Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Classical Problem

Probably my most important reason for wanting to blog was to start to chip away at all the thoughts (some contradictory) I have about music, specifically Western art music, it's role, relevance, prospects for survival, etc. Having taught a few classes that touch on issues of aesthetics, I find myself trying to make sense of these questions a lot. The advantage (and disadvantage) of writing is that trying to set forth logical arguments in prose turns out to be more difficult than just thinking brilliant thoughts for my own benefit. In other words, once I start to put the words together, I find that my ideas need more sharpening than I tend to assume. (SUMMARY: I discover I'm not as smart as I think I am. I hate it when that happens.)

I know I'm not the only one doing this and I also know that the position I want to argue for isn't that sexy. I'm not arguing for a passionate embrace of the avant-garde and I'm not arguing for our musical institutions simply to cater to audiences. On all the relevant issues, there's a delicate balance (a phrase that I noticed I used here and here yesterday) that's required to describe where we are accurately. For example, with the problem of contemporary music, it's too simplistic to say that composers don't care about audiences and it's too simplistic to say that audiences don't want anything new. Assessing the situation requires much more nuance than that.

Here's a good place to start: As I was typing the first sentence of this post, I was faced with the dilemma of what to call our world of mostly Western art music. The most common term is "classical music" which presents one big problem: it doesn't apply to new music, by definition. However, "classical music" really is the best term because it exposes one of the fundamental challenges we face. Namely, we have an industry that is largely peopled by those trained to play music that has stood the test of time - that is "classical." (Obviously, this has nothing to do with the term as applied to 18th-century music: Chopin, Wagner, Debussy, Bartok, Stravinsky, Shostakovich are all safely in the classical fold.)

I'm sure this has been said before, and better, but indulge me as I work through this on my own. Among the fine arts, music is hardly unique for having a treasured history of classics. We are somewhat unique, however, for having most of our professionals trained primarily to recreate those classics. In the visual arts, obviously there's no need for artists to recreate the works of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Picasso, Pollock, etc. In the theater world, we do need artists to bring classic plays to life but there's must more acceptance that such productions will often reflect something of the present, even if performed in period dress, etc. Plus, there's a pretty strong audience interest in new works, in part because the language of most theater is the language of the audience. (There's a lot more to be said about that, but I'm going to get off the theater tangent for now.)

That most music professionals are trained in the classics is perfectly logical because the classics are what draw most of us in in the first place. (Maybe that will change, but I think it's a pretty safe generalization for now.) Practicing four or five hours a day is generally motivated by a strong passion for the music. For many of us, when we're confronted with works that seem radically different in language and expressive technique, it can feel like a bait and switch. I know I've had that feeling before. Here I spent countless hours over many years learning to play Beethoven and Chopin, Brahms and Ravel, and now someone says, "Hey, you're a skilled professional pianist. Your obligation now is to play this work in which you'll kill yourself to get your fingers around a bunch of notes that don't sound much different to you than random banging and every now and then you'll also bang on the piano case. We need you, and not just anyone off the street, because you know how to decipher the incredibly complex notation thanks to your fine classical training. And did we mention that this is a moral obligation to your art?"

I know I'm not the first musician to feel this disconnect, even though this is by no means the only experience we have with new music. The thing is, I don't mind doing that sort of thing every now and then. It creates a very satisfying kind of challenge and sometimes the results are quite rewarding. However, underneath it all, I'm still built and conditioned to be most attracted to the classical works. It's hard to imagine that they won't remain the heart of what I do. Look at someone like Mstislav Rostropovich who has perhaps inspired more new classical music than anyone but for whom the Bach suites remain a core inspiration. I know there are many exceptions, but I'd guess that a healthy percentage of our best performers and our most supportive listeners will remain most devoted to creating/hearing reproductions of the classics.

I think that's the most fundamental problem with new music, although there are many other challenges. Every modern composer is competing with the past and the past has the advantage of being what snared most of us to begin with. By definition, new music is not classical so it will always have a certain outsider status. It's well documented that this was much less true until the 20th-century and that's when the most serious audience disconnect has taken place. I don't think there's anything earth-shattering about this analysis, but I don't hear it articulated very often. Just about any good thing carries with it disadvantages; the establishment of an industry centered on music of the past has made life difficult for composers who want to follow in that tradition and that adversely affects all of us. What's the answer to that fundamental problem? Stay tuned . . . (HINT: I don't know.)

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