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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?

By Anne Midgette  |  January 26, 2010; 9:12 AM ET
Categories:  random musings  
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Well, I do have a stray thought on the music in "Avatar," which (the music) is terrible:

And, actually, I dislike the music in "Avatar" in part because it's full of banal gestures at a kind of universal multiculturalism that seems inappropriate when depicting the culture of an alien race. Plus he bites Rachmaninov.

With regard to the much-assailed program notes, I tend to like them best when they are providing me with information about the music as music, i.e., there's a motive here that pops up in transformed form here and here. Something to inform my listening. On the other hand, I wrote a program note once for a performer who didn't like that approach, saying I should have concentrated on researching exactly what was going on in the composer's life at the time and included only a perfunctory (my word) description of the music.

When I go to concerts with people who know less about classical music than I do, and I am feeling pedantic, I will follow up on that "It was pretty" with questions about what exactly was pretty, and try to figure out what structures and forms and melodic styles the person might have responded to in particular. To me the way to get someone to have a better-informed opinion is indeed to try to bring the discussion to the level of content, as it exists in abstract music.

However, when I listen to a rapper, it's much easier for me to identify the primary content than it is when I listen to Davidsbundlertanze, so I see why people who have been primarily musically socialized with pop might decide that abstract classical music has no content, in the same way that many people feel abstract art isn't "about" anything.

And those are my scattered thoughts for the morning.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | January 26, 2010 9:32 AM | Report abuse

One of my pet hates is when someone prefaces their response to a concert, or an exhibition or whatever, with "well I'm not an expert so...". 95%(99%?) of music audiences aren't experts, so I hate that there is a belief that not having spent years of study invalidates one's opinion. I figure if you bought the ticket, you should be able to respond to the music in your own way (within reason of course, I'm glad the recent trend of more open boo-ing in the opera house hasn't spread to the concert hall just yet).

I love gossipy facts about dead composers, but I find they get in the way with living ones. As a fan, I was profoundly disappointed with Dr Atomic, and then when I read Adams' book I almost felt like I knew more about him than I really wanted to, and wasn't sure if I actually liked him very much. Although it hasn't stopped me listening to his music or loving a lot of it, it certainly coloured the way I felt about it.

Posted by: ianw2 | January 26, 2010 9:48 AM | Report abuse

There seem to be a couple of issues here. First, there's the difference between people who want to experience the work simply as the work itself and people who want a work to be about something. Of course, one could enjoy a work either way, but the problem I suppose is that sometimes we forget that it's possible to enjoy a work simply as a sensual experience. Susan Sontag makes a strong argument for this in "Against Interpretation."

But the second issue is, for people who are new to classical music or at least not very familiar with it, to what extent extraneous material should be added to a concert to make it easier for them to appreciate it. It seems easy for us to appreciate the music as music because we're already familiar with classical music, but to those who don't usually listen to classical music it can feel like a "sink or swim" experience going to a concert; they either get it or they're lost. I think it can help a lot if someone takes just a minute or two to explain the musical issues the composer was dealing with and what the composer was trying to do musically. In particular, it can help to play key excerpts from a piece and highlight what's going on there.

Posted by: robertcostic | January 26, 2010 10:39 AM | Report abuse

Anne, this puzzles me a little:

> 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.

I distinguish between sounding pretty/ugly, which is a matter of timbre, melody, and harmony, and the form of the piece, which is a matter of structure. I've certainly heard works I thought sounded great but had structural peculiarities - too long or too short; a tacked-on section that sounded out of context, etc.

People who are new to classical music usually have gut reactions based on timbre, melody, and harmony, and are most likely to need some help in hearing and understanding the form of the piece.

Content is a tricky thing when what you're talking about is a string quartet. It's easier to comment on the content of an opera because there's a libretto.

Posted by: LisaHirsch1 | January 26, 2010 10:54 AM | Report abuse

I'm interested in the composers feelings and motivations, but I'm not interested in individuals subjective perceptions unless a clear trend emerges from those reactions.

I'm reminded of an NS0 concert I went to a couple of years ago at the Kennedy Center. One of the pieces on the program was Barber's haunting, yet too familiar, Adagio for Strings. We're walking out of the hall and I hear this woman say to her companion--no joke--"I really liked that violiny thing they played."

I am amazed at how many people know absolutely nothing about classical music and yet feel free to judge it.

Posted by: DCLawyer1 | January 26, 2010 11:11 AM | Report abuse

"I am amazed at how many people know absolutely nothing about classical music and yet feel free to judge it."

