Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Classical music is shouting so loud people can't hear it

'And like they say in the East, things have meaning outside the labels or descriptions you might give them. We've got to be conscious of that space. So words should not really be endpoints, but work best as doorways to understanding' - Robert Lax
A comment on Classical music must move to the edge of the network asking What exactly is the edge? reminded me of the wise thoughts above. As for words, so for classical music; which too should not be an endpoint, but rather a door to understanding. Classical music can only open that door if it returns to the space at the edge of the network. Because the centre is filled to bursting point with celebrity musicians, entertainment envy, over-paid radio presenters, commercial intermediaries, wunderkind, rock music executives, ethically tainted music festivals, dumbing down, cultural commentators, low-res audio files, Lamborghinis, classical charts, pop-up restaurants, reality TV, avaricious agents, embedded journalists, social media addiction, unethical sponsors, greed, vertical integration, anniversary tat, condescending classics, saviours, PR agencies, experts, composer anniversaries and other fashionable space wasters.

These big new ideas are part of the problem, not the solution. All classical music needs is the space in which to surprise, delight, challenge and enlighten, and it can learn a lot from my featured double CD. Improviser, composer, world music explorer and bansuri virtuoso Manuel Hermia has recorded a double CD titled The Whisper of the Orient on which Indian ragas, Arabic maqâms and Oriental styles are explored by an international cast of guest musicians. As Manuel Hermia says in the accompanying notes:

"Whereas over centuries, the West has produced the basis for a philosophy developed for reason and managed by it, the East has excelled in philosophical approaches whose wisdom comes from nothing more than the silence of the mind."
Classcial music's problem is quite simple: it is shouting so loud that people can't hear what it is saying. It can only find that essential silence by returning to the space at the edge of the network.

Header quote is from The Way of the Dreamcatcher: Spirit Lessons with Robert Lax by S.T. Georgiou. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). No review samples were used in the post. Also on Facebook and Twitter.

7 comments:

Scott said...

This post resonated more immediately and more strongly with me than anything else I've read recently.

My best personal example is that I seem to have developed a resistance to the latest "sensational" pianist/soprano/tenor/whatever. This item provides a convincing rationale. Do I miss something with this attitude? Perhaps ... but if the newest sensation lasts, you usually catch up with them sooner or later anyhow.

A celebrity (anti-)example - travelling on business quite some years ago, I arrived at my hotel about 7 pm after lengthy weather-related delays. Noticing that there was a Met gala on TV, I ordered dinner from room service. Performers included many of the big names of the day -Domingo, Big Pav, and so on.

Several very good performances, but to my taste, two that stood out - Nicolai Gedda doing Lenski's aria from Eugene Onegin and Jon Vickers doing Wintersturme from Walkure. Which two performances got the least rapturous applause? Of course ...

Ah, celebrity.

Elaine Fine said...

I vivadly remember the days when it was all about the music.

Joe Shelby said...

All about the music? How long ago would that have been?

Bernstein? Karajan? Bruno Walter? Stokowski? Mahler? Wagner himself? Stravinsky, Debussy, & Diaghilev? Satie? Berlioz? Mozart?

Sorry, but celebrity in music has ALWAYS been with us, as had the attitude that music needs to be more than just the music but actually had to be sold to us by the use of characters and charisma, or associative connections with non-musical concepts (Berlioz's repertoire has almost no non-literature based works in it, for example).

We might in time see the music past the celebrity factor, but very often the music only got to be known because of the celebrity factor, not in spite of it.

Pliable said...

Joe, it is a fair point you make, but I don't think Elaine was suggesting that it is just an obsession with celebrity that is obscuring the music.

As my list suggests, there are an awful lot of other things getting in the way of the music these days and they are not all celebrity related.

Perhaps Elaine should have said "I vividly remember the days when it was all about the music and celebrities"....

Joe Shelby said...

Yeah, I was being a touch sarcastic myself. :)

But it is actually more indicative that our feelings and our memories change over time. As we dig into the music more deeply, the other factors fade away and the music speaks to us directly without all of the associations. It is what it is.

