Saturday, January 24, 2009

Old is new


Why is the masterpiece phenomenon so specific to classical music? Could you imagine how foolish someone would sound if they said the following:

"Angels in America has some topical interest, but it's no Hamlet" ... "Vladimir Nabokov's novels are somewhat interesting but a bit on the modern side--I much prefer the novels of Sir Walter Scott" ... "I don't know what all the fuss is about this Picasso. Why can't people enjoy proper artists like Rembrandt?" ... "Schindler's List has a message but it's much too revolutionary for me. Why don't they make films the way they used to, like Gone With The Wind?"

Comparing the new music directly to works written several hundred years ago is a fruitless proposition. Yet in the opera world, people diss perfectly good operas all the time in stating their preference for operas out of a completely different time, place, and tradition.

Why can't the classical music world (most specifically the traditional opera lover) celebrate new work the way that the film, literary, art, and theater world celebrate new work: as works that exist alongside those of the traditions that came before them, but need to be appreciated on their own merits?
Comments Chris Foley on No more masterpieces please. Chris makes a very good point. But I do think the problem is partly of our own making. Surely, the current obsession among certain movers and shakers with all things new, creates resistance, rather than acceptance, among some audiences? The obsession is not just with new music, it is also with new artists and new recordings.

But is the tide turning? In all the excitement in Washington on Tuesday, some people overlooked that those four commendably multi-cultural and multi-gender musicians were miming to a very old tune reworked by a 77 year old white man who is more familiar with Hollywood than Darmstadt. There was an interesting article in yesterday's Guardian by Simon Jenkins inspired by Barack Obama's Inaugaration, which opined:

I am more convinced than ever that old is new. Neophilia was the raging obsession of the boom years. It threw out the good (such as responsible banking) with the bad, and ignored any emotional attachment to the familiar. It was for wimps. Now the storm clouds of recession gather and there is a rush for the security of the past, for custom and practice. The results are often bizarre. Open any newspaper, turn on any broadcast, and you will be inundated with throwbacks. In vogue are Karl Marx, Nazi movies, Afghan wars, the class struggle, James Bond, nationalisation, Pooh Bear, ballroom dancing and Kenneth Clarke. Vests, Woodbines and Ovaltine cannot be far behind. An increasingly deranged Gordon Brown may even wake up one morning and declare war on Germany.
John Cage once observed, 'I'm afraid I'm more traditional than all those traditionalists'. Duality is the real enemy. We do not need to choose between old and new, masterpiece and repertoire piece, black and white, or female and male. Chris Foley is quite right. They should all be appreciated on their own merits.

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8 comments:

Adam Solomon said...

But this is an issue in large part of the "new" composers' making, isn't it? This new music is frequently billed as being part of the tradition of classical music - unlike every other branch, we call its writers "composers", play the music with traditional orchestras alongside older music, and hell, people pretty frequently call this stuff "20th century classical music."

From the perspective of the resistance: I recently saw a great concert at the New York Philharmonic featuring the Sixth Brandenburg Concerto and (oh my, it never gets old) Beethoven's Fifth, and in between the two we had to spend 35 minutes listening to the endless stream of noise that Penderecki had the gall of calling a cello concerto. Aren't we, in cases like this, invited to make the comparisons between older and newer "classical" music? And for my part (and the parts of many other philistines I know), most of the modern music I know of can't hold a candle to the old masters.

And that Cage quote is interesting, but (I have some personal investment in this!) why should we actually take it to be true?

Pliable said...

Thanks Adam. As ever, all civilised points of view are welcome on the path. But I'm not going to agree with that comment about the Penderecki concerto being an 'endless stream of noise'.

You say 'most of the modern music I know of can't hold a candle to the old masters. Perhaps Penderecki never set out to hold a candle to Beethoven? Perhaps he set out to explore the darkness beyond Beethoven? Just as Beethoven's Fifth was born from exploring the darkness beyond Bach?

But, let's debate it. That's the purpose of this blog. And, at a time when 'old' and 'conservative' are usually bracketed together I can't help pointing out that Adam's online profile tells us that he is 19 and attends Yale.

http://www.blogger.com/profile/10976906053166184731

Pliable said...

