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Old 07-14-2008, 08:32 PM
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After 40 years and 1,500 concerts, Joe Queenan is finally ready to say the unsayable: new classical music is absolute torture - and its fans have no reason to be so smug

Tom Service: How wrong can you be?

Wednesday July 9, 2008
The Guardian

During a radio interview between acts at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, a famous singer recently said she could not understand why audiences were so reluctant to listen to new music, given that they were more than ready to attend sporting events whose outcome was uncertain. It was a daft analogy. Having spent most of the last century writing music few people were expected to understand, much less enjoy, the high priests of music were now portrayed as innocent victims of the public's lack of imagination. If they don't know in advance whether Nadal or Federer is going to win, but still love Wimbledon, why don't they enjoy it when an enraged percussionist plays a series of brutal, fragmented chords on his electric marimba? What's wrong with them?

The reason the sports analogy fails is because when Spain plays Germany, everyone knows that the game will be played with one ball, not eight; and that the final score will be 1-0 or 3-2 or even 8-1 - but definitely not 1,600,758 to Arf-Arf the Chalet Ate My Banana. The public may not know in advance what the score will be, but it at least understands the rules of the game.

There is no denying that the people filling the great concert halls of the world are conservative, and in many cases reactionary: reluctant to take a flyer on music that wasn't recorded at least once by Toscanini. They know what they like and what they like is Mozart. There is a childish, fairytale quality to their infatuation with the classics: Beethoven's deafness, Chopin's tuberculosis, Brahms' fixation on Clara Schumann. Modern composers, their stories largely unknown, cannot compete with all this romance and drama.

In New York, Philadelphia and Boston, concert-goers have learned to stay awake and applaud politely at compositions by Christopher Rouse and Tan Dun. But they do this only because these works tend to be short and not terribly atonal; because they know this is the last time in their lives they'll have to listen to them; and because the orchestra has signed a contract in blood guaranteeing that if everyone holds their nose and eats their vegetables, they'll be rewarded with a great dollop of Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn.

I started listening to classical music when I entered college, aged 17. Because of my working-class background, "serious" music was important to me - not only because it was mysterious and beautiful in a way the Rolling Stones were not, but because it confirmed that I had cut my ties with the proletariat and "arrived". Over the years, this sense of membership of a cultural elite has evaporated: after attending roughly 1,500 concerts in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Paris, London, Berlin and Sydney, I no longer believe that fans of classical music are especially knowledgeable - certainly not in the way jazz fans are. American audiences, even those that fancy themselves quite in the know, roll over and drool like trained seals in the presence of charismatic hacks phoning in yet another performance of the Emperor Concerto. The public likes its warhorses, but it doesn't seem to care how well these warhorses get played. They are particularly susceptible to showboaters like Lang Lang and Izzy Perlman and Nigel Kennedy; they turn out in droves to hear Andrea Bocelli warble his way through the Shmaltzmeister's Songbook. These people may think they care more about music than the kids who listen to hip-hop, but I've been eavesdropping on their conversations for 40 years and the results are not impressive. They know that Clair de Lune is prettier than Für Elise, that Mozart died penniless, and that Schumann went nuts. That's about it.

Because classical music fans are much older and more affluent than audiences for other types of music, the very notion of including contemporary music on a programme is problematic. Last winter, I attended a performance of Luciano Berio's seminal 1968 composition Sinfonia. Two days later, the New York Times reported that the New York Philharmonic gave an "electrifying and sumptuously colourful" reading of this "all-embracing and ingenious" masterpiece. Maybe they did. But the day I heard it, I gazed down from the balcony at a sea of old men snoring, a bunch of irate, middle-aged women fanning themselves with their programmes, and scores of high-school students poised to garrote their teachers in reprisal for 35 minutes of non-stop torture. Sinfonia may be one of the cornerstones of 20th-century music, and the Times critic may have been right in describing the quality of the performance. But he might have noticed that the audience merely tolerated it - and that unlike him, very few dismissed Brahms' Fourth Symphony as an "afterthought". Not judging from the applause I heard.

When I was 18, I bought a record called The New Music. It featured Kontra-Punkte by Karlheinz Stockhausen and Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima by Krzysztof Penderecki. I was incredibly proud of myself for giving this music a try, even though the Stockhausen sounded like a cat running up and down the piano, and the Penderecki was that reliable old post-Schoenberg standby: belligerent bees buzzing in the basement. I did not really like these pieces, but I would put them on the turntable every few months to see if the bizarre might one day morph into the familiar. I've been doing that for 40 years now, and both compositions continue to sound harsh, unpleasant, gloomy, post-nuclear. It is not the composers' fault that they wrote uncompromising music that was a direct response to the violence and stupidity of the 20th century; but it is not my fault that I would rather listen to Bach. That's my way of responding to the violence and stupidity of the 20th century, and the 21st century as well.

more at: http://music.guardian.co.uk/classical/story/0,,2289751,00.html

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Old 07-14-2008, 08:35 PM
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Old 07-14-2008, 08:40 PM
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Bot, doesn't all the cutting and pasting make your fingers bleed?
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Old 07-14-2008, 08:43 PM
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I thought he had a special k-board ... but the scissor method explains everything... [smirk]
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Old 07-14-2008, 08:44 PM
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Old 07-14-2008, 08:45 PM
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bot, doesn't all the cutting and pasting make your fingers bleed?
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Old 07-14-2008, 08:47 PM
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Old 07-14-2008, 09:15 PM
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Old 07-15-2008, 07:11 PM
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After 40 years and 1,500 concerts, Joe Queenan is finally ready to say the unsayable: new classical music is absolute torture - and its fans have no reason to be so smug
Brilliant article and I mostly agree. However I have two words. "John Williams".

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Old 07-15-2008, 09:43 PM
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I try to listen to new stuff and always come back to composers who are dead. Some haven't been dead long; Alberto Ginastera is a favorite, and Bernstein is only 10 or so years gone... However, I enjoy the atonal compostion from time to time, and wish I could find performances of it instead of the typical schlock Ravel's Bolero bore-fest that always seems to be the carrot to my Bartok stick.

Camille Saint-Saens' 3rd in C ("organ") is one I hope to hear/see live sometime soon. It's popular enough I'll find it sooner or later. But Music for Percussion, Strings and Celesta by Bartok isn't exactly on top of the Boston Pops playlist... and I've never seen Ginastera anywhere.

One area where composition is very strong and accessible is in cinema. James Newton Howard is fantastic and Hans Zimmer does some great things too - His score to The Thin Red Line is amazing. Bernard Hermann's scores from days gone by were special as well.

Williams is so prolific that a lot of his themes and tone color blends together. He occasionally comes up with something new and good - Empire of the Sun, the Harry Potter movies, Hook... a few favorites.
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Old 07-15-2008, 11:22 PM
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One area where composition is very strong and accessible is in cinema.
Indeed. When Schoenberg moved to Hollywood he sort of brought classical (more accurately symphonic) music with him. We recently attended a concert in Phoenix where they played film scores from yesteryear such as Flash Gordon etc. Very interesting and enjoyable.

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James Newton Howard is fantastic and Hans Zimmer does some great things too - His score to The Thin Red Line is amazing.
Agreed. I love Gladiator too. John Barry's "Dances With Wolves" score is one of my favorites.

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Williams is so prolific that a lot of his themes and tone color blends together.
True to a certain extent. He's still the greatest composer alive today in my opinion.

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