the market or popular opinion, and developing a non-classist concept of musical value and significance, are the key ways classical music will go forward, and it is doing so in the hands of many young composers I know.
posted by fourcheesemac at 2:49 PM on October 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


Also, a good conductor has a purpose, a non-performative purpose for every movement and gesture during a piece. Sure, he or she has worked hard to make these gestures less awkward-looking, but they should not be superfluous.
posted by muddgirl at 2:50 PM on October 4, 2010


Where would you place the conductor so that everyone in the orchestra can see them without offending your sensibilities?

Don't get me wrong. They're just fine where they are: Places I've learned to avoid.
posted by Sys Rq at 2:54 PM on October 4, 2010


So... you enjoy classical music, but you can't listen to it on CD or on the radio, and you won't listen live because you think all conductors are silly? I will admit that your options are extremely limited in this case... perhaps a GGG companion and a blindfold?
posted by muddgirl at 2:56 PM on October 4, 2010


And I'm oversimplifying a few things above, of course. Art musics emerge in every human society where the division of labor enables musical specialists to emerge and devote all their energies to the cultivation of unique musical objects as signs of value for patrons. Musical literacy greatly extended Western Art Music ("WAM," as it is known in the trade) to develop a hegemonic status in a highly class-stratified early modern Europe from which Western culture is still emergent in some ways, though waning fast in others as technological globalization transforms the cultural landscape. Popular music works no differently except that the valued dimensions are different and the patrons more numerous and incremental.

Also, in case no one has noticed, the modern and expanding way to make classical music popular is to promote the physical beauty of young performers. Sound familiar?
posted by fourcheesemac at 2:56 PM on October 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


Conductors do not just act as metronomes - they also act as human mixing boards, which is a good reason to put them front and center.

Also, a good conductor has a purpose, a non-performative purpose for every movement and gesture during a piece. Sure, he or she has worked hard to make these gestures less awkward-looking, but they should not be superfluous.


Are those motions conveying things already marked on the pages the musicians are all reading from? That seems a bit superfluous.
posted by Sys Rq at 2:57 PM on October 4, 2010


Oh, and the primary patron for classical music in the US and Europe, these days, is the taxpayer (and the tuition-paying parent).

Damn right to be concerned that the taxpayer may not like the stuff very much.
posted by fourcheesemac at 2:58 PM on October 4, 2010


One problem reason I find many forms of classical music frustrating and (to some degree) less interesting than they could be is that much of the power has been taken away from the performers.

There are a lot of reasons this happened, but if you are a classical musician, you are now expected to follow the little black dots -- even in pieces which were originally written to allow for a good deal of improvisation! It's at its worst if you're in an orchestra, but even a string quartet playing a classical piece isn't expected to play any notes not on the page.

I feel this has resulted in a form which is creatively stifled, in a lot of ways. Performers have been turned into technicians.

It's anecdotal, but I know a lot of musicians, and every single one who started out as a classical performer moved into a form that allowed them more freedom. Usually one of the outright improvisational forms, like jazz.
posted by kyrademon at 2:58 PM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


More like a metronome in white tie and tails, amirite?

No. The conductor also leads the rehearsal process, which is where the individual performers get any idea of how to play their respective parts. Imagine a film with no director: None of the actors know which lines are important, whether they're saying something too fast or slow, whether a particular facial expression looks ridiculous or not, and the editor, scorer, cinematographer, and production designer are all left to do their own thing. The result might be interesting, but it would be chaotic and probably pretty terrible.

The orchestra conductor brings a cohesive vision to the piece, and, in addition to relaying that vision to the performers during the rehearsal process, has to guide them through the actual performance-- reminding them of subtleties, dynamic shifts, fermata sustains, nuances, the emotion of the piece, because there's a lot more to a symphony than just notes, and if 100 individuals are left to themselves to determine, in real time, how to interpret everything that isn't on the page, the result might be interesting, but it will definitely be terrible.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:59 PM on October 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


Take note: Fans of heavy metal and classical music have a lot in common, study finds.

Not to mention, so-called "progressive rock". Case in point: Yes in 2001, taking to the road with a symphony. Worth sticking with until about the 4 minute point.
posted by philip-random at 3:00 PM on October 4, 2010


But simultaneously I developed a passion for vernacular musics

This is an obnoxious form of snobbery.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:03 PM on October 4, 2010


This is an obnoxious form of snobbery.

Damn right.
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:07 PM on October 4, 2010


Playing Classical Music in public places to influence people's mood: I wonder what would happen if they played Wagner's Leibestod?
posted by Cranberry at 3:13 PM on October 4, 2010


Are those motions conveying things already marked on the pages the musicians are all reading from?

