Why so serious?
In a recent interview posted over at the Classical Guitar Blog, Michael Chapdelaine brings up some issues about the classical music genre. He talked about classical music being “so serious” and that it isn’t any more special than any other type of music. The feelings that we may have about the Bach Chaconne may be just as strong as a young teenager feels about Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance.
In a time when classical music is being given a smaller and smaller share of the recording industry, are its practitioners becoming their own worst enemy by holding classical music on such a high pedestal? Or is the classical repertoire a collection of timeless and profound works that deserves more respect and devotion than other genres?
Share your thoughts in the comments below.
I classical music practitioners are becoming their own worst enemy because they’re elitist.
Classical musicians have just as much potential to capture market share as any other independent musician, but there are fewer classical musicians willing to interact with fans. They are, after all, “artists” (whatever the hell that means).
So think the practitioners are their own worst enemy but it has nothing to do with the pedestal they put classical music on. It has everything to do with musicians not being willing to reach out and connect with potential fans.
Imagine if every classical musician explained their pieces like this: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/benjamin_zander_on_music_and_passion.html There would be a lot more classical music fans. All we have to be willing to do is take a chance and reach out in such a way that we inspire the appreciation of art music.
Interesting topics. Permit me to throw in my 2-cents worth.
Two things come to mind with this article. First, the social stigma of viewing classical music as upper-crust is not only unnecessary, it’s rather damaging to the genre. Simply put, rock (as a random example) is popular because of its accessibility, lack of depth, and overall communal message. It’s not less, just different. Classical music requires more thought because there is more being offered. And this complexity is either a turn-off, or an interesting endeavor worth tackling – it’s up to the listener. For example, Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” is a grand, programmatic piece with a lofty story behind each section. It’s not something to walk into out of the rain and start enjoying. Not to say that one couldn’t, but an appreciation would develop more if some background was understood beforehand. Because of this preparatory need, classical music could be considered inaccessible, I suppose. But only by comparison to other choices out there.
Secondly, the “seriousness” of classical music, I believe, is mostly attributed to the performance aspect. Perfectionism is rampant, and is a beast. I can attest to this as a classical guitarist – an instrument that requires what is called a “clean” sound. This is because the classical guitar is rather unforgiving due to its sound coming from the sound board and the nylon strings used. The slightest touch on the strings is projected though the guitar and, if it wasn’t intended, will sound like a mistake. Clicks, rubs, bumps…all make themselves noticed if one isn’t careful. In fact, there is a bit of a debate going on since the 80’s about Andreas Segovia; a man who is almost entirely responsible for the acceptance of the classical guitar as a valid orchestral instrument in the 20th century. Listening to some of his recordings, it’s easy to tell that he isn’t as “clean” sounding as some of today’s performers. If ever there was an instrument which taught the performer “The more you know, the more you realise just how much you don’t know,” it would be the classical guitar.
At any rate, the point to the above guitar rant is that one would need to be serious if to survive. There’s just too many people willing to take your spot if you make a mistake. Anyone can start a Jazz quartet and, if they’re good, make a decent living touring the circuits and enjoying every minute of it. This is because there is not “limit” to the number of quartets allowed. However, if you want to be, say, an orchestral violinist, there are only so many spots because there are only so many orchestras in the country. You’re in for a fight, so you should be serious.
On the creative side of things, composers are not much different. There’s an old anecdote attributed to the man pictured above (Bach) which goes something like this: One day after a performance at St. Thomas, a man approached him and asked a question. “Herr Bach, you are regarded as one of the great musicians and composers in all of Europe with contributions that are unmatched. Your music is demanding, yet sublime, and beautiful. How do you do it?” to which the elder Bach replied “If you had any idea how hard I work at it, it would be no wonder at all.”
There was a movement back in the 80’s, around the time the movie “Amadeus” came out, where the classical community tried disparately to dispel the myth that classical music is supposed to be serious. Even music teachers started the campaign that music is fun and that little Billy should be having fun playing the oboe – complete with little colourful stickers on his sheet music every time he got a piece right. What the professionals in the field didn’t say was that this “fun” comes from working hard. If you enjoy working feverishly over music day after day, that’s the fun part. After all, you’re not zipping around on go carts, you’re studying.
I believe there will always be an audience for classical music. In fact, there’s an audience for just about anything out there these days. Which is obviously a good thing. These debates are interesting and may shed new ideas, but I don’t believe it will change people’s minds. The perception of those who do not listen to classical music is superfluous information because it will continue without them. Whether or not anyone considers the genre “serious” won’t change the form much because people will continue to listen to whatever they deem interesting to them. The subjective nature of music is truly a gift.
I found that, especially with the guitar, that the term “classical” nowadays all too often guarantees a small but nasty audience of critics and envious peers. I have taken to performing in the “acoustic fingerpicking” world, not unlike Chapdelaine, because the audiences are more open-minded, which also gives the performer various opportunities to play repertoire that reaches beyond the “standards”, such as arrangements of popular or folk themes, or even original compositions. I think that John Williams is a great model to follow, given his adventurous spirit in getting involved with jazz and pop singers, folk groups, and pieces of wide appeal such as the Cavatina, which is always a hit no matter what the audience.
Thanks for all your thoughtful comments on the site!
I think some of the very best and most musical performers on the nylon strung guitar are not of the traditional classical teaching. Music keeps moving forward and thus I think more attention from those dogmatic classical musicians needs to be given to new age classical musicians and for them to open their ears to new sounds. Mind, not all traditional classical musicians are quite as pompus.
I feel that we should take the music seriously but not take our selves seriously. When our self importance eclipses the music we come across as pompous. When we show the joy of expressing a great piece of music we touch peoples souls and enlighten hearts. That is serious business and the music is very demanding requiring a focus that sometimes seems too intense for many. Under perfect conditions we can get a piece right and have a look that shows the joy at the heart of the composition. That's when we are really playing music.
I think some classical guitar players are not doing anything good for the classical guitar. For instance, if you dress formally (white shirt and bow tie) and then have face like you are in agony that looks like it is going to explode, then the music becomes too serious and will certainly not motivate young people to play the classical guitar. Also, some of these players play just as if they don’t hear the music. I particularly disliked one concert lately where the player was explaining how she was playing one of the most difficult pieces for guitar and indeed it sounded difficult. Then there are of course a lot of good players out there with a great musical touch, but these are rare unfortunately.
Also, one needs to distinguish the classical guitar (the instrument) from the music. There is a lot of really beautiful music being transcribed and composed for classical guitar that would certainly appeal to many people: Roland Dyens, Simone Iannarelli, Gary Ryan to name but a few. In addition, the classical guitar is very practical. All you need is the guitar, no power and amplifier required, and a lot of music to play solo. A very nice hobby indeed.