Saturday, January 10, 2015

Wake Me Up

There is something to be said for making classical music accessible, but what does that actually mean? If you want to listen to classical music streamed over the Internet for free, 24 hours a day, just go to YouTube which has, well, pretty much everything. There are even a lot of videos with a scrolling score so you can follow along. I don't know how much more accessible classical music could be. You can find the scores to everything in the public domain at IMSLP. There are also many, many instructional videos on YouTube as well, mostly in how to play particular pop songs, but there are clips of master classes as well. If you want to learn about music history or theory there is Wikipedia and a host of other places, even, blushing modestly, this blog.

But when people talk about making classical music accessible what they often or mostly mean is making it acceptable to people who listen only to popular music and have no real interest in classical music. This is the kind of "accessible" that appeals to record companies looking to improve their bottom lines. If you can get a group of classical musicians to demean themselves, both musically and personally, in just the right way, you might be able to get big sales numbers while still paying them a pittance! It's a win/win! Yahoo!

As a case in point I offer this music video that is almost a caricature of the process. It begins with one of those boring classical music lessons where the teacher stifles the inherent creativity of the young artists:


Later on, dashing out into freedom, they end up in a rave, admired by zillions, strumming away, holding the bow in the teeth like a kind of really bad-tasting rose. The amusing bit is the last part of the video where we see the artists in their dotage, playing a "classical" version of the tune with counterpoint and everything. But the rock-n-roll soon returns and the whole old folk's home responds with gaiety and abandon. Rock Rules! At All Ages!

This isn't popularizing classical music, this is exploiting prejudice and misunderstanding about classical music to sell records of pop music. If it sounds like rock-n-roll (ok, folk-rock) it is rock-n-roll, even if played on cellos. What this is actually popularizing is anti-classical music; it is popularizing hatred of classical music as embodied in two elements. First is the condemning music teacher in the first section. The message is that disciplined music lessons and the wisdom of adults are both wrong and worthless. I hope that the guy who taught these brats files suit against them! The other element is the end where it is shown that the only people to appreciate classical-sounding music are people in an old folk's home.

And this is why I am, as a rule, against this kind of crap. It is worse than useless, it encourages grotesque prejudices.

Really making classical music accessible involves a rather different approach, don't you think? It would require making private music lessons available at subsidized rates for those interested and having the necessary aptitude. It involves creative programming for symphony and chamber music series. But "creative" does not mean trying to pass off popular music as classical, it means finding attractive classical music performed in a winning manner. You might also explore some new venues for performances other than the conventional concert hall. There are lots of people successfully attracting audiences doing these things.

As an antidote to 2CELLOS, how about some real classical music for cello? This is Mstislav Rostropovich playing the Dvorak Cello Concerto with Miguel Ángel Gómez Martínez conducting the Orquesta Sinfónica de Radiotelevisión Española:


UPDATE: And if you want something funky and four minutes long, how about the second movement of the Symphony No. 10 by Shostakovich. Sorry, the first clip was bad for some reason. Here is a different clip of the same movement conducted by Dudamel:


22 comments:

Rickard Dahl said...

Indeed, this sort of thing does more harm than good. There is much "cool" classical music out there. I think some of the best examples are found in symphonies, such as the ones by Shostakovich, Beethoven, Sibelius and Bruckner. Another very cool example is the 3rd movement of Mozart's 5th Violin Concerto, the "Turkish" movement.

Rickard Dahl said...

Also, I think that video game-, film- and TV series music is a good stepping stone to classical music. It's true that there are different types of video game music for instance but I think there's a chunk that is highly influenced by classical music. Sure it may not be as advanced in for instance structure but it places emphasis on many of the same elements.

Bryan Townsend said...

You bet, you bet you bet! Mentioning Shostakovich reminded me of a movement that makes the point pretty well. So I revised the post accordingly.

Christine Lacroix said...

Come on people, lighten up. Music videos are for fun. The 2CELLOS are responsible for getting me onto your website (which is wonderful by the way) and interested in and enjoying classical music. In the interest of full disclosure I’m a big 2CELLOS fan so I confess to being a touch offended by your post, though I have to say it made me laugh when you called them brats. I think they just might be brats but for other reasons than their music!

Christine Lacroix said...

Come on people, lighten up. Music videos are for fun. The 2CELLOS are responsible for getting me onto your website (which is wonderful by the way) and interested in and enjoying classical music. In the interest of full disclosure I’m a big 2CELLOS fan so I confess to being a touch offended by your post, though I have to say it made me laugh when you called them brats. I think they just might be brats but for other reasons than their music!

