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Thread: Fetishising the past...

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    Senior Member Sid James's Avatar
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    Default Fetishising the past...

    ...or the Classical music industry's obsession with it. & cults, and groupies, "the singer not the song," all that.

    For fear of this turning into another one of those tedious debates, if you want to push your old worn out barrow (eg. the "atonal" vs. "tonal" debate, or the "objective" vs. "subjective" debate) basically p*ss off. Make your own thread on that.

    Anyway, I was reading THIS interview with veteran American composer Ned Rorem, from the 1980's. I didn't agree (or understand ) with everything the man said, but this quote leapt out at me from the page -

    Interviewer, Rich Grzesiak:
    Sibelius and Mozart seem to be enjoying another revival, and the Shostakovich symphonies seem to be recorded with greater frequency. Are there other composers being neglected that you would like to see revived?

    Ned Rorem:
    The composers that are being neglected are the composers that are living and breathing today.

    Shostakovich, Sibelius and Mozart are hardly neglected by purveyors of classical music. Every time there's a new gimmick like CD's, all of these composers are re-recorded for the hundredth time. Ours is the only society ever that is primarily concerned with the past. Your questions to me have been mainly about the past. It's inconceivable that 100 years or more ago that Debussy or Chopin or Haydn would be so concerned about their past.

    Serious music had a function in the milieu of Bach. Today, no more. People today are aware of music more through performance than through what is performed. They want to get Sutherland's record of this or Karajan's record of that or Bernstein's record of this and that. They compare the performers with each other but the music itself is simply a matter of pyrotechnics, whereas I am necessarily concerned with what is performed. {End Quote}

    So I'd like to open up a discussion about the things Mr. Rorem raises in this answer. Especially in terms of the fetishising and canonisation of composers of the past and comparative neglect of music of more recent times (eg. after 1945?).

    Also about what he feels is some classical listener's inordinate focus on recordings rather than the music or work at hand (which is linked to his earlier point, eg. I'd extrapolate - if a "star" like Bernstein did not record it, it's not worth listening to, it's too fringe, etc. judgements of the sort)...
    Last edited by Sid James; Jan-16-2012 at 05:06.
    Genuine ersatz classical listener since 1981.

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    I think that the composers that are alive today are being neglected too. I don't see fifty billion different recordings of the Carl Vine symphonies. I do see fifty billion different recordings of the Beethoven symphonies. I think part if this problem is that the public doesn't know what to expect with these living, breathing composers that they even may never have heard of before. But with Beethoven, since his symphonies are re-recorded six times a day (five on public holidays) the listeners get to hear them more often, thus growing familiar with that sound world of the early 1800s rather than the early 2000s.

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    Senior Member Sid James's Avatar
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    ^^I would agree but I'd bet that people who are scared of the newer things, they may well be also scared of older things (eg. Beethoven's Grosse Fuge). Not literally scared, just maybe not interested or not valuing that for whatever reason. Or maybe as you say, not knowing it as well as his other things, so kind of daunted.

    Even I was once. Reading things like his late quartets where the Everest of the genre did not help much. It's when people share what they get out of these more complex works - whether old or new - that's when it gets interesting, that's when they have potential to "win people over" to liking these musics just like they do.

    Not speaking of the "divine" and "unnatainable" or "Heavenly" qualities or some such. Just get real, people, this is just music, is what I think when I read that kind of jargon...
    Genuine ersatz classical listener since 1981.

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    Obviously people like music that sounds "nice" and "familiar" and (I hate this word) "accessible."

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    Senior Member starthrower's Avatar
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    It's the same with all music genres. 95 percent of the public is content to listen to the same old stuff for their entire life.

    Just turn on your radio and go through the dial. Rock, Jazz, Classical stations playing the same old **** over and over.

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    Senior Member Crudblud's Avatar
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    First; I think it's great that someone had the balls to say that about Mozart and Sibelius.

    Second; I think he makes a good point about the music vs. the performer, but for music around the turn of the 20th century onward you can pick up three recordings of the same thing and have them all sound different. To say that the performer doesn't have a stake in the situation is ludicrous. In something like Mozart or Haydn, I'd say that they only need re-recording when a significant technological advancement comes along that improves the sound quality immensely, until then we don't need another Große Messe or Sieben letzte Worte. I suppose in response to that some might say that HIP is relatively new and in fact still only in its infancy, which qualifies as new (old) technology that improves the sound by making it more authentic, but what else can they do with it; wear powder wigs and hideous uncomfortable clothes while playing it?

