Either Elitist Pretension or Vitally Important Something or Other

On the last Saturday of 2007 there was that historic football game – carried on three networks. But that evening three of us didn’t much care for it. Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, isn’t much into sports – having been one of the founders of CNN he’s more into matters having to do with where journalism meets current events, and with the details of American history. He still hangs with the CNN folks, but presumably not with the CNN – Sports Illustrated crowd. He just doesn’t “get” sports. The high-powered Wall Street attorney is more into music – he fakes sports chit-chat when he must, having amassed enough detail on what’s currently an issue to seem like “one of the guys” when necessary. This guy out here in Hollywood – the editor of this site, providing excruciating detail on matters diplomatic and political and legal – was the only one of us who actually played football, early in high school, but dropping it for band. When you’re big and they make you play center you get knocked on your ass regularly. It’s a bit unpleasant. Marching band was silly, but the concert band and student jazz band were just fine. Sports were for others. Saturday way back then was for the weekly wind lesson with the Julliard guy from the Pittsburgh Symphony.

So those two didn’t watch the game, and it was a “background event” out here in Hollywood. We traded emails, a transcontinental chat, about what is important and what’s not. Are sports important? To us they are not, but then, Rick added this:

It’s not important stuff, but nor is music, and just as we don’t argue that someone should take all the energy it took to learn how to play the tuba and put it into memorizing the names of all the Scandinavian foreign ministers, nor should we ask the same of some guy who knows the names of all the winning pitchers in the last ten World Series.

So sometimes angrily arguing what is really important is simply pretentious bullying. Everyone gets a kick out of feeling they know what matters in life, and that he or she is surrounded by fools one must pity or educate – human nature and all that. Man is competitive. It’s not just sports. It’s politics. These days it’s religion too – scoffing at Mormons, or Buddhists, or the evangelicals and their “End Days” subset, or secular folks. Scoffing at those who eagerly hoped the Giants would knock off the too-good-to-be-true Patriots (with their surly coach) was, Saturday night, way too easy.

And you have to admit sports have given us some good prose – from Ring Lardner to Heywood Broun to Roger Angell and beyond. Even these days you see clever stuff:

Pittsburgh Steelers: I think their defense is as fearsome as Kathy Bates on a chilly day, and in the cold weather of the playoffs, that’s going to take them far. Unless the go play in Indianapolis, where they’ll get hammered.

Ah – here in Hollywood we know exactly what that means (the movie was called Misery and she won the Oscar).

Still, Rick, dismissing sports, did say music is not important stuff either. Damn. Everything that appears on this site was assembled and posted with the sole remaining classical radio station in Los Angeles providing context. It’s not just sonic wallpaper – background stuff. When stuck on how to put something, Scarlatti can fix you right up.

 In fact, in May there was that new Lawrence Kramer book, Why Classical Music Still Matters. He says it is still out there, but “something still feels wrong.” It’s “the loss of the genre’s crucial role in our cultural lives.” But as a music and literature professor at Fordham, he cannot avoid pretentious bullying. Yes, classical music is full and complex. So is Kathy Bates. 

You get something less pretentious from the chief music for the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini (who is also a pianist), with A Patience to Listen, Alive and Well, posted the day after the Patriots’ win:


Reports about the diminishing relevance of classical music to new generations of Americans addled by pop culture keep coming. Yet in my experience classical music seems in the midst of an unmistakable rebound. Most of the concerts and operas I attended this year drew large, eager and appreciative audiences.

He notes that on December 15 the Metropolitan Opera’s first high-definition broadcast of the season, the Saturday matinee of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette – not a blockbuster but not too shabby (and sung in French no less) – played on six hundred movie screens to a worldwide audience of 97,000, a new record for any opera. Of course that’s small beans in the world of mass entertainment – “But classical music always was and always will be of interest to relatively modest numbers of people.”