Bryan Townsend said...

Christine, I'm sorry if I offended you. I think I offend just about everyone sooner or later. There is a Mahler-lover in Toronto that is still annoyed with me, but we have agreed to resolve that dispute with conductor's batons at ten paces.

Yes, the 2Cellos video was fun, but don't you think that the joke was at the expense of those classical musicians who do take a serious approach to what they do?

Sometimes I admit that most popular music isn't to be taken too seriously, but is to have fun with in a non-serious context.

Christine Lacroix said...

You said 'the joke was at the expense of those classical musicians who do take a serious approach to what they do?' but a 'serious approach' can mean so many things. Does it mean you can't break rank and experiment with different genres? Does it mean you can't poke fun at yourself and other musicians without being a traitor? In a post on Hilary Hahn, if I remember correctly, you said something to the effect of 'she takes her responsibilities as a musician seriously' and I thought, really? What responsibilities? Is classical music so sad, serious and important? Maybe there's a piece I'm missing here since I'm new at this.

Bryan Townsend said...

Christine, your points are very valid ones and I would like to try and give a fuller answer.

Actually, I think that serious musicians are always experimenting with genres, with idioms, with forms, with expression, with technique--with everything. And a lot of serious musicians, though certainly not all, do poke fun at themselves and others. I'm thinking of a hilarious song by Shostakovich in his most ironic mode where the text of the song is simply a list of all the prizes he had been awarded by the state: Lenin Prize for this and for that.

But a classical musician that is a genuine artist--not all of them are, of course--does have certain artistic responsibilities. There is an aesthetic truth that you are always seeking. I guess a lot of the reason to experiment is simply in a search for that truth. Classical music is both an entertainment, as countless divertimenti by Mozart attest, but also an art form. There are a significant number of pieces of music that I would really hate to see defiled by being set to a disco beat. Some examples: Bach, B Minor Mass, any symphony or quartet by Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven and so on. These works can have great humour, of course, but if they are treated in a crude and inappropriate manner, that is a kind of aesthetic sin.

There is nothing sacred about mere art, of course, but to people who are aesthetically sensitive and to whom great artworks have a powerful affect, it can almost seem a sin to do aesthetically bad things to them. But precisely this was a strategy of the Dada Modernists: Marcel Duchamp's addition of a moustache to the Mona Lisa is the classic example. There can be an aesthetic point to that, but often it is no more than cheap sensation-seeking.

I was getting a sense of a similar cheap sensationalism in the 2Cellos video. As I said in the post:

This isn't popularizing classical music, this is exploiting prejudice and misunderstanding about classical music to sell records of pop music. If it sounds like rock-n-roll (ok, folk-rock) it is rock-n-roll, even if played on cellos. What this is actually popularizing is anti-classical music; it is popularizing hatred of classical music as embodied in two elements. First is the condemning music teacher in the first section. The message is that disciplined music lessons and the wisdom of adults are both wrong and worthless. I hope that the guy who taught these brats files suit against them! The other element is the end where it is shown that the only people to appreciate classical-sounding music are people in an old folk's home.

Rickard Dahl said...

Very good response Bryan! I think it can be summarized as something like this: For every person it brings into classical music, it shames a few more on the edge and for the rest it just reinforced incorrect prejudices about classical music. It's nothing more than a propaganda campaign, intentional or not.

Christine Lacroix said...

Wow, you people do take this very seriously. I had no idea. Classical music must have a profound, almost sacred importance for you. If you have an artistic sensitivity, which I don't, then I can understand you might feel personally offended by anything that resembles disrespect towards classical music or classical musicians like yourselves. But I still think it wouldn't hurt if you lightened up a bit. You could take that B minor mass you mentioned, pop a piece of bubble gum in your mouth, set it to a disco beat and see what happens?

Bryan Townsend said...

Heh, heh, heh, heh. Not on your life!

Go have a listen:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JxKR7BaitxM

Christine Lacroix said...

Beautiful! For you, if you can bear it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eVH1Y15omgE

Bryan Townsend said...

Those guys need a bow re-hair stat! This mashup was a lot more palatable than the Wake Me Up video. Rossini is meant to be a hoot and, of course, whatever you want to do to Iron Maiden is fine with me! So, pretty successful in my book.

How much of the Mass in B minor did you listen to?

Christine Lacroix said...

Hi
I only listened to 15 minutes because I was off to work. Almost made me late. I intend to listen to the rest tonight. It really makes me regret not having a better sound system.

