Tuesday, December 6, 2022

On February 12, 2020, I wrote in a notebook:
It's Wednesday now but some thoughts on the two concerts I went to Sunday-

[Redacted so as not to be cruel to amateurs] was like a caricature of what someone who thinks classical concerts are boring would expect. They ran through crowd pleasers (Chopin something-or-other, Rachmaninoff Vocalise) with high-end amateur technical competence but absolutely unengaging - of course the saving grace of a crowd pleaser should be that it pleases the crowd, and of an amateur, passion (not to be overly etymological), but there was none of that here. (Well, the crowd might have been pleased, I don't know - classical audiences are always a little difficult for me but this one, I've never felt more estranged from an audience I was in before - they somehow gave off malevolent vibes... Which I'd say might have been just me, my mood, but the earlier crowd didn't feel that way... Maybe I just felt an interloper in what is after all an insular little club. Anyway.)

And before that, a different kind of unengagement - "Cello Festival" at the RISD museum, which I left early to go to the other - saw two soloists. First did a very solid, respectable, and (yes) engaging run through the first Bach suite (another crowd pleaser), but the second, who was clearly a technically excellent and passionate cellist, played four contemporary works - one that was left off the program and I don't remember what it was, ägäische eisberge by Klaus Lang, Three High Places by John Luther Adams, and /hiə(r)/ by an "Inga" who was in the audience (I think a Brown student). The only of those composers I'd heard of before was Adams, and to be sure his was the most engaging of the set, but overall the impression left by all of them is what a cul de sac contemporary classical is in. I'm sure all of them had their reasons for moving through time the way they did, but they just came across as here's a sound... and here's a sound... and here's another sound. Or here's a thing cello can do, here's another... music as printer test page.

It's this whole world of contemporary classical that has completely turned its back on engaging. Yes it has its audience but that's not what I mean - even for those who appreciate I feel like the experience is still of being lectured at, not spoken with.

Engagement with people is what music should be, of course! But classical at least seems to have split into two worlds - refusing to engage, or engaging solely by means of banality. The only other tendency I'm aware of having any presence at all is minimalism (in all this I keep thinking about the other John Adams - the composer, not the president or the president - talking about being trained that tonality was an artificial structure that had run its course but eventually coming to the realization that tonality truly is a force of nature - which I read with relief! It gave me permission to feel the same way! You can understand a 12-tone series; you can feel tonality - which of course is not to say that it's the only feel-able system). But minimalism is its own cul de sac.

What I'm struggling hazily to link in here - I think it's obvious but I'm not quite finding the place to make it obvious - is that of course the "people" this music has always primarily been created for are not "the people" at all (watching Gosford Park thinking about how all these successive ruling classes have had all this beautiful work created on their behalf when no one is more philistine and less capable of appreciating it) - actually take that out of parentheses because here's more - thinking of the ruling classes having this glorious music as a private entertainment they actually disdain (but can't do without) which at some point transitions to what I saw at [the concert described first] - their lower echelons, at least, sitting in ritual silence as they respectfully and tastelessly attend to musicians capable of hitting all the notes but incapable of actually conveying anything about (or of) this music to anyone.

Of course maybe I just saw a bad concert. But what made me want to try to get these thoughts down (unsuccessfully) now days later is that I'm listening to Schnittke's first concerto grosso, and Wow! - Schnittke himself, as far as I can tell, was a grotesque anticommunist, your typical counterrevolutionary Artiste who loves then to whine about how oh even my Art has been commodified - well, whose fault is that? But for me his music sometimes seems to solve, or at least sidestep, the problem. This concerto grosso is not banal, and is nothing if not engaging! I had this giddy "This is how it can be done!" moment when it began. More soberly I realize a good deal of what creates that impression is how he recycles the past - "concerto grosso", after all, and that string quartet that quotes Orlando di Lasso and the big fugue of Beethoven - which does not bode well as a route out of any cul de sac... And yet. And yet!

More recently, having totally forgotten Schnittke (how things vanish), I had the precise same experience with, look at that, John (non-Luther) Adams, Absolute Jest with all its Beethoven quotation, which suggests to me that, oh no, maybe it's just that I get a kick out of pastiche, collage?

More recently I've found very inspiring on this - and smarter about class and its relation to music than I was in 2020 - the written words of Hans Werner Henze, whose music however I struggle to engage with.

At any rate back in 2020 I was both onto something and perhaps not onto anything. Only about a month after these concerts the organization that put on the cello festival ceased to do live performances at all, along with everyone else. When they returned half-assedly they demanded performers and audiences hide their faces, and as far as I know to this day they still require "proof of vaccination" to attend their concerts, the few of them that they actually still put on, with them having permanently embraced the ditigal, to my knowledge ("as far as I know" and "to my knowledge" because when I wrote them to object to the mandatory pharmaceutical policy they silently removed me from their mailing list and the feeling is mutual). I don't know what the other group did or is doing now.

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