Alec Baldwin shows us the way

I’m going to be posting a lot about the future — or, rather, about how to make classical music ready for the future. And, especially, how to make classical music institutions ready. A lot of what we need to think about involves the culture around us — the culture into which classical music needs to expand, if we’re going to find more audience.

I know this idea isn’t always welcome, but think about it. If we want to attract people who don’t now listen to classical music, who are they? Clearly they’re people who live in our lar


ger culture. Or did we think we’d find people who’ve withdrawn from our culture, who spend their cultural time in tiny, fascinating niches?

Not likely. And so, to introduce this thought, let me present someone who certainly takes part in mainstream culture, Alec Baldwin, who of course is a classical music fan — celebrity spokesman for the New York Philharmonic, no less, and host of their radio broadcasts. He loves classical music.

But of course he’s  also a star on 30 Rock. And as for his musical taste…well, as it happens it’s not fully classical. Alec Ross has been asking art celebrities — Björk, Mark Morris — what their favorite records are, and when h

e asked Baldwin for a list of favorites, only two were classical. Namely, recordings of Mahler’s Fourth and Ninth Symphonies, conducted by George Szell and Georg Solti. Showing, I have to say, a connoisseur’s taste.

And the rest? A Decade of Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, With the Beatles, and Sondheim’s Assassins (a connoisseur’s taste, again). The Who Live at Leeds, the complete Columbia recordings with Miles Davis and John Coltrane playing together, U2 Live from Paris, Eric Clapton’s Layla and Assorted Love Song

s, Elton John’s Tumblewe

ed Connection, Tony Bennett At Carnegie Hall, and 21, the album for which Adele won all those Grammys.

Truly a connoisseur’s taste, and quite individual. The moral of the story? This is the audience we’re looking for — people with developed musical minds, who (unlike Alec Baldwin), haven’t yet taken to classical music. Or who already like classical music, but don’t go to concerts much, or buy many classical recordings. This is a snapshot of who these people are, what their larger tastes are in music.

Which should be obvious, right? But for many of us it isn’t. I’ve run into a lot of what I’d call classical music exceptionalism, the belief — so often passionately held — that classical music is special, that U2 may be fine, in its place, but that classical music is something people have to like, that it’s superior to the dross (musical and otherwise) of current culture. Etc., etc., etc.

We can believe that, if we like, but the people we’re trying to reach don’t believe it. To reach them, we’ll have to let them see that we value — not just understand, but value — who they are, and what their culture is.

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    • says

      Laura, good job. Very fluent writing, accessible to anyone.

      But just one thought. Do you praise the concert too much? Of course it was good playing. This is the Cleveland Orchestra. But I couldn’t quite tell, from reading you, where (for instance) the Mahler performance stood in any pantheon of Mahler performances. Alec Baldwin is very particular about which ones he liked. So did David Robertson lead a performance as good as the best we might know from recordings, or from other concerts? Or was it just quite good, though not great? Baldwin at least implicitly draws distinctions like that, and I’d love to see classical critics do it more often. It’s what smart readers from outside classical music would demand, I think. Since they make those distinctions about everything they like.

      • Laura Kennelly says

        Did I praise it too much? I just report what I hear. The readers I am writing for would consider what you suggest my doing as “showing off”–(I’ll leave those “smart readers” to attend the concerts themselves–). I think critics have an important role in “translating” experience for their readers– But I appreciate your taking the time to read it and to comment, so thanks!

  1. says

    Cross pollination of the art forms has always been a topic of concern, but also a positive challenge to fuse the crafts and the varied audiences. I think it will be easier in some ways now, with the advancement of technology and accessibility. I’ve been fusing pops and classics since 1991, but it has been slow to catch on in a larger sense–but it’s getting there now. In my own work, I’ve performed concerti with many orchestras by Lalo Schifrin, Leroy Anderson, Keith Emerson, Gershwin, and even the latest jazz infused styles in Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s music. Suffice to say, we are slowly building new audiences for the tried and true via popular repertoire choices. Pairing traditional classical with popular works has always been a good luck charm, when done appropriately. I see more and more musicians following suit. It doesn’t in any way diminish the respect for the classics, rather, infuses a fresh outlook on them. I look forward to your future posts, Greg.

