Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Classical Music in a Vacuum

I'm a regular visitor to the website NewMusicBox.org, a multimedia publication that contains articles, blogs, field reports, and artist profiles dedicated to the music of contemporary composers, improvisors, and their champions. There are a number of regular contributors who offer analysis and opinions on a number of disparate topics; Charlie Parker's use/abuse of drugs might be followed by an article on intellectual skepticism. Frank Oteri is one such author, and his latest blog post, "Fitting In", asserts that listening to or making music is a collective experience, one which necessarily cannot exist in isolation. His thesis rests on the postulate that "what we make as well as how we experience what others make is always informed by what is around it." I agree, and I think it's a good starting point for discussion on the social and cultural ramifications that have contributed to classical music's separation from mainstream popularity.

Mr. Oteri's article mainly deals with the juxtaposition of stylistically diverse pieces of music grouped together on the same concert program. As students at Longy, we're constantly confronted with this reality whenever we go to see a live concert program--perhaps a Beethoven piano sonata is paired with a contemporary electroacoustic piece. Yet, often these programming decisions hold together because the main audience for such programs--music scholars and enthusiasts--have been conditioned to listen to things a certain way, and are familiar with the way such collections of experiences are curated. Not only this, but it can be valuable to us, as artists, to hear familiar works recontextualized. However, these sorts of juxtapositions can be jarring for the audience member who is uninitiated into this sound world (and perhaps even for those of us who are!).

If we expand this idea of juxtaposing different styles of music to a wider plane, we can begin to see how people might experience cognitive dissonance when confronted with classical music as a whole. The types of music that a person experiences, either consciously or inadvertently, conditions that person to expect certain things from that music. On a micro level, that might include harmonic progression or timbral intensity; on a macro level, it could mean the venue or method by which the music is conveyed. The fulfillment of expectations is generally preferred to the frustration of them; thus, people whose musical expectations cannot be fulfilled by classical music are likely to experience cognitive dissonance when presented with it. As a result, classical music is in danger of becoming an island unto itself--an unapproachable genre whose practitioners try to keep it in a self-contained vacuum.

The solution, in my eyes, is to change the methods of presentation. As modern classical musicians, we must strive to educate and engage our audience. We must be artists and teachers simultaneously. While we cannot necessarily reconcile the vast aesthetic differences inherent in classical music (nor should we try to), we can provide a platform upon which such differences can be understood and appreciated. Only then will we have created the conditions for classical music to thrive and coexist.

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