A week in Tunisia

Well, I’m back. I attended the Third World Forum on Music (as in the third they’ve held, not a forum about third world music), sponsored by the International Music Council.

More later about what that all is, about the international music scene I learned about (with some major issues being debated, one of them involving the US in not a very pretty role). And about Tunisia, a westernized culture whose Arab roots are never all that far below the surface. And about all kinds of crosscultural moments, including a distinguished older singer from Afghanistan whose music i heard on (of all places) her MySpace page. And my friendship with an Australian who works with aboriginal music, which comes from a culture (musically and otherwise) very, very far from our own.

And the phenomenal way younger Tunisians sing and play their own traditional styles, complete with microtones and long rhythmic cycles (more than 100 beats), that western musicians probably couldn’t keep up with.

But later for that. Because it’s most germane to this blog, I thought I’d start with my own presentation, though that wasn’t the most important moment for me while I was there. I should say, first, that (as I only found out after I’d been there a few days) I’d been invited because of this blog. An official of the IMC reads it, and thought I’d be a good choice to talk about (what else) the future of classical music.

So I spoke on a panel about art music and its future, called “Challenges to Art Music: In a world overrun by celebrity and superficiality, is there an audience for the disciplines and profound truths of art music?”

Faithful readers can imagine how little I liked that premise. But in an international context, it turned out to have a special meaning: “In a world overrun by bad American music, and by greedy pop record companies whose interests are promoted by US policy…” I’ll have more to say about that in a later post.

And the art music the panel discussed wasn’t only western. One speaker talked about Indian classical music, another about Tunisian traditional styles. And another about a specific niche for western classical music, in Ugandan Catholic churches. The speaker, a Ugandan, didn’t endear herself to other Africans at the meeting when she said she thought western musical instruments are harder to play than African ones.

You can hear a recording of what I said here. I found myself reacting to earlier panels I’d attended, about “riding the digital tiger” and about music education, where one speaker talked about a “paradigm shift” necessary, he thought, for people who run conservatories, and who teach at them. I began by telling stories, about innovations in music, many of them involving online technology. In part I wanted to get away from the abstractions most other speakers provided, but I also wanted, as vividly as possible, to emphasize two things:

  • That the digital eruption is only a tiger to those who stand outside it. Inside, it can be a happy riot of hopeful possibilities.
  • And that “paradigm shift” doesn’t go far enough. There’s been nothing short of a revolution in our culture.

I noted that the innovations I talked about (I’ll list them another time) all happened outside the mainstream classical world. And then I moved on to the ways in which classical music is losing ground in our culture these days, a familar topic in this blog. (I talked, for instance, about the dire data that the NEA recently released.)

I did add something, for the international audience, something I haven’t stressed here, but which I’ll certainly say in my book: That the decline of classical music is — in the last analysis — caused by the end of western cultural (and political) hegemony. How, for instance, can we insist that white European culture is preeminent, musically, in a world that’s largely non-white and non-European? Or in my own country, the US, which is headed toward a non-white majority?

The rise of rock and jazz is, in many ways, a non-western challenge to European music and its former rule. That’s because rock and jazz rhythms ultimately come from African music, and imply a culture that’s not European at all. (On this, see Christopher Small’s Music of the Common Tongue, and Michael Ventura’s essay “Hear the Long Snake Moan,” in his book Shadow Dancing in the USA.)

I ended by telling more stories, about the ways that classical music might change. My favorite is something I thought of at the conference, after a conversation with someone in Europe who runs an organization that deals with classical music competitions. She said she was trying to find new things for competitions to do. And it suddenly occured to me — classical music competitions could reshape themselves as reality shows.

I’m serious. I’m thinking of reality shows like Project Runway, where contestants — in Project Runway’s case, fashion designers — are given challenges each week. Make a garment entirely from newspaper, design an outfit for recent graduates to wear to their first job interview (in collaboration with the graduates themselves, and their mothers), design something extravagant for Cristina Aguilera to wear to an event, with Aguilera herself as one of the judges.