Nope. My piece of violin music will say "pianissimo", but sitting in my section, how can I tell that pianissimo means "all 60 people in the violin section should be quieter than the handful of clarinets but louder than the handful flutes" (or whatever is required for that section or even that chord)? Even if we arrange beforehand the relative proportions of each section, how can I tell in the moment if we should be collectively louder or quieter, and then arrange that with the other players?

Even in string quartets (Hi, I've played in a string quartet or two in my day), one of the members (usually first violin) leads the other members with body language that you may find a bit showy. Lots of head nodding and a few sways.
posted by muddgirl at 3:18 PM on October 4, 2010


And then he finally turns around and gives a big smarmy bow, acting as a sort of applause heat-sink sucking up my adulation for the orchestra? No bravo for you, jerky jerkenstein.

The fact is that the conductor exists because sheet music under-specifies many of the parameters that make up the final performance of a piece. In between the sheet music and the sound that results is the performer, who engages in a lot of heavy interpretive lifting in terms of crafting the relatively high-resolution aspects of the music, including specific dynamic profiles, minute issues of timing, and the relative emphasis of voices. If an entire orchestra were left to their own devices they might each independently arrive at very different interpretations; therefore the conductor exists to rally the orchestra in favor of one interpretation, which is that of the conductor.

It's worthwhile to note that top solo players are mostly credited for the insight and skill of their interpretation rather than their base technical ability; conductors need to be skilled in exactly the same way, though with an eye towards bringing an entire ensemble under their sway. Dispensing with the conductor would be akin to telling a piano player to watch TV while giving a recital and just let their muscle memory do the work. The result wouldn't be nearly as interesting, because the component of the performer actively shaping the more subtle parameters of the music would be gone.

I'm not sure why you're so aggressive in your assumption that the composer's role is unnecessary, but whatever.
posted by invitapriore at 3:20 PM on October 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


But simultaneously I developed a passion for vernacular musics

This is an obnoxious form of snobbery.


What's snobbish about it? 'Vernacular music' is a pretty descriptive and non-normative term.
posted by invitapriore at 3:22 PM on October 4, 2010


Also, in general, orchestral music does not proceed at with the regular pace of a metronome.
posted by muddgirl at 3:24 PM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Imagine a film with no director: None of the actors know which lines are important, whether they're saying something too fast or slow, whether a particular facial expression looks ridiculous or not, and the editor, scorer, cinematographer, and production designer are all left to do their own thing. The result might be interesting, but it would be chaotic and probably pretty terrible.

So what you're saying is that Robert Altman was imaginary? 'Cause, like, that's more or less exactly how he worked. 'Cause, like, he had faith that people were entirely capable of doing their own jobs. What a concept!
posted by Sys Rq at 3:25 PM on October 4, 2010


'Cause, like, that's more or less exactly how he worked.

To extend the analogy, Robert Altman didn't conduct complex orchestral works.
posted by muddgirl at 3:29 PM on October 4, 2010


There are no definitive recordings of classical compositions...

There are no definitive recordings IMO. Pissing matches over what's definitive in the popular music of the last 60 years are tainted by the fact that just about all of it was blatantly plagiarized from people who were too black to chart with white audiences in the 50s and 60s.

Are those motions conveying things already marked on the pages the musicians are all reading from? That seems a bit superfluous.

Depending on how you look at it, this is a critical bug/feature of musical notation. Musical notation is grossly under-specified on most cases, leading to multiple interpretations of how a series of musical can be performed. Add to that, the problem that Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Dvorak, Gershwin, Copland, and Glass (to drop names from a large spectrum of the repertoire) were composing for slightly different ensembles often playing radically different instruments.

So in most ensembles, the conductor dictates a consensus as to what those vague signs on the page actually mean in performance. A Bach dolce shouldn't be as sappy as a Rachmaninoff dolce. Gershwin should swing, most Mozart should have a sense of humor, Glass demands consistent development over time. Everyone knows this but usually has different ideas about how to pull it off.

Most of these conversations happen during rehearsals and the gestures are just reminders. The conductor also is positioned to balance the dynamics of the performance, because horns and percussion can easily drown everything else out, while harps struggle to be heard under the best of conditions. There are some ensembles that work without conductors, but they do a ton of work negotiating all this.

The conductor gets credit because he (a real glass ceiling in music) usually is the creative director who has dictated the particular interpretation you just listened to. Some conductors are fairly hands-off on the process, others are a bit more controlling. So the analogy to film direction is fairly apt.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:32 PM on October 4, 2010


I'm not sure why you're so aggressive in your assumption that the composer's role is unnecessary, but whatever.

