February 2008

Random thoughts while waiting for a practice room

February 4, 2008 19:02

"Welcome back to Oberlin Conservatory! We hope you had a good vacation, those of you who actually got a vacation. However, we regret to inform you that there is not a single practice room available in the entire blasted building tonight. This situation will likely continue for the next two weeks until people start slacking off en masse again. Have a nice semester."

So, while I'm waiting for a practice room (and contemplating taking over an unused third-floor classroom for the evening), a few random musings on the much-heralded End of Classical Music. Why this topic? I dunno. Maybe I'm just feeling a little morbid as I contemplate the imminent end of my violin career due to lack of practice space.

I'm always a bit skeptical of the doomsayers who say classical music is on its last legs (haven't they been saying that for the last 100 years or so?) but it really irritates me when people start talking about the need to make classical music more "Accessible" for it to regain its popularity. Things like half-jazz half-classical concerts, concerts entirely of movie music, multimedia presentations etc...and I often end up wondering if maybe that isn't part of the problem.

Isn't it possible that, in their earnest efforts to reach out to a wider audience, producers and managers and music directors have not only inadvertantly alienated classical music's historically loyal followers, but also diminished its appeal to "newcomers"?

One of the most obvious symbols (though by no means the only one) I see of this push for "accessibility" is the ubiquitous "World's Most Beautiful Adagios" or "Romantic Classical Piano Favorites" CDs that are always gumming up the classical section at Borders. They're supposed to be appealing to a wide audience, to "bring classical music to the masses" and all. But in that quest for accessibility, the producers of such albums have instead achieved insipidity and bland sameness. The inevitable result is a society full of people who think classical music is something quiet and soothing to have playing in the background during a fancy reception or romantic dinner. "Oh, well, Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is just lovely," goes the familiar refrain, "But honestly, for the most part I find classical music just a bit...boring." Well, no wonder.

As I see it, the push for accessibility, however well-intentioned it may be, is fundamentally flawed. Great classical art music is not supposed to be relaxing, soothing, a bubble bath for the senses (although sometimes Debussy has that effect on me anyway), or even accessible upon first hearing.

Classical music, in short, is not a form of passive entertainment. It requires thought, concentration, intellect and at least a rudimentary literacy in the language of music to be able to fully appreciate the greatness of a Brahms symphony, Haydn string quartet, Beethoven piano sonata etc.

The criticism so often leveled at such an attitude is that it is "elitist." To which I say...well, YES! Classical art music IS elitist by nature and always has been. I can already see many of you Gentle Readers instinctively recoiling at such an archaic, aristocratic and anti-democratic notion, but to my way of thinking "elitist" is no insult. Rather, it is a philosophy of life that values excellence and genius (rather than conformity to some lowest common denominator in the name of some twisted version of egalitarianism.)

The difference between this sort of elitism and the oppressively aristocratic system many people think of when they hear talk of "Elites" is that this rank of elites is not closed to anyone. Anybody with a brain can become musically literate, it just takes some time and effort and energy. The Accessible Classical Music Movement attempts to bypass that unavoidable need and offer up a version of classical music that requires no effort on the part of the listener. But since that goes against the very NATURE of classical art music, the result is only a pale, watered-down simulacrum.

Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok and all the other Great Masters are not pushovers. They demand thought, intellect, contemplation and concentration. Fans of instant gratification will yell that it's unfair. But that's simply how it is. And for those who are willing to take on the challenge of great music...the rewards are unfathomably transcendant.

OK. That's enough of my blather. That empty classroom is calling...

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