By the way some time you might want to define 'crossover'. Is it referring to classical musicians playing other types of music or is it classical music being bubble gummed up? As far as I know the 2CELLOS never bubble gum up classical music. When they play classical it's classical. Are they still crossover musicians?

If you didn't mind The Trooper Overture you might get a kick out of this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uT3SBzmDxGk

It was very successfully used in the trailer for the Amsterdam Cello Biennale 2014
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4jy9MHVG04Q

Let me know what you think. I like it now but it took longer for me to warm up to it than The Trooper Overture

Bryan Townsend said...

Fifteen minutes is pretty good--that gets you through the first movement, the Kyrie eleison, which is one of the best movements. Oh yes, it is music like this that forced me to upgrade my sound system! Listening to clips like Thunderstruck I am a bit hampered by not knowing the original version, so I have to go listen to AC/DC, then come back and listen to 2Cellos and by that time I'm not sure it was worth the effort. Part of the reason I don't listen to more stuff like this is that it doesn't, to my mind, really go anywhere. Once you have heard the first 30 seconds you can really shut it off because you likely won't hear any more ideas.

Crossover is partly a stylistic term and partly a marketing term. I've talked about it in various places, but this post is mostly about crossover:

http://themusicsalon.blogspot.mx/2014/09/crossover-mush.html

A classical musician who ventures out of their usual repertoire into more popular stuff is termed a "crossover" artist. I think Renee Fleming did a quite respectable version of this a while back. But most of the time it is the second or third rank classical artists who are doing this for purely commercial reasons. A rock musician who tries to write "serious" music could be termed "crossover" as well. I suppose in its most general sense it could be any musician who ventures into an entirely different genre. If B. B. King had done a polka album, that would be crossover. But thank God, he never did!

Christine Lacroix said...

You said you won't hear any more ideas? Is that what you're doing when you listen to music? Listening for ideas? I'm too unsophisticated to even know what that means! I'm enjoying your blog and discovering a lot of different music but most of the time it's way over my head.

Why do you want to hear the original version of Thunderstruck? If you go to Spotify and type in Celloverse vs the Originals you can hear one after the other the 2CELLOS arrangements followed by the originals. I don't think you'd enjoy it very much however!

Bryan Townsend said...

Christine, I'm glad you keep coming back even if sometimes it is obscure. I don't try and oversimplify--I just say what I think. Glad that there is enough of interest.

That comment about "ideas" was probably misleading. I call them "ideas", but what I mean is that listening to a good piece of music for me is like a journey. It takes you to different places and there is a sense of direction. I could have said "scenes" or "paths", but those words are also misleading. Music is a non-verbal experience!

I want to hear the original song that 2Cellos are arranging because I want to hear what they did with it.

Christine Lacroix said...

Hi Bryan

I keep coming back to your blog because I always learn something, I like the way you write, and you take the time to answer me!

I haven't had time to read your post on crossover but I will. Maybe using classical instruments to play other types of music is part of it?

It isn't classical music 2CELLOS make palatable it's rock! The only originals I find equally as good as 2CELLOS versions are I Will Wait by Mumford and Sons, Shape of My Hear by Sting, Wake Me Up by Avicii (it's a pity the video turned you off) and Street Spirit by Radiohead. But this is my non connoisseur taste talking here.

Bryan Townsend said...

2Cellos are doing more than just playing rock music on cellos. With costuming and settings they are invoking the characteristic traits of classical music performance--and then exploding them by turning a semi-classical experience into a rock one. It is like combining a visual and a musical pun.

Christine Lacroix said...

Wow, I'll need time to think about that one. Is it bad?
In the meantime, isn't this a kind of crossover?

http://laughingsquid.com/american-sign-language-interpreter-performs-a-riveting-asl-version-of-the-song-lose-yourself-by-eminem/

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh not necessarily bad, just effective. Music has its inherent aesthetic qualities, but these can be amplified, distorted or subverted through the way it is presented and received. There is a whole discipline in musicology about how music is received called "reception theory".

That video is quite fascinating! No, not crossover as it does not mix different musical genres. Not sure what to call it! I presume that the interpreter is not herself deaf. It crosses over, not from one genre to another within music, but from one sense to another: from hearing to seeing.

Christine Lacroix said...

Thanks for your comment Bryan. The girl in the video can hear. The video was an audition for her interpreting job application. She was hired.

I thought rap was the only type of music I could never understand until I saw that video yesterday. Maybe I'll never really like it but I was moved by her interpretation and the 'music'. It was gripping. I can get now why rap speaks to so many people.

The 2CELLOS have said, by the way, that some of their videos are autobiographical, reflecting both their love for and frustrations with the world of classical music.