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November 28, 2005

Episode 3: What Is Classical Music, Anyway?

The first four online episodes make up part one of the book, which serves as an introduction to the problems classical music is having. In part two, I’ll look at those problems in much more detail. Part three will look at the rest of our culture, finding deeper reasons for the classical music crisis, and also suggesting directions any solution will have to go in. Part four will look to the future, and offer some solutions.

This is the third episode of part one. Here’s what I said in episodes one and two (these summaries have been tweaked to include changes I’ll be making to the final text):

Classical music is in trouble. Ticket sales are falling, the audience is getting older, classical music organizations have trouble raising money; media coverage is shrinking, there’s a lot less classical music on the radio, and the classical record business is collapsing (or at least the largest classical record labels are). Classical music also plays a smaller part in our culture than it used to. In 1962 a major national magazine commissioned a piano piece from Aaron Copland, then America’s most famous living composer; it then printed the piece, in musical notation, for its readers to play. That would never happen now.

And I myself, a life-long classical music professional, find myself drawn away from classical music. As I started writing all this, I was listening to a Cuban singer from the 1950s, Beny Moré, who plays with rhythm in ways no classical musician would. Many non-classical musicians do that, and they offer a challenge to classical music. What have we shut ourselves off from? Or maybe—since classical music used to be just as rhythmic as Beny Moré, and classical performers just as willful and insistent—we should ask a more wistful question. What have we forgotten?

It’s also clear that classical music can be hard for outsiders to approach, even if they like to listen to it. Mark, the man who’s been cutting my hair for almost 20 years, loves jazz, especially jazz piano, but sometimes goes to the classical department at Tower Records to look at classical CDs. He’s confused by what he sees—CDs that feature composers and performers he’s never heard of, CDs with all their information written in foreign languages. Once, though, he saw something he could relate to, an extensive series of two-CD sets called Great Pianists of the 20th Century. These—especially since he loves piano music—jumped out at him from the blank confusion of everything else.

Someone else I know, a therapist named Jed, never goes to hear classical music. But he loves Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, and once, when he was walking by Lincoln Center, he saw a poster for a concert where the Pastoral was going to be played. Impulsively he bought a ticket. But he never went back. There was nothing at the concert that made him feel that he was welcome, nothing in posters for any other concert that seized his attention, nothing in any part of his experience that drew him back again to Lincoln Center to hear anything else. He connected, as Mark did, with the classical music world. But the connections happened almost at random, and classical music hasn’t done anything to bring either man back.

And then there’s the music itself. I myself love the Pastoral Symphony, for its tunefulness, for how free it is from any strain or striving, for its loving craftsmanship, and for the way it breaks apart the normal frame of any symphony, connecting its last three movements in a single sweeping narrative. But in performance, the narrative can lose its force, because the symphony (like every classical masterwork) is performed too often. Even if there might be people in the audience who don’t know at every moment what’s going to happen next, the musicians know it, and so it’s hard to imagine, unless somebody develops some new and highly individual way to play the piece, how the Pastoral can ever sound quite fresh.

And the conclusion of the piece—in which Beethoven gives heartfelt thanks because a thunderstorm has ended—might, to a modern audience, seem naïve. None of us reacts to storms this way. Of course there are other ways to understand the music, either as a look at history (helping us to understand what storms felt like centuries ago), or as something different from what Beethoven intended, a recovery, perhaps, from some trauma deeper than a storm. But still we can’t escape from the surface of the music, which, as Beethoven himself told us, was meant to evoke the countryside, with birds, a brook, dancing peasants, and finally the storm and the rejoicing after it. So how should we understand all that? And what are we to make of a classical music world that spends so much of its time and energy on music from the past?

That was episode one. Episode two began by asking deeper questions about Jed’s concert experience. What happens at a classical concert? Everything is very formal, and in the audience are older people, largely dressed in business clothes. Jed, who wears a ponytail, might have felt out of place, though to be fair, I’m sure that wouldn’t have surprised him. Like all of us, he knows what classical concerts are like. Still, he would feel out of place, so how much would he have to love the music, before he’d want to come back and feel out of place again?

And the formality causes other problems, which I’m now going to recapitulate, at the start of my third episode.


