Reenact This

I was going to write a huge, fancy prologue to justify how I got all pissed off about a few things, but my own prologue also pissed me off. It’s like when people say fifty times during their academic paper “there is no time or space here, unfortunately, to go into these fascinating issues” but if they had cut every occurrence of that phrase there would have been oodles of time. A skeptical person might wonder if those issues would have proved as fascinating as promised.

So, straight to the stringy meat of the matter. No bush-beating. With all due respect, I hated this line from David Lang’s recent op-ed in the New York Times:

Imagine a baseball game in which all the players dress up in the uniforms of a hundred years ago, and then follow, pitch by pitch, a classic match-up from the past.

My first objection is admittedly a bit personal. Although my favorite concert apparel sometimes smells like it’s a hundred years old, it’s really only a few years old. If you must know, it’s Joseph Abboud, 2005 (endorsement?). I actually think, based on a few isolated recent remarks, which I hoped were not ironic, it’s coming into fashion again. It’s just a velvet jacket with pinstripes, OK?

Ahem. Now let me try to address the wider issues. I empathize with David Lang’s larger point. But I have to confess I am slightly (as in rabidly) prejudiced against sports-music metaphors, in the same way that I detest phrases like “Beethoven was the Jimi Hendrix of his time” … although I realize the importance of bringing classical music into semantic proximity with things that people actually like.

David is giving us a metaphor for the classical concert experience, hyperbolically, to emphasize its absurdity, i.e. as in, look how ridiculous it is, all of those people in their tuxedos playing old music! Now, I agree a classical concert can sometimes seem or even be absurd. But am I the only performer out there who finds this metaphor demeaning? Is that what composers think we do? The association I get is that classical performers are something like Civil War reenactors. We prance out there in our silly clothes and try to mimic some thrilling event of the past, but it’s a battle so predictable and harmless that people are serving drinks, memorabilia: we already know the score, who won, who marched where, who pitched a fast ball, who had better cannons, who committed an error, what handkerchief Napoleon sneezed into, no matter what detail you choose, the point is the result is foregone.

When I was a child, my parents took me to a Revolutionary War reenactment, and it was ridiculously hot and my mother got faint from the heat and had to be tended in an ambulance. I forgot who won. Come to think of it, ambulances are present at many classical music concerts too.

David’s metaphor, which attempts to capture the absurdity of the classical concert, is itself absurd. It collapses upon the slightest examination. Suppose you were to reenact a baseball game, “pitch by pitch,” the way he suggests. OK, you have somebody out there, and you say throw a curve ball, that’s what happened in the original game, and the guy throws a curve ball, would he be lucky enough to capture the exact curve of the pitch as thrown in 1959 or whenever? And if so, would the breeze floating across the field be precisely the same so that the parabola of the ball would confuse the batter in precisely the same way, and the flutter of the flags and the taste of the beer in the stands and the sweat and hope of the players would those be the same too? You get my point. Reality would continuously, infinitely frustrate the recreation of the ephemeral event, and you would never get the same score. A baseball game CANNOT be reenacted in this way, and that is why it is absurd to do it, and that is why the metaphor is silly, not because classical music is silly. The only way to “replay” a baseball game would be to DVR it and watch it, or devise some incredibly subtle robots to perfectly recreate every single muscular movement of all those players on the field, a technological feat that might pointlessly consume many programmers’ lifetimes.

Actually I often dream of being a robot in my dressing room. A hypothetical robot with feeling, that would always play the piece in concert as well as the best time I ever played it. The ideal of robotic, repeatable perfection is naturally very alluring to classical performers, especially since the diabolical invention of the recording, in the face of the desperate moment of the irrecoverable performance. The most amazing emotive spontaneity fused with uncanny preternatural perfection and repeatability: these are the incompatibles that we classical musicians are encouraged to seek out simultaneously, for fear that the critics will say either that our fingers are not what they might be or our souls are bereft. I think David Lang is on to something (but certainly not the only person to be on to it) that there is a sense of ennui in certain performances of classical music, a sense of the hamster in the wheel, and we classical musicians need to lay the blame at our own feet: perhaps one factor is that certain kinds of perfection are seductive, and easily confused with musicianship? Other factors may include fear and tradition, and possibly inadequate snacks.

The point is, this particular bit of the baseball game analogy is ridiculous and unproductive (not to mention demeaning): the more apt comparison is rereading a great book, or re-performing a play, etc. etc. Is it silly to dress up in costumes and reenact King Lear? Baseball games, replayed hundreds of times, would become unspeakably boring … the element of suspense, of not knowing how it will turn out, is fairly central to its effect. One might admire and replay certain great athletic moments, certain beautiful leaps and astonishing swings, but that is why sports events tend to coalesce into “highlight reels,” immortal catalogues of astounding seconds. Highlights of artistic works tend to change as you absorb them over time, as you feel your way into their fabric. Knowing how King Lear ends does not ruin any of its effect.

OK, here’s where I get a bit even more pissy.

