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A Classical Kid Learns to Love Pop

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In his February New Yorker article 'LISTEN TO THIS', Alex Ross profiles how "A classical kid learns to love pop—and wonders why he has to make a choice." Here is the intro to the article:

"I hate “classical music”: not the thing but the name. It traps a tenaciously living art in a them park of the past. It cancels out the possibilit that music in the spirit of Beethoven could still be created today. It banishes into limbo th work of thousands of active composers wh have to explain to otherwise well-informe people what it is they do for a living. The phrase is a masterpiece of negative publicity, tour de force of anti-hype. I wish there were another name. I envy jazz people who spea simply of “the music.” Some jazz aficionado also call their art “America’s classical music, and I propose a trade: they can have “classical,” I’ll take “the music.

For at least a century, the music has been captive to a cult of mediocre élitism that tries to manufacture self-esteem by clutching at empty formulas of intellectual superiority. Consider some of the rival names in circulation: “art” music, “serious” music, “great” music, “good” music. Yes, the music can be great and serious; but greatness and seriousness are not its defining characteristics. It can also be stupid, vulgar, and insane. Music is too personal a medium to support an absolute hierarchy of values. The best music is music that persuades us that there is no other music in the world. This morning, for me, it was Sibelius’s Fifth; late last night, Dylan’s “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”; tomorrow, it may be something entirely new. I can’t rank my favorite music any more than I can rank my memories. Yet some discerning souls believe that the music should be marketed as a luxury good, one that supplants an inferior popular product. They say, in effect, “The music you love is trash. Listen instead to our great, arty music.” They gesture toward the heavens, but they speak the language of high-end real estate. They are making little headway with the unconverted because they have forgotten to define the music as something worth loving. If it is worth loving, it must be great; no more need be said.

When people hear “classical,” they think “dead.” The music is described in terms of its distance from the present, its resistance to the mass—what it is not. You see magazines with listings for Popular Music in one section and for Classical Music in another, so that the latter becomes, by implication, Unpopular Music. No wonder that stories of its imminent demise are so commonplace. The Web site ArtsJournal features a media file with the deliberately ridiculous name Death of Classical Music Archive, whose articles recycle a familiar litany of problems: record companies are curtailing their classical divisions; orchestras are facing deficits; the music is barely taught in public schools, almost invisible on television, ignored or mocked by Hollywood. But the same story could have been written ten years ago or twenty. If this be death, the record is skipping. A complete version of the Death of Classical Music Archive would go back to the fourteenth century, when the sensuous melodies of ars nova were thought to signal the end of civilization.

The classical audience is assumed to be a moribund crowd of the old, the white, the rich, and the bored. Statistics provided by the National Endowment for the Arts suggest that the situation is not quite so dire. Yes, the audience is older than that for any other art—the median age is forty-nine—but it is not the wealthiest. Musicals, plays, ballet, and museums all get larger slices of the $50,000-or-more income pie (as does the ESPN channel, for that matter). If you want to see an in-your-face, Swiss-bank-account display of wealth, go look at the millionaires sitting in the skyboxes at a Billy Joel show, if security lets you. Nor is the classical audience aging any faster than the rest of America. The music may not be a juggernaut, but it is a major world. American orchestras sell around thirty million tickets each year. Brilliant new talents are thronging the scene; the musicians of the august Berlin Philharmonic are, on average, a generation younger than the Rolling Stones.

The music is always dying, ever-ending. It is an ageless diva on a non-stop farewell tour, coming around for one absolutely final appearance. It is hard to name because it never really existed to begin with—not in the sense that it stemmed from a single time or place. It has no genealogy, no ethnicity: leading composers of today hail from China, Estonia, Argentina, Queens. The music is simply whatever composers create—a long string of written-down works to which various performing traditions have become attached. It encompasses the high, the low, empire, underground, dance, prayer, silence, noise. Composers are genius parasites; they feed voraciously on the song matter of their time in order to engender something new. They have gone through a rough stretch in the past hundred years, facing external obstacles (Hitler and Stalin were amateur music critics) as well as problems of their own invention (“Why doesn’t anyone like our beautiful twelve-tone music?”). But they may be on the verge of an improbable renaissance, and the music may take a form that no one today would recognize. For now, it is like the “sunken cathedral” that Debussy depicts in one of his Preludes—a city that chants beneath the waves.