When I ended episode two with thoughts about the formality of classical music—the formal dress the musicians wear, the suits and ties in the audience, the immobile silence of the classical concert hall—I could have been more charitable. I did say that some musicians think that putting on their formal clothes gets them ready to perform, and that many people (in the audience, and on the staffs of classical music performing groups) think that the formality sets the music in relief. If nothing’s going to happen on stage—if every performance looks the same as every other one—then the music ought to be the thing we focus on.

But there’s more than that. Some people (as I should have said) just love the glamour of classical music. They love dressing up to go to concerts; they love the lavish concert halls; if they go to the Metropolitan Opera, they love the staircase, luxurious and grand, that rises from the lobby, leading upward to the tiers of balconies.

And Julian Johnson, a British academic, has a more ethereal (but also resonant) argument, which he offers in his 2002 book Who Needs Classical Music? I’m going to spend some time with Johnson later in this episode, and even more in episode four, because, as far as I know, his is the only book about the classical music crisis. But I also need to pay attention to it because it’s so wrong, and wrong in ways typical of what many people in classical music think. It’s also a desolate book, in ways that unfortunately grow right out of what it says; it’s lost in hopelessness, despite its constant talk about the great vistas of human possibility that classical music opens (and which, as Johnson painfully believes, other kinds of music, especially pop, slam shut).

Outwardly, [he writes] classical music appears highly repressed. Its dress codes, body language, restraint, and formality all seem to point to a denial of the bodily.

(And also, maybe, to a rejection of direct and forceful language. Why not simply write, “a denial of the body”?)

Above all [he continues ] the image of the classically trained listener, sitting silent and immobile throughout the performance, would suggest that classical music shuns the immediacy of bodily expression.…But classical music is based not so much on a denial of the body as on a different balance between its bodily and nonbodily elements. Much classical music is rooted in the bodily but aims at transcending, without denying, those physical origins.…Classical music comes from the body but is about being more than the body: it enacts the quitting of the body through the bodily—hence its fundamentally ritualistic, mythical power, representing in the physicality of the body our spiritual aspiration to be more than bodies.

And hence also the formality of classical music, which keeps the body in check so that we can transcend it. Maybe you remember the George Clinton quote from my first episode: “Free your mind, and your ass will follow.” Julian Johnson’s version might be, “Free your mind, and you don’t have to think about your ass (which in any case is too bodily to bother with).” Formality, he seems to think, can free the mind.

And sometimes it can. But in my second episode I suggested that in classical music, it also hides a lot. Here we are, sitting in the audience, transcending our bodies (or simply getting off on the glamour of the hall, and the aura of great art). And in the program book are program notes so dense and scholarly that most of us can’t understand them. Maybe, just maybe, that might add in some way to the glamour, at least for some people; maybe great art is supposed to be beyond us. But it’s hard to see, at least among people who take thinking seriously, exactly how impenetrable writing can move us toward transcendence. The Bible, it’s true, says that the peace of God “passeth all understanding,” but that just means that God’s peace is wordless, not that we can’t understand it because we don’t have graduate degrees in musicology.

But I don’t have to be sarcastic. Behind the formality of classical concerts lies what in episode two I called “an odd blankness.” And that’s something to feel desolate about. What happened to art, involvement, meaning, creativity? Somehow, at classical performances, all of these are hard to find. The audience gets passive, and the musicians in many ways are passive, too. Here’s a list of ways in which this happens:

The program notes, as I’ve said, typically go right over the audience’s head.

Alongside this, bafflingly, are other items in the program book that might read like a chatty community newspaper. So the audience, on one hand, is apparently presumed to be eager and undemanding, and on the other hand is treated as if everybody in it was a serious classical music scholar.

The audience is never told what’s going on behind the scenes, why (for instance) there are five French horns on stage when the program book says the composer said there should be four.

The audience is never told what the musical goals of the performance might be, how this performance of whatever masterwork is being heard might differ from any other one—or, for that matter, why the masterwork is being played at all, especially in combination with the two or three or four other pieces placed together with it on the concert program. I’ve led conversations with members of the audience for two major orchestras. Sometimes, once they feel they have permission to say anything they want, these people ask very pointed questions. Clearly they’ve felt left out. There’s a lot they’d love to know. But the people in the audience are never brought inside an orchestra’s planning, in part because, far from being thought of as any kind of co-participants in concerts, they’re seen as stubborn conservatives, who’ll stand in the way of important programming, especially of newly written music. I’ll never forget the prominent classical music personality, author of many important books, who told me with great excitement about some broadcasts of new classical music that the BBC had done. I asked him if the BBC had polled its listeners to find out which of the composers presented on this series they’d liked best. And he was outraged! Imagine asking the people in the audience what they liked! What a horror that would be! They’d make the wrong choices!)

