Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Cinematic Reincarnation of Classical Music

If you’re already familiar with Gene Weingarten’s Washington Post article Pearls Before Breakfast, then you’re also probably aware how often it has been picked up, transmogrified and distributed since its April 2007 publication. But if you could care less about the state of classical music, you likely missed it. Here’s a recap:

The author convinced internationally acclaimed virtuoso Joshua Bell to busk inside the terminal at L’Enfant Plaza, a metro station at “the nucleus of federal Washington.” For 43 minutes beginning at 7:51 AM, Bell would play six ‘classical’ works, performing it at a level befitting his genius, and do so using a superbly crafted $3.5 million Stradivarius violin. Though Joshua would be somewhat incognito under a cap, one would think that the music would speak for itself.

As arranged by The Washington Post, this exercise was constructed as an “experiment in context, perception and priorities – as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”

In other words, of the 1,097 people that passed by Joshua Bell, how many would then stop to savor the sublime beauty of a ‘classical’ performance?

As it turns out, one person recognized Bell, and a handful of others seemed to enjoy the performance, but most ignored him leaving him confounded (they didn’t stop for 'Chaconne'?), and with only a mere $32 bucks for the virtuoso’s efforts.

Forgive me if I re-frame the experiment with a bit of sarcasm, but when Washington reporters send dispatches from the nation's capital regarding the lack of taste in America, I believe one must respond with proportionate Plebeian skepticism.

Isn't it absurd of Weingard to suggest there is anything ill with our culture, based simply on a demonstrated lack of interest in anything during rush hour, other than one's commute? This is not one of those moments where we must stop and ask ourselves what does this say about us as a people. Or have we become morally bankrupt? Maybe we are, but maybe we are just busy.

The story is now getting a second life as a result of an article by Richard Taruskin wherein he makes mention of it in Books: The Musical Mystique, (from the October 22, 2007 issue of The New Republic). The article itself is a review of three books by three separate authors whose recent works all share the common lament that if classical music is not dead, it is in need of some very serious life support.

The books in review are:

Who Needs Classical Music? Cultural Choice and Musical Value
By Julian Johnson

Classical Music, Why Bother? Hearing the World of Contemporary Culture Through a Composer’s Ears
By Joshua Fineberg

Why Classical Music Still Matters
By Lawrence Kramer

Taruskin writes an excellent article, but in delivering each author’s arguments, he neglects to define for us what any of them mean by the term ‘classical music’. He must assume readers of the article will intuit his own understanding of the term, and I’m not sure that’s the case.

It’s unclear if authors Johnson, Fineberg or Kramer mean subscription sales to regional orchestras are down? Or if interest in new musical works no longer spark interest by a ticket buying public? Or if the problem is simply that orchestral music in general no longer retains the cultural significance we think it once did… When was this? Two hundred years ago? A hundred years ago? Was anyone alive today when this mythical Golden Age took place?

Since Taruskin doesn't provide a definition, I will offer one, which will suffice for this article and an argument that follows briefly. First let me suggest that definitions are not born in an Oxford English Dictionary Think Tank, but rather arise out of general usage. If we accept this assumption –I think it is a fair one– then I will further suggest that generally speaking, ‘classical music’ is considered to be any music that sounds ‘symphonic’.

Music historians will argue the term 'classical' may only apply to those works composed from the middle eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries. But that would mean J.S. Bach is not a classical composer, and that may in fact be the case, strickly speaking. Regardless, any explanation directed at the masses whereby experts draw an imaginary line between Bach and Mozart is going to sound a lot like trying to explain to fans of blues music how techno and electro are completely different. Such differences may be strikingly evident to aficionados, but they are ignored by the general public. Get used to it.

That said, far be it from me to dissuade anyone who can offer a better, concise definition of ‘classical music’ that meets a standard for general usage. Meaning, such a definition would have to be broad enough to include Mozart, Weber and Reich, yet narrow enough to exclude Cole Porter, Duke Ellington and the other Weber, –Andrew Lloyd.

You know what? ‘Symphonic’ works for me, too, and even allows Drew to the party.

Of the Washington Post experiment, Taruskin tells us he thinks for all its weaknesses it was nevertheless ‘instructive’. He explains: “It offered answers to those who wonder why classical music now finds itself friendless in its moment of self-perceived crisis--a long moment that has given rise in recent years to a whole literature of elegy and jeremiad.”

But I think it therein lies a problem. It is only instructive if one is not just a member of those interested in classical music, but a member of those interested in preserving classical music in its current format –and I’m not so sure once we get these people talking to each other, that we'll arrive at any consensus about what that is.

If one takes a broader view, one might actually come to the conclusion that classical music is not dead, but actually thriving. This is an idea I’ve also suggested about jazz (Jazz is Dead! Jazz is Dead! Long Live Jazz!), in response to hearing some cats bemoan of that genre’s apparent lack of notable press and pubic prestige.

Unlike jazz, though, classical music has always been sponsor driven, the church and royal benefactors being notable examples.

May I suggest that such sponsorships have been replaced by movie producers, advertising agencies and creators of electronic games, and that the modern version of the proverbial boor who ‘hates classical music’ often as not enjoys both the theme to Star Wars and the theme for Final Fantasy.

In a very real way, classical music, musicians and composers have flourished as never before. Only now, the music serves a utilitarian use as support or enhancement to other multimedia platforms; the musicians pay union dues; and the composers find inspiration locking to picture. Cinema, one could say, if only in retrospect, is Opera configured for the 20th century mass audience.

