The day the

In The Day the Earth Stood Still, there are two moments we might think about, for the future of classical music. (And, by the way, I think it’s better than most of the critics thought, though maybe I’m just a sucker for sentiment, and it certainly has really dumb lapses in logic and common sense.)

(Spoilers follow, though if you know science fiction and watch the first 20 minutes or so of the film, I doubt you’ll be surprised by anything I reveal, especially if you’ve seen the original.)

The first moment comes when Keanu Reeves, as the alien Klaatu, visits a Nobel prizewinning scientist with a deeply humane view of life. (And who offers an elementary historical insight that somehow escaped the venerable galactic civilization that Reeves represents.) In the background, on the scientist’s stereo, we hear a recording of the Goldberg Variations. “What’s that?” asks Reeves. “Bach,” says Jennifer Connely. “It’s beautiful,” says Reeves, utterly detached, but also utterly rapt. (Here and elsewhere, he comes off as plausibly alien, and that’s one of the movie’s strengths.) But this is one of the film’s many small turning points. Reeves, as the story progresses, develops some sympathy for us poor humans, and Bach helps him do that. Score one for classical music.

The second moment comes earlier in the film. Reeves lands on earth in a huge glowing sphere, and when he comes out, surrounded by police and the military, somebody panics and shoots him. Who? We never find out. Everything we learn, in fact, is elliptical, contained in two quick sentences, unobtrusively thrown into the film as the armed presence gathers around the sphere. “Who has jurisdiction here?” asks a New York cop. “What are the rules of engagement?” asks a miltary guy, a few minutes later.

So evidently nobody knows who’s in charge, and nobody knows the rules. Not surprising, then, that somebody shoots. But note how this just gets slipped in, and left for us to figure out, which we easily do, drawing on everything we’ve seen in films before, and everything we’ve learned from real life. (Remember the command and commication problems between police and firefighters during 9/11?)

That’s typical of current movies — to move, for a moment, from the sweetly silly to something really serious, last night I watched “Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days,” an intense, stark, and rigorous Romanian film that’s about Communist politics, but hardly mentions anything political, and centers on a dangerous illegal abortion, without ever telling us, until we see it happening, though by then we’ve figured out for ourselves what’s going on. A 1950s science fiction film would spell out everything that happens; now we’re smarter and more experienced, and both we and filmmakers comfortably make quick, elliptical leaps.

And what does this have to do with classical music? Because much of the classical repertoire comes from the age of spelling things out — or more generally the age when things were really obvious — and thus can seem quaint to people coming to it for the first time. And yes, I can come up with exceptions just as well as anyone who’ll post disagreeements with what I’m saying (we’re never told very much, for instance, about what landed Florestan in prison in Fidelio). But still you’ll see new operagoers coming out of Tosca (as someone I know once did), saying “That was dumb! I knew he was going to be shot for real.”

And yes, we can say — I hope not too smugly — that those people failed to grasp the power of the music, but on the other hand, they reacted (and I think quite reasonably) exactly as they’d react to an old movie on TV. I rewatched Laura a couple of weeks ago, and sure, I know the strengths (starting with Otto Preminger’s direction) that make it rewatchable, but I also smiled affectionately at much of it, and (spoiler alert) can’t imagine that many people seeing it for the first time wouldn’t quickly figure out out that Clifton Webb is the murderer.

Thus we respect old movies, but also see what makes them old. In classical music, we’re in effect told not to do this. Tosca has to be a masterpiece (unless you follow Joseph Kerman and think, in his words, that it’s nothing more than a “shabby little shocker”), as powerful now as it was when it was new. Life, however, has moved on, and if we keep saying such things, the audience we hope to attract will move on, too.

And now a footnote about aliens and Bach. Why is Keanu Reeves so impressed? Well, of course the Goldberg Variations are pretty wonderful, but Bach carries with him an air of greatness, and of universality. Or rather our reaction to him includes those things. As the friend I saw the movie with said (he’s a composer), Bach is both emotional and profoundly structured (he said it better than that; I wish I could remember his exact words), so he communicates directly to us, but also stands above everyday life. Thus he plausibly represents everything great about humanity.

