About my four keys — the culture gap

Here’s the start of Jon Pareles’s review of Bob Dylan’s terrific new album, from the New York Times:

Bob Dylan’s voice isn’t getting any prettier. At 71, on his 35th studio album, “Tempest” — and a full 50 years after he released his debut album in 1962 — Mr. Dylan sings in a wheezy rasp that proudly scrapes up against its own flaws. That voice can be almost avuncular, the wry cackle of a codger who still has an eye for the ladies. But it can also be calmly implacable or utterly bleak, and it’s completely believable when Mr. Dylan sings, in “Narrow Way,” “I’m armed to the hilt, and I’m struggling hard/You won’t get out of here unscarred.”

The songs on “Tempest” are written for that voice alone — one that can switch from memory to prophecy, from joke to threat, and from romance to carnage within a line or two.

That sounds exactly right to me. And isn’t it interesting? Compelling. Wouldn’t many people — you? — want to hear someone who sounded like that?

This shows a problem classical music has. We don’t — mostly don’t know how to — make ourselves seem compelling. One reason for that seems obvious enough. In pop music, the presumption is that every artist is an individual. Unique. Writing her own music. Having something to say, and a particular tone to say it in. This can be exaggerated, especially in PR. Not everyone really has all that. (And in some genres — top 40 pop, R&B — singers might not write the songs they sing.) But the good people really are distinctive, and they’re much loved for it.

In classical music, the presumption is that the point of a performance is to realize the composer’s intentions. Immediately that mutes the individuality we’d expect — or even allow — from any musician. It’s not about you! It’s about the music you play. Even though, as anyone with any experience in our field knows, performances by artists respected for their fidelity to composers’ scores can sound very different.

We don’t encourage that, though, and the music students I’ve taught for almost two decades don’t exactly fall over themselves telling me how much their teachers encourage any personal approach. Let along singing (or playing) in a wheezy rasp! Even when — go back to my post about the start of Rite of Spring — that might be both compelling and appropriate.

Hence the first of my four keys to the future: Understand and respect the culture outside classical music. This can mean many things, but maybe the most important thing it means is to understand how much more gripping the culture outside classical music can seem. Can seem to the very people we’re trying to reach! Some of them — the ones who read newspapers, anyway — may have read the Pareles review. Or other writing like it. Some quickly resonate with what they read. And some don’t — not everyone has the same taste. But then that’s a very specific response, underlining what I said about the specificity of pop music, and the way it’s talked about. People turned off by Jon’s review can say, “I get what he’s saying, and that’s not music I’d like.”

i’m not saying that writing like that about classical music doesn’t exist. But it’s rare. So one job we have is to create such writing. Especially if you’re a performer, or a publicist, or work with an institution that wants a new audience. How do you make yourself sound as compelling as that Dylan album? And, yes, Dylan is a great artist. And a unique one. Most of us aren’t. So it’s unfair, maybe, to make this what we should compete with.

Still. Once we go out in the world to find a new audience, we find ourselves talking to people who read things like Jon’s review. What do we say that might make them care about us?

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  1. says

    ah yes, relevance. you hit it on the head making the distinction between the pop artist who writes their own material and the classical interpreter who doesn’t. the audience, thank goodness, is interested in watching people expressing themselves. as with good actors, good musical interpreters can make you suspend belief and make you think that what they are saying or playing is what they have just thought of themselves rather than something written by someone else. but the singer/songwriter breaks that 4th wall entirely and eliminates the middle man. you don’t have to suspend belief because they are the writer, expressing themselves. in the classical world, we can appreciate the art of the interpreter but it’s the composer who is really expressing themselves to us and who we believe.

    • says

      Good points, Tracy. But we shouldn’t forget that classical artists — playing music others write — are doing something extraordinary. It takes great commitment, discipline, understanding. And passion! And creativity. To follow in a composers’ footsteps, and render what they wrote. Especially a great composer. Especially a great composer from another era.

      We need to celebrate this, and those who do it shouldn’t be at all shy about saying _they_ are doing it, and that this is a creative act on their part. Not simply realizing the composers’ intentions, in some obedient or priest-like way.

      • says

        yes, of course. it’s truly an art to make shakespeare or beethoven live again in a world far removed from it’s original context. perhaps what’s lacking is the imagination in how to do that. it seems that the theater world has much less fear of setting shakespeare in contemporary new orleans or gangster chicago, but you don’t hear people playing the beethoven violin concerto on electric guitar. as with the shakespeare, if done right it might actually make it live for a contemporary audience in a compelling way. or not. but clearly real risk taking is pretty rare in the classical world.

    • Carlos Fischer says

      Greg Sandow is a very open mind person and a polite blogger ; but i should say that you have to rethink all your misconceptions on classical music ; about its composers and performers…

  2. says

    An interesting post Greg that I think raises far more questions than it answers of course.

    I remember in London during the 1970s, concerts by Berio or Stockhausen would be almost full, some sold out. These composers had a real presence, in person, in writing, in interviews, on television or when performing. Berio is one of my favourite composers but I regret to say I think much of his commentary was post-modern analysis that, for me, did not apply to the music he was describing, such as Naturale.
    Stockhausen may have fitted in because his music, and cosmic interests, came in at the time of psychedelia. However these composers were perfect examples of what Seth Godin said on his blog, that most musicians he hears all over the world are very good; very good is not enough, you have to be exceptional. I loved Berio’s concerts in spite of the post-Marxist, post-modern explaniations but you new what Berio thought. It was not the arcane intellectuality of most composers – you could understand it. In fact I disagree with what Berio and Stockhausen said because I could understand what they were saying. Berio talked about commenting on the music, then commenting on those commentaries, rather like the layers of an onion. Stockhausen, had musicians moving away and then towards the stage to show the contraction and then expansion of the universe. If you laugh at this ask yourself – have you had a piece performed by one of the best contemporary music ensembles in the world, in a sell-out concert, because that concert was?

