The Rambler :: blog

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Credo (again) 

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You know, Greg Sandow should really run the classical music industry.

In the wake of Arts Journal's , and the subsequent round table discussion, Sandow has put up what looks to me like the bare skeleton of a manifesto (or at least, the gaps where a manifesto might go). Since he asks for comments, I'll add my own here. Regular readers of this blog might not find all that follows completely unfamiliar ...

Now, there are certainly problems surrounding classical/nonpop music at the moment, but I have to agree with Gavin Bouchert to a great extent here - many of those cited are products of classical music's own imagination. Speaking personally, when I face the contemporary music racks at even a major chain like Tower and come to the realisation, at only 27, that I will never come to terms with even one tenth of the composers represented there, decline does not seem to be the problem. If there is a problem - and in spite of what Bouchert says, there is, although it is not what he argues against - it is disengagement. For who knows what reasons, but they are many, classical music - or rather, those institutions that speak on its behalf - show precious little interest today in even pretending that classical music is something that one might wish to engage in, intellectually, emotionally, bodily. Sandow illustrates a number of angles from which this might be seen, but is at his most cutting when he observes:

Rock criticism has always done what the classical music world can’t seem to do, which is to say what music means. They say what they think life is about, and what view of life each kind of music might represent. They describe, in other words, a world their readers can recognize, in which music takes an recognizable place.
Classical critics, by contrast, tell us that the tempo of the Brahms was too slow. Is that really what the concert was about?

Now, I'm not advocating that classical music criticism becomes a frenzy of subjective, emotionally-driven writing. Whisper it, but I found Words and Music the most irritating, infuriating book of my life, for the very reason that Morley sits on the opposite extreme to the tempo-quibbling Brahms critic. Successful writing about music, for me - and this goes for any level - has to strike an appropriate balance between the passionate engagement that Sandow longs for, and a technical vocabulary that Morley lacks (or refuses to use). The most striking thing about Words and Music - and, I suspect depressingly one of its raisons d'etre - was that Morley realised the difficulty of writing about music and in the end rejected the idea of even trying, giving in to dull, dull list writing. The classical critic who can't talk about how the music makes him feel, and the rock critic who can't talk about the technique of a work: I find both patronising, and both are cowering - one from looking prissy, the other from looking a swot. It should be possible to avoid both. I have plenty of books on the shelves above me that strike such a balance - thankfully there are a growing number of academics who aren't afraid to say "I love this piece of music, and here's why", but sadly few critics - or at least, few that are given license to do so in their columns. It's usually one or the other. Most of us haven't had any sort of training at art college, but we can all understand the use of allegory in Holbein, or the interplay of light and perspective in Rembrandt, or the relationship between brushwork and expression in Pollock when they're shown to us in an exhibition guide. Why are we scared to grant similar intelligence to the audience for music?

Of course, demonising rock criticism is not what I meant to do here: I simply wouldn't want to see the technical precision that most classical critics do have at their disposal jettisoned in some dash to recapture an audience. That won't work - you'll only lose a different segment of listeners. What is needed is a blend of the two, and a greater effort is needed from the academic community to look up from its navel and address this divide between the score and the emotional response. There is something revealing, I think, even in the fact that many of those academics who long to introduce the subjective into their scholarly work find themselves drawn away from the classical repertoire and into pop music and film scores, as though even they feel it inappopriate to reveal that Bach's B Minor Mass makes them feel something, or that Beethoven's Eroica Symphony might still have something to say to a contemporary audience.

Of course, there is a certain self-justification here in all of this. What could be more useless after all than the academic study of an irrelevant cultural force, but it seems to me that if classical music is to re-engage its audience in the ways that Sandow has identified, the responsibility for this must lie with its advocates - the very people, it is sad to say, who are all too eager to announce its demise.


Ahhh, nothing like a few old chestnuts to get me out of my shell ...

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