  2. says

    Great post Greg!
    While I want everyone to come to concerts, I know about half will be diametrically opposed to “art music” (I’m trying this term out) no matter what we do (“law of averages”). The other half will be CURIOUS enough and wanting to try everything. Here is where there are literally MILLIONS and millions of new audience members to be discovered! We need to draw in the curious music fans and keep them curious for more art music. Those with eclectic tastes are usually found between the bars and YouTube, on college campuses and in coffeehouses… which is why the Classical Revolution (.org) movement is going there.
    I tell everyone that if we’re OPEN to inspiration, we can BECOME inspiration. The same can be said for eclecticism. If we open ourselves to other genres, we can bridge to those who live in those genres. We simply need to be more humble.

  3. says

    Well said, Greg. So many classical music promoters sell the genre as an exclusive, elevated product when the potential audience sees it as a much more fluid part of an eclectic, egalitarian continuum. It’s a great lesson for marketers who freak out about “churn” without recognizing it as part of this dynamic.

  4. says

    There’s a lot of things that classical music has that makes it exceptional, but a lot of the times it’s conveyed in a way that’s off-putting or alien to otherwise would-be converts, I think. Remember the now-discredited “Mozart Effect” studies? A lot of the times there’s a thinly-veiled implication that because I happen to listen to classical music I must be smarter or better than you in some way, and a lot of effort goes into the process of establishing that correlation. Other correlations include money, success, happiness, social-awareness, etc.

    Even in cases when an article is well-written and might have a point, a lot of it reads like a justification of the author’s taste, which usually doesn’t go too well from an argumentative point of view. And of course these correlations usually have no bearing in reality either, both scientifically and anecdotally. By nature, Americans are by in large a pragmatic bunch, so if you want people to turn their heads you’re going to have to justify it under something with more grounding. (And less snobbishness, even if it’s done politely.)

    Fortunately, there’s this thing, written by a well-respected person in Silicon Valley:

    The “composer-as-founder” correlation thing I think will fly very well, especially in today’s atmosphere where entrepreneurship tends to have a favorable opinion among the general public. Even speaking from my own experience, working as a composer and performer taught me a lot about leadership skills, team-building, working in groups, project planning, etc. and these helped me in other areas of my life.

    Pragmatism does have its own aesthetic and philosophical branch, but unfortunately classical music and the art world in general moved away from those values during the 20th century while the rest of the country stuck to it. (Maybe except in music education where Dewey’s influence still holds strong.) That would explain the huge gap we have right now between the medium and general public. The ideology of “Art for arts sake” won’t fly anymore, I don’t think. (If it ever had any real traction to begin with.)

    Alternatively we could talk about the medium in relation to the morals and values that it represents. It’s what people generally want to hear from its artists, but I haven’t seen too many musicians talk about their music in this way.

  5. Phillip says

    I think we’re mostly past “classical music exceptionalism,” at least as the current older generation of teachers and classical music leaders dies out and is completely replaced by those born after pop culture really became dominant. I’ve been a professional classical musician for 30 years now, and I really know almost no other classical musicians of my generation (born early 1960s) or later who don’t also listen to a significant amount of non-classical music and value insight and inspiration wherever they hear it. But to deny that classical music is “different” and that really experiencing it involves a different process than listening to most pop music, is just denying reality and is not ultimately going to succeed at building a much bigger audience for classical music. It’s not for “everyone” but that doesn’t mean it’s “better” or “morally superior.” It does mean that it’s (by and large) the ultimate “alternative” music in our corporatist highly-capitalistic consumer culture.

    And you refer to Alec Baldwin’s “connoisseur” taste, with what I take to be some approval. Well, what does “connoisseur” mean? For one thing, it literally means “knowledge.” As in, knowing a little something enhances your ability to perceive things, to have more capacity to absorb and appreciate, and get to the heart of the experience. Even in our consumerist culture, we’ve now developed that concept for such things as coffee, or the distinction between wines even at the $15-and-under level, or another good example, craft beers. It’s not “elitist” or a belief in the “superiority” of classical music to acknowledge that getting to know it well takes a different kind of involvement than the absorption of most pop music (length being one obvious factor, and the goal of either rhetorical development or non-developmental manipulation of blocks of time being another).

    It’s a fine line that the classical music industry must tread; I agree that it cannot act as if it is the only “legitimate” player on the block in terms of American musical culture, but it cannot pretend that it can offer the same kind of experience as pop music. It’s always going to be (not counting people that go for the “social-occasionness” of it) for people who are looking for a musical experience that asks us if there is more around us than just tangible reality. It’s the same with going to see art in a museum or gallery, or reading a challenging novel.