Or, rather, he represents that inside the present-day version of western culture. Music, we should have learned by now, is anything but a universal language. Someone who grew up a couple of generations ago in India, immersed in Indian music, without exposure to western music, might find Bach unintelligible. The idea that an alien would respond to Bach the way we do is sweet, but not very plausible.

And, from a global earthly perspective, why Bach? Suppose the scientist had been playing Indian music, something profound but non-western. “Beautiful,” Keanu Reeves might just as plausibly (or implausibly) murmur, but an American audience might say, “No, that’s weird.” Or they could have used shakuhachi music from Japan, which even for many people in the west now sounds meditative, peaceful, Zen-like, profound. That’s even become a cliché. “Beautiful,” murmurs Reeves, recognizing the same otherwordly calm that his own race has attained.

Or what if the scientist was playing some blues? Robert Johnson, most likely. “Beautiful,” Reeves murmurs, now suffused with compassion for human suffering. “No!” silently scream some of the people watching the film. “The emotions in the blues aren’t universal! That’s music of a particular time and place, of a particular people.”

But then so is Bach. Play the Goldberg Variations around 1850 in Italy, and maybe even in Paris, and one common reaction would have been, “Yuck! German music!” Or read Hanslick’s review of a 19th century performance of the St. Matthew Passion. Of course he recognized that the piece is a masterwork, but he also — acutely responding to Bach’s very dour Lutheran theology — found it gloomy and dark.

We’ve promoted Bach to universality, but that’s only in our minds. And we’re taking a very partial view of Bach, of music, and of culture.

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  1. Jerome Langguth says

    Dear Greg,

    This is a fascinating post. Bach is used in a similar way in Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, and to some extent in the original as well. Early in the Soderbergh film a character named Snow (he later turns out to have been an alien replicant of Snow created by the Solaris ocean) is in his cabin listening to Bach (Gould playing the Goldberg Variations, I think) and presumably reflecting on philosophical questions concerning the essence of humanity. Again, the idea seems to be that “Bach” is somehow shorthand for all that is best in humanity, etc. There is also a scene in an Argentinean film from the 80s called Man Facing Southeast in which a Christ-like alien takes the baton from the conductor at a classical concert and proceeds to lead the orchestra in a rendition of Beethoven’s 9th that is mysteriously transmitted to a group of mentally ill patients at an asylum. The patients respond by dancing and celebrating in a way that would no doubt horrify the more traditionally inclined classical music fan, though you might enjoy it.

    Actually, depending upon what exactly is meant by music being a “universal language”, it might make more sense to use Robert Johnson. Tolstoy, for one, would probably have regarded blues and folk music as more likely to “communicate universally” than classical music due to the relative complexity of the latter. And from an anthropological view one might make the case that blues music is likely to work in a wider variety of cultural contexts than classical. I don’t know about extraterrestrials, but the “creature cantina” music in Star Wars sounds more like boogie than baroque to me.


    Your erudition, as always, is a delight. And a big help! I’ll very likely be consulting you when I want to go more deeply into all of this. Thanks!

  2. Suzanne Derringer says

    Hi, Greg –

    You’re entirely right about the ‘universality’ thing. No music can stand for all of human civilization, not even Bach. (I admit that Bach’s Northern Lutheranism and, especially, his utter assurance about the rightness of his world, have always put me off ,but them I am Catholic and, at least ancestrally, Austrian).

    It was thought that movies, in the early years of silent films, would be the true universal language, because they did not rely on words but on emotions portrayed onscreen, thus, accessible to all. But of course that wasn’t the case. There are always cultural differences in behavior and expression, in the kinds of stories that are told and the reason for telling them from one perpsective rather than another. And then, as you’ve noted, as time passes, movies ‘date’ – they are clearly products of their time. Language, manners, clothing, sets, social assumptions – all belong to their own moment. Life does not stand still.

