“Stupid, vulgar, and insane” – Alan Tormey on Alex Ross

December 6, 2011

NSFW!  (Information on the above can be found @third man records) 

FYI, Jennifer Borkowski is my new blog crush. If you haven’t yet had a chance to read her fantastic post from yesterday, click here.  I’d like to take this post and just write about all the right-on stuff in her essay, but I feel that I already pulled a bit of a bait-and-switch last time by writing more about Brian Eno than Alex Ross. I would hate to gain a reputation as the site’s master baiter.  So, here’s part two:

“[Classical music is] a tenaciously living art…”

What is it that’s tenaciously living?  Is it the repertoire itself? Is it the act of playing orchestral instruments?  Is it the act of writing and/or playing music through the means of traditional notation? Is the curatorial gravity of the music’s presentational institutions?  Classical music, whatever it might be, is not a thing-in-itself but, rather, a category that emerges when performance, composition, and culture intersect. Because classical music is not a thing, but an outcome of an intersection, I don’t know what kind of music he’s talking about when he talks about…

“Music in the spirit of Beethoven”

What is the spirit of Beethoven and do I need to utilize my extensive analytic outline in order to find out? (BTW, if you buy me a drink I’ll explain why I think that Trent Reznor is probably the person from my lifetime whose work most closely follows a Beethovenian model.)

The full quotation reads “[The term ‘classical music’] cancels out the possibility that music in the spirit of Beethoven could still be created today.” I think the sentence is intended to mean that contemporary musicians who work in a ‘classical’ medium have a hard time being properly recognized and/or taken seriously because the term imposes antiquated patina onto the music. However, I have a real problem with his use of the word “spirit” when it seems, in context, that he really means something closer to manner or, perhaps, tradition. As I read it, the paragraph suggests that in order for “music in the spirit of Beethoven [to] still be created today,” the trappings of classical music are required.

I’m going to do what I did last time and opt out of writing through my extensive outline that analyzes the characteristics that Beethoven’s spirit might comprise. Instead, I’ll point out that tonight’s Great Performances features Andrea Bocelli, Celine Dion, and David Foster and then suggest that the trappings of classical music are not a sufficient precondition to the spirit of Beethoven.

“I envy jazz.”

This is a bit of a cheat.  Ross, of course, said that he envied the terminology of jazz discourse.  But frankly, I’d rather save my envy for music that has a significant audience.  If anything, jazz’s audience problem is even more acute than classical music’s (except, perhaps, for jazz’s lower overhead costs).  The average age of a jazz listener increased by 17 years over the 26year period between 1982 and 2008 according to a 2009 NEA study. That means (approximately) that for every two listeners who die or give up on jazz, only 1 starts listening. Furthermore, according to the RIAA, classical music outsold jazz in 2008 (the last year for which I could find statistics) by the largest margin between the two in at least a decade.

“For at least a century…”

Most of the intelligent thoughts I have on this chapter (i.e. the ones not published here) seem like a pale reflection of Christopher Small’s Musicking: the meaning of performing and listening, which details, among other things, how this “at least a century” came to be.  It’s probably one of the best books you’ll ever read.

“manufacture[d] self-esteem”

I love this phrase. It makes me want to disparage the youth (see below).

“[music is] stupid, vulgar, and insane”

That was, BTW, an actual Mozart theme, including lyrics. FWIW, I take pride in the fact that I’m the reason Princeton has an Insane Clown Posse collection.

“The best music is the music that persuades us that there is no other music in the world.”

And speaking of the Insane Clown Posse… after one of their albums, you may never want to listen to any music ever again.  Therefore, what we take away from our blogging project is that Alex Ross says that the Insane Clown Posse is the best music in the world.

“Composers are artists, not etiquette columnists.”

Things might be better if we were.

“When people hear “classical” they think ‘dead”…Yet the same story was told forty, sixty, eighty years ago.  Stereo Review wrote in 1969, ‘Fewer classical records are being sold because people are dying…’”

As Jennifer Borkowski said yesterday, just because we’ve heard it before doesn’t mean much of anything. But, unlike how the youth of each new generation are always held to be lazier and dumber than their elders were at that age and unlike how, in the words of Mike + the Mechanics “Every generation blames the one before,” repetition does not make it untrue.  In the 1950s or 60s, a phrase like ‘classical music is dying’ probably meant that a city like Louisville, KY couldn’t support a full-time opera company.  Now it means that the Philadelphia Orchestra, the PHILADELPHIA ORCHESTRA – one of the greatest performance groups to ever exist in the history of mankind – is insolvent.

“The American classical audience is assumed to be a moribund crowd of the old, the white, the rich, and the bored.”

Ross follows this up with an attempt to debunk the supposed affluence of the classical audience. Whether or not he’s right, the debunking is done so poorly so problematic (a rarity for Ross) that I don’t have the strength to respond to it now that my coffee has run out.  I bring it up only in order to fulfill the ‘one-fifth’ portion of ‘the first three and one-fifth paragraphs” that I promised to discuss.

One Response to ““Stupid, vulgar, and insane” – Alan Tormey on Alex Ross”

  1. JW Says:

    I feel like “stupid, vulgar, and insane – Alan Tormey on Alex Ross” is the PERFECT title for this s̶t̶u̶p̶i̶d̶ “problematic” post.

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