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Essay Exchange

About a month ago Rayner sent me an essay of his to read about the decline of classical music. I had time on my hands so I wrote a response to it – here are both essays for your edification and discussion.

The Decline of Classical Music

by Rayner Teo

Classical music, or Western art music, is in general decline. Concert attendance and CD sales, never high to begin with, are decreasing every year. Audiences are greying; turnouts at classical music concerts are a demographer’s wild fantasy. Newspapers’ arts sections carry doom-and-gloom commentaries next to reviews of the latest pop acts and record releases. If you are at all interested in music, this is old news.

Watching the Emerson String Quartet perform in Sprague Hall last week drove this point home to me. The Emerson Quartet is reportedly one of America’s best groups, but other than myself I saw only a couple of music majors and School of Music students; we were the notable exceptions, and the average age was in the region of sixty. I believe a bus from a local nursing home pulled up outside Sprague Hall as I was approaching. If classical music is indeed “old-people music”, that certainly hints at a reason for its decline: it isn’t attracting a new audience.

Why should we care? Commentaries on the subject often start by passionately arguing against the view that art music, like Latin, should be allowed to die a natural death. They speak gushingly of how it is timeless, transcends boundaries and speaks to people of all cultures. Often, the writer’s personal experience is mixed in; they often write about the magical moment of first contact in their early childhood.

All this to me is too ingenuous: if classical music is timeless, why does it bear its age so badly? The argument ignores the fact that people respond to music differently, and that context matters a great deal – Beethoven in a Toyota ad is very differently received from Beethoven in a film about senseless mob violence. A handful of people will treat both instances of Beethoven as background noise, not make the link to the wider world of art music, and continue to feel little or no emotional connection to Beethoven’s work. On the other hand, a select few will prick their ears up and recognise immediately the phrases and inflections of the (to make up an example at random) Martha Argerich recording of 1972.

Most people’s reactions lie in between these two extremes; they do have some conception, however nebulous, of classical music and own emotional response to it. They might not remember their first time hearing Beethoven, but they do know vaguely how they feel, or should feel. They might want to find out more about classical music, a self-improvement project just like reading Shakespeare or learning another language. Or they might not care a great deal, but it is recognisable and familiar to them as a cultural signpost. Talking at them about fond childhood memories is treating them as homunculi with opinions yet to be formed – it won’t make them want to go to a concert or buy a CD.

Big names make people want to go to concerts and buy CDs. Orchestras fly in a brand-name soloist at immense expense, do a quick rehearsal and put up a concert. Or maybe the soloist does the concert herself – these are often pianists. Occasionally the orchestras themselves fly in. The performance is spotless, technically assured, and devoid of heart and spirit. There are Chinese and Korean opera singers out there who learn their Italian or German phonetically, who only have a general idea of the gist of the words they sing. Studio recordings are worse – technical shenanigans abound, and by the time records are released they are often homogenised mixes of snippets over several days’ work.

Other transgressions are worse yet. At the Emerson String Quartet concert, they performed Debussy’s String Quartet, and by chance I have listened closely to their recording of it. The recording and performance were uncannily similar to each other, right down to the moment where Eugene Drucker makes an annoyingly show-offish slide to a particular high note – a cheap trick to heighten the emotional tension. The entire recital was two hours long, with music by four composers who bore next to no relation to each other – spatial, temporal or indeed musical. It was carefully choreographed, right down to the five-foot distance between them as they strode on stage, instruments held upright, bows at thirty-degree angles. Everything was perfect as far as I could tell; I could equally well have bought a CD to listen to.

We focus so much on the statistics (poor album sales, halls at half capacity) and nifty tricks to try and reverse the decline (marketing strategies, educational outreach, classical crossover) that we neglect the essential. Classical music is in decline because it increasingly does not speak to the public. If art music is the conversation between composer, performer and audience, each must shoulder some of the blame.

A general trend in new art music is toward the obscure, the absurd, and the theatrical – some works are all of these three. The common argument is that audiences are not sophisticated enough to understand, for instance, the Helicopter String Quartet by Stockhausen. But it is beyond my comprehension (and probably that of any reasonable person) how four helicopters going up and down for twenty minutes, each carrying a member of a string quartet hooked up to a microphone, is more music than spectacle. Similarly, Tan Dun’s Water Concerto – involving a percussionist hitting a specially-constructed gourd and slapping the surfaces of water-filled bowls, among other things, accompanied by squeals and slides from the orchestra – fails to make much of a point, other than that Tan Dun must have been really bored at some time. We should be comfortable with the notion that some music does not deserve a second hearing. Just as we only know Salieri from the movie Amadeus, if the music of today’s composers doesn’t speak to the audience, it should die a natural death.

