Monday, February 3, 2014

Classical Music is Undead

Okay, so that thing about classical music dying? It's not true. Classical music is not dying. For classical music to be dying, it must have been alive first, and here's the dirty little secret: classical music was never alive! If classical music was alive, then it wouldn't have that adjective in the front, "classical." That's the whole point of something being classical; it's dead. If it was alive, we would just call it music.

That's precisely why the Scene That Must Not Be Labelled--you know, those kids in NYC with their fancy training and willful disavowal of generic boundaries--resist giving their music a name with such evangelical fervor. It's like the opposite of a farmer naming his pet pig; if you name something, it's going to die. (Although I hate to break it to them, the farmer's pig dies either way.)

Historical interlude: where does classical music come from? From the middle of the nineteenth century. In a nutshell, you had all these protomodernists arguing for a radical new vision of music making, a music of the future that would be transformative and break with the past in various interesting ways. In response, conservative critics and [most? definitely a lot] audience members more or less said, "wait, we don't like this crazy new stuff! Whatever happened to Beethoven?" And so, the audience retreated into no longer listening to new music, but to old music they still liked, largely by dead composers. The "classics," if you will. More structurally it was about the emergence of the bourgeoisie, but I'll let you read some real musicology for that story.

So if we're going to argue that classical music is not dead, then we aren't actually saying that classical music is alive, we're saying that it's undead. The actual question is, what species of undead?

 Most smart critics, and me as a teacher, participate in the Frankenstein model. We staple together a bunch of dead body parts, give it a zap of electricity, and call it alive. "Look," we say, "It's walking, it's talking, it's accidentally killing people it loves, it must be alive!" I think it's the spirit behind Andy Doe's infographic, and it's what I more or less do in the classroom. You teach, say, Notre Dame polyphony*, or Monteverdi, or whatever, and you point out how its self-conscious avant-gardism made people very alarmed. Silly old historical people! And then you get up to the present day, and you talk about how thriving and wonderful new music is. That's what I teach at least. And this gets magnified in the other wings of the music department, where the singers and the violinists and everyone else all get taught this weird version of history where choice bits of meat from the past thousand years of European music-making get nicely presented in little sanitized bits, and a Downton Abbey-like glow of comity surrounds all.

And when done right, when the staples are securely fastened, it's a pretty awesome sight. But I do feel a little bad, at least for all these students I'm sending out into the world to try for orchestra jobs or to teach it themselves to another generation. Frankenstein means really well, but Frankenstein is not big enough for them all to get jobs. They will get trained to perform at this amazingly high level, with just phenomenal technique, and they will bring incredible passion to what they do. But let's be clear: it might be on accident, and with the best intentions, but Frankenstein will still kill you. You will be chewed up and spit out, and you will make a living doing something very different than what you trained to do. You will tell yourself that you love music just for music's sake, and that you are whole-heartedly committed to doing what you love, but you will then not make rent. That's why I married a veterinarian.

Zombie is another option. @violetinbloom pointed out that zombies might better describe classic rock. I fully agree. My local "adult alternative" radio station is doing a weeklong tribute to the Beatles' arrival in the US, and I definitely feel as though there is a teeming mass of human carnage swirling around trying to devour me. No, classical music is no zombie. Zombies are for mass culture, and undead classical music is not mass culture. Every devotee of undead classical music who wants to save it from charges of elitism will point out how expensive tickets are for a Bruce Springsteen concert or a football game. And it's true, opera is a very cheap date.

But, let's be real about how power and privilege work. In fact, let's go back and be real about who we classical music fans were in high school. We were not exactly cool, were we? Maybe some of you were, but most were not. What psychological role did being a fan or maker of classical music play for us in the onslaught of our teenage years? I guess I shouldn't speak for you, but for me, and for many, many of my friends, being a classical music person was a source of inner self-superiority that we carried around with us. Our peers might be having much more fun than we were, and getting beat up much less, but at least we appreciated the highest art! Basically, Finch from American Pie, without the sex.

And so we satisfy ourselves with our custodianship of an ancient tradition, and, if we have the ability, we are thus tricked into giving--not buying, but just giving!--hundreds of millions of dollars to the Met so that they can put on a ridiculous production of the Ring. If popular culture is a kind of opium for the masses that tricks everyone into forking over their money, classical music is just higher grade. Basically, heroin. You don't need as many customers, just some really good ones. Also, tax breaks.

Which brings us, obviously, to the one major species of undead left out there. It's my favorite undead, actually. Undead classical music relies upon its aristocratic patina and social connections to sneak into our bedrooms at night, and when it bites us on the neck we kind of want it. We are all Lucy, Mina, and Sookie Stackhouse. Don't worry, undead classical music will never actually go away. But that doesn't mean it is alive. Check your neck for toothmarks.

*I meant to say ars nova. Can you believe I get paid to teach this stuff?

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