[furt-l] Something else
- Apropos the current discussion of "fools," here are some thoughts from Mr.
Hurwitz on the classical music "crisis" that don't seem so foolish.
By the way, both came from Mr. Hurwitz's web site, www.classicstoday.com.
Are The Classics Wearing Out?
Classical music consumers continue to benefit from a simple fact: there has
never been more stuff of such high quality available at such low prices, and
the new releases just keep on coming, month after month. Still, over the
past several weeks I have read innumerable articles about the idiocies of
the record industry, the lack of adventuresome live programming,
conservatism in the selection of new music directors of major American
orchestras, the dearth of "greatness" in performance -- the litany of gripes
is endless. I never cease to be amazed by the barrage of complaints coming
routinely from listeners, critics, retailers, and CD producers. Then it hit
me: What if there's something behind all of this bitching and moaning? What
if this near universal, restless dissatisfaction (not to be confused with a
restless dissatisfaction with Universal) has a simple underlying cause
arising somehow from the music itself? Is the industry in crisis, or are
today's listeners? What else accounts for the otherwise inexplicable fact
that the more choices it has, the less happy the classical music audience
Perhaps you find this notion heretical. Well then, consider just how
peculiar the current situation is, historically speaking. Let's start with
the very basics of our experience as listeners. We probably all agree that
the great classics were, and for the most part still are, written to be
enjoyed in concert. Recordings offer only an approximation of the live
event. Nevertheless, this is how most people now get their regular musical
fix. But more to the point, our perception of the VALUE of the classics as
an entertainment experience is based on a fundamental assertion of the
music's supreme quality arising at least in part out of its (until recently)
scarcity and inaccessibility. So what happens when something that used to be
rare becomes ubiquitous? Like the cost of pocket calculators and microwave
ovens, the price declines rapidly, but so does the product's sense of
"specialness," "uniqueness," "exclusivity," and so on.
Given this fact you might still argue legitimately that the "cultural aura"
of classical music has nothing to do with its value as "music", and is
merely a snobbish vestige of self-conscious elitism. True enough. But
inextricably bound up with the cultural value question, is the fact that we
also claim that a "classic" continuously rewards the listener upon
repetition, and can sustain innumerable different, equally valid
interpretive approaches. I still believe this, but the issue is complicated
by the fact that while it's possible to make this case technically as a
discussion of music only, very few contemporary listeners would understand
this approach because, unlike audiences at live concerts in previous
centuries, modern record collectors are often untrained, ignorant of even
the basics of musical nomenclature.
I'm not saying that you need to study music to "appreciate" the classics,
but it certainly helps if you want to know what makes a piece of music
"great", and even more in trying to understand the differences between
multiple performances of the same work. Barring that, the average enthusiast
derives his faith in classical music's importance and value almost wholly
from the cultural arena. So strong, in fact, is the lure of the elitist
mentality that I believe many industry professionals, including performers
and critics, accept it because it plays to their notions of self-importance
in a way that a purely musical approach obviously cannot. And so we have a
classical music culture that validates itself more from "culture" than from
"music." Into this scenario comes the recording glut of the past two
decades, taking something which used to be a rare, ephemeral experience, and
asking listeners to derive pleasure from and find meaning in a depth of
often trivial performance detail that only the players themselves ever
encounter. It's a combustible mixture.
I can well remember in the 60s, 70s, and even early 80s, just how special or
rare recordings of certain pieces were. Take Bruckner's Fifth Symphony, for
example, a piece that for years existed as a specialty item, infrequently
performed and recorded. At the dawn of the CD era, there was only one
recording available in the new medium (a lousy sounding old Furtwängler
wartime broadcast), and then finally Karajan's DG version appeared. Yes,
there had been other versions on LP, particularly Jochum's, and Haitink's,
but it was quite a while before they joined the party. Now, I count 35
versions in my own collection, and I can think of at least a dozen more. And
this is nothing compared to what has happened with the so-called "popular"
classics. What great composer of the past could ever have imagined the
possibility of listening to literally dozens, even hundreds, of versions of
his works anytime we feel like it? Remember this also: one of the reasons
the old classical repertoire was so small was because audiences naturally
craved novelty, and gave priority not to "ancient music," but to new works.
