States of music
Is it possible to talk about “red states” and “blue states” without appearing to exercise a value judgment? It strikes me that there are clear “red states” and “blue states” in the classical music world, but when I say that I don’t want to appear to prioritize one above the other.
The red states are those who love the classical tradition with a deep passion. They understand the need for contemporary music and revitalization, and subject themselves to it with a dutiful sense of obedience, and are happy when they hear something they like. But their real love lies with the mainstream canon: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and all the byways and tributaries of that stream. There are endless riches to be found there, and lots of music by all of those composers and their ilk that remains to be satisfactorily explored. What higher goal can one have than to devote the bulk of one’s listening time to the study of those great works?
The blue states love classical music no less. But they worry that it’s dying out because it is so entrenched in the past. Meanwhile, all kinds of new movements, ideas, and musics are springing up. The blue states want to encourage this new growth, and ideally to see it better incorporated into the mainstream classical tradition (read: orchestras, opera houses, major chamber presenters). They react with knee-jerk horror to programs that don’t include a contemporary work. They feel that advocacy means working to bring the field forward, and “educating” those who don’t like the contemporary to accept and embrace it. They also feel, quite honestly, that what’s being done in new music is more vital and alive than a constant diet of works one and two and three centuries old, wonderful as those pieces are.
(read more after the jump)
In this figurative sense, as well as literally, I’ve lived in both red states and blue. Obviously, neither side is entirely right, nor entirely wrong; and there are many degrees and shades of belief. But there’s no question, I think, that there is a sense of factionalism. The red states feel that their beloved tradition is embattled and needs defending. The blue states feel that the red are out of touch.
This is an imperfect analogy, of course. The red states in this simile represent something vital to the field. Without its tradition, we have no field. The main justification for having so many classical music ensembles, to many music lovers and certainly from the point of view of the lay public, is that they play the music of Mozart and Beethoven (insert your composer of choice here). The unfortunate thing is that there should appear to be a divide at all.
I think many people, reading this, will protest: “I love both old and new,” they’ll say. That may be. But this divide remains a central issue, not to say problem, for our field. How do we continue to keep alive a tradition that we’re growing farther and farther away from (purely chronologically speaking), so that many of our beloved scores have to be approached as canonical texts, and effort expended to divine the composer’s intention from the notes? And how do we graft onto that a present repertory that seems, on the surface, calculated to appeal to an entirely different audience?
These are not new questions. But the sense of factionalism -- particularly the idea that any call for change represents some kind of blue-state attack on the beloved tradition of the red states -- persists. And it's striking that the question of what it means to tend or further tradition (is "tradition" offering a faithful rendition of a Mozart sonata, or the tradition of composers writing and performing new works, of which Mozart himself was a part?) remains so puzzling, to the point of appearing insoluble.
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