I'm pretty sure I'm just saying that for me, the very idea of a conductor (I'm totally down with composers, btw) conducting just rubs me the wrong way. YMMV. I'm not claiming it's a rational position to have. It's purely one small (and, I might add, rather OBVIOUSLY FACETIOUS, amirite?) facet of a gut-level answer to the question, "What's wrong with classical music?" And again, it only applies to a live performance setting. Rehearsals, recording sessions, totally fine. In front of an audience? None for me, thanks.
posted by Sys Rq at 3:37 PM on October 4, 2010


So in the interest of research I have googled "orchestra without a conductor."

This one has 17 members, and is just a string section. This story from 1982 describes another chamber orchestra with fewer than 30 members. The Prague Chamber Orchestra seems to have fewer than 20. Notice a trend here? Note that a full-sized symphony orchestra generally has more than 100 musicians.

I suppose if I was a huge fan of just chamber music, and I lived somewhere with a vibrant orchestral music community, I could get by solely on conductor-less groups.
posted by muddgirl at 3:38 PM on October 4, 2010


To extend the analogy, Robert Altman didn't conduct complex orchestral works.

You obviously know nothing of his work.

Whoo! Derail!
posted by Sys Rq at 3:41 PM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, the analogy to film is problematic because movies tolerate wide variations in timing on the part of the actors, and because they don't require the (pretty precisely) synchronized actions of what basically amounts to a huge crowd of people.

I'm pretty sure I'm just saying that for me, the very idea of a conductor (I'm totally down with composers, btw) conducting just rubs me the wrong way.

Fair enough, but that sounds like a different point than what you were expressing up-thread. muddgirl and KirkJobSluder and I are I think basically asserting that you'd be hard-pressed to put on a worthwhile public performance of an orchestral piece without the conductor there. I'm aware that you were being facetious, but I was referring more to your underlying point, which read to me as "there's totally no point to the conductor being there, CASE CLOSED."
posted by invitapriore at 3:42 PM on October 4, 2010


I'm not saying that there aren't bad or showy conductors - just as Michael Mann is a millionaire who happens to be a crappy director.

You obviously know nothing of his work.

Actually, I am a great Robert Altman fan. He generally negotiates a series of beautiful quartets.
posted by muddgirl at 3:43 PM on October 4, 2010


Also, you seem to be limiting the work of a director to that of actor-herding. Altman is also, of course, well-known for his fastidious eye for editing.
posted by muddgirl at 3:44 PM on October 4, 2010


invitapriore: Well, that depends a lot on the director and film in question. Some directors micromanage every aspect of the performance, others just delegate the shots and let the actors work. Mel Brooks, as an example, looks spontaneous but was a perfectionist. He reportedly spent dozens of takes on "you take the blonde, I'll take the one in the turban" and then screen-tested his dailies with the secretarial pool.

I've heard good work from conductor-less ensembles but reportedly they spend a lot more time in rehearsal and research than your typical orchestra.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:00 PM on October 4, 2010


Also, you seem to be limiting the work of a director to that of actor-herding. Altman is also, of course, well-known for his fastidious eye for editing.

Yeah, I specifically included more than just actors in my analogy.
posted by shakespeherian at 4:02 PM on October 4, 2010


*sigh* Apparently, Clair de Lune isn't moving me at all. I am a heartless uncouth bitch. It's not resonating with me, it mostly feels impersonal except for the piano bits here and there.

Well, I said most of them, not everything. But if I can't remember the name of a single classical piece that I like, that's a problem. Hell, I can't even remember the names of anything that I used to play in school, though I'd probably recognize a song from then if I heard it played.
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:02 PM on October 4, 2010


I think i meant Michael Bay
posted by muddgirl at 4:08 PM on October 4, 2010


muddgirl and KirkJobSluder and I are I think basically asserting that you'd be hard-pressed to put on a worthwhile public performance of an orchestral piece without the conductor there. I'm aware that you were being facetious, I was referring more to your underlying point, which read to me as "there's totally no point to the conductor being there, CASE CLOSED."

*shrug* Inference implies not implication. I may have poked at their/your arguments for some clarification (mission accomplished, yay me! ...and also you folks I guess...whatever), but I don't disagree with them. I just happen to not enjoy conductors. Surely there has been sufficient technological advancement over the centuries that could put them out of work, or at least off the stage and out of my sacred line of sight.

Oh, yikes, um, never mind! Never mind! Oh jesus, make it stop! Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!