    These are, I believe, two important points, both were exceptional composers, exceptional communicators, and they really believed everything they said. It was not attitudinising to sound cool, or to impress administrators in funding bodies (who are so jaded they can no longer be impressed).

    To use an example from share dealing, I believe it was Warren Buffett who said when everyone is selling, buy, when everyone is buying, sell. Yet apparently a common beginners’ mistake is to wait until the shares are high enough so that they know they must be worth buying. When the shares go down and they sell quickly, so they don’t lose too much money. I believe the same happens with classical music, when everyone is explaining in obscure intellectual terms how the music is composed, then every other composer does as well. If amidst all the complexity someone writes an uncomplicated work, they can’t leave it as a simple, uncomplicated melodic work, it has to be justified with a bunch of substandard theory and philosophy, stating how it is ‘innovative, ‘confronting preconceptions’, ‘how the composer dares to be different’, ‘how the composer took simple commercial music and subverted it’, and many other carefully constructed strap lines.

    The third key of your list includes “So never pander. Never struggle to be relevant. Perform music that makes your heart sing.”
    Herein is the problem I believe. Most classical composers pander to the administrators, the funding bodies and their peers.

    There is a sixth dimension that is incomprehensible, Berio and Stockhausen had it, as does Dylan of course.

    • says

      So well said, Ian. Bravo. I think — and here I speak from years of experience — that classical composers don’t consciously pander. But they emerge, as they go through their studies, and then become professionals, into an ecosystem in which their most important audience is other composers. And maybe new music performing groups. That’s who plays a most important role in getting them performances, commissions, teaching jobs, grants. So there’s great pressure to conform. Or, in other words, to do exactly the opposite of what will get you attention, get you a _real_ audience. And make your heart sing.

      • says

        so true, greg! and of course, the commercial pressure to conform is certainly true in pop music as well. most pop artists jump on a bandwagon and have great success doing so. true leaders in pop and classical are so often overlooked by the general audience because it usually doesn’t pay to be unique. unless you happen to be the token unique flavor of the month.

  3. says

    You make good points here, which have spurred many thoughts and questions!

    Do you think the avoidance of individualized interpretation of classical music is a more contemporary phenomenon? I realize musicians, conductors, music teachers, etc. strive to portray particular styles of music, reflecting the time period during which the piece was written, and convey the composer’s original intentions as closely as possible. But what of the improvisational cadenzas and virtuosic concertos that allow greater opportunity for personal showcasing? Could this element add to the compelling, individual nature of classical music performance, if these opportunities were programmed more often? Must we feel confined to express individuality strictly through our dress and, perhaps for the more bold and outgoing performers, our personality on stage?

    Competing against contemporary, pop entertainment is certainly a daunting challenge. Perhaps there is way of blurring the lines between the two? Cross-genre collaboration may provide the needed excitement and compelling nature that seems to be lacking for many potential concert-goers to classical music performances.

    • says

      You’re really onto something here. Classical performance used to be far more personal. Recordings from past eras show this. I’ve often recommended the film Carnegie Hall, a 1946 dramatic film that takes place guess where, and features performances by great stars of the era. Artur Rubinstein absolutely mesmerizing, Piatigorski playing a recital encore accompanied by six women playing harps. Ezio Pinza commanding total attention.

      But recordings from past eras will show the same thing. And before the 20th century, of course people played in personal ways. Who’d tell them not to? Pianists, just for instance, improvised preludes to pieces they played on recitals, and improvised transitions between pieces.

      Classical music should be completely open to pop music. As so many young composers are. They wouldn’t even think it was an issue worth talking about. They live in both worlds. How we do this is an important discussion, of course. But it should be done with joy.

      • says

        “How we do this is an important discussion, of course. But it should be done with joy.” Your last two lines really struck me. It brings me back to the core of the music experience – joy. Joy for the performer and audience member, really anyone involved. My dad always told me before my performances, “Catherine, just play for the music.” It reminded me to focus on the joy of music making and sharing a story through sound, as opposed to worrying about what the audience would think or making mistakes. My focus turned to the music itself and the meaning behind it, which made for a more moving performance and personal experience.

        • says

          So true, Catherine. While I’m reading blog comments today, i’m listening to the new Bob Dylan album. There’s an artist who does things entirely his way. He makes idiosyncratic albums that trace back to all the American roots music he grew up on. A friend of mine who’s deeply schooled in that points out dozens of subtle, sometimes sly references. But you don’t need to know any of that to love what Dylan’s doing now. And — to me, anyway — his music sounds completely current, completely relevant, even though it’s couched in styles of the past. Because he does it with total commitment and joy. And some nice wry humor.

  4. Andy Buelow says

    Thanks, Greg. I’m just catching up on your last three or four posts since the Berkshires. Fascinating. I will make this “required reading” for my Board members!

    • says

      Thanks so much, Andy! I’d love to know how your board reacts. Contact me privately, if you like. I’m thrilled at the response I’m getting for my latest posts, and an important next step for me is to learn more about what people who aren’t making comments here might think.