Halldor has left the comment below on my original post 'No more masterpieces please'. I've copied it across here because he does a very good job of illustrating the dangers of duality - in this case 'for' or 'against' Die Tote Stadt - that I refer to above.

Pliable, you make an important point. Speaking as a devoted Korngoldian, I can accept that he's not absolutely up there - and, more to the point, that exaggerated claims for his music do it more harm than good. Die Tote Stadt is no Elektra, Wozzeck or Grimes. But isn't it at least, on a par with Arabella, La Fanciulla del West, or Candide - non-masterpieces that are deeply worth hearing, and indeed are heard reasonably regularly?

I sense passions starting to simmer over this forthcoming ROH production - and it's seeming more and more likely that the actual merits of the work (and production) are going to be obscured as both sides take up dogmatic positions - kamikaze Korngoldistas versus our critical Establishment. Four thoughts as to why cases are being overstated (to some extent, the same goes for Foulds):

- commercial reality; promoters trying to fill seats for an utterly unknown work by an obscure composer in a large venue (eg the RAH for Foulds) have a great deal of persuading to do. Hence "masterpiece".

- diehard Korngold fans tend, by our nature, to be a rather emotive bunch; our first encounter with his music has often been an immediate, visceral reaction to music that we've encountered by accident on radio or film (there hasn't been much chance in the concert hall!). Whatever its technical merits, or historical significance, it's music that's intensely alive - to borrow Elgar's words, if you cut it, it'd bleed. We've been waiting a very long time to hear Die Tote Stadt in the UK, and emotions are running high.

- arguably, no composer of Korngold's stature and acclaim (before WW2, at least), has been quite so comprehensively written out of musical history. The Korngold revival has always had about it something of a crusade - a perceived righting of an historical wrong. When an RVW opera is revived and judged unsuccessful, his reputation can take it. Korngold's reputation is currently more fragile - and it's been hard-won. Again, emotions run high.

- there's a distinct impression afoot that several leading UK critics have already made up their mind about both the opera and its production (just see today's Guardian Guide!). One gets the sense of an unspoken critical consensus - a unwillingness to assess the music on its own terms. Surely we've moved beyond automatic dismissal of any composer who falls outside of the dominant historical narrative? I hope, of course, that next week we'll get reviews (whether positive or negative) that tell us something meaningful about the work and its performance; somehow I fear that the words "outdated", "second hand" and, inevitably, "Hollywood" will get quite a few outings. Let's see.

Thanks for letting me ramble like this!

Adam Solomon said...

I meant the "endless stream of noise" comment with all due respect to anyone who enjoys the concerto, and of course it was an exaggeration - after all, it definitely did end at some point :) I know much of the music of the 20th century charted unexplored territory, but in the same way that failed experiments in physics tell us what's not right more than what is, I wonder why we consider music worth repeating simply because it explores new territory.

But of course, all this talk really comes down to taste - I couldn't enjoy the music for what it is, nor could I discern a significant deeper message. I wonder how much can talk convince someone that some piece of music or other is worth enjoying. Here's my stumbling block: while there's plenty of music I dislike that I can understand others enjoying, I just can't imagine sitting in Avery Fisher enjoying that concerto, so clearly either I have very little empathy, or there's something important I'm missing. I have a feeling something like that isn't meant to be "enjoyed" the way one enjoys, say, a Romantic symphony (despite the protestations of the cellist on NYphil.org's video podcast - and the poor girl broke a string in the middle of the concerto! Unfortunately it blended in with the music for me :) ), but then I'm curious what one is supposed to get out of a performance of it.

As I said, I'm very curious to know why we should believe that Cage quote, because I think for me all of this hinges on that. (Forgive me in advance for generalizing WAY more than I should.) As a good conservative, my biggest concern with modern composers is that, for understandable reasons, they've searched for originality not by working upon their own tradition, but by tearing it to shreds for the sake of tearing their tradition to shreds (a phenomenon that's by no means restricted to music over the last century). The irony is that I see Cage as the veritable king (or at least spokesman) of this philosophy. To ignore what's been discovered before you in favor of creating your new system will only work (if ever) with a true genius, and I'm doubtful that the 20th century saw a true genius who chose that path.

