Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Against the Grain

Recently I've come across a couple of stated opinions that make my own off beat tastes in music seem pretty mild mannered, and want to bookmark them here on the blog.

Here's a review of a new music concert, apparently meant to be le denier cri in hipness. The concluding paragraph reads:

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that art music necessarily has to entertain, but it does need to engage its audience. The music presented in this concert would be unintelligible to all but the most select and die-hard audience, and by now isn’t it obvious that such complexity only obscures the intended meaning, and that the implied depth is only superficial? As a performer I also know how exhilarating performing technically challenging music can be, but as an audience member it was about as engaging as watching a seven-year-old shred on Guitar Hero.

Stuff like this has got to be part of the reason audiences are staying away from art music in droves. A couple of evenings like this could really put you off going to concerts, as there's the feeling the composers are out to baffle you more than engage you as a way of demonstrating their superior artiness, or whatever; and that the performers care more about showing off their technique than connecting with people in the audience.

And here's composer Arnold Rosner (discovered via Kyle Gann) talking about a big chunk of the canon:

Do I dislike them all - Boccherini, Gluck, Haydn, early Beethoven? Yes, I do, but Mozart deserves a special place. It is not true that he is the worst of all composers; his prodigious technical skills developed by age six. Sometimes it is not so great to be a prodigy, - I often feel his emotional and dramatic palette is set at the same age. Rather he is the most overrated composer of them all. The difference between the (mediocre) quality of his music and the (celestial) reverance he is accorded is a gulf simply beyond belief.

There's always been something about Mozart's music I can't put my finger on. It has amazing Apollonian clarity and tunefulness, but a lot of it, the way it's usually played, sort of bores me (Mitsuko Uchida being the major exception). That Mozart's emotional palette may have been set early in life is an interesting way to think about it.


  1. With Mozart, you need to realise that he died when he was only 35. These days, at 35 a composer is barely considered to be qualified to wear long trousers. Mozart is the music of a young man, and reflects the emotions of a young man.

    For the most part it is not particularly reflective music, because young people mostly aren't very reflective, they are too busy getting on with enjoying their life and their youth.

    Most pop music is also written and performed by young people, and usually has the same lack of reflectiveness. That doesn't stop lots of people liking it. And you'll find that many pop songs have harmonies that pretty strictly follow how Mozart did it.

    With anything more complex than 2-minute slices of pop music, you do need to spend time getting used to it. Bach, Mozart, Mahler and Ligeti are all different, but each is as much of an acquired taste as the others. It is just that Mahler is more familiar to us through John Williams and others doing quite similar things in lots of film music. When going to films, we hear the music even if we don't consciously take it in at the time.

    And yet Mahler's popularity is a relatively recent phenomenon of the last 30 years or so. In Mahler's own time, he was far better known as a conductor than as a composer, and he wasn't all that highly rated as a composer.

    Some people just don't acquire a taste for particular types of music. My interest in Bach is fairly minimal. It just doesn't do a lot for me. But that might be because I heard far less of it back when I was young than I did of the great classical and romantic orchestral repertoire. So I understand the idiom less well.

    I'm told (though I have little or no experience of it myself) that those who have become familiar with the 12-tone idiom can find some 12-tone pieces gut-wrenchingly emotional and expressive.

    So for any individual to say that he doesn't like the music of a particular composer or period probably means little more than that the idiom doesn't happen to grab him. We need to be careful not to assume that our own personal preferences either can or should be generalised into universal and objective measures of quality.

  2. Jonathan - That comment is surely worth a post/essay over on your own blog! You're saying a lot of things I hadn't thought of before, but seem perfectly evident once heard.

    For me, in the background of everything you're saying is the need for the performances to connect with the audiences. How do you help people acquire tastes for the various flavors of classical music? And these days there's the question of how to help develop the taste for classical music in general, much less individual composers.

    I've often had the idea of concerts offering a broader menu of music, but people like A C Douglas, and perhaps a lot of others, would probably be horrified by programing John Williams at a "classical" concert.

    Lots to think about - thanks as always.

  3. There is absolutely no reason why John Williams shouldn't be programmed in a classical concert. I've played Williams several times - the Star Wars theme, Harry Potter, and other items. They are fine tunes and very evocative.

    And people will come to listen to them. So if you put something a bit less well known in the concert beside it, then you are introducing new music to the audience. And its better still if in the programme notes you can tell the audience of some way in which the Williams is linked to the other piece, in terms of times, places or influences.

    On the UK radio station Classic FM, they used to have a programme called "if you like that, you'll like this". Each week, the presenter would have a guest, somebody not particularly familiar with classical music. The guest had told him ahead of the show about some piece or pieces of music that he liked, and during the show the presenter would put on other pieces that the guest didn't know but might appeal to his taste. Sometimes the guest liked the piece and sometimes he didn't, and they would talk about why.

    Classical concerts do need to get audiences in. To be willing to come to a concert, people generally have to be assured that there will be at least one piece that they know they will enjoy. So, whenever I'm asked for my views on programming for any local orchestra I'm in, I say that it's very important that every concert contains at least one disgustingly popular work. That is the hook for the audience, and then we can develop the rest of the programme more as we wish.

  4. Jonathan - Just finished doing that sidebar for Timepiece and am computered out for the day! Will get back to this wonderful comment of yours in due course, if only to zing you for "disgustingly popular"! I realize you probably meant it tongue in cheek, but for way to many musicians that's a very real concept, which creates the double bind of wanting people to come hear them, but feeling contaminated by playing too much of what would pull them in. You can't have it both ways. (Double binds are what the shrinks used to say caused schizophrenia back last millennium before all the genetics got discovered.)
    That radio show sounds like something Greg Sandow should know about. Sounds like a great tool.

  5. As you might guess from reading the tribute to my father, "disgustingly popular" was one of his phrases, delivered with an absolutely straight face. And yes, he was perfectly well aware of the double-bind it alludes to.

    But that double-bind applies only to purists. I am not a purist. I enjoy connecting with the audience, and the choice of what music to play is part of that connection. You have to have an audience first before you can connect with it.

    So for instance, in the SCWE concerts last summer we had Mozart and Brahms on the programme. They helped pull the audience in. We were then able to present them with other works that they might also like - including Timepiece. And it worked!

  6. Touché!


    Crushed in the slopendicular vise of Westian intellect.

    No Mas!