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CLASSICAL  November 2005

CLASSICAL November 2005

Subject:

Re: "Why young people don't like classical music"

From:

Forrest L Norvell <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 14 Nov 2005 00:07:50 -0800

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I know I'm coming late to this discussion, but this topic is germane to
some ideas about music I've been mulling over for a while now, and they
may or may not be of interest to the members of the list.

I am neither young enough, at 33, to think of myself as a "young person"
anymore, nor am I as old as many of the members of the list.  When people
ask me what kind of music I like (a question I'm asked increasingly
infrequently, I note in passing) I tend to react with a blank stare while
I attempt to come up with an answer that makes sense.  More often than
not I say, "...I like music I like," and then move onto some specific
examples of what's been exciting me most recently.

I spent my childhood performing classical music more than listening to
it, as a violinist, and later a clarinetist, in a youth orchestra, and
also as a student of the piano.  Throughout my adolescence and early
adulthood I listened to a wide variety of pop-based and "underground"
music, and listened to almost no classical music beyond the avant garde
and 20th century composers (Krzysztof Penderecki, Ligeti, Xenakis, Philip
Glass, Stockhausen) who were closest in spirit to the experimental
musicians I loved / love so much (The Hafler Trio, Nurse With
Wound,:zoviet*france:, Autechre, The Aphex Twin).  I also spent a brief
time in college studying classical music theory and composition.  Along
the way, I accumulated a music collection of 5-7,000 CDs and 1-2,000
vinyl records.

I only came to classical music as a serious listener a few years ago,
after I took the opportunity to subscribe to a season's worth of the
SFSO's open rehearsal series, which reminded me of a part of my childhood
I had since forgotten I missed. My collection of classical works is small
(a few hundred titles) but not, I think, insignificant.

I provide all of this as context for my thoughts, which seem to go a
little against the grain of much of what has been said here.  These may
or may not be true of me alone, but they are conclusions arrived at after
much searching and thinking about the role music plays in my life.

While it's true that most of the world's population has the attention
span of a gnat at times, I don't think that's a very persuasive argument
for classical music's diminishing / diminished popularity.  I have a
large collection of long-form electronic works which are exceedingly
minimal in style (at least one of which, Pan Sonic's _Kesto_, spans four
lengthy CDs -- on par with some of Stockhausen's more sustained works)
which I can and sometimes do listen to in a single sitting.  Indeed,
some of the longest works in my collection are my favorites, if you
measure my preference by their ability to distract me from other things
I should be doing.

I think what sets older art music apart from modern music (much of
which is derived, if only distantly, from popular idioms unconnected
with classical composition, except glancingly) is the combination of
sustained duration with the intricacy of the composition.  It not only
requires sustained attention, it requires many repeated listens to tease
apart what's going on in the music.  Particularly with composers closer
to the present day: part of the fun for knowledgeable listeners of Mahler
or Shostakovich is playing "spot the allusion", but the game is no fun
if, like me, you are unfamiliar with any but the most obvious of the
musical quotations.  I'm left with the music as it is, which means there
are entire layers of reference and irony I (and listeners like me) am
simply not perceiving.

At the same time, I grew up with music based around the concept of the
"hook", or "riff", or even "solo" -- all concepts from the world of rock,
which is built around these little bursts of notes that don't even merit
being called themes.  This is what gives most of the music I listen to
its immediate appeal: the idea that I can put on an album by the Pixies
and be caught up in the music immediately, because there are all these
appealing little bits of sound that catch the ear.  Whether those bits
are consonant, or merely throwaway modal shifts (as my college composition
professor was quick to emphasize), is unimportant to me when I'm listening
to them.  I just get caught up in the candy-coated rush of the music and
go from there.

People who have grown up listening to classical music have a similar
emotional connection to their music, although in the case of classical
music, I think the connection runs deeper, because this resonance is
built up over the course of a movement, or an entire work, rather than
a short phrase in a song that may not run more than 10 minutes.  I find
the idea of chopping segments out of a classical work to make it more
"accessible" wholly repellent for this reason -- and I imagine a composer's
reaction to this suggestion would be uncomprehending horror.  I can only
hope whoever suggested this was speaking tongue in cheek.

But this pleasure is not one that comes to me very often in listening
to classical music.  The only composer that really speaks to me on a
basic emotional level is Shostakovich, and that with the frustrating
knowledge that I'm only hearing part of what he's saying to me.  His
insistence on dissonant, minor-key works connects with the downbeat
cast of much of the music of my youth.

Huge swathes of classical music widely described as light, airy and
eminently accessible by the core classical audience -- Mozart, Handel,
and Strauss; almost all lieder and pre-Wagnerian opera -- leave me cold,
even after diligent efforts to appreciate them.  I've internalized a
model of melody and harmony that is fundamentally alien to classical
music, and I tend to respond to echoes of those sounds in the classical
music I do appreciate (for instance, I was drawn to Penderecki's _St
Luke's Passion_ because of its dissonant semi-tonality, as well as the
similarity between the basso profundo, stentorian vocal style of the
narrator in the Passion and the singer for Laibach, a Slovenian avant
garde group who make music that would likely find little favor with the
subscribers to this group).

I think classical music is like baseball or cricket: you have to grow
up around it / within it to appreciate it, and more often than not you
need to start young.  All kinds of music were played when I was growing
up, but I associate hearing classical music during my childhood with
falling asleep in the car while running errands with my mother.  It
didn't have a central role in my home, where I was much more likely to
hear Jackson Browne or Jean Michel Jarre on the stereo.

