Friday, January 22, 2016

Papa Haydn's Got a Brand New Bag

Someone linked to this article today, advocating a new label for what is usually called "Classical" music.  The writer, one Craig Havighurst, has a valid point; as he acknowledges, the point has often been made before.  His candidate for a replacement, "Composed Music," is no better, though, and it's mildly amusing to watch him try to justify it.

It doesn't help that he's mainly thinking in marketing terms, which I guess is fair, to a point.  In Havighurst's lifetime,
The Thing We’ve Called Classical Music has cratered in popularity and public engagement. It’s working its way back, slowly, to a place of respect, relevance and commercial viability. But it needs all the help it can get, including a major re-branding and re-conceptualization.
"Re-branding."  I'm not surprised to find that Havighurst has done a TED talk or two; this piece is full of marketing jargon and woo-woo.  Havighurst believes, evidently, that the reason why old European art music doesn't sell as well as Adele is that it isn't being marketed properly.  Call it "Composed Music," and that will change, if you just give it a chance -- the brand, not the music.
Let it sink in for a few seconds. See if you can get used to it. Imagine it as a designation in Spotify, a new Grammy Awards field or a wall in a record store. Imagine it as a new frame of reference for every kid studying cello, voice, piano or a band instrument. The ramifications of laying that term over and around the beleaguered term Classical Music could be profound. Baggage of history, class and race is swept away. The awkwardness of there being a Classical Period in Classical Music becomes moot. In a radio context, the music would no longer come across as an oldies format but as a vibrant art form, with Mozart and Jennifer Higdon and Chopin and John Luther Adams getting equal billing and stature.
The music snobs I know are not going to like the idea of John Luther Adams being assigned equal "stature" with Mozart and Chopin.  I don't think you have to be a snob to object to it; it's like assigning equal stature to, say, Neil Simon and Shakespeare.  It's no denigration of Simon's skill and professionalism to insist that he's no Shakespeare.  So let's leave "stature" out of it, Craig.  As for "billing," that also is a marketing issue, not an artistic one.
The general public won’t initially know what we’re talking about when we talk about Composed Music, but that’s a good thing. It’s a chance to re-introduce and refresh the very idea of music made for careful listening and refined expression in a fast-changing and jaded world.
"Composed music" really doesn't work very well even for the purpose Havighurst has in mind.  As he admits, most people will have no idea what it refers to.  And contrary to his fantasies, I think that when he offers an example of the product he's pushing -- Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, let's say -- the most likely response will be "Oh! You mean classical music."

I commented that I prefer something like "European art music," and the person who'd linked the article replied, "Much of the music in question is not Eurocentric."  That brought me up short, because I hadn't said it was.  Evidently he doesn't know what "Eurocentric" means.  Still, it's not fully accurate to call this music "European" or even (another term I've used) "Euro-American art music," because thanks to Euro-American imperalism the music is not only being played by large numbers of non-Europeans -- the IU music school trains many performers from Asia, for example -- it's being composed by them.  (I think immediately of composers like the Chinese Tan Dun and the Thai Somtow Sucharitkul, but there are others.)  Still, I think that "European" is an accurate term for the tradition, in the same way that I'd be playing Japanese music if I studied the Koto.

"Art" is more problematic, though.  This is something of what Havighurst wants to convey by "composed."
Finally, the term has more poetry and resonance than might be apparent at first blush. The related word composure describes well the formality and focused attention that’s at the core of how so-called Classical Music has been performed and received for centuries, something that’s decidedly not broken. Composed Music honors and thrives on active, engaged listening. It distinguishes itself from all music appropriate for a party or a free-speech atmosphere and invokes a contract among composer, artist and audience. We collectively conspire for silence, which is this art form’s canvass, blank page or dark theater. To grasp and feel Composed Music, the audience has to compose itself, and it’s nice to be reminded of that.
One of the first commenters on Havighurst's piece pointed out that "pop music is composed.  Showtunes and film scores -- famously -- are composed.  Ever heard of Gil Evans, Duke Ellington, Maria Schneider, Carla Bley?  Jazz composers all."  Havighurst acknowledged the point in his piece, but brushed it aside.  But it's more of a stumbling block than he evidently realizes.  A lot of thought and work goes into the composition of a film score, but it's not meant for "active, engaged listening."  The same could probably be said of a ballet score or an opera, yet those are unquestionably part of the tradition Havighurst wants "composed music" to indicate.

Several commenters liked "concert music," but that also isn't specific enough.  It simply means playing or performing together in public, so it must include Bruce Springsteen or Public Enemy, or a brass band playing John Philip Sousa in the park, as well as Bach or Beethoven.  And Havighurst's specific tradition of a decorous, mostly silent audience listening to an orchestra is a nineteenth-century development born of snobbery and class anxiety.  Since most eighteenth and nineteenth-century "classical" music was popular music in its day, I doubt very much that most of its audiences listened to it with the same trained sensibility that its composers brought to its composition.  One person liked "deep listening"; I replied that I listen to Stravinsky, Bach, Beethoven, and Penderecki shallowly, for the sensous pleasure I get from the melodies, textures, harmonies and rhythms.  I suspect that eighteenth and nineteenth-century audiences mostly did the same.  I could also have mentioned classical musicians I've known who, on listening to a group like Yes, praised its use of "classical" modes and structures; of course, since at least some of the band members had that kind of training.  So did numerous heavy-metal performers.  "Deep listening" is more about the listener's background and how he or she applies it than about the content of the music itself.

