Saturday, February 24, 2007

Embracing the way "classical music" is changing

In light of all of the things I have been reading about the death of classical music, I have no choice but to acknowledge the way musical reality has changed during the last 100 years, and since I am in this musical life for the duration, I have chosen to look at the positive ways classical music has changed and is continuing to change. The alternative is to accept what is only a commercial death, in a world where success is often measured in money, as the death of an aural picture of the human experience throughout recorded history, and something I feel is the ultimate vehicle for personal expression and interaction. Here are a few things I choose to be positive about:

1. Tonality is back, but our attitude towards tonality is different from the way it was before atonality, for a short time, became the only acceptable musical language to use when writing new "classical" music. Musical possibilities have exploded exponentially because of what we have learned from dodecophiles and experimental composers who dared, and still dare, to think "out of the box." We also claim to be a post gender and post ethnic society, which reflects the attitudes (at least the attitudes that we acknowledge ) we have towards our composers.

2. We have access to more music than we have ever had before, or really we should have. It is not even possible anymore to know all of the literature from the Classical Period (c. 1730-1820), because there is so much music from that period (as well as its outer edges like Scarlatti and J.C. Bach at the front and the people who kept the classical spirit alive in the middle and later 19th century at the back) available on recordings. The powers that label periods have even pushed the beginning of the classical period back to 1730. We used to think it started in 1750. Thirty years ago we learned musicians all thought we knew the classical literature, but now we know that we only saw and heard the very tip of the iceberg. Music from the Renaissance and the Middle Ages that took lifetimes of research to find and transcribe is now published in modern notation, and record labels have made special efforts to record as much of it as possible. If you want to hear something by Alfonso X, all you have to do is click on a mouse. If you want to buy the recording, it will make it to your doorstep in a day or two. And then there's Youtube.

3. Maybe it is because of better teaching, sharing of information, better student instruments, or more available practice time, but there are an awful lot of young people who play extremely well. There are more excellent young players around than when I was a teenager thirty years ago. Because of this population explosion among musicians, there are a huge number of extremely good professional chamber music groups that have been able to record, tour successfully, and live up to the claims of their promotional material. Classical music no longer means "orchestral music."

4. There are people who have chosen to specialize on "unusual" instruments like the bass clarinet or the contrabassoon, and there are musicians who have have created ensembles that have unusual combinations of instruments. In order to have music to play they have to commission music from composers. If that isn't progress, I don't know what is. And it is great for those of us who enjoy the challenge of writing music for new combinations of instruments.

5. The commercial classical recording "industry" is in bad shape, but recordings are things. Actually recordings are quickly losing their "thing" status and becoming sequences of computer data. There is a whole lot of music making that never sees the inside of a recording studio and never gets marketed as either a thing or a sequence of computer data. Maybe some day in the not-too-distant future young people will find the idea of hearing unamplified music in a live performance space something novel, interesting, and meaningful. Maybe fifty years from now we will all laugh at the thought of people only listening to music by way of MP3 files on ipods. Maybe people will wake up and realize that amplified sounds are inferior to acoustic sounds. Maybe, when they find that digital experience is no longer as meaningful as the music "industry" led them to believe it should be, people who were not exposed to live music when they were young will search for substance in their lives and start seeking out live performances.

Pope: Hope springs eternal in the human breast.
Heraclitus: The only thing that is permanent is change.


Thorance said...

Well said! Classical music is not dying. As a student in a rural high school band that played Tocatta Marziale by Vaughan Williams last year and recieved a Superior at contest, I can tell you youth are at least still interested in playing in a wind ensamble.

Elaine Fine said...

Thanks Thorance! And congratulations to you and your wind ensemble.

Anonymous said...

for people who really love classical music, it never died. yes, it might be dead commercially but within our hearts it has always been alive and an important part of our lives.

Chandler Branch said...

What an insightful and encouraging post. Thank you for this post, and for making the distinction between classical music as an industry and as a human expression/experience. I share your optimism that classical music is not dead and that it is not going to die. It, like so many other things impacted by the digital age and popular culture in general, is changing. And I, too, wonder if there will one day be a renaissance of interest in live, acoustic music-making, which will fill the seats of our concert halls. Digital music may eventually become so pervasive and ubiquitous that live music will grab and hold our attention, both as an industry and an aesthetic, as powerfully as it did for previous generations.

Chandler Branch, Exe. Dir.
Soli Deo Gloria