Making the old new (1)

One of my recurrent thoughts is that classical music (you’ve read it here) has to become a contemporary art. And in two recent posts — here and here — I’ve blogged about concerts that seemed to do that.

But they did it largely by playing new music. How can older classical music — all those familiar masterworks — sound contemporary? Because most of the time they don’t.

Or let me qualify that. Most performances of works from the classical canon live — or at least I think so — in temporal limbo. They don’t sound like music of the past, not the way, if you read Dickens or Dante or Proust, you know right from the first sentence that these writers aren’t writing now. These performances don’t sound old, but they also don’t sound new, because they don’t reflect (in tangible or intangible ways) the world we live in.

classical masters library blogOr let me qualify that. They sound like they come from a little bubble in our world, the classical music bubble. Hardly anyone, hearing them, wouldn’t immediately, right from the first phrase, say “Classical music!” And maybe their strongest expressive component (or certainly one of their strongest ones) is an unspoken but almost tangible subtext, that says “This is classical music.” What comes through strongly, quite apart from any expressive intention the composer or performers might have, or any sound or flow built into the music, is everybody’s very strong understanding that they’re playing classical music, and that this is special, important, even venerated.

It’s hard to help putting that into your playing, because it’s a mindset hardly any of us can help forming, since we’re told, throughout our classical music education, that classical music is special, important, and venerated. I’m not saying there aren’t performances that are free from this. A new recording of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto by Stewart Goodyear (about to be released) might be an example, as are all of René Jacobs’ recordings of Mozart operas, and of Handel’s Rinaldo. (That last one is very hard to find these days. Sad.)

But so many classical performances I hear seem very strongly to reflect the view so many people in the field seem to have of the music we love. It’s not to be taken casually, not to be played with any wild impulse, needs to be played with technical precision, and needs not to depart from what we imagine the intentions of its composers were.

So how — given all that — can classical masterworks burst out as fellow citizens of our present world?

Stay tuned.

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  1. says

    All true! But those of us in the business must remember that to someone who has just learned to listen to music – just discovered how to give it their undivided attention and notice musical detail – all classical music, be it Bach or Pärt, sounds new. And this is true whether that person is 16 or 60. It is especially true of little children. For them – all music is new whether it was conceived yesterday or one thousand years ago.

    For me personally, discovering a Scarlatti sonata I didn’t know before is just as exciting as the premiere of a new work. I remember Maestro Bernstein saying to the members of the New York Philharmonic about the Copland Third Symphony which he was rehearsing with them in 1975: “This sounds just as fresh as when Aaron wrote it!” I hadn’t been born yet in 1946, but the work totally overwhelmed me in 1975, when I encountered it for the first time at that rehearsal.

    George Marriner Maull

  2. MWnyc says

    … everybody’s very strong understanding that they’re playing classical music, and that this is special, important, even venerated.

    Yes, Greg. That’s it.

    Classical music’s basic problem in this country – to greatly oversimplify it – is that, with the rise of youth-oriented culture beginning in the 1960s, it became completely uncool. The very embodiment of uncoolness. And since, as we know, Baby Boomers want to be Forever Young and HATE to acknowledge getting older*, they’ve generally been unwilling to reconsider opinions about what is and isn’t cool.

    What made classical music uncool? I think a lot of it was the reverence with which it was treated by the previous generation. Listen to the intro voiceovers for some old NBC Symphony or NBC Opera Theater broadcasts. Sometimes they could be pompous, and even when they weren’t, the piety was cringeworthy.

    That piety and reverence are still with us, if not as heavily. We all get it from our music teachers, starting from our first year of lessons, and a lot of us psychologically depend on it to cope with being overworked and underpaid and all the other sacrifices that come with being seriously involved with music.

    That’s fair enough, but reverence (as opposed to respect) and piety are generally seen as uncool.

    Bang on a Can and its alt-classical descendants are cool in part because they’re serious without being pious.

    – – – – –
    * How much do Baby Boomers hate to acknowledge getting older? Well, when I was growing up, age 60 was never referred to as midlife or even late middle age; now it’s routinely referred to that way.

  3. Brian says

    Great to read, Greg. For what it’s worth, I’m trying to free our audiences from the bondage of concert “convention” (polite applause, etc.) and really respond to what’s happening. In some ways, it’s starting to turn could be the corner.