Adam Solomon said...

And just reading your other comment - I don't know anything about this opera, but do I take it that it was a more, erm, "conservative" work running against the dominant narrative of progress, etc.? The words "outdated", "second hand", and "Hollywood" tend to ring of that criticism, as does the Guardian in general :) http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2007/jan/24/classicalmusicandopera

Pliable said...

'I'm afraid I'm more traditional than all those traditionalists' - in that quote I believe John Cage was rejecting the dualities of 'traditional' and 'modern'. Cage's creative approach reflected his deep interest in Buddhism. He rejected preconceptions and prejudice in favour of being 'aware'.

He also said 'The first question I ask myself when something doesn't seem to be beautiful is why do I think it's not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason'.

Was the real reason you didn't 'enjoy' the Penderecki concerto because it was 20th century music?

Or was it because, irrespective of year of composition, it did not make a connection with you?

Do you enjoy all early music? - e.g. Dufay and Gesualdo? If not does that mean all early music is 'noise'? Or is it because those composers at the moment don't connect with you?

Did you always enjoy Bach and Beethoven? (Or Mahler and Bruckner?) I would be very surprised if you did. At some point you made the connection.

Could it be that rejecting preconceptions and keeping an open and aware mind, as advocated by John Cage, could lead you to make the connection that will lead you to appreciate Penderecki and his peers?

I believe it can. Stay with it.

Adam Solomon said...

"Was the real reason you didn't 'enjoy' the Penderecki concerto because it was 20th century music?

Honestly, I hope not. I came into the concert with a fairly open mind (the program notes said it ranked with the best cello concerti and I'm always up for something that compares to Elgar's! And they did say it was from his more conservative, romantic phase :) ). I tried and found that I simply did not understand it, could not get into it. There were some cool rhythmic moments (a bit Stravinsky-like) but those were fairly short... ((Whenever I listen to something by, say, Cage, I usually get the impression (mistaken?) that he's trying to experiment and discover rather than connect. Possibly with Penderecki, too. The two can be done together but it's very possible to have one without the other.))

Did you always enjoy Bach and Beethoven? (Or Mahler and Bruckner?) I would be very surprised if you did. At some point you made the connection.

I didn't always make the connection with Bach, Beethoven, Bruckner, Rachmaninoff, etc., but that's because I came to classical music fairly late (actually, a look at my radio shows over time might sketch that out :) ). I was bowled over by, say, Bruckner's 7th or Rach 2 the first time I heard them, even without a deeper understanding. Is that a knock on the "older" classical music, that so much of it is enjoyable (or at least not repulsive) on first listen to relatively inexperienced listeners? I sometimes get the impression that to some it is.

So, to the Cage. Thanks so much for the explanation. My issue with Cage has always been with what I take as his philosophy more than his music. Is he rejecting beauty itself? Or simply calling it meaningless, something that can be ascribed equally to everything? (Of course, I've always had the impression Cage rejects meaning, too!) These are all things I'd disagree with if they're actually what he's saying. What is the logical conclusion of those statements? That with a sufficiently open mind, I can appreciate Penderecki (is appreciation the same as enjoyment?) as well as I can the Fifth that I saw after it? Is its existence all that is needed to appreciate it? I have a feeling Cage might say something like that but you might not :) You seem to think I can appreciate Penderecki (et al.) on some other merit of their music.

There is some music that is simply bad (or, if we want to reset our zero to something less judgemental, simply less good than other music). A rejection of that cheapens our experience of music, doesn't it?

Meanwhile, I'll continue to keep an open mind (I'm reading Alex Ross's book in the hopes that that'll explain things to me), and who knows? Maybe I'm wrong to be so stodgy, hopefully some day I'll get it.

*Apologies for my tendency to ramble!

Adam Solomon said...

And thanks for the shout-out to F+AP! We're weekly, actually, and will be back on the air after a long break tonight at 7 PM EST :)