So why not give challenges to musicians in competitions? Competitions, as I think we all know, can be dull. The winners are often consensus choices; musicians with real flair get left out, because some judge might dislike them. And — something I haven’t heard said, but which is obvious, when you think of it — there’s no guarantee that a competition winner will make any impact on the outside world.

So — challenges! Serious ones, that would show what kind of musician each competitor really is. For instance:

  • One week give the contestants a short piece to play. The judges then pick the one whose playing they like the most. And then, the next week (I’m imagining this as an actual reality show on TV, with weekly episodes), bring the contestants back to play the same piece, but with instructions to play it in an entirely different way. They’d have no advance warning of this, or any other challenge. We’d see in an instant how adaptable and imaginative each one was.
  • Give the contestants a wildly difficult, outrageous, even wildly ugly short passage written for their instrument. They’d have 30 seconds to look at it, and then they’d have to play it. We’d see who came closest to getting it right — and to making music with it. (The competition could provide reference recordings, made by people who’d taken time to learn the music.)
  • Give the contestants a new piece, without expressive markings of any sort — no tempo indication, no dynamics, no phrase marks, not even any articulations. Now we’d see who could make the best music from what would look, in musical notation, like something pretty close to an undifferentiated mass of notes.This would show us who had true musical imagination, and would expose — mercilessly, I think — the kind of competition entrant who can only play what he or she has been taught. (This isn’t my idea. I’ll happily give credit to the man who invented it, Ben Verdery, guitar teacher at the Yale School of Music, who told me he gives this challenge to guitarists who audition to get into the school. It’s a brilliant idea.)

Of course we could think of many more challenges. These are just the first that came to my mind. We could ha

ve musicians forced to make instruments to play on, musicians challenged to improvise, musicians given most of a new piece (written in a famliar style), and then challenged to make up the ending. Or musicians given something beautiful from the standard repertoire to play, and then challenged to play it again, even more beautifully. (This comes from one of Tom Johnson’s pieces from the ’80s, called, collectively, Music for Unrehearsed Performers, if I remember correctly. He wrote one of these pieces for Richard Stoltzman, and that was one of the things Stoltzman had to do.)

I really like this idea. It could be done on TV, but could also be done live. I suspect that the winners would be almost guaranteed to be interesting, if the challenges were potent enough.

Two footnotes. First, nearly everyone I met, when I told them I worked on the future of classical music, said classical music had to change, maybe drastically. This included people whose positions might make you think they’d be far more conservative.

Second, I recorded my talk on my iPhone. I’m amazed at the quality of recordings I can make with it. And it’s always in my pocket, so there’s no need for any presentation I give to go unrecorded.

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  1. Jeremy Beck says

    Hi Greg,

    I love your competition ideas! Do you know of John Corigliano’s piece “Fantasia on an Ostinato”? He wrote it for the Van Cliburn piano competition, but wrote in his program note almost exactly similar sentiments to yours–that competitions don’t really test players’ musicality, only their ability to regurgitate.

    So he wrote a piece–a brilliant piece, I think–that is designed to buck that system: large sections of the piece, and the entire middle section, are notated in minimalist notation, so that the player is given a pattern to be repeated in either hand, and the decisions about how long to repeat each pattern are left up to the performer. Apparently, in the finals, the length of the piece varied from around 7 minutes to more than 20. In a very real, audible way, the piece’s architecture and proportion were generated by the pianist.

    No, I didn’t know this. Thanks for passing it on. Very good thinking on John’s part.

  2. Janis says

    I’m not sure you’d attract really good competitors, any more than reality shows attract … well, mentally stable people. Most of the people on them are chosen simply because they are likely to cut their toenails over the fruit bowl while sharing a house than because of anything else, and the people who choose want to catch the resulting tantrums on camera.

    I don’t think it would improve matters, really. The problem starts far upstream from the competitions, although they are a big part of it. There’s some part of me that says that it’s not quite reasonable to punish students for only playing what they’ve been taught when up to that point, those are the rules they’ve been subjected to.