Or, maybe, if we talked to them, they’d make choices that surprised us, or maybe they’d understand our choices better, and be more ready to support them. But these conversations never happen. The communication goes only one way—from the classical performing group down to the audience. I’m reminded here of the medieval concept of the Great Chain of Being, in which authority flowed from God down through the Catholic Church, finally reaching the ordinary people at the bottom of the chain, whose only role was to accept, passively, everything that they were told. Isn’t that what we find in classical music? Musical authority flows downward from the immortal composers to the musicians who play their works, and then downward again to the people in the audience, who sit at the bottom of the chain, where they’re asked to passively accept everything they’re given.

And the musicians, too, are often passive. Orchestral musicians have very little control over the music that they make. They aren’t  treated as co-participants by most of the conductors who lead them; they’re simply asked to do as they’re told. After concerts there’s no chance for discussion, no forum where the musicians can offer their thoughts about how the concert went. Opera singers and musicians playing chamber music have more freedom, since opera singers are soloists, and in chamber musicians just a few musicians join together, working as collaborators, without a formal leader. But still they’re often circumscribed by their training, since typically they’re taught a lot of rules they have to follow—rules about how each composer should be played, rules about how musicians ought to move while they’re playing (or, more likely, about how they shouldn’t move at all), rules about what kinds of playing have to be forbidden, because they’re too original, or take too much freedom with the music, and hence are thought to be excessive.

As a result of all this, musicians often come before an audience with their enthusiasm dampened, even if they themselves don’t realize it. They’re not prepared to wow the audience, or to give, no matter how the audience reacts, performances that no one could forget. They’re strangely circumscribed: careful, respectable, well-bred.

Add to this some other curiosities. The people  who work for major orchestras typically don’t go to concerts. Almost never in the office of the orchestra will people come to work and talk about the music. Isn’t there something wrong with this? I’ve talked to a consultant who’s worked both with orchestras and with theater companies, and he’s stunned by what he finds in orchestras. In a theater company, people come to the office the day after a new production opens, and the production is all that they can talk about (the play, the acting, the directing, the sets and costumes, everything). But at orchestras, after a concert, no one says a word. If this is great art, where’s the depth, the transcendence, or even the certainty, both audible and visible, that everybody’s giving everything they’ve got?

I finished the last episode by quoting something from Christopher Small’s book Musicking:

This is the great paradox of the symphony concert, that such passionate outpourings of sound are being created by staid-looking ladies and gentle­men dressed uniformly in black and white, making the minimal amount of bodily gesture that is needed to produce the sounds, their expressionless faces concentrated on a piece of paper on a stand before them, while their listeners sit motionless and equally expressionless listening to the sounds. Neither group shows any outward sign of the experience they are all presumably undergoing.

And neither group communicates with the other. Neither group has power to change the way the concert goes. Neither group may understand just why the pieces on the concert were programmed to be played together. There really is kind of desolation here. which could be described, as a cultural theorist might, as one result of what happens when “the historical and semiotic specificity of classical music, on its own turf, has all but vanished, when the classical canon is defined and marketed as a reliable set of equally great and ineffable collectibles.” (I’m quoting from Robert Walser’s Running With the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music, a revelatory study of metal by a classically trained musicologist.) When the music loses its meaning, there’s nothing for all of us involved in it to talk about.

But I’d turn that around, and say that there’s also, in the simplest terms, a failure to allow any real human contact. And that helps to rob the music of its meaning, and of course its power. No wonder it’s hard to find a new audience for classical concerts. There’s nobody speaking to it there.


That was my revision of the end of episode two. And as I start episode three, it’s a perfect segue to an idea that’s eagerly embraced inside the classical music world (and especially embraced, I think, by saddened members of the audience, who love classical music, see their numbers growing smaller, don’t see younger people at classical concerts, and are understandably upset by the thought that classical music might disappear)—the idea that the classical audience is disappearing because classical music is no longer taught in our schools.