I know, I know, we performers are just re-creators and not creators, like you composers. I get it, I’m fine with it. However, what we do is not a reenactment, our clothes are not uniforms, any more than yours are (don’t get me started on composers’ outfits). We get up in clothes that seem appropriate for the event, and what do we do? — We supply all the information that the score does not, could not, could never. The classical musical score is a beautiful, endangered, characteristically outmoded thing (one doesn’t really look at the “score” of a pop song, right?), capable of infinite realizations and suggesting, implying so much more than any performance. In that sense, the score is “bigger” than us, and quite obviously much more important than our performance. It communicates powerfully the thoughts of geniuses past, and present. On the other hand, the score is not alive, in the same sense that a printout of a genome is not a living thing. The life between the notes on the page is there, written, implied, encoded, but lacks some information that can never be captured on the page, millions of little decisions, understandings, interpretations: those are the performer’s job, the flesh of sound. In that sense of being at least alive, any one performance at that moment is “bigger” than the score. That’s such a beautiful symbiosis: two things both (impossibly) bigger than the other.

David, I’m totally down with you that I wish classical music felt more in the present, more on the edge of its seat. I’ll go a bit further. I wish certain pieces (Beethoven Op. 96 or 111 for instance) could be free, float free from any gripe or rave, free from the bitchy comment or political posturing, free from “what a WONDERFUL piece” and other kinds of cloying adoration, free from endless comparison and re-comparison, free from receptions, free from op-eds, free from the particular concert with the coughing person or the out of tune piano or smelly tuxedo or whatever it is, but of course this purifying freedom would kill these pieces I love.

David, you focus pretty harshly on the pastness of classical concert life. To hear you talking, it’s all old hat. Agreed, we need much more of the frisson of what the hell is going to happen and it would be great to have more people thrilled about new music concerts! It would also be great to have lollipops falling from the sky.

But I would suggest there’s another way to express this pastness. Clothes from 1840, for instance, aren’t really worn anymore (for the most part, just go with me on this). Political thinking has changed, society has altered itself … Isn’t it kind of a miracle that some music survives from 1730, that certain pieces of music survive for hundreds of years? Music that should by all rights be dead because of changing fashion, taste, lifestyle, the deterioration of parchment, whatever. But somehow it’s held on. It’s endangered, to be sure. It’s the dodo bird of music, perhaps, waiting to be made inevitably extinct by encroaching generations of Biebers, by deafening headphones, but still we can read the present in that past. So fabulous, so thrilling?

Let me throw you a metaphor, David: classical performers are like crusty sailors atop a rusty boat, saying “there’s life in the old girl yet.” It’s terrible but I think it’s funnier than yours. Actually, hold on, I have one more–just for kicks and giggles. Society in general is not enthralled with classical music. Who knows why, it’s a symbol for fustiness, for fancy parties with buffets, for rich jerks on yachts, etc. etc. “High classical music” (let’s say Mozart Haydn Beethoven) is a bit like Latin, like a language holding on against changes in style, in desire, in fashion, but somehow it’s still holding on. It is widely shunned, it should be dead, and yet we performers insist on resurrecting it, because we love it: we try to throw a bit of electricity into it, and suddenly, hopefully, the corpse revives … and what do you know, despite the townspeople’s dismay, the creature has a certain ineffable tenderness, it communicates … my metaphor must be obvious by now, classical performers aren’t Civil War re-enactors, we’re actually Doctor Frankensteins!, which is much cooler.

I’m finished with this ridiculous rebuttal. There are all sorts of fascinating side issues I would love to cover, but there’s no time, Dr. Denkenstein has many corpses to revive.

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26 Comments

  1. Matan
    Posted June 21, 2011 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    What a wonderful entry! I remember being irked by that article as well… “Demeaning” is the perfect word to describe his article. Whenever I read a piece promoting the new music scene, it has to resort to diminishing the past to raise its own profile. I myself belonged to a new music ensemble which refused to play anything written before 1970, an obsession with dates I found slightly disturbing.

    Also, perhaps I can incorporate the imagery of reanimating a corpse in my next rehearsal. “Needs more juice….”

  2. david lang
    Posted June 22, 2011 at 12:57 am | Permalink

    Hi Jeremy –

    WOW!

    You correctly recognized that my article was metaphorical and then leaped from my mentioning clothing to talk about …. CLOTHING! Can we try to push the metaphor a little farther?

    Of course, it is impossible to replay a baseball game pitch by pitch – that’s why I brought it up! But it is very possible to reenact a piece of music, with all the precision and lifelessness that your Civil War reenactment memories recall. I have been to that concert, many, many times.

    You bring up how different King Lear can be, every time we see it. That is a great point. Now think of the tremendous amount of energy our society has put into making audiences capable of recognizing differences between performances of Lear – the play is in our own language, which we already use to communicate complicated ideas; it tells a story of families who in some way resemble the best and worst of what we see in our own families and ourselves; phrases from King Lear are even commonly quoted in our speech (“Nothing will come of nothing”). We are all, as people, already richly prepared to follow Lear and notice how it works, and how it changes.