    Post-war music is in a relative state of neglect, yes, and some would say that's for the best. I think that in the coming generation (generation XYZ?) there will be more attention paid to it as a whole, much more than just the "four 'E's" (well, I had to make a stupid joke at some point!), and probably quite a few people even the most OUTRAGEOUSLY AVANT among us have never heard of. I think that we'll also see greater appreciation for the pre-war avant garde; you know, because it doesn't sound anywhere near as bad as that other **** (stupid joke no. 2). In other words, the people writing today can feel safe in the knowledge that 200 years from now the conservatives will just love 'em!

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    Senior Member Sid James's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Crudblud View Post
    ... To say that the performer doesn't have a stake in the situation is ludicrous...
    I don't read Rorem is saying that the performer of the music isn't important. What I read him as saying is that there has developed a kind of deification and obsession with certain stars of the classical music recording industry. Correspondingly, a focus on the repertoire they record to the possible exclusion of other potentially interesting things.

    Or maybe I'm complicating it. Just thinking out aloud. I think basically what he's saying is that to him the music is more important than the performer. Which is just his opinion, of course. For him, it's not a case of "the singer, not the song" being important, but the other way round.

    At least he's admitting his bias or preference. That's what I respect, although I don't agree with everything he said in the whole interview that I gave the link to.

    Of course, this is not set in stone, Mr. Rorem being an active critics (still?), has probably changed tack on some things since then.

    But having come across other things written by him, he's always a man of the present, a man of the moment. He doesn't seem to be stuck in a sort of ivory tower or hermenutically sealed bubble. & that's what informs his attitude, he obviously doesn't like this view of classical music being attached to things like fetishes and building monuments to the exclusion of simple reasoning and common sense. Well that's my impression of the man, anyhow...
    Genuine ersatz classical listener since 1981.

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    Senior Member HarpsichordConcerto's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Sid James View Post
    ... People today are aware of music more through performance than through what is performed. They want to get Sutherland's record of this or Karajan's record of that or Bernstein's record of this and that. They compare the performers with each other but the music itself is simply a matter of pyrotechnics, whereas I am necessarily concerned with what is performed. {End Quote}
    I'm not going to address "everything" because I feel much has been discussed in similar threads before. Two points raised interested me, which I quoted above.

    The first was about star performers and the recording industry. This has as much to do with our love affair with music of the past as the music itself. Star pianists, star singers, star conductors, star violinists; you name them, we all want Glen Gould playing Bach or Bernstein conducting Beethoven or Boulez directing Cage . Recording companies are there to make money, there is no doubt about that, and multiple star performers signing company contracts are their most priced assets; they are the ones making the record companies the required dollars. If there is an upcoming young conductor, then we want him/her conducting Beethoven and Mahler. It's become our modern consumerism that star performers and recordings go together without question. I think this is going to stay for a long time. Music from this perspective is a product; it might well be meticulously produced by the best, but the economics apply to it like any manufactured product for me to purchase.

    As for feitishsing with the past, there are many relatively successful active composers, too. It's not easy "business" for them; their competition is hard: dead contemporary composers, dead classical composers and of course popular music all competing for our ears. From that perspective, I can sympathise with the challenges an active composer faces. But equally, I'm not necessarily into newly composed music per se for the sake of it. If something composed today sounds like a chainsaw, the artist who presumably composed it for some reason that might appeal to a minority of listeners, then is it that unreasonable for HarpsichordConcerto or my neighbour to not have that as his/her favour track played over and over? Likewise, there are some very fine operas composed within the last decade that I would love to see staged by Opera Australia, and that I think have much potential to become future "canon" pieces. Even so, the latter still faces a mountain of tough competition - folks are not going to attend an opera for a stylised story when they can instead attend the movies for a fraction of the ticket price, and enjoy visually stunning movies. The analogy is almost identical with movies - the industry is not that fascinated with older movies, new movies are constantly churned out by the movie industry every month of the year. Entertainment and some artistic values have changed.

