Monday, September 17, 2012

I'd rather be inspired

I’ve just returned from Chicago where I had the chance to attend the final two days of the Beethoven Festival.  I must have seen at least ten different concerts and was awed by the beauty of the event as well as the juxtaposition of styles so rarely seen in the same venue. The afternoon began unsurprisingly with some Beethoven sonatas and quartets, but then went on to the Chicago premieres of works by Mikolaj Gorecki, a wonderful composer whose works absolutely awed the audience.  As I sat in the terminal late Sunday night waiting for my flight back to Boston, I began thinking about new composers and about Beethoven and about how they relate.  I thought about what it must have been like for someone to hear Beethoven for the very first time, and how jarring some of his works would have sounded back then.  I thought about how beautiful the Gorecki pieces were, and how unusual it was to hear a living composer’s work right beside an established genius such as Beethoven.  I realized that there are people who love classical music and people who love “new” music and that these two are often kept in separate boxes, only occasionally sharing the same program space.  And then this morning I came across an article in the New York Times entitled Shock me if you can, by Jennifer Schuessler. It opens with the mention of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” in 1913 and the uproar that took place at the theater that night.  More importantly however it mentions Stravinsky’s reaction to the audience’s reaction: He fled the hall in disgust that his art could cause such a riot.  Today, many artists actually hope for a similar reaction to their work, and would take it as a compliment if the audience were to cause a riot.
In Levine’s Highbrow, Lowbrow, the author explores many aspects of classical music, including the behavioral shift of audiences.  What it has not explored however, is the shift from the artist’s standpoint, or what the artist is trying to convey through his music.  Early 20th century modern art had the opportunity to shock its audiences in a variety of ways.  The Cubism and Fauvism movements for instance created a new energy in the art world where audiences were continuously bombarded with things they had never seen or could never have imagined before.  Stravinsky was part of that era, and the “Rite of Spring” was one of the most shocking works anyone had seen until then.  The combination of sound, movement and visual aspects that were so “fauvist” and wild was too much for the Parisian bourgeoisie at the time.  According to the New York Times article, “Artists have been trying to provoke audiences ever since, elevating shock to an artistic value, a sign that they are fighting the good fight against oppressive tradition and bourgeois morality.”
As we’ve learned from Levine’s book, the cultural divides that are currently putting classical music at risk were already well-established by the 20th century, and it seems as though this fight to bring art to the masses rather than to the intellectual few has been going on for nearly a century already.  However, in today’s world, people have been largely desensitized, and yet artists are still trying to shock their audiences.  But maybe this is no longer the time for shock.  As the article states, “mere shock for shock’s sake... is ‘deathly.’”  Our society is no longer going to experience art the way that it did a century ago, but it can still appreciate it, value it, and be wowed by it.  Above all, artists have to remember to be true to themselves and to the message they want to convey.  Audiences will not return magically to the halls, but new music is just as important to the revival of Bach and Beethoven, as Bach and Beethoven are for the survival of new music.  Musicians should work together to get rid of this barrier that lies first and foremost among us and which we communicate knowingly or not to our audiences.  New music and classical music are not mutually exclusive.  In fact they are meant to be intertwined, presented and experienced together, as part of one entity: Music. 

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