Breaking through the Cycle

December 1, 2011

Alex Ross’s Listen to This 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.


7 Responses to “Breaking through the Cycle”

  1. I like that you mentioned growing up on pop music. I think that another thing classical music has done wrong in promoting itself is the constant celebration of the child prodigy. I think that tactic has backfired by making us seem that much more elite and non-accessible. After all, if the way to succeed in this field is to have a $500,000 violin by age 12, then why bother? I think most of us came into classical music through more usual channels, and we need to talk about it more! Nicely done.

  2. […] n.b. Don’t forget to check out Alexis del Palazzo’s “Breaking the Cycle” here. […]

  3. Alan Tormey Says:

    I couldn’t agree more with Jennifer. One of things that’s not remarked enough on is the often great distance between musicians whose practice inhabits what might be called ‘classical music’ and the institutional structures that often define it. It’s not coincidental that Jennifer referred to classical music in the third person as an self-actuating entity (“[C]lassical music has done wrong…) while later referring to those “coming into” classical music in the first person “us”. ‘We’ certainly haven’t glorified the alleged child prodigy or any of the thousand other ills the classical establishment has imposed on itself. The knowledge and skills I have and ‘we’ have are valuable to many kinds of situations in many kinds of music. It often feels, however, that the shadowy ‘they’ don’t want (the semi-mythical?) ‘us’ to understand that.

  4. I remember how intimidating it was as a teenager to begin going to symphony concerts because I didn’t grow up in that environment. In fact, I still get intimidated because even though I am a trained musician, I still feel like I’m out of place as an audience member. I compare it to a lot of churches nowadays that say they’re welcome anyone, but there’s still discomfort for newbies.

    I think you can take your comment a step further, Alan and say that our knowledge and skills can be applied in many ways even outside the walls that have defined classical music. It’s a pervasive attitude which makes me strive to make every conversation I have with a non-musician count. My goal is to get people rethinking what they think they know about us musicians.

  5. wednesdaybizzare Says:

    I read your post last night and then I say this article this afternoon. I thought it kind of tied in, especially this bit:

    “Resentment directed toward a class of experience whose accessibility remains a matter of loose suppression is, in turn, the tool of social conservatives who hate public arts funding as much as they dig budget-busting tax cuts for the rich. Were we to realize a more progressive tax code, America might even be able to establish a public arts infrastructure that could more easily do without the ego-boosting contributions from the likes of the Koch family. In the meantime, we can take a page from Adbusters’ “every dollar spent is a vote” ethos and decide what do with the $20 bills that we do control. Among the populist moves the Met has made in recent years is its “Live in HD” program, beamed to movie theaters in areas of the country that may not have so many top-flight opera houses currently operating. Though apt to pursue safe programming bets that sate the desire of traditional opera fans, the Met’s administration places the occasional bet on a piece of radical culture like Satyagraha, which played in movie theaters on November 19th. That broadcast will have an encore next Wednesday, December 7th. It’s a good time to be reminded that not all forms of cultural occupation necessitate standing out in the cold.”

  6. Laura Lentz Says:

    thanks for your insightful post. I think you raise an important issue about access, which the occupy movement has definitely made more a part of public discourse these past months. I’d like to share a post from Alex Ross’s blog, which shares a video of occupy protesters outside the met last night.

  7. Laura Lentz Says:

    On a related note, this from Occupy Broadway, taking place tonight:

    In a time when downtown theaters are rapidly losing their spaces, being turned into high-end fashion stores, Occupy Broadway is a symbolic attempt to regain the space of theatre as an accessible, popular art form, bringing it back to where it all started – in a public space, for the common citizen. We are using public space to create a more colorful image of what our streets could look like, with public performances, art, and music.

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