The critic Greg Sandow recently wrote in hi online journal that we partisans of the classica need to speak more from the heart about wha the music means. He admits that it’s easier t analyze his ardor than to express it. The musi does not lend itself to the same generationa storytelling as, say, “Sgt. Pepper.” There ma be kids out there who lost their virginity durin Brahms’s D-Minor Piano Concerto, but the don’t want to tell the story and you don’t wan to hear it. The music attracts the reticen fraction of the population. It is an art of gran gestures and vast dimensions that plays to mob of the quiet and the shy. It is a paradise fo passive-aggressives, sublimation addicts, an other relics of the Freudian world. Which may explain why it has a hard time expressing itsel in the time of Dr. Phil

I am a thirty-six-year-old white American male who first started listening to popular music at the age of twenty. In retrospect, this seems strange; perhaps “freakish” is not too strong a word. Yet it seemed natural at the time. I feel as though I grew up not during the seventies and eighties but during the thirties and forties, the decades of my parents’ youth. They came of age in the great American middlebrow era, when the music had a much different place in the culture than it does today. In those years, in what now seems like a surreal dream world, millions listened as Toscanini conducted the NBC Symphony on national radio. Walter Damrosch explained the classics to schoolchildren, singing ditties to help them remember the themes. (My mother remembers one of them: “This is / The sympho-nee / That Schubert wrote but never fi-nished . . . ”) NBC would broadcast Ohio State vs. Indiana one afternoon, a recital by Lotte Lehmann the next. In my house, it was the Boston Symphony broadcast followed by the Redskins game. I was unaware of a yawning gap between the two.

Early on, I reached for my parents’ record collection, which was well stocked with artifacts of the Golden Age. I listened to Toscanini’s Brahms, Koussevitzky’s Sibelius, the Budapest Quartet. The look and feel of the records were inseparable from the sound they made. They said so much to me that for a long time I had no curiosity about other music. There was Otto Klemperer’s Zeppelin-like, slow-motion account of “The St. Matthew Passion,” with nightmare-spawning art by the Master of Delft. Toscanini’s fierce recordings were decorated with Robert Hupka’s snapshots of the Maestro in motion, his face registering every emotion between ecstasy and disgust. Mozart’s Divertimento in E-Flat featured the famous portrait in which the composer looks down at the world in sorrow, like a general surveying a hopeless battle. While listening, I read along in the liner notes, which were generally written in the over-the-top everyman-orator style that Orson Welles parodied brilliantly in “Citizen Kane.” Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, for example, was said to be “melancholy, sometimes progressing to abysmal depths.” None of this made sense at the time; I had no acquaintance with melancholy, let alone abysmal depths. What mattered was the exaggerated swoop of the thought, which roughly matched the pattern of the sound.

The first music that I loved to the point of distraction was Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony. My parents had a disk of Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic—one of a series of Music-Appreciation Records put out by the Book-of-the-Month Club. A companion record provided Bernstein’s analysis of the symphony, a road map to its forty-five-minute sprawl. I now had names for the shapes that I perceived. (The conductor’s “Joy of Music” and “Infinite Variety of Music” remain the best introductory books of their kind.) Bernstein drew attention to something that happens about ten seconds in—a C-sharp that unexpectedly sounds against the plain E-flat-major harmony. “There has been a stab of intrusive otherness,” he said, cryptically but seductively, in his nicotine baritone. Over and over, I listened to this note of otherness. I bought a score and deciphered the notation. I learned some time-beating gestures from Max Rudolf’s conducting manual. I held my family hostage in the living room as I led the record player in a searingly intense performance of the “Eroica.”

Did Lenny get a little carried away when he called that soft C-sharp in the cellos a “shock,” a “wrench,” a “stab”? If you were to play the “Eroica” for a fourteen-year-old hip-hop scholar versed in the works of Eminem and 50 Cent, he might find it shockingly boring at best. No one is slicing up his wife or getting shot nine times. But I would submit to my young gangsta interlocutor that those artists are relatively shocking—relative to the social norms of their day. Although the “Eroica” ceased to be controversial in the these-crazy-kids-today sense around 1830, within the “classical” frame it has continued to deliver its surprises right on cue. Seven bars of E-flat major, then the C-sharp that hovers for a moment before disappearing: it is like a speaker stepping up to a microphone, launching into the first words of a grand oration, and then faltering, as if he had just remembered something from childhood or seen a sinister face in the crowd.