So be it. Lawrence Kramer may defend classical music for its richness, complexity and communicative power and all that, but Tommasini has a different defense:

Just this month classical music emerged as pivotal to international relations. With the blessing of the State Department, the New York Philharmonic announced that it would present a concert in North Korea during its Asian tour in February. Some consider this plan an outrage that will allow a totalitarian regime to use the Philharmonic musicians as puppets for propaganda. Others see it as at least a chance to pry open a door and share Western culture with a closed society, which is pretty much my view.

Either way, implicit in this plan is the idea that classical music matters. It’s not a sports team or pop group that has been enlisted to begin a thaw with the government in Pyongyang. It’s the musicians of a premier American orchestra.

Why would we do that, send the New York Philharmonic to do their thing for a quite repressive society?

Kramer himself recently told The New York Times that classical music by definition “is addressed to someone who has a certain independence of mind.” Ah. We’re being subversive, and they’re being suckers. Kramer also commented that classical music “almost posits for its audience a certain degree of Western identity, which includes that sense of individual capacity to think, to sense, to imagine.”

This may then be the most sensible thing that the State Department has done in the last seven years. Sleepers awake!  But of course Kramer may be full of crap.

Tommasini doesn’t think so:

Classical music invites listeners to focus, to take in, to follow what is almost a narrative that unfolds over a relatively long period of time. Length itself is one of the genre’s defining elements. I do not contend that classical music is weightier than other types of music. Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony is no more profound than “Eleanor Rigby.” But it’s a whole lot longer.

So, in an odd sense, size matters:

Even a 10-minute Chopin ballade for piano, let alone Messiaen’s 75-minute “Turangalila Symphony,” tries to grapple with, activate and organize a relatively substantial span of time. Once you accept this element of classical music, the reasons for other aspects of the art form – the complexity of its musical language, the protocols of concert going – become self-evident.

And if size matters, so does structure:

When I was around 13 and enthralled by Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, I didn’t have the vaguest notion of how sonata form worked or what a rondo was. That I grew so familiar with these big pieces, though, does not mean I grasped how they were organized. Still, I intuitively sensed that they were monumental in some way, for the great classical works seemed to have an inexplicable and inexorable sweep.

Years later, when I was an assistant professor at Emerson College in Boston, I inherited from my predecessor a music appreciation course called “Listening to Music.” Teaching that class was like missionary work. I tried to help students hear what seemed to me astounding similarities between, say, a song-and-dance from Monteverdi’s “Orfeo” and “America” from Bernstein’s “West Side Story.” I broke down symphony movements by Beethoven and Shostakovich into constituent parts. Quite a few students were openly resistant, others mildly curious; some were surprisingly engaged.

Once in a while someone would come back from a concert having had an epiphany, like one awestruck woman who had attended her first live symphonic concert: the New England Conservatory Orchestra at the acoustically splendid Jordan Hall playing Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” She had no idea that such viscerally powerful sounds existed.

Such things can mess with your head and move you in amazing ways. This will be good for the North Koreans. They won’t know what hit them. But they will know something did.

Or nothing may hit them. Everyone has a short attention span these days:

Taking in a concert involves a major time commitment. You sit in silence for extended periods and pay attention to live performances that, however viscerally involving and sonically impressive, are visually unremarkable. Operas, of course, tend to be even longer. But opera is a total-immersion experience, with characters and costumes, like going to the theater.

In an essay in The New York Times in June, Kramer called for classical music presenters “to follow the lead of enterprising art museums” – be interactive, stimulating and demystifying and all that, and just relax and take in things at your own pace. You see, the you follow your instincts, you move on from a painting that bores you. You find one that doesn’t, and no one hassles you. But Kramer knows with music that’s a bit more dicey, and Tommasini agrees:

You cannot set your own pace while listening to a Schubert string quartet. A concert can offer pre-performance talks, interactive video displays in the lobby and spoken comments by the performers onstage. But at some point the talking stops, the performance begins, and the audience is asked – expected really – to be quiet and pay attention.