Performers, too, are becoming more removed from the audiences they play for, but in a different way. In perfecting their art, they diminish the space left for the human drama of a performance. One of the great excitements in watching a concert is the delightful sense of knife-edge tension that comes from amateur musicians (like me) teetering on catastrophic breakdown, or from professionals offering something new and insightful to our understanding of a hoary old piece. This doesn’t happen anymore; they are being granted ever-more-generous contracts, and in return they produce impersonal, CD-like, middle-of-the-road recitals which are technically competent but impossible to relate to. Watching a Chopin performance by a pianist like Artur Rubinstein provokes a very different emotional response than a performance of the same piece by one of the new rising stars, like Lang Lang. Speed is mistaken for virtuosity, ostentatious display for flair.

At the same time, while conservatories the world over are churning out increasing numbers of technically proficient graduates, composers feel liberated to take their music to new levels of complexity. Pieces by the old masters, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, are these days the training grounds for youth orchestras and amateur groups, when in their time they were denounced as unplayable. These days Shostakovich and Bartok are staples, when fifty years ago they were new and avant-garde. As each generation’s ‘unplayable’ music becomes the meat and potatoes of the next generation’s concert programmes, increasingly complex and obscure works are receiving more airtime, establishing a trend. It is not ipso facto a bad thing that performers should become better-skilled, or indeed, that they support new composers by playing their work. But as art music especially in the last sixty years has become more of a back-patting exercise between composer and performer, it is no surprise that audiences feel left out. Declining attendances are a natural response to this.

Meanwhile, critics measure new musicians and groups against the standards of the last big name that swept through town, and they mould the public’s opinion accordingly. And because the critic’s response has become the proxy for the audience’s response, critics wield inordinate power over performers. Meanwhile, audiences gravitate towards established names as an assurance of ‘quality’, just like in any other market. With all this, it’s not surprising that classical music is in trouble.

Nor is it undesirable for classical music to be in trouble. Classical music has, in recent decades, attempted to organise itself on the lines of pop music, with headlining acts, crossover artists and the increasing power of the recording industry and the music critic. For a time, record companies proliferated and produced ever more albums – Martin Kettle, a writer for the Guardian, counts 435 different recordings of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Almost as if by natural selection, some of these will go out of print. Providing for diverse tastes is all well and good, but four hundred performances probably can’t all offer new insight into Beethoven’s musical intent. Neither will the listening public be unduly bothered by the diminution of classical CD shelves in music stores. As Jay Gabler writes on his blog for Twin Cities Daily Planet, “great art takes care of itself” – I would not be too worried about classical music going the way of Latin.

And with the professionals in trouble, it’s a good time for amateur musicians. Possibly one of the biggest classical music news stories of the decade was when the Venezuelan youth orchestra, Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar, premiered at the 2007 BBC Proms festival in London. Here was a feel-good story everyone could relate to; a youth orchestra with members drawn from some of the poorest and most disadvantaged barrios in Caracas and all over the country. Their playing was polished and professional but it was also shot through with infectious South American zeal. Besides the human interest angle, they succeeded immensely in communicating their passion to the audience.

Where the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar succeeded, the Emerson String Quartet failed. Watching their recital, I inevitably compared it to all the times I played chamber music with friends as a pianist and bassist. We had hours of behind-the-scenes fun; pushing the tempo to mess with the violinist’s tough solos, switching back and forth from waltz rhythm, even playing each others’ juvenile compositions. Chamber music, or music in small groups, is essentially a conversation between musicians. Unlike solo music, the focus isn’t on individual virtuosity; neither is it about timbral or sound colour, as in the case of some orchestral music. With only three to five players to deal with, it rarely makes a grand statement about anything too highfalutin. And lots of chamber music has clear artistic merit while remaining eminently playable by rank amateurs. Joseph Wechsberg, the Czech-American writer, called it the “music of friends”. Nothing in the Emerson Quartet’s performance suggested this; I felt like I was watching a studio recording session. I would have felt more at home in a jazz bar or a jam session; that too is the “music of friends” that makes for the highest art.

In one single evening, the Emerson Quartet’s concert brought together all the elements that make classical music as dull and moribund as it is today: a headline act, sweeping into town for one night only, plays, perfectly but soullessly, an incoherent selection of works, pleasant enough on their own but bearing no relation to each other, that occasionally goes over the heads of the audience. As I left the recital hall, I overheard a middle-aged lady telling her companions, “After this, there are no words. There are no words” (her italics, I swear). I should hope that the aim of great art is not the wordless stupefaction of the audience; for if so, there would be nothing left for it to say, and nothing for us to say to it.