Naw, whatever. Flesh-and-blood conductors are indeed a necessary component of live classical music, I get that. I just don't like them, mostly because I'm a sensitive jerk, and therefore I can't fully enjoy live classical music. I think you'll find that that was my point (pointless thought it may be) all along.

Actually, I am a great Robert Altman fan. He generally negotiates a series of beautiful quartets.

Yeah, but he could do fifteen of them at once!
posted by Sys Rq at 4:08 PM on October 4, 2010


I think i meant Michael Bay

Heh. I make that same mistake every single time.
posted by Sys Rq at 4:09 PM on October 4, 2010


In my limited and strictly amateur experience, some conductors like to beanplate every phrase, while others just suggest a few broad hints and trust the orchestra. But I'll agree that I don't really like big showy conductors.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:09 PM on October 4, 2010


As a classical PERFORMER, I'll tell you that I rely very, very heavily on the conductor, particularly when it comes to complicated time signatures, changes in tempo, and stylistic interpretations. I've had entire hour long performances where my eyes never left the conductor's baton once. A great conductor is a joy to work with; a sloppy one is excruciating.
posted by KathrynT at 4:11 PM on October 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


At the Bathurst Street Subway Station, the choice of music conveys a clear message:

At the West exit of the Bathurst Street Subway Station about two months ago I heard a young busker do a Coltrane-influenced improvisation on tenor sax.
posted by ovvl at 4:17 PM on October 4, 2010


This has been a very interesting thread, thanks for starting it up, John Cohen. And it reminded me that even I made a classical music post, very recently! I'd already forgotten about that one!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:20 PM on October 4, 2010


Oh, read the Alex Ross book recommended above. He makes what I think is a reasonable argument: that while some people may have the misconception that Western Classical Music is irrelevant and outmoded, the influence of Western Classical Music permeates our culture everywhere.

Recommending: Werner Herzog's movie about Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices.

Correction to my previous post: That should read: "late-era-Coltrane influenced"
posted by ovvl at 4:29 PM on October 4, 2010


So what you're saying is that Robert Altman was imaginary? 'Cause, like, that's more or less exactly how he worked.

A brief note from film + screenplay academia: Robert Altman is officially considered "outside the box" with regard to pretty much everything he did in terms of craft. That is, you can't use his example to justify breaking the rules; not until you first prove that you know the rules and have mastered them.
posted by philip-random at 4:39 PM on October 4, 2010


There are no definitive recordings of classical compositions...

There are no definitive recordings IMO. Pissing matches over what's definitive in the popular music of the last 60 years are tainted by the fact that just about all of it was blatantly plagiarized from people who were too black to chart with white audiences in the 50s and 60s.


You're talking about compositions, though; those are different. (Compositions are probably the only things that are definitive about pre-phonograph classical music.) I just meant that I can't just walk into HMV and pick out Bach's debut album and listen to Bach exactly as Bach would have me hear it.

(Quiet, you.)
posted by Sys Rq at 4:40 PM on October 4, 2010


When can we start the classical musician jokes?

(I think it's still a little early, but, just wanted a second opinion...)
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:53 PM on October 4, 2010


ovl: People say that classical music is irrelevant but then praise music scores that are well within the tradition and listen to popular music with classical arrangements and structure.

Sys Rq: That's a rather controversial premise, partly because composers were perpetually dissatisfied and sometimes incorrigible tweakers. Composer intent generally has been taken as the starting point for reinterpretation rather than a standard we should hold fast to. (Quite gratefully in the case of early jazz pioneers, who were great bandleaders but dismal dramatists.) But that's a thorny issue of the relationship between composer and performer. I'll agree that Bach sounds crisper on baroque string instruments. I'm less convinced that's the only way they should be performed, and in some cases, I'm grateful for modern pipe organs and pianos.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:13 PM on October 4, 2010


I'll agree that Bach sounds crisper on baroque string instruments. I'm less convinced that's the only way they should be performed, and in some cases, I'm grateful for modern pipe organs and pianos.

I can't help but notice you're short on gratitude for the Moog synthesizer. Ingrate!
posted by Sys Rq at 5:22 PM on October 4, 2010


This line deserves some yellow highlighter: Art musics emerge in every human society where the division of labor enables musical specialists to emerge and devote all their energies to the cultivation of unique musical objects as signs of value for patrons. Just a great succinct explanation of the economy of WAM musical production. Thanks FCM.
posted by ms.codex at 6:26 PM on October 4, 2010


Just coming back to reinforce muddgirl's research; the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is indeed a) known for being conductor-less and b) considered one of the better orchestras in the world (saw the Orpheus strings last January and they were brilliant).