I don’t identify with the listener who responds to the “Eroica” by saying, “Ah, civilization.” That wasn’t what Beethoven wanted: his intention was to shake the European mind. I don’t listen to music to be civilized; sometimes, I listen precisely to escape the ordered world. What I love about the “Eroica” is the way it manages to have it all, uniting Romanticism and Enlightenment, civilization and revolution, brain and body, order and chaos. It knows which way you think the music is going and veers triumphantly in the wrong direction. The Danish composer Carl Nielsen once wrote a monologue for the spirit of Music, in which he or she or it says, “I love the vast surface of silence; and it is my chief delight to break it.”

Around the time I got stabbed b Beethoven’s C-sharp, I began trying to writ music myself. My career as a composer laste from the age of eight to the age of twenty. lacked both genius and talent. My spiral-boun manuscript book includes an ambitiou program of future compositions: thirty pian sonatas, twelve violin sonatas, variou symphonies, concertos, fantasias, and funera marches, most of them in the key of D minor Scattered ideas for these works appear in th following pages, but they don’t go anywhere which was the story of my life as a composer Still, I treasure the observation of one of m college teachers, who wrote on the final pag of my end-of-term submission that I ha created a “most interesting and slightly peculia sonatina.” I put down my pen and withdre into silence, like Sibelius in Järvenpää

My inability to finish anything, much less anything good, left me with a profound respect for this impossible mode of making a living. Composition at its most intense is a rebellion against reality. No one except the very young demands new music, and even when we are young the gates of inattention crash down quickly. Composers manufacture a product that is universally deemed superfluous—at least until their music enters public consciousness, at which point people begin to say that they could not live without it. For more than a century, the repertory has consisted largely of music by dead composers. Yet half of those on the American Symphony Orchestra League’s top-ten most-performed list—Mahler, Strauss, Ravel, Shostakovich, Prokofiev—hadn’t been born when the first draft of the repertory got written.

Throughout my teens, I took piano lessons from a man named Denning Barnes. He also taught me composition, music history, and the art of listening. He was a wiry man with tangled hair, whose tweed jackets emitted an odd smell that was neither pleasant nor unpleasant, just odd. He was intimate with Beethoven, Schubert, and Chopin, and he also loved twentieth-century music. Scriabin, Bartók, and Berg were three favorites. He opened another door for me, in a wall that I never knew existed. His own music, as far as I can remember, was rambunctious, jazzy, a little nuts. One day he pounded out one of the variations in Beethoven’s final piano sonata and said that it was an anticipation of boogie-woogie. I had no idea what boogie-woogie was, but I was excited by the idea that Beethoven had anticipated it. The marble-bust Beethoven of my childhood suddenly became an eagle-eyed sentinel on the ramparts of sound, spying nameless entities on the horizon. “Boogie-woogie” was a creature out of Bernstein’s serious-fun world, and Mr. Barnes was my private Bernstein. There was not a snobbish bone in his body; he was a skeleton of enthusiasm, a fifteen-dollar-an-hour guerrilla fighter for the music he loved. He died of a brain tumor in 1989. The last time I saw him, we played a hair-raising version of Schubert’s Fantasia in F Minor for four hands. It was full of wrong notes, most of them at my end of the keyboard, but it felt great and made a mighty noise, and to this day I have never been able to tolerate any other performance of the work, not even Britten and Richter’s.

By high school, a terrible truth had dawned: was the only person my age who liked thi stuff. Actually, there were other classical nerd at my school, but we were too diffident to for a posse. Several “normal” friends dragged m to a showing of “Pink Floyd—The Wall,” afte which I conceded that one passage sounde Mahlerian. Only in college did my musica fortress finally crumble. I spent most of m days and nights at the campus radio station where I had a show and helped organize th classical contingent. I fanatically patrolled th boundaries of the classical broadcasting day refusing to surrender even fifteen minutes of “Chamber Music Masterworks” and the like At 10p.m., the schedule switched from classical to punk, and only punk of the most recondite kind. Once a record sold more than a few hundred copies, it was kicked off the playlist. The d.j.s liked to start their sets with the shrillest, crudest songs in order to scandalize the classical crowd. I tried to one-up them by ending my show with squalls of Xenakis. They hit back with Sinatra singing “Only the Lonely.” Once, they followed up my heartfelt tribute to Herbert von Karajan with Skrewdriver’s rousing neo-Nazi anthem “Prisoner of Peace”: “Free Rudolf Hess / How long can they keep him there? We can only guess.” Touché.

