Here are three reaction posts on the first chapter from Alex Ross's latest book, Listen To This. The posts are from Jennifer Borkowski, Alexis Del Palazzo and myself, all flutist-authors with Innovative Ideas in Performance and Pedagogy (IPAP), found at http://innovativeperformanceandpedagogy.wordpress.com/
Breaking through the Cycle
by Alexis Del Palazzo
Originally posted on IPAP on December 1, 2011 http://innovativeperformanceandpedagogy.wordpress.com/author/sensibleflutist/
Alex Ross’s Listen to This (http://www.therestisnoise.com/2010/01/listen-to-this.html) is a collection of essays that examines music across multiple genres and seeks to escape the confines of the “classical music” label. The first chapter crosses the border from classical to pop – factors that affect this crossing include societal traditions, values and education. Going from classical to pop is the direction the author took; however, this essay can resonate with anyone that loves music and came to classical music via a different path.
Composers are always paving the path for the future even if they don’t realize it. Beethoven could not have known that his Eroica symphony would still be performed some 200 years later and as we cycle through the stages evident in all musical genres, from youthful rebellion to retrenchment (an excellent point made in this chapter), we can argue the same for popular music and all its sub-genres.
In reading this chapter, I became curious about the cultural values that have encouraged or discouraged the creation of classical music. Mr. Ross states that he feels he would be more at home in the 1930s and 40s, since his listening patterns matched that time more than his own coming of age in the 70s and 80s. So why is there a difference? I feel that our education system and its emphasis on standardization play a large role in answering this question.
I had a conversation recently with a woman who recognized the importance of music education for her children. This conversation reaffirmed my opinion that the public music education system is depriving our children from realizing their creative potential. Playing pieces of music whether they are contemporary or from the past allows children to explore different musical languages and they get to know the music through performance. I myself came to appreciate classical music through performance. Cutting music and art programs in our schools deprive our children of the ability to explore different art forms.
Unlike Mr. Ross, I grew up on a steady diet of popular music. The first time a relative played a Wagner CD for me, I defiantly resisted. I thought music without words was horrible; however, my brother’s participation in high school band intrigued me and I chose the flute when I was old enough to be in band. Band music was my first foray into our great American tradition but I didn’t really begin to appreciate music of the past until the summer before my senior year of high school when I attended a music festival. That summer taught me about the past; however, I’m now looking towards the future. To retain and ensure an audience for the music of the past, we must change how we perform and how we treat our audiences. My goal is to push through the stage where we’re fighting for survival.
Current practices of audience etiquette, music education, performance practice and expected education levels all detract from the music. Ross makes a good point that most people nowadays will have some classical music in their playlists, but they claim ignorance beyond this. Music appreciation classes help develop listeners into informed listeners hopefully with tools that they can utilize to explore music for the rest of their lives.
How can we push past the social clichés? Allow the audience to participate. Keep music education in the schools and value private instruction, get rid of the seriousness on stage and perform with uninhibited artistic expression. Our attitude about classical music, or the music of the past, has led to two camps. One camp clings to the past and hopes for a retrenchment of past glory while the other camp stands in the future and isn’t afraid to change the institution if they have to.
Music is music. I approached Listen to This without any expectation. The first chapter helps you understand that the doomsday thoughts about classical music has been around for years while providing a solid argument for you to determine what you value most about the art and pursue it with passion. If you think of music as music, each style aligns itself with a segment of the population. The great thing about classical music is that it transcends nationalistic boundaries. Classical music allows composers the freedom to join together all that which influences them in the compositional process.
The label and the seriousness it suggests doesn’t help us. By examining not only classical composers but popular music artists, perhaps we can gain new insights into what will help classical music overcome the perpetual cycle and reinvent itself.
On “Listen to This”
by Jennifer Borkowski
Originally posted on IPAP on December 5, 2011 (http://innovativeperformanceandpedagogy.wordpress.com/author/jbflute/)
When thinking about my response to Alex Ross’ Listen to This, the main thing that hit me about it is that I’d heard it all before, but hearing it before has not resulted in any lasting changes in the way we present symphonic classical music to the public. We are “other” and often “uppity” members of society, misunderstood yet arrogant in the way we insist that others get our music. We haven’t gotten it, that people don’t want to be preached to about what “good” music is, or told that what they like isn’t “high art.” In America, orchestras are dropping like flies. And you know what, it is change or die.
Theodor Adorno wrote a similar essay, On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening in 1938 and still not much has changed. Please, when you’re finished here, take a look at it.
Alex Ross writes about the deadening of classical music and how we moved from rioting and tomato throwing to behaving as a refined yet terribly boring group of people.
Classical concerts began to take on cultlike aspects. The written score became a sacred object; improvisation was gradually phased out. Concert halls grew quiet and reserved. […] Many composers liked the fact that the public was quieting down […] They began to write with a silent, well-schooled crowd in mind.1
Well schooled is the real problem. Being too well-schooled has taken away our edge and our real power. I’m using well-schooled here meaning well-behaved and proper, and it isn’t an automatic substitute for intelligent or thoughtful.