I’m touched by this view, or maybe by the strong emotion that lies behind it. But I’m also wary, because I think there’s at least a whiff of something self-serving here: “It’s not our fault that a new generation doesn’t care about classical music. It’s the schools’ fault. It’s society’s fault. Everyone would love our music, if they only had the chance to learn about it!” Which of course means that we ourselves, we classical music people, don’t need to change the way we play our music, the way we present it, or the way we think and talk about it. The whole problem is someone else’s fault. Someone else should change—society should change, the schools should change, and once again our children should be educated to see things the way we’d like them to.

Not, of course, that this is going to happen. And even if it did, why should music education—which I myself would like to see restored, of course—be completely or even mainly classical? Don ‘t more Americans know Beethoven (at least from movies like A Clockwork Orange, and also from his huge prestige, and from ringtones of the “Ode to Joy” and “Für Elise”) than are likely to know Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington, richly American musicians with tremendous depth and substance in their work?

Of course, somebody might say that Louis Armstrong, with his colloquial American sound, is easier to grasp than Beethoven, but is that really true? I could argue in return that Beethoven sounds very clearly classical, and is therefore easy to place in current culture, while Armstrong, at least to someone new to him, might sound simply old. (And I do know one thing: It’s a lot easier to hear Beethoven on the radio than the stunning records Armstrong made in the 1920s with his Hot Five and Hot Seven, which amaze me because, quite apart from their verve, force, and unstoppable sense of fun, none of them are built like simple pop or jazz songs, and no two of them, in their explosive variety, seem to be structured quite alike.)

But even if it’s true that Louis Armstrong is easier to understand than Beethoven, there still are crucial American musicians like Robert Johnson, the most powerful and forlorn of the Delta blues singers, whom many of us aren’t likely to understand without some preparation. For one thing, he mumbles his words, which first of all makes it hard to understand his songs, but also makes it seem, from a refined perspective, that he can’t be taken seriously. Why isn’t he just some bumbler from the depths of rural Mississippi, who couldn’t even speak, let alone sing or write music?

But a greater problem comes from something that people used to classical music—people familiar with its formal processes—ought to be equipped to understand. Blues, as it happens, is a very formal music, in which nearly every song has the same structure, built from the same simple chords repeated in more or less the same simple patterns. Its sophistication, therefore, comes from what each blues musician does with this more or less unchanging form, in which the “more or less” (along with the unique sound each singer has) can be a home for art.

Johnson’s habit is to smudge the formal patterns, to apparently evade them, to slide away from them with his voice, just when the chords might be finishing their sequence. So we get distracted from the sequence, even though it’s clearly there. If we know the blues, we can follow this, and find it haunting, as if Johnson’s lost inside the standard ways of life, and might either be despairing, or be trying to escape.

But if we don’t know the blues, he might simply sound chaotic; I’ve encountered expert classical musicians who couldn’t follow what he’s dong. So if everyone should be educated to understand classical music…well, you can see where this is going. I don’t mean to be an absolutist; maybe Johnson’s really not for everyone. But neither is classical music. And Johnson connects directly with our lives, because he’s at the root of music like rock and R&B that we hear now.

But then this troublesome notion that I’m looking at—that classical music might disappear unless people are taught (forcibly taught?) to understand it—also is involved with another, more fundamental belief. This is the belief that classical music inherently is abstract, and therefore complicated, or at least that it depends on abstract musical structures that people need to learn about. (Just like Robert Johnson.)

But is this true? I’m not so sure. Certainly nobody had to be educated to like classical music in the 18th and 19th centuries, when it flourished, and when in fact it was the only musical game in town; when women fainted during performances of one of Rossini’s operas, because a love duet was so intense (the opera, if anybody’s curious, was Armida); or when Mozart (as we saw in episode two) manipulated his audience to make them applaud right in the middle of his Paris Symphony. In those days, the music we now call classical spoke to people as readily as pop music speaks to us now. So maybe classical music only seems complex to us—complex enough to require education—because we’re distant from it. Of course it’s true that classical pieces tend to be longer than most pop songs (though not longer than all of them, as people posting comments have been pointing out), and that classical pieces are written in musical forms—sonata form, theme and variations, chorale prelude, passacaglia—that some of us get worshipful about, imagining that they have an almost sacred significance.

