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.