    • says

      “It’s not “elitist” or a belief in the “superiority” of classical music to acknowledge that getting to know it well takes a different kind of involvement than the absorption of most pop music (length being one obvious factor, and the goal of either rhetorical development or non-developmental manipulation of blocks of time being another).”

      Forgive me, Philip, but this — quoted from your comment — is classical music exceptionalism, in full flower. Afte a long professional career, more than 30 years, in both classical music and pop, I haven’t at all found what you say to be true.

      In fact, speaking now from my experience as both a pop and classical music critic — it’s generally a lot easier, and quicker, to take the measure of a new classical piece, even a long one (40 minutes or more), than it is to absorb a new pop album. The classical piece shows its spots fairly quickly. The album may well depend on subtleties in tone and texture that aren’t immediately apparent, and also may depend on relationships among songs that take a while to be heard. To cite one very quick example of what can go on: An outsider to pop, or a nonprofessional, might hear the opening of “Born to Run” and say, hey, nice sound.

      But someone who knows how music like this is put together will say, “Whoa, wait! How many layers of sound are happening here? How did they DO that? And what complexities of sound on this level am I going to encounter, moment by moment, in this song, and in all the other songs on the album?”

      And then you can spend 20 minutes understanding the full import of Springsteen’s emphasis in the first line he sings, “The screen door SLAMS.” A musical as well as verbal effect, adding weight to the rhythm, as well as to the meaning of the song. And those two things woven together, seamlessly. They don’t teach us how to analyze things like this in music school, but that doesn’t mean they’re not present.

      Like many people in our field — again, forgive me — you make much of classical music’s complexities, and ignore the ones in pop, which work very differently, but are very much there.

      • says

        And there’s something to be said about musics that can make a point in 3-5 mins rather than droning on and on for an hour — brevity is something that I think that classical music can learn from its pop counterparts. Society is moving and changing so fast now, that saying that “longer” is something good in itself is really going to test people’s patience and is not going to go over well.

        In the past (where we had less options to choose from), longer works were necessary to fill up longer periods of time for those rare occasions that you’d get to hear a live performance. Now that music is everywhere, classical music can’t really expect to have the devout, uninterrupted attention of its audience anymore. The “good ol’ days” aren’t coming back — it needs to work harder and smarter in order to stay competitive in today’s world.

        Even then — people watch movies that are 2+ hours long, some will play video games for longer periods than that, and fans will gladly pay 50-100 bucks for a ticket to go see their favorite artists. So it’s not an issue of people’s attention spans getting shorter, that they’re too dumb/lazy to “take on the challenge” of listening to classical music, or that it’s too expensive. They’re not coming because they feel like the medium doesn’t speak to them.

        A lot of the times I feel like classical musicians take their audience for granted, as if the public owes them something for what they do. If they want people’s respect, they need to figure out what exactly they’re giving to people that makes them worthy of their support. Especially if they’re getting support from tax-payer money, which seems to be the case in most areas at the moment.

        The good news is that the reasons are already there. (As mentioned in the previous comment.) The bad news is that the average person will probably never know this, at least in the way the medium is marketing itself right now. But the latter can be changed, if people want it to.

    • vicki says

      Phillip –
      Whoever you are you are spot on. Greg, I agree with your take on Alec Baldwin and many others out there like him but I have always disagreed with your unwillingness to admit an eseential difference between the listening experience of many classical works as opposed to a lot, an awful lot of pop music. Phillip explained it very well. I am also a classical musician in my 50’s who grew up listening to and dancing to r& b and rock & roll throughout my childhood. I still listen to pop music as well as jazz, etc. etc. and classical music so in that sense I agree with the fluidity of the listening continum. However, as a performing classical musician as well as a listener, they are not the same. Classical music often offers a needed alternative. Is there some “pop” that does the same – maybe. Alternative ways of experience are not a bad thing. Expanding the audience, essential. Homogeinizing so it’s all ersatz pop or whatever, I hope not!

      • says

        Homogenize classical music, so it’s some kind of ersatz pop? I’m fascinated by the nightmare worlds people conjure up, the fears they have, the horrors they think are going to be inflicted on classical music, once people in the classical world start allowing pop music some musical virtue.