    Now ask yourself, do all our citizens communicate directly in music with each other, in our daily lives? Does our society put any energy – advertently or inadvertently – in making people better listeners? Do most people who listen to classical music notice how it works, and how it changes? If they don’t, they must be listening in some other way, and maybe to something else entirely. Aren’t you curious what that is, and how perhaps to make it better?

    Oh Jeremy, I am a man more sinned against than sinning.

    My article is almost exclusively about how the general public listens to / processes / categorizes and judges the things that performers and composers do. It didn’t say anything about whether or not you or I or our colleagues were doing a good job, or whether we were engaged in something useful; it said that we don’t always encourage our listeners to expect something new, to listen freshly, to go more deeply into the music, and with more expectation and excitement. I don’t mean just in new music, either. Your point about Beethoven opus 111 is exactly right.

    I love your image of classical musicians as always being in the process of reviving the corpses of classical music – you do it because you love it, you say, as of course we all do. Let me see – I think I remember that movie. We recognize the tenderness and humanity of your creation, and then it kills a girl and the townspeople come out and chase it with their pitchforks and torches. Hard to build a sustainable culture of reanimation that way, don’t you think?

  3. Posted June 22, 2011 at 1:38 am | Permalink

    WELL SAID!!

  4. Jeff
    Posted June 22, 2011 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    My wife and I have heard you perform nine times, in eight different cities, occasionally in the same repertoire. We’d frank(enstein)ly be happy with reenactments, but every performance is new and different, which makes us even happier. I appreciate that you don’t like the baseball metaphor, but don’t give up on it entirely: There are those of us in the audience who root for you with every pitch thrown your way by Ives or Mozart or Ligeti. I’ve felt the presence of more enthusiastic rain-or-shine fans at your concerts than at any other. I’ve yet to see people sporting jerseys with your name on the back, but there’s another idea for the post-concert merchandise table.

    You probably know this really unimportant fact, but according to my Grove’s Dictionary, the Alcotts movement of the Concord was first heard by the public at some undisclosed location 80 years ago this August 3. I hope you’ll consider offering it as an encore at your recital at St. Francis on August 2 (close enough). You always make it sound as if it had been written yesterday.

  5. Posted June 22, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    There are wonderful points in both pieces, and I’ve given up trying to decide which I agree with more. Everybody wins!

    However, that’s not why I’m commenting. I’m commenting to let everyone know that I hereby claim the title “A Sustainable Culture of Reanimation.” So there.

  6. Kirk
    Posted June 22, 2011 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    The baseball metaphor is somewhat inappropriate – as a baseball game doesn’t have a score (pun intended), it is an uncertain event. A chance gust of wind can change everything; a slip on some dirt or grass can alter the result. In fact, there is a result; in music, there is no result, only the temporal appearance and disappearance of sound.

    Yet concerts are not reenactments; no one sits down at a piano and tries to reproduce Glenn Gould’s recording or performance of the Goldberg Variations. While they may be influenced by such recordings, reënacting them is cleanly impossible.

    Interestingly, in the non-classical arena, there are some bands that actually do reënactments. A Grateful Dead cover band, the Dark Star Orchestra, does just this:

    “Precision is king with DSO; the band adapts their stage positioning, vocal arrangements, specific musical equipment and instruments to fit the era of the show they are performing. Following each performance the band announces the date and venue of the original performance. Dark Star Orchestra could dip into any incarnation of the dead at any of their shows, allowing fans to experience shows that happened long before they were born.”

    I don’t think they play note-for-note, but they come pretty close.

  7. KAP
    Posted June 22, 2011 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    I am completely with Jeremy on this. I live in a state dominated by sports so I ADMIT to a certain bias as someone working in classical music media. It’s a big turnoff for me, though I admit quietly that I love the game of baseball.

    Sports and performing arts share certain aspects in terms of what they offer to people who start off as kids and grow into adults. They both demand resilience and tenacity, passion, discipline and motivation in performing at the highest levels. These pursuits lie somewhat outside of traditional academic gain.

    But, sports is a game. Music, is an art. Games have moments some might characterize as art. Concerts have moments some might characterize as sport. Both exist in a continuum of patterns. Patterns are how everything comes about and flourishes. And while I’m thinking about it, baseball and most sports exist in pretty ritualistic and tradition driven realms.

    The pattern of concert performance continues because it largely works. Yes, I am personally open to ideas about updating and freeing and adjusting classical music performance. I’ve talked to enough artists who tell me this is what they seek. But to get that point across with deep regard to this magnificent art needs a bit more heft and creative thinking than a hackneyed sports metaphor.

  8. KURT MUROKI
    Posted June 23, 2011 at 12:03 am | Permalink

    I agree with you Jeremy. David’s article is a weak attempt to understand a complex issue in a relatively narrowminded and simplistic way. John Philip Sousa understood the issue a long time ago. It had nothing to do with the music, the musicians or the audience

  9. joan of art
    Posted June 23, 2011 at 12:37 am | Permalink

    OK, let me dwell on sour notes. . .

