Perambulating the Bounds

Monday, July 04, 2005

Recorded Music and the Decline of Music

Bill Friskics-Warren, the very capable music editor of the Scene, author of books and articles, and thoughtful critic, sent me a copy of an article from the June 6 New Yorker on the effect of recording technologies on musical performance (the full text is actually available online The author, Alex Ross, is reviewing a couple of books. The focus in the books and the review is on the impact recording has had on classical music. The big hypothesis of the books is that it has contributed to the decline in audiences for classical music, although Ross makes the case this case doesn’t hold up. Leaving aside whether recording can take that rap, the article points out some effects that are hard to deny. Most significantly, recordings have contributed to a homogenization of classical performance styles. There was a time when players from different countries played to different standards of rhythm and timbre, but the availability of recordings led to a convergence on the styles that sounded best in recordings. Especially in early recordings, musicians had to cut through the surface noise, favoring piercing sounds and effects like vibrato to provide a wider range of sound.

One wonders if the decline of the classical recording market will lead to more diversity of performance style. On the one hand, the conservatory system will tend to promulgate standards. However, as playing occurs outside of recorded gaze, local peculiarities may creep in. You may be able to see it in a place like Nashville already. This Spring, at Alias’s last concert of the season, I was struck by violinist Zeneba Bowers’ approach to a Baroque piece by Matteis. To me her playing seemed loose – very effective, exciting and enthusiastic, and somehow akin to bluegrass fiddling or jazz. As a violinist in Nashville, you know that Bowers cannot help but be aware of “folk” fiddle styles. Moreover, as a leader in one of the city’s main classical performance groups, she is self-consciously trying to reach out to people not immersed in classical music. It’s a strategy shared by the Nashville Chamber Orchestra and to some extent by the Symphony. For someone presenting classical music, the violin or fiddle provides a common ground. There is an audience that flocks to performers like Mark O’Connor, Allison Kraus, or Vassar Clements. Bowers can make the case that if you like that kind of violin music, you should check out what Alias does. With that in mind, it would make sense that Bowers would throw herself at the music with some of the abandon of bluegrass fiddler. What is the point of inviting the bluegrass audience to the concert, and then presenting them with a performance style drained of the emotion that they respond to.

As Bowers does this from one concert to another, won’t her performance style shift slightly? As a performer in Nashville in a world of an anemic classical recording market, she will be able to develop her style without negative feedback from record reviews by unsympathetic national critics.

Based on this concert, one remains skeptical about Alias’ success in luring that audience for fiddling. The audience looked like the typical contemporary classical audience, slanted heavily towards older people. No matter how accessible their programs, I think there are barriers. Musical education is often cited. Perhaps so, especially if you understand education as going beyond the forms of music to the rites of musical performance. Anymore, piling into a quiet concert hall at a specified hour and remaining stationary and silent is an odd way to experience music. People are used to getting up, talking, making sound themselves. At least sipping on a drink and munching food. Of course, classical music was designed exactly for this enforced stationary setting and the degree of attentiveness possible in it. I’m not sure what it would take to resell people on this as a mode of experiencing music, and the best parts of the repertoire get lost in other settings. On its program, Alias played a Shostakovich string quartet with a an elusive structure that becomes just meandering if you don’t track it pretty closely. You can’t walk in and out on the piece.

One train of thought is that the reconnection to classical music is a long process. It will take years of exposure to Zeneba Bowers and similar performers before it sinks in. The other possible is that many pieces lose their broad audience, and listening to Shostakovich gets to be like reading Latin.


  • I can't help but draw a parallel here between classical music and painting. Most people don't consider sitting still in an auditorium for two hours to be a natural way to listen to music. Few people ever just sit or stand in front of a motionless image for hours.

    But I'm also amused that contemporary sounds (such as the fiddle) are used to bridge the gap between the music-educationless and classical music, while (in a recent lecture at the Frist) classical art is what bridges the gap between the art-educationless and contemporary art. Ironic?

    I'm amazed at how many people consider themselves to have little or no connection with classical music, when we're constantly surrounded by it in television shows, commercials and movies. Even Bugs Bunny and Sesame Street were filled with direct references to classical music and opera.

    But perhaps that's part of the problem. Popular culture has not only trained us to approach these mediums with less patience, but it's actually taken these classical forms and turned them into something completely different. Can classical musics exist on their own after they've been turned into jingles for airline and powertool commercials, or quintessential background music for kissing or invasion-scenes in movies? How can anyone appreciate the original context of a Van Gogh painting when they've already seen the image hundreds of times on posters, postcards, postage stamps, coffee mugs and t-shirts? Simultaneously any Van Gogh image that has NOT been featured on mass-produced memorabelia becomes less significant, because it doesn't bear wide-spread recognition. Sure, Shostakovich might be like reading Latin, but Khachaturian's Sabre Dance will immediately remind people of that milk commercial with the plate-spinning cow.

    By Anonymous jason driskill, at 10:52 PM  

  • Jason,
    That's a really interesting point about the contrast between the accessibility of contemporary expression in art and music.
    You could make the case that maybe "classical" art is not so accessible - I don't know how much people are really into all that Mannerist painting at the Frist right now. But still, no art gets people's interest like Van Gogh and the Impressionists, most of which is over 100 years old now.
    You astutely raise the question of whether people are really seeing Van Gogh as art work so much as mass culture image. Even more so than appreciating the painting in its original context, do they experience it as a work of art, something that engages your mind and soul on multiple levels? Or as Benjamin would say, do people respond to its "aura." It's hard to say viewers don't have this experience, but tempting to do so given the degradation of a lot of experience in contemporary society.
    Finally, there can be differences between what is contemporary and what is popular in music. The proper analog for what some of you visual artists are trying to do may not be the music of a more or less popular band playing Exit/In or Mercy Lounge, but the more difficult and problematic noise-making that occurs places like the Angle of View.
    But I like the fact that at the end of the day, the realms of art are different. You can't reduce them to a single model.

    By Blogger David Maddox, at 9:32 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home