In Defence of the Avant Garde

by Adam Adhiyatma

Rayner speaks of a certain disjunct in his essay between the work of modern composers and their audiences. I wish to address this particular point about the ‘the obscure, the absurd, and the theatrical’ nature of modern composition.

The fact that modern music in general – not to talk about classical music about which I have virtually no knowledge, but about popular music and jazz in particular – is becoming increasingly abstract and complex is a given. Today a performance of the old 1930s standard ‘Cheek to Cheek’ – of which the great Louis Armstrong once did a rousing, lively version – would seem incomplete if not riddled with harmonic substitutions and strange polyrhythms. The world of jazz has become involved in some kind of music arms race, with each performer seeking to outdo the last in his ability to overlay increasingly complex harmonic progressions and multiple time-signature rhythm over simple beats. A great example demonstrating what I consider a mild form of this would Branford Marsalis’s recording of that same song in the 90s. Once he gets into the solo, the original chord progression (which has been the touchstone of jazz soloists since forever) is basically unrecognizable unless one has prior knowledge of the tune. Part of the interest in jazz is the relationship between the ‘original’, well-known standard and the performer’s interpretation. I suspect that this proliferation of harmonic complexity parallels the proliferation of experimentation in modern art music.

Despite this, I would hesitate to say that Branford Marsalis’s version is inferior despite its intentional obscurity. There is a genuinely intelligent commentary contained within his harmonic substitutions and a genuine joy in his phrasing. In fact, Branford Marsalis’s work and advocacy has placed him deep within a movement considered to be musically conservative, and if asked I am sure the man would talk about the debt he owes the to the music of the 1950s and 1960s.

Let us examine another more left-wing example. Ornette Coleman released the album ‘Sound Grammar’ in the early 2000s. Ornette himself emerged in the 1960s as a premier voice of the avant-garde, and has been controversial ever since for making music that appears to have no harmonic, or rhythmic system. Several people, including the great Miles Davis, have suggested that he is a charlatan (Miles later rescinded this opinion at least implicitly by making music almost as staunchly weird). Nevertheless, for an avant-garde performer he is astonishingly popular. Popular acts as diverse as the Grateful Dead, John Lennon and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have cited his work as an influence. His concerts frequently sell out. He has received a MacArthur Foundation Genius grant and a Pulitzer prize, as well as numerous inductions into jazz halls of fame. I think that Sound Grammar represents music that is as modern as it gets – deeply abstract, harmonically and rhythmically dense, devoid of traditional structure – but which fulfills what Rayner calls the ‘element of human drama’. I hear in his performance the breadth and depth, the intensity and inconstancy of human feeling. I find his music genuinely compelling, and I am not alone in this.

Hence, I would argue that the proliferation of complexity in modern music isn’t itself what drives audiences away, and isn’t the reason why jazz and classical music are in decline. Ornette Coleman is an outlier in the world of jazz, where audiences have been shrinking at an alarming rate, but clearly his example demonstrates that it is possible for difficult music to achieve at least some semblance of popularity.

I think the truth of the matter is closer to the fact that only a tiny percentage of any given audience is really committed intellectually to appreciation of the music. The presence of the rest of the audience unfortunately depends largely on extra-musical matters such as marketing, public image, or other intractable issues of culture and perception. In this sense, all of art music is subsidized. So it would be incorrect to say that all unpopular music has been found to be inferior and should be left to die out – although there is certainly unpopular music that is inferior and should be left to die. Ornette Coleman’s success could be more accurately attributed to the marketing, the strong start he achieved in the avant-garde-friendly 60s, the prestige of the numerous awards he has received, and the support of other artists. The work of a discerning critic is to create situations in which these deserving artists (and composers) can be subsidized.

The catastrophe approaching art musics today I think is more attributable to the proliferation of opinion due to the internet and other forms of media. The undiscerning multitudes no longer have a single voice to listen to but a cacophony of websites and partisan critics each promoting their own niche, and no longer throw their weight behind what is critically acceptable, because nothing is critically acceptable. Hence the subsidy provided by critics has been diluted.

Furthermore, the proliferation of erstwhile ‘critics’ on the internet and on newspapers has destroyed public faith in the veracity of critical opinion, even when it is valid. I think that there is no such thing as real aesthetic relativism. Music can and should be judged as good and bad, and I believe that its quality has little to do with its truck with audiences.

What needs to be done now, instead of marketing campaigns, is that critics need to do their jobs. They need to evaluate sincerely and above all publicly the merit of our art. Arguments must be made and refuted and consensus achieved so that the public can once more concentrate its support behind art that is deserving.

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