        Classical music needs just the opposite. It needs to be more diverse, more challenging, more provocative. Everything that, as we presently encounter it in mainstream concert halls, it largely isn’t. Remember that we live in a world where many people love classical music because they think it’s calm, or because it offers a refuge to the allegedly horrible world outside. So then it becomes — in practice, despite the deep power of the music itself — a homogenized new kind of new age music.

        You look at the powerful people in pop music during the last 50 years — Bob Dylan, to take an obvious example. Give me someone in classical music with his unique power, his originality, his deep authenticity, his challenge to every pop, rock, and folk-music norm. And his ability to speak for his generation. Give me someone like that, and classical music will regain its rightful place at the forefront of culture.

        • John P says

          Help me out here Greg. I’ve read and reread Philip’s and Vicki’s posts and I’ve read your responses, and I keep asking myself “Did he actually read these? Or did he latch onto isolated passages from both and go on defensive rants without really capturing what it was they were quite eloquently saying?

          After sampling it for some time, I finally decided to do a deeper dive into your blog to try to better understand what you are attempting to say, but much of what I have read of your views just doesn’t seem to comport with the reality I see from where I am sitting.

          Does classical music have a declining audience? To be sure. Is it because there is something wrong with classical music (as you seem to assert with your comment about Bob Dylan)? I don’t think so, but maybe you do. Is it because classical music lovers look down at popular music lovers? Not from what I can tell, especially from reading the posts of people like Philip or Vicki above?

          I don’t think it takes a course at Juilliard to understand what is happening. Could it be that globalization has eliminated boundaries and regionalism in music? First through the marketing of world music through recordings, and then through free sharing of all kinds of music on the internet? Could it be that with a global marketplace, people have many more choices of really wonderful music of ALL types?

          Classical music, in the so-called western world anyway, enjoyed a prominent place on the musical menu up until around the middle of the 20th century. But could it be that this widening marketplace, along changes to our educational system that marginalized (and in many places, eliminated) music education in public schools set the stage for this ‘great divide’? And what of the end of that comfortable world of tonality giving way to what Bernstein called ‘the twentieth century crisis’ in music? Put some of these strands together and one might begin to trace a pathway to where classical music has ended up. (And these are just a few trends. There are numerous others that probably helped the way)

          Will classical music attain the stature it had in, say, 1960 when Leonard Bernstein was beginning to ride high in American culture? I don’t think so, and I say that as a life-long classical music lover and professional musician.

          But will it come back at all? Yes, I think it will find a niche for itself and it will find a loyal and enthusiastic following among people who discover it and find that it speaks to them, just as it does many people today. It will be around, if for no other reason, because there is a vast recorded legacy to preserve the sounds of great artists performing the great works of the genre; and even if people don’t listen to it today, the message of Beethoven, like that of Shakespeare, Picasso, Moliere, and Heironymous Bosch will be there waiting to be discovered and rediscovered by the current and future generations. (A big problem and a big challenge, as I see it, will be this: As an art with a niche following, will that be sufficient to provide the financial support for classical music in the larger forms (opera companies, symphony orchestras). Or will those larger art forms just end up as great memories preserved in some video format for the few who long to see an embalmed-in-time performance of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger or Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder? Or will we denizens of the plains have to go to movie theaters to watch Gustavo and Alan (and Fabio at the Met) lead concerts in the big city venues that can hopefully still support them?)

          Is classical music stodgy and out of touch with young people today? If you think so, try to sell that notion to the 250,000 children of El Sistema in Venezuela who seem to come naturally and enthusiastically to Mozart, Vivaldi and Bernstein and Stravinsky from the squalor of remote villages and hamlets throughout the country.

          I read and reread (and reread) Philip and Vicki’s posts and I apparently read something very different than what you seemed to pick up on. Both seem to be saying that different genres need to be approached and appreciated differently, and that in realizing this, we might just have a key (or part of the key) to understanding what is needed in bridging this gap. That really seemed to be the question you asked in your original post, and I think they both answered eloquently. Are there other answers that are also insightful and helpful. Without a doubt. But I think their point is valid and if I knew them and lived near them, I’d engage them further. I think they’re on to something.

          Just sayin . . .