    Though, God knows, people try. I attended a concert at the Musikverein the other evening: 80th birthday celebration of Jörg Demus. A solo recital except for the Schubert Fantasia for Four Hands, in which Paul Badura-Skoda – who is the same age – collaborated. This was beautiful music-making (and yes, Demus began with Bach – NOT Glenn Gould’s Bach, but warm and lyrical without being overly emotional.

    The trouble was, as always for me: Who is listening? I was the guest of a lady of Demus’ vintage. Almost everyone in the hall was within hailing distance of Demus’ age. They were there to enact a ritual. They dressed well but not ostentatiously, they sat in the upright, polished dark wooden chairs without moving for the entire concert. Of course they applauded at the appropriate moments, and of course there was no embarrassing applause at the ‘wrong’ time. Demus played his part well; Dignified, with long silver hair, he came out, bowed simply, sat down and played. This was repeated until the end, when there was enough polite enthusiasm to warrant three Chopin encores.

    Demus is a lovely person and his playing is very much in the lost manner of late Romanticism. Listening to him, I could understand Brahms’ blend of classical restraint and romantic emotion. He was, above all, lyrical and introverted, thoughtful. This audience understood him: they share a common hisory. But that history is passing.

    A different sort of musical evening last week: the Advent program at Ruprechtskirche. This is the oldest church in Vienna, certainly one of the smallest and simplest. A standing-room-only crowd assembled before the doors opened. The music was provided by a regional music group, and featured a few instruments – wooden flutes, violin, harp, cello – and singers in their traditional dress. They too were growing old, and so was their audience. (As one of the ‘youngsters’ there, I happily sat on the floor). There were a couple of young women in the audience, apparently brought by a parent: they expressions signified: This is SO not cool. When can we go to a bar?

    I don’t want to lose these things: they matter too much to me – but for me, the past is present. It’s not, for the general population, who are living their own lives in their own time. But either we must find ways to include them in contemporary life, or wrap them in lavender and put them away.

    Demus and Badura-Skoda — that warms my heart. I wish I’d been there. Like you, I’m part of that culture, and those two have been part of my landscape for more decades than I’d like to count.

    And you know…music might not be universal, but there’s at least a chance that we all can learn to appreciate each others’ touchstones. Let’s not forget that classical music has tremendous force and validity, even if not everyone responds as we do. All of us, to some extend, cross cultural boundaries in our tastes, and to me that means that many other people can share our classical taste, even if they don’t currently do it. In fact, many already do, without in any way being part of the classical music world.

    This is one of the reasons why I’m so unhappy when people begin trumpeting classical music’s alleged superiority. Or when people, with the best will in the world, start saying that the world at large needs to be educated in classical music. I see it differently — only when the classical music world acknowledges the full richness of our multifold culture (musical and otherwise) will we have a chance to attract the audience we’re looking for. And to share Demus and Badura-Skoda with them. Thanks for posting this, Suzanne.

  3. Mike says

    I just wanted to add a footnote here. I thought a much more effective use of the Goldberg Variations was in The Silence of the Lambs when Lector is preparing for his escape. It was one of the most memorable parts of the book and they did a great job of conveying the atmosphere in the movie. The slow deliberate yet passionate piano perfectly matched Lector’s almost trance-like state waiting to spring into action. A macabre, twisted yet somehow beautiful scene.

  4. says

    got the 8330 on Telus as they were CDMA last March. I had to go with Telus because of their great coverage for when we go camping and on trips. Rogers sucked that way so there was no way I could go with them. Once Telus went HSPA and had a month or so to work all of the kinks out, I bought myself an early Christmas gift in mid-November: a 32GB iPhone 3GS. I already had the MacBook at home and was tired of getting my BlackBerry to work with it (never really did). My iPhone paired with MobileMe works great. I have been thinking about picking up a 9700 but it would probably gather dust. My iPhone does everything for me, quite well too. Texting is much nicer on the iPhone, as well as Apps, browsing the internet and usability. I can hand my phone to someone and they are not perplexed on how to use it anymore.