Thursday, December 26, 2013

Rock-climbing and "empty virtuosity"

Wow. Christmas 2013 is already over. This morning, I was at my wit's end, drinking strong coffee and wondering exactly when I signed up for the Time Pass Acceleration Service and how I came to make such a regrettable decision. It was not a very good thought, especially while I was still recovering from mental trauma over Alfred Schnittke's charming version of Silent Night for violin and piano. 

So yesterday, the day which supposedly symbolizes love of family and friends, along with ancient Winter Solstice traditions that were moved to a later date in order to brainwash and convert pagan tribes, scare tactics of deluded "news" reporters to fulfill their agenda of eventually ruling the world and renaming it Bullshit Mountain (yes, I'm talking about you, Fox News doomsayers, and your fictitious "war on Christmas"), and not to mention, rampant consumerism and unnecessary forest depletion, I find myself thinking about something else entirely. I start remembering a topic discussed in my Canadian Repertoire class a little while back. Our prof, Dean Burry (who is an insightful, award-winning composer, and one of my favorite teachers), opened up a discussion about the accessibility of new music and its effects on the public ear. He brought up the music of R. Murray Schafer, and made us listen to his second string quartet. I'll just say that the second movement is crazy. Actually that's an understatement - it's insane as fuck. Click the red words to find out exactly why. 

If you listen to this piece, you would probably realize that despite the screaming, yelling, weird-fest going on, the piece is still quite easy to relate to. You could easily tap your foot to the rhythms, and feel the drive of the melodies, however atonal they are, through the energy of the musicians. 

After we listened to the piece, Dean gave an analogy about accessibility. He said that the concepts of music are like the rock-climbing wall at the gym. Most pop music, he explained, is structured like putting a ladder on the wall and climbing to the top. Yes, you do get straight to the top, but where is the satisfaction of actually working to get there? In terms of music, there remains no challenge to understand and discover the ideas behind the music, as it's too simple and, consequently, uninteresting. On the other hand, Dean explained, it would be completely unreasonable to remove all the "rocks" from the rock climbing wall, as it would be totally impossible to get to the top and therefore be completely devoid of satisfaction. This is the effect of completely inaccessible music, like Tom Johnson's clarinet trio, or the music composed in the movie Untitled, which you can read a little more about here. An ideal balance is something every composer should strive for - a rock-climbing wall with as many rocks as possible, and maybe a ladder or two when the going gets way too tough, because not everyone is an Olympic athlete or a contestant on American Ninja Warrior. 

Which brings me to my next point. Why is the so-called "classical music" world (a term I have come to detest) somehow not as attractive to lay people as the "pop music" world, even though there is a lot of  "classical music" that is indeed, like rock-climbing walls with many rocks as possible? A reason I have come up with is that there are far too many puristic prudes out there in the world of the music I play and love, who want to chop down every ladder and remove every rock-hold in sight in order to "stay true" to the stylistic qualities of this music - in composition and performance practice alike. They rip out every instance of accessibility in the process of preserving what they call "true" music. They also have infinitely less tolerance for new takes on old music than their "pop" industry counterparts, panning these new versions for containing nothing but what they call "empty virtuosity" as well as many other pretentious names. For example, not one person is angry about the countless covers, medleys and mashups of Michael Jackson hits on YouTube, if you don't count the occasional butthurt comments, but classical music critics are all up-in-the-arms about Sergio Tiempo's arrangement of Chopin's √Čtude op.25 no.6 just because he committed the "cardinal sin" of making a medley out of the absolutely flawless and irreproachable works of the ever so virtuous, out-of-this-world composer that was Frederic Chopin. 

Individuality of interpretation is also killed by these prudes, as they believe particular styles of playing should not ever surface and be kept under tight control, especially for young performers. From personal experience, they usually think this playing is too fast, too clear, too mechanical, and emotionless. Though this may be true in some cases, I completely disagree that this is a category that should encompass me and every other performer in my generation. Recently, I watched Menahem Pressler perform with the New Orford String Quartet on a celebration concert for his 90th birthday.  I was extremely impressed by the depth conveyed by Mr. Pressler, let alone the fact that he was able to play at all at his age. However, I really did not appreciate the response he managed to elicit from an old musician couple in the audience, as told by a friend of mine who was also at the concert. The woman said, "Wow, that concert was quite something. His sense of emotion was impeccable!", to which her husband replied, "Well, yes. So much emphasis on technique these days. I don't think any pianist under 30 today can ever play half as good as him!"

Really? "Half as good" as missing quarter of the notes? "Half as good" as coming in late when playing chamber music? And as for playing the "emphasis on technique" card, though I agree that technique isn't everything, the fact is often lost on these "ruin of true music" fatalists that technique PRECEDES emotion. You can't convey your emotions effectively if you don't have a good control of technical skill. I applaud Mr. Pressler's emotion, effort and poise at his age, and there is a lot to learn from that, but there really shouldn't be any comparisons between his playing and the playing of my generation. If performers around his age show remarkably great depth of emotion but messes up all the technical parts, it's genius, but if anyone under 30 exhilarates and "wows" their audiences with virtuoso repertoire, the jealous prudes would decry them before congratulating them, if they do at all. The double standard for performance practices - created by accepting emotion/depth without good technique, but condemning music that makes us compelled and say "wow" instead of "touching the depths of our soul" or providing us any inwardly "emotional" experience - is proving lethal to the marketability of classical music. After all, "wow" is usually an important emotional experience for most people.

I think another thing is that, due to the unquestionable and awe-inspiring beauty of the works of the great composers, we assume that they were like saints - conservative and virtuous, conducting a no-nonsense approach to both life and music. This view could not be more wrong. Liszt was always after making his music accessible - he actually invented the modern-day recital. He indulged in what the prudes of today dub "empty virtuosity" when displayed by performers less than half their age. Also, he embraced controversy just like intellectual people today. 

In terms of mentality-vs-music contrasts, nobody but Mozart takes the cake. He and his family wrote countless letters about poop to each other. They were irredeemably obsessed with it, and Mozart even wrote a whole six-part canon called 'Kiss My Ass' - note that it's about the literal meaning of the phrase, not the figurative. A recent article shows that, quite unbelievably, J.S. Bach was a pretty bad boy, too. You don't have to click the red words in this paragraph if you don't want to (but you know you really want to now, don't you?). 

All else aside, we must remember that the great composers were human too, and refrain from incorrectly labeling them with a holier-than-thou image. Because of this image, we assume that they would hate any little change in music if they were alive today, and those of us who are particularly patriotic to this cause happily hold up flags to aid in their false representation, asserting that the composers "would've wanted it this way". This is sad and stifling for the classical music world, to say the least. Advancements in any field rely on acceptance, and stifling any style does not actually hurt the musician in question's following, but instead serves to give a very bad, "boring" rap about that musician's field, failing to attract new audiences. 

So, to all the foreboders who scrunch their noses up at the evolution and attempts at accessibility of classical music, yet quite hypocritically throw their hands up in desperation crying about the "death of classical music", please stop. Seriously. If classical music is really dying, you're the ones killing it. Just: 1. Sit back, 2. Relax, and 3. Try to refrain from telling other classical music performers, fans, and devotees what they should and shouldn't like. Oh, and while you're working on that, you're welcome to kiss my ass anytime. 

Alas, my rant comes to an end. Hopefully there are other things on my mind at the end of the day besides rocks, ladders and ghosts of composers past...