But it didn't come to us that way: we had to learn about it, learn it was available to us (both as a society over the centuries, and then each ourselves personally), and often that came to us not through the music directly but through the many non-musical associations and the characters and the charisma of the players (including composers and conductors) involved. Even the best music in the world needs to be marketed in some way.

Now, that still coincides with the original point that the current approach, that of trying to market Classical (including modern works) in the same way as modern rock/pop music, is obviously failing. What makes the names I mentioned above different from today's pop stars is that their quirks weren't what was being sold.

Stravinsky is a true character, one of the most confusing and unique in the entire history of music, but when his music was being sold to us, though his character was part of the package, it was still the *music* being sold. So too, even Karajan and Bernstein (probably the most marketed conductors of the 20th century, even more so than Stokowski who did indicate what was possible), both would still push the music first, and let their characters (who couldn't be more opposite each other) be the door by which you could discover the music.

That is the difference: there are many times that we are getting the impression that it is the characters being sold to us, not the music, and thus the "money problem" mentioned elsewhere - that the characters today are getting paid a huge sum for being sold, while the music and the rest of the musicians that make it possible are falling behind.

Elaine Fine said...

I grew up around the Boston Symphony because my father was in the orchestra. There was a time, believe it or not, when Boston audiences were more interested in music making than celebrity. The great soloists of the 1960s and 1970s were celebrated because of the way they played or the way they sang. People often went to concerts for the program, and the soloist was a special treat. I remember hearing Serkin (the elder) play Brahms.

There were people who loved the orchestra because they loved the principal wind players. Harold Wright and Sherman Walt, for example, mattered far more than "whomever" was conducting.

Bernstein may have been heavily marketed (because he exemplified, at least on the surface, the possibilities of celebrity and the popularlizing of orchestral music), but he genuinely made music. He really was a musical giant. For the Boston Symphony his celebrity was worth the price.

Hearing great pianists like Richard Goode and Alfred Brendel play Beethoven or Schubert was always about Beethoven, Schubert, and excellent piano playing. Hearing Elly Ameling sing a recital of art songs was all about singing, not whom she happened to be.

I have known my share of important musicians (important because of what they could do with a phrase, a piece, or a whole concert) who had careers during the time before the great cultural change.

Somehow I equate the change with the beginning of the Regan administration. That's when the culture shifted in America, and the "marketplace" moved to the cultural center. And American attitudes influenced the rest of the world.

Chamber Musicians used to rely solely on managements to get them concerts, and getting taken under the wing of a management used to be the only way of having a career. Having a "career" used to mean that you had lots of concerts to play. Now having a "career" seems to mean something different for all the reasons you mentioned in your post.

For the record, I don't give a fig about a career. I care only about the music.


Joe Shelby said...

There's a reason you might see it in "the Reagan Era".

In 1978, the record industry effectively started its decline. Prior to that, getting into the record business was an instant gold mine.

After a certain point, sometime around the arrival of punk and disco (each at extreme opposites of each other, of course), the state of sales changed, considerably, in the rock/pop world. That was the point where, just like the movie industry with Star Wars, things started the shift to the blockbuster sale being the only thing holding a business together through the slow sales of everything else, was the only way to do business. Everything had to be marketed as the next blockbuster, because one really didn't know the audience (nobody thought punk would become a smash, but there it is) or what they would want (or as in the death of disco, when they would turn).

It was not an instant decline, but a steady one, with the industry fooling itself with more expensive CDs and marketing the "back catalog" (which cost them nothing to do) to the next generation as "Classic Rock". Great for the labels, but bad for new artists and for the classical market as a whole.

But in spite of those resuscitation efforts, the record industry was still failing, and new competition from cable tv (people, stay at home!), and home video sales (people, stay at home!) at into live audiences, then throw in declining sales at the general level (even before modern downloads ate even more), and you reach the current situation.

Now throw in the higher labor costs compared to the 70s, and, well...