    Recently, we (QCWE) had the opportunity to play a concert set twice: one for the home crowd and one for a much more critical one (the Iowa Bandmasters). So much of that second concert was at a different level. We played well both times, but the second time around I guess we were comfortable enough with each other to take lots more chances with the music. One audience member turned to his seat mate after the opening tune (Machu Picchu–City in the Sky, by a young Japanese composer) and said, “That’s a definition of ‘balls to the wall’ playing.” We through in an encore (an old chestnut, Karl King’s Barnum and Bailey’s Favorite, in which we’d explored every nuance, playing it just about as perfectly as it could be done. A friend in the crowd told me, “I’ve never enjoyed a King march until today.”

    Oddly enough, I was talking to my (new) girlfriend today about inspiration, especially in the mind’s eye of someone like Furtwangler (she’s a non-musician but is enamored with what I do). There were times in our performance, as in many of his, that showed some pretty wild impulses, like when I told the ensemble to just play the Hindemith “March” instead of trying to finesse it (my fault entirely). Juiced the tempo and the “big moment”–that unexpected fortissimo–just exploded.

    I guess I’m to the point where I’m no longer afraid of taking chances. What’s there to lose? Next I have to get the ensemble out of the monkey suits. I don’t wear one (have a cool Nehru jacket that’s really comfy); why should they? Because we’ve always done it that way? Hrumph. Thanks for the thought-provoking words. I can’t wait for more….

  4. says

    Yes, yes, yes! You’ve hit the nail on the head. I’m absolutely in awe of the chops of our modern performers, but that virtuosity is sometimes wasted in blind obedience to the score. The view that the music is somehow timeless and thus unalterable leaves it trapped in a weird bubble somewhere between the past and present and relevant to neither.

    I think you’re already answering your own question about the solution…that classical music needs to played with MORE wild impulse, LESS slavery to technical precision, and SHOULD be allowed to depart from what the composer might have intended.

    One of the best examples of this I’ve seen recently was accordionist William Schimmel’s performance of Beethoven’s Overture to Egmont on the Mostly Mozart Festival in Aug 2013. He certainly retained the bulk of the music intact, but he also improvised significant sections, freeing himself from have to play all the notes as written, and ultimately creating a new work that sounded entirely modern but grounded in the past.

    Perhaps a classical accordionist has an advantage since there’s so little of the canon written directly for the instrument that they have to arrange for themselves. For most classical instruments though, the how of the answer isn’t so simple since it probably will depend on conservatories starting to teach the students to play with more flexibility, more creativity, more improvisation, and fewer limitations on style. This would be quite a sea change for most teachers and won’t be accomplished overnight.

    • ariel says

      One cannot imagine anything worse than
      this accordion transcription unless it
      be an orchestra of kazoos .Mr. Flint must
      be joking …if not ,.. what a sad state of affairs,
      I was aware that the Mostly Mozart series
      had problems but to be forced to resort to
      accordion transcriptions defies explanation.
      It amounts to slamming shut the door of a hen house and calling the resulting squawking cacophony harmonious music.
      The theory given is so convoluted as to give
      one pause for any future of what is called
      classical music .

      • says

        I assure you I am completely serious. If you are not open to expanding the definition of classical music, then the loss is all yours, my friend. This interpretation may not be your cup of tea, but I assure you I was not alone in being captivated by the performance. Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times wrote:

        “This was no gimmick. Yes, the piece is a novelty, charming and sometimes funny. But amid stretches of faithful rendering, Mr. Schimmel offers a bold gloss on the overture that makes you think about Beethoven’s music…..The slow, somber introduction to Beethoven’s “Egmont” Overture translated vibrantly to the accordion in Mr. Schimmel’s rendering. The introduction’s theme in stern, short chords sounded at once strange and endearing as played in reedy colors on the accordion. Passages in the original where the orchestra swells with sound were easily dispatched by the accordion’s bellows. During the agitated main section of the overture, stretches of hard-driving rhythms morphed into an intense tango. A plaintive passage took on a mournful Middle Eastern cast.
        At one point, the piece broke into what seemed like subdued flamenco, complete with Mr. Schimmel’s soft, wordless singing. His arrangement of the overture was in the honored tradition of Liszt’s piano fantasias on themes from opera.”

        If you watch the performance on YouTube and it still offends you, fair enough. But let’s not resort to the tired trope of making accordion jokes and throwing insults. The rest of us are moving on.

        Full review here:

        and video here:

        • ariel says

          Mr. Fl int declares himself to be quite serious,and goes so far as to quote a review from the nytimes music writer in hopes of giving weight to his
          thoughts .What Mr. Tommasini
          writes on music interests me
          not at all .much less carry any weight though some people
          may differ . In his
          reference to Liszt he forgets
          to mention that Mr Schimmel
          ain’t no Franz Liszt however well he plays the accordion.
          There are people who pay good money to watch cars crash into each other and there are people who find
          the accordion an interesting
          instrument, I once attended an accordion orchestra recital and if you haven’t
          heard an accordion orchestra
          play the William Tell you have no idea what it can do to your psyche . I was in an agitated state for weeks .
          There was no slight intended
          and am sorry you interpret it that way , my thought being
          instead of dragging everything down to the level
          of novelty why not teach to aspire to a higher level of
          understanding. The question
          moving on to where ?

