Saturday, October 2, 2010

Half Full or Half Empty?

I'm aware that the world does contain pessimists--those "when I was a kid" types who reminisce about the happy past and moan about an impending Armageddon. But why does classical music seem to attract doom-and-gloomers to an extent that few other art forms do? Sometimes I feel like the trump of doom is sounding at full force both from within and from without. Pop culture calls classical music a dying genre for a dying generation, and even music critics--so-called "supporters" of the art--forecast decline. (Example: "A new dark age [may be] descending upon humanity that could wipe out even the memory of classical music. Will this future come to pass? It’s impossible to say, however, the current direction the orchestral side of classical music is heading seems to be one of near extinction. . ." The Partial Observer) Such an outlook certainly isn't new, but membership in these self-destructive ranks is now widening to include classical musicians and composers themselves.

I'll never forget an assembly at Arizona State University where a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer delivered a speech to the student body that began like this: "We all know that classical music is dying--that cheap entertainment is desensitizing audiences and killing art. Nobody wants new classical music. Nobody needs new classical musicians. This is the world in which your generation must learn to live." Is it really? I do feel like most classical musicians (even the brightest, most ambitiously optimistic!) see their art form as an "endangered species." Why? And based on what--antiquated, 19th-century assumptions? It was so refreshing to read Cook's statement in Chapter 3 of his short introduction to music: "There is no reason for saying that classical music as a whole is in a state of crisis. Classical music is not dead, probably not even dying. But what has kept it alive is a dramatic transformation of its role--a transformation [that] has been barely acknowledged in academic writing. In other words, if there is a crisis in classical music, is not in the music, but in our ways of thinking about it."

The time is ripe for discussion, and the better able we are to deconstruct our 19th-century assumptions, the better able we will be to see the future of classical music in an optimistic light. I did some sleuthing around on the internet, and although I ran into a lot of doom-and-gloomers, I also found a heartening number of classical music optimists out there! (You can click on the links below to read the full articles or just glance over the excerpts I've posted.) Fellow idealists: Enjoy!

"As a major record label, I believe we have an obligation to make recordings that are relevant. And to me relevance means that people actually listen to our recordings. If the public does not respond, that is an indication that we have done something wrong. When we release that rare standard repertoire recording that is truly brilliant and extraordinarily different from what is already available, we find that the public does respond. Evgeny Kissin's first recordings ever of the Beethoven Piano Concertos, which we just recently released, is already making an enormous impression. So, even though we haven't completely given up on standard repertoire recordings, we've been obliged to broaden our artistic horizons dramatically. And I think that ultimately this is the good news that has come out of the crisis facing the classical record industry. Because rather than drift towards commercial oblivion with new recordings of old music that don't sell, we have started doing something about it. The effort is paying off with a surge of compositional creativity that I believe will benefit the entire classical musical world and audiences, in particular, for many years to come."

Education is the Future of Classical Music

"During the past decade, reports about the impending death of classical music have arrived with such regularity that doom-saying is practically a full-time activity for several arts journalists. Today's pop culture, they say, combined with the serious decline of music education in many school districts — has built a society in which classical music is terra incognita to most people. While debates go on about the future of classical music, there are encouraging signs of life in this art form all over the globe. Some of the optimism is generated by classical-music downloads, which have taken off like a rocket as symphony orchestras launch their own private music labels and offer both downloads and live streaming on the Internet. Never has so much classical music been so widely accessible: a trip to YouTube will let you see and hear great performers of the past and present singing arias, playing piano preludes and conducting orchestras."

"Here at home, Seattle Opera did a demonstration of the opera segment they're taking to the kids: a scaled-down, colloquial-English version of the first act of Wagner's mighty "Ring." The presentation had everyone riveted, as the three young "Rhinemaidens" teased and taunted the ugly dwarf who was later to take a revenge that corrupted and ultimately ended the world. The parallels to contemporary playground bullying were scarily clear. Аs long as music education — that is, education about all music, playing all instruments — can be brought back to thrive in our schools, kids will have the right to choose what they love to hear and play, and the means to do both with intelligence and good training."


Sharlee said...

Hooray for the optimists of the world!

To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of the death of classical music have been greatly exaggerated.

Brent said...

ok, so i've been a bit confused about something regarding classical music and you're probably the perfect person to ask. What is the difference between classical music and other instrumental music? i thought that "classical" referred to a time period beginning i forget when and ending with beethoven, who led us into the "romantic" time period. but that would mean that romantic era music isn't classical, and i've certainly heard it referred to as classical music. and this would of course mean that classical music has no future at all, except for being remembered and appreciated. But i get the impression that in discussing the future of classical music you are talking about NEW classical music. But even if some new instrumental music can be called "classical," other new instrumental music will not warrant that name, and will be called something else.

So i guess this is just a really long-winded question about how we pigeon-hole music into genres in general, and what specific characteristics of a piece of music will land it in the pigeon-hole labeled "classical."

ericakyree said...

Great question, Brent! We've actually been discussing this in my Future of Classical Music course this semester. Here's what good old Wikipedia has to say about the term "classical:" "Classical music is the art music produced in, or rooted in, the traditions of Western liturgical and secular music, encompassing a broad period from roughly the 9th century to present times." People give this genre of music all sorts of titles: Western Art Music, Symphonic Music (although this label is obviously limiting), Concert Music, etc.

You're absolutely right that the so-called "classical" era of music occurred after the Baroque and before the Romantic (roughly 1750 to 1820). Generally, though, when we speak of "Classical Music" today what we mean is music as art stemming from early sacred traditions, based on codified theoretical principles and aesthetic philosophy. Most of that "aesthetic philosophy" actually comes from the Ancient Greeks. In this context, then, the word "classical" refers, not to the "classical" era in music history, but to the "classical" culture of the ancient Greeks.

Clear as mud? ;-) Ah, semantics. . .

Brent said...

thanks! that actually clears things up a lot. but now i'm left wondering about the "codified theoretical principles and aesthetic philosophy" of which you mentioned. I'm sure that getting into the specifics of what those are is beyond what we can discuss in the comments of a blog post, but let me share a piece of my imagination with you. I envision a type of musical space, like a coordinate plane of sorts, where a piece of music can be represented as a point and graphed. but rather than a cartesian plane with only two variables this would be an abstract space of many variables. in this space there would be an area where the obviously-classical pieces fell, and this would be surrounded by areas where obviously-not-classical music would fall. and in this vision it's the boarderlands of classical music that capture my attention. the pieces of music that are almost classical, but almost not... but i guess this is so typical of me. i'm always drawn to the fringes. always exploring the grey areas.

anyway... ever studied or worked much with just intonation? thats where i put my vote for the future of classical music. at least for the long term (i don't know enough to say anything about the immediate future). equal temperament has been great for notation and producing versatile instruments that can play in any key, but as computers more and more take the place of our instruments AND our notation paper, it seems the natural way for classically minded people of aesthetic philosophy to go. well, at least thats my thought on it.

Kyle Siddons said...

Just a quick quote by Charles Rosen to comment on your idea of the 'death' of classical music; "The death of classical music's perhaps its oldest continuing tradition."

Sharlee said...

"The death of classical music's perhaps its oldest continuing tradition." --Charles Rosen

I love this! Thanks for sharing it.