          • says

            Where I part from Philip and Vicki is in any idea that classical music poses special difficulties in being understood, for instance because of the length of classical pieces, or their structural complexity. This is a common idea, and I don’t think there’s much to it. I’ve seen plenty of people without any great classical music background — thousands at a time, at the annual Bang on a Can marathons in New York — listen to long, difficult classical pieces and burst into cheers at the end. Or a rock audience in New York scream with delight at a Bach partita, played alongside one of the audience’s favorite bands.

            As for El Sistema, classical music isn’t stuffy. I mean, you might just as well say, “Ask the young women in the 19th century who went crazy for Liszt, and ran to retrieve his discarded cigar butts. (Which really happened.) It’s the presentation of classical music, and to some extent the playing, that might be stodgy today. The El Sistema kids, not encountering classical music in stuffy presentations, love it. And why shouldn’t they?

            As for Dylan, I think the very fact that — and the way in which — my point isn’t getting across shows some of the problems classical music currently has. In past centuries, classical musicians (as I said at great length in a previous response) could be iconic cultural figures, people who spoke what was in the hearts of their listeners, but which the listeners themselves didn’t know how to say. You can find reactions to Wagner that are exactly like that. To use a famous phrase from James Joyce, there were classical musicians who forged the uncreated conscience of their race.

            It’s hard, maybe impossible, to name a classical musician today who does that. Dylan did it, in the ’60s, as I’d think everyone knows. If you watch Martin Scorcese’s film about him, you’ll see people talking about what he meant in the ’60s. But you can’t seriously claim that anything in classical music can have this role now. At moments, yes, like the famous Bernstein performance of Beethoven’s Ninth after the Berlin Wall fell. But in general, classical music doesn’t have that power anymore. Did Pierre Boulez ever have it, for instance — to name a figure who’s supposed to be iconic in our time. He didn’t even have it when he was a sensational young upstart, supposedly revolutionizing music. As Philip Glass (who was in Paris during those years) once pointed out, Boulez was barely even known in Paris, outside classical music circles. The iconic names, the ones revolutionizing culture, were filmmakers, Truffaut and Godard. Which is plainly true. I was in college in those years, and those filmmakers (along with Antonioni and Fellini) were revolutionizing _my_ culture, even though classical music was my greatest cultural love. I loved it, but it didn’t change me, the way Antonioni’s films did. Boulez visited my school, and I met him, but so what? He had no force in my life.

            The people don’t understand the power I’m talking about, and how missing it is from classical music today, makes me wonder if they’re so used to classical music living in a small niche that they can’t even conceive of it ever having the kind of power Dylan (or Antonioni) had. And also that they don’t commonly have encounters with culture that changes not only their own lives, but the lives of everyone around them. The history of pop music in the past 50 years (and film) is full of moments like that. The history of classical music in that period — not.

        • says

          Sometimes I think that you just don’t have the same heartfelt relationship with classical music (however one might define it) that you do with pop music. This last comment seems a pretty good indicator. Give you someone in classical music with the unique power of Bob Dylan? Well, you forestall any response by using the word ‘unique’. Bob Dylan is unique, so there are no comparisons. Maybe Leonard Cohen? But someone in classical music with as much or more power, originality, authenticity and so on? Not too difficult. Here’s a list:

          Dmitri Shostakovich
          Andres Segovia
          Arthur Rubinstein
          Mstislav Rostropovich
          Jascha Heifetz

          But I don’t for a minute think that any kind of music has a “rightful” place at the forefront of culture. This historical moment favors pop music for lots of reasons, so it is pop music that has a rightful place at the forefront of culture. For better or worse!

          • says

            I have, actually, a more long-standing and more heartfelt relationship with classical music than I do with pop. But I don’t make a point of that here, because I shouldn’t have to. Why would I be working as hard as I do to save classical music, if I didn’t love it with all my heart?

            You’re right to flag — editorwise — my use of “unique.” And I’d flag an omission — I meant someone active now in classical music, who has the musical and cultural power of Bob Dylan. Who means as much to the wider world — or for that matter to the classical music world. You can’t possibly think that any classical musician you can name, active now, speaks the unspoken things in the hearts of classical music fans, as Dylan did for the ’60s generation. And as was widely noted at the time.

            Of the names you cited, Shostakovich is the one with Dylan-like power, the one who spoke for his time. Accounts of the audience at the Fifth Symphony premiere bear this out — Leningrad intellectuals and artists, all of them fully aware of the double meaning the symphony had.