    “I think what baseball projects, and what classical music needs, is the sense that one goes to a live event not to experience greatness, but to experience the possibility of greatness. It really comes down to risk. We revel in the risk inherent in the clash of competing ideas and options, before time evens them out into a few straight, orderly narratives. The game, the concert, the experience in front of us ? the chance to experience greatness is a risk. Not every game is great but what we go for is the chance that this particular game might be. Maybe for baseball fans the possibility of greatness alone is reason enough to go.”

    What are you saying David? Concert goers should be riskier and attend performances of recent works because they might possibly experience greatness?
    There is an enormous amount of risk taking in the arts. Mostly on the part of the artists and the composers. I think we can all agree that the desire and ability to innovate and the willingness to take risks is fundamental for any artist striving for excellence. Greatness only comes to those who take risks, who reach for what is new and exciting, rather than what is safe and comfortable. The fact is that art IS risk, and the only sure way to fail is to do nothing.
    On the subjective and controversial topic of ?artistic excellence? I find it annoying that many artists use the phrase to describe their own work, almost like bait. Likewise, many people in general make a bad habit out of using the word ?excellent? way too freely when describing works of art (or other things).
    Truth be told, this is not a subject to be taken lightly since one of the main determinants for who or what gets government support for the Arts is largely decided by whether it or they demonstrate ?artistic excellence”, or “artistic greatness.? This is a touchy area, since arts professionals who receive funds can then claim that their own work is of the best quality and therefore worthy of further support? support that usually comes from the taxpayer. Which brings up another sticky subject. If the phrase ?artistic excellence? is used in part to determine who gets funding, then doesn?t that suggest that everyone agrees on what the definition of the term is? My observation is that taxpayers are all individuals with very personal tastes who usually don?t agree. Even the King thought that Mozart wrote too many notes, but I digress.
    Many times artistic excellence is used strictly in reference to the classic arts. But isn?t it more subjective even than that? It’s more than obvious that there is a big difference between the art of Bach and Jay-Z, for example. Some certainly prefer James Bond to Hamlet. Not everyone likes jazz, or poetry, or the avant-garde. So how does one measure greatness in art? Is it too subjective to measure? Does it simply mean ?the very best you could do?? Or does artistic excellence imply timelessness as opposed to something that was cool a few years ago but ?oh so last week? today? Being reasonably interesting just isn?t enough for me.

    Of course there are some artistic comparisons that should never ever be made. There may never again be another Bach or Michelangelo or Shakespeare for example. But the Renaissance, meaning an age that sets standards for centuries to come, still holds the highest examples in art, music, literature and architecture in my opinion.
    On a more personal note, perhaps ?artistic excellence? can be defined as the act of creation at its most personally challenging level. Our modern society is so lazy now, living their lives out in front of one screen or another with expectations of instantaneous gratification. Everything has to be as easy and as fast as possible. I wonder if anyone can ever again be as inspired or as inspiring as 16th century England or Germany or Italy, where a culture exists that is precise and demanding about what it admires?

  10. Claudia
    Posted June 23, 2011 at 2:56 am | Permalink

    Hum … the baseball analogy could gain improvement if ’twere added that the FEELING were the goal … a baseball re-enactment for play-by-play would be pretty boring, and devoid of the feeling of the original in any case. As I presume is partly the idea of civil war re-enactments – they are to feel only sort of like the past (no need to feel deathly frightened).
    But, the beauty of having modern performers play pieces from the past is already a great marriage of past and present. How do we play Bach sincerely today? Let’s please not pretend that it’s all about the notes. And, why do we play Bach at all? It seems there’s something in there that touches people, and as I’ve noticed, very often people who have never heard classical music before. (I venture that it’s not of the pitch-fork kind.)
    The dramatic arts face imperilment just as much as the musical – I’m not sure whether Beethoven’s 5th isn’t as much of a chart-topper as King Lear. But, having a story-line helps communicate complex subjects; in non-operatic music (the most popular classical genre at present), it’s harder to follow.
    I guess the question at hand really is, could classical music ever be as popular as baseball? The article’s implication is that because classical is somehow doing it wrong, like a re-enactment, that’s where we’re missing something. I would venture a different viewpoint. In baseball, the outcome is always the same: one team wins, the other loses. It’s a very simple concept, and seems to be addictive in the plethora of ways and plays and factors, not to mention trials and tribulations, it takes to get there. In music, however, the outcome is always to have something different: a different feeling for each piece, each improvisation, each performance (who goes to hear a performer twice in the hopes that the second time will be exactly the same as the first??) The nature of these two endpoints is just that it takes more attention to subtlety to grasp the latter. I really don’t know what “bottom of the 2nd” means, but at the end of the day, the radio can tell me “Mets won” (I don’t even need to watch the game), and I can understand it and tell you the mood of New York will probably be more upbeat than otherwise.
    If our quest is to popularize classical music, and of course it is nice to feel popular, though being understood is pretty good too (though that doesn’t necessarily pay the bills), then why not take all the positives and add some more to them: some people would like to see Baroque music played in Baroque costumes, some people like the comparing game and the competitiveness of “which composer is the best”, some people like a concert format that is non-traditional, and some people just don’t know if they like anything because they’ve never heard it. Classical music can be complex, just like a Shakespeare play; why not additionally focus on educating and exposing the kiddies in music as in language – and I hope I don’t have to rely on the clich?d studies that show that classical music is good for the brain and society. There’s no reason why tradition and innovation can’t coexist, and each have value, as tempting as it may be to extoll the virtues of one by contrasting it with the other .
    Does baseball present an inherently “better” experience than classical music, exhibited by the fact that more people go? (I’m reminded of the old yarn of the elderly couple who looks for a picnic spot. The near-sighted wife points to a rock and says, “How about here?” The husband nods graciously, “Yes dear, ten million ants couldn’t be wrong”.) So, it depends whom you ask, and some people like both. Can we learn from baseball to make classical music more palatable to a wider audience? Maybe, but the nature of baseball and the nature of classical music are so widely different that who’s to say that marketing them more similarly is the answer? Maybe there are lots of ways to help audiences come away from concerts “more excited, motivated, attentive and passionate” (how about “more moved” – do we ever speak in terms of a baseball game having ever really “moved” anyone? should we be focussing on that instead?) – and maybe that actually happens more than we give credit for – sometimes it’s more a matter of getting the audience to come in the first place.
    Can classical music ever become as popular as baseball? Well … it sure would be a nice thing though!

