Thursday, September 27, 2007

I've been a big 19th century snob

Let me first apologize for my ballooning posts. Maybe the next one will be shorter. Maybe its length is part of a cyclical pattern, a sinusoidal one.

After reading Sarah's post, I realized that I am a total snob. A relic of the 19th century. I kept thinking about cultivating an audience. It's interesting because the strategy of these kinds of outreach is to reach a bigger, more diverse audience, to put it bluntly, to increase “sample size” to get more “hits.” I had an immediate, involuntary, adverse reaction to this. But why? I then realized that I had only thought about cultivating an audience. I kept thinking that education was necessary. But then again there are geniuses who don't seem to need education at all. There are many famous pianists who cite seeing even one performance of a famous pianist as a child as the major catalyst for their interest in music. When they started out, they didn't know anything at all about the mechanics of music. It was just good music. It's interesting because in my piano pedagogy class, we are talking about teaching methods that don't destroy a child's natural talent and in fact cultivate them. Musical feeling is often obfuscated and blocked by academic learning, so that there are approaches like Dalcroze that try to get back to the root of music. I think the quote from Ratatouille, “anyone can cook,” is very fitting.

And again, my attitude toward the Tchaikovsky performance, I thought that Symphony Hall would be better off if such performances never occurred. But who am I to judge the performance if the audience enjoyed it? To live in a market society, one must please the public. But then there are the critics that will bash the performance in the paper. But who will read it? Who will care? People who agree with the critic's assessment will probably not bother reading the review anyway. It is only important to the soloist who is trying to build a career within the established classical music institution.

But this (not necessarily but often) does set up a conflict between public taste and some standard of musical judgment, and I believe there are fundamental aspects of that standard that are not relative, being based on human psychology and psychoacoustics. One interesting view on this conflict is given by Aynn Rand, who expounds her philosophy in the novel, Fountainhead. Which basically says to be selfish, don't give in to the crowd, never compromise.

But what actually constitutes artistic integrity? I think there are actually many artificial constructions mixed into the concept of artistic integrity that were created by the classical music institution, mostly, I think, resulting from ignorance, inertia, and a self-preserving motivation. Like, “oh, only Beethoven is good music,” or something. My approach to music, at least, is to try to make great art. But I also believe popular art can be considered great art, or anything can be considered great art. I believe the requirement for great art is for a human to have a strong expressive intention, the ability or skill to realize that intention in some medium, and the motivation to actually execute it. As I am a fan of Japanese manga, I totally see a few examples of great literature in the comic medium, great expressive urges shining through. And they are popular, they are the most loved of the comic literature. Being a popular medium, the manga deal with themes that are accessible to the audience, and if they are accessible, maybe the audience is able to detect the human intention, the effort, the life behind it.

Maybe that's how art should be judged? (I would love to hear about different criteria if people have them) There are pieces of classical music that cannot considered great art to the extent that some manga can be considered great art, but nonetheless are accepted because they are part of that idiom. In a sense, the machinery for judging classical music has become more unwieldy than that for popular music. With popular music, if the masses like it, it's good. But with the classical music world, there are traditions, and preconceptions. The pressure is enormous to play correctly in order to be accepted. It has disconnected music from human feeling, which I think is what the nostalgia for rowdy audiences signifies. Glenn Gould actually seems to have an audience among some jazz listeners, since they cite the presence of a “beat” in his playing. Even though his playing was unconventional, there are certain musical truths in it that appeal to people.

One possibility to circumvent this is to appeal directly to the populus. This is the approach of Lang Lang and sellouts like Yanni (though I am not grouping them in the same category). Another is to change the content of what we play, to make the content more accessible, something the audience can relate to. But why change what we play? It's unsettling to depart from the established musical canon, but there is no good artistic reason not to. Maybe to specialize? If you are a good artist, your artist intent is obviously strong, so why not explore different means of expression through music, since our instrument is our skill? To be solely a classical musician is to bar yourself from a lot of great music. It's basically Yo-Yo Ma's approach, and like everyone and their ma knows Yo-Yo =P. I am still afraid of this thought, though. It's like I'm in new territory, and there's so much I don't know...

1 comment:

Aska said...

I agree with Richard that we should explore more rather than specializing on only one aspect of music. My major is the violin, but to complement my ability of playing this instrument, I should do other things. For example, learning how to play viola, because to play viola, I have to know more. I think that learning other things will reflect on your work. For example, if one conducts or plays in the symphonies by Shostakovich, he or she will come back to Shostakovich’s violin concertos and play them very differently. So, now is the time to for us to explore Baroque violin, electric violin, jazz improviasation, etc!