The thing about these cerebral punk rockers is that they were easily the most interesting people I’d ever met. Between painstakingly researched tributes to Mission of Burma and the Butthole Surfers, they composed undergraduate theses on fourth-century Roman fortifications and the liberal thought of Lionel Trilling. I began hanging around in the studio after my show was over, suppressing an instinctive fear of their sticker-covered leather jackets and multicolored hair. I informed them, as Mr. Barnes would have done, that Schoenberg had anticipated all of this. And I began listening to new things. The first two rock records I bought were Pere Ubu’s “Terminal Tower” compilation and Sonic Youth’s “Daydream Nation.” I crept from underground rock to alternative rock and finally to the full-out commercial kind. Soon I was astounding my friends with pronouncements like “‘Highway 61 Revisited’ is a pretty good album,” or “The White Album is a masterpiece.” I abandoned the notion of classical superiority, which led to a crisis of faith: if the music wasn’t great and serious and high and mighty, what was it?

For a little while, living in Northern Californi after college, I thought of giving up on th music altogether. I sold off a lot of my CDs including all my copies of the symphonies o Arnold Bax, in order to pay for more Pere Ub and Sonic Youth. I cut my hair short, wor angry T-shirts, and started hanging out at th Berkeley punk club 924 Gilman Street. became a fan of a band called Blatz, which wa about as far from Bax as I could get. (Their bi hit was “Fuk Shit Up.”) Fortunately, no on needed to point out to my face that I was in th wrong place. It is a strange American dream this notion that music can give you a ne personality, a new class, even a new race. Th out-of-body experience is thrilling as long as i lasts, but most people are eventually deposite back at the point where they started, and the may begin to hate the music for lying to them When I went back to the classical ghetto, chose to accept its limitations. I realized that despite the outward decrepitude of the culture there was still a bright flame within. It occurre to me that if I could somehow get from Brahm to Blatz, others could go the same route in th opposite direction. I have always wanted to tal about classical music as if it were popula music and popular music as if it were classical

For many, popular music is the soundtrack of raging adolescence, while the other kind chimes in during the long twilight of maturity. For me, it’s the reverse. Listening to the “Eroica” reconnects me with a kind of childlike energy, a happy ferocity about the world. Since I came to pop music late, I invest it with more adult feeling. To me, it’s penetrating, knowing, full of microscopic shades of truth about the way things really are. Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” anatomizes a doomed relationship with a saturnine clarity that a canonical work such as “Die Schöne Müllerin” can’t match. (Listening recently to Ian Bostridge sing the Schubert cycle, I had the thought that the protagonist might never have spoken to the miller girl for whose sake he drowns himself. How classical of him.) If I were in a perverse mood, I’d say that the “Eroica” is the raw, thuggish thing—a blast of ego and id—whereas a song like Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place” is all cool adult irony. The idea that life is flowing along with unsettling smoothness, the dark C-sharpness of the world sensed but not confirmed, is a resigned sort of sentiment that Beethoven probably never even felt, much less communicated. What I refuse to accept is that one kind of music soothes the mind and another kind soothes the soul. Depends on whose mind, whose soul.

On my iPod I’ve been listening to the new Missy Elliott song “Wake Up.” It’s an austere hip-hop track with a political edge. Something about the music sets off my classical radar. There are, effectively, only three notes, free-floating and ambiguous. The song begins with a clip of a voice shouting “Wake up!” The voice rises up a tritone, and that interval determines the notes. The idea of generating music from the singsong of speech is ancient, but “Wake Up” reminds me in particular of two minimalist pieces by Steve Reich, “It’s Gonna Rain” and “Come Out.” Both use tapes of impassioned black voices to create seething electronic soundscapes. Whether Elliott and her producer, Timbaland, have listened to Reich is beside the point. (If you say, “Of course they haven’t,” ask yourself what makes you so certain.) The song works much like Reich’s compositions, building a world from a sliver of sound. It’s almost manic and obsessive enough to be classical music."

You can read the full article at the New Yorker website - it's well worth looking into:


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