  11. Posted June 23, 2011 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

    I really enjoyed this article!

    I am both a composer and a performer (a flutist), and I, too, love the music of the past so much that I never want it to die. (In spite of frequent death knells rung for it, it seems to me to still be going strong). Yes, it is quite amazing and wonderful that this music is still so alive and so beloved after all of this time.

    I love the music of our own time as much or more, and I also want to live in a culture in which people love and seek out new “classical” music. We’re much closer to that than we were during the 70s, when I was in college and grad school, and things keep changing for the better, I’d say.

    I have a lot of hope for having it both ways, loving both new music and old, keeping it all alive.

  12. bev & barry williams
    Posted June 23, 2011 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

    So good to have you back at GLCMF! Loved your performances…wished you could have done more.
    Great article!! That’s what the Artistic Encounters are about: reviving Frankenstein!

    Bev & Barry Williams
    GLCMF Volunteers/Usher Coordinators

  13. Posted June 24, 2011 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    David –

    I am thrilled and honored that you replied to this post.

    I’ll concede that you’re more sinned against than sinning. First of all, I took one sentence out of your op-ed and went bananas on it, neglecting its context. Secondly, this post belongs to a certain slightly campy genre I have done in the past, the comic over-the-top rant (like this post for instance).

    However, as long as we’re talking! It seems to me if you’re going to do a metaphor “Imagine …” in pursuit X (say, baseball) comparing it to pursuit Y (say, classical music performing), for it to be useful or insightful it has to fit either pursuit X or pursuit Y. But if you unpack your metaphor–people in uniforms of a hundred years ago replaying baseball games–it comes loose at both ends. It makes no sense in baseball, and it presents a pretty skewed picture of what classical performing is, or might be. One the one hand you have an impossible hypothetical, and on the other a disparaging caricature. Classical musicians already have enough caricatures and stereotypes to deal with, believe me.

    Also, I’m not sure I buy your King Lear assertions. I don’t think Lear is really in a language that many people associate with these days; yes, a few phrases have gotten famous, but so have a few motives of Beethoven, right? I don’t think our society (speaking broadly) really invests that much in making audiences capable of appreciating Lear, or basically anything more complex than Gossip Girl. Against the endless barrage of fast food media it’s hard to mount an effective defense, I know from bitter personal experience (damn you, Netflix!). Because Lear is made of people speaking words, and Beethoven 111 is made of tones, there is some level at which people find talking about Lear easier, that’s true … Still I think playing 111 is similar to playing King Lear, much more similar than replaying baseball games.

    You say in your op-ed you’re not talking about whether performers are “doing a good job”–you’re not judging!–but in your response you talk about performances that feel like precise, calculated reenactments. So you are judging? There is a judgment about the nature of classical performance hidden in your metaphor, and I think it’s disingenuous to deny it: nothing exists without evaluation (Roland Barthes). Yes, David, I have heard concerts exactly like what you describe, and I imagine I’ve been a part of them too. Agh! One of the interesting observations hidden in your metaphor is to think of the extent to which modern conservatory education and classical musical performance taste veers towards reenactment rather than reanimation, or translation, or recreation, or even the one I’d vote for: creation itself. (By the way it seems to me many compositions can seem as much like old baseball games replayed as these performances you refer to.)

    The crises in movie Frankenstein and novel Frankenstein are quite different. Movie Frankenstein dies because of inadequate communication (if only they understood him!) Dr. Frankenstein in the novel is disgusted by his own creation, and creator and created hunt each other down. Both sobering narratives for modern classical performers and composers.

