I’ve received wonderful e-mail from readers during the past few weeks, and I’m going to start posting some of it. Here’s something very thoughtful, from Andrew Yen, posted with his permission. Thanks, Andrew!
I am a 20 year old who likes classical music and a lot of it, although being raised with it during my childhood I guess that might negate the appeal of people like me for institutions who are pining for new audiences. I think there is a need for some explanation for classical music, as it is the most abstract of the arts (possibly competing with dance in that aspect). The least one can do to explain the music is in the context of when and how it was made. Everything else is up to the listener to interpret.
This is why I find much of minimalism appealing because the process is simple enough to understand and that is it, you find out which sounds appeal the most to you and take it from there. Repeat listenings often reveal things that weren’t heard before. Abstract music succeeds better at this than programmatic works which have entire stories woven into them represented in the sounds.
But I wonder though about the argument that classical music, especially the old kind, is less appealing because it isn’t current or relevant to modern life. I agree that is true, I find much more resonance with Reich’s “City Life” than I do with any Beethoven symphony. Sometimes I don’t want my music to always be current or relevant or else I would pay too much attention on where and when it is from than on the music itself. That way I always have room for the older works and get a different appreciation for them as music instead of a statement. I treat pop music before 1985 (my birthyear) the same way. I treat old music like an escape, as people do when cracking open a fantasy novel.
Could this also be applied to the other fields such as literature and the visual arts? In my case I could never get into anything that is called “literature” because I find the whole thing horribly irrelevant especially concerning the customs of the time in which they were written. All the classics, Shakespeare, Greek tragedies, even the heralded works of the 20th century barely caught any of my interest. For the most part, the only books from literature that actually captured my attention was “The Scarlet Letter” and “Wuthering Heights”, and it was for the pained love story, not the literary implications derived from it.
The same could be applied to the visual arts, such as painting and sculpture, the old masters and even a Picasso, it is interesting to look, and there is a certain amount of skill invested into it, but does it speak to me? Is it relevant to my experiences?
So I wonder if the same questions on the value of old classical music can also be applied to old literature and old art as well? Ironic though isn’t it? For me, I am pushed away from literature and art because of their intellectual asapects yet I am drawn to music for precisely that reason (as well as the emotional stimulus).
“Some art, of course, is more popular than other art, but that doesn’t mean that the unpopular art needs access points. It’s not popular because it’s not for everyone. But the people it is for find it on their own. Nobody offered access points to bring anyone to difficult pop music, like Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, or Sonic Youth. Those groups simply found their fans.”
Drives the point home. Especially in the world today where tailored tastes oftentimes trump group trends, this could be applied with fervor for classical music. The biggest hinge to get off of for those wanting to publicize it is to realize that it isn’t universal, at least not since the early 20th century. It is preferable, I believe to at least get a rounded understanding of classical music, as most aficionados of rock would often take in their acolytes with the pantheon of classic rock and so forth for other genres. However, as you obliquely point out, the individual gets to decide which music makes the most sense to them, which one belongs.
Sometimes, among my friends, being the classical music expert, I am asked which pieces I would recommend to them. I would always go through a survey with them first:
What do you want to know about?
What sounds do you like to hear?
Any intrumental preferences?
Any time period preferences?
and so on . . .
So I can narrow down which kinds of classical might appeal to them the most. I occaisionally get the request for the entire history of classical music, and I am often thinking how to go about it without putting my bias in (the dilemma of the so-called masterpieces and geniuses). So far I have yet to succeed in fulfilling that request, although I do suggest things here in there to get it started.
Anyway, to wind this down. I really enjoy your thought-provoking wonderments on the future of classical music and its role in society, especially for the under 50 crowd. Sometime, when I am a little less burdened I would like to join in the effort to find new avenues for classical music to be heard. I used to have aspirations for the music field, but the conservatory system was not for me, so I chose to study in the sciences which I am happy to be in as well, relegating my involvement to just being a good listener and prolific consumer or music.
One project I had in mind is to create a visual history of classical music in the form of a webcomic (a media that is very popular among people my age, at least the geekier ones). It will serve to explain and illustrate classical music like a book would, going from the basics such as defining types of music to the instruments and then to the periods and people who made music, except it won’t as deeply serious as a book would go. Along the way I might solicit contributions from young amateur composers who would like to see their work exposed, or perhaps ask for e-mail interviews with prominent living composers, conductors, musicians, and scholars of music. I consider it to be the beginner’s guide to classical music, made by and for amateurs.
I told Andrew in reply that I don’t think classical music is all that abstract. It only seems so because so much of it — the music from the past — is so distant from us. Back in the 19th century, everybody in Europe knew the difference between German, French, and Italian music, and could identify each in about four seconds, just as now, as I sat last night watching a documentary about punk, I could immediately spot the various punk and punk-associated styles (punk, new wave, hardcore, retro punk like Rancid). Not because I’ve studied them, but because I was there when they came out. Old classical pieces have many other cultural cues that registered immediately to the original audiences, but no longer resonate, unless you’ve studied the past. That’s one reason classical music can seem so abstract.