Form and content
A friend of mine strongly recommended that I go see the movie “Avatar.” Of course, she said, the story was stupid. But the movie was just so gorgeous to look at.
On reflection, this made me smile because it so perfectly epitomized something I had been musing about in classical music: we often judge it in terms of its form, rather than its content. It sounds good to us. Why worry too much about what it’s about?
I’ve written about this before. In December, I was struck when my colleague Chris Richards, the Post’s pop critic, was talking to me about Radiohead and said that they made music that sounded great, but that he was getting tired of their message, or content. Very few classical critics would make this distinction. If a living composer writes music that sounds great, are we going to condemn the result because we don’t like what it’s about? The only example I can think of -- the exception that proves the rule -- is John Adams’s “Doctor Atomic,” which was musically strong but not a particularly sophisticated or insightful treatment of its subject, the development of the atomic bomb (though a lot of people were excited simply because it dared to take on a big subject at all).
(read more after the jump)
Of course, in so-called classical music, particularly abstract music, the way something sounds can be the subject. Think of new works that incorporate different idioms, different instruments, like electric guitars or Chinese pipas: the sound itself is a quasi-political statement, and some traditional audiences reject it out of hand.
This relates to a comment I made in a blog post the other day about the kinds of things artists say from the stage to the audience. I said that “Chopin wrote this at 24” was less telling, to me, then a statement from the pianist about how the music made her feel, or her relationship to it. After I wrote it, I was made aware that some people feel that “Chopin wrote this at 24” is indeed more useful information than ideas of how the musician feels about the piece.
My concern is that we tend to distance ourselves from the work by buttressing it in a carapace of facts that don’t actually affect our direct reaction to it. And as a result, that reaction gets more primitive. You have two extremes in classical music: on the one hand, the elaborate program note filled with facts and information about the piece, and on the other hand the blunted reaction of the listener after the fact: “it sounds pretty.” “It sounded good to me” -- a reaction that has only to do with form, and very little to do with what the piece actually contains. The idea that music is abstract further dissuades some people from thinking about its content at all (though abstract music has plenty of content).
There’s a widespread idea in the general culture that classical music is “smart,” and that it requires a certain amount of knowledge to appreciate. And yet the level on which it’s generally apprehended, as outlined above, is not particularly smart at all. I think that one way toward a more intelligent and involved appraisal is through a connection with the pieces, and that one way to develop that connection is to talk about what the pieces mean to people who have spent a lot of time with them: the content, if you will. This approach can also help bridge what I see as a general shyness among the audience to develop their own proprietary sense of the repertory: to find their own strong likes and dislikes, and dare to say that a piece in the standard repertory isn’t to their taste.
Hiding behind the facts isn’t as likely to do this. To take the example of Avatar: “‘Avatar’ is a 2010 blockbuster by James Cameron that rapidly became the highest-grossing movie of all time.” This is accurate information. It just doesn’t tell me anything about the movie. Whereas someone’s description of his reaction to it just might.
What are your thoughts on the content of classical music?
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