    I think the only way you sin against me is implying that I got stuck on the clothing. It’s true, the “uniforms” part of your metaphor irked me, and I harped on it, but I think in the final analysis I covered a lot of topics: the nature of the score; the difference between recreation and reenactment; the necessity of dry cleaning, etc. etc.

    Finally I bet you we agree about much more than we disagree. I loved your phrase about things being “untried, unstable, unsteady,” and also crave more risk. I guess I’m not sure what your proposal is for us (performers AND composers) to get more people involved in music listening, in “active” as opposed to “passive” listening. I’m all ears, and I think we should talk about it, because I’m with you on it, baby, I’m with you. Dr. Denkenstein at your service.

    Jeremy

    p.s. go Oberlin!

  14. Posted June 24, 2011 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    This back and forth got me stirred up enough to write my thoughts on my blog, but to keep it short on another person’s site: This is all very clever, but perhaps the problem is a lack of exciting new works which the performers and audience enjoy listening to and performing as much as many older works? Speaking as a composer (unknown, unperformed, unpaid as I am) I think that Little Match Girl Passion is one of the few great works written in the past decade, but most contemporary works just aren’t as good or as enjoyable as that, and I can’t blame concert wear, performance practice, or audience education for a lack of excitement. Perhaps less reanimating of the dead, and more..well..more of that well-known and sought after behavior that produces new living creatures, if you catch my drift.

  15. EK
    Posted June 24, 2011 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    I read the comments to the NY Times op-ed and what I get is basically this: some members of the classical music audience don’t like modern classical music because they think it is “ugly.” They go on to describe why it is ugly, but the arguments are confusing to me.

    Some people said it’s because modern music is “atonal.” This is confusing to me because as a professional classical musicians I perform a lot of tonal modern music. I can also cite “atonal” examples in classical music that predate Schoenberg (much maligned by commenters) by decades, even centuries.

    Some people said it’s because modern music sounds “like nails on a chalkboard.” This is confusing too because I can think of so much modern music (tonal and atonal) that uses the exact same instrumentation and timbres employed by the revered composers of the past that commenters cited.

    Some people alleged that modern music is intended solely to “shock” an audience. Although I think this is a vast generalization and that there is music written today intended to be lots of things (or nothing specific at all), avoiding a work of art because it isn’t “pleasant” is like pretending that a major part of the human experience doesn’t exist. There is music of every era and style not written to be “pleasant.” It may not be as “shocking” today for some, but that doesn’t mean that it was written to be “pleasant.” I think that it is possible to confront some very “unpleasant” topics and emotions through art in a way that is thrilling, thought provoking, and even fun.

    The claim was made that modern composers are simply too “out of touch” with popular music and culture to write “relevant” music. Examples that disprove every part of this statement truly ARE too numerous to mention, not to mention examples of music written for centuries with no intended link to popular music or culture – many of which are beloved by “classical” music fans.

    I’ll never forget talking with an elderly donor after performing Shostakovich’s 8th Symphony (1943.) I asked her if she liked it. She replied, “No, I don’t like contemporary music.” About a symphony written 65 years earlier, a work of art that would be contemporary to Stalin.

    Perhaps she simply identifies more with the 1940′s than the 21st century, but I am willing to bet that we could find a lot of music written since 1943 that she would really like. We can prove to our audiences that new “classical” music doesn’t all sound the same; that it truly represents a more diverse array of styles, sounds and emotions now than ever before; that there really is something in it for everyone. And frankly, we can prove too that old “classical” music does as well.

    Although I didn’t get this from David Lang’s metaphor, it seems that he is saying that there is a problem in the way that some audiences process new music. Based on the responses to his article, I agree. I don’t care to argue whose fault I think it is that this has happened, but I think that the majority of the imperative to address this issue falls to musicians and music organizations – no matter how classical or contemporary, small or large.

    Sorry Jeremy, I didn’t intend for this to get so long, but thank you for bringing up such outstanding points. With all due respect to Mr. Lang, I think you’ve helped him express the core of his message, and his message is very valuable to those of us in this strange field. Having seen you speak and perform (and to a small degree performed alongside you) I’ve seen you serve music, old and new, exceptionally well. Best wishes from the West Coast.

  16. Posted June 25, 2011 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

    Well, Lang doesn’t come right out and say we should positively ignore music of the past, but I do have a question for him (and other “novelty-above-all-else” types):

    How does the date of composition bear at all on the intelligence or worth of a piece’s content?

  17. Janis
    Posted June 26, 2011 at 3:08 am | Permalink

    For me, what irked me about that article wasn’t the whole POSSIBILITY OF *G*R*E*A*T*N*E*S*S* junk, but the fact that he totally missed the one way in which classical music — which I ADORE and spend more money than I should playing and listening to — blows it compared to Old Tyme Baseballe.