    I’m also not sure it’s quite reasonable to expect a very mature level of understanding from what amounts to teenagers. They’re kids, straight out of a school environment with tests and hoops clearly marked out for jumping through. That’s what they’re going to be good at at that age, be it in math or music.

    I guess I’m just saying that it’s not quite consistent to punish students for not being innovative enough when the entire culture they are embedded in (classical music training) doesn’t support innovation. If you want music to be more innovative, the students have to be encouraged and taught how to be, not punished for not being. You can’t teach a kid to do Olympic ski-jumping by punishing them for doing everything else.

    Maybe the reality show thing could be done by taking gifted amateurs (all ages would be kind of cool, but not classically trained 22 year old conservatory students), handing them each the same simple melody, and telling them to come back one week later with something based on it. Then, they’re given a recording and sheet music of something and told to come back with an adaptation or interpretation on the instrument of their choice. (I’m thinking of Accordion Dude from that doco on the Philadelphia Orchestra here.)

    They’ll be judged by some various people from various conservatories. I’m thinking of someone like Eric Edberg who does all that improv teaching stuff. Or the other fellow (David something?) from Curtis. Or the principal XYZ from the Whatever Symphony Orchestra.

    Maybe if it’s a year-long competition, like a whole TV season, they could have a scholarship to a music school for the winner even if the winner is some kid who only just learned to read music and never heard of Vivaldi.

    Janis, I think you way underestimate the people who get on the best reality shows. Your description just doesn’t fit the people on Project Runway or Top Chef.

    As for classical music students, many of them are wildly creative, left to themselves. I’ve seen this in the classes I teach, and I saw it at the NOI last summer. All the students need is to be given permission. Then they’ll leap forward.

  3. richard says

    And that “paradigm shift” doesn’t go far enough. There’s been nothing short of a revolution in our culture.

    I don’t mean this disrespectfully, but “To a hammer the whole world is a nail.” I think many of your insights into problems besetting the western classical musical world would hold true to non-western practitioners of this art-form, but non-western classical/traditional music are not “our culture” and are a different kettle of fish. Unless one is deeply steeped in the aesthetic and culture of a non-western society, one is truly a barbarian with regards to its’ music.

    Take the stories about western musician reactions upon first hearing gamelans. For them this music was obviously “primitive” and “defective”, as the octaves weren’t even in tune. Only through later reseach did scholars find out that gamelan makers knew perfectly well what perfect “pythagorean” octaves were, they just didn’t like the sound of them.

    This is very hard for us westerners, particularly Americans, to understand. As an American composer who grew up in our “Creolised” musical culture, I can’t conceive what my music would be like without the influence of jazz and rock. But my experience is not or, should it be, international.

    I’ve taken classes in non-western music, but only in talking with non-western musicians did I sort of “get it”. Just because something sounds familiar doesn’t mean it is. The term Chinosoirie is totally meaningless if one is talking about Chinese art. I am a fan of Bhangra, which originally was a “creolised” Punjabi folk/pop music, but it took a Punjabi musician to point out the differences between the music that was aesthetically North Indian that used somes musical elements from western pop music, and Bhangra that was western pop music that had some Indian elements (What he called a Big Mac with some curry on the side) The Hegemony of the capitalist American Music industry is viewed by some non-western musicians as being nothing less than cultural genocide. For them, to blend can mean to be become bland.

    Well, sure. And there seem to be about as many views on this in other cultures as there are in our own. You’re right in saying that people from our culture are barbarians when they come on music that works very differently from ours. But time and again I’ve also run into people from the west who idealize non-western music (for lack of a better term), and do so uncritically.

    When I was in graduate school, we listened in one class to some music from Eastern Europe that was full of what sounded like rhythmic complexities. We marveled at it, and beat ourselves up for our typically western inability to understand what the musicians were doing.

