Friday, January 4, 2008

Some news and a Thought Experiment

In the discussion on my article on NewMusicbox (see below for links), there was a lot of pessimism expressed in some of the comments on the state of modern classical music particularly in regard to audience recognition. For my part, I think we have an incredible opportunity. As I mentioned in my article, the Norman Lear Institute poll shows that a majority of music listerners listen to classical music (along with other genres). So, far from being dead, the classical music audience is alive but, perhaps not well, since we know that the appetite for modern classical music is not great. Why not? To answer that question I've spend more than a few hours writing up a series of "thought experiments", the first of which is presented below:

Einstein on the Lam

“This can’t be happening,” screamed Al. “Spooky action at a distance makes as much sense as God playing at dice with the universe.” But it was happening and God was tossing the bones and Al was emerging from a time warp into an alternate universe that was completely different from the one he had left so many years before.

In this new universe, professors were taken seriously by people of taste, literacy and sophistication no matter what wild theory they came up with. It was like some Prussian philosophy department had taken over the world. Or at least the good old U.S.A. And here he was, sitting in a lecture hall, listening to one of these fellows expostulate on why Elvis was the next great thing since he represented the new culture of the world and the music that Al fiddled represented the old, outworn culture, the so-called European Canon. This canon, explained the Professor, was deader than a door nail, although some people still slavishly adhered to it despite its gender-biased talk of “feminine endings” and the many, powerful male figures who dominated it due to their impressive composing skills. Elvis wouldn’t let something like that happen, explained the Professor.

“Who is this Elvis he keeps talking about?” Al wondered. Perhaps he was one of those modern composers, like Schoenberg, or Richard Strauss…or Bernstein. But their music was in the European tradition. Meanwhile the Professor had moved on to point out that Elvis was the beginning of a new canon, a post-European canon that began with the song “Hound Dog” and whose most avant-garde exponents are the Sandbelters, an underground group whose name explains their musical methodology. To show he was a humble man of the people the professor sang a few phrases from “Hound Dog” in a phony southern accent being sure to supply plenty of nasal twang.

After getting over his initial shock Al became amused. This must be an alternative universe in which the South had won the Civil War. He wondered if Robert E. Lee was still alive and if grits had become the national dish. But then things began to take a serious turn.

“For the first time in history, Beethoven has fallen off his pedestal,” opined the Professor. “As has classical music as a whole. It is now sandwiched somewhere between saw playing and rhythmical farting.” And he projected a chart on the screen to shore up his point. It was information from the marketing group at the Megalopolis Record Company and showed the trends from the 19th Century right to the present.

“Here we have sheet music sales in the mid 19th Century. In those days people actually played instruments so they had no need of records, which didn’t exist anyway. As you can see, sheet sales for the composer Micklemeyer, a paragon of his day, are way up the charts. Profits were soaring for the sheet music houses. However, aristocrats were losing their shirts supporting these composers because the music-buying population was very small. Most people were illiterate, impecunious and basically farm slaves.”

Al was getting itchy. Some alternate universe insect creature had been biting his arms and legs. He wished he was back in his own simpler time when the only problem was whether or not the superpowers were going to blow each other up with the H-Bomb. The Professor droned on:

“Now we come to the present. As you can see, classical music sales have fallen off. Classical is too sedate for the post World War II youth who are no longer bound to the farm but free and raring to hear some bitchin’ music while they imbibe their recreational drugs. This required culture change. The idea initially angered their elders but…”

Not only was Al itchy but the room started wavering like the heat effect from an atomic meltdown, he heard a whooshing sound, and suddenly…

Found himself in a school gymnasium. Music was playing, folkish music with a simple, but insistent beat. Students were dancing. Their gyrations reminded him of the Lindy. The music was recorded, not live, and suddenly it stopped and all eyes turned…not to him…but beyond to a prudish-looking spinster who had suddenly entered the premises. The students, formerly happy and buoyant suddenly looked bedraggled and scared.

“What is going on here?” hissed the spinster, clearly someone of great authority.