But to people in Mozart’s time (the late 18th century), or Beethoven’s (the early 19th century), or Bach or Handel’s (the first half of the 18th century), these forms were simply the ways in which music was written. You absorbed them as you’d absorb anything you encountered in your life, only partly consciously, but comfortably enough so you could follow what was going on.

And in any case—let me whisper this, in case classical music purists are offended—these forms aren’t really very complicated. Nor are they abstract. They’re brought to life by things in music that anyone can hear. Suppose we’re listening to a theme and variations; the music changes mood and character at the start of each new variation. When Bach wrote a chorale prelude, anyone in his time could follow what goes on in it, since it’s all about the gradual unfolding of a hymn tune that everyone would know. Sonata form rather famously—famously, at any rate, for anyone who’s ever studied classical music—is in three parts, but the difference between these parts is often vivid, the whole point being that each one presents either something new, or else the fulfilling return of something we’ve heard before, and gotten used to. It’s a mistake to think these things  always will require training to perceive. If you’ve listened to All Things Considered on NPR, you’ve heard the show’s musical logo, and probably noticed—even smiled at—the witty little ways in which it’s constantly transformed. Why should it be any harder to follow similar (and in fact often much less subtle) musical changes in a classical piece?

But if the piece is old, there might be a reason, but it’s not about complexities of abstract structure; it’s about cultural cues. Music of the past was full of cues that everyone who heard it understood. People would know when the music was peppy, or when it sounded sad, or when it deviated from some standard form, or when it pictured the ascension of Christ to heaven, or when it took off from the rhythm of a dance that everybody knew, or when somebody like Mozart sent a symphony into overdrive, to make everyone applaud. (Not, of course, that some pieces weren’t more complex than others, or that people didn’t react differently, according to their personal taste or cultural preferences, just as all of us do now.)

But now these cues may not communicate, or at least may not communicate so strongly. This doesn’t mean the music doesn’t sound expressive, but it’s not as vividly expressive—not by half—as it surely was when it was new. The differences (between one piece and another, or one part of a piece and another part) don’t stand out as sharply as they did. Imagine that you’re hearing Barry Manilow and hiphop, and can’t quite sense that they’re very different, unless you’re concentrating very hard. (If that seems extreme, go to a concert that begins with a Rossini overture and then continues with a Mozart symphony, and try to hear why Italians in Rossini’s time thought Mozart wrote heavy, dull, confusing stuff, without any melody.)

So maybe we shouldn’t study the abstractions of classical music; maybe we should just play the music more vividly, so that differences between one moment and another sound completely unmistakable. (Of course, there’s also more current classical music, which speaks in languages of our own time. But it may not speak in any language that many people know, a difficulty—not often enough faced up to—that I’ll address in part two of my book.)

And there are other problems, too—rather obvious problems—with the idea that education can save classical music. It would take too long; by the time we’d educated our brand-new audience, a generation for now, classical music (given how serious its current difficulties are) might be out of business.

And what kind of power do we have—all of us in the classical music world—to bring music education back? Aren’t there obstacles (social, political, and economic) standing in our way? Do people want their taxes raised to pay for classical music in their schools? Where will the money come from? How much political influence do we have? Who are the elected officials who we can convince to give our effort high priority?

But let’s go back for just a minute to all that classical formality. This, I think, makes the music education project really hopeless. Because music education—even if we restored it everywhere—would never work. We could teach everyone about Bach and Mozart, but that wouldn’t be enough. We’d also have to get people to go to classical concerts, and that would mean we’d have to train them to be passive, to not ask questions, to accept everything that happens, even if they don’t understand it.

And how can we do that, four decades after the 1960s brought most of us a more relaxed, more expressive way of living? Even the president of the United States appears on TV without a jacket and tie. We’ve learned to get loose, to dress more casually, to ask what things should mean to us (and to accept pop music as serious art, but that’s another story, to be told a little later in this book). And while of course these changes weren’t thorough or complete, they’ve kept on going, and affect us in new ways even now. How can we ask younger people, people who’ve made their own websites, who’ve started their own blogs, who’ve played in bands and written their own music, to come to classical concerts and sit there in utter, reverent silence, accepting everything they see and everything they’re told, including things that insult their intelligence, things that make no sense?