For this reason, I'm inclined to cut the few remaining school music
teachers a lot of slack: I never would have learned to play the violin
had it not been for the enthusiasm of my elementary school music teacher,
who herself played violin in a chamber orchestra.  But even her enthusiasm
wasn't enough to get me interested in classical music, because it just
wasn't that big a part of my world outside of my music lessons.

Another phenomenon that I think goes under-appreciated in forums like
this one is just how incredibly much music there is now.  I'm obsessed
with staying on top of new and interesting releases, and I've given up
on even trying to be aware of everything that's going on.  A small
boutique record store with a reputation as a tastemaker's haven sends
me a biweekly list of noteworthy new releases, and it runs to the
equivalent of 30-40 pages of dense typescript.  Every two weeks.  The
notices tend to be on the prolix side, and this store covers a very wide
range of music (everything from Cambodian pop music to Morton Feldman),
but they're also very selective about what they carry.  They don't even
write up all the new stuff they carry.

On top of that, I'm having a hard time staying on top of my purchases.
I try to become at least familiar with every album I buy, but I've had
to actually sit down and rationally devise listening strategies to ensure
that I actually get to know to all of my recent purchases (which can be
many -- I'd estimate I've been buying between 250 and 350 new albums a
year for the last 10 years, and a few years many more than that).

I would suggest the possibility that classical music has gradually come
to occupy a niche similar to many of the other non-mainstream musical
genres I enjoy: a genre with a large and devoted audience, but merely
one of many such genres.  People are not listening to less "serious"
music -- I think the opposite is the case, and by a wide margin -- but
the variety of the music they do listen to has increased even as the
time they have available to spend with individual recordings has diminished.
I could spend a year listening to only my various recordings of Shostakovich
symphonies (and I feel like it would take at least that long to be able
to say with any certainty which conductor of, say, the 8th Symphony I
like best), but there's a lot of other stuff I want to hear, and only
so many conscious hours in the day.

When it comes to performance, a lot of the same thoughts apply.  I think
I enjoyed the open rehearsal series so much precisely because of its
informality.  The audience was silent and respectful, but people came
as they were, and seeing the ensemble back up and work on tricky parts
was a comforting reassurance that they're basically human.  People in
my generation and younger take an essentially classless approach to going
to live performances: if one wants to dress up and see and be seen at a
rock / industrial / metal / electronic music show, it's purely an elective
thing one does for one's own entertainment.  Most people are there just
to hear the music and see the bands make fools of themselves on stage,
and they show their respect for the performers through applause and rowdy
behavior on the dance floor -- and just maybe, if the band is very lucky,
by not talking through the performance.

The idea of being required to observe a particular dress code for a
performance doesn't leave people in my generation with the feeling of
putting on the Ritz so much as it does preparing for a wedding or a
funeral -- the only occasions, by the way, when I myself have put on
a suit in the last few years, and also the only occasions when I can
truthfully say I've been dressed up at all.  Which is to say it's not
so much uncomfortable as it is alien.

This can all be boiled down very simply: young people don't listen to
classical music because it's not a part of their lives, and this isn't
a problem that can be solved by marketing.  Full stop.  Not listening
to classical music can be a reaction against being told to eat your
vegetables, but it doesn't have to be.  It can be a reflection of short
attention spans, but some of those same people who don't have the time
for classical music are capable of watching the entirety of all three
director's cut editions of the Lord of the Rings or Star Wars movies
while barely stirring to use the bathroom, much less take any more
extended breaks.  It can be a matter of poor or absent education, but
even those who are more than willing to educate themselves may find
themselves feeling like outsiders when they grapple with the daunting
edifice of the canon.

The simple truth is that classical music is going to have to fight for
its audience -- young or otherwise -- on an open and level field, now
that the class- and culture-based reasons for classical music's preeminence
have been eroded by social and economic developments over the last
century.

This is not necessarily a discouraging thing for classical music lovers,
because I'm convinced the merits of Beethoven, Bach, and all the other
old, beloved composers will continue to find new adherents.  The music
is simply too worthwhile for it to be otherwise.  It's bad news for
orchestras, because there are still too many of them (and too many
musicians as well) to be viable for an audience that still has a ways
left to shrink.  It's good news for Naxos, who have figured out a way
to make decent performances of a huge array of composers available for
prices that are too cheap for casual classical music listeners to ignore.
It's bad for new composers, who are going to have to confront the fact
that when people think of classical music, they think of an essentially
fixed list of dead European guys (although my collection includes a lot
of works by living Scandinavian composers like Arne Nordheim, Einojuhani
Rautavaara, and Per Norgard, and I've seen Pauline Oliveiros perform
many times).

Like I said, this is all my own opinion, based only on observing the
world around me and anecdotal evidence from similarly music-obsessed
friends.  However, I see a lot of chest-beating and self-flagellation
from the classical music audience (and Alex Ross expends a lot of energy
debunking those who claim classical music is "dead", whatever that might
mean), and I think most of it unwarranted.  It's true that the snootiness
of people who think that classical music is the acme of Western musical
achievement and listeners of "pop" music are benighted fools can be
tiresome, but I think of these people as being much like the doomed
intellectual gentry in a Dostoevsky novel, pathetically declaiming that
their elitism is going to alienate a peasantry who have never even heard
of them and who couldn't care less about their claims, one way or the
other.

Classical music is no more dead than rock and roll (I would argue it's
less so, but that is just my opinion), but as ever more styles of music
sprout forth, ever more tiny boutique labels are started to release them,
and ever more groups spring into existence to make them, classical music's
slice of the pie chart is going to shrink commensurately.  A rising tide
lifts all boats, but an expanding sea will drop them again.

Forrest L Norvell

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