“Nothing, m’am,” mumbled a boy with a duck’s ass haircut and a sullen expression. The spinster’s eyes moved upward to an area above the rolled up gym bleachers. “And what is that sign?”

The crude, hand-lettered sign read “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School”.

“Rip it down immediately,” she ordered. It was done.

“You young people believe that life is just fun and games. Don’t you! Just gyrating to your jungle music, drinking booze and trying to get your girlfriend in trouble. Well let me tell you, you are quite deluded. There’s literature and science and all kinds of great things that having nothing to do with….Elvis and his ilk.”

“Fuck the European Canon!” cried duck’s ass, suddenly emboldened.

“Detention!” screamed the spinster. “Detention, detention, detention and that’s not all, I’m going to make you study Dostoevsky, yeah, really study him, and then I’m going to…”

The scene shifted and Al was in the music room where the same students were attempting to play the Largo of the Symphony from the New World. As they stumbled on Al could see the teacher’s eyes roll up in her head and she laid it on the desk and commenced snoring (yet another nasty spinster, she was dreaming of a sultry affair with the dashing and talented Antonin Dvorak). Once the students realized that their teacher was asleep their mien began to change completely and they started introducing subversive notes and rhythms into the dull piece until it became…

“You ain’t nothing but a hound dog,” bellowed the lead violin.

“Cryin’ all the time, “riposted the first trumpet.

And so it went until it became a dance number of gyrating June Taylor dancers strutting their stuff with sexy feints and rotating hips and then everybody got the message and the evil spinsters dropped their drawers and started wriggling their butts and...

“Stop it! Stop it!” someone screamed from another dimension. It was the Professor and he wasn’t pleased. “I’ll have you know I represent a branch of scholarship that studies American culture and I know all about Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and, although I do admit it’s funny, it has nothing to do with what I’m saying here.”

And Al was back in the lecture hall again. The Professor had just shown that the slim sales of classical music recordings proved that it didn’t appeal to most people the way Elvis did and therefore deserved its fallen-off-the-pedestal status. Another minus was its long and complex narratives (unlike Elvis) that connected strongly with people's emotions (unlike Elvis who connected to a certain physical spot). The emergence of a whole generation of professors who studied and wrote about pop music like it was really important clinched the matter.

Never had Al imagined that popular culture, which had always been, well, popular, could theoretically eclipse the tradition of Bach, Beethoven and Picklemeyer. You didn’t have to convince him of the importance of theory: he had concocted a theory that wound up, unfortunately, almost wiping humankind off the face of the earth. So this new theory interested him greatly.

“You see, “continued the Professor didactically, “canons play an historic role and then are superseded by yet other more effective canons. As an example, consider Newton’s Laws. They were taken as the gospel truth and yet, come the Twentieth Century, they were replaced by Einstein’s Relativity and, um, Quantum Mechanics.”

Hearing his name woke Al up immediately. He rose from his seat.

“Excuse me, professor, might I ask a question?” The Professor nodded.

“Is there now no gravity?”

“Of course there is,” came the quick reply.

“And if there is, does an apple still fall from a tree instead of, say, floating in air?”

“Naturally,” said the professor.

“Then you’re full of shit,” said Al.

A commotion ensued during which the campus police made their appearance. Al was charged with sassing a teacher and, more important, being politically incorrect in that he had not referred to any female or transgender scientists in his rather ad hominem diatribe against the Professor. The fact that his remark was also a sly gibe at popular culture did not go unnoticed, either.

Sitting in the campus hoosegow, Al decided that this crazy alternate universe was not for him. Any universe where the idea of scientific progress was used to prove the viability of replacing Beethoven with 50-Cent showed a terrible lack of sense. If they must have a good time, he thought, why go to such lengths to raise it to a theory? Is it so horrible that to like this Elvis you have to bring poor Beethoven to his knees, kick him off his pedestal and fling him into the cornpone vat with Mr. Hound Dog?

As quietly as he could, Al picked the lock, opened the jail door and escaped into the aether.