    There is a huge feeling of This Could Be You in baseball — even if it’s not true, it’s marketed that way, especially in the old days. Sure, Lou Gehrig was a type AAA personality with a berserk fast-twitch muscle fiber proportion, but all of those guys were sold as if they were Average Joes from the neighborhood with a dusty secondhand glove and a dream. And they motivated a ton of people to love them, and what’s more, to play the game themselves. (I’m not a baseball fan, BTW. I can have as much fun watching bread go stale, and I don’t have to pay to park.) It gave them a sense of real ownership of the game and of their favorites.

    But with classical music … well, unless you had parents who could afford a violin at age three and daddy was close, personal friends with Dorothy Delay, well … that ain’t gonna be you, now is it? Too late, too bad, you blew it, you started after you were out of toddler pull-up diapers, born too poor, born without connections, get off the stage. Yes, all of those musicians can transport me musically … but there is definitely a way in which my favorite pop and rock musicians have a different feel to them … that again, This Could Be You.

    It doesn’t make any more sense to talk about classical music dying because it’s just reenacting the past than it does to say that pop and rock are dying because they usually try their best to reenact their recordings — mostly because they didn’t die and aren’t dying, even though they are reenacting even more closely. I’m going to reveal my age here, but audiences didn’t care that Styx was going to “reenact” Paradise Theater or whatever on stage. They just went and screamed their heads off, even if they were hoping to hear as close to a radio play as possible.

    But there is a way in which Tommy Shaw, Eddie Van Halen, Neal Schon, Pat Benatar, and all those made you think YOU could do it. They were One Of Your Kind, and their music reflected that. Now, in many ways it was as unrealistic as that violinist who met Delay before he or she was out of diapers. All those people were born into musical families and started painfully young as well. But again, they are SOLD in a way that will motivate their fans to think that these people are like them. No one waxes eloquent on how EVH started when he was 7 months old and plays a SIX MILLION DOLLAR GUITAR, so if you didn’t and don’t, don’t even bother to try.

    And even though those people were also type AAA crazed early starters, a lot of their music was written from the point of view of the audience, ennobling the audience’s experiences. Sometimes, classical music gives the feeling of watching space aliens from another planet perform impossible tasks that mere humans can’t relate to. Sometimes that’s magnificent — you’re talking to a Gabriela Montero deadhead here. But a lot of times, it can be demoralizing, especially if you love the music and even playing it yourself. It’s got nothing to do with The Past.

    And THAT is what Lou Gehrig, Sandy Koufax, and those guys had going for them. An aura of one-of-the-guys. (Okay, provided you were male and white.) That aura is completely gone from classical music in a lot of ways.

    The hell with *G*R*E*A*T*N*E*S*S* and the possibility thereof. That’s what classical music has let go lately. It’s bothersome to see something so obvious missed, even by someone who’s trying to make the connection.

  18. Janis
    Posted June 26, 2011 at 3:25 am | Permalink

    God, I could have said that whole schpiel in one phrase:

    No vast abyss between audience and stage.

    So it’s almost a cliche nowdays, but the reason people love “Don’t Stop Believin’” is because that song speaks to their experience, the audience’s. And the reason for that is that the people who wrote the song experienced it, too. You got the feeling back in 1981 that they wrote that song that spoke to you because they were one of you. They were your kind.

    People like music about themselves. Written and performed by people who understand.

    Baseball teams are less like that nowdays since the teams aren’t made of local kids anymore, the teams are all over the map moving from city to city, and the players are all bulked up on pharmaceuticals anyway, enough that they really ARE a physically separate super-species of aliens. But in Ye Olden Days? Yep. One of us. No abyss. Even if it was marketing bullshit.

    Classical music has the aura of Set Apart. There’s a time where that’s charming and magical. But not all the damn time.

  19. Chan S.
    Posted June 28, 2011 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    To repurpose an old saw, there’s no new music or old music, only good music or bad music. The listener also assists the “animation” (Ygor?). I can recall sitting through an inert harpsichord performance of the Goldberg Variations many moons ago, the zombification having as much to do with my callow ear as the uninspired playing. A happier recent scene in a conversation some time after a certain Wisconsin Union concert in April: “Did you see that concert? I was there too.” “The Goldbergs…they’re still living in my head.” “Mine too.” (However, all this Frankenstein/Denkenstein talk is threatening to spark a perverse earworm: the quasi-title track of Parliament’s 1976 album. Make it stop.)

    Shorter version: “It Lives!”

  20. Janis
    Posted June 29, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Just found this interesting quote from the foreword to a book called “Playing the Piano for Pleasure.” The foreword is by a dude named Michael Kimmelman:

    ” … During the last century, American society gradually turned from making music and art to the squishier endeavour of arts appreciation-turned from dexterity and discipline to feelings and self-esteem. The shift paralleled changes in modern art, which threw out the rulebooks of draftsmanship and proposed a new, freethinking attitude. Roger Angell, like Cooke a longtime New Yorker writer, in his memoir Let Me Finish recalled trips to the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium during the 1930s with his father, who liked to join pickup baseball games when middle-aged American men still did that. We know everything about the game now, thanks to instant replay and computerized stats, and what we seem to have concluded is that almost none of us are good enough to play it, Angell observed.

