26 July 2008

Zander @ TED

As further evidence that if classical music is dying it may well be at the hands of its own advocates and practitioners, I give you this lecture from the TED conference by Benjamin Zander, who commits therein what are, in my mind, three of the deadliest sins of classical music proselytizing: attempting to use analysis to synthesize experience, arbitrarily imposing a narrative on a piece of abstract instrumental music, and appealing to novelty in place of substance. I'll examine them one by one:

(1) Attempting To Use Analysis To Synthesize Experience

Much of the talk seems to be preparatory in nature, getting the audience ready for the final, complete performance of the piece under discussion at which time they are expected to suddenly "get it" by virtue of their recently acquired experience. Zander ensures that they hear the piece (or at least fragments of it) several times throughout the course of the talk, a worthwhile effort as repeated hearings of the same piece heighten the experience for many listeners. Unfortunately, when Schoenberg wrote that in order to like a piece one must first be able to remember it, he wasn't talking about 10 minutes ago; more like ten months or years. The mechanism by which memory becomes an asset rather than a liability to the listener takes longer and cannot be synthesized quickly. It also cannot be done by simply telling people what they're supposed to be listening for. Describing music verbally cannot possibly give the recipient any idea what it actually sounds like, but more importantly, one should never expect that every audience member would describe it the same way were they asked to do so themselves. Analysis cannot stand in for experience because the latter is unique and personal. It cannot be formed on one's behalf by someone else simply rhapsodizing on a piece's structure.

Zander avoids the pitfall of imposing an overly technical analysis on what one must assume is an audience that lacks an academic musical background, but what he performs is analysis nonetheless, taking elements of the piece out of time and explaining "what's really going on." When it comes to the aesthetic experience, educating listeners into conformity in this way is impossible, but even if it were possible, it would not be desirable. There is a certain biodiversity that makes the musical ecosystem run, exemplified by creative musicians who draw on a wide range of influences, as well as certain strains of pedagogical tradition that encourage this (it's no coincidence that the terms "inbreeding," "incestuousness," and "cannibalization" are often used figuratively in this way by musicians, including those steeped in the classical tradition).

(2) Arbitrarily Imposing a Narrative on a Piece of Abstract Instrumental Music

This favorite pastime of Musicologists everywhere is no more useful in outreach than it is in scholarship. On a personal level, I make no bones about the fact that I have absolutely no interest in engaging in this pursuit, and that doing so detracts from rather than enriches the experience for me. Nevertheless, I think there are some more objective critiques to be made here. One could argue that prescribing a narrative for the audience robs them of the opportunity to form their own, the latter option being, I would think, the preferred outcome for those who enjoy such activities. One could also assume that even if the technique is wildly successful here, there's no guarantee (in fact, it's rather unlikely) that anyone in this audience will be able to reproduce the same results in themselves when confronted with an unfamiliar piece in absence of Mr. Zander's coaching.

I would go even further and argue that Zander does more harm than good here. To tell a roomful of novices that the key to listening to music is coming up with the right story to accompany it is to tell them that the art of music is weak, dependent, intellectually murky, and aesthetically frail; it is to trivialize the art form as one which cannot stand on its own, painting its greatest exponents as mere taunters and its greatest works as somehow incomplete; and it does the greatest of all disservices to those composers who actively oppose(d) this attitude and its consequences for their work. To repeat this blasphemy in front of an impressionable audience is to sell out one's own art form as a mere component part of some grander scheme. Conversely, the greatest gift one can give such an audience is the experience of music as an autonomous art form; music at its most powerful, unencumbered, and aesthetically unique, the way every musician, academic, and listener who has ever been inspired on a spiritual level by a piece of music has experienced it at one time or another in their lives. This experience is absolutely for everybody; anything less sells the audience and the art form dreadfully short.

(3) Appealing to Novelty In Place of Substance

That the TED conference specializes in "infotainment" is no secret, nor is it anything to be ashamed of assuming that both the info- and the -tainment are adequately represented. In this case, however, I see a classic case of sheer entertainment value diverting attention from the fact that next to nothing has actually been accomplished. Novelty is everywhere in this presentation: the white tennis shoes paired with a sport coat, the theatrical manner, and the elementary school bathroom humor form the bulk of it (the phrase "one buttock playing" sets the presenter up for a ruthless parody about "half-assing" it, but we'll save that for later). Zander can't help it that he's enough of a musician to perform his own musical examples, or that he has a foreign accent, but these novel features only contribute further.