            But Heifetz? Surely you’re joking. A powerful violinist, yes. As Virgil Thomson so memorably wrote, “The fellow could fiddle.” But in what way did Heifetz speak for his generation? Raise the people in it to new heights, speak what was in their hearts? Maybe he did that when, as a young man, he palled around with Gershwin, spent all his time at parties, and stopped practicing. I’m joking — Heifetz himself later said that was a mistake. But certainly it was a time when Heifetz, in his 20s during the jazz age, lived the life of his contemporaries.

            Rubinstein? I was raving about him to my students yesterday. Telling them, for instance, that when I went to a Rubinstein recital as a teenager, the concert hall seems to get warmer the moment he walked onstage. The man glowed. As did his playing. I assigned a video of him to the class.

            But to say he had the power of Dylan is an apple/oranges mistake — a great musician isn’t necessarily an iconic cultural figure.

            If you’re looking for classical figures who were, culturally, iconic, it’s easy to find names. Wagner, most obviously. Beethoven. Liszt and Paganini, in some ways. Rossini, the most popular (by far) composer in 19th century Europe (at least the first half of the century). Whose music made people faint dead away, if we can believe contemporary reports. Shostakovich, as I’ve said. Philip Glass, at least for a moment, when Einstein on the Beach first premiered. Elliot Carter, again for a brief moment, when the first quartet shone like a comet in the new music sky. (Something I’d say was built into the DNA of the piece, so we still hear it.)

            Stockhausen, whose biggest influence was on pop music, but who, in the late 60s, was a name to conjure with. And in fact his pop influence was a ’60s figure, not as a classical one.

            And of course John Cage.

            I’m sure I’m leaving many people out. But, Bryan, I don’t know that you understand what I mean by an iconic cultural figure, of which there are innumerable examples in the pop music of the last 50s years, and many before that. I can’t blame anyone who loves classical music for — no doubt without meaning to — inflating its depth and importance more than any reasonable logic (and available facts) would warrant. But if you understand the meaning of Dylan, and so many others in pop, it’s hard to say that just because someone is a great classical musician, they’re playing in the same league. Musically, they might be. But culturally, they most likely aren’t.

          • richard says

            And, of course, St. Miles. I think you really love the human voice, my feelings are much more ambivalent. In school, did you ever notice an instrumentalist/singer divide?. Singers are from Venus and Instrumentalist are from Mars.

  6. says

    Hi Greg,

    Good, provocative piece and lots of good comments. I’m afraid that I agree with parts of what Phillip said and with parts of your response. In order to make sense of the world of music I have had to re-define the term ‘classical’ to sometimes mean “great music that stands the test of time” and not just “music played in concert halls by orchestras and other musicians” or “music of the period 1750 to 1830.” So I have no problem with calling music by the Beatles or Bob Dylan ‘classic’. After all, this is pretty much the original meaning of the word ‘classic’. But at the same time the differences between different musics need not be obscured. You give an odd sort of example when you say:

    “it’s generally a lot easier, and quicker, to take the measure of a new classical piece, even a long one (40 minutes or more), than it is to absorb a new pop album. The classical piece shows its spots fairly quickly. The album may well depend on subtleties in tone and texture that aren’t immediately apparent, and also may depend on relationships among songs that take a while to be heard. ”

    Without citing any particular piece of new classical music, it is hard to know how to take this argument. If you are talking about some minimal music, well, maybe. But it seems as if this is a straw man. An anonymous piece of new music, perhaps by a minimalist, versus a classic by Bruce Springsteen. Oooookkkaaayyy.

    Let me offer the contrary argument: it is generally a lot easier, and quicker, to take the measure of a new pop piece by, say, Katy Perry, than it is to absorb a new classical piece by, say, Thomas Adès or Osvaldo Golijov. Katy Perry usually shows her, uh, ‘spots’ rather quickly. Isn’t what I just said a truism?

    • says

      I’ve always found Ades’s music easy to grasp at first hearing. Likewise Stockhausen and Boulez. Less so Elliott Carter, whose music grows on me greatly as I hear a piece over and over again. Golijov’s music is popcorn, which I say with great affection. Nothing difficult about it.

      When I made this statement you find so implausible, I’m speaking from decades of experience as a critic. I’ve encountered new classical pieces in live performance and on records, and heard pop albums. And had to write about all of this. The pop albums, even some that aren’t so good, took more listening to comprehend, even if all I needed to do was to write a 50-word review. The classical pieces were easy. I’m sure that some of this is because classical music is my home turf. But still, there can be cultural and aesthetic complexities in pop that Elliott Carter doesn’t dream of.