But they themselves describe their process as "rotating musical leadership roles," and choose leaders for each piece from among their own ranks. It's a radical democratization of conductorship, not an elimination of the position, even as they're clearly making a statement about the ability of musicians to conduct works as they play.
posted by mediareport at 7:08 PM on October 4, 2010


Ah, Allmusic has a short overview of how Orpheus works:

The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is one of the world's most esteemed small orchestras, perhaps most notable for what it lacks--namely, a conductor. Orpheus operates on the basis of rotating leadership among a collective group of equals. Co-founder Julian Fifer, a cellist, says he and a group of like-minded musicians were inspired to found the orchestra in 1972 from various ideals that grew during that era, including "questioning of authority and a renewed emphasis on collective goals, [which] inspired [them] to create an ensemble whose artistic expression was based on shared leadership and responsibility."

For each work the group programs, a concertmaster and principal players are elected to determine the concept for the performance and to direct rehearsals. At final rehearsals, all members contribute to refining the performance and execution; in performance, the members play with chamber-music-like attention to each other. The results, characterized by great precision, character and dramatic flair, have distinguished Orpheus from all other conductorless ensembles, which often lack musical personality.

posted by mediareport at 7:10 PM on October 4, 2010


About two years ago I pretty much stopped listening to music. The White Stripes, Melanie Safka, Rammstein, Ice-T, Tom Waits, Belle and Sebastian, Led Zeppelin, Beck, Radiohead, Queens of the Stone Age, Antony and the Johnsons, Sonic Youth -- as well as all the Finnish acts like Kauko Röyhkä, Tuomari Nurmio, Kuusumun profeetta, Soul Captain Band, Plutonium 74, Hassisen Kone, Paavoharju, and MC Taakibörsta -- were replaced by silence, and the occasional radio talk program.

I just couldn't handle the distraction. The same things that make pop music (in the broad sense) very social and literally attractive also make it very counterproductive if you really need to focus on abstract stuff like when studying mathematics. The rhythm and the lyrics and the repetition of melody get stuck cycling in your head for long after you've turned the music off.

It's a shame I hadn't properly acquainted myself with classical music, since life without music is cold.

I have to be grateful for a few things. Firstly, a friend of mine worked at the Helsinki Festival and she gave me a staff ticket to a Borodin Quartet performance of some Shostakovich compositions -- today I would say it's not really my style, but I enjoyed the evening and for the first time in a good while it drew my attention to this branch of music that's based on the development of large-scale musical structures isntead of repetition of small ones (and that also does not have the distractive flashy instrumentation of, say, prog rock or the more ambitious forms of heavy metal mentioned in this thread).

Secondly, my habit of getting tangled in The Problem with Wikipedia brought me to various interesting concepts in music theory, in particular the Implication-Realization model of melodic expectation, which I've really only dabbled with in my head, and can't say I know much about, but it raised thoughts that are important in combination with the next point.

Thirdly, the state radio station YLE 1 plays classical music in the night time after the evening news wrap-up. A lot of the material I don't care much about, but it happened that not after I had read, as mentioned above, about how a skilled composer can arouse the listener by building and manipulating expectations in the listener's mind, I caught a part of a solo piano piece by Felix Mendelssohn that seemed to be doing just that. It was music that was constantly leading me one way and then gently nudging me in another direction in a manner that was unexpected but still somehow natural. This was not formulaic music for powdered wigs bobbing about the ballroom in sharp lines, nor was it chaotic like Shostakovich. Instead it was doing a very pretty dance around my ears. Unfortunately I didn't write down the number or the title of the piece, but it may well have been the Rondo capriccioso or one of the 'Characteristic pieces'.

I did manage to keep the name of the composer in mind, and not knowing exactly what I had heard, I went -- of course -- to YouTube.

It's somewhat different in nature from what I originally went looking for, but, I have to say, this is music I can live with.

Even more so is the Brahms violin concerto, perhaps because I feel it has more of the pleasantly surprising qualities I sought after when I found the Mendelssohn concerto, and certainly not just because its third movement marks the ending of the brilliant There Will Be Blood (spoiler warning!).

Perhaps above all I've so far discovered, however, and certainly not just because I'm Finnish, is the Sibelius violin concerto.

In addition to my particular love of Romantic violin concertos, I enjoy a lot of Baroque music as well, and I need to look into it more systematically. As for the Classical period between the Baroque and the Romantic, and its big names Mozart and Beethoven, I'd like someone to explain what they have over Bach or Brahms and why all other Western art music is named after their period, because I just don't understand :). For me, their music and its prominence was behind a large part of the confusion I had over classical music, which had kept me from looking deeper.
posted by Anything at 7:45 PM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


'not after' -> 'not long after'
posted by Anything at 7:47 PM on October 4, 2010


I'm late to the game getting back here, but on the topic of instruments and forms that seem worn out, but just need a little ingenuity and playfulness to bloom again, I've got a great example.

