Sunday, September 26, 2004

Classical vs. The Rest

I've been meaning to write about this column by Tom Strini on the marginalization of classical music for a while, since this part rubbed me the wrong way:
The guys in the swing bands of the 1930s through the 1950s had training and discipline in common with their classical counterparts. They could cross genres in a natural way and casual listeners could perceive their kinship and follow them. Pop and classical music were built on essentially the same kinds of harmonies, melodies and rhythms and performed on the same instruments. In such an environment, symphony pops concerts made musical sense and could draw an audience.

That is no longer the case. Rock, with its harmonic simplicity, non-orchestral instruments and emphasis on attitude as a main marketable commodity, stretched the relationship thin. More recently, synthesized sound and sampling have replaced traditional musicianship in most arenas of popular music.

Britney Spears -- 'Oops, I Did It Again' Modern teen pop is more about sexual display than about music, although it's not inconceivable that Britney Spears will wash up on the 2030–31 symphony pops circuit. (How will Britney's navel look then?)

Rap, the dominant pop style of the day, has no use for traditional musical skill and no harmony or melody to speak of. Its rhymes-with-bitch crudity offends the civilized sensibility of classical music. Unlike many former pop and folk stars, no washed-up rapper will ever find second life on the pops circuit.

Some generalizations are excusable in a column like this one, but here Strini just seems like too much of a snob to really give these other musical styles a chance. For me, rock and rap music complement classical stuff in my listening, and while classical would be my favorite if I had to choose, there's plenty of other great music that I'd hate to be without. I know lots of other people, including classical musicians, who feel the same way. Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, is one of them. He wrote a fantastic article a while back on his personal relationship to different genres of music, and how he sees other styles of music evolving in the same way that classical music did. The opening paragraph in his writeup from this week's magazine shows that Mozart, for one, would not have been offended by rap's "rhymes-with-bitch crudity":

The breathtaking profanity of Mozart’s letters—“Whoever doesn’t believe me may lick me, world without end,” and so on—has led one British researcher to conclude recently that the composer had Tourette’s syndrome. What’s interesting about this theory, which has become the goofball classical-music news item of the season, is that anyone would actually need a far-fetched medical explanation for the fact that a young male with healthy appetites swore a lot and liked to talk about sex. Mozart, like Shakespeare, moved with equal ease through the most refined and most raucous circles of his world. Only if classical music is confined to the fleshless end of the spectrum does Mozart’s exaltation of the body become a psychological anomaly crying out for interpretation.

Anyway, Strini does have some good points in his column, and it's totally fine if he dislikes most non-classical music. But I think that when he dismissively generalizes about the musical qualities of genres that he doesn't seem to understand, he exhibits an attitude of almost wanting to keep classical music exclusive and marginalized.

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