I raise this issue not to take up once again the boring discussion of the
"crisis" of contemporary music, but rather to emphasize the fact that even
when it comes to the so-called "classics," variety matters. A lot.
Might it not be the case that some of the frustration that produces the
current chorus of complaints stems from the fact that the music itself in
such quantity simply cannot sustain even a sympathetic listener's interest?
Can anyone's memory of a large work be specific enough to encompass
accurately the unique, meaningful details that distinguish dozens of
versions from each other? In short, has listening to yet another recording
of the same work become a chore, irrespective of the quality of the
performance itself? Has it produced a legion of listeners unable to hear
anything but the most obvious or exaggerated aspects of an interpretation,
or worse, one whose concept of greatness is a function of "difference" for
its own sake? I believe that at least for some people, possibly many, the
answer unfortunately is "Yes."
Now add to this sad fact the general sense of the classics as infinitely
repeatable and valuable by virtue not of their musical quality, but their
cultural significance. The result can only be an increasing sense of
disappointment, fear, defensiveness--even anger. If this music is so damn
important and wonderful, then why am I so bored? Am I really supposed to get
excited over yet another recording of Brahms' First Symphony? It must be the
fault of the conductor, or the record company, or the orchestra, or everyone
at once. After all, does anyone honestly believe that even the most rabid
collector will play through fifty or sixty recordings of the same piece in
rapid succession in order to determine precisely how the new one stacks up
in his personal pantheon? Or will he instead rely on his all too fallible
memory to see him through, which will necessarily favor whatever version
sticks out most strongly in his mind? And what a job for us critics! Isn't
it easier simply to favor some older recording dating from a period when the
critic actually listened carefully and comparatively, or to focus instead on
some non-musical aspect such as the performer's nationality, or personal
friendship with the label (two popular criteria), and so discount the
How else can we describe the general indifference among listeners and
critics that greets what used to be considered important, exciting, and even
career-defining projects, such as a fabulous new Beethoven symphony cycle
(Barenboim), a superb set of the complete Haydn string quartets (Angeles
Quartet), sensational editions of listenable, attractive new music on labels
such as BIS (Holmboe symphonies), Marco Polo (Lajtha symphonies and
orchestral music), and CPO (symphonies by Atterberg, Antheil, or
Villa-Lobos), a wonderfully conducted new Ring cycle (Barenboim again), or
such massive projects as Hänssler's complete Bach, or Hungaroton's complete
Bartók. Never mind whether you agree or disagree with the quality of
performance: thirty years ago releases such as this would have mattered.
They would have been discussed, listened to, publicized, eagerly
anticipated, and more to the point, purchased.
When some jaded listener starts talking about modern performances sounding
"the same," how much of this stems really from his own inability to hear
meaningful differences between them? And can we blame him? The popular media
is full of articles about the desensitizing qualities of Rap music, but no
one dares raise the issue in the classical arena. Can Beethoven's "Eroica"
really remain interesting the hundredth time around in just a couple of
years, or does it eventually dull the senses just as overindulgence of other
kinds invariably will? Like a richly seasoned gourmet meal, how much
classical music is too much? Are we living in the world of "A Clockwork
Orange", where excessive exposure to the classics has become all unknowingly
an instrument of torture or aversion therapy? Or is the current situation
analogous to the commonly heard cable television whine: 200 channels and
nothing to watch!
I don't have an easy answer to these questions, and I suspect it may be
different for each person. But there's no doubt in my mind that more than
the record market has reached the point of saturation, and that a lot of the
frustration being voiced stems from a basic fear that our tried and true
definition of a "classic" as something infinitely repeatable and ever
relevant just might no longer apply. This is especially likely if the
perception of the classical repertoire's artistic value stems less from
musical than from cultural assumptions, whether cynically self-serving or
grounded in a simple lack of musical knowledge. Of course, you may agree
with this hypothesis or not, but it seems to me indisputable that the
validity of our definition of classical music is being tested as never
before, with consequences no one can guess.
-- Dave Hurwitz
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