More on not connecting

Greg Sandow had some additional thoughts on the subject of connecting with audiences a few days ago which are worth considering:

…In classical music, the point of performances — according to orthodox thinking — is to bring us to the music, which is defined as something more or less unchanging that lies behind all performances. So if I play a Beethoven piano sonata, Beethoven is more important than I am. My role is to realize his intentions. (Or is it His, with a capital H?)
But in other kinds of music, things are much more flexible. You go to a performance to see a show. You also go, more often than not, to see and hear a musician. The music the musician plays is music she’s written. And, when the music is jazz, music she’s written and also improvises on. So musicians play a much more creative role.
… in the larger scheme of things, the musician — no matter how big a star she might be, no matter how much we’re attracted to hear her — is, in the last analysis, on stage to serve the composer. This gives them — as I think is evident, if we compare classical performances with pop or jazz — less flexibility, and a more circumscribed role.

It wasn’t that way in the past. Even in the 1950s, classical musicians had more personality — differed more from each other — than they do now, and in the 18th century, the music that wasn’t yet called classical functioned surprisingly much like the way pop functions now. You’d go to hear somebody play, and they’d play their own music. …

So there’s the disconnect. Classical musicians have a much more limited conception of their role than pop or jazz musicians do, and it shows in their performance (and also in the relative formality of the classical concert setting). If classical music functioned more like music in other genres — or, to put it more strongly, if it satisfied the expectations people have developed from hearing other kinds of music — things would be looser, more expressive, and more flexible. And classical musicians would often play pieces they themselves had composed.

I agree with much of this. Classical musicians generally do think their role is to bring the creations of others to life. I’m not sure I agree with Greg about the implications of this, though.

It is certainly harder for a performer to make an impact with this approach than it is with making the performance all about them. But it is possible, and I’ve seen it done. I’ve seen instrumentalists and conductors achieve breathtaking results by taking a semplice approach to interpretation. I’ve heard incredible performances when the interpreter had wonderful ideas and the ideas were on display. The best performances I’ve heard combined those two approaches and achieved “of course it’s supposed to sound like that – why doesn’t everyone do it that way?” But those performances are typically the epitome of Goethe’s famous aphorism that “genius is knowing where to stop” and are achieved by performers of great experience with the music in question (and usually towards the latter part of their lives).

I think Greg overstates the extent to which classical music (and even pop music) was written by performers in the past, though. Even in the 18th century the composers with international reputations (Handel, Telemann, Vivaldi) made those reputations by the works they composed and not by their performances of them. Most composers were performers as well (Handel seems to have been the only real exception), but Vivaldi was known by Bach for his compositions and not his playing. This trend continued into the 19th century. Beethoven and Schubert were, for most of their careers, known primarily as composers. Berlioz, Schumann, and Wagner were not performers at all.

Obviously there are counter-examples; Lizst and Paganini are the first to come to mind. But even they often performed (or transcribed; the equivalent of today’s “covers”) other composers’ works. And, after them, the traditional of performer/composer went into serious decline.

But audiences didn’t seem to mind. Classical music remained vital, popular and “connected.” So I don’t think the “performer as composer” equation is the key to re-connecting.

(Oddly enough, even in popular music, that tradition declined substantially into the 20th century. Think of Tin Pan Alley; most of the composers who worked there wrote songs for others to sing (or more accurately, for their employers to sell as sheet music). The real revival of “performer as composer” came, I think, from jazz and blues, and found its way back to the mainstream with the evolution of that tradition into rock.)

The more serious problem, in terms of connecting, is the absence of contemporary music from concert halls. This really is a change, even from the fairly recent past. Mahler’s music was frequently performed during his lifetime (and not only by him), American composers such as Copland, Roy Harris, Leonard Bernstein, and Virgil Thompson heard many performances of their works during their lifetimes, Shostakovich’s symphonies were hot properties in the West, and the premiere of Sibelius’s eighth symphony (had he not burned it in his fireplace) would have been the center of a massive bidding war by orchestras in Europe and North America.

So what changed? I think that what happened is that, to use a marketing phrase, the contemporary music brand got trashed by the manufacturers after World War II – to the extent that people will actively stay away from a concert that features the work of a composer of whom they’ve never heard. Why and how that happened is something I’ll leave to people who know more than I do.


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