    So it is with classical music, professional renditions of which gradually have become so ubiquitous that many people clearly believe there is no point in bothering to learn to play. The gulf between professional and amateur has widened to the point that amateur no longer means someone who does something for the love of it. It means incompetent.

    So much for the possibility of *G*R*E*A*T*N*E*S*S* theory. An argument can be made that there is little that baseball has to teach classical music, because it’s afflicted by the same sort of thing: the attitude that if you aren’t blessed with *G*R*E*A*T*N*E*S*S*, why even bother?

  21. GLoria Alvarez
    Posted July 1, 2011 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    So glad to have you back! I’ve missed your rants–and your cogent reasoning!

  22. Buddy's Mom
    Posted July 6, 2011 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

    Dear Jeremy,
    After too many years on Wall St, suffice it to say that I despise sports analogies. Your music making is intensely alive. The last time I heard the Concord, I practically jumped out of my seat. I can’t get enough of your Goldbergs and what I’ve heard has been different every time. When I need to understand life a little better, I listen to you play the Allemande in Partita #4. You are doing a public service. So nice to hear from you again.

    And just a thought for Janis on the “Greatness” issue which can be daunting indeed. Check out the marvelous documentary film, “They Came to Play”. You don’t have to play like Jer to be totally involved in making music!! Although it sure would be nice.

  23. Posted July 7, 2011 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    Several years ago my wife and I made a trek from Chicago to Milwaukee for what you might call a reenactment of Beethoven’s 1808 Akademie, his mammoth fundraiser concert. Christopher Hogwood conducted a period instrument band, but to call it a reenactment I’d have had to have heard the original for comparison. I’d have quite a story if that were so. Sorry. It was tremendous fun, with some thrilling music-making. And they breathed life into pieces we hear often (5th and 6th symphonies) as well as pieces we don’t (bits of Christus am Olberg and the Choral Fantasy).
    That’s the fantastic thing about music. The notes on the page may stay the same from concert to concert, but all musicians bring something of their own as the lightning crackles into the corpse. Doesn’t matter if the corpse is 200 years old or 2 days, you all put on the ritz in your own way, and the rest of us (general public Mr. Lang? Sometimes, but also many specific publics) are richer for it.

  24. Posted July 8, 2011 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful discussion, folks! And so much derision for baseball metaphors. I know the middle-of-the-inning ads and between-pitch stat-twirling swooshes are out of control; but that’s nothing compared to our neighbors to the south, where the scantily-clad dancers shove sex in your face on top of the dugouts *during* the action.

    Let me, however, pose a separate scenario. For now, let’s suppose that reenactment is possible. What then? We’ve been addressing the issue from the performers’/composers’ side and not the audience; and this is where I think a baseball metaphor is quite appropriate. So what if a baseball game can be reenacted to the letter? What’s in it for the audience, the fans? As in baseball, which is a pointillistic game with loads of downtime–or put another way, where there is no action or performance–interest is maintained by the social interaction between pitches, innings, and beer. “That’s B.S., Ump! He was safe!” “I’m going to grab a dog. Want one?” “Why in the world did the manager do that?”

    On the flip side of the same coin, “Why did the performer do it that way?” For me, this is what makes music renewable and exciting. While the piece may be the same stale thing heard every other weekend from 1780 to the present–and you’re all right, an exact repeat performance is an impossibility–it’s the negotiation of that piece which is interesting. But it’s the more than that. We talk about it during intermission, during the reception; we think about it for as long as we can remember it; so on and so on. The performance is but one facet of the musical experience; the composition another; the discussion yet another. And they’re all intertwined.

    One can most certainly watch a baseball game–a DVD of a baseball game!–and choose to be unengaged. Or, even better, one can watch a baseball game and only be engaged during the action. But that’s not the point.

  25. Sam
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

    IMHO A classical concert subscription is not much different from soccer season tickets. You root for the home team, hoping virtuosic players work in harmony with one another to achieve elegance amidst the brutish, physical landscape. There are egos in soccer like the the egos of great maestros and virtuoso’s, but above all exists the noble ideal of “the beautiful game” and “the gentleman’s sport.”

    Soccer becomes a laughable sport in America for similar reasons to classical music- and classical musicians gravitate to the sport of soccer, in my experience more readily than others. Someone might say, soccer is boring.. the scores are low.. the standings award draws.. the dice are loaded by the referees.

    Perhaps the love of classical music and soccer are connected by a Eurocentric attitude? But I think both arts are struggling to keep up in modern America.

  26. Keenan Reimer-Watts
    Posted July 20, 2011 at 11:38 pm | Permalink

    Well, you have given me ample reasons to continue playing. Thanks!

3 Trackbacks

  1. [...] Denk wrote an “animated” response on his blog?where he says classical musicians resemble not so much baseball players or civil war [...]

  2. [...] Jeremy Denk lays the smack down on the ultra-casual dress in classical music lobby [...]

  3. By SuiteLinks: June 24 « Piano Addict on June 24, 2011 at 2:08 pm

    [...] Reenact this (don’t skip the comments) [...]

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