It's arguable that only a small percentage of scores are engaging on their own, once we remove the visual element. Hmm, not unlike Operas, I’d wager. But given the global output of such media, even a very tiny percentage of works would more than prove the point: Classical Music is alive and well, thank you very much.

By that I don’t just mean that there remains a subscription audience for reinterpretations of 18th century works, but that well-paid professional composers are creating new works every day and there are numerous compositions which have been well received, and their recordings purchased, by a general public.

Maybe you were too swept up in the accompanying car chase to realize you were also listening to a timewarped march for Timpani and French Horns?

As to the issue of ticket sales for live performances, consider that the current regional orchestra sustains a rather limited repertoire of ‘popular classics’. Meanwhile, one could easily find any number of contemporary film scores to enhance that repertoire, and which might possibly serve to generate interest in new, younger potential patrons (if that is your goal).

Several possibilities immediately come to mind: Gottfried Huppertz’s score for Fritz Lang’s Weimar classic, METROPOLIS; Bernard Herrmann’s powerful score for Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO; Music from the STAR WARS Saga by John Williams; and Philip Glass’s minimalist work for Godfrey Reggi’s KOYAANISQATSI.

For other ideas, look to John Caps’ article SOUNDTRACKS 101, from the November-December 2003 issue of Film Comment magazine offered up an ‘Essential List of 101 Great Film Score Milestones from the years spanning 1933-2001’.

If there is any obstacle keeping more substantial scores from entering the classical canon, it is not the fact of their inherent utilitarian purpose, but rather that so many of them were actually modeled on pre-existing works. Such modeling from 'temp tracks' (usually thrown up against picture during editing) is a common process in the making of film and video. While some scores born from a model might actually turn out to be highly original works, many suffer from mediocrity. Not so, however with Psycho, for though it bears striking similarities with Igor Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ it is a singularly brilliant work, even in comparison.

Another score may possess the necessary brilliance for live performance, but its elements remain disparate musical cues all but waiting for the composer or a gifted arranger to assemble them into a suite, perhaps, or some other conventional form.

The funny thing about Glass’ Koyaanisqatsi is that Weingard actually mentioned it by name in the aforementioned Washington Post article. However, he did not offer it as an example of classical music with mainstream popular appeal (because his point appears to be that there's no such thing). Instead he suggests the movie’s theme, imagery and content (an examination of ‘Life out of Balance’) compose a filmic parallel to the Washington Post's foray into busking.

“Backed by the minimalist music of Philip Glass, director Godfrey Reggie takes film clips of Americans going about their daily business, but speeds them up until they resemble assembly-line machines, robots marching lockstep to nowhere. Now look at the video from L’Enfant Plaza, in fast-forward. The Philip Glass soundtrack fits it perfectly.”

The Philip Glass soundtrack is also a classical work (at least by the definition I set forth here) –the movie itself is essentially a music video for Glass– and enjoys worldwide sales of the CD and DVD. That I think makes a stronger statement regarding the status of classical music –and its future– than trying to find meaning in the lack of interest with a fiddler at rush hour.

The fact of the matter is, Koyaanisqatsi is a popular work by any standard, and has probably been seen and heard by more people in the 25 years since it was released than the number of people who have heard J.S. Bach’s complete repertoire in the composer's own lifetime.

Technology has made everything more popular. Even classical music.

I know what you’re thinking, that neither Star Wars nor Koyaanisqatsi are ‘classical’ enough (for you!). If that is the case, allow me to reiterate my presumption that the likely standard held by the general audience is: Classical music is music, which sounds ‘symphonic’.

With obvious exceptions, cinematic scores frequently meet this standard. Within the body of such scores, there are a significant number which are suitable for concert and possess the wherewithal substance for consideration into the canon.

The music is alive, I’m sure of it. Maybe it's the intellectuals that are dead.


geneweingarten said...

Hey, Terry. This is Gene Weingarten, from the Washington Post.

Your post is interesting, but I'm afraid both you and Taruskin are misinterpreting the intent of this experiment. By putting Josh out there at rush hour, we knew we were creating a difficult crucible. The story made it clear that we could make no judgment about people's taste or musical sophistication, based on their lack of reaction. What we could do was wonder about the pace and frenzy of our lives; this was a story about priorities. What does it mean about how we are living our lives if getting to our desk three minutes early blinds us to the beauty around us? I remember sitting with Tim Page, watching the video of this, and he was laughing, saying, "Can't look! Can't stop! Gotta start that burdgeting memo by 8:32, not 8:34!"

Terry O'Gara said...

I'm delighted you took the time to read my essay! It occurred to me afterwards –given the incredible amount of commentary provoked in response to your original article–, that while we may indeed be too busy to stop, listen and appreciate transcendent beauty (of a musical nature), many of us nevertheless find the time to read about it –on the train no less (I can vouch for that)! Perhaps the issue is not one of conscious individual priorities, but pertains to the natural physical limits dictated by basic human capacity to receive certain kinds of communication during certain kinds of activity. Maybe the brain is more forgiving of, or more receptive to text than to music, during periods of high stress. I suppose one might even assume this to be the reason why so many people prefer the apparent inconvenience stopping to punch text on a tiny keyboard instead of simply making a call.

Okay, back to that memo!