Sunday, August 23, 2009

Classical Music Isn't Dead, It Just Needs a Rest

A Los Angeles Sunday Times "Arts and Culture" article gave me pause. It's called Alexy Steele, Classical Underground Impresario by Scott Timberg. In the print edition it's entitled "Mad for Classical".

Here's the story ...

An artist, Alexy Steele, a person who creates new art to earn his living, holds classical music concerts in his loft. He calls the series "Classical Underground". People flock to them. And these events are held up as a way to save classical music.

We are told ...
The Classical Underground series was inspired by Steele repeatedly being told that classical music was dead. "Whenever I get to this point," he exclaims, wheeling back on his chair as he pours more beer, "my ears would pop!"
What bothers me, of course, is that the music presented to these gatherings of creative people is all from the classical canon. Nothing mentioned in the article seems very current or adventurous. The article did refer to one piece by Prokofiev (d.1953) plus some improvisations on Bach.

I'm reminded that one principal reason people love classical music is that it helps them relax. And maybe they need to network at loft parties. All that is easier with familiar, comfortable classics; music which barely changes from one performance to the next. I conclude that in such situations the music is not meant to offer a contemporary perspective. They have other forms of art for that. I fear this music is more like a spa treatment for ones ears.

I remember a story told by Dorrance Stalvey, for many years director of the Monday Evening Concerts back when they were sponsored by the Los Angeles County Museum of (what else?) Art.

Dorrance programmed a concert of music which living artists played while they worked. He asked them "What do you listen to while you work?" and they told him. He was dismayed how the result was mostly from the baroque and classical periods.

Apparently these contemporary artists - some of them cutting edge - had no clue about contemporary music. I guess that they didn't find any inspiration in modern music. More charitably, maybe listening to something of actual relevance would distract their creative process. It's easier to ignore familiar things when you need to concentrate.

The fact that visually creative people, who I would have thought ought to have an interest in other forms of contemporary creativity, instead prefer a solidly unchanging body of old music, fills me with wonderment. How would they react to musicians who only cared to view paintings of the 18th and 19th centuries?

Thankfully, the world of creative music persists even without visual artists. Another article in the Times, just one day before, outlines local activities of creative music here in the LA area - all of it improvised. Read Finding Jazz in a Cool Place. (The title is "Jazz at a cool spot" in print.)

Alas, nothing in that article speaks about creative classical music either. The words "creative" and "classical" are ideas which aren't mutually supportive. Competing against the classical favorites is not easy.

Maybe we could have a moratorium on the classical warhorses - just stop playing them for ten or fifteen years. There are plenty of other classical-style pieces for people to listen to. Audiences need a chance to catch up.

Meanwhile the words "jazz" and "creative" certainly support one another these days. I wonder if there are visual artists who would like listening to cutting-edge improvisations in their lofts. There are plenty of creative musicians looking for places to perform.


Alexy Steele's Website: High Art Forever

Other Mixed Meters attacks on artists:
Our Culture Overvalues the Wrong Things
What's on David Hockney's iPod?

Other Mixed Meters attacks on the classics:
Everybody Loves Beethoven (Probably)
One Goldberg Equals Twelve Abbas
A Fine Line Between Classical and Parody
Me and Mahler, Me and Iowa
Combining Four Letter Words: Oboe + Blog

Underground Tags: . . . . . .


paul bailey said...


great points, on my first read on the "classical underground" series i thought finally somebody is doing something interesting but like you pointed out there are really no facts in the article. i'm not really sure if there is anything innovative or interesting about the concert series. maybe it is great, but the details are not there. who knows maybe its just a singles night masquerading as "classical underground" concert series. come to think of it most successful concert series eventually end up serving that purpose once they get popular. go figure

kraig grady said...

Truthfully i can't remember too many parties of modern music practitioners where they play modern music even in part. It has happened though but not as much as one would expect.
It seems that people now are constantly multi-tasking that much music, does not fit in. As a medium music is often used when the body is needed to be free physically to do other things or the mind can also engage in and out without losing the 'flow'. The most successful modern music fits this well and explains why minimalism reaches more than complexity. so i think you are close when you say "instead prefer a solidly unchanging body of old music" but just drop the word old. Some people i think have managed to deal with this situation without going for the obvious. While i doubt he had it in mind, Feldman works well in this regard and why i think his popularity rose with recordings, which i really think is a better medium than a live situation for his music. One can follow his broad strokes or his refined detail. Even live it is difficult not to go from one or the other.
My point is that one is capable of writing viable music that will work in these situations, and i am afraid we have to deal with this problem instead of pretending it will go away. It seem it is an opportunity to write things that reveal other layers over time while maybe allowing broader elements that tie it together more quickly. I think there are means to do this outside my example too.

Anonymous said...

I'm kinda loving "Other Mixed Meters attacks on artists" as a category. Now can we get personal and dirty?

It's an interesting point your making and also one I haven't a clue as how to answer. I do know that when I found your blog and your put music I was excited to come across a contemporary composer. You, George Zelenz, Lou Harrison and Phillup Glass (do you all hate him or respect him?) ...