Me—I'm a synth guy from way back, because they're the instrument I really found my voice on, but some years ago, my brother gave me a copy of Vikings of the Sunrise and introduced me to the composer Stephen Scott, whose bowed piano ensemble does things with a grand piano that'll make the hairs on your forearms bristle, and it knocked me off my pillar a bit. There's explorations of timbre and texture there that I'd have once insisted could only be the work of singing machines, which goes to show you that it's often the attitude that matters, more than the presumed inherent qualities of any given instrument.

I can't weigh in with any detail on what's best, what's worst, or what's classical and what's not, but many of Scott's bowed/plucked piano pieces give me the same exalted, ecstatic feeling of joy that I get from Wendy Carlos's "Just Imaginings" (OMFG that swell at 3:25, though you'll never hear it because Ms. Carlos is DMCA claim crazy on youtube), or the Stravinsky study no. 4 "Madrid," or pretty much any part of An American in Paris (in particular, the swoompy strings that happen at 6:09 in this pt. 2 video of a performance), to cite a few of my own particular high points.

There's so much out there. If you're feeling exploratory, check out the Avant Garde Project, which covers a lot of ground, considering its specific limitations.
posted by sonascope at 9:05 PM on October 4, 2010


the biggest problem with classical music? - most of the musicians playing it aren't very good - i'm not talking about the big name orchestras and star performers of course - i'm talking about the four kids sawing away at a string quartet in the local library with bad timing and intonation - i'm talking about the local symphony orchestra muddling through an old warhorse with poor definition - i'm talking about the note for note metronome renditions by musicians who know how to play the notes, but not the music

and it's all done with dead seriousness and solemn studiousness, by musician and audience and no one dares say that, hmm, this is a pretty damned bad performance

i'll be the first to admit - most of the musicians playing rock and roll aren't that good either - although the average performing rock and roller is better than the average classical performer - (remember, i'm not talking about the big people, but the amateurs and low level professionals) - but they make up for it with enthusiasm and a willingness to please and have fun

does anyone party to classical music? - don't think so

look, you can spend a few months learning cowboy chords on guitar and some popular songs and people will think you're fun to have around, even if you don't really play that well - you play bach as casually or poorly as people play campfire music and people just aren't going to dig it - but they won't tell you that you suck

and classical music doesn't let you screw around with stuff like folk, or pop, or rock does - i've never been into note by note stuff unless it's me composing the notes - if you're a young musician in this day and age with the compositional talent of a mozart, what are you going to do? - no one's going to respect you recreating 19th century styles of music - not a lot of people are going to get the formal experimentation of the 20th and 21st century - but if you try to do something with contemporary rock, etc., commercial or indie, you've got a fair chance of getting a real audience

that's why classical music is struggling - most composers find themselves wanting to do something else - and most audiences are being subjected to poor performances of it in environments where they can't at least laugh and cut loose a little
posted by pyramid termite at 9:45 PM on October 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


As a member of A Far Cry (muddgirl's first example, "just" a string section) I can confirm much of the speculation above and perhaps take it a step further. Conductors are necessary - we have 18 of them in our group, and we all play and conduct simultaneously. In fact, after waffling between "unconducted" and "conductorless" for our first few years, we've settled on "self-conducted," which really is the most accurate description of what we do. At any given moment in any performance, the lynchpin might be the principal bassist, the second stand violist, the associate concertmaster... or anyone else on stage, or everyone on stage in a group gesture, depending on what the music calls for at that moment. We make use of a rehearsal process up to 4 times longer than that of a typically-led orchestra to suss it all out, and to ensure that we don't confirm the ridiculous rumor (repeated above by mediareport) that such ensembles tend to lack musical personality.

Pärt without a conductor.

Schnittke without a conductor.

Muddgirl, you might be interested to know that the Schnittke requires 25 musicians, each playing their own unique part, making the score every bit as complex as a big romantic symphony, and much more complicated than a typical classical (as in Mozart) symphony. The limiting factor which necessitates a conductor of the up-front hand-waving variety isn't so much complexity as it is plain old sightlines.

