Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Classical music's obsession with the past

There are some things I like about the culture of classical music, and some things I really, really don't. For instance, I love the idea that music is more than just an accompaniment to something else (like a movie), and more than mere entertainment. Though this obviously isn't exclusive to the type of music we call classical, I still see it as one of the prominent features of classical music, what motivates it and defines it, since the actual music can't really be fit into any one single category or united by any style or idea.

(Just like the music itself, it's hard to fit "the culture of classical music" into a single box, since it's different to different people. Nevertheless, I maintain that for better or worse, the common understanding of the words "classical music" in the world today is more or less a definition of a type of listening setting and a set of conventions, though these conventions aren't universally agreed on or anything like that.)

Anyway,  what I don't like is that classical music tends to bring along an obsession with the past—preserving it, reproducing it, elevating it. Now, don't get me wrong, I love music from the past; how else would I have made it through 20+ years of education in Western music? There's a lot of great music out there, and I think it's well worth keeping around for the next hundred, thousand, million years.

But there's also a lot, lot, lot of music that was written in Europe between 1600-1900 (give or take), and listening to it comes with an opportunity cost of keeping up with something more current. If you try to listen to all of the music from this period, you're necessarily missing out on a lot of other music, and you're necessarily going to hear a lot, lot, lot of music that kinda sounds like Mozart, Bach, or Beethoven, except that it's not nearly as good. Like, say, this!

I didn't have to look very hard for this, by the way. All I did was go to WETA (my local classical radio station) and pick literally the first thing on the playlist for today. The rest of the list is littered with other music that, at its best, is mildly pleasant, and at its worst, is incredibly boring.

I have nothing against Carl Friedrich Abel. I'm sure he was a nice guy. I'm sure there's something interesting about him, to an academic somewhere in the world. But is this the music that people who have any sort of direction over the future of classical music should be promoting? What makes this music worth playing, worth listening to?

I understand that radio stations are playing to their audience, and that I never contribute to them. But I do believe there is some top down influence on people's preferences. (And I would contribute to the station if it weren't so terrible and made more creative selections.)

I imagine the executives of WETA claim they are carrying on a proud and longstanding tradition of a certain variety of Western music, but really they're just peddling mediocrity. What brings Abel to the airwaves is the convenient-but-not-at-all distinguishing fact that he happened to write music the kinda sounds like Mozart (if you're half-asleep) written around the same time and place as Mozart. Is that a reason to listen to a piece of music? I say no. Overall, they (institutions like WETA) make it difficult, as an omnipresent standard-bearer of classical music in the DC area to forge a future for concert music that is interesting, diverse, enjoyable, and dynamic.

(Full disclosure, they sponsor the music where I teach; obviously this post does not reflect the opinions of the school and would probably horrify them. Sorry, Levine!)