What a drag. But you don’t have to be all reverential, as classical music can have its “wow” factors too:

What could be more entertaining than a dynamic performance of Prokofiev’s shamelessly theatrical Third Piano Concerto, with its monstrously difficult piano part? And if your mind wanders during “La Mer,” by Debussy, and you start focusing on the kinetic playing style of an attractive young violinist in the orchestra, then, as Professor Kramer suggests, just go with it.

Concert protocol demands that you stay put for the duration. Yet entering into that receptive state of mind can actually foster excitement over the music. Most young people in today’s interactive, amplified, high-tech world may not instinctively be enticed by the idea of sitting quietly and contemplating a long musical work in a natural acoustical setting. Yet I’ve taken young friends and other classical music neophytes to concerts over the years and been routinely struck by how absorbed they become during, say, a blazing account of Stravinsky’s “Firebird,” even while all around us older, restless concertgoers are fiddling in their seats and rustling the pages of their programs.

Creating an atmosphere conducive to listening does not mean that concert halls have to be stuffy. Dress codes of any kind should disappear. Go ahead and replace some rows of seats at Avery Fisher Hall with rugs and pillows to recline on, if it helps.

Tommasini is particularly pleased with the Lincoln Center series A Little Night Music – small room, one hour program starting an hour and a half an hour before midnight, everyone shares small round cocktail tables and sips free glasses of wine. Well, it worked for Miles Davis back in the fifties at this or that Manhattan club. And Tommasini says it works now:

In one program last summer the bookish British pianist Paul Lewis played a probing performance of Beethoven’s stormy, mystical Opus 111 Piano Sonata, followed by the exciting young cellist Alisa Weilerstein delivering an intense account of Kodaly’s brooding and volatile Sonata for Solo Cello. Here were two elusive and demanding works. And the audience was transfixed. I don’t recall a single throat-clearing.

On the other hand, it might have been the free wine, or mutually agreed upon self-satisfied pretentiousness. Why bother with Lincoln Center? Invite the sweet young thing – the achingly pretty, bookish girl with the big glasses and the French accent – over to the apartment. Pour real Chablis, actually from Chablis itself, and make sure your copy of Kodaly’s Studies in Velocity for Piano is open on the coffee table. It works every time. One must not extrapolate too much from the late Friday night young crowd on the Upper East Side.

And Kodaly’s Tommasini knows that:

… to claim a listener’s attention, a substantial classical piece must entice the dimension of human perception that responds to large structures and long metaphorical narratives. This, more than anything lofty about the music, accounts for the greater complexity, typically, of classical works in comparison with more popular styles of music.

But the claim here is that we can deal with that:

Beethoven was a master musical architect. When his “Eroica” Symphony appeared in 1804, it was the longest work yet written in which virtually every phrase and rhythmic figure was derived from a small group of musical motifs. Beethoven made this colossal symphony, in four quite varied movements, seem organic and whole. Most listeners may discern this only subliminally. But they do.

One reason “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” stunned my generation at its 1967 release was that this Beatles album was not just a collection of songs but a whole composition. I remember sitting in my freshman dorm room with friends, listening to the entire album in silence. That was a new experience in rock. “Sgt. Pepper” pointed the way to longer total-concept albums like Radiohead’s “In Rainbows,” the big news in pop music today.

But those are the exceptions. Rock and pop songs are “relatively short lyrical statements” and the only thing like that in classical music is the song recital:

It makes no difference that the revered classical song repertory, from Schubert to Mahler, is rich with musically complex, often dark works. Because songs tend to be short, we perceive them as more approachable. This explains why, in a program at Weill Recital Hall three years ago, an appealing young baritone, Nathaniel Webster, segued so easily to an American group including songs by Purcell, Schumann and Wolf to American songs by Gershwin and Rufus Wainwright.

He did? That sounds awful.

Ah well, all in all Tommasini just misses Leonard Bernstein:

When he presented his Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic, he didn’t have music videos or PowerPoint, and didn’t need them. It was just our amazing Uncle Lenny explaining the content of a piece, conveying its character and revealing its secrets.

