Sunday, June 12, 2011

Natural Selection in Music

This is an edited (and expanded) version of a comment I put on Mixed Meters today. It's another post-mortem about classical music. I'm not sure why I feel the need to respond to these claims (which have been made ad-nauseum elsewhere), but it's a Sunday morning, and I have the rest of the day to occupy myself with feeding the hungry musical beast (i.e. practicing and writing).

There used to be a self-selection method to keep music contemporary. Most of it wasn't written down during the Middle Ages. The stuff that was published during the Renaissance was written in notation that changed, so it became virtually useless until the 20th century when people figured out how to read it and decided to make modern editions. Monarchs held onto their libraries during what we call the Baroque period (which made a lot of music inaccessible--like music by Vivaldi), and after the keepers of the libraries died pages would get moldy, would get destroyed by fire, or would be used to wrap fish.

A few astute people kept the good stuff safe and in good condition, and made sure that it made its way into the hands and ears of the best later 18th-century composers, even though it had gone completely out of fashion. (I'm talking about Bach, Handel, Baron von Swieten, Mozart, and Haydn here.)

Most of the early 19th century was devoid of Baroque elements, but when Schumann et al went and published Bach's music (for the first time), it had a resurgence among musicians. Audiences (non musicians) didn't get their "Renaissance" until the 20th century, when people started making recordings.

The preservation and study of old music became a whole field of music (that would be musicology), and we now have more music from the past at our fingertips than any intelligent musician could dream of having. And more is coming.

The past is vast, but the present is now. The audience for music (any and all music including "classical music") has a far greater proportion of people who do not have a functional grasp of the materials of music or the proximity to performances to experience it without using some form of electrical energy to get it to reach their ears. We now have music critics who don't have practical experience as practicing, composing, or performing musicians, and, like me we have people writing about music without a "gatekeeper" to decide if what we say has validity.

I don't believe it's worth the time I could be spending learning new (to me) Renaissance, Baroque music, or new 19th and 20th-century music, practicing my instruments, writing music, or writing blog posts, to dwell on whether the music I care about is living or dying.

I'm long past hoping that more than a healthy handful of people will share my views on anything, and I'm grateful that these people still read blogs.


docker said...

Elaine: I really like the phrase "The past is vast." Let's hope the future is even vaster.

I can't think of another art form as burdened by the past as classical music is. There are countless recordings of centuries of pieces which we're all supposed to know. There are huge institutions to support an orchestra ensemble whose instrumentation hasn't changed meaningfully in over a century. Musicologists dig up more manuscripts for ensembles to record. Conservatories turn out more and more graduates for which jobs? Most fans of classical music seem to be turned around facing into the past.

Okay, that bothers me a lot. But there must be something back there in the music of the past that people want. Surveys have shown that the #1 reason people listen to classical music is because it's ... relaxing. Right now, just for the sake of this post, I tuned in to - guess what I happened to tune in on ... Beethoven #9.

I changed the channel - I've sworn never to listen to that piece again ever. But somewhere, even this very second, someone is listening to Beethoven's Ninth for the very first time and they are incredibly moved by it. I would not have it otherwise. But if that person lives his or her entire life thinking that one particular piece is the most meaningful music can ever ever be, then I must conclude that listening to a live performance of it is like seeing a painting in a museum. Museums are where we keep the hallowed, dead art.

Actually, I can go beyond suggesting that classical music is a form of museum. I can suggest that it is form of Church - but if I did that I'd be here all night. Church of Beethoven anyone? (Yes, it's real.)

Elaine Fine said...

How about visual art? That is as burdened by the past as music. How about poetry? How about literature? How about plays?

There is a far longer "record" since musical notation has only been around for less than a millennium.

The thing about music is it happens everywhere, especially "classical music." It happens in private places, in little towns, and it happens in apartments in big cities. It is about doing.

docker said...

Sure, those arts all have burdensome pasts (burdens to the living creators who are expected to know about all of them), but only classical music pairs new works with old ones. A new symphony is never going to be as well received as the Beethoven symphony on the second half of the concert. And the audience really is there to hear Beethoven - again. A theater company doesn't have to produce Shakespeare to stay in business.

Also, those other arts have essential narrative story lines which can be used to make commentary on timely issues; i.e. to make them lively. Music is essentially abstract - unless words are added. You'd never know what La Mer or Penderecki's Threnody were about except for the titles (which were both added after the music was finished).

As for "music is about doing" - that's true ... if you're a musician. I have decided to go off in a corner and do my own music in whatever way I please, a luxury afforded by modern technology.

Mostly, however, music is fueled by listeners. Musicians who want to earn a living doing music have to produce something listeners want to hear. Listening to music is just about the most passive artistic activity I can think of - more so than even watching television (which requires that you keep your eyes open).

I'm not suggesting that classical music will disappear because it's no longer a living art form (IMO). (Although symphonies seem to be going out of business left and right.) I am suggesting that classical music is an art form focused primarily on the past. In my estimation, that's not a healthy situation.

Elaine Fine said...

The number of musicians who want to earn a living by doing music is far greater than the number of musicians who actually do, even if they produce something that people want to hear.

Oddly, I have played concerts that have combined Beethoven symphonies with newer music, and people have enjoyed the juxtaposition. What each listener prefers has a great deal to do with the interpretation of the individual work, and not the work itself. I have found that audiences tend to respond to the degree of engagement that performing musicians have in what they are doing. If musicians are engaged, audiences will be. Whether a given population has the wherewithal (financial and otherwise) to support its local performing organizations is another story.

Live music, particularly of the "classical kind" has to compete with other forms of entertainment. Where I live there is a larger audience for church services and activities, pancake breakfasts, school sports events, 4-H events, and bingo games than there ever would be for a classical concert. I have no interest in attending those events, and I do most of my professional playing out of town.

Another note: I find it sad to think that anyone would consider listening to a piece of music as a passive activity.