Headbanging with Beethoven

I'mma let you finish, but Beethoven is the best composer of all time. Of all time!

There. Post over.

... ... ...

Ok, so not really. Beethoven is among my most common go to composers. It's really not hard to figure out why, either. He speaks clearly, directly, and passionately. He's not afraid to get up in your grill and shake you by the collar until you break a vertebrae, but then he'll show you the most sublime stuff afterward that you realize that's what he was trying to get you to hear all along. You just weren't listening and he got frustrated. That's all.

If there's one thing I can say about Beethoven, it's his ability to speak to an incredibly wide range of people. Did you know the Japanese sing Ode to Joy, like, all the time? Did you know Beethoven is usually listed among the favorite listenings of metal heads of all stripes? Heavy metal, Death Metal, Black Metal... In fact, the more I think about it, the more I realize metal heads have a somewhat peculiar affinity for classical music in general, not just Beethoven.

Perhaps it's the fact that metal is more virtuosic than your average bear. They don't just want the picnic basket, they also want the ranger's head on a pike. Not to say that metal is more complex than pop or regular rock, necessarily. It, like almost everything in life, depends on the case. But usually, metal solos are wickedly difficult to perform. Listen to the riffs of Metallica in their prime and compare them to Beethoven's Piano Sonatas, and you can probably hear some resemblance. The primary differences are modality and amplification.

Speaking of amplification, there is no doubt in my mind if you gave Beethoven a tube amp, he would blow the thing out in, like, 15 seconds.

But moving on. The main reason I bring this up is simple. The old guard of classical music was, and still is in many ways, quite exclusionary. Either it was classical and good, or it wasn't. Nowadays, that is changing, but I think we can do a lot to speed up the process. I think the main thing getting in the way of classical music's popularity is image. The idea that classical music is some stuffy, moth-balled, hoity-toity music that is irrelephant to the demands of contemporary culture.

Some of this is valid criticism. Stuffy? Perhaps. In fact, likely. Classical music performances are rife with hidden rules and rituals that are not intuitive to newcomers. Also, for some reason, clapping between movements of a longer work is received like somebody just kicked a puppy. Harumph harumph harumph! Clapping between movements! What an ignorant neophyte! Go to your shame hole and think of what you have done! Harumph harumph harumph! As for moth balls, well... It is not unlikely some sort of artificial preservation is going on with certain people in orchestras nowadays. I'm not going to point fingers, but maybe possibly we should rethink our idea of tenured musicians.

But irrelephant? First, that's not even a word. Second, I will paraphrase Steven Fry: "If you cannot find a way to connect with music of the past, that is more a reflection of your own lack of creativity than a fault of the music of Bach." Now, I personally think Mr. Fry is being a little harsh, there. People walk into a concert with assumptions about how music works, and sometimes classical music can, in fact, be rather overwhelming to a new listener. Heck, I didn't like Brahms until I was 25, and that was after studying music for 14 years. However, I think Mr. Fry has something of a point. What we have, here, is a failure to communicate.

How do we bring people into the fold? The primary focus has been on 'music appreciation.' This is one of those well-meaning but utterly misguided attempts to connect with people that has plagued classical music since the late 20th century. Lets put it this way. Do you think people "appreciate" the music they listen to over and over again? No! They love it. Otherwise, they wouldn't listen to it more than once. Do we want people to merely appreciate classical music? No! We want them to love it! That's what really brings people back, is the connection they make to it. Trying to educate people about how classical music works might open some doors, but the interesting details lurking beneath the surface (things like form, melody, harmony, progression, counterpoint, etc) are all secondary to the fact that the composers loved the music they wrote. All of those details are merely technical points which are incidental to that underlying state of mind. Bach wouldn't sign ever piece "With thanks to God" unless he really, really loved what he was doing.

So if not music appreciation, then what? How about this. One of my friends learned of my utter distaste for opera. He told me: "Look, full operas are dumb. You don't really go for the whole thing. You go for the one or two arias that you really like. Then, after a while, you start seeing how those arias connect to the other stuff around it. Pretty soon, you won't think opera is dumb any more."

Arias: They're like gateway drugs.

But he has a point. When you look at concert programs, they usually focus on one or two large pieces, with maybe a smattering of smaller stuff. But if we're trying to attract new people, this is exactly wrong. They've never heard classical music! They don't know what's out there! They don't realize how diverse and multifaceted classical music is! If you only ever present one or two pieces at a time, and new audience members don't connect with them, they're not coming back. But if you present a sampler platter... Now we're talking.

Then, a new audience member will hear the stark contrasts between Baroque and Romantic, Classical and Modern, Empfindsamer Stil and aleatory. Then, maybe, just maybe! One or two of those pieces will hook them. They'll go, "I want to hear more of whatever the heck that was." And you give it to them.