But when the explanations were over, Bernstein would turn to his young listeners and say, “Are you ready?” The time had come to settle down and focus as the orchestra performed the piece in question. Instilling audiences of all ages with the ability – and patience – to listen to something long was crucial to an appreciation of classical music. It still is.

But will this work in North Korea? It’s probably a better bet than running through the rules of American football then rolling the film of the Giants-Patriots game. Is one more important than the other?

It is said that sports build character, and wiliness, and tactical skills – the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Wellington was educated at Eton where he excelled at games but was abysmal at Classics, and perhaps the tactical skills Wellington began to learn as a kid did help make him the successful general he was against Napoleon – and book-learning is utterly useless (see George W. Bush). But there’s no evidence Wellington ever actually said those words, telling us all what’s really important. Who knows?

Still, sports may be important – if you value wiliness, clever tactics and a grudging nod to what they call good sportsmanship, even if you cannot stand to ever lose.

Is classic music important? Tommasini, trying to fix Kramer’s idealism, says yes – it puts you in that independent frame of mind, teaches you to be patient with and then really groove on complexity and structure, and more than anything else, sharpens your ability to focus. That too may be important. Or you just might be predisposed to those very things (and you probably didn’t vote for Bush either time).

So the office here in Hollywood is now filled with classical music. They’re doing Brahms at the moment. Somehow that seems to be connected to the progressive-left slant at this site, critical of the Bush administration. Now you know why.

Perhaps the Democratic National Committee should find the funds to send the New York Philharmonic on a tour of the red states next summer, to play at NASCAR races.

No. The sports folks and the Bartok crowd will never have the same values. Everyone has already decided what’s really important. Rick was right.



About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Books, Class Warfare, Classical Music, Cultural Notes, Pop Culture, Sports, The Arts. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Either Elitist Pretension or Vitally Important Something or Other

  1. Rick (from Atlanta) says:

    Ironically, one of my reasons for not caring much for classical music is my association with waking up in the middle of the night when I was growing up in Los Angeles, and the only thing on — I think it was KHJ-AM — was classical, and I found it annoying to listen to.

    Why humans have been programmed to appreciate music in the first place (also, listening to stories) has always fascinated me, but I know some of it is associational; we remember what we were doing, who we were hanging with, and what else was going on in our lives when we liked — or disliked — a certain tune. Sometimes we like certain kinds of music partly because we tend to like other people who like that kind of music; folks who like the rhythms and texture of “cool” jazz and bebop, for instance, tend to be people whose sophisticated tastes I respect. Or maybe it’s just that jazz tempos are the one language we have in common with those people.

    But there’s more to it than that. Music speaks to our ingrained temperaments. My sister loves the music of Beethoven and its complexities, which I find boring, while I must admit I love J.S. Bach’s simple and predictable harmonies, which she finds boring.

    As for “pre-performance talks, interactive video displays in the lobby and spoken comments by the performers onstage,” I tend to distrust anything that requires someone to explain it to you for you to fully appreciate it.

    I feel the same way about wine experts and classes and such. You either like the stuff or you don’t. If you have to work that hard at it, you’re just being pretentious. It’s just a freaking beverage, for chrissakes. As I write these words, I’m working on a “Red Brick Winter Brew Double Chocolate Oatmeal Porter” (a local product from Atlanta Brewing; http://www.atlantabrewing.com). The first time I tried it, I offered it to someone at my table, who tasted it and ended up looking up looking like they just sucked on a raw lemon. Oh, well, it’s enough my just liking something, but that doesn’t mean I have to play the evangelist to everyone else.

    “Everyone has already decided what’s really important. Rick was right.”

    Well, yeah, but no. If any one epiphany can be said to have pulled me out of my clinical depression just as I was turning 30, it would have to be the realization that “important” is not really all that important. Instead, just look for what makes you happy.

    (By the way, ironically, I sang not only in Carnegie Hall, but also Boston’s Jordan Hall! They were both in the same year, when the 1st Congregational Church of Manhasset’s Youth Choir toured those two cities in conjunction with some youth group from Boston. We got pretty good reviews, for reasons that escaped me even at the time.)


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