          • says

            Clearly Mr. Ariel is descending to the level of trolling here. Our opinions differ on this matter. We don’t even agree on the definitions of music and novelty. Given the gap between us, I think it’s best to end this conversation here.

  5. says

    Thanks for your thoughtful writing. I’m fairly new to this blog, but I don’t think I have seen much if any discussion of the effects of academia on our beloved “classical” music. I’m really talking about the deepest level of effects: those resulting from what amounted to an essential takeover and assumption of custodianship dating back to maybe the 1920s.

    The proliferation of and mandatory requirement of professional music degrees beginning around that time has had a chilling effect on the opportunity for classically derived music to remain in touch with any contemporary time period. And the refusal by so many to discuss this without calling into question whether or not this assumption of custodianship even occurred, or at the very least, why one might consider it a bad thing, keeps the focus on some or other specific problem which may need to be addressed, rather than on the much larger picture of what happens when the creative arts are “taught” as part of the curriculum of colleges and universities.

    It wasn’t always so. Until the early twentieth century, the academic world correctly (in my view,) held that the teaching of any of the creative arts was not within the purview of the college or university. Of course, the history and theory of these arts was a different story, and there were degrees in musicology, history, theory, etc. But outside of the conservatory, there were no special degrees like B.M. M.M. D.M.A. etc.

    We need to explore the implications of what happens to these art forms when they are subjected to the assumptions, mindset, and politics of the academic world, as they have been for about a hundred years now. And, I would submit, we need to explore the implications of a possible radical severing of ties between artists and the corporate academic “professional” environment.

    • says

      Thanks, Glenn. I think one result of the academic influence here has been putting analysis in the foreground of classical music study. So that, first, the complexity of classical music is considered to be one of its defining points. Leading then to the idea that people don’t listen to it because they haven’t been educated to understand it. Which is a wonderful way to intimidate potential listeners!

      Even worse, though, is the idea (which very educated musicians may explicitly favor, and which lurks in the back of the mind even for musicians who aren’t academically inclined) that the deepest meaning of a piece lies in its structure. As opposed to the way the piece functions as a human endeavor, encompassing expression, inspiration, entertainment, communication, community (cultural and subcultural). And also its largest function, which (to use James Joyce’s expression) is to “forge the uncreated conscience of [our] race.” If we’re to believe the academics, at least the old-style ones, no uncreated consciences will be forged until everyone learns to understand sonata form.

      Academics have made a positive contribution, though. The New Musicologists (does anyone call them that anymore, after so many years?) went after all the old assumptions, clearing a lot of intellectual ground for a healthier understanding of classical music.

  6. says

    I am inclined to think that the problem of making classical performance relevant is unsolvable due to an inherent trait that makes classical music “classical.” There is something about classical music that makes it precisely removed from everyday life. For example, compare Chopin waltzes to Strauss waltzes. Strauss composes great waltzes while Chopin composes great classical music. The Chopin is more of a commentary on an emotional experience rather than being the visceral experience itself. (Perhaps this abstracting is a trait of music itself. Compare shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater to singing “Fire!” in a crowded theater. In any case, classical music seems to be an intensified or extreme version of this effect.) I like this quality and therefore prefer classical music in most of my listening and nearly 100% of my concert going, but it does not seem to be relevant today due to the current cultural temperament and education issues. The problem is unlikely to be solved by pianists using even more hair gel on their spiky haircuts, rolling their eyes further back in their head as they flare their nostrils ever wider as they play Chopin. New music, vivid performances of all music, new venues and formats – all good things for their own sake, but not enough to overcome widespread indifference to the core values of the classical music genre. Hoping I’m wrong . . .

  7. ariel says

    The exchange between Mr. Hardy and Mr. Sandow is illuminating, it brings to mind a picture of two tango dancers artfully
    maneuvering the dance floor careful not
    to trod on any obstacles (thoughts ) lying on the floor that might upset the premise of
    their dance.For Mr. Hardy to assume much of what he believes is the fault of academia
    does not hold . Conservatories can be as rigid and uncompromising as universities .
    Mr. Sandow in his response is of course the more adroit dancer .