No one really knows what "art" means, or how to distinguish it from non-art.  I learned when I hung out with music students at IU in the 70s and 80s that they could be caustically dismissive of work by canonical composers.  Training can produce dislike for these compositions as well as appreciation.  It can also produce a contempt for the taste of laypeople who don't (unsurprisingly) hear music the way a highly-schooled professional does.  Part of the blame for the way classical music has "cratered in popularity and public engagement" must surely lie with performers and composers who want to produce and perform music that is inaccessible to most people.  There's nothing wrong with that project in principle, only with their ambivalent expectation that the stupid sheeplike masses should support it anyway.  If you want to make art for a tiny minority or elite, fine, but no one is obligated to pay you to do it.  And most of the main tradition of European art music is not inaccessible, in principle or in practice.  It's just old.  Many people do enjoy Golden Oldies, but they also want new art and entertainment.  When I was in high school, I read an article in an audiophile magazine that quoted a letter from Mozart to his father, to the effect that the Viennese were playing a lot of old music, and much of it wasn't bad, even though some of it was four or five years old.

People have been arguing about the labels and categories used to package and sell music and other arts for as long as I can remember, and commercial concerns are usually at odds with artistic ones.  Try to define "jazz," for example.  In the late 80s Wynton Marsalis set off a storm of controversy by declaring ex cathedra what jazz is, and what it isn't; many jazz musicians and critics disagreed with him. "Blues" is another conundrum.  Elijah Wald's Escaping the Delta (HarperCollins, 2001) is an excellent account of how the blues changed over decades, not just musically but culturally.
... it is all a matter of definition, and one could easily make the argument that James Brown was simply a new kind of blues singer and follow this logic through to Snoop Dogg.  Having decided to let the musicians themselves do the defining as much as possible, however, I am struck by how insistent Brown for one, has been on killing that argument.  [Though Brown grew up on the blues,] he maintains that while he loved everything from gospel music to Count Basie to Frank Sinatra, he always hated blues.  "I don't remember whether I sang them, but I know I never liked them ... I still don't like the blues.  Never have."

Considering that the two hits with which Brown announced himself as the kind of funky soul modernity in 1965, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and "I Got You (I Feel Good)," were both cast in the twelve-bar blues form, this seems more than a little odd [216].
On one hand, Wald explains this in part as a result of the association between the blues and "the poor, rural, segregated past" that aspiring African-Americans of Brown's generation and after wanted to leave behind.  On the other hand, as Wald suggests, the blues as a musical form didn't die out; it just changed its spots, as it were, and became rhythm and blues and soul, even disco and hip-hop.

It might be that the same is true of "classical" music.  Far from dying out, music for European-style instruments and orchestras is still alive and commercial, in different venues and modes.  The original works are kept alive by government subsidies and academic support, since they can only be played professionally by people who've undergone rigorous training.  (But even pop music has become increasingly professionalized over the years.  Just as one indicator, I see many kids at IU carrying guitar cases around, and I doubt they're all studying "classical" guitar.  There are now courses in the history of rock, and the School of Music has soul and African-American choral ensembles.)

Again, though, what Craig Havighurst is really talking about is marketing, not the music itself.  He wants more people to listen appreciatively to this music, and to pay money to listen to it.  But marketers feel that way about any product they're pushing, whether it's any good or not.  It's a professional imperative to convince yourself, by a kind of self-hypnosis, that the product is good and that everybody should like it and buy it.  One reason for the incoherence of Havighurst's article is that he confuses the inherent quality of the music and his desire to sell it.

Although I also was influenced by the Leonard Bernstein TV programs Havighurst mentions, my real introduction to European art music was through Warner Brothers cartoons, which used that music, often parodically, as part of their soundtracks.  "What's Opera, Doc?" and "The Rabbit of Seville" are only the most obvious and explicit examples; when I began exploring classical music through recordings later on, I was surprised and pleased to find that many of the tunes were familiar to me from their use in cartoons, TV shows, and movies.  Trying to sell cultural products to kids, as something good for them, isn't going to work.  The best you can do is expose them to it, and if they find something they like in it, some of them will follow up.  School programs are also good, if we can get rid of the high-stakes testing that wastes more and more classroom time these days.

I really doubt that a new marketing rubric for selling "classical music" will attract more consumers.  It will probably erect new barriers that will keep them away, as when Havighurst tries to draw the line between "real" composed music and stuff that doesn't measure up to his vague standards.  When you think about it, isn't it remarkable that many people are still playing and listening to music that is two or three centuries old, even though it has been badly "packaged" by generations of teachers and exemplars who want to see it as something fossilized and basically dead?  As Noam Chomsky remarked while discussing the marketing of Barack Obama's 2008 election campaign (via), "The goal of advertising is to create uninformed consumers who will make irrational choices.  Those of you who suffered through an economics course know that markets are supposed to be based on informed consumers making rational choices. But industry spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year to undermine markets and to ensure, to get uninformed consumers making irrational choices."  If European art music by whatever name you choose to call it has real value to people, marketing in this mode is exactly the wrong way to get or keep people interested in it.