      And about minimal pieces being easy to comprehend, that hasn’t been my experience, and I’ve been hearing them since the early ’70s, when Glass and Reich were still pretty new. Take Philip’s Music in 12 Parts. To understand what’s going on with it, to grasp its full scope, takes quite a while. Most new classical pieces, in my experience, pretty much show you what they have going on in the first couple of minutes. If you think you’re not going to care about the rest, you’re probably right. I base this, again, on decades of experience, hearing new classical pieces on recordings (when you can stop listening) and live (when you can’t).

      But something like Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians — I could decide I liked it, based on the first 10 minutes or so, or decide that I didn’t. But I wouldn’t know where it was going until I heard the whole thing. Compare Stockhausen’s Mantra, a piece I’ve loved since I first heard it on records decades ago. I’ve listened to it quite a bit since, comparing more recent recordings. And I’ve learned quite a lot about its complexities, its subtleties, and the details of its large- and small-scale structures. But I still can’t say that I get much more from listening to the whole thing than I get from sampling bits of it. Heresy, if you like. Call me a philistine. But I could say much the same thing about the Schoenberg Fourth String Quartet, a piece I’ve studied, both in score and as a listener, in quite a bit of detail. Terrific piece, but not the kind of long-range listening experience that Music for 18 Musicians supplies.

  7. says

    I find all these discussions fascinating. I’m a professional jazz musician who, later in life, listens mainly to classical music. In the 1960’s I was a teenager knee deep in the jazz world who had a girlfriend who tried to get me to like Bob Dylan. I couldn’t hear it….no decent melodies, whiney voice, 3 chords, no dynamics. I was, however, very sympathetic to his image. After all it was the “60’s and i was a bohemian.
    I’ve come to realize his worth a little more as I’ve grown older and he certainly represented a generation lyrically, but I still think of him and his “pop” music ilk as indulging in performance art for teenagers. To think of comparing someone, say like Mahler to Bob Dylan musically is nonsense, they are two quite different animals. And if that’s considered an elitist point of view then sign me up! BTW isn’t Dudamel charismatic enough for the joyful promotion of classical music?

  8. Phillip says

    Thanks to those commenters above who understood and appreciated my perspective. Greg, please note I didn’t use the word “complexity” in discussing differences between classical and pop music. Ironically, when you defend the complexity in much pop music, you’re falling into the same aesthetic trap, only on behalf of the music you think is under-valued by classical insiders.

    I also never referred to “difficulty” in absorbing or experiencing classical music, only a different type of involvement. We all waste a lot of energy (and I include myself in this) making generalizations about such enormous categories as “classical” and “pop.” The Bang on a Can audiences to which you referred may not be particularly oriented towards classical music as you say, but within the context of all sorts of alternative musics, including alternative pop or whatever you want to call it, I bet many are people with “developed musical minds”–the phrase you used admiringly to describe Alec Baldwin’s musical tastes. I would add the word “open” to the kind of “musical mind” we all are looking to connect with. I toured with Reich and Glass for 20 years and have played with BOAC all-stars, etc., and I’ve seen those audiences. And I think you and I would agree there’s no reason that that audience can’t be part of a new audience for a wider array of classical music, even older classical music. But it’s also true that those are not exactly mainstream pop audiences either. When I speak of a “different level of involvement” with classical music than most short-form pop, that’s an audience that I think IS looking for that deeper involvement. Is this such a radical or necessarily elitist idea in a society where, generally, attention spans are increasingly fragmented?

    Even when you speak of a “pop album,” or “relationships between songs,” you’re already dealing with an increasingly outdated mode of pop music distribution in an age of the download of the the single song. To a young person of today, listening to an album all the way through is already a different level of involvement. So whether you are talking about a concept pop album, or alternative rock/pop, or classical music, it’s not an elitist value judgment to say that different musical experiences require different levels of listening commitment.