The article? Meh... it's difficult to work up a concern for the state of "classical" music when I'm making a life playing this amazing music in packed venues across the country for diverse audiences who scream like teenage girls at the end of a concert ;-)
posted by violinflu at 10:08 PM on October 4, 2010 [6 favorites]


I am sorry if this was said either up-thread or in the article (I admit, I don't have enough time at the moment to do more than skim it, although I would love to give it a full read), but I remember reading somewhere that classical music was on the upswing in terms of popularity recently. Does this sound familiar to anybody?
posted by Defenestrator at 11:36 PM on October 4, 2010


Found an article in relation to what I mentioned. A few years old, but still.
posted by Defenestrator at 11:48 PM on October 4, 2010


Classical music is boring just like photoshop is hard. It's intimidating because no one told you "hey, this isn't that hard, let me show you a few tricks," and within no time you're slicing and dicing and putting all your ideas into this thing that a short while ago you thought would be too hard to get into.

When I was a kid my dad played a record of Beethoven symphonies to me, and he told me all about these scenes he'd constructed in his mind, based on what he heard in the music. He's not a musician, but he always wanted to be a filmmaker. I am a musician, and I even played in orchestras and chamber groups throughout high school and college. Those experiences helped me enjoy classical music, but my dad's "teaching" helped me even more. He taught me that this abstract thing without singing could be exciting, could be used to define any ideas that came into my head.

That's what people need to hear: "Hey, Classical music isn't so hard, you just need someone to show you the way. Trust me, it'll be worth it."

But at the end of all this discussion, the only way someone gets hooked on classical music (or anything for that matter) is for them to have a cathartic moment. It does have to speak to us. For me, one of the first cathartic moments I ever had was on a flight to Texas and the inflight radio was playing Copland's Appalachian Spring, the full ballet not just the suite. I'd never heard it before, but there were more than a few moments that brought tears to those teenage eyes. As soon as I got home from that trip I went to the store and bought the album. 12 years later I still have it and listen to it once a week.

That piece made me a convert for life. If we want others to love classical music, they have to have similar experiences. Classical music takes work, it is emotionally complex at times, it deals heavily in symbolism and abstraction (where pop music is highly representational and non-abstract), so we have to decode it. Nobody will want to decode it if it doesn't mean anything to them. Just like poetry, or books, or paintings. It has to mean something or it will simply be ignored.

I say kudos to symphonies who are playing film soundtracks in their season, they should be doing more of that. You want the masses to like classical music? Bring it to them. Teach them the tricks, don't insist on playing Verdi's damned requiem just because it was such "an achievement" or whatever. Instead, bust out the soundtrack from "Psycho" and pair it with a Shostakovich quartet, or play the soundtrack from "Inception" and pair it with some Britten or Messiaen (if you're daring), or play the Pirates of the Caribbean theme alongside some Mozart opera overtures, or a million other things.

Make it FUN. We like fun. We like corny and goofy and cheezy and easy. Save the hard stuff for the hardcore.
posted by jnrussell at 2:00 AM on October 5, 2010 [5 favorites]


Interestingly enough that is what David Robertson seems to do with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. He chooses very popular pieces and pairs them alongside more modern ones. The last concert I attended that was set up in that manner was Holst's The Planets with Ligeti's Violin Concerto.

It was a wonderful concert and well thought out.
posted by lizarrd at 2:08 AM on October 5, 2010



Classical music is dryly cerebral, lacking visceral or emotional appeal. The pieces are often far too long. Rhythmically, the music is weak, with almost no beat, and the tempos can be funereal. The melodies are insipid – and often there’s no real melody at all, just stretches of complicated sounding stuff. The sound of a symphony orchestra is bland and over-refined, and even a big orchestra can’t pack the punch of a four-piece rock group in a stadium. A lot of classical music is purely instrumental, so there’s no text to give the music meaning. And when there are singers, in concerts and opera, their vocal style is contrived and unnatural: so much shrieking and bellowing. The words are unintelligible, even if they’re not in a foreign language.

Culturally speaking, classical music is insignificant, with record sales that would be considered a joke in the pop music industry. Indeed, classical music is so un-popular that it can’t survive in the free market, and requires government subsidy just to exist. Yet even with public support, tickets to classical concerts are prohibitively expensive. The concerts themselves are stuffy and convention-bound – and the small, aging audience that attends them is an uncool mixture of snobs, eggheads and poseurs pretending to appreciate something they don’t. In a word, classical music is “elitist”: originally intended for rich Europeans who thought they were better than everyone else, and composed by a bunch of dead white males. It has nothing to do with the contemporary world – and its oldness appeals only to people who cling to obsolete values.


...well, yeah
posted by tehloki at 4:27 AM on October 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


You know, awhile back, I found myself thinking: how come goth bands don't sound like the Sisters of Mercy anymore? The Sisters' music is close to universally beloved in the scene, and there used to be bands that pretty clearly listened to them and went "well hell, we can do that!" (Nosferatu, I'm looking at you), so why doesn't anybody make that sort of guitar-driven anthemic gothic rock anymore?