  8. FCM-NZM says

    Greg, there is a lot more to be written and thought about here, by all parts of our “industry.” But we have paucity of tools to do that, largely due to the leadership of music teaching institutions. Professors at music schools and conservatories tend to be composer/analysts or historians. They teach a normative, text-centered history, which becomes ontological (adopted as the “way things are”) to the students. If you have been taught your whole life to resurrect a historical object, and then find yourself performing in an environment which counts missed notes (the audition industrial complex), who could blame you for playing something in a way that has no bearing to the present! Is there a SINGLE conservatory which teaches a course dealing with the textuality of recordings?

    We graduate hundreds of performers with tonal analysis and positivist historical perspectives into the field, with absolutely NO sociological or ethnographic perspectives. So they have no critical apparatus to deal with audiences or what would be modern interactions.

    We have to ditch the cult of perfection and the cult of genre. Well, we probably won’t. Unfortunately, the educational leaders in the field will feel only a slight shudder as things collapse on the outside… perhaps a dramatic re-orientation of education (through forums like this) might be possible.

  9. Adam says

    I’m a 22 year old male engineering student with a fairly broad taste in music, so I guess I’m part of your “target audience”. I’ve had a few thoughts about the state of “classical music” floating around in my head for years in a nascent state, and I’ll try to put ’em all down for you.

    1) I’m am more or less uninterested in the vast majority of music composed more than 50 years ago. Art is a form of expression, and therefore communication, and can also be interpreted as a dialog. From my perspective, going back through the history of the dialog seems fairly pointless when one can, with moderate effort and exertion, jump into the dialog midstream and be exposed to a wealth of the most contemporary, refined revisions of that dialog.

    2) I’m an outlier. Most of the people who like classical music and are my age prefer the older stuff. That’s okay, of course, and maybe it’s a result of aggressive indoctrination by the classical music establishment and maybe “if only they heard some Glass!” they’d be converted, but I sort of doubt it, given that most relevant modern composers are less immediately appreciable than the old masters. The obvious exceptions, as you’ve raised before, of video game, television, and film composers, are a good point, but from a artistic perspective strike me as a path of limited utility. I could be wrong, I’m no expert in music, but my impression is that John Williams is not saying much of anything new in most of his scores. Expertly composed pop, to be sure, but not really any more novel or innovative than Katy Perry.

    Now, the question of your goals comes into play. Is the goal to preserve the business model of the Orchestra? If that’s the goal, then pretty clearly the way forward involves more “Video Game Music” concerts, more “Film Score nights”, etc.

    Is the goal to facilitate the furtherance of the musical dialog? In that case, it seems to me the appropriate methodology is to abandon the live performance of music altogether and move to synthesizers which are rapidly asymptoting to indistinguishable from the “real deal”. I imagine to many of you that seems defeatist or saddening, but what is the value of live music? Really?

    3) which leads me to my next point. Live orchestral music is absurdly expensive. Opera more-so. I enjoy a good bit of orchestral music. But $30 face-value corner-nosebleeds are hardly conducive to drawing me in. And those tickets were fairly cheap by the standards of most classical music/opera I’ve looked into. I’m not saying the prices are unfair, or that they don’t represent the costs of putting on the show, but I question the cost of the show itself. Music needs to get itself out of these stodgy cathedrals and into venues that can open their doors for $15×100 attendees, without massive private/public patronage. The ushered, facilitated, well lit, classically decorated environment of classical music halls only seems integral to the experience of the music itself because of the geriatrics that require it. Obviously My $1500 example makes it tough to pay your musicians, but given the massive surplus of classically trained/training musicians on the market, I would imagine it wouldn’t be too hard to find musicians willing to work for (metaphorical) peanuts.

    4) The atmosphere and culture of classical music presentation is (generally) stodgy, oppressive, instantly suspicious of those without canes, and more than a little snooty.

    5) Because the classical music programming is by and for geriatrics, the programming is generally shorter, less challenging, and less interesting than it otherwise could be.

    6) Like I said, I’m an outlier, and you’d probably get more butts in seats if you just put a boombox with Four Seasons on stage and charge $5 for seats. I just don’t think that’d advance the art in a signficant manner, and I’m not sure the fanbase you’d build would do anything more than sustain the system rather than the innovation.

    I don’t have any good answers. It really is a problem that a lot of art has been facing over the last 50 years. From what I can see (a vast oversimplification to be sure) the avant garde has been pushing further and further from aestheticism in rejection of it, and public perception of modern art has suffered. Is that a bad thing? probably, yeah. Does the bad mean the dialog of the art has been “wrong” or something of that nature? I think not, but I don’t have any good answers as to how expensive art that isn’t appealing to a mass audience can survive without government subsidy (and government subsidy of unpopular art is always at risk of drying up).