This is all well and good, but ultimately, it comes down to one thing. Passion. And this brings me back to Beethoven. Beethoven, more than any other composer I can think of (except possibly Shostakovich) knew how to cut to what was important. As musicians trying to bring these pieces alive for a new generation, we have to do the same. It is not enough to play the notes. It is not enough to play with feeling. We must play like our lives depend on it, like we will die if we do not say what we have to say. We have to pick people up by the collar, shake them, and show them the heights and depths classical music has to offer. We have to try again and again with piece after different piece to find a way to connect with each audience, one person at a time. And we have to trust that the composers we near worship truly had something worthwhile to say.

And if we find we can't perform in such a way? Then perhaps we'll have to admit that the composers we deify didn't have something worth saying. How do I know that's wrong? Because every fiber of my being revolts against such an idea. But it's not the audience's job to find the connection. It's ours.


People head bang to metal because they're lost in the music. When people literally move to classical music, we'll know we're on the right track.

Birth, Death, and Beer

Today is Wagner's birthday. I say this with little enthusiasm. Wagner induces drowsiness in me better than coitus. However, I understand there are some non-zero number of misguided souls who fly into raptures at the mere mention of Wagner. I therefore feel compelled to mention today is his 200th birthday in deference to the lunatic ward of the classical music community.

For me, Wagner was only worthwhile insofar as it led to Elmer Fudd in a viking costume. If ever there was an argument for historical inevitability, this is it: Kill the wabbit.

In other news, Henri Dutilleux died today. Mr. Dutilleux is one of those composers who is criminally underplayed. If you don't believe me, just pick a piece of his and go crazy. I recommend his Cello Concerto. Granted, 20th century music is not every person's cup of tea, but Dutilleux is definitely worth a try, at least. What could possibly go wrong?

Famous last words, I know.

Bringing Music to the People

I have already mentioned Classical Open Mic in one post. Due to a recent news article, I feel I should mention it again.

Apparently, the Cleveland Orchestra has decided it would be a good idea to play around in bars. Lets just hope there aren't any lumberjacks in the audience. Oh, but what am I saying... It's a new century. If lumberjacks want to dress up like women and hang around in bars, who am I to judge?

Sorry, got off track there. This move is, I think, brilliant, not least because bars are where people go to get drunk, and when you're drunk everything sounds awesome. Why do you think country music has stuck around for so long? Whisky. So not only are you close to guaranteed to get an audience, they are almost guaranteed to like what you play due to inebriation bias. It's like beer goggles for the ears.

Alcohol also leads to decreased inhibitions. I only bring this up because classical music culture is almost as socially inhibited as the Royal Guard outside Buckingham Palace. Seriously, the most excited expression a classical music audience ever gives is a "standing ovation." Oooo. So enthused. Where's the crowd surfing? Where's the mosh pit? For God's sake, can we have a decent orchestra hall riot sometime soon? It's been almost 100 years since the last one! Step it up people!


What I really want to know is, why is this such a big deal? Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn played for parties. Chopin played in parlors. I remember reading Stravinsky, Poulenc, and some of the French crowd got into a giant pillow fight at 1am during a house party. Bach wrote music about coffee addiction when coffee houses were all the rage. (They still are, I suppose...) Where did all of this go?

Maybe it was never really there. In medieval artistic representations of music, instruments were considered vulgar. Angels certainly don't play the hurdy-gurdy! How droll! It didn't get much better in the Renaissance. So even then, there was a sharp social distinction between "art music" and "music of the people." And, true, the Viennese School played for parties, but they were upper-crust... sorry, upper-class parties. Not that they weren't unruly, just, you know. Politely unruly.

That said, whatever the historical case may be, classical music's move into the barroom is something that I know can work. I've seen it work. I've participated in it. Even when I played in a band, I would sneak in some Bach cello suites. They never failed to get applause. I just wish classical musicians would go farther.

The problem I have with the symphony model isn't just that the culture is on life support. It's that the musical hall is centralized. If you're in the burbs and you want to see some classical music, be prepared to drive for an hour that evening. And then spend twenty minutes parking. Oh, and you have to dress up, too, so... Right, and dinner. Don't forget dinner. Going to the symphony requires as much planning as a wedding anniversary. It's no surprise people aren't going.

But what if, just, you know, bear with me here... What if musicians, now hold on, this is some mind-blowing stuff coming up... What if musicians went to their audience. Instead of expected their audience to come to them. What if, you know, musicians went out to the burbs to play for their money instead of sat on their butts wondering why no one is showing up? I know, I know, it's a lot to wrap your head around.

Seriously, though, if classical music is to survive, the musicians have to become mobile. There are many ways to do it. Bars are one. Churches are another. Local performing art centers. Parks. Restaurants. There's a lot of options.

And don't forget the internet! The MET has had some success broadcasting their operas to movie theaters, which is great, but let me introduce you to a little website called twitch.tv. This site is used to stream video games, usually tournaments, like Starcraft 2, DotA, and others. Think of what would happen if classical musicians leveraged this kind of infrastructure for live performances. Granted, the accounting side would have to work hard to monetize it well, but no harder than they are working now, trying to give CPR to a beached whale.

Just think about it. Brainstorm about it. And don't take my word for it... Actually do it. You may be pleasantly surprised.