They won’t do it. Of course a few people will get drawn in, as they always do; I hear a lot of stories about people who went to a classical concert one night, and got completely hooked. And of course they exist, just as people exist who fall in love with Mongolian throat singing, or forgotten TV shows, or obscure specialties in microbiology. That’s the wonder and diversity of life.

But not enough people are getting hooked on classical music. And that’s not because there isn’t enough music education. It’s our own fault. Before we can attract a new audience, our classical music world will have to change.


Which leads me to a fundamental question. What is classical music, anyway? I’ve been talking here as if it’s old music, but of course there’s also new stuff, written by composers living now. Isn’t that classical music, too? And what about the major institutions—orchestras, opera companies, presenting and producing organizations like Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall—that seem to dominate the field? Do we want to save them, or only the music? As Ben Wolfson asked, in a comment on my last episode, “I'd like to know just what classical music is that's being talked about. Because if it's primarily an institutional or sociological definition, well, I'm not so interested.” Nor I, even if I might be more sympathetic to the large institutions. What I want to save is the music.

But what is that, exactly? I think we’re going to see that the definition of classical music—in essence pretty simple—gets strangely clotted when we look at how classical music is actually defined and understood.

So what is classical music? We could start with the simplest, most obvious answer: Classical music is what we hear at classical music performances. And of course we know what that is. It’s music by the great composers of the past. Or, sometimes, by the not so great composers, but that doesn’t matter, because, no matter how great the composers are (or aren’t), everybody pretty much knows how the music’s going to sound. Amazingly, it’s going to sound like classical music, which sounds like circular, self-referential reasoning, but in fact makes a lot of sense, because everybody knows how classical music sounds. It’s smooth, elegant, surging, romantic, and refined (as compared, let’s say, with angry hiphop, violent heavy metal, insinuating Frank Sinatra numbers, twangy country songs, or raucous jazz).

It uses instruments heard elsewhere mainly for special (and often specially romantic) purposes, like oboes and violins, or else it wows us with the full glamour of a giant symphonic orchestra. It doesn’t, for the most part, use saxophones, synthesizers, or electric guitars; it doesn’t keep a beat with a drumset (and certainly not with a drum machine).

If there are singers, they sing with lots of resonance. They don’t screech (or at least they’re not supposed to); they don’t howl; they don’t scream; they don’t whisper; they don’t croon. They sound, to put it simply, classical; and because of that—because of the care they have to take with that—they sound more alike than pop or jazz or blues or Broadway singers ever do. All of this, everything that I’m describing here, is what we’d think we’d hear if somebody invited us to go to a classical concert hall. It’s what we’d hear if we stumbled on a classical station on the radio. Or if we were clicking our TV remote, and landed on a classical telecast from PBS.

And of course it’s been the picture of classical music that I’ve been using in this book. I didn’t even think this through. But when I wanted to examine the way a classical concert feels, what else could I describe? A performance by a composer who walks with firm and steady steps for 40 minutes, striking alarm bells that he’s suspended from the ceiling? A piece in which a  wire is stretched across a resonant performing space, and then set vibrating electronically, so we can listen while it hums?

Both these pieces really exist, and I’ve loved both of them; the first is Tom Johnson’s Nine Bells, and the second is Alvin Lucier’s Music on a Long Thin Wire. Both, in my experience, are classical music; certainly they’re not anything else, and when, in the ‘80s, I wrote for The Village Voice (at that time the leading weekly paper in New York), I was expected to review them, in my role as a classical music critic. But they don’t fit the common understanding of the term.

And that common understanding can easily be stretched to include the normal ambience of classical music—the formality, restraint, and silence. And, of course, the glamour. So for most of us, these things might as well be part of classical music’s formal definition. Without them, a concert wouldn’t feel very classical. And so here we are with not one definition, but a pile of them, each one apparently implying all the others. Classical music, we can add, is serious; it’s thoughtful; it’s difficult; it’s complex; and it’s art. Now we have a lot of thoughts in play. All of them flow into one another. Why is classical music art? Because it’s serious and complex. How do we know it’s serious? Because it’s performed with such restraint. Why should it be performed that way? Because it’s serious.

Talk about circular logic! But none of this has to be logical. We’re talking about a social construction, a way that some of us approach one part of life. And for those of us who think of classical music in this way, it’s comforting to go to a classical concert. We know what we’re going to get. We can tell ourselves we’re hearing art. Which is flattering, though I wouldn’t say we aren’t hearing art, or that we shouldn’t let ourselves be comforted or reassured. If the experience is good for us, why shouldn’t we have it?

