Quotation of the day

From my wife Anne Midgette’s probing review of classical music in the White House, in today’s Washington Post:

…what becomes clearer, in this presentation, is that classical music

no longer automatically holds a position of predominance among today’s

power elite. The day’s message was, “Look, classical music can be fun,”

even though this message is also a tacit admission of the widespread

assumption that it isn’t.

President Obama reflected that, indeed, in his opening remarks,

joking that newcomers to classical music shouldn’t worry if they

weren’t sure where to applaud: President Kennedy had the same

difficulty, said Obama, who noted that he himself fortunately had

Michelle to cue him properly. It was not exactly a hopeful sign of

classical music’s artistic significance, though to judge from the

hearty laughs, it resonated with many in the audience. 

Anne has a lot more to say, all of it true and valuable, about how classical music strains to make itself seem easy and natural, even though everyone involved doesn’t quite believe that’s true. And how classical music falls back on a vague sense that it’s passionate, in order to explain what it means and where it fits

See my last blog post. Zombieland did it so much better! Classical music really did seem natural when it showed up in that film. Also look at the sweet Amex commercial with the smiley and frowny faces, where a Bach cello suite sounds like the most natural thing in the world:

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  1. says

    The Bach Suite may seem natural, but the cut is not. Also, this movement is used on many, many, many television commercials (sometimes it is even played on viola), so it is familiar enough to the television audience to become wallpaper.

    Yes, the cut is likely to bother some people who know the suite well, though I have to say I’m not bothered myself. I think the cutting was done very well. The cut in the Figaro overture, in Zombieland, is clumsier.

    As for wallpaper, I’m not so sure. It’s such an exuberant performance (Yo Yo Ma, no surprise). Very hard to ignore it, I think, even if the music has become familiar. And, if the music really has gotten so well known, what’s the meaning of that? Does it diminish the force of playing for a commercial, or make it even more forceful?

    Finally, it’d be interesting to know why the people who produced the commercial chose the music. Did they consider other choices, some of them maybe not classical?

  2. says

    Those edits in the Bach are really terrible if you know the work. I’m just wondering how someone who doesn’t know it will hear it? i guess that’s the interesting and pertinent question. All these brief snippets of classical music we hear in commercials, television, movies, radio ads–

    Then again, even pop music comes in snippets as well–little sound bites that barely have enough time to be recognizable.

    Well, as I said in response to another comment, I don’t mind the edits. The music now serves a different purpose. I’m a sophisticated concert listener (not bragging, just stating a fact), and I’m often dismayed by cuts, even in standard classical performances. I hate some of the cuts commonly made in bel canto operas, as I’ve said here before. I also hate, in movies, for instance, when some piece of classical music (or pop music) comes on the soundtrack, maybe because it’s playing in the scene being filmed, and gets faded out in some meaningless way, just at a structurally important moment. Or, worse, gets cut off abruptly, with no musical reason.

    But I didn’t mind the edits in the Bach suite, and in fact didn’t even notice them the first dozen times or so I saw the commercial. (It’s been all over the baseball playoffs, which is why I heard it so many times.) I just can’t put myself into a concert head when I’m watching.

  3. Steve Soderberg says

    I seem to remember a blog you did in which you were outraged that someone used your response area to hype an event. I thought you went somewhat over the top, but basically I agreed with you. So now ….

    The difference between using the blog of someone one is not related to in order to hype an event and using one’s status as a writer to hype the career of one’s spouse is … ? For help in writing your public apology, see the article on “conflict of interest” in Wikipedia.

    And while you’re there, look up the article on “intentional fallacy” — both your quotation of the day and your “commentary” in praise of its wisdom are rife with it. After Maryland your next gig should be in the Obama Administration as the new Meaning Czar.

    PS: “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

    Anne is one of the top classical critics in the country. Everyone knows that. She earned her stature with her writing. She doesn’t need me to hype her. Her piece on the White House was widely quoted. So if I join in, it’s a conflict of interest? The cigar, in this case, really is just a cigar. I loved what she wrote. It’s not as if she’s some writer no one pays attention to, and I’m quoting her every week, to pump up her visibility.

    I think, to speak honestly, that your hostility to me has gotten out of hand. You can hate what I write, but please don’t mount personal attacks, especially ones that make you look silly.

  4. says

    True, Greg–the music does serve a different purpose now, and the edits are probably perfectly appropriate for what the maker of the commercial wanted. it’s just difficult for me, as a cellist, to fathom why the edits didn’t happen in a more appropriate place just for the ease of transitioning from a playing standpoint!

    I’m not necessarily putting myself in a “concert head” as much as I’m putting myself in a “playing head!”

