Two-way street

People reading me continue to write, sending thoughtful, interesting, provocative stuff. I want to post a lot of it, but for the moment only have time for a little. I’ll post more (I promise!) when I get back from vacation. My apologies to people whom I’d asked for permission to quote, who haven’t yet seen their comments here. I’d hoped to get more in now, but the last few days were pretty hectic.

From Donald Clarke, author of a forceful book, The Rise and Fall of Popular Music (which you can find here):

It always astonishes me when I go to someone’s house for dinner, and they can talk endlessly and amusingly about movies, books, current events, whatever, and then they put a record on and it’s always pop/rock, and there’s always somebody singing, and apart from anything else it’s an insult to whoever wrote the words, because nobody’s listening: it’s just a jolly background noise. One could also point at wretched canned music in every public place; the excesses of success in the marketplaces, leading to their fragmentation (and make comparisons with TV: 200 channels and nothing on); but anyway I worry that the ability to listen to music (without jazzy graphics and special effects) is something that is being lost. I also don’t think it takes any special effort to understand Elliott Carter or whatever. But you have to be able to *hear* it.

Related is the tremendous success of “popular” music and its strophic or repetitious nature: it sneaks in under the radar; you don’t have to “hear” it; we used to have the recapitulation and development sections, now we have a hook. This subject endlessly fascinates me, and I don’t know if music itself is in any real trouble at all — there are still more CDs I want to buy than I’ve got money.

And, in a similar vein, from Andrew Hammel:

These days, in the 95% of the US that is not New York, Boston, or San Francisco, going to a concert is a major endeavor. You have to leave home, drive 20-30 miles, pay a large amount of money for parking/booze/tickets, and sit for 2 hours in a concert hall. Why do all that, when you could just rent movie and watch it in your home theatre? And if you want some cultural cachet, just rent a foreign movie. But that’s not the whole story. We all know that people have plenty of flashy things to distract them these days, but then again they also had only slightly less flashy things to distract them as late as the 50s, when classical music still mattered. What kept a lot of people going to the concert halls was cultural shame. That is, members of the educated classes — realistically, the only people capable of forming a large and well-funded popular base for classical music –thought they “ought” to know something about classical music and show some support for it. 

Knowing a bit about symphonies and operas was like knowing how to mix a martini, or what the difference between a porkpie hat and a fedora is, or how to format a proper wedding invitation, or how to eat escargot. Now, there is no shame in not knowing these things. If you’re a doctor or lawyer or accountant or senior executive, nobody around you is likely to know anything about classical music, so you need fear no shame if you don’t either. If someone begins discussing Beethoven’s late quartets at a dinner party (once again, we are not talking about the coastal hothouses, but middle America), nobody else will understand the reference, and there will be a respectful silence. Then someone — a very intelligent, well-educated person, will mention how “beautiful” or “relaxing” classical “songs” are, and perhaps even reflect wistfully that they always wished they had had more time to learn about it. I’m not trying to be condescending here — I’ve lived these moments.  And the people who are clueless now are precisely the sort of people who would have known something about it a few decades earlier. 

If you’ve been reading me, you know this happens in the cultural hothouses, too — or at least in my own cultural hothouse, New York City. As I wrote, it’s happened to me, and to other classical music professionals I know. But Andrew’s description of this all too familiar situation is the most vivid (and compassionate) I’ve ever seen.

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