    If classical music is to find its place in 21st-century American society, it’s not just a matter of ranking “my complexity vs. your complexity” between classical and pop. It’s about presenting classical music as a rich resource of alternative musical experience in the midst of a dominant consumerist corporatist culture. It’s NOT for everybody, in the same way that Animal Collective is not for everybody. Contra Ryan Tanaka above, the point is not to “stay competitive in today’s world.” God forbid. Yes it’s important to respect or especially to KNOW what you call “our culture,” if only to push back against it, to offer some different, unexplored paths for the individual. Beethoven did that, Liszt did that, Schoenberg did that, Glass did that, some of the young post-BOAC composers are doing that too. All were aware and engaged with popular currents of their time while still offering a different experience.

  9. says

    Greg, I’m sorry I didn’t get back to this sooner–very busy these days! But the discussion is fascinating because, as always when people disagree, there is a lot to be learned. What I’m picking up here is a couple of things. First, I usually try to avoid getting too far into sociology and politics. I like to stick to ‘the music’. But, of course, you can’t really do that completely because music, all music, is in the world and has sociological and political aspects–often crucial ones. To go back a bit, yes, you are quite right, I did not understand what you meant by “iconic cultural figure” or, rather, I was ignoring that aspect because it is not purely musical. I do see what you mean. Well, I could pick around the edges a bit. I was around in the 60s, listening and playing music (in the second half of the 60s, at least) and for me the Beatles and Cream were the big cultural icons. Dylan, not so much. My point is just that there might not be universal agreement as to who the big cultural icons actually are. Society is no monolith.

    But that aside, another way to describe what you call iconic culural figures is to say that around certain figures in music history a mythology has grown up that idealizes and otherwise alters the reality a bit in order to fit a cultural need. Possibly the first figure in music of whom this is true is Josquin des Prez, whom the 16th century idealized. Another was Beethoven, whom the 19th century idealized. Now we have Bob Dylan, whom, out of our own cultural needs, we idealize. As you say, “a great musician isn’t necessarily an iconic cultural figure.” And vice versa, I suppose. Absolutely! Sometimes a great musician may become an icon, or develop mythical aspects, because he or she fulfills a cultural need of the time, sometimes not.

    Now here is where I come to something that you might find interesting and even useful: in the past, what we now call ‘classical’ music often performed some crucial roles in the culture. For example, Palestrina’s music was a kind of ars perfecta that was a model for the transcendent truth of the Catholic faith against the objections of the Reformation. It was in some ways at the heart of the great tensions in the society of the time. Beethoven’s music, with its revolutionary energy, was entirely in the ferment of the great changes that were happening in European society at the end of the 18th century. And so on…

    From all indicators, the music that is at the heart of the, well, if not great issues, then certainly the prevailing sensibilities, of the 21st century is pop music. No disrespect intended; by pop music I mean all that music that is not classical or jazz or world music: Katy Perry, U2, Radiohead, Lady Gaga, the whole bunch. This music is the music of our time in a way that Thomas Ades or even Philip Glass cannot be.

    The reason for this is that there was a revolution in music in the 20th century that you could trace just by record sales. At one point Van Cliburn could outsell Elvis. But very soon the sales of, eg, Beatles albums dwarfed classical music sales. This is important because where the money flows tells us something about where the social interest is. In the past, music was driven, not by commercial sales, but often by the needs of the most powerful figures in the society.

    In the 15th century certain composers were intimately involved with events central to the culture. In 1453 Constantinople fell, the last bastion of the ancient world and heir to the Roman Empire. In response to this Philip the Good of Burgundy vowed to go on a Crusade. A great banquet, the Banquet of the Oath of the Pheasant, was held and music was a central part of this event probably including a lament written by Guillaume Dufay. Also associated with Philip the Good and his successor were a number of masses built around the song L’Homme arme written by a host of composers including Antoine Busnoys, an important member of the court. This ceremonial music was hugely important in the culture.

    My point is that, if there were a true equivalent today, someone like Philip Glass or John Adams would be writing ceremonial music that would express the central issues and events our our time and culture. Adams’ opera The Death of Klinghoffer and Steve Reich’s 9/11 certainly make an attempt to do so, but while they are artistic statements, they are ones that are contested rather than accepted. I suspect that the reason for this is that contemporary art, including music, has long adopted the posture of being at odds with the mainstream culture. It is hard to imagine a composer now being associated as closely with the powerful figures in society as many were in the past. Perhaps the closest might be the role of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in the European Union. One thing we do apparently agree on is that Shostakovich was indeed a cultural icon in the Soviet Union. The interesting questions are why and how. The issues are enormously complex, which is why I usually just try and focus on the music!