    Well, that’s a head I can’t get into, so thanks for the insight! Of course the edits are done on the audio file, so it won’t matter from any practical point of view whether a cellist play the result. No cellist has to. But then of course to a cellist’s ear the whole thing sounds impausible. I have the same reaction when musical notation is used as a design element, and it’s meaningless in musical terms. The world at large doesn’t notice and doesn’t care, but I always grouse to myself. “They could have taken a moment to use some real music…”

  5. says

    True, Greg–the music does serve a different purpose now, and the edits are probably perfectly appropriate for what the maker of the commercial wanted. it’s just difficult for me, as a cellist, to fathom why the edits didn’t happen in a more appropriate place just for the ease of transitioning from a playing standpoint!

    I’m not necessarily putting myself in a “concert head” as much as I’m putting myself in a “playing head!”

  6. Bill says

    I’ll bet the majority of viewers who see that commercial are not aware that the music is anything but some ad hoc background music. That’s the ones who notice it at all.

  7. Steve Soderberg says

    I apologize for my dynamic markings. I wrote ff when f would have been sufficient.

    But the tune itself stands, notwithstanding your attempt to replace it with a tune you would rather have the world believe I was singing. I do not “hate your work.” I do not wish you ill in any way. I did not question Anne’s reputation (or yours) – not only would that be bad manners, it would be irrelevant. As for my “hostility” toward you, it doesn’t exist. My hostility is toward unfair rhetorical devices and abuse of language and logic – whoever the author. None of this is meant as a “personal attack,” however convenient it may be for you to label it as such. But even if it were … an order for me to stop from someone in your line of work would be jaw-dropping incredible (or hilarious – it’s hard to choose).

    All of the above are distractions (those straw men again) stated or implied by you. I admit only the sin of being too loud, or ascerbic if you prefer. But it’s difficult getting the attention of the preacher when he’s in his pulpit and all he seems to want to hear is a chorus of amens as he preaches about all the sinning going on outside his church.

    To try one last time to show you the out-of-hand silliness of Anne’s and your joint conclusion in this case, let me change just a few words in Anne’s lines that you quoted and alter the situation. Imagine a movie that ends with a couple in an embrace that might be judged as a little (or even a lot) over-acted. In the morning paper you read the critics words: “The film’s message was ‘Look, romantic love can be wonderful,’ even though this message is also a tacit admission of the widespread assumption that it isn’t.”

    By the way, the story in Anne’s blog this morning is beautiful. I read and savored every word of it. It drew me in and invited me to experience what she did. A little like Camus: the power of simple observations!

    Goodbye, Greg.

  8. says

    Hi Greg,

    I recorded the Bach Suite No. 1 in G Major for the Amex spot “Don’t Take Chances, Take Charge,” also known popularly on the web as the “Amex Cello Commercial,” on Sept. 1. For a humorous look at how Yo Yo Ma has been getting credit for this spot, watch the video from my home state newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, at http://www.startribune.com/video/?vid=63860657&show=40365512&elr=KArks5PhDcU9PhDcU9PhDcU5PhDco8P77jyPhU and fast-forward to 3’19”.

    I also wanted to respond to commentary about the cuts in the music. In the recording session, I was placed in front of a big-screen TV with the commercial playing and was told to time my musical phrasing with the changing of the faces. The arrangement was done by the music director of the ad agency, and the piece was never recorded in it’s entirety, only as the chopped, “made for TV” version. This was extremely challenging, especially since I have known and practiced that piece in it’s original version since childhood.

    I hope that helps, and thanks posting the Amex spot. I look forward to reading more of your blog soon.


    Robert Burkhart

    Robert, thanks so much for coming here and explaining so many things. And something I want to say before going on with anything else — you really play the piece wonderfully. Your exuberance not only fits the charm of the commercial, but I think you’re one of the main reasons the spot works. Your playing is irresistible. Makes me smile every time I hear it.

    And so interesting that — after all the disapproving comments — you in fact fit the piece to the visuals, using your own creative skill as a musician. You don’t say if the cuts were your doing, but if they were, you did them wonderfully.
    And now can we hear you playing the entire piece? I think this might be an opportunity for you. I’m eager to hear you, and I’ll bet you’ve got fans in the making out there, maybe lots of them.

  9. says

    Hi Greg,

    The arrangement of the Bach was done by composer and musical arranger Morgan Visconti from Human Music and Sound. Readers who found the one-minute version disconcerting should be warned: there’s an even shorter, 30-second spot airing now.

    Thank you for the kind words about the playing. Credit should also go to Morgan, the creative team, and the audio engineers who did such a great job on the sound and editing.

    Some folks that have liked the commercial have contacted my record label (Centaur) asking for my version of the Bach, so I will record the entire Suite in the next few weeks and post it on iTunes. Pianist Blair McMillen and I also have a new CD with some great music by Debussy, Faure, Carter, and Waggoner, which is available now from Centaur.

    All the best,