Is classical music too pretentious? Is that perception off base to begin with? Do you have any personal experiences with pretentious behavior inside the world of classical music?  Drew McManus asks the questions in an article in Partial Observor.

Elsewhere, but not unrelated, Randy Nordchow confesses to have abandoned “ironic-superficial-complexity with a conceptual bent and a little dark humor thrown in” in favor of the New Romantic.

Not to mention Tom Myron’s “lovely” Violin Concerto.

Que pasa?

120 Responses to “Is Classical Music Too Arty-Farty for Its Own Good?”
  1. Samuel Vriezen says:

    I love talking about sound, I just hate the sound of talk.

  2. Samuel Vriezen says:

    One more little point about microaudiences.

    The upper limit to audience size is given by the technology we have for reaching people. Mass distribution, etc.

    Suppose every person can be audience to a maximum one thousand artists because that’s what they have time for. Suppose you live in an age where the maximum reach of the technology – if you tour lots – is one million people. Then a population of five billion would support a minimum of five billion times one thousand divided by one million equals five million artists.

    However, if the technology of marketing and distribution advances, and the maximum reach per artist becomes five billion. Of course, the time people spend on music does not increase quite so dramatically. Suddenly, the minimum amount of artists supported by the same population drops to one thousand.

    So the better the technology of distribution, the happier everybody should be that they at least have a small audience!

  3. david toub says:

    re—unreadable: I’m not having any problems reading this site (OS 10.4.8, Safari 2.0.4). I agree that WP should be readable by any browser, but the reality is that many sites are poorly coded in that they do not comply with open standards. Sites that are designed for IE are the worst offenders, since usually they render poorly, if at all, on other browsers.

    But I’m not having any issues with this site, in terms of readability. If a bunch of people are having issues, then that’s a big problem, but given how many blogs are based on WordPress, I’m a bit surprised.

  4. andrea says:

    glenn is glenn.

  5. Nathan Bibb says:

    I am coming to the party too late to keep up with all the conversations, so I am going to react to the original post and related article.

    (As an aside: The article was not calling the Music pretensious, just the people who promote/advertise/market it. While a lot of the debate that has stemmed forth about complexity and everything is interesting, I’m not going to touch it.)

    I think what this is coming down to is blaming “pretensiousness” for the lack of audience at classical concerts, and I think this is really missing the point here. Classical music has a long history, and like many other traditional forms of music with long histories, it has gathered a very specific set of cultural norms. Also like other traditional forms of music, it has been waylayed for the past 100 years by the advent of recording technologies and the processed music that has come with it.

    Compare this to food. 200 years ago, food was made in a very different way – most food was hand crafted based on centuries of tradition. Now, however, food is manufactured with the goal to maximize profits and efficiency, and minimize risk. You can still get handcrafted foods at gourmet outlets like Whole Foods, but most people will buy what’s cheap and tasty, hence our obesity issue here in the US. Music and the industry that has grown from it has done the same thing. Music whose purpose is to be art (or be spiritual, or reveal some higher truth) cannot compete in terms of audience quantity with music whose purpose is to maximize sales, whether we are talking about Western Classical, Gagaku, Gamelan, or Ragas. And it shouldn’t. The problem is that the Western Classical form is very expensive not as instantly gratifying.

    (I am speaking in terms of classical symphonies above, which is not the same as much of the music represented here on S21, which is often free and interesting. But that is an entirely different subject.)

    Taking up the main article specifically, there are two events McManus sites as revealing the pretensiousness of classical music:

    1. Regarding the “Tennessean” article where the newspaper informs potential audience members what they should know before attending a concert (when to clap, etc.): I think this is an insider’s view. For an outsider who has never been to a symphony, I think knowing what’s “expected” might actually relieve some tension. Other genres and composers have their own traditions. For instance, it is expected at Jazz shows to clap after each solo (usually). LaMonte Young has a rule during performances of his music that there should be no clapping whatsoever (this is written into his programs). I don’t see this particular example as a reason why more people don’t go out to concerts.

    2. Regarding the radio announcer who assumed people should know a certain traditional French story: Maybe this guy was a jerk, but there is assumed knowledge in any genre of music. The issue here is that classical music has a very large amount of accumulated knowledge, and to appreciate the genre it helps to have a background in this knowledge. I think this point has been addressed by several other posters here, but I can’t keep up.

