Cacophonies and Heavenly Choruses: A Cure for the Classical Blues

Is there any term in any field that is more slippery or meaningless or that carries such impossible, historically artificial burdens of meaning as "Classical Music"?

For generations, cultural cynics and grumblers have warned that “serious music” (i.e., classical orchestral music) is suffering from some incurable crisis of conscience. The complaint usually and understandably fixates on the blatant problems of half-empty symphony halls and a moldy Romantic repertoire. But in the long view, the complaint is misguided, for anything culturally vital—and let’s pretend that composers who address problems of tonality are culturally vital—should persist in a perpetual state of critical self-examination, lest the music become devitalized, tepid, regressive, or (god forbid) counterrevolutionary.

What naysayers once meant by a musical “crisis” is not the predomination of bad music—because bad music always predominated, even before consumerism and copyright laws—but the domination of narrowly ideological trends, from neo-romanticism through serialism and minimalism. I use the past tense “meant” because the crisis of genre was the problem of the '60s, '70s, and early '80s when minimalism, with all its obvious limitations, rebuffed the cold intellectuality of 12-tone writing but failed to offer a viable way forward. Now, the crisis is economic and generational: classical music audiences are rapidly aging into the grave, concert programmers cannot grasp audiences’ tastes and desires, and younger audiences are rightly unwilling to subsidize a stale hit parade of Handel, Haydn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and the rest.

The ever-present crisis in classical music doubtless rests, at least partly, on semantic issues. The word “classical” serves (badly) as a rhetorical umbrella meant to improbably encompass a millennium’s worth of music, from monastic and liturgical dramas of the 11th century through chance music, IRCAM, post-minimalism, and some experimentalist in a café basement rubbing a clamshell against a cello. Sacred or profane, foundational or avant-garde, orthodox or aleatory, it’s all classical by default. I can't think of any term in any field—not even the wayward “realism” when applied to drama or painting—that is more slippery or meaningless or that carries such impossible, historically artificial burdens of meaning.

The popular consciousness solves this rhetorical mess by reducing “classical” to Romantic, a problem exacerbated by Hollywood, so many of whose films scores, 80 years after Erich Korngold and Max Steiner, still rely on the tyranny of unison strings and whooping horns. I wouldn’t dispute the Romantic soundscape’s lush or grandiose comforts, and the minimalist Terry Riley was myopic, I think, when he once claimed a total disinterest in everything written between Bach and Debussy. Despite my modernist leanings, I confess a sympathy for Borodin, Grieg, and the occasional Bruckner scherzo, and it’s foolhardy to dismiss the genius of Berlioz. But I know the dangers of complacency and decadence, of the paralyzing effects of the familiar, and I’ve grown a healthy disgust for anything unchallenging.

I’d characterize the current trend in classical programming as “aesthetic medicine”, in which an unfamiliar or newly commissioned work, usually about 25-minutes in length, gets sandwiched between beloved, unthreatening chestnuts. To endure the bitter taste of novelty, one is first served a Rossini overture and then is finally rewarded with the dessert of a Beethoven or Tchaikovsky symphony.

Yet the new commissions no longer attempt the corrective medicine of bitterness or surprise. Dismissing the dead ends of dodecaphony and wanting to transcend minimalist boredoms, younger composers like Christopher Theofanidis and Jennifer Higdon craft a new, friendly American tonality meant to assuage audience’s suspicions of the strange and reclaim classical forms as populist (but without Copland’s dissonant harmonies). And this “medicinal” model, now over-sweetened for easy ingestion, generally represents the best of classical options, for one must otherwise wade through pops concerts proffering Howard Shore (The Lord of the Rings) or the plagiarist Hans Zimmer (once successfully sued by the estate of Gustav Holst) as the unsung stepchildren of Mahler.

I’ll give you an example of the ineffectiveness of this oversweet medicine. A few years ago the Baltimore Symphony gave yet another performance of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, but first the audience had to experience a new guitar concerto (I forget the composer’s name). Though its first movement featured mild drama and suspense, the concerto, conventionally structured in three movements (medium-fast/slow/fast), mainly went through the new tonality’s lyrical paces, sans dissonance or effrontery.