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    Senior Member Sid James's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by starthrower View Post
    ...
    Just turn on your radio and go through the dial. Rock, Jazz, Classical stations playing the same old **** over and over.
    Well I haven't listened to classical radio for well over a year now. WHen I'm not listening to my cd's or going to live gigs, I listen to non classical radio. The youth station, which has a variety of things, not just mainstream. & no boy or girl bands, mass produced stuff like that. "Real" stuff, but just non-classical. Different things. They promote & play new & upcoming bands, and also more established alternative things.

    ANyway, that's more interesting, far more interesting, than what the classical stations here are playing in terms of new music. What it was then was on one station it was like very experimental stuff. The other one was mainly same stuff all the time. Eg. I was getting sick of hearing mainly Arvo Part and Penderecki. They may have changed but I didn't stay to find out. About 2 hours of contemporary/new classical programming per week on the classical stations here, 2 hours for each of their broadcasting. Pretty woeful I'd say. & one giving the extreme avant-garde things, the other much more conservative. See, these ideological extremes/bubbles.

    So I "left" and am more happy with the latest things in non-classical. As far as radio is concerned anyway. I've kind of voted with my feet...
    Last edited by Sid James; Jan-16-2012 at 05:51.
    Genuine ersatz classical listener since 1981.

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    Senior Member Igneous01's Avatar
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    I think we have always had a fetish with the past as people of today. I mean how many times a day do people associate smart with a funny looking guy with spoofy white hair?

    I think its because these people are immortal, that we keep coming back to them: no one wants to really hear the words of a living man or his art. We look back because theres a sense of ambiguity and uncertainty in what these people would have said to this, or done to that. Sometimes I like to imagine having a conversation with Beethoven, and just imagining his responses, or talking with Einstein. The truth is I dont know either of them personally or can even accurately predict what they would say or respond to me, but in that lies the beauty, because your free to make them say whatever you want to say.

    a dead man is alot like art, the mystery/obscurity/uncertainty/magnitude of work is what keeps us at bay and clinging to our past alot.
    Life really isn't a Beethoven's 5th "I conquered the world and defeated my fears by going from C minor to C major", it's really about compassion towards yourself.

    In this sense, the simple acceptance and honesty at the end of the Grosse Fugue (after the greatest expression of human suffering)... is quite an artistic achievement.

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    Senior Member Crudblud's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Sid James View Post
    I don't read Rorem is saying that the performer of the music isn't important. What I read him as saying is that there has developed a kind of deification and obsession with certain stars of the classical music recording industry. Correspondingly, a focus on the repertoire they record to the possible exclusion of other potentially interesting things.
    Your take on what he meant makes more sense than my initial understanding, so I'll concede on that point.

    A new step in the development of performance that could legitimately warrant re-recording the classics yet again is if people started to conduct in opposites, parts marked allegro or presto would be played adagio or largo, cellos playing the oboe parts, 4/4 is conducted as though it were 7/8... Uh... Ahem. Carry on.

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    Senior Member starthrower's Avatar
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    It's interesting to note that many of the most successful living composers are minimalists. And the most successful artists in the jazz world are vocalists doing tin pan alley material. The comfort zone is good economics for the music biz.

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    Senior Member StlukesguildOhio's Avatar
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    I don't think it is quite possible to compare the experience of the present with the distant past in terms of how art is appreciated. I'll come at this from the angle of the visual arts where I am far more versed. Michelangelo is recognized as perhaps the single most towering figure of Western art... art's Bach, if you will. He is looked at within the scope of the whole of Western art. We recognize how he seemingly builds off the Greco-Roman tradition as well as the art of his immediate predecessors: Donatello and Masaccio. He is clearly the model for many who followed: Raphael, Rubens, Bernini, Caravaggio, William Blake, ... on through to Lucian Freud. But what was Michelangelo's experience of art? He was among one of the most privileged, apprenticed to a major Florentine painter early on, accepted into the Medici art school, acquainted with many of the greatest and most influential figures in art of his day: Leonardo, the de Medicis, Raphael, the chief architect of St. Peter's, Bramante, Pope Julius, etc... yet it is almost certain that Michelangelo's grasp of the art of the classical world was limited to a few Roman fragments (and almost certainly no true Greek work). He would have had no idea what was transpiring in Germany, France, the Netherlands, or Spain... let alone China, Japan, India, or the Americas. Indeed, his grasp of "art history" would have largely centered upon the art of Florence of the last couple hundred years at best. Art History as we think of it was non-existent.