Recent surveys show that the orchestral audience thinks orchestra concerts are inspiring, uplifting, even spiritual. (Even if they don’t know why five horns are playing.) And here are words that don’t come up: provocative, arousing, challenging, adventurous, surprising. On a spectrum of artistic experience that ranges from very calm to totally disturbing, classical music—at least as people currently experience it—falls very much on the calm side. People sometimes even say it’s calm. And that, they say, is why they like it.

But if it’s always calm, how can it be art? It starts to seem like new age music, valued for the peaceful and inspiring emotions it inspires in everyone who likes it. Certainly classical masterworks don’t function as they did when they were new. Beethoven’s music, when he wrote it, often was convulsive; it disturbed and even frightened many people.

All of which is obvious enough. But of course there’s a definition of classical music that strips most of this away. I mentioned Music on a Long Thin Wire. To listen to it properly, I had to accept the long, unchanging hum as music, and then be ready when feedback built up as the wire vibrated, and the hum abruptly changed. To do that, I had to do the same kind of listening I’d do in a classical piece that lasts for 40 minutes; I had to listen patiently, wait and see what happened, discover where the sound was going to take me.

Likewise in Nine Bells. The melodic patterns of the bells were the music in the piece, though Johnson’s steps supplied some rhythm. And Johnson’s walking (planned both for visual and musical effect, since it set up the order in which he rang the bells) was a kind of choreography. The patterns of the bells were tightly structured, so I heard as well as saw unfolding patterns. But again I had to listen while many minutes passed, and the music revealed itself.

These are extreme examples (or at least they might seem so to many people). But I could also talk about music that seems more strictly classical, but still takes flight outside the classical concert hall. For instance, anything the string quartet Ethel might play (and already their name sets them apart from more orthodox quartets, which always call themselves The Something Quartet, where “something” is very often a composer’s name). Ethel plays music by living composers, and at some point at its concerts, one of its musicians might say, “Well, let me introduce the band.” When that happens, they might be playing a classical piece, but their attitude, and the entire atmosphere, is hardly classical. Everyone is dressed informally; the room itself is casual; the performance might be focused, musically, and might be quite intense, but the culture around the music is notably relaxed.

And there are even more strictly classical pieces, written for classical ensembles, even orchestras, and performed in classical concert halls, that aren’t calm or inspirational; they might be jagged, dissonant, and restless. These come, most often, from the 20th century, a bygone age with which classical music hasn’t yet caught up, probably because the sonic echo of its disturbances (cultural, political; wars, massacres, displacements) is too disturbing in the hushed and reverent classical ambience we’re used to. So it should be obvious that classical music doesn’t have to be the way that I’ve described it. It can be ugly; challenging; provocative; and quite surprising; it can also informal, casual, relaxed, and even homemade. (Tom Johnson bought his bells at an electrical store; Alvin Lucier rigged up his wire by himself.)

Which should then suggest that older classical music doesn’t have to be as smooth as it’s become, that it, too, could be performed informally, or with attitude, or disturbingly, or adventurously, if we could only figure out how. But if that’s true, what does classical music become? It doesn’t even have to use the normal classical instruments. If you can write it for nine burglar alarm bells, you could write it for a rock band. Or for harmonica. Or—as the sometimes shocking composer David Del Tredici did a few years ago (provoking gasps from one classical critic)—you could write a piece in which a classical pianist accompanies a flagrantly non-classical vocalist, thus mixing worlds in a way that wouldn’t surprise anyone who knows pop or world music (Arab songs with western dance beats, anyone? that happened in Algeria), but still can cause amazement, inside the protected borders of the classical world.

But then what makes all this music classical? And here we come to my own definition of what classical music, at its core, is all about. First, it’s the musical tradition of developed western culture. This is especially important for the older stuff, Beethoven and Brahms, because when that was written, there wasn’t any other kind of musical art, as there is today (which gives current classical music a somewhat tenuous relationship both to the tradition it comes out of, and to the present world, yet another discouraging problem, which I’ll examine in part two).