    I think the issue here with classical music is not one of being pretensious, but one of being dragged down by the weight of the collected history of the genre. I would like to hear from some of the European readers – does this issue come up in Europe? It seems like something America has been struggling with for a couple hundred years.


    About the readability – I think this has to do with how IE processes (or doesn’t process) stylesheets and div tags. They must have finally fixed this in IE7.

  6. david toub says:

    Get a Mac. Use Safari (or Camino or Firefox, or OmniWeb—anything but IE). ’nuff said…

  7. Wow… these comments are horrible on IE. It’s the WordPress template that Jerry’s picked. Also doesn’t work too well with the Preview plugin I was trying to install… I suggest you use Firefox until we get this stuff fixed. ;)

    David, I’m just struggling with these issue, because, frankly, I take my music seriously and I take my talent seriously and I want to communicate. I don’t want to compromise, but at the same time I believe it’s every artist’s absolute responsibility to question everything. Especially shit you learn in schools. Why do we write in style A and not style B? Why is X out of date but Y not?

    I also am completely convinced that at the core of our musical society is corruption and incredbile careerist extravagance whereby untalented people have benefitted by obfuscating the question of quality and stylistic importance. They’ve hidden their inanity and their incomptence in complexity and mere repetition.

    Modernism, minimalism are cults, I believe. They’re the easy ways to make art – easy to teach – easy to explain historically – even though the music doesn’t make sense to most of the listening public. In a healthy musical society where styles have diverged this much and there is this much access to world and historical musics we should have a zillion personal styles going out in all directions. Not two.

    And because we’re all such sophisticated and emotionally deep artists, we should have audiences at least the size of Gaddis and Pynchon. If not more, since music is inherently more fun then :cough: reading.


  8. david toub says:

    Jeff, I’m with you 100%…UNTIL you refer to minimalism as cults. A cult, to me, is a group of people who blindly follow a leader rather than their own intuition or intelligence. While every style has its imitators and inferior composers, the fact that there is a diversity of styles within minimalism speaks much more of it as a new style rather than a “cult.” And minimalism per se doesn’t really even exist anymore. I don’t write minimalist music. Reich doesn’t write minimalist music anymore, and the same is true of Glass, Adams and even La Monte Young. Minimalism itself is pretty much dead…so much for the “cult” of minimalism. I mean, there were certainly groupies in the 80′s, but a cult?

    That said, I agree that people (not just artists) should always question everything. Perhaps that’s the only important thing I learned at the U of Chicago, but it’s critical to everything. Never accept the status quo, never blindly accept what you’re taught, and think for yourself. But the entire genesis of minimalism, and even serialism, was a conscious reaction to the status quo. Minimalism, for example, flew in the face of the “accepted” crap of the day, namely bland academic serialism. I don’t disagree that the oppressed often become the oppressors themselves (just look at recent history), but minimalism wasn’t around long enough to become a standard that everyone “had” to compose in to be credible. Indeed, we’re blessed today with so many choices, that it’s almost as if one is being conservative for following any movement. And that’s how it should be, in my opinion. I won’t deny that there are people writing dreck today who have not figured out their own voice or style, but that’s been going on for centuries. I’m not sure it’s any more prevalent today than in Bach’s time (I mean, other than Bach, how many of his contemporaries really did something different and bucked the trends of that era?).

  9. Steve Layton says:

    David T. wrote: (I mean, other than Bach, how many of his contemporaries really did something different and bucked the trends of that era?)

    Even Bach didn’t really do anything different, except the difference that he did what was around better than anybody else could. But just after him, with the Mannheim guys, there’s the 18th century’s “minimalism”!

  10. Yes do get the comments fixed, Firefox is a piece of crap. It runs very slowly and I have experienced all sorts of problems with it displaying websites incorrectly. The new version of S21 is the only site I have ever experienced a problem viewing with Internet Explorer.

    Also, about Bach, I was always taught that Bach was quite a reactionary who wrote in an extremely conservative style for the time. I don’t think it is appropriate to lump him in with this notion of the romantic artist “bucking the trends” and whatnot.

    Jeff, modernism I guess I understand, but I don’t understand why you’re attacking minimalism, which is by far the most popular style of writing to come out of the classical tradition in at least the last 50 years (and it would follow then, the most understood by the audience). Honestly though, I really don’t understand what you’re talking about. What kind of music do you wish people were writing? All I can figure out from your cryptic statments is that you want more music to be written that you personally enjoy. Something we all wish for probably, but I don’t get how this is being conflated into some grandiose theory of aethestics.

