Monday, December 5, 2011

Cautious Optimism for the Future

I was interested to find that despite the differences of tone and focus of Cook and Hewitt, they both conclude with some of the same points. In a general sense, each author attempts to move past the broad assertions about classical music’s imminent death and proceed with “cautious optimism,” as Cook puts it. In our blog posts and class discussions, we seem to have gone through a similar process, beginning by criticizing the marginal nature of classical music, then attempting to move past complaints and into insight. On a more specific level, both Cook and Hewitt conclude that the locus of information of classical music, and its potential for future existence, lie with re-imagining our listening experience.

This said, there are some differences in the implications of their conclusions. Hewitt writes that we often feel a lack of “emotional intensity” in current music, but “we never think that its lack may be partly in ourselves, and with the way we relate to music.” (2003: 266) Our listening habits have become too passive, and we must actively engage with the music. Hewitt claims that classical music is especially well suited to active listening, since it gives its conception of the musical realm “some substance, in the form of a set of pieces and techniques, and an entire metaphysics of music, that one can share and pass on, even to people in cultures far distant to our own.” (2003: 263) By mentioning “a set of pieces and techniques,” he appears to suggest that music education based on theory and the canon of works still has an important role to play in classical music’s future. For Cook, on the other hand, fighting off our passivity involves the recognition that music is a way of “creating meaning, rather than just of representing it.” (1998: 125-6) This recognition is not so much the realm of music theory, but more of critical theory: “critical theory omits music at its peril; music has unique powers as an agent of ideology. We need to understand its working, its charms, both to protect ourselves against them and, paradoxically, enjoy them to the full.” (1998: 129) While Hewitt is concerned that the philosophy of fusion and “breaking down barriers” is disingenuous, Cook does not condemn these forms, saying instead that we need to understand what is at stake in listening to this music (or, conversely, rejecting this music as trash). Put in the broadest manner, Hewitt believes that music should be understood by its internal logic, whereas Cook suggests looking through an outside logic to question the internal one.

Either way, these are high expectations for us as both performers and listeners. Hewitt even suggests that his vision may be an impossible one. What do we do to become more a more active audience? Unfortunately, this seems to be a topic that often goes missing from our blog posts. We’ve written extensively on different types of concert programming and presentation, on film music, on fusion, and whether art can be democratic, but relatively little on modes of listening (ours, or others’). How can we listen in a way that is both informed and unintimidating, to abandon our hierarchical status as musical specialists (performers) without falling into passive listening? For me, a small part of resolving this involves listening to more music played by other instruments (as a cellist, this means solo piano music, lieder, or l’Histoire du Soldat, all things I will probably never perform myself). I do not abandon my knowledge of the musical logic, or the associations and ideology it brings to mind, but I am no longer listening for specifics of technique and execution that seem to be inevitable when I listen to string music. Positioning myself as an audience member, I am more able to understand and enjoy the activity of listening.

To some extent, we must re-imagine our own listening experiences before we think about how we might convince others to do the same.

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