Its exactly this attitude that is keeping young people, like myself, out of the concert hall. I don't think that woman was judging the Barber- but she had a reaction to it. Perhaps she didn't express it in the most eloquent of terms, but I do feel very strongly that its extremely counter-productive to dismiss her opinion because she hasn't spent several years in monastic scholarship about Barber.

How boring the world would be if we could only give our responses or opinions on topics we were highly educated about!

Posted by: ianw2 | January 26, 2010 12:24 PM | Report abuse

DC Lawyer - what the heck is wrong with that comment? You might find the Barber overfamiliar, but it sounds as though the patron you mock might not have heard it before. Even if she had, "I really liked it" is how she responded to it.

Music critics also start with like/don't like and work from there, believe it or not. Because they know a broad range of music, have a broad range of music-history knowledge, and have analytical and writing skills, they can say why in more complex terms.

I went to an opera performance a few years back and found myself sitting next to someone new to opera. We talked, and I asked her what she had liked and why. She had greatly enjoyed that season's Tosca and told me how much she loved the music and theatricality.

Here's the thing: I knew that the singing in that production had been mediocre at best. The baritone was having a bad week and sounded foggy and weak; the tenor was a big nothing; the soprano well past her prime - and even in her considerable prime, she shouldn't have been singing Tosca.

I kept my yap shut about all of this! No reason to discourage a new opera fan, so I smiled and nodded and mentioned how great the music is in Tosca, suggested a recording or two she might like, and said I hoped she'd continue to love opera.

And of course not everybody becomes an expert! Some people go to the concert hall to hear pretty tunes. That's okay too, even though it's not why I go to concert and the opera.

Posted by: LisaHirsch1 | January 26, 2010 12:40 PM | Report abuse

LisaHirsch- you remind me of when I saw Lulu in Sydney and was sitting next to a tourist who bought a ticket because it was the Opera House... never been to an opera before and her first was Lulu!! She loved it, btw.

Posted by: ianw2 | January 26, 2010 1:16 PM | Report abuse

When my children were adolescents, I started to take them to classical music performances. The first few times I got the standard self-indulgent whine that our dumbed-down culture encourages: "But I don't like it."

My response tended to be, "You're not here to have an opinion. You're here to shut up and listen." Needless to say, I was reviled for my obdurate parenting. However, we complemented the concert visits by listening to recordings (more fear and loathing the first few years) and having frequent conversations about composers and music, when everybody contributed whatever we were able to learn. Years later, my children expressed their gratitude for having helped them develop an appreciation of music that they felt enriched their lives.

I have no problem with young people staying out of the concert hall and in being part of a vanishing elite whose purpose in attending a musical performance is listening to the music rather than having an opinion.

There are intelligent comments to be made about the music, its authors, its performers, and its cultural context, even occasionally by people who, like me, have very limited musical resources. But not all opinions are intelligent (including mine), and not all opinions deserve to be heard, any more than anyone's personal life needs to be shared on their cell phones.

Posted by: gauthier310 | January 26, 2010 3:03 PM | Report abuse

I'm a bit confused by your definitions of form and content. My understanding of form, is that it is the abstraction of content. That is, the typical "form" that the first movement of a Classical Symphony is an abstraction of the content most composers filled it with--exposition, development, recap, etc. In a few cases, the "form" comes first and the content second (Webern writing music until he ran out of pitches in his tone row, and then stopping); in most cases, it is the reverse. The form of an opera would be its division into acts, scenes, numbers. The content would be the music which fills those out.

Program notes should be intellectual but not abstruse, with information that is only helpful in regards to gaining a better understanding of the music. Although knowing Chopin was twenty-four when he wrote a piece might be significant, knowing that he was 40 versus 41 does not; the annotator should provide a reason why this knowledge would be important to the music. I've seen too many conservatory students write program notes where they just list the prizes the composer has won, which essentially mean nothing. Who cares of Jacques Ibert won the Prix de Rome? It doesn't give us a better understanding of his work. I think the best way to do program notes is to make it personal and informative. I wish more conductors and musicians wrote notes for their concerts (especially justifying their programming) rather than program annotators.

Posted by: billyrobin | January 26, 2010 8:06 PM | Report abuse

Anne, I think you have it half right. A "carapace of facts" usually does nothing to enhance the audience's enjoyment of the music. That's why so many program notes aren't worth the paper they're printed on, and so many pre-concert comments are so totally forgettable.

But I disagree that it's useful to know how the music makes the performer "feel." Maybe the particular piece sends the performer into a rapturous state, but what does it matter if it doesn't translate into the performance?