    Maybe what art music really needs is a bad-faith revival of aestheticism and romanticism and all those other isms that produce pretty music that people like to hum.

  10. says

    I’m afraid that in my dotage, I feel increasingly like Ned Rorem when he wrote 46 years ago, in his celebrated article on the Beatles, “It’s hard still to care whether some virtuoso tonight will perform the Moonlight Sonata a bit better or a bit worse than another virtuoso performed it last night.” That could be because of too many performances that sound all-but-identical, like watching the same movie over and over. I mean, I love “The Searchers,” but can only watch it once per year or so. Greg and others have spotlighted one of the main reasons for this: the excessive reverence the great composers and great works are accorded. How many times have we heard performers claim to be “merely the vessel through which the great works speak,” then been bored with the result? Though this may come across as blasphemy in some quarters, I really don’t mind if classical performers place themselves on equal footing with the works they play, if not in front of them. That way, we’re more likely to get a performance that is a living, breathing drama, rather than a musical autopsy. Didn’t many of the greats themselves treat their own works, as well as those of others, in this more personal, less formal manner? It would also help if, when a performer of unique abilities and charisma comes along — I’m thinking especially of Lang Lang — the critics would celebrate his virtues rather than slap him down for his supposed excesses. He happens to be an entertainer, as well as a first-class musician. I case I don’t make myself clear, I think that’s a good thing. The critics may scoff, but I saw the smile on my then-12-year old daughter’s face when he played Mendelssohn at Tanglewood. I’m on her side.

  11. Saul Davis says

    I am offended by the shallowness of these ideas. Great music is TIMELESS, and so is a great performance. Sadly, most musicians fall far short. Few can be considered artists. It takes a great deal more depth than playing well enough to maintain a career to be an artist. It is sad that these basic concepts are so forgotten already. They were alive and well in my 1960s childhood. Critics and writers have an obligation to maintain such standards. Their collective failure in perception is what has led to the decline of their profession. Who needs to read them?

    • Brian says

      I too am a “child of the 1960s,” although my formative years were probably a decade later. That’s when I began to hear live performances of some of the amazing ensembles (Cleveland and Philadelphia in one month’s time!) our nation boasted at that time. My very first Mahler “experience” was a live performance. My very first opera “experience” was a live performance (Carmen). In many ways I got turned onto the overall classical idiom and eventually became a conductor. My love for my art has not lessened, but my concern for my art is as great as it has ever been.

      Several generations of potential listeners (our consumers if you will) have been raised on sound bites, made-for-radio tunes no longer than 2:30 (how many times did we really hear the full 9-minute version of “Hey Jude” in our youth?), tweets, and other social media. They (whoever “they” are) don’t get the “timeless” argument involving the repertoire nor the performances of it. We have to meet our consumers more than halfway if we are to get them to once again “buy” our product. My experience? The hardest thing is to get them in the door; we need to deconstruct any and all barriers to the experience.

      Once “they” have arrived, I’d wager that the majority of them will get hooked. And this I speak from experience in a general music classroom full of socially and economically “challenged” 12-year-olds who couldn’t get enough of Mozart and Beethoven. It’s all in how you sell it….

      I await future installments from Mr. Sandow with baited breath.

    • says

      I would respectfully disagree that great music is timeless. “Great” music is only considered great because of the values and tastes of a given people at a given time. In a different era and culture that same music may be completely disregarded.

      For example, millions may enjoy and value a performance by a Chinese opera singer. But I may just not understand or enjoy it due to my radically different cultural upbringing.

      Or I could attend the Met’s performance of Wozzeck and be completely blown away. But if you were able to transport Abbess Hildegard of Bingen from the 1000s to that performance, she might not get it at all and might well consider it satanic.

      It’s a common fallacy that music is some sort of universal language. In fact, it is fairly closely tied to culture. Even in our increasingly globalized world, there are still significant gaps between groups and people regarding music.

    • MWnyc says

      “I am offended by the shallowness of these ideas. Great music is TIMELESS, and so is a great performance. … It is sad that these basic concepts are so forgotten already. They were alive and well in my 1960s childhood.”

      That, I’m afraid, is just the sort of piety- mixed with in-my-day-we-had-STANDARDS snobbery – that made classical music seem hopelessly uncool to countless educated and intelligent people over the last 50 years, and that attitude continues to intimidate or repel newcomers to classical music to this day.

      These days that piety and snobbery comes far more from audience members than from classical music institutions themselves. I think part of the institutions’ collective paralysis is fear of alienating existing subscribers and (especially) donors who cling to that piety and snobbery.