Of course, whether there is in fact any "substance" to what Zander is saying here depends on your opinion of his methods. Some people believe that the problem with instrumental music is that there's nothing more to latch on to but the sound itself; I, on the other hand, see that as its greatest attribute. Some people believe that listening to music is a skill that must be taught and learned in an objective and quantifiable way; I happen to think that individual human beings are too different for this ever to be effective, and that even if it were, it would rob us of our individuality. Despite the romanticized folklore about divine inspiration that surrounds many great classical composers, we know from experience that the lifeblood of musical creativity is the unique impression the same piece of music might make on each listener, this being the mechanism by which stylistically diverse musicians often cite common influences. As musicians, our individuality is all that we have, and its expression is intractably mediated by how we see (or in this case hear) the world around us. Take that away and the party is over.

You might label my position that of an "aesthetic libertarian." I believe that if one's favorite music is not very popular, giving a lecture about why it is so great is neither an effective nor a valid way of attempting to improve its standing. Standardizing our perception means standardizing our art, both in creation and reception. I don't want that, you don't want that, and I have a hard time believing that Mr. Zander wants that either. He has had an experience and he wants dearly to replicate that experience in others, which is exactly how most of us feel about whatever music it is we are passionate about. Unfortunately, there's nothing we can actually do to make this happen, and among all the methods yet devised of attempting such a thing (lecture-recitals for captive dinner guests, making mix tapes for friends, etc.), the Saving Classical Music Proselytizing Tour '08 is the one I find the most misguided. Rather than making a mix tape and sending you on your way to draw your own conclusions, imagine that friend of yours putting on a dog and pony show aimed at revealing once and for all why what he/she likes is actually the best. Chances are your response would fall somewhere between boredom and resentment, no matter how well-groomed the dogs and ponies are.

In the middle of a conference where cutting edge ideas about neuroscience, innate human violence, and space colonization are being tossed around left and right, a funny little man dancing around in white tennis shoes and playing the piano is going to go over well no matter what. It's a good way to take a break from the more apocalyptically-themed presentations and increase the audience's intellectual street cred at the same time (listening to classical music is one thing, but to "love and understand" it earns even more points). Meanwhile, in the presentation's second life here in the online world, classical musicians everywhere are thrilled to see their medium occupying such a central place at a conference otherwise devoted to such "serious" topics, since this undoubtedly proves that what they do is important regardless of how well they do it (see the overgrown comments section to the video, where the gallery dutifully repeats a litany of pop culture clichés and fallacies about music that would make Greg Sandow blush). It's a symbiotic relationship if there ever was one, a quid pro quo, tit-for-tat, rigor-for-glamour, info-for-tainment type of deal. It's not surprising, then, that the talk gets a reception from both worlds something like President Bush gets from FOX News; it is, however, earned in exactly the same way.

Some may see in this talk a harmless, lightweight attempt to have some fun with an often unappreciated art form, a pursuit that has many benefits if it succeeds and few drawbacks if it fails. I see in it all the worst things that everyday folk like to accuse classical music of being: bourgeois, conformist, and elitist. It's not for nothing that classical musicians have had this latter term tossed at them with impunity by just about everyone else. As a group, we appear to others to have made our minds up that if everyone else doesn't just love what we do, there must be something wrong with them. Letting people make their own minds up apparently being bad for business, we'd seemingly rather make their minds up for them, as in, "It's not really an experiment because I know the outcome," or, "The other thing I want to do is to tell you about you." If the problem is that lots of people are turned off by classical music, I'd say that with this talk, Mr. Zander has become part of the very problem he seeks to address, leaving his audience as weaker listeners than they were before, and leaving those in the trenches with little to draw upon the next time the e-word is trotted out.

13 July 2008

Remotely Surprising

As an alternative to self-googling, I recently signed up for Google Alerts to keep track of myself online. Self-googling has often been lampooned as trivial and vain, but it's actually verging on necessary at this point given the scope of the online universe. If someone was talking shit or stealing shit, you'd want to know about it, right?

There have been no spectacular revelations thus far, but I was mildly intrigued by the most recent missive, which included links to a site called beeMP3 which creates a centralized catalog of MP3 files hosted elsewhere on the web and has evidently just gotten around to my domain. The site appears to be indiscriminate and the database quite large, so while I appreciate knowing that anyone Googling my name will now receive 4 results instead of 3, I'm not holding my breath as to whether it will help me reach more listeners. If nothing else, this situation has laid bare the inadequacy of my file naming system, which was by no means designed to be attractive in its own right. (who wants to listen to something called "quartet dakota 033007 2 Brazen mp3" anyway?)

Looking on the bright side, however, the cattle call nature of the site means that the artists are, for the most part, presented the same way, with no special treatment for the pop stars. In a world where self-googling is not only acceptable but passé, it's nice to know that I can go see my name lit up right next to Madonna's in order to get my vanity fix for the evening.