    Then someone who knew that music well came in. He was late for class. He listened for a few moments and started laughing. “That’s terrible,” he said. “These musicians can’t play at all.” What we’d been hearing as wildly complex rhythms were mistakes. The musicians couldn’t play in time.

    Similarly, I remember two Inuit singers who sang at a new music festival in the US in the ’80s. People gushed over them, imagining them to be simple villagers with an amazing intuitive musical gift. Turned out they were educated women who used their music as part of their political activism in support of their people.

    Don’t think that the issues you raised weren’t discussed in Tunis. I got shit from one of my friends at the conference, an Australian who works with aboriginal music, for saying that globalization could actually help local musicians everywhere, who could use online tools to build worldwide support. She told me pretty bluntly that she didn’t see how this would help the music locally.

    But the Indian speaker on my panel was very open to the blend of Western music with her own. And a Kenyan at the conference, a passionate partisan of African music, just about hugged me after my presentation, and said, “When you speak, I hear me.”

    So I wouldn’t jump to facile conclusions on any side of this question.

  4. says

    I mentioned the reality show to a couple friends, 22-28, last night who are not classical music fans but do watch the occasional reality show and the response was, “Yeah, I would think it was nice for a minute, then I would fall asleep.” To them, classical music is Bach and Beethoven played in waiting rooms. I doubt they would even tune in to begin with given this presumption.

    This is why it can be dangerous to ask people what they want. Or, rather, to design something new by trying to give people only what they already think they want. People don’t always know what will appeal to them. I doubt your friends would have fallen asleep if they watched Maestro. They’re assuming that since classical music in its present form bores them, that a classical music reality show would bore them, too. But the point is to wake classical music up, and bring it into the culture your friends have.

  5. Janis says

    I think good marketing could overcome some of that.

    Full screen text on a black background in a Gothic old-style font: “Think you know what Beethoven sounds like?”

    (Quick maybe four-second clip of a good shredder laying into the best-known theme of the 9th)

    Full screen text on a black background with one of those modern-Gothic scrubbed fonts: “Think again.”

    “Hard Bach. Tune in, turn on, and listen. Thursdays at 8, on Bravo.”

    Do a series of quick spots like this, one guy with a Strat doing Beethoven, one saxophonist doing salsa Baroque, one pianist laying into some Rachmaninoff in the style of Elton John or Jerry Lee Lewis.

  6. says

    All kinds of people who aren’t really particularly interested in pop music watch “American Idol,” in which much of the drama resides in the artistic choices the young, pretty people make in interpreting various classix from the pop canon. I think it’s not unrealistic to expect a wider audience for a show like the one Greg outlines. As long as the contestants are primarily young and pretty.

  7. Janis says

    The thing about American Idol though, is that ANYONE CAN AUDITION. The people who end up on the show are the best of the best, but there is still a feeling of “this could be you.”

    If classical music wants to reach out to “those people,” it has to include “those people.” That means that a hypothetical show like this must include as the musicians … well, normal people for want of a better way of putting it. No Lang Lang, no conservatory students, no orchestra insiders. Those people are already in the world, don’t bother featuring them.

    Grab some kid with a Strat and an amp he bought off eBay, and play something classical for him, and tell him, “At the end of the year, we will have you playing that piece.” Find someone who sings in their church choir or in a bar for extra money on the weekends, and hand them to a patient classical voice trainer. Play an aria, and say, “We will have you singing at that level by the end of the year.” Find a gifted self-taught pianist and tell them, “Well get you up to Fantasie Impromptu by the end of the year.”

    Do this with six musicians. They will be trained hard for a year (maybe eight since some may drop out), and every other show will feature three of them (“This week, we’ll catch up with the trumpet player, the pianist, and the violinist” Next week, tune in for the singer, the other pianist, and the guitarist!”) Then, at the end of the year, they perform and audience call-in chooses the winner.

    If the classical world wants to reach out to “those people,” it has to reach out to those people. Include them. Demonstrate how, with a little training, they could also be playing and singing this stuff, and with their own brand of creativity, not just paint-by-numbers.