    So what was the experience of the composer and the audience of Bach's time? Bach knew of his immediate predecessors and his immediate peers in the area of Germany in which he was employed. He sought out Buxtehude and Hasse and was surely one to keep out an eye and ear for the latest music coming out of Italy... and upon this he built his music. And his audience? They had no radio, no stereo, no LPs, no CDs, and no i-pods. Perhaps the more educated would be able to read music and would likely seek out the latest popular scores... but surely neither the composers nor the audience lived in a world such as that in which we live in which we have such immediate access to a vast array of music from across time and space. Driving in my car on a modern American highway I can listen to Johnny Cash, flip the station to hip-hop or "classic rock" or pop in my i-pod and glide down the interstate to the sounds of a Gregorian chant, an Indian raga, a bel-canto opera, or Duke Ellington. The notion of the "music of my time" is an absurdity... a true anachronism... for the simple reason that all music is "of my time".

    The central artist of the 20th century... the key player of Modernism in art... Pablo Picasso was the first artist whose work was wholly dependent upon the modern art museum. While Picasso was unmistakably "modern", his art was built upon the whole of art history, drawing from the Greeks, the Romans, the Etruscans, the Egyptians, the medieval Spaniards, the French post-Impressionists, the Expressionists, the Africans, etc... Rembrandt, Degas, Ingres, Raphael, the Greeks, Velasquez, etc... were more important to Picasso than the efforts of his peers, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollack.

    Should we then be surprised that Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Wagner hold more value to many music lovers than living figures like Ned Rorem... who I actually quite like?

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    Senior Member StlukesguildOhio's Avatar
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    I don't read Rorem is saying that the performer of the music isn't important. What I read him as saying is that there has developed a kind of deification and obsession with certain stars of the classical music recording industry. Correspondingly, a focus on the repertoire they record to the possible exclusion of other potentially interesting things.

    Or maybe I'm complicating it. Just thinking out aloud. I think basically what he's saying is that to him the music is more important than the performer.


    But has this really changed? If you look at the history of music you will find, for example, that the Baroque composers were often stuck pandering to the whims of star singers... especially castrati. Bach, Mozart, Brahms... and many more... all wrote works specifically in response to the abilities of instrumentalists and soloists that they had on hand. Composers like Chopin, Liszt, and Paganini were far more recognized initially as virtuoso performers... virtually the rock stars of their time... than they were as composers. Even Beethoven and Bach were revered as brilliant improvisational performers, as was Bruckner... who unfortunately never wrote down any of his organ compositions.

    Don't we face the same issue in film? How many people recognize Marilyn Monroe or Humphrey Bogart or James Dean vs David Lean, John Huston or even Stanley Kubrick?

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    Rorem stated, "Ours is the only society ever that is primarily concerned with the past."

    I find this statement a bit odd. I think our society does not have a good historical sense. Certainly in movies and popular music the present is the focus. New technology is greatly valued probably more than earlier in the past century. I do not believe this society has more of a focus on the past, but perhaps Rorem was speaking specifically about classical music. I do believe there is much more emphasis placed on older classical music, but I think that has been true for some time.

    Quote Originally Posted by Sid James View Post

    So I'd like to open up a discussion about the things Mr. Rorem raises in this answer. Especially in terms of the fetishising and canonisation of composers of the past and comparative neglect of music of more recent times (eg. after 1945?).
    I would not say classical music listeners have a fetish for composers of the past. I think they simply prefer their music. Certainly people listen to and purchase contemporary popular music more than older popular music so the desire for "older" music seems localized to classical. There have been many threads discussing why listeners have this preference (they don't understand modern music, they have not been appropriately exposed to modern music, modern music is too difficult for the average listener to appreciate, etc.), but I think non of us really understand the phenomenon well.

    While the vast majority of us on TC probably want more contemporary music performed and recorded, I believe we are a small minority of the classical music audience. There do not appear to be enough of "us" to change the perceived economics of major orchestras and recording labels.

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