  11. david toub says:

    Dan, I agree re: minimalism. I also view Bach as a reactionary, which to me, implies that he bucked the trends, but I’m not a Bach scholar by any means, so who knows? I was always under the impression that Bach was very different from his contemporaries. In any case, my point was only that in every era, most composers follow the prevailing trends, while only a select few carve out new territories.

  12. Walter Ramsey says:

    I think it is a little misleading to call Bach reactionary, and probably either a case of wishful thinking or projection! Bach belongs to the category of “last in the line.” You cannot call Horowitz reactionary because he played in a freer romantic style that was against the trend of the times, and so it is with Bach. The way he composed is the way he learned, in a tradition that derived from the Franco-Flemish school and incorporated later styles from nationalities all over. He said towards the end of his life, “People will forget the old way to compose.” He refers to the old masters and counterpoint, the numerable secrets and rituals that relate the horizontal and vertical in ways at once deeply mathematical and spiritual.
    Had he been reactionary, he would have started with one style and ended up with another. But he kept composing in the same vein for his whole life! Definitely he was out of the mainstream.

    Walter Ramsey

  13. Karl Hungus says:

    I would like to see what would happen to someone
    who would have dared to tell Beethoven to “lighten up and go
    for the pop hit.”

  14. us2 says:

    they would have gotten “wellington’s victory”

  15. Evan Johnson says:

    This has nothing to do with arty-fartiness, but do look again at the preludes in the second book of the Well-Tempered Klavier, or compare the Art of the Fugue with the early keyboard music, and then think again about whether Bach “kept composing in the same vein for his whole life.”

  16. CB says:

    Cage’s 4:33 is pretty damn pretentious.

    Not saying Cage’s piece embodies art music, but its infamy isn’t helping any.

    just throwing it out there…

  17. CB says:

    to answer jeff’s earlier question-

    if John Adams fits in your definition of “minimalist,” then Hallelujah Junction (specifically part 2) makes me feel like I’m in love.

    …that was easy…

    counter-challenge: name a renaissance era piece that creates an intense feeling of dread, disorder, and chaos.

    Different musical systems styles are more suited for creating certain textures and emotions. You’re point about the limited emotional vocabulary of “atonal and minimalist” musics is moot.

    I’m surprised the argument continued continued for so long.

  18. Dread, disorder, chaos… “Io pur respiro” or “Moro lasso”?

  19. celebrity morgue says:

    showrooms online

  20. Rob Huebsch says:

    As a life-long lover of Bach –after having gotten over my initial reaction at age 8 or so that he was “so old-fashioned”– my considered opinion now is that his art is probably the best example we have of a music that “has it all.” Duke Ellington used the term “beyond category” to refer to his own things, which it doesn’t, but it does for that of Bach. (I forced myself to listen to some of Ellington’s big “serious” works, amused to find them the same old big band same old. He seems to have had but ONE category.) In Bach, we find an art that makes much of the forgoing discussion moot: questions of style, intention, elitism, audience reaction, what-have-you, simply transcended by the expressive value and quality of the IDEAS. In caps because it’s the What’s Being Said that’s all-important, regardless of any other considerations. That the ideas can come through to us today –assuming we’ve given ourselves a chance to know them– over the distance both of time and of a style that’s nothing if not archaic, raises some interesting and possibly dangerous questions. What’s the difference between style and the idea? Can we have one without the other? Does the populist/elitist debate merit deeper consideration beyond mere personal preference? Must there be a politics of music? What constitutes musical integrity? Or authenticity? (See comments on “wrong notes.”) Going to school to Bach has helped clarify many of these issues for me, in part by rendering them moot though interesting, and probably not worth any more time. Lately have been acquiring all the John Eliot Gardiner Canata recordings, reacquainting myself with many long known –but made utterly new in these superb performances!– as well as discovering new ones soon to become favorites. There’s a universe here, the farthest thing from “same old,” as fresh and alive today as when they were written, and a terrific lesson for any composer. Might as well aim high, though fail we will! It’s no accident that knowing Bach well has helped me know Bartok and the other modern giants –and many a lesser light– much better, it functions as a kind of universal solvent. I recommend it especially to young composers coming along today, who seem too eagar to be dismissive, not realizing that dues have to be paid, one way or another. If one is concerned with writing valuable music, not just “successful” music, perhaps taking a vacation from all these secondary considerations might pay dividends in the long run. OK, that’s my rant for the day.