Not the same subset of goth, but Necro Facility is an obvious imitation of the sound of Skinny Puppy from past decades (even down to "borrowing" some lyrics for a few songs....) I haven't decided whether I hate them or love them for that.

I figure anyone imitating the Sisters at this point would get much the same reaction. But movie scores can sound like classical composers and get away with it...
posted by Foosnark at 7:47 AM on October 5, 2010


Hard to go wrong with The Planets. That's the major inspiration for half the Big SF soundtracks right there.
posted by Artw at 8:04 AM on October 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Hard to go wrong with The Planets.

Especially when the orchestra crosses the 70 yard line.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:08 AM on October 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


Seems to be a lot of folks in this thread who are bashing on or rejoicing in the death of classical music probably haven't listened to/played/read up much on the history of notated music (which is really, excluding some stuff in the 60's and whatnot, a much better term than 'classical' music). No need to hate on something you're ignorant of. I used to think hip-hop was a fake art form for musically talentless hacks - until I actually started listening to a lot of it.

All I'm sayin' is that if all you've heard are Mozart 40, Beethoven 9 and some Chopin preludes and you're making grand statements on the ontological, aesthetic and cultural state of notated music, perhaps you should visit your local library.

I'm really not snarking. You shouldn't have to study a music to enjoy it, you say? Well, there's a certain amount of truth in that. And I like to think that Mahler 8 holds its own pretty damn well. But just like my grandparents don't "get" Led Zeppelin, and my parents don't "get" Jay Z, it can take some time and study to appreciate something that isn't embedded in one's own facticity. All art is political, and politically bound.

Let's also not forget that it was Beethoven who really gave us the idea of having music for its own sake. It was Bach who really solidified the sorts of harmonic and melodic structures that continue to shape basically all of Western musical structure. It was Haydn who ventured to think that music could be funny. It was Bartok who first saw the genius and beauty in folk music and took some of the first steps to preserve it. It was Satie, encouraging us to 'consider the sounds of knives and forks' who began to change our view of what is and isn't music. It was John Cage who gave us the notion that the limits of music are bound only by the limits of perception. Hell, one could even argue that the bombastic rhythms of club music are owed to Stravinsky. We have an indebtedness to this history, we being the ones who ostensibly listen more to the Beatles or Radiohead or Menomena or Lady Gaga or whoever than we do Mozart. So, you know, not a lot of point in bashing it.

Music, in any of its manifestations, hardly seems a thing to get upset about, s'all I'm sayin'.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:16 AM on October 5, 2010 [4 favorites]


but I suspect that it's a dead end, musically, with the torch it carried being picked up by certain metal bands whose arrangements rival any classical composer's in their intricacy and complexity.

So which bands were you thinking of? I often find that the similarities are skin-deep and that they don't go beyond some tropes, especially when it comes to polyphony. I'm generally irked by the likes of Malmsteen, Therion, Rhapsody or Nightwish though I suppose I could mention Mekong Delta (and his brave if not successful effort to transcribe Pictures at an Exhibition for a metal band), Sigh or the Armageddon Concerto by Shining/Enslaved.

The thing about classical music for me is that it doesn't have lyrics. It's not interactive. I can't sing along with it,

Have you ever watched any clip of Glenn Gould singing while playing, on youtube*? I think his devotion to the music shows. Certain Mefites have also been known to sing along to classical music when nobody else is around, but you will not, thankfully, find this on youtube.

*I can't connect to youtube right now or I'd link to it.
posted by ersatz at 12:14 PM on October 5, 2010


conducting just rubs me the wrong way. YMMV.

I can only think that you have never performed with an orchestra, since you keep showing how much you don't get why the conductor is even there. Or that you're making some kind of exaggerated point against authority in general through this insistence.

In any case, here's a ProTip for the next time you are in the same room as a performing orchestra: just close your eyes.
posted by aught at 12:48 PM on October 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's not interactive. I can't sing along with it,

[curmudgeon] Sigh. One of the reasons I've largely stopped going to popular music live shows is that too many audience members around me think it's "interactive" and that means they're supposed to sing along with the band at the top of their (usually out of tune) voice.[/curmudgeon]
posted by aught at 12:52 PM on October 5, 2010


Certain Mefites have also been known to sing along to classical music when nobody else is around,

Rhapsody in Blue is a good data point for this.
posted by aught at 12:53 PM on October 5, 2010


I'm seriously not completely sure that this is a step in the wrong direction.
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:41 PM on October 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


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