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Sunday, February 16, 2014

Is classical music 'dead'?

I believe in Bach, the creator of heaven and earth, and in Mozart, his only begotten son, and in Beethoven the mediator and comforter; and inasmuch as their gods have manifested also in Vivaldi and Ravel and Stravinsky and many another, I believe in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of error and Mind everlasting.

"Credo," Robert Anton Wilson, Right Where You Are Sitting Now 

One of the reasons I got interested in writing about Robert Anton Wilson was that he was interested in many of the same things I am, among them classical music. I've been spending part of the weekend listening to the Pacifica Quartet's recordings of Shostakovich's string quartets.

There's been a debate over the last few years over what's going to happen to classical music in this country, and it flared up again recently. Salon Magazine ran the latest "it's dead" article, by somebody named Mark Vanhoenacker. Music writer William Robin wrote a reply, "The Fat Lady Is Still Singing," for the New Yorker.

I think Robin mostly gets the best of it -- people have been writing about the "death" of classical music for a long time -- and it's easy to find ways to criticize Vanhoenacker. For example, the Salon piece points out the undeniable fact that classical music is getting harder to find on the radio these days, without mentioning that most people have access to Internet radio everywhere via smartphones and almost everyone has a computer. I've discovered I can listen to Q2, the modern classical music station, by plugging my phone into my car's stereo.

As the Salon piece points out, older people form the bulk of the audience at classical music concerts. Robins gets off a good line about that: "contempt toward the elderly is a common theme in death-of-classical-music articles." But will orchestras be able to find listeners to fill those seats when the current audience ages out?


fyreflye said...

The fact that new classical musicians keep appearing in concert halls and on recordings every year, all of them having trained for at least ten years in order to reach just the level of technical competence required to perform classical music, demonstrates the ongoing viability of the form. These musicians want to perform classical music and there's still an audience that wants to hear them. What's dying isn't classical music but the culture that once valued it. In the end the lack of financial support needed to underwrite musical careers may indeed cause a collapse of the classical music culture, but even when orchestras no longer exist individual musicians will still be studying and playing the Bach Sonatas & Partitas and the Beethoven piano sonatas, and there will still be someone wanting to listen to them.

michael said...

Renaissance and Impressionist painting is dead, too. Oh, but there's a segment of the population that goes for it anyway.

The best book I've read so far on the economics of classical music in the latter quarter of the 20th c is Blair Tindall's Mozart In The Jungle. She may have been too late to qualify as canary in the coal mine, but...

There seem more intriguing Pop Music Is Dead articles recently. I find it amusing. How many of us have checked out the latest Top 10 recordings? Whenever I do, I find almost all of it overly processed, bloodless, vapid, and depressingly uninventive: as if it's required to be bleached of melodic development or any overt display of instrumental virtuosity...and hold on...they're back again: Get off my LAWN you darn fool kids!

Okay I'm back. What was supposed to be "new" in the sonorities of classical music? I think it's in film music now, and it's not exactly "new" but a lot of it carries on the tradition of Mood-Modulator and while possibly overly orchestrated at times, some film composers seem like Serious Characters.

And Tom makes the point: the ways in which classical music is available to us now may be hard to get a line on for those who wish to declare it dead. I question the data sets drawn from in calling it: Time of death: now, my time.

There seems a small segment of bright young people who are aware of the tradition, know their own generation's Pop Icon, but also see something rich, complex, challenging, and beautiful in the music written in Europe and the US, 1600-1955 or so.

re: Pop Music being dead: same story as Tom's - widespread availability other than the FM radio stations - but also: around 1995 pop music has exploded into little niches that one must find, but once you've found what you like, digital matters seem to show you other things that are like what you like, and all of the sudden I'm programming my Pandora with my own stations built on bands I've never heard on the radio, ever (not that I listen all that much anymore): my Apocalyptica station really rocks. I love my Fountains of Wayne station. I did not know I would like Wilco, but one Pandora station told me if I like X I might like Y. The father of a teenage guitar student of mine tells me he's into a Danish metal band called Volbeat, which I confess I'd never heard of, despite his insistence that they've won Grammys. (I don't think I've ever watched on paid attention to the Grammys.) Dad promptly burns 4 CDs of Volbeat and gives them to me as I leave their house...

Finally, fyreflye says something that I think is true, but profound in its implications, something I'm still trying to understand: despite it being a Risky Move in the corporate, Bank-MegaCorp-run fucked up economic State: musicians still want to play. Many want to play the most challenging pieces, even if the prospects for remuneration for all that time spent practicing seem dimmer and dimmer. I see it in my own guitar students; I talk to musician colleagues and get stories back about ridiculously good players looking for a gig. I go to a bar with live music, no cover charge, and hear some incredible local player and I think of a lyric line from a bar jukebox fave: "Man, what are _you_ doin' here?"

And yes: Beethoven sonatas and Bach pieces will continue to live. That music is still mind-manifesting - AKA psychedelic - to me. That's really all I want in any music, any art: something that manifests Mind as I transceive it.

On another level, that which is very popular now is something that we should respect because other humans get so much joy from it, even if we don't understand why.

Anonymous said...

Approaches to a career in classical music are different now. Valentina Lisitsa pretty much kickstarted her career off of YouTube. I suspect that others will follow suit. Hillary Hahn is another YouTube alumna. I discovered her by accident. Her recordings of the Bach solo violin pieces are a must have.

My musical tastes are pretty eclectic, and what I listen to depends on my mood at the time, although there is a general rule of "classical at home, everything else in the car." But its not hard-n-fast. Right now "Working with the Miles Davis Quintet" sounds right.

gacord said...

I would have said everything Michael said, but with much less eloquence... +1

I find classical music to be alive and thriving. Admittedly, I'm a dad of 3 string players and I, myself, am getting reacquainted with my 6 string instrument of torture and self doubt. But what I find fascinating is that my kids (all teens) will flow easily from Paramore (to me this is just like what firefly said, over-processed), to "my music" (old school punkrock and some occasional blues), to traditional irish (a lot of it as old as "classical"), to old Masters like the 3 B's. They will talk about it, listen to it, play it. To them it's all music and it all seems to communicate. To be fair, I'l listen to all that, too (well, not the Paramore and other similar... I'm sure it's good but to me it feels plastic. I think that's a sign I've turned old.)

On that note, the "old-age" audience argument seems laughable to me. Most "old" folks, at this point, grew up with some form of rock-n-roll. I think that argument only had some form of value when Chuck Berry was new and weird.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

I suspect that fyreflye has put his finger on it -- the economics may change, but there will still be music.

One effect of the Internet is that fans of small niches of classical music can find each other. I've been able to find sites that post modernist, atonal modern classical music. So there ARE people who listen to that stuff! And I've learned to listen to it, too, or at least some of it.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

@Michael, I guess if really great rock musicians are having trouble getting a gig, they are in somewhat the same position as the classical players. Another sign that rock is no longer king.

I like the Fountains of Wayne, too. It's one of the few bands that my wife and I both like.

Eric Wagner said...

Joseph Kerman addresses the "death" of classical music in his most recent book, Opera and the Morbidity of Music (highly recommended). Kerman notes that people have proclaimed the death of classical music for decades, but that the genre keeps creating best sellers, from Switched on Bach to the Three Tenors to Chant and beyond. These popular recordings don't tend to match the aesthetic ideals of those who proclaim the genre's death.