Also I think it's possible to really enjoy a performance and get a lot out of it, while at the same time not being able to articulate why. As a person with no musical training, how could I even begin to articulate what I find great in a certain performance of Mahler's Fourth or Ninth, for example? So on the level of articulation, you might say my response to the music is primitive. Yet I have listened to this music a lot and really do respond to it on a visceral level in parts of me that pop (and I suspect your "alt-classical") just can't reach.

Music, to the extent it's not programmatic, is by definition "about" things that can't be expressed verbally, and no amount of verbiage in program notes or pre-concert blather can substitute for the listener's direct experience of the performance.


Posted by: shovetheplanet | January 27, 2010 8:06 AM | Report abuse

So, is there no truth to be found in classical music? It's only 'content' is in the ear of the beholder?

Is Chopin today is just another commodity like buying a bag of pretzels for a snack or downloading a music file for an 'aural snack' and nothing more?

If art contains no truth and people no longer seek truth, through art for example, what kind of society are we, a society that produces, or a society that merely consumes?

Posted by: ggibbs1 | January 27, 2010 2:13 PM | Report abuse

What is content in abstract music? It's what we hear--rhythm, melody, tempo, orchestration. And it's drama--the mood of a piece and how it progresses. Yet how would you put any of that into words without talking about your feelings? (Well, you could talk about key changes, which is why so much professional writing about music is deadly dull.) I would guess that someone who had never heard a major work of classical music before would have a very hard time talking about it even if the experience had been enjoyable and profound. Most people really don't have that much to say! The issue is--do they want to have the same or a similar experience again? If so, you have a lover of classical music whether they can put it into words or not. But program notes are just a way to have something to talk about--they don't really have anything to do with the experience of hearing the music or the reaction to it.

Posted by: BobG5 | January 27, 2010 5:00 PM | Report abuse

billyrobin, I agree with most of what you say. My take on the Prix de Rome is that knowing that a composer won it tells us something about the composer's standing in the eyes of the committee that awards the prize. It's useful contextual information.

gaultier310, your arguments don't convince me that there's anything wrong with like/dislike as an initial reaction. Don't know how old your kids were when you started taking them, but it's tough for most young kids to sit still and listen for a couple of hours to complicated music. Good for you for keeping at it and raising kids who like music, but I bet there is still music they don't like. And that is okay.

The good thing about someone saying "I liked that" is that you then have an opening to ask why and/or to recommend other music the person might like. Again, please explain what the problem is with this. I mean, I'm not really interested in torturing people. I like Elliott Carter, but I'm not sending someone to a concert of his music who doesn't.

Posted by: LisaHirsch1 | January 28, 2010 11:30 AM | Report abuse

Context helps, but not much. Not for the general listener, anyway. No matter how historically relevant, or politically vital, or religiously orthodox a work is, at the end you're stuck with how it sounds. A friend of mine told me he wasn't sure he liked Schoenberg because he didn't understand it. I told him that understanding the music won't make it sound any better.

Music can be experienced at pretty much any level you want to take it, and the level of your involvement comes down to your individual taste, the time you have to invest in listening, and what you want from a music experience. As for me, PLEASE, send me a thousand listeners who 'like that violiny thing,' rather than 17 snub-nosed, pinched and distant experts who treat classical music as a private club.

Posted by: plefevre | January 28, 2010 11:54 AM | Report abuse

lisahirsch1: "your arguments don't convince me that there's anything wrong with like/dislike as an initial reaction."

No, of course not. But there are two caveats:

1) Unless your name is Franz Joseph Haydn, you probably need to listen to music more than once to become aware of what is going on. It's sort of like sitting in the Rothko room at the Phillips: if you're going to like it, it takes a while until you perceive your way into the world of color. Only then can you really make an informed judgment whether you like it or not, and then it's really ok either way.

2) Having an opinion about a musical performance is fine, but loudly sharing it with the rest of the audience is as insufferable as having to overhear details of someone's love life while they discuss it on their cell phone. I would love to have a half-hour mandatory period of silence after the music, during which people can still relish the memory of the sounds going around their minds, before feeling that they have to make a statement.

The way to the parking garage is really not a good place to arrive at an informed assessment of what you have heard. This blog is a much better place to have that conversation and I very much appreciate the intelligent and knowledgeable stimulus provided by Anne and by the amazingly civilized participants. I continuously learn new and interesting things by reading what people have to say. Thanks!

Posted by: gauthier310 | January 28, 2010 3:34 PM | Report abuse

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