Adorno preceded this:
Perfect, immaculate performance in the latest style preserves the work at the price of its definitive reification. It presents it as already complete from the very first note. The performance sounds like its own phonograph record. The dynamic is so predetermined that there are no longer any tensions at all.2
Aldous Huxley has raised the question of who, in a place of amusement, is really being amused. With the same justice, it can be asked whom music for entertainment still entertains. Rather, it seems to complement the reduction of people to silence, the dying out of speech as an expression, the inability to communicate at all. […] If nobody can any longer speak, then certainly nobody can any longer listen.3
Moving on from these problems of dead concerts, ineffective outreach and stifled communication, let’s look at some possible remedies. How can we get people to speak about music, so that they can listen?
Eric Booth4 gave an assignment to a Juilliard class to get on a New York City bus and talk to someone about classical music. How’s that for direct? Get out there and talk about it. Make some sort of connection when you’re an accessible human being, not in your tux or gown. (Why do we need to perform in formal attire anyway?)
About many symphonic performances, audiences are bored, but no more bored than the members of the orchestra. Alex Ross complains of this, I don’t like it either.
In a recent talk at Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Mass., Eric Booth offered some more examples of involving audiences in the process. I’ll paraphrase a few.
Members of the Philadelphia Orchestra stood up and spoke for three minutes before the performance about some personal connection to the concert, not about the piece, but about how it affected them personally. Besides connecting the audience to the piece, the benefit was a bit more hidden. The orchestra was not told beforehand who would be speaking. So while they were waiting on stage, these previously lifeless bodies were animated, looking around trying to guess who it would be. They reacted like normal people that the audience had a better chance of connecting to, rather than lifeless bodies simply waiting for a downbeat.
Booth talked about another performance. Instead of the open rehearsal, a string quartet did a “very open rehearsal.” In this, the audience gets to stop and say, "I don’t know what’s really going on here." The musicians have to then articulate what it is they are doing. So instead of 90 minutes of perfection without any connection, they connected first and involved them more deeply. They spent the 90 minutes rehearsing and discussing just one movement. When they finally ran the movement through, the public erupted in applause. I believe that they understood so much more of the piece. They were probably rooting for the quartet to play well, since they had gotten to know them. People who were studying the piece and knew it already had more insight into the musician’s decision making process. People who had never heard it before understood why the piece was important to the performers. They involved everybody.
These ideas are just a few to demonstrate how we might connect with audiences without dumbing down. On the contrary, these ideas ask us to be more involved as thinkers, not just musicians.
Adding some afterthoughts on education, Harry Partch will finish this essay..
Traditions remain undisturbed when we say: let us improve ourselves; let us become better pianists, teachers, conductors, better composers. They remain undisturbed when we say: let us increase the knowledge and appreciation of “good” music. Traditions remain undisturbed, uninvestigated, and therefore a culture of music based upon such palpably noble precepts is already senile […] A phalanx of good pianists, good teachers, good composers, and ‘good’ music no more creates a spirit of investigation and a vital age in music than good grades in school create a spirit of investigation and a body of thinking citizens. […] Good grades in school are the result of a less commendable ability, and no aspect of the musical scene could be more depressing than the prospect that those with the ability to get good grades in school, to copy others, to absorb and apply traditions with facility, shall hold the fort of ‘good’ music.5
It is not difficult for the alert student to acquire the traditional techniques. Under the pressures of study these are unconsciously and all too easily absorbed. The extent to which an individual can resist being blindly led by tradition is a good measure of his vitality.6
1. Ross, Alex, Listen to This, Farrar, Straus and Giroud, New York, 2010, P. 12
2. Adorno, Theodor, The Culture Industry; selected essays on mass culture, Routledge Classics, New York, 1991, p. 30
3. Ibid, p. 30
5. Harry P A R T C H, Original Preface to “Genesis of a Music”, (1947) University of Wisconsin Press, http://musicmavericks.publicradio.org/features/archive_genesis.html, Retrieved February 25, 2008
Laura Lentz on Alex Ross
Originally posted on IPAP on December 7, 2011
There are a lot of rules and regulations surrounding classical music, and a lot of these are very recent inventions. People don’t realize that. –Alex Ross
Alex Ross <http://www.therestisnoise.com/> ’s opening essay in Listen to This subtitled Crossing the Border from Classical to Pop, has got me thinking a lot about the culture surrounding classical music.
Mr. Ross describes the present culture as “mediocre elitism” which seems to have begun within the past century with atonal music which defined classical music as more of a theoretical exercise. At the same time, there grew a wonderful mish-mash of new genres which would appear over the years. Blues, jazz, rock, and pop, all became more a part of popular culture and promised more possibility to engage and relate to the music. Over time, classical music became something we needed a degree to decipher. It became inaccessible. Classical music wasn’t of the people any longer, and it started to have new rules and regulations.