So if I wanted to defend Beethoven and Brahms, if I want to give reasons why their music should still be played—and, even more important, why it should still be funded—I’d say that it’s an important part of our history, which ought to be preserved, and which offers things that still can be compelling. Leave aside, for the moment, everything that I said earlier about the cultural cues in older music, how we don’t hear them, and how therefore the music isn’t as expressive as it ought to be. That’s also true of literature, but we still can read Jane Austen, Dickens, Flaubert, Dante, Shakespeare, Proust.

And if we can read these writers, we can also listen to…well, a musical equivalent of Jane Austen doesn’t quite come to mind, and nobody in 19th century music has the scope of Dickens, with his verve, his surging humor, and, not least, his emphasis on ordinary people and their often crushing difficulties. But if we can read Flaubert, surely we can hear Lucie de Lammermoor, the opera that his Emma Bovary swooned to. (It’s clear from the novel that she’s hearing the French version of Donizetti’s opera, not the original Italian version that we know as Lucia di Lammermoor.) If we can read Shakespeare, we can listen to his contemporary Monteverdi. Proust connects to Wagner and to Debussy. And surely we can listen to Beethoven, who from this point of view can be fascinating precisely because he has no literary counterpart.

There might be difficulties; music, perhaps because it’s expensive to perform, has always been conservative. Eighteenth century composers wrote masses for the Catholic church; you just don’t find them writing choral pieces with ideas from the Enlightenment, questioning the existence of the Christian God. Even Beethoven, in every other way untamed, and whose religion seems to have been freely mixed from Christian, Eastern, and impulsive Deist elements, made his most powerful religious work a Catholic mass. Opera in the 19th century told stories of aristocrats, never of the ordinary people, bourgeois or working class, whose stories started to show up in novels.

For all these reasons, older classical music might sometimes be a little hard for modern minds to take; it doesn’t always have the edge we take for granted in the other arts. But it’s still our history, and overt themes aside, there’s something powerful at work in it; it supplies a wordless counterpart to what the other arts can tell us.

And then there’s the second part of my definition, which gives a second reason to value classical music. Here I find myself agreeing with Julian Johnson, desolate as he may be otherwise. One thing unique in classical music, he suggests, is its

discursive aspect. The claim of classical music is that, in order to make musical sense, it requires concentrated attention from start to finish. In some ways it is comparable to a rather involved novel or film; if you skip a few chapters or leave the room for a while, you may well lose the plot or narrative thread.

I do think that’s a little negative, a little punishing; Johnson sounds as if he’s looking for things to disapprove of. Don’t skip those chapters! Less cheerlessly, he makes his point another way:

Classical music aspires to the condition of thought because it embodies the basic categories of thought: the differentiation of its materials and their discursive development within a logical sequence. It does this not in imitation of language…but rather as an independent and highly sophisticated medium of thought and feeling in its own right. It presents specifically musical ideas through specifically musical forms, elaborated in a way that engages us intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. [61]

I could shake my head at some of this. Johnson works hard, in his book, to remove classical music from everyday experience, and I find an echo of that in the passage I’ve just quoted, in the way Johnson talks about “specifically” musical ideas and form, as if a musical idea could be “specifically” musical and nothing else, as if every musical idea didn’t take some form that expressed something in our culture.

But still he’s onto something. Classical music really is discursive. A classical piece can start in one place, and end in another. It evolves over spans of time, like a novel or a film. It can play with its material, contrasting and developing various ideas, the way a novel or a film can juggle many characters, many settings, many ideas, and many plot developments. Or a classical piece could veer wildly from one thing to another, but the point would be the same; it’s doing something during a span of time, maybe a long one, and I don’t know any other music that works in quite this way. It gives classical music a special richness, not a greater richness than any other kind of music, but a richness unique to itself. If this disappeared from our culture, I’d be desolate myself.

(References, which I should have had in the last episode: Christopher Small, Musicking, Hanover, N.H.: The University Press of New England (Wesleyan University Press), 1998, p. 155. Robert Walser, Running With the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music; Hanover, N.H.: The University Press of New England (Wesleyan University Press), 1993, p. 63. Julian Johnson, Who Needs Classical Music? Cultural Choice and Musical Value; Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 69, 37, 61)

(Coming next, on December 12: Examples of how classical music works. A defense of pop. And, finally, why classical music serves as a refuge from the present day.)

Posted by gsandow at November 28, 2005 02:20 AM

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