What’s worse, I was unable to use the lavatory before the concert, and when the concerto started to bore in its tepid, uninvolving slow movement, I began to focus irresistibly on the urinary stress mounting in my bowels. Taking leave of the music, my mind drifted off, dreaming of grand lavatories—first, the outlandishly baroque urinals of Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, and then the gorgeously marbled private stalls of Windows on the World, the restaurant that, in less paranoid times, once nested atop the World Trade Center.

Insufficiently distracted by the guitarist’s noodling, I began to worry about the precariously brief length of the approaching intermission. My earlier, cursory investigations of the premises revealed that the toilets were wholly inadequate, as each of the hall’s three floors offered only one men’s bathroom. After the concerto finally ended, I bolted past the phlegmatic gentry to the front of the bathroom queue, where I discovered that the men’s room housed only three urinals, each drenched with the wanton spray of hustling, pressurized concertgoers. Assuming each men’s room was identical, the hall proposed only nine urinals for the concert’s approximately 2,800 patrons; assuming half were male and that, say, half of these would need to empty themselves during a two-hour, postprandial concert, the hall provided, on average, a measly one urinal per 77.8 men.

What sort of madness was this? What good are aesthetics—or the noble “new world” Dvořák envisioned—if one’s immediate organic needs go unmet? What had the concert hall’s architect been thinking? And where was the good sense of the water and sewage commissioner? My mind started invisibly writing a (urinary) tract: Why I Need Public Latrines More Than New American Tonality, a manifesto I fantasized about plastering across every toilet in town.

Have I digressed? No, I think, if we’re truly speaking of the needs of humanity when we talk about the aims of aesthetics. Had the guitar concerto been more daring and less conciliatory, my mind might have been empowered to transcend bodily realities, or at least forget about them for the duration of the music’s spell. But the music’s banality only reminded me of my own.

I recall another concert that varied the medicinal formula, providing first the acrid linctus—in this case, John Adams’ ultra-minimalist Shaker Loops, in its version for string orchestra—before Jennifer Higdon’s recent Concerto 4-3, a “dessert” of new tonality that incorporates folk, jazz, and bluegrass into a concerto grosso form. Shaker Loops, frankly, is my least favorite Adams work (as far as minimalism goes, I’d rather hear his 1983 Light Over Water, a symphony for synthesizers and brass), but in public I generally maintain my composure. I took this performance as an opportunity to appreciate anew what always seemed boring on record. As I realized that Shaker Loops is also tedious performed live, I smiled a bit and bided my time, but an 80-ish, vociferous woman sitting directly behind me wasn’t shy about critiquing Adams’ once-trailblazing medicine.

“Oh, this is bullshit!” she said, loud enough for those two or three rows away to hear. As if her neighboring husband had missed the broadcast, she repeated without shame, “Marvin, this is real bullshit!”

I turned around to dart her a dirty look, but she was unfazed. Five or so minutes later, she added another chorus of “bullshits” after grasping that Adams’ sawing violins weren’t going to stop anytime soon. When it came time for the sweeter, crowd-pleasing Higdon, the audience was hushed and clearly enjoying its bluegrass inflections and folk fiddling (as did I, though a second hearing on CD revealed the work’s superficiality).

When the concerto ended, the old woman was enraptured in a way seldom seen at classical concerts: filled with joy, she jumped to her feet and clapped wildly, even childishly, exclaiming “Yippie!” several times. Despite her public irritations, the woman reassured me for a moment; at least a new commission could be met with genuine enthusiasm, even if the work was unchallenging and aimed too hard to please. But then she started to speak again.

“Oh, that was great, that was wonderful,” she said to Marvin. “Oh, but that first one, that was total bullshit. I don’t need that.”

“That first one was John Adams,” Marvin replied.

“Do we like him?” The wife seemed momentarily confused.

“He did Doctor AtomicAtomic,” he repeated. “The opera… You liked that one.”

“Yeah, that was okay. But this one…”

In a sense, the irritating woman wasn’t wrong. It’s not necessary to know Adams’ aesthetic evolution, from minimalism to pop-inflected post-minimalism, to argue that Doctor Atomic (or Adams’ retooled Doctor Atomic Symphony) is better music than Shaker Loops. But what bothered me more than her ignorance or philistinism was her saying, “I don’t need that.” The conflation of “like” and “need”, of personal preference and truth, of predisposition and pleasure, will always hold the flowering of art captive to provincialism and triviality. And yet the woman’s vulgar enthusiasm for “pleasant” music keeps afloat what remains of classical traditions.

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