Conductor and composer Rob Kapilow, creator of What Makes it Great? (http://www.robkapilow.com/wmigreat.shtml) a touring series that combines lecture, concert and Q&A, looks to make classical music more engaging to the general public. His project, he says, is to make the music accessible, to get people to ‘get it.’ He adds that, “There is a lot of stuff around the music that is not about the music. People will say, ‘It’s so puckered up!’ The clapping thing is a big deal.”
Imagine this scene from the 19th century, from Listen to This:
Concerts were eclectic hootenannies in which opera arias collided with chunks of sonatas and concertos. Barrel-organ grinders carried the best-known classical melodies out into the streets, where they were blended with folk tunes. Audiences regularly made their feelings known by applauding or calling out when the music was playing.
Quite different than what we experience today. Mr. Kapilow adds that Beethoven would have been horrified if the end of a movement didn’t get applause. Critic Greg Sandow says that our present style of performance, with silence and formal dress, puts a frame around the music that says, “Something very important is happening here,” and you, the audience, aren’t a part of it. We’ve ignored the real meaning that classical works from the past had when they were new, in particular for pieces written at a time when composers expected performers to improvise, and the audience was expected to react by clapping or cheering as they felt.
Classical music unfortunately has created the image of an art that is stuffy, lacking in passion and remote from contemporary society. In Rebirth, the Future of Classical Music, Mr. Sandow suggests that classical music must become a contemporary art and part of contemporary life in order to breathe life into classical music once again. I enjoy his observation that all contemporary music, outside of classical music, has a beat—and perhaps this may be why it doesn’t sound like contemporary life. The question is, how do we make classical music become a part of contemporary life? Mr. Ross’s crossing the border into pop music gives us some new possibilities to consider.
How can we work to make classical music more a part of contemporary society and change the culture surrounding it?
We need look no further than to some of the trail-blazing classical performances taking place in our communities. In particular, we should look to the smaller ensembles that are playing new, contemporary classical music, or are presenting the “classics” combining music, drama, art, dance and other art forms. Some that come to mind are ICE, Bang on a Can, Fifth House Ensemble, and Alarm Will Sound. And then there’s Classical Revolution (http://www.facebook.com/classicalrev), live chamber music for the people in over 20 cities across the United States and Europe, hosting performances in coffeehouses, cafes and other nontraditional venues. Then there are groups blending genres, crossing the border from classical into pop and beyond.
There’s the Wordless Music (http://wordlessmusic.org/) series that puts classical pieces on concert programs with leading New York indie rock bands and has many sold-out concerts. The Pittsburgh-based Eclectic Laboratory Chamber Orchestra (http://elco-orchestra.webs.com/), of which I’ve been fortunate to be a member, fuses classical and pop music effortlessly, with orchestral arrangements of popular music, jazz improvisation, and other genres blended in to each concert. The San Francisco Classical Voice (http://www.sfcv.org/article/freelance-orchestras-seizing-the-moment) recently featured several small freelance orchestras who are performing in nontraditional venues — rock clubs, churches, college auditoriums — rather than concert halls, and frequently playing nonstandard repertoire, ranging from contemporary postclassical music to pop covers. Groups like Boston Modern Orchestra Project, A Far Cry, and The Knights are some to watch.
Using technology can be another way classical music can fit more into contemporary society, and one very innovative idea in recent days is that tweeters (http://news.cincinnati.com/article/20111118/ENT03/111190315/Symphony-tweet-music-their-ears) are now welcome at the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s concerts. TweetSeats are an area in the theater for those who wish to communicate about the concert in real time. Another possible way to capitalize on technology could be for music groups to offer video casts, as a way to reach more audiences and create a new revenue stream at the same time.
The role of social media as a tool for classical musicians and organizations can’t be underestimated. The San Francisco Classical Voice ran a recent post titled “Simply Connect: The Rise of Social Media in the Arts" (http://www.sfcv.org/article/simply-connect-the-rise-of-social-media-in-the-arts), which discusses the benefits of social media as a means to boost, expand and communicate with audiences. Social media provides a kind of backstage access, revealing more than what goes on behind the scenes. It lets people feel more engaged, and not only in the end result, says Janet Cowperthwaite, managing director for the Kronos Quartet, but in the concert, the recording, and the process in getting there.
Thinking outside the box, beyond the typical concert setting, reaching audiences in new ways like this is brilliant. It looks at contemporary society and puts pieces of the puzzle together. The more we can connect with contemporary society, the more we can change the culture surrounding classical music.
The three commentaries above were originally posted on Innovative Ideas in Performance and Pedagogy (http://innovativeperformanceandpedagogy.wordpress.com) and reprinted with permission by the authors ©2011